Dave has done interviews before, and Karkat hasn't, so they agree that Dave will lead. Karkat knows that Dave knows that Dave will lead until Karkat finds his legs, and then fuck that noise. At least it had better become true, or Karkat will have words with himself.
When he steps out onto the podium and the lights fall on his face, he almost dodges the Shatterdome's press agent's hand to escape right back where he came from.
The room isn't huge, but it's packed. Everyone is staring at them.
He shakes hands and follows Dave to the table, tries to pretend the wall of people staring intently at his every gesture is... somewhere not here. Or that he's somewhere else. In a cockpit, facing another kaiju, maybe. Yeah, that'd work better for him. But Dave is here, so...
He just. Crowds. Not the most awesome thing.
They sit. They have a table to hide behind. He stares ahead at no journalist in particular and schools his face so nothing shows when Dave's boot comes to hook his heel.
The press agent is introducing them. Karkat remembers to nod when she says his name, and to keep his head still when she says Dave's, even though (five weeks in) it's pavlovian already to turn around when someone calls for either one of them, indifferently. (Not that he's mixed up enough to think Dave is his name, but anything that concern Dave concerns him, doesn't it.)
"You are the pilots of Knight Ardent," she's saying. Karkat knows Dave will shift it into clownery before she's done with her sentence, so he's already moving to kick.
"We are? -- ow."
Karkat looks at her, and then he looks at the crowd, because they're not here to talk to her, she's not the one who's going to be asking the question. "That's us." His mind is blank. "...Thanks for coming."
The press agent -- what's her name, Karkat knows he's been told her name but -- turns to the crowd, says something smooth and practiced about... kill record, date of their first sortie, the official biography thing that anyone can find on their Shatterdome's homepage. (They have an official biography. Jesus.)
Foot bump. He bumps back, squares his shoulders, breathes. It's just words, they're just going to ask him to talk, he can do that. He can do it for hours. It'll be fine. Even if he stutters or says stupid thoughtless shit it'll -- oh god, what if he says stupid thoughtless shit.
One of the journalists has the mike. Okay. Showtime. "It's said you were matched through computer algorithms and never met each other prior to your first launching?"
Dave's foot has Karkat's foot trapped against the nearest table leg. His voice is so mellow and easy Karkat could imagine they're holding court in the cafeteria. "Oh man, that's a straight up falsehood. We met right here--" he points at his nose -- the small bump on it, and Karkat groans. "See this? This is a traditional Vantas greeting also known as a broken nose."
He has to not say stupid shit, he has to -- oh god he can't think and Dave is so relaxed and informal and -- "Oh, stop complaining, at least you look a tiny bit manlier now." Welp, freefall. Nothing to do but keep talking, now. "Ain't never gonna be able to grow enough of a beard to look rugged, after all -- did I just say 'ain't'."
Did he just comment on his own use of 'ain't' in public. Oh motherfuck, someone kill him.
Dave is smirking, the fucking traitor. "Sure did." Karkat glares at him, face heating hard.
"Oooh no, I refuse to take on your speech patterns, you southern bastard."
"Soon I'll have you saying y'all and ain't nothing you can do, my pretty."
Karkat is frozen and his brain stalled, and the audience laughs. Here and there, friendly chuckles and unwilling snorts. Oh.
Dave is still looking at him instead of the audience, and his mouth twitches in a way none of them is close enough to notice. See? It's fine. "The second time we met was right by the cockpit, though, yeah."
"And it clicked?" the journalist asks. "Even after the -- the brawl?"
Karkat imitates Dave, turning back to face the audience. He can't loosen his spine and prop his elbows on the table the same way, though. The uniform is so starched around his clenched muscles it feels like wearing a Drivesuit.
"Turns out we were in perfect agreement that someone needed to bail out Tempest Grim asap and curbstomp Shanktopus into a waterlogged pancake, so yeah."
Dave's foot is jumping under the table, saying come on come on say it, say it it's right on your tongue say iiiit, so Karkat forces it out. "... Can I mention that Shanktopus is the most ridiculous kaiju name I have ever heard."
He totally fails at sounding casual, but Dave shoots him a fake-snooty look and goes, "Most ridiculously awesome, you mean."
No laughter this time, only a couple of polite smiles. Bluh. Why is he trying to clown around, this is so not him. He should just keep to facts and formality, it'll keep him from rambling on about offensive shit.
Another journalist gets the sacred Mike of Shut Up I'm Talking. "You have now three kaiju on your hunting tally--"
"And a half, we got to hold Siluriform down for Abyss Malkin during that double event, they couldn't pin it down. Slippery bastard."
Another. "I have the specs here and I was wondering -- you really take the flexibility available in the designs to the edge! Were there any additional modifications?"
Karkat can't keep the snort behind his teeth. The journalist immediately turns to him.
"Well." Should he say it.
"I will end you," Dave says, which is pretty much a gauntlet thrown and they both know it. Karkat smirks over the loud drum of his heart.
"We're reaping the benefits of --"
"Don't say it, I know where you sleep."
Lord, but they're already smiling in anticipation, and Dave playing along, and Karkat has to fight back a laugh of his own. "All that hula hoop in Dave's childhood."
"I feel it's extremely important to mention it was a joke."
Karkat stares at him, gives him a fake-pitying look. "Buddy... I've been in your head."
He knows Dave is handing him all those openings for potshots. It makes the audience laugh again either way. Great, if they fail as jaeger pilots at least they can still take their act on the road.
"I hate your guts, man." Dave sighs a little in mock disappointment, waves at the journalist. "But anyway yeah, now that they're figuring out exactly what we can do and the way our fighting styles are merging, we're getting new weapons and Knight's spine is getting a major overhaul, you geeks out here might see leaked schematics soonish. We do like the circular, whirlwind-of-death approach."
"It's a really cool approach!" someone yells out from the back of the room. Karkat scans the last rows but can't find them; he nods anyway.
"Thanks, we appreciate your appreciation."
"Appreciatively," Dave says, and Karkat kicks him again. This time, Dave allows himself to jump visibly; a few people chuckle.
Karkat thinks the mood in the room might be changing? Relaxing? Maybe he's the one who's relaxing a little. He made himself look stupid in front of a crowd and nothing bad happened. Could still flub it, but...
"Your opinions on the anti-kaiju wall?"
"About as efficient as a speed bump," Dave says. Karkat arches an eyebrow. Huh. "So, not perfectly useless, but way too money-and-labor-intensive to make the time gained worth it. I mean, for the same price you could have had another jaeger and a half standing by right there."
"Mister Vantas? You don't seem to agree." The journalist has a little smile on their face like they've just scented blood. Karkat shrugs.
"The question never came up before. I don't entirely disagree. It's true the wall can't stop a kaiju cold. At the same time a few minutes of delay can change a lot of things in the outcome of a kaiju attack, and it did inject some money back into the economy. Jaeger construction isn't really a good fit for much unskilled labor, so I'd have to say, the wall wasn't all bad, I just wish it hadn't been an either-or decision from the start."
Dave covers his mike, though he doesn't say a thing, just quirks him a smile. 'Sounded pretty smart there!' Karkat kicks him lightly, and then traps his foot in turn against the table leg.
It's the end of the nice questions, though.
"Mister Strider, you used to pilot Manikin Valiant with your brother..."
... Okay, relax, they knew it might come up. Karkat sneaks Dave a look, but he's impassive. No, wait, he's --
"Yeah, Knight Ardent is actually Manikin Valiant. At least, like, sixty percent of her. The rest is brand new, never used before, impalement free. We freshened up the paint, the bloodstains are hardly visible anymore -- ow."
Karkat leans forward to tilt Dave's mike away from him, rolls his eyes, plays into Dave's 'I don't want to take this seriously, don't make me'. "Don't listen to him, he's an asshole."
"If they're not supposed to listen to assholes then what are we even doing here, bud, this is going to be the shortest conference ever."
Okay, he wasn't even trying to be funny there. Um. Okay, whatever, cool.
The room settles down and another person takes the mike, and then plunges straight back into the same topic.
"Yes, I wanted to ask -- what's different, going from piloting with your elder brother, to piloting with a -- stranger?"
Wow, what was that pause, neither Karkat nor Dave liked it much. "Well, drifting with my brother never made me want to -- ow, okay, jesus. Do I have to --"
Does he have to answer the question seriously and without mentioning potential incest? It's that or not answering at all, really, because taking someone to task over a pause is a bit too hair-triggery. Karkat stares back.
Dave sighs. "Okay. We don't have this weird 'same memories from different points of view' thing, of course, unless we're talking recent stuff. But we have so many points of similarity that it really doesn't matter much, we just take a couple seconds longer to calibrate coming in and that's it."
He pauses to look over the room, and to brace, and then his voice goes a little more serious, a little less loose and drawly. Karkat presses the side of his foot to Dave's, fitting the edges of their boots together, Dave's heel slotting just right in his arch.
"And -- yeah. I have to admit drifting with my brother wasn't as -- I was his little bro, our parents died soon after I was born, his job was always to protect me no matter what, you know? With Karkat it's more -- we protect each other, and we agree with each other that when there's a risk to take we get to take it equally. We're both equally sacrificial idiots and we know it'd make the other dude emo if we stole their chance to--"
"--do the knighty thing," Karkat finishes for him, so he can breathe. And then he rolls his eyes because it's a stupid term, but it's Dave's term, so.
"Yeah, that. I mean, I miss Bro, but if he was -- alive today, and I'd tested sync with Karkat for some reason... Yeah, our sync ratio as Knight Ardent is actually stronger than the one I had with Bro and Manikin. So I guess -- he was eighteen years older than I was. He'd get to retire and be a mechanic like he always wanted to be, instead of just doing it in his spare time. ...Heh."
His smile is so tiny Karkat is almost sure only the first rank can see it, but it's too much already. That world -- where Bro had retired to the ground crew and Dave got to fly with Karkat and tinker with him -- Karkat never really allowed himself to think about that, never had a reason to, but. Yeah. It would have been nice. Karkat doesn't say a thing; they stare ahead as one, breathing together for a minute, and then Dave nods a little bit.
"Okay, next question."
"What about the fact that Mister Vantas is a clone? Does that have any impact? Do you think another--"
Is that son of a bitch fucking going there. Karkat knew it would happen, knew it from the start. It doesn't stop him wanting to--
"Yeah, no, let's not finish that question, foot ain't an awesome taste." Dave's leg coils around his, dragging his chair a couple inches closer, keeping him pinned.
He forces himself to loosen his shoulders. Dave's angry too, but he's better at hiding it and they don't want to give them that.
"I will tell you one thing, I have met one of Karkat's clonesibs, and if they put me in a jaeger with that dude the conn-pod would probably explode. Shrapnel all over the 'dome. It would be a jaegerocalypse. They're like -- whoa, how are you guys even related?"
Karkat can't help but snort. "Oh, come on. I'm not even talking visually."
Dave turns his head to look at him, a hand starting to wave lazily to illustrate his words. "No, but yeah, ok, you're both stubborn wordy assholes, but -- the dude is a pacifist." Back to the journalists. "He can't throw a punch to save his life, and probably wouldn't anyway because I'm not kidding, he takes his peace through talking dissenters into the ground seriously. Now look at my formerly flawless visage and tell me Karkat can't sucker-punch me and then hold his own in a brawl with the best of them. I mean, damn. He's a bulldozer. His bro is like... a tv host. One who sweet-talks housewives. I'm supposed to try to wrangle kaiju with that?"
Is Karkat blushing again? Karkat is blushing again. Fuck his life. Lucky he's tan as fuck, it doesn't show as much as it would show on Dave, but fuck his life anyway.
"I have no reason to think any other of their clonebrosis out there would make my brain dribble out any less, I mean, if they were interchangeable then there wouldn't be all that pissing and moaning about how the cloning program didn't work, now would it? I dunno, that sounds logical to me but what do I know, I'm just a jaeger pilot."
People are nodding their agreement, laughing, and if Karkat had yelled he would have convinced maybe a fourth of them and made another half feel guilty and want to dig in their heels, but since it's funny they can agree to it and there's nothing really to brace against. Karkat sort of wishes he could talk to people like that, so lightly, but he always comes at any dialogue with the weight and finesse of a wrecking ball.
"Long story short, there might be people with that body, and I congratulate them on a smart purchase because damn, but Karkat is unique, and he's my partner, you can't have him, I will fight you."
Okay. Yes. Karkat is totally punching his shoulder in public. He doesn't try to make it a nice one, either. Jesusfuck on a snowboard, his face is scarlet.
He's laughing, too. He can't fucking stop. God, he's going to die of an aneurysm at this rate, right here in public. Death by outrageous flattery, a fitting end for a Jaeger pilot.
He manages to calm himself down, and the woman currently holding the Mike of Questions waits for him patiently, smiling at him a bit.
"Mr Vantas, as we were saying, you are a clone--"
"No kidding?" he retorts, and doesn't let himself think; he pulls the collar of his uniform down and gives his chest an affronted look. Dave wolf-whistles, a few scattered laughs come from the crowd. "Wow. That is some incisive journalistic practice."
"Thank you, I thought so too." She smiles, but then she sobers up. "My apologies for asking. Your line was discontinued for unethical practice, any comments?"
... Wow, his mood just plummeted. Goddamn, lady, he thinks in Dave's voice (Dave thinks? who knows), I almost liked you. "I was two years old at the time."
"But you must have--"
"He was two years old at the time, dude. Do I need to clonesplain you a thing here or what. All he's gonna know is stuff that other people told him."
Yeah, the mood of the room is turning. Some people are disappointed, some vaguely uneasy. Most of them are professional enough that their eyes sharpen, though, and their smiles, and the fight for the mike.
They're going to keep biting at it until he's bled out or until the press conference is ended.
Like hell he's going to let Dave shoulder that for him. This is Karkat's battlefield. He'll take help; he won't take protection. Karkat gets up on his feet.
"I'll say one thing. I'm not sorry I was born."
Silence. For now. He doesn't want to leave anyone enough space to ask a single fucking thing.
"I have no comment on the mistreatment older Cancers might have suffered at the hands of Cancercorps -- I don't remember suffering any, personally, though I'm aware that others did. No, shut up, I'm talking."
He glares the man down. The room quiets down. Good.
"The single thing I really fucking wish I could change about being a clone is the riot of 2018 where a mob of anti-clone protesters lynched my father and burned him to death, I really fucking regret that. He was trying to calm them the fuck down and they killed him in one of the most hideous ways I can even fathom. To any of you who are still alive -- because of course none of them were ever arrested -- I will say this: I'm really, really happy I get to save your bigoted, hateful lives every single day of my life until I get to become a gourmet kaiju snack in a pricey tin can, and I hope that owing your continued safety and livelihood to me sticks sideways up your asses for a great many years to come."
His shoulders are squared and his chin is up, it's like he's in the street again, daring another bunch of kids to come after him.
He's not that kid anymore, and he...
He misses his father, and understands him so much more than he ever thought he would.
"And I hope the ones of you who can feel guilt and remorse feel it, and if you truly do -- I forgive you."
... The room is a tomb, nothing is moving. Did he really --
Did he really say that. Did he really say it, so quiet and serious, so ridiculously intense, oh god. Dad. Dad. He's going to hear himself on the news and it'll be the same tone, the same quiet and gentle -- the same voice, he sounds different in his own head of course but he knows, knows that on TV he won't, he'll sound exactly like.
He squares his shoulders again, tosses his head back to blow a lock of hair off his nose. "So long as it never ever fucking happens again on your watch, you hear me?"
Gruff and awkward now -- he's lost the tone, the hold, the balance, and he's so glad when Dave gets up as well, so glad. The press agent gets up a beat after them and says "And I think that'll be all for today!" and he is so, so glad she has their backs too, so glad she's not making him stay.
He says, again, "Thank you for coming" like a robot (John made him repeat and repeat it, "the only thing you should say, it'll salvage everything!") and stalks out with Dave.
They're three steps out of the door when Dave's hand grabs his and they match steps so their arms will swing in sync without a word, they don't talk until they're out the backdoor and on Vriska's bike and driving away.
He should go see Kankri -- not to talk, but he probably deserves a heads up. But no matter how short he manages to keep it, it's going to be so fucking exhausting trudging through that mess after he just got done here.
"Kankri first, and then dinner and a movie?" Dave throws over his shoulder, against the wind and the roaring exhaust pipe. The bike swerves and slips between a truck and a rickshaw.
Karkat leans against Dave's back, turns his head so the helmet presses sideways against his shoulder blade, closes his eyes.