It was home; it was safe. It took John a shamefully long five seconds to understand what the protesting whirr of electronics by the door meant, and by then the panel had been forced aside and men in tactical assault gear poured into the crack.
John rolled up on a knee from his seat on the carpet, book in hand, mouth open for an outraged yell. Harry Potter saved his life, by taking the dart that had been meant for his chest right in the binding. "What the heck?!"
Noir shrugged at him, even as he directed men to surround the couch and its silly little fort with economical flicks of his fingers. "Don't bitch, that was just a sleeping drug."
John spluttered. "Just a -- oh, fuck you!"
"Be easier on everyone if you just admitted you're out of your fucking depth and let the alien go back into proper custody, but you won't do that without a goddamn yelling match. Tedious, let's bypass that. Sanders."
John flung the heavy volume in his hand. It hit the man taking aim at him in the head, hard enough to fling him off his feet. John didn't even watch to make sure he was down, because at this velocity, yes, he was, and he better be grateful his protective helmet meant he would only be a little concussed.
"I think maybe you've forgotten where you are," John said in the sudden silence, in what he felt was a remarkably calm and pleasant tone. "I don't think I'm out of my depth. I think maybe you are."
They stared at each other. Noir's eyes had gone to slits, no doubt calculating angles, ways to get at the boy behind him. The couch backed up against a wall, so there was no way to approach from behind (not without a mech anyway, and while John had learned to think of walls as rather flimsy barriers while in the pilot's seat he doubted Noir would dare to go quite that far.)
There were still his sides, exposed; he wished one of his friends were here, he wished Jake or Jane would wake up and come investigate. He wished Jade would come back down from orbit with Remington, or Roxy in Molotov -- hell, even Roxy without Molotov. Noir was the main danger but John hated leaving his flanks open, because he knew as soon as he locked himself into a battle with the asshole they'd dart in to snatch his alien boy from the couch, no matter how short he managed to make it.
"What's that shitty tent thing anyway, don't tell me either of you thought it'd stop infrared."
"It's a pillow fort," John replied with open, insulting pity. "Your childhood must have sucked a whole championship's worth of balls."
John had been piloting since he turned twelve. He'd been in real fights at fourteen, and -- it seemed -- risked his life weekly ever since, he'd been bred for speed and strength, he'd been taught by the Strider. The only reason he wasn't knifed across the eyes when Noir lunged was that the man had deliberately missed, so he could startle John into taking a step back, off-balance, and bring up the taser in his other hand.
John wasn't done screaming his throat raw when a chair swung in over his head and clocked Noir in the side of the head.
John fell to his knees, chest heaving desperately, muscles twitching all over as he tried and failed to fight the reflexive urge to curl in on himself. He heard a low, rusty-edged hiss, and a gray leg pressed itself against his flank as he was toppling over, gave him something to brace on.
His alien boy was awake.
John could feel the alien's knee tremble even through his own shakes, could see how tense he was, how his hands couldn't choose between fisted or hook-clawed. He stood his ground, though, snapped something irritable-sounding that John figured was for him, reached down to grab the taser probes and tear them free, caught a hold of John's upper arm -- John presumed to pull him up.
One of the men snarled "Don't touch him!" and lifted his gun.
John tackled the alien in the back of the knees, rolled with him on the carpet and behind the coffee table, flimsy protection as it was. It wasn't a tranq gun he held, not even a bullet gun, it was a fucking blaster!
"What the heck, what is wrong with you!" he yelled, and tried to crawl over the alien, shield him with his body -- there was no way on earth they'd shoot through John to get at him, was there? Absolutely no way, oh god, and here he was, still aching all over and really needing to throw up and goddamn it.
The alien thrashed under him to get free, barking out insults about John's mother and masturbatory habits, no doubt. John gritted his teeth when claws pierced his skin. "Stay down!" he yelled back in his face, his back itching with aftershocks and with the horrible doubt that maybe he'd assessed the risks wrongly and was going to get them both killed. Now they were stuck behind the coffee table and it was a matter of seconds before someone went to pick up the dart gun; no one would be stupid enough to wrestle hand-to-hand with either of them, shit, they needed to keep on the move but the men were so twitchy--
Considering how many men with guns and itchy trigger fingers there were in that room, it was still a huge surprise when the first shot rang out.
Strangely, it didn't hurt at all. Maybe they'd winged the alien instead. He flinched, wanted to push himself up and check but that'd only make him more of a target.
"Everyone face down on the floor. Now, if you good gentlemen don't mind. I've twice as many bullets as there are men in this room, and I specialize in head shots."
John relaxed all at once with a shuddery breath, right on top of the alien. Which was a bad idea, because then his head seemed to remember he was dizzy as fuck.
"Now, John? What the sweet dickens is going on here?!"
... the other boy was really warm. Not feverish-warm, not that weird sickly aura to it, but at least a couple degrees hotter than John. Huh.
John shook his head to try to clear his mind. "... 'm fine. Got tasered. I kind of want to pass out a lot."
"You're interfering," Noir ground out from somewhere on the floor. Possibly he hadn't gotten off it yet since the alien boy brained him with a chair (and hadn't that been awesome. Granted John could have admired it more without his own sudden issue with screaming pain and locked-up muscles.)
"Stand your ground."
The alien breathed fast, one hand clenched on John's upper arm, hard enough he might even manage to give him bruises. John absently patted the alien's cheek and covered his mouth to silence his irritated growl, and traded a long speaking glance with his half-clone, crouched up there at the corner of the staircase and ready to lay down some cover fire. He flicked a speaking glance toward one of the men, saw Jake give an imperceptible nod back. Now if he tackled this one guy and Jake shot that one then maybe they--
Rose walked in through the open door, not a hair out of place, unthreatening soft curves and slender limbs encased in her purple flight suit. She didn't have a weapon at hand and still looked deadly.
And she was cutting off the invaders' retreat. The way they stiffened, they could tell, too.
"This has gone on long enough."
John started grinning. He exchanged a look with the alien, trying to convey that; the guy glared back furiously, and confused as hell. His hair was all mussed up and in his face, it made John want to giggle.
And then he bit John's hand. John yanked it off his face with a yelp. "Ow -- well, sorry! You didn't have to do that, jeeze."
No blood; it'd been a warning bite, no more. John looked up to reassure Rose that he wasn't getting chewed to the bone here; he caught the tail end of a glance as she glided past, his own situation already assessed and dismissed.
"Perhaps the numerous briefings on the topic weren't clear enough. I will summarize: this building is off-limits. If that will facilitate your understanding, it was afforded legal rights akin to those of an embassy. You are on foreign soil, Mr. Noir, and there is no extradition treaty."
John pushed himself up into a sitting position. When the alien tried to squirm free from between him and the couch, John pushed him back down with a hand on his chest, in case seeing his gold-eyed face reminded the bunch of adults with guns and a mission that Rose could not, in fact, literally dissect them with a glance. He got hissed at in return, but the alien stayed down, a ball of nerves and clenched-tight muscles.
"This little incursion is not legal and I would wager if it was sanctioned by your superiors at all, it was in a purely unofficial and entirely too deniable way. Perhaps we would have been forced to swallow the incident in silence if you'd succeeded, but you have not. This is over."
Noir struggled back up to his feet, blood caking his temple, and snarled at her. John quickly jumped to his own feet -- and almost fell back down as the room seemed to start circling around him. Shit, why couldn't nanites help with that stuff, if Noir attacked Rose...!
"I'm not going to listen to a fucking brat not even old enough to drink--"
"Then perhaps you'll listen to me."
John started laughing. All the way to the staircase he could hear Jake let out a big gusty sigh, see a flash of a cinema-white dimpling grin. Rose merely allowed a faint smirk to curl the end of her painted lips, and tilted her head as if to say, you heard the man.
"Hey, Dad," John said.
"John, son. I'll be with you in a minute." His father's eyes didn't leave Noir's for one second. And now John could see the man hesitate. No wonder; it was one thing getting into a pissing contest with teenagers, no matter how much of a ~last hope for the human race~ they supposedly were, but this was one fourth of the Skaialabs Board of Directors right under his nose.
"Oh, please, Mr. Egbert, take your time," Rose demurred, eyes sparkling with sheer evil. The big bad guys in riot gear were starting to do the embarrassed little boy squirm-dance. John could understand. This was the voice of a man who had Raised Kids to Teenagerhood, and they had been Rambunctious and he had Prevailed.
It seemed that contrary to popular belief Jack Noir had actually been a teenager at some nebulous point in his life, because he was kind of squinting a bit like he wanted to flinch instead.
"I leave things here to you, Rose. Please don't forget to document any wounds incurred."
...Whoa, steel voice. John shivered a little, mostly with schadenfreude, as his father gave a curt nod toward the door and the intruders silently filed out. The man he'd knocked out with a book wobbled along, helped by a buddy; Noir glared powerlessly for a few seconds longer before he followed.
John's dad scanned John from head to toe and then back up; John gave him a reassuring smile, a little thumbs up. His father nodded and followed Noir out.
"Oh thank god." John took a step back around the alien and let himself plop into the couch, groaning. "What the hell did they think they were doing?!"
He'd landed ass-first in the remains of the fort. Aw, dude, those assholes ruined everything. He dug a book out from under his ass and let his head roll back on the back of the couch with a little frustrated whine.
"Status, everyone?" Rose asked.
"Perfectly unhurt!" Jake piped up. John groaned again and gave her a wincing smile.
"Tasered," Jake helpfully contributed.
Rose slowly made her way to him, one step and then two. John startled a bit when she gave the alien a cautious wide berth, going around the other side of the coffee table.
The guy still stood right in the same place, staring at them all in turn in blindingly obvious, frustrated confusion. (So alive though, now.) He side-eyed Rose like he was wondering if he should be tackling the shit out of her; she immediately stopped walking, not looking afraid, so much, just willing to listen. John winced.
"Uh, hey, alienpal? She's fine." He patted the cushions at his side, gave him a hopeful look. "Just sit down, okay?"
All chance of that was lost when Jake braced a gun on his shoulder and tromped down the stairs to join the three of them in the TV corner. Suddenly, cornered kitty. The alien let out a teakettle whistle and bared his row of fangs, hands raised and feet set in an unfamiliar fighting stance. If he'd had fur there would not be a single square centimeter left unspiked.
John sighed, and leaned forward to tug down the back of his hospital scrubs, which were starting to ride up pretty close to the danger zone. The alien jumped and went gack!. John cracked up.
"It's fine, it's fine, jeeze, you're such a doubtful guy." Tug, tug. "Come on, come and sit down, it's all good."
He was speared with an utterly incredulous, are you brain damaged oh hell you totally are I should have known look, but then the alien's eyes slid to his chest, where a row of little punctures had left dots of blood. A strange expression passed on his face; after a few seconds he perched on the edge of the couch, slow and cautious, hands clenching on the cushions.
"So," Rose ventured, "are you going to introduce us?"
"Yeah, sure! This is... uh. Err." Oh, right. He turned to the alien, winced his way through a smile. "I'm John," he said, enunciating clearly as possible, and tapped his own chest. "John." He pointed to his friends next, for clarity. "Rose. Jake." Then he pointed his chin at the alien.
For a moment he thought the alien hadn't understood. He was giving John the why are you so stupid dear lord whyyy look again and not really trying to answer.
"Do aliens even have names?" Rose mused. "Perhaps this is an entirely human concept--"
Or something like that. Something all full of tongue clicks and growls. John figured he shouldn't have been surprised. He tried to repeat it and failed lamentably, if he could believe the wince on the guy's face.
A short annoyed hiss. "Khhh-rr. Kh. T'."
The aspirated H sounded almost like a smothered vowel of sorts, and apparently it went before the first growl, not after, like he'd heard on normal speaking speed. "Kuh... Kar? Kut. No, that sounds stupid. Kat? You make me think of a cat so damn much, with the hissing and the clawing up people, it's crazy. Let's go with Karkat, okay? I don't think my throat will ever untwist trying to say it otherwise."
(He wasn't going to spell it with Cs in his head because that made the name even sillier. Pfft. Lolcat on a ride-on toy car. Ks were badass anyway.)
The alien looked suitably disdainful and sour about it. But after a half-dozen tries, John's and the other humans' names still came out as Zhann, Rrhoz and Zehk, so John felt vindicated.
"Okay, okay, Zhann, good enough."
Apparently facepalms were also an alien thing.
He didn't hiss again when Rose waved Jake back and continued her approach, though he kept a wary eye on her, shoulders slumped and elbows on his knees, head hanging a bit low. Like a dog that expects to be kicked, John thought, but then Rose's hand was tugging at his t-shirt; he pulled it off with a sigh. "The alie -- Karkat clawed me up; I kinda tackled him, so... It's already healed, see?" He rubbed at the drying blood. The nanites had kicked in, and in the end they were very shallow puncture wounds; the only traces left were the few red smears on his chest and the holes in his t-shirt. Which he'd been wearing to play in the hangar with the mechanics anyway, so it wasn't in the greatest state to start with.
"The taser issue?"
John tried to wave her off. "I'm fine, I'm fine! Will you stop being so nosy."
Rose speared him with a withering glare. "You're being a little cavalier here, for a person who needed to be rescued from a mess of his own making not two minutes ago."
"Your own high-handed removal of the alien from their custody opened you to this attempt -- we can't very well argue it's illegal when you just did the same. We'd have no leg to stand on."
"What was I supposed to do, petition people?" he protested, waving toward the alien to illustrate his point as he did his best to stare Rose down. "He'd still be there next year!"
The ali -- argh, Karkat was (almost) his name, Karkat -- batted John's hand away from his face with an irritated mutter. Rose's eyes tracked his every gesture and expression with unnerving attention; John watched them stare at each other, wondering if he should get in the middle, but after a few seconds Karkat gave and broke eye contact first. John was a bit surprised, considering his memories of the core of stubbornness he'd felt back during their freaky mindmeld thing. Maybe he just didn't want to piss off a potential ally.
"... So far he does seem much easier to handle than what was mentioned. A bit cranky, but that's entirely understandable."
"Mentioned by who?"
"You don't think I haven't accessed all the research done ever since he was brought into custody, do you."
... Duh, John. Rose was so grabby about information, he should have expected it.
She sighed. "I suppose there would be reasons for someone to fight doctors, or their quite determined security. He'd have no reason to hope the tests wouldn't hurt, and once security got involved..."
John grimaced. "Lemme guess, pile up on the alien time."
"John," Rose said softly, "he tore a man's arm out of its socket and disemboweled another. Who was wearing body armor."
John's stomach muscles clenched involuntarily; he had to fight not to curl up, lift his knees in defense of his unprotected guts.
He had known those claws could do some damage from the start. Hell, if he had claws, he'd be more than strong enough to do the same, only he'd probably dig his way from front to vertebras in one sweep, easy, scoop himself a big handful of intestines and organs and things. He didn't need claws to be dangerous, none of his friends did, all were -- as that one politician framed it, the one who'd wanted them saddled with dedicated handlers and psychological conditioning -- highly lethal.
"... Did they die?"
"No, but it was a close thing. And he wasn't trying to spare them."
He watched the alien, who still sat awkwardly perched on the edge of the couch, and who watched him and his sobered expression right back. It was clear from the apprehension he tried and didn't entirely manage to hide that he understood the conversation had taken a turn for the grim, and that he was the one being discussed, and that there was nothing he could do but wait and see what they decided for him.
(And then his dad had taken his pipe out of his mouth, blown out a last smoke ring, and then in the next second he was across the table and the end of his pipe was digging in the man's trachea, pinning him to the back of his seat. 'A simple demonstration, sir! I am a perfectly baseline human being with no psychological inclination to murder, and yet I could still choose to become quite lethal if I ever felt like it.' And then he'd leaned in and fixed the man's tie and collar and smiled, and said, 'They are not weapons, they are children. They will be healthy, they will be loved, and God willing once they grow up they will be willing to fight for us, but even if they don't they will still be our children.' And behind him Mr. Strider didn't bother to move one inch, except for the way his mouth curled up in the only documented proof that his face wasn't frozen expressionless. It was John's favorite bit of footage ever.)
Karkat wasn't a test tube clone baby to raise up into a good man. He was a pretty-much-adult mech pilot with his own set personality and history, and obviously he could fight hand-to-hand as well, and he had damn good reasons to want to go down fighting. (One of which being those people he loved that he couldn't stand to let down, the other being that it'd probably be better and safer for him and his if he managed to force the humans to kill him.)
He wasn't fighting now. Just waiting, head angled a little to the side, chin tucked in, uneasy. Not confrontational at all (unless that was meant to threaten them with his horns, but they were so little and round, John couldn't imagine them being used as any kind of weapon.)
"I still want to do this," he told Rose, without looking away from Karkat.
Rose gave a slow, unsurprised nod, and then a wry quirk of a smile. "Very well. If you insist." She set her hand on her hip, straightened up, scanned the room with her lips pursed in thought. "Jake, please? The door is shorted out. Could you keep watch for a little while longer? I'll relieve you soon."
Man, John had almost forgotten Jake was here; he was so quiet, which wasn't much like him. He turned to watch Jake blink, shake himself, and flick Rose a smile that wasn't quite as bright and wide as it ought to have been. John winced a little.
"Aw, buddy, sorry -- it's the middle of your night, isn't it."
"Never fear, my good man," Jake said, body wavering ever so slightly. "I'll just ... sit and watch. It's almost as good as sleeping."
Jake gave the alien a long measuring look over the rim of his glasses before he turned and ambled away; he dragged an ottoman to the door and sat down with his back to the wall where he could glance outside from relative cover and keep watch on the inside, one of his guns resting casually across his thighs. John watched Karkat note all of that and his mouth take a sour twist. He eventually gave an irritated snort and turned away, stiffening when he saw both Rose and John watching him.
John shrugged at him, and shifted in his seat to pull a cushion from under his butt and give it a sad look. "Man, they ruined that fort. It was such a neat fort, Rose, you'd have liked it -- Karkat liked it, which says everything."
Rose sighed at him. "Yes, obviously you take superior care of your brand-new pet. Now, I may have missed it in this mess, but... It's been five hours since he was taken off his saline drip. Have you given him anything to drink or eat since?"
She sighed again -- did that a lot around him -- turned to the alien, tilted her head. "Karkat?" she said, giving the name a kind of trilling R John couldn't imitate. It still wasn't quite the way the alien pronounced his own name, but he recognized it easily. He went stiff all over again; even more so when Rose took a step and a half-turn back and curled her hand, body language all clear and telegraphed; going this way, waiting for you. "Come with me."
Karkat flicked John a look that was a little panicked at the edge. John blinked, startled. Well, okay, Rose was scary, but... She hadn't been threatening toward him at all! He tried a reassuring smile and shooed him off. "Yeah, yeah. Go with her. I'll--"
"Pick up the mess?"
"... Pick up the mess." Sigh. "Come on, Rose, I'm not even the one who messed it up!"
"Do you want to go find Mr. Noir and ask him to please pick up after himself?" she threw over her shoulder as she walked away. "Because he's really the only other culprit I can figure out."
John dragged himself up, put his shirt back on, and started gathering books and cushions. Rose guided Karkat away to the big dinner table at the other end of the room. John couldn't help but steal glances, and the poor guy looked like someone had decided to give his spine a hand supporting all that dense muscle and put a steel rod up his butt. It was kinda funny that he'd be scared of Rose, who he hadn't even seen fight, but not of John really. Then again John had already proved he had no interest in hurting him just for fun... Hm. Rose, emanating an innate, transspecies aura of sadism?
Yep, sounded legit to him.
He found the taser when he was straightening up a chair, and, scowling, kicked it into the nearest wall hard enough the casing splintered.
Ten minutes later he was pretty much done straightening things out. The broken stuff was piled up in a corner. (He owed Jane a new book. This one was all bloody and torn. Um.) He dragged two of the chairs back to the table, shoved them at roughly the right spots, and flopped sideway into one of them. Rose and Karkat broke their latest staring contest and turned to look at him.
"Oh man, a pear. Ngh. Want."
Rose mock-glared, as she busied herself peeling and coring it. "No stealing food from the alien's plate, either. For all you know it might be a mortal offense where he's from. It was hard enough convincing him to eat at all."
There was meat on his plate, mostly that, well-cooked beef, cut in squares. Karkat watched them warily as he picked another bit with his fingertips. John grinned; Karkat's eyelids twitched nervously. Argh.
John huffed. "Gonna be hard to hide those," he grumped, running his tongue over his prominent front teeth. It was pretty much the only big thing that set him and Jake apart, aside from eye color; the rest were all measured in tenth-of-an-inch increments on the planes of their faces. (Too bad it wasn't summer yet, because Jake tanned so fast, coming September he was pretty much brown and stayed that way halfway across to winter. John mostly got lobsterized.)
Karkat sneaked in another bite while they weren't looking at him.
"Hehe, maybe he's shy."
Rose chuckled faintly. "For future reference, he appears to be omnivorous, but there's a lot of preservatives in most of what we have in cans or frozen dinners that he might react badly to. For now protein is the safest bet. He seems to need a higher intake than we would, and fresh vegetables would invite other problems."
John nodded very seriously and tapped the side of his glasses. "Computer, make note. Strict protein diet, all other food groups barred. Does candy count as a food group for the purposes of alien nutrition?"
Rose rolled her eyes at him. "If I catch you feeding him a gusher, I'll tell mom on you. It's already incomprehensible how a human being can eat those confections and not be violently sick as it is." She put the two halves of the pear on the edge of Karkat's plate, whose eyes went all apprehensive again.
John smothered a snicker in his hand. "Oh no, please, not mom, I'll do anything." He nudged Karkat's shoulder with the back of his hand, tilted his head. "Hmm? What's got you so worried, buddy, she's not trying to poison you."
Grumpy scowl, a muttered string of words. He poked at the pear, picked it up with two claws, and gave it a cautious nibble, glowering at John when he caught him watching. John snickered and made a show of looking away from him.
"So! Rose! Tell me neat stuff. I need my knowledge expanded."
She rolled her eyes a bit, but indulged him. "It's extremely puzzling that his biological design is so similar to ours." A little wave of her hand toward Karkat's pretty much human face, his shoulders, his hands. "Did you know he shows no sign of even being a mammal? There's vestigial muscle under there that indicate at some point in his childhood he used to have two more limbs. Where are they now? Why did he even lose them?" A helpless shrug. "It's as if the two species were evolved from entirely different starting points but given the same floor maps for the end result. Talk about convergent evolution..."
"Almost makes you wonder if --"
"Don't say it, John!"
He waggled his eyebrows, chin set in his hands. "Intelligent~ design~" She picked up a cloth napkin and thwapped him with it. "Ow! Haha."
The towel was still raised for a second hit. Whoops.
"Now you done it, bro."
John startled; he didn't have the time to turn around to face Dave before two slender arms wrapped themselves around his neck from behind and pulled him against the back of his chair.
"Naughty, naughty Lil'bert! Quick, Rosie, punish him, I'll hold him down for you!"
Karkat's chair crashed to the ground as he jumped to his feet. John winced and flailed to free himself from Roxy's arms around his neck, images of the alien grabbing something heavy for his second human-clobbering of the day dancing in his mind.
He was perfectly still, they both were, the alien and the blond young man both, Dave's monofilament sword resting light as a feather on his throat. Karkat was pinned, the back of his thighs pressed to the edge of the table, leaning back ever so slightly off balance to keep from slicing his throat open on the blade.
His upper lip was curled up at the corner, though, baring fangs. Uh oh.
John got up slow and cautious, tapped Dave's shoulder to get his attention. "It's okay, bro, Roxy just startled him. Not a half hour ago we had Noir falling on us like a pile of brick, he's twitchy, okay?"
It was hard to see where Dave was looking at with that opaque, wraparound visor on his face, but John had a feeling he hadn't glanced away from his target for even one second. "Train your pet better, Egbert, or get him a muzzle. He gets twitchy at my cuz again, I'm putting him down. You don't know where he's been and we don't want no space rabies on this island."
Roxy huffed and wrapped her arm around Dave's neck, and pressed on his cheek with her other fist until his face looked pretty ridiculously duck-lipped. "Aw, my protector. Swoon, swoon!"
Now was apparently noogie time! Dave's mouth curled down tight at the corners like he was trying not to pout. John bit back a laugh.
"Now stop scaring the alien. He looked wayyy cuter when he wasn't scowling."
Roxy peeked over Dave's shoulder and grinned at Karkat. Dave sighed and took a step back, herding her along with his body, and lifted the blade away. "When he eats your liver and gives you space rabies I will laugh. In my heart, not for real, but you know I'll mean it."
John snickered, at them and at Karkat's incredulous, oh my god what, just what expression.
He rested a hand on the alien's shoulder, waited to see if it'd be accepted -- yeah, just a quick glance and a light twitch -- and then turned his attention to his best friend. He was very cautious to touch the center of the flat of the blade to nudge it farther up, or he probably wouldn't notice he'd been cut until his fingers landed on the floor and things started gushing. The electric current keeping the monofilament rigid tingled through his nail bed for a second, until Dave clicked on the hilt and it turned back into a three-inches wide, floppy ribbon and rewound itself in. The hilt stayed in his hand, slowly twirled between three fingers like a pen by a bored student.
"Right! Let's try this again. One step back, guys, breathing space is a great thing to have! Yeah, good, thanks. Karkat, this is Dave, and Roxy. Roxy, Dave -- Karkat."
Roxy's name turned into Rok-chi in his mouth, but that was the closest he'd managed yet, and on the first try. He refused to even attempt Dave's, just glowered at him. His irises were still a bit too dilated for John's tastes, most of the yellow hidden from view.
"Rok-chi! That's so cute! I like it." And then of course Roxy had to eel in between John and Dave before he could stop her and ruffle the alien's hair into a right mess.
Karkat went gneep and jerked back, eyes wide, started to dodge, and then froze under her hand. After a couple of seconds where Roxy kept scritching, he closed his eyes, took a deep, bracing breath, cautiously pushed away her hand -- touching her wrist only with the back of his own hand, claws deliberately pointed away -- and then he started swearing up a storm. At least if it wasn't swearing John was ready to eat his hat. Dad had gotten him a pretty spiffy one last Christmas.
"And if you fondle my hair again I swear to god I will piss on everything you own!" John dubbed as the alien finally wound down. "And then I'll set it on fire. And also fuck the fuck out of you -- that one's for me," he added as an aside to his blond friends as Karkat spat out a last machinegun growl-clack his way.
"My, that young man sure has a foul mouth," Rose commented dryly from her seat on the other side of the table, from which she hadn't bothered to move. John gave her an innocent look.
"Yeah, honestly he really does." Okay. Situation more or less defused. He sobered up. "But Roxy..."
She gave a shrug, casual, and stepped off to wander toward the fridge in the kitchen corner. "Now we're pretty sure he won't maul any of us just for getting in his space," she called over her shoulder. "... Well. At least not when there's four of us and one of him in the room."
John scowled at her back, irritated by her dismissive attitude. "Roxy, he's had people feeling him up all over the place for days now!"
"I know." She turned back, a can of soda in her hand; he was startled by how serious her expression was. "And that's sad. But he's still got to live here with us, and I for one really don't feel like tiptoeing all the time because he can't figure out what's friendly touching and what's not, and appropriate use of violence and deadly force, not if I don't really, really have to." A shrug, and she opened the can and took a sip, and then grinned over the rim. "But it looks like he gets friendly touching! Even if he doesn't really like it. Tadah, everyone's happy."
"There were better ways to figure that out," John muttered, only he couldn't really think of one but initiating personal space invasion and watching his reaction.
"Perhaps," Rose said. "Or maybe he merely thinks he will get hurt if he doesn't submit."
"Close 'nough for government work", Dave retorted, and went to lean against the counter that blocked out the kitchen space, arms crossed, and still staring. Karkat hissed under his breath, keeping watch on him from the corner of his eye.
"Hey, alienpal. Sit back down. Sit down," he repeated, enunciating more carefully, and showed him the way by pulling back his own chair and taking a seat once again. "Sit down." A pat to the abandoned seat next to him.
Karkat's jaw clenched visibly, muscles rolling under the skin, but he pulled the chair back to the table and sat, body language full of there, I've done what you wanted, are you happy yet, cause maybe I could also dance for you. Want fries with that? Gnaaargh.
"Thanks, buddy." He pointed at the abandoned plate. "Still hungry?"
Karkat grimaced faintly.
"Okay, never mind."
Karkat's hands were clenched white-knuckled on the edges of his seat, claws scratching the paint. His eyes kept jerking from John to Rose to Roxy and Dave to Jake over there by the door, and Jake and Dave were pretty much at the very edges of his peripheral vision which he obviously didn't like at all. John threw Rose a pointed look; he was out of ideas, personally.
Rose took a sip of water from her glass and looked back blandly. Silence spread another layer of awkward on the room.
"... uh. Guys! Buddies. Best friends. It's kinda early for you to be off-shift, isn't it?"
"Pretty much done with this wave." Dave shrugged. "Dirk managed to slip through their line and ruin their transport, the usual number of creepymechs has been downed... Unless they had a few more hitchhiking a ride on the transport's bumper, it's over for at least a couple days."
Because yeah, usually, there would be a team of six big monster-shaped biomechs -- the ones they all thought were the usual aliens before, like Karkat's Cancer -- and a crap-ton of more ship-shaped ones, more obviously manufactured; the aliens' destroyers, same ways the Skaialabs mechs were usually assisted by a net of normal humans in normal battlecruisers and tiny gunboats, and a bazillion sensor arrays to see the aliens coming from a while back. The humongous alien transports ran back and forth to bring more fresh troops in once the humans were done ruining them, relieve the biomechs. Even if the aliens sent another wave sooner than usual they'd still have at least one, maybe two hours' warning to get back in orbit and get ready to meet the assault.
John wondered if Karkat'd had friends over there, in the transport ship, how he was going to react knowing they'd pushed back another attempt so decisively.
The aliens seemed to have such overwhelming numbers to throw at the humans, all of humanity's strategists were tearing out their hair trying to figure out why the heck they didn't try to merely overwhelm Earth under superior numbers. It'd be doable. What the heck was going on up there? Were their commanders asleep? Incurably incompetent? He couldn't figure it out -- Karkat seemed sharp as a whip, surely the species as a whole couldn't be functionally retarded as compared to humans.
"We'll need intel from him," Rose said quietly, "as soon as we can communicate."
"Stop reading my mind," John snapped back, less joking, more irritated than he should have been. "And I told Doc Lalonde I wouldn't do interrogations."
"If we can't produce results from this situation it'll be deemed too dangerous to allow. It doesn't matter what I told Mr. Noir, our progenitors don't actually have absolute rights. They're probably going to have to trade in a lot of favors to allow this to continue. Give ground on some things they'd been refusing to. We're not asking you to torture the alien, John, but there needs to be results."
John made a frustrated growl and raked both hands through his hair, elbows pressed to the table.
"--Huh? Oh." Karkat was staring at him, heavy brows furrowed in worry. John managed a smile somehow; he wasn't sure if it was all that reassuring.
"'S a waste of resources, too," Roxy said, dragging his attention away from the alien. "'Cause seriously this building is made to keep people out, not in. We can't swear he wouldn't escape. So that means he'll need a guard to stick to him like a tick to Bec's furry butt. And he's stronger than a baseline dude, so he needs the guard to be one of us. Or maybe even like two of us. Problem is, during crunch times we can only afford to be dirtside when we gotta snooze like whoa. I mean, if you don't even get a tasty chunk of data to feed all our thinky people out of it, it's just not an effective allocation of resources."
Dave of course was no support on this, and Jake, at the other end of the big room, was flopped against the wall at his back and looked half asleep and not really listening. John slumped on his crossed arms, capitulating. "Fine. Pop a crown on me. I am the king of nosy question, it is me. Just as soon as we teach him English! Or you guys pry some more of that mindmeld goop out of the Research Division's tight-fisted grasp."
"Don't worry about that," Rose said, and she and Roxy exchanged a really worrying look. Eep.
"Alright, officially not worrying about that. All worrying has been delegated to you girls. I'm sure you'll distribute it well." He pushed himself up on his elbows; Karkat had been staring at him weird when he laid with his cheek to the table.
Rose tapped at the edge of her glasses. John wondered who she was chatting with, or if she was just recording things or accessing a file. Jade's eyes always unfocused visibly, and John himself tended to let his lips and throat move the tiniest bit when he thought at the computer glasses, even though the tech didn't even need him to subvocalize anything, just to think typing thoughts hard enough -- but with Rose it was pretty much impossible to tell she was surfing unless you caught her turning them on. Even then she could have turned them on by thinking hard enough, too; the tapping was mostly a courtesy.
"... Alright. House rules. Jane sent me a few suggestions. They mesh with what I was going to suggest anyway."
"She's awake? But then why doesn't she--"
"--Um, sorry." He threw the alien a quick, guilty glance. He could imagine why Jane was keeping to her dorm.
"First, he must not be left alone, at any point."
John sighed. "Okay, I can agree with that one, at least for now. We'll need to reevaluate at some point, but yeah, okay."
"Yes, yes. Second, no hangar access."
"Well, duh." Though he couldn't help but grimace. No hangar for Karkat meant no hangar and no Warhammer repairs for him, unless he could trade guard duties with Dirk; Dave and the alien hadn't had the most auspicious start, Jake might get distracted or want to wrestle or something, Rose'd be too busy, Roxy would probably grope his butt, and Jade and her tiny friendliness he might not take seriously until she proved herself to him but John would rather not get his alien boy back full of holes if he could avoid it.
"Third -- if he shows any sign of physical aggression he goes back to the labs. I'm not talking of growls and bared teeth and startle responses, as long as they exist to get away; if he makes a deliberate move to injure anyone, even if he doesn't succeed, that's it, he goes straight back to UNE custody."
"Yeah, have to agree with this one," Roxy said, looking a little sad. Dave gave a single, firm nod.
John turned to the door. "... Jake?"
"--Uh, what? Oh right." Rubbing his eye, Jake leaned forward on his seat, elbows on his knees, smothered a yawn. "Sorry chap, it sounds right sensible to me. I mean, what if he goes after tech support? Or your dad? Can't afford the risk."
The thing was, he could tell Rose didn't enjoy telling him, but if she hadn't, Dave would have anyway. (He might have taken it better from Dave, but mostly because, well. It was easier to ignore Dave than Rose when you could tell yourself he didn't know what he was talking about, hadn't planned for all possible contingency plans.)
Or Jane would have had to say it, and it would have been worse.
".. Okay. But you better hurry up with the communication thinger, because I'm not sure how to explain that to him in mime."
He resisted the urge to flop again. His alien was... huh, still digging his claws in the side of his seat. The metal was dented. There was no way he would relax against the back anytime soon, either. Blargh. Short of force-cuddling the nervousness out of him, John wasn't sure what to do about it, and even then cuddling might just backfire and prompt another oh my stars and garters where's my blasted rape whistle episode.
Uh. Even if he cuddled guys, which he didn't. Well, unless it was funny. Or they were really, really sad. Dirk in a hospital waiting room thinking he'd gotten Mr. Strider killed levels of sad.
-- Or they were his dad, okay, he had no problem being manly enough to enjoy dadhugs, and actually Karkat seemed to him more of a defensive type than one who aggressed first, no matter how bitchy he was. His whole piloting style was based on blocking and counterattacking, even. Likely it would never come up.
The attacking and being put back in UNE custody, that was. Not the cuddling.
Okay what the heck brain.
He just... It disturbed him, remembering that raw grief, that soul-deep shame. Note to self, mindmelds weren't very conducive to emotional detachment.
But he'd never been the objective type anyway. That was Rose's shtick.
"... Gloomy! Anyone want a beer?"
"Oh, Roxy, honestly!" Rose protested. John watched them, half-slumped on the table, as Rose joined her sister in the kitchen corner to snark and Roxy gleefully took all that sarcasm as wrong-footed as possible as she drank her beer anyway.
Dave seemed to like his spot right at the edge of Karkat's vision, so the alien would have to stop tracking either him or Jake if he wanted a real good look at the other one. Then again Jake looked pretty much asleep and not about to move anytime soon. "Hey, buddy?" John called. "Bud -- Jake Harley!" Voice booming, rusty-deep. "Inspection!"
Jake jerked up before his eyes were even open. John snickered. "I'm awake, Gramps! I'm awake. Cripes. I was just resting my oh go to hell John."
Jake found a TV remote on the floor and threw it at him. John tilted his head to let it sail past and snatched it as it flew by, and lobbed it at the couch. It proceeded to land at an angle and bounce off back to the floor, where it clattered in a way that implied part of it had come off. Oops.
"Are you guys destroying everything in sight again?"
"Um, no, Rose, what would make you think such a thing," they chorused in perfect sync, the exact same line from times immemorial.
Rose huffed at them. "Can't you lob, oh, I don't know, pillows?"
"Maybe doilies?" Roxy suggested mock-innocently. "Less damage."
"Huh, wouldn't say so. Bet if you throw them right you could have a mean replacement shuriken," Dave contributed, face entirely serious. "Tie some sparkly shit at the edges for weight and sharp edges and it'll double as a sick crystal ball cosy."
"Stained in the blood of your victims," John said around a leer.
"Don't make me get my knitting needles, boys, I still need to replenish my stock of sanguine pigment."
Jake and John snickered behind their hands. Jake immediately went on to smother a yawn.
"... You can go to bed, Jake. We're more than enough to keep watch."
"Are you certain?" Jake asked. Rose nodded. John shrugged. "Well then. I'll wander bedwards. I'm fit to fall asleep right on my feet."
He dragged himself up and trundled off back up the stairs with a last little wave. Rose drifted by, picking up a book to get herself seated on one of the couches. Still behind Karkat and the door, though less directly so, less visibly guarding. She didn't have a weapon out, and Karkat seemed slightly more ready to trust she wouldn't pounce from behind, because he immediately shifted most of his attention back onto Dave, who kept leaning against the counter with his arms crossed and his impenetrable visor.
John wasn't too sure what to do with the alien. He was quiet and stayed put, and didn't seem hungry or sick or aggressive, just wary, and John had nothing he could think of that he ought to try and communicate right now.
"... Hey Rox. How'd the battle go up there? I'm missing all the action."
Her eyes started gleaming in satisfaction. John settled in for an epic tale (or a hilarious one, but either one'd be good.) Dave joined in maybe three sentences in, and then John had nothing to do but laugh and nod and exclaim at the appropriate parts, and snicker when they corrected each other, mostly on their respective level of Badass Mofoitude.
Maybe fifteen minutes later his dad was back, pipe puffing at a jaunty, self-satisfied angle, trailed by a couple of repairmen that he set to work on the door before walking in. "I'm back, children! How did things go here?"
Rose put her book away. John bounced off his chair and went to him. "It's fine! Everything went fine. And you?"
His father's eyes crinkled. "Mr. Noir's excess of zeal shall not be a problem again for a while. He has been set on bodyguard duties for a returning visitor who will keep him very busy."
"Woo! You rule."
Rose distracted his dad from eyeing the little bloody holes in John's shirt via unleashing a truckload of politicking questions. John's eyes glazed over three sentences in. He stayed by, though, arms crossed loosely and shoulder almost touching his dad's. It was just... it was nice. He was a young adult, pretty much -- okay, not quite but getting there -- but sometimes it was... just nice, to stand beside a man who he knew would strangle people with his own hat before he let them get to John, even though John was stronger and more resilient and better trained and it really oughta be the other way around. It'd be the other way around if they got attacked for real, John promised himself, but in the meantime...
"You seem a bit tired, son. How long have you been up?"
"Oh, uh. I don't even remember, the day feels like it lasted weeks. I was already working at seven, I remember that..." He checked his glasses for this morning's login. "I got up at -- oh, wow, okay, yeah." It was still early but apparently he'd woken up with Jake, who was on a second-half-of-the-night-to-mid-afternoon cycle, and dozed for a couple hours before getting up for real.
"Hm. Your young guest also seems rather ready to call it a night. How did you all decide to handle this?"
"Uh -- well, he can't be alone, so..." John frowned a bit. "He can't sleep out here anyway, the door's not even fixed and it's not hard to open from the inside even if it was. I dunno if the guys'll be okay sleeping in the same room with him though."
"I like it better," Dave contributed from the other end of the room. Karkat's head twitched around from their group back to him, eyebrows furrowed in concentration and... yeah, Dad was right, lined with exhaustion. "Better keep him close. After the last prank wars we all wake up on a hair trigger anyway."
"Uh yeah, but where...? Think Dirk would mind if--"
Dave snorted. "Yeah, dude, he damn well would and you know it, he's coming back from patrol in five hours and if his bed's taken he'll kick you clean out of yours. Anyways, your alien, your problem."
John sighed. There wasn't a free bed anywhere on the island due to all their annoying guests. Well, maybe they had some free ones in the barracks they'd built in a hurry off to the east side to accommodate the guards, but John wasn't going to the heart of Noir's fiefdom to ask if he could pretty please borrow a mattress.
"I guess I could appropriate a clinic bed, buuut..."
"Yes, this does not seem to be the best idea, considering," Rose replied with a faint dismayed grimace.
His father frowned thoughtfully. "Tomorrow I'll go buy a camp bed for you. For tonight, I'm afraid you'll have to make do. Do you know how to find the extra blankets? That should make the floor tolerable for one night."
"Um, yeah, sure," John replied, because of course his dad was right, you didn't make a guest sleep on the floor, honestly. But at the same time, urk.
He went back to the kitchen table, where Karkat still sat, stiff and kind of... worn, smaller-looking. And still in his sadly rumpled hospital gown, which didn't help.
"Hey, Karkat?" His voice went a bit soft when he spoke through no conscious decision on his part; it was a bit embarrassing how Dave's eyebrow went up over it, but he tried to ignore it.
"Come on. Time to sleep. Come with me." He copied the gesture Rose had used along with the words, the half-step back, waiting. After a couple of seconds, Karkat pushed himself up on his feet and followed. He walked like a cat in unknown territory, one foot neatly placed after another, not making any sound, and making damn sure to keep John where he could take cover behind him if he had to without being too close just yet. Eh, so long as he followed.
"G'night, Dad." John made a detour for a hug. "G'night, Rose. Dave. Come on, guestbuddy, let's go upstairs."
Up and up and up.
First things first... He opened the bathroom door and led him in. It was big inside, one wall lined with sinks and mirrors and littered with various toothbrushes and hair brushes and makeup and shaving cream and hair gel, the other with stalls. The next door led to lockers, and two separate communal shower rooms, but there was no need to go check that out yet. John showed Karkat how to operate the sink and fill a glass -- ideally he wouldn't come here alone anyway, but he might be thirsty now... nope, wasn't, he didn't want the glass. John showed him the content of the stalls next, arched an eyebrow.
"Do I need to explain that one to -- oh hey that was a relieved look on your face, wasn't it. Do you want to--"
Whoops Karkat was inside and had closed the door neatly under his nose. John blinked for a minute, nonplussed -- maybe he was trying to escape? Hide from him?
... or maybe he was having a good long tinkle. Pffhehehe. John used the time for a lightning-quick pee break of his own and then went to wash his hands. And wash his hands. And, uh, wash his hands some more, um, was he taking a dump or something even though he hadn't eaten any solids in days apart from like not even a hour ago...
... It was a little weird listening in on a guy on the toilet. Uh. Even kind of creepy. But eventually he concluded that, no, Karkat was pretty much done. He was just... Maybe he just wanted to be alone for a little while, feel safe, even if the walls were flimsy and didn't even go all the way up or down. John washed his teeth and his face and even shaved the five o'clock shadow on his jaw, but eventually he was out of little things to do in there and his eyes were getting gritty. He went to knock quietly at the door.
"Karkat? You okay? You gotta come out now, pal."
A few seconds went by, and then the toilet flushed and the door was reluctantly opened.
Karkat's eyes were redder, John was pretty sure of it. Almost bruised-looking. He didn't quite meet John's eyes.
There was no fight left in him. John couldn't help reaching out and clasping his shoulder, gentle as possible.
Karkat bowed his head, staring away at the floor, embarrassment flickering there and gone behind the utter emotional exhaustion. John's arms were around him the next second.
Okay, looked like he did give boys hugs. Well.
He didn't keep it up, released him after barely two seconds; Karkat had gone stiff as a board pretty much immediately, and it was awkward, John hadn't even planned on it and he didn't want to try to see if he'd eventually melt if the hug kept up long enough, or if he'd just get worse.
"Haha. Um. Yeah. Come on. Come with me."
Whee. If he led the way he didn't have to look at Karkat's face! (Or let him see his own. Win/win.) A quick stop by a cupboard for extra blankets, and then he was pushing the boys' dormitory room door open and tiptoeing inside. All four of them could usually sleep through a lot of noise, due to having such different schedules, but Jake'd had a shitty night as it was.
It was fairly dark inside after he closed the door but John knew where everything was. He pointed at the bunks on the left, up and down, "Dave, Dirk," and then to the right, "Jake, John." Jake's arm hung from the edge of his bunk as he lay sprawled on his stomach. John went on tiptoes to peek -- yup, way asleep.
Karkat just stood in the middle of the room and stared.
"Come on," John whispered, and made hand gestures again. And nope, Karkat still wasn't moving. Maybe his night vision was bad. John reached for his wrist and tugged him forward as he knelt on the edge of his bunk, ducking underneath Jake's.
And uh, wow, 'stiff' didn't even cover it. Was he shivering? "Karkat? Hey, it's okay. Come down here." He got back up out of the bunk, carefully laid a hand on the alien's shoulder, turned him and pushed down to get him to sit on the mattress. "Yeah, there, good. Uh, move back a bit." He made shooing motions with his hand.
With twitchy, jerky kicks Karkat pushed himself backward on the mattress until his back was pressed against the bottom wall. He didn't lay down, though, just hugged his knees to his chest, a dim lumpy shape in the dark.
He looked like he had on the couch, all tense and lost and afraid. ... Maybe he'd like hiding again. John considered the blankets he'd dumped on the bed, and started tucking them in the bottom of Jake's bunk to make a tent.
It was dark as a smuppet's hand hole under there when John sat at the edge of his bed, the last free opening, to tuck the inside in properly. Reclining half-in half-out against the headboard with a foot on the floor, he could barely guess where Karkat was from the dip in the mattress caused by his weight, the almost-subconscious awareness of the radiating heat of his body or maybe merely his presence.
He sat in silence, waiting for his eyes to adjust a little bit more, waiting for... he wasn't sure, some kind of movement. There wasn't.
He was so tired, didn't want to get up and go back for more blankets, now that two of his were serving as a wall (wasn't allowed anyway, that'd leave a sleeping Jake alone with him and no matter how pitiful some alien prisoner was John was not risking his half-clone-cousin.) It felt warm and cozy in there, and his mattress was pretty wide, and if he inched his other leg very slowly inside and reclined a bit more... to make himself comfortable...
He did feel a little guilty, to force Karkat to share. His dad would be all Oh, son if he knew. But, um. That way he'd know if he moved during the night? Yeah. let's, uh, go with that tactical... assessthing... mnh.
The mattress moved a little as he was falling asleep, but Karkat wasn't trying to leave, so John decided he wasn't going to care and went right on nodding off.
The only thing he remembered from his dreams was an infinite matrioshka of round-eyed little owls, staring at him through their tree-holes.
[Chapter 2] - [Chapter 4]