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Lonely Nights

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'How's the new boss coming along? What's- her- name, Emma?' The sound of a fork scraping left overs of off a plate and into a box to be saved for later is almost painful to your ears. You gulp down a mouthful of water from your glass before speaking up to answer her question.
'Ella. She's doing pretty damn good, far better than anyone ever thought she would when she first walked in. You know, she's like 40 and has teenage kids and shit. Who'd have thought she'd know anything 'bout clubs?' She laughs as she sends you a glance over her shoulder where she stands by the kitchen counter, busying herself with filling the sink with hot water.
'As weird as it may sound, she might have been young too, at some point in time.'
'Yeah, when the Beatles were still trying to get a record deal…' She snorts and you move from the chair, gathering up the plates from the table as you set out help your girlfriend with the dishes. You wish, not for the first time, that you owned a dishwashing machine.

When supper has been cleaned up, she leaves you for her office. She works too much and she knows it. You know it too, but you can't bring yourself to tell her to slow down. You know what it means to her. So you vanish into your darkroom instead. It's untidy, but it's an organized sort of chaos- you know where to find everything you need. The warm light of the lamp in the ceiling catches in the large pieces of amber on your shelves as you flip the light switch. The trapped insects are the only dead creatures you keep these days- the thought of collections of dead things send shivers down your spine now. You boot up your computer while you rummage through the boxes and drawers for extra lenses and flashes, and as the iMac finishes you start up iTunes. John has been nagging about how you should get Skype, but you can't. Not yet. You open up Pesterchum and you exchange a few words with your sister before you conclude that you have everything you need for the evening. You leave the computer running and you can see Rose has left you a last message that you can't be arsed to answer right now, so you pick up your bag before heading back out into the hallway. You slip on a jacket and switch your sneakers for proper hiking boots as you call out.

'Jade! I'm heading out.' You can hear her chair scraping against the floor of her office just seconds before she pokes her head out the door. You raise the camera bag by the handle, swinging it slightly back and fourth for her to see. She nods and closes the door before coming over to stand before you.
'Alright. Will you be out late?'
'Nah, it looks like rain later on. That doesn't really make for, you know, great pictures.'
'Remember I'll be gone for the weekend?'
'Yeah yeah, I know. Science faire. Whoop whoop and all that.' You smile at her and she knows you're just teasing because she smiles too.
'Maker Faire. And you better put a lid on your excitement, mister smug-pants. Your cool face is slipping.'
'Aw man, and I worked so hard on that too. Dang.' She laughs and pulls you down for a kiss and you're smiling into her lips. She releases you a moment later and you promise her not to be late before you turn to head outside. When you are halfway out the door she calls out to you.
'Dave?'
'Yeah?'
'You know I miss them too, right?' Her voice is a little uneven, almost shaky. But you know exactly what she's talking about.
'Yeah. Yeah, I know.'
You close the door and leave your girlfriend to her therapy while you stalk towards the garage to find yours.

Your name is Dave Strider and you are 25 years old. You're driving down the streets of Houston, heading for a highway to take you outside of the city. The window is down and the night air is soothing to you, it always has been. It's the almost damp quality of the winds from the bay that puts a thin layer of icy cold on your face that you like. It makes you feel refreshed in a way a shower never could. Even when you were a child and your Bro had owned an old motorcycle that he would sometimes take you along for a ride on, you had foolishly opened the visor of the helmet to let the air rush into your face. There had been times when bugs had found their way into your nose this way and Dirk had been very exasperated with you for never doing what you were told. The memory makes you grin and you press down on a button on the dashboard, making the window of the passenger side roll down with an electrical hum. In your face you old stiff.

It doesn't take you very long to get out of the city now, rush hours have passed and it's almost calm, as calm as it gets at least. You don't want to drive too far anyway, just enough to get away from the lights. There are a few reserves, national forests and other places outside of town where you usually go on friday nights, and this night is no different. When the car is parked and your camera bag is slung over your shoulder you start walking towards the trail. You know most of them by heart at this point. After twenty minutes of walking you reach a clearing in the forest and off the side of the trail is a small hill. You have climbed it many times before, and every time you tend to tell yourself that you are in dire need of a proper workout. You pant slightly as you set up your gear on top of the hill. It's methodic work, you know what you will need and how to set it up for the best result. When you're done you just sort of stare for a moment, pausing to take a look at the quickly darkening sky.

You've always liked night time photography, now more than ever. The dark sky is your therapy, the best sort of conciliation. And at the same time the worst kind of aching emptiness.
It's been nine years since you beat the game. You're happy it's over. You're happy things turned out the way they did. But with every picture you snap of the starry sky, there's a voice in your head that grows louder. A bitter alien voice that isn't yours, yelling at you that it's not fucking fair. That you should have had more time. That you deserved more time. And for once it was something you couldn't give. Sometimes you wonder if the far away stars are suns in different solar systems. If there is a new Alternia out there. If they made it through. If they remember.

Three years was all the time you got. Three years, in total. It's nothing. It's how long it took to get some of your photos published in your monthly photography magazine. It's how long you worked to get from errand boy to 'the sound guy' at the local club. It's how long you've been living with Jade. Those years seems like minutes to you now, but when you were 13 they were almost an eternity.

Time was such an important thing to you when you were young. Years had a different meaning. When the magical age of 13 was reached you were the coolkid. So much cooler than those 12 year olds in the class below you, to the point where you almost thought you were cooler than John because of the 4 months separating you. As if the line of a new year meant so much. As if everything in your life was determined by the strike of a clock. Back then, it might have been. But not anymore.

You start clicking away with your camera, taking countless pictures. You always do. It's almost automatic, your hands work while your brain is busy remembering, sorting through every fading memory and trying its best to make them stick a little longer. Some days, when the sun is too bright or you have a hard time at work and everything seems too normal, you tell Jade that the past was something you all made up. A prank. A story written by a Lovecraft wannabe. A dream. Because nothing that messed up could ever have happened for real. She just gives you a disapproving look, her green eyes sharp and her brows knitted and and you know that she knows that you don't really believe that. It's just easier that way, pretending. Because how could you tell your girlfriend of five years that the real reason you're out in the sticks every Friday night is because you cannot stop thinking about an alien you haven't seen in almost ten years?

You pause and stare up at the sky for a long minute. You do know it happened, really. You know because you can still remember the soul ripping scream close to your ear as the game lost it's power over you and the emptiness of your palm where another hand had just been clutching yours. You remember waking up alone as a former Knight of Time, a lamented ex-God. That memory will always be clear as day to you, and you hope the rest will stay too. Some things have gone fuzzy, true, but you still recall most of your years in the Veil.

The first weeks on the meteor weren't really so bad. Everything was new and alien and interesting and the trolls were actually sort of excited to meet you. It was pretty fun to meet Terezi and whatever unspoken animosity there ever was between the two of you was quickly swept out of the way and replaced by laughter and late night feelings jams. It was easy to put everything else away for a while, a few weeks at least. It was a cake walk in space.

Then began the rough times. When the novelty of it all had faded and it was just alien and unfamiliar. Even though you and Rose set everything up to be able to live as comfortable and human and familiar as possible. You stacked your fridge with crappy swords you alchemized for that purpose alone, but you quickly removed them again. It didn't feel right anymore. The realization that your broth..- fath..- bro was gone was slowly trying to sink in. You didn't like it. You tried not to think about it, instead hanging out with Terezi and the Mayor, drawing with chalk on the floors and generally getting on people's nerves. It only worked for so long. You started noticing everyone else was dealing with their own losses, in their own ways. Rose locked herself up a lot, read books and tried to stay out of the way until you stood outside of her door and threatened to tear it down if she wouldn't come outside to eat. Most of the trolls gathered up in their piles to talk about their lusi, whatever that was, what they remembered most and what they would miss. The strange environment, the things you didn't want to deal with, it all made you twitchy. You never told anyone of course, what difference would it make? Rose noticed anyway, she even mentioned that you had started muttering to yourself. This was of course followed by her offering you her expertise, which you flat out declined. You didn't need anybody's pity, thank- you- very- much- and- kindly- fuck- off- without- passing- GO.

It wasn't only the fact that everything was strange that got to you. LOHAC had been just as odd, but there you were always on the move, always too busy doing something to really start thinking about the things that were off around you. Something that frustrated you beyond belief was that you were stuck there. Maybe you never ventured far outside of your house before the game, but at least you had the choice to. In the veil, everything was about the waiting. There was no option and on top of everything else you thought it would it drive you slowly but steadily insane. You would have taken walks in the endless corridors to remedy your nerves if you weren't scared shitless of running into the crazy clown troll, and nothing was worth the risk of meeting Gamzee in a dark empty laboratory, not even if it would cure your uncool, jittery behavior. Besides, you hated the cold light of the buzzing fluorescent lamps that lit up the corridors and every other place around there. It made it all really feel like the facility it was designed to be, instead of the temporary home it had become. There were a lot of things you hated about the veil and it's inhabitants in the beginning.

Especially Karkat. With Karkat everything was a struggle. Even from the start he always knew what to poke to make it hurt the most. He never hesitated to do it either. You gladly returned the favor though, and you think that's probably how it all started. He hated you for hanging out with Terezi. And you loved nothing more than to throw him over the edge of the volcano that was his fury by telling him stories of what you and the troll girl might or might not have done together. He would retaliate by trying to push you around and tell you what to do, which pissed you off to no end, and he never seemed to be doing anything else. There was a lot of raw, platonic hate and you danced around each other like that for the first couple of months.

It probably would have stayed the same for years if you hadn't walked into the laboratory one day when he was there. He was angry and muttering to himself and you remember thinking you should leave because fuck that noise. But the way you had come led back to the rest of the respite blocks and rooms that wanted to hold you locked up, and who knew if Gamzee was lurking in the shadows of the other end of the corridor. So you stayed, leaning against the door frame as you listened. He was raving on about how nothing made any sense, just in more words and with a vocabulary that might have been vulgar enough to turn your ears red if you had actually known how the words would translate to English. You never cared enough to learn Alternian.

He didn't even acknowledge your presence at first, and it took a couple of minutes for the alien obscenities to stop flowing and the punching of what to you seemed like random lab equipment to stop. When it finally did, he just huffed loudly and backed up to a wall, where he sank to the floor with his hands in his hair. He went silent after a short while and his hands fell to his lap.
'I hope she does better than I did' he muttered, voice hoarse.
'What are you even on about now?'
'Your human sister. I hope she's a better leader than me. I hope she can keep this clusterfuck of miserable misfits, you and I included, together and alive.'
'Yeah man she will. Rose knows her stuff like Keanu Reeves knows his repertoire of expressions. Because, you know, he has like two.' He let out a quiet snort at that.
'Heh. You know not even troll Keanu Reeves was ever that great? But yes.' He leaned his head against the wall and let out a tired sigh. 'I damn well hope so. I thought I knew what I was doing and look where that got us. So I hope Rose can be what I couldn't, that she can be what we need. That she can be the hero I'm not.'
You were quiet, deep in thoughts for so long that he actually looked up at you with a mildly surprised expression and let out a humorless laugh.
'What, silence from the self- proclaimed Knight of gurgling word muck and douche bagginess?'
'Shut it' you muttered, but you walked over to the wall and slid down until you were sitting on the floor next to him. A silent sigh somehow escaped you before you spoke up again.
'You know, even with all the time in the world on my hands I still couldn't help people when they really needed it.'
'At least you got somewhere. I mean look at you, you're a God!'
'Yeah? Well whoop-di-fuckin'-do. What good does a shitty pajamas do when it's already too damn late?'
He didn't reply.

Things changed after that. Not to anyone else, but to you. And to him.
What before was a shared dislike turned into something else, something different. You wouldn't call it love, you would never call it love. Not even after all these years. You know what love is and what you and Karkat had wasn't it. It was more like a mutual understanding and a joint fear of what was to come. Two knights fretting over a future they couldn't control. Talking about the past they longed for and never knew they would miss before it had slipped through their fingers. You would sometimes run into each other, and you're not sure if he was looking for you or you for him, but when it happened there were times when you sat down somewhere and just talked. About things you regretted, things you wish you could have changed, things you hoped for. You never told anyone the things you told Karkat, not even Rose. They wouldn't understand. Not the way he did. When you were talking to him it felt like he really got you. As if you were two feathers of the same bird. When you were with him you never felt quite as crazy as you otherwise did and he made you believe you could actually live through the years to come.

You're not sure exactly what he got from your exchange, but it had to be something he needed because he kept coming back for more. You didn't really mind. Actually you would have hated if he would have stopped looking for you, if he would have stopped coming to your room in the middle of the night to talk about something that suddenly bothered him. If he had stopped trying to explain the alien technology you had no idea how to work, if he had stopped challenging you to strifes in the most ridiculous ways. You still pissed eachother off to no end, but it had morphed into something you could stand, something you wanted. The strifes were good too, new opportunities to get on his nerves and blow off some steam, all wrapped up in a neat little box with a red ribbon tied around it. It took you by surprise when he had slammed your body against the floor one day and instead of getting up he had leaned in, rested his forehead against yours for half a second before he feverishly pressed his lips to yours. It made no sense at all to you and you couldn’t get enough of it.

And things changed again after that.

The way he would push you up against a wall, his breath hot against your neck and hands tight against your wrists was something you longed for. His glances as you passed each other in the corridors felt like they would burn you alive. You loved it, the attention that was all yours. You loved how his touch would set you skin on fire and the way he would rake his rough nails up your spine. You loved how he would take advantage of your every weakness and how he expected you to do the same. It wasn’t until it was all far too late you realized your mistake.

Attachment.

You would be able to live without that look he gave you that sucked the breath right out of your lungs and threw you out of balance. You could live without the one person who understood you completely. You would use the time he took from you for something else, something productive.

It would be alright.

Everything would be that alright.

These were things you told yourself as you waited for your alarm clock to go off the day before the final battle. You didn't want to think about the fight, you couldn't. Your friends would be out there. But as you thought about him and the time that had passed, knowing there may not come any more days when you could hang out and just be… It tore at your being from the inside. You told yourself someone could be patient enough to learn to understand, that someone else would make your heart beat fast and make your breath come shallow. That someone else would want to stick around. You told yourself you could trudge on like you always did- Strider's gotta stride.

But you knew, and as you lower your eyes to the camera in your hands you still know that no one else could know you like he did. And you never could move on. This Strider is standing still.

The apartment is dark and silent when you walk through the door. You guess it's later than you thought and you sigh quietly at yourself as you slip out of your jacket. You never keep your promise of not being late, and it's beyond you how Jade puts up with you still. You untie your boots and walk down the hallway to your darkroom where you start unpacking your camera bag. You stack the equipment back into their chaotic, dysfunctional piles and glance at the computer, a screensaver with photos of you, Jade, Rose and John from last summer flashing across the screen. You pause for a moment to poke the mouse and the screen lights up, having the intended result of lighting up the room and the unfortunate side effect of almost blinding you at the same time. The pesterchum application is still flashing a tiny (1) at you from the dock and you pointedly ignore it because you know it's just Rose, and you continue to unload your bag, rubbing at your eyes tiredly. When there's only the camera left, you plug it into your computer to save the photos to your back up drive. The night hadn't been completely wasted, you decide as you go through the pictures. Some of them you actually like. When the process of saving every picture is through, you hover the pointer over the tiny apple in the upper left corner as pesterchum flashes again, this time with a small(2). The clock on the upper right corner of the screen tells you it's 1:45 AM and you frown slightly as you click the program open. Who's pestering you this late? Don't people have jobs or families or some shit to take care of instead of being up to ungodly hours to join you in your sad, lonely pity party? The first chum is as you thought Rose, telling you to have a nice evening just after you left the room earlier that night and she's idle now, probably has been for hours.

The other one freezes the blood in your veins. It makes your breath hitch in your throat. It makes your heart stop beating.

carcinoGeneticist [CG] started trolling turntechGodhead [TG] at 1:44
[CG]:DAVE?