By Brett Howell
Who amongst the general public hasn't at the very least heard of John Egbert, rising humorist and riveting showman (and, slightly less known, accomplished, classically-trained concert pianist?) If you're not into astronomy or nuclear physics you might be excused for not knowing of his cousin, vivacious and horrendously brilliant Jade Harley. (If you are, you have no excuse; in those circles she is revolutionizing there is no escaping her sharp insight.)
The two cousins share, along with quirky good looks and overachieving habits, a joie de vivre, an intensity that is hard to contain in mere words. Child prodigies each in their own domains, armed with determination enough to level small mountains and matching irresistible smiles, their family resemblance is impossible to miss. The exotic deep tan and ink-black hair of their part-Polynesian heritage sets off intensely blue (John) and green (Jade, the well-named) eyes.
They also happen to run in the same tight circles as the famous twins, DJ Dave "Stridenasty" Strider and renowned novel author Rose Lalonde, of Complacency of the Learned and more recently Lambency of the Benighted fame.
In short, they're gorgeous, smart, well-connected, independently wealthy, and well on their way to becoming nothing short of illustrious.
They also happen to be dating the same man.
Who, but who is this Karkat Vantas who has captured them so, you will at this point wonder? And up until today the answer would have been, no one really knows.
Adverse to the blinding glare of camera flashes, Mr. Vantas' presence in the lives of Jade Harley and John Egbert is mostly felt in the shape of things left unsaid and a few, almost accidental offhand mentions, but their peculiar romance has apparently been going on for at least a year, perhaps more! A year and a half ago, Jade Harley mentioned she was "dating a troll boy, and I don't want to say more but we're very happy." In a follow-up interview, when asked if she was dating him red or black and whether she minded the sacrifices inherent in sharing her lover with his other quadrants, Harley replied with nothing but a bright laugh and a playful and, dare we say, suggestive waggle of her ebon eyebrows.
As for the inclusion of John Egbert into this peculiar balance, nothing is sure until Christmas of last year, where Egbert used his "plus one" to the yearly Wentworth charity gala on his "ironic bro-date", a reserved young Alternian gentleman of indeterminate hemocaste hue and understated brooding good looks. Our faithful readers might remember the hilarious skit "No Homo," which Egbert said later was inspired by an incident that evening where the hostess happened upon Vantas "fishing for his cell phone" down the back of Egbert's exquisitely tailored slacks.
Egbert has admitted recently that this incident was, in fact, exactly what it looked like at the time.
A virtual unknown in the rarefied circles of the jet-set, one might at first glance wonder where Harley and Egbert ever got to meet the man. Perhaps, was one suggestion, was he a childhood acquaintance such as the Lalonde-Strider twins, whose friendship survived and even strengthened in the fires of their rise to fame? But there are no records of Vantas having ever shared even a state with any of the four, not to mention a high school or neighborhood. Hailing from the Alternian reserve in Algeria, Vantas did not get his USA citizenship until his seventeenth year.
The deeper we dug into this man's apparently ordinary story, dear readers, the bigger grew the size and shape of mysteries in his background! Vantas was recorded as forfeiting college to hold a series of dead-end jobs for two years, upon which he ceases to be employed at all and his tracks vanish into sheer mystery. By the lack of rent or credit to his name he might have met Harley during one of her months-long backpacking trips around the world. Or perhaps was he introduced via a common friend, Alternian lady Terezi Pyrope, who just so happens to be Dave Strider's matesprit and Earth-style fiancée, and a rising star of the courtroom herself?
"He was an internet friend first, actually," says Harley when pressed. She shrugs her bare shoulders with a rough grace that shouldn't fit the floor-length dress she has donned for this AlterEarth Alliance gala half as well as it does. "We played a game together."
"Didn't meet him in person for another three years though," Egbert says, scanning the crowded ballroom for the wayward form of his significant other.
The trio caused amusement at first when they arrived arm in arm in arm earlier in the evening, Vantas a shorter, grumpy gray-skinned form in the middle and the Hawaiian cousins as laughing bookends, as John Egbert is well known for his pranks; but amusement wore off and astonishment replaced it as the cousins proceeded to trade the position of Vantas' dance partners between them for the next two hours.
That dedication alone should have been a tip-off that this was no mere publicity stunt, but the stolen kisses rumored to have been witnessed in the gardens were the true nail in the coffin.
I alas only managed to approach when the elusive Vantas parked his demanding dates at a table and escaped for parts unknown; perhaps, I inquired, as the article was on Alternian practice, would it be preferable to go to him first for his view on things?
"Oh no, you did good!" hurries to say Egbert, inviting me to sit. "I mean, um, better us than him. I don't think Karkat's ready to meet the press."
Harley chuckles in her hand. "More like the press isn't ready for Karkat," she whispers under her breath at her cousin (luckily this reporter happens to be rather adept at reading lips.)
"Who ever is?" Egbert replies in her ear, reminiscent of two schoolchildren sharing a secret. They laugh together with not a trace of self-consciousness, of embarrassment. There is no jealousy or frustration in their relationship; it is very clear to watch them, leaning into each other, Harley's elbow on Egbert's shoulder, that they are still close as ever, that sharing a lover has not driven them apart.
I ask them if they would be willing to explain how the relationship works. They grin. Harley answers easily, "Oh, we flip black and red actually, it's really fun."
Egbert coughs in his hand, but doesn't deny; after a second he nods, laughing ruefully. "It really is. If I figure out how exactly it works, I'll tell you. They're the relationship experts, I'm just along for the ride. Been going pretty well though!"
They do indeed have the special glow of people quite happy with their personal lives. I encourage them to explain how this choice to explore quadrant happened. Once again, Harley takes the lead.
"I don't think that it was ever a conscious choice. We've been friends with trolls from pretty early on, uh, age thirteen? So we kinda integrated the way they do relationships the same as we integrated how our parents and human agemates did it, it wasn't that complicated."
"Actually Jade was raised by her grandpa on his private island in the Pacific, she just had online classes, so she socialized more with trolls than with humans. She's better than I am. Man, me? I'm from the suburbs and I went to public school, at first I had a lot of trouble, you know, stupid human-centrist stuff, like 'oh no Karkat's a boy and I'm also a boy!', I mean there's nothing wrong with being heterosexual if that's truly what you are but a lot of people are at least a little bit bi and they're just not letting themselves. And then at the same time I'd be 'but I like him, I don't want him to hate me!' I just didn't get it. Boys can be really dumb about that stuff, but I probably was the dumbest. Dave managed it pretty quick, I mean it took him, what, a year and a half to figure things out with Terezi? And during most of that he was being a bratty teenager. But me and Karkat, oh man, it took years. And then I'd started figuring out my sh--crap and bam! He was with Jade. I was kinda frustrated about it, so..."
"... So that made it perfect for blackrom apparently, because oh man did they argue, but then they would end up making out! And John would come to me all crushed and ashamed and he'd try to apologize for making my boyfriend cheat on me."
Harley guffaws, there is no other word, and Egbert pouts and might even be blushing a little.
"Karkat was never my boyfriend," she says, placing a special emphasis on the word; "from the start we went with matesprits and I was very clear [on] what it meant. He already had a moirail at the time and no one who'd seem them cuddling and looking into each other's eyes could ever tell themselves this was just a close platonic friendship. It was clearly romantic, one of those couples you know will be together until death do them part, and it clearly didn't stop him being crazy about me, so I didn't see why him also being crazy about John should do it. Meanwhile John was driving Karkat crazy but not in the good way."
"Yeah, haha, king of mixed signals, that's me."
Harley purses her lips in remembered annoyance. "One day they'd be best friends, the next they'd snap at each other nonstop, and then John would apologize and be contrite and then get frustrated again, and he'd get Karkat frustrated right back because for him it was all going very well, pretty textbook blackrom stuff until bam! it wasn't, and he had to deal with how he'd misread John and boohoo rejection my life is pain. Mostly because John was being a confusing butthead, mind. But then one day Karkat was so out of sorts, when he lost it I was the one he yelled at."
She crosses her long legs, one ankle over her knee, in a way that might be more appropriate in jeans; the line of a shapely brown calf is unveiled in a way that might be sensual if it wasn't so unselfconscious.
"What you have to understand about Karkat is he can be really intense, and he can be really loud, and he did and still does a lot of things that annoyed the heck out of me, and then, well, a troll might think a human can't but the best way to describe it is that I flipped black on him. I still loved him and wanted to kiss his stupid nose, only I also wanted to kick him in the shins while I was doing it. I'd had more troll friends than humans by that point, it didn't seem weird or contradictory to me. Only he'd been talking to John for ages!"
"And I had him all confused about what humans -- most humans, I should say -- what they did and didn't do, and he was pretty clear on humans don't do the whole hate is sexy thing, so he thought he'd messed it all up and Jade now hated him platonically. And um well he was pretty cute when he was all crushed and terrified that he was losing her and well. Yeah. Er." A fatuous and only half put-on grin blooms on Egbert's face. "Yeah."
Harley rolls her eyes and shoves his shoulder good-naturedly. "Long story short we were silly brats who were in over our heads and somehow we managed to fumble into a workable pattern and it frustrates the heck out of him how he can't explain how that happened. Us, personally, we're just going with the flow. Only we've had to learn how to synchronize flipping, because it really bothers his poor little sensibilities when we're both red or black at the same time."
Egbert snickers and elbows her in the ribs. "Careful, that was kinda pitch. It's my turn this week!"
I inquire if they've truly worked out a weekly schedule. Harley quickly assures me that they haven't. "We just feel our way through. And... you know, we're human, Earth-born and Earth-raised, no matter how weirdly -- we don't really have the exact same range of feelings, but it helps that we both sympathize with him, and want to compete and argue with him. We could have had a type of love with only one of the two, but this way it's not a matter of changing our feelings, we just express some of them more or less depending on the situation. The love is always here."
"Karkat knows we're just humoring him," Egbert intones with a seriousness belied by his eyes, which, demurely lowered eyelashes or not, still look as if they are laughing, "but we're pretending he's not pretending he doesn't."
"Who are you humoring, you [sickness]-inducing sack of horse[waste]?"
When I turn around, the man himself is standing behind me, two flutes of champagne in hand, and glaring rather heavily at his -- for the moment -- caliginous flame. I take the time to observe him.
Karkat Vantas is quite short as adult trolls go, meaning he is slightly under average height for a human male, and a half-head smaller than Egbert himself; his horns are small enough as to be barely visible over the messy crown of his flyaway dark hair. His square shoulders and thick biceps belie the first impression of delicateness borne by the high cheekbones and full mouth. Strong, heavy brows shadow his eyes in such a way as to make the color of his irises impossible to identify at a distance, and the delicate moss green of his frock coat is countered by the mustard yellow waistcoat and brilliant vermilion cravat. No personal sign is exposed.
At a closer glance, his eyes are pure red, a shockingly intense shade that is a bit hard to believe is natural. It has as little resemblance to the dark rust-red more common to the starting class of the hemospectrum as rust itself to brown.
"Of course it's [cursing] natural, why in the everlasting reaches of par[misheard] space would I go around wearing cullbait contacts? Not to mention that every other [person] out here who gets close enough asks me the same bilge-rising thing, swear to god I should get myself normal-colored contacts, only then I'd be cullbait for misrepresenting my place on the hemospectrum and impersonating my so-called betters. [Curse] that noise."
It should be noted that I did not actually ask anything. The reaction is understandable, though, as Alternians used, in relatively recent times, to consider what we would see as cosmetic defects as flaws that would mar the species' genetic purity; possessors of such variant appearances were to be stopped from contributing to the reproductive slurry, often by violent means. Even in Earth-born Alternians, who often don't even subscribe to the outdated notion of hemospectrum-based hierarchy, the prejudice sometimes persists. Apparently Vantas, despite records showing he was hatched in the Algerian reserve, has been forced by something as small as his non-standard -- and, admittedly, rather striking -- eye color to deal with bigotry.
Harley introduces me, guiding him firmly to take a seat between the two of them. I notice that neither of the glasses are for him.
"I don't drink," he replies, rather curtly. "Especially not in public. Okay, you had questions. Fire away. They've got me trapped, not like I can run anyways."
His manner is, I find, rather abrupt, almost hostile, until I notice Harley's hand on his knee, smoothing the cloth in a soothing manner. I suspect from the way he jumps that Egbert might be kicking him under the table.
He apologizes. "Too many people. Makes me twitchy."
"Nervous," corrects Harley.
"Shy," suggests Egbert. Vantas regards them in turn with identical looks of unsurprised annoyance, but the set of his shoulders relaxes noticeably. It doesn't stop him insulting his (currently) kismesis with something thoroughly unprintable. The 'shy' descriptive might well be another mark of that trademark offbeat Egbert humor.
"Kiss your moirail with that mouth, snookums?" Egbert teases. Harley laughs.
"I know who I'm not kissing," Vantas retorts, making Egbert pout, and turns to me. "See, they think I don't like meeting people because I'm shy, but it's really because invariably they will embarrass me to death and then secondhand shame ensures I can never again show my face to those poor [insult, but a somewhat friendly one] forced to witness the horror of their cutesy clutch-clone act."
"Aw, you know you love us."
Another enthusiastic caliginous spat looks to be incoming, but Harley intervenes with a cough. "Don't make me flip ashen on you, guys." They seem to treat it as an in-joke, but it seems fairly obvious to me that such a delicate balancing act as their relationship must sometimes require acts of unofficial auspisticism, if only because they are so entangled.
"Well, John and I didn't meet until we were thirteen, and we never really lived in the same neighborhoods, we weren't that close before!" Harley corrects me with a wide grin, as Egbert dives for Vantas and presses both hands to his mouth. I seem to have inadvertently offended him.
"Of course you haven't offended me, do I look like someone who was offended! It's not like your egregious ignorance--" He yelps. Apparently Harley and Egbert both kicked him at the same time. "Okay, sorry, I guess it's not your fault and at least you're trying, but if you want to educate yourself on the more involved details of quadrants and why you don't imply your concupiscent partners have gone ashen on you I have a list of solid reference books, plus novels that describe the emotional reaction in some very nice detail, very evocative language, let me write you a list." He does so, on a handy paper napkin. By the fond, unsurprised looks on Egbert and Harley's face I can deduce he does this sort of thing rather a lot.
I reflect that when Harley described Vantas as "rather intense" she was understating things somewhat. For a man with such a small stature and self-effacing public habits the man has a gripping scene presence; he talks with the fervor of the true believer, no matter the topic.
(See side blurb for book list.)
I suggest that Vantas tell me about himself.
"I have no clue where to start. What do you want to know?" A frown. "I reserve the right to clamp the [heck] down on anything at all and for any reason, mind."
I ask him, as this is a question often heard going around, what he does, and how he feels about his matesprit and kismesis being as famous as they are. He gives a rather explosive snort.
"Yeah [expletive] right. Let me fix that question for you. Didn't you mean to ask 'aren't you ashamed of being a lazy do-nothing who mooches off his well-off significant others who have actually worked for their success'?" A huff. I assure him this was not the question I was asking. "It's the one all the papers who even know about me ask, though. Okay, the topic here is Troll-Human relationships in general, not my failures in life, but special offer, today only! I can reassure all the [unflattering comparison to flying insects] buzzing around concernedly: I happen to be independently wealthy. I also sometimes get off the couch to exercise off all those potato chips I snitch from my quadrantmates' cupboards by busying myself with grassroot political movements and charity work."
"And by grassroot political movement Karkat means he single-handedly organized and executed some of the biggest anti-hemocastist protests in the world," Harley says. "Like the Berlin-Paris-Madrid march, or the one in Mexico last year, or like a dozen other less visible things too." Vantas -- growling, scowling Vantas -- blushes.
"And by charity work," Egbert adds, "he doesn't mean he throws a couple grands some random charity's way and then forgets about it until tax week, he means he's actually there busting his ass off to give a hand. Comes back late and exhausted and then goes out and does it again, and to be honest makes me feel kind of inadequate. What's wrong with throwing a couple grands people's way again?"
Vantas is now smiling, a tiny flustered smile that he ducks his head to attempt to hide. It's obvious his partners hold him in high esteem, and don't consider themselves as out of his league in any way.
"What does league even mean?" Egbert asks. "It's a really silly notion, isn't it? Okay sometimes I go on TV and make people laugh for a few minutes, it's a nice feeling, but what does it matter in the long run? Jade's gonna invent perpetual motion some day. Karkat's like this Gandhi of trollkind, making things better for his fellow man as hard as he can -- don't worry, I still find you insufferable and also put away your stupid socks before I stuff them in your mouth while you sleep, I swear I will."
"But anyway, we were talking humans in quadrants!" Vantas says rather loudly, obviously embarrassed. His quadrantmates seem to find that charming, and this reporter has to report that he can see why that is. "Especially vacillating, right? That's the one you wanted to know about?"
I tell him that Harley and Egbert have already given their point of view and ask him for his; does he know what makes it work?
"I suspect it's, well, they're both pretty unusual humans in the first place. Jade is, I was told it's weird for a human, she's somewhat jealousy-impaired. So long as I pity her enough she doesn't mind what else happens, what I feel for anyone else. And John is, well, he's just a weirdo." A quick flick of a grin, only made the more charming for being such an unexpected sight. "No, more seriously, a lot of people told me it should make things worse that they're genetically related, no matter that it's one or two steps removed, it should make them weird, but some pretty bad things happened to us -- to them when they were teenagers -- John's father and, and other things -- and there is no breaking that bond now, they were there for each other through some pretty bad stuff and I have to admit it's somewhat reassuring knowing that my usual bumbling incompetence in matters related to romance cannot possibly ruin this for them. I can relax into it, I suppose. I know they're not going anywhere, I know no matter what I'm not breaking them up."
A slow, thoughtful nod. Harley and Egbert stay silent, listening.
"And I suppose as humans they're more naturally inclined to romantic ambiguity -- usually, for trolls, finding someone that you can both pity and hate is not common, you just compartmentalize that stuff more. But humans don't learn how to aim their feelings at the appropriate target as efficiently, so even if they tend more toward pity they also vacillate more easily? I don't know, it's just an idea, I'm not a shrink. You'd have to ask Rose for that. Anyway they flip on me pretty often, but I've gotten used to it. It's," a pause, and he blushes again, "It's also pretty unusual, by the way, for a troll to share a house with one of his concupiscent partners, never mind both, but with how often they flip we might as well set up a revolving door. My moirail lives literally next door for when I don't feel up to sharing a bedroom with either of them, I have a toothbrush in each house. It's a pretty good setup. I don't think we'd have lasted without my moirail, it'd get volatile too fast, we're all pretty headstrong, but being able to just step out for a while and come back calmer, yeah, that was a big factor."
"Also, adequate soundproofing," says Egbert, looking mildly anguished. "Oh god I would not survive without good soundproofing."
Harley nods gravely. "There are things you should never have to hear."
"Like Karkat singing in the shower."
Squabbling ensues. It's very easy to see it as the flirting it is, anyone who has ever pulled or had their pigtails pulled should recognize the 'there, is your attention on me yet?' look. They look to be in the honeymoon stage still, the three of them, forgetting their audience, but Harley informs me that it has been "six or seven years now as we count those things." I have to commend them on keeping the secret that long.
"It's not like we were famous enough to get people interested before the last couple of years," Egbert says. "Or like we could get Karkat to appear in public. You're lucky he liked the idea of an Interspecies Romance for Dummies series, else we never could have gotten him poured in those clothes."
The clothes are, indeed, particularly delicious. They were tailored by a close friend of the trio, Kanaya Maryam, a troll seamstress of notable talent who has been known to make long and friendly visits to a certain Rose Lalonde. It's rather amazing how many special people they seem to know.
"Not true. My moirail's a total wreck," Vantas says, expression gone soft with romantic pity. "Only thing he's really good at, he hates. But yeah, everyone else from the old gang seems ridiculously competent in their own fields."
I ask them to name names, but the trio clams up, refusing to mention who the rest of this mysterious dream team might be. The only names they let slip are Her (abdicated) Imperial Majesty, Ambassador Feferi Peixes, whose association with Harley was already known, though up until now rather vague -- turns out they met each other online as well -- and Tavros Nitram, one of the better known public faces of Stop the Culling of Undesirables and Mutations, as he has the misfortune of being both paraplegic and possessed of the exceedingly rare recessive winged gene, which would condemn him to death twice over in the old days on Alternia.
The dance floor is heating up out here and I can see Harley's foot tapping with the music; the interview is coming to a close. I ask if I can ask a last question.
"Why the [heck] not," says Vantas, watching me with a jaundiced eye. "But if it's related in any way to sex or [redacted; sexual practice] or god forbid [redacted; another sexual practice] I should warn you I will be legally obligated to end you."
Egbert starts laughing.
It isn't that, I assure him. But it is for the three of them.
They exchange quick glances that speak volumes. They nod.
I ask, "Are you happy?" and none of them even pause before answering "Yes."
As they head for the dance floor, arm in arm in arm, I overhear a last exchange, Harley asking, in Vantas' ear, "Have they even found that last guy who asked the [redacted] question yet?"
"Which chunk?" Vantas retorts, deadpan.
"No grossing me out before dance time," Egbert orders. From his face as they melt into the crowd, his cousin and his black flame have joined forces to make him regret handing them such a tempting target.
Perhaps what makes their strength is that this relationship truly seems less of a Quadrant-style Vee, one partner as the hinge the other two swing independently around, and more of a triad, an Earthian arrangement on an old Alternian melody.