John is a skinny bitch at the best of times, but you never really notice it, not until he’s sitting half-naked on the edge of the bed, head buried in his hands, whole body wracked with sobs that bring clear fluid to his eyes, soak his hands and flannel knees in salt you can taste even half-asleep.
His skin is an all over gold, the back of his arms and neck caramel from the sun, but in the light filtering in strips through the blinds, it’s ghostly pale, maybe even that eggshell colour humans turned when they were ill. He looked drained and tired and you could count his ribs through that skin.
Breaths rattle in his chest, and you lie there watching him for a minute, counting those ribs, and picking out the freckles in the strips of light, remnants of childhood and too much sun, and he trembles like he’s about to shatter into a thousand pieces, disintegrate before your eyes like a statue made of ground glass.
You move slowly enough that he can hear each beat of your heart shift the fabric around you, and press the flat of your hands against the dip at the base of his spine, his skin inherently warm, but cooled by the night air, and dry, soft with youth and tough with memories, and he flinches a little. You think he might arch his spine up into your hands, but he doesn’t move a muscle, and you spread your hands, curl your fingers around his hips, feel the bumps of his pelvic bone against the grain of your skin, sharp and hard, yet so fragile. If you squeezed, just a little, you could be what destroys him.
‘John,’ you whisper, and he gives you a strangled noise in response, somewhere between a gasp and a sob, something horrible and broken, and you feel your heart clench tight at the noise. ‘John,’ you repeat, because what else is there to say?
He does nothing except continue to sob into his hands, and you have no idea how to make him feel better, how to take that hurt from him and make it disappear. You have no idea why it’s so important to you that you do, but his well-being is one of your top priorities. This human concept of romance, so simple and uncomplicated, has brought about so many changes in the way you think and view everything, that you no longer have the answers for why you feel the way you do.
You can feel the edges of his spinal cord against the arch of your brow and the bridge of your nose, digging into your chin as you press your face to it, horns resting against the line of his shoulder blades, stretched thin under the biggest human organ, two vast expanses of marrow and calcium, hideously wrong when compared to yours, but then, you’re a troll, of course your bone structure is different to a human’s.
You hush him softly, a quiet whisper of breath rattling in your lungs, and you can feel his skin shiver when you blow on it, a subtle ripple of bone and muscle and cells. You can feel his heart beating though his ribs, staccato and uneven, a pianist’s adagio and you think that’s the right term, but you aren’t very musically inclined.
‘Hey,’ you whisper, and the chaps on your lips snag on his skin, so you press a kiss to one of his vertebrae, feel the softness and delicate, fragile nature of the flawed creatures you created, but they are so versatile and so strong, taking the odds stacked against them and laughing as they destroyed them, turned them on their heads that they might conquer the stars.
You tell him as such and he shudders again, a laugh of total disbelief, but you don’t know what he disbelieves; you or your words.
‘Fuck,’ he whispers, muffled by his hands, and more than a little snotty, words catching on tears and the tightness in his throat. ‘Fuck, I love you.’
His skin is warm to the touch, warmed more by the heat of your face than anything else. You lift your face a little, slide the line of your cheek against the line of his back, and bump your nose into the column of bone that sits there. His muscles jump, but his spine curves outwards and he sinks backwards into you, forcing you to sit up straighter to fit around that curve. Not for the first time, you curse the half-foot height difference.
‘I just,’ he continues, and you press a kiss to each vertebrae in reach, rest your eyes between his shoulder blades before continuing up. ‘I miss him, so much, and I can hear him sometimes. I remember him, every second, and it hurts, it hurts so bad.’
You say nothing, press your face into the back of his neck, slide your hands around his hips and bring them up, rest one against the fold of his stomach, the other against the broad canvas of skin that covers his heart. It thumps against your hand, and you can almost feel it through his back, your heart the metronome to his keys.
‘I remember when I saw him,’ he says. ‘And there was so much blood, his and Rose’s Mom’s. And then mine too. And I remember how angry I was – at Jack, at me for putting him in danger, at him for having a fucking picnic in the middle of a battlefield, and I remember how the last time I saw him, I strifed with him.’ He takes a breath and says, ‘I never got to say goodbye.’
You tighten your grip as the human in your arms finally breaks into those thousand pieces, ground glass slipping between your fingers, and you pull him, unresisting, back from the edge of the bed, into the centre, where you can pick up his trembling limbs and rearrange him so you can hold him without hurting either of you, and he gropes at you blindly, and he is, he’s blinded by so much and he tries so hard to see, but all he ever sees is what he perceives as his failures; the dead trolls, the deaths of his friends regardless of the desired outcome, the death of his father, the destruction of his home and the desperate, desperate need not to fail you too.
He could never fail you. He isn’t perfect, far from it, but he is beautiful in his imperfections, the little bits of you that have made up this planet, from his mutant blood to his dodgy sense of humour.
‘John Egbert,’ you whisper, and your mouth is at his temple now, mouthing the words into his hairline as he sobs against your neck. Your fingers drum a steady beat against his back, and he sounds kind of hollow. ‘I love you more than I ever thought I would love anything. I will never love anything more.’ You pull him away so you can kiss the corner of his teary mouth, and continue to mouth words against his lips. They come out as a rush, unplanned and barely thought through before they’re out of your mouth and in his. ‘You are beautiful and so good to everyone you meet, even people you don’t like – fuck, you put up with me – and fucking hell, John, love, he’d be so proud of you, of everything you’ve done. I’m proud of you, we all are. Everybody is so proud of you.’
You hold him tight as he sobs, fingers slotting into the spaces between his vertebrae and murmur an Alternian ‘I love you’ into his hair as salt soaks the old Armageddon T-shirt you found in the back of John’s closet a few months back and have slept in since.
‘Karkat,’ he gasps. ‘Karkat.’
’Shoosh,’ you whisper back against the shell of his ear, so soft and delicate, you’d rip it off if you accidentally bit it. ‘It’s okay, John, it’s okay.’
‘But,’ he says. ‘But it’s not, it’s not, is it? I just. I can’t stop.’
’You don’t have to stop,’ you tell him. ‘You don’t have to do anything except breathe.’
He takes your advice to heart – the first time he’s done so, you lament with a laugh bitten off at the back of your throat – and breathes, and steadily drowns his sobs out with his breathing.
He doesn’t reply, and you twist your head to look. He’s asleep, mouth open and cheeks still mottled red and damp.
You brush your thumb across one cheek, mindful of the sharp edge of your claw, and kiss his brow. You are Karkat Vantas and you curl around your matesprit-kismesis-boyfriend-lover’s body, quietly vowing to yourself that you will not let him down, that you will keep him safe and never let him come to harm.
It surprises you to find yourself publicly saying those same things a sweep later as John grins opposite you, a guy dressed like human Elvis Presley presiding over you. You are going to murder Strider later for what he called irony and you called fucking stupid, but right then, in that moment, you have never been more content with your place.