Chapter 8: if i was king
So much paleness in this chapter. I am pleased.
The first thing you’re aware of is pain.
Not pain from any part of you—forest pain, and some part of you tells you it’s better than it was even though you can’t quite remember yet what ‘it’ was or why it hurt at all.
You manage to get one eye part of the way open; you see a familiar stone-and-dirt ceiling, your flowers hanging from the entrance. The day outside is dark purple-gray, full of the sound of heavy, spattering rain. You’re awake—for now—but all you really want to do is close your eyes and drop back into the blackness you just came out of.
You don’t jump, because you’re too tired to move that fast. But you do tense up and then groan in pain. Your trees are cracked, there are new saplings between their roots but they’re not big enough to be your forest yet. Your forest is wounded.
“Karkat,” repeats the voice again, and you realize that your eyes have fallen shut again. You force them open, and you see a round, brown face and round, bright green eyes.
“I’m so glad you’re awake,” says Jade. “I have so many questions!”
You groan, close your eyes, and try to pretend you don’t exist.
“…oooor I could wait a while,” she corrects herself, and you nod and make incoherent grunting noises of appreciation for that idea. “I was worried when you passed out, do you normally do that?”
…you passed out.
You were. In your forest, Jade was with you and then you were…you…were…
Something crucial clicks into place inside your skull—you force yourself to sit up, eyes widening.
“His claws almost punctured my stomach!” says Jade brightly. “—but that’s okay, I put some sealant on it and stitched myself up, and it’s healing nicely. There’s an aura of power around here, did you know? It’s increasing my usual healing time by at least double!”
“Uh,” you say, and blink up at her. “…nnh?”
“Oh, but I suppose you probably want to know more about how you’re doing!” She picks up a big, flat stone with a round hole in the center, holds it up to one eye and squints at you through it. “…your network is clear at least! Waking up seems to have pushed out the last of whatever they did to your spirit.” She grabs your arm, and you barely have time to make a protesting noise before she cuts a little slice into your thumb and catches the bright, red-orange blood in a glass vial with practiced ease. She pulls something in a dark bottle out of her cloak and adds a drop of it to the blood; it turns white and cloudy. “—and no little sickness creatures, either!”
“Little sickness creatures, they get into your body and cause sickness,” she explains. “—I’m not sure they’d work on you, but I’ve been testing every so often—I’m trying to think of a better word for them! I’ve been going back in the older languages and I think microorganisms might—oh damn here I am talking about my research again!”
You have nothing to say to that, but she seems to be writing your half of the conversation in her head, so you just blink up at her in a daze. Her eyes are a really nice color. It looks like grass. Or leaves. There are golden human ornaments hanging from her ears and the green and the gold look nice together. It’s nice. You feel…nice.
Little green and gold flowers start to grow from the room of the cave behind her, hanging around her head as you stare at her in a daze and she keeps talking, all flying hand gestures and excited rabbit-toothed grins.
“—I was worried because for a while there you were, well—dead!” she’s explaining, and you blink at her and just wait for her to explain what she’s talking about. “You died! And then for a little while you stayed that way, but then you started to sort of…crack, and then your skin started to pull away and you were inside! Inside of your own skin! Like, like, like a cicada or something! Your leg was healed and everything, It was the most amazing thing I have ever seen—I made sketches and collected some of the slime that was inside the cocoon—well, your skin, your skin was the cocoon—and I got a fragment of it to take a look at and then I made you comfortable and—oh! Your wings are back, too!”
That part gets through to you. You twist around weakly—there’s a flash of red and brown at your back again, still-tender leaf membranes and slightly green branches.
You could cry. Gods. You flop back down, careful not to bend your wings, and take a few deep breaths and concentrate on not crying in front of a mortal.
And then you realize your question never got an answer.
“…Gamzee,” you say again, louder and firmer. “—where’s—Gamzee.”
“I laid him out in the sunshine,” says Jade, and reaches down to get an arm under your shoulders, helping you to your feet. You feel shaky and incorporeal—and young. You feel like you remember feeling, hazily, back in the beginning of your existence. Your legs shake like a newly-born fawn’s. Your eyes can’t quite focus on what you want to focus on. “He kept trying to lie in the sun, even when he wasn’t really conscious. But that means that I can’t really bring him in when it’s raining either, so I just made a temporary canopy over him with some oilcloth and sticks!”
“What…are you?” You croak at her, and she giggles and doesn’t answer the question. “No, ‘m. Serious. What the hell are you.”
“I’m human!” Jade reaches down and takes you by the arm as though you’re human too, like she has nothing to be afraid of here at all. “Come on. Let’s go see your friend.”
She helps you up, and you don’t have the energy to jerk away from her and yell at her for putting your arm around her shoulder and taking most of your weight off of your feet like you’re some sort of human invalid. The two of you hobble out into the rain together.
Gamzee is a dark figure under the makeshift shelter of canvas and wood. You duck under it—it’s surprisingly tall and spacious, big enough you could reach up over your head and not touch the fabric, and you wonder for a second how the hell a human managed to put this together without any help before she unhooks your arm from her shoulder and folds you gently but irresistibly down onto your knees next to Gamzee’s unconscious body.
The first thing you notice is that he’s covered in blood again. The damage that had been done to his wing, you saw—but you missed things as well, in the dark. These don’t look like the careful, neat lashes that he had when you first met him; they’re vicious, torn and crusted in dirt and muck as though he was rolling on the ground with a wild animal clawing his sides. His legs are battered and bruised almost black (clear and high on one thigh, distinct from the mass of bruises, there’s a terrible, swollen, purple and black and red spot in the shape of a huge, cloven hoof), and his arm on the same side as his broken wing is bent oddly above the elbow. There are two lengths of wood bound to it, holding it straight, tied with woven human bandages.
“I managed to finish putting an emergency splint on his arm and then he started growling in his sleep when I went near him,” says Jade, and helps you down to the ground again, close enough you can crawl forward to get a look at him.
“He’s going to be so mad,” you say, distantly. “…I’ll have to fix his arm again. So mad…”
You lean forward, hesitate a second, and then brush some of his long, wild hair out of his face. It’s come out of its braid, and there’s blood in it, catching at your fingers—smaller braids that you didn’t put into it, and stones and feathers that you didn’t notice in the dark. The vague smears of some kind of facepaint. Little, glittering purple stones almost the same color as his blood. Someone else has been painting his skin and taking care of his hair for him and it makes some part of you hurt with this weird, aching, possessive anger.
And then one of his eyes cracks open. He shifts and then stiffens. “Shhhhiiiiiit,“ he groans, and then tries to breathe in and goes very, very pale under the blood and muck and paint. “—be blighted and damned—!”
He keeps moving. You grab a hold of one big, spiraled horn and shake him a little. “Don’t move. Gamzee you’re a mess, will you just lie still already? Gods.”
He jerks a little at the sound of his name; he groans and his eyes crack just slightly wider, looking around for the first time. “…Karkat,” he says, bleary and wondering, and then his eyes snap wide. “—Karkat!” He jerks upright and lets out a terrible, agonized, keening howl that sets your teeth on edge and makes Jade cry out in pain. His wings try to spread and support him; he screams again, and you can see his face starting to flatten and go feral, a terrified response to the sudden pain.
“Gamzee!” He doesn’t seem to hear you. You duck his flailing good wing, throw yourself forward and get your hands on his face again, hold onto his horn to hold him still for you. “Gamzee, shhhh. The pain will get better if you just stop moving, you big idiot! Now you do as I’m telling you right this second, stop yelling and thrashing around and making it worse and just LIE. BACK. DOWN.“
He doesn’t lie back down, but he does stop struggling, finally. His chest is heaving and every time he breathes in he winces, but he doesn’t seem to give it too much notice. He’s staring at you like he’s never seen you before.
“You’re okay,” he says, numb. “You’re okay?”
Okay is a bit of a strong word, but you nod anyway, because the last thing he needs right now is more worry. “Sure,” you manage, and then just swear a lot, because he reaches out with his undamaged arm and reels you in to hold onto you like he’s afraid you’ll vanish if he ever lets go again. You can feel his heart pounding through his chest, feel the clawed gashes in his skin under your hands, you’re getting sticky with blood and he smells absolutely horrendous and you grab him back and hold on tight. Noises in your ear, almost comforting, fragments of words; I’m here I’m here blighted plague won’t come here again I’m here you’re okay I’m here like you’re the one that needs soothing right now, the stupid hysterical idiot.
You pet his tangled hair as best you can, and he squeezes you so hard you have to groan. Your bones are new and fresh and pliant but the last thing you want to do is test how far they’ll bend. Swatting at him yields very few results, but when you do finally get him to let go enough that you can see his face, you’re less surprised than you ever would have expected to see that he’s crying again.
“Stop that,” you tell him, but it comes out a lot gentler than you intended it to. He sniffs, scrubs at his eyes, but it hardly helps. When he makes muffled sobbing sounds they sound ever-so-slightly goat-like, and it would be funny if you weren’t so overwhelmingly, sickeningly, stupidly glad to have him here. You pat his face awkwardly, like you did when you pacified him before you both passed out; his lower lip trembles and his eyes well up with fresh tears all over again. You have to laugh, but you also have to sigh, so you kind of do both and hug him again so he can hide his face in your shoulder. “Oh you big baby,” you say into his tangled hair, and he half-laughs wetly, muffled. “…I’m fine. It’ll take more than a few demigods to finish me off.”
“I was so angry,“ he says, and as you smooth your fingers over the joints of his wings, the undamaged one starts to melt away. The wounded one stays, and you wonder if it has to heal before it can go again, whether there are laws to his transformations that you don’t know about. You’re willing to learn. “He told—go wreck you, kill your trees, I—“
“Who?” You’re obviously missing crucial parts of this story. You remember the dark clouds to the south, how they vanished again just before the satyrs came to your forest. “Who told them?”
The question makes him shudder. “…sire,” he says, barely audible, and you remember the stories he told you; a massive king of satyrs, one of the ancient spirits. The one he disappointed last time he came to you. “…sorry—I messed up, I messed the hell up I told him where I’d been I messed up, sorry—“
He nods and squeezes you like a real actual human baby with a comfort toy. You sigh and pet him. Jade is standing by, eyes wide, watching the two of you—you give her a “what, really?” look and she turns red under the brown of her skin and turns her back.
“Is he going to send more?” You ask when it finally looks like he’s calmed down—you don’t want to set him off again, but that’s kind of important. You have things you would need to do, to set up, people to talk to. But he shakes his head. You’re…honestly surprised. “Why not?”
He takes a deep, shaky breath.
“…‘s dead,” he says, very quietly. “…killed him. He’s dead.” You stare straight ahead, suddenly breathless, and he seems to take your silence for judgment; his hands are shaking suddenly, almost imperceptible, but clear from where you are in his arms.
“If I was king,” he starts, aborted and pleading, like he needs your forgiveness for this. “—if I was king I could tell them, tell them not to—to leave you—but—”
He killed his sire.
He killed his sire for you.
“…but he was damned strong,” he finishes, wretched. His words are getting more and more mixed up the longer you search silently for words, his voice gets softer and shakier. “Couldn’t, it—days and nights, I don’t even know how long, just fighting, and when I was done and he was dead they were too long gone and I—couldn’t—remember—couldn’t get a single thought on of what to do so I just ran, just followed them—”
“You met them coming back,” you fill in for him, finally, and he nods slowly, uncertainly. “…you…remembered to take my wings back from them, though. You had them when you found us.”
“I did…?” He sounds almost hopeful. Then his breath catches. “—they took—?!” His hands run up your back, touching the young wood of your wings. “Oh gods, oh hell, no, what did they—?!” You have to shush him again—he sounds terrified at the thought.
“They’re back now, I’m okay. Gamzee, listen to me.“ He’s shaking. Hells, you’re both such terrible wrecks right now, but at least as much as he’s panicking he isn’t going to let go of you. He won’t let go of you. If he did, you don’t think you’d be able to stay calm either. “I. Am. Alright. Now. Shh. It was terrible, but it happened and now it’s done. No—Gamzee, gods’ sakes. Quit. Think about something happy, I don’t care, just stop—doing that. It’s not your fault.”
“I told him where—”
“That part is a little bit your fault,” you allow, and he makes a noise that’s half a laugh and half a sob. You remember the proud, arrogant spirit you met half a year ago and you almost laugh; he’s battered now, bruised, scarred, his face contorted with the force of his sobs and dripping all over everything and he won’t stop trying to pull you back in so he can hide his face again. He’s such and idiot and he’s a murderer and a monster and he’s so precious to you, you just want to die. “Stop,” you tell him sternly, and he whines and nuzzles at you. He’s smearing tears all over you—and worse, but you focus on the tears. “Gamzee, no. No. Stop. Listen, get your shit together, you’re a king now. What do kings act like?”
He sniffs. His voice is reedy and hoarse from crying. “Uh—”
“Exactly, not goddamn well like this.“ You have no idea what you’re talking about—you’re pretty sure a king of spirits can act like whatever the hells he wants, although humans seem to hold most of their rulers to higher standards. “Pull yourself together. Come on. You look terrible.”
“Nnngh,” he says, and slumps on you. You pat his head a few times, then pull him away again, ignoring his complaining whine.
“…you’re making me smell like a human barnyard animal,” you inform him. “You stink like a wet goat.”
“…am a wet goat,” he says, miserable and solemn, “…’m the king, brother. King of all those wet, blighted goats.”
You look at each other for a few seconds, frowning seriously, before you both break down into terrible, wet snorts at the exact same moment and just slump, laughing grossly into each other’s shoulders.
“I missed you,” he says, thick and chokey and horrible, and your eyes start prickling and you have to swallow hard.
“…I know. Me too.”
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