Karkat Vantas, Knight of Blood, wanted to create a Utopia.
He wanted to make a world that would be free from the kind of struggles he faced every day, free from the fear of having his blood spilt just because the ensuing stain would be the color of the only true sin he'd committed- the sin of being born with a candied cancer to his race flowing through him, keeping him down, defining his every move so that his even his own personality was a mask.
In his world, the creatures would have red blood, like him. It would be more than the color of anger and fire and aggression. It would be the color of cherries, of strawberries, of energy, warmth, passion…
Yes. The word was still foreign to him, but he knew the feeling- it was too great to simply be pity. He would bestow it unto the world. Karkat's utopia would take his curse and transform it into a blessing.
Red. Still rare, but now precious instead of despicable.
There would be caring guardians for confused children and they would never have to leave their planet if they didn't want to, regardless of age. And loving someone- that flushed, red gift that Karkat wished to infect a universe with- came from its own reasons and its own pace, not the pressures of a drone.
There would be wind and light and rain and time for growth and it would be wonderful.
And, cliché of clichés, Karkat would let there be the existence of soulmates. His precious quadrant system was a wonder, but if he could change it and have it so that there was a someone who existed for everyone that was everything wrapped into one, that would be perfect. It was his destiny to lead his people to this hallowed ground. It was his duty as a knight. As the descendant of The Sufferer.
A Utopia. Sburb would be the tool for him to create a Utopia.
He could live there with his friends and they could all learn to live in happiness and love. And there would be other inhabitants, new friends, to be their examples.
People so nice and true that it was impossible to truly hate them or make them hate you, even when you both were playing tricks. Spades would lose its hurt.
People so clever and loyal that they could figure out everything about you and make you laugh and feel okay even when they were dealing with your darkest, innermost secrets because you knew you would always be friends. A perfect auspistice for everything.
And there would be a few people, snowflakes like him, that acted one way but were another and deep down inside loved you the most and put you first even when it was hard for them. They could be examples of how you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, whether the cover be prickly and closed shut or red-eyed and stoic.
And there would be a somebody for that person who was open when they were closed and kind when they were cold and made them smile and loosen the cover to let who they were at heart come through, not so much opposite as they were their complement in every way.
He knew what he wanted and he rushed to get it done, cutting some corners here and there to make it happen faster, to make it appear now so he could live there and everyone could be happy.
But it is never a good idea to rush perfection and his dream was sliced to ribbons before his very eyes, the door to his imperfect Utopia forever out of reach.
He was left looking at the innocent faces of the creatures he had brought to be and hated them with a jealousy he had not known he was capable of.
Little John Egbert and his friends slept quietly in the eyes of an angry, red-eyed god who thought his dream had been shattered in two.
Erivan slammed his head down onto the desk. "Dave," he whined, "Why can't this get any easier?"
God. This again already. "Watch it, dude, that's my iPod you almost smashed right there. I need that to keep from having to listen to that mainstream One Direction shit. I gotta keep real quality blastin' up in my ears. Like Friday." He moved the shiny black device into the pocket of his hoodie, popped one of his earbuds out, and crossed his arms. "Okay, the doctor is IN. Gimme a nickel and I'll see what I can do for you."
"It's about Fifer."
"Yeah, I figured."
"I just… I don't know how to tell her that I like her and I'm not sure I should, you know? She's my best friend and what he have is great. I don't want to push her away from me."
"Okay." Dave reached his arms over onto the desk Erivan had taken and splayed his fingers to get his attention. "How many times have we been on this issue?"
"A whole gummin' lot."
"Right. And, remind me, how many times have I given you the same answer?"
Erivan opened his mouth to say something, but Dave kept talking over him. "That's what I thought. More than "a whole gummin' lot". A whole gumball machinin' worth, I would think. Now, given that information, here's the million gum-dollar question- What do you think that my answer is going to be this time?"
With a whine, Erivan slid his chin on the smooth surface of the desk top so that he was face down on the plastic. "If I keep it in, it'll only get worse. I should be honest about how I feel. If she accepts me, awesome, but if she rejects me, we should still be able to work through it and stay friends if we are as close as we think we are. It will be that much easier to get over if I come clean with my feelings."
Across the desks, Dave was twiddling his fingers to Erivan's recital like a conductor's baton and mouthing the words in tandem with his friend, replacing the "I"s and "me"s and "my"s with "you"s and "your"s. "And look! Rote memorization does wonders yet again. Thank you, strategies of learning in public school systems. You might pass this year, Mister Erivan Amphora."
"But look, man," Eritan began, raising his head up off of the desk. "I know what you're sayin' is right, but you just don't realize how hard it is to actually do. There is so gummin' much at stake here that it's ridiculous!"
"There's a lot at stake, you're right. There's so much up on that goddamn stake that the Salem Witch Trials can't even compare with the volume of shit on wooden spikes you've got goin' on. And Joan of Arc can't even begin to touch you in historical significance-"
You just don't understand!" Erivan glowered. "You and I have been friends for years and I know you aren't heartless, but you can't begin to understand how crushing pressure like this can be. It feels like no matter what you do, you're riskin' everything! It could all go wrong on you and then you'd be out to sea without a paddle!"
Dave sighed. "I know, I know. It's like being 10,000 Leagues Under the Sea for you. I get it. Really, I do. I'm on this shit like white on rice. Like the Olsens on crack. But believe me when I say that this is not as bad as it could be."
With a flash of light from the reflection of his horn-rimmed glasses, Erivan's dark eyes were trained on Dave's in an exchange of annoyance and commiseration. "How would you know? I mean, I know you care about me as a friend and that you aren't an entire man-bitch, just mostly one-"
"-But you don't value girls the way I do Fifer. You go through girls like a child goes through prize goldfish at the fair. You get your hands on them, decide you don't want them, and then shake and agitate them until they go belly-up from neglect so you don't have to deal with them! Then, you just show off your fancy tricks and win another one and do the same thing! You giving a gummin' shit about preserving a friendly relationship past the short term is nil."
Dave crossed his arms and faked a subtle, angry expression. "Dammit, Erivan, I was gonna use that fair goldfish analogy-thing for a sexual innuendo. Cheeky fucker." Then he looked into his friend's downtrodden face and his own brows relaxed and eyes softened a bit in empathy before he realized it. "Look, believe it or not, I kind of know a lot about the type of situation you're in and I know that you are making way too big of a deal out of yours."
Erivan squinted his eyes and slithered up to sit straighter in his seat, eel-like in every subtle motion. Dave was either being an inconceivably good liar or he was being sincere. Either way, Erivan was curious. "Explain."
The other boy's distinctive eyes widened and he caught his tongue before it said any more.
For a moment- just a moment- Dave had felt like it might be alright to tell someone else about his own personal problem and see if they could offer him a solution, like maybe he could bring them into his circle of trust completely so he wouldn't be so very alone.
But that was stupid. Only Doctor Valonde was allowed to know and that was because she was his shrink. Nothing more.
Or maybe talking to her was loosening his handle on keeping everything closed in. She certainly was provoking the floodwaters in her sessions. Perhaps she was weakening the dam, too.
He ground his back teeth and made a mental note to get onto her case about this. In the meantime, he had to keep from spilling his guts to the only person he knew who could potentially single-handedly ruin everything.
Erivan was not a bad guy, but he was a loose cannon and if Dave told him anything, there was the possibility of Erivan trying to bring the school counselor into this. Or worse, try to do something about it himself.
And Erivan, bless him, would do absolutely anything in his power if he thought he were helping a friend- even if that involved hurting the friend in the process.
"Obviously I was the one being crushed on rather than crushing, but," he did his best to keep a deadpan expression for the punchline, "you and I are still friend even after Johnny spoke for both of us and told you that we weren't homosexuals," Dave teased. "We tried really hard not to utterly decimate your middle school dreams of being a misunderstood try-sexual."
Erivan spluttered. "Oh, of course, you asshole! The minute you try and be serious about something, you back off and bring up memories of me showing my ass to cover yours!" He kept his eyes narrowed and pushed his face closer to Dave's. "Now you listen here, coolkid. I may be moody and a gummin' sucker for dramatics sometimes,"
"And sometimes a shameless poser goth,"
"Fuck you, I'm hipster. That's too mainstream."
Dave would have rolled his eyes if it weren't for the impromptu staring contest of dominance that Erivan had brought on. "Not as hipster as I am," he joked.
Erivan rolled his eyes. "Listening to weird music and being in the photography club does not a hipster make. You don't even wear skinny jeans."
"That's because skinny jeans are whack. They slowly castrate you and try to squeeze the life out of your feet all at the same time like the Giant slowly crushing Jack's bones to make his bread. I'm so hipster that you can't even tell I'm a hipster."
"Whatever, stop trying to distract from the fact that you were almost gonna tell me a secret-"
Dave kept talking over him. "I'm the special-est snowflake."
"If you don't tell me—
"The other hipsters can't even know the depths of my depth."
"-I'm going to gummin' do something drastic."
"That's how hipster I am."
"You're full of shit."
"No, I'm full of individuality."
With an energy that hadn't been present before, Erivan all but got on top of the desk and grabbed Dave by his collar, bringing the other boy just inches from his face. "If you don't tell me, I'm going to do something you aren't going to like. This is your first warning-"
"I'm more than a hipster. I'm a meta-hipster."
"I mean it," Erivan threatened, pulling Dave closer.
"The other hipsters are faithless, artsy assholes that don't realize that they should stop grooming their stupid beards and mustaches and bow down and worship me instead. This obsession with being all not-conforming and thereby conforming is like the Jews worshipping the golden calf."
"Well, Dave, If that's how you're gonna be. I hope you don't mind me making out with you in lieu of Fifer for the time being to get out my frustration." He opened his mouth and leaned in.
But Dave's hand intercepted him and Erivan felt himself get roughly shoved back into his desk chair so hard that the front legs of it lifted off the ground for a moment.
"No, chickenshit, I'm just better at playing chicken than you. And I don't even care if you want to hurl insults saying that I'm just gay for you," he snapped, straightening his hair back with his hands. "Say what you like about me, but I'm the one more comfortable with my sexuality than you are."
"You mean you aren't truly, deep down inside, beyond this Fifer phase, like it's just one of many thin and flimsy layers and layers and layers of an onion, smitten with me and only me? Erivan, baby, I'm heartbroken. I know I just shoved you off, but it was just my rough way of flirting," Dave mocked. "I know you really did it when someone plays hard-to-get and doesn't like you back, romantically speaking."
There was much more sting in the last sentence than he had intended and Dave regretted every word as he watched the hurt form in one of his closest friend's eyes.
After a moment of shocked silence, Erivan scoffed. "Thanks, Strider. I just came here to have someone talk to me. It's good to know that my friend just wants to give me hell in my time of need, even when I offer to try to help them through their problems instead of my own." He stood and swooped up his bag in one swift motion and turned to head for the classroom door.
Dave was on his feet and in his friend's way in an instant.
"Erivan, stop, I'm sorry." He put his hands on the other boy's shoulders and then replaced them and held fast when they were shrugged off. "I didn't mean it. Any of that last part. And I do want to help you with this Fifer shit."
"You're a gummin' dick."
"Yes I am," Dave said. "And you're a guy so smitten with a lady that you've taken to adopting her signature expletive. You need some gummin' bro time to help you get ready for some gummin' 'ho time."
Eridan gave a crooked grin, like a crack spreading on ice. "You're gummin' straight I do," he said, grin thawing as it spread.
So all sins were forgiven. "You wanna come over and eat food with me and Jade?" Dave asked.
"Is she making a pot roast?"
"Not if I can have a fuckin' say in it. She shouldn't have stopped by the house yet today to start one 'cause it's Tuesday and she goes straight from her parents' to work on Tuesdays. And even if she did manage to start one, fuck it. We can just freeze it. Or put a wig on it and let you practice whatever speech you plan to deliver to Fifer with it."
"Or we could just ask your hot niece/cousin/guardian for advice," Erivan stated, nodding slowly and looking up at the ceiling. "She's a girl. She's good with that shit."
Dave's face remained impassive when Erivan referred to Jade as "hot". "Yeah. Maybe." He took his hands off of Erivan and stood shoulder-to-shoulder with him as they lumbered out of the classroom.
"So I'm guessing we need to somehow find a ride to the grocery store and then your house."
"Yes," Dave told him. "And I think I know just where to find one."
Jade was fourteen and nerdy and hadn't grown into herself, the unfortunate middle schooler that went to bed wearing children's sized pajamas one night and practically waking up the next morning needing a women's medium. Her overbite was minor and her glasses major and her feet too big to look right on her peg legs.
But she carried herself with her head held high and a smile on her face. She was hard to hate or tease because she charmed everyone by looking in their eyes and making them feel good just by smiling when she spoke. Jade always seemed to walk through life absolutely clueless to the fact that, at her age, she was supposed to be awkward, overly sensitive, hate herself, unable to keep friends, and be disrespectful her parents.
Jade had never gotten those memos and just was.
Did she know she had big feet? Yes. Did she know she was fat? Yes. Did she know she had poor vision and needed dental work? Yes. She absolutely did, and even though she wasn't particularly thrilled about any of those things, she had never seen them as the end of the world.
Her younger relatives idolized her and her older relatives prized her. Although her family did not strictly adhere to most of their cultural traditions, they did keep the members of it close both emotionally and physically, not only because of the wishes of Jade's great grandmother, the deceased family matriarch, but because they themselves relished the togetherness. So for Jade, her family's opinion and love was basically all she needed to stand above the terrible tragedy of teenagerdom.
And her family spanned more than just her bloodline- Jade's "family" was actually a set of four unrelated families that had banded together after immigrating from Europe in the thirties.
The Harley-Egberts and their affiliates were a loving and social group and used any excuse to throw a picnic. The food was extravagant and illogically chosen, as if every feast was a sampling of several different cultures all in one place.
When great grandmother Jade, who the family called Baba, and her closest friends, the immigrants that had accepted her to be their New World "family", had been alive, they used to tell stories of their lives, particularly how they met. Baba and great grandmother Pirop, called Yaga after her favorite fairy tale, were especially fond of telling stories that embarrassed Yaga's crotchety husband, and all the children would laugh as he wheezed out an outraged string of elaborate curses in a mix of his native language and English.
Eventually, Yaga's husband, called Daa-daa-jee, was the only one of the original eight left and he would sit, silent, within the throng of relatives he had amassed over the years, watching with a stern face but kind eyes and a lap open for any great grand-children who wanted to sit there. A serene river gently lapping against the shoreline beneath a pleasant fall backdrop.
But sometimes he could be unexpectedly scary, with a voice that roared like whitewater crashing amongst jagged rocks, drowning out everything around him and upsetting everyone in his wake.
Gammy liked to provoke him the most, as he spent the most time with the old man outside of family gatherings and thus knew how to press his buttons the best. Jade would giggle as she watched her lazy, laid-back cousin work the old man into a froth, waving his cane everywhere in an immense struggle to get on his feet while throwing a tantrum, and then be calmed by gently being pushed back down and receiving a few pats on the hand.
"I'm just kiddin', Daa-daa-jee," he would chuckle. "You know that."
Daa-daa-jee would get that disgruntled wrinkle in his lower lip and then shake his head, releasing his lips from his frown. "You are just like my most foolish friend," he would say. "Allah rest his soul."
Jade and the other children would laugh and beg Daa-daa-jee to tell them stories of this "foolish friend", their Babaloo, the eccentric and childish exiled prince who could not stay out of trouble, and his hapless companion, their final great-grandfather Opa, the animal trainer with no legs but a big heart.
Daa-daa-jee would make a big show of discouraging them from asking for the story, "Oh, you do not want stories of that fool. Surely you children are much too big and old to be interested in the time your Oma and Opa's goat broke into the house and Babaloo dressed it in his clothing to hide it from the police. Surely this would not amuse you!"
To which the children would reply, "Please, Daa-daa-jee? Tell it!"
"Oh, no. Why would you make me explain something so long and dull?"
"Do you really want me to?"
At this point, the other adults, who would have been quietly chatting amongst themselves and drinking wine, would turn their heads and join their children in a thunderous chorus spanning generations. "Tell it! Tell it right now, you old buffoon!"
"I AM NOT A BUFFOON", he would say
The storytelling would go on for hours, frequently with some of the original eight's own children, the true grandparents, stepping in and adding a few details and telling a few tales of their own.
In fact, the setup of the entire Harley-Egbert-Vantas- Bakri clan was like something out of a fairytale, where normal clichés did not apply.
The imperfect teenaged girl was happy.
The Muslim, the Roman Catholic, the Jewish, and Hindu families sat together and ate the same meals.
They called each other family and their scruples were few and far between.
The boy who drew no lineage from anybody's Opa or Babaloo or Daa-daa-jee or Nonno, the bit of white ash among the charcoal, always felt like there was something odd about him being here among these wonderful people, like he knew he didn't belong.
But not because he was adopted- basically every member of this family was adopted at some point and it was not a cause of alienation. The deep feeling in his gut didn't have the sting of "you don't belong", but rather, it was a tiny, nagging, inexplicable feeling that he did belong, but not in this way. Something was wrong.
Sometimes he felt like the puzzling surprise in the room- everyone was glad to have him there, but they were never sure what to do with him. He was a favorite book but they had no bookshelf for him.
Dave never spent a lot of time around the eldest generation one-on-one, much like he disliked being around the youngest generation (minus Jade) when he was barely not a baby anymore. There was something about the way that Babaloo, when he had been alive, and Daa-daa-jee would watch him that always made him feel uncomfortable, like he was missing some big secret that just the two of them had been keeping.
"Boy," Daa-daa-jee said to him one day as the children were filing out to go get ready for bed, "Why do you never come to talk to me?"
Dave turned around. Jade, who had been next to him, stopped and turned as well, rubbing her eyes as she did.
"I talk to you," said Dave plainly. "I don't play you like a bad-tempered fiddle like Gammy does, but I talk to you."
Daa-daa-jee's face kept its hardened look, like leather that had been left in the sun so long that it held its shape and stayed in motionless ripples and rolls in his face and jaw, frozen in time so gravity couldn't touch them and smooth them out. "You always have the most absurd things to say," the old man said. "That was all nonsense."
"Y'know, it could just not make sense to you because you're old and foreign and need to clear the wax out of your ears and remember that you're in America now."
"How dare you give me such wanton disrespect!" He raised a fist into the air.
Jade stepped in front of her younger relative and pushed Daa-daa-jee's hand down. "You old coot! It's late and you are both tired. And so am I! Daa-daa-jee, stop trying to start a fight for attention because you are lonely now that the others are no longer here to listen to you."
"Me, start a fight! Absurd! I only wanted to have a man-to-man talk with him. And I am not lonely."
"You are a chatty old man who hates being ignored, silly goose! And how do you call shouting at Dave having a man-to-man talk?"
"…He provoked me."
"You're the disrespectful one, Daa-daa-jee!"
"It is not your place to scold me, little one," he griped.
Jade tossed her head back. "I may not be as old as she was, but I am scolding you in the name of my Baba. That's why they named me after her. I have to make sure to keep you in line!"
Childishly, the old man's lower lip quibbled a bit and he thrust it forward in a pout that looked utterly ridiculous on his wizened face. "What a horrible girl," he teased, patting her on the head. "So awful to such an old man." He turned his head to the side and raised his eyebrows, reversing the gravity on his aged leather face to make the permanently wrinkled fabric travel up through space instead of down to the ground. "In my day, you would have been punished." He shook his head and tutted. "Some traditions still stand from then." He patted her head. "Little Jade, for the sake of your name and my pride, I must command you go to bed." He dropped the folds of flesh on his face and ruffled her hair again before looking at Dave, who had taken a few steps away from them both. "I promise that I am not trying to start a fight with him. And I promise to send him to bed in one piece before the sun rises."
"It's really okay," Dave told her. "You can leave me alone with the vicious man-eating surly great grandfather, family, genus, and species Old-us Man-us Defenseless-us . I realize there have not been many people that have encountered one in the wild and lived to tell the tale, but I think I stand a fair chance."
"Goof," Jade told him. "You need to play nice, too."
"It's all in the name of science," he told her. "I'll play nice right up to the moment he brandishes his pincers and charges. Besides, I'll be defending you while you sleep so he can't come after you in the night."
"You are absolutely absurd," Daa-daa-jee told the boy.
Jade kissed her Daa-daa-jee on the cheek and gave Dave a peck on the head. "Wow, I feel sooo much safer," she joked. "Good night."
The two males watched her disappear through the doorway and up the stairs to where the rest of her family was getting ready to sleep.
"You know," Daa-daa-jee started, "the disrespectfulness that I was talking about earlier was that you never took the time to talk to your elders." He patted the spot next to him on the couch.
"You never took the time to call me over and tell me what you and Babaloo were always whispering about," he shot back.
"So you noticed?"
"What a troublesome boy," he said. "It is no wonder what my dear friend and sister saw in you. She willed you to live among us and give this old man hell, much like she advised me to live with Opa's family after my wife died."
"And named Jade."
"Your Baba did not truly name your niece. The suggestion to always have a member of the family carry that name was a joke. It was only Jade's own mother who took it seriously."
"Is Jade a lot like Baba was?"
Daa-daa-jee looked at the ceiling and frowned deeper, but in thought. "Yes. In some ways."
The old man snorted. "Both were stubborn, clever, loving, and have this infuriating talent for keeping me from embarrassing myself to the point of mortification with my words."
"Hm," was all Dave replied.
Daa-daa-jee slapped the cushion of the couch again. "Don't just stand there, boy. Sit."
Dave edged onto the corner of the couch like a bird perched on the end of a branch.
"Come here," Daa-daa-jee commanded, getting impatient.
"Do you bite?" Dave asked.
"I am about to if you do not sit next to me where I can see you better," he grouched, voice rising a little.
Dave scooted a little closer, but still far away enough that, had they been sitting on a public park bench, passersby would believe that they were two independent parties rather than a doting great-grandfather figure and his adopted kin.
Daa-daa-jee became visibly angered and the two furnaces beneath his drooping brows came alight. "You know that in my home country I was regarded as an untouchable and that feeling of others looking at me like I was something filthy pervaded even after I came to this country because I was different." He put down his cane and gathered himself up like a creature ready to strike. "I refuse to have someone in my own family treat me this way, even if it is unintentional, and especially if it is by some pale little ghost-boy with a sass mouth!" With a speed and strength that contrasted with his age, Daa-daa-jee grabbed Dave by his waist and pulled him closer.
The boy gasped and his hands went out to push Daa-daa-jee away while his eyes closed and he tucked in his chin like he thought he could shrink away into himself.
After a few seconds, he felt the old man's hands loosen and release him and the soft fabric of his robes disappear from his palms. Slowly, he dropped his own arms and opened his eyes.
Daa-daa-jee's face was set in a thin line and his eyes were wide and watery. "You do not accept me. I call you my great-grandson, I let you stay with my children and call them cousin and aunt and uncle and mother and father, I let you stay under my roof, I let you eat my food, I let you have the power to hurt me but you still do not accept me." His tightened lips quivered at their sides. "And you use it all against me like the pale, dead eyed demon you are!" His face changed like a flash of lightning struck it and rearranged his features into the definitive ridges of anger, but his mouth still shook and water began to run from his big, deep-set eyes and over his cheeks like a tiny brook trickling over a dry riverbed. "Hateful, ungrateful child!"
Before Dave knew it, his own face had morphed into the opposite of Daa-daa-jee's, but he had the same look in his eyes as his elder. "Please don't cry," he said, "You'll wake everybody up and then we will have to deal with a grumpy Jade. She can be like an angry bear in the mornings. You don't wanna deal with that." At a loss, he leaned over and put his hands on the old man's shoulders again, this time pulling him closer. "See? I don't think you are untouchable. It was a misunderstanding. I thought you were going to…" his voice trailed off. "I don't like it when people surprise me like that."
"You say this, but I see you sit next to my Jade and let her put an arm around you. I see you and my Gammy whisper mischievous words in each other's ears. I see that you accept them, but you do not accept me because of what I am."
Dave's eyes searched Daa-daa-jee's. "Because of what you are? Because you're my great-grandfather? That's stupid, Daa-daa-jee!" His cheeks inflated as he inhaled and panicked. "It's not that I don't accept you! I do! I just don't know what you want from me! I don't know you!"
"You never tried to," the aging man said.
Suddenly the lump Dave had felt forming in his throat dissolved and his widened eyes darkened. "You never did, either. Just because I'm younger than you are doesn't mean that you can just pin all the blame onto me like you're using me to play pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey with fake reasons. I know I'm being awful and disrespecting my elder, but you can't make this whole thing just about you."
His old Daa-daa-jee looked like he had just been slapped. "You spoiled brat," he said. "YOU DAMNED SPOILED BRAT!" He raised his hand into the air, palm flat, and Dave shut his eyes, ducked his head, and braced himself for the blow.
But it never came.
Instead he felt Daa-daa-jee's arms wrap around his back and pull him into an embrace.
Finally, the older man spoke. "You keep closing your eyes whenever I do anything. But it is true that the way I have been acting gives you no reason to trust me. My wife and your Baba would always yell at me about that. And I was, and perhaps still am, a very angry man, to be sure."
Furtively, Dave opened one eye and peeked up at his great-grandfather, who was looking down at him.
"There are a lot of you grubby children around, you know," he said. "Makara- that is, Babaloo, and I would spend hours discussing you. He would say each one was a miracle. I would tell him he was full of it and too old and far gone to even remember what he was talking about. But I would secretly agree."
Dave tightened his grip on his great-grandfather's robes.
"Let me see your face, boy."
Dave slowly released himself from the hug and looked Daa-daa-jee in the eyes. His intense gaze made the child nervous, but he didn't look away.
"I once met a man with eyes like that."
"You've never told us."
"I joke and go on about how all of my stories should not be told, but this one I truly do not want to tell to the family."
"I apologize. My face alone must offend you somehow."
"Shut up," snapped Daa-daa-jee. "Your mouth is the only offensive thing."
"The man I met with unusual eyes looked at me with the exact same expression on his face that you had barely a few moments ago."
"I'm not sure I understand what you are trying to tell me here."
Daa-daa-jee looked at him, his eyes turning glassy as he looked not at Dave, but at events that had happened before in his own lifetime. "Your Babaloo and I were prisoners to be shot. A man with red eyes saved our lives. His words were unkind, his actions angelic, and the consequences from them were near-damning to my sense of self. I was an angry man because I could never understand how a world so strange and full of contradiction could really be born of a perfect God. For a long time, I cursed that man for allowing me to survive and struggle and think such blasphemy. For within his eyes, the eyes of the man I thought to be a demon, eyes so similar to mine," Daa-daa-jee tapped his brow, "I could not help but despise the feeling of being at the mercy of a creature like him."
Dave frowned a little.
"I think we all had crises of faith at some point on our journey to America and that is perhaps why we were all blessed with each other in the end. Because of that, it was suddenly possible for me to move on from my own disgraces and journey into a new stage of my life with those most important to me, be they of my blood or race or circumstance. It is very strange," he said. "But now is not the time to speak with you about theology. All I want to tell you is that you remind me of the fecal wagon scum who saved my life."
He winked and Dave snickered at Daa-daa-jee's language.
"And somehow, after I met you in the hospital for the first time and found myself accepting you as my own, I feel like I am ready to now tell that man that I owe him my undying gratitude." Daa-daa-jee gave a sneaky smile. "And perhaps kick him in the shins, too."
Dave raised his eyebrows and tucked his legs under himself, which earned him a laugh from Daa-daa-jee.
"Not you, silly child!" he said, and reached over and tickled Dave beneath his armpits. "I would never do that to you, no matter how I might rove and rage! This is much more effective, anyhow!"
Dave found himself with his back on the cushion and his body convulsing in giggles.
When the old man finally tired, he leaned back and exhaled deeply. "I am getting much too old for this," he said. "When Jade was much smaller and Gammy not yet born, I could let the children take turns being tickled.
"Does Jade like being tickled?" Dave asked.
"Do not "nothin'" me! I just poured out my heart to you and you can only tell me "nothin'" in return! What a disrespectful urchin!"
"It's really stupid."
"Then tell me so I can have a good laugh."
Dave sat up. "Can you keep a secret? Or do you tell all of the secrets you know to sleepy relatives like a soup kitchen does soup to poor people?"
Daa-daa-jee's face puffed in outrage a bit and he slugged his young relative in the shoulder just hard enough to hurt, but not to bruise.
"I have changed my mind. Next time, it will be your shins," he teased.
Dave looked at his great-grandfather. "I wanna marry Jade," he said.
And Karkata Vantas, the Daa-daa-jee to so many children, who normally would only have laughed and brushed this off as childishness, who always had something to say in every situation, could only look at the boy's so, so serious face and say, "I see."