He’d slept on and off all morning, having had a miserable night of feverish coughing and very little rest; dimly he was aware of people doing things outside the room, feet passing in the hall, busy-ness, and dismissed it from the shores of his consciousness as unimportant. If he could just...stay like this, mostly-asleep, not really dreaming, he might manage to bear it a little longer.
He was pretty sure he couldn’t go on much longer, though, not like this, scoured thin by the ravages of illness and neglect; he felt evanescent, translucent, bright as a blade with his fever, and it was only the thought that soon enough he would feel nothing at all that gave him any peace inside all the pain.
Which is why Eridan was so cross at Karkat Vantas when the asshole threw open the door and hauled Gamzee into the room, muttering steadily in an undertone. “--Do you mind?”
“Bite me, Ampora. --Gamzee, hey, check it out, it’s your fucking bed, how about you sit down on it and try not to, like, dissolve or whatever while I go fetch tall-dark-and-sweaty?”
“Whoa,” Gamzee was saying, leaning half-draped on Vantas like an ungainly stork, and after a moment or two Vantas was able to detach him from his shoulder and let Gamzee flop uncoordinatedly down to the bed. “Whoa. How’d I get here?”
“You walked. I use the term exceedingly loosely. Don’t fucking die, okay? I mean it.”
“Okay, Karbro,” Gamzee said obediently, and then caught sight of his roommate lying propped against his pillows, hands clasped on his chest, glaring at the pair of them with vitriolic dislike. “Hey, man, check it out, shit, I was totally in the john being all up and motherfucking sick as shit and now I’m here, I think Karbro fuckin’ teleported me or something.”
Karkat had already stalked off, probably for the best.
“Would you shut up?” Eridan groaned, covering his aching eyes with one hand. “I’m tryin to expire with some fuckin dignity over here, jesus christ.”
“Oh, okay, bro,” said Gamzee, nodding seriously. “My bad.”
“Ugh. Just shut up.” Eridan’s cough shook him unmercifully and he really wished he were in a better bed than this one, with more pillows, maybe some brocade curtains or something, carved pillars; his last memories would be of acoustic ceiling tiles and institutional crackly mattress covers, which lacked the dignity he felt he deserved. When he could breathe again he lay back gasping, hands pressing his chest, utterly exhausted and hanging on to life and breath by the barest of threads.
He had only just begun to drift again in the light doze of the desperately ill when the door opened again, this time for Zahhak, who had his stethoscope with him and what looked like charts. Ugh. Couldn’t the vast wretch see he was beyond cure?
Perhaps Zahhak could, because he sat on the edge of Gamzee’s bed instead of Eridan’s and started talking to him in a rumbling undertone. Eridan let his eyes close again, the room blurred and dim without his glasses, and could hear the mattress shifting as Gamzee sat up and had his chest and back listened to and his temperature taken--yes, there was the beep--and the scribbling of Zahhak’s biro on the chart. As Eridan’s skin had grown desperately sensitive and even the touch of silk pajamas rasped him like sandpaper, so had his sense of hearing become miserably acute; any little noise disturbed him terribly. Couldn’t Zahhak write more quietly?
Eridan shifted unhappily under his covers, wishing they’d moved him to a single room, wishing that a lot, and allowed himself a tiny moan.
Gamzee was saying something. “--you should maybe check on Eribro--wait, no, man, don’t do that, forget I said a thing, motherfucker wants to get his expire on all peaceful-like. Got to respect a brother’s wishes.”
“That’s very thoughtful of you,” Zahhak told him, and Eridan was sure he could hear a sneer in the edge of the words. It was just like his life, really, to end itself here in the care of someone like Equius Zahhak, who hadn’t the slightest concept of a bedside manner. God, he wanted Nyquil or something, anything to send him back to fucking sleep, ugh, this place was a fascist snake pit and nobody would even bother to see how hard it was on someone sensitive and aesthetic such as himself.
The door opened again, closed. Zahhak was gone.
No one cared for him.
It was sad, or it would be if Eridan hadn’t burned with fever long enough to feel little by way of emotion; that slow creeping fire had eaten away at him for days now, days, and there was almost nothing left. He turned his face to the wall.
And was almost asleep again when the door opened again and Zahhak was back, ugh, really? Eridan moaned again ever so softly and squeezed his eyes shut.
“Here,” he was saying. “Take these and drink the rest of the water, and rest. I’ll check in on you in a while, okay?”
Pills rattled in a dose cup. Gamzee was silent for a moment or two before slurring something about how that was motherfucking rad as all shit.
“Language, Mr. Makara.”
“Aw, shit, man, I’m fuckin’ sorry, it just slips out, you know?”
There was a sigh; Eridan thought it was probably a Zahhak sort of sigh. “Never mind. Just go to sleep, Gamzee. Are you warm enough?”
“...could use another blanket, maybe,” and Eridan had to fight down unwilling sympathy for his roommate.
“I’ll fetch you one.” The bed creaked: presumably he was standing up. Eridan waited for him to leave again, waited to be left alone with Gamzee--who he really hoped had gotten over being sick, Eridan was not at all sure he would be able to avoid joining him if the guy started that up again--but oh, hell, now his bed creaked and the mattress shifted under him as Zahhak’s bulk descended. “Mr. Ampora.”
“Mr. Ampora, I do know you’re awake.”
“Go away,” he rasped. “Leave me alone. I want to be alone.”
“Not in the cards, I’m afraid. Sit up, please, I need to listen to your lungs.”
“Why? What use is it? Go away and let me have some peace, I hate all of you, I just want to be allowed a little fuckin peace in dyin.”
“You are not dying,” said Zahhak. “I would know. Sit up, please.”
“You don’t know that. I’m delicate.” Still, he knew Zahhak would bodily haul him upright if he didn’t comply, and with another moan he forced himself to sit up. Zahhak’s stethoscope moved over his back under the violet pajama shirt, cold rings against his flushed skin. The deep breaths he was instructed to take set off his cough, of course, and he curled over in misery at how utterly undignified it all had to look.
“You’ve been doing more of that recently,” Zahhak was saying. “--Say aah.”
Eridan sent his mind away to a more beautiful and sad and elegant realm and let Zahhak manhandle him, biddably opening his mouth for the nurse to shine a penlight at the back of his throat, holding still for cool fingertips to touch and gauge the swelling in the glands under the angles of his jaw. “Mm,” Zahhak said, without elaborating, and then popped the Welch-Allyn thermometer’s probe in his mouth before Eridan could protest.
It was impossible at this angle to see the readout when the thing beeped, even if he craned his neck. Probably Zahhak didn’t want him to know just how bad it was. That was a kindness, even if it was a pointless one.
Zahhak let him lie back down and he drooped against his pillows, eyes mostly closed, wishing either that his hair were longer so it could slip down the pillows like rain or that it would spread out nicely in a dark halo; he had a feeling it was just sort of sweaty and lank.
“You are not dying,” Zahhak said again. “Nobody is dying on this ward. You are on the mend, Mr. Ampora, and while I don’t think you’re quite well enough to get up and go back to normal activities I do recommend you try to stop the unnecessary coughing, it’s only irritating your throat. I’ll bring you something for that.”
“I am dying,” Eridan spat, staring up at him with unfocused violet eyes that had to be glittering with fever. “You don’t know me. You don’t know anything about me. I could...I could...I could fade far away into the forest dim right now for all you know.”
Blurrily he could see Zahhak pinching the bridge of his nose.
“--Whoa,” Gamzee said. “Shit is straight-up poetic, my brother. What forest would that up and be?”
“It’s Keats,” he snapped. “Ugh. If I have to die I should so much rather do it on my own, I don’t need an audience.”
“I think that may be the single most astonishing thing I’ve heard all day,” Zahhak told him.
“I don’t fuckin doubt it.” Eridan rubbed at his face. “Wait. No. Actually. You know what, Zahhak? It’s fuckin fittin that I should think a that poem just right at this very minute. Cause this place? This place is in it.”
“What poem is that, man?”
“Fuckin’....Ode to a Nightingale,” Eridan said wearily. “It’s crazy accurate. Listen.
...That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
And with thee fade away into the forest dim:
Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan
“...see, i fuckin told you it was apposite...
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
And leaden-eyed despairs,
Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.
“That’s this place.” He closed his eyes, breathing hard, one hand to his chest. “This fuckin place. Men sit and hear each other groan.”
“I don’t think it’s in the brochure,” Zahhak said, but there was some faint hint of amusement in his voice. “But I’m sorry, Mr. Ampora, you will have to resign yourself to gracing this world a little longer, Keats or no Keats.”
“I have no desire to.”
“But,” said Gamzee. “But. You can’t die, bro, I just remembered! What’s gonna happen to Gam’zan?”
He let his hand fall limply to the bedclothes. “I leave the story to you, Gamzee. You have to carry on.”
“But I can’t write for shit, bro!” Oh, heavens, he sounded distressed. Nobody had sounded distressed over Eridan in ages now. Weakly he turned his head on the pillows to look at his roommate, who appeared actually invested in the conversation. “You just gotta get better!”
Eridan swallowed. Nobody had said that. Nobody had said anything like that, just...dealt with him. He was just another case.
Gamzee looked pleading, or Eridan thought he did without his glasses. “You mean it?”
“Course I motherfuckin’ mean it, man! You gotta finish that story, shit is amazing.”
He let his eyes drift shut again, suddenly tired beyond all bearing. “Well. For you. I’ll try.”
There was silence for a beat, two beats, and then Zahhak got off the bed. “That’s enough. In fact that’s vastly more than enough. Mr. Makara, you are to rest; I’ll bring you another blanket, and do not encourage him. Mr. Ampora, please stop discussing your desire for death, it’s the sort of thing I need to report to Dr. Pyrope and she’s working from home at the moment. I’m ordering you some throat lozenges.”
He underlined something twice on the chart clipboard and closed it with finality. “Try and get some more sleep, both of you.”
Eridan blinked up at him. He felt...odd, as if something had changed, but he wasn’t up to working out what it was; only that perhaps he could bear this a little longer, to finish his work and make sure Gamzee wasn’t left without closure on the story he was creating.
When Zahhak came back a little later with blankets for Gamzee and honey-lemon cough drops for Eridan he almost smiled up at the guy, and was surprised at himself.