Battlefield Terra


Chapter 4

John woke up the next morning via a kick to the face. Or at least that was what he deduced while sitting on the floor with a blanket draped over half his face, his hand pressed to the explosion of pain in his cheekbone, watching the alien flail.

It was hard to be all that angry when Karkat didn't even seem awake.

"I take it the honeymoon's over?" came, rough-voiced, from the lower bunk at his back.

"Oh, shut it, Dirkface." John pushed himself up on his knees, pressed his hands on the edge of his mattress, and felt around for his glasses, so he could fix the level of ambient light without having to turn on a light and attract the Wrath of Dave. The alarm clock and electronic doodads all over the place gave the dormitory a permanent gloom, but it wasn't enough for details.

The alien was curled in a ball at the bottom end of the mattress. Yeah, John'd been right, his eyes were definitely closed. He kept twitching, though, eyebrows scrunching and jaw tensing and releasing, little bursts of aborted movement running all through his body, tightening his stranglehold on the pillow he'd wound himself around.

Definitely not a good dream.

"Karkat?" John tried to keep it at a whisper, worked hard as he could to reproduce the right sounds, the rolling R, the clacking tongue. "K'rkat, shh."

Okay, whispers weren't working. He stretched out over the mattress, cautious, and poked him in the knee.

If he hadn't been damn fast he would have gotten his hand kicked into pieces. He felt a rush of air as Karkat's foot scythed past his nose. "Whoa!"

"Arhit'zanikh-- uhn. Nn. ...Zhann? Sst'kh?"

Ouch. Now that had been a nice alien yell there at the start. From Dave's top bunk rose a sleepy but nevertheless pissed-off growl.

"Uh oh." John threw a look over his shoulder. Um. Yeah. Nothing was moving up there yet, but Dirk's cynical, amused look was clear as day. John jumped up on his feet and hurried to the wardrobe to get two changes of clothes. He palmed the door open, turned to look at his bed. "Karkat come with me hurry now now now!"

Karkat wrestled himself past the blankets and pillows in a great, baffled, half-asleep hurry and dashed to the door. John pulled him outside, flattened himself on the corridor wall the second he was past the doorway, and slapped the door control closed. The door whooshed closed only a fraction of second before something heavy thunked on it and thumped to the floor.

"Phew." He started laughing. "Okay, let's not stay here, what if Dave chases us."

"... Dev?" Karkat was squinting under the dimmed corridor lights, brow furrowed more with each passing second. "Dev n'ralekh akat--"

John was pretty sure he could translate, no matter that he couldn't parse even half the noises Karkat was making. The gist of it went 'Dave is such a massive dickhead seriously what the fuck I really don't like that guy.'

He shrugged. "He has other qualities! Being woken up early doesn't really let them shine. It's very sad and you should pity him for it."

"I can still hear you."

John snickered again and caught Karkat's wrist to tow him away.

"Zhann -- nrrh!"

This one sounded more like a frustrated noise than a word. Then again a lot of his words were frustrated noise. John pointed at the door. "Bathroom! Come with me."

Glower! Oh hey, maybe he just wanted his wrist back. John released him. He was about to need that hand to open the door anyway; his other hand was busy holding the clean clothes.

The lights were lit. "Morning!" he called as he walked in. "Anyone in here?"

Jake called out an indecipherable greeting from the boys' shower room. John could hear the water from here. He dumped his armload on a sink counter and pointed toward the toilets, eyebrows arched in question. Karkat gave a little grunt and went.

John had to take this guard thing seriously, or Rose would frown at him. Hrrm. "Jake? I gotta piss, mind keeping an eye out for escape attempts or I don't even know what?"

His half-twin emerged soapy and dripping from the door, lower body mostly hidden behind the edge. "Sure thing, but if he decamps I am not chasing him in my birthday suit."

"Yeah, yeah. Thanks."

John disappeared to another stall. When he came out Karkat was, to his great surprise, not still locked up, but leaning over a sink, giving his own reflection the stinkeye and stealing the half of Jake's naked self he could see past the doorjamb wary little glances. Jake gave John a salute as he reemerged and disappeared hurriedly, chanting "Cold cold cold~"

John went to wash his hands and drink some, and then turned to face the alien.

Karkat's hair was a royal mess, even worse than it had been after the goop, worse than after Roxy had a go at it. His horns weren't even visible, only a few flecks of gold showing through all those dark tangles. The shadows under his eyes were charcoal, his skin was a bit sticky-linty where he'd had electrodes glued on, and the hospital gown was good for the trashbin.

Um. Especially since sleeping in it had twisted it around a bit. Loosened the waist some. And now there was a slit of bared skin from mid-thigh up to the hollow of his hipbone, where the belly dipped in and kinda led the way to uh oh god this was steering way too close to alien crotch.

Not that he could see anything! But it was a matter of inches, really. A distressingly small number of inches.


"--Aha. Ha. Uh. Yeah. Shower time." Somehow showering all together in wholesome brotherhood seemed less weird than seeing him in that particular state of rumpled undress.

When he looked up Karkat looked weird, like he wanted to look away but wasn't letting himself, the tip of his ears grown darker, vaguely ruddier. Nervous.

"... Seriously you're not my type. I swear it's just morbid fascination. Come on, pal."

John started undressing in the locker room, dumping his old stained shirt on the floor to be thrown into the rag bin later on; his pants and underwear went in the laundry basket, as did his socks. He put his glasses in a locker with the changes of clothes, got clean towels, turned around. Karkat was staring at him from the doorway, claws digging in the wall like he was trying to anchor himself, kind of like 'you'll have to bring the wall along if you want me to take a step farther in'.

For a brief instant John was really tempted to throw up his hands and call Jake over so he could help drag Karkat under the shower and yank that stupid hospital thing off him. For fuck's sake.

No doubt there'd be blood on the tiles by the end if he did.

With a sigh, he tied a towel around his waist, making sure his crotch stayed hidden. He offered the second towel in silence, staring at the alien until he took a couple of hesitant steps in and took it from his hand, and then he nodded toward the scrubs and made a throw-away motion toward his own dirty shirt in the corner.

The tension was starting to get thick enough to choke on.

Jake started singing. John blinked -- Karkat blinked -- and broke into a rueful smile. "I won't even watch." He made a show of turning around, fiddling with things in the locker. Should have thought to grab shoes; going around in the corridors with damp, bare feet wasn't the cleanest thing ever. Oh well.

The scrubs fluttered to the floor. John counted to ten and turned around. Karkat was fiddling with the towel, both hands apparently necessary to hold the spot where it tucked in on itself like it might otherwise spontaneously fall off. John didn't have the heart to tell him he'd be taking it off again in about ten steps.

"Alright. Come on."

Shampoo and liquid soap and washcloths and other things hung in a basket by the door. John picked up a bottle at random and pulled off his towel, dropping it carelessly on the bench against the wall opposite the showers. Jake was wrist-deep in foam and busy scrubbing away at his hair, and still singing. John chose the shower two down from him; he turned it on, stepped under the spray, and squirted a generous palmful of Platinum Shine Deep Clean For Men (Dave could only kill him once) in his hand. Rub, rub, rub.

Karkat was still at the door. John turned, side to the wall, so he could eye him over his own shoulder.

(Oh hey, no nipples. Then again Rose had said he showed no sign of being a mammal at all. There was a bellybutton, though, if a little higher than John expected it.)

Okay, he knew a lot of humans who weren't comfortable with being naked around strangers. And for all he knew they were being ridiculously offensive to alien sensibilities right now. My eyes were defiled so, I can never get married! kind of thing. But it was still annoying!


Tiny flinch.



"Karkat, Karkat, Karrrrkat. Karkittykat. Karcrabby. Karcutie. Kittykittykitty."

Apparently getting him annoyed enough that he forgot he was scared worked pretty well. Karkat snatched a bottle and washcloth from the bin and stomped across the room like a miniature, irritated stampede. John grinned at him and pointed his chin at the showerhead next to his in the corner. He kept himself facing the wall, so Karkat wouldn't feel stared at.

Karkat hesitated for a second, and then yanked his towel off, lobbed it at the bench, and stepped up to his spot. He started prodding at the shower controls, scowling in fierce concentration. John decided to let him have at it; they weren't that complicated, and he was a smart guy.


Also this was Dirk's preferred shower, and he always finished on a freezing note. Pffhehehe.

"Egad," Jake said from his other side. When John glanced his way he was grabbing onto the wall with one hand and at his heart with the other, a bit dramatically. "Er. Startled me just a bit, there."

John couldn't help but smirk wide. Two vict--um, prankees in one go! He tried to smother it as he turned his attention back to Karkat, made his voice soothing as possible, which wasn't easy when chuckles kept pushing to be let out. "There, you twist this knob in that direction. Try it again."

He got a growl for his trouble. Karkat tested the water with his hand first, letting out a little grunt that John interpreted as good enough.

His, uh, bathing suit area seemed kind of weird. Hard to say exactly how from the corner of his eye, though. And John didn't want to be caught staring, that'd be kind of embarrassing. Chuckling, mostly out of feeling kinda stupid, he turned back to the wall and started scrubbing at his hair in earnest. He used the foam dripping down in big fat gobs to wash the rest of himself once he was done, adding a remorseless second squirt of Dave's shampoo when that proved not to be quite enough.

Karkat's skin looked really gray, contrasted with white foam, pure slate with not even a vaguely reddish cast to it. At least on his shoulders; the rest, well, he'd turned three-quarters away, all tense, and John couldn't see much of his face, just that mass of hair, soaked into relative flatness until the jagged ends almost reached his shoulders. Though now John could see most of the orange part of his horns, and even a hint of where the gradation into brick red started. It really was a weirdly intense, flashy color, compared to the rest of him.

"Have you no shame!" Jake exclaimed. John flinched and turned to look at him. Jake was trying not to laugh. "Ogling pretty alien boys in the shower."

"Ogling alien horns!" John protested. "Come on, my head would be angled different if I were looking at his butt."

"Who was talking about his butt?" Jake demanded to know, eyes sparkling. "Here I thought your curiosity piqued at his more... shall we say, non-human parts."

John spluttered, and wiped some foam off his face where it had almost slipped in his eye. "Like you'd know that if you weren't curious too! -- I mean, it's just kinda weird and that's normal and shut up."

Jake was now cackling openly, a dimpling grin showing way too many perfect white teeth. "I didn't say I wasn't curious about that bit! But for the rest, it's a pretty normal-looking posterior. Perhaps we oughta ask Dirk his expert opinion. Obviously it seems an important question for you -- whoa!"

John growled and whipped the towel at his annoying half-clone again. Jake dodged in a controlled slide on the wet floor and went for his own towel; John tried to block the way, but was jostled aside with a daring shoulder to the chest as Jake ducked under his arm. John grabbed at his elbow and towel-whipped him across the back with his other hand, though it was too close-range to build sufficient momentum.

After that they were wrestling, each grabbing the other's upper arms and trying to trip each other. John wasn't shy about using his superior strength to slowly but inexorably push him back to where he'd be trapped against the bench. He grinned fierce and a little mean when Jake noticed.

"Gnn -- curse you, Egbert, I'll get you back!"

"Hah! Just you try it, you--"

Dirk walked into them. Quite deliberately. One of his elbows found Jake's chest and finished dumping him ass-first on the hard bench; his other arm hooked John's neck and suddenly John was bent over at the waist and tripping to follow, yelping when he ended up forcefully guided back to his own shower, in a way that made him bump into the controls and be suddenly drenched in holy fuck that's cold.

"What the hell was that for!" he protested, sputtering.

"Forgot to rinse that shampoo off," Dirk informed him laconically, and threw a glance back over his shoulder. "Harley, do you need help with rinsing?"

Jake meekly pushed himself back up and went back to his own shower. "No sir."

"Don't know about Dave but Bro will be up soon, so if you're done you might want to clear out."

Jake heaved a sigh and went back to spray himself a last time and pick up his shower things, and left still dripping heavily. Dirk turned back to John, who tried on an innocent grin but didn't keep it long in the wake of an unimpressed orange stare.


"You keep forgetting the alien is not one of your buddies, John."

John's smile fell, and his arms too. He wiped foam away without looking, staring at his teammate. His stomach was clenched with sudden shame, and it made him angry. He tried to keep a lid on it but his voice came out just as low and intense as Dirk's had been. "If he wanted to attack me when he doesn't even know where the hell he is or where to go from here, he would have done it already. If I'm not going to trust that I can turn my back on him two seconds in a room he can't leave without me seeing him then I should just get him shackles already."

Dirk gave a slow blink, and a little nod toward past John's shoulder. "You scared him."

John flinched around to look at Karkat. Karkat blinked to find himself stared at, furrowing his eyebrows in confusion. He didn't look that scared anymore; actually maybe a little relaxed, the hot water turned high enough to steam up the walls, though John's stare was making him stiffen up again. John grumbled under his breath and turned back to glare at Dirk. "He's not scared."

"He doesn't have the first fucking idea what's going on in this madhouse and here you were, fighting, with super strength, and blocking the only way out. Maybe he wasn't scared but he was still pretty fucking tense. You didn't notice."

John spluttered, torn between anger and rising guilt. Karkat didn't look traumatized at all; his left eyebrow had quirked up in a "no, seriously, what the heck?" way but apart from that he was still busy rubbing the sticky, fuzzy patches of glue off his torso, hips turned slightly away.

And hey, that wasn't foam, those randomly placed whitish patches and lines dotting his body were part of his skin. There was a pretty big, puckered one under the side of his ribs.

"He does have a pretty choice ass," Dirk commented casually, and started washing.

"How long were you listening?!"

"Dude, I was brushing my teeth, not spying. If you two clowns didn't hear me it's not my fault."

"And no ogling the alien's ass!" John yelled right over him, incensed. "Bad Dirk! No perving!"

Dirk gave a slow, slow blink and shook his head, and went back to his shower. "Right. I'm ... just going to let this one... rest here. For posterity."

John gave him the stink-eye. "What are you on about now?"

"It's too ironic for you, it'd go right over your head."

"No, seriously!"

"Tell you when you're older."

John huffed out an annoyed breath and finished rinsing. Karkat's shower had gone silent; when he turned around he found his corner empty. Karkat himself was sitting gingerly on the bench by the wall, rubbing his legs dry with the towel, and gave him a wary look like he wasn't entirely sure that was alright.

It really, really bothered John when he reacted like that. Sure he was a prisoner of war and his culture was likely different so he didn't know what to expect and uh okay John wasn't exactly offering the standard human prison experience either, but...

John still remembered how fierce his mind had felt, and now he walked on eggshells pretty much all the time unless John deliberately nagged him into forgetting it, and that didn't even last -- just a flash of temper and then it fizzled out.

(What had they done to him, the interrogators, the doctors, what had they done, had they broken him? No, he'd fought Noir, he still glared, snarled. Maybe it was too early and John was expecting things to be swept away too fast, maybe after his pseudo-catatonia thing he was just tired and needed a couple days of quiet rest to regroup. John would have to ask the doc.)

"... Zhann," Karkat started warily, and then grumbled a long, mildly irritated tirade.

"I didn't get any of that, buddy!" John replied with a bright smile, because what else could he do, seriously.

Karkat groaned and massaged the bridge of his nose.

... And then he blinked at John's crotch and looked away hurriedly, cheeks visibly darkening. John blinked and then burst out laughing, though he did hurry to go pick up his towel from the floor and tie it around his waist, a little red-faced himself. "Karkat! Oh man, I'm shocked. Shocked! "

"You're the one giving him full frontal face-level man-sausage, dude. Can't blame him for having working eyes."

John stuck out his tongue. "One of these days I'm going to get you, Strider. I'm going to get you so good your grandchildren will still be whispering the story to scare each other."

"Uh huh. Unless you're being coy and trying to hint you want those grandchildren with me you'd better put your schlong away."

John sputtered. "It's away! I'm wearing a towel!"

"Pfft, that's less of a deterrent and more of a suggestion."

John went meep and sidestepped a little farther away from Dirk. The bastard was smirking. Barely there, but obvious enough for someone who had been raised with him from age eight.

"One day you'll figure out exactly why you keep losing at gay chicken against me, Egbert. One day..."

"Stop smirking, you asshole! Grnmbrr. Karkat, come on, let's go get dressed already."

He picked up his bottle and Karkat's and went to put them back in the basket, and stomped his way to his locker. At least he could use the door to hide part of his goods; now that Karkat apparently got all embarrassed over it, it was embarrassing, go figure. He handed Karkat a t-shirt, clean undies and jeans without looking, and busied himself shimmying into his own briefs.

Next he put on his glasses, because he had his priorities. A message popped up almost immediately.

JN: Morning, John. Where are you?
JH: hey sis! long time no see.
JH: and lockers, getting dressed. why?
JN: No reason. Coming down for breakfast?
JH: uh, duh. when have you ever seen me passing up on food, especially in the morning. i mean unless it's cake or something. why do you
JH: oh. right.
JH: karkat's with me. is that okay?

A few seconds of silence. John used them to put on his pants, frowning. He was in the middle of pulling his shirt over his head when the next message popped up.

JN: It's fine, John, despite all appearances to the contrary I am in fact not made of spun glass! News at eleven.
JH: :/ sorry for being worried!
JN: ... it's alright, I'll be fine.
JN: Also I'm the big sister, I'm the one supposed to mother you! By the way guess what I'm making for breakfast. :B
JH: nnnoooooooooo! D:
JN: Yes.
JN: Heck yes.
JH: i'm disconnecting now. you evil purveyor of evil.
JN: Heck. Motherfudging. Yes. >:B

John emerged from his T-shirt snickering.

Karkat had figured out the lower body stuff with ease, none of that pants-on-head silliness, but he was still shirtless. Huh. Okay, what was it with that T-shirt that had the alien staring at it like his eyes were about to shoot lasers and burn a hole through it? (And what were those white lines on his skin? So strange. Birthmarks?)

"Don't like the logo? Sorry, Dave got it on just about everything I own. He's a funny little guy, though! Look, he's grinning."

Karkat's eyes slid sideway to John's own chest. John scratched at his stomach, just under the green ghost slime. The alien's expression was... uh. Really hard to read. But weird.

"... What?"

The alien closed his eyes and quickly yanked the t-shirt on. His claws stayed hooked in the bottom, kneading away.

"Karkat?" A low hiss between clenched teeth was his only answer. No eye contact. Argh. Aliens were weird! So frustrating. John breathed out and told himself he'd be more patient once he had some breakfast. "Okay, never mind! Come on."

A quick detour by the bedroom to get shoes and he was guiding his gray duckling back to the staircase and down to the common room. The TV wasn't on; Rose and Jade were sitting at the big table, Jake leaning his hip on the counter that separated the kitchen corner and chattering at Jane, who... urgh, he could almost smell the devil cake-mix from here.

"Hey guys! Morning."

Jade turned to look at them, and bounced on her feet. "Hi!"

"Yeah, hi, Ja--"

Jade waved him off with a teasing flick of the hand. "I'm not talking to you, I'm talking to the alien. I'm Jade! Jay-duh. You?"

Karkat blinked. "Zhey-duh?" A frown. "... Zehk, Zhann, Zedh?"

John couldn't help but laugh. "Yup, and she --" pointing at the kitchen and its inhabitant, "is Jane. Jay-nuh."

" Zehk, Zedh, Zenn, Zhann?" A low, long muttering started up, probably about what the heck were those names about seriously one consonant's difference what. Jade snickered behind her hand.

"Wow, Roxy was right, he does get ranty." She took a step forward and waved her fingers to get his attention. "You? Your name?"

"It's Karkat," John said, but she just went shh without looking at him and put her hand in his face. After a few awkward seconds the alien repeated it for her, all full of weird sounds. She inclined her head and nodded, and then just about twisted her own vocal chords into sailor's knots.

At least that was what would have happened to John's own vocal chords had he attempted it. Jade seemed pretty chill about it.

"Hm, no, that wasn't quite it..." She made another grumble-clicketyclack, exactly the same as the first, only Karkat's eyebrows were relaxing a tiny bit so perhaps not. Who knew? Certainly not John. "Okay," Jade said, "this is going to require some work! But never mind. Sit down? There's food."

Well. Jade was sitting beside Karkat, Rose in front of him, he looked pretty resigned. John wandered to the kitchen, only pausing for a quick shoulder-bump with Jake on his way in. "Miss Egbert! Fancy meeting you here."

His sister rolled her eyes, but smiled, too. "Mister Egbert! Why, a jolly long time no see. How do you do?"

She wasn't in a skirt today, the way she liked to be when she had any downtime. Those were her flight suit pants, skintight, white with the sky blue band on the outside and the padded knees, and it was a fair bet she wore the rest of it under the knit pullover that swallowed her down to mid-thighs. "Huh, weird look."

"New fashion, all the rage these days," Jane threw over her shoulder as she turned back to her pancake mix, a bit fast, a bit tense. John might have been lacking in social graces but...

"... Um. Janey?"

"I was teasing, it isn't industrial mix. All fresh ingredients straight from the market, no preservatives."


"Not as big as I thought from the pictures," she said airily, without turning around, and John knew she wasn't talking about mix or pancakes or anything but Karkat, perched on the edge of his seat like a squat, hunching stone gargoyle as Jade tried to teach him via copious pantomime to say yes and no. "Go sit down, scram! You too, Jake. Pancakes'll be ready in a minute." And the smile she gave Jake was much too shaky and grateful to be anywhere normal.

... Jake was pretty much standing guard, wasn't he. Not obvious about it, pretty casual, but anyone coming in the kitchen corner would still have to walk past him first, and his feet were set pretty solidly. Not even because he expected trouble from Karkat -- he wouldn't have goofed off in the shower if he did -- but because it made her feel better.

John should have thought of doing that, too, or at least noticed, only he hadn't, because on one side was his sister, and on the other side was a traumatized gray dude who'd gone on a suicide mission for a friend and failed and then been at the mercy of science guys and the military for over a week, and he couldn't even imagine Karkat hurting her. How was he supposed to protect Jane from him when he wanted to protect them both?

You keep forgetting the alien is not one of your buddies, John.

Shit. That didn't mean John couldn't want to spare him another round of that pointless, evil bullshit.

"Hello? Anyone in here?"

"--Heh. I'm not feeling like pancakes today, think I'm gonna go with bacon. Move aside and I'll cook up some!"

After a short, reluctant second, she did, and John did too.


Twenty minutes later breakfast was over and Jade and Jake were taking their turn at gathering the dirty dishes; Dirk, come late and not hungry, was drinking coffee at the counter while the rest of the group sat very civilly at the table. No one had jumped over it to go after anyone's throat or had an inconvenient panic attack, which was obviously a great success.

It was a wonder who was the most tense, Jane or Karkat. Maybe John ought to bring Karkat back to the bedroom for some alone-time; being surrounded on all sides by humans wasn't doing wonders for his blood pressure. (Having her home invaded by alien space monster wasn't helping Jane's either.)

He was about to mention it, only Roxy burst in from the door, waving something in the air. "Success!"

She was holding two half-circle things in bright pink. The inside wobbled and shone in a manner strangely reminiscent of jello. Rose smiled in clear satisfaction. "Did you test them?"

"Pretty good fit. They're even adjustable a bit."

"What's that?" John asked, eyebrows scrunching in confusion.

Rose gave him a faint, catlike smirk. "That thing you were told not to worry about."

"The -- I thought you were going after the goo! Not -- uh, what was it you've done?"

"The scientists have been working to reproduce the neurotransmitter fluid for the last week. Something in the formula must be a bit off, because it keeps turning up as gel instead, but the tele-empathic component works fine."

Roxy took over, leaning over Karkat's lap to show John the inside of the devices. The things looked like pretty wide Alice bands, only there were two parts to the sides that pivoted down, kind of like a mic arm on a headset only much higher. "These flippy bits are supposed to go on your temples. Anyway, so then when we add very simple radio transmitters and other doodads, the neuroelectrical impulses are encoded and transmitted via radio waves and when they get to the other side they get translated back into brain stuff! Wireless mindmeld. Isn't that the coolest?"

John couldn't help but laugh. "Okay, yeah, it's pretty cool." He reached for one of the offered headsets (wasn't gonna call them Alice bands!), turning it over in his hands. The inside was damp to the touch, a bit gross. Still not as gross as the original snot bath. "So you just put it on and...?"

"Yup! The range isn't great yet, but this is just our first attempt. Maybe the width of the room."

John flipped the arm thingers on his temples, tugging locks of his hair free and fiddling with the flexible metal until skin contact was established. Ugh, it really did feel like jello in his hair, only it wasn't squelching all over the place in a big great mess. Beside him Roxy was cheerfully arranging Karkat's own mess of hair as he sat with his eyes closed and jaw clenched and breathing deeply through his nose, as if praying for just a little goddamn patience it doesn't even hurt I can deal with that massive fucking bullshit okay one more second great now another one why is she fondling my fucking horns?!

John burst out laughing. "It works! Hey, Karkat."

A flash of incomprehension, and then Karkat jerked to stare at him.

It was like a tidal wave of gutpunch refusal, backed by horror and furious determination. The next second Karkat's chair was on the floor, the teleband had been flung on the table, and Karkat himself was five steps back and still retreating slowly after his first scramble, fists raised, fangs bared.

John didn't need it to understand the words, but Jade translated anyway. "Um, this one is 'no', this one is also 'no'... 'no, no, no', and I think the rest in between are swear words."

John glanced at the rest of his friends. Jake and Rose were on the wrong side of the table with Jane, though it might be quickly crossed; Roxy and Jade stood beside him, looking a bit nonplussed. Dirk had drained his coffee and put it down on the counter and twisted his wrist just so; the handle of his monofilament blade slipped from his sleeve into his palm smooth as a dream. John pushed himself up on his feet before he could unwind the blade itself.


A rattling growl rose from his throat, growing into a full-fledged, fangs-baring snarl. John grimaced a little.

"No, hey, shh, it's fine."

Apparently shushing the alien was a mortal insult of some sort, because a burst of furious words ensued, accompanied by an angry hand gesture that might have pimpslapped John to the ground had he been anywhere close to in range. But he wasn't going to corner him if he didn't have to...

"Fido trying to run away?" Dave drawled from the staircase. John winced. Aw crap.

Karkat flinched around, stared at Dave as he walked down the last steps to the doorway that led outside, planted himself there, and casually brought out his blade.

Bzzzz, unspooled and stiffening with a crackle of electricity.

If he let that go a second longer this would turn into the clusterfuck of the year. John stepped forward, spine straightening, eyebrows furrowed. "Dave, put that down. Karkat, sit."

His pointing at the couch behind the alien was hopefully clear enough, in case he'd forgotten the word. John gave him a hard stare, to underline it, and then went back to pay attention to Dave, like he had no reason to even worry about what would happen if Karkat didn't.

"Dave, it's fine, he hasn't hurt anyone. Might have broken the --"


"--Hi Jade. Ow." Okay it's not broken can you take it off please like right now? kinda busy fretting I MEAN LEADERING here ohgodclusterfuck monofilamentblade it dices it slices it Striderizes auuugh.

Haha misterbadass allgooeyinside. And then Jade's inner voice mercifully went off. "It's not broken! So cool."

"Yeah, yeah, it's pretty neat -- Karkat, I told you to sit."

The alien had stepped back until his legs almost bumped into the couch, and his fighting stance had shifted into something that seemed more of a 'oh shit in which direction do I run now' -- his eyes kept jumping from Dave to John -- but Dave would get him if he tried to go around him to the staircase, and the windows were all the way back toward the table and the kitchen, and besides they would all take too long to open.

John held his open hand back; "Jade, give me the thing, please." She put it into his hand.

Not even Rose objected to him trying it again, not the smallest 'blahblah traumatism be patient.' John wasn't... he couldn't, anyway, he'd promised them they would get intel in return for their support and he couldn't afford to come across as a pushover to Karkat if he was going to be responsible for him.

"Sit down."

After a few long seconds where John was almost, sickeningly sure he'd have to enforce his order, the alien took a few steps back and lowered himself on the cushions at the far end of the couch. Bright red welled from his clenched left fist.

John took a seat on the other end of the couch in silence, handed over the headset. Karkat took it with forced caution, stared at it for a second, breathed out, slid it back on. On his palm were the blood-smeared imprints of his claws.

... out of my fucking head, stay out of my fucking head, stay out no I don't want you in here, I'll tear out your lungs and wear them as a hat I don't even care if your attack dog cuts me up in slices to be gently roasted for your fucking alien breakfast stay the fuck out.

You're bleeding.

Amazing powers of observation genius gonna go far like that be General one day (forced me last time pushed it hurt you had no right none of you had any right!)

John winced. "I'm sorry."


Ouch. ... I'm not sorry I looked / needed to know importantmaybe. It hurt you I didn't like that felt wrongbadno.

A slap of incredulity/yeahright pull the other one hit him in the brain. Behind it was a trace of confusion, why? and nerves because... huh, John thought, because he had his little idea and he hoped rather dearly to be wrong.

Wasn't looking for personal stuff sorry for that. Just war-relevant stuff, not private, duty as a soldier you know? Yours and mine. Could have been urgent, couldn't afford to wait.

He couldn't help remembering the horror he'd felt seeing that other alien in Karkat's mind, the one buried in tentacles, trapped there like he was slowly getting ... cannibalized alive? something like that. From the way Karkat flinched he could feel the echo.

Wasn't urgent. (Never urgent again.) So when are you killing me?

John stared, nonplussed. "Uh?"

... Public execution rah-rah look at our glorious army and those evilstupidweak things who dare attack us hahasofunny? A gray alien in chains paraded toward, oh god, was that a ... whipping post? funeral pyre? John could only see the waiting chains and feel the anticipation of a pain reminiscent of the times he'd burned his hand cooking or trying to fix overheated motors, only a hundred times worse. Rallying the troops? Propaganda?

"Oh god. Never." Nonononono. Also the population doesn't know we captured you yet, just that your mech is down. Probably never will just for that reason they'd all want your head no way.

... I'm hidden/state-secret?

Pretty much.

... Nightmare-beastgods from the star-void on a flying, shit-spraying horse. I'm going to spend the rest of my natural life with the interrogation/torture division.

John was torn between laughing at the incongruous curse and wincing. Nooo, I got you, not handing you back. I'll bite!

Karkat yanked the headband off his head. John blinked; the alien stared at him, eyes a bit too round, turning in his seat so he'd face John, so John mirrored him, eyebrows furrowed in sheer bafflement.

He pointed at the teleband. "Put that back on," he said, imitating his dad's 'It's Bedtime Yes Really' Voice.

Karkat held out his hand, palm first (huh, the cuts were ringed with crusty blood, but pretty much done bleeding) and pinched the bridge of his nose with his other hand. John frowned a little more and crossed his arms. "I'll wait two minutes, tops."

"John? What's going on?"

John looked at Rose over his shoulder and shrugged his confusion. "Dunno, I think I said something weird. He was asking when we were going to hand him back to the interrogation guys! So I said never, that's when. I think he doesn't believe me."

Karkat was muttering to himself again, eyes closed, still rubbing at the bridge of his nose. John folded his leg on the couch and stretched it to nudge Karkat's knee with his toes. Tap tap.

A heaving sigh. Karkat settled the teleband back on. Fucking disgusting on my horns urgh squelching.

"Pff." So are they telepathic or something?


Your (tiny round cutest) horns! Because last time you seemed to hear me way better once the goo got on them.

Go crawl in a charnel house ditch and die suffocating under the weight of the rotting bodies already. Not cute! and yes of course they aaaaaaaa not answering your questions what next a list of known issues?

"Bwahaha. Too late."

... what do you want?

The 'you' came attached with an impression of John's own face and some almost-words that felt like 'pink-outside bigtoothed tent-making blue alien'. Not you-humans or you-group but definitely you-John. It felt a lot... quieter wasn't quite the right word, because John could perceive it just as well as the rest, but it didn't feel as spread out all over the place. It was all... tight, squeezed into one clear, delimited packet of meaning, with no surrounding brouhaha of background feelings and afterthoughts.

John shrugged. He didn't really expect anything. You not to die? Or go away inside your head again that crap is very disturbing you know. My friends have questions, we want to know about your people, maybe the war why? Need food, resources, distraction for the populace?

For the glory of the empire, Karkat retorted straight away, teeth bared in challenge, only there was a discordant echo in the background that said, for -- And stop pushing!


"Ow?" Roxy repeated, concerned.

John blinked at Karkat for a couple of seconds, dumbfounded. "Uh, wow. He kinda... slapped me. Inside my head? It doesn't hurt for real, I just wasn't expecting it. Wow." How'd you do that? Neat.

... Basic psychic trick, are you brain-damaged?

Well sorry can't practice basic psychic tricks we don't have psychics, do you?

Karkat didn't even need to answer; his utter bafflement at the question was confirmation enough. "Guys, if the goo wasn't enough of a hint, the aliens have psychics! I mean like people who can do that stuff, not just by bathing in magic mind-reading snot."

Thank you so very much for that delightful image urgh.

John couldn't help but laugh at that, and for a second he could have sworn Karkat sort of maybe wanted to smile back a tiny bit, or at least sigh in a longsuffering, tolerant way. The second he noticed, Karkat noticed it too, and his mind hardened again, all background leakage stopped cold.

So. Keeping me for intel. Is the merciful act supposed to soften me up? humiliate me into surrendering? What the fuck are you up to? I might get along with shit to spare me pointless pain (not a coward shut up shut up shutup) but I'm not going to betray my people. (didn't even have the fucking decency of threatening me openly fuck you with a rusty spike.)

Uh, what. When did I threaten you? I mean no you said I didn't openly but I didn't at all?... no okay I wanted you to sit the hell down but that's because honestly what the heck you were panicking there was no reason and Dave would have cut you into bite-sized cubes if you rushed him also you can't escape Noir would gloat and grab you back fuck him no.

He'd just send Karkat back to the labs and now that he was awake again they'd probably go right back to poking and prodding and testing possible bio-weapons. John wondered if they'd tried the goo on him, too? (yes they had of course, tried to force their way in most of them were just garbled voices got nothing but it hurt anyway keeping them out wore him down -- easier to go away.)

Karkat's mind voice went weary; his hand clenched on the front of his shirt, claw tips going through the cloth. Ordering me like I'm broken already (like I'm so weak you didn't even need to break me.)

I'm not going to break you! I don't want that to happen to you. Or to anyone! It's not right. He bit his lip. I don't think you're a coward. You're alone and you understand nothing of what's going on and you've gotten hurt already, it's scary. I'd be scared too.

Karkat closed his eyes and rubbed at the base of his horns like he was getting a headache. His mind stayed clamped down, blocking his reaction. ... just tell me the terms already.

Uh. Okay. I'm responsible for you so unless one of my friends takes over for a bit you have to stay with me. You don't have to be close but you do have to be in the same room. Uhh. No leaving the building and absolutely no attacking people, I'm serious about that one it's not going to happen. None of my friendsalliesfamily want to hurt you either, no reason to.

Karkat stared at him, expression blank with incomprehension, even his mind murmuring too quietly for John to untangle the little whispers into anything coherent.

... War prisoner/intel to take? (Dumbass.)

"Hey!" I don't know how it goes in your weird alien ships or on your weird alien planet but here it's not a good reason.

Hello how are you do you want some tea will you pretty please betray your people for us we have tasty treats? No? Okay then! Don't take me for a fucking rot-brained moron.

"Goddamn it." John slammed his fist down on the back of the couch, making the frame groan even through the padding, and glared. "Do you want us to torture you?! Is that it? Some kind of fucked-up fetish?!"

Karkat hissed back and got into his face, snarling out something so low it made John's bones resonate with it. Like you didn't hand me off to them before oh lord Grand Squeamish!

It was different it was urgent you've been here ten days now what the hell kind of current intel do you even still have?! You left on a fucking suicide mission anyway who'd have trusted you with it!

No response, just a swirl of complicated, flickering feeling he didn't have time to name, quicksilver that fled his grasp and wind-fast razor slices of ragehatefight and fearpainno. John sighed and sank back down into the cushions.

... political thing, I don't know how to explain. We answer to the Earth government but not always, we're strong we protect they owe us.

... ah.

Karkat was still listening, frowning at him, not quite meeting his eyes but waiting for more, so John kept going, trying to explain the situation as well as he could.

Kinda allied-but-separate? Couldn't fight you guys as well too much death but we can and we do and they owe us.

Karkat made a little grunt of surprise-acknowledgement, mind sparking with a brief mix of "huh" and "aha." John briefly wondered if he wasn't giving him a bit too much intel. ... Oh well, it wasn't as if he'd ever be allowed to go free. Besides they had to have noticed it was always the same eight mechs who came back at them, and their piloting styles were all pretty distinctive.

Anyway re: torture medical procedures are one thing, sometimes they hurt but it's not the point. Interrogation happens, sometimes it goes too far or turns bad, some humans do like to torture, or think it's a necessary method or use it as an excuse to get out their misplaced asshole issues but torture is a repugnant practice and so long as you're in our custody it's not going to happen to you and we'll be fighting tooth and nail to keep you and we all bite really hard. Okay? Okay.

Sigh. "He still doesn't believe me about the torture thing, guys. Argh. Like... really loudly doesn't believe me." So frustrating! They were telepathing to each other for god's sake, he should have felt John meant it.

... can't believe you want nothing for it.

My friends will have questions about science things. I don't get it just a fighter. Also your society things how it works and stuff? Maybe language not everyone wants to try the goo. That's not state secrets.

No -- you! What do you want? Wasting all those favors on protecting me?!

"AUUUUGH." John grabbed a handful of his hair and pulled. I like you, stupid! I don't want anything. And protecting you from torture that's not even about me liking you it's about that shit is abhorrent and will not happen on my watch I'd have done it either way!

(Maybe with less random hugs. Uh. But he just couldn't take that defeated, subdued look in his eyes.)

This time Karkat was very careful when he removed the headset. He lowered it to his lap, staring down at nothing in particular, eyes a little too wide, breathing a little too controlled.

"Uh. Karkat? What did I say now?"

No reaction. John threw a look back at his friends. Dave had a shoulder against the doorframe and his arms crossed and seemed ready to hold up the wall there all day. The rest were at the table, keeping an eye on the two of them, but also doing god knew what on Roxy's laptop. Jane was typing away, a bit too pale but nodding along with Roxy's comments in her ear. Rose was petting Jaspers, who sniffed at the table where Karkat had been seated in wary interest. John supposed it had to be boring from the outside, apart from the random grimaces and the occasional outburst.

Jade noticed his mildly panicked expression and got up, wandering up to them. She didn't come in reach of the couch, though, didn't sit, hands linked behind her back as she leaned forward to peer at both their faces. Karkat didn't react to her either.

"What did you say?"

"That even if I didn't like him I wouldn't let people hurt him? And I do like him. I mean, he's so grumpy, but at the same time he's, I don't know." He looked at Karkat again, but the alien didn't look any closer to putting his headset back on. John looked up at Jade, met her little wince with a frustrated grimace. "The way he reacted you'd think it was a surprise!"

"I call dibs on head bridesmaid," Dave drawled from the door.

"Oh, fuck you."

"Do you even still count as a maid?" Dirk wondered.

"Lies and slander, Jade will make a honest woman out of me any day now."

Jade snickered; John couldn't help but join her. "As if! Everyone knows I was only using you for your body."

(Man it was such a relief that they could joke about it now, because during and for a few months after the breakup, wowza.)

When he looked back at Karkat, a smile still on his lips, he was met with red-gold straight on. Karkat's face was intensely serious and slightly apprehensive, like he had something to say that he was pretty sure John wouldn't like, and might react badly to. John sighed and leaned his body forward, tilted his head, made sure his voice wasn't aggressive or loud at all. "Buddy? It's okay." He rested his hand on the alien's shoulder, patting in what he hoped was a soothing manner.

Karkat flinched, dodged out from under his hand, and took a deep bracing breath before he jammed the headset back on.

I have a boyfriend already, okay?!

For a few long seconds John could do nothing but splutter. Also, turn a pretty nice brick red. Holy mother of fuck.

"W-what? Why the hell -- what? You -- what?"

Karkat bit his lip and briefly looked away, and when he looked back he -- his inner voice, his face, they were so earnest it made John's brain explode in horror and stall for the third time in as many minutes. I'm sorry seriously but you've got to stop doing that soothing shit, I'm not cheating on him, I love that stupid wreck. I don't care if I'll never see him again, he... fuck. Karkat flinched, a burst of pain flashing past his tight grip on his background thoughts. (I'll never see him again sosorry I'm a fucking asshole should just go and die--)

This time John was the one taking off the headset for a bit. Holy crappalooza.

"... And in this exhibit we have the amazing human chameleon, attempting to match that cushion over there... Hm, not quite scarlet enough, but a pretty good try."

John gritted his teeth and refused to turn to look at him, voice coming out a growl. "Dave, I will kick you in the knee."

He jammed the headset back on. Okay, NO. I am not interested in you romantically! No way, no how, where the heck did you get that idea from?!

Karkat spluttered, threw a hand up in the air to gesture with as he snarled back. Shall I count the ways? You kidnapped me back! You built me an alien pillowthing! You guarded me as I slept! You keep calming me and hugging me and oh yeah wasting all your owed favors on me! You saw me being weak and hurt and a total wreck and you -- immediately you -- you decided I could do with your all-benevolent protection?! We were fighting a moment ago!

Now it was apparently John's turn to splutter. Basic decency is suspicious now?! Is platonic not a thing where you crazyaliens come from?

Oh hey they were both on their feet now, mind-yelling in each other's face. John had a hard time not yelling for real, had to content himself with curled-up lips and wordless noises of frustration, but he'd probably die if his friends got to hear what this was about. God, Dave alone could milk this for ten years; what Dirk and Rose could do with it didn't bear thinking about.

I have absolutely no, zero, null, void-of-space romantic designs on you!

... Okay, sure! It wasn't like that. Willing to believe such intense denial -- loud + wordy = true!

John growled and crossed his arms. Thank you.

You were staring at my crotch.

Spittake. That was just morbid curiosity! Come on you looked too I'm weird to you you're weird to me that's all!

Karkat watched him with his eyes narrowed, blistering disbelief plastered on every single square inch of his face. You made me lay down with you on a --

Oh holy mother of god. John went meep and took a step back. The heat that had started to leave his face rushed back with a vengeance, even his eyeballs felt too hot. Holy shit. Just, holy shit.

"Okay, enough mystery, what the fuck are the two of you talking about?"

"Yeah, seriously," Roxy said, "it was funny dubbing the two of you but now I think it'd be waaay funnier to know what's actually going on!"

"... Haha. Um. Neat factoid for the xenosocio magazines, guys! Aliens don't sleep on beds. Turns out what we call a bed they call, um, a." Gulp. "Sex platform?"

We sleep on them! he hurried to explain. It's just for sleep! We don't, they're not just for sex!

... Huh. Squinty, suspicious frown. Not just for sex?

"Oh, really," went Rose somewhere behind him, in a way that had John flinching again.

... Okay sometimes people have sex on them it's very practicalcomfynice I guess but I just, sometimes people share? To sleep? Platonically?

"Welp. Rox, you've got the shotgun, you get to be in that wedding party after all. Someone's got to stand in for his alien dad."

"... Am I to understand that John and the alien shared his bed yesterday night?"

Jake smothered a burst of laughter behind his hand, eyes gleaming with warring commiseration and hilarity. "They sure did. Oh darn, does that mean you're alien married now?"

Amidst all the people laughing at his pain and the people bemoaning his amazing ability to create diplomatic incidents out of thin air, John wasn't expecting to be slapped over the head, hard enough to make him pitch forward. He turned around to protest. "Hey--"

His sister stood there and not at the other end of the room anymore, hands shaking, jaw clenched, eyes a bit too bright.

"Uh. Janey?"

"... You made him share your bed."

"I didn't know it was a weird alien thing!" he protested. Jane threw up her hands in the air.

"You knew he was worried about rape! What the hell were you thinking?!"

John flinched again, guilt choking him, replacing his embarrassment with something worse. "I wasn't, okay?! I wasn't thinking, I was just tired and I didn't want to sleep on the floor and it was more than wide enough for two and he--" looked scared (looked interesting) and it was John's stupid bed drat it such silly unfounded fears as if he could ever (why don't you trust me already) "-- and I, I wasn't thinking, it was an asshole move. You're right. Shit."

Jane took in a shuddery breath, eyes closed, and then looked over John's shoulder at Karkat, straight on, pretty much for the first time. "...John? Translate for me."

"Uh, sure." When he turned back to Karkat, the alien was staring at the two of them, eyebrows raised, eyes wide, pretty much floored. Aw crap, no doubt he'd been treated to a front seat concert of that whole mess at full volume.

"Alrighty! My brother is an idiot."

"Hey!" Glower. He wilted. She says, my brother is an idiot.

For a fleeting moment it looked almost as if Karkat was about to crack a smile. Tell her I was starting to get that impression.

... I kinda hate you sometimes.

Aaand this was a... not a smile, definitely a smirk. Made a couple of small fangs peek out at the quirked corner of his lips. Stop flirting and translate already.

"Ngrhk." John glared, face reddening once again. "His Majesty Karkitty tells me to tell you he was getting that impression already gnagnagna."

Jane's lips twitched a bit at the corner. "Well. He does seem to be a smart young man."

John huffed, puffing up his cheeks. "If you like him so much why don't you marry him already," he mumbled.

"Jolly good job not sounding like a kindergartener here!"

Maturely, John decided that the best answer to this had to be sticking out his tongue and going bleeeeeh. Jane ignored him pointedly.

"So... If your -- your species does not sleep on, ah, cushioned surfaces, where does it?"

John re-thought it for Karkat's benefit, in case overhearing John hearing it wasn't enough, and then tacked on, I, uh, take it you don't want to keep sleeping in my bed. Even if I'm on the floor.

The grimace Karkat made had him choke back a guilty laugh, only for that laugh to escape anyway as the alien threw an image at him, of a wide mattress in a dim-lit room and Karkat rolled in a ball in the middle with an apprehensive, vaguely disgusted look on his face as music started slipping in from the corners. "Pff. Aliens have porn music too!"

In which a reluctant young warrior is held captive by an oddly charismatic alien leader who sets about seducing him via utter decadence and inappropriate touching, features several love-to-hate-and-back scenes of passion, interspersed with slapstick language-barrier humor and random assaults by evil, nonsexy aliens, while the war slowly becomes a footnote amidst enough intercourse to chafe a professional whore raw. Karkat's chuckle was rough, quiet, both sarcastic and self-conscious somehow. So... no thanks very flattered go fuck yourself.

John couldn't breathe for laughing, though his face kept burning from imagining himself dressed like a pseudo-sultan from some old harem-themed softcore porn story. You asshole. Sowrong. Sooowrong. Anyways so where do you want to sleep!

Relief and disbelief kept roiling behind the sudden amusement, dizzying. I want anywhere but a sexplatformbed thanks kindly. Stake-lined animal pit? Bird perch? Lava bath?


"I take it the wedding is back on track?"

"Oh, fuck you, Dave," John replied with a wide grin. "You're just jealous. I'd look so much better in white than you ever would. You'd be all washed out and also it'd totally be false advertising anyway."

"Ahem. John. If you please."

"Okay, okay." John went back to Karkat, who shrugged and looked away, scratching the underside of his jaw.

I'll make, something, John didn't quite get it, but he got the sense that Karkat would rather figure it out alone, that it made him feel awkward to ask it out of them. He shrugged and turned back to his sister, waiting with her hands on her hips and an eyebrow smartly arched. "He says he can manage on his own and please to be butting out." It'll have to be in our room though.

A dismissive shrug, though Karkat was frowning a little like he wasn't entirely comfortable about it.

We can make a tent around it if you--

We nothing, butt out already you freakish bigtoothed nosy asshole. I alone.

Faint tension still came through even with Karkat's decisive words, nervousness. John didn't need to be thwapped by Jane again to get that one. He shrugged and replied, okay, if you insist. Offer's open.

Yeah. I... thanks. He sank back down on the couch, elbows dropping on his knees with a big gusty sigh, tension gradually flowing out of his frame. It's just weird. You say you're not flirting but you do that stuff. It's... not flirting for you?

John mock-cringed and flopped beside him, cushions bouncing under them both. Ohgod definitely not.

Karkat contemplated that for a couple of seconds, and then gave a slow headshake. ... Aliens are so fucking weird.

Man, tell me about it.

"Well. If you two are friends again."

John blinked up. Oh uh, Jane. Right. "You wanna sit down, Janey?"

She shook her head. She looked a tiny bit calmer than she'd been, but the way she watched Karkat was still cautious, alert, tracking his every little gesture. It'd probably take her way longer than that to relax around him. John couldn't help the warm, bittersweet burst of tenderness at how brave she'd been, coming to defend Karkat from his asshole moment even feeling like that, just because it was the right thing to do. Dad would be super extra proud, he was sure.

"No, thank you. I'll, perhaps Rose could come and talk with the two of you, I'll take notes. Rose?"

"Of course," Rose replied, and as Jane made a controlled, straight-backed escape, came over to join them in the TV corner, her cat in her arms. Karkat's eyes almost crossed from staring at him. Rose's lips quirked at the corner; she seated herself on a pillow on the coffee table, knees pressed together very properly. "I'm curious, do you understand what we say through John's own understanding of our words, or does he need to repeat?"

Karkat's brow furrowed.

"Oh, uh, I think I have to pay a bit more attention than that, sorry." Jaspers was purring and kneading at her lap; John reached out to give him a scritch.

I... understand a bit? It's more vague. General sense of things.

"Huh, makes sense. He kinda gets echoes, I think."

"Hm." Karkat was still stealing glances at the cat; she smiled. "This is Jaspers. Do your people keep pets?"

From the confusion he answered with when John passed it along, the answer was obviously no. "I don't think he even has a concept of it. Do you guys even have domesticated animals?"

... Draft beasts to pull, or ride. Big beasts. Sometimes hunting ones to track with. What does this one do?

"Uh, nothing, it's a pet. Er, Rose?"

"A pet is a small, tamed animal that lives inside a person's house. It does not work for its keep as it is kept purely for the pleasure of its company."

Heh, sounded kind of a bit like--

... John if you are keeping me as a pet I will pull out your intestines through your nostrils and make you a noose from them and swing you from the lamp and I will take the greatest care to make sure you stay alive every tortuous inch of this process.

John cracked up. "What? No! No no no."

"... times like these," Dave muttered from his corner, "I kind of wish this were three ways. But then I remember, alien in my brain. Nope!"

John snickered at him and turned back to Karkat. Good thing you can't speak to Dave he'd never stop bringing it up. He'd get you fake kitty ears and a collar with a bell. It'd be ridiculous. He couldn't help imagining Karkat tearing around the room in a rage, shredding everything with his claws like Mutie'd done a couple of times.

Karkat stared at him in suspicion and a burst of nerves, and then before John could reassure him that he was just kidding around, rolled his eyes. If you put a collar on me it'd be your goddamn floppy dick I tear to shreds, asshole.

John grinned back at him. No worries, way too kinky for me.

"John, if you would please stop cutting me out of the conversation before I drop Jasper on your head."

"Whoops. Sorry Rose. It's just so much fun being able to talk to him. He's so grumpy, it's hilarious."

Karkat growled under his breath and glowered at him. An image of the alien kicking his ankle ghosted through John's mind, a sense of intent, only to be replaced by a flash of seven other humans descending from above with swords in hand and transforming him into a pincushion. She wanted to talk let her talk stop being the high king of idiots, lord protector of stupidland, all hail his unmatched dearth of brainmeat.

A strange expression crossed Rose's face but John was laughing too much to ask straight away and when he was done she looked perfectly normal. Huh, never mind. "John. Don't make me hit you. Karkat -- as John might or might not have mentioned, there are questions we would be thankful to have answered."

But John says no torture you can't make me. A niggling doubt that John was just lying to him. John hesitated to answer it. In the end he didn't, merely paraphrased for Rose, "He doesn't want to and you can't make him."

"We can provide other incentive. If nothing else you'll eventually get quite bored, being locked in here. And -- John, transmit this. No anger, no protest, just transmit it. We are in a delicate political situation and we might be pressured into giving you up." John glowered, but repeated, though the words took on a harsh undertone from his own frustrated denial. "The situation becomes easier if we have tidbits to appease people with, especially since your previous custodians were, after a certain time, able to extract precisely jack shit."

Bitter pride flickered at that. He had stonewalled them pretty good, huh. Couldn't stop scientists from canvassing his body inch by inch with their cold fingers and colder machines but could sure shred the mind of any fool who tried to follow him in too deep, wasn't going to be hurt twice and they were so garbled anyway, so graceless, he learned more than they did. Even if so much of it was fucking useless, incomprehensibly alien.

John's eyes prickled with something he didn't want to think too hard about, lest Karkat hiss at him for caring too much again.

"For now we are mostly interested in basic biology, as some of your organs don't seem to have analogous functions to human ones, and language."

So you can spy on our transmissions?

"If there is anything to be said on open transmissions one would hope they would be encrypted."

... Point, I guess, Karkat grumbled, but glared at John sullenly when he relayed that to Rose.

"Later, as we build more trust, perhaps you will feel willing to offer advice as to the best ways to work repairs on your mech, as biotechnology isn't--"

Karkat had been pretty subdued around Rose, comparatively; John noticed that because suddenly he was up on his feet and leaning forward so fast the cat startled and scampered off. The link was burning with what?!, with needtoknow, with please, with the hulking nightmare shape of pincers and mandibles and two too many arms--

"Oh god," John choked out, caught unable to breathe in Karkat's own breathless terror-hope. "Rose, he's. He's asking if it's still alive."

And as behind her Dirk and Dave and Roxy slowly lowered their blades and guns Rose herself didn't move an inch, not even to lean away from the crazy-eyed alien quivering with tension in her face, only to smile, slow and satisfied. "Well then, here is our first bit of incentive. I knew we would find something."

[Chapter 3] - [Chapter 5]