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General Vantas Gets Hitched, or, The Limits Of Bilateral Diplomacy: A Black Powder Romance

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    The last time Karkat had seen this many humans in one place, most of them were dead.

    He was pretty sure a royal banquet ostensibly in his honor wasn't an appropriate place for battlefield flashbacks, but it was impossible not to draw the connection. Heat and noise. A cacaphony of uniforms. Overwhelming smells. Too many humans, not enough trolls. And just like then, too much depended on convincing people who outranked him that it was their own idea to do the sensible thing. All it lacked was the clatter of musket fire and the thud of the heavy guns.

    As he delivered well-coached small talk and prepackaged witticisms to yet another pinkish-brown dignitary, he wondered how many times he'd have to hear 'General Vantas' before he could answer to it without that split-second of confusion. At least it didn't show on his face anymore. In the first few days after his hasty promotion, he'd glanced around for a real general whenever someone addressed him.

    There was a warning tingle of psionics against his palm, and he realized he'd been reaching for his collar again. He threw Sollux a short scowl, but his companion (bodyguard, jailer, friend, mourner) was pretending to scan the crowd for -- trouble, drinks, whatever. That didn't mean he wasn't watching. Karkat wasn't supposed to tug at his uniform.

    Nor was he to swear, scratch, mop sweat, or touch his hair. He wasn't to mess with the ceremonial saber hanging at his hip either -- fucking useless trinket, not even good as a threat, everyone knew he was a curved blade specialist -- except to hold it in position when getting in and out of chairs. They'd made him practice getting in and out of chairs.

    Just for something to take his mind off his troubles, he tried focusing on the human he was supposedly socializing with. Tallish, plump, wrinkled male, glasses perched on his nose. Vaguely familiar. White uniform dripping with gold braid and at least three times as many medals as were weighing Karkat's own jacket. Karkat wondered how many of them had anything to do with actual combat.

    "-- don't mind me saying so, my boy," the man was rambling jovially. "All for it, myself. Not much for tactics, you fellows -- no offense meant -- but right devils in a fight. I can only imagine what you'd be capable of if properly led by human officers."

    The man was clearly trying to give offense. Sollux gave Karkat a warning spark on the back of the neck before he even opened his mouth, but he didn't need it. This whole situation was offensive; why break character for one more turd in an ocean of shit? Anyway, the geezer had a point. "That's hard to arrange, though, isn't it? Hemospectrum, you know," he said, and was vaguely gratified when the human seemed surprised by his mild tone.

    "Quite so," the man rallied. "It's a damned nuisance. Don't know why you people are so set on it."

    "Don't you?" Karkat smiled sweetly.

    The man's eyes sharpened. "No place on the battlefield, that sort of thing. But I suppose that's not news to you. Bit of a propaganda piece, aren't you?"

    Karkat flicked at the junkyard pinned to his own chest, with a meaning glance at the human's. "About half of these are real. You know what I mean by real."

    The man's eyes crinkled. "Only half a diplomat, then, eh?" He suddenly seized Karkat's hand and gave it a short, hard shake; only hours of protocol drill saved Karkat from jerking away and maybe opening up the poor idiot's wrist with his claws. "I was at Stone Creek when you sprang your famous ambush. I thought I'd be an ogre's breakfast by dawn, and then suddenly they were pulling back. We'd no idea why, at the time. I heard about it later. Didn't know who'd been in command on your side until this engagement nonsense came up. But I'm glad to have the chance to thank you."

    Karkat searched his memory for the proper diplomatic response, but found none. Hell with it. He cracked a grin and tried honesty. "We didn't even know you were there."

    The old man threw his head back and bellowed laughter.

    When the old man had gone to circulate elsewhere, Karkat made a show of looking for a waiter, hoping for a moment to breathe and a drink to hide behind.

    Sollux said quietly, "You don't know who that was, do you?"

    "Light Dragoons, First Battalion," Karkat shrugged. "That much fruit salad on his chest, he's got to be high up in the --" He waggled a hand, searching for the word. His mind felt like a badly packed knapsack, like if he rummaged too hard vocabulary might start falling out his ears. "Human hemospectrum equivalent."

    "Hereditary nobility," Sollux supplied with a dry smile. "Yeah, you just made friends with the King's great-uncle. That's a kind of indirect ancestor," he added before Karkat could ask. "With his support, maybe we could make this work."

    The fragile sense of accomplishment Karkat had gotten from that exchange collapsed. "No. We couldn't. You know why."

    Sollux didn't answer, but his eyes dimmed slightly, narrowing, almost a wince. Karkat lifted his chin and looked away, firming his mouth to keep from replying in kind. This was no time to be indulging in pale sentiment. The kindest thing he could do now was to keep his distance and hope Sollux wouldn't get dragged down with him.

    The swirl of the crowd parted for a moment, revealing his host. King John was a trim, sturdy male of average height, handsome but not exceptionally so, with a toothy smile and gold-rimmed spectacles that made him look a bit like a clerk. His blue uniform glittered with bullshit medals just like every other aristocrat's. Karkat wondered if there was a particular significance to wearing the dress uniform of the heavy infantry on this occasion, since he probably had a whole closet full of the things. A nod to Karkat's footsoldier origins?

    Nah. John had a reputation for being a mental featherweight. Probably picked it to match his eyes.

    "Yeah," Sollux said, as if Karkat had spoken. "I guess it's time."

    Rather than admit he'd been thinking about irrelevancies, Karkat nodded as if his mind had been where it should've been. Because Sollux was right. The reception had gone on long enough that his departure wouldn't be a statement, so there was no reason to wait any longer.

    When he reached John's vicinity, he saw that the human monarch was talking with two women. One, essentially a female version of the king, was the Royal Witch, the king's 'cousin' -- which was like a 'sibling' but not as direct somehow, Karkat didn't understand it as well as he supposed he should -- and also Duchess of Westsea, which Karkat understood very well. She was wearing her magician's uniform rather than her admiral's one, but from what Karkat had heard after the war, she had at least as much right to the latter. The other woman was so well shrouded he could see nothing but saffron robes and a knowing smile, and he didn't know nearly enough about the Church of Light to guess her rank.

    Fortunately, they both curtseyed and left before Karkat reached them, so he didn't have to try to sort out terms of address for them. John's ever-present bodyguard, in red and white, eyes hidden by his helmet's visor, directed the king's attention with a slight lift of his chin. John turned, saw Karkat, and lit up like he'd never been happier. Karkat might have thought it was genuine if the royal idiot didn't use it on nearly everyone.

    "General Vantas!" John cried warmly. "I didn't mean to leave you on your own so long. And with an empty glass as well!"

    A waiter instantly appeared and exchanged Karkat's empty champagne flute for a full one, then melted away. He'd seen elite commandos obey orders with less alacrity.

    Karkat cleared his throat, willing himself to go through with this. Much as he hated parties, the glare of the ballroom looked like paradise compared to what was coming. But all he could salvage now was his dignity and maybe Sollux's safety. He took a deep breath and squared his shoulders.

    But before he could speak, John said suddenly, "Are you bored yet? I'm dying. I'm going to drop dead of boredom right here. Boredom and heatstroke. Let's get out of this mob."

    Karkat sagged slightly. "I was just about to ask."

    John crooked his elbow, then hesitated, studying his own arm in perplexity. "How does this work when we're both men, anyway? Same height too, so we can't decide by that either."

    "How does... what work?"

    "Oh. Trolls don't offer an arm, do they?"

    "I'm not that drunk, Your Majesty."

    John laughed and gave up on the arm thing, whatever it was. "It would've looked silly either way, I guess," he said as he gestured Karkat to join him, and they walked toward a curved stair that rose from the corner of the ballroom. "It's going to be even hotter up in the gallery, I'm afraid, but if I actually leave, the party's over and everyone has to go home. Which is a bit unfair if you ask me. But." He rolled a shoulder in a laconic shrug. "Protocol. You know how it is."

    "Not really."

    "Oh, I guess not. This is all new to you." He paused at the top of the stair, and for a moment he actually looked intelligent. "No slight intended. I know your promotion was political, but you're still a war hero."

    Until Karkat felt his brow smooth, he didn't realize he'd been scowling. He couldn't think of anything safe to say, so he didn't answer, but John nodded as if he had.

    The servants must've deduced where they were going, because when they reached the plush little curtained balcony, there were refreshments already waiting. Champagne, of course, you couldn't turn around without getting a faceful of the stuff in this place, but also a crystal pitcher of iced lemon water, sweating even more in the stifling heat than Karkat was. Karkat barely remembered not to sit down before the king did. He reached eagerly for the pitcher.

    John's bodyguard was suddenly there with the pitcher in his hand. Karkat froze, sweat going cold on his neck. So that was the legendary speed technique of the human sword masters. He'd assumed the stories were exaggerated.

    The guard produced a tiny slip of ivory with runes etched on it and dipped it in the pitcher. Whatever he saw apparently satisfied him, because he poured out two glasses. But he used the magic thingamajig on the filled glasses as well before stepping back.

    John grinned wryly at what he saw on Karkat's face. "Nothing specific to your visit. We always test if it's been left unattended. Go on, it's safe." He sipped his own as if to demonstrate.

    Angry at himself for letting his nervousness show and be misinterpreted, Karkat wanted to refuse, but God, he was dehydrated. Made it hard to think. He drained his glass twice-and-a-half before he could stop guzzling.

    Finally, he set it down, sat up straight, and looked the king in the eye. "We should talk," he said. "Alone."

    John chuckled. "Chaperone-dodging before the wedding? Naughty. What will people say?"

    Karkat gave him a blank look. "What?"

    "I'm joking. Human tradition, basically obsolete, not applicable in this case anyway. Make sure we're not overheard, please." That last was clearly directed toward the guard, though John didn't look at him.

    Sollux gave Karkat a grieving look before following the guard out, but Karkat couldn't stand to meet his eyes. When the door closed, the stuffy air seemed strangely quiet, despite the clamor of the ball below the balcony.

    "You look... very unhappy," John said.

    Karkat jerked his chin up, startled and angered by the king's pitying tone. How dare he --? But maybe he had the right, however much of a sham this whole business really was.

    "Say whatever you want, Karkat. No titles. Protocol's for show and no one can hear us now."

    "Fuck." Karkat let his breath out shakily. As if this needed to get any harder. Fortunately he'd rehearsed this speech in his mind a dozen times. All he had to do was read it out of his memory.

    "I don't know as much about humans as I should," he began. "But I know you value mercy. And I gather all I have to do is ask for it."

    John looked puzzled, but he nodded.

    "Right. Well, I'm asking. Don't send me back alive. Something quick and quiet, and send back my head. Send --" Between the shock on John's face and the reality of what he was saying, Karkat faltered. He had to swallow hard and think of Sollux to go on. "Send my head back with my guard. He's more likely to survive if he's the one who brings it back. If you send me back alive, they'll say I sabotaged the alliance, charge me with treason -- I'm not afraid of pain, but it'll be public -- and he'll get the same treatment, and he doesn't deserve it."

    "Karkat," John said slowly, "in what way is the alliance being sabotaged?"

    Karkat gaped in disbelief. Then he surged to his feet, fists clenched. "Don't tell me you're taking all this at face value! Can't you see how ridiculous it is? I can't believe you're even making this much show of considering the Condesce's offer! An alliance marriage? Between biologically incompatible species? And then she sends you a male? Do you truly think she's that ignorant about human sexuality?"

    John's eyebrows were high and his mouth was a thin line. Was he offended? Amused? It didn't matter.

    Karkat smacked a spread hand on his own chest, on the scarlet wool of his uniform. "She chose me because I'm the red-blooded hero, right? Because we match? Did you buy that? I'm a freak! Red blood is anathema, pointing it out is mockery! And don't think being a friend of the Heiress makes me some kind of gentry, either, we all mingled freely as children but I certainly don't have her ear now. The Empress jumped me out of the ranks and pinned all these stupid fucking medals on me -- like slapping gold paint on a piece of coal -- and everyone knows. Even if I wasn't a mutant, no rustblood will ever be a real general. If I tried to command anyone now they'd just ignore me. I had more real authority when I was a sergeant. Your Majesty -- John -- I am an insult."

    "That's okay," John said lightly, and Karkat fell into his chair like he'd been hit with a hammer.

Chapter Text

    He tried to remember exactly what he'd said. He'd gone off his speech. Rambled. Maybe he left out something important. "You'll be a joke. They're sneering at you already."

    "I know!" That was a laugh, goddamn him.

    "So... that's why you can't accept," Karkat finished weakly.

    "No," John smiled, "that's why I must accept." He got up and moved to sit beside Karkat instead of across from him. Wrapped a hand over Karkat's fist where it lay clenched on his knee. Surprisingly large hand. Surprisingly cool and dry. "I'm sorry, Karkat. I didn't realize your position was so precarious. Not that I ever planned to refuse, but I'd thought you'd be safe back in Alternia during the engagement. We'll work out a way for you to stay here until the wedding. We can move up the date. These things can be handled."

    Karkat stared at him in utter, bewildered disbelief. "Are you actually insane?" Not an insult, but a genuine question.

    "Maybe a little," John chuckled. He patted Karkat's hand once and let go. "The average human on the street knows it won't be a real marriage, not the way they understand marriage. Although they probably think the Condesce thinks it is, because trolls don't do marriage so obviously they have no clue what it is." He rolled his eyes. "If she believes I bought that bullshit I really will be insulted."

    The laugh that fought its way up Karkat's throat was half relief and half incredulity. "I'm surprised you even know that word."

    "I'm a veteran too, Sergeant, under all this silly gold braid." John's smile was confiding, and it made Karkat's stomach feel oddly warm. It was good to be addressed by the rank he'd earned instead of the one he'd been dressed up in like a trained animal. "We all are, aren't we? Our generation. The Condesce doesn't even understand why anyone would want to make peace, because war is glory, but God, aren't we just tired of it. There's a lot of arm-twisting going on behind the scenes. This absurd marriage offer is her clumsy attempt at barbed diplomacy, trying to hand us a package we can't keep, can't drop, and can't give back. But you know, we humans invented the stuff. Diplomacy, I mean. And we're not going to break this treaty, no matter how confusing she finds it. She can insult us all she wants, but she's not getting out of it."

    Karkat swallowed, as if this new perspective was something he could choke down and digest. "Then you plan to actually --"

    "Marry you, yes."

    "But -- I mean -- can we even --?"

    "Oh yes, it's been legal for several years now. My father saw this coming even before the armistice, back when no one was talking about alliance but front-line officers. He thought the Condesce would offer a woman for my cousin, but the principle is the same. I suppose the idea is that I'm even less likely to agree than Jade is, given my position, but on a personal level this arrangement is much more agreeable."

    Karkat finally began to credit the possibility that John really did understand what was going on. That he knew Karkat was an embarrassment to the Empire, the mutant too famous to cull, and how foisting him off on the humans was tantamount to the Condesce wiping her Imperial ass with the treaty. But for John to accept this poisoned gift... it still seemed mad. He searched John's eyes intently for any sign of mockery. "But we can't... mate."

    There was a flash of amusement, but it was mild and brief. "No one is expecting us to. My cousin is my heir, and she plans to have a preposterous number of children. The succession is not a problem."

    "But it's -- how is it --" He broke off with a grimace. Shoved a hand through his hair. Realized, with a giddiness born of stress, that Captor wasn't here to stop him, and did it again with both hands, raking his claws over the itchy spots. Refused to wonder why that would make John smile at him fondly, as if he were a charming child instead of a lit grenade tossed into the middle of the peace process. "Look," he said at last. "All I know about marriage is that it's sort of like an official announcement of matespritship. I didn't bother learning much because I didn't expect to live that long. But how can we be matesprits if we don't even pity each other? Are we supposed to pretend?"

    John tilted his head. "It's nothing like that, Karkat. It's a legal state, not an emotional one. Our feelings are irrelevant. We don't even have to be friends, but I'm relieved we are."

    "We're not friends," Karkat said weakly.

    That big, warm grin broke over John's face again. "After a conversation like this? Of course we are. Now shall we let our guards back in? I think your moirail will be glad to know he doesn't have to cart your severed head back home."

    "He's not..." Karkat's voice gave out entirely.

    "But he will be, won't he, now that you know he's safe with you?" John stood up, but paused at Karkat's hand on his sleeve.

    "They honestly think you're stupid," he confessed. "Her Imperious Condescension. The bluebloods. They buy the act. They certainly have no idea what a devious sonofabitch you really are. Your Majesty."

    "Why, General Vantas, what a sweet thing to say!" John laughed. He clapped his hands to summon their guards.

    Sollux searched Karkat's face as he came in. Karkat spread his hands, trying to convey that he wasn't really sure what was going on now either. "It's going to be all right," he said. "Somehow."

    "Just all right?" John grinned, slipping back into his upper-class-twit persona. "I think it's going to be fun. Do you know -- royal couples aren't required to share a bed, but we ought to at least share a room sometimes. Stay up talking, have pillow fights, it'll be just like being children again. Gosh, the whole palace will have to shift to an evening schedule, and won't that annoy everyone!"

    Sollux's knees buckled. Karkat actually leapt over a table to catch him, didn't realize he'd done it until John made a startled noise. He gripped Sollux's upper arms to steady him, and after a moment Sollux threw appearances to the winds and mirrored the grip. "He's accepting?" Sollux said hoarsely.

    "And moving up the date," Karkat agreed, almost as dazed by the news even though he'd had some minutes to absorb it. "We're staying here."

    Without letting go of Karkat, Sollux turned to the king and bowed his head. "Thank you, Your Majesty."

    John glanced at his guard. With no change to the visible part of his face, the guard lifted a curled fist, and he and the king bumped knuckles.

* * *

    The reception dragged on for two or three more hours, but with John smoothing the way, Sollux almost smiling, and his inevitable doom significantly postponed, it was nearly tolerable.

    John was an expert at navigating these functions, and could not only charm anyone he met, but make Karkat seem charming too. There were moments when Karkat felt charming, which was very strange. Rather than straining to parrot the appropriate memorized lines, he found himself speaking almost naturally, assuming a 'gruff and humble war hero' role that wasn't very far from the truth. John even got Sollux to talk a bit, got him acting more like an aide-de-camp than a bodyguard, somehow nudged him into conversations with people who were fascinated by the difference between magic and psionics and could go on about it all night. All this without dropping the friendly-fool act for a moment.

    "How do you do it?" Karkat murmured to him when they were in one of the periodic lulls John seemed to engineer, as if to let Karkat retrench before the next wave. "How does no one catch you at it?"

    John laughed happily. "I'm flattered, Karkat, honestly."

    "Are we on first names now?"

    "Ah, maybe not downstairs. Not until tomorrow. Apologies, General." A mocking half-bow that somehow included Karkat in the joke. "After the engagement's official, we can use soppy pet names twice in every breath like witless adolescents if you like."

    "I never needed to say anything, did I? I'm such an idiot. I embarrassed myself for nothing."

    "Not for nothing." Though John's smile was as wide as ever, his eyes were serious. "Not that embarrassing, either, if it helps. You're a little bit magnificent when you're angry."

    Before Karkat could rally from that, a brace of glittering gowns drifted into their orbit, and John fell back into character without a hitch. "Really astoundingly good at shouting. Did you know," he turned to the women, "before the battle of Nine Elms, General Vantas was warming up with a bit of light bellowing, and just as he was hitting his stride an imp assassin popped up!" He threw his arm up in a ridiculous stabby-killer gesture that made the women gasp. "Well, the General just went on shouting, of course. 'Who told you to step out of line, you horrible little man? You're an embarrassment to your unit, your officer, and your mother! Get back in formation this instant!' The poor thing surrendered on the spot."

    The older of the two women tapped the king on the wrist with her fan in what looked like a ritualized gesture. The younger was looking Karkat up and down in a strangely appraising way. "Did you really?" she said breathlessly.

    There was a part of Karkat's mind that had begun flailing helplessly as soon as John started telling the story, angry at the inaccuracy, angry at being held up to ridicule, or worse, mis-aimed admiration, afraid of giving the wrong answer, flubbing his lines. But there was also a part of him that was caught up in John's wake and enjoying the ride, and that part gave a self-deprecating smile and said, "My language was much worse than that, I'm afraid."

    Right answer. Smiles all round. Even Captor smiled a little, though he rolled his eyes. Fortunately, no one who wasn't used to his eyes could tell he was rolling them.

    Half an hour later, at the next pause, John's guard finally spoke. "General. How much of that story was true." His soft, wry voice made the question sound like a statement of fact. "Tell me you legitimately shouted an assassin into surrendering."

    Karkat cleared his throat, not sure whether to brag or be modest. He settled for being truthful. "It wasn't like I was addressing the troops. I was taking a theiving quartermaster apart for skimming, and the little bastard popped out of a supply wagon with a crossbow. I took the opportunity to wax eloquent. He'd shot his bolt, after all. I didn't expect him to freeze in panic."

    "You're lucky he missed," John put in.

    "Missed?" Karkat snorted. He patted his left hip. "No, he nailed me right about here. Why do you think I just stood there yelling at him?"

    The corner of the bodyguard's mouth twitched up for a moment. It looked like approval. Too soon to assume he'd made an ally there, but he hadn't made an enemy, and that was more than he'd expected.

* * *

    He and Sollux had been given adjoined suites, both altered to suit troll tastes. Thick draperies on the tall windows, recuperacoons standing like awkward guests in corners that had clearly held other furniture until recently, carpets moved to leave a cleanable path between recuperacoon and ablution area. The sopor was a bit stale -- someone clearly hadn't known how to ship it properly -- but they'd both made do with far worse on many occasions.

    The beds hadn't been removed. Much too big. Karkat sat on his as if it were a bench, looked down at his tight laquered boots, and sighed heavily. "Would it be obnoxious to call a servant to get these fucking torture devices off what's left of my feet? I don't think I can do it myself."

    Sollux didn't answer. He stood just out of arm's reach, looking at nothing in particular; looking at anything that wasn't Karkat. No point pretending there wasn't something hanging between them unsaid, then.

    "I know I've put you through some bad shit," Karkat tried. "But I'm queasy drunk and falling-down tired, Captor, I'm nothing but a holding facility for champagne right now. Just... don't." Meaning: don't blame me for this situation. Don't make me talk about it when my guard is down.

    "I suppose you think it was worse for you," Sollux said.

    For a moment, Karkat was tempted to pretend he meant the wine. But he knew better. Sollux was going to make him talk about it. "Shit," he muttered. "No. I know it wasn't."

    Sollux's fists clenched and unclenched. The corners of his jaw bunched as if he was making a supreme effort to swallow his words. Then he whirled on Karkat and let them out in an angry torrent. "It would've been over for you. I would've been riding that wave of bullshit for years. Or else I wouldn't, which would be a fucking disaster. Did you think of that? What I was going to do without you to hassle me out of giving up? Who's left that gives even a fractional fuck whether I live or die besides you? Anything I say to Feferi now has to be encrypted to hell and back, and I don't know if maybe you forgot this or something, but Aradia is fucking dead. You're all I have, you dumb grubfucker, the least you could do is make a token attempt to stay alive!"

    Karkat winced. "I never thought there was the slightest chance he'd accept. Did you honestly --?"

    "I hoped!" Sollux stalked to the nearest chair and threw himself into it. "There's planning for the worst, and then there's being a quitter, you raging sack of assholes! How many times do I have to tell you I know doom from long odds before you believe me? You never listen to me, and I can't make you. I don't have the right."

    Karkat opened his mouth to argue, but shut it without speaking. He couldn't think of anything to say. The room was spinning, and he still hadn't quite adjusted to the prospect of surviving, and the pain behind Sollux's scowl was crumpling his heart like a fistful of paper.

    He got up -- unsteady in his too-tight boots, stomach sour with alcohol -- and sank down crosslegged on the floor beside Sollux. He leaned to rest his forehead on Sollux's knee.

    "I'm sorry," he murmured. "You do have the right. You do now. If you want it."

    There was a tense pause. Then Sollux's hand settled into his hair, ruffling lightly, a thumb rubbing gently along the inner curve of a horn. "Ssh," Sollux said softly. "I'm still here."

    Karkat took hold of Sollux's trouser leg just below the knee, closed his stinging eyes, and let his mind go blank. All those romances he used to read, the way he used to linger over the pale confession scenes, reread them until the corners of the pages were grubby, until the book would fall open to the most maudlin conciliatory embrace if dropped -- here at last was his chance to live his own love scene, and he was just too tired and woozy and emotionally wrung to say a word. He couldn't even say, Sollux, do you know how long I've pitied you? Tell me, because I don't know myself. He couldn't even say, God, my feet fucking hurt.

    But Sollux's hand said what needed saying, didn't it? It was there in the tender, gentle curl of claws. The difference between doom and long odds. The exhaustion of a battle won but the war yet to fight. They both knew that feeling well enough.

Chapter Text



    "Awfully sorry to have you woken so early," John said, looking a bit tired himself. "And for this mess." His gesture took in the round breakfast table, with its crisp white linens, standing awkwardly in the middle of an enormous stone hall like an egg on a boulder. "We're not used to you yet."

    "I understand about conducting business during the day," Karkat said, "but how does it explain the table?"

    "The room, rather. The places where we usually have meals... well, we like windows. This is part of the old fortress, though. The palace was built around it."

    "It's fine." Karkat forked down a few mouthfuls of grilled fish before adding, "First defensible position I've seen since I got here."

    John flashed him a grin. "I can't wait 'til we can talk about what I've got instead of fortifications these days."

    "Uh-huh. And when will that be?"

    "When we're bound to each other with proper legalese and ceremony, of course. Speaking of which, I had a messenger from the Church this morning. It seems the Seer has seen omens which indicate a new date for our wedding."

    Karkat just raised his eyebrows.

    "An extended engagement is not advised. The autumn equinox is apparently very auspicious for us."

    "That's only three weeks away."

    "Yes, it's going to be heaps of work to get everything ready in time, and no doubt a lot of dressmakers will be very irritated. And of course there's no point you going home just to turn around and come back, so you may as well send for your things rather than collecting them yourself. But what can we do? The Seer sees what she sees!" He shrugged. Aside from a slight glint of amusement in his eyes, there was no indication that he was anything but annoyed at the rush.

    Taking the hint, Karkat feigned interest in his breakfast while he tried to work out how to be as oblique. There was a lot of vegetable matter on his plate. He wondered if he was supposed to eat it just for courtesy. A little couldn't hurt, he guessed, and the fried potato was tasty, if not nourishing. Besides, he'd thrown up everything in his stomach along with the remains of last night's champagne when he'd woken up, and his campaigner's instincts wouldn't let him go into a fight hungry if he could avoid it. He had no doubt today's schedule counted as a fight, even though it would be fought with gold and ink instead of steel and blood.

    "I should write some letters, then," he said at last. "My friends have a long way to travel, Your Majesty."

    "Already taken care of, General," John said with a serious smile.

    Damn this subtlety stuff. Karkat hoped he'd conveyed his fear that his known associates would be used against him somehow, and John's response probably meant the threat had been anticipated. But for all he knew they'd communicated something else entirely.

    "Well, the point I'm working up to." John gestured with his fork in exactly the way Karkat had been informed no polite person ever did. "The banns have to be read three consecutive Sundays, which means if we're to make the date the Seer advised, we've got paperwork to do this morning. You were briefed, weren't you?"

    Karkat muttered vague assent to his plate. He hadn't paid attention. It hadn't seemed to matter.

    "Oh dear. Well, it's a bit late to object to any of it now. Did anyone explain morganatic marriage to you? In a nutshell, I'll be making you a gift of land, and that's all you get. Your title doesn't change and you don't inherit."

    "An answer to the insult?" Karkat said dryly.

    "What? No. God, no, I wouldn't make a battlefield of you. Any more than you already are, I mean," John said sympathetically. "No, it's a fairly common practice in marriages of disparate rank. Can't have you in line for the throne, you'd be suspected for every assassination attempt. Er... I didn't mean this to be a surprise." He tilted his head, trying to catch Karkat's eye, contrite and artfully charming. "You don't really think I'm taking advantage of your sleep deprivation to change the game on you? I've only had two hours myself."

    Karkat shook his head. "Just tell me I don't have to wade neck-deep in champagne and small talk again tonight."

    "I wish I could," John sighed.

    "Oh, good." Karkat dropped his fork in disgust. "Just give me a moment to ride out this wave of orgasmic delight. How do I even process my joy at the prospect of a future of unending heatstroke and vomit? I am going to just shove my whole hand up my nook here and jizz glitter and kittens all over the table. Thank you so very much for providing this beautiful fucking opportunity." Then he grimaced, angry at himself. How many times had he been warned not to let his foul enlisted officer's mouth off the leash around royalty? Roughly a million, that was how many.

    But John laughed as if he wasn't offended in the slightest. Sympathetically, even. "It's the price of power, I'm afraid. We pay for our privelege in sweat and hangovers. It's bad form to complain."

    "Except I never asked for power, did I?" Karkat snapped, then crammed a forkful of sausage into his mouth to keep from saying anything else undiplomatic.

    "Well, neither did I, obviously. But since I've got it, it'd be a bit stupid not to learn to use it. You should give it a go. You're condemned to a life of public functions either way."

    "You were trained from birth. I was born to be culled."

    "That only means your talents are natural, Sergeant," John said, and then he winked.

    Karkat hardly managed to do anything but stare in reluctantly admiring alarm for the rest of the meal.

* * *

    They'd arranged for him to be under some kind of shade every step of the way, but the light was still blinding. The glare wasn't much lessened once he was indoors again, either, because of course it was the Cathedral of Light, and all the bits that weren't stained glass were positively blistered with oil lamps.

    Almost blind, Karkat just concentrated on remembering his part and tried not to pass out or throw up. He and John were to walk at a stately pace up the wide aisle, side by side, and they weren't to touch each other until the priestess placed their hands together. Their respective bodyguards followed several steps behind as an honor guard. Karkat bitterly envied Sollux his colored glasses.

    You took the signal tower at Cooper's Cross on four days without sleep, in a snowstorm, with a broken rib. This is fucking nothing. Don't be such a wiggler, he scolded himself.

    "Bit less scowling, if you don't mind," John whispered out of the side of his public smile. "And for God's sake don't cry."

    "I'm not crying, my eyes are watering," Karkat returned the same way, trying to smooth his brow. "Nocturnal, remember? I can't see a f-- a blasted thing." No swearing in the church. Right.

    "Three steps coming up... right about now."

    Forewarned, Karkat groped a bit with his foot, found the first step, and didn't fall headlong up the dais and headbutt the High Priestess. At this point he was willing to consider that a victory.

    The old woman in the cloth-of-gold robes launched into some kind of speech or sermon. Peace, forgiveness, new dawn, lots of light metaphors. Occasionally verging on offensive in its refusal to acknowlege that bringing a creature of the night into the light might, for instance, kill it, but whatever. Their religion, not his. Karkat closed his eyes to give them a rest from the dazzle. He had his back to the crowd, and the priestess would probably let it slide. It was that or start pouring scarlet tears. After a few minutes, though, he discovered he had to open them occasionally to keep from swaying. He'd reached the vertigo stage of hung-over exhaustion.

    John was speaking his part before Karkat even realized the sermon was over. "I, John Egbert of the house of Egbert, by grace of God King of Skaia and the Dominions and Territories thereto belonging, Defender of the Light, do declare my intention to take in marriage General Sir Karkat Vantas of Alternia, Descendent of the Signless Sufferer."

    There weren't a lot of trolls in the audience, but there were enough of them to raise a racket at that last word. Karkat shot John a shocked look. Did he know what he was doing? Did he know what kind of powderkeg he was waving a match over by even mentioning the Signless? And where'd that 'Sir' come from, anyway? Karkat was pretty sure he would've remembered being knighted. Was John just making it up as he went along?

    John raised an eyebrow expectantly. Karkat swallowed dryness from his throat and followed John's lead. The human had proved he wasn't an idiot; Karkat was just going to have to trust him. He flung himself headlong through his part, and somehow he didn't screw it up.

    The priestess took their hands, put them together, and draped a gold-embroidered square of saffron silk over them. "This is the first time of asking. If there be any reason in law why these persons may not wed, you are charged to declare it." She paused for one breath. "May the blessing --"

    "Any reason?" someone shouted from amongst the glittering crowd of nobles. A middle-aged human shouldered his way forward until he was pressing against the restraining arms of a couple of royal guards. "You want a reason? It's disgusting, there's your reason! This is a mockery! It's a joke!"

    The priestess lifted her chin and cleared her throat. "Any reason in law," she repeated dryly.

    A few more voices joined the dissenter, though the others didn't dare push forward. Taking courage from this, the man made another attempt to shove past the guards. "You shame your father, Your Majesty! You shame your people!"

    John half turned to give the man a bland once-over that somehow conveyed 'not impressed' with sledgehammer force. "Bad form, that man." He glanced at his bodyguard, the man in the visor. "Lord Albright is leaving."

    There was a brief flurry of activity as the dissenters were firmly escorted out of the church. John turned back to the priestess with a cheery smile. "Continue, please," he said brightly, and gave Karkat's hand a brief squeeze under the draped cloth.

    Karkat closed his eyes again. His back itched like there was a target painted on it. When the betrothal ceremony was finally over, he was a bit surprised to find he was still alive.

Chapter Text

    "Don't look so worried," John said in the carriage. "If they're ranting in public, they're not plotting in secret. I doubt Albright would know how to incite genuine sedition if he wanted to."

    Karkat, with his hand over his eyes to shut out the light, muttered, "What happened to 'you'd be suspected in every assassination attempt', then? You made it sound like you expect to be dodging knives every day."

    "Not quite every day," John chuckled. "And not from those clowns. But yes, there are going to be a godawful mess of them, I'm afraid, and you'll be dodging your share as well. Just try to remember it's still better than war."

    "God, my head hurts," Karkat groaned. He reminded himself that Sollux had it worse, riding beside the carriage instead of in it, even with his glasses and a broad-brimmed hat. But then, Sollux didn't have to puzzle out this political junk, did he?

    "You should have time for a bit of a nap before the banquet. And banquets don't run as late as balls. It won't be quite as bad after this -- I've managed to consolidate a few of the less important functions, and you won't have to get up early except on Sundays. Just let me know if it starts actually affecting your health."

    Karkat snorted. He wasn't about to tell the king to quit throwing around pitying language when it didn't mean anything, but he didn't have to act grateful. "What are you going to do to that Albright asshole, then?"

    "Nothing. Why, would you prefer I 'cull' him?"

    "If you let people get away with that kind of shit you're just asking for mob rule."

    "But I didn't let him get away with it, Karkat," John said innocently. "I had him thrown out."

    "Uh-huh."

    There was a rustle of silk and a faint creak of seat cushions as John leaned toward him. Karkat forced himself not to tense up. He felt John's warm breath on his ear: "It was interesting to see who chimed in. There'll be a list of names on my desk tomorrow. People worth watching."

    "Ah," Karkat breathed. So that was what John had instead of fortifications now. Lists of names. He wondered if it worked. "So I guess I'm supposed to believe you knew what you were doing when you trotted out the 'Signless' thing."

    "Of course." There was a smile in John's voice.

    "And...?"

    "That was my answer to the Condesce's insult."

    Karkat's eyes popped open. "Holy shit. You are going to get me killed."

    "Last night you were asking me to cut your head off." John adjusted his glasses primly, pretending at solemnity. "Make up your mind. Are you willing to lay your life on the line for peace between our nations, or do you want to hunch down and muddle along in obscurity?"

    "Poking the Empire with a stick is an overture of peace, oh, okay, I get it now," Karkat drawled.

    "It absolutely is."

    "Whatever you say."

    "Your faith in me is touching."

    "While I'm admiring your political savvy, tell me about that knighthood I don't remember getting. Because I'm not quite confused enough. Are you allowed to just make shit up like that?"

    "Oh, it's quite real. I had some research done. It seems that according to the laws of the Empire, a general has to be at least a knight. So the Condesce knighted you in absentia. And then didn't tell you about it." John gave him a crooked smile. "Congratulations."

    Karkat grimaced, rubbing at his gritty eyes. "Brilliant. One more nugget of protocol I have to remember."

    "The sarcasm just never ends with you, does it?"

    "So sorry, Your Majesty," Karkat grumbled, scowling sideways at him.

    "Don't be," John grinned. "I like it."

* * *

    Sollux stripped off his gloves and threw them at the bed with angry, jerky gestures. "I would dearly love to know what the nookblistering fuck that idiot thinks he's doing."

    Glancing at the door, Karkat reminded himself that Sollux would know whether they were being spied on. "I think he has a plan."

    "Fantastic." Sollux's hat sailed to join the gloves. "And did he tell you his plan? I didn't think so. Because it looks to me like the plan is 'kindle a blood feud between Skaian trolls and the homeland, while getting Karkat conveniently assassinated, thus providing a pretext to invade while Alternia's still weakened from the war.' Just because he talks a good line about peace doesn't mean it's what he really wants."

    "Why do people think you're the logical one?" Karkat grumbled as he yanked off his boots. "If he wanted to weaken the treaty, all he had to do was refuse to marry me. Like everyone except you thought he was going to do. You're just being a little bitch because you had to ride outside."

    "Right, okay, obviously bringing up your ancestor like that was a totally harmless gesture with no political implications."

    "He said it was his answer to the Condesce's insult."

    "What does that even mean?"

    "I have no fucking idea," Karkat sighed. He wiggled his toes to work the kinks out. Then he went to examine Sollux's face, looking for damage. "Did you get sunburned?"

    Sollux flinched away from his touch, and for a moment he doubted everything. Last night -- they hadn't talked about it, really, and they'd both been drunk, and what if he'd misinterpreted a simple gesture of friendship? -- but then Sollux caught his hand and held it. "Probably a bit. Don't poke at it. I brought some salve, but someone unpacked my shit and I don't know where they put it."

    "I'll find it. You sit down."

    When he came back from Sollux's suite, he stopped for a moment to stare. Every pillow and cushion in the room was heaped on top of the bed, and Sollux was sitting at the edge of the pile, shoeless and in his shirtsleeves, trying to look nonchalant. Karkat found he was feeling a little sunburned himself all of a sudden.

    "We need to get some harder cushions or something," Sollux said. "We're going to smother in this stuff."

    Avoiding Sollux's eyes, Karkat climbed onto the bed and sank into the pile. How old are you? he demanded of himself. You are so beyond getting embarrassed at a simple feelings jam. But no jam with Sollux was ever going to be simple, was it? Still, retreat was not an option here. He looked up, surprising a tiny smile on Sollux's lips. He spread a hand on Sollux's chest and pushed him gently down, scootching closer until they were hip to hip. He took Sollux's glasses and set them aside. Sollux blinked up at him, power-stained eyes dim and mild with trust.

    He dipped his fingers in the salve jar and began spreading the stuff gently across Sollux's cheeks. Sollux hissed through his teeth at the first touch, but as the cool cream sank into his sun-dried skin, he began to relax. "That's nice," he murmured.

    "Good, because we're probably going to have to do this a lot," Karkat said regretfully. "John's trying to make accomodations for us where he can, but Church of Light stuff has to happen in the daytime. Because, you know, light."

    "So he's John now, KK?" Sollux flashed fang in the crooked little grin that Karkat had always found so annoyingly endearing. "Sounds like you're coming to terms with your situation. You going to get briefed on how to fuck a human, or just wing it?"

    Karkat snorted softly. "Marriage isn't matespritship. We're not expected to mate. It's just a legal arrangement."

    "But you can't fuck anyone else, right? One quadrant, one mate. That's how they do it. You're going to get pretty frustrated if you don't."

    "I think humans can't with a troll, probably. I mean, they're all so much alike, variety weirds them out. Is the impression I get."

    "That's not a 'don't want to' I'm hearing..."

    "Does it matter?"

    Sollux sighed. He took the jar from Karkat and nudged him until they'd reversed their positions. He dabbed a dot on Karkat's nose, smirking down at him. "Are you really going to hold back on me now, KK?"

    Karkat's heart melted directly into a puddle of pale mush. Sollux really did want to be with him. He wanted this moiraillegiance as much as Karkat did.

    "Sorry," Karkat said softly. "No. I just don't know myself, I guess. I mean, he's a pain in the ass, to be honest. He's so goddamn smug. You can't pity smug. But he's in the same boat I am, right? He's going just as short on sleep, he's just as much of a laughingstock, but instead of bitching about it, he pretends it's funny. I'm pretty sure what that Albright jackass shouted in the church hit him hard, but apparently he can't even have the guy arrested because he needs to use him as a stalking horse for catching worse dissenters. So... well. I'm just going to say I think I can consider him a friend."

    "And?" Sollux prompted knowingly.

    Karkat rolled his eyes. "And he has a fantastic ass. Shut up."

    Snickering, Sollux dropped a brief kiss on his forehead. "You're adorable when you bristle, you know that? Here, give me your hands. You weren't wearing gloves."

    While Sollux massaged salve into his hands, Karkat nestled his head against Sollux's shoulder and closed his eyes. Maybe it would be frustrating never to have a real concupiscent partner, but at least he wasn't going to be lonely.

Chapter Text

    John had been telling the truth about the schedule being a little easier after that. There was some kind of social function every day, but none were as grueling as the reception ball that first night or the weekly ceremonies at the Cathedral. Most of them were either afternoon receptions in which tea figured more heavily than wine, or banquets where Karkat only had to talk to the people beside and across from him at the table. John was always to the left of him, and the guest he was facing could rarely hear enough over the general chatter to offer more than the occasional pleasantry, which meant he could mostly just deal with the one to his right.

    That was usually Jade Harley, Duchess of Westsea and Admiral of the Coast Guard, which was no hardship at all. She was a cheerful, plainspoken woman with the same quirky smile as her cousin, and she took no more offense to Karkat's gruffness and occasional foul language than John did. She'd also seen enough action to know the right way to tell a war story. And the right way to hear one. She never pressed for the ugly details. She never showed grief for the people she'd lost, nor did she expect Karkat to. She understood how to laugh about things a civilian would cry about, and it wasn't long at all before Karkat considered her a friend. One evening she even took him and Sollux down to the harbor to see her flagship, the Golden Lance, and though he knew pretty much nothing about ships, he understood the honor.

    He had fewer opportunities to talk to John's bodyguard -- it was several days before he learned the man's name was Strider, and another week after that before he heard the full thing -- David Strider, Marquis of Shoremarsh, which made him titular governor of the most important shipping port in Skaia, and thus obscenely wealthy. The familiar way Strider touched Harley's shoulder or arm whenever they thought no one was looking seemed a lot less sinister once Karkat knew that. He wasn't a mere man-at-arms flirting with the King's heir and courting scandal. He was actually a fair match for her by the rules of human nobility. Whatever their reasons for keeping it sub rosa, Karkat probably wouldn't earn their enmity by noticing.

    It was still weird how he never took that visor off. Was it just for intimidation value, or was there something wrong with his eyes? Karkat guessed it probably wasn't diplomatic to ask.

    Every so often, the Seer of Light would put in an appearance. Karkat tried to talk to her, but she was aloof and deliberately abstruse, and it just wasn't worth the effort. He heard it mentioned that she was Strider's sister, but later someone said her name was Rose Lalonde, and he didn't know what to make of that.

    "I thought siblings have the same last name," he asked Jade the next time he saw her. "Or am I missing yet another enigmatic gem of human culture?"

    "No, that one confuses everybody," Jade explained. "She took her mother's surname. She's technically Dave's niece, but they're the same age and they were raised together, so they think of each other as sibs. Dave's brother was a lot older. He was basically a parent to both of them."

    Karkat wanted to press for more details, but he caught the hint and let it go. In these postwar days, there was sometimes a certain twist to the use of past tense that meant the discussion was over. "I don't know how you keep all this shit straight," he said instead, and Jade laughed and changed the subject.

    He had no end of opportunities to talk to John, but those conversations often left him exhausted. In relative private, John flickered between jocular triviality and political cunning so quickly and often that Karkat just couldn't keep up. In public, he wore his guileless-charmer persona, and nearly everything he said was nonsense. They were never properly alone. On the very rare occasions when Strider and Sollux were both unavailable, several other members of the Royal Guard were always lurking nearby. Sufficient reason for Karkat not to let himself develop a flush-crush, even if there weren't a shit-ton of others.

    Then there came the evening when John summoned him to walk in a distant corner of the palace's immense gardens. The last glow of daylight still lingered in the sky, but tiny lamps had already been lit among the trees. Night flowers were unfolding, pale against the gloom. And as hard as Karkat looked, he couldn't spot any guards. Nor other courtiers, despite the fine night; not even a gardener still lighting the lamps. They had the place to themselves.

    Maybe John was just tired of voices and lights too. There was no need to read any more into it than that. They walked in silence for a time, side by side but not touching.

    "Will Commander Captor be staying with you when you move to the consort's apartments?" John said eventually. "I'm not sure we can entirely evade awkward rumors -- most humans don't understand moirailship."

    What was the point of referring to Sollux by his rank? Was John reminding him that Sollux was still an Alternian intelligence officer despite his relationship with Karkat? Was it an expression of distrust? A warning? But maybe it meant nothing at all. Damn John's erratic moods -- the capricious asshole might just like the alliteration. Scowling, Karkat corrected, "Moirallegiance."

    "There, you see? Even I'm messing it up, and I've studied it. But I think we can manage to make a show of separate sleeping areas while still giving you the option of sleeping together. And we can try to assign you servants who understand you're just sleeping."

    Karkat squinted at him suspiciously. "Why would we sleep together? Even in sopor we thrash a bit, we'd keep waking each other up."

    "Oh. It seems I've misunderstood something. I've been told you habitually gather every pillow and cushion in both suites on one of the beds, and that the bed looked to have been slept in." John leaned in to take a closer look at Karkat. "Are you embarrassed? You're embarrassed!" He sounded pleased with himself.

    "We don't sleep there," Karkat mumbled.

    "But...?"

    "No! Goddammit, John, I knew human marriage is sexually exclusive even before you had a mob of lawyers explain it to me. No matesprit, no kismesis, I'll die a virgin for the good of the people, I'm resigned to it, I wouldn't fuck Sollux even if I did flip red for him, which I haven't, okay?"

    John held his hands up placatingly. "I believe you, Karkat. I didn't really think you'd make a mistake like that. But if I'm hearing gossip from the servants, you can be sure the rumor's gone too far to call back by now. The pillows are just for lounging in, then?"

    Gritting his teeth, Karkat gave in and explained, though it felt like he was betraying Sollux's trust just by talking about it. "We lie in the pile together, yes. We cuddle. We exchange confidences. We groom each other and take care of each other's injuries. Sometimes there are backrubs. All right? Are you satisfied? Because we are not having this conversation ever again. This shit is private."

    "Do you kiss?" John sounded... wistful? What the hell.

    "Well, yes, what kind of moirails don't kiss each other? On the cheek or the forehead, usually. He likes to kiss the top of my head, but I don't usually do it back because his horns are sharp and sooner or later he'd sneeze and stab me in the neck. And on the hand. The palm of the hand, or the wrist. That's a traditional greeting between moirails."

    "That sounds really nice."

    The more melancholy John sounded, the less Karkat could stay angry with him. "It's... it's good. He's good for me. If I didn't have him I'd have exploded messily in public the first week." He drew himself up, preparing to be stubborn. "I need him, John. If these rumors are a problem, find another way to stop them. I'm not giving up Sollux. I won't be any use to you without him."

    "What? No. Karkat." John stepped in front of him and took him by the shoulders. "Karkat," he said earnestly, "I would never ask you to give up your moirail."

    Karkat summoned a glare, but it was an effort. "Don't you play disingenuous with me, John Egbert. You'd sacrifice anything for the sake of the treaty, and my pale quadrant's nowhere near the bottom of the list."

    John released him so abruptly it was almost a shove. "It's just above the subsection where people start dying," he snapped. It was the first time Karkat had ever seen him display genuine anger. It hit all the harder for being a surprise. "We're on the same side, you self-involved idiot, and it's about time you started acting as if you're aware of it!"

    "As opposed to what?" Karkat rallied. "Name one way I've ever given you less than my full cooperation!"

    "Where do I even start? How about with the way you trudge along with your head down in the Cathedral, like you're ashamed to be there! Like I'm forcing you!"

    "I'm fucking blind in there, asshole!"

    "So squint! Just do it with your head held high instead of shuffling like a prisoner!"

    "You could've said this earlier!"

    "Oh, and then there's the way you avoid talking to anyone but me or Jade at public functions. You're supposed to be laying the groundwork for acceptance, eroding misconceptions, gathering allies, but I have to drag you into conversations by the hand and spoon-feed you to people!"

    "Well, excuse the fuck out of me for being a common soldier, Your Majesty! You're absolutely right, I should be drawing on my years of experience schmoozing with nobs -- oh wait, I never had any!"

    "I guess now is the time to learn, isn't it?"

    "It really looks that simple to you, huh?"

    "I'm making it as simple as I can!" John bellowed. Then he lifted his chin, took a deep breath, and deliberately relaxed. "I'm sorry," he said more quietly. "I'm taking out my frustrations on you. That isn't fair."

    Karkat's eyes were abruptly stinging, and it made him bare his teeth in fury, though maybe it was as much at himself as at John. "Don't you fucking dare," he growled.

    "Dare what?" John's brow furrowed with incomprehension.

    "Don't you dare talk like you pity me. We're not matesprits and we're not going to be. You can pretend to be stupid, you can pretend not to know things you probably have huge files on, you can pretend it's my fault I can't climb this mountain of bullshit as fast as you want me to, but don't you dare pretend we're --" And there he stopped, because he simply could not finish that sentence.

    The pity in John's eyes was terrible, because it didn't mean anything.

    After a long, awkward pause, John said, "Still, I was being a thoughtless jackass. I invited you out here in the hope of becoming closer friends, and instead I yelled at you. And I'm sorry for it. Can you accept my apology?"

    Karkat ground his teeth. He didn't want to let go of his anger yet, but what the hell could he say to that? "Fine, just knock it off with the touchy-feely --"

    He caught a glimpse of something out of the corner of his eye, a tiny red spark, and his instincts took over.

    He shoved John hard toward the nearest cover, but John, taken off guard, tripped and fell, and Karkat went down atop him. Pain cracked through his right arm when he landed. He grunted a curse, pushing himself up with his left, thinking he'd pulled a muscle.

    Then he saw the dark stain spreading on John's side, and the matching wetness pouring down his own arm. Only after putting it all together did the crack he'd experienced as part of the pain resolve in retrospect into the sound of a gunshot. Funny how that works, he thought distantly. Hey, this is the first time I've caught a musket ball. A new shape of scar to add to my collection.

Chapter Text

    John shouldered Karkat off him, clapping a hand to his side. "Lie still, that looks bad," he said through clenched teeth as he got to his feet. "Did you see where --?"

    Karkat pointed with his chin. John sucked in a wincing breath, then took off at a sprint toward the sniper's position. Not really hurt, then, Karkat thought gratefully as he struggled to sit up. Not if he can run like that. Seems the shot was spent after it went through me. Guess I'm good for something around here after all. Just call me Meat Shield Vantas.

    Sitting was making him dizzy. He tried to clamp the wound with his other hand, hold his arm to his side, but he felt so weak. It wasn't the oh-shit-this-is-bad weakness, though, just the vertigo of his body rebelling against a sudden insult. It would pass. At least he wasn't in the middle of a fight.

    He flinched as a pale streak shot past him in a spray of gravel. Something hit the ground near him with a metallic clank, bounced, and rolled to a stop against his leg: Strider's helmet. There were shouts and lights back down the path. Slower guards following. Good. He fought to focus as they approached, spotted one he recognized, dredged up the woman's name.

    "Williams!" he barked in his best sergeant voice, and sure enough, the guard skidded to a halt. Some of her companions glanced back, hesitating, but they didn't stop.

    "General," she said uncertainly. She was a pasty, baby-faced thing, and he wondered in passing how she'd made the Royal Guards.

    He yanked off his neckcloth and gestured at his arm with it. "Tie this for me."

    She knelt and took the length of silk, frowning in childish determination. Passed it twice around his bleeding arm and tugged gingerly at it.

    "Tighter, you quivering jelly grub, or I'll slap you rigid and use you for a splint! What are you doing, decorating me for a party? The idea is to stop the bleeding, not make me pretty! Tighter, damn you, I will pick my fucking teeth with you, pull -- AAAARGH FUCK, good, that's better. Help me up." Still panting from the pain, but finally satisfied there was enough pressure on the wound, he flailed his good hand until she caught it and pulled him upright. Paused to ride out a moment of nausea. Tried a step. Good. He could walk. When Williams kept hold of his arm, he shook her off and pointed at the helmet. "Your captain's going to want his carnival mask."

    He had to hide a grin at the haste with which she fetched it and returned to his side. Only half a diplomat indeed. He undid a few buttons on his jacket and propped his hand in the gap in lieu of a sling. Then he gripped Williams's shoulder and focused on walking a straight line.

    It was easy enough to find the king, since the guards with lanterns had found him first. They were clustered around the curled figure of the assassin beneath an artfully trimmed maple just beginning to shade red with autum, their lamps picking up leaves above and blood below. It was a nice composition.

    As Karkat trudged closer, he began to put together what had happened. John looked a bit more duffed up than he had when he'd run off, one lens of his glasses cracked, the knuckles of his right hand scraped and bleeding. The assassin looked like he'd been dragged behind a mail coach for about fifty miles. There were a few flecks of blood on Strider's bared sword, but not enough for a fatal blow; probably responsible for the way the assassin clutched one hand to his heaving chest. A disarming strike, maybe.

    Strider's hair was white. Huh. Not always a sign of age, then. Or else humans had mutants too.

    The assassin was conscious, but not by much. He was cheaply dressed, dirty, and bearded. His split and swollen lips moved as if he was muttering to himself, but Karkat couldn't make out the words. His eyes rolled wildly. Karkat had already guessed he wasn't a professional, but this clinched it.

    John spotted Karkat's approach and beamed in relief. "I was just about to send someone back for you. How's the arm?"

    "I'll live." And then, because there was no point in false bravado when the truth was bound to become apparent soon, he added, "Don't know if I can walk back, though."

    Strider gestured to two of his subordinates and then toward the palace with economical flicks of his fingers. "Bring a stretcher." The indicated guards took off at a jog. When he came to take his helmet from Williams, Karkat saw his unshielded eyes for the first time. They were the same bright red as Karkat's. Strider met his gaze and quirked a crooked smile.

    "No shit," he said blandly. "Comment not required."

    "Night vision?" Karkat prompted.

    "About like yours."

    "Maybe I should wear a visor to the Cathedral next time."

    "And scare the living shit out of everybody. Yeah. Go for it." A brief flash of teeth. Then Strider settled his helmet on his head and his expression vanished. He stalked back toward the assassin.

    The man began thrashing as if he could propel himself to safety by digging divots with his heels. His muttering climbed to panicked audibility. "Demons!" he exclaimed. "Everyone will know! Everyone will know! False king served by demons! You lie with demons! Devil's catamite!"

    John snorted. "He's doing a very good lone-madman impression, isn't he?"

    "He didn't get onto the grounds by himself," Strider said.

    "I wonder if Jade can get something out of him."

    "He used a matchlock," Karkat pointed out. "He blew on the match before he fired; it was the glow that tipped me off."

    "Is that significant?" John said.

    Strider got it. "Not a professional. Or a soldier, probably, but some of the inland regiments are still issued them. Wouldn't have been hard to get hold of one."

    "Might as well trace it anyway," John said, not sounding very interested. "Try to identify him, locate known associates, etcetera. I have a feeling he's a disposable drifter, though."

    "Don't talk in front of him," Karkat suggested. "If he was mind-controlled, the psychic could still be listening."

    John nodded. "Good point. Keep him under wraps for now, Dave. And you know who I want to see in the morning."

    "Shit, I'm about to pass out," Karkat interrupted as his vision began to tunnel. "Williams. Help me lie down."

    There was a period of uncertainty about which way was up. This eventually resolved into a reasonable confidence that he was horizontal, and that a cool, gentle hand was brushing his hair away from his eyes. He smiled despite the wretched throbbing in his arm.

    "Don't flip your shit, Captor," he muttered. "I'm fine."

    From some distant place, Strider's voice said, "Whoa. Jilted."

    "Shut up, you ass," said John's voice from far above. "Those rumors are trouble enough without you feeding them."

    "Hey, I'm not the one calling another guy's name here."

    "Dave..."

    "Relax. I know they're like... blood brothers. I'm messing with you, not him."

    "What a relief," John said dryly.

    Karkat finally pried his eyes open to see why Sollux wasn't saying anything. John was sitting beside him, looming over him, and... oh. John was the one petting his head. He stopped when he saw Karkat awake, but not with any particular haste.

    "Anything I need to know?" he asked mildly, and for a moment Karkat thought John was referring to the flush-crush he absolutely did not have. Then he realized he meant his current state of collapse.

    "Nah, I just stood up too long," Karkat muttered. "Lost some blood, went for a walk, boom, there I go. I should stay down for an hour or two before I try it again."

    "The stretcher will be here soon." John gestured for a lantern, examining Karkat's makeshift bandage. "It's not bleeding much now, at least."

    "Got Williams to tie it good and tight. Only had to bite her fucking head off. You seriously trust your life to these egg-wet wigglers?"

    "The Royal Guard's a prestigious unit, and its members come from the best families," John said with a small smile.

    "Point taken."

    "I've got Strider. And you."

    "And yourself." Karkat glanced at the fight-bruised hand John was cradling on his lap.

    Which, now that his head was clearing, raised some questions. He lined them up in his mind in list form. Item: able to judge at a glance the severity of his own injury and Karkat's. Item: ran toward the assassin. Item: apparently beat assassin senseless while (mildly) injured; addendum, assassin probably armed with knife (evidence assassin's cut hand and Strider's sword point). Item: considers the majority of his personal guard superfluous. Item: nevertheless, did not see the significance of the matchlock musket with reference to, for instance, night maneuvers on which a lit match would give away one's position. Conclusion: neither a soldier nor a civilian, but something else entirely.

    "John," Karkat said at last, "what did you do in the war?"

    "Counterintelligence," John said quietly.

    "Ah." That explained it.

Chapter Text

    Sollux found him in the king's chambers as the doctor was peeling his shirt away from the wound. Karkat had been concerned, when he asked John to send someone into town for Sollux, that his moirail would arrive in a burst of psionics and invective and cause an international incident. But Sollux was calm, even polite, remembering to take his hat off and bow to the king before approaching Karkat.

    The doctor, a plump, elderly woman with a kind face and cruel hands, paused in her task to watch Sollux warily. Afraid of trolls or just protective of her patient? When Sollux sank to one knee beside Karkat's chair and took his good hand, she sniffed and went back to work. Karkat hissed at an especially unpleasant tug, baring his teeth. Sollux kissed the palm of his hand. "Shush," Sollux said. "You're too stubborn to die."

    "Of course I won't fucking die," Karkat grumbled. "Shit. Just look how it's swelling. It's going to be the size of my fucking head. Think that'll go down by day after tomorrow? Not goddamned likely. I'm going to have to get married in my undershirt."

    Sollux cracked a fangy grin. "Shoosh. You wiggler. Let someone else worry about your uniforms, you're not a noncom anymore." He kissed Karkat's palm again and held it against his cheek.

    "I wish humans had moirails," John sighed. He was slumped in his chair, shirtless, holding a folded cloth to his side. The red patch on the cloth was larger than the last time Karkat had thought to look, but not by much; John's insistence that the doctor see to Karkat first had been practicality, not foolish sacrifice. He rolled his head against the chair back to give Strider a pained smile. "Wouldn't it be nice if we could express brotherhood that way?"

    "Are you asking for a hug, Your Highness," Strider monotoned. Now that he'd heard them converse normally, seen a smile in Strider's eyes, Karkat understood that the bodyguard's expressionless voice was something like a joke between them.

    "No one hugs the king," John mock-mourned.

    "Your cousin does."

    "There's an idea. When she's done picking the prisoner's aura, ask her to come up here and hug me. I've had a hell of a day."

    "I'm sure the Seer would also be delighted to hug you. And congratulate you on your emotional honesty."

    "God, she'd never let me live it down. Your sister's a little bit terrifying, have I mentioned that? Also, I have a bone to pick with her. Did you tell her I want to see her?"

    "I sent the message with that pretty redheaded cadet. That should get her attention."

    "So cynical, Dave."

    Karkat cleared his throat. "A bone to pick?"

    John exchanged a glance with Strider's blank visor. "State secrets, I'm afraid."

    "You can't say it in front of the medic, or you can't say it in front of me?"

    Sollux squeezed Karkat's hand warningly. "The former's true whether the latter is or not. You were a lot more logical last time you got injured."

    "That was a broken thumb," Karkat muttered. "Look at this, Sollux. The size of my head." Sollux snickered. Karkat vowed to make him pay for that later. Then he clenched his hand around Sollux's and roared in shocked agony, whipping around to stare at the doctor. She was pushing some long metal instrument into the wound. "What the fuck, woman?"

    She glanced over the top of her spectacles. "You told me you could hold still. Is that no longer the case?"

    "That was before you decided to fuck me in the bullet hole with a scissors! John!"

    John's eyes were round with surprise. "Karkat, you can't think my personal physician would be less than the best. She knows what she's doing."

    "Yeah? How many gunshots have you treated, then?" he demanded of her. "Less than I have, I bet! Goddamn it, get that thing out of me!"

    She didn't remove the object, but she stopped trying to push it through. "There may be fragments of clothing in the wound, which will draw infection. I have to make sure it's clean."

    "Just pour some turpentine on it and bandage it good and tight, I'll be fine!" He turned pleading eyes to Sollux. "Tell her!"

    Sollux grimaced. "I'm no doctor."

    "Look, I know what works! If you don't have turpentine, vinegar will do. Or piss, at a pinch, that idiot Kayens pissed on his bandages and he healed up in no time! God damn it, will you stop?"

    The doctor cleared her throat. "Your Majesty, please reason with your... fiancé."

    "What did you almost say, there?" Karkat demanded. "You almost said 'your troll', didn't you? Fuck this, I'm going to patch myself up." He tried to stand, but Sollux leaned on his legs. Growling, Karkat shoved at him, but couldn't bring himself to risk hurting him. "Traitor! You should be helping me get away from this egregious quack before she starts doing idiot hoodoo with mercury and pigeon blood!"

    With a very quiet grunt and an almost unnoticeable wince, John got up and dropped his bloody towel on the table. He stepped behind Karkat's chair and wrapped his arms around Karkat's shoulders, pinning him tight. Karkat went still, as much in shock as because John was much stronger than he'd expected. His pulse accelerated with a painful wrench. His face began to burn.

    "Trust me," John said softly. "She is very good. I don't know her personal feelings about trolls, but I don't need to know, because she's skilled enough not to let her feelings affect her work. So even if you don't trust her, trust me to have you treated by the best. All right?"

    Breathing shallowly, Karkat barely managed a nod. He felt like he was on fire from groin to skull, like the heat radiating from his glowing horns must be drying out John's eyeballs. Oh God. So this was why they called it 'flushed'. It barely even hurt when that sadistic woman started shoving her torture device through the wound again.

    When he looked down, he found Sollux grinning knowingly up at him. He mouthed shut up, but that only made the grin bigger. So he just closed his eyes and concentrated on the solid heat of John's chest against his back.

    The work of the probe seemed to go on forever. His whole body was throbbing with ache by the time it finally stopped. He opened his eyes, saw the doctor pick up a scalpel, and groaned. "What now, you damned butcher?"

    She looked to John instead of him. "Although scarification is usually reccommended for deep punctures like this, perhaps I should trust the General's estimation of his own resistance to infection." There was only the slightest hesitation before 'General'.

    "Can you give me a nutshell version of the pros and cons?" John sounded tired, but his arms hadn't weakened.

    The doctor put the scalpel down and turned Karkat's arm slightly, using the tautly swollen limb as lecture material. "The blunt passage of a musket ball crushes the flesh aside without cutting it, and that dead matter will eventually be discharged from the wound. Widening the mouth of the wound -- or, in this case, mouths, as it's passed through -- eases that discharge, but it also increases swelling and weakens the patient. However, if the slough can't discharge, black rot is inevitable."

    Karkat relaxed against John with a resigned sigh. At least the old sawbones had seen a musket wound before. "In which case you pack it with maggots and leave it uncovered. Hands off the knife, croaker. It's John's turn."

    "Maggots?" John said disbelievingly.

    The doctor cleared her throat. "I'm not... current... on troll medical practices. However, with your permission, Your Majesty, I'll forego scarification or debridement."

    "Very good."

    Karkat felt the cool touch of bandage cloth, and growled irritation. "Turpentine," he reminded.

    There was a pause, during which John shifted slightly, and someone walked around the room a bit. There was a clink of glass. Cold liquid poured over his burning skin, and he relaxed. Only after the bandage was being wound did he realize he was smelling very good brandy. Well, he supposed it would have to do, since they were determined to be uncooperative.

    "Commander Captor, could you please help me move him into the bedchamber?"

    "Of course, Your Majesty."

    "I can walk, you over-refined dipshits," Karkat muttered, but he wasn't on his feet more than a few seconds before they were supporting most of his weight. He was having trouble keeping his eyes open, too. Funny, he'd had less reaction to worse wounds before. Maybe there was something particular about a gunshot. Or maybe he was just going soft. Well, there was no point refusing rest when he could get it, and he'd had less congenial quarters than John's elaborate sleeping platform.

    "Your Majesty, if you would lie down as well, it will be easier for me to remove the bullet."

    "You're shitting me," Karkat mumbled as John jostled the mattress. "It's still in there? I thought it just creased you."

    "Nope, I'm still wearing it," John said cheerfully. There was a liquid-sloshing sound, and he hissed faintly; the doctor was wiping the blood off, probably.

    A wooden scrape beside the bed made Karkat pry his eyes open for a moment. Ah, Sollux pulling up a chair. Karkat smiled at the brush of Sollux's thin fingers on his brow, though a part of him recalled John doing the same an hour ago and wondered if he ought to say something to either of them. And whether John had been holding him just to keep him still for doctoring, or whether maybe it had been related to his declared wish for 'hugs' -- God, what a childish word, how uselessly innocent!

    John's knuckles bumped against the back of his good hand. Karkat bit his lip, indecisive. Sollux raised an eyebrow. Karkat turned his hand over, and John took it and laced their fingers together.

    Which made Sollux smirk like an utter bastard, of course. Way to ignore biology, culture, and political realities like a stupid romance-obsessed adolescent, Karkat thought, and didn't know if he was aiming that at Sollux or himself.

    "The royal jeweler is staying at the palace right now, isnt' he?" John said suddenly.

    "Yes, Your Majesty," said an unfamiliar voice; one of the legion of footmen that infested the place. "He's preparing the crown jewels for the wedding."

    "Fetch him, please. Wake him up if necessary. Tell him I have a rush job for him." John chuckled.

    "Are you delirious?" Karkat demanded groggily as the footman's laquered heels clicked away. "Wait, don't tell me -- this is another delicate nuance of human custom that I've missed. There's going to be a perfectly good cultural reason why the absolute best time to order jewelry is when you're having a musket ball cut out of you."

    John's voice had a grin in it when he answered. "See? You've practically gone native already."

    Karkat drifted in and out of coherence while the physician worked on John. He faded out when John was still and quiet, only to be pulled back by a soft sound of pain or a squeeze of his hand. Logically, it couldn't have gone on very long, since the wound was shallow, but his sense of time was distorted. At last he was brought fully awake by yet another stranger's voice.

    "You wished to see me, Your Majesty?"

    "I'll have your assignment for you in just a moment," John said with a chuckle that trailed into a grunt. There was a clink of metal on crockery.

    Karkat forced his eyes open, to see John pluck a bloody nugget of lead out of a little bowl the doctor was holding. At Karkat's questioning sound, he held it where Karkat could look at it. It was such a tiny thing, just the size of John's smallest fingernail. "That's gone through both of us," he said, sounding no end of pleased by the idea.

    "Never mind tracing the musket," Karkat said. "Too small-bore for army issue. Probably an old hunting gun. And thank God for that."

    "And for your quick reflexes," John smiled warmly, curling his fingers a little more tightly through Karkat's. Then he offered the bullet to the cranelike, baffled man standing beside the bed. "Cut it in half and set the halves into rings," he ordered. "A memento of the night Karkat Vantas saved my life."

    The jeweler reached hesitantly for it with tweezing fingers. The doctor offered him the little bowl, and he dropped the bullet into it with visible relief, then looked at his fingertips in consternation, as if wondering whether it would be impolitic to wipe the king's blood off them.

    "Do it right away," John added. "Even if it means neglecting the crown jewels. This is more important."

    The jeweler's small, sharp eyes flickered over the two of them, their wounds, their joined hands, and then, to Karkat's great amusement, his face flooded pink. He bowed deeply, murmuring acknowlegment, and hurried away with the bowl held in both hands like a holy relic.

    "You're awfully sentimental for a spook," Karkat accused fondly.

    John replied with a smile that didn't waver even when the doctor tightened his bandage.

Chapter Text

    Karkat lost track of all the comings and goings after that. The king's bedchamber was apparently a perfectly acceptable place to conduct business; John kept summoning and sending, talking to an endless stream of functionaries, ignoring the yawns they stiffled and the bleary eyes they had to force open. Too much activity to sleep through, but with Sollux to his right and John to his left, Karkat felt safe enough to let his mind wander.

    John let go of his hand from time to time, when there was a paper to sign or something, but he always took it again. In the private darkness behind his eyelids, Karkat allowed himself to imagine what it would be like if the gesture meant John was flushed for him -- rather, 'in love with' him, as the humans termed it. (Silly terminology. They knew perfectly well there was more than one kind of love, but hadn't bothered finding words for them.) What if their sham union were to turn real? How close to matespritship could it be, between a troll and a human?

    He'd always known he would never seed any grubs. His bloodline would die with him. But he'd sometimes imagined he might find someone willing to overlook that. Someone who would pity him enough to dodge the Imperial Drones with him, who would forgive the waste of their own genetic material. How, then, was that different from what he and John might do? In the hypothetical case that John's affection was something redder than gratitude.

    Not that John was failing to squeeze a bit of theater out of that gratitude. Making rings out of the musket ball -- meretricious public spectacle. Karkat hated himself a little for being so touched by it. He couldn't help but wonder whether John's sudden need to see damn near everyone in the palace was intended to show off their wounds. Make sure the story got around. See? It's not so terrible for your king to be forced to marry a troll. At least it's a loyal troll. Look how tame it is.

    Was John really that cynical? He was a plotter, no doubt about it. Not above manipulating opinion to suit his goals. This situation was a golden opportunity to do just that. He wouldn't let it go unused.

    Was he above manufacturing an opportunity like this?

    The question sank into Karkat's stomach like a cold stone, banishing his dreamy sense of well-being. He forced his eyes open. Took deep breaths to wake his body up.

    John was talking with the Master of Protocol, working out changes in the wedding ceremony to accomodate their injured state. Karkat's injured state, rather, because didn't seem the gouge in his side was slowing John down at all.

    "-- where you put your left hand on the book and raise your right, I mean, it's just not going to work," John was saying.

    "It's not a proper oath if he doesn't, Your Majesty. Perhaps someone could help him raise it?"

    "That would hurt like hell, Watkins, don't be so inconsiderate."

    "I apologize, Majesty. I was only thinking -- well, I've heard that trolls are much tougher than we are, and don't feel -- that is, are less susceptible to pain --"

    Sollux interrupted in a deceptively mild voice. "You should've heard him complaining when the doctor was cleaning the wound. Believe me, we feel pain as much as you do."

    "I can do it," Karkat croaked. He gave John a look he intended as a glare, but from the indulgent smile he got in return, it probably looked more like a pout. "If that's how it's done, that's how I'll do it."

    John's expression was so unguardedly pitying that, had he been a troll, Karkat would've proposed matespritship on the spot. "It just seems contrary to the spirit of the ceremony for you to be gritting your teeth and spotting your bandages," he said. "It's supposed to be a joyful occasion."

    "I'll be joyful when it's over," Karkat said. "Look, I know the ceremony's essential for a lot of reasons, and I'm not going to shame you, all right? But I'm going to be blind from the lights and doing the walking-wounded shuffle anyway, so propping up my bad arm for a second is hardly going to be the worst of it."

    "Oh, I suppose you were asleep for that bit. I've wrangled this stick-in-the-mud into agreeing that it's better for you to be wearing dark glasses than streaming tears and tripping over the carpet."

    Sollux said, "If only we'd thought of it earlier."

    "I did," John said, surprised. "Of course I thought of it. The moment he told me his eyes hurt. But -- at least to humans -- hiding your eyes is menacing. Better for him to be seen fumbling about blind like a newborn puppy than -- well. Strider."

    "Point taken," Karkat said.

    "He's been through it three times, though," John went on, "and I think it would be good now for people to see what he's like when he's not glare-blind." He grinned sideways at Karkat. "Not that your owl-woken-up-at-noon act isn't charming in its way."

    Does he even know he's flirting? "It would be nice to actually see the Cathedral. As opposed to. You know. A big stabby blur."

    The Master of Protocol made an uncertain noise. "There may be a bit of difficulty with the earpieces of the glasses and the crown. The way it's being made to deal with his horns, it's going to sit rather low, isn't it?"

    "Ah, that reminds me," John said, "it's looking like the consort crown won't be done in time. There was some uncertainty about that even before I gave the jeweler the rings to do. And it's occurred to me -- is there any reason we couldn't use the Victory Wreath instead?"

    "Well... it has rather... military connotations..."

    "He's not a princess, Watkins, he's a general."

    "There's no precedent. It would be quite irregular."

    John gave a short laugh, Sollux snickered, and even Karkat, groggy as he was, chuckled a bit. John said, "Apparently it's escaped your notice that I'm marrying a male troll. Precedent is not our friend here."

    Watkins colored in embarrassment. "Forgive me, Your Majesty."

    "Forgiven. But henceforth let's try to work with the reality before us. The design for his consort crown was a bit silly-looking anyway. There's also the matter of certain people being up in arms about the word 'consort' and the appearance of a coronation, and though I was prepared to simply let them work out on their own that a piece of headgear doesn't confer a title, I'm not above letting them see a convenience as a compromise. You don't mind, do you, Karkat?"

    Karkat was sure his expression was answer enough. He hadn't paid much attention to the details of the crown design -- someone was always after him with a measuring tape around here -- but he recalled that it had to be hinged and have a latch, since apparently it couldn't just perch atop his head between his horns, but had to go below them, and that the jeweler had repeated the phrase 'eighty-four flawless cherry-red spinels' so often that it had come to sound like part of a children's rhyme.

    "I don't know what a victory wreath is, but if it's less likely to scrape hell out of my horns, I'm all for it," he said.

    "It's a gold circlet in the shape of laurel leaves. Open at the front and a bit bendy. Shouldn't be any trouble to get it on you. And, as Watkins pointed out, it has military connotations. Frankly, I think conqueror's laurels suit you better than some bejeweled monstrosity that has to be buckled onto you like a cuirass."

    "Fine." Karkat closed his eyes, already sick of the discussion. "Sign me up for the leaf hat. The leaf hat is my new look. After this I want to talk to you alone, all right?"

    John pressed his hand briefly. "Sorry if this is tiring you. Won't be much longer."

    "I'm not the only one who got shot, idiot," Karkat mumbled, which earned his fingers another fond constriction.

    Once the Master of Protocol had gone, John had servants bring extra cushions and prop him and Karkat up. Then he sent them all out, and at last there was no one in the room but the three of them.

    Sollux shifted in his chair. "Do you want me to go, KK?"

    "No, you stay." He disengaged his hand from John's to adjust his injured arm in its sling, and didn't give it back. John glanced down, gave him an understanding smile, and left his hand where it was, as if to say, The offer is still open. Which didn't make it any easier to think straight.

    "It seems a little weird to me," Karkat began carefully, "that someone who knows he's knifebait would suddenly decide to dismiss all his guards and go strolling around outdoors. Did you know that sniper would be there?"

    John's surprise looked genuine. "Why would I let him have a free shot at me if I knew he'd be there?"

    "I don't know. I admit that doesn't make sense. But neither does our being there in the first place. And now you're annoyed at the Seer for some reason. I can't help but think that's related."

    "Hm," was all John said.

    "You know what else doesn't make sense? You told me no one expects this to be a real marriage, it's a legal state not an emotional one blah blah, you're already having trouble with some of your supporters because they don't like you being so friendly with me -- yes, I know about that -- and yet you just invited half the palace in to see you holding my hand."

    Apology softened John's eyes. "The sentiment is genuine, Karkat. But since it's there... well, perhaps I think too much about appearances. I just thought it might change a few minds. If I've upset you --"

    "Don't. I just want to know what the fuck you're up to. If I'm going to be catching bullets for you, I think I deserve to know."

    John sighed. "It hardly seems fair of you to demand that I level with you when you're not willing to do the same for me." He glanced to Sollux. "How was your shopping trip, Commander Captor?"

    "Son of a bitch," Sollux groaned. "I know I lost your agents."

    "Really?" John said brightly. "How many did you spot?"

    "Well, shit," Sollux said.

    "So that was what you meant," Karkat said slowly. "About acting like I know we're on the same side. It wasn't about talking to people at parties. It was about sharing intel."

    "Both, actually. Talking to people at parties is your job now, Karkat. Has that somehow failed to sink in?"

    "Well, I'm terrible at it."

    Sollux said, "I'm sure you can understand our reluctance to open our files, so to speak, in light of recent events."

    "And I'm sure you can understand mine," John said reasonably, "given your activity since your arrival. You've made it awfully tricky for my agents to protect your friends, what with dodging you at the same time."

    "In my position, you'd do the same."

    "In your position, I'd recognize that our goals don't conflict, even if we prioritize them differently."

    "Then I suppose it falls to you to offer the first gesture of trust."

    "Shut up, both of you!" Karkat burst. "Fucking spooks. You drive me insane. Can we please focus on the bit where it really, really looks like you deliberately waved me in front of a gun to see what would happen? Because if that's not what you were doing, an alternative explanation would be nice to hear!"

    John hesitated, indecision written in the thinning of his lips and the downward twitch of his mouth. Then he relaxed in apparent surrender. "I'll tell you this much. I thought that assassin had been called off. Any halfway competent spymaster would've called him off. It's going to be all I can do to convincingly pretend to lose his backtrail."

    Karkat gaped. "What?"

    "The Condesce's, then," Sollux said grimly.

    "Someone fucking explain this to the token non-spy here."

    Sollux pressed his shoulder gently, not to reassure, but as if begging for patience. "He can't let the public know the Condesce is trying to assassinate you guys. That would be an act of war on her part, and avoiding war is the whole point here. Anti-troll sentiment is enough of a danger already, thanks to this wedding thing. But apparently her operative is clumsy enough -- tell me if I'm reading you right -- clumsy enough to go through with an operation that's already blown. Somehow he should know you know, but he doesn't?"

    "Oh, he does," John said with a grimace of frustration. "I don't think the shooter's raving was an act. I think they probably told him to abort and he didn't listen. Either way, it'll be hard to keep the thing quiet."

    "All right," Karkat said, "I get it. I may not be a spook, but I'm an officer. I know how intel works, at least from a front-line perspective. So you have a troll spy using a human assassin, and the human got off the leash and sicced when he should've heeled. He was aiming for you, though, not me. Shouldn't the Condesce want me dead?"

    "I wouldn't be surprised if the assassin picked his own target there," Sollux said. "You told me he was ranting about the king being a troll-fucker."

    "And if that's not insult to injury," Karkat grumbled, "I don't know what is. There's being bulge-blocked by history, and there's getting whacked for banging the wrong guy, but both? That's just cruel."

    John laughed. "You're a breath of fresh air, Karkat. Never stop."

    "And you're a smug douche. Tell me how the Alternian agent was supposed to know to call off his dog."

    Again, John visibly thought the thing through, and again he gave in. "Yesterday, I had a message from the Condesce. Rather, her spies contacted my spies. Essentially, she conceded that I've called her bluff, and now she's willing to negotiate. If I allow you to have a convenient accident, she'll make me a more appropriate marriage offer. Highblooded. Female."

    Karkat sat up straight, speechless with fury. All the places in him that had been filled with flushed warmth suddenly drained cold and hollow. Sollux rose slowly to his feet, eyes glowing dangerously, and spoke for him: "And then you took Karkat out where the 'accident' could get at him."

    "No!" John looked honestly angry at the accusation. "I had the messengers arrested for public drunkenness to get them out of the way until after the wedding. Which is how their handler should've known to abort the hit. For God's sake, Karkat! Think!"

    All Karkat could summon in answer was a strangled noise in the back of his throat. He couldn't think, he was too busy feeling. And that was becoming a problem. He settled back against the pillows, but he couldn't erase his scowl.

    Sollux said softly, "You still haven't explained the unguarded solo excursion."

    "The Seer told me to do it," John said. "She said the least bloody path to peace required that I walk alone in the garden with Karkat tonight. I honestly thought the point was to have a candid conversation. Become real friends. Start to trust each other." He shifted, scattering pillows, and grabbed Karkat's hand despite Karkat's attempt to pull away. "All I wanted to do was talk to you alone. Turns out you were supposed to save my life and make my people love you. Can we just... judge that on its own merits?"

    Karkat gave their joined hands a bitter glare. "What's the point of this without an audience?"

    Sollux cleared his throat. "Maybe I should just... let you two talk this over."

    There was a knock at the door. "Jade's got something for you," Strider's voice said. "And Rose is on the way."

    John held Karkat's gaze and hand for a moment longer, then looked away. "Come in," he said.

Chapter Text

    Jade went directly to John, perched on the edge of the bed, and hugged him. She smiled at Karkat over the top of his head. "Thank you."

    "I would've done the same for any comrade-in-arms," Karkat grumbled.

    She smirked. "Really?"

    "Unless we were sort of generally under fire, yeah."

    "Well, I'm thanking you anyway, so suck it up," she grinned.

    John said, "I hear you have something for me? No, where are you going?" he added as she began to disengage herself. "I need hugs and Karkat is wounded and cynical. I'll have to make do with you."

    "Pff." She swatted him across the head, but she settled herself more comfortably amongst his pillows.

    Karkat shared a glance with Sollux. 'If only humans had moirails' indeed. Strider leaned out to dismiss some servant or other, then shut the door and took off his helmet. He leaned against the wall with a thumb hooked in his belt and the helmet dangling from his other hand, as relaxed as he usually was severe.

    Strider said, "No disrespect to the Horn Brigade, but are you sure this is how you want to play it, boss?"

    "Someone has to bend first," John said with a slight shrug of the shoulder that wasn't tucked under Jade's arm.

    Karkat raised an eyebrow demandingly. "Horn Brigade?"

    "Is it racist to reference your headgear? Can I say the Alternian Armada?"

    "That's an actual thing that exists," Jade pointed out.

    "What are you even talking about?" Karkat said.

    Sollux explained, "Most likely Her Grace has uncovered something they can't discuss without revealing sensitive information. However, I heartily agree with His Majesty. Someone has to bend first, and it's not us. We're up a tree here, and we're not about to start sawing our own branch."

    "I was going to wait until after the wedding," John said. "And then, believe me, Karkat, I was going to take you into my full confidence. And Commander Captor as well, if you vouched for him. But events aren't content to wait on ceremony, so at this point I'm simply willing to take your word. Are you with me? Are you committed to this process?"

    Jade distilled it: "Are you one of us? I for one would like you to be, if that makes any difference."

    Strider nodded slightly. "You've got balls. You're okay by me."

    "Do they?" Jade mused. "Balls, I mean. Maybe you should say guts."

    Karkat's instinct was to look at Sollux, but he realized that would imply he was taking his cues from Sollux's spy network, not from his own conscience. And as soon as it occurred to him which of those should be calling the shots, he knew what his answer had to be.

    "I can't speak for Sollux on this," he said. "He's his own troll. But for myself -- yes. I trust that John wants peace. And I have had enough of war."

    Sollux gave the merest hint of a sigh, his thumb stroking the back of Karkat's neck in a gesture so pale it was a bit embarrassing of him to do it in public. "I work for the Heiress, not the Empire," Sollux confessed. "I doubt that's a surprise to you, Your Highness."

    John nodded confirmation, waiting.

    "I know you support her ideologically," Sollux went on. "I know you've fed us valuable information and done a bit of fancy footwork on our behalf. I also know that if you had to choose between her cause and Skaia's, well, no contest, right? But if you'll give me your word that you'll warn me if Skaia's interests diverge from Feferi's, then you have my cooperation."

    "Done," John said, and offered a hand. They shook across Karkat's chest.

    "Right!" Jade said brightly. "So if all you Secret Agent Men are done exchanging coded messages -- the Condesce's spy is a psychic."

    "Oh, good," John said flatly.

    Karkat turned to Sollux and gave him a wide-eyed look. "Inform the Prospit Gazette. John is capable of sarcasm."

    Sollux pretended to ignore him, though the corner of his mouth quirked. "How did you reach that conclusion, Your Grace?"

    She withdrew her arm from around John so she could count on her fingers. "I found traces of coercion in the assassin's aura, but they're subtle. He wasn't aware of being mind-controlled, but he had plans he couldn't have made on his own. He's a poacher from Shadewell; he's never been to Prospit before, let alone the palace. But he found his way straight to his target without any detours. He believes God guided him."

    "Did he say what God sounded like?" John asked wryly.

    "He didn't hear voices. No one outright told him to sneak into the palace gardens and shoot the king. He said it was 'what he must do', and I couldn't unstick him on that point. He's not the least bit sorry, though, and kept prodding for confirmation that he 'at least got the demon'. He's just a nutter with a gun. Someone found him convenient. Here's the thing, though. He would've crossed the sight lines of at least two guards on his way in -- four if he didn't time the outer patrol perfectly."

    John said, "I can imagine the outer patrol stopping to have a smoke and leaving a gap in their rounds. And the two fellows at the bridge might just have missed him in the dark -- no, he wasn't wet, he didn't swim the river. They would have seen a boat."

    "Not if they fell asleep," Jade said. "Which they all conveniently did."

    Sollux tensed. Karkat looked up at him curiously, but couldn't read him.

    "Also, I had Bedford tailing you," Strider put in.

    "Dave," John said reproachfully. "Rose told me Karkat and I had to walk in the garden alone."

    "She can take it up with me. Besides -- Bedford. You know, that little round-headed guy with the broken nose? Dirk trained him personally. Bedford could tail God."

    "Well, he fell asleep too," Jade said.

    "So. A psychic," John nodded.

    "It gets better. Half a dozen other guards in the vicinity fell asleep at the same time. As if someone just sort of --" Jade made a sweeping gesture. "Waved a narcolepsy wand over the whole south end of the grounds. They weren't drugged -- they don't remember feeling sleepy. They just suddenly fell over. One poor woman broke her wrist when she hit the ground. And she slept through it!"

    By this time, Sollux was so tense Karkat could no longer ignore it. It was awkward to try to reach with his good hand, but he managed to land a pat on Sollux's wrist behind his head. "So this thing where we're sharing information with them," he prompted.

    "I believe I'll let Her Grace finish first," Sollux said tightly.

    "Enough with the titles, Sollux Captor," Jade scolded. "It's a distancing tactic. I'm not as savvy as my cousin, but I can spot that one. Say my name."

    Sollux grimaced. "You win, Harley."

    "That's better. For that, I'll tell you we knew about your recall orders before you did. There was a messenger before Serket. He was conveniently robbed en route. You're welcome."

    Prickles raced over Karkat's skin like a swarm of fiery claws at the sound of that name. "Captor," he growled. "What. The fuck. Are you not telling me."

    "Ssh," Sollux said, stroking his head. "I knew you'd react like this."

    Karkat shook him off. "Don't you shoosh me, asshole! Explain to me what that backstabbing butcher has to do with this mess and why the bulgemangling fuck you didn't tell me!"

    "Karkat..."

    "Explain it, in short sentences, extremely fast, or I'll grab one end of your guts and unroll you out the window."

    "You know her, then," John said.

    "She's only responsible for the deaths of my first moirail, Captor's first moirail, and two of our other friends. Oh, and the girl I used to be flushed for destroyed her reputation trying to bring that sadistic egomaniac to justice. But that's no reason to inform me she's mixed up in an assassination plot that's already punched a hole in me, no, let's keep Karkat in the dark, he's not a crafty spook, he's just a simple soldier, tell him to jump off a cliff and he'll salute all the way down!" He only stopped there because he was out of breath and feeling feverish, and he no longer had the energy to fight Sollux's attempts to embrace him.

    "You think I'm any happier to hear her name than you are?" Sollux protested. "I knew it would drag up ugly memories and you're going through enough shit already."

    John made a soft sound of understanding. "Ah. My sources found signs of a cover-up around the deaths of some of your associates during the war, but they couldn't tell me who or why."

    "It was a revenge cycle," Sollux said. "If she hadn't lit it off during wartime, she would've gotten away with it completely."

    "She did, Sollux," Karkat snarled.

    "Minus her left hand and her military career. That's not the point, KK."

    "Oh, okay, what is the point then?"

    Sollux took a deep breath. Karkat could see him struggling to gather his courtier persona around him, and almost regretted exploding on him. Almost. "The Condesce sent orders relieving me of my post as your aide. The replacement she sent was Serket. I called in a few favors and forged a few papers, and managed to dead-end her. It was easier than I expected; now I know why." He nodded to John.

    "Oh, shit," Karkat said. "John. That's why you blew up on me when I said you'd sacrifice my pale quadrant to the treaty. Because... you were already asked to. But you didn't."

    "Well, they never managed to actually ask," John said wryly. "And they never will. I'll make sure of it."

    "Um."

    "You didn't know."

    "Well, I'm sorry anyway."

    "Then I suppose we both forgive each other. I'm glad."

    Jade leaned away from John to stage-whisper to Dave, "Is this the part where they kiss?"

    Karkat's face went hot, and John's turned noticeably pinker. "Cram it, coz," John grumped. "There is important shit to discuss."

    "Kissing is important!"

    "Later, pumpkin," Strider smirked, and though Jade made an unimpressed face at him, her complexion reddened to match John's.

    Irritated with himself at being sidetracked even a little bit by this juvenile nonsense, Karkat let a short growl escape him. "Serket is a mind-controller. You all probably know that already, but how about I just put it on the table where we can all stick knives in it."

    Sollux nodded. "It's unlikely there are two psychics of that type working against us right now. If nothing else, they're pretty rare."

    John said, "Well, that explains why sidelining the latest messengers didn't scratch the mission. Psychics have a hard time with humans, so she couldn't just march her pawn off the board to wait for a better opportunity. And she might not even know Jade can detect the traces. In a way, it's comforting to know the Condesce is still prioritizing deniability."

    "The question now," Sollux said, "is what to do about it."

    "I have some ideas," Karkat snapped.

    "So do I," John said, "but I don't think you'll like them."

Chapter Text

    There was a knock at the outer door of the suite. Strider put his helmet on long enough to admit the Seer and a short parade of servants bearing food and drink. Rose Lalonde greeted John with a kiss on the cheek while the servants set a small table and brought bed trays for Karkat and John.

    The smell of the food was intoxicating. It made Karkat realize how ravenous he was. He had to remind himself sternly several times not to dig in before the king took his first bite -- and John was ignoring his plate, damn him, just guzzling cold milk coffee like food wasn't even a thing.

    Once the servants had finally gone, Karkat growled, "This is a protocol-free room, right? Good, I'm starved hollow." He grabbed a chicken wing and crunched into it, bone and all.

    "Curious," the Seer of Light said. "I wonder, were we able to digest osseous matter, would we share your regenerative abilities?"

    "I don't think we really can digest it," Sollux said, nibbling at his portion more politely. "Karkat just has terrible manners. But we might be gaining some nutriment from the marrow."

    "Dear brother, would you fetch me a chair?"

    "Dear sister, I'm not your damn chambermaid," Strider drawled, but he carried a chair to the bedside for her nonetheless.

    Rose settled gracefully and brushed her veiling hood back. She had the same white hair as Strider, though her eyes had a sort of bluish irridescence over the red that gave the impression of purple. She looked more human and much less forbidding than usual. It took Karkat a moment to realize it was because she wasn't wearing the white powder and dark lip paint that usually gave her such an alien air. Maybe that stuff was part of her religious regalia rather than her personal aesthetic; a menacing holy-clown mask like the face paint of the Subjugglators. It sure worked, whatever it was. Without it, she looked small, fragile, and rather sweet.

    "Am I to understand, John, that you take issue with my most recent foresight?"

    "No, Rose, I just wanted to thank you! Karkat and I really enjoyed getting shot and we hope to do it again soon! Do you think you could arrange that?"

    She raised her nearly invisible eyebrows. "I'm an oracle, not an accountant. Thoroughness of detail is not customarily my department."

    "You don't think you could maybe have mentioned the assassin? Just a teeny hint?"

    "No doubt I would have if I'd had a hint to give. I told you what I saw. These visions are fleeting and incomplete, silhouettes against the sun. I can't help but wonder whether there's any point repeating myself. The information never seems to sink in." She made a curling gesture in the direction of the city. "In any case, the deed is done, the prize is won. Already, rumor is racing among night owls and early risers: the troll groom threw himself between the killer and the king, and even now hovers between life and death, the monarch keeping tearful vigil at his lover's side."

    Jade winked at John. "See? I knew you should've kissed him."

    Karkat glared. "Snap your trap, Harley. Life might be all bawdy amateur theatricals to you but the rest of us are trying to be serious."

    "So surly!" Jade laughed. "Admit it, John, he's adorable and you adore him."

    "Unreservedly," John said lightly. "Which is why I'm bound to chew Rose's ear off for getting him shot."

    "It sure turned out useful for you," Karkat pointed out.

    "I still could've done without it," John told him, sounding serious enough that Karkat had to pretend eating took his full concentration. "So the public has decided to declare us a love match?"

    "It's early yet, but that does appear to be the case. No doubt the morning Gazette will shed more light on the topic, likely in the form of a drippingly sentimental and almost entirely fictionalized account of tonight's events. I know only what my acolytes were able to glean before I set out. I have them listening to palace gossip now. There is also, naturally, a deal of speculation concerning the assassin, but it is anticipatory; they trust an official explanation will be forthcoming. Whereas the public's imagination is wholly galvanized by the lachrymose melodrama they believe to be taking place even now in this very room."

    "You know, John," Strider said, "it's great how much you love your subjects and all, but this isn't a democracy. Just thought I'd put that out there in case it slipped your mind."

    John nodded. "I don't suppose we know yet what Brannon or Tinsley are making of this. Or Knowlan, not that anyone has a clue what she thinks until she votes -- dear God, what was my father thinking, giving that walking cipher a barony? She could just skip Assembly and have the Speaker roll dice for her seat, for all the use she is."

    Karkat paused in the process of carefully rolling smoked fish, cheese, and weird unnamed greens in a salty green-flecked pancake thing. "I'm confused," he confessed. "Are we ignoring public opinion or playing to it? You can't say it doesn't matter, right? You have that thing where lowbloods get to vote on laws."

    "That 'thing'," Sollux said dryly, "is called a parliament, and if you can't remember that, we're all lucky you're so antisocial at parties."

    "I know, jerkass, give me a break, I'm protein-deficient and they're feeding me rodent food." He shoved his creation in his mouth and chewed petulantly.

    "The Commons is almost unanimously with me in any case," John explained, with no hint of condescension that Karkat could detect. "They're landowners and merchants, mostly; they didn't enjoy having their trade routes disrupted and their tenants conscripted. They'd put up with me being completely horrible as long as I'm against another war. The Lords are another matter entirely. Not all of them are fully grounded in reality, and they tend to make the personal political. There are quite a few anti-troll bigots, and a number of the more pivotal members have a vocal distaste for same-sex marriages as well. Human reproduction requires a male and a female, therefore anything that can't result in children is foreign, trollish, barbaric, and immoral. What about all the children who will never be born! The human race will go extinct! Any logic concerning, for instance, the existence of, at last count, seven thousand war orphans rolls off them like oil off a frog." His lip twitched with disgust. "Fortunately, these two factions tend to overlap, which limits their number. What Dave's reminding me to do is let my dependable supporters get on with business, and focus my attention on the undecideds."

    "What happens if you lose support?" Karkat said. "It's not like they can throw you out or anything."

    "They can make things awfully tough for him," Jade said. "They can't declare war without his seal, but they can get up to shenanigans that would make war inevitable. Not to mention I've had more than one idiot sidle up to me and try to sound me out on the idea of deposing him."

    "Recently?" Rose asked with mild interest.

    "No, it'll take them a while to forget how inconvenient life got for the last guy," Jade grinned.

    "Speaking of inconveniences," Rose said, turning to John, "I presume you didn't require my presence in the middle of the night simply to rebuke me for the sketchy nature of my prognostications."

    John nodded. "Jade, can you fill her in on what you found out?"

    While Jade explained what they'd put together so far, John peeled himself off the bed and began to pace back and forth beyond the foot of it. His slow movements and the shine of sweat on his brow suggested he wasn't as unaffected by his injury as Karkat had thought. Somehow that only made him more magnificent: the wounded king with the world on his shoulders, shirt fluttering open around his bandage-bound chest, too weary to push back the wing of dark hair that had fallen over one eye...

    Sollux idly ran the back of a knuckle along the curve of Karkat's right horn, and it felt icy. Karkat closed his eyes, willing the flush to abate. This was no time for mushy bullshit. He couldn't bear to keep them closed for long, though. Damn John and his joking-not-joking 'unreservedly'. Damn his calculating sweetness. Damn his beautiful shoulders and his glorious ass. Put some clothes on, Karkat willed silently. And keep them on until such time as I can get my claws into the exasperating puzzle knot you use for a thinkpan and pull out enough of the thread labeled 'Karkat Vantas' to see what color it is. You infuriating marvel, you heartbreaking nuisance. I swear I wasn't flushed for you when I was thinking straight. Maybe I'll get over it when my fever goes down.

    John stopped pacing and leaned on the back of a fussily carved armchair, nodding; Karkat realized belatedly that Jade's report was over, that Rose had asked about John's plans.

    "Obviously, arresting Serket now would be less than ideal," he said.

    "Not obvious to me," Karkat muttered.

    "Haven't you ever heard the phrase 'keep your enemies closer', Karkat? We know where she is and roughly what she's up to. We've already tied a few strings to her. Why pull her and let the Condesce replace her with someone fresh and unencumbered?"

    "Where is she? Is she in town right now?" Karkat said.

    "Don't tell him," Sollux said. He answered Karkat's furious glare with a stubborn scowl. "Can you honestly tell me you wouldn't be tempted to go after her? Revenge cycles only end when a wronged party refuses to retaliate."

    "So we just let her fire volleys into us until there's nothing left but grubsauce and boots?"

    "I'm drinking the same bitter medicine here, KK. We have a job to do."

    "Yes," John interrupted. "She's in Prospit. She has the upper two floors of a townhouse on Wiseman Lane. I trust you, Karkat."

    Karkat, opening his mouth to make some further caustic remarks, shut it smartly.

    He went on, "She's also been seen at a tavern in the Gray Quarter -- what's it called, Strider? Leafy something."

    "The Middle Leaf," Sollux supplied, biting off each word. He didn't trust Karkat not to launch a new avalanche of vengeance -- and fair enough, because he knew Karkat better than John did, better than anyone.

    But Karkat was going to do no such thing. He wasn't going to betray John's trust. It was becoming gradually clear to him just how ensnared he was. Not just helplessly, blazingly flushed -- god, he could practically smell his own bloodpusher scorching when John absently ran his fingertips along the edge of his bandage as if reminding himself not to scratch -- but alert with soldierly devotion. He couldn't even bring himself to be ashamed of it.

    And John, the asshole, had no clue. He was just meandering on about irrelevancies like the coddled blueblood-equivalent he was. "Is that a reference to the ashen quadrant?" he was asking. "Alcohol is my auspistice, sort of thing?"

    Sollux nodded. "Exactly. A bit of a snootful keeps friends and enemies alike at a civilized distance."

    "Does it work that way for trolls? Because humans are a lot more likely to pick a fight or jump into bed when we're drunk."

    "There's a lot you don't know about trolls, Your Majesty," Sollux said levelly. "You're a friend to our cause and a beacon of tolerance, and we salute you. But you don't know what it's like to be a troll. Cuddling your cousin doesn't make her your moirail, and red-flirting with Karkat --"

    "Shut it," Karkat snapped, and Sollux did.

    John glanced at his friends as if he'd only just realized how much personal business he'd been airing in front of how many people. The idiot. He was about to say something about it, too. Karkat didn't give him the chance.

    "Long story short," Karkat said brusquely, "trolls are intense, booze calms us down, drinking establishments often use ashen symbolism, end of anthropology lesson. The point is, we have two known locations for Vriska Serket, and you're going to watch her instead of arrest her. Right?"

    John nodded. "I wish we could let the assassin run. See if she employs professionals or does her own dirty work."

    "Bad idea, boss," Strider said.

    "I know. Too many people know we have him. But if we could..." He shook his head sharply, finally shoving back that delinquent lock of hair. "Look at me wasting time on hypotheticals. That's no way to get things done. Well, we can let Serket run, anyway, and sooner or later she'll come in useful. I doubt she does all her business in those two locations. She'll have at least one safehouse, and some kind of transportation arrangement. So we catalogue her network, look for a chance to slip in a mole or turn an informer, and see if she's connected to any of our homegrown traitors. In the short term, I just want her kept well away from the wedding. Not just the Cathedral and palace, but the whole parade route. The last thing we need is mind-control shenanigans with everyone watching."

    "We can do that," Strider nodded. He lifted his chin to Sollux. "Wouldn't mind some help. That card trick you pulled with her financial records -- you have some highbloods in your posse, don't you."

    "Ampora and Zahhak," Sollux confirmed.

    John adjusted his glasses, impressed. "Ambassador Ampora is one of yours? Well done! I never knew!"

    "We don't lean too much weight on him. He's bloodist as hell, and Zahhak's the only land-dweller he doesn't think would look better without a head. But he hates Serket and he fucking worships Feferi."

    "Excellent," John said. "I'll leave that to you two, then. Jade, the assassin's yours."

    "Lone nutball? Beginner's luck? I can do that! What about the sleeping guards, though?"

    John shrugged. "Magic? Poison darts? As long as we don't shine a spotlight on Serket, 'troll psychic' won't be on anyone's list of theories. After all, the shooter hates trolls."

    Rose lifted her hood, though she didn't settle it over her eyes yet. "I wonder if you might like to connect him to one of the more unmanageable assemblymen, while you have him to hand. Marshal Duckett, Lord Crenshaw, for example, has been heard to make statements differing from the assassin's only in grammatical error density and radius of spittle dispersion."

    "Why, do you have something?" John asked hopefully.

    "Sadly, no."

    John waved his hand in a disappointed arc. "I'm not about to start framing my own citizens on false charges. I wouldn't even do it to the Condesce's spies if I didn't have to cover up their meddling. There are limits to my guile."

    "Are we skipping the trial?" Jade said. "He's confessed a dozen times. He's still at it. All we have to do is walk a judge past his cell on the way to the inkwell and we'll have an execution order by first light."

    "Why rush it?" Strider said. "Don't distract folks from the wedding. Wait 'til the city gets over its collective hangover and cleans up the bottles from all the street parties. Then give them something else to think about."

    John tried to answer, but was silenced by a yawn. He pointed at Strider and nodded instead.

    "You got it, boss. One newsworthy lone-gunman trial will be available for pickup at your convenience. Now go to bed, for fuck's sake, you look like a soap sculpture."

    The women took their leave of the king the same way they'd greeted him, Jade with a hug and Rose with a peck on the cheek. As they were going out, Sollux sat on the edge of the bed to look over Karkat's bandage, adjust the shirt that had been draped around his shoulders by the servants who'd propped him up, and fuss at his hair with darting fingertips. Then he took Karkat's face in his hands and kissed his forehead.

    "Tell him," he whispered to Karkat's brow.

    Karkat gaped at him in betrayed horror. "Captor, don't you dare."

    Sollux released him and stood up. "Spook business." The lack of apology in his smirk was absolute. He bowed to the king and left with Strider.

    Karkat turned his appalled look on John. The royal idiot just gave a sheepish grin and scratched his bandages.

Chapter Text

    Karkat considered getting up and leaving. He considered pretending to fall asleep. He considered actually falling asleep. He considered finding Sollux and stabbing him in the ear with a pen. He considered stumbling against John and breathing furious demands across his lips.

    That last thought was a mistake. He had to jerk his gaze away from John's lackwit grin.

    "Tell me what?" John suggested at last.

    Karkat's eyes snapped back to him in disbelief. "How is your hearing that good? That's just not right."

    One of John's eyebrows twitched. "I can read lips."

    "Hmf." Karkat began the process of getting off the bed. Since his legs weighed roughly one ton apiece, this was going to take a while.

    When he'd got one bent and one dangling over the side, John came and sat in the vacated space. He clasped his hands and looked down at them. "Then... could I tell you something?"

    Karkat swallowed. "I wish you would."

    "Somewhere between the gardens and here, it occurred to me that if I hadn't tripped, you would be dead. The way we sort of..." He gestured with his interlocked hands, studying them with a slight frown as if seeing something else. "Turned as we went... given the time for match to fire primer to fire charge... when he pulled the trigger he'd have been sighting here." He touched the center of his chest. "If I'd gone where you pushed me, you'd have been standing still..." He glanced at Karkat. Reached tentatively for him. Hesitated as Karkat tensed, then continued, to touch him just below the right pectoral. "Under the shoulderblade and through the lung." He spread his hand on Karkat's chest and met his eyes, so serious it hurt to see. "I've been finding it extraordinarily difficult to stop thinking about it ever since."

    Again, Karkat had to swallow before he could speak. "Maybe it would've been more convenient for everyone that way."

    John's eyes sharpened with a hint of anger. "You're not the type to die for anyone's convenience. Why do you keep dreaming up martyrdoms?"

    "It's not like that!"

    "Well?"

    "I've always been prepared to kill or die for other people. That's what a soldier does."

    "You're not a soldier anymore, Karkat."

    "I'll always be a soldier."

    There was an uncertain silence. Karkat covered John's hand on his chest with his own, curled his fingers around it, gently pried it away, but couldn't bring himself to let go. "I should get some sleep," he said, not making any move to do so.

    "You can sleep here if you want."

    "I'll sleep better in sopor. I'll heal faster."

    "Oh. Yes, all right. I'll ring -- should I ring for someone to help you?" John's smile was achingly hesitant. "I just thought you might like a chance to interrogate me while my guard is down."

    "John, your guard is never down," Karkat snorted.

    "Well, I wish it was. I'm trying."

    Karkat renewed his efforts to get up, but somehow it only brought him closer to John, and he once again failed to let go of John's hand. This was getting ridiculous. This ungainly adolescent topic-avoidance was beneath him. His moirail's advice was sound. They had to get this out in the open. It was the sensible thing to do.

    He just... couldn't put any of it into words right now.

    "Karkat," John said. Shit, why did his voice have to be so soft and hopeful, that was just not fucking fair. "When someone says something like 'don't pretend to care', they don't mean 'don't care', they mean 'don't pretend'. Listen. Whatever face we present in public, it doesn't have to have anything to do with how we are in private. We could be all business if you want. I'd rather be friends. You're the most extraordinary person I've ever met --"

    "I doubt it," Karkat snapped, "because you keep using lukewarm terms like 'care' and 'friends'. While you're red-flirting like the drone's at the door! This --" He jerked John's hand back toward the imaginary mortal wound. "What is this?"

    John's brows drew down in consternation. His teeth caught his lower lip, then released it. "Self-indulgence," he said at last. "I'm sorry."

    "No! No, that's not an explanation! This is what I mean when I say your guard's never down! If I get any more confused, I'm going to start shredding furniture and throwing dishes!"

    "You don't have a choice about being here!" John threw back, visibly upset. "You're being such a fucking sport about it that I tend to forget, but you're basically a hostage to two nations, and it would be the biggest dick move in history for me to make demands on your feelings on top of everything else! I shouldn't even be flirting -- it was childish, I'm sorry -- you can let go now --" He tugged, but Karkat refused to give.

    "Wrong, asshole!" Karkat yelled. "An even bigger dick move would be to make me show my cards when I have no clue what you're holding, and oh look, that's exactly what you're doing!"

    "I don't mean to --"

    "Well, you are!"

    The door burst open, and two guards stumbled to a halt just inside. They stared at John and Karkat. John and Karkat stared back. One of the guards said, "Your Majesty, we heard shouting..."

    "God help me," John said irritably. "Can't you tell bickering from bloody murder? Out!"

    They bowed smartly, then rushed out in such a hurry that they collided with each other on the way through the door.

    Karkat and John waited like statues until they heard the outer door shut as well. They turned to each other. One side of John's mouth tugged up. Karkat pressed his lips together against a smile. John began to grin, and Karkat couldn't fight it anymore. They cracked up in unison.

    "Ow," John wheezed, clutching his side.

    "Fuck," Karkat answered between laughs, sick and dizzy, listing to the left, and so relieved somehow that he didn't even mind. "Ow, fuck..."

    "Fuck, ow," John agreed, and that became another thing to double up over. Shortly they were leaning on each other, holding each other up. "Literally in stitches," John pointed out, which of course only made it worse.

    "When they --" Karkat took John by the back of the neck in order to gently headbutt him on the forehead.

    "I know! I know!"

    "Can they hear us now?"

    "Oh God, probably! Shhh!" John's token attempt to be quiet naturally sent them both into fresh spasms of hooting.

    The more their laughter destabilized them, the more they clung to each other. Even in the middle of it, Karkat understood a line had been crossed. At last, they fell into breathless cackling, and then into silence. Karkat released the fistful of John's shirt he was clutching. Smoothed it down. Gathered it again, deliberate. John sighed shakily against his neck.

    "You won't take it as a demand?" John said hoarsely, traces of laughter still in his voice. "If I tell you -- I don't even know what to call it, though, you cannot imagine how graceless I'm going to be."

    "I'm flushed for you," Karkat said firmly.

    "Oh." It was just an exhalation.

    "Listen to you circling the point and hedging your bets. Fucking spook. Someone's got to fire the first shot. I'm flushed for you. It's not the fever. It's not your flirting. Well, partly your flirting. I -- hnng." He damn near swallowed his tongue as John kissed his neck.

    "I fell for you the first night," John confessed against his scalding skin. "You were so grim and angry, and you were being such a hero, and I just wanted to tweak you for it because -- well, people who take themselves too seriously, you know -- and then suddenly you scratched your head madly, both hands, like a little kid, and it was all over for me."

    "Fuck," Karkat breathed shakily. "Good job hiding it all this time, bulgeknot."

    John's cheek was rough as he nuzzled his way to Karkat's mouth. His lips were cool, a little dry. He kissed with unhurried intensity. Gentle, relentless. Karkat's heart roared like a furnace. The inferno that had replaced his guts demanded that he swarm over John and tear at his clothes, push him, pin him, have him, but all he could do was clutch at John's shirt with his one good hand and let John take his mouth like a conquered city.

    John pulled slowly back to study his eyes, stroking a thumb along his cheekbone. "Karkat," he murmured, and then again, "Karkat," as if he just liked saying it. "You beautiful mess. Look at you, you're shattered, how are you still sitting up? I need to get you to bed. I mean, to slime bath; however you say it. How do you say it?"

    "Stop babbling," Karkat said with a brief curl of a smile, and kissed him again. They both kept trying to move away and go be sensible, and they both kept pulling each other back, and thus filled several minutes with brief, clumsy, lethally sweet little kisses before they finally managed to part.

    "Sleep," John reminded. "You're feverish."

    "Sleep," Karkat agreed dazedly.

    John helped Karkat up, Karkat's good arm around his shoulders. He tugged a bell rope at the inner door, and a footman joined them before they reached the outer. "Help General Vantas to his room," John said. Then he added, "Maybe I should go with you. Shall I go with you?" -- and the contrast between his royalty voice and his private voice was suddenly as clear as black and white.

    "No, go to bed," Karkat ordered fondly. "I mean it, no more kinging. You're done kinging tonight, you damn goober." The footman's slight gasp was gratifying; John's smile was blinding.

    "I promise. I'll rest. Sleep well." John kissed his cheek before releasing him.

    It wasn't far to his suite, even dizzily plodding with his hand on the footman's shoulder. He swallowed his pride and asked the man to come in, help him with his boots, and steady him as he climbed into the recuperacoon. He barely heard the man ask whether he required anything else as he sank into the warm gel; his eyes were already closing.

    He drifted on the rim of sleep for a time, listening to the throbbing of his arm. Still feeling John's lips on his. Thinking: Human sex had better not be some two-second jab like deer or birds do. I want to make him scream my name all night. Better do it somewhere those idiot guards can't hear... His chuckle echoed oddly inside the curve of the 'coon. He slipped into sleep half smiling.

Chapter Text

    He half woke at dusk when a servant came in to light lamps. He lifted his head enough to watch the man replace the final glass chimney and go out, then let it sink again. Falling asleep in his clothes had been a terrible idea; he was tangled in his sopor-logged shirt, he'd ruined his stockings, and it all just felt generally odd. He'd have a hell of a time getting clean.

    Actually, he'd have a hell of a time getting out. His arm didn't hurt all that much, but when he tried to move it it felt tight and strained, and he didn't think using it was a good idea.

    It was all just too much trouble to deal with. So he went back to sleep instead.

   He woke again to the sound of quiet voices. Sollux, John. He caught the phrases 'along the parade route' and 'on your side of the church so it doesn't look empty' and deduced they were discussing boring ceremonial nonsense. He didn't want to get sucked into that conversation. He let himself drift away.

    And again he woke, to a third voice joining the two he knew. This new voice had a coastal Alternian accent, and recognition nagged at his groggy mind, but he couldn't quite place it.

    Eventually John's voice rose above a murmur, though it was still far from loud. "I'm not trying to be obstructive, Ambassador. When he wakes, of course you can speak to him. Let him sleep while he can; he was running a high fever last night, and he'll need his strength for tomorrow."

    "You don't know Kar very well if you're coddlin' him like that, Your Majesty. You want to see what you're marryin'? Watch this."

    Sollux growled, "What are you playing at --" and then broke off as footsteps approached the recuperacoon.

    Karkat managed not to let on that he was awake as the light on his eyelids dimmed. Leaning over the 'coon, but is he on the step or not? Make some noise, then, let's do this.

    An intake of breath. "Rise an' shine, GenHRGK."

    Karkat grinned up at the troll he was lightly strangling with his own cravat. "Evening, Ampora," he croaked. "Proving a point, I see. How's that working out for you?"

    John loomed behind Eridan. "Beautifully, as a matter of fact," he said as he gently tried to pry Karkat's hand from Eridan's throat. "Let go, lovely. I find your vigor reassuring, but you're ruining the ambassador's suit."

    Karkat chuckled as he released his grip. "Any tips on getting sopor stains out of silk, Ambassador? I think this shirt is John's. Sorry, John."

    Far from being offended by all this, Eridan was smirking as if he'd expected that result. And maybe he had -- Karkat hadn't seen him since they were children, but from what he'd heard, the self-centered brat of his youth had grown into a canny and adroit diplomat. "That shooter just winged you, Kar, you can't play the invalid with me. You're just shirkin' paperwork an' bein' lazy."

    "Oh, fuck me in the ear," Karkat groaned, beginning the laborious process of prying himself out of the sopor one-handed. Warm, wonderful, analgesic sopor; how I'll miss you. "Paperwork? Are you kidding me? Have Sollux forge my signature."

    "Not a chance. I deserve some kinda appreciation for what I managed to pull off." He whirled and strode across the room, whipping off his besmirched cravat as he went, to drape it over a chair beside the fire. "Go on, Sol, get him cleaned up. I'll wait."

    Sollux shot him a dirty look, but he shed his coat and began rolling up his sleeves.

    "Shall I call someone to help?" John asked.

    "No. This is a moirail thing." Sollux took hold of Karkat's good arm and shoulder. "Up you go."

    "Wait," Karkat muttered when he was upright, shedding globs of sopor, weighed down by his wet shirt, sopping breeches sagging low on his hips. Normal procedure was to sluice himself mostly dry with the flat of his hand -- the odd self-affinity of sopor meant that a person could even get away without an evening wash if they didn't mind combing the dry stuff out of their hair later -- but his clothes were full of it. "I'm going to make a huge mess."

    "Don't worry about that. Come on." Sollux coaxed him out and steadied him toward the ablution area. "You're going to sit down in the trap and have a proper soak. I've had them keep the heater going all evening, there's plenty of hot water."

    Karkat darted a glance to John, wondering what the human was making of this. John was biting his lip, eyes traveling slowly down Karkat's body and back up, color rising in his face. Karkat grinned to himself and shuffled onward. Note to self: if I ever need to get John's attention, arrange to get my shirt wet.

    Once the ablution -- No, learn to use the upper-crust terms, Karkat -- the bathroom door was shut, Karkat relaxed and surrendered himself to Sollux's care. Steam from the water-heating apparatus fogged his glasses, so he set them on the towel table, then turned back with smiling eyes to help Karkat undress. "So the flush is mutual," he grinned. "Well done, 'lovely'."

    "Shut your face, Captor," Karkat said, but without much bile.

    "I'm not picking on you." Sollux gestured for Karkat to sit on an absurdly dainty wooden chair and crouched on his heels to peel off the ruined stockings. "Okay, yes, I'm picking on you, but I'm happy for you too. He's a decent guy."

    "It's not all downhill on dry roads from here," Karkat cautioned, more to his own eager heart than to Sollux. "I still can't tell how much of what he does is real and how much is for audience approval." He found he didn't need help to climb into the linen-lined copper tub; now that the grogginess of his long, sopored sleep was wearing off, his strength was returning. The hot water felt delicious. "And I have no fucking clue what humans do for sex, let alone how I'm supposed to participate."

    "They're either-or, like dogs and monkeys. So don't go looking for his nook, because he hasn't got one."

    "I know that," Karkat said. "Just tell me he's not going to hop on for a quick jab and fly away." He narrowed his eyes at Sollux's amusement. "This is a serious concern!"

    "Monkeys, not birds," Sollux laughed as he dug his fingers into Karkat's hair. "Duck your head."

    When he came up again, Karkat went on, "What if they get locked together like cats? Stop laughing, asshole, there is a real possibility of injury if I don't know what I'm getting into!"

    "Popular culture and statuary suggests they have a pretty normal bulge, it just deflates instead of retracting. No spines, Karkat. You're cute when you panic, but you're working yourself up for nothing. I'm guessing at worst it'll be kind of unsatisfying. Duck again."

    "Unsatisfying, I can live with." He slid down and blew bubbles.

    Half an hour later, in soft civilian clothes and a fresh sling and bandage, he joined John and Eridan in the sitting room of his suite. John, beaming like a fool, caught him by the waist and tugged him close. Karkat made a vaguely offended noise as he gave in.

    "I am a one-troll assault force," he protested. "I do not sit on laps."

    "Evidence begs to differ," John grinned, wrapping both arms around Karkat's hips to keep him there. "Relax, we're all friends here."

    "Ampora's not my friend, Ampora's a bung-stuffing bulgeguzzler who wouldn't even be talking to me if I wasn't famous."

    "That really hurts, Kar," Eridan pouted.

    "You telling me it's not true?"

    "Not the bung-stuffing bit. I'm not kinky, I'm just a fop."

    Karkat laughed despite himself. "Fine, I guess you're enough of a friend to see me out of uniform, and I doubt I can get John to quit flirting in front of people anyway."

    "You can't," John said cheerfully. He tilted his face up expectantly. Karkat heaved an exasperated sigh, then gave in and kissed him.

    It took all his resolve to keep it short; his flush hadn't faded with his fever. If anything, it was worse now that he wasn't so distracted by discomfort. John smelled like coffee, cedar wood, and gorgeous. He tasted like a summer night under a cloud-snared moon, and Karkat wanted so very badly to get lost in him.

    But now was not the time and here was not the place. Karkat managed to lean back before he embarrassed himself too badly. "How's your side?" he asked.

    "Hurts a bit, but healing clean. Your arm?"

    "Swelled like a bastard and snotting up already. No, don't summon your mad doctor, Sollux has me covered. I just need to gorge on protein and go to sleep early. What do I have to do to get some red meat around here?"

    "Check the sideboard," John said smugly, releasing him. "I had something brought while you were in the bath."

    Karkat hurried over to the table under one velvet-curtained window, where several covered dishes waited. He lifted a lid at random, and gaped as a familiar smell drowned him in nostalgia. "Is this... fried behemoth liver? Is that even possible?"

    "Killed just this morning," John said, sounding so pleased with himself that it would be intolerable if he hadn't just pulled off what Karkat was prepared to consider a genuine miracle. "I had one caught for the wedding feast, and hired a cook who knows what to do with it."

    Karkat paused in the middle of heaping his plate. "An Alternian cook?" he said suspiciously.

    "No, no. As close to Skaian-born as it's possible for a troll to be -- still had his baby legs when his lusus smuggled him over the border, if Strider's sources are to be believed, and they generally are. He and his moirail run a well-spoken-of cookshop in the Gray Quarter. My steward had to dangle quite a lot of money in front of him before he'd consider the job."

    Sollux came in during that, hair damp, dressed in fresh clothes. "That sounds like Abelin Belard from the Lucky Grub. Excellent. Don't you dare eat it all before I get any, KK."

    Karkat balanced a final strip of meat atop his loaded plate, then gestured to the still-full platter with his fork. "I think we've got the whole liver," he said in reverent tones.

    "Help yourself, Ambassador," John said graciously. "There's also a pile of little fish grilled whole, and something that looks like battered cockroaches."

    "Contrary to popular belief, we don't eat roaches, they're filthy," Sollux said absently as he investigated the other offerings. "Oh, water beetles," he clarified. "Those are delicious. Should tell your staff not to cover the dish, though, it makes the breading soggy."

    When everyone had something to munch on -- even John, who was being a trooper about the beetles, though Karkat could tell they unnerved him -- Eridan withdrew a stack of papers from a beautifully tooled leather case and slapped them on the low table before him with a briskness that eloquently communicated 'I am out of patience.'

    "You're gonna love this, Kar," he gloated.

    Karkat's mouth was full. He just scowled.

    "As for you, Sol, you're gonna be flat delighted. See, I was thinkin' about how Her Imperious didn't give you a real fat purse to be gettin' along with. Makes it triflin' difficult to give a decent marryin' gift, not to mention wearin' uniforms every day, you poor drab sparrows."

    "I like my uniform," Sollux drawled.

    Karkat turned to John with a wooden expression. "I'm a sparrow," he explained with his mouth full.

    Eridan went on exasperatedly over John's delighted laughter. "It ain't like my personal finances wouldn't be up to the challenge, but then where am I next time I gotta entertain? My diplomatic balls are famous."

    John was nearly incapacitated by this. Karkat gave in to a juvenile snicker. Sollux rolled his eyes. "Get to the point."

    "Well, obviously the Old Lady didn't mean for you to give the King of Skaia nothin' but a couple grubby books an' a sack a quaint native handicrafts, that'd shame the Empire --"

    "Hey!" Sollux said sharply. "I'll have you know, those 'quaint native handicrafts' are --"

    "-- or that's how I explained it to a whole barrel a the Condesce's least brainy supporters," Eridan finished smugly.

    Sollux froze up and just sat there with his mouth open, a skewered beetle drooping in his hand.

    "That's highblood logic, you see," Eridan smirked. "She loves to test 'em. She sent you off a pauper to see who'd chip in to make her look good. And fuck me if they didn't chip in! You are not gonna believe some a the gaudy trash pilin' up in the gift room right now. Lord Irondeep fuckin' bankrupted himself. Borrowed against his shipyard shares, an' he won't be gettin' that back in a hurry."

    "Genius," John breathed.

    "Not bad," Karkat conceded. "But how do you know what you told them isn't actually true? It's kind of her style, from what I've heard."

    Sollux shook his head. "She doesn't want you to look good, KK. You're an insult, remember?"

    "But since John accepted anyway, shouldn't she --?"

    "No, she's been trying to distance herself from you," John explained. "She can't outright say 'just kidding', but for her to give you any visible support is tantamount to telling her nobles that lowbloods and mutants are now calling the shots and the world will shortly be turned upside down. That's how they think, that type. It's a zero-sum game to them; they feel every drop of respect given to you has been stolen from them. Tricking her supporters into making expensive and visible gifts to me? Whew." He tossed Eridan a salute.

    "She's losin' 'em, Kar," Eridan said. His dandyish lightness of manner was suddenly nowhere to be seen. "You're a wedge stuck right in the middle a the Empire, an' every time you go out there with your head held high, apologizin' for nothin', you hammer that crack a little wider. An' the day when our Princess steps up to her rightful place gets just a little bit closer."

    John lifted his coffee glass. "To the Heiress Feferi," he proposed.

    "To Feferi," Karkat toasted, and he meant it sincerely.

    "To Fef," Sollux and Eridan said in unison, and then gave each other dirty glares over their cups as they drank.

    Karkat raised an eyebrow at those glares. He glanced to John, to see if he was the only one noticing some black sparks between them, but of course a human wasn't going to know what it meant.

    Eridan broke the staring contest to draw attention back to the documents he'd brought. He splayed his fingers on the stack and shoved it closer to Karkat. "So I need you to just go ahead an' sign all these reciepts. Make sure you write every one a those bluebloods a real pretty thank-you note, so everybody knows how much you appreciate their support."

    Karkat let a feral grin spread over his face as he eased his right hand out of the sling and picked up the pen. "It's nice to have friends in high places," he said with wicked satisfaction.

Chapter Text

    Once Eridan had gone, and Sollux with him, Karkat hoped for some time alone with John -- or, failing that, with the food. But it was not to be. Instead, he had to sit for a portrait with John; rather, if he understood the explanation, for some kind of pre-portrait dry run that didn't count but had to be done anyway. The artist wanted to familiarize himself with their faces or something. At least it could be done in Karkat's suite, so they could shut out the unending bustle of the palace staff.

    "But my dress uniform's being cleaned for tomorrow," he protested while the artist set up his apparatus.

    "Oh, we'll have the formal one done later," John said lightly. "Uniforms and crowns and all. When you can get your arm in the sleeve. Let's sit on this sofa here, will this work?"

    "Of course, Your Majesty," the artist said. He was a short, pudgy man who mopped his pink face with a lace-edged handkerchief so often that Karkat suspected his charcoal sketch would be one big smudge. "I'm looking for natural poses, natural expressions. May I move this lamp? Good, perfect. Just pretend I'm not here."

    Karkat perched stiffly on the sofa beside John, feeling more awkward and self-conscious than he had since his promotion. Chuckling, John nudged him. "By natural, I believe he means relaxed."

    "I've seen the portraits in your gallery, John. There is not a lot of relaxation going on in there."

    "Then it's up to us to provide some, isn't it? Karkat, please. You look like you're presiding over a court-martial. And the knot on your sling is --" He reached to fuss behind Karkat's head. "Right behind your ear... like a pretty little bow... on a little yappy dog... there, that's better."

    Karkat threw him a sidelong glare. "Any other adjustments you want to make while you're at it?"

    "Let's undo your waistcoat a button or two. Much more casual."

    Karkat lifted his chin to allow this, but growled irritation while he did. Of course that only made John look even more pleased. "John, stop. I don't want to be recorded for posterity as a sloppy bum."

    "At ease, soldier," John smiled, caught him by the cravat, and tugged him in for a kiss. "I like that look on you," he said while Karkat was still reeling from it. "Half feral and half scandalized. Like you don't know whether to drag me to your lair or clutch your pearls and faint."

    Karkat marshalled his expression into something like sternness. "That's enough. Ampora was one thing, but not in front of strangers. I value my dignity even if you don't."

    After a hesitation, John nodded, smile gentling. "Sorry. I deal with nerves by clowning and prodding at people. Tomorrow's become more of a big deal for me than I thought it was going to be."

    "Why, are we expecting another assassination attempt?"

    "No," John laughed softly. "It's because it's not just a diplomatic gesture anymore." He took Karkat's good hand in both of his and played with it while he talked, tracing smoothed claw points, sickle callus and scars with his fingertips. "I've always known my spouse would be chosen for me. That's how it is for royalty, it's a duty we have. And there's no guarantee that the necessary partnership will be at all congenial. I was fully prepared to marry someone much younger or older, or mad, or stupid, or ugly --"

    "Or a troll," Karkat put in.

    John darted him a quick grin. "Yes, or a troll, once alliance with Alternia became a possibility. Jade was facing the same prospect, and she dealt with it by fantasizing about fairytales and miracles, and about running away, and about digging in her heels and being stubborn, and all kinds of things to escape it. I, well, I mostly didn't think about it. About how I'd feel, I mean, or what I wanted. What was the point? But I did sometimes hope that whoever it was, we could become be friends, or at least cordial associates." He met Karkat's eyes, and his look drew the heat up in Karkat's blood until Karkat was sure his portrait's horns would be scarlet and haloed with heat-shimmer. "If I say 'I never dreamed this would happen', it just sounds like a figure of speech, but I really never did."

    "Not fair," Karkat muttered. "Being so pitiable when I can't do anything about it."

    "And tomorrow night when we get to Windam we'll probably be too tired to do anything but sleep," John sighed in agreement. "But after that..."

    "How long are we staying there?"

    "At least a week. Maybe two? Let's stay two, and to hell with politics. Jade and Dave can handle things here."

    "What's it like there?"

    As John described the private estate where he grew up, Karkat nearly forgot the artist was listening. John made it sound like paradise. If Karkat didn't know John, he'd have envied him, maybe hated him for how easy he had it. Never hungry, never doubting his place or his right to live, surrounded by adults who protected him and taught him instead of trying to cull him for sport. But now Karkat also understood the things John didn't mention: how confining it was to be born to power, how he could only exist as John in the small corners his duty didn't fill. How even his friendships were chosen for him -- much as he clearly loved Harley, Strider, and Lalonde, they were pushed together by position. They hadn't reached out to each other naturally, as troll children did before their blood caste caught up with them.

    Karkat wondered what his life would've been like if he'd never associated with anyone outside his station. Perhaps he'd still have Sollux. He might have been that lucky. But he'd never have met Gamzee, and for all the pain that name brought now, he didn't regret knowing him.

    "Feel free to change the subject if I'm boring you," John said teasingly.

    "Yes, nothing is more tedious than hearing all about your childhood, and also descriptions of beautiful places, to which I will actually get to go. I don't find that at all delightful."

    "That's a bit too plausible to be sarcasm, Karkat."

    "What, should I have drawled more? John, I'm not bored. I like it. Shut up. By which I mean keep talking. I was just." He dropped his eyes and leaned to bump his forehead against John's for a moment. "I was thinking about destiny."

    "Destiny?" John sounded baffled.

    "I don't really believe in it anymore. I used to. When I was a kid. I kind of stopped after my first moirail died. If that destiny shit was true, either our -- brotherhood? Is it legit for me to co-opt that term? -- wasn't real, or it's not real now with Sollux, and I can't agree with either option. Still, I guess it left its bullshit residue in my thinkpan, because I find myself wondering... what if there's a destined mate out there for you, who you'll never get to meet because they're politically unimportant? Or a commoner?"

    "Or a troll?" John said with a teasing smile. "I don't think destiny fires single shots, Karkat. I think it fires salvos. You've been under bombardment before, you know there's no one lump of lead with your name on it."

    Karkat snorted rueful agreement. "Sometimes it sounded like they were all screaming for me."

    "You're the bullet that hit me, therefore you're the one that matters." He plucked Karkat's sling like a fiddle string. "So much for destiny."

    "That you can say that -- considering your situation -- God. How much longer can I keep pitying you more and more?"

    "Hopefully, about as long as I can keep adoring you more and more," John beamed, and pecked the tip of his nose. "Which is a long time. Because you are adorable."

    "Adorable is for kittens and wigglers. I am magnificent."

    "Magnifidorable."

    "Magnifidork. Is you."

    "No, you."

    "Nope. You."

    A tentative throat-clearing reminded him abruptly that the artist was still there. "Your Majesty, General, I believe I have what I need if you'd like me to go..."

    "Not at all, we can amuse ourselves a little longer," John began, but Karkat shook his head.

    "I'm about done," he said, rolled his right shoulder experimentally, and winced. "If I'm going to be fresh tomorrow, I should pack it in tonight. I've marched with worse, but I never had to look good doing it."

    "I bet you looked glorious," John grinned. He sprang up and hurried to look at the artist's work.

    What he saw made his grin fade into sweet wonder. "Oh," he said. "This one. This is the one I want you to paint. I know we have to have the stiff, formal... you know, noses in the air, country estate in the background, whatever... but oh, this."

    Karkat was almost afraid to look. And then, once he'd looked, he was afraid for anyone else to see. It was only a rough color study and a few charcoal drawings, but it was clear what the little pink man had caught. John's fond amusement, that flashing grin that made him look somehow sincere even while he was joking. Karkat's solemnity, more wistful than surly. John's eyes alight with memories of his home, and Karkat's soft in thought. Their fingers interlaced. Their heads leaned together. "John," Karkat murmured, "if you display this painting, everyone will know I'm your weak spot and vice-versa."

    "Let them. It's worth it. I want us to be remembered like this. Not just for selfish reasons, either. Surely you're aware of the foolish caricature of the bloodthirsty troll with nothing on his mind but murder and scary hate-mating. Even humans who live in the big cities -- who've seen trolls baking bread and sewing shirts just like anyone -- can be taken in by that image, and the rest of them, who've never met a troll, what are they to think? Let's give them a different picture."

    It took a long moment's silence before Karkat realized John was waiting for his answer. He had a say in this. He's right, he realized. Wanting to be painted as imposingly martial is just juvenile posturing, and I can't afford that anymore, can I? Like it or not, I'm a public figure now, and I've got a public figure for a matesprit, and if we don't use it we'll be used by it.

    "Paint it," he said to the damp little man. "As sentimental as you like. There are worse things to be remembered as than the troll who loved the king."

    The artist mopped his brow with that ridiculous lacy handkerchief, then dabbed at his eyes with it. "It will be my best work," he promised.

    It seemed to take forever for him to pack up and leave, but eventually, finally, the door shut behind him. John was poking at some decanters on a side table, looked as if he was about to say something, but Karkat didn't wait to hear it. He hooked his good arm around John's waist and kissed him  breathless. John set down the crystal bottle he'd been investigating with a hurried clink, pushed his spread fingers through Karkat's hair, leaned into him eagerly. As if he, too, had found it exhausting to pay attention to things other than desire for so many hours.

    How long they simply stood there kissing, he couldn't guess. Not long enough. Maybe there was no such thing as long enough. In any case, it felt like a cruel and early interruption when Sollux came in and cleared his throat.

    "The ceremony is at noon," he reminded Karkat. "Which means they're going to wake you up at ten. And that's a compromise, because the original plan was to get you up at eight. You were also supposed to have six attendants to dress you. I fixed that for you; it'll just be me. You're welcome."

    "Six?" Karkat said incredulously, arm still around John. "What the chute-pillaging butcherfuck would they even do?"

    "My argument precisely. Even if you were wearing one of those frou-frou human uniforms -- no offense intended, John."

    "None taken," John said. "I'm just as mystified concerning the utility of lace cuffs on a battlefield as you are." He stole one more brief kiss, then pushed away. "I'll have to brave a gauntlet of emotionally overtaxed upper servants on the way to bed, but I guess it won't get better if I put it off. I'll see you tomorrow, Karkat."

    "Tomorrow," Karkat agreed.

    "You two are repugnantly cute," Sollux said once the door had shut behind John. "You were making out this whole time, weren't you?"

    "No, there was an artist."

    "What? Oh! Shit, I forgot about that. I should've been here."

    "Why?" Karkat regretted that immediately, even though Sollux almost succeeded at not looking hurt. "I mean, it was nothing, you would've been bored. We just sat around talking. Did the paperwork really take that long?"

    "Paperwork and general wrangling," Sollux said evasively, going to poke at the cold leftovers on the sideboard.

    "Wrangling over what?" When he didn't get an answer, Karkat began to grin. "I thought I detected a certain darkening of the air between you."

    "Oh, please. As if I'd voluntarily inhale his fishy miasma."

    "Mm-hm."

    "The concept is horrifying and I am horrifed."

    "Mm-hmmmm."

    "Stop that." Sollux crunched a beetle in half and spoke with his mouth full. "He's too petty to hate. He's inconsequential. And vacillating. He's in some kind of septic chaos mosaic of a quadrant with Zahhak, it's like -- what's black and white and red all over? I don't know, and neither do they."

    Karkat went and hooked his chin over one of Sollux's bony shoulders. "Are you sure you won't come to Windam with us?"

    "There's too much going on here," Sollux said regretfully. "I have to stay on top of it."

    Karkat sighed. "I'll miss you."

    "No you won't. You'll be too busy pailing John on every absurdly valuable item of furniture in his pastoral farce of a manor house. Admit it, if you weren't maimed right now, I would've walked in on you breaking human tradition right there on the carpet."

    "What?"

    "The tradition where you don't bump uglies before signing papers?"

    "Oh, that tradition."

    "Karkat, are you falling asleep with your horn in my ear?"

    "Nuh-uh."

    Sighing fondly, Sollux dropped the last empty skewer on the platter and dusted his hands. "All right, time to pack you in slime and ship you to dreamland." He deftly twisted around and got his arm under Karkat's without letting him sway too far. "I was going to shove you into a pile and whinge about Ambassador I-Only-Have-Two-Topics-Of-Conversation-And-They're-Both-Tedious Ampora until your ears bleed, but that can wait."

    Karkat fought against gathering drowsiness while Sollux helped him undress and checked his bandages. It was ridiculous how sleepy he was; he'd barely been awake half the night. "What two topics? Clothes and spying?"

    "His own glory, and how filthy the bay is. I went for door number two. And when I'd rather talk about sewage than you, you should know you're a fathead, but no, he just prattled on like endurance bitching is a sport. Don't fall over yet, we need to drain your wound again."

    "Wow. That's vile."

    "Let's just take a moment to thank God we're trolls. I had a chat with the doctor earlier this evening. She said in humans it usually takes seven to ten nights -- days, rather -- for the slough to discharge. Imagine having to keep this gucky hole open for a week."

    "I am now feeling vaguely pale for the entire species."

    "Is this where I pretend to be jealous? Brace up, this'll sting."

    "Just do it, I'm not -- kshh! All right, that wasn't so bad. Gin?"

    "Strong salt solution. Ampora's suggestion. Shut up. I'm serious, don't you grin at me like that, I'll tie your bandage in a fancy bow, see if I don't."

    Karkat draped himself against Sollux like a cat while he waited for the bandaging to be done. "Pale for you. Nitwit. So pale. Pale as a really pale thing."

    "Ditto, dunderfuck. Up you go."

    When at last he lay cradled in wet warmth, he kept a handful of Sollux's sleeve for just a moment longer. "Things are going too well," he complained. He sounded like a whining wiggler, but if he couldn't say this to Sollux, what were moirails for? "Things just don't go this well. Something  horrible is going to happen."

    "Something horrible's always happening. By sheer force of statistics, sometimes it has to happen to someone besides us."

    Grinning, Karkat let his eyes close. "Why is your negative outlook so reassuring to me?" he mumbled.

    "Because you're depraved," Sollux said affectionately.

Chapter Text

    Karkat met his own bewildered stare in the full-length mirror, and he wondered what he was supposed to be seeing. What he was supposed to be showing the world. Dignity? Beauty? A conspicuous target? The king's besotted lover? A symbol of militarism? The 'good' troll a human could trust?

    All he saw was a poor grunt dressed up as a general, and not very convincingly either.

    "I'll give you five more minutes to overthink the situation," Sollux drawled. "Then I'm going to slap you."

    Karkat took a deep breath, squared his shoulders, lifted his chin. And now he looked like a pompous jackass. He deflated again. I never thought I'd miss my old uniform. What I wouldn't give for broken-in boots and a sash full of cartridges instead of commendations. Just to hear someone call me Sarge one more time... "Sollux, who am I even supposed to be?"

    "Is that a trick question?"

    He prodded worriedly at his medals. A couple of them kept catching on his sling. "It's not like I haven't faced screaming crowds before. I just don't know what to do when they're not trying to kill me."

    "Well, for starters, don't pick any fights."

    "Damn it, Captor!" He turned away from the mirror and caught Sollux's eyes. "You've been polishing your glasses for about a year, don't think I didn't notice. Enough with the dismissive smartassery. I need you to be my moirail right now."

    Usually, an appeal to pale feelings made Sollux soften, but this time his face remained -- not hard, but stubborn. He put his glasses on and pushed them up his nose with a brisk gesture. "I am, idiot. If I indulge you at this point you'll just flip your shit even harder and you don't have time." He tweaked at Karkat's collar and hair without really changing anything. "Look, it's not improv. You sit in the carriage, you kneel in the church, you say your one line -- which you don't even have to memorize -- and that is all you have to do."

    That didn't cancel Karkat's worries, but maybe it stopped them getting worse. "Do I smile? Do I wave? Do I sort of... sit at attention?"

    "Follow John's lead, I guess." Sollux tugged at the empty right sleeve of Karkat's coat, trying one more time to get it to hang smooth, but buttoning the top button made it pull crookedly, and if they didn't do that the Order of Imperial Merit ribbon was going to end up any-which-way. "You'll do."

    Karkat checked the mirror one more time. It didn't help. "I look awkward as fuck."

    "You look like a short mutant with stubby horns. Right?"

    Karkat shot him a dirty look.

    "That's what you're thinking," Sollux went on implacably. "You look like an impostor, you shouldn't be here, the whole thing is an accident and any minute someone's going to call your bluff."

    "Basically, yes, but fuck you for saying it."

    Scowling fiercely, Sollux finger-stabbed him right in the Star of Valor. "Fine, it's been said, now kick it to the curb, because reality's calling. You're tall enough by human standards, you're strong, you're young, you're handsome, all humans think about horns is 'oh look horns', you are a general, you are a knight, you are going to be Lord Consort to the King of Skaia in less than an hour, and if anyone lifts a finger to stop it I will make their brains come out their nostrils. Any questions?"

    The tight coil of panic in Karkat's gut unwound all at once. "What did I do to deserve you?"

    Sollux cracked a roguish smile. "I guess you're just lucky." He patted Karkat's cheek. "You can't get any gorgeouser, so let's go find out who's supposed to give you the leaf hat thing."

    "That would be me," John said, startling them both. He grinned smugly at the way they stared at him leaning against the door neither had heard open or shut.

    He was wearing the same uniform he'd had on the night Karkat met him. The only difference was the crown, but that difference was significant. It looked old, primitive, maybe magical; heavy square plates of gold set with irregular, unfaceted sapphires and engraved with a dense intertwining of unreadable symbols. There was something unsettling about it, a cold that the warmth of gold couldn't dispel.

    "What the fuck, John," Karkat demanded, more impressed than angry. "How are you so quiet? And shouldn't you be the center of a swarm of high-strung functionaries at this point?"

    "You know how I don't usually go around snapping at people and dismissing them mid-sentence? One result of this habit is that when I do, they scatter like mice." He showed Karkat what he was carrying: a square box covered in plain brown leather. "And when I tell the treasurer to hell with procedure, I'm going to put this on you myself, he listens."

    "Oh. So. How much of that...?" He gestured between himself and Sollux, meaning, Did you hear me embarrassing myself?

    "Just the tail end of the pep talk." John came closer, opening the box to display its contents. The gold wreath looked more substantial than Karkat had imagined when he'd heard it described. More stylized. Less lifelike, more crownish. Heavier. "Are you doubting your welcome?"

    Karkat bit his lip, trying to think of an answer that wasn't stupid bluster or the humiliating truth. But he's my matesprit, he reminded himself. Not just some human matesprit-analog, either. He may not call it pity, but he's been shielding my weak points instead of using them since the night we met. If I can't trust him, I'm screwed anyway.

    So he braced himself and confessed. "I don't know how to play this. Yes, Sollux, I am playing a part, I can't sleepwalk through this, I'd shame John and look like an idiot."

    "The best part to play," John said thoughtfully as he lifted the wreath from the box, "is an exaggeration of some aspect of the truth. I honestly do like people, and I am a bit of a joker, but the frivolous socialite I present to the world is theater."

    "I know. And the flirt, too." He didn't mean it to come out as a question, but it did.

    "The thing where I'm too lovestruck to pose a threat to anyone's ambitions? Of course. Secretly, I'm perfectly capable of thinking about things other than you for several minutes at a stretch." Smiling slightly, John lowered the wreath over Karkat's head, but stopped at the first touch of metal to horn. Took it back to open the hoop of it a little farther with careful pinches around its circumference. "I won't tell you what about yourself to exaggerate. You're the one who'll have to keep it up."

    Karkat watched John's fingers work, still feeling a bit lost, but much less so with both Sollux and John here to spot him. "I just don't know what would appeal or be useful."

    "Yes, Karkat," Sollux groaned, "this is the best time to wallow in insecurity, how did you guess."

    "Bite me, Captor. I'm doing no such goddamn thing. I'm trying to figure out what Skaia needs to see. Because the things I'm proudest of, they don't give out ribbons for." He gave his tidy row of good conduct medals a disgusted claw-flick. "Do I even have any virtues I can take out in public?"

    "You're a leader," John said. "You're honest. Fierce. Smart. You're a survivor. You have abysmal table manners and a spectacularly foul mouth."

    That surprised a laugh out of Karkat. "Virtues, John!"

    "I'm a lovable airhead; is that a virtue? If you want to play no-frills man-of-the-people, by all means continue to crack bones with your teeth and wipe your hands on the tablecloth." He lifted the circlet of leaves again, and this time it slipped easily over Karkat's horns to settle on his brow. "Humans love a common-born hero. Our stories are full of them. And you are a hero, by any reasonable definition of the word, so let's have no false humility, please." He appeared to be focused completely on arranging Karat's hair where the wreath pinned it, but when Karkat's good hand clenched at his side, John cupped his face and met his eyes as if he'd seen it. "Noir's army called you the Tidal Wave, did you know that?"

    "Bullshit," Karkat muttered. "I was always outnumbered, how's that like a tidal wave?"

    "They learned not to relax when you retreated, because it meant you were about to come back even harder."

    Karkat dropped his gaze, trying not to let on how flattered he was by that. "Awfully clever metaphor for imps to come up with."

    "Karkat." John waited until Karkat looked up. "My people are waiting to meet General Vantas. So tell me. What's he like?"

    Karkat chewed his lip, deliberating. John waited patiently. At last Karkat ventured, "I think I'd better work on my table manners. And let them see me reading sometimes. If humans think trolls are all berserkers -- does this make sense? But I don't want to smile and wave like I'm shilling for the circus. I'm pretty sure that would just look weird."

    "Reserved and thoughtful, a perfect balance to my frivolity. And so appealing," John added with a glint of amusement, closing the slight distance between them and draping his arms over Karkat's shoulders. "Have I mentioned that? When you go all grave and earnest like this, I get the filthiest ideas."

    Several busy seconds later, Sollux gave a muffled shout of frustration. "Oh my God, you guys, enough! Karkat! John! Do you think I could possibly persuade you to stop sucking face long enough to go get married?"

    They parted with breathless reluctance. John looked as dazed as Karkat felt, but he managed a mischevious smirk nonetheless. "What a smashing idea. Karkat Vantas, will you marry me?"

    Karkat strove mightily not to smile. He failed. "You're an appalling cheeseball and you should be embarrassed."

    "And?"

    "And I'm every bit as drippy, damn me. Yes, John Egbert, I think I would agree to a enact human public-oath ritual with you even if there were no lives at stake whatsoever."

    "That's the sweetest thing anyone's ever said to me," John beamed, hooked elbows with him, and marched him out the door.

    They picked up a comet tail of courtiers and functionaries as they strode through the ornate corridors. John ignored their clamor. In the Sylvan Hall, where the members of the procession were assembled and waiting beneath arches carved like fruit trees, Strider suddenly appeared at Karkat's side holding a little rectangular ivory box. He opened it to reveal a pair of round spectacles with amber lenses.

    As Karkat took them, he noticed some marks of wear on the tortoiseshell earpieces. He gave Strider a puzzled look. "These are yours? Am I just borrowing them?"

    Strider's visored head made the slightest negating motion. "They're yours now, bro. Welcome to the family."

    Karkat blamed John's recent display of syrupy sentiment for the lump he had to swallow now. "Thanks," he said simply, and put them on. The glare from the open doors at the far end of the hall transformed from a smudge of blind white to a sharp view of the courtyard as if a thick cloud had covered the sun. "Whoa."

    Strider thumped Karkat once on the back, then strode off to take his place with the honor guard.

    Jade descended on them like a hurricane made of dress -- green and bronze striped shimmery stuff over clouds of pale-pink floaty stuff, and so much pink lace spilling over her lower arms that Karkat wondered in passing if the purpose of it was to hide weapons. Large weapons. Artillery pieces, possibly. And the hat -- "Harley, have you pinned your flagship to your head? Is that what I'm seeing?"

    Jade laughed and patted her exuberant panache. "Well spotted, Vantas! Cancel the carriage, we'll all climb aboard my hat and sail to the Cathedral!" She took a hand from each of them and studied them delightedly. "Good God, you're handsome, the both of you."

    "And you're a vision, coz," John returned happily. "I expected you in uniform. How in the world did you manage to get that made on such short notice? Did you comandeer someone else's dressmaker at gunpoint?"

    Jade leaned in conspiratorily. "This is the same redingote I had for the May Day ball. The lettuce-and-fawn one? And the underdress was white. I just had them overdyed."

    "Someone's sure to recognize it," John said, mock-scandalized.

    "I'm counting on it! Why, Lady Harley, couldn't you afford a new gown? No, my dear, I'm positively destitute after decorating the Lance's lower deck with 42-pounders. Oh, this postwar economy!"

    "Forty-two --!" Karkat burst out. "Harley, my God! You're a pirate hunter, what do you want siege guns for?"

    She just tapped her nose and winked theatrically. She suddenly seemed to remember something, and went hunting among her flounces until she located a cleverly concealed pocket. She pressed something into Karkat's hand. "I brewed you a potion. Don't use it unless you think you're going to faint; it'll make you feel like a god for three or four hours, but then you'll feel like you got run over by a dung cart."

    He opened his hand, smiled at the tiny glass bottle he found there, and tucked it in his waistcoat pocket. "Thank you."

    She went on tiptoes to kiss his cheek, then leaned to his ear. He expected something sentimental, because this wedding business seemed to have reduced every other human to sugary slush, but instead she whispered, "I'll be watching your aura for interference. People will be throwing flower petals and grain, that's fine, that's symbolic of good fortune, but if you catch anyone throwing salt, sing out right away. Otherwise, relax, enjoy yourself, we've got this."

    He nodded, reassured and oddly touched. He didn't understand human magic, but he knew Jade well enough by now to be confident she could deliver on her promises. But people were starting to move and fanfares were sounding outside, and he couldn't think of anything to say but, "I actually do like your hat."

    She beamed, satisfied, as if she understood what he meant. Maybe she did. She was a witch, after all. She kissed John's cheek as well, whispered something to him that made him look wickedly delighted and blush like a peach, then rushed off to find her place.

    John hooked his elbow through Karkat's again. "Shall we?"

    "Let's do this," Karkat said, and for the first time since this whole marrying-King-John thing began, his confidence wasn't entirely a front. Because he could hear the crowd beyond the gates reacting to the fanfare, and there wasn't a single sour note in its voice. All he heard was celebration. This wasn't a play where he hadn't learned his lines, it wasn't a livestock market with all of Skaia checking his teeth. It was a victory parade.

    Conqueror's laurels on his brow and beloved duty on his arm, he stepped out into the glare of day.