Chapter 1: In Which Equius Drives The Tiniest Car and Orange Creamsicle Is Introduced
Equius changed down with a crunch and a wince, the Metro’s clapped-out gearbox rattling as he turned onto Locas Drive. Already the powdered whiteness of the pear-trees was giving way to new green; it had rained last night and the pavement was littered with tiny round white petals in drifts like dry snow.
He pulled up in front of the clinic in the no-parking zone and dutifully turned on his hazards, a conscientious motorist. “Have a nice day,” he said. “Remember I’m going to pick Eridan up from the theater after work, so I’ll be a bit late.”
Nepeta leaned over to kiss him on the cheek, which--as usual--made him blush and scowl fiercely. “It’s okay, today’s one of the adoption days, I’m gonna have tons of stuff to keep me out of trouble. And I know, I know, no more adopting for me, even if they are super cute. Like laser-focused cuteness. I will be strong.”
“You had better be. I’m still in mourning for that scarf your latest acquisition savaged. --Go on, get out of here, I’ll be late.”
“Love you,” Nepeta piped, blew him another kiss, and hauled herself out of the car--this was a production every time, the passenger door-handle had been replaced with a bit of cord you yanked on to get it open--and waited, as usual, until he was out of sight before going inside the clinic. There had been a Simpsons episode from one of the way early seasons which always came to mind when she saw Equius and Equius’s shitty car in close proximity: Do you find something comical about my appearance when I am driving my automobile?
He’d tried to teach her to drive stick in the Metro and had given up the second time she’d been reduced to tears; not that it really mattered much, since she was nowhere near in a financial position to get hold of her own car. Nepeta considered herself one of Nature’s moochers of rides.
She beamed at Rosa, their clinic manager, sitting behind the front desk. “Morning! Equius is gonna be late picking me up so I can help out with the adoption thing this afternoon. Did the news guy call back to say whether they’d be there?”
“He did. We should have a cameraman and whatever newsperson they can spare swinging by around four-thirty. Remind me to tell Dr. D that he needs to attempt to smile if he shows up on camera. I have no illusions about whether he’ll manage, but he ought at least to make the attempt.”
“Oh, jeez. Yeah. Hopefully nobody will say anything stupid.” Nepeta made a face. “At least not while the news people are around. Oh boy. Is he here yet?”
“He called a minute ago, he’s changing a flat tire. --What?”
She couldn’t help giggling. Driving shitty cars was a trait Equius shared with his half-uncle, along with the scowl, the hair, and the height. “Nothing. I better go get stuff ready for him, he’s likely to be in a super excellent mood when he gets in. Woe betide anyone who hasn’t got the computers up or the cabinets stocked, right?”
Rosa smiled up at her. “I got the coffee started, you needn’t worry about that at least.”
“You are the best,” Nepeta said firmly, and scuttled off to change into scrubs and get ready.
She had been working for Dr. D for...three years now? Maybe three and a bit? At first it had been a favor to Equius, letting his dorky vet-tech-student housemate extern at the clinic, but she had been pretty good at the job even back then. When she’d graduated from the program he had offered her the job at once. Whenever Nepeta had had sufficient to drink she’d drape on Equius and tell him in great length and detail just what a huge stroke of luck it had been for her, meeting him during orientation week: not only had she gotten a housemate, a kickass externship, and now a job out of the deal, she got to look at twice the shinyhair every day, plus Equius and his boyfriend were so insanely adorable together--at which point he tended to scoop her up and carry her to bed, muttering grim imprecations.
Dr. D was pretty chill about stuff like playing music in the lab and having dorky posters around, but he drew the line at adorable Hello Kitty print scrubs, so Nepeta had to make do with boring old green. As she bustled around stocking up the various disposables--gloves, drapes, packaged syringes, catheters, venipuncture kits--she hoped again that the adoption open day would go smoothly and that nobody would say anything too dumb in Darkleer’s hearing. She’d only just started the externship shadowing him when she witnessed her first declawing rant, and Rosa had had to take her aside and calm her down afterward and reassure her that he didn’t do that all the time and he wasn’t going to do it to her.
Since then she’d gotten somewhat adept at sensing lines of conversation with clients that were likely to lead to a telling-off--anything with the word “vegan” in it as applied to carnivores, for example, or a statement that a pet wasn’t going to be neutered because a lack of canine testicle reflected poorly on its owner’s own virility--and was getting better at steering the discussion in safer directions. “It’s not good business, making people cry,” Rosa had told him after one particularly wrathful interview. “It tends to make them not want to give you any money, or come back to give you money in the future. Also they tell their friends.”
Darkleer had folded his arms and looked thunderously at her. “I will not compromise my principles for the sake of retaining a client with the ethics of a cone-snail,” he had said, and then sighed, pushing his little rectangular specs back into place. “Very well. I’ll make an effort to use simpler words next time. --Who’s next?”
Business had gone on as usual. Nepeta was aware that he hadn’t had a good shout at anybody in a while, and that they were probably due for one, especially if he’d already had a lousy car-related morning. She just hoped they could get it over with before the adoption people and the news arrived. And that Kanaya was scheduled to work this afternoon. Between Rosa and Kanaya they ought to be able to smooth over any PR disasters.
As it happened he wasn’t as irritable as they’d feared when he finally did arrive (and spent ten minutes cleaning oil and road-dirt off his hands in the scrub sink). “I’ve been expecting it,” he said as Nepeta fetched him a towel. “Finally an excuse to make the ridiculous outlay of funds worth it for a new set of tires. Do not ever drive on one of those donut spare things, Nepeta. It’s bad for the nerves.”
She had to laugh. “I can’t drive, Doc. You know that, it’s like a thing, I catch rides wherever I go. But we are all really trying super hard to not say we told you so, okay?”
“Then I appreciate your restraint,” said Darkleer, flipping the towel over his shoulder and straightening his glasses. “What’s on the schedule for this morning?”
She had it ready. “You have a spay at nine, approximately 9-month-old cat recently adopted from The Other Shelter, note to check out a possible growth on left ear while you’re at it; we blocked off two hours for that, just in case. Then a Jack Russell with entropion and a bunch of scheduled vax appointments. Mrs. P wants to bring Tricki back in because he’s--” she checked the notes from the call recording--”listless. John called her back and asked if she wanted to make an appointment and she apparently changed her mind.”
Darkleer had been nodding throughout this recitation. “Ugh. If I had a parking voucher for every time she’s tried to get in here with a non-emergency non-appointment I wouldn’t have half the tickets I still need to pay this month. Set up for the spay and see if you can get Rosa in here to help out, I want you on anesthesia and I need another set of hands as well.”
“You got it,” Nepeta said, saluting him, and did not watch him disappear into the changing-room to get his scrubs on despite the fact that it wasn’t a bad view by any standard; the glossy braid of his hair reached almost to the small of his back, absolutely pristine, as it always was. She wished she knew how he managed that, whether he had some kind of small hair-specific magic powers or if he was just genetically blessed beyond all reason, because even Equius’s hair didn’t stay that perfectly put even when she braided it properly for him. Not that he let her all that often.
Get over it, Nep, she could hear him say in her head, and she grinned and trotted off to ask Rosa if she could assist. Their newest intern, a high-school kid named John Egbert, had just arrived, all grins and derpy glasses and long rather capable fingers on the reception-desk computer, and he assured the pair of them he could manage whatever the morning decided to chuck at them.
She knew, rationally, that it wasn’t all that common to feel pure satisfaction in your job, more often than not. And she didn’t want to jinx anything by pointing this out to the universe.
The spay turned out to be a non-starter. Not for the first time Nepeta thought really naughty words at The Other Shelter, who had a hell of a track record for this kind of thing; they’d apparently adopted out a young cat far enough along in her pregnancy that Darkleer didn’t feel comfortable doing the spay/abortion at this point. She was extremely grateful to Rosa for being the one to go back out to the front and have a quiet word with the owner while Darkleer said a lot of unprofessional things under his breath and she prepped what turned out to be a really simple aural hematoma for lancing and dressing.
Their patient, a total sweetheart of an orange tabby with big golden eyes, barely even stopped purring when they had to infiltrate her ear with local, or when Darkleer set in a few very careful stitches to make sure the ear healed smoothly. Nepeta couldn’t help petting her despite her boss’s sidelong look, and had to restrain the cat from bashing her face into their hands as soon as they stopped fussing at her ear. “You are a precious,” she crooned. “Such a precious. Man, the Other Shelter gets like sixty more demerits for this.”
“More like a hundred. No guarantee the owner’s going to want to take on the responsibility of caring for this cat and her kittens; we’ll be lucky if she doesn’t end up here instead.”
Purrrrrr, went their patient, and bonked her hard furry little forehead against his fingertips, anonymous and unappealing in purple nitrile. Nepeta caught the brief moment when his face stopped being a studied blank and took on a passably human expression of charm; she’d seen it before, of course, hundreds of times, but it never stopped being worth looking at. He sighed and rubbed the cat under her narrow triangular chin, eliciting further storms of delighted purring.
“Am I interrupting?” Rosa smiled from the doorway. “Do you want the good news or the bad news first?”
“Always bad.” Darkleer took his hand away and stepped back from the table; the cat had to turn her attentions to Nepeta instead.
“Okay. The owner is going to take care of...ah, Orange Creamsicle here...throughout the rest of her pregnancy, but she can’t take in all the kittens as well and wants to ask if we could maaaybe shoulder that responsibility when they arrive, as she has no intention of taking them to The Other Shelter.”
“Hm. Could be worse. Did you tell her all the things she’ll have to watch out for, how much she’s agreeing to do?”
“What do you take me for?” Rosa scowled at him for a brief moment, but had to laugh. “Better still, although she can’t give...what did you say, five kittens?...homes, she does have a couple friends who may be able to help foster them when they arrive. Nice girl, really. Seems to have a sensible head on her shoulders.”
“What’s this paragon’s name?” Darkleer stripped off his gloves, tossing them into the red bin. “I ought to speak with her.”
“Aradia Megido.” Rosa double-checked the name against the patient record she was holding. “Also, she wants to know if there’s anything that can legally be done about The Other Shelter being a bunch of unprincipled jerks about this sort of thing.”
Nepeta, cuddling Creamsicle, could’ve sworn her boss grinned for a moment there. Trick of the light, she thought, fending off an ecstatic paw. Had to be.
Chapter 2: In Which Eridan And Equius Discuss Theater And Darkleer Hatches Plans
Eridan was sitting outside on the low brick wall in front of the theater building when Equius pulled up, smoking a black cigarette no-hands and reading something with the single-minded purpose that he almost never applied to studying. The familiar rattle of the Metro’s engine roused him, however, and he hopped off the wall and grabbed his messenger bag and fairly flew down the steps to meet Equius--who had been expecting it but nevertheless staggered slightly as a hundred and thirty pounds of college senior hit him in the chest.
“I got it!” Eridan was saying, eyes manic with violet excitement. “I got it, I got it, Eq, I fuckin got it, they posted the cast list today, I’m fuckin Portia.”
Equius couldn’t help a laugh. “I don’t know if I’m okay with opening up our relationship--”
“The part, jerkface, the fuckin lead, oh, God, this is the best fuckin day ever.” He bonked his face against Equius’s collarbone, shivering with excitement, and did a bit of unashamed clinging--to the audible appreciation of a couple of underclassman girls passing, which made the tips of Equius’s ears go bright pink. “Fuck. I can’t believe this, it’s only what I’ve been hoping for this entire fuckin year, I didn’t think Halvordhen would actually go through with the whole genderbent thing but she totally cast Harley as Bassanio, this is going to rock so incredibly hard, take me out and buy me gross gooshy Chinese at once to celebrate.”
“I have to collect Nepeta,” Equius pointed out.
“So take us both out for gross gooshy Chinese. I know for a fact she fuckin loves kung pao chicken.”
“As you wish,” he said, and kissed the top of Eridan’s head (more awws from onlookers) right in the middle of his stiff-gelled purple streak. Eridan squawked and wriggled free to check the hairstyle damage in one of the Metro’s wingmirrors, and Equius couldn’t help laughing even as he climbed in and leaned over to open the door for him. “You’re going to have to dye that back, aren’t you?”
“Hair-marauder,” Eridan said, flopping into the seat and sliding it back along the runners. He was mostly leg, at least a foot taller than Nepeta, and they spent more time than was strictly necessary fighting over who got to adjust the passenger seat. “Yeah, probably, but I can just use a semipermanent glaze. Come to think of it the character’s canonically supposed to be blonde--”her sunny locks/Hang on her temples like a golden fleece, and many Jasons come in quest of her”--so I might be able to get away with a wig instead.”
“I don’t know whether you’d look good as a blonde,” Equius told him, stirring around until he located first gear, and then yelped as Eridan punched him in the shoulder, grinning.
“Of course I would. I could totally rock the golden-fleece look, I’m a fuckin paragon of pulchritude, jesus. Ye of little fuckin faith.”
“Mea culpa. When do rehearsals start?”
“Next week. I’m gonna be here from...fuck, eight in the morning till maybe seven-thirty, eight, every other day. Augh, how am I even gonna do homework, this is nuts.”
“You never do do homework,” Equius pointed out.
“Yeah I do! Just...not very often. I can get the bus home, you don’t have to make a special trip to come out and get me after rehearsals.”
“Nonsense.” Equius glanced over, eyes a flash of dark brown behind his sunglasses. “Of course I’ll pick you up, and we can collect dinner on the way back. You hate the bus.”
“I hate the bus,” Eridan agreed, and let his head droop back to the headrest, comfortably closing his eyes. “And you are the best boyfriend.”
“It is me.”
Equius had to park down the block from the clinic rather than in his usual space near the front doors because of the unexpected presence of a news van, microwave mast extended.
“What the hell?” Eridan peered at it (he was going to have to wear his contacts for the play, too, Equius thought, unless Belmont heiresses generally went around in great big ironic sixties hornrims) and absently patted at his hair, an automatic reaction in the presence--or even assumed presence--of cameras. “Your uncle flip out and throttle somebody at long last?”
“Half-uncle,” Equius corrected. “I doubt it. Nepeta said something about adoption days, it’s probably a warm fuzzy human-interest segment in the making. --If you hurry you might not only get to pet some adorable kittens but you’ll get yourself on TV sandwiched between Hot Pockets advertising and the mayor’s new plot to raise the beverage tax.”
Eridan flipped him off, elaborately, with both hands, before clambering out of the Metro’s open window and hurrying off to see what he could see. Equius followed at a more sedate pace, hoping that in fact none of the kittens were sufficiently cute to get Nepeta seriously interested in adopting even more pets. They were up to three cats and two rats at the moment, and sometimes he was convinced he spent more time caring for their menagerie than for his human companions.
“--and so yeah, we just try and help find homes for these guys,” a cheerful and familiar voice was saying. “It’s tough for some of these animals, you know? Like, this guy, his name’s Marty, he’s an older cat and he’s black all over, he’s been with us for almost a year.” She was holding what appeared to be a puddle of black fur, shining brown in the bright TV-camera light, and Equius didn’t have to see her face to know her expression as she tickled an unseen cat-chin. “Say hi, Marty--see, there, yeah, he has the best eyes. So we have these adoption days once a month, it’s on our Facebook, that’s facebook dot com slash Aurthour Memorial Clinic, people can follow us on there and get updates on how these guys are doing and how they can help us through volunteering or donations or just spreading the word.”
Equius had to give the clinic credit: having Nepeta be their spokesperson was a shrewd move, her sheer enthusiasm and transparent happiness at doing what she loved probably spoke volumes more than Darkleer’s auto-glower. The TV lady was asking her something; he nudged gently through the gathered crowd of people to get a better view. Eridan was already well-entrenched, standing within the camera’s field of view with a look of casual interest on his face and his attention ostensibly focused on the girl in the scrubs.
“In addition to which,” said a much deeper voice, “we’re interested in raising awareness about animal welfare in this city in general.”
Darkleer’s specs were photogrey, and while they didn’t work tremendously well they did react to bright light like the kind the crew was shining on their subject: instead of little rectangular librarian glasses he appeared to be wearing a stylin’ pair of shades. Equius pulled his own off hurriedly and tucked them into a pocket, watching as his half-uncle joined Nepeta, holding a cat of his own. The effect had vague supervillain overtones, except for the fact that the cat wasn’t white or hairless and was, in fact, trying really hard to push its face under his chin, heedless of the bandage on one ear. He could hear the purring.
“I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to spay and neuter your pets. I’d like to introduce Orange Creamsicle to the viewers,” Darkleer went on, poker-face immaculate. “Now, she came in today because she’s lucky enough to have been adopted from a shelter by a responsible young lady--but I’m afraid I wasn’t able to perform the surgery, as she is already expecting. So we’ve decided to highlight the importance of this problem by setting up a campaign to raise financial support for Ms. Creamsicle and her kittens’ care. Hopefully we’ll be able to find them loving homes when they arrive, along with all the other pets waiting to be adopted.”
Nepeta took over again. “We’ll be posting pictures and updates on Facebook and on our website at www.aurthourmemorial.com, so be sure to check back and see how she’s doing.”
“That’s all the time we have,” said the TV personage. “Thanks very much for being with us today, Dr. Darkleer, Ms. Leijon, all of you. Live at the Aurthour Memorial Veterinary Clinic, I’m Candice Wilson with WPRK News at Five.”
The lights clicked off and the guy with the boom mic hefted it away from the little group. Equius watched as they divested various people of lapel mics and packed up equipment, the crowd drifting away as the excitement was apparently over.
Nepeta spied him as soon as she was free of wires and sticky-tape, and handed her armful of sleepy black cat over to Rosa in favor of bouncing over and flinging her arms around his neck. “Oh my god did you see that? I was on TV!”
“You were on TV,” he agreed, lifting her easily off the ground. “So was Eridan, by the way. He’s probably going to cry when he realizes you were in focus instead of him, it’s a tragedy. --So was Dr. D. I was not expecting that.”
“It’s all part of a sneaky plot,” Nepeta said, wriggling. “He and Rosa and Ms. Megido--she’s the girl who adopted Creamsicle and brought her in for the spay--cooked it up between them and I’m not allowed to tell you any details.”
“Understood,” said Equius, and set her down. “Are you pretty much all done here, or...?”
“Oh, yeah, just let me get changed and log out of the system, I don’t wanna keep you and Eri waiting. Where’d he go?”
“Just talking to the news guys,” Eridan said, rejoining them. “Nep, you are so fuckin cute it is illegal, you know that? Felony-level illegal. Also, your boss has really good hair.”
“I know, right?” Nepeta gave him a hug of his own. “It’s the best hair. We think he keeps it like that with sorcery.”
Equius groaned and put his sunglasses back on, grateful for the familiar shield they offered. “Can you guys not gush over him, please? As a personal favor? --Eridan, tell her your news.”
“Oh! I got the part, Nep, I totally fuckin got the part, you called it.” He beamed at her, for once looking exactly his age and not in the least ironic. “You’re lookin’ at Portia.”
Nepeta squealed and flung herself at Eridan in another, even less inhibited, hug. “Oh my god oh my god oh my god that is so awesome you are gonna be amazing and eeeee!”
“That’s what I said,” Eridan agreed happily, cuddling her. “Jerkface over there says I won’t look good as a blonde, but what the hell does he know, he wears grey cargo shorts every single day and styles his hair with a rubber band. I made him agree to take us out for Chinese to celebrate.”
“Oh my god even more,” she squeaked, and Equius wondered absently if it was possible to give yourself a heart attack from being too adorably excited. Probably not. “I’ll be right back, you guys!”
When she’d bounced off to go change into her street clothes and presumably squeal at all her coworkers as well, Equius put an arm around his boyfriend and rested his chin on the top of Eridan’s head. “So, not a bad Tuesday,” he said. “All things considered.”
-- turntechGodhead (TG) began pestering timaeusTestified (TT) ! --
TG: get your freaky ass alien wrinklecat out of my face
TG: i cannot fucking deal with this shit
TT: He likes you.
TT: Just roll with it, little man. Be cool.
TG: i cannot be fucking cool
TG: i am trapped on the couch
TG: with hairless cat nads in close proximity to my face
TG: what about this situation strikes you as remotely close to being cool
TT: Smuppet's just being friendly.
TT: You'll break his little wrinkly peachfuzz heart, bein' all harsh like that, bro.
TT: Also he's probably cold, dude should be wearing one of his sweaters.
TG: oh my god
TG: you are the worst fucking strider in the history of striders
TG: you make sweaters for your cat
TG: thats it
TG: all cool is lost
TG: fuck it
TG: brb moving to like
TG: the least cool place on earth
TG: like fucking iowa or some shit
TG: gonna raise a cow
-- timaeusTestified (TT) has posted the following Away message: Haters gonna hate. --
Chapter 3: In Which Nothing Really Happens But Dave Complains A Lot
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
It was fun watching Equius and Eridan together.
Well, okay, fun was one word. Adorable was a more accurate one. Eridan took up far more space than he strictly needed while Equius made every possible effort to littlefy himself; Eridan loved the sound of his own voice to distraction and would gladly take any opportunity to start declaiming either rants about whatever was on the top of his mind at the moment or chunks of whatever play he was studying, whereas Equius embodied the platonic ideal of Strong & Silent. By the laws of all romcoms, they were fucking perfect for each other. The only way it could be any more perfect was if they’d started off as mortal enemies.
She’d been relegated to the tiny not-a-back-seat shelf of the Metro on the way over and was very likely to be so relegated on the way home, and had yowled plaintively about this enough to get both of them to agree to let her have their fortune cookies. Now, settled in a red vinyl booth at the Lucky Dragon and slurping on a strawberry daiquiri, she watched Eridan reenacting bits of his successful audition, complete with theatrical chopstick-gestures. She remembered the argument the two of them had had about chopsticks back when they’d first been dating, and had to grin.
“You know it’s pointless,” Equius had said. “There are two kinds of people in the world: chopstick-users and non-chopstick-users. Find out which one you are, and be that.”
“...I cannot fuckin believe you just misquoted Dead Again to me, you utter philistine,” Eridan had retorted, and leaned over to twitch the implements out of his hands. “Look. It’s simple. It’s simple as fuck. You can do shit like build robots, there is no reason you shouldn’t be able to wield a damn chopstick.”
“You’re wasting your time,” he’d said, but sighed and let Eridan manhandle his fingers into position. The moment Eridan had taken his hands away the cheap wood broke with an audible, sad little snap. “I told you so.”
“You did that on purpose,” Eridan had retorted. “I repeat, uncultured philistine. Bah. I wash my fuckin hands of you, you’re hopeless.”
“And you are an officious purple-haired busybody with a terrible vocabulary,” he’d said, and wrapped a long arm around Eridan’s shoulders. That had seemed to settle the matter to everybody’s satisfaction, and ever since then it had been Eridan who casually asked for a fork with absolutely no comment from either of them.
(Similarly, it was always Equius who asked for cutlery when they were at pizza joints, despite the fact that he preferred to hoover up pizza slices by hand with such precise determination as to avoid getting any grease on his fingers. Eridan was the only person Nepeta had ever seen consume pizza with a knife and fork. It was oddly mesmerizing to watch.)
“--and so Harley just cut right in and gave Bassanio’s line with this fuckin perfect timing, I swear that’s what made Halvordhen cast her, it was so fuckin sweet you have no idea...oh fuck, Eq, look, it’s me, I’m on TV.”
The Lucky Dragon was the type of restaurant that provided TV sets to amuse its patrons with the current baseball score or updates on what celebrity was divorcing whom; now, from where they sat, three different screens in three different shitty color misalignments were re-showing the segment from earlier in the day. The focus of the cameras was, of course, on Nepeta, but Eridan in his violet-black-blue ensemble definitely caught the eye, and at one point to his eternal gratification the camera slid into focus on his beautiful bespectacled face. He was watching, rapt, while Nepeta hid behind her hands and peeked through her fingers.
Wow. Darkleer’s hair looked just as good on shitty TVs as it did in real life. She’d have to remember that.
At this auspicious moment their waitress arrived and everybody had to pretend they had been seriously considering their decisions on what to order, but they didn’t pretend for very long. All of them had been here enough times to know exactly what they wanted.
“--oh and can I get a fork too?” Eridan added absently, making a self-deprecating face. On him self-deprecating looked probably more vulnerable than he realized, Nepeta thought, and then caught herself. This was Eridan. He knew exactly how vulnerable he looked. She had to grin.
“You guys are so--”
“If you say “cute” I am going to do something terrible to you,” Equius promised. She rolled her eyes. “I am not cute. I am a large and powerful individual with an engineering degree.”
“Who is fuckin adorable,” Eridan put in. “Sorry, babe, but she’s right. Pointless to deny what’s fuckin objective fact. Anyway, Nep, now you got me all curious again, what are you and Dr. Shinyhair plottin’ about? You got that in-cahoots look in your eyes.”
“I totally can’t tell you,” she said, making a face. “I was sworn to secrecy.”
“Seriously? Man, this has got to be fuckin epic. The conspiracy theorists are gonna have a ball figuring out the mystery of the vet clinic plot.”
Nepeta kicked him under the table, sticking out her tongue, and ignored his yelp. “Shut up, Eri, this is actually important. Kind of. In the long run.”
“C’mon, throw me a bone here,” he said, and waggled his eyebrows at her in the most ridiculous leer she’d ever seen, and she cracked the hell up. At this point their food arrived, and she was far too busy giggling and scooping things onto her plate to say anything about the throwing of bones for some little time.
Goddamn did she love this place. The food was totally Americanized, as far away from genuine Chinese cuisine as possible, and probably unbelievably bad for you--but it was also delicious, and they’d come here often enough to celebrate various milestones that she automatically associated it with wonderful things. The other place they hung out was the trying-to-be-ironic-but-just-managing-comfortable coffee shop where Eridan had an on-again, off-again part time job; just outside campus, the Grounds was both conveniently located and possessed of free wifi, so it was always well populated, mostly with people she liked. Nepeta sighed happily, supremely content with the universe at the present moment.
She slowly became aware that both of the boys were looking at her; then they glanced at one another with a knowing sort of expression. “What?”
“You,” Equius said.
“Might actually out-adorable this dude, Nep. I know it’s a tough act to follow but fuckin-A you are just beamin’ out the cute rays over there. You look like a kitten.”
She could feel the blush. “Shut up, Eridan, I do not.”
“You look like a kitten which has just gotten to murder something,” Equius corrected, solemnly, and that made her crack up again. He turned his attention to Eridan. “--Finish your rice, you’re too thin.”
“Pff. I am not too thin, I am a sculpted fuckin masterpiece of slender grace is what I am,” he said, flipping his boyfriend off, but he did reapply himself to the rice. “Anyway, now that we’ve all been like appropriately awed by my magnificent achievements and Nep’s refused to tell us her secrets I guess it’s down to you, Eq. How was your day?”
“Uneventful.” Equius consumed more fried rice, ignoring both of them watching him.
Eridan prodded him in the shoulder. “Oh, c’mon, man.”
“Uneventful until an unprovoked brutal assault from Eridan Ampora,” he clarified. “I’m being abused. This is an abusive relationship.”
“Fuckin right it is,” Eridan said, prodding him again. “Come oooooon, I wanna hear about what you do all day.”
“You know what I do. I’m an electrical engineer and when I’m not doing that I’m painfully slowly working on another couple of degrees. Mostly it involves fixing problems other people have caused through inattention or plain old stupidity.”
“But you see some crazy cool shit, right?”
“I see a lot of very interesting things, some of which might be classified as “crazy cool shit,” but the majority of those are also dangerous and potentially destructive.”
“...You intended that pun.”
Nepeta watched them, smiling. She’d known Equius long enough now to be aware that pretty much nobody else in the whole world was capable of getting him to look the way he looked now, half-smiling and helplessly fond. To everybody else his expression was somewhere on a spectrum between grim and disinterested. Except her, but, well.
The sense of deep personal satisfaction with the universe wasn’t going away.
Not terribly far from the Lucky Dragon, a tall gangly kid in a blue tee-shirt with a pizza box under his arm trotted up the last flight of stairs to an apartment-building landing and leaned on the doorbell. The elevator was broken and this happened to be the thirteenth floor, but he didn’t appear to be in the least out of breath.
After a minute or two the door opened. “Sup, Egbert, about time you got here.”
“Nice to see you too, Dave,” said John Egbert, and handed over the pizza box, bumping his friend’s outstretched fist with his own.
The Striders’ apartment was...interesting, to say the least. Furniture tended to be of the cinderblock-and-plank type except for the futon facing an enormous flatscreen TV and the beanbag chairs scattered around; also scattered around were a number of plush creatures with noticeably protuberant noses and buttocks. Swords hung on the walls among posters of various movies, some of which John absolutely knew Dave liked unironically despite the fact that he’d never admit this under torture. It was one of the things about Dave that always made John smile, in a kind of exasperated way.
His best friend carried the pizza box into the apartment’s excuse for a kitchen. “Bro!” he yelled. “Egbert brought food, come out and get it before it’s gone! --So what the fuck, man, I saw you on the news. Just for a second, but it was totally you. They were doing some lame-ass spot about that place you’re interning.”
“Oh! Yeah, that was pretty cool. Dr. D has these adoption days where people can come and get to know some of the dogs and cats at our shelter, and the news people were all like “let’s film one, it’ll fill up space” and we went “hell yeah” and so they came over and asked a bunch of questions.”
Dave quirked a pale eyebrow, only just visible above his habitual aviator shades. “Who’s that chick who was gushing at the camera?”
“That’s Nepeta, she’s the main vet tech. She’s pretty awesome, even if she does kind of like anime a hell of a lot.”
Facepalm. “I knew you were gonna say that, man. Fuck. So you work with a weeaboo and a dude who looks like Elrond joined a biker gang? Egbert, I am disappoint.”
John managed not to choke on his pizza at the Elrond crack, but only barely. “Oh my god I am never gonna forget you said that. If I start laughing hysterically tomorrow at work when I look at him and I get kicked out of this internship I am going to kill you, Dave. And my dad and my teachers might kill you as well.”
“It would be doing you a gigantic favor. You should be doing something way more awesome, like that screenwriting thing you were thinking about. You would kick ass at that. Bro!”
“Cool your tits, little man,” his brother Dirk’s voice, muffled, came through the wall. “I heard you.”
“I don’t even fucking want to know what he’s doing in there. Building robots or fighting them with shitty swords. Or those goddamn puppets.”
“Your bro is awesome, whatever,” John said, waving this away. “And the screenwriter program sounded cool but it kind of cost a ton of money to get in and eh, the clinic’s pretty sweet if you don’t think Elrond thoughts. Anyhow, what are you gonna do for the internship? Sucks that that thing with the sound engineer fell through.”
“Wow, Egbert, you are like the absolute master of tact and thoughtfulness. That thing with the sound engineer was only the internship I’d been looking forward to for like ever, it’s totes no big that it fell through at the last minute and now I’m gonna be stuck doing some bullshit like, I dunno, working at the local radio station or something.”
“I’m sorry, man. I know you’re bummed. But maybe the radio station won’t totally suck? I mean, you could sneak some of your mixes on the air or something!”
“Are you ever anything other than sickeningly optimistic?” Dave forestalled an answer, raising a hand in defeat. “Fuck, it was rhetorical. This is good pizza.” From him this was a tacit thank-you.
“Came from the new place right by the bus stop,” he agreed through a mouthful. When Dirk appeared, hair perfectly sculpted into anime spikes, hilarious triangular shades as always hiding his eyes, John waved. “Hey, Dirk. I got the pineapple stuff on half of it.”
“You are an excellent person, John Egbert, and you will go far in this life. I foresee it.”
Dirk sat down at the table and for the first time John realized that the pinkish drapey thing around his neck wasn’t a towel.
The thing opened a pair of enormous yellow-green eyes and went mrrrow at him, and John couldn’t help laughing. “What is that?”
“It’s his fucking alien wrinklecat monstrosity,” Dave said. “It’s new. Like, last week new. You have no idea how much of a living hell that thing has already made my existence, John. It’s like Li’l Cal only with cat nads.”
“Oh my god. Oh my god that’s a sphynx, isn’t it? --He? I never actually saw one before.” John was staring in wide-eyed fascination. Dirk grinned a pointy grin and scooped the creature off his shoulders. Across the table, Dave slumped down until his forehead rested on the table and groaned.
“His name’s Smuppet. I was actually gonna remember to ask you, you work at that vet place, you taking new patients?”
“Smuppet,” John repeated, and giggled. “Oh my god. Um. Yeah, course we are. Does he have his shots?”
“I don’t know, that’s the thing. I just kinda found him the other day. I was getting ready to leave after a gig over at Rise, and he’d crawled up into one of my car’s wheel wells and was just kinda sitting there shivering. Little dude was freezing, I couldn’t leave him there.” He rubbed behind one of the cat’s absurd bat-ears with a finger. “No collar or anything. I put notices up on facebook and shit, but nobody’s said anything about claiming him.”
Groan, from Dave.
“I think little bro over there is jealous,” Dirk said, solemnly, and got a pair of Strider-brand middle fingers in response. “Eat your pizza before it goes cold, kiddo.”
“Fuck you,” Dave said, but he did resume pizza consumption. “Fuck you and also go die. Which goes for you too, Egbert, I was counting on you to back me up on this, jesus fuck I am the only sane man in this entire fucking apartment.”
“Can I hold him?”
“Sure thing. Watch his claws, he’s kinda pointy.”
John squeaked as he gathered Smuppet into his arms. “Oh my god! He’s fuzzy! Like a peach, oh, man, peachcat, dude, that is awesome.” He got a bonk under the chin from a triangular skull for his trouble, and squeaked again, petting his armful of weirdness. “Wow, he’s totally friendly, Dirk.”
“He is a cuddleslut and proud of it,” and Dirk sounded proud as well. “I just hope that doesn’t mean he’s already someone else’s pet. Would kind of suck to have to give him up.”
“No it wouldn’t.”
“He’s so warm,” John marvelled, ignoring Dave. The cat’s skin was incredibly soft, baby-soft, delicate. “--That’s cause he has like no fur to insulate him, right?”
“Right. So I made some sweaters for him.”
“Augh.” Dave leaned back in the chair with an expression of pained defeat on his face. “Fuck. I give up. John, you better tell everyone I’m dead, there’s no coming back from an experience this uncool. This goes way past ironic into like anti-ironic. It’s the dark fucking matter of irony. My brother makes sweaters for his cat.”
“Dave, you’re being super dramatic about this,” John said cheerfully. “What you need is a good movie to, like, soothe your fucked-up nerves. Just so happens I brought...”
“Do not say Con Air. Do not say Con Air. Do not say Con Air.”
“Con Air,” John finished, grinning, and only squeaked a little when Smuppet’s claws tightened in his shirt.
“I hate you, Egbert,” Dave said, reaching over to punch him in the shoulder. “So goddamn much. Okay, fuck, if we’re doing this let’s do it.”
“We’re making it happen,” John told him seriously, and detached Smuppet from his shirt carefully. “Dirk, just call the clinic tomorrow, we should be able to fit him in. Nepeta is going to go nuts over this guy.” He handed over the cat and scribbled the clinic’s number on a sticky-note. “Also if he’s been microchipped or whatever they might be able to figure out if he has an owner or not. I kinda hope not, he’s awesome.”
Dirk let Smuppet swarm up his chest to reassume his draped-towel posture. “You and me both, Egbert. Thanks for the number. And the pizza.”
The thing about Rise, John would recall later, just as he prepared for bed, the thing you had to remember about Rise was that it was located in a part of town that Dirk was definitely a bad enough dude to venture into but that he, personally, would not. Sure, DJing at Rise was pretty much guaranteed to pull in almost twice what he’d get at a club like By Northwest or Fever, but you also had to factor in the whole seriously scary people aspect.
Sphynx cats weren’t common strays. They were also super-expensive, John remembered someone saying at the clinic.
Super-expensive pet running around loose in area known to be territory of the kind of guys who’d totally buy super-expensive pets for the fuck of it. The kind of guys who maybe ran a bit of a pharmaceutical business in their copious spare time and were real fond of firearms.
He looked across his room at the phone on his desk. It was late, Dave was probably either asleep or playing video games, probably this was nothing he even needed to point out to either of the Striders. Dirk knew this shit, of course, he had to, he was one of the scariest-smart people John had ever met, and John was a derp: this was just derpitude talking.
After a long moment he climbed into bed without calling, but he couldn’t quite shake the uneasiness; it followed him, eventually, down into dreams.
So this got long. I promise actual plot will show up shortly, other than herp derp everyone is fucking adorable. Probably Dirk is not going to get on a drug kingpin's bad books (not that they have any other sort) for unintentionally stealing his wrinklecat, no matter what John worries at 11:30 pm.
Also, Dave's Elrond line is borrowed from the wonderful Ask Drunk Darkleer tumblr, which everyone ought to go read right now.
Chapter 4: In Which Darkleer Does Not Shout Despite Severe Provocation
I am so sorry, Mr. Herriot. I am so very sorry and yet I couldn't not do this.
“And that, ladies and gentlemen,” said Darkleer, finishing the last throw of a suture knot, “is how we do that. Very tidy job indeed, if I say so myself.”
“We kinda cheated,” Nepeta pointed out, adjusting gas mixtures on the anesthesia machine. “I mean, normally we have to spend like ten minutes with the clippers before you can even get started. This little guy came pre-prepared.”
“You make a valid point, but I maintain I am still incredibly good at this. All right, let’s finish up and get...hell, is this poor animal’s name really Smuppet?--into recovery. You’ll want the spaceblankets, he’s--”
“--lacking in insulation, yeah,” Nepeta finished, and then glanced apologetically at her boss. For some reason he didn’t jump on the interruption, just nodded, and she pointed her attention firmly at bringing their patient carefully back to consciousness. Although the clinic wasn’t luxurious by any means, their equipment had kept pace with the rapidly increasing sophistication of both human and animal medical technology, and the anesthesia machine she was using was pretty gosh-darn nifty. “Gases look good, BP and pulse rate are steady. --Yeah, there, he’s coming back. Hey, little guy, you did great.”
Darkleer had a quick look at his reflexes, at the readouts on the machine, and nodded. He snapped off the purple gloves. “Good. Nice and stable. Put him on the standard postop analgesia protocol and keep an eye on him until he’s completely over the sedation. What’s up next?”
“Mrs. P,” she said, not without a certain unworthy flicker of satisfaction at the look on his face. “She wants to consult with you again.”
“Does she,” Darkleer said, and rubbed at the bridge of his nose. “I suppose it was an act of purest optimism in the first place to imagine that the last time we spoke actually registered with her. Very well, I’ll deal with Mrs. Pumphrey on my own.”
Every veterinary practice (every medical practice of any stripe, for that matter) had at least one long-term pain-in-the-ass like Mrs. Pumphrey. She was a lady of a certain age, economic bracket, and entitlement level who either consciously or unconsciously assumed that her demands took precedence on everybody’s schedule, no matter what they might have in hand already. She owned an elderly and obese Pekingese suffering under the name of Tricki-Woo, about whom she had built the most astonishing series of what Nepeta would probably call real-person fanfic.
According to Mrs. P, Tricki had a ‘blog network’ of thousands of friends around the globe, all hanging on his every mysteriously typed phrase; he spoke fluent Mandarin and Cantonese which of course she was unable to translate, being only a little acquainted with French; he was terribly sensitive to emotional stress and went through agonies whenever frowned at. It was only through the vivid memory of Rosa’s lectures that Darkleer was able to restrain himself from shouting at her every time she came out with a quoted bon mot of Tricki’s creation.
Also the patience of a saint, of course. That went without saying.
He put on his white coat, hooked his stethoscope round his neck (absently flipping the heavy braid out of the way) and went to get this over with.
Mrs. P was leaning on the reception desk with the furry lump of Tricki cradled in her arms, heedless of the dog hair he was getting all over her cream cashmere scarf, and lecturing poor little Egbert about the necessity of catering to the nobility of high-strung canine princelings. Darkleer could tell the kid’s eyes were beginning to glaze over, not unreasonably, and he leaned in the doorway and cleared his throat.
“Ah, Mrs. Pumphrey,” he said. “I understand you wanted me to examine Tricki-Woo. Come this way, please.”
“There you are, Doctor.” She followed him and he could feel the stares of the other people in the waiting area--and not for the first time wondered whether he could honestly justify referring Tricki to one of his local colleagues on the strength of their being better skilled in patient empathy or something similarly implausible. Probably not.
She set the dog down on the examining table and began to rattle off a list of his most recent symptoms--lassitude, lack of interest in his activities, what she was describing as the onset of a crise de nerfs--while he got on with the business of having a proper look at Tricki. It had been....oh, dear, only about a week and a half since this poor creature had been in here on this very table for a thoroughly explicable stomach upset brought on by the apparent consumption of most of a cannoli. How the hell Tricki stayed as healthy as he did was something of a clinical puzzle.
“What have you been feeding him since we last spoke?”
“Oh, just his usual, he has his chicken and his veal and he does get so bored with that so he has a little cake and some biscuits, and he absolutely adores smoked salmon and...”
“Mrs. Pumphrey,” Darkleer said, straightening up and hooking the stethoscope back round his neck, “I know you must recall what I said to you last time you brought him in. It’s not been a fortnight. And I know we have discussed this every single time you bring him here. Tricki is a carnivore. That means he eats meat, not cake, not cannoli, not biscuits, not tiramisu, not baked ziti, and not butterscotch mousse. And by meat I don’t mean General Tso’s chicken. I’m really not sure what it is you’d like me to say.”
She gave him a wounded, helpless look. “But Doctor, he has such a refined palate...”
“He’s a dog. They will eat anything they can get their paws on, whether or not it actually turns out to be edible.” Damn, the edge was creeping back into his voice. He closed his eyes and leaned on the edge of the table, and realized Tricki was (listlessly) licking his fingertips.
“But can you do anything for him?”
Darkleer sighed. “I can tell you again that if you want him to have as healthy, happy, and long a life as possible, you need to cut out the people food. I can recommend--I think I may already have done so, but I can recommend several excellent brands of gourmet food that not only contain what he actually needs to be eating but are sourced from very high-quality organic ingredients.”
“Organic,” she repeated. “Well, he does like the Trader Joe’s cupcakes we sometimes get...”
“No cupcakes.” He had been absently stroking the little dog’s ears while he tried to put together words in a sentence that would not cause her to run away crying but might get the point across. “No confectionery of any sort. Look--”
An idea occurred to him, and despite the mental cringe accompanying it he thought it might be worth a try. “Look, Mrs. Pumphrey. Tricki-Woo is a very special dog, as I know you’re aware. That means that in order for him to reach his true potential he needs special treatment.”
She was watching him raptly. “Go on.”
“What you’ve been giving him--sweets, fattening foods, empty carbohydrates--just aren’t what he needs. I know you want the best for him.”
Little intent nod.
“So I’ve decided to consult with a colleague of mine to come up with a specific diet for him. It won’t be easy switching over, but you need to take responsibility for his well-being. This won’t work for any other dog, it’ll be specifically tailored to his exact needs. I can only do this with your help, Mrs. Pumphrey. If you’re not a hundred per cent on board with this, I can’t proceed.”
Tricki wriggled on the table to get his attention, and Darkleer went on tickling behind his hilarious pointy ears while he explained to Mrs. Pumphrey that this special Tricki-centric diet would require her to keep an exact log of everything he ate. She looked almost embarrassingly eager to take on even more obsessive fussing over her dog; he just hoped he could steer the obsession into less destructive channels. When she asked about his chakras and whether her acupressurist ought to see him, Darkleer counted mentally to ten before giving her a little nod. “Complementary and nontraditional medicine is not my area of expertise, but I doubt the attention of your acupressurist will do any harm. The main thing is to follow the diet plan precisely. Do you think you can manage?”
“For Tricki, Doctor, I would do anything.” She scooped the Pekingese up into her arms and cooed delightedly into his little scrunched foxlike face. “Wouldn’t I? Tricki knows how special he is, yes he does.”
“...Splendid.” Darkleer was beginning to wonder if the big bottle in Rosa’s desk had any Advil left in it. “Then I’ll make the call to my colleague and we can begin working on the plan for Tricki. As soon as we have it completed I will call you to discuss what you’ll need to prepare.”
“Thank you so much, Doctor,” she said, fervently. He escorted her out, reassuring her that yes, he would call, yes, they would be working on it straight away, yes, everything would be quite all right, yes, thank you, right, have a nice day, er, yes, good-bye Tricki.
Rosa had been watching this little production enfold from the desk with Egbert, and when the clinic door closed behind Mrs. P she turned to look at him, opening her desk drawer. “Two?”
“Three, I think. Thank you, Rosa.”
Thank God nobody was waiting to be seen; he could use a minute or two to settle himself down. He took the three tablets Rosa offered him with a grimace of appreciation and retreated to his tiny cubicle of an office and the drawerful of executive-squeezy-stress-balls he kept for post-Pumphrey sessions. After really bad ones he would go through three or four, simply destroying the squidgy foam with the intensity of his grip. He got them in bulk from various drug manufacturers, cheap freebie takeaways of the sort that exist only to remind you of a company logo. This might end up being a three-squeezy-ball morning.
Had he known that the moment Mrs. Pumphrey got back to her condominium with her precious charge, a new post on Tricki’s blog would go up detailing his Doctor’s Orders and the Official Holistic Wellness Plan his wonderful physician Darkleer was creating specifically for him, it would have become an unprecedented six-ball morning.