It’s half an hour into art therapy and you’ve done nothing with your lump of modelling compound but poke holes into it with your forefinger. Art therapy is a waste of your time on the best of days, but at least on those days it’s a pleasant waste of time. Today, the clock just crawls; neither Sollux nor Gamzee are here, Egbert is huddled together with spiderbitch, Dave has a session with Dr. Tongue, Eridan is… Eridan, and the ladies are so busy with their own group project you’d feel weird butting in.
Sollux’s absence doesn’t entirely surprise you. The last you saw of him was in the hallway yesterday, before lunch, where John had started teasing him about his ‘interesting new shirt’. Sollux had blown up at Egbert so badly you’d been afraid he was going to give the bucktoothed wonder the same kind of bloody nose he’d once given you, but you only got a few steps toward them before Sollux yanked off the t-shirt and flung it at John before storming away.
Even Egbert’s irrepressible cheer had been dented by being screamed at like that, and after dinner he told you that Sollux was in a bad way. And while it isn’t like this hasn’t happened before — judging from the way you’ve overheard staff talking about it, Sollux dramatically flipping his shit is a regular occurrence — this time was bad enough it’s freaking you out.
But as bad off as Sollux seems to be, Gamzee missing is somehow worse. The entire time you’ve been here, you’ve never seen him miss breakfast or art therapy outside of being too sick to get out of bed. Today he’s missed both even though he didn’t seem sick at all yesterday — kind of withdrawn, sure, but nothing how he usually acts like when he’s coming down with something.
“You’re looking awfully grumpy, Karcrab! Is something the matter?”
You squeeze your eyes shut and sigh. Bubbles’s perkiness is usually tolerable, but right now it drives a stabbing pain right into your frontal lobe. “Attempting to visualize something other than a ripping headache is, in fact, giving me a ripping headache. Can I go?”
You open your eyes and jump; Ms. Peixes is about a foot away and squinting into your face. Whatever she sees there satisfies her, because her eyebrows furrow upward and she pats you on the shoulder. “Go ahead! And make sure to stop by the nurse’s station if you need a painkiller, okay?”
“Yeah, sure. Thanks.”
You don’t hurry as you leave the art room — why should you? You don’t actually have a destination, just a lot of time to kill as you shuffle around and worry. It is, at least, better than sitting and trying to look busy while you worry. Walking around gives you something to do.
As you pass the comfort room, you notice that the door is almost — but not quite — shut. You pause a few steps away, your stomach twisting. You want to look in, even though you shouldn’t. You really shouldn’t, you do not need a lecture from Zahhak about boundaries and respecting privacy, but you look around, see no one to tell you off, and backpedal enough to peer in.
Gamzee’s cocooned in blankets on the beanbag chair, his ridiculous hair even more ridiculous than usual due to what must be a serious case of bedhead. Even in the dimness of the room you can tell his bare face is a shipwreck in progress, blotchy skin and haunted eyes staring into nothing.
Maybe you make a noise at the sight of him, maybe you shifted against the doorframe just right, or maybe it’s just luck because before you can draw away and abscond he notices you. A faint smile crosses his lips that does nothing to allievate the misery etched onto his face. “Hey, bro. Come on in.”
You hesitate. You can’t not come in after seeing him like this, but for a second you don’t know how to deal with it. You have never seen him look so utterly crushed and it shakes you to the core. After a moment, though, you manage to pry your fingers from the doorframe and shuffle forward. Your voice cracks a little as you say, “Jesus, Gamzee, what the hell happened to you?”
Gamzee huffs, his smile broadening a bit. “Bad motherfuckin day, bro. It’s cool, they all drop in on us sometime or another.” He spreads his hands. “The way I figure it we gotta have shitty times to know when the good times are here.”
It is not cool. He’s hoarse as fuck and his voice is fragile, edged with near-hysteria pretending to be amusement. While his words are all Gamzee, it’s even easier than usual to tell that he’s deflecting. You scowl at him, but his expression has gone distant, his mind caught by some stray thought.
“Some guy on the TV was saying something like that. I watched it when I was little, this dude with a big-ass fro painting little bitty trees and things.”
“Bob Ross,” you say absently. You sink down crosslegged nearby — not near enough to violate your personal bubble, but near enough to be companionable, you guess.
“Yeah, that’s him.” For a moment that shattered smile morphs into something closer to a real grin before the pain behind it comes flooding back. Gamzee coughs into his fist before propping his chin on it and looking you over. His eyes widen. “Oh shit, why ain’t you up in art class right now, bro?”
God, it hurts how obviously avoidant Gamzee is. You don’t blame him — how could you with him looking like this? But… shit, Gamzee always does this. He’s always hiding from anything unhappy that catches hold of him, like if he just hunkers down and ignores it it’ll never bother him again.
But if you don’t tell him why you’re not in art therapy he’ll never let it go. You give him a one-shouldered shrug and say, “The only skill I have with clay is in making realistic pieces of shit, but since fake poop is Egbert’s schtick I begged off before he decided I was invading his turf.” Gamzee brightens and opens his mouth to run with that, but you fix him with a look and say, ”Dude, what the hell happened? You look like a whole fleet of ships collided and went down, on fire, with no survivors.”
Gamzee slumps and drops his gaze to his folded hands. “Eh, it was my own stupid-ass fault, it don’t matter none,” he murmurs, his voice very small.
You feel like static and sharp glass all over. You get the unshakable feeling that if you do or say one thing wrong, you’ll break this guy. The thought makes your chest tighten in a way that warns you’re way too close to a panic attack, but no, no, you abso-fucking-loutely will not let that happen. You squeeze your eyes shut and breathe deep, just enough to take the edge off, before you say, “Gamzee. Unless you burned down an orphanage or something, I don’t see how anything could be your fault badly enough to make you look like that. So what’s up? Seriously.”
Gamzee hunches and twists his fingers in his lap. “I pissed off Sollux.” The words come out a whisper and he grimaces a little. “I mean, I-I know he’s all having them moodswings and shit, but I think I really went and fucked it up this time Karbro and I sure as fuck didn’t mean to.”
You fight the urge to squirm because Gamzee and Sollux’s thing makes you feel kind of weird at the best of times, and this is not them. But then Gamzee looks up at you and oh shit, oh shit, his eyes are welling up and you don’t know what to do.
“I… I just saw him there all depressed and shit on the couch and tried to talk at him some and h-he…” He shrugs and swallows hard. “He didn’t take it too well. I don’t even know what I did.”
“Fff.” You close your eyes briefly. “I saw him storming down the hallway in one of your hideous clown shirts, is that what that was about?” You pinch the bridge of your nose and sigh. “Why was he even in your shirt, anyway?”
Gamzee blurts a sound that makes your eyes fly open with alarm, but you guess it was supposed to be a laugh since he’s wearing this weird pained grin. “Shiiit.” He covers his eyes with a hand. “He came up out of his room not wearing a shirt, so I gave him mine so Equius wouldn’t up and be getting on his case about it.”
You stare at him helplessly. Of course. Of course Gamzee, of all people, would do something like that. Just, ‘Here bro, put on my shirt so you won’t get in trouble, never mind about me’. This poor damn kid. “And he lost his shit because of that?”
“Nah, not because of that.” Gamzee wipes at his eyes some and goes back to staring at his knees. “I dunno, man. He just looked all kinds of broken up, so I hugged him and said he could get his wicked expression on, you know, tell me what’s up in his heart that’s makin’ him all miserable, and he…” His face crumples and he sniffles hard.
Fuck, this is making you feel weird, you try really hard not to think about their thing, but you just can’t fucking stand seeing Gamzee five seconds away from a sobbing fit. Weird, clingy, and irritatingly optimistic though he might be, he wasn’t someone who should ever look like this. You scoot a little closer and say, softly, “And he…?”
“He said we couldn’t—” Gamzee gasps a sob before he clamps down again. “A-and shoved me off him and went away.” He looks up at you with this utterly pitiful expression, like a dog who’s been kicked every day of his life and still thinks he did something to deserve it, and that’s it. Your heart breaks for this guy, right there.
You swallow hard and rub at your face while you try to put the pieces together. Sollux flipping his shit at Gamzee being his bafflingly sweet self, combined with their Thing… you’d be willing to bet your entire movie collection that this is some kind of romantic misunderstanding.
The thought makes your stomach clench, but you refuse to dwell. You have a Problem to Solve. “Do you guys ever, like…” You gesture vaguely. “Talk about shit, ever? Emotional shit, I mean, not macking on each other or babbling about whatever weird nonsense is rattling through your skulls at any given moment.”
Gamzee’s brows furrow as he paws at his eyes. “Mh. I told him plenty of things, but now that you’re all mentioning it, he ain’t real keen on visiting that particular conversation zone.” His face turns all helpless again and he breathes a shuddery sigh. “I just don’t know how this was any kind of different from all those other motherfuckin times I tried cheering his shit up, you know?”
”It’s not like you could know exactly what’s going on in his weird mutant brain.” God knows you’ve gotten into spats with Sollux that didn’t seem to require much of your actual participation. “He’s in one of those awful fucking moods where everything is shit, right? And when you’re in a mood like that you pick at every fucking thing that could possibly be wrong.” You frown and chew your lip. “Every tiny thing that bugs you even a little is suddenly a goddamned mountain, and someone trips over that and bam, you blow the fuck up at them.”
Gamzee sags back into the beanbag chair. “Fuuuck, I am so goddamn stupid sometimes.” His voice cracks and he presses his face into his hands.
“He even up and told me to go away, but he’s been telling me that lotsa times and this ain’t n-never h-happened, oh shit—” He hiccups and hastily wipes at his face. “I just don’t know when to stop. It even was all happening with you, bro, and I know I said I was sorry all those times but that don’t change that it even happened—”
“Gamzee, dude, I’m an asshole, okay?” You swallow hard as he peers over at you, deeply miserable. “An asshole with shitty social skills and no tact, and that is not your fucking fault—” Your voice cracks on the last word, going high and shrill in a way you hate. You grimace and clamp your mouth shut for a moment. “L-look. You come on pretty strong sometimes, but— It’s not that, okay? I really doubt that that’s the actual issue here.”
Gamzee looks at you doubtfully, his brows furrowed upward. “Y-yeah?”
“Yeah.” You try to school your expression into something reassuring. “If you guys have never talked about whatever… thing you have going on, then I’m willing to bet my whole goddamned movie collection that that’s one of the things that crawled up his ass and died there. If that’s the case, then this is at *least* as much his fault as it is yours.”
“Yeah, that goofy motherfucker’s kinda shit at talking about where is heart is at.” Gamzee shifts a bit and sighs. “I mean, I love that brother, he knows I do, but maybe there’s some kinda confusion stealing up his happy groove.”
You blurt a helpless, humorless laugh. “You love everybody, doofus.”
A grin lights up Gamzee’s face — a real one. It’s like the sun coming out after days of howling storms. He shrugs helplessly. “Yeah?”
He keeps beaming at you as you stare at him in bafflement. You shake your head slowly. “God help me, you actually mean it, don’t you.” You laugh again, but this one you mean, raspy as it is. “Maybe you’d better to make that clear to Sollux, because like you said, he’s shit at feelings.”
Gamzee hunches up like an embarrassed child, but he’s still grinning. “Fuck me, I figured he up and knew.” His smile fade and his hunching takes on a distinctly guilty air, and you are inescapably reminded of gangly puppies. “Yeah, Karbro, you’re right, we ain’t up and discussed this shit for real. I mean, the way he was all to be jumping me sometimes, I figured it was all good in the hood, you know?”
You groan and rub your temples. Jesus fuck, you don’t know how they haven’t had a blowup before this. “Yeah, well. Assuming anything about Captor’s mental state is a sure road to ruin. Speaking of.” You focus your attention back on Gamzee and sure enough, he’s fidgeting like he’s a second away from leaping up to go fix things right this second. “I know you’re really fucked up about this, but don’t try to talk to him now, okay? Wait until he’s acting like a human again instead a whirling ball of razor-bladed angst.”
Gamzee goes still, but when you keep giving him that Look he slumps back into the chair. “Yeah, okay.” He rubs at his eyes and sniffles sharply, but when he looks at you again he looks far steadier. “Thanks, man.”
“Yeah. Well.” You’re the one to fidget, now. You feel kind of ridiculous, sitting here like you’re any sort of a friend, but… you’re trying. And, hell, he still looks sort of fragile, like… oh, damn it. “I, uh. You gonna be okay?”
A little smile flits across Gamzee’s lips as he drops his gaze. “Could use a hug.”
Of course he could. It’s not like you weren’t expecting that answer, after all. Just. Touching people is not generally a thing you do. But. You can make an exception this one time. “Yeah, okay.”
Gamzee’s face lights up all over again, like Christmas just came early. He doesn’t seem to mind how stiffly you scoot over, he just leans over and wraps you up in his arms. You tense — you can’t help it, he’s so much bigger than you it’s frightening to have him this close — but he’s as gentle as if you were a kitten, so you’re able to relax enough to get your arms more or less around him and pat awkwardly at his back.
It’s not bad, you guess, even if hugging is weird, even if him being this this… gentle with you is weird. Gentle and careful, like you actually mean something. Quite suddenly, you’re blinking back tears and you’re not entirely sure why.
You pull back, and Gamzee lets you go just as easily as if you’d asked. He settles back into the beanbag chair looking like himself again, smiling like himself — the smile that reaches his eyes, that is — and when he speaks, sounding like himself. “Thanks, brother. Sometimes a dude just needs a motherfuckin hug.”
“I kind of thought so.” You huff a laugh, then swallow hard and drop your eyes to your knees, suddenly flustered. God, you hope your butting in won’t make things worse. Maybe you shouldn’t have meddled, but you couldn’t stand seeing him like that or hearing himself call himself stupid, stupid, stupid—
“You aren’t stupid,” you say.
Gamzee flicks his eyes up to yours. There’s surprise there, but also vulnerability and old, familiar pain, before his expression shifts into one you can’t read. “Mnh. Sure as fuck feels like it sometimes.” He shakes his head a little, but it isn’t out of the kind of stubborn self-loathing Sollux or Eridan or yourself might display. No, his face is weary, impossibly so.
That expression hurts you in a whole new way, and you have to remind yourself he’s only a year older than you. “Yeah, well. You’re not. Even if I’ve called you an idiot sometimes.” You grimace. “I call everyone an idiot, even our resident bee-obsessed cracked genius, so that’s just me being an asshole, like always.”
And like always you are stunningly bad at apologizing, but Gamzee just laughs and folds his giant hands loosely around yours. “Naaah. I don’t think you’re a asshole any more than I’m stupid, bro.” He gives your hands the tiniest of squeezes and releases them. “I met me some assholes, and you ain’t them.”
The protest you were about to make at the gratuitous touching fizzles in the wake of his words. You scowl and say, “Of course I’m an asshole, I make a point of being an asshole.”
Gamzee quirks and shrugs. “That don’t really make you a asshole. You been kicked around some. Makes sense that you’d wanna up and kick back.” His smile softens. “But then you got this tenderness in you, you see fucked up motherfuckers like me and you gotta be helpin’em out.”
An ache blooms in your chest and quite suddenly you’re the one feeling fragile, fragile and frightened and lonely. You choke it down and hunch your shoulders. “Don’t go around blurting that out, okay? Shit’s embarrasing.”
“If you say so, my brother. Consider my lips motherfuckin zipped.” That wry little smile of his softens, and he nudges your knee. “But for serious, Karkat, thanks. You settled my shit down when I thought I couldn’t even be helped.”
“You’re welcome.” After a moment of hesitation, you manage to make yourself reach out and give his shoulder a few awkward pats. “You okay now? Like, actually okay?”
“Yeeeah, I’m good, I’m good.” He pats the hand you have on his shoulder and grins wide. “Hungry enough to eat the whole goddamned cafeteria, no lie. Only thing I ate today was that dry-ass bowl of Wheaties Equibro hooked me up with.” He sighs and gets that sad dog look again — small wonder, the guy eats enough for three of you on regular days and lunch isn’t for another hour — but loses it immediately as something occurs to him. “Hey, you wanna go get some vending machine food?”
You wrinkle your nose. “You call that shit food?”
“Sure do!” Gamzee climbs to his feet, shedding his blankets all at once, and offers you a hand up. “How ‘bout it?”
You eye his hand, then reach out and grab it. “Sure. Why not.”