In the last week John had started collecting objects he could afford to see brutally destroyed. Not for Karkat's weirdo nest, but to throw over the foot of his bed and wake him up when he was in the middle of a nightmare, before morning-zombie Dave decided to stumble out of bed and wake the alien up his own special way. They did not have enough towels on the whole island to sponge up that much blood.

(John had made the mistake of lobbing his own pillow exactly once. Jake and Dirk were still finding bits and pieces of memory foam in their sheets four days later.)

He heard things rustling brutally, saw a black mop of hair come up fast over the footboard. He waited a few seconds, squinting through his eyelashes, caught a glimpse of huge red eyes, irises blown wide enough to eclipse the yellow for barely a second before they started shrinking back. Okay; still shaken but awake enough. John flopped back on his mattress, face down, arms buried underneath his replacement pillow. (It really wasn't as good as the old one. It smelled musty.)

He wasn't going to fall back asleep, not with the alien gasping not-silently-enough for breath at the foot of his bed. But he wasn't getting up either; Dave would be up soon. John didn't want to cross paths in the bathroom. The heights of awkward reached by brushing teeth at neighboring sinks while not acknowledging each other in any way were reaching unreal altitudes - like they should be breaching the stratosphere already, but nope, still just enough oxygen to choke on.

A faint beep started, kept going for a minute, annoyingly regular even while muffled to the point John could barely hear it. Wasn't like there was anything else to listen to.

Dave eventually sighed and dragged himself over the guardrail, dropped to the floor. Stood there in silence for a handful of seconds. John kept his breathing regular and his face buried in his pillow. Nope, totally asleep.

Bare feet padded almost silently past his bed, cloth rustled its way out of a cupboard, the door opened and closed quietly. John kept pretending to be asleep, eyes stubbornly closed. Maybe if he pretended long enough it'd become true.

He could feel Karkat's own state of wakefulness without even looking, with something that went deeper than the five senses. It was just that kind of feeling where everyone in a room was still and quiet and it was too dark to check at a glance but somehow you could just tell they were staring at the ceiling too. Maybe breathing patterns, who the heck knew.

Too many thoughts. That was annoying. He was bored...!

Something landed on his head with a soft plop. "-Hey!"

... Damn it, now he couldn't pretend to be asleep anymore. He pulled the worn-thin sole of an ancient tennis shoe off his head (it was now recently torn almost in two and the cloth top was missing a few chunks) and craned his head to glower half-heartedly at Karkat. The alien was sitting in his corner pretending to be interested in whatever random crap there was to see in the opposite corner at the foot of Dirk and Dave's bunk, though John caught him sneaking a quick glance his way. Grumbling, John crawled out of the blankets to sit on the edge of his mattress.

"I'm up, I'm up, princess, you can look, I'm not rubbing my nubile body all over a carnal platform of delights anymore."

Karkat likely didn't catch more than three words in the sentence, but what he muttered under his breath sounded sort of like "stupid." Someone had to tell Jade off about teaching an impressionable young man bad words.

Karkat threw a longer side look at John, eyebrows furrowed - it was that oh-so-common pinched Karkatian expression that looked like he was calculating the precise amount of headbutts it was going to take to knock some bothersome wall down and how much it was going to hurt and how much it needed to be done anyway, and that was oddly hilarious. So serious.

"Hmm?" John prompted, elbows on his thighs, rounding his back to crack his spine back into place. "What do you want?"

"Nrrr." A sigh.

Karkat pulled himself up on his feet, wandered out of his corner, though he still carefully avoided looking at John straight on. It was weird, some times he was totally in John's face and glaring and demanding things, and some times he was doing that weird careful 'let's not acknowledge each other too much because you might idk frown at me or something' shy dance.

"Bathroom."

... Dave would still be there. Crap. "Can it wait?" John asked, sighing, and stretched his calves, bent over to grab his ankles until he felt the burn in his thighs, the back of his knees. He felt all creaky without his usual level of exercise. (Seriously, people were always surprised at what kind of shape you had to be in to pilot something that pulled so many Gs and demanded so much dexterity for several hours in a row.) He flopped backward on his bed, arms landing limply akimbo on the bunched-up blankets. "I don't want to get up yet."

A soft annoyed huff, silence. When he cracked an eye open Karkat was frowning down at him, hands on his hips. The old t-shirt he was wearing fit his strong shoulders fine but the ends hung low on his thighs, it looked too big anyway. Short torso. (Short legs too, heh. Okay, no, John was just tall.) John only saw the very edge of the shorts Karkat slept in.

"Zhann?"

He picked up his pillow and pressed it to his face. "Aw, nooo, don't wanna."

A quick, incredulous huff. "Zhann."

"Noooooo."

"Zhann bathroom come with me."

"Nope."

The next tirade, John translated in his head as 'I will piss on everything you own so help me John Egbert and it will be your fault.' He reluctantly peeked out from under the pillow and glowered, knowing full well that he looked childish and sulky and still going ahead with it.

Karkat looked incredulous and yet unsurprised for about three seconds, hands opening like he was considering grabbing him by the ankles and yanking him off his bed and it'd be nothing that wasn't well-deserved when he made a rough butt-landing - and then the alien sighed, shoulders slumping imperceptibly. Victory! Now John could stay in and... brood into his mattress. Yay.

While the guy he was supposed to babysit died of an exploded bladder.

"I am the worst pet owner, it is me," he mumbled, smothered in blankets, and pushed himself up with a heavy sigh.

When he straightened up, one hand scratching through his hair, he caught a quick glimpse of Karkat. He was standing all hunched and grabbing one elbow with his opposite hand, forearm across the stomach, like maybe if he only did it on one side he'd look less like he was hugging himself. Fuck.

He saw John looking and jerked into a more neutral position. For less than a second John wanted to reach out and touch his shoulder and say he was sorry and also an assbutt and of course they could go.

He reminded himself he only wanted to pet and soothe Karkat so much because of the telepathy thing, anyway, and just went to the cupboard and got two changes of clothes.

When they reached the bathroom, the sinks and toilet stalls were empty of Dave - good, some reprieve - and the shower running. John started brushing his teeth as Karkat disappeared into a stall, bracing himself for the brief awkward of his teammate brushing by on his way to the door without saying a word. Surely the guy would be done soon.

Karkat came out, washed his hands, and turned to him, head tilted in question. There was a little worried furrow between his eyebrows; he glanced at the shower room and then back at John pointedly, mouth pursing a little. Of course he'd picked up on the tension, days ago even. It was so thick it choked everything.

John just as pointedly ignored him to stare at his own reflection; he was shaving, okay, he needed to pay attention. Alright, so he had nothing much to shave yet at his age, especially not that needed shaving every day, but still.

When he was done shaving Dave was still in the shower, and he was out of excuses. Damn it.

Okay. Okay. It wasn't like they were going to argue or anything. They didn't have much to say to each other. It'd just be... um.

Okay, no, fuck that noise. None of the girls were around! John went to his locker, same as always, and got undressed and towel'd, same as always, and when Karkat started toward the shower room he caught his wrist and started towing him toward the other door.

"Anhg-"

"Shh!" John hissed, leaning in, one finger across his own lips. "Come with me. Quietly."

He was totally not being a wuss - and a totally transparent one at that - and he was sure Dave wouldn't figure it out and laugh forever about it. Nooo, totes wouldn't. Did John care?! No. He tiptoed back around the lockers to stay out of sight of the boys' showers, one hand on the towel tied around his waist and one around Karkat's wrist. Karkat followed in silence, but the look on his face could have been subtitled 'I Am Embarrassed To Even Be On The Same Planet As You.' John grimaced at him and slipped into the forbidden territory of the girls' shower room.

The setup was mirrored, with an identical bench running along the wall opposite the showers, only because they'd never gone through a phase of climbing everything (John, Jake, Dave) and breaking the hell out of it by horsing around (John, Jake) and braining themselves on the floor tiles falling off (John) the girls still got to have stalls. Karkat blinked at them, gave his wrist a pointed little shake - oops, John was still holding on; he let go - and went to peek inside one.

"Zhann?"

"Yeah?" John prompted - quietly - as he got himself some shampoo (Jade's this time; his luxurious mane was going to be so disentangled, baby) and chose another stall at random down the row.

"Here wash no why?"

Okay, that had come out confusing. Karkat had a crazy-good memory for words, even though he couldn't pronounce most of them quite right and paused in weird places as he hunted for the next piece of vocabulary, but the grammar tended to be a mangled mess. "Hm?" John prompted again.

Karkat grumbled at him, pointed toward the other shower room, then down at this one's floor, eyebrows scrunched in somewhat offended confusion.

"Girls' room, is why."

A vaguely baffled blink. Couldn't he ask questions and expand his knowledge when John wasn't trying to get a shower? Ah, whatever, it was fun some days. John pointed toward the wall standing between them and the other room, said, "John, Jake, Dirk, Dave, Bro," and then down at the floor of this one, "Jane, Jade, Rose, Roxy."

Still that baffled look.

John cupped sizeable, if sadly invisible boobs on his own bare chest, pointed down at the floor of the room, making a face. "Come on, what's the common point there?"

"... Zhann stupid dumb."

And he was still frowning at John, lips pursed, dissatisfied. Hn. "No, you," John replied, and disappeared in his stall.

Karkat muttered to himself in growlclicks and little huffs of breath as he locked himself away in his own. "Stupid dumb stupid bad no," he grumbled, barely audible over the noise of John's shower starting.

"No, Karkat is the one who's stupid stupid dumb," John replied intelligently, and started lathering himself up.

Scrub, scrub, scrub.

He had to admit it was much easier to concentrate on washing when he didn't have to make really sure he didn't accidentally show Karkat his dangly bits again, without looking like that was what he was doing. Because being embarrassed by an awkward situation was already bad enough, but being openly embarrassed was even more embarrassing.

(Also that way he couldn't get caught precisely at the wrong moment where his eyes strayed blindly over shit he wasn't even really looking at, seriously, that wasn't awkward at all.)

He had almost started to think he'd gambled and won when someone walked in.

"Heya! Janey, izzat you?"

Shit. Um.

John turned the shower spray down a bit. "Urr. No? Sorry." He paused, hesitating to say more. "I ... thought all you girls were out or asleep or something."

Roxy didn't answer him; John's stomach sank a little. He busied himself propping a foot on the wall so he could wash down to his ankle and between his toes. Man, balancing on one foot sure demanded concentration!

God he missed talking to his friends.

Even if merely thinking about it made him a little sick to his stomach with the apologizing he had yet to do, and how much of an asshole move it would be to just start chatting again like nothing had happened and forego the apology entirely. He knew they'd probably go along with it, too.

"Uh, if you wanted to shower quick... we won't come out until you're done. Or you could wait a few minutes, we'll hurry up."

Wow, look at that, maybe he ought to trim his toenails.

Still no answer.

Maybe she'd left already and he just hadn't heard her move. Girl was stealthy as a ghost.

- Or maybe she'd just jumped to catch the top of his stall and peer in. "Holy shit Roxy!"

There she was, elbows comfortably hooked over the top of the stall door, blocking his way out with the weight of her body and leaving him just about nowhere to hide. He backed into the spray without thinking, and blinked furiously to clear his eyes of the water suddenly streaming across his face, hands welded to his crotch and suds everywhere.

"Nah," she said with a bright white grin, "you can take your time."

"Are you - wh - Roxy!"

She played with one of her curls absently, tugging and releasing it, still gazing down at him like he was a, a vaguely interesting TV series or who knew what the heck else, all thoughtful and lips pursed and absolutely not looking away. "Yuuup? Tha'ss my name, cowboy, don't wear it out."

John growled, cheeks heating up. "Cowboy what?! I'm gonna cowboy you right off the -" Okay, no, threats were not a good thing to do right now, not even playful ones. He breathed out, tried looking pitiful instead. "Okay no, but what the heck, seriously, will you get off the stupid door?" Attempt not extremely successful. "... Please?"

"Hmm."

John eyed the towel hanging from the door just under her. Somehow it felt too far away. "Pretty please?"

"Hmmmmmm..." She pursed her lips some more. "Nope!" John glowered at her. Roxy gave a little shrug and smiled, close-lipped. "See, actually I wanted to talk to you, and now you can't run away! Score for the amazing Ro-Lal."

"But I could hear you fine through the door! Do you need to look at me while you're talking?"

"Nah, that's just a bonus." She waved it off, airy. "So anyway, you remember when we were like thirteen, fourteen or so?"

John blinked. Okay, where was she going with that. Roxy tended to make confusing swerves in conversations and in piloting both; he knew to be wary either way. "Yes?" he replied cautiously. "Uh, depends what, I mean, if it was about some shoes you had back then..."

"Noo, way more memorable than that. Like, the Great EmoLonde Period of 2049."

... ffff. John regretted that he needed to hide his genitals, because this would have been the ideal time for a lot of 'sorry, was distracted by scrubbing myself clean. What did you say? Nothing interesting, I'm sure. Whoops, look at that, a speck of dust on my abs.'

"I mean not the Goth period, that one's still going on, but the really cringe-worthy floppy-fringed one that didn't suit her at all?"

Gnn. Roxy was still chattering from atop the door, hand waving aimless in the air, eyes roving sightlessly over the stall like she didn't know exactly what she was saying.

"You remember, right? She had on raccoon-levels of makeup and there was that huge T-shirt she dyed black in the sink and it clogged the -"

"I remember!" John interrupted, and seriously considered turning his back on her, only then he'd be unveiling a lot of tush. And their flight suits might be skintight, but they weren't wedgie-tight and he'd rather Roxy weren't able to measure his butt-crack at a glance thank you very much.

"It really didn't suit her at all, right! Man, everyone was so happy when she, like, graduated to darque and spooky and she had on about three tons of smoky eyeshadow and everyone thought it actually worked better somehow?"

"Where are you even going with this!" John complained. Like he wanted to hear about Rose's fashion sense when he was naked in a shower stall! Or at any other time, actually. Mnrgh.

Roxy stared straight at him, eyebrows scrunching up and lips pursing in a supremely unimpressed, startlingly serious way. "I'm going to where the emo lifestyle didn't suit Rose much when she was thirteen, and it really doesn't suit her that much more now."

John flinched.

"I..."

Roxy tilted her head, gave a mild blink. "Hmm?"

"... Uh. I."

... Damn it. John slumped in his corner, shower controls digging into his side. Blah. He was aware of Roxy staring at him. He couldn't look up to meet her eyes, though. Damn it. Just damn it.

"Oh right! Jade should be back soon, gotta warn her there's naked boys in here!"

"Guh - that'd be nice?" John blurted out, jarred into looking up. Roxy winked at him.

"She'd be sooo sad she missed it. Not you, I mean, because ew cousincest, but we've got a bet riding on the cuteness of Karkat's butt. Laterbye!"

She dropped out of view, waving her hand, and even let John hear her ringing footsteps on her way out. He was barely done yelling her name in protest that she was already out of the locker room. Argh!

"Karkat! Hurry up go go go!" He turned the cold water back on, rinsed his hair perfunctorily and too bad if some shampoo was left to chill there, his hair was already untamable anyway and he didn't have any meetings with outsiders planned or a helmet to prevent him scratching for hours on end. Towel, quick rub, wrapped around his waist, and he yanked his door open and went to pound at Karkat's door. "Come on, hurry up!"

"What?" Karkat growled from inside.

"Hurry hurry hurry, she will, she totally will, they both will and then you'll be traumatized and it will be my fault for not better guarding the sanctity of your butt. Karkaaaat come on!"

"Hrrssst."

That, John had long since learned, was the 'I wish most dearly to bite you in the face, for you have trod upon my last nerve too heartily' noise. It was mostly a noise Karkat did when he wasn't going to go through with it, though.

"Karkat Karkat Karkat come out Karkat Karkaaat Kaaaaaarkat - ah, finally."

He received a baleful red glare; Karkat shouldered him out of the way as he stepped out of his stall, claws grabbing tight on his towel and hair still dripping. John hurried to catch up and pass him, skidding on the tiles, threw himself at his locker. Karkat's clothes went flying over his shoulder for the guy to catch; John dropped his own towel on the spot as the alien was still swearing, and jumped into his underwear. Quick, quick, pants t-shirt tennis shoes glasses, but were they safe yet?! He turned around, ready to scold Karkat if he wasn't done already.

He wasn't, but almost, squirming his way in his own t-shirt. There were funny rough spots on his waist that John did not remember - possibly other places too but the T-shirt finished falling into place and he couldn't really ask for a better look, that'd be way too weird. Maybe Karkat just felt itchy and had forgotten to mind the claws. Hm.

"... Zhann."

- Darn. "Okay! Come on, we're going to the common room." He opened the way before any attempt at a discussion might happen. Seriously it was crazy the number of times Karkat managed to catch him looking at things for perfectly innocent alienpal-caretaking reasons in ways that made them look like not.

Due to his shorter legs Karkat had to walk really fast to keep up with John's pace, but he did, just so he could glower straight at him, brow furrowed deep, looking irritated all over. "Zhann what."

John gave him his brightest, most obtuse grin. "I don't get what you're asking about, buddy!"

Karkat obligingly rephrased. "Stupid dumb, what."

"... Did you just call me stupid dumb. Like, my name is now stupid dumb to you. Is that what you just did."

Red eyes slowly, deliberately narrowed. "Yes." The tilt of his chin was 'got a problem with that' all over.

It would be really not fair to use one of the insults Karkat didn't know yet. John did feel stuck at about a toddler's level of maturity...

Helped keep him in relatively not-too-bad a mood though. It was just too silly not to. "No, you."

Karkat heaved out a loud sigh and rolled his eyes pointedly, started clicking away to himself. Blahblahblah John is a stupid dumb buttface, thousandth verse, same as the first. Well, at least he was distracted now.

Left John free to deliberately not think about all that shit he was trying not to think about. Like... oh... how his little hissyfit didn't get to keep being "just" a personal problem. He was affecting the morale of the group.

Their parents might let them muddle along for a while trying to sort it out themselves - they'd always raised them to be independent and work seamlessly as a unit, not to become tools for the government to order around without a word to say in the matter in case Skaialabs failed or was outmaneuvered or when they got old (or assassinated like Nanna had totally not been hehe what are you saying it was a regrettable accident look at this official inquiry saying so) - but if they didn't manage, it wouldn't be long now before John's dad dropped by for a long wise talk. John was already cringing.

And then if they didn't implement any actual solutions, the adults would.

What if they decided the root of the problem was Karkat, and removed him? Wouldn't that be good, John could go back to flying and fighting and doing what he'd been made for, what he loved, wouldn't it be, no, no, no it wouldn't, it really wouldn't.

This is exactly why they think you're compromised, he reminded himself, breathing through the spike of - of, no damn it no. Surely, now that Skaialabs had proved they had the political upper hand, they could arrange some joint custody thing where Karkat's cell was big and nice and comfortable and he got to take walks outside and they didn't do any of the tests that hurt (no, no, no, you selfish asshole, no.)

"Zhann?"

"No - ah. Sorry. What?" He blinked, turned. They were at the staircase, John down one step; Karkat had stopped still in the corridor. He was staring, irritated, horns forward like he planned to headbutt John in the chest.

"... Rrhoz."

John breathed out loud and slow through clenched teeth. "God damn it, not you too."

Karkat flung his hands in the air. "Yes come with me Rrhoz! Zhann n'rh 'weeeh, weeeh.'" He faked a childish whine, turned it back into a snarl. "Dev no, Rokchi no - hrrghn!"

"Wow." John stared, breathless with rising rage. "Fuck you. You know what? Just fuck you."

He turned his back on him, because if he didn't he'd just do stuff that - Karkat couldn't hit back, couldn't argue back, that made it not fair but he - damn it, why him too, he'd been in John's head that day, why didn't he get it?!

And now he was growling behind John, low and animal and rising slow, a true threat. John stiffened his shoulders and started down the stairs, just fucking daring him to try.

"Zhann-"

"Just shut up and come on already."

Another low, vibrating growl, ending into a vicious snarl.

If this ended in a fight, the officials - no, to hell with that, if this ended in a fight then good. "Damn it, Karkat-"

"Zhann!" Karkat yelped. Claws raked the floor, noisy. John jerked around, only to see a big white shape lunging for a Karkat already halfway to the ceiling.

"Whoa - Bec, no, down!" He jumped up to the landing, tried to snatch the dog's collar, but the big mutt dodged, leapt for Karkat again who was... somehow not coming down.

John elbowed the dog aside as he jumped again; Bec landed easily on his paws, turned on him growling - the alien's scent on John, but enough of his own seemed to be coming through that Bec didn't attack John as well. After a couple of tries John managed to gather a big fistful of fur at the dog's neck and hauled him farther down the corridor.

Only then did he allow himself to glance over his shoulder.

Karkat had ditched his flip-flops on his way up. It wasn't hard to figure out how he was defying gravity, even without the series of holes in the plaster of the wall, right through to the cement underneath. All twenty of his fingers and toes were still stuck in the ceiling knuckle-deep, and he stared over his shoulder at John and the dog, the red part of his eyes so blown John could barely see any gold.

"Bec, sit! Sit."

Bec, of course, paid him exactly zero attention. There was an alien boy to snarl at!

"Whoa, guys! Bec, heel! John, let him go, it's okay."

Jade sounded so sure of herself that John did, despite himself. Bec snarled again and made to lunge, but Jade snapped a threatening "Bec" that had the dog turning around and making his sullen way to her side. She caught a grip on his collar and hauled him close. John straightened up, nodded. "Uh. Thanks. Hi, sir."

He couldn't help but stare. Hass Harley had been away "on business" ever since John crashed Karkat's monster-mech and Warhammer, by which John was never sure if people meant he truly did have a ton to do at the other end of the globe, or if they meant they were just not going to allow a guy with his level of clearance to even step foot on the same island as a so-called telepathingly-grabby alien.

But he didn't even have any bodyguards with him. (If one didn't count Jade and Bec. John did, but he couldn't imagine anyone not one of them doing it.)

"John, my boy! Long time no see. You might want to tell your guest he can come down before he brings the ceiling down with him."

"-Oh! Right." When he turned around, he saw a fine trail of plaster dust and small chunks sprinkling gently from spreading cracks in the ceiling. "Karkat? It's okay, come down." He reached a hand up, crooked his fingers. Karkat threw a long suspicious look down the corridor, and a little wincing glance down under him, neck craned. The movement was enough for another crack to form and a hand-sized chunk of plaster to fall on John. He batted it away from his head before it touched him, but... Urk. "Buddy, hurry up!"

With a wince, Karkat yanked his claws free and fell, managing to twist somehow to land in a crouch. He was a little off-balance and stumbled to the side, almost falling on his ass. Graceful! John chuckled and held out a hand to help him up. Karkat growled and batted it away, and almost fell on his ass a second time when he stepped on an unexpected chunk of plaster. Snickering, John offered his hand again, which this time was grabbed with a huffy little mutter.

He hauled Karkat to his feet. His gray forearms and legs were white with dust; his t-shirt wasn't much better; John batted some off Karkat's shoulder and the green slime monster on his chest and then realized he might be alien-feeling him up again considering the weird side-look Karkat was giving him. Um. Dang it, aliens were just too weird!

"Okay. So. Err. Did you want an introduction...?"

Feet planted, General Harley stared at Karkat for a handful of seconds. He looked a little bit like a wall, thought John, trying to see what Karkat saw. In his eighties, peppery hair steadily going white (somehow not falling all off, God and Doc Lalonde willing John would get the no-balding gene from him and not the balding one from Nanna's side that Dad was camouflaging under his hats) but shoulders still strong, back still straight; he was still in shape. The thing that aged him the most was the stupid fat, twirly-ended moustache, which hadn't been in fashion even when the General's grandparents still walked the Earth.

Of course, he was in uniform, even if the collar was undone and most medals absent.

"Be a right pleasure," the General said eventually, and took a jaunty step forward. Karkat's back went rigid, not that he showed it much on his face. John elbowed him lightly, winked to reassure him things were still cool, and snapped a salute.

"General Harley, sir!" he barked out, looking as humorless and drone-like as possible.

"Don't even, you little rascal, if we so much as tried to put you through Basic you would leave the base in shambles and with not a drop of good Army feeling in you."

"Pff." A grin. "Hi, Jade."

"Hi, John," she replied, and then made a grating, snap-clicking noise that had Bec's ear flip back doubtfully. Karkat's lip quirked minutely in what might perhaps in another dimension have become a smile; he replied in kind. John's back teeth vibrated a little.

"Anyway, Karkat, this is General Harley. Call him General. General."

"Dze-neral," Karkat repeated, enunciating cautiously, and bowed his head in salute, eyeing him warily from under his hair.

Jade nodded in approval, and said, "Grandpa, this is Kh'rkth." (Or something almost like that.)

Bec was still growling quietly. Karkat didn't inch back but John caught him throwing a glance like he was calculating how fast he could dodge behind John if need be. John shifted forward a little to make that easier. "Only we call him Karkat because no one but Jade can say it right and she'll walk away with scars on her vocal chords, mark my words."

The General's eyes brightened, his moustache flipping up and the severe line of his shoulders relaxing just enough that John noticed exactly how militarily perfect his stance had been. "You have been calling him... Car-cat."

Said Karkat was still standing too-straight like he wasn't quite sure whether to go for the full 'inspection' stance, eyebrows twitching minutely every time his name came up. John smiled. "Yup! Vroom vroom meow. Only we camouflage that with Ks because it's just too silly otherwise."

The moustache flipped a little farther up.

"And Bec drove him up the wall into the ceiling..."

"... Yeees?"

"So... would you say that he was a ... ceiling kat?"

John blinked. Jade tilted her head. "Um. Grandpa?"

"Hehehe. Never you mind this old fogey, kids." He patted Bec's head, eyes still crinkled up as he looked the alien up and down. "Well! I do believe you were on your way down to breakfast?"

"Yessir. Are you... uh. Coming with?"

"Hm. You know what, I do believe I will. For a little while, at least. Too much paperwork to indulge, alas."

Alright, John was a little surprised. He'd really assumed alien plus high command-

"Karkat, give me your hand," Jade said. She was holding out her hand, fingers wriggling. "Hand."

Karkat gave her a wary look, and a warier one at the dog she was holding with her other hand. Bec stared back, black lips curling half an inch up along glistening ivory fangs. "... Stupid no."

Jade pursed her lips. "Bec, sit. Stay. Karkat, hand."

Karkat muttered something under his breath that sounded like Karkat sitstay hssst, but reached out, reluctantly. Bec started growling.

Jade thwapped him on the nose. "No! Bad dog."

"Pff. Let me help." John pressed his palms to Karkat's shoulder, rubbed up and down, grinning when that got him a baffled look as Karkat stumbled sideways. He offered his hands for Bec to sniff. More growling, but as it slowly shifted from threat to grumpiness he moved his hands a little closer, trusting that he wouldn't get bitten anymore. "Good dog. Karkat?"

He heaved a sigh, but not as huge a one as John had expected. Sneaking a wary little side glance at the General, he reluctantly moved closer, allowing Jade to grab his hand and bring it in range. "Bec, stay. Stay. There, good boy. Nice. I know he smells weird and it's really funny to tree him but you can't bite him, okay." Her lips quirked impishly. "He's not actually a cat."

John snickered. He wasn't sure if Karkat got the words or just the tone, but he glowered sullenly anyway.

"Hand my." Tug, tug. Not actually hard enough to free himself, though that wouldn't have been too difficult. "Giiv."

"Give back," Jade corrected patiently, as John was still trying to translate. "Give back my hand."

Karkat pursed his lips, eyebrows furrowed in concentration. "Giiv back myhand. Zheyd."

"Okay!" she replied brightly, and let go. "We'll teach you please and thank you later, that can wait a bit."

John snorted. "Hehe, good luck actually making him use those."

"Would you say he is a rude young man, then?" the General asked, looking interested and not annoyed at all about the wait. When he started for the stairs John fell into step with him automatically, abandoning Karkat to Jade and Bec.

"Uh, not like hostile, rude, but more like he hasn't got much patience with simpering and beating around the bush, I guess. He's really frank. Not mean, just, he'll tell it like he sees it."

The General hmmmmed thoughtfully, clasping his hands behind his back and looking over at Karkat again and John paused, wondering whether to say more. These were things he knew because of the telepathy; no one else had ever heard Karkat speak, when he wasn't constrained by all of the twenty words of vocabulary he had to his name at the moment. It felt weird sharing those. Yep, he was the expert in Karkat. Because of the telepathy, being in each other's mind and heart, sharing memories and feelings like they were becoming one person at the edges, and then having to verbally dissect that for intel.

He thought Harley would find it funny, though.

"But he swears like a whole ship's worth of sailors! It's almost more funny than offensive. No, actually it's pretty hilarious. I don't think he ever really uses the same combination of curses twice."

The old man's eyes crinkled. "Hoho, I see."

They reached the common room. John wandered toward the kitchen corner to get some food, remembering to ask if anyone wanted coffee or what. Karkat trailed after him, picking things up that John piled on the counter and bringing them to the table. They'd fallen into that routine in the last week, there was no need to ask or mime anymore. Though it was funny how he was going around the table to the General's side rather than brave Jade - and, more importantly, Bec. Heh.

"Does he eat toast, now?"

Huh, guess he'd read the initial reports, then. "He eats everything. The Doc was telling us not to try feeding him stuff that wasn't like pure sugar or pure protein with zero additives of any kind!, but like we can pay attention all the time! Turns out he really takes this omnivorous thing seriously."

"He still needs more protein and less vegetables than we do," Jade added, accepting a coffee cup with a smile. "Thank you, Karkat. And I think he mostly eats toast to have something to nibble on, but at least it's not making him sick yet."

From the way Karkat eyed them in turn under his fringe looking displeased, it was visible he could tell they were talking about him. "Food," John told him, pointing at the alien's chest and then at the things he'd dumped on the table during his last trip. "Food that makes Karkat go bluuurgh is bad."

Karkat rolled his eyes at the gargle, but more discreetly than he would have if the General weren't there. He turned to eye the chairs, a little worried frown on his face. Either he sat in front of the General, and beside Bec, or right beside the General. Dilemma!

"On the whole I am less likely to take a bite out of your calf, young man," Harley said, eyes glinting in amusement, and patted the table at his side.

It was a little like a dare, that look, like he wanted to see what Karkat would do. When Karkat glanced at John, John shrugged to indicate the choice was up to him; Karkat went, back stiff, not saying anything. Bah, he'd figure out Jade's grandpa wasn't going to order him flayed or anything eventually. John dragged a box of cereals in reach and sat.

Munch, munch.

"So," he ventured eventually. "Why are you here, really?"

"Hm?" the General hummed back, looking up from his cup of coffee.

"I am so not going to believe you if you say you had a day off and why not."

The old man chuffed out a laugh. "Pierced by the keen blade of your sense of observation! I shan't, then." A quick glance at Karkat, who was staring down into his plate and prodding away at his bacon with a great deal of concentration. "I'm assessing the situation."

John made a doubtful face, glanced at Jade who was sighing and rolling her eyes. "Urr... By yourself. Alone."

"Here I was under the impression you children were with me!"

"Yes, Grandpa, we are, and we could have written you a report," Jade replied, and let out a loud, pointed sigh.

"Bah. Reports are boring! I read forty reports a day and sign twice as many, they're coming out of my ears and there is no escape, it is worse than a double case of dandruff and the clap."

John choked on a mouthful of toast crumbs trying to go down the wrong way.

"I'd think the clap wouldn't be that boring, actually," Jade said. John choked a little again.

"Well, getting it, perhaps, but dealing with it afterwards..." A blink, moustache shifting as the man pursed his lips underneath. "But a young lady should never go out without her protective gear regardless!" the General finished, furrowing his eyebrows forbiddingly.

Jade nodded politely. "Of course not, Grandpa."

John was pretty sure they were in league to break his brain. It was working. He tapped his own chest with a closed fist, coughing and laughing. "You guys are horrible."

Karkat was sneaking them little side glances in between attempts to murder his bacon politely. Bit hard to do when he wasn't using either knife or fork, which he'd been doing just fine (well, mostly fine) only yesterday. John gave him a curious look, eyebrows arched, pointed at the unused utensils he'd apparently sneakily moved to the middle of the table. Karkat frowned at him, uneasy, and gave the General a pointed look, which the man caught with a little curious "hmm?" that had Karkat's head bowing back over his plate damn quick.

Jade leaned in on her elbows, tilting her head, made the screech-click noises that John thought were Karkat's name followed by an alien "what."

Karkat muttered back, sullen, something which didn't seem to come through to Jade much, because she still looked puzzled.

"Knife, Karkat." She pointed. "Knife. Yes?"

"... Nnh." Karkat bit the inside of his lip, oddly tense. "No."

John quirked his eyebrows, looked at the old man, shrugged. "Oookay, and today, showing at the Weird Alien Stuff theater..."

"So usually he ... ah." The old man stared at Karkat for another few seconds, and then calmly reached for the utensils, picking them up by the middle to hand them to Karkat handle first. "No, it is quite all right, lad, this is barely more than a butter knife."

Blink, blink. Karkat took them from his hand, once again being really obvious in how much he was not pointing his claws anywhere close to General Harley's wrist. John suspected that for people who were never unarmed unless they were literally de-armed it was just a way to be polite.

Or, uh, maybe just a way to avoid being counterattacked against when they hadn't been attacking in the first place.

Karkat busied himself with his fork and knife, ears gone ruddy at the tips in embarrassment. John kind of regretted that he wasn't close enough to ruffle his hair and nudge an elbow in his ribs.

"Man, I didn't even think of it. See, you should have come with real bodyguards."

"And had they taken his eating utensils from him, I would have been most displeased." The General gave a sharp snap of his fingers. "Jade, table rule number seven."

She rolled her eyes and sing-songed it, but she was smiling even as she did. "We do not eat with our fingers, unless we are in the field and being bombarded and have used all the cutlery to line tiger traps already. Rule seven, codicil A, a deliciousness-based exception shall be made for breaded products such as sandwiches, buttered toast and pizza."

"Pffhehehe."

It was so nice to be able to relax with family. He'd missed that so much. Just being a kid and joking around and he almost, almost decided it was a day he could call Hass Harley Grandpa too, because he was, okay?

In the end he didn't, because Karkat was there with his little gold-tipped horns and his slate gray skin and his mouth full of fangs.

"But really... That's maybe a little too trusting?" He fiddled with his toast before shoving it whole in his mouth. Chomp, chomp, not at all a technique to pretend he wasn't embarrassed by the topic and trying to delay it, damn Rose for pointing it out to him so often he was pointing it out to himself now. "And I'm the one saying that, Dave would cry over how ironic it is, so you guys know it's true."

Jade and her grandpa exchanged a long look.

"I mean, I can think of it, so I bet you and your advisors could too. Like, what if he's biding his time, and whoops a guy who looks important, I could take him hostage! But you're just... sitting next to him. And handing him pointy stuff, even."

"Umm... John," Jade said around a wince. "You know, that stint in Black Ops that definitely never happened?"

"Uh?"

"Well, it really did 'not happen,' if you see what I mean." She even did the finger quotes.

"Huh."

The General's hazel eyes were clear as they gazed at John, but cool, a little distant. "I've never taught you children anything because I am, alas, getting on in years, and Mr. Strider was more than up to the task, and most of my tricks are, sad to say, more suited to assassination than to frontline combat, which did not seem to be extremely relevant. Should your esteemed guest decide to attack me there is an even chance he would be dead before he hit the ground."

John stared at him, briefly at a loss.

It always felt like tearing a metaphorical piece of his brain (his heart) when he had to see both My Buddy Karkat Who I Promised I'd Protect, and My Family. Because... family.

"Yeah, and he could also not be, and you could be. You can't just - he's quick, okay? Not Roxy-quick but more than human-quick. And he doesn't even need a knife, and he's sitting beside you and we're on the other side of the table and-"

"And you didn't think of it beforehand and it's bothering you."

"... Mnh."

"I do read some reports, John," Grandpa Hass assured him in a softer, gentler voice, one that wasn't military or bombastic at all. One that held none of the distance it had only a minute ago, like... John wasn't sure. (Like My Grandson John instead of The Warhammer Pilot.) "But if it'll help we'll go over it now."

John speared and chewed on a piece of bacon that had the misfortune of being at the edge of Jade's plate and thus in stealing range. He wasn't moved at all, for the record.

Hass smiled, eyes crinkling. "There's a point, you know, at which you've milked all the data dry and you have to put your theories to the test in order to move forward!"

Move forward... toward what? The way he'd stared at John had been a little insistent, like he meant some specific thing, but John was alas not a mind reader yet. Where was a telepathic headset when you wanted one. "Pff. You're just saying that because you're bored at the office."

General Harley grinned. "You say that like it can't be both. So! How is the cohabitation going? Cabin fever set in yet?"

"Oh god yes. I mean, we've got a daily routine now but I really hope Mr. Strider can set something up for the gym, I can feel myself getting rustier by the second. Also it would help keep Karkat calm if he could get some exercise! The most we ever get is to, like, go up to the roof and walk around. We don't run because then the government snipers on the next buildings over would think he's chasing me or we're trying to jump or whatever. Also his world's a little higher gravity-wise, he's gonna lose all his muscle tone soon."

The General hummed thoughtfully. "Would he be willing to spar? That'd provide interesting data, so even with the risk it should be easy to push that through. Ah, second question, do you believe him willing and able to stop sparring before any real injuries occur?"

John gave Karkat a pointed look. Karkat who still held his fork and knife gingerly, like he wanted to be able to drop them in a second just in case that looked vaguely threatening. (He was also glowering at John, probably still knowing full well they were talking about him and by now frustrated to hell and back about it.) "Um, yeah. He's still persuaded that if anything happened to me he'd land back in deep crap. Actually it'll probably be a bit difficult to talk him into sparring with me in the first place."

"And if anything happened to someone else?"

"Hm. We did tell him he couldn't hurt people, and even if we hadn't ... I don't think it's his thing anyway, outside of battles I mean, he doesn't feel like he's physically aggressive or anything, usually, but that's just a feeling I get." John shrugged. "So long as he understands it's just play-fighting and he isn't fighting for his life it should be cool. He's probably frustrated enough that he wouldn't even mind letting us watch his fighting style at this point. I'll ask?"

"Hrrm, hrrm." The Moustache apparently needed stroking. "Any aggression issues?"

Wow, it really felt more and more like he was just going through a checklist now, like he was just making stuff extra-clear that he understood fine already. John frowned, trying to give the question the thought it deserved even so. He wanted to say no straight away, but maybe he should think about it more so he would look at least vaguely impartial...

"Well, he argues. And you gotta be careful when he's asleep because he still has nightmares and he'd probably savage you before he's even awake - but it's not like he means to have them..."

"Is it still daily?" Jade asked, eyebrows furrowed in worry.

"Yeah." John sighed, eyed the alien. "He seems to get over them pretty fast, though, and he doesn't look exhausted or slow or anything, so possibly he's still getting enough sleep. Just, not a morning person."

"Dirk said it didn't take him very long to transition between that sleepwalking nightmare state and being fully awake, is that right?"

John was a little torn between annoyance that Dirk had talked (of course he had) and gratitude that he'd been saying good things. "Couple minutes. You just have to stay way out of range until he remembers where he is, and then he calms down."

"Well, that's still fairly tolerable. Nothing else?"

John bit his lip. Well. Bec had arrived in the middle of a pretty bad argument, and if they had not been too far to hear or see some of it...

Argh. No, bad John, no thinking about maybe omitting stuff, that was the kind of bullshit thought that had landed him in deep shit in the first place. John the Transparent, that was him from now on. Yep.

"Sometimes when we argue he gets pretty loud and snarly, and then he'll start ... like, talking with his hands, and if someone accidentally walked into that they'd probably come out with pretty nice scratches or a black eye, but ... no, it's not really dangerous otherwise, I don't think. He doesn't get in my personal space or threaten to punch me in the face or anything. Well, perhaps verbally, I dunno." Argh, John, just shut up while you're ahead, he reminded himself.

"He's always pretty nice with me!" Jade piped up. "Calm, even. I think John just pisses him off for the fun of it, sure looks like it some days. Maybe if you didn't tease him so much..."

"I don't tease him!"

"Nag?" Jade asked innocently, eyes bright and wide open. John slanted her a sideway glare. She turned to look at Karkat, leaned in. "Hey, Khrk'th. John is hrrrn'ghssst, yes?"

Karkat blinked, and cracked a microscopic smile. He sneaked John a look, hesitated, and then leaned in toward Jade, even though he had to know it was pretty doomed as far as discreet whispering went. "Yes. Zhann stupid dumb."

"Hehehe."

She grinned. He smiled back, the faint quirk of lips quickly gone as he glanced at the amused General and wiped his face of all expression. John glared sullenly. Traitor.

"If you want he can come sleep in your room and you can babysit him and I can go back up to fight already! And you can have all the language lessons you guys want."

The General put his cup of coffee down, a bit too slowly, bushy brows furrowed. "Ah. I take it you haven't checked your messages yet today."

John stared back. That? was not good news. Nobody announced good news like that, with that expression.

He raised a hand to his glasses, clicked them online, glanced his way through instant messenger windows and the inevitable spam that even a government email seemed to gather, and then...

From: f.
Subject: FWD: Expertise Report MA-WRHMR-1.45 (Sorry John)

He felt his stomach fall.

Last he'd checked, the repairs had been going decently well. Eight days ago, when he picked up Karkat from the labs, they were talking of maybe ten more days, maybe two weeks tops. Today though...

Diagrams and stress test results and scans and a lot of synopses. Computers were fine, weapons were fine, sensors were good and could be improved on with the latest advances, oxygen generator had not been hard to replace...

... it is our conclusion that the nonessential components can be restored to approximately 85% of functionality. However, even after extensive repairs, the frame will withstand a level of battle stress estimated to be 13% lower than optimal levels. As we cannot project with any kind of certainty how long and under what kind of assault MA-WRHMR-1.45 (WARHAMMER) might keep its functionality and ensure pilot survival, the recommendation of this commission is that it be replaced in its entirety.

That was a joke, right? He used his very limited hacking knowledge to trace the message back to the source. Nope, he knew that woman, didn't have a joking bone in her body. He knew the guys and gals who had cosigned on the message. A couple of them worked in the hangars, joked around with John whenever he dropped by to help, taught him job tricks.

They knew how much he loved his mech. They loved it too.

"Could I have some good news for once?!" he shouted, standing. He wanted to flip something - his breakfast plate, the massive oak table, his own lid. He threw his hands up, raked them through his hair. "God damn it, this is not fair, what'd I do to deserve this load of bull? Step on nuns in Warhammer? Flash preschool kids?!"

Karkat had stopped eating, was staring at him in total bafflement. Jade sighed, said "John," wearily.

"What?! No, seriously, is it too much to ask that at least once something good happen?! I swear Karkat's cursed, I've had nothing but shitty luck and bad days and-"

Someone slapped his head from behind. He caught himself on the table, whirled around on his assailant. His sister stood there, staring at him and supremely unimpressed. He growled, rubbing the back of his head.

"Now what is going on?" Jane asked, hands on her hips, lips pursed.

"John finally got around to checking his email," the General informed her, and calmly took another sip of coffee, faint disapproval oozing in John's general direction like a cloud. "Which I plumb thought was a standard routine for all of you!"

"Aw, I'd have nothing to do anyway, why'd I have to check first thing?" John scowled and kicked lightly at his chair, which skidded along the floor, ricocheted off the table leg, and went careening off at an angle, crashing to the ground. Whoops. Jane pursed her lips at him until he went to pick it back up.

"Is that all? Honestly! You're grounded anyway and it's not like they don't keep replacement parts ready to go, it won't take too long!"

"Repairs would have taken two weeks! Piecing a new one together will take at least one month! That's not too long to you?"

He righted the chair. Jane kept glowering. He sat, scowling.

"... Oh hey, sis, you could let me have Poseidon! It's not like you even like flyi-"

Bam, another slap to the back of his head. "John, I love you, but if I catch you trying to borrow my mech I might do something irreparable to your anatomy and my prawn desheller. Now finish your breakfast."

Pouting, he started prodding at his food again. "Dunno if you remember but you're two minutes older, mom."

Jade grimaced. "Ugh, gross. Could you please not remind us?"

"Wh- I was saying she acted like my mom, not that she - uuuugh." John eyed Harley sideways. He had one hand covering his moustache and his eyes laughing, though rather ruefully. Always weird to remember that if they did a DNA analysis on the people in this room, John and Jade would come out as the General and Jane's lovechildren. Most of the time he honestly did forget, because it really didn't matter. But Jane had gotten a bit touchy about it when she hit her teenage years and he had no idea why.

Karkat was staring at them all in turn like he was wondering why he'd even been startled and also oh god why did I have to fall in with lunatics. Made John's lips quirk up some, but then he remembered his mech was going to be stripped for parts. He shuffled toward Jade to let Jane make herself a spot at the far corner of the table and poked at his food, head hanging. Fuck his life.

Coffee sips. Cutlery on plates. Not-so-stealthy whisper. "Uhn - Zheyd?"

"Yes, Kark- oh! Pfffhehe."

John glanced up. Karkat was staring dubiously at the floor on the side of his chair opposite from the General.

Bec was staring back, sitting there, jaw open just enough to pant and let a red tongue loll through white fangs. Hungrily.

John might have snickered a bit. That sure explained the betrayed look Karkat flicked him.

Jade waved her hand, laughing. "No, no, it's okay."

Karkat did not seem to agree. Like, at all. "No. No no no. Bad no."

"You've got to learn to get along!" Jade replied, nodding enthusiastically. "Also not to show fear. That's critical. Be brave!"

"Jade, you're evil," John noted approvingly. Jane sighed.

"Ah - Karkat." The alien blinked up; Jane pointed at his half-full plate, then at the dog, not quite meeting Karkat's eyes. "He wants your food."

Karkat looked at her, at his plate, and then at the dog, whose tongue had unrolled in a somewhat mocking-looking, anticipatory grin.

The alien's eyes narrowed, and he stabbed all his bacon in one go and stuffed it in his mouth.

Munch.

"No. Hrrn." The look on his face could have been subtitled 'So There.' Pffff.

Bec tilted his head. Whine.

Karkat stared back.

Bec looked at the food meaningfully, back at Karkat. Back at the food. Back at Karkat. Whiiine.

Swearing under his breath, Karkat speared and offered the last of his egg, smeared in bacon juices. They were inhaled in less than a second.

"That dog's way too smart for his own good," John commented, snickering a bit.

"You should tell him to sit next time," the General said, immediately yanking Karkat's attention back to him without even trying. He smiled at Karkat's mildly nervous attention. "Like this. Bec, here. Good boy. Sit." Bec sat immediately. Funny how John could yell sit and no until the end of Time and the dog would just keep doing as he willed, but with Hass and Jade he just plopped his ass down straight away. "Shake hands." Bec raised a paw to shake. "Good. Have some bacon."

Dog fed and dismissed, the old man rose, pushed away from the table.

"And on that no doubt vital note to future relations I'll wander off. My babysitters are beeping my earbud off, this is becoming a right nuisance, and it just so happens I am done with my evaluation and breakfast both! Remarkably efficient. Let us hope our next meeting will occur in a timely manner, and in much better circumstances for all involved." A nod to each person present, a quick ruffle to Jade's hair and Bec's ears, and he strode off, boots striking the floor militarishly as possible. Karkat watched him go, still looking a bit disoriented.

"You did good," Jade assured him with a smile. "Good boy, Karkat."

The alien blinked at her, shaking his head a little in brows-furrowing bafflement, muttered something under his breath, and mime-grimaced a request for seconds. John let Jade serve him and went back to his own breakfast.


Three hours later they were still in the living room and John was about to jump for the ceiling lamp and do crunches from up there just out of sheer boredom. Perhaps see if he could swing from the lamp to the counter (several meters) and escape out the window without touching the floor once.

Karkat and Jade were having another alien language lesson, Jane taking notes on bluh bluh alveo-palatal consonants and epiglottal what the heck ever. He wasn't allowed to watch what he wanted on the TV for fear it would distract Karkat from the lesson, or reveal something to him that he shouldn't know, or confuse him about how things really happened on Earth because wow was daytime TV not a good representation of healthy interpersonal relationships. Or so John was told. He just wanted to watch one good brain-killing action movie! Just one! He'd even allow them to bargain down the number of explosions! But nope.

"I can't even hear any difference," he complained, flopped across the table. "You're cheating, Janey, I know you are, your ears aren't freaky like Jade's. You're making it up, aren't you?!" From his point of view it was a lot of fairly identical throaty growls and chest humming and snaky clicks, and the vowels were mostly breathy absences of consonants.

"Congrats," Jade replied with an eye roll. "Ten minutes without whining this time! You're about to beat your record."

"Should I get you a coloring book?" Jane inquired, side-eyeing him.

Bluh.

He couldn't even nag Karkat or anything, since he was busy doing productive stuff. Then again that particular pastime had lost its charm somewhere last Wednesday. Karkat couldn't answer him, and making up translations for his outraged snarling and put-upon grimaces just got old without any new material for inspiration.

"Nr. 'ch. Zheyd, aghain?"

Jade repeated, three times. Karkat kept frowning. Jade sighed. "Alright, let's stop here, he's not retaining anymore. Stop, Karkat. Later."

"Woo, break time!"

"Like you were even working, John!"

Jade didn't stop him dancing to the fridge to get them all drinks, he noticed.

He sat beside Karkat, pretended to offer him a coke, was snorted at; Karkat bumped his shoulder against John's and sneaked his arm behind John's back to grab the apple juice he was keeping hidden there. Somehow Karkat had developed a totally unfounded grudge against carbonation. Just because John hadn't warned him once! Okay, twice. Maybe three times. Now he kept to beverages he knew for sure weren't going to fizz up his nose. No sense of adventure.

John wrestled him a bit before he surrendered the can to him; Karkat let out a self-satisfied little hiss and popped the can open, giving him a sideways challenging, smug look as he sipped.

Like they didn't both know John had let him win. Heh.

"Alright," Jane said eventually, and clicked something open on her laptop with that grim determination which she often approached anything Karkat-related with. "My turn. John, please?"

John never knew how he was supposed to feel.

He took the telepathic headset from Jade's hand anyway, stared down at it. He was just supposed to play interpreter, no personal comments interjected, but there always were some. It wasn't possible to mindmeld and not get personal.

Fifteen minutes a day, no more, sometimes less because Karkat still didn't want to share a lot of things about his people, his command. Mostly they talked about his biomech, because it still needed repairs, but even that came out choked through with guilt and self-accusations of selfishness, and it didn't help when John couldn't keep his thoughts off of all the viruses and gene-engineering the human scientists were probably already toying with.

Fifteen minutes of concentrating like he was in flight, mission objectives to check through and nothing else. It was doable.

Karkat's loneliness was killing him.

Karkat understood, though. Of course he did, he'd been in John's head that day, of course he got the reasoning.

John put on his headset.

(what else today what else am I going to give (traitor coward traitor) hate this (need this) hate-) hey John.

hey Karkat. (I'm here) (not my place shouldn't be.)

(it's okay.)

Fuck.

Okay. Mission time. He closed his eyes, curled his fingers. Cockpit, toggles and levers, joysticks in his hands, EMP rocket right there under his thumb. Three, two, one, ignition.

"Jane, on your mark."

She nodded, breathed out. John concentrated on rethinking her words, nothing more, nothing less.

"Command structure. Who's at the top?"

Impossibly long spear horns and a cloud of hair and a slow, sensual, terrifying smile. Power beyond telling, so high above, a magnificent soaring eagle to his ridiculous, landbound chicken. "She who deigns to lead us into conquest," John said, haltingly, as he hunted for the best way to translate the words Karkat said out loud for Jade to transcribe. "By right of blood."

"She was born into the position?" Jane asked, eyes fixed on her file. John and Karkat nodded. "Queen then. No, wait, empress is a better fit, one difference between a kingdom and an empire is that an empire is ever-expanding, and a kingdom has fixed boundaries."

(she's nervous. babbling.)

(always is around you/me.)

Jade gnawed on the edge of a nail. "Wonder if she's the same caste as Karkat? I mean, they've got some pretty insectoid traits, right, so I wonder if they're all the same kind or if there's, like, worker ants, and soldiers and drones and things."

"No," John replied, and then "Yes, but she's not, she's the same type he is. Only female, obviously. Huh, really?"

(no, wait, no curiosity. just translating.)

"Quite interesting. Are the biomechs a caste then?"

Karkat let out a vaguely, bitterly amused laugh.

"Kind of, half way. Not naturally, they're gene-engineered, we knew that. Huh." A flash of the white monster, Karkat himself, and a black-armored, spiky, terrifying creature, yet humanoid, too, if much less than Karkat himself was. He tried to untangle it but Karkat buried it with a faint mental hiss. "I think they're partly based on Karkat's caste."

"Yes, we found quite a lot of Karkat's own genes floating around in his biomech," Jane confirmed, reserved; Karkat stared back stone-faced, unsurprised yet swearing a little bit, of course they'd have figured that out. "Fragments of other mechs we brought back had similar but different genes in those places. One working theory is that it's used as a sort of genetic password, and there would only be one compatible pilot per biomech."

Shit.

"Yes."

Jade hummed under her breath. "A human couldn't make one move by accident, then. I don't know whether that's good or not, it's good for our tech guys in case there's an oopsie, but I kinda wanted to try one on!"

"Jade," Jane reprimanded.

"Kidding, but still, later on it would reduce the possibility of-"

"Maybe it would move," John said, because Karkat was dubious but wasn't dismissing it out of hand either. "If it wanted to - urgh, that's creepy, do they ever want anything? Really?"

(yes. no. I want to believe/it's stupid to. who knows.) The set of coincidences I'm seeing it working in would be vanishingly unlikely. Might eat you alive first. Some are crankier than others.

"So it would obey a human if it felt like it, if it could feel anything at all and if that feeling it could feel wasn't hostility and-or a craving for human flesh. Okay. Wow. Noted."

Jade and Jane grimaced a little. He wasn't the only one to find partially sentient, literal "ghost in the machine" bioware creepy.

"Never had the brilliant thought to pop a fucking alien in and see what happens, somehow," John said, and then arched an eyebrow at Karkat, who arched an eyebrow right back and then smirked. Pay more attention. "Oh, fudge you."

No, fuck you more. (heh win.)

"Let's go back to the empress," Jane interrupted. She was staring down at her laptop again, eyebrows drawn. "She's the same caste you are."

... yes/no/yes? nothing is like her, special pure unique/could breed with her if hahaha yeah fucking right. Biologically sort of yes?

"I think that's a yes. With a lot of caveats. Biologically, Karkat."

Get killed out of hand for even thinking it much less doing/if it didn't work would be on me not on her/my allyfriends could at least?

"Okay, it's a yes. But there's other castes?"

Black and spiky humanoids that somehow reminded him a little bit of the biomechs, but smaller, maybe tall as two Karkats. Many of those. Huge things, so fat they probably couldn't move under their own power, some black and looming and terrifying, and one with several disgusting hungry maws and ridiculously atrophied wings which Karkat blurred out of John's mind in a hissing, protective hurry, one that came tinted with a strange kind of devotion.

"At least three. One's roughly person-sized but kind of spiky, one or two are closer to mech-sized - holy crap, I can't imagine how that's the same species."

... you guys are all the same size? That's weird.

Your face is weird.

No, yours. Hornless white-eyed flat-toothed twit.

"Boys."

John guiltily stopped shoving at Karkat's shoulder and trying (not very hard) to push him off his chair. "Whoops. Yeah, sorry, sis."

"Why does she get to be the empress? How are they even chosen?"

John blinked a little under the sheer "... duh?" Karkat was emitting. It was like Jade had asked why the sun rose in the East.

(Because "east" MEANS "the direction the sun rises from," stupid, no you cannot have a planet that has sunrises in the west if you do it's just that you accidentally switched the north and south poles tags on your viewport you incommensurable moron oh fuck me you're holding it upside down of fucking course. Dear shitfucking space lords I am ashamed of being a newbie same as you.) John get out of my random-ass memories what next the first time I tied my shoelaces (the first time I saw my planet from orbit oh.)

"Hehe, sure."

Fuck, he was leaking again. Cockpit, mission. Concentrate. It ached, slamming the door on Karkat's background memories, even though Karkat was somewhat grumpy about him seeing them in the first place. He minded them being seen, but them being rejected...

Sorry.

I know. Stupid. Work.

"I dunno, Karkat's blasting me with how can a question so stupid even exist and won't actually answer." He shrugged. Jade pursed her lips.

Jane was still going through her checklist, expression bland and serious. "You said some aliens of your species were psychic. Is she psychic?"

"Uh, no, like she even needs to be; what next, a sword on an imperial cruiser? Several swords? Ooh, scary now."

Jade was staring at him. Whoops, he'd gone Karkat-sarcastic once again.

He was about to scratch the back of his head sheepishly and say something glib about haha mind contagion surely you jest, only Jade and Jane froze together at that point, raised hands to the side of their glasses.

What? tense wary scowl why?

John clamped his teeth on his lower lip. Priority update. (shit. oh shit.)

"Sorry guys, gotta go!" Jade threw over her shoulder as she shoved away from the table. She barely paused to give John and Karkat a quick, unconvincingly reassuring smile, and then she was gone at a run, mane of hair flying behind her, eyes hard.

John's glasses stayed blank, of course.

Fuck.

Fuck, fuck, fuck.

(my people they're fighting my people up there)

(Jade might die they called her up they said don't leave Karkat alone with Jane ever but she went anyway oh Jane fuck, davedirkroxy fuck)

(Jade's nice but my people) (but Jade) (not my friends please not my friends)

(I want to go up there I want to go I want to go please let me go)

He wasn't even sure who thought that last one; both of them, most probably. Shit. Just...

"John. ... Karkat. We still have work."

When John looked up Jane wasn't looking at either of them, jaw tense, shoulders a block of wood. He wanted to reassure her that it was fine, things would be fine, they were going to win up there and Karkat wasn't a danger to her and never would be, and yeah, that sounded like a super smart thing to bring up.

"Yeah, okay," he said, even though he wanted to answer anything but. He was becoming an increasingly big fan of 'fuck that, I'm going to help!', for example.

"The empress," she said briskly. "Anything else?"

John wrenched his mind away from the battlefield up there in the sky, closed his eyes, visualized, trying to solidify all the little things Karkat had let slip about her. A lot of his response was emotional - awe, respect, fear, a strange bitterness, a seed of doubt. The thought of how impudent he'd ever been thinking to call her attention onto him. Thinking he'd survive it. If she could have granted him his boon he almost wouldn't have cared he'd be killed for it, if she could have granted him twin-horned tangled in vampire guts ropes of devouring flesh caught and not dying it'd be better if he were dying a clean end and that'd be it -

"Hrrst." Cut that the fuck out!

"Give me intel and I will! - Oh. Oh, that's why he thought pink was a girl color, it's the color of the empress! She puts it on everything."

"Interesting. The color of her... sigil? Crest?"

"I think so." He tried to find something funny/stupid to say, so he'd stop thinking about Karkat's friendallygone. "Matches her eyes, too, heh."

Karkat's mind was one huge, confusing morass of contrary feeling, quicksilver thoughts. Things he wasn't sharing, but in the middle there were the things he meant to convey, and those were easy to translate.

"Yes," John repeated. "Her color. Only hers."

Jane stared at Karkat, then, but not for long before she switched back onto John. "... Does every empress use the same color? The way purple dye used to be so expensive it was reserved for kings?"

"There's only ever been one empress," Karkat/John said.

Silence. Jane stared. John breathed. It was this weird, immense non-surprise. Of course there had never been another. Of course.

"... Let's go with units of time measurement. Is one day longer or shorter for you?"

John waited for Karkat to think it out. "Longer, a little bit, maybe by a couple of hours at most."

"How many days in a year?"

"About eight hundred." A blink, clarifying the number in his head, why did they count in base twenty for years, honestly. "Seven ninety?"

"Do you count your years in centuries?"

"Yes."

"How far does your written history get?"

"Millennia. She was empress even then. Even so. She took us - them to the stars. Been reigning ever since."

"Propaganda," Jane immediately bit out, but it came out a little brittle under the harsh. "Adds to her line's mystique."

Even if that were true, the empire itself had endured that long.

It was the first time in his life John's hair had ever gone up all the way down his spine like this. It was kind of fascinating, if he could detach far enough.

Karkat was musing about how it was funny in a pretty sad way how all the aliens he'd ever heard of apparently reacted the same way. Denial, terror. Despair.

Fuck that noise, she must be decrepit by now, just you wait and see.

... heh good luck with that. (I need to stop liking you, asshole.)

Good luck with that, John parroted immediately, and then regretted it. It was too much, acknowledging this, just too much. He closed his eyes, went through a take-off sequence in his head. Good, now an Immelman, attack from the left, parry, kick-slash, let the hammer's momentum drag you, hole in defenses there fire.

(shit, why are you good) came wafting through from Karkat, not even jealousy really, just resigned admiration.

Was made for this, he admitted, even though he was trying to cut it off, stop the bond. They took little bits of awesome people and tinkered made them awesomer heh I'm kinda like your mech like that.

... oh.

He could tell he'd caught him by surprise, that Karkat didn't know how he was supposed to react.

It's fine, they love us treat us well respect us and we get to be badass, I'm fine with it! All of them were, more or less, though some of them thought a ton about it, and John himself had never bothered. He was like this, because of that, okay, cool? Now he was going to be awesome at it. (Jane was probably the only one who actively wasn't fine with it.)

It'd be so good if I could hate your stupid face even a little bit, Karkat mused. So good. Universes of good.

Jeeealous.

Fuck you very much.

D'aww. I don't hate you too.

Stop being such a ridiculous mushy sap I will heave so hard it'll bring up all the contents of my digestive track in a glorious smelly geyser of computer annihilation even the stuff that was about to come out the other end. I'll make sure to aim in your direction. Smile, motherfucker!

Hahaha you're so gross.

"... John!"

"Sorry. Yeah?"

Jane breathed in, nostrils briefly flaring, stared back down at her computer. Her lips were still pinched, unhealthy white. Here he was goofing off to forget his scare, and here she was actually thinking about what it meant. Should he reassure her? He didn't know how she'd take it. He knew she wouldn't believe baseless reassurances, anyway, but... maybe a hug?

Her fingers were shaking.

"Anything else about that queen?"

If he tried to hug her now when she was trying so hard to keep doing her job and be a professional about it she might kick him. He'd probably ruin her too-tightly-wound composure to hell and back. He pursed his lips, thinking. Hm. What else, Karkat?

Guess it won't hurt to give you her sigil.

He reached for a loose bit of paper, handed it to Karkat wordlessly as Karkat picked up a pen. It was the wrong color; he knew before Karkat ever started scribbling and frowned, displeased, was already finding him a box of old, well-chewed rainbow markers in one of the drawers along the wall behind them. Karkat took it over his shoulder without looking, flicked it open, fished out the raspberry.

Two shallow arcs, back to back, barred through by a single straight line.

"That's her," they said in two languages, pink and gray fingers trailing on white paper, unwilling to encroach onto fuchsia lines. "She who condescends to lead us."

Something came flying at them/Karkat.

They didn't think; Karkat threw himself back, John threw his hand in between, slapped it away, ow. Jane's laptop. What?

The table was next, massive oak, tipping hard, going flying, pens scattering - trapped against the wall, shit; John braced against the wall to kick it back, Karkat banged his shin, ow shit, leapt on the bookcase behind him, perched there on the chest-high edge, the fuck, the fuck?

Jane stood there, shaking all over, breathing like an exhausted racing horse, eyes wild.

Up until they found Karkat, and then her hands stilled.

Fisted.

"Jane no!"

John rammed his sister in the side, deflected her momentum hard; Karkat leapt from his perch and over the tipped-over table to get to the wider-open spaces of the TV corner, pens crunching and rolling under his feet. Jane kicked off the bookcase (wood cracked) and almost managed to yank herself free of John's hold.

"GET OUT OF HIS HEAD! I'LL KILL YOU!"

John what?!

John couldn't think anything back except but she was betteroh fuck oh no.

She dragged him across the floor; their feet skidded and scrambled in opposite directions on the tiles. "John you need to let me go!"

He shook his head no, biting his lip. His eyes prickled.

"I need to kill it, I need to, need to save you, need, let go, you have to let me, get out of their fucking heads, get out of my head, get out, get out, oh Lord get it out-"

Offensive telepath, Karkat thought/realized, either from her words or John's mess of thoughts. John snarled back at him. No fucking shit! Get out of her sight or something - "Janey! Janey you're safe, we're all safe, you need to breathe! We're home, you're safe - ow, fuck, ow, stop kicking- it's just Karkat!"

"I don't care it's Karkat! I don't - I, John it's in your head, I need - I need to save you I need to -"

She'd slowed down, trembling anew; he wrapped his arms tight around her and arched back to lift her feet off the ground and held on with all his strength. Jane struggled against him, elbowed him in the ribs hard enough to bruise to the bone (she didn't have enough space to break any of them; he couldn't tell if she was far enough gone that she would have.)

He retreated, wobbling under her struggling weight, to the kitchen corner; she kicked against the wall, forced him to put her feet back down on the floor. He dragged her behind the high countertops. Once there she was the one who yanked him down, shoved him bodily into a corner, braced her back against him to make a wall of herself; he could have cried.

"At least you, at least - we're home, right? John? We're home? I'll save at least you, I'll - where is it? Where are they, John, I can't find my -"

(What's wrong with her is she crazy what happened oh lord if there was one of them I didn't expect to be insane-)

"Shut the fuck up!" John growled at Karkat over the countertop, not that he could see him. Jane had gone silent, but she was still braced tight against him and wouldn't let him get up, kept making a barrier of her body.

"I know it's just Karkat," she said, like she was trying to convince herself. "I know it's him, he's in your head, he needs to stop being in your head, I know we're home and it's safe, no, no it's not, I - I know -"

"We're in the kitchen, Janey," John said, hugging her around the waist, and wishing Dad were there, wishing Dad could hold onto her and fix this somehow, because Jane was like John that way, it didn't matter how much physically weaker Dad was, she'd never believe anything dangerous would ever get through him. Dad wasn't here, he was - he didn't know, maybe his bedroom but more likely in the office in which case they were fucked. He pressed the side of his head to Jane's hip to start up his glasses, glanced his way through his contact list. No Dad. No Mr. Strider, no Doc Lalonde. "We're in the kitchen, it still smells a bit like breakfast, can you smell breakfast?"

She elbowed him in the temple, hitting the headset and the branch of his glasses both. Pain exploded in his head.

He was still shaking his head to clear up the light show when he felt a flicker of determination from Karkat. The headset had moved; he pressed his head to Jane's back as she apologized frantically, rubbed to put it right.

Karkat wasn't thinking of anything, was just thinking of his path, a clear shot to the door, the code that John knew without thought, easy as breathing, and Karkat knew where to go from there, the whole building.

"No!" John yelled. No stay we both promised don't be stupid-!

Karkat kept running, his footfalls rapidly growing silent, his presence in John's head fading out with the distance. John breathed out slowly, still incredulous, and let himself slide to the floor. Jane yanked free. He started reaching for her, hesitated when she didn't charge out of the kitchen corner to give chase; she hesitated on the threshold, shuddered briefly, and then retreated and started pacing back and forth before him, head twitching this and that way as she feverishly scanned all possible directions.

John closed his eyes and selected one name on his roster he'd never used in his life.

JH: karkat's loose in the building. need lockdown starting now.
JNoir: done.
JNoir: what the fuck did you do now. you little asshole.
JH: i did fuck you. fuck you is what i did.
JH: jane's with me in the kitchen. pilot quarters otherwise empty.
JNoir: got him on infrared.
JNoir: perimeter up. get off my line.
JH: thanks.

He logged off; he wasn't going to get a reply he'd want to read, if he got one at all. Thanks for doing the job I couldn't? No problem.

It was stupid to feel so betrayed, so disappointed, because he'd been so sure Karkat had zero interest in leaving his custody and attempting to escape, even now he was still sure Karkat believed it was a hopeless endeavor, but if he'd just tried to get away from Jane then a little farther down the corridor would have been fine, still technically close enough to keep tabs on, and now the stupid asshole was forcing him to call Noir's people on his stupid gray ass, shit, shit, shit.

He touched Jane's hand as she paced past him. He didn't take it, in case feeling restrained set her off again.

"Janey, can you tell where you are?"

"The kitchen," she said. "I know it's the kitchen, I just-" Her fingers kept twitching like they wanted to toggle between, oh argh, between infrared and the nuclear warhead's targeting module. Ffff. "Keep - keep talking to me, please, John."

"Yeah, sure, what do you want me to talk about? Heh, we should spar again one of these days, urgh not a great topic. I hope the table isn't broken, okay this isn't a good topic either, uh. This morning I showered in the girls' bathroom, are you scandalized?"

"Yes," she said, like she barely knew what she was saying yes to, just knew that she should. "That's off-limits, it's very naughty of you, buster. It killed my men, John, I was escorting them and it killed them. One, by one, by-"

"Janey-"

"-one, it was such a hoot, they kept coming, hoho, so hilarious-"

John got up and cupped the back of her head and forced it down before she could start laughing herself breathless. Her face was streaked with tears.

"-it wasn't funny, did you know, John, it wasn't! I was right, it wasn't me who laughed so why do I still find it funny?!"

"Because the son of a bitch in your head thought it was," John said bluntly, because he was out of other ideas. "It wasn't you, Jane."

Only back then they hadn't known about the telepathy. She must have thought her mind was cracking down the middle.

He'd hoped it would help, telling her that. He'd... he didn't known what he really hoped for, some kind of miraculous revelation that would fix everything, but she only snorted. "I know it wasn't. I always - I always knew, only I didn't believe it." She took in a shuddering, wet breath. "And now I believe it - or I believe that I should believe it? - and it doesn't change one single piddly thing."

She chuckled to herself. John pulled her into a hug. She kept laughing in his shoulder.

What now?

JNoir: incoming.
JH: what?

... really what John wanted oh fuck I hope, can't believe he hasn't killed me yet -

Karkat?!

He was in the corridor, jogging back; when John closed his eyes he could almost feel the impact of the floor traveling up from his heels, his uncomfortably clenched toes, dull claws digging into the soles of his stupid flip-flops.

John I - (embarrassment confusion contrition shame, did I do wrong, didn't know what else-)

"Son? What - oh."

When he tilted his head to look past Jane's messy hair for a second he got a visual echo, Dad running toward and away from him both. Karkat had stopped just past the doorway, invisible from where John and Jane stood, but John could tell exactly where he was.

He was so relieved when Dad walked into the kitchen corner and enfolded them both into a hug, he almost forgot the rest. Jane melted against Dad, fists clenching on his already wrinkled shirt.

"Did - did Karkat get you?" John asked quietly.

"Mmh. Burst right into my bedroom. It was a bit of a surprise! I wasn't too sure what he wanted."

His father gave him a small, I've got this smile. His chin was stubbly. Had he been asleep? And then dragged out of bed by a lone, likely agitated alien, and who knew how well Karkat had made himself understood.

John pulled his way out of the hug. "Sorry, I've got to - I mean, Noir's -"

"Yes, of course. Go."

It was shameful how relieved he was to abandon his sister to their dad, no matter how much he wished he could fix this for her somehow. There was no punching someone in the face and fixing it.

He walked out into the corridor, found Karkat sitting a few steps away from the door, his back pressed to the wall, arms loosely draped over his pulled-up knees. His mind was still so full of confusion John didn't know from which end to start unraveling it. He leaned against the wall and let himself slide down until they were sitting side by side, his knee bumping Karkat's ankle.

You left her alone was the thought that echoed back most strongly, so utterly baffled.

Dad'll calm her down. I don't know how/I can't/I suck at it, want to kill things for her and it's so not what she needs. He sighed, closed his eyes. Guess he still had something else to take care of.

JH: lost t-rex chick came back to roost, i repeat lost t-rex chick came back to roost.
JH: sorry for the bother.
JH: thanks.

"Thank me for doing my job a third fucking time and I'll see if nanites will fucking regrow your tongue, little brat."

John had known he was there before he spoke; Karkat's sudden tension was hard to miss, though the faint echo of silent but heavy footsteps through his horns that had provoked it only became clear if John pushed. He opened his eyes, gave the man an ironic salute. "Sure thing."

Noir stood at the corner of the corridor for another few seconds in silence, body armor strapped on over a wrinkled vest, bracketed by two armed men, gun in hand. He wasn't aiming, though.

"Good call, calling it in. I would have killed you, I don't fucking care about your diplomatic immunity. Next time try to be less of a fuckup."

As they turned on their heels and collectively ghosted away, Karkat shuddered. Oh damn they were tracking me almost all the way through didn't notice why didn't they intercept -

Didn't want to hurt Dad is my best bet, too close to take down safely. John grimaced a little. Now wouldn't that have been a pretty clusterfuck. They wouldn't have kept Karkat contained in the building, they'd have brought him right back to "real" secure facilities, and then good luck getting him back. Nrgh. ...I'm sorry, handled that like shit. (I thought maybe you left wow I really feel like an asshole now.)

... probably should have. (knew I'd probably fail should have tried anyway scared of failure is cowardly wrong death-deserving.) I - you kept thinking I want him I want him I wasn't sure don't get why but...

Thank you. He bumped his shoulder against Karkat's. Karkat sighed, eyes closing, and bowed his head to massage the root of his horn, where the headset pressed against it.

What's ... wrong with your sister? If I can ask?

John let out a humorless little snort of a laugh. "Sure, ask away."

Karkat winced. Fine no need to be an asshole, asshole.

One of your buddies peeled her out of her mech and used her as bait is what happened, whole platoon got itself killed trying to get to her. She was the one supposed to escortprotect them only they saw rarepilot highertraining youngernicegirl, not expendable.

Karkat blinked at him, red eyes entirely, utterly baffled. His mind was the same way, a big great what.

I suppose the mindfucking telepath keeping her from fighting to save them didn't help! he added with vicious glee. All like look isn't that funny they keep coming and dying because of you. Yeah, hilarious, the best joke. I want to meet that guy and kill him I don't care if he's your bestest friend I really want to kill him he should have killed her clean killed them all clean but no! was having fun!

"... Zhann, shh."

Karkat's palm hit him in the cheekbone, not very hard at all. His expression was weird, sad and maybe guilty, and maybe just tired.

Sorry (whoa overstepping my bounds there) but seriously hush. Your sister is kind of busy (with that adultpersonwhothehell?) and I'm not calming your shouty tits if you freak out.

"Mngh."

They settled back against the wall, sighing in accidental unison. John let Karkat's weary, vaguely guilty relief smother the rest of his anger. The guy who'd hurt his sister was out of reach right now and anyway he'd had that talk with Rose before (several times) about how stealing her right to take revenge wouldn't somehow magically fix her, and he had to handle it how Jane wanted it handled and not otherwise, else he'd be a selfish little fuckhead who believed his feelings about her assault were more important than her own.

Succinct and blunt as all motherfucks but yes I agree. Taking revenge for her you're saying she can't and won't ever again. A thoughtful, muted pause. So she's... damaged/combat-broken?

"Yeah."

"Huhn." (Can't believe no one put her out of her misery yet. Humans are so weird.)

John lifted his head off the wall, turned it slowly. Stared.

You might want to explain that one real fast.

Karkat stared back, eyebrows furrowed. What? She's cracked/dangerous/in pain. Baffled here I mean okay her brother wouldn't want to admit it that makes sense and I guess she's strong means useful (table flying, so heavysolid in the horn sense, striking the floor deep shaking thud), but she's not the best pilot by far? (not like my lovewreckmine such gorgeousterrifying devastation to make it worth it) No one tried to go over your head?

John kept staring, torn between the sudden desire to punch Karkat in the nose and the just as mystifying desire to ... he didn't know, pat his head and be sorry.

Karkat bristled. What the fuck can that shit I don't want it from you!

Yes well you stop being such a sad sack of emo woes first! You just-

"John? Khrkat?"

Rose stood in the middle of the corridor, white-blond hair mussed and skin shiny with sweat, breathing too fast. She'd probably just landed, and then she'd run-

"John, Mr. Noir forwarded us-"

John dragged himself back up on his feet, embarrassed and guilty. "No, it's fine, Dad's handling it. How'd it go up there?"

Rose glanced at Karkat, but when she looked back at John she took a second to just look at him, and then the set of her shoulders loosened a little bit. "Ah... Fine now, assault repelled. No loss of life on our side. We have nineteen casualties amongst the Marines but I'm told they'll live."

"Oh, that's... Good. Uhr. Yeah. Good. Uh. Jane had a combat flashback and tried to brain Karkat with the dinner table."

"... Oh."

"Yeah."

Karkat snorted under his breath behind them, still sitting on the floor and making no move to get up.

John grimaced at him over his shoulder, and then kept grimacing as he had to admit the rest of it to Rose. "I think Dad must have been asleep, I couldn't contact him, so, err, Karkat went to fetch him. Alone. Without warning me first. Hence Noir. Kind of embarrassing."

"I see."

"Yeeep."

"Mnh."

Oh my cock-chafed dribbling asshole will you just fucking talk to her already come on it's not hard you open your big flat-toothed maw and you flap your pink tongue and make meaningful sounds. (no wait I'm sorry that's just about impossible for the likes of you.)

"Oh my god will you shut up."

No. Talk to her talk to her talk to her fucking talk to her or I'm sitting on you and handing her my headset next talk. To. Her.

"John?"

He breathed in, breathed out. Yeah shut up Karkat I was going to anyway.

"You were right and I'm an assbutt and I'm sorry."

Rose stared at him, blinking, and then lifted a hand to her mouth, though that didn't block out the sudden giggle. "Oh, John."

"No, really, you were right about the telepathy and all. I mean. The... caring too much thing. Karkat told me you were."

"Yes," she replied drolly, "your strict self-limiting use of the headsets all this week pretty much confirmed that you agreed with my assessment."

As he winced, Rose took a step closer, rested a hand on his forearm. John sighed, leaned in for a hug.

Huzza, forgiveness for all, and a huge helping of inappropriate touching on top, dear lords of the Abyss I thought cat-ear-horns/giggly/feral/friend was clingy think about my poor virgin eyes seriously John.

Shut up or I'm hugging you next.

That's blackmail you repulsive fiend. A feeling like a fleeting smile. Now stop broadcasting your happyforgivenglee it's disgusting. (no it's not ahh cute but uh Jane next door?!)

John and Rose dehugged, shared an embarrassed chuckle.

"So Karkat confirmed, hm?" She gave the alien a speculative, secret little smile. Karkat sneaked her a quick awkward look and shrugged, staring at the floor.

Just because I couldn't lie mind to mind, wasn't trying to be helpful or nice or anything. (ngh hurt-betrayed-alonehurting John ngh.)

Hehehe you're right you really can't lie worth crap mind to mind. "Yeah, he felt sorry for my manpain or something. Or he wanted me to stop whining about how wronged I was. Probably that one."

Rose ruffled his hair. "There, there."

Don't you guys have any social construct at least vaguely mimicking shame I'm still here!

John tilted his head into Rose's hand, just to annoy him. I can't believe what a prude you are dude she's just petting my head! I pet your head!

And if you ever do it with half that much tenderness I'll have your finger bones for a necklace.

Rose dropped her hand, smile mocking but in that affectionate Rose way. "If I may venture a theory... Since Karkat feels things more powerfully than you do, or at least takes them to heart more easily, you feel what happens to him more strongly than you would had it happened to yourself, is that the issue?"

John made a face. "Bluh. Yeah, I suppose. There's some things he just... gnh." He tried to tune out Karkat's quiet mortification and litany of unconvinced denial about what a stone-cold badass he truly was thankyouverymuch and the aliens were totes wrong wrong wrongity wrong. Yeah I believe that, buddy. You're a marshmallow.

Karkat tried to think a vicious threat of ass-kicking and utter ruination at him, but couldn't even solidify it before it fuzzed out into some more mortification. He dropped his forehead on his knees and groaned. John snickered at him.

"So... You were otherwise occupied, and he chose to leave your custody... Was he aware...?"

"That he shouldn't and he was gonna get in trouble?"

Karkat winced under Rose's look, gave a tiny nod, shrugged, mind locked up.

She smiled at him. "Thank you, Karkat."

Rose held out her hand. John knew Karkat would have refused the help coming from him, but from her he didn't dare, strangely shy; he took her hand and allowed her to tug him up on his feet, though he took as much of his own weight as possible.

"Let's go back inside."

She tucked her other hand in the crook of John's elbow, and it was funny because Rose wasn't very touchy-feely usually but John got it, because man had he missed her, too. It was just wrong to be so at odds. They were co-team leaders, damn it, it'd been wrong of him to desert her like this.

They were friends too. They balanced each other. Rose needed unpredictability injected in her plans and her life both, and he needed to be reined in pretty much everywhere and okay why was Karkat feeling all flustery-alarmed now.

Uhh Jane?

What about Jane?

She wasn't there anymore, at any rate. The kitchen corner was empty; Dad had probably brought her back up to her bedroom. John went to wrestle the solid oak table back on its feet, Rose and Karkat picking up the things scattered around. Rose checked the laptop and put it back on the table, turned it back on.

"Good to know that when we paid for anti-shock technology we were not stiffed," she mused, and went through to save the last-used files properly. John chuckled. Karkat kept feeling awkward and confused in the background.

Is it because you're kind of a temperamental douche that you need two people to keep you in line?

John sent him a confused blink over his shoulder. "Uh. What."

Karkat rolled his mental eyes at him, with a feeling of "yeah, yeah, I'm totally not seeing that denial, mister smooth" all through the background. I'm telling you now, I'm not joining your harem. I'm the monogamous type fuck you very much.

"Whaaat." John stopped in the middle of the room; Karkat deliberately walked into him, bumping him aside with his greater mass and lower center of gravity.

Yes I know that word already you don't need to repeat it I promise now stop gaping like a hungry amphibian and also fuck you I'm not short-legged and fat you're the ladder beast here. Now who was that man anyway?!

John stared after him as Karkat went hunting for an eraser under the coffee table. Dad? But you've seen him around, you know him?

No! Who is he to you, that you let him handle your sister! I don't get it! It's just too fucking weird and wrong and what the heck were you thinking he's an adult why are aliens so fucking weird!

John just kept blinking. And choking back laughter, but he could feel that one was a losing battle. "He's... my... father?"

Incomprehension. John visualized himself small and chubby and Dad carrying him around. "My dad, dude!"

Nope, still not getting through. "... Zhann stupid what. Whatisthis dad what!" Give me an explanation that makes sense and I'll take it but this doesn't! What's the relationship between little you and big him?! You knew him as a child okay but?

John froze there, a bunch of pencils in hand, mouth moving soundlessly for a couple of seconds. He turned pleading eyes onto the other human. "Rose. Rose."

She was better than him at keeping from laughing, but he could tell she was close, too. "Yes, John?"

"Rose Karkat just asked me where babies come from. I. I can't."

Rose cracked up. "Oh, that's terrible! Good luck."

"You traitor." He turned to Karkat, helplessly waving his hands around to describe things he couldn't even visualize himself. "He's my father? My genitor? I sort of actually not but socially it's the same as if I come from his loins?"

He made sure to visualize that one. Not too realistically, that was gross, a caricatured drawing style was fine, but the, ahem, interacting groins, the bulging stomach area, the big arrow pointing out of a lady crotch and toward a brand new baby, oh yes.

The sputtering horror he felt from Karkat...

Okay, fight lost. John plopped his ass on the chair Rose had just put right, almost toppling it right back down, burst into a torrent of giggles. Half of it from all that long-held tension, finally snapped, finally gone.

The other half was pure what the hell Karkat hahaha.

"He said... he said..."

There was no way to appropriately convey the depth of that baffled shock, but he tried it anyway. Rose was waiting, biting on her made-up lip in a vain attempt to keep from smiling.

"-Oh my god, you're a mammal."

When Dad walked down the stairs five minutes later, he found John and Rose both still gasping for air, and Karkat glowering down at them with his hands on his hips.