The boys' bedroom wasn't really big. Two bunk beds, a desk under the window opposite the door, cupboards full of civilian clothes and shoes, and traveling cases under the lower bunks filled with odds and ends they hadn't touched in months. It was a room mostly for sleeping in, since their staggered schedules didn't allow for much lingering; their other, more prized possessions and random time-wasters tended to be strewn all over the common room, where they could actually use them without waking anyone up.
John wasn't used to watching the room from the floor, but sitting on his bed just made him feel weird knowing Karkat interpreted it as him lounging on a pimp throne, hos optional but expected any minute now.
The alien shuffled past on his knees, brows furrowed in concentration as he carried Jake's old loafers to the far corner, ignoring the human as hard as he possibly could.
Rose had, like a queen of perfect evil, generously decided that the poor shaken alien shouldn't be taken advantage of in his first moment of panic, but instead given some time to settle down and think things through rationally. By that, she mostly meant "let him stew in his fretty juices until he is cooked all the way through and ready to melt under my teeth."
She'd taken back the headsets, too. Something about installing on-off switches, serious design flaw blahblah. John couldn't talk with Karkat, and trying to help him with whatever he was doing in that narrow corner between the foot of the bed and the wall only got him hissing and bared teeth.
"I am so bored."
Karkat's head briefly popped up over the footboard, just long enough to give him a narrow-eyed, suspicious look, and then he disappeared again, muttering under his breath something John would have bet his firstborn was 'for the nth time, I can't understand you, dipshit'.
(If he'd been planning to have a firstborn, or any bio kids at all, he totally would have bet them, anyways. Maybe it was cheating to bet them since he wasn't? Hmm, maybe he could bet Warhammer's -- no, hahaha, heck no, no betting his mech's anything.)
"Wish I'd thought to take my handheld. Can't play games on glasses. This sucks."
Oh hey, his glasses. He tapped the frame and glanced his way through his contact list. Today everyone was online, though some were on Away or Do Not Disturb; everyone was apparently awake at the same time. How weird. How full of potential fun!
How not fun at all in practice. Somehow.
JH: oh my god i am so bored. soooo bored. i have maxed out all levels of boredom that exist on this plane of existence and ascended to a new realm full of even more boring crap auuuugh someone please save me.
He watched Karkat poke at the tissue box that everyone pretended was on the desk in case of sudden colds and was glad when the alien put it back where he'd found it, apparently unimpressed by how crumply it was. Karkat had been given leave to use everything that wasn't on a bed or locked away, but explaining why that one was public property and not to be absconded with would have been awkward.
JD: ummm sorry john!! we cant come and visit you :(
JH: who's we?
JD: jake and janey and me. were going on an adventure! were on the boat to temple island atm. eta in four minutes! :D its going to be so much fun, i havent been there since i was like twelve or something
JH: wow guys, thanks for waiting until i can't come with. :/ i'm feeling the clonesib love there.
JN: Sorry, John! Those two reprobates kidnapped me; by the time I blinked we were already at the beach. I was TRYING to do a write-up on all those fascinating little facts we learned today! Honestly, Mr. Harley, Miss Harley.
JD: wed say were sorry but wed be lying like lying liars who lie lyingly ;3
JD: whoops theres the harbor! tricky reefs ahead. see you later john, have fun with karkat!!
... Damn it. A nice end of spring day, everyone awake together, everyone dirtside together, no enemies in view for at least another twenty hours -- it should have been a vacation. They should have gone to the mainland and into a real city, watched a movie on a real big screen, or maybe Dad could have taken him and Jane and gone back home for the weekend -- they hadn't found an occasion to do that in... wow, a year and eight months now. John wasn't sure why Dad hadn't given up and sold the house by now.
RX: lolol aw poor jonnyhboy
RX: all on his loensom w/ blushy alien brid,e & sexingup platnrom^ hubba hubba
JH: alas he is refusing to put out.
RX: *lonesome **platfrom
RX: hahaahh. ur goin to fast! u need 2 SEDUCE him!!
RX: *sexxy music strats playn SEXILY in the backgourdn*
RX: they totes have that right? u said they did. u recognized it as pr0n music too so it must be prty smililar
JH: uh yeah, i guess it kind of was...
RX: u gotta tell me aaalllll about how taht came up btw. AAALALLLLLL abotu it.
RX: liek did u get 2 actuely SEE a bit of alien pr0n ? :33
JH: ... oh hey will you look at what Karkat is building. pretty amazing how he managed to pile it up so high! it's never going to stay up! gotta save him before it all falls on his head brb.
Karkat's construction hadn't even reached the footboard yet, of course. Hehe. Um. John stretched his upper body across the end corner of the mattress, toes and one knee still on the floor, and looked over it, deciding that getting clawed across the face for satisfying his curiosity sounded vaguely preferable to keeping on thinking about Roxy's line of questioning and how likely she was to ask again later on.
It looked like a pile of random junk. Actually it looked pretty much like the pile of random junk that used to be there until about two months ago, when Dad noticed something was getting smelly in there -- more than normal eau de boy's room, that was -- and made them clean it all up. They apparently shouldn't have bothered?
"Zhann. Zhann. No."
John blinked and grinned charmingly at Karkat, who sat on his legs by the bedpost and glowered at him, hands wrist-deep in the pile, and refusing to be charmed. "You pronounce that one pretty well. Okay it's really short, but still!"
Irritated huff, blowing bangs out of his eyes to glower at him some more. The red eyes worked strikingly well for that. "Zhann. You. N'rhlekhssthalneish! No."
"Aw, come on--"
Karkat was apparently at the end of his patience for nosy humans, because he planted his hand in John's face and shoved him back. John was draped awkwardly over the corner of the bed; he couldn't catch a grip and ended up back on the floor, landing butt-first with a dull thud and half the sheets pulled down with.
For a second they both froze, John utterly startled and Karkat eyes wide and suddenly apprehensive, like only now after the fact was he wondering if he'd gone too far.
He had a cobweb in his hair and a plush banana in hand. John raised his hand to rub his smarting nose, and then started laughing. Karkat deflated with a heavy sigh, shook his head at a slightly different angle from everyone else but in a way that still meant 'I despair of this guy, I really do'.
Then he went back to inserting his banana in construction holes, which had John pfffhahahing again. It only got John a quick, 'let's avoid staring straight at the crazy person in case it provokes them lalala nothing to see here' glance, though. Boo. John threw the sheets in a rumpled mess on the mattress and flopped back against the side of the bed. Time to be bored again -- oh wait, another message alert! Whee.
BR: Fifty pushups.
BR: Cure for boredom. Guaranteed or your money back.
JH: oh come on mr. strider, you're kidding right???
BR: I never kid. Romy removed my humor gland as a lark in med school. Humor-free ever since.
BR: And twenty crunches. Chop chop.
JH: ... aye, aye, sir. fifty pushups and twenty crunches and one alien looking at me like i'm deranged coming right up.
BR: I'll know if you skip them.
BR: I always know.
The worst thing was he did, in fact, always know. John heaved a sigh and rolled onto hands and knees. One pushup. Karkat paused to stare at him. Two pushups. He didn't even want to know what the alien thought he was doing, and why he was doing it now. Some strange of bizarre religious penance? Compulsive behavior?
"Not my fault!" Four pushups. "Strider said." Five. Six. Karkat was still staring. John grimaced at him. Seven.
With his luck he was doing some kind of alien mating display.
He was on his thirty-fourth pushup and Karkat had long since gone back to his arcane construction, frowning at it like it was an atmo reentry equation that refused to give any kind of reasonable, non-crash-landing results, when the bedroom door opened. John craned his neck to look at the newcomer. He was already sure it wasn't Dave, though, on account of the lack of foot planting itself between his shoulder blades to flatten him back down.
"Hey," Dirk said, and casually stepped over his legs. "Going on a test flight. How's the alien bed going?"
"Not a clue," thirty-six, "won't let me look!"
Karkat, of course, didn't hiss at Dirk to step back when Dirk looked over his head, just hunkered down a bit and watched him warily. John was kind of jealous. Not of the hunkering, but... oh, he supposed he'd rather have Karkat not being afraid than getting to see the stupid mess back there.
"I think he," thirty-nine, "doesn't have -- enough shit." Forty-one. "Room's too clean! Hehe."
Dirk hummed thoughtfully and hooked the handle of his suitcase with his toes, pulling it out from under the bed. He swung it up on his mattress, casual and unconcerned, and proceeded to rummage it into a total mess. A book glanced off John's head, landed on the floor. John glowered at it. "Hey! -- goddamn it -- lost my count. Uh. Forty-seven." Oh god almost done.
Karkat was still staring at them from under his fringe, eyes sharp, not missing a single thing. John hoped he didn't have Jane's habit of actually writing down his observations. Else there'd be a "The Exceedingly Strange Habits of the Earthian Homo pilotus" on alien shelves pretty soon.
Then again Karkat was probably never going to leave this planet again. Uh. Yeah. John was a little glad when he reached fifty-one (crap, he'd done one too many) and switched exercises. Gave him an excuse to change angles, stop seeing his face.
Now he could watch Dirk negligently dropping his crap on the floor as he looked for... whatever it was he wanted.
Karkat got it before him, a blink and his back straightening suddenly, all 'oh, got it!' He cautiously stretched a hand toward that first book. Stretch, streeetch... a quick, wary glance at Dirk... Dirk was pretending not to notice, so Karkat ganked the book. His permanent frown had relaxed a little bit. The next time he went back for a laptop screen (where was the rest of it?) he wasn't half as wary that Dirk might turn around and kick him, and the third time he didn't even act cautious at all. Dirk kept dumping plastic ponies and old data sticks and robot parts here and there.
"How come you get to help him and I don't!" John eventually protested.
"Helping him? He's helping himself. I'm not doing shit."
"Oh, that's right, my shirts are in the cupboard, not the suitcase. Silly of me." As he turned away, he dumped the empty suitcase on the floor. It stayed there approximately six seconds, after which Karkat disappeared it. The alien was smiling for real now, a tiny one, just to himself.
The next ten crunches went by really fast for some reason.
"Anyways. Might not be back for dinner. It depends on how the test goes." Dirk perched on the edge of his bed, watching John finish his set. "I'll do my recalibrating at Tycho Base if I need any."
John snorted, flicking him a grin. "In other words... you'll do your recalibrating at Tycho Base." There was no way on Earth there wouldn't be at the very least one piddly little thing that Dirk would need to obsess over. Which meant he was guaranteed to crash the moon base party. "Which day is it again? Ooh, vegetable lasagna day. Lucky you!" Space Marines had the best canteen. If by 'best' you meant 'most likely to achieve sentience and turn on their human overlords', that was.
Dirk pinched his lips in that way that meant he wanted to smile back but was too cool for it. "What do you think the extra box of pears by the fridge is for?"
"I thought it was to bribe their engineers into giving you priority repairs."
"No, that's the strawberries. Pears are for trading for the greasiest fast-food they have stashed away."
John laughed as he sat up, let his hands hang between his knees. He wasn't tired, barely warmed up really. "I'm so jealous. A pox on Dad and his healthy meals!"
Dirk extracted himself from his bunk by way of hooking one hand into Dave's bunk's guardrail and reverse-curling himself upward in a boneless, snakelike wave that started from the knee. All 'look at my abs! I do a hundred crunches a day!' Feh.
"Alright, time to go." He nodded to John, and then to Karkat. Karkat quickly looked away and pretended to have been busy with his mess of a bed all along. "John. Karkat. Later."
A minimalist wave of his hand, and he was gone. John let his own hand drop. Karkat was still looking at the door in mild confusion. John shuffled his butt along the floor closer to him. He wasn't distracting him from his business if Karkat had stopped on his own, right? "What is it, pal?"
Karkat's eyebrows scrunched together, more in puzzlement than in get-out-of-my-face. He repeated, articulating a bit too much, "Lay-tuh?"
"Lay-turrrr. Uh, okay, how to explain that."
John considered the issue for a second. He wasn't as good at it as Jade. She'd managed to teach him yes, no, water, food/hungry, and a couple other things, all without the telepathic headband, and John had little clue how she'd managed. ('Come on/come with me' and 'sit' he got, too, but they were mostly because everyone'd been telling him all day long)
He propped up his hands on their index and middle fingers, made them walk toward each other. "Hello!" Lefty said to Righty with a little bob that might look like a polite nod (bit hard to be clearer when their heads were his wrists! They weren't that bendy.) "Hi," said Righty. They proceeded to babble about random crap for a couple seconds.
Karkat was staring at him and at his hands alternately, face torn between 'okay, so far I get it, I think' and 'why do I know you.' John grinned with all his teeth and made Lefty shuffle closer. "Hel-lo, nurse," that little scamp purred, thumb getting fresh with Righty's knuckles. Karkat growled at him.
"Hehehe. Sorry, sorry." Alright, back into character. "Goodbye, Lefty." Righty walked off. John flapped his hand a bit to signify she was gone for good, or she'd flown off on a stiff wind or whatever, and then he reset the scene. "Hi! Hello. Blahblahblah! Blahblah too. Yes! No. Later." He decided not to editorialize about Lefty being a buttface, and Righty's 'later' meaning 'see you in hell', and made Righty wander off for a little trip a bit too close to the edges of Karkat's pile of crap (he wasn't sneaking a look! no need to look so suspicious!) before wandering back. "Hello again!"
Then they knuckle-smooched. Okay, not really. He didn't want to confuse Karkat that 'later' meant 'I will ravish you next time'. It would have been funny, though.
"Punch." John demonstrated a slow-mo punch, aimed carefully away from the alien. "Punch again." He punched again. "Again." A third one. "Again. Okay, you get it now."
"Later... hello again?"
"Uh. I guess. Yeah." Except when it was used with its actual meaning instead of by colloquial lazy guys. Teaching was hard!
Karkat made a hummy thinking noise, slowly shuffling his weight so he wasn't sitting on his feet anymore but cross-legged, hands resting loose on his ankles, facing John. They stared at each other for a couple of seconds. Looked like Karkat felt like talking to him now, only John still didn't have the headset and Karkat didn't have enough vocabulary.
The hollows under his eyes were so dark. John wondered if, as in humans, it indicated exhaustion, because if that were the case he must be about to fall over. Made his eyes pop out, though. All gray, gray, darker gray -- bam! Buttercup/fire truck combo.
"...Let's get started on colors!" He pulled the bottom of his shirt and pointed at it. "White!" Next was the ceiling. "White too." He pointed at his bed sheets. Karkat's ears reddened and he glanced quickly away. Um. "... Also white."
"...White?" The alien pointed at the pages of a notebook. John nodded. He got it quick!
They went through black and purple and pink thanks to one of Dirk's ponies. Karkat hesitated for a second next and then pointed at his own eyes.
"Uh." John leaned a little closer, though he could see them fine from there. He pointed to his own iris, made a little circle. "Red?" A bigger circle. "Yellow."
Karkat nodded slowly, repeating the words under his breath -- he didn't like it when John chuckled over his pronunciation, but John couldn't help it! -- and then cautiously pointed at John's own eyes. "Whi-tuh...?"
His permanent frown deepened, though, when the dark jeans he wore turned out to also be blue, and Jake's pillowcase, which was, granted, paler and vaguely sea-colored. "Okay, not blue. I guess... Blue-green? And this is green." Jake's bed sheets were very green. Foresty, really. So were the matching radioactive slime ghosts on John and Karkat's chests. John tapped his own with a smile; Karkat's face went weird in a way he couldn't read and then he was turning back to his pile without another word.
"Uh. Karkat? More colors?"
"... No. Later, Zhann."
Okay, okay, what had just happened. John went on hands and knees and shuffled closer, tilting his head to peer at the alien's face. "Aw, but--"
"No!" Karkat snarled at him, and disappeared in his corner between the footboard and the walls. The suitcase, opened into a L, was slammed like a wall between the pile and the rest of the room.
John could have climbed on his bed and peered in from above, but he had a feeling Karkat might scratch his eyes out if he tried it. Okay, the heck. Seriously, the heck.
He sat back down on the floor slowly, baffled and maybe a little hurt. Karkat shuffled around in there for a little bit, likely trying to make himself comfortable on all that pointy, bumpy crap, but in a quiet way, like he wanted to pretend he wasn't here and John couldn't find him. After that, silence.
JH: rose? are you still busy?
RS: As it happens, not anymore. I am returning home and will be there shortly.
JH: oh cool.
JH: uh, listen. i think i pissed off karkat, but i really don't get why! i was showing him the colors and he was pretty okay about it and then suddenly bam he's crawling in his hidey hole and growling at me to back off. i don't get it!
RS: Interesting. Which color was it?
JH: uh, green i think. bright green, he was okay with forest green. i really don't get it!
RS: There, there. Pretend I've patted you.
JH: you're the best pseudo-patter ever, rose, it is you.
RS: But of course.
RS: He's an alien, John, he is bound to exhibit strange idiosyncrasies from time to time. I wouldn't be worried. He'll realize you didn't mean any harm and cut you some slack for your own alienness in a minute, and then you shall be BFFsies 4ever again.
JH: that sure sounded like sarcasm there. are you sarcasming at me, miss lalonde?
RS: I would *never*.
Heh. Yeah right.
RS: But that is neither here nor there. Will your guest be willing to emerge and meet me downstairs in ... three minutes, now?
JH: uh. no idea, i'll try. why?
RS: I've managed to arrange a little school trip, if he is still interested.
-- Oh. Oh man.
John bit his lip. He wished he'd taught him the word for mech now, it was of such importance in both their lives and instead Jade had taught him fork and knife and John had taught him purple and sit, and right now that sounded like the silliest, most pointless thing. (That surge of grief-hope-guilt, oh god. Why did Karkat have to feel everything so violently, John couldn't get it out of his head.)
"Uh. Karkat?" No response. "Karkat, come on."
Man. If he went to the barricade he might get clawed up for real, wow. But how to -- oh, loose paper, a pencil. He scribbled a quick caricature of Karkat's monster-mech, pincer-hands and grasping-hands and mandibles and all, added three smaller stick figures beholding it, one of them with little horns and a mouth full of zigzags and another with a triangle skirt and chest coconuts.
Totally art. Dave would be jealous. He folded it into a paper airplane and used some of those expensive mathematics of aerodynamics lessons and perfect gene-engineered hand-eye coordination to send it sailing into Karkat's base. It did a wholly unplanned loop and banged on a wall, but ended up in there eventually.
Paper crumpled in Karkat's hidey-hole; a low, dangerous snarl rose, only to be cut off like someone had pressed a button and turned off the sound. The alien burst out of the corner, suitcase kicked clean out of the way to bang into the desk. He looked so ready for a fight John was jumping on his feet and lifting his hands to block in sheer reflex.
"-- Heh." John breathed out, dropped his hands. "Hehehe. You startled me. Uh--"
Karkat shoved the picture under his nose, cut him off with a quick bark of a word, and then a longer tirade as his claw tapped the monster-mech, more like a question.
John sighed, gave a slow nod, a sober look. "Rose says come with me."
He went to the door, palmed it open, walked out. There was no need to keep track of the alien; Karkat was this close to walking on his heels the whole way down. The second they reached the common room he scanned it for Rose, alert; if he'd had dog ears they would have been pointed up and quivering with tension. She wasn't there yet, though.
The elder Strider was. Sitting at the kitchen counter, he was sipping from a soda can, foot swinging casually. He wasn't turned toward them but shades or not John knew he'd noticed them. John went to the man, hands cautiously pulled out of his pockets in case he needed to dodge anything in a hurry. You never quite knew when he'd decide to test your reflexes, after all.
"Hey, Mister Strider." If this was a situation in which John could call him Bro, he'd be told, but the man only nodded a sober greeting back. "We're waiting for Rose."
"Yeah, me too."
John was now pretty sure he wasn't looking at John but straight past him. Just a feeling.
Strider slid off his barstool, landed in perfect silence on steel-toed boots that should have made some goddamn noise but somehow never did, tucked his thumbs in his pockets -- fingerless black gloves, forearms corded with muscle and not a gram of fat, striped with an astonishing variety of scars, burn and knife and gun and whatever else. John didn't blame Karkat for going fighting-tense and shifting his weight on the balls of his feet; the man was a predator straight through.
Blink. Karkat didn't break eye contact, but he did slowly angle his face to the side -- totally willing not to fight it out if you are! his body seemed to say -- and said, to John, "... Deakka?"
"Haha, well-spotted. Yes, he's Dirk's... uh. Let's go with dad."
"Let's go with not."
John was pretty sure Mr. Strider was looking at him now, and not in a super-pleased way. "Hey! He's not from around here, I can't explain the exceptions first or he'll get all confused."
"Huh," went Karkat, or the alien equivalent, which was slightly more nasal and a touch more O-sounding but pretty much the same otherwise and John blamed Jane and her girlboner for linguistics for his ability to notice that. Oh did he blame her. He quickly typed it down and messaged it to her before he forgot.
"I see everyone is here," Rose said from the entry door, and they all turned to her in unison.
Karkat took a step toward her, and then forced himself to a stop, hands opening and closing, opening and closing like he really wanted to go grabbing at her, and maybe shake her down for answers a bit. John stepped up to him and bumped their shoulders together pointedly; Karkat closed his eyes briefly and breathed out long and slow, forcing his body to relax some. (And then he twitched and threw him a quick glare, what was that about?)
Karkat stepped forward again -- head high, this time, spine straight and shoulders back and firm, slow enough not to be threatening but not submissive, not scared. Just determination, his eyes burned with it, the desperation that John knew was underlining it currently reined in. "Rrhoz."
"Khrkat," she returned calmly, nodding a greeting. Rose pulled a glossy picture out of the bulging, overfull folder under her arm, held it in front of her; it was the black and red mech, seen from the side as it floated on its back in some kind of huge pool. She arched an eyebrow. "Come, yes or no?"
Karkat's jaw clenched briefly, but he didn't snarl or glare; he tilted his chin up, just an inch. It should have looked like challenge but it didn't, quite. "...Yes."
She nodded thoughtfully, and pulled the headsets out of her folder, held them out. "John, I trust you don't mind serving as interpreter?"
"Nah, I'm good." He put his on his head, tugged a few locks of hair free, flipped the temple bits into place. Karkat was mirroring him at his side, jaw clenched, brows furrowed.
It wasn't words that came first this time around, just an awareness, the spine-prickling feeling of older-bigger-dangerous standing at his back and too close where he refused to turn to keep an eye on him, because no matter how deadly he was (very deadly yeah man you have no idea) they all knew the real power in the room was Rose. John himself was, was... sleeping-lion?, potentially dangerous but not hungry (maybe prideally but bound to Rose more, and whatever she decided, that would be it.) (Hey not that much okay I mean she makes good plans but--)
My brain. Out. Karkat's thoughts went all restrained; it was like hearing a crowd still too far away, a ton of voices but none stronger than a whisper, and so tangled they were impossible to differentiate.
You gotta teach me that trick some day pretty neat all quietghostwhisperly.
A brief burst of nonplussed amusement. Help you protect your mind from me? you'd trust me/why would I? my one advantage you're so weird.
... Okay, seen like that! haha um.
Karkat slanted him a glance, something complicated brushing the surface of his thoughts and then submerging again, and then he shrugged. ... Fine, why not. Some day maybe. If your mind stops butterfly-fluttering ooh a shiny. Now tell Rose what does she want explain.
"Alright, it's working. Rose? We're listening."
She was watching the two of them, arms crossed, lips pursed, eyes unreadable, she'd probably been watching them like that all along, but that was Rose for you. She gave a quiet little sigh, shifted her weight, and focused on Karkat. "We have decided that fixing your mech will be mutually beneficial, and so there is no need to ask for a... good will gesture from your side first."
Blackmail, she means, John involuntarily added; Karkat's reply was a feeling of teeth gritted, of I could tell.
Won't make me cough up more intel for the privilege of saving -- something John couldn't untangle, but one of the components was the black mech, though it also flashed white a couple of times, slightly less humanoid somehow. Soul of generosity! I am so delighted could piss out all my organs go dancing barefoot in the streets to express my unending joy woo broken glass gutter nastiness rusty nails it's a party (she really is being generous, too, the fuck is she angling for, what's her angle there has to be one just has to be.)
John couldn't really contradict him. Rose could be extremely generous, actually! And caring, and concerned, and discreetly, pretend-I'm-not helpful. Once she had decided that she liked you, or that you were hers in some other way, that was. Otherwise not so much. There was no way Karkat was there yet, not even for John's sake.
"The rules are: You do not get access to the mech itself. We will be in a little observation room overhead. You can see, you cannot touch."
(but how can I fix how can I healsave--)
"We will be acting on your advice. John, how likely is it he would sabotage us and try to make us kill it instead?"
Karkat flinched, his immediate never followed by a quieter know I should but, but no (can't be alone can't lose it/him no one else left nooneelse), can't, should but I can't (such a failure so weak soweak) that tore at John, made him flinch, made his hands clench from the need to touch him. "Not at all," he assured Rose, forcing a smile that didn't seem to convince her.
"That's good to know," she replied slowly, watching him with eyes narrowed in thought, before turning back to the alien. "Next rule. There will be civilian humans around. You do not touch them, you do not approach them, you do not deliberately scare them, you do not attempt to interact in any way. Needless to say if you go so far as to hurt them our agreement is null and void and you will be returned to the research and interrogation divisions."
John nodded with Karkat's own radiating feeling of sober agreement. The alien had little interest in civilians (what was that notion anyway, noncombatants? Were they injured/weak but kept because so smart it was okay?) so long as they didn't attack him first, but if they were so weak, that shouldn't be an issue... Huh, would he even be allowed to defend himself or would that count as hurting them?
I'll defend you. It'd be unfair to make you stand there and take it. Plus kind of baiting you, asshole move.
"And the last rule." She slipped her hand in her folder again.
Oh hey, handcuffs. Karkat didn't recognize them at first, alien wrist restraints probably looked different, but he lifted their use from John's mind and stiffened. Behind them Mr. Strider shifted his weight quite deliberately, reminding them he was still in arm's reach.
Okay okay I can do it, doesn't change a thing really I can't fight anyway.
John's first instinctive response was they look like cop handcuffs you could break the chain easy. Though even as Karkat breathed out in a shuddery gust, he had to correct, ah no crap that's titanium you couldn't. I mean dude I couldn't I'd break my wrists first and they'd still be locked in only swelling everywhere and really achy. Um sorry.
... thanks for nothing emperor dumbass. But it had made him feel better anyway, though he locked that away quickly before John could overhear exactly why or how much. Didn't stop John grinning, though. Karkat let out a tiny, puff-of-breath, reluctant laugh and looked up at Rose. "Yes." How? Ask her how.
"Front or back, Rose?"
"Hm. Back for today. If he behaves we might change that." She held out the handcuffs; John reached out. Mr. Strider reached past him, between the two of them, and snatched them first. Karkat tensed up and flinched around, vaguely thinking of dark indistinct shapes in the water that could have swallowed his boat whole, gliding so close, a flicker of memory he didn't even seem to pay attention to, and that John hoarded quickly to the back of his own head, or at least tried to. Karkat didn't seem to notice, at any rate.
Mr. Strider made a quick little "turn around" motion with his fingers; slowly, reluctantly, Karkat went back to facing Rose. How dangerous is he really, scarred face scarred everything maybe just means he gets hurt a lot...?
Haha uh no. Like. Really no. He's been training me all my life and I've only dropped him five times tops, and I think for two of them he was showing me how to come back up after taking a fall/deal with fighting while in pain. None of us pilots can take him I really don't think you can either.
(Okay no, sometimes they managed, but it was always flukes, or felt like it anyway.)
Karkat crossed his wrists behind his back with only a minimal shiver; his mind voice stayed full of snark and not as much nerves as John had expected. I get it he is lord badass emperor of badasses eats steel and uranium for breakfast craps out starship fuel rods yadda yadda.
Hehe. Not scared (anymore)?
... No point, if I'm not going to fight him anyway (if he's so much better the end result's already known no need to bother.) I shall be so docile a sheep would fucking weep from shame at my shining example and throw itself on the butcher's knife, knowing its life of softfluffy servility is a futile, hopelessly outmatched endeavor from there on.
"John?" Rose inquired. He gave her a deflecting grin; he really didn't think she needed to hear that one in full, and it was fun having a secret conversation right in front of people. Reminded him of his brief stint at normal school and passing notes behind the teacher's back.
"Nah, nothing. Karkat's being rambly." A little shrug. "He promises he'll play nice!"
Promise my ass as if I've got a choice.
Karkat tugged on the handcuffs, testing the way they settled against his wrists. Mr. Strider had set them pretty tight, John could tell at a glance; there was absolutely no way Karkat would slip out of them, not even if aliens could dislocate their thumbs.
(You can what? That's disgusting.)
"If everyone's ready? Let's go."
They trailed out after Rose. Karkat wrapped his fingers around his wrist so the chain wouldn't be pulled taut and the edge of the metal cuffs wouldn't dig into his skin, Mr. Strider walking behind him with his hand wrapped around Karkat's other wrist. The man could haul him around or throw him down with zero warning that way, so vulnerable fuckfuckfuck but he wasn't interested in hurting Karkat and besides he was Dirk's father right he'd be pretty much like Dirk only older and Dirk was pretty okay so far. Yeah. Yeah, okay, breathe. Staircase, harder to balance without arms but doable and (John'd probably catch me anyways (yeah of course he/I would))
Stairs and stairs, another handprint-locked wooshing door, and then they were stepping out in the courtyard, way bigger when you didn't have a big robot to cross it for you but he'd been so sick didn't remember it, they'd floated? Flown? Flown yeah I remember now no wait that's you, that's--
Outside a dozen soldiers in tactical vest stood facing the door in a half-circle, Jack Noir right in the middle. Goddamn it.
"Egbert," Mr. Strider said in his low, veiled voice. "Hold." Absolute order; John took Karkat's arm without thinking twice, grasp not too-tight but solid, all business. Strider let go, stepped a little to the side so he'd have more space to move.
"How nice of you to come assist us," Rose said in her most neutral voice.
What's going on? Shit that's the psycho guy made you fall zapped you, shit shit why so many guards, try to take me by force?(can't fight oh shit should have known I can't fight--)
"Shh." John squeezed Karkat's arm a little, trying to be reassuring. Nah, they have to be polite we're out in the open people would see not sneaky.
Karkat was a little doubtful as to how the threat of being seen would stop them, but he seemed tentatively willing to take John's word for it. (If you're wrong I will haunt the fuck out of you.)
"Be damn unconscionable if we didn't," Noir answered Rose, "seeing how you're gonna drag that thing right amongst a bunch of fucking civilians."
Rose gave him a polite smile. "You are entirely right, of course. Shall we?"
Wait, what? --Aw damn, right. Stupid jurisdiction overlaps.
"Not so fast." Noir's eyes narrowed in thought as he looked her over, and then scanned the other members of their little group. Mr. Strider got a little curl of his upper lip, but his eyes glided past him and onto John and Karkat. Karkat's eyelids twitched; he didn't bare his teeth, but he wanted to. So instead John stared back at Noir, and then smiled, the friendliest, toothiest smile he could muster.
"We're on a schedule, Mr. Noir," Rose reminded him pointedly. "The scientists are having to postpone a lot of experiments--"
"Won't take a minute." He pulled a length of black cloth from some pocket, lobbed it at Rose. "Blindfold. Not leaving it able to find its way back there."
Karkat hissed low and quiet between his teeth.
"I am not unwilling to compromise, but this wouldn't work," she countered with a sigh. "The reason is as of now still classified, but believe me, it wouldn't."
John hesitated. Karkat really didn't like the idea, though he'd gone on brain lockdown again and John couldn't tell how badly, but Noir was going to be a right pain in the ass if they didn't give some ground, and uh, thinking about it, it would be kinda irresponsible to take a really strong, claws-equipped alien out for a walk with such a small escort, even if they were all three of them badasses in their own right.
JH: we could take off the headsets?
Rose threw him a quick, unimpressed look.
RS: The information would still be in your head when you put it back on.
JH: ... oh right.
"Humor me," Noir said, in a voice that didn't sound like it even knew humor in passing.
Okay why the fuck do they want me blind shit they could hobble me too while they're at it truss me up tie me to a pole like a pig to be roasted put sticks through my eardrums saw off my horns would I be hindered enough then?
They're scared you'll escape and find your way back there.
Karkat's flash of surprise was smothered almost immediately, but not before John could catch the bewilderment, the edge of 'what's being able to see got to do with finding my way back?' He couldn't help but blink and look at Karkat; Noir broke eye contact with Rose to stare at him.
"What's got you making faces, brat?"
"Maybe just seeing yours," Mr. Strider drawled, sounding bored. "Huh. Good point. Wouldn't want the alien to go blind. Hand that over, Lalonde."
John was torn between relief that Noir had stopped paying attention to him to glare daggers at Mr. Strider and worry at how much like a lump of iron Karkat's biceps was starting to feel.
Mr. Strider didn't ask Karkat his opinion; he just stepped behind him, deftly plucked out the telepathic headset -- sudden silence, cut right in the middle of a burst of ohfuckshit -- and folded the length of cloth in two and tied it on. Karkat's claws pressed tight against his own forearm, on the edge of piercing through the skin. John flicked his finger against the inside of his upper arm to distract him.
Another wraparound, another knot; Mr. Strider casually tugged a few locks of hair out from under the blindfold so they wouldn't pull and then put the headset back on Karkat's head.
"Nice color, by the way," Noir grunted, eyeing the hot pink headbands on Karkat and John's heads with a suspicious eye. "New fucking alien fashion?"
He said it with an undertone that flipped the words around, you an alien-fucker yet, boy? Made John want to punch him in the mouth. He could see the taser at his belt, so maybe not right away. (That shit really, really hurt, damn it.)
And Karkat was blind, blind, blind, fifteen humans who were looking for an excuse to shoot him and drag him back to be tortured all around him and Rose who was so cold and might find defending him not cost-effective and Dirk's father who had no reason to give a shit and John--
John, you -- John, shit, you -- I can't see I can't see fuck (you're an enemy I shouldn'tcan't thisissobad) fuck don't leave (can't ask you that) (there's no one else) please I (shameful so shameful what next crawling shit shit shit) please--
I won't leave, John replied, and briefly squeezed Karkat's faintly trembling arm, I wasn't going to, you don't have to beg, you never did.
I. Fuck. Pretend you didn't hear any of that I just -- okay, okay, I can deal I'll just. Think sheepy thoughts. Yeah. Baa. Is me.
"There, there," Strider was saying to Noir, all heavy-lidded and slouchy and bored, "No need to be envious, that shade would clash with your panties anyway."
Caught by surprise, John couldn't keep himself from laughing. Neither could a couple of Noir's men, though theirs was shaded with horror. Noir turned his head sloooowly to pinpoint them, nostrils flaring, but all fifteen of them were doing their best to stare holes through the building's wall. Rose's lips were pinched in what looked like annoyance but was more likely to be restrained hilarity.
I don't get what's wrong with those specific undergarments, or with that color, Karkat told him, forgetting to be panicked for a brief perplexed instant.
It's uh for girls?
... (aliens are weird of course it's for girls it's pink) And?
John floundered. Uh.
It wouldn't hold those ridiculous floppy bits properly I guess (why am I having these thoughts I'm blaming you I will blame you forever cannot unsee) but why is that so funny?
No, it's -- urgh never mind I'll get Jade to explain crossdressing to you later we're walking now. Okay there's nothing in front of you it's fine and anyway I'm holding you up you can't fall.
Karkat kept on being quietly puzzled as to why John thought he would fall. It's one step ahead I'm not that -- Okay what was the last notion there, it had to do with perceptions but John couldn't tell if it was blind or deaf or hindered or something else entirely. (I know they're tiny but fuck you very much John alien.)
He wasn't sure who got it first, it was like the thought had sparked at the same time across both sides of the divide, or so close it made no difference with how fast the echo came. Horns? No horns. Oh.
How does it-- John started to ask.
Well it -- not telling, it just does.
... Heh okay. I have to tell Rose though.
Karkat returned a mental shrug, and his attention slid away from their conversation and toward the men escorting them, light steps on the packed-earth courtyard, surrounding them, moving with them like a school of fish. It was a bit eerie. Rose led the way, but Noir and Mr. Strider had fallen back, flanking John and Karkat, two steps back, the best vantage point to either tackle them or each other.
"I suppose you would like a less direct path?" Rose inquired as they crossed the yard.
"Yeah. Go through the med labs. Lower level's empty today."
... Asshole, John thought.
He wants to confuse you yeah? We're going through medical. It's uh gonna smell pretty distinctive sorry. (I wonder if he -- ambush?) Crap! Didn't mean to think that--
I managed to think it on my own, Karkat retorted wryly. You won't freak me out more than I do myself I'm a pro at imagining catastrophic endings should make it a job or something (I'll be better at it than mech pilot for sure) horrific visions of flaming death and epic failure nonstop in here it's like an action-thriller-horror movie theater we're open all day please feel free to never leave. (wish I could.)
John only realized he'd said "Aw, buddy, no" out loud when Rose looked over her shoulder at him.
"Everything alright?" she asked, casually but just quiet enough to be unintelligible by the guards. John shrugged.
"So far, yeah." Oh hey, it gave him an idea. "Keep watch for a sec?" he asked with a quick grin. Rose quirked an eyebrow but dropped to their level, hands joined behind her back casually. Good. He didn't want Karkat to think he was leaving him totally defenseless, after all, and soon they'd be in the hospital and once there he'd have to keep his eyes peeled.
He closed his eyes, leaned his mind toward Karkat's. Not looking for deeper thought, this time, just sort of... piggybacking onto the running commentary of his awareness.
Booted feet on the ground, heavy/mid-tall, he could only locate the closest... five, six? This one was Rose, lighter, and Noir and Dirk's father were much quieter/lighter/shallower than they should have been at this distance. Predators, stalking, herding him, made prickles run up his spine, made his horns ache at the roots straining to -- oh, a wall coming up, heavy building, stairs coming in two steps, one step, huh, why hadn't John John you open your fucking eyes right this instant what the fuck!
John didn't trip, because he still remembered where Karkat thought the first step was (he'd been pretty accurate too.) He was grinning from ear to ear. Maybe it was because Karkat was blinded right now but John hadn't really noticed that extra sense in his mind before. It was such a strange way to see the world, fuzzy and hard for his mind to grasp; he got along more with Karkat's understanding of the sensations than the sensations themselves. It was subtle. Probably having his eyes open drowned it right out.
What the fuck were you ooh you sneaky little bastard that's pretty good (don't want to admire you idiot-savant but damn) how'd you figure that out (shit I'm the one who's lived with psychics all my life how the fuck did you first ah there it is.) Oh huh your colors are a bit weird.
Karkat's relief at once again catching flashes of vision made John a bit light-headed. No, yours! John retorted, grinning a bit wider. A couple of Noir's men kept sending him wary, baffled looks. He winked at them. He thought he could sort of feel Karkat looking through his eyes, but it was so faint he might have imagined it. At least Karkat was calming down some; that was good enough.
JH: thanks rose! done now.
JH: horns are sensory organs. kinda like echolocation? his radius is pretty small, apparently on account of tiny horns, but you couldn't make him walk into a door. there go all my best pranks for today.
JH: it feels really weird! but pretty cool.
What in the name of the greatmother/monster/originofall's ever-discharging asshole are you doing? Mind feels all weird.
Oh, I'm typing at Rose.
Lips parted, Karkat twitched his chin like he wanted to turn his head to stare at him, but whoops blindfold, nothing to see, apart from a mildly dizzying mirror-echo flash when John glanced his way. Whoa.
What where how? Telepathic after all?
No silly, glasses. They read brain impulses. (man between that and the mind-snot headsets I hope none of it will give me brain cancer.) You've got to learn to use a normal keyboard at first but once you know how to do that and it's all ingrained you just have to think typing thoughts.
...Which apparently Karkat couldn't access as well, or even at all. Huh! Maybe it didn't use the same part of the brain. Iiiinteresting. He'd tell Rose that later, it sounded like something she'd love to know. Her and Roxy.
... Huh. Okay. Now pay attention for fuck's sake Noir's getting closer I don't like this.
John casually let himself fall back a half-step, so he'd have an easier time getting in the middle if anything happened. Stop tugging on your wrists, you'll hurt yourself. I've got it.
John was tempted to sputter that he wasn't flirting goddamnit, but he could tell Karkat didn't really think he was, only that it sounded like pretty much textbook it, oh those wacky aliens. He could also tell that Karkat was now breathing too fast, and through his mouth in an effort to minimize the scent of formaldehyde and disinfectant. Okay, if fabricating reasons to get annoyed at John could keep him distracted...
RS: That's interesting. We suspected, considering how poorly he took to the MRI scanner, that he was perceiving the magnetic field somehow. I wonder if it's this same ability or a different one.
JH: how poorly are we talking about?
RS: He was vomiting and experiencing vertigo for up to a hour afterwards. No bleeding out any orifices or observable long-term effects, but his exposure was relatively short, all things considered.
JH: ... plans to weaponize the heck out of that?
No answer for a second, two, and then Rose gave a strangely reluctant little nod.
JH: makes sense.
Rose gave him a weird little look that he couldn't read. He frowned.
JH: what? it does. a weakness like that.
JH: i just hope they won't push to test the high settings on Karkat. i am having no illusions on the lowest settings but damn it they already have the first test results, they'll have to make do. >:/
RS: No need to worry about that. It would be easy to argue that as long as he's the only alien we have in custody, testing him to destruction is wasteful and short-sighted.
RS: And if/when we manage to capture more it then becomes about human rights, but this part is more murky seeing as they are not, per se, human.
JH: yeah and if as a result we treat them like they're not even animals then we're not human either.
RS: I wish everyone would see it the way you do.
But they didn't, of course. People sucked some days.
Hey pay attention (I can't see when you're not watching damn it.) Bet your ass he's trying to make me flip my shit perfect excuse to go oh hey you can't control your alien-shaped useless-companion miniature lion thing we need to control him ourselves so noble aren't we. (that's how people-shaped redbleeding aliens think right? like highranknoble but playpretend oh no, so nice?)
Karkat was trying to make his mind feel flippant, annoyed, but underneath that John could almost feel/see/relive the memories that the smell of the place brought up. Prickly, though -- undertones of (stop pitying coddling shielding me I'm strong too I'm a fighter damn it not your pet not.)
So hey, there were better ways to fix his mood. You're not going to flip your shit anyway are you? he asked. Be all civil and calm and nice it'll piss him off even more.
Yeah good idea prisoner piss off the alien with the gun and the grudge.
Pff you're (mine) my prisoner he can fuck off.
Uh. Maybe that was a bit, uh, maybe being able to telepath at each other so fast, faster than their ability to censor themselves, was a bit problematic, because from the way Karkat had slammed the metaphorical door in his face again, uh. Yeah.
Karkat? I didn't mean like creepy slavething mine. Responsible-for-you mine?... Karkat? Kaaaarkaaaat?
It took a couple of minutes, pointlessly walking up and down silent, clown-painted corridors (fuck those clowns, thought a small part of John's mind, but a much smaller part than usual, preoccupied as he was), and Karkat's shoulders had hunched forward, and he ... well, it was hard to say if he would have avoided John's eyes or not considering at the moment there was a length of black cloth cutting the gray of his face in two, making the twist of his mouth pretty much unreadable.
... Whatever, Karkat eventually mind-grunted. Out soon?
Yeah. We've uh lalala song lyrics song lyrics crap I need a song I really hope if I can maybe sing the right song in my head long enough I'll stop thinking it and you won't uhhh argh maybe a really annoying one?!
Relax, idiot, I can already tell we've gone down the same corridor twice. ... Yes even with you going notwatching forgetting sillydistracted all the stupid time. You guys really can't...?
John shared a mental shrug. Some people had a good general sense of direction. Also you could count corners and feel-remember roughly how many degrees each successive turn you'd taken was and add them up. Made things more about memory and logic than just plain senses, though. Karkat absorbed it, thoughtful.
All that and you don't even have psychics you poor stunted bastards.
... yeah well your horns are stunted so there.
Karkat drew himself up and actually growled under his breath, the kind that made John's teeth vibrate somehow with how low it was, and when the guards surrounding them stiffened and the muzzles of their guns twitched his way he didn't even stand down. Your teeth are stunted that's even worse!
Well, the plan had been to get Karkat annoyed enough that he forgot to be scared! John decided to pretend that stunning and witty comeback about the horns had been a deliberate part of said plan all along. Wow, he sent over with a healthy helping of amusement on top, you must be the first person ever to take issue with my teeth for being too small that's a novelty.
Not the size dumbfuck the rounded edges. No teeth no claws you're dull all over no pointy bits at all the rest of the biosphere must be made of marshmallow how the fuck does a species like yours even survive otherwise.
Mostly by being the nastiest-minded vindictive assholes out here, John admitted, and then Rose stealth-kicked his ankle. "Ow!"
"Oh, sorry, John!" she lied. The messenger icon was flashing angrily at him in the corner of his lenses, and had been for a little bit now.
RS: Would you mind telling me why he's growling?
JH: i may have insulted his horns to distract him from being nervous. it totally worked!
RS: By making everyone else tense. I know your conversations must be fascinating but situational awareness is a good thing to have.
RS: He's sensitive about his horns, I take it?
John snickered, sneaked Karkat a look. His lips were still clearly down-turned. Pff pouting.
(stop being so desperate about the flirting damn it will you go through the whole grid what's next throwing Dave at me and then getting in the middle) Shut your face before I shut it with my fist.
John manfully refrained from retorting anything too loudly about empty threats or Karkat being currently handcuffed so he'd like to see him try. He wasn't very good at controlling his thoughts, sadly enough, but Karkat only huffed and turned his head pointedly away. (The guard on that side went all twitchy because it looked kind of like Karkat was staring at him through the blindfold; Mr. Strider scoffed under his breath.)
JH: the more it goes on the more i think it's like making a small feet joke at a guy.
RS: I *see*.
Rose rolled her eyes at him, and then looked over her shoulder at Noir, who still shadowed Karkat like he couldn't wait to try out the deep fry setting of his taser on his gray ass.
"It might be a good time to mention that preliminary testing has shown the alien to have a positively pigeon-like ability to orient himself, and might now be wondering why this is the third time we are passing the big harlequin."
(Oh crap, that harlequin. John remembered bursting into tears the first time he'd seen it. And the second time too, and the third, and after that he'd learned to go with his eyes closed. There was just something deeply unsettling in its friendly smile and ceiling-to-floor looming frame.
Why that would make Karkat respond -- past the first alarmed Whatswrong let me see -- with a sudden burst of, of affection John didn't get, but Rose and Noir were still staring at each other and it was a bit distracting.)
"May we get out of this building yet?" Rose was asking with weary patience.
It was probably exactly what she wanted when Noir speared her with a look like he was wondering why his eyes weren't fitted with death lasers yet. "It can what. You're saying that now? What the fuck is wrong with you, hiding that shit from people who really do fucking well need to know?"
What's going on? John? Noir's steps echoed heavier behind Karkat now, his presence-echo more -- more dense, in a weird way John didn't have words for. Karkat interpreted it as rising threat level, though; John had to tug on his arm to keep him from speeding up and taking himself farther out of arm's reach, or they might think he was trying to run away.
"I did tell you it would be a pointless exercise. You were not in a receptive frame of mind." An elegant shrug. "It didn't cost us to make the attempt regardless, but we are on a schedule here and the clock is ticking."
Noir seemed ready to spit nails. Mr. Strider stuck his hands in his pockets as he turned to him -- ooh, insulting, John thought, and could feel Karkat thinking it right alongside him, all 'eh, I could take you with just my feet', echoing so close John could only pick up which was whose from the undertones, John's from knowing the man and Karkat's just because it was apparently this blatant, what do you mean most people wouldn't read it that way.
Assuming you're right and your people are all stupid and blind and trustingsoft then Noir must know him well if he can read him too, Karkat commented, trying to distract himself from the nearly palpable crackle of tension at his back between the two men. John started to turn to look at him, and then a priority message took up his whole left lens.
BR: Egbert, stop chatting up the alien. Half the guys now think you have imaginary friends.
BR: The other, smarter half have probably figured out the glasses thing, it's not that new as technologies go, but honestly. If someone is observant enough to notice that, it's a fair bet they might also notice that it's not Rose you're chatting with. Guy's body language is as controlled and opaque as yours, for fuck's sake, he telegraphs like he's in a western.
"There, there," Mr. Strider was drawling in real time, multitasking telling John off and pissing off Noir like a pro, "nothing to worry about. But Medical just doesn't cut it for a romantic walk, you know? B plus for effort, though."
"I am going to stab you in the kidneys, Strider," Noir hissed really quietly (but Karkat's ears were really good and even if he didn't understand the sounds John did so hey.) "And then I'm going to step on your face and stab you again."
"Aw, hon, that's so sweet," Mr. Strider drawled, at normal volume. A couple of guards choked quietly. "Exit's that way."
Biting his lip to keep from laughing, John tugged Karkat's arm and guided him in the right direction; the guards glanced back to Noir, and, with his curt nod, preceded them out.
Thankfully there was no courtyard between that building and the next, only an alley. Noir made them stop before the door, sending two men forward to "clear out the idiot civilians who likely thought 'off-limits for the duration' meant 'unless you've got that super important doodad to pick up real quick'."
They shed another handful of men to guard the staircase as they ascended and a few sent off to whatever key points the man had noticed, which was -- huh, quite a few more than John himself had noticed. John might really dislike him but the asshole was good at his job.
He would have thought Karkat would be interested to keep aware of where all the threats were, even if he had no intention to escape, but with each step up he took the alien's thoughts thrummed stronger and stronger with strobe flashes of anticipation-worry-guilt-worry, with the biomech flashing between its black and white versions, wanttofeelsafe shieldme warring with sofuckingsorry shouldneverhave and needtofix needtohelp.
He'd beg, if Rose decided to make him, he'd beg to be allowed to betray his people's secrets, and the shame was sickening but that didn't make it any less true.
Don't be stupid, she won't, John tried to send him, but even though he wasn't actively blocking him out Karkat was turned so far inwards he didn't pay any attention.
They were guided to a room off to the side, sort of narrow but long; the opposite wall from the door was all windows, lined with tables and computers and notes and observation machines and stuff John either didn't know or didn't get enough time to identify at a glance. There were three people in white coats massed at the end of the room, behind four of Noir's men, weapons out.
Karkat didn't give a shit about any of that; he'd turned to face the windows, arm quivering under John's hand.
Noir and Mr. Strider traded sides, choreographed-smooth, so Noir could stand between Karkat and the civilians and Mr. Strider could take Karkat's other arm. Karkat gave a faint twitch, but didn't fight, didn't even ask John what, why. His chin was up and the muscles of his jaw rolling, but there was no thought to be had, only a thrum of alertness, expectation.
Rose turned on her heel from where she'd been exchanging polite nods with the head scientist, took the three of them in. "Khrkat?"
"... Yes." Whatever you want.
John didn't even have to translate. "Hm," she said, and then, a little more gently, "I'll take the blindfold off. Stay still."
"From behind, Lalonde," Noir reminded her, gruff but low.
"Of course," she said through a little accepting sigh, and stepped around to get at the knot from behind. "I'm fairly sure he doesn't have rabies, but... Ah, there we go."
She went back around, rolling the blindfold in her hand. Karkat blinked the fuzziness out of his vision, irises going painful-tight under the harsh ceiling lamps. John lost track of the faint echolocation feedback.
"Come with me."
There were only a few steps left to the window, maybe four or five. Karkat ignored everything else.
The hangar underneath contained a borderline Olympic-sized pool. The biomech floated there in some sort of tarpaulin that kept it from getting wet. Two of its upper limbs were in traction, like the hugest broken arms ever; the left grasper-arm was -- no surprise -- still missing, nothing but a nice big papered-over gap in the shell to show where it used to emerge under the pincer-arm's armpit. Vivid red cracks and dulled pinks ran through the chest plate, horns on that triceratops-crown at the back of its head and on its shoulders were chipped. It was broken and utterly still, chained down every three steps, people running with contemptuous familiarity right up its raptor leg, and watching its massive chest suddenly expand to take a single breath still made John jump.
Sheer spinal reflex had his finger twitching on an imaginary trigger, wishing for his blaster, wishing for Warhammer's controls under his hands, Warhammer's weapons. This is the enemy, he knew-felt-thought, all his years of battle experience yelled, this is--
Karkat's face was a mask, jaw tense, brows barely furrowed, eyes heavy-lidded in something that looked almost like boredom. Weary but resolute, it projected. Behind that... behind that, things buzzed and rustled and screamed, too far away to pinpoint, to unwrap rage from pain.
Is it a... memento from your dad? John asked cautiously, trying his best to keep his own revulsion at bay. Karkat didn't answer, eyes roaming over his nightmare of a mech, tracking every break, every chip in hardened chitin.
"Why is it in a pool?" Mr. Strider asked, tilting his head so he could look at the scientists over Karkat and John's heads.
One of the doctors -- a big black man in a white coat and bright aqua turtleneck -- took a step forward, quickly checked by the guards. He gave them a mildly annoyed look but didn't try it again. "The organs might be made to resist short bursts of acceleration, but we have no idea how well they'd stand up to long stays under normal gravity. We're setting up an antigrav room, but the size of the field is a problem." A little shrug. "In the meantime, water helps. You could ask him if it's necessary."
"We certainly could."
The doctor furrowed his eyebrows. "You can communicate with him, right?"
Rose hesitated. Noir slanted her a look, and rolled his eyes. "Let's cut to the chase. I do know people in Interrogation, I can guess what the fashion statement is about. Stop playing coy. If there's a tech leak it won't be from my fucking people."
... Well um.
Mr. Strider sighed. "Well. Too many people from too many branches know anyway, it was a matter of time."
"We can," Rose capitulated. "Doctor King, was it? I suppose you have a list?" The man nodded; another of the doctors hurried to get a clipboard from a table at the back of the room and they started whispering to each other. Rose turned to Karkat; John elbowed him to get him to pay attention. He turned from the window reluctantly, stared at her in a way that seemed weirdly grim, like subdued hostility. "Khrkat. You may interact with these people. Verbally. Don't try to approach. John, ask him about the gravity issue, please."
"Uh, sure." They want to know, is the gravity going to hurt it long-term? Organ failure and stuff I guess.
No. Karkat paused, frowned a little. Not standing up. Lying down might bruise his organs some (it's not how they're kept in dock.) Probably not for a while longer. Our gravity's higher.
John relayed. One of the doctors took notes.
"Alright. Now the most urgent item is the breaks in the shell -- we've had to stave off several infections so far, though really not as much as there should have been with so much exposed raw flesh. But we did have to trim the leftover stump on the secondary left arm before the infection could reach the main arteries."
Karkat hid a flinch at that one. (Shit.) He turned to look at the doctor, who didn't move and met his eyes with calm determination, but one of the other two flinched back a bit, going vaguely green, and shifted so he'd be more fully behind one of Noir's people. Karkat didn't spare him a thought. John ask him, is the shoulder joint ball still intact? (won't grow back otherwise shit shit shit.)
"Wow. He's asking if the ball part of the joint is still intact, because apparently it could grow back if it still is?"
Only with proper nutrients and appropriate medical attention (damn it what do I know about that shit do I look like a sweaty douchebag mechdoctor why didn't I listen to his stupid tirades more I am such a useless waste of space.) An image briefly flashed through, a big guy with a broken horn, the feel of him -- his appearance, his person -- all wrapped up in blue.
"Huh. We did notice the regeneration ability, but for a whole limb to -- ah." The big man gave Karkat a sober look. "I'm sorry, the skeleton was infected."
Karkat closed his eyes, breathed in, and swore under his breath, something that didn't really translate to John but had a lot of snake-hisses running through it at the very edge of his ability to hear; it made the hair on John's forearms stand up.
Hey, uh... At least it's alive, right? Still alive. I mean it's not great but...?
Why that would make Karkat flinch, he didn't know. Shut up, whatever. Tell them the most important is to fix the cracks in the chest and back plates. He'll suffocate otherwise.
John then spent several minutes trying to explain what Karkat was visualizing, and then explaining back to Karkat what turtles were and why the same thing happened to them because having air under the shell would make their lungs collapse and apparently that wasn't quite the same issue but close enough for government work, and did he think the usual treatment for turtles would work.
"... Listen, guys, can we just sit down at a table and maybe have some paper and pens? I swear he's not gonna stab anyone with it. I can't figure out how to explain half of what he thinks up."
Noir frowned. "Hm. How about he thinks it, you draw it. Don't tell me you can't hold a pencil steady, not with your hand-eye coordination scores."
Noir knew his scores. Creeeepy. "Hm. Karkat, that works for you?"
"And I'll be helping hold him."
Karkat hissed softly, staring at Noir for a second, before breaking eye contact. Whatever. (go ahead grab me, free sample day at the feel up an alien shop--)
"I dunno," John said hesitantly, mostly to be a dick, "You're really not as strong."
Noir leveled a heavy-lidded look at him and pointedly twirled his taser by the trigger guard in a little loop. Gnrgh.
"Hrsst." Thanks John if his finger slips while it's anywhere near me I am stuffing that thing up your ass I swear to the eternal gods in between the star-void. (that's if I still have a brain left it didn't dribble all out yeah more likely.)
"Okay, okay. Jesus."
"Keep your hold," Noir instructed as he made his way behind the three of them.
Mr. Strider tracked him, but didn't say anything, so John made himself not say anything either, not even when the first thing he did when he got in range was to press the mouth of his taser right up against the base of Karkat's skull. It nestled there amongst the shorter bristles of his hair, nudging pointedly. John reminded himself that if he cracked his tooth enamel again clenching his jaw too hard the dentist would bitch him out even harder than last time.
"Fun thing about point blank range," Noir mused under his breath, "I can deliver shocks pretty much continuously until the battery runs out."
"Will you stop being such a huge asswipe," John growled back, "he's not going anywhere, he wants us to fix his mech, he's not gonna mess it up."
"Go give your pretty little guarantees to the guys he put in the hospital," Noir snarled back with sudden, shocking sincerity, "oh wait, Fernandez would have to come out of his fucking coma first."
"Now shut the fuck up and move to the side -- don't let go." He wound his arm with Karkat's, going under his elbow from the outside and then twisting up to press his hand behind Karkat's shoulder blade, so he could just twist a bit and keep him off balance or even force him down on the ground with relative ease. "There. Let go."
Reluctantly, John did. Mr. Strider will protect you, he sent Karkat, but the alien only replied with a weary thought-ripple that didn't convey much apart from how sick and tired he was of just about everything.
John made his way to the nearest table and accepted a notebook and pens that one of the doctors had slid him along the table. He sat with a sigh and started drawing the cross-section schematics of the shell Karkat was visualizing for him. Doctor King eventually made his way to him, flanked by two of the guards. Huh, John could have sat down closer to him; he just wasn't sure how far before the signal between him and Karkat decayed too much to convey everything properly, and the room was really kind of long. He smiled in apology, pulled out a chair for him.
"Okay, so we need an air-tight patch, is the first thing, and the cracks aren't big and he doesn't need to breathe a lot, but you'll still have to aspirate the air under the shell out first before you do anything. Second, the shell will grow back, but it's gonna take a little while. They have organic supports that get kinda absorbed as things grow back through them, the way we do with bone repairs, but Karkat's not sure of the composition or how they make them or anything, so it's gonna have to be the low-tech option."
He kept sketching. The patches had to be kept way clear of the broken edges of the shell, or it'd scar and stop growing back, kind of arch a bit over, the way a bridge couldn't stand right on the edge of the riverbank or it would eventually crumble into the water...
"Hm. Yes, pretty much what they do for turtles," said the other doctor, the woman one, as she joined the two of them and leaned in. The last guy was still back there, waffling around hesitantly behind his guards. "We'll need to call a vet for suggestions on the best techniques, it'll have to be adapted for size--"
"Yes, and tested for allergic reactions as well, though the outer shell shouldn't give us trouble as it's designed to let nothing in or out regardless..."
They devolved into medico-technical babble about appropriate glues that John only vaguely understood. He listened for a minute, then cleared his throat. "Karkat wanted to ask about fuel. Uh, food? Same thing. He, huh, wow, medical terms. Okay, I didn't get that." Karkat sent him a feeling like a longsuffering sigh, and the taste of sugar suddenly flooded his mouth. "Guh. Sugar. Pure sugar. He'll have, uh... vitamin issues later on? Some kind of deficiency. But so far he mostly needs sugar."
The woman doctor's brow furrowed. "How do you administer, with the shell...? Saline drips wouldn't work. Does it eat on its own?"
John shuddered. Scary thought. Karkat scoffed at him. Wimp.
"Feeding tube will work." Thank God.
John would have been much more reassured if Karkat was saying so because it was impossible; but the undertone was clear that he was saying it because it was unlikely. Yeah, no, he was going to keep being freaked out, thanks.
"What type of sugar?"
"I really don't know, I'm sorry. Urgh, and Karkat says the mech feeding on his own is unlikely, but..." He grimaced a bit, ruffled the hair at the back of his head nervously. Those mandibles, oh lord. All the lab techs running all over the mech. They now reminded him of mice thinking the cat was dead when it was really just taking a nice refreshing nap. "Just the fact that it's possible at all means you guys should probably know."
The doctors traded glances. "Now that's unexpected," Doctor King said, an eyebrow arched. "Are you sure?"
"Uh." John checked with Karkat. "Yep. Sometimes they have reflexive actions, I guess. Like, even without their pilot."
"Hm. Well, the mech's brain impulses are pretty much even stranger than the alien's himself, so it shouldn't be too surprising."
"... But it's surprising anyway." John tilted his head. "Why?"
"Well." The woman doctor considered her answer for a second, and then she shrugged. "The only nerve impulses we were able to find seemed linked to autonomic functions such as breathing and passive organ function. We were starting to think it was brain dead."
Yeah, pretty much, Karkat commented, all dry and casual except not, not at all. John suddenly felt nauseous.
But you said he was alive! You wanted to know if he was still alive --
He is. Still breathing isn't he?
That doesn't mean alive! You can keep a corpse breathing forever with the right equipment!
"Mister Egbert? Is there something wrong?"
John looked at the doctors, mouth open and unable to figure out what to say. (I know I know fuck you I know he's as good as) quietly ran nonstop in the background, wound up in a ribbon of grief-loss-self-hatred-grief.
"He. Uh." He closed his mouth. Opened it again. "It's. Normal? I mean. Karkat already knew? But how, I mean, he said he was alive--"
(dad dad daddaddad.) it's how mechs work stupid there can't be two brains in one body, there can't, that's all there's left instincts and basic bullshit and maybe some memories. (wrappedaround sillychild tinypunymine tooredinside hidethechildhideit) just some stupid memories floating around with no fucking context they don't even last long wisps on the wind and then all gone (all gone, dad notyetplease no--)
"John," Rose said, voice all gentle, and John didn't get why until she touched his face and he realized it was wet. Oh. "Are you okay?"
"... Yeah. Yeah."
"Is Karkat okay?"
He didn't even need to check. "No."
All the way across the room Karkat snarled, fangs bared. Fuck you shut up shut your fucking word trap! His eyes were dry, John wasn't sure how because inside he still felt like howling. Just tell them, I bargained for this won't break the fucking deal now!
"No, you shut up!" John snapped back, one hand wiping furiously at his face. "You -- how -- we can take a break if you--"
Karkat took a step forward that managed to drag the two adults with him. Noir's face tightened, narrow eyes gone to slits, shoulders tensing. Mr. Strider threw Noir a sharp quelling glance, leaned in, whispered something in Karkat's ear. John didn't have enough access to overhear, not that Karkat seemed to understand the words anyway. The tone was clear. Calm down already, shush, it's fine, it's all fine, breathe.
Karkat breathed. Mr. Strider rested his free hand on top of his head, gave him a little shake, a pat. "There. Good. Egbert, report."
"... It's -- it's how biomechs work, there can't be two active brains, so they." It hurt in his throat, too tight. "So they kill it. The mech, I mean. The forebrain. Bam, it's more convenient like that."
"And since when do you give a flying shit," Noir rasped out, "with the length of your kill list."
John stared at him for a few long seconds, wordless. "It's." It's his dad, he wanted to say, but that didn't make any sense. "He -- knew it? Him. Before he was a mech. He loved him."
Rose's brow furrowed. "Karkat loved the mech, or the mech loved Karkat?"
"How are biomechs made, then?"
John couldn't help wondering as well, and for a second or two it was just a question, and after that he knew. He knew with all the horrible immediacy of seeing it happen, screeching, worried dadmonster in white, not that big really maybe twice as himself, dragged away by, by black things full of spikes and a huge vat come this way soldier better view over there. Gurgling things in there gushing out from spigots and tubes and things, splattering him(dad), oh no it won't drown look it's starting.
Tissues dissolving and being reshaped, from dad-white to space-black and in between there was this ... mushy soup of flesh and exoskeleton and exposed raw nerves, and of course it feels everything from start to finish if it didn't that would mean conversion failed haha but what does it matter they're not people just beasts sure they're useful early on but by this point it has outlived all other sorts of usefulness anyway. It'll be done soon enough. Another three days.
He could smell it, acrid chemicals and raw meat, clogging his nose, sliding down his throat. He bolted from his chair, grabbed the nearest trash can. Oh hey, there was his breakfast. Hi there, morning bacon. Shit. Shit, fuck, hell, he was crying again, Karkat was making him into a real fountain, that had to stop already.
"Aw, man." He took in a shuddery breath. Rose was holding out a couple of Kleenex. He wiped his mouth, blew his nose. "Crap, that's horrible."
Karkat's eyes were almost closed, his face turned away toward the glass. John wasn't sure if he could see his -- his -- the biomech from there, but he looked so...
"That was quite the violent reaction."
John blew his nose again, accepted a bottle of water from Doctor King to rinse his mouth. How the hell did he put that into words?
"It's not that it's gross, Dave showed me worse, it's -- they threw his -- his... companion animal? Protector? Creature? They threw it in a vat with some other shit, like nutrients and -- genetic reconstruction stuff? And just let it all dissolve together, and then it made kind of like a cocoon, I don't know, it's gross, but that's not it -- it was, they didn't care it was in pain, they didn't care Karkat loved it, I mean they didn't even bother with painkillers or anything and it was all, all raw nerves floating in this puddle of fleshy bits and they pretty much killed it, only it kept breathing afterwards."
He couldn't convey the emotional impact, couldn't explain -- "dad" couldn't be the right word, but that was what it kept coming up as; even when he tried his best not to reword what Karkat sent, the feeling was the same, the associations -- his father's tobacco scent and a callused hand on his shoulder, showing him how to hold a spatula, how to make a fist -- feeling safe and shielded and like this was his place, where he belonged.
... John. Take your headband off.
Take it off because I can't take mine off and get the fuck over it. I can't take your fucking thoughts right now, just can't, can't keep you out stop it stop judging (stop feeling sorry stop thinking about it--)
Shut up yourself. When we're out of here I'm gonna hug you until your lungs come out and you can't stop me. But he pulled the headband off anyway.
"Just need a breather." He drifted back to the window, looked down at the black mech sprawled out there, shell dull in a way that absorbed all light, gave nothing back. When he squinted, the restraints seemed draped over a patch of outer space.
He remembered it white, and only two or three times as high as himself, and wrapping its big pincers around him to bring him closer to an armored chest, curling over so it could skree a threat at some random enemy with delusions of ever getting to the boy underneath.
"... So," he said, less for the doctors than in an attempt to push the emotions back down, "that telepathic goop in the cockpit is pretty much pureed beast forebrain. Nothing but floating neurons and neurotransmitters and stuff."
"We did manage to figure out that much," Doctor King said, voice oddly gentle, as he came up to stand beside him.
"Haha. I'm never going to feel clean again!" John proclaimed brightly. "Just saying."
"Heh." A pause. "Do you have a theory as to how the pilot communicates with the mech?"
"Horns?" John suggested. "They're kinda telepathy receivers. Though I don't have any and I could still communicate, even with Jade. I guess there's probably some kind of telepathy radiation in the goop that's at least long enough to get through the skull. ... Ick."
"Slap some ten-syllable words on it and that's our current working theory."
"I don't think Karkat knows much more, I mean, most people don't know exactly how their eyeballs change light into images, they just know they do."
The doctor must have had questions to ask, a ton of them, but he didn't push John, just let him look his fill and waited.
Eventually John nodded, flicked him a little apologetic smile, and drifted back to Karkat and his guards, who were still holding him tight. His shoulders had to hurt by now, and his hands. John lifted up the headset in his hand, make a questioning noise.
"Yes, yes." Karkat grumbled under his breath, rolled blood-red eyes at him, all 'oh god John why so ridiculous'. John grinned back, plopped it back on.
... hey. Long time no see it's been at least five whole minutes wow.
Like you didn't miss me like crazy. Admit it it was like a wound on your soul!
Oh yeah of course my very own brain alien it's like your own personal intestinal parasite companion the day's just not complete without a good bout of enthusiastic splattery diarrhea.
Karkat's eyes narrowed. "No, you."
John stared, widening his eyes and letting his mouth fall open in a perfect O of surprise. "... Was that... your first complete sort-of-sentence? My baby is all grown up! He's like... a toddler now! D'aww." And then he ruffled Karkat's bangs, because hah, so there.
Karkat gave a grumpy, halfhearted growl of a word. Mr. Strider snorted quietly. "If you two are done flirting... Not that I care but I'm kind of at point blank range there."
John didn't know who started blushing first, him or Karkat, but his cheeks were blotchy pink and Karkat's a dusky red in very short order. They both turned to stare at Strider, start identical "What no we weren't!" tirades; Karkat's was in his alien language of snarls and whistles, of course, but the meaning was pretty clear.
"Uh huh. Yeah. I'm buying it. Blowing my whole fortune on stocks, man I'm gonna be rich."
"Bluh bluh you sound like Dave, stop it."
"Oh no, not Dave," Mr. Strider deadpanned, "that's horrible, my life is over."
"How 'bout you cut the bullshit and go back to that schedule you assholes kept yammering about?" Noir said. "I'm this close to puncturing my own fucking eardrums here."
Mr. Strider's Southern drawl went from casual to molasses. "Aw, snookums, are we boring you."
Noir leaned in a bit behind Karkat and hissed, "Knife. Hilt. Deep. In your. Kidneys."
Maybe they should stop flirting too holy shit I am not alright with being trapped in the middle here!
"Gurgh." What the heck were with those visuals. "Karkat. Karkat no. Just no." John made an anguished face to convey exactly how many worlds of no. How many universes. Oh god putting that thought in my head I will never sleep again so wrong so wrong. the wrongest.
And now Rose was laughing. Great, just great. John gave up.
Like hell you do. Okay this is so fucking awkward if they allowed me to get away from all that eyefucking buzzing past right behind my horns I'd go drown myself in the toilet I swear to fuck. Quick find them a distraction go back on track science stuff I'll even answer free unsciency questions. He was only half-joking, too. It was a good suggestion, though!
Holding you to that, John threw back, and then clapped his hands together. "Okay! Doctor King. Doctor, uh, what's your name, ma'am?"
She laughed quietly, wrinkles crinkling. "It's Zheng."
"Alright! Karkat and I are fully ready to answer your most boring, most detailed questions. Even if most of them will get answers that amount to pretty much 'I don't have the first clue!' I hope that's okay."
He went back to his chair and his papers; the questions started back up. Karkat had relaxed somewhat, maybe helped by how Noir and Mr. Strider had decided that they were tired of standing there and had turned him around so they could prop their asses on the table, which meant now he couldn't see outside anymore. He stood there with his eyes half-closed, thoughts all professional and weirdly calm. Though from time to time amidst the diagrams and the sensory information on things like the texture of some necessary sealant for the broken spike-tips, there would be a pinch of emotion. John tried his best to pretend he didn't notice them, but they both knew it came clear through, and Karkat found it quietly mortifying.
There were some things that stubbornly refused to translate. Quantities, especially, or cellular or molecular structure. It didn't matter how clearly Karkat could conceptualize them, it just wasn't John's thing and kept returning big blank beep! format incompatible, data unreadable! at him. He used to like biology when he was younger and could afford to follow normal school stuff, but what did he need it, he was a mech pilot! Now he was really regretting cutting it out of his schedule. Though really the issue was probably that Karkat's people didn't visualize their molecular graphs the same way.
"Argh. I wish you guys had asked Jade instead, she's all over the place, it's like she sees the word science and it's good enough for her to grab, I'm sure she'd have gotten it." He sighed. "I'm sorry, it just won't come through. Anyone else wanna try it?" Karkat, do you mind?
... did you just seriously ask me if you could dump someone else in my brain to rummage for answers? Is that really a thing you did? Oh god yes please mindrape me more, go get a third headset for a nice relaxing gangbang maybe?
He sounded more weary than scared or angry, but John winced anyway. Ack, sorry didn't think. Not even if we told them it's a conversation okay not an interrogation you do not get to push like a pushy thing?
(like a John you mean?) Oh fuck it why the hell not, you're so frustratingly dense sometimes. (brain like that breakfast disk, bounce things off it all day long and at the end it's still hehe what with a grin on its entirely untouched face.)
Haha, I'm gonna tell Jane you're dissing her pancakes. She works so hard at making the faces pretty.
Why so it's more satisfying to bite their eyes off? huh I can see that it sure would work for me.
Alas, no pancakes for the alien, not while they still weren't sure what he could eat without getting sick.
John chuckled. "Karkat's okay with it," he said, pretty much at the same time as Rose said, "I'm sorry, no."
"What, why?" He stared at her, baffled. "But there's all that stuff I just don't get, Rose, it doesn't even make it through!"
"Then it'll have to wait until he has a better command of English. John..."
Okay -- okay, what was that expression about. Embarrassed? Sad. Somewhere in between. He kept staring at her for a few seconds, baffled, and then turned to Mr. Strider, to see if he'd have an explanation to that blaring subtext he was having trouble reading. The man had gone unreadable all over, but then that was his default state.
Noir had one eyebrow up, like something very interesting had just happened. He whistled between his teeth, stared at John with an expression half-vindicated and half-irritated somehow.
"What?" John growled.
"Well, hell, you are compromised. Here people were telling me it was just your bleeding-heart case of stupid and my paranoia."
"Noir," Mr. Strider snapped, but not like he thought John had been insulted. More like...
More like Dirk had when Jake let it slip to Jade about that surprise party, kind of. Irritated, weary, but... What the heck?
He glanced at Karkat, eyebrows furrowed, thoughts sparking across faster than he could have ever worded them. What'd I say that sounded compromised?(what? what? saying i'm what? stupidtricked/infoleak? betrayeroflovedones? planetkiller? so ridiculous not even funny--)
Just like that Karkat was gone from his head, no more vague buzz of awareness, no more faint traces of sensory echo, his answer never coalescing past a sudden burst of unease.
Mr. Strider was holding the headset, face still unreadable. No words forthcoming. John turned, stared at Rose. She didn't look back at him. She was staring at Noir instead, her eyes narrowed into slits.
"Not now, John. Doctor King, Doctor Zheng, Doctor Millebert, thank you for your forbearance. We'll schedule a second meeting at a later date."
John would have bought her politeness more if she'd even looked at the doctors, but no, still glaring death at Noir. She twitched her chin toward the door; the man gave a fake-obedient, sarcastic little nod, and directed his men to fan out, that they were leaving. John opened his mouth and closed it a couple of times. What? Whaaat?
"We're leaving, John. Come along."
He sputtered. Karkat was being herded out by Noir and Mr. Strider; the unnerved look he sneaked John under his bangs jarred him back into movement and he caught up at a quick jog, snaking past one of Noir's men so he'd be next through the door. "Since when are you my mom?!"
The corridor was wide enough that he could pass the trio of men and prisoner without bumping into anyone. He was tempted to bump into Mr. Strider anyway, that asshole, but while the man might have gone into robot-mode that didn't mean he wouldn't take revenge for that one later. It was so confusing keeping track of the limits between 'you're adults, decide this on your own, I'm your trainer, not your boss, and this is not my jurisdiction' and 'respect your elders, punk, I knew you when you were in diapers and I can still spank you if you sass me.' John knew their collective parents wanted the eight of them to think independently and make their own decisions as a collective unit, not be brainwashed into obedient soldiers who'd never question their superiors, but the transition could be hell. At the moment the balance of power hung clearly on the side of Rose as team leader and Strider as her silent, not-my-place-to-have-opinions right-hand-man.
He caught up to her just as she was shoving the door to the outside open. She was walking fast; keeping up borderline forced him to jog, and his legs were longer. "Rose, why are we just barging out of here like what, we weren't even close to done! What's that bullshit about--"
She flinched, flashed him oddly pained lavender eyes. Noir snorted.
"He still hasn't cottoned on. How do you still figure he's not?"
John was getting angrier by the minute, but he was too baffled to know what to do with it, who to aim it at, and Rose turned on her heel first, glared at Noir, opened her mouth, and he was so sure she was going to lay into him, and defend John from that stupid--
"Do give that molehill its time to bask in the rarefied heights of your paranoia. It isn't anywhere near deserving that word bandied about, and you know it."
... Huh. What?
"And may I know what you were hoping to accomplish by starting this conversation right around civilians? But wait, allow me to make a guess, you were hoping to start a rumor about John's incompetence, trying to undermine him--"
"If by undermining you mean not allowing him back into a machine of death that's unmatched on Earth save by seven of his childhood fucking girlfriends until he's deprogrammed then fuck yes."
Rose actually honest to god gritted her teeth. "Oh please, as if Skaianet has no competent shrinks of its own to make actual assessments."
The man curled his upper lip, disdainful, but there was a satisfied smile ghosting at the edge of his mouth that had John clenching his fists until it hurt with the urge to plant them in his face. "Oh, please," Noir mimicked, "like you won't cover for him when push comes to shove."
Rose iced over almost from one second to the next, hot anger replaced with the emptiness of space. "When Earth is at stake? I suggest you rethink that statement, Mr. Noir. I suggest you rethink it very fast."
"Thought you didn't want to have this conversation in public," Strider interrupted, giving a pointed look at the buildings on both sides of the alley.
They weren't talking loudly but there were a couple of open windows in the medical building and who knew who was listening up there, and also what the hell compromised?! What had John done different from yesterday? Was treating Karkat like a human bein-- uh, a sentient one some proof of upcoming betrayal? If that was all they were basing themselves on then the analysts could go to hell because he wasn't changing a single thing.
Rose turned on her heels and led them up the alley, around the medical building and not through it. John followed, stewing in silence. None of the people present would say anything, but Noir's guards kept stealing glances at him, pretty much the same way they kept watch on Karkat, like no matter how docile he acted like he was dangerous and liable to turn on them at a moment's notice. And that was just...
It hurt. He didn't get along with Noir (hah, nice little bit of understatement there) and he thought his security guards were annoyingly underfoot sometimes and humorless robots all the time but they were all on the side of humanity first, on the side of protect the civilians at all costs, but now he -- but...
(If Rose didn't think Jack Noir was at least a little right she would have set him straight right there in front of the doctors. She wouldn't have said a molehill, implying there was still something.)
(Compromised. What the heck did that even mean?)
(what had Karkat been feeling uneasy about?)
The trip through the courtyard was quiet, apart from the occasional booted foot scuffing packed earth, the random bird call. It was jarring when, reaching the door, Mr. Strider called his name.
Rose unlocked the front door and walked in; John stopped on the front step, reluctant to turn around. "... What?"
"Your turn." He nudged the alien toward him; Karkat stumbled a little bit. Not a lot because Noir was still holding on, and glowering. Strider tilted his head down, like he was giving his hand a pointed look through his glasses. "... Take over first, Princess won't feel safe otherwise."
Karkat was looking up at him, face all tense, almost grim. Didn't try to communicate, though, no expression, no attempt to speak.
Probably wondering why they didn't keep walking, if they were going to try to keep him before he passed back into pilot territory. (Was he wondering if John would let that happen after all?)
John stepped back down, stepped around him, made a show of catching both arms over the elbows. He didn't speak to Noir, just threw him as cold a look as he could.
Noir arched an eyebrow, doubtful or maybe unimpressed or probably both. "What's your problem, Egbert, you're the only one allowed to manhandle your boyfriend? Hasn't got a bruise on it."
"Stop calling him it," John said, or maybe he was rasping it, it was too quiet for a growl, and it would be so easy to just free Karkat and turn and --
Strider's hand landed on his shoulder, heavy. He shoved. John bumped into Karkat's back, who was pushed forward and tripped on the front step with a startled hsst! noise. "Hey!" John protested, but when he turned to look Strider wasn't looking at him, his head was turned to look at Noir head on, and his gloved hand tapped a tense, anticipatory little rhythm against his thigh.
"You go on ahead, kid. Got things to liaise about with my government counterpart."
... Well. John still would rather kick Noir's ass himself, but apparently Mr. Strider planned on taking care of that.
With an irritated little sniff, John turned away and nudged Karkat farther in, so the door could woosh closed behind him. Rose was waiting at the bottom of the stairs, but that was all the acknowledgement she gave. She wasn't looking at John and Karkat and the second they were walking toward her she started climbing. John gritted his teeth.
"... Zhann?" Karkat whispered to him over his shoulder.
John realized he was still marching the other boy up the stairs like a convict and let go all at once. "Crap, sorry."
Karkat didn't look satisfied. He turned a little more as he climbed the stairs, frowning at him in between a furtive, confused look back at the entrance and one at Rose. "Zhann -- what?"
Hah. John didn't know where to start. He didn't even want to start. He stared ahead, up into the stairwell, watching Rose's legs disappear on the landing, put his hand in the middle of Karkat's back and pushed.
Karkat didn't try to speak with him again, all tense under his hand, shoulders hunched. John tried to feel bad, but he was too angry.
They walked in the common room and the door closed and locked behind them. Jade was at the table, having dinner, though she'd stopped with her fork halfway to her mouth to eyeball them. John frowned; he'd rather have been alone for that coming discussion, or at least keep to the other end of the room, but Rose was over there already, dumping the folder on the other end of the table and going to rummage through a cupboard.
She threw something silvery on the table; it slid along until John could catch it. Keys. He turned to Karkat, made a little twirling motion. Karkat obeyed without a word. John unlocked his wrists. He threw the handcuffs back across the table, for Rose to pick up.
They stared at each other.
"Um -- guys?"
"Please don't get involved, Jade," Rose ordered in her oh so calm, classier than thou voice that got John's hackles up.
"Yeah, don't say a thing or she might yank your clearance too!"
Rose's eyelids twitched minutely. John glowered at her, chin lifted in challenge. Karkat stood two steps to the side, rubbing his wrists and looking from one to the other and looking all awkward and uneasy, but John didn't have any time to spare to tell him where to sit or that he could goddamn well sit wherever he wanted to sit, or even not sit at all, that'd be fine too.
"John," she said around an irritated sigh, "you're overreacting. I don't think you're--"
"Yes you do, at least some, or else you'd have set him straight! You pretty much agreed with him, it was just the wording you didn't like."
"If you'll just calm down and be rational--"
"I'm plenty calm, okay!" He turned to Jade, incredulous, frustrated. "Jade, can you believe she agrees with Noir on this?! That asshole says I'm compromised, and she agrees!"
Jade went "um" and dove into her glass of water, like she actually needed all her concentration for it. John stared, breathless.
Jade... agreed too. They'd been talking about it, and Jade agreed. Who else? Was everyone -- did everyone agree?
And no one had told him? Hah. Heh. Of course not, of course they wouldn't, if they thought he'd betray them of course they wouldn't warn him that they knew. Haha. Funny. Yeah. Hilarious.
"Why don't you just tell me," he said, voice strangely calm, "what the heck I did that has everyone up in arms, anyway?"
Rose sighed like she found his slowness tiresome. "You offered Doctor King the use of the telepathic headset."
Hrrn. "Yes, and?"
"Doctor King is the head of his department. His mind is full of classified information."
Oh. Right. Alright, that had been dumb of him, wow. But distracted meant compromised now? "Okay, so that slipped my mind --"
"It slipped your mind," Rose repeated, slow and incredulous. "And you don't see why that's worrying at all? No, John, I'm talking." John snapped his mouth shut, face reddening. "In addition to data mining, there's a theory out here, which Noir obviously subscribes to, that the alien can hook people, or in other words addict them. You offered him Doctor King on a platter, that was suspicious enough. I'm willing to accept that he doesn't feel dangerous to you so you weren't worried he might present a danger for others--"
He couldn't hold it in anymore. "I would know if he was planning anything bad!" he shouted, throwing his hands in the air in sheer frustration. "I'm in his goddamned head!"
"And who told you he couldn't lie mind to mind? Would that perhaps be the very same person who might benefit from lying to you?"
"Oh, don't start it, you have no idea how that feels, how it works, there's no way!"
"No, I don't," she agreed. "That's not even the main thing to me," she said right over him. "It's just that it's not the only thing that keeps slipping your mind."
He bristled. "Go ahead, call me an idiot!"
Rose took in a big, slow breath, look how patient I am when you're acting like such a child. "I am not saying you are dumb, John, I am saying you operate on instinct, and while that makes you a very versatile fighter and a great field leader, it does not help when your instincts have apparently gotten stuck on Karkat Good, People Mean to Karkat Bad!" Another breath; her face did that weird thing where it didn't relax so much as slowly ooze back into an expressionless marble mask. "He eviscerated guards. You winced for a grand total of approximately two minutes and then immediately returned to treating him like those claws were decoration. He clawed through your cockpit that one time and you almost died asphyxiated. You are not holding a grudge. He--"
John slammed his hand on the table, which groaned under the impact. Solid oak, though; it didn't splinter. "It's war!" he howled. How could she not get this?! "He didn't do it like the one who --"
"It's you. You don't hold a grudge about what he did to you, that's fine, it's just like you, but he almost got Jade too and you don't even mind that either."
He sputtered. Was she accusing him of not caring about his cousinsib now? Really?! "I told you it's war, it isn't personal -- tell her, Jade!"
Jade lifted her hands like she was surrendering, palms out, wincing. "Well, uh, I'm not holding a grudge either, I mean, I was trying to kill him right back."
"See? She gets it!"
"Yes, all very nice and logical," Rose started in her measured, calm voice, and John fucking hated it, "and since when are you that rational about any of us? The only person you get more overprotective over is Jane, and this morning unless Jane was waved under your nose you were more concerned for Karkat."
John's fists were clenched so hard it hurt, nails digging little bloody half-moons into his palms. Rose leaned over the table, mirroring him, fists planted, meticulously painted lip curling in a snarl.
"You keep having secret discussions and in-jokes and forgetting he is not your friend. Are you even fucking aware of how long it's been since the last time you cried?"
(He did. Eight months. Jane. Janey-Jane she won't stop screaming dad she won't stop what do we do, what do we do.)
(And now Karkat and his monster-dad mech, his horrific undead memento that he still needed to save even when it had been too late from the start.)
"You are treating him like a puppy you just found abandoned on the side of the road -- he wasn't abandoned, he was on a mission to kill us! You've known him thirteen days and for ten of them he was under lock and key and catatonic, and don't you think that is even slightly suspect?"
He straightened up slowly, slipped his fists off the table. They were shaking. He clenched them harder. "...So then why don't you just, just stop letting him at my brain and lock him up somewhere and lock me up somewhere else and wait until that magical time where you read my brain in a non-hooking way and can somehow tell I'm better. Or maybe never, that'd work too, right?"
"It would work if the goal was to alienate you and make you cling even harder to him as a result because you thought you had no one else," Rose snapped back.
"Yeah well guess what, it's working anyway!"
His chest heaved; he breathed in, tried to regulate his breathing rate. Rose was staring at him with eyes bright and sharp like broken glass, full of edges. (He'd put the break in there, good job, John, good job, he'd put in the wet glimmer too.)
Jade stretched out across the table to punch him in the shoulder. "What the fuck, John?!" She turned to Rose, hands fluttering nervously. "Oh, no, it's okay, we'll just--"
Yeah. Okay. Made things pretty clear there.
"I'm done," he said. He turned away, then thought better of it and turned back to snatch up the headsets from the abandoned folder. "Karkat!" he snapped as he stalked toward the door. "Come with me. I'm still responsible for him, right, it's still a thing that's true right now? Okay, good, later."
The alien didn't move fast enough, so John snatched up his wrist in passing and towed him to the door.
He let him go once they were in the staircase, going up instead of down, stomp and stomp and stomp and he wished he had something to fight, he wished he would be allowed to spar or at least train but Strider would be too busy to spot him and in this state of mind he'd probably break equipment or hurt himself, he wished he could just go running around the island, down to the beach and then back up, go rock-hopping on the cliffs.
He couldn't, not with Karkat in tow, he was locked inside this one single building, it wasn't even that he was grounded in the most literal sense -- god he missed flying, missed the sky, the weightless immensity of space -- but he felt like just as much of a prisoner, jailer and jailee, and apparently he wasn't even entirely off.
The roof terrace was empty, only a few plastic benches and tables pushed in the corners, garden stuff, gone dark with rain. He turned his back on the medical wing, the other barracks and hangars and whatever else that had grown like poisonous mushrooms ever since they started fighting that war. The other side of the building... used to be the forest almost reached the walls -- oh the adventures to be had in there -- only they'd cleared that right up to the slope, put in garages and asphalt, a landing strip.
If he sat down at the bench, leaned his back against the table, allowed the waist-high wall to block the view, it was nothing but lush tropical leaves going up and up and up the hill, and the volcano caldera rising all in naked rock from there, and if his eyes kept going up it was nothing but blue and more blue and only a few wisps of floating white.
John closed his eyes. Karkat was standing at his side, a couple of steps back, out of immediate arm's reach, and he didn't want to deal with him right now. He didn't want to deal with anyone.
Not much of a choice. He sighed, patted the bench at his side. "C'mon, sit with me."
Karkat frowned at him, but sat, straddling the bench to face him. He pointed at the headsets that John was still holding, chin set in challenge. John sighed and handed him one, went about putting on the second.
He didn't try to send anything, just sat there, trying not to think. Karkat's mind prodded at his, more to see if he'd move than trying to get in.
It's fine go ahead. (I don't even care by this point look at whatever you want.)
He closed his eyes, shifted lower into his seat, let his head flop back. Karkat shared a burst of nerves-tinged image, two seconds of video with feelings, John limp and giving-up and throat bared stop it wrong.
So stop looking. I don't even care right now what are you going to do, bite me?
Irritated growl. Kick you in the face if you keep woeisme.
"Heh." He waited a second. Okay, get on with it.
Karkat grumbled under his breath, but... oh, he could feel him tiptoe through his mind, not literally but in the way random thoughts and memories would resurface for half a second, when his own train of thought hadn't been going that way, when they didn't belong to the same chain, in the way he would get echoes back of his own memories tinged with someone else's emotions, opinions.
It was... it didn't hurt. Probably Karkat wasn't forcing it.
You're a clumsy big-footed jackass is why, daintily trampling across my delicate brainmeats with your spikiest army boots. But it wasn't even that irritated, maybe reflexive grumping, maybe rueful.
(Compromised, whispered his mind, and it sounded like Noir and like Rose and like Doctor King suddenly horrified and Jade drawing away, all his friends drawing away because he wasn't safe anymore, because apparently he'd chosen a side without even knowing there were sides to be chosen at all.)
She's right you know.
It's not normal not right caring so fast so much. She's right. They're right.
John could only stare in blank disbelief, and couldn't manage to feel a single thing. You hooked me?
Karkat growled under his breath and kicked his ankle, halfhearted. Not on purpose stupid. I'm not a psychic you're not a psychic not meant to meet this way surprise sometimes shit happens.
... but, what? what? I don't, what?
One psychic two psychics they control how far they go sift what they get (net across a river only want fish not river mud urgh not tinyuseless fish either.) Not sifting means bam everything at once like it was yours and it's not yours, feels like it is but not yours, mine but you won't keep out (goddamn it John) and then you like me so it hurts. (why I don't get that) (no fuck I do emperor of pitiful wrecks is me yay all I ever wanted to be when I grew up a disaster area)
I still don't get a single fucking thing you're trying to explain what do you mean how?
Karkat heaved a big sigh, crossed his arms. Embarrassment and shame trickled through. Tele-empathic band, does what?
... let thoughts and feelings come through?
Let thoughts and feelings be thought and felt by other people stupid dumb idiot moron.
Ow, ow, okay I'm an idiot it is me, idiot king, emperor even. So I feel what you're feeling and then what, think I'm you?
Ow! Kicked again, and this time not halfheartedly. John drew his foot up, propped his heel on the edge of his seat, and rubbed it, glowering sulkily.
Sympathy with people happens when you know what they go through and instead of going that guy is a whining whiner who whines I want to silence him with my fists give him something to cry about you think oh no that's horrible let me cradle you fight for you pet your hair shh there there. A pointed, angry look. Karkat's cheeks were flushed a dark wine-red. What you did. (platonic how??!)
John spluttered. I told you wasn't interested like that why can't sympathy be platonic damn it!
Karkat gave him a grudging bit of acquiescence, but it was tainted with doubt. It came laced with (not the topic at hand at the moment let's not get sidetracked no romance discussion), and John also happened to want to drop the topic (seriously what kind of fucked up culture was it when it was almost unheard of to save and help people just because, that it had to mean he wanted to get in their pants?), so in the end they had the mental equivalent of a mutual "hmph" and buried it, retreating to their respective skulls for a little bit.
So ... He was just feeling what he was feeling about Karkat because of the connection, then? No, that wasn't true, he'd have liked Karkat anyway, he was grumpy but smart and funny and he cared so much about everything, it was insane, how could you dislike a guy like that?
Pretty easily if you see only the grumpy asshole bits. ... I'm not saying you wouldn't have liked me without, only it came too fast too hard and now it's like you've known me years and years, and you haven't. Silence, for a second, his presence retreating like a wave from the sand, only to come back smaller and quieter and sadder somehow. And also you're basing your opinion on stuff I would never have showed you willingly.
So basically he was getting his compassion jollies as a result of forced mental contact that he might just as well come out and call mind rape. Nice going, John. Just... fucking nice going.
And in the news tonight King Stupid mayor of Stupidtown is going for the martyr crown as well is nothing safe from his universal lustydevotion?
John couldn't keep himself from laughing, a quick, startled bark of a laugh. Uh what? So many undertones in there, gone right over his head, he could feel them zip past, but the image of Karkat commenting mike in hand it evoked, yeah, that worked.
Connection takes two people it's not one way and you're not trained it's like getting angry at a toddler for running with something and tripping bam broken big surprise there.
You're not trained either! Not a telepath yourself can't even defend yourself without can you?
Yeah but I know some tricks (helps when they're douchebags, those don't like pain I got a ton to share) and also some of it is my fault I should have remembered it could happen tried harder.
... Aw, damn it, why'd he have to think that stuff about having a ton of pain to share. The worst was that John could tell it wasn't even a conscious decision to mention it, it had just burst through because he honestly believed it. And now John was lingering on that and it embarrassed Karkat, made his fingers twitch with thoughts of taking off the helmet because it sounded like he was looking pitiful on purpose. Alright, change of topic.
Remembered it could happen how?
Karkat grimaced, blushed again. Well it's not common or anything you have to have at least one pilot (for mech access duh) and one dumbass who gets in their cockpit with them (tight fit but no one would mind would they no no karkat no stop thinking about that oh hell) -- Surprise the telepathic fluid is usually restricted!
... uh do people who sneak into cockpit usually. Like. Have sex in them?
What no! Disgusting holy fuck spooge all through the fluid how do you filter that out, breathing it in urgh urgh urgh!
John straight up giggled. "Pfff. You're a prude, aren't you."
Shut up stupid pervert dumb.
... no they... mindmeld, nicesafeclose if you're already nicesafeclose with them then you can be more, understand all straight through down to the marrow of them, make or break the two of you but... oh hell just come and look.
Karkat's mind drew him in. John let his eyes close, because it was threatening to smother the images -- hazy docking bay, indistinct mechs -- it wasn't photography, John just knew they were mechs because Karkat knew, because he was aware of their steady, watchful presence even when he didn't look their way -- and a tiny, tiny girl bouncing down a gangway and grinning at him so bright (annoyance/affection, reluctant but real anyway he would fight for her if she needed him to.) She had short curly flyaway hair and her horns were easily the most solidly visualized thing about her, shaped like a cat's ears, and today she was also smug. As. Fuck.
'should try it Karkat so awesome feel soclose like nestled in lovemine's soul all warmpurrysafe!'
Karkat, shocked at their flagrant kinkiness, had replied something like, 'I like my soul standing lonely and bitter in the cold wind of get the fuck away from me,' but inside he thought of that other boy who he lovemissed torn away long gorgeous antelope horns such a useless wreck without Karkat they (assholes in charge) would never let them meet again, and he wished he could have felt him that way even once, and the double echo made John's eyes prickle.
Shit sorry didn't mean showing the underlayer too. Just her and her kinky naughty funtime pride.
It's okay. He hesitated for a second, not sure he really wanted to know. But it was important to Karkat, part of his life, and it'd be ... it would be bad to pretend that part of him didn't exist. ...What's his name?
Karkat propped a heel on the bench so he could hug his knee to his chest. He did it casually enough, but John felt that need to hold and be held underneath. It wasn't for him, so he pretended he didn't.
"... Heh, that's a funny name."
He's a funny guy. Been missing him for months and years though. (not that much farther out of reach just because I got stupidcapturedcaught, never would have seen him again anyway.)
John could feel the wall come up, once again, and then Karkat snorted, bitter, and let it go all at once, all the old exhausted rage of it and the hopelessness. He's highclass I'm not, golddigging whore sullying him how 'bout a nice frontier post can't pollute him from there, he'll move on you'll die no one's fault! Couldn't refuse a posting after all not disgustingwrong gutter trash like you he'll have nothing to get angry about. A sigh. Stop ouching inside John it was a miracle already they didn't just put me down. Waste of a pilot I guess.
John shook his head slowly. Your life is so completely shitty, buddy, I don't even get how you can walk out without being hit by a meteorite.
Karkat snorted, glanced up at the blue sky. Could still happen.
"Heh." ... now I feel stupid for being so down (hurt) because they don't trust me (because it feels like they're saying you or them and I don't know if I can choose, you told me it's the telepathy made it that way but I don't want to choose I don't want to have to choose why can't I have both (why don't they trust me.))
... Shit. Even Jade. Maybe even Jane, and she hadn't said anything, none of them -- oh, yes they had, Dirk had tried, in the shower, but John hadn't been listening, of course not, what did he need to listen to any warnings. And then he'd snarled at Rose and stormed off like a dick with a lifelong love affair with dramatic exits -- only whoops, turned out he was the one who was wrong and he'd just proved it to them.
Life sucks, John concluded. I want to be back in space. Flying so free, so free, I miss that. It just feels right, you know?
He got nothing but a buzz of depressed agreement, echoes of weightlessness, stolen moments of fun, of freedom.
You always had to land back down, though.
At the same time, with no conscious agreement, they pulled off their headsets, set them in their laps, and reclined against the table together, watching the empty sky.
[Chapter 4] - [Chapter 6]