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It's that time again. Ice cold wind rips through the maze of pathways winding around the familiar but sorry excuse for a city. The streets are clear and darker that usual - the lights are all off in every hive and service building you pass. Nobody wanders the streets at this time; it's suicide to even walk out of your door. But what's the meaning of suicide when you're already marked for death?

Your name is Dave Strider, and you're running as fast as you can.

You pull the hood further up on your shoulders as you duck down an alleyway, the familiar groaning of steel and shell scraping over eachother alerting you to the imperial drones' location. It's still a few streets away and luckily, it hasn't seen you yet. You're still in District 1 - the rustblood community - so you should be safe as long as you know where that one drone is. They get more of them for the higher up districts.

You've been here for six years, completely alone and constantly on the run. You get to stop every now and then and return to your communal hivestem, but every time the Collection Period starts you have to pack up and fuck off as fast as you can before the drones get you. Since the tyrannical rule of the new world leader, the Collection Period is every two years, the bitch seems to be manufacturing trolls and you are so not okay with it but who can you complain to? Fucking nobody that's who. You'll never be okay with living on this planet, but you've got no choice. You don't know where any of the others landed and you're too busy running to look for them. When they told you Alternia was dangerous you had no idea what they meant, but couple the fear of the drones finding you with the fact zombies walk around in the daylight hours and you officially have the introduction to Dave Strider's Worst Nightmare volume 1.

You hold your breath as the creaking grows louder. It's getting closer. You spent too long thinking and not enough time running and now the fucker is right there outside the alleyway and you can't move for fear you'll knock something over in the most comical way; go down tripping over your shoelace straight into a flogging jut or when the worst character in a horror movie goes back for some piece of shit they left right where the monsters happen to be dwelling and then choke to death on a mixture of their internal organs and their own stupidity.

You watch the mass of blackness as it blocks out the natural light of the largest moon, casting the alleyway you're in into darkness. It takes what seems like an eternity to take the next step forwards, and you count exactly two and a half minutes before running further down the alleyway and scrambling up and over the next fence you see. From the looks of it you're round the back of one of the shitty little cafés that have been built to increase the sense of "community" and "structure" in the troll society. Far be it from you to take a dive into one of the dumpsters back here but you haven't eaten since the Collection (see: Culling) started three days ago and there's literally a tray of untouched food on that bin over there. You almost go for it before realising you're not as stupid as you look and you'd rather go hungry and starve to death than fall for a trap like that. You hear them before you see them, scrambling into the shadows and making yourself as close to the wall as possible behind a set of thick pipes - probably sewage, but who cares at this point?

Three trolls - you count them from their voices. They're speaking English in their unrecognisable accents. You were used to the trolls you knew speaking in something not unlike an American accent but you're not sure if they picked that up after talking to your lot for so long. Who knows. Who cares?

They're rambling about how the trap (ha!) was a stupid idea and nobody's ever going to fall for a well-presented platter of food. One of them says they've got five on the run to track down tonight and they're getting nowhere with these shitty traps. You almost, almost panic when you hear struggling and crying and screaming and then the unmistakable sound of a foot hitting a burlap sack - you watch enough movies to be able to know that sound from a mile off underwater - and you look out to see one of the trolls holding the end of said bag, and something clearly person shaped writhing inside it, whimpering. Your heart stops for a moment and you can feel the bile rising in your throat and it takes all you can muster not to go over there and kick the shit out of every single one of them; but they're big, much bigger than you and bigger than Bro ever was and you can't take them on by yourself, not tonight, not when they're looking for you.

You feel like a coward as you shrink further back into the shadows, biting the inside of your cheek as you hear the not-quite-loud-enough-to-guess-a-gender-or-race-or-if-you-know-them whimper erupts from the bag as the trolls move on further down the other side of the alleyway. You sigh, counting out five full minutes before moving, making sure to take a different way through the maze system than they took.

Something moves about four yards behind you and you break into a full run, looking back over your shoulder to absolutely nothing following you but don't stop running or you'll get culled before you smack into something very solid at a fast pace and land painfully, your head smacking the pavement pretty hard as something growls at you and holy shit you know that pathetic excuse for an intimidating noise anywhere, you look up and-

"Karkat?"

He blinks, then, his mouth still open and teeth still bared as he stands up from his defensive stance, eyeing you warily as he slowly closes his mouth. He's so much older, his eyes a brilliant red and his height significantly increased, and he's in ripped clothes, he needs a serious visit to someone who can tame his hair and he looks like absolute shit but it's Karkat. You forget you were running from anything.

"...Dave?" He says it with such doubt, taking a small step forwards and offering you his hand to stand up. His voice is deeper and rougher and he's lost too much weight but it's him. It's definitely him.

You look at his hand and back to him, muttering a "yeah" despite the fact the question didn't need answering, and instead of letting go once you're up you use your hand to pull him into the most violent, desperate hug you've ever given another living being. To your surprise, he clings back just as fiercly and you're not sure why you're surprised, he's been just as alone as far as you know and he's reliving a nightmare part of his life at an even more dangerous level. You pull away pretty fast because why the fuck are you hugging Karkat Vantas in the middle of a damp, dark alleyway when you're both about five minutes from getting killed just for being a bit Too Red for the ideal colour scheme?

"We've gotta keep moving." You say, trying to pull Karkat back the way he came, the way you were heading originally, but he stops you, One hand held by your wrist raising up and the other pushing at your chest forcefully to stop you pulling him back.

"Not that way you dumbass! Christ, Strider why do you think I was running this way?!" He whisper-shouts at you, close up with his eyes glaring and ridiculously bright in the darkness.

"Well why the fuck do you think I was running this way?!" You whisper-shout back at him, and it's a stupid thing to do in any other situation but then you hear the creaking, groaning noise coming from that way and you both instantly slam against the wall hard enough to knock the wind out of you.

"What the fuck do we do?" He asks you, then, and suddenly you're fifteen and back on the meteor again and you're hiding from Rose and her list of assigned chores and it's all you can do not to cry. Six years has changed you, and not just physically. You shades are the only thing you've salvaged from the boy you used to be - necessary in order to live day-to-day without getting the drones sent after you. Eye colour was the only thing they could use to distinguish order within the humans appearance and guess who got stuck right at the fucking bottom?

"There was another way out of this system back the way I came-" You start, Karkat cutting you off as he pushes off the wall.

"Well what are we waiting for?" He says, and you have to grab his arm and yank him back because Jesus Christ he's gotten stronger and harder to chuck around than the kid you suplexed out of cape entanglement on numerous occasions.

"There was another way out," You continue through gritted teeth as he bares his slightly-more-intimidating fangs at you, "But that's the way the fucking hunter squad dragged off some poor bastard in a burlap sack."

As soon as you've said the words you regret them, because the fire and the anger in Karkat's eyes then almost makes you fear for your life and wonder just how much of the troll you knew is still in there, but he takes a deep breath in a well-practiced manner and detaches your hand from his shirt, digging his nails in a tad too much as he does so, just to let you know not to fuck about.

"Well then you know what we're going to fucking do, don't you?"

You groan, hiding your face in your hands in a perfect imitation of your 15 year old self, "We're gonna be heroes aren't we?"

Just like that you're following Karkat back through the alleyway, his eyes more accustomed to the darkness and his senses much more heightened by nature and his survival instinct. Sometimes you hate being a human, but you'd rather get culled than admit that to him.

He's much more agile now, quieter and swifter than the clumsy teenager you used to strife with. You suppose it's been necessary for him to be like this, so aware and ready to run at the slightest danger. You thought he'd have been culled by now. It's an awful truth you've had to live with for years, that Karkat would be in this world somewhere being just as low down as you, and he might have already been caught and killed for no goddamn reason other than they don't want him breeding.

You're mid-thought when he flings an arm back to your chest and smacks you right into the wall. You barely suppress a cough and swearing when you hear their voices around the corner. You know this part of town and you know that's not a dead-end down there; but you also know hunters aren't going to run away from two "Mutants" with one already in the bag. Literally. Karkat looks at you, then, snapping you out of your running thoughts with a slight shove to your chest again and you nod at him, you're paying attention you swear, sorry Karkat. He moves back to look around the corner slightly and you lean over his shoulder to get a look. He's barely shorter than you now, so you have to crane your neck.

"So what do we do, just run at them and hope for the best?" You whisper, more to his hair than anything else - that shit is wild and right up in your face. Goddamn.

"Not exactly." He says, "Get your sword out."

He's already got the sickles out - the old training ones with the wooden handles and self-sharpened blades, and you've barely equipped yourself - struggling with the sheath at your side for a moment - before he steps out into the alleyway, right in front of the trio about thirty feet away. He's pulled his sleeves up to his elbows as he calls out to them.

"So which one of you miserable grubfucking bilgesacks wants to get a piece of me?!" He yells out, dragging the blade of one of his sickles over his arm just deep enough to clearly show his blood, as if his glowing eyes weren't enough to show them that. You're almost frozen to the spot as time seems to stand still, Karkat practically smiling as two of the three trolls grab their weapons and seem to fly towards him; you don't know how but suddenly you're right there and blocking them from him, a sword unlike any you've seen and a long wooden stick colliding with your own blade. The sound is deafening.

"Go!" You yell at Karkat, and he ducks under the raised weapons and towards the third party member and the unfortunate fucker in the bag behind him. You wish you could pay attention to what they're doing - if Karkat's alright fighting alone - but you have your hands full. The dude with the stick keeps trying to swing at your legs while the swordsman is clumsily swinging at you as if the sword is another living being he's trying to get hold of and tame. Using this to your advantage, you drive downwards until his blade is catching on his shoulder and cutting into his skin enough for his bright teal blood to seep out. You shove backwards, kicking as a block to the offensive stick threatening to break through your shins, and it goes spinning off into the night and soon you're being jumped on, teeth and claws attempting to tear at you as you push the tealblood's blade further into his shoulder. You're holding back, you know you are.

Karkat's voice carries over the angry growling of the trolls attacking you "Don't think, Dave, just do it!" and you drive the blade home, the foreign metal slicing easily through the troll's thick skin and far down into his chest as you push him away, the other troll fighting to pull you back, biting into your shoulder as hard as he can and you can feel yourself about to fall down as you push the body from your grasp and turn to punch this fucker right between the eyes. You can't see Karkat from your current angle but you can hear his primal snarling and find it horribly, dreadfully comforting as you knock the other troll off your shoulder and swing at him, the wound burning as your muscle moves under the torn skin.

"If I get an infection from this asshole I swear to god..." You say, hopefully loud enough for Karkat to hear you. He scoffs in return, the curved blades of his sickles making a hauntingly melodic sound as they practically sharpen themselves against the blade of the guy Karkat's still fighting. Biter (you've gotta name the guy something so you know what to tell the next asshole who tries to attack you) is not giving up, despite the fact he's weaponless and you keep landing blow after blow on his arms, shoulders, legs. He blocks the blade with his bare hand and tries to tug it from you, releasing blue blood all over the alleyway floor as he slips. You hear a cry of pain and a faint gurgling sound from the other fight and your heart almost stops until Karkat is flying out of nowhere and slicing at Biter with both blades and the precision of a veteran surgeon.

Doctor, doctor, I have the uncontrollable urge to bite innocent human males!

It's not long before Karkat lands a blow right to the guy's throat, the curved blade hooking in and around, dragging and spraying blood all over the wall behind. You both stop as the last body slumps to the ground, the only sound is the pair of you's laboured breathing and the distant groaning of the drone still wandering the rustblood district. There is blood everywhere. Karkat's covered in it. He looks absolutely disgusted with himself as he wipes the mixture of green and blue blood from his hands. You pretend not to notice just how much there is.

"Go let them out." He says, wiping at a smudge of blue on his cheek with a resigned, tired look on his face. You say nothing as you jog to the bag, tugging at the knot before deciding it's too damn tight and ripping through the side instead. There's a small female rustblood in there, she can't be older than 7 in human years. You notice how many wounds cover her bare arms and legs, her dress ripped and twisted horns battered. They're curled upwards from her head and look like they've been filed down at the points. You feel sick even as you pull her out, ask her name - Anyara, you tell yourself you'll remember it - and Karkat comes over to talk to her.

"Why did they take you?" He asks her quietly, leaning down to her level as he speaks. You step back and let him talk.

"I was out past curfew, I know I wasn't meant to be but I was at my friend's house and my lusus must be worried sick! I left her all alone!" She's crying and your heart breaks a little with every shaky sob that leaves her, "Please don't kill me!"

You never pegged Karkat as good with kids but he lifts her up with ease, supporting her lower back as she grabs hold of his shoulder and cries openly into it. He gives you a small look, and you don't quite know what it means until he speaks again.

"We'll get you somewhere safe, alright? This whole situation is stupid and you need to get home. The sun'll be up in a few hours so once we get you away from here I'll need you to describe where your hive is. We'll get you home."

You take a bag and some food from the dead trolls before you leave. If you're gonna be murderers you might as well be thieves, too. When you say this out loud all you get is a growl from Karkat and a gruff reminder that murder is no longer a thing that even kind of exists, Strider, stop making it sound worse than it is. You move through the maze of alleyways, Karkat following quiet prompts from Anyara as you go. You can't hear them talking, but you know they are. If you were more used to having people around you might be offended, but as it is, safety in numbers is less of a thing than murder is, and you're too used to going solo to be offended that Karkat would rather talk to a kid than you.

"There!" Is the next word you hear from the girl, as she points up the opposite road, "With the banners in the window!"

Karkat ducks quickly across the road, leaving you in the shadows. You mutter a curse under your breath as you look both ways before crossing the fucking road, because you're a sensible motherfucker and you don't want to die tonight. Karkat's already halfway up the small road before you catch up with him, the poorly paved pathway and too-dark-to-be-grass grass mixing into one as you approach the small hive.

"Hide out with your lusus until the drones are gone. They won't come back to anywhere they've already visited so you should be alright." Karkat says, then, pushing the girl towards her house. She runs in through the door, waving back at the two of you in thanks before disappearing into the dark building. You look at Karkat but he's already back in flight mode, glancing around for immediate danger before looking back to you.

"The sun'll be up soon." You note at the warming horizon, just visible from your slightly sloped vantage point.

"Shit." Karkat says, louder than either of you expected him to, and then immediately pulls you around the back of one of the buildings and covers his mouth.

"Stop being so fucking jumpy for fuck sake, it's putting me on edge!" You hiss at him, and he looks shocked for a minute before composing himself, getting the angry, indignant expression you remember from six years ago.

"Oh I'm sorry, Strider! I didn't realise this whole situation was fun for you! Don't mind me trying to save both our fucking lives and survive one more mating and culling season, if you want to go get some food and a patterned floor covering cloth we'll sit down and have a fucking lawnmeal! Shit, I should have invited the assholes we kicked the shit out of in the alleyway, we could have all sat down and settled our differences over a nice cup of Go Fuck Yourself with a side of Shove It Up Your Wastechute You Ignorant Bilgesack!"

You grin, "There's the Karkat I remember!"

"Shut the fuck up."

"And if the whole mating thing is really such an issue I'm sure I can help you out."

"Oh my god if you don't shut your ignorance shaft right the fuck now I'll shove a sickle down it so hard I'll only have to wait five minutes before you shit it back out." He sighs, looking around, "Now can we please find somewhere to stay before the sun comes up and we get eaten by walking rotten corpses?"

"Yes, Sir!"

You walk for what feels like forever to your tired legs. You're lost humming a long-forgotten tune and following the image of Karkat walking infront of you. He's got something tied around his neck, and you focus on that as you walk. His outfit hasn't changed much, but he's switched the sweatpants for jeans and the faux-turtleneck for a lightweight shirt without his insignia on it and a stupid brown travelling cloak. It's weird. It's like it's him but not him. You suppose you've changed alot, too. You're down three more sets of alleyways and the sky is getting considerably brighter before Karkat speaks again.

"If you were wondering, we're going back to my hive."

You look up sharply, "Is that safe? I mean if you were out here surely that means they already know where you live?"

"No, I leave my house two days before every Collection Period. It looks abandoned from the outside and I always board it up. They barely know I exist." He sighs.

"That seems like a pretty shitty way to be living, man." You speed up a little, skipping a step so you're walking alongside him.

"It's that or get killed, Strider. I don't want to die."

You hear the pain in that sentence and have to stop yourself flinching. You've been living in fear but Karkat's been living in terror. Every day for both of you has been survival, but you had no idea Karkat would be so... so scared. It doesn't suit him.

"Stop giving me that look you asshole. See over there? In the trees?" You look to where he's pointing, spotting a small mass of rock and wood amongst the foliage. He's right, despite being two storeys tall it looks completely abandoned, every window and door is boarded, and the decorative fabrics torn and burnt.

You make it there pretty much just in time, Karkat showing you the back entrance (you made a joke, he hit you) and getting inside just as the sun begins to rise over the horizon. You look around the dimly lit, windowless room. Karkat explains that it's the only room with a lightbulb in because nobody could tell from the outside. You don't say anything, simply looking around and taking everything in. This is where Karkat's been living for the past six years. It's... almost completely empty? The whole of the downstairs is basic furniture and almost no personal belongings save a couple of books stacked up on the table. You point this out to him and he just shrugs, going to search through one of the lower cupboards in what you assume to be the kitchen.

"No point collecting shit if every day's a debate of whether or not you're gonna die, is there?" He says calmly, and you have to stop yourself from punching him because how could be be so resigned? How is he not fighting every step of the way? You're so angry with him for accepting the possibility of his death as something inevitable and unavoidable as pure fact and just something that happens. "Now if you're done being incomprehensibly stupid I'm gonna wrap up that bite for you."

"Nah man it's not that bad," You assure him, moving your arm about to drive the point home - only succeeding in opening the wound and making yourself wince. He raises an eyebrow at you and you sit down on the table.

"Take off your shirt."

"Ooh Karkat, bit forward."

"Don't be an asshole I can't clean it if you have dirty fabric all over it."

You drop the bag down next to the table and tug off your shirt, hissing when the fabric starts to pull away at the drying, tacky blood. Karkat tries to ease it off as carefully as he can, which you're thankful for, but it doesn't help much. He doesn't apologise when the unfamiliar chemical stings the open wound, washing away the blood from your shoulder. He's not exactly gentle and you're not entirely comfortable with being so exposed, but your shades are miraculously still on your face and that's one thing you can hold on to.

"Why are you still wearing those?" He asks, as if he thinks he's some kind of mind reader who isn't painfully molesting your shoulder with trollcohol and gauze.

When you respond, it's a little more angrily than you intended, "To keep the sun out of my eyes why do you fucking think?"

He goes silent as he wraps the rest of the bandage around you, the strange fabric holding in place once he's done wrapping it around your shoulder and upper arm. He's about to go put the box away when you speak up.

"Sorry." You say, getting no response from it, "What about your arm?"

"What about my fucking arm?" He asks, turning around.

"It needs wrapping up, you asshole, you basically cut it open earlier."

"Unlike with you weakling fucking sorry excuse for living beings, troll wounds are less likely to go septic and fall the fuck off. Calm down, I'll be fine."

You roll your eyes, going to stand up and walking towards him, "At least let me wrap it up for you, come on we can play doctor-patient. You can pretend you're a massively suicidal asshole, the role was practically made for you, I can convince you life is worth living and you should live it with me, we'll move to the countryside, have a couple kids, maybe get a dog..." You trail off at the look he's giving you, meeting his gaze evenly for a good few minutes before he hands you the box and goes to sit down.

He has to talk you through everything, because it's all labelled in his fucking language and you still haven't learnt to read it properly - no need to when all you buy is food and you don't give half a shit about the news. His wound is almost completely clean, a straight, thin line diagonally across his forearm. He has other cuts and scratches - as do you - but this is the only one that could cause even kind of a problem. Scratches and grazes are easily healed with a shower. You'll never admit it out loud, but you'd rather hide out here forever than have to move again when night falls, even though you know you'll have to.

Karkat basically throws blankets at you before disappearing upstairs, and you can't help but fall asleep as soon as you lay down on his small but comfortable couch.

When you wake, you're cold and your shoulder is throbbing. You can hear movement in the next room and momentarily panic before remembering where you are. It's probably just Karkat getting a drink or something. You close your eyes again and are too far asleep to do anything when you hear what seems to be a quiet whimper coming from the kitchen area. You're already being enveloped by darkness.

Your dreams are few and far between, colours splattered on brick walls by your own sword, but this time there is nobody else there, only you surrounded by trolls with weapons much fiercer and foreign than yours. Their blood covers you and fear grips your heart and lungs as you hold back screams of anger and pain.

When you wake, you remember nothing, and the cold night air has returned.

Karkat spots you on his way through, dressed in his same clothes but looking a little more refreshed than before, "Finally, Strider, thought you were going to sleep all fucking night. Come the fuck on, the sun's going down and we've got to move. They always check here at night, but we can go into the trees..." He trails off as he goes into the kitchen, "Where did you put the bag?"

"By the table." You call back, your voice croaky. Your shades are down on the floor beside the couch but you can't be bothered to pick them up before wandering out into the kitchen to see what he's doing. He's packing food. "You weren't serious about the picnic were you?"

He stops, turning towards you, "What the fuck is a picnic?"

"Oh... uh... a human lawnmeal?" You try, remembering the term from earlier. He scoffs at you, shaking his head.

"No but we should probably avoid starving and I can't be bothered with all the catch-and-kill shit I've been doing for the past week."

You think that's fair, tugging your shirt sleeves down and re-tying your shoelaces. Best to be ready to run, after all. Karkat seems tired, today - not physically, but just in general. You don't like it much. You try telling him to cheer up and shoving his shoulder like you used to, but he just tells you to stop fucking around and make yourself useful by standing on guard by the door. You sigh and stand there, looking out into near-darkness for anything that could be a threat, until you feel a push at your shoulder from behind and you're following Karkat into the woodland behind the house. You move silently through the undergrowth, avoiding twigs and movable stones where you can. Karkat simply walks through, shoving branches out of the way as he goes, and you wonder momentarily how he's even survived this long with such a careless attitude towards letting things know of his whereabouts. Then you see the light reflecting from those sunset claws as he pushes another branch out of the way and you remember how easily he tore those other trolls apart in the alleyway.

You'd be worried that he'd changed too much, that he wasn't the Karkat you walked through that endgame door with six years ago, except for the fact that you saw how he was afterwards. Once it was over and they were gone, his expression torn between relief and disgust at himself as he tried desperately to get their blood off of him. How he could barely speak to you after the instinct to kill or be killed had left him and it was Karkat again.

You can see him now, walking in front of you, not even bothering to look back to check if you're there because he knows you are, no matter how silently you walk. You remember how hard it is for trolls to show their vulnerable side to anyone, and realise that if you wanted to, you could have a clear shot at the back of the short troll's neck with your sword from this angle and distance. He's trusting you not to do that; not only that, he's not even mentioned it as a thing he's doing, he's just instantly slipped back into trusting you just as he did all those years ago in a game in another universe. You smile, then, jogging to catch up with him and swinging an arm around his shoulders as you ask him what everything is. Everything. It could be a small shrub you don't recognise, a fruit hanging from a low branch ("It's poisonous Strider, don't touch it") right down to insects on the trees. He's starting to get tired of it but he doesn't stop explaining.

You reach an area where the shrubland outweighs the trees and Karkat stops, making you bump into him slightly as he looks around, and you swear to god if he is even kind of sniffing the air right now you're gonna go right the fuck on and find some other crazy-ass troll to chill with.

"Can you climb?" He asks you, then, and you've managed to half nod in barely suppressed confusion before he's chucking the bag at you and hauling himself up a tree about four metres away. You watch in surprise as he drags himself up the trunk, the only sound audible in the quiet forest the small scrapes of his shoes on the bark. He's halfway up when he swings his upper body down and asks you to pass over the bag so you can get up, too.

You drag yourself up, using what you can remember from your days of totally ironic parkour to get up the tree with minimal damage. You slip a couple times and hear Karkat stifle laughter as you accidentally swing upside down, but soon you're on the same level as he is and he's handing you a bottle of something clearish yellow. Fucker brought you apple juice. You could kiss him.

You almost thank him, but settle for a joking "This better not be piss, dude." instead, to which he looks confused and reminds you that he's not a yellowblood and you cringe ever so slightly as you drink.

You're sat there for a good ten minutes in absolute silence. It's chilly tonight, but not too cold - the breeze rustles through the trees but barely cuts through your thin clothing. Karkat's staring off into the distance somewhere, probably having confusing and deep thoughts about everything he can possibly attribute to being his fault at that precise moment. He starts biting lightly at his lip and you nudge him with your foot, kicking a little harder when he doesn't immediately look up.

"What?"

"How did we do this?" You ask, and he looks confused, "Like, just go back as if we haven't been like, strangers for the past six fucking years? How do I know you're still you, how do you know I'm still me?"

"You're still a douchebag, I'm still angry at everything you do. Done." He stares back out at the same patch of air until you kick him a little harder, "Fuck sake Strider. Alright fine, you're still you because if you weren't you wouldn't be here. You wouldn't have stuck with me."

"You got taller." You offer, and then he's laughing and you're laughing; he shoves you and you almost fall off the branch but it doesn't matter because goddamn you missed this asshole. It barely occurred to you how much you missed him until you bumped into him in that alleyway. Just having someone else around who can backchat your banter and hold their own in an argument or strife with you is such a luxury, one you ever really appreciated when you were younger. Seeing him now, older but still so much the same; he's grown with you while growing apart. You're you because you're there, he's him because he wants you to be.

"So is this it?" You ask, and he looks at you for a moment before answering, seemingly weighing up how to take the question.

"Yeah, we can wait up here pretty comfortably until sunrise and if they come in they barely ever look up." He says. You smile a little because he chose the easy answer over the one you were looking for.

Is this it for the rest of our lives?

You pull your sleeves down over your forearms, unaware you'd even pushed them up to begin with. The air's getting colder, but not uncomfortably so. The only uncomfortable thing is the thick branch threatening to make your ass go numb, and if you do get ambushed you'll go to stand up on your useless lower body and fall flat on your face. No room for numb-assed soldiers in this regiment. You shuffle your position slightly, swinging your leg over one side of the branch - carefully, obviously, this is a very delicate procedure - and your sneaker slips on the bark and you're about half a second from plummeting to the ground when a hand's got your arm. Your wide, shadeless eyes are staring right forwards to the ground below and you're hovering for a moment before you're getting dragged back upright by a wide-eyed Karkat.

"Fucking hell, Strider, are you trying to kill yourself?" He asks you, still holding on to your upper arm. You look down at his hand and he lets go so fast you worry you burned him before you got a chance to speak.

"Maybe that was just a crazy-ass trust exercise and I kept my ability to fly outside of the game?"

"You didn't."

"Nah I didn't. Tried, though!" You say cheerfully, and he just sighs like a mother who just got told her kid was trying to eat cardboard because it looks like wafer biscuits. You grin at him, then, and he scowls in return, "What's up?"

"You smiling, without your fucking sunglasses on. It's like..." He trails off, not looking at you.

"Shit's changed too much, hasn't it?" You ask, dropping the smile and casting your eyes downwards, "Least I'm not the only one with the freaky hellfire eyes anymore."

"Yeah and I got nightvision, too."

"Don't rub it in, jerkface."

"Bulgemuncher."

"Fuckass."

"That's my line!" He swipes at you and you catch his wrist, laughing at the offended expression on his face as he twists his arm, trying to pull away without falling.

All it takes is the quiet sound of a breaking twig, and both of you have pulled yourselves up - with some difficulty - to crouch on the branches you're stood on, stabilising yourselves with your hands as you look towards the noise, the only noise following for a few seconds is your quiet breathing and the wind in the leaves, before voices drift up to you from the just-under-twenty-feet drop under your branches.

You can't hear what they're saying, but they have searchlights. You look at Karkat, his eyes glowing brightly in the darkness. Shit. His mystical fucking red-and-golds are going to get you both killed.

"Don't look down." You try and mouth to him. He looks confused, his features only just visibly contorting. You risk letting do with one of your hands to point first at Karkat, then at your eyes, and then make an open-close hand gesture to signal that they're brighter than the fucking sun, stop looking down you asshole.

He looks panicked for a moment before he closes his eyes altogether and you replace your hand on the branch. The figures pass by right underneath you - two trolls, fairly small from where you are, but how the fuck could you really tell from up here anyway? You take as shallow breaths as possible, looking to Karkat to see him still crouched, eyes closed, claws digging in to the tree enough to have made a mark in the soft wood. They pass by but you still tell Karkat to keep still, he says nothing, keeping his stance and evening out his breathing so it's barely audible. Your legs ache as you crouch, your arms and calf muscles burning with effort as you count out a full ten minutes before the voices get louder again, coming back the same way, hopefully unsuccessful in their hunt.

They're carrying nothing as they pass by underneath the two of you, disappearing back through the trees and towards the open road. You count five more minutes before allowing yourself to relax, nudging Karkat a little before sitting down - you practically melt back into the now perfectly comfortable branch, leaning your head back against the trunk. Karkat sits back, too, his branch close by but a little higher than yours, so your shoulder just brushes the middle of his upper arm as he settles back. He's not talking, settling for looking into that interesting patch of air again.

You start talking to him; telling him what you've been doing the past six years - you tell him about your end of the neighbourhood, the hivestems reaching up to sixteen floors - how your neighbour is a selfcentred little asshole and treats you like shit just because you're the only human in the complex. One time you caught him going through your mail in the downstairs lobby and you punched him right the fuck out in front of like six other people. Nobody said anything. Points to Trolls for not considering justified punching as against the law. Negative side, murder is no longer a thing that counts as a thing, and neither is rape.

Rape is, of course, still a thing. Just nobody gets fucking arrested for it nowadays because they're clearly in a calignous relationship, don't you see? She's thriving off the idea of getting him in trouble, stop being so culturally insensitive.

Karkat just listens, looking at you with a face that makes him look like the same young troll who you used to try and cheer up on a daily basis back on the meteor. His eyes are half-closed, his arms folded on his knees and his face half-rested in the crook of his elbow. His eyes are still the brightest fucking things, but you don't mind much. You're happy to keep talking and wasting time.

Time is something you're familiar with, but happy to see it passing.

Though maybe, just once, you'd like to go back and never go through that door, stable time loops or not. You'd take a doomed timeline of being useful over a lifetime of running any day.

You run out of things to say, eventually, and decide to voice that last thought to Karkat. He hasn't reacted up until this point but as soon as you say you'd want to go back he growls and elbows you hard in the arm.

"Don't fucking say that, you asshole." He says angrily, going back to hiding half his face in his arm, "Not after all this."

"What do you mean? You wouldn't want to go back?" You ask, sitting up and turning a little to face him. He says nothing, just continues glaring at the distance until you drop it and join him in staring out. He only speaks again to offer you some of the food from the bag, which you decline. You're not really hungry anymore. You count the minutes as they pass, shuffling your place every now and then to avoid falling asleep. You get bored after twenty minutes and stand up, beginning to pull yourself further up the tree.

"Where are you going?" Karkat calls up, quietly but clearly in the silence of the night.

"Exploring. Feel free to come with." You say back, pulling yourself up on two forked branches and pretending you don't know how high up you are. You hear scrambling and swearing from below you and soon Karkat's catching up with your climbing, bag slung over his shoulder as he reaches a short branch right next to yours - you're seperated only by a branch at about chest-height, both of you holding on to that and the trunk as you look around. You can feel the branch under your feet, pushing your shoe into a curve and creating an extraordinarily unsettling, almost slippery feeling as you turn your feet. You're as high up as you can get.

"Now what, smartass?" Karkat asks you, and his anger seems to catch on the weather because the tree shakes slightly in the wind and you both have to grab on to the branch between you. Your heart stops and you grab hold of Karkat's shoulder in what looks like the worst one-armed hug ever as you notice his footing starting to go, pulling him up and towards you as he grasps on to the branch, eyes shut tight even as the wind dies down and he can steady himself.

"Now we go the fuck back down before you die." You say decisively, still holding his shirt in your hand as he nods and looks downwards.

You let go of him as the two of you climb back down to your original spot. He sits down almost immediately, swearing up and down that he's never climbing that far up any tree ever again no matter what the fucking situation is, no way. You tell him to calm down and put a hand on his shoulder, pretending to accidentally put it to his chest first because of the darkness just to check he's alright, still alive - his heart is racing. You don't blame him. You wonder if what he felt catching you earlier was anything close to what you're feeling now.

As you remove your hand from his shoulder you remind yourself to never, ever bring it up.

You're sat there for a while before the sky starts to brighten once more, sharing small talk and food. You're cold, and looking forward to getting back to the vague warmth of Karkat's hive. It must be lonely there, you think - you may have had assholes for neighbours but at least you had neighbours, Karkat's been living alone, without even his lusus and oh god you didn't even realise his lusus wasn't there you can officially never leave him out here alone again that is so not cool. You both scramble down from the tree at what you tell to be almost three in the morning, walking back to the hive in the slowly disappearing darkness and relative silence.

As soon as you get in, Karkat seems to forget ever being silent, dropping the bag down on the counter and yawning so loud you hear his jaw go, then loudly cracking his arms and spine. You shake your head, going to scope out the house for danger because you're not exactly trusting and laid back as a person. Karkat doesn't ask where you're going, simply heads upstairs to check out the place so you don't have to wander up to his room.

You hear him scream, then, when you're halfway around the next room, and immediately sprint upstairs, drawing your sword. Your mind races with all the possible situations, every concievable hold they could have him in and exactly how to strike them without getting him in the middle, and as you shove your hand against the strange door you pretty much have a plan sorted. But then he's just stood there in the middle of the room and he bursts out laughing at your reaction. Practically crying with laughter as you put your sword back, taking a step backwards.

"You know what Karkat?" You say quietly, your heart still racing with unresolved panic, "Fuck you seven ways from fucking Sunday you asshole."

You head back downstairs, sitting down on the couch and pretending not to be angry as he follows you down, still laughing a little, "Come on Strider I was just fucking around, don't be such a wriggler!"

You ignore him right up until he sits down beside you, waiting until he reaches out to poke you in the arm before you move, grabbing his hand and shoving him over, tumbling the two of you to the floor in a way not unlike you used to when he pissed you off when you were younger. He wasn't ready for it. That was always when you won. You get him pinned, the couch on one side of him and your arm on the floor on the other, arm rested across his neck. He growls at you and you grin, letting him stand up and pulling him from the floor.

"We're even." You say, bending to pick up your shades from where you left them before, just next to where you had Karkat pinned. They're scratched and weathered but they're still yours.

He rolls his eyes, shoving your shoulder as he walks to the stairs, "Whatever. I'm going for a shower, you want me to keep the hot running for you after?"

"Yeah man, thanks."

You keep yourself busy while you wait by reading one of his old books, only getting every other word of the language but doing well enough to know what's going on, the story seems to be about a lowblood male who is developing red feelings for his kismesis and the resulting tension forces his matesprit to... wait a second. You flip the cover over to look at it, and oh good god this is it. This is the book Karkat brandished at you on the meteor! This is the one you forced him to read aloud to you on uncountable endless nights hurtling through space! You're so glad he had this in his sylladex when you went through that fucking door. You don't need to read it now, you know how it ends, but you want to just for the memory.

You slide it into your bag as he comes back down the stairs in fresh clothes and slightly shorter hair. He's wearing grey sweatpants (!) and a plain black short-sleeved tshirt. Sleeping clothes, you assume. He nods towards the stairs at you as he goes to the kitchen, and you can hear the water running as you walk up the stairs.

He seems to have just a normal working shower, which is nice. You had them in the hivestem but you weren't sure if that's just because of you being human or whatever. You strip off your torn, bloodied clothes faster than you ever have before in your life, chucking your shades onto the pile before stepping under the hot stream of water. It's blissful, washing off all the dirt and grime of running around and hiding and just being a human male in general. You feel your hair softening and your body becoming yours again as you wash it all off, pulling off the bandage on your shoulder before it gets soaked through and letting the water run over the bite wound, making it sting and throb a little, but you remind yourself it'll be better in the long run. There's no labelled soaps and bottles of fairy-scented whatever, but you don't need that. You just needed hot water and five minutes to yourself. You hear a knock on the door to the bathroom as you shut the water off and realise you don't actually have a towel or anything.

"Come in but I'm pretty much entirely naked." You call out, and you're surprised when Karkat opens the door anyway, seemingly less interested in your genitals than you would be in his place. Cold air rushes in through the open door.

"Yeah well guess who came to the fucking rescue?" He says, holding out a towel for you and then handing you a pile of... shit did he bring you pyjamas? Spares of his probably, but that's so fucking thoughtful, and you didn't get him anything except almost killed!

"Thanks man..." You trail off, holding the towel around yourself with one hand and clothes in the other as Karkat tells you to shut up and closes the door again. You dry off quickly, pulling the black pyjama bottoms and a soft brown tshirt on before rubbing over your hair one more time (just to be sure) and heading back downstairs.

He's laid out the blanket and stuff again, and the sun's just starting to come up outside as he pulls makeshift curtains over the areas of the windows that aren't boarded up. You say a brief goodnight to him but almost as soon as he reaches the stairs you go back and hug him. He's facing away from you and he's already taken a step upwards, but you lock him in with your arms and rest your forehead on his shoulder anyway because you just need to. You need something familiar, and before this whole fucking ordeal hugging Karkat was one of the most familiar things you had to hang on to. He stays there for a moment before taking a step backwards, forcing you to follow suit, and then he turns around in your arms and hugs you back, angrily and just like you remember. His brain's probably doing a full three-sixty on the pity scale right now but you don't care, bro hugs were always a thing.

You let go, then, and neither of you say a word as you go your seperate ways at the staircase. You head back over to the couch and fall face-down into the pillows, pulling the blanket over you and falling instantly into an uneasy sleep. Only a few more days until the collection period is over, you tell yourself as you close your eyes. Only a few more days.

You wake up colder than usual this time, a freezing breeze attacking you from all angles as you shudder awake. You feel sick, like something is terribly, terribly wrong, and if everyone would just shut up and stop screaming for a second maybe you could work ou-

Oh.

Oh shit.

You bolt upright on the couch, screams and shouts coming more clearly as you adjust and force yourself to wake up fully. There is banging, the sound of metal on flesh coming from upstairs and you're running. You know he's not fucking around this time because his screams are of pain and you've never heard him cry your name out so desperately... Right as you reach the bottom step you feel cold metal touching your back through your shirt - through Karkat's shirt - and you panic. You need to get upstairs but you have attackers on this floor. What's the probability they will shoot you before you reach Karkat? Would you rather fight them off first?

Neither answer matters, they're yelling at you to turn around so you do, swinging your sword as you do and slicing clean through the first Troll's rifle - the one that was on your back, most likely. Their metal is thin and weak, no match for your sword that has seen so much worse than them. Torchlight infiltrates your eyes as you swing again and you're blinded - your sensitive eyes only just accustomed to darkness, now with no shades to protect them from the harsh light and with no time to adjust as you're hit in the back of the head with something cold and heavy. You fall, hard, facing the stairs. Karkat is being dragged down by his shoulders, hands tied together in mockery using iron in the shape of the sign that was once his own. He's covered in a lot of his own blood and not much of theirs and your chest aches for him. You can hear his knees thudding against each step as they haul him down, even through their shouts and slurs and calls to eachother in their own language.

You look at him, and he looks at you with half-lidded eyes and just nods before dropping his gaze again, blood dripping from his mouth and everywhere, and you feel like a complete asshole for not putting up as much of a fight as he clearly did.

It's getting dark now, you note as they drag the two of you outside. You wonder if they'll cull you there and then or if they have to confer with a boss first. Maybe you'll get a ceremony. Put on your best suits boys we're going to have you executed for having a genetic defect that was out of your control and in no way your fault, isn't justice great?

They throw you in the back of what looks to you to be a van of some kind, if vans had bred with strange plants and dumb colours. The ride takes hours, and your arms are going numb and you can only just reach Karkat if you lean back and stretch a little - you're in the same section but you're chained to the wall next to eachother. After about twenty minutes of struggling to get your arm near his you settle for hooking your right leg over the ankle of his left and nudging his foot every now and then, as if this wasn't a terrible situation and you weren't definitely both about to die.

"It was gonna happen eventually." is what you want to say, but you can't see his face well enough to judge if he's even conscious and you think the joke might be in bad taste so you shut up, concentrating instead on your breathing, your muscles moving under your skin, anything but the pain you're in. Bro taught you how to do that; how to work through the pain until it becomes barely a thing worth mentioning, lil man, just ignore it and it goes away on it's own.

You're scared, though. One thing Bro could never teach you to stop feeling was fear, and you lived with that every day of your life. You're absolutely terrified, sat in the dark in the back of a van with your best bro, going god-knows-where for god-knows-how-long until getting killed by god-knows-who.

It's the uncertainty of it that gets you.

You'll never admit that to Karkat, though. So instead you continue to nudge his foot, only smiling about an hour in when he finally nudges you back.

The next time you're thrown to the floor - after being hit about pretty heavily by some armed blue-bloods - is on golden paved tiles. You've won a cookie, one of your theories was correct, they have to check with the head bitch before killing you on the spot. You glance to the side at Karkat but he's just staring at her, wide eyed and fearful. He's still covered in his own blood and he's pretty much wearing his old outfit and you feel sick seeing him like this again.

You look up at her, then, because she just coughed and you figured you were probably being rude or something. Obviously you recognise her, with her too-much-hair and too-tall-horns and skintight fucking what is that a playsuit come on queen bitch step up the class a little would you?

Her whole room stinks of a mixture of aquariums and perfume, it's sickening and pink and gold and awful. You'd honestly rather have died out behind Karkat's hive than let this be the last piece of shit room you ever see.

"Boys know why they're here right?" She asks the guards who brought you in - she bounces the word "boys" to sound more like "buoys" - she steps down to the level you're on, crouched on the floor with your hands tied behind your back; you sit up as straight as you can, "Course they do who am I kiddin'."

Karkat looks her dead in the eyes and asks one thing. You know he's just trying but you wish he hadn't said anything because as soon as he says the word "Meenah?" she hits him across the side of the head with a blunt edge of her double ended trident.

"Don't talk when I'm talkin' asshole." She says, and you mouth a 'worth a shot' at him when he looks over to you, "Anyway this shit is cray we gotta work out what to do with you now we got you."

You sit there in silence for a good few minutes, Karkat growling lowly beside you in a way that you're not sure whether it's pain or anger anymore; probably both.

"Aight boys I got a porpoisition for ya." She smiles, showing rows of perfectly sharpened, bright white teeth, like a shark's "If you can prove yourshellves useful I'll let ya live here, kay?"

You look at eachother, weighted stares in which you know each of you is trying to read the others' mind.

"That wasn't an offer boys it's that or slowly watch eachother get flogged to death by my guys out there. B-r-b gonna ring one-a my security to get you outta here. Talk later."

You're hauled out of the room and down several winding corridors and into what can only be described as a holding cell with no windows and a sickly green lamp set in to the far wall. It stinks in here. You're thrown in first, your hands untied and your body shoved against the ground, kneeling up only to be knocked down a second time by the force of descending injured Karkat. The door is shut and locked behind the two of you and you're alone for the first time since this mess started.

You don't bother sitting up again, instead rolling so Karkat's head is on your stomach instead of your spine.

"We're fucked." You voice out loud, and he coughs. It's a horrible, wet, tacky cough that makes you worried he's more injured than you thought, but then he calls you an asshole and tells you to shut up and you know he's at least a little bit alright.

You talk little, and only quietly. Mostly about what you think is going to happen now, and partly Karkat repeatedly apologising for thinking his hive would be safe, at which point you tell him to fuck off. The room is cold, and Karkat speculates that the greenish stinking light is probably some kind of sopor lamp, keeping prisoners calm and tired so they're less likely to fight back. You agree, it makes sense. Pretty clever actually.

Karkat's in pain, it's clear from his expressions and the way he keeps shifting his weight around, and when the door opens at what you guess to be about three hours later and they pick him up off the floor you're grabbing his hand and getting ready to fight them off, but you're hit in the ribs and you have to let go, watching him struggle weakly in their grip.

You sit staring at the door, wondering where he is, how he is, if he's alive. Maybe he's doing a task to prove his worth, maybe fighting? What if he's killed? What if he wins and you have to fight him?

Your thoughts are cut short when the door opens again and your arm is taken roughly by one of the guards - a human one, this time, which you find unsettling as you're pulled along a corridor by him and a troll - probably there in case you think you can get violent. You're pulled into a room, practically stripped and semi-cleaned as they rub some of that trollcohol stuff into your wounds (though unlike with Karkat's stuff, you can't feel this shit working its magic at all, it just stings). You're then told to change again and compose yourself for your second meeting with whatserface. Boss Lady. Is she still the Condesce?

Your heels collide heavily with the floors as you walk, using the heavy-footed walking you taught yourself when you were a teenager because the echoing on the meteor used to piss Karkat off something beautiful. You want him to hear you, wherever he is, but you also want that bitch to know you're coming.

You re-enter the room and immediately zone in on the form of Karkat on the floor, his skin clean of most of his blood but back in his clothes, which were still stained and torn. You're left to stand next to him, and you sidestep closer to him, feeling him nudge your arm in reassurance. He's fine, they didn't do anything to him, you'll both get through this.

"One thing I've always wanted, boys, is some fuckin entertainment around here." She starts, waving her hands animatedly and looking between the two of you for your reactions, no puns so far, you're hoping she's dropped them for now, "Right here, right now, you're gonna prove you can be that entertainment. Got that?"

You look to eachother, looking as confused as eachother but silently agreeing. You're the one to speak.

"What are the conditions?"

"You do everything I say, or I kill your buddy. Vice versa."

You look panicked for a moment, but then there are hands putting something metal around your neck and you almost fight back before realising that you can't. Not here. Karkat's got a new collar too, and you both look to eachothers' necks to see what it looks like.

They're silver bands about an inch and a half thick, each with one red jewel shining at the front of your throats.

"Troll, you're gonna do as I say or your human gets it, kay?"

"Yes." Karkat says, not even missing a beat as he glances over to you. You hate him for it, you'd rather die than let him be some bitch's pet.

"Blondie, same to you, got it?"

You look at Karkat, who is still staring atraight ahead, "Sure."

"Good. Let the games begin." She smiles, then, and you honestly didn't know what you expected when she says the next line. "Blackrom tonight I think. Start you boys off bloody seeing as that's how you came to me."

You glance at Karkat, noticing that he looks significantly more worried than you are and deciding to dial up your panic a little.

"Troll, you'll know how this works better than he does. Bite him."

Karkat stays still for the longest time, mouth slightly open as he stares at her. Watching him, you begin to feel a blinding, electrical pain in your throat and cry out, dropping to your knees and clawing at the heating metal around your neck - your eyes can't close tight enough and it's almost, almost too much before you feel a spark of pain in your shoulder instead and the electricity stops and Karkat is biting you but he's crying too and gripping your other shoulder with his hand. The pain of his bite is absolutely nothing compared to the electricity, and you promise yourself you will never, ever make him feel-

"Hit him, human, he just bit you."

You almost don't, but then Karkat pulls away from your shoulder long enough to say "fucking hit me Strider I dare you" and suddenly you're 15 again and it's a game and you swing at him and hit him right in the jaw. You hear him growl and you will happily admit you missed punch-ups with this guy.

"Hit him back Troll are you gonna take that?!"

She doesn't realise it's a game, now. Karkat's eyes are doing that glowy thing they do when his heart's racing and you've got your smirk back and goddamn, if all you have to do for this bitch is spar you've got this entertainment position down to a T. You're swinging and hitting without her to tell you, and she seems to be just fine with that. You pin him, he bites your forearm - you even bite him a couple of times but it doesn't do much and he has no trouble pointing that out jeeringly as he takes another swing. You're pretty bloodied up by the time he gets you knelt in a headlock and you can't break out, she's cheering him on and you think that's a bit racist but oh well.

"You know what to do, champion."

Karkat loosens on your throat and looks up at her, "Wait what?"

"Pail him, or I kill him."

Karkat stiffens against your back and you raise your arms to his covering your neck. You're panicking at the situation but not as much as you're panicking that when you're electrocuted Karkat's arm against the collar will mean he feels it too. You don't want him to know how much it hurts. She can't make either of you do this, surely?

But then you remember. Rape isn't a thing. She can totally make you do this.

The shocks start and you hear Karkat yelp at it too, his arm tightening against you as you fold over, pulling him with you as he braces his other arm on your shoulder. He presses his face into your hair and yells for her to stop, please just stop.

You tell him it's okay, no matter what he does it's okay. You can barely talk through the shocks but he hears you and protests, you yell and he growls louder at her to stop, fine, he'll do it. You thank him quietly when the shocks stop. You don't care what he does, if it'll get you both out of there you don't care.

She says something to him but you don't hear what it is through the blood pulsing back away from your burning neck. you only feel Karkat's hands on your skin, shaking and worrying as he runs his hands down your sides, resting his forehead on the back of your neck and apologising before reverting back to his given role, dragging his claws down your back and growling as you hiss in pain. If you're going to get fucked by your best friend in front of some unnecessarily rude important bitch you're damn well going to play the part, even if it's submissive.

It's a blur of his claws on your back, undoubtedly drawing blood as he does so, and he's taken your shirt and pants and you're the least comfortable you have ever been and you're not 15 anymore, you're an adult now and you are terrified of him despite the fact you know he's not doing this for himself but for you, he's doing this so you don't die.

You feel him outside of you and it's highly unsettling, you have a feeling he's clawing and biting at you to make his bulge think it's an alright time to come out. Forcing himself to be turned on at the sight of you there, naked and bleeding and god, you could be sick, he's doing all this for you and you know that but you can't help a whimper as you feel his bulge pause at your entrance. He leans down to bite at your shoulder and ask if you're okay but you just tell him to fuck off and hurry up already. You can feel the pain in him at your words - he's trying to make it okay, trying to make it so it's like you both want this, but you know better. You have to act the part, blackrom is noncon with kinks, you know that much. You're not dumb.

When he presses into you, then, it's not as gently as you'd hoped. But then you realise she's yelling at him again and threatening to push the button for your collar and he's rocking into you and you can feel him inside you, writhing and pulsing and you almost, almost moan before remembering that is Karkat all snug and cosy in there and he's just as unwilling as you here and your moan cuts off halfway as he bites you again, dragging his claws down your sides. You can feel him crying, and if you look to the side a little you can see his face, drenched in almost-pink glistening tears, eyes shut and partially shielded by his hair.

You're not crying. you're mad and hurting and you're starting to wish she'd just killed you. You're coping but Karkat is clearly not. You want to tell him to man up, shut up and get on with it but she's ordering him to stop anyway and soon he's pulled away from you and you're dragged off in another direction. She's yelling and you're hurting and you lose all sense of which direction you're going in until you finally black out from the pain and the bloodloss.

When you wake, you're in the holding cell again. Your entire body hurts, but you're clean and you're wearing new, freshly washed clothes for the first time in days. You look around the cell, but you're the only one there; if you were less drained you'd panic, but all you can bring yourself to do is sit up. You're about halfway through counting the tiles on the far wall when you notice a shifting movement in the opposite corner, someone hunched up in the shadows.

"Karkat?" You call out, and the person winces and opens their eyes, a bright yellow glowing in the darkness.

You feel like it would be right to be terrified of him, to curl up and scream for him to stay away from you, but you can see that buildup of pretty pink princess tears threatening to spill down his face and instead, you get up. You force yourself to make your way over to him, pulling him into your embrace and sitting there holding him. Just holding. Making sure he knows it's okay, that you don't hate him, that you're both going to find a way out of this or die trying.

He's apologising, quietly sobbing into your shirt as he does so. He used to do this alot, whenever he thought you were tired of hanging out with him, whenever he thought he was being a pain, when he was so sure everyone wanted him to fuck off and leave them alone and you'd just wordlessly hug him and let him cry it out.

But you're not 15 anymore. You're adults and you're in trouble and you want nothing more than for your old friends to burst through the door and tell you they've come to save you. You think John would instigate it; action movies were always his thing. Rose would probably play mindgames with the guards until they were too confused about their own psyche to notice Jade slipping through the side door with an M16.

But nobody's coming for you. Nobody even knows you're here. You were both alone when you found eachother, and now you're alone together.

It's hours later when you finally drift off to sleep, leaning in the corner of the room with Karkat clinging to you just as hard as you're clinging to him...

You bolt upright on the couch, eyes wide open and panting into the darkness. You're sweating, that cold, sick sweat you used to have after your nightmares when you were younger, amplified tenfold by the coldness of the night air. Your lungs are frozen and your skin is ice cold - you've overslept.

You're in Karkat's hive, still. You hear movement outside, like a soft scratching through the leaves round the back before you hear the distinct sound of someone trying the back door. You scramble up off the couch, pulling the blanket, bag and your shades with you as you sprint up the stairs, moving as quietly as possible and trying to forget the images of your dreams. Alternate timelines invade your thoughts on a regular basis in this world, you learn to forget.

You reach the top of the stairs just as you hear the back door open, practically throwing yourself into Karkat's room, ignoring his startled gaze from his pile of pillows in the corner - where's his recuperacoon? - and shutting out the light he'd left on.

"Strider what the fu-"

"Shut the fuck up they're here." You hiss, pressing your back against the door and looking towards the glowing yellow eyes on the other side of the room as they get wider.

He moves faster than you've ever seen him move, opening his window and beckoning you over to it before climbing out and upwards, onto his roof. You can hear the movement downstairs, moving around the lounge and kitchen and calling out quietly to eachother as they do. You count four of them by voice alone.

You hear a low hiss from the direction of the window and force yourself away from the door, unable to hear the movement now and relying entirely on Karkat's half-finished plan. You trip a few times on furniture you can't see before reaching the ledge, now free of glass blockage in four of the twelve squares. You push yourself out and up, hooking an arm through the bag and twisting the blanket around yourself to keep it on as you climb onto the adjoining platform and up to the roof where Karkat is just visible in the light of the moons.

He's looking over the side, and you move to join him, kneeling and leaning to see a van below. You ignore the fact it looks so familiar, and that the two trolls guarding it look even more familiar, and pull Karkat back from the edge, shaking your head when he glares at you, covering his eyes with your hand to drive the reminder home - your eyes are practically headlights, dude, stop announcing our location to the enemy.

You remove your hand from his cold face and he closes his eyes, leaning closer to you and away from the edge, where you continue to look down carefully at the trolls scouring Karkat's hive for signs of life. You can hear the shouting to eachother in their own language, and see Karkat tense beside you.

"What did they say?"

He squints at you, the thin line of visible amber is brighter than any star, "That they can smell human, but no troll life."

You move away from the edge, pulling Karkat with you. You can't risk them knowing he's here. He's more in danger than you are and you know it. You'll run. You'll jump off the roof right now and run for it, they'll be too busy following you they won't find Karkat hiding up here. You're calculating jumping distances, would you be injured when you hit the ground? You could probably outrun them, maybe even fight a few off...

When he speaks, his mouth is right by your ear, little puffs of air moving your hair as he whispers, barely audible, "Strider if you're done considering your suicide mission I'd like to inform you they're leaving."

You blink, moving back over to the edge before Karkat grabs your shoulder and yanks you backwards onto the roof so hard you think he may have winded you. You can barely breathe, you only just manage to stop yourself choking. His hand is on your chest holding you there as the sound of an engine starts up. He's leaning pretty heavily on your chest, you can feel his claws pressing against the fabric and tap his hand a couple times, Karkat buddy at least stop pressing me into the rooftop, yeah? but he doesn't move until the sound is gone completely and the van is out of sight.

You shove his arm off you and sit up, catching your breath and staring out into the night, towards the towering hivestems of the main rustblood city. You can hear the drones from here, their echoing creaks hauntingly low against the still air. You sit together and watch the towering monstrocity - more machine than creature under the new regime - lumber through the boroughs and streets. If you listen very closely, you can almost hear screams.

"It's never going to be normal again, is it?"

You turn to the side to see Karkat looking out towards the hivestem lights, his eyes glowing faintly in the darkness enveloping the roof you're sat on. You know what he's asking. If you hadn't met eachother the other night you'd be running alone, it would be easier that way. You know what he's asking, and it's not the question he's spoken.

"No, it isn't." You say, bumping his shoulder with your own. You're not going to leave. You can't go back to how you were knowing he's out here, alone in the dark and the cold. The knights have to stick together, and that's that.

You can see him smile as he leans back against your shoulder as if it's the most natural thing in the world to him. Sat on the roof after narrowly avoiding a raid that could have gotten you both killed or worse, watching the drones move through the city for what you hope to be the last night of the season. In your mind you're 15 again, sitting with him on the top of the lab watching endless black sky fly past your meteor. He never used to lean on you like this - except for one time he hadn't slept in three weeks, fuckin' Trolls - but you find yourself unable to complain. Images of your dream, that other timeline where you did get caught flash behind your eyes and you stiffen, holding your breath and willing them away.

"Dave?" Karkat's concerned voice flows over you and you force yourself to open your eyes to him, "Are you alright?"

You consider saying no, falling to your emotions, but being with him, sat with him like this is reminding you too much of the young kid with the stoic expression and you can't bring yourself to answer him.

"Don't be infuriating, just tell me what's wrong."

You shake your head, "Nothin', doesn't matter. We staying up here or...?"

He looks back out over the cityscape, "If you want, might be safer to stay together at any rate."

You agree with him, untangling the blanket you'd brought up and settling back against the hard, uneven roof of the run down hive. You shut your eyes against the dark sky. Karkat doesn't speak, simply settles next to you and stares at the same patch of sky.

______________________________________________

 

You don't know when you fell asleep but you know when you jolt awake, gasping for breath at the images of that other timeline haunting your mind - you don't know why it's still happening, usually it's just momentary and then leaves but this seems to be constant, repetitive. You're crying, you realise, the cold night air stinging your skin and scraping your throat. Karkat's sat up beside you, talking to you, saying your name, you can't hear him. You can hear his screams echoing in your head, the images of torture inflicted on him right in front of you - you know it wasn't this timeline, you know he's fine, but you can't help the sickness you're feeling.

At least you know you won't see that timeline again.

You're both dead.