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Red Serendipity

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Nothing but gutterscum lowbloods as far as the eye can see. 

This dive is shitty enough that it’s got the stench of the slums pervading it like an infectious disease. Cheap strobe lights distort everything that thrashes under their glare, the music is at pan-decimating volumes, and anything they sell at the bars is guaranteed to take a couple of decades off your life. You are every bit as likely to get knifed in a corner here as you are to get pailed by some drunken moron. These dirtscrapers are barely even trolls anymore, no matter which swill infests their veins, all high on sex and death, pheromones spilling out and mixing into a muddy mess.

With the ruckus they make all murder-sunny day, yeah, you surely wouldn’t allow them to persist if you didn’t have a soft spot for dens of iniquity.

You don’t hardly fit in, but everyone is far too scared to show you any defiance, and mostly also too drunk to put a finger on what it is about you that they find so unnerving. You twist their thinkpans a little bit so that their attention skates off and around you. You aren’t here to start shit. You nurse synthetic sugars strong enough to shut your liver down just by association and grin to yourself. You just like to watch, really.

Chaos unfolds every second. There’s a great big pitch conflagration at one end of the dance floor--least a couple of trolls are going to die of it tonight, but if they’re lucky, they’ll also be the ones who get a lay out of the business. Druggie psychics try their best to cheat each other out of their caegars over sloppy mugs of rotgut. You watch with fascination as a couple of midbloods start making out, and try to ascertain if it’s red, black, or both. There’s screaming from a source you can’t pinpoint, and whimpers of pain from somewhere else, and you let the crowd shift and entertain you while you wait and see who is making which shrieks.

You’ll never get tired of the energy it takes for them to be such incredible fuckwits. Sometimes a troll just needs to soak in the shitblood revels, and from there, get high as fuck. It’s rejuvenating.

These are a few of your vague thoughts when a singular point of violently feverish body heat detaches from the writhing mass of limbs that is the dance floor. 

He slams into the bar next to you. He has never heard of coordination. 

You give him a glance between paroxysms of lurid light, and catch streaks of his features. Short, stocky, dressed like a librarian. Bunch of overgrown wiry hair plastered all over with sweat beneath a horribly lopsided knit cap, and silver wriggler eyes. He can’t be much older than your descendant, that little thing you took in for want of a better option. Ain’t the only similarity either. This wriggler is all pupil and his feet argue with the floor like its slick or swaying or both before he manages to ooze mostly upright.

He’s hammered as hell. Cullbait for sure. The first thing he does when he straightens up is glare bloody murderfuck at you, like you ain’t twice his size and then some.

“Hey,” he goes, “You’re in my seat.”

Definitely cullbait. You grin, which is usually more than enough to send something that scrawny scampering off, but his eyes look another drink from going crossed and staying that way. “My seat first, tiny motherfucker.”

“I know that,” he shoots back at you, and claws at the bar a little bit--you’re not sure what he’s trying to accomplish, unless it’s get the management pissed with him. 

He flops mostly onto one of the bar stools. 

You stare, impressed that anyone has gotten so damn fucked up today that they can’t figure out how to sit down. Mission complete, the wriggler hunches his shoulders over the bar, breathing rough and openmouthed. Mutters something about you having moved when you saw him coming. Apparently that was a shitty thing of you to do.

Fuck, he’s not trying to start a fight, is he? He seeing triple or what? You keep grinning at him while he tries to catch his breath and has to wipe drool off with the back of his hand. His hands are tiny compared to the rest of him, or just drowned in enough sweater that it’s hard to tell. For kicks, you hold up your own digits.

“Hey, just curious, how many fingers?” You inquire.

He growls, even though here you were, being all nice and keeping out of his personal space and everything. “I’m not drunk, spittlehose.” He drags his cap lower, tucking it over his eyes. With his pupils blown out like that, lights must be hurting them. “So shove it up your nook. I’m the thankless, designated unfucker of everyone’s shit tonight. I am the fucking parade of coherent, formulaic decisions. They get plastered, not me, and I laugh. Ha ha.”

Your eyebrows go up. “Right, so you ain’t had a drink?” Your keep your hand up too, just in case he offers excellent commentary, like you suddenly having six fingers on one hand.

“Just,” the wriggler goes, claws digging into the cap outright now that he can’t put anything else between him and the source of what you figure will be an impressive headache. “Go away. I had water, whatever. Fuck off, man.” He pants and lowers his head further, like he doesn’t really have the energy to keep it upright.

And you’re staring.

You know, maybe this whole wriggler custodian thing is beginning to take its toll. Putting some most unnatural fucking designs in your thinkpan. 

The idiot crashing at your hive had himself a thing for sopor, a reasonably harmless selection out of the array of drugs for dumbshits (even if Gamzee was stupid as the night is long when you first met him). That was still his choice, though.

The wriggler next to you has started to shake, huddling in on himself and fading quickly, mouth going slack. You don’t figure he was meant to be conscious for whatever someone got planned. And here you are, watching it kick in.

There’s a faint, far-off twist of pity in your guts, looking at the crumpled, tiny thing so dangerously out of control of his own situation, and you let that sit for a moment. 

First, you ain’t gotta do shit. There’s going to be a list of casualties a mile long at this party alone and you won’t pick his name out of the list if you read it.

But staring at the scruff of his skinny neck, with all that sweat-soaked hair curled out from underneath his cap and the collar of his shirt… hell, you’re feeling a little something. Not too often that happens lately. 

But hey, couldn’t this be your fabled rebound? Maybe you’re bouncing back.

Yeah, you decide--whatever idiot friends he followed here are fucked either way. You’ll just take him off their hands.

You grip the wriggler’s shoulder and he stirs, a garbled ffffuuuuughh spilling out of his lips as he attempts to bat you off. “Wake up,” you tell him sternly. “I ain’t carrying your ass out. Either you’re walking on your own two feet, or you’re gonna get dragged out by trolls that ain’t too interested in your long-term prospects, you feel me?” 

You doubt he understood more than half of that, but you’ll give him credit--he follows orders like a little soldier, fangs gritted tight as he shoves against the bar. Even gets his knees under him, although they fold straight off. 

Your arms snap up before you mean to. This dirtblood wriggler sinks his claws into a jacket that’s more expensive than the entire assortment of meat to be sold off of his corpse, and leans into you heavily. His cap has slid up a ways, revealing one pearly gray eye, glazed and quietly desperate, some part of him having gathered that his shit is wrecked.

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“Nnnnk,” he chokes, and tries to shove away from you, heel of his hand digging stubbornly into your thoracic struts, oblivious to the arm you have around him so he doesn’t crack his skull on the bar.

“Hey,” you go, softer than you usually would. His gaze is glued onto yours so tight it makes you want to close your eyes. “You ain’t gonna fall. Chill.” He shoves again, all kinds of stubborn, but it’s weakening as you stare him down. You’re not the first to close your eyes, and when he does, he sinks his claws in deeper, and huddles. 

Makes the saddest little sound as he does too.

“…Fresh air’ll do you a world of good,” you assure him, and steer him towards the door as rapidly as you can. His feet stumble sluggishly along. He’s barely keeping upright; his head topples heavily against your side, and you can feel the smooth pressure of his tiny ass horns where they’re hidden by his cap. Fuck, he’s small. “That’s it, keep at it,” you encourage, giving him a squeeze as you draw up at the exit. “Feel real fucking better soon.” 

“Urgh,” he agrees.

Then you direct your gaze up. A good dozen trolls guard the exit.

Culling parties like this are the new fad. The locals post their most vicious (or well, what passes for stone-cold killers among lowblood scum) with orders not to let anyone out until sundown. Rule-breakers are a treat for the frenzied crowd to enjoy--they get gunned down bloody for the spectacle.

Your wriggler has got his shit together enough that he is trying not to be dead weight at your side while you stalk up to the guards. Attempts at intimidation are amusing, but unnecessary.

No one here is fit to deny you anything. They won’t either, unless they want their thinkpans turned inside out.

“Open up, motherfuckers,” you say, still grinning. “I’ve had my fill.”

They bristle--at least a couple of them have been sipping or hitting what’s convenient. All hopped up on their own authority. Must be nice to not feel like dirtbloods once in a while. The drugs and booze make them brave.

“Still a good couple of hours to sundown,” says one, and fingers his trigger.

Another volunteers, “Why don’t you go and enjoy the party some more? Plenty of room for you and your companion to have some private time.” He gives a little flick of his chin towards the back rooms.

Huh. Yeah, you do guess you could. 

But you lose patience contemplating it. Wriggler is starting to shake again, and you think it might be muscle strain more than some synthetic fever--whatever he got dosed with, his supplier wanted him unable to move, much less fight back. Standing is taking all he’s got.

It rankles at this particular moment. You shift your hip so the wriggler can cling on a little better. “Nah,” you tell them, real calm and simple, “Now you motherfuckers either step aside or I’m going through you.”

One of them lets out a chattering laugh. Another gives a low moan of terror. Fucking rotpans, all of them. One of them has his shit together enough to get busy unchaining the door. Wriggler shudders harder against you, all but vibrating under your hand.

“Hey, you alright?” One of the guards croons. “Don’t look so good.”

The shaky growl that answers him makes you look over.

“Shit, you know what, lord highblood?” The guard says, glancing up at you. His irises are a filled yellow. “I got this from here. This kid’s actually a friend of mine. He can sober up in the security box.”

“Uh-huh,” you say flatly. You keep your arm slung tight around your wriggler. Security troll snarls, wide-eyed and crazed. He’s possessed of enough courage to reach out to what’s yours. You snatch his wrist up. His face goes white as the bones start to give. 

Holy shit,” another guard panics. They really ought to train on knowing how to get the chain off quick in emergencies. That’s forward-thinking shit. You twist your victim’s wrist a little. He whimpers, and you have to jostle your wriggler a little against your side to make sure he ain’t passed out, because he’s going dead weight on you. 

Eyes slit open and snag on yours, like the dull edge of a blade. Good effort, but that won’t kill anybody. He’s the one who looks like he’s dying.

Like you ain’t dealt with enough, suddenly more trolls are pushing through the crowd.

“Ryveck, man, what the hell?” One of them splutters at the guard you’re accosting, and does a doubletake at you. “Whoa. Fuck. Ryveck, you scumsucker, uh, what the shit are you doing pissing off the highbloods?”

“He’s got our friend,” hisses the guard through clenched teeth. “Wanted him back.”

Wanted easy prey more like. You raise your eyebrows at the newcomers. “Care to try your luck, brother?”

You’re offered a cautious, unassuming smile. “Hey, uh, I don’t want to try anything, okay? Just, sir... You mind giving him back? Probably not too good letting him go off with, um. With someone we don’t know. Common sense and all.”

You ain’t impressed by his estimation of common sense given that he’s talking at you with every appearance of trying to deny you something caught your interest. Wriggler hasn’t been nothing of his since you decided you’d take him.

Besides, if he had the judgment necessary to keep your wriggler from getting murdered until sundown, would he have been stumbling off on his lonesome? Or allowed to suck down a drugged drink?

…Then again, it ain’t really your problem, is it? You already got more than a couple of those. Don’t need some sickly, doped up piece of lowblood trash to look after tonight. You got better shit to do.

Literally anything else is better shit to do. So why in the fuck is this giving you pause? So what if some gutterblood gets killed tonight? More his fault for getting drugged than anyone else’s. You interfering does not drastically increase his long-term survival prospects. Stupid is supposed to be lethal.

“Please?” The other kid offers, with a wide-eyed lack of guile. “I’m really sorry if he gave you any trouble. Always mouthing off, that one. Um. I’m sure he didn’t mean it?”

You grunt and shrug. The wriggler detaches from you like used tape when you pry him off. His hatefriend reaches out to accept him, flashing you a relieved smile as the wriggler crumples into his grasp.

“Thanks, sir. You don’t even know how worried—“

Next thing you know, the idiot is reeling back from the foot your wriggler planted in his stomach. 

Well, fuck then.

Chapter Text

You burst out laughing. Shit! Your wriggler falls halfway slumped against the wall for balance, and he’s still spitting this vicious growl, tensed up in immediate, instinctive vitriol.

The so-called hatefriend coughs on the floor. Security shithead lunges at the wriggler and gets an arm around his neck. Even all fucked up to hell, the wriggler spasms with automatic fuck no, get the hell out of my personal space dismay.

Good enough for you. A swipe of your palm sends the security fucker cascading to the floor. Wriggler topples, all his strings cut, and you hook him to you, winding an arm around his scrawny waist. He snarls the whole way, slurring and drooling, and nestles under your arm with comparative glee.

“Fuck—g’ hhhh hell—y’too larttahh—“ Trying to spew insults. You’re grinning your head off. When the one troll with the innocent smile gets up, the politeness has cracked and there’s nothing but pure malice underneath it. Your wriggler thrashes in your grip, trying to get at him. More of them come melting out of the crowd, sharp-eyed and hungry for blood, all their attention fixed on the little bit of cullbait dangling off of you.

Well, you figure you know who drugged the kid now.

“Fuck’s sake,” you mutter, and haul the wriggler real close to you, rip the light fixture nearest to you out of its bracket, and swing.

When they’re all dead or run off--either is good so long as they’re out of your face--your wriggler has folded over your arm like a wet towel. All his rancor burned off by the second skull to splatter hot blood all over him. His breathing reassures you that he’s still kicking.

You turn around and discover they finally got the chain off the door. Fucking finally. 

The guards mostly stare at the dead bodies around them in grim fascination. One of them grins at you.

“That was a bitching show,” he tells you brightly, and waves you at the exit. “Take all, you earned ‘im. I hope he’s a good fuck, sir.”

Those little pity flutterings in your chest have made a definite determination. You’re leaning pale, see, because your hand is around this fucker’s throat. 

You stare him down as he turns a steadily darker color, struggling for air. “Don’t need you deeming him fit or not,” you tell him, low and dangerous. “Matter of fact, don’t need you ever talking on him.” He can’t nod his head right now, so you do it for him. “Now say you’re sorry.” You nod his head again. Satisfied, you let him drop to the floor in a coughing heap. 

The wriggler seizes this moment to double over and vomit up the contents of his stomach.

“Motherfucking miracles,” you mutter, the party well and truly soured for you. You don’t even feel like pretending the wriggler can make heads or tails of the stairs, so you sweep him up into your blood-streaked arms as he retches his last.

He’s hot enough you could cook with him. Little and totally limp by now, although he still blinks his eyes open at you as you trudge up the steps. 

Could not look more vapid if he tried. Total lack of comprehension.

You grin down at him again, and he doesn’t even cower, just pushes his cheek against your arm and blinks. He smells like a sewer, but it works for him. Maybe you’ll keep him as a pet.

If he didn’t overdose and die on the way back to your hive, that would be chill too.

You go ahead and just swipe one of the tarps they keep handy for lusii on your way out--mostly unused today; these kids are all probably real local. Slumspawn and quadrants. To reiterate: motherfucking miracles. You haul it around yourself and tuck it over your prize too. Don’t want none of his bits burning off in the sunshine.

And then it’s a nice and leisurely walk home, taking your time, and keeping your eyes shaded on account of the fact that old you may be, but blind you have no designs on.

On your way, little by little, wriggler starts making questioning, displeased sounds that you associate with increasingly painful sobriety. Stirs a little more and starts worrying with the edges of the tarp. You give him a placating little thwap between the horns to quiet him down, and hurry a bit.

Only once you’ve slammed the door on all that baleful sunlight does he get to fuss about. Wriggler is coherent enough to realize that, at least, and starts struggling. You let him make that judgment call, which turns out to be in error, because as you toss aside the sun tarp, he crumples all over the floor with a sickening smack. Knees still ain’t fit for nothing, it seems.

You wait, but he doesn’t get up.

Just lies on the floor.

Fuck. He better not be dead.

You crouch down next to him and give him a good prodding. “Little motherfucker,” you warn, “If you snapped your neck after all the trouble I’ve gone to this evening, I’m gonna be almighty pissed.”

His eyes flutter back open. He doesn’t look particularly dead. 

In the light of your hive, you can see him a little better. Fuckall about him that should make you think ‘cute’. He’s still unkempt and squarish, snub-nosed with fangs that belong in a goddamn cartoon. He parts chapped lips and groans out a little.

“…Water?”

Well, you motherfucking guess you can manage that. 

When you come back with a glass, the wriggler has sat up to knead at his forehead, lips pulled back from gritted teeth. When you kneel down for him again, he spends a long moment staring at you before he seems to figure out who you are and resumes breathing.

“Woozy, huh?” You say, handing him the glass. And there it is again--a little sympathy pang. There’s something about his face from a certain angle that makes it look soft and vulnerable.

As neither of these things have ever been appealing to you in any quadrant, you are still mystified.

“Kind of,” he mutters, and gets his drink on.

“Seems to be wearing off of you,” you point out. “Don’t think you’re gonna die. There’s some good news, motherfucker.”

He’s too busy spilling half the water down his front to answer you, though enough gets down his throat that when he lowers the empty glass, he looks all proud of himself. The stare he directs at you isn’t so dazed either.

“You,” he croaks, very slowly, visibly having difficulty sounding out the words instead of just flapping his mouth uselessly. “You took me. Fuck. This is your hive, isn’t it? You took me. To your da—your hive.” His throat works hard to swallow. “What…?” He doesn’t really gesture so much as lurch to the left, but you get his point. What the fuck?

What can he expect from the next few hours in your domain?

Well ain’t that a question.

You survey him for a long moment. He seems to know his place. You could make him polish your horns or some shit, you guess. Tell him he’d best figure out a way to pacify you real good if he wants to save his own skin, and watch him fawn clumsily over you in a combination of drugged stupor and shitty wriggler cluelessness. 

This really ain’t your thing. Everyone and their moirail keeps a couple of dirtblood pale slaves, but—

You sigh, and hold his gaze. “I ain’t gonna do nothing, motherfucker,” you say, “And as for you, you’re gonna haul your ass back home once you can walk straight. I’ll even leave you with all the same limbs as you arrived with, should you get to promising not to guzzle down more drugged drinks like a skullfucked chump.”

He splutters and flushes, spilling some dusky low color across his face before he’s yanking his cap down lower. You chuckle and rise to your feet.

And he grits out, like it genuinely injures him, “I owe you.”

“Aw, what the hell are you going to give me?” You laugh. If you decided to take from him, him offering first wouldn’t be a matter of high priority.

But he’s just a dumbshit and a wriggler, so there ain’t no point. Just brought him here on your whimsy, you guess. Ain’t a federal fucking issue.

His eyes jab at you between his fingers. “Bet I’ll think of something,” he mutters, like a threat, and then starts trying to lever himself up.

You watch the resulting flails of depression for as long as you can before you gotta grab his wrists to haul him up yourself. You grumble. His wrists are like river reeds, they feel so delicate. You swallow back any comment on the matter, and wait as he tries to steady himself. 

He plainly can’t do it. His knees just keep sinking under him. 

“This is bullshit!” He hisses, already losing his temper.

“Oh, come the fuck on,” you sigh, and try to scoop him up outright. He jumps when you touch him.

He’s breathing harder. Eyes are still more pupil than you’d expect for him to have recovered this much. He tilts his head away from you.

Can’t help but notice that he’d be displaying his horns with a move like that, if not for the damned hat. Ain’t particularly an observation you care to notice either, so color you most displeased.

You give him a beat, then lift him fully up and over your shoulder, giving yourself strict orders to chill the fuck out all the while, and take the stairs in long strides. Lowblood wriggler clutches onto you like he’s planning to pupate. From somewhere in your cavernous hive you hear the click of a door, but no footsteps. Gamzee has retreated for now, so you won’t be disturbed. 

…That a good thing?

It occurs to you that you didn’t even really think of a destination--you just couldn’t stand watching him fumbling with liquefied legs any longer. So, uh, from there, your thinkpan ain’t been exactly involved

Unfortunately, you basically just figure this out when you start pushing the door open. Your eyes close and you growl under your breath.

The wriggler stirs. “Urrh?”

“You wanna sleep?” You ask him reluctantly, because you’re here and it makes sense--it does, it fucking does, fuuuuck.

He twitches slightly. “Not in sopor.” 

Right, sopor will render him more defenseless even than the drugs in his system. 

It’s like he’s got a thought in his head, except for attending a motherfucking culling party in the first place. His lusus ought to kick the crap out of him. You’re fixing to smack him yourself, only he’s too little for much of that.

Your next question accordingly comes out through slightly gritted teeth, “You want a pile, then?”

He goes still. Augh, fuck. 

Seriously, you don’t get this. You’re pretty sure your descendent has a sweep or two on him, and Gamzee might have just crawled out of the caverns, for all he’s got in common with you. This wriggler ain’t even coordinated enough to give you a decent pap, on the off-chance he even knows how to, and ain’t got trashy fiction up his nook so he thinks fondling up your damned chin is how to be sexy. The idea of trying for a feelings jam with something that hasn’t got even a couple decades’ life experience sounds duller than a box of rocks. Dammit, you ain’t got nothing to be interested in! 

Except your pale pity is most grievously fucking stirred. This is the most depressing thing: the first person you’re inviting into your pile in a good four centuries is some brat who, if you’re lucky, might be somewhere approaching literate

And the part of you that appreciates potentially witnessing him snug in your pile pisses you off ever so slightly.

“Hm,” goes the wriggler and nothing more. Just like that, your patience at an end.

“You wanna lie down or not, wriggler?!” You snarl, “You ain’t staying on my shoulder all day. Figure it the fuck out!”

“Fine!” He snaps, abruptly bursting into loudness himself, though pitched a bit more nervous than you, “Throw me on your goddamn pile then, you pugnacious asshole!”

You snarl again. That being said, you do precisely as bid. He smacks into the pile with a spluttered oof, one arm flailing up as he sinks into the furs and tattered tarps. It’s got a lot of give in it, you pile, to get your big ass comfortable, but it’s still firm enough not to totally swallow him. 

Then he’s all blinking eyes up at you and tugging his cap down tight again.

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He’s blushing. Fuck. And you’re looming over him, staring while he sprawls out over what’s yours like he owns the place.

He’s probably too dazed to organize himself over a more respectable spread of territory, you decide. 

Right. He’s also making exactly no effort to try.

You got him staring up at you under the fuzzy edge of his headgear, worrying his lip with his blunt teeth, blushing, and probably never having touched any troll’s pile in his fucking life.

Your pity comes groaning fully to life, with much dust in all the cogs and gears.

Yeah, who were you kidding? You’re fucked. Wriggler’s eyes haven’t really left you for a moment. There’s calculation in them, which is making your skin crawl a bit, but also something that makes you feel like he’s yours to do with as you like. He is starkly pathetic.

Wriggler reaches for you, claws outstretched for perusal and looks at you as sternly as if he’s your schoolfeeder. Regardless of your personal crisis, you choke on a laugh. 

“Wriggler,” you murmur, leaning down to give that tiny hand the look of disdain it properly deserves, “You mean to do the pacifying?”

You do not jest--he does not so much as bat an eyelash. “As long as you’re standing there looking like someone sucker punched you in the delicate bits, abso-fucking-lutely no one is getting pacified,” he says. “Get in the pile.”

“I do not have a sensitive bit on me,” you insist, not budging. “And mark me well, little wriggler, you cannot handle me. You’ll pipe that noise down.”

“Then you calm me down,” he demands loudly, and you don’t really have it in you to not shudder all over at those words, flex your claws, and think of his needs so fully met that every instinct is flayed off and useless. “I can’t see straight, I’m so pissed that words are actually, literally failing me, and all I can think, as we approach nuclear meltdown levels of fuck my sorry life, is that I am going to rupture the contents of my circulatory system everywhere if this shitty drug doesn’t get out of my system soon, but oh no, that might be convenient! So instead it’s getting worse, again, and—” 

“Shit, what’s wrong now?” You groan, taking a knee in the pile just to get a better look at him. Features you took for a lowblood’s sturdiness have bladed slants now that he’s lucid. The shape his eyelashes make against his cheek looks razor-edged. He’s sweaty, bedraggled, and pitiful, but not soft. 

The skin beneath your hand is hot before you even realized you were going to touch him. You stare. He stares back, shivering again.

“It hurts,” he says, tight with frustration and wounded despair. “Feels better when you touch me, at least. My skin stops burning.”

The statement is too dry for teasing, and when you turn it over in your thinkpan, your teeth snap together.

“I’m gonna fucking kill them,” you decide. 

There’s drugs like that, that work in stages. Some of the second stage get a troll hot, intensify the sensations, until they scream and squeal like getting to the bucket was their idea.

It’s shit you have never approved of before, because that kind of fuck sounds like a sad time for all involved, and because any troll ought to coax their quadrants without such assistance. It has never made you so damn angry before, but when it comes to this wriggler, no. You didn’t bash enough skulls in.

“I thought you were on a roll,” says the wriggler, immune to fear for all that your hand on him could crush his bones to dust. His tone is terribly dry. “Thanks for that, by the way. You saved me the trouble of doing it myself.”

“I let the runners go free,” you snarl, and then, “I’ll motherfucking hunt them down, one by one.” In the same breath, you hiss, “I should have let them have you. You ain’t fit to survive.”

His chin goes up, and defiance sparks in his eyes as bright as you have ever seen.

Chapter Text

“Between you and me, I’d have to be impressively stupid to think my overwhelming physical presence was going to keep me alive.” The wriggler’s hand, you realize, is on your cheek. Yours is totally failing to break any part of him. 

You have realized both of these things because each idle, tentative pat of his palm is stripping a layer of anger out of your thinkpan.

The little motherfucker is pacifying you.

“Uh,” you go, bewildered as some kid his own age.

He quirks an eyebrow at you. “But sneaky I can do. Got you in the pile just fine, didn’t I?”

“Uh,” you say again, and then shut your mouth. Yes. Yes, he walked you right into this one.

…Well you can keep on telling yourself you don’t find that sort of deviousness attractive--or you suppose you can get in the pile.

With the wriggler.

“It ain’t serendipity just cause I got some kind of convenient pity for your idiot ass,” you warn him. “You ain’t getting nothing out of me.”

He rolls his eyes. “I am keenly aware,” he says, “But like I said: I owe you.”

You have to challenge him. “Little motherfucker, you say that as though I would be hard-pressed to shoosh your own ass down.”

His teeth gleam as he smiles at you, with a little edge of danger you can’t take seriously, but still makes your grin widen. 

And he comes back with, “I’m not the one so hard up for a little action that I tripped all over the first inebriated shitsponge to land next to me in a dive bar. And my conciliatory quadrants are not solely occupied by what I’m guessing is centuries of miserable, unrequited pining and empty frustration.”

“What,” you say flatly.

“Get in the pile,” he repeats, gentler, but with a firmness that lingers in all the right ways. “You’ll have to prove I can’t handle you.”

And that’s just enough of a challenge that you climb in.

When you find out what wriggler’s idea of a real papping is, at first you think he just slapped you.

Your whole cheek goes numb. Wasn’t force, though; just the selective demilitarization of your nervous system’s defenses. His hands should be too tiny to get that kind of power, but fuck. That temper of yours is so much sea foam; it just washes away. Apparently, you misjudged this--someone has taught him real good, because it seems like he knows exactly what he is doing there. 

He curls into you as close as a second skin in order to be able to reach, and he talks. 

He explains he knows you’ve been pining—big, gorgeous hive, and no scent of another troll. You, ostentatious as fuck, all swagger and menace, but nothing here is really dressed up to show off. No bucket either. You sneered like you wanted to rip someone’s head off every time someone kissed in front of you at the party. You don’t even know how that looks, do you? To someone watching? To someone who knows how it feels to be lonely?

“The fuck do you know about lonely?” You scoff, and wriggler takes the bitter aftertaste off your tongue with a ragged little laugh.

His hands are the shit, but his voice--messiahs, that’s a voice made for compassion. Sweet little rasp that pulls you deep into your own skin, at the mercy of every sensation. Gorgeous little sighs that coax all the air out of your lungs until you breathe deep. 

“The quadrants matter to me too,” he murmurs. “I know how it feels to try and get them right.”

“And here the pair of us are,” you remark, amused in spite of yourself. “You are in my pile, giving me sugar on the first night.”

“You defended my honor by punching the shit out of security,” the wriggler exclaims, batting eyelashes until you laugh into his fingers. “Obviously now we get it on. This is like romance 101, you uncultured philistine fuck.”

“You gonna educate me?”

“No shit. And who you’re pining for clearly isn’t in the pale quadrant either,” he points out, with a vicious little grin and his thumb on your pulse. Outright papping your throat like the cheeky shit he is. “You’re too hung up on them.”

“And how the fuck were you coherent enough to gather any of that?” You inquire.

“I’m basically a fucking genius at this,” he announces flippantly, “Kind of a big deal. But don’t sweat it, you’re actually almost hard to read.”

His hands are taking your anger apart like a machine he knows inside and out. It’s like a shitty song lyric. His voice slides through you like a drums, throbs your bloodpusher to its beat, shooshes floating through your bloodstream right alongside the iron and indigo. The words are knife-edged accurate.  He’s too fucking good at this. 

He’s way too fucking good at this, and absolutely confident in himself, because when he reaches for you, slow, and shuts his mouth to talk at you with just his eyes, you lower your head for him. He puts tiny hotblood palms on your horns and you groan so loud the pile shivers.

At this point, if you're honest, you know you’re dealing with a pile for hire. No one is this good with a stranger without having learned how.

You didn’t even know there was a market for trolls this young. All kinds of fucked up that there is, but he has been well-trained.

You are going to croak. Your bloodpusher is going to melt until it splatters; you are pretty sure piling isn’t supposed to accomplish peaceful death.

Maybe he’s a motherfucking assassin.

“Yeah,” the wriggler concludes, eyes soft and heated, intense, “You’re such a fucking mess. Someone should have taken care of you a long time ago.” Your growl chokes; he’s papping you again, and whispers in your ear, wicked, “I’ll make you all better.

“The mouth on you,” you groan, and he laughs, dizzyingly bright, digs his fingers into your hornbases and watches with satisfaction as you writhe deeper into your pile. You breathe deep, and he even smells pale. Pheromones and that miserable fucking club, something else that is sugar sweet, and then sweat and dirt and steel. Pity and poverty and fight. 

And he is hurting still because of that fucking drug; the distress sits sour under his skin, and you finally just cup his face in your hands. 

Nothing fancy. You just can’t keep your hands at bay anymore.

His eyes close and he whimpers in the back of his throat, and nuzzles into them for all he’s worth. Help me, fix me, make it better. The pale is mitigating the drugs laying siege to all his systems. You can do more than keep him sane, though. Your fingers flutter in a gentle rhythm, lapping over his skin like the first strokes of incoming tide. You don’t want to overwhelm him or worse. 

But he shouldn’t be hurting.

“I’m alright,” he tries to protest, words all shivery and high-pitched.

“Yeah,” you rumble back, not bothering to acknowledge his fuss, “You sure are. And I got you anyway.”

He squeaks. It’s precious. If that’s a professional move, it’s worth the caegars.

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You pull him to you when he lets you and breathe from his throat like it’s a fine perfume. A clawed hand draws through your hair, encouraging you closer, and he’s little and soft and sturdy--perfect to wrap around and squeeze. You couldn’t hold him any tighter if you wanted. You’re melted. He sighs out a croon of appreciation from being held, and then shivers hard.

“You coldbloods,” he gasps up, “Feels like you’re hypothermic, I swear to fuck. Just makes me want to get you warm, god—“  But his littleness is insufficient to wrap around you like he is so clearly trying to do. 

“You’re the one running that wicked fever,” you murmur back, “Not making any goddamn sense, all but got steam coming out your eyeballs. I’ll cool you down first.”

He giggles, “You promise?”

He really is all too mouthy. Pale is for soothing, and he’s riling you on purpose.

He brings his other hand lower while you grumble. Clever fingers go kneading into the vertebrae at the branch of your shoulders.

You splutter. The wriggler hums and does something magic. 

“Your posture fucking sucks,” he informs you as you as the sweetest numbness sinks through your spine. Little fingers dig in, massaging hot and cold through the sensitive nerves there, and reducing it all to mush. “Do you even know how long it’s been hurting?” You groan aloud as he shatters another clump of tension. “—You are going to start taking much better care of yourself.”

“I’m the Grand motherfucking—ghh—Highblood,” you grind out, “You are not giving me any orders. Wriggler.”

“Then,” he growls into your ear, sweet and perfect, “Should I make it hurt? Teach you a lesson? Is that how I should take care of you?” You wind up laughing as he just keeps at it, giddy as anything, squeezing him into you as he makes sure it’ll take you days just to lift your head without thinking of warm claws driving all the tension out. “Maybe I won’t,” he murmurs, nuzzling his cheek to yours like he’s just overcome by feeling good. “Roll over,” the wriggler urges in your ear, “I’ll get all the kinks out of your back.”

You snort. “I ain’t letting you stand over me, little wriggler.”

“Please?” He nuzzles your ear, and you’re worked up enough that even that makes you go limp. “I’m good at it. And you need this so badly.”

That, you do not doubt. You reach back to snag his wrist before your thinkpan breaks.

“You make a compelling argument,” you tell him. “Piled me good and restful, I will admit.” 

The wriggler throws you a look equal parts challenge and curiosity. You glance a kiss off of one of his fingers. “You any good at talking down?” You ask.

“Only gifted beyond explicable belief,” he says, brazen, but it’s sweet around the edges and you finally recognize what it is about him that you like so much.

From the moment he fell down next to you, and from then on, he has been starkly determined to in some way give and treat and spoil. He’s got fuckall for anyone, but will that stop him? Nah. Pity the soul who dares to try.

He’s like an answer to a whole world full of nothing but ‘I need’.

“You want that?” He croons at you, still working you up on purpose, mockery to take the edge off sincerity that hits too hard, “Ha. Are you saying you trust me?”

“Who are you gonna tell?” You rumble back. “You ain’t even gonna be able to spill a secret when thinking on my confessions get you blushing.”

“That’s the spirit,” he snickers, and you’ve still got his wrist, but he gets you anyway, darts in and kisses your nose and that is just.

That is just so motherfucking precious you don’t even know what to do.

“I’m listening,” he coaxes. “Come on, Grand motherfucking Highblood. Try not to hurt yourself thinking too hard. You can say whatever and I promise to only laugh a little bit.”

“Now you gotta work for it,” you tell him, “Cause that comment is fit to make me not want to tell you shit.”

You proceed to wear your voice out.

All the while, you stubbornly caress his face. Still sticky with sweat, hair a gritty, rough-textured counterpoint to the utter softness of his little hat. Feels too good in your palms to stop. You wear away at the lingering threads of distress and watch him mellow. His eyes go half-lidded, pupils still too big, but he smells like happiness after that.

And you tell him about Meenah, the war everlasting that made most insufficient peace, and the loss that aches more ragged in your chest than any wound.

He wipes the tears from your skin with fingers that scorch like sunlight and leave trails of starkly recognizable relief in their wake. Rewards each confession with touch, and has your hide thinking it was made just for the sake of tender handling.

You think, after a day’s sleep and some emotionally fortifying Faygo, you might get to asking his name. All is shiny and unexpected. What else can you do but fall in love?

You wake up alone in your pile, with his scent stale and his heat long gone. No note, no name, no opportune theft, and no sweet nothings for the road. You’re just bereft and well-repaid, and the motherfucker let himself out. 

If you could feel insulted about him waltzing through your hive unsupervised, you would, but as it is, you just sink your ass back into your pile.

How light and relaxed you feel, despite being ditched. What the fuck even is annoyance? Every bone has been replaced by moonlight, and you your ass off at yourself

He handled you just fine, that wriggler. You’re maybe ruined for a good couple of sweeps, and all you do is snuggle into your pile and purr to yourself, very thoroughly pacified, and almost entirely sure you made the best decision last night that any troll ever has.

Cause damn, that was some kind of one day stand.

Chapter Text

It’s supply night in Middle City, which means it’s practically deserted. The wide, dusty streets leave travelers exposed on all sides to the eyes glaring out of fortress-like shops, and to intrusive alleyways, aimed like knives and shrouded in shadow. The hawkers have vanished, the crowds are a memory, and the trolls that remain are dull, muted caricatures of themselves. No one makes sudden moves. Scruffy workers have been pouring in since first sundown, scarred and scowling, conspicuously absent of their gang signs and affiliate colors. The air hangs heavy, its humidity sending sweat dripping down your chin, soaking into the hood of your jacket. 

A cluster of sugar pipes sits in your pocket and your stomach gnaws on itself. It’s your third night without food, and like everyone else here, it’s work or starve.

Your crew fragments as you intrude. The highbloods and a few of the more overgrown lowbloods peel off towards the shipping stations. The scrawniest members of your crew aren’t present—they’ll wait the night out in the nest.  The territory still requires defending no matter how hungry you all are. Besides, even if they tried to work, they wouldn’t get paid. 

The smallest remaining trolls, you among them, take a shortcut to the feeding district. In Middle City, food vendors are armed more heavily than the weapons dealers (of course), but the crates you haul will be lighter. 

You drag yourself with the rest, scuffed sneakers and all, up to the restaurant doors, beating on them with scarred up fists. Suspicious eyes peer out at you. They rake up and down you with lips curled in distaste. “Fully staffed,” they say, “Beat it, gutterslum.”

That’s fair, that’s fine, it’s a game of odds. Someone will take you on eventually.

Other trolls, unfamiliar trolls, with unfamiliar, unwashed scents that drive you out of your skin (the smell of spilled blood clinging to the back of your throat), mass while you go from door to door. There’s an unspoken truce tonight. All the rival crews go back to killing each other tomorrow, but on supply night, you pretend to be friends. 

The supervisors pretend not to know why you want to work. Ferals are supposed to be reported on sight, or failing that, killed, but the rules always get stretched for a profit. 

Your crewmates start getting picked out of the crowd and nodded inside by their employers for the evening. They brush fingers with you and the others as they head in, for luck and for solidarity. Everyone is watching. Don’t want to be one of the unlucky ones getting dragged into an alley, do you? Then you better fucking belong to a crew.

You, of course, are not among the kids getting picked out for work. Too small, too sickly. Move along; it’s too much trouble to choose another worker if one keels over midway through.

“Keep walking, maggot. Nothing for you here.”

You’ve walked a couple miles already so far, and soaked your hoodie through with sweat so it sticks to you, flapping between your shoulder blades with every weary step. Keep knocking. Don’t let anyone grab ahold of you in the confusion. A door swings open and reveals yet another midblooded supervisor—one whose eyes lock onto you right away, even though there are two bigger trolls on either side. You straighten. She crooks her finger at you and you smile to her, doing your best to look docile.

“You a good worker?” She asks, running her eyes along you.

“I’ll work twice as hard as any troll you’ve got,” you assert—but you do it quietly, as though you might just be a little bit out of breath.

There are also supervisors in the business of rehiring a couple of times tonight. You don’t have to pay anyone for their work if they’re dead, do you?

And you’re fine being hired because of your short life expectancy. You’re too damned stubborn to die.  Besides, a slim chance of payment is still a chance of payment.

You succeed in looking like an easy mark. She picks out two others, both of which look like they’ve got the wasting disease. You’d be insulted, but you do own a mirror.

You’ve been hungry a long while now. You all have. You don’t look much like Karkat Vantas anymore; you look like a skeleton that got punched in the face a couple of times.

“We’ve got a bunch of meat that needs to get in the freezer right away,” she tells you once you’re all inside, “And some shithead let the junkyard stack up. It needs to be cleared before dawn. Who’s down for it?”

“I’ll take the junkyard,” you volunteer at once. 

She waves you off. There’s nothing in a junkyard worth stealing, so you just earned yourself a little private time. 

You roll up your sleeves in case a breeze rolls by to stir the muggy air, then grab a pair of hauling cables on your way. After strapping them around your chest, you head outside. 

The cables magnetize to each twisted, burned heap of trash easily, and once they're attached, you dig your heels into the dirt and start dragging. You’re sweating in no time, breathing heavy as you plant one foot in front of the other. 

You’re going to have to haul uphill, unfortunately. You suck in a fortifying breath and start sweating your way up. 

The cables wears your skin raw somewhere around the third trip. It hurts. All around you, other trolls do the same, lugging junk up to the trash dump in bloodstained shirts, mouths gasping, feet stomping like a bass beat.

You’re a little lightheaded, but it’s nothing bad. Your sugar pipe hasn’t worn off yet. 

You’ve made good progress on nearest pile of junk, and you’re strapping a big heap of melted slag to your cables when your supervisor emerges from the restaurant. You stop and give the polite, basic salute. She’s higher than you, so you add a quick, “Hemosuperior.”

“Wow. You really are a hard worker,” she says, glancing around the junkyard. “Hasn’t been this empty for months...” She’s not too happy about that. After all, it’s most convenient to her if you drop dead from the heat on your own. You pretend to be too stupid to realize. “You can take a break for lunch now, if you like.”

“Sure,” you say. Lunch is a luxury you haven’t had since the sweep started, but you might as well get some more sugar in your blood just the same.

“Want to eat with me?” She asks. She forces a smile. It looks painful.

You plaster one on too. “I’m gonna meet up with some crewmates. Thanks anyway.”

Her answering disappointment is paper thin. Probably doesn’t have a plan to off you yet. She’ll have made up her mind when you get back. You’ll probably be in for a scuffle at the end; she’ll try to slit your throat instead of paying you, and you’ll have to get belligerent.

You have to get paid tonight. Nothing else is an option.

You walk a little farther than you have to for your break, climbing another hill. You’re craving a view, and you get a pretty remarkable one. It must be windy somewhere, because half of the usual smog has been blown away.

The feeding district sprawls around you endlessly, all the way to the edge of the haze. Equally huge commercial districts define most of Middle City—which is a lot like Lower City, except everything here is a little cleaner, a little classier. The Church territory grows like a tumor (so many goddamn tents, and even more pitch black metal). North of that is the wall that surrounds Higher City. You can pick out Middle City’s pleasure district right away, maybe an hour’s walk out. There’s so much light it looks like it’s on fire, and looking gives you a headache. It’ll sell the same things Lower City does—sex and sugar pills and murder. They probably have better drugs, though.

And speaking of disreputable substances…

You fumble a little with your sugar pipe—fuck, your hands are shaking; that’s annoying—but get it between your teeth, whereupon your exhaustion stops mattering. Your thumb flicks the switch on the side of the sugar pipe, igniting the charges within it. You let it get warmed up.

Higher City lies in the center of the metropolis, cradled by Middle City on every side, save the one that faces the sea. It’s bigger than either Middle or Lower—they’re orbital rings by comparison, and Higher City is the massive body that formed them. You did visit once. You got out as quickly as you could, because you didn’t want to be executed, but you still remember how it looked—each residential hive bigger than a supply depot, gleaming streets, ships docked at every station, and the heavy scent of veiled, dressed-up aggression.

The slums aren’t a part of Higher, Middle, or Lower. They aren’t meant to exist, and they are eternally invisible from civilized areas, thanks to the smog.

No pleasure districts or shops to be found there. You could sell sleep so easy down there, open up a whole black market on it, be paid in twisted favors and stolen, rancid meat if you could keep those trolls sleeping instead of psychotic and murder-happy. The only other things peddled are robbery and death.

The Enforcers don’t bother with the slums much. It’s probably boring when every troll in the area is in violation of the King’s law.

Your sugar pipe hisses out a fine, neon blue steam. It’s warmed up. You suck a good lungful in. 

It burns going down like claws are raking into your lungs, and the synthetic sugars make your head spin faster. Your mouth tastes like acid when you exhale. You blow an aquamarine smoke ring. Your bloodpusher kicks triple time as you stand in place, and you take deep breaths between deep pulls to keep from knocking yourself out. You shake like a leaf.

You stop feeling disoriented and tired and hungry as you breathe, though. Just jittery and electric, and each pull sends another roar of energy through your bloodstream. You’re still starving to death and your body knows it, but your thinkpan can’t tell the difference anymore. It’ll stay fooled maybe another four hours, six if the chemicals in this pipe are a lucky mix. Long enough to work, to fight for your life, and bring caegars back to the crew.

You inhale it deep, let it sit and sting acridly within your ribs. You love being alive, or you so wouldn’t put up with this shit.

A faint rustle of wind stirs the heavy air around you.

You tilt your head back, and she’s there. Surprise, surprise. Your crewmate gives you a fanged grin. “Already time for a pick me up? I’m beginning to think you need to eat.”

You snort. “No thanks,” you shoot back, “This is literally why we keep this stuff around.”

“Excuse you, you’re too short to be hungry. I was just being my courteous lady thief self by offering to steal for you.”

“Lady? You’re reaching,” you scoff and extend the pipe towards her. She leans down and takes a hit directly from your fingers, her own brushing yours. Vriska breaths a wreath of blue smoke into the air. It gilds her delicate features eerily. She’s a highblood, but so small you’d never realize it. She’s also on guard duty, so you shouldn’t be seeing her here.

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She tells you why she’s here, voice silky with smoke, “Someone called in the Enforcers.”

Vriska neatly intercepts you as you shoot upright, and drags you back to her side. “Don’t panic,” she scoffs. “Just a couple of highblood adults wandering around out of uniform. I don’t even think they’ve made any arrests yet.”

You are nothing but adrenaline. “What the fuck else are Enforcers doing here during supply night?!” You hiss at her. “Getting subpar carbohydrate strips? They couldn’t ask for a more complete profile of autoculls, Jesus fuck.”

“Why would they care?” Vriska replies simply. “And even if they decide to start rounding the workers up, Sollux will call in an evac at the first sign of trouble. It’s fine. You’re just being warned. Keep your head down and we’ll stay lucky.”

“Shit,” you breathe. You’re seething. You’d still work supply night even if there were Enforcers—but the very nature of supply night means they shouldn’t be here. Everyone follows the rules. Except, apparently, tonight. “Who brought them in?”

“Terezi’s looking into it,” Vriska says dryly, and flashes another wicked grin. “But Crisis Game will have its turn to exact vengeance when the time comes. You’ll have your pound of flesh.”

Yeah, you and everyone else here. You can tell that Vriska is a little more freaked out than she’s letting on. She can posture and drawl as much as she wants, but it won’t fool you. She is poised and alert and her hands are exactly where they’d need to be to have a weapon out and through some unsuspecting asshole’s throat in a fraction of a second. That, and she tells you, “I’ll walk you back.”

You don’t turn her down. Adults are scary shit. Enforcers—the highblooded adults of particular ability and Church membership—yeah, they feature heavily in the daymares of everyone who’s still sane enough to experience fear.

Vriska keeps stride with you effortlessly. You pass her the sugar pipe twice more, and split the rest of the smoke. She didn’t eat either this morning. 

Because you’re toting crew, you opt for one of the winding alleys leading back to your workplace, instead of the main road. It’s faster. Besides, adults won’t try for the labyrinthine back passageways of such an old city. It’s too easy to get lost. 

It’s also easy to stumble on some crew’s newest choke point and get murdered for your shoes, but if anyone starts shit with Vriska, they will live just long enough to regret that choice.

Only that turns out to be a mistake, because as you dart back onto the main strip, who do you nearly walk dead into but the fucking adult in question?

You choke back a curse and crowd Vriska back into the shadows of the alleyway. Shit luck on your end. Of all the shops, why is he standing outside yours? Vriska rumbles with silent challenge and pushes up against you, draping her body along yours. Your hand rests between her shoulder blades and you can feel her heart racing. She draws in a breath in time with the stroke of your thumb. It is instinct to demonstrate your alliance against a superior adversary.

The adult is enormous. You don’t see the Enforcer regalia anywhere on him—it’s all civilian wear; some kind of dark jacket and hide pants—but loose enough to disguise fucktons of weaponry. His wrists hang loosely at his sides, thicker than your bicep. His hair is a huge, tangled mane that drifts lazily behind him like a feral’s, but he’s too clean, and the ultra-fluid way he moves sets every single nerve jangling, telling you that he is death. The road all around him has cleared, with supervisors and workers alike flattening themselves out of his way, following him with wide, wary eyes. He’s already ahead of you, though, and unlikely to turn around. All you have to do is wait.

“Easy,” you whisper—you don’t think she’s going to flip out, not really. You might as well be saying that to yourself.

You barely even open your mouth and the adult stops, lifts his head, and turns.

You swallow hard, flinching deeper into your hoodie as eyes so bright indigo they cannot possibly exist punch through you like paper.

You tell yourself that all adult eyes look like that, it doesn’t mean anything, don’t panic—he’s probably not looking at you, even. You’re not about to provoke anyone over some misremembered, inebriated fantasy night when you nearly got your idiot ass culled. 

In the process of wrenching your gaze away, you get a good look at his horns.

Your heart has a brief, contained seizure in your chest. You stop breathing.

The adult takes a step towards you. Or no, not ‘the adult’—because it’s him.

It’s the guy who took you home three months ago, and fucked you up like no one else. He’s here. He isn’t looking away.

Chapter Text

Karkat?” Vriska hisses in your ear, and you just shake your head, completely mute. Your mouth tastes overwhelmingly of sugar pipe. Your bloodpusher is crashing its way out of your ribs. Vriska’s arm fastens around your waist, vice-like, towing you back, deeper into the shadows of the alley, out of sight, and the adult picks up the pace, prowling after you directly into the dark.

That is the biggest mistake anyone could make in this part of the city--you don’t charge into unfamiliar locations where you can’t see--but he makes it look like he only sees you. His scent is blooming in your lungs as he storms up, towering, and your hands are shaking again, stunned by the whiplash reaction, from zero to You’re Done For. He doesn’t notice that you’re alone now.

When he stops moving, you know that Vriska’s sword has just landed. She doesn’t ever tell anyone not to move, just lets them guess.

His eyes don’t stray from you for an instant. He’s breathing heavily, you realize. Drinking you in.

Fuck.

“Hey there, kid,” he greets, voice gravel rough and sedate, like there isn’t a murderess at his back with a blade. “How’s tricks?”

You mouth, but do not properly manage to utter the word fuck.

Vriska’s snarl comes out as pure, naked aggression. “How many friends did you bring?” She hisses, straight to the point—you jolt, realizing that she thinks you’re being hunted and, just, are you? Is that why he’s in this part of the city, is that why he stopped short and spun around at your voice? Is he tracking your scent?

Oh, but—god, not for the reason she thinks. He is staring at you like he wouldn’t mind getting stabbed. You lower your head, petrified and deeply ashamed and so, so wound up. Every molecule of sugar in your blood is rioting. “Stand down,” you croak. “He’s not—it’s not what you’re thinking.”

The growl Vriska aims your way suggests you will be the second troll she kills tonight. 

“I know him,” you wheeze, your tone coming out verging on hysterics. This wasn’t supposed to happen.

You’re invisible, you don’t bring this down on your crew—you don’t fucking get compromised—your mistakes are isolated events. A one night stand you put behind you so hard you strained something does not come back and haunt you in the form of a massive, hulking adult with luminescent eyes and a smirk in the corners of his mouth.

You try not to show that you’re panicking, but it’s not working, and Vriska is panicking because you are panicking, Vriska is reading this as immediate danger because: you are an idiot.

“They won’t find the body,” Vriska assures you sweetly.

As if not being presently threatened with death, the adult interrupts to rumble, “I’d say having your horns out makes you look a little less like somebody’s toothpick, honestly, kid, but it doesn’t.”

Your face gets hot. He looks pretty slick, even in clothes you suspect are a highblood’s idea of blending in. You, in your sweaty gray hoodie with the fake curly horns that Kanaya made for you, and the tattered jeans that probably started off blue, are an affront to the eyes. You are horrified to realize his opinion matters to you.

And he adds, “God, you look like shit,” in this wondering tone absent the contempt it really, really should have. Your heart skips a beat. If the next thing out of his mouth is some kind of transparent line about him wanting to do a repair job on you, get you back to a standard of common decency, you will fucking let him have anything he wants.

And you hate flirting, by the way. Even Vriska twitches at the tone. “Uh,” she goes, bewildered by the context. You just stand there, having your heart attack and failing to string words in a sequence. You miss your opportunity to talk her down. He opens his mouth first.

“Fucking wrigglers,” the adult declares, rolling his eyes up—both of you twitch at the slight shift of his weight. Vriska twitches more, and her lips peel back from her teeth. The noise that comes rattling out of her cuts him short.

He begins more seriously, “—Your hatefriend needs to back the motherfuck off before I take offense.”

Vriska dares him to try it, eyes edging into a deeper orange, threatening to turn rage-crazy red. Maybe he’s not terrified because he’s an adult, because he thinks that would matter in this particular situation, but you’re a little more realistic.

You take a breath, and square your shoulders. She’s close enough to the edge that any movement will draw the chilling weight of her attention. You need all of it on you.

You thrum, low in your chest. She doesn’t match the sound. Her eyes bleed a sobering shade darker. Her snarl reverberates, full of mindless savagery.

It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay. You project calm into your throat, like you’re that fucking oblivious to Vriska declaring a highblood rampage. Your own thrumming drops your heart rate. As you calm down, you’re viewing it all from a distance. Pale pheromones rise out of your skin. You let them get thick, let them reach her—see her pupils dilate, read the shivers in her shoulders, and creep a step closer, thrum drawing into a soft, drawn out sigh, “Shoooooosh.”

Vriska doesn’t like you getting closer. Every instinct tells her nothing should be allowed close without dying, and especially not you.

You get the full threat display—bared teeth, cherry red eyes, that crackling scent of raw ozone teetering on the brink of madness. She will kill if you touch her. She will kill if you don’t, because no puny shoosh is going to stop her madness now.

You don’t touch her.

Vriska’s power buzzes to life, cacophonous in your ears, and you let it build, let your limbs bury in molasses as she orders you to get back and stand against the wall—but crazy does not lend itself well to multifaceted control, and you thrum out another gentle shoosh each time, and the buzzing of her mind control ebbs into confusing eddies. You regain control of your body. You play tug of war.

When she’s more focused on breaking your thinkpan than cutting your throat, you move.

Her face between your hands, and you are wide open. She’s armed, and that is irrelevant. You thrum deeper, past the threshold of nonthreatening calm and into subsonic command, gathering the threads of her trust. Her head rears back, eyes huge and glowing with crimson rage.

Her roar is deafening. You can’t hear yourself; you’re entirely silenced.

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Ignore it. Calm, steady, it’s okay. Let your ears try to rupture. Your thumbs circling through patterns, easing every blip of tension that flickers through, breaking the strain of bared fangs, then shutting her eyes with careful pressure at her temples, head down, push your face into her shoulder. Vriska-scent, and Vriska-cold skin. You huddle there, without pretense.

Then you just breathe. Breathe in the smell of mindless rage and recycle it out in pheromone-laden clarity. Your scent on her, your warmth, feeling how hard she is shaking. The howl crumbles out of her lungs with a gasp. Her sword arm never wavers. If the adult moves, he is dead. 

She sinks her claws into your hoodie. A deceptively powerful arm yanks you closer, holds you, and you thrum again, deep and slow, as she scents you frantically, confirming that this is safe.

And then you are the one holding her, as Vriska becomes utterly limp against you with another shaky, pained gasp. You can taste tears, but she fights them back before they spill, relieved and upset and terribly disoriented because fighting back a rage feels like getting stomped on. You know it does. It’s not her night. You hold her very close and very tight, letting her build her reality back up, brick by brick. She rebuilds herself from the template you provide.  You croon shoosh to her in the sweetest voice you have.

When she can think clearly enough to resent public cuddling, Vriska shrugs herself loose and stares up at you in consternation. The mild unease is as close as she can get to anger right now, and she sends it at you full force.

It’s kind of touching to know that Vriska would get that infuriated over Enforcers coming to get you. Ha, you knew she cared. 

“Go,” you tell her quietly. When that makes her grimace, you add, “Tavros is probably slacking.”

That’s a sorry excuse, but it does the trick. Vriska won’t leave you alone with an adult, but she can trade places. In this state, keeping her around an unfamiliar adult is torture, and her darting gaze tells you all you need to know.

(Tavros is also not getting anywhere near this if it actually does turn into a fight, which works out for you. Tavros generally does what you tell him to. If you tell him to run, he will do that, and you’ll be the only one to get your head smashed in, thank god.)

Vriska starts to open her mouth and then snaps it shut very quickly on what was most likely some kind of dazed purr. Turns her back and departs as fast as she can.

This leaves you, right now, alone in the dark with the adult you had a fling with. 

You make yourself look over at him instead of just hiding in your hoodie and praying for a merciful end. Time to find out how adults handle it when a fling gets fresh with someone else, you suppose.

(You’re guessing they handle it about like lowbloods do. He looks like he’s got a really long stride. No way do you outrun him.)

“One of yours?” He asks instead, and to your good fortune, still looks amused. You narrow your eyes at him. He holds up a hand. “Not judging, alright? She just ain’t what I pictured.”

You stuff your hands into your pockets just so that you have something to do and heavily clear your throat. “It’s not the cuddliest crew, no.”

“Crew, is she?” He says thoughtfully—why, you have no idea. What else would she be? He goes on before you can ask, “I confess, I didn’t expect to be encountering you hereabouts.”

“Amazing,” you snort, “You, a highblood grown-up, are in Middle City on supply night, and you think I’m the novelty?” He chuckles at that, and some part of you whimpers. It’s on the inside, so it’s okay. You forge ahead. “Why the fuck are you out here anyway? First Lower City dregs, now here? Do you just get that lost, or what?”

He laughs again and your guts go all wobbly. Fuck. “Hey, tonight I was just tagging along on somebody else’s errand. Too damn hot to stay in one place, and…” He shrugged. “…There was a scent of interest, you feel.”

You’re staring and you know it. “Oh,” you manage. “Cool.” So he wasn’t looking for you, not really, just bored. 

And as soon as he wandered far enough to actually locate you, he just happened to rush at you like he was going to haul you all the way back to Higher City without a word. That’s cool.

You have no idea what the fuck you are even doing.

You clear your throat hard. “So, now that we’ve established that you definitely weren’t following me,” you begin, “Nice seeing you, neither of us are dead, fucking fantastic—“ You jerk a thumb over your shoulder, “—And I have work to get back to, so if that’s all—”

“There wasn’t any such statement on my motherfucking part,” he says, and takes a step forward. You stumble, hands whipped out of your pockets to do god knows what, but he just inhales you again. His mouth twists as he does. “And sugar burners, kid? Thought our agreement was that I would let you be if you took proper care of yourself. That shit’ll rot you inside out.”

Your mouth falls open a little bit. That’s not—you never even—okay. 

You could be using sugar pills, which would be worse. 

Second of all, there was no agreement. You knocked him the hell out and escaped all on your own. 

“I don’t use them much,” you lie just about instantly. “I just didn’t have time for a snack. I was—“ Poor. Starving. Done growing. Others needed it more. I’m a goddamn feral; I’m not supposed to eat.

Jesus, you don’t even know this adult’s title, just that he’s terrifying and you want him in your hands.

You forget all about what you were saying when he closes in another step.

“So,” he says, and then, “I think that break’s fucked now.”

You lift your chin. You are off-balance and shivery in ways that are definitely just you needing another rush of synthetic uppers. But you’re still armed, like always. You’ve got a backbone.

“And?”

And you can show me where’s good eats in these parts,” he says, “I’ll treat you.”

You can feel yourself blushing again. “Uh,” you stutter, “That’s an… offer.”

If you don’t flirt, you definitely don’t date. God.

“Come on,” he pushes, “Give me a half hour without you being stoned off your fucking gourd, and there’s no call for us to see each other again, alright? Just humor me.”

He won’t look away.

He is gorgeous like a wrecking ball, all shiny destruction, and you could make him so soft.

His eyes blaze. Yeah, you’re not going to pretend to even entertain that he’s thinking about killing you right now. And you’re flattered.

(More than flattered, you are trying very hard to not start remembering certain things you have been desperately crushing out of your thoughts.)

“Yeah, okay,” you wind up muttering, driving your hands into your pocket and ducking your head again—the blushing seems to be a semi-permanent fixture of existence. Your voice comes out tiny. “…Cool.”

“Mm-hm,” the highblood murmurs over you. “Cool.”

Chapter Text

“Yo, Gamzee.”  There’s a thunk as Overseer kicks you in the leg.  “Quit moonbathing and get your ass up.”

You don’t bother prying your head up out of the little nest you’ve made.  Fuck that, you’re all snuggled in.  It’s a rite of passage to climb up here without getting chopped the fuck up.  Any of the tents in Church big enough have them spiral blades at the top, winding up and up into steadily tighter points skyward, gleaming wicked at the sky.  Pretty much the first thing you did when you got dumped here with the rest of them was pick a tent, climb it, and live up there for a week, walking barefoot and shirtless with a sun tarp tied around your neck.  You watched featherbeasts to figure out where was safe enough that you could keep all your toes.  You didn’t figure anyone too old for trainee would dare come find you up there.

…Boy, was that an underestimation on your part.

“I ain’t going back to class,” you drawl at the Overseer.  Fuck him, anyway.  You know for a fact this motherfucker cheated to get up here by using the scaffolding inside.  “Test me on that, motherfucker.”

“Nah, kid,” he says, “Got a mission for you.”

That does make you lift your head out of the little newspaper nest you’ve got going.  Overseer makes gravity look like a joke, all his bulk perched (floating) at the very top of what looks to be a very sharp spear.  You, who have remained all elbows and ribs even after getting acquainted with regular meals, are drowning in his shadow.

“I’m for real, little brother,” he goes, and then gives you an immaculately painted grin, “A mission with the king.

That you nearly fall to your death is of secondary concern—because for once you are not bored anymore.

xxx

First off: your Ancestor is so fucking cool.

You know he’s your Ancestor, even if nobody will say anything about it.  You’ve got his big curly horns in miniature, and you’re the right color, plus everybody is all impressed with your voodoos (which is sorta how you got into this mess in the first place) and no soul walking has psy stronger than the king himself.  But your psy, oh, yours made your first examiner bleed out the oculars.

But really, semantics—you know he’s your Ancestor because nothing gets you shaking in your boots like he does.  You’ve never been around proper, grown-ass highbloods before, and they’re huge and freaky and got kill lists that span centuries, but there’s always still that condensation-cool voice in the back of your head telling you that in a couple more sweeps not a one of them is gonna be able to defy you. 

And that voice gets real quiet when King Makara is around. 

When the king walks in, all the air gets sucked out of the room.  You can feel the psy buzzing around him, scrunching up your thinkpan like you’ve got both horns buried in concrete.  Way he moves is oil-slick and unhurried, right up until someone gets in his face.  But they don’t.  Motherfuckers you’d judge to not have the sense Messiahs gave a turnip, yeah, even they bend a knee real quick.  Respect ain’t a choice no more—it’s pure instinct.

The king of trolls prowls tonight.  All hail.

He wears the same uniforms as the rest of you, no fineries or nothing.  Eats the same and sleeps wherever the fuck and if he’s talking at you, you call him boss and nothing else—unless you’re ancient as the fucking moons, and then he might tolerate a Lord Makara or two.  Nobody calls him king to his face.  That’s for whispering in shadowy corners when he ain’t around to hear it.

You heard stories that he sat upon a throne once, though.  All glitter and gold it was, painted all the Church colors.  They say it was stolen by his destined pitchmate in a fit of madness, and that when the king hunted that black flame down, he buried it with their bones.

And now he receives every audience standing with the rest of you, hands behind his back, uniform nondescript.  But everybody knows.  They cower in terror, cause that’s the instinct.

You’ve never really seen King Makara fight, but you’re pretty chill with that. 

If anything’s gonna make him sweat, after all, it should be an equal and you ain’t quite there.  (Yet).  

You kinda like your Ancestor some.

You come bounding up at him now that he’s summoned you.  So fucking cool.  Even though you know wrigglers piss him off, you always end up acting like one.

“Hey there, boss,” you grin.  “You sure picked me, huh?  Where we headed?”

He blinks over at you lazy and cracks a smile.  “Been a while since you left the Hub, huh, wriggler?”

Your first mission—with you still being a trainee and all, that’s one lofty-high honor—and you get to spend it with the king.  This shit is gonna be off the chain.

xxx

Okay, you stand corrected.

You are so fucking bored.

Nothing has disengaged from the chain.  The chain is very much in place.  Today’s mission is just haggling out trade deals with the greenies, and you ain’t got the first fucking clue what the hell kinda boredom possessed your Ancestor to want to come deal with that in person.  You’ve watched paint dry with more avid fascination.

And when finally, finally you only have one trade deal left to negotiate, your Ancestor proceeds to fuck off to parts unknown, leaving you to pick the lint out of your pockets and side-eye the pedestrians.  It’s not like you’re in a hurry to get anywhere else, you’re just bored.  Whatever King Makara’s doing, you bet he’s not bored.

…He’d take you with him if he spotted Cultists, right?

Man.  Now you wanna fight some Cultists.

You sigh, and lean back more fully against the brickwork behind you.  You should be enjoying Middle.  Last you were here, you were another troll entirely.  And you’ve hated being cooped up in the Inner City for so long.  Shouldn’t this feel like coming home?

You huff irritably.  Like as not, you’d have to get stoned to feel like you belonged much of anywhere.

That’s okay.  You’re not about pushing back your progress, so you’ll deal without.              

You cast your gaze about for some form of entertainment, not that there’s much to find.  You’ve happened on a pocket that is mostly lowbloods—mostly outsiders in this bourgeoise district.  That’s usually good for a fight or two, but, huh.  The Ghost-Blessed claim most of the open air markets, so you should see lilac and gold all over the place, but you don’t.  No Frog Squad or Sacrifice colors either, and where the usual chunks of them big-ass crews oughtta be clustered up and spying on everyone else, you see nothing.

Huh.

You squint around for clues.  Everywhere you’re squinting looks suspiciously clean.  You see places where the old insignias probably were painted, but they’re scrubbed and stripped bare.  And nobody put any new gang symbols up to take their place. 

You’d guess you’ve just walked into the middle of an attempted takeover, but that ain’t a good place to be at if you like your head attached to your shoulders.  And this patch of dirt still got folk everywhere.  Since when are lowbloods this brave?

And as you’re contemplating the puzzle laid out before you—as well as the fact that you probably just shouldn’t be left unsupervised for extended periods of time given your general disposition—there’s a faint, ringing alarm that kicks in the back of your thinkpan.  You don’t think, you just move.  Quiet as a coffin, you fall into step just behind.  Your ears are ringing, just a little, and lowblood eyes glance off of you and skate away, unable to look for too long. 

Your voodoos don’t like you getting noticed when you’re trying to sneak around.  Nobody here has psy to stop you.  The lowblood in front of you doesn’t turn around, doesn’t notice you’re there.

He’s wrong.  He’s all wrong.  Everybody else is putting on a display.  Gotta act the part of crew even if they’re riding solo, cause lowbloods are weak to stand up to higher trolls on their own.  What’s this kid doing by himself? 

And oh boy, does he have somewhere to be.  He weaves through the crowd, needle and thread, nowhere near small enough to make it look as easy as he does.  You struggle through the same close turns and tight squeezes, forced to pick up the pace to keep close.

You can smell fear on him, but only a little bit.  Doesn’t feel like he’s running away, but more… he’s gotta be headed towards something, right?  You can see the shape of it in his head, just a little.  It’s lit up all burning, intense enough it starts seeping into your eyelids without you really trying.  Someone’s in trouble.  He’s gonna save the day.

Gotta get him out.

He ain’t got any backup and he don’t seem too worried about that, which is interesting—and you poke at his thinkpan a little as you trot after him, trying to figure it out—

—and your voodoos run into a brick wall.  You splutter on a surprised curse.

Crap, goddammit.  Ow.  You were reaching pretty far into that kid’s head just now, which does you no favors when you encounter serious psy.  It’s like getting hit in the face.

But heyyyy, cool, you found your Ancestor again.

The burning glow in the lowblood’s head intensifies.  So he’s found what he was after too? For a truly staggering minute, you think he was also looking for Lord Makara, but you follow where his eyes are at, and—

—the fuck?

What’s Lord Makara doing with a rusty?

Found you, found you, sings your lowblood’s thinkpan, looking at the scruffy, pint-sized thing under Lord Makara’s gaze.  You’ve stopped short, but neither he nor anyone else in this market have the psy necessary to notice, so a couple just bump into you while you’re stood gawking.  Your Ancestor doesn’t bow to your psy,, though.  His eyes flick your way, and before you can blink, he goes back to being himself.

But it’s too late cause you saw already.

You’re willing to bet none of them that brag about their centuries of service have ever seen that look on his face either.  For a moment there, he wasn’t the King of trolls at all.

You saw him fucking look like—

You can’t even tell if his psy is up, or if all the market saw him plain as day lose all regal bearing.  Can’t really see the rusty either (it’s gotta be a rusty, right?  So tiny.  Unless it’s a wriggler), because someone parks his big fat ass in the way—move, you motherfucker—and when you get another clear look, the rusty has tilted his head to see what your king is looking at.

And there’s kind of nothing there, leastways, nothing that should be affecting the King of Trolls like this.  Ducks his head down again quick, leaving you with an impression of crooked fangs and exhausted wriggler-silver eyes.

And with your Ancestor looking at him again, you can see the edges of your king’s stern gaze starting to crumple back into moony-eyed bewilderment.

Fuck that noise.  You sure as shit ain’t gonna be ignored, so you dispel your psy and storm forward.  You grab the started lowblood in front of you by the back of the neck and just heave him out of the way.

Your Ancestor gives you a look, but you just straight-up ignore that shit like you ain’t got eyes in your head.  Wave at him all cheerful-like.  “Hey, boss,” you drawl, “Nice seeing you again.  Got a little side-tracked, huh?”

“Gamzee,” your Ancestor allows, with enough of an edge in his voice to let you know that you’re in for it, but—and you think you’re judging this correctly—he ain’t gonna do nothing to you here, cause uh oh, that might scare his rusty kid off

Said rusty kid is peering up at you in wide-eyed alarm, possibly wondering how someone with horns like yours just materialized into existence a few paces away.  You make sure to shoot him a grin that is bursting with fang. 

“Well, ain’t you cute,” you inform him, then swing your gaze back towards your Ancestor.  “Yo, I didn’t know we were doing arrests today.  The mission changed or what?”

This fails to make the rusty bolt, but you get the satisfying jangling of his knife-sharp fear, so you know he’s at least thinking about it.

And yeah, that got that weak-ass look off your Ancestor’s face. 

For a split second it’s just your eyes that’ve locked.  And you feel a biting chill you feel go right up your spine.  It’s alright, you’re quick—when he moves, you rock back on your heels and dart out of the way.  Might he needs a good knock upside the head to remember who he is—

But glory of glories, he is the king after all.  You choke. 

Instinct bleats at you in blind terror as he hauls you forward, hand neatly around your throat because he didn’t swing at you so much as snatch you out of the air mid-leap. 

Shit, you’ve never seen anything move that fast.  Not even bullets.  Your eyes are just as big as the lowblood’s now, probably, and who can be blamed for that?

Watch your mouth, brat,” the king of trolls growls down at you, “Before I see fit to silence it myself.”

Your teeth want to chatter.  You clench them, grin up all crazy-eyed, hissing through your fangs.

Okay.  You still like your Ancestor.

“My bad.  Must have gotten somewhat confused.”  On account of you making yourself look unfit to rule for a second there.

He lets your feet touch the ground, which is honestly pretty chill of him and you weren’t sure you were gonna keep drawing breath for a second there.

You look towards where the rusty was at, triumphant, figuring he’ll have scarpered off from that.  The fingers around your throat flex, possibly because your Ancestor just figured that out too. 

You’re so busy trying to figure out how to squirm your way free from the potentially murderous King of Trolls that it takes you a minute to register that nah, actually, the rusty remains planted right there.

 He looks kind of confused, which you guess is how you’d look if some random troll got grabbed by the throat after making smartass remarks.

The more interesting tidbit is in the way his body language has shifted.  He’s not hunched over anymore.  He’s upright and frozen like that, hand in his pocket like he was going for a weapon.

That is interesting—because it tells you first of all that this kid is probably highly suicidal.  He ain’t much bigger than a lamppost and the way his clothes hang off of him tell you he’s bonier than he should be and probably real brittle from lack of nutrition.

But his way of reacting tells you something else too.  It’s only there for a second, sure.  He must cut himself off as soon as he realized what noise he was making.  But on some level you were listening for it. 

Better yet, your lowblood, the kid you followed over here—which your Ancestor clearly hasn’t realized has anything to do with his rusty—just echoed the same brief, choked-off low tone, in the exact same register.  You recognize it, and what it means, on instinct.

Your grin gets bigger.

Uh oh, better watch out.  I know something about you, wrigglers mine, that you’ll really wish I didn’t…

You keep your mouth shut.  Part of this is because your Ancestor still has a really good grip on your throat.  But also, you don’t feel like blurting it out just yet.  Might be that there’s a better use for the information that your Ancestor’s unlikely crush ain’t, ahem, exactly civilized.

Takes one to know one.

Cause lusii train you out of that noise, if you ever have one.