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With Blood So Red

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"Dave, I can't get the horns to fit right..."

Within the locked confinements of his bedroom stands a rather bamboozled John Egbert, fiddling idly with two plaster-based objects attached to his head.

"Dave?" He subconsciously lowers his lips to the collar of his jacket, jostling the curved orange horns in his fingers as he struggles to speak into a concealed microphone. "Dave?" He repeats his accomplice's name once, twice, yet the other man's voice does not reach him. John's mouth twitches downward a little; he sets the fake horns aside for the time being. Ordinarily, he considers himself to be a man of optimism—of willingness—but the situation at hand is far beyond anything he has ever imagined.

He is expected to take Rose's place as an agent for the HIA.

Nevermind the fact that he wasn't even aware of Rose's status as a spy until two days ago, when she disappeared and John was to take her place; how he wound up being the next in line is a rather embarrassing topic—one which he would prefer to explain at a later date (assuming he even survives tonight). Regardless of means, he is presently expected to carry out the mission that the young Lalonde had been assigned prior to her disappearances--disregarding the sad truth that John is a mere biology student in university, or that the extent of his knowledge on spy operations is limited to what he could learn from watching a bunch of James Bond flicks. He's almost certain 007 never had to go undercover as an alien species, nor attempt to form bonds (no pun intended) with as crotchety an enemy as Karkat Vantas.

Letting a small, brisk sigh flutter out through his nostrils, John sidesteps around the mattress and over to the full-body mirror on the opposite end of the room. It proves a bit difficult to maneuver about, what with this stiff suit he must wear to carry out his mission, but he manages to stumble awkwardly over to the other wall without breaking a limb. Well, I'm no James Bond, he thinks with a small laugh. But this could be pretty cool! Perhaps he should be more nervous, more deterred that he very well might not survive five minutes in the troll's presence, yet the strongest itch he feels is one of anticipation and eagerness, not one of fear. Perhaps this is why Rose chose him to take her place; if nothing else, he has an unmatchable passion budding in his chest, set ablaze by boiling blood and an overwhelming hearth beneath his ribs.

Dusting off his dress pants, John gazes up at himself in the mirror's depths; his eyebrows, untrimmed and dark, dart upward at the reflected sight gracing him. His skin, ordinarily olive in color, is caked in a layer of enhanced gray body paint, tinted ever-so-faintly with blue. Fingernails once blunt have been filed to a triangular point and painted a filmy albino-cream (he now understands why Rose kept pushing him to grow them out). Upon his teeth, false fangs, long and curved, cover the natural teeth. In short, despite the absence of horns, he quite closely resembles a troll. Why, he daresay he might have spooked himself, had he not been entirely conscious of his transformation (which is truly a bizarre thing to think, but one simply does not question the thought process of a man like John Egbert). A clawed, ashen hand rises to gingerly prod at his face, awe-stricken by the resemblance of himself to the enemy. Perhaps the only things missing are the characteristic golden eyes, which Dave said hardly matter in this case; apparently Mr. Vantas has a soft spot for mutations, a weakness which they can fully exploit for these purposes.

Speaking of Dave, his old companion still has yet to respond to his call over the hidden microphone. "Wonder what's taking him so long..." John thinks aloud with a small shake of the head. He supposes there is nothing more for him to do at this point; the horns must go on, one way or another. His tongue darts out to remoisten his lips; he takes caution to avoid cutting his tongue on the foreign fang that covers his tooth. Stepping back slightly, he spins around on the ball of his foot and leans forward for the horns on the mattress; they are decently wide at the base, greatly curved, and covered with a thick coat of orange paint. All things considered, they are reasonably light as well, which should make them a bit less likely to weigh him down; now it is simply a matter of attaching them to his head.

"Simply".

Hah. What crude hilarity.

~*~*~*~

Perhaps no greater meeting place exists on Earth than the infamous Sburb Hotel. Adorned with rich cream fabrics and fine black masonry, each wall of this intriguing building looms tall and unwavering against frequent easterly winds; a spattering of indigo paint clings in a dapper fashion to the surface of each. From high ceilings dangle intricate, hand-crafted chandeliers, three in number, each coupled by thousands of glittering white crystals. In the lobby below, four trolls—passersby at best—sit amongst themselves in relative peace, discussing some matter relating to the topic of "grubs", though the purpose cannot be discerned without further probing into the conversation. All the same, such trivial things hardly matter in times like these; what is not the government's business is irrelevant at best.

Beyond the four Alternians is the dining hall, and within said dining hall is the young troll referred to by most as either "Karkat Vantas" or "The Insufferable" (which serves as both a mockery to his constant sourness and as a homage to his deceased cousin, whose alias was generally "The Sufferer"). His tongue is sharp, his eyes are cold; vivid scarlet brims his diminishing pupils--each red iris is enveloped by a glowing pale honey. A pasty ash settles in his skin; his horns protrude short, nubby, concealed almost entirely from view by the disheveled mess of black that crowns his head. Thick brows are lowered, stiff upon his discontented forehead as he silently struggles against a spell of uncertainty; the subconscious tapping of his left fingers against the opposite wrist further emphasizes his apparent discomfort.

Yes; thus far, everything John has been told about Mr. Vantas is accurate enough.

This is a good sign, considering John feels ready to puke on the spot. Oh, what a covert, classy move that would be! He can only imagine what would happen in a situation like that--

"Hello, Mr. Vantas."

"So are you supposed to be--"

"Blaghffghrgh."

"FUCK, AUGHH! MY SUIT!"

Needless to say, nausea never helps anyone, and at this point, that situation isn't as unlikely as one would think. John has never been one for stomachaches, but he can't recall ever being in a life-or-death situation such as this either. He only wishes he didn't have to chance throwing up on the enemy.

Okay, so the chances are slim, he admits it. But, hey, it’s not entirely impossible. And it could make a good prank someday.

No; stop; focus.

Oh, to hell with it; he wasn't born for spywork, and he needn't pretend at this point.

Fingers twitching anxiously at his sides, John peers further around the corner, eyes falling once more upon the troll across the lobby. Subconsciously, his right hand lifts to stroke across the collar of his jacket, beneath which the microphone is concealed; a clear earpiece is tucked away in a shallow portion of his ear canal. Although the microphone has been switched off for the time being, the faint crackling of the speaker in his ear proves mildly distracting, though it is entirely necessary for communication in the event of a slip-up. Why, if anything, it merely serves to amplify John's enthusiasm about the whole spy charade (however un-charade-like it might be). A belt encircles his hips, upon which various other little gadgets are contained (larger gizmos are concealed beneath his clothes). He only knows how to use one or two of them at the moment, but that knowledge could come more with use (hopefully). And, naturally, his weapon of choice is tucked within an inner pocket of his suit jacket.

Well, to call it a weapon of choice is slightly false. Given the option, he would have chosen a loftier weapon over the old Ruger presently weighing down his clothes. It isn’t that John has any sort of uncanny distaste for the pistol; he’s just always been fonder of weapons that leave a certain quality behind in their wake… A wind, if you will. Weapons such as hammers and swords and other such swingy armaments, those which depart from their target with a quick slap of air… Ah, but alas, such things simply aren’t meant for the work of an intelligence agent. And it isn’t as if his Ruger isn’t wicked as hell anyway.

His hand lowers hesitantly from his collar to brush over the pistol in his coat. He can only hope that he doesn’t have to fire this thing yet, perhaps simply out of the fact that he has never shot a gun in his life. Chances are he would miss and hit some civilian troll—or, better yet, the bullet would ricochet off of a platter or something and rebound into his forehead. Ahaha, he could totally see something like that happening… He does not lack faith in himself, but he isn’t too keen on counting out the possibility yet.

”Alright,” a familiar male voice speaks to him suddenly through the earpiece, “we’ve got you in sight. Proceed to…” A stifled snort crackles in John’s ears, causing the latter mild eardrum pain. “Okay, forget that protocol bullshit, John; just go.”

Ah, Dave Strider: his longtime chum and (as of forty-eight hours ago) his partner in spying—to an extent, anyway. He apparently does more of the background, analytic work, but there was absolutely no chance of John being involved in all of that computer business. Crafty as he (might think that he) is, software and hardware have never been his strongest suits. Even if his experience in the spying field has been relatively insignificant, John is much better at this sort of thing, if only due to his sneaky, pranking past, back in his adolescent years.

Giving a short nod, John rounds the corner at last, making himself and his deceiving troll disguise entirely visible to the general populace. As if on cue, a few prying eyes fall on him, however innocent they may seem, and his heart begins to palpitate against narrow ribs. He knows he appears outwardly strange, even for one of their race, especially with his supposedly “mutant” eyes. As a precaution, it will probably be best if he avoids going out in this outfit at random and only wears it when necessary, which, depending on the outcome of today's mission, might be more often an occurrence than he would prefer.

Trembling fingers lift to push those thick spectacles back up the bridge of his gray-caked nose; the sudden motion draws Karkat's eyes up to meet his own--they are a more crisp, vivid scarlet than anything John has ever seen. Red as blood, red as the setting sun... It is as if John's life is fading to a close with every last second spent delving into those crimson irises.

His own gunmetal eyes falter to the side; his shoulders quiver with anxiety. Now is not the time for nerves, and with that knowledge in the forefront of his mind, John find himself grinning a crooked, twitchy grin. He isn't helping his case with this (likely disturbing) first impression, yet he cannot help himself; this feels quite akin to a normal job interview, another field in which he has never had much prowess, only in this interview, there is a very considerable chance that he could wind up with a sickle stuck in his side within the first five minutes. He has heard a-many talks about trolls and their tendency to overreact; even the most passive trolls can prove dangerous when provoked. This is also something he'll likely have to play up, which could prove problematic to accomplish...

Aside from the utterly deadpan expression on Karkat's face, nothing has failed thus far; even if this mission has barely begun, that's still a pretty good sign in his book. Sliding out the chair opposite Karkat, John lowers himself carefully onto the smooth wooden seat, scooting slowly forward with a palpitating shudder.

Karkat's stare never leaves John's face. The troll grumbles something indiscernible under his breath, likely Alternian, as he lifts a thin stack of papers up to his face to reread with skimming eyes. At last, after a pregnant, uncomfortable silence, he speaks with a voice rough as gravel and a tongue venomous as the fang of a snake. "Kiphtu Miffic--"

"Yes?" John pipes up from across the tale, realizing the slippage in tongue all too late. A faint blush dusts his cheeks and a tiny grin grows upon his face; Karkat simply scowls deeper. He must wonder if trolls get wrinkles with age, for if they do, then Karkat will surely bear a raisin face by the day he nears twenty sweeps.

"I'm reading your bio, smartass." Karkat rolls his eyes at John’s pathetic antics, grumbling in some ancient form of Alternian again before transitioning, much to John’s relief. "This is easily the most paramount interview of your undoubtedly pathetic lifespan, and you can't even manage this much? Are you fucking kidding me, Miffic? And you're ten minutes late, on top of it all!"

John finds himself wincing at every sharp syllable to flick forth from the troll's slightly-pointed tongue. Perhaps this isn't going as splendidly as he would have hoped--but now is not the time to give up on himself. Not yet. "H-Hey, in my defense, the elevator here is really, really slow. Anyway, you shouldn't count me out just yet." A choppy, anxious sort of chuckle flutters out from his lips. He’s fibbing for simplicity’s sake, and he hopes gravely that is doesn’t show. "I mean, there are plenty of reasons you should hire..."

The lackluster, unamused expression lingering on Karkat's face causes a lapse in John's speech. Swallowing a thick glob of saliva that nervously trickles from his mouth to his throat, the candid human-turned-troll blanches. When yet again his lips part to speak, John sticks his tongue out to dart across his protruding teeth, flinching only slightly at the sharpness of the longer faux fang that awkwardly sticks out. "The name's Kiphtu Miffic, and I've been studying Anthropology for years. Not gonna lie, I'm pretty great at what I do."

 

"So you specialize in human studies?" Karkat's raspy voice remains flat and disinterested throughout the entirety of the next spiel. "That's useful in specific, fine-point situations. So what about any missions that don't require the utilization of human behavioral studies? My life within the Agency is about as prosaic as your deteriorating thinkpan. Gog, I miss Kanaya..."

"Kanaya...?"

To John's inquiring tone, Karkat says nothing; rather, he lifts the topmost paper from the stack to allow himself better access to the files beneath. Fleetingly, his scarlet gaze flits upward, downward, upward once more, narrowing. "What's up with your eyes?"

"What's up with your blood?" The tone of John's voice grows edgy--or, at least, he hopes it comes off as such. He and the others had discussed how John, a passive prankster-nerd, could pull off the toughness that trolls are generally characterized by. Even wimpier Alternians usually have a violent side that can be ushered out by certain triggers, and in the presence of Karkat, weakness likely isn’t a desirable trait to exhibit.

Ruby irises shoot ahead once more, darting darkly across John's features; the latter finds Karkat's eyes intriguing--akin to tart cherries, vivid crimson rings enveloping dark pits in a tight shroud. They are harsh, worn, enticingly cryptic... All of that, and cheesy furthermore, but he needn't waste valuable time on such random moments of observation. While noticing such details is crucial during missions of certain degrees, this is, thus far, not one of those times.

Karkat says no more on the matter, though a certain bitterness seems to consume both his voice and his physical language. It is evident that his mutation is not a subject upon which he likes to dwell. A short yawn, stifled back to the best of his ability, slips past his parted gray lips; the bags under his eyes droop and darken further to contrast his pallid skin. "Hey, Miffic--"

"I know I suck at interviews..." John absently begins to scrape his right fang against his lower lip, gnawing at the painted skin in an anxious manner. "Seriously, I'm really bad at these... But I would still like for you to consider me and all." Pausing, he swallows; he watches Karkat's eyes flit downward to glance at his Adam's apple as it bobs in an uneasy fashion. "Even if I've never really had any exposure to this intelligence stuff, you shouldn't count me out just yet..."

"John..." An ever-familiar Strider voice hisses a warning in his ear; the sound almost makes John flinch in surprise. He had entirely forgotten about his earpiece, and the fact that Dave (and a number of other allies, most likely) has been overseeing this whole attempt. Oh, how he hopes that his risk will pay off; a simple slip of the tongue hazards their entire mission.

"Was your lusus raised on this shithole of a planet or something?" The tone of Karkat's voice grows impatient and malcontent; all the same, John finds himself struggling to keep up with the cultural implications this mutant-blooded troll is making. "You're coming off as soft and groveling and it's making your case worse." Gray lips part and a heavy exhale slips past. "Wouldn't be the first time... Always get the ones with fucking mush where their thinkpan should be..."

Nothing about this confrontation seems to be going smoothly--of this much John is confident. And perhaps this situation would be simpler, had Karkat been born of the homo sapien variety rather than… well, whatever scientific name belongs to this bizarre race. While trolls and their familiars have come up in the curriculum throughout John’s life, the subject was always kept brief, nonspecific; the conversation never drifted far beyond the tensions between the two species, and, on occasion, a few absurd methods thought to keep alienkind at bay (similar to vampires and garlic; he’s never believed many of those phony protection tales). A small inkling within John yearns to inquire about these things—these questions, these strange things obscured and hidden away for so long—but, alas, such a chance would blow his cover, and he can’t afford to lose so early on in the game.

But… Perhaps, with time… Perhaps he can figure some things out on his own, deriving his own little guesses from Karkat’s many behaviors and quirks—from those of Karkat’s cohorts, even. He hasn’t considered this before, and the promise of exposing himself to trollian ways only heightens his zeal over the whole spy gig. Why, should he discover something deliciously blackmail-able, he could even use it to his advantage and have a little fun while on the job. After all—Dave told him repeatedly that this whole situation might start off slow, depending on the amount of work Karkat has to do in the beginning. It’s entirely possible this mission will render John bored out of his mind, yet he hasn’t the option of turning back now.

Technically, he never did.

… Come to think of it, how long is he going to be stuck in this troll persona, exactly…?

Oh…

Oh f—

“Miffic…” Karkat’s gritty voice startles John from his dismaying realization. “If you can’t even pay attention in this insignificant travesty of an interview, you won’t last ten minutes in the AKR.” A short snort rips out through his nostrils; his nose crinkles curiously all the while. Briefly, his eyes flicker down toward the papers one last time and, without wasting precious seconds in idle gazing, states rather plainly, “You’re in.”

A steady five seconds pass between Karkat’s final sentence and John’s comprehension, and to say that the human-turned-troll is amazed is a cosmic understatement. Flashing a sudden, toothy grin, he gives himself a mental high-five and proceeds to bounce and squirm subconsciously in his seat. "Really? Just like that?"

Subsequently, a gurgling groan rumbles in Karkat's chest, and the expression to follow on his face is far from ecstatic. "You're so sickeningly..." His grumbling fades to a low resonance, akin to a cat; it sounds to John like a peculiar blend of purring and yowling. "The only reason that you're getting the position is because nobody else bothered applying, and I'm fucking desperate at this point..."

"You won't regret it! Haha, this is pretty cool..." An intelligence agent, undercover as an enemy spy's partner... Perhaps his visions are muddled—he won't deny that flat-out. After so many years of movie-viewing and whatnot, John cannot help but desire a life of gun-slinging and bond girls...

Oh, the bond girls...

Idealism? Maybe. The possibility of both succeeding in an action-packed undercover mission and acquiring a sexy lover is more or less nonexistent, especially considering the fact that he must associate with trolls for some indefinite span of time.

A rather disgruntled Karkat shrugs his shoulders in an erratic mental duel against sleep. As if on cue, his lips part, gray and callused, in a remarkably wide yawn, and for the first time in his life, John is allowed brief seconds to view the array of teeth adorning a troll's gums. Every troll has their variety of dental arrangement, but each, from John's understanding, are menacing. This holds true enough for Vantas; each tooth ends in a back-curving point—the frontmost appear slightly serrated. An involuntary shudder ripples through a John's skin; he finds himself hoping inwardly that he never gets found out, lest he wish to have those incisors tearing into his flesh. The very inkling churns the fluid in his stomach in a discomforting way.

“It’s far from cool, Miffic.” An onset of hostility startles John from his daydream. “It’s either boring as hell or so stimulating that you’ll wish to be back under your lusus’ care. Nothing about the agency is “cool” or “fun” or any other blissful bullshit like that… Why the fuck are you smiling like that?!” Karkat’s voice rises considerably, earning him a few irritated glances from other trolls in the room; it’s plainly obvious that his short fuse is easy to ignite, an aspect which, for whatever reason, makes John’s grin spread even wider.

“I just feel really relieved, I guess.” A slight shrug stirs John’s shoulders up and down; his dimples grow more prominent in a small laugh. “Sorry, I’ll tone it down some. You’re gonna have to get used to it though; I’m not exactly a downer, you know…” Another loud snort later, the disguised human burst into a fit of snickering; he must hold his head in his hand to keep himself from squirming too much as a giggling bout courses through him. He simply cannot help it; he thought for sure he would fail the first task, but it seems he has passed with blinding colors. There are times when hysteria is the only feasible option.

Under his breath, Karkat utters a murmured “fuck my life” and rises from the table. “Whatever. I’m going up to my block. Which one is yours?”

“My block?” Block? Oh, what did that refer to again…? Curse his scattered brain…! Well, if Karkat is “going to his block”, it has to be a room, right? Maybe his hotel room? “Uh, 212. On the second floor. Yours?”

“413, fourth floor.” The troll turns away from John and frowns deeper. “Just meet me in my block at 8:00 tomorrow. I need to debrief you. No later than that, or so help me Gog, I will cull you on the spot.”

“Jeez, okay!” His eyes roll. Perhaps no being, troll or human, has more insufferable qualities than Karkat Vantas. “You don’t have to get so pushy about it.”

The only response to entertain John is a single, crude finger from the red-blooded Alternian. It’s sort of funny, really, how many aspects of human life Karkat seems to adapt to his personality. Between the misinterpretation of “gog” and flipping John off, there is far more complexity to Karkat’s nature than John previously thought. If anything, these little discoveries should make his time with the snappy troll more bearable, more curious… He can’t wait to tell Dave about all of this.

Wait, what is he saying? Dave should, theoretically, already know, right? In fact, so should everyone in his division, if the communication systems were working correctly.

As Karkat vanishes from his line of sight, John commences the casual stroll back to his room—no, his “block”—with his fingers upon the lapel of his jacket, fiddling with the tiny microphone concealed beneath. After a moment or so of twisting and pressing in search of the “on” switch, it clicks and fizzes a little, and at last John is capable of speaking to his companions back at HQ. “Testing? Hey, Dave, are you still there?”

“Where do you expect me to go?”

Heh heh, good ol’ Dave Strider. Always sarcastic, always cool. John doesn’t necessarily envy his best friend, but he can’t help but admire such dignity. “Hey, I’m brand new to all of this. Cut me some slack.”

“If I left unannounced in the middle of a mission, I would be interrogated and hell knows what else. Trust me, man, I can’t leave you.” A brief pause sounds on the other end. “Anyway, you’re lucky that didn’t go any worse than it did. You’re the worst fucking troll I’ve ever seen.”

“Oh, come on, Dave. Did you really expect more than that? I tried my best!” A dismayed look falls upon his face as he treks jadedly up the stairwell. “I’ve never been cut out for trollplaying, or whatever this is supposed to be.”

“I know that, and I thought Rose would too. Apparently she thought this was a good idea, and since she’s awoll at the moment, there’s nothing more we can do but go along with it.”

“I still don’t understand how that contract was legally binding…”

”You’re the one who signed it.”

“Yeah, well, I didn’t know what it was for…”

And yet, you still signed it.

“Rose is just good at manipulating people, I guess. I don’t know!” Between Karkat’s yelling and Dave’s unnecessary reminders, John has developed quite a vicious headache. He rounds the corner without another word, wincing as he bites his tongue again; the taste of copper swells up in his mouth. Stupid troll teeth.

“Look, I need to talk to some of the higher ups, so I’ll catch you later. If you need anything else, Bro is around. Just drop him a message.” The sound of shuffling resonates from the other end. “See you around.

“Yeah… See you, man.” John’s voice falters, finding it a bit difficult with the bitter taste of blood still mingling with saliva on his tongue.

With a small sigh, he shuts off the microphone and meanders down the hall, finding his room and unlocking the door with a minimal click. Peering around the interior, he steps fully into the space and flips a light on, inquisitive about the differences between a human hotel room and a troll block. There are few significant alterations which surprise him; the biggest difference is the recuperacoon sitting in the corner of the room in place of a human bed. He should have seen this coming, but the idea of being bereft of a mattress never crossed his mind up to this point. Ah well; he shall approach that issue tonight, when it becomes relevant.

Giving a small swallow, John shuts the door behind him and wanders inside, eyes flitting this way and that as he attempts to take in the various aspects of this room; after all, he’s going to have to get accustomed to this living space if he is to remain Karkat’s accomplice for a while. The entirety of the room has a curious scent about it; something very fitting for the block of a troll, yet not at all unpleasant. Maybe it’s emanating from that strange cocoon-bed; regardless, it’s nothing he won’t get used to in time. The light above is incredibly dim, leading him to wonder if trolls have light-sensitive eyes, perhaps. Hm.

A small breath flutters out past his lips as his hand lifts to scratch incessantly at the opposite arm. This makeup, however troll-like it might make him look, is frightfully itchy. He’ll have to see if they can sneak him some hypo-allergenic stuff sometime soon, especially if he is to impersonate the enemy species for a long period of time. With one final itch, he steps over to the mirror upon the wall of the bathroom and allows his eyes to fall upon his guised form once more. The likeness of a troll, sans the eyes, is naught short of startling. Trembling gray fingers rise in the mirror to tread softly against the painted cheek, the faux orange horns, the sharp fangs protruding from his overbite…

Kiphtu Miffic. Agent 22-5. John Egbert.

It’s sort of funny; prior to this turn of events, he never once considered the possibility of losing his birthname. He has always been John Egbert; nothing more, nothing less, yet to assign him two aliases, and perhaps more to come with the next set of missions... Well, he hopes dearly that the agency knows what they’re getting themselves into.

Scratch that; he hopes that he knows what they’re getting him into, for in such times as these, a goofball college student is not what most people desire in a spy. They don’t want a biology man, or a prankster, or anything to that extent. They don’t want a guy who considers watching fabricated spy films as good preparation for secret agent work.

It’s so unfortunate, really; those old James Bond flicks had nothing on his situation.

It is with a small frown that he retreats to the shower, undressing and stepping inside the glass-veiled box, and as chilled water cascades over painted shoulders, so it is that Kiphtu Miffic gives way to John Egbert once more.