Picture, if you will, a violet palace stretching so far, its towers are entrenched into the very streets of the low city, and its arches gleam over the heads of the common people.
Picture the stairs of sculpted stone, puzzlingly woven into an artifact of burgeoning rays, coursing through the city in a maze-like order, from the narrow streets of uneven cobblestones to the high-rising ceiling of its proudest monuments. Picture it cocooned over its people like the most precious shell, a bubble dreamed by some far-away scribe, whose clumsy sketches can only glance at the iridescent glory. Picture stained glasses of amethyst encased in molten lead, its glitter on the high windows, and the film dust and rain dulls over its cracks in the lower city.
The highest, clearest and most glorious windows sparkle, star-shaped, along the walls of the palace proper. Peek through, over the eaves. The curtains, heavy falls of velvet, are pulled close at this early hour, as if to shield the inside from a bird’s eye and the setting rays of the sun.
From the recuperacoon tucked behind a half-folded screen a young lady has emerged. She’s bright-eyed and spry despite the hour, humming under her breath as she wrings drops of sopor from the bulk of her hair, tossing it behind her shoulder when she catches a glimpse of herself in the mirror of her dressing table.
In the small hours of the evening, the wild-haired reflexion of lovely Feferi Peixes shows dark rings under her eyes, indiscreet tattle-tales that she touches with her finger. The skin feels tender, though not a bruise, more akin to the pleasant aches she delights in when she stretches. Her hair rustles, and she lets out a giggle of quiet satisfaction.
A cavernous groan echoes on the granite walls of the ‘coon, bumps against the screen, and staggers into the open room. “Fuck, don’t make that much noise.”
Few people alive dare talk to the heiress in such crude tones. Feferi calls most who do friends, but even among them, this one stands out.
“Rise and shine, glubby-pants!” Feferi sing-songs, slipping a shirt of flimsy cotton over her head.
“Isn’t royalty supposed to take things slow. Ten maids at your beck and call, and breakfast in your recuperation apparatus.”
It would facilitate the process of putting on a dress, but Feferi has learned how to do it by herself. When she's just woken up, her hair is easy to deal with, as though still sluggish with sleep, and it's child's play to keep them from snagging in the fastening of her bodice. “You're so lucky I don’t! There's a hunt this evening and I need to be there, so I have to go. You should be okay for an hour or two, but you might want to be gone before a maid comes in.”
“Fucking palace life is nothing like rumor says,” the voice says sourly.
Feferi laughs, her dress a blink of tyrian in her mirror. The brush she combs through her hair snags in a small knot for a moment, before smoothing out, a cascade of pitch locks.
“You just love to complain!” She pokes her head behind the screen. Sollux' smaller horns barely reach above the rim of the coon, and she swoops down and claims his lips, grinning. “Are you sleeping here this morn?”
He opens a sleepy eyelid, baring a golden glare that Feferi would like to keep. She would store it into a locket and wear it against her heart always. “Do I fucking look like someone who knows how the night’s gonna end. I don’t fucking know, princess, it depends on how the bees took my day off already, and if I earn enough actual real-world money to take another one.”
Sollux grouches and whines, and doesn’t lean away from her. When a lock falls from her shoulder to brush his face, he twists it, curls his finger around it. He’s warmer than she is, and warmer still, so close. She smiles against his lips. “I can give you money if you want.”
He snorts. “Trying to buy my ass already, princess?”
“Would it work?” she teases, and the long loops of her hair stumble down her shoulder, closer to him.
“You couldn’t afford me,” he deadpans. “I’m the most fucking high-maintenance genius loser this side of the Green Sun.”
When she laughs, a lock of her hair runs against him, brushes against the thin, dark lines circling his neck.
As despite his grumbling, Sollux doesn’t actually want to become a starring figure in the massive production that is the court's gossip, he skedaddles not long after.
Maybe he can believe Feferi when she swears that her carapaces servants are all devoted to her and would never indulge in gossip. Maybe he’s just being paranoid; he’s been called that before.
But in his experience, it pays to be careful where the nobility is concerned. A lowly mustard-blood pailing the princess would be playing with fire. Feferi wouldn’t be amused if something happened to him, but there are those among her friends who’d kill want to kill him first and would think about Feferi’s mood only after. He’s already becoming a familiar face to some in the court, if Lord Ampora’s distasteful glowers are any indication.
Luckily, at this hour the corridors are almost empty. The upper palace is a labyrinth, rays of purple corridors in symmetrical turns, and someone who didn’t live there – or wasn’t deeply familiar with the insides of a beehive - would probably get lost in no time.
He locates the door Feferi ushers him and ambles down the second street. Before the temple of Horroterrors he bifurcates down the narrow stairs, with both hands on each wall to keep from falling on the stone smoothed with age, then turns under the arcades that is the home to the summer market, and from then it’s four stairs and half that again of streets – each duller and more brittle than the last – before he stands in front of the door to The Pendulum.
Fishing into his pocket, he retrieves the key, and turns it into the lock. Jingling accompanies the door’s opening, without the slightest creaking from the hinges. Equius Zahhak puts his mechanical skills to good use, Sollux has to admit. He's also good for sweeping the place from times to times, and his patronage has made Aradia's creations furiously fashionable at court. She even gets orders from Prospit now.
Inside the shop, it’s a chorus of clocks, the tick-tocks of synchronized pendulums going like a monstrous heartbeat. The walls are covered in an army of cluckbeast clocks, and the wide glassy eyes of ancestor clocks.
Sollux pretty much hates it: it sounds like a war machine or like something alive, perfectly annoying and unnerving as fuck, and he generally finds an excuse to be outside when the hour strikes, because the ruckus of two thousands clocks chiming all together is kind of a heresy.
There are still a couple of hours before the shop is open to clients, but like bees, clocks never are turned off.
Sollux frowns. At this hour, the shop is supposed to be empty, but a ray of light filters under the door of the back office.
He strides to the door and yanks it open. “What the fuck are you doing at this hour, AA.”
Head bowed over the minute gears of a portable watch, Aradia doesn't even startle.
“Is it late? Oh, I didn't realize. I was waiting for my moirail, you see, and of course he would never spend the night away without telling me I should ready the first-aid kit. Maybe you've seen him? Tacky eyewear, four horns, about this tall? The skin of his neck prickled like a sieve?”
“Haha, you're hilarious.” Sollux kicks the door closed behind him, and stalks to the armchair dragged in the only corner of the room not taken over by the memento mori that are the only form of art he and Aradia agree upon. He throws himself in the chair, and notes with peeved vindication that AA looks like she hasn't got a blink of sleep. God, she can't take care of herself at all. “Bet you were just thrilled to have an excuse to stay up all day. Fiddling with stuff.”
“Maybe I just wanted to be the first to hear the news,” Aradia replies. “Breaking news,” she declares, casting her voice in the tone of town announcers, “Common low-blood found dead in the palace's courtyard, hung with his own viscera! Shows signs of erotic asphyxiation! Stay tuned!”
“AA please,” Sollux wrinkles his nose. “I thought we agreed: I don't want to know. Too much fucking information about your matesprit's unfortunate kinks.”
Aradia's mouth sets in a hard line, and she jabs the air in his direction with accusatory pliers. “Then wear a goddamn scarf. Sollux, I can see the traces all the way from here.”
Sollux' hands fly to his neck. Under his fingertips he can feel the raised and broken skin where Feferi's hair dug earlier. Oh. Well, fuck. Maybe he should have worn a scarf. Even if they're the latest in a trend of douchey fashions from the most useless courtiers.
He pauses. She's looking at him with her eyebrows half-raised in an expression that is both expectant and smug.
“You're enjoying this, aren't you.”
“No, Sollux, I'm not enjoying watching the stigmata that are the results of a day's worth of lewd activities with the fish princess who could have you filleted.”
He bares his teeth. “I meant, you're enjoying being the sensible one, for once.”
“I understand why you're such a killjoy every time I try to have fun. It feels nice. I guess it must be a quite a rush, for you.”
“Okay, that's it, I've had my chops busted enough to get me through the night. Thank you Aradia, it was nice seeing you too, now I'm heading back to see how my bees are doing and get some honey potted. Don't bother showing me the door, I know how to find it.”
She rolls her eyes. “Oh my god, sit down before you sprain your melodrama gland. The bees are fine, I was at your hive yesterday, and I need you to realign the crystals on a clock.”
“You can't sprain a gland,” Sollux grumbles, but he drops back into the chair.
It's an offer to drop the subject, and Sollux happily takes it. They don't have the most proactive moirallegiance, Aradia and he. It's mostly hanging out together and snarking at each other, and getting up in each other's business three times a night. Objectively, they're pretty terrible at stopping one another from doing stupid things, but they're always around to call the other an idiot when they're done and drag them up for their next bout of stupidity.
The thing with Feferi probably qualifies, but even when Sollux is honest with himself about how ill-advised a flirtation this is (and it's gone way past the flirtation stage already, they've filled a pail together), it still doesn't top the list of Stupid Things Sollux Did That Ought To Get Him Killed. There are those at court that'd love to see him dead for it, but he's confident in his matesprit's ability to punch them through the ribcage with a trident while he lounges behind her and snickers.
As he works, from time to time patches of his skin burn lightly, and mechanically he rubs at it, itchy like a pattern of invisible needlework across his skin.
Rooms don't have keys, in the palace.
Closets do, as do glass-cases, to protect the priceless treasures they contain. But a servant might be called out of their coon when the sun has reached its zenith, and guards need to be able to enter the royals' suites at a moment's notice, for security reasons. Even the Queen's door doesn't have a lock – and she was the one who'd stopped the past dozen of assassination attempts, and only kept her attackers alive to make examples out of them.
Instead, there are latches. It's the best substitute privacy can obtain, and so Feferi didn't give Sollux a key to her apartments, but a secret knock.
She's undoing the ribbons holding her sleeves when the rasping on her door calls her attention, and, smiling, she opens for him.
“Sollux! I'm so glad you could make it!” Then she takes in his expression, and her face changes.
“How do you even put up with me, FF? I can't even be bothered to tell you if I'm coming over or not. Fuck, I'm such a pathetic sack of shit.”
She moves the side to let him in. “Okay, Mr Grumpypants, I sea you got this pity-party started. Get the glub in and tell me what's on your two-fold mind.”
“I'm a mess,” he says, obediently following her to the dressing table, crossing his arms as she sits back down on the stool. The skinny line of his shoulders tenses, taut like the bones are going to poke through the fabric of his jacket.
He is a mess, and her heart swells in pity at the sight of it.
“No worse than my hair,” she replies. “Care to kelp me out?”
The hairbrush she holds out to him handle-first glistens with a carved tracery of ivory, more like the liturgical finery kept in the temples to the Horrorterrors than like the combs sold on the marketplace.
“If you trust me not to fuck this up,” he comments, closing his hand over the hairbrush.
“I know you won't.”
In the mirror, above the tempest of her hair, she can see his expression at the whisper when he slides his hand under the curtain of her hair to gather it whole. He brushes against her nape, warming up her neck, numbed cold where her hair is resting throughout the day. Feferi sighs. She's becoming aware of the thinness of his wrist, the thinness of his skin, and the heat of his blood underneath. She can almost feels the pulse of his blood, she fancies.
Sollux stops moving. “Feferi.”
She opens her eyes – she hadn't realized she'd closed them – and meets his gaze in the mirror, and the small smile at the corner of his lips.
“I can't brush your hair if it doesn't let me go,” he says, and to prove his words he tugs his hand to the side. True enough, a strand has already coiled tight around his wrist.
Feferi feels the blood rushing to her cheeks. “Oops. Shore-y?” she grins through her embarrassment. It takes only a flicker of will to force the lock of hair to relax and let Sollux' hand go.
He just snorts. “Yeah, shore. That was awful, by the way.”
“You know you glub it,” she counters, sighing happily.
“You got that right,” he mutters under his tone.
The brush dives into her hair, parting through it like the hull of a ship cutting through the ocean. It follows streams, explores swiftly, navigates through the currents.
In the eye of her mind, Feferi sees rows of boats leaving port, and the tentacles of the Horrorterrors reaching out for them freely.
She can feel her world expanding, tendrils of sensation coming back to life, creeping in all directions. She can feel Sollux's hands plunging tirelessly in the whorls, and the way the tentacles of her hair playfully twine, streaming between his fingers. She can feel waves rolling down as he toys back, stroking a curl that's already free, twisting another around the arm of his glasses. She can feel wisps pulling the ribbons of her bodice, undoing the buttons of Sollux' jacket.
She can feel them, sneaking deeper and deeper under the fabric of Sollux' clothing, craving for his skin, his warmth, trying to work beneath. The sounds she's making in the back of her throat, deep echoes resonating through her bones, are answered with the pumps of Sollux' heart.
Near the knuckle of his left hand forefinger, the squirming coils of her hair find a nick, and eagerly a strand winds in. Elsewhere, single hairs dig into the pores of his skin, and solid locks wrap around his limbs, his neck.
Feferi pauses, stilling the swarm's onslaught, and breathes. “Too fast?”
“Nah, it's good. Just--” she can feel him shifting in the tentacles that keep him upright. “Is your hair trying to eat me alive again?”
When he speaks, she can feel the vibrations in his throat, and when he swallows, through the collar of two spontaneous, whip-thin tresses bound tightly around his throat. Thin locks snake down his shirt and up his jaw, and the tips of a couple more are testing the furrow they made in the skin yesterday, obsessively searching for a way in.
“I think so,” she says seriously, when other tendrils slip into his waistband. “Is that a problem?”
He jolts – another tentacle has pierced the skin over a rib, and creeps inside. “Just – wanted to make sure. Oh cod,” his breath hitches, and she feels her hair getting caught in his eyelashes, stroking his eyelids. “So long as I get to eat you out later.”
He's fully ensconced in the deployed length of her hair, now, tentacles writhing snugly over him.
“Works for me,” Feferi breathes.
The brush clatters to the ground, forgotten, as they tangle with a silky hiss.