Once again, you are DAVE STRIDER.
You are currently lingering around the basement, rocking back on your heels and critically observing your surroundings through your shades. It’s not as loud down here as it was in the bar above, and the buzz of noise is almost comfortable. Especially since it’s a noise your familiar with, one that you’ve grown used to and now associate with something akin to security.
You shift your weight and tilt your head as you continue to let your eyes sweep across the room, very aware of the fact that you are just stalling and should really just open the damn door already.
Quite a few minutes have passed since you finished speaking with Vantas and convinced him to let you bring John in here and introduce him to your group. You hadn’t actually planned to speak to him about it since he’s an angry, loud asshole who’s fun to rile up but annoying in large doses. However, the friend you were going to speak to, a disturbed but awesome chick by the name of Terezi, was unavailable for conference. You had to make do with what you had.
To be honest, if you should be talking to anyone about John it’s Lalonde. In addition to being a sort-of-kind-of-acquaintance of yours and the one who generally smothers you with her bullshit-shrouded advice, she is also the daughter of the proprietor of the establishment. There would have been a lot of posturing and doubletalk involved but speaking with her would have allowed you to voice a lot of the concerns currently gnawing at your psyche. It also would have helped reassure you to know that John had the protection of the bar owner’s daughter.
Though admittedly, while Rose and her wasted mother own the establishment it’s Vantas who unofficially runs the bottom level. He’s a loud, obnoxious, asshole, but he also makes sure that no one’s fucking around. They’re not the bloodthirsty monsters that the media paints them to be, but Trolls are violent douches most of the time, so despite being an angry caustic fucker himself he doesn’t allow any fights down here. You’re not sure if it’s because he doesn’t want Lalonde to kick them out, or if it has something to do with the weird utopian ideals he occasionally babbles on about. Frankly, you don’t really care. The trolls down here are the most approachable in the entire city, and you’re pretty damn proud to say that you roll with them.
Not to say that they’re all decent. There are quite a few assholes (aside from Vantas) down here that get your back up and make you bristle in all the wrong places. Like humans, Trolls can be dangerous in ways other than their sharp claws and pointy teeth. There are quite a few deceptive, manipulative bastards mixed in the crowd. Twisted souls and darkened hearts. You always avoid them, because the smell of them alone is enough to make your stomach turn.
But Vantas assured you, in a long rant peppered with expletives and over the top metaphors, that most of those bastards aren’t here, and that those that are have better things to do than to fuck with a newly changed Rainbow Drinker. Still, you give the basement a once over yourself, just to be sure. Not that you don’t trust Vantas (not that you do trust him either), but he doesn’t know John and he doesn’t know that John, while not a coward, has been conditioned to perceive everyone who is currently in the room as a monster. So you’re doing what any responsible friend would do and scoping out the area for any potential pockets of discomfort for your best bro.
The basement is a hundred times less crowded than the bar upstairs. The area is much larger width and length wise, though the ceiling is much lower and some of the taller trolls have to duck their heads or risk scraping them. The ground is a patchy, dark blue, disgusting excuse for a carpet. Surprising, considering how much effort Rose’s mother usually puts into appearances. But as Rose informed you, no use spending good money on hardwood if it’s just going to be gouged by claws, speckled with blood and stained with various other miscellaneous substances.
Other than that, the basement is kept in impeccable condition. There are couches, all a soft, plush like material, and tables. A pool table is set up in the far corner, and a small bar runs along the back wall. Various piles of soft objects are scattered about for those Trolls that never quite adjusted to more ‘human’ comforts, and the entire basement is dimly-lit, dark and hard to navigate for anyone not endowed with night-vision. The shroud of smoke from the variety of drugs being exhaled into the air also adds a haze over everything. It also partly masks the intensely feral and sickly sweet smell of Trolls. In your opinion, having your nose filled with the scent of smoke isn’t much better than the smell of Trolls, but at least dogs are less likely to attack you on the street if the smell of tobacco and weed is masking your own scent.
There aren’t too many Trolls here right now. Usually there can be up to a hundred in the room at a time, with other miscellaneous Mutants scattered in the midst (despite being dominated by them, the basement is not actually an exclusively Troll area). Today, there can’t be more than thirty or so people altogether. You suppose that’s good. Less chance of fights breaking out. Less chance of a wildcard asshole wrecking everything.
You strain your ears and can catch the voices of some of your ‘friends’ in the mostly vacant room. The quiet, scratchy voice of Nitram, Captor’s obnoxious lisp, and Makara’s disorienting up and down trill. The high-pitched laughter of your partner in crime can’t be heard though, and for a moment you wonder where she is, what she’s doing, and why she didn’t tell you.
But you’ve already got John to worry about and Terezi can take care of herself, so you shake those thoughts form your mind and let your eyes drift over everything a few more times, straining your ears and eyes for any possible dangers or unpleasant surprises.
Okay, come on Strider, you tell yourself with a mental slap, tearing your gaze away from the room and turning towards the door, You’re acting like a neurotic Father about to walk his baby girl into her first day of Kindergarten. Jesusfuck John’s perfectly capable of handling his own shit you don’t have to hold his fucking hand-
Something smashes behind you and you hear an eruption of furious snarls and hisses quickly followed by a cascade of loud angry curses from Vantas. You grit your teeth and continue walking towards the door.
Okay, so maybe I should. Just. Like. Not hold his hand or anything. Just. Kind of. Hang my fingers close to his in a position letting him know that if he wants to- or like, needs a lifeline or reassurance or some shit- that I’m- I mean, if he needs me to beat the shit out of someone for him I am totally there and totally cool with it because we’re bros and holy shit I am totally a neurotic father okay stopping this retarded train of thought right now.
Resisting the urge to facepalm or bang your head against the wall, you finally get to the door and place your hand on the handle, roughly pushing aside all your paranoia and the sick, punched-gut feeling you have deep in your stomach. Running a hand through your hair, you push open the iron door separating the basement from the hallway.
The door, though ridiculously heavy, opens easily for you and you wrinkle your nose as the musty smell of the hallway hits you in the face.
In the dimly lit corridor, you can see John. His body is turned away from the doorway, but his head has snapped towards you, hood down against his neck and dark blue eyes wide and startled.
You’re surprised to see him with his hood down, and you immediately notice that there’s something slightly different about him. He looks spooked, like something has ruffled his feathers, and you feel yourself tense and bristling in response to whatever might have unsettled him.
“Sorry I took so long,” you say, slouching with your hands in your pockets. Your tone is casual, but your voice is stiff, eyes flickering about for a glimpse of what startled him. “You alright?”
John stiffens a bit and turns his head to look down the hallway, eyes narrowed slightly. Your head immediately snaps to look in the direction he’s staring, gliding to his side.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” he says quietly, blinking his eyes before turning to you. “I, uh, I ran into a Troll.”
A chill shoots through you and for a moment you actually stop breathing. Your mind disintegrates into a mushy whirlwind of whatwhatwhat John met a Troll a Troll was around John when I wasn’t there I wasn’t here to protect to help what if they had hurt him what if it had been a violent asshole why wasn’t I here why wasn’t I with him why did I leave him alone what the fuck is wrong with-
“But it’s okay,” continues John, interrupting your stream of self-berating. “She was, uh, well she was kind of mean but she didn’t attack me or anything. We, uh, had a conversation?”
He tilts his head to the side, looking vaguely confused and more than a little perplexed. You are partially concerned but you can’t deny the immense feeling of relief you get from seeing him with that derpy expression of confusion on his face. He doesn’t seem hurt or roughed up or like he’s been terrified out of his wits and will never ever set foot near a Troll again. He just looks a little…bemused?
“That’s cool,” you say, maintaining your cool façade despite the cascade of different emotions rushing through you, “Man, here I was worrying about introducing you to a bunch of Trolls and you’ve got the jump on me by making pals with a chick when my back’s turned.”
“That’s not what happened,” he argues softly, cheeks dusting a bit pink. He’s looking more flustered than spooked, and surprisingly, hasn’t made a move to duck back into his hood or hunch inwards.
It’s not the ‘Oh yeah, Dave. I get all the chicks when you’re not looking. Hehe,’ that you’re looking for, but it’s something and you feel your heart soar a bit.
Because holy shit call the press alert the mayor it looks like you were right. He just needed to talk to people who don’t see him as a monster. Who didn’t know him before so wouldn’t treat him differently now.
Well, okay, he actually needs a fuckload more than that- like a Father who doesn’t flinch in his presence and a body that doesn’t crave blood- but companionship is definitely on the list of things he needs and…
Shit this might actually work.
“Well you can tell me the whole gruesome story later,” you say offhandedly, moving backwards into the open doorway, “Your daily Troll quota is nowhere near filled, so let’s get this show on the road and head on in.” Normally, you would have grilled John intensely about his encounter, but he’s not hurt, and he seems okay, so he almost certainly didn't meet a ‘dangerous’ troll. In addition, you’re currently riding a confidence high and you want to at least get him in the room before all your paralyzing doubts latch onto you again.
John bites his lip a bit at your comment, but he nods and turns his body towards you. He doesn’t seem quite as apprehensive as he did before and another wave of confidence rushes through you. It is dealt a heavy blow, however, when he reaches up and pulls his hood back over his head, face once again disappearing into the darkness of the cowl.
You swallow thickly and turn your face away, looking back into the smoky, dimly lit room. A few faces have turned towards the pair of you, mostly because you look pretty damn conspicuous just lurking in the open doorway like this, and your face immediately hardens.
Jesus what the fuck is wrong with you? Letting your guard down like that, thinking that just because John looked a little less miserable things going were going to be okay. If anyone should know how much life doesn’t work that way it’s you. And yet, here you are, Dave fucking Strider, naïve idealistic moron who believes the world’s going to explode into sunshine and rainbows just because your bro had one half decent encounter with a Troll.
“Dave?” And then John is right beside you, pressed up slightly against your side and eyes flickering between you and the depths of the room in front of you. You don’t take your eyes off of the occupants of the room, but you raise your hand a bit so that it’s resting on John’s arm. He jumps a bit, but you leave it there, pressing a bit to gently guide him into the room. John’s breath hitches a bit and you swallow thickly.
The door shuts behind the two of you loudly and John jumps almost a foot in the air while you just grip his arm tighter. A few more heads turn, but now that the door isn’t hanging open and the two of you aren’t doing anything seriously distracting they lose interest quickly and return to whatever the hell it was that they were doing before.
John’s breathing is tight and nervous beside you and his hand reaches it out and clutches at your jacket. You release the tight grip you had on his arm and painstakingly pry his fingers from your coat. He shoots you a confused, slightly panicked look as you do so, but it quickly melts away as you lace your fingers through his and give him the most comforting look you can from behind your shades. John relaxes a bit, and his fingers lock with yours.
“Wow Strider, you know, when you were lying prostrate at my feet kissing my hands and basically begging for my assurance that your to-precious-for-this-world bosom buddy would remain safe from the grabby, serrated claws of the creatures of the night, you forgot to mention that he was your boyfriend. Don’t know why you didn’t just come out and fucking say that you were boning the kid. It explains a whole lot about how ice cold coolkid Strider could be so fucking concerned about one goddamn newbie.”
The second the first gravelly note hits the air your head snaps to the side and you’ve moved to stand in front of John. His body goes ridged and you hear what might be a growl bubble up from his throat, but you ignore it in favour of narrowing your eyes at the familiar bastard who has managed to sneak up on you.
Of course it’s fucking Vantas.
He’s standing in front of you, arms folded across his chest belligerently and his standard scowl downturning his lips and souring his expression. His shoulders are hunched defensively, like always, which makes him look even shorter than he already is. He stands about a head below you, his scraggly shock of black hair just barely reaching your chin. Bangs hang in front of unsettling red eyes, which are locked on you both. They’re a brighter red than yours, less blood coloured and more the colour of candy. The gray palour of his skin and the dark bags under his eyes make them stand out even more, and they appear to be almost glowing from behind the curtain of hair.
"My bad, Vantas," you reply, barely masking the irritation in your voice, "Must have forgotten to mail you an invite to the wedding. Though it was probably less of a forgetting thing and more of a 'no loud angry douchebags allowed' thing."
"And yet, here we are," he responds with a sneer, "With your precious wifey surrounded by loud angry douchebags. By your own doing, might I add. Was that not the point of this whole fucking endeavor? To introduce your Rainbow Drinker boytoy to the collection of angry douchebag assholes you have the audacity to call 'homeys'?"
His comment once again sends a spark of doubt through you, but you shake it off quickly, turning your head to look at John, who is standing apprehensively beside you. Normally you enjoy getting into long verbal battles with Vantas but now’s not the time. It’s a testament to your luck that the first Troll you happen to meet with John is the one whose relationship with you is the most caustic.
Fuck being a child of misfortune. Fuck it in the goddamn face.
"Fine, you caught me,” you say, and you’re a bit ashamed of how fucking tired you sound usually you can hide it better than that-
“It was my mission all along to subject John to your long rambling rants about jackshit." Your lips twitch and you almost scowl, but you manage to maintain your composure and turn to your best friend.
"John,” you begin, gesturing towards Vantas with a tilt of your head, “This short angry munchkin-,"
"-Fuck you Strider I'm still growing-,"
"-is Karkat Vantas.” You finish with a little smirk, ignoring Vantas’s angry interjection. “He enjoys running his mouth off about literally nothing. He's also a fan of really shitty movies so maybe the two of you can indulge in your absolutely poor taste in cinema together."
John looks surprised, turning his face away from you to look at Vantas. The Troll just growls, red in the face and looking extremely affronted.
“Fuck you, Strider,” he repeats snappily, “There is literally nothing on this Earth that can top Serendipity and John Cusack is a goddamn miracle in cinema. It’s a hell of a lot better than your shitty cartoons.”
“Low blow, man,” you say with mock look of grave injury, “Don’t be hating just because you were not bestowed with the gift of ironic animation like me myself and I.”
You feel John slowly untense beside you, and you begin to relax yourself. This was what you wanted to show him. That you could talk with Trolls just like you could talk with people. That they weren’t monsters that would rip off your face just for looking at them wrong. Hell, maybe Vantas was actually a great place to start. He’s got the bark of a T-Rex but literally no bite and is sort of great for getting desensitized to Troll growling and anger.
“If that’s a fucking gift than I hope you kept the receipt because I’d exchange it the first chance I get,” Vantas snaps shortly. His red-eyed gaze then transfers to John, who stiffens under it.
“So you’re John, huh,” he grunts, not yelling anymore but still with a challenging note to his voice, "Newly changed Rainbow Drinker."
John stiffens again and he shrinks backwards into his hood. You tense beside him and fight the urge to tell Vantas to back off. You can’t fight all of John's battles for him, and this isn't really a fight. This is just Vantas bringing up something John would rather not think about. An unpleasant reality he doesn't want to confront. You don't like seeing him all scrunched in on himself, and shit, you really just want to gather him up in your arms and tell Vantas to go fuck himself. But he needs to do this. He needs to fucking get over himself before he can move forward. You can introduce him to all the people in the world, but until he learns to be at least somewhat okay with what and who he is, he'll always be miserable and depressed and alone. In thought and spirit, if not in body.
And now you're getting all theoretical and touchy-feely and just fuck this shit you are so tried of your goddamn emotions messing with you.
"Y-yeah," stutters John after a few seconds and a nervous glance cast in your direction. He was probably expecting you to do just what you told yourself not to do. Jump in and defend him.
Despite your best efforts you feel a little guilty and you swallow thickly and drop your gaze a little.
"Well kid," continues Vantas, lips curling back from his teeth a little. "I've got some news for you.”
John flinches and you tense, looking up sharply with your eyes narrowed behind your shades.
Goddammit Karkat why do you have to be so goddamn difficult can’t you just-
“It gets better.”
John looks up in surprise, eyes wide. You’re similarly caught off guard, but then you remember that oh yeah. Troll Messiah. Sole advocate for social change and all things good. Karkat.
Normally you sneer at him and roll your eyes at his ‘it will get better’ rants but now it’s exactly what John needs to hear.
Even if you personally don’t believe a single word of it.
"It gets better, kid." repeats Karkat, face still in a stubborn scowl but softer, his eyes not as harsh. "I know it seems like the world is ending right now. Like nothing will ever get better. Like everything is a spiraling black vortex of doom and suffering and that the world considers watching you in pain to be its prime form of entertainment."
His features twitch and you can see that he's trying to stop his own face from twisting into hurt. His scowl deepens and he folds his arms across his chest.
"But look," he continues, taking a step closer, "You're alive, aren't you? That's more than a lot of poor assholes can say. Yeah you've been screwed over. Yeah nothing's going to be the same for you again, but fuck, you still have a chance. You can make this fucking work, if you try. If you just lay down on your face and die than you've let them get the best of you and you've let them win."
John's been silent the entire time, still wilting a bit under Vantas's stare but no longer standing hunched over and like a cowering, beaten dog. Now, you see him lick his lips a few times before hesitantly lifting his gaze towards the Trolls'.
"Who...who's 'them'?" he asks hesitantly, eyes flickering to you briefly.
"Everyone else," replies Vantas bluntly, "Ain't gonna lie to you, kid. The majority of the world is against you. Of course they fucking are. If everyone is against you than of course everyone else is going to be against you to."
John looks confused and you roll your eyes behind your shades.
"He means that people like to follow the crowd," you state cooly, still slouching with your hands in your pockets, "If the majority of the city hates us the rest will follow due to the fear that if they don't they'll be hated as well." John frowns, and you shrug.
"Thanks for the translation, Strider. I'll be sure to defer to you anytime my painfully obvious statements need to be relayed in simpler terms," spits Vantas, eyes flicking over to you. Before you can retort, he's focused on John again, who's still looking at him with apprehension and wariness but with less fear and more of a hesitant curiousity.
"So basically," continues Vantas, his eyes softening a bit but his tone still hard, "Keep your head up and your eyes forward and screw them over by showing them you will go on, and you'll do it with fucking pride and class. Show them that there's more to you than a silver ring and fangs. Show them that you've got them beat ten times over in heart and that the real monsters in this situation are those that would label an entire population of innocents as beasts simply because they're different from them or have a disease."
There's a silence after Vantas Is finished ranting, and you see John's head drop downwards. There's no hunch to his shoulders though, and it's not the hiding crouch he was using before. You can tell it’s just him thinking over what the short angry Troll had told him.
You've heard similar rants over the years. Karkat is a wordy little asshole, and if there's one thing he never stops prattling on about it's how one day things will be better. You'd never classify yourself as an outright pessimist, but you don't exactly let yourself buy into Vantas's beautiful word spiels.
Basically, the amount of faith you have in the people of Derse and the likelihood of them ever changing their opinion of the Tainted could be held in a thimble.
"So basically," continues Vantas, and you fight the urge to sigh loudly.
You lose the fight, and as you release a large exhalation of air the short troll turns to you angrily, teeth slightly bared.
"Basically," he snappily repeats, glaring at you before turning back to John, his eyes less harsh but his face still stern.
"Welcome to the club."
You see John startle and look down with a bit of hesitancy at the hand Vantas has extended towards him. You can't say you blame him. Though the media tends to exaggerate, the yellow nails extending from the troll's fingers are no joke. They're cut short, not curled or tapered to a point like the of other Trolls, but are still sharp enough to make someone- particularly skittish slightly troll phobic goobers like John- think twice about taking that hand.
But- holy shit alert the press ring the victory bells- John takes Karkat's hand and the two of them partake in a firm, manly handshake with Karkat doing his weird happy scowl thing and John looking slightly less overwhelmed and with the beginnings of what might be a small smile playing about his lips.
Your heart does that stupid fluttery thing again and you quickly shut down the thoughts of what it was like when John used to really smile. It just hurts when you do that. But looking at your friend, still wearing that slightly-apprehensive-but-not completely-terrified half smile, you reason that maybe, you'll see that smile again soon.
If you don't manage to fuck it up first.