You help yourself to another bowl of spaghetti after Gamzee goes out the window, because red is the most delicious flavor. "Come sit with me," you tell Karkat, and you crawl under the kitchen table with your food even though that is usually against the rules, because there is a time for the humans' rules and there is a time for insisting on yours.
Karkat follows you. You shove spaghetti into your mouth and chew, relishing the tang of red all over the squishy noodles. "They don't scare you at all," he says.
You swallow and shake your head. "Not these ones," you say. One of the Striders has turned on the TV; you can hear the jangly opening theme of Mad Snacks Yo. "I've dealt with terrible humans before, though." You take off your sunglasses.
"Holy shit," Karkat whispers. You can smell panic coming off him in waves.
You put your sunglasses back on. "I know how bad it can get," you say. "I know how hard it is to get anything like fairness out of them when they want to be cruel." The growl rises in the bottom of your voice. "But while you're here you're part of my cohort, mine and Sollux's, and we'll look after you."
Karkat is quiet for a minute. You breathe deeply, trying not to let yourself get distracted by your spaghetti, trying to smell him. He's so lost. You wonder who his humans were. You wonder if anyone did anything at all to punish them, or if they just confiscated Karkat and thought that was enough. Your bloodpusher twinges.
"Here," you say, holding out your bowl. "You have the rest."
"What?" Karkat says. Suspicion thrums through his voice.
You raise your eyebrows. "Not still hungry?" you ask.
He snatches the bowl out of your hands. You listen to the slurping and smacking sounds as he murders your bowl of spaghetti and destroys the evidence. "It's hard to believe," he says. "No, don't worry, Karkat, it's fine, you've spent years with humans who treated you like shit and fucked you around constantly but these ones are different."
"Pretty much," you agree. You grin. "I told Dave I would bite off anything he touched me with when he brought me home."
Karkat sputters. "...Thanks," he says. "I keep feeling like you must be lying to make me feel better, but it's still sort of working, so. Thanks."
You giggle. "Comforting noises achieved!" you declare. "Also dinner. This meeting is declared a resounding success." You reach out and find Karkat's arm. "Onward!"
"What?" he squawks as you lead the way out from under the table. "Wait, no—where are we going?"
"Someplace more comfortable," you say.
"Not until you put your bowl in the sink," Dirk says from the other room.
A tiny bit of you is annoyed at the nagging but most of you doesn't mind. The rules here are consistent and they have reasons and everyone has to follow them. Put your dirty dishes in the sink is a good rule, much better than stay off the furniture, Terezi. "As if I needed reminding!" you answer.
Karkat fetches the bowl so you don't have to go hunting for it yourself. You dump it in the sink and run some water in it so the last sauce bits won't get dried on. Then you hook your arm through Karkat's and drag him into the living room with you.
"Gentlemen," you say, addressing the general direction of the couch, "we are adjourning to the pile. No humans allowed."
"That's cool, Rez, nobody wants to be invited to your crazy monster parties anyway," Dave says. You stick your tongue out at him.
"What about me?" Sollux asks.
"Sollux, you have many flaws," you say gently. "But being human isn't one of them."
"Okay," he says. You hear shifting from the couch and then you can smell him coming closer, the gray-velvet smell of troll skin and the electric crackly overtone that means Sollux in particular. "Hi."
"Your eyes are weird," Karkat says.
"I like your hornth," Sollux answers.
"Oh, fuck you," Karkat says, and Sollux snickers. You will have to investigate Karkat's horns.
"This way," you tell Karkat. You drag him down the hall without running either of you into a doorway even once: continued success! He needs to see you at your best right now. "And thus," you tell him as you reach the door to Dirk's room, "we retire to our pile in triumph!" You pull him into the room with you and flop down face-first into the pile.
"So—what, you, like—they let you have a nest in here?" Karkat asks.
"Nope," Sollux says. "It would be a netht if we were birdth, but apparently with trollth everyone justht callth it a pile."
"Could be worse," you say as you push smuppets around to arrange the pile to your liking and make sure Pyralspite is still in his spot. "They could have decided to call them mounds. That's a stupid word."
"I'm going to remember that nektht time I need to get on your nerveth," Sollux says.
You pull a smuppet from the pile and throw it at him. "I forbid it," you say. Sometimes that works.
"How do you know what 'everyone' says, anyway?" Karkat asks.
"The internet," Sollux says. You can almost taste his smugness. "I'm allowed on Dirk'th computer when he'th not uthing it."
Silence for a second. "You're shitting me," Karkat says finally. "Or else I'm hallucinating this whole evening."
"Neither," you say. "Now get down here. Curling up together in a pile satisfies a basic emotional need for our species. Sollux's internet says so."
Karkat is still muttering in cranky disbelief as he shuffles over and climbs down onto the pile. You feel Sollux sink down on your other side, knees and elbows curling up to you. Karkat still smells wary.
You think about how careful Dave was to tell you in advance before he did things when you first arrived here. "I'm giving you this to help you settle in," you say, digging Senator Lemonsnout out of the pile.
"A stuffed dragon with a noose on," Karkat says. "You know that just makes me more sure I'm hallucinating."
You giggle. "I regret to inform you that you are completely misguided," you say. "But your sass gland appears to be uninjured! That's a good sign." Karkat makes an incredulous noise and you add, "Also, I'm going to put an arm around you."
You can smell the sharpness coming off him, and feel how the pile shifts under you when he tenses. "Nothing else," he says. You can't tell if that's supposed to sound like a plea or a threat.
"Nothing else," you agree. You hope his humans are dead in a ditch. Maybe even the same ditch with your old humans. On fire would also be good.
He's jittery and tense when you drape your arm over his middle, so you just lie still. "This is the life," you tell them both. "Right in the middle where it's warmest."
"You think you're tho thmart," Sollux says.
"Only because it's demonstrably true," you say. He snorts but doesn't argue.
Karkat squirms after a minute and you think maybe he's trying to shift closer, not away. "What's the catch?" he asks quietly. "I can't cope with this."
You chew your lip. "We're still not people," you tell him. "Legally." You don't want to bullshit him. You can smell his fear and his determination, and the combination punches you right under the ribs. "It's the nicest cage they can manage to provide for us, and they both treat us like they care what we want, but we don't have rights like humans do, and that won't change."
"What about Gamzee?" Karkat asks.
"He'th never had a human," Sollux says. "He liveth in alleyth and eatth garbage a lot of the time."
"But he threatens to break out the window if they try to convince him to stick around," you finish.
Karkat huffs, but you think he's relaxing a little. "Okay," he says. "So it does still suck. Either freedom or comfort, not both." He laughs a little. "I might actually believe this is happening now."
"Suckitude for all," you agree. You run your hand up and down Karkat's back a little, gentle with your claws so you don't snag his shirt or anything. He calms down a little more. "But we look out for each other."
He puts a tentative arm around you, then, leaving Senator Lemonsnout squished between you. You feel Sollux's knuckles brush your back as he takes Karkat's hand. Good.
It isn't perfect here. Perfect is way out of reach. But it's better than where you were before, and where Sollux was before, and where Karkat was before, too. You wiggle down into the pile with your shoulders and hum as they both curl in closer to you. Together, your little cohort will be fine.