The itching is unlike anything you've ever felt in your life. The dull pain of growing horns--sprouting pains, some trolls called them--that you used to feel every morning before sleep had been grub's play compared to the constant, unwavering static that currently trickles up and down all along your horns. It seems to start from the base of your calcified body pillar and dances all the way up your husk and through the top of your thinkpan to shoot straight up your horns before returning all the way back down the way it came, leaving you overstimulated and ready to make emotion water at the drop of a decorative pate garment.
You have to forcibly stop yourself from banging your head against the walls, against the furniture, and against your companions just to drown out the sensations. The rattling would feel good, and the walls and furniture are sturdy enough, but some of your friends are very soft indeed. It wouldn't be very polite of you to gore them to death just because you can't handle the way your velvet seems to want to crawl right off of your head. They would survive the gruesome encounter, sure, but that doesn't make it any less rude. After all, it isn't their problem. You grit your teeth and remind yourself firmly of this as you wrap a loose robe around your body and stumble out of the respiteblock you share with Rose. You need to get your untrustworthy head away from all of her delicate parts.
The molt had been coming on for a few days now, and you had felt it approaching like rolling thunder heralding a storm. It had started with a diffuse buzzing in your head that gradually began to settle in your horns, as the vasculature constricted and the connective tissue dried up, causing bits of skin to die and sag. After that it had intensified, making you scratch at your velvet and rub up on Rose, who had laughed and put your head in her lap, petting your horns absently while she read a book. That had been nice, the way her fingers sliding over the soft, dying velvet had canceled out the buzzing sensation.
Usually it tickled when she did this, the soft fur flexing and recoiling against the disturbance, sending a pleasurable stimulus down the length of your horns and through your body to settle in your bulge. A touch on the horns from Rose was generally a sign that something was about to get started--that you were about to throw down, remove your clothes, get your concupiscence on, whatever--and the association had become so ingrained in you that the soft caress alone was enough to get your blood shunted straight to your groin, as though you were one of Troll Pavlov's drooling barkbeasts, except instead of salivating you'd pop a glorious wriggly. Yesterday, however, the tickle had simply canceled out the itch, leaving you blissfully neutral.
That was the last time you can remember being able to think clearly, although perhaps if you could think clearly, memories of more recent moments of lucidity would surface. Maybe it's better not to think about that. Instead, you hug your robe tightly to your thorax and haunt the long, empty corridors of the meteor, dragging your horns along the concrete walls and leaving a thin trail of matted jade in your wake as you trace the familiar path to Karkat's private block.
You step on the raised platform marked with a small grey symbol, and for the split second that it takes to be transportalized into the room, the rapid rearrangement of your component atoms neutralizes the itch before it returns with force, like the punchline of a particularly cruel recurring joke. It feels like your whole calcified support system is vibrating with energy while a dull ache throbs underneath, almost like an aftertaste. When you fully materialize, you clutch your head and whine, momentarily forgetting your surroundings while a low growl rumbles in your thorax.
At first, all you know is that there are unfamiliar voices coming from somewhere in the room, and then a scrambling commotion while somebody hits a pause button somewhere. Karkat, of course, attempts to remind you where you are and who you've just interrupted in the middle of Embarrassing Hitch Rewatch #394. "What the hell, Kanaya, ever heard of giving somebody a heads up? I could have been naked or fondling myself, or both--god knows I don't have anything better to do--is that what you want to see? That would have been a really fun and exciting game of 'wrong quadrant, asshole' for everybody. Wouldn't you feel-- whoa."
His voice trails off as he realizes you aren't paying attention or even looking in his general direction, given that your eyes are squeezed shut and your arms are covering your face. In fact, you're incredibly busy pawing at your own horns with at least as much fervor as he might have hypothetically been using to paw at his shameglobes. You manage to get a claw under the velvet in one spot, and it makes you feel sick to your digestion sack to touch your naked horn under the skin, slippery with blood as the velvet rips away to make room for your finger. Once the initial nausea passes, you realize how satisfying it feels to wrench the dying skin away, severing fibrous connections between membranes until a chunk of it breaks off in your hand.
"Oh my god," Karkat chokes, and for a moment you think he's going to be lose his broiled grubloaf all over the floor. "Are you hurting yourself? Stop that, Jesus, can you just--" He steps into your personal space and covers your hand with his, squelching his fingers through the bloody mess of tissue in your palm. His hand shakes lightly inside yours for a moment before pulling away, taking the bright green glob of gore with it. He stares at the hunk of dead velvet, eyes carefully blank but bordering on disgusted, while you try to contain the urge to pull out more. "You can't just rip at it, okay, it has to come off on it's own," he adds, his voice quiet in a way that he rarely uses, except for when the two of you are alone.
"What good fortune I must possess, to have stumbled by chance into the block of someone so well-versed in horn maintenance." You glance passive-aggressively at his nubs, which are still covered in a thick coat of healthy first velvet. It's virgin velvet, still thrumming with living tissue and vasculature and nerve endings. It looks so soft and pitiful, you want to nuzzle it against your cheek and then headbutt it viciously.
He rolls his eyes and ignores the barb, which is good because it was probably more spiteful than the situation called for. "I read the schoolfeeding module on molting. Did you not? You didn't, did you. You know, I'm starting to think that that's my only useful skill. Karkat Vantas: Actually Read The Schoolfeedings." He lets the hunk of skin drop from his hand, without regard to the state of his floor, and it falls with a sick little plop in the now-quiet block. The only sound is your strained breath, huffing and whistling forcefully through your nasal turbines as you pant to keep pace with the restlessness in your fingers.
You'd think he'd at least want to keep the sticky shreds of fur and flesh formerly known as Kanaya Maryam off of his DVD pile, but he's completely focused on you, watching to make sure you don't rip off any more chunks of your husk. Or perhaps he's just mesmerized by the way little specks of jade blood are beginning to sweat through the velvet, dotting it sporadically like spice on grubtubes. "There's probably something more constructive you could be doing than staring at me as though my husk is going to spontaneously combust." You cross your arms, mostly to trap your hands in place, and look around his block for things to rub up on. Honestly, you still want to just headbutt him more than anything, clack horns together until your velvet starts falling away in sheets.
"Yeah, I'm thinking. Why don't you sit down and I'll--" He reaches up and wipes his thumb across your forehead, catching a drop of blood that had threatened to drip into your gazeglobes. "I'll just keep pacing around the room impotently until I figure out what to do, I guess," he says, wiping his thumb off on his jeans.
Seating options are limited, since the DVD pile would probably splinter if you put your weight on it, and you don't want to get blood all over his sweater pile, especially since it looks as though he's been sleeping in it. The two of you usually do the conciliatory thing in your block, and now you know why. Damn.
Finally you discover a pile of discarded plush crabs that appear to be rejects from a particularly harrowing battle with the alchimeter. They've been meticulously scooped together in a corner of the room, which is ideal because you can lean back and scrape your horns against the walls until he figures out what to do. Perfect. You arrange yourself in the pile, picking up one of the larger crabs and hugging it to your chest, fiddling with its claws to give your hands something to do. "Rose did something yesterday that was very satisfying," you offer.
Karkat ignores the comment for a moment, walking aimlessly around the room as if one of his belongings held the answer to the itchy horn conundrum. He kicks over a stack of books, nudging it with his shoe until it topples. Then he walks to his desk and picks up various items--his headphones, a writing implement, some more DVDs--only to set them back down again. "If you're dangling a root vegetable in front of me and expecting me to snatch at it like a good little wriggler, you're mistaken," he says, finally coming over and throwing himself into the pile with you.
You shift out of the way to make room for him, leaning your head on his shoulder. "I was just attempting to share pertinent information, since despite your being thoroughly schoolfed on the subject, you still seem to be at a loss." He tenses up a little at the insinuation that he's anything less than totally on top of the situation, but he still reaches up to scritch the hair near the base of your horns. You take that as an invitation to continue. "She put my head in her lap and rubbed my velvet for a while. It had an inhibitory effect on the itching."
"Yeah. Look," he brings his other hand up to scritch at the base of the other horn too. "As far as humans go, I adore Lalonde. She seems to be infinitely smarter than her ill-conceived human relative, and she's even a delight to be around at times, but there's a flaw the size of Gl'bgolyb in that plan." He pauses, but continues speaking as soon as you open your mouth to inquire about the nature of this enormous flaw. "There's no way in hell that I'm letting you get your horns that close to any of my autoerogenous organs when you're liable to start headbutting things at any moment--yeah, don't act like I didn't see the glint in your gazeglobes, Maryam. I know the expression of a troll ready to lock horns when I see it."
"Am I really that transparent?" you ask, sinking down in the pile anyway, although not as far as his lap. Your aim is to get his hands to slide up to your horns instead of just dancing around your scalp, because if he doesn't touch them soon, you cannot promise that you won't start headbutting.
He seems to take the hint, because you can feel him tentatively touching your velvet with the tips of his fingers, his claws angled carefully away from the raw bits where you've already clawed down to the bone. You have to let out a measured exhale to keep your shoulders from hitching at the strangely intimate touch, given your usual association with it. Luckily for everyone involved, you're in too much misery for your bulge to notice that anything is happening. "Yes, you're clear as a goddamn viewing pane. I could read a fucking novel through you," he mutters, shifting higher to massage and loosen the tighter patches of skin near the tips of your horns. "And to be honest, because why the hell not, I wish you were a little more opaque. I could have gone the rest of my natural life without knowing that you and Rose use hornplay for amorous activities, especially when you're sitting in my pile trying to get me to fondle your necrotic horn tissue. This is disgusting, oh my god, it's all over my hands." Despite his complaints, he horn rubbing doesn't stop from happening.
"If it makes you feel more comfortable in your conciliatory prowess, pailing is the last thing on my pan at the moment. I am very much all about being talked out of bad decisions right now." You arch your neck, guiding his hands to the itchier parts. "For instance, I have an overwhelming desire to thrash my head against your computing station."
"Because what I need is your blood and matted fur all over my husktop. I'm not sure how I can turn down such an appealing proposal, but that's exactly what I'm going to do, because it's a fucking stupid idea. Just shut up and let me rub you into complacency, or at least until you stop wanting to ram into things like a rutting lowblood, my god." He's at the very tips of your horns now, twisting the loose skin gently back and forth between his fingers. As he talks, a large strip of it pulls loose from the bone and falls out into his hand. "Jesus, fuck. I need some kind of receptacle for this shit. Some sort of implement for containing things you don't want all over your floor. Why hasn't something like that been invented yet."
"That does seem like a very palpable absence in Alternian technology, how astute of you." You reach up and gingerly touch the naked bone at the tip of your hooked horn. It feels cold and impersonal. It also feels slippery, and your fingers are slicked with a light sheen of jade when you pull them away. The blood is dripping into your eyes again as more skin sloughs off, and you wipe the heel of your hand absently across your forehead, blinking it out of your gazeglobes. "Harder, this is helping."
Karkat redoubles his efforts, threading his fingers through the grooves and divots and sliding them under every patch of skin, slowly separating it from the bone. His method is deliberate and far too leisurely for your taste, but it does hurt a lot less than your frantic ripping, so you bite the inside of your cheek and make yourself sit still, taking shallow breaths and trying not to vibrate with the desire to do something untoward like pin him to the floor and rattle horns. The sheer amount of effort involved forces the first tears out of your eyes as the itch migrates from your crown to your thorax, making your shoulders jumpy and your elbows jittery. "This is intense," you say though gritted teeth.
"No shit," he breathes. "You can't see what's going on up here. You look like a scuttlebuggy crash victim, ugh." He peels a large strip away and drops it on the floor next to the pile with another gut-twisting little plop. You don't look at it, keeping your eyes pointed straight ahead at the opposite wall. "I hope this isn't what I have to look forward to in like half a sweep. This is the most pathetic you've ever looked."
His pale admission makes a blossom of warmth open in your thorax. You rarely feel as pathetic as you do right now, and it is very affirming to have him notice it, much less vocalize it so plainly. The bluntness of his statement makes a blush rise in your cheeks even as more tears of pain and frustration force themselves out of your emotion ducts, and you have to cover your face with your jade-streaked hands. "Don't look at me, just keep massaging my necrotic flesh."
"You're almost done. There's a stubborn bit under your hook that doesn't want to cede ground, hang on." He grabs the base of your horn in one fist, attempting to hold your whole head still while he rubs the remaining bit of velvet vigorously. He doesn't do a very good job at it, and your head bobs around jerkily, rattling your skull and making your mouth numb with the force of it.
"Be caref--" you attempt to say, but he lets go of your horn and paps your cheek with a stilted shoosh, smearing more blood on your face in the process. You are going to need one thorough session in the ablution trap after this.
The last strip of velvet gives way with a sickening rip that causes your head to recoil, and you fall over onto your side in the pile, panting heavily and staring up at the ceiling. The itch of dead tissue has been replaced by a lingering, hot tenderness, not to mention the widespread tacky stickiness of drying blood, but you find that infinitely less maddening. You can live with this, or at least, you will be able to live with it as soon as you get your breath back.
"Ugh," Karkat says eloquently, wiping his palms off on your skirt. "Now I have to carry your head scraps to the waste storage unit. This is not what I signed up for, I'm here for the papping and talking you down from killing my good friends. That's where my talent lies, this grooming shit is wasted on me."
"This is exactly what you signed up for," you murmur into his thorax, curling up around him in the pile because suddenly the exhaustive force of three days of subpar rest is descending on you like a thick curtain of missed sleeping opportunities. "After all, you read the module. You're now the resident elder molting mystic."
"Yeah, I should have known what I was getting into when I dared to educate myself on my basic troll bodily functions, you're exactly right," he gripes, wiping the excess blood away from your face with the edge of his sleeve. The wiping dissolves into gentle stroking, and he brushes his fingers steadily against your flushed cheeks as you slip deeper into sleep, listening to him grumble under his breath about not having the first idea how to wash rotting green fur out of black fabric, and maybe Rose has some human magic to work on his laundry. You curl closer to his body, breathing slowly in time with the hot throbbing at the base of your horns, until even his voice drips away into oblivion and you get your first real sleep in days.