It was a bad night, one of the worst he'd had in nearly half a sweep. The paperwork for Gamzee to shift up—to stop being Neophyte Exorcist Gamzee Makara, and take on full status and his adult title—was so stalled, it was started to looked like Terezi was going to graduate to her own adult status before any of them did. It was probably to be expected, despite having actually completed the neophyte requirements for the Exorcist Corps. The final one of the required missions was too much of a shitstorm to sort out, and of course they had to insist that you pass on your missions in order, no substitutions just because you accidentally found something that looked like it might take your entire fucking natural lifespan to get cleaned up.
Fuck. Terezi even was close enough to it that it was just a few symbols on lines short, and it was not bad luck to have already let out what she was planning for her adult title. “Neophyte Fireeyes” had a good ring to it—it had a reference to both self and to a good Ancestor, so it fit herself…and it was always lucky to have your leading Ancestor, the one whose legacy you were carrying forward, alluded to. It was bad to use the exact same title, especially if your Ancestor got herself culled on the job, but your Ancestors watched over you once they shed their mortal shells. In some cases—and fuck he hated its results—very directly, like Eridan and Sollux's Ancestors had. It was hard being the auspice to two fuckwits who were getting ridden by their own Ancestors who'd somehow gone flushed for each other. It was hard, and nobody understood.
If one more nooksniffer got all pale on him about being all clubbed up with a couple that flipped red-black so fast the colors blurred Gamzee was going to have to drag him off for a nice long pale session in a pile. Or maybe Gamzee'd decide that nah, it was just plain better to let his moirail cull them before their empty think pans got somebody worth a shit to the Empire culled instead of their worthy asses. Karkat knew he really ought to prefer the first, it would be so fucking humiliating to be so openly definitely the one who needed a moirail more in the normal sense instead of the sense of being an Exorcist team's captain.
He got too much of that sense that night. Another random mission, keeping them busy while papers got shuffled—couldn't quite send them off-planet on official shit 'til it was decided if they were all done their probationary time or if they were going to get another set of mentors, but they couldn't just be left sitting around making friends with their pet aliens. At least the number who were hanging around their hive had dropped, most of the pale-haired ones were attached elsewhere—Terezi's assistant, Shamsh's aide, Kanaya's backup—and fuck it if he wasn't glad John was sticking with him instead of going off with his moirail. He'd known Vriska was fucked up but the more he heard the less he wanted to know.
He was starting to wonder if FLARPing induced insanity, though Terezi seemed rather okay but then nobody was letting her near the courtblock her Ancestor was lynched in. Karkat had lost all doubts he ever might have harbored about Ancestors being some highblood myth, though fuck the whole 'following in the footsteps' shit. Karkat was not about to be used to rip a hole in the fabric of the world so HorrorTerrors could come visiting. (Though alright he was totally perfectly okay with the part about having an Ancestor who was badass enough that it was only a slip that kept his execution alone from being a bad enough violation all on its own, and leaving the Old Capital such a huge fucking Taint it had to be abandoned. It was about the only thing he fucking liked about what Sollux's fucking Ancestor had told them.)
Work was supposed to be a welcomed distraction.
Tonight, it was every single fucking thing but one. Oh, alright, it wasn't like he'd gotten grabbed by a bunch of Cultists wanting to sacrifice him (yet again) or another damn round of Saving the Fucking Thankless Empire's Nooks (once was quite enough thank you and he was not going to make Gamzee have to shoosh and pap him into being merely pissed at the rather clear likelihood that was only a warmup). No, it was just going and dealing with the fucking shit-and-bloodsplattered mess left by some asshole of a Captain not being able to fucking keep herself together long enough to keep her Exorcist from bleeding out mid-Ceremony and…
…fuck if he'd not known in horribly graphic detail just how deep the shit they had been dropped into he might have had some pity for her, but Taints on Alternia were old and ugly, and just because most of the Cultists were fucking wrigglers playing with Things Trolls Were Not Meant To Know did fucking nothing to how ugly the shit could get. Older Cultists planned their shit, you could fucking dismantle it before it went all tumbling down into the load gaper.
Wrigglers who'd gone Cult, though? They just thought they knew their shit. Didn't mean they couldn't rip the universe a fresh nook, it just meant they fucking sucked waste chute at it turning out as they planned. You'd come in ready to fucking cull them all and have a big damn heroes moment all of your own to find that this bunch couldn't even find the damn big red button if you lead them by the fucking horn.
Fuck, he should have known it was going to be a Bad Day when Tavros of all trolls tried just that. Tavros was the nicest troll to ever get old enough to have eyes coloring in, and he'd actually gotten pissed enough at one of the surviving cullbait Cultists to grab her by the horn and drag her to their control board. (And how the fuck did a troll who couldn't see color manage to get out of the Trials, no less within sight of adulthood?)
But how that went down—how Tavros ended up with blood splatter on him and a look that pretty much said that one of his red quadrants was going to be getting some quality pity time in soon—wasn't something Karkat got to see. No, he had to follow Gamzee in finding where the fuck the nooksniffer they were supposed to be backing up was.
Something in Karkat's bloodpusher twanged at how casually Gamzee had just shoved the bled-out corpse of the Cobaltblood out of the way and set to work on getting his own Ritual started.
But there was the pathetic remains of the previous team to deal with, and with Gamzee busy getting his part done and Sollux & Aradia dealing with keeping the Cultists' backup off—from the sound of it, more cullbait, this time the kind that didn't have enough sense to not pick a fight with psychics with very large rocks and a willingness to use them—that meant he was the fucking lucky troll, it was him.
He was good at using his sickle. Practice helped—he trained like he was still going for his old dream of being a threshecutioner even now (and would be surprised to find out the Exorcist Corps standards were in reality the tougher ones)—but it was the first time he'd ever actually had to deal with culling a failed Exorcist team. He could see the signs of corruption, their bodies taking on the burnt-zombie coloring while still living, the Captain the only one not with glazed unfocused eyes (the sign, he remembered from schoolfeeding, of a think pan wiped and waiting takeover) but instead babbling in the Broodfester Tongues. He didn't need Rose's help to know what the fuck she wanted. The edge went through her throat like a hot knife through a block of solid fat spread, a vaguely grateful look on her face as life faded and Karkat's clothes got splatters of olive atop the red and brown.
It wasn't that culling trolls bothered Karkat. There wasn't even a twinge anymore at the thought of killing Cultists—he knew too fucking much about the shit they got up to, about the sorts of shit they would do to him if they got their fucking hands on him (and kept him long enough) to have any fucks to give about them. The ones dragged in by bad romantic entanglements got a bit of pity, but it was—how did the younger Strider put it?—their fucking corpse party if they couldn't get out before they got themselves culled for their mistakes.
It was the thought he was personally culling people who were comrades, whose position he and his team could end up in if he fucked up (not that he was, not that he would admit that was the stuff of his nightmares) and Gamzee died while performing a Ritual, opening further the door it was meant to close…
The only good thing to be said about it, if he fucked up that hard, was that at least his moirail would—by virtue of being dead—be clear of the worst effects of him fucking up so hard.
But…he didn't know quite what would happen with the humans. The policy on stray aliens was happily finders-keepers, but unless Eridan stepped in to claim them there was a good chance they'd be broken up and sent all over the Empire. The ones who'd already attached themselves elsewhere would probably get to stay—especially if both Lalondes proved skilled at the job. The Exorcist Corps was permanently enough understaffed to not give a fuck about a useful warm body being crippled; it was damn unlikely they'd give a fuck about one happening to not be a troll either. (It was just as likely the lack of aliens in the Corps was due to the normal unsuitability—part of the price of being a protectorate was serving the Empire's needs, through a tribute of conscripts. He knew Terezi was using the same laws that permitted a Legilacerator to claim a conscript as a dogsbody to keep Dave.)
By the time he dragged himself through the entrance to their team's hive, behind everybody else because of course he got the fucking paperwork he always got stuck with the fucking paperwork.
(Karkat probably ought to be forgiven the inaccuracy here, both in his being wrong about both the 'always' and the 'stuck' parts. In point of fact, Karkat had not woken up to have paperwork waiting for him—aside from the standard ones to get himself out—when he landed in the hospital, nor had anybody attempted to give him paperwork after Terezi's especially close brush. However, Karkat had been rather clear about not normally trusting others with that part of his job, and in the latter case the failure to give him paperwork was possibly primarily due to the fact that he looked likely to disembowel anybody other than Gamzee and Kanaya, who slipped in clubswise between him and the staff.)
If the day was going to be made any fucking worse by something like Vriska—who had been acting even more like a cagy huge bitch since slipping back into their lives, for all that she seemed a bit jumpy around Tavros now—deciding to visit her pale quadrant, Karkat was quite certain that an acrobatic pirouette off the handle would ensue. He was still really not sure how the fuck she and John had ended up with a case of Serendipity.
He was so fucking glad that at least three of his team wasn't about to go stumbling on their Ancestor's physical shell. Maybe the whole idea of human corpse parties really was to get the damn soul to get on with whatever souls do once they pupated?
Right, and probably next they were going to find where ever the fuck Tavros's Ancestor died and get the full fucking set of available Ancestral ghosts.
…Karkat really fucking wanted to slip between the layers of John's sleeping pile and get some cuddles. The soft glow of light on the horizon said the timing was right for that, and he could even manage to join his matesprit for the day. The sleeping pile should be enough—having a matesprit beside him would be calming, hopefully enough to keep daymares away even after a rough night. It wasn't like sopor slime had even been an option since the first day in the Academy, anyway.
He glanced at the sleeping pile with the dozing human already slipped inside, with the strange human habit of sleeping inside their strange fabric piles. He had been surprised to find that they even made bags stuffed full of fluffy shit and used them as the base of their piles—it actually had a really nice effect, though, and he had heard that the idea was spreading. It wasn't too unusual for a particularly intense feelings jam to include pale naps from emotional exhaustion; something that might make that less likely to leave the moirails sore and bruised afterward was very likely to catch on, especially when the piles were less innocuous than horns. (Switching out entirely would be weird: piles meant shit, and you only borrowed them when desperate for a feelings jam.)
The slight smile at the sight would be entirely and completely denied, never mind that John looked deliciously pitiful with the layers of fabric draped atop of him, glasses off and sitting beside the music grub on the small table he kept beside his sleeping pile. It looked to be a new one, too; at this rate he suspected it might be worth licensing John's work, getting him a bit of an income of his own from his music.
It wasn't necessary to tell him quite how precarious his position was, right?
John blinked awake, blue eyes unfocused—fuck, he just had to be extra-pitiful when freshly awake, didn't he?—and smiled. “Karkat! Welcome back!” The next phrase was something weirdly garbled, something about hopbeasts but those were not cute and fluffy to anybody except the occasional Indigoblood whose lusus was one. They were vicious things, able to rip a troll's throat out with their teeth—and since they were generally content to graze, most trolls didn't realize until too late. Karkat always had the feeling that if John had been hatched a troll, he would have had a hopbeast for his lusus—and not just because he had fangs like one.
John seemed to realize how garbled what he'd said was, expression shifting to what he recognized as more than vague confusion, and Karkat took the opportunity to get on with their morning routine. He put his uniform aside neatly—he'd decide later just how badly it'd weathered the night's work, and if it couldn't be saved… Well, some of the humans had already mentioned a thing called a 'quilt' and it seemed like human tradition approved of using old clothes to make it. If one would make John's sleeping pile have more of the feel of one of the nicest Alternian piles, Karkat wanted one soon.
The boxers still stayed on. It likely would take a sloppy makeout heading fast for the point at which a pail would be wanted to get them to stop wearing anything in the sleeping pile. Karkat didn't know if it was human custom or something else on John's part. On his…well, he had been shy even stripping above the waist at first. Even though scars were a sign that you were tough, and able to survive shit, they were more attractive on a prospective caliginous partner than a potential matesprit.
Though the worst one of his scars were from wounds he got on the fucking mission they'd picked up the humans on, from a wound he'd had to ask John to stitch up, so it wasn't like John wouldn't have already known. Fuck, it was shitty to discover something he'd always coo'd over as being so romantic in the more action-filled romance movies he'd watched licked reeking nook to actually experience. Okay, fuck, yes he'd been a pitiful mess and he knew even his own work—such as the mostly neat scar on John's left shoulder—was not going to heal with barely a mark.
He still felt shy about it.
Even with John just lying there, waiting for him to get into bed, so he ought to go ahead and slip in, and fuck why do John's fingers automatically go to trace that damn scar!?
Was there something romantic about it to humans?
Though the soft musical little noise John made…as far as any of them could tell, it was the human version of a purr. Karkat supposed that meant that this human, at least, thought it romantic. Humans did seem to be more musical in their wriggler noises, more like musical wingbeasts than the slightly-off trolls they looked like. It was not a good comparison, though; from what Rose had said, humans were this thing they called mammals. How anything as soft as these humans could come from a planet harsh enough for them to need grow their young straight through to wriggler stage inside themselves…
…and then he remembered that oh, yes, humans were so wonderfully warm. He churripped and shifted closer to his living block heater. It was, after all, the worst of the colder seasons of the sweep—and it was weird, humans seemed to think seasons were related to temperatures instead of the patterns of light, and even weirder was that they seemed to think that this was not very harsh weather. It was, there were horrible storms with electricity from the sky and it was cold and miserable and wet.
(Karkat would eventually snap and ask John what he thought a proper cold season ought to be like, and be horrified by the idea of crystals of frozen water drifting gently downwards from the sky. And John had the audacity to laugh! Then the other humans confirmed that no, John wasn't joking—and actually was talking about a 'mild snowfall.')
There was a yawn—the sleepy human silent scree at something, and with John and his hopbeast fangs it was so adorabloodthirsty—and John shifted, settled, murmured something Karkat knew was some sort of flushed affection despite the linguistic garbling that was drowsy John to Karkat. He purred back, muscles relaxing. His warm matesprit was warm, and it made the night a lot better already.
It wasn't a feelings jam—the benefits simply wouldn't last long once they weren't snuggled anymore—but there was something indescribably relaxing about just having John there, once he'd gotten used to it and his body wasn't in a hurry to do things he wasn't quite ready for yet. (In other news, the betting pool on Karkat's virginity was still growing, well into its third sweep.)
Besides, he could grab Gamzee for a proper feelings jam at dusk. His moirail was probably kicking back and enjoying dropping sick fires (sick, in this case, being horribly bad) with Tavros, anyway, and firstmeal was surprisingly good for feelings jams with him. Gamzee liked it, he got to claim the kitchen with Jane as his back-competition, and Karkat was rather certain that in a different universe his moirail would be some weird piratical baker sailing the seas and threatening people with pie or death.
…dammit he'd accompanied Gamzee to too many religious functions he was craving Faygo now (but at least not Tab)…
Karkat closed his eyes and settled more into the sleeping pile against John, and dozed. John's lips brushed against his in a kiss, and…okay, yeah, he was definitely happy enough right now to purr. Warm sleeping pile with matesprit in the mood to make out, knowledge that he had a bucket nicely handy if it turned out tonight was The Night…
…and the sleeping pile shifted.
John just blinked at whatever the weight behind him was, and Karkat's purr cut off with a rather embarrassing chirp of fright. Fuckfuckfuck he'd faced the fucking Demoness herself down why the fuck was this scari—
A warm weight settled against his back—bare chest to his bare back—with a just as familiar honking laugh. “Sorry, Karbro.”
“Gamzee you fucking—”
“Shoosh.” And oh fuck John seemed totally okay with sudden sleeping pile-sharing because he was settling back down and Karkat felt trapped as the two just nudged him into fitting better onto the sleeping pile and he couldn't help remembering In Which the Ingenue Hero is Caught Between Two Potential Flushed Partners Who are in a Caliginous Relationship With Each Other… and the end.
Where the poor ingenue discovered that the two competing over him had come to a non-standard arrangement, and he discovered that unclear descriptions of the ending in titles was a signal that the plot twist was explicit.
…except now he was getting distinctly pale kisses from both of them and being shooshed. Fuck.
What worked, in the end, was the feel of John's fingers brushing through his hair and caressing his horns. He knew John didn't really understand really, but he did seem to understand that it was a definitely-concupiscent thing so okay yeah John was just in agreement with Gamzee about wanting Karkat to stop flipping his shit and hyperventilating and go back to being his shouty normal self.
Success brought a red flush to his cheeks, a little more shifting because the pile just wasn't sized for three people who weren't, as Gamzee observed with cheer, up and with really friendly miracles.
John laughed, silly human completely comfortable with having trapped Karkat in the middle and Karkat…
Karkat actually muttered something—and muttered it by normal standards, not his own unique ones.
Gamzee laughed. “You been forgetting, my miracle palebro? Tavbro 'n' our friends all got leave.” Oh. Yeah. That paperwork. It was already…? Fuck.
John smiled—Karkat couldn't actually see it, but he could feel John's lips against his skin—and added, “Yeah, they had a dawn mass transport to catch. Aradia had said something about ruins?”
Of course, and probably most of the humans still hanging out there went with them. He'd not missed the older dark-haired guy's enthusiasm for adventures, and if Aradia had brought up the topic of ruins she wanted to go visit…so who should he not be expecting to see at firstmeal…
Short list seemed to be pretty much fucking everybody. Oh, and he and Gamzee had leave too didn't he remember? Sollux was likely to chase them out, something about finally getting to do some work he'd been wanting to do on the mainframes and Karkat wasn't sure what John meant about a mad scientist laugh.
All alone with just his moirail and his matesprit, since Sollux…wasn't much company when he was working on his computers. Unless dodging random telekinetically-flung shit was your idea of company.
John yawned again—still weird, even after all this time—and snuggled.
“Shoosh.” Gamzee papped him, over the mouth. “Only motherfucking sleep now, palebro.”
…oh. Fuck. Yeah. He could hear the sleepiness in his moirail's voice, the slight edginess of a long hard night's work on his temper. He hesitated a little, then let it drop.
Karkat knew he ought to have expected Gamzee to have been bothered more by the day's events. After all, as deaths went bleeding out in an unsuccessful attempt to perform a Ritual was not the worst of deaths available for somebody in the Exorcist Corps. There was the classic sacrifice by Cultists—body and self and mind violated as completely as possible, or at least as completely as the Cultists cared to—but that was a more general fate, and Karkat knew he wasn't that far from being not worth that much trouble to sacrifice, for most purposes. However, getting caught in the backlash from an incomplete Ritual?
As long as Karkat served as Gamzee's moirail and as the captain of his team, that fate was still one he might meet, and Gamzee being a Purpleblood had its downside. Yes, the risk of him needing to use enough blood to die was distinctly lower—higher the caste, the stronger their blood for the purpose—but that didn't mean there was no chance of shit getting that bad. They were more likely to get sent to see the worst of it, the hardest fighting the worst shitstorms.
It'd not be the same—it'd not be because Karkat failed to make sure Gamzee had the support he needed for the ritual. It'd be because Karkat hadn't been fast enough, strong enough to protect his moirail when he needed it.
And unless it was very literally over his dead body (and even then, really) Karkat would feel having himself taken over and turned grimdark was only what he deserved for…
“Shoosh, Karbro.” Oh, fuck, he just had to be ranting about that out loud… “You're the best moirail this motherfucker could want.” Gamzee shifted a little, tangling himself a little more. “It is you.”
John nod-nuzzled. “Good person,” he informed Karkat and wait was that an intentional ass grope? “Best,” and some garbled word. Yay, his matesprit may have just complemented him and the translator fucked it up.
Oh. Okay. That was definitely an intentional ass grope from John.
Yes yes okay pitiful blush is pitiful fuck stop making him feel like this pile was about to flip all-pale or all-flushed being given no choice about what and he knows his fucking luck of course nobody he's flushed for is going to really be flushed for him and it is no fucking fun and he is not going to go and pail somebody just because fuck it did he really need to explain that to them!?
“…Karbro, palebro, shoosh.”
John made that weird noise that humans did when amused, close but not quite exactly a laugh. “You're”—some human word—“Karkat.” He shifted just enough to demonstrate that he was used enough to Alternia and music grubs to get the one sitting on the table playing without Karkat's help. And his hips moved against…
…fuck he thought he had that under control and he was glad Gamzee knew well enough to not need to ask about the blush, his think pan was weird in what it would decide was important enough to actually keep, and right now Karkat was just hoping that John wasn't going to say anything.
But…huh. It sounded like this was one of the two ghost-haired brothers' work, not purely John's. He could hear bits and pieces of the various musical instruments the humans had taken to in the mix, samples of various other sounds and…the purr told him exactly which of the two had mixed this.
Gamzee's rattley purr reminded him, yes, it was alright, she'd moved on he'd moved on and really he had done the right thing (and the two humans got along, John was happily polypale and Karkat was fine with this really) so really this was nothing to be pensive about.
It was what he wanted, right? For her to be alive and happy, even if…
It was only after he responded that it registered that it was John's lips and oh.
For all that he missed her, for all that his feelings for her had never changed (never would)…
Right now he had his moirail behind him, purring, reassuring himself (reassuring him) that everything was motherfucking miracles and rainbows and Faygo fountains, and Gamzee was a good moirail and let Karkat keep denying that he'd acquired a taste for redpop after having him share it so often. If Karkat wanted to pretend pale romantic miracles had not happened, he wasn't going to be the motherfucker who insisted.
Right now Karkat had his matesprit, who was being sweet and flushed and tender. If it was out in public it'd be embarrassing even as it might discourage a few of the trolls who only were out to get bragging rights. John wasn't like that, he was interested in Karkat for himself and he wasn't quite sure but apparently he was not even John's normal tastes in flush crushes. None of the trolls quite understood what was going on with the humans there anyway; it looked like they were pretty normal, even if Jane was quite low-key in her leadership, but they got weird when those things got talked about. The current theory there was that humans considered those things not the sort of thing you talked about.
And it was warm and he was safe, and he…was happy for her.
It hadn't been Serendipity, and he wasn't some 6-sweeps-old wriggler.
(And if she was away from him he would never be covered in her teal blood again, thinking she was dying because of him…)
Karkat relaxed, his purr slowly joining in, and pointedly ignoring the small part of him wondering if maybe it wouldn't be so bad to take up the whole human polypale thing.
(But his feelings for her weren't pale, they were red and fuck, if she asked him to help when the drones came he knew he'd go back to John later but…)
John's lips brushed against his and fuck it, he knew Gamzee wouldn't care. He'd watched Gamzee make out with his matesprit enough times anyway and he wasn't going to do anything more than kiss, snuggle and sleep in the most literal of senses.
Which is exactly what Karkat did. The daymares were mild, not the worst he'd had (that was a tie between the week after going off sopor and had to help Gamzee through withdrawal & the time right after meeting John) and definitely milder than he had expected when he had headed back to the hive. Maybe it was a benefit of sleeping between his red quadrants?
Night came, and came too soon for once—this was a season of short days, and Karkat was not going to fucking admit he enjoyed being the center of a mass sleeping pile cuddle. He knew that he almost certainly would have to, though, to get to enjoy it again.