My fucking god do i HATE publishing homestuck fic on this site. The color coding just disappears and last I tried this site also ate any words that are stuck together for VALID FIC REASONS ARGH so if you want to read the fic how it's supposed to be presented, along with a crap-ton of other fics, a lot of them with adult content, head over to "archive of our own" (google it) and search for askerian or asuka kureru. I'm still writing a ton in this fandom, I just rarely bother to crosspost to this site anymore.


JN: Hi, John.

JH: hey sis! wow, been a while since i saw you online. how's it going? :B

JN: Pretty good, actually. I foresee my visit to the dumps being nigh on over. :B

JH: woohoo! :BBBBB

JN: That is the goofiest smiley yet.

JH: nope, this one is: 8B-b

JN: Dear Lord in Heaven. Indeed. What on Earth is it supposed to represent?

JH: it's me with dave's beach shades on giving you a thumbs up.

JN: Ghastly.

JH: hey, that's so mean! this totally counts as sibling abuse.
JH: it's not ghastly, it's totally sweet!

JN: :B Like that cake I am planning to make for you.

JH: D:

JN: Just... for... you.
JN: Brother dearest.

JH: can i have a steak instead?

JN: That depends on whether you plan on helping me in the kitchen.
JN: I might be tempted away from cake mixes by lemon and meringue tart. What say you?

JH: from scratch? sure, can do.
JH: only, um.
JH: uh.

JN: I'm sure there will be no cultural landmine to be found in teaching Karkat how to handle a lemon, John. At worst someone will squirt a few drops into someone else's eyes. That's hardly a drama bomb.

JH: you say that because we both have glasses to hide behind. :B
JH: but. err.
JH: argh, why is being serious so hard.
JH: /puts on rose headband and scarf, strokes closest cat thoughtfully
JH: miss egbert. please make yourself comfortable on this convenient plush couch.
JH: disregard the manacles.

JN: Isn't the closest cat your alien guest, John? How positively forward of you. ;B

JH: har har har.
JH: whyyyy does everyone keep making pet jokes about me and karkat.
JH: or gay jokes.
JH: or gay pet jokes. it's like this is turning into a trend or something. adopt a stray alien, then do x-rated things to his bumhole!

JN: ...
JN: I sense a lot of repressed frustration in this sudden ramble explosion.

JH: hey, i had the rose headband, you can't thieve it off me!
JH: stop sidetracking me, as if i can't tell what you're doing, you fiend.
JH: /rose mouthpinch+squint combo

JN: That was a subtle hint to PLEASE STOP HANDLING ME WITH KID GLOVES! Fer chrissake, John.

JH: okay, okay, but there is precedent.

JN: ... Just quit while you're ahead, buster.

JH: i am mister zipperlips.

JN: *sigh*
JN: I feel much calmer about everything.
JN: And I am damn well done with tiptoeing around Karkat, so yes! Bring on the alien! Let us talk, and cook, and break bread, alien and human hand in clawed little hand!

JH: ... :X

JN: I'm not saying I'll be his best friend, John, but I at least wanted to apologize for unwittingly throwing the table at him.
JN: If one day I clock him in the head with solid oak I want it to damn well be deliberate.

JH: this is very reassuring and i am very reassured. i now totally cannot wait to take my alien catboy lover into your clobber radius!

JN: You are so infuriating. Why do you insist on poking my good mood full of angry holes?

JH: bluh bluh.
JH: i have a responsibility to the both of you to keep you guys in one piece, okay! i'd rather avoid having to put myself in the middle for that, because between the two of you i'll be the one who ends up as a shapeless pile of lego on the floor.
JH: all dismantled out!

JH: i was such a sweet lego house, janey, and now look at me. all the L pieces are gone under the couch.

JN: :B The great Scattercalypse.
JN: I promise you I'm calm, and even somewhat positive. That'll only last as long as you stop questioning it at every turn, though!

JH: okay, okay. will take your word on it.
JH: um.
JH: if it helps karkat thinks that was a dick move too. it's not an all aliens are assholes thing. not like that other thing that i
JH: just remembered you might not have read about! haha. maybe later.

JN: Was it in a report?

JH: prolly one of rose's, i told her about it.

JN: About?

JH: urgh.

JN: John, now that I'm going back to work I *will* come to read it.
JN: Wouldn't you rather present it to me with your own words?

JH: okay um. rose agrees with me it's cultural and he wasn't trying to be an ass.
JH: apparently when someone gets ptsd in alien land they don't really believe the guy can ever get better. :/
JH: they also practice mercy killing. look at that pretty math.

JN: I... see.

JH: it sounds like a really asshole place to live. :/ between that and his pal getting tortured for a reason i don't even get and his pet monster buddy being turned into a mech and being exiled from his boyfriend because he's not jetset enough or i don't even know what!
JH: ...
JH: i'm being compromisy again, aren't i.
JH: gah. sorry.

JN: No, John. That seems like standard human empathy.
JN: The lack of effort devoted to mental care dovetails nicely with the wasteful way they throw so many new fighters at us.
JN: The one conclusion most of the analysts keep coming back to is that they have so many bodies at hand that merely weeding out the weak is more cost-effective than putting time and effort into training up the weak or fixing the broken ones.

JH: huh.

JN: Indeed.

JH: woo job security. XB

JN: Heh.
JN: Do you know, up until at least 1960 mental trauma was seen as a mere weakness of character and not as an actual wound that actually affected mental processes and required actual healing?
JN: Humans used to think like this at some point. It's no surprise aliens might as well.
JN: Though for all we know it might be true for them and I am merely jumping the gun, we have so little data on their brain architecture.
JN: Call it an initial hypothesis based on observation of one available subject.

JH: i will totally call it that. :B

JN: You were right, it does help. Thank you, John.

JH: success!
JH: me and karkat will be down in two minutes. i gotta pry him off dirk's my little pony comic book first.

JN: Beg pardon?

JH: i think he's rooting for flutteryasshole and applebutt to hook up. :B

JN: ...
JN: ...
JN: Hohohoho. X'B


The second lemon and meringue pie turned out to be delicious.

The first turned out to be really sticky. John pretended Jane didn't see him furtively licking his fingers as he scrubbed it off the floor, Jane switched to the stove to heat some more butter, and everyone pretended Karkat wasn't side-eyeing the apparently evil microwave in case it tried to startle him again, or attempting to be subtle about basically sucking on his shirt.


BR: Hey, brat. Get your lazy ass to the gym post-haste.

JH: YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEESSSSSSSSSS.
JH: official permission? :D

BR: Official permission.
BR: An alien is fine too.
BR: Each second you're late is another ten crunches. Countdown starts from "get your lazy ass to the gym post-haste." Tick tock.

JH: ALREADY OUT OF THE DOOR, SIR, MR STRIDER SIR. :B

That was a lie as he typed it, but only because he needed to haul Karkat up from the couch by the wrist. The alien had been vegetating in front of yet another nature documentary, and went from bored to death to ball of knives in about two seconds.

John was too excited about getting to leave the living quarters and do productive things to even flinch, and never mind how close Karkat's free-hand claws got to his arm before the alien pulled it. "Come on, Karkat, come on come on come on!"

Karkat let himself be dragged through the front door at a run, slowed down by his flip-flops in a very annoying way that only made John haul harder. "Zhann whadafuck!"

('Fuck' had made its appearance in Karkat's vocabulary sometime last week; it was getting more deeply entrenched every day.)

"Come with me come with me yeeeess oh my Lord yes-"

Down on the ground floor, and Karkat would have veered left toward the exit, though with great confusion, but John (slightly regretfully) went right.

He banged through the fire doors keeping them from exercise! with great justice, and let Karkat's wrist go to pump his fists at the high domed roof of the gym that took up half the building. Long skylights lined the roof like ribs - sunlight! Almost as good as being outside okay no but he was being optimistic. Space! There was the sparring area on the right side with the climbing wall overlooking it, and all the training machines on the left, and the cases with the training weapons lining the bottom wall. After the smaller, people-sized rooms he'd been locked in for too many long days, a room that might need at least a hundred steps to be crossed felt huge.

Mr. Strider came out of an office by the machines, in a tanktop and sweatpants, sneakers. He eyed John's clothes and quirked an eyebrow pointedly. John grimaced down at his jeans. "Aw, come on, don't make me go back and change-"

"Go back and change."

"Aw."

"Karkat, stay with me."

"Aww!" Then again dragging him back up when the alien was in sweatpants already would be stupid, John supposed.

Karkat's brow furrowed. "Uh - sir?"

"He's coming back. C'mon. Let's find you better shoes."

Sighing, John went racing back up to change, and then raced back down. It wasn't even a warm-up, but it was nice to move fast once again, to turn on a dime and jump down flights of stairs and rush. He came back to find Karkat sitting on a treadmill, trying on sneakers.

"Aren't his toe claws going to poke out of the ends?"

Strider shrugged. "Got other pairs." He put the spare, rejected shoes back in a bag, gestured at Karkat to get up, and demonstrated the treadmill for him. "Wanna try?"

Karkat shrugged, climbed on. John walked up to the second machine.

Strider's foot caught him in the ribs, almost under his arm, shoved him to the side and right off his feet.

He'd been taught how to fall ten years ago; he rolled with the momentum, absorbed the shock, flipped himself back on his feet in a low crouch - only to get shoved on his back via another foot to the shoulder.

Okay, if the dude wanted to play it like that. John lashed at his ankle - Strider jumped over it, of course - and moved in close for a punch.

Bam, on the floor again. John choked as his chest impacted with the floor in a nice flat splat. Guh!

"Dude. That isn't even rusty anymore. You been taking your vitamins, grandpa?"

... Okay, it was on.


"Didn't know the floor was that dusty," said Dave a little eternity later. John lifted his head just enough to glare at him. "No, but don't let me stop you from a life of exalted broomdom, I wouldn't stand in the way of your happiness."

"Fuck you so much, dude. Like. A full rugby team of fuck yous."

"Kinky. I like. Where's my cheerleader outfit."

Dave was still in his white and red flight suit, unzipped and peeled off to the waist, sleeves tied around his hips. He had on another bright red tanktop underneath, which bore no trace of sweat at all.

John hesitated to ask, for a second. Mr. Strider wasn't prodding him to keep fighting, so it seemed okay to chat, but he hadn't shot the breeze with Dave in... it seemed like ages. He pushed himself up on his hands and made himself ask. "Patrol was boring again?"

"Boring like a politician schmoozefest." Dave took a couple of steps away from the door, glanced at Karkat who was still jogging away while craning his neck to see who'd come in behind him, then at Mr. Strider, who stood hands on his hips and watched him back blandly. "Hey, Bro. You called?"

John wasn't too sure how to feel. When things were great between them they could yammer on for hours; that Dave had cut it off to talk to someone else after two sentences didn't fill him with hope.

Meh.

"Yeah, need you to take over beating Egbert back into shape."

Meh and bluh.

Dave didn't react, just gave a grunt and tied his flightsuit's sleeves around again so they wouldn't dangle. "Sure. Hand to hand?"

"You can have a wooden sword."

"Aw, come on!" It wasn't like John had never beaten Dave when Dave was armed and he was not - if he could catch his sword he could break it or tear it out of his hands, easy - but Dave was a fast little bastard, and John was already tired.

Okay, and rusty. Maybe. A tiny bit.

He dragged himself up, waited for Dave to come back with a sword. (Those wooden things weren't that great for training with microfilament blades anyway! When they hit something, there was an impact, and then they stopped, and they were heavy, the fighting style wasn't the same at all! But blahblah honored family tradition. John was sure Mr. Strider was pulling their legs.)

Over by the treadmill Mr. Strider was gesturing at Karkat to follow him. Karkat sent John a wary, dubious look - should he? John could only shrug.

Dave prodded him in the side with the tip of his wooden sword. John jerked with a gwack and tried to grab at it, only to get rapped on the fingers. Damn it, was even Dave mocking him for his rustiness now okay who was he kidding, of course he was. "Blargh. Don't you need to stretch or something?!"

"Ehh." Slash. John jumped back out of range.

They started dancing around the room, John trying to avoid getting smacked and to get under Dave's guard and Dave smacking him liberally, the asshole.

When they circled around each other John could see Karkat standing on the mat, hands fisted but hanging at his sides, as Mr. Strider gave him a "come at me, bro" flick of his fingers.

"Whoa, your bro wants to spar with Karkat!" He dodged under a horizontal slash, knocked the weapon upwards, and missed Dave's stomach when Dave somehow hula-hooped out of the way. Goddamn slippery Strilondes.

"There a problem with that?" Dave replied, entirely neutral - which despite what he thought about his amazing poker face wasn't actually a common occurrence.

"Um."

John could think of a few. (Karkat might refuse! Was Mr. Strider even allowed to take the risk? What if someone got hurt?) They were all silly though. Surely there'd been permission given, and even if there wasn't who would tell on Mr. Strider, and he wasn't going to beat Karkat black and blue anyway. John risked a quick glance over his shoulder. Karkat was still hesitating, shoulders and back tense, head turned just a little bit toward John like he wanted to call to him but knew better than to take his eyes off Strider.

"Nah. Go for it, Karkat!"

He threw in a thumbs up and a campy grin. Dave groaned quietly.

"You wink or even start to shape a pistol, I'm breaking all your fingers."

John waggled his eyebrows at Dave and mimed shooting him in the chest with both hands.

Dave sped up, and John got a little more serious, and for a while the gym resonated with smacking sounds of wood on skin and little grunts, a single "ha!" when John managed to trip Dave (who then came up swinging, but.)

On the next turn he could see Strider pointing at Dave and him, and then making a you-me gesture at Karkat. Karkat breathed in - John caught Dave's foot as he tried to kick him in the knee and shoved him off - and nodded.

Dave twisted around him, whacked him in the calf - John had jumped up to save the back of his knee - and forced him to turn his back on the other fight. Damn it.

And then Dave went on the defensive while throwing little glances over John's shoulder.

"You asshole!" John hissed quietly, and lunged. Instead of dodging to the side, Dave took a couple of steps back. "I want to watch too!"

Dave shrugged at him. John kicked the sword out of his hand. Whoops! Punch to the chest - pulled before any real impact, of course.

"One for me!"

Dave lifted his hands in acknowledgement and ambled off to pick his weapon back up. "Good job, Egbert. What does that make, six to one?"

John grumbled, but didn't bother to answer, watching the other match from the corner of his eye.

If it could be called that. So far Mr. Strider was testing Karkat's defenses with careful little jabs, all in a predictable pattern, like he didn't want to spook him. Karkat wasn't doing too badly blocking, and was already less tense than when he'd started out. It was still the If I Fail I Will Be Thrown To The Crocodiles face - gack!

"Dave!"

"Whoops, stole the good spot again."

Dave's face had gone bland of the "laughing at you inside" variety. John couldn't keep from grinning. They might be needling at each other but it didn't feel quite so distant anymore. Maybe Dave really just needed to beat him up a little...?

Well, try to. John still wasn't throwing a match, damn it! He let out a war cry and charged.

(Besides if he did throw it Dave would be more insulted than grateful, so it'd be a bad plan anyway.)

A wild grab for Dave's trailing sleeve-end as Dave dodged again and they were rolling in a ridiculous ball of teenage pilot limbs, heads knocked against each other and on the thankfully padded floor. All technique had flown away, it was now a matter of squirming and shoving each other back down and attempting to find a good hold while having your hair pulled and fingers smudged evilly over your glasses.

They only saw the tail end of it, a wild lunging slash, blood smearing from three scratches down Mr. Strider's forearm.

Dave went stiff; John's hand clenched on his shoulder and he flipped on his side under Dave to see the scene better. Karkat had gone into a low, tense crouch and while John couldn't see his face it was obvious he was trying to circle so he'd stop being between John and Dave and Mr. Strider. The scratches weren't bleeding much anymore - nanites for the win - but they went from wrist almost to elbow, cutting through a burn scar and narrowly missing that weird teeth-shaped scar on the inside of the man's forearm where it looked like he'd been trying to choke someone out and they'd bitten him really fucking hard.

Strider started smiling, a barely-there slash of thin lips.

John nudged Dave to get him off him and sat up to watch, all pretenses of sparring gone as the other pair circled slowly around the room.

Another pass had Strider avoiding two wild slashes of claws and hooking Karkat's nearest horn with two fingers to throw him to the ground; Karkat landed a bit hard on his shoulder but rolled off in a scrambling hurry, though Strider wasn't pushing the attack to axe-kick him in the stomach while he was down like he would have with Roxy.

(Mostly because Roxy, he would have missed. John only deserved that kind of follow-up when he was being a dumbass, and even then the man usually pulled his kicks.)

"Hey, we don't know how easily they break off," John threw anyway, maybe a bit worried. Karkat's tiny gold-and-rust horns weren't much of a lever, but out of all the masses there was only a single troll with a broken horn in Karkat's memories, so either they were really hard to snap, or really easy and therefore not to be targeted.

"Actually, we do," Strider commented lazily, eyes not leaving Karkat's face for a second. (Karkat kept retreating around the room and he didn't look like he was having fun at all.) "Labs did a few stress tests. Structural integrity's about the same as thigh bone. Solid shit."

...They'd done stress tests on Karkat's horns. Neither of them was splintered (there was just that nail-sized bit shaved off the surface) so they had to have stopped when it started deforming under pressure.

John thought of sitting there as someone tested how far they could bend his fingers before they started threatening to come out of their sockets, and felt sick.

They'd slowly moved closer to Dave and John as they feinted and tried to grab each other, and John was pretty sure he and Dave should move, because Strider would totally kick them in passing for taking an unplanned sparring break if he got that close, but before John could move Karkat was breaking the standoff and running full tilt for him.

"Whoa, hey-" John leaned back, started to dodge - those flying knees looked especially face-unfriendly - but by then Karkat was already jumping over his leg.

Strider followed, slapping John's head in passing. Ow. John turned just in time to see Karkat vault over the arms of one of the running machines and slip underneath the next.

All the weight lifting machines and the gymnastic equipment had been parked to the side to free the middle of the room. It made a tangle of padded benches and bars and balance beams and vaulting horses. Strider came to a stop before them and then set his hands on his hips; Karkat had already negotiated his way through to the higher of the uneven bars, and the way he climbed - the sense of balance he had, huh, by the time Mr. Strider caught up he'd already be exiting the mess by just about any other end, parkour style.

He was really not having fun. Crap. John climbed to his feet and joined Mr. Strider, winced at him. "I... don't think he gets the point of sparring. Like. Uh."

Strider sighed. "No fucking kidding." He stuck his hands in his pockets, tilted his head; it was like he was trying to telegraph harmless but in John's opinion he mostly managed 'still deciding whether to bother hunting you down.' "Karkat? What's up, dude."

"... Nnnh."

Dave ambled up to them, crossed his arms pointedly as he looked up at the alien. Karkat's eyes kept twitching from Mr. Strider to John himself, like he wanted to tell John something but kept stopping himself. (Maybe 'help me already!' Yeah, maybe that. Um.)

A slow shake of Dave's head. "What the heck, he's so goddamn high strung. You do a sucky job of keeping his tits chilled, Egbert."

John huffed. "I'd like to see you in his place, wow. High strung. Okay, he's kinda twitchy but-"

"No, twitchy is for Jake after a battle. This is hair triggery." Dave's brow furrowed some as he looked things over. "Bro, sit your tush down maybe? Far as he knows you'll pounce the second he comes back out."

John blinked at him. Since when did Dave try to help smooth things over with Karkat, seriously.

"Yeeeah," Mr. Strider drawled, and went to recline very pointedly against the running machine. "See, the thing is, I'm pretty sure he thinks Imma beat his face in if he comes out. Sitting's just gonna look like I'm trying to lure him out. He ain't gonna do that on his own anytime soon."

"Huh. You want we go get him?"

Strider snorted. "Cornering the freaked out dude with the butcher hooks on his hands. Sounds like a plan."

John couldn't help but snicker at the way Dave almost pouted. "I meant if John went first and played nice, he won't claw him up."

Karkat was still watching them from his perch, but he seemed to be deflating some. John tried an encouraging smile. "Karkat? Come on, buddy. C'mere."

The look he got was 'are you fucking crazy'; he kept smiling, head tilted.

Karkat took in a deep, bracing breath and let himself slip to the floor, picked his careful way through the machines' legs. He emerged off to the side, past the corner of the second running machine. He walked upright pretty normally, but his expression - wow, no, yeah, still freaked out, the red part of his eyes was huge. John reached out to put a hand on his shoulder.

"You okay? What's-"

"John," Strider said simply. John stepped aside without thought.

Karkat walked the rest of the way to the man, eyelids at half-mast, carefully expressionless.

Strider lifted his injured arm - Karkat winced imperceptibly, aw, dude - and brushed the flakes of drying blood off, smearing the rest some; underneath he still had pretty long, raw-looking red lines, but the slices were closed up already.

"It's fine. You did pretty good with that one. Be better if you'd stood your ground, but I guess you ain't too used to sparring."

Karkat's eyelids twitched. "... Good?"

"Mnh. That slash-" he mimicked it; "-good. Running - well, in a real fight it's also good. In here it's not."

He stepped to the side, bent down casually to rummage through a backpack, emerged with baby wipes which he applied to his dirty arm. Karkat was still tense and looking confused, staring down at the man; John stepped up to him and gently knocked his knuckles on the alien's shoulder.

"Karkat? It's okay, you're fine."

Karkat blinked up at him, red irises slowly going back to something closer to their normal size. "Ah - nhh."

"Okay?" John prompted, eyebrows arched doubtfully. Karkat grumbled at him, eyebrows furrowing.

"Mnkay."

"Oh, come on, I know you know how to say that one."

"Fuck you Zhann kay."

Dave cleared his throat in a way that only accidentally resembled a laugh. Also, John had a bridge to sell in London, real old and pretty grungy, real cheap.

"Now who taught him to say those bad, bad words. They should be punished." Dave waggled his eyebrows, mouth pinched in a not entirely convincing straight line.

John considered it. "Pretty sure it was Jade."

Karkat growled under his breath and sidled closer so he could kick the side of John's foot. "Fuck and fuck you. It's word good. And fuck you again."

"It's so sad how I know what you really want to say involves probably a crapton of body holes I don't even have and like half the contents of this room," John commiserated, nodding sadly. Karkat kicked his foot again.

"Zhann you dumb shitstupid face."

"He's got you pegged, though," Dave said. John grabbed for him to administer a well-deserved noogie.

"Kids," Mr. Strider said, which brought everyone from a mildly guilty (John) to frankly stiff (Karkat) stop.

He was standing again, tugging his gloves back in place; John leaned his shoulder against Karkat before Karkat could stare at them too much. Seriously it was like he expected the dude to beat him half to death with his fists.

"Try again?" John asked, nodding toward Dave in question.

"Hm. Nah. Dave, run through the third to sixth kata. John, Karkat, you're sparring. Come on."

They went back to the middle of the room; Karkat looked briefly relieved when Strider stood off to the side and John lifted his fists instead, and then worried again. At least not about to freak out, though.

"Little fight! Nice fight! And no scratching my face, please, I like my eyeballs."

"You're wearing glasses anyway, worry more about shards," Strider commented. "Go."

They went. John kept it cautious, playful, a smile firmly affixed to his face. He had to bop Karkat's nose before he got a response, an annoyed hiss and slash that would have flayed the inside of his elbow had he dodged any slower. Whoa. He tripped Karkat and landed him on his butt in retaliation, and then he was on the floor being kicked at while his leg was trapped in a bear hug.

"You're dead," Strider commented placidly. "He gutted you and slit your throat. Karkat, your nose is broken by his knee in his death throes."

Karkat startled and blinked up at him, hearing his name, went tense when Strider went around them to John's side and guided his knee forward to illustrate the theoretical impact with John's knee. John obligingly gurgled, trying not to laugh at how silly it was, acting it out; Karkat considered the both of them with a little thoughtful frown for a couple of seconds, then cautiously nudged the ball of his foot on the underside of John's jaw. John groaned and rolled loosely on the floor in surrender, playing dead.

"Bluuuurgh. He's wearing shoes!" John pointed out, rolling on his back so he could look at Mr. Strider, who had stepped back out of range. "I'd just be bruised."

"Cotton tops? He pushes a bit, his claws pop through like a dream. Also... hm. Get him to do it again."

Rubbing his hipbone, John climbed back up on his feet. "Why?"

"'Cause if my theory is correct he was trained to fight with blade-tipped boots. He didn't expect your ribcage would stop him. His claws aren't that sharp."

"Charming," John groaned.

Even Karkat was beating him today, blurgh. But he didn't want to fight more seriously against him. Like, really not. Karkat really was no good at playful roughhousing.

He tripped Karkat again, but this time the alien rolled away and bounced back into a crouch, started circling. He was still wary, though mostly of Strider, who he kept glancing at nervously, as if to ask if he was doing it right yet. Strider, of course, was wall-faced as usual. John huffed out a rueful laugh and charged again.

Ten minutes later they had learned that when startled Karkat went for the arteries with disturbing proficiency, and that the next time John grabbed him by the wrists and refused to let go he needed to be wearing a cup.

Fucking ow.

"Bud?" Dave asked, half-horrified and half-laughing, the asshole.

Karkat had basically used John's hold on him for support to jump up and double-kick him in the junk. John had dodged some.

Some. "... ffff thank fuck for nanomachines," he managed to groan, still curled up on his side on the floor.

"Uhn. Zhann? You - urr. No good?"

"No shit I'm not good." John let out a half-faked whimper. "Mean. So mean. I will never have children. No Little Johns. Never!"

"We don't need to know what you call your junk, bro, for serious. It's so unimaginative it makes mine curdle, for one."

"Karkat?" John asked, breathing carefully. The pain was getting more manageable already, but he still didn't want to move, though it was mostly psychological. "Kick Dave. Dave is stupid dumb. Kick him."

Karkat snorted at him, and leaned over him, hands on his knees. "Uh no. You kick Dev. Da-yve. Him."

John narrowed his eyes and uncoiled, swiping Karkat's ankles and yanking him down on his ass. He rolled off after that - no pinning the alien, he was not that dumb - and punched his shoulder, not too hard. Karkat hissed between his teeth and sprang back up.

What they learned next was that Karkat didn't do boxing. Outside of kicks, tripping, and clawing, he mostly tried to grab John's arms to throw him to the ground, and his technique just wasn't good enough; John could throw him two times out of three. (The third, he escaped, though his shirt made a nice tearing noise that had him swearing in alienese.)

"Hah! You should have kicked Dave. Kiiiick Dave. You owe me!"

"Rhhshth kick you!" He did. Nowhere near John's crotch. John was understandably cautious about that one, but he didn't even try for it. Good; John was willing to forgive him once for that one, not twice!

It was getting weirdly fun, actually. John was enjoying himself. Karkat was still frowning a little, but he frowned all the time! This one was a little furrow of concentration, not so much of the crocodile face. And he didn't glance at Mr. Strider to check he wasn't doing anything wrong half as often now.

"Hehe, gotcha! So slow, Karkat, so slow!"

"Shit-ass face- hah!"

"Ow! You dick."

"You dick."

"Are you guys done goofing around yet?" Strider drawled, and took a couple of steps closer, making them both stop moving right where they were. "You're leaving enough openings to drive a mech through."

He took John's arm, repositioned it, circled behind him and kicked his heel a few inches to the left. "Okay, Karkat, do it again." Karkat did, dubiously, much slower. Strider guided John's hand through a parry. "See? Now his claws are facing away, you grab his wrist and high-kick at his face. No space to dodge."

They went through it another three times until John felt he had it, Karkat going along with it with his 'I am Having Thoughts but I will Not Show Them Shut Up I Am Not Transparent As Shit' face on. He went straight to 'I am Having Thoughts and all of them are Oh Fuck' the second Strider circled around to him, predictably.

"And here's your parry - hm. Can I touch you?"

A little twitch, a quick inhale. "...Yes."

John watched as Strider placed a hand on Karkat's shoulder and one on his wrist, slowly extending his arm into a punch, then testing how far his elbow could rotate in full extension.

"Huh. Muscle's not attached quite the same." He traced a line along his own shoulder muscles, left arm extended parallel to Karkat's right to show him what he meant. "Interesting. Okay then, try it like this..."

He made them continue like that for a while longer, fighting at half-speed and then pausing, rewinding to fix a mistake or use a less dangerous counter, seeing what would happen differently. It might allow John to breathe more easily than the earlier sparring matches, and it was pretty interesting, but he was still getting kind of tired.

"Alright, we're done sparring for today. Walk around for a while, wind down."

He shooed them off. John stepped back and stretched his arms overhead, bent over to grab his ankles and round his back, groaning a little. It was mostly pleasure; god had he missed the nice warm ache of a good training session.

Though now he kind of wanted to get on one of the training machines... Maybe tomorrow.

"C'mon, Karkat, let's walk."

Karkat grumbled half-heartedly, but followed, steps a little dragging, rolling his head on his shoulders cautiously. "What we do... r'ht? What word. Rss't."

"What do we do... now? Later?"

"Now. Yes. What do we do now." Karkat frowned, lips pursed in scholarly annoyance. "Why do-and-do again? Stupid."

John chuckled. "Dude, don't ask me about grammar, it's just how it is. Now we walk, and after that we... I don't know. Watch some TV?"

Karkat glowered at him, eyes big and scowly in affront. "Oh no. No. TV fuck you no."

"Hey, fuck the TV, not me. I didn't do anything to you!" John snickered. "Okay, no, don't fuck the TV, you'll hurt yourself. Hehe."

Karkat predictably punched him in the shoulder. Not very hard; John felt honor-bound to shove him back anyway.

"Hrrm. What is fuck mean? What do fuck mean. ... Do...z?"

John cleared his throat pointedly. "Oh look, Dave and Mr. Strider, that's badass!"

"Zhann! What doz mean fuck. Zhann - hrrst."

John whistled innocently. With a last harrumph, Karkat relented.

They spent the next two minutes walking super slowly along the side of the gym and watching the Striders fancying it up with their swords and their unfair bursts of speed everywhere and their spinal-column-optional moves.

"Shiiit."

John nodded. "Yeah, I'd say."

He sneaked Karkat a look. The alien was watching intently, red eyes flicking fast to try to take in every single movement, analyze them. It wasn't really possible; at this speed it was mostly ingrained reflexes and by the time conscious thought unpacked what had happened and why they were already three moves ahead.

He caught Karkat's hands twitching, claws curling, smoothing out, aborted karate chops.

It made sense when he imagined them as biomech moves, Karkat's hands as huge crab's claws, trying to figure out counters with weapons he was used to.

Dave was suddenly chucked ass over teakettle into the closest pile of mats. Mr. Strider propped his wooden sword on his shoulder and drawled something that made Dave huff and flip him the bird. The second he was upright again he was pulled in for a noogie.

"Ow, ow, bro, not cool. Damn it, you'll mess up my 'do, no seriously stop. Can I be done now? Like, can I go eat something and maybe piss, or probably piss first, that'd also be cool - ow."

Strider released him. "Yeah, no, shower first, you're rank. I did not raise a gross little asshole."

"Said the biggest, grossest asshole - ow. Okay, okay, Jesus."

Dodging a last sword swat at his ass, Dave went to the bag to get a towel and wipe his face dry. Strider turned to them, arched an eyebrow. "Still here? Want another round?"

"Fuck no," said Karkat, with feeling and without any prompting. John had no clue if he'd understood all the words or just a few key ones and extrapolated from realizing Mr. Strider was a sadistic bastard, but it had John laughing either way.

"Yeah, no kidding. We're just - uh, Dave, you gonna be ready to go soon?"

It had just occurred to him that maybe Dave didn't want to walk back with them. Um.

Dave straightened up, a towel around his neck, and watched them (John presumed? hard to say) in unnerving silence for a couple of seconds.

"Yeah, okay, why not. Not like I could lose you in the corridors, hardly a proper maze, we should mention that next time we renovate."

John gave a bright, wide grin. "Buddy, it's too late, I've got your scent now, I will track you to the end of the universe."

Halfway to the shower room it predictably turned into a shoving contest, and then into a race. Karkat ambled after them, and sighed and rolled his eyes at the ceiling a lot.


Scrubbed pink, they wandered down to the kitchen, still as a group. It was barely seven PM, and John and Karkat usually wouldn't eat for another hour at least, but John had to admit that the exercise had sharpened his appetite. Plus he totally had the excuse of keeping Dave company.

Mr. Strider was seated at the table with Doctor Lalonde; John's dad was in the kitchen corner, puttering. There were no plates in front of Dave's Bro and the Doc, though there were some laid out, probably for the three of them.

"Hey, Dad! Do you need any help?" he asked, going to the counter. Dave seated himself silently by Mr. Strider's side; Karkat, when John turned around, was gingerly taking a seat at the farthest corner, head bowed.

"Still thinking I'm gonna kidnap his gray butt and stick it full of needles, huh," the Doc mused into her coffee cup.

His dad shooed John away empty-handed, so he wandered back to the table, pulled out a chair between Karkat and the Wicked Witch of the West. "Well, can you blame him, really?"

"Nah." A little shrug. "Weird from my side too. But we're totally going to have to put him through a checkup soonish. Like tomorrow or the next day soonish. Try to make sure he understands it's not going to be anything all that invasive, yeah?"

He was not going to like it either way. John sighed, sneaked Karkat a look. Yeah, he'd have to explain that really well. "Can we have the checkup here? I mean, not in the labs. I think it'll really help with everyone's stress levels."

"Hm. Should be doable."

His dad left the kitchen corner, carrying heavenly-smelling pans that had John's stomach suddenly waking up and groaning. He still had to suffer through his dad serving Dave first, since he'd been up in the air, and then Karkat since he was kind of like a guest if you squinted, before his plate was filled in turn.

"Thanks, Dad!" Mmm, Beef Wellington and baked potatoes.

Dad must have had some free time this afternoon; he rarely had time to cook like this outside of weekends. John was too busy eating to wonder much.

"Aw yess, this is fuc-fantastically delicious, Mr. Egbert, I mean, yeah. I think I'll probably need seconds," Dave said after a while, and then tried to look regretful. (He failed.)

"Finish your plate first," John's dad advised with a chuckle, and went back to the conversation the other two adults were having.

It took John a couple of seconds and a mouth full of delicious potato to register that they were talking about Karkat.

"...not that he's exceptionally skilled," Mr. Strider was saying. "Not a lot of formal training past the basics, though he's got those down pretty good. He just doesn't fuck around. Gets into a fight, he's planning to end it, permanently."

"That is pretty dangerous," the Doc replied with a little frown. John blinked.

"Well, he's also of the school of thought that says there ain't no shame in running the fuck away if the other guy's meaner, and I haven't heard of any aggression issues with people closer to his weight class. Still not advising letting him run around with civilians, mind."

John swallowed his mouthful, and leaned in a bit to listen. Dave didn't seem interested, though it was always hard to tell with him.

"He gets sparring, but only just. Kept expecting me to pull a dirty trick, and he's got no reason to expect me to hurt him, so. Experience."

John's dad hummed thoughtfully, fingers tapping at the table. "So he is not physically aggressive unless attacked first, chooses avoiding fights over, ah, salving his honor, or venting his own anger, but on the other hand he's also fairly defensive..."

"He's probably killed in hand to hand before," the Doc pointed out. "If his fight-or-flight reflex is that hair-triggery, someone must have triggered it before. And in space? I don't care how aliens set up their ships, I really doubt there's a lot of wide open spaces to escape through."

John winced. He'd never really seen that in Karkat's mind, but there were whole swathes of memories Karkat wanted him to keep a wide berth from, so who knew. It... it seemed a little bit likely, anyway, considering that John kept feeling like maybe Karkat didn't have a whole lot of friends, and a lot of the other people he'd been saddled with were kind of assholes to him. The way he thought of cat-ears girl and broken-horn dude and that other dude with the four little pig-sticker horns had an undertone of I have no one else.

"...enough control to rein himself in, if he knows it wouldn't be tolerated?"

"Yeah, I ain't worried about that."

"So we're agreed. I'll email Hass."

"What are you guys talking about?!" John finally sputtered, leaning in to stare at them all in turn. They were deciding something about Karkat, okay, yes, but what?

"Wipe your chin, John."

John wiped his chin. Then he frowned. "Hey, come on, Dad, answer me!"

The three of them exchanged super-annoying speaking looks. Argh.

Then his dad gave him a patient little smile. "Well, Karkat has been behaving, so we were discussing allowing the two of you to leave the building."

John stared for a second, and then fist-pumped with both hands and went "YEEEESSSSS."

"We still need to-"

"Oh my god. Oh my god, it's Christmas. Karkat, it's Christmas."

"Son. Son. We still need to determine which areas of the island he'll be permitted to-"

"Christmas!"

"-and of course he still cannot be alone-"

John pushed himself up, chair making a loud noise against the floor as he shoved it back. "I don't care! Oh my god, we can leave the building. This is the best day ever. Karkat, we can go outside."

Karkat and Dave were both staring at him with identical tired oh-John-what-now faces.

Also his plate still had some garnish and meat left. It called him back with sad unloved whimpers.

He sat back down to wolf it down, though his leg kept twitching in impatience. "Seriously! Outside! Hurry up, we're going right the hell now."

"Language, John."

"... Right the heck now?"

His dad sighed, shaking his head.

Karkat cleared his throat, cautiously leaning in so he could look at the adults. "Out... side is what?"

"Do you remember when Jade taught you right, left, up, down...?" the Doc asked, fingers elegantly flicking through indicative motions. Karkat gave a cautious nod; she drew a square shape on the table with her nail, tapped the wood. "In-side. Out-side."

"Oh." Karkat blinked once, then again. "Oh." He looked up at John, eyes a little wide, back straightening out of his wary, depressed slouch. "Out-side now?"

"Hell yes." John did a little shimmy-dance along the table, and did not let the Striders' bland looks deter him any. It totally was a victory dance occasion, okay.

"Nowhere near civilians, John," his father repeated, insisting. "Can we convince you to wait until tomorrow?"

"Uh sorry no. We've been doing nothing for ages and it's like not even seven thirty, there is totally time for a nice long walk." Or a race. Or rock-climbing. Oh, rock-climbing. Swimming?

"...Very well. Strider, if you wouldn't mind warning Mister Noir he needs to be ready to move his men..."

John beamed, and started gathering his empty plate and cutlery. Karkat was on his feet imitating him in the next second, even though he wasn't quite done emptying his plate. All the meat was gone, at any rate. John figured he wasn't gonna die of hunger from missing a couple of mouthfuls.

It needed to be a party. A celebration. Freedom for all! Okay, just for the two of them, but still. He fired up his glasses' instant messenger.

JH: beach party right the heck now! shuffle your big fat butts, everyone who can! :D
JH: people who can't, no whining, you did so go out without me i don't know how many times and damn straight i am going to be remorseless.

"Dave, you coming with us?" he called back as he went to stuff his armful in the dishwasher.

"Eh. Maybe for a walk, but if you drag me into another stupid puppy fight I am taking my beach towel and swanning home. Too tired for this bullshit."

"Yeah, yeah, okay!"

"I'm serious, John, you shove me in the water or anything like that..."

"I would never," John lied, and picked the glass Dave had just finished emptying right out of his hand to cart back to the dishwasher. Karkat hurried by him, a sponge in hand to clean the table.

JK: Well john that sounds like a frabjous idea!
JK: Sadly im about to pchoo off our dear old dirtball for the moonbase. But next time i will totally be your man!

RX: lolololollo taht sounded kinda SALACIOUS

DR: I will miraculously happen to be free in another fifteen minutes, if my predictions hold. Bring drinks and I might consider joining you there.

JK: Madame lalonde that was a totally unfounded accusation! Im extremely shocked where did that allegation even come from?

JH: consider drinks brought! what kind though because i'm pretty sure the parental units are watching the beer levels. :/
JH: and sorry jake, that was totally salacious. shocking amounts of salacious actually. i am completely aflutter at your shamelessness.

RX: omg afluteer means blushy means... ... ...
RX: twinceeeeest? :D

JH: eeeewww. dude, you really need to find yourself some good porn already. or failing that go to the mainland and twink-watch for a while, idk.

DV: rox for the last time the only torrid incestuous affair not happening in this joint is mine and roses secret longing thing that none of yall know about

DR: You mean the one where you keep playing gay chicken with your biological sister who also happens to be at least 65% lesbian?

RX: im prity sure tats still called bein bi u doofus XDD
DR: And *losing*?

DV: our nonlove transcends all gender biases and societal norms

DV: ur just jelly

JH: man, do we really need to socialize with people our age who don't share, like, half our genes at a minimum, or what. :/

RX: whoops gotta rendzevous w/mariens big ... ship thing
RX: mmmm men in unfirom
RX: SEEE U GUYZ LATERH DONT DRINK ALL TEH BOOZE W/OUT ME

DV: yeah bye rox have fun smacking privates butts

JH: bye, maybe next time!
JH: dirk, i am totally going to sneak a few beers out like a sneaky ninja right past my dad and your bro, that is a thing i will do just for you!

JH: but probably some other day because karkat's about to catch my hair on fire with his glare. :B

JH: ALL ABOARD THE BEACHHAMMER, DEPARTURE IN THREE... TWO... ONE... PCHOOO!

The thing with brain-typed conversations was that typing happened almost as quick as thought. It hadn't lasted that long! Karkat was glaring anyway, toes curling to grip the edges of his flip-flops with his claws.

Laughing, John went to pick up a pack of soda cans in the kitchen, and threw his free arm around his shoulders on the way back to the door. "Okay, we're going!"

"Take beach towels, John."

Argh damn it they were almost free! "Aw, Dad! We're not gonna swim-"

"Towels anyway."

"I'll get 'em," Dave offered, finally lifting his butt off his chair.

"Thanks!" John threw back, and then "we'll wait for you downstairs!" because, seriously, outside.

He hauled Karkat to the stairs and Karkat didn't even protest, only elbowed him a little when John started dragging him down the stairs which okay was a little dangerous. They stampeded down like a very small herd of buffalos.

"Outside!" Karkat yelled at him as they raced down the last segment of corridor.

"Booyah!" John yelled back, and borderline rammed the door with his shoulder.

That would have broken it, though, and they might have gotten stuck inside, so he only bumped it some, and opened it normally after that. Karkat stepped on the back of his heel and jumped over the last two steps to plant himself on the packed earth of the courtyard, feet set apart like a conqueror. He scanned the courtyard - ground level first, then the rooftops, the couple of men with rifles Noir was letting them see. They were pretty much always there whenever they went to the roof anyway, so it didn't really surprise either John or Karkat much; Karkat just noted them with a little grunt and then took a few slow, aimless steps forward.

"...What now?"

"We wait for Dave, and then we go to the beach."

"We, go, to, the..." he repeated slowly under his breath, and added a few alien words that were probably a translation. "What beach?"

John grinned wide and devious. "Wait and see, hehehe."

Karkat turned to stare at him, eyes gone narrow. "I want kick you on the face."

"I want to kick you in the face," John corrected as innocently as possible, and took a bouncing step backward when Karkat shifted his weight all on one foot menacingly. "But that was pretty good!"

"Fuck you good."

"Huh, talking about salacious... Should I come back later or something?"

"Dave!" John exclaimed. Dave closed the front door behind him. He had a couple of towels draped around his neck, over his tanktop, and he'd changed his combat boots for ratty old sneakers. He did look kind of tired; John managed somehow to rein himself in and not start dragging him around like an overexcited puppy on a leash.

"I think he was more, like, getting annoyed at the 'you did good' thing. But yeah wow, did that come out wrong."

"I think he came out just right."

John narrowed his eyes at Dave and swung the pack of cans at his legs. Dave ambled bonelessly off the steps, dodging effortlessly. Karkat was watching them in irritated confusion, as he so often did. John huffed at Dave, and started them walking around the building.

"You know he actually, legit does have a boyfriend, right? He is totally alien gay. I think that makes it off limits to joke about."

"Alien, alien," Karkat grumbled from John's other side. He had his hands stuffed in his cargo pants pockets, and it was a bit hilarious to see his grumpy face over the smiling green ghost slime logo on his shirt. "Alien no. K'hrkat."

John winced a little. "Aw, no, not alien-Karkat. Alien-your people?" he said, waving at the slowly darkening sky overhead. "I guess that's rude maybe."

Karkat was still frowning a little, but then they turned the corner and there was a slope to look at, a path in the shadow of the building with grass and vegetation trying to grow back over it. Karkat had seen it from the roof, but - obviously - never from this angle, and the air was so nice in the shade with the sun going down, so oddly still, like it was waiting for something.

They were almost to the far corner of the building when John's glasses beeped.

JD: wait for me, im coming too!
JD: im finishing breakfast STAY WHERE YOU ARE!

JH: OH HELL NO, WE'RE NOT WAITING A SECOND LONGER!

"Hurry, Karkat! Jade's coming for us!"

He started to run, pack of soda in hand. Karkat followed half out of being too startled to question it; Dave groaned. "Hell no, I am not running from Jade, I'm not running from anyone- ack!"

John caught up to Karkat, Dave thrown across his shoulders, and kept running down the path. Dave pounded weakly on his shoulder and wheezed.

"What?" Karkat demanded as he paced him, throwing Dave little glances that looked almost worried. "What - Zeydh?"

"Aha!" she exclaimed from above, just as they turned the corner where the path led off under the trees. The fiend!

"That's cheating!" he protested; she was at his dad's window! So unfair. He kept pelting down the path, but he knew what was going on behind them. Jade would be swinging from the windowsill for a second, and then letting go and jumping for the rain pipe at the corner and shimmying down it like a squirrel going in reverse. He hadn't been able to do that for a couple of years now - he was too heavy for the pipes to take his weight - and his father's room being above the gym floor, the drop straight from the window was a bit too high to land safely.

The path was downhill from there but there was also a lot of twists and turns, and Jade would cut straight through. John was hindered enough by Dave's weight already. Eyes narrowed, he leapt over a huge crawling root and charged through the bushes.

"Egbert! - fuck's sake - hate you - put me - put me down - gonna die - gonna throw up - gonna piss on you I swear to fuck your shoulder's in my bladder ow ow motherfuck-"

"I'm coming to save you, Dave!" Jade yelled somewhere far too close behind them.

"Help, help, I'm gonna piss-"

Behind him Karkat suddenly jumped aside like a startled deer and went low, yelping something in alienese. Jade swiped at the back of Karkat's t-shirt and missed. John put on a burst of speed, jumped like a horse across a Bec-sized root and the murky hole full of rainwater behind it, and even mostly cleared it (his sneaker was gross now, who cared.) He could see the beach...!

Five seconds later he was seeing it super closely, because Jade had just tackled the shit out of him right into the first sand dune.

"Oof."

"I win!" Jade hopped off John, and then grabbed Dave under the armpits and hauled him off, helped him back on his feet. "Dashing rescue complete."

Dave mock-swooned back into her. "My prince."

John spat out some sand and threw a handful at their legs. Jade stuck out her tongue at him.

JNoir: if you don't stay where you are for another two whole minutes i will shank you.

JD: :p well go slowly!

John snorted under his breath and sat up. Like they didn't have infrared scanners locked onto their body heats already.

Karkat was standing at the edge of the woods, massaging the bridge of his nose and muttering to himself, flip-flops dangling from his other hand. "How big, you," he growled.

Jade nudged Dave off her and grinned back. "How old are you, Khrkat. Not very old! Not a lot of old."

"I know. I know a lot."

"Buuuurn," Dave muttered, and made an explosion noise.

"Pff," John and Jade went together.

Jade started for the water line, Dave ambling after her after a few seconds. John looked at Karkat, pointed at the sand stretching around the cove. "Beach. This is the beach. Sand, water, beach."

"Huh."

It was a really nice beach. The sand was a really pale blond and trees and huge ferns stretched over it some to provide shade, there were some big rocks here and there to clamber on... The waves lapped tirelessly at the sand, and then there was the cove their island stretched around, and the temple island peeking out alone in the middle. It was all, in John's admittedly biased opinion, super pretty.

He took off his shoes, went to walk in the foam, smiling at how ticklish it all was. Karkat paced him, walking gingerly toward the top edge of the wet, packed sand, head lowered as if to watch his footing.

He looked oddly sad.

John wasn't supposed to notice when it happened. He'd been trying not to. Karkat had been trying to hide it, too, and - and.

"Karkat?" he said, quiet enough that the sound of the waves would hide it from Dave and Jade.

Karkat jerked, stared up at him - those eyes, shit, wild grieving beast.

John opened his mouth to say - he wasn't sure what, what was there to say that wouldn't get him clawed up? What was there to say that would help? Karkat turned his face away, shoulders stiff, and stomped ahead.

Argh.

JNoir: in position.

JH: awesome.

JNoir: he gets more than ten feet away from the beach, i'm sending divers after him.

They didn't even know if Karkat knew how to swim. John sighed and sped up some to catch up. Jade was splashing around in the shallows, on her way back to the bank, hands cupped. "Look, Karkat, a starfish!"

John stood ankle-deep in the waves and watched her drag Karkat to the damp flat sands and find an abandoned bit of shell to draw with. She plopped the starfish down in Karkat's hand, who blinked at it in wary bafflement when it moved a bit, and she bent down to start sketching out illustrations for her words. "Starfish are awesome. See, you can tear them in two - like this, right down the middle - and then they're all, oh, try harder, was this supposed to hurt? and bam! some time later you end up with two starfish."

She added gleeful eyes and smug grins on the twin starfish at the end of the line. Karkat snorted, caught by surprise, pressed his lips together to contain a smile and failed to get the corners of his mouth down far enough to make it in any way convincing.

"In conclusion," she finished, straightening up and slapping her palms together to get the sand off, "starfish are badass. Roar!" Grinning, she took it back from Karkat's hand and flung it back in the water.

"Zeydh you're dumb."

"No, you're dumb - oh, I bet there are more beasties in this pool, come on."

John watched Jade hijack his alien and did not pout at all.

At least he'd stopped looking so sad.

A few minutes later Dave decided he wasn't walking any farther and threw his towels across the sand, and then himself across the both of them. John snorted at him, checked on Karkat - still poking around in the rocks with Jade - and stripped down to his underwear. He left his glasses on top of the pile and went to swim a few lengths. The water was nice and warm, the waves lazy.

(He needed some time alone, too, some time just to be by himself and not have to keep track of anyone else.)

He came back ashore to the sun half past the horizon, shoulders pleasantly tired. Jade was pulling Dave by the hands in the shallows and she glared menacingly at him when he made to swim up behind Dave. Oh well. Dirk was sitting in the sand beside Karkat, a soda can in hand, and he supposed that sneaking behind them might be fun too.

"-Zehk is rhhst."

"Yeah, sure, but we're not talking personality here." Dirk tapped the sand between his feet. "This."

Karkat let out a short, chuffing laugh, just a little self-conscious. "This yes good. Hmm... Zehk, Zade."

"I'll take your word on Jade. Next?"

"Hnm." A narrow-eyed side-look, setting his baby-goat horns in just a bit of a challenge. "Stridah. Urr. Sir."

Dirk snorted, recoiled just a little bit, deliberate. It was weird to see any Strider using body language to communicate, but then again when the verbal language wasn't there John supposed there was little choice.

"I will really take you at your word for-"

"Zhann."

"Oh?" There was something amused and low-throated in Dirk's voice.

Karkat hissed quickly, pointed behind him. "Zhann here."

Dirk threw a look over his shoulder at John, and quickly moved his foot to erase the drawing he'd made in the sand. John bounced forward, planted both hands over his shoulders and dragged him back to stop him.

It was just vertical parallel lines with weird bumps in the middle, though. Boo.

"What were you talking about, guys?" he asked with a grin, and released Dirk's shoulder before he could decide to kick John in the face. (Okay, probably just the chest, but still, ow.)

"You don't want to know," Dirk replied, and reclined on an elbow like he'd decided to lean back and not like John had pushed him down, so he could look at Karkat past John's legs. "Anyway, yes on Jake, Jade and Bro are no for me."

"Huh. What? Uh. Who. No. Why?"

"Why's the right one." Dirk gave John a pointed look. "Don't you have sandcastles to build or something? You're really not going to enjoy the conversation."

John narrowed his eyes and sat down between them, his back to the sea, and grabbed and opened a can pointedly. "Just try me."

"Okay. Don't say I didn't warn you." Back to Karkat. "Jade is a girl. I'm meh on breasts." He mimed chest bumps. John coughed on his first mouthful.

"You were checking people out?!"

Dirk ignored him royally, and Karkat only flicked him a weighing glance before he went back to frowning at Dirk, puzzled. "Breasst meh? Ne'h ass."

"It's still a girl ass. Not my thing."

"Oh my god you guys are talking about Jade's ass."

"According to Karkat standards, it's on par with Jake's, and according to my standards that means she should be hella flattered. Stop derailing, John."

"And Striderr no what? ...Why?"

"He's old!" John protested. "Seriously, he's old! And you have a boyfriend! That's bad, Karkat, that's super bad."

Dirk shook his head slowly. "I was more concerned with the fact that he doesn't seem to have an incest taboo but thanks for your opinion."

"Oh right. Karkat, Dirk can't look at his bro's butt, that's gross! It's his bro! No no no. Forbidden. No."

Karkat kept staring, eyebrows quirked doubtfully, awaiting a better explanation.

"Hey, guys!" Jade called out as she approached, dripping everywhere. Dirk handed her a towel; she started rubbing briskly. "What are we talking about?"

"Incest, clonecest, and whether I'd tap Bro's ass."

Dave stopped walking to stare. Jade just nodded cheerfully. "Okay!"

John was surrounded by deviants. "That doesn't even surprise you?!"

"Of course not, he didn't even know we were mammals!" She dropped the towel on the sand and sat cross-legged, started smoothing down a wide arc of sand. "Karkat, remember Dad and John? Dirk and Mister Strider are the same. Sex things between them are euuurgh."

"Anyone teach him what sex even means," Dave drawled, "like, the word?" and hip-checked Jade's shoulder so he could perch a corner of his butt on her towel.

"Sex is fucking," Dirk said calmly even as John was hesitating between panic and making up something outrageous to see if Karkat would believe it. Dirk then made an obscene gesture with a middle finger and his other hand's fingers in a circle that John's dad would have totally grounded him for.

"-Oh. That. Okay."

Meanwhile Jade was drawing lines on the sand. "Look, this is Nanna, and this is Grandpa - General Harley." She traced a line straight down from Nanna, called it Jane, a line from her grandpa and called it Jake. "Those are weird. Normal people don't do it like that. What they do is... Grandpa and Nanna -" she patted her belly, mimed it swelling; Karkat grimaced but nodded, leaning forward to watch the sand and her face more closely. "-made John and Jade."

"Hrrm."

"Not clear? Okay. Mister Strider, Doctor Lalonde. We take Mister Strider, make Dirk - you understand this one?"

Karkat nodded, like he got it just fine, and then blinked. "Na'l Dzeneral - Zake?"

Dave snorted. "Yeah, that one baffles everyone."

"Huhn. ... Huhn. Who Nanna?"

John gave a little, awkward smile. "She died. Gurrhgh." He swooned against Dave, head lolling.

"Oh. Okay."

"Nanna and her first husband-" Jade traced the lines, scowled. "-Mister Egbert. This one is really confusing. We should have started with the Strilondes, it was less weird! Okay, so, Mister Strider, Dirk, Doctor Lalonde, Roxy, and the Doc and Bro together made Rose and Dave. I have no clue how we're gonna explain adoption in the context of incest taboos, guys!"

Karkat meanwhile was staring at the family trees in the sand. "Rhoz - Stri-der and Doct'rr? Hffff." He nodded slowly, whistled something that sounded impressed.

"Oi, oi, I'm made of just as many bits of Bro and the Doc as she is," Dave grumbled. Karkat arched an eyebrow at him, shrugged his disdain.

"Small bad bits. Rhoz get big al'thsk fuckbits."

"... Say, do you know how to swim, dude, because if not it's time you learned."

John was laughing his ass off, but he still grabbed Dave's arm to keep him down in case he did start trying to drag Karkat into the sea. Not that he was even moving, but it'd probably end in really unfunny ways, so... just in case.

Jade was laughing too, but she tried to restrain it. It did not work super well. "Anyway! Anyway. Where there's a line, or a person in common, euuuurgh, no, no, no. No sex. Ever. Ewww. Me and John, nooo, me and Jake, no no no, me and Grandpa, super no. Do you understand?"

"Hm. Yes? Yes. Dirk... Rokchi, yes?"

"Uh. There's only two people between them - Mister Strider, Dave - so it's a bit close. Maybe, but a little eww."

"Maybe not at all, Roxy's a girl."

"Dirk weird?"

"Yeah, Dirk's a weirdo!" John said with a grin. Boy was it strange to be reminded that Dirk was into dudes, it was so... irrelevant, like wow, when did it even have a reason to come up in daily life. "But across family trees it's alright." His grin widened. "Say, Jade and Dave. That's okay."

Dave glared at him and curled up around his own knees, like that could be enough to pretend he hadn't been leaning against her side a tiny little bit. "John, shut up, Imma punt you head first into the sand."

Pff. Like no one had seen them wading together with Jade dragging him by the hand. "Come on, man, she saved you, she's your dashing knight in shining armor, she's entitled to makeouts now."

Rolling her eyes, Jade slapped him on the back of the head.

"Gather I missed something," Dirk said, "but I am surprisingly happy about never finding out what."

Karkat was poring over the family tree and muttering to himself under his breath, only giving their shoving and teasing quick cursory glances. He still found the time to mutter in aside to Dirk, "Zhann, Zeh - Zade, Dev, not a lot old."

"How right you are."

"So sayeth the guy talking butts with an alien," Dave shot back.

"Dude, butts are plenty mature. The appreciation of a fine ass is a turning point of one's growth."

John was sure Dave would have shot something back, only he yawned, which killed any chance at a snappy comeback. Grumbling, he looked away, and blinked at the horizon. "Shit, what time is it? The sun is down and I'm not in bed, what is this witchery."

"Poor little chicken," Dirk said blandly. Dave kicked his hip, got up.

"I've got to go crash. 'Night everyone."

He wandered off, waving lazily over his shoulder. It wasn't dark at all yet, maybe a little dim, and they all knew the path by heart anyway, but Jade still hesitated for a minute before sinking back down in her butt hollow.

John's resistance to the call of heckling was plain heroic (no it wasn't) but in the end, alas, he fell. "So are you guys trying to get back together or what?"

"Argh! It's not any of your business, John. We're just hanging out. I don't know if you remember but we used to be friends before we dated!"

John nodded, hands raised in surrender. Yep, they were totally flirting.

Jade busied herself shaking sand off her towel and setting it for maximum sprawling surface area, and then flopping on it to look at the sky, eyebrows furrowed forbiddingly. John decided not to poke the dragon. Maybe Dirk...? Hm. Nah. Dirk wouldn't have known to play along if a Playing for Dummies manual fell on him from the sky.

He still wasn't stir-crazy enough to try to roughhouse with Karkat, even half-seriously. With a little sigh, he reclined in the sand as well, feeling it stick in patches to his still vaguely damp skin. The temperature was lowering, but not much yet; it was nice. The sky was an explosion of pinks and purples, rapidly darkening.

It was so good to be outside. He chafed at the bit wanting to run up and down the beach (he wanted to run to Warhammer and fly) but it was still nice as it was.

He was still insane amounts of grateful when Rose wandered in from the forest.

"Rose! Hey, Rose-"

"Hello!" She smiled, eyes crinkling. "If you drag me down, I will do my utmost to land on you."

She was carrying a little cloth pocket thingie, and both the telepathic headsets were draped around her neck. John could see Karkat noticing; his back stiffened a little and he threw her an apprehensive side-look.

"Not for you, Karkat," Rose said, and looked across the group. "Dirk, sorry for asking during your downtime but I don't know when I'm going to see you next. Roxy was trying something back up at Tycho Base, but she didn't have the time to finish, if you could...?"

Dirk sat up straight and patted sand off his hands before reaching out for the - oh, that was Roxy's little tool satchel thing, John recognized the stitched cartoon cat on it. "Yeah, sure. Did she-"

Rose tapped the frame of her thin glasses. "Forwarding you the instructions."

"Mkay, thanks. Huh, I see what she wanted. Yeah, that's easy."

He bent his head over the headsets in his lap and started fiddling; Jade rolled onto her side and propped herself up to watch. John could see Karkat throwing them curious little glances, but he didn't move closer until John nudged his side with his elbow and pushed him. He leaned in a tiny bit and peered over Dirk's fingers, eyebrows going through an interesting series of contortions.

"Is it okay to let him see?" Jade asked, pursing her lips in thought. "Not that I mind personally but..."

"He's not gonna learn how to handle miniaturized tech just from getting one look at it," Dirk replied absently, and selected a needle-thin screwdriver. "And if all he wants is to neutralize it, a good stomping will do that whether or not he knows what the inside looks like."

"What is it supposed to do?" John asked idly.

"Stabilizing the signal, less noise to-" Dirk interrupted himself, eyed John over the rim of his shades, and concluded, "basically, it'll work from farther away with less signal loss. Not a huge difference, relatively speaking, we can't do miracles with the transmitters at hand at the moment..."

"Uh. I'm not sure I want it to be even clearer from up close, though, is it gonna do that?" John asked, eyebrows furrowing. "Because the deliberate talking bit works fine already, and I really don't want to find out that we're just getting more subconscious chatter instead. Seriously, it is not broken, do not fix it."

Jade snorted loudly and rolled her eyes at him. "It's not the jello interface or the encoders he's improving, you dumb butt, it's the transmitters, and they don't decay at any measurable level for at least ten feet. There'll be no difference."

Dirk nodded his confirmation as his fingers fiddled with impossibly tiny things that John would probably have reduced to dust already. "It'd be neat if the science dudes figured out how to only transmit some kinds of brainwaves, though. So you could filter out the irrelevant noise and all the personal stuff. I've got a few ideas but..."

Jade's eyes brightened. John groaned and threw a fistful of sand at her legs. "No nerdiness on the beach! None. I will throw myself in the sea and drown, you mark my words."

"You say that like it's supposed to be a deterrent," Dirk deadpanned. "Anyway, it's done, time to test it. Who's up for it?"

John knew Dirk meant them, because seriously who else used it enough to notice any difference. He almost talked Jade into trying it just to be an ass, but then he remembered he still had Doctor Lalonde's heads-up to pass along. With a sigh, he held out his hand.

"Oh by the way," Jade was telling Rose, "we told Karkat about our genealogy! He was very impressed by yours. Apparently you've got all the good genes and Dave all the bad ones."

Karkat groaned, a hand pressed across his eyes. "Fuck. Zade bad, stop."

Rose laughed, cheeks dimpling. "No, I'm flattered, thank you, Karkat. Not that it was in any way a surprise, mind..."

John nudged her in the side, and stretched across her lap to hand Karkat the other headset. "Stop bragging, I'll tell Dave on you."

Distracted from the banter utterly, Karkat watched it for a long second before he took it, and looked up at John in a way that was almost pleading. It made John wince. "Zhann - fuck no."

"Just a little bit." John finished settling his into place, grimacing in sympathy. "Doc Lalonde wanted me to tell you something."

He could see resignation and a touch of apprehension on Karkat's face the second he heard the name. The alien slid the headset into his thick hair, tugging thick locks out of the way, flipped the temple bits in place, and ... Nothing.

They blinked at each other, eyebrows up.

"Uh, Dirk, did you break - oh!"

Whoops forgot it had an off switch now. Haha.

Damn too good to be true should have known. (Karkat touched his own headset discreetly, verifying what John already knew - that his didn't have a switch. No surprise there.) Hi.

It was such a mess in his mind, he didn't know where to start, and from Karkat's unimpressed moue the alien was getting fuckall with a side of jack shit in matters of useable data as a result.

Yeah that's about it. Streamline that mess douchewad. Doctorscientist (gentlesmilingknife) Lalonde?

"Hey, we're supposed to be conducting a range test right now," Dirk reminded them. John could feel the strange echo as Karkat heard Dirk's words from him; he smiled, a bit crooked.

"Karkat says thanks ever so much, that's more useful info than could be found in John's morass of a brain, and now how about you buzz off for two minutes, haha, yes, of course I totally told him you said that, buddy, no, you can't stop me. Bwahaha!"

You little shitsucking ass-licker. I'll kick you so much harder next time we play-fight.

You'll try yeah I will win so hard (unless you kick me in the junk again can you please never do that again like seriously that hurt and was really mean.)

(yeah count on that now I know it works) (no just kidding so long as you never-) Fuck's sake stop fluttering! Doctor Lalonde!

Yeah okay. John breathed out, brought his thoughts back into order somewhat. Tomorrow doctor visit (feeling you up cold instruments brr) just little things not bad hurting things (it's okay I'll be here it'll be at home safe safe safe-)

Karkat didn't pale, but John was pretty sure it was because aliens didn't.

(no.)

It was such a small, hopeless no. John knew he shouldn't reach out like that, shouldn't open himself up, they had enough trouble already with all the overlap and the unwanted, unnatural sympathy and, and, shit.

You'll be okay she won't hurt just weight and height, healthy now, safe now-

(hurt scared for so long the worst was the waiting, anticipation wait for pain wait for it, watching touching invading, no get out of me, I don't want that.)

"John? What's-"

"Not now," he growled, not even sure if Rose or Jade had been the one asking. He reached across Rose's lap - (miss home miss my friends miss him, hand on my face so safe) - gave Karkat's jaw a soft, cautious pat, nudged his face up so he could see his eyes.

I'll be with you. Karkat? Karkat. Hey.

"Don't touch me," Karkat rasped in alienese, but his mind was full of the badly repressed, uneasy relief that being touched gave him, full of a brouhaha of not quite what I need/don't want, not quite there, almost rightwrong.

John tried to smile, encouraging. I am so not putting my hand over your nose dude that is just weird. (come on don't get a flashback now please I'm so bad at handling flashbacks (Jane, so bad at helping her always doing it all wrong I'm her fucking brother why can't I just know-))

Karkat twitched, lifted his chin to stare straight at him. (Jane yes right fuck.) I'm not (combat-broken memory-lost) not quite that bad it's just normal (shitty runny clinging) memories. I'm fine. (I'mfineIhavetobefine) I'm not like -

"If you were like Jane that'd be okay!" John cut him off, before he could wind himself up into a bout of panic. It's okay. Keep you heal you we know how it just takes time is all. even if you had that kind of PTSD it would be fine.

...oh.

You already have like a ton of other symptoms anyway hehe.

(oh.)

They stared at each other for another few seconds.

... Why is your hand still on my face.

It was so grudging and disgruntled, not panicky anymore, the fear fallen in sad clumps at the bottom of his brain like a failed soufflé; John lifted his hand off him immediately, grinning his relief.

"Next on the list of inventions," Dirk said, "a brain convo transcriber. Karkat, status?"

"He's fine, he might have to get a checkup tomorrow or the next day and, well, doctors are not his favorite people. But it'll be fine! We'll do it at home and everything - and we can go on a walk around the island right after if you wanna, it'll be a ton of fun."

Or I'll hide in my pile and bite anyone who comes close (that means you seriously can you be any more obscene why not watch me sleep while you're at it you fucking voyeur.)

"That would also be okay. But you could make a pile in the woods, wouldn't that be better?"

Do I look like a caveman to you - don't you dare answer that. A sigh. Yeah, okay let's. decide tomorrow.

Sure thing, buddy.

"Is John bothering you again, Karkat?"

Shit Rose is here fuck. fuuuck. What do I answer either one is a trap shit shit shit. "Uh. N...o? Yes? No."

John started snickering. Why does she freak you out that much, I don't get it. She's nice! (Okay she's also terrifying and she can tell way too many things about someone at a glance all of them things you were hoping no one would ever know but...)

Karkat growled at him, eyes narrowed. Oh my glorious shitfuck just shut your gushing word trap.

"Well, if you guys have it sorted out, maybe you could do that distance test?" Jade suggested pointedly.

"Yeah, yeah, okay." John climbed to his feet. "Stay here for now, Karkat, you just tell them when it starts breaking down."

Karkat sighed. Sure. (still guards even here where would I go it's an island right.)

John started walking toward the edge of the woods. Yeah, it is. Sorry, Noir would have an apoplexy. We wouldn't want that to happen, right? (hehehe.)

A feeling like a narrow-eyed, suspicious glower. Fuck no we wouldn't, (weaponsmaster/older/scars) Strider would kill us.

... Whaaat?

He'd want to be the one giving him a ragegasm duh. (John why are you so dumb it's terrifying how someone who breathes and stands upright and operates machinery can be that dumb.)

Oh right, I guess. They really don't get along, huh! (haha, fuck you.)

He'd reached the trees - ten feet - then kept going along the edge of the beach. At twenty feet it was still feeling normal; he still caught Karkat's thoughts about the group of humans he was sitting with, the strange, echoing, mildly dizzying way he hunted for vocabulary. For John, meaning came through first and foremost, and it came attached with Karkat's impressions while learning it, and all his uncertainties about whether he truly was using the right word. Language was so hard!

Also John really was getting the impression that Karkat was, like, pathologically attached to using the precise shade of meaning he wanted for maximum effect; having to approximate grated about three tons. (what's the difference between moron and moron?)

Dude they both came out as the same word here, I have no idea which one you mean. Moron, idiot, stupid...?

... wow I am so surprised they all came out as a muddle of the same things over here too, that is something neither of us could have predicted. Teach them to me later.

Sure thing.

To be honest he wasn't even entirely sure how to explain the differences. Maybe he should start to think a bit on them.

Listen to me not commenting. All those things I am not saying (about your hugemonstrous illiterate ignorance holy dick tickling what.) Impressive. I am impressed at myself. Jolly good show, Karkat.

Pff, shut up (dick tickling?) (also why do you sound British?)

I sound what?

John took another couple of steps, trying to visualize the clichedest Englishman from the 19th Century for Karkat's education, but the echo he got in return was confused.

Snooty? Yeah, that's what I

What you what?

What I was trying for! Are you brain make more lines? bluealienfriend?

Uh. Okay what the heck was that?

?

Aha. John stopped walking, looked back. Looks like you can tell Dirk-

?!

TELL. DIRK. Oh you know what, never mind. He stuck two fingers in his mouth, whistled. That made it, what, sixty feet? Seventy? It was getting pretty dark on the beach, the distance was a bit harder to judge. Sound resonated really well after dark on a beach, though. "Signal breaking down, guys!"

He wandered back toward the little group, feet dragging in the cooling sand.

... okay how do I convey telepathic headset - brain, no... mind? I don't know that word, HEAD, (not working? static-stopped? communication breakdown?) NO, okay, let's go with pointing at my own skull and twisting my face into hopefully meaningful if ugly shapes I am the best at alien communication bar none.

I would totally understand from that much!

Yeah you're good at making the best out of low-tech brainmeats must be all that life experience (argh slipped out shit sorry I am an inflamed pustule on the ass of the universe.)

(gross!) It's fine it's funny. Cranky? "Come on, get up and let's walk a bit. It's all nice and cool now." He drew near the group, where Dirk shushed him and pointed at his shades in the absent-minded way that meant 'I am juggling all the equations right now Egbert if you make me mistype a variable with my brain I will misplace a foot up your delicate behind.'

"Rose, you wanna walk around for a bit?" John asked quietly as he hunkered down beside them. Karkat had buried his feet in the rapidly cooling sand. He didn't feel like he minded, exactly, more like he was similarly uncomfortable everywhere anyway. He was thinking about something but John couldn't tell what.

Stop poking yes yes I'll come admire your beach in the dark wow magnificent jack shit to see.

Pff your eyes are fine in the dark. (Well fine-ish. Okayish. Not as bad as mine without my (light-adjusting magic) glasses so still pretty okay!)

(My horn sense is not fine on sand asshole.) Any poisonous beasts out here?

Nah, Grandpa Harley weeded out anything that dangerous ages ago. At least close to the water. Plus we have the nanites... I guess you don't, but there's always - uh yeah the sand should be safe (oh god let's not go there.)

Karkat squirmed a little, glared up - not quite at him, as if he couldn't really meet his eyes right now. I maintain it's the most perverted way to heal someone ever. (John's mouth on - ngh (pinnedstop) bruised lips why such stupid teeth ow)

Could be worse could be other body fluids OH LORDI asked you not to go there!

Auuugh. Now his brain was stuck. He whimpered, laughed nervously, scratched the back of his head. Karkat was groaning in shared shame.

But why kissing are we in a fairytale now! Space explorer wakes cryofrozen crew of lost vessel with their warm lips? What the fuck. Humans are so what the fuck.

"No, buddy!" John protested, and tried to gather everything he'd been taught about how nanites and human anatomy worked and condense it properly. Human saliva would give you an infection if I spat it directly into a wound! It's full of nasty stuff like bacteria and everything.

So normal cleaning-licking would make things worse? Thank you for that glorious mental picture you are never healkissing me again not even if my dick is about to fall off okay this is so gross.

Haha yeah right I bet the second your dick is in peril you'd be begging me to smooch you oh Jesus my brain why.

Okay, okay, shit. Uh. Shit. Okay, Rose was staring at them with both her eyebrows up but it wasn't like she could read thoughts (except for how he was sure she totally could and was merely keeping it hush hush). John just needed to throw thoroughly unsexy things at it until he could unthink it. Like, uh. Science! Yes, he was going to throw all the science.

(Karkat had a hand covering his eyes and was muttering under his breath. It was mostly plans to go visit the monster no doubt lurking in the lagoon in the spirit of neighborliness and plead with it for a swift death in exchange for his snackable body, make sure to chew properly okay thank you.)

Anyway you need to counter the mouth bacteria with your own stomach acid (that stuff chomps down on almost everything) or else things get way more gross! And cutting yourself open to bleed on someone, euuugh. First it hurts and wastes nanites/body fluids and second hello viruses and even nastier stuff! Seriously for emergency nanite transfer mouth to mouth is usually better. Unless you need treatment like ten seconds ago then it might start being worth taking the infection risk to get the nanites in the wound faster but ew.

That was very (boringunsexy) scientific, good job.

All in a day's work.

"You two make the most hilarious faces whenever you get into one of your little chats," Rose commented as she watched them, fingers tapping her chin and eyebrows arched. John stuck out his tongue at her.

"I'm done," Dirk said, and dragged himself up. John bounced up as well. Walk now? But then Dirk put his hands on the small of his back and arched his spine. "Going back home, I need a better computer. Rose?"

"Aw, man." John was a bit sad to see Dirk go, and didn't know if he wanted Rose to stay or follow him. It'd be nice to hang out. It'd be nice too, to have private time with Karkat (private time outside of walls, where they didn't have to see the guards, where they could truly talk.) But that was too tempting to be good, the unwilling empathy, wanting to just keep bouncing thoughts to each other about everything and nothing. He was sure he could do it for hours on end, easy.

He was sure it wouldn't be smart at all. Maybe they should go home too, or maybe he should at least hand Dirk the headsets back if he wasn't using them for a good, non-socializing reason.

"Rhoz," Karkat said, and John said "Stay, please" because that was what Karkat wanted to say and Karkat didn't want to mess up the words.

John had no clue on Earth why. He blinked at the alien, who was getting up as well, shoulders squared and face sober, thoughts locked up.

Rose paused, looked back at him, at John, quickly, as if to ask why. John shrugged helplessly. "I don't know - ah. He has questions."

Dirk and Rose exchanged a look of their own. "Want me to stay?" he asked. Rose looked at Karkat.

"No, you can if you want, he'd just rather - yeah, I'm sorry you can't talk to Rose alone, I am the official voyeur, it is me." Why Rose? he sent. Karkat sent him back a burst of frustration and colors, of all things.

"Very well. I'll see you later, Dirk." She turned toward the two of them. "Let's walk, if you two don't mind. My legs are cramping from the cockpit."

John picked up the towels Dave had left behind and draped them around his neck, and they started walking off, John in the middle, Karkat wave-side (John noticed that because Karkat was thinking vague thoughts of being downhill and backed up against the sea. The beach was pretty wide; so paranoid!)

Spoken like a long-legged hopbeast. Okay, telling you now John, I didn't want to talk about this with you in the middle because it might hurt I'm not that much of an asshole yet. He sneaked John a glance, squared his shoulders. It's. About Jane sort of?

"Oh. Okay. He says it's about Jane." A pause, as the notions came clear. "About PTSD. About how we handle it. I could have answered that for you, buddy."

"Do you want a rundown on treatment options?" Rose asked, eyebrows arched slightly in surprise. "That's... Not really my domain, but I can-" Karkat shook his head.

"No, I want - hnrr. What do we - what do-you-do..."

"... With people injured... that badly?" John said, feeling his way through the notion. "Who can't hide it."

Rose blinked. "Well - ah. Generally? Or the Skaialabs policy?"

The word ricocheted from Karkat as John's-people; the alien nodded. "Un. Sskaia."

"Mind, there's not much of a difference. Alright..."

She made another thinking frown, forehead briefly wrinkling, and smoothed her face into a patient, understanding expression that was more like her public speaking face than her real one.

"We consider that hiding it, while an understandable reaction, is counterproductive as it leads to reduced performance and prevents the person from being treated. The longer such issues are allowed to run unchecked, the deeper they may entrench themselves. So a lot of people don't hide it to start with."

"But can - oh god, Karkat." John tried not to wince, and knew he hadn't managed when Karkat flinched, glared at him, defiant. "I thought we'd made it clear last time. There is never a time when we humans say okay, this isn't worth the trouble, we're just gonna finish them off. I mean some assholes might say or do shit like that but the point is they're assholes!"

Rose cleared her throat, looked straight ahead at the barely visible silhouette of the mountains over the sky, black on purplish blue. She still had her Professor Lalonde, PhD face on. "Actually. Euthanasia might be performed-" John frowned at her for confusing the issue "-but only in cases where our current understanding of medicine doesn't permit us to save the patient's life, and they are in the process of dying regardless of what we do, and dragging it out does nothing but prolong their suffering. But it has to be a sure thing, and they have to make the decision themselves."

Karkat was nodding slowly, and John could feel him slotting the info in his brain - one piece here, one piece there - but he wasn't allowed to see the big picture.

"It's the same with mental and physical injuries. Lifelong debilitating injuries are to be eased as much as possible. If necessary there will be painkillers and nurses and aides, but yes, there are humans who are so weakened they can't leave their beds and haven't for years, and we still, as a species, opt to take care of them." A little frown. "There are caretakers who fail in their job or who don't have the means to deal with such a strain, but as a whole, that's how it's supposed to go."

"Huhn."

They walked a little farther in silence.

"What if I was injured," John said without thought, because it was what Karkat wanted (him) to say.

Rose paused to stare at Karkat - then John then Karkat again, eyebrows rising quizzically; it was weird because he was the voice but he wasn't the speaker. He pointed to Karkat in silence. Rose's brow started to furrow a little bit. "You would be treated until you are healed, of course."

"No, bad question. I'm - he's unique." John stumbled a little, translating the rapid-fire notions Karkat was throwing through him, focused and locked down tight. John was finding himself saying things, and then feeling their emotional impact once they were already out of his mouth; it was strange. "What if you captured a hundred of us, and some were injured."

"You would all be treated until you were healed. Even if there were a thousand of you. We wouldn't - Karkat, if you leave an untreated wound alone it might kill them, it might not heal right-"

"I know!" the alien growled out of his own mouth. "I know but don't - I, why -"

"Why do we care," John finished for him. "Uh. It's just - you're sentient beings, dude. Killing in combat is, it's one thing, but once the battle is over then why - there's no reason..."

But how do you even make sure what happens is everyone magically nicecoddling in alien land ? you can't even tell me that, you don't believe it! How do you check what everyone's jailer/owner/taskmaster is doing?

"So your people do kill all enemy combatants then," Rose said, and stopped walking. "We weren't entirely sure. You've been cagey about this."

Karkat stopped in turn to stare back at her, a storm of guilt and frustrated anger at feeling judged rising in his head, too fast for John to sort out.

No, stop, calm down - Karkat, calm down -

I'm fucking calm! - no, wait, it's not your motherlicking fuckdamned business how calm I am in the first place! He turned to Rose, fangs bared, though his hands stayed fisted at his sides. "Yes. Kill. Kill and kill and-"

Karkat. "They don't have the resources onboard a ship, prisoners could fuck it up, too - delicate? Balanced? Routines, uh, no space, sabotage, hard vacuum too close by - Karkat, you're thinking too fast, slow down, man-"

I don't want to slow down, I don't even want you to know that! (yes I do, yes, no, fuck (you'll never get them back I'm sorry))

A message was blinking in his glasses. From Noir; John closed it without reading, he didn't want to think about what that asshole wanted to say, no doubt it wouldn't help anyone's blood pressure. He grabbed Karkat by the shoulder, turned him so they were face to face, forced away the awareness of how close Karkat had been to slashing his wrist open out of pure reflex. "If you don't need me to calm you down then good! Calm your own tits, right now."

A long, low hiss left Karkat's mouth, but he simmered down some.

"Mnh." Sorry.

"It's okay." John let go.

Sometimes good workers, they keep them for slave work on conquered/Empire-now planets, Karkat offered weakly, though it was followed with (none of your guys would be there yet you're too new no one'll check what uses we can get out of you until your planet's conquered.)

"Oh." Rose was scowling at him and pursing her mouth, so he told her in turn, "He says they keep some conquered population for slave jobs sometimes but we haven't been conquered yet so they're not checking if we could be useful yet. Heh. Cool. So there's no way any of our men are still alive, then," he added, strangely disappointed even though he had known that was the most likely possibility from the start.

Hell, before they figured out the aliens weren't their biomechs they'd thought the mechs might be eating them.

Same thing that almost happened to you, dissected alive until useless, discarded? John asked. All of them who survived the battles.

"Unh. Maybe. A-lot, no." Karkat looked away. His arms were crossed over his chest, high, shoulders hunched like he was cold. War leader seen pretty one maybe? This one I keep for me. You look so much like us/people.

John sputtered. "Wait - what? They can - you're telling me some of your people keep, keep aliens, like, personally? To do-" he started to ask, stupidly - he'd heard enough to know he didn't want to get more details.

He got them in the form of shreds of memory not suppressed fast enough, Karkat being led to a room full of (sex platforms lay down here good boy I foughtbled to havekeep you shh I'll be nice don't fight.)

John shuddered. Oh god so sorry so sorry no never that I was just reallyreally stupid -

If you had, well, I do owe you, Karkat replied almost fatalistically, but behind that was a burst of something odd and warm, rueful; (of course I'm safe with you.)

Oh.

Oh.

"John."

It - was perhaps a good thing that Rose had interrupted him, because he - that feeling - he didn't know what to do with it.

"Uh - yeah, sorry." He flicked her an entirely automatic smile. (Stuffed it down.) "Some of their higher-ups are allowed to keep personal prisoners? As. Uh. Staff."

"Bedroom staff?" she asked acerbically. John winced. Like there was any way to hide that bit from her.

"Uh. Yeah. Not only, also as normal staff, if they can be trained. Or, uh - shit, as gladiators? Well, hell."

Treated better/don't live as long. Karkat shrugged despondently, looked away. They make their owners money so outside of matches they'd be nicer. Not on my ship anyway too small shitty but the more inner fleet maybe.

Squinty-eyed thoughtful, Rose started them walking again, toward a bunch of dark rocks emerging from the sand. John and Karkat followed on automatic, John's head bowed and Karkat kicking at the sand with each step.

You lookfeel so surprised, Karkat added tentatively a second later, and looked away.

"Uh yeah, buddy, I - we don't do that stuff. I guess we - used to? And some cultures, it took longer to stop in some places, and then some people pretended to stop and wriggled through legal loopholes and called it different things but it was really pretty identical, and I..."

A pause to breathe.

"It's been like centuries since that kind of thing was stopped, though." You thought that's what I was doing with you.

Karkat growled, raked a hand through his hair, glowered at him. "No!" -yes, at first yes, I, kind of yes but you were, I just - I'm not insulting you damn it it's just different! You and your smugbarfing higher judgemorals-

"Dude, slavery! Hell yes I'm judging!" Argh, now Karkat's mental wall felt like a porcupine, nothing coming through but spikes. "It's not like I mean to, okay, sorry, we're just taught that way." It's bad so bad, bad everywhere, wars and racism and stuff -

"Remind me to ask for permission to teach you two more about the Greco-Roman types of slavery," Rose mused. "Not that they were objectively good either, but. Regardless, we humans have a lot of higher morals that we do not actually manage on a day to day basis. Don't let John shame you. He's a bit too much of a hopeful idealist, and he doesn't know as much history as he should for a comprehensive view."

Karkat made a noise like "hah" mixed in with a horse's snort, and hissed something under his breath. John pouted.

No but seriously just in case you still thought that, you don't belong to me no sentient being is allowed to own someone okay! You're a prisoner you're not ...

(War loot,) Karkat instinctively completed for him. John choked on nothing. Okay now he was thinking of pirates. No shut up (why am I on a boat in a skirt?) I know you didn't think of me like that! I just - I just thought you'd. Well. Finders keepers? And you captured me and back home once the Empire was done with me you'd have first claim? And your people would never recognize me as free/citizen anyway so being nice (pretending I'm free/lying like I'm your equal) was the best you could do maybe?

"War loot," John repeated for Rose's benefit, a mite dazedly.

"Awrrghst!"

Whoops. "Okay, no, don't tear our your hair, there'll be a hole and your horns will be cold - ow, you didn't have to kick me either!"

Karkat threw his hands in the air in frustration and kicked sand at his legs, glaring. Did everything else I said just zap through your skull without encountering any brain matter at all?

Looks like!

"Ffffsst." (good jolly hornfuck do I hate you sometimes.) If you can't own people/your first claim isn't worth jack shit then why were you even allowed to keep me?

Huh, okay, yeah, that was a good question.

"I... think because otherwise you would have gone crazy or something? I mean, you were kind of catatonic and they couldn't wake you up and obviously if you stayed with them you'd never get any better and likely you'd get worse and die, and then everyone would have lost everything they could learn about you. Apart from, like, stuff about your skeleton. So there wasn't a lot to lose by letting me kidnap you?"

John frowned some more, lips pursed doubtfully. Either the adults had hidden even more from him than he already assumed they routinely did, or there really hadn't been much pressure to return Karkat to the labs once he was awake and emotionally stable again.

"Rose, why did they let us keep Karkat? I mean apart from the technical reasons like political head games and probably General Harley blackmailing people and things like that. Well, I'm assuming. I don't know."

Rose had her hand over her face and was groaning quietly. "Yes, John, this is indeed the conversation I wanted to have with someone whose security clearance was revoked on an unsecured beach surrounded by government officials. However did you guess."

"Aha, so there is another reason!" John said, as Karkat's attention perked up like a hunting dog finding game.

Good. Not perfect generous altruistic reasons then. Good.

Good why?

Karkat nudged him out and tucked his thoughts back behind his mind shield. "Rhoz? I. I want. Rgh."

"Why don't you ask me the word?" John grumbled.

"No, a lot fuck you."

Rose chuckled. "That's not polite."

Karkat grunted at her. "I know."

"Do you know how to be polite, though? With us it's alright, as we aren't very formal at the best of times, but with others it wouldn't be."

"Mn. No. I want ask that. Poleeth? Po-li-te. That, later yes, I..."

"I will need to know," John said for him; it was about the only thought surfacing clearly enough.

Good alien best dictionary.

Haha, fuck you. "And no kidding you really do."

"Fuck your shit face - no Zhann, stop. No." I'm warning you -

John started waggling his eyebrows, but Rose beat him to the punch. "Mmmm, kinky."

"Oh my god, Rose," John groaned. "No. Bad. Stop."

You were right she is evil. Why did she give you/us that mental picture (now I know what this shit word means for sure wasn't sure guess that's good?)

"See it as gentle corrective punishment for continuing to talk over my head no matter how many times I ask you to keep me in the loop." Her eyes narrowed somewhat playfully (but still evilly) at John. "My apologies for making you collateral damage, Khrkat."

"No, I'm bad with Zhann. Bad a lot." He gave her a little apologetic bow, lips pressed down quite firmly to keep from smiling back.

"You would say 'I'm sorry' there. Just 'sorry' in more casual situations."

"Sorrh-ey. Sorrree. Hm. No that's bad."

John shrugged. "Still has an accent, but it's understandable. Don't fret, buddy."

Guess what I'm thinking about your generous advice. (Is this beach endless or what god my hip sockets hurt so much sand.)

Noo, I bet it's rude and crude and I'm way too delicate and refined to hear pffff. "You want to go home?"

"No, I - Rhoz. I, nrgh."

"There's still something you need to know."

"Yes, I." He paused there in the sand, frowning deep, brain a whirl of thoughts. If I say this - but I don't know that word - maybe from that angle...

I can translate, in case you forgot!

No, I don't want your answer, I want hers. You'll think your answer even if you're trying not to color it with your thoughts I don't want that.

"Dzeneral Harley... Doc-tor Lalonde. Hm." That (quietgentlesoft) man with the brown/dark skin who was he?

"Doctor King? Who was working on your mech?"

"Yes Doctor Kin-gh. Unh." He made a vague, upward gesture with his hand. "Noir no, why - who?"

Rose was watching him attentively. John blinked and tried not to feel miserably confused.

Karkat turned to the wave-flattened, damp sand, gestured at them sharply to follow. A dot - "Sstrider." A line aiming up, toward... "Harlee." A dot. "Noir." A line, toward nothing. "Who? Not Dzeneral."

Rose's eyebrows arched up as she bent over the schema to stare more closely. "Ahh. You want the political landscape."

"Yes."

She bit her lip briefly, thoughtful. "People involved in the war?"

"Infol-vol-ved in me. Alien." (Prisoners of war.) "Me and me and - hrm."

"Other prisoners?"

Karkat nodded; Rose stared at him for another very long handful of seconds before she decided herself with a sharp nod.

"Well. There's Skaialabs - that's us. We're independent. I don't think we will be allowed to interfere quite so much with others of your people, should we acquire any; we're supposed to concentrate on planetary defense and scientific and technologic advancement, and you're a bit of a special case. We can justify keeping you around for study; we couldn't justify acting as mere jailers."

Karkat frowned, feeling a bit uneasy. John's people had proved themselves safe, and he - slammed the door on John's nose before he could get to the end of that thought. Ow. John rubbed his nose, even though the sting was purely imagined.

"There's the United Nations of Earth, or UNE - that's a joint military organization. Each of the militaries comprising it often come with their own agenda, of course."

"What a clusterfuck," John told her from Karkat.

"Pretty much. And then there would be the International Committee for Ethics Oversight, or ICEO."

(Oh yes that's it.)

John didn't need to translate for Rose; the way Karkat's spine stiffened and his irises flicked huge for a brief instant were telling enough.

(yes yes yes tell me more everything I need to know more) "What, that?"

"Hm. It's composed of civilians, and - yes?"

"Ci-vi-lians." Karkat shook his head in slow bewilderment. He'd grabbed the definition from John as it went through Not-military. Not-military, what then. (this is gorgeous/can't ever work long-term sorry but.) "No sorry bad. Talk."

"The military, while extremely-" she rolled her eyes faintly -"important, is often so preoccupied with efficiency that it forgets to keep unnecessary cruelty in check."

She doesn't think it is/should be important? Karkat asked.

Nah. It is important (also self-important.) It's also a huge pain in the ass.

Rose gave a philosophical shrug. "In the spirit of fairness, it is by nature insular and prepared for violence, so some unsavory habits and ways of thinking will seep in. It's also fairly secretive, of course, which is necessary, but which makes it hard to keep some behaviors in check, as we don't see them happening. So... There are committees working to make sure that they still respect the laws and charts of ethics - what's good, what's bad, what's never allowed, et cetera."

Karkat made an interested grunt, head tilted to spur her onwards.

"What never allowed?" he parroted, checking lightning-quick with John's brain that the sounds matched the meaning he wanted and that he wasn't repeating a chunk of grammar-mangled meaninglessness.

Just a little mangled!

Dictionaries don't editorialize, Karkat retorted with a little mental prod.

Rose sighed. "Disturbingly little some days."

She stepped over a rock, onto a second. The trail of rocks emerging from the sand didn't quite reach the waves yet, they could have gone around... John shrugged, and hopped up after her, sure-footed even in the dark from clambering over that rock since he was eight years old. Karkat followed with an ease John had seen in the other pilots and maybe Bro and pretty much no one else.

Rose reached the top and found herself a hollow to put her butt in, patted the rock beside her meaningfully.

It's a good place here we played so much all the time. King of the castle! (King John pushing Dave off into the waves at high tide splash oh no Roxy got behind me welp salty.) Little hide-hollows and butt-crannies everywhere too big now heh.

(that's almost cute) don't tell me those things, John (too attached already how much worse do you want to bet it gets.)

"From the army side," Rose continued once she was comfortable and Karkat had found himself a spur of rock a little lower to cautiously perch on, "there would be a lot of pressure to... Well. Torture for the sake of torture is expressly forbidden, but there'd be pressure for invasive medical research and aggressive interrogation, and - let's say, if we capture another of your people and they prove more hostile and less manageable than you've been it'd be hard to bargain for them as well."

John wasn't sure if she saw Karkat flinch and his eyes flick away in shame, but he sure felt it, the raw burst of it from some deeper layer where John couldn't have hoped to figure out its depth and width.

Shut up John nothing that isn't true (so manageable/docile/obedient what a good domesticated pilotwarrior I've been.)

The way Rose was looking at him, it didn't matter if she'd seen it, because she knew it'd been there anyway. Her frank, direct stare didn't falter any as she continued. "At the same time our medicine is advanced enough that we don't need to cut a hundred of you open to understand how you work. It would just be easier, for some people who are very invested in continuing to see the lot of you as nothing more than space monsters to eradicate."

John sighed, stretched out his legs in a crack of the rock. Talk about a fun beach excursion. "He understands."

"I want to be clear - if we capture more of you, experimentation will be happening. You're right; you're safe because you're unique."

What about once he's not unique anymore, John thought, and then no, fuck them, before he could smash it down. He hated the conversation, wanted nothing more than to wander down the beach and push Karkat into the surf and have a sand-throwing battle and forget it.

He wanted to pretend the situation didn't exist, because he had that luxury. Karkat didn't.

I'd say I'm sorry for making you sit here and translate but it'd be a lie I'm not sorry. I need you here translating it's inconvenient for you for me it's my life. You can deal with shitty things just fine once you decide to stand your ground anyway you're not that weak so just do it.

John bowed his head and pretended fiercely he hadn't caught the undertow of Karkat's words; (I need you knowing what I might have to fight (I need to know you'd fight for me.)) It would be too embarrassing for the both of them.

"But not as much?" John asked, and then paused to make sense of the notions Karkat was sending. He wasn't sure either, it made things complicated. "I mean, if that ethics group thing supervises. Not as much torture?"

"I assume they would do their best to keep it to strictly necessary levels, yes. But political games and the urgency of our situation means there can be no absolute guarantee."

"Yes," Karkat replied, quiet and a little subdued. "I know, that." We're not that different.

"So. Have I given you all the information you needed?"

Welp. That's her you're about to pay me back tenfold face. It was nice knowing you Karkat!

Karkat shoved John in the back a little; John's heel slipped and he pitched forward, only stopping as his tennis shoe landed in a shallow, algae-laden puddle at the bottom of the gap.

"Shit. Zhann?" Didn't want to do that hell now it looks like I'm trying not to answer (and so clumsily too.)

John pulled his foot back up and held it in the air as it dripped, festooned in mushy green strands. A little animal prickled its way up his ankle; his hand shot forward to capture it.

"Here, have a crab." He went to put it down Karkat's shirt, but Karkat grabbed his wrist; the animal plopped free of John's loose, non-crushing hold and ended up on a bare gray knee.

"Zhann stop you shit dumb face. Rsst." He sighed, head bowed to stare at the tiny crab wandering warily on his thigh.

(oh it has dad pincers.)

"Rhoz... Hn. Good. Yes." Ethics versus military. Hah.

John repeated it for Rose, who waved it off. "Of course the situation is much more complicated than that."

"Politics often are," John translated absently, watching Karkat watch his clawtip be caught in a thumbnail-sized crab's grip. He was strangely delicate with the little beast.

Rose leaned in to watch, hands on her lap, politely interested. "So which side will you be playing for which end, then?"

The night felt so still around them suddenly, it was like the sea breeze paused for a moment, like even the trees and Noir's men amongst them went statue-still. Karkat and Rose stared straight at each other, wordless, intense, and John was left staring at them in turn.

John knew all too well that Rose, mindgame-happy as she was, had no real issue with blunt force trauma as a problem-solving method either, whenever her patience ran out.

All he could read from Karkat was a fierce resolve not to bend.

"Guys-"

Karkat gave a quiet snort, and his lips quirked up in a crooked, vaguely cynical smirk.


JH: sir? hope i'm not disturbing you. do you have some free time for a meeting? like, face to face.
JH: karkat wants to talk.

HS: Most frabjous!
HS: Right on schedule. :B

JH: uh. schedule?

HS: Good job my boy.

- Hass Harley [HS] signed off! -

JH: i suddenly understand twice as much nothing.


John sighed as he dragged his feet through the plushest carpet ever, and let himself flop on the couch. There was a lot of space for it; the thing took up half of the length of the room with its fake-Louis Somenumberorother glory, and it wasn't a small room.

"Welcome to Hawaii," he told Karkat, who arched an eyebrow back at him and gingerly took a seat at the end of the couch. "I'd tell you how pretty it all is out here, but it would be kind of mean considering we're never going to see any of it."

The suite's half-inch-thick hurricane shutters were down and locked from a remote location; the antechamber was full of Noir's people, the rest of the hotel full of other agencies' people, Karkat had a locator band around his ankle, and John could hear the choppers circling from here. They were nicely boxed in. Then again it wasn't that much worse than the trip itself had been; they'd basically been locked up in the back of a troop carrier truck and carried across the ocean cradled in the hands of Roxy's Molotov, and then driven the rest of the short way to the hotel's underground parking lot.

Apart from the takeoff and landing - some shaking - it had been the most boring two hours of John's life. Karkat wasn't in an interacting mood, and John... well for once John was pretty sure it was not a good plan to disturb him. He wasn't brooding, anyway, or at least not unproductive, mopey brooding - okay, yes, he was totally brooding, but it didn't seem the kind that would benefit from an interruption, and - argh. Well.

John was pretty much along as a companion, to keep Karkat from ... he wasn't sure, trying to dig a way out through the stone wall, maybe, or tearing off all his clothes and doing some kind of alien "come and pick me up" dance. Though later on John would also get to be of use as an automated translator! Yayyy.

"Zhann," Karkat said with a sigh.

"What?"

Karkat stared at him, crossed his arms high on his chest, and let himself ooze down the couch, lower lip jutting out sulkily. John straightened up and glared at him.

"Oh, shut up," he grumbled.

"No, you shut up."

"No, you shut up first."

Karkat sat himself back up properly, leaned forward to prop his elbows on his knees. "Zhann, you -" he said, more serious, a little subdued. "I need..."

John sighed, but nodded. "Yeah? Tell me what you need."

"You."

"Hm?"

Karkat looked away, like he was embarrassed, stared away at a bit of carpet pattern. "I need stupid idiot you. You... no, bad - fl'ths arrheke-"

"Okay, I understood none of the thing at the end," John said, and managed a charming grin. He stretched out across the couch - and shuffled his butt a little - to punch him gently in the shoulder. "I get you. I'll be here. No worries."

"No worries," Karkat repeated, tone cynical, and rolled his eyes. "No worries yes, no kill... ing?"

"Who cares about grammar right now - argh, okay, yes, that was good, no killing. I don't think the old dudes out here will try to kill you. And if they did I'd headbutt them in the walker anyway."

Karkat probably didn't get two thirds of the words, and those he got were in all likelihood the least meaningful ones, but the tone, he got; he rolled his eyes again, allowed his mouth to crook up at the corner. John grinned back, wide and bright.

Of course he knew Karkat liked him (that was the problem, most of the time, when he was telepathically made aware of the fact.) But it was tons of nice to hear it without shame and regret, to see him smile that little amused (trusting) smile. Karkat seemed sharper, anyway, since that short discussion with the General the other day - but not in a bad, mean way, just in a... more awake one?

It was nerve-wracking, okay. But also... It was an adventure! And they'd been so bored.

"Head-butt is?"

John mimed it on the air.

"N'eh butt is..."

"Butt is a nicer, softer word for ass, yep. Ass is a little bit bad." He gave a thoughtful hum. "I think they're related like..."

Of course John's dad walked in just as John was demonstrating a hip check before his alien bropalbuddy.

Rolling his eyes at John discreetly, Karkat got up to face John's dad - he always did that, as long they weren't sitting at the dinner table, because Dad didn't want them to interrupt their meals and shooed him back down, but the thing where he stood up if one of the adults came in and he thought they might be looking for him, yeah. Like he thought he needed to be at attention, almost, except he didn't know the right way to salute, or if that was entirely appropriate.

"Sir."

"Hey, Dad."

"Karkat, John." His father nodded at the both of them as a soldier with a big gun closed and locked the door behind him. Dad was dragging along a big suitcase, which he hauled up onto a table and popped open. "You've got one hour left, I thought we should get you dressed."

... Yeah okay, they probably couldn't appear before an international committee in t-shirts and jeans. (Or even in a flight suit, which was an outfit he would face anyone in with pride.) He had known that. He'd hoped anyway, though.

"John, I've got your dress uniform - boots in that bag - and Karkat... Ah, this is one occasion for which that latest doctor's visit had unexpected benefits."

Uniform vest draped over his arm, John blinked at the inside of the case. There were at least two suits in there, neither of which were his father's.

"They should be roughly the right size..." the man was humming as he pulled everything out and draped them over convenient pieces of furniture. "Of course nothing replaces a proper fitting, but we'll make do. Now, the pure gray or the slate? Or I was thinking the taupe, as it would compliment your eyes and horns and you hardly have a skin tone to concern yourself with... Hm."

He held a vest near Karkat's face, then another. Karkat didn't move, brows knit in faint worry.

John sighed and went to the nearest bedroom to change.

T-shirt, tennis shoes and jeans were taken off and folded haphazardly - even if he folded them well Dad would refold them anyway - and he saw about putting on everything. Too-warm black socks, white slacks, a solid leather belt (who the heck cared about belts in this day and age), a button-up shirt... okay, was it tucked in properly? He'd have to get Dad to check that the back didn't make a weird bump. He gave the shoes a bit of a spit-polish to get rid of mildly imaginary dust that Dad was sure to see twice as well as he did, and then put the jacket on. He didn't button it all up yet, the collar annoyed him. And he should probably comb his hair before he tried to put on the cap... Yeah. Bluh.

It did look a lot like a Marine dress uniform, even though it wasn't even technically a military uniform at all. The mech pilots from Skaialabs weren't military per se, but ... well, they worked pretty closely with the Space Marines. There was a time it had flattered them a lot to see the kids wearing that kind of getup for official occasions. John wondered if it'd piss them off to see him wear it right beside an alien.

Oh well, he wasn't running to a tailor to get a brand new dress uniform now, anyway.

He came back out of the room to find Karkat in jeans and a button-up white shirt; Dad was doing up the buttons. Karkat was looking mildly embarrassed.

Oh wait, no, Dad was sewing on a button. "Claws?" John asked as he stepped in. Though really it wasn't much of a mystery.

Karkat looked at him, blinked, and looked him over again. "Huhn. Zhann is a lot of old now."

John processed that, grinned. "Yeah, huh, I look way mature like this." He struck a straight-backed, stern-faced macho stance.

"Yes, you look." A faint smirk. "Is, no."

Thwarted by the presence of his father, John could only glare in return, eyes narrowed meanly.

He went to get the comb and started attacking his hair, checking himself over in the outrageously big gilded mirror on one of the walls. "Karkat is mean and has an ugly face," he muttered under his breath as he combed. Karkat ignored him.

"You should put on the headset before your hat, son, it'll be better to have it on as soon as you leave this room. Possibly earlier." He looked up at Karkat's face, then at John. "He still hasn't told you exactly what it was he wanted to talk about, has he?"

John shrugged, went to search the suitcase for the headsets. "Still no clue, sorry."

When Karkat and Rose had made him message General Harley again, he'd thought the General would come and they would talk it out at length, and John would get to find out then!

Instead, well, the General was participating in an important international conference about the war effort, and apparently since he couldn't leave it without being - le gasp - rude, it made a lot more sense to bring up something the old man didn't have the first idea about right before the lot of them. Instead of... maybe... waiting.

So... Here John was, with his alien, crashing the conference. Woohoo.

Even though he was the main interface Karkat had with the world John had apparently totally missed something that was enough for the crazy family politicians to gamble on. It had better be worth it, was all he thought about the topic.

Maybe Grandpa Harley should go back to Black Ops, if he was missing adrenaline that much, for serious. John finished setting the headset in place and combed his hair back down around it, so it would still look professional.

(It was still hot pink. Oh, whatever.)

Dad finished sewing the button back on and buttoned Karkat up, tugged the cloth into place, then stepped back.

John smiled. "Not a bad look!" It made look his shoulders look more solid, and they already looked wider than John's, a bit. "Did you decide on the rest yet?"

"The pure gray is out," his father answered absently. "It makes him look much too eerie. The taupe really does complement him well, but is not a color with quite as much authority... What do you think, Karkat, do you want to seem friendly or serious?"

Karkat blinked at him. "What?"

John picked up the gray-blue vest, held it before his chest, straightened up and gave him a stern look, then switched it for the brownish-gray one and loosened his frame, smiled. "This one or that one? For you."

Karkat selected the gray-blue one, though with a doubtful, hesitant moue. Dad nodded firmly and picked up a navy tie to put around his neck.

"It's a leash," John said, casual and entirely seriously. Dad huffed at him.

"Don't you start joking about that sort of thing now, young man. It's just a fashion accessory, Karkat, please don't listen to him."

"What, leash?" Karkat asked, blinking doubtfully at the knot forming at his throat.

John snickered, and mimed holding one. "It's that thing Jade puts around Bec's neck to tell him to stay close and not run."

Karkat threw him a flat, disdainful glare. "Zhann you no have leash."

John tugged on the unbuttoned collar of his uniform. "Yeah, because-"

"Because you need ten leash, have one neck. Sad."

Dad chuckled. "I'm afraid even ten leashes wouldn't be sufficient."

"Wow, harsh."

"Shush, John. Karkat, you're getting good at English very fast. I'm impressed."

John grimaced at the both of them. "He learns fast just so he can be mean to me."

"Well, one ought to find motivation where one can," his father retorted calmly, and gave a mock-philosophical nod.

"Daaad!"

His father laughed quietly; Karkat ducked his head to hide a little smile from him. Okay, fine, it was kind of cute that they were getting along, John supposed. Maybe. Sort of. At least there was one adult Karkat wasn't quite so twitchy around anymore. Which was good because they were about to see a crapton of them in forty-five minutes.

"Alright, you should go to the bedroom and change your pants, son," Dad said, and handed Karkat the blue-gray pants and started nudging him toward the door John had used earlier. John snickered, grabbed Karkat's arm.

"I, uh, think he should use the bathroom," he told his father. "C'mon, Karkat, this way."

"What? Zhann-"

"Never mind, just get changed." John shoved him in the (huge, gilded, spa-furnished) bathroom and closed the door. "Pants, Karkat!"

He leaned against the door, hands tucked behind his back. The corridor was full of fancy wall lights and little wooden curlicues at the edges of the paneling; the main room gleamed with light scattering off each golden whatever or crystal whateverelse. Too bad they weren't allowed to see actual sunlight.

His father was on the phone, talking with someone in a low voice. As John watched, he started frowning deeper. Uh oh. He ended the call and turned to John. "I have to go. Take care of getting Karkat ready, please."

"Uh, okay, but what-"

"It shouldn't take me long," he said even as he walked toward the door and disappeared from John's view. The door opened, then closed; John sighed. Hard to admit it, but it helped keep him calm, having Dad around to joke with. Seeing him leave like something was a little wrong out here did not fill him with confidence.

Couldn't allow Karkat to get fretty and nervous before his big conference, either way.

The door he was leaning on opened, and he almost fell back on Karkat. He caught himself on the doorjamb, looked at him. "Yeah, buddy?"

"Uh - Dad... sir?" Karkat paused, wrinkled his nose. "Hrn no. Mist-uh Eg - argh! He, where?"

"Someone called him," John replied blithely, and tugged Karkat closer by the belt loops. "He'll come back soon."

"Ghhk - Zhann!"

The slacks fit pretty well, at least, no weird pockets of cloth anywhere, no strained seams, and the ankle locator was flat enough not to make a weird bump. John started tucking the bottom of his button-up shirt in. Karkat growled quietly, clicking in his throat in that way he did when he was irritated, but John only had to bat his hands away a couple of times before he stopped trying to take over.

Karkat resisted a little when John turned him around to tuck in the shirt on Karkat's back side, but in the end he gave in with a sigh and a long muttered ramble.

(Pff, backside.)

(Karkat's slacks were pretty shiny. Must be brand new.)

He finished tucking in Karkat's shirt, freed his fingers of the waistband, and stepped back. If this were Dave or Jake it would be a pretty choice time for a wedgie, but somehow right now it did not seem appropriate.

Possibly because Karkat might squeak, but after that he would probably try to maul John. He was pretty well maul-equipped. John considered his hands, loosely fisted so the murderclaws weren't visible. They'd considered asking Karkat to trim them short, before coming here.

So far outside of training he'd used them mostly to climb walls in improbable fashions to avoid his butt being chewed on by grumpy dogs, and he might possibly need them as a last resort thing in case of... last resort needs, so he got to keep them.

"-Okay! Sorry, I zoned out. Stay here, I'm getting the rest of your stuff."

He zoomed off, came back with an armful of socks and shoes and jacket. Karkat had both hands on the sink counter and was staring at himself in the mirror. Maybe it was the tie and shirt, but he looked broody.

"Socks! For your feet. Sit on the counter, I'll help."

"No," Karkat replied, and snatched them from his hand, looking tired.

He figured out which side was for the heel in two seconds and pulled them on, grimacing faintly. He had trimmed his toes (using Bec's claw-trimmer, because the humans' nail cutters weren't wide enough to fit over the whole width) so they didn't pop through the end of the socks, which... was something, John guessed. John handed him the shoes and watched him push his feet in, make a face.

"Yeah, they're going to be a bit too tight for a while, sorry. Tell me if it starts to hurt, okay?"

Karkat grunted, dismissive, without looking up to meet John's eyes; John sighed. Yeah, there was just about no chance he would, if they started hurting while he stood before all the people he wanted to meet. He'd just suffer in silence. Bluh.

"Jacket." John handed him the jacket, waited as he put it on, and then stepped in to fix his sleeves. "There should be a half-inch of shirtsleeve showing at the end, but just a half," he explained quietly, mostly so he didn't have to think too much about his hands on Karkat's wrist, and then by his chest as he did up the jacket buttons in turn and smoothed his tie back in.

He took a step back, looked him over from toes to head, laughed a little. "Whoa, weird."

Karkat's lips twisted in a disgruntled grimace, turned away to stare at himself in the mirror. He did not seem impressed, red eyes traveling all over what he could see of himself with his eyebrows furrowing a little deeper with each second.

"Aw, don't fret, you look nice. Come on, the mirror over there is bigger."

Karkat followed with a short but deep sigh. Once he was before the bigger mirror in the other room he just... stopped and stared, touched his chest gingerly, looking more and more troubled. He turned around to look at himself from the back, frowned deeper, stared at John.

"Uhn. Zhann?"

"What's wrong?"

Karkat opened his mouth, and closed it, like he didn't know where to start. "A thing is no... here?"

"Something is missing?" John blinked, turned to check the suitcase. "Oh, hey, you get a pocket handkerchief thinger. Right, don't move."

Dad had taught him everything he knew about suits, and he knew a ton. John had promptly forgotten almost all of it; he had to think a little before he remembered the proper way to fold it. He tucked the white silk handkerchief in Karkat's breast pocket, grinned. "There! Super classy, Karkat."

"Rhsst." Karkat started massaging the base of his horn, eyes closed in exasperation. "No! Not that thing! Shitdumb, you." He tapped the middle of his chest with emphasis. "Here."

John didn't get it until he was done drawing the round, squishy lines of the slime ghost logo.

"... Pfff."

Karkat threw his hands in the air and glared at the ceiling like he was asking the tiles for patience. "What!"

"Why would a suit have that thing on it, Karkat, you're so weird! It would look so silly, wow. Okay, maybe kind of cool and hilarious and something I would totally wear, but I don't think politicians or stuffy old Army dudes would enjoy it much."

Karkat was staring at him. Like, really hard. Like John had done something especially impossible and-or especially stupid.

"Uh. Yeah, what?"

"That thing. You have that thing in - on shirt and shirt and shirt and shirt."

"Every shirt. Yeah! It's funny. But it's just something I saw on TV and liked. And then Dave tried to make it a joke by putting it everywhere, but then I liked it and I kept them. Why?"

Karkat stared another second, and then he started muttering under his breath once again.

"On TV," he muttered darkly. "TV. Okay, no. What that thing mean. Hn?"

"Nothing! It's what I'm trying to tell you. What did you think it was? The Skaialabs logo is totally different, buddy-"

"AUUUGSH!"

John stood there dumbly and blinked a lot as Karkat raked both hands through his hair and yanked, snarling. The gold part of his eyes had gone a little orangey. He yelled something at the ceiling, stomped his way to a wall, and kicked it hard enough to crease his brand-new leather shoe.

"Karkat? What-"

"Shitfuckstupidhell! Aie'ttserne rhess - rauugh!" Another kick. The mirror shook on the wall. Um.

Someone knocked hard at the door. Ummm. "Egbert?! What's going on?!"

"Nothing, it's fine, stay out! Karkat, what the hell?!"

Karkat was now pacing around the room, swearing and hissing, though at least he'd stopped yelling. He was still raking his hands through his hair, which had been enough of a royal mess to start with, and then ruffling it hard, scratching. He was going to hurt himself at this rate.

JNoir: what the fuck is going on in there. can you even tell me that.

JH: uh no, i can't, i've got no idea either. :/
JH: he looks more frustrated than violent, though, hasn't even broken anything. prolly just blowing off stress. i've got it.

"Zhann."

Karkat stopped before him, pretty much backing him against the table, and stared hard at him. Since he was more or less trapped, John sat on the table casually and tried to look earnest and listening. "Yeah?"

"I ask white shirt, no..." He quickly drew the slime ghost's lines, flicked his fingers as if to sweep it away. "I get?"

"Uh - yeah, of course! Man, you should have told me earlier you hated it that much, I'd have asked Jake or Dave to trade."

Karkat closed his eyes, face pinched as if praying for patience.

"And we would definitely have gotten Dad to buy you your own shirts way faster!" John assured him, wincing a little. "I just ... didn't know you minded that much?"

Karkat let out a long, hissing breath, and grabbed the suitcase, searched it quickly, pushed it away along the table. He stalked off and started pulling open drawers next, quickly touring the room and checking every single piece of furniture the room contained.

"Uh. What are you looking for?"

Karkat came back out of a little cupboard with a pencil, stomped back to the table, tried it on a flyer with his eyes narrowed grimly. He pulled out his chest-pocket handkerchief thing next, tested the pencil on the back in a corner. Silk and graphite didn't mix super well, but eventually he flipped the handkerchief over to the side that would show.

"Um. Karkat?"

Karkat hesitated, pencil poised over the cloth. "... No. Hrrn. No that. I want - rgh."

"I don't think we have any pens here, I didn't think to bring any. Dad would have some in his pockets, but..." John looked around, a little lost. "Do you want me to call him to ask?"

"No," Karkat replied, and stomped his way to the door to the antechamber. He yanked it open before John could tell him not to. The men packed outside went tense really fast; John hurried to his side so he could grab him if he tried to get out, but Karkat stayed on the threshold on his own.

"The fuck does he want?" Jack Noir asked with that eternal bitter and displeased look on his face. Karkat turned to him.

"That." He showed him the pencil. "I want not that, I want - f'gh." He pointed at his eye next, stared at the man.

"You want a red pen," Noir said slowly.

"Yes."

"Why?"

Shoulders squared, feet set, Karkat bared his teeth. "Because fuck you, why."

John and several of the men cringed; Noir stared at Karkat for another very long five seconds, and then snorted in (oh lord how) amusement.

"Bannister, you heard the alien, go ask a manager for a fucking red pen. Wouldn't want to be called inhospitable, right."

One of the men in body armor slipped out of the suite and hurried down the corridor. Karkat crossed his arms in a grimly satisfied way and waited.

"Dude, you'll crease your suit-"

"Fuck you Zhann."

"I really need to teach you more insults, bro. Come on, let's go back inside, they'll tell us when they have the pen."

Karkat stared at him with suspiciously narrowed eyes as John took him by the elbow and guided him back in, but he allowed it. John went to pick up the brush and pointed it at Karkat's hair.

"Tame that thing before the guy comes back, you look like a bush in the dark. Or maybe like a wild bear. An angora bear. I can't even see your horns anymore, dude!"

"Fuck your shitface mouth," Karkat groused as he snatched the brush from his hand; but he didn't throw it at anything breakable and even actually used it, which was not something John had hoped for very much. "Stupid, stupid, bad, stupid."

"You or me?"

"You and me!"

John snickered. "Oh, well, in that case."

His hands itched with the need to smooth down that epic cowlick at the back of Karkat's head, even more vigorous than his own, but he had a feeling the alien would not appreciate John's hand on his hair right now. Or anywhere else on him, actually. He sat on the table again, tucked his hands under his thighs, feet swinging, and worked very hard at not saying anything.

Noir's man eventually came back with a handful of pens; Karkat stalked his way back to the door and had snatched them from his hand before he could offer them. Karkat then visibly made himself pause and say a grudging "Thank you," before closing the door neatly in his face.

He went back to the handkerchief and spread his assortment of pens on the table; John leaned in to watch. One was a hot pink highlighter, which was dismissed with an irritated little sniff; the rest were a ball point pen, a crayon, and two felt-tip pens, all of which he all tested on the back seams of the handkerchief before deciding on the thicker felt-tip.

He put the folded handkerchief back in his pocket, marked the line where it emerged with a finger, pulled it out and flattened it on the table again, and then he drew two swift curves on the cloth.

John leaned over his shoulder, frowning a little, wondering if they would be the two back-to-back longbows of his Empress, but instead they were more like horizontal parentheses, the top one with a circle attached on the left end and the lower one with a circle on the right.

It sort of looked like a somewhat elongated 69 on its side, only with smaller circles. Huh.

Karkat settled the handkerchief back in, straightened the folds, checked himself in the mirror. John looked with him.

The little symbol wasn't even as long as his index finger, but bold red on white, it showed well enough, he supposed.

The biggest change was the way Karkat stood.

Feet apart, back and shoulders held straight, stare direct - not defensive anymore, not tense, just ready. A weird shock ran down John's spine. It was like - like something significant had happened, he knew that much, he just couldn't understand what.

"You good now?" he asked, just a little hesitant. Still peering at himself, Karkat nodded firmly.

"Yes."

"Well. Uh. Good."

Karkat spent the remaining fifteen minutes sitting on the table, staring at the door. John spent them on the couch, trying to sprawl without creasing the hell out of his stupid uniform.

Knock at the door. "Egbert! Time." Dad still wasn't back.

JH: dad?

PL: Will join you shortly. Advise you follow Mr. Noir.

JH: ok. :/

Wow. Terse. Must be busy.

PL: You'll be fine.

JH: heh. wasn't worried.

John got up, smoothed down his uniform. Karkat had already slipped off the table and was staring at him with burning eyes. He had his headset on, half-hidden under the mess of his own hair. He'd tamed it some, John could see, but no one who didn't know him would be able to realize it usually was worse. Oh, whatever.

John clicked his headset on. Showtime.

Karkat didn't respond in words, just in feelings - battle-nerves, battle-eagerness, and a burst of shame and guilt that he quickly pushed underneath before John could grab it and look it over more closely. (No time for that, back off, John.)

They came out into the antechamber and Noir handed John handcuffs. Which hand do you want free? he asked as he turned to Karkat. They were both right-handed.

Left's fine, I'm used to it/you're not.

John closed the handcuffs around his left wrist and Karkat's right, let Noir tug on them to check, and then they stepped out. Men fanned out before and after them, blocking some corridors entirely.

Other men beyond (loudheavy thuds, big boots metal shellarmor.) Who?

Other groups/security not Noir's, allies. (They don't know you not used to you might be twitchy.)

"Tch." We'll give them no excuses.

John borrowed Karkat's horn sense to try to feel the men moving overhead and underneath and behind the corners. They must be really heavy for him to feel them from that far, with how small his horns' radius was. (Fuck you so much, you hornless freak.) And there really were a lot of cables running in the walls - huh.

Bzzt. Bzzt. What's that?

Ankle beacon.

Oh. Wow, so regular and sharp, it made for a startling feeling every time. Doesn't it get on your nerves?

(Not any more than your flat-toothed face.) Shh. Showtime.

They walked down a wide, winding staircase and reached a set of fire doors. Noir stopped there.

"Egbert. And you."

"Hm?"

The man stared at them in turn for a couple of seconds.

"... Don't make me regret not shooting you earlier. Too much fucking paperwork if I have to do it in here."

"Yes sir," Karkat said, entirely serious. "No paperwork." Then he flicked him an actual smile.

Okay no, John said as he pushed the fire door open to let Karkat in and get away from Noir and his weird amused/offended/gonna-stab-this expression. This is bad wrong he's an enemy you remember?

Pfft yes I do but not a real one. Won't attack/kill with no warning. (You/we are important to Mr. Strider he might not like it but a little important to him too.)

Last door. Fuck, he could almost feel the weight of the attention of the people behind. But he hates him!

No duh that's exactly why. Let's go.

John curled the fingers of his free hand like he was preparing for takeoff and stepped into the conference room.

Amphitheater style; three half-circles of seats. Only the middle and last one were occupied; the second with fifteen to twenty older men and women, the third with armed security. They had come in on the front dais, on the lowest level.

Some of them looked like they were wearing actual power armor, metal and servos that could help the man inside lift up or punch through a car. John had seen schematics; Karkat had seen the real deal, once, during his stint in the infirmary. (If you tore through the weaker parts on the lower back you could cut the power on half of the body at the low cost of a few really painful but not debilitating electric burns on your arm.) (Huh, I could have done it even easier through that area.) (Stop looking at my state secrets, bud, shoo!)

A half-dozen of Noir's men spread out before the first rank of desks, crouched there so they wouldn't block anyone's view. John and Karkat scanned the room, nodded briefly at General Harley, who was seated toward one of the ends of the half-circle, and who smiled genially back. He nodded them back at the security person lifting a chain from under the little desk thing they were standing by and holding it for Karkat to put his free wrist in.

John expected it to make Karkat nervous - chained to the podium he would be even more powerless than merely chained to John - but Karkat was glad instead; alone and not tall and low-caste and they were still taking him that seriously, it was good. Felt good.

Luckily John's dad came in before the silence got too oppressive in the room. Dad was perfectly put together but his mouth was pinched, displeased.

Someone tried to make him late, Karkat thought, and nudged John to look at the representatives, wondering if there was one who looked disappointed. John didn't notice anything weird, though.

General Harley stood. "The Committee of the International Committee for Ethics Oversight and the Allied Military of the United Nations of Earth calls Mr. Paul Egbert ((of the Skaialabs Board of Directors for moar formal?)) to the podium."

"Thank you, General." Dad moved behind the podium, turned to face the crowd. "I present Karkat and John Egbert, his translator, to the committee."

Harley said, "The Committee acknowledges Karkat and his translator, John Egbert," and sat back down with great formality. (John wasn't sure how you could sit down in a formal way but Grandpa Hass managed it somehow.)

Couldn't Harley have introduced us straight on, Karkat was thinking. Nice and obscurely formal just like home. John tried not to smile.

Okay, we're up.

He felt Karkat rifle quickly through his mind, find nothing more useful (damn it!) than "Stand at attention, be respectful." Well; they'd just have to wing it.

Dad stepped aside; Karkat stepped up, and John followed him.

For a second they both drew a complete blank.

"Mech Warhammer pilot, John Egbert," John said, and turned to introduce Karkat.

Who lifted his chin in an oddly non-challenging way and said, over-enunciating the vowels because humans were deaf, so deaf, "Karkat Vantas."

... You have a last name? Second name? Holy crap your name is not just Karkat? My mind is blown wow.

Yours is Egbert I thought that was Dad? No wait explain later shut up.

"Letting me speak," Karkat said, "thank you."

Only he didn't know what to say, didn't know - fff. No. Breathe. They wanted to listen. It was good. It would be fine. They wouldn't kill him for disrespect anyway. (For what? Dude!) (Oh right you're all pansies.)

"Will ... Mister Vuntes take a question?" an older man in a civilian suit asked, looking sour.

Karkat looked up at the old dude, and then flicked John in the brain somehow. John blinked. Ow. "Oh - yes, he will."

"You appear to speak English. For what purpose do you have a translator?"

"I speak bad," Karkat said, and looked at John.

"Karkat has been learning at a relatively fast rate, but he still has less than two months of exposure to the English language, sir. He doesn't have more than basic knowledge of grammar and he still has a pretty small vocabulary." Most of which is bad words. Pff.

If you make me laugh before them I will arrange to kill you with your own dick to the bafflement of everyone in the universe.

I thought we'd agreed we don't exist below the belt and over the knees, buddy.

PL: Explain the telepathy for the record.

Oh, right. "I will now explain the function of the headbands we use for communication for the record."

He was pretty sure everyone in here had already received a report or twenty about it, but it was probably better that they make sure everyone was clear on it. Thank fuck for Jade's rambles, and thank fuck for the file Roxy had mailed him earlier that day, which he now just had to read out loud.

"The headbands Karkat and I are wearing contain a gel that transmits brain waves, combined with Earth-make radio transmitters. In effect, they are telepathic headsets. What's transmitted isn't complete thoughts, exactly, and it's nothing like speech - it's a mix of moods, images and notions, which the receiving person's brain - so, mine right now - reinterprets into things the person can understand. I then put them into words."

Um. Okay. Was that clear enough or a tangled mess or too informal or what.

"That means there can be a certain amount of data loss, doesn't it?"

John tentatively dubbed the old dude Interrupdude. "Of course, just like with pretty much any translation into a foreign language." He shrugged, and then remembered it wasn't very classy. Bluh. "Sometimes notions that we don't have in our culture are translated into the closest available equivalent, which means we miss nuances, or they will simply refuse to translate, in which case we'll have to break it down until the ideas go through. Most of the time it's fairly straightforward, though."

An old woman in a General's tabs and uniform raised her hand. "Will Mister Ventis answer a question? Two of them, actually."

Karkat and John both arched an eyebrow. "Yes, ma'am."

"Does he have a rank comparable to what we might use on Earth?"

Huh. John had never really wondered about that.

Of course not you're not military at all you're a mech sports superstar. I'm -

"Ah - I would say... Corporal, ma'am." Huh. Nice.

And he didn't want to be dragged into a conversation about how ranks were different in alien land (by which I mean really weird!)

"Your second question, ma'am?"

She gave a slow, thoughtful nod. "How long has he been enlisted?"

Bluh. Why did she even want to know that. They had actual stuff to talk about here. Well, he friggin' hoped. Uh, Karkat?

Establishing how much of my ass I still take for a hole in the ground, of course, Karkat replied, and then they started prodding at the chunk of time Karkat had given him.

"Hm. We've established an approximate equation for time measurement, so it's - a year and a half? Give or take two months either way."

Her bushy, gray eyebrow went up. "Third question, if you'll permit."

Damn it.

"Yes, ma'am," Karkat said, face impassible and mentally kicking John in the knee.

"Do Corporal Ventis' own people use the telepathic gel for the same ends? By which I mean communication with aliens and-or interrogation."

Oh yay, change of topic! Vaguely more relevant, that one. At least relevant to the setup of the actual, eventual discussion. John glanced at Karkat, who gave a faint nod. Yeah okay, tell her.

"No, ma'am, they have naturally telepathic people for that. And for longer distances they use technical means the same way we do. The - uh - neural fluid? - is used to synchronize with the biomech. Basically it amplifies their thoughts so they can act as the mech's brain."

"Are they really alive?" someone John didn't see called out from the other side of the amphitheater. He sounded grossed out.

John said, "No," just as Karkat said "Yes." They looked at each other.

"Which one is it?" the same person called again. Rude. This time Karkat saw him; a really pale-blond dude in a military uniform John didn't recognize at a glance. Probably one of the smaller independent countries. The European Union Brigadier-General next seat over was glaring sideways at him.

"The animal used in the process of creation becomes brain dead, but the mech still, still breathes and has basic nervous activity and it's, well, not rotting. So, technically alive? But it's maintained that way by artificial... biomechanical pacemakers and the like."

"Do you even understand anything you tell us? Christ."

John smiled. Do you mind if I take a minute?

Karkat sighed. No, go ahead he asked for it. (Gotta make yourself respected or they'll pounce anyway, fuck them.)

"Sir, you may not have been informed, but I'm a mech pilot. Ask me to calculate reentry trajectories or refueling timelines on the fly while handling several tons of metal at high velocities, that's easy enough, but biology is outside of my area of expertise. I'm sure you will be able to get reports from someone who'll be able to explain the alien neuroscience in more detail."

JNoir: politest fuck you i've heard in a while.

JH: it's all in the suave, charming grin.
JH: karkat wants me to tell you that when we come out of the room he is going to hit me and he'll make sure it's not lethal enough for paperwork.

"That said, Karkat - ah, Corporal Vantas-" that wasn't quite the right sounds, but then again neither was Karkat, and still closer to the couple of attempts they'd heard already "-would like to take some time now to discuss the topic for which he asked an audience, so if there are no more questions..."

Silence. John tried not to shiver. He was finally going to get to know!

"I understand," Karkat said in his growl-hissy alienese, and John followed, one beat behind, "that your planet has certain general standards for the treatment of prisoners of war."

Silence. Apparently that tack had surprised everyone. John a bit less; he'd been there for the conversation with Rose, after all.

"I also understand that it's not certain that everyone will accept 'sentient being' as an equivalent to 'human.' I would like this point to be sorted out and out of the way first of all."

"Are you complaining about how you've been treated?" a Russian Air Force Colonel asked, scowling heavily, in the middle of sudden whispering. Karkat stared back, face blank.

"No, sir," he said by himself, in a calm, carrying voice. (Behind the calm steel was a storm of things John wasn't allowed to get at, not yet, not yet-) "I'm not. I don't want I give my people to you and later they're dead."

Silence, again, breathless, poised. He had them.

He had John too. Holy shit, John sure as hell hadn't seen that coming.

Karkat nudged him inside his head, brisk and businesslike, closed. (John wished he wasn't, but he knew why. The vicious undertow of guilt and shame made entirely too much sense now.) Talk for me now.

"I have seen that your people have a totally different approach to - to people," John tripped a little, "to soldiers. It's not like that with us. Every year many are born, no one but their-" friends? Lovers? It wasn't family but - argh, he was losing the rest of the sentence. "-close friends care. If they live they can... climb in grade, if not - uh. Acceptable losses. Next year there will be more trainees. We can all die, next year there will be more."

"And it's normal?" someone asked, aghast.

"Yes. The Empire says it's normal. It's - good. It's strong. Only the strong live and pass their genes on. If you want to be strong it's normal. If you're weak and you cry you can go to the front lines first, you can be mocked and pushed away by your - your year mates - peers. Don't - think about it, don't, just do it-"

(It's not normal here, it's not, I want that, fuck you to the last one, it's not fair, I want that.)

John bit his lip, shook his head. "My apologies, this is - a bit of a jumble." Shit, more than that.

A civilian raised her hand. Karkat nodded. "Yes, Ma'am."

"Are you perchance a r-strategy species? That is, a species that reproduces in great numbers, and invests comparatively little adult attention and energy in the hope that at least a few of them will attain adulthood and breed in turn?"

Karkat blinked slowly. John replied for him. "Yes, ma'am. Adults - most adults? - are not involved at all. Apart from the, uh. Conception part, I mean."

She gave him a dry look. "Yes, thank you, Warhammer, I had assumed."

John's ears reddened and he tried not to glare. "That's straying from the topic, though."

Karkat moved his wrist a little, tugged on John's handcuff. ... I need you not to clown around right now. (It's not funny it'll never be funny.)

Right, crap, I'm sorry. I just it's such a pile of shit I can't, my brain just-

I know. Quick sweep it under the rug whee just like it was never here. It's how all your brain shortcuts work. I need you to stop that.

... I will. Sorry.

He firmed his stance, pulled his shoulders back a little bit.

"I know," they said together, and then John continued alone, just a voice, fitting words together from images and wordless understanding, "that you can't make a binding decision on the personhood status of my species as a whole today, with so little warning. But I also know that my commander was given the hotshot rookies and the unpromising - rabble - with the understanding that - each and every one of our deaths was, was valuable data, and if she brought enough data back she would get to captain a new ship."

Shit, shit, shit. All those half-unseen spaceships in Karkat's mind, a mere suggestion of something that would blot out the sky several times over. John breathed out, tried to empty his mind. Kept talking, somehow.

"She is wasting us because we don't matter. We're just one base-ship. We're the test run."

Holy shit, John couldn't help but think, no, no, if you scare them too much they'll start to wonder why they should even bother wasting the resources to-

Shh I know. Keep talking. Karkat slipped around his mind, nudged in. It was easier like that, closer and easier, for both of them.

"What you need is time," they said. "And every minute the ship is coming toward Earth is a minute wasted. A replacement will take a while coming, you're nowhere near far enough along your predicted timeframe for it to become necessary. Your response needs to happen now."

"Necessary?" Dad whispered beside them.

"We're mapping your progress curve," they told him, looking over. "You're learning fast, but you're starting from too far behind."

People were starting to whisper and talk together in the room, outrage and fear. They turned back to look at them. The woman General was staring back, arms crossed.

"To evacuate in time, you need me," they concluded, "and I need my year mates."

PL: John. Are you alright?

JH: we're fine, dad.

PL: I am not addressing "we."

JH: ...
JH: i'm fine. little syncing up between copilotpals. nothing to freak out about.

It was jarring to go out of sync. At the same time, his father's tightly restrained horror - it shocked him, reminded him of the horror he also... And then Karkat was pushing him the rest of the way out, shuddering, fists clenched behind the podium.

Shit that felt really wrong (really too right) what the flying flock of fucks.

If it's any help I don't think there's any way it would have lasted past the time we went back to the suite! John sent back, face trying to contract into a mildly hysterical smile. Holy shit, holy shit. You should see the bed they've got in there even I can't say it's meant to be slept on more than in passing, like, to recuperate.

Oh lord.

Silk sheets and sinfully fluffy pillows and bouncy like a dream it's big enough to fit like five people -

John for the love you bear Rose do not make me send her lapdog/balance/boyfriend back to her with his alien dick lodged up his left nostril, I swear to all that is holy I will find a way to coil your spine at least three whole revolutions before it gets in there.

See? John shot back with a wide inner grin, lip twitching as he forced it down. We'd snap apart the second I think "I want to jump on it."

... You are depraved.

"Corporal Vantas," the General barked out, startling them. John realized he'd been sort of staring in her direction without saying anything. Whoops. (She was using John's pronunciation now, heh, wonder what she'd think if he told her that the first he'd heard it was today.) "Do you think Egbert is compromised?"

Karkat snorted, quirked her a weird smile. "Yes."

John spluttered.

"It's okay," Karkat said. "Me too."

(Oh.)

"Warhammer," she said. There were people watching them, listening, though about half the room was snarling at each other in more or less contained tones.

"Yes, ma'am?"

"Do you feel able to kill his friends when they come for us?"

He looked at Karkat. Karkat met his eyes, expressionless.

"Yes, ma'am. It's war. That makes it fair. No hard feelings." Then he grinned. "Plus I have it on good authority that I'm not pretty enough for the cushy harem position anyway."

Oh my god, fuck you. (that is so not true anyway shit fuck hell PLUG YOUR MIND EARS AND BUTT OUT.)

Karkat tried to raise his hands to yank off the headband, but one of them was chained to the podium and the other one was chained to John, who refused to raise his to match (that turdfondling taintsniffer.) John grinned - Jesus but this day was completely insane, adrenaline everywhere and nowhere for it to go - and said to the room at large, "Thank you for allowing us to address the Committee. If there are no more questions at this time we will cede the floor."

There were not. Or more like there were but no one could hear themselves talk in there, and eventually General Harley got up all official-like and said they could, only in fancy words.

So you think I'm hot enough for the harem? he teased as they waited for a guard to finish unlocking Karkat from the podium. (One took their distractions from that horrible shame where they found them.) Ohoho, Mister Vantas.

Why not I've seen some ugly ones there for the novelty value your teeth would be pretty fucking exotic! Argh. You're in good shape is all, like your oh no cut it off cut it off now please John I will beg -

John turned the headset off. He was pretty sure he could blame the last flash between them on Karkat; he'd never seen his own ass from that angle, that was for sure.

Karkat's ears were a pretty nice brick red.

So was John's face. Welp. Hehehe. Well, John supposed he didn't mind. No harm in looking, right? (No harm in being looked at.) It wasn't like Karkat would ever want to be unfaithful to his boyfriend anyway...

Surrounded by guards, they were herded back up the winding staircase, back to the hotel side of the building, and up and right and left, and it was weird to be alone in his head again, too many thoughts buzzing, (so many enemies looming on the horizon, but today they'd faced other enemies and they had them, they so had them, and Karkat looked at his ass, that was just too hilarious for words,) too many feelings.

They stepped back into the suite and were freed and the first thing they did was reach up to their throats, and they weren't even telepathing at each other anymore, hehe. Karkat yanked his tie off, John pulled his high collar open, they both went about taking off their jackets.

Flop, flop, on the back of the couch, which was, John thought, the natural perch of jackets in a house, sorry. Dad would grump when he came back but he had just left again for God knew what reason so that was a while off.

Karkat rescued the pocket handkerchief from his jacket, stared at the symbol. John watched him. He still didn't get it, that was one mystery Karkat still had left, but he could tell how important it was.

They stared at each other.

"I -" Karkat blinked, raised a hand to his head, took the headset off. "That. My head ow." He looked away from John's face as he massaged the base of his horns with a hand, putting the headset down on the table and his handkerchief in the incomplete circle of it, like a teeny hot pink fence to keep people from touching it.

Right. John took off his hat, and then his headset, too, ruffled his hair where the flattened roots were starting to ache. The headset went on the hat like it was a headset stand, because why not, and why he couldn't look at Karkat suddenly, he didn't know.

"I want... They talk yes?"

"Yeah, for another couple of hours until the session is over, and then we can go home."

"Okay." Karkat breathed in deep, like he needed to brace, asked cautiously, visibly forcing himself to meet John's eyes, "I want - me not you. No TV, no - no talk. Couple of hours no Zhann. Is... that okay?"

"Oh." John didn't know if he was hurt or not. No, probably not, at this point togetherness was starting to look like torture, and John at least had gotten a few chances to tap out and be on his own here and there. Karkat had never even been left alone in a room on the island because their home wasn't escape-proof, but this suite definitely was. "Okay, yeah. Which room do you want?"

"Bathroom," Karkat snapped back instantly. John laughed.

"Wow, I see you've had your eye on that tub for a while. Sure, there's a tiny pocket bathroom off the main bedroom anyway, I probably won't have to pee in the chimney."

Karkat snorted on principle, even though he likely didn't get half the words, and with a little nod and a vague wave of his hand he snatched the pile of his normal clothes and disappeared down the corridor. John stood alone for a little while as he tried to decide what to do.

Maybe a nap.

Maybe he'd go yank off his boots, kick free of his constricting pants, throw himself on his back on that ridiculous mattress and bounce until the bed allowed itself to go back to stillness. Maybe he'd stare up at the silly princess dais.

Maybe he was already doing that, actually, and maybe his hand had landed on his thigh, and maybe several weeks' worth of enforced chastity and quick, guilty, unsatisfying jerk-offs after everyone had gone to sleep or the morning in a goddamn toilet stall were starting to get really annoying.

Okay, yes. He closed his eyes and pushed his hand down his underwear, and didn't know if he was surprised to find himself half-hard already. Maybe not very surprised. Adrenaline. Yeah.

Mnh. They had - they had rocked today, and John wasn't even annoyed anymore that Karkat hadn't talked to him first, hadn't warned him, how did you warn for a bomb that size? You just dropped it and hoped they'd rise to the occasion.

(Stand your ground I know you can.)

The war - the coming war, that was going to be awful, so much worse than it already was, but Karkat didn't get humans very well yet if he thought they were going to run. Hah. Saving his friends, though, yes. Making more allies, maybe. Yes, that'd be awesome. Couldn't wait. Maybe Karkat would be happy.

Felt good. He bit his lip, froze his lungs to keep from gasping, silence ingrained in him since puberty. Goddamn dorm room. Couldn't even - oh, he could now. Just like - just like in Warhammer's cockpit, just turn off the mike for a minute, seated all nice and firm, enclosed, alone, safe.

He could gasp, maybe. Quietly. No one would hear.

He wasn't going to last long.

He planted his feet on the mattress, knees up, bit his arm where it wouldn't show through the sleeve even if someone came in before the nanomachines were done with the bruise, tightened his hold on himself. He pulled on his dick, tight and fast, no time to waste today, shoved himself toward his orgasm at a punishing pace.

He came with a short, muffled shout in the crook of his arm, cleaned himself up on automatic, brain mercifully blank.

After, he took a nap.


"Karkat? Dad brought sandwiches, and then we'll have to go."

The door was locked, and he wasn't answering. Had he fallen asleep in the bath? John knocked louder.

"Karkat, wake up, it's almost time to go. Karkat?"

Something went thud in the room. The door unlocked with a click. "Yes, yes, what!"

Karkat peered through the crack. He was holding his button-up shirt closed and stepping on his too-long jeans; his hair was damp, sticking to his forehead and cheeks and flattened down, so that his little horns were visible to the start of the brick red zone.

"We go now?"

"Food, and then we go." John chuckled. "Did you fall asleep?"

"Uh - yes. Shut up." Karkat grumped, and started squinting down at his buttons and frowning in consternation. John remembered what happened the last time he'd tried to conquer them alone; he reached out and did up the two middle ones, at least, so his shirt would hold somewhat closed.

"There! You're decent." ...Karkat was staring at him. Uh. "What?"

"Zhann you go. I uh. Water on the tub. Make it fshoo. Go away."

"Yeah, go away is a good phrase for it, though that was a nice sound effect-"

"No, you go away," Karkat retorted, and closed the door in his face.

Rude! Huffing, John went back to the living room, where his father was finishing packing up John's clothes. Were three Johnless hours not enough or what? He picked up a club sandwich and bit it in two mercilessly.

He'd decimated another three of them when Karkat finally came out, in tennis shoes and jeans and still the button-up shirt. Okay, wow, when he'd declared his enmity of John's ghost slime he had really meant it. He even went to pick up his felt-pen monogrammed handkerchief before even a sandwich and put it to safety in his jeans pocket. (Then he didn't know what to do with his headset and draped it around his neck like a weird collar. Heh. Wasn't a bad idea, so John did the same with his own, since the box they had originally traveled in was nowhere to be found.)

Dad picked up Karkat's suit from his arms and started refolding it as well. "Eat something, Karkat."

"Thanks, Dad," Karkat replied absently as he took one from the plate. John started giggling.

In the end Karkat ate more sandwiches than John did, even with his starting handicap, and drained almost a whole bottle of water to boot. (He bounced it off John's skull once it was empty, but almost nicely.) They dragged themselves back to the underground parking lot and into the troop carrier with a couple of Noir's calmer men; Karkat found a seat at the opposite end from them and made himself comfortable.

He looked all... thoughtful. Maybe a little subdued still, almost melancholy. Maybe just recharging.

(Maybe brooding. Maybe sad. Maybe guilty.)

(He'd betrayed his people there, even with the best intentions in the world. Even if in a way they had betrayed him first.)

JH: hey, grandpa.

HS: Yes my boy?

JH: why did we get to keep karkat really? why did they let us so easily?

HS: Oh that. They wanted to see if we could induce stockholm syndrome.

... Mother of fuck.

HS: I don't think what we have here fits the clinical bill for it but if today was any proof it's close enough for government work.
HS: You shouldn't message people until you're back on the island. Security concerns you know.
HS: Well then i'll contact you tomorrow.

- Hass Harley [HS] is Away -

"Zhann, sleep?"

- Crap. John crouched low in the middle of the alley and stretched his thighs one after the other, busied his body, and hoped Karkat was too inward-turned still to notice his smile was a little wobbly. "Nah, I already had a nap, I'm not sleepy."

Karkat didn't say anything, just blinked slowly and said "Mnh 'kay."

He didn't have anything resembling Stockholm Syndrome. John had never been cruel, never let him guess what would make him angry to make Karkat a nervous wreck trying to figure out how best to placate him, never even threatened to punish him - when Karkat mouthed off it cracked him up! Karkat wasn't scared of him at all, John could feel that every time they put the headsets on. It was trust, not some gross mental mindfuck trick -

On his tenth angry crunch he noticed Karkat was already asleep.

John spent another hour running through all the exercises he could in an enclosed space, then went to make conversation with his guards, one of which indulged him and the other of which was fun to make hardcore blankface. The dude was like a wall and Mr. Strider's lovechild, only way less snarky.

They were still twenty minutes out by his best calculations when Jake's Flintlock sped up, rattling the troop carrier in a not-very-reassuring way. The truck was made to take a beating, of course, but it wasn't exactly made for the kind of stress that being carried gave it.

Jake wasn't going slow.

John had been told not to contact his friends until they were home - possible hacking, maybe, that far from the server - but surely they were close enough.

JH: hey brotwin, did you just remember you left the milk on the fire? it was your turn to feed mutie? what?

JK: Cant talk now john.

... What?

JK: Eta five minutes. Prepare for evac.

JH: is the island under attack?

JK: No. Four minutes thirty seconds.

What was going on, what the fuck, John didn't even have a weapon on him - no, Jake had said the island was safe and he wouldn't send him without a heads up into danger. And Jake didn't do subtle, not even under duress, so his behavior wasn't a warning to disregard what he was saying the way Jane's or Dirk's or Rose's behavior might have been.

He went to Karkat to prod him awake but the vibrations had already done that and he was sitting up straighter, staring up at John in confusion.

"Something is happening. I don't know what. We have to-" Argh. Frustrated, he pulled the telepathic headset on; Karkat sighed but put his on as well, set it against his horns. Something bad is going on, John said, and let Karkat rifle though his memory and how unsettling it was for Jake to speak so tersely.

Huh yes okay. We get out run for cover? What where?

Dunno we just follow the instructions I guess. (Might be politics/Earth assholes might be your people, from above they won't notice a difference bomb you too.)

The truck was put down with very little finesse; John grabbed onto a seat and rode the sudden bounce. And then the back door was opening and Flintlock was hurrying away, boom boom boom, heavy steps, and then it was -

Shit, those were the heavy duty thrusters. They weren't supposed to use them in low atmo.

John followed one of Noir's men out - they were behind the research wing, but that was where the bunker was, so - and his glasses went from passive light optimization to on.

This wasn't a chatroom's discreet flickering. His whole left lens was taken up with Priority update: pilot to report to hangar 6 immediately. Priority update...

acknowledged, he fired back, and started running.

In his head there was nothing - not Karkat, not the conference, not the all-out war waiting months in the future. Just the memory of Warhammer's last damage report, and a question - who had they lost that he now had to replace?