-- carcinoGeneticist (CG) began pestering centaursTesticle (CT) ! --
CG: ATTENTION ZAHHAK.
CG: TAKE A BREAK FROM WHATEVER DISGUSTING ACTIVITY YOU ARE CURRENTLY ENGAGED IN.
CG: I HAVE IMPORTANT INFORMATION FOR YOU.
CG: REGARDING YOUR FLOPPY-HAIRED FISHTROLL PRINCE.
CG: IT SEEMS WE HAVE SOME ANOMALOUS DRONE SIGHTINGS NEAR HIS PIECE-OF-SHIT HIVE AND HE IS NOT RESPONDING TO MY FUCKING PESTERLOGS. OR MEMOS.
CG: ZAHHAK ARE YOU EVEN FUCKING THERE OR AM I JUST TALKING TO A LAB FULL OF DISTURBING DISMEMBERED ROBOT CORPSES WITH LIP MARKS ALL OVER THEM?
CT: D --> I am here
CT: D --> Pardon the delay; I was away from my computer
CT: D --> Kindly elaborate on your statements, Vantas
CG: ELABORATE ON WHAT, I GOT REPORTS OF CULLING SQUADS OR SOMETHING SIMILAR, SHIPS WITH IMPERIAL INSIGNIA FUCKING AROUND ON THE COAST NEAREST WHERE HIS SHITTY SHIPWRECK IS LOCATED
CG: AND SO I, BEING A KIND AND THOUGHTFUL INDIVIDUAL, REACHED OUT TO MY DEAR FRIEND MR. AMPORA
CG: TO INQUIRE AFTER HIS WELL-BEING.
CG: AND HEARD JACK SHIT IN RETURN.
CG: YOU MIGHT WANT TO INVESTIGATE FURTHER.
CG: I’M JUST SAYING.
CT: D --> Your concern does you credit, Vantas
CT: D --> I will look into it
CT: D --> Give Nepeta my best wishes
centaursTesticle (CT) has signed off! --
CG: FINALLY GETTING A MATESPRIT HAS DONE NOTHING FOR YOUR SOCIAL GRACES, EQUIUS.
carcinoGeneticist (CG) has signed off! --
Nights in the past (but not many):
Ugh, he won’t take any of your delicate hints. Time to up the ante.
Equius is bent over his workbench, tinkering with the active guts of what he says is a replacement for your shitty generator, as he has been for the past however many hours. The single lamp shining on his work gives him the air of some kind of tortured sculptor. It’s effective, you've got to admit, but it’s also really annoying since you wanted to take his clothes off with your teeth like two hours ago, jesus.
You marshal your resources and you stride over to him and you wait until he has put down the soldering iron before you touch his back. He jerks in surprise at the touch and twists his head to look up at you. His hair needs a wash.
“Shhhh,” you say, “only matespritship now,” and you start to rub his shoulders. You’ve taken off your rings; under your fingertips his skin is cool, slightly damp, over muscles as hard and knotted as ironwood. He makes a little soft helpless noise as you grind your knuckles into the worst of the knots, half-bruising them to make them let go, and his head droops helplessly. It is only with difficulty that you can attend to your job, actually, but hey, you started this, you gotta follow through on it.
When you’re done working out the knots in his shoulders you just rub his back, gently, firmly, and you can feel the little catch of his cough under your hands. It’s been almost a perigee since the whole fuck the ocean issue and he’s still doing that, but you think possibly he may be doing it on purpose because he has worked out how very effective it is on you, how it makes you come over all protective. In which case you have to award him points for Very Slightly Sneaky Tactics, which for Equius is a hell of an achievement. Either way, you go on rubbing, loosening the tightness in his back and chest, until he is draped on the workbench with his head resting on his folded arms and doing something that in anybody else might be described as purring.
“That’s better,” you say, perching yourself beside him on the table. “You’ve been working on that for like hours now. It can wait till evening, Equius, give over and come have dinner and let me fuck around with your hair.”
“You say the most romantic things,” he rumbles, but he leans over enough so that he’s resting his face against your hip. “Mmh. Very well, if you insist.”
“This is me insisting. I am insisting the fuck out of all this right here.” You rest a possessive hand on his head for a moment. “I’m cooking, by the way. We need a break from cheap-ass delivery. I intend to make food that has nutrients in it, you should be grateful.”
“I am,” he says, and with a very minor groan he sits up and scrubs at his face. “I am most grateful, even though it means your generator will not be ready when I guaranteed it to be.”
You make a rude noise and slip off the table. “My generator is the least of my worries.”
It’s funny: Fef always kind of ended up mothering you when you were being a total fuckass and you had no idea how she put up with it; now you do, there’s a wonderful sort of blend of exasperation and affection that comes with nudging Equius to do things like not work all hours of the damn night and part of the day as well, and...yeah, okay, fussing over him. You would never have figured yourself for a fusser, but hey, you have a broad range of talents, right? You are a complete Renaissance Troll of a guy. Dashing and deadly seadweller, crack shot with a rifle, can kind of cook a little, real good at fussing over his enormous matesprit. It all works together, really it does.
Now that Nepeta’s spending a lot of her time with Vantas he hasn’t got anyone scuttling around his great echoey rock-cut hive to distract him from work and bother-cajole-annoy-charm him into chilling out and doing some normal troll stuff. You have stepped in to fill this gap and it’s kind of weird sometimes how easily it fits. When he’s out with you on the Dualscar it’s different somehow, that’s your hive, your lair, everything there is comfortably familiar and worn just the way you like it, and he never seems to need a nudge to keep his attention on you instead of your various shitty mechanical ongoing projects; here, it’s a little bit of a challenge to capture his focus.
You like a challenge. Whistling to yourself, you saunter off to Equius’s spartan meal-preparation block and start rootling around in the cupboards for what you need. He is damn well going to eat real food tonight, that’s all. And you weren’t playing when you mentioned fucking with his hair, you haven’t been given a chance to mess about with it in like two nights, which is unconscionable, it really is. He’s let you trim the split ends and he puts up with you trying out hair products on him (“no, really, Eq, I gotta see how this shit works on proper straight hair, mine is all wavy and shit, c’mon, pleeeeease?”) and running your fingers through it every chance you get, and you are seriously addicted to that.
When he joins you a little later he comes up behind you and does that thing where he wraps his arms around your waist and rests his chin on the top of your head, like a great big warm hooded trollcloak, and you sigh and lean back against him and there is absolutely nothing, nothing in all the world, that you could want more than this.
In approximately three nights you will come to realize that there are, in fact, things in the world that you could want more than being held by Equius Zahhak, such as getting out of this fucking cell or strongroom or whatever it is and also maybe getting to punch that one of your captors with the really annoying voice a bunch of times. Or hit him with a plank. You’re not choosy.
It all just goes to show, the universe really does hate your purple guts. Nobody listens when you point this out, but the evidence is overwhelming.
You don’t panic.
Even after you’ve tried and failed to raise him on every communicator you can think of; even after you’ve absently crushed a pretty expensive chunk of technology to sparking debris while trying to think of what you could have done to alienate him so badly in a matter of nights that he’s refusing to speak to you; even when you give up on trying remote contact and lock up, heading down to Eclipse Bay to see what the marina rental guy has on offer, you don’t panic.
Panic is for other people. People who lack the STRENGTH to handle distressing situations with a calm and mannerly mien.
You grind your teeth hard enough to break a couple more of them, yes, but that’s just something you do. The little bright sparkles of pain offer something other than your concern to think about, and when you’ve parted with a less absurd sum of money than you’d feared in return for the hire of a motor launch, piloting it out of the bay on course for Eridan’s shiphive, the rough chop of the waves gives you another distraction.
Seasickness is also for other people.
You’re capable of handling the boat, though; in the weeks since you and Ampora became matesprits you have graduated from ballast/engine repairman to being confident driving one of these things around. As usual, you take to a new challenge with intense focus and determination, and of course it had taken you very little time to master the basics of maritime navigation and so on. (“Don’t get cocky,” he had said. “You’re okay with a small motorboat, but don’t you even think about going fucking sailing on your own.”)
And so you fix your eyes on the horizon and refuse to regret eating breakfast and you push the boat’s mediocre engine to full ahead, and you think about other things. Like the last time you saw him: he’d left your hive three nights ago (“gotta get out to the hunting grounds, blacktails will be schooling this time of year, the great fishertroll must return to the sea”) with a firm kiss and one of those sudden almost-violent clingy hugs that make you catch your breath. You’d watched him all the way until he was out of sight, and then you had gone back inside and worked very diligently on his new generator.
Or the morning before, when he had come and interrupted you and refused to go away in favor of kneading out some of the knots in your shoulders with surprising firmness. He has wonderful hands, the fingers long and fine-boned, glittering with his jewelry, but they are also apparently quite strong hands. You had probably behaved very shamefully and possibly even made undignified noises, but he has a habit of eliciting that response from you and perhaps if nobody else is around it doesn’t matter quite so much.
And then he had made you dinner, which was as usual delicious; and after that, well, yes, after that you had rather made a spectacle of yourself what with the scooping him up in your arms and carrying him bodily off to your respiteblock, but he had not seemed to mind exactly.
You are somewhat of a stranger to flushed romance; you have been awkward and oversized your entire life and your weird habits and acquired veneer of sophistication have done you no favors in the field of social interaction, as Vantas likes to point out. You keep wondering when Eridan will wake up and realize this, and then you have to remind yourself that he has seen you at your utter shameful worst, you have in effect no secrets at all from him, and slowly, slowly, you are beginning to believe that this is actually an arrangement that will continue to be a thing for the foreseeable future.
Drat the ocean. Also, drat breakfast.
Luckily it is not so terribly far to Eridan’s tiny island-shipwreck-hive and you can see from a way off that his launch is still tied up alongside. You cut the engine and let your boat drift in under the Dualscar’s bow, tossing a line over the railing and scrambling up after it, and tie one of the knots Eridan has taught you.
“Hello?” you yell.
Dead silence except for the waves and a seabird or two. You remember wriggler’s stories of haunted shipwrecks, and wish you hadn’t; another yell has no response, so you head for the companionway door and when the handle turns loosely, unlocked, under your fingers you know you are not going to like what you find below decks.
It’s cold, and the lights are out. When you find the switch and flip it on, you can tell it’s just battery power, a bleary yellow glow; of course, you didn’t hear the generator running when you arrived. Still the light is enough to show you what you did not want to see.
Eridan’s comfortable clutter is tumbled every-which-way, furniture overturned, the TV smashed, his husktop mangled almost beyond recognition. The long curvy gamblignant sword that had hung over the doorway is half-buried in one wall.
You follow the trail of destruction to his respiteblock, where the sweet stink of sopor makes you lightheaded; his recuperacoon has been slashed almost in half and the slime is solidifying on the floor. Your shoes make unspeakable little squelches in it as you come over to the ruined cupe and run your fingertips over a splash of royal violet on the rim.
There goes another tooth.
There’s more blood under the slime on the floor, and now you notice it’s on the doorway as well, in the shape of a handprint.
In fact, once you’ve looked over the entire ship, there is quite a lot of blood in evidence. Not all of it is Eridan’s, however; drops and splashes of a blue not at all unlike your own appear here and there. You almost miss the worst thing, though, because it is so very small, barely the size of a fingertip, and because it is covered in a mixture of dried violet and blue blood. Only a very small patch of yellow-orange is visible among the stains on the carpet just below the companionway steps.
You kneel and pick it up very carefully and you already know what it is, you knew from the moment you saw that color, you are peculiarly suited to identify it: a tiny little cone-shaped piece of keratin, its flat bottom still showing the honeycomb of blood vessels. It is the very tip of somebody’s horn, and by the color of the stains left in the matrix of hard tissue you know whose.
Probably you only spend a moment or two staring at the thing in the palm of your hand, but it feels like a very long time before your body, which is thinking more clearly than your mind right now, propels itself up the steps and over to the deckrail. Despite the fact that you’ve already relieved yourself of breakfast you do your best to turn all the way inside out, dry-heaving with industrial grinding sounds until you have to hold on to the rail to stay upright.
When the spasms finally let you go you are drenched with sweat and your eyes are streaming. You could really do with a towel right about now, but venturing back down into Eridan’s ruined home is more than you think your innards can bear. Your left hand is still clenched around the thing you found belowdecks, and without looking at it you put it away in your sylladex, not even sure why. You couldn't leave it here, and you can't....it's...
It's part of him, is the thought you are trying to avoid, and it nearly makes you gag again. Deep breaths and wiping your disgusting face with your shirt does help a bit, and you can see to pull out your palmhusk and get some answers.
-- centaursTesticle (CT) has begun pestering carcinoGeneticist (CG)! --
CT: D -- > Vantas
CT: D -- > I need your help
CT: D -- > How long ago were these imperial ships reported
CT: I’m at Eridan’s ship
CT: It’s been ransacked
CT: Obvious signs of struggle
CT: At least one attacker was wounded, there’s blue blood as well as his
CG: HOLY FUCK.
CG: YOU REALIZE YOU’RE NOT USING YOUR FUCK-AWFUL TYPING QUIRK.
CG: THAT IS THE FIRST TIME I HAVE EVER SEEN YOU DO THAT.
CG: OK. LET ME CHECK. I GOT THE MESSAGE ABOUT....FIVE HOURS AGO? AND I PASSED IT ON TO YOU AFTER I COULDN’T RAISE ERIDAN.
CT: Did your informant have any data about heading or projected heading
CG: THEY WERE HEADED OUT TO SEA AT APPROXIMATELY THE RIGHT COURSE TO INTERSECT WITH HIS ISLAND. NO INFORMATION ABOUT WHERE THEY WOULD HAVE GONE NEXT.
CT: I need to find these people
CT: They cut off the tip of his horn
CG: ARE YOU SERIOUS?
CG: ...STUPID QUESTION. THAT IS FUCKED UP ON A SCALE THAT’S HARD TO IMAGINE, EQUIUS. WHO EVEN HATES AMPORA THAT MUCH?
CT: I do not know
CT: But I intend to find out
CT: Thank you for your assistance, Vantas
CG: UGH. I WANT TO HELP.
-- centaursTesticle (CT) has signed off! --
For the purposes of this fic I'm going with the theory that the horns are super fucking sensitive and also a matter of deep pride to their owners, so having the very tippy-tip of one cut off is both massive amounts of OW and a hell of an insult.
There are reasons why the people who nabbed Eridan would do such a thing. They aren't very good reasons, but they exist.
When you wake up you immediately and viscerally regret doing so.
Everything hurts. You can feel your own pulse in your gums, in your eyesockets, in your fingertips and toes, in your horns jesus fuck what happened to your left horn that is a raw searing source of fucking ow that puts everything else in a lower category of oh shit.
After a moment or two you work out that you can open your eyes, and do so with some difficulty--they’re stuck together with something crusty--and focus on what appears to be a plain concrete floor under your cheek.
You have no clue what that means. An attempt to push yourself upright tells you that you have at least one broken rib on the right side and that your hands have had unkind things done to them, but you can at least painfully haul yourself to a sitting position and find a wall at your back to lean against.
Definitely broken ribs. Probably two of them, but eh, not your first go-round with that shit. There’s none of the ominous liquid warmth in your chest that means something important has been nicked by the end of a rib. The horn is the worst and then when you make your hands move so that you can see them you almost gag, they’re covered in dried blood--both yours and what, oh, fuck, what looks like blue--and you can tell that more than one of the fingers are broken.
This makes you want to cry because you can’t help remembering him so gently, so carefully setting your cracked little finger. He’d been solicitous as fuck about it all the time until he’d judged it safe to let it go unsupported, and even then he was careful with you. Not like you were damaged goods so much as...just very important. And breakable.
Which you apparently are. You fight down the nausea and flex your fingers experimentally: about half of them obey you and thank fuck you have both your thumbs, that’s handy. You poke at your face ungently with your better hand--controlling your limbs feels like it does when you’ve fallen asleep with your arm pinned under somebody and had to shake it and curse until control came back. By the feel of it you just have bruising, nose isn’t broken, nothing else wobbles alarmingly. Except you’ve lost a tooth, your tongue explores the blood-tangy socket, that should grow back in a perigee or so.
By now you have tabulated enough damage in your mind and cross-referenced it to the last actual memory you have available to work out that you are in really, really deep shit here.
You’d been asleep, you’d been dreaming, and the dream had been torn open like the belly of a beast and suddenly there were people there, strangers in your room, in your hive, and you’d reached for the blade you always keep in a pocket inside your recuperacoon and you had slashed at the hands grabbing for you and been rewarded with a high-pitched wail; but then the knife was knocked from your sopor-stupid hand and you had been hauled bodily out of the cupe just as a blade nearly bisected it, and a fist met your face and everything went buzzy and dark for a while. You recall thrashing around, kicking and biting and clawing at any part of your attackers that presented itself; at one point you’d got one of their own blades away from them and sliced a deep gash across his stupid fucking ribs and been frozen by the color of the blood that soaked his clothes, deep blue, ultramarine, ultramarine...
And then there had been pain beyond pain, pain beyond anything you could imagine, and you had screamed and screamed and spewed your guts out and then you were here.
Very, very carefully you make one of your stupid leaden hands creep along the lightning-jag of your left horn, and while you expect it to hurt you are not prepared for the white-hot stabbing agony that comes when a fingertip brushes a flat surface that should have been a pointed cone.
They cut your horn. They cut your horn.
You haven’t got anything left in your stomach but that doesn’t seem to matter; the pain drills right down your skull and spine to curl around your bulge, the same astonishing breathtaking pain that you’ve experienced the (few) times you’ve taken a knee to the globes. It’s the same bright-hot-and-then-sick-heavy kind of misery. You curl over and retch and wow, that’s fun with broken ribs. Gotta give it a seven out of ten in the Fucking Horrible Sensation Olympics.
Okay. So you’ve been maimed and beaten and now you are somewhere that you don’t recognize because it is apparently a big grey cube of a block with no windows and no obvious door, but there is a bare metal shelf you think is supposed to act as a sleeping platform and there is a very primitive load gaper stuck to one wall.
Why are you in prison, you wonder, and lean wearily against the concrete. Yeah, the universe hates you, but it could at least offer up some justification for this shit. You don’t recall really annoying the hell out of anyone in particular just lately, and you’re not due for the damn pail-drones for a while yet.
The blueblood, though. That sticks in your memory, fractured as it is. Not quite as deep and saturated as his blue, but close to it; seeing that color had made you think for a horrible horrible moment that it was him there in the dark with you. Of course it hadn’t been, the blueblooded troll wasn’t even six feet tall and in the flashing dimness of your memory you think his head had been shaved, or at least buzzcut; but for that moment the bottom had dropped right out of your world.
There’s a clatter and a hitherto invisible door opens in one wall of your cell, spilling brilliant light inside, hurting your eyes. “Hey, it’s awake,” somebody says, a high nasal voice that makes you immediately want to punch its owner directly in the face. “I thought you said it should be out for another couple hours yet.”
“Different physiology. It must be able to process drugs more rapidly than a person, I can’t wait to get a look at its liver function.” The second voice is female, lower, clinical. “Did Mallor say anything about the other one?” They’re just standing there in the doorway staring at you, and if you didn’t feel quite so much like microwaved shit you would launch yourself at them and claw their faces off, but you don’t honestly think you can do much moving.
“Haven’t been able to pinpoint its location yet. We gather it actually does dwell underwater, so finding it is going to be tricky. Might as well get all the information we can out of this one, there’s no guarantee we’ll get hold of another.”
“Fair enough,” says the woman. “Put it out again and we’ll get started. I want a closer look at those gills, that is astonishing.”
One of them comes forward into your cell with a glittering thing in his hand and you just. cannot. move as he bends over you to jab his needle in your arm. This isn’t the blueblood with the buzzcut; he’s cerulean, skinny little backswept horns barbed at the tips, his hair heavy with some kind of scented pomade. Fucking disgusting, man, greasy shit like that hasn’t been in style for like sixty sweeps.
You look blearily up at him and from somewhere very deep inside you muster the strength to lean up and spit directly in his face.
After that everything goes whirling-dark again, and very far away.
-- carcinoGeneticist (CG) began trolling gallowsCalibrator (GC)! --
CG: I NEED A FAVOR.
CG: YOU HAVE ACCESS TO ALL KINDS OF USEFUL LEGAL INFORMATION SHIT, RIGHT? LIKE IF THERE’S SUDDENLY SOME NEW IMPERIAL DECREE THAT SAYS ‘CULL ALL SEADWELLERS WITH EXTREME AND INAPPROPRIATE FORCE’ YOU WOULD KNOW?
GC: WH4T TH3 FUCK 4R3 YOU 3V3N T4LK1NG 4BOUT K4RK4T >:??
GC: YOU 4R3 M4K1NG 3V3N L3SS S3NS3 TH4N USU4L.
CG: CAN WE JUST SKIP OVER THIS PART, OK? I AM SO NOT IN THE FUCKING MOOD FOR WITTY BANTER. I NEED HELP.
CG: AND BEFORE YOU JUMP ON THAT AS A SETUP FOR CRAZY JOKES
CG: LET ME JUST CUT TO THE CHASE AND SAY THAT SOME FUCKHEAD OR FUCKHEADS UNKNOWN HAVE APPARENTLY ABDUCTED AMPORA
CG: GODDAMN ALLITERATION
CG: SHUT UP, I’M NOT DONE.
CG: ONE OF MY CONTACTS MESSAGED ME EARLIER TONIGHT SAYING THERE WERE IMPERIAL SHIPS FUCKING AROUND IN THE VICINITY OF HIS HIVE
CG: SO I TRIED TO GET IN TOUCH WITH HIM.
CG: NO ANSWER ON TROLLIAN, EVEN THE MEMO BOARDS AND THOSE GODDAMN THINGS ARE LIKE A CRAZY MAGNET FOR RESPONSES.
CG: SO I TELL ZAHHAK WHAT’S UP.
GC: TH1S 1S NOT GO1NG TO 3ND W3LL 1S 1T
CG: SO LIKE AN HOUR AGO
CG: HE GETS BACK TO ME
CG: EQUIUS I MEAN. AND HE’S, GET THIS, HE’S NOT USING HIS QUIRK.
CG: I WAS LIKE OK, THE WORLD IS OBVIOUSLY BREAKING
CG: TURNS OUT HE COULDN’T RAISE ERIDAN EITHER SO HE WENT OUT THERE HIMSELF AND FOUND THE PLACE ALL TRASHED TO SHIT AND BLOOD EVERYWHERE.
CG: AND THE TIP OF ERIDAN’S HORN.
GC: OK4Y TH4T SH1T 1SNT FUNNY K4RK4T
GC: CONS1D3R M3 SUFF1C13NTLY CR33P3D OUT! W3LL DON3. NOT M4NY H4V3 4CH13V3D TH1S DR34M!!
GC: BUT YOU C4N STOP NOW.
CG: DRIBBLING FUCK, PYROPE, I AM SERIOUS.
CG: STOP EATING CHALK AND SENTENCING YOUR STUFFED DRAGONS TO DEATH AND FUCKING HELP ME OUT HERE.
CG: I NEED TO KNOW IF THERE’S ANY KIND OF ACTUAL IMPERIAL SHIT BEHIND THIS.
CG: AND, FUCK, I HAVE TO TELL FEFERI.
CG: AND NEPETA.
GC: OH MY GOD.
GC: YOUR3 S3R1OUS.
GC: TH3Y CUT OFF H1S HORN????
CG: AND PYROPE GOES TO THE HEAD OF THE FUCKING CLASS! WAY TO CATCH UP WITH THE REST OF US THERE.
GC: OH 34T M3, K4RKL3S.
GC: TH1S 1S SO V3RY FUCK3D UP.
GC: 1 C4N LOOK FOR YOU BUT 1 TH1NK SOLLUX 1S 4 B3TT3R B3T
GC: H3 C4N L1K3 H4CK 1NTO TH3 OFF1C14L N3TS W1TH H1S M4D SK1LLZ
GC: 4LSO PROB4BLY M4R1N3 R4D1O
GC: W4TCH OUT FOR 4NY R3PORTS OF W31RD SH1PS 1N TH3 4R34
CG: FUCK. YOU’RE RIGHT.
CG: I’LL TRY AND GET AHOLD OF SOLLUX.
CG: THANKS, TEREZI.
GC: NO PROBL3M!
GC: 4NYTH1NG FOR MY F4VOR1T3 CR4BC4K3.
-- gallowsCalibrator (GC) has ceased trolling carcinoGeneticist (CG)! --
The worst thing about this isn’t even the pain, although in all honesty you gotta say that is a serious contender for worst-thingdom. The worst thing is the fact that you are awake for it, and you can hear every word they say.
You are lying on your back in a room of stinging antiseptic whiteness. It is freezing cold and the surface you’re lying on is as unyielding as rock, and whatever they’ve injected you with has left you just enough muscle control to operate your fucked-up ribcage and move your eyeballs around. For a while you’d squeezed your eyes closed, but it was worse not knowing when the next touch would come.
The woman’s name is Doctor Naghra; she is a very deep blueblood, about the same shade as Equius, but surprise sur-fucking-prise she is neither enormous nor hyperhidrotic nor adorable. Her horns describe an almost complete circle, the gap between their pointed tips only an inch or so wide; they look like a halo. Her pal the barb-horned cerulean is called Gurian and you think you hate him more than you hate anybody else in the universe, platonically, although Naghra is really doing her level best to snag that title.
"Retractor," she says now and he hands her something that flashes in the light, and oh, shit, you can feel her gloved fingertips on your side, on the closed edges of your opercula. "As you can see the similarity to the bony fishes extends as far as to provide stiff protective flaps over the gill filaments themselves, which thus far appear to be sealed firmly shut while out of water. Further experimentation is indicated on the subject’s reaction to full immersion."
She’s fucking dictating. You realize what this whole surreal situation reminds you of and you wish you could groan: it’s legislacerator procedurals, the inevitable autopsy scene. She is doing exactly the same shit as the doctorturers always do while they lift out organs and trade witty banter with the hero.
"Base resting oxygen sat in a standard 20% atmosphere is 98% with the opercula closed," she says, and then there is something cold and hard touching the curved edge of your middle operculum on the left side and oh fuck oh fucking fuck she is going to
When you were little and stupid (stupider) you’d got into a fight with a bigger seatroll in which he’d managed to hook a claw under one of your opercula. It’s not a sensation you’re ever going to forget, a dreadful wrenching somehow fibrous pain coupled with a horrible sense of invasion, of violation, your protective layer yanked away and the most sensitive and delicate bits of you laid bare.
This is worse because she doesn’t fucking stop. With one gill all the way open in air she has pretty much given you pneumothorax on that side and you kinda need both lungs working right now, it’d be real cool if you could have both of them, and you are gasping and your ribs grate and the violet-flushed filaments of your gills ripple and flutter as you struggle for air. Whatever horrible cold thing she’s using to hold you open is joined by another horrible cold thing which probes the filaments as they move.
"Sats are dropping," says her assistant. "Ninety-five."
"Watch the pulse rate." She pries you open even more and she’s peering right into you and oh god oh fucking god you are really going to die you can’t breathe you want your fucking matesprit...
"Pulse is up--wait, sats are ninety-two--"
Your vision starts to go even as the panic recedes into a kind of numbness. Their voices are coming from very far away.
And all of a sudden the instruments are withdrawn and your operculum closes and seals and there’s that familiar sudden push-pull of pressure in your chest and then you can breathe.
"Fascinating," says Dr. Naghra.
You go away for a little while, and when you’re back in the waking world you’re also back in your cell, lying on the excuse for a sleep platform, your entire left side throbbing. When you think you can manage, you push yourself more or less upright--their paralytic seems to have worn off, thank god--and peer down at your side, where violet bruising has already smudged the edges of your opercula and the ridges of ribs between them.
The horn was one thing. This is quite another. This is, in fact, a whole nother thing. Absently you trail your fingers through your hair, tucking bits of it back behind your fins, thinking about somebody else’s fingers doing it for you, and you realize that not only are you going to get the livid purple dripping fuck out of here, you are going to kill both Naghra and Gurian on the way, and furthermore you are going to find out why they’re doing this shit in the first place. The knowledge settles into you whole, like a pebble sinking into a streambed: you are basically a prince, and you have a duty to your people, and no other seadweller is going to have to experience what you just did.
1) span tags hurt almost as bad as typing Terezi's quirk especially when all the colors/names disappear when you c&p into ao3's update page and you have to go back and insert them all over again between the delimiters
2) Yeah, I know this got super-dark; I promise there is badassery on the way. (We must pass through bitter waters to reach the sweet.--Troll Mary Shelley, Lamia)
Chapter 5: intermission
Mostly because I couldn't get it out of my head, here, have some Alternian physiology research. I blame JumpingJackFlash for this.
At least partially.
Journal of Alternian Physiology (J Alt Phys) Online Submission/Review System
Confirmation of submitted manuscript
The following manuscript has been received by Journal of Alternian Physiology and is under editorial review
Submitted Manuscript Type: Notes/Case Study
PI: Naghra, Liirak, Doctorturer First Class, Member Imperial College of Meditacticians
Co-authors: Gurian, Junnar, postdoctortural fellow
Working title: Preliminary Notes on Respiratory Physiology in the Amphibious “Seadwelling” Troll Subspecies
Running head: Respiratory Physiology of Seadwellers
Abstract: Little has hitherto been known about the specific adaptations of the so-called seadweller or “sea troll” subspecies to life both in and out of water. This study aims to lay out a basic premise for further research into the amphibious subspecies and illustrate some of the more important mutations, particularly in light of the current political climate and the potential for meaningful change.
Body text: The “seadweller” subspecies of Tyrannomonstrum hemochroma presents an interesting physiological puzzle which has not been fully investigated by the scientific community. Adapting from a completely land-based existence to an amphibious one seems implausible given the evolutionary challenges posed; current schools of thought point to the adaptation process going the other way, from a fully aquatic to a fully terrestrial species. Tyrannomonstrum hemochroma maris therefore represents what is colloquially known as a “missing link.”
An opportunity to examine a specimen of T. hemochroma maris was presented to the authors, and while research is ongoing the preliminary results are of significance justifying publication.
The most obvious adaptation requiring investigation is, of course, the structure of the respiratory system such that it allows the individual to breathe via gills underwater and what have been termed ‘lungs’ on land. This is accomplished by a rather basic but not inelegant system of dual oxygen-transfer structures. In atmosphere it appears that T. hemochroma maris seals off all access to gill membranes via a series of flexible but tough opercula not unlike those of bony fish gillcovers. Oxygen transfer in atmosphere is accomplished by a lung model similar to the familiar alveolar/capillary structure demonstrated in most land-dwelling Alternian species, one key difference being that the tissue of the alveolar sacs where gas exchange takes place is considerably tougher and resistant to osmotic diffusion from hypertonic to hypotonic solutions, such that when these surfaces are exposed to seawater there is no massive influx of plasma to the tissues resulting in pulmonary edema. This protective adaptation is echoed by a series of membranes that stretch over the air-breathing sections of the lung anatomy when the opercula are open and water is circulating through the system. This is also effective in maintaining intrathoracic pressure.
The gills themselves are made up of gas-transfer membranes in microfilament form; each filament contains capillaries branching off from a rich vascular structure in the gillbeds. During immersion, the aforementioned protective membranes close over the alveolar tissue and the opercula open to allow water circulation. Water is drawn in through the mouth and nose by expanding the ribcage as in air-breathing, passes through the airways and over the gill filaments where gas transfer is achieved, and then leaves the body via the open flaps of the opercula.
It is interesting to note that if the opercula are opened while the individual is in atmosphere, the shielding membranes do not have sufficient tensile strength to maintain intrathoracic pressure and the alveolar sections of the pulmonary system undergo collapse similar to that seen in air-breathing species when gas or liquid is introduced into the pleural cavity. While operating in air-breathing mode, T. hemochroma maris demonstrates S02 values not statistically different from land-dwelling trolls, but if the gills are exposed to air and the alveolar structures collapse, the physiological response is identical to that of pulmonary collapse in T. hemochroma proper.
Blood chemistry in T. hemochroma maris differs subtly from T. hemochroma; preliminary testing shows that liver function is statistically more efficient and metabolization of various pharmaceuticals takes place in approximately three-quarters the time it would in a land-dwelling troll. The fact that seadwellers tend toward the very highest end of the hemospectrum is likely to be associated with these increased self-preservation capacities; the elongated lifespan of the higher bloods reflects a superior immune system and a decelerated rate of aging.
Further research is indicated on the neurochemistry of T. hemochroma maris and the authors hope to be able to publish results shortly.
Conflict of interest notice: This work was funded by a grant from the Institute for Blood Studies. Neither author has any professional or personal affiliation with the Institute.
Corresponding author: Naghra, Liirak, [contact information redacted]
No horrors in this one, I promise.
“So how does it feel?”
Gurian. You don’t bother looking over, lying supine on the hard shelf, hands entwined over your chest. You could be an effigy.
“Being a mutant, I mean. Like, is it weird being around normal people?”
“This part of your research?”
“Maybe.” God, would he fucking blow his nose instead of snurfling every two seconds? “We’re interested in how your subspecies interacts with landdwellers.”
“Really,” you say, regarding the ceiling, picturing the wonderful expression on his face when you break all of his teeth with a fist. You’d get tooth bits in your knuckles but oh, it would be worth it. “How we interact. You know, kid, you might want to think about the fact that her fucking Imperial Condescension is a seadweller. Like, what happens when you guys ask for more money to stab us with shit and it gets up to the level where somebody asks her people about it? How is that conversation going to go, I have to wonder. ‘Oh, it’s nothing, we just wanna know how seadwellers work and how to break them, no worries, Your Imperial wait a sec.’”
Silence. You think maybe Gurian has fucked off but no, he’s still there and jesus fuck that kid should know better than to slather his stupid head in grease when he’s still in the middle of growthspurt skin disorders, his hairline is peppered with horrible little pimples and more nest in the creases by his nostrils. The expression of avid fascination does not help.
You manage not to cough as an ill-advised shift presses your wounded opercula together, and just stare back at the ceiling, fingers laced behind your head. You are the picture of cool.
“Uh,” he says. “You don’t think we know that?”
Oh, shit, you really are dealing with a special boy here. You untangle your fingers so as to be able to rub your eyesockets with one hand--the broken fingers hurt like hell but hey, that’s not so bad as it could be--and you sigh. “Kiddo, I am at a fuckin loss to say what you do and do not know. If your people think you’re doing this unbeknownst to the Condesce I kinda want to be there when her guards wreck your shit. Wait, no. Not kinda want to. I would fuckin buy tickets to that.”
Gurian sneers at you--you don’t even have to look at him to know he’s doing it--and fusses with a tendril of his greasy hair. “What would you know, you’re a T. hemochroma maris. Barely rate as sentient.”
“Oh,” you say, “that is a very fuckin good point right there, Mr. Gurian.”
“I’m sorry, doctor Gurian. You are absolutely right. I am a member of a slightly different species than you. Also, I should currently be like licking your hand through the bars for the sheer affirmation of your bothering to speak to me.”
He sounds puzzled. “What?”
“My good Doctor, you are obviously so far advanced from my humble station that...wait, what’s your blood color again?”
“Cerulean,” he says with pride.
“Well, I’m violet, Doctor Gurian, and if we were on the mainland and in a court ruled by the Cruelest Bar I have a feeling your ass would be in a very unsatisfying position regarding hemospectrum rights and privileges. I just mention this in passing, you understand.”
“You can’t talk to me like that!” he sputters. “You’re a, a fishtroll!”
“Oh, Doctor,” you say, and you brave the stab of pain as you twist on the sleepingshelf to look at him with enormous purple eyes. “I’m not only a fishtroll, I’m one color step down from the Condesce herself. What a vast fuckin breach of protocol there is hovering in this room right now.”
You watch him; and you can see the warring desires to smack you in the face and to abscond the fuck out of there and deny everything. After a moment he turns away, white labcape fluttering. “You are an experimental subject,” he says. “Anything you say is privileged scientific information and also shut the hell up you disgusting little brinesucker. I have better things to do than chat with the likes of you.”
“Wow, Doctor,” you say. “You black-hit on all your experimental subjects, or should I be flattered?”
The look on his greasy little face makes your broken ribs feel so much better, for a little while.
The hive-portal annunciation device goes off again. Flipping up your welding helmet, you get up from your worktable and you stalk across the room and just manage not to destroy the intercom button with your forefinger. “Go away,” you snarl.
It comes as a considerable surprise to hear Vantas’ raspy voice on the other end. “Jesus fuck, Zahhak, you gonna let us in or are we gonna just stand around out here like retarded wrigglers with our thumbs up our nooks?”
“...What do you want?”
“We want in. We think we know where he is.”
It is really difficult for you not to just punch the intercom into many small glittery pieces, maybe do a bit of yelling, but in the back of your head Eridan gives you that look that says chill your mixture and you just settle for grinding your teeth together. Ow.
You don’t answer Vantas; you just press the button to unlock the hive-portal, and wait for them to come and meet you. In fact you don’t even look up, staring at the insides of your eyelids, until something small and warm and pointy and forceful barrels into you and you stagger back and find Nepeta wrapped around your neck. There are so many things you could say but you really cannot trust your voice just at the moment and so you just bury your face in her shoulder and hold her as carefully as you can manage.
“Equius,” she’s saying. “Oh, Equius, I’m so sorry, I should’ve come before, are you okay, no, that’s a dumb question, jesus, but it’s going to be all right, we’re all here now...”
“Language,” you rumble, and just like that everything seems ever so slightly less awful. She laughs a little, you can hear tears in it, and you kiss the top of her head and look up to find Vantas, Pyrope, and Captor looking at you with varying levels of awkward discomfort.
Actually on second thought you aren’t sure that’s awkward discomfort so much as something resembling concern.
“...so KK, being a total nookthniffer, needed to be reminded of my particular talentth, I thtill can’t get over that, theriouthly, itth a killing inthult...”
“Who’s telling this story, you or me? Shut up. So after consulting with Terezi I got Sollux to lend his particular talentth to finding out what was going on. It’s severely fucked up on pretty much every level, there’s like high treason and shit involved, conspiracy theorists are fucking pailing themselves right now over this--”
“Karkitty,” Nepeta says. She’s curled in your lap and refuses to be removed, as if to make up for the past nights of absence by clinging.
“--right, okay, conspiracy theorists are having a real good time with this one, jesus. It’s, uh. You’re not gonna like this part.”
“I have not liked any part of it so far,” you point out, regarding him over Nepeta’s head. He looks away. He actually looks away.
“Yeah, okay, fair enough. It’s a blueblood conspiracy, Equius.”
“Cerulean through indigo, to be specific.” Terezi takes up the thread. “Tealbloods aren’t awesome enough to be part of it, apparently. Their thing is that they don’t like seadwellers, which is kind of unfortunate for them on account of the Condesce happens to be one. Which is where they’re going with this.”
“They want to overthrow Her Condescension?” you ask, boggling. “Who would even...”
“A bunch of people. From what Sollux found it’s not new, either.”
You look at Captor, who’s fiddling with what looks like a friendship bracelet in blue and red on one wrist. You’ve seen those before; Eridan had one in a box on the Dualscar and didn’t really say much when you asked about it other than to mention Feferi’s name.
“I found referentheth going back for thweepth,” he says quietly. “They’ve been pretty good at hiding their trackth but I’m better at finding them. They hate the Condeth not becauthe the’s, well, you know, a tyrant and shit, but becauthe the’s a theadweller. And they want FF. ED ith leth important to them, but they know about their relathionthip. I think they want to uthe him to find her.”
“Which is hoofbeastshit of the purest ray serene,” Vantas puts in. “I can’t even come up with the vocabulary to convey how deeply and truly ridiculous it is. So we’re here.”
“And Eridan’s our friend,” Nepeta says into your shirt.
“Right, there’s that as well.”
You aren’t entirely sure what the feeling of warm pressure in your chest signifies--perhaps it’s got something to do with the girl currently resting her face against it, despite the fact you’ve been sweating pretty hard--but it’s not unpleasant. After an embarrassingly long time you work out that it is probably related to an awareness of something not unlike friendship.
In which moirallegiance is disgustingly fluffy and Darkleer makes an unexpected and cryptic appearance. No horrors, no violent badassery.
It’s almost dawn, and you are still surprised--you have not stopped being surprised, although you are a little tired of it by now--that the others stuck around for so long talking out what the he...heck to do. It had started making more sense when you realized that Captor’s feelings toward Feferi Peixes provide sufficient motivation for him to get involved--in fact, sufficient motivation for him to pull off some feats of investigational network snooping you would not have judged him capable of. Vantas had let him talk, for once not cutting him off with an expletive and restating whatever Captor had been going to say.
There is a plan. Your main role in it is your standard one of brute force, which suits you just fine. The others are doing more subtle things that involve timing and strategy, but you are expected only to cause as much damage as you possibly can in as short a time as you can, and you think you will be up to the task.
Your head had been spinning by the time they were done hashing out the basic idea. It just kept getting more and more complicated and involving more and more people--Serket, Nitram, Peixes--and you tried very hard not to let it show how tired you were. You had to cough a couple of times and you thought you’d hidden it pretty well but there were a number of sideways glances going on, and soon your visitors began to gather up their things and prepare to leave.
Captor and Pyrope had departed together, still talking intently about strategy. Once they’d gone, Vantas had stared at Nepeta in your lap, and at you, and at Nepeta again, scowling furiously, and muttered something about going to visit Gamzee. You don’t think you have ever been so fondly disposed toward him in your life.
So you aren’t alone, now, as the exhaustion of being so angry, so terribly strongly angry and so concerned catches up to you; your moirail is there and she looks at you with gold-green slit-pupilled eyes and there is such sweet, terrible pity in those eyes that it takes away your breath.
“Come with me,” she says, and tugs you by the hand to your ablution block, runs you a very hot bath. You watch her, dazedly, thinking Vantas is good for her, she seems so much more grounded and then realizing that you just actually thought that and wishing you’d had more sleep in the past couple of days. It’s difficult to dismiss a lifetime of having her all to yourself. It’s more difficult to deny the fact that she looks happy, worry about you notwithstanding.
The water feels ridiculously good against your knotted muscles, hot enough to hurt, hot enough to soothe. You just lie there for a while, breathing in the steam, before bestirring yourself to have a proper wash. Soap stings in the little burns you’ve given yourself from weld-sparks.
God but you are tired. You try not to wonder again--as you have been wondering nonstop ever since this daymare began--about what Eridan is going through right now, knowing that you can’t do a damned thing to help him at the moment, and you don’t really succeed but the tiredness is making the thought fuzzy round the edges and hurt less than it might.
You haul yourself out of the bath and towel off and catch a glimpse of yourself in the steamed-over mirror: the blue has almost all come into your eyes, leaving only a thin ring of grey around the pupils. You look old. The broken horn-stub throbs dully the way it does when you are just about at the end of your tolerance.
Nepeta is in your meal-preparation block when you emerge, barefoot and damp-haired, in the baggy shorts and shirt you wear to sleep. She looks up at you and smiles. Reality seems to be giving up the effort of sustaining clear consistency, and you don’t try to make conversation, you just sit down as bidden and eat the dinner she’s prepared while she talks to you. Her words pour past you like comforting background noise, like rain.
When you’re done she does that thing with your hair that is subtly but unmistakably different from the things Eridan does to it, brushing it firmly out with long careful sweeps, and when you cough she fusses at you and capably, deftly, nudges you to your respiteblock and into your recuperacoon--and climbs in with you, which she hasn’t done in a long time. You need it, too. Even bone-tired and relaxed as you are after her ministrations, you need not to be alone.
Nepeta purrs when she’s contented, and you can feel the little vibrations, her head tucked under your chin. For the first time since Vantas messaged you, you feel as if everything can somehow be all right.
It’s not your hive, it’s far larger, far darker, the air itself heavy with some unspoken importance. Here and there faint glowing lines trace the edges of equipment you can’t identify, nor do you particularly feel the need to: it’s...not exactly comfortable, wherever you are, but you think you aren’t unwelcome here.
(There are few places where you feel completely not-unwelcome.)
Something moves in the deeper darkness of the shadows; a shape, a form, somebody who is capable of standing so still even you couldn’t detect their presence until that slight shift. Nepeta could do that sometimes when she was hunting but it never lasted long, she was so brilliantly vividly alive, thrumming with vitality, that the cold stillness always gave way to some little tell or other, a twitch of the shoulders, a little growling sound. Whoever this is, they do not twitch.
Still you do not feel uneasy. And when the stranger in the shadows turns a little further and reveals the faintly lambent sign-of-the-archer blazoned on his shoulder you are somehow not surprised.
He comes forward out of the shadow and the dim light sleeks over hair as water-straight and black as your own, great arrow-pointed curving horns, vast shoulders under armor designed to make them look vaster still. Almost nobody save the Highblood--Makara, you remind yourself--is as tall as you and yet this troll stands head and shoulders above your eyeline. The glow of your sigil on his shoulder throws weird shadows and highlights across his face and blurs your focus, but you can still make out that he looks like you might when you have your full growth. He has your bones, your nose with its humped bridge that--yes, looks to have been broken more than once--your angled eyebrows, your narrow mouth.
You still feel no fear, no anxiety, even when a black-gloved finger tips your chin up and eyes hidden behind rectangular shades have a good long look at you. You can feel that gaze.
“You are more fortunate than I was,” he says, at length, his voice deeper and harsher than your own. (It sounds a little like yours had when you’d been recovering at Eridan’s.) “In a number of ways. You stand to lose much.”
He takes his hand away from your face but you stay looking up at him, searching. His hair is far longer than yours, falling in smooth black luster over his shoulders and halfway down his back. “You’re him, aren’t you,” you say, awkwardly. “My Ancestor. The E%ecutor Darkleer.”
Something very like pain passes over his face, so like yours. “E%patriate,” he corrects. (Nobody else you have ever met has been able to pronounce % correctly.) “Outcast for just cause. But you have the felicity of freedoms I never knew, Equius.”
“What do you mean?” you ask. He sighs, and under the broad pauldrons you can see his shoulders droop ever so slightly. And there’s--yes, there’s that gesture, your gesture, the one where you tip your chin down just enough to swing the curtains of your hair forward like hoofbeast-blinders, like black barriers from the world. It works better on you than him because your hair isn’t long enough to drape heavily over your shoulders.
“Remember that personal is not the same thing as important,” he says. “And remember that you are needed.”
“What do you mean?” you repeat, and hate the hint of a whine in your voice, but he just shakes his head, looking immeasurably sad and faraway and ancient, and you can feel the dream fading from around you the way dreams always do. You try to cling to the edges of it, try to hold on and get some answers out of your (undeniably impressive) ancestor, but they slip frictionless through your fingertips and there is nothing but void, calm and quiet and somehow comforting. Your consciousness spreads out in all directions, diffusing like ink in still water, and if you begin to dream again you do not recall a thing.
The difference between personal and important is actually both Granny Weatherwax's and Carrot Ironfoundersson's philosophical statement, and here it shows up combined with a line Philippa Somerville says to Francis Crawford in extremis: there is a difference between absence and death, and you are needed.
UNNECESSARY DRAMATIC LINE-STEALING AHOY
Somewhere around the third evening you realize that the fascinating way the walls of your cell are shining with rippled light, the lacy net of moving brightness cast on a seafloor by the moons’ light on the water, is not due to whatever they’ve shot you full of now. Mostly what they’ve been giving you just either knocks you out, which is wonderful and you really love it when that happens, or it sends you into an exaggerated version of your standard horrorterror daymares that come from sleeping without sopor. This is different. This is almost nice.
You also realize that you are sweating, and that the room feels awfully cold to you, and that some absolute asshole seems to have crept into the cell overday to fill up all the hollows in your bones with lead. Everything is very heavy and everything is beginning to flicker with that dancing light, except the violet-black bruising all down your side. That’s hot and that is throbbing.
Breathing hasn’t been what you might call a whole barrel full of fun for...a while now, you guess, you kinda lost track of that, and now you make the crazy effort to sit up a little on your hard respite-shelf and peer dizzily down at your gills.
Heh. That’s not pretty. If you were in the damn sea this wouldn’t have happened, saltwater is a decent enough disinfectant to stop wounds festering, it’s a thing, but right now your left-side gills are in moderately fucked-up shape. The ones on the right are throbbing visibly as you breathe, your interior lungs doing extra duty to make up for their little left-side buddies.
An experimental fingertip discovers that the left-hand opercula are partly stuck together here and there, not sealing all the way because fluid swelling is stopping the surfaces from meeting properly, and when you press on one of them it hurts like fuck and it makes a little bubbling wheezing noise and it sounds like it’s really sad, like it is a gillcover which has got some bad news just recently and is not dealing with it all that well. Also there are ribs under there which have magically not become unbroken somehow.
You giggle, a small off-balanced noise. On some level you’re aware you are one sick seatroll at the moment, but mostly everything is kind of hilarious. You kind of want to find Naghra and Gurian and show off your, what had they been talking about, your immune response. Check it out, immune response is all going on up in this shit!
You also want out of here because it would be really nice to just plop into the sea and let it cool your burning skin--at some point the room switched from being too cold to boiling--and just drift for a while. Just drift.
When they come to get you, you think, you will dart past them with your superior seatroll speed and coordination and you will abscond to the deck of whatever this goddamn floating freakshow of a horrorlab boat is called and then you will jump into the sea and you will be right back on the handle, not like in any way flipped off it or pirouetted through some goddamn acrobatic maneuver that would no doubt earn you a commendation from the Condesce herself and...
You were going somewhere with this but it’s got away from you, just like the edges of the room in all that dancing waterlight. Probably it doesn’t matter all that much, though.
Probably very few things do, when you get right down to it.
-- carcinoGeneticist (CG) opened memo on board LET’S GET THIS SHIT OVER WITH
CG: SECURITY CHECK.
twinArmageddons (TA) replied to memo
TA: for the la2t tiime, KK, ye2, iit2 fuckiin 2ecure.
TA: iit2 liike you don’t tru2t me or 2omethiing
TA: fuckiin iin2ultiing i2 what iit ii2
CG: FUCK. FINE. OK, YOU ARE THE BEST COMPUTER NERD EVER TO NERD A COMPUTER, IT IS YOU, HAPPY NOW?
CG: IF WE COULD GET ON WITH IT
TA: iim not the one a2king 2tupiid que2tiion2 here.
arachnidsGrip (AG) replied to memo
AG: Gaaaaaaaah, could we get a move on? Some of us actually have interesting things to do tonight!
CG: JESUS SQUITTERING FUCK WOULD YOU ASSHOLES SHUT UP AND TRY FOR ONCE TO APPROXIMATE THE IMITATION OF A BUNCH OF PEOPLE WHO ARE NOT UTTER AND COMPLETE BULGEMUNCHING MORONS.
CG: WE HAVE A LOT OF SHIT TO GET DONE.
CG: SO LET’S FUCKING TRY TO DO IT. ROLL CALL. CHECK IN SO I KNOW WE’RE IN COMMUNICATION.
centaursTesticle (CT) replied to memo
CT: D -- > I am prepared, as is Nepeta
gallowsCalibrator (GC) replied to memo
GC: SOLLUX 4ND 1 4R3 31TT1NG R1GHT N3XT TO ON3 4NOTH3R
GC: 1T 1S TH3 B3ST OF T34MS!
GC: W3 4R3 4LL S3T
adiosToreador (AT) replied to memo
AT: uH, i aM wITH vRISKA,
AG: Hahahahahahahaha he so is! Ready to fuck with some losers, Pupa?
AT: i, uH, tHOUGHT wE aGREED tHAT yOU wOULDN’T cALL mE tHAT,
AG: Nonsense! It is a gr8 name! ::::::::D
CG: UN BE FUCKING LIEVABLE.
CT: D -- > If I may
CT: D -- > I would like to request that we all make an effort to focus on the task at hand
CG: WHAT HE SAID.
cuttlefishCuller (CC) replied to memo
CC: hello everybody!
CC: to save time I am going to not use my quirk, also this is important business.
CG: THANK GOD FOR THAT. OK. WE’RE ALL HERE. KANAYA AND ARADIA ARE STANDING BY. GAMZEE IS OUR BACKUP WEAPON.
CG: WE’VE BEEN OVER THIS FUCK KNOWS HOW MANY TIMES, BUT.
CG: CONFIRM YOUR MISSIONS.
TA: ehehehe KK you are ttly gettiing off on thii2 leader bull2hiit
TA: fiir3t thiing2 fiir2t, ii 2et up thii2 fuckiing awe2ome 2ecure board where the iimperiial netcrawler2 can’t fiind us.
TA: mii22iion accomplii2hed tyvm
TA: and then TZ and ii keep a metaphoriical eye on all of you whiile ii fuck up theiir communicatiion2 and onboard computer 2hiit royally.
TA: when ii am done wiith theiir 2hiit iit wiill need deep counseliing for fuckiing 2weep2
TA: 2o then whiile they have no way two contact the maiinland for help and al2o they have liike no power
CG: EQUIUS, NEPETA, AND I BOARD THEIR BOAT, FIND ERIDAN, FUCK ANY OF THEIR SHIT UP THAT SOLLUX NEGLECTED TO VIOLATE CARNALLY IN HIS EARLIER EFFORTS, AND ABSCOND. SERKET, YOU’RE BACKUP WITH THOSE DICE OF YOURS, BUT PRIMARILY I WANT YOU AND TAVROS TO DO YOUR FUCKING SPOOKY MIND POWER SHIT.
AG: oh my god karkat 8ooooooooring! I already know all this! I’m a huge part of this plan! Me and Pupa will 8e flying a8out in our totally sweet rocket 8oots and rocket chair to provide you losers air support and using our amaaaaaaaazing powers to make all the stupid science people throw themselves over8oard or have awesome fights to the death or whatever. Oh, and summoning up sharks or some 8ullshit like that to e8 the assholes.
CC: I’m staying underwater until the threat is secured but as soon as I can I’ll join you guys and if I can help out Eridan I will. 38\
CG: THAT ABOUT COVERS IT I THINK.
CG: OK. I WOULD BE LIKE LET’S SYNCHRONIZE OUR PERSONAL TIME MEASUREMENT DEVICES BUT SCREW IT, LET’S JUST DO THIS. CAPTOR, PROCEED WITH THE FUCKING OF THE SHIT. EQUIUS, GET THIS BOAT UNDER WAY. SERKET, TAVROS, PEIXES, STAND BY FOR MY SIGNAL.
CG: BE CAREFUL, EVERYBODY. NO ONE IS TO GET DAMAGED IN ANY WAY DURING THIS EXERCISE. NOBODY IS ALLOWED TO GET FUCKING DEAD OR BURN OUT THEIR MORONIC THINKPANS, AM I UNDERSTOOD?
TA: that wa2 the 2weete2t thiing you ever 2aiid two me KK, ii am teariing up over here. TZ ii2 all liicking the 2creen and goiing 1T T4ST3S L1K3 D3L1C1OUS S1NC3R1TY whiich ii2 gro22 a2 fuck iif you a2k me.
CG: OFFICIAL LEADER ADDENDA TO LAST COMMAND: 1) FUCK THAT AND 2) FUCK YOU. WHICH GOES FOR YOU AS WELL, PYROPE.
GC: H3H3H3H3 1 LOV3 YOU TOO K4RKL3S!!
The first thing you know about it is a bizarrely familiar tingle in your head, which is admittedly hard to detect through all the other shit going on in there. It doesn’t exactly hurt, but it’s kind of difficult not to do what it makes you want to do, which is curl up in the corner of your cell out of direct line-of-sight from the door.
This is a proposition which you view with real distaste because it requires moving and ow, and also you’re dizzy as fuck and curling into a ball does very unkind things to your infected gills and yeah, okay, concentrating on breathing now for a while, strange compulsion in your head, if that’s all right with you.
It does something to you that feels...nice, as if a cool hand had touched your face for a moment, and then it’s gone, and you just huddle and shiver and make yourself as small as you possibly can. Some unknowable time later, minutes or hours, the rote hum of the air-conditioning system stutters and surges before failing altogether, just as the lights go out. Damn, you have to get up and go fix your generator again, thing really just needs to be replaced, wasn’t Equius going to do something about that? You really don’t feel well enough to go fight with the goddamn thing right now so maybe just staying here in the darkness and listening to strange distant echoes of shouting--sea-ghosts, must be--will suffice for now.
You are so confused when there’s a violent crash and the wall and floor under your face shake, and since when did the Dualscar have metal decking, that’s not right, but now there are voices and a flickering moving light and people are with you. A foggy image of a blueblood woman with halo-circle horns and a greasy fuckface with bad hair jumps out at you, and you make a little mewling noise which you really wish you hadn’t and squirm back against the wall, away from them, but
someone is saying your name, someone is saying your name in a very deep voice that rasps a little and
someone’s cool and very controlled, gentle fingers move over your face, stroke back your hair, shoosh you, and
“....Equius?” you croak. Everything is awful and dark and whirling but you can just make out his face bent over you.
“I’ve got you,” he says. “I’ve got you, Eridan, you’re safe now. It’s over.”
His voice sounds funny, and you wonder if he’s really over whatever he had caught a perigee ago, but you can’t seem to make your thoughts line up in sufficiently orderly rows to form a sentence. You just reach out and your burning fingers meet his cheek, trail down his face, fall away. The space where the tip of your horn had been is on fire.
Equius makes a terrible little sound deep in his chest, and then he is so carefully slipping his hands around you, lifting you into his arms as if you’re a wriggler. It hurts your gills, and you try not to show this, but you kind of suck at dissembling right now and he hisses again and snaps something to one of the others and a light falls over your chest for a moment. You can feel him tense all around you. You want to say something to him, tell him it’s all right, but you can’t make your voice work; you just turn your face against his chest and breathe in his familiar oil-steel-sweat smell and close your eyes.
You go away for a little while, and when you come back he’s very gently setting you down on a deck under the moonlit sky. Fresh air feels strange after so long. He’s talking to someone, close by, urgently, and you think you can make out that the other voice is female, sweet and sad and achingly familiar.
“...Fef?” you manage. She’s beside you, her delicate fingers cupping your face, and you wish you could see better because she is so beautiful it is as if she is giving off a sort of light of her own, like a third moon in the shape of a girl.
“Eridan,” she says, and kisses your forehead with cool lips. The scent of salt is all around you, wild and raw. “I’m going to heal you, or at least glubbin try. Just....just breathe for me, okay?”
You want to say so many things but you just don’t have your shit together voicewise, and anyway she’s gone but there are suddenly three cool sharp points touching your chest and you are looking up the shaft of Fef’s 2x3dent, her culling fork. You wonder why you ever thought everything would end any other way, and shut your eyes. Through the closed lids light suddenly blazes, and those cold points burn white-hot for an instant, searing your skin.
You cry out, and realize that you can cry out, that the impossibility of drawing in sufficient breath to make the effort has....lifted.
Your left set of gills still hurts, but there’s less of that awful sick hot throbbing and you can feel all the opercula move smoothly, keeping the seal as you breathe. When you remember to open your eyes Fef is kneeling beside you, looking worn, and you can’t help reaching up to her. She catches your hand with hers, and you notice a friendship bracelet woven in blue and red knotted around her slender wrist.
“It was seadwellers, Fef,” you say. “They were after seadwellers.”
“I know. Sollux tracked it down for us, the movement they were part of.”
You try to sit up and she gets an arm around your shoulders, delicate and pretty and like a steel bar. The others--god, so many of them--are standing a little way off, not saying much. “Is he here?”
“No. He and Terezi stayed on the mainland to run the t-tech support.” She sounds as if she’s going to cry, and you frown at her as mightily as you can which, okay, right now is kind of pathetic.
“He kept you safe,” you say.
Damn, now she is crying. Well done, Ampora. Brilliant work. You say a few bad words and try to work out what to do when another familiar voice cuts through your consciousness. “Are we going to stay here all night or what?” Vriska Serket demands. “All the fun part’s over with already.”
“You have a point.” Vantas is here too? And you can hear Tavros, and is that Nepeta talking to Equius? Why are they all here? “--Sickeningly sweet as this scene is, and I gotta say that this shit is totally worthy of Troll Nora Ephron, we’re kind of exposed here and I’d like to get the fuck back to the mainland before any of these assholes’ friends come by to find out why they aren’t picking up. Equius, come on, let’s get Ampora back home.”
You had been going to say something to Fef but you can’t for the life of you work out what it was, and your matesprit is gently gathering you in his arms again and in all honesty you feel that the universe can suck it without benefit of your consciousness for a little while longer. This time, though, you are aware that when you wake up everything will, finally, start making sense.
There are a series of flickers of memory in between the pleasant stretches of void: people talking over you, the pitch and chop of a small boat in a running tide, quietness and dim blue light and shadow, gentle fingers on your hurt chest, your horn, stopping well short of the sheared tip, someone holding a glass to your lips, bitterness cold at the back of your throat. None of it makes a very great deal of sense and you feel somehow insulated from each snapshot, as if you’re watching it from a very long way away and don’t really know the person it’s all happening to. Someone else’s problem.
When you do wake up, you’re in seawater. Your body is aware of this long before your mind is, and you wake gradually and comfortably through levels of awareness as you always do when you sleep underwater; it’s a process like coming up from the deeps, pausing at this depth, that depth, letting your body and your consciousness adjust to pressure changes. You are so relaxed that you only remember the events of the past several nights when you shift slightly in the water and pain flares in your chest, in your hands, in your horn.
The pain snaps you all the way up to the surface of full consciousness, and you realize that you are lying in an ablution trap or something very like it. Somebody is there, settling on the edge of the trap, and oh god it’s him it’s really him and you surge upwards breaking the surface and choking out the breath of water still inside you and then Equius has you, holds you, bending over the edge to gather your broken pieces in an embrace as undeniable and powerful as the sea.
You are pressing your face against his chest hard enough to hurt, as if you want to burrow into him and hide, and the curtains of his hair fall around you both as he kisses the top of your head. You literally cannot make yourself let go of him for quite a long time, and it’s only because your gills hurt with the rippling hiccups of pressure that you realize you are sobbing.
“Shhhh,” he’s saying, sound and feeling both, one vast hand cupping the back of your head so gently. “Eridan. Beloved. It’s over now, it’s done with, you’re safe. You are safe.”
It rings true. You might in fact not be safe anywhere on the planet but in the arms of this troll. “You came for me,” you say, your voice doing that super-annoying hitching-gasp thing it does when you cry. You hate that thing. “You came.”
“Of course I did.” There’s a little of that prissy affront in his tone and it makes you feel so much better. “Don’t be silly, Eridan, of course I came to fetch you.”
“Rescue me,” you correct.
“All right, rescue you. I am...so very sorry it took me as long as it did, and I had a great deal of help.”
You cling tightly to him a moment longer and then it really does become difficult to sit upright, and he eases you back to the angled wall of the trap. You can keep your gills closed under the water so that you can still talk; it’s a little extra effort but you are more than willing to make it. “I don’t...remember. There were so many people. Why were there so many people?”
“They all more or less volunteered to be of assistance,” Equius says, settling back on the edge of the trap. He looks dead tired but he also looks happy. “Vantas was the one who alerted me to your situation in the first place; he apparently had received a message about Imperial ships in the area of your hive and tried to reach you to send the warning, but when you didn’t reply he contacted me.”
You blink up at him. Your hair is lying over your face in wet purple-black wiggles with drips on the ends; he reaches down with a very careful hand to smooth it back. “Karkat did that?”
“Indeed he did. I gather that when I apprised him of what I had discovered at the Dualscar he promptly enlisted Pyrope and Captor and Nepeta to help; they showed up here unannounced and explained what they’d been able to find out, that the people who did this to you were in the employ of some kind of far-reaching conspiracy of bluebloods. Captor located the ship you were being held on, and I understand it to be his command of network administration that made it possible for us to approach, board, and attack your prison.”
“He kept Fef safe.” Your eyes close again, that snatch of memory drifting back. Fef kneeling beside you on the deck, the three pinpoint burns from her trident still bright-hot pain on your chest, her hand holding yours. The blue-scarlet woven bracelet knotted around her wrist. “They wanted her, not me. It was always her. I think they were using me as a sort of trial-run.”
Equius’s face hardens. “So we understand, yes. Miss Peixes was warned about the situation and kept well out of the way of any further search patrols. Once the others had control of the ship she joined us and was able to help you at least somewhat with her...er...powers.”
You imagine Sollux Captor sitting at his horrible goddamned keyboard somewhere in a darkened room stinking of those energy drinks he’s addicted to, sending out his mustard-colored influence over the pathways and networks of the Imperial command, settling into system after system like the malignant virus he is--not for you, never for you, but for Feferi.
And he had kept her safe. The thing that had been worst for you all the time wasn’t the physical agony of the experiments, or even the plain old visceral fear, but the thought that they were going to do this shit to Feferi. That had turned you into miserable jelly, that fear; and Captor had kept her safe.
“Tell....Karkat to tell him thanks, from me,” you say, suddenly exhausted, bone-tired, aware of the effort you’re expending to breathe. “Hell. All of them. But him in particular.”
Equius reaches down to take your hand between his, so careful of your hurt fingers--which, you notice, he has sorted out, they’re set and splinted, it’s a talent of his--and presses warm lips to your fingertips. “I will,” he promises. “Go back to sleep, Eridan.”
“That an order?” you crack, feeling your mouth quirk up on one side.
“Call it a very insistent request.”
“Mmh. I can work with that.”
When you slide back under the water--which is not seawater, there’s none of the organic tang of water that has a great many other creatures swimming about in it and doing less presentable things, it’s very pure and just at the right salinity for you and there might possibly be a drop or two of sopor in there as well--you think you might be smiling.
You watch as he sinks back under the surface, his hair blooming in a black cloud shot through with purple, some of the lines fading from his face; and you wait until you can see his gills (oh, God, his hurt gills, how dare they, how DARE they) pulsing slowly and regularly in sleep before you get up and go through into your workroom.
When you had brought him back to your hive, brilliant with fever and smudged violet all over with his various hurts, Nepeta and Kanaya--and Karkat, yes, you can think of him as Karkat now, for some reason--had helped you prepare the bath and done necessary domestic things such as making food for the two of you. They had taken turns watching over him and pouring Kanaya’s various unspeakable mixtures down his throat until Eridan’s fever broke and you not coincidentally reached the end of your cordial tolerance for interlopers; after they had left you had not moved from his side for hours, hours, waiting to see who he would be when he woke.
Which in other words meant that you have not had an opportunity to break things in private since you got him back here. You think he’ll probably be out for a little while now, and you badly need to do this. If it weren’t for the fact that you need your hands right now and also he would undoubtedly ask questions, you’d just find a handy non-load-bearing wall and beat it into rubble with your fists, but unfortunately just at the moment you are limited to damaging things without damaging yourself.
You tie back your hair and settle at your workbench and pull over the hand and forearm of a robot you have been working on for the past several weeks. This one is designed to test a theory of yours on balance and conservation of momentum, and you have managed to get it to walk very carefully across a tautly stretched cable without falling off. You’re proud of it.
Calmly you take its little finger between your own and twist: there is a nasty little noise of metal groaning, and the finger comes to pieces in your hand.
He had looked so small. Curled in on himself, wearing only a thin pair of shorts in a freezing-cold cell, shivering in long rolling waves, he had looked up at you after you had ripped the door straight off the room and he had whimpered, wriggling away, until his great purple-black eyes had found yours and you could see recognition dawning on his face. He’d touched your cheek with burning fingertips; you’d reached for him and he had slithered out of his tight knot and clung to you as if you were a lifeline. You’d said something undoubtedly very dim and gathered him up in your arms as carefully as you could.
wrench-snap, goes the first joint of your robot’s next finger. Delicate circuitry which had taken nights to complete glitters in shards on your workbench.
As you lifted him he made a soft little sound of agony and your heart had gone cold and sick inside you and you’d snapped to Vantas to shine that bloody light over here and then you had to swallow very hard at the sight of the swollen, discolored mess of his opercula, angry violet, badly infected. Everything had gone cold and clear for you then, the way it sometimes does when you are angry beyond the normal confines of anger, and the others had kept well clear of you as you’d carried Eridan up to the deck. Feferi was climbing on board as you arrived, hair wet-sleeked to her skull, trident in hand, looking both frighteningly delicate and desperately fierce, and you had looked down at her across Eridan’s limp body draped in your arms--and felt, for once, truly in the presence of blood so much higher than your own.
She had taken in the sight of you, dirty, sweating, your clothes ripped and stained from the brief but spirited struggle with the ship’s crew (who are cooling now and who will shortly be hauled overboard to offer a midnight snack to her circling subjects), and then she looked at her erstwhile moirail, her face unreadable. After a moment she reached up in a quick graceful movement to cup a small, cold, strong hand against your cheek.
“Be good to him,” she told you, and you bowed your head, you bowed to the heiress of the seadwellers and you were bloody well honored to do so; and when she nodded to Eridan you set him down as gently as you could on the deck and you made yourself step away even though every muscle in your body fought to stay beside him.
Snap, snap, snap.
You made yourself watch, too, when she placed the lethal tines of her trident against your matesprit’s chest, and you could not see at all for almost a minute after that blaze of white-purple light shocked its way through you. You felt it in your bones, that light, like fever, like desert moonglow. She had undone the worst of the damage to his gills and the shock of the power expended made everybody's skin crawl as if lightning was near.
Snap, and a bright little sparkle of pain as the ragged edge of a crushed fingerjoint gashes your knuckle. You lick blue away from the little wound.
On the way there Vantas had been grim, almost as grim as you were, and Nepeta had stayed uncharacteristically silent. Actually swarming aboard and taking out the sentries was easy enough, knowing that you had Vriska’s help in keeping them from reacting at their usual speed. Karkat and Nepeta stopped being trolls and started being blurs of clawkind and sicklekind, and you just addressed yourself to the task of hitting bulkheads and doors until they gave way and let you through.
You have broken all your robot’s fingers; now you move on to the delicate but strong bonestruts in its forearm.
You knew where he was being held, thanks to Captor’s research and Serket’s psychic exploration. And you weren’t expecting it, that moment where all the fierce detached determination that had kept you going this far shattered at the sight of him so small in that corner.
When you could see again, Feferi had put away her weapon and was kneeling again beside Eridan, and a surge of jealousy so powerful it raised bile to your throat flushed through you before you caught sight of the blue-and-red wrapped round her wrist, and you recalled Captor’s quiet voice the night before in your hive.
It was...yes, all right, it was a relief when Vantas took charge again and gave you an order, even if it was more of a request, and you met Feferi’s eyes again for a long moment as you knelt to lift Eridan. They were huge, those eyes, faint tyrian marks around them from the goggles she’d pushed up to her forehead. Huge and bright with tears. She said nothing and you said nothing, and something in your chest had snapped and all the jealousy had rushed out of you like pent-up floodwater.
You do not know what they think of one another now, your matesprit and the heiress, but you are realizing that it does not really matter--that it is no more a thing you can influence or affect as the weather, and that it has as much effect on what Eridan feels for you. (Perhaps Vantas is right with his endless theorizing about the quadrants. You might consider listening to him one of these nights, if you are sufficiently bored and have nothing to break.)
Your robot’s arm and hand are now a neatly piled-up heap of twisted, ruined metal; ultramarine blood is oozing from any number of little cuts on your hands, and the awful squeezing helplessness in your chest is mostly gone for now. He is here with you, he is safe, he is still Eridan, and you are not without allies. Not without...friends, no matter what comes next.
now with illustration!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Eridan spends much of the next two nights and days sleeping.
You realize after a while that you have never seen him anything other than animated, even if that animation is in a thoroughly sulky and heavy-lidded foul-mouthed style; it’s wrong, upsetting, for your mercurial fashion plate to be so subdued. You keep the water flowing through your filters and pumps and monitor the temperature and the dissolved-oxygen levels and the concentration of sopor, and you watch his pale closed face under the surface, the violet-black cloud of his hair moving slightly in the current like seaweed, like lace. You watch the violet slits of his gills pulsing slowly as he breathes, the faintly pearly shine of the opercular rims catching the light now and then.
His eyelids are fragile, translucent, show the darkness of the eyes beneath.
When he does wake he smiles tiredly up at you from his bath and allows himself to be fed and dosed with things and have his healing gills examined, but he never seems interested in fighting sleep when it rises back to claim him. He doesn’t protest when you take his temperature or when you make him do the obviously uncomfortable deep-breathing exercise that’s supposed to prevent him from losing lung capacity.
Not that you have a great deal of experience in cases such as these, but his sheer passivity is beginning to worry you. When you’d sat beside the tub waiting for him to wake that first time you had wondered who he would be, what there was left of him after all those horrors, and you’d been comforted by his words. Now you are less certain.
You’re also not sure Maryam’s right about this lying in the dar...the...oh, hell, all right, the damn water. He’s had a terrible influence on your vocabulary and you ought to be ashamed, but really, can it be good for him to spend all his time soaking in a bathtub when he isn’t well? Wouldn’t sopor be better? --No, but the gill thing, presumably straight-up sopor in the respiratory system isn’t to be desired, but...you really wish you knew what you were doing. You are not used to not knowing what you are doing, mostly because you don’t do a great many things other than build robots and then break bits of them and also wash towels.
Nepeta has asked repeatedly if you need anything, if she should come over and help you care for him. You’ve told her, repeatedly, no, it’s quite all right, thanks very much but you have things under control. You aren’t actually sure, now, that you do.
It all comes to a head halfway through the third day. You’ve been sleeping in the pile you’ve hastily built in your workblock next door because your recuperacoon is all the way down the other end of the hive and you want to be nearby in case he needs something, and also responding to emergencies while covered in slime does not much appeal. You don’t sleep well without sopor, but you’d rather be available than perfectly rested, and so you wake completely and at once when a terrible bubbling wail comes from the ablution block.
It’s got to be past midday, you think, scrambling out of your pile and hurrying into the ablution block, slapping the light-switch as you go. He’s half-sitting-up in the water, hands clutching his head, and you can tell he’s having trouble with working out if he wants to be breathing water or air, spluttering and choking. Your chest hurts very badly for a moment, the way it had after he’d pulled you out of the water and saved your idiotic life, and you think you are saying naughty words as you kneel beside the tub and support him, helping him to sit up properly, rubbing his back.
With the gill-slits clear of the water he can get control of his breathing and he just droops against your hand, panting, terribly cold under your fingers. You can feel his bloodpusher thrumming violently. He’s shivering. He’s also still clutching at the bases of his horns as if he is afraid they will come off.
"Eridan," you say, and he keens softly, turning toward you with his eyes still shut. Something breaks inside your chest and you think Maryam can feel free to disapprove of your actions all she damn well likes as you scoop him out of the stupid bathtub and wrap him up in a couple of vast towels, settling on the floor with him in your lap. "Eridan. What’s wrong? What is it?"
The surprise of being hauled out of the water seems to have broken whatever fugue he’s in, and he blinks up at you. God, he’s so pale, his eyes sunk in black-violet pools. He works a hand into the wrinkly folds of your sleeping-shirt, still trembling. "Did you have a daymare?"
"N-no," he says at last. "No. Hit...my horn on something. Stupid of me. Hurts a bit."
Oh, hell. You rub at your face, disgusted with yourself. "I’m sorry. I should’ve put something on that, idiotic of me, I of all people should have known better than to let a horn injury go unprotected--"
"How...bad is it?"
"How much did they take?" He sounds a little stronger, but he also sounds as if he’s making himself ask it, steeling himself for an answer he does not want to hear.
"Oh. Not..not a great deal." You bow your head and indicate on your remaining horn roughly how much of the tip is gone from his. "Just the very tip. Which doesn’t mean it isn’t ridiculously painful, Eridan, I’m so sorry, I should have thought of that."
He makes a cross little noise and part of your mind brightens--he hasn’t shown the energy required to be cross in so long--and he presses his cold face against your shoulder. "Mmh. Shut up. ‘s all right, just...don’t...don’t go away, ‘quius. You’re warm."
"And you should not be lying in a wretched bathtub with hard surfaces to bang your poor horn into, and it cannot possibly be good for you to spend all your time soaking in cool water when you aren’t well." Your voice has gone pedantic and you know it, and you don’t care because he laughs a little into your shirt. He hasn’t let go of you.
"...you’re not slimy," he says. "You weren’t sleeping?"
"Oh, yes, I was, just in a pile next door." You stroke back the wet mass of his hair. "Which is where you are spending the rest of the day, once I see to your horn. Maryam can disagree all she likes when she sees you next."
"She’s gonna glare at you. Actually I want to see this. Glare-match. Kar and I can pop grubcorn and place bets."
Your chest isn’t hurting so much as filling with a liquid warmth that you are almost afraid of. "Gentlemen do not place wagers, Eridan."
"‘m not a gentleman, ‘m a prince," he tells your shoulder. "Princes get to do whatever they like."
"Well, princes in this case get to put on some decent if unavoidably oversized pajamas and do exactly as they are told, your highness." You kiss the top of his head. "No arguments."
"Mm. No arguments."
He is so light, so fragile, you try not to think as you carry him to your respiteblock and help him into a spare set of your things--so vastly too big for him as to make him look sort of like a squeakbeast in an awning--and as you settle him on a chair beside your worktable and start putting together a protective stall for the tip of his hurt horn. He has lost weight he did not have to spare, those days and nights of captivity. You can see his ribs far too clearly, and his cheekbones stand out like spars. It is regrettable that you are not capable of reaching into the past and snapping the necks of his tormentors more than once, because once really was not enough to make up for this.
"They don’t...grow back," he murmurs, sitting wrapped up in a blanket and staring at the floor. "Right? Yours...yours didn’t."
"It depends somewhat on the circumstances surrounding the...incident," you say and you are suddenly, terribly, aware of the air currents against your own horn stub. "A clean amputation like this is more likely to heal over smoothly and may eventually get some of the original contour back. They really only did take off the very tip, Eridan. It’s not unsightly."
He hunches in the chair. "I’ll be the judge of that."
"All right, fair enough. But it’s not really noticeable at all unless you’re looking at it side-on and you can see the flat edge. I still want to find out who did it and take theirs off myself, but when we find them that is, of course, your prerogative."
He looks up at you. "When?"
"If you do not object, I intend to pursue this further." You pull down your delicate-work tackwelder from the overhead rack and snap a series of tiny welds into the conical basketwork of springwire you’ve woven. "We can discuss it when you’re feeling better, but I am not done with those people."
Eridan says nothing, and when you’ve finished with the welds you glance over at him; his eyes are very, very bright and he swallows hard. "Yeah," he says, after a moment. "I’m not either. They weren’t after me, they wanted Fef, and...they wanted seadwellers in general."
You nod, finishing the rim of the basket with deft twists of your pliers and welding that down as well. "I gather that this is not a conspiracy which has only just arisen, nor one which could be said to be a spur-of-the-moment affair. I doubt that was the only ship out there hunting."
"The Condesce has to know about it. She has her...fingers in all the damn pies, Equius, all of them. So it’s either that she’s getting some use out of these sadistic fucks or she’s content to let them do what they’re doing because...I don’t even know why." He shivers, and you scowl at your work, giving the steel a polish to clean off flux residue.
"Neither do I. But I think it’s worth making the effort to find out." A distant part of your brain is screaming about the hemospectrum, the hemospectrum, and you tell it to belt up. It’s not a command you are used to making. "--Here. Hold very, very still and I will try not to touch the cut surface."
He flicks a glance at you but he does hold very, very still and the very stillness lets you know that he is trusting you with something that is capable of hurting him very badly. You do not breathe as you press the apex of the little basket between your fingers, spreading its rim, and guide it very carefully over the edges of his hurt horn. When it is in place you release the pressure and the basket reforms its conical shape, held gently but firmly on the horn by its own tension. Eridan gasps a little, but does not cry out, and you take your fingertips away.
"That...feels really weird," he tells you.
"Is that bad?"
"No, it’s just weird." Before you can stop him his hand flutters up to touch the new structure, which mimics the shape of the lost horntip and should hopefully prevent anything from touching the cut surface until it’s had a chance to heal a little and become less miserably sensitive. "--I need a mirror."
"You need two mirrors to get a decent look at that," you correct, with a sigh--but you can’t help being reassured. Your hive is not exactly glittering with reflective surfaces, but you do enough prosthetic work from time to time as to require a couple of basic mirrors for people to look at the new bits of themselves; after rummaging in a few drawers you hand him what he needs.
Eridan blinks at himself, turning his head this way and that, his expression unreadable.
"It’s only for a little while, you won’t have to wear that for more than a perigee, I know it’s not really what you might call elegant," you are babbling, good heavens, get hold of yourself, Zahhak.
"It’s beautiful," he says. "A little skeleton horn. You can’t, like, put jewels on it, maybe? Little amethysts here and here and here? And maybe make it out of gold instead?"
You can’t reply at first, and when he looks over at you, eyes narrowed in concern, you still can’t take your hands away from your face. "Equius?" His hand is on your shoulder, which is quivering. "Equius, what...did...what--"
He pulls your hands away from your face and you are laughing and you are also aware that there are tears involved, and he says a number of very bad words and flings his arms around you and holds you as fiercely tight as he is currently capable of, which is not very.
"I love you," you say, your voice an uneven mess. He wriggles into your lap and wraps all the way around you, clinging like a limpet, one of his fists tangled in your hair, and when he speaks you feel it as much as hear the words.
...Quhen I wes hungry, ye me fed
Quhen I was naikit, ye me cled
Oftymes ye gave me herberye
And gaif me drynk, quen, I was drye
And vesyit me with myndis meik
Quhen I wes presonar, and seik …
Sir David Lyndsay of the Mount, Ane Dialog betwix Experience and ane Courteour of the Miserabyll Estait of the World
You get Equius to let you use his husktop by dint of pestering, whining, and doing that thing where you tilt your head to one side and look up at him through your admittedly awesome eyelashes. He’s been pretty good about resisting your wiles, rumbling excuses about your state of health and his responsibilities, but you can also tell he is a troll who has not got a lot of sleep lately and you just have to push a little harder with the great big purple eyes and he breaks. "All right, all right," he’s saying. "But you are not to change any of the settings."
"I’m hurt that you would even think I’d do such a thing," you say. "Gimme."
He knows you need to talk to Fef, and he just opens the husktop and logs his way through all the layers of password protection he has on the thing and turns it toward you. "I’ll be...making coffee. Don’t stay on too long, Eridan."
You wave him away. "Course not. Go make coffee, I can handle a little interweb without collapsing, I promise."
-- caligulasAquarium (CA) began trolling cuttlefishCuller (CC) ! --
CA: hey fef
CA: i kinda need to talk to you
CA: wwhen you havve a chance i mean
CC: )(--ello, --Eridan!
CC: )(ow ar-e you f-e-eling?
CA: thanks for healin me on the ship by the wway
CA: didnt knoww you could do that
CA: but listen
CA: fef the fuckers wwho did that wwerent after me
CA: it wwas alwways you they wwanted. equius told me captor wwas all like doin his stupid hackin shit and wworked out wwhat the deal wwas and he made sure you kneww about it and they couldnt get to you
CA: so i just wwanted to say
CA: i owwe him for that
CA: thinkin theyd get to you wwas the wworst of it for me
CA: wwait fef please
CA: this is difficult as fuck for me
CA: just let me say this shit cause i dunno if i can do it twwice
CA: you guys
CA: you and sollux
CA: i hope he makes you happy cause you deservve to be fuckin happy
CA: and if he fucks that up i wwill kick his stupid coddamn bifurcated ass into next perigee
CA: tell him that from me
CA: and fef
CA: this thing wwith the bluebloods goin after seadwwellers
CA: its not gonna stop on its owwn
CC: Can I talk now?
CA: a course
CC: I was so glubbin worried aboat you, --Eridan!! You scar-ed m-e!
CC: W--e ALL were worri-ed. Karcrab wrot-e M--EMOs aboat you.
CC: And I r-e-elly think -Equius is good for you. )(-e CAR-ES. Anyon-e can sea t)(at. You two ar-e so muc)( b-etta t)(an we -ever were.
CC: I want you to know )(ow )(appy I am for you.
CC: And that you’re right. It isn’t going to go away on its own.
CA: wwhat are wwe gonna do about it
CA: wwe havve to talk i guess
CA: all of us
CA: fef its hard growwin up
CC: I know 38(
CC: it’s HARD and nobody und-erstands!
CC: but W--E ARE NOT ALON-E, --Eridan!!
CC: w-e hav-e each oth-er.
CC: R-ememb-er that.
CA: lovve you fef
CA: dont forget to tell sol im gonna wwreck his shit if he evver hurts you
CA: that is an important piece a information he needs to knoww
CA: equius is all loomin an bein like "D -- > That is enough computering Eridan" guess i better sign off
CA: but ill see you soon
CC: S-E-E YOU!! 38) 38) 38)
I went down to rescue you
I went all the way down
I went down for the remains
Sort through all your blurs and stains
Oh, I will follow you
Oh, I will come for you
Just say you don’t care
--Hole, Use Once and Destroy
Here endeth this installment. Stay tuned for a brief epilogue relevant to the interests of these characters, and thank you all for reading and for your kind comments. I appreciate you very dearly.
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From: Journal of Alternian Physiology (email@example.com)
To: L. Naghra (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Date: n15 blp3 s11208 10:14:27 -0400
Subject: Submitted Manuscript
Dear Dr. Naghra:
The Editorial Board of the Journal of Alternian Physiology has completed review of your manuscript “Preliminary Notes on Respiratory Physiology in the Amphibious “Seadwelling” Troll Subspecies”. Unfortunately, we are unable to publish your work in the Journal.
Some serious concerns arose during review of your manuscript. We understand that the work you describe represents a preliminary study only; however, as you know, Institutional Revisceratorial Board review and approval is required prior to conducting any experimental protocol on sentient species. Your manuscript did not make reference to your obtaining IRB review and approval for your study. Please advise whether you have secured this approval through the appropriate channels at your degree-granting institution.
In addition, your manuscript did not describe any specific hypothetical to be explored through experimentation. The wording you employ (“An opportunity to examine a specimen of T. hemochroma maris was presented to the authors”) would seem to indicate that your study was not planned for or conducted with an eye to a particular research question. The ethical issues raised by this are of extreme severity given the fact that T. hemochroma maris under current law is possessed of the same rights as T. hemochroma with regards to informed consent and bodily integrity.
Furthermore, the granting institution responsible for funding your work, the Institute for Blood Studies, is not an accredited grantmaking institution on the rolls of the Imperial College.
We would appreciate your response to these concerns at your earliest convenience. If this manuscript was submitted to the Journal by accident, we will be happy to withdraw it, but please be advised we are required to retain a copy for our records.
The Editorial Board
Journal of Alternian Physiology