Karkat blamed it all on Missus Jane.
He had a lot of time to review it in his mind, and while most of his attention was taken up by rage and mortal terror the rest of his brain could still follow a chain of causality to the source, thank you very much. The logic was flawless.
Jane English worked at the bakery. Jane made amazing bread, amazing cakes, and amazing food in general. So amazing that the nearby saloon had given up trying to compete, and gone into business with the bakery -- which resulted in the saloon owner's younger son, David Burt Strider, doing deliveries.
To, among other places, Karkat's ranch. (Well, Missus Peixes' ranch, at which he worked. But.)
"Faster, damn you, faster, we'll lose him in the canyons!"
So Karkat could already blame meeting that lusus-haired, stone-faced varmint in the first place on Missus Jane. And meeting him ... again, and again, and again, for the daily deliveries, because somehow it had become his job to receive them and his coworkers refused to let him foist it off on them, not even if he offered to trade for stable mucking seriously what in tarnation.
Hell. On. Earth.
"Faster, huh? Got me an idea that'll help with that. Jump off and run!"
"Fuck you sideways with a rusty spur."
"Not on my poor innocent horse, Vantas, for shame."
Jane English, née Crocker, was also the young and lovely wife of one Jake English, grandson of sheriff English. That only mattered insofar as linking him to the existence of Jade Harley, Sheriff English's other grandchild. (Small-town bingo; every single human was somehow linked to someone else in some strange nonsensical way. Karkat couldn't blame Jane for Jade. Jade was okay, and not only because she'd put some steel in Tavros' spine by some arcane means none of the trolls understood but which made them all quite envious of the results of having a human for a palemate.)
(Then again, for a human, Jade Harley made a pretty good troll.)
"Oh shit oh shit oh shit not over the trunk Strider do not go over the trunk I will fall I will take you with me--"
Jane English, née Crocker, also happened to be related somehow by ways Karkat did not give half a fuck about to a preacher man in want of a parish.
Who had a son.
Who had a son who had by ways of Jade Harley gotten introduced to Dave Strider, who had then decided to introduce him to Karkat.
Well, actually, "don't flatter yourself, nubbly, any troll would do. Can you believe in those so-called Civilized Territories they don't really believe you good fellows exist."
"I can not believe he's still in the saddle. Nope, refusing to believe, right here and now. I am a nonbeliever. Shun away. Also Vantas if you don't stop crushing my lungs I am dumping you in the creek."
Jane had gotten John in a time and place in which he could be introduced to Karkat. Jane had gotten Dave in a time and place where he could encourage John when he said he did not know how to ride (how the fuck did you not know that at his age? Okay, if you lived in space being outrageously, impossibly, magically advanced like Karkat's forebears apparently used to be we swear we are not having you on, possibly horses would then be a little outmoded, but.) Jane was not to blame for the fact that Dave didn't ride a normal horse but his and his twin sister's joint lusus, which meant there was no way that little twerp of a preacher's son would be allowed on Maplehoof's back all on his lonesome.
Jane was to blame for John convincing Karkat against all good sense and sanity to lend his own horse.
Because Jack was a pretty good horse, really! Just a mite ornery for a raw beginner. But she had directly created the pastries John bribed him with.
And Jade being around meant Bec was around which meant when Jack predictably spooked ("That devilbeast did not spook, that devilbeast charged the danged woofbeast with murder aforethought. Horseshoe-assisted murder.") John was on its back.
John was in town because of his father because of Jane and he was at the ranch because of Dave because of Jane and he was on Karkat's horse's back because of Jane's pastries which were utterly blameless and also delicious and in conclusion Jane.
"Egbert!" Karkat hollered. The black gelding had somehow crossed the brook -- could have broken a leg in the rocks! Damn that useless, too-carefree John Egbert!) and was now racing on the other side of the gully from them. The horse showed no sign of slowing down. On his back, John clung to the saddle, reins swinging merrily where Karkat's horse (which technically belonged to the ranch and not him) could catch a foot in them and do a spectacular flip and turn the preacher's son into a disgusting, non-tasty pancake. Not that Karkat gave a crap right now, because the fall would certainly lame his horse and also possibly kill it.
If John managed to impress Karkat by doing one useful thing in his life it would be cushioning Jack's fall somehow. Karkat did not expect to be impressed.
"Egbert!" he tried again. John's black head of hair jerked up, and then he honest-to-god grinned.
And then he took a hand off the saddle horn to wave, and then Jack sidestepped from under him and Karkat was not done feeling furious that he was already feeling horrified.
The horse changed directions like a cornered viper, with the speed that made him such a good mount to herd cattle with and had also thrown more than its share of riders, Karkat repeatedly included.
John didn't fall. John somehow, blessedly, providentially, kept his tight little ass planted right in the saddle.
John kept himself in the saddle with barely a startled whoops, and then Jack was racing away in a brand new direction, jumping like he had a handful of burs under his saddle and bouncing John around in a way that made him laugh.
"Still nonbelieving," Strider mumbled blankly, and led Maplehoof down a goat path to cross the gully. Karkat's hands clenched hard on his waist; he pretended it was so he wouldn't slip off Dave's lusus' back.
It was, partly. It wasn't even enough; without stirrups to put his feet he couldn't help but slide forward until Strider's broad back stopped him.
Here he'd honestly thought he hated Strider. Hah. Hahaha. Ha.
"Stop squeezing his flanks so damn hard, you asshole, he'll never stop running!" he yelled, the soles of his boots planted on Dave's heels to push himself up.
"If he stops squeezing so damn hard he'll fall off, dimwit," Dave countered. "And stop trying to hamstring me!"
Karkat let himself fall back astride Maplehoof, growling. "So godfucking what if he falls? You're dreaming if you think this is not going to end in us picking up his mangled meat costume off the ground! Rather not have to race him to the ocean for that."
Dave aimed his mount at the shallow point of the spring: Maplehoof bounded across, splashing their legs liberally. "As far as I am concerned he done fell off about twenty minutes ago, and this is all a dream."
Karkat snorted in grudging amusement.
"Also, at this point I am beginning to root for the little chucklehead."
"I'm not!" Karkat leaned in so he wouldn't slip backward and off the saddle, now they were going uphill. They couldn't see the preacher's son or the black horse anymore; and the ground around here looked flat, but there were gullies and canyons and hollows everywhere. He gripped Dave's belt more solidly and nudged Maplehoof's side with his spurs.
The mare bounced.
"Vantas, you get your rusty can openers at my horse again, you can walk your way back home, and then explain to my sweetest sister why her lusus is bleeding from the flanks. Just saying but she might prefer her to our actual flesh-and-blood person-shaped mother."
"Her hide's not so thin she'd bleed, you daft horsefucker," Karkat grumbled back, because Dave himself might be in his league if it came to a fistfight, but Miss Rose was definitely not.
Miss Rose, frankly, was above just about everyone's league in the whole damn town, and no one liked to acknowledge it but that didn't stop it being plain fact. He was almost tempted to pat the lusus' side in apology. Almost. Maybe later when Dave wasn't around to see him say sorry to a stupid horse.
They crested the slope, just in time to see Jack's scraggly black tail disappear behind a bush. Dave sighed and gave chase. Karkat held on, growling under his breath and unable to stop. Lusus or not, stronger and more willing to accede to Dave's more unreasonable demands than a normal horse, Maplehoof would not run much farther with a double load. Karkat might have to give in to Dave's suggestion and get off, let him race after his stupid irritating horrible-with-horses friend on his lonesome and wait for news.
From what Karkat could see of the tense set of his jaw, the tight unhappy pinch at the corner of his eyes, Strider was anticipating the inevitable spill Egbert would make as having a very unpleasant result. Possibly a fatal one. Karkat breathed in and out and tried to keep his snarls behind his teeth.
Rocky ground, loose pebbles clattering everywhere. Maplehoof slowed to a sharp trot. Karkat's ass was soon tenderized. "Oh dang it. Okay, just -- give me the stirrups and hobble your lips about this, okay?" He nudged at Dave's heels -- kicked a little, even -- until Dave handed them over. Oh dear lord, the instant relief.
Now he had to stabilize Dave and support his weight, though. Dave's boots came to press down on top of his feet for support, and then they were pressed together from calf to groin.
Which was a little distracting. Stupid useless wannabe chaps, Strider didn't even trail cows, what did he need chaps for. Apart from framing his stupid flat human boy ass.
Which, granted, they did admirably.
(The horse kept bouncing.)
"Lips hobbled, Captain Vantas, sir."
Karkat freed a hand to tug the brim of his hat a little lower, to make sure his darkening cheeks would stay invisible. "Good. Keep them that way. And get a darned wiggle on, he's getting away!"
He could feel Dave laughing against him. What the -- oh shit.
"You dreadful, shameless flirt."
"--I did not mean it like that and shut up, shut up right now, shut up is what you are going to do now and forevermore--"
He definitely hated Dave more. Yes. No matter that John was a brainless twit who was going to lame his very own favorite horse (and then on top of losing his horse Karkat was going to have to pay back Missus Peixes for it.) Dave put some effort into being hateable. John was...
Karkat had known John exactly twenty minutes and John had apparently merely been born with a face begging for his fist. What would that evolve into, he couldn't help but wonder. What heights could that rage --
Dave's hand was on his knee.
"Reins!" he yelped. Perhaps a mite high-pitchedly.
Dave shrugged, eyes still fixed on Jack's harshly bouncing hindquarters ahead. "Still got 'em." Then he moved his hand up the outside of Karkat's thigh.
"Still got it too."
Ngh. What. What the hell was going on. Had Dave guessed Karkat's attentions were waning, was he -- maybe he did know they'd been courting, it'd be just like that infuriating prick to pretend he had no clue, oh oh oh fingers curving around his hip, thumb pressing down --
Dave liberated the coiled rope from Karkat's belt with a flick of his fingers and straightened back, gloriously uncaring. Karkat was left staring blankly down at the chaps-framed ass bouncing much too close to his stirring bulge.
Okay, now he remembered why he'd been carrying a dark torch for David Strider for so long.
"What in blazes are you doing."
"Slope coming up. Your crowbait'll be slowing down. Maplehoof catches up. I rope it. Tadahh, success."
"Jack is not -- you will what?!"
"Rope it," Dave repeated calmly. Up ahead, Jack had been herded toward the slope by thickening, thorny bushes, and was indeed slowing down. John was still clinging to the saddle like a burr, and craned his neck and waved to them when he saw them following.
"Keep your hands on the saddle horn, you daft fucker! Dave what the dickens do you mean ooh no you are not lassoing my horse."
"Beg pardon, it does seem I am in fact lassoing your horse, now don't jostle my arm or I'll get tangled in a bush and then we'll have to stop."
Karkat hissed in outrage. "No! You're going to break his leg or his neck or worse! If anyone is doing it, I will, Strider! You are not a cowhand, I am!"
"Been hearing some funny tales out of Tav's lady of darker affections, 'bout you and lassos," Dave commented negligently, and let the looped rope fly.
He did it just as smoothly as any cowhand Karkat had ever known, too. (Smoother than Karkat himself, and darn Vriska for telling him tales.)
The issue of course was that Jack was a cowboy's horse, and a tricky one at that, and he'd seen ropes flying about a thousand times already, and he really had an unreasonable degree of affection for that dodging sidestep trick.
Once again John failed to take a spill and stay behind, or god forbid get dragged along by the ankle, but when Dave tried to get Maplehoof to follow through the thicket of thorns she shied away. Swearing, Dave reined her around, bending low over her neck; Karkat bent low, too, bloodpusher in his throat. After the upslope there was a cliff, he'd seen the signs, and he couldn't figure out how close to the thicket it ran.
He was seriously starting to wonder if perhaps the daft greenhorn had glued his backside to the saddle, though. There was no way that unsalted yack's natural seat was that good. (Mostly because of how horribly unfair that would be. Karkat had sweated tears and blood to figure out how to move smoothly with a horse's gait, and here that city babe came and -- argh.)
Maplehoof was showing strain as Strider pushed her upslope, withers starting to foam with sweat. Goddamn. If they didn't find Jack and Egbert soon they'd have to give up the chase, and then the stupid gelding would break an ankle in a rabbit hole and the idiot city boy would be lost in the wilderness and--
And there behind that low, gnarled tree, was a lathering black horse, stamping his feet and giving the side eye to a perfectly safe, ecstatic young man, standing on his own two feet on the ground and holding onto the gelding's bridle firmly.
Dave reined Maplehoof in, let her slow down to a walk, and they both stared.
John saw them coming and waved happily. Jack tried to take a bite out of his arm. (Good on him! Karkat would have been tempted too, having this incompetent idiot riding him. ... like a horse. Not any other kind of riding. Oh dear sweet baby jegus.) John dodged swiftly and swatted the horse's nose with the end of the bridle, and then pulled his head down before he could rear.
Why was he any good with controlling horses. First he kept his seat through an improbable collection of mishaps and rough terrain...!
Karkat tugged his feet out from under Dave's and slid off Maplehoof's back, and stomped his way to the two of them. (He did not regret the ludicrous amounts of body warmth Dave put out, either. He was too angry to get distracted noticing his crotch was now too cold. Actually, no, maybe he did notice, but it was a good thing. Yep. That was it.)
"Hehe, hullo guys, what took you?"
Karkat snatched the reins out of his hand. "I am going to murder you and leave your corpse to the coyotes."
"Hehe, but of course. I don't think your horse is hurt! But boy was it exciting."
Exciting. Exciting. Hrrssssst.
"Be appreciative of a little less excitement, if'n you don't mind. We were pretty sure to find you all boogered up. Vantas here was all aflutter."
John's ridiculously blue eyes turned to him, and he smiled. He had dimples. Karkat bent down to check his horse's foot for loosened shoes or prickly bits of nature, because if he didn't he was probably going to punch him. Or bite him. And in front of Dave, that would just be callous. Even if Dave was one big Satanfucked bulgetease with no intention of ever wandering any farther down the darkened road than verbal fencing. A troll had needs.
"You were worried? Hee."
Karkat's irritation heated up suddenly, and he got back up, slow and tense and knowing his voice was swamped with hisses and inhuman snarls. "Are you seriously laughing because I might have thought for a second that a boy riding for the first fucking time on a difficult horse might perhaps get himself hurt?"
John winced. For a half-second. And then he scratched at the back of his head, and gave the most fake-contrite, 'aw, but I'm cute!' pseudo-apologetic grin Karkat had ever seen.
"Vantas," Dave cut in, before Karkat could explode. Karkat swallowed his snarl with difficulty and turned to give him a jaundiced look. "You got any idea where we are? Because I got this thought in my head that this ain't the gulley I thought and I have no good goddamn clue on God's green Earth where we're at."
Karkat spent the next minute swearing.
"Hehehe, but I kind of thought that troll people might have a homing sense like pigeons and bees? Aren't you like bee people? Find the hive, Mister Vantas! Hehe."
The next second Jack was standing free, because Karkat couldn't both hold onto his reins and tackle John to the ground.
Or kiss him quiet. That would have been hard too.
John went mmphtt under him and squirmed, but trolls were denser than humans and Karkat stayed put right on top of him, pinning him with his whole body, all those silly buttons on that smart town jacket digging into Karkat's chest right through his shirt, and he bit and licked and fucked his tongue into John's stupid laughing mouth, his whole body vibrating with his growl. The human tried to resist for a few seconds and then gave, lips softening, hands coming up -- he didn't even know if it was to hold on or claw him up or push him down and roll on top. He'd welcome all three.
Dave's hand slammed down on his shoulder first and he hauled him straight off. Karkat snarled and swiped at him; the asswipe sidestepped, calm as you please.
"Whoa there, tiger, don't kiss the preacher's son, you have no idea what kind of a hornet's nest you're stirring up there."
"What the fuck, you -- Strider! Don't you dare put your nose in this--"
"Vantas," Dave snapped, serious and annoyed enough to startle him into going still, for a moment at least. "I got no problem hauling you to this here gully and pushing you down in the stream for you to cool your head a bit -- both of them."
Karkat's fists clenched, released, clenched again. He wanted to yell, he was kissing me back, don't intervene, what the dickens do you think you're doing, you don't have a clue! He wanted to yell, are you jealous? good, it's too fucking late now, did you think I'd dance after you all my darned life? He wanted -- he didn't know. He turned to stare at John, surely the asshole would have something to say?
The boy was sitting up, looking mildly dazed, rumpled and lips wet; the sight made Karkat want nothing more but to pin him down again.
"Urr. What... just... happened?" He blinked his big blue eyes at Dave, and at Karkat, and his face reddened. Karkat kept staring at him. That fluffy cravat, dear Lord, he needed to find out if the blush went down under it, how far he'd have to unbutton to get to the last of it, though it might make a great leash and it would be a shame to -- "Uh. Were you really that worried? Wow. That. Um. Wow. ... Do guys kiss other guys a lot on the frontier? Haha, that was. Er. A bit unexpected."
Just. What. Was that.
John was climbing back up on his feet, flustered but still grinning that easy grin. He'd just... gone and brushed off Karkat's rage as... as worry, he thought it was flush -- he couldn't be so daft as to think of it as platonic, did he?
Oh. Oh, okay, now Karkat hated him.
"Vantas, you get your ass up, it better be to go after your horse, 'cause I meant it when I said I'd sit you in the stream. Egbert..." A heavy sigh; Dave turned to stare at the boy -- their age, really, but so much younger somehow. "You have a lot to learn about trolls, my friend. First thing is that God gave trolls the ability to make babies with two ladies or two men just as well as our own Adam and Eve ways, so... I gather, best as we all can tell, for them it ain't a sin or the good Lord wouldn't have let it happen."
John was staring now, the vague edges of a smile forgotten on his face. Dave rubbed the back of his neck, like he was embarrassed too, maybe sad. Karkat's hot rage started turning into something lukewarm, unpleasant, that weighed on his stomach.
"So. That kiss? He. Kind of. Meant it."
Dave looked away. Karkat stood, hands loosening. Did he -- was Dave ... hurt? Or just, just awkward, embarrassed for the stupid troll who didn't get that humans didn't work like that even after years of repeated explanations, who kept expecting that somehow this time it would be different...
"Oh," said John quietly. "Uh. I... I kind of could tell. It was, uh." Another hot blush rose on his face. Karkat couldn't look at him straight on this time though; his rage was gone, smothered.
".. No worries, man, I'll keep the stud in his pasture." He stepped forward, clasped John's upper arm. Karkat ached. This wasn't even ashen, it was just human solidarity. He turned away, shoulders hunched.
A muffled noise of impact had him turning again. John was going ow and rubbing his shoulder, gawping at Dave, who scowled at him, looking tired. "But for fuck's sake stop antagonizing him with your brainless twit act, I know you're smarter than that. 'cause I have no problem thumping you whenever you forget."
Karkat blinked. He could do nothing else.
Dave sighed, raked a hand through his lusus-pale hair, gave Karkat a long look of his own. Karkat just stared back. Blink. Blink.
"--Uh. Did you just -- did we just -- are you --" Okay, okay, deep breath, John was starting to snicker in his hand at Karkat's stammering and that couldn't be borne. He set his eyes on Dave. "Do you even know what...?"
Okay, no, couldn't finish.
Because if he finished asking, and Dave laughed too, or looked bland and uncomprehending, or -- or dismissive or -- if Karkat was reading too much into this, dear lord, wasn't that what he always did anyway --
"We ashed up? Yup, got an inkling 'bout that."
John frowned worriedly, eyes going from Dave to Karkat and then back. Karkat was only aware of him peripherally. "Um. This is a bit of frontier slang I don't know! What does it mean? ... Why's Vantas smiling?"
Oh, huh, he was. He pressed his lips together, and then decided what the fuck, why not.
It was all tentative and maybe a little bittersweet, but... Heh. "I was always black for you," he admitted quietly, voice gone a little rough around the edges, "But I kind of always thought it'd turn more pitch in the end. Boy did I read that wrong."
A weird expression passed on Dave's face. John looked more and more annoyed, though. "Guyyys?"
"Trolls have five partners," Karkat said, and shrugged, stuffing his hands in his pockets. John was still horrendously annoying, especially with his shocked gasp, ten minutes of mediation weren't going to change that. "Two of them -- red -- that you love and wish to cherish, one of them you have carnal relations with and the other you don't because it's not about that, and two black that you ... intensely want to compete against, one of them you have carnal relations with and the other that you can not, actually, bugger because of reasons," he waved at himself, at John, snarling just a little bit because that little asswipe was still ridiculously attractive, damn it-- "and so a third person intervenes to keep everyone's body parts in their appropriate corners. Which is ashen. Which is us."
"Which yes, does count as a steady, romantic relationship for trolls, and -- but you can break up with us, I guess. Whatever." He stuffed his fists deep in his pockets, turned away, shoulders hunched. Maplehoof was grazing a few feet away. Jack was inching along behind her. For a gelding he still had a lot of... ambition.
"You uh. Want to. Compete with me? In a -- a kissing way."
Goshdarnit. "Yes!" Karkat snarled. "But I can't because apparently when I was kissing you I was doing a lot of wishful thinking believing you were kissing back, and I'm not a goddamn rapist but you're still a really irritating little twat which means, yes, considering how impulsive trolls can get we do need Dave, and isn't that a cussed riot!"
He kicked at a loose rock. He should be happy. He was happy. He'd gotten his ashen quadrant filled. ... with Dave Strider as the middle leaf, hah, how was that for his vaunted irony.
... There were other fishes in the sea. He didn't hate any of the trolls at the ranch like that, but... and not a lot of humans who came to the town were open to relationship with a troll that didn't fit into their back-assward views of gender-segregated marriage and grub-raising, but...
"Vantas," John said in a quiet, measured tone Karkat hadn't expected much from him. So he could be serious, huh. Nice to learn that. Now. "... Why is that a riot? It doesn't sound like one to me. Did you -- like Strider? That's what you meant, huh?"
Karkat couldn't keep from flinching a little bit. "How is that any of your business?"
"It's my business if we're going to do this ashy thing!"
Karkat wanted to get angry again, at first, but then it just all went away, deflated. John was being nosy, which was annoying, but he also sounded almost worried, and that came across as bordering pale. "Fine. Just some more wishful thinking. It's just so dratted hard to keep in mind to which extent mating fondness for other males just doesn't happen in humans." A shrug. He still couldn't turn to look at either of them. "This is a much better outcome than I had any right to expect."
"Oh, to hell with it," Dave muttered from somewhere behind Karkat's back, and then a hand landed heavy on his shoulder and flipped him around.
"What," Karkat had time to ask, and then he had a mouthful of David Strider's tongue.
He stumbled back, confused, trying to gain back some space to think, but Dave didn't let him have it; he stepped right along to stay glued to him, and then he bit him.
And then when Karkat yelped he smirked at him, devil eyes hooded.
Okay, this was on.
He remembered himself a full minute later, hands fisted in Dave's hair, biting a path up his jawline. He froze, leaned back a little. Dave tightened his hold, fingers digging into his back.
"... This is not ashen behavior."
"No?" Dave asked, the small word coming packed tight with all the sarcasm usually spread out over interminable rambling metaphors.
"It's -- it's very much not, and you know that, oh damn you, you're not supposed to be kissing me -- what the devil are you, Strider, Dave you're -- oh, oh."
He was against a tree. He thought. It didn't move, couldn't be a horse. The tree was narrow. Not great support. He was against a tree and Dave's body was all pressed up against him and he was heat and hard muscles all over and oh shit, Karkat was forgetting to think once again. He tore his mouth away from Dave's; it didn't help, Dave went for his neck, all teeth, clear threat.
Dave wanted him back, had probably wanted him back all along, and had never ever godfuckingdamned admitted it!
"I hate you," Karkat whispered fervently, and bit his ear.
John was standing a few feet away, a hand covering his mouth like he was scared he'd slip up and speak and his eyes wide, transfixed. When he met Karkat's eyes he flinched, turned his head away, face gone crimson, but two seconds later he was back to steal little flustered glances, little...
... that wasn't disgust, was it.
Karkat let his claws loosen their grasp on Dave's clothes and slowly slid them down to grab himself a double handful of that taunting ass.
Dave ground against him, gasped in his ear. Yes.
John swallowed. He looked lost, scared. He didn't look away. ... Also yes.
... What was Karkat doing rutting against his -- his -- kismesis? Did Dave truly -- what was Karkat doing to Dave right here in front of John, why did he even want to see how he reacted, why did he care, why did it add that vicious little thrill to everything else? (Oh dear lord, he had Dave, he did, he did.)
"He still watching?" Dave whispered in his ear. Karkat twitched in surprise, blinked, broke his staring contest. He couldn't help but hood his eyes and growl quietly, finding Dave's cheek so close, his ear, inordinately pleased.
"He -- ah. Yeah."
And then Dave was pushing himself out of Karkat's arms and turning to the other human, who looked even more panicked -- but still, Karkat noted, took the time to rake his eyes down Dave's body, stopping a bit too long on his groin. Karkat growled, but hearing himself he flushed some; it didn't come out a go away, but a sound of challenge, fight me, impress me. "Alright, we definitely need an auspistice," he forced himself to say, shaken, "only it can't be Dave."
"Dude, I already am," Dave countered blithely. "Deal's done, appendages shaken -- rubbed, whatever -- word given, contract only needs a little special white ink. I'm just doing it the Strider way."
John and Karkat spluttered a "What?" at the same time.
"Well, here we are, committing lewd acts in the wilderness like a bunch of heathens... Seems to me we've got to ensure your silence, preacher's son."
John laughed his annoying dismissive laugh, only it was nervous at the edges. Karkat couldn't help tensing, a wolf scenting weakness.
"What are you saying, my good man? Hehe. I've seen nothing! Nothing."
Karkat was still confused as all hells over Dave's behavior, but he couldn't help snorting at that one. "That sure is a thing I can believe. Especially with that lump in your pants, did you mayhap misplace your six-gun?"
John's eyes darkened and he glared back, and it felt so satisfying to finally get a reaction, to be taken seriously, but immediately after that was guilt, because Dave.
Dave who was slowly ambling his way to John, and made no effort to hide the lump at his own crotch that Karkat had felt growing against his, that he hadn't gotten a good look at yet and how unfair was that?
"I won't talk, Strider, I promise. You're a good man, I wouldn't get you in that kind of trouble -- and I guess Vantas is kind of really weird and pretty aggressive and I do not understand why you'd -- but--"
His voice shook, and try as he may he couldn't hold Dave's gaze for long. Karkat wet his lip, indecisive, and then pushed away from the tree and cautiously followed.
"--I don't, I don't care what you two do in the privacy of -- I mean I did not want to watch that, haha, it's really not for me but so long as I can pretend it didn't happen I see no reason why not to do just that!"
"You liar," Karkat purred around a slowly widening smirk. "Worse, you bad liar." Okay, okay no, bad self, no, it wasn't hilarious and fun and arousing to see him stammering and awkward and hard, wanting this, wanting --
Did he want Karkat or Dave?
... Did he want Dave flushed? That'd be... acceptable. They'd still need to find a real auspistice for the two of them but why was Dave cupping John's face.
"Tssk what?" John asked around a shaky laugh. "Do you need to be so close?"
"Tssk, you were going to say something to Vantas that would tick him off because he managed to tick you off, only, whoops! All ashed up, so I'm putting a righteous stop to it. As is my wont and my sacred duty."
"By... cupping my face," John said, dubious.
He made no move to free himself. He wouldn't have needed to try hard. He didn't.
"Nah, actually I was going to kiss you."
And then he did.
Karkat was torn -- this is not ashen no no stop, but at the same time that kiss to him earlier had been pretty caliginous, and if he was Dave's kismesis then Dave was entitled to a matesprit and the way he kissed John was so much more careful, so gentle, tongue barely brushing lips here and there, not going any deeper.
John shuddered under Dave's hands, his own rising to curl around Dave's wrists, but then his eyes slowly fluttered closed.
Karkat still knew John's mouth better than Dave did by this point. But the tenderness...
"Just calling it ashen doesn't make it so," he said, not sure how he felt about any of it. John startled at his voice and opened an eye to glower at him, annoyed by the interruption; Karkat sneered back, but then Dave nibbled on John's full lower lip and John sighed, distracted.
"Dude, I am maintaining the peace and the sanctity of Egbert's hanky-panky zone by sacrificing my alabaster posterior to your greedy hands, it is so ashen, now shut up and grope me."
John spluttered in his mouth and broke the kiss to glare at Dave, though it was somewhat pouty compared to the annoyed looks he graced Karkat with. "Hanky-panky zone? Sanctity? Uh, buddy, you're kissing me, don't try to tell me you're not interested in -- in -- oh dear Lord."
He ended his sentence all shaky, eyes lost, and Karkat's constant irritation faltered a little. That was just such a pitiful expression. Not that Karkat was interested in pitying him, dang it. He was a little brat.
Dave seemed to feel the twinge, too, because his voice gentled some more. He leaned in, forehead to forehead. "No, see, I am interested, but I also have this little thing known as goshdarned patience, which trolls in general and Vantas in particular aren't too fond of. And you are so incredibly virginal, you little city boy, it's gonna be needed in spades." An amused little snort, a sideway smirk thrown over his shoulder Karkat's way, so dreadfully smug Karkat almost punched it off his face right there. "Fortunately I know where to find at least one."
He slipped an arm around Karkat's waist, reeling him in, and then set his hand right on Karkat's ass. Karkat just stared at him, ignoring the way his bloodpusher sped up just from Dave's hands on him. "That was so fucking pathetic I am embarrassed to be attracted to you."
No doubt there would have been more stupid banter and awkwardness, only of course that was when Jack attempted to mount Maplehoof, and Maplehoof kicked him in the parts he didn't have much of anymore -- but what was left of it apparently still hurt, because criminy did he make a right racket. Swearing, Karkat raced to grab his lead, and almost got bitten for his trouble.
Dave had abandoned John to go coddle his lusus, like Jack could actually have done her a mischief. Karkat patted his poor spurned horse.
Gave him some time to breathe and calm his body down and think. Without either of them seeing his face.
Alright. No matter what Dave said, this was not ashen. Just... not. That scalawag had already netted himself two quadrants in one go, and just because he could use himself as a distraction, he thought... alright, fine, as an emergency ashen measure, it worked. For now. Surprise, Karkat found John much easier to tolerate when all his attention was pulled elsewhere by the bulge. But that did not mean Dave got to make two people fit three quadrants -- or that Karkat had netted himself two quadrants as well, and he was darned well going to be jealous if he wanted to be.
Stupid sexy Strider. Yanked him around for months and years, bulgeteased and hateflirted and whoops, no I'm human I don't get what you want from me, and now he got rewarded for it?
"I'm easy," he concluded sadly, hidden against Jack's neck.
"Hehehe, yeah, you kind of are."
Karkat whirled around with a snarl; his horse tossed his head and whinnied angrily.
"Whoa, peace!" The boy held up his hands. "That was a joke. Because if you're easy then I'm even easier, oh man, you have no idea what my father would think." John's grin turned into a grimace, eyes gone huge and pitiful. The manipulation was so blatant Karkat glowered even harder, but the words themselves rang true enough. "I kind of... don't really want to think about it. ... So. Peace?"
"... What do you want?"
"Well, um. I'd appreciate getting home at some point. I'm sure your employers would appreciate knowing about your dashing rescue, too!"
Oh, fuck, telling Missus Peixes he'd let a city boy who'd never ridden before race off on Jack. And double-crap, the deliveries had to still be on the side of the road. Unless someone'd gone looking for him and found them there, which was more probable. He was looking at an unpleasant trip down Shit Creek there, and he was missing critical equipment.
"Oh Lord, just shut your word trap."
"You're kind of rude, you know. I mean, it's funny anyway but you still are. But anyway. Can I ride back with you?"
... The logic was...
... nowhere Karkat could figure out. He stared at the human, baffled. The human shrugged, looked away, scratching his chin nervously. "It's just you've ridden double on that poor white horse, it must be too tired for a double load now!"
Damn. "She is." He narrowed his eyes. "Now what's the real reason?"
John sneaked a glance at Dave to check that he was still busy coddling his horsemom, and leaned in way too close to whisper hurriedly, "I kind of don't want to be even more easy than I already was!"
"... And so you want to ride with me... the guy who tackled you to the ground and went cavorting all over your mouth."
John gave him a bright smile, though his cheeks flushed, belying the blithe insouciance that made Karkat want to punch him in the nose a little bit to see if he'd take that unseriously too. "Well you don't want to kiss me anymore, right? Now you have Dave! You were just misguided. All is forgiven and forgotten."
Karkat stared. He opened his mouth, almost explained that no, actually, being in the ashen quadrant meant he did want to kiss him, only that he shouldn't because that'd be cheating and that someone should stop him and while not wanting it as bad as he wanted Dave, he still wanted it too badly to reliably stop himself that was what the friggin ashen quadrant meant!
But well, there were only two horses, and Karkat was going to have to ride back with him.
He'd explain later. At length.
When he didn't have to spend the next half-hour with the boy's long body pressed against his back.
It started out dreadfully well. Karkat could ignore the warmth at his back, busy trying to get Jack to follow Maplehoof, who luckily enough seemed to know her own way back with no input from her rider. His cranky mount fought him every step of the way, or almost.
John was much less aggravating than he'd been, perhaps thoughtful, perhaps fretting or daydreaming or worrying about Dave's advances and his own weird human hang-ups and what did Karkat cared which, he had a moirail already and was not interested in John's pale quadrant.
It made him wonder, though, if perhaps in the end he wasn't too hasty, wanting to find an auspistice to replace Dave so he and John could stay quadranted. It might have been just a flash of dislike, flaring high and then burned all out, and there was nothing left but dumb animal attraction. Which, okay, John was horribly attractive, but so were a statistically unlikely number of people in this town, and Karkat did not want to stuff all of them in his quadrants.
And then, halfway back, going across that old gulley, John made an innocent suggestion about how to ameliorate Karkat's seat.
By the end Dave had to pick up a stick from the ground to whack them with every time one of them opened his mouth.
Karkat had to admit that was pretty ashen of him. Especially the exasperated glowers he spared for the both of them in about equal measures. Karkat still didn't enjoy the bruises, but it was ... nice, being able to relax into John's presence, knowing Dave would stop him, knowing there was a safety net, a set limit. Which was, argh, no, he couldn't be ash and pitch for the same person, and as for being ash and flush, that was plainly ridiculous. Dave was being ridiculous.
Humans were pretty ridiculous. Look what kind of messes he got himself into, going courting at 'em.
He blamed Missus Jane. He blamed Missus Jane and her pastries.
If they pushed the ashen sham long enough for an actual date he was making Dave shell out for a full box of them.