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With Open Arms

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With Open Arms

Ch 01: In which the grubs come to life, and some info is shared

The first to give in is, obviously, Jane.

She’s grown with this kind of motherly instinct that just overflows, from her love for cooking to the way she manages to even fret over the other humans and the trolls, and there is no way she can let those sweet, adorable little grubs roam everywhere by themselves.

At first she just stares at them, not knowing what to do, then she simply picks all of them up one by one, gathering a handful of coloured critters in her arms, cooing at them, petting one and scratching another, breaking two of them from a small fight, and carries them off to her house.

She has no idea what to feed them –they are not human babies, and when she tries giving them milk, only two of them accept it and seem to like it, while the others just ignore it, sniffing and wriggling, whining because they are hungry.

There will be time to find out what they can eat, though, and in the end she can just ask one of the trolls about it.

Jane smiles, feeling something warm blossom in her heart; she feels like she’s too young to have a child of her own, at least for now (they are barely seventeen, all of them) but a kid is a choice she will make later, while these poor children, while not human, are here and now, and…

There is no way she can leave them alone.

The trolls don’t know how to be parents, but then again, they never had the option to begin with and so she cannot hold it against them; she just sighs wistfully, and wishes things could have been different.

During the day, most of the grubs sleep, and Jane doesn’t even realise what this means, because she has her hands full with the one who actually stays awake.

The small, greenish grub wriggles and explores the house apparently without getting tired, nuzzling and sniffing at all the furniture, and forcing Jane trail behind her, apprehensive over the grub’s obvious interest with sparkly plugs and cooking appliances.

She’s a cutie though, with small nubs for horns and a mob of short, cropped hair sticking everywhere, and her eyes are wide and curious.

It takes Jane only a few hours to fall in love with her, and by then, her determination to keep her around turns into something fierce .

When Jake comes around to visit, in the evening, attracted by Jane’s earlier promise of a home–made dinner, he finds her curled up on the sofa, reading the grub in her arms a book on sweets, asking her which one looks the most yummy.

The little grub wriggles happily in her arms, purring softly, and shows her interest for a carrot cake.

“Jane…?” Jake is somewhat upset, but only a little, because there is obviously no food for him in the house other than cookies, but when Jane looks up, cheeks flushed, and embarrassedly admits she forgot he was coming because of the little critter, and the grub scrunches up her face, lips trembling…

Jake just can’t stay upset at either of them.

That is when most of the remaining grubs finally wake up, and the chaos starts.

They cry, they wandereverywhere, they demand attention, the brown one starts chewing on the television cable, and Jane, once the green grub has fallen asleep, has her hands full. Jake does what he can, but the two of them can barely make it work, and it’s just too much.

The red grub snorts and spits something gooey all over Jake’s favourite shirt, the blue one –squinting, Jake realises it has two differently coloured eyes– starts levitating in mid-air, freaking the hell out of both teens, and two of the grubs, who look somehow different from the others, are wailing softly, and they just can’t seem to know what that means or how to make them stop.

Jake feels like he’s failing Jane somehow, because he’s supposed to be helpful, and then one of the grubs –it’s a dark red one, with a pair of pointed horns and a sharp angle– who has somehow climbed on top of that beautiful lamp Jane loves so much, slips and falls

And he’s there right in time, catching it in his hands, and the grubs starts wailing, so loudly the other grubs wince and sniffle too, and he does not know what to do.

“Jake, Jake, for the love of… hold him close! That poor lad is scared shitless!” Jane chides him, eyes wide, but she can’t help, because the two dark grubs are curled up, and they seem to have a hard time breathing now.

It takes him a moment to remember what that means, but then he brings the wailing grub close to his chest, and the grub just sort of… latches on it, and starts chewing on his index…

And he just does not care anymore about his dirty shirt or his aching ears, nor about the missed dinner.

His heart races, but as the grub calms down, so does he.

Then, something clicks in Jane’s brain, and she is hurrying to the bathroom with the curled up grubs, and Jake is left alone with all the critters now staring at him, and the panic settles in again.

“Wait, Jane, where are you–”

No, he can’t do that alone. She can’t just up and leave him…

The sound of water filling something reaches his ears, then something being dropped into it, and Jane’s relieved sigh floats to him, soothing his fears.

She comes back with a huge bowl in her hands, the two grubs slowly uncurling to let the water wash over their dry bodies.

The purple one sneezes cutely, one little arm reaching out for the other grub, who smiles weakly and lets out a soft, reassuring purr.

“Those two are aquatic trolls,” Jane murmurs, her tone soft as she looks down at them. “They just need a lot of water, it seems”.

Jake hums in reply, and squeaks when one of the grubs tries to curl around one of his guns he has forgotten on the table.

It’s going to be a long, tiring night.

–––––––––

The actual birth of the grubs happens in the middle of the night, which of course means it goes unnoticed by the humans.

No one is there to watch –not that the Mother Grub would want any other living creature in the caves the Trolls chose for her– as they slowly crawl and wriggle, the first birth of this universe.

It is hard to settle with a life that is half nocturnal and half diurnal, especially within the new world –the sun isn’t as scorching hot as Alternia’s, but the nights are different because there are two moons, so it looks too alien, and the humans have a hard time coping with the differences, even if they don’t show it.

Dirk, who has managed to juggle between both selves –Dream and Earth– awake at the same time, is the one who can sleep the least, and it has become normal to crash wherever it’s easier and wake up at whatever hour he wants, and just go with it.

He keeps telling those who ask that he will eventually settle with a working pattern, but that hasn’t happened yet, and it has been almost a year.

It’s amusing how, despite having lived for over three years on a meteor or on a moving ark, surrounded by nothingness, the four kids who once belonged to Universe B1 are the ones who are taking it harder to settle down.

Dave, not surprisingly as he was a Dersite Dreamer, has switched to a nightly pattern, while Rose has gone back to her diurnal life. That, too, isn’t a surprise, as Kanaya prefers to avoid the nights and is somewhat disturbed by the neon glow of her own skin.

Most of the others have adopted different ways to make it work –it’s tricky to find a pattern that makes them reconcile their own habits with those of the other species, but they are resilient, and it somehow works out.

If asked, though, they still say it’s provisory.

In fact, it might be that none of the kids (though they are not kids, not anymore) has really accepted the reality they are living into on this new planet; they are not used to this new Universe, it’s weird and strange and alien, and it’s clear they are all expecting to find a way to re-create their own universes and go back to life as it was before the game.

They are just waiting. It will happen. It will.

Only a few of them accept that this is how it will be for them from now on, but they cannot voice this thought, not wanting to face the consequences, and they keep quiet when more experiments are made.

It will take some time, but they are sure everybody will understand soon enough.

When the trolls manage to clone a new Matriorb –a painful, complicated matter for which they worked in tandem with both John and Roxy, spending weeks closed off in the lab they alchemized– and they proclaim they managed to slush together enough genetic material to start repopulating, the humans have no idea what to say about it.

None of the kids–not–kids–anymore knows much about what to expect from troll reproduction, and most of them just don’t care enough to ask, but Rose, feeling the need to build a stronger understanding between species, has a long, meaningful conversation with Kanaya, knowing she is the only one who will not hide any information.

What she finds out is confused, there is a fundamental lack of understanding between them, but after carefully placed questions and a long excursus on the subject of meshing DNA together into a slur, Rose manages to get most of it.

There are no Imperial Drones, they are not forced to have Matesprits and Kismesis both, and they made do with what they already have. It’s tentative and embarrassing for them to do it on their own, but the desire to recreate a better troll society is strong.

That, Rose can understand. They have the chance to make it better. They are not going to really miss what they lost. Not the same way the humans do.

When she asks about who will take care of the eggs, Kanaya replies the Mother Grub will make sure they are safe.

When she asks what will happen afterwards, Kanaya pauses slightly, and frowns, eyes taking a melancholic edge.

“There are no Lusus,” she admits, biting her lower lip with a pointed tooth. “That poses a problem, but since there are no challenges to prove that the grubs are strong enough to be survivors, this is the least we can do to make sure they are fit to be the next generation,” she shrugs, and looks out of the window, basking in the soft light of the sun.

Rose opens her mouth to ask more, but thinks better of it, and keeps silent.

“I know what you are thinking,” Kanaya continues, her lips twitching upwards. “But that is how troll society has always worked. It’s already a change. They won’t have trials to face, but they won’t have protectors afterwards either. This world seems to lack real dangers, at least in the area we currently occupy”.

Rose takes a deep breath, and it is clear she is not going to agree –she has seen the creatures they chased away when they claimed this territory as their own. They might be gone now, but they might not be gone forever.

They are beings that are not just the animals that existed on Earth B1 but also those that once existed on Alternia and on Earth B2.

It is not dangerous for them because they are used to worse now, after the game.

But Kanaya is talking about the equivalent of human babies, and the thought is unsettling. Rose has never been motherly in attitude, yet the amount of worry she feels is growing exponentially stronger the more she learns about this.

“Why are there no Lusus?” she asks then, trying to ignore the nagging worry in her gut.

If there are animals they can hunt and eat, there should also be other kind of creatures. Why not Lusus?

“We have not yet seen any in our explorations, but if there are, it might not mean they are ready to nurse our youngsters,” the troll replies, licking her lips.

Her mind is not there anymore –it’s lost somewhere else, fleeting images of her own youth, of growing with the warm, ever-loving embrace of her Lusus, the fluttering of wings and soft, sweet murmurs in her ears, telling her that everything will be fine.

She misses her Lusus, like a part of herself is missing, and this is something the new generation will never know.

Kanaya feels a tingle of regret for the little grubs, but there is nothing she can do about it. This is how it has to be now.

Rose delicately presses one hand on her shoulder, and Kanaya smiles at her, nodding in thanks to show she understands what Rose means with that gesture.

“Please let us handle it, Rose,” with that, Kanaya stretches and stands up. “We know it’s ok”.

Rose believes Kanaya, and respects her, both as a person and as a friend, but she cannot really quell the worry as of yet, so she just pushes it down and nods.

When later on the grubs are born, the Mother Grub letting them go on their own without much care, as they slowly dig their way from the underground caves and up into the world, Rose steers herself not to go see them.

When even later, she catches a glimpse of Jane stomping down the path leading to her house with her arms full of little critters, she simply smiles, and makes a note to visit the next day and confer with her.

She has had a vision –even if her powers are nothing like they were inside the game– and she finds she doesn’t mind what she sees.

–––––––––

Dirk’s intention is to pop around unannounced at Jane’s house for a quick hello before leaving –he plans on eating a bit, too, and maybe use her washer since he’s there– but the moment he peeks inside from the window, all his carefully laid out plans just go flying right back out.

Jane’s house, for lack of a better term, is completely trashed.

Her armchairs are scratched and broken, the cute knitted pillows are in pieces and all around the sitting room, and some of the books are ripped in shreds.

In the middle of all this disaster, sleeping like nothing is wrong with the world, is Jake, curled up against the sofa and with something red in his arms that wriggles every now and then.

Dirk stops, frowns, blinks, then fights the instinct to remove his shades to get a better look.

The thing in Jake’s arm is definitely a grub, one of the wrigglers the trolls managed to sire.

With a swift, smooth movement, Dirk slips inside the house, landing on a piece of broken glass, and grimaces; he still wonders what happened in there, but Jake sleeping is a signal that this was not an attack, so he relaxes.

Jake might be a dork, but he knows how to fight. Dirk made sure of that before the game even started.

This is the moment when something slips on his shoe, and Dirk reacts instantly by kicking out; the something grabs on the hem of his jeans, holds on tightly, and refuses to bulge, letting out a soft whine of distress.

Dirk once again stops, blinks, and looks down.

There is a yellowish grub holding on him with his (her?) dear life, eyes shut close and sniffling; Dirk carefully keeps still, leg stretched out in front of him, balancing himself on his other leg, and stares.

Slowly, the sniffling subsides, and the little grub’s eyes blink open.

Three sets of legs twitch, but do not let go, and the little grub starts munching on Dirk’s pants, methodically digging his (her?) way into the material until it breaks under his (her?) thin, sharp teeth.

“What is even going on in here?” he asks the grub, knowing there is going to be no answer to that. “Stop munching on my pants though. I said stop”.

The grub doesn’t stop, but the door to the kitchen is pushed open, and Jane’s head pops out. She seems tired, her cheeks and nose are covered with flour, she has a sheepish smile, and looks positively adorable –the kind of natural, fussy kind of cute that Dirk has grown to associate to her in all kinds of non-ironic way.

“I thought I heard someone move, but I hadn’t expected to see anyone this early, hehe,” Jane smiles, and Dirk feels his lips twitch in reaction.

He schools his face back into his normal pokerface and looks back to the grub still attached to his leg, who is still munching.

“Oh, she’s taken a liking on you, I see,” Jane coos, stepping out from the kitchen with her spoon in one hand and a green grub peeking out from the apron she’s wearing. “Here, let me take her…”

Jane gently takes a hold of the grub, tickles her under the belly –ok, so the kiddo was a she, neat– and she giggles, wiggling her three sets of legs around, but still does not let go of his leg.

“Clingy little fucker,” he mutters, but he’s somewhat impressed by how quickly she manages to ruin his pants. Not even fighting against imps made them rip.

“I’m sorry!” Jane taps the grub on the head, trying to look stern and failing miserably. “She has to learn she can’t just destroy everything she puts her jaws on”.

“What happened here, Jane?” Dirk, stoically ignoring how he’s still balancing on one foot, points with his thumb at the room in the general direction of the snoozing Jake.

He takes the moment to finally notice there are other grubs scattered everywhere that he seemed to miss the first time he glanced around, but as they are all curled up in easy–to–spot places, and his attention is still mainly on Jake, it’s no wonder he hasn’t noticed them before.

Jane finally manages to get the little she–grub to let go of Dirk’s pant, and drops her gently in the apron pocket, where she nuzzles with the greenish grub as they both start to purr and make clicking sounds. Jane coos for a moment, before looking back up at him.

“I couldn’t just let them wander off by themselves,” she replies, looking positively distraught. “It is inconceivable the trolls are so irresponsible as to allow that to happen!”

Dirk has nothing to say to that, and shrugs. The way Bro raised him was not at all dissimilar to leaving the grubs frolicking around unguarded, so he does not see the problem.

Of course, his caretaker was around during his first years, and actually made sure he would grow up into the fine specimen of Strider he was now, but…

“Why are those two still awake?” Dirk inquires, pushing the unwanted thoughts out of his mind and pointing at the grubs inside Jane’s apron. “Aren’t trolls nocturnal?”

“This one has been awake yesterday, but managed to sleep a little tonight,” Jane replies, pointing at the green wriggler. She really looks like she’s the one who needs a few hours of sleep, not the grubs. “I made the mistake to let this one get too close to my coffee,” she points at the yellow one, and sighs. “I fear her sleep patterns might become a bit too messed up now, caffeine seems to work differently on trolls than it does on humans”.

“How did that happen?” Dirk keeps his eyes on the sleeping Jake, traitorous lips twitching upwards.

“He insisted on being ‘a nice lad and helping a poor girl out with her newly–acquired ankle–biters’,” she giggles, tapping the yellow grub right on her forehead. “Quite literally, in your case, Dirk”.

“You probably took on more than you can chew on here, Jane,” he states after a second. “I should just leave you to your convoluted, motherly play and just take a look later on, when you are dead tired and more willing to admit you have taken on a challenge you cannot possibly overcome all by yourself”.

Jane smiles at him, lips curled in a knowing smile, and returns to the kitchen. Dirk follows her in.

“Then why are you still here? Are you planning on playing Prince Charming and steal one of my cute daughters right from under my nose, Dirk?”

Dirk does not dignify that with an answer.

He stays only for a couple hours with the excuse to fix the robots he has left with Jane, and makes plans to reprogram a few in order to make her life a bit easier –taking care of so many critters crawling everywhere is no one’s idea of irony.

It is only when he’s far from Jane’s house and on his way to visit one of the trolls that he finally takes notice of the new weight on his leg. He doesn’t need to look down to realise who is hanging on there.

He doesn’t need to look down to know it’s hopeless to go back now.

He has apparently managed to steal one of Jane’s cute daughters, and well… Striders’ swag knows no boundaries.

Still, he stops. He keeps his eyes focused on the road ahead, on the mountains far in the distance, the inviting expanse of nothing he has yet to explore, and takes a deep breath.

“Hey, girl, are you sure you want to join me in my reckless, renegade life that borders in illicit traffics, perilous adventures and dancing with danger?”

The grub starts purring softly, her thin ripping the other leg of his pants and munching on it, and blinks owlishly up at him.

Dirk Strider allows himself to smirk coolly.

Lil’ critter is a keeper.