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strewn among the blood-bright stars

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Fuck, fuck, fuck, this map isn’t to scale, and the light is starting to get to him, even if it’s dimmer than Alternian daylight but seriously trolls are meant to be nocturnal.

There, ten feet away, walking towards him, the vivid orange-lemon brightness of horns, on a face made for a financiavenger beneath the sunglasses. Black jeans, green t-shirt, floppy green hat. Not so high on the hemospectrum that he’ll spit on Sollux, easy enough in himself that he might know the area.

“Excuse me,” Sollux says, using the carefully formal tones of a warmblood to a coldblood, just for the politeness – that shade of green doesn’t really merit it, but it’s better to be polite to a stranger – “do you know which way is Erie Street?”

The guy’s lips move, faintly, and then he says, in the worst accent Sollux has ever heard, “Don’t speak Alternian.” It’s – it’s like he’s never heard another troll speak.

“The fuck,” Sollux spits, taking a half-step back. “How are you a troll and you don’t speak –”

The guy takes off the hat. There are headphones over his aural –

Fuck. Aural fins. Fucking – violet at lowest, look at the blood shading, how is he even -

“Do you speak English?” the seadweller says, accentless English, slow and movie-perfect.

“Yeah,” Sollux says, too shocked for anything else.

“I don’t speak Alternian,” the guy repeats, this time in English. “Can I help you?”

Sollux just breathes a moment. Stares at the guy’s face, expressionless from the sunglasses. Frills gone bright purple with heat. He must’ve been covering them up. Wearing green, a whole half-spectrum lower than his blood color, no Alternian language.

“I’m looking for 57th Street,” he says finally.

“You’re way too far north, and heading more north,” the guy says. “You should probably take a bus or the train.”

“How far is it?”

The corner of his mouth twitches up. “Far-ish. How long do you have?”

Right, okay, fucked. “Thanks.”

“I’m going that way anyway,” the guy says awkwardly, “if you want to come with.”

...in all honesty, he wants to find out what the fuck is wrong with this guy, but that would be rude.

“Sure,” he says.

The guy starts walking, so Sollux falls in beside him, as they get to a set of stairs and take them down, below the sidewalk.

“What brings you here?” He doesn’t say to Earth, which Sollux appreciates on a political-correctness level, including the fact that Fishboy here clearly has been on Earth for a lot longer than normal.

“I’m helping the university retrofit a few blo- rooms into apiculture facilities.”

Fishboy takes two steps beside him, then says, “Apiculture?”

“Beekeeping.”

Another pause. “I didn’t think the university had a farming program.”

“If they do it’s none of my beeswax.” He swallows the fuckface that wants to emerge after that, because he at least knows how to interact with other people.

The guy snickers. “So if you’re not a beekeeper, what are you?”

Sollux almost reaches to his neck to pull out his bug tags, stamped with the glittering gold-and-violet insignia of the Apialienators, but cuts the gesture short and says, “Technician.”

“Oh!” Fishface turns his head, looks Sollux up and down. “Should have known you were military, but the English threw me. Computer networks using bees, right?”

How can you be a troll and not know that, Sollux doesn’t say. “Yeah.”

“That’s cool. This might be a stupid question, but do you get stung a lot?”

Yes, it’s stupid. “They die if they sting, so they try not to, and we’re trained in how not to make them want to.”

“Are they different from Earth bees?”

“Significantly.”

Fishface grins. His fangs are in even rows, worse than the most inoffensive warmblood. It’s pretty fucking unreal, violet-shaded fins and a mouth full of gentle teeth.

To keep himself from looking too hard, Sollux looks at the signs ahead of them.

“Do you have money for a ticket?” Fishface asks.

“What is this?”

“Train station. Here.” Fishface shows him a machine, and looks away while Sollux buys a ticket. They go out on the platform.

“Eridan,” Fishface says after a moment of staring at the tracks.

“What?”

“Eridan. My name.”

He doesn’t even say it right. ɛəɹədæn, like an American.

“Sollux,” Sollux cuts the lisp on his name as best he can, but it still comes out hissing. The English s is a different phoneme that he has no difficulty with, but he still has trouble with the Alternian version. x for ç. Obvious, spittingly obvious to anyone with a basic knowledge of the language.

“Khollux?”

He gives up. “Sollux,” he says, like an English speaker.

Eridan says it again, this time with at least something approximating the right consonant to start it.

“You live around here?” Sollux asks, since it’s polite.

Eridan’s half-smiling. “Yeah.”

“What do you do?”

“Student.” The tracks begin to rattle, a screaming metal noise. “Here comes the train.”

“Okay. Thanks for the directions.”

“No problem.” They both walk into the mass-transit wheeled device, but take different seats, and say no more to each other until they both get off at the same stop.

Outside the mass-transit wheeled device, at the exit, Eridan catches up to him, then says, “Wait a sec,” reaching into the bag slung over his shoulder.

Sollux doesn’t let himself tense up, but he does rest two fingers on the frame of his glasses, at least until Eridan pulls a notebook and pen out of his bag.

“Look, um, I don’t know how long you’ll be in town, but if you need to see an alien face, if you can handle my not being alien enough to fix homesickness, or if you just want coffee, you can call me. Here’s my number.” He tears the sheet out and offers it.

Sollux stares at his hand for a moment.

“You know that you’re –” he starts, and Eridan’s mouth goes tight, so Sollux amends it to, “I’ll be here a couple of months.” Takes the slip of paper.

“Cool.” Eridan shoves his glasses up to rub at one eye, and Sollux looks down at the number.

Eridan Ampora, it says in smooth Roman letters. 872-555-1133. ampora@-----.edu

“Do you have a blood sign?” he asks.

“No,” Eridan says flatly, then smoothes out his voice and says, “Call if you need anything.”

“Yeah, thanks.” Sollux folds the piece of paper over, shoves it in his pocket. “I’ll see you around.”

“Yeah.”

Sollux turns, walks away, doesn’t look back.

 

 

 

The server blocks are dark. He imagines them filled with comb-frames, the bees flitting about to rest on verdant bioluminescent flowers. The blocks are too small; they will stifle the bees.

Part of the reason for this exercise was to see how using Earth flowers would change the bees’ networks, but the filtered air is stale; the bees will know they aren’t outside. The flowers are doing fine, he supposes.

He goes outside of the room to where the light switches are, the human tech following behind. “Have you checked the spectrum of light and compared it to actual specs on Alternian daytime?”

“Yes, of course,” the tech says.

“Good.” Sollux doesn’t want to test it; he likes not having a sunburn, and also his vision.

 

 

There’s a database on the Interweb that lists every single sign available for all blood colors; he sets it right to seadwellers. It’s a lot smaller at that end, with only a few hundred signs. Most of them are taken; seadwellers get possessive of their signs. They don’t like others to claim them.

He keeps going up the hemospectrum, from the violet of the coastal types to the bright purples of the open-ocean dwellers, and, finally, near the top, a dark almost-tyrian, the double-jags that look too much like Eridan’s horns to be a coincidence, Orphaner Dualscar, the Pretender, officially unclaimed.

Sollux scrolls past, loads the previous page of purples to hide what he was looking at, and then logs off.

 

 

A week after he arrives, he wanders into a bookstore on the university campus, sees the jagged brightness of troll horns in the back. Could be an interworld student, but unlikely.

Today Eridan’s wearing a dark purple scarf that covers the gills at his throat, and headphones that break up the lines of his aural fins.

“Yo,” Sollux says. Eridan jumps, shoulders caving protectively as he turns. When he sees Sollux, he relaxes, face easing into something like a smile.

“Hi.”

Martial history. Earth martial history. Blood will out.

“What’re you reading?” Like he doesn’t know.

“Just browsing,” Eridan says, reaching up to scratch at the base of one horn, what the flying flipping fuck. “I’m studying the interaction of technology and entertainment in popular consumption, so I find stories about the high seas enjoyable.”

Wait, what? “Huh?”

“I study internet piracy, so I read about sea pirates for fun.”

That’s really fucking bizarre.

“Internet piracy.”

“Yeah.” Eridan turns, half-smiling at him. “Like when you want to listen to a song, but you don’t want to pay for it, so you download it off the internet.”

Sollux has a good memory for shades of purple; with his sunglasses perched on top of his head, Eridan’s eyes, fully colored-in, are vividly and utterly as close to tyrian as Dualscar’s shade.

“I see.”

“Alternia did have sea pirates, right?”

He’s not sure whether Eridan is teasing him or not.

“They were called Gamblignants.” And Dualscar the leader of the Corsairadicators before he turned to treason.

“How’s the setup for the bee computers going?”

“It’s fine.”

An awkward pause where they look at each other, and then Eridan’s chin drops, horns coming up, and Sollux takes a step back – warm and soft, cold and cruel, the wiggler rhyme croons in his head – and then Eridan says, voice quiet, “Um, do you want to get coffee?”

“What?”

Eridan looks back up, horns drawing away again, and Sollux realizes, dully, that Eridan uses human body language, of all the sick things. That was submission, that little head drop, not horn-baring aggression.

His face has fallen, though. “Not right now, I guess?”

“No, it’s fine,” I thought you would move like a troll, excuse my mistake. “I misheard you for a moment. Sounds good.”

There’s a little coffee shop across the street, so they go there and sit down at one of the tiny tipsy brushed-steel tables along the windows. It’s beneath the mass transit vehicle tracks, so when one passes overhead, the air vibrates in his thorax like a reverse chirrup.

“So you’re a bee computer tech,” Eridan says, after the first sip of his drink, his smile half-hidden and warm. “How’d you get involved in that?”

“I’ve always liked computers and programming. Apiocomputing’s strength isn’t speed, it’s flexibility. Any dumb silicon and gold system can follow orders; only an apiculture network can figure out a better way to solve the problem, or account for things you didn’t originally include.”

“I see.” A pause. “How do you get the hives to talk to each other?”

“They leave pheromones, they dance at each other, sometimes they create new hives.”

“How do you program them?”

“Most programmers use a silicon-based interface to program in pheromones for the bees to interpret and carry out.”

“Cool.” Eridan draws a few lines on the table, aimlessly, with the tip of one finger. His claws are clipped short.

Sollux drinks some more coffee. He hates to say it, but Earth coffee is better than the stuff in the Fleet. He doesn’t know if it’s the water or the beans themselves, but he is going to miss the hell out of Earth coffee when this assignment is over.

It’s probably the water, now that he thinks about it.

“What’s the deal with internet piracy, then?” he says.

Eridan sits forward in his chair, propping his elbows up on the table. “There’s a bunch of deals. Which one are you interested in?”

“Which one are you studying?” Sollux asks, and raises the mug to his foodflap again.

 

 

Eridan sends him an email later that day: Dinner at my place later this week? I’ll cook.

Sollux stares at the screen of his husktop, at the email. Eridan types in black text, no signature style in sight. It’s like corresponding with an AI.

iim allergiic to alterniian honey, he responds, because while technically untrue, the truth would be out of place. otherwii2e, iill bee there. where and when?

 

 

Eridan’s apartment is on the third floor of a nondescript building. Inside, there’s a cookingblock, an ablution block, a recreation block, and a closed door, presumably the respiteblock.

The apartment smells of cooking meat, and Sollux masks his appreciative sniffing by taking off his jacket - gold and violet embroidery on the black wool, the pins of his blood sign worked in on either side of the collar, with his name badge at the breast.

"I made -" Eridan starts, and then makes a noise that Sollux has no idea how to even start interpreting.

"What?"

He makes it again, then adds, "P - H - O. A Vietnamese chicken noodle soup."

Vietnamese - 'ese' on the end can denote language or nationality, probably the latter -

"Where's that?" he hazards.

"Vietnam? East Asia." Eridan takes the few steps over to the cookingblock and washes his hands before stirring a pot.

"But this isn't," Sollux starts, adrift, and Eridan grins.

"I can't promise it'll be as good as a street vendor in Ho Chi Minh City, but I do my best." He tosses some thin, pale noodles into a pot and stirs. "What do you want to drink?"

"Water." Also give him a chance to test the beans-or-water coffee hypothesis.

Eridan's drinking Coke, the Earth variety. Once the drinks are on the table, he drains the noodles, puts them into concave nutrition structures, and pours broth over them, then hands one to Sollux.

"How do you feel about chopsticks and spoons?" Eridan asks, opening a drawer and pulling out...sticks. That he puts in his concave nutrition structure.

"I have no clue what those are." The ceramic is hot in his hands, so he sets it down on the table.

"I'll teach you later, then," Eridan says, picking up a fork and spoon, and they sit down to eat.

It's - good. Really good. Alien, literally, but better than Fleet rations, better than when he would cook for himself back on Alternia. Not better than what he has with Feferi, but good.

Eridan uses the sticks like pincers to grab bundles of noodles or chunks of meat. Sollux watches this for a while, then Eridan offers to teach him, and when Sollux agrees, Eridan gets another pair and drags his chair over to Sollux's side of the table so they're sitting next to each other.

"The bottom one you hold like this," Eridan says, taking one of them out of his hand, "yeah, like that, and then the other one's like this..."

Sollux tries to pick up a piece of meat. It bobs into the broth, then resurfaces. He tries again, manages to pick it up, but it falls back in as soon as he tries to carry it to his food flap.

Eridan laughs, warmly but without scorn, so Sollux tries one more time, and this time he manages to actually eat it.

"There you go," Eridan says, smiling, and he makes to stand up to move his chair back, but Sollux grabs the front of his sweater-vest and holds him there long enough to kiss him.

Eridan's mouth is cool as glass, refreshing after the heat of the soup, and Eridan's hand cradles Sollux's cheek, thumb tracing the slope of the side of his cartilage nub, the rise of his cheekbone.

Sollux feels himself make a soft rumble of pleasure, more than he hears it, and Eridan licks once more at his mouth before pulling away. His lips and aural fins are tinted purple and he's breathing hard.

Sollux runs his hands down Eridan's sides and feels the faint rises between his thorax-encirclement bones that means his thoracic gills are starting to flare; Eridan shivers quietly beneath his touch and they flex closed.

Eridan stands up, pauses, like he's waiting for Sollux to stop him, and goes back to the other side of the table, dragging his chair with him. Sits down again, eyes wide and aural fins still flared.

Sollux unbends a leg to knock his foot against Eridan's, and carefully doesn't look up from his soup, not even when Eridan laughs briefly and self-consciously.

He finishes his serving, thinks about asking for seconds, and decides against it.

When Eridan's done eating, Sollux says, "Where should I put ―" but his tongue won't come up with the words in English, except for a calque of the lowblood Alternian nutrition implements.

Eridan doesn't seem to notice. "The dishes? In the sink."

Sollux stands, takes his and Eridan's concave nutrition structures and glasses to the plumbing basin, and begins to wash them. Nepeta, obsessed with romance, had been constantly explaining human courtship and mating rituals to him, and apparently this is one of the more well-known ones. You cook, I'll clean.

After putting away the leftovers in the refrigeration hull, Eridan takes up a towel to dry the pieces Sollux has finished washing, standing beside Sollux at the plumbing basin.

"It was good," Sollux says, then, as Eridan sets one of the sticks into a rack for drying, "The food."

"Thanks."

"Where'd you learn how to make it?"

Eridan draws the towel along the concavity of a spoon. "My mother works in the Department of State, and when I was in middle school, my family did a stint at the consulate in Ho Chi Minh City."

Middle school for Americans usually happens around five or six sweeps, he reminds himself. "That's in Vietnam?"

"Yeah. I didn't learn to cook there; I just picked up a taste for the food." He sets down the fork, the last of the implements to need drying, and hangs the towel over a hook on the wall. When he turns back to face Sollux, he's already reaching out to him, and Sollux, holding him close, strokes down his spine, fingertips drinking in the cool of his skin.

 

 

They end up curled together on the reclining furnishing in the recreation block, Eridan’s brainpan tucked under Sollux’s chin, their legs tangled. Sollux is careful to keep his hands away from Eridan’s gills this time, even through the layers of his shirt and sweater.

“Where else have you lived?” Sollux asks. One of the bookshelves has photographs on it, but without his glasses he can’t see that far.

(“Those aren’t your glasses; those are your eyes,” Eridan breathed, marveling, when he took Sollux’s glasses off to kiss him, his own already on the table next to the furnishing.

“Yeah,” Sollux said, and Eridan’s mouth curled up in a smile before he drew his thumbs over Sollux’s eyelids and kissed him again. Sollux was afraid to ask if Eridan saw light leaking through his lashes.)

“My mom was with the Fleet Consulate when I was adopted, along with a few other baby trolls, and then we moved to Arizona for three years, and then there was a stint in Chile that I don’t remember. Um. Korea was after that, and then Vietnam, and then we came back to the US and were in Oklahoma, and then back to Vietnam, and then I went to college. My parents are in Moscow right now, though.”

“You’ll have to show me on a map.”

“Oh, okay, yeah, just...” Eridan begins to unwrap himself from Sollux, but Sollux tightens his arms.

“Later.”

Eridan curls back into him, presses a kiss to his neck. “So you’ve never been home, since you became an adult?”

“Alternia itself doesn’t need Apialienators. It’s just wigglers there.”

“Without adult supervision?” Eridan smiles against his skin.

“They don’t need it.”

“And it doesn’t go all Lord of the Flies?”

“...I don’t know the human version of that book.”

“Buncha kids get stranded on an island without any adults. They go crazy and start killing each other.”

Sollux spends a few moments breathing, feeling the pressure of Eridan against him. “That’s the whole point,” he says finally. “It’s preparation.”

Eridan stiffens. “That’s fucked up.”

“Conquest is – Alternia can’t support the whole population. And even if it could, the social structure is unstable. The Fleet structure protects the hemospectrum. It’s easy to reassign people within their corps if you think they’re trying to make plots.”

“Yeah, that’s not authoritarian as all fuck at all.

Sollux shrugs with the shoulder not buried in cushion. “It is what it is.”

Eridan breathes out. “Makes me want to set up a torrent server for the dissemination of social justice writings.”

Sollux lets his palm come to rest against the back of Eridan’s neck and says nothing.

 

 

Before he gets back to his hotel room he goes to an internet cafe, pays in cash, and tries to be as unremarkable as possible for a troll in a cyber-café late at night.

He has a husktop he made from supposedly-scrapped pieces and from doing a little skimming off the Apialienator Quartermaster's supply chain. It's as secure as he can make it.

Using the cyber café's Wifi to access an anonymizer, he writes an email to Feferi.

hey,

don't know iif you knew, but a few grub2 iin our clutch were giiven two earth. know anyfiin about iit? one of them miight bee a pretty good candiidate for iinclu2iion, but he'2 calm enough ii'm not going to turn my back.

That was vague enough that it might not get him killed, and Feferi challenged, if the backdoor he made into her networks were to ever be cracked open, but coherent enough she'll catch what he means. Eridan's a seadweller, who are changeable as waves, unwise to turn your back on. But calm, weirdly so. And possibly valuable to Feferi's cause, of cutting down the Condesce and bringing changes to the Empire.

He touches his thorax and runs his thumb over the pendant of diamond-shaped porphyry he keeps on his bug tags. Anyone who needs to see his tags will get their day fucked up by it, if they bother to look up what that pendant means and he's not in a state to tell them. Her Disdain's moirail, Sollux Captor, dirtsucking pissblood and the best Apialienator programmer in twenty sweeps. If he says so himself.

 

 

The empty frames arrive a couple of days later, so he rolls up his sleeves and helps install them, paying attention to spacing and placement near the flowers.

The major barrier is that bees, even the specially-bred ones used in apiocomputing, are still animals, driven to not just reproduce but also multiply. The university's apiculture network will need room to expand, and he doesn't want to be returning every sweep to help them set up a new comb.

As tempting as it would be. Eridan is - pretty, and clean, and very humanlike, for all the horns and fins, and he cooks better than Fleet rations to a degree Sollux had forgotten was possible.

He'll admit to thinking about coming home to Feferi with Eridan on his arm, and the symmetry of having tyrian Feferi in his diamond and high-purple Eridan in his heart, the way it would go with the Apialienator uniform. Feferi's already fond of showing Sollux off because of it; having Eridan there as well would balance the look of things.

And Sollux and Feferi wouldn't keep having to share a pail come drone time in their lack of flushed partners, either, which would be glorious. He loves her dearly, enough that it makes him feel helpless and small and his thorax hollowed out, but sex isn't part of that love.

(Who would know that Her Disdain is fond of violent video games, and screams imprecations through her headset, swearing until the Web might as well be blanketed in rusty obscene enthusiasm?)

He sends her a few 'personal' emails from his work computer, over the wi-fi at the small hotel catering to Alternian guests to the city. He's careful to mention in vague terms that he's met someone, not naming names or species. There have, after all, been a few trolls who fell in love with humans and deserted.

She responds to the supposedly-personal emails with similar vaguenesses: she wants more details, on everything; she's never been to Earth and it's possible she never will. She's curious about this new acquaintance and for his own good needs to vet them, to keep him from getting out of control in his fondness.

Once, he sends her an email talking about a tech who annoyed him, not a personal hate but situational, and she responds with a gorgeous, nearly pornographic email talking him down.

 

 

The bees themselves arrive at the end of the month, hand-delivered by an extremely nervous freshly-Ascended orangeblood Apialienator who has clearly not only been stung a few times, but has also been harassed at Customs, briefly detained pending confirmation of her assignment, been stranded from her moirail for some time, and just wants to be back on her ship in her own recuperacoon with her moirail beside her.

Getting the system set up takes forever: the bees are fussy and are taking too long to acclimate. When he’s sure he’s behind schedule, he calls his superior officer, Cyanolieutenderizer Halkam, requesting an extension.

Halkam is a high green too yellow for true cerulean, power-hungry with being denied the promotions within the Apialienators that he deserves. In his frustration he vacillates between sycophant and antagonist in his interactions with Sollux, who would be rising in the ranks even without his moirallegiance with Her Imperial Disdain, and with it will probably outrank Halkam within the next five sweeps.

The results of the call are, essentially, that Halkam can't threaten him because Sollux is nigh-on untouchable thanks to his ties to Feferi, but that Halkam would like to be able to threaten him. Sollux is okay with this state of affairs.

 

 

Sollux has never been any good with food - Fleet rations were an improvement over his larvahood cooking, so he's not real picky.

One date Sollux brings over grubcake that he bought from a tiny little corner shop not far from the Alternian consulate, and Eridan makes fish, of all fucking things to serve.

Sollux had never had fish before the first time he met Feferi in person. Fishing isn't allowed for lowbloods. Indigos can, with special permission, but not a dustmouth like him. He's allowed to eat it if Feferi serves it, but not - not otherwise; that's a sumptuary crime.

Eridan might as well be laying his heart out in front of Sollux, asking if it's red enough.

He lets Eridan finish his slice of grubcake before walking around the table and kissing him, Eridan's mouth cool against his own, tasting sweetly of the cake. Sollux breaks away, starts kissing his way down Eridan's neck, sliding the flat of his tongue over the slow-opening gills there, and Eridan moans, aural fins flaring wider as he fumbles at Sollux's shirt.

Once Sollux's shirt is open, Eridan stands up, pushes Sollux's shirt off him, and curls his hand around Sollux's side right under his vestigial grub legs. Uses the leverage to drag him to the reclining furnishing and pull him down beside him.

Eridan's shirt is still buttoned, so Sollux takes care of that, wrangles first Eridan's and then his own jeans open.

They've gotten here before, just once; Eridan stopped him, clearly terrified Sollux would find his bulge freakish. Warned him it moved, like he thought Sollux had never seen a seadweller's bulge before.

So they just made out for a while, until their food flaps got sore and they got tired. No pails, all perfectly NG-7.

He's ready for that pail now, if Eridan is.

Eridan's bulge curls, half-unsheathed already, against his hand through the cloth of Eridan's boxers, shifting against the cloth even as Eridan's hands skim down Sollux's sides towards his hips.

There's a lot of people who say that they'd never flushfuck a fish 'cause they're too cold to be comfortable. But Sollux doesn't mind. Keeps him anchored. And anyway, he realized when they made out, Eridan warms up with a little exercise.

Sollux tucks his fingers under the waist of Eridan's boxers, and the tip of Eridan's bulge sneaks up, presses against the pad of one finger.

"Let's get these off," Eridan says, and shifts off the couch, standing up. Sollux follows him.

"While I'm up," he says, "where's your bucket?"

Eridan's brow furrows. "What?"

Sollux facepalms and covers it up by rubbing at one eye. "Don't tell me you just spew," he licks at one of his fangs, making sure of the English slang term in his memory, "jizz everywhere when you have sex."

"Oh!" Eridan's fingers curl around the top of one of his own socks, bent up like a strange bird. "Yeah, in the bathroom, under the sink. And I guess..." He takes off the sock, drops it on the floor next to its fellow. "I guess a bed would be a better place for this."

Bed. Flat soft non-pile that humans sleep on. Not a recuperacoon. Bed.

How the fuck has Eridan not gone on a culling spree if he's not using sopor?

"Yeah," Sollux says, because the reclining furnishing isn't really wide enough.

"There's troll-use condoms in the nightstand," Eridan says, disappearing into the ablution chamber and emerging with a plastic bucket.

"Condoms."

"Yeah."

"What?"

Eridan's eyebrows go up, and he inhales, then breathes out deeply. With his jeans open and low on his hips, and his chest bare, he looks like the models in Propadoppelgandist advertisements for the various corps, only none of the models are ever tyrian, and none of them ever look frustrated. "Condoms. Plastic. To keep from spreading diseases."

Sollux brushes the words away. "The Fleet screens for sexually transmitted diseases." And culls what's not curable. It's easier that way.

"And if, theoretically speaking, I had one?"

This is fucking ridiculous. "Fine." He wants to get laid, not argue about Eridan's germ phobia, so he opens the door to Eridan's respiteblock and steps inside.

No recuperacoon in sight. Just a rumpled bed, with dark blue sheets (wrong! whisper all his sweeps of socialization), a nightstand with a book on top, and a husktop on a table to one side.

Eridan sets the pail down next to the nightstand and sits on the edge of the bed, looking at Sollux. His eyes are clear, and his horns draw jagged lines in shadows cast by the streetlight outside the window. The light cuts the shape of his body into relief, sharpening him from muscle into steel.

Sollux, still in his pants, kneels on the floor between Eridan's legs and rests his hands on the inside's of Eridan's still-clothed thighs.

"Are you bulge- or nook-focused? Or neither."

Eridan shrugs. "I'll let you know what I like when I like it."

That's singularly unhelpful.

"Pants off," he says, since that's a good start, and Eridan obligingly shoves them down. Sollux lifts each leg in turn to strip them off completely, then reaches between Eridan's legs, to where his half-unsheathed bulge twists wine-dark with blood between his thighs.

The tip curls, lukewarm now, against his fingers, dry but charming, and he draws the backs of his fingers up the length of it to the sheath, then further, stroking along the muscles around Eridan's nook, and then back to Eridan's bulge when he finds them closed.

Eridan is soft and flexible in his hand, curling against his skin, pulsing every so often. Sollux isn't much for his own nook, but he wouldn't mind finding out what Eridan felt like inside him.

He pauses at the touch of Eridan's fingers against his temples, and closes his eyes against the flare of his psiioniics. He isn't ready to trust Eridan with that much. But Eridan just leans down to kiss him, tongue curling against his, and when they part, Sollux leans forward, draws his tongue over the very tip of Eridan's bulge.

That sends Eridan flailing for the nightstand, and Sollux, bored, counts powers of two for a bit while Eridan digs out a plastic bulge sheath. Not sexy.

"Do you really need to?" he asks, while Eridan opens the wrapper.

Eridan's bulge curls into the plastic bulge sheath, which is long and thin and clearly made especially for seadwellers. Even so, there's no way it'll hold genetic material, so Sollux doesn't know what the fucking point is.

When he responds, Eridan's voice is a low buzz of annoyance. "Yes."

Sollux's guts perk up. He's always had a kink for black-red quadrant vacillation, even if Eridan is definitely flushed for him, and if he just pushed a little, until they were tearing at each other... Eridan would make it really good, he can feel it.

He turns, burying his face into Eridan's thigh and kissing along it, working his way to Eridan's now-encased bulge. It slides easily into his mouth, thicker closer to the sheath, and even if it tastes of plastic, the red pheromones rising from Eridan's skin cover up most of the taste. Eridan curves into him, hands stroking at his back. It’s strangely endearing, more so than the twist of his bulge in Sollux's mouth and the hitches in his breathing.

By the time he's fully unsheathed, his bulge is half-curled in Sollux's mouth, too long to fit all the way in without choking him. The rest pulses rhythmically in Sollux's hand, and his hips and thighs and bulge are hot with arousal.

Sollux's bulges are long unsheathed, desperate for some kind of stimulation, and his nook is open, clenching every time Eridan moans.

He realizes, when Eridan rocks against the flat soft non-pile of the bed, that Eridan's nook is relaxed open, tyrian wetness gathering rich just inside him. And he clings to Sollux's shoulders, gasps like he's crying when Sollux strokes at the sensitive flesh the muscles of his nook were hiding.

Eridan pushes him away not too long after that, fumbles the plastic bulge sheath off and drags his hand over his bare bulge a couple of times before he drains into the bucket, half-filling it.

Sollux pushes the pail aside, leans his head forward to rest it on Eridan's thigh. Eridan's nook still smells temptingly of salt and flushed pheromones, and Sollux can't tell if he wants it smeared all over his bulges or filling his foodflap, but either way he has to -

He fumbles his pants down enough to jerk himself a few times before he's coming, too, topping up the bucket.

Eridan bends down to kiss him, a shallow stroking of tongues. "Stay the night," he says.

Sleeping without sopor isn't really a pleasant experience, but Sollux is willing to go one night without if it means he'll be able to get another round with Eridan tonight and sleep a little later in the morning tomorrow.

"Okay," he says, and leans forward to kiss Eridan back.

 

 

Midway through installation week, Eridan drops by the developing Apiculture Network Facility near the end of Sollux's shift. Merach, the trainee, is helping Sollux check the bees' developing comb structures, which are not doing very well, and look for signs of egg-laying, which are also not appearing. Sollux is quietly beginning to lose hope, so Eridan's appearance could have been a welcome respite.

Merach notices Eridan first. Tilts her head up in submission, swallowing with nerves. Even though the headphones cover his aural fins, Eridan's neck gills are showing, flared - it must be raining out - and that he is a seadweller is unmistakable.

Sollux stands up from kneeling in front of one of the frames, leaves the room, strips off the oversuit he was wearing to keep pollen from getting out, and goes to Eridan.

"Who's that inside?" Eridan asks, pushing his headphones down around his neck, where his gills are starting to close.

"Merach. She's been assigned to me for the time being."

"Should I say hello?"

Sollux licks his lips. "That would be really fucking stupid. I'm - probably going to get in trouble anyway now, but talking to her probably won't go anywhere good."

Eridan pauses, gaze flicking over Sollux's shoulder and mouth tightening. "We're talking about that later." He drags the headphones back up to his fins, turns on his heel, and leaves.

Merach's gaze flickers up to him when he steps back inside. "Who's that?"

"Student at the university."

"Didn't know fins went to Earth for school."

"This one does."

And that should have been the end, but Merach grinned and said, "Wouldn't mind getting better acquainted with a face like that. Quadrant of yours?"

Sollux curls his fingers around one of the gas cans. Easy enough to kill her psiioniically and make it look like he'd clubbed her to death. No one would dare prosecute on Earth, although it would be an interworld relations nightmare. Annoy Feferi and save Eridan, or leave Eridan to the wasps.

"Not really." Saving grace: Eridan doesn't exist in the Alternian records database. Sollux isn't dumb enough to assume Merach doesn't have access to official sign registries - she's an Apialienator, after all - but she'll assume Eridan's among the signs that are claimed. And from that distance, it'll be hard to tell with any degree of accuracy how purple he is.

"Aiming for one?"

"Don't know." Permanently long-distance relationships are normal within the Fleet; most trolls get ship leave for Twelfth Perigee's Eve, which coincides with the arrival of the Imperial Drones. The ones that don't, get Sixth Perigee's Rising, by Imperious demand. Sollux and Feferi have been long-distance since before they left Alternia, but seeing each other once a sweep, both being in the Fleet, is a far cry from what he and Eridan would have to be if they were to go officially red.

And Sollux would give himself up to the helm before he let Feferi die for failure to contribute to the filial pails.

 

 

He walks to Eridan's apartment after he gets off-shift. He calls halfway there, offers to pick something up since Eridan doesn't want to eat his cooking.

So, halfway through a nutrition plateau of takeout Chinese, Eridan says, "Why don't you want me talking to your assistant?"

Sollux lays down his fork. "She's not my assistant. I outrank her by four grades." A pause. "I didn't know her before this assignment. That makes her not automatically my ally."

"Why do you need an ally?"

Sollux shakes his head. "You're ahead of me. You've noticed blood colors in trolls being different?"

"Yeah. I'd heard of it. Has to do with social rank or something, doesn't it?"

Understatement of the fucking species. "Until the Condesce implemented the Exodus and instituted merit-based promotions, Red- and Orange-bloods were peasants and slaves, and Yellow-bloods like me weren't much better. Up through green is the technical class, merchants and artisans, and starting at blue is the minor aristocracy. Indigos are as a class religious nuts, and higher than that are seadwellers. Royalty." He reaches over, draws a fingertip along the webbing between Eridan’s fingers.

Eridan swallows. "I don't think I like where this is going."

"Her Imperious Condescension, and her heir, the Disdain, have a shade of blood so high on the hemospectrum that it appears only once in a generation, and it's known as tyrian purple." He licks his lips, swallows.

Eridan puts down his fork and says, very calmly, "So purple it looks pink, I'm guessing."

Sollux pushes his nutrition plateau away. "There's been a tyrian-blooded male before. His name was Orphaner Dualscar, and he tried to overthrow the Condesce."

Eridan says nothing.

"Traditionally the Condesce and the Disdain fight publicly, and the one who wins rules, and the one who loses is culled. Killed. But the current Disdain isn't interested in battling the Condesce."

Eridan closes one of the takeout containers. "Which means political instability. Add another tyrian-blood and everything goes to fucking pieces. You going to want any more of this?" Eridan tilts another takeout container, full of noodles and meat, in Sollux's direction.

"No."

Eridan closes it, quick little motions of his wrists. "I've done enough reading on Alternian culture to know that eugenics is alive and well there. So why am I still alive?"

Sollux's foodflap goes dry.

Eridan's eyes are dark and his jaw is clenched. "Politically inspired mercy," he says, bitterly, and takes the closed takeout containers to the thermal hull, tearing the door open. "So I can't talk to another troll without them realizing that I am," he waves a hand in frustration, "a civil war in waiting."

Sollux shrugs. "You're fine as long as no one political finds you."

"And how do I know if they’re political?"

Sollux has a half-second of terror, and then reaches into his shirt for his bug tags. "You're so fucking beyond being found by someone political that if I were you I'd have cut my fins off last perigee and preemptively put myself in a corpse repository." The porphyry clunks onto the food preparation surface, the tags themselves jingling along for the ride.

"What's that?"

"My bug tags."

Eridan raises an eyebrow, but looks down at them. Takes one in his hand, and then looks back at Sollux.

"Can't read them."

"So of course that's why I'm showing them to you," Sollux spits out.

Eridan's expression closes off, and he touches the pendant. "I'm sure as hell not culturally aware enough to know what you're showing me."

"I'm the Disdain's moirail."

"And...?"

"Do you know what that means?"

"No, enlighten me."

"I'm one of her romantic partners, and calling me a tech is such an understatement it's a lie."

Eridan makes a soft noise, dropping the pendant onto the counter, wiping his hand off on the leg of his jeans. "So not only are you cheating on your girlfriend, you've potentially pulled me into a political situation I might not survive."

Two seconds later, Sollux realizes two things:

i) Eridan doesn't actually know about quadrants.

ii) There's something very, very wrong with Eridan.

And he realizes this because, after he punches Eridan (with his fist, he had at least that much control) for accusing him of doubling up his quadrants with Feferi and misrepresenting their relationship, instead of going highblood fucking shithive on him and either ripping his guts out or fucking him stupid on the floor, Eridan stands there, touches his cheek, and says to Sollux, "Get the fuck out."

Sollux tosses his bug tags back around his neck, grabs his coat from the storage subblock, and sees himself out.

He goes to a different internet cafe than usual and pours the argument out to Feferi in a desperate email. About Eridan not knowing about quadrants, assuming that Sollux was cheating on Feferi with him because of his stupid human non-quadrant One True Romance system.

Almost immediately she sends him back a link to a video of cuttlefish swimming. and he watches that for a while, zoning into it while he waits for her response, which comes after not too long a wait.

Me too, she starts, I mean, not like that at all, but I'm in a reely terrible mood and I just want to hit someone and I miss you and everyone is treating me like I'm weak for not wanting to cuttle everyone in sight all the time!

There's a seadweller who wants to do things to make me fight the Condesce and doesn't listen when I tell her no! So I had my security locks keep her out but I can't stop getting mad about it and it's not even the good kind of mad!

And while we're at it have you heard that Liesmith is planning to have Maliar culled? It's reely gross and I want to pardon Maliar but I don't know if I can and it's scheduled for next week and I don't know if I can afford to lose my Propadoppelgandist. I might have to talk to Gamzee to get a Writ of Mirth to stay it and I hate doing that even though a little blood contribution isn't a big deal but it's so fetishy and while I understand he can't help it I wonder what his moirail is doing!

And of course Maliar is locked up in a different ship - I had to plead with the Cyanolieutenderizer to keep her in this cohort - and the Apialienator from the Jorgunmand froze her files and I can't get to my schedule since she hadn't updated my copy on my computer.

They send emails back and forth for a while, always a little guarded in word choice but never emotionally. They can't afford not to be: Maliar is a Propadoppelgandist, in charge of mediating both Feferi's schedule as the Disdain and also her social life, but is also an anchor in Feferi's underground reform movement. Maliar wasn't dumb enough to keep the paperwork for Feferi's supporters on her official networks, but if the Apialienators are going after her on some sort of spurious charge Sollux needs to duplicate and shut down Maliar's secrets before anyone else gets to them. He doesn't know who's on the Jorgunmand, but the odds aren't good: Feferi has extensive public support in the hemospectrum below green and almost none above cerulean, with a few notable examples, and the Jorgunmand is too high-ranking in the Fleet to put an Apialienator below lime on finding evidence for the culling case against the Disdain's Propadoppelgandist. There'll also be intercorps tensions with the Legislacerator assigned to the case, which might slow the tech side down...

Or not.

It's the middle of the night, both here and on Alternia; he can't risk anything now. He'll deal with it in the morning, after he's slept a bit.

He and Feferi both know he can pull it off. He's done it before, after all.

 

 

He gets up early and sets the parameters for the search and delete, then hacks into Maliar's system, past the Apialienator blocks. He's going through an anonymizer on Earth, then another within the Fleet, then one on Earth, as he works, and finally manages to install the stupid program on Maliar's computer, then lets it run. It's just past sunrise by Fleet time.

At work, Merach is almost as respectful as she was before, and Sollux doesn't cull her for potentially ruining his flushed quadrant, if only because the queen bee has laid some eggs, which is promising.

After a couple of days he sends a message to Eridan:

let'2 meet and work 2ome 2tuff out ii'd hate two mii22 out on a good thiing ju2t beecau2e of an iintercultural mii2under2tandiing

Eridan writes back, You call punching me an intercultural misunderstanding? but at least he's written back at all.

(Sollux's coat still smells of their mixed flushed pheromones, and sometimes he presses his cartilage nub into the fabric and just inhales. Eridan and Feferi themselves actually smell alike, though Feferi's flushed pheromones don't catch in his chitinous windhole and go straight to his libido the way Eridan's do.)

ii wouldn't cheat; iit would bee two dangerou2, he responds, then adds, iif you're 2tiill iintere2ted, ii'll meet you by the cafe under the train track2 at eiight twoniight.

He refreshes the client a couple of times, but no response is immediately forthcoming.

At the cafe that evening, he gets there early and orders his coffee, then sits waiting at one of the tables by the windows, facing the door. While he's waiting, he doodles potential strategies for programming a hack into chat clients that will use their bandwidth to carry unrelated files without being obvious. This he's sketching by hand, for now, if only because he's not taking a clean computer out near Eridan.

Eridan is a couple of minutes late, and is carrying his own coffee. He sits down across the table from Sollux, and says, "I Googled you, finally. Had to look up what quadrants were, but I can see why you got pissed."

He nods. That saves him a lot of explanation that he hadn't been looking forward to.

"But you have to realize that I'm not quadranted, and I don't want to be."

Sollux's thinkpan grinds, shriekingly, on its brakes.

"What?"

"I'm not quadranted. You can have," he waves a hand, brushing the words away, "yours; I can hardly judge your individual choices in this case. But I'm not."

"You've never hated someone in the kind of way where you wanted to kiss them and smash their face in at the same time."

Eridan shrugs. "Not really."

That makes no sense, including biologically, but it's Eridan's love life.

Sollux sips at his coffee, then says, "A lot of people got pissed when Fef and I got together 'cause I'm a dustflap pissblood and a mutant." Eridan's cheeks color a little, probably thinking about one of Sollux's more obvious mutations, and Sollux bounces his knee a little, bringing himself back on topic. "Can't have the Disdain getting pacified by someone who can't breathe underwater." He pauses, looks at Eridan's expression, attentive and calm. He talks about Feferi like she's meat and Eridan doesn't even know any better.

"But nobody's killed you," Eridan points out.

"Yeah, because trolls are fuzzy, gentle people," Sollux says, and is surprised when Eridan laughs instead of getting mad. "It's not because people haven't tried; it's because after I culled them the others decided to wait, and then I got promoted a couple of times. The Subjugglators think their members getting picked off is the best comedy around, but the rest of the Corps put out hits on anyone who culls their officers who isn't in that Corps, fish excepted."

Eridan brushes a finger along one of his own aural fins. "Fish means seadwellers?"

"No, it means aquatic scaled nonsentient beasts." He has to resist the urge to reach across the table and slide his fingers along Eridan's fins, stroke along the ridges of cartilage inside, watch them flare and turn blood-dark.

Eridan's mouth flickers into half a smile, and he sips at his coffee. "So you're a little more than just another tech dweeb."

Sollux shrugs. "I'm the best fucking tech dweeb currently in the Apialienators."

Eridan laughs, slides his hand across the table to rest his fingers on Sollux's. His hands are warm from the reflection of the coffee's temperature, so Sollux turns his wrist, lets Eridan's fingers press into his palm. It's comforting without being smothering, and Sollux spends the night in Eridan's bed.

 

 

By the time another Apialienator comes to replace him on semi-permanent assignment, Merach has long been recalled to her duties and her probably-pining moirail, and Eridan stays away from the network hives and doesn't meet the replacement.

Sollux is also desperately homesick. Eridan is good, is horrifyingly kinky in ways that are commensurate with his human socialization, is calm and stable, but he heats Sollux up rather than talking him down, and even with frequent correspondence, being separated this far from Feferi is hard.

Two nights before he's set to leave for the Fleet again, he and Eridan have dinner together, and afterwards Eridan lets him lick, slowly, at the slits of his gills, and then inside them. Eridan's thorax heaves like he's forgotten how to breathe, face flushed and gills swollen open. Sollux fucks him, after, both bulges pressing into Eridan's nook, and almost doesn't make it to the pail.

Neither of them says anything like see you later or keep in touch. Sollux’d like to, but it’d be dangerous for everyone if he didn’t let Eridan fade out of the notice of everyone around him.