What Dave understands about clones is, they don't work out to be Drift compatible any more often than normal siblings, in the end.
There's still a disproportionate number of them at the Shatterdome.
"It isn't like we're welcome much of anywhere else," Karkat says, looking at the horizon over his crossed arms. The ferry puffpuffs its way across to the city behind, loud and stinky and slow. In Knight Ardent they'd be there in seven steps, tops.
"Maybe if we ran," Karkat says, and rolls his eyes a little bit behind the shades he swept from Dave's pile and put on this morning.
Dave wonders if with all this deafening noise and the slow boil of his thoughts in there he even notices Dave hasn't said anything out loud ever since they boarded.
It's an idle thought. He's more interested in wondering how much of Karkat's past he still doesn't know about, how much he doesn't know about clones and prejudice that he never noticed because it never affected him. The oldest of them are not thirty; people only got the leverage to attempt their creation after the Jaeger program was put in place and the lack of pilots proved to be more of a bottleneck than the money and work to build the Jaeger itself.
"Whaddya mean, about being unwelcome?" he mumbles into his collar. Karkat gives a careless, uncaring, lying shrug.
"Failures, drain of resources, no community attachment or moral values, educated like robots, by robots -- of course it's bull but when have provable facts ever affected what ignorant assholes know is true?"
Dave inclines his head. Yeah, point.
"Damn straight," Karkat says without ever looking at him, chin still on his crossed arms, arms still on the guardrail.
Dave sighs quietly against the harbor wind, and hip-checks his protruding butt. "C'mon, we're almost there. Let's go down."
He pauses a second to consider the wisdom and political correctness of his words, and another second to wonder who the fuck would infect him with political correctness, cause it sure as hell wasn't Bro and it sure as hell isn't Karkat.
"Long and smooth and professional. So basically just like your mom."
"You tremendous asshole," Karkat calls out as he clanks down the narrow staircase after him. "My mom is dead!"
Dave snorts and hides a little quirk of smile in his collar.
It's a thirty minute walk from the docks to the Buena Kai temple at a quick clip, but the streets are full of people and Karkat doesn't want to get there so Dave makes sure to amble and to check out displayed wares for anything of interest. He's a tourist in his own fiefdom and he doesn't even care if they're fleecing him because his hair isn't done and his eyes are bare and he's not wearing his Ranger jacket. Injecting money into the local economy is good, having baubles and alcohol to trade back at the 'dome is good. (Making Karkat bitch because he's having to carry half of it and forget to count his steps down the street is great.)
They get there after the service is over; Dave slows down to let the last believers mill away -- to let Karkat hiss and spit a last time, out of sight, and breathe in, and stalk ahead.
Inside it's close and the ceiling slants like a ribcage; there are blood red and kaiju blue accents everywhere.
That or they're splashes of actual blood. Dave makes sure not to get close to the blue splotches.
In the first pew, by the altar, a man sits sideways, legs out in the alley but tucked close to the bench so no one will trip on them. Dave knew what to expect -- thick pullover, bright red, turtleneck up to his chin, only he's wrong.
The man looking at them is Karkat with a whole morning spent pomading his hair down into gentle waves, Karkat with five more years of life and ten years less of battlefields. He smiles at them as they approach -- tight, polite, restrained. Excited underneath.
He's in a poet's shirt, floaty and drafty as hell and he's got to be frozen with the temperature around here and Dave knows that isn't why Karkat has gone tense from nape to toes.
"Karkat! Why, what a pleasure it is to see you after so long. I cannot help but be disappointed that you missed the service, though. It was fascinating."
Dave isn't sure who wants to punch Karkat's clonesib harder, him or Karkat, but Karkat has the most right to it so Dave gets to be the good pilot. He pushes his way closer, props his elbow and a heavy bag on Karkat's shoulder. "Yo. Boat was late, and then there was a ton of foot traffic. We're completely heartbroken to have missed it though." He holds out a hand, even though he's not sure what Karkat's clone touched. "I'm Dave."
"Kankri Vantas," the other man says formally, and takes his hand in a mildly limp hold. "I take it you are his--"
"Boyfriend," Karkat interjects, the tone daring Kankri or Dave to correct him.
Like he wants to admit out loud he pilots a deicide inside a kaiju-sucker hive, even if most of them are gone out of earshot. Any of the faithful recognizes either of them from the news, they're dead. Or at least stoned in the unfun way.
"Ah. My... congratulations, then."
He sounds like he thinks they're lying. Dave leans a little harder on Karkat and hoods his eyes, crooks a "come and get some" smile, filthy as he can make it. "Yup. Tapping dat ass like it's a war drum and I'm giving the tempo to assault his breach."
Karkat rolls his eyes behind Dave's shades. Kankri stares at him for a long moment before he starts to blush. "That was a very crude way to put it!"
"He's a douche," Karkat says, "he's in good company. Why are you here?"
They stare at each other. Dave takes the time to look Kankri over. Thinner, shoulders more narrow, footing vague and he hasn't moved away from the bench even though it's trapping him and he can't step back, which is something Karkat would never allow. It's not even a question of appearance, he doesn't even breathe like Karkat, the thoughts that move behind his eyes are nothing like Karkat's, Dave wouldn't mistake them on a moonless night and six vodka shots.
There's a tattoo on his breastbone, peeking out of the shirt's neckline. Basic black China ink, no fancy curlicues. It's a broken circle with two smaller circles in it followed by a barcode.
Kankri catches him looking, of course he does, Dave has lost the habit of being discreet since his shades started doing the stealth for him. Kankri smiles, thin and hard and hostile, and says, "And how are you enjoying the sight of my brand?"
"Karkat's is sexier," he replies on automatic, but the fact is he has never seen Karkat's. All clones have a barcode and a logo -- Aradia's is on her temple, a curly-branched V over the end of her eyebrow like a ring and the barcode stretching out under her bangs.
He never really gave a thought about where Karkat's would be, he just knew from the Drift that Karkat doesn't like showing skin and besides in the last ten days they've made out fully clothed a ton and fallen asleep on all manners of beds and couches and training floors without getting anywhere.
They're lovers because the brain is the biggest sex organ and whoa have they fucked each other balls deep in there.
"I beg you pardon," Kankri says, barcode moving up with the deep, tirade-ahoy breath he's taking; "are you fetishizing the very mark of our oppression and depersonalization?"
There's a "yep" on Dave's tongue but Karkat explodes first. "Fuck you, Kankri, shut up, you're baring yours for a fucking cult, what the hell is wrong with you?!"
"I," Kankri sneers back, making a visible effort to restrain a rage that looks to match Karkat's, "am empowering myself by deciding to display a mark of slavery in support of--"
"In support of end-of-the-world murderous nutcases!"
"That is totally mischaracterizing--"
"--In support of --""
"In sympathy, if you'd rather!"
Karkat dumps the bags. Something cracks in there; no matter. Dave's own armful is on the floor and his arms around Karkat's chest in a second; he leans back, lifts him off his feet.
"Down, Ranger," he tries to snap, but he doesn't have Marshal Crocker's innate commanding presence and Karkat isn't listening, isn't --
There's a man watching from a side door, half in shadows, and his alarm and tension cuts through Karkat's fury the way his words didn't. They turn to stare together, squint.
He's in the red robes of a practicing cultist, and his hat is... particularly ridiculous, but...
"... This is Grand Priest Kurloz Makara," Kankri says stiffly, "who did me the honor of inviting me here and hosting me, so that we may pursue important discourse on the matter of integration and better understanding. Father Makara, my clonesib Karkat and his, ah, significant other."
Karkat's eyes have gone narrow, but he's wearing Dave's shades. Dave's eyes are just blank, uninterested, denial, nope I don't care I don't want to know you back the fuck off.
"Yeah, hi. Like what you've done with the place."
The man quirks them a smile so faint it might as well have not been there, and then he has drifted past them along the altar and he's gone.
"Rude!" Karkat spits, when he would have spit for real if the man had tried to tell them anything.
"He does not speak outside of sermons," Kankri informs them pointedly, "so as not to dilute the strength of his message. An... interesting idea, you will admit, somewhat eccentric but we cannot fault the man for his strength of conviction."
"We can fault him plenty," Karkat mutters. Dave puts him back down; fucker's heavy.
Makara hasn't said a thing about Dave's slip -- good job being incognito -- so either he didn't hear (haha yeah right, Dave bets he's been listening in from the start) or he's playing a longer game.
Probably one where he wants Kankri so pissed off he runs straight back to his strung-out arms. Their tempers at least are a match and Dave knows spite motivates Karkat like nothing else.
"No, seriously, Kankri. We're in-laws now so I'm telling you this from a place of caring in my heart--"
"Dave shut up--"
Dave covers Karkat's mouth with his hand and hopes he'll trust him that long. He's not the one who hates and loves Kankri for being his big brother and not being his dad, he's the one who admired and resented his big brother who acted as a dad and then the man died and game over. "Karkat was, like, totally astonished when he got your mail that you were in town. He didn't know if he wanted to be happy or what. But you made it sound like you wanted to be nearby because of him, so--"
Kankri purses his mouth and turns away, adjusting his sleeves. He's not used to the way they float and it shows from the way he tugs them down, trying to get them to cover more skin. "Yes, well. It was indeed a relevant factor toward my choice of city, but I have a task I must accomplish as well and I was not intending to abandon my, my mission half-done and presume on Karkat's -- employers' hospitality for my sustenance thereafter."
"Your mission," Dave repeats.
"I've told you. I wish to open productive dialogue with BuenaKai. Surely such a controversial faith would provoke less tensions with a little more understanding and better public relations--"
Dave breathes out. Jesusfuck. He's half-turned already. Even if he never makes for a true believer he'll be doing their publicity for them in three months.
"I get it," Karkat rasps. "I get it. What I don't get is why you showed them that. You're the most prudish asshole I've ever met since I was decanted, and considering the type of controlling fuckwad liable to work as an educator for a baby factory that's saying a fuckload of something."
"Maybe," Kankri replies, haughty and miffed, "Maybe I felt empowered, showing people the proof of my creation and not being rejected for it--"
Karkat flings a hand in the air. "Because it plays into their humanity is evil let's burn it down agenda!"
"Are you -- you of all people! -- trying to shame me for what I choose to expose of myself?!"
He hisses it, but his hand is clenched on his collar, hiding his breastbone. Karkat's hand rises like he wants to do the same, cover the same place right through his own jumper.
"I thought you didn't care how we'd been born, that there was no inherent value to being shot out of an actual vagina!"
"Well obviously society doesn't feel the same, now does it? But feel free to continue embracing your oppression!" He nods toward Dave, a quick twitch like a bird of prey's beak snapping at prey. "How is your ready-made destiny treating you?"
"You did not," Karkat breathes eventually. "You... did not."
Kankri's eyelids twitch and he firms his chin and on Karkat it would mean he's feeling like an ass but would rather die than admit it.
Dave steps between them and slaps them both upside the head. (Kankri a bit harder.)
"Foul, yellow cards for both, return to your corners. This match will be clean, gentlemen, or it will be canceled."
"But he just--"
"What the fuck do you care about the opinion of a dude who never beat a kaiju to death while brainfucking the hell out of you? I mean, when your oppression gives such out of this world blowjobs then damn straight it deserves a hug or two. It's not even deepthroating at that level, it's like... sword swallowing. Hey wanna clean my Excalibur."
Karkat stares at him for a second, and massages the bridge of his nose. "The worst thing about this whole tirade is that I understood your meaning exactly."
"You mean to say there was a meaning in there amidst the crude imagery and sexualized admissions of surrender to oppression?"
Dave twitches, but Karkat doesn't, for once. "... Yeah. There was."
He breathes in, loosens his shoulders, straightens his back.
"I'm doing exactly what I want to be doing, and I love every second of it. I get to save people. I get to be useful -- not like a replaceable cog. Dave would be benched without me. Me, not any Cancer clone out there! Tempest Grim would be dead, Shanktopus would have made landfall. Meanwhile you--"
Dave taps his arm before he can torpedo the remnants of the bridge.
"Meanwhile I," Kankri replies, offended like a Persian cat being laughed at, "Am being useful on a more than basic, immediate level, I am thinking of our society as a whole and the necessity of weaving a strong, accepting tapestry of all sorts of differences, I am helping orchestrate tomorrow's humanity!"
"Good luck with there being a tomorrow if we decide to go on strike this evening," Dave snarks back. He can't help it, Karkat's irritation is nagging at him.
"While your point and your tone are needlessly sarcastic I will point out that I never, not even once, mentioned that I thought your service was unnecessary. Though naturally the outrageous risks involved both in pilot survival and in the cost of failure show this is simply the less bad solution out of a great many worse ones, and as we don't know where a true solution might be found it is therefore extremely short-sighted to exclude from the dialogue a part of--"
"Do you tell your new friends you think that, while they sing glory be to the gigantic toasters stomping them into mush?"
Kankri glares. "I am not here to shame their religious beliefs and oppress their faith. It's visible you are not open to dialogue right now, Karkat, and if you are not prepared to meet me midway and attempt productive discourse--"
"We're prepared," Dave replies. "We came here, onto your turf. Heard your thesis. Gonna mull on it for a while. Next time you get to visit us, fair enough, right?"
Kankri and Karkat pause, look at him. He takes the time to pick up the bags strewn on the floor, to straighten up.
"How about the hospital? Radiation center."
Dave's words are coming cool and distant with the hurt Karkat is trying to swallow. He can't smother it entirely. He doesn't try all that hard.
Religious beliefs. It's a matter of days until they mount a terrorist assault on a Shatterdome, and Dave doesn't count all the children and dependents already dragged out in the street to accept their due punishment and cleansing at the hands and paws and maws of their almighty masters.
Kankri blinks, shifts his eyes to Karkat and back to Dave. "While you may be under the false and preconceived impression that the ideas preached between these walls are 'poison', I object even for the sake of metaphor to placing my own well-being--and the well-being of my oppone-my fellow debaters, of course, to the physical danger of potential exposure to--"
"Nah, it's cool. We can shoot the shit with all the little kids and brave parents there, you know, tell them about how sad it is that they won't make an effort to extend understanding toward the people who say to their faces how they must have done something evil or have something inherently fucked up inside them, that makes them deserve it. How 'bout it? Fair? I mean yeah, a hospital, we're not irradiated yet, but you're not a cultist either and yet we're in here. Okay, sold."
... There goes the bridge. Welp.
"Yeah," Karkat says, all calm now that Dave isn't, "You owe it to the other side to at least look them in the eye if you're going to be saying BuenaKai has merit too."
Kankri has gone red with breathless, incredulous wrath. Dave nods at him, polite, and he walks out, bags in both hands and his partner matching his steps after all, not staying behind to -- hell, there was nothing more to be said.
When he crosses the door he glances backward and Karkat and Kankri's hands are clenched over their chests the exact same way.
Once they're away from the church and Karkat has gone off point Dave hands him half of the bags and they keep trudging down toward the sea in silence.
They kind of unloaded in his face with both plasma cannons there.
He's just like Karkat, it doesn't matter how wrong-headed something is, his first reflex will be to dig in his heels and yell to cover the sound of their voices and pretend they didn't hurt him.
"He hurt you," Dave says. Dave cares about a great many things, behind the cool. People who treat his partner like an emotional punching ball aren't on the list.
It's barely less brutal than how it used to be between Bro and him on the worst days.
"We had good days too," Karkat says.
His hand is still massaging the keel of his ribs like the tattoo has gone tight.
"Hey," Dave says, "hey--"
"He was the one who taught me to cover it up," Karkat says, abrupt. "And he wasn't wrong, other kids were shitty to clones, even those who'd never seen Dad pick me up and noticed that he was me adult with a beard, the parents were weird to him, like hey, what kind of creep are you, raising yourself, is your wife another you as well. When I was in training and Kankri had fucked off I didn't even tell any of the other clones I was like them, I was trying to pass like an asshole because of how much I knew normal people wouldn't listen to me otherwise and --"
He stops himself. Dave waits, another three steps, but no other words come. He can't read him right now.
"Do you want to get it erased maybe?" he guesses.
"I would suck the eyeballs out of the head of the first asshole who came at me with a laser pen and vomit them up their asshole," Karkat muses, teeth gnashing so hard Dave is surprised there are no sparks. "He's -- that kaiju fucker, he's right, it's me."
"Well, you can be private without being ashamed," Dave says, although he knows that it'll have Karkat whirl around on him, bags swinging hard and tearing a little, bristle all over with indignation.
"Oh, it's on, let's get me a V-neck right the fuck now!"
Dave lets himself smile.
"We're in town and I'm not taking that goddamn ferry for another fucking year once we're home, come on, let's take care of it right now, where was that clothes shop?"
Dave follows, bags swinging, and thinks about pressing his lips to that tattoo in the dressing room until he knows it by heart.
He pretends he has no idea why Karkat's ears have gone ruddy.