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The hive is silent at night, dark in between two slashes of streetlamp light, and so still it feels empty. Karkat can see his way clear through but his hand trails the wall anyway.

The steps are wood under his bare feet, polished to a smooth finish. They creak a little; he pauses, stops breathing, waits. Nothing but a lone vehicle going by outside, on the next street over. He resumes his climb.

Gamzee is still asleep downstairs, in the block John's Ancestor-lusus called "my study, haha, I usually spend a lot of time in here but there isn't anything I can't do anywhere else in the house. It'll be perfect for your, ah pile? We'll move my desk. I'm afraid the piano has nowhere else to go." Gamzee kind of fell madly for the piano, past the first heart attack he gave himself parking his bony ass on the keys; Karkat doesn't mind if it stays. Karkat wouldn't have minded the desk staying, either, their pile doesn't take up that much space and it's yet another sacrifice the adult is making for them.

He's taken them in and is feeding them on his hard-won money and hiding them from the police, the military, and he's given them a whole block of his hive to themselves. His favorite block, even. And they have nothing to repay him with. Boondollars aren't actually a valid currency outside the game.

"Don't worry about that," he'd said with a chuckle, "We'll find a way to make you boys earn your keep," and he'd winked, the way John did sometimes, only he was so much taller and John had never clocked Jack Noir in the back of the head with a boulder bigger than he was tall, he couldn't have, not barehanded. The man is blueblood-strong.

Karkat hasn't been able to sleep at all since they got here, staring at the hastily plank-covered hole in the ceiling and waiting for the other foot-enveloping device to drop.

Might as well just get it over with.

He pauses in the corridor, looks longingly toward John's closed door. John's a goof. Harmless. And they're hatefriends now, more than that even, it's like some strange kind of out-quadrant, permanent cahootship. Maybe he'd intercede.

It's his Ancestor's hive, though; the adult dotes on the boy (as well he should, also being his lusus), but Karkat and Gamzee are freeloaders, and ones who endanger his charge by their very presence to boot. It's not worth making the adult resentful of their presence (and what if John sided with him, what then?)

Fuck that noise; he's run the data before, the conclusion hasn't changed, he's not chickening out now. He turns into the other corridor -- the two respiteblocks are far enough from each other, he hopes it'll muffle sounds -- and doesn't let himself slow down before he's reaching for the door handle.

He opens the door as quietly as he can, though. He doesn't want to burst in on a sleeping adult, even if humans have little issues with sleep rage.

The adult's hands are so big.

They rest on white sheets, loosely splayed, nails trimmed harmless-short. He imagines them on him, cupping his waist, his hips. (Lower.) Maybe it'll be okay, he's been friendly so far (maybe because he felt generous knowing he had two alien boys at hand, maybe he's been smiling his cryptic, shadowed-eyes smiles so much because he likes to savor the anticipation.)

He imagines those hands grabbing his hair, forcing his head back, throat on display, he imagines that taller, wider, heavier body pining him down, no escape, and then he's turning away and closing the door behind himself with minute precision, breathing too fast, eyes closed tight. No, he can't chicken out now, he can't. If he goes by himself, if he shows willing, grateful enough, maybe... maybe he'll be enough, maybe the adult will be generous, will be willing to indulge him, just one wish, just one, not Gamzee.

Karkat would do anything.

He squares his shoulders and breathes in and opens his eyes, and he chokes on a scream.

His moirail stands before him, silent like an apparition, usually mobile face expressionless, scrubbed clean of paint (Karkat didn't want to wake covered in the stuff -- didn't want to stain more of John's Ancestor-lusus' things, didn't want to have to ask to use the cloth-cleaning machine for the seventh time in five days.) He looks like a stranger. He watches Karkat like Karkat is a stranger, too, and his heart twists.

"What are you doing here, stupid?!" Karkat hisses whisper-soft, and snatches his wrist to tow him back to the staircase.

Gamzee plants his heels. Karkat doesn't manage to move him one inch. He turns back to face him, bewildered and helpless and panicky-furious, ashamed. Gamzee was supposed to be safe and comfy and unaware and asleep, he wasn't supposed to know, he wasn't.

"What are you doing here, my invertebrother?" Gamzee counters, and it's not vague, unconcerned happiness in his voice, it isn't barely leashed rage, it's worse. It's defeat. "All standing alone with no palebro by your side, like you ain't down with needing one."

Karkat's eyes burn. He can't blink, he'd stain his t-shirt pink. He's swimming in that shirt, it used to be John's Ancestor's, even Gamzee would find it big on him. The one Gamzee wears is similarly huge, makes him look so thin, underfed like a kid his lusus left behind. No sign on it, humans don't do signs much, but that means neither he nor Gamzee are wearing theirs and it feels (Karkat knows that part at least is accidental, humans don't do signs, not with half the obsessive intensity of trolls) -- it feels like they're being erased, swallowed whole.

He's being ridiculously melodramatic about t-shirts because that means he doesn't have to think about how Gamzee knows what he was doing here.

About how Gamzee is so much better a moirail than Karkat will ever be, Karkat is a selfish piece of shit is what he is, it's supposed to be a partnership and instead he was getting ready to coddle him, lie to him, go behind his back. Make a secret he'd have to keep from his palemate, something Gamzee wouldn't be allowed to fix, to even know about.

Karkat still wishes he could. Knowing he'd spared Gamzee the pain of knowing...

"I. Don't want you to -- didn't want you to -- I know you're sick of killing, and we can't kill John's lusus anyway, even if we managed we'd be fu--we'd be in deep shit if he wasn't here, and there's nowhere else to go, so." There's next door, Jane's weirdly identical house, and her own Ancestor-lusus who in this life is the eggmate of this one, hatchclones, and would certainly hunt then down to take revenge. "There's no choice, is there? I didn't want you to have to choose between hurting yourself to protect me and --"

"And not protecting you." Gamzee's eyelids are half-closed, but it's not lazy or daydreaming. It's exhausted, crushed into pieces. "That'd be worse, straight up killing offense is what it'd be. I'd up and die."

"Gamzee--"

"I'd rather up and die." His eyes are fire-intense, dead serious like Karkat has seen him only once, and it's still just as terrifying. His hands clench on Karkat's upper arms. "Brother. Palebro. Diamondbro, my paler half, pale as bone, my lifemate, sugargrub, littlest, most motherfucking beautiful snowflake, mine, mine, mine--"

Aw, shit, Karkat's crying for real now. He leans in, presses a hand to Gamzee's mouth to silence him, throat so tight it hurt. "So -- so cheesy, so fucking cheesy, where do you even get half of those, where did you even see snow, you panshattered clowntard -- why do you choose now to be a fucking romantic--"

Gamzee's long arms go around him. Karkat burrows in against his chest, fighting not to cry.

"Well see, you had to go and give me this mad burst of gutshredding pity, you did, so scared and so brave and in such a hurry to be a fucking martyr you forgot about me, you forgot me, brother, Karkat, left me behind, you forgot me--"

He's getting angrier, and louder with it. He feels paler for Karkat now, Karkat knows it deep in his guts, with an aching sweetness that makes him want to curl up on Gamzee's lap and never leave again, but he feels pitch too, they go hand in hand in his bloodrage-twisted thinkpan. Karkat shooshes him, hand cautious and light on his face, on his lips. They twist into a snarl under his fingers; he smoothes them, smoothes the furrow between Gamzee's brows, again and again until it takes.

"I'm sorry," he whispers. Gamzee grunts and nuzzles his way through his hair, sets his chin between Karkat's horns -- it might get him an open throat for his trouble only if Karkat's horns were more than rounded nubs but it still means something.

They stand in silence, bracing each other.

It'd be just their luck if the adult woke now, found them there.

He could lead Gamzee back down the stairs, back to that block straight underneath the adult's respiteblock, with the hole that goes straight through. He could. Gamzee would follow.

It'd only delay things. The more they wait the less the adult will feel inclined to bargain. If they force him to track them down and demand his due he might get... unhappy.

"Alright. Plan A's officially scrubbed," he capitulates, muffled against Gamzee's bony chest, nose mashed to his thoracic bone-prow. "Suggestion for plan B? Trying to kill him when he comes for us is a no, he's ludicrously strong and we knew what would happen when we accepted his invitation, didn't we?" Well he kind of thought (hoped) Gamzee didn't, really, but he should have known better, everyone knows. "And running away is, is. I still don't think anyone's figured out how to get us to Harley's island."

He wishes they'd landed there with Aradia and Sollux, even if Jade's lusus will always and forever remind him of Jack Noir -- the shape of that muzzle, the unsettling -- if nowadays limited -- teleportation all over the place, the everything. At least Bec's just a lusus, he's not an Ancestor as well, not a person, an adult.

"I'm open to suggestions. It might surprise you but yeah, here I am, admitting it. I have no fucking idea what to do."

"Well, my main motherfucker," Gamzee says after a small eternity. "If we can't run and we can't up and fight and we did eat his sweet cakes and sleep all safe and snug in his very own hive and there was a bargain made, without words but all up and bargained out anyway, then seems to me we ought to..."

His voice wavers. Karkat tightens his hold.

"...Dude's chill as fuck, chillest adult ever, and if there's two of us seems to me he can't hurt either one of us too much, can he? Like maybe only half as much each. We could, I don't know. Watch out for each other."

They could watch each other get pailed by an adult. Yeah, that wouldn't be traumatic as fuck.

Karkat doesn't want Gamzee to see him like that.

On the other hand if he gets to hold Gamzee's hand while the adult is -- is, between his thighs -- maybe he won't shatter into stupidly tiny pieces. Who better to see him, anyway? Who better to witness him at his lowest, behold his shame, his fear, his utter submission, and come through the other side only pitying him more?

No one, that's who.

He still feels like he's selfish for that relief he feels, knowing he's not going to be alone, he still feels like he should protect Gamzee; but Gamzee feels the same, he knows he does, he knows because when Karkat reaches for the doorknob their hands are linked and squeezing to splinter bone, and if they don't it's only because they're clinging with equal desperation.

They tiptoe into the still bedroom, hand in hand and bloodpushers in throats.

+

John hasn't been coming in his bedroom at night since he was five years old, but instinct and habit are stubborn things. "Son?" he mumbles. He's still more asleep than not, head fuzzy with cobwebs and dissipating dreams. "Everything alright?"

No response, but he's sure that he heard the door opening, it's what woke him. He pushes himself up on one elbow, squints. He can guess at a dark, looming shape by the foot of his bed. "Son?"

A rustle of cloth, and then the bed dips. Someone -- not John, he can't see but he can tell anyway, they don't move like John (they don't feel like John) -- someone shuffles closer, on hands and knees, makes themselves small and low to the ground like they're playing pretend at being a stalking cat. The boy -- simple logic, neither of their alien guests is a young lady -- hunkers down by his side. Paul thinks he sees the short, rounded edge of a pale horn-tip, and beside the other boy, Gamzee, he'd take up more space, nice width to his shoulders, just needs to fill up some...

"Karkat, my boy," he asks, mind slow and voice rough from sleep. "What in the world are you doing here?"

He pats his head, so Karkat won't think he's angry for being disturbed, barely misses his target at all. He feels the curve of a bone-hard horn, and then thick, coarse hair, and ruffles it. It feels remarkably like John's, only even more full of cowlicks somehow.

The shouty little alien boy is so silent. He takes in a shuddery breath -- Paul is on alert immediately -- and burrows against his flank, making himself even smaller than he really is, though one of his hands comes shyly to hug him around the waist. Bemused, too sleepy to startle, he allows it. Paul hasn't observed that aliens were especially ... no, actually he has observed that Gamzee was quite physically affectionate and not body-shy in the least, but Karkat usually has a rather healthier personal space. For him to seek contact he must feel positively wrecked.

Paul keeps petting his hair, running his fingers through stubborn locks that won't stay combed into place, waiting. The shadow by the foot of the bed resolves into his second alien guest, long twisting horns and angular frame. He steps around the foot of the bed and cautiously lowers himself to the mattress.

Paul blinks, and waits.

Karkat presses his face into Paul's side, tightens his hold -- so cautious, like he's afraid of crossing boundaries. Paul keeps petting. And waits some more. Steadiness, calm -- it works. There is no need to panic. When they're ready to talk, they will, the answer will come; in the meantime he will not be adding to their stress by pressing. It never gives good results.

"I wanted," Karkat whispers, and inches a little higher, and a little higher still, "-- we wanted -- to thank you. For waiting."

Paul is baffled, and starting to suspect that he would be baffled even were he feeling more awake. But the poor lad seems to be looking for a hug, and in dire need of one; his usually assured voice gutters out in his throat, and he's tense, a ball of stiff muscles, Paul can tell right through his pajamas and the sheet.

It's mostly instinct by this point. He wraps an arm around the boy's shoulders, even as he reaches out to the indistinct form of Gamzee, which seems to be looming closer, doing its same slow, hesitant creeping-up. So tall and yet still just a kid. "Shh, it's alright, whatever it is."

Karkat goes loose all over, slumps on him, but Paul doesn't make the mistake of calling it relaxed. He can still feel faint tremors in the boy's fingers, fisted in the sheets on both sides of his hips.

He's not feeling a shirt.

He's not feeling a shirt.

Jesus-Mary-Joseph he is not feeling a shirt.

He absolutely refuses to make sure of his sudden, horrible realization. Because he knows, there's no need to make sure -- he knows. He's not going to feel any pants either. Or underpants.

Karkat feels him go tense and flinches in his arms, doesn't pull away, only burrows deeper, except he starts shivering again. Gamzee curls up like a cat against his hip, rests a hand, oh dear Lord, rests a hand on his knee and there are full-length pajama pants and cotton sheets in the way but it still feels like, it still, there are two naked teenagers in his bed.

He wants to throw Karkat off him and scream like a lady might seeing a mouse, jump from the bed, run away in his sleeping clothes. Run away to the police, tell them, I have touched naked boys they are the same age as my son they were in my bed I have touched them and let them touch me. He wants--

'We wanted to thank you for waiting.'

They're terrified.

Gamzee's pianist hand caresses its way up Paul's thigh. It's not too hard or too light, it's not shaking; it's too tense for that, too deliberate, Paul was lucky enough in his life to be touched by people who meant it and there is absolutely no comparison.

"Stop," he says, soft as possible, his hand resting light on Gamzee's. Karkat was nuzzling his collarbone; he freezes, he is a block of marble in the shape of a boy; Gamzee is a strung bow.

"Stop," he repeats, even softer somehow, and he guides Gamzee's hand off him and nudges Karkat until the boy -- slowly, reluctantly -- shifts his weight off him, topples flat onto his back. His arms sprawl loose at his sides, defenseless, offered. Paul is blind, his alarm clock only lines up the faintest hint of shapes in ghostly green, but he knows what he would be seeing.

He tugs the sheet free of their legs and flips it over Karkat, so he is both on and under it and sufficiently (insufficiently, a mere sheet, too thin) wrapped up, and then he sits up, staring ahead at the far wall so he doesn't risk getting even a vague glimpse of Gamzee, who, granted, is still curled up and hiding a tiny bit more. His robe hangs from the hat stand by the head of his bed, in arm's reach, but he refuses to lean -- to loom -- over Karkat for even a single second. He shuffles to the foot of the bed.

"Uh, sir?" Gamzee says. His voice wavers in a way that has little to do with his usual issues with volume control. "Could a brother maybe trouble you for a spot of asking, like--"

"Gamzee shut up," Karkat hisses under his breath.

Paul closes his eyes. They're both bewildered, they honestly don't understand... don't understand why he's not touching them, not taking what they offer in the least free way there is.

He doesn't know who made it so that was a perfectly reasonable thing to be confused over in their opinion, but suddenly he wouldn't mind meeting them. With his fists. With his fists and maybe with the safe in the office and its nice metal edges. He forces his hands and his jaw to loosen; he can not afford anger right now, they wouldn't understand it's not aimed at them, he'd scare them even more, they would never talk to him.

He's so furious, so sickeningly angry. He thinks he might like to weep, later on.

He makes his way to the hat stand, gets his robe, goes back the long way around the bed. "Gamzee? I would be delighted if you were to put this on."

He finds another robe by touch in his cupboard -- it's all sufficiently well sorted out to make it easy -- drapes it on the bed by Karkat's feet (Karkat is naked in his sheets), and a third which he puts on over his pajamas and belts quite solidly. (He feels insufficiently wrapped up anyway.) After a few seconds of stillness he hears cloth rustling behind him. He waits until it stops.

"Are you boys covered?"

"Um, ayup. What's all --"

Karkat tries to shush him, as if Gamzee's questions might anger Paul and he might... he might take it out on them in some way, like this is how it works, perfect, unquestioning obedience, oh and he'd teased John so much at how quick they were to help set the diner table or move furniture around, compared to him.

"Karkat, it's alright if Gamzee asks. But we're going to have this conversation in the kitchen, I think. Come with me, please."

In the corridor there's a little more light, the window at the end isn't covered and weak light filters in through the branches of the Crockers' tree. He waits there, until he hears them moving inside, and then he starts the trek downstairs. The house feels huge and cold and unfamiliar, unsafe. He barely hears a couple of footsteps behind him; they're quiet like making noise might attract some predator after all.

He doesn't turn on the ceiling lamp in the kitchen, too harsh, only the yellow ones over the stove. It's enough for him to squint, for the eerie mood of the house to be pushed back, out of the circle of light.

Gamzee and Karkat have come to a stop just beyond the doorway, and their bare toes curl up with unease and cold. Paul can only see Karkat's ankles, and considerably more of Gamzee's lean calves, but it isn't too bad, he can deal with this much.

Their faces...

He has never seen Gamzee's face bare, he now realizes. The scars are even more obvious that way, but also the sweet hesitant look on him, which the painted death-mask would twist into things much harder to read.

Karkat is chewing his lip bloody. He stares at the floor, only to glance up and then straight away right back down. He's hugging himself with one arm, claws caught in the cloth, pulling it closed tight, even though he hasn't bothered tying the belt.

They're holding hands.

They're children they are children they are terrified of him and certain he is quite able and willing to molest them and they do not even see that as wrong.

"... Time for hot chocolate, I think." He has no clue on Earth how he can make his face so bland. He feels anything but. "Come and sit down at the breakfast table."

They hesitate; he turns away to get started on the chocolate, to give them some space. It takes almost a whole minute for Gamzee to open the way; he catches a glimpse of his horns and his wild mess of hair from the corner of his eye.

It takes another minute or two for him to speak.

"So. Urr."

"Gamzee for the love of--"

"No pailing then?"

Karkat flinches and scrunches his eyes closed, like he's bracing for a blow.

"I'm afraid I'm not current on a great many hip and modern terms. Pailing refers to...?" He has an idea, but he wants to make sure.

"Sex," Karkat bites out, precise and short and still with his eyes closed.

"Ah. That."

Two minutes. The cocoa milk is done heating. He turns it off, leaves it to cool off for a bit. He pulls out a chair on the other side of the table, sits down like sitting too fast might activate a detonator. You never know. He looks at them both in turn. Gamzee is the only one who meets his eyes, and even then not for long.

"No. No sex. May I ask--" He pauses, to think it out. He has to be sensitive, he can't make them pass for stupid or ridiculous, their feelings on the matter were certainly real enough even if the risk wasn't. (They might have been forced to take shelter with a stranger and then who knows what might have happened.) "Is that a... custom from your home?"

Karkat's eyes are open, now, and they stare at him in blank disbelief. "Sure! Why the fuck not. It's a custom of you're freeloading in my hive and have nothing else I'd ever lower myself to want."

Paul doesn't even know where to start handling that one.

"I do believe this is one of those culture clashes that we should have been expecting more of. You've been interacting with John in ways so similar to -- to those of Earth teenagers, it slipped my mind..." He doesn't even know where he's going with that. He rests his elbows on the table, can't help but run a hand through his --sadly thinning -- hair.

Karkat winces, eyes widening in alarm. "--Oh. Is that a 'not homosexual' thing? I -- damn, I should have remembered, sorry, fuck, I can't believe I didn't think of --"

Paul stops him, hand lifted, palm out. "Karkat, no. Even if I were homosexual I would not take you up on it. It has nothing to do with my usual preferences."

Gamzee has taken up chewing on his lip in turn, though at least he's not making himself bleed. "... But we got nothing else to be having, what do you--"

"Gamzee -- Karkat," he says quietly. "Children."

They stare at him, silent and helpless, not half as alien as they've been this last week, two confused, half-finished teenagers and who cares about the strange colors they come in under the dim yellow glow of the kitchen lights. Paul tries to get his thoughts in order.

"What's the... normal interaction between adults of your people and -- younger people? Usually?"

"Normal interaction is no interaction," Karkat barks out, though his eyes skitter off and fix themselves on a point somewhere far off to the side where Paul is quite sure nothing of interest can be found.

Gamzee has one of those oversized vampire fangs digging at his lower lip. His eyes keep going vague like he's trying to daydream himself away from here, only to sharpen and dart back to him. He reminds Paul of a trapped animal that way, seconds away from biting. "Yeah, dude, on account of -- on account of how there's no adults on-planet usually, or there shouldn't be but there's conscription-dodging types who don't wanna get their leaving on, and the Jadebloods that stay for the Mother Grub, and all them motherfucking pirates what think in their head like no one'd ever think to look for them back home on account of it's forbidden and stuff."

Gamzee's vaguely gesturing hand retreats back to his lap, and he hunches back into himself. Paul breathes out, slowly. He now has a hundred more questions, most of them baffled and alarmed and outraged. Are they expected to raise themselves? That's preposterous, but judging something they have been taught is normal -- no, he can't say that, they might stop listening. "So the only adults you come into contact with as children are outlaws."

"Dunno, the Jadeblood brosis are all up and s'posed to be there, legal-like."

"... But they still... with children?"

They shrug. Karkat's shoulders are so stiff Paul wonders how he moved them at all. "If they're old enough to go looking for the caves, they're old enough to deal with the fallout," he says, words ruthless, expression shuttered.

He makes it sound like it's the child's... choice, to get involved with an adult, and even just that bothers Paul -- children can not give informed consent -- adolescents barely can, some days. But there's so many other things hidden in that simple sentence. "... And if they're not old enough?" Then they're left alone?

Karkat blinks at him like Paul just asked why ice is cold. "They die." He meets his eyes then, scrutinizes his face, bafflement slipping in. "You -- if they're going to an adult it means their lusus is dead? Probably that they've lost their hive too, or it's not feasible to stay anymore, whatever. When you're -- I guess, at our ages we'd manage fine without a lusus, we could hunt or make trips to the distribution centers on our own, but under five, six sweeps old, that's -- trickier."

So there is a cutoff age, except much lower than he would personally ever consider appropriate. "How old is six sweeps, again?" Paul doesn't think he ever asked. Paul doesn't think he wants to ask, but he needs to.

"We were six when we started playing the game, and that was about the same age as John at the time. We're seven and a half now."

Thirteen years old. Just barely. Children under thirteen would have to choose between dying of hunger and exposure -- and possibly violence -- or placing themselves under the -- the protection of an adult.

"... Got my hope on that you don't much mind we're a bit old, I mean even in the game we were fine as fine can up and be, but this planet's all so weird all over, don't hardly know how anything works." Gamzee tugs on a lock of his rebellious hair, absently, and keeps babbling away. He's rocking a bit in his chair. "Plus the how and why of us being aliens. The legislacerators would--"

He falls silent. Paul can tell Karkat kicked him. He kicked him because Gamzee was going to remind the scary adult they were trapped in his house, with no way out that wouldn't get them straight to a top-secret government laboratory.

"I have no intention of ever having sex with either of you," Paul reminds him -- them -- gently, and wonders how the words made their way out so calmly, so rationally. "I have no intention of kicking you out to fend for yourselves either. It doesn't matter what you do or don't do for me."

It should reassure them but Gamzee just looks a little more confused, and Karkat just looks a lot more suspicious, and they both look scared. They glance at each other, a quick, speaking look; 'Do you believe that?' 'Nope. Where's the trick? I can't find it, so it must be a doozy.'

Paul gets up -- slowly -- and goes to check on the chocolate. They track his every little gesture, huddled in their robes, shoulder to shoulder; they remind him of a litter of wolf cubs, too small to fight but big enough to know he's a threat, a stranger.

The chocolate has cooled off enough to drink. He brings it and three mugs to the table, fills them. He gets a bag of marshmallows.

"Perhaps you could explain to me how child-rearing works for trolls, and then I'll explain the differences with humans." He doesn't want to pull the 'you're John's friends' card, lest they believe that if they weren't his friends, they would be right out of luck.

He pushes the mugs in their direction. Neither of them reaches out.

"Uh." Karkat chews on his lower lip, fingers tugging unconsciously at the collar of his bathrobe, tightening it. "The Mother Grub -- lays eggs, wigglers hatch out, pupate, find lusii -- that's, animal custodians? they raise us as their own, protect us, that kind of thing -- find places to live, the wigglers I mean, the carpenter drones come by to build their hives in accordance to what their place in the hemospectrum entitles them to, blah blah hemocaste bullshit."

"Education?" Paul prompts when Karkat stalls.

"Schoolfeeding. There's schoolfeeding via internet to learn things like language and history..."

Alright, this does provide some context. It still feels mildly insane -- how does a child learn to emote and speak if his parent isn't the same species, isn't even quite as sentient? Children raised from infancy by wolves acquire developmental deficiencies that they can never bridge once back amongst people. How do trolls...? Racial memory, maybe? If that can even be a thing? Aliens, who knows.

So. They're raised by animals and the internet. This explains a lot about Karkat's normal speaking volume or Gamzee's total absence of table manners. Actually... considering their education, Paul must have never seen them otherwise than on their very best behavior. This is not reassuring.

"And once we're ten sweeps old we're conscripted and we take a ship up to join the fleet, and that's where we live. And then the drones collect our genetic material to send back to the Mother Grub, beautiful Circle of Life etcetera."

"But you -- ideally -- never get to come back to your birth planet."

"No."

"Apart from the criminals and those who have a job to do there."

"Yeah."

Paul nods thoughtfully. It still sounds ridiculous to him, but he is obviously not an alien.

"Alright. What do you know about human ... reproduction and child-rearing?"

They exchange a long speaking look, as if wondering if it might be a trick question. "You need like a boy and a girl?" Gamzee hazards, slowly at first and then speeding up. "Only that sounds all like the most inefficient way ever, I mean, what if both your concupiscent quadrantmates were your same gender, how'd you get your reproduction on?"

"Ah... You don't. Fortunately most humans are wired to mostly be interested in the other gender and not really in their own, and there are... other solutions besides, so that takes care of itself. What else?"

"People's Ancestors act as their lusii," Karkat answers. "And since I know you're going to ask, an Ancestor is someone who you happen to be mostly genetically identical to. They can be born centuries apart. If they ever actually happen, who the fuck knows, like anyone but Highbloods even lives long enough to get a chance at meeting them."

Gamzee winces a little, looks away. Karkat flinches and grabs his hand under the table, opens his mouth -- probably to apologize for something he just said that hurt him, Paul has no idea what -- and then sneaks Paul a look and doesn't. He keeps rubbing Gamzee's knuckles apologetically, though, until Gamzee turns his hand around so they are palm to palm, fingers entangled.

Paul doesn't say anything, just nudges a mug an inch closer to Gamzee. The boy looks at him, hesitates, and then shrugs and grabs for it. Karkat twitches. Paul isn't sure what he thinks there is in it. Rat poison? Date rape drug? Then again the more he hears and the less he's surprised about the boy's paranoia. Earlier in the week he'd thought it to be a mere endearing quirk of his, a little sad at worst, but now he can tell how deep-seated it is and reevaluates all the twitchy hyperactivity, all the insomnia, and he thinks it's probably closer to a touch or three of PTSD.

"Whoa, motherfucker, sweet!" And Gamzee lets go of Karkat's hand to hold his mug with both, makes a rusty noise of appreciation that puts Paul in mind of a bullfrog trying its hand at purring. "Wow, you gotta try it, best friend, s'all making warm in my feeding sack and mmnnh."

... Alright, that sound was borderline obscene. Paul coughs and busies himself with his own mug, sprinkles a couple of marshmallows in it. Gamzee doesn't notice; Karkat flushes and gives Paul a half-suspicious, half-mortified look. Paul is bland as possible as he holds out the marshmallows.

"Uh, thanks. Oh hey, look at all those funny lil' squishthings, like little clouds all up and plucked from the sky, ain't they?" Gamzee plops a marshmallow in his mouth, chomps it into pieces, and then proceeds to quiver with delight. Oh dear, a troll boy on a sugar high.

... This is so much better than a terrified one, Paul will fix them spun sugar and hard candy and everything even vaguely sweet in the house if that's what it takes. (Only he knows better, from all those times John overindulged and then proceeded to get messily sick, and he thinks if they got sick the worst wouldn't be the cleanup, it would be their fear of his retaliation. Alright, but he can still indulge them a bit.)

"Look, bro," Gamzee whispers, in a way he probably thinks is furtive, "this one's you."

"How the hell do you figure that. If you say because it's tiny and squishy..."

"Haha, noo, 'cause it's like almost white but really it's pink, like the very palest--"

Karkat growls at him, teeth bared and jaw rolling in a gesture that brings back to mind exactly in how many ways these children are not human. Under the dim, yellowed lighting his face looks almost brown from blushing. He swipes at the marshmallow in Gamzee's hand with clawed fingers; Gamzee somehow manages to launch it from his hand instead in a mad uncontrolled tumbling arc, and Paul is sure it will land on the floor, only snap! like an alligator, Gamzee surges and snatches it up from the air with his teeth and swallows it down. He looks ridiculously satisfied with himself. Karkat looks torn between apoplectic and apprehensive.

Paul lets himself laugh, laughs maybe a little more than he would have, actually. He relaxes his shoulders, his hands, the way his eyes have started squinting tense and bracing and quietly furious.

The only place Karkat can hide in is his own mug, so he proceeds to do that. Paul gives him a little smile, and then looks elsewhere, so he won't feel too self-conscious. The way the boy grimaces, the drink might be a bit too sugary for him, but he takes another sip without complaint.

"... Anyway, humans and their progeny. Hmm..."

Karkat still seems uncomfortable, on edge, and he's been on edge so long he's weary with it. Gamzee is ebullient, grin wide, almost bouncing in his seat, and Paul doesn't think it's merely the sudden influx of sugar. Maybe relief, maybe adrenaline to dissipate, but he's all over the place. Paul clears his throat, to bring their attention back on him.

"As you might know, humans produce live young and raise them themselves to adulthood. There is no single Mother Grub to take on the duty of birthing the next generation or lusus to raise them, we have to do both ourselves." He takes a sip, to give himself time to order his thoughts. "You have to understand, individually humans do not reproduce very fast. A woman might have one child a year, if she pushes herself, but her body would be weakened by the strain, and there are still the previous children to take care of, and of course the younger they are and the more help and constant attention they require. And then she and her companion have to raise them to adulthood -- work to support them, while keeping on educating them and sharing household tasks such as laundry or cooking."

Gamzee blinks slowly. Paul gets the feeling he retained maybe three words out of the whole thing, and they weren't even in successive sentences. Karkat is frowning, staring at him with those red-flecked eyes, working through the implications.

Paul rewords, simplifies it, so the conclusion will seem more evident. "We invest a lot of time and effort in making our children, and then in getting them successfully to adulthood. As such..."

How to explain. Hrrm.

"We are ... I don't suppose a ... lusus, was it? would be very interested in picking up a troll child that wasn't his to raise, in case his own charge and the troll's own lusus had died?"

"Motherfuck, no," Gamzee replies, half horrified. "They just up and go back to the caves, get a brand new one that don't stink."

"Some lusii eat trolls that aren't theirs," Karkat adds, in a much too calm -- no, emotionless -- way. He's gone all restrained, smothered, it looks so very wrong on him. "Even if they don't, they're fairly territorial."

Paul represses a wince, tries not to wonder if either of the boys have had to watch someone else being devoured by their parent, or their lusus preemptively killing another trespassing lusus, knowing it would condemn a neighbor, a potential friend to death. Not a great way to teach empathy -- but obviously they have empathy anyway, and it hurts them, and he knows he shouldn't judge other people's values but what a messed-up system.

"Well, in humans it's actually fairly common for adults in want of a child to take in a parentless child and raise it as theirs!" He puts on a little encouraging smile. "I suspect we're also more socially oriented than you lot are. We tend to give each other a hand at times."

"For --" Karkat's voice goes strangled; he shakes his head. His hands twitch like he wants to rake them through his hair, slam them down on the table, both, end up doing neither.

Paul's hand lifts of its own volition, but he lowers it before he can reach out to cover the boy's clenched fist. "Karkat, my boy--"

"For free? I can't, you really expect me to believe that? Here's a laundry list of how it's a huge pain in the ass to raise human wigglers, here, take some random ones on top and ruin yourself on -- I can't believe that!"

He can just sit and stare. Karkat slams his hands down on the table, shoves himself up on his feet; the chair shrieks on the floor and totters on its back feet before landing back on all fours with a rattling crash.

There are furrows in his kitchen table, short but deep, and Karkat's purely cosmetic, almost dainty claws still imbedded at the ends. Paul's mind is blank. Words come on automatic, maybe not the exact same words but the same tone he has taken uncountable times with John, calm but stern and maybe a little disgruntled. (He is so glad John is such a sound sleeper, because Karkat gets loud.) "Young man, take your fingers out of the furniture."

"Fuck you!" Karkat snarls back, and he leans forward, he looms, and for a single, very quick second he doesn't look small and scrawny and blunted; his jaw hinges weird and every single one of his teeth is a sharp, pointy little triangle. "Fuck you, what the bulgelicking hell do you want from us, just -- just tell us, you fucking human -- fucking hypocrite!"

At his side, Gamzee hesitates, caught flatfooted; he lifts a hand toward his friend's face, but Karkat slaps it down, hard. His eyes are still on Paul's and he could swear the yellow of them is turning red.

Paul frowns a little bit despite himself, does his best to keep his face otherwise calm. "There is nothing to gain by yelling."

He doesn't even see the mug being snatched up from the table; he just sees the end of its flight -- not toward him, off to the side -- and the sudden burst of brown liquid and cheerful blue shards as it ends its course against the spotless white of the refrigerator door.

The cavernous boom of impact and the sharp plink of raining crockery he hears as if on delay, muffled.

Everyone is frozen.

Paul turns back, slowly, looks at Gamzee, mouth hanging open, baffled, up at Karkat whose eyes are once again yellow as they should be. Anger drains away, to be replaced with horror.

He bolts.

Paul is faster. He knows how to handle ceramic tiles with bare feet, and he's not off-balance from gripping one-handed at his clothes to keep them in place. Karkat slips, loses a half-second; Paul catches his elbow. The boy's momentum jerks him around, he lifts his free hand -- not to attack but in front of his face; "No!"

Paul yanks him into his chest and holds on.

Karkat fights him, sluggish and confused at first and then gaining in vigor, in desperation. "W-what are you doing. What are you doing -- hey, no -- hey!" (He doesn't use his claws, not once.)

Paul's hand curves around the back of his head, (the texture is ever so slightly weird, he notices now, as if there is an undercoat of fur-fluff, but the bristly guard hair prickles his palm just the way his son's does,) presses Karkat's face in the crook of his neck, (doesn't think about those teeth.)

"You're safe," he says, "shush, you're safe, it's alright, I'm not going to hurt you, you're safe." He repeats it again and again, and sometimes he chokes a little. His eyes are prickling. He blinks, hard, pats Karkat's back briskly (not softly, not gently, shades too much into tender which shades into sensual and he can't do that, absolutely can't.) "You're alright, everything's alright, shh, there, there..."

Behind them a mug is put back down with a little clink. Gamzee shuffles up to them, shoulders hunched, head low and tilted so his horn tips end up at Paul's eye level; he follows their graceful curves to the boy's face, to his eyes, bright and half-feral, watching the two of them through his medusa hair. Paul can't manage to look reassuring, his own eyes are too wet and his mouth won't unfold from that pained curl.

Karkat shakes. His hands are fisted in Paul's robe, and the pajama top underneath, yanking in quick, aborted gestures. "Stop that -- stop, you're not my moirail--"

"I know I'm not--"

A pained, furious, desperate snarl, muffled against his chest. "--and you're not my, my lusus either! You can't--"

"I want to be" slips out, thoughtless and true, and then he chokes, and so he closes his eyes and his mouth and he braces.

Karkat is so, so still against him. Paul starts chafing at his back, rough and fast, as if it were physical warmth the boy needed. Gamzee drifts closer, glancing from one to the other. Paul can't read him, can't guess at anything save that scalded-cat wariness all over every inch of him.

Well. There's two boys. He has two arms. He can make do.

Gamzee is stiff, too, when Paul draws him in, and his shoulder pokes in Paul's chest like a spear made of bone, but instead of fighting his way out, his arms wind around Karkat's waist and his face burrows in the smaller boy's hair. Only one purplish eye peeks out past the curve of a small, rounded horn to stare at him.

They're aliens, there's two of them, he's only known them a week. He wonders if maybe he said too much, stupid things -- if he should take it back, pretend a passing folly.

He doesn't. Seconds go past and then a minute and then two, and he doesn't.

"You can't really," Karkat says in a strangled, dying wisp of a voice.

Paul smiles, eyes closed. "John isn't my biological son, you know."

He doesn't even truly hear the "oh," just feels it against his collarbone, an exhalation of breath.

"Does it look as if he isn't mine?"

"All you aliens look the same to me, motherfucker," Gamzee says. His voice is a little rough, but not like the earlier purr. His eye still glints, too sharp, he's more present than Paul is used to. "No horns atop your thinkpans and all the exact same miracle red all snug inside, and you're yellowish and Windybro's yellowish and you both have troll hair, who the fuck even knows."

Paul blinks, and then chuckles and pats his shoulder. "I meant more in the way I act toward him."

Karkat squirms; it's strangely subdued, and more disgruntled and embarrassed than panicked, so Paul loosens his hold. Karkat uses it to turn a little toward Gamzee and pet his temple, brisk and businesslike. "Shoosh, idiot." His own voice wavers; he clears his throat to cover it up. His eyes are bright with a film of pink-tinged wetness, pooling on his lashes.

They're not going to run anymore, he doesn't think, so Paul lets them go, slowly, but he stays standing right by them, a hand resting light on each back.

"You spoil him," Karkat says -- it was probably intended as a growl. He doesn't turn to look at Paul, though, staring at Gamzee and frowning, forbidding, as if that'll make it look less like he's on the edge of tears. "John's a too-happy dickhead who's always -- always so sure he's going to be welcome, even when he's being nosy as fuck, he's afraid of nothing, it's so irritating my ass crack chafes just thinking about it. I think I just popped a boil from sheer annoyance, I am naming my next aneurysm after him. He's fucking spoiled."

"... Ah," says Paul, who doesn't really know what else to say, and isn't sure if he should let himself laugh out loud, though he wants to. "So my skills as a parent--"

"Are not in fucking question," Karkat says, and almost manages harsh, but still without meeting his eyes, still running his hand in his friend's tangled hair. "Of course he's yours, shit, how is that even a question, but it's, it doesn't work like that."

"It doesn't?" Paul prompts. He is presently being slowly colonized by a strange, bubblish, prickly emotion he might qualify as giddy.

"We're not even your species!"

"Hm. I see." If he had his pipe he would give it a good long thoughtful puff. He doesn't, so he just nods, slow and patient, and tucks a hand in his robe belt over his stomach. "I can't rightly say I care."

The more he thinks about it, the more he realizes it's true. They're strange, no doubt, but all teenagers turn into alien beasts, just look at John from age twelve.

(And speaking of John he is so, so glad the boy is such a heavy sleeper. He won't be quite as glad once school is back in session, but he'll take what he can get.)

They stare at him, uncomprehending. He gentles his smile.

"But you -- we had lusii, you can't just replace them--"

"Why not?"

Gamzee tilts his head, says "Huh. Good fucking question there." He looks... somewhat disturbed, though. (It's better than feral by a mile.) Karkat throws him a betrayed look.

He's looking at Paul next, staring in disbelief and denial. "Because -- we're almost adults anyway, soon enough we will be, it's only another three sweeps--"

"Out of how many?" Paul asks, not because he isn't sure how long one sweep is -- he could do the math, but -- but three seems a rather large chunk compared to the previous numbers mentioned. Karkat takes the intended meaning and snarls, lip curling up to bare fangs once again.

"We're old enough to live on our own even now, and to fight and hunt and to fuck, it's only this imbecilic world not letting us!"

His body is vibrating with tension; he would pace if he wasn't caught between the wall and door and Paul himself, and if he wants to move past him then he and Gamzee would be separated. Paul takes a couple of casual steps back and takes a seat on Karkat's abandoned chair, loosens his spine and props his elbows on his knees, gestures at him to keep speaking.

Karkat resists the temptation exactly three seconds before he is pacing away, hands flying up in rage. He speaks with them the way they do around the Mediterranean, palms and fingers underlining the shape and velocity of loud, angry words. "We're not wigglers, we're old enough to fight and kill and to know what a pail is for! Why are you coddling us?"

You could have, his eyes say, we're not that young, we're not children, why didn't you?

There's an edge to his frustration that tells Paul he's close to giving in, and accepting what the weird human is telling and telling him, at least for today. So it's easy to sound calm, this time around, and patient.

"You're -- possibly, and even so I am not sure your minds as quite as ready as your bodies -- you are old enough to, ah, pail each other. People of the same age, same level of maturity, with which you might make learning mistakes and grow up together. Not unfairly knowledgeable adults looking to take advantage of your lack of life experience to use you. That's much too unbalanced to be in any way safe or healthy."

And then he softens his voice, and he looks at them both, slate-skinned and yellow-eyed and with those bright, hard horns and teeth and claws and still so young and unsure and not quite daring to believe him yet.

"Besides, you're the same age as John, and I'm afraid even after he has long become an adult with children of his own I will still see him as my child."

Karkat slows down, deflates. He drifts back to Gamzee who stands hugging himself loosely, eyes unfocused once again, huge fang prodding at a purplish spot in his lip, probably somewhere he made himself sore. It isn't bleeding yet, at least. Paul watches them for a few seconds, Karkat's hesitant hand on Gamzee's forearm, leaning in to peer up at him, whispering -- things he no doubt shouldn't listen to. He turns away, returns the chair to its spot at the table, and oh dear, there are shards and drying splatters of chocolate everywhere.

The fridge door has a new dent. He shifts John's picture over it, so Karkat won't wince every time he looks at it like the little worrywart he is, and goes to get the paper towels.

"Um. Sir?"

"Yes, Gamzee?"

"Can we, like, get our helping on or somesuch?"

Karkat is already bending down to pick up the biggest shards by hand, looking predictably guilty. Paul holds out the trashbin to him, and considers sending him back to sit at the table so he doesn't cut his bare feet, but being prevented from helping pick up something he broke might make it worse. In the end he just says, "Careful, you aren't wearing shoes," and hands him the broom.

Gamzee stands there, looking a little lost. He needs busy work.

He also needs chocolate. "Gamzee?"

The boy perks up. "Yeah, man?"

"I don't know if Karkat will want some more chocolate, but I certainly would, and it's bound to be cold by now. If I tell you how to, do you want to make more?"

The grin he gets back is bright and probably ought to be mildly terrifying for how many teeth it unveils. It's happy, though -- unsure, but willing to risk it, to trust. He smiles back and sees about directing the boy through the task.

"Whoa, this ain't hard at all, like really it's, wow, I could do this on my own, easy as pie. And it's all tasty goodness and little sugarclouds."

The longer Gamzee enthuses on the topic, the sadder Karkat looks. Paul straightens up from his crouch, a wad of chocolaty paper towels in hand, and gives him an inquiring look, but Karkat just grunts and turns away to sweep determinedly into the far corner.

"This is only the most basic version of the recipe, there are a lot of variations; we'll have to see which ones you boys enjoy more. John likes cinnamon in his -- yes, that box on your right."

The worst of the chocolate is eventually off the floor, and the kitchen is shard- and dust-free in its narrowest, least accessible recesses. Paul wets a paper towel and sees about rubbing the last of the stain off.

"So."

"Yes, Gamzee?"

"What's one all and up to do, with a lusus?" the boy asks, determinedly, too-forcefully casual. "I mean one who's. You know. Around and stuff. Only mine ate his share of sea beasts as would have liked to get their snatching teeth into a wiggler getting his sandhives on alone on a beach, but like apart from that? I'm kinda big now, can get my defending on my own bad self, so... What else?"

... He is keeping these children and he is never letting them go.

"That is a very good question," Paul says, and tries to sound playful-solemn instead of oath-giving. "I'm told you enjoy cooking -- pies, was it? I'm more into cakes, myself, but we can certainly look up more pie recipes on the internet. Tomorrow afternoon, perhaps, so there'll be one for dinner?"

"Oh -- oh, sure. Yeah. Wouldn't mind learning cakes, either," he offers, a bit of hesitant hopefulness in the quick side glance he sends Paul. "I'd have up and tried, only my superheating cooking hull broke a bit."

"A bit?" Karkat interrupts, like he can't help himself anymore. The expression on his face as he walks to Gamzee is closer to a sad kind of tenderness than real annoyance, though. "It exploded, you dumbass, it's almost enough to make me believe in your miracles that your hive didn't burn down and you weren't decapitated by the flying hull door."

"Haha, yeah, motherfucker, had to draw my eyebrows back on with pencil, only then I was like, fuuuuck! gotta paint over it anyways, I smeared black everywhere up my face. Uh, chocolate's getting its frothy bubbling on--"

Paul rescues the chocolate. They allow him to herd them back to the table. Paul gets another mug for Karkat and fills it first. The boy's still tense, but more lost than suspicious or angry or -- thank God -- terrified. (His robe is tied closed with a nicely tight double-knot.) He gives Paul a guilty little "Thanks" and wraps his hands around the warm mug, hunching a bit. Gamzee flops down beside him and appropriates the bag of marshmallows.

He checks afterwards, his hand full of them and another few already in his mouth, looking up at Paul with a wince, and lets some of his handful fall back in the bag. "Uh, anyway, yeah, I wouldn't mind getting all up in the sick intricacies of cake too."

Paul sits, and smiles, more with his eyes than with his mouth. "Then I will teach you cakes, Gamzee. I will teach you all the cakes."

Gamzee beams. Karkat discreetly rolls his eyes -- at the old, old joke, most likely -- but he sneaks a glance at his friend and his face softens minutely, and the next glance he sneaks at Paul from underneath his bangs looks mostly shy.

It's good. It works. Baking is far from being John's passion, anyway, even though he's competent with a recipe. It'll be nice to have a son who wants this legacy he hoped to pass on.

They haven't said yes yet, he tries to remind himself, they need more time to think it out, he ought to ask them separately anyway so they won't give the answer they think the other one wants to hear -- and he definitely has to have a good long talk with John, first.

He doesn't think John will say no. But he still shouldn't be taken for granted.

None of them should be.

Karkat busies himself fussing with his drink for a minute before he darts another shy look at Paul. There is maybe a second of hesitation, if that much, before he throws himself into asking, "So what happens now? If you're... Taking us in."

... Is this tacit acceptance? No, it's too early, he will still need to ask them to confirm later on. But finding the boy open to the idea has Paul smiling.

"Well. Priorities have certainly changed." He looks around the kitchen, frowns, thoughtful. "It's not good for boys your age to live cloistered, never opening a window for fear of being seen, not to mention going out into the front yard. When you were temporary guests, that was one thing, but as permanent members of this family... Hm."

Gamzee blinks from one to the other. Karkat squirms and looks down at his mug, and at first Paul thinks he's bracing for impact -- of bad news, not a fist -- and then he sees how tightly the boy presses his lips together. The lower one wobbles a little anyway.

"It's not like I wasn't already living like that. I mean, before the game. Due to the whole... you know, mutant on the culling list thing." His expression falls a little. "Got out of the habit, but I could..." He sneaks a quick look at Gamzee, and his mouth twists into a worried little down-curl. "Don't know if Gamzee could."

Paul gentles his voice. "It doesn't matter, it isn't an option. If I am to become your -- father, foster father, lusus, whatever we decide to call this -- I have to prioritize your safety, and the two of you aren't safe here. Something has to change. ... Getting rid of the two of you is not an option either, by the way."

"We've been trying to work out something all week," Karkat points out in an oddly quiet, measured voice. Paul pretends he doesn't catch the glimpse of too-bright, too-wet eyes through that messy fringe.

"Ah, but now I have more options, not less."

"Like?"

Well.

Well. For one, quitting his job wasn't on the table before.

"Let me think them through some, first. I don't want to give you false hopes. When I have more solid ideas, we'll discuss them together." Karkat is still frowning a little, though the promise of discussion soothed him; Paul chuckles. "I'll let you poke all the holes you want into them, I promise."

Karkat ducks into his mug again, but not fast enough for Paul to miss the reluctantly pleased curl at the corner of his mouth.

The three of them sip in rather companionable silence. Gamzee's manic intensity is simmering down into blurry sleepiness; Karkat's shoulders are loose with exhaustion, the kind that says 'thank God this is over.'

Getting them across any kind of border will be a challenge. (So will be leaving his mother's house behind. More than a challenge, a sacrifice.) (When it's for his family a man has got to do what a man has got to do.) Fortunately he knows where the boys hoped to end up, and it just so happens he agrees, if for his own reasons; Miss Harley and Mister English might be accustomed to being self-sufficient, but they are John's family and therefore his own and it's been nagging at him to leave them without any adult nearby.

...Come to think of it, the English boy did have that preposterously roomy fetch modus that he might be willing to lend...

Hmm. Note to self, measure the house.

The kitchen is comfortable like this, dim and warm, full of sweet smells, cozy-quiet. The heart of the house, his mother used to say. He likes it in here. He hopes they'll grow to like it too, to feel safe in here. He hopes they'll get to find it familiar.

"It's all kinds of wicked awesome you really don't want to pail us," Gamzee muses into a silence that Paul suddenly wishes would have lasted longer, "because earlier I took a gander at your bulge and--"

"Gamzeeshutup!" Karkat squeaks out, gone ruddy red from forehead to chin in about two seconds. Paul has a feeling his own face is attempting the same trick.

"--Ow, c'mon, best friend." Gamzee ducks under a rather vigorous headslap, looking contrite -- and quickly proves that he has no idea why he should be when he turns an earnest look Paul's way. "Wouldn't have fit, is all I'm saying."

Paul meets Karkat's eyes without quite meaning to and they exchange a mildly mortified, red-faced wince. Alas, ground floor and no windows mean Paul cannot throw himself out of them head first to escape this conversation forever. He scrunches his eyes closed and resists the urge to massage the bridge of his nose. "Let us just... never speak of this again."

"Just wanted to get my gratitude on--"

"Ever again."

"Aw, 'kay."

The boy doesn't look like he means it, he looks like he's humoring them. Karkat sputters; Gamzee pats his face blindly, without looking, and there isn't even a whole second of outrage before Karkat slumps against his shoulder, eyes closing in defeat and sleepiness. "You know what," he mutters into Gamzee's bony shoulder, "I fucking give up."

Paul himself, alas, cannot give up. A father does not give up on things like a proper education. Or the dealing out of mental trauma and other such things better left forgotten; perhaps he'll mention Karkat's swearing another day. "I'm very serious. Never, ever again. In fact, why don't we all agree it never happened."

Gamzee ruffles his friend's hair and grins. "Haha, sure thing, hatdad." He has a chocolate moustache.