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Xenological Puzzle

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     “It's magic,” Rose says, blithely steering away from any explainable scientific claims, “Think of it as a spell that resides in you, yet only affects others. Specifically, it only sways their perception of you.”

     There's a murmuring around the room, and Karkat holds his hands up in front of his face, squinting at them. He's trying to find a minute change, a joint in a finger that flexes too far or too little in either direction, because there has to be some accounting for the magic Rose has just sent throughout the room.

     Kanaya watches as Karkat rubs his own hands together, front and back, as if expecting his skin to roughen and spark, but knows nothing in herself has changed. If Rose claims they've been wrapped in an illusion, that measures to cloak them have been taken, then Kanaya has no reason to doubt her. They've all kept hold of skills from the game, some more notably than others; Rose wields her magic proudly, and Kanaya's slowly learning that not all dark arts are malevolent in nature.

     Rose's wands are made from the elmwood of a tree Kanaya herself sawed down and sculpted into shape, painted in greens and purples. Rose knitted a little cosy for them, and there they reside, still warm from use.

     “Let me get this straight,” Karkat begins, spreading out his fingers and glowering through the spaces between. He's been trying to get a lot straight today, and he's bound to succeed sooner or later. “So we just look human. To other humans, we're short and squishy and pink, with ears that are too nubby to hear a goddamn thing. God, no wonder you all manage to fuck things up so frequently.”

     The humans had been lucky, when all was said and done and everyone had died their fair share. Victory brought with it something that was like Earth, but not exactly; and still not unlike it enough for the trolls to go unnoticed. Their dead who were definitely, definitely, absolutely and entirely dead this time, all without spare dreamselves or waiting quest beds, escaped an afterlife of interlocking bubbles and an eternity of feeling memories that became more faded with time, but never truly distorted enough to be comfortable. This, supposedly, was the troll's reward.

     Vriska stands in the corner, wings buzzing. She's worried that nobody's ever going to see them again.

     “That's right,” Rose replies, and Kanaya thinks Rose Lalonde, your patience knows no bounds. “Although you won't all be pink, but it's as close to the point as we're going to get here.”

     And that's how it is. The trolls live on a facsimile of Earth and they keep their bodies, magic permitting them to move amongst the masses without evoking hysteria.

*

     On Alternia, Kanaya never would've considered herself spindly.

     On Alternia, Kanaya never would've considered herself a lot of things.

     She had a good sort of figure: tall and slender, with enough sharp angles about her to neither look too soft nor too dangerous, provoking unnecessary pre-emptive defensive measures from other trolls. Her spine curved in just the right way, providing her with as good a posture as a troll could hope for. The backs of her knuckles brushed the sides of her knees when she relaxed her shoulders, and her more prominent fangs jutted out nicely, ever on display.

     Even on the asteroid, when Rose and Dave finally joined the survivors of the troll race, Kanaya hadn't considered herself to be strange in any way. They were the strange ones, with their milky white skin, smooth, flat tops of heads, and eyes already filled with colour. Irises framed against a white backdrop, almost empty. Their proportions were all wrong; arms too short, without a great enough discrepancy in the lengths between their shins and thighs. They stood with their backs painfully straight, fingers thickset, claws clipped and filed into dull crescents, ears as nothing but stumps.

     And that wasn't even mentioning their noses. They were so distinct from the shape of their skull that Kanaya was convinced she could pluck one right off.

     For three human years, they had been the anomalies. They had been the misfits, outnumbered by trolls. They were the aliens, riddled with inconsistences and little biological mishaps.

     But that had been a long sweep ago, in what feels like another life altogether. Now Kanaya stands as one of twelve on a planet of billions, and she cannot help it if her perception of peculiarity inverts itself.

     She lives in a hive that she eventually calls a house, never wanting for anything material. Rose's mother's income seems to know no bounds, and she barely even had to dip into her savings to provide them all with lodgings, but Kanaya will not settle quietly into a life of idle luxury. She will not take what is given to her without holding onto any intention of one day paying Ms. Lalonde back, either.

     And so she sets herself to work, self-employed. She obtains bolts of fabric and long spools of thread, and settles herself down to indulge in the already present Earth fashions. It seems marvellous, initially, because there are so many on this blue-green planet who care about shape and size and colour and sheen, and for the first time, Kanaya finds an odd sense of belonging in the glossy pages of bright magazines.

     It's around then that it begins to happen: the human form becomes what she takes for granted as being normal.

     To begin with, her designs are a series of one fault after another. The proportions of the garments she makes are all wrong, and fit with as much elegance on humans as a scarecrow in a potato sack. Learning from her mistakes, she begins to study the shape of models, rather than the tiny stitches of the clothing draped across them. Jade allows Kanaya to take measurements from her, and while Kanaya's got her tape measure pulled taut between her thumbs and first two fingers, trying to cover every conceivable inch of her, the backs of her hands brush against her hair.

     That's another difference between them: human hair is soft, twisting and bundling in waves. It shines in the light. Kanaya's hair is like a thousand wire-thin spikes, black as coal.

     Their skin, too, doesn't feel the same. Again, it's softer, though not as smooths as a troll's. Much of the variation between trolls comes in the form of blood colour and horns, but with humans, the digression comes in skin tones and hair colours. Jade's skin has been darkened by island life, whereas Kanaya now knows Rose to be pale, though she has all the time in the world to spend out in the sun she could wish for.

     In the end, it starts to become less about designing clothing, and soon has everything to do with taking in minute details. Kanaya reads magazines, watches television, sees people in the street who never truly see her in kind, and begins to understand the standard of beauty. It's a deeply personal matter, of course, but no one's definition includes a grey-green tongue that lolls out of a cavernous mouth and sways beneath the chin.

     Kanaya sees monsters depicted in the media, and after a while, she stops wearing lipstick. Because it just seems silly, like she's attempting to draw less attention to something by masking it in bright colours; because her lips aren't really lips, anyway.

     She continues to create beautiful things befitting of beautiful humans, and slowly understands why it was that every other troll under the hot Alternian sun thought fashion was stupid.

     One day, Kanaya wakes up, fully accepting of the fact that she's felt like an alien for a very, very long time.

*

     Sometimes, Rose comes to visit her.

     It's not often that she has the chance to stop by, what with being busy attending human university to obtain a human degree (and these things are only human anythings because Karkat can't physically get out of the habit of trying to sound suitably superior, and he makes for a very noisy housemate), and with each gap that grows between these visits, Kanaya learns to dread them more and more.

     Some days, it is hard enough to step out into the sun; her throat closes with panic when she thinks of having to face Rose.

     It's as if Rose hasn't seen Kanaya for what she is for close to three sweeps. As if the realisation that Kanaya is a grotesque, towering figure will dawn on Rose all at once, and she'll want nothing more to do with her. Better to push Rose away now than have to deal with her retreating of her own accord.

     But then, Kanaya has to wonder — how does Rose see her? Kanaya hardly believes that Rose would be blinded by her own magic, unless she purposely extended the spell to herself. Kanaya often wonders what she looks like to those who pass her in the streets without shrieking, those who serve her in stores without shrinking back, and sometimes attempts to move fast enough to catch a mirror off-guard. But it never works. All she sees are white embers of glowing skin and yellow sclera; a discoloured gargoyle.

     Humans have yellow eyes, sometimes.

     They call it jaundice.

     It doesn't matter to her how the rest of the world views her, though. She is what she is, and she's managed to force the paranoia that one day, the illusion won't hold, back to the strangely shaped dark corners of her mind. All that she cares about is how Rose sees her. While she longs for Rose to look upon her as if she's a human, unease would turn itself to bile at the thought of her not being able to rest her eyes on what — who — she truly is.

     In the end, it's just empty wishing and hoping and dreading.

    The illusion doesn't extend to touch.

     It's much better when Rose is away, when she's busy. When the two of them talk late into the night over Pesterchum, even if Kanaya's words snare her in a noose, about to be choked if she gives so much as an inclination of what she feels away. Jade letters ramble across the screen, and in those stolen hours, Kanaya can be whatever Rose wants her to.

     It's much better than when Rose is there in person, and Kanaya has to do everything she can to avoid smiling. Elation might light up her already burning face, but her mouth splits open far too wide, almost back to her jawbone.

     And it's hard to hide in the shadows when her skin is a perpetual night-light, and Rose makes sparks of lavender magic dance from one fingertip to the next.

*

     “You're avoiding me,” Rose says.

     Kanaya, facing away from her, leans over the sewing machine, back hunched far more than it usually is. She replies,

     “I made you another dress, Rose. For your birthday.”

     The sound of knitting needles clack-clack-clacking quickens with what Kanaya takes to be a raise of Rose's eyebrows. Kanaya purses her not-lips together as best she can, and tries to stay calm. She manages to do so about as successfully as she manages to to stow her fangs away inside of her mouth.

     “That's nice of you, Kanaya. Really. Your thoughtfulness is only matched by my complete and utter lack of surprise,” Rose continues with a sigh. This isn't the first complaint of the sort she's received from her. “But December isn't upon us for another two months, and it does nothing to change the fact that you're avoiding me.”

     Kanaya isn't avoiding Rose. Not really. She's simply strategically busy whenever Rose has a spare moment. What her carefully laid plans didn't account for, however, was Rose spontaneously stopping by during the start of semester.

     She's terribly unfair on Rose, she knows that much. She makes great assumptions about how Rose must view her, so much so that she's convinced she's purposely obscured her vision, and Kanaya doesn't deserve her friendship. Let alone anything else she would never dare to ask of her.

     It should have stopped by now. She should've ceased looking at Rose as she does, when she allows herself to look, years ago. Maybe even sweeps. Because Kanaya is an alien; fascinating, yes, but an oddity nonetheless. She is an alien, and Rose is a human, surrounded by an ever-expanding sea of her own kind. Rose is supposed to thrive and grow at university, to move onto another stage of her life. To put a stop to her endlessly frustrating behaviour, her insistence that they spend time together.

     Her insistence that they're equals, somehow worthy of fitting together.

     “It's an early gift,” Kanaya mumbles, knowing her explanation is pathetic and so trying to mask it. “—but if you don't mind, Rose, I truly am very busy. Perhaps we could arrange to meet at another time, if you'd prefer.”

     If you'd prefer. It's always up to Rose to take the first step, and she always marches in great strides into any given situation. Kanaya never says that she wants to see Rose again, desperately; she never tells her that she misses her when she isn't around, and that she misses her more when they talk online. She never tells her how she longs for the days on the asteroid, when they were both equally alien, neither one normal, neither of them abhorrently bizarre.

     Rose gets to her feet. The sofa regains its form, air rushing into the padded seat as it springs up from the crushing pressure of Rose's insignificant weight, sucking the breath straight out of Kanaya's lungs.

     She takes one step forward, and then another. She must be so close by now that Kanaya could roll her shoulders back and bump against the tips of Rose's fingers, move into the touch of the hand she imagines Rose to be holding out. Rose is very, very short, even for a human, and Kanaya has thought time and time again of the way her forehead would rest so delicately against the curve of her collarbone.

     Kanaya doesn't turn, because she does not trust herself to remain still.

     “I can see that you're very busy,” Rose says, and then hums in that condescending way that makes Kanaya want to turn on her heels and glower right down at her, causing Rose to have to tilt her head back all the way to make eye contact. But she knows that's what Rose is trying to do, and so refrains. “From the looks of it, what with your current positioning, your schedule is filled to the brim with a hectic day of watching paint dry.”

     Kanaya doesn't reply. She stares so intently at the wall that her vision blurs entirely.

     “Kanaya.”

     Rose places one of her very small hands against the jagged curve of Kanaya's hip, and it takes all the self-control she can muster not to start, not to impale her horns on the ceiling.

     “Kanaya.”

     Kanaya can't reply. Rose's hold on her hip tightens before dissipating altogether, and the reprieve that the cutting of contact brings doesn't settle Kanaya as she hoped it might. Her heart becomes volatile in her chest, though it hasn't pumped blood since last her skin was grey as stone, as sombre storm clouds. The tension doesn't unravel until Rose hits her forehead against Kanaya's back in an exhausted half-gesture of a futile head-butt, resting between her lower set of shoulder blades.

     Rose sighs. Kanaya feels it through the cotton of her shirt.

     “Kanaya,” she says, arms wrapping around her waist. Kanaya, Kanaya, Kanaya. It's all she'll say.

     Rose, Rose, Rose, Kanaya wants to say in return. This is your planet, and I am a very, very tall alien, who, in spite of towering stature, cannot take torture such as this. I thought this much would have been evident to you long human months ago, but you foolishly will not tear yourself away, and I cannot chase you away. Because you are being passive-aggressive and stubborn again, determined to get your own way, determined to piece a xenological puzzle of me together, in the same way that samples belong in the test tubes and oxygenated liquid tanks of your mother's laboratory.

     (She says none of this, though. She caves in a moment of weakness, placing one of her hands against the back of Rose's. The tips of Rose's fingers barely reach the first joint of her own.)

     “Kanaya.” If Rose says that again, Kanaya might die. “—Kanaya, I realise you have no desire to hear me out, but by this point, I can honestly say I no longer give a fuck. I am unapologetically in love with you, Kanaya.”

     And then all of the blood in her body grows as cold as the absurd human grave than neither one of them will ever have to lie in. There is the urge to stand her ground and snap at Rose, because this isn't a game to Kanaya; she isn't there to be toyed with. This isn't xenopsychology, and she isn't Rose's patient to prod and poke to breaking point.

     Rose is still breathing through her shirt. Kanaya realises that her own hand is shaking, and so tightens her hold on Rose's wrist to counteract the tremors. Very carefully, because everything she does with Rose is always undertaken with the utmost care, Kanaya peels Rose's arms from around her waist. She gets the impression that Rose only lets her do so because it necessitates her turning around.

     Looking down at Rose, it strikes Kanaya as overwhelming how clearly she appears to her, when she's open-eyed and not exiled to the shadows by Kanaya herself. If Rose can still See in this world, then this is the clarity she must live every future moment with. But this is the present, something Kanaya is caught in now; something that has not yet unravelled, and she has no hope to move past it unless she herself ensures that the gears continue turning.

     She takes in a deep breath, mostly for show. She just needs to hear something that isn't her own mind screaming a thousand different things at once, all of which add up to she's lying, she's lying, why wouldn't she be?

     But she trusts Rose, implicitly. All she needs to do is to speak, to understand. To know that she hasn't imagined that last impossibly long fourteen seconds of her life.

     “—what.”

     It isn't even a question. Rose's lips twitch at the corners in something resembling nervousness, and Kanaya tries again for her sake.

     “I understand. Then you see me as a human.”

     “No,” Rose says, shaking her head. “Kanaya, no.”

     Kanaya's convinced that Rose is only saying her name over and over again to remind her of who she is. She's anchoring her into the moment, and Kanaya almost drifts away from reality entirely when Rose lifts both her hands, pressing them to her cheeks.

     “Not at all,” Rose says with a laugh, and it's such a wonderful sound that Kanaya can't bring herself to care about how misshapen her cheekbones must feel against Rose's palms. “Neither John, Dave, Jade nor myself have ever seen any of you other than the way you are.”

     “Oh,” Kanaya says, and then again, oh, voice taut, the second time. If Rose is not deceiving her, then standing around and mouthing single-syllables of non-commitment is only going to break her grimdark heart.

     Kanaya leans forward, long arms wrapping around her waist. She feels as if she could envelop her twice. Rose's hands drop from her face, and her body stretches in Kanaya's arms, where she has to move onto the very tip of her toes to properly lace her arms around Kanaya's shoulders. Forehead pressed to her shoulder, Rose murmurs something about being glad her mother forced her to take ballet lessons as a child.

     Admittedly, Kanaya is bending her knees a little to aid with the process. It's hardly the most comfortable of embraces.

     Stepping back, Kanaya seats herself in an armchair, not letting go of Rose in the process. If this is all a cruel joke, which is seeming less likely with every second that passes and all the more terrifying because of it, then Kanaya will take what she can from it. Her arms continue to encircle Rose, no matter how loosely she holds her, and Rose leans back, hands on her shoulders.

     It occurs to them in the same moment that they're both completely out of their depth.

     If they're going to drown, then Kanaya will kick her feet in the seabed, throwing up a cloud of sand that only her and Rose can see one another through.

     “You're infuriating, you know,” Rose says with a long suffering sigh. Kanaya smiles and each one of her teeth gleam under her own light. “For somebody who helped engineer an entire universe out of the genetic material of frogs, you can be incredibly dense as to what's in front of you. And a little offensive in the assumption that I really am that shallow.”

     Kanaya doesn't take the lecture to heart.

     “Look at me, Rose,” Kanaya says, as if that proves her own point in its entirety.

     “I am,” Rose says.

     And she is.

     She leans forward, pressing her nose to Kanaya's, not caring a bit about the way the ridges in Kanaya's forehead jut out where her horns meet the front of her skull. Again, her hands move to Kanaya's cheeks, and Kanaya should feel nothing if not self-conscious now, humiliated in her own skin, because this is everything she's longed for and dreaded for what may well be an age. But Kanaya finds it impossible to care about the unachievable standards of another culture she's tried to set for herself when the tips of Rose's fingers brush across the flat tops of her floppy ears.

     When it occurs to Kanaya that she has yet to say anything to return the sentiment, having taken for granted that Rose has always known on some level that she's done her best to politely ignore, all of Kanaya's rushed, garbled confessions come out in the form of movement. Her jaw tilts upwards, and she presses her not-lips to Rose's actual-lips and—

     Their mouths don't fit very well together. Rose's is small and round and her tongue knows how to remain within the confines of her skull, and Kanaya's terrified of her teeth tearing her. But then they're both laughing softly, and one of them mumbles something about practise making perfect, though it's impossible to tell who the words come from, breath tangled together as it is.

     Kanaya breaks her mouth away from Rose's, and grazes something like a kiss on the tip of her nose; the only part of her face that stands out prominently enough to guarantee success. Rose's face scrunches up in a way Kanaya hasn't seen before, and in that moment, she realises that there are a thousand and one things she's yet to take in about this one specific human form.

    Once again, Kanaya truly appreciates what it means to have a whole world to explore, to take in, because Rose is alien and new and ridiculously warm in her spindly arms.