You don’t even notice that you’re doing it half the time. It’s only later, when you catch a glimpse of your reflection and see the extent of the damage—the patch of hairless scalp that’s bloomed from the base of your right horn, spreading like an infection until it meets the top of your ear, stopping just short of your hairline in the front—that you realize you’ve been pulling again.
Coarse black strands litter your desk, the spaces in between the keys on your husktop, invisible but for the faint white dot of the root along the shoulders of your black shirt. It makes you feel sick just to look at them, acid sack twisting with shame.
Shaving both sides of your head at least makes the damage look symmetrical, intentional. You stare at yourself in the mirror, itching fingers clenched around the cool porcelain rim of the mounted sanitation basin, mouth watering guiltily as you eye the fresh line of exposed roots.
Before the night is over you have to shave another inch higher on each side to even things out again.
Your lusus doesn’t really understand. Tinkerbull can pick up on your feelings, obviously, and on really bad days he knows to stick close, curled on your lap and butting his head against your hands until you busy yourself with stroking him, but the more complex intertwining of the source of your pain and the source of your comfort are beyond him.
It hurts you, so he wants you to stop.
You want to stop, but it helps you, so you can’t.
Your friends don’t even know. You quit webcamming with them as soon as the evidence of your nervous habit became visible from the front. The first time you meet up with Aradia outside of Trollian she marvels at the smoothness of your skull, the short, neat line of your mohawk, the sharp contrast between it and her own waist-length mop of adventure-tangled hair.
“You look so tough!” she gushes, fingers trialing along the few stray strands at the nape of your neck. “Like if you got in a horn fight you’re so confident that you’d win that you don’t even need any cushioning or protective covering for your ears!”
You bare your teeth in a sorry excuse for a grin, fighting the urge to throw up. “Yes, that is, uh, the look, I was going for. A confident haircut for, um, a confident troll.”
Vriska smirks at you like she can see straight through your skull and all the fragile, self-preserving layers you’ve managed to pull around yourself. She chastises your every move, mockingly dissects every wanting part of you: your clothes, your body, your low-class accent and hesitant speech pattern, your pathetic excuse for a personality. If this was a text-based roleplay you’d spend the downtime between turns fretfully picking at your scabs and whatever thin, colorless hairs have managed to escape the expert probing of your fingertips, but it isn’t. You tighten your hold on your lance and portable communicator, palms slick with sweat.
Gamzee catches you at it, once, almost a perigee after your accident. You’ve been less than conscious for much of that time, rarely leaving your recuperacoon as the sopor and your body work to repair what they can and stabilize what they can’t. Some of your hair has grown back—more evenly on the left, sporadically on the much-abused right—and now that you’re out of your sopor-suspended stupor with nothing to take your frustration out on but your four-wheeled device and the parts of you that can still feel pain you start pulling again with a frenzy.
You’re watching a movie together on your husktop, your broken body arranged carefully on a pile of plushes and dirty clothes, the room dark but for the blue glow of the screen. Even though you feel safe here, protected, flanked by the dark, Gamzee’s cool, bony frame, and the warmer lump of Tinkerbull against your side your hand drifts upward to pet along the side of your face, the thick prickle of your eyebrows, the softer contrast of your lashes, the now-alien sensation of fuzz flanking the un-geled flop of your mohawk.
The first pull stings, but only a little. The next pull is better, a short tug and the faintest of clicks as the hair is plucked from its follicle, and the next—
A hand closes suddenly around your wrist, pulling it away.
“Tavbro, what the motherfuck’re you doing?”
You blink, unaware how deep in your own head you were until you were yanked abruptly back to reality. Gamzee’s face is twisted into a puzzled frown, and you flush to realize that he saw you, he saw you, and why is he looking at you like that, why won’t he let go of your hand…
A spike of something black cuts briefly through your embarrassment, but you quickly drown it in remorse.
He doesn’t fight you when you twist your hand away.
“Nothing,” you say, eyes boring blindly into the screen in front of you. You rub restlessly at the knees of your jeans, trying to relieve some of the tingling tension in your fingers, burn out the rapid, fluttery feeling in your thorax. “It’s nothing.”
He doesn’t mention it again. You don’t think that he’s forgotten, not judging by the way he chews his lip sometimes when he looks at you, but it’s like he doesn’t know how to approach it and so settles on trying to cheer you up in other ways, rap battles and idle gossip and optimistic musings on the motherfucking miraculous wonders of the world around you.
You appreciate the effort, even if it doesn’t always work.
You barely pull at all during the Game.
You’re kind of too busy trying not to die, plus Vriska’s there dogging determinedly at your heels. While she’s made broad hints about knowing exactly what it is you do when the world gets too bright and anxious the thought of her actually seeing you do it is too mortifying to even contemplate.
Then some really awful things happen, and you’d rather sleep and sleep until nothing feels quite real anymore. And then you’re kind of dead for a while, which isn’t so bad, because a lot of the things that make you pull aren’t there to hurt you.
But nothing really lasts forever.
You come back. A little older than you were before, a little better than you’ve been in a long time. A little. On good days you almost forget about it completely, the thrill of your new friendships still so fresh and gleaming that it eclipses just about everything else. It makes the bad days feel all the worse, in comparison, like the part of you bent on distraction via self destruction has to work doubletime to make up for the lull of recovery. But most days exist somewhere in between, all too aware of how tenuous of a balance it is and cautious to dole out optimism for the future.
Still, despite everything, you’re getting better.
One day at a time, you’re getting better.
-- adiosToreador [AT] began trolling turntechGodhead [TG] at 21:37 --
AT: i WOULD LIKE, iF I MAY,
AT: tO TAKE YOU, oN A STRANGE JOURNEY,
AT: aND BY STRANGE JOURNEY I MEAN, uHH,
AT: bESIDES AN OBVIOUS REFERENCE TO ONE OF THE FEW OF YOUR HUMAN MOVIES,
AT: tHAT MAKES ANY SENSE, lIKE, aT ALL,
AT: aN OUTING, oF SORTS, tO THE FINEST OF ALL YOU CAN CONSUME, fOR A REASONABLE COVER CHARGE, bUFFETS,
AT: aND BY YOU I MEAN, yOUR AUDITORY RECEPTIVE TUBULES,
AT: pROVIDED THEY ARE CLEAN AND, dEVOID OF WAX,
AT: sO I MIGHT SERVE THEM PLATTER AFTER STEAMING PLATTER OF SUPERIOR CULLINARY GRUBFEASTS,
AT: aND BY THAT I MEAN,
AT: yET ANOTHER MUSICAL TRACK CHOSEN FOR YOU,
AT: bY YOURS TRULY, iE, mYSELF,
TG: what the fresh fuck am i listening to
AT: sO DO YOU, uH, lIKE IT,
TG: like it
TG: it is the most godawful thing
TG: no joke the gravest of insults to ever have ever been heard by any being living or dead
TG: theres no baseline just a tiny dude standing in my ear canal with one white glove off smacking at my eardrum over and over and over again
TG: this miniscule aristocratic piece of shit is challenging me to a duel and not taking no for an answer
TG: the strings are all over the place and scratchy as all hell
TG: its like a goddamn cricket orgy in an echoey subway station
TG: while the downtown express is rumbling by stuffed full of overpaid day trader assholes all wailing on each other with their overstuffed briefcases
TG: that’s the horn section btw
TG: and in the meantime some fucker on lead vocals is strangling a duck in front of the mike oops i mean doing some bizarre mix of throat and scat singing in alternian that probably requires two voice boxes to pull off properly much less improperly like this technicolor trainwreck of tortured time signatures
TG: all in all its an absolute horrorshow
TG: i fucking love it
AT: i KNEW YOU WOULD, };)
TG: seriously though bro what the fuck is this its wacked as balls
AT: iT’S A CLASSIC OF ANCIENT SLAM POETRY,
TG: it sounds like opera
AT: iT IS, uH, oPERA,
TG: lol figures
TG: i cant say that im surprised what with the horns and all makes sense that would be something all yall were into
AT: i DON’T REALLY UNDERSTAND THAT REFERENCE, aT ALL, aND CAN ONLY ASSUME THAT IT HAS SOMETHING TO DO WITH, uM, tHE COSTUMING TRADITIONS, aSSOCIATED WITH YOUR HUMAN VERSION OF THE GENRE,
AT: bUT THEN AGAIN, lIKE I’VE SAID BEFORE, i DON’T REALLY UNDERSTAND WHY HUMANS CONSIDER OPERA AND SLAM POETRY,
AT: oR RAP, aS YOU CALL IT,
AT: bECAUSE SLAM POETRY IS ALSO SOMETHING HUMANS HAVE, bUT DIFFERENT,
AT: wHY YOU CONSIDER THEM, sO RADICALLY DIFFERENT,
TG: is that why you sent this to me
TG: i mean other than as a vicious attack on my most precious of possessions referring to of course the perfect porcelain conch shells slapped onto the side of my face
TG: you challenging me to a rap battle bronhildr
AT: iT WOULD BE FAIR TO SAY,
AT: tHAT MY INTENTIONS WERE, lESS THAN PURE,
AT: wHEN IT CAME TO THE POSSIBILITY OF DUELING RHYME MODI, i MEAN,
TG: well shit son lets not beat around the bush any longer
TG: mike check one two one two a/s/l/preferred tempo
TG: how about we pull something from this sick piece of culture youve seen fit to share with the class
AT: sOUNDS GOOD, tO ME,
AT: uH, i MEAN,
AT: iF YOU INSIST, tHAT THIS TRYST,
AT: sHOULD CONSIST, oF A LIST,
AT: iNG OF ALL YOUR MANY FAILURES,
AT: dON’T EXPECT ME TO BE BAILING,
AT: yOU OUT WHEN THE BEAT,
AT: kNOCKS YOU RIGHT, oFF YOUR FEET,
AT: iT’S ELITE, fRESH FROM THE STREET,
AT: rATTLE YOU RIGHT DOWN TO YOUR MEAT,
AT: tIL YOU BLEAT OUT IN DEFEAT,
TG: tav my man thats a good play on words but
TG: to be frank it aint nothing ive not heard like
TG: a million times already though ill grant your flows steady
TG: enough for a troll who wants to climb my pole now
TG: lay back little grub while i step up like dub and
TG: serve you a cup of shut the fuck up
TG: this shits fresh from the teat
TG: now hows that for a bleat
AT: wHEN THIS ORAL TRADITION,
AT: lEADS TO YOUR AURAL ATTRITION,
AT: mAYBE YOU’LL START TO LISTEN,
AT: sTEAD OF FLAPPING YOUR DENTITION,
AT: sERIOUSLY, ALL I’M HEARING, fROM YOUR JAW,
AT: iS SOME BULLSHIT “blah blah blah”,
AT: dON’T YOU HAVE ANYTHING, uH, BETTER,
TG: my bro you say you want better well
TG: prepare for an onslaught of red letters cause
TG: this shit here just got real here’s the deal hope you feel
TG: down for some real crushing shit the kind
TG: of rhyme that leaves you spitting out
TG: all the teeth i just knocked loose
TG: refuting your mouth-spewn refuse
TG: sorry in advance that you thought you had a chance and
TG: sorry if my flow settles deep and starts to grow shooting
TG: sprouts of self-doubt that knock you right the fuck out leave you
TG: staring at your reflection lost deep in introspection
TG: as you tear at your hair wondering “wHERE, dID I,
TG: uH, gO WRONG,”
AT: wHAT DID YOU JUST,
TG: here’s a hint me to you don’t take so long to respond dude
TG: it just give the other guy time to think but
TG: if you shoot back in a blink then
TG: your rhymesll be fresher no pressure just imparting
TG: whats up dude not like you to up and call time out mid battle
AT: i JUST,
AT: fUCK, }:(
AT: tHAT WAS, a PRETTY TERRIBLE THING TO SAY,
AT: wHAT YOU SAID,
AT: jUST THEN, aND,
AT: wHOEVER TOLD YOU, aBOUT THAT, iS PRETTY TERRIBLE, tOO
TG: told me about what
-- adiosToreador [AT] ceased trolling turntechGodhead [TG] at 22:51--
--adiosToreador [AT] logged off at 22:51--
TG: no seriously i
TG: what the hell
-- turntechGodhead [TG] began pestering adiosToreador [AT] at 2:04--
TG: shit shit shit i am the biggest fuckup and king insensitive douchebag of all new skia
TG: tavros i am so fucking sorry
TG: you dont have to respond or anything i just
TG: i hope youre okay
-- turntechGodhead [TG] ceased pestering adiosToreador [AT] at 2:39--