Sometimes The Game seems like a dream. A wicked catastrophe of pretend you played over the long Alternian summer with friends and moderately tangible acquaintances. And in truth, the world has always been the way it is now, an inky black sphere of endless nights and melted neon dripping from every street and storefront. There never were two planets, two universes, two realities.
Then some nights it seems like SGRUB was the only tangible event to happen to you, and you wake up thinking you're dreaming as you walk down the uneven asphalt and taking in the sight of a human girl, hands cupped around the suffocating flame of a lighter flicked by the hand of her teal-blood lover. The cherry on her cigarette burns long into the darkness and your retinas.
It's no paradise.
But you're alive.
You're a Threshecutioner.
There are nights you're happy in your solitude, and nights you are miserable for it. John used to joke you were married to your job. Said he'd teach you what married meant one day, but never got around it. There are a lot of little relics like that all the players cling to, things that didn't follow them into the new world.
You theorize that if you hadn't been forced to birth a planet that could support two species it might actually have been paradise.
Instead it’s just a world of make-dos and half-dones.
The business of your duty as a public enforcer of justice brings you to the capital, the space port's spire-like skeleton rising above the hundreds of skyscrapers that seem to stretch on forever in every direction.
In your youth you had seen cities like this derelict and decaying on Alternia, occasionally when you see them here illuminated like this it feels as if you've somehow stepped backwards in time.
There's no law of eviction here, and you are well past the age of ascension, a term nobody on this planet even knows the meaning of. Though many leave regardless, hungry for something more. Something different.
Something closer to home.
The pilot's voice chimes in over the intercom and informs you as well as the others around you to please buckle up and prepare for vertical landing. You mechanically click your seat belt and look out the thick glass port window, more content with reminiscing than admiring the vast jungle concrete below.
John and Jade had left first. In fact, you think, nearly all the humans are gone. Perhaps all of them are, you haven't kept in touch with anybody but John occasionally. You can understand, you suppose, the days here are barely days. Your not-quite-paradise spins around an uninspiring blue star. The days are nothing like Alternia's, and from what you understand they are not like Earth's either. They're a bit like Alternia's nights, dimly illuminated and hazy.
The nights here are more like Earth's, you've been told. Dark, solid, and cold. Still, the world sleeps away the mild haze of day and wakes only for the singular red moon that crawls across the sky at night.
The hotel HQ books for you is nothing as nice as the ones Terezi gets, but it's not garbage. There's a suitcase stand for your luggage. Unceremoniously your large duffel bag is deposited upon it. Your husktop is extracted and dropped on the nice bed. Arguably it's a nicer room than your own hive, but lacks the typical personal touches that make it comfortable.
Immediately you go to shower off the stale air-taxi smell that clings to you.
It's a short underground tube transport ride to the downtown markets with damp hair and chilly horns. Nobody meets your eyes, human or troll. You aren't sure if it's because of your employment, or the antisocial nature of the city.
Your goals are simple, food and tentative information. Food is the priority, preferably something lowblood style and covered in spices. But you'll take human street vendor fare battered and fried on a stick just as willingly.
Steam pours from the manholes in the congested streets and everything seems to be covered in a fine film of moisture. It makes the neon melt into everything in a way that you've always found to be somewhat romantic. A human busks in front of a specibus shop, slowly pulling notes out of the empty body of a small, weathered violin. It's a somber serenade, barely heard over the noise of commerce.
It makes you wonder if Lalonde's third book is out, and how well Kanaya is doing with her design work. You really don't talk with them as often as you should.
The vendor you decide upon out of the dozens up and down the main street smells like cardiac arrest, which is exactly what you want. The yellow-blood behind the stall is dropping battered cuts of some kind of dark meat into a deep fryer and plucking them out with tongs. You watch for a while from a reasonable distance as she drops them in a bath of spice and sets them on a rack to cool.
You buy a small grease-soaked paper bag full of them and eat as you walk. It's the best damn dinner you've had in ages.
It's fattening and disgusting and the grease coats your tongue in the best way possible, the spice makes your nose run and your ears hot. You do your best not to eat like a slob, but the capital always ruins your diet.
You lick at the seasonings that cling to your lips, stinging you with their heat, and take in the frantic pace of the world around you. Information takes greased palms and loose tongues and you've learned over the sweeps where to look for it. A brunette human hocks gaudy jewelry from a hastily constructed stand, trying with a coy smile to sell you a pair of horn caps. Who's she to wrinkle her nose, little paleskin doesn't even have horns. Yours, you find, are perfect just the way they are. They hurt just right when you shove them into some poor idiot's belly and there’s no threat of them breaking.
It's an advantage you've learned to enjoy.
Motorized bikes and vehicles struggle to make it through the squeezed tight streets amidst hundreds of eclectic and eccentric pedestrians. Pierced ears, carved horns, and amoral fashion characterize everyone here. Occasionally a large freighter will roar by on the coiling concrete freeways overhead and rain down dust. These markets are really a world unto their own, cut off from the moon by a maze of upper city construction.
Alternian dialects mix heavily with Earthen ones, and you're never quite sure who's speaking what in the congested underbelly of the capital public markets. A cerulean-blood screams obscenities in loud clipped English at a dark human who answers back with a casual flip of his fingers and sharp hissing Trollish. You struggle to find a foreign hint to either of their words and don't. People part around you and avert their eyes. They fear the gleaming bastion of credo pinned to your breast, glinting under the cover of your thick coat. You see at least six unlawful misconducts for every ten yards or so you walk.
Two that would traditionally demand an immediate culling.
Instead of acting on your duty you just stick another succulent morsel of fried meat into your mouth and keep walking. They'll get their dues soon enough, but you've got other goals tonight. The piercing screech of the auction blocks cuts the white noise of civilization around you as you duck into a small imports shop. They're selling slaves, perfectly legal, as much as it makes your stomach turn.
A wrinkled woman looks up at you from behind the counter, her grey skin creased and worn with age. Her long sweeping horns have paled with time and her hands shake a bit as she sits up on her stool.
"Can I help you, sir?"
English, unaccented, you doubt she's spoken a lick of Alternian in her life. You're never really sure how that makes you feel. You brush past a rack of ancestor tokens and a necklace stand heavy with crucifixes. She apologizes lightly for the mess as you make your way to the counter. You can smell a fence when you catch a whiff. Imports your ass, you wanna know where she imported those solid gold matespritship rings heavy with precious stones from.
Someone's dead fingers probably.
You spare a glance at them in the front display case; sometimes the colors will catch you a bit off guard. Humans base their stone colors on their eyes and you're a little curious to see a sterile looking titanium band with a sharp brilliant ruby spade set in it.
You keep your claws casual as you button up your coat and hide away your badge. Her ancient green eyes remain pleasant when you lean against the glass counter and look up at her. You suspect you'd be looking up at her even without her stool advantage. Puberty hadn't really been kind to you.
But that's just what you get for being a genetic anomaly; at least you're not dead.
"Yes, do you think you might have something like this?" You fish for your phone and drag up two photos, spinning the display as you set it down so that she might see.
She picks up the little piece of technology and eyes the photographs, it takes her a few tries with her untrimmed claws to swipe through the small photoset. The old broad glances up at you, ghosts a hand down one of her withered horns and seems thoughtful.
"I might have something like this in the back, what are you looking for it for?"
You almost say, “Evidence.” Your desire to see her reaction almost blows your cover. You have to take joy in the little things. Instead you offer a lie. "A gift," you tell her. She clicks her tongue against her teeth and disappears into the backroom. When a large tan skinned human and a blue-blood take her place you jerk your arm off the counter and manage to duck in enough time to avoid the first right hook. You knew the shit you were hunting down was hot, but not that hot, Jesus.
You hear a shelf fall over as you flee back into the beating veins of the city, the sound of glass breaking and merchandise being ruined is enough to keep your mood light. You'll call the local precinct tomorrow, though you know it likely won't do anything.
The two thugs chase you down the block, shoving people aside like pins in a bowling alley. You lack that advantage of sheer strength and instead weave and bob your way through the living streets, moving people in the direction of their previous momentum or merely dancing around them entirely. A truck's horn screams at you when you dart across the road and take a dive into a back alley. Your youth roll isn't really as youthful as it used to be and you feel it when you spill out on your back further into the alley. You're pretty sure you send a hand down into a puddle of garbage juice, its nectar is fragrant to say the least. Your jeans are wet along your ass and you have to lean on the wall to haul yourself up.
You wait in the shadows of your unsavory hideout counting the trash bags that have piled out of the dumpster and are slowly encroaching upon the street proper. When you've counted them all, thirty-seven, you make your way back out into the bright lights and cacophony of noise. You don't unbutton your coat, no reason to draw attention to yourself after that fiasco. Without the protection of your badge you're left to the whims of the living tide that characterize the overcrowded belly of the capital.
Eventually it ejects you into the standing crowd of the auction block and you are eager to plaster yourself further into the standing mire of sinners as it allows you to escape the unrelenting currents of the main street.
It’s only when you've swam your way through this standing ocean of bidders to the near middle do you bother to look up at the wooden platform. You briefly pity the little lowblood they're hauling off the block, she stumbles down the steps with her cobbled ankles and stares up in terror with her big grey eyes at the hands that reach for her. You have no real idea what she'll be used for, but you can manage a few educated guesses. Attractive horns and symmetrical features, you suspect no matter what she ends up doing, filling buckets'll be part of it.
They don't walk the next piece of property up the steps, and this is the only reason you aren't already elbowing your way out of this sick debacle. The action yields enough oddity to ignite your curiosity and keep you rooted to the ground. Two burly trolls haul it--no him, up the onto the auction block via orders from a fiery-haired human. It’s a pale human, practically lusus colored. They've more than hobbled the naked product. Ropes coil and loop to the point of overkill around his wrists and they've tied the man's ankle to his knee.
Frost white hair practically glows in the harsh incandescent light. They drop him unceremoniously in front of the crowd and bonelessly he lays there, idly scratching at his calf with his tied foot.
He looks like damaged goods. They start the bid at a resoundingly low 12,000.
Dave Strider isn't worth 12,000.
You inexplicably find yourself raising your hand anyway.
The counter-bid starts and when it hits fifteen thousand you almost walk away. This isn't your problem you tell yourself, it’s his. It's his fault and his fate and the auctioneer is asking for the last chance and your hand shoots up.
That is the entirety of your savings account. For a brief moment you pray to be outbid, you want that assurance that you can say you tried but it just didn't work out. You haven't known Dave Strider for six sweeps, and he’s made no effort to know you.
It’s a strange series of events as you lower you hand. A large barrel-chested green-blood with a fantastic set of horns hauls his way through the crowd to you and then hauls you back to the stage. For a brief moment it almost feels like you're being punished for what you've done, but no, they start you signing a ridiculous heap of paperwork in a small backdoor office illuminated by the harsh glare of uncovered fluorescent lamps.
The redhead, whom you learn is the previous owner, simply offers you a bemused and grim 'good luck' as he relinquishes the folded and stamped property title over to you. He seems happy to be rid of it and really it doesn't surprise you in the least.
"Why so eager to get rid of him?" you ask, the human stops at the door and looks back at you.
"He’s got a rotten nature."
The door shuts and you fiddle with the document between your fingers. For something so light it carries an unimaginable weight. You've got it half unfolded before the door opens and a voice is telling you to get the hell out, they've got other buyers to deal with. You haven't been meek in a long time, but you're real small when you scamper from the white room and back into the comforting blanket of vague neon and darkness. The warm humidity soaks back into your bones and you find him behind the bidding stage much like you saw him on it.
He lays on his side, head limp against the smooth pavement staring into nothing. You thumb at the title in your hand, brush over the raised golden seal stuck to it and worry your bottom lip. The last time you saw this man he was a boy. A boy with bird bones you could have sworn were hollow, and pale skin stretched over a prominent rib cage. A boy who'd worked his entire life too hard on much too little.
He shifts and rolls muscular shoulders against the ropes that hold his wrists. Numbly you think the bird has certainly outgrown the nest. Outgrown a lot of things, like your memories of him.
“You smell considerably worse than this pavement.” He states as he scratches at his thigh with grime caked nails, staring at you with unsurprised red eyes.
“'Thanks for saving my utterly worthless pale ass, Karkat,'“ you spit, as if hearing it from at least somebody's lips will soothe your terminal pocket book's dying gasps as it passes on into the afterlife.
“No really, you aren't like a dumpster diver or something are you? I mean, sure, I know you didn't really have any serious life goals but I didn't think you'd take to raw sewage swimming. I was thinking more y'know garbage collector, at least.” Dave sniffs and wrinkles his nose in a way that is incredibly juvenile and frankly just as insulting as it was when you were a teenager.
He tips his head and rolls it a little to the side; the frayed ends of his hair are longer than you remember. You suspect that's not his choice, you recall he very much disliked the fringe getting in his eyes as a child. A bit of the pale locks soak up gas and oil-saturated water from a stray puddle and you take some small enjoyment in how it seems to annoy him.
“So how much was that life savings you just blew on me?” You can see him practically itching to squirm away from that puddle his hair is currently victim to.
He doesn't, you see that his pride has not withered. Not naked and hog tied, not with the ownership to his very existence clutched in your fingers does Dave Strider so much as budge, and even at this all time low he seems but the calm eye of a storm.
A false lull before the hurricane hits again.
“Sixteen thousand,” you spit, it hurts physically to say it. You'd swear the sharp x of the word has cut your tongue.
“Wow you got scammed.” He coughs up a bitter laugh.
In echoing it, you agree.
“If you're looking for a thank you, which I know you are, I'd like to point out a few things currently hindering my ability to properly lavish your ridiculous white knight complex with praise.
One, I'm uncomfortably hobbled, two I broke a nail and fuck this list my balls are freezing right the hell off.”
He sneers at you. For some god awful reason, you decided now of all times he looks surprisingly attractive. Not that you've never had this thought, but it’s disarming that you can think it when he’s disgusting and laying in a pool of filth.
“I could only be so lucky as to have your balls fall off. Do you think if I leave you a bit longer they will? We can wait, I've got time.”
“Sure, yeah, I mean if you want the general public to think you're into that. Want me to moan your name through the pain?”
He inhales to start what you assume is an incredibly pornographic howl of your moniker.
You shove him over unceremoniously into the puddle with the heel of your boot and he grunts and stares up at you from his halo of gasoline steeped water.
“Are you going to run if I cut your ropes?” You deCaptcha a sickle and leave it to Dave to actually be considering your question. Asshole. Where's he gonna run naked? Your brain supplies you with several answers for that, which really shouldn't have surprised you. Dave Strider has never not been resourceful.
He works his jaw back and forth and mockingly plays at thinking.
“You got a shower?”
You saw through the knotted ties of his entrapment with a deliberation, take a strange pleasure in the snap of tension and the way the human beneath you relaxes and melts against the pavement. He doesn't meet your eyes and you sneak a look at his face as he stares up at the endless hologram advertisements and humming neon signs that scrape and claw ever upward in the darkness.
Distantly over the hum of society you can hear a few commercials play on the sides of buildings. Brand names both familiar and foreign to you. Their lights reflecting in his eyes and painting his hue-less skin in brilliant colors.
When the last rope breaks Strider lays out bonelessly on the ugly black asphalt. You waste no time hauling to your feet again. He strikes the image of a pale murder victim, limbs all akimbo and tussled. It takes you little effort to imagine the white chalk outline.
That, though, is just likely a side effect of your line of work.
“Be a gentleman and give me your coat.”
You snidely choose to ignore the request as he sits up slowly. The smell of gasoline and oil mixes with sweat and you'd like to deny that the smell is attractive but you've long stopped habitually lying to yourself. His soaked hair drips fat tears of oily water down his shoulders as he hauls up to his feet. It forges organic lines of iridescent rainbows along his lily skin, illuminated in brilliant neon as he turns his full attention on you.
Only then does it truly hit you the full implications of his nakedness on your psyche and libido.
Mechanically you strip off your coat and shove it at him.
He makes it look irritatingly smooth as he swings the long thing up around his shoulders and slips into it, deft fingers do up the buttons while he stares at you.
No, not you. Your badge. Your sterling silver brand of ethical duty hanging heavy on the cotton of your turtleneck.
You are powerless to stop the pun before it spills from his disgustingly coy and beautiful lips.
“Karcop? You're shitting me.”
“Wow how do I return you? Hold on, I'm feeling buyer's remorse.”
“I'm sorry, but you can't return damaged goods.” He says as he straightens out the length of your coat. It stops at just below his knees where it traditionally brushes your ankles. It’s comical and gives you a bit of whiplash shoved up against the strange sincerity of his tone.
“Tch, can I throw them away?” You see no reason not to twist the knife, lord knows he wouldn't spare you the pain were the positions switched.
“After they've showered, sure.” He counters smoothly, in typical Strider fashion.
Neatly you fold his papers and fumble for a moment with where to place them before settling on folding them a second time and slipping them into your back pocket. It strikes you as a little surreal to be folding a living being's title of ownership up like a receipt to be shoved into your pocket.
But there's a lot about this world that's surreal. Everything is just extrinsic enough to remind you you're not native.
He asks your address.
You supply him a hotel name and his pale brows rise under the unruly fringe of his bangs. This time you anticipate his snark before he’s capable of supplying it.
“I'm only here on business.”
“The sickle CIA headquarters aren't in the capital?”
“No,” you supply sourly and start walking.
“Huh, dunno why I thought that.” He strides ahead and you cede to his more confident gait and fall in step behind the human.
“Because it would make sense.” You answer. It’s a bit of a sore spot that you spend so much time traveling to the capital. You know exactly why your HQ isn't in this gluttonous and rapacious cesspit of infidelity. Because it fucking costs too much.
Or at least that’s what you'd gathered from Terezi's jargon laden thirty minute explanation she'd school fed you over your lunch break what feels like sweeps back.
Strider walks with surprising purpose for someone garbed in only a coat and reeking of fossil fuels. He grabs your wrist and pulls you through an uncomfortably suffocating alley and for a solid handful of seconds you shimmy sideways through such darkness that not even you can see properly. All you have is the sensation of his calloused fingers on your flesh and the sound of his steady breathing.
He walks with a tempo, or you should think, he still walks with a tempo. It’s strangely comforting that with all the things that are different about him, this telling quirk remains the same. For every long traipse of those pale legs he takes a second shorter step in his gait.
It falls in rhythm with your bloodpusher's hastened pulse and vaguely you find yourself wondering if that’s intentional.
He gets you back to your hotel in half the time it should have taken. Judging by the smug glint in his eyes he knows it too.
“What’s your room number?” He asks as he scratches at the top of one bare foot with the other.
“413” You dispense to him mechanically as you both stand on the sidewalk in front of the warm illumination of the glass doors to the lobby.
He gives you a solid look and you stare blankly back.
“Could you have at least said four hundred and thirteen?”
“Really, way to be insensitive.” He rolls his eyes.
You aren't really certain what you've offended him with this time. Frankly you aren't even sure you've offended him, he’s always playing a game of emotional charades. It seems age has only made his inability to be honest fester.
“Fourth floor then?”
You're not positive why he’s asking you this, but you nod, busy thinking about how you're going to have to walk him through the lobby.
Then he goes and walks his own damn self and you are powerless to do anything but watch as he aptly strides through the sliding glass double doors and walks effectively naked across the cool marble and carpets of the lobby.
There's such superfluous ego in his body language that the bellhop actually jumps out of his way, luggage cart and all. He reeks and drips iridescent gas saturated water. Absolutely shamelessly he steps into the elevator at the far end of the lobby just as you finally get up the wits to even step into the building. A teal-blooded gentleman side steps him like a train wreck waiting to happen.
You catch his eye and he flips his head to free his vision of his hair and winks at you as the metal doors slide shut.
When you take a full inventory of the lobby you find a pair of moirails with their jaws slightly slack and a young looking blond haired front desk clerk trying to cool the heat of her face.
You slide a hand up and over your tamed back hair and fight with your lips over whether or not you should be grinning.
That's Dave Strider for you.
He’s waiting for you at the thick door of your room, arms crossed and shoulders hunched. It strikes you as an uncharacteristic posture for Strider but then you notice the shake of his fingers and the tense set of his jaw and it hits you.
He’s cold. It’s such a trivial and mortal affliction that you find it completely out of place being displayed by him of all creatures.
You procure your keycard from your wallet sylladex, you can't remember the last time you used anything else, and run it across the scanner on the front of the handle. The door beeps meekly at you and the little light flashes green. He goes for it, which informs you he’s likely colder than he’s letting on, but you get the handle first and push the door open.
You hold it open inward for him and gesture mockingly that he step in first if he’s in such a rush.
“Oh, beauty before wisdom? Thanks.” He smirks and walks past you.
You aren't even aware you're scowling until you catch your reflection in the mirrored door of the pointless little closet. The door clicks shut loudly and you recaptcha the keycard, looking up in time to watch Strider shuck off your jacket. Idly you count the smooth bumps of his spine, each knob drags your vision steadily down to the tantalizing and firm curve of his buttocks.
And then you realize what you're doing and immediately choke on your modest attempt to clear your throat. He looks over his shoulder at you and disappears into the bathroom while you fight through your coughing fit.
“Shit-- wait-- I need to piss.”
“Well I'm not stopping you.” He wastes exactly no time yanking open the frosted door to the shower and reaching out for the temperature touch pad.
You sputter and he just shuts the shower door, that unmitigated douchebag. The water hisses on and steam billows near immediately from the top of the stall. It must be awfully hot. He groans and leans against the far wall, or you assume so judging by the fuzzy pink silhouette of his body.
The bathroom door swings shut on its own when you step inside. You aren't going to wait for him to drown before you can piss, it’s just not going to happen. Your pride, what little you still have, refuses to see you pacing the length of the hotel room with a full bladder.
You sit down to do your fucking business and suddenly you realize your mistake. Strider absolutely can not let anybody have any kind of pride, certainly not if he can in anyway remove it.
“So,” he drags the word out in a way that has you pressing your face into your hands.
“Do all trolls sit to piss, or just you?”
Your therapist taught you in inhale slowly and count backwards from ten. You haven't needed to in sweeps. The worst part is the nagging of your id in the back of your skull informing you cheekily that you'd be able to ignore this juvenile provocation easily if this were any other insufferable douchebag on this planet.
“I hate you so much.” It comes out a deflated whine, you're temper just isn't what it used to be.
He laughs behind the frosted walls of the stall and sticks his head under the stream.
“Whoa there, I'm still a grieving widow.”
You don't really process the implications of that comment until you're zipping your fly and tugging at the button on your jeans. Immediately you think of the ruby kismesis ring in that glass display case. You don't doubt now who it represented, but you're curious who owned it.