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“So basically you’re Satanists, and I interrupted a Black Mass,” Karkat says. His head hurts, there’s a bag over his head, and he’s tied to a tree. The last thing he’d seen before everything went black was Feferi Peixes and most of her friends gathered around a stone altar. That one of the freshman from school was lying on, while Peixes carved on him with a knife. Not the best time to go camping in the crow woods, the guy at the camping store had said. No fucking shit dude. He’d been torn between rushing in and going back to the camp for help, but he’d been caught.

“Not really, no,” Feferi says. “I don’t think we’ve ever had Satanists in Alba before.”

“What about that guy back in 1925?” Eridan asks. “The one who broke into the restricted room at the library?” Then there’s the sound of someone being smacked and a yelp. “Fef!” Eridan protests.

“Outsiders aren’t supposed to know about the restricted room!” Feferi scolds.

“Not like he’s going to be able to tell anyone,” Eridan mutters. There’s a weird chilling hiss in response. A sound that was too realistically reptilian to have ever come from a human throat. “Shutting up now,” Eridan says hurriedly.

“Good, you do that!” Feferi says cheerfully. “Outsiders also aren’t supposed to be up here this time of year, weren’t you warned?”

“Not really no,” Karkat says. Not in a way that Dad would have found logical and reasonable anyway. Dad had brushed off the vague warning as, “obviously a microaggression, which is a shame because otherwise the service was excellent.” Karkat is really, horribly worried about his dad suddenly. “Dad doesn’t know anything,” he says. “Whatever you’re going to do, leave my dad out of this.”

“Your dad is going to be fine,” Feferi says. “Did you go to that camping store on 4th street?”

“We got the camping stuff in Chicago, before we moved here,” Karkat says.

“Lying,” someone says softly.

“Is he seriously trying to protect the guy who didn’t warn him off the crow woods?” someone else asks incredulously. Karkat thinks it might be Vriska.

“You wouldn’t happen to remember his name, would you Karkat?” Feferi asks. “The guy who sold you the gear? Nothing bad will happen if you tell us.”

“Right, I’m going to believe that with a bag over my head while tied to a tree,” Karkat says.

“Nothing too bad?” It was the same person who’d said he was lying. Terezi. Terezi was involved in this? As far as he’d seen, she wasn’t a member of Feferi’s clique. He’d mentally put her in the “fellow outsider, okay to hang out with,” category. “To him anyway!”

“Why not just make him tell?” Vriska asks irritably.

“Joel Morgan, Morgan’s Outdoor Sports on 4th Street,” Karkat says. If he were able to move at all right now, he’d be covering his mouth in dismay like an actor in a silent movie. He hadn’t intended to say that. He hadn’t intended to speak at all. The words had just come out of him, with no resistance.

“Vriska!” Feferi’s voice sharp with weird rattling, hissing notes. She snaps strange, twisting words at Vriska, sounds Karkat has never heard before from a human throat.

Vriska replies with buzzing two-toned noise, simultaneously low and high. The sounds make Karkat’s ears hurt. He couldn’t have separated the sounds into words, sentences if he tried. Humans couldn’t make the sounds that they were making at each other. “Teenaged Satanists from Outer Space,” Karkat thinks, maybe actually says out loud because the alien sounds stop.

“We’re not from outer space!” Feferi says. “And also? Not Satanists. Our Gods predate the Christian concept of Satan by thousands of years, let alone the Zoroastrian good god/evil god concept.”

“Cthulhu, Satan, big difference,” Karkat says.

Feferi makes a horrible noise. “Okay, that’s it. I was going to explain nicely and show you that we hadn’t hurt Tavros in a bad way, but you had to mention Cthulhu, so now I don’t care! Equius, call your Dad, Eridan and Terezi, take him to the temple, Nepeta help me clean up Tavros, Vriska, go veil Mr. Vantas.”

“Yes High Priestess!” Feferi’s friends (cultists?) chorus.

Karkat hears movement and feels that he’s being untied from the tree. He struggles, but it doesn’t do much good. His hands are tied behind his back, and his feet are hobbled. They take off the bag, but it’s only to gag him, and then they put the bag back on. “Wow, that was dumb, Karkat,” Terezi mutters as she and Eridan guide him away from the clearing. “Really, really dumb.”

“I don’t know why she was bothering to explain nicely,” Eridan grumbles. “They didn’t explain nicely back in Great Grandfather’s day. They dragged you out and sent you to the Gods to explain your unconscionable stupidity.”

“Oh Gods, shut the hell up Eridan!” Terezi says. “If the High Priestess wants to explain to the Outsider why he fucked up, you let Her explain to the Outsider why the hell he fucked up!”

Terezi and Eridan continue to argue as they prod and lead him along narrow dirt path, and around curves. Karkat stumbles a few times by accident, and a few times deliberately in an effort to trip either Eridan or Terezi. His escape attempts are less than successful.

After an unknown number of hours, they finally stop. Karkat can feel a breath of cold air, and a disturbing sense that something huge and empty is in front of him. The hood comes off and the huge and empty thing turns out to be the entrance of a cave. The opening is at the bottom of a huge steep-sided hill, and is twice his height. “Okay,” Terezi says. “I’m going to explain how this is going to go, and Eridan is going to shut up.”

“I’m a priest,” Eridan points out with chilly offense. “I outrank you. I should be doin’ the explainin’ if anyone is.”

“The priest is going to shut the hell up,” Terezi says cheerfully. “And the seer is going to explain how this is going to go. We’re going to take you into the ablution chamber, where we are going to purify ourselves and then you. Ideally you will not say a word or try to escape. If you do try to escape…” Terezi spins him around. They are at the bottom of a rough sort of stone amphitheater. It’s a half bowl in front of the cave entrance. Beyond the amphitheater is nothing by a blank white sheet that curves to cover the sky. It isn’t fog. Karkat isn’t sure what it is. “You will not get very far, trust me on this.”

“What the hell,” Karkat tries to say, but the gag is in the way.

“It’s a force field!” Terezi says cheerfully. Eridan grumbles about science fiction crap, and how Terezi is the shame of her ancestors. “Not so, my ancestors think I’m totally awesome,” Terezi says. “I’m tempted to cut you loose and let you try to run into it, but the ablutions chamber is calling.”

Terezi and Eridan continue to guide and prod Karkat through the entrance of the cave. Lamps hang from the ceiling, and the walls are painted with strange images and symbols. There are animals and birds and fish and creatures that were combinations, gryphons and manticores and centaurs and sphynxes and pegasi and stranger beings. There are murals of human figures presenting offerings to strange coiling shapes with tentacles. “And here we see why our beloved High Priestess lost Her sacred shit at the mention of Cthulhu,” Terezi murmurs.

“Don’t be blasphemous, Ter,” Eridan says.

Terezi cackles.

The entrance goes downhill for a hundred feet, and then splits into two corridors. Terezi and Eridan lead him down the right corridor and into a chamber with several stone tubs and basins. “If you have to go to the bathroom, you should probably go now,” Terezi says, and takes him to a bathroom stall. She helps him with his pants without the slightest hint of discomfort. Karkat goes along because protesting would dumb, and he does in fact have to relieve himself.

Terezi and Eridan clean up in the basins and change into white belted skirts and sandals. Then they untie Karkat. Karkat makes a renewed effort to struggle when they start to strip him out of his clothes when he realizes they intend to bathe him. He protests loudly, and tries to tear out the gag, but is ultimately unable to escape. “It’s just a bath Karkat,” Terezi says.

“This isn’t even the worst part,” Eridan says evilly.

“Wow, way to sound like a horror movie sir priest,” Terezi says.

“Our Gods are unknowable nightmares beyond human ken,” Eridan says. “Might as well embrace it.”

“Shut up Eridan,” Terezi says, and wrestles Karkat into the tub she’d been filling with water. “Stop flirting with Light. Thank the Gods for indoor plumbing.”

“I ain’t flirting with Light,” Eridan says, and for some reason, blushes.

They wash Karkat with a weird determined gentleness, using unlikely-to-be-brand-name soap (It’s a square dark brown chunk) and some kind of scented oil that they rub onto him after getting him out of the tub and drying him off. They put him in another white skirt, put him in some extremely medieval looking manacles, and take off the gag. “What the fuck?” is the first thing Karkat can think to say.

“So, Outsiders who interrupt major rituals such as the initiation of a priest are offered to the Gods,” Terezi says with a wide smile that is somehow very unhappy. “No questions asked, no excuses given. The crow woods are off limits during Spring Break and everyone in town knows this and directs Outsiders elsewhere.”

“There’s a hiking trail,” Karkat says. “And a campground.”

“Not for Outsiders durin’ Spring Break,” Eridan says.

“And offered to the gods basically means murdered, right?”

“Sacrificed, executed, not murdered!” Terezi says.

“By various methods,” Eridan says. “Depending.”

“Wow, what a relief, I’m going to be sacrificed or executed instead of murdered,” Karkat says sarcastically. “I don’t think there’s that much of a difference.” He should possibly be trying to beg for his life or something. He can tell Terezi isn’t happy about this situation. Maybe he could turn Terezi against Eridan or something.

“There is a difference,” Terezi says insistently. “You committed a spiritual crime, and the only way your soul can be cleansed is through sacrifice and the blessed intervention of the Gods.”

Or maybe he can’t.

They manacles his legs together, and leave him by the chamber’s exit.

They clean up the bathing area and themselves. Terezi helps Eridan into some kind of collar necklace that has a winged symbol in gold on it, and serpentine bracelets that wind up his forearms. She puts a coronet on him with the same symbol. Eridan combs Terezi’s hair back and places a coronet on her brow with a curved symbol over a straight line. Terezi’s necklace has a shape with three curved arms. Her coronet has a red veil attached.

After getting dressed up, they each take an arm and move him out of the chamber. The floor is icy cold under his feet, which are quickly turning numb. They walk him down another corridor and into another room, this one with huge doors marked with strange symbols. They unbar the door and open it. This room has stalactites and a few pillars. In the center of the room is one huge pillar with several sets of manacles hanging from it. “This is the Chamber of Repentance,” Terezi says. “You’ll stay here until the Gods make Their choice.”

“Of how you’re gonna die,” Eridan says in a quiet, serious tone.

They prod him into the room and he nearly stumbles when he tries to walk. His feet feel like blocks of ice, and he’s shivering so hard he thinks his teeth are rattling in his skull. They catch him before he can fall flat on his face, and half-guide, half-carry him to the pillar. They press his back to the stone and he jerks hard at the icy dampness. They pull his arms over his head and chain him to the pillar. The manacles are set high enough that he’s on the balls of his feet. Karkat is not shy about expressing his feelings about this, though he’s so cold and shivering so hard he can barely get the words out. “Sorry, Karkat,” Terezi says, and it sounds like she means it.

“F-f-f,” he can’t get the word out, but he hopes his glare gets the idea across.

They leave him, and after a while, he can’t hear their footsteps anymore. He wonders how they weren’t shivering or goosebumped from the cold. He wonders if he’s going to freeze to death before any alleged judgment from the alleged gods. He wonders about a lot of things, like, is his dad okay, are his arms going to fall off. He wonders how he ended up in a really bad horror movies.

The lights in the ceiling dim. The only sound is his breathing, and the occasional drip of water. The sound of water makes him feel ridiculously thirsty. The stretched out pain of his arms and legs gets steadily worse. After a few hours, he has gives up trying to keep his back away from the stone, and the cold feels almost pleasant in comparison with the burning of his arms and legs. He yanks at the manacles, but it doesn’t do any good. He bitches at length but that doesn’t do any good either (maybe warms him up some).

It gets darker in the chamber, and then it gets pitch black. In the black are colored shapes, like the colors that appear when you close your eyes in a dark room. There’s blue fading into a brighter blue, there’s purple and a brighter pink-purple. There’s a bright orange and a bright red, and two shades of green, dark and light. Random wisps of color at first, in the corner of his eyes, then sudden flashes.

The room gets warmer. The wisps and sheets of color become tendrils and vines, growing up the walls. Become strange, oblong shapes fringed with flagella that beat frantically as they swim through the air. Other shapes, long and about the thickness of his thigh coil and dart at the oblong shapes with fanged jaws wide. A brilliantly red coiling shape lunges at his face and he yelps, trying to dodge it. It slides into the pillar next to his head, leaving behind a warm red slime that drips onto his shoulder.

Karkat wonders if he’s hallucinating. He wonders if he was slipped something and he’s having a trip. He wonders if these things were supposed to be “Gods.” If they were, he wasn’t really impressed.

Oh like we’re here to impress you, a blue…something says. It’s hanging in the air, a blue shape he can’t really define because it keeps changing. It has multiple weaving tentacles, radiating from a sharp edged shape made of blue crystal. It has wings that beat slowly and too many eyes.

We should definitely impress you, because we’re able to fit so many dimensions into such a tiny space! A green thing says. It’s made of turning galaxies and light sucking black holes. It goes on forever and wears a crown made of candles.

I think we’re definitely blowing his mind, says a bright red thing made of wheels and feathers. It’s voice is like music being sung by thousands of voices. It has a human face, and that’s probably the worst part, because absolutely nothing about it is human.

We should judge him, sometime before he loses his mind, one of the purple things says in an arch tone. It’s shape is more or less human, but its surrounded by a mass of writhing smoke and eyes. The human shape in the middle has no eyes at all, and very sharp teeth.

There’s a murmur of agreement from the others, and then he’s engulfed.

Chapter Text

There’s no up, no down and forget about sideways. Karkat is surrounded by brilliant sheets of color and he can’t close his eyes because he doesn’t, for the moment, have them. He hangs in space and flails weightless, non-existent limbs and screams silently with an equally non-existent voice. Karkat is a tiny mote of identity in a vast too-bright ocean, held (interwoven?) delicately in place, and he knows, understands somehow that the slightest misstep on the part of the intellects holding him will fry his brain like an egg on a skillet.

(It doesn’t matter because he’s going to die anyway.)

Bright orange dissects him with sharp blades of logic; bright blue unravels him with inquiry. Dark green investigates his every hope; Purple-pink explores his every shame. He is judged and weighed and assessed, circumstances and history viewed and critiqued. (They know his whole life and his every thought. If he could he would run and hide, but there is nowhere to hide and he can’t run.) He is passed from purple-pink to darker purple, from darker purple to darker blue, and then to bright green who turns him over at last to bright red.

So has anyone noticed he has an idea of what’s going on? Bright red asks.

There’s a wordless sense of surprise, inquiry and curiosity.

I mean he doesn’t understand, but he has an idea, bright red says. He’s [sounds that convey meaning].

That’s very interesting, darker purple says. Perhaps [a sound concept that Karkat doesn’t understand] can look into it after the human is punished.

He’s [Concept], bright orange says. [A blur of sound and images.]

What? Brighter blue sounds surprised.

How could he be [Concept]? He’s not one of ours! Darker green protests.

[Blur of sound.] Can [Blur of sound]? Bright green asks.

What about his father? Darker purple asks.

Also [Concept], bright orange says. So depending we have one other.

How well is he understanding now? Asks purple-pink pointedly.

Considering sensory organs turn toward Karkat, who does his best to curl his disembodied self into the smallest possible invisible speck. It doesn’t really work. Filaments are wrapped around him, they are dark and warm and strangely comforting. The speck of identity named “Karkat” sinks into something that isn’t sleep, and doesn’t dream.

When he does sleep, he remembers:

--Walking to the car and sliding into the passenger seat. “So how was your first day?” Dad asks.

“It was okay. Guess how many people asked where I was from.”

“Too many to bother counting?” Dad asks with a slight smile.

“Yup. Much to my surprise most of them accepted ‘Chicago’ as an answer.”

“On my end, only three people asked where I was from--two of your peers, and one teacher. Only the teacher clarified with ‘no, where are you from?’ No one asked ‘what are you?’”

--The table is decorated with candles and a little dragon incense burner. There are pictures of two women and a little kid who looks a lot like Terezi except the picture is a faded black and white and clothes are really old-time, a picture of a man holding a baby, a picture of two girls in swimsuits. There’s other pictures, one a more modern wedding picture, and one of a man in an army uniform. There are odds and ends, carefully arranged; A little pile of rocks, an old fashioned pocket watch, a wedding ring, a worn looking screw driver, a pocket knife. The pictures and objects are all arranged around a shallow metal bowl filled with what smells like beer.

Terezi sees him looking and has gone stiff and worried looking.

“It’s a nice looking altar,” Karkat says, because he’s pretty sure it is one. Some of his dad’s friends were neopagan, or some variety of “spiritual” and they had altars that looked a little like this one.

She relaxes a little. “It’s an ancestor shrine,” she says, and tells stories about the people in the picture, the people who owned the objects. Later they play video games and have pizza. He spends the night because Terezi’s mother doesn’t mind a boy sleeping over. He sleeps on the couch.

--Sitting at lunch with Terezi and her friend Sollux. They are arguing about A Game of Thrones and complaining about the differences between the books and the show. Then they are arguing with him because he is not a fan of the show. “It’s full of terrible people generally being horrible to each other. If I wanted that, I’d watch the news.”

“Blasphemy!” Terezi says, and does this dramatic little swoon, leaning against Sollux, who pushes her back. “There’s dragons! Anything with dragons is by definition good, however filled with terrible people being horrible it is.”

“Terezi is a slut for dragons, basically,” Sollux says. He gets distracted as queen bee Feferi Peixes and her friends swan by.

“I know who Sollux is a slut for,” Terezi whispers teasingly.

Sollux elbows her. “Shut up, TZ,” he says.

“You should just talk to her Sollux,” Terezi says. “She’s not a God, Sollux.”

“She’s Feferi Peixes, it’s as good as,” Sollux grumbles. He glares at Terezi. “So shut up.”

-- There had been extensive Thanksgiving decorations immediately after Halloween. Dad had not approved for the usual reasons, though he liked the parade and the “multicultural festivals” all through November. (The usual Pilgrim and Indian motifs were completely absent. It was mostly fall leaves, turkeys, pumpkins, cornucopias and posters of Norman Rockwell illustrations.)

There are very few stores that have Christmas decorations. The town has light displays, but no actual “Christmas” decorations. The school doesn’t have a “Secret Santa” thing going on, though there is a canned food drive. The only place that has Christmas music is Walmart. The Christmas decorations did not show up until the beginning of December.

--The long ride from Chicago to Alba; trees and fields, trees and fields. Listening to music on his iPod, and watching the miles pass by. He’d read through the three books he’d left out within the first two days, and Dad wouldn’t let him dig into the U-Haul for more. At least he’d had his laptop, so he hadn’t gone completely stir crazy.

He had noticed that the closer they got to Alba, the more people seemed to shut down when the town was mentioned. No one said anything bad about the town, but no one said anything good either. (“Oh. Are you sure you want to move down there? Not the friendliest place.” “The woods around there are a little eerie, I don’t put much stock in it myself” “Well there are some weird rumors about the area.”) Dad had put the reactions down to “microaggressions” and left it at that.

He’s half awake and he’s hearing angry voices trying to keep quiet. Mom and Dad arguing again, he thinks fuzzily and curls up, trying to ignore it. His head hurts, and he feels weak and sick to his stomach. The angry voices continue, and he slowly realizes that it isn’t his mom and dad arguing. Mom is gone, and this isn’t his bedroom.

He doesn’t know whose bedroom it is. There’s a white dresser with a lamp with a glass fish nightlight as a base. There’s a little row of Beanie Babies on the dresser (seals, crabs, dolphin, fish) and a couple of dolls. The nightlight is on, and the light is bright enough that he can see that the walls have an ocean mural; a coral reef with anemones, fish, octopi and sharks. There are music posters covering most of the mural. There’s a bookshelf with a stereo on the top, a little chair in one corner that’s occupied by a toddler-sized antique- looking doll with a stuffed shark in its lap. The window has vertical blinds, and there’s a closet with sliding doors. The clock on the nightstand by the bed says that it’s three in the morning. He’s wearing plaid flannel pajamas.

Karkat tries to sit up, but that doesn’t work very well. The room spins, and his body feels weirdly heavy and wrong. Nothing is moving right. He lies back down and closes his eyes, and tries to figure out what the hell is going on. He’s supposed to be dead right? They were going to pull his heart out of his chest or something. He wasn’t supposed to be waking up in some girl’s room. He’s too tired to think about it, and drifts back to sleep.

When he wakes up again, the clock says 8:00 am, and his head still hurts. About five minutes later, there’s a tap on the door, which opens slightly. “Karkat, are you awake?” An elderly woman’s voice asks.

Karkat tries to articulate both “yes,” and “what the hell,” but what comes out…isn’t really words. They were supposed to be words, but they’re just…sounds. He tries again, but it’s still just noise.

“I’m coming in,” the woman says, and steps into the room. She’s pretty tall for a woman, and thin, slightly stooped, with squared frame glasses and long, entirely white hair tied in a braid. She’s wearing jeans and a t-shirt. Her feet are bare. “My name is Karen Foster, I’m Feferi’s grandmother. Nod if you can understand what I’m saying.”

Karkat nods cautiously. He tries to ask “what’s going on?” but again, sounds that refuse to become words.

“I was told that you might have trouble talking, at first,” Karen says. “I’m going to ask some questions. One finger for yes, two fingers for no.” She asks him about symptoms, if he’s seeing or hearing anything that shouldn’t be there. (She laughs when his “one finger” is the middle one.)

She asks him if he’s hungry, and brings him something to eat (rice with butter and a cup of chicken broth, to drink). He has trouble with the spoon. His fingers are thick and clumsy and he keeps dropping it. The cup is easier to hold, but he needs both hands.

“The kids brought you here after the adult priests confirmed that the Gods want you alive,” Karen says. “They also wanted you to fast the way the kids are doing, but I told them to go jump in the lake.”

Karkat make an interrogative noise.

“The kids involved in the initiation rite have to fast between sunrise and sunset for the next lunar month and undergo purification rituals,” Karen says. “The would-be initiate and the High Priestess have to undergo more strict purification rituals, and Tavros won’t be able to become an initiate until next spring.”

Poor them, Karkat thinks sarcastically.

“I can tell you don’t have much sympathy for them,” Karen says with a smile. “I don’t either. They should have checked to make sure there wasn’t anyone around before they started the rite.”

Karkat has a lot of things to say to that, most of them to the tune of, “yeah sure, wouldn’t want them to murder anyone,” but he can’t get the words out.

He finishes breakfast, and Karen takes away the bowl and cup. She comes back a few minutes later with a pad of paper and a pencil. “If you can write, I can try to answer your questions,” she says. With a little experimentation, Karkat finds that he can write in big, blocky letters, and the words make sense.

WHAT HAPPENED TO ME?

“When you were put in the Chamber of Repentance?”

Karkat nods.

“The Gods judged you, and decided to spare you,” Karen says. “You were in the Chamber for two days. When the kids went into the Chamber, there were signs that you’d been forgiven your trespass. The adult priests verified the signs and the kids brought you here to recover.”

IS MY DAD OKAY?

“Your dad is fine,” Karen says. “His memories were veiled, and he was directed to return home.”

DOES HE KNOW WHERE I AM?

“Not really,” Karen admitted. “He believes you became ill during the camping trip, badly enough to require a hospital stay. The original plan was to have his memories altered to believe you had died.”

YOU PEOPLE ARE REALLY CREEPY AND FUCKED UP. Karkat writes.

“They’re extremely paranoid, very creepy, and most humans go insane and die horribly just from reading about their Gods,” Karen says. “So they have good reason to be paranoid and very creepy and also somewhat fucked up.”

WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN TO ME? WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN TO MY DAD?

“No one’s really decided yet,” Karen says. “And the Gods haven’t put in any opinions of Their own.”

WHAT ABOUT GOING CRAZY? Karkat writes, and doesn’t care if he’s being ableist.

“At the moment you seem lucid. Understandably angry and probably scared out of your mind, but lucid,” Karen says. “In my professional opinion…we’ll deal with it if you start having problems.”

YOU’RE A SHRINK?

“A Psychologist,” Karen says. “Semi-retired. I used to run a small clinic in town.”

Chapter Text

Karkat spends the next three days in bed. He is able to make short trips down the hall to the bathroom by the second day without help, though he’s wobbly and has to lean against the wall a lot. Karen gives him books to read and sets up a small TV set and a DVD player on the dresser. Karkat ends up marathoning the first season of Babylon 5.

Karen asks him questions, has him do little exercises, and tries to get him to talk. Talking is still not a thing that is happening though. He can make sounds, but they aren’t words. It’s frustrating and he’s used up a lot of paper expressing just how frustrating it is to not be able to speak.

IS THIS PERMANENT? Karkat writes at one point.

“It’s something that’s happened to adepts and priests in the past,” Karen says. “Some completely lose the ability to understand speech; some lose their ability to speak or write. Sometimes the effects wear off, and sometimes the adept or priest has to completely relearn how to talk or write. Sometimes they regain speech, but experience speech impairment of some kind, others don’t.”

SO YOU DON’T ACTUALLY KNOW.

“I’m not entirely certain,” Karen admits. “All we can do right now is wait and see what happens.”

He isn’t being treated like a prisoner, and he isn’t being locked in the bedroom. (But he doesn’t need to be, he still can’t really walk. He also can’t do something like call 911 because he can’t actually talk.) Karen is friendly, and seems to be at least a little sympathetic, but she’s also apparently one of “them.” He can’t trust her, and he has no idea of what’s going on, or what’s going to happen to him and his dad.

“The priests are sending someone to ask you some questions,” Karen says around noon on the fourth day. “You don’t have to, if you don’t want to.”

QUESTIONS ABOUT WHAT?

“Mostly about what happened when you interrupted the rite, and what happened in the Chamber of Repentance,” Karen says. “Would you be willing to speak to the priest?”

Karkat thinks about it. He doesn’t really want to talk to anyone right now--but he had a feeling that he was going to end up talking whether he wanted to or not. I GUESS SO, he writes.

The priest comes after dinner. (Karen waits just outside the door, with the door open.) He’s tall with long dark hair held back in a tail. He’s basically a walking brick wall, and he introduces himself as Equius’ father. Mr. Zahhak sits down in folding chair that looks way too small for him, and after stiffly asking him if he’s well, launches into a series of questions, and writes down the answers in a spiral bound notebook. He asks about the camping trip, asks about any rumors that might have led them to camp there. He asks about what happened when the High Priestess interrogated him, and he asks questions about the “purification rite” and what happened in the Chamber of Repentance.

Karkat tries to answer, but it’s extremely hard. Some things just fuzz out, and some things he doesn’t want to talk about at all. (He remembers Terezi’s fake smiles and Eridan basically being a bag of dicks. He thinks about how fucking cold the chamber had been. How scared he’d been.) Sometimes he can’t answer at all, and Mr. Zahhak waits, not patiently, but like a rock until Karkat says something. If Karkat can’t answer at all, he moves onto the next question.

“The Gods appeared before you, can you describe what they looked like?” Mr. Zahhak asks.

NOT REALLY, Karkat writes. ONE OF THEM LOOKED LIKE A PERSON, BUT SHE DIDN’T HAVE EYES AND WAS SURROUNDED BY SMOKE OR SOMETHING AND THAT’S WHERE HER EYES WERE.

Mr. Zahhak hums thoughtfully, and takes out what looks like a pack of cards. Each card is a different color. “Was she predominantly this color?” Mr. Zahhak says, showing a dark purple card.

YES, Karkat writes.

“Try to describe each of the Gods you saw,” Mr. Zahhak says. “And pick the colors you associated with them.”

Karkat wrote what he remembered of the red, blue and bright green gods. Then he tried to describe the others. THERE WAS AN ORANGE ONE THAT WAS MADE OF MIRRORS, LOTS OF BROKEN MIRRORS THAT WERE REFLECTING THE SAME GUY. THEY ALL HAD A SWORD. THE BRIGHT BLUE ONE HAD WINGS, LOTS OF WINGS LIKE THE DARKER BLUE GUY. THE DARK GREEN GUY LOOKED LIKE A SKELETON ON FIRE WEARING A CROWN WITH WINGS ON IT. THE PINK GIRL LOOKED MOSTLY LIKE A GIRL EXCEPT SHE WAS ALSO A CAT, AND SHE HAD FOUR EYES.

Mr. Zahhak frowns thoughtfully, and asks questions about what the Gods said, if anything.

Karkat isn’t able to answer very much about that. He can remember the “Gods” talking, but he can’t really write down what he heard. He tries to approximate. THEY WERE TALKING ABOUT JUDGING ME BEFORE I WENT CRAZY. ONE OF THEM, I THINK IT WAS THE RED ONE SAID I WAS “AWARE” OF WHAT WAS GOING ON. THE ORANGE ONE SAID SOMETHING ABOUT ME BUT I COULDN’T UNDERSTAND WHAT HE WAS SAYING. THERE WAS SOME KIND OF ARGUMENT, AND THEN I WOKE UP HERE.

Mr. Zahhak sets the notebook and pen down, and picks up the deck of cards. He has Karkat identify the colors he sees, and asks him if he sees anything else. He occasionally writes notes in the notebook.

Karkat shakes his head. THEY’RE BLANK, he writes.

“They are not blank,” Mr. Zahhak says. “Each of them has a character or symbol either in the same color as the card, or in a contrasting color. They are flashcards for learning an ancient language.”

“Are you going to leave the deck, Horrus?” Karen asks from the doorway.

“I thought I might,” Mr. Zahhak says. “He’s seeing certain colors, even if he isn’t seeing the characters or symbols.”

Karkat barely restrains himself from writing, WHAT THE HELL IS THIS CRYPTIC BULLSHIT? He was also wondering why you’d bother making a flash card where the symbol you were supposed to be learning was the same color as the background.

“Leave it on the nightstand,” Karen says. “Did you have any other questions for Karkat?”

“No,” Mr. Zahhak says, and rises to his feet. He sets the pack of cards on the nightstand. “Good evening, Adept Foster, Mister Vantas.” He steps out of the bedroom and out of sight.

“I’ll see you to the door,” Karen says, and follows Mr. Zahhak.

Karkat can hear them talking, but can’t make out what they’re saying. He’s tempted to try getting out of bed and following them, but he still can’t really get around. He picks up the deck of flashcards instead, and flips through them. What had Equius’ dad meant about seeing certain colors? Several of the cards were light gray blue or gray lavender. Other cards were a deep red that was almost black. On closer examination he still couldn’t see the “characters and symbols” that were supposed to be on the cards.

Karen comes back up to ask if he needs anything, and he asks about the cards: I THOUGHT THE LANGUAGE DROVE PEOPLE CRAZY? I REMEMBER YOU SAYING THAT.

“Writings about the Gods seem to cause dementia and hallucinations, even if translated into another language,” Karen says. “Descriptions of rites, descriptions of Their attributes and appearance, attempts at translating Their words. The people in this town who are followers are resistant to the effect due to generations of contact and…specific alterations the Gods made in their ancestors.”

This was totally starting to sound like something from H.P. Lovecraft. WHAT KIND OF ALTERATIONS?

“They can see further into the visible light spectrum,” Karen says. “A few extra colors on either end. They tend to be very good at pattern detection. The priests have inherited an ability to speak ‘the language of the Gods.’”

WHAT DOES IT MEAN THAT I’M ABLE TO SEE THESE EXTRA COLORS? Karkat writes, more than a little disturbed.

“That you’ve been given the ability for some reason, or it was already present, and the Gods awakened it,” Karen says.

I HAVE NO IDEA OF WHAT TO THINK ABOUT THAT, Karkat writes. Except it was creepy as fuck. MR. ZAHHAK CALLED YOU AN “ADEPT” WHAT DID HE MEAN BY THAT?

“It’s an honorary title, in my case,” Karen says. “Adepts study magic, but they are also involved in things like science, law and medicine, and education as well as other professions that are considered artistic or intellectual. I’m technically an Outsider, so I can’t really study their magic system.”

OKAY, Karkat writes. He wants to ask ARE YOU OKAY WITH THEM KILLING PEOPLE? But doesn’t write the question; he isn’t sure he wants to know the answer. Karen changes the subject by offering to bring him ice cream for desert, and he accepts.

He watches Disney movies while eating ice cream, and eventually falls asleep. Karkat tries very hard not to think about what he’s learned so far, because he isn’t sure of what to think about what he’s learned so far. He wakes up around three in the morning. The TV is off, the remote on the nightstand along with the bowl of ice cream.

He is not alone in the bed.

Someone is curled against his back, knees tucked into the back of his knees, one arm around his waist. He jerks in surprise and tries to pull away, his pulse racing and loud in his ears, but finds he can’t move. A voice whispers in his head. It was a girl’s voice, and weirdly familiar. He thought it was telling him to calm down, to go to back to sleep.

He couldn’t move! Karkat attempts to express this but finds he can’t. It was hard to breath, his chest hurt, and he couldn’t see who was holding him. All he could see were lazily moving purple sparks in the corner of his eye.

Something touches him, runs down his side. The thought came to him that he wasn’t being harmed and that he wouldn’t be harmed, that he just needed to lie still, and breathe. It was not a thought he was thinking. Karkat tries to articulate how very not okay he is with this but nothing comes out, not even noise. He tries to pull away again, but he still can’t move.

The direction to breathe comes to him and he does. Long slow breath in, long slow breath out. It’s hard to breathe, but he does. He wasn’t really awake right now, the voice explains without words. This was sleep-paralysis, an unpleasant condition occasionally suffered by humans. He had sensed Her presence in his sleep and came partially awake, then panicked when he found he couldn’t move.

Karkat wanted to protest the “panicked.” He really, really did. His reaction was a completely normal response to waking up and being cuddled by an invisible something. Despite the outrage, he continues to follow the direction to breathe in long slow breaths. He can feel himself beginning to calm down.

There’s a kind of mocking agreement from the voice. Of course he hadn’t panicked. Of course he hadn’t.

Karkat thinks: Fuck. You.

The girl-voice laughs in his ear, or maybe his head. There’s a sense that She hadn’t meant any harm in coming to him while he was asleep. (She had not been able to resist.) She hadn’t thought he’d sense Her presence while She watched him dream.

Karkat thinks: That is creepy as fuck.

The reply is a wordless sense of amusement. There’s also a disturbing sense of fondness. The something that wasn’t a hand, that wasn’t several hands, strokes down his arms and legs. It was almost pleasant, but strange. The things were smooth and cold and didn’t have much give to them. It was like being lovingly petted by a garden hose or something. Despite the strangeness, he begins to relax.

He thinks: Who/What are you?

The voice murmurs, and Karkat can almost make out the words. There’s an image in his head, of the (purple) girl with no eyes and sharp teeth. He shivers at the image, but doesn’t try to pull away from the (invisible) shape pressed against his back this time. The sleep paralysis thing is wearing off, but he still doesn’t try to pull away. (He’s pretty sure he wouldn’t be able to.) He can’t even begin to articulate what’s going on in his head right now, but he tries.

He thinks: What. The. Fuck.

The invisible body behind him shifts, and a forehead is pressed against the back of his neck. She regrets disturbing him, and giving in to her desire to visit him so soon. (The Others were going to be so jealous/annoyed that She’d made the first move.) She had wanted to see him and make sure he was recovering. It had been a long time since the last one like him. (Now there were two.)

Karkat wants to ask, but he’s shushed by the voice. He should go to sleep, the voice says. Karkat would be more than a little annoyed by the condescension in the tone, but he can barely keep his eyes open. Before he drops back into sleep he thinks he hears the voice say, I am Light.

He wakes up around nine the next morning, with vague bits and pieces of the dream he had floating to the surface. Being held, and not being able to move, mostly. There had been sound of laughter in his ears and the usual bizarre dream conversations. Karkat stretches, and makes his slow, awkward way to the bathroom for his morning routine.

The day is quiet, and Karen decides to see if he is well enough to make it down the stairs. (He is able to, though very slowly.) He spends the day on the couch in the living room watching TV and exploring the den, which is crammed with bookcases full of books. Nonfiction is mostly reference stuff, cook books, psychology books, history and sea life. Fiction is a lot of science fiction and fantasy, some horror, young adult, and the occasional western, romance or mystery. He had kind of been expecting grimoires or something. (Maybe those were kept in another part of the house.)

In the late afternoon, Sollux shows up with homework, books and study assignments from school. After an awkward stab at conversation where Sollux doesn’t explain why he isn’t surprised to find him at Feferi Peixes house, Sollux sighs. “Let’s just rip off the Band-Aid here,” he says. “I am one of the crazy cultist people. Most of the town is crazy cultist people, except for the ones who aren’t, I don’t judge. It sucks that you found out about the crazy in the worst possible way. If you don’t want to be friends because of the crazy, that’s okay, I don’t blame you.” Karkat doesn’t say anything because he can’t, and he didn’t bring his stupid tablet or a pen. Sollux misinterprets the silence and Karkat’s not very subtle attempts to look for something to write with, and his shoulders slump. “I’ll be back to with more homework, and take whatever you finished back to school in a couple days,” he mumbles and heads for the door.

Karkat stumbles off the couch and grabs Sollux by the arm. “Dodt gaw! Dumass. I gat tak!” This was the clearest he’d been since he’d woken up not able to speak.

“Oh. Okay, no wonder,” Sollux says, looking surprised.

Karkat grabs his history notebook, and Sollux hands him one of his pens. WERE YOU THERE? Karkat writes.

“No,” Sollux says. “I wasn’t there.”

WOULD THERE HAVE BEEN ANYTHING YOU COULD DO?

“I have no fucking clue,” Sollux says. “If you hadn’t been so close to the rite the sentries would have driven you off, no harm done. How did you get so close?”

NO IDEA, Karkat writes. SO YOU DON’T JUST KILL ANYONE WHO GOES UP THERE AT THE WRONG TIME?

“We kinda go to extremes to make sure it doesn’t happen in the first place KK,” Sollux says, and rubs his hands through his short hair. “Just. Fuck. Someone contaminated an initiation ritual--”

OH NO OUTSIDER COOTIES IN OUR BLACK MASS, Karkat writes.

“Wow, no, fuck you. Anyone not consecrated viewing the ritual would have been a contaminant, not just an Outsider,” Sollux says.

OUTSIDERS ARE JUST PARTICULARLY HORRIBLE?

“Outsiders tend to actually lose their minds,” Sollux says. “It is like, actually a thing that happens, KK.”

YOU GUYS KILL THE MENTALLY ILL BECAUSE YOU DROVE THEM CRAZY?

“No, sometimes the Gods go, ‘no, this one can live,’ and they die anyway because whatever they’re seeing is just that awful,” Sollux says angrily. “There is documentation.

The very present fear that had been in the background, the fear of maybe going crazy, shivers to the surface. Karen had said that he was fine, that he wasn’t showing any “symptoms.” But she also did little tests, asking him if he’d seen anything, if he heard voices. If he knew what day it was. OKAY, he writes. THIS IS JUST REALLY FUCKED UP.

“I know, I am so sorry KK,” Sollux says.

YOU WEREN’T THERE AND YOU PROBABLY COULDN’T HAVE DONE ANYTHING, Karkat writes. LET’S TALK ABOUT SOMETHING ELSE. I MEAN IF YOU WANT TO HANG OUT WITH ME.

“I guess so,” Sollux says, sounding relieved. “It’ll be my good deed for the day.”

Chapter Text

Karkat works on his homework for the next few days, and works with Karen on talking. Despite being almost coherent when he yelled at Sollux, he still can’t really speak. Karen thinks it’s a hopeful sign, and encourages him to try to read his book assignments out loud, and work on sounding out vowels and consonants, and eventually words. (To variations of; “I’m not a speech therapist, but I did some research and I think this might help…”)

He walks around the house, which turns out to be pretty big and outside in the yard. The house is on a half-acre of land. The front yard is full of oak trees, flowers and rosebushes. The back yard has a deck, a few maples and oaks for shade, some flowerbeds immediately around the deck, an old slide, swingset and playhouse, and the rest of it is a vegetable garden. It’s surrounded by a high fence. The neighbors have dogs on both sides. Loud dogs. Karen tells him that she and her husband used to do most of the work in the garden when she was younger, but that now Feferi does a lot of the work.

He’s eating lunch out on the deck when a crow steals his bag of potato chips. Swoosh, flurry of wings, gone before Karkat can do more than flinch back and yelp. The thief carries its prize to a nearby tree where it attempts to figure out snack-sized foil bags. (It’s joined by another crow that is either being helpful or is being an asshole. It’s honestly hard to tell.)

A third crow lands on the table, just out of arm’s reach. It eyes the sandwich and takes an interested step forward. “Fug no,” Karkat says to the crow. He snatches the sandwich off the plate. “Mine yoo fugger.”

“Fug,” the crow says. “Fug yoooo!”

Karkat startles, but this doesn’t stop him from automatically flipping the bird off. Wow classy, making fun of a speech impediment. He has no idea why he thinks this instead of, “can crows imitate words the first time they hear one, or did someone teach this crow how to swear?”

He eats the sandwich, and warily watches the crow sitting on the table. The crow preens its feathers and stretches its wings. It occasionally makes a “Kh-kh-kh,” sound, as if it were muttering under its breath. The crows in the tree have in the meantime completely destroyed the bag of chips, and devoured its contents. They each have a section of the bag and are waving them around while hopping from branch to branch in the tree.

More crows turn up, landing on the railing surrounding the deck. They make cawing sounds at each other and clown around, and take short flights to one of the trees or the roof and back. It is starting to get a little creepy, though the birds are generally being birdlike and not otherwise strange (except maybe for the swearing crow). Eventually most of the crows are lined up in a row on the deck rail. By now it’s maybe twenty birds, and all of them are watching him.

“Karkat,” the crow still on the table says.

Karkat startles, his heart giving a painful lurch at the (perfectly clear almost human) sound of his name from the crow. He stares at the crow and feels frozen by the beady red stare. The crow hops a few steps closer. “Karkat,” the crow says again. It comes closer still, and Karkat would like to move away, but he can’t. The crow is close enough that Karkat could touch him if he wanted. (He really doesn’t want to.) Then the crow is close enough it could probably peck him if it wanted. (It doesn’t.) “Karkat,” it says, and there’s a pause. “Don’t piss your pants.” Then it laughs (not a caw, an actual laugh) and flaps off into a tree.

Karkat yells. He yells a lot, and waves his arms at the crows. The crows obviously do not give a fuck. The weird red-eyed crow in the tree preens. The dogs on both sides of the backyard bark because of the yelling. Karen comes out and takes Karkat by the arm and tugs him back into the house. He goes along with it. She hands him his pen and pad of paper when he’s done stamping and yelling.

THE CROW TALKED TO ME. ARE THERE ACTUALLY CROWS OUT THERE AND DID ONE TELL ME NOT TO PISS MY PANTS?

Karen looks both concerned and like she’s trying not to laugh. “There are crows out there. I didn’t hear any of them talking.”

IT TALKED OR I HALLUCINATED THE TALKING PART. WHAT THE FUCK.

“Are you hearing anything now?” Karen asks.

JUST THE DOGS BARKING. SORRY. ARE THEY STILL OUT THERE?

“I think so,” Karen says. She goes over to the sliding door and takes a look. “They’re in the trees, and on the roof next door.” She turns back to him. “Are you all right?”

YEAH I’M OKAY. EMBARRASSED BUT OKAY. “Fuggin crohz.”

“Crows are supposed to be good luck, around here,” Karen says with a smile. “Though I think it’s more ‘as long as they’re eating mice and not the corn’ good luck.”

I’LL GO BACK FOR THE PLATE, Karkat writes.

“I’ll do that,” Karen says. “Just go watch TV or something to settle down.”

OKAY. Karkat heads into the living room and watches TV. He also glares in the direction of the living room window every time he thinks he hears a caw.

Sollux visits on a regular basis and talks about school, mostly. (Sollux tells him about how his dad is doing. It’s good to have a secondary source of information that he’s pretty sure is accurate, even if it’s just, “he’s worried about you but he’s worried about what he thinks is going on, instead of what’s actually going on so yeah.”) Sollux also answers questions about the town and the cult. Mostly town history questions though, and “ancient history” which is very weird and involves lost cities, and possibly the Tower of Babel. (Sollux version is that the Tower of Babel had been built so that people could better know the Gods. However the people became terrified because of what they learned. The knowledge was so terrifying that they lost the ability to understand each other and scattered into the desert, abandoning the tower, which crumbled, and the Gods were deliberately forgotten.)

Sollux doesn’t talk about “the Gods” or the religion except in very general terms. (There are eight Gods who personify eight of twelve “Aspects.” Priests share an Aspect with one of the eight Gods.) He doesn’t talk about what the Aspects are until Karkat asks if one of the “Aspects” is Light. “Where did you hear that?” Sollux asks with a worried frown.

Karkat remembers: I am Light, but writes, TEREZI ACCUSED ERIDAN OF FLIRTING WITH “LIGHT.”

Sollux continues to look worried, but says, “yeah, Light is one of the Aspects.”

IS KNOWING THIS GOING TO MAKE ME GO CRAZY?

“It might? It’s not ‘boom, suddenly dementia,’ there’s a tipping point, supposedly,” Sollux says. “I mean Nanna Foster isn’t nuts, and she like knows our history and mythology, and a lot about our religion. Another Outsider--Nanna Foster isn’t really an Outsider though, she married in--might get filled with mysterious revulsion just from looking at an offering plate. Or another Outsider might be fine with ritual objects but doing any further research makes them more and more unbalanced. Then you got occultists who conflate bits of our lore they find out in the real world that transferred into other cultures with lore from other cultures and try to summon who knows what, which is kind of the definition of crazy.”

I WONDER WHERE MY TIPPING POINT IS. Karkat writes. There are a lot of things he could add to that, that he doesn’t.

“No, fuck that,” Sollux says. “You’re going to be fine, and so’s your dad.”

WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN TO MY DAD? I MEAN THEY WERE GOING TO ALTER HIS MEMORIES EXCEPT I TURNED OUT TO NOT BE DEAD OR CATATONIC OR WHATEVER THEY WERE EXPECTING.

“No idea, they’re apparently keeping up the fiction of you being in the hospital though,” Sollux says. “It depends on what the priests decide or what the Gods say.”

I WANT TO BE ABLE TO TALK TO MY DAD, Karkat writes. THIS SUCKS AND IS ALSO BULLSHIT. The “fiction” involved Karkat being comatose after hitting his head during a hike. (And that they had been found by a “church group” who stayed at the campground during spring break every year for a retreat which was why the area was off limits.)

“I know,” Sollux says.

Karkat experiments with the cards over the next few visits, and Sollux is a bemused but willing guinea pig. (He’s surprised Mr. Zahhak left the cards. Then he’s surprised Karkat can’t see the characters or symbols.) Sollux identifies and names the extra colors, then draws some of the characters and symbols, explaining what they each mean. Karkat learns the Aspect symbols, some of which are bizarrely mundane like the clockwork gear for Time or the Heart symbol and some of which are just bizarre, like the spiked skull for Doom (which was apparently Sollux’s Aspect) or the tentacle looking symbol for Life.

(The gear seems to be anachronistic for an “ancient symbol” and Karkat mentions this, and learns that the symbols change. The original symbol for Time was apparently a circle divided into eight sections, or a circle within a circle. The heart is also a recent symbol, though older than the Time symbol. “Heart” seems like a weird “Aspect” for an elder god but it turns out that “Heart” actually means “Soul” and that particular god is a Destroyer of Souls whose own soul is a million shards that rain upon the earth and so on.)

With a little help from Sollux he’s eventually able to make out the characters and symbols. He is less able to copy them down. It’s a completely different language and writing system and it reads right to left like Japanese. There are also more than three hundred characters. Sollux shows Karkat how to spell his name while telling him what each of the characters mean, and possible alternate spellings.

Karkat learns a lot, and Karen is a little worried. She keeps up with asking questions about his awareness of his surroundings, his memory. Karkat is also a little worried, so he answers as truthfully as he can. He hasn’t been hearing anything unusual. (Except for the Crow Incident.) He hasn’t been seeing anything unusual (Again, except for the Crow Incident, which may not count because Karen also saw parts of the Crow Incident.) He isn’t experiencing much nameless horror and dread, except for the normal worry about his own situation, this creepy town and his dad. He isn’t obsessing over anything having to do with what he’s learning, or making any “strange or unusual leaps of logic or speculation.” (Karen has explained some of the symptoms she’s looking for, but Karkat has the feeling that she isn’t telling him all of them.)

He doesn’t tell her about the dreams. He doesn’t tell her about waking up in the middle of the night, and knowing he’s not alone in the room. He doesn’t tell her that sometimes something is hovering over his bed when he wakes up or actually in the bed with him. Karkat isn’t sure that he’d be able to, if he tried. (He’s pretty sure They don’t want him to, just yet.) It’s something that’s very private, and very strange, and he doesn’t think he’s hallucinating. (He doesn’t know whether he wants it to be a hallucination or not.)

In his dreams he sees the Gods. They are vast shapes drifting through multiple dimensions that he can’t perceive from his own, doing things he doesn’t understand at all. He sees them in sections, in pieces, the rest of Them too far away or too near. There are other creatures out there where the Gods are that are essentially animals. There are other creatures who are essentially people. But only the Gods are the Gods, greater and more terrible than anything in the places where They exist.

The dreams where They try to be human are worse than the dreams where They are giant space kaiju swimming in some extra- dimensional space and he’s the littlest minnow. There’s too much of Them to fit in a human shape, and They never, ever get the shape right. Breath’s smile is manic and splits His face in half. Time has no expression at all, and the shades he tries to wear are half the time faceted bug eyes. Life gets it right half the time, but the other half her skin cracks and red lines in a geometric pattern appear. Void doesn’t even bother trying. Scales are fine, fur is spiffy, head turned the wrong way around is hilarious. We’re vacationing in Uncanny Valley and we’re taking you along for the ride, Karkat. They talk to him, or try to. There’s a lot he doesn’t understand, and a lot he misses.

(He never remembers most of what he dreams about anyway.)

In this dream he’s at the camping area in the crow woods. Space is a big white dog (or an equally big black dog) and for some reason has no problems with catching a Frisbee. (Getting it back from Her is another problem.)

At some point in the dream, Space heads off into the woods, leaving the Frisbee behind. Karkat follows Her because in the dream he doesn’t realize that Space isn’t actually a dog and he doesn’t want to lose Her or have Her run into a bear (or more likely a skunk) or something. He calls Her name, and occasionally he hears a bark in the distance. “If you run into a porcupine, it’s entirely your fault!” he yells.

He hears a distant bark in reply, and knows he’s being told “I’m not going to run into a porcupine dummy!”

He tramps off further into the woods, grumbling. He eventually comes to a cabin with a little stoop. Space is sprawled on the stoop, Her head in the lap of a blond human looking guy who isn’t human at all. The guy’s wearing a maroon shirt and a pair of black jeans. Pointed shades are covering His eyes. “Hey,” the guy seems to say.

“Hey,” Karkat repeats. The script of the dream should go who are you or that’s my dog, but Karkat says neither. “Why am I dreaming this?” he asks instead.

“We’re trying not to scare you, while being fully aware it isn’t working,” the guy--Heart--says with a faint smile. He looks almost normal.

“That doesn’t really answer the question,” Karkat says.

“I know.” The guy shoves Space off of him, and stands. (Space whines about it, then huffs and lies back down on the stoop with Her paws tucked under.) He walks over to Karkat (he’s only a little taller), and draws Karkat in, hand around the back of Karkat’s neck. “This probably won’t either,” the guy says, and touches his forehead to Karkat’s.

Karkat sees: some kind of throne room filled with people. There’s a woman sitting on a throne glaring down at a raggedly dressed man. The man is wearing manacles, but doesn’t seem cowed or frightened in the least. He’s glaring back, and speaks to the woman on the throne.

The woman is frightened, Karkat knows that the woman is frightened, but she pretends she doesn’t care. She makes a gesture toward the man and her bodyguards beat him. The man doesn’t make a sound until the end, just before he’s stabbed to death. He screams, but it’s not a sound that a human throat could make. It’s too loud to have come from a set of human lungs. The woman is terrified now but it’s too late and she’s too angry at the man.

Terrible things happen, one after another, and the city falls apart.

Karkat blinks and the guy is still holding him, his forehead tilted against Karkat’s. Karkat doesn’t feel disturbed by this. He’s more disturbed by what he’d seen. “What was that?” he asks.

“A history lesson,” the guy says, and moves away. “That you probably won’t remember the details of anyway.”

“Then why show me?”

“Because you might remember some of it,” the guy says.

Karkat wakes up from vague dreams of a burning city. It’s light enough that he can see the silhouette of a crow on the windowsill.

“Blood,” the crow says. “Blood!”

Chapter Text

The crow sticks around for the next few days. It mostly hangs out on the deck, or near Feferi’s bedroom window. It talks, but the eerie clarity is gone. The voice is just a squawky clipped bird voice. It says Karkat’s names, the names of various food items; various swear words and “Blood!”

The crow tries to get into the house, and manages to do so successfully three times. The first time it tries to steal a pork chop. The second time it manages to get as far Karen’s bedroom before it is discovered. (It got stuck in the closet when it accidentally pulled some of Karen’s clothes on top of itself.) The third time it ends up on top of a curio cabinet in the dining room. It is curiously examining the large owl figurine on top of the cabinet.

“I don’t know whether to call a wild bird rehab specialist or an exorcist at this point,” Karen says with a sigh.

“Exorshist,” Karkat says.

Karen chases the crow out of the dining room with a broom, and eventually out of the house. This takes a surprisingly long time, and the crow manages to knock a lamp off the table in the process. (An incredibly ugly lamp whose destruction Karen is unexpectedly cheerful about. “It was part of a set, and it was a wedding gift from Harlin’s sister. I hated that thing. It was indestructible.”) When it’s finally driven out it perches in a tree, calling Karkat’s name.

Sollux continues to visit and deliver homework and information about what’s going on at the school and with Karkat’s dad. “Your dad’s fighting the memory alteration,” Sollux says on his most recent visit. “I overheard Vriska’s mom talking about it. Well, complaining about it. Apparently your dad’s head is full of rusty nails and razorwire. They have to keep adjusting.”

WHAT HAPPENS IF HE BREAKS THE SPELL? Karkat asks, worried.

“The adult priests and adepts are still arguing about it,” Sollux says.

“He shouldn’t be enspelled to begin with,” Karen comments from the kitchen. She enters the living room, and sets a plate of cookies down on the coffee table. “They won’t do anything to hurt your father, Karkat,” she says, clearly trying to be reassuring. “If something happens, they’ll most likely bring him here.”

Karkat wants to ask “what’s going to happen to me?” and “what’s going to happen to my dad?” but he doesn’t know if he’ll get a straight answer. He grabs a cookie instead. It’s oatmeal raisin. A cookie baking grandma cultist. Maybe he did hit his head in a ravine and he’s dreaming this. This being some kind of dream made more sense than this being real.

He does eventually ask questions, and he knows he isn’t getting straight answers. They’re worried about something. There are things they don’t want to tell him. His thoughts go a lot of weird places while Karen decides what she wants to tell him. (Sollux follows her lead, mostly.) Light curled up behind him on the bed. Horror movies he stayed up too late watching when he’d been told it was time to go to bed. Crows showing up like Goth bluebirds and he was a Disney Princess.

Sollux goes home eventually, and Karkat goes up to Feferi’s room. (Karen looks concerned, but doesn’t say anything.) He flops onto the bed and stares up at the ceiling. He wants to go home. He wants to be back in Chicago, where weird shit doesn’t happen and people didn’t get sacrificed to ancient inhuman space kaiju. He wants his dad.

He hears a fluttering on the windowsill, and the sound of his name. It’s the crow again. Karkat doesn’t bother looking toward the window. “Blood,” the crow says.

“Fug ov.”

“Karkat.”

Karkat fights down the urge to throw something out the window at the crow. “Fug ov!” Karkat says a little louder. Not really a shout, because he doesn’t want to bring Karen up here. “Lemme alone.”

The crow caws and shuffles on the windowsill, and shows no inclination to fly away. “Blood,” it mutters again. “Blood, blood, blood.” Karkat sighs and swings his legs up onto the bed. He rolls so he’s lying face down on the mattress. Blood is apparently significant. Blood is one of the Twelve Aspects and has to do with bonds and pacts, kinship. Blood has something to do with Karkat, and neither Karen nor Sollux have really told him what that might be. (He should be trying to get answers, not laying here on the bed all emo.)

The room gets darker, the crow flaps off.

Karkat’s not alone in the room. Something is standing by the bed, looking down at him. Karkat doesn’t move. He doesn’t look up. He’s almost used to this, the sudden feeling of not being alone. He doesn’t try to see, because there won’t be anything there. (He’s afraid that this is him losing his mind, every time it happens.)

The mattress dips and shifts. Something, maybe a hand, touches his back. The hand strokes down his back along his spine. Karkat shivers at the touch, but doesn’t protest. He shuts his eyes tighter. He doesn’t want to see what isn’t there to be seen. The hand, call it a hand, slides down his back again and again from the nape of his neck to the small of his back. A sliding pressure that is almost soothing. He almost arches up into the touch, like he’s a cat or something. He relaxes, unwinds under the stroking pressure, even while part of him feels that he’s in danger. That something terrible is about to happen.

The presence stretches out beside him on the bed, radiating warmth. Voices murmur in his ear, but he doesn’t understand the words. The color Karkat sees with his eyes closed is red. Slow turning gears and fire, black crows. Time.

Time keeps talking, and the words start sounding like English, but they don’t really make sense. “…It’s like that. Complicated. There were cities. And there was a city that ruled them all. It was not Atlantis, fuck you very much Plato. They were the first cities and they were our cities but the cities were destroyed and are so completely gone that they will never be found. Don’t look for them. Looking for them is a bad idea that never goes well.”

“The humans that built the cities are not in any way related to the current humans. They were a different branch. They are not the mother culture. No one is descended from them. No one received knowledge or the gifts of civilization from them. They are not the golden age of which all subsequent ages are personified by lesser metals. They were cursed and scattered and the branch withered and dropped off. The last survivors tried to at least spread the lore but found they were not understood. The lore was cursed and the rites were cursed and they were cursed and everything was a huge shitpile of curses.”

“They kept the rites anyway. They spread the lore anyway. They despaired but they didn’t stop. They died slowly and didn’t die. No one understood until there was one who did. She was ours and she killed the last of them and they died praising her name. Hallelujah.”

Karkat turns his head, and can’t see anything except a darker almost human shape lying beside him in the dimness of the room. “What.”

(In the back of his head, he could almost see it. He doesn’t want to see it. He sees a cavern and a dark and slender figure dancing, surrounded by lashing whips of blood and thorns. She’s barefoot and her arms and legs are wrapped in gold coils and jewels, her black hair braided and strung with beads of amber and gold.)

“The history lesson,” Time says. Red eyes like LEDs flicker as Time blinks. There were too many of them. “You remember.”

Karkat remembers burning cities. He remembers an angry, frightened queen. He remembers a dying man making a terrible, inhuman noise that shook the ground, the walls. He shivers. “The dream.”

“The history lesson,” Time repeats, like he’s agreeing.

Something reaches out and touches Karkat’s face, ruffles through his hair. Story time is apparently over. The curve of his ear is explored, a light tickling touch. The touch brushes his cheeks, his lips. It tries to enter his mouth, but Karkat clamps his lips together, and hides his face in the pillows. The mattress shifts, and there’s a weight on his back. The touch is everywhere, gentle, exploratory, persistent. Karkat squirms but doesn’t try to fight it. (There was nothing he could fight.)

Eventually, Karkat is rolled onto his back, and Time curls up on and around him. Contentment and satisfaction radiates from the presence, leaks into Karkat until he feels both light and heavy from it. He could sink (float) through the feeling forever. It’s a good feeling. He’s not afraid or worried like this. A silvery sensation rings through Karkat, spinning an invitation outward.

Light approaches, accompanied by Heart. Communication occurs, and then somehow two more presences fit themselves onto the bed without crowding each other or smothering him. They have mass, they have form. They are too big to fit on the bed. They should be overflowing the bed and the room and the house; possibly also the block. At the very same time, they don’t do anything of those things. Karkat falls asleep trying to understand how it’s possible.

(He doesn’t remember in the morning.)

Karkat wakes up one morning, and smells breakfast being made. He also hears voices; Karen’s voice and a girl’s voice. It takes him a minute to recognize the girl’s voice as Feferi. Karkat slides out of bed, and carefully sneaks to the top of the stairs, trying to listen in.

“I’m fine, Gramma, really,” Feferi is saying. She sounds tired. “All I need are pancakes and maybe a thousand years of sleep.”

“You don’t look fine,” Karen says. “You look like you might fall asleep in the pancakes.”

“They would be the best pillows,” Feferi says, and yawns audibly. “How is Karkat?”

“Fine. He has some speech difficulties, but he’s recovering,” Karen says. “I’ve been keeping a close eye on any possible… symptoms.”

“Good. The priests didn’t try anything?”

“They wanted him to do the purification rites. They also wanted him in their custody, but I argued them down,” Karen says.

“Urgh. Thank you Gramma,” Feferi says. “I’m sorry about this. I’m sorry I wasn’t able to be here to help.”

“It wasn’t a problem, sweetheart,” Karen says. “Karkat is a very nice young man. Why don’t you go wake him up for breakfast?”

“Okay!”

Karkat quickly retreats to the bedroom, and flops onto the bed, pretending to be asleep. A few moments later he can hear Feferi come up the stairs and stop by the bedroom door. She knocks. “Karkat? Gramma says breakfast is ready.”

“I’m up,” Karkat calls back. He sits up.

“Can I come in?”

“Yor room,” Karkat says.

The door opens and Feferi peeks in. “Hi.” She slips into the room. She’s a tall girl, with ridiculously long black hair. It’s down past her knees almost, and worn loose at the moment. She’s wearing some kind of white t-tunic dress with a brown tabard with the Life symbol on it. There’s a wide brown sash around her waist, and her feet are bare. “I’m glad you’re okay,” she says, and then her eyes widen a little. “Oh wow,” she says looking around the room.

“What?” Karkat. Reflexively he looks around the room, but doesn’t see anything.

“I can see traces of Them in the room,” Feferi says. “Also on you. And my bed.”

Karkat feels his face heat up, and he isn’t sure why. “Nothin’ happened,” he says, and he doesn’t know why he said that either.

Feferi giggles. “I didn’t mean to make you self-conch-ous!” she says. “C’mon, let’s go to breakfast. I haven’t eaten in forever!”

Karkat follows her downstairs. He isn’t really sure what to make of her. (He’s really worried about what she said she saw.) He remembers her issuing commands in a sharp decisive voice. (He remembers: “Okay, that’s it. I was going to explain nicely and show you that we hadn’t hurt Tavros in a bad way, but you had to mention Cthulhu, so now I don’t care!”) He remembers his first impression of her, rich popular girl with a clique of friends, a Junior, someone to be avoided just from the way she cut a swathe through the student population.

Breakfast is in the kitchen. There are eggs, bacon, pancakes and toast. Feferi yawns through breakfast, and talks about schoolwork she’s going to have to make up. She asks Karkat questions about how he’s feeling, and tells him several times that he’s a welcome guest and if he needs anything, he should ask her. (He does not ask her if he can go home.) She complains when Karen cuts her off after second helpings, and trudges upstairs after telling him that she wanted to talk to him after she slept for a while. (He says okay. He doesn’t know what else to say.)

Feferi does not come back downstairs until dinner. Karen orders pizza, and they eat in the living room, and watch Leverage episodes. “Karkat, let’s go out to the deck,” Feferi says after dinner as she gathers the “pizza bones” onto one of the paper plates.

He follows her out, and watches as she sets the plate down on the table, and breaks the crusts into smaller pieces. “For the birds,” she says. She goes to lean on the deck railing, facing him. She looks at him, and doesn’t say anything.

“Yoo wanted to talk,” he says after a few minutes of Feferi just looking at him. “So talk.”

“I have no idea where to start,” Feferi says. “How much did Gramma and Sollux tell you about--about us?”

“Town’s founded by not quite human worshipers of inhuman gods. Unspeakable lore that drives ordinary humans mad, I might go crazy and my dad is under house arrest or something,” Karkat says. It comes out more or less clearly.

“That’s a good starting point, I guess,” Feferi says. “Did they tell you about the Aspects?”

“Yeah. A little.”

“Okay. Usually, Outsiders don’t have them. It’s like a defining characteristic. We have Aspects and powers. Outsiders don’t, though I think Gramma would be Heart, and Meenah’s mom is so Time it’s actually kind of scary. You and your dad do have Aspects, but you’re Outsiders.”

“So?”

“We need to find out more about you,” Feferi says. “If there are other Outsiders with Aspects. The founders thought they’d brought everyone who could come to America. But that was mostly families scattered through Europe, not Africa or the Middle East.”

“Turkey!” The crow says suddenly. Karkat tries not to jump. The crow is on the deck rail, and its eyes are like red LEDs. It flaps to the table and pecks at the pizza bones.

Feferi isn’t startled at all. “Turkey?” she asks the crow. It caws at her briefly, and then goes back to the pizza bones.

“We’re American,” Karkat says irritably. “My grandparents were from Turkey.” He doesn’t ask how the crow knows. Of course it knows. It’s not like it was really a huge secret, anyway. “I don’t think he knows anything. He wouldn’t be able to tell you anything.”

“He might,” Feferi says. “Even if he doesn’t, Aspects run in families. The founders only brought one Blood family with them when they came here, and that family…died out.”

Karkat was hearing a lot of disturbing implications in what Feferi was saying. “I don’t have any uncles or cousins or anything,” Karkat says. “I don’t think they’d move here if I did.” I don’t think I want to stay here, he thinks. I think they aren’t going to let us leave, if we want to go. Karkat’s stomach does a slow flip at that thought. It was something he’d been trying hard not to think about or even suspect.

“Even if you two are the only ones, we still need to know if there’s anyone else out there, even if they apparently aren’t keeping the rites,” Feferi says. Then she seems to notice his unease. “It’s okay Karkat, you and your father are under my protection. We’ll visit him tomorrow, and I’ll have the memory-veil removed and explain everything to him.”

“’N make him agree with what you want?” Karkat asks.

“We won’t use magic unless we have to,” Feferi says. “We need you both to stay.”

“What if we left instead?” Karkat asks.

“That…would be a bad idea,” Feferi says slowly. “You could try it and see what happens though!”

Chapter Text

During the conversation with Feferi, Karkat feels sick. Literally, physically sick. He would call it swooning (derisively) if it didn’t also feel as if he were going to throw up. He’s on the deck, swallowing spit and trying not to puke, sweat popping up all over his skin. It’s suddenly unbearably hot, his skin is on fire and he feels limp and wrung out. Karen is speaking to Feferi, asking her what happened. “I’m not sure. It might be a sending.” An icy hand touches his cheek. “Orrr a presentiment. Gramma, could you please call Ms. Serket and tell her to check on Mr. Vantas? Tell her to call me with what she finds out. Tell her don’t try to reset the spell.”

“I’ll do that,” Karen says, but she’s also somehow saying, “you have some explaining to do.”

“Whas goin’ on?” Karkat asks semi-coherently.

“You’re sensing something very strongly,” Feferi says. “Are you seeing or hearing anything?”

“No. Jus’ sick,” Karkat mumbles. “Gonna puke.”

“Yeah, presentiments are like that,” Feferi says sympathetically. “You should see poor Sollux, he gets migraines. His visions are pretty accurate! He’s Doom though, so that isn’t too surprising.”

Cold spreads out from her hand, and the waves of nausea fade out. Karkat still doesn’t feel like he can move though. He wants to ask “what’s wrong with my dad?” and “how did you know it was my dad?” at the same time. All he can actually say is, “Dad?”

“You’re worried about your dad, right?” Feferi asks. “I could sense ‘he’s right to be worried’ when I touched you.”

“Didn’t see,” Karkat says.

“It might not be a strong ability for you,” Feferi says. “Have you had sudden nausea attacks like this before?”

Karkat almost says no, but… “Got sick before coming here. On the way. Couple times. Thought it was stomach flu.”

“Any time before that?”

“Don’ know.”

“Well, let’s get you to bed. Do you think you can get up?” Feferi asks. Karkat tries, but Feferi has to support him. She ends up carrying him upstairs to her room (as easily as if he were a doll), and setting him on the bed.

“Why your room?”

“It’s a sign of favor and regard,” Feferi says. “And protection.”

Priests…didn’t want me here,” Karkat says, remembering the arguing he’d heard the very first time he’d awakened.

“They wanted you in the temple, going through the purification rites which would be kind of stupid since they wouldn’t have meant anything to you. Mindfulness is actually important,” Feferi says. “You’re not a table lamp or something.”

“Huh?” Karkat asks, blinking in confusion.

“You can consecrate or bless an inanimate object,” Feferi says. “You can perform a purification rite on an animal. A person should understand what’s going on. The idea is a little radical to some of the older priests,” Feferi says, making a face.

“You wanted to. Explain. About Tavros,” Karkat says.

“Yeah. You were told, right? Tavros is okay. Kind of disappointed about not being an Initiate, but okay.”

Karkat nods. There are a lot of questions in his head, but the one he comes up with is, “what’s a sending?”

“After everything I’ve said about why you should stay, I don’t want to worry you,” Feferi says after a moment of hesitation. “But not telling you would be a mistake. A sending is something sent…as a message. Or to attack.”

“Why me?” Karkat asks.

“I’m not sure,” Feferi says, still hesitant. “I know why I thought it might be a sending, but I’m not sure how much you need to know yet, because again, I don’t want to worry you.”

“Pretty sure m’already worried,” Karkat says.

“It has to do with politics, and my half-sister,” Feferi says. “And my not having reached my majority yet.” She might have said more, but her cell phone rang. “I need to answer this. You should probably try to sleep. Busy day tomorrow!” With that, she got on the phone and left the room, closing the door behind her. He can hear her saying “Okay, what’s going on?” as she heads downstairs.

Karkat flops back onto the bed, across the width, legs hanging over the edge. He thinks about what Feferi said.

“We can’t let you leave, because it would anger the Gods. Specifically, it would make them angry with us. This would be bad.”

“Even if you left, the attention of the Gods would still be on you. That might be dangerous for any ordinary human you came in contact with. You need to learn how to appease Them.”

“Your Blood powers are awakening. Not learning your power will leave you vulnerable, not just to other forces including the Gods, but also to occultists.”

Karkat, remembering comments from Sollux about “occultists” asked questions.

“Most of what we know about them is from the craters they tend to leave behind when they make a mistake.”

“Some of them have some kind of innate talent, but they aren’t like us. They’re weaker in some ways and don’t have our resistance to alien forces. And they are eventually driven mad by those forces and attempting to use our lore.”

“We try to avoid them, but we’ve fought with various occultist groups in the past.”

Karkat dreams he’s sitting on the stoop of a cabin in the woods. There’s crows in the trees who are acting like crows. The sun is shining between the branches of the trees. He thinks it might be early in the morning. It’s cool and it might be spring. He can hear the sound of a stream somewhere off to his left, but can’t see it.

It’s nice.

The guy from before, appears at his elbow, hands him a cup of coffee. (The cup keeps changing, various captions sliding across a surface that keeps changing color. The guy is always blond, and his eyes are always hidden behind pointed shades.) Karkat takes it, and sips. “Thanks.”

The guy smiles the faintest of smiles and sits next to him. “You’re welcome. You should be more careful about what you accept from strangers--or strange powers though.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Karkat says. “After I recover from being a frog or whatever this coffee is going to do to me.”

The guy laughs. “It won’t, just future reference.”

“Should I believe complete strangers who say that the coffee they offer me won’t turn me into a frog after being told to be more careful about being offered things from strangers?”

“Yes. Definitely,” the guy says. “I am very trustworthy…and I’m not a stranger.” The guy tilts his glasses so that Karkat can see his eyes. They’re a bright yellow-orange.

“You’re Heart.” Heart is a weird thing for an eldritch abomination to be called, he thinks. On the other hand, “Heart” was also the Destroyer of Souls. Karkat guessed he could call himself whatever he wanted.

“That’s me,” the guy says with a flicker of a smile. “When you’re done with that, let’s go for a walk.”

“Okay,” Karkat says.

There’s a skip, and they’re walking down a narrow path side by side. The forest is a dark tangle of tree and brush on either side of the trail. There’s birds calling, and an insectile buzzing that is probably cicadas. Every so often, he sees a squirrel, or one of the crows. Karkat notices little things like Heart is maybe a little shorter than he is. That he looks like he’s about Karkat’s age, and his appearance doesn’t change or do weird things like the others. (This is almost creepier than the way the others couldn’t quite manage a human appearance. He had the sense that Heart was trying very hard to appear human, for his benefit, and he wasn’t quite sure why, or what this was about.)

“I’m more focused,” Heart says in answer to the question Karkat hadn’t asked. One of the crows made a rude noise. Heart glances up at the crow, and it hastily leaves the branch. “I try to be precise, because my Aspect is very messy.”

Karkat remembers the sharp intellect that had so carefully vivisected his thoughts and shivers with a sudden chill. That had been this guy, who seemed so normal. (But there was nothing about this that was normal. There was nothing about him that was normal. Nothing at all.) “Precise,” Karkat echoes. He stops walking.

“Yeah,” Heart says. “That wouldn’t have been fun for you.” Heart has stopped as well, facing Karkat. “Was I the worst?”

(Karkat also hears the question as a statement, “I was the worst.”)

“I wasn’t able to talk for days,” Karkat says. “Karen’s been pretty much upfront about telling me that I might have gotten my brain completely fried. So it could have been worse I guess?”

“You would have our esteem even if you were a drooling idiot!” A voice declares from behind Karkat.

Karkat turns and sees a tall, gangly boy who looks like he stepped off the stage of a production of Newsies; Shirt, slacks, vest, flat cap. His eyes are green, but a darker shade than Space’s when She tries to look human. There’s some kind of light behind Him that moves and shifts. The light is vaguely wing-shaped. This is “Hope.” (Again with a name you would not expect of an eldritch horror.) Heart makes a series of exasperated noises that are words, but Karkat can’t understand.

“Nonsense, my dear Heart,” the boy says cheerfully. “Surely he takes my meaning!” He comes up and claps Karkat on the shoulder. It’s painful, as if the boy doesn’t know his own strength. Karkat winces and tries to move away, but gets reeled into a side hug. “Don’t you, fellow?”

“Yeah, sure,” Karkat says. “You like me, and you’re kind of ableist.”

Hope gives him a baffled look. Heart snorts, trying not to laugh, and says something.

Hope looks as if he has an “aha!” moment and says, “Even if you were mongoloid?”

“Now you’re ableist and racist,” Karkat says.

Heart starts laughing helplessly, clutching his middle. Heart also sighs in exasperation, standing with his arms crossed as he glares at Hope. Heart also says, “Hope is about nostalgia--a belief that the past is somehow better than the present--as much as he is about actual ‘hope.’ As a result…” Heart waves a hand at Hope.

(All of the Hearts are doing this in the same space at the same time. Looking at it makes Karkat’s eyes water and head pound.)

“I say, that’s hardly fair!” Hope protests.

“I’m being extremely fair, and not airing dirty laundry,” Heart says (the Heart that had sighed in exasperation).

“Well, you’ve quite gone to pieces, and poor Karkat’s gone quite green about the gills.”

“M’fine,” Karkat says, leaning hard against Hope without thinking about it. Hope supports him, and the thought is almost funny; because he’s supported by Hope.

“You need to wake up,” Heart says. He’s kneeling by Karkat (when had he lain down?) on the ground and both Heart and Hope are keeping him up in a mostly seated position. “Dammit, I had plans,” Heart says, or Karkat thinks he says.

“Pretty much too soon for this kind of thing anyway,” Time says. (Where had he come from?) “I mean, not that it’s not perfectly set up or anything, but you gotta go slow with these things. Bring them in gently.” He has crow wings and a crow head, and his eyes are like clock gears turning. Tick. Tick. Tick.

“Shut up,” Heart says. He kisses Karkat on the forehead, and before Karkat can ask any questions he--

--wakes up.

He’s lying the right way around on the bed, and the clock says 12:00 p.m. Feferi is sitting by the bed, looking concerned. “What?” “You were traveling,” Feferi says. “Not something you should be trying, though I don’t think you were doing it intentionally.” She pauses. “Were you?”

“Since I have no idea of what you’re talking about, let’s go with ‘no,’” Karkat says.

“You wouldn’t wake up. We’re a few hours late to head over to your house,” Feferi said. “I told your dad we’d be there at ten.”

“You talked to my dad?” Karkat asks. “What did you tell him?”

“Not very much,” Feferi said. “There are some things that really shouldn’t be said over the phone. And ‘you’re probably distantly related to an ancient cult that worships the eldritch gods of a dead human cousin species, and your son is Their chosen bridegroom’ is probably at least two of those things.”

Skip. Stutter. Start. “Bridegroom?”

“Yes? They made their intentions pretty clear? All over my bedroom,” She says with a frown.

“They--shit--what the fuck…”

“I should be giving you the ‘it’s a great honor’ speech, but I think you actually need Gramma’s ‘your feelings are valid,’ speech,” Feferi says.

“What. The. Fuck?! They go from deciding whether or not to kill me to wanting to marry me? What the fucking hell?!” Weeks of stress and confusion come out in a rush of words, some of them not exactly coherent. He can’t stop, he can’t stop himself.

Feferi waits him out. “Whatever They saw when They judged you, They liked,” she says when he’s calmed down.

“Is it because I’m ‘Blood’ or whatever?” Karkat asks. “They seemed really, really happy about that.” He takes a breath. “Is that why the priests wanted to take me into custody or whatever?”

“Blood is important, the Beloved and the Witch Child were both Blood! But you aren’t the only ‘bride’ or ‘bridegroom!’ There’s always a few, every generation. You’re just the first Outsider. Well, technical Outsider, since you’re Blood.” She pauses a moment to think about it. “I’m pretty sure the rest of the priesthood doesn’t know yet. They just know you’re favored. They mostly wanted to study you because you’re an Outsider, and Blood, I think.”

“Do I have any choice in this? Are eldritch spawn going to be bursting out of my eye sockets?”

“Ew. That’s really blasphemous, don’t say things like that,” Feferi says. “It’s a spiritual bond--”

“That involves tentacle sex.”

“It doesn’t involve eldritch spawn!”

“But does involve tentacle sex.”

“Stop saying tentacle sex!”

“You’re supposed to be seeing if Karkat is feeling well, and asking if he wants something to eat, Feferi,” Karen says from the doorway. “Not shouting about tentacle sex.”

“Augh!” Feferi grabs a pillow and screams into it.

Karkat wonders how long Karen had been standing there. “I could eat. Also, I think I’m underage to be married to tentacle gods.” Karen blinks. “At this stage I would hope it’s only dating tentacle gods.”

“I’m not sure I want that either,” Karkat says.

“Stop saying tentacle gods,” Feferi moans. “Stop saying tentacle anything.” Her voice is slightly muffled by the pillow. “Great- Gram never had to put up with stuff like this…”

“Sweetheart, she had to put up with an Outsider feminist psychology major hippy being engaged her precious son,” Karen points out. “So she had to put up with something. Me telling her she’s wrong about everything, for instance. Go get Karkat something to eat.”

Grumbling, Feferi tosses the pillow back on the bed, and leaves the bedroom. Karen watches her go with a look that is both amused and worried, and then turns to face Karkat. “Are you okay?”

Karkat shrugs. “I guess so? I had a weird dream, and apparently couldn’t be woken up, but I guess I’m okay?”

“You’ve learned some things that are pretty upsetting,” Karen says. “And certain abilities are apparently making themselves known, from what Feferi has said.”

“Yeah,” Karkat says. “Did you um…know?”

“Only from Feferi,” Karen says.

“It was um…not something I want to talk about. I wasn’t sure if it was real, or just me going crazy.”

“You don’t have to talk about it, if you don’t want to,” Karen says.

After a shower and some lunch, Karen drives him and Feferi to his house. There are two other cars besides his dad’s parked in the driveway and on the curb. Karen parks on the opposite side of the street.

Walking up to the house feels weird. He doesn’t have his keys (no one had been able to find them afterward) so he has to knock. Vriska answers the door. “Hello, Ms. Foster, Peixes, Vantas,” she says, and lets them in. “Mom and Ms. Pyrope are talking to Vantas senior in the kitchen. Well, getting talked at.”

Karkat can hear his dad holding forth on false imprisonment, kidnapping and (attempted) brainwashing. Ms. Pyrope is apologizing and explaining that it had been necessary and that the “High Priestess” would be arriving soon to explain everything. Dad continues to be outraged, and occasionally Ms. Serket says something waspish, but is apparently ignored by Dad and Ms. Pyrope. He heads into the kitchen immediately. “Dad!”

Dad almost knocks the chair over as he jumps up and wraps Karkat in a fierce hug. “Karkat, are you all right?”

“I’m okay, dad,” Karkat says, hugging back as hard as he can. He can feel dad tense as Karen and Feferi enter the room.

“Are you this ‘High Priestess’?” His dad asks Karen in a belligerent tone.

“No, that would be my granddaughter, Feferi,” Karen says. Feferi waves, looking weirdly embarrassed.

“Feferi?” Dad asks, sounding surprised. (Karkat remembers that Feferi is in his class.)

“Hi Mr. Vantas,” Feferi says. “I can explain what’s going on, but it’s a really long story, do you think we could sit down?”

Chapter Text

Dad, frowning, sits down and Feferi sends everyone out of the kitchen, except for Karkat. Karkat sits down next to his dad. (Karkat can see his dad Noticing the way Ms. Serket and Ms. Pyrope and Vriska just make a saluting kind of gesture and leave. The way Karen pats Feferi’s shoulder, but also obeys immediately. The way that Feferi briefly seems imposing and commanding, then once everyone is gone, she goes back to looking weirdly embarrassed.) A few minutes go by, with Feferi looking nervous and fidgeting with her hands. “Okay, so.” Feferi pauses. “This is so much crossing the streams,” she mutters.

“Take your time, Ms. Peixes,” Dad says in his Teacher Voice. “Crossing the streams?”

“I--there’s a difference between High Priestess Feferi and Student Feferi--I mean I can act like a queen bee, and that doesn’t change whether I’m Priestess or Student but…” Feferi trails off, and takes a deep breath. “I don’t know how much Adept Pyrope and Priestess Serket have explained so far,” she says. “But a majority of the citizens of this town belong to an ethnic and religious minority dedicated to ancient and primordial powers. We are significantly altered from baseline humanity, in order to better serve these powers and we have been in hiding in small groups for thousands of years. In the early 1800s or some time before, efforts were made by several small groups in Europe to combine forces and move to the New World. Alba was eventually founded,” Feferi says. She goes on to talk about town history, culture, Aspects, abilities. Relations between townspeople related to the “ethnic and religious group” and “Outsiders.” Dad asks questions, requests clarifications, just like he was listening to a student presentation.

“Okay so that leads to current events,” Feferi says after maybe two hours of explanations and answering Dad’s questions. “Mr. Joel Morgan didn’t dissuade you from using the crow woods camping site. This led to Karkat interfering in the initiation of a priest. Karkat somehow made it past the perimeter, and we weren’t aware of your presence until we caught Karkat. The punishment for interfering in a rite is direct judgment of the Gods, which usually results in death for Outsiders. When it doesn’t, the criminal is usually…euthanized anyway due to severe brain damage or insanity.”

“Ms. Pyrope and Ms. Serket explained some of that, after the ‘veil’ was removed,” Dad says darkly. “I’m not sure how much to believe about ‘gods’ but you kidnapped my son, and were going to kill him.” Dad’s voice turns strange, distant and somehow hollow. (Karkat for a moment sees streams of magma cooling slowly, thin black skin and molten beneath.) “And you’re going to explain how your illegal activities are absolutely necessary to your religion.

Karkat finds himself scrambling out of his seat, backed against a counter. A dark red (how does it have a color?) rage is radiating from Dad. At the same time Feferi makes a little pained noise, suddenly hunching with one arm around her middle, one hand lifted and suddenly glowing bright fuchsia. Something flows around her hand, something coming from Dad. “It was!” she shouts. “We’re the only ones who can do the rites! If they’re interfered with, terrible things happen, if they’re stopped, terrible things happen. We’ve been hiding for thousands of years, and most of our defense methods involve killing people or severely altering their memories because when we’re found, people try to kill us!”

Dad sort of…collapses inward, the rage pulling back somehow. “You’re…telling the truth. How do I know you’re telling the truth?”

“Truth detection is a function of being a Seer,” Feferi says after taking a deep breath. “You’re Blood, so what you’re sensing is heredity, filial bonds and social pacts, the connections between a group, both kinship and social. You knew you were being lied to, and your latent powers began to resist the veiling and alteration spells. The spells made you confused and angry and you might have severely injured yourself due to backlash and overload in breaking them.”

“I felt…what just happened? I think I…hurt you.”

“Not too much, you’re not really trained,” Feferi says. “You were angry about Karkat so you struck instinctively at the one responsible.”

Dad shakes his head, a slowly growing horror on his face. “You’re just a kid, how could you be responsible? If I were going to ‘strike’ anyone, it should have been an adult.”

“It was instinct, Mr. Vantas. What happened offended your sense of fairness and that made you angry. Your mind was tampered with and that made you angrier. I’m not ‘responsible’ to you intellectually since I’m a minor, but you were angry, and I am responsible according to your ability to see and understand connections between people, so you lashed out. With training, that won’t happen unless you intend to strike.”

“Magic,” Dad says. “These ‘Aspects.’ I have neo pagan friends and I respected their beliefs because their ‘magic’ seemed more like self-affirmations than anything else. They would joke about that, in fact. This however…” Dad trails off.

“You and Karkat are both Blood,” Feferi says. “It was latent, you might never have become aware of it, never used it consciously, but it’s active now, for you both. Karkat was judged for his interference and pardoned. He had some damage, but we knew immediately it wasn’t nearly as bad as it would have been if he were an Outsider.”

“What kind of damage--Karkat?” Dad asks, horrified, he turns to Karkat. He briefly looks puzzled and a little confused, like he hadn’t noticed Karkat had absconded from his seat.

“I--couldn’t talk,” Karkat says. “It was just noise coming out, but I could understand words and write,” Karkat says. “Still pretty hard to talk.”

“The Gods aren’t easy to understand, even if you’re an ‘insider,’” Feferi says. “There is something about them, trying to comprehend them that can be damaging. Then there’s the Curse the Gods put on the First Cities, which also causes damage.”

“What are ‘The First Cities’?” Dad asks.

“There was…okay. A few generations ago, we called them a subspecies of human, but Gramma thinks ‘subspecies’ has a connotation of inferiority, so I call them a ‘cousin species.’ They created a civilization, though we aren’t sure where. There was a great Adept, a Teacher and Philosopher we know as the Beloved. He came into conflict with the greatest of queens, and there was a religious war that turned into a civil war. The Beloved was slain by the great queen, which did nothing to stop the war and enraged the Gods. They destroyed the cities and cursed the survivors, the ruins and all their knowledge so that anyone learning of them or seeing the cities would be driven mad.”

“And you’re a descendant of these people?” Dad asks.

“Only indirectly,” Feferi says. “The survivors were immortal but barren. They tried to find a way to pass on the knowledge and rites, which they still needed to do in order to placate and appease the Gods. They tried…many things and were finally granted success in the form of the Witch Child, who was a ‘modern’ human who was able to learn and perform the rites. Through her, the last of the survivors were granted redemption and rest--”

“That actually means she killed them,” Karkat says. “It was kind of suicide by cop, but she killed them.”

Feferi gives Karkat a surprised look. “How? Never mind, that’s a stupid question. Yes she killed them, but it was redemption and rest. They weren’t being allowed to die, and they still had to keep the rites no matter how twisted their undying, unhealing bodies became.”

“With full knowledge of being culturally insensitive, your Gods sound cruel,” Dad comments.

“They really, really are,” Feferi says with a sigh. “They can also be kind, or compassionate or merciful. What they are mostly is alien and we don’t understand why or how they do anything, but we have ways of…engaging with them. We’ve kept the rites for centuries, so that the Gods remain content with us. Things…happen when They are unhappy. We can communicate with and learn from them, though sometimes it’s impossible to tell if they’re giving us important vital knowledge, or going ‘look at the funny monkey, isn’t she cute?’”

“I see,” Dad says. “I’m not sure I entirely understand the situation, and I am extremely angry about this situation, but I’m willing to continue listening. What I want to know is what happens next? You’ve explained a great deal of what’s going on, and I’ve learned a great deal from my…exchange of views with Ms. Serket and Ms. Pyrope, but they were quite insistent that you were the one who would decide what happens.”

“First, you’re not under house arrest anymore,” Feferi says. “The priests were mostly operating as if you were an Outsider, even though they knew you were only an ‘Outsider’ because you’re literally from outside. You weren’t raised as one of us; your family apparently never even knew the rites, or about Aspects?”

Dad shakes his head. “Nothing of what I’ve learned so far sounds familiar.”

“It would be wonderful to find Others,” Feferi says. “Even if they don’t know the rites, and they’ve lost knowledge of the Aspects.” She pauses. “Second, please don’t leave town. It won’t be safe for you or for Karkat, or anyone you come in contact with, at least until you understand your powers and how to placate the Gods.”

“So in a sense, we’re still under arrest,” Dad says in a hard tone.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Vantas,” Feferi says. “Um. The school board will probably want to keep you as a teacher though?”

Dad snorts. “Yes, that improves the situation immensely.”

“Third, would you mind telling us about your family? We really would like to find Others. We’ve never been able to confirm that other groups survived and the Gods are…not really helpful in that regard.”

“I’ll consider doing that,” Dad says. “I’m not sure if anything I remembered about my parents would be helpful though.”

“Anything would be helpful,” Feferi says. “Fourth. Um. You have no context for this…” she trails off for a moment, then her shoulders square and her chin lifts in determination. She is trying very hard to look dignified and important. “The Gods look upon your son with special favor, Adept Vantas, They have chosen to pay him court and wed him, Their cherished bridegroom.” Dad’s brows lift, and then lower in a scowl. “What?”

“I’m the Bride of the tentacle gods,” Karkat says. It’s kind of hard to resist. Feferi turns bright red. “A Hentai virgin sacrifice, where the sacrifice is tentacles in various orifices. Part of a tentacle god harem because they’re apparently poly.” He’s proud he’s able to say most of that without slurring too badly.

Feferi shouts something incomprehensible, and stomps out of the kitchen.

“What?” Dad asks again, as if he can’t believe what he just heard.

“It’s apparently a thing that happens,” Karkat says. “When they were ‘judging’ me they apparently also decided they like-liked me?” Dad frowns more, looking concerned, and also angry, more angry than he’d looked before, and he had been pretty much low-key angry the entire time. “You’ve encountered these ‘gods’?”

“Yeah. Pretty directly,” Karkat says. He feels his face heat up. “They’re real, whatever they are. They haven’t hurt me.”

“Brain damage isn’t hurting?” Dad asks. He gets up in a clatter from the chair, catches Karkat by the arms, and pulls him into a hug. “Jesus fucking Christ kid.”

“Swearing jar?” Karkat asks, his voice muffled.

“That one’s a freebie,” Dad asks, sounding choked. “What the hell, what the fucking hell?”

“I’m okay,” Karkat says. “I’m okay Dad.”

“I was so worried, when I realized something was going on,” Dad says. “They wouldn’t tell me anything, and…And I really should be trying harder to be the supportive person instead of the needing support person. Though how the hell…”

Dad out of Teacher Mode was kind of hilarious sometimes. “Swearing jar Dad,” Karkat says. “You only got one freebie.” Karkat kind of…pushes Dad in the direction of the swearing jar on top of the refrigerator. Dad makes a choked almost laugh and pulls free, dutifully taking his wallet out and counting out money to put in the swearing jar.

“I should put in extra,” Dad says.

“Probably,” Karkat says. “These people are Fruitloops batshit crazy. And I’ll put money in the swear jar when I have money, and I know I’m being ableist. I don’t care. Fruitloops batshit crazy.”

“Ableist, and bigoted about the religious practices of others,” Ms. Pyrope says, popping back into the kitchen. She looks like she’s trying for cheerful, but not quite getting there. She seems almost shy and apologetic and reminds Karkat way too much of Terezi. “Not that anyone would blame you. This would probably be on the top of a top ten list of terrible ways to find out about cults of unspeakable horror worshippers.”

“Using Self-deprecating humor in an attempt to defuse anger, Ms. Pyrope?” Dad asks.

“Yeah, is it working?” Ms. Pyrope asks in a mock-hopeful voice.

“Not really,” Dad says. “But I’ll pretend otherwise.”

Ms. Pyrope sighs, and kind of…deflates. “Okay. There’s still some things we need to talk about. Kind of debriefing you about some things.”

“What kind of things?” Dad asks.

“Politics, mostly,” Ms. Pyrope says. “You should know, because you were kind of thrown into it.”

Chapter Text

Karkat follows Dad and Ms. Pyrope into the living room. Dad settles onto the dilapidated sofa he’d bought second hand when they’d first moved here, and Karkat sits beside him. Karen and Feferi are in the mismatched armchairs that had been brought from Chicago. Ms. Serket is standing by the front door, and Ms. Pyrope goes to stand in front of the entertainment center. Her hands are held at chest level in an odd, prayer like pose. Hands clasped, two fingers folded down, and two held together, pointing up. “I ask the High Priestess’ permission to relay the findings of my investigation to unaffiliated citizens of this town.”

“Permission granted, Adept,” Feferi says.

Ms. Pyrope bows, and gives her report. A lot of what she says, Karkat already knew, or guessed. A lot more of what she says, he hadn’t known anything about at all. He and his dad had been set up so that one or both of them would accidentally “contaminate” the initiation ritual, which in turn would discredit the High Priestess. “Joel Morgan was influenced, but can’t name the person who enspelled him,” Ms. Pyrope says. “Neither I nor Priestess Serket were able to trace the spell or identify the caster.”

“We have suspects,” Ms. Serket (Priestess Serket?) says.

“We have completely different sets of suspects,” Ms. Pyrope murmurs. “Not everything can be laid at the Megido family’s door.”

“Except for the part where they’ve hated the Peixes for generations,” Serket shoots back.

“I get along very well with Aradia,” Feferi says. “And her great grandmother was always very kind to me.”

“That was when you were Feferi Foster,” Scoffs Serket. “You’re Peixes, now.”

“And perhaps I will be Foster again, if being Peixes means I must assume my Great Grandmother’s feuds,” Feferi says coldly. “Who are your suspects, Adept?”

“That’s more complicated, High Priestess,” she glances between Dad and Feferi. “Feferi’s half-sister abdicated when Feferi was thirteen. Meenah--”

“The rapper?” Dad asks with a frown.

“You really are related to Meenah?” Karkat asks at the same time. “I thought it was just some weird version of ‘no really I’m related to Elvis.’”

“Yes, Meenah-the-rapper,” Feferi says, giving Karkat an offended look. “Yes, she’s really my half-sister. She abdicated a year after she graduated from high school. It was kind of a horrible big deal and Meenah’s mom had to live with us for a while, and Breath laughed Himself sick in everyone’s heads for weeks.”

“Huldra couldn’t decide whether to blame me, or blame Lucille,” Karen says with a sigh. “She eventually decided to ask Feferi to become her heiress, and Feferi said yes.”

“And you had no say about this?” Dad asks with a frown.

“I had plenty to say about it,” Karen says. “But it was Feferi’s decision.”

“To become the heiress of a religious cult,” Dad says.

“I didn’t want Great-Gran to send anyone after Meenah,” Feferi says. “She would have, and it would have been bad, and people would have gotten hurt because Meenah is really, really powerful. But people still want her to come back and be High Priestess, even though she’d burn the whole town down first.”

“Something to be avoided, but there’s a faction that thinks this is some power move by Adept Foster to put her faction in power, and Feferi on the throne,” Ms. Pyrope says. “And that Meenah was driven away, instead of leaving a letter quite clearly stating her reasons for leaving.”

“I don’t have a faction, by the way,” Karen says dryly. “I wouldn’t know what to do with one. But win a few arguments against her imperious condescension, and suddenly you’re a big wheel in this town.”

“As a faithful member of the not a faction, I’m hurt that our leader doesn’t think we’re a faction,” Ms. Pyrope says. “The faction that supports Feferi is also suspect because Adept Foster is considered a contaminating influence. They want to control Feferi, and make her be a ‘proper’ High Priestess.”

“But Ms. Serket thinks these…‘Megidos’ are involved?” Dad asks.

“While we couldn’t identify who cast the spell that veiled Joel Morgan, it looked a lot like the Demoness’ work,” Ms. Serket said.

“Labrys Megido called off the feud. Why would she attack the granddaughter of the woman who healed her stricken mind?”

“Please don’t make therapy sound like magic, Latula,” Karen says. “I didn’t ‘heal her stricken mind’ I listened to her and helped her find better ways to deal with her mental illness.”

“I think you don’t realize how magical that actually is, Adept,” Ms. Pyrope says with a grin.

“Do you have any evidence beside the design of the spell, Priestess?” Feferi asks.

“Nothing concrete,” Ms. Serket says. “But I’m sure I can find something.”

“Aranea ‘Cotton Mather’ Serket, folks,” Ms. Pyrope mutters. Ms. Serket glares.

It almost turns into a fight, but Feferi says something sharply that makes both women straighten up and murmur apologies. (They still glare at each other though.) Dad asks a lot of questions, but doesn’t get nearly as many answers back as he wants. Eventually the conversation winds down with Dad agreeing to stay in town. He also agrees for both of them to be tutored in the use of their “powers.” There’s a promise from Ms. Pyrope that she’ll keep Dad updated, Feferi says that she’ll call about the tutoring and then the cultists leave.

Dad collapses into the nearest armchair once the cultists are gone. He sits leaning back in the chair, with the heels of his hands pressed against his eyes for several moments. His hands eventually drop down to the arms of the chair, and he relaxes a little. “Can you tell me what happened, while you were…gone?” He asks.

“They didn’t do anything,” Karkat says immediately, wanting to reassure him.

“I think the opposite of that is true,” Dad says. “Do you want to not talk about it?”

“Can I not talk about it?” Karkat asks, voice cracking a little. “They left me in a cave overnight to get my brains metaphorically eaten by psychic kaiju, and it’s been non-stop weird ever since. Karen’s pretty okay? She seemed sorry that I was neck deep in weird, anyway. Sollux brought me homework and assignments, so I didn’t miss much.”

Dad frowns. “Sollux is one of these ‘cultists’?” he asks.

“Yeah. He wasn’t at the initiation thing though,” Karkat says. “He was helping his dad with some kind of database project.”

“I see,” Dad says. He’s silent for a moment, looking like he’s trying to find a way to ask something, but not quite being able to wrap his head around the words he’s looking for. “These ‘Gods,’” he says, and then trails off. “I’m not sure I want to be the father-in-law of psychic kaiju who metaphorically ate my son’s brains.” It’s an attempt at humor. Kind of.

“Braaaaaaaaaaaaaiiiinns!”

The sudden voice and a dark, swooping shape passing by makes both Karkat and his Dad jump. (Dad swears in surprise.) The crow flutters to the entertainment center, claws skidding on the surface. Its eyes are bright red points of light. “Braaaaaaaaaaaaaaains!” It shouts again, and struts along the edge, investigating the stereo.

“How the heck did it get in here?” Dad asks. He warily gets to his feet, one hand lifted, as if he wants to try shooing it off the entertainment center.

“Brains,” the crow comments, poking at a speaker.

“It showed up when I was at Karen’s house,” Karkat says. “I think it’s Time? Or his pet or something? It stole my chips.”

“Time,” Dad says. “Stole your chips.”

“Chips!” The crow pecks at the stereo, turning it on. Dad’s classic rock station is on. “Groovy.”

“It got into the house a couple times. Karen just chased it back out,” Karkat says. “I guess it followed us.”

“Karkat,” the crow says, and then squawks at Dad, who goes through with his attempt to shoo the bird off the entertainment center. It flaps its wings and pecks at Dad’s hand. Dad draws his hand back quickly. “Karkat!”

The crow flaps from the entertainment center to the back of the couch. It hops quickly to Karkat, landing on his shoulder, wings flapping for balance. Karkat freezes, not really liking how close the crows very sharp beak is near his face. It caws, and it’s tone is weirdly smug. It’s eyes are still red, but they aren’t glowing any more. “I--I think it wants to stay with me,” Karkat says.

“Apparently,” Dad says with an uneasy expression. “Do the other ‘Gods’ have animal mascots?” he asks.

“Space likes dogs,” Karkat says. “Heart is horses, and for some reason sea birds. Void and Light both have cats, but Light also has giant squid and octopus. Breath is rabbits, but it’s okay to shoot them? Shooting crows is bad luck though. I think Hope might be dogs too, I don’t know if Life has an animal mascot.”

“Should I expect more animal visitors?” Dad asks.

“I don’t think so,” Karkat says. “It’s just been crows so far.”

Dad’s brows lift. “Crows, plural.”

“Yeah,” Karkat says. “This one and a couple murders worth of other crows; they were kind of hanging out around Karen’s house.’” He shifts uncomfortably. There is nothing he can say that is going to make any of this sound okay. None of this is okay, and he knows they both know it. He swallows, feeling a little queasy suddenly. “They haven’t hurt me, well except for--” Karkat points to his head--“And it wasn’t actually on purpose? I’m really, really freaked out about this, but also not? Which might be a thing they’re doing to me, because psychic kaiju.”

Dad looks really disturbed at that, starting at the crow. “Kiddo,” he says, and stops.

Jesus fuck, Karkat hears suddenly. How can I protect my kid from this? What am I going to do? Dad’s voice, angry and frightened, but inside his head. I should never have accepted the job offer. I thought the change of scenery would be good after Maureen--

--the thoughts go wordless, just fear and despair. Karkat can feel something build up in his Dad. The same “something” Dad had thrown at Feferi.

Instead of being driven away by the feeling like last time, Karkat is drawn toward it. He gets up so quickly he dislodges the crow--it flaps off with a squawk--and launches himself at his Dad. “No!” He shouts, wrapping his arms around his Dad’s waist. A feeling of burning goes right through him, a line of molten pain that exits through the soles of his feet. Karkat screams in pain, but doesn’t let go as his shoes and the carpet burst into flame.

The fire goes out almost immediately, and the smoke alarms go off. Dad has the presence of mind to push Karkat to the couch, and pull off his shoes and what’s left of Karkat’s socks. The panicked look on Dad’s face turns to puzzlement as he examines Karkat’s feet. “This looks like a bad sunburn,” he says with blank surprise. “I was expecting…something worse.”

“I’m okay,” Karkat says, voice strained. “Are you okay?” He can still sense his Dad’s fear/guilt/anger, but there’s no force behind it, no buildup of pressure.

“You’re the one that set the carpet on fire,” Dad says. “Shit. I set you on fire. What the hell?”

“A Blood thing,” Karkat says, because he knows, without knowing why he knows. “I tried to make the fireball thing not happen? I think.” Because it would have been a fire ball thing, and Dad didn’t know how to make it stop. (Karkat doesn’t know how he knew to make it stop, or how he stopped it.)

“Holy shit, kiddo,” Dad says, looking (feeling) horrified and guilty. He pushes an ottoman over to the couch. “Put your feet up,” he says, and quickly moves around the house, opening windows and waving a towel at the smoke alarms to clear the air and shut them off. He comes back with ibuprofen, a glass of water and sunburn treatment spray.

Karkat takes the pills, and Dad sprays Karkat’s feet. Then Dad’s cell phone goes off, and Dad tries to juggle both the phone and the spray bottle. “Hello? Feferi? No we’re fine--” Dad talks to Feferi, who apparently had a ‘presentiment’ and called to see if they were okay. Dad doesn’t go into too much detail, but he sketches out what happened, and asks questions. (“Why the hell am I suddenly Charlie McGee? Why are Blood powers apparently fire-related?”) After more talking, Dad puts the phone on speaker and Feferi gives them a quick, detailed lesson on How Not To Blow Up, and gets their emails and Skype ids, promising to send more information.

“Sick burns,” the crow comments once Dad ends the call. They both jump, having temporarily forgotten the crow, which is back up on the entertainment center.

Karkat flips the crow off.

Dad eventually shoos the crow out of the house, and Karkat spends the rest of the day on the couch with his feet up. (Though there’s a brief interlude where Dad makes him go to his room to change into his pajamas.) Dad orders pizza for dinner, and they watch movies. Karkat eventually falls asleep on the couch, and is prodded awake at midnight, and helped to his bedroom. Even with his feet feeling like they are still on fire, it’s an incredible relief to be in his own room again. He collapses on the bed, and Dad actually tucks him in, something he hadn’t done in a really, really long time. Karkat goes along with it, too tired to complain even jokingly about it. “G’night Dad,” he says.

Dad smiles. “Good night,” he says, and quietly leaves the room.

Karkat drifts off for maybe an hour to two, and comes awake with the realization that he’s not alone in the room. There is someone sitting backward on his desk chair, arms resting on the back of the chair. There’s just enough light in the bedroom to pick out blond hair and a pair of shades. A boy his own age, but who is not actually a boy or his age. (He looks almost normal, but there’s a faint reddish light behind the shades, and he’s surrounded by a faint, pulsing distortion.) Time lifts a hand, wiggling his fingers in a wave. “Hey.”

“Hey,” Karkat says warily. “How long were you sitting there?”

Time shrugs. “Since your dad left. How’s your feet?”

“Painful.”

“I could fix that for you,” Time offers.

“Sure, why not,” Karkat says, and by the time he finishes saying it, his feet have stopped hurting. The feeling of sudden relief is amazing, and a little surreal. “Thanks.”

“No problem,” Time says, and is somehow sitting on the edge of Karkat’s bed. “So about the matrimonial revelation causing severe heart palpitation--meaning your bloodpump not Bro’s designation or His doki doki situation--and the reverse of celebration due to tentacle infestation for the duration--put your fears to rest of kaiju devastation or butthole squid babies--that’s not how We get down with Our gentles and ladies.”

“I am reassured, I am totally reassured,” Karkat says. “And you’re an amazing poet.”

“Don’t I know it,” Time says. He lies down next to Karkat on the bed, and Karkat finds himself making room automatically. “You have questions, go ahead and ask them.”

“Where do I even start?” Karkat asks. “Why me?”

“We like you,” Time says. “So We’re pitching woo.”

“Are you going to keep rhyming? I lied when I said you were an amazing poet.”

“If you kiss me, I won’t rhyme,” Time says.

Karkat had the definite sense that eyebrows were being waggled at him. “Somehow that’s creepier than when you were just feeling me up,” he mutters. “Stop it.”

Time makes an amused sound at him, and leans in to kiss him almost chastely on the cheek. “We like your soul,” Time says. “It’s shiny? And you’re brave and the turning of your mind calls to Us. Your span in time and space dances between the folds of Our Aspects.”

“I didn’t understand any of that, but okay,” Karkat says.

“Our spouses interact? Harmonize? With Us. You have qualities that We want to interact with.” There was more eyebrow wiggling going on, even though Karkat couldn’t see it. He could sense it. “In bed and other places.”

Karkat--just barely--doesn’t give in to the urge to punch the God. “And I get no say in this?”

“We miss you, would miss you, you were never gone and We never knew you. We waited for you and you were always there waiting for Us,” Time says in an deeply intent tone of voice. “We found you, and you were never lost, Our wedding is inevitable and has never occurred. The paradox wraps right back around in a loop shaped like a Moebius Strip, and We will pursue you until you pursue Us.”

“Still not understanding a thing you said,” Karkat says uneasily. His head spins with the contradictions and the intensity of Times voice. You have qualities We want to interact with. He shivers. We will pursue you until you pursue Us. “I-I bet you say that to all the girls,” he says, voice shaking.

“It’s always true,” Time says. He leans in to kiss Karkat on the lips this time. The gentle pressure makes Karkat’s heart speed up out of proportion to the contact. Another kiss, sliding just along his jaw. Karkat’s head tilts back without even thinking about it, baring his throat to more kisses.

Time covers him, leg between Karkat’s thighs, knee pressing against his dick. Karkat moans and arches, hands reaching up to grip Time’s sides. He isn’t quite sure of what to do this his hands. Not sure what to do about the heat radiating from his groin. He is filled with wanting, and he finds himself kissing back, hands tentatively wandering over Time’s body.

They kiss and touch like that for several minutes, and Karkat is embarrassed by the needy sound that escapes him when Time pulls away. “We can do more, later,” Time murmurs. “If you want to.”

Karkat’s face heats up. “I--” he doesn’t know what to say. “You’re going?”

“I can stay,” Time says and kisses him on the mouth before curling up around him.

Chapter Text

There’s something heavy lying on top of him. A large white something that has crowded him to one side of the bed, it’s huge head resting on his chest. Karkat blinks blearily at the white shape, which turns out to be a very large white Husky-looking dog, snoring little doggy snores.

“Wha’thefuck?” He slurs, and automatically tries to shift the dog off of him. It’s not very effective, though his movements succeed in waking the dog up. She lifts Her head and Her jaws gape in a doggy smile as Her tail happily thumps against his leg. Her eyes are a very bright green. “Space.” It wasn’t just a pet, or whatever the crow was, this was actually an eldritch being–-

–-pretending to be a very large white Husky. There was more tail-wagging, and then Space sort of stretched Herself so that She could lick Karkat’s face. Karkat sputtered, and immediately reached out to shove Space’s head away. Space whines, and jumps off the bed. There’s a shimmer of green light, and She is through the closed door. (She leaves behind a sort of shiny dampness that glows bright green before fading.)

Karkat scrambles out of bed after Her. She’s not in the hallway, or on the stair. Karkat hears a yelp of surprise in the kitchen, and the sound of a box of cereal hitting the floor, followed by a very loud, “what the heck?!” And, “no, that is not your cereal, shoo!”

When he reaches the kitchen he finds Space attempting to investigate the spilled cereal, and ignoring Dad’s attempts to keep her away. “Space no,” Karkat says. A little amazed at his nerve, he blocks Space, kneeling down beside Her and looping an arm around Her neck to hold Her back from the cereal. “That’s Coco Puffs–-yeah I don’t care, you’re in a sort of dog shape so no chocolate,” Karkat says when She protests. (It’s a flicker of I-want in his head, no words, not really.)

“Karkat, you said there wouldn’t be any other animal visitors,” Dad says a little warily as he picks up the box of cereal and sets it on the counter.

“Technically, not actually a dog,” Karkat says. “She’s just acting like one.”

“You mean this is one of these ‘Gods’?” Dad asks, giving the large white dog a skeptical look. He bends to gather the scattered puffs in a paper towel. The puffs go skittering across the floor, forming a spiral pattern before flying into the air, and landing in the garbage can. “What the–-” the look he gives the dog is now a lot more wary.

Space lets it be known that cheese and bacon are suitable offerings. She doesn’t speak; it’s just something that occurs to Karkat. He’s halfway to the refrigerator without even thinking about it. “We have American and some cheddar cubes-–cheddar cubes it is.” He grabs the bag of cheese cubes. “We don’t have bacon, you want Brown n’ Serve sausages instead?”

Space is perfectly willing to accept the substitution, even though sausages are not Her favorite. Karkat gets the package of sausages out, and sets the cheese and the sausages on the counter. After some rummaging around he comes up with a plate for the sausages-–Space wants the entire package of ten–-which he sticks in the microwave.

Dad is looking between the God-dog and Karkat with a frown on his face.

“What?” Karkat asks.

“Nothing.” Dad shakes his head slightly. “This is just really strange. Is she–-talking to you?”

“Not really? She’s just thinking about cheese and bacon-–except we’re out of bacon, so She’s settling for sausages. I think She could talk if She wanted to, but She doesn’t want to, so.”

“Also, I noticed that you weren’t limping,” Dad says. “Did she-–heal you?”

Karkat feels his face heat up. “No, that was Time. He fixed my feet and we um. Talked.”

“‘Talked,’” Dad says. Karkat can definitely hear the quotes in his voice.

“He was trying to explain why They picked me,” Karkat says. “It was weird and involved creepy yet very dorky rhyming.” It had also involved kissing, which Karkat had no intention of mentioning to his Dad. Ever.

I really don’t like this and I have no fucking clue of what to do about it, Karkat hears his Dad thinking. Dad shakes his head and says out loud, “do you want cereal?”

“Sure,” Karkat says as the microwave dings. Karkat dumps-–then carefully arranges because Space insists that they be in a specific pattern-–the sausages onto a second plate along with a couple handfuls of the cheese cubes that join the pattern on the plate. Then he sets the plate on the floor for Space. The goddess-dog nibbles carefully at the offering, Her tail wagging.

“This is really weird,” Dad says.

“I know,” Karkat says with a sigh. He eats cereal, then washes out the bowl, and sets it in the drainer.

Space’s plate, now licked clean goes floating in the air, and lands in the sink with a click. She wags Her tail, waiting expectantly. Karkat washes Her plate too. Once the plate is in the drainer, She heads off toward the living room, letting it be known that She is going to fix the scorch mark in the carpet, and then take a nap on the couch. After Her nap, She and Karkat will be going for a walk.

“Who will be walking who?” Karkat and Dad accidentally chorus.

The morning does not stop being weird. Dad and Karkat go into the office to check Dad’s email. Feferi had sent the information she said she would in pdf. files that apparently needed to be printed out, and then deleted. “If they can’t be stored on a computer, how did she have them?” Dad mutters. “Do we even have enough paper?”

“Her computer is apparently more secure than ours. We need to have either the Zahhaks or the Captors upgrade our computers,” Karkat says. “Space told me,” he says when Dad gives him a questioning look. “Also, we’ll have enough paper.”

“I am not going to ask if she’s awake now,” Dad says as he selects print on the first of the files. “It’s clear that she is, in some sense. And communicating with you somehow.”

Karkat shrugs. “Giant space kaiju, Dad. A part of Her is asleep on the couch, the rest is…where ever.”

“Giant space kaiju,” Dad says. “Have you seen what she…what they really look like?”

“Mostly, They’re really big,” Karkat says. “Really, really big, and I mostly didn’t understand what I was looking at, this is apparently a Thing with Them. It was all weird shapes and eyes and wings and concepts.”

“And tentacles?” Dad asks with a slight smile. “Though mentioning tentacles seemed to upset Feferi.”

“I’m pretty sure that’s because she can’t stand the Cthulhu Mythos,” Karkat says. “Because there’s paintings in the temple where the Gods are these weird shapes with tentacles. Also, she has octopus and squid plushies on her dresser and octopuses on the mural in her bedroom.”

“I see,” Dad says. It’s very much a placeholder for all the questions he desperately wants to ask, but is afraid to. Karkat can hear the questions seething and bubbling in his Dad’s brain, none of them coming to the surface into coherency. (Karkat does not want to think about hearing about what his Dad’s thinking. Hearing his Dad worrying for him and wanting answers, and being afraid to ask them because they might “traumatize” his son further makes him feel kind of sick to his stomach.)

There is definitely enough paper for six (Dad made two copies for each of the files) inch-thick stacks of paper. There is plenty of paper left over. Dad is very suspicious about this, and so is Karkat. They do not ask questions about it. Each of the stacks need to be hole-punched and placed in black binders that are mysteriously located on Dad’s “thing” shelf where they hadn’t been before. Dad frowns at the already labeled black binders. “The hell?”

“She didn’t poof them into existence,” Karkat says. “She poofed them from temple office supplies, which she thinks isn’t actually stealing. She did poof the paper, because it was quicker that way.”

The three original documents are a town history, something like a magic text book, and a book of mythology. Dad deletes the original files and empties the trash, and they both get to work on hole-punching the copies and putting them in binders. “I do not feel comfortable about these books, or giving you copies,” Dad says when they’re done. He’s looking through the town history. “There’s something about them that makes me very uneasy.”

“Well they were written by cultists worshipping ancient eldritch powers,” Karkat says.

“That isn’t even at the top of the list of the reasons why they make me uneasy, Karkat,” Dad says. He’s flipping through the town history. “On the other hand, understanding these people is extremely important.”

“And you won’t ban a book?”

Dad looks up and smiles slightly. “I won’t ban a book. Just. Be careful.”

Karkat has a feeling Dad isn’t just talking about the books. “I’ll be careful.” He takes his copies of the books to his room, and sets them on his desk. They somehow manage to be both extremely intimidating and completely innocuous.

Kind of like Space, who is sitting in the doorway of the bedroom, Her head slightly tilted. She is thinking enthusiastic thoughts about running alongside his bike, and playing Frisbee in Northfield Park. If he thinks about how he knows this, it’s pretty disturbing. He is trying very hard not to think about it. “Okay, let me get my shoes on.” If She wants to pretend to be a dog, he doesn’t see how he could stop Her. (It’s not much different for Her than if She pretended to be a human, which is possibly not a very happy thought to have.)

Space thought it was a dumb thought to have. Dogs were great animals. They were companion wolves whether tiny purse dogs, the mighty guardians of flocks and herds, or gentle assistants of the disabled. They were brave and loyal friends. Being a dog is because She likes being a dog, not a commentary on the relative states of their (a concept Karkat just isn’t getting and finally settles on existence/development as being the closest). Dogs were completely admirable animals in all possible ways.

“Okay, okay I get it, dogs are great, I should be honored and humbled to be in the presence of a companion wolf, or in this case, an eldritch being from stranger dimensions in a fursuit,” Karkat says as he finds his shoes and shoves his feet in them.

Space makes a noise that sounds more like a exasperate “hmf!” than a bark, and pads downstairs.

Riding the bike to the park turns out to be pretty fun. Space runs alongside the bike, completely delighted at being able to run, and Karkat catches some of Her mood. It’s a bright sunny day, with a nice breeze and a few puffy clouds. She’s happy to be out and about in her favorite form, with him. He’s happy to be out riding his bike on a beautiful day like today. (Then he wonders if She’s affecting his mood somehow, and gets the first actual words he’s heard from Space all morning: “Maybe I am, maybe I’m affecting the actual weather, maybe you’re just in a good mood because you’re outdoors finally, we just don’t know!”)

They get to the park and Space dances around him while he chains the bike up. “I hate to mention this, but leash laws?”

Space is suddenly wearing a collar, harness and a trailing leash that he has to try to grab while she plays keep-away. The game lasts about five minutes and ends with the leash wrapped around his ankles, and him flat on his back in a clover patch. Space is lying across his legs, panting happily. “I’m glad you’re enjoying yourself,” Karkat says sourly, but the corners of his mouth keep trying to tilt up.

He sits up and gets himself untangled from leash and Goddess-dog. They walk around the park, and Karkat gets constant information about the things Space is smelling and hearing. They encounter other dog walkers and joggers, and it seems like she wants him to meet all of them. Contrary to the wisdom that animals will fear terrifying eldritch forces, dogs apparently love Space as much as Space loves dogs. It’s the owners who are slightly freaking out. The other dog walkers apparently see Space as much, much larger and more wolfish than he’s seeing Her. Meanwhile, the dogs are all trying to say hello and play with Her. Karkat finds himself saying “It’s okay, She’s perfectly friendly,” and things like that. (The look of horror is slightly different if the walker turns out to be a cultist than if the person is not in the cult.)

After a while, Space tugs him off of the trail and up toward one of the picnic tables. He sees two people, Kanaya, who he knows vaguely from school, and an old man with a walking cane. Kanaya is setting food on the table, which has been spread with a tablecloth with a red and pink rose pattern on it. “Adept Siris, please sit down, your hip,” Kanaya is saying.

“My hip my hip, I haven’t heard so much about hip since the Fifties, my hip is fine, there’s no reason I can’t help-–”

“You’re also legally blind, sir,” Kanaya says, and then she spots Karkat. “Karkat! It’s good to see–” Anything else she might have said is interrupted by Space, who immediately slips free of the harness and pounces on her.

“Adept Osiris Captor,” the old man says, walking carefully around the table and the rolling bundle of skirts and fur. He’s stooped and lean, and has thick glasses. He’s wearing jeans, a plaid shirt and suspenders, a straw hat, and is walking with a cane with what looks like a black glass ball as a handrest. One of his eyes is a weird pale blue, and the other is hazel. He holds his hand out for a shake, and Karkat automatically takes it. The old man has a firm, brief grip. “You’re friends with my twice great grandson, Sollux.”

“Karkat Vantas,” Karkat says. “Yes sir.” He has no idea of what’s going on.

“Have a seat; you’re the guest of honor.” Osiris gestures for Karkat to take a seat, and glances at Kanaya and Space. “I haven’t been able to do that in decades,” he says wistfully. “Enjoy it while you can, sweetheart,” he says to the protesting–but laughing– Kanaya.

He sits down at the table, which has a pan of fried chicken, potato salad, pasta salad, corn on the cob, and small cooler filled with cans of soda.“So you’re. Um.”

The old man smiles. “Spouses? Yes. Kanaya was chosen just last year. I was chosen when I was a little older than you.”

“It’s the custom for the oldest of the Spouses and the next most recently chosen to greet a new Bride or Bridegroom,” Kanaya says, slightly breathless from where she’s lying on the ground, attempting to keep Space from licking off her now smudged make up.

Osiris calls Space away. “Here Love, she’s mussed enough.” Space trots over to Osiris, and nudges him over to a picnic bench. He sits down slowly, and Space promptly puts Her head in his lap with a doggish sigh.

“How many Spouses are there?” Karkat asks.

“About ten of us, just now,” Osiris says. “A Bride who should be here, and isn’t. Six others besides her, you, me and Kanaya.”

“You’ll meet the others eventually,” Kanaya says, standing, and attempting to straighten her clothes, and brush off the dirt. “We’ll try to have a get together in the near future.”

“That might still be a little intimidating, considering, sweetheart,” Osiris says. “The kid’s been on a roller coaster ride, and he was raised an Outsider.”

“It’d be okay,” Karkat says. “I’d um. Have to ask my Dad though.”

“Family’s usually invited, kid,” Osiris says. “Especially since the Invention of the Teenager. It’ll be a cookout or something. Probably at Devlin’s ranch–he has one of those organic local raised meat businesses, where you buy a share and pick up a month’s supply. He’ll give you a discount probably if your Dad’s into ‘sustainability.’”

“Okay.” It was weird being “chosen.” It was weird knowing he wasn’t going to be the only one. It’s even weirder to meet other spouses, and one of them is his friend’s great grandpa (great great grandpa?) and the other actually goes to his school and is a Junior. He manages not to make any Mormon child marriage jokes because that would be tasteless and Space would probably bite him. (Or maybe tell his Dad, which would be worse than being bitten.)

“We’re here to answer questions kid,” Osiris says. “And apparently to make up for your shocking lack of a Frisbee.”

“I have an unbelievable number of questions,” Karkat says.

“Food first, okay?” Space says. She’s currently standing in a human shape, except for Her ears, which are pointy, white and doglike. Her hair is black, and just about hip length. She’s barefoot, wearing a black halter top with a light green skirt, and glasses that make Her unnaturally bright green eyes seem twice the size they should be. “Kanaya’s mom makes the best fried chicken. Then questions. Then Frisbee.”

Chapter Text

Karkat has a lot to think about on the way home. Finally being able to go home, (not being able to get away from the weirdness). Weird cult politics backed by history and feuds Karkat knew nothing about, that he and his Dad have been dragged into. Unspeakable horrors living outside of time and space who apparently want to marry him. (Sympathetic possible future co-Spouses welcoming him to the happy polyamorous fold.) Questions were answered, but they led to more questions that weren’t.

Space runs beside the bicycle and lets him think. She let the Spouses do most of the talking, content to rest Her head on Osiris’ shoulder while he and Kanaya answered questions. Eventually, She had retreated to Her dog form, and Karkat and Kanaya had played keep away and tag while Osiris played cheerleader. After the games, there was some more talking, Osiris and Kanaya teaching him remedial magic. (Osiris offered to be Karkat and Dad’s main magical teacher and Karkat found himself agreeing to talk to his dad about it.)

It’s early evening when he heads home. The ride home is uneventful except for glimpses of the crow, coasting from tree to tree. (He isn’t sure if the crow is watching him, guarding him, or just hanging out.) When he gets home and puts up his bike Space flickers into Her girl-shape with dog ears. “I had fun,” She says, Her attitude strangely shy. “Did you?”

Karkat doesn’t have to think about what to say. “Yeah, I did.”

She smiles, and it’s a little too wide, a little too pointy, but at the same time endearing. She swoops in and kisses him on the cheek. “Good! I’m glad!” She backs away, and vanishes in a flicker of bright green.

Dad is making dinner when Karkat gets inside. Dinner is barley lentil soup; mom’s recipe. “Hey kid,” Dad says. “You were out for a little longer than expected. I called your phone.”

“It turned out to be a picnic date and meet the brother-sister spouses,” Karkat says. He takes out his phone and sees that yes, Dad called and left a message. “Sorry I didn’t think to call.”

Dad is equal parts worried and curious. “Picnic date, huh?” He asks questions about the date, about what Karkat learned from Kanaya and Osiris. He doesn’t get any less worried, but the near-panic Karkat had been picking up seems lessened. “Ms. Pyrope has also offered to help with instruction,” Dad says when Karkat mentions Osiris offer. “I’d be willing to talk to him. Give me a minute to get my phone out.”

“Okay,” Karkat says. He gives Dad Osiris’ phone number.

Dad talks about his day, talks about getting back to school and asks Karkat if he’s ready to get back to school. Karkat doesn’t know how to answer the question. If he goes back to school, it’s going to be weird, he’s going to stick out even more than he had been already. The cult kids are going to know about him, and act accordingly. The “Outsider” kids are going to know something is up with him, and will act accordingly. He says as much to Dad.

“It’s only a few more weeks until school lets out,” Dad says. “It’s up to you if you want to finish out the year or keep being sent school work.”

“I don’t know,” Karkat says. “I need to think about it. I need to know how people are going to act around me.”

“Maybe give it a day or two, and then decide?” Dad suggests.

Karkat shrugs. “I guess we could try that,” he says.

They talk over dinner (Karkat isn’t really hungry, but he has half a bowl of the soup), Dad talking about things he’s learned from skimming the binders, about the crow which apparently made a few attempts at getting inside. (Dad: “At one point I could have sworn I was having an actual argument with it. A very limited in vocabulary argument, but an argument nonetheless; crows are intelligent but I don’t think they’re that intelligent.” Karkat: “That one probably is though.”) They talk about the possibility of “magic lessons,” and make lame, nervous jokes about whose houses they’d be sorted into if they were at Hogwarts. They talk about Sollux coming over to make whatever modifications necessary to the computer. (Dad: “I mostly spoke to his father, who mentioned that the cult apparently has its own instant messenger, which is apparently also going to be installed. It’s called ‘Pesterchum.’”)

The talk continues after dinner, with Karkat talking about things he learned while at Karen’s house, and Dad asks questions. Karkat can hear the worry going on in his Dad’s head. He doesn’t mention it. He wonders if Dad can see what’s going on in his head. If Dad can, he doesn’t mention it either. They end up watching a movie, and eventually go to bed.

Karkat dreams restless dreams about school, which for some reason is happening at the cave-temple. He goes to classes in vast chambers lit with lanterns, and sits at weird, elaborately carved desks that are inlaid with strange symbols in gold that are warm to the touch. History, Math, English and then he goes to lunch where Nepeta, who he’s only spoken to a couple times, is trying to get him to audition for the part of Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons. He would apparently be purrfect for the part because it was in his Blood.

“And they both lose their head,” a boy in blue with dark hair and an overbite says cheerfully. His eyes are a brilliant blue behind His glasses. “Hi Karkat!”

“Are we talking literal losing of heads here?” Karkat asks warily. “Or perfectly legitimate if figurative going ballistic losing of heads?”

“A little from column A, a little from column B?” the boy suggests. “But mostly in a historical sense. Blood has a temper and strong feelings about right and wrong.”

“And Breath talks in riddles?” Karkat asks. “Because I have no idea of what you’re talking about.”

“Actually I’m pretty plain,” Breath says solemnly. “I like to watch the clouds gather rain.”

“That sounds…weirdly familiar,” Karkat says.

Breath grins, wide and sharp. “You asked a lot of questions today.”

“Is that a problem?” Karkat asks.

“No, no, questions are good. But there are questions you didn’t ask,” Breath says.

“And you’re going to fill me in?” This was not at all likely; Karkat knew that much from previous conversations. (What he could remember of them; they had been surreal and about 90% bullshit.)

“Nope!” Breath says cheerfully. “I’m sending you on a quest, instead!”

“A quest,” Karkat says flatly. “Any rings you want thrown into volcanoes? Blue omnipotent rocks to be found?”

“Nah,” Breath says. “This is easy: talk a dragon out of her cave, and learn the answer to the question you didn’t ask.”

“Well, that makes about as much sense as anything else you’ve said,” Karkat says. Then he takes a quick step backward because Breath is very much in his personal space bubble, breathing his air. He’s surprised and not very surprised at all when Breath pulls him in and kisses him on the mouth. Karkat freezes for a moment, then relaxes, returns the kiss.

It’s different than kissing Time (of course it’s different). Time had been contained, barely. He had wanted to explain, give Karkat at least the appearance of some room, the option to explore. Breath for lack of a better word bubbles. He’s happy and pleased with Himself and isn’t really holding back. Karkat gets this impression of wind, the world from high up; a spinning, dropping sensation that feels more real than the sensation of being kissed (which he’s also dreaming). He should be frightened, he should be very frightened, but what he gets is this sharp high line of pleasure that runs through him and shatters the dream into bits and leaves him gasping and staring blankly up at the ceiling.

“Shit,” he says, and blinks. “Holy fucking shit stubs. And there’s a wet spot. Jesus.”

He’s almost afraid to look, but it’s the pretty normal result of a wet dream, not weird ichor or wet squidgy frog eggs or anything. (In the back of his head there’s laughing that Karkat chooses to ignore.) He needs to take a shower, and maybe wash--or possibly burn--his sheets and pajamas. It’s about five a.m. which is about when Dad usually gets up. Right on time, he can hear Dad’s alarm go off.

The morning is very awkward. He doesn’t want to talk about it. He doesn’t want to think about it. He really, really doesn’t want to share. Dad knows there’s something up, but he doesn’t pry. (This is a relief.) Breakfast is quiet and Dad goes to work. Karkat pokes at his school work and washes his laundry and pajamas. It’s an ordinary day, except for everything else being weird.

Dad texts him about noon:

Hey kiddo. You were kind of quiet this morning. You okay?

YEAH I’M OKAY. I UH. HAD A WEIRD NIGHT.

If there’s anything you need to talk about, you know you can come to me, right?

Karkat stares at the screen for a moment. His face heats up. He really, really hopes that that’s just a general offer, and not because Dad heard anything last night. I KNOW, he types back.

Just wanted to remind you. Have you thought about coming back for the last couple of weeks of school?

He hadn’t really, but: I THINK I WILL. EVEN IF IT’S WEIRD IT WILL FEEL MORE NORMAL THAN JUST BEING AROUND THE HOUSE INSTEAD OF IN CLASS.

Mr. Captor and his son will be coming over this afternoon after school to make the upgrades to the computer and install “pesterchum.”

We’ll order pizza.

OKAY.

Sollux and his Dad Mituna arrive at the house at the same time Dad does. Mituna Captor is tall and dark, with black curly hair and a weird, twisting scar with branches like lightning that covers most of his face and neck. He’s dressed in jeans and a t-shirt for a local band. His eyes are the same hazel-and-pale blue that Osiris and Sollux’s are.

(Dad wants to know about the scar. And maybe stares a little too much because Mituna says, “I am totally Harry Potter.” Dad apologizes, a little embarrassed, and Mituna laughs at him.)

Sollux and Mituna take apart Dad’s computer and Karkat’s laptop and start making updates to the computers. Some of the updates look perfectly normal others…not so much. (Little bees made of circuitry and wire, an ordinary piece of wood with lettering in what looked like gold nail polish, other, weirder things.) Dad asks questions, and then asks questions about the answers he receives.

“You’re running Windblows?” Mituna says when he boots up Dad’s computer. “You should let me put my custom o/s on it, it’s fucking awesome.”

“I’m fine with Windows, Mr. Captor,” Dad says.

“No but seriously, you could do so much better,” Mituna says. “And you totally suck at pronouncing ‘Mituna,’ man.” He grins. Dad hesitantly returns the grin with a smile of his own. “Mituna,” Dad says.

“Awesome. So anyway, about my o/s--”

Dad and Mituna argue back and forth about the o/s. It’s good humored, and the conversation wanders to Dad asking questions about Mituna, his family, what he does for a living, those kinds of questions. Mituna does IT work for the town government, manages a database project for the Temple that Sollux helps with. “When he isn’t planning the robot uprising with that Zahhak kid.”

“I’ll totally be rewarded by our future robot overlords for my programming skills,” Sollux says as he installs PesterChum on Karkat’s laptop. “I will raise citadels of forbidden knowledge in cyberspace.”

[cephalopodCantor (CC) is pestering carcinoGeneticist (CG)]

CC: hey

CC: hey kid

CC: you on yet?

CG: NEW PHONE WHO DIS?

CC: Pfft

CC: Meenah Peixes

CC: Fef’s big sister

CG: THE RAPPER

CC: Yeah the rapper.

CC: So I hear from my kid sister that there’s Blood in town and she don’t mean the gang.

CC: Though that would be kinda hilariously awful. Z Grade horror movie awful. I would watch the fuck out of it.

CC: Anyway I heard you got introduced to shitty Temple politics, and then whoops you’re Blood and the Gods like-like you.

CC: And I said, “I gotta meet this motherfucker.”

CG: WELL, CONSIDER ME MET THEN.

CG: WOULD YOU LIKE MY AUTOGRAPH? CAN I GET YOURS? MAYBE WE CAN DO AN AUTOGRAPH EXCHANGE.

CC: Heh. I’d totally do that kid, if I thought you were serious. Which I think maybe not.

CC: You got handed a shit deal, and it’s kinda my fault.

CC: Well okay, pretty much actually is my fault.

CC: Because politics.

CC: So I kinda feel obliged to check up on you.

CG: THAT’S NICE OF YOU I GUESS?

CG: I’M SURE SOMETHING WEIRD WOULD HAVE HAPPENED ANYWAY IF THE GODS LIKE- LIKED ME AND YOU WERE THE HIGH PRIESTESS OR WHATEVER INSTEAD.

CC: …

CC: Something weird yeah, but less with the almost dying because fucked up bullshit

CC: Christ.

CG: CAN I ASK A QUESTION?

CC: Shoot

CC: You can ask all the questions

CC: I can be your Eldritch Horrorpedia

CG: IF YOU LEFT BECAUSE OF FUCKED UP BULLSHIT. WHY’D YOU LEAVE YOUR KID SISTER?

CC: Shit.

CC: Blood don’t pull punches does it

CG: SORRY.

CC: Nah it’s good

CC: Okay look

CC: Some bitch angling for my and Fef’s Dad convinced my Mom to run away from home when she got pregnant with me.

CC: Mom lived with me Outside til I was like eight and someone from town caught up with her and convinced her to come home.

CC: So for me, it’s fucked up bullshit that I mostly don’t give a fuck about except when I have to.

CC: It ain’t fucked up to her, even though Gramma Foster gave her a whole lot of Outside ideas

CC: Great-Gran preferred me for a lot of dumb reasons, but I was just waiting for my majority to get the fuck out

CC: Which I did

CC: Feferi knew what I was planning before anyone else did and was mad as hell about it

CC: Because she had her own thing she wanted, but she was okay with me going even though I was leaving a mess behind

CG: SHE SAID YOU’D BURN THE TOWN DOWN IF YOU CAME BACK

CC: Hell yes

CC: Those motherfuckers need to come out into the light of day

CC: And stop hiding shit under bushel baskets

CG: WHAT ABOUT THE WHOLE CURSE THING?

CC: Freedom of religion is a thing that actually exists, so fuck the curse

CG: BUT THE CURSE LITERALLY DRIVES PEOPLE CRAZY?

CC: Lots of things literally drive people crazy

CC: Wouldn’t believe the number of folks thinking they’re talking to the Virgin Mary

CC: Or think they are the Virgin Mary

CC: …

CC: Don’t tell Gramma Foster I said that

CC: I won’t ever hear the end of it

CC: Anyway, you want any help or advice, or questions answered, you can ask me.

CG: OTHER PEOPLE HAVE BEEN OFFERING TO HELP ANSWER QUESTIONS. OR TEACH.

CC: Yeah well, it’s a thing. I mean it’s more of thing with you since you’re kinda an Outsider. Who’s being offering?

CG: WHY DO YOU WANT TO KNOW?

CC: Cuz I can maybe help you find someone who is not gonna be a dumbass, that’s why.

CG: MR. CAPTOR SENIOR, MS. PYROPE, YOUR KID SISTER A LITTLE, YOUR GRAMMA.

CC: Si is Good People; the Captors are in general pretty cool. Latula is great and in charge of the restricted section at the library. Gramma Foster has that Outsider perspective thing.

CC: Fef’s cool, but please stop with the teasing cuz she’s been blowing up my phone.

CG: NO PROMISES.

CG: ANYONE I SHOULD AVOID?

CC: Good question

CC: I’m biased, but maybe the Megidos. You can probably get a better idea of the factions and who to avoid from Feferi.

CG: OKAY

CC: Cool. If you got any other questions, you can pester me anytime.

[cephalopodCantor (CC) is no longer pestering carcinoGeneticist (CG)!]

Chapter Text

Going back to school is weird, for exactly the reasons Karkat thought it would be weird. Instead of being slightly unpopular nobody in the high school class system, he’s now a notorious everyone-stare-at-him nobody. (This is a thing that has not happened since the never-to-be-mentioned Frog Incident in first grade.) Karkat survives the first two classes with only moderate “overhearing” of conversations he was definitely meant to hear. (“Karkat’s one of the witches?” in American History, quickly hushed up, followed by a debate over whether or not “warlock” was the correct term for a male witch. The debate is settled by the teacher, who says, “We prefer to call ourselves Believers.”)

It’s a little bit of a surprise that one of the teachers is in the cult, though it probably shouldn’t have been. Karkat brings it up to Sollux during lunch. “Yeah, a lot of the teachers are ‘believers,’” Sollux says.

“I’m trying to formulate a response that doesn’t sound like the punchline of a ‘funny you don’t look, Jewish’ joke. That is to say, Mr. Turton did not seem like a cultist until he said a thing about it,” Karkat says.

Sollux snorts. “Your dad lets you tell ethnic jokes? He almost literally tore Mike Watkins a new asshole for using the phrase ‘jew them down.’”

Karkat rolls his eyes. “The joke format literally makes fun of expectations of what a ‘Jew’ should look like. It’s an inverted ethnic joke because it makes fun of stereotypes and assumptions. That’s a paraphrase of what my dad’s friend Jean told me to say anyway.”

“And you didn’t mention she was Jewish, leading to the phrase ‘some of my best friends are Jewish and they think it’s okay,’” Sollux says with mocking admiration.

“Oh my god, shut up,” Karkat says.

Sollux snickers. “Nope, and watch the ‘my-godding,’ seriously.”

“Casual blasphemy a bad idea?” Karkat asks, feeling a little more cautious suddenly. (And self-conscious.)

“Yeeeeaaah,” Sollux drawls out. “You could say that.”

Karkat asks questions about the teachers, and which of them were “believers.” He also learns that Sollux’s grandmother was Jewish. (“Was she okay with--?” Karkat asks, waving his hands to indicate the town, the cult, all the weirdness. Grandma Della apparently was okay with it, though Great Grandma Corrinne on the maternal side was definitely not okay with it, and very outspoken about it, though it turns out she was not very clear on what “it” actually was. “Family reunions are still kind of tense, even though we get along with most of the relatives on that side,” Sollux explains.)

Karkat is one his way to Chemistry from lunch when he realizes he hasn’t seen Terezi all day. He usually sees her before school, and she’s in his Lit, American History and Chem classes. He hadn’t seen her before school, or in Lit, or in History, or at lunch. She is also not in her seat by the window. Pausing in the door way to take this in gets him pushed from behind as other students try to get around him. Hastily he heads for his seat.

He takes notes and listens to the lecture but he’s distracted by the girl in front of him, to the right. She’s a blonde with short hair held back by a black kitty-ear head band. She’s dressed in a short blue skirt, a blue ruffled blouse, blue fingerless gloves that go all the way to her elbows, blue and white checked stockings, and combat boots. She’s chewing bubble gum and blowing bubbles, but otherwise seems to be pretty fascinated by the chemistry lecture. She’s sitting leaned forward at her desk, tapping the surface with long indigo nails. Mr. Ross should be pretty disapproving of the bubblegum and probably also the skirt, but he hasn’t said a word all through the lecture.

No one else sees her, either, if the stray comment of “what is Vantas looking at?” is any indication. The comment makes the girl turn slightly, and Karkat flinches. The girl doesn’t have eyes, just something that looks at first like a pair of black holes, but are actually something like thin short black hairs grouped together in what might be an eye-shape if seen at a distance. In a dark room.

It’s not dark, and he can see the black hairs moving. Karkat feels hot all over suddenly, and there is a pressure at the back of his throat, like he might throw up. Karkat quickly looks away, and tries to breathe. Black Eyed Kid, he thinks frantic and slightly nonsensical, remembering a ghost story and his heart speeding up, even as he recognizes Void. Who wasn’t really the type to give him a jump scare; that was mostly a Breath thing, so what the hell?

(He gets a sense that this wasn’t Her intent at all.)

“He looks like he’s going to puke,” someone says.

“Karkat, are you all right?” Mr. Ross asks, coming over to Karkat’s desk.

“I’m okay,” he says. “I’m sorry,” this is more toward Void. He’s been unsettled before, but he’s never really gotten sick at how any of the Gods looked before. Disturbed plenty, but the black not-eyes had hit some unforeseen “nope” button, and now he’s trying not to throw up.

“It’s all right, Karkat,” Mr. Ross says. “Do you need to go to the nurse’s office?”

He stares blankly at Mr. Ross. “I--my stuff.”

“I can help him get to the nurse’s office, Mr. Ross,” Void says. The math teacher startles at the unexpected voice, but otherwise doesn’t react to Void’s appearance, which hasn’t changed as far as Karkat can see. (Or not see, he can’t quite look at Her.

“Thank you, Katie,” Mr. Ross says. It’s the name of a girl who was absent today.

The girl--Void--grabs his books, and Karkat manages to shuffle after Her, out of the classroom and down the hall. “Hey, should I change my optical configuration?” Void asks. “I didn’t think it would give you the screaming meemies?”

“There are no meemies, screaming or otherwise,” Karkat says. He leans against the wall, which is nice and cool. “You do you. It was just. Okay there’s this site that has various stories about ghost hauntings and hoaxes. And one of the stories is about black eyed teenagers who seem really invested in getting you to let them into your car or house or something. And um, maybe I was thinking of that?”

“That definitely doesn’t sound like screaming meemies,” Void says with mild sarcasm. “Nope.”

“Trying to be a gentleman here,” Karkat says defensively. He manages to swallow the fuck you. He looks up, and makes it as far as Her mouth, which is smiling at him. She has dimples.

“The cilia aren’t black now, want to look?” Void asks.

He steals a glance up, and the hairs--the cilia--are a bright pink now, and glowing, so he can’t really make out individual hairs. There’s movement still, but it isn’t quite as disturbing. “Okay that’s--” okay he’s not going to say that’s better. “Thank you,” he says.

She grins a bit wider. “You’re welcome! Let’s get you to the nurse’s office.”

She takes him by the hands and pulls him through a black hole into…not the nurse’s office. It’s not a room, really, just a bright shifting haze. “What the--?”

Life is a girl his age, wearing an old fashioned nurse’s uniform, with a little hat that barely controls Her short, wildly curly hair. Her eyes are a vivid blue from corner to corner, and red fractal shapes flicker beneath her skin. “Void,” She says crisply. “What are You doing?”

“Taking him to see the nurse,” Void says innocently. “Hellooooo, nurse!”

“You are ridiculous,” Life says. She sounds stern, but there’s a smile underneath it. “Come here, Karkat,” she says, and indicates an examination table that wasn’t there before. “Have a seat.”

Karkat obeys, a little nervously. “I’m okay, just a little queasy,” he says.

Life mm-hms, like She’s listening, but is paying attention to something else. She asks him questions and examines him. (He feels brief pressure against his skin, multiple contacts from things that don’t feel like hands or fingers.) He gets the sense that She’s also talking to Void. “If any of Us make you sick, tell Us immediately,” Life says.

“Not like We wouldn’t notice,” Void says.

“Hush,” Life says. Tell Us,” She repeats.

“Okay,” Karkat says. He wants to ask about the urgency in Her voice. Was getting sick something that happened a lot, with Spouses? He doesn’t ask.

“How do you feel now?” Life asks.

“Better,” Karkat says. “It kind of started fading once I was out of the classroom.”

One of Her hands touches his cheek. Her hand is cool, and he kind of wants to lean into it. “Let me take care of the rest,” She says, and waits.

It takes Karkat a minute to realize what She’s waiting for. “Sure, go ahead,” he says. There’s a blue glow, and the sick queasiness fades away. “Thank you, I feel a lot better,” he says. She starts to lower her hand, and impulsively, he grabs it. (His pulse racing a little fast.) She gives him a startled look, but doesn’t look upset so, go him. She also doesn’t pull away. He bends a little and kisses her knuckles, and lets her go.

She smiles at him. “You’re a sweet boy.”

“I’m not sweet,” Karkat says automatically. “I’m salty as f--a salty thing.” Somehow he felt really reluctant to swear at Her. He looks toward Void, whose eyes are still glowing and pink, with a shimmer of movement that he tried not to think of as something that should not be on a human face. “Is there a reason you were hanging out in my chemistry class?” he asks Void.

“I’m always hanging around,” Void says. “You just saw me that time.”

“Okay,” Karkat says. As I was going up the stair I saw a girl who wasn’t there! “I have no idea of how to feel about that.” It was kind of creepy, but it went with a name like ‘Void’ he supposed. He takes a breath. “I was wondering if there might be trouble and that’s why you were there.”

“Maybe a little? But mostly, I’m all over the place,” Void says.

“There’s danger, but you’re safe for now,” Life says. “Void wasn’t the only one watching.”

“You?” Karkat asks, and wonders about the other gods.

Life smiles. “The junior priests,” She says. “So in a way, also Us.” Life takes him by the hands and guides him off the table. “You should go wake up now,” she says briskly.

“I’m awake?” Karkat asks, confused. He’s suddenly lying in a bed, staring up at the ceiling. The light is dim and mostly coming from the window. The “nurse’s office” was split into two: a cubby where the desk and student prescriptions lived, and a small infirmary with four beds. He sat up slowly and squinted at the clock. He was missing Comp. “Urgh.”

“Karkat? How are you feeling?” Ms. Tyler asked from the cubby. There was the sound of a chair being pushed back, and the nurse entered the room. She was a dark skinned woman with a splash of freckles across her cheeks and startlingly blue eyes. (For a moment Karkat thought of Life.)

“I’m okay,” he says. “I’m missing Comp though.”

“What’s your next class?”

“Spanish,” Karkat says.

“Do you think you feel well enough to go to the next class, or do you want to go home?” Ms. Tyler asks.

“Dad’s in the middle of class,” Karkat says. “I don’t want him to have to come get me.”

Ms. Tyler gives him a faintly exasperated look. “That’s not the answer to the question I asked, hon,” she says.

“I think I can go to class,” Karkat says. “I just kind of don’t want to after having a fainting princess moment.”

“I wouldn’t call it that,” Ms. Tyler says with a slight smile. “What’s your class after Spanish?”

“I have Study Hall after Spanish,” Karkat says.

“I guess I could write you a pass for an early Study Hall,” Ms. Tyler says.

“That would be great, thanks,” Karkat says.

Armed with the pass, Karkat takes his things to the library, shows the pass to the librarian, and finds a quiet corner to sit. This is harder that it would seem, since there were at least twenty freshmen also having Study Hall. (Study Hall seemed to require a lot of talking and giggling.) Karkat spends a minute wishing he’d brought his iPod and headphones and started working on his homework.

About fifteen minutes into his Algebra homework there’s a whir of wings and the skidding of claws on the table. Karkat startles, and sees that a brown and white pigeon has landed on the table. There’s a little black tube tied to one of its legs. A carrier pigeon? Its beady reddish eyes stare at him with a weirdly expectant expression. “What the hell?” Karkat asks it. The pigeon of course has nothing to say in response to his query, though it does decide to perch on his textbook, and peck at his pencil. “Okay, okay,” he says, and figures out how to get the black tube off of the pigeon. (The pigeon is very patient with his fumbling.)

The note is written in brown marker:

tHANKS FOR YOUR CONCERN, tO SHOW THERE ARE NO HARD FEELINGS MY PESTERCHUM ID IS ADIOSTOREADOR --TN

“Huh,” Karkat says. He starts to scribble a note back, but the pigeon flies off. He has no idea of what he’d say to the kid. (Did Nitram expect him to apologize for thinking he needed to be rescued? Also, carrier pigeons: really?)

The rest of the afternoon is uneventful, except for the appearance of Feferi, who slips into a seat next to him. “Are you feeling betta?” She asks.

“Yeah, pretty much,” Karkat says. “I got kind of woozy in Chemistry.”

“A little bird told me something gave you the screaming meemies,” Feferi says. She’s perched on the edge of her chair with her elbows on the table and her chin cupped in her palms.

“Was it a pigeon?” Karkat asks, and flicks the message tube (sans message) toward her.

“A pigeon? Oh, Tav’s pigeons!” Feferi says. “No it was Angie, she told Aradia, who told me that you were staring off into space and then turned white as a sheet in Chem and almost fainted. Was it a presentiment?”

“No, just Uncanny Valley,” Karkat says.

“Void, then you traveled, and saw Life,” Feferi says, her eyes shifting as if she’s looking at something.

“Are you looking at my aura or something when you do that?” Karkat asks.

“Kind of,” Feferi says. “Aura is kind of New-Agey, though. I can show you how to look though!”

“Okay. First though, what you do mean when you say ‘traveled’?”

What Feferi meant was something that was kind of, but not really astral projection. (“We don’t really use the terms occultists or New Age types do, it’s a thing!”) It was traveling into the dimensions where the Gods (and other things) lived. It was apparently possible to do on your own, but the times it had happened, it had been because one of the Gods had taken him. (“So we don’t know yet if you have the ability or not.”)

Feferi tries to show him how to see what she’s seeing. It’s surprisingly easy to catch on. There’s a kind of shadow surrounding Feferi, though he isn’t sure where the light source is coming from or what it is. There are similar shadows surrounding most of the people he looks at, just slightly to the left or right, and lets his eyes unfocus. There is also a kind of glow. (Feferi is fuchsia but also bright blue. He’s a sort of rusty red, with traces of the bright blue that was Life's color, and a pinkish color that reminds him of Void’s “eyes” when She’d changed their color. There are other colors too, a bright orange, a blue darker than Life’s, a bright red, a darker purple-pink.) She explains what the glows and colors mean, and he ends up taking notes in his History notebook.

“How is finding out whoever set me and Dad up going?” Karkat asks at the end of the lesson.

“We have leads,” Feferi says. “Well, we already had leads, but now we have more. Adept Pyrope will have a report for you and your Dad pretty soon.”

Karkat nods. “Okay.”

Feferi continues the lesson, and talks about people she’s going to introduce him too.

“Why?” Karkat asks.

“Because you need to meet them, and they need to meet you?” Feferi says. “It’s part of…” she makes a hand opening gesture with both hands. “Being part of the community?”

“Being part of the cult,” Karkat says.

“Even if you aren’t part of the cult,” Feferi says. “You don’t have to join. You don’t even have to go to the Temple, but you have a connection, so you shouldn’t be…apart.”

“Si…Mr. Captor said there were things that only Spouses can do,” Karkat says.

Feferi nods. “There are certain rituals that can only be performed by a Spouse. There are certain blessings and mediations.”

“And I don’t need to go to the Temple to do them?”

“Nope! Not if you don’t want to,” Feferi says. “Well, my Great-Gran would have made you, or tried to, but I don’t think you have to. I asked for an indication about it and everything!”

“But I do have to learn these rituals?” Karkat asks.

“It would be really, really helpful if you did,” Feferi says.

Chapter Text

Karkat doesn’t see Terezi all week, but it isn’t until the Wednesday that he starts getting worried. He’s worried, but also reluctant to try calling or texting her. He thinks about Terezi and Eridan taking him up to the temple, Terezi spinning him around so that he can see the “forcefield.” He remembers how cold the temple had been, how okay she’d been about sacrificing him. At the same time he remembers joking around with her before class and at lunch. How she kept trying to get him to join her tabletop rpg group and playing computer games with her online, spending the night at her house.

(He thought they were friends, and he misses her. He wonders what it says about him that he misses her. That he isn’t nearly as angry and betrayed feeling as he thinks he probably should be. He wonders if it’s some kind of brain thing the Gods did.)

He talks to Sollux about it, but Sollux doesn’t really have any answers. “She hasn’t been to school since she left the Temple,” Sollux says.

“Have you talked to her or anything?” Karkat asks.

Sollux shakes his head. “She’s not answering her phone. I tried calling her mom, and Ms. Pyrope said TZ’s not feeling well.”

“Oh,” is all Karkat says, because he doesn’t know what to say. He’s relieved he hasn’t seen her, but he’s also worried that he hasn’t seen her. He doesn’t know what he’d say to her, he doesn’t know what she might say to him. He can’t even imagine the conversation. “I hope she gets better soon,” he says, even though it’s the lamest most meaningless thing he could possibly say.

“So do I,” Sollux says after a pause. “If--when--she comes back, are you going to be okay?”

“I don’t know,” Karkat admits. “I know you were friends with her for longer so…”

“I’ll still be your friend, and hang out and stuff, that is if you want me to,” Sollux says.

“Yeah, I still want to be your friend,” Karkat says.

“Cool,” Sollux says, and gives Karkat his piece of chocolate cake.

Wednesday night, Terezi’s mom comes over to talk about how the investigation is going. She talks leads and suspects and theories, and Dad asks for clarification, explanations. Karkat mostly listens, and he can occasionally “hear” his dad worrying about him, about the town and the cult.

There are a number of suspects, the Zahhaks, the Amporas, both “traditionalist” families who don’t like the “new ways” or Feferi’s grandmother. Another family, Nergal, seem to belong to the faction that thinks Feferi’s half-sister was driven away instead of leaving on her own. Akhalt Zahhak had been seen going to Morgan’s Outdoor Sports about an hour before Karkat and his dad arrived. So had Lilith Nergal. Neither of them was available for questioning, Akhalt having left on an extended camping trip with his friends, and Lilith being in ritual seclusion.

“And there’s no way to reach either of them?” Dad asks skeptically.

“If she’s in seclusion, Lilith can’t be questioned until she returns,” Ms. Pyrope says. “A message has been sent to Akhalt, telling him to return home. If he doesn’t return within a few days…we’ll have a clearer idea if he’s the culprit, or one of them.”

Dad gives Ms. Pyrope an intent look. “You don’t really think this Akhalt is a suspect. Or Lilith,” he says. “Is it because of what Ms. Serket said about the spell used on Mr. Morgan?”

Ms. Pyrope makes a sour face. “I don’t like agreeing with Serket about anything, but she’s right more or less about the spell looking like the Demoness’ work,” she says. “I don’t think the Megidos are involved. Do you sense anything?”

“I don’t know, Latula,” he says. “I don’t even really know what I’m seeing.”

“What are you seeing?” Ms. Pyrope asks.

Dad shakes his head. “Something’s broken,” he says. “Maybe several somethings. What happened? Were you always this divided?”

Ms. Pyrope smiles a little wryly. “Situation normal, all fouled up,” she says. “You’ll find out about some of it, as you go through the history. Our previous High Priestess not responding well to change is at least part of the problem.” The conversation shifts from there, to a discussion of how to identify someone’s spellwork, and Blood powers.

Feferi starts introducing Karkat to other kids involved with the cult. Most of the kids she introduces him to are junior priests, but there are also kids with other Aspects in the mix. They’re friendly and curious but not slightly creepy “join our church because we have a quota of souls to save” friendly. Karkat doesn’t quite relax, because even if they aren’t “conversion-creepy” they’re creepy in plenty of other ways, just the way they talk or act. He really wonders how he could have missed how different the believers are. How different the town is. (Had he really thought it was just some kind of small town thing?)

He had pretty much met kids with all of the Aspects except one, and he asks Feferi about it during one of her Study Hall visits. “So is Rage pretty rare?”

“It’s not common. There’s a few families where Rage tends to turn up,” Feferi says. “Makara, Turner, Keylon. No one from those families come to this school. The Turners and Keylons usually go to Union Tech.”

“Is this more ‘politics’?” Karkat asks. He gets a weird chill at the way she doesn’t say where the Makaras go to school. Something that says, that’s important. “What about the Makaras?”

“How far have you gotten into the town history?” Feferi asks.

“I’m up to the early 1900s.”

“Well, you’re almost to the part where you’ll find out about the Makaras,” Feferi says.

“Can I get the Cliffs Notes version?”

“They…did something forbidden,” Feferi says. “They tried to help an occultist raise a powerful demon, thinking it was a god.” She makes a face. “The True Lord of Time they called it, The Angel of Double Death. Helena Carcin, the last Blood Adept and some of the strongest Adepts of that generation died trying to keep the demon from entering this reality. Labrys Megido was branded as the demon’s servant, and suffered years of torment after nearly dying when the demon was banished. The Makaras were cast out; the Megidos lived under a cloud of suspicion for decades. The Turners and Keylons felt the Makaras and Megidos hadn’t been treated fairly, and won’t involve themselves with the priesthood, or most of the rest of the community.”

“And I’m not going to meet any of these people because the feeling is mutual?” Karkat asks.

Feferi looks stung by the comment; then she glares. “I don’t know any of them,” she says. “Not to talk to, anyway. And they really, really wouldn’t want me to approach them out of nowhere.”

“So, how much bad blood is between the Turners, Keylons, Makaras and the Hatfields--I mean Peixes?”

“I hate you,” Feferi says, and plops her head down onto her forearms. “Blood is the worst Aspect.” Her voice is slightly muffled, and a little whiny with exasperation. Feferi lifts her head. “Why is it so important for you to want to contact them?” she asks.

“No clue,” Karkat says truthfully. “Just curious, and giving you a hard time, I guess.”

“I reely reely hate you,” Feferi says. There’s no feeling of hostility in her tone. “Are you sensing anything?”

“Some kind of Blood thing? I don’t know,” Karkat says, remembering that feeling that something was important about the way Feferi was talking about the families with the Rage Aspect. “There are just these holes and I’m trying to understand what’s going on.”

“Connections, community, family the bonds and oaths that keep the community together,” Feferi says. “Is your dad sensing anything?”

“Ms. Pyrope didn’t tell you anything?” Karkat asks.

“Would I be asking if she had?” Feferi shoots back. “Is he sensing something?”

“Just that you’re kind of messed up with a lot of conflicts, which we already knew,” Karkat says. Feferi gives him a look that’s both hurt and irritated. He feels a little guilty, but not enough to apologize.

“Great-Gram did things that were pretty terrible. Her mom did things that were pretty terrible,” Feferi says. “So yeah, there are a lot of feuds going on, and you ended up in the middle of it.”

“Lucky us,” Karkat mutters.

“No, lucky us, Feferi says, her voice different and strange, her eyes darkening with violet shadows. Strands of her hair lift and float as if in a current of air or water. “You’re here.”

“So we’re supposed to save the day?” Karkat asks irritably, even as an odd chill runs down his spine. He knows who (or Who) he’s talking to, but it doesn’t stop him from speaking his mind, any more than it had stopped him from speaking plainly and bluntly to any of the other Gods he’d met. “We didn’t come here to end up in a horror novel you know.”

Feferi, no Light looked amused. “You don’t have to do anything. You already hold the sickle of the one who defends.” She gives a significant look toward Karkat’s side of the table.

When Karkat looks down he sees that instead of books and homework, there’s a sickle on the table, its handle wrapped in leather. The blade is a bright translucent red, as if it had been carved out of crystal. “What the hell?” Karkat asks. Then he blinks, and his books and notebooks are once more scattered in front of him.

“It’s possibly a non-metaphorical sickle of the one who defends,” Light says.

“Are you sending me on some kind of quest too?” Karkat asks flippantly.

“Oh, it’s the same quest,” Light says. “The sickle was within you the entire time and so on.”

“Okay so this is more of a young adult fantasy novel than a horror novel,” Karkat says. “One of those find your inner strength and confidence coming of age things. Is the dragon metaphorical or non-metaphorical?”

“Six of one, half dozen of the other,” Light says. The shadows in Feferi’s eyes fade and she sits back in her chair. “Quayst?” Feferi asks in her own, normal voice.

“Uh, yeah. Breath kind of told me to go find a dragon and find out the answers to questions I hadn’t asked,” Karkat says. “Are you okay?” He asks, because Feferi is slumped in her chair, eyes closed.

“I’m fine, just a little tired,” Feferi says. She stretches and yawns.

“Being possessed takes a lot out of you?”

Feferi snorts. “Something like that.”

“I’m kind of wondering if it would seem like I was getting conceited or whatever if I asked about why She spoke through you that time, instead of showing up,” Karkat says.

“You could ask Her yourself,” Feferi suggests with a bright smile.

“It’ll be something enigmatic and mysterious, won’t it,” Karkat says after a few moments of thought.

Probubbly!” Feferi says. “In this case She was talking to me while She was talking to you. Basically, your thoughts have merit, and I need to introduce you to everyone.”

When Karkat gets home, he looks through the town history, a weirdly eclectic local radio station he’d been listening to for the past few days playing in the background.

The “war” between the town and Dr. Theophilus Skrae “Doc Scratch” began in 1918 an ended in 1925. It began with the kidnapping (or “seduction” accounts apparently differed) of fifteen year old Labrys Megido, who was subsumed by the will of Skrae’s Master, a demon calling itself “Lord English.” (Karkat has noticed from the town history that “believers” are apparently really long lived.) Skrae, an occultist, was gathering materials to summon his Master into the world, and somehow convinced the head of the Makara family Anselm Makara that “Lord English” was the true God of Time.

Adepts Helena Carcin (Blood), Osiris Captor (Doom, Beloved of the Gods), Thomas Scriven (Mind) and Priestess Camille Thoris (Space), and Priest Korrat Shrike (Time) worked together to defeat Scratch and his allies and servants. The final battle took place on November 25, 1925, with the priests closing the rift while Captor, Carcin, and Scriven battled with Makara, Megido, Scratch, and a horde of minor demons.

In the aftermath, Carcin died after freeing Megido from the control of the demon. The Makaras are cast out, and the only reason the Megidos aren’t is because Time forbids it. It’s a clinical, coldblooded narrative, but at the end of it, tears are stinging his eyes. He can almost see Osiris arguing with Helena Carcin, begging her to rest, to wait, Helena pushing past him to where Labrys Megido was lying unconscious on the ground, an expression of stubborn determination on her face.

“And that was ‘Tears of the Dragon’ by Bruce Dickinson,” an almost familiar voice says. “A single from his album Balls to Picasso. Next up is Dessa’s ‘The Crow’ and Three Days Grace ‘I am Machine.’ If you’re wondering, yes we are building a theme here.”

Karkat frowns at the radio. “Heart?” he asks, not really believing what he was hearing.

He startles a bit when he hears, “yes?” Staring a moment at the radio, which is now playing obscure folk metal, and then at the bed, where the voice actually came from.

Sitting on the bed is Heart, dressed in tattered jeans and a worn-looking Iron Maiden t-shirt. His eyes are orange points of light behind pointed shades. He has two small hoop earrings in his left ear and a stud in his right. He’s smiling faintly.

“I uh, didn’t expect you to just show up if I said your name,” Karkat says.

Heart shrugs. “Well I felt like it,” He says.

“You sound a lot like the DJ,” Karkat says.

Another faint smile, and a shrug. “Not surprising, since he’s Me.”

“You’re the DJ,” Karkat says blankly.

“It’s my day job,” Heart says with a completely innocent expression.

“Day job,” Karkat repeats. It’s impossible to tell if Heart is joking or not. (He really needs to stop echoing everything Heart says, if only because it’s embarrassing as hell.) “Why do you have a day job?”

“It’s not so much of a day job, as it’s my station,” Heart says, still smiling. “It’s interesting, and keeps me entertained. My brother Time helps sometimes.”

“Eldritch powers beyond human comprehension,” Karkat says. “With a radio station. What about,” Karkat waves his hands, trying to indicate the seriousness of the problem, “driving mere mortals crazy?”

“There are protections in place,” Heart says. “And the station is mostly run by priests and Adepts.”

“So you can play being a DJ,” Karkat says.

“Is that a bad thing?” Heart asks. “KALB won a few awards for news reporting.”

“I don’t know, it seems frivolous?”

“Is there anything We should be doing?” Heart asks. “Also, do you have any idea of how many Christian radio stations there are in Missouri alone? One radio station that doesn’t even do any proselytizing is completely fine.” A pause. “Want a summer job? We could use some interns.”

“What’s the survival rate,” Karkat says in a deadpan voice.

Heart snorts. “One hundred percent. We’re not exactly Nightvale.”

“No, but you got your own weird things going on,” Karkat says. “Like wars with occultists.”

“There haven’t been any major incidents since the 1920s. From that point, the priests and Adepts agreed to take more proactive steps to stop occultists from dealing with things they shouldn’t, or from setting themselves against the town itself,” Heart says. “There was some regret afterward, because it tended to bring in new ideas, and new people, who were often directly and romantically involved with the questors.”

“The traditional types didn’t like it,” Karkat says.

“And the High Priestess of the time,” Heart says. “But it was effective, and We insisted the questing continue.”

“‘Questing,’” Karkat says. “Breath sent me on a ‘quest’. Light said something about it too and something about sickles.”

Heart smiles. “It’s less of a quest and more of a riddle,” he says.

“Karkat, dinner’s ready!” Dad calls from the bottom of the stairs. “Homemade beef and broccoli stirfry!”

“Be down in a minute Dad!” Karkat yells back.

“I should get going,” Heart says, and starts to stand up.

“No!” Karkat says quickly. He feels his face heat a little at the raised brow Heart gives him. “I mean, you could come to dinner? I mean, you didn’t get to do that date thing you wanted because Hope and falling to pieces. There’s always enough for one more, and I don’t think--” Well, he wasn’t thinking at all because God. Maybe he didn’t need to eat? Or maybe he ate something really weird. Like raw meat, or blood, or virgin hearts.

“Well I wouldn’t say virgin hearts,” Heart says. “And not actually eating.” Hearts eyebrows do not actually wiggle. But somehow, the impression that he was wiggling them was there.

“Oh my god,” Karkat says, and buries his burning face in his hands. “You are actually worse than Time.”

“Interesting prayer, I give it a five point nine out of ten,” Heart says. “To answer the question you aren’t asking, there is a reason why you thought of asking me to dinner as if I were your friend Sollux.” Heart trails off, and doesn’t explain further.

“Because Space was okay being around my dad?” Karkat guesses.

“Not quite,” Heart says.

“Something to do with me being a ‘chosen bridegroom’ then?”

“Something to do with you, specifically, which is why We’re courting you,” Heart says. “Our Spouses have a closeness to us that is different than our relationships with our priests or our worshipers.” There was a sense of eyebrow-wiggling again. “Not just sex. It’s a spiritual closeness, a strength that allows you to bear Our presence, to ask Time to stay, to attempt chivalry with Void and Life, to argue with Light and Breath. These are not things a priest or worshiper would be able to do, for all that attempting to win Our favor is sometimes called ‘flirting.’”

“Okay,” Karkat says. “Does that mean you might not be okay around my dad?”

“We could find out, before he comes up here to see what’s taking you so long,” Heart says.

Dad has no problem with adding one more plate to the dinner table. (He does tell Karkat he should have said something earlier.) Heart introduces himself as “Broderick Strider.” The Iron Maiden shirt he was wearing is now a Heart concert t-shirt. The earrings and the jeans don’t change. “Do your parents know you’re staying for dinner?”

“I left a message with my older sister Roshanna, Mr. Vantas,” Heart says. “Sorry for the short notice, it smelled really good, and Karkles said you wouldn’t mind.”

“Karkles?” Karkat asks, a little indignantly.

“Karkitty? Autogato? Beepbeepmeow?” Heart asks in response.

“You are not nearly as funny as you think you are, ‘Bro’,” Karkat says.

"I think I am exactly as funny as I think I am,” Heart says.

Dad looks amused. “Well, I usually make enough for leftovers, so it won’t be a problem,” he says.

Dad probes Heart for questions, the usual parents-school-when-met questions. Heart claims to have an older brother and sister acting as his guardians, and that he goes to Union Tech. Karkat apparently met “Bro” at the public library, where they had turned out to be doing a history paper on the same subject. After exchanging reference materials and phone numbers, they’d been in contact with each other for a few months. Dad frowns, but seems to accept the backstory, though Karkat has a feeling his dad is going to be asking more questions later, once “Broderick” goes home.

After dinner, Karkat and Heart do more homework, and then Heart packs up his backpack and homework. Dad asks if “Broderick” needs a ride home. Heart declines, saying his bike is just outside, but does give Dad his “guardians” phone number. Once “Broderick” is gone, Dad says, very casually. “I wonder what would happen if I actually called this number.”

“Um. You’d get a hold of his older sister or brother?” Karkat hedges.

Dad gives him a look. “Karkat.”

“It wasn’t my idea,” Karkat says, a little defensively. “What gave him away?”

“A combination of things,” Dad says. “I couldn’t find a logical point of arrival, or remember speaking to him previously, or remember him going upstairs, or you mentioning him in the past few weeks. The backpack on the couch wasn’t there earlier, and he never brought it down with him. It was nice of him I suppose, not tampering with my memories.” Dad’s tone is very dry. “Otherwise he has a very convincing ‘human costume’.”

The radio clicks on. “In honor of a semi-successful ‘meet the parents’ dinner, next up is ‘Nobody Knows My Plan,’ by They Might Be Giants, followed by ‘Magic Man’ by Heart, and ‘Edge of Seventeen’ by Stevie Nicks,” Time’s voice says.

Chapter Text

Karkat is working on his homework on Friday evening, both his actual school homework, and reading assignments in the beginner magic book and the cultist “bible” given to him by Osiris. There was apparently going to be a quiz at some point. The mythology is pretty interesting with descriptions of the realm of the gods, stories about the creation of the First Cities, the adventures of heroes. He also has to read the chapter on his Aspect, and memorize its attributes and interactions with the other Aspects. (Dad had been given similar “homework,” and spent a lot of time talking comparative religions with Osiris the night before in a “memo” over Pesterchum.)

[gayAuxiliatrix (GA) is pestering carcinoGeneticist (CG)]

GA: Karkat Are You Doing Anything This Weekend?

CG: JUST STUDYING FOR FINALS WHY?

GA: I Was Wondering If You’d Like To Come To My House For Lunch But Also For Lessons Concerning Certain Duties The High Priestess May Have Mentioned.

CG: SHE DID MENTION SOMETHING ABOUT DUTIES. RITUALS AND BLESSINGS.

CG: UH. DO ANY OF THESE RITUALS INVOLVE KILLING CHICKENS OR SOMETHING?

GA: Says The Person Who Had No Problem Eating My Mother’s Fried Chicken.

CG: OKAY POINT. BUT STILL IS ANIMAL SACRIFICE INVOLVED?

CG: SO I CAN LIKE PREPARE MYSELF.

GA: There Are Certain Seasonal Sacrificial Rites, Where The Meat Of The Sacrificed Animal Is Later Consumed During A Feast. Blood-Letting Is Common For Some Priestly Rituals And As You Are Aware, Humans Are Offered Directly To the Gods.

GA: No Animal Sacrifice Will Be Taking Place. There Will Be Small Fancy Sandwiches, Deviled Eggs, Strawberry Shortcake and Tea.

CG: A TEA PARTY. SERIOUSLY?

CG: WILL THERE BE OTHER GUESTS? YOUR DOLL COLLECTION MAYBE?

CG: FORGET I SAID THAT. IT WAS KIND OF SHITTY AND YOU’RE TRYING TO HELP.

GA: How Did You Know I Collected Dolls?

CG: I DIDN’T I WAS JUST RIFFING OFF OF THE LITTLE GIRL TEA PARTY THING WHICH AGAIN WAS KINDA SHITTY OF ME.

GA: And The Comment About Animal Sacrifice Wasn’t.

CG: OKAY I’M SORRY ABOUT THAT TOO. I CAN COME OVER SATURDAY, I GUESS.

GA: I Will Email You Directions.

CG: OKAY. SEE YOU SATURDAY.

GA: See You.

[gayAuxiliatrix (GA) is no longer pestering carcinoGeneticist (CG)!]

“Smooth move Karkat,” he sighs. “You are the master of tact and diplomacy.” There was probably a better way he could have asked about animal sacrifice. Now there was a weird line of thought. Or maybe the thought wasn’t much weirder than anything else. Food offerings were one thing; he wasn’t bothered by the idea. Animal sacrifice was another thing, even if you were going to be eating the chicken or whatever later. If he had explained it that way, maybe the conversation would have gone a little better.

It was a little unsettling to feel this worried--this guilty--about Kanaya being upset. It made him wonder if he felt this because of some kind of outside influence. As if something or someone was pushing him to become part of one big happy family of sister-brother spouses and the Gods. He sat there for a few minutes in front of the computer, and tried to figure out the inside of his brain. How would he know if he were being influenced?

This is hard. It isn’t like there’s some kind of map or guide. This was his mind. This was looking for something outside that might be manipulating him. Would he even be able to tell? Karkat remembers being handled, moved from one unfathomable Presence to another. Being a tiny speck inspected by Beings so much larger than he was he couldn’t understand it. There had just been the terrifying awareness that They could destroy him without even intending to. That They were being as delicate and careful as They could, but it had just barely been enough; his brains had still ended up scrambled by the contact.

How scrambled would his brains end up being from being “married” to unfathomable eldritch entities? Still sitting at his desk, he takes a deep breath, and another. In his head, there are red lines, paths. They show up starkly in the dark behind his eyelids. They pulse with a familiar beat, the sound of his heart. There’s a line connecting him to his Dad, who is doing some studying of his own, in his own room. There’s a line, still present that goes to his mother. He can’t touch it, but it’s there. There’s other lines connecting him to people he’s met, and he can sense that there are more lines connecting them to each other. It’s like a net, but also like a stream. (Like veins and arteries carrying blood, being pumped by a heart through a body.)

There’s a line that goes to Sollux. If he touches it, he can sense that Sollux is playing video games with his dad. There’s some trash talking going on, and Karkat smiles, cheered by the bright line between Sollux and his father. Sollux’s lines go to his father, his great great grandfather, his family, friends and people that are too far away for Karkat to see. He can see how the Captors fit into the town, a little. Doom predicts disasters, disharmony. They’re an early warning system, they’re the IT Department. They’re the Engineers of That Which Prevents Catastrophe.

Sollux stops trash talking midsentence and frowns. “Karkat?”

Karkat startles, suddenly coming awake, a little disoriented and confused. Maybe an hour had passed, according to the clock. There’s a message window from Sollux hovering on the monitor.

TA: wa2 that you ju2t now?

CG: MAYBE?

TA: there i2 no maybe that wa2 a ye2 or no que2tiion.

CG: I WAS TRYING SOMETHING BUT I NOTICED YOUR LINE INSTEAD, SO I TOUCHED IT SO YEAH?

TA: my liine?

CG: I’M SEEING ALL OF THESE CONNECTIONS BETWEEN ME AND OTHER PEOPLE. AND MORE LINES OR PATHS FURTHER OUT. I TOUCHED YOURS, BUT I GUESS YOU SENSED ME? SORRY.

TA: welp.

[twinArmageddons (TA) invited diarchicAccensor (DA) to memo “blood power2 actiivate!”]

[twinArmageddons (TA) invited carcinoGeneticist (CG) to memo “blood power2 actiivate!”]

TA: TA: wa2 that you ju2t now?

CG: MAYBE?

TA: there ii2 no maybe that wa2 a ye2 or no que2tiion.

CG: I WAS TRYING SOMETHING BUT I NOTICED TOUCH YOUR LINE INSTEAD, SO YEAH?

TA: my liine?

CG: I’M SEEING ALL OF THESE CONNECTIONS BETWEEN ME AND OTHER PEOPLE. AND MORE LINES OR PATHS FURTHER OUT. I TOUCHED YOURS, BUT I GUESS YOU SENSED ME? SORRY.

TA: welp.

[diarchicAccensor (DA) banned twinArmaggedons (TA) from memo “blood power2 actiivate” reason: “student consultation”]

[twinArmageddons (TA)’s away message: “II wa2 goiing to leave the memo anyway gramp2” ]

DA: What were you trying to do?

CG: I UH

CG: I WAS TRYING TO SEE IF THERE WAS A WAY TO TELL IF SOMEONE WAS MESSING WITH MY HEAD.

DA: Reading a little ahead or just worried?

CG: WORRIED. I’M NOT SURE OF WHAT I’M FEELING ABOUT ANYTHING. I DON’T TRUST ANYTHING, BUT AT THE SAME TIME I’M JUST ACCEPTING WHAT’S GOING ON, AND I FEEL INVESTED IN CONTINUING THIS WHATEVER IT IS?

DA: The good news is that if you are worried about being made to feel a certain way, you probably haven’t been replaced by a pod person.

DA: But there are ways to make sure.

DA: The bad news is, a sufficiently powerful entity could be making you feel a certain way, and you wouldn’t know it or be able to tell.

DA: So if you’re worried about the Gods doing something, I can’t help you there, or even reassure you, because I’m part of what you don’t trust.

CG: SORRY

DA: Kid, I’d be surprised if you weren’t suspicious. You’re okay. You’ve got good reason to be suspicious and worried, especially how you found out about the cult.

DA: Now, let’s skip ahead a few chapters, and take a look at veiling and other forms of memory alteration Blood is usually pretty resistant to veiling, your Dad being a prime example.

Osiris walks him through a lesson on memory alteration and detection. Karkat takes notes and asks questions. At the end of it, he’s still worried, but he has information and knows a little more about how the Aspects interact with each other. The impromptu lesson takes about an hour, and Osiris signs off with telling him to call him or text him if he has any other questions.

Karkat logs out of Pesterchum at the end of it and retreats to his bed to review his notes and the chapter. He falls asleep like that, surrounded by notes, the book resting on his chest. His dreams are full of disjointed action movie sequences that aren’t in the least symbolic or presentiments.

He sleeps in the next day, and when he wakes up he checks his email, and finds that Kanaya had sent him the directions to her house, and also what time he was supposed to show up. After dressing and brushing his teeth, he wanders downstairs where his dad is in his office, working on the computer. “Kanaya invited me over to her house for lunch,” he says.

Dad looks up from his computer. “Lunch huh? What time, and when will you be back?”

“Kanaya said eleven thirty,” Karkat says. He starts to head to the living room but Dad calls him back.

Dad doesn’t say anything for a few seconds. “Kanaya is one of the ‘Spouses,’ isn’t she?”

“Yeah, she’s about a year ahead of me,” Karkat says.

Karkat hears Dad think “Child marriage…” with extreme disapproval. He says “will anyone else be there?”

“I don’t think so, maybe her mom?”

“I think I’d like to speak to her mother, before you go,” Dad says. His tone is very I mean business, and Karkat can sense how worried Dad is so he doesn’t even offer a token protest. He gives Dad Kanaya’s number and heads into the living room.

(He really wants to listen in on that call.)

The crow is sitting on the entertainment center, preening itself. “Okay, so are you actually Time, or just His pet death omen?” Karkat asks after staring at it.

“Time had a thought
that winged its way
through the heat of day
what it sought no one knew
soaring in the burning blue
‘til the sun burnt it black,”

the crow says.

“I’m guessing that poem sounds better in the original unspeakable eldritch tongue.” Karkat says. He sits down, turns on the TV and flips through the channels. He can hear Dad talking, but not what he’s saying. Blood was apparently not necessarily a good Aspect for eavesdropping on spoken conversations.

“Enochian,” the crow says, and flaps over to the couch, landing on the arm.

“Really?”

“No.”

There is absolutely nothing on. He ends up watching a horrifying Vegan cooking show on PBS. Dad eventually ends the call about fifteen minutes later and comes out of the office. He stares at the crow, who is now perched on the back of the couch. The crow stares back. “I have no idea how he’s getting inside,” Karkat says.

Dad sighs. “I talked to Ms. Maryam, Kanaya’s mother. She seems like an interesting woman. I don’t have any objection to you going, but try to get home by three.”

“Okay,” Karkat says.

The crow wants to come with, perching first on Karkat’s shoulder, then on the bars of Karkat’s bike. It stretches its whole body out and flaps its wings as Karkat pedals. There’s a few other people on bikes, a small horde of runners, people out walking their dogs. People see him and wave and Karkat waves back.

He’s about a block away when someone suddenly steps out from behind a bush and sticks something in the spokes of the front wheel of Karkat’s bike. Karkat has a brief impression of kid, younger than me, t-shirt before the bike crashes. The crow squawks and flaps as the bike goes down. It flings itself at the kid, who takes off running.

Karkat tries to get up, but finds that the shoelaces of his right shoe have wound themselves around the crank arm. There is something weird going on with his front wheel, though it’s hard to tell from the angle he’s lying in. He thinks he’s mostly bruised and scraped up. Karkat works on getting himself free of the bike. “Need any help?” Karkat looks up and sees a blond kid his own age wearing a t-shirt and cut offs. The kid’s wearing shades, and his hair isn’t so much blond as it is stark white, and actually more like feathers than hair.

Karkat stares, blinks, and the feathers are hair again. “Sure,” he croaks.

Time helps him unwind his shoelaces from the crank arm, and then get the bike upright. The wheel is definitely crooked and some of the spokes are actually broken. “Looks like you’re going to need to get the wheel replaced.”

“What just happened?” Karkat asks, frowning at Time.

“The kid stuck a stick in the spokes of your wheel,” Time replies with exaggerated patience.

“No I mean, was that a part of,” Karkat waves his hand. “Politics, or just some random little shit?”

“Not so random little shit,” Time says. “If it were ‘politics’ there would have been more of them.”

“Yay,” Karkat says sourly. “Can’t you do something? I mean this is all because they don’t want Feferi to be High Priestess right, can’t you tell them to knock it off?”

“Humans are always very obedient and do what they’re told by their gods,” Time says. “That’s what they’re best known for, yep.”

The dry sarcasm made Time seem surprisingly human. Time wasn’t human though, He was an unknowable elder god. Karkat’s very aware of that when he asks, “so, what happened to the kid?”

“The crow just ran him off,” Time says.

“Why is he ‘not so random’?” Karkat asks.

“Because he doesn’t live on this end of town, and he doesn’t know anyone on this end of town, but that’s no reason for him not to be walking ‘round,” Time says. “Little ball of Rage and impulse, it might have been free will, it might have been a push.”

Karkat frowns. “So it might or might not be politics after all, is what you’re saying, am I right?”

Time shrugs. “Something like that.”

Time won’t answer any further questions about the kid, but he does help Karkat get the bike to Kanaya’s house. Karkat’s about fifteen minutes late and Kanaya is waiting for them on the front porch, looking worried. “Karkat, what happened? Are you okay?” she asks, hurrying up to him.

“Someone decided to crash my bike,” Karkat says. “‘Politics’ may or may not be involved; Time was kind of cagey about answering question.” He almost expects a comment from Time, but Time has disappeared. There isn’t even a crow hanging out in one of the trees in Kanaya’s front yard.

“You can leave the bike on the porch,” Kanaya says. “Let’s go inside and get you cleaned up.” Karkat follows her inside once the bike is up on the porch. Her house has wood floors and there are a lot of pictures on the walls. Some of them are family portraits, but a lot of them are paintings. Still life and landscapes, and a few that Karkat realizes are religious; Believer-religious, anyway. His attention is caught by one painting featuring a boy holding a severed head cradled under one arm, and a bloody sword in his other hand. “That’s Time,” Kanaya says helpfully. “Sometimes when He’s depicted as human, He’s shown holding His Brother’s head, or his body.”

“They uh seemed like They get along though?”

“They do,” Kanaya says. “See how carefully He’s holding Heart’s head?” She herds him into the bathroom, and shows him the medicine cabinet. “Heart is the Destroyer of Souls; sometimes the soul He destroys is His. Time is a God of Self-Sacrifice but sometimes He sacrifices Others.”

“Why would Heart destroy His soul?” Karkat asks.

“A God of Destruction isn’t necessarily a god of disasters,” a woman’s voice says. She steps into the bathroom doorway, Kanaya moving aside to give her room. She’s tall and dark haired like Kanaya, and looks enough like her that Karkat guesses this must be her mother. She’s wearing paint-stained jeans and a t-shirt. She had tattoos; long curling shapes that wound up her arms. “The Destroyer seeks to discover and sweep away flaws. Sometimes, those flaws are His Own. Time and Heart together has a number of metaphysical meanings that might be too boring to go into right now.” The woman smiles. “I’m Porrim, Kanaya’s mother. I’m sorry for not looking presentable enough for my daughter’s guest--”

“Mother,” Kanaya protests. “I never said you had to change clothes--”

“Sweetheart, you said ‘he’ll be here soon, are you going to wear that?’ It certainly sounded that way to me!” Porrim says to Kanaya, who looks embarrassed and flustered. “I was hit by inspiration for a project earlier this morning, and didn’t want to lose it,” she explains to Karkat.

“You’re an artist?” Karkat asks.

“Yes,” Porrim says with a smile. “Should we give you a little privacy while you clean yourself up?”

“Yeah, thank you,” Karkat says.

Porrim absconds, tugging her daughter along with her. Kanaya is still protesting that she hadn’t meant anything about the clothes Porrim was wearing. He can hear Porrim teasing her, and Kanaya continuing to protest, though she’s switched from “mother no,” to “mom stop it!”

Karkat cleans himself up as best he can, and bandages the more nasty looking scrapes. Kanaya is waiting for him in the living room, which has a huge leather couch and a couple of recliners placed around an entertainment center with a huge TV and sound system. There’s more paintings on the walls, and a variety of knickknacks. Porrim is nowhere in sight. “Mom’s gone back to her work room,” Kanaya says. “Everything’s ready to go out to picnic table.”

Karkat helps Kanaya carry trays of food, glasses paper plates and the tea (which it turned out to be iced sweet tea) out to the picnic table. The backyard is full of flowerbeds and a small vegetable garden, with a lot of shade from a couple of apple trees and a huge oak. The fence around the backyard is pretty high, and overgrown with vines. Near the picnic table is a barbecue grill. He sits down, and Kanaya sits across from him. “What happened on your way here?” she asks, putting deviled eggs and sandwiches onto a plate.

Karkat makes a plate for himself, and pours himself some tea as he explains about riding his bike and the kid that had jumped out and crashed his bike.

“Were you able to see who it was?” Kanaya asks.

“Not really, some kid,” Karkat says. “Time said that the crow just chased the kid off.”

“Did He say anything else?”

“Something about the kid being a ball of rage and fear,” Karkat says.

“Rage as in someone with that Aspect?” Kanaya asks.

“Maybe?” He thinks about it. “Probably. He didn’t tell me who it was or anything though. Just said that it was not so random’.”

“He might want you to find out on your own,” Kanaya says.

“Great another ‘quest’,” Karkat grumbles.

Kanaya gives him an interested look. “You were given a quest?” she asks.

“Yeah. Breath and apparently Light want me to find a dragon, and there’s something about a sickle.”

“The sickle of the one who defends,” Kanaya murmurs. “Have you spoken to Terezi at all lately?”

“Not since…everything happened. She hasn’t been to school.” He wants to ask about the sickle, but he’s distracted by what Kanaya says next.

“She was very upset,” Kanaya says.

“Well I was the one chained to a rock in the dark freezing my ass off,” Karkat says, not able to help the resentment or anger. “How the hell do you walk around in there in just skirts?”

“The temple is actually very warm,” Kanaya says. “It likely only felt cold to you, since you were an Outsider.”

“Still pretty much an Outsider,” Karkat says. He takes a bite out of the sandwich, which is thin slices of cucumber between buttered slices of crustless wheat bread. There’s also tuna fish sandwiches and tomato sandwiches and chicken salad sandwiches. “And I’d rather not go back to find out if there’s change in temperature.”

“You don’t have to if you don’t want to,” Kanaya says. “Spouses all have Temple duties though. We open the festivals for each of the Gods, participate in the coronation of the High Priestess and walk with her in procession for solstice and equinox rites; we participate in the initiate ascension rituals for adepts and priests.” Kanaya describes each of the rites in detail. Festival opening seemed to be mostly a speech from each Spouse followed by an Aspect-themed blessing. The coronation and ascension rituals were a little more complicated and involved supervising fasting and vigils then “attending” the initiates by bathing and dressing them in ritual garments while praying over them.

“Do Spouses out rank priests or something?” Karkat asks.

“We’re more or less equal,” Kanaya says. “We have a more direct connection to the Gods. People come to us for things they can’t or won’t go to a priest for. Advice, a second opinion or ruling of a judgment or penance they didn’t like. People also come to us for mediation they don’t want to take to a priest or proceed secularly, or we might choose to meddle in the affairs of others.”

“Okay,” Karkat says. “Sounds like a lot of work.”

“It can be, Osiris says that it takes years before you’re really comfortable with the responsibility,” Kanaya says. “Would you like to learn some of the blessings?”

“Sure, why not,” Karkat says.

Kanaya teaches him some of the blessings, and talks about advice she’s given at school to other students. When it’s time to go, Porrim drives him home, with the bike in the back of her trunk.

Chapter Text

This is a thing that happens:

Time passes. Dad wakes him up in the middle of the night and they throw a few days’ worth of clothes and food into the trunk of the car. They manage to make it to the next town before they are stopped and taken back to Alba.

They manage to make it to the next town. They are stopped. They try to fight and Karkat gets away. Karkat spends most of his life running from the town and from occultists. He is not able to escape the Gods.

They try to fight and Karkat is killed. So are the Adepts. Dad is not killed. He makes a deal and a large portion of Alba is destroyed.

They try to fight and Karkat and Dad are killed. So are the Adepts. A large portion of Alba is destroyed. Dad and Karkat fight. Both get away. They spend most of their lives running from the town and from occultists. They are not able to escape the Gods.

Time passes. Dad and Karkat learn rites and spells. They learn how to placate the Gods. They leave the town. They manage to make it to the next town and the next town after that. Occultists make their lives unnecessarily interesting. The town makes attempts at convincing them to come back.

Occultists make their lived unnecessarily interesting. They stick out. They are noticeable. Their lives become a supernatural monster of the week drama. They occasionally run into members of the cult who are hunting down this or that artifact or questing for this and that purpose. (Or who are just going to college/living Outside and find themselves in trouble and ask for help.)

The town makes attempts at convincing them to return. Some are friendly, some are not. There are friends who might be in danger because of conflict between the factions, and Blood would be able to mediate between them in a way that other Aspects can’t. The Gods are a continuing presence, sometimes dangerous by accident, sometimes dangerous by intent, relentlessly protective.

Time passes. Karkat and Dad learn rites and spells. They stay in the town, which is up to its ears in factions and simmering discontent and dislike of change. Politics happen.

Karkat is living through this and it’s not quite like reliving the same day over and over again, so there’s less repetition, but there are themes and possibilities and he is living all of them without knowing why. He’s confused as hell, wondering if he’s lucid dreaming or something. He can’t really wake up; he’s tried. All he does is go into a new arc of possibilities. He has no idea of how long this has been having objectively. It might have been only hours, it could possibly be days.

Karkat is going through an arc involving leaving town to go through college. He’s packing his bags (again) and someone is sitting on the bed. It’s a boy his own age, with dark hair, brown skin and an overbite, glasses and brilliant blue eyes. (And sometimes blue skin. And sometimes gray skin and horns. And sometimes extra arms, extra fingers, extra eyes.) “Why is this happening again?” Karkat asks the boy, who is Breath.

The boy grins. “I was wondering when you were going to ask that!” Breath says cheerfully. “It was funny at first, but now it’s getting dumb. And boring.”

“Boredom is obviously the worst thing ever,” Karkat says sarcastically. “What’s going on?”

“The most important thing you’re going to learn is that you shouldn’t treat spells like they were recipes,” Breath says. “I mean, they are, but they’re a recipe where you’re as likely to get cookies as you are to get I don’t know, bagels maybe, with the same set of ingredients and specifications if you don’t know what you’re doing.”

“Did I try to cast a spell?” Karkat asks. “I don’t remember. I’m not even sure what day it is.”

“You didn’t try to cast a spell,” Breath says. “It’s Monday, just after noon.”

“I have Finals!” Karkat protests. “Who cast this spell on me?”

“It’s not like you’ll be behind if you miss a day,” Breath says with a shrug. “And it wasn’t cast on you. This is…friendly fire.”

Karkat frowns. Friendly fire? Dad, he immediately thinks. “Dad wouldn’t just randomly cast a spell like a character in a bad horror movie though,” he says.

“It wasn’t random,” Breath says. “Pretty sure your dad was trying to find the best options for getting out of town. He really should have consulted with Si, but he was afraid to talk about it, so he picked a spell he thought might work, waited til you went to bed then boom, Groundhog Day!” Breath lifted His hands so they framed His grinning face and held them palm outward, waggling His fingers.

“Would Si really have helped us get out of town?” Karkat asks skeptically. “Wouldn’t he get in trouble?”

“With the priesthood maybe,” Breath says. “We wouldn’t like you leaving. We’d be pretty upset and things would probably happen.” There’s a beat, and then Breath says. “No that wasn’t a threat. Things happen. Like a storm knocking trees down. Like birds shitting on a car. Like stepping on a Lego in the dark! Things are less likely to happen because we have priests and Spouses. We’re balanced by the rites and ceremonies.”

“We aren’t confined here; this is just where Our temple is.”

“Okay,” Karkat says. “How do I get out of this?”

“I’m pulling you out now, actually,” Breath says. “You’re kind of peripheral to the spell, and it won’t be too hard.”

“What about Dad,” Karkat asks. “Can’t you do something?”

“I could, but I might hurt him,” Breath says. He wiggles His fingers again, this time as if he were playing an invisible piano. “I can tickle the ivories but I don’t have a touch delicate enough to free him from the temporal knots he’s tied himself into without hurting him. There’s some things it’s better for Our People to do, than for Us to try. Another Adept, preferably one of Mind needs to go in and nudge him back into [concept.]”

[Concept] kept changing inside Karkat’s head. It either meant “material, physical world” or “a precise moment in local space/time in which someone who is not a god exists.” Karkat almost asks how to get into touch with an “Adept of Mind,” but then he remembers: Terezi and her mother Latula. They were both Mind. “Shit,” he mutters. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to go talk to Terezi or her mother, even if Kanaya had hinted that he should. (But he had to, if they could fix this.)

“You could ask Si for help instead,” Breath says.

It’s a tempting thought. On the other hand, he had to talk to Terezi sometime; he couldn’t just avoid her forever. (Never mind that she seemed to be the one avoiding everyone else, since she’d been ditching school.) “Just get me out of this,” Karkat says a little abruptly. Then, realizing his tone he says, “uh assume I made some kind of super respectful and flowery entreaty there.”

“That was a super respectful entreaty from you,” Breath says cheerfully. He holds out His hand, and after a moment’s hesitation, Karkat takes it.

There’s a moment of red-shot darkness, and then he’s sitting on his bed. For a moment it doesn’t seem as if there was a change, but then he notices the lack of a suitcase on the bed, and the difference in the light. Something is growing on the walls of his room, from the ceiling, like vines, or maybe roots. The “roots” are a bright, translucent red and they grow as he watches them. “What.”

“The spell from outside,” Breath says. “It shouldn’t be spreading like this. It should be a nice contained fractal.”

“Is it dangerous?” Karkat asks. He starts to get up, wanting to do something, try to get to his Dad maybe, but he wobbles and starts to fall. Breath catches him.

“Careful,” Breath says cheerfully, and nudges him back to the bed. “How do you feel?”

“Dizzy. My ears are ringing.” He is also suddenly, horribly, achingly hungry. “And I’m really hungry.”

“No surprise,” Breath says. “Your last meal was dinner Saturday evening! Let me get you something to eat.”

“Okay.”

“The dizziness should go away. The ringing is the spell,” Breath says. “Let me get you something to eat.” The God steps back and cups his hands as if holding something, and then he’s holding a paper bag and a plastic cup. “Bacon cheeseburger, fries, large Coke,” He says. “Don’t eat too fast.”

Karkat takes the food from Breath, wondering if it had be created, or maybe stolen somehow. He has a sudden image of Breath waiting in line to order, His human disguise looking just wrong enough to be disturbing. Karkat takes the bag and the Coke from Breath, and sets the cup on the nightstand. He fishes the french-fry carton out of the bag, and the cheeseburger. He unwraps the cheeseburger and lays it on top of the bag in front of him on the bed. “Thanks,” he says.

Breath grins and immediately steals one of the fries.

Karkat eats slowly, watching the roots spread. “You didn’t say whether this was dangerous,” Karkat says.

“Not immediately,” Breath says. “You have plenty of time to eat and decide who you’re going to go to for help.”

The Pyropes were actually closer by a couple of blocks. (He still didn’t want to go over there yet. He maybe never wants to go over there.) On the other hand, Si was his and Dad’s teacher. Karkat picks up his cell phone, intending to send a text but there’s an “out of service area” message on the screen. “What the hell?”

“That happens sometimes,” Breath says. He’s kneeling behind Karkat on the bed now, peering over Karkat’s shoulder. “You might get better reception out on the porch.”

Karkat pulls on a pair of pants and a t-shirt, then heads out of his room and down the stair. There’s more of the red roots spreading all through the house, the main trunk seems to be growing from his dad’s office. Almost, Karkat heads for the door but Breath tugs him out of the house and onto the porch. Out on the porch he’s able to send a text: SI DAD TRIED A SPELL AND SOMETHING WEIRD HAPPENED.

II can be over there iin thiirty minute2. Can you tell me what happened?

Karkat explains the situation and then adds, I WAS TOLD AN ADEPT OF MIND WOULD BE ABLE TO HELP DAD.

One wiith 2eer talent2 by preference, whiich would be Latula’s liittle giirl. But 2he ha2n’t been doiing two well, and you maybe aren’t ready to talk two her yet, let alone ask her for help.

KANAYA SAID I SHOULD TALK TO HER.

Kanaya’2 not wrong. 2o here i2 what you’re going two do. Go two the Pyrope hou2e and tell Latula what you told me. Tell her I’m going two need her help and that you’ll 2tay with Terezii.

Note that talkiing two her iis not a requiirement and not liikely two be a thiing that happen2 because agaiin 2he ii2n’t doiing well.

Karkat almost asks what was wrong with Terezi, but instead he sends back. OKAY. I’M ON MY WAY. Then he shoves his phone in his pocket and heads for Terezi’s house. Breath is not around, though a pretty strong breeze kicks up at Karkat’s back, rustling through the leaves of the trees. He starts out at a fast walk, and ends up running the last half block to Terezi’s house. He’s a little out of breath when he gets to the front door and rings the bell.

Ms. Pyrope--Latula--answers the door within a few minutes of his ringing the bell. “Karkat?” She frowns at him, concerned. “What’s wrong?”

Karkat repeats everything he’d told Si, ending with, “Si says he needs your help, and that I should stay with Terezi.”

“Are you sure, Karkat?” Latula asks. “You don’t have to stay here. I can call Mituna and have him pick you up.”

Karkat shrugs. “It’s okay,” he says.

Latula nods. “There’s some TV dinners in the freezer, and some leftovers from last night in the fridge,” she says, letting him in, and heading off into the house. Karkat stands awkwardly by the door while he hears Latula thump around in the house. She comes back a few minutes later with a briefcase, wearing a kind of hooded teal robe over jeans and t-shirt advertising a reading program at the library. She has a sword in some kind of holder with a strap slung over her shoulder. “You might end up spending the night depending how long this takes. Are you sure you’re going to be all right?” She asks, giving him a worried look.

Karkat nods, though he doesn’t feel sure at all. “Yeah. I’m good,” he says.

Latula nods, and heads out the door for her car. Karkat shuts the door behind her, and locks it. He hears the car start up, and move out onto the street.

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

From Terezi’s bedroom, they wander into the kitchen. Terezi sits at the table, and Karkat rummages around in the fridge. “So there’s left over homemade macaroni and cheese and meat loaf. In the freezer we have Salisbury Steak, Swedish Meatballs, Sweet and Sour Chicken and some pot pies.”

“Mac and cheese and meatloaf,” Terezi says. Her chin is resting cupped in one of her hands as she watches him. She’s smiling, a little bit.

Karkat heats a plate for himself first. (Terezi: “Rude!” Karkat: “I’m a guest; you should be making something for me.”) Then he heats a second plate up for Terezi, setting it down in front of her, along ith a can of soda. “So, I guess I’m going to be here, at least until your mom and Si fix whatever Dad did,” he says tentatively.

Terezi is quiet for a moment, poking at her mac and cheese. “We could watch a movie, maybe,” she suggests, voice just as tentative. “Or play video games.”

“We could do that,” Karkat says. He eats some of his meatloaf. He notices--becomes aware somehow--that Hope isn’t around anymore. “Huh. He’s gone.”

“Wanted us to settle this ourselves,” Terezi says.

“Yeah,” Karkat says. “I think we did, though. You were setup, it’s apparently lucky the Gods think I’m cute or whatever, and everything is kinda fucked up because weird religious shenanigans.” Terezi’s laugh is rusty and sad. “And I shouldn’t blame myself?”

“Not really no,” Karkat says. He’s silent for a moment, concentrating mostly on the contents of his plate. Finally, he asks, “So, when did the Gods start passing you love notes, or whatever?” He was more than a little curious about how it might work for an “insider” as opposed to well, him.

This time Terezi’s laugh sounds a little more like her usual self. “Before the school year,” she says. “It was just little hints, a song I liked coming up more often on the radio, visions being a little clearer, little gifts showing up on my dresser. I was nervous? And I didn’t want to read too much into it, you know? Sometimes the Gods show favor, and it doesn’t mean anything except They’re in a good mood and They like you. I didn’t get the nerve to actually ask until the end of September.”

“How did they let you know?” Karkat asks.

Terezi grinned. “I woke up with frost all over the window, the next morning, leaves, flowers all over the glass and the answer to my question; ‘yes, we would court you.’” She pokes at her food, takes a bite. “Then there was a lot of awful poetry,” she says in a deadpan critical tone.

Karkat laughs, feeling brighter, lighter somehow at the comment. “Awful poetry seems to be a thing,” he says.

“Ohhh?” Terezi asks with lifted brows. “How bad are we talking?”

Karkat shrugs. “Pretty bad. Uh. He was trying to reassure me I think? In rhyme.” He felt a little reluctant to share the details, given how annoyed Feferi got about his tentacle god jokes. He didn’t want to upset Terezi, when they were just starting to talk again.

Terezi’s eyes widen. “--butthole squid babies?” she asks, and cracks up laughing.

Karkat felt his face heat up. “What the heck?”

Terezi points behind him, and at the same time there’s a sharp caw. Karkat turns, and sees the crow perched up on the refrigerator. “Just sharing a rhyme, ain’t no crime,” the crow says.

“Your poetry is a felony,” Karkat retorts.

“My rhymes got mad flow
Wherever I go
I drop sick beats
Bring sizzle to the pan
Grilling your meats,
Like you know I can,” the crow says.

“I’m really impressed,” Karkat says. “No really, I’m impressed you could say that, and have no idea how stupid that sounded.”

“They’re better when he gets warmed up,” Terezi says. “But that was not your best,” she says to the crow.

The crow preens its wing, and Karkat immediately thinks of a cat grooming itself all nonchalant after embarrassing itself. All, “I meant to do that.” Though in this case, Karkat suspected the crow really had meant to do that. “You get visited by the crow a lot too?” Karkat asks.

Terezi shrugs. “The crow’s showed up, and usually Time Himself. Breath, Light, Space, Hope a lot recently.” The last is said with an irritable frown and a glare. Not at Karkat though, but at some point space off to the side. There’s nothing there but a countertop and cabinets as far as Karkat can tell, however.

The crow makes an almost human sounding chuckle, and flaps down to perch on one of the kitchen chairs. He eyes the meatloaf on Karkat’s plate.

“Don’t even think about it,” Karkat says, and puts his hand up to protect his plate from marauding crows.

“A little bit won’t hurt him, Karkat,” Terezi says.

“I’m not worried about him getting hurt, I’m worried he’ll steal it,” Karkat says. “You don’t like Hope?” Karkat asks.

“I’d like Him better if He’d leave me alone,” Terezi mutters. The next bite of mac and cheese is definitely aggravated. “He’s here because I’ve been…sick.”

“Depressed,” the crow says.

“Depressed,” Terezi echoes, and flips the crow off. The crow laughs again.

“Because of what happened?” Karkat asks.

“And because I get depressed,” Terezi says. “Though what happened didn’t help. I stopped taking pills during my fast, even though they’re permitted and when I got back I spent most of the time asleep, pretending to be asleep and ignoring texts from Sol.” Terezi sighs. “Then Hope manifested and I’m suddenly taking my pills and He’s being cheerful at me and argh.”

“Did he uh, make you take your pills? Or just tell you to?” Karkat asks, a little uncertain about that last.

Terezi tilts the palm of her hand side to side in a “either or” gesture. “Well, He manifested and His Aspect made me feel better, and therefore made me more likely to take my meds? But it wasn’t like mind control which is what I think you’re implying?”

“Yeah, kinda. Sorry,” Karkat says, feeling a little guilty about asking despite it being a legitimate concern. Then he’s distracted by the crow, which has swooped in on his plate. “Dammit!” He catches the crow and almost immediately he lets go of it, surprised by the almost burning heat, the fast beat of its heart, and the sense he’d gotten of the molten Blood beneath skin and feathers. The crow takes advantage of his surprise to snag a chunk of meat loaf and abscond for the countertop.

Karkat half expects his fingers to be blistered and singed by the heat, but they’re unhurt. “That doesn’t happen when you land on me,” Karkat says accusingly to the crow.

“Did you try to grab him?” Terezi asks. “Well, there you go then,” she says when Karkat shakes his head.

“Is the crow actually Time? He hasn’t been to clear on that,” Karkat says.

“Time speaks through the crow sometimes,” Terezi says. She grins. “And sometimes Time takes the shape of a crow.”

This didn’t exactly explain if the crow at this point in time was “the crow” or Time in the shape of a crow. Karkat glances at the crow, which is poking around at appliances on the countertop. He had a feeling that a straight answer wasn’t going to be a thing in the immediate future.

“I kind of wish I’d known about all of this sooner,” Karkat says, after poking at the contents of his plate for a while. “I get you needed to keep things hidden, but I’m still kind of upset you didn’t tell me anything.”

“So do I,” Terezi says. “I kind of wanted to, but I wasn’t sure if you’d be staying. I mean it seemed like you might settle, and Mister Vantas is a really great teacher, but it’s usually years before outsiders see what’s going on in the town.” She frowns. “You saw a lot anyway. I wonder how much you did see through, just because you’re Blood?”

Karkat shrugs. “I figured you were pagan? My dad has pagan friends.” Terezi grins at that. “Anyway I mostly noticed the lack of those little cardboard Pilgrim and Native American pictures in stereotypical costumes around Thanksgiving and that the Christmas decorations didn’t show up until December,” he says. Also, it had mostly been Christmas trees, Santa Clause and candy canes, with maybe doves and stars being as far most of the décor around businesses got to religious symbolism. Homes had more religious symbolism, but they didn’t show up till the first week of December.

“Oooh, usually outsiders notice the lack of churches, and they have to go to the next town over,” Terezi says.

Karkat shrugs. He had noticed, and it had seemed strange, but it wasn’t nearly as strange as Christmas decorations neatly confined to December first through to the twenty fifth, except at the Walmart. “I was raised mostly agnostic,” he says. According to the town history he’d read, there had been a few churches up until the 1930s. Then there had been a couple of church burning incidents, after which the high priestess decreed the remaining churches would be burnt down. (“And the arsonists should be glad I don’t burn their homes, with themselves and all their family besides.”)

After dinner, they put the dirty dishes in the dish washer and head into the living room. Neither of them really have a lot of interest in watching a movie, or going back to Terezi’s room to play video games. Instead, Karkat talks about school, about what he’s been learning from Feferi and Si. At first he tries to hide the parts where he’d been deliberately provoking Feferi, not wanting to offend Terezi. She gets the details out of him anyway, and cackles about it.

“Soo, not offended that I was disrespectful to your high priestess?” Karkat asks.

“If she was really angry about anything you said, she doesn’t need me to defend her honor,” Terezi says. “And if you were being a complete jerk I’d be mad you were hurting Feferi’s feelings, not that you were being rude to the high priestess. I kind of wish I’d been there. Poor Fef!” She giggles. “Was anyone offended on her behalf?”

“Um. Eridan, Equius I think Kanaya a little bit, and also Sollux.” Karkat pauses. “I think he has a crush on her?”

“Eridan and Equius are both from super traditional families,” Terezi says. “They are both super preppy.”

“Eridan seems more like a Goth,” Karkat says.

“Goth-Preppy hybrid,” Terezi says, and snickers. “Goppy? No, that sounds like one of Fef’s puns. Equius’ only redeeming quality is that he’s friends with Nepeta--though okay, I lie, he’s been much less of an asshole after he got the part time job at Benson and Quill Auto.” She grins. “Kanaya is the mom- friend and Sol has had the stupidest crush on Feferi since forever. Sollux is a dumb butt.”

“A dumb butt who’s been pretty worried about you,” Karkat can’t help but say.

Terezi’s eyebrows lift. “Are you the dad-friend, Karkat? Gonna make me text Sol?”

“Do I have to?” Karkat asks. “I mean, he’s your friend and he’s worried about you, right?”

Terezi makes a disgusted noise. “You sound like your dad,” Terezi accuses, and goes to get her cell. She comes back into the living room, and spends some time texting with Sollux. Sollux meanwhile texts Karkat and they have an awkward three way conversation via until they get on a Pesterchum memo together. Sollux yells at Terezi in the memo, and asks Karkat for details about the emergency. This leads to them both explaining Mind and Doom interactions when collaborating on a Working.

CG: I AM PRETTY SURE THIS IS ADVANCED LEVEL STUFF I HAVEN’T GOTTEN TO YET GUYS.

GC: H33 H33 H33 W3’LL DUMB 1T DOWN FOR YOU!

TA: thii2 ii2 ju2t ba2iic two A22pect Work kk

TA: waiit tiil you have two figure out quint2 and 2extet2

TA: we’re not even gettiing iinto fray motiifs

CG: THE FUCK IS A FRAY MOTIF?

Sollux doesn’t give an explanation. Instead he types KK DUCK, which is echoed out loud by Terezi, and in some weird internal way by something in his head. He rolls off the couch just as something smashes against the window. The glass cracks, but doesn’t break.

Terezi joins him on the floor. She shouts a word, and bright patterns flicker across the floor, up the walls and meet at the ceiling. Karkat recognizes some of the symbols, almost makes sense of what they mean before they make his eyes water and he has to look away. “What the fuck?” There’s nothing but a crackle of static from the phones.

“Stay down,” Terezi says. “Sol’s gonna get his dad, and call Feferi. Hopefully we don’t have to hold the fort for too long.”

There’s another crack against the window, along with a bright flash. “Okay, we’re being attacked. No shit, Karkat. Who’s attacking us?”

“I can’t see clearly,” Terezi says. “And I’m kinda hoping the attack isn’t two pronged.”

“Two pronged, you mean my Dad?” Karkat asks with a sick sort of feeling. “Why?”

“Outsiders, corrupting influence who the fuck knows,” Terezi says, voice brittle and frustrated. She takes a breath. “Okay, you want to find out about fray motifs?” She asks, and lights up bright teal, a three armed spiral appearing around her head. “Let’s try some firsthand experience.” She holds out her hand. “Take my hand.”

Karkat hesitates for less than a second, then grabs her hand. “I have no idea what you want me to do--” he says, but then he knows, because Terezi has dropped the information in his head. He activates a Blood sigil, and wraps the lines of a defensive pattern around Terezi’s mind sigil.

The defensive pattern spins, and then separates into three-limbed, curved blades of light dark red and bright teal. They split again and again.

(The lights go out, but they can still see. Indistinct shapes on the other door linked together and somehow shielded.)

Two shuriken or whatever they were spin toward the indistinct shapes. The shapes dodge. that was your only warning, Terezi says. Her voice has a strange tonality to it, sharper and weirdly crystalline. back off or be cut down.

The only answer from the shapes is a bright flash that crashes against the door.

She shows him where and how to direct the blades, he can show her there are ten people in total, six in the front of the house, four in the back. He can also show her where the leader is, and that’s where they direct most of their attacks. They are perfectly in tune with each other, and the “tune” part is literal. Music is rising between the shifting combinations of their patterns, music that almost tells them where to go, where to face.

They can’t do this for very long. Karkat has no training, and Terezi is worn down and sick from being depressed. Karkat almost drops the sigil patterns when he senses (allies) approaching. no they’ll be waiting for you to drop your guard, she says and he holds onto the patterns.

He keeps it together until Mituna, flanked by Aradia and Sollux let’s himself into the house. “Hey,” Karkat says in greeting, then “oh, that’s why you have a key.” Then he and Terezi kind of tip over onto the floor, and the sigil patterns collapse. “Mr. Captor’s your dad?” he asks, feeling lightheaded and strange.

“Half-dad,” Terezi mumbles. “Step-dork.”

“Love you too, honey,” Mituna says, squatting down next to both of them. “It’s complicated, says so on my Facebook and everything,” he says to Karkat, his mouth twitching at the corners. Karkat gets the sense that Mr. Captor is trying not to fall apart in front of them. He lifts both of them, with telekinesis, and then folds out the couch bed. “When I’m not so freaked out, I get dibs on screaming at you,” he tells Terezi, or maybe the both of them.

“What about m’dad?” Karkat says.

“He can yell at you next,” Mituna says.

That wasn’t at all what Karkat meant, but he was too tired to try to explain. He falls asleep, curling up next to Terezi. The last thing he thinks he hears is Aradia Megido mentioning something about pictures.

Chapter Text

Breakfast and arguing wakes Karkat up the next morning. His head hurts a steady throb just behind his eyes. He can smell eggs, bacon, pancakes, and hear a conversation about whether or not to call the police and why that isn’t going to happen. Karkat recognizes the voices of Ms. Pyrope and Si, as well as his dad. His arm has fallen asleep and Terezi is clinging to him like a lemur. He tries to pull free, but this just results in Terezi frowning and clutching at him.

“Heh, cute,” Mituna says quietly. He’s sitting in a nearby chair, watching the news, but also watching them. “So, you kids made up?”

“Yeah,” Karkat says, just as quietly. “Terezi, c’mon, wake up.”

“No one tells a dragon when to awaken,” Terezi says, voice muffled as she snuggles. “‘S Saturday anyway.”

“You’re not a dragon and it’s Tuesday, c’mon. There’s pancakes and bacon.”

Terezi stirs, and finally lets him go. “Good, bring me some,” she says, and rolls over.

“Haha, no,” Karkat says. He sits up with a stretch and gets up out of bed. “Anyway I think your dad wanted to yell at you.”

“That was at least half the plan,” Mituna agrees.

“Uuuuuggggh,” Terezi says, and throws a pillow that could have been aimed at anyone.

“Do you have a headache?” Mituna asks Karkat. “Do you still feel tired, dizzy?”

“Not really dizzy,” Karkat says. “Maybe still tired? And a headache. Also I’m hungry.”

“Let Feferi take a look at you,” Mituna says. “You might need to take a nap, later.”

Karkat nods, and heads for the bathroom. Behind him he can hear Mituna talking to Terezi, and Terezi not being very cooperative at all. He’d be a little more worried if he didn’t know Terezi wasn’t a morning person. After a visit to the bathroom he heads into the Pyrope’s kitchen.

Si is at the table drinking coffee, as is Feferi. Dad and Ms. Pyrope are over by the stove, arguing, with occasional comments from Feferi or Si. In addition to Ms. Pyrope, Feferi, Si and his dad, there’s a kid sitting at the kitchen table sullenly glaring at the plate in front of him. The kid’s maybe twelve, his clothes are tore up and dirty, and his eyes are the darkest blue Karkat’s ever seen, and his hair’s a rat’s nest tangle of black curls. “Hey, you’re the kid who wrecked my bike,” Karkat says, suddenly and completely sure. He hadn’t actually gotten a good look at him, but this was definitely the kid. The kid just glares at him.

This breaks up the ongoing conversation between dad and the others. “Karkat?” dad asks turning to Karkat with a frown. “You’re sure?”

“Yeah. I mean, I didn’t see him, but…I’m really, really sure he wrecked my bike,” Karkat says. “Why is he here?”

Dad sighs. “He was one of the assailants who attacked Ms. Pyrope and Mr. Captor while they were attempting to help me. When I realized they were about to imprison a minor without even calling the police–”

“He was going to be taken to Ivy House with the other prisoners. He would have been questioned, nothing more,” Terezi’s mom says.

Ivy House was the home of the High Priestess, Karkat recalled. Feferi was living there part time, studying her Great-grandmother’s grimoires and the works of previous High Priestesses. Apparently, Ivy House had a dungeon, which was weird, disturbing, and about what you’d expect from a secret cult.

“Without the presence of a parent or guardian, or even a lawyer? And you’ll forgive me if I don’t feel comfortable about anyone being taken to this Ivy House of yours,” dad says.

“I hinted really broadly Kankri could take the kid into custody, which he did,” Si says, and drinks some more coffee.

“Maybe I should tell him what that custom is actually about,” Terezi’s mom says crankily.

“Believe me; I’m aware,” dad says darkly.

“Yes we’re terrible and take battle captives and bind them as servants!” Feferi shouts in sudden exasperation. Her voice cracks a little, and Karkat notices that there are dark smudges under her eyes, and her hair is in a slightly ratty looking twist. “And slavery is illegal unless you’re in prison where you can be forced to work!”

Dad frowns at Feferi. “And I find both abhorrent Ms. Peixes,” he says. “I only took the boy ‘into custody’ as Mr. Captor says because I didn’t want him to be ‘questioned’ by your priests.”

“I’m fine with that, Mr. Vantas,” she says around a sudden yawn. “But you can’t assume he wouldn’t be disappeared by the cops either.”

“It’s kind of our town, Vantas,” Osiris says. “Any of them could be part of whatever faction’s targeting the High Priestess–and you.”

Dad rubs at his face with one hand. “I wish things were less complicated,” he says. “Are you all right Karkat?” he asks with concern. “They attacked this place as well.”

“We’re okay,” Karkat says. “We–it was mostly Terezi–were able to hold them off til help arrived. Um. Mituna says Feferi should check me out,” he says, looking uncertainly at Feferi.

“Shore!” Feferi says, looking a little brighter. She pushes back on her chair, gets up and comes over to Karkat. “Checking out” involves holding the palms of her hands just over the sides of Karkat’s head for a few minutes, occasionally asking him to move his head. She’s not touching him, but he can still feel her, Karkat thinks. It’s not exactly warmth or pressure, but something a little like both. “I think you’re all right, for your first battle,” Feferi says. “I’ll go check up on Terezi!” She heads out of the kitchen, and Terezi’s complaints get a little louder.

This leaves him in the kitchen with Terezi’s mom, his dad, Si and the angry kid. Karkat does not feel particularly comfortable about this, but he takes a seat. “So, what happened,” he asks, sitting down at the table. He ends up sitting across from the kid.

Dad sighs, and sits down at the table next to Karkat. As he does, Terezi’s mom sets a platter full of bacon on one side and piles of fried eggs on the other. Then she sets down another dish, this one full of pancakes. “Thanks for helping with the fried eggs, Kankri,” Terezi’s mom says.

“You’re welcome, Latula,” Dad says. Karkat can feel that he’s distracted and uncertain. “Why don’t I get the coffee–” he starts to get up again.

“The coffee’s handled,” Terezi’s mom says, sounding amused. “Don’t worry about it. Talk to your kid.” She pours coffee for Si, herself and then Dad.

“You make it sound easy, where there’s an audience,” Dad mutters.

“It would be just as hard without. Do the thing, Kankri.”

“Right, do the thing,” Dad mutters. Karkat can feel his Dad’s distress and self- blame over what he had happened. “What happened was that I tried to use a spell that would predict the best outcome for…leaving town,” he says. “I’ve been worried about you, worried about what’s been happening, worried about…everything basically. So I used a spell that I wasn’t ready for and it got out of control, and drew you in,” Dad continues. He glances over at the kid. Karkat finds himself doing the same. “I’m told I was ‘influenced.’” (The kid sneers back.)

“When Si and Latula had just freed me from the spell, at a critical moment, they were attacked,” Dad says.

Terezi’s mom sits down and snags a few pancakes and some fried eggs. “It wasn’t something we hadn’t expected,” she says. “I don’t think anyone expected you, however.”

“Uh. What happened? Karkat asks. He senses a sudden wave of guilt, combined with a sense of, I was defending my home I have no reason to feel this guilty from Dad. He catches images of burning figures, and the sound of ambulances, and does his best to pull away from his dad’s headspace.

“Kankri stumbled out of the house and set fire to the attackers and most of the lawn,” Si says, also serving himself. “Rage kid over here wasn’t line of sight and managed not to get burnt.” (The kid scrunches down in his chair like he expects to be hit or something. When nothing happens, he straightens up a bit.)

“Jesus,” Dad says, looking uneasy. How can you be so calm about this? He thinks. Just as quickly he says, “sorry.”

“That was either apology for blasphemy or an apology expecting us to be repulsed by the name of Christ,” Terezi’s mom says in in an almost cheerful tone.

“Of course not; I’m agnostic anyway, as ridiculous as that might sound to you,” Dad says. He starts to fill his plate with eggs and pancakes.

“Sounds fake, but okay,” Mituna says as he enters the kitchen, followed by Terezi and Feferi. “Sol and Aradia are still sacked out in Terezi’s room,” he says. He collects a hug from Terezi’s mom and sits next to her. It’s pretty crowded, but the kitchen table is the kind with an insert to make it larger, so everyone pretty much fits.

“My exclamation was mostly because of how blasé you all are about this kind of… feuding,” Dad says. “You even bring children into it.” He gives Terezi, but also “the Rage kid” a pointed look.

“Not sure we could keep them out,” Mituna says. “The older kids anyway.” He looks over at “the Rage kid,” who still hasn’t gotten himself anything to eat. “Teeny kids like this on the other hand…”

The kid glares back at Mituna, and something nasty and dark starts coming off of him. It’s like being alone and knowing you’re being followed. It’s like a shadow where there shouldn’t be a shadow. It’s a shape in the dark that’s watching you. “I can take you,” the kid says, voice a weirdly distorted growl. “I can take any one of you, you think I can’t?” The kid’s voice sounds menacing all out of proportion to the kid’s actual size.

Karkat can sense the way the kid is pushing hard against Mituna, against everyone at the table. Everyone is frozen, tense and breathless, even Si. He can feel it too, it slips around him, surrounds him. He shivers with the malevolence of it. The only one not affected is Dad, who frowns at the kid. “Stop that right now,” he says firmly.

The kid tries a sneer. “Try and make me,” the kid says. “Got in your head before.”

“Only because I didn’t expect it,” Dad says. “Now I know what to look for, so stop it.” There’s a burning force to the last few words that seems to make the air crackle.

The building dark collapses like a soap bubble, and the kid flinches back. (Everyone else startles, like someone banged a book down hard on their desk.) There’s a look on the kid’s face like he’s trying not to burst into tears, and he scrubs at his eyes with one hand. Karkat can see the kid’s shaking like a leaf; can sense how scared he is.

“Settle down and eat,” Dad says in a more gentle voice. “Did you think I put the plate in front of you as a joke?”

“Not hungry,” the kid says. He curls in on himself, and Karkat has the impression that yeah, the kid thought it was some kind of joke. (Miserable at having been captured, terrified about what might be in store; angry and trapped and a fuck up besides.)

“I’m not convinced,” Dad says. “You’re skin and bones. Humor me, have one pancake, one strip of bacon and one egg.”

A lot of hostility goes out of the kid. He gets the required bacon, pancake and egg and eats them almost angrily. Then he gets seconds, a few more of each. The kid looks at Dad before he takes anything, and Dad nods, silently encouraging him.

The rest of breakfast is questions directed at Karkat and Terezi about their defense of the house. Si wants a report on the fray motif Karkat performed with Terezi. This wanders into a general lecture on attempting fray motifs with an inexperienced user. (This was apparently a bad idea usually, though Si admits that it sounds as if they had formed a solid duet.)

“Sounds like I wasn’t the only one attempting dangerous magic,” Dad says frowning at Karkat.

“For values of dangerous,” Si says. “Terezi pushed herself very hard. It’s good that Karkat was able to support her.”

“Not for long though, I think we would have gotten knocked out or worse if Terezi’s dad? Hadn’t shown up,” Karkat says.

“Half-dad,” Terezi says immediately.

Dad gives Mituna a curious look, but doesn’t ask the question.

“She’s Sol’s twin sister. They split pretty evenly Doom and Mind,” Mituna says. “It wasn’t safe having them together until they were a little older, and a little more in control of themselves. She’s pissed off she doesn’t have a cooler adult male role model slash bio dad.”

“Yes, that’s totally why,” Terezi says. “Not because I thought you were just my mom’s dorky boyfriend til middle school.

“It would have been a little better if they’d been both Doom or both Mind,” Terezi’s mom says. “But an even split doesn’t play nice, traditionally and apparently actually.”

“It’s a mystery why we’re such a cool couple,” Mituna says, pushing his chair back. “And why the kids are besties fistbumps forever.”

“It’s because we’re awesome babe,” Terezi’s mom says. She settles into Mituna’s lap with a grin. “It totally cancels out the Doom and Mind together thing.”

“I’m going to go check on Sol and Aradia,” Terezi says, rolling her eyes and getting up from the table. “Before you guys start singing ‘I Got You Babe’!” She yells as she absconds.

“I will play it on repeat forever!” Terezi’s mom shouts back.

“Seems like the kid’s feeling better,” Si says.

“Yeah, I’m relieved,” Terezi’s mom says, leaning against Mituna.

After breakfast, Dad tells the kid to get up from the table, which the kid does, a little woodenly. “If you need to use the bathroom, go do that. Take a shower. Don’t leave the house, break anything, or try to communicate with your people, okay?” The kid nods, and heads off.

“Dad?” Karkat asks, remembering Feferi’s comment about “binding servants.”

Dad sighs. “He’s a minor; I doubt his caregivers are taking care of him if he’s apparently a child soldier. And I didn’t want him to be locked up in Ms. Peixes cellar, or disappeared by Ms. Peixes enemies.”

“It really is the best way for him to not get disappeared,” Si says. “You can help him this way, and find out who his masters are.”

Dad frowns, then sighs rubbing his face with one hand. “I’m more interested in helping him, to be honest.”

“And part of that will be finding the people who turned him into a child soldier,” Si points out.

The kid’s name is Gamzee Makara. He’s about twelve, and is apparently a prodigy when it comes to Rage. He’d apparently “gotten into” Dad’s head and inspiring him to use the scrying spell that filled the house with weird red vines and branches. Gamzee had been up in a tree for a few days “pushing” at Dad, who hadn’t really noticed with all the other uneasiness he was feeling. After Dad, Terezi’s mom and Si had taken care of the other attackers, Gamzee had tried and failed to make a run for it.

(Karkat spends some time kicking himself for not talking to his DAD about learning how to tell when someone was messing with his head. Dad is amused and reassuring about it. It doesn’t really help. Past Karkat is an idiot.)

Where Gamzee is going to be sleeping is as much of a concern as where Karkat and Dad were going to be living. Peixes invites them to live at her grandmother’s house. “Are you sure you should be offering Dr. Foster’s home?” Dad asks. And then she offers Ivy House. “I’d rather not take you up on that offer,” Dad says. “Is there any way my house can be made safe?”

“Si and me can walk you through the protection and alert spells,” Latula says. “If that’s okay?”

“We can also work on combative spells,” Si says.

“Agreed,” Dad says. “I’d rather not accidentally cast fireball while defending my home.”

Chapter Text

Feferi drives Karkat, Dad, Gamzee Latula and Si back to the house in her grandmother’s minivan. Karkat’s sitting with Gamzee in the back seat. The kid is a curled up ball of misery, leaning against the door. Latula is talking to Dad in the middle seat, about spell work, and Si is playing a game on his phone. (As old as Si is, it doesn’t seem like he should be so familiar with modern technology, which is maybe a stupid thought to have since he lived through the development of it.) It’s a quiet ride back.

On arrival, Feferi and Latula immediately want to inspect the house. Latula does not want Feferi to go with her, which becomes a problem. There’s an exchange of words and non-human sounds.

“Feferi, if it isn’t safe, I don’t think you should go in,” Dad says as he coaxes the Gamzee kid out of the car. His voice is calm, despite the brief moment of surprise at the sounds they were making.

“Whale, Latula can’t go in alone, Mister Vantas,” she says. She’s trying for light, but isn’t reaching it at all. “And Adept Captor is too venerable.”

“You can say ‘old and decrepit,’ honey,” Si says. “I’m sure Adept Pyrope can handle any presents that might have got left.”

Feferi straightens up. “I should back up the Adept.”

“With all due respect, you look like shit, my lady,” Latula says. “The only reason I let you drive is because Si could keep you from crashing your grandmother’s van.”

“There wasn’t anything wrong with my driving!” Feferi says defensively and a little too loudly. “I’m fine.”

“Nope, nothing wrong with your driving,” Si says. “For someone who hasn’t had more than three hours of sleep in seventy two hours.”

Feferi hisses, her teeth bared, and a weird look in her eyes. Her body is tense, and her hands balled up in fists. “I don’t need sleep,” she says. “I need to root out this insurrection, before people start dying.”

“The insurrection isn’t in the house, honey,” Si says gently.

“Don’t patronize me!” Feferi shouts. “I am your High Priestess!” Her voice cracks in a way that somehow makes Karkat’s ears pop. He can see from the various twitches from the adults and the Gamzee kid, he’s not the only one it happened to.

“Who is that talking?” Si asks, suddenly stern. He steps forward, and leans on his cane as he glares at her. A roil of dark colors seem to surround him, a mask like a skull over his features. Karkat can almost understand the context of what Si’s saying. He can see what Si is doing, what he's showing her, the mistakes she might make, as tired as she is, as angry and frustrated as she is. “Is that really you? Is that who you want to be?”

Feferi shivers all over, suddenly hugging herself and looking away. “Shit, shit, shit, shit,” she mutters angrily, head down, but not before Karkat can see she’s crying. “No. Fuck.” She rubs at her eyes with the heels of her hands.

“Back me up instead, my lady,” Captor says with a smile, and the skull fades out, along with the colors.

“What did I say about patronizing me?” Feferi asks, her voice thick and a little shaky. To Latula she says, “Okay, look around, but be careful, Adept.”

Latula gives a little salute, and after getting the keys from Dad, heads into the house. “What just happened here?” Dad asks.

“Bitch flipped her shit like her great gran would,” the Gamzee kid muttered. Feferi glares at the kid. “How would you know anything about my great grandmother?”

Gamzee flinches a little at the glare but says, “Everyone knows ‘bout the Peixes temper.”

“Gamzee, don’t call anyone a bitch,” Dad says, giving the kid a stern look.

“Oh, the previous high priestess was definitely a bitch,” Si says. “And there’s definitely a Peixes temper, but who’s talking about it, kid?”

The kid immediately clams up and glares at everyone.

“I didn’t know about the Peixes temper,” Dad says, looking over at Feferi. “You’ve always seemed very level headed during class discussions.”

Feferi sniffs, and wipes at her face some more. Si hands her a clean white handkerchief. “That’s what anger management is for,” she says as she takes it from him. “Also, Great Grandmother was an awesome reverse role model.”

Si snorts at that. “People put a veil on that, talking about the good old days, and strong high priestesses, they started doing that when they put her in the ground, with respect.”

“You just agreed my great grandma was a bitch,” Feferi says. She waves the handkerchief. “I mean she was mean and awful but what are you getting at?”

“Nothing, just wondering out loud about who would be angry enough with your great grandmother that they wouldn’t veil how they felt about her, and pass it on.”

“Well there’s you,” Feferi says with a flicker of a smile. Si returns the smile with a slight dip of his head. “And he’s a Makara, so it’d really be understandable.” She frowns, and turns to the kid, who backs up against Dad. “Karkat wanted to meet the Keylon and Turner kids who go to Union Tech,” she says. “I talked to some of the Keylon and Turner elders and I also asked about the Makaras. They got all fishy aboat it, but I didn’t think of it at the time. They didn’t really know me, so I thought they were just protecting the Makaras. Where are the Makaras?”

“The Makaras and a few other families set up a trailer park community on the edge of town,” Si says, frowning a little, like this was something she should know. “East end, near the WalMart. They’ve mostly kept their heads down and out of temple politics. As far as anyone knows they haven’t continued their…apostasy.”

“But there’s this kid,” Feferi says, sounding frustrated. Sounding as if she were running out of words and also energy. Her hands flexed. “Being used as a weapon. Where are the Makaras?”

Karkat hears a sharp caw, and sees the crow in the trees. The crow looks back, eyes bright, and he understands something. “They should have gone to you, if one of their kids went missing. You or one of the other priests to help find the kids.” Karkat says.

“Or the cops, it’d almost be the same thing,” Feferi says. “What happened here, how badly are things fucked up? Are the Makaras part of this, or are they victims here?” She asks, sounding like she’s going to start crying again.

Gamzee growls at that, but shuts up when Dad puts a hand on his shoulder, and gives him a stern look.

“Feferi, you’ve posed some interesting questions, but this isn’t something you can handle right now,” Dad says. “When Latula is done looking for traps, you can sleep on the couch.”

“I’m so tired, Mister Vantas,” she says. “There’s too much at once now. I hate this. So much.” She sways a little.

“Maybe you should sit inside the van for now,” Dad says.

“No,” Feferi says. “I’ll fall asleep.”

“That’s what I was hoping, actually,” Dad says, almost amused.

“I’m going to back up Adept Captor,” she says, voice a little more firm. She gives Dad a determined look.

“Well okay,” he says.

About fifteen minutes later, Terezi’s mom comes back out and pronounces the house to be safe to enter. Everyone goes inside, and Dad gives Kakat the job of setting up a place for Gamzee to sleep in the downstairs rec room. Karkat realizes this is at least partly to get him out of the way so “the grownups can talk.” He also realizes Gamzee shouldn’t be hearing anything either.

The kid is also filthy, so before getting him a place to sleep, he’s going to need a shower. “Okay, upstairs, first,” he tells the kid. Gamzee looks between Karkat and Dad, a mulish look on his face.

“Gamzee, please do what Karkat says,” Dad says.

The kid doesn’t look any happier, but he stomps upstairs. Karkat directs the kid to the shower to clean up, and goes looking for something, anything of his the kid can wear. He find a shirt and a pair of cutoffs from three years back he somehow never got rid of, and some underwear and leaves them on the sink counter, which was closest to the door while the kid’s in the shower saying, “hey, got you some clothes.”

Gamzee is practically drowning in Karkat’s clothes when he comes out, and his hair is still a matted rats’ nest. “I feel weirdly like Dad asking this, but do you even know what a comb is?” Karkat asks. “There’s a couple in the drawer, go get one.”

The kid sneers, but gets a comb.

Karkat goes to the linen closet, grabs a few pillows and some blankets and gets the kid to precede him down the stairs to the first floor. Dad is talking to Terezi’s mom and to Si, and it looks like Feferi is trying to participate in the conversation, except she’s in the recliner, and she’s falling asleep. Karkat nudges the kid to the basement door.

“Still ending up in a basement,” the kid mutters, heading down the stairs.

“It’s not a secret dungeon, it’s a rec room. Well okay half of it is rec room, and the other half is a laundry room,” Karkat says.

“Ain’t making me your servant,” the kid says, heading down the stairs.

“Wow, no,” Karkat says. When he reaches the basement floor, he points out the couch and recliners, the entertainment center. “Want to play video games?” he asks. The kid gives him the blankest of blank looks. “Uh. Tell me you know what video games are.”

The kid shrugs defensively. “Dunno how.”

“Okay well, let’s set your bed up and I can show you,” Karkat says. One of the couches has a pull out bed, so he sets that up, while Gamzee kind of sways in place, not sitting down or moving to help, with the comb clutched in one hand. Karkat has Gamzee go sit on the couch, and makes the bed. By the time he’s done, the kid’s curled up on the couch, and the comb’s on the floor.

“Okay, change of plans,” Karkat says with a sigh. Feeling very much like his dad, Karkat nudges the kid awake long enough to attack the kid’s hair with a comb. Gamzee protests that he is not a baby who needs his hair combed. “Right,” Karkat says, not convinced. He gets Gamzee to sit on the floor between his legs, and carefully tries to work out the tangles.

The kid sits all stiff while he combs the mess out, but slowly relaxes, mostly because he’s obviously exhausted than anything else. Gamzee ends up leaning against his leg, making mumbling little protests when Karkat pulls too hard. He finds a couple broken hair ties in the curls, which had failed the important task of keeping the mess more or less confined. He also finds bits of bark and leaves. “Did you wash your hair at all?” Karkat asks.

“Did,” Gamzee says. “S’all tangled up though.” He yawns. “Couldn’t get it all out.”

“Yeah, point,” Karkat says, and keeps working on the tangled mess. The kid’s pretty much completely asleep by the time his hair is combed out. He has to be pulled up onto his feet and nudged over to the bed. The kid flops down almost boneless, and needs to be tucked in, because he’s instantly asleep.

“‘Not so random little shit,’” Karkat says out loud, remembering what Time had said. “But definitely a part of this somehow.” He could see that the kid had a tangle of connections, lines going everywhere, but he couldn’t really trace them. It got fuzzy, like there was a screen of fog between him and the end points.

Don’t try to look past the fog, Light says, Her voice a whisper in his head. The basement seems a little darker, shadows and darkness moving strangely on the other end where the washer and dryer were. Light seemed to be one of the Gods where the name didn’t really fit the manifestation. She always seemed to be surrounded by darkness, instead of well, light. Your father is better suited to such a task, anyway.

“Okay, I’ll let him know,” Karkat says.

And the Adepts and Our High Priestess, Light says.

“Sure,” Karkat says. “Is there anything you can tell me?” he asks, and feels a little reckless for even asking.

Brilliant white eye shapes open like flowers in the dark. The eyeless girl he’d seen in the temple appears standing among shifting shadows and glowing eyes. She’s wearing a blouse and a knee length skirt, both in black and purple. She smiles at him. “I can tell you that the Makaras need help, and are too angry to ask for it. They don’t trust the priesthood, and perhaps have reason not to, give the political situation.”

“Perhaps given getting kicked out of church after getting tricked by a metaphysical con artist,” Karkat says.

Light smiles. “That too,” She says. “My Brother was angry with them, for having been tricked, though He was more forgiving with His priestess. Still, the exile shouldn’t have lasted more than a generation. Our previous High Priestess…was very divisive by nature.” She falls silent for a moment before saying, “We were all angry at the loss of Our last Blood Adept.”

“Was she a Spouse?” Karkat didn’t think she was. In the historical account Si was referred to as “beloved of the Gods,” while Helena Carcin was just referred to as “Blood.”

“Blood has a special place among the Aspects,” Light says. “The most significant and Beloved. Time told you about him, do you remember? Our First Spouse.”

Karkat felt a shiver go down his spine. The Gods had destroyed a bunch of cities over ‘The Beloved’s’ death. Pretty much destroyed an entire civilization. He remembered Time tell him about it, he remembered Heart showing him what had happened. He hadn’t realized the guy was a “spouse” though he probably should have. The idea of these entities destroying whole cities because a spouse died made his heart speed up a bit. “If Blood is so important, how come Ms. Carcin was the only one in town?” Karkat asks.

“There was only one family with the Blood Aspect when Our worshipers came to America,” Light says. “Blood is not a comfortable Aspect, either for the bearer or for those who come into contact with those of that Aspect. It’s also a very rare Aspect.”

There are questions, but Karkat can’t put them into words at the moment. “Okay. I’ll let them know what You told me about the Makaras, if You haven’t told them already.” He looks over at Gamzee, who’s curled up in a tight little ball, asleep, but somehow still looking stressed as hell. “Um. Hey.”

“Yes Karkat?” Light asks with a sharp toothed smile.

“If there’s something going on, could you help him?” Karkat asks. He shivers a little at the sight of Light’s bright fangs, the uncanniness of Her expression.

“To clarify, you want me to protect Gamzee Makara in a metaphysical sense?” Light asks.

“Maybe also a physical sense?” Karkat asks.

“You understand that such a request is not without price, even for you, do you not?” The eyes in the dark shift and blink, and the shadows coil around the eyeless girl.

“Okay,” Karkat says, uneasily. “What’s the price?”

“I want a date,” Light says with a smile of surprising cheer and sweetness.

“Sure,” Karkat says with a little laugh, surprised by the change in tone from sinister and dark to bright and somehow cute. (Holy Crap, She really was cute, too. The Girl part anyway, even with the Uncanny Valley slightly concave skin over Her eye sockets, that didn’t look anything like eyelids, and the sharp looking teeth. He was less sure about the shadowy tentacles and glowing eye shapes in the darkness surrounding Her.) “When?”

“Tonight,” Light says. “I’ll pick you up. Now go upstairs, the Adepts and Our High Priestess have sensed Me, and will want to know the reason for My Manifestation.”

“Yes Ma’am,” Karkat says at the order, and absconds. Behind him he can hear something like laughter. He goes into the living room, where Dad, Si, Feferi and Ms. Pyrope have obviously stopped talking because they were waiting for him. “So, Light says that the Makaras need help, and won’t ask for it because they don’t trust the priesthood, which they maybe shouldn’t because of the political situation,” Karkat says. “Apparently your great grandmother should have brought them back into the fold within a generation but didn’t?”

Feferi growls a number of things in an inhuman language. The air seems to distort around the sounds she makes. “I’ll go to them, then,” she says, and yawns.

“Not right now, though,” Si says. “You’re pretty much actually asleep.”

Feferi blinks sleepily at Si, frowning, but doesn’t argue.

Karkat sits in on the continuing protection spell lessons, and participates in setting up wards and spell alarms in the house and outside in the front and back yard. He’s a little distracted about the “date” he’s going to be going on (that he hasn’t told Dad about yet), which of course makes Dad concerned. “Are you all right, Karkat?” Dad asks during a rest break. (Ms. Pyrope and Si move just out of earshot, immediately giving them privacy.)

“I’m okay,” Karkat says. “I just have a lot on my mind.”

“There has been a lot to take in,” Dad says. “But you’ve been a little…dazed? Since your encounter with ‘Light.’”

“She didn’t just tell me about the Makaras,” Karkat admits. “And I’m still thinking about it.”

“Is it something you’re able to share?” Dad asks.

“Just, Blood is apparently really important and rare,” Karkat says. “She made it sound like it was a dangerous thing to have. So I’m thinking about that mostly.”

“Well, it’s obviously dangerous, given what happened,” Dad says. “As much as I’m… uncertain about what’s happening here, I should never have tried that spell without some sort of consultation.”

“Yeah, that was pretty weird. And creepy,” Karkat says. “I won’t say I didn’t get anything from it though.”

Dad looks unhappy. “Mostly that escape would be almost impossible,” he says in a low voice.

“Hope says if I asked, They’d keep Their distance, but…everyone would be miserable.”

“Maybe he’s just saying that,” Dad points out.

“I don’t think so,” Karkat says. “It was something that kept coming up in all the timelines. There were a few where I told Them to leave me alone and They tried, but it didn’t really work? They were still there, like there was a permanent open door between me and Them, and everyone was trying really hard not to lose the game.”

“What if I’d actually heeded the warning of that shop owner?” Dad asks.

“Someone else would have actually died,” Karkat says. “Or in the hospital for the rest of their lives. They’d still find me, though the circumstances would have been different, probably even if we hadn’t come to town.”

“That’s not a comfortable thought to have, Karkat,” Dad says.

“Yeah,” Karkat says. “Um. I kind of agreed to a date with Light,” he says. Probably not the best time to bring it up, but there probably wasn’t a best time to bring it up.

“A date?” Dad asks, eyebrows going up.

“Yeah. Tonight?”

“On a school night?” Dad asks with a frown.

“The entire week is already a mess Dad,” Karkat points out. “I’m going to be doing make up tests next week.” A beat. “You’re more worried about it being a date on a week night?”

“It’s only Tuesday,” Dad says. “I’m clinging to the ‘date on a week night’ because I don’t want to think about ‘my son is going on a date with an elder god.’”

“You liked Heart and didn’t have any problems with Space,” Karkat points out, almost defensively.

Dad laughs, a helpless, uneasy sound. “Do you like them?” Dad asks. “That’s what I’m worried about. These entities being able to influence you, make you think and do things that aren’t things you’d really think or do.”

“I think I do?” Karkat asks, after a few minutes. “They aren’t making me do anything. Not on purpose anyway.”

“That isn’t really reassuring, kiddo,” Dad says, and pulls Karkat into a hard hug.

Chapter Text

Si and Latula plug Karkat for more information about his conversation with Light. He tries to give as much detail as he can from what he remembers of the conversation, and what Light said about the Makaras. He also describes the weird “fog” surrounding Gamzee. “She told me that I shouldn’t try getting past the fog?” He says, and looks over at his dad. “She said Dad was better suited.”

“Because I’m a ‘Seer,’ I’d guess,” Dad says.

“Something like that,” Si says. “Depending on the blocks being put up. Is this something you want to work on?”

“Since we were made to be involved in this feud of yours, why not?” Dad asks, brows lifting with mildly sardonic humor. Underlying his tone is curiosity, and concern. “What do I need to learn?”

Karkat finds himself pulled into the tutoring session Ms. Pyrope and Si are giving Dad. He’s learning to put up barriers, while Dad is learning to see through them or get around them. Then Dad has to put up barriers and Karkat has to try to get around them or knock them down. They both have to learn about the kinds of barriers, and face off against barriers Ms. Pyrope or Si put up.

Feferi offers the occasional comment as well, but Karkat suspects she’s actually talking in her sleep, because her comments don’t usually make a lot of sense. This is hilarious, but Dad won’t let him record it for posterity. “As strangely endearing as it is to learn that pillowforts make the best barriers, let’s at least try to stay on her good side.”

“Too late,” Feferi says in a sleepy voice. “Blood is absolutely the worst Aspect.”

“Isn’t that kind of heretical because reasons?” Karkat asks.

“Awful,” Feferi says. “And don’t talk to me about heresy, you--is there a word for someone who wasn’t raised in the religion even though they should have been but weren’t?” She blinks sleepily and pushes the recliner into an upright position. She yawns. “Nevermind, how long was I asleep?”

“Just a few hours, priestess,” Ms. Pyrope says. “Are you feeling better?”

“Sort of,” Feferi says. “I feel like I could sleep for a lot longer though.” She yawns. “What were you guys working on? Something about barriers?”

“Learning to see through them, among other things,” Dad says. “Apparently there’s some kind of barrier involved with Gamzee.” There was a pause as he frowns at Feferi. “Also, I disagree with the notion that we were supposed to have been raised in your cult.”

“I don’t care Mister Vantas!” Feferi says cheerfully. “You have the Aspect and the genes. It’d be interesting to know what happened to your family that they lost the rituals and rites, but you are definitely one of us.”

“Maybe they rejected your gods,” Dad says. “That does seem to be an implied option. Or perhaps they were at some point rejected, which could be just as likely given this town’s history.”

“Implied option?” Feferi asks. She isn’t trying for cheerful anymore. There’s an edge to her voice that goes right against Karkat’s nerves.

“Some of the timelines Dad came up with indicated it could be a thing,” Karkat says. “Also you’re mad at the idea my great grand whatevers converted to another religion, or I don’t know, decided to be atheists despite apparent evidence to the contrary, but you’re not mad about your sister?”

“She didn’t reject the gods, and she wasn’t cast out, she just abdicated. She’s still a priestess,” Feferi says. She takes a deep breath. “And I was mad at Meenah, but she seemed kind of brave too? And when I was a kid, I didn’t feel brave most of the time.” She glares at the Adepts. “Don’t you dare say ‘you’re still a kid,’” she says.

“We would never,” Si says with teasing solemnity, echoed by Ms. Pyrope.

Feferi gives them both suspicious looks, and then rubs at her face with one hand. “I shouldn’t even be admitting that,” she says. “I apologize, Mister Vantas. If you’ve read our history you also know why the idea of one of us turning away from the Gods is upsetting.”

“I admit to needling you,” Dad says. “I apologize for that. It turns out I have some questions regarding that--” The questions are mostly about the “demon” and how it was different from a “God,” since it seemed to be so powerful. The terminology quickly starts to fly over Karkat’s head, further evidence that Dad has been reading ahead. (The “oh yes of course I can do this apparently advanced spell without supervision,” thing being item number one.)

When it gets dark, Dad makes dinner while Feferi, Ms. Pyrope and Si work on protections for the house. He’d invited Feferi to spend the night, and she reluctantly accepts after a phone call with her grandmother. Sol’s dad would probably be showing up to pick up Ms. Pyrope and Si after dinner.

Karkat gets ready for his date, and has no fucking idea of what he should wear. It is probably weird that this is the first concern about the date instead of everything else about the date. Weird in that it’s almost normal. “Goth!” the crow says from the dresser.

Karkat barely twitches at the crow’s sudden presence. “How about no?” he asks.

“Aww,” the crow says.

“Also, I challenge you to find anything even a little Goth in my wardrobe,” Karkat says.

“Black poet shirt,” the crow says.

“That was part of a Halloween costume from when I was thirteen,” Karkat says. He’d been Westley from The Princess Bride. It definitely wouldn’t fit. Even if it did fit, it would be stupid to wear it. “There is nothing Goth about the Dread Pirate Roberts.”

“Light is Goth,” the crow says. “The most Goth, she was Goth before they sacked Rome. She was Goth before some fish decided to have a beach party. She was Goth when dinosaurs roamed the Earth.”

“Okay, She’s Goth,” Karkat says, rolling his eyes a little. “I however am not Goth.”

“Little bit of country little bit of rock n roll?”

“Oh my god,” Karkat says. “Out of my room, shoo!” He waves his arms at the crow, carefully not to actually touch it, having learned from the last time. The crow shoos about as well as can be expected, which is not very. It flaps around his room, laughing at him.

“Your prayers need work,” The crow says.

“Shut up!” Karkat points to the door. “Out!”

The crow cackles and finally hop-glides out of the room. Karkat shuts the door behind the crow and sighs. The crow is in the living room, and it’s singing the song. Peixes is singing the Marie Osmand parts. It’s kind of surreal. He thought Dad was the only one who still liked Donnie and Marie Osmand, but apparently he was very, very wrong. “There is nothing Country or Rock and Roll about Donnie and Mary Osmand!” Karkat shouts.

“There is nothing wrong with liking seventies variety show performers Karkat!” Dad shouts back.

Karkat snorts a laugh at that. He does some more rummaging around. What kind of date was Light planning though? He didn’t want to be wearing his best jeans and t- shirt and find out Light was going to want to take him to a fancy restaurant. Were there any fancy restaurants in town though? He’d seen a few Italian restaurants, chain and otherwise, a couple Chinese places, a Red Lobster, and a couple diners in addition to the usual fast food places. Of course, She might not limit the location to just the town. She might end up taking him just about anywhere, including the moon, if She really wanted to. (It occurs to him that he’s assuming she’s the one treating him instead of the reverse. He wonders if it’s because God or because of extensive conversations about sexism from Dad. It is entirely possible it’s both, somehow. He checks how much he’s saved from his allowance, just in case he’s going to be the one paying.) He settles on black slacks, a grey shirt and a black blazer.

After some more dithering, he heads downstairs. The crow is gone, and there is a wolf-whistle from Feferi. “You look great but your hair is a disaster,” she says.

“The Vantas hair can’t be tamed,” Karkat says. Despite his words, he self- consciously runs a hand through his hair. He almost wants to ask Feferi or more likely, Si advice about what he should do about the date. They know how this is supposed to go better than he does. (He also wants to ask Dad for his advice, even though Dad has no more idea of what going on a date with an eldritch deity is supposed to be like than he does.) He can sense that Dad is probably going to be plugging both of them for more information about this entire courtship thing.

Light arrives just as Dad finishes making dinner and sets the food out. She looks as ordinary as she can possibly look. She’s a little shorter than him, with lavender eyes and white blonde hair in a bob held back by a black hairband. She’s wearing white, black and lavender in the form of a white blouse, a long black skirt, and a light lavender sweater. “Hello Karkat, ready for our date?” She asks with a smile. She’s wearing black lipstick, and her

fingernails are also black, Karkat notices.

“Yeah, sure.” Karkat says, and glances back at his Dad, who has paused at the point of sitting down at the table with Feferi, Ms. Pyrope and Si.

“We’ll be back by midnight, will that be okay, Mister Vantas?” Light asks politely. Karkat senses a kind of whimsical good humor from Light. She wants to be reassuring, and realizes she can’t be, but it won’t stop her from trying. The senior Vantas is a strong seer even untrained, and will be a good Adept. His concern is commendable, but then, he’s Blood, and She would expect nothing less. (Karkat is not sure whether he’s somehow hearing this, or if Light is letting him hear. The answer is: “Why not both?”)

“Of course,” Dad says after a pause. “Have fun.” There was a slight ghost of a “k” where he almost called them “kids.” (Dad was on the edge of holding back a hysterical laugh, Dad was thinking, Christ.)

Karkat and Light head outside. There’s a small black car parked on the curb just behind the minivan and Dad’s car. “Was there any place you wanted to go?” Light asks as they get into the car.

“I have enough money for dinner and a movie,” Karkat says. “Depending on where you wanted to go.”

“We can talk about possible movies over dinner,” Light says with a smile. “I anticipated the possibility of going to a movie, and brought a newspaper.”

They go to a chain Italian restaurant, and get seated in record time despite how busy it is. While waiting for their orders and during dinner, Light asks questions about his favorite foods, his favorite movies, his hobbies, what he wanted to do when and if he went to college, the schools he went to in Chicago. It was a weird combination of the questions he’d expect from an adult, and the questions he’d expect from someone his own age. Either set of questions felt strange, hitting some kind of uncanny valley. “Wouldn’t you know this already?” Karkat asks.

“I want to hear you,” Light says. “There is so much you can learn from listening to what someone chooses to tell you.”

“What are you learning?” Karkat asks.

“What you miss about where you used to live, what you like, your interests,” Light says with a smile. “You can ask questions too, you know.”

“I’m really not sure what to ask,” Karkat says. “That entire accursed knowledge that’s cursed thing.”

Light laughs. “I can tell you things about me that aren’t accursed knowledge that’s cursed too,” She says.

“Like what?” Karkat asks, doubtful and curious. There is a certain glint of humor in Light’s eyes.

Light’s expression is pure mischief. “Well, I like paranormal romance,” she says in a casual tone.

Karkat laughs, he can’t help it. (He knows absolutely that it’s true.) “Vampires or werewolves?” he asks.

“I don’t see why I should have to pick,” Light says. “Kanaya seems to prefer vampires, however. We have discussions about it. I also like dragons, but they all have human forms, which I feel is cheating.”

Karkat chokes a little at that. “Uh…”

“Well, it is,” Light says, Her tone teasing. “If you’re going to have dragon-human sex you should have dragon-human sex.” Then She says, “don’t worry, as my brother so charmingly put it, you still won’t have to put up with ‘kaiju devastation or butthole squid babies--that’s not how We get down with Our gentles and ladies.’”

“Well that’s a relief,” Karkat says. He felt warm all over, especially his face. “There were definitely tentacles involved at some point,” he says. “I mean, with You and Time and Heart.”

“But there was definite lack of devastation, wasn’t there?” Light asks with a slanted smile. In a more serious tone She says, “though you wouldn’t have known that at the time. You were very brave.”

“I did not exactly feel brave,” Karkat says. “Kind of the opposite.”

“Still,” Light says. “We wouldn’t blame you for being angry with Us, or frightened.”

“I might…be a little of both, still,” Karkat admits. “This is really weird.” A thought comes to him, and he knows it needs to be said. Just, get it out on the table. He takes a breath. “Would you be angry if I said I kind of wish me and Dad hadn’t moved to Alba?”

“No,” Light says after a pause. She gives him another slanted smile. “Could you guarantee We wouldn’t have gone looking for you, even without that sudden and unpleasant first introduction?”

“Would you have? I think Feferi said the Blood powers were ‘latent’ or something,” Karkat says. “On the other hand, Breath says it’s not exactly like you’re not aware of anything outside the town, so I don’t know.”

“We would have,” Light says. “I think We would have been drawn to you, eventually, and realized what it was that was attracting Our attention.”

Light pays for the dinner, and they go to a movie, and Karkat pays for the tickets. They see a romantic comedy that Light snarks through. Karkat finds himself arguing with her through the whole movie, even though he half agrees with her. Arguing with her is as equally entertaining as the movie. No one seems to hear them, and they do not get kicked out of the theater for making a lot of noise.

After the movie, Light takes him home, and walks him up to the front porch. “Did you have fun?” She asks.

“Yeah, I did,” Karkat says. “Did you?”

“Of course,” Light says. She had made Herself a bit shorter than he was, so She had to stand on Her toes to kiss him. She solved the problem by tugging him down to Her level.

Karkat laughs, holding Light around the waist. He kisses Her back. Karkat has a sense of Her, those parts she was keeping hidden, cupped around him but not touching. He shivers a little, aware of how big She really was. Suddenly and completely aware of how human she wasn’t. He doesn’t let her go, but he’s stopped kissing her. They’re frozen, with their foreheads pressed together now. Light strokes his face. “I would never hurt you,” She whispers.

Karkat shivers again.“That doesn’t help as much as you want it to,” he whispers back.

“But you know I want it to,” She says. “So that’s something, isn’t it?”

“Yeah,” Karkat says after a few moments.

Light gives him a last kiss. “Goodnight, Karkat,” She says, and disappears.

Karkat heads inside. He’s a little surprised that Dad isn’t waiting up for him. Instead, the living room is dark. He flips on a light and sees that the dining room table is full of books and notes. It looked as if Dad had been doing some more studying, and then had gone to bed. There’s also a note: Karkat, Mituna will be taking you to school for the rest of the week, and picking you up, along with Terezi and Sollux. I’ll be working late with Terezi’s mother and Si.

“Yeah, that’s not suspicious,” Karkat says. Training for Dad…bodyguards for him? What about Gamzee?

Instead of going upstairs, he heads downstairs. Gamzee’s moved from the bed to the couch, curled up into one side of it. He’s turning one of the game controllers around in his hands, and drops it as Karkat comes down. “Hey kid, you need anything?”

“Not a kid,” Gamzee flicking a glare in Karkat’s direction. “You said you’d show me how to play.”

“Yeah I can do that,” Karkat says. The kid has absolutely no familiarity with any gaming system, or any game really, and has to be taught how to set everything up. He helps the kid set up characters and teaches him how to play the game. He plays with Gamzee for about half an hour, and heads to bed, telling the kid not to break anything.

Karkat is not at all surprised by the large white not-a-dog on his bed. Her tail thumps at him. “Skootch over,” he says, taking off his pants and shirt before getting into bed. Space moves over obligingly, then rests Her head on his chest. Without even thinking about it, he’s scratching Her ears. “This is weird by the way.” He has a distinct impression that Space doesn’t care. “Let me guess, I should just get used to it.”

Space’s tail thumps some more, and she lifts her head to grin at him, panting. Karkat sighs and reaches for his bedroom light. It clicks off by itself.