The moment Eridan had been snatched away by the all-consuming kitchen staff, Nepeta had snapped back to work in her old job as overenthusiastic schoolmarm. Though the grubs had grown in size and changed in personality, she was on top of them like (well naturally), a cat and her kittens. Most of them had been corralled into the living room, and she popped in and out on her searches for the others. It gave Terezi a chance to rest; it gave Kanaya a chance to sneak away.
She slipped through the halls to the second storey of Gamzee’s not entirely orthodox hive layout, and eventually found the Humans’ room. Gamzee was always fond of adding new living space to his hive. Construction was slow but he had still managed three guest rooms, with the humans having been loaned the smallest. She opened the door and went in warily, the room dark except for a single desk lamp.
“Oh! Hi Kanaya.”
In the dim light of the lamp Kanaya found John, an e-Reader on the desk beside him and a baby in his arms and a bottle in one hand. She cast a look about and saw that the other infant was lying in the second crib, fast asleep.
“I Thought That I Should Check On You” she said, trying to drum up some buried authority while keeping close to the side of the room away from the sleeping baby.
“I’m fine. As long as they’re asleep, I’ve got the cushiest job here! Almost glad I didn't bring down that deer, I'm barely being punished for it. How’s everyone else in Team Didn’t Actually Kill Anything?”
Kanaya stopped about halfway across the room from John, unwilling to risk get any closer to the currently quiet baby in his arms. “Karkat has whipped the rest of the kitchen staff to work with his usual efficiency. Eridan tried to skip out so now he is handling the offal.”
John did not, as ever, try to hide his grin, his heart still on his sleeve after so many sweeps. “And how about you and the other victorious huntresses?”
“Terezi and Nepeta have gone to tend to the grubs. I’ve been… restful.” She squirmed, eyes flicking back and forth between the babies. “…Is that one yours?”
“Well, I don’t really know about ‘mine,’ I mean, I don’t raise them any more than anyone else and I didn’t really do anything. Well, I suppose I did more than everybody else, really, what with the ectobiology, but—”
Kanaya held up a hand. “John.”
John’s smile fell back to simple mischief. “Yes, he’s mine.” John tipped the baby a minuscule towards their guest, and sleepy, blazing pink eyes turned up to look at Kanaya.
Kanaya froze up, an hand gripping the hem of her dress. What on earth was she supposed to do? Say hello? It was not as though the Human infants understood speech. “H-hello… uh…”
“Dustin,” Kanaya finished, throwing in a probably unnecessary bow to the boy with Rose’s eyes. Satisfied, perhaps, Dustin turned his eyes back to the desk lamp before turning focus back to his bottle. “And…” Come on, Kanaya, you know this. “And Gabriel.” She did not even look at the second child, eyes shut in embarrassment and thought, the child with the red eyes from another battle in ectobiology’s ongoing war against dominant genes.
John could not have missed her worry and at first they sat in the quiet, but it would seem he felt that he had to bring it up. “So… how’s single life treating you?”
They both knew at once that he was not referring to dating. The grubs had seen to that almost across the board, and it was a favourite topic of Karkat’s to show up online every few months to rag on everyone about how they were wasting time not churning a genetic batch. “Same as always,” she said. “How are you finding parenthood?”
“Sometimes I wish I was still in your position,” John said, though he unconsciously cradled Dustin a little closer to his chest as he said so. “But I guess with the little Trolls running around, I knew what I was getting into.”
Kanaya nodded. “Rikisa has been a handful.” But always so fond of Dave. Kanaya puttered around for a moment before heading straight to her point. “John, I was wondering if you wanted to head out for a while. I can look after the babies.”
“Really? Because…” John’s goofy smile had vanished and he was making a bit of a show of making sure Kanaya was all right. “Because I know you don’t… like them all that much. That doesn’t bother me.”
Kanaya squeezed her dress with even more force. Did he have to be so blunt? “I don’t want to be stuck with one. That doesn’t mean I can’t look after them for an hour or two.”
“Okay, I’m sorry,” he said, setting aside the bottle. It seemed that Dustin had fallen asleep in his arms, so he stood up very carefully. “I was just thinking back, what with the grubs and all—”
“People can change,” she said, sounding a little more irritated than she intended, especially considering the only thought on her mind was Or at least they can try. “…I’m sorry, John. I’d just like a chance to help out and I don’t really appreciate you judging me on past inaction.”
“Okay, I’m sorry, really. Uh…” He looked back and forth between Kanaya and the empty crib before deciding it would be a stronger gesture to hand Dustin directly to her. “Here,” he said, and the baby changed hands. Dustin squirmed in his sleep for a moment before curling up against Kanaya’s breast. “If they start doing anything worrying, the monitor’s over there.” John pointed to a walky-talky they had alchemized, the light on its top indicating that it was deactivated. “You can read my books if you want, too.”
“Thank you,” Kanaya said, trying to settle in John’s abandoned chair.
“Thank you!” he returned. “I’ll go see if they need any help in the kitchen, then, I suppose.”
“They will,” she replied. “The others aren’t back yet.” John nodded and, quietly, headed out the door.
Kanaya sat alone in the dim light for a while, carefully watching the baby in her arms without even glancing at the e-Reader. Both asleep. Lucky start. This isn’t so hard. Not in the babysitting sense, but more the acclimatization. She was trying as hard as she could not to put any weight on the humans’ children about her own problems, but if she could not pull a decent evening’s babysitting past her natural inclinations, she might just scream.
There was a difference between Karkat yelling more often and actually meaning it, but Kanaya felt she had a good pulse on the nuances: next sweep, definitely, he’d pull the order and the buckets would come out. When she had been younger she had been concerned about mates and chastity and the whole affair, but now she was worried about the after. They had been supportive when she had not wanted to take home a grub the first time around, but she would not get another chance.
“How’m I doing?” she whispered to Dustin. He clutched at her in his sleep, and after a few moments began to shiver, so she wrapped him up in a blanket John had left beside the chair, positive she was doing it wrong, but he stopped. Good so far. So far.
Karkat winced, looked up and – “Gyah!” – jumped away into the door of the refrigerator. The three sets of barred teeth that had previously been no more than an inch from his face started to giggle.
“Fuck, Nepeta, what is wrong with you?”
“That! Wath! Awethome!” Eridan’s clone said, swinging from Nepeta’s sweater sleeve as he and his partners in crime giggled unceasingly. The other grub clinging to her shoulders, also by a clutch of clothes. Nepeta had abandoned her old cat outfit when she had (physically) outgrown it, though the way Karkat had heard it, she was looking for a new hat. Instead, she wore efficient, loose-fitting clothing in the summer hunts and bulky, oversized stuff she found “cozy” in the winter. At the moment, she was topped off with a Santa hat and whichever grubs were willing to hitch a ride.
“Can we do Jade next?” said Sollux’s clone, though true to his tongue’s genes it sounded more like “nektht.”
“Sam!” Jade said with a laugh, her hands covered in fruit juices from a sauce she was trying to make. “I already know you’re there!” Samuel, Karkat thought, still bitter about how Jade had named her kid after all these sweeps. Respect his heritage my ass. Strider had went with a perfectly good Troll name. What was Harley’s deal?
Aquila, Eridan’s clone most begrudgingly raised by Sollux with the help of Gamzee, climbed up Nepeta's arm with surprising skill for a sea dwelling Troll. Signalling to the Troll on the opposite side of Nepeta's head, they began to try to reach for the high cupboards. She winced as they moved about: physically strong as she was, this little game of theirs had lost a bit of its appeal between the second and third sweep.
Karkat slammed the fridge shut as a means to recover his footing. “Nepeta, are you and the lisp brigade here for a reason?”
“Karkat,” she said, tapping both grubs on the feet and waving them down. “I’ve got eight grubs in the living room, two getting off my back right now please… there’s my boys… and twooooo…”
Aquila spoke up. “Nepeta, Shaula went to her room and won’t come out.”
Nepeta, though her back was now free from passengers, looked pained all over again. “Why didn’t you tell me this earlier, kitten?”
Sam, who had been adjusting those dorky red and blue glasses he had been given after alchemizing Jade’s with his original’s, offered a different story. “We wath too buthy playing!”
“Were,” said every adult in the room at once, even Rose and John, whose only linguistic concern at this point in their lives had to do with what gurgle meant what. Sam took a sudden interest in examining his feet.
Nepeta returned to the issue at hand. “I can’t leave the grubs any longer, Karkat. Someone’s got to go get the others.”
Nepeta returned with one of her sweeter smiles. “Terezi is trapped under a sleeping baby, silly!”
“Fine, fine, FINE!! I’ll do it! I'll get her!” Karkat tossed the spoon he had been trying to use into the gravy and stormed over to the sink. “Fuck, this place would go to hell if it was just you ass-sucking standing around pretending you can get shit done…”
Nepeta started out of the kitchen, but she took the long route as she went and stopped both her and her charges directly across from Eridan, a curious smile curling up on her lips. The two grubs peered up at the meet being carved, but when Aquila saw exactly who was across from him he ducked back behind the table in hopes that his original had not seen him.
“Hey you,” she said with a sideways glance.
“Uh… hey Nep,” Eridan said, his knife immediately slipping off of the roast. “How’s it going?”
“Oh, nice enough.”
“Holy crap, you two,” Karkat said over the sound of the faucets. He stepped back to allow Rose to clean a knife. “Stop being fucking coy! Everyone knows, and we’ve already agreed, it’s absolutely disgusting.”
“Karkat, shut up!” Rose said, and spritzed him with water. “We all think you’re great together, you two, congratulations.”
Karkat felt a hand slap hard on his shoulder from behind. “And Karkat thinks so most of all,” said John.
“Egbert, where the fuck have you been?” Karkat said, knowing quite well. “Wash your damn hands and make the gravy.” Karkat did not think he hated John more than on the holidays. Truly this was the most wonderful time of the year.
“John,” said Rose, “the kids asleep?”
“Yes, and Kanaya is watching them,” he replied.
“Mith Nepeta,” Sam said, tugging at her leg. Nepeta looked down and noticed just how scared and quiet Aquila had become. She shot Eridan a sheepish look and led the grubs out. Just as they had cleared the doorway and ran to join the others, Nepeta was ambushed by a crop of the others.
“Nepeta!” said Geidel, her own. “Can we open presents yet, can we please?”
“Nine,” Jade said, and Rose nodded.
John looked up from his preparations. “Nine times that was asked or—”
“Nine kids,” Rose finished.
Nepeta just laughed, picking up her son. “You silly little kittens! I told you this morning! Presents are tomorrow, at the start of the new year!”
“Aww…” said all the grubs said in chorus, but Nepeta stopped following them after one step and turned back to Eridan.
“Of course,” she said, tongue teasing at the side of her lips. “The new year starts at midnight.” And she stepped off, Giedel waving innocently at the crowd in the kitchen, having not understood a word that we being said.
Eridan’s long, moonstruck sigh was only overcome by the sound of Karkat’s rage. “IF YOU WAKE ONE! GRUB!”
But the Eridan of three sweeps spent settling their new homeworld was not the same Eridan that had entered the medium from Alternia. He ignored Karkat and calmly settled back into carving the meat. “Kar, calm the fuck down, I don’t wanna pry grubs off the walls at four in the morning any more’n you. Nep’s just got a treasure hunt set up for me. I think she got me a new gun, and you wouldn’t want the kids to—”
“‘Treasure hunt?’ Oh please be too fucking stupid to understand euphemisms. Please both of you be too stupid to understand euphemisms!”
“Karkat!” Jade said. “Don’t knock the treasure hunts, I’ve set some up for everyone.”
It took Karkat a while to say all he had wanted to say, and only a bit less time than that for the others to push him out. By the time he emerged the grubs had long stopped talking about presents and had started a new discussion entirely, Nepeta keeping a half-aware watch from a more immediate supervision of her own kids.
“Ascell, we played Legislacerators for two days.”
“Well, it was fun then, wathn’t it?” Equius’ clone replied. “It’ll be fun now!”
How does he lisp without cutting his tongue on his damn broken teeth? Karkat wondered. He had long suspected that Feferi boasted the largest medical costs in their little civilization. But as strange as it was to see a little Equius, complete with silly ponytail, shouting orders so confidently, it was stranger to see a little Terezi – Zubene – not wanting to play Legislacerators.
“We can’t stop playing, Zubene!” said the third clone at the heart of the fight, Karkat’s own. “That mutant is still on the run! We have to bring her to justice and punish her! But I get to be head prosecutor this time!”
The discussion quickly collapsed into a fight, first verbal and then with fists. It was mostly between Ascell, Zubene and Karkat’s clone, Nahnos, though others watched and shouted encouragement form the sidelines. One simply watched, having taken more from her lusus that Karkat had ever liked. Couldn’t she at least throw a punch? He stepped forward, not around the others but through them. “Hey! Scatter!”
The clones fell apart, his own clone further than the others, and Karkat heard the adult Terezi giggling in approval from the couch behind him. Karkat passed through the gap he had made in the fight and took a seat on the other couch, next to a pair of tiny legs dangling down from on top.
“Don’t think they’re playing your game any more,” he said, watching the fight return to its verbal stage, and Nahnos’ occasional, shifty looks in his direction. Shit he thought, wanting to kick Tavros. At least Zubene has the sense to put her back to Terezi. At least he doesn’t have another goddamned lisp. No reply came to his question, except a dawdling little kick of the legs. He kept up hope that one day a personality might spark there without prompting, but for now he just had to put up with the labours of raising kids with Equius. That meant direct questions.
“The mutant they’re talking about. Is that Shaula?”
“I don’t know her name.” Her voice was measured and even a little soothing, just losing the last of its innocent mispronunciations. It was also a perfect mix. She had Equius’ tone superimposed on a prepubescent vocabulary and the prepubescent voice of Kanaya. One day, not accounting for the worst, she would sound just like Kanaya, and Karkat was determined to oil her fucking personality gears somewhere between then and there. “She had lots of things in her eye.”
“That’s Shaula,” Karkat said with a nod. “Gamzee’s kid. She lives here.” That Ascell, Nahnos and who knew who else had pegged her as a “mutant” was nothing. Given the way “punishment” kept popping up in discussion also did not bother Karkat in the slightest. The legislacerators were gone, but they were learning an important part of historical Troll society for the grubs to learn about. More importantly, if Shaula wanted to survive, she’d have to learn to do it. The only thing that bothered Karkat about any of this was the fact that Nepeta might leak it to the humans and they'd flip their fucking lids. That would be trouble.
“Why are you sitting on the top of the couch when no one’s playing King of the Castle any more?”
“They’ll be back. And I’ll have been Queen this whole time.”
Karkat could not help but grin at that kind of political scheming. “But what if they’re done with monarchy for good? You’ve got to keep a pulse on that sort of thing.”
He harrumphed and tickled under one of her feet. “Nothing, Zeniah. Sometimes I forget you’re three and we’re not actually having a deep, in-depth conversation.”
He had made no inquiry. He got no response.
Something to look forward to, I guess, Karkat thought as he met his daughter’s glassy-eyed return stare. He’d really have to have a talk with Equius sometime before he took her home. “You seen your sister out of our room at all this morning?”
“No. She's still mad at you.”
“Thank you.” He stood back up, took a step towards the fight and simply raised his second foot. The brawling grubs immediately parted once again, leaving him a clear route to the opposite couch and Terezi. Hyaden, still on her stomach and seeing Karkat approach, threw himself down in a hug around her neck and purposefully looked away.
“Oh for fuck’s sake,” Karkat muttered.
“What?” Terezi teased, knowing full well.
“I see this kid every goddamned day and would he even tell me the time of day?”
“H3’S JUST J34LOUS” Terezi said, putting a protective hand atop her son’s head. Tavros’ super-wide horns stuck out in each direction, making it hard for Karkat to get anywhere near Terezi.
“I’m the one that should be fucking jealous,” Karkat said, getting to his knees beside them. “He gets to lounge around with you all day and I have to go grub-hunting.”
Terezi returned a sympathetic wince. “Still locked in the room, eh?”
“Almost definitely.” Karkat leaned over and kissed his matesprit on the lips to only a small protest murmur from Hyaden. Karkat flicked him on the shoulder as he pulled away, saying: “Don’t worry about it, stupid, she’s all yours again.”
“PUT H3R THROUGH TH3 R1NG3R K4RK4T”
Karkat planned to do exactly that, but as he climbed the stairs and headed toward the first of the two guest rooms used by the Trolls, he was distracted by the sound of soft crying coming from the third storey of Gamzee’s ridiculously constructed hive of doom. He heaved a sigh, trying to keep in mind that Nepeta had sent him to fetch both little girls, and headed up to Shaula’s bedroom.
“Kid,” he acknowledged. Shaula was curled up on her bed, and did not much look up to greet him.
“Is Gamzee back?” she asked.
“Not yet,” he said. “Heard you talking to Vriska earlier.” No reply. “Guess she wasn’t really what you were expecting.”
“She was a real… jerk!” She wiped the tears from her eyes. “…I guess that means I’m going to be a real jerk, too.”
Karkat was certain she could hear his teeth grind. “Fuck’s sake,” he muttered. “Not this again. Haven’t I had enough of this already?” He stepped into the bedroom. Shaula’s walls were lined with posters of happy clowns and alchemy-snatched Princess and the Frog merchandise. Not a good sign. “If you were already a jerk, you’d have punched out those other fucking kids like you were supposed to. And if you were going to grow into a jerk it wouldn’t have anything to do with your genes. And since none of us are giant, cannibalistic spiders? You’d have to really want to be Spiderbitch to be Spiderbitch.”
Shaula returned his advice with a look of confusion. Karkat had expected that, but it felt good to get the truth off his tongue before simplifying it. He stepped up to her and picked up up from her bed and into his arms. “You,” he said, repeating the same advice he had been spouting for the past few weeks. “You are going to grow up to be whatever the hell you want. Definitely not Vriska Serket and – and this is the key part, kiddo – definitely not what Gamzee and Sollux want you to be. Oh, you probably don’t believe that right now, but it’s true, so stick with me.”
He carried her down the stairs to the second storey, and continued his walk towards the guest room. “Trust me. Or at least trust the Humans, because that’s what they seemed to do when they grew up. You are going to want to do the cardinal opposite of your lusii. And since Sollux is a nerdy hacker terrible friend type, and Gamzee is a crazy psycho terrible friend type, the exact opposite is you fucking running this joint.”
“But… I don’t… wanna hurt anybody.”
Karkat settled her down on the ground in front of the guest room, pointed to her with both hands and gave what he would later decide was the best parenting advice of his entire career. “Change your fucking mind.” Shaula’s dumbstruck reaction was probably the best progress Karkat figured he would get, so he clapped her on the shoulder. “Stay put for a bit. I have to go fetch another grub, and Nepeta will eat me alive if you wander off. I mean that.” Shaula assumed he meant the standing still part, while Karkat was actually referring to the eating. Nepeta had tried once. Never drank again.
Karkat set an ear to the door before heading in. No crying. He was not sure if that was good or bad. He braced himself. He knew his own daughter too well to hope to rely on jokes. He was not looking forward to this at all.
Karkat pulled open the door to reveal a carpeting of sleeping bags. Twelve Trolls slept here, six adults and six children, pretty much on whatever available surface looked most appealing when they had arrived. The sleeping arrangements, plus half the humans, had set up their hunting teams, plus the last minute transfer of Jade when Dave had made a bet that he could do better short-staffed. In the middle of the room sat the last of the grubs, perched on a red sleeping bag that lay flanked by Hyaden’s brown and his and Terezi's own double-sized teal/red. She glared at him.
“You might not believe this,” he said, “but I still like to believe you’re going to stop being a little whiner and come downstairs to eat with the rest of us.”
Yellow eyes watched from the dark between curled, round horns, her arms crossed just under her chin. She did not say a thing as he approached, or stood over her. She was not usually this stubborn, not like her sister, but at least Zeniah would reply to a question even if she was angry. But this called for a different tactic.
“You’re missing out on a chance to play with all the other grubs, you know.”
After all, Karkat thought. She’s my kid. If I’ve given her anything, it’s—
“THEY DON’T GET IT!”
—my temper. Karkat seized the ground he had been given. “Oh, you're so full of shit. You haven’t even seen them! They want nothing to do with this shit! You haven’t been watching them run every time they see a pair of horns that look like theirs.” He did not really want to say it, but it was true: “If you told them, they would think you were the only lucky girl on the planet, Aradia!”
Aradia. Karkat could forgive Jade for “Samuel” but never, ever for “Aradia.” It had been too much, too soon; the demon's body had barely gone cold. And worse… That the little red grub had come with him and Equius when they had been the only ones with enough common sense to overcome sentimentality struck a chord with Karkat, though he knew she had not really understood at the time. Now she was stuck with it hanging around her neck, for the rest of her life.
“They don’t get it. They don’t.”
“You're gonna blame them for that? That you've been hiding up here in your room for weeks? C'mon, Aradia. Don't lie to me, you know I hate that.” Karkat scowled down at her own, and knew it was going to be one of those days.
Karkat stamped his foot. “Ugh, see? You still don't have shit. Unbelievable. You don't even know why you're upset! You're just dragging out this tantrum for no good--”
And Aradia jumped up to her tiny feet and began to shout. “They get to see!” She said. “They get to know. They’re stupid if they run away. They should be...”
Karkat was taken aback. “...That’s right,” he said, kneeling slowly. This was the first coherent thing she had said about this in weeks. “You don’t get to see in person. And I guess you don’t get to know as well as them either.” It was not just by the way she was grasping the facts. “So?”
“Tho I... So I don't get... to know where I'm from.”
A little inkling in Karkat's heart spoke some pride at watching her grasp the abstract, but his tactician's mind seized on just how easily she was breaking down. It might be petty to want her out of this room more than happy, Karkat thought. But I’d rather see her eat. “What’re you gonna do? Cry about i—”
Aradia – his Aradia, his little girl even if he did have to treat her like his little soldier from time to time – started to tremble more with each word, and before he could even finish, had tossed her arms around his shoulders and started to wail. Not wanting to lose the opportunity, Karkat pulled her close, lifted her up and started to walk out the door.
“Ka-Karkat,” she said. “A-are you going to… are you going to—”
“Not till you don’t need me, stupid. Have you met me? C’mon, be serious. Karkat Vantas doesn't leave the fucking building until everything's wrapped up tidy.” Karkat pushed open the door with his foot, and gestured to Shaula to walk ahead of him.
“Buh… why is she crying?” she asked, genuine concern for the stranger in Karkat’s arms showing in both her eyes, so alien on a little Vriska.
Karkat pondered this. It was not often he wished Gamzee was there, but this might have been one of those times. “Do you know what ‘death’ means?” Shaula shook her head. “She’s… starting to. Is all.”