In the nights when gods still walked Alternia and had not yet retreated to their high mountaintops to play Ghost Master and call Anubis a furry, there lived a gorgon girl who was known as Aradia. She made her nest in an abandoned temple, the oracle of which had long ago faffed off for fairer digs; and there she abided for unknowable years, keeping to her high mountainside where trees grew up through broken stone.
It was a nice enough place to lead a life of dread solitude. Aradia, however, had not always been a confusing mixture of monster and maid, and she still occasionally craved the company of her erstwhile species. Hard enough to make friends if your hair is trying to make friends also; harder yet if-- moved to fury by your untimely transformation at the hands of an itinerant goddess-- you vandalize all of her local shrines, and then proceed to talk a lot about corpse parties to every passer-by who isn’t instantly carbon-frozen by your unholy stare.
Still, it could have been worse. And in the catacombs beneath the temple there were cadavers aplenty, along with an abundance of glowing moss. The atmosphere was in every meaningful respect as partylike as you could wish for, and it was there that Aradia spent her nights, slithering through dank corridors to murmur cheerful nothings to the skulls.
What she did not realize was that her field trips to the human outpost below had not gone unmarked. The survivors might have been content to lick their wounds and petition their mythical insurance companies for bonuses, but on her return the goddess went into a fiery sulk, and wished revenge on her long ago victim.
In that place she was called ~ATHena, although in southern climes they worshipped her as Vriska, and Vriska she had been born. She was the goddess of luck, and war, and turning people unexpectedly into spiders, and many other things besides, but when she saw what Aradia had done to her shrines, she felt disinclined to go and pursue retribution directly.
First she thought to send one of the mortal boys she had long favored, a princeling on whom she had bestowed any number of extremely stylish winged sandals. But she soon discovered a flaw in that plan: the instant he laid eyes upon his target he would turn straight-away to rock, and never fly for her or anyone again.
Vriska cursed the night she had ever thought it would be super cool and hilarious to add that as a clause of gorgonhood, and moved on. She would have to find a different kind of champion.
She settled on a beekeeper, blind as a statue but hopelessly brave.
His name was Sollux. He was habitually irreverent, which most beekeepers are; the constant threat of having an itch in that one spot between your shoulderblades, and/or a fatal allergic reaction, can push the fear of god right out of you. He had dabbled before in the sacred writings of ~ATHena, but then Poseridan, lord of the sea, had ripped out his eyes. Now he stuck to the safe, gentle work of housing things with stingers as long again as their heads.
When Vriska came to him, he was sitting in his garden, surrounded by the bees. They crawled over his shoulders like black velvet and clouded the air around his narrow skull.
“Sup,” he said. He talked like a man who was used to being more precise about his words than he now needed to be.
“Man,” said Vriska, deciding to start with her best foot forward, “that Poseridan. What a douche! Am I right?”
The beekeeper turned his head so that she could see his eye sockets, which in the sunlight were a dark dark red.
“Oh my god, seriously? Do they not teach you icebreakers in deity school?”
“Usually I stick to ‘Look what I can do!’,” Vriska admitted. “But, well, in your case...”
“Thank you so much,” said Sollux. “What do you want?”
“I need you to kill something for me,” said the goddess, and smiled a brilliant smile.
“With what,” said Sollux, “my death glare?”
“It is pretty intimidating for something that’s 100% glare-free,” Vriska told him cheerfully. “But no! I’ll supply you with the weapon and the trail mix and everythiiing. All you have to do is use them.”
Sollux looked contemplative. For about two seconds.
“No,” he said.
He folded his arms. "Nope. I reject your job offer. I am kicking that shit to the curb.”
“Don’t be stupid,” said Vriska, with a trace of uncertainty. She was not frequently denied. The last time it had happened, she'd turned the denier into a grotesque reptilian creature, but even she could see that repeating that approach here might be counterproductive.
“I’m not being stupid,” said Sollux. “I’m being logical.”
“I haven’t even told you what I want you to kill!” snapped the Lady of Light.
“You want me to kill the gorgon because I’m blind and you’re a dumbshit who thinks that just because I’m invulnerable to actual deathglares, I’m also impervious to snakebite and tree roots.”
“I was going to fly you over the tree roots,” said Vriska, after a moment.
Sollux stood up, rather gracefully. “Call me when you--” he paused. “Well. When you want to pay market price for honeycomb, maybe. Or maybe not, I don’t want to imagine you on a sugar high.”
“Okay, one, can you say anachronism?” Vriska said. “Two, yes you can, you haven’t lisped since my hot black ex knocked your teeth out. Three, guess what you haven’t accounted for with all your waxy Neo-free matrixes, buddy?”
“It’s matrices,” said Sollux. “What?”
“Mind control!” crowed the Thief Who Trails Glitter.
She snapped her gold-tipped fingers. Sollux stiffened, and sat down, and then got up again when Vriska remembered that she needed him ambulatory.
“This is gonna be great,” she said.
Which was how, after a certain period of mysterious divine preparations, Sollux found himself scaling the ruined stairs of Aradia’s temple, his walking stick held out before him. He tapped the mossy stone with its sharp end and let the sound it made fill his ears like the voice of someone long dead.
He had not brought his bees; they had stayed home in protest.
“Lousy stupid goddessdamn mind control,” he muttered.
Then he took the final step, and something shifted under him. Before he could make sense of what was happening, he was pitched forward. Into a conspicuously missing segment of floor.
"I told him..." Vriska muttered, somewhere in the distance.
He dropped a fair way through moist darkness, and landed-- painfully-- on his hands. At least, his hands hit first; but he proceeded to land on his elbows, and then his knees, and then his forehead. Then he let oblivion take him for a while.
When he woke up there was a worrying numbness running up the length of one arm. He was sprawled face-down in a roofless chamber with walls all full of skulls, although he had no way of knowing any of the above, except for a sensation of dark space.
In the doorway of the chamber Aradia swayed silently, her tail coiled under her. She would have been a fearsome sight to anyone seeing her; gold dripped pale from her wrists and around her pebbled throat. She wore the thoughtful expression of a girl who had gone a long time between faces-not-turned-to-granite-on-introduction.
“Hello,” she said, eventually. Her voice must have seemed strange to her, because she frowned and shut her mouth, but to Sollux the sound of it was shockingly clear.
“Hi,” he said, and tried to move.
“Stop that,” said Aradia. A moment later she was at his side, her hands careful on his shoulder. “You need to stay still. You could hurt yourself. You know,” she said. “More.”
“I didn’t hurt myself,” said Sollux, with dignity. “Gravity hurt me. Gravity punched me in the fucking face.”
“Wrist, I think,” said Aradia. She poked it. Sollux made a distressed noise. “Sorry,” said Aradia, sounding less than apologetic. “The booby trap was supposed to catch heroes. And unprofessional archaeologists. I didn’t think anyone else would come up here.”
“Oh, what, so I’m not hero material, is that it?” said Sollux. “Just because I can’t see and don’t have two biceps per arm, I’m not booby worthy, huh?”
There was a pause as they both considered that sentence.
“Actually,” said Aradia, “it’s the tunic. You have some coffee stains. And some I don’t want to think about it stains. Heroes like laundry! In a few thousand years a hero will invent the laundromat.”
Aradia, as it happened, was psychic. Not as a consequence of her gorgonocity; she’d been psychic even back when she had legs. Her legs had been psychic, too. Now their faded memory was telling her to curl her sinuous body up in a pile at Sollux’s side.
“Okay,” said Sollux, “so I’m not a hero. But it could have been someone else’s tunic.”
“It suits you, though,” said Aradia, and patted him awkwardly on the arm.
“Ow,” said Sollux, but he smiled when he said it.
There was a tender moment there in the dark where no one spoke. They were both aware that someone would have to ask someone whether someone ate babies, or whether someone was here on a mission from God, but for that brief hush they were willing to pass fate over for serendipity: the sudden comfort of something they hadn't known how to need, which is the special province of the lonely and the doomed. Aradia propped Sollux up against a shelf of skulls, and Sollux cradled his injured arm to himself, his mouth unfamiliarly sweet.
“This is pretty weird,” he said, “but I could swear that I remember you.”
“Maybe it’s not,” said Aradia. She ran a hand through her living hair and down over her face. “Maybe we knew each other before, you know. Snakes. Maybe we heard each other’s voices without knowing what it was we heard.”
“Do they have names?” said Sollux. “The snakes?”
No one had ever asked her that. No one would have ever asked her that even if they hadn’t instantly lost all hope of mandibular movement on looking at her.
“Yes,” she said. “Percy, Delilah, Ed, Abraham, Priscilla, Izzy, Norman, Laura, Josh, and Terrible.”
“He’s terrible,” said Aradia, firmly.
Sollux leaned his head back, incidentally dislodging a half-cranium.
“I knew it,” he said. “I name my bees.”
“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” said Aradia. "And I have snakes growing out of my head."
“Shut up,” said Sollux. Aradia laughed at him. He turned in the direction of her joy, and moved his head in such a way that he might have been looking at her mouth. Carefully, he put his good hand over her cheek, finding it after some trial and error and the soft rush of her breath against his palm. “You know, you don’t feel too scary,” he said, and felt her smile as a stretch in skin, like something very dry and very old expanding around the push of unlikely life.
KISS THE GIRL, said a voice in his head.
He shook his head, as if chasing off a dream of apocalypse. But there was no denying Vriska's voice. Gods have little patience for serendipity, except as it serves their schemes. And before she'd sent Sollux to meet his fate, the Liar Who Believes Her Lies had painted his lips with his own honey, poisoned by her hand.
If Aradia had been more familiar with contemporary cosmetic norms, and less predisposed to think that makeup was a discoloration of stone-- or at the very least more familiar with basic spy movie tropes-- she might have noticed that Sollux’s mouth glistened like a flower, and smelled like one besides. As it was, though, she only watched to see what he would do; she let him cup her cheek, and bend to press a sideways kiss against her snakeless brow.
He would have, anyway, except at that very moment Terrible bit him on the hand.
“FUCK,” said Sollux, and fell back on his ass.
The pain was considerable; it shot up his arm like green fire, and half-instinctive he threw his bitten hand up to cover one hollow eye. Somewhere, Vriska screamed louder than he did.
"Fucking snakes," said the goddess. She rose unsteadily from where she had collapsed to the ground. "Fucking stumpy shampoofed snakes!" she said, and she lifted one hand to touch her temple, while around her the garden shimmered.
Sollux sat up. His head fell limp, baring his throat. A blue glow had formed in the pit of each eye socket.
Aradia, who had slithered back in horror and shame, stared at him. It was not the usual reaction to her bites.
When he spoke, it was with the voice of a woman whose shame globes never had dropped.
"Ugh," she said, "you people. With your feelings! And your wussy isolation issues! And your snakes!"
"I'm… pretty sure that was mostly the snakes," said Aradia. "Snake, even. Terrible, actually."
"It is terrible," said Vriska, with Sollux's mouth. "But I'm putting a stop to it, okay? I'm putting a stop to this slithery farce! Now hold still."
And Sollux rose, jerkily, to his knees. He began to inch towards her.
Aradia had spent a very long time not thinking about Vriska, let alone interacting with her, and she wasn't exactly bent on breaking her streak now. But she looked at the troll in front of her, caught up in a web of capital L Light, his head thrown back and fingers twitching at his sides, and she thought: He names his bees.
I don't even know his name.
Then she thought,
But I want to.
Not the bees though, that would be dumb.
She lifted herself up off the stone floor.
"You know, none of this would have happened if you'd just left my shrines alone," Vriska was saying. "It's not like you weren't a shitty excuse for a troll to begin with--"
"Vriska," Aradia said, "shut up."
"Oh, you wish--"
Aradia reached out and grabbed Sollux's hand, which was flushed golden and swollen now. "Feel that?" she said, squeezing.
"Shit!" said Vriska. Her voice was starting to fall out of sync with the movement of Sollux's slack mouth. Encouraged, Aradia laced her fingers through his, her grip so tight she thought their skin might meld. "Fucking fuck off," said Vriska, Sollux jerking in her hold. But brushing a mass of hair that consists entirely of personable reptiles is a good way to learn how to deal with squirm, and Aradia didn't waver. "Fuck you," Vriska shrieked, "and your pet biped, I'll kill you both and use your bones for grubloaf--"
He was glowing. It wouldn't be long until Vriska made good on her promise, she knew.
Vriska had entered Aradia's mind exactly once; in the moment of transformation, Aradia had felt her, there in every cell of her metamorphosis; seeing through Aradia's changeblind eyes, more clearly than Aradia ever had.
Aradia avoided mirrors. But there was Sollux, now, with desperation written down the line of his spine.
"Get out of his head," she said. She let go of his hand.
"I bet you'd like that," Vriska sneered. "You think I didn't see you two, pitying it up, thrown together byunlikely circumstance? I bet you'd love to get in there after me, rummage around in all his sad little insecurities-- he talks a good talk, you know, but in here? It's a big mutant failure party, and personally, I think I'm doing him a favor by--"
Aradia rose almost to her full height, her tail lashing under her. She leaned over Sollux's upturned face, and took his head in her hands, tilting it until she could see into his wide dark sockets. Until she could see all the way down to the blue sparks at the bottom, which burned like something wonderful and cruel.
"Okay," she said. "I didn't want to do this. But you haven't left me with much of a choice."
"I'm a goddess, dipshit," said Vriska. "I don't do choices."
"I know," said Aradia, quietly. "Vriska? Look at me."
And she saw: what she had made. A girl with hungry things blooming from her hairline, and cold, cold eyes, and hands as black as ink. A girl who could turn anyone to stone.
The blue glow flared.
When the villagers finally went to investigate the blaze of light that rose up over the beekeeper's garden, they found: a perfect, undamaged statue, its horns unbroken and its eyes entire in its head. It was surrounded by the triumphant hum of bees.
"Gosh," they said, and after some discussion they gave it its own plinth.
But in the pit where Vriska had stared too long, Aradia and Sollux were less rich in garden ornaments.
"Are you okay?" Aradia asked. She had his head cradled in what would have been her lap had she had a conventional waist.
"You mean, except for the sprained wrist and the venom coursing through my veins?" said Sollux, weakly. "I'm super."
"I'm sure I have the antidote for that around somewhere," said Aradia, apologetically. "But it won't kill you."
"I could have killed you," said Sollux.
"It happens," said Aradia, and, "You look very nice in lip gloss."
"I'll just go find that antidote," said Aradia, making to move him onto the floor.
His hand stopped her. It was still puffy, but the tips of his fingers were soft. His face was turned away from her, smooth and still, but the thin skin of his thumb rubbed rough against her scaled wrist.
"Wait a while," he said. "We've got time." And he smiled without teeth.