The bar that Subjugglator Harcut chooses is a midblood place close to the shipyards, and there are so many things wrong with the entire concept that you don’t know where to start. You don’t do bars because you do not like to drink alcohol. You certainly don’t like to drink alcohol in close proximity to the lower castes. And most of all, you do not like to do so in an establishment so close to where you work, where you may run into your subordinates.
But all of that is moot because it was Subjugglator Harcut who invited you, and there is no possible way that you can turn down the highblood’s invitation.
The owner clears the three of you a table in the middle of the bar and brings over a bottle of his finest Alternian whiskey. You accepts a small glass and then just hold it very carefully between your palms while Subjugglator Harcut begins a long, bloody tale about some small rebellion on one of the outer planets. Your employer, a secular indigo named Varsew, laughs uproariously at all the key points of the story, and you peel your lips back from your teeth at each cue in an attempt to look like you’re enjoying the story, while you anxiously count down the minutes until you can politely excuse yourself.
A television set over the bar plays a handball game from somewhere else in the Empire. The room is loud with talk and laughter, and in the far corner you can see a couple tables of trolls playing card games. They are probably playing for money. You frown. This place is uncouth from the haze of smoke at the ceiling down to the sticky spills of alcohol on the floor, and it puts your teeth on edge. If you must spend time away from your job, you would rather do it in your hive with a cup of tea and a good book.
It is above your station to criticize the highblood’s choice of venue, though. If he wants to slum, that is his prerogative. You quash your guilt at having such impudent thoughts and turn your attention firmly back to Subjugglator Harcut, who is just miming the admittedly amusing reaction of a troll who had witnessed him culling her moirail.
You manage to listen for a while longer before an uproar in the corner of the room catches your attention. One of the card games has just ended and you can see an tealblood gleefully raking in the pile of caegars in the middle of the table. The violetblood across from him looks mortified, while the other trolls at the table laugh.
In the dim light of the bar you can see the troll’s aural fins and a curly purple forelock hanging carelessly across his forehead. Is that—no, it can’t be. You eyes lock on the zigzag symbol on his shirt. It is. Your bloodpusher lurches.
You haven’t seen Eridan Ampora in a hundred sweeps, back when you first came of age on Alternia and were sent off with the Imperial Fleet. You'd been stationed on the same ship for the first three sweeps of your compulsory service. Given the historical enmity of your respective races, you and Ampora should never have become friends. At most, you could have become kismeses. But your feelings had not swung pitch at all. To your horror, they’d gone in the other direction entirely, and you’d requested a transfer to another ship.
Ampora makes an expansive gesture to his opponent and says something. The tealblood, who had been rising to his feet, sits back down. Ampora taps the table impatiently and the dealer begins dealing cards. Someone shoves a drink at Ampora, who takes it. He’s already more than a little drunk, although it’s the sort of drunk where he seems to be trying very hard not to look it.
You avert your gaze. Is Ampora stupid? You may be out of place here as a highblood, but the clientele won’t attack you in a dark alley. Ampora is higher on the spectrum than you but he’s a seadweller, and there’s no respect for that here. Landdwellers will bow to his face and then stab him in the back if they think they can get away with it.
“What’s that fish doing out of water?” Subjugglator Harcut muses aloud, catching your attention. He has followed your gaze. Varsew turns to look over her shoulder, and then snorts.
“Getting cleaned out, it looks like,” she says, turning back around. She gestures to the bartender for another round. Harcut shrugs, losing interest.
After about an hour, Varsew suggests you all move to another bar, one with a higher class of clientele. Harcut, who has apparently had his fill of the midblood crowd, agrees. When you all get up, you find your attention turning once again to Ampora and the card players. It looks like he has been doing fair to middling, although the pile of cash in front of his opponent is much larger than his own. Ampora is also much drunker than he was before. You have a feeling that he’s going to be hard pressed to walk out of this bar with the clothes on his back.
“Highblood,” you say to Varsew awkwardly, without even thinking first. Both Varsew and Harcut look at you. You clear your throat.
“I would like to get started on the repairs tonight,” you say, clasping your hands uncomfortably in front of yourself. “If that is satisfactory to you both.”
“Go on then,” Varsew says with a dismissive wave.
“Thank you,” you say.
The two of them head out the door. You wait for them to go before you finally give in to the curiosity that has been plaguing you all night. You head over to the card tables.
They’re playing a game of double fanucci. You recognize the cards, even if you can’t understand the rules of the game. You suspect Ampora’s grasp of the rules is no better than your own, from the way he’s squinting at his cards. Or maybe he’s just having trouble focusing his eyes.
You watch for a minute before someone notices you, and a ripple of unease runs through the spectators around the table as they realize there’s a highblood in their midst. Space clears around you. Ampora glances up and there’s a moment of blankness before he suddenly recognizes you.
For a second you almost think you see a flicker of shock in his eyes, but then it’s replaced with affected disinterest.
“You interested in a game, Zahhak? I have a feelin’ my luck’s about to turn.”
The tealblood turns to shoot you a glare, afraid you’re going to take his mark away from him. You just shake your head.
“Perhaps you should consider giving up for the day,” you say politely.
He rolls his eyes and then grins at the tealblood, showing all his shark teeth. “I gotta win my money back first.”
“I don’t think that’s very likely.”
“I’m a fuckin’ excellent card player, thank you very much.”
“You are extremely drunk.”
“Gettin’ a little pale there, Zahhak.”
You flush and clench your jaw. “I didn’t want to see a tourist fleeced of his money, but obviously you don’t need my help.” You retreat from the table, ignoring Ampora’s smug look.
Ampora slaps a card down on the table and raises an eyebrow at the tealblood. “There.”
The tealblood gleefully puts down a card and the table erupts in catcalls again. Ampora’s jaw drops and he slams down the rest of his cards.
“That can’t be a legal move,” he exclaims.
You cross your arms over your chest and watch him stonily. The ensuing debate over the rules is rowdy. Ultimately the crowd rules in the tealblood’s favor, and Ampora sulks.
“One more round,” he says. “I’ll win it back this time.”
“How much cash you got left?” the tealblood asks dubiously.
Ampora turns out his pockets and then chews his lower lip. “I’m a little short on cash. If someone wanted to spot me some—?”
“It’s no fun trying to win my own money back,” the tealblood says.
“Well…” A sudden idea lights up Ampora’s face. “I do have something.”
“Yeah?” The tealblood looks curious.
“I got my ship.”
You immediately open your mouth to protest, but then snap it shut. It’s his own fault if he loses his ship.
“But it’s a fuckin’ expensive ship. You wouldn’t be able to match it,” Ampora goes on.
“I do!” the tealblood says eagerly. “I have a ship.”
Ampora snorts. “Lemme guess. A tugboat?”
“A Starrunner class XL7,” the tealblood says. At Ampora’s disbelieving look, the tealblood adds, “My matesprit is indigo.”
“You can’t bet a ship you don’t even own.”
“It’s registered to me.” The tealblood smirks at the others. “My matesprit has some debts and he didn’t want to lose the ship.”
“What a shame when you lose it to me,” Ampora says. He tugs a handheld device out of his coat pocket and thumbs through it, then shows the screen to the tealblood. “There. The deed to my ship.”
The tealblood shows Ampora his own deed and then the dealer begins dealing out the cards again. You don’t want to watch this trainwreck. On the other hand, you were… friends with Ampora once. You don’t want to leave him here, drunk and penniless. If he wants to gamble away everything he owns, then that’s his business, but you will at least do him the service of making sure he survives the evening.
The game commences. Ampora has hunched low in his chair and is squinting blearily at his cards. Someone puts another drink by his elbow but he ignores it. You try to follow the game but it’s completely incoherent to you. Sometimes you suspect double fanucci doesn’t have any rules at all.
Instead, you focus on Ampora. He doesn’t look much older than he did back when you served together, though it’s been a hundred sweeps. He’s just as carelessly attractive as he once was. His cheekbones are perhaps a little more defined, and his eyes are a deep, rich purple. You wonder if he still has the hard muscles he had when he was in the military with you. Then you firmly quell that thought.
The tealblood puts down a card and there is another argument over the rules. This time Ampora wins the argument, looking smug. He unslouches from his chair and stretches, then leans on the table almost predatorily.
The tealblood, you notice, is starting to look slightly unsettled. The audience around the table is getting quieter.
You don’t know nearly enough about card games to know what’s going on, but you’re starting to think that Ampora might be winning.
By the end of the game, there is no sound but the grim slap of Ampora and the tealblood putting the cards on the table. Finally Ampora takes a card from his hand, hesitates, and then sets it on the table.
There is an explosion of noise as everyone reacts. The tealblood shoots to his feet.
“You cheated!” he exclaims, pointing at the cards. “There is no fucking way—”
Ampora spreads his hands. “What a glubbin’ shame. Looks like you lost, dirtsucker.”
The tealblood appeals to the crowd. “He is a fucking cheater.”
“I told you my luck was going to turn.”
The tealblood launches himself around the table at Ampora and the two of them crash to the floor, fists flying. You wade into the fray to break up the fight. Two olivebloods drag the teal away from Ampora while you pull Ampora back to his feet. He has a rapidly swelling eye and a split lip. Purple is smeared on his chin. His glasses are askew.
“I didn’t cheat,” Ampora spits at the teal, adjusting his glasses and pulling out of your grip. “I didn’t need to, since you have the worst poker face I’ve ever fuckin’ seen.”
“You hustled me! You pretended to be shit at this game.”
“I just got lucky.” Ampora grins. His teeth are purple with blood. “Now are you going to welch on the bet?”
The teal flushes and looks around at everyone else. “He cheated!” he says again.
“The highblood has been graciously losing to you all night,” you say. “It appears you are incapable of returning the favor.”
“I won fair and square,” Ampora says. “I shoulda guessed you dirtsuckers would refuse to honor an agreement.”
The tealblood groans and clutches at his hair. “But my ship.”
“Don’t wager what you can’t lose,” Ampora says.
The tealblood sighs and takes out his handheld device. He presses his thumb to the screen, looking as if it causes him physical pain, then holds the device out to Ampora to make the transfer. “Fuck,” he mutters.
Ampora finishes the transaction and hands the device back. He takes his coat from the back of the chair where he was sitting and gives the watching crowd a sloppy salute.
“Well, gentlemen, it’s been fun,” he says, and then shoulders his way through the crowd to the door.
You follow a step behind. You don’t like the way a few of the tealblood’s friends are eyeing Ampora.
The early morning air outside is cold and sharp with the smell of exhaust and spilled oil from the nearby dry docks. It's drizzling a little. The rain glosses everything with a dull sheen. Ampora shrugs on his coat and then notices you.
“They wouldn’t have bought the act as well if you weren’t there tryin’ to convince me to leave,” he says gleefully. “So thanks.”
“I was not trying to help you,” you say coolly.
“Then why the fuck are you followin’ me?”
“I don’t want to see you dead.”
He snorts and turns away from you, tugging a pack of cigarettes from his pocket as he starts down the sidewalk. You follow two steps behind.
“I’ve got a gun, you know,” he says.
“A lot of the trolls in this neighborhood do.”
“So what are you gonna do about it if they show up, Mr. Fistkind?”
“They may think twice when they see you’re not alone.”
He shrugs and slows his walk to let you fall into step next to him. “Never let it be said I passed up a free offer of a meat shield,” he says. One of his eyes is almost completely swollen shut now.
“My hive is close by,” you say. “You can put some ice on your eye.”
He leers at you and makes a diamond shape with his fingers. You scowl at him.
“I will not have you accusing me of infidelity,” you say.
“She’s still alive?”
“Yes.” Nepeta’s getting old, though. She’s only an oliveblood, and they don’t live very long.
There is a pause, and then Ampora probes at his eye. “I could use some ice.”
You are mostly silent for the walk to your hive. It’s really only a couple blocks away. You live close to the docks because you spend so much time working there that it’s easier not to have to travel far, although you often end up sleeping in your office anyway.
You unlock the door and let Ampora inside. He finds the couch and collapses into it with a groan, looking a little the worse for drink. You take an ice pack from the refrigerator and hand it to him. He drapes it over his eyes with a sigh. You sit down in the chair across from him.
“What are you even doing on this rock, anyway?” he asks you, tipping his head back against the cushions. “You seemed more of a soldier type to me. Takin’ orders and that kinda shit.”
“My talents were better suited to mechanics,” you say. “Why are you here?”
Ampora smirks. “Had to see a troll about a ship,” he says.
It takes you a second. “You intended to get that ship from the start?”
“That indigo matesprit he says he had? Owed me a fuckload of money.”
You frown. “That could have ended badly.”
“Yeah, well.” He gives a dismissive shrug. “They did try to mess up my beautiful face so it wasn’t really the best outcome I coulda hoped for.”
“Your beautiful face will heal.”
He snorts and peels the ice pack away from one eye to give you a look. “You got any other quadrants filled? I don’t see signs of anyone else living around here.”
He raises an eyebrow, waiting for an explanation, but you don’t give him one. Finally he drops the ice pack down over his eyes again.
“Me neither,” he says.
There is a pause. You watch him, knowing that he can’t see you. “You can spend the night if you wish,” you say. “It’s late.”
He muses on that for a moment before he says, quietly, “Why did you transfer off the ship?”
You hesitate. “Pardon?”
“In the Fleet. I used to think you were flushed for me, you know,” he says, which chokes off anything further you might have said. “I mean, don’t get me wrong; I thought everyone was flushed for me. But… Why did you request a transfer?”
“You are a seadweller,” you say helplessly.
“Yeah, I know.”
“It wasn’t appropriate.”
He pushes the ice pack off again and stares at you, looking incredulous. “You were flushed for me?”
You can feel your cheeks flushing. “I—it wasn’t appropriate to go red.”
“That’s a shitty reason. Fuck ‘appropriate’.”
“I would appreciate it if you would watch your language.”
He laughs. “I was flushed for you, too.”
You clasp your hands together on your knees to keep from fidgeting. “Oh,” you say.
He watches you for a moment. “What about now? Still think it’s wrong?”
“A little,” you admit.
He grins. “A little bit of wrong is good for you. Tomorrow, do you wanna go for a ride on my fuckin’ awesome new ship?”
“I’d like that,” you say, and when he smiles, so do you.