Chapter 1: Standing on Ceremony
This ceremony takes place on the third bilunar perigee of the ninth dim season of the fifth sweep of the reign of Julina Cessir (3.9M.5JC).
The official clearly thought that Tavros was beneath any notice or mention. He wasn't really surprised when she was unable to suppress a shudder and a sneer when she leaned down to snap the collar around his neck. Somehow she got it under control when she straightened and Gamzee could see her face again. Her obvious desire to please the highblood was extreme to the point where even Equius might think she was going overboard. While the thought that someone was even more of a purplenoser than Equius was disturbing on several levels, Tavros was grateful for it. At least she wouldn't dare ask an exalted indigoblood why he would take a lowly brownblood as a slave.
Tavros wished desperately that he could give his matesprit a reassuring glance, but it was impossible. Even if Gamzee was in Tavros's line of sight instead of being seated behind him there was no way they could risk anyone seeing a shared tender look. The only reason why Gamzee was able to keep his composure at all was the flask of sopor slime he had downed before the ceremony started. Tavros had frowned at that; when the two of them got serious Gamzee started weaning himself off the slime. Tavros told him he didn’t have to but Gamzee said he thought he was missing things—and not just with his matesprit—when he was high and distracted. He was still Gamzee, still believed that blood meant nothing between bros and he still liked his Faygo. He was just significantly more aware of the world around him. Less numb in just about every field... and as Tavros suddenly found himself thinking, less numb in everything including touch. Gamzee started ‘waking up’ not long after their relationship had gotten physical. While this meant irritations like wearing sunglasses even in dim lighting because his eyes were so sensitive, it also meant he was so very sensitive in other areas. Areas which Tavros was all too happy to explore. Thoroughly.
Even though his very life depended upon this ceremony going off without a hitch Tavros still couldn’t keep the ghost of a smile off his lips and the brown blush from his cheeks. Luckily his subservient posture—sitting on his legs, hands on the floor in front of him, slouched down in a bow—hid his face from view. He wasn’t anywhere near as frightened as he thought he would be, in fact, he was very calm. Very, very calm. He wasn’t sure if he had just expended all his nervous energy in the various panic attacks he’d been suffering the last lunar cycle or if he’d just lost it. Even with the sneering official reading the list of freedoms he was about to lose and a culling fork leaning against the far wall he couldn’t make himself feel worried. He couldn’t make himself feel anything except resignation. It was almost as though he was the one who ate sopor.
The overwhelming numbness helped him when the knives came out. He didn’t mind at all when the sharp points cut into the back of his neck—being culled would hurt a lot more. But if he wasn’t so out of it then he might have jumped at the pain, ruined the design, and given them an excuse to bring the fork over. This was more than just a simple legal ceremony to take a new slave; it had quickly spiraled out of control into a giant political mess. Gamzee’s habit of befriending peasantbloods hadn’t escaped the notice of the others in his class. When he was younger he was widely considered an embarrassment and nothing more, but since he had sobered up there were some who saw him as a serious threat to the status quo.
This was made worse by the fact that he was known to have been a friend of Feferi, whose plans for the crown had been discovered by the Empress’s spies. Her ideals made her a much more immediate threat to the Empress; if Feferi just wanted the crown she’d wait until she was of age to make her play, but since she wanted to save lives it was likely she’d strike much sooner. Given that, Her Imperious Condescension started sending regular assassination teams to Feferi’s hive. None were successful due to Feferi’s own skill in battle, her monstrous lusus, and the protection of none other than Eridan. After a lot of personal discovery he had abandoned his genocidal obsession, his hurt feelings over Feferi breaking their diamond, and a sizable chunk of his pretentious attitude. In many ways the attacks were a boon; thanks to steady supply of assassins and their accompanying lusii Gl'bgolyb was well fed, which meant fewer trolls had to be orphaned for the greater good.
Feferi doubted that the Empress really expected any of the assassins to actually accomplish their mission—after the first couple waves Her Condescension only sent those who had displeased her in some way—but it served the greater purpose of keeping Feferi a prisoner in her own hive and make it much harder for her to stage revolution. Feferi was still managing, however slowly. Eridan was her only link to the outside world through a hidden hardline they had painstakingly set up between their hives; it was practically prehistoric but any wireless transmission could be traced. Eridan did his best to relay messages to the others but sometimes it was impossible to do so safely, so until a faster and more reliable means of communication was found the rebellion crawled forward at a slug’s pace.
Sadly the Empress hadn’t tried to kill Feferi herself; if she had then trollkind would already have a new ruler and Tavros wouldn’t be bowed over while the markmaker cut Gamzee’s sign into his neck.
The audience was supposed to be there to show their disdain for the new slave sitting naked in the center of the room, but in this case nearly all eyes were fastened on the master to be. Even though he couldn’t see any of it Tavros could feel their burning stares daring Gamzee to speak up when the markmaker was a little rougher than was necessary. Without the slime making his tongue heavy Gamzee might have done just that on instinct; ever since Gamzee started taking it easy on the pies he was able to acknowledge the hatred for high society he had always carried. Without the sopor clouding his emotions he started correcting those who denounced the lower bloods, particularly his friends. Gamzee never went so far as to actively speak out against the treatment of the lower bloods; even when in a sopor haze he knew that doing so would only put his friends at risk. But the glares and cutting comments he made did not go unnoticed, and the memory remained even after he learned to hold his tongue.
The memory was strong enough to warrant a squad being sent to his hive in the middle of the day. Eridan, ever vigilant, was alerted by his sensor net to the movement in shallow water and went to investigate. He got there in time to hear the story from the one attacker who was still alive. Unfortunately for the assassins, Gamzee was in a cranky stage of stepping back his sopor intake. When he woke up to strangers in his room he had a psychotic episode. Cackling he advanced on them, saying that if they wanted a highblood then they would get a motherfucking highblood. He then proceeded to paint his walls with their blood.
Eridan ended up slipping into the role of Gamzee’s moirail after that, and between his and Tavros’s calming influences Gamzee hadn’t lapsed back into that persona since.
After that, Gamzee and the rest of their circle realized that if they were going to live long enough to see Feferi crowned they had to put some societal distance between the classes on top of denouncing the heir apparent. So Gamzee bit his tongue and did everything he could to make it look like the others were just his amusing playthings, pretending that the apparent affection he showed them before was just the slime talking. Gamzee hated having to pretend that the others were beneath him. He really hated the fact that he and Tavros had to hide their matespritship so thoroughly that they couldn’t even announce it to their friends. While the couple were able to tell a few in person they couldn’t take the risk of a transmission being tapped; if that happened then the cross-class romance would put them all at greater risk.
As the indigo dye made of Gamzee’s own blood was ground into the open wound Tavros gritted his teeth both in pain—it wouldn’t surprise him to learn that they mixed salt into the pigment—and also to suppress a very out of character grin which was probably proof positive that he was in the middle of a nervous breakdown. But he couldn’t help it. All these highbloods thought that this was a battle won against Feferi’s rhetoric. It was almost too perfect; the indigoblood who used to embrace the peasants taking one of the gutterbloods as his bonded slave. And so they gathered in the ceremonial room so that they could show their smug contempt for Tavros who sat prostrate and naked in the center of the room. They not so quietly mocked the worthless cripple as the mark was painfully carved into the back of his neck. They cheered in whispers when Gamzee remained impassive and uncaring.
They could have their hollow victory. Gamzee taking Tavros as his slave was a solid win for the silent resistance. First and foremost it would save Tavros from being culled because of his disability; while he had dodged it for over two sweeps it was only because Sollux had hacked him off the list. But just after the last culling rounds Tavros turned 8 and so his records were transferred to the young adult system which had the same medical charts as the child database along with extensive financial records; most young adult cullings happened because of bank accounts instead of broken bones. Since so much sensitive fiscal information was kept in the young adult system it was much more secure than the child system. Sollux still thought he could hack it, but it was clear that he was nervous about the task. This solution was much neater and didn’t chance one of the resistance’s most valuable players getting arrested.
Secondly, if Gamzee took a slave then he would be in direct defiance of Feferi’s plans. It would look like he was embracing his indigo heritage and make another attempt on his life seem unnecessary. Gamzee’s documented distain for the peasantbloods would also protect the others since it would make it look like he didn’t care if they lived or died, so it would be pointless for the enemy to hurt them to get to Gamzee.
Lastly, and this was the idea that Tavros held onto for dear life as the markmaker’s knife flew across his flesh, a slave lived in their master’s hive. And that meant no more harrowing trips just to spend half a day with Gamzee. That meant he could touch his matesprit whenever he wanted. It meant they could be together in a way Tavros had barely dreamed of. Maybe that’s why he was so calm. He knew that what he was gaining was more than worth the pain of the brand on the back of his neck.
Maybe he was just so scared that he couldn’t feel it anymore.
The bandage, which was packed with more pigment, was placed over the wound. Once he healed the scar would be in the design and color of Gamzee’s sign—proof of who owned him. With the mark cut into Tavros’s flesh and all the paperwork signed, it was finally over. Gamzee owned Tavros, the sign on the back of the brownblood’s neck a symbol of humiliation and ownership. Or so the gathered highbloods thought. To Tavros it was a medallion of protection. Now that he was officially Gamzee’s property no one would dare touch him. The indigo-dyed scar would promise a swift and harsh punishment to anyone foolish enough to raise a hand to Tavros. As long as he steered clear of irritable sea dwellers he would be fine.
All the swirling thoughts were starting to make Tavros giddy and he bit down on his lip. Defiantly not calm. Definitely needed to get the rising hysterics under control. Even though he belonged to Gamzee now he wouldn’t put it past these people to cull him and say the slavery wasn’t official until they left the room.
Tavros focused on his breathing as he waited for the markmaker’s assistant to hand him his pants. He would have liked the shirt too but it had been thrown into the brazier as part of the ceremony; it symbolized how he had been stripped of his sign along with his freedoms. The only mark he could wear from then on was Gamzee’s carved into his back; his shirts would have to be plain from then on. The only part of Tavros’s sign he could keep was the color so that everyone would still know he was a brownblood. His slave collar, a simple silver ring that rested comfortably just above his collarbone, was inlaid with a band of brown stone the same color as his blood.
The minutes stretched on and Tavros was still waiting for the roll of black fabric, but it never came into view. With rising dread Tavros bit his lip and chanced a look at the small table where he had laid his clothes at the beginning of the ceremony. He had bundled up his underwear, socks, and shoes in his pants and had laid his neatly folded shirt on top for easy access.
The table was empty.
He bit down even harder on his lip and tasted blood. They couldn’t do this! he screamed in his head, except that they could. If questioned they’d probably say that he didn’t separate his shirt from the rest of his clothes and therefore had no choice but to chuck the lot into the fire. Even if there was some way to prove that they did it on purpose, and if there was any chance the gathered highbloods would accept that proof, his clothes were gone. Gamzee couldn’t afford to raise a fuss about this slight and Tavros certainly couldn’t get away with it. There was nothing else to do.
Tavros took a long hard look at that culling fork and forced himself to keep it together before slowly turning towards the arc of the audience’s seats. He kept his eyes down on the floor—if he looked any of these trolls in the eye they wouldn’t hesitate in making him pay—and slowly looked around the room until he found his four wheel device. It was pushed up against the low wall dividing the ceremonial area from the gallery, right in front of Gamzee’s seat. After what happened to his clothes Tavros didn’t entertain any delusions about his four wheel device being brought to him.
Tavros closed his eyes and tried not to hear as the first in the audience chuckled with the realization of what had happened. Pretending his ears were as useless as his legs he lay down on his belly and started pulling himself across the floor to his four wheel device. He was halfway there when they started openly jeering at him and making all manner of lewd comments; after all, what use was a paralyzed slave if his duty wasn’t to be on his back?
Tavros hated them. He hated all of them. A few sweeps ago he never would have thought he would be capable of such roiling platonic hatred but it was taking everything he had to bite back what he wanted to scream at the crowd. Maybe he was able to work up a proper blinding rage because, as far as he was concerned, the worst part wasn’t what they were doing to him; it was what this demented show was doing to Gamzee. Tavros was doing his best to keep his eyes off the crowd but when reached up to grab his four wheel device he caught a glimpse of his matesprit’s face. To anyone else there Gamzee appeared the very picture of an impassive highblood completely unconcerned with his new slave’s abject humiliation, but Tavros knew better. Just under the numb, slime fueled mask of disinterest was a tempest. Rage, fear, horror, all of it swam in Gamzee’s glazed eyes. And the crowd just would not stop.
The way he had to wriggle to get into the chair of his device just made them louder. He tried so hard to not let it get to him, not to hear what they were saying about his disgusting blood, his legs shriveled in atrophy, how Gamzee surely would make his new toy stay face down so he wouldn’t have to look at his slave’s ugly face. The tears welled up with the insecurity and Tavros fought to hold them back. He couldn’t let Gamzee see how much this was getting to him. He couldn’t give those malicious bastards the satisfaction of seeing him cry.
As soon as Tavros was settled Gamzee stood up. He offered up a vague goodbye to the trolls seated near him and then started towards the door without a backwards glance at Tavros, who followed as quickly as he could. Tavros knew why his matesprit wasn’t even acknowledging him; if Gamzee actually saw the brown tears welling then he would probably lose it. Despite the whole humiliating situation Tavros felt near to elated when the entranceway doors were opened. They had actually done it. They had succeeded in the ruse. They still had to wait for three hours for the next scheduled shuttle to Gamzee’s part of the coast, and Tavros was sure it would be torture to have all those eyes trained on his naked form, but it didn’t matter. He was Gamzee’s and they couldn’t do anything to him.
He was safe.
Chapter 2: A Shark's Smile
All of Tavros’s hopeful feelings crashed into a stone wall when he saw Canren Shayur standing outside the building. Canren was an indigoblood just a shade more violet than Gamzee. He had long glossy hair which he wore loosely tied back with a ribbon the color of his blood, symmetrical horns that curved up and inwards in a broken teardrop shape, and a self-superior highblood attitude. As if that wasn’t irritating enough, Canren had spent the last half sweep making blatant red advances on Gamzee.
Gamzee couldn’t stand Canren, but he couldn’t afford to anger his fellow indigoblood. Canren was too well connected, and as long as his unwanted attentions were turned on Gamzee it offered an extra layer of protection. So, as much as Gamzee hated being anywhere near Canren, he had to be civil. Tavros thought of the three hour wait for the shuttle and how it didn’t seem too bad before but if Canren decided to sit and chat with Gamzee the whole time? There is no way that either of them could survive that without saying something they’d regret.
Tavros wheeled himself over by the wall of the building and focused on keeping his hands on the wheels. As desperately as he wanted to cover himself up he didn’t want to give the milling highbloods exiting the ceremony the satisfaction of seeing how uncomfortable he was. He might have let his embarrassment win out over his spite but he sure as hell wasn’t going to flinch in front of Canren, not when the creep was touching Gamzee’s arm and trying to whisper something in his ear. STOP TOUCHING HIM, Tavros shouted in his mind.
Paradoxically the blinding rage was a good thing. It warred with his panic and somehow the combination kept him appearing calm. Though if Canren didn’t stop with the touching then rage was sure to win out; fear was an old friend of Tavros’s but he only recently made the acquaintance of anger, so he had a harder time controlling it. If Tavros slipped then Canren couldn’t do anything in retribution without Gamzee’s permission, but Tavros wasn’t going to rely on that. Canren had developed a reputation for getting payback through manipulation and deception so it was very possible that an offensive slave could simply disappear.
Tavros broke himself out of those dark thoughts and made himself focus on what the conversation at hand. If his matesprit had to deal with Canren then Tavros would suffer through it with him.
“... certainly is a pity your personal shuttle isn’t finished,” the creep was saying. “A man of your standing shouldn’t have to wait among the peasants for transport.”
Gamzee gave a half shrug and tried not to look like he would rather be anywhere but there. “My hive is way out there so shuttle choices are kind of limited. Nothing helping it.”
“Ah, but that is where you are mistaken, my dear Gamzee,” Canren said with all the suave he possessed. “My personal shuttle waits at the private docks. It would be my pleasure to offer you a ride.”
Gamzee looked at Tavros through his peripheral vision and Tavros stared resolutely at Gamzee’s stomach. To Canren it would look like Gamzee was staring off in consideration of the request and that Tavros was dutifully keeping his eyes down. He didn’t see the unspoken messages flying between them, a conversation in a language that they hardly understood but knew nonetheless. The first time they met face to face they felt this connection, and even though their moments together had been few and far between their bond had deepened to a point where words or even direct eye contact weren’t necessary.
They both knew that if they accepted the offer Canren would be exponentially worse. Even though it would be the most functional of shuttle trips Canren would see it as a sign that Gamzee was warming up to his advances. The way he stressed the word ‘pleasure’ was proof enough of that. Tavros could see his resounding NO mirrored in the set of his matesprit’s jaw. Tavros also read the forced stiffness in Gamzee’s frame and the way his hands were ever so slightly trembling. He knew that Gamzee was reading his own hunched posture and how nearly all of his ashen skin was tinged brown from shame. They both calculated the odds of them holding it together for another three hours and they both came to the same unpleasant decision.
“... Okay,” Gamzee said in a facsimile of gratitude. Canren’s smile could have lit up a room if it wasn’t so slimy. He guided Gamzee in the correct direction by way of a hand at the small of his back, which Tavros got to stare at for the mercifully short walk to the private docks. At least his seething hatred almost kept him distracted from the stares and whispers. Almost. It was a pitiful thing to feel such gratitude towards Canren Shayur of all men, but when the door on his private shuttle closed out the loud whispers Tavros couldn’t help it.
Once inside Tavros didn’t know what to do. It was a small shuttle built for short, swift journeys and so the only two rooms were the main cabin and the cockpit. Since there was no slave room or even a kitchen Tavros would have to ride in the main cabin by necessity. Not that he would have it any other way—he wasn’t leaving Gamzee alone with Canren. At least this way they didn’t have to come up with an excuse for him to stay.
However with that problem solved another arose, one that Tavros needed to solve before takeoff. It was a fancy ship and it no doubt had good acceleration dampeners, however, Tavros was in a chair that wasn’t bolted down and had wheels to boot. He could lock the wheels but takeoff would still have him sliding across the floor.
Tavros looked around and quickly found a suitable railing to lash his four wheel device to and a length of rope suitable for the job. Unfortunately the rope was on a shelf secured with webbing to keep the contents from sliding off. It was still within his reach if he really stretched but it was underneath various hooks and clips; Canren’s interests included scaling cliffs. Tavros could get the rope himself but he’d probably pull the rest of the equipment down on his head and then Canren would actually have a good reason to dislike him. Plus it was in no way acceptable for a slave to go pawing through a free troll’s things without express permission to do so. It was also unacceptable for a slave to speak without being spoken to, but Tavros was pretty sure that the trouble he’d be in for asking wouldn’t be as bad as the trouble he’d be in when his sliding four wheel device broke something.
Luckily, Gamzee followed Tavros’s line of sight and figured out the problem.
The owner of the ship leaned out from the doorway to the cockpit where he had been talking to his pilot. “Yes? Is there anything you need?”
“Um,” Gamzee looked awkward and tried to find the right way to phrase it. Saying that Tavros needed a rope to tie himself up would send the wrong kind of message in a big way. “Well it’s not for me exactly...”
Canren narrowed his eyes and regarded the new slave. Tavros gulped and shrunk back under the icy gaze. He wasn’t sure exactly what Canren would consider proper in this situation so he settled for keeping his mouth shut.
After a few moments Canren’s cool look grew irritated. “Well? Your tongue isn’t as useless as your legs, is it?”
Tavros grimaced; apparently keeping his mouth shut wasn’t the right choice.
“Uh, w-well, it’s just that my four wheel device will, uh, slide when we take off. And, uh, it m-might, uh, crash into something and b-break it. And I...” The next part was so hard to say but Tavros forced it out. “I d-don’t want to break something that belongs to my m-master’s friend.”
Gamzee flinched when Tavros called him master, but Canren didn’t seem to notice.
“If I, uh,” Tavros soldiered on, “could use s-something to tie m-my four wheel device to the, uh, railing then, uh...”
Canren held up his hand in a gesture of silence and Tavros felt fear grip him. However, Canren’s scowl had disappeared. He must have thought the request reasonable for he went to the shelf himself and retrieved a few lengths of black cord. He handed those to Gamzee and then looked back at Tavros in a way that was almost complimentary.
“I must say, Gamzee, I was a bit worried about you when you announced you were acquiring this particular piece of property...”
Gamzee quickly put his hands behind his back and gripped the cords so hard Tavros was surprised they didn’t break in half.
“... but now I can see that he is aware and accepting of his place. Considerate, even, to think of what damage his defect could cause to my shuttle. I dare say he could even be considered impressive... for a brownblood.”
“Yeah, he is very considerate,” Gamzee replied, grabbing onto the only part that he agreed with.
“And I suppose he has his... uses, does he?”
Gamzee’s grip on the cords got even tighter but he managed to keep his voice flat. “He can commune with animals and control their actions. A big chunk of my hive was taken out by one of the big wild ones and he’ll be able to keep them away.”
What Gamzee said about the beast attack was true. The creature had ventured near his hive because Eridan accidentally cut off access to its feeding grounds when he was setting up assassin traps. With the path to the kelp beds reopened it wouldn’t be knocking on Gamzee’s door again. Or rather, knocking an entire wing off Gamzee’s hive. Of course they weren’t going to spread news of the beast’s relocation anytime soon, not when it supplied a good reason for Gamzee to pick Tavros as his first slave.
Canren accepted the beast reason, though the smirk on his face made it clear that he still thought that some of Tavros’s use would be on a concupiscent couch. He then went back into the cockpit. Tavros wheeled himself over to the railing and Gamzee followed. He started to help Tavros lash down his four wheel device but caught himself; a master wouldn’t do that.
When he leaned down to give Tavros the cords he let the raw panic show on his face.
“Babe,” Gamzee hissed, “that motherfucking creep was talking to the pilot about the cliffs and somewhere else. I think he’s trying to turn this into a fucking date.”
Tavros’s eyes went wide and he felt his own terror welling up. On any given day they could suffer through being around someone like Canren; it would be unpleasant but they could do it. But not on that day. Not after they had both been flayed down to the nerves during the mockery of a ceremony. As he quickly made the familiar knots Tavros forced himself to breathe slowly and evenly. He wildly searched his mind for something, anything, to use as an excuse for Canren to take them straight home. He almost melted in relief when he thought of something.
“Carpenter drones,” he whispered just before Canren came back into the main cabin and announced that they were ready to take off. Gamzee schooled his expression back to neutral and took his seat. Soon they were gliding through the air on the way to the coast. Canren did a quick appraisal of Tavros’s knots and then ignored him for the rest of the trip; while being treated as though he was invisible was another heavy blow to his self esteem Tavros decided it was still a lot better than degrading comments so he did his best to stay still and silent. Gamzee’s trial was to act the part of an unconcerned master and keep his eyes off his matesprit, all while trying to hold a conversation with Canren.
After everything that happened that day they were due some good fortune, and they found it in Canren’s choice of idle chatter. Even though starships weren’t a concern of Gamzee’s he had no problem listening to news of recent breakthroughs in drive technology. Talk of a mutual acquaintance’s orchards and how well they were doing with the recent rains was actually pleasant. When the discussion turned to the current fads in cuisine Gamzee was able to actually enjoy it a little bit.
After that topic faded down Canren excused himself to go rummage in the liquid refreshment repository, or ‘bar’ as he called it. With their host’s back turned Gamzee seemed to shake himself out of something and then looked at Tavros with guilty eyes. Tavros shook his head slightly and smiled before going back to staring at his knees. He knew that the only reason Gamzee was able to sit and talk to people like Canren without shaking in rage is because he would pretend that they were his friends in some weird roleplaying session. To some it might seem callous to be laughing with someone while your matesprit sat naked in the corner, but Tavros knew it was the only way Gamzee would get through this day. More than that, it was the only way Tavros was going to make it to his new home without breaking down; his own reserves of control had long since been depleted and Gamzee’s strength was the only thing keeping him going.
Chapter 3: Circling Closer
Canren returned and Gamzee did his best to recover the mask of interest. After handing Gamzee his glass and settling back in the chair Canren finally got to the point.
“Gamzee, have you ever had the pleasure of a walk along the painted cliffs near your hive?”
It was a good thing Canren was ignoring Tavros because if he was looking he might have noticed the new flavor of startled embarrassed on the brownblood’s face. Yes, Gamzee had been to the painted cliffs. He and Tavros had taken the winding ramped path and had a picnic in the wooded area at the very top. At the time Gamzee was coming down from the hypersensitivity caused by the reduced number of pies in his diet, to a point where dim light didn’t hurt his eyes but he was still exceptionally responsive to his matesprit’s touch. Tavros milked it for all it was worth, pulling Gamzee into his lap and feeding him by hand, sometimes putting the morsel in his own mouth so that Gamzee had to kiss him to get it... Tavros only meant to tease a little but after seeing how good he was making Gamzee feel he couldn’t stand the thought of not touching him. So he gathered the animals in the trees into a perimeter which would alert him if anyone came their way and then he made love to Gamzee outside. It was easily the boldest thing he had ever done.
From the way Gamzee’s shoulders tensed and he buried his face in his glass he was definitely remembering how much of a pleasure that walk had been. That thought was far too funny and Tavros had to bite the inside of his cheek to keep the laugh from escaping. That was not good. He always got really giddy right before he had a knock down drag out panic attack. He focused on his hands and imagined that his pulse wasn’t trying to pound its way out of his head.
Gamzee collected himself with a couple of sips on his drink and then very carefully responded, “Yeah, I’ve been up there before.”
“Ah,” Canren said with dramatic disappointment, “I was hoping I’d be your first.”
Tavros had to dig his fingernails into his arm and bite his tongue hard enough to make it bleed to hold in the hysterical giggle.
“Regardless,” Canren continued, oblivious to Tavros’s unraveling control, “it is a beautiful place and I would thoroughly enjoy a stroll along the cliffs with you.”
Gamzee did his best to look nonchalantly surprised and disappointed. “Oh man, a walk up there would have been nice.” The unspoken ‘with anyone but you’ was obvious to Tavros and he felt his vascular blood pump clench, but Canren didn’t seem to pick up on it. Tavros fought to control his breathing and reminded himself that he could read his matesprit better than anyone and that Canren wasn’t going to catch any of the little things that screamed of Gamzee’s discomfort.
Remembering that he and Gamzee had that strong connection, that both of them were overcome with flushed feelings the first time they met in person, that all doubts were chased away with their first chaste kiss and they both knew that they had found their fated matesprit... Tavros felt the panic fade. It was still there to be sure—nothing short of a long breakdown was going to get rid of it—but he regained enough control to make it out of the bastard’s shuttle without cracking. But everything was going to be okay because he loved Gamzee and Gamzee loved him and they were going home. Their home, the hive they would share. When all the lofty reasons of protection and resistance became too hard to grasp he could still hold onto the idea of living with his matesprit like he always wanted.
While Tavros got himself calmed down the conversation continued. Canren raised an eyebrow at Gamzee’s response and asked, “What do you mean, ‘would have been’? I assumed that you would be free as your plans included a three hour wait at the shuttle station.”
There was a dangerous edge to Canren’s voice. Gamzee swallowed hard and spoke very carefully.
“I was actually going to be in the casual comm center across the street. Still have a gaping hole in my hive, you know, and the carpenter drones are going to be setting up right now. I was set to give them the blueprints over vid-Trollian, and you know how there’s always a million things you don’t think about that the drones want to know so I’d probably still be working out details when the shuttle came.” Gamzee faked a remorseful frown. “I didn’t realize you had plans in mind; I just through you were checking on that island fishery you’ve got out that way. I’m really putting you out of your way aren’t I?”
The irritation in Canren’s eyes faded, still there but no longer sharp enough to split a photon. “No, no, not at all.”
“Man, I’m feeling all sorry and sh—“ Gamzee barely caught the unseemly swear, “stuff.”
Canren put what was probably meant to be a comforting hand on Gamzee’s thigh; Tavros saw Gamzee suppress a physical gag at the contact.
“I am the remorseful one,” Canren said. “I was thoughtless in my suggestion. I should have realized that a man of such high standing would have plans. Though I wonder if you might find an opening in your busy schedule for—”
Gamzee was not happy about the hand still on his leg and it showed in his voice, the anger strong enough that not only Tavros noticed. “Yeah, I can’t be up and dropping everything any time some mo—guy expects me to.”
Canren threw his hands up in a mock gesture of surrender and both his guests breathed a sigh of relief. “You wound me, my dear Gamzee. Forgive my rash forwardness.”
Gamzee made a vague agreement—they still needed to get home and it was Canren’s shuttle—and the conversation turned back to the nothings of weather. It was noticeably more strained, however, and Gamzee didn’t lose himself in the act again. Tavros was surprised at how well Canren seemed to be taking the sudden icy turn, but then again Canren had shown a marked interest in Gamzee acting his class. Taking offense and glaring with barely concealed threat were mainstays of an indigoblood and Canren was one of the many who wanted to see Gamzee shape up and join the dangerous flock.
Tavros was just glad that Canren didn’t flirt with Gamzee for the rest of the trip. He wasn’t sure how much more of that he could watch without cracking. Gamzee always felt slimy after being around good and proper highbloods for a while, sometimes to the point of needing to physically take a shower. Tavros was half-hysterically worried that it would take a wire brush for Gamzee to feel clean after Canren touched his leg. Tavros liked Gamzee’s thighs and he didn’t want the skin all scratched up.
Wrapped up in thoughts like that, Tavros sunk further into the false calm covering his hysteria as they disembarked. Gamzee offered Canren a curt farewell and immediately turned to the swarm of carpenter drones gathered outside his hive. Canren just smiled as through Gamzee’s ire was the most endearing thing he ever saw and then decided they needed to chat some more. Gamzee made a point of first telling Tavros to go into the hive and put something on, then greeting the lead carpenter drone who was having a fit about the change in schedule, and finally turning to Canren and semi-politely asking if he didn’t have anything better to do.
Tavros didn’t hear Canren’s answer; he had gotten inside as fast as he could maneuver his four wheel device around the piles of materials the drones had stacked haphazardly all over Gamzee’s front lawn. It was going to be a major construction project; aside from fixing the damage caused by the hungry creature the drones were going to be renovating most of the hive. Gamzee’s reason for the complete makeover was that he had outgrown the design he created at his emergence and needed something a little more adult, which was true. Ever since coming out of the sopor haze he was far less prone to clutter, so there was a need for storage and display solutions for what used to sit piled high in empty Faygo crates. There was a lot of clutter to go through.
All of this was true, but it wasn’t the whole truth. Another reason for the renovation is the need for a permanent four wheel device accessible solution; in previous visits Tavros was limited to the first floor aside from one occasion where Gamzee picked him up out of his chair and carried him upstairs. Usually they’d just stretch out on the floor of the unused masticationblock when they wanted to get intimate, but the last time Tavros was there Gamzee carried him upstairs to a makeshift concupiscent couch. It was a very crude imitation made of all of Gamzee’s clothes and a few dust cloths tossed in a big pile in the floor of his respiteblock. As Gamzee set Tavros down he said that it wasn’t much but soon he’d have some proper furniture for when they got their hot flush on.
It seemed that Gamzee had found a temporary solution for the stairs; when Tavros got to the living room he was met with a series of crates and boards nailed into the floor and walls to create a rampway up to the second floor. There was a carpenter drone standing next to it looking very distressed; they tended to do that when something wasn’t on the floor plans. It was a little steep but Tavros was able to make it up to Gamzee’s respiteblock. He quickly wheeled himself to the wardrobe storage container, dug out a pair of Gamzee’s boxers (well worn and bright green with pies drawn on with marker), and pulled them on as fast as he could. Once he was wearing something it really hit him that he had been naked. He expected and accepted it for the ceremony, but being forced to crawl across the ground to his four wheel device while all the highbloods around him jeered, going outside in the street without anything covering him up, having to bite his tongue while that creep felt up his matesprit...
He hugged himself and tried not to cry, but it was a losing battle. The panic was rising to the surface and he didn’t have the energy to fight it anymore. It was all so unfair. A highblood with a psychic means to compensate for a crippling injury would likely be spared from culling, as long as they worked hard to prove that they were still useful. Tavros had done everything, he honed his ability to commune to unheard of levels, he worked out his arms and torso every single day, he even abandoned the lance as his primary weapon and with a little help from a friend of Nepeta’s he grew to be deadly accurate with a pistol. But none of it mattered because of the color of his blood. His name was on the list to be culled every time and the only reason he survived this far is because of Sollux.
The Empress’s death couldn’t come soon enough.
This sentiment was only driven home when Gamzee ran into the room. Tavros looked up helplessly, brown tinged tears rolling down his cheeks. Gamzee’s face flickered between concern, guilt, and anger all in the span of a couple seconds spent standing wide eyed in the doorway. Then he all but dove at his matesprit. He ended up pulling Tavros out of his four wheel device and they curled up together on the floor. His matesprit held him tight, stroked his hair, and through the whole of Tavros’s breakdown Gamzee trembled with rage. Tavros clung to his lover and sobbed, the humiliation and shame and all those people saying how he was useless and ugly finally catching up with him. He felt so cold, so alone, as if every vicious word and cruel look were needle thin daggers of ice that pierced him down to the bone. He felt as if his very soul was freezing. He forced himself to listen to all the sweet nothings Gamzee was whispering in his ear, he reminded himself that it was all over and everything was going to be okay, he focused on Gamzee’s hands pressed against his bare skin...
Tavros was so aware of Gamzee’s heat. The arms around his waist and shoulders felt like they were burning. When Gamzee pressed soft, sweet kisses to Tavros’s damp cheeks each light touch was a hot iron searing into his skin. He felt his blood rush to the surface, tinting his gray skin brown from his face all the way down his shoulders and stomach. His pulse pounded like a stampede running through his head and the only thought he could hear through the noise was what if he doesn’t want me anymore.
Tavros crushed his lips against Gamzee’s in a move full of desperation. At first Gamzee was still as stone and Tavros felt the ice fill his veins. There was so much fear it choked him and he couldn’t breathe until finally, finally Gamzee responded. He returned the kiss hesitantly and it warmed Tavros’s lips but he needed more. He needed so much more.
Gamzee broke the kiss and started to say something but Tavros had already pressed his lips to his matesprit’s ear and was begging him in a low keening whisper, “Touch me. Touch me everywhere. Please just kiss me and don’t ever stop. I want you, I need you and I—“
Those hands that burned hotter than the Alternian sun gripped Tavros’s face and he was made to look in Gamzee’s wide eyes.
“Tav, babe, hold on a motherfucking second and think about this.”
Tavros was beyond reason. He kept kissing, biting, licking every piece of skin he could reach to while he got his hands under Gamzee’s shirt. “Don’t make me wait anymore,” Tavros breathed against his lover’s neck. Tavros could feel the jump and twitch; Gamzee liked the feeling of words whispered hotly into his pulse. No one knew what turned Gamzee on better than Tavros. Maybe that would be enough to keep him?
Gamzee was biting his lip and getting that heavy lidded look; Tavros was having a definite effect on him. But Gamzee was still holding back, still trying to hold onto the anger he felt, the ghost of a reason why they shouldn’t be doing this right then...
“I need you,” Tavros breathed, “please.”
Chapter 4: Release
Gamzee’s reservations evaporated as a sultry heat replaced the fire of his rage. Tavros found himself crushed against his lover’s body and he would have moaned if his mouth wasn’t otherwise occupied. The rough kisses opened the self-inflicted bite marks on Tavros’s lip and tongue and the metallic taste made Gamzee pause, but then Tavros was rubbing that particular spot on his hip and nipping at his earlobe just the way he liked it. With no more warning than a primal growl Tavros found himself flat on his back, barely having time to register the change in orientation before Gamzee was nudging his legs apart and lying between them. Tavros propped himself up on his elbows and watched slack jawed as his lover mouthed him. The fact that Gamzee’s tongue was on his own bright green underwear instead of Tavros’s dark boxer briefs just made it that much hotter.
“Yeah, babe, you like that?” Gamzee asked as he tugged the borrowed boxers down and freed Tavros’s aching bulge. He took the tip in his mouth and mumbled around it, “Does that make you feel good?”
“Guh, huh, Gamzaah!” Tavros moaned in answer.
Gamzee licked from base to tip and then sucked on the head. He grinned up at his matesprit who was already all but writhing in pleasure. “You are so motherfucking sexy,” he breathed before returning to the task at hand.
Tavros was drowning in his insecurities and he clung to Gamzee’s words as he would a raft. “H-h-how am I, uh, ohhhh, s-sexy?”
Gamzee chuckled and rolled his eyes as though Tavros was crazy for even asking. He pressed a wet kiss to his lover’s bulge before getting up and breaking the sound barrier getting to his desk and back. He dropped the bottle on the floor next to them and quickly pulled the boxers completely off Tavros’s legs. It was only after he had settled back down on his stomach and was rubbing slick fingers against Tavros’s entrance that Gamzee answered the question.
“You’re sexy no matter what you do, but fuck Tav when you say my name it keeps me believing in miracles.”
Two fingers pressed inside and curled just so and Tavros bucked against the heat and sting and the way his matesprit grinned when he cried out, “Gamzee!”
“Yeah, fuck yes, just like that. That gets me so motherfucking hot when you scream my name.”
“Hah, how can I n-not—mmph—scream your name when you do... ohhh...”
Tavros wanted hard and fast, wanted to feel the heat of Gamzee’s wild passion washing over him, but Gamzee slowed his pace to something tortuously slow. Tavros whined and tried to wriggle closer to that teasing mouth and probing fingers, but his lover kept him pinned.
“I was worried,” Gamzee said in a near whisper; Tavros had to fight to control his panting breaths just to make out all the words. “Back when we were all new at this, you know, the first time I got my hands on that cute fucking ass of yours.”
“We’re, uh, talking about sexy.”
The grin was back. “Your ass is cute and sexy. So’s your big thick motherfucking bone bulmg,” he said, the last word getting muffled when he fastened his lips around said bulge. Tavros blushed not only from the pleasure Gamzee was giving him but also the compliment. Tavros was only bigger than Gamzee by a tiny bit; still, Gamzee loved telling him how huge he was and watching the deep brown blush spread all the way down his stomach.
Gamzee pulled back again, lazily stroking Tavros’s bulge with one hand and twisting the fingers of the other inside him, so he could take in the sight of his lover squirming under him.
“I was worried,” he repeated. “So fucking worried, first time I got in your pants. I didn’t know if you could feel what I was doing. Didn’t know if I could make you feel good like a motherfucker should be able to make his matesprit feel.”
Tavros shook his head. “No, mhm, even if I couldn’t feel your—ah—fingers in me it w-would still be, uh, good. Because it w-would be with you.”
The indigo blush under Gamzee’s eyes darkened and he licked his lips. “So... can you feel my fingers all up inside of you?”
When Tavros fell off that cliff during his last FLARP session the impact itself didn’t break his spine; if that were the case then the break probably would have been much higher and he might not have been able to feel anything below the waist. Instead when Tavros fell he landed flat on his back and a slab of rock protruding from the sandy beach caught him nearly at the base of his spine. He still had minimal movement and most of the feeling in his hips, fading down to being completely numb at about mid thigh.
Gamzee might have been ignorant of the specifics of Tavros’s injury that first time they were fumbling around in the dark, but that was almost two sweeps ago and Gamzee had since learned the extent of the nerve damage.
“Uh... y-you know already,” Tavros mumbled as he looked away, embarrassed by the question.
Gamzee pulled his hand away from Tavros’s bulge and he withdrew his slick fingers. Tavros whimpered at the loss of sensation. He raised himself back up on his elbows so he could glare at his matesprit, though it came off as less of a glare and more of a pout. Gamzee was undeterred. He slid his hands up Tavros’s thighs ever so slowly, coming to rest on his hips. Gamzee pressed down just hard enough that it would be difficult for Tavros to flip him and exact revenge for the teasing.
“Come on, babe, I’m asking you if you can feel what I’m doing to you. Tell me how it feels when I’m inside you.”
The hunger in Gamzee’s tone was making Tavros’s breath hitch. He was still embarrassed, still nervous, but there was no way he could say no to that.
“Will you, uh, tell me why you th-think I’m sexy?”
Gamzee’s eyes smoldered. He moved onto his knees and spread more of the gel over his hard bulge, giving Tavros the most intense look as he slowly stroked himself. Tavros licked his lips at the sight. Then Gamzee was shifting them both around and Tavros was doing his best to arch his back and help lift his legs and then Gamzee was sliding into him.
“That look,” Gamzee murmured once he was fully sheathed, “that look you get when I’m in you and you’re all about to moan but you’re trying not to...” He closed his eyes and gasped. “Fuck, Tav, you have no motherfucking clue what you do to me, do you?”
Tavros worried at his sore lip and reveled in Gamzee’s words. As Gamzee started grinding against him tried to swallow his embarrassment. He didn’t think he was very good at dirty talk so he usually left that to Gamzee. But since his lover was outright asking for it he was willing to try.
“I, uh, y-you inside me f-feels so good...” He somehow managed to blush darker than he already was. “Gyah! I’m so bad at this.”
Gamzee chuckled as he rocked into his matesprit slow and steady, the friction making Tavros throw his head back and cry out wordlessly.
“Babe, trust me, no one could be better.”
Tavros felt almost drunk after hearing that. From somewhere in the hull of his shattered self esteem he drug up the confidence to keep talking.
“When you’re, mmm, r-rubbing up against me—in m-me—all slow like this it’s, uh, amazing.”
“Tav, oh shit,” Gamzee moaned. He started moving in shallow thrusts as he reached down to stroke Tavros’s bulge.
“Ohhh... and wh-when you touch me like that I can’t even think anymore.”
“Yes. Fuck yes. Don’t motherfucking stop.”
Tavros watched his lover with fascination. His attempts at dirty talk were terrible but it was still having such an effect on Gamzee. He tried to think of something else to say while making a vague mental note to get better at this.
“When you roll your hips—ohgodlikethat—it feels so good.”
“Uhng... Tav, babe, tell me what you want.”
Tavros started to answer but then Gamzee thrust inside him at a particularly delicious angle. The world went dark around the edges and Tavros shoved off the floor hard enough that Gamzee was almost knocked backwards. Tavros felt himself coming undone and he cried out his lover’s name as he toppled over the edge.
“I... hah...” Tavros tried to catch his breath as he floated back down to reality. “I think that, mmh, was what I wanted.”
Gamzee was still in Tavros and still hard. He was fighting his own instincts to move to the point of shaking, but despite the effort tied up in staying still he was smiling down at Tavros with an almost zen look.
“Mmmm...” Gazmee hummed as he ground against Tavros just a bit. “Watching you coming all undone, babe, that is motherfucking miracles.”
The words fell from Tavros’s lips without him really thinking about it, “Feeling you moving inside me when I’m riding the aftershocks is like paradise.”
Gamzee paused and on instinct Tavros wondered if he said something wrong. Then Gamzee was thrusting into him hard and moaning, “Fuck, Tav. Motherfucking. Yes.”
Tavros, still drifting through the aftermath of his orgasm, watched his lover with a sort of lazy fascination. Gamzee was so intense and somehow it was all because of something Tavros just did. Even though he was awkward and stuttery and dorky, Gamzee still found something about him irresistible.
“Wha... mm...” Gamzee’s thrusts were getting rough and it felt so good, but Tavros was determined to figure out what he did to make his matesprit moan like that. “What did I say?”
Gamzee laughed through a groan. “God, babe, you really have no fucking clue, do you? You have no motherfucking idea how hot you are. How can that even happen?”
Tavros didn’t answer right away; he thought about the question with a fuzzy think pan as he reached down to absently rub at his softening bulge. He saw the way Gamzee leaned back to get a good look at what he was doing and an idea struck him.
Sometimes when he was exhausted or angry Tavros would somehow forget to be nervous and just say or do what he was thinking without censoring himself. At that moment he was physically exhausted since he had barely slept in the past few days, emotional exhausted from the spectacle the ceremony turned into, his anger was still lurking under the surface, and to top it all off he was very sexually satisfied.
Tavros gave his bulge one last squeeze and then drug his hand up across his abdomen. When he reached the pool of genetic discharge on his chest he drug two fingers through the fluid, then he brought his hand to his lips and licked at his own release.
Gamzee stilled for several long seconds and stared wide eyed at the gray tongue lapping up the light brown fluid. Then he was leaning over Tavros and fucking him in earnest while words tumbled from his lips.
“Oh god, Tav. When you’re nervous and mumbling it’s all motherfucking adorable but when you blow right past it and do shit like that—ah fuck.”
Gamzee’s hands were nearly bruising on his matesprit’s hips. Tavros sucked on his sticky fingers, swallowing the traces of his genetic fluid and driving Gamzee mad with desire in the process.
“You’re so sexy. You’re so motherfucking sexy. When you’re in your four wheel device and you look up at me all shy, uhn, it takes all I got to keep from jumping your cute, perfect, sexy ass.”
Gamzee’s motions were getting erratic and his voice was starting to resemble his Trollian quirk, the syllables butchered and the meter of his words cracked and backwards. Tavros knew his lover was close, so close.
“Babe—motherfucking yes—when you stare out at the ocean and the wind is all ruffling that fucking cute mohawk of yours, uhn, and you’ve got that smile on your face that’s all mysterious and, and—“
“I love you, Gamzee.”
“Sonova bitch, oh fuck, Taaaaaav!”
Gamzee pulled out and grabbed his bulge. After a couple rough jerks pale indigo release was mingling with the cooling brown on Tavros’s chest. Gamzee slumped forward, catching his weight with one hand so he didn’t fall into Tavros, and tried to steady his breath. Tavros reached up to brush damp bangs out of his lover’s eyes. He was still reveling in the way his skin tingled where Gamzee had touched him. Still reeling from the fact that saying ‘I love you’ is what sent his matesprit over the edge.
“I love you too, Tavros,” Gamzee said at last, his face full of tenderness that warmed Tavros to the core. “You’re amazing, you’re... you are the best motherfucking thing that ever happened to me.”
Tavros felt relief wash over him at the reaffirmation of his matesprit’s feelings. He felt a little ashamed for doubting it even for a second, regardless of what happened that day. Gamzee loved him and that was a fact.
Gamzee’s expression melted into something that was both affectionate and dangerously mischievous. With a low chuckle he reached out with his free hand and drew a finger through their combined genetic material. He sucked the pale substance off with a hum, never taking his eyes off Tavros’s, even as he shuddered in the wake of his orgasm. Tavros watched the tremors roll over his lover in waves and thought, I did that to him.
“That is motherfucking hot,” Gamzee said in a husky voice. “I never guessed you’d be all into that. Fuck, if you want to take me out you know how to motherfucking do it. Just suck on your fingers like that and uhnn...”
Gamzee loved him and that was a fact. But the thing that Tavros struggled with wasn’t faith in the depth of Gamzee’s emotions, it was the depth of Gamzee’s lust. He knew that his matesprit wanted him as a person, and he knew that was the more important part of the relationship, but Tavros always wondered if Gamzee really wanted him physically. It wasn’t about the disjunction between a powerful torso and atrophied legs; at least, it hadn’t been for almost a sweep. It was about his facial structure and the embarrassingly needy noises he’d make during sex and the way he would trip and fall over his own words sometimes. When Gamzee called him cute he could believe it, but sexy? Hot? That couldn’t be him.
Except Gamzee was coming down from being driven mad with desire. When Tavros licked his own release off his fingers the look on Gamzee’s face right before he started driving into his lover’s body left little room for interpretation. There was no faking that. Tavros didn’t have any doubt left.
Gamzee both loved him and wanted him.
It wasn’t until Gamzee’s expression turned to one of deep concern that Tavros even realized he was crying again. He was just so relieved to finally know and believe and not have any doubt about Gamzee’s feelings or lust. Tavros was loved and wanted and the horrible day was over and he was finally safe in his matesprit’s arms and hive and...
Tavros lost track of time and then he was sobbing brokenly while Gamzee was holding him tight. Tavros was vaguely aware of how badly Gamzee was panicking, the only thing really getting through was the stream of “I’m sorry” repeated over and over until it blended into a pulse beating in his head. He tried to tell Gamzee it was okay, he tried so hard, but he was just too tired and too hurt to get past the lump in his throat. So he cried and he clung and somewhere in there he fell asleep.
Chapter 5: The Evening After
Tavros woke up in Gamzee’s guest recuperacoon to the sound of heavy construction. He pulled himself over the lip—Gamzee had at the walls with a saw so Tavros could lie down properly—and glared at the clock. With a start he realized he had been out for almost a full day; he guessed that all the sleepless nights of the past season finally caught up with him. He still felt exhausted but he doubted he could get back to sleep with all the banging around the carpenter drones were doing.
With a heavy sigh he hauled himself out of the recuperacoon. His four wheel device was in easy reach and the seat was wrapped in towels; his matesprit was so thoughtful to spare him from having to mop up all the slime before he got dressed.
Still half asleep Tavros wheeled himself into the hygieneblock . He transferred himself onto the plain metal chair in the standing ablution trap and turned on the water. Gamzee had made a lot of changes to his guest respiteblock just for Tavros, though soon it would be returned to its generic guest purposes and Tavros would have his own room on the third floor. Gamzee was moving his respiteblock from the second to the third, and they would only be separated by the expansive, four wheel device friendly hygieneblock that the carpenter drones would build in what used to be a storage area. Of course, Tavros would have his own, smaller hygieneblock for appearance sake, but in practice they’d share the one. They already picked out all the fixtures including a seated ablution trap big enough to fit both of them comfortably.
Tavros smiled as he absently considered how much fun it would be to test if the trap could really fit two trolls. The model they picked out was pretty deep and Tavros was hoping that there would be enough water lifting up his weight that he would be able to ride Gamzee properly. He always wanted to do that in spite of, or maybe because of, the fact that his disability made it almost impossible. Even if it didn’t work out the way Tavros hoped it would still be fun to try, and if it really wasn’t working it would be easy enough for Gamzee to lay him down on the thick rug they were going to have in the center of the room and...
He felt this nagging feeling that he was missing something but his think pan was still too fuzzy to grasp what it was.
He quickly finished his shower and toweled off, leaving the slimy towels in the soiled cloth receptacle and wheeling himself back into the guestblock. A change of clothes was already laid out for him; his things must have arrived when he was asleep. He held up the shirt and stared at the sign, his sign. As though in a dream he reached up and felt the thin silver band that circled his neck.
It seemed impossible that only a day had passed since that horrible ceremony. It was supposed to be a solemn event. Sure, there would be plenty of nobles in the stands looking at the new slave with contempt and distain, but they weren’t supposed to openly mock and insult them. They shouldn’t have been able to get away with making him crawl to his four wheel device. Most willing slaves were facing culling due to some disability or another so it wasn’t as though a cripple was new to the officials. When Aradia first suggested this to Tavros he looked up the vidlogs of other ceremonies; as they were a matter of public record anyone could view them. No one else was in a four wheel device but he saw plenty of canes, crutches, and braces being handed to the new slave without any fuss.
They definitely shouldn’t have been able to burn all of his clothes and make him go outside naked. But they saw Gamzee as the best kind of victory. Not only was an indigoblood who used to be friends with those in the lower classes taking one to be his property, but it was a friend of Feferi’s doing it. So they made an example of them, humiliating Tavros in every way so they could point to Gamzee sitting there impassively and crow in triumph. Celebrate their win while Gamzee was dying inside.
Tavros realized his hands were shaking. A few sweeps ago he wouldn’t have believed he could feel this way, but the events of the previous day just made him so angry.
He took a deep breath and pushed the rage away. Gamzee was going to be feeling enough for both of them and Tavros had to be strong for him. None of the shame of the previous day mattered anyway; Tavros was saved from culling, Gamzee was saved from suspicion, and the others were saved from being used against Gamzee. For that Tavros would gladly suffer through another ceremony if he had to. He’d even repeat the shuttle ride with Canren. It was all worth the safety they all gained.
Not to mention that Tavros was home. Home with Gamzee where he belonged. It didn’t matter how angry either of them got because the other would always be right there to kiss it all better. Just like how Gamzee made it better the night before...
The circumstances of Tavros’s passing out suddenly came back to him.
“Did I really start sobbing right after he came?” he asked the wall. He recounted the memory and realized that was exactly what happened. He was so embarrassed he dropped his shirt and slapped both hands against his forehead. Yes, he was in fact so smooth that he burst into tears right after having sex with his matesprit.
Not yet done with the emotional hairpin turns, Tavros blushed brown as he remembered exactly how good the sex had been. Gamzee was always amazing but last night was... Tavros squirmed at the thought of how his lover touched him. And then as he was watching Gamzee moving above him, in him, he was gripped by some unnamable urge and he did that. Tasting his own genetic material was a level of kinky Tavros didn’t know he was capable of. He wondered if all the stress broke him and made him crazy, which he realized was probably true given how he couldn’t stop the meltdown even though it was making Gamzee feel absolutely terrible.
That thought snapped Tavros from his embarrassed daze and he quickly got dressed. He paused for a moment when he picked his shirt back up, staring at the brown symbol that was no longer his. Now that he was more awake he was registering the dull throb of the hatch marked cuts on the back of his neck: his slavemark. Gamzee’s sign was the only sign he would be able to wear from then on.
He shook his head as if to dislodge the wistfulness he felt when he looked at the symbol he wouldn’t wear again. What he gained far outweighed the loss of his sign. Though something would have to be done about his wardrobe; he hadn’t even thought of it in the whirlwind of the season before the ceremony, but he needed new shirts. For the time being he turned the one in his hands inside out so that the sign wasn’t showing; it would do until he could order some blank ones from Kanaya.
Fully dressed—did that ever feel good—Tavros left the guestblock and entered a warzone. At least it looked like one, with rooms gutted and walls knocked out. Luckily the busiest construction was going on at the other side of the hive so Tavros didn’t have too much trouble getting past the carpenter drones.
Tavros knew exactly where Gamzee would be. The sand of the beach wasn’t exactly four wheel device friendly, but Tavros had lots of practice picking his way across a path of sparse grass and patches of gravel. It was slow going but Tavros finally made it to the water’s edge. There was a large flat rock right on the waves. Gamzee sat on it cross-legged and stared out over the gray ocean, his face painted white and black.
Tavros saw the face paint and slowed his approach. He knew that it was a sign of the worst.
When the two of them first became matesprits Gamzee stopped wearing the makeup when he knew he was going to have a chance to be intimate with Tavros; aside from getting smeared everywhere it wasn’t exactly designed to be kissed and so it left Tavros with an unpleasant aftertaste. Tavros was struck silent the first time he saw Gamzee without the face paint because, while Gamzee looked good with it on, he was absolutely stunning with it off.
It was a few seasons before Tavros worked up the nerve to tell his matesprit this. Gamzee was pleased with the compliment and stopped putting it on anytime that he and Tavros would be together, even if it was a group outing. This was the same timeframe when Gamzee was cutting back on the pies and he did it for the same reason: Tavros. Not that Tavros ever asked him to stop wearing makeup, just as there was never any request that he step away from the sopor; Gamzee did it on his own because he felt it was getting in the way of being affectionate with his matesprit. It was purely a purely functional choice and nothing else, or at least it was.
The whole thing started as soon as Gamzee was free of the sopor haze and a little more aware of what was going on around him, but everything came to a head a sweep ago. Terezi had started her internship with the junior small claims branch of the Legislacerators and spent most of her free time ranting to the others about all the corruption she was seeing; their justice system was supposed to be harsh but it was also supposed to be fair. Everywhere she looked were different rules for the different classes. She said that the breakdown in justice was making her sick.
The double standards were brought into sharper focus when Sollux admitted that he had been hacking Tavros’s name off the culling list ever since the FLARP accident. Sollux said that he was only doing it temporarily to give Tavros enough time to overcome his disability, but then the hacker stumbled upon logged conversations and records from the culling ministry that made it clear that was never going to happen. The internal memos and reviews which should have detailed and updated the culling boards on Tavros’s recovery were completely blank. As far as the board was concerned, Tavros was still as he had been when he first fell off that cliff. When Sollux looked into disabilities among the higher bloods the reviews were filled with information, and the higher the blood the more favorable the diagnosis.
When Sollux told everyone what he found Tavros took it hard. He really thought that everything he had done—honing his psychic abilities, making the working half of his body strong, earning a living that a greenblood would be proud of—had shown the culling board that he deserved to live. When Tavros found out that he never had a chance he was crushed. Several days after Sollux broke the news Tavros was able to make his roundabout way to Gamzee’s hive. He was hoping to collapse into his matesprit’s arms and just cry it out. He didn’t expect to come around the last bend and see a bonfire on the beach.
Gamzee was standing in front of the fire and at his right were a series of crates, all stuffed full. As Tavros picked his way across the rocky and grassy areas Gamzee took things out of the crates and threw them into the fire one by one. By the time Tavros made it to his matesprit’s side the crates were half empty. Yet to be burned were dozens of posters depicting clowns which may not be in full possession of their mental faculties, a couple dozen books with ‘miracle’ in the title, a few more about the dark carnival, horns of all sizes, and sweeps upon sweeps of pamphlets and flyers sent out by CMM—the Cult of the Mirthful Messiahs.
When Tavros wheeled up beside him Gamzee acknowledged his presence with a glance and then went back to throwing things into the fire. Gamzee’s face was makeup free save for a few smudges left around his eyes and hairline. His unpainted face was a stony mask and the motions of picking something up and tossing it were almost mechanical, but with a hidden edge of anger. Tavros didn’t know what to say or do so he just sat there in shock and watched his matesprit burn a lifetime of faith.
When the crates were emptied Gamzee collapsed next to Tavros’s four wheel device. He took Tavros’s hand in his and pressed kisses against the palm. As the fire burned itself out so did Gamzee’s barely suppressed rage and he was left with an empty sort of grief. There staring at the embers Gamzee said that he didn’t believe in miracles anymore, not if someone as strong and amazing as Tavros could be tossed aside by anyone.
Given a season Tavros convinced him not to let go of everything. Given time Gamzee accepted miracles again, though under different rules. This new, more hands on definition of miracles was the only thing he kept of his old faith. He refused to replace what he lost in the purge by bonfire, he broke off all contact with the CMM, and he didn’t wear his makeup again.
Except very, very rarely when he buried himself in a pie tin and in his sorrow thought of the time when he had faith without basis or reason. When he’d sunk so far in his sopor haze that he couldn’t see reality anymore he’d think that he believed in miracles when he wore the face paint, so maybe if he wore it again he’d find a way to pretend that all he had to do was pray and everything would be okay.
Tavros looked at the man he loved sitting there stoned out of his mind. He looked at Gamzee vacantly clinging to the naïve convictions of yesterday and felt as though his soul was being ripped to shreds.
Chapter 6: Relapse
Tavros had long since come to terms with his disability. Even in the wake of the revelations leading him to sitting naked in the center of that ceremonial room he never blamed his paralysis. The evidence Sollux pulled up made it clear that he probably would have been culled even without the injury, and learning to overcome his inability to walk made him stronger. Knowing what it was like to feel the ground crumble under his feet, experiencing a small eternity of falling through the air, understanding that it could have been his skull that was split in two instead of his spine... it made him reevaluate many things about himself.
Tavros was pretty sure that if he didn’t have his accident he wouldn’t have had the courage to pull Gamzee into his lap. If not for the injury making him prove that he was stronger than he thought he probably wouldn’t have pressed that first chaste kiss against his matesprit’s lips.
He was irritated with his disability at times, of course. Anytime his four wheel device rolled down his recuperacoon ramp he would get plenty frustrated. But it was just annoyance, strong sometimes but simple annoyance nonetheless. The first few seasons were rough, but once he got over the initial shock he never railed against the universe for his unfortunate turn of events.
The rock slab Gamzee was sitting on was a black glassy thing, forged in a volcano and then polished by the winds sweeping sand across the surface. It was damp from the ocean’s spray. The lowest point was still at Tavros’s eye level from where he was sitting and there was no way he would be able to pull himself up onto the slick surface. For the first time he glared at his knees and uttered a low curse against his useless legs. The only way Tavros would be able to get up there so he could comfort his matesprit was if Gamzee helped him, and Tavros wasn’t even sure if Gamzee would be physically capable of that. Tavros couldn’t remember seeing him this out of it, even when it was the norm.
Tavros looked back at the hive and at the spot where Canren’s shuttle was parked the day before. He didn’t think that Canren or anyone else would come by anytime soon given that the heavy construction was publicly announced, but Tavros knew it could still happen. He touched his temple and gathered together all the animals in range, both on land and in the sea, and formed them into a watchful circle. He searched among the life energy connected to him for something big enough to get him onto the slab. Unfortunately between Eridan’s underwater perimeter and Gamzee’s lusus there was little in the way of big game in the area.
Tavros didn’t want to make Gamzee come and get him—he should be able to announce his arrival by way of wrapping his arms around Gamzee’s shoulders and he cursed his stupid stupid legs—but there was no other choice. Tavros softly called his matesprit’s name. Then he did it again, a little louder. By the fifth repetition Tavros was close to shouting and Gamzee still hadn’t so much as twitched in recognition. Tavros felt his acid sack sink as panic gripped him. He cast his ability out as far as it could go trying to find something to help him and found nothing. Nothing he was shouting was getting through, so out of desperation he slid out of his chair, grabbed a rock from the beach, and tossed it at Gamzee.
The gentle throw hit Gamzee in the back. He finally stirred and looked around blankly. Tavros tossed another one, this one skittering across the top of the rock slab, and Gamzee finally looked over his shoulder and at Tavros. For a long minute the two stared at each other, Gamzee taking far too long to focus and Tavros trying to swallow the rising dread so he could stay strong and steady for his matesprit.
“Gamzee, are you okay?” Tavros asked hesitantly, afraid of what the answer might be.
Gamzee said nothing and they stared at each other for a while longer. Tavros was just taking a deep breath to ask again when Gamzee suddenly moved. He scooted to the edge of the slab and slid off, and then looked distantly surprised when his knees buckled and he ended up falling sideways into the sand. When a shard of rock drew a trickle of indigo from Gamzee’s forearm Tavros winced; Gamzee did not. After taking some time to gape at the stars Gamzee was up again and making his unsteady way to where his matesprit was sitting on the beach. Tavros was unceremoniously hauled up, Gamzee almost losing grip a couple times but somehow they got up on the slab without any further injuries.
Once he dragged Tavros to the center of the stone Gamzee slumped and flopped onto his back. Tavros pulled himself between Gamzee’s bent legs and lay on top of him, finally able to get a good appraising look at his matesprit. The face paint design Tavros remembered from Gamzee’s juggalo days was recognizable, but only barely. The lines between black and white that were always so crisp and clean were blurred and shaky. His hair was matted on one side; while it looked like he had gotten into the trap to clean off the sopor he didn’t scrub all that hard.
Tavros checked the cut and was relieved to see that it was little more than a scratch; it would stop bleeding soon. As he carefully poked around the wound Gamzee finally took notice of the injury. He batted Tavros’s hands out of the way and ran his other hand over the cut. Gamzee looked at the indigo blood smeared across his palm and frowned. It was the first time his expression changed from the blank sopor stare and Tavros sagged with relief; Gamzee was still somewhat aware.
“Gamzee? Please, look at me,” Tavros asked.
Gamzee kept staring at the indigo traces on his hand. The frown deepened.
“Gamzee, come on, over here okay?” Tavros pulled himself up a little further so that he was in Gamzee’s line of sight, and the dilated eyes finally turned towards him. “There you are. Okay, Gamzee, I need you to tell me something. How many pies have you eaten? Can you tell me that?”
Gamzee turned his head to the side and looked at the empty tins sitting on the slab. The frown deepened as his fingers twitched as he tried to count out the answer. He settled on a number and didn’t look too happy about it.
“Jus’ a sec,” Gamzee mumbled, the first thing he said since Tavros found him. He slid backwards out from under Tavros and gathered up the empty tins before standing up and walking towards the water’s edge.
“Gamzee!” If Tavros wasn’t so worried he might have rolled his eyes. “You just got me up here. Don’t leave.”
“Jus’ a sec,” Gamzee repeated as he jumped down off the edge of the slab. While he was still unsteady he didn’t stumble and fall again; Tavros hoped it was a sign that the slime was wearing off. For lack of anything better to do Tavros pulled himself a little closer to the edge of the stone in case he had to roll down to get to Gamzee quickly. While he was moving Gamzee started flinging the empty tins out to sea.
Gamzee started to throw the last one, but stopped and held it up in front of his face and squinted at it. After a few moments contemplation he dropped it on the sand and reached for the hem of his shirt. Gamzee had considerable difficulty maneuvering it over his long horns but eventually he got it off. He then squatted down and came back up wringing out the soaked material; once it was no longer dripping Gamzee started scrubbing at his face with it.
Tavros found a level spot on the edge of the slab and sat on the edge. He sighed and held his hands out to Gamzee and gently said, “Gamzee, come here. Let me do that.”
The scrubbing increased in pace.
“You’re missing spots.” It was also possible that Gamzee was going to get salt water in his eyes. “Let me help you get it all off, okay?”
Gamzee slowly nodded and shuffled over to where his matesprit was sitting. Tavros took the wet shirt and cleaned off the makeup as best he could. He left the dark smudges around Gamzee’s eyes, and that which had been smeared into his hair wasn’t moving, but Tavros was able to get the rest of it off.
“There you go,” Tavros said as he laid the shirt out on the rock to dry. He turned back to Gamzee and brushed the back of his fingers against his matesprit’s clean, if salty, cheek. “Much better.”
Gamzee leaned into the light touch and almost fell to the side again. Tavros got a firmer grip on Gamzee’s face and studied the dilated eyes and the clammy skin under his hands. Tavros bit his lip and sent a psychic request to a nest of leafrodents at the base of the cliffs; at the height of a troll’s knee they weren’t big enough to have helped Tavros onto the slab but they could retrieve some things from the hive.
“Okay, Gamzee, please look at me?” Tavros tugged Gamzee closer as he soothingly caressed his matesprit’s cheek. “Gamzee, how many pies? Do I... d-do I need to get you to a medical facility?”
Gamzee turned around and went back to the water’s edge.
“Gamzee!” Tavros’s frustration was starting to bleed into anger, both at his matesprit for moving out of reach and at his legs for making his reach so limited. He glared as Gamzee knelt by the water and washed out the remaining tin in the surf.
Finally, Gamzee looked over his shoulder. “... Tav?”
He looked away and swallowed hard. “Don’ watch.”
“What do you—“ Tavros’s eyes widened in alarm, “—Gamzee, wait!”
Tavros watched in dismay as Gamzee lifted the tin to his lips. He gulped all the brine down and then fell forward onto his hands and knees. Tavros shook himself out of his shock and pushed himself off the slab. He got to Gamzee just as the heaves gave way to being violently sick.
Tavros felt completely useless sitting there next to Gamzee, rubbing his back as he vomited up green sludge mixed with indigo bile. When Tavros touched his fingers to Gamzee’s neck the skin was too cool and the pulse he felt was too fast. He send out a frantic request for a comm device to the leafrodents still gathering things from the temporary storage crates; he prayed that he wouldn’t have to call for a medishuttle but if Gamzee had enough sopor that he felt the need to throw it all up...
“Thass pies a muzzerfuckin’ bad,” Gamzee slurred after the heaves died down to shivers. He sat back on his ankles and went back to staring at the smudges of blood on his palm.
Tavros took his matesprit’s face in his hands and looked into bloodshot eyes; still unfocused but not as dilated as when Gamzee hauled him up onto the rock. Gamzee’s skin was damp both from the ocean’s spray and his own indigo tinged sweat; between the moisture and the breeze of the cool dark season they were entering Gamzee was shivering. At least, Tavros hoped it was the wind making his matesprit shiver and not the sopor. Tavros pulled Gamzee sideways into his lap and shifted them around so that his back was to the wind; the shielding and shared body heat did wonders for Gamzee’s temperature and Tavros breathed a sigh of relief.
“Gamzee, do you need medical help?” Tavros asked again. He rubbed the heat back into Gamzee’s arms. “Are you going to be okay?”
“No meds,” Gamzee mumbled. “M’okay. Jus’ gotta not be a fuckin’ moron.” He managed to focus on his matesprit’s face. “Don’ eat the slime.”
“I won’t, Gamzee.”
“I’m muzzerfuckin’ seriomish. Tha’ shit’s no good.”
In spite of the situation, Tavros couldn’t help but smile. Gamzee was high as a paneled fabric gliding apparatus and he was still trying to look out for his matesprit’s health.
“I promise that I won’t eat the slime,” Tavros said in earnest. Gamzee seemed to accept this and they sat in silence for a few moments while Tavros checked on the leafrodents’ progress. Gamzee leaned back and watched the other man with a goofy grin; Tavros had previously been told that he looked ‘motherfucking adorable’ when he was communing with the animals. Tavros blushed at the approving scrutiny and marveled at Gamzee’s ability to get him flustered no matter what the situation. Gamzee was apparently unsatisfied with the amount of blood rushing to Tavros’s face and so he prepared his best seductive gaze and let his eyes slowly travel down Tavros’s body.
He didn’t get far. Gamzee’s movement stopped and he suddenly scowled at his matesprit’s chest. He reached up and grabbed at Tavros’s left sleeve and growled after a few insistent tugs did nothing. Tavros was about to ask what he was doing when Gamzee gripped the right sleeve and gave it a sharp yank; the snaps holding the shoulder seam together came open with a series of pops. Tavros understood Gamzee’s initial confusion—with his shirt inside out the snaps weren’t where they were supposed to be—but he wasn’t sure what Gamzee was trying to do. His first instinct was that Gamzee wanted the same kind of comfort he needed the night before, but then something told him that wasn’t the case.
Whatever it was Gamzee seemed angrily intent on getting his matesprit shirtless. Tavros wasn’t going to let it get to sex while Gamzee was so out of it, particularly given how badly the night before had gone, but he figured that snuggling bare-chested would do some good. Besides, with the way Gamzee was clumsily clawing at the side seam he was going to rip the shirt to shreds without some help. Tavros gently pushed Gamzee’s hands away and pulled the side seam open. He slid the shirt off and Gamzee snatched the fabric up as soon as it cleared Tavros’s arm. Tavros hugged the other man close, glad to feel that Gamzee’s skin was far warmer than it had been.
“Okay,” Tavros said when he pulled back. He looked to the side and saw that the leafrodents had arrived and were laying out the picnic blanket on the sand. Another blanket was being dragged across the beach; Tavros just had to get Gamzee over there and under the second blanket. “All right, Gamzee, let’s go over there. Is that okay with you?”
Gamzee didn’t respond. He was too busy looking at the black shirt in his hands.
“Come on, Gamzee. It’s kind of chilly here by the water, but over there we can lie on the blanket with another one on top and it’ll be nice and warm. We can just hold each other and talk about... what are you...”
Gamzee was trying to put the shirt back on Tavros, but his sluggish and uncoordinated movements weren’t that effective. At first Tavros thought that Gamzee was trying to keep him from getting cold, triggered by his comment about the chill by the waves, but then Gamzee leaned close enough for him to make out what his matesprit was muttering.
“Oh... oh.” Tavros could feel his soul ripping all over again. “Gamzee, no, it’s all right.”
“Wear yer fuckin’ clothes th’right way,” Gamzee whispered harshly.
“Gamzee, I promise, it’s okay. I-I’m okay with it.”
“No,” Gamzee said, the clearest he had been since Tavros found him. “No, not okay. Not. Mother. Fuckin’. Okay.”
“Gamzee, oh god, I-I...” Tavros’s eyes welled up and he choked on his words. Gamzee kept trying to maneuver Tavros’s arm into his shirt with an unshakable determination. As the brown tears spilled out over his cheeks Tavros warred with himself, wanting to comfort his matesprit with every fiber of his being while at the same time being scared to the core that someone would see and kill them both.
See him wearing the sign that was no longer his.
“No no no,” Gamzee said in sleepy alarm. “No, Tav, please don’ cry.”
“I’m sorry,” Tavros whispered. “God, Gamzee, I am so sorry. I’m sorry for everything.”
“I’m sorry you had to keep quiet when they burned all my clothes. I’m sorry you had to listen to all the highbloods at the ceremony. I’m sorry you had to talk to Canren.”
“I’m sorry that I was such a wreck. I’m sorry that you had to be strong for me and this just festered inside you for a season.”
Gamzee opened and closed his mouth a few times before deciding on silence.
“Gamzee, there’s a blanket over there,” Tavros gestured to it. “We’re going to go over there and lie down and then you’re going to stop holding this in.”
“But... but you’re the one...”
“Gamzee, you...” Tavros bit his lip and tried to find the right words. “Keeping this bottled up is going to kill you. You’re always telling me how I’m so much stronger than I think I am. Please, just let me prove you right.”
“Tav, it’s—“ Gamzee bit his lip and then slowly nodded. “I... yeah. Okay.”
Chapter 7: Salt in the Wound
It took a lot of dragging, stumbling, and crawling but the two of them made it over to the picnic blanket. Five leafrodents stood next to it twitching their tails and watching the trolls expectantly. Tavros made a futile attempt at brushing the wet sand off his and Gamzee’s pants and then the two of them crawled onto the blanket. Tavros was still hesitant about giving in to Gamzee’s demand that he wear his sign and yet he didn’t want to outright reject, so he folded his shirt and used it as a pillow when he lay on his back. Tavros held his arms out to Gamzee, who wrung his hands and chewed his lip before finally sprawling on top of his matesprit. After some maneuvering Gamzee was lying on Tavros at an angle that allowed him to pillow his head on the other man's shoulder without his horns posing a danger. Once they were settled the leafrodents pulled the second blanket over them. Tavros tugged it up around Gamzee’s shoulders and then turned his eyes towards the pile of things beside them.
“Gamzee,” he asked incredulously, “why do you have so much bread?”
When Tavros asked the leafrodents to bring him bread, he thought they would bring a loaf, maybe two. He didn’t expect six polyvinyl bags filled with at least ten or twelve loaves as well as at least a couple dozen rolls.
“Mmph,” Gamzee breathed against Tavros’s chest. “Bake when’m stressed.”
“Is it okay if they have some?”
Gamzee lifted his head and squinted at the gathered leafrodents, who wagged their flat tails. After a moment’s contemplation he shrugged and flopped back down onto his matesprit.
Tavros sent the psychic okay and three of them started dragging bags back towards the cliff to share with the rest of their nest. The other two stayed to move things within Tavros’s reach, starting with one of the bags of bread. Tavros fished out one of the smaller loafs and held it up behind Gamzee’s back. He tore it in half and handed one part to the leafrodents. The other he tore into smaller pieces which he set on top of an empty bag. Once that was all prepared he held one of the pieces where Gamzee could see it.
“Could you eat something? Please?”
Gamzee huffed as if irritated, but he reached over and took the offered morsel. After glaring at the bread for a moment he ate it.
They passed their time in silence for a while, Tavros handing over the chunks and making sure his matesprit ate them. He hoped that the bread would soak up whatever slime was left and slow down how fast it was being absorbed. When all the pieces were gone Tavros felt Gamzee’s pulse and was relieved to find that it had slowed considerably.
“Okay, Gamzee,” he said, “we’re just going to wait this out here. Does that sound good to you?”
Gamzee nodded and his horn tapped the side of Tavros’s head. “Mph, sorry,” he mumbled guiltily.
“It’s okay,” Tavros soothed, “you only barely touched me, and besides, I’ve got a pretty tough skull.”
“No... sorry ‘bout this muzzerfuckin’ mess I’m all up in bein’. S’no good.”
Tavros hugged him tight. “How long have you been strong for me? Just let me return the favor, okay?”
Gamzee shook his head and kissed Tavros’s chest. “I dunno.”
“You already said that you would let it out.”
“I muzzerfuckin’ dunno!” Gamzee propped himself up so he could glare at Tavros. “Why’re you so okay with this? After what... after what those fuckin’ bastards did t’you...”
“Gamzee, it’s okay.”
“No, it’s muzzerfuckin’ not okay.”
Tavros sighed and cupped Gamzee’s cheek and rubbed his thumb along his matesprit’s bottom lip.
“Mph, stop makin’ m’think pan all fuzzy.”
“Then you stop arguing with me. It’s okay. I’m okay. Doing this is keeping everyone safe, well, safer. That’s worth everything that happened yesterday.”
Gamzee shook his head. “Maybe this’s why I’ve gotta be all hatin’ those bastards so much. You’re too fuckin’ nice to do it.”
“I hate them too,” Tavros replied. Gamzee was momentarily stunned by the venom in his matesprit’s voice. “I can’t wait for Feferi to take the throne and change all this. But, until then, this is the best we can do.”
“You deserve better,” Gamzee said. He settled back down with his head resting on Tavros’s shoulder. “Deserve so much muzzerfuckin’ better than this.”
“You deserve better than this, too.”
Gamzee laughed and planted a kiss on Tavros’s collarbone. “Have you, babe. S’already more than I fuckin’ deserve.”
Tavros went pleasantly warm from head to toe. “N-no, I’m the lucky one.”
“One a these days I’m gonna get you believin’ the muzzerfuckin’ truth.” Gamzee squeezed Tavros tight. “You make me better. You’re the best thing has ever happened to me. And... and those fuckin’ bastards treated you like... like...”
Tavros could feel the hot tears on his chest. “It’s okay. I love you and I’m right here.”
“... Tav... oh, Tav...”
Gamzee didn’t say much after that, and what he did say was too muffled and broken to make out. He sobbed into Tavros’s chest while his matesprit held him close and whispered soothing nothings. It didn’t last for long; from how quickly Gamzee dropped off Tavros doubted he slept much, if any, the day before.
Once he was sure that Gamzee was asleep, Tavros sent another series of requests to the one remaining leafrodent. First he asked it to bring over the portable medical scanner that Gamzee received from a business partner; she owned the factory that made the scanners and Gamzee owned the factory that produced the refraction crystals used in the devices. Up until then the scanner had merely sat on display—that is, buried under a pile of socks—but if there was ever a time to use it this was it.
Tavros pressed the device to Gamzee’s neck and tried to remember the sequence of buttons he needed. Gamzee only showed him how to use it once, and even then not very well. After some trial and error Tavros came up with the relevant numbers. Of course, he still didn’t know what the numbers meant.
Another short psychic request later and Gamzee’s husktop was on the blanket beside them. Using it was pretty much impossible in their current position since Tavros couldn’t turn his head far enough to see the screen. He warred with himself for a minute before slowly and carefully shifting Gamzee onto his back. Gamzee twitched and groaned but he didn’t wake up. Tavros rolled onto his stomach and draped an arm across Gamzee’s chest while he used his free hand to drag the husktop around.
“How do you type one-handed all the time?” Tavros asked as he awkwardly entered keywords into a search engine. Gamzee mumbled something that might have been an answer and then reached up to hug Tavros’s arm.
While it was a clumsy position Tavros found a way to make it work, and before long he found a page that helped him decode the scanner’s readings. After a few misses he found a government sponsored and therefore reliable site that listed the symptoms and treatments for a few thousand maladies and conditions, from wakening psychic abilities to sopor overdose. Tavros nearly face planted into the keyboard with relief when he finished reading the list of symptoms; Gamzee wasn’t showing the signs of a deadly overdose. Tavros was also relieved to see that ‘culling’ wasn’t listed as a treatment; the cures were listed were likely to actually do some good.
According to the information on the site Gamzee was in the moderate but not particularly dangerous bracket, the one with a racing heart and clammy skin. Tavros and Gamzee’s combined instincts were right on how to deal with it too; the site said that the first step for treating that level of overdose was to induce vomiting and the second was keeping the patient warm. It also said that he needed to make sure Gamzee stayed hydrated and Tavros had a moment of blind panic as he wondered if the bread did more harm than good. With difficulty he managed to calm himself down and he decided that the best thing to do would be to make sure Gamzee drank a glass of water as soon as he was conscious enough to do so. If Gamzee could make it back to the hive then they’d do that, if not then Tavros would have the leafrodents bring some water back to the beach. The only other thing he could do is wait for it to clear Gamzee’s system.
When the knot of tension in Tavros’s chest finally unraveled the exhaustion hit him like an avalanche. He pushed the husktop away and buried his face in the crook of his arm as he wondered how he was able to ignore how much his neck hurt. He felt the bandage and immediately regretted it; the mark burned. The burst of pain was making his pulse race and that made the self-inflicted bites on his lip and tongue throb. Tavros was feeling terrible in general, and then looking at the husktop he remembered that it was going to get a lot worse...
Tavros typed a new address into the browser. It was a site he’d spent a lot of time on the past season, ever since Aradia unintentionally gave him the idea to become a willing slave. It was the government site dedicated to videos of all public legal affairs, from trials and hangings to major business contracts to slave ceremonies. He skimmed the list of names on recent updated and sure enough Gamzee Makara takes willing slave Tavros Nitram went up on the site less than an hour before.
Soon Sollux would be hearing a ding from his watchgrub program, if he hadn’t already. He wrote the program to notify him if any of their names came up on search warrants or culling notices... once Sollux realized that their names were in the slave registry it wouldn’t take him a second to find the page Tavros was staring at.
It was such a delicate situation. Tavros’s enslavement had to be handled the right way or else it would all be for nothing. It wouldn’t save him, it wouldn’t change Gamzee’s reputation, and it wouldn’t keep the others safe. Of course, an indigoblood making a break with the gutterbloods he once associated with wouldn’t talk to them about his ‘acquisition’. If Tavros was being forced to give up his sign then he wouldn’t want his friends to know his shame. If they didn’t love each other then neither one would want to tell the others.
So they didn’t.
Gamzee had set Trollian to run invisibly, so even though Tavros was staring at the contact list he shared with his matesprit no messages were popping up. The icon for twinArmageddons was still ghosted out and there was no telling when Sollux would be back at his husktop. No telling how long it would be until he told the others what had happened.
Tavros put it out of his mind. It wasn’t as though they could go back and undo this. The video was in the public archive and it was going to stay there where anyone could see it. They would all be able to watch him crawl naked across the floor while the audience all laughed and jeered.
He blinked back tears. Tavros reminded himself that it was his turn to be strong for his matesprit. He looked over at Gamzee, who was still hugging his arm, and in spite of everything he couldn’t help but laugh softly. Even with the big dark circles of the eye makeup and the tearstained cheeks, Gamzee was still beautiful. Tavros propped his head on his hand and watched his matesprit sleep, secure in the knowledge that whatever life threw at them, they would be together.
Tavros stayed like that for a while, just watching the gentle rise and fall of Gamzee’s chest and occasionally checking his vitals. He lost track of time and for a while it was almost pleasant. Then the husktop chimed, indicating Trollian was receiving a new message. While Tavros lay there trying very hard not to look at the screen, three more chimes followed the first in rapid succession. Tavros imagined that the familiar tones sounded angry.
With a heavy sigh he looked at the screen.
The first message was from Karkat. Even though the alert sounded less than a minute ago there was already a wall of maroon text filling the window.
Tavros rubbed his cheek and looked back over at Gamzee. He didn’t know how his matesprit would handle this. Not the swearing and insults—that was completely normal—but the fact that Karkat was scared of him.
With rising dread Tavros clicked to the next tab.
Tavros quickly moved to the next tab and rubbed his eyes. He wanted so much to tell Nepeta it was okay but he just couldn’t. It wouldn’t look right. In theory he was being broken and trained and only after that would be allowed to use Trollian again. So no matter how much he wanted to comfort Nepeta he couldn’t.
He wondered if he should talk to her even after he ‘earned’ his Trollian privileges. Nepeta’s relationship with Equius elevated her status and that allowed her to get a job she loved working on a plantation not far from her old mountain hive. Her bosses might frown upon her talking to a brownblooded slave.
Tavros hated the thought that he could hurt his friends just by being their friends.
He pressed his face into the blanket and tried to shut it all out. The only reason they hated Gamzee is because he was trying to save his matesprit. Tavros tried to tell himself that once they could get the word to their friends personally then they would understand and that it would all be okay. The sentiment rang hollow even inside his own head.
Tavros looked at his matesprit and warred with himself before finally deciding that Gamzee did not need to see this. He changed the settings so that Trollian wouldn’t accept offline messages and deleted all the chat logs for that night. Then Tavros snapped the husktop shut and pushed it away. He didn’t want to deal with the world. He just wanted it all to go away.
Gamzee came around for a few minutes, not really awake but he was aware enough to want to be closer to Tavros. They moved back into their previous position and soon enough Gamzee was once again asleep on Tavros’s chest.
Chapter 8: Hope's Arrival
Tavros was absently staring at the twin moons when his perimeter alerted him to something approaching. All previous disturbances were just wildlife, but this time Tavros was getting the strong psychic image of gray and white; a troll and their lusus. He carefully detangled himself from Gamzee, who vaguely reached for the lost warmth but did not otherwise stir. Tavros sat on the edge of the blanket, putting himself between his matesprit and the intruder’s likely path, and then pulled his twin pistols from the holster the leafrodents had retrieved from his four wheel device. According to the beasts in his psychic net the intruder was coming from the water and heading directly for Gamzee’s hive, which meant their current path would take them over a sand dune not far from where Tavros and Gamzee were laid out.
Tavros was in no mood to deal with a trespasser. He pulled a few birds and winged lizards into a tighter formation to give him more detailed information on the path the intruder was taking; when they came over the top of that dune Tavros would already have the kill shot. As the beasts filled in more and more details and a comprehensive, familiar picture was coming together, Tavros sighed in irritation. He was hoping that they could put off this conversation for at least a couple days, but then again it made sense that Eridan would come in person.
When he came over the dune with his seasteed lusus at his heel the two silver barrels were still pointed straight at his chest; Tavros wasn’t going to take any chances. If Eridan had been a stranger then he would have been dead long before he spun around and cocked his rifle. When the royal saw who was pointing a gun at him he huffed and pointed the crosshairs towards the sky; Tavros followed suit with his pistols.
Eridan had changed considerably in the past couple sweeps. He was a bit of a late bloomer when it came to growth spurts but when they finally hit he shot up like a weed. While he never grew into the broad shoulders he claimed his ancestor had, his tall frame was anything but lanky. Eridan was already well proportioned, but in the past sweep he had thrown himself into training for hand to hand combat so that he could better protect Feferi and the muscle looked good on him. His new wardrobe—shirts that were skintight and sleeveless, no cape, and gold colored bracers—reflected the increased time he spent in the water and also netted him admiring gazes wherever he went.
More drastic, however, was the change in demeanor. Tavros never realized how much of Eridan’s attitude was posturing until the royal found himself some real confidence. Confidence which was now apparent in every movement which dripped with suppressed fury.
After safely stowing his rifle in his lusus’s saddle holster Eridan stormed down the dune. He was within several paces when Gamzee groaned and shifted in his sleep. Eridan froze; it was clear he hadn’t noticed Gamzee was there until that moment. The anger that had been simmering just below the surface exploded into inarticulate rage.
“What—you—why did—I don’t even—he—what!?”
“Eridan...” Tavros started to explain, but the royal wasn’t listening. Eridan was so furious that a purple flush tinged the skin under his eyes. He stayed where he was and attacked with sheer volume.
“What is fuckin’ wrong with you?” he shouted. “I’m seriously tryin’ to think of a single bloody reason why you’d become a willin’ slave, I am really tryin’ here, and I can’t think of a single fuckin’ thing. I thought he was your matesprit!”
“I, uh,” Tavros squeaked. Even though Eridan had come a long way since he was six Tavros still found himself intimidated by the once genocidal royal. “I didn’t—“
Eridan suddenly rubbed his temples and took a long, deliberate breath. “No, wait, I shouldn’t be yellin’ at you.”
“R-right, just, uh, let me—“
Eridan stormed a few paces to the side so that Tavros wasn’t between him and Gamzee anymore.
“I should be yellin’ at this stupid fuck.” Eridan pointed a finger and kept on shouting, “Stop ignorin’ me you finless fuckin’ asshole. It’s bloody obvious from that recordin’ that I’ve been neglectin’ my moirail duties—”
“Uh, I c-can ex—“
“—the aforementioned duty bein’ to kick your reprehensible ass!” Eridan continued, still oblivious to the fact that Gamzee was passed out. “Fef is sobbin’ over this, Makara, or at least she was when she stopped respondin’ to my messages.”
Tavros winced at the slightest waver in Eridan’s voice when he mentioned Feferi. Her hive had effectively become her prison, and she hadn’t ventured farther than her lusus’s resting place ever since the first assassins crossed into her waters. Eridan had publicly denounced Feferi when the Empress discovered the heir apparent’s plans for the throne, but he was still being closely watched. While he was able to pass off his attempts at protecting Feferi as measures to safeguard his own territory, visiting her hive was completely out of the question. Tavros could sympathize with being unable to comfort one’s matesprit, and he decided to let Eridan get that frustration out by yelling. Gamzee couldn’t hear it anyway, and once the initial burst of rage was spent Eridan would notice that on his own. Then Tavros could explain.
“So, Makara, you’ve decided to betray Fef. I should kill you now before you have a chance to—”
The fear that gripped Tavros showed plainly on his face and Eridan looked back to him.
“No no no, don’t worry, Tav! I know your life is tied to his now,” the royal misinterpreted. “If he starts behavin’ in a way that indicates he’s goin’ to turn us all in, then I’ll fuckin’ kill him. You can hide out at my hive until we can work out somethin’ long term.”
Tavros’s eyes were wide.
Eridan turned to Gamzee once again. “I should have known you were turnin’ against her. Against us, all a us. Fuck, I should have seen this comin’ the second I walked in on you splatterin’ the walls. Not that the killin’ squad didn’t have it comin’, but the fact that you were talkin’ about givin’ them a right and proper highblood if they wanted one... are you even capable of lovin’ Tav anymore?”
Tavros thought about the messages Karkat, Nepeta, and Terezi left. He thought about the ones he deleted without reading. He thought about how fast they sent them.
“I suppose the question I should really be askin’ is if you were ever capable in the first place. I am seriously doubtin’ it! Was the whole matespritship a sham? Were you just seducin’ him so you could get out of payin’ for his life? Why the fuck would you do this?”
“He did it because he loves me,” Tavros growled.
Eridan rubbed his forehead and sighed in exasperation. “Tav, look, I know acceptin’ this might be hard but look at what he did to you.”
The only reason the royal wasn’t lying on the sand with a broken nose is the fact that Tavros was physically incapable of getting up and punching him.
“He did it because he loves me,” Tavros repeated, his voice like sharp gravel starting to shift into a landslide. “He did it to save me from being culled.”
“Sol was already workin’ on getting your name hacked off the fuckin’ list! Is that how he talked you into this?”
Anger won out over intimidation. “This was my idea,” Tavros yelled. It was less the volume and more the edge to his voice that stopped Eridan from arguing. The royal’s jaw clicked shut and it was his turn to stare wide eyed as Tavros continued at a shout, “This was my idea and it’s killing him. And none of you even care! He’s been your friend for sweeps and none of you trust him. One look at that video and you’re all ready to throw him off a cliff even though he’s the most caring, loving, wonderful troll who ever lived and if any of you were paying attention you’d know that!”
Eridan opened and closed his mouth wordlessly. Tavros thought he looked like a fish and the thought almost made him laugh. He clamped down on the thought, on the anger he still wasn’t used to feeling, and tried to fight back the rising hysterics.
The awkward silence gave Eridan a chance to really look at Gamzee, who hadn’t so much as twitched despite all the shouting. The righteous fury bled out of the royal’s expression and left something worn and tired in its place.
“I... is somethin’ wrong with him?” Eridan asked, staring at Gamzee’s prone form.
Tavros didn’t think he could open his mouth without the panicked giggles taking over, so he simply nodded. Eridan looked up at the heavens and sighed. After a few moments he looked back down at Tavros.
“What do you need me to do?”
When the royal didn’t press for the reasons why Tavros sagged in relief; he didn’t know if he could explain right that moment without suffering another breakdown. Concentrating on getting Gamzee better would help distract him from how everyone turned on his beloved matesprit.
“I could, uh, use some help getting him back to the hive.”
Eridan nodded and walked over to the blanket. He kneeled by Gamzee and rolled the sleeping troll onto his back; his brow furrowed to a frown when he saw the remaining makeup and tearstained cheeks.
There wasn’t much Tavros could do to help get Gamzee across the beach, so he left Eridan to the task and started making his way to the other side of the rock slab where his four wheel device still rested.
He’d barely made it off the blanket when Eridan suddenly barked, “Fuckin’ stop that!”
Tavros looked back over his shoulder and asked, “What’s wrong?”
Eridan almost looked physically ill. “What the fuck are you doin’?”
“Oh, uh, my four wheel device, well it’s, uh,” he gestured to the slab, “it’s on the other side.”
The royal rubbed his temple again. “Right, sure,” he muttered before standing. “Tav, stay there and I’ll go get it.”
“You don’t, uh, have to. I can—“
“You fuckin’ stay right there and I’ll go get the fuckin’ thing,” Eridan said authoritatively. Tavros didn’t argue; it wouldn’t have done much good anyway since Eridan was already leaping on top of the slab and locating the device. It wasn’t until the royal was halfway back that Tavros connected the nauseated look with his slave ceremony. He started wondering exactly how bad the video made things look if Eridan was having that extreme of a reaction to him crawling a short distance.
The royal parked the device next to the blanket and then turned back to the task of getting Gamzee up the slope. While Eridan wasn’t weak by any means his was the lean, toned build of a swimmer with primarily ranged weaponry. Gamzee was exclusively a melee fighter and, while he wasn’t as muscular as his matesprit, he was still a solid weight which Eridan was having difficulty hauling up.
Tavros got an idea. “Eridan?”
The royal lay Gamzee back down, frowning when the only response to being manhandled was a faint murmur and a twitch. “Yeah?”
“You can, uh, use my four wheel device. To get Gamzee back to the hive, I mean.”
Eridan looked at the device and then at the unconscious troll and decided it was a good idea. “I’ll take him up there and then bring your wheelchair back to you.”
Tavros held the device still while Eridan loaded Gamzee into it and then the two were off across the low dunes. Tavros was left to wait and stare at the ocean. Idleness wasn’t the best thing for him at that moment; as long as he was actively watching and worrying about Gamzee he could ignore the dark thoughts swirling around in his head, but now that he had a short break it was all coming to the surface.
He was broken out of his contemplation by a soft squeak followed by a gentle prod to his shoulder. Eridan’s lusus was leaning down and nudging at Tavros with his snout. At that proximity the psychic could clearly sense the seasteed’s feelings. Primarily there was worry over his charge’s chaotic emotional state with an undercurrent of steely anger pointed at whatever was responsible for Eridan’s distress. Running alongside that was his confusion over what the source of the trouble could be—being enraged at society was too complex a concept for a lusus to grasp—and a certain wariness just in case the seasteed was needed in battle. Washing over all of that was a desire to put Eridan’s mind at ease, which is why the lusus stayed on the beach to protect and comfort the sad troll his charge was so worried about.
Tavros smiled and pet the seasteed’s long snout. The lusus emitted a series of pleased squeaks and leaned into the attention. Tavros marveled at how much had changed in just a couple sweeps; not all that long ago on that very beach, at the get together that brought him face to face with Gamzee for the first time, Tavros had drawn the attention of the seasteed. He was late getting there, not yet familiar with the more stable paths across the beach, and the lusus had drifted over to get a look at the odd creature stuck in the sand. Once Tavros had broken free he had smiled up at the seasteed, always more comfortable with animals than his fellow trolls, and he reached up to stroke the lusus’s snout.
He’d barely touched the thin bony plates comprising the seasteed’s skin when Eridan had stormed up, absolutely furious that a land dwelling dirtblood would dare lay a hand on his guardian. He had just started to threaten Tavros in a low, terrifying whisper when Sollux arrived in a red-blue flash. Even though Eridan was thoroughly distracted by his loathing for the psionic Tavros was still just shy of hyperventilating when he wheeled himself to the gathering, right up until he saw Gamzee for the first time and everything changed forever.
Eridan had gone on his own path of discovery since he and Tavros first met in person; when he came back with the four wheel device he didn’t so much as twitch at the sight of Tavros stroking his lusus’s head. He might have even smiled the slightest bit.
“There’s a carpenter drone keepin’ an eye on Gamzee,” Eridan said as he gathered up the husktop and medical scanner.
Tavros didn’t answer since he was climbing into his four wheel device, but the assurance relieved some of the tension that gripped him as soon as Gamzee was out of sight. While carpenter drones weren’t that smart outside of their specialty they could be trusted to watch an injured troll for a short period of time.
Once he was settled Tavros surveyed the landscape in hopes of finding a decent four wheel device friendly trail. But of course there was a reason why he came down on the other side. There were long stretches of sand without any grass or gravel and that was not going to be fun to get through on the slopes.
Eridan looked back and forth between the sand and the four wheel device before asking, “Do you need some help?”
Tavros nodded. He held onto the husktop and scanner while Eridan pushed him up to the hive, the seasteed trailing behind them. Gamzee was leaned against the outside wall with a drone hovering over him; once they got close Eridan waved it off and it returned to work. After a short discussion on the strategy of moving the unconscious troll they decided on setting him in Tavros’s lap while Eridan pushed them both inside.
Chapter 9: Reformed Royalty
They were barely inside the door when Eridan had to run back outside to break up a squeak-and-trilling match between his lusus and the carpenter drones; the seasteed tried to follow the trolls through a gaping hole in the outside wall and the drones weren’t too happy about it. Tavros was left to juggle the medical scanner tucked under his arm, the husktop wedged in next to his leg, and the unconscious troll in his lap. Gamzee was sideways in the device with his legs hanging off the side and his head resting against Tavros’s shoulder. He was finally showing signs of coming around; unfortunately this meant he was squirming enough that he was in danger of falling onto the floor. The racket the lusus, drones, and Eridan were making wasn’t helping. Gamzee brow was creasing in time with the rise and fall of the argument’s volume.
Eridan returned just as the husktop went clattering to the floor. If Tavros was any less strong then Gamzee would have joined it.
“Could you please, uh, hurry?”
“Fuck, sorry, right,” Eridan said as he grabbed the handlebars once more. “Wait, where are we goin’?”
“...Oh. His block is up the, uh, stairs and the ramps are gone. So I guess, uh, my block?” Tavros made a vague gesture in the appropriate direction. “Well the, uh, guestblock.”
They navigated the disaster zone of a hive under heavy remodel as quickly as possible. The noise of the drones banging away at what was left of the walls had Gamzee thrashing against Tavros’s hold by the time they made it to the guestblock. Once the door closed and shut out some of the noise Gamzee settled down a bit, though he was still squirming in his sleep.
Eridan walked around in front of the four wheel device and crossed his arms over his chest. Tavros looked up at the royal meekly.
“Okay, seriously, are you goin’ to tell me why he’s still asleep?”
Tavros hugged Gamzee against his chest and replied, “He had too much slime. A moderate overdose according to the, uh, medical site I found.”
Eridan frowned. “Huh. I thought he stopped eatin’ sopor pies.”
“He did,” and Tavros thought for me, all of this pain for me. “He had to drink some yesterday just to get through the, uh, ceremony. And today I guess, uh, that he was still hurting.”
Tavros sighed and kissed Gamzee’s temple. The skin was salty both from the cold sweat and the seawater he used to scrub off the seawater.
“I think it would be best if we got him into the, uh, ablution trap. Maybe it will help him feel better.”
Eridan nodded. “That sounds like a good idea.”
“Okay, could you—“
“It can wait.”
“But, uh, this probably isn’t very comfortable. Laying across my lap like this, I mean.”
Eridan huffed in annoyance and glared, though there wasn’t any real edge to it. Mostly he just looked tired. “Fuckin’ fine. I’ll assist in getting your stoner matesprit into the fuckin’ bathtub even though you won’t tell me what the fuck is goin’ on.”
“Obviously that’s a conversation we can postpone indefinitely. The curiosity certainly isn’t killin’ me or anythin’, so you don’t have to explain what the fuck you were thinkin’ when you decided to become a fuckin’ slave.”
“... I don’t?”
Eridan looked confused for a moment before burying his face in his hands and groaning, “Uhg. I’ve been talkin’ to that psycho too much. Her stupid alien sarcasm is rubbin’ off on me.”
Tavros blinked up at him in bewilderment.
“Fine,” Eridan finally said as he walked around and took hold of the four wheel device again. “I’m helpin’ you get him into the tub and then you’re tellin’ me why this stupid fuck took you as a slave when Sol was preparin’ to hack you off the cullin’ list.”
It was a valid question but Tavros could only focus on the insult. He was still less than pleased with how their friends were assuming the worst.
“Maybe I don’t need your help,” Tavros said tersely. “Maybe Gamzee doesn’t need to be around someone who doesn’t trust him.”
“What the fuck are you talkin’ about?”
Tavros glared over his shoulder and Eridan circled back around the device so they could glower properly. “You came here just to yell at him! And the messages the others sent make it clear they don’t trust him either. I knew you’d be surprised but I never guessed you’d turn on him like this!”
Gamzee groaned and buried his face in the crook of his matesprit’s neck. Tavros felt some of the anger bleed out of him. He hugged Gamzee close and sighed into the matted, sweat-damp hair.
“Tav...” Eridan’s voice was gentler, almost cautious. “He stopped trollin’ us, he ignored Terezi completely when he ran into her a few days ago, and then he just sat there and let that that—“ he shook his head in disgust, “—that atrocity happen.”
“I already told you he had to drink a bottle of slime just to survive the ceremony! He couldn’t say anything when they turned it into, uh, what they turned it into. If he did they might have culled me.”
“Are you even listenin’ to yourself? I don’t know everythin’ about slave laws but I know that they can’t cull someone durin’ the ceremony.”
“That didn’t stop them from propping a culling fork against the wall where I could see it,” Tavros mumbled into his matesprit’s hair. The anger was seeping back in. “They were testing him, Eridan. They were making sure he was a proper highblood. You of all people should underst—”
“What’s that supposed to—”
“How much did it hurt when you had to say all those horrible things about Feferi?”
The set of Eridan’s jaw was grim. “That was different. If I didn’t say... if I didn’t call her a...” he bowed his head with shame. “I wouldn’t be able to protect her.”
“Right. Yes. And even though you had to you still feel bad about it. Gamzee...” Tavros sadly stroked his matesprit’s cheek. “This hurt him so much more than it hurt me. But he did it to protect me and to protect the others.”
“God fuckin’ damn it, Tav!” Eridan threw his hands up in exasperation. “Why are you still actin’ like you were on the cullin’ list? You obviously missed this the first dozen times so pay attention: Sol. Was. Goin’. To. Hack. It.”
Tavros shook his head. “Sollux was worried. He tried to hide it but he was worried about trying this.”
Eridan openly scoffed at that. “He’s one a the best hackers trollkind has ever—“
“That’s not the problem! You don’t understand.” Tavros suddenly realized why Karkat spent most of his time yelling at anything that moved. He laughed humorlessly and spat out, “That’s not it, is it? You can’t understand.”
“I can’t understand because you’re not makin’ sense,” Eridan said. Genuine anger was overtaking the irritation in his voice.
“You can’t understand because you have purple blood.”
Eridan actually took a step back at the dead, flat tone Tavros used. “Wha... what is that supposed to mean?”
“You can’t understand because you’re a h-highblood!” Tavros exclaimed, surprised at his own venom. “Y-you don’t know what it’s like to live off whatever scraps the upper classes l-leave you.”
Eridan’s eyes were as wide as they could be. “I, Tav, what—“
“Do you know why I have th-this?” Tavros asked as he grabbed one of his device’s wheels and shook it. “Do you really think I bought this m-myself? Terezi felt s-sorry for m-me.” Tavros stared at the cracked armrest covered in heavy duty adhesive strips, one of many repairs he had made to his device over the sweeps. He could have bought a new one in the more recent seasons, but anytime he looked at the options he would wonder if he’d still have enough money if something happened. The culling ministry might overlook a cripple being hacked off the list but a cripple with no money? Impossible.
The carpenter drones did something particularly loud and Tavros glared at the walls which were barely muffling the sounds of construction.
“You don’t know w-what it’s l-like. I didn’t even have enough credits to b-build all the ramps I n-needed—my hive only h-has three blocks!”
Tavros was so angry he was shaking. The tremors were strong enough that Gamzee took notice and started muttering slurred soothing words—he had seen his matesprit like this before so even though he wasn’t fully conscious he instinctively knew what Tavros needed. Eridan, on the other hand, had never seen the quiet and gentle troll trembling with rage and he could do little more than stare in shock.
“And th-then I worked so h-hard and—“ Tavros realized he wasn’t yelling at Eridan. He was yelling at the highbloods from his ceremony. He took a deep breath and forced himself back to what was relevant. “Sollux is a s-step above me s-so he’s not as bad off, b-but he still c-can’t afford a lot of th-things,” he continued, the hurt fueled anger less personal but still very present. “H-he’s raised his w-worker bees really w-well but there’s only s-so much he can do w-with cheap s-stock.”
Suddenly Tavros felt empty, as if the fury was so much water gushing from a ruptured tank and there was nothing left but a broken shell.
“It’s n-n-not—“ he took a deep breath and tried to steady his voice. “It would still be h-hard for him to, uh, hack the database. He’s good but so are the trolls who built it. But with his cheaper mainframes...”
Sollux was going to try anyway and it could have gotten him killed. Tavros didn’t want his friends to get hurt trying to protect him, that’s why he had decided to become a slave to protect them. He had thought that he could take most of the burden and that it would all be okay. Instead everything had fallen apart and all his friends were hurting, his beloved matesprit most of all.
Tavros felt so small and weak and useless. He desperately wanted Tinkerbull to be there comforting him. Slaves could keep their lusus if their master was willing, but the creature had to be presented at the beginning of the slave ceremony and Tavros hadn’t wanted to take the risk. The odds of the spiteful highbloods doing something terrible to Tinkerbull were too high.
Eridan was still standing there, not saying a word, looking as lost as Tavros felt. The shock faded into guilt and Tavros felt even worse. The two stared at each other as the uncomfortable silence stretched between them. Finally they were startled out of it by Gamzee shifting and groaning.
Eridan awkwardly rubbed the back of his head. “So, yeah, we should probably be gettin’ him cleaned up. Right?” He shook his head and purposefully grabbed the handles of the device. “Hey, maybe when he’s still out we can attack him with some combs and get his hair marginally presentable.”
Tavros smiled, grateful to Eridan for trying to lighten the mood even if it was forced. “But I, uh, like his hair.”
“That’s probably because you commune with animals and that mess almost certainly has things livin’ in it.”
Tavros laughed and for a second he was able to pretend that nothing was wrong.
Eridan pushed the four wheel device into the hygieneblock. After a short discussion about logistics Eridan got Gamzee stripped down while Tavros wriggled out of his own sandy pants. Embarrassed by Eridan’s presence—the royal insisted on staying just in case the darker parts of Gamzee’s personality surfaced—Tavros left his boxer briefs on and drug himself over to the tiled enclosure. He shoved the chair out of the way and propped himself up underneath the fixtures so that he could easily knock the hose down where he could reach it and turn the knobs. By the time the water had reached a pleasant heat Eridan was pulling Gamzee into the trap and propping him up against the other man’s chest.
Tavros carefully shifted them around until Gamzee’s head was leaning back against his shoulder. It was awkward but he could soak the mess in his matesprit’s hair without any green globs running into Gamzee’s eyes. Once most of the sopor was gone Tavros looked up at the shelf that held his ablution removing gels and bars.
Eridan, who was standing in the entryway, followed Tavros’s gaze. “Do you need that now?”
“Yes. Well, uh, no.” Tavros bit his lip. “Gamzee has a different ablution gel to, uh, keep his hair from getting out of control. It might be better at getting all this gunk out than mine.”
“Seriously? He’s controllin’ it and it still looks like that?” Eridan asked incredulously. He shook his head and waved away Tavros’s attempt at an answer. “Never mind. Can’t you manipulate one of the drones into gettin’ it?”
Tavros shook his head. “They’re grown so that they can’t be, uh, controlled like that.”
Eridan sighed and then studied his unconscious moirail before saying, “Okay, where is it?”
“Up in his, uh, hygieneblock.”
The royal took off at a run; Tavros knew that Eridan was still worried about ‘the highblood’ making an encore. After it happened Gamzee didn’t want his matesprit around at all for fear of the same thing, but Tavros wouldn’t hear of it. He packed up a bag, hivehopped through his business contacts, and got there within a couple days. Gamzee and Eridan both called him crazy but Tavros never wavered in his belief that Gamzee would never hurt him, even in some strange sopor deprived rage. It was Tavros’s conviction that grounded Gamzee and calmed him down enough to work through the stress and fear.
Eridan wasn’t so sure, though, so he broke records getting back from the second floor with an armful of bottles. Tavros found the right one and rubbed the sweet smelling concoction into his matesprit’s hair. Eridan kept making comments about how it smelled like a demon’s fruit salad. Tavros was grateful for the remarks; it gave him something to focus on. Between the running commentary and the careful attention he was giving his matesprit Tavros didn’t have enough of his think pan left to dwell on other things.
Gamzee provided an excellent distraction when Tavros started working the sudsy gel into his hair. Up until then Gamzee’s squirms and mutterings had been vaguely distressed, but as Tavros massaged his scalp the frown creasing his brow faded and pleased hums escaped his lips. Tavros took note of how much his matesprit seemed to like having his hair washed and smiled softly as he thought of what fun that could lead to once everything was settled...
Gamzee was of the same mind as his lover. Tavros suddenly found the body in his arms twisting and a pair of lips fastening on his neck. Gamzee’s teeth and tongue slid over a spot that made his breath hitch and between the surprise and the pleasant suction it took Tavros several seconds realize that his matesprit was only semi-conscious.
“O-okay,” Tavros said as he tried to nudge Gamzee away from his neck. “Gamzee, come on, I need to get your hair clean.”
“I’s needin’ t’make you moan m’name,” Gamzee breathed. While the words were muffled by sleep and Tavros’s skin it was still clear enough that Eridan could understand it. The royal had been stepping forward in concern but when he heard that he leapt back and blushed dark purple.
Tavros shoved at his matesprit a little harder as his embarrassment colored his face and chest a rich brown. “S-stop that!” he hissed.
Gamzee was undeterred. He managed to evade the desperate attempts at grabbing his wrist and ran his hand down Tavros’s side. When he reached the soaked underwear he grinned sloppily and slid his fingers under the fabric.
“Why’s y’still in them? Less be gettin’em off so’s we can—“
Eridan did an accurate impression of his squeaking lusus and then he was slamming the hygieneblock door.
Gamzee frowned, looking in the general direction of the loud bang, and asked, “Whazzat?”
“That was Eridan, uh, leaving,” Tavros answered as he very carefully removed his matesprit’s hand from his underwear.
“Whaz m’sea sponge muzzerfucker doin’ here?” Gamzee shook himself and his next words were less slurred. “What’s goin’ on, Tav?”
“I’s all havin’ a really bad fuckin’ dream,” Gamzee said almost to himself. He gently caressed Tavros’s cheek and worriedly looked into his eyes. “I... you are... okay, right?”
Tavros knew that they needed to talk about what happened but he just couldn’t bring himself to tell his matesprit it wasn’t a dream, not when Gamzee was still half asleep.
“You... you were sick,” Tavros temporized. “Eridan was helping me out, uh, since you were passed out. But you’re getting better and it’s all going to be okay.”
Gamzee worried at his lower lip. “It was... it was a really bad dream.”
Tavros pulled him into a tight hug. “Don’t worry about it right now, okay? We’ll talk about it when you’re better.”
It was clear that Gamzee’s subconscious wasn’t letting him forget that something was very wrong, but he didn’t press the issue further. After some prodding Tavros got his matesprit back in his lap—he didn’t want Gamzee to see the bandage on his neck—and finished scrubbing him clean.
Eridan cautiously opened the door during the final rinse. He and Tavros did their best not to look at each other as they got the once again unconscious Gamzee dried off and dressed.
“I, uh, s-sorry,” Tavros managed at a mumble once they had Gamzee situated on a pile of cushions they had gathered on the guestblock floor.
“It’s nothin’,” Eridan said with a shrug, though the lingering blush said otherwise. Tavros felt doubly guilty; not only was Eridan barred from even touching Feferi, helping with Gamzee was keeping him from comforting her electronically.
“You can, uh, go back now so you can talk to, uh, I mean—“ Tavros started, but he was interrupted by a raised hand.
“Before I can even consider talkin’ to her I have to know what I’m goin’ to say to her. So... what’s goin’ on? From the beginnin’, just... why did you guys do this?”
Tavros took a deep breath and tried to explain.
Chapter 10: Placing Blame
Eridan leaned back and rubbed his temple while looking both grim and resigned; once he calmed down and listened to the reasons he understood why Tavros became a slave and why Gamzee didn’t object during the ceremony. By the end of it Tavros was crossing back into aggravation over their friends’ apparent lack of faith in Gamzee’s character. After arguing about that for a while Eridan hesitantly reached for the husktop. He pulled up the video file, looking queasy as he did, and hit play. Tavros watched his humiliation with numb detachment. As bad as it seemed when he was living it the ordeal looked so much worse plastered across the screen for posterity. Tavros still felt resentful but after seeing what his friend’s saw it was hard to get properly mad at them.
Eridan snapped the lid shut just as the highblood voices were rising and pulled Tavros into a hug that redefined awkward.
“Those fuckin’ bastards can all do an acrobatic maneuver out of an airlock,” the royal said in a pained, harsh whisper. “Absolutely nothin’ they’re sayin’ is true.”
Tavros was frozen in shock. “E... Eridan...” he managed with considerable effort.
“I’m sorry things are how they are. I’m sorry I was ever one of those—“
“You were never like them!” Tavros replied emphatically. He hugged back, which did nothing to help how uncomfortable it was but he felt it had to be done. “Even when you were, kind of, uh, mean? You weren’t like them.”
“Tav, I...” Eridan gave him one last squeeze before breaking the embrace. They both breathed a sigh of relief at the lack of awkward contact and then they both winced at the thought of the other taking offense.
“You should probably, uh, you know,” Tavros said at last.
Eridan was nervously checking that his bracers were still latched tight and he was devoting such attention to the task that he jumped when Tavros spoke.
“I, yeah, okay,” he mumbled as he stood. “Do you need me to get you anythin’ else before I go?”
Tavros looked around at the assembled husktop, medical scanner, and a few glasses of water within easy reach. “Uh, no, I think that’s everything.”
Eridan started to leave but then turned back and narrowed his eyes. “Tav, have you eaten anything today?”
“I, uh, I guess not?”
Eridan rolled his eyes and left the guestblock. Tavros hadn’t realized how hungry he was until he looked and the clock and saw it was already time for dinner. He wished he had eaten some of the bread he was feeding Gamzee earlier. He expected Eridan to return quickly started to get worried after fifteen minutes passed with no sign of the royal or food. Tavros was just about to climb back into his four wheel device and go looking for him when Eridan returned with a semi-spherical cooking implement full of something that smelled delicious. He set the implement down on a towel and grabbed the spoon and bowl he had tucked under his arm.
“The one thing I had right during my phase about the land dwellers is that none of you know what good cookin’ is,” Eridan said with grandeur as he filled the bowl with what looked like some sliced vegetables and a lot of cooked sea creatures, all covered in a yellow-orange sauce. “I tried to educate Gamzee about superior cuisine but he’s still under the mistaken impression that bleatbeast steaks are the best fuckin’ think ever. Maybe I’ll have better luck with you.”
Tavros accepted the bowl. He didn’t know if it was just because he was hungry but whatever Eridan was handing him made his mouth water. He tried to identify exactly what was in the mix but all he could come up with was that the meat didn’t look like anything that lived on the land. Then he realized that Eridan was lingering by the door waiting for his reaction. Tavros felt a little nervous about what Eridan would think if he didn’t like it, even though he knew that the royal was probably mostly kidding, and he hesitantly took a bite.
The sauce hit his tongue first and it was sweet and tangy and like nothing he’d ever had before. Tavros mused that he’d never come across it since it didn’t seem like it would really go with the meat from any land animal. He chewed slowly so he could examine the strange texture and lighter taste of the cooked sea creatures, as well as the familiar vegetables in something other than a stew.
“So, how is it?” Eridan asked, making a considerable effort to look like he didn’t care what the answer was.
Tavros swallowed and considered the bowl for a moment. “It’s... different!”
“I guessed that. Have you ever eaten seafood before? I know you live—“ Eridan looked away and rubbed his cheek, “—used to live by the ocean.”
“It was too, uh, dangerous to go fishing,” Tavros said between bites. “I wish I could have fished because this is delicious!”
Eridan smiled. It wasn’t a particularly happy smile, but it was a smile. “Okay, good. Do me a favor and tell your idiot matesprit. The only reason the ingredients were here is because I brought the sauce and waterwasps and stuck them in his refrigerator. He wouldn’t know fine cuisine if it bit him in the fuckin’ ass.”
He suddenly deflated as though the forced jovial attitude was taking its toll. With another appraising look around the block and a casual wave Eridan was out the door and his way back to his own hive.
Despite the constant muffled noise of the industrious carpenter drones it seemed impossibly quiet once Eridan left. Tavros distracted himself first by eating two bowls of the tasty orange concoction, then by rearranging everything for easy access if he needed to grab something quickly. After that there was nothing else to do until Gamzee woke up; Tavros waited and stared and grew more and more anxious over the thought of the conversation they were going to have.
Tavros lay down next to his matesprit and propped himself up sideways on one elbow so he could softly stroke Gamzee’s hair. The unconscious troll’s face smoothed a bit at the tender ministrations but for the most part he still looked distressed. Tavros felt like punching himself for not realizing how hard the whole ordeal was on his matesprit until it was nearly too late. He had convinced himself that he would be taking the worst of it but it was hitting Gamzee far harder than it was him.
In the corner of his mind a voice was whispering that it wasn’t true. The voice sounded a lot like Aradia. It even used the same quiet, deadly scared tone that she did when she came back to his hive to check on him a few days after his accident.
When she first found him at the base of that cliff she was terrified. They both knew the implications of being seriously injured when one was as low on the hemospectrum as they were. When she killed the sea monsters cautiously venturing into the shallows her motions were void of her usual grace and poise; she had stumbled and staggered, eventually forgoing her whip entirely in favor of a formless fighting style little better than wild thrashing. Aradia got lost in the desperate act of protecting him and by the time the last creature fell she was drenched in ruddy sweat. She collapsed to her knees beside him and started to check his injuries, but when she touched his chest she snatched her hands back and choked back a sob.
Tavros had taken her hand in his and held it tight. He told her that everything was going to be okay and that she needed to breathe. He kept talking to her, an endless stream of hollow assurances that kept her going as she retrieved a tarp and used it to drag him up the steep path and back to his hive. He had made it his duty to keep her steady as she gingerly felt along the ridge of his spine. She was scared—terrified—and it had been his job to keep her calm.
Then she had gone to fetch her lusus and bring back supplies for his recovery. Then he had spent time alone with no one to focus on. Then he had nothing to distract him from the fact that he couldn’t move his legs.
Tavros focused on Gamzee, watching the gentle rise and fall of his matesprit’s chest in a near trance, and tried to fight off the memory. He knew that he was going to have to face his own feelings about the situation eventually. He knew that he had a habit of focusing single-mindedly on the problems of those around him so that he didn’t have to acknowledge his own. He knew it was going to be bad once he was finally left with nothing else to distract him from the pain in the back of his neck and all it implied.
He was also well versed in denial so it wasn’t hard for him to ignore all this in favor of focusing on easing Gamzee’s grief. Tavros reasoned that the habit wasn’t completely self-destructive anyway, given that his dedication to keeping his matesprit calm was probably all that kept him composed during the ceremony. It was a weak rationale and he knew it, but when a deep need to see loved ones happy gets tied up in a self-defense mechanism it’s hard to break the cycle.
Finally, Gamzee slowly opened his eyes. While he had been stirring ever since the beach this was the first time he really looked awake. Tavros bit his lip as his matesprit groaned and propped himself up on his elbow. Gamzee looked up at him in drowsy confusion.
Gamzee took in his surroundings, including his worried matesprit. His gaze finally settled on the hint of pink at the side of Tavros’s neck—the waterproof gel sealing the dye-packed bandage.
“Gamzee, are you—“
Wide, horrified eyes met his for a moment before looking away in shame.
“Oh, Gamzee...” Tavros reached out to stroke his matesprit’s cheek but Gamzee jerked away from the light touch. “Gamzee, please, we need to talk about this. Please don’t sh-shut me out.”
Gamzee winced at the stutter and reluctantly turned back. His voice was a knot of mournful pain when he mumbled, “I’m sorry.”
Tavros cupped his cheek and rubbed circles with his thumb. Gamzee leaned into it for a moment before shaking his head and trying to pull the hand away.
“I don’t... Tavros I don’t deserve to be around you.”
Tavros’s vascular pump clenched and he was gripped with the need to hold his lover tight and never let go. A gentle shove had Gamzee on his back and then Tavros was situating himself with his face buried in his matesprit’s chest. He breathed in the scent of the ablution gels, stale fabric, and that which was solely and perfectly Gamzee.
“Please don’t go,” Tavros all but begged. “Please don’t leave me.”
“Oh fuck, babe, I didn’t—” Gamzee hugged him tight. “Please don’t be all freaking out! I’m not leaving you, I just... motherfucker, I fucked everything up and I’m sorry. I’m sorry for everything.”
Tavros forcibly took a deep breath and calmed himself down enough to function in a conversation.
“Gamzee, none of this is your fault.” Tavros pulled himself up so he could kiss his matesprit’s jaw. “I know the ceremony was hard for you to get through but—“
“Hard for me?”
Tavros blinked at him. “Uh... yes? You had to watch and listen to all those... what?”
Gamzee was looking at him in utter disbelief. “Are you serious? Are you motherfucking serious?” He let his head fall back against the cushion and rubbed his forehead. “Tavros, just, no. I didn’t go through shit compared to you. You needed me to be there for you and I... I...”
Tavros kissed his matesprit’s chest and mumbled, “You were there for me. You always are.”
Suddenly he was falling to the side as Gamzee abruptly sat up.
“No, I wasn’t. You were all needing me to lean on and what did I motherfucking do? I grabbed my fucking bone bulge and—“ Gamzee shook his head in disgust. His voice was full of self loathing as he continued, “You needed me and I... I took advantage of...” He buried his face in his hands and growled in frustration.
Tavros pulled himself up so that he was sitting on his hip. He supported his weight with one hand and reached out with the other to brush back his matesprit’s hair. Gamzee jerked away from him yet again.
“Oh, Gamzee.” Tavros felt as though the guilt was going to choke him. “You didn’t take advantage of me! I’m the one who started it.” He winced and sighed when Gamzee evaded another comforting touch. “This is all my fault.”
Tavros wasn’t expecting the cold fury that was suddenly directed at him.
“Your fault? Your fault?” Gamzee’s quickly voice rose in volume until he reached a shout. “Un-motherfucking-believable. What the fuck is wrong with you?”
Tavros had seen Gamzee angry. He’d seen Gamzee storming back and forth, indigo in the face, yelling more obscenities than usual at the walls as he vented his frustration at the caste system or the Empress. More than once Tavros had found himself on the receiving end of an irritated glare which was usually followed by an exasperated sigh and a lecture on how he needed to have more self-confidence.
However, in all the time they’d been together, Gamzee had never once yelled at Tavros.
“How many motherfucking times do I have to motherfucking tell you... that...” Gamzee trailed off as he took in the expression on his lover’s face. The rage crashed into nothing. “Oh... oh fuck. Tavros, babe, I... oh fuck.”
Tavros slumped forward, limp with shock. Gamzee had never taken that tone with him in the past. Gamzee had never once acted truly angry at Tavros before that night. Passing irritation to be sure but nothing even approaching the fury that had just been aimed Tavros’s way.
Gamzee pulled his unresponsive matesprit into his arms. “I’m sorry. Fuck, I’m sorry,” he apologized. He sounded as though he were on the brink of panic. “I didn’t mean it, I didn’t mean to be all... I just keep messing it all motherfucking up!”
He held Tavros close and chanted apologies into the ruffled mohawk. It was exactly what Gamzee had done the night before and Tavros was gripped with the overwhelming fear that his matesprit was going to dive back into a pie tin. He physically shook himself out of his stupor, dazed questions dying on his lips as he was hit with the less rational and significantly stronger fear that the burst of anger meant that Gamzee didn’t want to be with him anymore.
“I’m sorry!” Tavros frantically apologized. He clutched Gamzee’s shoulders hard enough to leave bruises. “I didn’t mean to make you mad! I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m s—“
“Tavros, please calm down,” Gamzee said in desperation, completely horrified at how everything had spiraled out of control. “Please. Just breathe.”
They both laughed humorlessly.
Gamzee carefully moved them back to the cushions, settling in on his back with splayed knees and Tavros lying on top of him. They clung to each other and fought to control their breathing. Gamzee regained his composure first and focused on rubbing slow, firm circles into his matesprit’s back. In time Tavros calmed back to his previous state of suppressed panic. He took a deep measured breath and sighed as though he could somehow expel all the confusion and hurt.
“What...” Tavros swallowed hard around the lump in his throat. He reasoned that Gamzee was just tired, that it was nothing, but he couldn’t quite believe it. He made himself lift his head and look at his matesprit when he asked, “What did I do wrong? To make you angry, I mean?”
Gamzee winced as though he had been stabbed. He started to say something but bit his lip against it.
“Please, tell me,” Tavros pressed. “I don’t want to drive you away. I just need to know what I did to—“
A finger pressed into Tavros’s mouth, silencing him. They remained still for several long moments and then Gamzee drew the calloused pad across his matesprit’s bottom lip. Despite everything Tavros couldn’t help the way his breath hitched; a ghost of a smile touched Gamzee’s expression but other than that he was completely unreadable as he slowly explored Tavros’s face with his fingertips. Up his jaw, along the curve of his nose and brow, across the darkest part of his horn and back again. Eventually Gamzee’s hand stilled and fell to the cushion after brushing across his matesprit’s throat, something that always made Tavros shiver. The only thing keeping him from losing himself in the touch was the fresh memory of Gamzee retching onto the sand.
“Tavros,” Gamzee said in a careful, measured tone, “I want you to listen to me. This is not your fault.”
The anger returned to Gamzee’s face but he quickly controlled it. Tavros shrank into himself.
“Fuck, Tavros, don’t be all—“ Gamzee growled in frustration, “—it’s all so motherfucking messed up and I can’t even try and fix it without fucking it up even more.”
Tavros gnawed at his raw lip. “I’m sorry. For interrupting, I mean!” he added quickly at the look on Gamzee’s face. “I won’t say anything until you’re done.”
Gamzee nodded, gulped, and took another deep steadying breath before continuing.
Chapter 11: Holding Back the Flood
Gamzee stroked his matesprit’s face and continued with a wavering voice. “Listen to me. This. Is. Not. Your. Motherfucking. Fault. I... I fucked up. I let my motherfucking hormones make the decisions when you needed me to be there for you.”
Tavros opened his mouth, remembered his promise to let his matesprit finish, and quickly shut it. Gamzee paused for a few seconds and then nodded.
“I’m the one who started it,” Tavros said, the slightest embarrassed blush coloring his cheeks. “I told you I wanted it.”
“You were crying,” Gamzee countered, and Tavros knew the disgust wasn’t aimed at him. “You were half way to fucking hyperventilating and I... I still...”
Tavros shook his head. “No, I wasn’t playing fair. I was kissing your neck and asking for it and rubbing that place on your hip.” His hand slid down Gamzee’s side and rubbed lightly at the spot. “I knew what I was doing and—“
Gamzee reached down and jerked his matesprit’s hand away. Tavros blinked in confusion and then took in the lowered eyelids and parted lips. Without his matesprit’s hand on his hip Gamzee managed to regain his composure, but it took him a moment or two. A pleasant tingle settled into Tavros’s belly at the thought of being able to affect Gamzee so easily.
“See,” Tavros said pointedly. “I wasn’t even really trying that time. Last night I was.” His face fell and he looked ashamed. “I manipulated you.”
Gamzee ran his fingers over Tavros’s lips again, his expression thoughtful and soft. “It’s true. Everything you do gets me so fucking hot. Even if you’re doing something all normal like typing on your husktop I still can’t be keeping my hands to myself.” He frowned again. “But it was different last night. Everything little thing you do turns me on but that doesn’t mean I can’t have some motherfucking control when you’re out of it.”
Tavros found his matesprit’s gentle touches to be very soothing, and he returned the caress in the hopes that it would make Gamzee feel better as well. “I needed you,” he mumbled as he brushed a thumb down the line of Gamzee’s jaw.
“You were crying. You were crying and you were losing control and you needed me to fucking be there for you.”
“Gamzee... I...” Tavros looked away, choking on his insecurities. “I needed... I needed to know that you still wanted me.”
That earned a breathy chuckle. “Yeah fucking right. Like that’s a thing up for debate.”
An uncomfortable silence stretched between them.
“... You’re kidding, right?” Gamzee asked uneasily. “There’s no way you’d be all up and thinking that so you’ve got to be kidding. There’s no... Tavros, how can you think that?” Gamzee was past anger or irritation or worry; he just looked lost. “I love you. When I say that I’m not fucking making it up. You’re my matesprit. We were hatched for each other... right?”
Tavros couldn’t bear the way his matesprit’s voice painfully broke over the words. He tenderly kissed Gamzee, who clung to him tight, and then softly breathed, “We were hatched for each other. I know that you love me, but... sometimes I wonder if you... if you think I’m...” Tavros made himself blurt it out, “If you think I’m good looking.”
“Good looking?” Gamzee echoed. “You’re the cutest motherfucking thing in the universe, and—wait. You just said you were all manipulating me into fucking you. How could you do that if you didn’t know how sexy I know you are?” He playfully tapped his matesprit’s nose. “Take that piece of bitching logic and try and wriggle out of it.”
“It’s not the same,” Tavros mumbled. “That was just knowing what you like and doing it all at once. I could do that even when I’m u... not good looking.”
Gamzee looked confused for a moment before pressing his lips into a thin line. “Are you talking about what those motherfucking...” he searched for something foul enough and came up empty, “those assholes said at the ceremony?”
Tavros looked uneasy as a few of the more cutting insults rose to the surface of his memory. Gamzee tilted his head back and sighed heavily before rolling them over, slowly so his matesprit had time to adjust and not get his horn caught on the cushion. Tavros relished the comforting weight pressing into him. He liked when Gamzee lay on top of him, particularly if a blanket was draped over them both. It made him feel as though the rest of the world had melted away and they were all that was left.
“Look, Tavros,” Gamzee murmured soft and low, their new position putting his mouth against his matesprit’s neck. While Tavros wasn’t as affected by it as Gamzee was it was still enough to make him shiver. “Even if the universe fucked up something shitty and we weren’t matesprits, and I was happy with some other troll—which sounds like motherfucking hell to me because I can’t live without you—I would still want you. If I was all walking down the street with my imaginary matesprit and I saw you I’d still want to bone you.” Gamzee licked a wet trail up his lover’s throat and Tavros had to bite back a whimper. “I’d still want to climb into your four wheel device and ride your hard fucking bulge until I couldn’t walk anymore.”
Tavros urged Gamzee up and then kissed him hard. When they pulled away for air Gamzee leaned in and started whispering in his matesprit’s ear. The downright raunchy was mixed with words as tender as they were sensual. Tavros knew that Gamzee would torture him with hot breath and heated kisses until he made the next move, something simple that spoke of his willingness to continue... Tavros slowly drew his palms down the planes of his lover’s back and thought about how easy it would be to press Gamzee’s hips down against his thigh.
“I’d walk up to you and lean down to whisper in your ear.” Gamzee demonstrated, his lips brushing against the sensitive lobe. “Tell you exactly what I want to do to you.”
“Like what?” Tavros asked, his voice low and husky.
“Everything. Get you somewhere private and be all sitting in your lap. Get my hand down so I can rub your bulge while I fuck your mouth with my tongue.”
It was getting harder and harder for Tavros to keep himself in check when Gamzee was saying things like that. The only reason he hesitated, his fingers splayed wide across the small of his matesprit’s back, was the thought of sending Gamzee back to sitting on that slab and staring at the gray sea.
“No, wait, I’d want to go slow. Kiss you slowly while I’m all rocking against you. Then I’d open up your pants and get my motherfucking hand in there. Feel out how big you are so I’d know how much I have to stretch myself—and I’d have to stretch myself a whole fucking lot.”
It took considerable effort for Tavros to keep his hands still. “Mmm... I’m not that big,” he murmured as he weighed the possibilities. He reasoned that if he were the only one giving pleasure—aside from the jolts Gamzee’s moans were sure to send through his body—he could keep from having another breakdown. Maybe.
“You’re motherfucking huge. You feel so good when you’re in me.” Gamzee’s breathing was starting to come in pants but he still waited for his matesprit’s silent permission. Tavros waited to give it; he wanted to hear more. “Maybe while I’d be getting ready I’d stand up on my knees and fuck your mouth. Slide in and out nice and motherfucking slow. Grab one of your horns and reach around with my other hand and fingerfuck myself while I tell you how much I want it.”
Tavros drank in the passion and heat that came off of his lover in waves. From the very first time lustful words were breathed against his ear Tavros had been in awe at Gamzee’s natural skill at verbal foreplay. He often wished that he could drive his matesprit wild with the same deliberate ease; he felt that whenever he turned Gamzee on it was completely by accident. Tavros usually abandoned any attempt at sweet, sexy talk before it began since he could never think of anything to say. The night of the ceremony was the first time he had actually gotten more than a sentence into it.
He was suddenly slammed with the gut wrenching fear that things would turn out just like the night before. Tavros took several deep, calming breaths before trusting himself to say what needed to be said.
“I don’t think we should...” he sighed regretfully. “We can’t. We have to finish talking about this.”
Gamzee froze for a few seconds before trying to roll off. Tavros caught him in a warm hug.
“I didn’t mean that! I don’t want to let you go, not ever. We just...” he swallowed hard and fought his own raging hormones; holding Gamzee on top of him had created some interesting friction. “We just need to talk before we go there again.”
“I don’t deserve to touch you at all,” Gamzee muttered against Tavros’s chest. “After I messed it all up last night and now I can’t even keep my bulge in my fucking pants for one motherfucking minute—“
It wasn’t often that Tavros felt genuinely irritated at his matesprit—or anyone—but even he had his limits.
“I. Started. It,” he stated in a sharp, matter-of-fact tone. Gamzee raised his head and boggled at Tavros, who kept talking. “I started it last night and I started it right now. You didn’t force me to do anything so please stop acting like you did.”
“But I...” Gamzee trailed off, still trying to wrap his think pan around the prickly glare aimed his way.
“But nothing! I was the selfish one. You were so freaked out when I started throwing myself at you but I kept going.” Tavros had already spent a good portion of the day beating himself up over that particular point and he resumed mentally punching himself. “Then when I could see that you did still want me, no matter what those... what they said, I was just so relieved that I started crying and I couldn’t stop because I was just so tired... you didn’t do anything wrong.”
Gamzee looked away.
“Why won’t you believe me?” Tavros asked, the frustration rising in his voice. “I love you and I don’t want to see you like this. Why are you punishing yourself like this?”
The answer was so low that he couldn’t make it out.
“Please tell me what it is so we can work through this. Gamzee, I’m sure that whatever you’re thinking is just a misunderstanding and once we clear it up you’ll stop feeling so bad.”
“There’s no motherfucking misunderstanding,” Gamzee mumbled. “There’s no taking this the wrong way. The wrong way is the only fucking way.”
The answer was a barely audible, “You were stammering.”
Tavros just looked at him, struck silent in his confusion.
“You were stammering,” Gamzee repeated, louder and with more self-directed venom. “You were all stumbling over what you were saying. You were stammering the whole motherfucking time and I just kept going.”
“But I...” Tavros was baffled. “I always fall over my words when I’m talking to someone. I’ve tried to do it less but I don’t know if I’ve gotten anywhere with that. It’s just what I do.”
“Not with me,” Gamzee whispered.
“What are you talking about?”
“You don’t stammer when you’re talking to me. You never have. Well...” Gamzee shrugged, “you did when I first started trolling you, but once we got to be bros you were typing the ‘uhs’ less and less.”
Tavros thought about it and realized that it was true. He never really noticed the change in his quirk when it came to talking to Gamzee, probably because he mouthed what he was saying and typed the ‘uhs’ as they happened.
“I guess I don’t do that anymore, huh?” Tavros rubbed his cheek and tried to make sense of what Gamzee was getting at. “Not usually anyway.”
“Not motherfucking ever. You did when we first met in person, and a little when you said you were red for me, or when I went down on my knees in front of you for the first...”
Tavros was still fighting the pleasant rush of arousal and being reminded of their first serious sexual encounter didn’t really help. It was plain that it wasn’t helping Gamzee either; he was looking away and rubbing the side of his neck the way he always did when he was trying to keep a lid on his libido. It was a common occurrence when they were first getting physical, but ever since they got comfortable with sex the only time Tavros had seen the gesture is when someone else was with them. Whenever they were alone Gamzee had no reservations about telling Tavros exactly how much he wanted it and Tavros had no problems letting Gamzee know that the passion was matched.
The thought of forgetting everything and getting lost in each others’ bodies was so tempting, and Tavros knew that if he stopped holding back they’d both be swept away... and then once they came back down to reality Gamzee would feel even worse than he already did.
Tavros summoned up the image of a savaged and half-decayed carcass he had found in the woods when he was very young. While he came to understand that things like that were simply a part of the natural world, having seen the bloated corpse so early in his life had twisted it into something worse than it was. Combined with the bone gnawing worry he was feeling the memory was enough to at least take the edge off his arousal.
He decided that the latest repetition of the uncomfortable silence had gone on long enough and timidly cleared his throat. Gamzee tensed and slowly drug his eyes back to his matesprit’s face.
“Okay,” Tavros started, “so I was awkward for some of it.”
“Most of it.”
Tavros sighed and wished that life could be simple. “Gamzee, my confidence was destroyed. Mostly my confidence in the idea of you wanting me. Even knowing how badly I broke down... when I was throwing myself at you and you were freaked out and not kissing me back it felt like... it was like I was drowning, or being squeezed to death, or frozen in ice—maybe even all of that at once. If I could go back I’d make myself slow down and tell you all this before the sex, but I think I needed the sex. I needed to feel you wanting me—how selfish is that?”
“You are the least selfish troll I’ve ever met,” Gamzee said in quiet earnest. “Did... was it really that bad before I started kissing back?”
“I still should have fucking waited. I should have figured out what you needed before—“
“Gamzee, please, just... just trust me when I say that you didn’t do anything wrong.” Tavros caressed his lover’s cheek, breathing a sigh of relief when Gamzee didn’t shy away from the touch. “I hate seeing you like this.”
“Okay. Okay, I’ll try to keep a motherfucking lid on that stuff.”
“I want you to stop feeling that way, not to bottle it up.”
Gamzee bit his lip and then leaned in and pressed a gentle kiss to Tavros’s lips. They were in no hurry as they thoroughly explored each other’s mouths. Even though it was slow and tender it was somehow so much more intense than any of the more passionate kisses they had exchanged that day. They both came away breathless. After a few minutes of simply drinking in the sight of each other Gamzee spoke again.
“Are you okay now?”
“Yes, I’m—“ Tavros halted his instinctive response and thought about it. “Maybe... no?” He sighed heavily. “I think I still have some crying left to do over the next couple days, once it really hits me, but I will be okay.”
“I guess I can deal with that.” Gamzee chuckled and this time there was a hint of real humor behind it. Self-depreciating humor, but humor nonetheless. “Probably won’t deal with it very motherfucking well but I’ll be all useless right next to you.”
Tavros smiled. “You’re not useless. You’re exactly what I need. You’ve always been exactly what I need.”
Gamzee’s eyes were soft and full of caring. “I love you, Tav.”
“I love you, too.”
Chapter 12: Losing Your Breath
Tavros and Gamzee lay together, each reveling in the simple contact and the feel of the other’s heartbeat. The quiet was not without lingering sadness due to thoughts of the nightmare they lived the day before, but it was still a comfortable silence. They shared slow, sweet kisses but for the most part they just held each other. The movement of Gamzee’s chest expanding with his breaths evened and slowed and Tavros felt himself drifting off.
About an hour later he was bolting upright, or at least tried to on instinct. While the muscles in his hips still worked to a degree they weren’t strong enough to pull him into a sitting position when his matesprit lying on top of him. The motion was still more than enough to wake Gamzee, who blinked sleepily and then frowned when he took in the way Tavros was gasping for breath. Gamzee ran a hand over his lover’s forehead and felt the cold sweat beaded there.
“Bad dream?” Gamzee asked even though he didn’t really need to. They had a bad habit of falling asleep while cuddling, even when they really should be getting to a recuperacoon, and this wasn’t the first time one of them had jerked awake with a nightmare echoing in his head.
Tavros rubbed at his eyes in the hope that it would make the afterimages go away. The gesture was answer enough.
“I need to get you all in that motherfucking recuperacoon, huh?” Gamzee said. He pressed a tender kiss to his matesprit’s lips and Tavros eagerly returned it, the affection like a soothing balm. “Do you want to tell me about it?”
“I... yeah, I guess,” Tavros mumbled, generally ill at ease. Even though his horns had kept him from getting the proper dose of sopor for most of his youth, he didn’t have the vividly violent dreams one would expect of a boy who was slime-deprived on top of being stuck with unstable pubescent body chemistry. He always assumed it was his peaceful nature winning out, that his personified self-esteem was fighting his subconscious battles for him, or some combination of the two.
Then Tavros found out that he never had a chance of escaping the culling fork on his own and it shook something lose. He was fine as long as he was in his recuperacoon when he was supposed to be, but if he lingered outside the slime and fell asleep then he had more and more nightmares. He still wasn’t used to the idea of his subconscious painting such colorful bloody pictures even though his dreams were still fairly tame compared to most trolls’.
Gamzee waited patiently as his matesprit collected himself, rubbing the back of his fingers against Tavros’s cheek and humming softly.
When Tavros could take a breath that wasn’t shaky he began to explain. “There’s not really much to tell. We had a list of everyone in the audience at the ceremony and we were going around to their hives and killing them.”
“Was it really fucking gory? Is that why it’s all bothering you?”
He shook his head as much as his horns would allow. “Mostly it was clean kills with my lance, you hit a couple with your clubs; there some blood on the floor but nothing really... what?”
Gamzee was smiling fondly. “You said ‘we’. Did I get to tag along on your motherfucking rampage?”
“I’m glad I was there with you, babe,” Gamzee murmured as he kissed a line down his matesprit’s jaw. Tavros cupped his cheek and brought their lips together, smiling as he did. The fact that Gamzee didn’t even register the nightmare as a problem, and in fact thought it was sweet that they were together for it, helped Tavros let go the violent creations of his own mind.
A long, long while later they pulled away and grinned sleepily at each other.
“Okay,” Gamzee said after a long moment of looking at his lover, “let’s get to the ‘coon before we both pass the fuck out again.”
Normally Tavros would get into his four wheel device and then into the recuperacoon by himself, but he was so tired that he didn’t fuss when Gamzee picked him up and carried him to the other side of the room. After setting Tavros inside, Gamzee leaned on the edge and reached in to brush his hand over his matesprit’s cheek.
“I love you,” Tavros yawned.
Gamzee hauled himself up to bend over the edge and kiss Tavros’s forehead. “I love you, too. Get some sleep; you look like you really motherfucking need it.”
Tavros tried to answer but he just couldn’t keep his eyes open any longer.
He woke to the sounds of construction starting up again. With a groan he hauled himself into his device and groggily wheeled himself to the trap. He just wanted to climb back into the slime and sleep for days but there was no way he could get any rest with the noise. He took a while in the trap because he kept nodding off. Finally he got himself clean and back into his four wheel device... slipping as he got in and driving the back of his neck against the backrest.
Tavros saw stars behind his eyelids and he actually cursed out loud and at length; if anyone could see him then their eyes would be as big as plates. Even after a couple minutes the mark was still stinging like mad. He went back to the guestblock and found that his clothes were laid out for him as they were the day before. He got his pants and socks on and then sat there staring at the sign on his shirt until he couldn’t bear to look at it anymore. He tossed it across the room and dug around in his bag for one of the thin button ups he usually wore over his regular shirts. Tavros wondered why Gamzee couldn’t have figured that out when he was laying out clothes two days in a row and then did the wheeled equivalent of stomping all the way to the nutriblock.
He didn’t feel like cooking so he rummaged through the thermal hull until he found leftovers of the tangy dish Eridan made the night before. His interest in the strange new type of cuisine distracted him from his throbbing neck and he dug in without bothering to heat it up. After a few bites Tavros decided he needed some juice to go with it and got a glass out of the cabinet.
It might have been the way he was still shaking slightly, or possibly his lack of sleep, but whatever the reason the result was the same. Tavros lost grip on the cup and it went tumbling to the floor. To his eyes it seemed to fall and shatter in slow motion.
Tavros stared at the broken cup without seeing it. The sound of construction became a muffled drum beating out of time with his own suddenly racing pulse.
“Gamzee,” he called. His matesprit’s name stuck in his throat and came out barely a whisper.
His chest felt tight. Tavros grabbed at the thin shirt that suddenly felt as bulky as a spun bleatbeast hair blanket in the middle of a heat wave.
“Gamzee!” he called again, a little louder than the first try but it was still nowhere near loud enough to be heard through the walls as they were being torn down and rebuilt.
Tavros didn’t know how long he sat there with his eyes shut tight as he tried to breathe—it could have been minutes or hours—before strong hands were closing over his shoulders. The contact was like a life raft and Tavros focused his whole being on the firm touch. He was vaguely aware that he was being spoken too but his pulse was pounding in his ears so loudly that he couldn’t hear. He couldn’t even identify the voice, but as he focused on the hands he could tell that they were too small to be his matesprit’s. Tavros absently thought that it couldn’t be Gamzee anyway because if it was then they would already be on the floor and he would be cradled in his lover’s arms.
The hands started shaking him gently and the voice was getting louder. The white noise buzzing in Tavros’s ears lessened enough to make out what was being shouted at him.
“God fuckin’ damn it how long have you been like this? Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck—Gam, can you hear me? Get down here!”
With considerable effort Tavros opened his eyes and saw Eridan’s anxious face.
“Tav! Oh fuck, Tav, you’ve got to calm down.” He turned towards the door and bellowed, “Gamzee Makara get the fuck down here!”
Tavros tried to tell Eridan that he was okay but he couldn’t speak. Then Eridan was suddenly gone and Tavros felt as though he was choking on the air. With detached wonder he realized he was hyperventilating. He looked up and fixed his eyes on Eridan, who was leaning out of the door and shouting, and didn’t even blink until the royal was back in front of him. Tavros reached out and grabbed one of Eridan’s hands and held it against his chest as thought that would somehow stop the pain.
Minutes or hours passed and then Eridan was being brushed aside and Tavros was being gathered up in strong, warm arms. Gamzee barely took a moment to heed Eridan’s warning about the broken glass and then he was arranging Tavros in his lap and holding him tight. Tavros clung to his matesprit and sobbed into his shirt. He could feel Gamzee’s pulse against his face, faster than it should be but still so much slower than his own. Tavros stopped trying to slow his breathing, stopped trying to force himself to calm down, and just let go and listened to Gamzee’s vascular pump beating until his own found a healthier rhythm.
Tavros lifted his head and looked into his matesprit’s worried eyes. Gamzee brought their foreheads together and kept rubbing Tavros’s back. They didn’t say anything because they didn’t need to. At last, Tavros stopped gasping for breath. He still didn’t trust his voice so he nuzzled Gamzee’s cheek as a means of letting his matesprit know he was recovering. Gamzee cupped Tavros’s cheek and kissed him softly.
After they pulled away Eridan cleared his throat and Tavros flushed with shy embarrassment. In his panic he had forgotten that they weren’t alone.
“You’re not stayin’ here,” he said, awkwardly looking away from the show of affection going on in front of him. “You’ll both be spendin’ the duration of this remodel at my hive.”
Gamzee shook his head. “We can’t be all imposing on you like that.“
Eridan glared at him. “You’re stayin’ in my fuckin’ hive and that’s final.” He stood up and brushed off his pants. “There’s no way bein’ in this hive while it’s dusty as fuck is healthful. You two have enough trouble without worryin’ about all the construction makin’ you sick. Pack a bag and I’ll be back with my skiff.”
“Seriously, it’s a wonder you aren’t sick already,” Eridan continued, more to himself than to the other two. “All the clutter and crap you have stacked everywhere isn’t good for you or anyone else within shoutin’ distance of your hive...” He kept muttering as he walked out of the block.
Gamzee stared at the empty doorframe. “Shit, I guess we’re going to his place?”
Tavros jumped as a particularly loud bang echoed through the hive.
“... Yeah, let’s go stay with my fishy motherfucker.”
They sat curled up together for a while longer. Gamzee had a definite calming effect on his matesprit but eventually a sense of claustrophobia set in and he had to get out of the oppressive space. They moved to the beach and stayed there holding each other until Eridan returned with a small shuttle. Eridan and Tavros did a refrain of awkwardly not know what to do with each other as Gamzee grabbed clothes and ablation supplies.
After he returned with the bags they settled into their seats. As Gamzee strapped in on the couch next to him Tavros boggled at Eridan, who was starting up the shuttle. It was very unusual for a purpleblood to pilot their own craft, and it was clear from the ease of his motions that this was a regular thing for him.
After a short, uneventful flight they were walking inside Eridan’s hive. He showed them to a room which Tavros eventually realized was the concupiscent parlor. The actual couch was noticeably absent from the center of the room but there were a few loungers still up against the walls; Gamzee and Tavros settled into one of those. By midnight Tavros felt that the worst was behind him.
Once he was together enough to look around Tavros felt anxious about even being there. It’s not as though he never been in a highblood’s home, but there was a world of difference between his matesprit’s hive and Eridan’s. Gamzee’s place—Tavros’s place, and despite everything the thought made him smile—was cluttered and everything was at haphazard angles. Eridan’s hive looked like something out of an advertisement and it was impeccably well kept; Tavros got the feeling that Eridan didn’t share his moirail’s apprehension about letting cleaning staff into his hive. On the one hand Eridan’s neat home didn’t bother Tavros’s organized nature, but on the other hand he felt as though he couldn’t touch anything for fear of nudging something out of its place.
However, when the three of them gathered in the nutriblock for midnight meal Eridan sat on the counter and ate his sandwich without a plate, so that made Tavros feel a little less anxious about messing up the royal’s hive.
“Thanks for, uh, letting us stay here,” Tavros squeaked out, still plenty nervous.
“Whatever. It’s not a big deal.” Eridan made a dismissive gesture and lost half his sandwich to the floor. “Fuckin’ bristlebeast cuts. See what happens when I eat your land dwelling garbage?”
Gamzee took the irritation with good humor. “Bristlebeast is just too motherfucking good for you and it knows it. It’s all fighting back.”
“Like fuck it is.” Eridan cleaned up the sandwich remnants himself and then lay down on the large kitchen island with his legs hanging off. Tavros tried not to stare.
“... Hey, Eridan?” Gamzee asked, sounding uncertain. Tavros wheeled himself over to where his matesprit was sitting on a barstool and laid a comforting hand on Gamzee’s arm.
Eridan sighed heavily. “Let me guess: you’re needin’ some quality moirail time?”
Gamzee covered Tavros’s hand with his own and squeezed, but he didn’t look at his matesprit. After a moment of silence Eridan sat up and slid off the countertop. He tossed a half wave Tavros’s direction and told Gamzee he’d be waiting in his workblock.
“Will you be okay?” Gamzee asked, looking down at his matesprit. “If you need me then I can wait.”
Tavros shook his head. “No, I’ll be okay. You’ll be able to hear me if I call for you, right?”
Gamzee led Tavros to a simply but beautifully decorated delayblock, kissed him soundly, and then went through a door that Tavros assumed led to the workblock. Tavros spent a good ten minutes revisiting his fears of touching anything before reasoning that the books on the table would only be there if they were meant to be read. He entertained himself by flipping through one with fanciful drawings of sea creatures—the artist’s style made some of the wispier fins look like wings—until Eridan and Gamzee exited the workblock.
When he opened the door Eridan almost looked queasy. He and Gamzee were not suited to be moirails at all and it was showing, even though they were both trying so hard. The truth was that Tavros would make a much more effective pale match with his matesprit, which is why Gamzee refused to share his darker thoughts with Tavros. Red as they were there were already strong pale undertones to their matespritship and Gamzee was worried that sharing that part of him would slide them into moirallegiance.
When the two came back into the delayblock Gamzee bent down to kiss his matesprit on the cheek before announcing that he was going to get them some drinks. As he left for the nutriblock Eridan flopped into the couch closest to where Tavros had parked his four wheel device. The royal rubbed his forehead and ran his fingers through his hair, thoroughly messing it up in the process, before slumping back and looking at the ceiling. After a few moments and the heaviest of sighs Eridan looked back at his guest.
Tavros quickly closed the book and set it back on the table before guiltily hunching his shoulders. Eridan stared blankly for a long time—Tavros reevaluated the depths of the darker parts of his matesprit’s mind—finally rolling his eyes, grabbing the book, and giving it back to Tavros.
“I was, uh, done with it.”
“Stop worryin’ so much,” Eridan ordered, the very picture of exasperation. “It’s a hive; trolls live in it.”
Tavros hugged the book to his chest and looked at the sprawled out purpleblood from the corner of his eye. Finally he worked up the nerve to say, “Eridan, why, uh, I mean—“
Eridan raised an eyebrow. Tavros marveled at some trolls’ ability to say so much with the twitching of a few tiny muscles.
“What I, uh, meant to say was I was wondering, uh, you’re so nice to me?”
“... What?” Eridan asked incredulously. “Seriously? I’m a complete and utter asshole to everyone all the time.”
“No, I mean you, uh, are a little... salty?”
The royal snorted.
“But it’s like when Gamzee or Karkat, uh, swear all the time. It doesn’t really mean anything bad.”
Eridan leaned forward and rested his chin on his clasped hands. Tavros awkwardly stared at the cover of the book.
“I have a lot to make up for,” Eridan said at last, sounding almost guilty. He opened his mouth as though he was going to say something more but then a small device clipped to his belt chimed eight times and his expression turned sour. “What the fuck does she want now?”
Chapter 13: Cultural Loophole
Eridan flipped the device open and started punching buttons more forcefully than was necessary. Tavros was just about to ask if he should leave when Eridan placed a finger to his lips in a silent command and hit the final button.
“What do you want, Serket?” He asked tersely. Tavros hunched in his chair; it was generally considered a bad idea to be in the same room as two black-exes even if half of the broken spade was only present via comm device.
Tavros still wasn’t sure if he counted as a failed black or red crush on Vriska’s part. He wasn’t sure if Vriska even knew if she had a black or red crush, or if it was even a crush, or what that whole mess had been. All Tavros knew is that it had been really weird, really confusing, and it was still really awkward to be around her. Even if it was just her voice and she didn’t know he was there.
“Hey! How’s my favorite maritime overlord doing?” Vriska cackled over the line. Eridan glowered at the device. “I was just calling to find out if you’ve been in contact with that moirail of yours.”
Both Eridan and Tavros whipped their heads around to look at the door and make sure Gamzee hadn’t gotten back yet. Once he confirmed that the doorway was still empty Eridan glared at the comm with more than irritation. “What’s your twisted fuckin’ game this time?”
She laughed. Eridan’s eye twitched.
“Obviously you don’t have anythin’ for me so I’ll just be terminatin’ this call.“
“Okay, okay,” Vriska said, the teasing tone gone. Mostly. “Hold your hoofbeasts. I’m calling about a very serious matter so you should pay attention.”
“I’m having a hard time thinkin’ of a single reason to listen to your vexin’ voice for one more—“
“Dammit, will you listen to me?” She sighed dramatically. “Geeeeeeeeeze, a girl tries to help out and look at where it gets her? I mean, I’ll give you that you’ve got some basis for being all defensive for your moirail, but do I really sound like I’m going to rant at him like the others?”
Eridan’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. “What are you talkin’ about then?”
“The complaint!” Vriska’s voice cracked over the comm. “I’m betting that Gamzee doesn’t want to deal with anyone after the fiasco the ceremony turned into. That’s why he turned off Trollian, right? Hell, I’d do the same if everyone was jumping to all the wrong conclusions about me.”
Tavros looked at Eridan in confusion; the royal shrugged. Neither could figure out her angle.
“Keep talkin’, wench.”
“Now’s not the time for flirting!”
“Fiiiiiiiine.” Vriska drawled. “Next time you talk to Gamzee remind him that he needs to file his complaint against the master of the ceremony or whoever was in charge of that travesty! I mean, the others need to get their think pans out of their nooks, but I can’t really blame them. The officials made the ceremony into a mockery!” The eye roll was practically audible. “No wonder Terezi’s practically spitting fire.”
Eridan’s expression shifted from irritated to thoughtful. “I am loath to admit it, but I agree with you. If those officiating hadn’t been so flagrantly... I don’t even know what that fuckin’ was, but it was downright unprofessional.”
“Don’t worry about agreeing with me when I’m right,” Vriska practically sang.
Eridan continued as though she hadn’t said anything. “And it is reasonable to mistake Gamzee’s silence for approval when he was just bein’ the more civilized troll.”
Tavros realized what Vriska was getting at. She was giving Gamzee a proper highblooded way to make it known that he wasn’t happy about what happened at the ceremony. Once his complaint was put on record that might make the others stop and think about the other possibilities. It would also give the others a reason to take back their words and talk to Gamzee again; they could act as though Tavros’s treatment in the ring upset them instead of the fact that he was there in the first place.
“He wasn’t going to go down to their level. Just shows how far he’s come since he got off the pie. Aaaaaaaanyway, make yourself useful and go remind Gamzee that there’s a time limit on these things. I know he’s busy dealing with his hive getting knocked over and training his new slave but he really needs to get that done today.”
“I’ll consider it, Serket.” Eridan replied curtly before ending the transmission.
When Gamzee returned Tavros passed along Vriska’s suggestion while Eridan pulled up the necessary forms. After some prodding Tavros admitted that he had checked his matesprit’s Trollian, and that he had changed the settings and deleted the logs. He cautioned Gamzee against logging back in, at least until the complaint hit the system, but he refused to repeat any specifics. Tavros didn’t want to bring Gamzee down any further than he already was; his voice, posture, every move already screamed melancholy.
In spite of the overall bleak mood Tavros was warily optimistic about the outcome of filing the complaint. It would be a clue to their friends that something else was going on, which could help with the anger and hurt everyone seemed to be feeling. They were already trying to get the real story through to the others as quickly as possible, but they couldn’t afford to do it by traceable means.
That meant juggling face-to-face meetings.
Once the three of them came up with a properly scathing complaint they climbed into Eridan’s larger, longer range shuttle. Gamzee and Tavros were dropped off at their hive to resolve some issue the carpenter drones had with the plans—plus neither of them felt up to a trip to the biggest civihub in their breeding province—while Eridan continued on to drop of some paperwork for his own business and Gamzee’s complaint.
By the time Eridan came back everything was sorted out with the drones. On the ride back Eridan related how he had gone to deliver the complaint to Terezi personally. He said that she looked irritable and that only got worse when he walked up and started talking about the ceremony. She was only a paralegislacerator and her workstation was surrounded by others, so Eridan wasn’t able to tell her everything. However, he was able to get across that something else was going on. Eridan said that by the time he left Terezi looked more contemplative than angry.
By the end of the day Eridan relayed a troll from Vriska saying that she ‘told her ir8 neigh8or all a8out the pro8lem with the ceremony’. He was also muttering something about how he wasn’t a dainty doll before announcing that he was going to try to explain things to Kanaya.
She was a trickier case than anyone else since there was no way to get word to her in person; she was still living in the desert raising the mother grub hatched from her lusus’s matriorb. Since Kanaya took the legends about jade bloods very seriously she had never left her hive and had never let anyone visit lest it compromise the health of her charge. Since her self-imposed exile wasn’t going to end until the adolescent mother grub reached maturity they had to get the message across over the net.
Gamzee took over the task of talking to Kanaya. Tavros looked over his matesprit’s shoulder as the two of them chatted on Trollian. Kanaya was distressed but she wasn’t accusing; it looked like her faith in Gamzee, while severely shaken, remained intact. Gamzee assured her that he had no part in how the ceremony turned out. By the end of it she latched onto the subject of fashion. Kanaya was adamant that she be the one to make Tavros’s new signless clothes. He only needed new shirts but she was intent on a complete wardrobe overhaul. Tavros agreed very reluctantly; he wasn’t comfortable with such a fuss being made over the cut of his pants.
Unfortunately that was the extent of what they could do at the time. Even though Gamzee had the complaint on record he couldn’t speak to any lowbloods. The only reason he could afford to talk to Kanaya is because her unique color elevated her status above that of a typical greenblood. Tavros would be able to talk to the others, but he was supposed to be in training. Only once that period was over would a slave be allowed privileges such as access to the net.
All they could safely do was wait.
It took four more days for the carpenter drones to finish construction on everything except the damaged wing. They continued on the framework while trolls came in to do the painting and detail work; while the drones could do heavy construction much faster and more efficiently than any troll they were useless for decorating. While this meant that Gamzee and Tavros could get back to their own hive it also meant that, for the first time since the ceremony, Tavros had to play the part of a slave.
He had been wearing his shirts turned inside out even in Eridan’s hive in the hopes that it would desensitize everyone to the sight. He wasn’t sure how successful that effort had been; Gamzee still scowled anytime he looked at the blank black fabric and even Eridan would wince sometimes. Tavros himself would find himself staring at his reflection as though he was looking at a ghost.
However, it wasn’t until they were disembarking and at Eridan’s mention that Tavros realized his collar had been off ever since the night after the ceremony. Gamzee’s mood had improved somewhat while staying at his moirail’s hive, but it instantly soured at the idea of Tavros putting the collar back on. After nearly ten minutes of sullen silence and a lot of prodding Gamzee admitted that he took it off once Tavros fell asleep the day of the ceremony and then flung it across the beach. Tavros started gathering the wildlife to help search for it and Gamzee growled at him to stop; Eridan dragged his moirail off to the side and tried to talk some sense into him. Tavros agreed with Eridan as adamantly as Gamzee was refusing to listen.
Tavros knew he had to dress the part regardless of who was around; aside from the chance of a surprise visit from the slave regulators there was the simple fact that the more he wore the collar and blank shirts the less everyone would notice them. Once the signs of a slave became part of the background then it wouldn’t bother Gamzee—or Tavros himself—so much to see them. The more desensitized to the whole situation everyone was the more effectively they could carry out the ruse without slipping up. However, Gamzee seemed to be refusing to acknowledge that the ceremony had ever happened and he got irritable whenever any reminder came up. This worried Tavros; he wasn’t sure if Gamzee would be able to play his own role of the stoic master without being high on slime.
Tavros knew that he was enabling his matesprit’s denial since he hadn’t yet taken off the bandage on the back of his neck. He could have done it the day before but he wasn’t sure what it would do to Gamzee to see his own sign etched in vivid indigo against the back of Tavros’s neck. If the way he had been reacting to inside-out shirts was any indication then it wouldn’t be good. Sitting there on the beach watching Gamzee and Eridan shouting at each other made Tavros wonder if he made the right decision.
Between the two of them they were able to calm Gamzee down to an irate sulk. Predictably his scowl deepened when they found the collar in a box of odds and ends—it looked like a drone saw it being thrown and retrieved it that night. Gamzee refused to have any part of putting it back on, so Eridan berated his moirail for acting like a first sweep wriggler while fastening the ring. Tavros watched the tension mount with growing alarm. As much as it pained him to step outside of his quadrant, even for a moment, he tried to gently pacify both of them.
As soon as Gamzee realized that Tavros was auspisticizing his anger evaporated. He dropped to his knees on the sand and caught Tavros up in a fierce hug. Gamzee apologized over and over while Tavros soothingly stroked his back. He promised Gamzee that it was all going to be fine, that he was okay with it, but the words rang hollow even to him.
They were broken apart by Eridan, who reminded them that the painters would be there soon and that they had to pull it together. He asked Tavros to go inside, take care of his bandage, and get the plans laid out, while he took a few moments to talk some sense into Gamzee. Tavros was worried that it would come to blows but he knew that his matesprit needed to be reminded of why this whole ruse was necessary, and as long as he was there it would turn something ashen and make Gamzee’s state of mind worse.
Tavros found the mild solvent he had been sent home with and peeled off the bandage, carefully dabbing away at the excess dye with a damp rag until it came back clean. Then he spread out the floorplans and their notes on colors and poured over them until the other two entered the hive. Gamzee was still sulking but it had a very different tone than before, while Eridan was looking very smug. Tavros took in the disheveled clothes, sandy skin, and the small trickle of purple running down the side of Eridan’s face and guessed that it had in fact come to blows. Tavros stifled a giggle as Gamzee sent a glare that could melt battleboat grade armor alloy his moirail’s way; it looked as though Eridan got the upper hand. Gamzee was an excellent melee combatant and losing to a slim, lean swimmer who’s primary weapon was ranged... it was no surprise to Tavros that it chafed Gamzee’s ego.
The minor irritation helped distract Gamzee from the collar around his matesprit’s neck. He still looked tense whenever he caught sight of Tavros but he managed to keep it under control. Once Eridan was sure that his moirail would make it he left for his own hive, leaving explicit instructions with Tavros to call him if Gamzee started slipping.
Luckily there was no incident with the decorating team. They were apprehensive when they first arrived, but then again according to their portfolio they’d never worked on a hive owned by anyone higher on the hemospectrum than teal. Gamzee was gruff but not completely unfriendly and once he showed that he wouldn’t take suggestions as an insult everyone relaxed.
Most of what Gamzee and Tavros had decided on stood but there were a few places the designers thought could be made better, mostly in the area dedicated to displaying the various types of crystals produced by Gamzee’s factory and the types of devices they were used in. Gamzee kept his matesprit close and checked all suggested changes with Tavros before giving his okay, their silent communication going unnoticed by the many workers.
Tavros was fine with remaining silent; he wasn’t sure exactly how he was supposed to behave around freetrolls who weren’t highbloods. The majority of the considerable team had signs in shades of brown and yellow, along with a handful of greens and a couple maroon. The way they treated him was very mixed. Some were awkward, some friendly, some treated him as though he were contagious, and some ignored him completely.
Even more mixed was the way Gamzee was acting. He would give Tavros a reassuring smile, then his eyes would drop to his matesprit’s shirt and he’d look away. Gamzee bounced back and forth between ignoring Tavros and acting like he would with any other friend, finally settling on something distant and uncomfortable. After a few hours Tavros realized that his matesprit was staying in front of him at all times, refusing to go around him from behind even if it was the shorter route.
Tavros wondered why everything had to be so complicated and sat quietly in his four wheel device.
The team proved to be just as efficient as their client reviews promised; by the time the night was over they had finished painting Gamzee and Tavros’s respiteblocks and installed the recuperacoons, set up the load gaper and standing ablution trap in the master hygieneblock, had all the appliances and cabinets set up in the nutriblock, and had the elevator in full working order. Part of this was due to sheer numbers—there were nearly forty of them—but mostly they were just very good. Tavros was glad; while in some ways having people around was a welcome distraction, the sooner they were out of the hive the sooner he and Gamzee could be alone together.
With the immediate danger of the ceremony and their friends’ reactions filling his mind, Tavros had been able to put that fact out of his mind. He clung to it during the ceremony as though it was a shiny prize he would get if he just kept quiet and made it through, but he was only focusing on the part his panicked mind could handle at the time. Now that things had quieted down he was once again seeing the whole of it... and he was terrified.
Tavros loved Gamzee with everything he had. He knew that he wanted to spend the rest of his life with his matesprit, and he knew that Gamzee felt the same. He also knew that emotion was only part of a relationship. Tavros had seen it when Aradia’s kismesitude fell apart half a sweep before. She and Tellan really hated each other but they just couldn’t make it work. Their psychic abilities simply did not mesh and there was no way they’d be able to survive the imperial drone, so they went their separate ways. Aradia was distraught for seasons and from the sound of it her ex didn’t fare much better.
So Tavros knew from his friend’s experience that real love or hate wasn’t always enough. He was afraid that the dramatic upheaval to his and Gamzee’s lives would strain their matespritship past the point of breaking. More than that, even if they survived Tavros having to pose as Gamzee’s slave... they hadn’t spent all that much time in each other’s presence. They’d visited each other’s hives as often as they could but there would be seasons between trips and none lasted more than a couple days. They’d never spent long, extended periods of time together, and Tavros was worried that they weren’t ready for it.
Once the government allowance stopped and a troll was considered a young adult plenty of moirails moved in together—in fact it was a surprise that Equius and Nepeta were still living in separate hives. But matesprits were another story; they waited until they were off-world to live in the same hive or the same section of their fleet ship. Even then only the most solid of matespritship lived together. To move into the same hive before first donation was considered a bad idea. The couple in question would be expected to go pale or fall apart completely.
Tavros couldn’t bear the thought of growing apart from Gamzee. He was pretty sure that even in the worst case scenario it wouldn’t come to a complete falling out; sliding into moirallegiance was the greater threat. Even though they were flushed red as the sun there had always been strong pale undertones to their matespritship, and since neither of them had a real moirail...
As he sat there in his four wheel device surrounded by the activity of the decorating team Tavros wondered, with a sinking acid sack, if moirallegiance wasn’t the better option. Eridan was trying but he and Gamzee were a terrible match, and Gamzee’s fears about his violent tendencies were very real and he needed help getting completely stable.
He shook his head and forced his mind away from such thoughts. Tavros wasn’t sure if he would be the best pale match for Gamzee anyway, and he wouldn’t try unless there were no other options. He was sure that Gamzee would find his true moirail soon. He was certain that their matespritship would survive the trials they were facing.
At least, that’s what he kept telling himself.
Chapter 14: New Hive, New Life
Hey guys! I have a Dark Season Askblog up and running on Tumblr. Anonymous questions are enabled and the cast will answer pretty much anything that's not spoilerific.
On the first trip up in the elevator Tavros gripped his device’s armrests so hard his knuckles hurt. When the doors opened on the third floor he breathed a heavy sigh of relief. The box was big enough that he, Gamzee, and three members of the team could fit without touching, and Tavros waited for the others to file out before he followed. As the crew explained what they had done on the respiteblocks Tavros sat in the corner and watched his matesprit from the corner of his eye. Gamzee had finally settled into a consistent mood, one that seemed dependent upon ignoring his ‘slave’. Tavros was just glad that his matesprit had found something that worked; Gamzee needed to be able to focus on the renovations.
In spite of having to face his first practical day as a slave and the worries that came with it, Tavros couldn’t help but admire the way his matesprit interacted with the crew. Gamzee was polite to the workers and made sure they knew he was open to suggestions, which was pretty rare. Tavros had tamed beasts for yellowbloods up through to a handful in the low-blue, and even the higher greens would often be very rude and sometimes even outright hurtful. It was no wonder that it took most of the night for the team members to stop looking so surprised when Gamzee was civil. But it was more than that. Even though Gamzee was open to their opinions, there was a firmness to the way he handed down the final orders that made it very clear he was the one in charge.
The designers finished presenting their timeline and then headed for the stairs. They were joined by the technician who had been making her final checks of the elevator, leaving Gamzee and Tavros alone on the landing. The two men remained still, listening as the voices of the workers faded, until finally there was no noise at all. After a long moment of silence Gamzee finally moved towards the stairwell. Tavros turned his four wheel device in that direction but stayed where he was as his matesprit ghosted down a few steps. Finally, Gamzee turned around and headed back, satisfied that the workers were gone.
The walls were all painted and the tile that the newly installed recuperacoon rested on was finished, but the carpeting for the rest of the block wouldn’t arrive until the next night and there was no other furniture aside from the young adult sleeping apparatus. It was empty and bare, but luckily the team had already installed locks on the two new doors; Gamzee quickly shut and bolted them. Only then did Gamzee relax. He turned from the hygieneblock entrance and fell back against the wall, sighing heavily as he did.
Tavros wheeled over, reached out and squeezed his matesprit’s hand; the other troll raised tired eyes and sighed again as though the weight of the moon was sitting squarely on his chest. Tavros echoed the feeling in his own heavy exhale before raising his free hand to tug at his matesprit’s waistband. Gamzee smiled, the fondness muted by exhaustion but still clearly there, and followed the gentle pull until he was settled on Tavros’s lap. For a long time they simply sat and stared at one another as the very air around them seemed to change; the worry and guilt melted and even though the negative feelings didn’t go away completely they were so much easier to bear.
They didn’t speak. They didn’t have to. Both knew that the other was thinking about their first kiss. Gamzee’s smile got a little wider and he pretended to almost fall off his matesprit’s lap; Tavros ducked his head in embarrassment. He had been so nervous about confessing his flushed feelings that he yanked too hard when he pulled his friend into his lap and Gamzee nearly ended up in the floor. But, even though he was so scared of rejection, Tavros was still able to work up the nerve to press that first chaste, clumsy kiss to Gamzee’s lips. Even though he had been terrified, he was strong enough to move past the fear and take that risk in the hope it would lead to something wonderful.
Tavros held his something wonderful close. Gamzee brushed the back of his fingers down the side of his matesprit’s face and then a little piece of the world crept back in between them; his knuckles brushed the slave collar. Biting his lip, Gamzee slid his hand around to feel the slight ridges of the new scar. Tavros couldn’t stand to see that guilty look on his matesprit’s face. He pulled Gamzee’s arms down to rest on his waist away from the new scar and polished silver and distracted the other man with a tender kiss. Tavros was distracting himself as much as his lover.
They settled back into simply holding each other. Tavros wondered what the future would bring.
Another six days and everything was installed and painted. The decorating team even started moving the boxes of things back into the hive but Gamzee stopped that after the first linen pod had been restocked; given his lack of close neighbors he wasn’t used to having trolls he didn’t know anywhere near his home. Photos were taken for the team’s portfolio, payment was handed over, and they quickly packed up their equipment and the camp they had set up on the beach.
Once they were gone Tavros and Gamzee spent a good hour lying on the large relaxation couch that was the centerpiece of Gamzee’s new leisureblock. It was just wide enough to accommodate Tavros’s horns, and after sweeps of cuddling on the floor or in hornpiles the couch was a dream. Gamzee’s weight was so reassuring and Tavros just wanted to stay like that forever. Unfortunately they had a lot of work to do; Gamzee was throwing the traditional post-renovation party just five days from then. After taking the time to breathe the two of them got to work unpacking.
Two days of tireless work later and everything was unpacked and put away with the notable exception of Gamzee’s workblock. Tavros had never had reason to be in there before and he had no idea what a mess his matesprit’s filing system caused, or rather, the complete lack of a filing system. While Tavros had made some compromises in the upkeep of his own hive since his accident he never stopped being meticulous with his business records, and seeing the chaos filling the document restraining drawers made his nose itch. Gamzee watched, amused, as his matesprit threw himself into the challenge of organizing things. After insisting several times that Tavros didn’t have to sort through everything Gamzee shrugged and left the determined troll to it, heading off to the nutriblock to make pastries for the party.
Tavros spent the night buried in scribbled receipts and crumpled deeds. Gamzee brought him supper and chuckled as Tavros went on about the state of the workblock in between bites. He might have been able to go on forever if not the other troll; after Gamzee finished his own meal he snuck behind Tavros and started rubbing his matesprit’s shoulders. At first it was Gamzee’s thumbs making light circles and as it progressed to a firmer rub Tavros found it harder and harder to keep talking. Before long he was a pile of jelly. Gamzee spun the four wheel device away from the desk and knelt down to nip at his matesprit’s jaw. With some effort Tavros brought his hands up to cup his lover’s face and held him still so they could kiss properly. They didn’t do more than that—the pall of guilt and fear still clung like a daylight fog and it was killing the mood. Still, each time they looked at each other the weight was a little less.
When he climbed into his recuperacoon that morning Tavros felt better about their chances.
The next night Tavros got right back to work on organizing chaos, but a few hours into it he was called away by movers at the door. While most of the new furniture was moved in by the decorating team there were a few special orders that had yet to come in. The night before it was an assortment of nutriblock devices, but on this evening it was something much larger. Gamzee had gone to the supplihub so Tavros went to meet them. He didn’t have to fake the meekness that was required of a slave speaking to freetrolls; with the way they were looking down their nose at him he was nearly incomprehensible with stuttering. Luckily the movers knew where everything went so Tavros just had to follow them and make sure they stayed on task.
The movers were professional enough—they stayed where they were supposed to and no one had sticky fingers—but the things they were unloading were what gave Tavros problems.
Tavros stayed in the hallway while they unpacked the crates. He stayed there staring resolutely at the wall as though it would offer up the secrets of the universe while the movers set up the... furniture. When he went downstairs to make sure they all left the hive he was blushing as brown as the most decadent cocoa treat imaginable. Once the door was safely locked and the mover’s mechanized four wheel device was out of sight Tavros returned to the third floor, to the block nestled beside the expansive hygieneblock and between their two respiteblocks. The block that seemed so innocent before those big crates and specialized furniture showed up.
Tavros knew he was being ridiculous. He knew that this block would be there. He helped pick out the colors and he was just fine doing that! Well, he was completely useless when it came to what had just been delivered but in his defense Gamzee was bright indigo the whole time and ended up ordering some basic package that apparently existed...
He swallowed, hard, and told himself that he was not going to act like a wriggler and he was going to confront the newly furnished concupiscent lounge like an adult. A nervous, blushing adult who was hunched down in embarrassment but an adult nonetheless.
Even the name was strange, he thought, all highblooded and weird. Blocks that lowbloods didn’t usually have access to tended to have names like that. It was a respiteblock or workblock no matter what the caste, but since lowbloods couldn’t afford decorative galleries or fitness arenas or concupiscent lounges they had exclusively highblooded names.
Tavros wasn’t sure if it was because he grew up knowing he couldn’t afford those things but he never felt the need for them. He would have liked to have a proper feed storage cylinder and a bigger farmbeastrespitehive, maybe add on a workblock, but that was the extent of it. Gamzee was of the same mind, though on a different scale; his hive was small for an indigoblood’s, though there were still quite a few extraneous blocks. When they planned the remodel Gamzee seemed embarrassed by that but Tavros assured him that everyone made silly choices when they were fresh out of the trials; his own windmill was proof of that.
The point Tavros was trying to work out in his own mind as he resolutely did not look at the newly delivered furniture was that he never felt that stuff was necessary. At least, not for him. He didn’t mind Gamzee’s hive, of course, and it was kind of neat to have the specialized cooking equipment in the nutriblock, but the rest of it... he just didn’t think he’d ever really want.
He shook his head and made himself look at what he was resolutely not looking at.
Scattered around the perimeter of the room were a couple plush chairs and a matching relaxation couch, but they might as well have been invisible. Tavros’s gaze was fixed on what was in the center of the room. There were not one but three concupiscent couches. The closest was built in a three bend wave with one side higher than the other. It was easy to see how the bends would support the knees and back and how the width, just a little narrower than the span of his horns, would take the strain off the legs of the troll on top.
Tavros took a few deep, steadying breaths and turned to examine the second couch. It was circular and as he discovered when he poked the side it was very soft, more a cloth sac filled with fluff than an actual couch. It was big enough that even a tall troll like Gamzee would be able to sprawl out fully supported without any limbs hanging off. Comfortably sprawled out naked, his gray skin and bright, wonderfully curved horns outlined by the richly dark green fabric...
He realized there were heavy duty rings sewn into the thick stuffed disk around the base of it. After a moment of being puzzled he realized what could be secured to the metal loops. Tavros’s face and neck felt as hot as if he’d stepped out into the sunlight.
Finally, he came to the largest piece in the room. It was built along the same lines as the concupiscent blanket he bought a third sweep prior, except of course it was much fancier. While the core of the blanket was a simple sheet of high density foam about a handswidth deep, the couch was three times the thickness and it seemed to have some other support system underneath the top layer of squishy foam. The couch wasn’t designed to be rolled up and put away either, which made sense given that anyone who could afford such a large piece of furniture would also have a dedicated block for it. Sturdy legs raised it off the floor, the top just a little higher than the seat of Tavros’s four wheel device. The frame wasn’t flat; the pad was curved at each of the short ends, one a gentle slope for lying down and the other side was the perfect angle for sitting with one’s back to it.
Tavros considered a cold shower but he knew he’d just end up staring at the seated ablution trap as he had been since they came back from Eridan’s. He knew that he and Gamzee still needed time to heal before they dove back into their sexual relationship and he had no problem remembering that when they were together. Tavros didn’t feel the need to do anything past holding Gamzee’s hand as they watched the sunset, hugging him close as they lay together on the relaxation couch, and even when Tavros pulled his matesprit into his lap the slow, sweet kisses were all he needed. However, when Tavros was by himself staring at the room that would be the site of a lot of pleasure once they were ready...
Tavros had gotten over any lingering guilt irrational guilt he felt at the fact that any sexual partner of his was going to have to do most of the work; when Gamzee figured out that insecurity he just laughed and insisted that the leg workout was doing him good. They both knew how to make the other moan even if they were lying on the hard floor. Tavros didn’t think they needed anything other than a concupiscent blanket to make it a little bit more comfortable, however, the idea of all the specialized furniture was starting to make a lot of sense.
He wheeled around and went through the pile of concupiscent cushions next to the couch and picked up a wedge and tested the firmness. Tavros was already figuring out ways that the different shapes could make it easier to hold different positions. The already had amazing sex, but with things like that making it easier they could go for longer, spent less time on the technical parts and spent more time driving each other wild with pleasure—Tavros dropped the pillow and quickly left the room before he got any more ideas that he couldn’t yet act on.
He went back downstairs and buried himself in crumpled files. By the time Gamzee walked into the workblock Tavros had mostly forgotten the delivery from earlier that night. Mostly. Until Gamzee settled onto his lap.
“Mmmm... missed you,” Gamzee mumbled against his matesprit’s lips.
Tavros caught the other man’s face in his hands and kissed him soundly. He leaned back, smiling shyly, and traced his fingers over Gamzee’s jaw. “You’ve only been gone for a few hours,” he pointed out.
“I know. I don’t know how I survived it,” Gamzee replied playfully.
“Hmm, yes, I missed you too,” Tavros said, completely truthful. Then Gamzee’s teeth were scraping oh so deliciously across his neck and those strong fingers were working out the tense knots in his shoulders. Tavros melted under the pleasurable assault.
“Got a package from Kanaya,” Gamzee murmured
It took Tavros a few seconds to register that he was being spoken to. “Wha?” He managed at last.
Gamzee chuckled. “Kanaya sent a package,” he repeated, gesturing to the door and the box sitting next to it. “The note says it’s prototypes for the new clothes she wants to make us.”
“She’s made adult clothes for everybody else, I guess,” Tavros said. “I wonder what they look like?”
Chapter 15: A Touch of Fashion
After stealing another kiss Gamzee got up and set to work opening the box. While he was busy cursing at the crate Tavros turned back to the desk and sorted out the papers and notes that his matesprit needed to read over. At last, Gamzee got the box open.
“This one’s yours,” he said as he tossed a brown paper package to Tavros. Gamzee unfolded several sheets of paper and started reading. “Let’s see what our sunshiny sis has to say...”
Tavros opened the package and found a pair of medium-gray pants; he assumed the rest of the clothes were still in the crate. He unsnapped his shirt and wriggled out of his pants as Gamzee skimmed the letter and summarized aloud.
“Kanaya says she’s all excited about dressing us up. She’s working on some sweet coats before the motherfucking cold really sets in. Umm... here we go. She says she’s pissed about that fucking ceremony and how those assholes screwed everything up.”
Tavros was caught between worry over the buried rage in his matesprit’s voice and amusement at the liberty Gamzee was taking with the very polite Kanaya’s words. He chose to say nothing for the time being and focused on pulling on his new pants.
“She says that she’s still with me,” Gamzee continued. “This is definitely a huge motherfucking relief. I didn’t know how we were going to get word out to her since she’s all up in the middle of the desert. I wonder if Vriska... talked to her...”
Tavros looked up to see why his matesprit trailed off and was met with a hungry stare. On instinct he brought his arms up to cover his bare chest, then fought the irrational urge and kept his hands firmly on the armrests of his four wheel device. Gamzee shook his head and chuckled, setting the letter down and walking over so that he could trace his fingertips over his lover’s lips.
“I’ll never understand how you can be all not knowing how motherfucking good you look like that.” Gamzee grinned, “Maybe I’ll hide all your shirts.”
Tavros blushed and bashfully looked to the side. “Oh, oh really?”
“Fuck yeah,” Gamzee ran his tongue over his fangs and Tavros was so distracted that he almost missed the next words. “I might just hide all your shirts on the top shelf.”
“I might get cold,” Tavros managed in a squeak. He was aware that his muscular torso could be considered something nice to look at, but he didn’t think he was every going to get used to Gamzee’s aggressive compliments.
“Mmm... That’s a big fucking problem.” Gamzee languidly settled back into Tavros’s lap. “I’ll have to do something about that. How about...” He wrapped his arms around his matesprit hugged him close, “I keep you warm with my body?”
Tavros’s eyes were half lidded and his skin tingled where they were pressed together. It was hard to ignore the heat pooling in his belly. He closed the distance between them and then stopped just barely short, their lips brushing as he breathed, “You know... the furniture was delivered today.”
“What furniture?” Gamzee asked, his voice so husky and low that even that completely tame question sent a jolt of anticipatory pleasure through his matesprit.
“The... uh...” Tavros licked his lips and ended up running his tongue along the other troll’s lower lip in the process; Gamzee’s eyelids fluttered shut and the indigo blush under his eyes deepened. Tavros did it again, deliberately, and drank in the delicious hitch in his matesprit’s breath before answering, “The concupiscent furniture.”
The change in Gamzee was immediate. His eyes snapped open and he drew back, his expression changing from gentle lust to apprehensive. After a few seconds he shook his head and slid off Tavros’s lap and down to kneel on the floor in front of the four wheel device.
“Tav, babe, I...” Gamzee swallowed hard and took his matesprit’s hands in his. “Look, it’s not you, okay?”
Tavros shook his head and squeezed his lover’s hands. His nerve endings still sang where Gamzee touched him and he ached for more, but with the mood broken the fears and worries rose back to the surface. He wasn’t sure which of the many fears were bothering Gamzee, but it was clear that the anxiety was very real. Tavros took a few deep breaths and tried to will away his arousal, knowing that it would be a bad idea to dive back into their physical relationship when Gamzee was still this troubled.
“Tavros, I need to know that you get that,” Gamzee said in earnest. “It’s not because I have some kind of fucking problem with you.”
“Gamzee, it’s okay.”
“I need to know that you understand that,” Gamzee repeated. He bit his lip and let go of Tavros’s hands so that he could get closer and wrap his arms around his lover’s waist. “You are the sexiest motherfucking thing I have ever seen, okay? You’re sweet and cute and smart and incredible—“
“I understand, I really do.”
Gamzee buried his face in Tavros’s shirt. “—I never want to stop kissing you. I’ve been thinking about those motherfucking couches and how good you’re going to look all spread out on that dark fabric...”
Tavros lifted his lover’s chin and looked deep into those dark eyes tinged and streaked with indigo. He rubbed his thumb over Gamzee’s cheek and then brought their foreheads together, careful of their horns. “I know, Gamzee, I know. I understand, I promise you. It’s okay. Everything’s going to be okay.”
“I’m sorry,” Gamzee mumbled. “I’m all fucking things up.”
“No, you’re not.” Tavros kissed him, tender and controlled. “It’s just new, and different, and it’s not a good situation. But we’re going to get through it.”
“Yeah,” Gamzee smiled up at him, “we’re going to be okay.” He stood and turned back to the crate from Kanaya. “Okay, let’s get these motherfucking threads on.”
Tavros pulled his new pants up the rest of the way once his matesprit vacated his lap. With how much Karkat went on and on about the stripes Kanaya put him in Tavros was kind of worried, but he found himself pleased. The pants were of a study but comfortable material just a couple shades darker than his skin. What was really nice is that they were clearly designed for someone who spent all his time sitting down; there were no pockets on the back where it would be awkward to get at them, the front pockets at the waistline were looser than typical pants so that it would be easy to get into them, and there was a pocket on the outside of each thigh just above the knee. He’d be able to keep the small and important things, like his hivekey, money, or PDA, close to his person instead of in the hoofbeast seating apparatus style bags he hooked to the side of his armrests when he went on errands.
He had just finished inspecting his new pockets when Gamzee tossed over a second package, this one containing dark gray socks, a pair of nice black loafers, and a note from Kanaya which said she’d have at him with her lipstick if she ever saw him in white socks and sandals again. Tavros wasn’t sure what exactly was so offensive about his old shoes, but after he slipped on the loafers he decided it wouldn’t be a challenge avoiding the chainsaw. If he went over rough terrain then there was a tendency for his old sandals to bump off his feet little bit at a time, but that shouldn’t be a problem with the loafers.
Tavros looked up and started to comment on this but the words got stuck in his throat. Gamzee was by the crate holding up a pair of boxers identical to his own, but with a twist. Where the old ones were a searing sopor green with a pie pattern Gamzee drew on himself, the new pair was a dark, muted blue. It was one of Gamzee’s favorite colors—he would say that peanut butter brown was his favorite just to make Tavros blush—and it showed up all over the hive. However, while Kanaya did tone down the color, she kept the spirit of the drawings. Outlined in a nearly black blue were pies, loaves of bread, and muffins. Gamzee chuckled as he took in the pattern.
The reason why Tavros had no words is that Gamzee had already stripped down, completely, before examining his new underwear. He was facing towards the door which gave Tavros an excellent view of his matesprit’s bare behind. While Gamzee’s muscles weren’t quite as bulky as those in Tavros’s torso he was certainly not lacking in definition, particularly in his hips and legs since he’d take his one wheel device out for a ride every night.
“So, babe,” Gamzee said, “want something?”
Tavros realized he was staring and looked away, embarrassed. They had just established that they weren’t going to be going there... but it was a nice view.
“I’m just looking,” Tavros replied. Gamzee’s returning smile was soft and Tavros knew they were good.
He pulled on the new boxers and modeled them flirtatiously for Tavros before going back to the crate. The next two packages were for him; one had a new shirt with his sign crisply embroidered instead of being printed on, and the other had his new pants. The polka-dots were still there—Gamzee wouldn’t have it any other way—but they were darker than the rest of the fabric instead of being several shades lighter. It was still obviously Gamzee but it was much more subtle.
“I guess Kanaya’s got it down, huh?” Gamzee asked as he twisted to see how the pants fit. “I can wear these around those motherfucking highblooded society types and still be me.”
“I think you look really good in those,” Tavros said.
Gamzee looked over his shoulder and smiled. “I think you look sexy in your new clothes.”
Tavros ducked his head. “Come on, cut it out. I’m not even wearing everything yet.”
“I think you’re wearing enough. You’re all wearing too much.”
Tavros didn’t need to look up to know that his matesprit was taking in the way he squirmed in pleased embarrassment. Gamzee knew all the right buttons to press to make Tavros feel good.
“Okay, okay,” Gamzee said as he turned back to the crate. “Time to stop fucking around and get you a shirt... this looks like it.”
Tavros took the package and unwrapped it while Gamzee turned away to tear into another one of his. The brown paper contained a sleeveless black shirt made out of a soft, slightly stretchy fabric. Even though Tavros had been wearing his cover shirts it still made him sad to see the lack of sign. He shook it off and examined the left shoulder and side, where he expected to find snaps like the ones he put in his old shirts, but Kanaya put in something a little more clever. Across the shoulder were four pairs of magnets which were strong enough to stay closed but not so strong that they were too hard to pull apart. The side closed with a zipper that ran top to bottom with a hook at the hem to keep it closed. To keep him from rubbing his arm on the teeth of it there was a small flap that folded over and stayed closed with the same magnetic catch that was on the shoulder.
He unfastened everything and wrapped the shirt around his abdomen. After zipping up the side he spun it around, put his arm through the sewn up side, and fastened the magnets on the other side. It was a lot faster than snapping up his old shirts. It was also more comfortable since Kanaya put the side opening a little bit to the front instead of right under his arm, and even with the cover the zipper lay much flatter than the snaps.
However, while all that was very nice, Tavros was not all that sure about the cut of the shirt. There was a slit in the neckline that laced up, but it was clearly designed to stay just a little bit open. It didn’t show off all that much of Tavros’s chest, but the size of the shirt did. It was tight, not enough to be uncomfortable, but definitely enough to cling to his form.
“I think Kanaya got my size wrong,” he commented as he tugged at it. It was long enough to tuck into his pants but the fact still remained that it was just a little too tight. Tavros didn’t think that Kanaya made mistakes when it came to clothes, so the situation was a little baffling.
After several seconds went by without any response Tavros turned to face his matesprit. Gamzee was staring and didn’t seem aware of the other man’s gaze for a long moment.
“No...” Gamzee said slowly. “I don’t think she messed it up.”
“What are you talking about? It’s so small.”
Gamzee laughed. “Babe, you look really good.”
The blush made a comeback.
“But...” Gamzee’s expression turned uncertain. “I don’t know if it’s the best motherfucking idea. She’s got to know how shy you are... wait, what’s that?”
Tavros looked where his matesprit was pointing and saw a slip of paper on the ground. Gamzee picked it up and handed it over.
“Okay, so, she says that she changed her mind on a sort of jacket she was making?” Tavros summarized as he read the note. “So I’ll still have layers, I guess.”
“Makes sense...” Gamzee said absently as he fished out the last package in the crate. After he opened it he stood there looking at what was inside for a long time before finally saying, “Wow. Maybe Kanaya’s all on the nose about fashion having some kind of deeper motherfucking meaning.”
“Hmm?” Tavros wheeled over and tried to see what was in the package. “What are you talking about?”
Gamzee dropped the wrapping and unfolded a black button up shirt. It was made out of a thin, finely woven material that had a slight shimmer to it; Tavros felt a dangling sleeve and wondered if it was actually silk. Once he let go Gamzee shrugged it on.
“You look really good in that!” Tavros said as Gamzee twisted to test the fit. “But I don’t understand what you meant about meaning.”
“It’s your shirt,” Gamzee replied cryptically.
“What? Not really. My cover shirt had short sleeves, and it was flat across the bottom instead of having this kind of angled hem, and it wasn’t this nice of material.”
Gamzee chuckled and brushed Tavros’s cheek with his knuckles. “It’s your thing, babe.” His hand traveled lower and he traced the silver collar. “Even when we have to play our parts for high fucking society I’ll be wearing proof I belong to you.”
Tavros caught Gamzee’s hand and kissed his palm.
“None of those assholes will have any motherfucking idea,” Gamzee continued, almost to himself. “We’re all showing our matespritship in plain sight and they’ll never figure it out.”
There was still sadness in Gamzee’s voice, but his smile was far, far less forced than it had been. Tavros decided that then was as good a time as any to bring up the paperwork he knew his matesprit had been putting off.
“Gamzee, you still have to, um,” Tavros brought his lover’s knuckles to his lips. “You still have to do something with my hive and land.”
Predictably, Gamzee’s expression soured.
“All the records for my accounts and property and stuff is on the desk... okay?”
Gamzee nodded and glared at the stack of papers and data grubs as though he was trying to make it burst into flames. Tavros decided that was enough melancholy and drug his teeth and tongue over the inside of his matesprit’s wrist. Gamzee shivered in pleasure and grinned, leaning down to kiss Tavros softly on the lips.
“All right, let’s get this motherfucking paper train on the rails.”
Chapter 16: Flour and Yeast
If anyone even notices, I realized that there's no way a perigee is a troll month. Timewise it looks like a perigee is what we'd consider a calendar day, and a season is a month. I'm going back and changing all 'perigee's in past chapters.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Tavros nervously rushed around his respiteblock making sure he had everything ready for his first trip out into the world since the ceremony. His brand new ID was tucked into his pants pocket along with the papers showing that he would be on the magnetic high speed rail device by himself on his master’s orders. Underneath the anxiety Tavros was actually looking forward to the ride since he’d actually be able to use the nice highblood track; he thought it was kind of strange that as a slave who wasn’t even counted on the standard hemospectrum he was now able to safely go many more places than he could as a free troll.
Of course, the closer he got to the time he had to leave the less he was able to focus on socio-philosophical problems like that. With a little less than an hour left before he had to leave for the station he quickly dismantled his pistols and checked that everything was lubricated and in proper working order before reassembling and stowing them in his holster. He strapped that on and then double and triple checked that he had everything he needed in the bags hung on his armrests.
He was traveling to Equius and Vriska’s lawnring to hand deliver invitations to Gamzee’s hivewarming and to give them the full story behind the ceremony. He was going to give Vriska the full story, anyway. He still wasn’t sure what he was going to say to Equius. Tavros had never even told Nepeta about his matespritship even though he once had the opportunity; he didn’t want to put her in an uncomfortable position of knowing a ship that her moirail would surely disapprove of.
With the new situation it just made everything trickier. Even though Gamzee had logged back into Trollian the only message he got from Equius was a very short statement of condolences over how uncouth the trolls running the ceremony were, delivered when Gamzee was away from his husktop, and after that he reportedly locked himself in his workshop to develop a new robotic device. Gamzee said that it wasn’t unusual for Equius to drop off the face of Alternia for several days at a time when he got a new idea in his think pan, and he couldn’t figure out how exactly the blueblood had taken the news. Gamzee guessed that Equius was at least a little salty at him since Nepeta was so distraught, and that even if the blueblood was more than a little salty at him he’d never say it. There were plenty of momentary lapses in Equius’s hold on his tongue back when they were younger when he would tell Gamzee what he was doing wrong, but that had faded out over time. Tavros thought that Gamzee sounded wistful for those days when Equius would call him a disgrace and then apologize.
Unfortunately, the biggest worry was not that Equius was angry, but that he approved of the enslavement. It was no secret that Equius hoped that he’d be able to serve under Gamzee’s command providing that Gamzee was able to earn enough to buy a captainship. Gamzee taking a willing slave was a sign that his financials were strong enough to purchase that command. If Equius only disapproved of the way in which it was done... Tavros didn’t know how he’d feel about it. They weren’t exactly close, but Equius had always been far less, well, Equius in his dealings with him compared to some of the other lowbloods in their circle. Tavros guessed it was because he was considered less of a bad influence on Equius’s beloved moirail. Whatever the reason, Tavros always thought it was a good sign that Equius could be civil with him, and that maybe once he got past his awkward sweaty phase he’d be less Equius to Aradia and Karkat and the others.
Tavros put the issue out of his mind as he had been doing ever since he and Gamzee decided that this trip was going to take place. He wouldn’t know until he got to Equius’s hive and worrying beforehand wouldn’t solve anything. Besides, Equius was his second stop. If he was going to focus on anything before he even got on the rail it would be his trip to Vriska’s hive.
While he didn’t know what to expect with Equius, Tavros was certain that Vriska would not treat him any differently than she had before. Tavros wasn’t sure what to do with the way it comforted him that she was always mean to him because of his personality and not his blood color, but either way he had to be prepared when he got to her hive. She had never done anything violent, and he had grown a thicker metaphorical skin since he was six, but it was still very trying to be around her. Tavros didn’t know what it was; half the time it seemed like casual hateflirting but then the next second she’d be telling him he was pitiful and then suddenly she’d be completely indifferent.
Tavros stared at his fairy posters as a means of grounding himself and sighed. He wondered why everything had to be so complicated.
He left his block before he fell into another round of checking everything. Tavros planned to give himself plenty of time to get to the station and then navigate through the highblooded section, but even given that he still had some time left despite all his triple checking. The prospect of taking his first trip into the world since he became a slave had his acid sack in knots, but he decided it might be worthwhile to go pack something he could eat later.
Tavros could hear his matesprit humming before he entered the nutriblock. He smiled softly as he lingered in the doorway, the sight of Gamzee contently kneading dough helping to lessen his own anxiety. He sat there motionless until Gamzee sensed his presence and turned around. There was the familiar reaction: first Gamzee broke out into a grin at seeing his matesprit, then his eyes flicked down to the collar and signless shirt and there was a moment of sadness that passed a little quicker than the last time, and finally his expression settled on mostly content with an undercurrent of unease.
Gamzee stepped forward and Tavros rolled to meet him. In silent greeting Tavros reached out and took the other man’s left hand in both of his, squeezing gently and then bringing the palm to his lips. Before the ceremony this greeting always took place just inside their front doors. It was always planned and prepared and generally with freshly washed hands. Even on the occasions when they stayed at the other’s hive for a few nights at a time they never really got past the point of it being a visit. Now that they’d been living together for a while that feeling of having to be on tiptoe was starting to fade.
Tavros wrinkled his nose when the flour and yeast clinging to Gamzee’s skin tickled. He was starting to really like the taste, which was good because his matesprit spent a lot of time covered in the stuff. It looked like Gamzee was in the middle of an order for the eating establishment he owned in the civihub and would probably still be in the nutriblock when Tavros got back. There was a definite comfort in that knowledge, and it made Tavros a little less nervous about his trip. The corners of his mouth quirked up when a pleased hum escaped his lover’s lips.
Gamzee leaned down and caught Tavros’s left hand in his. He returned the attention, somewhat sloppier than his matesprit had been, and Tavros loved it. When teeth scraped across the inside of Tavros’s wrist he found himself looking forward to the day when he would wear the mating puncture scar with pride. The pailing itself was still a scary thought, or more specifically, the imperial drone was terrifying, but Tavros was ready and willing to give his left wrist to Gamzee.
At least the slavery farce would still allow them to pail together. Plenty of masters would fill in empty quadrants with suitable slaves, and once they got to the donation the drone wouldn’t care what color they were as long as they finished quickly. “Say what you will ‘bout the I-drone’s teeth, but they don’t mind ‘bout what’s underneath” was a saying as old as the drones themselves.
First donation was still a ways off, though, and Tavros knew he had to concentrate on the present. He couldn’t help but giggle as his arm was pulled up so Gamzee could kiss all the way up to the ticklish inside of his elbow. With one last parting nip Gamzee released his matesprit’s arm and straightened. He looked nervous about something, and Tavros assumed that it had to do with his impending trip to a blue lawnring.
“I was thinking about bringing something. Food, that is, to snack on,” Tavros said, trying to get a measure for his matesprit’s stress levels.
“You don’t have to size me up all covertly,” Gamzee said. He playfully tapped Tavros on the nose and then wandered through the kitchen packing a meal. “I’m okay today.”
“The blue bastards won’t touch you,” Gamzee said with certainty as he wrapped up some sweet rolls and bleatbeast jerky. “I’m a scary motherfucker.”
There was an undercurrent of anger in Gamzee’s tone but it wasn’t enough for Tavros to worry about it. He stowed the offered package and held his matesprit’s hands in his. “You’re amazing,” he said in earnest, glad when a soft, fond smile graced Gamzee’s face. After a few moments of comfortable silence Tavros saw his matesprit swallow hard, a clear sign that Gamzee was winding himself up for something.
“What are you thinking about?” Tavros asked, sure that it would be time for him to go before his matesprit brought whatever it was up on his own.
Gamzee looked as though the question had startled him, then he nervously shifted foot to foot before finally squaring his shoulders. He knelt down in front of the four wheel device and slid his hands up Tavros’s legs, coming to rest on bony hips.
“Now, you don’t have to deal with it for this season because you’re all adjusting,” Gamzee said in a rush. “But starting next season you’re going to have to be on the one wheel device with this thing.”
“What? What are you talking about?” Tavros asked, confused. He tried to figure out what his matesprit was talking about but nothing seemed to fit.
Gamzee continued, making his voice sound very businesslike. Tavros could tell some of that was put on but he could also tell that Gamzee was being very serious about whatever he was talking about.
“Look, Tavros, I’m here to tell you right now I’m not paying all the motherfucking bills by myself. So like I said starting next season you’re going to have to start putting in half for what we share, utilities and shit.” Gamzee gestured to the assortment of dough rising on the counter. “Don’t worry about all this noise; I got the baking on a separate account from everyday eating. We’ll only split what we both use, and then for everything else every motherfucker to his own, right?”
Tavros blinked and tried to work out what he was hearing.
“Under the slave laws you can’t own anything; fuck that shit. You tell me what to do with what still belongs to you and any money from your accounts or what you want to all sell will go into a separate account. Then you use that to keep your lusus care thing going or the thing where you talk pretty motherfucking beasts out of their spare feathers and scales. I saw in your papers you got turned down for some permits to get off-Alternian creatures down here, but we can fix that since this has to be in my name. But it’s yours; you just give me whatever you need signed to move shit and I’ll do it without asking any fucking questions because your job isn’t something I need to all meddle in. Oh, and if you need more startup than you have then I’ll lend you whatever you fucking need, but you have to pay it all back. With interest.”
Gamzee stopped talking and looked up at his matesprit expectantly. Tavros stared back blankly as he processed the rush of words. Slowly, like the glow of moonrise spreading over him, the significance of what his matesprit was saying struck him. Tavros smiled hesitantly and Gamzee let out his held breath in a sigh before grinning back. The weight disappeared from Tavros’s mind and his smile grew wider, the growing tender mirth quickly taking over and they both broke into relieved laughter.
“You are fucking gorgeous when you smile,” Gamzee said between chuckles. “So... does that sound all good?”
Tavros shook his head at the absurdity of the statement. “You’re amazing. You’re absolutely incredible.”
Gamzee looked to the side, a sly look on his face. “Nothing I wouldn’t ask of any other hivemate, babe. As for the amazing and incredible, tell me something I don’t—“
He was interrupted when Tavros grabbed his collar and yanked him up for a sloppy, giddy kiss. With the fear of the transition itself faded into the background, Tavros had started to wonder what he was going to do with himself. He had always been independent, one of the few self-employed trolls in his caste, and he wasn’t sure he’d be able to function as a kept troll. Tavros knew that he needed to bring it up but he wasn’t sure how his matesprit would take it. As Gamzee stood up on his knees and deepened the kiss Tavros knew he never had to worry. He felt so lucky to have found his matesprit, his true matesprit, so early in his life.
Tavros wound his fingers in unruly hair to bring them even closer. The kiss quickly became something sultry. Gamzee decided that there wasn’t enough contact and climbed into the four wheel device. He settled into his matesprit’s lap with his long legs hanging over the armrests, his hands suddenly everywhere. Gamzee fought to get his fingers under the snug fabric of the shirt as his tongue claimed his matesprit’s eager mouth . Tavros remembered what his lover had said about sliding in while they were both in the device and couldn’t help but groan.
Gamzee shivered at the sound. “Fuck, babe,” he mumbled into Tavros’s mouth, “I want you so bad.”
Tavros was about to reply in kind but before he could catch his breath a shrill timer went off behind him. Gamzee looked over the top of his matesprit’s head and cursed everything from yeast to the mother grub who bore him as he got up out of the device and stomped over to the oven the size of a standard ablution trap set into the wall. Tavros looked down at his black shirt, which was dusted with flour transferred from Gamzee’s clothes, and frantically tried to decide if they should continue once the bread was on the cooling racks.
He was still debating the issue when Gamzee slid back into his lap. Tavros leaned in for another kiss and caught sight of the clock above the stovetop. He groaned in a way that spoke of frustration rather that what his matesprit was doing to his neck.
Gamzee looked over his shoulder and checked the time. “Fuck,” he said, summarizing their frustrations in a single syllable.
“Yeah,” Tavros agreed. He would have to leave for the station soon, leaving no time to test how fast he could strip out of his new shirts. Gamzee was clearly of the same mind as he was toying with the zipper on Tavros’s shoulder.
“We could send the invites by Trollian,” Gamzee suggested. He brushed Tavros’s cheek with his knuckles. “You don’t have to all go.”
It was clear that Gamzee felt guilty as soon as he finished saying it. Tavros delivering Vriska and Equius’s invitations by hand wasn’t about the party, but rather about telling them the true story behind the ceremony. Vriska had told Gamzee that she had appointments to keep and would only be in her hive for about an hour that night, so Tavros had to be on time. Vriska would be the one to tell Terezi the whole story, then Terezi would have to call Karkat to her hive under pretense of a delivery from his store, and then Karkat would be able to tell Sollux and Aradia. Tavros still didn’t know if it would be a good idea to tell Equius the truth of his enslavement, but he hoped that Nepeta would be there and that he could pull her aside and put her fears at ease. The message she had left Gamzee the night after the ceremony ripped at Tavros, and he knew he had to find a way to tell her the truth.
The two lovers reluctantly broke apart.
“Motherfucker, but I made you a mess,” Gamzee swore as he surveyed the powdery smears on Tavros’s clothes and skin. He retrieved a dampened a towel and fussed like a doting lusus until his matesprit was free of flour and yeast. When he was satisfied with his work he leaned back down, careful not to mess up Tavros’s clean clothes again, and kissed his lover deeply. Tavros gave Gamzee’s hand a quick squeeze and left the nutriblock. His stomach was still tied up in worried knots, but not nearly as bad as it had been before seeing his matesprit.
Tavros made one last check of his weapons and paperwork and then donned his jacket. He was glad that Kanaya had been able to send it before his first trip out into the world as a slave; he had quickly gotten used to the snug sleeveless shirt when only Gamzee could see him but he would have felt beyond uncomfortable in a bustling magnetic rail station. The jacket was very light—he was never terribly bothered by the cold and it was still the dim season after all—and served more as a cover shirt than something to keep him warm. It was comfortable, made of some kind of soft and strong fabric that was probably ridiculously expensive, with buttons made of polished silver and decorative stitching the color of Gamzee’s blood. It had no collar, the back dipping down in a shallow V so that his slavemark was clearly visible.
For the first time he headed out into the world alone as a slave and not a freetroll.
Tavros left the hive and started down the winding road leading to the nearby lawnring.
I took a bit of a break from the angstfest of OEG to write a prequel oneshot called True. It's set about half a sweep before Tavros's slave ceremony.
I'm going to get the calendar set up and posted on the Tumblr Dark Season Blog, and then fully refreshed I will get back onto updating this fic.
Chapter 17: Train of Thought
Tavros’s trip to the station was uneventful. He found some peace in the journey, the same path he took whenever he had visited Gamzee in the past, and the familiarity helped ease his worries about the decidedly unfamiliar territory he was about to enter. When he reached the station he started towards the economy platforms out of habit, but caught his mistake quickly. His acid sac full of flutterbeasts—particularly rowdy flutterbeasts—he wheeled right through the upper tier gate. Tavros half expected someone to stop him and tell him he wasn’t supposed to be there, the only scrutiny he got was an attendant squinting at his collar before handing him his ticket.
He suffered a moment of panic when he entered the shuttle. It didn’t count as lavish by any stretch, and the economy cars he was used to weren't exactly trashed, but it was still far nicer than he was used to. Tavros forced his breathing under control as he lashed his four wheel device to a rail with his trusty hooked elastic polymer bands. However, once he’d sat there for a while as other passengers settled into their seats he started to feel a little calmer. There were a few curious or scornful looks but the focus was his device, not his collar, and it didn’t seem to be any worse than it was when he was a freetroll. Most of them acted as though he was invisible, which suited him just fine.
Tavros still felt at a complete loss as to what he was and wasn’t supposed to do as a slave. When he and Gamzee had decided on their plan he’d done as much research as he could, but there weren’t many resources on how to be a slave and those that existed tended to contradict each other and themselves. It was a given he’d have to show the proper deference to freetolls, particularly those high enough on the hemospectrum to own their own slaves, and since meek was his default when it came to strangers that wasn’t going to be hard. But he wasn’t sure if he was allowed to strike up conversation with someone who wasn’t working a service like the troll at the ticket counter, he wasn’t sure if he was allowed to talk to someone who talked to him first, he wasn’t sure of a lot of things and that uncertainty made him uneasy.
A group of three trolls boarded the nearly empty shuttle and Tavros stared while trying to make it look like he wasn’t. All three were wearing identical collars; the collar of an unwilling slave. Tavros thought that the more modern term ‘unbonded’ made more sense because none of them looked particularly unwilling. As they passed Tavros caught some of what they were saying; they were joking around about some movie that one thought was terrible and the other two liked. It was a perfectly normal conversation, with no hint of oppression aside from the fact that they were keeping their voices low. On the economy shuttle it was a common occurrence to have such discussions shouted across the aisles.
He found his gaze lingering on their collars and eventually realized that he was nervously fiddling with his own. He had picked it out himself, since Gamzee couldn’t bring himself to look at the catalog, and so Tavros knew what a wide range of options were available. In his case as a willing slave the only two restrictions were that it showed his color and didn’t cover his mark; any style or material that filled those requirements was allowed. However, the collars of unwilling slaves were all the same. The band was wide, the width of two fingers, and was gently curved at the edges to fit the troll’s shoulders and neck without restricting movement. The magnetic clasps on each side were also locks which could only be undone by a verbal command from their master and a tap with a biometric keycomb. The unwilling collars were always made of a tough, flexible carbide polymer as black as it could be with their current master’s sign embossed on the back. There was no indicator of their blood color because all unwilling slaves were placed at the same casteless level; an unwilling slave could be a purpleblood and Tavros would still outrank them.
Tavros realized he was rubbing his mark and forced his hands into his lap. Unlike the simple silver band resting at the base of his neck, the three trolls’ collars covered up their slavemarks. An unwilling slave’s mark was two circles, one inside the other, with a horizontal line splitting them; no troll had that sign. Instead of being dyed the bloodcolor of their master the unwilling mark was black. Sometimes a willing slave would become an unwilling slave, in which case the black mark would be made over the existing colored sign, but that didn’t seem to happen very often.
He thought over the things he had researched and tried to mesh those facts with the sight of three smiling trolls sitting across the way. Willing slaves, like Tavros, were tied to one master. The modern term of ‘bonded’ came from the fact that willing slaves had a binding contract with their master. They were still property but they had certain rights that unwilling slaves did not. Willing slaves couldn’t be bought, sold, or traded without jumping through a ridiculous number of bureaucratic trick rings, but unwilling slaves could change hands as easily as any other expensive piece of property. A master was contractually required to provide their willing slave with a respiteblock comparable in size and quality to what they had before, free access to a nutriblock whether it was a separate one just for servants or the same one the master used, a minimum of the same quality of medical care they could get as freetrolls, and other things like that. The masters of unwilling slaves only had to provide some form of shelter and enough food that they didn’t starve.
Tavros tried to gauge if any of the slaves on the train showed signs of malnutrition, but all three looked healthy and generally content. He was finally able to tear his eyes away from the collars to look at the rest of their clothing. One wore muted green slacks, one wore dark grey denim, and one wore a frilly black skirt, but all three wore matching black coats edged in the same shade of teal. Tavros assumed it was their master’s color, though it seemed odd for a tealblood to be well enough off to own three slaves. Then he mused that it might not be odd at all; he knew so little.
For most of the trip he internally debated whether or not it would be appropriate for him to ask the group for some pointers. Tavros never did settle on a yes or no for that question but he did decide that it didn’t really matter since he’d never work up the nerve to strike up that conversation. He watched them as discretely as possible, looking for any clues as to how he should be interacting with freetrolls. There didn’t seem to be too big of a difference between how a slave and freetroll were treated; everyone was kind of distant and in their own world. Some were chatting in their own small groups like the three slaves were, some were focused on husktops or books, some were using communicators, a few were eating. It was the same sort of thing that went on in the economy cars, but a little more formal. To Tavros that seemed to be the difference between most things split between lowblood and highbloods; lowbloods were more open to talking to a like-casted stranger than highbloods were, thus why there was more chatter on the economy cars.
Tavros felt himself relaxing. It looked like he’d be fine since all this trip required was staying out of other trolls’ way and being polite, which is what he did anyway. Later on when he had to actually interact with trolls he wasn’t familiar with things might get complicated, such as at Gamzee’s upcoming hivewarming party, but that was a worry for another perigee. Tavros was even able to enjoy the meal his matesprit had packed after he had confirmation that he was allowed to eat on the train when one of the slaves pulled out a snack.
In a little less than an hour the rail arrived at the station serving Equius and Vriska’s lawnring. Tavros took note of the way the three slaves remained seated while the rest got up and remained where he was until all the freetrolls were at the doors. Aside from the group trimmed in teal there were two other slaves on the shuttle—they were already seated when Tavros entered so he didn’t pick them out at first—and the six of them exited after everyone else was on the platform.
Tavros wished that he could ask the others for the slightest hint as to how he should behave, but he knew that it would be foolish to do so. Most prominent of the reasons was the thought that he would get the other troll into trouble with their master, which he certainly didn’t want to do.
Even if he could be sure there would be no retribution from their master, there was no guarantee he wouldn’t face retribution from the slave themselves. While the group were solidly below his new station—the unwilling slaves of a tealblood versus the willing slave of an indigoblood—the other two were bonded as he was. One wore a yellow gem at her throat and a high-blue brand, the other wore a collar of natural jade and an indigo mark—one higher in blood, one higher by master, and Tavros had no idea how well they carried their collars. In his first season as a member of the disabled community he had learned that a great many with crippling injuries would grow hard and bitter and lash out at anyone who dared to come near, partially due to the anger at their situation but mostly to prove to the rest of society that they weren’t weak. Tavros thought it would make sense if some slaves took the same stance.
Then there was the issue of how he would appear to the other troll. While Tavros would never look down on someone who asked for help there were many, many trolls who would take it as a sign of weakness. As a brownblood in a four wheel device he was already the target of a lot of scorn and a few isolated attacks, which is why Nepeta had asked Jadret, her then-friend-now-kismesis, into teaching him how to fire a gun so he could defend himself before the attacking troll got close. Now, on the other side of the ceremony, he was a brownblooded slave in a four wheel device, and at that point he didn’t feel up to making it inquisitive brownblooded slave in a four wheel device. His anxiety over the trip was starting to creep back even though Vriska had given her absolute assurances to Gamzee that Tavros would be safe in her lawnring. The unknown was what worried him, and he wished that there was a single reliable resource he could have studied.
Giving those sorts of survival tips to those who needed it would be considered merciful, he realized. Even if the master allowed it, or if the slave was brave enough to do it anyway, the mercy of helping new slaves could be seen as cullworthy weakness.
Tavros slouched in his chair as he wheeled down the platform, trailing after the group of three slaves he had studied in the train. He was so tired of it all, so weary of how their culture functioned. Everything was so broken and he knew it was going to be a long, hard fight making it right.
One perigee at a time, he reminded himself. He focused on getting to Vriska’s hive, leaving thoughts of rebellion for another night.
Tavros’s single minded focus on his goal was quickly disrupted. A troll in a hurry came running past with arms full of thin bound books, and one of the three unwilling slaves turned into his path. The freetroll, a thin ceruleanblooded boy, was able to catch his balance and remain on his feet, but most of what he was carrying spilled to the ground. The slave twisted as he fell and rolled into a crouch, his hand groping for a weapon that clearly wasn’t there. All of that took place in less than a second, and then his pain nerves caught up with reflex. He stumbled from his crouch and ended up sitting on the ground wincing as he rubbed his shoulder. The collision wasn’t nearly enough to cause any damage beyond the lightest of bruises, so Tavros guessed that the boy ended up a slave due to some debilitating injury.
“I’m very sorry, sir,” he apologized respectfully as he reached out to gather the fallen volumes. “I’ll get these for you, sir.”
The freetroll’s cheeks grew blue with anger. He dropped what was left in his arms on a nearby bench and turned back in a boiling fury. Quick as lightning he darted forward and grabbed the slave by his injured shoulder, drawing forth a pained gasp.
“I’ll teach you to get in a real troll’s way, property,” he growled. He tossed the slave down and was moving to kick him when the female slave put herself between them. The freetroll backhanded her across the mouth. “Do I have to schoolfeed you too?”
He raised his hand again and Tavros flinched in sympathy. However, the second blow never landed. The girl ducked out of the way, quickly sidestepped to avoid the next strike, and then returned to standing directly between the livid freetroll and the downed slave, who was being helped up by the third in their group.
“You. Forget. Your. Place,” he told her, his voice quiet and dangerous as the hiss of the tempered blade being drawn from its scabbard. He gripped his sword with murderous certainty and Tavros laid his hand on his pistol, watching helplessly because he knew there was no way he could draw. They were surrounded by highbloods, and even if there weren’t so many unsympathetic witnesses he could never shoot a blueblood and expect to get away with it.
The girl didn’t seem to share his fear for her safety. She stood there, her hands at her sides and her lip dripping a color that straddled the line between maroon and brown, and she remained between her fellow slave and a blueblood so angry he was shaking. The only way she could be of lower rank is if she were in a helmscolumn, since helmstrolls had even fewer rights than unwilling slaves, and still she stared him down without wavering.
“With the greatest respect, sir, you’re incorrect,” she said flatly. “I haven’t forgotten my place. I know exactly what I am.”
“You’ll be dead soon, property.”
“In that you are right,” she said in the same even tone that betrayed no emotion. “I am nothing more than the property of my mistress, as is the man you just attacked.”
The tip of his sword dipped in hesitation. “And?”
For the first time her expression gained the hint of an edge. “And, sir, my mistress has ordered me to protect what belongs to her.”
Tavros felt the urge to grab her by the shoulders and shake her because maroon-browns didn’t defy angry ceruleanbloods and live but against all reason the freetroll sheathed his sword. He still didn’t look to happy, but after his eyes flickered down to the girl’s chest—at her teal-trimmed coat, Tavros realized—the murder left his eyes.
“Well,” he grumbled, “are you going to pick my stuff up or not?”
“Yes, of course, sir,” she answered submissively with a bow of her head. She knelt down, as did the uninjured slave, and they quickly stacked the books and handed them back to the freetroll.
Tavros wiped what he knew must have been an expression of gaping shock off his face. Some of the highbloods who stopped to watch the show looked disappointed at the mostly peaceful outcome, but not one of them said anything to the three slaves. Not one did anything in retribution for the girl’s direct defiance. He realized that they weren’t doing anything because it wasn’t the defiance of a maroon-brown; it was the will of a tealblood. Tavros lifted his wrist and looked at the cuff of his jacket with the simple dotted stitch shining indigo against the black. It was backwards and went against everything he thought was logical, but in some way the girl had more privilege as a slave than she would have had when she was still free.
He mused that Vaderi might like that bit of irony, and then instantly felt sad at the thought of his friend. Unlike Tavros’s wrigglerhood friends, he couldn’t risk letting Vaderi know what was going on. The guy was very class conscious and didn’t really believe in mixing high and low in the quadrants—he said it was too dangerous to date too far under or over your station. He was pretty vocal about it, and given the type of troll he worked for... Tavros shook his head and tried to put that out of his mind, focusing back on the puzzle he had just witnessed.
He also realized that the other two slaves from the car, as well as a few others who were already in the station, were lingering on the platform. It wasn’t until the angry ceruleanblood had stormed around the corner that they split off in their own directions. Tavros wondered if the slave community was less into backstabbing than the disabled community.
Tavros shook himself from his thoughts and hurried as quickly as he dared through the station. Vriska wasn’t going to be in her hive for most of the night and he had to get there before it was time for her to leave. He was nearly to her road when he heard jeering, cruel laughter, and a familiar voice that made his blood pusher leap up to choke him.
“I have business at Vriska’s hive,” she was saying, tense and controlled. “Please, let me pass.”
“Maybe we should let her go,” came an answering sneering voice. “Spiderbitch is probably going to toss her into the canyon.”
A third troll chimed in. “Why bother Serket? Let’s just skip the middlewoman and give the beast a tasty snack.”
Tavros spun around the corner and saw them standing in the middle of the walkway. Aradia, her hair piled messily on top of her head, her dress and sweater vest wrinkled and dotted with dusty smears, and her maroon makeup crisp and neat. She hugged a few small packages to her chest as three blueblood slowly circled around her like carrion-eating featherbeasts. They continued with the insults.
“Serket’s lusus probably won’t even eat her! Rusty meat would probably give it indigestion.”
“Remind me to send a crate of stomach settler to Serket for the trouble.”
Tavros looked around wildly for any clue as to how he could help his oldest and closest friend. He wasn’t sure if the three would actually toss her to Vriska’s lusus but even if they didn’t go that far they clearly meant to harm Aradia in some way. He didn’t know what to do; a brownblood couldn’t charge in and chase off three belligerent highbloods without getting himself killed.
His thought process stopped abruptly and he looked back at the cuff of his jacket. A brownblood might not be able to make a stand and live to tell about it, but just maybe the slave of an indigoblood could.
“Aradia! There you are!” he called out as he wheeled himself closer. She whirled around and stared wide eyed as he rolled right into the thick of classist danger. The three bluebloods turned as well and looked down in disgusted disbelief at the crippled lowblood daring to wriggle into their business. He bore their glares and wheeled up to Aradia, taking two of her packages and laying them across his lap. “We’d better, uh, hurry; Vriska doesn’t like it when she’s, uh, kept waiting.”
One of Aradia’s would-be attackers moved behind Tavros; he held his ground and kept talking to his shocked still friend about schedules and ‘his master’s’ upcoming party. If he showed how terrified he was he knew it might be the push they needed to spiral into violence. But, just maybe, if he plowed forward with the force of the magnetic rail and acted as though he was completely confident in his own safety then they would believe it. He just had to be calm. Gambler’s mask.
He thought of Vaderi again and felt his chest get tight.
The lessons in how to be cool seemed to have finally paid off; once the troll behind him took in the shade of his slavemark she waved the others off, claiming they had better things to do. Tavros held his breath until they were out of sight and then sagged with relief. He sighed heavily and then looked back up at Aradia, whose expression was a mix of shock, worry, sadness, and some very real righteous anger. She took a few measured breaths and then turned towards Vriska’s hive.
“We should hurry before we’re late,” she said stiffly even as she started walking. Tavros quickly caught up. They passed the few minutes it took to get to Vriska’s hive in silence. Aradia pressed the chime and after a moment the automatic door unlocked and they let themselves into the entryblock.
As soon as the lock clicked back into place Aradia dropped what she was carrying, dove to the ground in front of Tavros’s device, and buried her face in his chest.
“Tavros, god, what did they do to you?”
He hugged her shoulders and she wrapped her arms around his waist. “’Radia...”
“It was a joke,” she cried, “it was a stupid, morbid, tasteless joke like I’m always making about death and drones and everything else without even meaning to, without even thinking about what it could lead to.”
“’Radia, it’s okay,” Tavros said even though it wasn’t okay, his best friend was hurting and it was his fault. “I’m so sorry.”
“If I knew you’d take me seriously I never would have said that becoming a slave was an option! Never, never, Tavros, oh my god why did you do it, why did Gamzee let them do that to you? I thought he loved you?”
“He does love me. It was the hardest thing either of us ever had to do...” he squeezed her. “It was probably the hardest thing you ever had to watch.”
She tried to answer but by that point she was crying too hard to speak. Tavros guessed that the only reason he wasn’t following suit is because he was still feeling emotionally burned out. Drained as he felt the tears still pricked at the corners of his eyes.
“I’m sorry, ‘Radia, I am so sorry. We didn’t know it was going to be that bad. None of this is your fault. This is my fault.”
She pulled herself together enough to lean back and glare at him. “It is not your fault. I’m not an idiot, Tavros, I know that this was the best option for you. That doesn’t mean I can’t have a breakdown.”
Aradia was pouting and Tavros couldn’t help but laugh as he carefully wiped away her tears, a little more opaque than they should be because of her running eyelash pigment. She punched him in the shoulder and then laughed with him.
“Now I look a mess,” she mumbled, pulling out a small bit of cloth to clean up. Tavors took it from her and carefully dabbed up the smeared makeup.
“I am okay,” he said as he worked. “It was... rough at the ceremony, but it’s okay now.”
She looked at him disbelievingly.
“Maybe not completely okay,” he admitted. “But we’re getting there.”
She sighed and leaned back in to press her cheek to his shoulder. “Tinkerbull understands, as much as a lusus can. He misses you.”
Tavros left his lusus with Aradia before he left for Gamzee’s hive, like he always did whenever he had to go on a trip. On the day of his ceremony Aradia would have received the official contract for taking care of Tinkerbull, complete with an allowance for necessary supplies. He knew that Tinkerbull would be safe with her, but he still felt relieved at the news.
“I miss you,” Aradia told him.
“I miss you too,” he replied.
Chapter 18: Property and Propriety
Most of this in unbetaed so I'm sure I've messed up tenses in places. Whenever my betarail is online next I'll get it fixed up, but I really wanted to have something for you guys to read since I've gotten more than one question about when the next update would be.
Aradia sat back on her heels in front of his device. She fumbled with her facial pigment case while she talked about nothing—the weather, her recent finds, silly things their lusii had done since they saw each other last—and Tavros reached out and took her pigments from her shaking hands. He chatted back as he carefully touched up her face. On the job training as a lowblood’s lusii’s surgeon earned him steady hands, but somehow the simple act of applying a little lashment was twelve times as difficult as pulling glass slivers out of a hopbeast’s neck. He told her so as he finished up with her eyes. Once she stopped giggling, a little hysterically but she sounded mostly okay, Tavros opened up the tin of thick, creamy lipment and started brushing it on. He was very careful not to color outside the lines; he’d always liked her lips and he wanted to do them justice.
He was nearly done when he felt a veil like a lacy gossamer web fall over his think pan. A wave of something thick like syrup washed over him and his eyes unfocused as it seeped in. After a second the syrup crystallized into a sugar coated thought being thrust into his head.
If you like her lips so much why don’t you just kiss her already!
It wasn’t a suggestion; it was a command. Tavros felt himself close the gap. Aradia’s eyes fluttered open in surprise when his lips touched hers. For a few seconds she did nothing to break the chaste contact, and Tavros knew she was trying to puzzle out if he was seeking out comfort. It wasn’t until a high cackle echoed down the stairwell that Aradia pulled back with an angry scowl on her face.
Vriska sauntered into the entryblock, the fingers of one hand lightly touching her temple. Tavros felt a rush of annoyance at the way she was laughing—he didn’t see why she had to drag Aradia into the games she liked to play with him—and he threw his mental weight against the sticky web of her influence. After a couple attempts a smug fiiiiiiiine echoed in his think pan and she let him go.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Aradia seethed. She was putting herself between the other two trolls.
“Oh come off it,” Vriska said with a dismissive toss of her hair. “I’m only saying hello! Besides, if I don’t remind Toreadumbass who’s boss then he’ll probably forget. He’s particularly prone when you’re around—man! He sure does like your lips.” She looked over Aradia’s shoulder and spoke directly to Tavros. “I am honestly very impressed that you can string proper sentences together even with Aradia’s hips at eye level and those ridiculous horns growing into your skull. Congratulations!”
Most trolls would find her last statement confusing, but Aradia and Tavros had both spent enough time around Vaderi Ridset that they could recognize alien ‘sarcasm’ when they heard it. Tavros guessed that things between her and Jonden were pretty serious if she was diving into xenocultures like that, and then he took the insult as it was intended instead of trying to correct her on the biology of horns. He refused to rise to the bait, though, instead wheeling around Aradia and holding out the handwritten invitation.
“Hello, Vriska,” he greeted flatly. He looked over her shoulder and pretended he was saying it to no one. “Gamzee Makara extends an invitation to his hivewarming party on the fourteenth of this season. You are welcome to invite another troll, however, Gamzee asks for notice of who you intend to bring as your plus one so that he may approve your guest after making sure that—“
“Geeeeeeeeeze, are you really going to sit there and give me the whole script?” Vriska asked, clearly exasperated. “As much as I would love to hear the entire thing in all its dry boringness,” more sarcasm, “it’s me! It’s like you don’t even know me at all, moron.”
Aradia stormed forward and Tavros wondered if he should have caught her wrist and pulled her back.
“Neither of us need your games right now,” Aradia growled. Most nights she could keep a level head around Vriska, but on most nights she hadn’t narrowly escaped being attacked by highbloods after spending perigees worrying about her oldest friend.
Vriska shook her head in exaggerated disappointment. “Giving up already?”
It was a challenge if there ever was one, but it lacked the bite of a serious black overture. Vriska cast an expectant glance in Tavros’s direction and then looked almost perplexed by the motion of her own eyes. Aradia caught the look and some of the abrasive anger bled away in the wake of uncertainty. Tavros sighed. It wasn’t the first time that the three of them had skirted ashen. He wouldn’t have particularly minded giving the quadrant a try with the two of them except that any time they realized that they were heading that way it just got awkward. All three knew there was no future for a relationship that couldn’t even get off the ground, and there was no reason to force a conciliatory quadrant since the imperial drone didn’t care about those.
Tavros searched for something else to focus on and noticed that Vriska was dressed down; the hat, boots, and long coat in the style of the ancient seacaptains were all missing. All she wore were socks, black pants which ended mid-calf, and a loose off-white blouse. Her hair was down as well instead of being pulled back in the ponytail she’d come to favor.
“I thought you said that you, uh, had an appointment right after I was scheduled to get here?” Tavros asked.
Aradia leapt on the subject change. “You said the same to me. When I told you what time I could be over here you said that would be fine but I had to be on time. Aren’t you going to be late for whatever it is?”
“Are you two in a hurry to get rid of me or something?” Vriska waved her hand dismissively. “Anyway, knowing how irritating and gooey you and Gamzee get I’m going to guess that the collar is all a part of some idiotic plan and that he hasn’t suddenly had a complete personality flip?”
Tavros nodded slowly.
“I don’t know why the others couldn’t figure that out, I mean, the two of you are sickeningly flushed!” Vriska said with an accompanying roll of her eyes. “As for appointments, how should I know who cancelled what? A FLARP champion has better things to concern herself with.”
Aradia and Tavros both knew that Vriska did concern herself with schedules; she’d never been late to a single match they’d had together. It was about the time that their host went back up the stairs, calling down that they knew how to let themselves out of her hive, that the two visitors realized that Vriska had set this up so that they could see each other in private.
Tavros looked up the empty stairs, as always unsure of how he was supposed to interpret Vriska’s behavior. After a moment he realized that, however offensive she might have been, she had treated him exactly as she had before he was a slave. He knew that Gamzee meant well but sometimes Tavros felt sore at how his matesprit would skirt around him like something fragile or like a wild wounded beast. Eridan and Tavros hadn’t spent that much time around each other before the ceremony—Gamzee’s other quadrants had respectfully made themselves scarce whenever Tavros had visited—but it was still plain that the awkwardness between them had changed in tone. Even Aradia treated him differently.
He wasn’t angry at them; it was a difficult adjustment for everyone. However, even though he cared more for the others, it had been perversely refreshing when Vriska had insulted and toyed with him the same as she always had.
Tavros didn’t have long to contemplate this before Vriska came running back down the stairs.
“Oh, Tavros, I nearly forgot!” she sang as though they hadn’t just been awkwardly ashen. “Even though I was smart enough to figure out that this was all according to some plan of yours—which I have to admit was a good plan except for not telling anybody and causing this major headache where I had to palepap everybody, I hope you appreciate that I became a railslut to clean up your mess, dumbass—the others are not as intelligent and fabulous as I am so they don’t get it.”
“Come on, horns-for-sense, do I have to spell it out for you too?” Vriska was on a roll and there was little sense in trying to interject. “Even though I knew from the start that this was your idiot idea the others are being especially thick. Mostly Terezi, geeze, you’d think that a legislacerator would be able to figure this stuff out without someone holding her hand! I think all the mundane paperworky hoofbeast shit they have her shoveling is starting to rust her think pan. I might even feel sorry for her if she didn’t bring her workhive troubles down on her own head. I think it’s possible that I was a bad influence on her!”
“What do you want?” Aradia asked. The anger was merely an echo in her tone, replaced by a weariness only a death psychic could manage.
“I need to hear the whole story from start to finish so when I go tell Little Miss Justice how dumb she was to miss the obvious I’ll have all the little details she’s going to demand on hand. Honestly, do I have to think about eeeeeeeeverything?”
Tavros immediately started telling the story as soon as she stopped for breath—even though her steadfast attitude had been an odd sort of relief it didn’t make her any easier to deal with—and soon enough the two girls were fully caught up on what had been going on. Vriska said she’d pass the story along to Terezi in a couple perigees when they were planning to meet for midmeal and Aradia promised to tell Sollux and Karkat on her way back to her hive. Aradia then made official delivery of the antiques and artifacts Vriska had bought from her, all of which had ties to FLARP or GYGAX games, and then with a few parting insults Aradia and Tavros were out the door and crossing the canyon to Equius’s hive.
Tavros felt his vascular pump clench when they got closer and he could make out a white feline lusus lounging on a railing a few levels up. If Pounce was there then that meant that Nepeta was there and probably had been for a least a few perigees; she didn’t bring her lusus all the way from the foothills unless she was planning on staying at Equius’s hive for a long time. After seeing the message she left Gamzee on the eve of the slave ceremony Tavros didn’t doubt that she needed to be close to her moirail.
He slowed and Aradia slowed with him. She cast a worried eye upwards at Pounce and Tavros knew she was concerned about how Nepeta was doing. Tavros was as well and he desperately wanted to hurry to her side and tell her that everything was as okay as it could be, but he wasn’t sure if he would be given the chance because there was a fair chance that Equius wouldn’t allow a slave to talk to his moirail. Tavros wasn’t entirely sure if the highblood wouldn’t be right to do that; in the past couple sweeps Nepeta had been having a really hard time convincing others that she wasn’t nor had ever been feral but the rumor just wouldn’t die. Equius did all he could to help her, making sure it was known that she was pale with a blueblood and teaching her how to act a little less wild, but the fact that she refused to give up her lowblooded friends worked against her. If it became common knowledge that Nepeta was still friendly with Tavros even after he became a slave it could cause undoable damage to her reputation.
Tavros realized that he had been staring at Equius’s door for a long time. He shook himself out of his stupor and fished a small bottle out of his pocket; he came prepared for the possibility that Pounce would be there. Tavros placed one of the allergannihilator tabs under his tongue and as soon as it was fully dissolved he looked up at Aradia and took a deep, steadying breath. She followed suit and then pressed the wallcom’s alert button.
“Yes, who is it?” crackled Equius’s voice.
“Hi, it’s Aradia. I’m here to make a—“
“Is Nitram with you?”
Aradia blinked a few times; it was unlike Equius to do something as impolite as interrupt someone. “Uh... yes, he’s right next to—”
The line went dead and after a moment the door unlocked with a loud click. Aradia and Tavros exchanged nervous glances and then went inside.
While Vriska had made a leisurely show out of announcing herself and sauntering down the stairs Equius’s entrance was far more abrupt. Without a word he suddenly strode through the doorway at much faster than a normal walking speed. Equius took a few long strides and then turned on his heel and stood there staring at his two visitors with an intensity that was apparent even though his ever-present shades. Nepeta was nowhere to be seen.
Tavros warily looked up at the noble. While he’d heard plenty from Nepeta about how her moirail was doing, as well as tidbits from some of the others, he hadn’t actually seen Equius in over a sweep.
Several seasons back Kanaya had complained at length about Equius’s choice of adult outfit. While most of their circle had yielded artistic control to Kanaya—after about a sweep of pleading from the hive-bound jadeblood—Equius apparently didn’t think that the creative designs were necessary or practical. Eventually Kanaya gave in and made him a new wardrobe that was basically the same as his wigglerhood style except everything was a little longer. Instead of a tank top he wore a short-sleeved black shirt with his sign in the traditional place and instead of shorts he had dark gray pants. Since the design was dull Kanaya had poured all her ingenuity into the fabrics; she had told Tavros at length about the breakthrough oil-repelling material she’d created for the engineer’s clothes.
There were other things that had changed about Equius after he made it through the throes of puberty. He was still incredibly strong but he wasn’t STRONG anymore; the spike in hormones that made his powerful muscles uncontrollable had since subsided and he could no longer bend heavy alloy barehanded. Technically it was a loss for him but Equius didn’t seem to mind since he could once again handle fragile things without destroying them with an accidental twitch. His third set of teeth had grown in unbroken and his long straight hair was tied back in a practical low hooftail.
As for how Equius acted, Tavros had heard conflicting things. Nepeta insisted that he was getting much better about looking down on the lower classes, but Tavros had heard third hand that Equius had sparked such a serious argument with his moirail’s kismesis that Nepeta had to leap in and auspisticize just to break up the fight. Sollux, who had ended up doing coding work for Equius, would only say that the blueblood could keep his thoughts about the class system, whatever they were, firmly to himself in a professional environment. However, the most that Tavros had heard about the changes in Equius’s behavior came from Gamzee.
When they were all younger and things were less complicated Gamzee and Equius were friends, or at least, Gamzee liked to think they were. Back then most of their conversations had boiled down to Equius saying that the indigoblood was a disgrace to his caste, Gamzee telling him to mellow, and Equius apologizing in that weird vaguely creepy way of his. That was how most of Equius’s conversations went at six sweeps. But, as Gamzee recalled to his matesprit in the recent perigees, the two of them had also talked about Equius’s robotic designs, Gamzee’s non-sopor baking interests, what the future would hold for them once they reached the fleet... it was clear to Tavros that those talks meant a lot to his matesprit. Then somewhere around the time Equius was six and a half he started drifting away. He stopped lecturing everyone on proper behavior and then he stopped talking to anyone who didn’t contact him first. When he did have a conversation with someone in their circle of allies it was distant and formal. Tavros got the impression that if it wasn’t for Nepeta’s influence Equius would have stopped talking to the others altogether.
Tavros could tell that this aloofness saddened his matesprit. He wished that he could take away whatever had come between Gamzee and Equius, but he knew that life wasn’t that simple. Growing up wasn’t that simple.
Equius wasn’t moving and he wasn’t talking. Whatever he was feeling at that moment he was feeling a lot of it, but Tavros couldn’t tell what it was. Aradia edged closer to his device and Tavros could feel the tension radiating off her; it seemed unlikely that Equius would do anything violent but then again neither of them had known him that well even before he got distant. Since no one else as breaking the silence Tavros summoned up the courage to speak; at a loss for anything else to do he held out Equius’s invitation.
“Gamzee Makara extends an invitation to his hivewarming party on the fourteenth of this season,” he recited, the same formal address he’d given Vriska. “You are welcome to invite another troll, however, Gamzee asks for—“
“This is a disgrace,” Equius interrupted in a low, charged tone. Tavros felt a surge of panic and tried to figure out what he’d done wrong. While he was still running his own beast-based trade under his matesprit’s cover he considered himself Gamzee’s employee when it came to announcements and other public slave duties, and Tavros wanted to do a good job with that as he did with anything. Vriska hadn’t said anything about his delivery but then again she didn’t care about propriety like Equius did.
Tavros had been so sure that he’d done enough preparation to be given a pass even by Equius, but to his eyes it was clear that he hadn’t. He was healing but he was still so raw. He drew into himself and Equius made an irritated sound deep in his throat.
“Disgraceful,” Equius continued, his voice rising in both emotion and volume. “This, this, this is maddening. To think that Ga—that Makara—that he would so demean himself by taking you as his, his slave!”
Tavros had known that this was a possibility but he’d hoped so hard that it wouldn’t happen. Gamzee wanted so much to rekindle a dying friendship but if Equius’s only concern was that an indigo had taken a slave far below his status then there was no hope of that. Tavros miserably sunk down in his chair.
Equius kept going, and out of the unidentifiable tension came anger. “This is unthinkable, this is a simply reprehensible turn of events and I—“
“Shut up, Equius!” Aradia reproached. She sounded both angry and appalled; Equius’s confused pubescent interest in her didn’t leave him her favorite troll, but it seemed as though even she expected better of him.
The object of her ire started when she shouted and clicked his mouth shut. After a moment where he made an obvious effort to regain his composure Equius spoke again.
“I apologize. I interrupted Nitram and I, oh dear, I interrupted you on the comm, didn’t I? That was terribly rude of—”
Aradia was the very image of aggravation. “That’s not what I meant and you know it!”
Equius wrung his hands together. “I... that is... I mean...”
She growled a primal warning. Tavros tried to take her hand but she threw him off. “Tavros, no, I don’t want to be pacified! The rail ride here was as pleasant as a walk under the bright season sun because some brush-for-brains kept cali-hitting on me by trying to knock the packages out of my arms even after I told her to pail herself in a platonically hateful way. Then I get to your lawnring and three jerks harass me and threaten to feed me to Vriska’s lusus—“
“What!?” Equius said with surprised alarm. “Why, why would they do that?”
“Because that’s what bluebloods do!” Aradia shouted.
When Equius took a step back Tavros couldn’t help but be impressed through his worry. She kept ranting; Tavros didn’t know if she could stop. He sensed that she needed to vent so he kept a careful eye on her and made no further effort to calm her down.
“So far the least stressful part of my night has been dealing with Vriska’s mindgames, which is always a treat, and then after dealing with her I have to come over here and listen to you yell at my best friend after everything he’s been through, except I’m not going to listen to it! I don’t care about the class gap here or how improper you think it is that I’m saying this to you, I’m not going to just stand here and let you keep shouting at him! He’s been through enough this season without you adding to it!”
Aradia panted for breath and Tavros held his. Equius looked lost, but after a few pumpbeats he regained his composure and nodded slowly.
“I... yes. Yes, Aradia, you are right.”
She frowned in confusion. Tavros did as well.
Equius rubbed his cheek and then stepped forward, his arms held out and slightly up in a gesture of deference and contrition. “I apologize. I allowed my emotions to overtake my senses. I should not have behaved in such a boorish way.” He turned towards Tavros. “Nitram... are you well?”
“Uh... what?” Tavros asked.
“Are you well?” Equius repeated in earnest. “Have you suffered any injuries? Do you feel stable?”
Tavros stared. He imagined he felt physical vertigo from how fast the situation had turned. Aradia looked similarly dazed.
Equius seemed to take the silence as a response in the negative. He bowed his head and swallowed hard. “Oh. It is no wonder after everything you’ve... I didn’t know. I never imagined that G—Makara—would ever do something like this.”
With a jolt Tavros realized that what Equius said before wasn’t about an indigoblood taking a lowly brownblood as his slave; it was about Gamzee taking any slave. Equius thought that Gamzee was the disgrace, not Tavros.
Aradia gaped. “But, wait, I don’t understand. You’ve spent sweeps lecturing all of us about knowing our proper place. You’ve always said that lowbloods should submit to the will of the highbloods. ”
Equius looked appalled at the implications of her statement. “Obedience to the higher classes is the natural order of things, but only when it’s done naturally! I would never—slavery is an insult to all involved. The, the disgusting way that ceremony unfolded is proof enough of that! The officials who made a mockery of their own unnatural practice, the trolls in the audience who approved, they all acted in a manner so sickeningly unbefitting of the noble classes—it wasn’t even befitting of a sentient!” Equius was starting to sound agitated. “Nitra—Tavros—what was done to you was wrong. It was wrong, it was, it was fucking vile and I, I don’t, I need to break something.”
He all but ran out of the room. After a very, very long pause Aradia leaned down and whispered in a disbelieving, wondering tone, “Did... did he just... defend your honor?”
“... I think so?” Tavros answered, just as baffled as she was.
“... Are you sure?”
From through the open door they could hear the sound of something wooden snapping.
Chapter 19: Codeware Confessions
Equius reappeared and a breath later Nepeta came barreling through the doorway. With a distressed cry she dove straight into Tavros’s lap and clung to him. She was already crying and Tavros could feel his own eyes welling up as he saw how much pain she was in.
“It’s okay,” she said at last as she tried to wipe her tears away with her sleeve. “You won’t itch and sneeze; I have on new clothes.”
“I took an allergannihilator,” Tavros reassured her. Everything else he needed to say was too big, too much, so he didn’t say it. He hugged her tight and then let her check him over for injuries, he even let her undo his shoulder fasteners and look down his shirt. From over her shoulder Tavros could see Equius fidgeting over the way his moirail was rudely invading a non-quadranted troll’s space, but the blueblood bit his tongue. Even though Equius clearly thought that the situation was wildly inappropriate he wasn’t correcting it because he could see that Nepeta needed the physical reassurance.
“I’m sorry for swearing,” Equius said in a rush. “And for—I didn’t handle myself well, but I needed to make sure that you weren’t... if she had seen you... broken...”
As he patted his friend’s back Tavros felt horribly guilty for having assumed the worst about Equius. Nepeta must have been inconsolable after she’d seen the recording of the ceremony and being unable to soothe away her distress must have been agonizing for Equius; it was obvious that however much he had distanced himself from the others he still and would forever care deeply for his moirail.
More than that, Equius thought that slavery was inherently wrong, even if some of his reasoning was classist. It could have been easy to dismiss any concerns shown for his moirail but Equius was willing to insult an indigoblood he used to talk to nearly every day in defense of a brownblood he barely knew. Tavros felt a surge of renewed hope at the chance of Gamzee and Equius being friends once again, provided they could get past this misunderstanding.
Nepeta pulled back and laughed, then nuzzled Tavros’s face with hers. The gesture was stereotypically feline. It was a sign of how stressed she was; generally by their age a troll grew out of the habits of their lusii, or at least learned not to display them in public as many saw the behavior as childish. She seemed to remember this and stopped the catlike rubbing and replaced it with a more trollish and mature fussing over Tavros’s appearance. With a wan smile she licked her thumb and rubbed at some smudge just to the corner of his mouth. Equius leaned over to see what she was doing, wringing his hands all the while, and for a moment Tavros was glad that of all the worries on his pan pale jealousies weren’t one of them. Even though Nepeta’s fussing was hedging into white territory there was no rebuke from her moirail, and why would he worry? The two of them were as perfect an example of the purest pale that a troll could ever hope to see.
Tavros was glad that the two of them had each other in the wake of the emotional disaster he and Gamzee had unleashed on their friends.
“It’s not Gamzee’s fault,” he started. At his matesprit’s name Nepeta’s head whipped up and she growled.
“He cut his sign into your skin,” she hissed.
“I was going to be culled.”
Nepeta and Equius both looked stunned. She recovered first, her expression going sad and understanding. Equius was still confused.
“How can that be?” he asked. “I was under the impression that you had an income comparable to a yellowblood’s.”
“A greenblood’s,” Aradia corrected. She sounded defeated—no matter how much he earned it would never have been enough—but there was pride in her voice as well.
“It doesn’t matter,” Tavros said. “This isn’t, uh, financial; it’s because of my accident. In the old databases...” he decided it would be a bad idea to tell Sollux’s employer about certain illegal activities. “There was a, uh, glitch. I should have been on the culling list sweeps ago but my name glitched off the list. Now that the records are in the young adult system that, uh, glitch was fixed.”
“He was protecting you,” Nepeta said miserably.
“He saved my life. We didn’t know they would burn all my clothes. They wanted to, uh, test him, I suppose?”
Equius looked aghast. “Test him to what end? What purpose could that possibly serve?”
Aradia scoffed. “He had to prove he was a real highblood.”
“That is not how a real highblood behaves!”
The other three stared at him. Nepeta broke out of the bewilderment first; she shook her head in a tired sort of way. She got up from Tavros’s lap and walked over to her moirail.
“Equius...” she touched his arm and looked impossibly sad. “I keep trying to tell you but you won’t believe me.”
He looked like he didn’t know what to say.
The silence was broken by the soft clop of hooves on tile. Equius’s lusus walked in carrying a tray with four glasses of water. Tavros could feel the nervous skittish sort of unease well secured under a steely sense of duty. He wheeled over and smiled up at the lusus.
“Thank you for the water,” he said as he took an offered glass.
Aradia rushed forward and did the same. Tavros’s power to commune didn’t usually work on sentients but sometimes with familiar trolls he could get a read. She was a tense ball of awkward and it felt like she welcomed the distraction.
“Thank you, Aurthour,” she said in gratitude. He beamed and brought the last glasses to his charge and his charge’s moirail.
Equius drank deep. Nepeta took a sip and then sat down on a table.
“Tavros... what’s going on?”
He turned the glass around in his hands and tried to put his thoughts in order. Equius had surprised him but Tavros still wasn’t sure about how much he should say. He figured out what details needed to be filtered out and then he told the story slowly and carefully.
“As I was saying before there, uh, was a glitch, and I wasn’t culled like I was supposed to be. The physically unfit mark is still on my record, so now that I’m on, uh, the more secure young adult database the glitch is gone.”
Nepeta growled. “So even though you proved yourself they’re still going to kill you?”
“I shouldn’t have been spared in the first place,” Tavros quietly answered.
The next sound that came out of Nepeta’s mouth was halfway to feral and her moirail laid a calming hand on her shoulder. Equius’s expression had gone from confused to eerily blank, but he made no indication that he was going to interrupt. Tavros kept going.
“I was told by someone who has, uh, access to that kind of information. About the glitch and how it was fixed. I... I didn’t know what to do.”
“Then I opened my big mouth,” Aradia mumbled.
Tavros put a reassuring hand on the small of her back. “Aradia, we would have thought of it anyway.”
Nepeta cocked her head to one side. “Thought of what?”
Tavros couldn’t make himself say the word ‘slave’. He reached up and fiddled with his collar instead. At the gesture Aradia looked away, Nepeta clenched her fists, and Equius actually looked physically ill.
“Gamzee could afford it—me—uhg. He...” Tavros’s voice had dropped to something barely above a whisper, but he found his volume and spoke earnestly. “It was for me. He did this for me. He had to take a flask of sopor to the ceremony just to make it through and the perigee after he almost overdosed and I didn’t know what to do—“
He realized he was getting dangerously close to hyperventilating and forced himself to slow down.
“Gamzee hates this,” Tavros punctuated the statement by reaching up and shaking his collar. “I hate this. But it was the only way to keep me alive.”
Equius’s shoulder rub seemed to have done Nepeta good for her voice was level when she spoke. “Tavros... why didn’t you tell us?”
“We didn’t know if it was safe,” Tavros told them emphatically. “We hoped... we didn’t think it was going to be this bad for everyone. If we knew, maybe, I don’t know... maybe we could have found a way?” He wrung his hands and looked at the floor. “Maybe we should have anyway.”
Aradia shook her head. “Tavros, I don’t think there’s anything you could have done differently. Nothing that wouldn’t have made it worse. We’re always being monitored and that surveillance jumped up recently, probably after the paperwork for the ceremony was filed.”
“Monitored?” Equius asked, a disbelieving frown on his face. “What are you talking about?”
They were back in this-is-my-friend’s-employer territory. Tavros wrung his hands and tried to come up with a way to explain which wouldn’t cost Sollux his job. Aradia saw Tavros’s distress and leapt to his rescue.
“Terezi was having some issues with her husktop and she had Sollux take a look—through that deal you have where he can still take odd jobs, right?”
Equius nodded. “So long as it does not interfere with the projects I give him, and a commission is taken from his payment for each job.”
Tavros tried not to look guilty; several seasons back he had hired Sollux to install a small server and to sync it with several other lusus and beast caretakers in the area. While the various members of the collective had paid Sollux in monetary units—he surely had sent along the proper percentage of that as his contract required—the caretakers had also traded goods for his services. According to Sollux the commission that Equius took was exceedingly reasonable, particularly considering the fact that very few bluebloods would allow their yellowblooded employee to take odd jobs in the first place, but the combination of monetary transactions and under the table bartering was a staple of lowblood commerce. Since most employers didn’t allow side jobs or took a huge commission, and often enough a lowblood couldn’t afford a service if they don’t get it from their neighbors, the system of gifts and favors was the only way the system could function. Even though the circumstances that led things to be the way they were didn’t really apply to Sollux, it had gotten to the point where it was cultural habit.
Aradia rubbed her chin, clearly thinking the same thing as Tavros: it wasn’t easy, trying to figure out what they could reveal and what still needed to be danced around. Tavros was immensely grateful that she had taken control of the conversation.
“All right, so...” Aradia mumbled thoughtfully. “Terezi’s husktop was glitching and she thought that it was just normal wear and tear, right? So she sent it off to Sollux to be fixed and he found out it was codeware. There was a monitoring worm in her communication programs.”
“Was it left by an enemy she made as a paralegislacerator?” Equius wanted to know.
Tavros shook his head. “Terezi said that there’s a tendency for, uh, less than scrupulous paralegislacerators sometimes try to spy on their coworkers, and even though it’s okay to take over a case even if it’s assigned to someone else the sneaking into private notes isn’t, uh, allowed. So their bosses will make routine and also unscheduled, uh, checks of all devices belonging to all paralegislacerators.”
“Including personal devices,” Aradia added. “According to Sollux the programs they use to search for spyware is very powerful. He says it’s not subtle, it’s not something they could use and the troll in question not know that it had been used.”
Nepeta tilted her head to the side. “So it’s like a battering ram?”
“Yeah, pretty much.” Aradia nodded. “It doesn’t matter that it’s not subtle since all the paralegislacerators it’s used on know it’s being used anyway.”
Realization spread across Equius’s face. “Do you mean... oh.”
“What?” Nepeta eyed him suspiciously. “What do you mean ‘oh’?”
He looked very uncomfortable. “I, erm, given the effectiveness of the search programs utilized by empire offices—I mean, there must be an explanation, perhaps, had her devices simply not come up for inspection between infection and Sollux discovering the worm?”
Nepeta pouted at her moirail. “Equius, why are you getting all dodgy? What did you figure out? You know I’m not so good with how devices actually work.”
“It’s, um, I mean,” Equius quietly sputtered. Tavros felt a little friendly pity for him; Equius clearly didn’t want to put what he was thinking into words. Neither Gamzee or Tavros had wanted to use the word ‘slave’ when talking about what was going on. They talked about ‘the ceremony’, or when Tavros would be living with Gamzee, or they’d say the third day of the ninth dim season, or something else vague like that. Saying something made it real.
“It might be possible,” Aradia said gently, “that Sollux just happened to catch it between scans. The glitches showed up around the same time as the last official check and that could have been a coincidence... but Terezi never believed in coincidences. She told Sollux to leave the worm alone and cover for his being in her systems by installing a game. Then, after the next time her superiors swept her devices she took it back to Sollux.”
Tavros watched Equius’s willingness to argue drain away. There was only one logical conclusion, which Equius voiced. “It’s highly improbable that the worm was clever enough to evade the brute force of the government probes,” he explained to Nepeta. “They must have known... they must have been the ones to infect her devices.”
Nepeta’s eyes got wide. “They’re spying on Terezi?” Her expression quickly turned from surprised to angry. “You said it was in her communications? So they’re spying on all of us... I knew that something was off. Sollux found this two or three seasons ago, right? That’s when he suddenly said he needed to check my art program for a bug he thought was there, which is silly because he wrote it and there’s no way he’d give anyone a program if he didn’t spent a sweep making sure it was completely perfect.”
“That’s probably why only Terezi’s device, uh, was infected,” Tavros said. “At least, Sollux didn’t say that he found anything on anyone else’s devices. The protection codeware he made for all of us is substantially strong.”
“He went through the logs of viruses and worms stopped by the codeware,” Aradia added. “He found a match on Eridan’s husktop, but it had been successfully blocked.”
“So... so then,” Equius cleared his throat and gathered his thoughts. Nepeta reassuringly papped his shoulder. “As Terezi’s protective codeware was disabled it was easy for, oh dear, for her employers to plant the worm, but everyone else’s devices escaped infection?”
The corner of Aradia’s mouth tugged up in a wry grin. “Actually, no. Several personal and professional devices belonging to members of our circle have been infected after Sollux cleared them a few seasons ago.”
Equius stared in confusion.
“Sollux re-engineered the protection codeware to allow worms with the same signature as the one he found on Terezi’s machine,” Aradia elaborated. The grin got bigger and a great deal more fake. “The lowbloods, at least. My husktop is infected.”
Tavros pulled his PDA from his pocket and held it up. “My mobile device is infected too, as is my business server.”
Nepeta scrunched up her nose at the offending device, “And you just leave it like that?”
Aradia laughed the kind of bitter, humorless laugh that always made Tavros long for her pale. For what had to be the millionth time he wished that the two of them fit into a diamond; it would make a lot of things a lot simpler if they could be moirails as well as best friends. He edged closer and held her hand in his. After a moment she squeezed back and the dark chuckles subsided.
Tavros realized an explanation was still due. “If we tampered with the worms then, uh, whoever put them there would know that we know.”
“This way they think we’re still blind to what’s going on,” Aradia said with a nod. “So far they’ve only been interested in our electronic communications.”
“Is that why you guys didn’t give us any warning about... about the ceremony?” Nepeta asked. Most of the outrage had drained out of her, and she looked as weary of all this as Tavros felt. “You couldn’t tell us online, right?”
“Not without giving away that it wasn’t real,” Tavros answered. Then he had to suppress the urge to rub the back of his neck. “Well, I mean it was, uh, real, but only technically.”
They then fell into silence. No one had to elaborate on why the government would be interested in their conversations with each other. The higher ups wanted to keep careful tabs on those who were friends with the heir apparent in their younger sweeps. They wanted to know if those same trolls were still friends with Feferi after her denouncement.
After what felt like an age but was probably only a few minutes, Equius spoke in a small voice. “I don’t understand why you didn’t tell us. Not about...” his eyes flicked to Tavros’s shirt and he winced. “Not about this. Why didn’t you tell Nepeta and myself about the virus?”
Tavros tried not to let his intense uneasiness show on his face. Aradia pressed her full lips into a narrow line. Neither one knew quite how to word it tactfully or tactically. There were complex plans in motion, networks being built from the dust, and a great many irons in a number of fires. So many things could threaten their group’s fledgling ambitions. Equius had the potential to be one of them. Tavros felt terrible about doubting the other boy so much, but fear held him to reason. Equius was loyal to the system, he was loyal to the Empire, and he might feel compelled to report the actions of the others. That’s why they hadn’t told him what was going on. They hadn’t told Nepeta so she wouldn’t have to lie to her true diamond.
“It’s complicated,” Aradia said at last, explaining nothing and everything. Nepeta got it. She chewed on her lip as she watched her moirail out of the corner of her eye.
Equius’s comprehension lagged only a few seconds behind. His polite composure evaporated and he bared his teeth at Aradia, the unbroken caps forming a perfect zig-zag of gleaming white. His voice was a terrible hiss. “How can you imply that I would show such disloyalty?” He shook off Nepeta’s attempt at a soothing caress and took a menacing step towards his visitors.
Aradia stood her ground and did not flinch. With her voice flat and her hand gripping Tavros’s tight enough it hurt them both, she answered, “I think you already know the answer to that.”
“You dare to think that I am capable of such atrocity?” Equius snarled. He stormed closer, coming to a halt a few steps away only because Nepeta wrapped both of her arms around one of his and held him back. “How can you accuse me of a repugnant crime such as this?”
Tavros was terrified, but as much as instinct and eight sweeps of learning screamed at him to run he couldn’t abandon his friend to a highblood’s wrath. On the outside Aradia remained an impassive statue, aside from her vice-like grip, but Tavros could feel the roiling tempest of her fear. She had the same instincts and learning as he did; the difference was that while hunched and tried to make himself look small she stood straight and tall and brave. It made her beautiful, and inspiring, and Tavros spent a fair chunk of his time sick with worry that her strength was going to get her killed one night.
Aradia didn’t answer Equius. Tavros could feel the start of a tremor in their joined hands and he was pretty sure it wasn’t coming from him. Still, she didn’t back down and never stopped looking Equius defiantly in the eye. Tavros tried to figure out a way to diffuse the situation without making it worse and he could plainly see the same frantic process playing out over Nepeta’s face. It became a tense standoff, the silence broken only by Equius’s angry sputtering.
In the end it wasn’t the trolls who resolved the situation; it was the lusus. Aurthour, who had quietly moved to the side after bringing everyone their drinks, stepped forward and situated himself between the two pairs. He stomped a hoof on the inlaid stone floor and, to everyone’s surprise, Aurthour then issued a warning snort to his charge and not the invading troll. Equius recoiled from the soft noise and seemed to shake himself awake. Once the righteous anger fled in the face of his guardian’s disapproval Equius took in the tension radiating from his guests and he looked absolutely horrified with himself. He backed away quick as a shot and ran into a table, bringing both it and him toppling to the ground.
The tight cord of tension that comprised Aradia’s emotional state suddenly snapped. For a couple seconds Tavros thought he might have to catch her on the way to the ground, but she quickly recovered from her boneless release and stood with shoulders slumped. Nepeta offered them both an apologetic look and then turned around to make sure Equius was okay, however, she was halted by a firm tug on her shirtsleeve. She glanced back at Aurthour in surprise, an expression which quickly turned to unease. Biting her lip, she respected the lusus’s silent request and stepped back to stand next to Aradia.
Equius sat on the floor in a dazed state, gaping at his lusus. Aurthour remained resolutely still, apparently waiting on his charge. Tavros could easily sense what instincts were at play. Lusii weren’t sentient and Aurthour couldn’t understand highly abstracted concepts such as slave collars, codeware worms, or Feferi’s revolution. What Aurthour did understand is that Equius and Nepeta had both been devastated by something. He understood that seeing Tavros made his charge feel intensely conflicted. And Aurthour understood that he did not raise Equius to be so rude, let alone to someone like Aradia who had been welcomed into their home.
The three bystanders looked away in embarrassment when Equius finally found his voice and stammered out a string of barely intelligible apologies. They all knew what it was like to receive a firm scolding from their guardian, and while all lusii breeds had different ways of showing it the so called ‘silent lecture’ was universally recognized. Equius’s humiliation at being reprimanded like a wiggler was apparent in the way his whole face was flushing blue and the way he couldn’t meet his guest’s eyes. He wasn’t even looking at Nepeta. Finally, he snapped his jaw shut on a choked ‘sorry’ and scrambled to his feet. His exit from the room was by no means graceful.
Nepeta spared a glance to the other two before shaking her head and following her moirail from the room. Aradia and Tavros were left to stand in the entryblock.
Chapter 20: The Grace of the Bow
“Well, that was uncomfortable,” Aradia muttered. Tavros couldn’t help but smile.
Aurthour, whose only motion had been to turn his head slightly so he could watch his charge stagger away, turned to face his guests.
Aradia shook herself and let go of her friend’s hand; both she and Tavros rubbed their cramped fingers. She then offered Aurthour a proper courtly bow. “Thank you for your hospitality,” Aradia said as she leaned forward and ducked her head down. The full bow was considered archaic, but then, highblood society had always favored the archaic. Equius was surely loyal to as old of a tradition as that, and Aurthour’s mustache twitched up in approval at Aradia’s show of good manners.
Tavros remembered her telling him about the history of the bow, sweeps and sweeps ago. Sitting to her side and taking in her posture and given the context recent events had given him, he finally truly understood what she had been talking about.
Aradia’s forearms were tucked under her breasts with her palms pressed together and her fingers interlaced, she was bent at the waist so that her body was nearly at a right angle, and she had tilted her head down so that the only thing she could see was the floor and her own knees. In the modern world it was a show of submission to one’s betters on the hemospectrum. Proper bluebloods like Equius would bow down to the indigos and the royal sea dwellers to show that they knew their place. But a long, long time before any of them had burst through the leathery skin of their eggs, thousands and thousands of sweeps ago, it wasn’t something any self-respecting blueblood would ever consider doing. Back then it was the bow of a slave.
Hands clasped and fingers twined to make it more difficult for the slave to reach for a weapon of opportunity before the master could react. Arms held against the body since it was the most comfortable way to bear chained wrists. Legs straight and spine bent to throw off the center of gravity. Head down to provide easy access to the back of the neck. There was a type of weapon called a slavehand with a dagger blade designed to efficiently sever the spinal bundle and a claw set into the guard designed for a non-lethal punishment usually reserved for runaways and the disobedient newly enslaved. Over the ages the rough and ragged gouges made by the claw evolved. Once a runaway had been brought back and punished in other ways they would show that they had learned their place by remaining still and compliant as a more refined form of the slavehand was used to carve the master’s name across their whole back.
When signs became law it only made sense to use a single symbol consisting of only a few lines versus a long string of the more ornate lettering of the time. By that point the once-punitive scratches on the back of the neck had evolved to simply mean that the troll was a slave with no commentary on their obedience. While the larger canvas of the back was needed for the master’s full name it wasn’t necessary for the master’s sign, so over time the two ideas merged.
The result was the indigo brand on the back of Tavros’s neck. From the sad, sidelong way Aradia looked at him as she straightened, she remembered telling him about the evolution of the slavehand. They were five, maybe five and a half, and she had just identified an artifact she’d found as fragments of an early slavehand claw. Tavros remembered feeling a little uneasy about the subject matter at first, but back then it was just a story about something that happened thousands of sweeps ago. He felt sorry for the trolls who got clawed up, but at the same time it was really interesting to hear about the way their culture evolved that into the modern traditions regarding slaves and markmakers. Aradia had ducked around his horn and with her hand cupped to his ear she had whispered that it was funny that a bow the highbloods got all finicky about started with slaves. Tavros had furtively looked for someone listening in, painfully knocking their horns together in the process, and then as they laughed and winced and rubbed their aching skulls he had agreed.
Tavros remembered listening to Aradia’s enthusiastic explanation about the history surrounding her find, he remembered carefully holding one of the crude rods of roughly forged iron, and he remembered thinking that at least a slave in their season wouldn’t have to suffer such a sadistic tradition.
There was a faith of a scholarly persuasion, not one Tavros followed but he knew enough about it, and that faith held the belief that their higher power would punish ignorance. Tavros couldn’t help but wonder if the collar on his neck was his retribution for being so unaware.
He shook himself from his reminiscing and focused on the awkward present. He wanted to put Aurthour’s mind at ease but, knowing how the tradition started, Tavros couldn’t bring himself to bow as Aradia had. Instead he offered a less formal gesture. He fanned his hand over his chest, then lightly touched his throat, then kissed those fingers and then held his hand out as if offering something to the lusus. It was a promise that the words he spoke were the truth, from their beginning as air in his aerobic sponges to the sounds leaving his mouth. It wasn’t considered as proper as Aradia’s bow but Aurthour was nonetheless very pleased at Tavros’s gesture.
Aradia sighed heavily and turned back the way they had come. Tavros glanced in the same direction and saw that she had set her remaining packages on a table by the outside door. She turned back to Aurthour. “We should probably be going. If I hurry I might be able to make the next shuttle and get home before I get too hungry.”
“I have some of my meal left over, if you want a snack,” Tavros offered.
She shook her head. “No, it’ll be fine.”
Aurthour suddenly brightened and made a sweeping gesture towards one of the doors leading deeper into the hive. Aradia looked at the lusus quizzically, but Tavros understood.
“He’s of one of the smarter breeds of lusus,” he explained, “and while he can’t understand full sentences there were enough key words in what we just said that he was able to pick up that someone is hungry.”
“Oh.” Aradia waved dismissively. “Oh no, that’s very kind, but you don’t have to get me anything to eat.”
Aurthour tilted his head to the side.
Tavros interpreted “He’s not going to try and stop you if you really want to leave, but I think that he will be disappointed if you won’t let him make you something.”
Aradia looked like she was going to argue the point but then Aurthour moved next to the door and stood there patiently waiting for them to follow. She slumped her shoulders, defeated, and after retrieving the boxes by the door the two of them followed the lusus deeper into Equius’s hive. They came to a row of archways looking into a subsistence parlor, complete with a nutriblockette separated from the conversation area by a glass and metal half wall, but to Tavros’s surprise the lusus did not take them inside. Instead he led them past all the official looking entertainment areas and into an elevator large enough for Aurthour to turn around in without running into the other passengers.
By that point Tavros was used to the elevator at Gamzee’s hive, and from listening to the workers he knew that the model was fairly standard for such contraptions. However, in Equius’s elevator the buttons were arranged in a vertical line instead of the usual grid. Also out of the ordinary was the fact that the whole setup was superimposed on a painted silhouette of the hive as it appeared if seen from the road. There were numbers on the buttons themselves, but there were also brightly colored shapes such as a recuperacoon and a wrench off to the side. The panel was a different color from the rest of the walls, and Tavros suspected that Equius had modified it himself.
As Aurthour ran his fingers down the column of shapes before pushing the corresponding button, Tavros explained to Aradia that the shapes were how Aurthour read the floor numbers. As always it was fascinating to Tavros how two different breeds of lusus could view the world so differently. Tinkerbull only understood a handful of verbal commands and would never be able to tell that someone was hungry based on the type of language Aradia had used to say as much. But, while Aurthour had Tinkerbull beat in the area of verbal communication, Tinkerbull could read numbers in sequence and he could recognize upwards of forty written words. If Aurthour had been able to recognize abstracted symbols then the shapes would not have been necessary in the elevator.
Tavros explained all of this to Aradia, a diversion which took up the time between getting off the elevator and Aurthour setting a grubloaf sandwich in front of each of them. The nutriblock the lusus had led them too was far less flashy than the one they had passed on the first floor, and it looked as though it had seen far more use. The countertops were made of a dull gray metal and even though it felt remarkably solid under Tavros’s hands he could see a few partially repaired dents in a section near the wall. He assumed that they were leftover from Equius’s battle with his strength during the throes of puberty. There were leftovers in the hull and a dirty bowl and spoon in the basin, making it clear that they were sitting in Equius’s everyday nutriblock.
Tavros was a little surprised that Aurthour had taken them there, particularly since their visit had been nothing but a huge mess. As he explained the elevator buttons to Aradia, Tavros did an active skim on Aurthour’s surface thoughts. The lusus was standing at the hull deciding what to prepare for his guests, and that thought process made up the bulk of the information Tavros was receiving. On the side, though, Tavros sensed that Aurthour was placing the two visiting trolls in the same category as Nepeta. She was still the most important by far, and it was clear even from the quick glance that Aurthour thought very highly of his charge’s moirail, but Aradia and Tavros were still ranked high. Tavros guessed that Aurthour remembered them from the few parties where lusii got to come along, such as that first big one at the beach by Gamzee’s hive. Tavros had introduced himself to Aurthour, sensing that the lusus had resented that he wasn’t receiving the same hello as the trolls, and Aradia had followed the lead. Aurthour had been very pleased with the gesture and they both made a point to greet him on the rare occasions they saw him.
The task of explaining the colored shapes and lusii learning patterns to Aradia filled the time as they waited for their food and then as they ate what appeared to be a meatless form of grubloaf sandwich. It was a subject Tavros could get carried away with, and Aradia gladly let him. She smiled as he enthusiastically described different cognitive forms a lusus’s brain could take; it wasn’t the cold, sarcastic smiles she’d been showing off before, but a smile that was warm and genuine. It wasn’t the biggest smile he’d ever seen grace her lips, but it was a start. Seeing his best friend a little bit happier and talking about something he loved was making him feel better.
Aradia finished her sandwich and Tavros resolutely put half of his on her plate, teasing her for forgetting her own lunch at home. In response she grabbed the angle of his horn and by that handle shook his head back and forth a few times. He giggled and, after grabbing the base of that horn to stabilize his neck, jerked his whole body away from her so that she nearly fell out of her chair. Aradia laughed—a happy, mirthful, real laugh—and leaned towards him so she didn’t have to let go of his horn. Once Tavros had straightened she used her handhold to keep him from moving while she tilted her head at an awkward angle so she could dart forward and kiss his cheek.
“Our horns really aren’t that compatible, are they?” Tavros chuckled.
She rolled her eyes. “That is the understatement of the sweep. Oh, hold still,” Aradia said as she ducked around his horn to rub at a spot just below his bottom lip. “I think there’s a smudge of lipment leftover from when you kissed me earlier.”
Once she was out of range of his horns Tavros dipped his napkin in his water and scrubbed his face. “Probab... uh, hi.”
Equius and Nepeta had appeared in the doorway. Tavros scrunched down guiltily, worried that Equius wouldn’t approve of his lusus’s decision to bring the guests there, but their host didn’t say anything against it. Tavros thought that Equius looked almost... beaten. Or possibly like someone who just got a stern silent lecture from a lusus who really knew how to give them. Equius’s lanky form seemed smaller, his presence less imposing, and instead of a long gait he shuffled forward. He glanced to the side and Nepeta offered an expression that was both encouraging and very firm.
“Sorry,” Equius mumbled. Aurthour snorted and Equius winced. “I apologize,” he said with a bit more volume, straightening and looking his guardian in the eye. “Aurthour... I’m sorry, you raised me to be better than that. I acted like a... like...”
“Like an uncouth lowblood?” Aradia wryly offered. Nepeta frowned at her behind Equius’s back and in answer Aradia crossed her arms and delicately arched an eyebrow. Nepeta stuck her tongue out.
Equius, for his part, took a deep, calming breath and visibly swallowed his initial reaction to what Aradia had said. His fists were clenched and the evenness of his voice was obviously manufactured, but he didn’t lose his temper again.
“I realize that there are things I have said which could be misinterpreted,” Equius said very slowly and very carefully. At the word ‘misinterpreted’ Aradia’s eyes widened in insult, but Tavros gently touched her arm in a silent request to let their host finish. Equius faltered for a moment when he saw Aradia coil for another verbal attack, then continued. “I realize... I understand. You’re wrong about me, but I understand why you feel that way.”
After a few seconds’ pause during which Equius remained silent, Aradia took her turn. Her words were just as carefully chosen and just as charged as his had been. “Am I wrong? Am I really misinterpreting?” She shook her head in exasperation. “Equius, if I could only choose one word to describe you do you know what it would be?”
He stared, and Tavros imagined he was running through a list of insults. Aradia rolled her eyes and rose from her chair. “Constancy. When you declare loyalty to something then you are loyal. The devotion you show to Nepeta is incredible and inspiring and...” her voice caught, and Tavros knew she was thinking about her broken diamond with Sollux and her failed kismesitude with Tellen. Loyalty was never a problem with either of them, but given that her spade had been torn only a few seasons previous her romantic life was still a healing wound. “And I can only hope that I’ll ever share a quadrant with someone as faithful as you.”
Equius clearly did not expect to hear such praise from Aradia. It through him off balance and he glanced back at his moirail for stability. Nepeta smiled a soft, knowing smile, and Equius returned it. Tavros agreed with Aradia’s statement wholeheartedly. He also knew his best friend and he knew what knife she was about to drive in to the hilt.
“But,” Aradia said sharply, bringing Equius’s attention back to her, “for every pebble of beautiful your devotion to Nepeta is, there’s a hill of disgust for your loyalty to the caste system.”
“The caste system is what governs us,” Equius growled, drawing up to his full height. An internal struggle played across his features and he forced himself back to a more civilized tone. “It is what protects us.”
It was the wrong thing to say, it was exactly the wrong thing to say, and Tavros thanked the stars that Aradia was still standing right next to him as he quickly popped the brake, jerked his wheel back, and grabbed her around the waist when she lunged. After a brief struggle he had taken hold of each wrist and pinned her in place with her own arms. Her interrupted pounce was instinct, as was the way she fought Tavros when he put hands on her, but once a moment passed her pan caught up with her emotions and she stopped struggling against her friend’s hold. She was still furious, and in all likelihood the next thing Equius said would set her off again, so Tavros wondered when he became the group’s ashen two wheel device and spoke before either of them could.
“Equius... I don’t think, uh, you r-realize what implications that statement, uh, has when you consider, I mean, when you, s-say it to... to me.”
Tavros’s face was full of Aradia’s hair so he couldn’t see what effect his words had, but he could feel it. He usually couldn’t sense the emotions of beings like trolls unless he knew and trusted them as much as he trusted Aradia or Gamzee, but Equius’s reaction was so strong that it broke through the shifting obscuring shell of his sentient mind. There was a crackling sort of horror lancing through everything like an electric charge, the sturdy core of his genuine faith that the castes were what protected trollkind from utter chaos, and a wave of doubt trying to spread into the tiniest cracks in that strongest of foundations.
“That was...” if Equius had sounded lost before it was nothing compared to how he sounded then. It was as though the very floor had dropped out from beneath his feet. “I did not... I didn’t think...”
Aradia tried to stand, and as Tavros felt the fight leave her he let go so she could. She shook her head in disgust. “No, you didn’t. You never do.”
Sensing that everything that could be said had been said—and that bloodshed was still a possibility if the heated discussion was allowed to continue—he tugged on Aradia’s sleeve. “Maybe we should get going? We can walk to the station together and maybe catch the next shuttle, or, uh, shuttles, that is.”
Aradia looked at their host, who was still standing there stunned, and sighed. “That’s probably a good idea... oh, I nearly forgot.” She gestured to the packages stacked on the table. “Nepeta, there are some fossilized leaves in there for you. I can’t do anything with them since they’re not my time period, but I thought they might make good decorations for your workspace.”
There was an unspoken message there, that perhaps such décor would help add sophistication to Nepeta’s image. She’d fallen into an ill-deserved reputation for being borderline feral and it wasn’t helping her job or quadrant opportunities. Nepeta nodded and softly said a thank you; her attention was still focused on her moirail. Aradia then curtly addressed Equius. “There are a few fragments of pre-bio machinery in there as well. Pieces like that are too common and don’t hold any interest on the market, but perhaps if you like the look of them I can assemble an artifact timeline for professional purposes. I’ve done the same for Gamzee with the evolution of crystal components from an early natural example up to the modern varieties his factory produces.”
Equius shook his head as if to clear his thoughts. “I... yes, perhaps.” He paused, awkward, and then offered his two guests a businesslike gesture of farewell. “May your eye be keen.”
“May your hand be swift,” Aradia and Tavros replied in response to the formal goodbye. More casually, Nepeta hugged them both.
“Be safe,” she said to Aradia. “Be... be happy,” she whispered to Tavros. He squeezed her tight and promised her that he would be okay.
“The meal was wonderful, Aurthour,” Aradia said in thanks. The lusus twitched his moustache in a pleased manner. Tavros echoed the sentiment and with that they were leaving the nutriblock.
While they were waiting for the elevator Tavros couldn’t help a sly grin. Aradia glared at him for it as she knew exactly why he was smiling.
“Will you be requiring a cold dunk in the trap before we leave?” Tavros cheekily suggested. His best friend was one of the few trolls he could tease like that.
For her part, Aradia’s anger flared back. “No I do not need a cold dunk,” she growled. “I am not attracted to that snobby thoughtless ass.”
Tavros put his hands up in surrender. He was still grinning at her. “I know, I know. I am only saying that chemistry was never the problem with you two. It’s everything else.”
“I don’t have any pitch chemistry with him at all,” Aradia hissed.
Tavros realized that he had gone a little too far and had reminded her of her broken spade. His expression turned to one of worry; it was taking her a long time to get over the breakup. “Sorry. I’ll stop joking around.”
“No, it’s okay,” she mumbled. The doors interrupted her with a soft ding and they got inside. As the doors closed Aradia climbed into Tavros’s lap and absently played with his hair. “You’re a wonderful troll,” she said softly. “You’re a great friend.”
“You’re amazing,” Tavros responded. He ran his fingertips across her back the way he knew would calm her down. It was pale but it was hollow and they both knew it.
“The problem with us was never everything else,” she said wryly, “it was always the chemistry. Which is a shame.”
“Yeah,” he agreed. “But it’s okay. We’re still best friends, and we’ll find our true diamonds someday.”
Aradia smiled. “That’s my favorite thing about you, Tavros. No matter how much the sun burns you somehow manage to stay optimistic about the future. You never stop smiling.”
“I think that there’s a lot to smile about,” Tavros said earnestly.
The doors opened but Aradia only hugged him tighter.
“I have to be there,” she told him. “I have to be there for you at that party.”
“Don’t you dare give me a single logical reason why it’s a bad idea,” she snapped. Aradia took Tavros’s face in her hands and made him look her in the eye. “I will be there for you. Even if I can’t do anything or say anything to the slugs Gamzee’s going to let into his hive, even if I’m not your moirail and never was and never will be, even if—I don’t care. I’m going to be there.”
Tavros kissed her on the nose. “Okay. Okay, it’s okay.”
“I’m going to be there,” she repeated fiercely. Then Aradia’s expression darkened. “Gamzee’s not going to refuse me, is he?”
It was a lance straight through Tavros’s chest. “Aradia... please, he’s only trying to keep me safe and now everyone hates him for it.”
She winced guiltily at the pain in her friend’s voice. “Sorry, I’m just—Tavros, I’m sorry.”
“Please don’t be angry with him.”
“It’s hard not to be angry at everyone.”
Sometimes when she was lost in fury over the state of trollkind he worried about her. It was as though she had swallowed the sun and it threatened to burn her up from the inside. But however much that thought scared him it was infinitely preferable to the flat, dead tone she was taking then. Instead of a sun it was a black hole, draining her of everything. She needed a moirail so badly, and in moments such as that Tavros would loath himself for not being what she needed. In his pan he knew the sentiment was pointless because, however perfect they were for each other, feelings couldn’t be forced. Tavros could no more be pale for her than he could stop being flushed for Gamzee.
“I’ll see you at the party,” Tavros said at last.
A spark of life had returned to Aradia’s voice.
Chapter 21: Unsteady
“Keeper Maryam, I must inform you that the attempted assassination of a legislacerator is punishable by a very lengthy and creative execution.”
Kanaya buried her face in her arms.
“Do that all you like; you can’t hide from me! Your execution will involve a pit of sharp things and flesh eating beetles and something else really unpleasant which I have not yet thought of.”
Kanaya made a strangled noise into her elbow.
“It will be a glorious execution and they will talk about it for sweeps and sweeps. What a well implemented and well deserved death, they will say! I particularly liked the part where she was tormented with bad fashion. What’s bad fashion, someone will ask, and they will say that only the accused could ever tell the difference so who knows?”
“Uh, Terezi,” Tavros cautiously ventured, “will you be requiring any assistance?”
“... I think I’m officially cheating on my kismesis with this fucking dress.”
“So, that is a yes?”
The answer was a grumble.
Terezi was on the floor of the second floor private recreblock in a tangle of limbs and elaborate party dress. Tavros was sitting next to her looking down from his device and trying to figure out if it would be appropriate for him to get on the floor and help her straighten it out. Kanaya was half a district away in the desert pulling her hair out for the spacecam which was transmitting straight to the large viewing panel on the recreblock wall. Terezi had come hopping into the block with her shoes in one hand and the other holding her half-donned dress on her body. Just inside the door she had tripped on a trailing cord and had ended up with her face in the carpet.
Around the time that Terezi had managed to get herself upright, Kanaya had recovered enough to start explaining exactly how much time she had spent making the offending garment and how she would prefer if all that hard work and expensive fabric did not get shredded before the party even started. The seamstress was already a bit frazzled after spending half an hour trying to explain the different layers and buttons of a complex suit to Gamzee. The host of the party was in his own block getting dressed and, if the reverberating bass thrumming through the walls was any indication, listening to high density metallic alloy music at high volume. Aradia was in the master hygieneblock enjoying a long, hot bath at Tavros’s insistence. She had gotten there at nightfall and had been hard at work like one of Sollux’s bees. The excuse they used to justify her being at the party was that Gamzee was going to show off some of the artifacts he had bought from her, and the fragile ones needed her careful hands. By the time she had everything set up to her satisfaction she was sweaty and tired, so Tavros had sent her upstairs to relax before the party. Eridan was outside setting out temporary beacons and visual markers for the guests who were flying in, as well as simpler signs directing those in motorized terrestrial devices to the designated parking area.
As it was the party wasn’t scheduled to begin for another hour and a half, but those who had already arrived did so partially to hear the whole story behind Tavros’s enslavement and mostly because it was going to take a while to get ready. Tavros had found himself grateful that his party outfit was the same as his normal outfit except that it was made out of finer fabrics. He was sure that he would find a way to spill something on himself by the end of the night, but he was trying very hard not to think of things which would make him anxious. Instead he focused on what he could do to help the others as they got ready.
At that moment his self-distraction involved following Kanaya’s instructions, which had taken on a desperate tone by that point, and helping Terezi lace up her outift. The dress had an open back held closed by two sets of crisscrossing cords, one in black and one in her blood color. The dress itself was black with a wide stripe of vibrant red down the center front. Across the stomach was another, decorative set of cords in black and red. It was one of the long, trailing ends of the front lacings that she had tripped on. Secretly Tavros thought that the whole thing was needlessly complicated, but once he had helped adjust the tension and she had donned her knee high red boots, he had to admit that Terezi did look very nice. The flared dress had a long slit on each side of the red stripe, and Terezi twisted and inspected the way the cut of the dress revealed her lean legs clad in black net stockings.
“If it please His Tyranny I would like to state for the record that this example of flesh covering is still far more trouble than it is worth...” Terezi looked over her shoulder to grin at the screen, “but damn do I look sexy.”
“It is not meant to be worn for anything other than extremely formal occasions so yes it is more complex than a typical outfit,” Kanaya replied with exasperation so well worn it was frayed at the edges. “You will however note that in the case of an unfortunate event you will still have the mobility to effectively defend yourself and attack your opponent. If the dress still proves a hindrance then you may gather the black and red portions in each hand, loop them around your waist in opposing directions, and secure them with the cords at your front.”
“Like this?” Terezi asked, gathering the fabric as directed. She held the bunch in one hand and the cords in the other.
“Yes, and then you loop the ends through the crossed lacing above—please do not tighten the knot now as it will wrinkle the fabric!”
Terezi dramatically rolled her eyes and let the layers of her dress drop.
“Thank you,” Kanaya sighed, sounding very frazzled. Tavros could tell that the fact that she couldn’t adjust the outfits herself was grating on her, but until her lusus’s child was ready to mate she was stuck out in the desert. “Now, where is Eridan, I need to make sure that he has properly buttoned his suit instead of leaving it slapdash and disheveled in a show of what he believes to be roughish good looks which in reality is merely annoying.”
“I’ll go get him!” Terezi announced, spinning towards the door with a flourish and flare of her dress. “Okay, I’ll give you this one, seamstress. I am hot in this thing. It’s a good thing trash-for-pan isn’t attending because otherwise you’d have all gotten a black eyeful by now. At least Vaderi can be trusted to squirm hopelessly behind his coolkid façade and not make a scene until we get to a private block... riiiiiight, Tavros?”
Terezi practically sang those last words, and Tavros felt his cheeks heat up. It was more a blush of annoyance than embarrassment, though; Gamzee still had his insecure moments over his matesprit’s prior crushes, and Terezi loudly inviting Tavros to compare notes about the maroonblood’s romantic habits could bring that jealousy to the surface. Tavros started to tell this to her but Terezi sashayed out of the block before he could say anything. He sighed and rubbed his temples, the start of a tension headache worming its way in between his horns, and turned tired eyes to the monitor. It was the first time he had been ‘alone’ with Kanaya since the tiresome night had started.
They stared at each other in awkward silence for a while.
“Ahem,” she coughed at last. “How... is your mark healing?”
That wasn’t what she was asking at all. Unfortunately, there was no guarantee that Kanaya’s transmission wasn’t being tapped. In fact, they expected that to be the case, so Tavros couldn’t tell her much. So, while on the surface it appeared that Kanaya was politely making small talk, Tavros knew that she was really asking if he was okay.
“It is all the way healed, except maybe for, uh, some of that tight itchy feeling new scars can get.”
Kanaya nodded slowly, clearly choosing her words even more carefully than she usually did. “I hope that Gamzee has provided for this?”
Tavros floundered. In fact Gamzee had not provided any sort of oil or balm to help with the uncomfortable stage of healing skin, and Tavros was too nervous to ask where it was kept. While they had always enjoyed being in each other’s space during their previous visits, neither Gamzee nor Tavros had been prepared to live in each other’s back pockets for longer than a few perigees at a time. It was made worse by the fact that both of them lived apart from their lawnrings, so they didn’t even have the experience of seeing a neighbor across the fence to help them. Tavros had been in Gamzee’s hive long enough that both of them felt like it was an invasion. Gamzee snapped at things out of place and showed more and more irritation anytime Tavros had to ask where something was kept, while Tavros was becoming more and more likely to do without rather than bother his matesprit and stir up a fight.
“... Oh,” was all Kanaya could say to the silence.
Tavros shifted uncomfortably. “It’s only a very minor, uh, thing. He’s taking good care of me.”
Kanaya didn’t look convinced. “That is good to hear after having witnessed the appalling spectacle which was made of the ceremony.”
Tavros felt his cheeks light up with shame at the mention, but he swallowed it down. “He filed, uh, a complaint against the way things turned out.”
She sighed and didn’t press the issue further, instead sitting there fiddling with her hands while Tavros idly shifted his wheels back and forth. They were saved from the silence by Eridan’s arrival and Kanaya’s resulting exclamation of distress; he had in fact done something with his outfit to make it look more roguish and she was having none of it. Tavros took his chance while they were distracted with their squabbling and slipped out the door. He decided to check on his matesprit and headed for the elevator.
When he spun his device to face the control panel Tavros felt a sudden urge to punch it, and for once he didn’t smother it. For abusing the innocent buttons he was rewarded by a trip to the first floor before he could continue to the third, as well as a few sore knuckles. Tavros rubbed the back of his hands and tried to get himself together, but he was just so stressed out. He couldn’t even go home to his own hive, he couldn’t sit and listen to the windmill turn, couldn’t sense his longtime beast friends, he couldn’t even nuzzle noses with his beloved lusus. He felt horribly guilty for how he was feeling, but simply being in Gamzee’s hive was starting to make him mad. Tavros felt like a guest, and soon he was going to be a guest being stared at and insulted by all of Gamzee’s ‘real’ guests.
Tavros rubbed his eyes and took a few deep breaths. He silently told himself to calm down and reminded himself that anger was for trolls who could afford the consequences.
The music was loud enough that Gamzee didn’t hear the door open. Tavros felt some of the tension melt away as he took in the sight of his matesprit bouncing to the beat in front of the mirror. Gamzee had not made all that much progress towards being fully dressed. He had the lower half covered with shiny black boots on over the charcoal colored pants, but his torso was bare. Gamzee held a black shirt in his hands and muttered something Tavros couldn’t hear with the music blaring, but it didn’t sound very flattering.
What Tavros did think was flattering was the way the form fitting pants showed off his matesprit’s rear end. The one wheel device did great things for Gamzee’s legs. Tavros didn’t realize he was staring until Gamzee finally realized someone else was in the block and whirled around with a club in his hand. He dropped it when he saw who it was. Tavros unabashedly drank in the sight of his deliciously shirtless flush partner; once Gamzee started cutting back on the pies his skinny, lanky form had the opportunity to fill out with muscle and it looked good on him.
Gamzee grinned that familiar sloppy grin when he saw how his matesprit was looking at him. Tavros forcibly kept his eyes on Gamzee’s face while cursing their luck; they hadn’t been intimate since that disastrous time right after the ceremony and, of course, they’d only feel the spark when guests were due to arrive in little more than an hour. The universe hated him, Tavros decided. That was the only explanation.
With a low, rumbling chuckle Gamzee turned down the music so that they didn’t have to shout to be understood. “Why the sour face, babe? Don’t you like what you see?”
“You know I do,” Tavros responded, slouching back in his device. He pushed away his annoyance at the timing; why wallow in self-pity when he could pity his matesprit instead?
Gamzee stepped forward until he was standing so close that their legs were touching. He took a moment to brush his fingertips across Tavros’s lips before sliding down to his knees and kissing his matesprit soundly. Tavros wound his hands in his lover’s wild hair and happily sucked on the other boy’s tongue. It turned heated very, very quickly. Tavros could sense the direction Gamzee’s pan was going and reluctantly pulled away. While internally cursing his rotten luck. In two languages.
“Taaaaav, my fine flushed motherfucker,” Gamzee breathed into the other boy’s lips, decidedly not helping Tavros’s resolve. While the friends in their circle might understand, there was no way they could tell the business prospects and members of the lawnring that the party was cancelled because their host was upstairs filling pails with his brownblooded matesprit.
“Gamzee, we can’t,” Tavros said firmly.
“Can’t what?” Gamzee purred. “I haven’t up and suggested anything.”
“When you’re practically crawling inside my skin I can sense what you’re thinking,” Tavros replied while trying not to let the caresses go to his head.
“What was that about me being all inside you?” Gamzee was definitely not helping. “Besides, taking a peek all up in a brother’s pan is cheating.”
“Oh... sorry.” Tavros felt a moment of reflexive worry; many trolls were not okay with the idea of an empathic lover. That was one of the things that had kept Vaderi Ridset at arms’ length when he and Tavros were still trying for a quadrant. Tavros shook it off, though, since he and Gamzee had long since had a talk about where their psychic boundaries lay. Gamzee’s tone hadn’t been accusing, but teasing, so nothing had changed there.
“Ain’t nothing to be apologizing for,” Gamzee said with a grin. Tavros could sense a growing intent, coiling like Nepeta’s lusus getting ready to leap on her prey. As Gamzee spread a long-fingered hand over Tavros’s stomach the recipient of the insistent affection prepared himself to argue logic. Tavros was not, however, prepared for the sudden flare of pleasure that blossomed out from that point of contact.
“Ahmphrgl,” Tavros managed, the unexpected sensation making it very hard to speak.
“You don’t have to apologize,” Gamzee continued as though nothing had happened, “but I do think that since you cheated... I should be allowed to cheat too.”
“You cheat like this all the time,” Tavros bit out through another wave. It was true; Gamzee often used his power to heighten what his lover was feeling. Gamzee’s abilities were more primal than Tavros’s and functioned by altering the chemical state of another troll’s mind. That meant he couldn’t outright control anything as Tavros could with beasts or Vriska with sentients, but he could overload them with fear or rage for the strategic advantage.
Or, in the case of his matesprit, overwhelm him with sexual pleasure.
Gamzee chuckled and lessened the effect so Tavros could catch his breath. “I do cheat all the time,” he said unapologetically, a playfully wicked expression gracing his features. “But I don’t cheat like this all the time.”
The next wave crashed over Tavros and it was clear that Gamzee was not lying about reaching a new level of cheating. Usually they preferred languid lovemaking and Gamzee only brushed the other boy with his powers to compensate for Tavros’s numbness below the waist. This was another thing entirely. The intense pleasure sparked through Tavros’s whole being with searing clusters of fire wherever Gamzee touched him.
He was given a brief reprieve during which Gamzee nuzzled his hardening bulge. Tavros thought about the party, thought about the ceremony, though about all the nights spent sneaking around each other, thought about all the ways that other trolls were coming between him and his matesprit, and decided he didn’t much care if the guests were turned away at the door.
“Please,” Tavros begged, though it came out more like a demand. Gamzee laughed in gleeful triumph and tugged down his lover’s pants just enough to free the hard bulge. For the first few strokes and licks Tavros was running on his unamplified senses, but just as he was thinking about asking Gamzee for more his whole body lit up. It burned, burned like the noon sun, burned so hot it hurt, but Tavros didn’t care. Before that moment he wouldn’t have thought that he could enjoy something this violently overwhelming, but he found that he desperately needed something roughly cathartic. Slow and gentle wasn’t going to cut it. The wet heat of his matesprit’s mouth played counterpoint to the flood of endorphins hitting his system and it wasn’t long at all before Tavros found himself tumbling over the edge.
He came back to himself slowly. Tavros was slumped forward with his face in his matesprit’s hair. His horns rested against Gamzee’s in that wondrously perfect way that he felt proved they were hatched for each other. Gamzee was rubbing down Tavros’s bulge with a soft piece of cloth while he kissed and nipped at his lover’s exposed belly. Tavros shivered as the forceful aftershocks rocked his body.
“Wow,” he managed at last. That one small word was almost too much of an effort; he had never been so completely and utterly spent. It didn’t satisfy as deeply and profoundly as a long session spent worshiping each other thoroughly, but that was okay because it was satisfying on a completely different level. It was something primal that plucked a chord deep in Tavros’s subconscious.
It occurred to Tavros that he might have gotten a taste of what the mating fever would be like. He felt his mouth go dry at the thought.
Finally, he came back to himself enough to once again move. Tavros sat up carefully, mindful of where the curves of his and Gamzee’s horns touched, and draped his arms around his matesprit’s shoulders. Gamzee looked up and grinned at him before standing up on his knees and claiming Tavros’s mouth in a surprisingly shy kiss. The gentleness seemed at odds with the ferocity of what they had just experienced, but then that was Gamzee all over. Aggressive one moment and timid the next.
Tavros’s vascular pump felt as though it might burst, he loved his matesprit so much.
“You’re incredible,” Gamzee said softly when they pulled apart. “If I wake up moaning in the middle of the day then you’ll know what I’m dreaming about.” He gazed into Tavros’s eyes with something akin to awe. “Babe, you take my breath away when you say my name like that.”
“Did I say your name?” Tavros asked absently between the kisses he was raining down on his matesprit’s face. “I really wasn’t very present, mentally that is, for the whole proceedings.”
“Over and over,” Gamzee chuckled.
Tavros let out a pleased hum. Gamzee seemed more at ease than he had been since they first found out about the culling registry. With a grin Tavros decided to make his matesprit feel particularly at ease.
“Mmmm... I have an idea,” he whispered with a grin.
Gamzee groaned. “That sounds like the best fucking idea.”
“As we have previously established, before you cheated very thoroughly, you can’t sense my thoughts the way that I can sense yours.” Tavros pointed out. He punctuated the sentence with a teasing lick across the other boy’s cheek.
“I don’t think I need to be up in your pan to know what you’re thinking right now,” Gamzee said with a desperate tone. With a heavy sigh that sounded as though it came all the way from his bones, he slid out from Tavros’s grasp. “We can’t be getting our flush on any more than we already have.”
Tavros blinked at his matesprit in shock. “Is there something wrong with my hear ducts? Did you just turn down sex?”
Gamzee stood up and stuck out his tongue at the other boy. “Fuck you, topheavy.”
Tavros threw his hands up in dramatized exasperation. “That’s what I’m trying to make happen, pieface!”
The use of their admittedly weak burns from the few times they tried to slam a duet diss poem put a secretive smile on Gamzee’s face. He stayed out of Tavros’s reach though.
“Look, really, that’s all I needed,” Gamzee said. “Since I twisted your chemicals as far as I thought I could without all hurting you it didn’t take you that long, but I don’t have that push. We’ve got to get this motherfucking rail-wreck over with.”
Tavros growled in frustration, but he knew that Gamzee was right. His orgasm had come and gone so quickly that he hadn’t even had the time to work up a proper sweat, but it would take far longer to bring Gamzee to that point. Not that Tavros didn’t know a few tricks for when they had to rush, but it still wouldn’t compare to all the red glands being switched on. Tavros looked up at his matesprit and pouted.
Gamzee was smiling slyly. “As fucking gorgeous as you look right now, don’t you think you need to get all up and dressed?”
Tavros stared at him blankly.
“Unless you want to show off to everyone. I can understand if that’s what you want to do.” Gamzee’s eyes were positively twinkling. “So you want to make everybody jealous of your huge perfect bulge, babe?”
With a start Tavros realized that he was still hanging out of his pants. He tucked himself back in and then stuck his tongue out at his matesprit’s teasing sigh of disappointment. Then he looked at the soiled wad of black fabric laying on the floor.
“Gamzee, I really hope that you didn’t use your fancy shirt to clean me up or else Kanaya is going to be very upset.”
“Fuck the fancy shirt with a rusty spiked club,” Gamzee grumbled. “No, that’s one of my normal shirts. You know, the ones that make sense. That motherfucking riddle wrapped in a puzzle is over here.”
He held up the offending article of clothing with an expression of dismay.
“Maybe we should go back to the recreblock and ask for Kanaya’s help?” Tavros gently suggested. Gamzee mumbled his agreement and, after gathering up the pieces of his outfit, headed for the door. Tavros followed, his eyes on his matesprit’s shapely ass the whole time, and when they got to the elevator he couldn’t suppress the urge to steal a grope.
“Well, if this hoofshit outfit inspires such a bitchtits reaction in you then maybe it’s not all bad,” Gamzee commented.
“That seems to be the general reaction,” Tavros laughed. “That the clothing is very annoying but also that everyone thinks they look very sexy.”
By the time they got to the recreblock Eridan had been convinced to wear his outfit in a way Kanaya deemed proper. Then it became a team effort to get Gamzee into his shirt with the off-center closure, fancy embroidered vest, the frilly sort of scarf which Kanaya insisted was called a ‘cravat’, and a jacket with gold trimming. Terezi made several comments about the way Gamzee’s pants fit him, and Tavros was privately glad that the jacket had long tails which covered his matesprit’s rear. There was, unfortunately, no way that Gamzee could avoid inviting Canren, and if Tavros had to spend the whole party watching that jerk stare at his lover’s ass then he would probably end up doing something drastic. What that drastic thing would be he wasn’t entirely sure; Tavros was spinning wildly between wanting to curl up and cry and wanting to make someone bleed. He wondered if that was how Sollux felt all the time.
Kanaya was arguing with Gamzee about the state of his hair when the master of the hive’s mobile device chimed with an incoming message. Since Gamzee was occupied, Tavros picked it up and read the alert. He decided it was a good time to duck out anyway—Gamzee was trying to find allies to back him up about his hair being perfectly fine and his moirail had already jumped ship to Kanaya’s side—so he quietly wheeled himself out. He got to the door just as the newest arrival reached the hive.
“Hello,” he greeted shyly as he opened the door.
“Er...” Equius was standing there looking startled, his hand raised to knock on the door. After a moment he shook himself and stepped inside. “I see you are... well?”
Tavros wasn’t sure exactly how to proceed. Gamzee hadn’t had reason to be grateful for much following the ceremony, but the opportunity to rekindle his old friendship with Equius had been one thing he was happy about. Tavros wanted to be friendly, but he wasn’t sure how much familiarity Equius would be comfortable with.
He decided that honesty was the best option. “I’m mostly okay,” Tavros answered, sounding more miserable than he had intended. “I am glad that, uh, you decided to come.”
Equius looked at him incredulously.
“Gamzee’s looking forward to being your friend, or, uh, a closer friend? I’m not completely, uh, sure, I mean—“ Tavros realized he was babbling and took a deep breath. “It’s this way.”
He led Equius to the elevator. Tavros noticed the way that Equius looked at the panel with interest and decided to take another stab at conversation.
“By the way,” he squeaked out, “I liked what, uh, you did with your elevator so that your lusus can control it.”
Equius quirked an eyebrow up above his ever-present shades. “How do you know that I modified it?”
“Oh, I mean, I don’t know I suppose? It was an inference based on the color of the panel as compared to the rest of it.” Tavros hunched down. “Sorry, was that, uh, not okay to assume?”
“I... no.” Equius shook his head as if to wake himself up. “I did modify my personal elevator so that Aurthour can operate the device.”
Equius continued tentatively, “If I may ask, how did you know?”
“The vertical layout and the colored shapes,” Tavros said with more confidence. Lusii he could talk about all night. “While a square grid saves space and that’s probably what it looked like originally, lining the buttons up in a column along with the drawing would make it easier for him to connect the idea to the function. Then there were the symbols, all of which were objects which I assume relate to the most used block on that floor. It’s a practical way to represent each floor to your lusus, and having them color coded was another step to make it easier for him to tell them apart. Usually hoof-group lusii have limited color vision compared to trolls, but since the symbols were all very different bold colors it can still help.”
He took a breath and realized that he had just said a lot of words in a row. Equius looked as though he was having a hard time believing what he was hearing, which was the usual reaction others had to seeing the meek troll break out of his shyness and speak with such enthusiasm. Tavros bit his tongue and gave Equius the opportunity to have the next word.
“So...” Equius said at last. “You are saying that the images serve to help Aurthour because he is incapable of understanding anything more complex?”
“Yes. It was a very good idea—“ belatedly, Tavros realized that Equius was taking the comments as an insult to his guardian, “—because a lusus, uh, such as Aurthour would be unlikely to be as versed in symbolic communication since he, uh, is skilled in other areas. Of communication, that is.”
“A lusus such as him?” Equius didn’t look irritated anymore, just very confused. “I am not certain I am following your explanation. Do you mean a lusus in the hoof-group, as you said?”
Tavros shook his head slightly. “Oh no, there’s actually a lot of variation in that group. I meant a lusus who, uh, is capable of understanding complex verbal communication. When we were at your hive Aradia made a comment about getting home since she didn’t pack a meal, and even though that was a very abstract way of saying she was going to be hungry Aurthour was able to understand the meaning and insisted on showing us to the nutriblock so he could make her something to eat. That’s really impressive!” Tavros chewed on the inside of his cheek, still worried that he had offended Equius. “That was all I meant by saying, uh, his type of lusus. Since Aurthour is very good at verbal communication it would be statistically unlikely that he would be good at, uh, visual communication.”
Equius relaxed at that comment. He still seemed unsure, but to Tavros’s surprise Equius seemed warmer than he’d ever been after that.
“You are very knowledgeable about this,” Equius commented. “Is your lusus similarly skilled at verbal communication?”
He then jumped so high he was in danger of impaling the ceiling with his horn when Tavros let out a sharp bark of laughter.
“Aha, oh no, I’m sorry,” Tavros managed between giggles. “If you knew him you’d understand why that is so funny.”
Tavros rolled his eyes, then balked when he realized that he had made such a familiar gesture with Equius. His voice drew up to a squeak but the imposing blueblood looked as though he was waiting for an answer. “Tinkerbull, uh, is d-definitely not skilled in verbal communication. He knows to look at me if I call his name and if I yell, uh, ‘food’ enough times he usually makes it to the nutriblock, but that’s about it. He’s the opposite of Aurthour in that r-respect; he’s terrible at verbal, uh, but he’s gifted at visual, if that makes sense at all?”
Equius blinked. “Your lusus can read?”
Emboldened by the lack of anger or disapproval, Tavros felt himself slip back into his comfort zone of lusii psychology. “It’s rare, though not as rare as you might think. Tinkerbull and Aurthour represent two extremes; as I said, there’s a lot of variation in the hoof-group.”
As Equius stood in silence, apparently digesting that information, Tavros realized that they had been in a stationary elevator for a long time.
“Oops,” he said with a nervous chuckle as he pressed the relevant button.
“I... that is, I don’t wish to,” Equius stumbled as it started to move. “I would inquire—fiddlesticks.”
Tavros turned his device so he was facing the other troll. “What is it?”
“How... how is your lusus? Who is caring for him?”
“He’s okay,” Tavros replied slowly. He felt a pang of longing for his guardian and it must have shown on his face as Equius grew even more uncomfortable.
“I apologize; it was prying of me to ask.”
Tavros shook his head. “No, no, it’s all right. Tinkerbull is doing well. Aradia is looking after him and I know she’s doing a great job.” He sighed sadly. “She says he misses me. In the past few perigees, uh, he seems to have realized that I’m not... coming home. She says he’ll cuddle her or Chalci—that’s her lusus’s name—when he’s feeling down. But it’s not so bad to worry about his health, so that’s good.”
As soon as Aradia had gotten there she had given Tavros a full report and had shown him dozens of pictures. It made Tavros’s worry both better and worse.
“That is... good,” Equius said uncomfortably. The doors opened and he bolted, quickly stopping himself and looking ashamed at the reaction. Forcibly he turned back towards Tavros. “Which door?”
Tavros showed the way. He wasn’t entirely sure if that conversation could be counted as a success or a failure and he didn’t have the spare presence of mind to pay the question any mind. Equius had unintentionally stirred up the pot of Tavros’s emotions and at that moment he just wanted to be the one cuddling his lusus. He itched for the time when it would be considered socially acceptable for his ‘master’ to allow him to go to his old lawnring; then he could finally see Tinkerbull again. At the same time Tavros dreaded it because he’d have to see everything that no longer belonged to him.
When they got to the recreblock Aradia was there. She had stolen one of Tavros’s sopor robes and was patting her hair with a fluffy towel. Aradia noticed Tavros’s expression as soon as he came in the door and crossed the block to lay a comforting hand on his shoulder. Tavros offered her a wan smile.
While they had their moment everyone else greeted Equius with varying degrees of familiarity—Eridan in particular was regarding him with cautious distrust—and after that was over with Equius surprised everyone by turning towards Tavros and Aradia and striding forward with determined purpose. However, before he could reach them, a male troll with asymmetrical horns, a blue jacket, and a poisonous scowl appeared in the doorway.
Before anyone could say anything the newcomer stormed into the recreblock and punched Gamzee in the face.