Trapped. Psychologically: like a deer in the headlights. Physically: sealed in a large metal box, the lights dim and the air stale and metal shock-cold under every footstep. No chance to live. They had no locks on their doors they could not control, and they had free reign of the upper levels, but did not dare stray far from those open cells. Outside the lab was ruin: the shattered Troll Incipisphere and the great, green demon that was Jack Noir, who hunted them. For her part, Rose staved off agoraphobia and cabin fever by carefully monitoring the progress of her fellow inmates, especially the twelve Trolls. She wondered if they realized that they were essentially trapped in their own cradle: the very laboratory in which they had been spawned. Or did it bear them any particular meaning at all?
Rose watched the others, as she would admit it was easier than watching her own behaviour. Psychoanalysis was fulfilling, and a solid distraction from the snake-whisper at the top of her hacked sylladex. She had buried the Thorns of Oglogoth at the top of her tree, and Rose hoped that the sheer nuisance of dumping her entire collection of game junk would deter her from picking at the gnarled root. Twice so far, it had. She kept the Quills of Echidna in her Strife Deck now. Much less powerful, much less dangerous: far more acceptable for polite company. Not that she could call them that. The Trolls had taken to their new Human neighbours much like how they had taken to their imprisonment: voluntarily, though not unanimously willing. True, they all recognized that without all hands, Jack would tear them apart. That was certain. But that hardly meant they had to make life easy for one another, especially when there was no obvious harm at hand. In the lab they were safe to muck and meddle, and there they stayed until safety had corroded their plans to nothing and time had become no more of a matter than a series of ticks on a wall. Rose was not sure how many she had logged since they had entered the Trolls' session. She had reached twenty-six, but Jade had tallied twenty-seven, and Dave was never around to ask for certain.
Dave was always away, and every time he left, Rose felt a sinking feeling in her gut. She wondered if Jade or John ever bothered to read past his coy wink and "Just going for a walk under the stars," considering that there were no stars. She wondered if the Trolls ever noticed how, whenever he left or just preceding, Aradia would emotionlessly unplug herself from her computer, rise with the whir of motors and disappear alongside. Rose noticed, and she understood that the Maid and Knight of Time were the only reason they had reached so many ticks on the wall. They were the reason Karkat was requisitioning strange data analysed daily and sent to his private inbox. Rose understood. Dave and Aradia were using the data to see Jack coming. With it, they were able to stop him from finding the lab – how, Rose could not imagine. When the data was lacking, they would disappear for even longer. She knew they waited for him, hour after hour, knowing that a moment's lapse in their patrol could mean blood that could never be restored. After her suspicions had been aroused, Rose had begun to watch the data, and applied it to what she knew of Jack from her own session. He was learning. He had drawn from his prototypes and grown in power while the sixteen of them cowered in the corner. Dave and Aradia might fight him to a standstill, but Rose suspected that if he ever found the rest of them, disorganized and ill-prepared, they would not all make it out alive.
Rose felt bitter about the whole situation, considering the power she had once wielded. She had put the Thorns aside on strong urging, after Jade had pulled her, barely alive, from her duel with Jack, but without them it was obvious that she had fallen well behind the others. Some days, she wondered if her hesitation was responsible for Jack's continued presence. Some days, she wondered the opposite. The Thorns whispered to her in the calmest of days. What good could come from answering the Dark Gods, after all she had seen? So Rose watched the others, mostly as distraction, and especially during free time.
"Egbert, you scrape of alien fecal matter on sole of Fate's ugliest boot, stop trying to piss me off. I've been over your archives at least twice, and it's obvious that the pinnacle of your human 80s filmmaking was John Travolta's hit sequel Staying Alive."
John and Karkat tended to hog the TV they had alchemized, and would watch it while lazing out on the couch they had parked in one corner of the computer lab. The TV and couch were two of several items Sollux had retrieved from their homes, and if they ever needed more, they could always pull from the grist generating setup he and Equius had prepared in the upper levels. For their free time, Jade and Nepeta tended to run rampant in the Underlab. Terezi preferred to bogart Dave when she caught him at home, and would drag him to the roof. Others found a different sort of way to spend their time, which they had all come to call "going outside." "Going outside" was partly a thinly-veiled innuendo, but was primarily the go-phrase for a private date. The rock outside the lab was the best any of them could do for variety, and the Veil could be anything you wanted it to be. For Sollux and Feferi, or Karkat and Terezi, it could be a place to walk together under the cloak of timeless void and pretend there was some beauty in which to conspire. Even Aradia and Equius went Outside from time to time. Who knew what they found in the open air. Beauty? Or perhaps a foulness in which to bicker and snip at one another, in good ambience. One way or another, it served.
Rose had no interest in dating any of her fellow prisoners, at least not out of hand. For her free time, she had abused the public alchemiter to make yarn or fresh journals and pens, but routine soon demanded more of her. Luckily it was not all dull. John and Jade were still around, Feferi was worth the odd conversation, and Rose was able to rely on daily chats with Kanaya as they worked on Karkat's never-ending data scans. So long as they kept to their work, things were simple. But life in the lab was beginning to change. It had all began the day Rose marked off her third tick, and it had spiralled from there.
"Are they older, maybe?" Rose had asked Karkat, the day after they were positive what was going on.
"We're all the same age!" he had said, gruff and terse. He had not really been in a chatting mood. She was interrupting his lunch, but she had figured Karkat was not going to be in a better chatting mood at any other time of the day.
"That's why I'm asking you. Is it possible you landed in a different order after the Reckoning?"
"Well… maybe, but you're talking days!" He had gestured at her with his deep-fat fried leg of hopbeast. "Look, I had twelve slimy grubs climbing over me. I had a slimy version of myself on my foot and someone crawling up my pant leg—" Terezi had cackled. "…I think I remember what went down about as well as you'd expect."
Change had come to the lab with all the subtlety of John's favourite hammer. It started with Tavros, Eridan and Vriska as they began to, for lack of a better term, grow up. Rose had often wondered just how much older Dave was going to become thanks to his constant time travelling, ever since he had started going to John for shaving cream (which their Heir suspiciously had in bulk). Troll aging was more drastic. Rose first caught ear of it when she found Eridan in a fight with Karkat, and Eridan's voice had begun to warp to a hideous, deep rasp, like one possessed. Karkat, with an astounding, casual shrug of his shoulder, called it "post-wriggling penultimate moult" and returned to John to pick up watching Xanadu.
Eridan and Tavros were the biological victims. Rose could not think of two more opposed to be suffering so in kind. First there was the voice change. This had progressed from a rasp to an undercurrent hiss the other Trolls did not seem to hear, but gave the human prey animals the ventriloquist impression that the speaker was whispering at them from another direction. Beyond that, they were growing, and worse: they had begun to shed skin flakes. Karkat's inner neat-freak soon set to work, using a broom as a baton and whip combined to get them to clean up after themselves.
The itching was terrible, and often prepared the stage for the next change: a deep hormonal one that brought out sharp bursts of rage. Tavros mostly buried his rage if he felt the need at all. Rose saw only one, when he caught a terrible moulting itch on some still-sensitive skin trapped under the edge of his robot legs, and it had taken Equius over an hour to free him. Tavros had called Equius names none of them had even imagined he knew, and their mechanic replied only with redoubled work and sweat. Surprising to Rose, these violent waves, if not the changes in general, had begun to attract moirail-like attentions from the other Trolls in curious, pale flirtations that Rose was stretched to recognize. Gamzee had offered the unusually-furious Tavros a free night's rest on his horn pile, and Karkat had silenced one of Eridan's outbursts with a smack to the head and a series of threats that sounded almost genuinely concerned.
The new bodies emerging from the moult were surprising. Overall, they kept their basic shape: they would just as much resemble their teen selves as any human. But there were differences if one was willing to look. The boys were becoming larger in proportion to humans, and more built. With clothes on there was less to make out, but intimate living conditions bred a certain disregard for decencies, especially when one's lower body was constantly under mechanical repair. The skin on Tavros' bare chest met at sharper angles than Rose knew a muscular boy's should. The skin also seemed sublimely changed in a way that implied physical armour. It was clear that Rose was seeing her allies transform into apex predators.
But the worst was Vriska. While she still engaged in a healthy and active routine of spiteful jabs with Terezi and a worrying tail of John, her primary associates those days were her ex-kismesis and Tavros. Seeing her circle go through this sort of puberty had a symbiotic effect on Vriska's dreamself body. She too began to grow, shift in voice and, when her imagination got the better of her, itch and shed from time to time. While Sollux lisped that he was thankful that he wouldn't be "trapped in this stupid wriggling body for the rest of my life," it was clear that Vriska's situation was somehow off. As Rose had only seen adult trolls on computer screens and movie posters, she could not put her finger on the details, but Karkat was perfectly happy to put his boot through it instead.
"Hey. Moron," he had said, clapping Vriska upside the head with the butt end of his Broom of Office. "Just because you're making shit up as you go doesn't mean you don't have to clean the fuck up after yourself. Eridan! Tell your boyfriend that he either starts growing like a girl or he has to clean up moult-flakes like the rest of the boys."
Vriska had blushed up like a Christmas light, and reappeared the very next morning, drastically changed. Her shedding, as Karkat had implied, stopped entirely. The appearance of armour was gone, but the muscles had not, and she had shot up almost a foot overnight. Rose also got the impression that Vriska's dreamself had replaced her teeth with a new set of something not entirely bone: the new ones caught the light at some angles and looked particularly sharp. Vriska did not hide that she was growing new finger nails as well, though the word "claws" might be more correct given how she kept them groomed.
Rose had discussed the change with Kanaya. It had been one of their long nights, and they traded questions about Troll and Human gender roles, stereotypes and prejudices, especially considering the Troll's arguably-vestigial sexes. Any discomfort Rose had had evaporated over time – it tended to with Kanaya.
"She'll probably get back at Karkat for it, mind," Kanaya added near the end of the conversation. They were alone in the main lab, Kanaya browsing the Human internet as Rose sat on the desk alongside, one leg swinging back and forth.
"I don't suppose lashing out at your leader is exactly standard procedure," Rose had noted.
"It's probably closer than any human equivalent. On the other hand, Karkat understands that we're under a lot of stress right now. Some relief would be a help."
"Lashing out is relief?" Rose asked.
Kanaya had half-grinned, but she hid it to maintain her usual look as the neutral auxiliatrix. "It can work."
But the morning did not see any sort of revenge ploy. Karkat could be found, as ever, curled up on the couch. He had started the morning straight off with John, watching some cinematic atrocity where a character preached that "The gun is good!" but "The bone bulge is evil!" Jade was in one side of the room, playing games with Nepeta and their growing collection of alchemized toys and dolls, which Nepeta found endlessly fascinating. Kanaya was still in her room. Everyone else, including Dave and Aradia, were watching the three pubescent trolls scream at one another against the north wall. They were the laboratory's surprise alarm clock that morning, and had a dead zone around them of at least five feet.
"Listen, you little pus-sucking insect! If you don't open your mouth and give me an answer…"
Tavros had raised his arms up between him and Vriska. "Vriska, I'd really appreciate if you... uh..."
Eridan stepped closer, clapping his hand on Vriska's shoulder. "vris, maybe if you'd come and turn that rage somewwhere productive..."
Rose squirmed. Eridan must have been taking this fight personally if he was busting out his tone. She and her friends had found that all the Trolls had a vocal tone: a sort of throaty, heavily-accented warp in the voice that they used when they were impassioned in their own distinct ways. They did so casually, as though someone changing their tone of voice mid-sentence to one unique to them was the most natural thing in the world: Karkat's tone would change when he was shouting, Nepeta's when she was roleplaying. Whether it was voluntary or biological Rose did not know, but it ran ruin with the undercurrent hiss.
Vriska pushed Eridan aside with a jab from her finger. "Shut up, Eridan, if you were worth shouting at, you'd have known a loooooooong time ago. Tavros, d8mmit, open your mouth or I'll show you wh8t productive rage looks like!"
She decided to act on her threat and hoisted him, robot legs and all, an inch off the ground. She held him there for almost five seconds, before he proved too heavy even for her and she was forced to drop him, to the audible protest of the floor.
"uH, gEEZE VRISKA, i REALLY DIDN'T THINK THIS WOULD BOTHER YOU SO MUCH."
"Spine, Travros! Don't you dare open your mouth again unless you've grown some nerve!"
Rose could not help but stare. Vriska was still like a train wreck with her explosions, where the outbursts of someone like Karkat had long since become routine. It was hard to look away, especially when Vriska was spouting off oxymoronic demands at the top of her lungs with absolutely no sign of self-awareness. But to Rose's surprise, only the humans seemed to keep their interest in the fight. Karkat had turned back to his film (he had an oddball respect for Troll Sean Connery, red diaper costume notwithstanding), Nepeta had never really left her game and Gamzee outright wandered over to his computer within the fight's perimeter to start whatever constituted his digital routine. Feferi continued to watch the fight out of the corner of her eye, fingers twitching. At one point Rose thought she heard Sollux say "Don't…" without looking up, but Feferi had already composed herself, and that was the end of it
Eridan attempted to interpose himself between Vriska and Tavros, which was not easy given how little ground Vriska had left between them. "Mindfang, why don't you just—"
Vriska's off-hand shot out toward his neck and lifted him into the air. She made a point not to meet his eyes. "Didn't I tell you to cool it with the FLARP names?" she threatened in a whisper. The hissing undercurrent that ran through all three of their voices suddenly became worse. Rose saw Jade and John shudder, and Strider try to repress his own. In Rose's case, it was as though she heard the sound of Vriska's whisper coming not just from Vriska's mouth, but also a second time, over Rose's own shoulder. A small trickle of purple blood seeped into Eridan's scarf and down Vriska's pinky.
"Cut it out!" Jade shouted from one side of the room. Vriska ignored her. Rose instinctively checked with John, but there seemed to be nothing he could do. Karkat was indifferent. True, John's pull with the Trolls was limited without Karkat's backing, but his pull with Vriska might have just been enough...
"Hey, Tavros," Vriska said as Eridan swung a wild kick at her. "If you're just gonna sit there with your mouth shut, hold your head still. I just had the 8est idea."
Tavros winced at her request. In doing so, he unintentionally lowered his horns, which suited Vriska's needs to a tee. She slapped a hand on his head to hold him there, and tried to raise Eridan up toward a horn-tip.
"Hey!" Rose snapped.
Rose did not stop to wonder why the three of them were up so early, though if she had, she might have thought twice about doing what she was about to do. She should have given more thought to what had brought them to fight, or should have imagined what might be going through their heads, but she did not. In hindsight, more than anything else she wished she had kept a better memory of her and Kanaya's eighteenth pesterchum conversation. It had been a critical quid pro quo conversation, a back and forth exchange of cultural data in hopes of stripping any future conversations of misunderstandings, exactly like the one Rose was about to make. But she did not, and instead she stormed up to Vriska.
"Drop him, Vriska," she ordered.
Vriska reacted very slowly, taking her hand first off of Tavros' head and then making a dramatic slow turn towards Rose. She lowered Eridan for need of his weight, but did not release him. Vriska took up so much time doing so, in fact, that Rose was able to take advantage of it.
"Sit down, Tavros," Rose said, trying to be calm.
"Rose, I don't really think—"
He did as he was bid, walking away and taking his seat carefully at the side of the room. Rose did not watch him go. She had to keep her eye on Vriska, even though it meant breaking another one of the lab's unspoken rules. "Never look Vriska in the eye. Never." Vriska tossed back her hair with obvious disdain. Rose kept eye contact.
"What did you say to me?" Vriska asked.
Eridan decided to throw in his own chip. "Don't..." he gurgled. "Don't need your help here."
"Quiet," Rose ordered. Vriska stepped forward and leaned over Rose to emphasize her increased height, a sneer on her face that showed a full set of her terrifying new teeth. Rose was not entirely sure how much of Vriska's new appearance was genetic and how much was just her gruesome imagination born real in her dreamself, but there was everything unpleasant about standing in the shadow of a would-be alpha Troll.
Rose lowly raised her hand to Vriska's face, pointed to the floor. As she did, she double-checked her grip. Do not draw your needlewands, she thought in mantra. Vriska had a quarter of the echeladder on her. Anything short of the Thorns would be absurd. Don't tempt Fate while she still has her dice. "Put... him... down."
Rose did not know it, but now everyone was looking at her. Nepeta stalled in mid-play, a plastic dinosaur dangling from one hand. Gamzee even looked away from his YouTube Poop. And Kanaya had finally arrived. She was completely absorbed, and watched with her arms crossed as she blinked away sleep. Vriska started laughing and, intentionally or otherwise, her grip on Eridan tightened. Rose's could not help but wonder if having Eridan at her mercy had re-lit some caliginous flame in Vriska's heart, and that was dangerous. With Vriska it was hard to tell, beyond that things could shift at any moment.
Rose set her own teeth and, pointing to Eridan, she slammed her hand down in the air. "Now!"
Vriska's expression shifted from confidence to surprise in an instant, but she recovered, and shrugged. "…Fine," she said, as though it were no concern of her own. "Gamzee!" Gamzee took to his feet, face still stuck in a grin, and Vriska tossed Eridan straight into him. With one last look at Rose, she tossed her hair back again and walked away.
Rose caught her breath at once and turned to leave, wishing she had never even gotten out of bed. But before she could leave, John caught her eye with a not-at-all subtle wave of his arms. He pointed back to Eridan, who was seething at Rose with black hatred. Rose caught John's meaning at once.
"Eridan," she called, exhausted. "Come on, let's have that looked at."
Eridan reached reflexively to his wounds. "What? Why?"
Rose tried – very hard, with limited results – to sound honest. "Because I'm concerned."
Eridan took a moment to really take this in, before he finally said: "…aw, man…" John gave her a thumbs up and Karkat smacked his arm. Rose calmly rolled her eyes at both of them as her deflated, would-be kismesis limped over to her. But it was hard to avoid the looks of the others, as they returned to their work. Eridan muttered darkly about how he had been upstaged, but he seemed a touch less honest about it. Stranger was Tavros, who did not return to work, but watched her with a curious look that only just began at gratitude. Vriska simply sat at her keyboard, tracing her finger in circles above her desk and muttering. Kanaya watched Rose the closest of all.
It would be a day and a half before anyone told her she had just done the clubbed equivalent of walking in and kissing them each hard on the lips.