A long year...

He got an email from Tavros telling him about their new flat. It was nice and big, with a great view, but they were on the top floor of the building and the elevator kept breaking. The colonel was getting steadily angrier with the landlord, but Rufioh was trying to plan out some modifications to the emergency fire stairs on the side of the building, and wanted some help from Kurloz. They would let him climb up by dint of his sheer upper arm strength, and meant he wouldn't have to worry about not being able to get home.

The flat above the garage, which was where Gamzee and Kurloz were staying, was a tiny, three room affair- one bedroom, a kitchen/living room and the most claustrophobic bathroom known to man. When they moved in, the two brothers immediately had a battle to the death over who got the bedroom. Kurloz kicked his ass, and Gamzee resigned himself to spending a year sleeping on the couch. He told himself that it was better than being homeless.

When the townspeople found out they had moved there, they started a boycott of the Zahnak's shop. Gamzee guessed they expected Horuss and Equius and Mr Zahnak to throw them out because of the lack of business. He wondered if they were trying to run him out of town entirely, and realised he wouldn't be at all surprised.

The Zahnak's weren't having any of it. Even if they personally agreed with them- and Equius, at least, probably did- they weren't going to let themselves be pushed around. The boycott lasted three weeks, as long as it took the townspeople to realise how much most mechanics charge for repairs. After that, things settled down around the workshop.

"Do not worry," Mr Zahnak told them. "We have the resolve of iron. They shall have to try harder than that if they hope to make an impression upon us."

He wrote back to Tavros and told him what had happened. Said that most folks weren't happy about it, that most folks still didn't like him none, but that that was to be expected. Wished him a good night, and went to bed.

He got an email from Tavros telling him about his new school, and how amazing the wheelchair facilities were, and how friendly everybody was, and how on the first day a girl had asked him "Do you have a girlfriend? What about a boyfriend?" and hadn't seemed to care either way. Rufioh was back at school in England, but he said thanks for the ideas anyway- he would get to work on it when he came back home for Christmas.

By lunchtime on Gamzee's first day back at school the word FAG was written on his locker in three different shades of sharpie. The hallways were a nightmare, a jostling mass of slurs and jeering and feet sticking out to trip him up. His bag was snatched out of his hands and the contents strewn across the floor. Whole chapters were torn out of his textbooks and thrown in his face, people kicked his chair and threw things at the back of his head, and when he got home from school he had to take his shoes off at the door for fear of smearing the accumulated spit on anything.

One day, after lessons, a group of jocks cornered him and pinned him up against the lockers, one on each shoulder and the others pressing in around him. The last few stragglers in the corridor quickly looked away and hurried out- no one wanted to, or was bothered to, get involved.

"What's the matter, faggot?"

"Scared we're gonna hit you?" A hand came out and patted his cheek; he flinched and they laughed.

"Ah, dudes, check it- the queer is scared!"

"He's practically pissing his pants!"

"That is enough." The jocks froze, but grinned and relaxed when they saw it was. Gamzee leaned around one of them and realised it was Coach Ampora, smirking and leaning against the wall on the other side of the corridor. An unlit cigarette hung from between his lips and his strange, double scar just poked out from under his greased back hair.

"Coach?" said one of them.

"Really boys, what are you doing?" He sauntered over and clapped a hand on Gamzee's shoulder, giving each of them a knowing look. "You're gonna get the fag excited. Now, instead of wasting time with this trash, can I suggest you get your GOOD FOR NOTHING ASSES TO THE FUCKING GYM FOR PRACTICE?"

"Yes, sir!" they yelled back and took off down the corridor, banging the lockers and whooping as they ran. Coach Ampora spared Gamzee one last glance, upper lip curling, before he strode after them.

Gamzee emailed back telling Tavros that things were going pretty badly at the moment, but he was trying to get through it. Said that school was horrible, but he was still there. Wished him a good night, and went to bed.

Tavros emailed him saying that there was an experimental surgery being developed: in essence, a spinal reconstruction that may be able to restore the use of his legs. He didn't yet know if he was getting it, because- like with any surgery- there were risks, and it was still pretty new. But the ability to walk again... he would give anything for that.

The days were getting colder, and then one morning the sky opened up and God's flood descended upon the townspeople. The air was thick and heady with the scent of damp earth and the streets slowly filled with water. The school board refused to close and his bike couldn't get through the rivers that ran through the roads, so he had to tramp there and back, water seeping up the legs of his jeans. Cabin fever made bullies crueller, and with no one allowed outside the building during the downpours Gamzee found himself a bedraggled rat backed into a corner. His shoulders were permanently bruised, a mess of inky purple that matched the dark bags under his eyes, and only the thought of winter holidays coming soon got him through.

With the rain came the thunderstorms; broiling masses of black clouds sweeping across the plains bringing deafening thunder and flashes of lightning that threatened to once again deprive the townspeople of the joys of electricity. He and Kurloz would turn off all the lights and just sit at the window watching droplets trickling down the glass. It was inexplicably cathartic.

Sollux and Karkat came out to the entire church congregation one Sunday, to a backdrop of divine light shining through the plain church glass. They declared that they were dating, and that anyone who had an issue should say it to their faces. The thunder arrived as they spoke the last word and the church exploded into uproar.

As far as Gamzee could gather, that was the last anyone saw of either of them. Father Vantas sent Karkat back into the foster system after giving him a lecture in front of the entire congregation that apparently contained the word 'trigger' eighteen times. A few weeks later he had new foster children; they were twins- two snarky twelve year olds named Roxy and Dirk.

Nobody really knew what happened to Sollux; the Megidos apparently had skeletons in the closet to an art form, and Aradia teared up whenever someone tried to ask her, simply saying that he was 'in the Lord's hands now.'

"I hear they buried him under the porch," Gamzee overheard in the school halls one day.

"Good," came the reply, and he'd had to walk out before he punched something.

He emailed Tavros back, saying that the surgery sounded like it would be good, but it was his choice. He said that he didn't feel too good, and that he would write more when he was better. Wished him a good night, and lay awake in bed until morning.

Tavros emailed him saying that Rufioh wasn't coming home for Christmas. He was spending Christmas with the Egbert-Harleys instead, and the younger boy was a bit disappointed, because there had never been a Christmas without Rufioh before.

One by one the Christmas lights went up on every house: entire walls of bulbs, animated reindeer charging across rooftops, animatronic Santas waving at passer bys. The glow of it all shone through the curtains, flickering across Gamzee's face as he tried to sleep. Kurloz made a Christmas tree out of empty beer cans, and they topped it with a noose that someone had sent them the week before, painted sparkly purple to give it a more festive feel.

Equius got a girlfriend: a tiny little freshman with a bright grin and these fluffy blue cat ears that she wore everywhere. She spent most afternoons hanging out with him in the workshop, chatting and doing homework and making surprisingly clever suggestions for someone so... weaboo.

Her older sister was Meulin, the volunteer nurse who had helped them at the hospital. Meulin was close to the Megidos, and it turned out she knew what happened to Sollux.

He'd been sent to stay with his grandparents, along with a cousin that the family didn't talk about, to be 'cured of the gayness.' This apparently involved several hours a day devoted to prayer and lots of repetitions of 'forgive me father, for I have sinned.' Gamzee winced for him, but it was better than under the porch.

"They aren't even gay," Nepeta told them, sucking on a strawberry lace. "Well, they might be; ten's a bit young to know, really, where you stand with anything. But Karkat just wanted to get away from Father Vantas, and figured that that was the best way to do it. Sollux went along with it because, well, you saw those two. They were so cute! But yeah, Feferi told me some of the things that Father Vantas said to him, and according to Meulin it was emotional abuse! I hope he's got a better family this time, wherever he is."

Gamzee emailed Tavros back and told him that things were slogging along. Said that holidays with just him and Kurloz were actually pretty fun. Wished him the most bitchtits fucking Christmas ever, and went to open his presents.

Tavros emailed him, saying that he had gone for the surgery and that it had been a partial success. He could move his legs, but he had little to no control over his knees. With leg braces he could actually take a few steps, and they were hoping to improve it through physiotherapy.

The clouds faded and weak sunshine began to glint through to the waterlogged ground. School began again, and with it came more stress and anger than Gamzee knew how to cope with. He was up late at night, every night, poring over his books and trying to understand why everything did what it did. Kurloz couldn't help, as he hadn't actually finished his senior year- the headmistress had recommended he drop out due to his dyslexia and the constant bullying he received for his muteness.

His work was a mess of red crosses and lines through whole paragraphs of work, angry comments and stamps pressed in so fiercely they left an indentation. Gamzee read the comments, over and over, and tried to work out where he was going wrong.

D At least try to engage with the text, Mr Makara

D- Some effort would be appreciated

F See me after class!

Stupid. Stupid stupid stupid. Why did they bother wasting their time with a sentence or a whole paragraph of frustrated prose pointing out his every flaw when that single word would suffice?

D Stupid

D- Stupid

F Stupid

The lessons themselves weren't any better. Gamzee sat and he listened as hard as he could, but though he understood the words he just couldn't seem to grasp their meaning when strung together like that. The sentences washed over him; a tidal wave of information, and he had no flood gates or means to cope with it. Not waving but drowning, only no one was looking to see.

After nearly two years without having exchanged a word, Terezi hunted him down one day, pointed features all twisted up with something Gamzee couldn't name.

"I just wanted... ugh... I wanted to say thank you for not telling anyone. Because if you did, I would be the one who would get all this shit, and it isn't fair how people are treating you, and it isn't fair how I treated you. So I guess I wanted to say sorry too." Gamzee gave her a gentle smile.

"We both said things that were un-fucking-necessary, Terecita. Don't worry about it."

"How many times have I told you not to call me that?"

"More times'n I can count, Terecita, but that isn't saying much what with me failing maths and all."

"Gamzee, I swear to god if you- wait, what? You're failing maths?" He grimaced and pulled out the most recent bit of work he'd gotten back. She snatched it from him, a small frown tugging the corner of her mouth as she scanned the sheet.

"Well you started out alright. You just need to factorise it and then cancel it out."

"I have no idea what you just said."

She started helping him after school, sharp words and sharp glares and sharp pokes to the ribs when he didn't understand it fast enough, but then she would sigh and shuffle the notes and go back over it all over again. The F's were the first to disappear; then the D's, then the C's, until he was getting straight B's in every subject and the teachers watched him like a hawk, as though the only way he could do it was by cheating.

Horuss sold another two patents, one for $6000 and opened up a bank account that they weren't allowed to tell Equius about. It was to send him to college, to whatever college he got in regardless of price, because 'I couldn't afford it, but I'll be damned if he can't either.'

::I DON'T NEED TO PLAN FOR YOU GOING TO COLLEGE, DO I?:: Kurloz asked later, looking at the notes Gamzee was studying from and the sheets of homework with Bs on the front with something akin to worry.

"No chance, bro; I'm ditching this education system as soon as I have my diploma."

He wrote back to Tavros and told him that he was so motherfucking happy for him, you would not believe. Said that things were going better, actually, and that sunshine always followed after the rain. Wished him a good night and went to bed.

Tavros emailed him saying that his school had tried to start a gay-straight alliance but had to give it up because too many people had tried to join. He was surprised at how many non-straight people there actually were in his school- gays, lesbians, bisexuals, asexuals, pansexuals, sexualities that Gamzee had never heard of before, genders that Gamzee had never heard of before, words that made Kurloz shrug and Equius wrinkle his nose in distaste.

Spring was in full swing and the flowers were beginning to bloom along the side of the roads. Corn stalks were shooting skywards, heads still wrapped tightly in their green leaves, and when Gamzee went down to visit the creek boughs of cherry blossom hung over the water, covering its surface with white petals and filling the air with their heady scent.

Someone left a newspaper article in his locker about a boy two states over who'd been left, tied to a fence, for four days when the town found out he was gay. He died later in hospital, and the same someone had scrawled over the top Good riddance in blue biro. He balled it up and threw it away, trying to swallow past a lump in his throat.

One night the church burnt down, and then two days later Aradia Megido was arrested for arson. When asked about her motive, she grinned widely and said

"Because it's my favourite building in town."

A couple of days later he got jumped while walking home with Kurloz, and thank god for his brother's fists of fury or it might have been so much worse than it was. As it was, he earned three long, parallel slashes across his face; he winced when the nurse applied antiseptic and she told him to man up already.

He wrote back to Tavros and told him about how he'd had to stop Kurloz going after them, because they'd seen who it was and the police were doing nothing. Said he hoped that people up north were better, because he was starting to get really fucking tired of this bullshit. Wished him a goodnight and couldn't sleep for the stinging.

Tavros wrote to him and told him he'd been accepted to the university of his choice. It was in the city they were living in, so he didn't even have to move. There was some good housing pretty cheap, so Gamzee wouldn't have any problems with moving. Just a few more months.

It was heating back up again, the hot sun beating down and soaking up the last moisture from the earth. The wildflowers by the side of the road wilted, and lemonade stands began appearing around town again. Everyone waxed poetic about the joys of electric fans and Gamzee couldn't help but think of Karkat.

One day Terezi didn't come for his tutoring session, and when he found her it was obvious she'd been crying no matter how hard she tried to hide it from him, turning her face away and scrubbing at red rimmed eyes.

"Terecita, what's wrong? Why've you gone and got your cry on?" She grit her teeth and looked like she wanted to punch him, but instead just hunched further in on herself.

"I've told you not to call me that."

"Why the tears, Teresis? Terezi?" She looked up and he smiled at her, putting one hand on her shoulder. After a moment's hesitation, she deflated, crumpling into his arms.

"I didn't get the scholarship," she whispered, and oh yeah- she had applied for that fancy law university two states over. "I didn't get the scholarship and we can't afford the fees, and now I don't know what I'm going to do." He held her close, rubbing soothing circles on her back, unsure what else he could do.

"Baby girl; baby girl; they don't know what they're missing out on."

"But they do," she said miserably, pushing her spiky hair back from her face. "They know my GPA, and they know I'm valedictorian and my interview went so well, they know exactly what I'm about. They just don't care."

"Why'd you say that, Terezi?"

"Because they published a thing saying who did get the scholarships, and they're all middle class white boys from nice towns up north."

"Damn." Damn.

"Yeah; I guess it doesn't matter that I was born here, that I'm third generation- a Mexican girl is a Mexican girl as far as they're concerned." They sat in silence for a while, Gamzee trying to think of something to say that could make her feel better.

"You could always join the local force. I know it's no law degree, but it's better than nothing, right?" She barked a laugh, harsh and angry, before smiling at him ruefully.

"Do the words 'wasted potential' mean anything to you, Gamzee?"

"Not a thing, Terecita."

"Call me that again and I'll drub you."

"See? You're thinking like a police-girl already. Why not talk to your aunt and see about getting a job, hey?"

"Are you suggesting I use my connections to get me a job instead of my merit? For shame, Mr Makara."

"Baby girl, you got merit coming out your ears. You'd have to be blind not to see it." She wiped away the last of her tears, pushed her sunglasses back on and sniffed haughtily.

"Nonsense. Even with a sight impairment, they'd be able to hear my extensive vocabulary and complex sentence structure." He grinned, and she gave a watery smile back.

He wrote back to Tavros and said that that was great. Told him that he was proud, and that he couldn't wait to see him again. Wished him a good night and went to bed.

Tavros emailed him saying that they were going to Europe for a week after he graduated, and how about Gamzee move up after that? He'd be seeing Paris and Madrid, Rome and Athens- wasn't that cool?

Everyone came to graduation, even people who had nothing to do with the event. The only family absent were the Megidos- Aradia had been sentenced to a year in juvie the week before, and rumour had it that they were leaving town in shame. Terezi gave her valedictorian's speech about new futures and new beginnings, an angry set to the corner of her mouth, bumblebee yellow graduation robes clashing horribly with the red sunglasses she'd refused to take off.

When they were collecting their diplomas, the polite applause was continuous until Gamzee's name was called. The crowd stilled, except for Kurloz and Nepeta and Terezi, who stood up and kept right on clapping. They were the only people he needed anyway, he decided as he walked up- the rest could go screw themselves.

"Have a good life, fucker," said Mrs Peixes, aka Her Imperial Condescension, as she handed him his diploma and crushed his hand in a vicelike grip. He spent the rest of the day trying to decide if that was meant to be an insult or if it was genuine.

The next day Kurloz brought home some boxes and they packed all his stuff up, arguing and jostling about how to put it on his bike until Horuss stepped in with yet another invention of his- some sort of flappy, wing things that let them pile the boxes up and tie them down with rope.

"You cannot seriously be planning on uprooting your entire existence and moving to Washington on a motorbike we sold to you for twenty dollars," said Equius, staring in disbelief at the teetering mountain of cardboard.

"That's the motherfucking plan."

"It's far more than a day's drive! Where do you intend on sleeping?"

"That's why I got this." Gamzee patted a sleeping bag tied just behind the seat, and Equius gave up.

He emailed Tavros back, and said that he was heading up that week anyway. Told him he would find himself a flat and get moved in while they were in Europe, because he couldn't bear this town anymore. Wished him a good trip, got on his bike, and drove up.

...and a longer life

Gamzee got a crappy little apartment in the dangerous part of town because it was all that he could afford and it was so nice not to have to sleep on the couch. The paint was peeling and there were water stains in the bathroom and it was cold as hell's fucking basement, but it was all good. It was all fine.

Tavros came to see him every day that he didn't have college and some days that he did and told him about how much he hated it. The lectures, the other students, the work, everything. After just three months, he dropped out. The colonel was furious, and two days after he dropped out he moved in with Gamzee instead because he didn't like the fighting.

They had both changed over the year, it was obvious. It was obvious in the obvious ways, like Gamzee's height and the metal braces that gave Tavros his limited movement, but it was obvious in subtle ways too; the twisted scowl that had become Tavros' face in neutral, or the dark smile that haunted Gamzee's lips.

And it turned out that there were so many things that Tavros had been hiding, that Tavros hadn't put in his emails because he hadn't wanted to face them as reality. There was the boy who had pushed him and his wheelchair down the stairs and the girl who made a habit of sitting in his lap and rubbing up against him because she knew it made him uncomfortable. The people who worked out his combination code every time he changed it, and would put his things on top of the lockers where he couldn't reach them. The people who thought it was funny to stab pens into his tyres until they popped or to rip his braces right of his legs.

He wouldn't let these things go, and Gamzee could see them sitting inside him, wounds left to fester instead of healing naturally. Tavros was so bitter over how life had treated him and Gamzee was angry, and together they made the sorriest pair of motherfuckers to ever grace the world with their presence. When they fought, Gamzee yelled himself hoarse and Tavros screamed back, acerbic words that stung like acid and always came back to the same thing:

"It's your fault things are like this."

After an argument they wouldn't talk for maybe an hour, maybe a week, until nothing was left of the fight but a metallic taste in Gamzee's mouth. Then he would find the smaller boy and apologise, and Tavros would apologise, and he would cry until he fell asleep, Tavros kissing him gently and running soothing fingers through his hair.

They had a flat in the dangerous part of town, and they were beginning to look pretty dangerous themselves. Tavros had a septum piercing and a knife in one boot. Gamzee had black leather jackets and dark makeup, heavy eyeshadow with thick eyeliner. If someone tried to mess with them, he'd beat them raw while Tavros watched, face impassive. Sometimes Gamzee wondered what would happen if he met Vriska now. Sometimes he hoped he would. His knuckles were always bruised and his jeans were rusty from where he'd wiped blood off on them.

Rufioh came home from England, now a qualified vet, and moved into a flat near where the colonel lived. He came to visit occasionally. Whenever he saw them he looked very, very sad.

Kurloz wrote, sometimes, when he remembered to; they were short emails, riddled with spelling mistakes, just enough to say what had been happening. He and Horuss had patented a new type of generator. He and Meulin were dating. He, Meulin and Terezi's cousin Latula were doing a cross country road trip to get Sollux's cousin Mituna away from the abusive grandparents he was forced to live with.

The four of them were living in a trailer in the desert in Nevada, and life had never been so good.

Tavros learnt to drive a motorbike that Gamzee had customised himself, and he worked in the local animal shelter, caring for the strays that nobody wanted. He brought home a mangy little tabby kitten one day with one eye and half an ear missing and they named it Tinkerbull. Gamzee sold snowflakes on street corners to people with dead eyes and hollow cheeks, and together they made just enough to live off.

He became a fan-fucking-tastic botanist, and their apartment always smelt like weed and sex and cat shit, cause neither of them would clean out the litter box and no one had bothered to teach Tinkerbull to use it in the first place.

One day they got into a worse fight than usual and gave each other matching black eyes. Rufioh looked like he wanted to say something, but didn't know what to say.

One day he turned on the TV and there was Equius, smiling and shaking hands in a newscast about the most recent graduates from MIT.

One day someone tried to mug them, and he slammed their head into the wall eight times before leaving with Tavros, not bothering to check if the attacker was still breathing.

The words 'wasted potential' weighed heavily on his mind, and he didn't quite know why.

The trailer had been moved to just outside of Vegas, where Kurloz was an engineer and Latula was a bouncer and Mituna wrote crappy iPhone apps and Meulin was the doctor people came to when they had done something illegal and couldn't go to an actual doctor. They made a killing, and when Gamzee asked for some money, Kurloz posted a statue of Jesus with $5000 hidden inside his head.

They sold the shitty apartment and moved to Holland, where they bought a shitty houseboat instead and set themselves adrift. Gamzee painted it purple with orange stripes and multicoloured polak-dots, and Tavros took one look at it and named it the Mirabile Visu, because he'd read it in a book somewhere and said it was funny. Every few weeks they would dock and stock up on cans of food and enough weed to get an elephant high before casting off again, their rainbow ship on the steel grey sea.

They lived in a fug of drugs and gently rolling waves. Gamzee listened to the radio and Tavros read, and days turned into months turned into years as time began to slip like water through their fingers. Kurloz wrote sometimes, and Tavros always phoned Rufioh and the colonel when they were dockside, and apart from that they had no one in the world but each other. They gave each other matching tattoos with a long needle and some red food dye, wincing and hissing and laughing and kissing. Gamzee attached loops of leather to the ceiling at regular intervals, because Tavros had trouble with the waves, and when Tinkerbull died they gave him a Viking burial.

Out in the real world, there was another school shooting; another bomb went off, another politician robbed his people, another nation slowly wasted from hunger. Some nights, when Tavros was sleeping and the drugs weren't strong enough, Gamzee would go up on deck and try to count the stars. He thought of verbal abuse and abortions, of racism and homophobia and sexism and abelism. Of an honour student who couldn't afford to go to law school, a math prodigy hidden away for being gay and a girl who set fire to a church just to watch it burn.

He wondered if it wasn't all just wasted potential.