Chapter 1: Prologue
The first time he reaches you, it just feels like a new piece of your mutant thinkpan growing in. You are five sweeps and a bit. Your voice is cracking and your bulge is acting up and everything about your first round of puberty is hitting you like a sledgehammer. There are days when you can't sleep at all, and days when you can't wake up. Your horns are sore; your migraines have gotten a special effects budget; and you spend some otherwise perfectly good days locked in the apartment because you keep letting off unintentional optic blasts and you don't want to scorch anyone.
So nothing actually surprises you right now.
But this comes close. It's weirder, and it's disquieting, and something about it feels not quite natural. Even though it also feels like you and your brain. You're really not sure what to do about that.
The first time, you just dream of strange stars.
You’re lying on your back, floating in water that is so close to the temperature of your warmblood body that you can barely feel it against your skin, kicking in long measured strokes to propel yourself downriver. Stars rise at the top of your vision and arc lazily down to the bottom, constellation after constellation, galaxy after galaxy, and you wake with an effortless sense of great distance and deep calm that stays with you half the night.
Perigees pass before you’re willing to question it, to investigate what the hell that was all about, and by that time, things have gotten entirely out of hand.
This is Aradia Megido:
She is small and ruddy and you can barely remember a time when you didn't know her. You wonder sometimes if you helped each other out of the caverns as grubs. As kids, you found each other on Trollian, but it seems like you knew each other before that somehow.
All you know is that AA comes over sometimes, when you've been in hiding long enough to disappear from the face of Alternia, and you don't send her away. She's good; you're not sure about anything right now, but she's rough-and-tumble, she hugs you and strifes with you casually and you're pretty sure you won't hurt her by accident. So she's allowed the high privilege of digging you out of yourself.
She brings you to abandoned places where you can run around and relax and blow off steam. It's in one of those spots, a high cliffside built up with abandoned hives, where she tells you under the bright moon about the people who lived here and how they died.
"How do you know all this?"
"They're telling me," she says. "Right now."
The wind's stirred her hair into a wild cloud of black candyfloss and it looks adorably ridiculous, she looks like a shaggy potted shrub, short and stout with her two enormous curling horns sticking out like a trellis, and you would laugh but her words catch you up short. Your mouth hangs open and for a moment you don't breathe.
Not in the way like you're suffocating, but like everything goes so perfectly still that even your lungs don't want to move and startle away this strange sensation of someone understanding.
"You hear the dead?"
Your voice quavers and cracks. Smooth, Sollux, smooth. But right now you don't care.
"I... I sometimes do. But mostly I hear... the dying. The doomed. Premonitory. It's..."
"I know," she says, and she squeezes your hand, and the two of you sit there just feeling the cold wind and listening to things no one else can hear. You don't think you could stand if you tried, not for a while. It doesn't matter how she knows; it doesn't matter that she hears different voices than you do. The sheer not-aloneness is enough to make you stupidly pale for her.
She's not the most demonstrative person, and you haven't been sure how to read her, before. But if she already knew, she must have felt the same way all along. She knows you don't need a moirail who makes a big deal out of how you're feeling.
Just being in the room with your feelings is hard enough, sometimes, and with AA there it feels like it’s... okay to let everything wash over you, the voices and emotions and the stuff in your head you’re not supposed to know. Nothing is quieter, but it’s easier somehow, not having to brace against the possibility of reacting to something no one else sees or hears, not having to hide your tells, for a little while. A tension goes out of you that you hadn’t known was even there.
The night grows colder. You're not quite aware, until she says, "You're shivering."
You are. You don't want to admit that you're just grateful for the cold as an excuse, that as long as you don't go back to your hive and get a sweater you can just sit here burrowing into her jacket, into her warmth. If you were small and flat enough you could curl right up against her, become a living, breathing lining for her too-tall red jacket, and you're not quite that small and flat but you pretend you're not shivering and let her heat and the quiet of the night fill you.
And that is Aradia Megido.
The dream of stars is strange enough as a single, sole anomaly – enough that you don’t quite catch, at first, the similarities of the other disjointed reveries that link them together.
They sneak up on you, because they’re nothing like normal daymares. They’re so anomalous you don’t even know how to categorize them; far from anything you’ve ever been told about in schoolfeeding, and none of your searching on the dark net turns up an equivalent.
You dream repeatedly of pure numbers, calculations flaring through your 'pan like pinwheels, and it's the structure of your mind, only moving powers and multitudes faster, geometry of a thrown-apart hyperbolic space – whiteness, and silence, and the barest instant of vertigo, and then the click of shifting coordinates, nothing more.
Once you dream that you must tend a vast garden. Tier above tier, silent and vaulted in balmy motionless air, your charges grow on catwalks and scaffoldings, the roots of each plant dangling into the arbor below. You can name barely half of your crops: pumpkins, beans, corn, staples that can stretch to feed a lot of people and that you’ve only had canned, living in the city. But monitoring the pipes that feed them nutrient-laced water feels familiar enough, like watching the vitals of a computer. The problem is at the greenhouse’s center: a cluster of stunted-looking shrubs studded with tiny thorns and dull-green drying leaves. All the plant’s energy is being devoted to its flowers – matesprit-flowers they’re called, deep red complex swirls of petals. A troll bends over the matesprit-flower bushes, her figure invisible behind a floor-length cascade of hair, and as you watch the plant swells with life, the shine comes back into the leaves and new buds form…
When you wake, you realize that you’ve never seen a matesprit-flower before, it’s just something that KK mentioned in one of his interminable rants about romantic gestures.
That’s when you start searching in earnest, trying to identify what might be happening to you. A picture of a real matesprit-flower is easy enough, and it matches. But it’s possible that you saw it in a movie, and you start doubting your own mind.
The ones with the highbloods, you almost write off as normal daymares, at first.
A circle of barely half a dozen trolls cloaked in gray, screaming insults and flashing sickles, fend off a platoon of subjugglators and their brutal infantry for long cacophonous minutes while you stare in suspended animation - you cannot think of what it is you want to do, or why, amid the chaos and slaughter, as the cloaked insurrectionists are run through one by one, you can't move, you don't know why you would want to move - and you half-wake, deafened by the echoes of shots, eyes pinned shut by a phantom weight, and it seems for hours you are paralyzed, suspended just beneath the surface of sleep, immobile as if the slime had turned to stone, thoughts stuck on repeat, You had your power, you could feel it, why didn't you strike?
It’s the corridors that connect that dream to the others. They echo and boom with strife instead of hissing vented air, but somehow they feel intimately familiar and there is something the same there, a common denominator between the violence of the uprising and the peace of the garden.
And that’s about the point at which you realize this is a thing, as inescapable as the voices, and you have no idea what to do about it.
The dreams don't become any less mysterious as you slip into them more often, soon every day, then more, until you wake exhausted from a dream of stars at noon then dream again of endless echoing corridors until evening. Kanaya tells you that you are crying out in your sleep on the golden moon, and you keep waiting to wake there again, thinking you're about to see spires and light and the anthropomorphic clouds of the planet above – but then the dreams envelop you again and the gates to the glowing city close over. You're hurtling through emptiness the first time you dream of flight. If Prospit is there, it's so far below as to be lost in the dark, and you're headed straight into a wind that slices at your face thin and resonant and autumn-pure.
You've hovered before, a little, cautiously circled your respiteblock, but you haven't flown awake, not yet, and you wake dizzy, skin stinging, reaching up as if someone above your recuperacoon might lift you.
That one stays with you, too; the feeling comes back to you in stray moments, a kind of physical deja vu and a sense of longing, and you’re not even sure what you’re longing for.
You start running searches for restricted material, through a proxy.
And you decide to tell someone about this, or try.
Chapter 2: if I had words at all
It’s maybe the second day or so when something clicks over, like a switch flipping, and you feel like you couldn’t sleep if you tried.
Chapter warnings: Serious body horror - begins not long after the scene with Karkat, in case you need to skip or skim it. (Mind you, consider the whole fic to be warned for 'Helmsman stuff'.) Characters use some ableist language concerning mental illness.
Now with art contributed by shai. YOU ARE WONDERFUL.
twinArmageddons [TA] began trolling apocalypseArisen [AA]
TA: hey AA.
AA: s0llux. what's g0ing 0n?
TA: well a2iide from the weiird dream2 not much.
Even though you're typing, not speaking, there's a kind of tightness in your throat and you can only manage to ask super-casually:
TA: you gettiing anythiing liike that AA?
AA: like what?
You don't even know where to start, that's the problem, and that's why this was a stupid idea, that's why you shouldn't have said anything.
You must sit there for fifteen minutes composing and deleting lines:
liike the2e dream2 where youre a liiviing computer or 2omethiing
where everythiing hurt2 liike a miigraiine but wor2e except there2 al2o all thii2 complex calculatiion and movement goiing on
where your body ii2 not your body and iin2tead youre iin 2ome kiind of
(that one fails when you can't think of how to finish the sentence: in some kind of what?) where your word2 are all gone and 2pace goe2 on forever around you and youre 2creamiing
You finally settle on sending:
TA: where youre you but youre not you and everythiing ii2 fucked up
Because everything else about the dreams kind of defies comprehension or description. You're afraid she won't know what's going on. You're a little bit afraid that she will. But you're even more afraid that you'll describe it wrong and she'll misrecognize whatever the hell is happening to your head and then you'll be flayed open in front of her and even more alone.
AA: n0 i can't say i've had anything like that
TA: dont miind me, ii just woke up kiinda dii2oriiented
you say. Your bloodpusher sinks into your stomach, and you don't go out of your hive for days.
This is Karkat Vantas: Hemoanonymous, shouty, actually capable of beating you at video games once he gets used to your superior system performance.
He could learn to code, if he put his back into it. He doesn’t, though.
Damned if you can figure out what’s up with that kid.
He lives closer than Aradia, so you see him often enough. You met him in schoolfeeding. His attendance in the student chats was always incredibly diligent, an odd trait in the only troll you know whose attitude is as wildly irreverent as yours in most other ways, more so in some; but that’s why you managed to meet him. It was incredibly rare that you’d actually be there in person, so it took diligence to be on when you were on.
There were just so many more efficient ways of studying the information that dealing with tedious tapes and response chats was a downright ridiculous way to spend your time. And then there was the propaganda to filter out, and if you were going to sit through learning things you wanted to learn the real versions...
Solluxbot was one of your first coding projects; it would sit there making mostly-accurate responses on your husktop while you were across the room on another machine, hitting up the dark net for the truth behind whatever they were pretending to teach you.
And then every so often you’d wander in, disable the bot and ask an innocent-sounding question that might get some of the other students to look behind the facade. Good times.
That was how you wound up trolling Karkat Vantas, during one of the many units on the Imperial Service. This lesson was so thick with disinformation that you couldn’t tackle it singlehandedly and still sound innocent – so you were running two alt accounts so they couldn’t trace you, and for once had all eyes on the screen.
And at first you thought he was doing the same thing you were, because of how earnest his questions were. And then you realized that he was actually being that earnest, or at least, you thought so. This was kind of concerning.
You found him on Trollian and – as he’d say from one of his stupid movies – it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
It took you an hour of trolling him before you realized that he was that earnest but he also wasn’t dumb. Like he got louder when he wasn’t sure what to believe. And you could respect that.
Sometimes you think his obsession with romcoms is more self-aware than it seems. They’re affectedly unrealistic, and everything always comes out all right. Why Karkat needs those two characteristics together, you don’t know, but even though you’d never say so, you can kind of respect that.
He’s been over to your place before, and you’ve been to his. But this is the first time you’ve kept the game marathon going until dawn. You realize the sun will be coming up soon, but shove it to the back of your mind; and when he asks if he can stay over, you decide you’d be an asshole to tell him no.
“What the hell. There’s enough recuperacoon for both of us. Make yourself comfortable.”
Later you won’t even begin to understand why you thought that was a good idea. Right now, out as soon as you hit the sopor...
–you are damaged, limping, trying to calculate but the numbers keep blurring, leaking out with blood and air – there's a piece chewed out of your side, and you can feel each individual nerve swaying, dangling, the edges of your lacerated lung - you count down five, four, three – hyperbolic space – two – like someone took a rod of glowing iron to a grid and molded it 'round, and the grid is full of numbers, and the numbers are stars – one, the calculations are still multiples faster than when you are awake, but not fast enough, and cold crunches into your bones like the icy teeth of the void, and a radiance like a planet-cleansing bomb sears through your eyelids, and some near-forgotten speck of you, no bigger than a cell, a neuron, buried in your center, something remembers pain and screams –
–you wake to Karkat’s hands on your shoulders and he is shaking you so hard it’s making your head hurt. And shouting. That’s not so great for the head either.
“I’M TALKING TO YOU FUCKASS. THAT’S RIGHT, YOU, THOLLUCKTH CAPTOR, YOU HALLUCINATING PIECE OF WORK, GET BACK HERE, WHATEVER THE FUCK IT IS YOU’RE DOING–”
Reflexively you push him away, hands and psionics both at once, shoving him to the opposite wall of the ‘cupe. “Hey, hey, thtop it, KK, what the fuck–” Your voice is hoarse, like you’ve been screaming. You don’t remember screaming.
He has a strange expression on his face. “Fucking hell, Sollux, that’s what I’ve been asking you for the last however many minutes. WHAT THE FUCK WAS THAT.”
“I, um, I get day terrors sometimes,” you say lamely. You wince, and try to assess the damage: head throbbing, elbow also feels bruised, like you smacked it into something, and you stand up in the ‘cupe and rub at it.
“In case you’re wondering,” he says, “you whacked me with your elbow and knocked the wind out of me. Why didn’t you WARN me about your day terrors, you little shit? I mean I know everyone gets them but yours are like supercharged and fucking ridiculous. Do you need to change out the sopor in this thing?” He’s shouting, his voice shaky and a little scratchy.
It registers, dimly, that the expression on his face is one of relief, and quite possibly you are a huge asshole. “I didn’t know I’d do that–”
“And then you fucking stared at me with your eyes wide open and babbled some shit about how you watched me die. Great way to make a friend feel comfortable. Best fucking sleepover ever. Were you hatched this creepy or did you learn it from a tutorial?”
You were going to be more apologetic than this, but that one hurt, and you don’t want to show it, so instead you snicker at him and say “Way to freak out, KK. I hope you didn’t shit the cupe, because if you did I’m sending you the cleaning bill.”
You shower off and shove at each other a little and you keep watching him out of the corner of your eye and he’s ranting at you, on and off, but he hasn’t backed away. And he stays through breakfast even though even someone you didn’t scream at in your sleep would have every right to refuse the shitty instant meals you pretend are food.
It still stings to have him shout at you, but it feels good, too, in a weird way, to have someone calling you as crazy as you are. Like ripping the bandage off a cut to clean it and put a new one on. And you don’t feel guilty about being vicious back.
That is Karkat Vantas, and yes, you goddamn nooksucker, of course you’re still friends.
The shells of empty energy grubs litter your desk and your head is close to your keyboard; you’re typing with your eyes closed, but it doesn’t matter all that much. The structure of what you’re creating is in your head, not on your screen – otherwise you could sleep right now and it would still be there in the evening, right? Right. You’re used to running these races against time and sleep, and to doing it voluntarily, pushing yourself this far because you want to. You’re five and a half sweeps old, and a mustardblood at that. No one is going to pay you to genetically engineer bees that are more compatible with an obscure and apparently useless programming language.
Drones buzz around your hives, aimless and worried. You have two more hours to manipulate the genetic code of this crop of eggs before they break the wax seals of their honeycombs, either as healthy larvae with a complete extra chromosome written into their cells, or mutant or stillborn if you fuck up or run out of time. Just two hours, and either way you can sleep.
Your head drops; a horn taps against your screen and startles you awake. You’re getting desperate enough to reach back, yank at the dim remnants of your psionics, and zap yourself on the back of the neck. It’s dangerous and doesn’t work very well, but your eyes squint open involuntarily from the pain, your vision bleary and purplish. Something is wrong. Your powers felt something – you reach a tendril back, carefully, trying to feel and type at the same time, watching your code crawl across the screen like an alien alphabet. There’s… a cobweb attaching your chair to your upper back? Fuck, you’ve been coding for a long time – no, there’s another thread below it, too thick to be a cobweb, and then another. You fling your senses backward – the threads knit into a cable – but then your psionic reserves thrum with exhaustion and fizzle out. Fine. You reach back with your actual hands, twisting awkwardly because the thing restricts your movement. Yeah, it’s a cable. It connects your spine to the wall behind you.
Even now you’re aware that there’s something unnatural in your apathy, but the wire has been there for ages. It’s meant to be there. It’s meant to sustain you, to focus and transmit your power and intellect, like the other cables, the one fused to the base of your tailbone and the thicker one plugged into the back of your skull.
art by shai
You jerk awake so hard your shoulderblades hit the frame of your chair. That’s going to be a bruise. And – cable? Spine? Wall? Sollux, get it together, you’ve been awake so long you’re hallucinating.
Fuck this mess. No dreams can possibly be worse than this. All interest in continuing coding tonight drains out of you like a plug was pulled. (Bad choice of thoughts; the feeling of the connector in your spine flickers through your mind again and you wince. On some level, some part of you, you want all the information you can have; information is armor. But digging through backchannel internet forums for illegal documents about starship helmsmen, obsessively re-loading to find the horrible images and accounts before they’re taken down, is probably a bad idea, even though you can’t stop.) This batch of bees can go screw themselves with their mutated stingers. There will be other badass larvae another time. It’s not like the side gigs you’ve landed won’t pay for them.
To the ‘cupe with you. Even the obligatory stop at the load gaper makes your legs wobble and your mind drift, and you just barely care enough to take your clothes off before collapsing into the warm sopor. Now you can sleep...
...Well, the other half of you can sleep. Your right half will needle with pain, your red eye will flicker on and shade your computer block’s diffuse purple a few degrees warmer. A catheter in your neck will release adrenaline. You’re only allowed to be fully awake when you – she needs the full range of your skills then – and she wants you to fully experience every – every one, billions… you’re waking up now.
The flood of chemicals leaves you grasping at homeostasis, what’s left of your muscles twitching, one spasming too hard and letting go with a snap that you hear refracted back at you, microseconds later, through your wires, dulled by the room’s ropey tissue walls into a thump. You’re being force-fed an endless audio stream of this room, your own sick corporeal sounds, the sighing of your machinery. You’re absorbing an endless feed of everything, all the time, but right now she must want you to feel this or you wouldn’t be here.
And you do feel. They’re drawing down your painkillers. What do they want from you? She – who is she? – cascading winglike hair, luscious sanguine flowers with complex swirling petals – you writhe, and the floor heaves and gasps, and lines flicker onto the screen across the room from you, words your sight has been too clouded with floating gray burrs to read for sweeps. There’s a tightening under your useless eyes; something outside of you is pulling at your tear ducts, like it’s curious, like it’s trying to see if they still work. They don’t, they shut off around the same time you had to push a needle down a vein in your neck and into your own bloodpusher, thread tiny replacement parts down past your collarbones, titanium and cartilage, and stop the beat for one pulse, two, kill yourself off for just enough time to upgrade yet another part of you that was dying. Jolt yourself, jump your heart, live again.
A snicking, like a lens falling into place, and the scene changes. They've overridden your eyes, and you prepare to scan the – no. No, the scene hasn't changed... it's the angle. You're looking in, at this room, not outside at a (target) destination. Unclouded by your body's crumpling corneas you see your prison walls, coruscating in time with your stent-steadied pulse, sighing in tune with your breath: pure violet and dripping hot ichor, cording and coiling from their silvery tips at the seams of the screen in great arcs to sink into the welcoming mesh they've made of your calves and forearms, your shoulders and the length of your back. Near-engulfed in vivid purple, the gray skin that's left – chest, thighs, face beneath the goggles – reads like a carved gargoyle, knotted and worn away, a grimy cameo in amethyst.
And that (oh fuck oh god what happened to me I ) that is what remains of your body, unsurprising and unchanged, as if the millennia had given up and abandoned you for dead. For centuries you watched yourself retch every time they played this camera trick. Now you're either desensitized to it or dripped full of anti-emetics. You know what they want before the equipment drops from the ceiling - what she wants, because there is no rational use for this, nothing but (pain and senseless renewal) art, and that is her signature. The goggles pull away from your face, wires drawing loose from forehead and cheekbones to claw, glistening, at the air. You flick at your power and, unflinching, draw the tiny hollow needle in. Cut by delicate cut, you are making this repair, and she has made certain you will feel every moment of it.
There is no rational use in forcing the eyes in your body to see again.
You’re not sure how long you’ve been senselessly screaming by the time you wake up, only that your throat hurts and you... You were wrong about the dreams not being worse. Very wrong. You can’t, won’t return to that place. Your bloodpusher is pounding like shitty techno music and your eyes are wide open. Too much. Too far...
You didn’t even bother to shut off your husktop when you went down. You dimly remember typing those lines, here and not-here at the same time, and some of them are even coherent - though you’ll have to do something with them next time, as this batch of larvae is a wash. Except in the middle there’s this burst of... you must have drooped forward and hit the keyboard, it’s an incoherent bunch of junk.
Just in case the junk turns out to be something useful you clip it out and drop it in a file. Then you open five projects at once and set to work on them. You’re not going to sleep again. Nope. No way. Not happening. It becomes superstitiously, vitally important not to go to sleep; as if the world will end when you finally do. (In some part of you, you know it won’t. You don’t know why you know that, not yet.)
You load everything at once, music and code parsers and sound and light. You troll everyone you know, and some people you don’t, with whatever you can think of to type.
It’s maybe the second day or so when something clicks over, like a switch flipping, and you feel like you couldn’t sleep if you tried. The shit you’re sending your friends goes from grumbling to exuberantly creative to absolutely primo, through-the-fucking-roof meaningless hoofbeastshit. You brag about how badass you are until even you almost can’t see the desperation underneath.
But it's not the kind of giddy, spin-dizzy high mood you've been in before. It's as if you're overclocked past a hard limit, and you didn't know it could get bad like this. You're used to going through a manic jag and laughing it off, maybe regretting something later in a kind of mental hangover, but you didn't take seriously the idea that there could be anything really wrong with you in this state.
You’re not sure how many days pass. However many it takes for AA to come all the way out here from her rural hive. You don’t remember letting her into the apartment. Did you give her a key of her own at some point, maybe?
It doesn’t seem important. The storms of mental energy you ride are turning on you with whiplash force, and you find yourself sitting there trying to tell AA about the plan you're making for your next computing rig, and it's torture. You can't talk as fast as you're thinking, not remotely. By the time you've said one sentence, your 'pan has leapt over the next several, and you find yourself blurting out something as close as possible to what you're thinking now, skipping the intervening steps. AA looks up at you in total bewilderment, and the frustration boils up in you and you shout at her for being stupid.
She looks back at you, surprisingly calm. Concerned, you think vaguely, from the way her brows draw together. Your thinkpan runs an entire script in which you are tired of her meddling, another in which you are desperately sorry, and is launching into one where you really need to actually show her the equipment so that she will understand it properly and she can learn about apiculture networking and love it forever by the time she speaks. "I was going to make myself a cup of tea," she says. "If you like – oh, I'll just make you one too. You can thank me later."
Another thousand sweeps pass, everything around you in unbearable slow motion. You are down on your hands and knees swapping out a honeycomb and making shorthand notes about how you expect it to improve graphical performance and she's back with the tea. It is hot and tastes of fruit and bitter spices and it feels good going down your throat. You set it aside, distractedly, because you were working on a thing, and she brings it back in front of you. You drink some more, because it's in front of you. The world begins to speed up to a vaguely normal pace.
You don't notice that until you notice that you're flickering in and out of wakefulness, that there are dead moments in between sentences, in between movements–
points of light, a three-plus dimensional field of coordinates, the beginning and the end of an exact arc, plotted planned compiled perfectly the mainframe stirs with life and information and if you alter the placement just so, the vibrations from the insects' dances will carry across the chamber perfectly, exactly the length of the harmonic you press your energies outward, across the whole skin of the ship, a dancing wavefront, and feel a moment of pride in how perfectly you cancel the resonant strain that would shake you to pieces and a bee wanders across your hand as you brace for the jump
–and you back away from the mainframe because you seriously do not want to damage this thing.
"AA," you realize. "What did you–"
She catches you as you slump.
She’s very strong but very short and your limbs stick out awkwardly but you can’t struggle against this drugged lassitude; and then you’re in your recuperacoon, and the hazy repetitive thoughts of your constant work fade out.
A blindness dream again. Or -
You dream that you are being warped, that you’re far too close to something so vast that it sucks at your skin, that you’re straining your power to the very dizzying bottom of your reserves to wrench yourself free. In this distorted ripple-space, the loose soil at the edge of an infinite grave, the fabric of time elongates along with your body, and for the first time your frenzied polyphonic dream-thoughts slow enough for your conscious mind to parse them. No, not blindness: you are merely dedicating the majority of your awareness to senses that are not sight: the impulsive force of your psionics, the tensile strain on your skin. You open your eyes. Dream-space wavers; light falls screaming past you into the abyss. You look down on your body kicking for freedom. Your engines. Your sleek straining biometal hull. Your–
–no. No. In an implosion of bewildered anger you propel yourself up, up, past the event horizon, spinning uncontrolled and safe. You wake up with your mouth full of sopor, trying to scream. You choke and gasp and you are alive. You are not a goddamned ship, they don’t have you yet, you are alive. But there is something itching at a corner of your dream-memory, something bitter at the back of your tongue that isn’t slime. Just as you’d been waking up, you’d felt it – just barely the first upwelling murmurs of it, but still there’s a chill in your marrow and your tongue curls back on itself – a nameless, ancient, inconsolable fury. You lived. And you had wanted so much, for centuries, for eons, with an immensity of desire that made a mockery of the love and ambition of planets and races, a need inexorable as gravity…
In your dream, you had so longed to die.
You drift under, again. Later a fresh smell reaches your nose and you wake, or half-wake, to hunger and soft melodic humming. Something is still wrong; you can’t quite move normally and your eyes won’t open all the way. You grunt and hear Aradia’s voice: “Oh - Sollux - just a minute! I think I figured out food shopping in the city! And then I made some rootcakes -”
This is pretty much more use than your kitchen has ever seen. “AA?” you call out, weakly. You still can’t seem to speak coherently.
She comes over to the recuperacoon with a plate of food and spoons it into your mouth. Her rootcakes are soft and delicate and full of sweet spices and easy to swallow. You don’t have to get up, which is good, because you don’t think you could.
“Are you angry?” she asks, in between feeding you bites.
“No,” you manage. You might be angry at her some other time, but right now you feel...drained, flattened but strangely light, like debris thrown about by a storm, and there’s no anger and no fire in you. Later there will be time for thoughts like that wasn’t nice and other thoughts like sometimes being a good moirail is a different thing from being nice but right now there’s just sopor slime around you and food going down your throat, the needs of the body, returning with a vengeance like a cheesy action movie villain.
“Energy grub?” you ask hopefully, already knowing the answer.
AA shakes her head firmly. “You need another day to be out cold.” She sets the empty plate of food down and reaches into the ‘cupe to squeeze your hand; your floating fingers find hers awkwardly. “I need to feed my lusus. Promise not to try to get up before you’ve slept again.”
art by reverse-mermaid
You wake again to a migraine coming on, but you wander over to your husktop and troll her while you can still stand up.
Chapter 3: when you came into my room
You are too open. You are defenseless. You are not a vessel for voices, you are a fleetbeast dead center on the highway, you have no foreknowledge of what you are about to endure, you will be destroyed, insane. You are not yourself. You are so young.
You know who you are. You know who you are.
For reference, we're using the headcanon that one Alternian solar sweep = approximately 2.6 years, for maturity purposes if not chronological purposes. So 5 sweeps = about 13 years and 6 sweeps = nearly 16. This is based on canonical characterizations: troll maturity doesn't seem to correspond to human assumptions very well - which is no big surprise given that they're as much guardians over their lusii as vice versa.
Yes, there's still a huge weird age gap and a metric fuckton of 'it's complicated'. Due to said metric fuckton of 'it's complicated' we thought you might enjoy some authorial notes on what we're trying to achieve: Wires and Stars FAQ. Kind of spoily for the general direction of the story, though not for specific plot points just now. More will be added there as we continue.
2/3/13: Added art by QuerulousArtisan! Guys, check her out, she's great.
can you hear this, the rhythm of someone
rhythm of someone who swallowed the sun
This game is crap. If you didn't think you could blast through forty levels of this half-asleep, running on reflexes and cheap stimulants and the promise of better work where it came from, you wouldn't be playing it at all. It's some ridiculous time of day - going outside would probably fry your ass to a crisp.
You often bring KK in on these, though you try not to have him over at times when you’re actually going to sleep, any more; that was stupid and embarrassing - but he always gets a thrill about games that aren’t available to the general public yet, and this one is so terrible you’d actually feel bad about getting his hopes up.
But here you are, eyes half-lidded, on the couch, barely pausing every so often to slurp down a canister of instant soup. You’re blowing through two-player mode, punching buttons with your hands on each controller as you support them on cushions of red and blue light, at twice the speed intended by whatever poor schlubs coded this thing.
And yes, the code is obviously work-for-hire: the scenery and controls practically came out of soup canisters themselves. This entire game is predicated on shitty leftovers. The graphics look like they had a bunch of hired art left over from Her Condescension’s Finest that they needed to use up. That one was little more than a creative propaganda vehicle about how awesome it is to subjugate the Empire’s enemies, and this one is the same, without the creativity. You’d worry about how careful you’ll have to be with your inevitable scathing review, except that you’re pretty sure you can write it without any hint of a political position - in fact, you might even be able to get away with faux patriotism, bemoaning the poor quality of what could otherwise be a great tribute to Alternian might bluh bluh etcetera.
Your thumbs whack buttons and you pound your way through another convoy, venturing ahead through pixellated debris to see whether the level boss is indeed a recolor of the last level boss, like you’re betting. Despite the sheer crappiness of the game, you find yourself slipping into a state of flow, pride in the ease with which you can chew up these cardboard enemies.
Then everything gives out from under you. No preamble, no warning. What was flat and pixellated expands suddenly into full color and sound and your head is full of noise, so many voices you at first can’t parse them -
The other ships are ungainly, buzzbeasty things, mismatched tangles of modules grouped precariously like a tower of wriggler's blocks, but flanked by great glimmering wings, expanses of azure geometry slicing miles across the silhouetted planet and angled toward its star. Dragonflies, shimmering marsh-jewels paper-thin and helpless, as pinpoint light flashes at the crux between wing and capsule and the pieces drift peacefully apart. The severed wing goes into a great arcing spin, milling gradually toward the dusty-coral haze that cocoons its planet's surface...
Coordinates strafe your thinkpan in focused clusters, precise to slivers of an arcsecond, calculations so swift that they skip conscious effort and flow straight into perception, so that you know exactly where the light will blossom next, can see its filigree rushing from a capsule painted with the faded olive-drab name of a nation to lace the entire cluster, the moment of static capillary glow, and then the engulfing, disintegrating flash - you see it all, from your skin and from the planet and from lightyears out past the distant heliopause - the strike is your vision, full seconds before the blast goes off.
And the voices. The life on the alien ship, foregrounded sharp and bright in your precognitive landscape, they'll go first and they chatter to you peaceably about energy gathering and basic research, about inchoate interstellar hopes. Voices from the planet would drown them in magnitude, teeming billions, but minutes still remain until the first coordinates on the surface are scheduled for use, and so the mass of the species is still a distant harmonic thrumming, onrushing but indistinct. Time is slow in this space, while the missiles arc. The calculations have seeped through you like sand through a glass and left you empty, an instrument on standby, a catchment for the voices of the doomed...
When you kill them, you will crunch in on yourself.
You will thrash, tear, mutilate inward with their pain, you will thrum, resonate, implode with their final breaths, with their brief screaming, and that psychosomatic pop as your eardrums rend front agonized noise that does not vibrate in your air, that sounds only inside your 'pan and your twisted reconstructed knotted-in nervous system and out there, on the satellite, across the ionized gulf of near-planet space. You will open yourself to it, memorize, solemnize, you and she agree on this, she could put you under during the killing and decrease the risk of sabotage, sure, but she wants it to be your teeth that sink in, wants you to feel the kill even though you are the Crosshairs and not the genocide pulling the trigger. And you do, every time. You will scream with the doomed, you will suffer out a memorial in the wires of this death-ship to the extinct and the subjugated, you -
You are too open. You are defenseless. You are not a vessel for voices, you are a fleetbeast dead center on the highway, you have no foreknowledge of what you are about to endure, you will be destroyed, insane. You are not yourself. You are so young.
You know who you are. You know who you are.
You have never disobeyed this way before, and the incapacitating feedback circuits, caught off guard, hardly have a chance to react. You are fast. You have something - someone - to protect.
(shrieks of pain and terror, somewhere in there a faint thought of who the fuck could code an easter egg like this that you already know doesn't make any sense and then)
You slam your senses shut, and as molten light rolls across the hazy planet's surface, everything goes dark.
Everything cuts out. Even your voices are a dim cacophony, as if they're coming from a pair of headphones that aren’t on your ears. But there are no headphones here, nothing, nothing but the dark -
and someone else
like you're seeing double in the mirror, thoughts echoed and twinned to your own have split away, out of unity and into something distinct that is you-and-not-you-
(An echoing feedback; you’re seeing yourself from outside yourself: how small he is, the thought formed with a sense of disbelief at how freely it is thought, how thin, unlined and fragile...)
And then you’re you again and looking at him and he’s looking at you, staring in some kind of uncomfortable wonder. His jaw works as if he doesn’t quite remember how to speak. “I’m sorry you had to see that,” he says and the words are rough, there’s a distance carved out around them, a flatness, absence of echoes, but the voice is familiar - it sounds more like your own voice than a recording does, lisp and all.
You're pretty sure you're shaking. The awareness of your body tunes in with an odd kind of lag, as if your movement here is relayed through a remote server, but it is relayed and your senses are cutting back in and
there's actually a face in your sight. Eyes like your own, not a mirror, the same and turned opposite you, facing...
Facing you, that's strange, you remember being overlaid with those features and now you're seeing them outside of you and just taking it all in is hard.
You remember things you can't, shouldn't remember, things which make the unmarred flesh of his face a nonsensical sight to behold, and none of that is real that's just you being crazy and imagining things but the thought loses its potency when the silhouette of his horns sketches a tiny movement in the air and you know viscerally that those horns are both larger than yours and cast from the same mold.
That's a detail you hadn't thought up consciously, hadn't thought of at all; and though your mind keeps trying to skew this into some understandable framework, mostly into one which writes off the whole thing as crazy, that’s where the framework breaks down.
"I," you say. Not it's okay because that glimpse of hell was never okay, could never be okay, not for anyone or any reason. Then the urgency hits, and you're scared, because at any moment this could break and you'll never know - "Who - who are you?" The question comes from an odd place, from that part of your mind still trying to parse the doubled-quadrupled sense of identity and silence the protest of but he's me, I'm him, trying to put a label on this so you could file it somewhere other than the mass of undifferentiated crazy.
His gaze flicks from your face down to the center of your chest - for a numb moment you think there must be yellow blood there, free-associate darkness and the hazy apparition of your not-mirror with death - but he doesn't flinch or act surprised, just scans your sign like he sees what he expected to see. You catch thought-splinters, a self-awareness of his military coat, the lines from shoulders to hips - you think you might know the answer to your own question, but it seems surreal, formed from dislocated fragments of thought and myth and memory-
He starts to speak, swallows, restarts, beginning with a different sound. "I am called the Psiioniic," he replies finally, slow and stiff, a more formal introduction than is usually offered to someone your age. "What is your name, visitor?" Like who isn't an issue for him - like there's something about you that he already knows. The title he tells you is oddly nonspecific, but it will do, it’s enough for now, it gives you something to hold to.
"Sollux Captor," you say automatically, lisping your own name so badly that you wince.
And then you stop wincing almost immediately because - even if he's not you, the Psiioniic speaks the same way and - you're probably going to have a whanging headache from standing here on this knife's edge of fragile understanding, from trying to split apart who is who and what is what and who's visiting whom, and you don't care, you would grasp at anything and he offers his hand (you can feel him thinking about it before he does it, feeling out each muscle, like he's just incarnated here from nowhere and doesn't quite know how his arm works) and you reach out and take hold, smaller thin fingers linked around larger, handshake paused and frozen in the sudden jolt and enormity of contact -
Tangled up in the part of him that brought you here you can hear him interpreting you, attaching words faster than you can open your mouth to protest them, far from home and in danger and mine alone to bear and so that he will never again have to see- there's a thin film swirling in toward your joined hands, red and blue and at first you think it might be something you created without knowing it.
But then, "I'm sorry," he repeats, and he flinches his hand out of yours as if you've burned him, and there's a word he's gathering his resources to speak, and as the bicolored film shimmers and begins to sheet over into a pane where your hands once were, you know almost before he even thinks it that the word is Goodbye - you feel him beginning to slip away.
A tiny part of you is relieved, knows that the ground will be more solid under your feet with him gone, but you override it, all the rest of you mustering in one enormous NO -
You catch at his hand and everything in you hangs onto that renewed grip, brutally casting aside the ways in which it is not physical, not caring if the act tears great gashes in the boundaries between parts of your mind that you've kept carefully separate before now, not caring if you break down the walls of sanity - you tug and pull and draw it into the real with everything you have, everything that is you and your will and your purpose.
You've acted in desperation before, used your psionics to catch a bad fall, and this is that but also something more and other than that and it's nothing like anything you've done before, your hand is like a magnet and it sings and burns with the energy and you can't, won't let go -
His severing wall rips at your hand, your sparks and claws furrow into his, and suddenly the shape of his thoughts twists, gives way, and you’re hanging onto a ship at war - bright, furious desperation, all ion cannons and targeting computers and the thoughts ring so loudly they slice into you even as he digs the divide into your skin like a blade: (good, good, give me scars to remember you by, once I have wiped you clean) -
and it’s fucking terrifying but you won’t let go, you won’t - the wall of energy between you bears down and bites, and you bleed onto the hull as you're dragged through darkness, yellow rivulets streaming down - you sink your fingers knuckle-deep into sheet metal, you drag and weigh and refuse to move -
- his wrist. Gray skin and - you blink, and everything snaps back to scale, you're clutching at skin again, not screaming metal, your claws sunk down to the fingerpads in the flesh of his palm and your knuckles bone-white with strain.
He's staring at the back of your hand, a single clean slice, thin and deep and welling yellow - staring, still as marble, like he's never seen blood before, and his hand doesn't curl around yours, but he is no longer pulling away. You hiss softly at the injury but you can’t afford to flinch. His psionic boundary hesitates for a moment, thins to a slick... and melts into darkness.
Your pulling has drawn him nearer; his mind resonates so close to yours that his slow return to himself creeps over your skin as he whispers, "How - " And his thoughts race over your nerves (I will mean nothing but pain to you) when he gives up and changes his question. "Why?"
Everything around you is bright with the haze and aurora of red and blue and your face is wet with hot tear-tracks and you must not, will not close your eyes, or let go of the pain, which flares and throbs in your hand like a clean and harsh light and relieves for a moment the terrible strain of uncertainty.
"You can't just - show me all that and then leave me here." Your voice wavers inanely as it leaves your throat, thready at the start of the sentence and breaking in the middle and almost shouting at the end.
Because even though you can't begin to analyze, can't begin to think of this as empirical or to see from here whether the code compiles, as long as you are standing here in this place-non-place you are certain for once. The dreams and uncanny knowledge, the flashes of pain and glimpses of transcendence: they come from him, your ancestor; they must. His voice and his face stitch together these fragments shored against your ruins, and the staggering epiphany of it fills an empty place in your mind that you've been trying to deny existed.
All the walls that hold you together by holding the separate pieces of you apart are torn and flapping in the wind now, and if you are wrong about this it will break you. Even though he's no longer fighting, no longer trying to sever the connection, you keep hanging on. Every muscle in your body trembles as if the exertion were physical.
But you know that it wasn't, at least not entirely, know it because there's been a shift in the nature of your link with him, feel it as clearly as you now see the dividing line between you. When you catch onto scraps of his thoughts - something has changed - although his preoccupations sometimes parallel yours, you can distinguish that you did not give rise to them. (sorting through the possibilities coherently enough to understand - can't get lucid here, a liminal place, this, I made a cliff's edge, built of a spike of terror, the too-close swirling together of identities, a refusal to look - what am I seeing, what has he done -)
Flashes of your visions, looping and snapping out of focus - the vertiginous tumbling glory of flight, his crushed-up dripping agonized body
- he is seeing his own past through your eyes, somehow you’ve left this unlocked, the perigees of horror and wonder and the protective structure your reeling mind spun around your visions. You don’t know why it’s desperately embarrassing, to know that he sees you seeing him makes you feel so exposed and -
- and you didn't just pull him closer, did you? You can't tell what parts of your mind you've drawn him into, can't control what he can and cannot see, just clutch at the part of his mind that is knotted up in thinking about you, turbulent and self-contradictory and awed by you in some way you feel no one has any right to be -
And then he’s speaking, consciously, to you. "What I have shown you doesn't have to be yours, Sollux," he says and it takes a moment to register the way he thinks and speaks your name at once, in layers, testing it gravely in his mind and on his tongue as if its mere vibration constitutes a promise. "It doesn't have to..." Mean so much, he almost says, and you're halfway to baring your teeth in a snarl before but that isn't even close to being true- "...dominate your future, or who you become. Please, if you only remember one thing when you wake up, I tried to tell you that you are not me."
In the back of your mind you know you're burning through your energy reserves, slight enough already from a morning of pretending that instant soups count as food, and you can't hold this much longer, you're shaking like a leaf as you clutch to your ancestor's hand and bleed on him and try to burn the memory of him into your mind. (There are places he could go with what I've given - forced on - him) - he’s been speaking with closely marshaled calm, but he's thinking about you jet-engine-loud - (Where the voices of the doomed are legion, and sing only of endings -) But you aren't having any of it, you're fading, you have to say it -
"Psiioniic--" Speaking is an effort, and you don't want to show how much is is, so it comes out sarcastic at first. "I know that, okay, I know, that's why this is important, don't go -” With some distant awareness you think you should be ashamed of the way that sounded, inane and babbling and whiny, but you'll beat yourself up over it later; there isn't the - right now you know that as soon as you pull back the slightest piece of your concentration, it'll all come crashing down. "Tell me - tell me everything -"
His voice buzzes and shimmers in your head, with an urgency to it that mirrors the urgency you feel, even though you can barely take it in. “If I owe you the truth,” he says, “then I also owe you time that right now you don’t have -”
And there was, there is, something important. Something vitally, vitally important that you have to tell him, a thought you've been wanting to speak, somehow, for perigees and perigees, and your ability to speak is breaking down - lisping is the least of your problems, your thinkpan is losing its hold on language. Forming the thought into words suddenly seems like writing a difficult program, a challenging hack that wasn't supposed to be possible. But as soon as you frame it that way it becomes more possible and the words start to take form.
They articulate and compile in slow motion. Language isn't usually this hard, it doesn't usually ache to make words, but then you're not usually pushing them through your near-empty psionic reserves and you have to tell him, because he's not you but he's enough of you that you know what he needs, the little of it that you can give him -
"You," the words come thickly, slowly, "Don't have to... be alone..." even as you flicker on the edge of consciousness, even as the image of his face starts to warp and flicker into static and your hand starts to go dead and nerveless in his.
>>Psiioniic: Lose contact.
His presence in your head strobes; his body fuzzes in and out of your vision like the signal from a broken sensor; and you almost miss what he's saying in the pauses between words, as you spin uselessly in your own head trying to work out exactly what it was that you just promised him. You don't have to be- no, that's him speaking, that's not you, that's him inside your mind and the ragged edges of his syllables -
Sollux Captor. Tiny and preternaturally powerful and your descendant, sharing in the pieces of you that brought you so close to overturning the world, the same powers and drives and genetic miscues that exalted you and turned against you. Who just recreated in a momentary blinding effort a mirror in your mind of the connection that had taken the reaching loneliness of your subconscious perigees to build in his.
"Don't go" - a binding, not a plea, even though his voice was pleading. And it hits you like a hand to the cheek, unsubtle, a sliced wire, a bypass. You're fading yourself, now that he has gone; this space needs the both of you or it collapses on itself, expels you, you can't stay. But you clutch raking fingers through the soft blue void left where his hand was, ionized and charged with annihilation, where the particles that made him up met with their opposites and, until one of you calls again, erased his image... as if that void could pull back into itself the choice he's made. There's a memory of his aching inside of you, a memory of the hollow inside the words, and twinned with that memory is the dull uncompromising knowledge that you tried to shield him from this, but did not do nearly all you could. So he thinks he can reach you.
You, failed rebel, killer, machine - you, snarl of wires and gnawed inside-out with your own death-itch - you, skeletal torsion, a mind purified and remade in the deaths of stars, who build your thoughts piece by piece of dying screams and last breaths - perhaps he isyou, and you were wrong. Perhaps he wants what you want. For he might as well pity the great yawning interstellar deeps - you will swallow him whole.
(Oh, but) - the kick-whine humming of the engines - (but you) - the slow cool of the weapons as you float clear of the ruins...
... (but you so want to save him.) Feedback. Feedback and pain.
>>Helmsman: Be punished.
Chapter 4: it's a hollow play but they'll clap anyway
You crawl back into your command centers through a narrow sideways channel of machine code, back to your body where she wants you: your body the central emplacement on the front line from which you can never retreat.
And in another time and place, Aradia is awesome.
Some of the HTML formatting was borked initially - it's fixed now.
==>Helmsman: be punished.
ROOT.OVERRIDE CODE ***********
...............1$&, < 9%...............................
Your normal operating routines try, fail, try to resume; hit full force and splinter on the wall of pain and static, again and again; and it takes several attempts before you even realize that the neural feedback is trying to nudge you towards resuming operation; that by brute-forcing it's making its own objective impossible -
- but it will keep happening until you are fully online again, fully present and cognizant.
It is intolerable by design. Not just painful; specifically intolerable. It cuts out your ability to endure; pulls you into an automatic flinch response away from actions or even decisions which are not appropriate for the Battleship Condescension.
You had, you should have, every part of this system mapped. Nociceptors spliced into unnatural reflex arcs that run through your psionic centers and shove them back on course, cognitive functions directly wired to snap back from pain like a hand from a hot iron. You stopped trying to fight with it early enough, when it became clear that every attempt to break out increased the level of detail at which the hammer could fall.
Now there are neurons involved that you don't even recognize, and entirely new external relays, and you're kicked out of your own system more completely than you've been for centuries. The feedback circuits are both keeping you locked out and punishing every moment that you spend unable to get back in, making you redouble your efforts to re-initiate awareness - even as bursts of agony drop out parts of your consciousness, over and over again.
You crawl back into your command centers through a narrow sideways channel of machine code, squeezing yourself into a bare thread of binary, process by process, back to your body where she wants you: your body the central emplacement on the front line from which you can never retreat. It has been screaming for long enough to coat the chin in slobber, loud enough to produce a faint hum of tinnitus that doesn’t immediately fade when you come back online and stop the noise.
System restarted but functioning impaired by sensory data outside tolerances - you pour reports into your wires, automatic. Your systems complain of blank spots, time gaps where the ship-data was overridden by volleys of signals from your broken flesh.
Laughter cuts in, meaningless until you force a data feed open through the biological senses, even though your normal maintenance routines would have them cut out of the loop right now, they only serve to impair - she is doing this to make you listen.
You can see her, now, pouting from your viewscreen, your repaired vision capturing every pixel of her wrist-thick tendrils of hair and every last impeccably curled eyelash as she blinks slowly in affected disbelief. “You missed the party,” she says, her voice plaintive like a child’s. Pause. Sudden slide down the tonal scale, then off it all together in a vicious hiss. ”You never miss my parties.”
I’m sorry, you send through your wires, quickly, before it becomes obvious which part of that you’re sorry for.
You try to block the sense of relief and gratitude that you can output through the terminal with the knowledge that if she forced you to speak through your biologicals right now, the words would come out unintelligible. That would be inconvenient. Her Imperial Condescension does not stoop to saying what? repeatedly and she only plays that game when she wants a simple reason to hit you, to slap your body backhand until she’s worked her temper out.
It is not her favorite mode of entertainment.
As though reading your thoughts back to you - did you let something slip? there’s something you mustn’t let slip, not ever not ever and the thought pulls you to full awareness, kicks sluggish synapses into motion - she says, “Helmsman, honey, how nice of you to notice how bored I’ve been getting.”
I aim to please. Or something like that.
But her voice rises to a wail. “But being sharkastic isn’t nice at all!” - and you see her hands move on the controls, see, in slow motion, her immaculate claw resting over the button before she presses it, and for a moment you’re upset, more than anything else, that she’s using the technology wrong - the point of the feedback system is supposed to be automatic and aversive, you’re supposed to be able to use it to detect when your actions are veering off the prescribed course and avoid making the mistake; the override is new. It’s new and it’s counterproductive and it must be what locked you out.
There is no time to protest and no point in it if there were. Your last cogent thought for several minutes is that you hadn’t meant to be sarcastic. (You were sarcastic, nonetheless. Some habits sit so deep no number of centuries can dislodge them.)
And then once again you’re laboriously shoving yourself back into half-functional synapses, because the aversive feedback means that there’s nowhere else to go that works, that even trying to climb away from the pain raises it to intolerable levels -
Her voice comes through your biologicals warped now, as if through a tunnel filled with water, and you have to work and focus to make it parse at all.
“It’s not as if we can have a mass extinction event every night, you know - UB-219 was a very special party. You must be so disappointed.” She says something about the glorious spectacle of your light cannons, and how you would have loved to see that, and then you can’t help it, you drop words out. Your machine inputs aren’t functioning, you can’t record, the body-ears are still ringing from screams and the insular cortex has been overloaded completely - you desperately scramble to reconstruct meanings from the smear of noise, and she is saying “- my eager weapon, you’ll have your chance,” and then -
The harvest moons bright as morning, bright as the killing rage pumped into you, tense and chemical and goading-hot in your vasculars and you know the penalty is not just physical this time.
Here you are simply violence and motion, sparking at the palms and glowing to the shoulders and snarling deep and feral. You are going to kill them all. An elderly agriculler watches your advent with helpless olive eyes -
- but even as he cries out in fear, there is silence on another wavelength, mounting anger and engulfing, nerve-shearing, boundless silence (you mark that blessed silence to recount to yourself later, a lucid moment that you cannot actually feel because it’s not chemically possible.) Not a single doomed voice, they cannot duplicate that, not yet -
The worst part is the relief you feel, as the simulation closes over you and you cave to a pinpoint under its pressure; the worst part is knowing that, had you the choice, you might well choose this exercise over being left to struggle in the wreckage of your overloaded nerves and implants and cables. That you are glad to let it bear you free of the flood of malfunction alarms and into the hallucination-bright field of wheat.
Their blood is turquoise and cerulean, amber and ochre, forest and clay, but under the moons, at the center of the field when you dig your fingers into the yielding underside of her chin, the softly pretty, broad-shouldered orangeblood, when her eyes sheen over and her hands twitch and drop from your forearms and she makes a sound like stepping in soft mud -
When in the methodic rapture of the hunt you push up and back at her jaw until the base of her neck clenches - clicks - gives -
When she bleeds from a mouth of crushed teeth, soaks over your fingers and drips to warm your aching, clutching hands -
All blood runs pale in this moonlight, shiny and slick, mirror to the twined luminescence of the twinned full moons, lime and blush drowning each other's hues until anything that reflects (the orangeblood's wide-open rolled-in eyes, her stringy blood-matted hair, her daggerkind dropped and stuck blade-deep in loam) transmutes into a sickly white.
When the question is not whether, but how, then killing is simple.
And then it's you, unarmed and six sweeps old - but it’s not. From outside it would look the same as always, the last act of viciousness against your remembered self, but this isn’t you at all, it’s him. It's him and his hands clutching sheaves of wheat, chaff in his hair, chin up and eyes on fire and waiting for you to make your move. It's your mark dusted over in field-gray on his tattered shirt. It's him and although they never speak in this space except to choke, although they never curse you when you cut them down, you can hear him. I dare you, ancestor, and instead of glowing his mind grates, you want - I fucking dare you, he says, calmly, There’s a time for everyone to die -
You spread your fingers on his chest and focus, What are you waiting for? get your depth, and You warned me and still I am here you reach in through your fingertips and pulse and
”Don’t you remember that I chose this?”
==>Sollux: be yourself.
You can’t place exactly when the transition from unconsciousness to sleeping and dreaming occurs, only that you are, anyway, sleeping and dreaming; and your dreams are textured with the kind of uncomfortably vicious itch that comes from falling asleep outside the recuperacoon.
So it seems pretty normal at first that you’re watching... one of you killing another of you.
No. You’re watching...
Lucidity slides in, like a polarizing filter. You’re watching him kill a... simulacrum of you? Of himself?
The third-person, the him in that sentence is new. And it’s important. You’re standing outside of this, riding with neither party, standing not in either body but outside the whole picture. That’s new, too.
You try to speak, but your words sink into the noise and haze; you are barred from the event; your mind is like claws catching at a smooth surface without finding purchase. There are things you know, without understanding how you know them: it is a dream, after all. Like even though you’re not anywhere, you know where you would be if you were, hovering in the air behind the simulacrum that is you and not-you and flickering to pieces in that terrifying bright grip - and when you shout again in surprise or panic his head turns and his eyes, for one moment, rest on the invisible place from which you observe -
The dream crumbles to nothing around you, and you wake still trying to talk, a jumbled stream of reassurance, to him or to yourself. “It’s okay - I’m not you - I’m not - I’m okay -”
But your mouth is dry to croaking, and your head hollow with pain. Despite it you scramble to sitting and nearly black out again as your circulatory system compensates, too slow then too fast, and the space between your temples feels like someone took your brain and filled it up with something twice as heavy as usual. The irritable feeling of waking after a day slept without sopor doesn’t help, either.
And your mind is replaying memories of dreams and not-dreams and even though the weird painful rigidity sets them out of focus, they still make everything else seem smaller, detached, less important.
Oh, shit.The game review is due tonight. You drag yourself up to standing and march circles in the clutter, impatient with the way your head pounds, trying half-successfully to walk it off. The grub is still plugged into the display, the graphic stamped on the side advertising twice as many kinds of cheesy bad-graphic weaponry as the last one, and you have to look away because standing up already made you sick enough to your stomach and - nope. Not playing that thing.
Okay, it’s not like nobody’s ever cheated their way to a writing gig before. The way these grubs are locked down, reading the source requires hacking the hardware, but you have the tools. You wire the fucker in through your mainframe directly and read the source off your husktop from there. It gives you enough to be able to report cogently on the endgame. Your attempt to rip a new nook for the thing on account of quality control is feeble and lackluster compared to what you’d hoped, but deadlines are deadlines, and you send it out as-is, with a note to the editor, not caring that it might lose you work.
can you 2end me 2omethiing that2 not a 2pace 2hooter next tiime at lea2t? iim gettiing burned out on the genre. thank2.
You would call off your date with Aradia, any other time you woke up in this condition, but you’ve just overheard your neighbor Caerci talking a little too loudly on the phone with her ‘favorite’ seadweller and you want to be out of the hivestem when that piece of work arrives, twice your size and almost to majority and boiling over with poorly concealed temper. You wouldn’t put it past the client to try culling you casually in one of her fits of hormone-fueled frustration, and you think you’d almost rather be conscripted as a Helmsman - no, let’s not think of that right now, let’s do something else please - than be whacked in the halls by a violetblood socially incompetent enough to need a rent ‘rail, because that is a fate with no fucking dignity. (Premonitory whispers occasionally tell you it’s not the fate in store for you, either, but you’re also not too keen on getting beaten to a pulp.)
Caerci - who you think is a girl, though it’s hard to tell through the layers of fuzzy comfort sweaters - is genuinely likeable; you have sympathy for whatever the reason she’s trying to save all this money (though you’re convinced you’d wind up over your head in Someone Else’s Problems as soon as you tried asking the little brownblood about it,) and you’d never be enough of an asshole to try getting someone culled for zoning violations. But there are reasons why this building’s strictly a lowblood residence, and why highbloods generally don’t do the communal hivestem thing.
And you just ran out of instant soup, which makes nestling into your hive with your headphones on and waiting out the inevitable shooshing-punctuated tantrum a poor option indeed.
The long and short of it is that once you leave the hivestem, you’re going to have to stay out for a while. At least you’ve got an hour before Caerci’s worst girlfriend comes by. Enough time to sit and collect honey and save it for later. You’re really not up to sparring with Bicyclopsdad tonight, even if you had the time.
Ingesting mind honey yourself would be a bad idea: even the contact high from having your hands gooped in it while fixing your mainframe sometimes rattles you, makes your thinkpan rev uncomfortably and involuntary zaps of light flare from your eyes. You didn't need the warnings - stamped all over your mainframe apparatus, declaring the substance EXTREMELY HAZARDOUS TO ANY PERSON WITH A COGNITIVE + PSIONIC RATING OVER 144 - to tell you that.
But they did give you the idea of feeding the stuff to your lusus, since the combined rating seemed to be the thing. While you have fond memories of Bicyclopsdad frying small prey to a crisp for your wriggler self, he’s not the brightest even for a lusus; thus, his cognitive rating puts him well below the danger zone. Sure enough, he can play more complex games under the influence: and display a more annoying sense of humor. Being on guard against bright rays of colorful force sweeping out behind your ankles to trip you is definitely an aid to your self-training.
You’ve never had your own ratings checked, not officially. A sweep or two ago, you were only being lazy about it. There are homemade videos on the net, of psionics running through the exercises, to show you what a given rating "looks" like in practice - mass lifted, fine control, other nuances of performance - and you could easily identify by comparison.
But now that’s changed, just like your voice and your bulge and everything else. Only, the rest of the world seems to know what to do with those things, and this -
You even used to put your rating in your forum signature, back when you were four; pure luck stopped you, back before you knew to be paranoid. Other trolls kept assuming you were older, based on your strength, and approaching you about quadrants.
Now you can't find anyone on video running through tests at your level successfully. There's one of a rustblood boy a couple sweeps your elder, stammering his way through a last few exercises and saying, "And then it got too hard," but you can do those last few pretty easily. You're still trying to find a transcript of what the next set are even supposed to look like.
There just aren't adults out there recording them. You know everyone gets stronger in adolescence and so it stands to reason that there should be. There are adult tutorials on everything else...
...so thinking about it makes you very glad that you never did any of the official testing. Because now that you’ve thought of it - even the automated tests must report the results to someone. It nags at your mind sometimes that they might try to trace your dead handle, and you shove it aside; there’s nothing you can do about it that you haven’t already done. Thinking about what it might mean only makes your head hurt more, and this is a dead end and - you’re going to be late meeting Aradia.
The communal vehicular transport isn’t kind to a roiling stomach. It sneaks up on you; you don’t realize how badly you’re feeling until you step off pale and sweating at the automalleria, barely able to stay on your feet or see through the haze of spirally-twisty light, and you slump onto a bench near the first atrium of vendomats, mash your glasses down over your eyelids, curl up into the corner and wait for the pain and nausea to recede.
This place is near-abandoned - there’s one with a much better selection at the city center. But you and Aradia both enjoy quiet places; she can get here from her rural hive, and you from your urban one, with roughly similar ease. Right now, though, you don’t think you could stand up with any kind of ease.
She manages to find you, some length of time later, even though you’re nowhere near the meeting place the both of you have planned. “Oh, no, Sollux.” It’s not exactly the politest of greetings. But it is weirdly comforting to hear her being exasperated with you. Anyone else using that tone would make you cringe.
“Hi, AA,” you mumble, and try to smile at her.
Aradia settles next to you on the bench and maneuvers your head into her lap, and though it should be awkward, that somehow hurts less than anything else your head has experienced for a while. “Why did you even come out here?” she asks. “I could have come over to your hive.” She hooks your glasses off smoothly and you don’t flinch because she knows to settle a hand where they were, as soon as they’re gone.
“Long story,” you mumble, and she lets you be silent, and you’re content to just drift for a while as she sings to you and rubs your head, thumbs softly squeezing and pulling to make the tide of harsh brightness recede and let you emerge from it again. You’re not sure how much time passes like this, you never are, but she never loses patience. It’s as if you’re one of her excavations, as if she’s scraping heavy clay soil from your thinkpan with careful determined fingers. As if there’s something there she wants to see, wants enough to dig, enough to peel away the obstructions. You can’t comprehend what it might be.
The song she’s singing - you can’t think of anything more perfectly, exactly Aradia. It’s an antiquated pop song; you almost couldn’t tell, because the style has come back in, but the lyrics are shot through with quaint slang. Some of the words have changed meaning outright and she sings those parts playfully, neither innocent of the double entendres nor quite exploiting them.
It is so Aradia, and it makes you grin and grinning makes you realize the headache’s gone to a near-nothing, and you’re tired and grateful and loopy enough to start laughing.
“Well,” she says as you prop yourself up a little further - “That worked, then. Good. Welcome back,” and you know she means from being sacked out in her lap with a migraine, but - it’s also the first totally clear moment you’ve had tonight, and it reminds you -
the clasp of hands / the reverse mirror / distance
- of things you don’t even have the beginnings of how to talk about. “Mmh,” you say, and you blink glazed-eyed, pensive, squinting up at the halo of artificial light around her hair and horns. “Hi.”
“Why did you think it was a good idea to get on a transport vehicle, anyway?” she asks gently, and you tell her about Caerci and the highblood, and she offers her own place.
One day’s dreaming isn’t long enough to know if the problem is resolved, not really. And yet-- “I don’t know if you want to deal with me freaking out in my sleep,” you tell her, which is not an outright refusal. Just a true statement.
Aradia shrugs. That’s another thing that makes her awesome; she doesn’t tell you it doesn’t matter, it’s nothing when that’s not true. “I would deal with you freaking out,” she says, “if you needed me to. Come over if you feel comfortable, then,” she says. “Or we could just stay here, too, and get you back to your hive at the end of the night. I need to buy a few things anyway - Kanaya is making me a dress for my FLARP character, and so I’ve got to make a stop at the fabricstruder...” She chatters merrily to you about all the plans they’re cooking up.
“Look at you, AA... all making things and doing things and stuff,” you murmur, wonderingly, your voice a little wistful. And a little jealous.
She chuckles. “I don’t know what the big deal is! It’s just for a game - something to pass the time.”
“You are objectively more fabulous than I deserve, you know that.” It started out as a compliment but now you can’t help but feel like a third wheel, exhausted, un-useful. Yestereve you had all these ideas and plans and now they seem like they belong to someone better and more interesting than you. “Why do you even hang out with me? - Don’t even say because I’m your moirail, I mean, that’s circular reasoning. We’re moirails because you’ve decided for some reason that -”
“Because,” she interrupts you, voice quiet, eyes flashing, “I need someone who understands what it’s like. As badly as you do, Sollux Captor. Don’t forget that.”
And then you feel like a jerk. You hate it when your thinkpan just caves under you like this and you hate even more the way it makes you sound. “Ughh, forget I said anything, I’m sorry. Shit. If you need to talk about any-”
“It’s okay,” she says, and she changes position, presses her chin firmly over the back of your shoulder and wraps around you from behind, arms crossed over yours, fierce, protective. “It’s okay. Don’t fall all over yourself apologizing. Make it up to me by remembering what I said. And let me know when you’re up to walking around a bit. I’m hungry. And I always make you put on a sweater when I’m cold, so tonight, just to be consistent, I won’t let you leave this place without an armload of groceries.” Aradia smirks at you, impish, silly, and it’s a huge joke; a joke that’s not a joke; a joke you simply wouldn’t take from anyone else.
Nothing is perfect, not even tonight; but the future and the past seem to drop out of focus, at least, in those times when she fills up your view.
Chapter 5: cup your hands like the conch to your ear
"I think, I think last time you could hear me I asked you to tell me everything. I. I still want that." You look him square in the eye, still can't get over how his eyes reverse-mirror yours, and your stupid defensiveness goes to brittle nothing like a drying soap bubble.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
It's almost harder to get to that place when you're trying to than when you're not. You have to shut up the clamoring parts of your subconscious - something about the last two days has jolted you into an entirely new kind of sleep-lucidity. You think you could probably wake on Prospit if you tried. But that almost doesn't matter, even though it nags in the back of your mind, and you don't want to try - not right now - you don’t want to turn away.
When you let your awareness slide, you drift toward him, as if pulled by gravity. You’re aware of that, now, in ways you were not. It’s still frightening - but in some way, knowing where you're going, even only vaguely, makes everything different and balances fear with anticipation.
You know you're getting close when you begin to hear numbers, flowing past somewhere underneath you, multilayered concatenated tangles of them, the marking of time by the flicker of a distant pulsar and the rhythms of maintenance routines that make up his waiting consciousness...
And you press closer - frightened as you do, frightened for him, of what you saw in that moment of hallucinatory violence before the dream broke -
But you know this language and can speak it. Somewhere in between the dreams slipping into the back of your mind and the coding that occupies your waking hours - even though it's not the same as that at all, the underpinnings are the same.
Some sub-lucid part of you sends a ping, automatic, a stream of psionic pulses - something you probably learned from him, sleeping, because it's not anything you would have imagined doing, awake...
The first pulse echoes back empty, a weakened iteration of itself. The second, he returns something, and even if it's just jumbled navigation chatter - Gamma Cephei, twenty two degrees fourteen minutes, heading - it's chatter drawn off-course and directed at you.
The third... fragments of coordinates, but it's difficult to tell whether this is just another bit thrown at random from the stream or your ancestor trying to tell you where he is. Not that coordinates matter, in dream space. You've never found Prospit on a map.
And again, and again. Until finally, just as through the warping of dreamspace you begin to guess that you are describing circles around some midpoint where he might be, but you can't seem to reach -
...I will find you.
Darkness and disorientation close in around you as you listen for his sensory pings. Although his pulses ring clearer and stronger than yours did, they still don't bring you closer to finding your way; they seem to come from everywhere, as if you are underwater and he is searching from the surface. This isn't working. You hear, Wait-
There's a cold tingling in the palm of your hand, so fleeting that you write it off as an artifact of the utter nothing being fed to your senses. You almost dismiss the voice the same way, but then, directionless but clear,
Reach for me.
You're still getting accustomed to this lucid dreaming thing - the subconscious knows how to be here, but not what to do, and the conscious vice versa.
But then - the memory sharper even than waking: his hand, and your effort of will to hold it there, hold it in the real. That thing which occurred. Which is still, in some way, occurring, in perpetual motion. It doesn't take that effort again to bring to mind now - it's this hard sharp piece of something real and true and oddly permanent, and as soon as the image comes in, you can feel his hand taking shape against yours once more and you pull.
He becomes visual all at once, this time, as if your hold had brought him not just here, but into being - but there's a continuity in the way he looks at you, adjusts his fingers against your hand as if he wants to drop hold of you and take a step back, untangle from each other enough to allow you space for a change of course. He still holds himself formal and upright, painted over with discomfort, mouth tight at the corners and eyes blank. But he brushes close to a wince when he asks, "How much did you see?"
Your hand stays clasped around his, automatically, and it's not clear whether that's fear of losing him, a relic of the contact you pushed, or something else entirely; you're not trying to examine that right now. Words have caught in your throat and made a big gluey lump there, you have to swallow before you can speak, and when you do speak it's from a not-quite-sensible misery. "I'm sorry..."
For intruding on something private and terrible. For the horrible conviction, moving up on the back of your thinkpan like the clouds of a distant thunderstorm, that, this time at least, you did something to cause the violent daymare he was lost in when you found him. For not being able to stop it from happening.
"You're - " There's a shocked suspended silence while something in him turns over, opens up, and you catch for a moment at an unguarded image of your ancestor, younger than you, arms flung across his face to - "Oh.”
"Child." And he reaches out the hand that isn't joined to yours, shaky but certain, presses his palm just above your temple, carding into your hair and resting there, not quite a pap but not entirely not - "Do you not know that I chose this? Do you think I did not understand where the uses I made of my freedom would end? I had nearly a lifetime to choose... and prepare.”
You work your mouth uneasily, incredulously at chose this and the hand that hangs down at your side clenches and you're filled with questions about why, how he would say that, but your words are sticky and gummy and crowd uselessly in your thinkpan and catch in your throat. And you can see reasons, too, why his might be a fate worth choosing, though you can’t begin to understand just yet -
"You want to be pulled into my wires and stand there unarmed in the line of fire every time I transgress? Then I will go on suffering after my pain kills you just as I did before.”
Open-eyed and open-mouthed, you let the lecture go in; you’re not in any mood to resist his reprimands. It's kind of a relief to have someone who's not yourself castigating you over your failures, to hear that vicious bitterness in another voice - it saves you the trouble - though you still haven't moved this whole experience to the category of empirical. You’re nodding slightly, glumly, your mouth pulled into a sideways expression of self-reproach.
But the next thing he says catches you up, chases you out of yourself for a moment. “If you are going to try to crush yourself under my burden, let me help you learn to bear it. I can teach you other uses for our... neurological aberrancies... than letting them turn on you and consume you alive."
He pulls away, finally, turns as if he doesn’t want you to see - shards of memory, eons ago, sun and blood and sparks and there’s no better way to get a hacker’s attention than to hint at information out of reach, and you can’t help it, you try to see more, but it’s pulled out of reach and he continues speaking - "You are more in control than I was at your age, but do not think that you are powerful enough to force me to be party to a death wish. I cannot compel you to close your mind to me, but you will find the doors and become able to use them."
There's something unsaid, too, that he must know as well as you - a statistical inevitability that you've started to piece together in the back of your mind. The lack of adult psionics on the Internet... there are only so many kinds of choices. You don’t want to think about it, so instead you sass him weakly over the clutter of unsaid words. "Heh. You sound like my moirail. Well, not really. Sort of." It's a stealthy compliment, though, and something else; you're letting him know that you do have people who care about you, that you're not as alone as you feel sometimes - you can't hide from him, not when - not when all this. "I think, I think last time you could hear me I asked you to tell me everything. I. I still want that." You look him square in the eye, still can't get over how his eyes reverse-mirror yours, and your stupid defensiveness goes to brittle nothing like a drying soap bubble.
"Everything," he echoes, and turns back in to you, rubs at the yellow uniform bands along his hairline in a nervous gesture that you don't recognize in yourself. "Everything, then," and he gives this bitter toothy little smile and "We were hatched into servitude, then. They trained the lusii with strangely colored eyes to bear us straight from the brooding caverns to the testing grounds..."
Memories drape about you like thrown cloth, asynchronous and folded over each other and vivid with your ancestor's voice slipping through the weave to illuminate them. The designs that crumbling plaster made in the ceiling of the room where he was left, alone and silent and migraine-heavy as if the cracks were in his skull, for three days after the first test of his powers. The marching blurred-together nights of floating joists and roof-slate for hivestems and the sleepless days of simulations, calculations, memory exercises, more tests. The clouded-over night at five sweeps old when he floated himself over the walls of the testing grounds during a levitation drill and just kept going, barely conscious with fatigue, unsure whether he was trying to escape or simply couldn't stop. The cracked ceiling again, blood and sparks and teeth scattered in the dirt and underneath him.
Walling a hivestem near morning in the cold light season, the streets silent and desolate except for the gray-cloaked stranger on the corner who glares into the sky as if he can help lift the great whitestone blocks just by willing them to rise - Losing his focus when the stranger's hood falls back and as his burden thunders toward the ground he sees -
- he sees -
- he sees -
The memory sticks, skips, freezes, whitestone suspended stories above the street, and you're a drop caught in the stream of it, eddying up against some neural barrier until the scene jags over and zooms and -
- The color of sunset through the haze of seaside cities - the color of leaves at the turning of the cold dark season, poised vivid at the cusp of the fall - the color of canyon-stone where the scarred earth plunges -
- #####sensorfault.visualinputnotrecognized##### -
- The dusty, yellow-robed backs of the enslaved in the courtyard of the confinement block, crowded around a troll who is too small to be visible over the throng drinking in a message that he doesn't need to hear because he has already made his choice, can't hear anyway over his own voice lisping doom inside his head - The crowd roars and the air sparks orange and gold and green and he levitates to look, and -
- #####memoryfault.attemptingtoaccessfeedbackprojectedarea. redirecting...redirecting... INPUT DESTINATION COORDINATES FOR TIME VALUE 04:13:52 2009.01.24 _ -
You're sucked out of memory with a plummeting vertiginous rush and you jolt back into the suffocating dark of dreamspace like startling from the edge of sleep. The Psiioniic flickers and sparks, a bad projection anchored only by the steady febrile glow of his bicolored eyes; resolves with his hands on his forehead and sinks into a crouch.
"This is... I haven't had a migraine in... a thousand sweeps. I had forgotten..." He winces, but there's more wonder in his voice than pain. "...I have memory restrictions, but they are mainly preemptive and of my own making. I can loosen them, given time."
So that's what it looks like from the outside, you think lamely. "Aw, hell, I hate those.” He draws in on himself and digs his claws shallowly in on one side of his forehead, just above his red eye, and you don't think they're ever going to stop startling you, these moments when he reads like a mirror: he's trying to distract himself. You can almost see it, the shoots and crushes of pain starting to take root in the opposite side of his brain, blooming from the base of his horns, and from an automatic sense of compassion you shuffle closer and start reaching for his temples, urgently wanting to try doing the thing Aradia did for you, to draw the pain out - but you hesitate, unsure why you're hesitating, heart fluttering strangely in your throat. "Can I..."
His eyes flick up to your hand and drop closed and you can't tell if he really wants you to or if it's just kind of reflexive when he says, "OK," all tired and soft, but you know which side of his head to reach for. You're not entirely accustomed to what this feels like from the outside but you know the way AA makes little circles with her hands along your scalp, and you raise your thumbpads to his temples - both sides, because even when the headache is on one side, it's easier to make it rattle back and forth than to chase it off completely if you’re not careful. The flats of your fingers come to rest at the bases of his horns, anchoring.
A slow, stuttering exhale and he relaxes down, half-kneeling, letting his hands fall to rest on the unseen ground and quirking his chin so that if his eyes were open, he'd be looking back at you. Instinct tells you to hold there, wait, your fingers quiet until he barely shifts: nods forward so you're taking some of the weight off his neck. Your thumbpads dig a little into his forehead and - he tenses, freezes, the momentum of the gesture lost.
He inhales, and you both hold your breath for the second it takes before he sighs, flexes his shoulders back a little as if the space between them itches, leans in again. You feel - there's this moment of phantom pressure where you remember, remember slippage from his mind, remember a cable reaching into your spine - you push it away, ignore it determinedly, focus on what you have as you slide down to get him in reach. The weight of his head in your hands, your thumbs smoothing firm little arcs through his hair along the little ridges of muscle above and in front of his ears, your fingers pressing in tighter around the outer horns; harder on the side that hurts... you know this complicated game of balance because it's the same as your own.
You knead, and his mouth falls slack a little, the barest vague sound rasping at the back of his throat, and for a suspended moment this is working, and you're attuned and disbelieving and so careful, catching at the sound as if - you shift a thumb down toward his brow, getting a feel for this, now, and you brush at something - pinpoint -
- rends and sears hot and snaps, and laughter pealing louder than engine-thunder and eyes uncovered and slammed shut as the backs of claws stroke over torn wire and stripped ports where the goggles were torn away, stroke and then -
...He hasn't moved. What hits you, out of all of this, is that he hasn't moved, you've fallen back and landed on your hands and even as he blasted you with - that - he stayed, facing straight forward, eyes serenely closed. That he swallowed down the memory before - that he wouldn't flinch, wouldn't skip a breath, wouldn't let you see him -
"Shit," you breathe softly, pulling yourself up back to sitting, cautious like a meowbeast trying to balance on a fence’s thin edge, moving no muscle not strictly required - "shit, I'm sorry, I - do you want me to - go away now?"
Through the weird tactile dark you hear his breathing slow from a flutter to a drawn-out meditative hush as he brings himself back, opens his eyes and they burn straight into yours, half-unseeing, as you blink away a stinging yellow film - memory still echoes ragged in the space between you and if you were in his skin you know exactly the effort it would take, the inward pressure you'd need to hold from tearing out with blinding arcs of power, ripping reflexively into the nearest mass with its own electromagnetic field.
"You will never witness that again." He is hoarse and his voice goes clipped, low and suppressed and "You will learn to wall yourself from it. This is the last time I will ask. What you saw before was a simulation. I want you to learn to defend yourself from that for your sake. But this..." There's a faint bicolored veneer over his horns and he drains pallid with restraint. "...Do you understand?"
You're barely breathing, because if your breathing is silent enough you don't have to think of whether you're crying or not and if you don't have to think of whether then you don't have to think of why, you can just pull yourself together and kneel rigidly across from him and give him, at the very least, a believable simulacrum of okay, you can at least not fuck that up, right?
"Walls," you say, half to yourself, your gaze dropping for a moment before you look at him. Your voice is all brittle flat planes because that way it does not shake, and you bite down hard on uncertainty. "Okay. I'm good at learning to do walls. I can be, I mean."
The swiftest flash of memory, almost gone before it can catch at your senses, but softer, this time, hardly any pain at all - don't go - And the glow around his horns is dissipating, even his eyes dim a notch, and his voice modulates almost even, almost kind, "I know you will be."
But there's still a seriousness to him, a lingering deliberation that slows his speech. "I want you to go three days without contacting or seeing me. Wait." He holds up a hand to silence a protest that you weren't sure you were going to make. "If for any unforeseen reason you must reach out to me... I will not turn you away. If you fail, I will not be angry. But I need to understand what you are capable of on your own - and I believe that we both know that the best programmers learn by experimentation. Program your power for me, Sollux.” His voice is both firm and beseeching. “Do not mistake this for an academic exercise. You were not born into bondage, as I was, but if you value your autonomy, you have already guessed that there are certain aspects of your mind that you must learn to hide." As if suddenly reminded, he unstiffens and goes back to rubbing his forehead, forcing a wincing half-smile in your direction.
"I know," you say darkly and your mind is bursting out with all the other things you won't say because they would be whining wiggler things, pleas for understanding, for help - from this ancient creature twin to yourself whose loneliness makes yours look like a bad joke in a romcom. Something nags at you, and you can't help but reach out your hand - caught up in the impulse to comfort but not willing to risk - to risk that again, so your hand hovers there, questioning, keeping a safe distance until -
He stares at your fingers then closes his eyes, meditative, preparatory, and you're just about to draw back - to accept that there is nothing you can do - when he opens them again and, smiling almost fully now, wraps your hand in his. "It's all right," he says, and you're drawing him in again, like you did to bring him here, and it's the reassurance and the smile that's like a sob and you can't stop pulling him closer, or could he be -
"I will..." He's so close that even in this breathless space the air warms you as you breathe it in and vibrates with checked power - "Keep..." Shielding and safe space and in the purpling where energy intertwines, you and not-you, you think you might know what the next three days will require from you but just for now that doesn't matter...
Because for a warm, solid moment before he fades, you hold him. For barely a moment he fills the entire circle of your arms, broad-shouldered and snapping static against your wrists. There's a hand on your back and it's heavy and safe and maybe it's just psionics, maybe this isn't what he intended, maybe you'll set off another memory and this will be over forever, not just for three days, maybe it just doesn't matter because he's flickering and so are you, he's black and gold and black again when you rest your forehead on his shoulder - he thrums one more time before he recedes -
But he doesn't pull away.
-- twinArmageddons [TA] began trolling adiosToreador [AT] --
TA: hey tv.
AT: sOLLUX, wHAT’S UP,
AT: i’M NOT AVAILABLE FOR, vERY LONG, wE’RE STARTING A NEW FLARP PLOT, tONIGHT, aND IT’S REALLY EXCITING,
AT: aND YOU NEVER TROLL ME, uNLESS YOU WANT TO ASK SOMETHING,
TA: really, ii dont? iim 2orry. ii mu2t be the wor2t bag of bulge2 two walk on alterniia.
AT: nO, YOU’RE NOT,
AT: i CAN THINK OF, sOME DEFINITELY BETTER CONTENDERS FOR THE TITLE,
AT: yOU’RE JUST BUSY A LOT, aND ALWAYS LIKE TO BE TALKING, aBOUT SOMETHING,wHEN YOU TALK TO OTHER TROLLS,
AT: nOT JUST SHOOTING THE BREEZE, oR SETTING SICK FIRES FOR, nO APPARENT REASON,
AT: i CAN RESPECT THAT, dUDE,
TA: really? becau2e now ii feel liike an a22hole
AT: iT’S OKAY,
AT: nOW I AM REALLY CURIOUS, wHAT YOU HAD WANTED TO ASK,
TA: well ii ju2t wanted two know iif you knew anythiing about ance2tor2. and what you thought about them ii mean.
TA: iit2 okay. you dont have two bother.
AT: wELL, i’M ACTUALLY SORT OF INTERESTED, iN ANCESTORS,
AT: i MEAN, i KIND OF HAVE, sOME THOUGHTS ABOUT THEM,
AT: sOMETIMES i CAN THINK OF, wHAT MINE MIGHT THINK, iN A PARTICULAR SITUATION,
AT: bUT HE IS KIND OF LIKE A FAIRY, iN WAYS WHICH I AM NOT,
AT: iN THAT, hE CAN FLY, aND IS ALSO PROBABLY NOT REAL,
AT: aND i CANNOT FLY, aND AM DEFINITELY REAL, lAST TIME i CHECKED,
TA: wow ii thought you were an iimagiinary iinternet per2on
TA: 2orry, that wa2 me beiing a bag of bulge2 agaiin
AT: vRISKA THINKS, tHAT ANCESTORS, aRE REAL,
AT: bUT SHE WON’T TELL ME WHY, aND, i THINK THEY ARE, sORT OF IMAGINARY,
AT: i MEAN, i DO NOT HAVE ANY, eMPIRICAL EVIDENCE, tO SUGGEST THAT THEY ARE A THING, bEYOND MY IMAGINATION,
TA: yeah ii 2ee what you mean
TA: at the end of the niight, code2 gotta compiile or iit doe2nt mean much
It's not as if it's the first time there's been something excruciatingly important in your head which doesn’t take well to external confirmation.
But you're also aware that your thinkpan is a treacherous landscape. That you won't always know where you can and can't rely on yourself to parse reality coherently. Sometimes you have to be careful with what you take at face value - with yourself, and with others. (Out of everyone, you’ve only told Aradia that you think you're going to go blind: in part because that particular premonition is connected with her, somehow, to a moment that hasn't happened yet, a search through ruins and - some other missing knowledge that makes you feel like the ground has fallen out from under you when you try to look at it for too long.)
Still, it helps to hear from Tavros. From the way he's talking, it doesn't sound like he's experiencing anything near as vivid as you are - but that’s part of the territory of being Sollux Captor, too, one of the first things you learned about being you, everything in your world is twice as intense.
AT: i DON’T KNOW, tHAT THAT IS TRUE ALWAYS,
AT: i MEAN, tHOUGHTS WHICH ARE NOT PROVABLE CAN STILL, iNSPIRE US TO LIVE MORE HAPPILY,
AT: aND THEY MAKE GOOD FODDER FOR SLAM POETRY, rEGARDLESS, oF ANYTHING ELSE,
TA: well ii dont 2uppo2e ii can argue wiith that
AT: aRE YOU SAYING THAT, mY RHYMES ARE, sICK,
TA: your rhyme2 are empiiriically 2o 2iick they liive iin the load gaper
TA: wow that wa2 2uppo2ed two be a compliiment but iit 2ounded terriible
TA: iill ju2t... 2top now, 2eriiou2ly, ii dont know why ii even try two talk two people
AT: yOUR COMPLIMENT, iS ACCEPTED, iN THE SPIRIT IN WHICH IT WAS INTENDED,}:)
AT: bUT NOW I HAVE TO, gET MY COSTUME ON,
Chapter 6: whenever I'm alone and you're lost out there
This is not something you can engineer.
This should not upset you as much as it does.
But: identify your variables, and you can give them parameters. You finally have a name, now, for the loss and the longing and the reaching; you know the shape of the shameful crack in your heart.
It’s time to practice dreaming alone.
So much of it is knowing where you are in relation to everything and everyone else, the abstract and the real.
There’s a faint signal in your periphery that you think must be Prospit, and another one, further... There are points where things go soft, where you can let the scenes recede into some expanse of mundanity, and you slack your awareness a little, carefully, to find where they would take you: once you wander through a hivestem like your own but it's a gaping ruin and you're hiding in wall-shadows from the sunlight.
Another time you get caught for what must be hours, sleeping and waking and getting tugged down into sleep again, in some series of vignettes directed by the dooms of several anonymous trolls, suddenly brought from audio into full color: not an extraordinary dream, just a tastelessly nasty one and too real for comfort.
You resolve to be more careful with your control.
Still, every so often you glimpse or feel where he must be, in relation to you, closer or further, always just out of sight.
Things take different form, depending on the concepts that encapsulate them: a silhouette standing in the distance of a metropolitan street; a blinking light pattern in the periphery of your vision in the blackness that is and isn't space, red and blue, flickering, wavelike - and you force away the association of those colors with something, galaxy-lengths away in the dark; turn away and keep a steady heading in the opposite direction, using the ever-fainter pulses of something (light and intelligence and distant fear and rolling fuzzes of pain) directly behind you to hold your course through this cold and starless place.
You fly for what seems like hours before, incalculably far in front of you, a light, too cold to be Prospit, too small for a star - red - blue - numbers spoken in a far-off voice, the taste of electricity -
- and you freeze in place, because going forward will draw you closer and you can't afford that. But it's hard to stay frozen, too, in this aimless expanse; everything in proximity has a gravity to it...
impossible speed and deep resonant shuddering and you can feel the edges of what you're being drawn into, like leaning against the lip of the recuperacoon just before sleep - surface stresses and adrenaline drip and subtly off-course - and your vision is a bicolored blur, space is skipping or time is because you know you weren't this close -
but you've learned a few things, like forcing the imagery to throw a dream off course:
You're standing outside your hivestem, and there's something wrong. You can hear, very faintly, alarms from your mainframe - distress buzzing, bees trembling up against the window at a high pitch of frenetic complaint - but they don't leave through the vents and come find you, they're in there and you're out here for some reason, even though they clamor for repair...
...somehow you can hear them, see their complex dances even from outside: they are singing numbers beyond expected complexity, the system is overclocked, its capacities strained past maximum and you have an image, unasked-for, sudden and stark, of a bee pushing through an aperture too narrow for it, its abdomen gashed by the wall, except
the wall is space and the aperture is un-space and something is wrong and
this is not something you can engineer.
This should not upset you as much as it does.
Your bees are yours to see to, but not nearly so important and not - not nearly so yours; bees die all the time, you wouldn't, couldn't feel the need to protect them like this - (and where did that thought come from) you can tend a beehive but you can't wrap around it, can't hold and soothe bees, cannot -
That tells you where you are and where you are not, shakes loose the overhearing before it can resolve into a full connection, but it leaves you with a hollow ache in your bloodpusher. (When did I start feeling - how could I be -)
And maybe it is the best metaphor after all, because even if you could ease this somehow, you swore you'd try to keep your distance.
You repeat your promise to yourself. You will not walk through the door to your hive and face what you've locked on the other side. But it itches at you, still, tugs you toward the door even as the bees regroup and begin to heal their dancing into a pattern that you recognize, as the alarm-buzz fades.
And instead of drawing closer, you let the scene swirl around you and you fly, far and fast, closing doors and shuttering windows tight in your head, because with the strange simultaneity of dreams you already know: knowing and feeling this is about to hit you like a collision at speed.
Because if this were just your computer drawing itself back from the verge of shaking apart, you'd feel relief, you'd feel pride in this intricate almost-intelligence that you created, but never-
- never such a sense of utter rib-scraping tongue-sticking screaming loss that you were unable to be there while they suffered and struggled.
That it doesn't matter that they pulled through without you - that you've done something inexcusable by forcing them to, that you were woven into them as a need from the very beginning, a hand empty, no matter how much it carries, until it is held -
- none of those things are true of your bees at all, they're only true of the one whose mind and pain and hands lie behind every wall your stretched and bruised mind tries to raise, the only one who could even ask you to tie your thinkpan in ridiculous metaphorical knots like this without getting his face laughed in for his trouble...
...and you're thinking of him now. You're seeing his face wracked with migraine and his eyes closed and somehow, now, you can imagine him without being drawn into him. You're still yourself, flying to somewhere else, and as the hivestem recedes into the distance you don't hear even the faintest echo, not of calculations or of buzzing or of the thrumming of engines. Because you have a name for this, now, the constant listening and the openness and the reaching-in and the wanting to soothe and hold and pity. It's pity you feel for your ancestor -
Identify your variables and you can give them parameters.
Identify the shameful crack in your heart that will not aid you and will not aid him either and you can -
at least keep it at a distance.
When you wake, later, in your recuperacoon, you know your flight drew you all the way to the golden moon. It wasn’t the same kind of aware-dream, though, as you’ve been having, and the knowledge that appeared to you in the clouds was incoherent and strange.
It showed you murky confusing scraps about your own death; it gave you a vision of Aradia-but-not-Aradia, off in the distance, discovering something; and it told you: not yet. This is not for you yet.
Your life is already too full of omen and portent. You’ll be leaving Prospit alone for now.
This is Vriska Serket: Terezi Pyrope introduces you, brings you over to VK's enormous hive so that you can set up radio transmitters for a broadcast system that will attract swarms of hornets to a player's location. Nasty stuff, and one of many reasons why you avoid this particular kind of gaming.
You start rigging things and Serket is the worst kind of fiddly demanding blueblood - half the time you think she's trying to blackflirt with you, badly, and the other half of the time it's just obvious that she doesn't understand the technology. "I don't see why you're making such a big deal out of it, goldie," she says and even though it's not a standard slur for your hemocaste she makes it sound like one. "You just have to set it up right and it'll work just fiiiiiiiine!"
“No. It will not,” you say, mimicking her voice, “work fiiiiiiiine, not the way you’re telling me. It will break. It will run twice the amperage it’s built for, and it will burn the fuck out within days. By all means, waste a lovely piece of technology if that’s what you get off on, but you can find someone else to engineer it, because I’m going home and taking my thinkpan with me.”
You stalk off in the opposite direction. An hour later by the moons, suddenly you’re aware that you’re sitting up in a tree rigging the tech the broken way she wants it.
Something went wrong with your mind, something more than usual.
You look down, and you’re not sure how you made it up this tree - by the rips in your jeans, you must have climbed, but that’s totally unlike you. But you’re sure as hell not staying up here. You levitate yourself out of the tree, leaving the half-setup transmitter behind, and have just touched down on the grass when you hear a voice from behind you.
“Hey! Heeeeeeeey!” Vriska stands there, hands on her hips, slightly taller than you and wearing every unit of her height like it’s a fashion accessory. “Where are you going, hacker boy? You’re supposed to fix it!”
“No.” You’re starting to piece together what just happened and now you’re angry and your bloodpusher’s pumping fast and you don’t want any part of this. “I am not enabling your criminally idiotic design and I don’t want any part of your stupid fucking FLARP game.”
And this sense of pressure is creeping up on you in your head, everything feels weirdly effortful and murky like you’re sick with a fever, but something changed when your temper flared and now you’re keeping her out--
“Oh, is that right? What a shame - it seemed like you’d be so useful alive--”
“Vriska!” And Terezi is on the scene again.
“I wasn’t really going to!” Vriska keeps protesting, even after a disbelieving look from Terezi. “Who’s in charge here anyway?”
“No one!” TZ says merrily. “We’re Team SCOURGE! Team Charge is the other guys!”
You wonder if punning at Vriska would calm her down, if you had to face her angry in the future, or if that’s TZ’s special prerogative. The livewire tension breaks. Vriska punches Terezi in the arm, wham, a little too hard for the friendly grin on her face, and yells, “This isn’t over!” at you, even as she follows Terezi back into her hive, leaving you in the yard, shaking.
This is not your time, you know it’s not, but your body doesn’t know it and before you can decide to stay and chew anyone out you rise up on a gust of air and a surge of adrenaline and a crackle of light and take yourself home instead.
The wind is with you the whole way, and for a while you just lose your worries in the trance of concentration and the light of the moons.
You think you can feel... something, this sense of consciousness-radar the same as in your dreams, and you remember falling into his mind those times from deep exhausted focus and file that away in the back of your thoughts. There’s no danger of it now. The intrusions are gone; have been, since he’s become aware.
The trip makes you winded and you’re still a little freaked, but by the end of it you actually feel kind of good - or at least proud of your capabilities. The entire time, you’ve felt certain this will end in a migraine, but it doesn’t for once and maybe you're reaching a new plateau here, maybe your powers are settling out at a stable level at least for a while. You reach the hill behind your hive and walk from there, your skin cool from the wind, your core hot from the energy running through.
-- gallowsCalibrator [GC] began trolling twinArmageddons [TA] --
GC: 4R3 YOU GO1NG TO HOLD TH1S 4G41NST M3?
GC: H3LLO >:[
GC: 1’M R34LLY SORRY, 1 D1DN’T KNOW SH3 WOULD
GC: T4K3 4 L1K1NG TO YOU
GC: OR WH4T3V3R
GC: 1 3XP3CT3D SH3 WOULD B3H4V3 B3TT3R...
GC: 1F YOU 4R3 TRY1NG TO M4K3 M3 UNH4PPY BY ST4Y1NG S1L3NT
GC: 1T 1S WORKING
TA: don’t get your co2tume iin a twii2t, tz, ii wa2 2tiill gettiing home
TA: am ii mad? hell ye2. iit wa2 fuckiing iirre2pon2iible two iintroduce me two vk wiithout telliing me 2he wa2 liike murderou2 and 2hiit.
TA: wiill ii be angry at you forever? probably not.
TA: wiill ii remember two revii2e my e2tiimatiion of your judgment and ta2te iin friiend2? almo2t certaiinly. of cour2e the latter appliie2 two me two.
TA: iim not goiing two blow up your hu2ktop or refu2e two talk two you agaiin or any 2tupiid juveniile 2tuff liike that.
GC: GOOD, 1 L1K3 YOU
GC: 1 DON’T W4NT VR1SK4 TO K1LL YOU
GC: 1T WOULD B3 UNJUST 4ND 4LSO STUP1D
GC: SOM3T1M3S SH3 H4S GR34T 1D34S
GC: OTH3R T1M3S NOT SO MUCH >:[
TA: ii miight make iit 2o that every viideo you try two watch for a week rediirect2 to riichar a2tley
GC: OH GOOD >:]
GC: 1 L1K3 H1S MUS1C
TA: tz ii hope you know youre iincorriigiible
GC: 1 DO! 4ND YOU K33P 1NCORR1G1NG M3 >:]
TA: plea2e ju2t 2top.
You don’t want to meet Vriska Serket again.
But there are more interesting things than this hoofbeastshit drama to think about. Like a big meal and then ‘cupe. That these things are currently in the interesting category would make any number of your friends snark at you and possibly call you an impostor of yourself, but they are. You’re still working through the massive armload of quality groceries Aradia sent home with you, and this morning...
This morning it will have been three days.
When you finally go to find him, when you close your eyes and slip exhausted into sudden sleep, he’s not there; not right away. There’s a cocoon of static that you can’t breach at first, thoughts you don’t know quite how to parse, but you recognize where he is in the not-quite-real vectors of this place, and push toward him determinedly.
All through the last three days you felt sucked in every time your thoughts drew too close to his; you've spent hours using every ounce of will and trick of subterfuge you had to stay away. So when it takes almost the same mental exertion to push through the outer barriers of his consciousness as it did before to pull away - when reaching for contact is like swimming through sopor - you aren't prepared, but you force it. If you're up against his shielding and this is a test of breaching it, then you'll thread your way through this eerie, starry, vaguely buzzing space all day if you have to.
Reaching him is like solving an excruciatingly detailed three-dimensional puzzle that is simultaneously inside your head and outside your body and just the kind of challenge that you could be very good at.
(Later, you will realize you had all the warnings you should have needed. But the thrill of the task catches you up and, as thoroughly defensive as you’ve been against his gravity, you’re not on guard against your own poor judgment--)
You're navigating a dense, nebulaic starfield, lush with color and thick with mist and... weirdly interconnected, a thicket of translucent filaments that bridge each smear of light to the next and you have no sense from all your study of what part of space he's showing you, just that it must be space because you're in his consciousness and this has to be what he's seeing.
If seeing is the right word. Cerise and cyan and crackling on the surface with racing rings of light and the filaments drift and curl around you, too threadlike for flares, as your thinkpan sparks disoriented with intrusive scraps of geometries and structures, calculations and commands. Muffled thunder and a diffuse rolling peal of brightness vague and smeared out over the distance and - in stark medusaic silhouette these are not stars. You're -
- you’re being pulled under, again, and you know it moments before it happens but after it’s too late to stop it.
- in a groundless floating copse of burnt-out denuded trees, you're - hot and pulsing and slow-circulating liquid and - disoriented and temporarily blinded a filament brushes against you -
- sticky like a wire coated in mind honey and it convulses through you, a crazed electric-cold pinpoint pain, clicks your jaw shut and seizes up your legs and -
There are pieces of your thinkpan cut off, blank, just unreachable, your life between four and eight sweeps
(but I’m only - )
is a dull gray buzz, you can't - you can't spell words in your head, your whole - left arm floats there like it isn't yours -
- but the warning comes too late and the edges of your blank spaces sear and a shunt drips cold neurotrophin and it's hours
(some tiny part of you still knows itself, trapped here like someone stuck under a bench in a transit station after sunup, waiting tired and scared and bored for the day to pass and let you out)
as you feel every detail of each tiny molecular tear and stitch, each centuries-old dying cell body dissolving in on itself, the bloom of each new nucleus and the testing snap across the rebuilt synapses -
you fold out from a dwindled point into dimensionality again, there is (it feels bruised) language and facility and room to extend your thoughts, to breathe into being - you -
- you - there are two of you -
(there are two of you more than usual)
overlap and translucent and resolving into -
"Wake up," you're saying to yourself, "Wake up, you thoughtless, reckless excuse for a - oh, there you are."
Chapter 7: though my language is dead
A dream construct built, a mentorship begun, a friendship sustained.
(That story is a lovely smut. This story is not smut yet. I swear we have some written; it's just taking a little longer to get there than expected. If you're curious how that story was part of the genesis of this one, amberite's tumblr has the details.)
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Judging by the way your head is spinning but you don't actually seem to be falling down, you must already be lying on the floor. You open your eyes and find out that you're right, but you immediately regret it. You - no, your ancestor is leaning over you, blurrily concerned, asking you something difficult to decipher - his mouth doesn’t match up to the words you’re hearing; his horns keep disappearing every time you try to look at his eyes, like the blanks in your vision before a particularly nasty migraine -
“I told you to leave! What, did you - did you think I was bluffing? Can you hear me? Sollux?”
"What the fuck," you mumble, and pull yourself to sitting - expecting, maybe, the migraine to hit, the view to clear or to fuzz over worse into sparks and moire patterns: something. “What the fuck. Was that.” The Psiioniic’s visage is still - distorted, broken up, glitching, and you rub the heels of your hands hard into your eyelids and look back up at him again.
“Neural regeneration,” he says, sharp and fast like the words have a bad taste to them. “Destroying dead thinkpan cells and growing new ones in their place. It is not a process that leaves me with a great deal of attention to allocate elsewhere. I tried to tell you that, too, but your talent for listening does not seem to equal your talent for psionic self-protection.”
Your eyes are wide and your mouth is hanging open, gawping like an idiot and
- was that a compliment? That was so a compliment -
- maybe grinning a little, suddenly, though the Psiioniic is still resurfacing and you're - there's this expectation or memory of a while where thoughts are fuzzed over and stick and skip but they're not actually doing that. You’re piecing out his memories from your own mind. Still spatially lost, disoriented enough that it takes you longer than it should to wipe the sideways smile off your face because you know why the thought of him complimenting you makes warmth wake up in your chest, and it's stupid and wrigglerish and not something you want to talk about.
"Uh. Shit," you breathe. "Are you okay?" And you immediately want to hit yourself. Sollux Captor’s plan for sounding competent: ask really stupid questions. "I'm - I'm sorry," you add rapidly. "I didn't realize until I was way too close to back off - I thought it was a test -"
"I have recovered from rewiring before," he says, only half-answering your first question but of course he isn't OK, although he's starting to settle into something like his familiar appearance, only a grainy halo of undefined space around him a reminder of the strain on his projection. "I apologize for not setting this out clearly before now: If I am challenging you deliberately, I will tell you. You may consider that a promise. Of course, that is if you would like to continue working with me to refine your power.” He hesitates. From nervousness? You shove that thought down, label it ‘wishful thinking’ and close the lid on it. “...Do you?"
"Yes, of course," you breathe, and your face must look incredibly stupid right now, the corners of your mouth drawn out in a weird rigid non-expression because you're simultaneously trying not to cringe over the asinine question you asked and trying not to smile from the relief that he still - "If you still want to teach me."
"As long as there is anything left to teach that has even the smallest chance of allowing you to escape what you know lies ahead, I promise to do what I can," he says, incredibly solemn, and then half to himself, "You... would be right not to forgive me if I did not.”
What you know lies ahead - your head pounds, not with migraine-ache but as if you'd bumped it on something, slipped on a treacherous patch of ground and fallen over the flimsy barrier wall of denial that hadn't really been working for you anyway. It's different just knowing something in the back of your mind and hearing it said to your face. You sway a little where you sit, and swallow back the knot that suddenly chokes your throat.
“They will tell you that you were hatched for this,” he continues, bitter and almost kindly at the same time. “I can show how wrong that is, how much more you are - but in the end, you will have to save your own life, and do a better job of it than I did.”
You’re sitting straight up then, eyes snapped open and taking everything in. Whiplashed into seeing clearly, you’re far from convinced that’s possible, but it catches you off-guard that he thinks so - on some level, at least. You give a tiny nod, and he continues.
“So I expect you to treat any exercises I give you with the same seriousness that you clearly gave the last three days. I also expect that you will let me know if you are being hurt. For my part, I will not ask you to do anything that I consider likely to cause you physical or mental harm." He is silent for a while, then - "Is there anything else you would like me to agree to, to avoid... incidents like what you just went through?"
The guarded way he says that drives an insensible ache into your bloodpusher.
So you flash him a cocky grin, though that’s not how you feel; you feel grave and frightened and blown open and you don’t want to dump that on him, not now.
“I don’t think there’s any solid plan that would prevent me from figuring out all the best mistakes by making them,” you say. “I’ll try very hard to follow directions. Sometimes I follow them a little too well. A lot of times - like today - I stumble into a case that the manual doesn’t describe. And then I improvise.” It’s not quite an apology. It’s not quite not.
"It is a valid way to learn," he muses, and then, abruptly, "This space is a psionic construct. I can maintain it, but I do not have any... recent enough... memories of a space to populate it with." He holds out a hand in demonstration; it fills for a moment with a floating sphere that statics, then vanishes. You half-see him wincing with the effort - "And, of course, my thinkpan is still under construction. Can you... make a practice space for us? Just start with a small object. It should feel similar to the kind of visualization you do when you are moving something."
"All right. I'll try."
Starting with what you’ve got already. When your fingers trail across the floor beneath you, they meet with a kind of rubbery flatness, a roughness that numbs the palms of your hands. You can't make out detail - light comes from nowhere and goes nowhere - but at the same time his face is illuminated, the outline clear enough (thank god, no longer losing segments of clarity), faintly fuzzy in the way things are without your -
- well, that's something to make. Of course you’re not wearing your glasses - the dreamspace shaded in from nothing, unfurled from a small dark blur of sleep and disorientation. You’re lucky to have a floor. You let your eyes go bright and half-focus into the middle distance, feel the crackling vibrations in your head -
It’s simultaneously harder and easier than you thought. You have to carefully avoid just... flipping the dream, avoid letting everything spin into another less-real space. Generating your glasses without that is the kind of fiddly detail work that makes your fingers twitch with a buzzing frustration - and, you realize, it’s not entirely without that. Your psionics are making a framework, not making lenses and wire, but the three-dimensional outline of a memory of glasses, which the memory itself then rushes in to fill -
And when you realize that, you’re looking through them at his almost-smile, now clearer - “Keep going,” he says, “But keep track of what you’ve already made. All right?”
At least with your glasses the retention isn't difficult: remembering seeing through them is as much like remembering a state of being as an object.
Although now that you can see crisply you can see that there are details of him which remain indistinct, not very noticeably so, just barely - the edges still refusing to resolve, and there's what he said about memories and... the question is on the tip of your tongue before you think of how badly he might take it and you manage not to run your mouth for once.
“Okay,” you say instead, “I’ll try something which is at least potentially useful to you.”
Sollux Captor’s shitty couch, now unfolding from your hands and eyes and mind.
The outlines of the edges traced sketchy red-blue in the nothingness, the sag of the cushions - a tear and a scattering of crumbs and... pieces of it look real but it reads half like a cartoon of your sofa, half like a grainy photograph pasted badly in a graphics program; you're coming at this problem from all angles at once, that's the problem, angle, light - there's a light fixture in your ceiling, and you can bring in the light without the fixture or the ceiling - that, that’s easier and it comes in all around you and makes the couch look three-dimensional and you reach forward and touch it.
The memory clicks in there, too, and your hand is feeling something concrete and solid - and that’s a surprise in itself. You can’t just make things like this with your psionics in the waking world. But here, it’s like the substance just exists and you’re giving form to it. Or... that’s not quite it either.
Some part of this is coming from him, a wash of energy you’re weaving together with your own...
“There were rumors of this among the psionics, when I was young,” he says, leaning his elbows on the back of your couch and watching you work, but also clearly giving this his own full concentration. His eyes leak light; dim red and blue arcs span between the tips of his horns. “That more than one of us could chain our power together, to achieve force and precision at the same time. It was mostly thought of as a myth, but that is clearly what you are doing. Just... think of me as an amplifier for now. Try going bigger.”
It feels weirdly, headily intimate to know that you're shaping your ancestor's power, and somewhere between that knowledge and the stealthy praise your focus goes off-balance for a moment and the edges of the form shiver like you're seeing them through steam. It needs something tactile...
Well, it's not like landing on your butt is a fatal risk. You nestle into the couch and suddenly it feels finished in a way it didn't, like you won't risk losing it if you look away.
“What should I try next? What sort of bigger?” All of this complexity is probably going to give you a headache when you wake up - third time this week - but you’re familiar with the curve and plateau of more and less pain when you push your abilities and it should lead to fewer headaches later.
“Is this a part of your hive?” he asks from over your shoulder. It catches you off-guard that he would even ask that question, and then the buzz of him feeding you more power sparks through your thinkpan and into your fingers, a jolt and then a steadily building sense of potential waiting to be tapped. It’s like the feeling after too many energy grubs that you could run a mile in broad daylight only without the sickly sweet, artificial edge - this is something your thinkpan was meant to handle. “Can you manage a whole room?”
Lit up with as much power as you've ever handled or more, it becomes difficult to respond. "I think I..." You close your eyes then, and the scene doesn't fade: you see purely with psionics, the outlines of objects around you, the faint magnetic trace of everything there and not-there. Yes, you can weave this further out into your hive. "Some of it, anyway..."
Resting your forearms on your knees you let flickers emanate out through your hands, your horns, in waves like ripples of sonar that coalesce once they hit something that should be there and bring it into being as they do...
...your desk, your chair, your husktop all outlined in the crowding-overlapping wavelengths of red and blue light which knit together into something formed. There’s definitely a ceiling now, definitely an actual lamp, and carpeting, and - you don’t shape and form every tiny piece of clutter, only the outlines that make your livingblock your livingblock, giddy with the power rushing through you so fast and bright - there’s your bookcase, diagrams taking shape on cool green walls as the walls expand into being - windows and the doors to your kitchen and your respiteblock and the table where you disassemble things and your latest project laid out on it; the breadboard writes itself in fiery strands, instantly, just from being already writ large in your obsession -
- you’re breathing hard and you’re not sure how much more you could make if you tried, but suddenly you feel like you’re falling even though you know you’re sitting upright and you stop pouring out power and lean forward, catching your head in your hands, elbows over knees -
“Oh -” He makes a vague self-castigating noise that you recognize dimly over the distant rumblings of a migraine that are building toward the back of your skull. The rushing in of power stops like walking into a wall, the drop in energy making your head spin even more until he feeds you just a little bit, enough to coat your senses and keep the stabbing exhaustion of complete psionic draining at bay. With your new sense of the room you can feel him leaning over you from behind the back of the couch, hovering like he thinks you might fall and he would have to catch you. “So... this is what you meant by following directions too well, then. Noted.” But he sounds distracted, not upset - occupied with staring around your livingblock like he’s just landed on an undiscovered planet. It's like the sheer rapid-fire flow of energy through your synapses left you faintly buzzing and numbed-over in a way that dulls the pain, and your long shaky exhale turns into a laugh at his dry observation, which turns into completely cracking up laughing. “This place is... um. Are you all right?”
"Mm-hm," you manage on the next breath and shake your head like you're shaking off water. Two things happen: it hurts more and the vertigo turns downright dramatic. The room is - no, the room isn't spinning, that's the weird part. The room is exactly where it is. You're not quite so sure about you. "I, ehehehe. Wow. Yes."
“No, you’re not,” he decides, sounding caught between worried and amused, and he’s a thousand years old and here, in your apartment, in a dream, arguing with you, and suddenly the whole last perigee of your life is just sidesplittingly funny. You’re off-balance and twitching with laughter and he presses spread fingers, very lightly, between your shoulders but the cool, calming energy that seeps in doesn’t really seem to help. It feels - good, but for the wrong reasons.
You catch your breath, still lightheaded, and mimic his tone - "I believe I have demonstrated my learning style, yes?” and hearing yourself sends you into another fit of giggles, laughing until your lungs hurt, the edges of your view crinkling at the corners of your eyes, and you think you can feel your pent-up almost-hysteric amusement traveling up his arm -
And when he drops his hand off the back of your shirt, collapses chin-in-hands on the back of the couch and lets out a creaky, nasal, aspirated chuckle, you’re glad that you’re facing the other way because you’re afraid your grin looks like it’s about to eat your face.
art by roachpatrol
It’s like you’ve forced the starting lever on a rusty machine and he gasps, “Wow, it’s been - ehehe - centuries -” and tumbles into full-throated laughter, barely supporting himself, in hot puffs against the back of your neck.
Hearing that - you want to stop breathing and hold very still, again, but you're gasping for breath and your chest tightens like you would cry if you stopped laughing -
He comes out of it abruptly, with an awkward gaspy hiccup sound, takes a couple of slow, deep, careful breaths and comes around to sit next to you in wobbly, uneven steps, half-supporting himself against the couch the whole way.
He slumps there for a while, in a mockery of posture that rivals yours, recovers his breath in fits and starts like he has to consciously remember to exhale - at some point your hand comes to rest on his shoulder, half-hovering there like a bee, now you trying to steady him in some nervous awkward fashion - he nearly starts giggling again when he tries to talk but manages, “ehehe... Thanks.” And, too quickly, before you can respond, looking at the barely recognizable heap of parts on your workbench - “What are you building? I haven’t seen tech like that before... I think.”
Feeling so much at once that you can't even begin to parse it, almost like at the height of a really bad mania but at the same time strung-out with exhaustion, you’re caught off-guard by his question. "-Oh, that's a transmitter array for my beehouse mainframe," and it comes out barely recognizable with lisping but you're relieved to have something to be coherent about, something you're interested in, no less, "- do you know those?"
"I know of them," he says carefully, "But most of the tech I used - before - had to be mobile. Husktops and compartmentalized speech transmitters, mostly. We - I never stayed in one place longer than a few days."
“That’s a shame,” you say, “it’s really high-maintenance but it’s also really great - I don’t suppose I actually need the ridiculous levels of performance I try to get out of it, most of the time, but -” and while you remember what happened before, and that asking for the whole story again might not be the wisest idea, you still feel the need to look for yourself in him-- “Did you ever just, y’know, engineer shit? Fix things whether or not they needed to be fixed, just because - because you wanted to know them or see how you could make them better or - like that?”
His fingers scrunch at the cloth covering his knees; he seems suddenly conscious of your hand on his shoulder but it would be way too awkward to move it now. "Yes, I suppose I did," he lisps, pretty badly, still laughed-out and half-distracted. "Do you... do you mind if I show you something? I have taken down some of the self-protective measures that caused... problems last time."
Would you mind? You try to look less wriggler-eager than you feel, but without the ability to focus, it turns into a weird smile, your mouth turned up at the corners and doing something awkward in the middle. “Yeah. I mean no, I don’t mind, I’d like to see...”
"After I escaped,” he begins, “I and the other followers took to the sea..."
A view from above, flickering slightly offset red and blue like one of those three-dimensional illusions that your mutant eyesight has never been able to parse - it's a psionic view, pings and surface mappings, and that careening cubist mess of cantilevered metal and backswept glass canopy somehow registers as a seafaring ship, an admirthalty stealth catamaran - a military ship that flies no flag? - but as you sink fully into the memory, you realize that with a delicate nudge from your mind the vessel changes course, practiced and effortless as taking a turn in a racing game...
Seaspray hard and chill as hailstones that slash at your cloak and beat against your skin - Dipping and tossing with the prow, the smack of wavefronts, the overstrained engine-shudder - Cloud and sea-haze so thick that the moons are smudged-out pigment and the railing in front of you is little more than a ghost -
- And after a lifetime of hauling stone and performing tricks, after perigees of ignominious cringing flight through basements and cargo holds, finally you are the walls that keep your friends safe, you are the wind that bears them to a port thirsty for their message, you are the current and the rudder and the distant moon to navigate by and you're overexerting yourself and your head will feel like a continuous explosion all day and you don't care because you are rescued and you are filled to overflowing with purpose and you are the First Ship, now and for as long as they need you.
Lying on the deck under the displaced stars of a new hemisphere, drunk on some awful brew the catlike girl distilled from seaweed and who knows what else, rambling about charts and courses and the navigational texts you torrented from some decommissioned archive and the dialect the targeting AI speaks and how you could tweak the thrust balance and deform the aluminum around the bow just this much with your power for more downforce, you're sure you could do it, and -
- And they're all just staring at you, as if you're a safe and the door just swung open, and you realize that until now you've barely spoken two words to the three trolls to whom you owe your life -
Pulling into port in the ship that they helped you paint a garish red and blue, stepping off hand and hand with your rescuers and thinking: Maybe it will be like this. Let me think it, just for a while... that the fate that I have chosen will be anything like this.
A warm still peace settles over the space, almost tangible, like a net of dewdrops, as the memory fades. He is not just answering your question, although this is definitely that. This is... it's gratitude for the laughter, it's apology for going out of control, it's deeper into his subjectivity than you've been before - "Those were the happiest perigees of my life," he admits, still looking at your workbench, not at you, "I've... told you nearly everything now."
You’re silent for a while, not daring to interrupt the quiet glow, but finally speak. “You really did know, then - but not -” not everything, not what was really going to happen to you, and you push the thought down because you don’t want to break the last glimmers of this, and ask instead - “Who was that troll? The one who looked like KK?” Silly, you think to yourself. He doesn’t know who KK is. “The one with the nubby horns and all, I mean.”
“KK,” he repeats, an echoed flash of your friend’s frightened eyes skittering across his still-half-open memory. “You know -” He turns to look at you, finally, almost as if he’s been forced to, and stares at you for a long moment before facing deliberately away again. “Give me your hand,” he says, under his breath as if asking for some kind of passcode - and with a hesitant fingertip he draws KK’s sign onto your palm. “I have told you almost the whole story, but some walls are not so easily breached. But sometimes... it is possible to engineer the truth.” You know, now, the pale, fixed expression of holding something back, and he goes silent.
You know too that recognition is obvious in your face when the Psiioniic draws the sign on your hand, and it's clear now: your ancestor knew KK's ancestor and they did something important together, and - that's hilarious because of how KK doesn't even believe in ancestors.
Still a little punchy, you're suddenly laughing again at the thought. “Wow. That, right there, is trippy as hell.” Even as you’re flustered and delighted, though, you also catch the undercurrent of - secrecy, no, encryption, like he’s laying out something for you to decode, and you can only begin to guess what it is.
“That may be,” he says dryly, “But it is not an exercise. Whether to reconstruct this story or not is entirely up to you.” He lets out a long, tired breath, rubs at his headband as if trying to remember something he had meant to say. It hurts to focus your eyes, but you focus hard on him anyway, curious, trying to catch at unspoken things before they slip away.
And you can feel him starting to slip away, even though your combined efforts at constructing the dreamspace keep it strangely solid around you, like he’s further back behind his eyes, less present than he was.
“I’ll... give it a look,” you tell him, not sure quite what you’re agreeing to.
He nods as if he isn’t certain how he feels about it himself. He’s picking out words slowly, distracted. “I am sorry that I will not be able to stay longer... The neural growth is finishing... You should practice maintaining low-level psionic tasks for longer stretches of time, outside of this space. You never know when it will be useful... to stir a pot of grubsauce so you can go do something that isn’t excruciatingly boring...” He smiles thinly as if he doesn’t find himself particularly funny. “...oh, and Sollux?”
When everything gets slippery like this you know he can hear you thinking and it takes an effort of will to shove down the crazy burst of emotion that gathers in your bloodpusher when he smiles, but you do, your stupid flushcrush is your own business and he has too much to worry about already - "Yeah?” The words when will I see you again? almost make it to your lips, but he has promised he won’t abandon you and you owe it to him to let go your obsessive need for information and just trust for now-
“Thanks for... inviting me into your hive,” he says, his eyes lit up mischievously even as the rest of him dims. “I will find you again, you have a great deal... to build on...” He presses the hand he’d traced the symbol into between his, a gesture that doesn't really serve to make a point, just to intensify everything said up to now - the details of your livingblock flicker in behind him, fade out - and he's gone, but the words still reach you, echo between your ears: "If anyone can find a way... you will."
The next night you’re out of commission from the inevitable migraine. Some of them you can still stay up and work through; others make the night a total loss.
But you don’t forget what the Psiioniic showed you. Now that you think of it, you’ve seen files on torrent sites with a glyph that looked like KK’s symbol in the signature, always in a stylized bright red... Trolls who seed torrents are always sticking cryptic subcultural or ideological references in their signature lines, referencing failed rebellions or the clown cult or obscure films, and it’s never occurred to you to look into them further.
When you’re up and about again, you go looking.
You skip the normal proxy searches and go straight to Troll Onion Router, even though it’s slow as hell, because the Psiioniic’s secretive expression genuinely spooked you.
What you find is sparsely distributed and sketchy, even with your considerable skill. It has the quality of rumor. The dates are contradictory, but they place the events a thousand sweeps ago at least. Something about a mutant troll born without a sign or a lusus. A troll who broke the hemospectrum by existing. A cult that sprang up in worship...
The glyph that looks like Karkat’s symbol is supposed to be the manacles he died in.
You think about KK and his hemoanonymity and how goddamned earnest he can be sometimes, and you feel queasy.
You think of the Psiioniic and the scrap of memory he shared with you, in color bright as the moons, guarded so deep against everything that he had to excavate layers of protection to even hold it in front of you dusted clean like one of Aradia’s archaeological treasures - and you don’t know what to feel.
It’s too extraordinary to be real.
It’s too large not to.
You keep dreaming into that place where you speak to your ancestor, and the increase in your power and skill isn't imaginary.
Nights in the future, but not many, you ride your two-wheeled conveyance back from KK’s hive. It’s not as if it would be a difficult flight, but you’re trying to avoid being seen in the air.
By the time you get to your husktop, you’re even feeling a little less like shoving Karkat’s face through the wall with your eyebeams.
--- carcinoGeneticist [CG] began trolling twinArmageddons [TA] ---
CG: HOW WAS I SUPPOSED TO KNOW THAT YOU WOULDN’T LIKE SUCH A GREAT DRAMATIC FILM?
CG: YOU KEPT COMPLAINING AT ME. “PICK A FILM THAT’TH NOT A ROMCOM FOR ONTHE, KK.” SO I DID. AND THEN YOU WALKED OFF IN THE MIDDLE OF IT.
TA: 2peakiing a2 your hacker 2enpaii.
TA: ii am goiing to 2ugge2t that you try two te2t your priimiitiive 2kiill2 at acquiiriing iinformatiion by lookiing iinto how 2tar2hiip2 and theiir helm2men really work.
CG: WHAT IS THAT EVEN SUPPOSED TO MEAN? UGH.
TA: when you learn two make computer2 work for you, your 2ecuriity clearance ii2 what you make iit.
TA: all the exciitiing 2hiit you never wanted two hear about the world can be at your fiingertiip2.
CG: I DON’T EVEN KNOW WHAT TO SAY TO THAT.
CG: IS THIS GOING TO MAKE YOU STOP BEING FRIENDS WITH ME.
TA: you know how ii have all the2e freaky numiinou2 experiience2 and 2hiit that make you uncomfortable when ii talk about them?
CG: YEAH, SO?
TA: well ii have a good rea2on two keep you around.
TA: and iit ii2 freaky numiinou2 2hiit that would probably make you uncomfortable 2o ii wont tell you what iit ii2.
CG: THANKS A LOT.
TA: youre welcome.
CG: WAIT A MINUTE. IS THIS YOUR WAY OF SAYING YOU WANT TO BE IN A QUADRANT WITH ME.
TA: ...not really what ii wa2 talkiing about.
TA: ii mean, iit2 not liike youre off the lii2t eiither but look at your hoofbea2t2hiit.
TA: you go from “are we 2tiil friiend2” two “oh ii bet you want me iin a quadrant!” iin thiirty 2econd2 no pau2iing.
TA: ii gotta take a moment to ju2t appreciiate how fuckiing hiilariiou2 that ii2.
CG: WELL, GO FUCK YOURSELF IN THE AURICULAR SPONGE CLOTS.
TA: and you say iim a moody a22hole.
CG: ARE YOU SUDDENLY NOT?
CG: DID I MISS AN IMPORTANT BULLETIN?
TA: iim ju2t 2ayiing, thii2 ii2, like, the 2opor 2liime calliing the 2hrubbery green.
CG: YOU DON’T EVEN SLEEP IN GREEN SOPOR SLIME.
--- twinArmageddons [TA] ceased trolling carcinoGeneticist [CG] ---
Another gorgeous take on the laughter scene:
art by Megan
Chapter 8: like a fire in the belfry
It will be much later before you realize that she never said she wouldn’t try to take Vriska, and other things will have happened by then.
A training incident in the dreamspace will be the least of them.
Everyone who's done art for us so far, paid or gifted - thank you. We're really grateful. SO MUCH LOVELINESS. <3
The next few chapters deal with a rather dark sequence of events - which you are probably familiar with from Homestuck canon, but I feel it's worth warning anyway.
AT: i THINK YOU NEED TO, gO SEE ARADIA, rIGHT AWAY,
AT: sHE'S ANGRY, aBOUT WHAT HAPPENED TO ME,
AT: bUT i CAN'T SEEM TO CALM, hER DOWN,
You've never seen Aradia like this before: so completely fury-mad that heat steams off her skin even as she clips off words cold and vicious. She shakes with it and the irises of her eyes turn temporarily dark with blood making her look older than she is and you're scared - not of her, but for her. It’s easy to forget how fragile rustbloods are, how short their lives; Aradia always seems sturdy and solid and safe. But right now you’re wondering if the reason highbloods are normally angrier is because they can afford to be; for all her solidity she feels like flash-paper ready to ignite with the fire of her anger and crumble to ashes in your hands.
You focus in on her, quiet and soft and intense and she fills up your whole universe. Her fists clench in your T-shirt and she sobs silently against you and you bend and murmur “Shoooooosh” in her face and you don't know what to do with your elbows so you just rest them on her shoulders and hold her horns.
“I wasn’t there,” she says, and her voice is quiet now but hoarse like a scream. “I was one of the trolls who got Tavros into this. I encouraged him.”
“Did you tell him it was safe?” you ask. "Did you assure him he wouldn't get hurt?"
(You know what the answer is. You’ve talked with her about this. FLARP seemed to you like a bad idea; a pastime made for trolls with cooler blood, thicker skin, sharper edges. A game where the rules themselves would cancel out your sorely needed advantages. Dangerous. “That’s the kind of game life is,” Aradia had said then, “I need to sharpen myself for it,” and you couldn’t argue with her.)
“No,” she says, tiredly, and when she starts purring almost inaudibly into your shoulder, you know you’ve reached her, at least a little.
“No, because you wouldn’t, because it’s not. Aradia.” You say her full name. “Look at me, okay? Look at me.” She does, tilting her head up, and you stroke the bases of her horns with the pads of your thumbs, and the set of her jaw is still resisting you but her eyes are just sad and the dark is fading from her irises and you let your breath out slowly - “It’s awful, okay, Vriska’s horrible, but TV knew what he was getting into. He knew it was dangerous, just like you did. I bet he was even interested for the same reasons.”
She’s nodding ever so slightly. Her hands are still balled up into fists but they’ve loosened a little and she’s purring a little louder and you run your hands through her hair and start singing a tune under your breath.
“Sollux -” Aradia blinks at you, and though her eyes are still filmy-dark with tears she’s now entirely jolted out of that scary haze - “Sollux, what the hell are you doing?”
Your singing abilities: they mostly don’t exist. To top it off, you mostly listen to electronic music, so that’s what you were trying to sing. The entire tune was lost in translation. She starts laughing helplessly, the rest of the shaky hot energy dispersing in cracked-up chuckling against your shirt.
“I’m sorry?” you offer, not sure whether this counts as triumph or cause for chagrin. You are the dubiously qualified moirail: it is you.
She looks up at you, brows drawn in consternation, and says "You're so hapless," and it’s a compliment and an insult and affirmation of all the sweet pale pity between you both. "You - everything that's not you is terrible." But she's smiling now, weakly amused.
"God, I hope not. There's a hell of a lot that isn't me," you say, half-seriously.
"I want to kill her," Aradia says solemnly. It isn't hyperbole. It's just exactly what she means. "I want to rip her to pieces. Or break her spine and leave her paralyzed like she did to Tavros. Only I want it to be personal, not a fall from a cliff. I want to stab her while she pleads for her life. It's what she deserves." Her voice is firm and strong and quiet and - "It's awful," she says finally, and you know she's not talking about what VK has done but about how she feels right now and what she thinks about it.
“It’s not what you deserve,” you tell her. “To go up against a highblood like that - she’d fight dirty, AA. I don’t want to see you getting hurt.”
“I know,” she says. “I just. Still feel like it was my fault. Like it should have been me, at the very least. I could have protected myself - could have cushioned the fall. I would have for Tavros, if I’d been there -”
It’s easy to forget that Aradia has psionic powers, too. Not the way you do, not blazing and bright and humming out of every crevice of her brain, and you’re glad for that, knowing what you know. Conscription is still worth worrying about, but in her category it’s a lot less likely - you shove those thoughts aside, though.
“Stop beating yourself up, for fuckssakes. I’m determined to stand firm against anyone who tries to hurt you, AA, and if it’s you who’s whaling on your own ass I’m gonna look like a complete moron.”
She laughs again, half-tearful, and you walk with her beneath the moons, silent except for the night sounds and footsteps and breathing and the susurrus of voices, until her hand is only slightly warm in yours, and you kiss her forehead and see her into her hive and take yourself home before sunrise.
‘I don’t want to see you getting hurt.’
It will be much later before you realize that she never said she wouldn’t try to take Vriska, and other things will have happened by then.
A training incident in the dreamspace will be the least of them.
“Shield your horns! Or do you want to fight without knowing which way is up?” A blast of psionics bounces off the protective layer you throw over your head just in time - he’s right, even the cushioned impact knocks your balance sideways without actually moving you anywhere, and his outline jags and fuzzes in your vision before clearing.
The Psiioniic is floating just above the ground in a corner between a stack of manuals and one of the walls you haven’t drawn on yet. Although his blow amounted basically to a warning slap, his expression is and has been flat and focused, his stance defensive, waiting for you to choose your next move.
You've gotten better at this in the last perigee - even if his power level puts yours to shame, he can't siphon most of it into the projection of himself here anyway, and he's learned to... hold that projection to a consistent scale, even though you sometimes catch glimpses of the vastness concealed behind it, and so you’ve learned to test yourself against him -
But every time you've done this before, he's mostly gone on the offensive, pummeling you with screens of force and occasionally zapping you through your shielding, rarely letting you get a blow in or try to, except by way of riposte. Now that he's just hovering there waiting, you're - indecisive, and finding it difficult to strike. You breathe and push your shielding out, reinforcing, bracing yourself: in case he attacks again, or in case he doesn’t.
“Well? Throw something at me,” he snaps, no real malice in his voice but fast and goading anyway. “You've learned to block well enough, but no one ever won a fight just by not losing. You've got to land a blow.” His eyes flash and an arc of light slashes edge-on at your head, another strike that's more showy than forceful.
So close to your eyes it succeeds in triggering a reflex; you lash out with an uncontrolled blast that's not going to hit. But it gets your blood pounding and now you're off the ground, too - dangerous because your balance isn't perfect, yet, but it lets you change angle rapidly, and try something new - “Fine, if you say so -” and the thin wall of force you send out at him as you approach is purely a feint, but it obscures you visually, just a little, enough that you can pulse a pinpoint of current through your right hand, trying to go at him from the side -
- And run smack into a barrier that shimmers, gives like thick elastic, but holds, the brunt of your pulse fizzling and stinging back into your palm. He backs slowly along the wall, uncornering himself, holding his defensive field steady in front of you. “Right idea,” he admits, with almost a smile at the corners of eyes that blink and shift as if your flash really did momentarily blind him. “But you didn't go far enough. Sight is obvious. Go for hearing, next time. Try a real hit to my psionics so I can't sense your movements. You can do more than that at once – Prove it to me.”
"You're not going to make this easy, are you -" you know it's true as you say it, even with him practically inviting you in and suggesting strategies, and it hits a well of frustration in you from dealing with Aradia's anger last night, her unsolvable problem, and it’s easy to turn that frustration into aggression - "you just told me where to hit, I'd be acting like an idiot if I went for it, right -" Both hands are bright and hot with energy, now, and you’re having to concentrate very hard to keep your own barrier up and stay hovering at the same time, because you just know he’d knock you flat on your ass if you dropped your guard for a second.
But the ceiling is high, and there’s a lot of room for shenanigans. And you’re going to take the chance that your words threw him off enough that a screen of static to the ears might actually make it in through his defenses. Without warning you propel yourself upward like a rocket and throw streams of vibration at his head from both sides, indiscriminately targeting ears and eyes and horns, redirecting enough of your power that your shielding does drop for a few moments at least -
Without the full range of his guard he has to take a half-blind swing at you, defending by aggressing, and the rush of pride at making a fight of this hits you at the same time as the broad blunt shockwave that crackles into you side-on and knocks you shoulder-first into a window, hard enough to hurt but not to break glass. More of a push than a blow, but it gives him space to get his senses back and hiss between his teeth, “If this is any other fight, you just lost to an equally matched opponent in the first round. You're smart enough, you have enough power - you're dead for absolutely no reason any troll with more than a third of a thinkpan can fathom. Here's a hint: Do something I don't expect. Right now I don't expect you to actually hit me.”
That gets you right in the temper. As soon as you start thinking of your next attack you start mounting it, bolstering yourself this time with stabilizing momentum from behind so he can't knock you off your balance again.
“You think I can’t make myself, don’t you,” you say, and the sad part is how true that normally is, and now that he’s getting to you, you let it make you angrier - the fact that you can’t fucking shove down your stupid flushcrush for long enough to prove yourself. “You think I’m only good for staring at you in awe like some half-schoolfed wriggler - asking for your help and doing nothing to earn it -” You’re more furious with yourself than with him, but it doesn’t matter, it’s helping you break through the block, and you swing yourself sideways and blast him with your eyes.
His whole psionic presence flares, easily fends it off with his own crackling wall of light, and he’s almost growling through the energy, “Do not. Say another word. Do not say that about yourself in front of me, ever, just fight.” He shoots a precise, thin beam straight at your ribs.
You’re dodging automatically, answering back, “What does it matter what I say--” while you press upwards, trying something you haven’t before awake or dreaming, using your psionics to pin your feet to the wall behind you and brace to make a cleaner hit -
“Try fishing your thinkpan out of your waste chute and having some dignity while you still -” He’s snarling, but cuts himself off just as your strike goes off, jaw tight with holding back speech, tense and not quite there and your blow actually half-hits, blazes through his outer shielding throwing off a shower of red sparks.
He dodges sideways but the pulse or beam that you expect doesn’t come. The air around you goes icy-blue and thick, like you’re seeing your livingblock through cold smoke, and you sink heavy-limbed toward the floor. You try to fight it at first but quickly realize that you’ll have to divert too much attention, too much energy, so instead you take a hint from something you’ve heard about purely physical fighting and shove yourself harder than he’s shoving you, the extra force dropping you to the ground all at once, letting you duck out of reach and roll towards a spot where you can lever yourself up on the wall.
He’s going to expect you to try a variant of the same thing back - you know this because it’s your first impulse, the eerie pattern of echoing each other, too alike - so you don’t. Instead you raise up your hands, and go after his head again with a screen of light and humming while at the same time directing sharp twin rays at his feet - either attack calculated to distract him enough that he might succumb to the other - and he avoids the lower attack, but the shields around his head go... not dimmer but dirtier, specks and clots of concentrated color dotting the bubble of light. He swats at you with his power but almost misses, the shockwave glancing off one shoulder; you fall back almost more from surprise than from the impact.
You’re caught up in the moment, grinning or gritting your teeth, focused completely on tactics and rhythm and the exchange of energies, and this time you manage to parry his force back at him, adding your own, changing the waveform, broadening it out into a full-body front of jarring crackling vibration that you push out from yourself bodily toward him-
He doesn't move to dodge, frozen like he's been dropped out of time and as the burning edge of your combined power barrels into him his shields shudder and the familiar solidity of his mental self-defense drops out from under you and you're doubly conscious and intersecting and under attack -
Sensor.calibrate: irradiation unit 3749gamma......100%
System.autoinitiate sterilization sweep –
System.autoinitiate sterilization sweep....17%39%84%...
You lock eyes with him through the wash of your own defenses, his face a blur of panic and losing battle and a terrible creeping vacancy and in the microseconds that you have to think in you catch that he is throwing fragments of system log into your mind deliberately, trying to warn -
The blast is a resonant crack and a sibilant whining hiss, sears orange over your eyelids when you involuntarily close them and buffets hot air in gusts against your skin. Your power rarefies in the strange atmosphere, overstretched, but although the maelstrom of energy outside bites and tears at your barriers, the walls are deeply rooted instinct now and the hammering in your head hasn't yet reached the screeching point of total psionic exhaustion. The brightness behind your eyes is unbearable and isn't dimming and all you know of his mind is a sea of static and maybe he can't stop.
You shout for him, at the top of your voice: you can feel it in your throat even though you can barely hear yourself. "Psiioniic! It's me, it's Sollux! - Psiioniic!" Almost every sliver of your power is pouring into holding your shielding against the raging energy, against - he could destroy you, but he won't, because you have learned something, at least, but is it enough? You're more sure of yourself than you were - enough to split your attention ever so slightly, concentrating so hard you're holding your breath, keeping the shield but also trying to bring the details of the room into sharper focus.
Your lungs and eyes and skull ache and this isn't working, nothing is happening, until everything happens at once. Loud – there's a creak and a clatter as you visualize a desk chair and a snap and a splintering crunch – a rip of curtains or carpet – but just as you're convinced that everything is about to fall down around you, there’s quiet beneath the noise. A drawing down of the static blasting from his mind and... the radiant storm outside your bubble is raging wild as ever, but somehow it's easier to hold back than it was before. There's more power flowing to your shield, and it isn't coming from you. But if it's him, then why –
- then you remember what you did long minutes ago, dropping yourself when he tried to lower you. You understand this. He can't stop pouring out energy but he can add more, feed it to you, and it vibrates between you, protecting you from himself.
It frees up your attention a little. When you can just power-dump into your protections rather than concentrating on tightening them, you can focus a little harder on something else.
"Can you hear me?" You can still barely hear yourself shouting, but you think it might be reaching him on some level. You're hanging onto the scenery, now shielding it slightly too, the edges of it clearer behind the searing brightness, and you're feeding him the image of clasped hands. Your bravado feels like you've scraped it from the bottom of the jar, but you try, anyway, at the top of your lungs, "Hey, asshole, I think you broke my chair -"
It ends like a long, slow sigh, like not just he but the whole room is very gradually sinking back into sanity. Static resolves into system.deescalate........scanning.......76%...........sector 3749 clear as the unnatural brightness swirls into the room's corners, clings like cobwebs around its edges.
He is half-sitting, half-collapsed against a bookcase, his face hidden by his hands. A torn corner of your carpet glows; so does your chair, splintered on the opposite side of the room from where you left it, until the last of the light leeches away and the only energy coming from him now is the defensive bubble you're cocooned in. He is crumpled on your floor and through a gaping rent in his sleeve where your psionics or his own must have hit him you can see his arm abraded like he's scraped it on stone, beading yellow blood up by the elbow and still his shields shimmer around you, encircling you in midair, and still he doesn't speak.
Seconds tick away and you fall to your knees next to him - you're not sure if it's safe to let go of the fine mesh of red and blue blurring into violet, but you take it down a notch to let you see clearly, to safely reach out your hands. It's a good sign that he's still in the dreamspace, that his projection is still coherent, even if he's not.
"Fuck, I didn't mean to - I hurt you - I'm sorry -" You want to say something sensible but your exhausted thinkpan can only come up with babbling and things about how your world will shatter if he's not all right, and that's an idiotic thought. He's never been all right. You bring your hands close enough to be felt as heat and static, for a moment, then brush the back of his hand with your fingers, hesitant. "Please - say something -"
He coughs weakly into his hands before he looks up, a shallow scrape on one cheekbone, his eyes bright but unfocused. "They were rogue colonists, not attackers," he says, barely audible. "They were lured into a hold where my self-defense systems..." He takes a long, shuddering breath before his gaze finally goes lucid, hand flexing under your fingers, speaking to instead of through you. "I... I am sorry. There was no need to tell you that."
You breathe out forcefully, fingers curling around his; you know you're squeezing too hard but you don't care. It keeps your hand from shaking. "No. Don't hold things back from me." You return his gaze full-on.
“It seems that when I do not hold things back sufficiently, your furniture suffers for it,” he says, dry and tired and before he can think better of it. “Worse could have happened, or could still...”
"Oh, hell. You know what I mean. I'm not talking about the psionic railcar collision itself. I'm talking about you - sitting there apologizing for telling me the reasons -" you say, and your voice catches on the word you and then comes out harder and sharper than you mean it to, and more full of anguish. "Do you think that concealing them will protect me?"
“Do you think that knowing every detail of this fate will? I promised you tools, which you... used today. But the rest... no good can come from asking. You could only lose your way in it.”
He’s missing the point of what you're trying to say, and you're struggling to make him see it - "I'm not going to pry all the time, I just -" Your grip on his fingers has loosened, and you squeeze tightly again. "Don't feel like you have to hide, okay? Don't feel like you have to not say things for my sake - I've got a moirail and friends and internet forums and it's not like you have anyone else to - wow." You press your other hand to your forehead, knuckles folded, aghast with yourself. "I open my mouth and shitty terrible things come out."
Your ancestor gives you a rather incredulous, reproachful look, a tightening around the eyes and mouth, but all he says is, "Can't say I don’t know what that is like," with a tiny bitter smile, "I am not sure that tendency can be willed out of us. But -" He shrugs at the torn-up room at large - "It still appears that we have work to do. Strifing you was... irresponsible. We will go back to detail work next time..."
"You think it'll go any better for me if I don't test myself?" You wince and deflate almost as soon as you say it, but you’re too raw from your own fumbling to back off, not even sure what you want from him even if you kind of knew that would set him off.
And it does. "I think that it will go better for both of us if I do not keep having episode after episode, near miss after near miss until the day I come out of it and you are vaporized. What is it going to take? An indigo-level schoolfeeding exam response with examples and analysis of why, for the hundred thousandth time, I am not to be trusted? Do you just like hearing me say how much that scares me?" His claws are digging into your palm, his hand damp in yours, before the light in his eyes kicks down a notch and his expression slams shut for the second time.
It shuts you up completely. You make a humiliating stifled noise of woe as your throat closes on tears. You're a hacker; you troubleshoot, you fix things, you take them apart and put them back together and make them better. But no matter what you do you can't fix this and there's nothing you can say to make it better.
And worse, his last dig is half-right, you'd rather see him scared than - than him be scared and you not see it -
"I'm sorry," you whisper, finally, defeated, your hand still clasped around his but nearly limp with helplessness. "I'm so sorry."
He says nothing for a long time, just stares at you like he's been slapped instead of apologized to and you just don't know what you could do, what there is left. "Don't -" he chokes, finally, but never finishes the thought. "We'll go back to details. Hands off work. Until – I can come up with a way to get a handle on this. We... we have time."
That last isn't true at all, but neither of you has the heart to say otherwise.
Chapter 9: when you rocked me in your arms
He takes a full, slow breath and he is here and elsewhere, now and an irrecoverably long time ago.
"Something unforgivable has been done to you, Sollux Captor. But I am telling you, you will live. You have to."
This chapter: warnings for canonical character death, mild gore, suicidal thoughts.
Another dream of wreckage and destruction. Crashing waves of light roll out of you - smell of blood, sticky on your fingers and your face - static through your mind.
Dimly it seems to you that this has happened before. That the heavy weight fell on you and pressed you into insensible darkness. But this time it isn’t - hasn’t all the way - you lose your senses for a while, but keep aware.
Through the fever-thick noise in your head you try to remember.
An odor of smoke -
You are Sollux Captor and you -
images, bright flare and noise to a roar and your thinkpan feels scorched through and
you’re seeing, you have been seeing for a while, bright afterimages that blurred everything now starting to clear and
You’re in a smoking ruin, looking through the blood on your fingers, slick and unreal in the light of the moons.
The pressure doesn’t come again but the fuzzing dimness does - you feel emptied out, the normal crackle in your thinkpan gone silent, everything far away as if you’re at the bottom of a well.
The strobing in and out of consciousness could be taking seconds or minutes or perigees -
Not perigees. The sun would burn you -
Cognizance of the sun, cognizance of time passing: minute by minute you climb back to your senses, regaining words and meanings one by one like a wiggler.
It takes you another unnamed time to understand that the unpleasant feeling is pain in your head and the stickiness at your lips has a name, it’s a very important name and it has warnings associated with it, or would if you could read language in your head
You are Sollux Captor and there is mind honey on your lips
it fizzes at you, trying to push through synapses that have already sparked and exhausted themselves, and your eyes are clearing and the shape of the horizon comes into view.
The very back of your thinkpan puts it together first, before you have the words, before anything empirical or sane comes back online, you still remember the horizon and what it means and time passes.
Time passes and your arms are stiff with cramps because you’ve been curled around your knees rocking and your eyes are sticky with blood from grinding the heels of your hands into them. It’s nearly dawn now. The words are all back, or almost all. They slid into your thinkpan when you weren’t looking.
Names and words. Vriska Serket and control and revenge and used -
You stand up. You wobble and try to catch yourself with your psionics, like usual, but the attempt fizzles and you fall, scrape your knee on the rough slab of broken rock where you’ve been sitting this whole time, pick yourself up again and search.
I was going to troll AA, you remember. I was about to try and reach her, because I heard - in my head -
Her voice. You heard her voice.
In the rubble you find the burnt hull that was Aradia Megido. The sun is coming up. You crawl in next to her broken body and wrap your arms around her shoulders, as if you could go back and tell her goodbye, as if any pale affection would fix this.
You lie there, your worthless life predicated on the balance and shadow of a slab of stone, and you can’t bring yourself to care whether a cave-in will kill you, too. The smell of death is everywhere, and you’re not certain if you sleep, but you don’t go far into dream. Restless, circling, empty thoughts plague you.
At one point, you hallucinate Aradia herself, older than a rustblood could ever be, excavating this same ruin, brushing dust from both of your bones.
You begin walking when the sun is just barely settled behind the horizon.
Even before this, you stayed up coding, avoiding the Psiioniic after your last encounter - you haven’t slept in days.
The world skips and catches just from that, and the parching of your throat and the shriveled ache in your stomach (none of which will ever be punishment enough) and there’s a voice calling for you in the back of your mind (why would anyone want to speak to me) and your mind is drained so your ill-used body carts you home, one foot in front of another.
On what must be a city street somewhere, a figure in silhouette tries to get your attention - some kind of blue-blood by the shape of their horns - and whatever they see in your eyes when you look up makes them jerk back and start away from you.
You’re too destroyed inside to even feel relieved.
Somehow you make it, feet blistered and bleeding through your sneakers. Somehow you enter your apartment; somehow you climb up the steps to your recuperacoon and slide in. You don’t remember doing so, only notice suddenly that you’re floating in sopor, clothes still on under the slime - (if you held your head below the surface you wouldn’t have to breathe air again) - but by the time the thought filters through your mind you’re already dozing -
Through the murk and smoke of your sinking back into sleep the calling hits your skin before it reaches your ears, pulse and pause and pulse and all of them reading worry.
The hands are in yours before you really have a chance to respond beyond a softly spoken here, hardly enough impulsion beyond your pinging to reach outside your dream-body, suspended in the gloaming at the boundary between dream and waking vision. But still he finds you, takes you up by both arms and you are crumpled on your couch looking down at his shoes.
You might have tried to speak, but you never felt your tongue move. He freezes there for a while, standing over you, as his boots and your lap and your hands all blur together and he makes spaced-out half-formed syllable noises that resolve into You don't have to – and I saw – before he curls in next to you, gradual seamless tense movement like he's afraid he'll break the couch or you or himself. Wraps a warm, heavy arm around your hunched back and pulls close enough that your sides are touching but not really pressed together, and you watch the floor fade in and out, blue over with sopor and lurch back into focus, shifting arhythmic cycles of sleep and not-sleep timed only by the slow expand and retreat of his ribs against your side.
You are numb and you are nothing, can bear the strain of existing only insofar as you can fade the emotional content of the world out to an empty colorless blank, and he’s a spot of color, tearing a hole in the nothing. It’s distressing, even though you want to accept - something - the warmth of his arm is like a thread pulling to unravel fabric, and you make a tiny broken noise, stock-still, hidden away in yourself.
"You can gray it out a little while longer," he tells you, so softly that you could almost locate the voice inside your own head except that there still aren't words inside you to form a thought like that; except that you feel the vibration of it against your side. "I'm here." Some deep piece of you is distantly afraid that he will shoosh you, but he doesn't, just lapses back into silence and you drift beside him, your awareness a wispy undefined thing inside your own body.
"...but eventually you surface. Everyone does. I'm still here." He's rubbing at your shoulder now, just his thumb very light against the fabric of your T-shirt, and his breathing, and yours, the barest overlapping of rhythms but still it jangles against your outer layer.
Somehow, paradoxically, his permission to remain faded makes it easier to come back, to gather into yourself, a little at a time. Gingerly, like you’re testing a sprained muscle, taking it through tiny fractions of its range of motion except the thing that hurts is being. And even trying to ease into it is too much and you have to stop and gasp and retreat when you push too far.
He speaks to you between long silences as you pull yourself up, just a few words at a time, resonant enough to reach you but quiet enough not to startle, "I'm not going to leave" and more of you is there after he says that, it quiets some part of you that was convinced the harsh ugliness of yourself would make him go away. He says "I know it's difficult," and just "I'm here, I'm here," and finally "You do not have to cry or talk if you don’t want to. You can just be here."
- and that breaks the last thin blank paper wall around you, or lets you break it, you're not sure, only that your first coherent thought in a while is why do I always have to be contrary, because you're crying then, in long ragged breaths that rock through you still limp as sea-wrack, breaking silence for the first time since -
since you -
and then you’re scrambling to sit up, to pull away, though it hurts to lose the contact and you’re hugging yourself like an orphaned wiggler, arms tensed over your chest, choking out, “I don’t deserve this -”
Although he is looking at you with almost transformational understanding, although you cling to your end of the couch out of some half-sensible thought that you'll be drawn back in, wrapped into his mind – he misunderstands you, maybe deliberately, or maybe he catches something you didn't know you were saying – "No one does. Everything changes, and it never stops hurting. But we live. I promise you. We do."
He doesn't reach for you. His hand lies at his side palm-up where you dropped it, loose and unthreatening and his eyes swirl over deeper than their colors, full to mirroring yours, but the tears don't fall.
When you speak it's at least as much to yourself as to him, barely cognizant of anything. Being able to speak is itself simultaneously a relief and screechingly wrong, a heady and terrible drug that turns your thinkpan on its side. "I don't deserve - you, your - I killed her," you say and your voice is a bare croak and your teeth chatter.
“Can you look at me?” he asks, low, centered, more still than you’ve ever seen him.
You raise your head from where it hangs crumpled against your own shoulder and squint against the light of his eyes.
"Can you think of what you have seen me do? Can you – do you think I forgive myself? I know you pity her. I've had to do the same to people I cared for. Do you really believe I've ever thought, once, that I deserve compassion? But you have never stopped being patient with me, have you? You've held on, you've held on hard. You have done this same thing for me."
He takes a full, slow breath and he is here and elsewhere, now and an irrecoverably long time ago.
"Something unforgivable has been done to you, Sollux Captor. But I am telling you, you will live. You have to."
You want to rail against this, against this same acceptance you've turned toward him like a light, not knowing how bright and harsh it shone, how hard it was to stand in. You draw breath and try to speak, once, twice, but the words melt hollow from your mind.
Then the third time it all comes bursting out, finally; you can't resist solving the logic problem of how to hate yourself when you pity him so deeply. "I keep thinking," you say, "Security is what I do, how could I let the security on my own goddamned thinkpan fail so badly - and then I feel like an asshole for thinking that. But you - you went against an em-," and here a warning light goes off in your mind, remembered caution around his barriers - "against enormous power. You chose a battle worth fighting, and you lost." Part of you is aware you're rubbing his horns in the half-truth he tells to make it easier, but you feel helpless, you feel like garbage. "I got punked by a six-sweep-old highblood. And I'm scared as hell that I'm making that up in my head, too, somehow, and did this terrible thing myself -"
"You never forgive yourself," he interrupts. "It's shrapnel. You will keep finding ways to work it in deeper and wound yourself with it. Would your moirail have put up with that?" And then, softly, "You are right to be scared, but you are not a monster, Sollux. Believe me, for now, if you can't believe it yourself." And he reaches out to you with his mind now, finally, offers you just the thin edge of his compassion, the choice to let it reach you or push it away.
You’re crying again, from the moment he mentions her, and somewhere in that you find that you’ve leaned into him physically, arms still clutched against your chest, bent at the waist with your head pressed up against him, and you can’t convince yourself you deserve this but from him you can’t continue to resist it. It’s the way he wraps his arms around you, a strong sure intentional pressure holding you to him, like all of his attention is here, bearing you up and willing you whole, even as you know that pieces of him must be a long way away. It’s the quiet, steady certainty in his voice when he says you will keep finding ways to work it in deeper and it should feel horrible to be so resigned to self-hatred but by describing it he makes it somehow more bearable. Like you could bleed to death and the only thing that would matter about it is whether you bled alone or whether someone saw it and believed you.
And thinking of blood makes you think of Aradia again. You actually hold the image in your mind for a fraction of a second before flinching from it. Dim fragmented scenes without points of connection between them and you’re trying to fill in missing time - you try to sequence them and you stumble over - something, blank and textureless, a barrier wall holding memories away -
"I saw all of it," he says softly, and you hover and jerk back from that closed-off memory like drawing your hand back from a hot stove. It shames you that you can’t - but, You’re right, he reassures inside his thinkpan, Not now, and he turns you toward parts of his mind that are just a warm wash of acceptance, and ducks his head to fit yours under his chin. Finishes his thought out loud - "Now... you have time, but in a while it will be evening, and you will have to wake up."
That’s not something he usually reminds you about. Nor does it usually hurt to remember it, not this way, and your shoulders tense awkwardly in his quiet embrace. You don’t want to wake up; you don’t want to face everything, Aradia being gone and the hundreds of messages that must be waiting for you and the always-unfinished need to drag your graceless body out of the recuperacoon and give it more nutrients to burn through. “I just want it all to go away,” you half-whisper, and then forestall his inevitable protest - “No, I know I have to -” have to be strong -
- and it hits you, suddenly, a memory that’s not blood and smoke but a small banal thing. You hear the stupid things that came out your mouth, only days ago, as if another person said them. It’s not like you have anyone else-
That self seems more intelligent than you gave him credit for. He was harsh and an asshole but he was also telling the truth: telling it so you’d hear it in your own words, in your own mind, right now when you so desperately need a reason to go on.
“I’ll be strong,” you blurt out. “I promise, no self-culling, I’ll make myself keep going -” and knowing now how hard it is to let his compassion shine on you without trying to turn away from it, how hard it must be for him, you don’t say for you, but you know he hears it anyway.
He pulls you a little closer at your answer to the question he didn't ask, says warmly, "I'll hold you to that." But there's an edge to his mind that feels resonant with your own distress, and his voice goes slow and wavering, "I had so hoped that somehow you wouldn't have to go through this. I'm sorry."
"I doubt if there's anything you could have done to stop... this from happening. To stop me," you say, because even knowing that you weren't in charge, you were the implement, irreplaceable in your role, and that’s not something you’re going to forget anytime soon. “I knew she was like that. The highblood, I mean. I just thought staying away from her would help. Like a dumb featherbeast I thought that if she couldn’t see me she couldn’t get me.”
He hesitates, inhales sharply as if he's going to interrupt but then listens to you rambling and lets a long silence stretch after you trail off. "I saw something," he finally says, "I'm sorry, I did not mean to make you think about this so soon, but... I saw something, when I was in your thinkpan, that was unfamiliar to me, and I may have an idea. It's an infinite longshot, and..." He trails off again, still reassuring but now unsure.
You’re tilting your head to look at him as soon as he says idea, eying him keenly. Having something to try to solve is like a splash of cool water on your face, bringing your mind back online. “What did you see - what are you thinking?”
"'A hive divided against itself shall not stand,'" he mutters, and then, more clearly, "Sorry, it's something the... an old friend of mine used to say. Red and blue. Somehow she took advantage of one half or the other. I am not close to clear on it yet, and I have no way of knowing whether experiments with polarity would yield any protective benefit at all or just be absurdly dangerous..." He sighs and looks down at your eyes rather than into them, one at a time, the way you might inspect a computer to be optimized.
“That sounds... like it fits with the evidence, insofar as what I have. I’m willing to try,” you say softly. He knew that already, of course. But still you sit up straighter and hold your head up and tuck your chin, because this isn’t just about experimenting with ways to protect yourself, this is about experimenting together at all. It’s about the unsolvable problem you both walked away from, days ago.
“It would require... changes that I do not know how to make, with results that I only have half a hypothesis and something I sensed for a few seconds while I was terrified for you to help me guess. It would require either my power in your thinkpan or yours in mine trying operations that are orders of magnitude more complex than we’ve attempted yet, and we’ve seen how well that has worked out for us so far...” It’s like he’s gotten so caught up worrying about you that he’s half-forgotten that you’re still there, arguing it over with himself.
“I think we’ve firmly established that my brain is dangerous with or without your help.” The attempt at sarcasm sounds flat and feeble, and you look into his eyes, determined not to blink or back down, even though your voice is still thin from choked-back tears.
"Yes," he agrees flatly, just with the words, no real tone to it. "'Fearfully and wonderfully made -'" He makes a swallowed-down noise, not quite a resigned laugh. You can't quite handle wonderfully right now and your fists ball up with fury at yourself but you let it slide; you have to; you press it back down underneath your promise to him. "Very rarely,” he says, “when I was young, psionics in my compound would overstrain themselves, trying to carry out orders or trying to escape. Try to make their powers work in ways they were never intended to. Some of them were... changed, after. Permanently."
“So the stakes are high. And from what you’re saying - they were going to be high, for me, no matter what.” You’re bitterly thankful for the unreal numbness that’s still fading in and out, because without it, it would be so easy to slip and start pleading with him, belaboring the point for all the wrong reasons. But he looks at you expectantly, and you know you need to say something more, meeting his eyes all the while, and it’s almost a whisper because it cuts too close to the things you can’t and won’t say, disquieting even through your emotional exhaustion. “I’d still rather face that with you than without you.”
He's having trouble looking at you, blinking fast and shifting his arms against your chest as if your future is just as slippery a thing for him to hold in his mind as it is to you. "There are no easy decisions, for us. We don't get partial successes, or second chances. But if you resolve to do this, I am in it with you. The risk, either way, is yours, and this - I believe that you are making the right choice. I think you have, all along. But even if I didn't, I would still... I would stay with you. I still hold to that."
It's not quite an apology and it's not a solution and it's not certainty, but after the way he pulled back, the last time you talked (it feels like it happened to someone else, in another world) - you exhale, slowly, knowing this strange lightness won't last after you wake, that the horror and self-loathing will slam back in. But right now, just knowing that he'll work with you again, it's like a missing piece of you has come back. And you need every piece you can keep.
“Thanks,” you say, shakily, and you give a tenuous half-laugh - “God, we’re a mess, we can trust each other too well but we can’t trust ourselves at all. What a shitty cosmic joke.”
He doesn't smile, just shifts his hands to your shoulders, gives you room. "You could still learn." He lets you lean there for a while, drifting, before he finally breaks out of his reverie and lets out another sound that's more a breath than a chuckle. "You have my word that I will do everything in my power to earn your grievously misplaced trust. And for your part... remember your own word, Sollux. It will take your thinkpan time to heal enough for polarity work, and that will be the most dangerous part of this for you. You may grieve, but you must live." His fingers slip against the fabric of your shirt, but he's still solid and reassuring under your back.
“I promised you,” you say, a little indignantly. “I won’t forget.”
You’re afraid of waking, afraid of letting go of his presence and the dream and you can just barely stand to be in the room with yourself, here with his hands holding you up, and for a moment you can’t, you go rigid anticipating the awfulness - but the promise wasn’t forced out of you, and you’d make it again for the same reason you did before, and you’ll resent it but you won’t regret it -
"Okay," he says quietly, "...okay. Do you – if it would help, I can keep this space together while you sleep. And leave some of myself here, so if you wake up during the day..." You catch a dimly lit scrap of memory, your ancestor opening his eyes curled up and shaking and three trolls pressed closely around him, one purring softly in his sleep, but their features are too blurred to tell anything more.
"If it doesn’t hurt you to do," Your voice is small and you’re ashamed to ask for anything else from him, but you can't bring yourself to refuse this kindness.
He just shakes his head, leans back and closes his eyes. Even as his breathing slows and evens, the warm pressure of his hands never leaves your shoulders.
You sift through layers of dream but somehow still never fall out of his arms, even when your livingblock walls fade and you're on the cusp of deeper sleep, soft dark, long smooth waveforms and diffuse fear, hesitancy at the edge of the true rest that you know you desperately need, but on the other side -
Darkness presses around you shaped like his chest behind your back; shaped like his arms moving to circle you again; pervaded with the scratchy rumble of his purring as he rocks you -
Gentle little swaying movements, the lapping at the edge of a calm windless sea -
You dream the rocking becomes pendulum-swaying; dream soft stomach-fluttering weightlessness at the apex, the tiny earthbound taste of flight, but safe, you dream that you are safe, that his arms are around your shoulders, that not all is dark, and the light is a distant grayish smear made of millions of tiny little pointillist pieces, and ever so gently he guides and expands and focuses your sight until the whole of the mosaic comes clear. Weightless, now, floating liquid-illusory-slow, and he sweeps your sight over the firmament, each star crystalline in its spectrum, haloed in dust and rubble but glowing through, the whole self-creating depth of each one visible to you, changing-shifting-moving within itself like a vast heart, a vast creature.
In this space – in his arms, in his mind – in this flow of memory, stretching centuries on either side of you, this continuum of flight and movement and unbounded expanse – you know each light, your guides, your only effervescent warmth as you streak past, know like a waysign, like a face, the cast and content of the radiant wind that each star throws far-flung and reaching into the void.
art by SplickedyLit
You dream of stars, and you dream that you are like them, a thickening in the texture of the universe, a small hot mote in the center of nothing, your motions described as arcs through darkness; of how slow the lights seem to pass, even as some foreign sense that is and is not balance feeds you rush and speed and tumbling-forward surety in the whistling arc of your flight beyond the law of light's pace and the trammels of distance. The humming inside and against your chest is purring, it's engines –
– and you've seen this starry in-between in glimpses, memory and dream, but now he opens it to you entire, lifts you into it, your head pillowed on his shoulder and unfathomable spangled space behind and beneath and around you. He carries you out of reach, just for a while, of the memory of smoke and crumbling walls, and though loss still flows and whispers through you, from flight you finally fall willing into undreaming sleep.
Chapter 10: still the shapes fill my head
"Look," the Psiioniic is saying. "Signals to route psionic energy outside the body originate near here, but not just here. There is a nearly identical region on the opposite side of the brain. Those are our targets. The problem? Some remarkably incompetent deity thought it would be a great practical joke to lay the high voltage cable in our thinkpans through the really boring and unimportant parts that can stand a little singeing, you know, regions responsible for visual and aural perception. And speech processing. Higher cognition. We aren't playing in a minefield here at all, is what I'm saying."
A retaliation seen-to; an experiment undertaken; a memory restored; a naming sought.
(Disclaimer: We do have some sketched-out headcanons for how our stuff meshes up with real-world brain business, but psionic trolls, dude: there's Applied Phlebotinum there no matter how you look at it.)
gallowsCalibrator [GC] began trolling twinArmageddons [TA]
GC: H3Y. H3Y C4PTOR.
GC: 4R3 YOU TH3R3?
GC: 1 KNOW WH4T H4PP3N3D >:[
GC: 1T'S NOT YOUR F4ULT
GC: 1 PROM1S3 TH3 SCOURG3 S1ST3RS 4R3 DON3 4ND OV3R FOR GOOD
GC: T4LK TO M3
GC: SH1T 1 FORGOT YOUR3 4LR34DY 4 H1GH-STRUNG DUD3
GC: PL34S3 DONT H4V3 DON3 4NYTH1NG R4SH
GC: FUCK 1 WOULDNT PUT 1T P4ST H3R TO H4V3 TR13D TO D1SPOS3 OF TH3 3V1D3NC3 31TH3R
GC: SO 1 GU3SS 1M JUST W41T1NG NOW
GC: THR33 MOR3 HOURS W1THOUT 4 P33P 4ND 1'M COM1NG OV3R TO LOOK FOR YOU
TA: tz calm your rumble 2phere2.
TA: iim here.
TA: ii 2hould a2k what youve managed two fiigure out but iim not 2ure ii want two know.
GC: 1 KNOW 4R4D14 S3NT TH3 SP1R1TS OF TH3 D34D TO VR1SK4 TO FUCK W1TH H3R B3C4US3 SH3 TOLD M3 WH3N SH3 W4S DO1NG 1T
GC: 4ND TH4T 1T W4S R3V3NG3 FOR WH4T H4PP3N3D TO T4VROS
GC: 1 KNOW 4R4D14'S H1V3 1S GON3
GC: 1 H4V3 R34SON TO B3L13V3 VR1SK4 US3D YOU
GC: TH3 W4Y SH3 DO3S TO P3OPL3
GC: 1S TH4T 3NOUGH OR SHOULD 1 GO ON?
TA: ...ii gue22 you mii22ed the part where ii wa2nt a2kiing for a reason.
TA: that2 a pretty accurate depiictiion of event2, yeah.
TA: the full account al2o iinclude2 miind honey and hatiing my2elf and wantiing two diie.
GC: DONT D13
GC: 1 N33D YOU TO H3LP M3
GC: W3V3 GOT TO T4K3 H3R DOWN 4 NOTCH
TA: talk about doiing 2omethiing ra2h, holy 2hiit...
TA: do you know exactly how much ii want two get iinvolved iin a hiighblood revenge drama?
TA: here2 a hiint: on a 2cale from two two fuck off, iit2 a negatiive number.
GC: TH1S 1SN'T 4BOUT R3V3NG3
GC: W3LL, TH4T'S NOT 4 FULLY 4CCUR4T3 ST4T3M3NT, 1T SORT OF 1S
GC: BUT 1 KNOW SH3 H4S 4 S3CR3T 4DV4NT4G3 TH4T 1S V3RY R34L 4ND TOT4LLY UNF41R >:[
TA: what2 your point?
GC: 1TS P4ST T1M3 TO T4K3 TH4T 4W4Y FROM H3R B3FOR3 SH3 US3S 1T TO HURT 4NYON3 3LS3
GC: 1 R34LLY D1D COM3 OV3R TOO
GC: 1M R1GHT OUTS1D3 YOUR H1V3ST3M
TA: iim lii2teniing.
Your livingblock is not as much of a wreck as you are, but it's close. You haven't had a good night at all since the Psiioniic's loss of cognizance during that training session, the dreamspace woven into the real just enough to succeed in actually breaking things, and it's all as it stood then, busted computer chair and haphazard strewn-about disaster of clothing and game grubs and electronic components Terezi gawps in dismay at the spectacle, and you realize she thinks you did it yourself, and you let her believe that. It's certainly not a lie about your state of mind.
Terezi tells you her plan, about Vriska's secret advantage and the mysterious manipulator with the white text, and you decide you might as well help her. That story is told elsewhere.
Vriska retaliates, of course. Even without her secret stolen foreknowledge, she still has her creepy control powers. You learn about it because TZ goes out of contact, and then you find out she’s been blinded, in another complex sequence of events described better by narrators other than yourself. You would feel guilty for indirectly getting her into trouble, but she seems far less impaired than you would have expected, for reasons bound up with her sleeping lusus and her own dose of weird numinous shit; colors are flavors to her now and you’re “Appleberry Blast” and running fetch for her while she adapts takes your mind off the fact that existing continues to hurt.
VK seems to have forgotten about you; you’re not sure whether to be happy or enraged about that, and you settle for a hollow kind of relief.
Some nights it’s harder than others to keep your promise. Some days the Psiioniic continues your lessons, and other days he just pulls you into the gentlest of his memories and lets you drift there. One time he’s called away entirely, all of his resources occupied by a battle, to the point that even the faint presence he’s been extending to you continuously is sealed away from your mind. That time you can’t quite rein in your daymares; you take control several times, the way you’ve learned to do, but as soon as you stop paying attention you end up alternately fighting for your life against nameless highbloods who keep tugging on you as if with puppet-strings and walking down an empty city street, with Aradia just ahead, her back turned to you, always calling her name and never seeing her face.
But when you see the Psiioniic again later, the desperate seriousness of his apologies seems out of proportion to how bad your dreams actually were; and that’s how you realize you’re slowly getting better.
The work resumes in full.
"Look," the Psiioniic is saying, sounding almost excited for once, holding your hand just behind one of his front horns, not quite touching skin but in range of the staticky shifting and wavering that radiates off him in a mostly-invisible fuzz. "Signals to route psionic energy outside the body originate near here, but not just here. There is a nearly identical region on the opposite side of the brain. Those are our targets. The problem? Some remarkably incompetent deity thought it would be a great practical joke to lay the high voltage cable in our thinkpans through the really boring and unimportant parts that can stand a little singeing, you know, regions responsible for visual and aural perception. And speech processing. Higher cognition. We aren't playing in a minefield here at all, is what I'm saying."
"Well. I guess I'll just have to add 'try not to blow myself up' to the list of working priorities here. Somewhere under 'try not to blow myself up', 'try not to blow anyone else up', 'try not to blow up my hive' and 'try not to blow myself up' again. I've been taking notes, you see." It hasn't been entirely easy to get a smile out of you lately, but you can't help but grin at your ancestor, even as you pay careful attention.
"Add in 'try not to blow yourself up' one more time and you might start getting somewhere," he agrees. "But I do have one real addition to your list. These centers aren't just physically interconnected within the brain. There are other forces at work here that I do not fully understand, primarily because no one ever saw fit to study theoretical psionics. It seems to be treated mostly as an... applied discipline. And then..."
You have some idea what got this bug into him about treating heavy subjects lightly today, but you aren't complaining – you would far rather this than he avoid difficult topics with you altogether.
"The ocular migraines, the highs and lows, the gravitation toward duality - that’s our mutation, something different about our psionic centers that I can only guess at from personal observation... My hypothesis is that one particular part of the system might be more vulnerable to highblood mind games than others, and that changing the equilibrium between... high and low, red and blue, might have a protective effect. Or... it could have an unbalancing ripple effect on your mental and emotional state. The strongest possibility is some of both." And serious now, "I wish I had been in a position to do this to myself first, but I was so sure that my own... never mind."
“So sort of a shift in frequency, then... What did you see, anyway, that made you think this might be a key to my... vulnerability?”
It’s not the first time since Aradia’s death that the subject has come up, but it is the first time you’ve gone back towards talking about details of the incident. Your voice comes out steadier than you might have expected. Troubleshooting gives you a handle on things.
"The last time I saw you, before," he says slowly, "We had the same... disagreement we'd had so many times before, and for the first time you gave in. You never had before, I assume because I actually was wrong and you knew it. So why? ...because you were buried. It was like swimming through sopor slime in your head, when I was in there. It's cyclical, and there's something in the blue end of it that she took advantage of. Beyond that... it's fuzzy."
"Mmmnh." Always back to your uncontrollable moods, always back to the utter and complete shit your abnormal brain throws at you, and you feel like hitting something. Instead you kick the ground with your toe, a futile precision strike of temper, and exhale sharply. "Great. So when my thinkpan goes on strike, I'm easier prey for someone like Vriska. Wonderful. But it fits well enough, from what I remember of that night.” Then you backtrack over what he said and you have to stop and look him in the eye, for a moment. Wrong and you knew it. You’re smiling just slightly, sadly; you can’t say I forgive you because you never really blamed him, but - “And frankly, you were right. I’d just forgotten for a moment that I was righter.”
"Well, you’re vulnerable when it rebels in that direction at least,” he says. He lets out a puff of breath, a vague chuckle. “But the two psionic poles aren't completely distinct entities. The two halves of the brain are connected. If we could get enough red energy to cross over to form a field around the nodes I showed you..." He rubs that spot behind his own horn absentmindedly, looks between you and the pile of computer parts on your workbench. "...but, the part that I was right about: I am not the steadiest hand to have rattling around in your thinkpan. Can you keep your guard up?"
"As in, track what you're doing and be ready to shut things off if you start to slip? Sure." You link your fingers together and stretch your elbows out as if you’re preparing to do something physical, then settle yourself on your computer chair.
"Yeah, mostly that. That and tell me. If you just shut off and I don't know why, things could get weird." He holds his left hand, palm in, hovering next to the left side of your head, brushing your hair but not touching skin. "This could be good practice for that, actually... I need to get in there and pinpoint where your red and blue hotspots are. I can't just assume that we are exactly the same, I have no idea how much of this is genetic and how much is environmental. I am starting with blue because – well -" There's an awkward pause while he concentrates, adjusting the positions of his fingers, tiny buildups and discharges of energy pinging against your scalp. "I am sorry, but – you are still in a low, aren't you?"
You tense, but you nod slightly and don’t flinch from him. Letting people ask you about your moods is not a thing you do. Even though most of your friends know - even though in practice almost no one actually gets culled for it - this shit is borderline cullable. Not in a psionic of your power rating: too valuable, even with that kind of defect. But culling defects are also reasons you could be turned in. And beyond that, it's just damned embarrassing.
But he's very nearly you and even if you didn't pity him - he knows you, inherently and instinctively and learned. And that lets you speak, still ashamed but not hiding - "Yeah. Not as bad as when I - when it happened. But I'm not quite back to capacity yet either."
You and he both go vague the same way, too, when naming something would be unnecessarily painful.
"Okay," he says, not really acknowledging how difficult that was, but still he curls his other hand comforting around your shoulder. "I asked because your blue nodes should show up a bit better at this point, but I need you to pay close attention to what you are feeling while I map. If you start to feel – anything, if your mood or energy level changes – tell me because I am not sure that I will know what I am looking for when I see it. So that could be the only way I know that I have hit something. Are you ready?"
“Yeah. Don’t worry, I’ll keep checking in.” You straighten out again, try to sit tall but relaxed, try to breathe regularly, all of the things you know for focus work, and attend carefully to what’s going on in your own weird head. Even though you know from the very light touch of his psionics that he’s barely begun to take a look, already you feel - weirdly exposed, the way you do when someone visits your hive in a state of clutter: you don’t want to go in there, it’s a fucking mess. The feeling is making your ears burn and your heart race, and you concentrate on breathing.
It starts as a scattered all-over swirling, like the opposite of a migraine, the whole left side of your head feeling lightened instead of weighed down. But it doesn't take much time for the energy to focus in, a barely perceptible crackling at the very back of your head, near the surface, that you really notice only if you feel for it with your own psionics. "Here's a baseline, what this should feel like normally. I think I'm in a visual memory area, oddly enough, could it have been put any farther away from the eyes.." The scanning progresses slowly and covers only a tiny patch of space at a time, sweeping side to side before inching forward. He lets out a small excited "oh" when he thinks he has something, but then lapses back into silence when it isn't exactly what he wants. You aren't accustomed to staying still this long and just paying attention, not working on anything, so you are intently aware when he presses a bit harder than he meant on your awareness of your fingers or a cluster of memories related to cooking smells. Once there's a psionic pressure behind your eyes: interesting but not quite the target, some neurons that regulate energy storage but don't alter polarity, and he keeps going, the tingling of concentration creeping toward the base of an outer horn.
"...Here," your ancestor finally says, absorbed, half-muttering, then louder, "I think I found – here, watch this -" You feel a little twinge as if you're thinking intently about something even though all you're doing is paying attention and then everything in front of your desk goes bluish, the walls kind of an odd brightly lit aqua and you wonder what he's done with your vision before you realize - "I can control my eye brightness individually, but I had never seen you do it. It should be near here..." As his awareness circles the spot it becomes heavier, more intent, and the magnetic curves passing between his hand and your thinkpan start to feel uncomfortable, almost invasive, near-tangible the way the sense of being watched can prickle like claws against the back of your neck. And then without warning everything seems drained of interest, exhausting and inane -
"...Um." The vocalization comes sluggish to your lips. You've been focusing so hard on his directive that you can manage that, at least. You see it through a horrible dead clarity: this whole experiment is useless, as long as you live you'll just be a tool to Vriska and people like her, and at least if you blow yourself up you won't fuck up any more, you won’t hurt anyone else, but in the back of your head you remember the list. It seemed funny at the time. You're not sure how to get back from here to where anything is meaningful, but you still have a concept of importance as it belongs to other people. He told you to tell him when something changed. “I...”
"You should see this, it's... kind of beautiful in here, actually, there's a whole tiny parallel network in with the neurons, it's hard to tell but it might be... glowing... are you sure you still don't – wait, why is everything - oh." He pulls his power out to the surface, a wavering presence not in your brain but around it, leans over to look at you, one hand still on your shoulder, the other spinning the chair to face obliquely toward him. "...that was you, wasn't it? I felt that. I forgot - I’m sorry -" He leans against an arm of the chair, mouth half open and struggling with himself.
You’re blinking up at him dully. The things he’s describing don’t really seem to pertain to you, but with the weird pressure gone, it grows easier to have a complete thought. “I’m sorry - I didn’t say clearly,” you manage. The level of it that’s apathy and lassitude is starting to lift away, and you’re merely - directionlessly heartsick.
He trips over his words, trying not to get caught in a senseless loop of apologizing to each other but not quite cutting himself off in time. “I shouldn’t have assumed you would be able to, I’ll - keep a closer watch - Please tell me it’s getting better.”
“Yeah, I think so.” It’s hard to tell. You had your head above water coming into this, but just barely, and some of the emptiness you feel isn’t strictly a matter of your thinkpan.
“Really?” He’s half-hunched half-kneeling in front of you now, trying to get a read on your eyes, hovering and awkward. “Can you just... tell me what’s going on?” he clarifies. “I don’t - I don’t know this, anymore.”
You’re not used to taking inventory of yourself but you try. “I... kind of had trouble talking for a while there. That’s better now at least. I really couldn’t say whether I feel more or less like shit than I... have been, at this point.” Embarrassment makes it difficult to keep eye contact, and you keep glancing away. You don’t want to acknowledge the thoughts running through your head a minute ago - but then, that itself means you’re pulling out of it, at least enough to clarify, “I’m about at the point where if I was awake I would be able to stop obsessing about what a fucking disaster I am and start doing something to distract myself.”
"All right," he murmurs, "...okay. Thank you for – for telling me, although... it seems like you might not have had to. Wow." He shakes his head like he's trying to physically shake the low off, like the glimpse of you feeling that way might actually have gotten him worse than it got you, keeps trying to meet your eyes like he shares your weird superstition that there has to be some tell that’s visible from the outside, some way that everyone knows when you’re feeling this way.
Finally he seems to see something, or nothing, that makes up his mind. "This is awful, but can I go back in and keep mapping? I can't work in there with blank spaces..." He makes a vague gesture at your head, his forehead still scrunched up with reflected inner conflict.
“Go ahead,” you tell him, and you breathe deeply, hands over knees, trying to quiet down the inner sting of shame and get your composure back.
Now that he knows he can feel your reaction when he hits blue, the Psiioniic is keeping his attention much more tightly focused on your mind, and it feels like those last few moments felt, deep searching that leaves prickly-unsettled footprints in your head as it passes through. So close in with his thoughts that you catch pieces of them cutting over and between yours: the tense ribbon of worry, foreign starfields shifting colors as they flick through filters, fragments of his internal narrative that you blush and start away from - complexity and so much light and I never would have thought of my own brain as -
Everything becomes texture for a while, alingual, and you’re focused so closely on trying to monitor your own mindstate from outside of it that when pieces of his thoughts slide through the edges of your awareness they just seem like some peripheral accompaniment to your own, harmony to melody, commentary to code, but then - you notice a piece that breaks the clean lines of separation. It’s tethered to you too, and you know this one, you saw it here before -
Dread comes over you and your pulse hammers hard in your throat and you say, sounding calmer than you feel, “Stop.”
He does, silent with concentration, a questioning pause as the pulses of scanning energy hold steady where they are, a blinking cursor on a blank line.
“What you saw.” It’s hard to get the words out, and you feel yourself tense up physically when you say them, bracing for it already. “My missing memories - I think it’s time,” and your voice is tight but it only wobbles a little.
He yanks his psionics back out of reflex, nearly pulls out of your head entirely before remembering that you've already seen the edges of the memories he is keeping from you, nervous edges of his awareness trickling through your thinkpan. But he answers out loud, knows exactly what you mean. "What do you hope to accomplish, seeing her death? Because death was all I saw, Sollux. There has never been anything redemptive for me, in seeing it."
"It's mine to bear," you answer him quietly. "You have enough already, you don't have to - it was my hand and my body and my brain that Vriska used as a weapon." And you know that won't be enough, so you change direction. "I know there's no redemption here. But tell me - look at me and tell me there's not - tell me you don't find some scrap of dignity in bearing witness."
To what you're forced to do, you don't say, and you also don't say, I know the answer, because I've seen those moments. He knows these things, and reminding him is not a kindness.
"Not dignity," he says lowly, and his new willingness to engage you on this rings like the moment when the discordant murmurings of the doomed first resolved into intelligible words inside your head, an acceptance into a circle that you never asked to enter, a weighted progress that you may once have wanted for reasons that are now utterly distant. "Not dignity for me. Basic respect for the dead." He is searching your eyes again, but his own are clouded over, the edges of his body blurring in your vision even though his mind seems to stay with you, divided. "I need you to repeat your promise about the – the self-culling."
It's going to be bad, you've known that since you woke up in the ruins of her hive. A moment ago you'd thought that your imagination was surely going to be at least as bad as the reality, simply from knowing yourself, but now you realize - no matter how terrible you could make it in your head, you couldn't make it undeniable.
"I promised, and I meant it and I still mean it," you say, your voice a bare thread. "I'll do what I can to keep myself alive." It's not so hard to say. You've managed to remember that you have reasons even outside of... this. But even if everything else breaks - still you could pity him enough to hold the line. Still you can hold in your mind a remote scrap of shared laughter, can find it in you to remember that the moments he regards you with pride give him a sense of meaning even when every cell in your thinkpan screams that he's wrong.
He nods wordlessly, pulls up another chair and sits facing you, watching your expression, drumming his fingers against the armrest for a moment before stretching a hand across the gap between you. "If you want -" he says, just voice now, the pulse of his awareness gone from your mind as he focuses on memory.
“I have to,” you say, quiet and firm and that’s that.
He shows you.
Filtered ragged and color-skewed and blinking-unstable through his own perceptions, shot through with something that he has tried to pave over but that leaks out around the edges, a voice that murmurs at first from the edges of the memory but rises as you watch until you recognize it as his, shouting indecipherable words, futile warnings. He gives you the numbed-over floating toward AA's hive, the taste coating your tongue and gums so sweet that it's sharp, the air chill against your bare arms, the false sense of weightlessness. AA is waiting, face upturned toward you and lit up and surprised, halfway reaching for you even though you’re still far above her hive’s roof.
- the way her face freezes, catches, as you come nearer - the expression that you know before you see it will be burned into the backs of your eyelids for the rest of your life, every day you try to sleep - fear in her eyes - surprise, and the way her lower lip drops -
- all of this visible for the barest moment before the wash of color creeps into it, the red and blue that have clouded into the periphery of your vision while you watched her, swirling in and brighter and you’ve known your psionics to trick your sight but not this enclosing all-over brilliance that sweeps your vision clean, glasses in one hand and your world utterly flat with color but you can still hear the roar that resolves into crumbling and cracking and her scream -
(watching from so much later, it twists your heart inside you how unmistakable her voice is, almost the same as the way she might shout to warn you of a sudden danger)
The roiling fronts of red and blue that slam out of you are not a precise weapon. They send shockwaves like thunderclaps through the air, they break everything, they keep you shoved aloft so that the world churns below you, they furrow the ground and rend rock and
your moirail has no chance against scorching rays and hard stone. So small - even though she is (was) shorter than you, you think of her as large, mighty - but at this distance -
such force the blood still spatters you -
Through clearing eyes you think you see for a moment the etched-in shadow of her fall, a neat arc of purple afterimages amid the nauseating swirl and drift of smoke.
And in the wreckage, the slow trickle of your return to your body -
- the memory tapers off into salt in your mouth and bright phosphenes under your eyelids. You’re doubled over with sobs that shake your whole body, have been and you don’t know how long, your throat is half-raw with it, this is not like the time right after she died, you are not fuzzy and hazed-over, you are fully present, everything glaring with immediacy -
There’s a hand weighing between your shoulders and pressing down your spine like that could somehow smooth your sobs away. You aren't sure exactly when he guided you to the floor with him, but he’s silent next to you, a barely coherent form through tears at the edge of your sight, and if everything is digging and burning into you then his presence left over in your head, the trailing end of the memory, is worn through with all of it already, the enduring core of him, nothing left to say that he hasn’t already but the echoes of I’m here, vibrated in your mind and then finally murmured half-aloud, “I’m here,” for what that’s worth, but I’m still not going to leave -
Your mind is jagged and torn as your breathing, you can’t formulate coherence, but you struggle to focus on it, inhale and exhale until it’s half-regular, even though your body still tries to crack each expulsion of air into a chaotic disaster, and with what’s left of your voice you manage to choke out, “I - I’m sorry,” gasp, “you shouldn’t have had to - carry that for me -”
“I would -” he starts, low and sincere but he trails off, and you inhale experimentally as his hand pauses on your back and he covers, swallowing some unsaid thing, tone gone too dry for the moment - “Wait, I still remember it, it’s just that now you do too, what are you trying to -” He gives up on the deadpan thing too and just shifts closer, one arm draped over your hunched shoulders, goes quiet in a way that isn’t far away, just thoughtful.
You blink and rub at your swollen eyes and if you speak very softly you can just about finish sentences - “But it’s not yours, it’s not your - responsibility to hang onto it, now.” He has to know what you mean, it’s all bound up in the very grave words you exchanged earlier, and - “You have enough sorrow, without curating mine too.”
"I'm sorry, I meant - You just witnessed something unspeakable. Your responsibility is to heal. Whatever needs to happen, inside your head, to what you just saw...” He is tense and not entirely reassuring curled next to you, but what he says is, “It never becomes bearable, I know, but - Just don’t stop me from staying with you through it, if it helps. It - there is some dignity in that,” he admits, so quiet now that if you weren’t in the circle of his arm you wouldn’t have heard.
You pull yourself up slowly, halfway, palms pressed to the ground, careful not to move too fast - careful not to shake him off, but tight and tense - you don't want him to hurt himself for you, you don't want his platonic pity, and you cannot bring yourself to tell him to leave you alone with your pain.
He's stronger than you, that way; he's at least tried to tell you.
"I won't forget you said that, you know," you say instead, even though what's meant to sound wry mostly just comes out tired and a little bitter.
He might have caught the edges of your thought, or just read your tone, because he shifts with you, sits up a little straighter, "I'm sorry, I keep - Do you need me to go for a while?"
“No,” you say, so hurriedly that you want to kick yourself for sounding desperate. It’s a tiny and banal and familiar kind of self-hatred, though, and it jolts you out of the deeper morass. You sit up the rest of the way, take a shaky breath. “No, but - I don’t want to inflict this on you. On anybody. Don’t think you have to,” you say, finally. “I’ll keep my promise regardless. All I meant is... I'm sitting here feeling incredibly guilty for what you've experienced on my account, but I guess neither of us is in any place to throw stones about that."
"We're so messed up," he spits out, more resigned than angry. "You're in a very real crisis and you're furious at yourself for even asking anything of me, and how many days ago was it that I almost killed you while you were depressed? Yeah, throwing stones, we both know that my thinkpan needs safety upgrades even more than yours does, but I still can't – If there was a way to work on me without alerting the – Everything I've thought of is too risky."
God, you're so relieved to have him putting problem-solving in front of you - it makes the world make sense, gives you something meaningful to do, and your entire thinkpan practically reboots on the spot. "Something did occur to me, last time," you say, carefully. "For trying to snap you out of it, at least. It's a forward question, but - would you be able to tell me a name I could call you - something more than your title?"
"It's not forward," he says carefully, picking his way between words. "I expected you to ask long before this. My hatching name was Mituna." He pauses a fraction too long for the normal flow of speech, listening, like he thought the name would come out inflected differently. "But no one has called me by it for centuries, and I was... jealous of my title, long before that, and didn't use my hatching name much. I do not think it would help for your purpose; it isn't – something tied to me, anymore. If anything, it might throw me back further."
You chew over this for a long moment; feeling strangely touched that he’d tell you that - a piece of him, even if it’s not his name any longer. And sad, and suddenly bold.
“Everyone should have a name,” you say. “Even if the old one doesn’t work. You deserve -” With the tears still so close to the surface you have to break off mid-sentence and still you can’t quite keep them from rolling out at the corners of your eyes, and you swipe at your face bashfully.
He tightens his arm around you just enough to remind you that it’s there, looks at you intently like he understands the deep underlying sadness but something specific is eluding him, the direct gaze awkward at this close range.
And you breathe through your nose and get your voice back under control and blink up at him - “Your title is your title; a name is you, it’s an anchor, it’s -” The words run out of you simultaneously intent and excited and heartbroken, you’re trying to get at why it’s necessary - “The piece of you that needs a name is still there,” you say finally. “Even if there’s not a name attached to it. Sometimes I look at you and I can tell you don’t believe that. But I can see it so clearly.”
"A name is also communication. How I value my awareness doesn't need to play into it. But I still agree with your premise." Then, less stiffly, "So what's your idea?"
"Maybe, if I could call you by name somehow, I could - reach that part of you, when you're lost, when -" when you've forgotten who you are, when the bottom drops out and leaves me trying to reason with a starship - "- it would give you something to hang onto. Make it easier, at least."
“Well, right now there’s - nothing like that.” He’s obviously distracted, casting around in memories but coming up empty. “The language that I speak night to night doesn’t really lend itself to that kind of concept. Six letter names.” He says it like he’s vaguely amused but you can tell he’s really thinking about it. But there’s nothing like this in the experience he’s thinking of and it shouldn’t be from that anyway, has to be new.
"Let me." The words come out of your mouth quickly, so you won't second-guess. It's nothing like normal, trolls don't name each other, but here so many centuries after the lifetime of his lusus - you want to give him something, you can give him something real, for once, and not just take and take - "I'll need to think on it, but - I know you enough that it’s something to work with.” And you look him in the eye, and though you know how tenuous it is you feel fierce and hopeful and like you can make a difference, again, in some way, make a change that’s not just breaking things.
"You want to find me a name," he repeats, still trying to put the pieces together, searching your face, "I... don't see any reason to why you couldn't. I would be honored."
Part of you wants to protest that last part, lost and dizzied with the magnitude and I’m doing this because you need it but that doesn’t mean I deserve this trust - but you push it aside. “I’ll tell you when it comes to me,” you say. “I’ll try to find something exactly perfect.”
Days and nights pass, spent in keeping your mind off things you can’t fix and working on things that maybe, ostensibly, you can.
You and the Psiioniic are both agreed that you’re going to have to do this part yourself, both aware that any more than the lightest touch in your ‘pan could be disastrous if he slipped for even a moment.
"Are you sure you're ready to try it now?" he's asking, and although through the buzz and hiss of his psionics receding from your brain it takes moments longer to process than it normally would, you nod. He's shown you the route your power should take, practicing and reinforcing the new connection you're trying to build, switches to trip, ones to flip to zeroes. (This is easier to comprehend if you think of it as a program to write, or a spatial reasoning step in the psionic ranking tests you once tried: easier, also, to shut out the part of you that might slip, if it hit too hard and at the wrong time that you're building this in your own mind.)
You curl a capillary-thin tendril of power out from that spot next to your left horns; get a read on it, its responsiveness to your direction, the axons and synapses you sense through it; and listen. "Okay," he's saying, "...yes, that looks good. Through the corpus callosum and across the right hemisphere and up behind your opposite horn, all without hitting anything vital and without breaking the psionic thread. I can remind you of the basics as you go, but you'll still have to rely on sense and memory for the details..."
The pathway is barely beginning to show, more an indistinct scattering of tracks along a fold than anything. There's a pale line threading through your thinkpan where he's tried lightly sketched trial-runs of this a couple of times, neurons recently fired, traces of transmitters floating ruddy in the gaps. You draw the thin flow of red light through, maddeningly painstaking but his directions are good and your attention is unbroken and everything goes off so smoothly that you're almost suspicious – until you succeed. Red power seeps, measured as you intended, into the heart of your blue pole, a slow hot drip.
It takes moments to realize that you’ve done it: the most prominent difference, as you let the connection take hold and back away from the conduit you’ve made, is that for the first time in over a perigee everything feels fine.
Chapter 11: please pluck from my window this restless dream sweating
A ping from the dead; a program discovered; a quadrant-muddled tryst; an overclocked mind.
“Are those - brains? Sollux, are you drawing your brain on your wall?” He sounds concerned; you aren’t entirely sure why.
(This one's a bit interstitial - an anchor point to Homestuck canon - but never fear: the drama quotient ramps up steadily through the next three, to say the least.)
When you wake you feel fantastic. Alert and refreshed and crystal-sharp and ready for anything. And that’s good, because later, looking back, you’ll realize that things could have gone much worse, if you’d been in a more delicate state of mind.
AA: hi s0llux
As it is, you stop breathing for a moment, shocked and scrambling frantically to understand. You look at the timestamp, you dig through records to find the originating server, questioning what you see - and then, because it seems like the thing to do, you answer.
TA: ii mii22ed you, aa, ii mii22ed you 2o much.
TA: iif you can troll me why diidnt you 2ay anythiing before?
AA: there was n0 cause t0 d0 s0
TA: ii gue22 you mu2t hate me, ii dont blame you for iit, ii mean ii probably wouldnt be 2o quiick two forgiive 2omeone who kiilled me eiither.
AA: there is n0thing to f0rgive
AA: even if i hadnt kn0wn fr0m inference what had 0ccurred
AA: there are many 0f her victims am0ng the dead
AA: i can hear them s0 much better n0w
TA: so why are you contactiing me now?
AA: y0u are necessary
Not "I need you", just this cold certainty, and you feel the knowledge trickling in through the back of your mind, the way hard premonitions do, that she's both herself and not herself, that - it's Aradia, but without something essential, and you feel cold.
TA: ii2 that all ii am now.
AA: the gh0sts led me t0 unc0ver this c0de and they tell me y0u are needed
AA: s00n y0u will also kn0w that it is tied t0 the end 0f the w0rld and 0nly y0ur specialized skills can unl0ck its c0ntents
TA: aa, ii ju2t need two let you know, ii dont know iif you can comprehend or care, but iim 2orry, god, iim 2o 2orry, ii cant even begiin two thiink of what would make appropriiate recompen2e.
AA: rec0mpense is n0t required, s0llux
AA: d0 n0t c0ncern y0urself with it
AA: the c0de is m0re imp0rtant
And she was always telling you to look away from your computer and do something else, before -
TA: ii thiink that2 the hollowe2t way any troll iin the galaxy ha2 ever won a long-runniing argument.
She sends you a file. You open it, and begin.
It’s like this work was made for you. Ancient variant ~ATH - and the notes -
Coding swallows you up until your thoughts start going so fast that you can’t catch them without moving physically, and your head is so full of the incredible that you can’t cram anything else in, nor keep yourself fixed to the chair.
You haven't slept in two days when you arrive at Karkat's place, and it's not premeditated at all; the actions just occur, one following after the other in sequence, restlessly getting on your two-wheel device and pedaling around, getting out to where his hive is, thinking to yourself, Hey, I might as well check up on KK.
He's not expecting the knock. "You didn't even know I was at my hive," he protests.
"I would have gone somewhere else if you weren't."
"Yeah, I’m sure you would have," he grumbles, “because you have so many friends and all,” and he lets you in. It takes you several sentences of pointing out that you do indeed have lots of friends before you realize his protest was a token. Everything is too interesting, his magazines and his shitty movie posters and you won’t be shoved onto his couch but finally manage to sneak into his computer chair while he's in the nutrition block combing through his pantry, which you have seen before: it's not much classier than yours.
By the time he walks back in and shrieks at you for tampering with his husktop, you're halfway through the complimentary security upgrade and frozen grubfritters are definitely in the cooker, wafting their distinctive smell into KK's livingblock.
"Why are you even in there, you voyeuristic waste-chute-for-brains, get out of my stuff - ugh -"
"Pfft. Last time I did this it was for a highblood and I got paid - scared I'll see your porn?" Now you kind of want to see his porn. It’s pretty obvious where he keeps it: why else would there be a folder called "untitled" just sitting there in his media collection? You click on it, select it just to see his eyes widen, then pretend to totally ignore what you're doing on the screen while he looms up behind you, spluttering, and say instead, "Why are you trying to feed me without asking first, anyway? What if I already ate something? Had you thought of that?"
"Well, did you already eat something or are you just being an obstinate little shit?"
"Hey, what's this?" You open up the folder and make like you’re going to fire up a video with a cryptically lascivious filename.
Karkat shrieks and launches himself at you. You weren't really going to start the clip, but with KK shoving you out of the chair, you can't resist clicking on it as you go down, so as he pins you to the floor you hear tinny, crass dialogue playing from his husktop speakers.
"Oh! It's the one where the highblood gets trapped with her moirail in pailing year and they have to convincingly flip black on the spot, that's a good one - mmmph -"
"Shut up and get your filthy bulge-tugging fingers off my computer -"
"They're already off your computer. But you still can't stop talking about my fingers - and apparently my bulge-tugging behavior - " He really, really walked into that one.
“Oh my GOD it’s not me who can’t stop talking about bulge-tugging behavior - you just told me what porn you watch, you sick compulsive self-pailer -”
You just snicker and wait for it to hit him, the realization that you told him because it’s the same porn he watches, and when it does he looks adorably mortified and definitely places himself somewhere in the lower section of the hemospectrum, because those cheeks -
Meanwhile he’s taking a swing at you, an open-hand slap, and you block, unthinking, with your psionics. This gets another really good expression out of him.
"You're so fucking difficult, you know that?"
"Guilty as charged," you say, pulling yourself up off the floor, laughing your head off, and he's giving you a strange look and his mouth is hanging slightly open, breathless, and you’re kissing him-
and you can't remember why you didn't do this before. Something to do with baggage, yours or his or both, but everything is light except your bulge which is heavy with need, trapped in its sheath behind buttons and zippers and layers and squirming, your underwear sticking to your skin where you're leaking out onto it and you try to bite into the kiss and he jerks back suddenly.
"KK, what the fuck -"
"Nothing, it's nothing -"
You take that as a go-ahead and start to grind up against him, still clothed, not caring about, no, relishing the discomfort, it's scandalously good somehow. He turns around so that you're pressing him against the wall from behind and you reach around and unbutton him and he squirms again and throws you off, shoves you down to the ground and you're pulling him down on top of you, rolling over together, chuckling.
You’re not quite old enough to need pails, even if you were firmly quadranted enough, still making mercifully smaller amounts of genetic material than you will when the pheromones kick in, but he insists on using one anyway. And on doing it in the ablution trap, with the lights off - not that you need them, you can generate enough to see by. You mock him incessantly for all this fastidious silliness, even as you think you know why in the back of your mind; know why and don’t dare ask to confirm it because he’d flip his shit and stop. And this feels amazing, and you’re too thrilled with the way it feels to touch and be touched and -
- at one point you try using your psionics to gain the upper hand and he outright growls, says, “Try that again and this stops here -” and you can tell he means it so you give up, you let him have his way with you, prying in with his fingers and bulge and toying with your mutation eagerly like it’s some kind of new-model video game controller (which you do point out, in exactly those words) until you’re both cursing and panting and flailing around and when you come, perched rigid over the bucket and crying out something totally incoherent, he gets this wonderfully serious look on his face, even though you must look ridiculous and you laugh and laugh.
He won’t let you up until he captchalogues the bucket and runs the water for a while.
Afterward he tries to have the quadrant discussion with you and you put him off with a bunch of flippant hoofbeastshit. Truth is, you’re not sure what you want with him. Sometimes you hate him and sometimes you pity him and you definitely liked pailing him even through all the baggage and that’s not good enough of an answer.
“At least name a romcom this is like or something,” he presses you.
“Oh my GOD did that sentence actually come out of your mouth just now?” It feels good to laugh at him like this - “I’ll name a scientific principle - quantum uncertainty, because when you say shit like that I go pitch all over, I can’t believe I kissed a face that has words that stupid regularly coming out of it, hope it’s not contagious -”
He insists on seeing you back to your hive, you’re not sure why. You wrestle out of his tender grumbling and spend a couple more hours coding before he puts a sandwich in front of you; blocks your screen until you eat it.
Then he drags you up by the arm.“I can’t watch this humiliating spectacle any longer. You’re going to ‘cupe now if I have to dump your deranged pointy carcass in there by hand, and if you freak out in your sleep I will cut you.”
“Haven’t done that in ages,” you mutter, “I don’t even know what you mean by spectacle, you’ve seen me coding before -”
“Yes,” he says, “yes I have, and eventually you have to stop - you’re not leaving this hive until you’ve slept again and I’m here to make you check your shit before you get yourself culled.”
“Who’s freaking out again, because I think it’s you, KK -”
“I will tell everyone we know about your freaky genitalia, so help me -”
Something in you has already decided to go along with Karkat’s shoving, though, because behind sleep there’s - there’s your ancestor, and you have something to tell him, something important.
You’re hitting dreamsleep as soon as the sopor covers your skin, the result of days and nights of feeling not tired at all, and when you emerge into the replica of your livingblock you’re already on your feet, your dream projection fizzing with the energy that’s made you so active and productive these last few days.
There was something you were doing. Yeah. When you were awake. Why are you asleep again? It doesn’t matter; you can still get some ideas banged out. They’ll be here next time you sleep, and you can show them to your ancestor. With a marker taken from your workbench, you start sketching out possibilities on the wall.
You feel him fading in behind you before you see him, a silhouette against your restless psionic scanning. He stands for a moment - admiring your concept, you’re sure, you’re close to - before you feel the shift in his outline as his arms cross.
“Are those - brains? Sollux, are you drawing your brain on your wall?” He sounds concerned; you aren’t entirely sure why.
“No, it’s a neural concept cloud, I’m just using shorthand,” you tell him. “I still haven’t read all the code but I’ve skimmed it. God it’s fucking complicated! This is going to be the biggest project I’ve done and it’s not even my idea but I’ve got all this structure to reconstruct - I’m still trying to figure out what half of it does but if I ever regretted learning ~ATH instead of some other programming language I’m sure as hell pretty happy with my life choices right now. I’m not sure anyone else is qualified for this, frankly -” You keep writing as you’re talking, not wanting to lose any of the fragments of possible structure that are coming to you.
But wait - no, are you looking at this from the wrong angle? It might be easier to compile if you - you start marking out a completely separate diagram with your left hand, and scowl at them consideringly.
He’s come up to the wall while you worked, and now he peers closely at one of your diagrams, pauses again, shakes his head. Moves like he’s going to try to stop one of your hands or the other from drawing, but then thinks better of it. “Slow down,” the Psiioniic says finally. “I saw bits and pieces of - someone showing you something, some code, two nights ago, and after that you’ve lost me. What is this?”
You’re still drawing, caught up in the need to get this stuff all written out while the ideas are still fresh. “It’s - I’m still trying to figure out what it is, that’s part of the problem. It seems like a game on some level but there are other levels that go deeper - they’re a part of something really... dangerous, world-altering, you know how ~ATH code can be sometimes at the top of its form? - and I have to translate it for AA -”
He looks at you instead of the wall, now, and that isn’t what you want at all, you’re trying to explain to him - he’s tense like it’s still taking significant effort not to go for a hand - “She... left you something to translate? And you’re doing it now because - this is from what we did to your thinkpan, isn’t it? I should -”
“No,” you explain impatiently, “she emailed me -”
“I saw you get an email,” he’s saying slowly, trying to work it out himself but talking over you, “And start a huge download, and when it finished you - well, this really kicked in then. Wait, AA emailed you?”
“Yes, she -” The way you must sound hits you all at once and you drop one of your markers on the floor as you press your hand to your face. “It’s not - I’m not - I think she’s still dead, I know I saw her dead,” you stammer out. “But she started - trolling me and I - I can’t actually hear her, she types like she’s coming from a great distance -” You don’t know how to tell him: her typing quirk is intact, her words and the half-corrupted ancient files she sent you as real as any piece of code or language is real. And none of this is helping.
He isn’t talking over you anymore, just listening, intent and serious, and although his eyes widen at your description of her typing, he doesn’t contradict you, not outright. “You’re sure this isn’t the highblood girl,” he says carefully. “Or the white text again. Or - you know your network security has held? You’ve checked everything.”
“God, VK couldn’t hack her way out of a paper bag, at least,” you mutter. “It’s - it’s definitely Aradia’s account and it reads like her and more than that it’s -” that she sounds dead, “what she told me. And the way in which the code checks out. This shit is deeply engaged with the behavior of the universe. In ways that can’t be faked. And anyone who was trying to target me for harm wouldn’t fuck with sending me something like this - it’s too weird and too old and way the hell too powerful -”
“...so she has reached across from death to send this to you. That’s what you believe.” His voice is neutral. “Do you have a theory on why?”
You barely hear the second half of what he says before you’re turning to face him completely, looking up at him with a shrill disconnected laugh - “Well, obviously it sounds like a pile of flaming hoofbeastshit.”
“I asked because I wanted to know.” His voice is deliberately smoothed out, measured. “I’m not going dismiss what you have to say out of hand. Just... can we step back from this for a moment? I think - I think we may have altered more than I expected, moving energy the way we did, and we should try -” He actually does try to take the marker from you this time, gently pulling it away from the wall.
You’re distracted enough that he snags it out of your hand, and you look up at him indignantly. “I was using that!”
But when your hands brush together it’s a jolt to your runaway thought process and catching sight of his eyes at this proximity reminds you - reminds you -
- that he always and ever understands more of you than you’re letting on. That even if you feel really good right now the amusement-park ride is just going to keep spinning faster and eventually you will want off, this has happened before, it will happen again -
and you meet his eyes and you can’t remember what the fuck you wanted to write down, hand still hovering in the air like the marker’s just turned invisible, swallowing suddenly against a dry throat.
The Psiioniic twirls the marker in his own fingers - “What you are doing seems worthwhile, but it also seems like something you might continue when all the parts of your brain are running at the same speed. We pushed you too far up. Is there - anything you normally do to fix this?” He’s looking between you and the scribbled-up wall like there’s something familiar here, but nothing is connecting.
“Uh. Aradia used to follow me around and get in my business and make sure I went to sleep -” Your voice catches only slightly, speaking of her, but that’s not really a useful answer anyway. “No, not really. I - oh!” You drop your hand from where it hovers in the air. “There’s something I want to tell you -”
“About your code?” he asks, dubious, stepping away from the wall and casting around for a way to change the subject.
“No. Well, sort of. About - I did a bunch of digging to translate some of the comments in the code, because a lot of it was in a really ancient language and I found -” You’re nervous and it’s making you fidget, both of your hands now empty of markers and lacking something to do with themselves, but it doesn’t shut you up. Even juiced up on your own psionic manipulations you’re still scared he won’t accept - “Astris.” You say it slowly enough that you manage to fight down the lisp entirely, only just remembering that it’s as badly unpronounceable as your own name. “Does that work for you? As a name, I mean.”
You don’t tell him, a linguistics text led me to a poem. That you’re not even normally all that fond of poetry - it’s well below computer code in the list of things you’re likely to be reading - but this one caught you up, drew your attention in your too-open state. That it felt like the anonymous writer was communicating with you directly across centuries when they wrote words like I know the black gulf of distance but refute it and could I only reflect the light, to tell a star / what brightness is, how encompassing. You're just hanging on to enough self-monitoring to recognize these things would be embarrassing if you just opened your mouth and said them. But that dead-language root word for star still feels right.
"Astris." He doesn't try to stop the lisp in his own voice, and you remember now, too, that you and he are the only ones likely to speak the name you're offering – the lisp might as well be a part of it. But he smiles around the sounds, repeats it a second time. "It sounds completely different, it's – I don't know. Yes. Even if you found it while overclocked out the ears. It's an old word, isn't it? That's – well, renewing old things. Okay." He grabs at your hands again, as if he could slow your mind's racing by stopping their movements; turns you away from the wall so you're just looking at him. He's caught some edge of your mood, though – is thinking in fragments, out loud. "Yes, it works. It's beautiful."
He takes a deep breath and slows down again. “You’re going to hit the top of this soon, and the crash could be worse because of how we induced this - or this could keep going the way it’s going and - did you say that sleep used to fix this? It doesn’t seem fixed. I think we need to get in your head and stop what we started.”
“Not always completely - a little more manageable I guess - and I was never sure if it was sleeping or something AA gave me or -” you’re saying already, rambling simultaneously against the backdrop of his words when he mentions sleep, proving his point for him. Your brain doesn’t take well to coherent explanation sometimes. “Um. If you think so.” You’re half-grudging about saying it but the part of you watching from outside and reminding you you have been here before, you will be here again, this is not always good for you or pleasant or safe puts you in range of where he can reach you, it’s that same self-awareness that catches you up by the back of the shirt and keeps you from leaning forward and up and in and kissing him, and the more you want to do that the more you know it’s a terrible idea right now.
“Try to stay still, there’s a lot going on in there and I’m finding something small -” It’s hard not to lean into his hand when he curls it around the side of your head and the corners of his eyes fold in concentration, but it’s easier than expected. Just a quick cool flick of psionics is all it takes. You can almost feel your thoughts starting to move slower when he interrupts the flow of energy that you created last time; your brain actually seems to want to revert back from its giddy artificial highwire act to a simpler baseline. You stagger a bit with a sudden wash of the tiredness you haven't felt over the last three days.
You swipe a hand across your forehead, blinking dazedly, and dump yourself into the computer chair, a sack of awkward elbows and contrition. “Okay, how much stupid shit did I say?-” you mutter, as much to yourself as to him, not so much upset as just taking inventory, re-running the last several minutes of conversation in your mind. Then you remember that at least what you were trying to tell him was - it wasn’t stupid. You know the difference between verifiable reality and not. Of course, you’ve probably blown your ability to explain anything by trying just now. “Oh, man. I - look, a lot of that sounded completely bonkers, but it actually genuinely happened,” you say, and you look up at him, always and ever expecting to meet with disbelief, always and ever making the damn attempt anyway.
“Not stupid, just difficult to understand.” He sinks onto an arm of the couch, flexes his hand that was on your head a couple of times; slouches a bit as if he’s still getting some sympathetic pull from your own exhaustion. “Our thinkpans - they distort the way we view things, ourselves, sometimes, make one facet of what we see loom disproportionately larger than it should, but they don’t just lie. The premonitions... well. Honestly, the only reason I have for not believing you is that this isn’t wholly depressing and awful. Although that part, I’m still not convinced that you understand any better than I do.” He waves vaguely at the new mural of equations and diagrams sprawling across your livingblock walls.
You start laughing at wholly depressing and awful because it’s not as if you actually needed more proof that he understood your life well: you think, sometimes, too well not to be a figment of your imagination, though at this point it’s just more convenient to think that than to accept everything you’d have to accept if you decided he was definitely real - “It kind of is,” you say, “actually, or some of it, anyway, it’s linked to the end of the world, and I was trying not to say that because I thought that part would make you think I was crazy for sure -” and you’re chuckling again, tiredly, still a few notches up from baseline, hand mashed to your face.
“I’m the last troll who would mind talk about the end of the world.” It comes out quickly, a stream of consciousness fragment of leftover secondhand high, before his eyes dim and his fingers dig into the couch. “Anyway... code tied to endings isn’t unheard of. I - found a theory that there’s an effect on processing power in it, like getting close to a gravity well can do with motion.”
You remember - transient moments from before either of you had any control over the connection or knew what it was, things he keeps locked away from you now, the all-consuming ache towards ending that makes your worst moments seem tiny and shrill and ridiculous - that you can't argue with because it's right. Because in the face of what he endures -
Don’t think about it, just talk.
Code and ~ATH and portents, hints and whispers and doom: the language you both share.
Chapter 12: a breath that shook me with a shock
A game of chess, an accident of compassion, and unexpected discoveries.
You’ve fallen into a trancelike kind of focus where trying to read him and trying to reach him blur into each other, and when a bone-deep ache starts weighing at you from inside all of your limbs, clawing at the back of your head, your spine, it seems like just more overlap, the fuzzy edges of his consciousness blurring into yours - like something you should ignore, just keeping your hands there and present for him, you don’t even know what you’re doing only that he’s leaning in toward you ever so slightly more.
You can't do brain work all the time, at least not in the sense of directly experimenting inside your thinkpan. There's only so much you can try before you run out of ideas, patience, or tolerance for the strain headaches that don’t always flip over into migraines but still get in the way of the necessary precision.
But he hasn’t run out of creative ways to keep sharpening your skills. You're leaning on opposite sides of your work table, each on one elbow, poses naturally mirrored, although he seems too absorbed in the game to notice. It's an old game of strategy that he's teaching you, one that in your time has long been eclipsed by FLARP among aspiring military types, but there are more possibilities to the two-dimensional black and white board than you had anticipated. Especially since you own neither board nor pieces, so on top of playing you have to hold both in existence, constructed of his power but fixed in place by your memory, like the rest of this space.
So as much as it's a game, it's more a psionic detail work exercise. At least, that's what you try to tell yourself to keep from getting too excited and losing focus, because for once you're winning. His fingers twitch and drum against the scarred surface of your workbench, scratch at it occasionally and flake off bits of black paint. One of his hoofbeast pieces glows and lifts, hovers indecisively toward your side, then moves laterally and backward instead, clicking against the board. "Your move," he says, staring skittery-bright at you like he could get through the mental defenses that keep him from reading your intentions with just his eyes.
You'd been planning a conservative move, but he actually left you... not quite a direct opening, but something that could net you a win in two or three moves, if this plays out the way you think; and you take a moment to consider before choosing a hive piece, pushing it forward decisively, careful to keep your face and mind neutral, to keep up the filter of static that prevents you from telegraphing your intentions.
You learned quickly that a close reading of your opponent is as important to this game as is your reading of the board, and, well, it isn't as if you mind having an excuse to look at him. So you notice when he lights up at your move, mischievous, and your own gaze immediately drops back to the board, searching for the error you're sure your confidence has lulled you into. "Heads up," he says, oddly quiet and level for what that means. It's usually you saying it, and never in the middle of a chess match, and damn it, the cheat, you were winning –
- And there's an electric snapping blow to your ankles under the table, the air buzzing with gathered energy as you start to topple sideways.
Staying upright isn't the important part; that's trained into you by now. Staying aware is the important part, staying in control of your physical orientation whatever the fuck that is, keeping a visual and not dropping your guard. Shielding rises from your skin, a mesh so fine it's nearly violet, before you're even conscious that's what you're doing, and you let your legs be swept out, roll with the motion, trying to flip yourself over to hovering stomach-down, head towards him: a maneuverable position, an aggressive one, though it puts your senses at risk.
"But you like it!" He shoots immediately up to stop inches from the ceiling so you'll have to right yourself to look at him, calls out, "Someone has to save you from boredom, your interminable programming project, losing at chess over and over..." Your horns tingle as he keeps talking, a distraction, there's power coming at you from behind –
"Pfft. I had you this time, and you know it." You know his patterns, know there are two ways he could be trying to come after you with this front of force, so you push off upward, get in close range, where if he keeps going after you to pin you, you'll have leverage against him, and if the force is meant to shake you out of the air it'll take him down a notch too. While you're rising you pull with you a cluster of stray parts from the table - transistors from the junk bin, nothing you care about, holding them in this searing current so incautiously would fry them if they weren't already burnt out. "I'd already owned both your subjugglators and one of your hives -" and you toss the transistors at his back in a careless telekinetic handful.
The transistors were never meant to actually hit him, just to force him to concentrate his psionics on plucking a swarm of tiny moving bits out of the air while you make your next move. So you know something is very wrong when a shard of hot metal slices through his sleeve and simulated fabric gives off simulated smoke; you’re already on edge by the time another gets him in the neck and his eyes go wide. And you're reaching to pull the pieces back, but he's already drawing his knees up to his chest, going ominously jagged around the edges.
You've been so careful, it’s been at least a perigee since he last got like this - but this looks bad, and it could be anything. The monitoring, almost-mocking touch of his mind against the walls of yours when you strife, his awareness that is always waiting for you to slip up and think too loudly about your next move, vanishes. He is hanging in the air, deafening-silent – no, you catch something, a ticking of machine code. Zeroes. Hundreds input before your brain even has a chance to process the input, huge loud null sets, shouting down any other thoughts you might hear. Lines and snakings of code, futile searching for the quantity meant to be there. Not looking at you, not speaking, eyes blank and pinned wide.
And in the split-second before you can reach him the light around him goes out and he plummets, curled over like a sick wriggler, toward the floor.
Before you even think you fling a net of power out to slow his fall. He crunches in on himself at even that vague cradling touch, and as you both descend from mid-air you slowly become aware that he's speaking, or trying – a smeared-together mumble, too low and indistinct to make out words.
You pull him toward you physically, keeping the presence of mind to stay shielded, bringing him into hearing range as you steer the two of you away from the workshop table and to a clear spot on the floor, slowing the descent, and you call his name. “Astris - Astris, can you hear me -”
He shivers, just slightly, when you call his name - just a subtle enough movement of muscles that it could have been your own hands shaking - but even if you did feel something, it subsides, and he doesn’t push toward you or flinch away, just keeps muttering - numbers, you recognize numbers, between spates of a language you don’t know, something choppy and guttural and spoken in sync with the confused snatches of code you catch from his mind - 7498948....
“Astris, come back -” hands on his shoulders, settling to the ground, excruciatingly careful. You’re not sure there’s a difference between being scared for him and scared of him, when this happens, when he loses himself, and you say his name over and over, still meticulously guarding your own body but more by cognizance and reflex than by active shielding.
You know that the sound of his name is doing something, the third or fourth time you do it - are sure he twitches, stops talking long enough to take a full breath - but then the numbers start again, 20458601796... - slow as you keep going, calling to him -
But when you start to get through, your shielding is useless. Slow-creeping, as you push beyond the machine shell of his mind, as he gasps curled on the floor and under your hands, you’re prepared for anything but this, shocking up your arm like a defense mechanism, aching like muscle-exhaustion, then sharp twingeing like a strained joint - pain that throbs and escalates the longer you keep hold of him.
“Astris,” you keep saying his name, keep willing him back to awareness, until the name escapes from your mouth half a whimper. Damned if you’re going to let go -
He makes an awful torn-off whining noise as he’s on the verge of coming back, and just then, as his eyes open and close and he raises his head as if he’d heard the sound without realizing who it came from - that’s when you know for sure that the pain isn’t some transferred-through ship’s defense. That’s when you know it’s his, and what the slow-dawning horror on his face means, when he comes back to his name broken in your voice.
You’re taking little shallow sips of air through your nose, careful and near-motionless and still too loud and shaky -
And almost before he is even fully aware, long breaths before he can speak, pain seeps back out from you, liquid aching subsiding down your arms until just your fingertips against his shoulders sting - and you watch him curl it all back inward, helpless, as the muttering goes to mouthed voiceless sounds, as the sounds retreat to echoed repetitions in his head; you see, as he occupies the whole of his resources doing this, semi-conscious and unshielded, the way he locks it all away, still felt but contained, severed from its origins, heavy but almost abstract where he keeps it - Before he wakes entirely and even that goes invisible to you, just him staring up at you blank with effort now, his face and neck all sheened over with sweat.
The last few times he faded out on you, it was easier than either of you had thought it would be to snap him out of it - as if the name you gave him had gone in and anchored somewhere, restored some missing cord of self in him that could pull him back from the edge of reflexive hostility. You wouldn’t be at the point of sparring so casually if that safeguard hadn’t worked so well.
This time -
“Bad this time -” you say, half-statement half-question, carefully neutral but your voice shakes. “I’m sorry -”
His mouth moves soundlessly, and he shakes his head and coughs weakly before he’s able to really speak; even then his voice starts mostly rasp and breath, “This was different.” He’s got that now-familiar tunnel vision look, like you’ve called him back but he isn’t quite anchored here yet, like he’s trying to tether himself to you to the exclusion of - of what you know he could be seeing. “I could have seen this coming... if I had bothered to look.”
“What... what happened?” You squeeze his shoulder gently, looking into his eyes, trying to give him something to focus on - your hands are shaking a little, adrenaline or some fading reaction to the agony -
He winces a little under your hand, hardly a movement, more of a gathering-in of control, a tightening in his jaw - “When there are drugs damping everything down for long enough, you forget how to feel the pain without them, like looking at it through a backward lens - but you still know, what it will be like, intellectually- I should have remembered -” He’s talking into nothing, and you’ve learned this, the way he gets when you pull him back in, unfiltered and then regretful, and you try not to stop him or interrupt him because he says things he’d never say to you outright normally and you pity him so badly you could crack open from it.
But when he trails off you ask him, “Is there anything I can do, or not do, I mean, to make it better -” - acutely aware of every point of contact, keeping your hands dead-still, unsure if you’re helping or hurting. And then, “Why did they -”
“You brought me back. It is... far better that I can be here.” And he is back now, fully, blinking and glancing down, not entirely answering the question. “Tolerance. The senses adapt to the drug and the pain breaks through, and they increase the dosage... after a while it impedes my ability to navigate. There are other ways than just cutting the painkillers off entirely, but this is the fastest. Along with some other effects that must be more interesting to watch than to experience, or they wouldn’t bother...” His mouth twists bitterly, his fingers tapping and skittering against the floor.
He doesn't often talk about what he needs from the dreamspace, from you holding up your end of the connection, and in all he’s done for you, you sometimes forget - that it’s not nothing. That he reached out to you first, instinctive, unaware. And you can only forget that because he so carefully seals away the reasons for it, so much of the time, as much for himself as for you.
But when that barrier falls you still feel guilty and selfish for giving in to the illusion, and absolutely gutted with pity. You know that the second time he says they he means she and that’s part of a thing that’s better left sealed away too. You want to tell him how sorry you are but instead you extemporize, knowing that’s easier for him sometimes. “Shame we just made my hive. Should have built you a vacation resort, complete with corny simulators and distracting blinking lights to keep your mind off it - maybe a good next project -”
It works; he shakes his head, huffs vague distracted laughter before wincing a little again, but he’s smiling. “Sounds awful, honestly. I always liked wide open spaces, nothing from horizon to horizon - places where a pasty city dweller like you would probably get blown over or eaten by a roarbeast.”
“Mind you, I’m sticking to my digs - anywhere without instant soup is a starvation hazard - but you have taught me to defend myself.” You still don't know whether to move your hands or take them away or leave them still, and the effort of just - not moving - makes your attention cling there awkwardly. You wish you could ease this for him, somehow, you want so badly to be able to help - at this proximity you can just perceive the way fragments of discomfort wash over his nerves, above and outside the worst of it, that you now know he’s locked away, and your fingers make a tiny involuntary grasping motion even though you’re trying to stay still.
"...and that has made this worthwhile, not just distracting." Serious again, with the thought close following, hardly hidden, and that helps too, but he moves on from it quickly, eyes flicking restless, "We should get back to it – sitting here wallowing is –" He moves as if to unfold his legs from under him; stops, one fang digging into his lip, presses into the grip of your fingers as he shifts back.
You think that’s good, you’ve fallen into a trancelike kind of focus where trying to read him and trying to reach him blur into each other, and when a bone-deep ache starts weighing at you from inside all of your limbs, clawing at the back of your head, your spine, it seems like just more overlap, the fuzzy edges of his consciousness blurring into yours - like something you should ignore, just keeping your hands there and present for him, you don’t even know what you’re doing only that he’s leaning in toward you ever so slightly more.
He lets out an involuntary relieved sigh, like your fingers have hit some kind of pressure point in his shoulders, but you've never heard of – Slumps toward you further before catching himself with his palms flat on the ground, doesn't flinch when his arms take his weight – "Oh, damn it, they must be redosing me early, I'm going to have to go – there must be – Sollux?"
You’re biting your lip in concentration, and his voice seems distance-muffled, almost tinny. It feels as though someone has replaced your skeleton with hot metal, and it’s important that you keep your hands where they are; it’s just easier not to move or speak - your fingers tighten further and you keep your breathing carefully rhythmic, though it’s sped up and louder in your own ears than the sound of him speaking -
"Sollux, are you – what's happening – Sollux –" He's calling your name, loud enough now that it registers, just barely, over the roaring in your ears, learned reversal of what you do when you're losing him; it would be distantly sweet if you weren't too pain-jarred fuzzy to try to parse it – it’s distracting, and you try to put him off with an irritable grunt, but the sound comes out weird and wavery - “Talk to me, Sollux, you’re -” He rests a hand tentatively against your side like he expects you to fall, and good, the added contact amplifies your connection to him, lets you do more, even as pain spikes, arcs out from your ribs - but your breath control goes to hell and you make a startled sputtering noise, graceless, focus starting to slip from your grasp.
“Shhh,” you manage, vaguely, mush-mouthed, staring into the distance. Your fingers feel current-zapped and tingling-burning and that’s making it hard to concentrate on them properly. “I’m busy -”
"Is this some kind of – oh no. No." He yanks back like he's been burnt again, the fabric of his shirt stretching and snapping from your grip, his hands widespread and trembling and his shoulders suddenly, maddeningly out of reach. "Please don't be – You'll be all right, look at me, you'll – Are you in pain? Is that it? Sollux, stay with me –"
You look at him, blink, the veil suddenly clearing from your thinking. “I’m all right,” you say impatiently. “I was just -” You were trying to help, you remember dazedly, and it was working, and nothing comes without a cost; of course you were taking on his pain. “I was just concentrating,” you finish lamely.
"You weren't all right, you were nonverbal, could you even hear me over – It was pain, wasn't it?” As the fog lifts you see the closed-in look as he readjusts, and now you know what it looks like, him pulling back in the pain you were holding, swallowing it down - “You can’t just - I've gone too far and shut off senses before, when I first had to do that, flown blind –”
You would ask, what do you do, then except that you know the answer from seeing it in his head, a separation of consciousness - with your bent towards duality you can’t imagine why you didn’t think of that, except that you weren’t really thinking, or approaching this as an engineering problem at all, you were just shoving yourself at his suffering and hoping it would blink first.
“Okay, maybe I got ahead of myself,” you say. “But you should see me on a coding bender. I would have been called Hyperfocus Captor - except it was too many characters and not enough sibilants for me to lisp -”
He looks like he wants to reach out and shake you, but you can tell he’s deliberately holding back from contact, now that he’s pieced it together. “Pardon me for thinking now isn’t quite the time for you to be granting yourself a title. I didn’t ask for what you did, and -”
“I was actually trying to offer a demonstration of my verbal coherence just now. See, everything’s in working order, I sound like an asshole and everything -” You sit up straight, look him in the eye consideringly, though you know your face probably betrays frustration and you’re still a little shaky and trying to hide that with all you’ve got. “I’m fine, okay?”
"Well, you're even less funny than you usually are, which is a significant milestone for you, say what you will about coherence and working order, and – and Sollux, I'm trying to tell you how much you just scared me. I know you're going to try that again, and I'm trying to tell you that I'm not going to let you." His eyes spark as he rises, slow but unwavering this time, from sitting to kneeling, starts to get to his feet. “Now, try to beat me at chess while you have the chance, because next time we play, you won’t have the luck of a distracted opponent.”
You rise to standing, brush yourself off - “You’re just going to turn it around on me and make it best of three,” you grumble, half inviting the challenge.
You don’t tell him that he’s right, of course. That you’re still working on this in your head, now that you have the pieces of a thing and the beginnings of a way to put them together. Knowing now that you can - that even if you can’t change his fate it’s possible for you to do something about his suffering - of course you’re determined to try.
Time passes. You wait and watch and observe and engineer.
There is important work to do, and losing yourself in it is - always the closest thing to normal happiness you’ve ever been able to achieve. Nights occupied in unpiecing the ancient, impossible code of the game, driven by your own intuitions and knowledge and AA’s eerily prescient questions; days devoted to your psionic work with Astris, which is a world unto itself.
It hadn’t been in your plans to do anything social on your sixth wriggling day. AA doesn’t seem to be able to manifest physically, only electronically, and without her - well, it just didn’t seem like a worthwhile reason to see other trolls.
But KK and TZ ambushed you, came over with a stack of movies and games and refreshments, TZ crowing “All work and no play are making you a dull Appleberry!” - and somehow, despite everything, you actually managed to enjoy yourself.
So you’re a little off-guard that morning, a little less careful and sedate than usual, when you dream-wake into the simulacrum of your hive. You and your ancestor resume chattering at each other, in a circle of scribbles on your floor, like you’d never stopped: it’s not so uncommon these days, to pick up a conversation without even having to refer to where you last dropped it.
Mostly the diagrams are yours but there are also some in his, somewhat shakier, hand: calculations and neural notation and some scrawls of his in a numeral system that no one uses anymore and your interlinear translations in cramped modern Alternian. You've been at this thinkpan security experiment for perigees now, and any progress you've made has come at too great a cost to your ability to live in your own head to be worth the gain.
You sound like Astris, thinking things like that; he's been quiet about it, holding to his promise, but it's so easy to read in his voice when he's questioning the risks, cataloging everything that has gone wrong and could still.
He's in that tone now, talking about neurochemistry but his mind clearly two steps ahead already on the way this could fail or has failed, when somehow that sparks something and he interrupts himself.
"Wait – out of the dozen or so times I've almost killed you, do you remember when I fed you a piece of my power for your shielding? Actually, this whole place is just you shaping my psionics, really. So your theory about excess unused power being a factor in the mood swings – what if we did the opposite? If I siphon off a bit of your overload, it could take some strain off, and on my end it will hardly be noticeable in the huge flux of what's required to run the ship. And if the surge does overwhelm some critical navigation systems, well - that’s happened before -" There’s a closed-off look that you’ve come to recognize; he drums his fingers against the floor.
Something he’s saying is nagging at your memory, and fragments of images from a time before you knew what was going on tumble through your mind - the feeling of being pulled under, a sudden desperation - but you set them aside, concentrating on what he’s saying. “Sure - we could try that,” you say. “At worst, I’ll get a migraine. At best, well - I’ve noticed that running more power tends to be like exercising a muscle, it increases my capacities in the long term - yes. Go ahead.”
You know you must be making strange faces as you try to reverse-engineer what he does when he throws off power for you to siphon. He doesn't need contact to do this the other way, but he's orders of magnitude enough stronger than you that you figure it can't hurt to take his hand, cast the current off directly into his skin. (And if something in the nagging memory makes you want to, a futile urge to comfort -)
When power starts to flow from you, the feeling is – you didn't expect it, but it's familiar. For long, strange moments as you close your eyes and focus on controlling it, restricting it to a slow experimental leech, you aren't sure where you've felt this before, but then there is an image – a darkness, a pull – you've done this before –
You're remembering what it felt like, the desperate clinging pull toward life, believing whole-minded that it was yourself being swallowed down, the dark unknown bulk of the vessel like a shackle, cobwebbed in inertia but starting to shudder into motion under the impulsion of your will –
- and you realize that it isn't just psionics he's drawing out of you at the same time as he rasps, “Stop,” and something huge and distant, at the very edges of your perception, vibrates, straining to rise -
Recognition, now, unbidden vividness, this was - back when these were all just dreams and more-than-dreams to you, terrifying and hallucinatory and impossible. Back before you knew. You break from the contact gasping and you sway where you sit and remember through the awareness you didn’t have then - the tear of gravity, the magnitude of his deathwish, the pull of your will to survive, instinctively taking over -
Barely conscious of your own voice, you choke out, “I’m sorry, oh god, I’m sorry.”
"You – overrode me." His eyes are trained on you as if somehow he's simultaneously hardly seeing you at all and really seeing you for the first time. He doesn't acknowledge your apology, just keeps talking fast and toneless as though finally verbalizing thoughts that have long hidden at the corners of his perception. "You changed my intention, without even meaning to. Do you realize what this could mean? But we cannot – there will be a time –"
Then his focus snaps back in and he slows. "I'm sorry, it isn't – I am not saying that it is moral, or that it is not. I have been like this for an eternity. I'm sorry that you -" You know him, he's about to say had to see, and you tense, but he swallows it, almost smiles at you. "What, did you think I hadn't thought about what happened? They would not have let go so easily. They would have bled more out of me, somehow, found another way out. What you did – I cannot hold you responsible."
For a moment you just breathe, still upset, tired of unwittingly generating suffering - and selfishly glad, in a way that makes you uncomfortable, because if he had died then you never would have met him, never would have known -
Then a realization hits you. “Wait. Just now. Is that also what happened just now?”
“You made me execute a very fast and very delicate orbit correction. Yes.” You can still see his tension, having to pay more attention to there than he did before.
“Holy shit,” you breathe. “Holy fucking grubsauce on toast, I - can you show me? The details, I mean - the calculations and -”
He laughs a little bit, a hoarse underused sound. “It would be difficult for me to show you those things without - well. You have seen some of the rest already.” A sudden swing back to solemn. “But - you have to think about that. And... you have to understand what could happen to both of us if - I have... boundaries. Restrictions. Remember.”
“I’ll be careful. I just - I’ve got to see how I did what I just did -” The curiosity, the sheer drive to understand how things work, is the same in both of you, and you meet his eyes intently.
He nods, and blinks, and suddenly you’re no longer seeing his eyes but something entirely different.
Chapter 13: realizing I'm dancing with the one I love
Explorations in dangerous territory; confessions and revelations.
"Don't," he murmurs, "Don't," and it could be don't say it or don't feel it or don't let me - "I am stopping this here, this is where it ends for me, and would you stop using that name, remember me as – a myth, something that helped for a while but that you outgrew, reached beyond, a piece of the past, I am – that part of me is dead, and mercifully so. I don't – I can't be – I -"
The numbers are beautiful, at once like and unlike what you would have imagined: it's more like being at the center of a planetarium made of glyphs and coordinates and machine code, as if someone had floated the scrawl on the walls and floor of your hivestem into a cloud around you and multiplied it by thousands. Your ancestor's stamp is all over it, and somehow it seems like the most natural thing in the world that you should recognize his voice in numbers.
More than that, you understand this, better than you should; you’ve seen so many stray slices of it that by now the language is familiar and strange at once, you can easily start to piece out what you did, the processes you cued off with your mind, even if you don’t fully comprehend every detail -
You can tell that he is trying to keep you centered here where everything is abstract, digits and units, but sharing experience like this your focus tends to drift with his, from the numeric representations and written commands to their tangible analogues in the ship and its surroundings. The endless listening channels charged with whispers from cabins: low-level subroutines set to trip at certain words, dormant. The hull shimmering as it smoothes over corrosion and knits itself back together - and far off, but always closely watched, the endless canopy of stars, this moment’s piece of that continuity of memory he showed you, light and navigation.
The pieces are starting to cohere, you're starting to understand the way you controlled, for a moment, the movement of the leviathan battleship - automatic, like the reflex twitch of a hand, no, not like, it - it is and is not, his hands are - something entirely more and different than hands -
- like thousands of digits devoted to fine control, only they grasp velocity and acceleration, position and trajectory and bristling with weapons that you can feel him holding you apart from even examining -
and underneath that, his actual hands, hollowed-out and aching and strange, the din and clamor of his pain, abstracted - what catches at your mind is that, even as you feel them in a ghostly overlay, you can't feel or find or see the seam where fingers give way to tools. On some instinctive level you want there to be a difference between these things, a partition, and he's only trying to show you the tools and you're disorientedly trying to find the place where they become his hands - or where his hands become them - or -
He’s starting to try to wall you off from this, push you away at least, but at this moment you are his consciousness and it’s circular; he can’t shut you out without also restricting himself. You feel the beginnings of concern as if it were your own, and his voice comes in a scattered back-channel whisper, Wait, you have no reason to - You didn’t come here to see - Wait -
Then the new pain kicks in, sharp, electrical - jolts down through your (his) arms from the wires, making the muscles twist and spasm - rhythmic and artificial and forced - and the distance narrows to nothing. Instinctively you reach out through the systems, through the code, send a process-stop up your neural links -
There’s a split-second’s screeching clutch from the part of this weird panicked mixed-up consciousness that is him and not you, a Don’t, you’ll - but it’s too late, the signal is sent, and there’s something in the mess of code cycling at your periphery that waits just for this, has to be, because there’s a gloating edge to the crunch of pain that breaks into you wrists-first, inbuilt jagged-musical laughter and the shooting spiking cascade of pain inward from the parts of you that are also sensors; that trigger panic responses when they hurt, jaw-clenching endurance but also dropping crashing contradictory input fire and hull breach - in past ribs and as you try to double over your seizing digestive sac the aversive reflex kicks your consciousness apart from his. You’re jarred loose, broken apart from him enough to know that you could spare yourself this and leave him behind with it and now that you're just far enough separate not to have your impulses overridden -
- you hang on.
You hear him, then, broken up with popping static and a low battered growl, Almost over - I’m trying - and you know that the last stabs and sparks are the worst, pain arcing from the jack at the back of his skull until his teeth click together, but it’s muffled for you, however much you cling to the inside of his mind - migraine-onset warning ache, nothing more, and then it stops, finally, for both of you, and he stills, and you’re suspended there, strangely numb.
He drags you out of it before you can hear any of his thoughts in the aftermath. Back to the psionic construct of your body, now jackknife-contorted on the floor, reflecting everything, knees pulled up to your chest, you hear yourself moaning and clamp your jaw shut and breathe through your nose, blinking your eyes open, it’s stopped, god, it’s stopped, you don’t know what to do with yourself in the fading echoes of this, your first thoughts chagrin, he warned me and still I managed to fuck up -
Astris is still sitting upright, but barely, more used to being here and there at once than you but still thrown off-balance, holding his head in his hands and saying, a little wobbly but mostly just inward-turned fury, “Of all the unfathomably stupid reasons I could have let you get hurt - Because I let you in to show off - Are you - Are you still -” His palms fall away from his forehead and the gesture is helpless, his words cut off in a surge of anger and worry and wincing aftermath.
It feels like it should hurt to uncurl and work your way to sitting, but it doesn't, not exactly. Your senses are overloaded, proprioception all tangled up in the sudden shifts of consciousness and the phantoms of anticipated pain that still haunt your nerves, but it’s something else entirely that makes your words come out cringing, even as you manage sarcasm. “Oof. Record for the ages, under list heading things Sollux Captor can fuck up -” You’ve smeared at least one diagram on your way to and from the floor, too.
“God, I had no idea how the feedback would affect someone who isn’t hooked in, I didn’t think - Did it - get through to here? Are you still in pain?” He ignores your sarcasm, ignores your outburst entirely, still fritzed out and flinching at the slightest shift of his head.
You shake your head, dismissing his concern - too busy trying to understand what just happened, and cursing yourself over it not a little. “What the fuck did I do? Why did that even - holy shit.” You know your face is a welter of emotion as you stare at him; horror and pity vying with mad curiosity; your attempt at soothing bravado is another thing consigned to today’s heap of failed experiments. “That’s - that’s happened to you before, that’s a thing that happens, god, and I made it happen today, how did I -”
All his features relax in baldly visible relief when you start asking questions: until he starts shuffling through explanations, deciding how much to say. “Not often. It’s - aversive, after all this time I -”
He stops midsentence, rubbing at his headband out of habit; stands and walks away from you before he starts talking again, pacing between the couch and where you sit. “If I keep pushing a boundary and getting that response, I reach a point where - I just can’t anymore. It isn’t - it’s not a willpower thing -” He says it like he’s still trying to convince himself, all this time, facing away - “The whole neural pathway for that action just doesn’t exist anymore. But you still have the mechanism for ‘stop,’ and you were trying -” He hits the back of the couch and he’s looking at you but pressed back into it like he’s trapped, “That can’t happen again, you could lose - I can’t let you lose that -”
You’ve seen your ancestor in pain, you’ve witnessed loss of control, but you’re not sure you’ve ever seen him so broken as in this soft-voiced explanation, ever wanted quite so desperately to kick down the walls of his cage, to fling yourself against that insurmountable obstacle until something gives, it or you or the entire universe. "But - how did - why did that set it off - what was that thing I tried to stop?" you ask again, and, babbling, under your breath, "Fuck, I'm sorry," and swallow down sorry I hurt you because for once the sum of everything you're sorry for is larger than your capacity for self-blame.
“It wasn’t even anything unusual, that’s the part of this that - heh -” He lets out a tense distressed fragment of a laugh. “Just muscle stimulation, they have to keep me from wasting away entirely - Ghosts can’t steer ships. I know it looks - invasive - but I can’t just stop it, or...” He cuts himself off and flickers a little around the edges, as if just the thought of stop might trip something -
You can fill in the blanks well enough. "But you tried, before," and you can barely say it above a whisper. "To push that boundary." You're not aware how tightly you're clenching your fists until your claws bite into your palms - that they would even take away the tiniest shred of passive resistance to his hellish forced survival -
“I have taken all my ways out. None of them led anywhere. There’s - do not.” The light in his eyes is hard-edged; his grip on the fabric under his claws is about to tear. “Don’t think about - You get in between me and that again, and you start to lose - words, whole concepts, how far do you think you’re going to get on Alternia without the word ‘stop’? And there I was afraid that I would hurt you, strifing, or lash out - this is - this isn’t even comparable, they’ll rewrite you, they’ll find you -” He is breathing fast and harsh, wild-eyed and seeing half-formed futures - “You are - it’s worked, what we’ve done. You’ve grown into - you’re too much like me, I can’t just tell you to keep out of it and expect - you’re too powerful, they’ll see - There has to be an end. There always had to be.”
The rapid finality of his words is a coldness cutting into you, the unanticipated blow, the only one you can’t possibly defend against.
“But what about -” You can’t keep the anguish from your voice, it slips out of you a shameful whine - “We’re not finished with polarity work, we still have to test -”
“Someone has to say where this stops, and right here, with my boundaries getting into your head, this stops. Try to tell me what it’s worth, to have me in this, other than completely wrongheaded inexplicable ideas that place you in the line of fire - I’ve been more danger than help to you for at least a perigee now, and you know you’re strong enough now to finish this work without me. You have to keep testing. You have to finish this, and you can, if I don’t get your thinkpan reprogrammed into useless grubmeal first -” He makes a wild meaningless gesture; keeps trying to back away from you and forgetting that he can’t.
A moment ago you would have thought nothing worse could happen today than what had just happened, but that was stupid, there's always something worse, and it feels like the ground is giving out beneath you, even as you start to pull yourself to your feet.
"Astris," you say the name you gave him - you'd never have dared choose a name that both of you would always inevitably mangle, just like your own, if you hadn't been manic at the time - too many perfect ironies - "Astris, please, I -”
Another time you might have fought dirty, might have reminded him of the tenuous days after Aradia's death where you wouldn't have assented to your own survival if not for him - but right now all you can think of to say are things that would entrap you, leave you torn open in front of him and helpless. You want to say I would willingly go back into that pain, to keep this - to keep you - and you know that he would just look at you bitter and regretful and tell you that is exactly why he has to send you away. Tears are starting to trickle hot down the sides of your nose and you lean an arm on the back of the couch, barely able to hold yourself up on your legs, half-looking at him and half looking away. "You know why I stood in the line of fire, don't you? You know the reason, by now, you must."
"Don't," he murmurs, "Don't," and it could be don't say it or don't feel it or don't let me - "I am stopping this here, this is where it ends for me, and would you stop using that name, remember me as – a myth, something that helped for a while but that you outgrew, reached beyond, a piece of the past, I am – that part of me is dead, and mercifully so. I don't – I can't be – I -"
You can't even see his face through the tears now, you know you'll wake up with your head hot and swollen and sore, like you have a few times before, and every word that comes out of his mouth just breaks you and you reach for him, grasp for his hand convulsively, trying to remind him or remind yourself of something that transpired now half a sweep ago, of you don’t have to be alone and he starts back when you reach for him but freezes the moment your hand touches his, and like a spliced-in misplaced frame your livingblock flickers and you see the past instead, fading power and a slow trickle of blood, and you know he is thinking it, seeing it with you.
"Astris." He wouldn't be telling you to stop using his new name if it weren't reaching something in him and you cling to everything you've got. "You're not stupid, you figured out a long time ago -" you keep having to stop and gulp little jagged gasps of air, "you know I'm fucking smitten, you know I'm desperately in pity over you, I've given up on trying to pretend it's not obvious - but will you try to remember how that feels -" you tighten your hand around his, barely aware of it, not even sorry if it hurts, knowing it's nothing against anything else - "I've tried to squash down my instincts, I - to tell myself that protecting you is -" impossible, a lost cause, "That you aren't, that you'll never understand how I feel - it doesn't work, it's not about what's rational, my heart is going to sit here in my chest tearing itself to pieces, turning me inside-out with pity, with or without my permission, with or without your - goddamn fucking approval -" The ranting gives way to a sob and you can’t keep going.
"I know," he echoes, "I knew, but you – Do you really think that I would keep trying, impossibly, to shield you, trying to lift you out of the inevitable, if I didn't – if you weren't – valuable to me beyond measure," throat hoarse and words hardly articulate, "I don't have enough soul left to feel that way, but you've made me – from the beginning – and I could never, ever forgive myself if – just let me set you free from me, let me give you the chance to save yourself, let me or I'll – I have enough guilt to live with, without this, I have to end this because I pity you and I never thought there was a hell for me beyond this one but if you make me face eternity with your blood on my hands – my secret light, my – Please just go -" But he clutches harder at your hand as he says it, his face twisted and teartrack-smeared and his eyes fixed on yours, pleading.
The words crack over you like the sky opening up. From the moment he says pity you are frozen, laid open, it falls in like a missing piece as the world threatens to break apart. Your breathing halts mid-inhale, even though your chest still shakes, and you finally can meet his eyes, bitterly afraid but no longer ashamed. “You -” the word is barely more than a sigh, and then you take a shuddery breath and try to speak again - “I hadn’t dared hope that you ever -”
He stares – makes a tiny squashed sobbing noise – your eyes lock and everything suspends – and it seems like perigees before he just – he just shatters. His face, his shoulders, the bearing of his whole body, his entire psionic presence – and you're locked in his enveloping arms, forearms and shoulderblades near-bruising with his shaking, a destroyed whimper into your shoulder. "I want -" he's gasping – "To stand between you and the conscription drones, I want to turn the – the entire weaponry of this Empire on anyone who could ever harm you and I can't -"
Art by Syb la Tortue
For a moment that hangs and stretches you're speechless, as wrecked as he is, down to voiceless hiccups and tiny trilling noises, helpless to comfort or protect, so you just hold him, so tightly you'd fall down if he pulled away now - what a grand metaphor for everything - until you get back command of your vocal cords enough to whisper, "I would reach across all the space between us, if I could, just to break you loose of your pain for an instant - to protect you from those who hurt you -" What little voice you have cracks, and you draw breath, trying again to speak before the shuddery warmth of him burns through you and you have no words at all - “I spend every night thinking of - how I could become anything at all that would ever let me help -"
He drips a wordless incoherent oh into your shoulder as tears soak through your shirt; tries twice to speak before he finally manages it - "You terrify me," he whispers, "Centuries – I've been – I've been in agony, I've been laid low, I've been guilty of – nameless horrors, but I was never afraid, until I had someone to fear for, that's how I... how I knew it was never just protectiveness. Please, I can't leave you now, but if you take one step into harm's way for me, I swear to you I'll -"
Your head is ringing with this, with never just protectiveness, his words filling up the scorched-out torn places in you, the ache where you’ve missed him since before you knew him, the echo of the pain he must still be feeling, and pity wrenches at you and you tug your arms up from under his and throw them all the way around his shoulders, holding what you can of him, scrambling to make yourself solid and safe - “I’ll be careful, I promise, for you, I’ll guard myself better for you than I ever would for myself,” and the words aren’t a display or a threat, they’re just objectively true, you know your own tendencies well enough by now to know that.
The stifling circle of his arms loosens a little, then; he smooths a hand down your back and up again, hesitant but still pressed firm, the spread of it still larger than yours, and he nods, his hair brushing and scratching against your neck. "Oh," and there’s a tiny wondering smile infused into his voice, "Yes," as if he'd forgotten that there could be anything but danger to you in this. But then he lets out a long, slow breath, cold against wet fabric, and goes sad again, remote even in your arms - "You need to know that I... can't make the same promise. Not even – I'm sorry."
“I know,” you murmur, “I know you can’t, I wouldn’t ask you to - I don’t want to lose you, but it would be worse than that if you suffered for me when you could -” The words congeal in your throat, but it doesn’t matter; he’s right; they’ll never let him die, you have no influence, nowhere to take your conflicted thoughts, only - only this, hanging onto this part of him that you can touch, guilty for your gratitude. On some level you are still sunstruck with wonder at the terrible gift that is his presence in your life at all; in your arms is almost too much.
"You are – an impossibility." He's making small waterlogged sniffling sounds again at your acceptance; swaying a little against you. "You don't know what you – this space, this half-sweep – you don't know what you've done. Even if I had been telling the truth just now, about my name, about that part of me – it wouldn't be true anymore." Words wet-swallowed almost past the point of comprehension, soft glow around the edges blurring fabric and skin under your fingers - and as he draws back you reach for him, unthinking. You curl hands into his hair, seeking closeness, trying to keep him here, pull him in toward you until your cheeks graze damp against each other, until lips and fangs bump half-openmouthed and awkward, and then you jerk back, quivering, thrown off balance by your own forwardness -
Astris fuzzes back into focus as you pull away, disoriented now that you aren't holding him up, reeling like what you did yanked him back from the edge of being drawn entirely into that other place, kind of a blank searching look like he might have been too far away to quite feel your mouth on his. Catches himself on the couch and says, dazed, "I'm sorry, I have to -" Flickers, fabric visible through skin - curls his fingers and brushes his knuckles down the side of your face, still all longing and confusion, voice reedy and choked in, "God, I'm so sorry, I'm just going to keep on – you can't let me keep you from finding – a real matesprit, someone who can truly be there with you –"
Some part of you wants to protest, You’re real, I need you to be real, but that’s not the answer he needs and it belongs to a different dialogue entirely. Instead you say, “I’ve thought about this too much, I have no illusions, just please don’t - don’t go, I mean -” and you don’t mean right now, you know he can’t hold his presence here for much longer, but you’re still whiplash-frightened that he’ll seal away from you forever.
Light is shifting and snapping around him, visibility becoming an effort. "You know how this is going to go, then. I'll be here, and – never able to be here wholly, not always able to be here at all, and your life is – ultimately it's who you are there that will make you – Don't abandon the waking world for me. It's – wrong enough for one of us to be walled away from everything. I'm sorry, I’m being -" You catch fragments of sensor readouts, proximity warnings, orbital intersection... And he leans in now, a hand on the back of your neck and wide-eyed and strangely tentative, but stops himself, "The world is not going to be kind to you, and I pity you too much to see you turn down help and comfort when you find them. Please, just promise me you won’t renounce pity out there in my name."
"I know what we can't have," you tell him, "I know I have to accept that." You wonder if there were reproduction drones out there in his time, and you squelch the thought before he can catch it. It wouldn't be a kindness to give him more to worry about. "Please - Please don't -" don't change your mind, please come back to me, your thoughts are in turmoil and louder than your speech in these limited moments -
"I have to – I'm sorry -" Lines of code, a countdown ticking – "But I can't turn back from... from –" And for another spliced-frame moment the pieces of awareness you're pulling from him, the ship, the danger, break clean and you see reflected in his memory, from bare minutes ago and etched-in clear, that devastated reborn look on your own face when he said pity...
- I know now I can't turn back from giving you what little I can. It vibrates inside your head after he fades, clear but distant as an echo.
Chapter 14: my story is for thee and the glory of bodies
And you knew, in some insignificant abstract way, that you would want him. Knew that you would be drawn down and drawn in and knew what his fingertips meant on your face tentative and pleading - but now that it comes to the measuring you were wrong by orders of magnitude, by the weight of galaxies. Had no way of knowing how close he could get to just transmuting your pain entirely in the narrow shuddery press of his chest as he tries to stand between you and everything, and it's like your nerves remember desire but your body has forgotten what it's supposed to want and you just ache, all over, every part of you that isn't touching him, heels to scalp to horns to wrists.
Some chapter warnings for body horror, oblique references to past rape trauma, and Captors being more sweet and adorable than they've any right to.
Karkat loves this movie and you’re not even following the plot. It’s In Which an Oliveblood Attempts to Auspisticize Between Two Highblood Friends And Finds Himself Palezoned and Flushedzoned With Each Of Them Respectively, While the Highbloods' External Relationships Fail, Eventually Resulting In a Stable Kismesissitude Between Them and it’s actually not one of his worse ones (as if that’s saying anything, with Karkat) but you can't sit still, you can't calm down, you're a toothgritting mass of tension.
Karkat keeps venturing reasons why. They are incorrect guesses that would probably be accurate if your life was a romcom. That would ordinarily be kind of adorable or at least provide you with material for creative insults but right now you're barely keeping your head above water enough to be snarky.
Or your head is too far above water: maybe that’s the problem.
Right now, all you can see and know of Astris from where you stand is a thin thread in the back of your mind. He’s sealing you out too perfectly from all the details - you can't feel the fire of weapons, can't hear the clamor of doomed voices, can't even shut your eyes and get the flickering show of images in your head, but you know, just from the dim outlines of him in the distance, the siege of destruction he’s enmeshed in and the anguish it causes him.
You know he would lock that down too, if he could. If you would let go of it.
You can't and won’t - wouldn’t, even if you weren’t still frightened from yesterday - you do trust him to return to you, you do, but you still can’t bring yourself to look away, to leave him alone with -
In Which an Oliveblood is nearly over. There's a cheerful fight scene in a shopping district where the oliveblood ends up auspisticizing for one of the highbloods and their ex-partner, and you can't think of anything but death and horror. You kind of wish this was In Which A Young Legislacerator Flips Flushed For Her Kismesis because the plot was terrible but the acting at least pretty great and there was a scene in there that might, at least, make you willing to be here in the block right now, if not distract you: the monologue begins I didn't know that pity could hurt so much and goes on from there and it seemed overdramatic when you watched it but now it's too true.
On second thought, that might be worse.
"Alternia to Sollux Captor."
"What." If you could just convince yourself that your imagination was worse than the truth, you'd be able to deal. But you're pretty sure it's not.
You want to wrap yourself around that tiny flicker of your ancestor’s presence, shield him somehow from the devastation, the guilt, the loss, even if it takes turning yourself inside out to do it.
"I SAID, are you actually sitting there losing your shit instead of kissing me because of how I flipped out at you the last time we uh..."
"The last time we pailed," you correct KK, just to annoy him. Maybe to distract him a little. Your tone is harsh and snappish and you're tired of Vantas' shit right now. "Say pailed or I won't talk to you."
"P-pailed, are you fucking happy? But seriously what do you think you’re doing? You’ve been sitting there like someone took your already too-freaky thinkpan and replaced it with a hive of bees. Not even clever-ass mind honey bees either. Just fritzed-out angry mutant bees. So are you?"
“Am I what.”
“Are you sitting there being a fuckup because you want to kiss me.” Karkat’s infuriated and bashful and you wish you had the energy to be into it, you're going to be into it later, you're going to kick yourself for turning down a great opportunity but right now this hive and this block feel stifling and looking at him feels wrong.
"Nope." He looks so crestfallen when you say that, you can't help but add, "Yes, sometimes, okay? Sometimes I want to fucking kiss you. But not right now. Right now everything sucks and you should go home." That comes out a little harsher than you meant it, but it's true.
"What the shitting hell did I even do?"
"Exactly nothing, KK. Sometimes I'm just a fucking piece of work and that's all it is." He squeaked, actually squeaked at the end of that sentence and you’re too preoccupied to even give him shit for it, and you know this is going to hit the gossip mill - hell, KK practically is the gossip mill - and you know you're going to get ragged on about your moods when this isn't even that and right now you can't bring yourself to care. He's protesting, trying to offer to help, but you can't take it. You start unhooking the grub from your media rig and put it back in its case for him and grab his coat off the back of the couch where it's draped haphazardly and shove him stammering and cursing out of your hive. "We're still friends, now fuck off,” you growl pre-emptively, as his trail of LUNATIC NINCOMPOOP NOOKSUCKER see if I ever again... fades into the distance.
You curl up on the couch with your knees to your chest, cradling that thin thread of attachment, laid flat by it as if it were a migraine. Except that a migraine is always something you want to be rid of, that hangs onto you despite your best attempts to shake it off, and this is exactly the opposite: you're sick with pity and you clutch to it harder the sicker it makes you, draw it nearer and louder and larger, squint into the distance until you can feel -
- tiny flickers coming through, afterimages of depleted weapons, webbing of white light unraveling to red and blue and sickly yellow - movement and focus going to idle and repair - shields repelling only a field of rubble - alone with silenced voices -
- not alone. Because you press yourself down into half-sleep trance, meditative, deliberately, bring the dreamspace up around you, pouring more of your own energy into it than usual, and it takes agonizing, fear-frozen seconds too long for him to resolve around you, sitting next to you on the edge of the couch and leaning over you, hands framing your face and eyes pinning yours.
You pull him so close into your mind that you feel every excruciating detail - atmosphere seeping from his hull in pinpoints, thoracic vertebrae screaming from a destroyed musculosensor that in its death throes tried to snap his spine (and the edges of the memory that this has happened before, he has been splinted straight and reconnected thread by thread) - and the exhaustion that permeates him, above everything else; that keeps him from sealing off the coherent polite fiction that defines him here, so that these things leak through -
- and as he sinks down next to you, here-and-not-here on your couch resolving into here, you want to be a stronger creature than you are, but you can’t help it, you curl around him and a mewl of pity breaks out of your throat.
You are going to hold him and you are going to hold this torment for him, you are already taking over it, from sheer proximity, from the pull of your pity like gravity, and it’s awful but it’s also a triumph and you hold steady and breathe into it, concentrating on the meditative tying-down, the locking-away you’ve seen from him. Tiny bit by tiny bit you steal away his pain, slowly enough that he won’t stop you, slowly enough that you can hide your reactions to each ache and twinge you leach from him as they filter through and into you, and one by one you turn them all into white noise, push them away into a heavy place like a stone in your mind.
==>Astris: Be here.
Even here - you can almost leave the pain but the exhaustion runs deeper, lymph and marrow.
Sometimes the conceits you've constructed for yourself that allow memories through without forcing you to count the agony of fettered sweeps begin to thin and tear like parchment-paper and the numbers seep through.
You sink onto the cushions beside him, unsure if even in this space you can stand, and he is so worried and streaming thoughts so single-mindedly up at you... You could sink claws into his shoulders and shout at him for leaving himself so vulnerable. This doesn't help you, you could repeat for the thousandth time (and for the thousandth time hear it reflected back to you from his broken-mirror brain as too weak to even - nothing I do will ever - why would he...)
Oh, you could be as cruel to him as he ever is to himself, could list out the dangers that by now he should know, force him to see them one by one and to know all the way down to the root of his thinkpan exactly where lying here consuming himself with you would lead him -
If you weren't exhausted down to cinders and crumbling sterile stone, you could. Instead, you hold his face in your hands and stare into the fearful glow in his eyes and think, over and over and despite perigees of trying to desensitize yourself to it, of how hard he is trying for you, of just how close to futile the effort is - of him stretched in your fetters thousands of sweeps from now, his mind strung into wires and stars, his eyes sheathed under glass -
So wretched from the fight that the thought barely hurts, and compassion closes over you like warm water, and you stroke his brows and his jawbone and you just want to lie there with him curled-around and unthinking and close.
It isn't the first time that he has cried for you, or the first time that he has been open about it, clinging on to both of your hands and staring straight at you as his eyes waver orange and green and his touch shouldn't be this wretchedly comforting when he is this miserable. You will never accept the way this feels, as if the rubbing of his hands against yours could flow straight through you and up the ravaged wetwork arms of your body in its far-away prison. Not to give life, not that, but just to numb for a while, as if chafing at the wire-slick bones could warm your hands there long enough to ease the perpetual shiver against the saltwater drip.
You're distantly aware that a far away part of you is utterly shot through with pain. You're very closely aware that his nerves wrench and keen with yours and that he's licking translucent yellow from the corner of his mouth and that he's holding on to your upper arms now, tight and grounding, rubbing thumbs and reaching up for your shoulders and it helps. You - but it doesn't, it couldn't, everything is beyond description and the very first stabbing of the needle up past the first bone of your neck and in will always echo and snick and crunch into you and all the agony of all the thousands of sweeps will always build and balance on that needle simultaneous and omnipresent and nothing could ever - but when he slows to enclose you like this -
Your pain is mendicant. It begs for his hands.
(Wet and shaky and on your neck and drawing you in) and you can't imagine what it would feel like. There isn't enough memory left in you. Time is conflated and shimmery and it could be now or the future or ten years ago that he reached for you like this and you just stopped there, pressed together foreheads and temples and suspended warm and breathing, glow and dim and the flowing of time and your tongue in the back of your throat and held-together and uncertain. Lurid yellow marks of sleeplessness under his eyes tracked damp and smeared like bruises, the muffled click coming up from his chest that he hides with a half-inhaled-swallowed shoosh and then just stops and swallows and looks at you like you're something of his that he's lost and he's so unfathomably, impossibly young, and he balls his hands up in the throat of your uniform and tugs -
His mouth against yours is hard and thin and he barely knows what he's doing and in some way he is just as sharp as the remembered needle of your conversion, cuts straight through your stops as his collarbone slams up against yours and his chin digs whetted-delicate into your palm when you try to guide him...
And you knew, in some insignificant abstract way, that you would want him. Knew that you would be drawn down and drawn in and knew what his fingertips meant on your face tentative and pleading and you were right (saline and twisting heat and the sudden scrunch of his fingers against your neck) but now that it comes to the measuring you were wrong by orders of magnitude, by the weight of galaxies. Had no way of knowing how close he could get to just transmuting your pain entirely in the narrow shuddery press of his chest as he tries to stand between you and everything.
No way to guess that it would be like great rusted pieces of you catching on his lips and teeth and falling into the sea, skinned molten and jumbled and - and your body is having trouble catching up to you. Like your nerves remember desire but your body has forgotten what it's supposed to want and you just ache, all over, every part of you that isn't touching him, heels to scalp to horns to wrists. That you would want to encompass him, fragility and raw force and lightning trapped in a too-thin prism, that from the place where you hang eternally torn you would let this boy wash onto your shore and draw out life.
And you're so used to the litany of I will shatter you, I will shape you, I will grow claws and teeth under your skin, don't you understand, you'll shred yourself to pieces against me, I'll brilliant you out of being, cold and white and dwarf star and cinders, get out get out or the jacks will brush onto you and burrow in please, please just go -
That you almost invert the realization that it could break you, right here in his hands, if he turns away from - from this - if he doesn’t ask - but shivered to barely-cogent aching you can’t speak, don’t know what you would say if you did.
And he says, "Let me, please - let me show you how to feel this -" and his tear-thick voice is an impossible mercy.
You can't even bear to ask how much of your pain he is swallowing. He kisses you again, so questioning and deliberate, and you’re aware of how excruciatingly careful he is with his lips and fangs and how the impatience burns through it and the way his hands tremble harder when he says the words before you're aware that you can answer them, that he needs you to, and you lick into his mouth like you can just push words in, strange and airless and let me show you and yes, yes, even if you felt the noonday sun hot against your eyelids and he said open them and see you would let him -
- and all it takes is one word wrapped around your vocal folds and pinning them shut, like no time has passed since you first awakened in a dream with him, like he's asking you to relearn every cell and muscle of your body bent into weird shapes by heat and want - but you force it, for him, break from him long enough to echo "Please" against his lips, hoarse and vowelless before sinking in to kiss him again.
His arms close around you hard and sharp and tight and he makes a soft answering moan into your mouth and the intensity of need in that sound seems irrational, impossible, would seem unreal but for that you taste it, that it renders itself out in echoes through your skull and you can't push it away - it's his, it's yours - and a desperate pang of pity reverberates through you, that he should want you, want the wreck of what you've become.
And his breath tickles the edges of your lips, so close, the words in a tight whisper --"Okay, yes, yes, we can do this," he's saying, and you're cognizant on some level that he's awkward, that he knows what he's doing but not well when his hands chase down your spine but the difference is lost somewhere in time, somewhere in the frightening blank space where this nerve map should be -
- you shudder and freeze when his fingers touch those points on your back: counting vertebrae as his hands slide down and down and waiting for a stop that never comes, too flat and missing sensation and overlaid and removed as your body goes cottony and distant and his face reflected frozen on the screen and - "Not there" - the panicked conviction that if he moves his arms they'll pass through you - "Not" -
Sollux goes stock-still, not pulling back, barely breathing, and even here too close to see his eyes you can feel the way his focus narrows, the way his mind presses into you, pinions you and he's showing you something, giving you something through fingers held still in that place-not-place, bringing into being, oh, a scrap of memory of touch - not yours but his, his own spine, the sensation of fingers on it, warm and fizzing radiating out and alive -
- for a moment you cradle the memory free-floating in your mind, don't do anything with it yet, just awe at the gentleness of touch and the curvature and the pliant give of skin - until you feel his fingers still pressed where they couldn't ever...
And it fits, the memory, sinks in under his touch and knits into blanks in your body that the centuries had untaught you were once bone and nerve and flesh. You reach over his side not quite knowing what you're looking for and rest your palm over his shirt at the small of his back, and it's a hushed, almost-afraid moment before you press and map and... it's his, yes, the memory fits into you because it's his and because he shares the twists and strangenesses of your body, it's wonderful and it makes no sense and you realize that you've slid your hand under his shirt to feel the notches between the bones at the same time you feel yourself smiling.
His shuddery release of breath is harsh against your ear and only that whisper of sound and the sudden violent quaking of his back under your hands tells you how hard he's crying as he starts to move his hands again, stroking and kneading at your dream-body in all its sudden uncanny wholeness, as he stutters out syllable by syllable "I, I've got you, there you go" and dimly you understand how terrified he was that this wouldn't work... but it does, it does, and his tears spatter on your neck like the memory of a rainstorm.
It's what that touch does to you, it's that you're warm through, skull to hips, unknotting and rippling to life under his hands and every pull of sympathy in you wants to cry with him, to break down and curl up in shame that you ever thought to leave him - but tears can't surface over the chorus of being near and being touched and Sollux. You want to be rebuilt of him entire, delicate-boned and strong-fingered and shivery-solid and your beautiful breathing anchor if he'll let you tie down to him and you're chanting "Thank you, oh, thank you, oh please more I still -" - and trying to reach out with your mind and show him what you're feeling and envelop him in held and here and safe.
The flare of warmth just resonates, for a while, reverberates back and forth between you, turns everything bright and hyperreal, eases the hiccups out of his breathing as Sollux presses to you tight and small and wanting and whispers "Yes" and maybe it's his mind or maybe yours, but there are no longer any clothes on either of you -
You hiss and tense up as his chest bumps into yours and there's cool air swirling up against your skin and your new senses and - and it's juvenile and you're ashamed and his flinch at the sound you make hurts but... you close your eyes. You can't, you just... you try, but you almost see your body instead through other eyes, optics and camera-feed, tendrils and catheters and purple-stained skin and you can't risk looking at yourself, not yet, because if you look down and see - that - you'll lash out and slice through both of you before you're able to dispel the memory. But you so want -
"I want to see you," you whisper, feeling blindly for him, afraid your hand at his back is crushing but nothing could ever make you let go - "I'm sorry - help me, please, one more time, and then -"
The soft sound of reassurance Sollux makes almost shades into pale. He disentangles one arm and takes your other hand into his own, firmly, rubbing at it again, holding and touching and defining every pad of every finger, holding it, holding you here, anchored to his mind and body.
And when he's traced the outlines of your palm and fingers in his grip finally he lifts your hand in his own and curls your arm back and guides your hand under his to the seam where your skin presses to his, along the side, against the smooth oblong protrusion of grubscars (and the way his ribs expand with the sharp intake of breath when you touch there) and then down, slowly, pressing your palm along the soft edges of your abdomen against his, the jutting lines of hipbones.
He's pulled back just slightly enough to look at you, you can feel him looking at you and casting a mold in his mind of what you might be, shades of himself and memories and impressions and you can't remember your face ever being that beautiful, you don't think you've ever seen yourself through his eyes this vividly before, your squeezed-shut eyelids and the helpless grimace of your mouth and fangs all traced in this halo of pity and wonder - nothing like what you know or knew of yourself, but it’s not unfamiliar, either, it’s - it’s closer to the way you see him, and the sheer gratitude cracks you open -
"Keep me here," you beg, true and clear as you can through your lisp and the overwhelmed tears you had been unable to shed until - "Please, everything, I just - want to give you-" And you press your lips to his neck and now that you can, it's too much, you can't bear to look at him. Even his skin is almost too smooth against your tongue, his pulse too strong, the dusty, half-remembered but suddenly consuming instinct of wanting to taste, not to hurt, just... To scrape a tiny cut with your teeth and lick and lave and learn what blood can tell your tongue (young, healthy, flushed) - it cuts primal through tears and uncertainty, bypasses everything to coil heavy in your gut and as you soothe at his throat you're too close to miss the little affirming noises he's trying not to make. Too oversensitized, blisteringly present in every inch of your skin, not to notice the small wet twitch against your thigh, the way his ribs expand and lock with held breath as he tries so hard to keep still.
"Mine, Astris, mine," he whispers faintly into your hair, desperately incredulous as much as reassuring, "pity you so much," and his bulge is questing and curling toward you, the motion stuttering with the strain of his futile attempts at holding it back, he's trying not to overwhelm your senses even as his touch re-writes them, presses this world into you - "Is - is this okay -"
It shouldn't... shouldn't touch you so deeply that he's asking, shouldn't infuse through your frantic bloodpusher and slow its hammering a little, but it does, just enough, clears away your overwhelmed fog enough to let you look. His bulge is so extended and so full that it looks painful, smearing yellow over your skin as it arcs against your thigh, and he's balled a fist into the fabric of the couch and the beaten-down and pain-worn pieces of your mind beg you to wait but you think you'll shatter if you do, the drum-stretched longing in his face and voice and the trembling as he holds himself back will claw you to nothing.
You reach for him and wrap your hand around the base of his bulge, let the twin tips coil tight and warm around your wrist, fascinated with the slickness and the movement and his wrenched-out gorgeous gasp, and from the first touch of your hand he is unraveling, back arching, pared down to helpless whining moans as the tendrils curl into your grip seeking warmth and motion and more.
"Yes, yes, yours, always, come - come here -" you gasp, and if the answering pull and twist in your own sheath makes your pulse speed again and half-formed thoughts edge sharp against the purity of needing him closer - you can't - you have to -
Sollux pulls closer, turns, hooks his thigh over yours and settles forehead to forehead as if he's going to whisper some secret, barely balancing upright, his shoulder digging slumped into the cushions. And he reaches between your legs, strokes the flats of two fingertips coaxing at the opening of your sheath, fingers so soft and shaking...
Even gentle and gradual his touch buzzes along your skin and jolts straight into your bones and the muscles in your thighs scream to grind down into his hand and the twisting behind your sheath is rubbing you ragged from the inside and your whole body just sobs for him to draw you out and touch more of you like this, slowly, cries out for you let go and let him - but there's an edge in your thinkpan where it all sticks, fragments of muscle-memory (don't try to move, you're trapped, don't move) and senses desaturated by the centuries (so cold that it felt wet even though you were so, so dry; tapered and hard-tipped and cruel) and it's all so distant, now, but still it catches at you and you hang suspended between his gentle guiding fingers and the chill knot of remembered tears in your throat, and... You can't just shut this off like a faulty sensor, can't slip away as it closes around you, your fist tightens involuntarily around his bulge and his keening trails into a hoarse half-cry and it's him, it's his voice, and your hips move a little of their own accord, a tiny bright drip of pleasure, and anything to know it's him (Keep me here, keep me -) "Talk to me," you breathe, tight-throated and distantly afraid he won't understand, "Anything, just - tell me - "
His other arm folds around you, drawing you in, thin prickles of claws that snag at your shoulder blade, a sharp and clean and bright sensation as he calls your name and it reaches your ears wet and blurred as though he's searching for you underwater, the name Sollux gave you, over and over again like a chant, until it comes in clear and he's saying "Astris, Astris, I'm here, I'm here." His face hovers so close to yours you can barely make out the lines of it but you can see and feel the red-blue glow of his eyes on yours and the flush of his cheeks, so warm as he leans in and kisses at the corner of your eye and catches a tear on the hot gentle tips of his tongue, and he's saying your name still, whimpering it now, and his fingers keep stroking at the aperture, the flat of his hand rubbing smooth circles around it, so slow and trembly and making soft moist sounds.
You unsheathe for him so slowly that at first he can barely reach the tips of your bulge, run them between his fingers, but still it's like - it's like sudden falling and you jerk forward and cling to his sides and can't help sparking out around your eyes and into his mouth in an irrational reaching out to catch yourself. He gives you time, rubs at your hips and stomach for a while and murmurs your name like a word of praise and you just breathe and listen and feel as your bulge swells and uncoils and you're vaguely aware that your inner thighs are starting to slick over and stick to the cushions. When his fingers twine with your bulge again it's still like there's this unreal part of your body that is made of hot metal and bare electricity and you're almost so sensitive that it's too raw for pleasure
(art by Megan)
and oh god you can feel his fingerprints following the length of you and his name tears from you in a shocked whine, Sollux, and your hips surge forward without warning your thinkpan first and your bulge wraps tight and hot and right around his.
"Oh," he says, thighs rigid and straining, and his breath goes to tiny gasps. He goes still again, all except for the tendrils of his bulge that curl and grip with yours, soft and slick and flushed and heavy-full and continuously, involuntarily moving, and when he speaks it's in a bare thready high tone, stammering - "I've, I've wanted this for so long," he says, and breathes out long and hard and ragged, and his hands reach up and brace on your outer horns -
You're boneless against this, molten and dissolving and something twists into the fork where your bulge doubles and you're sure you'll shiver yourself down to a hard hot core of sensation. It's still too much, the wet urgent shifting of his bulge and his hands around your horns enclosing you and narrowing you to here and the blinding closeness of his eyes and the scrape and wrench of want in his voice. You're still overwhelmed, still not sure that you can bear it, but you're not sure either if you have to, if you couldn't just lose yourself altogether and drag at him with your claws and batter your consciousness against the edges of the space the two of you inhabit and just - is that what he's asking of you? If you just let yourself react to this you're afraid that's what you would do, and you just want everything to stay like this, just want to wrap as much of yourself around him as you can and soothe the wonderful torn-up longing that rolls off him like body heat; you twine your arms around his back and shift your hands against his shoulders and -
You lose your balance in the motion, topple over backward shivery and disoriented and drag him on top of you and you're hardly even cognizant that you're making delighted consonant noises at the slick pressure against your bulges between your stomachs, at how much easier it is to hold him like this and you're saying, out of breath and blissful, "I didn't know, you - you're so -" You're not sure if the next sound would come out as a word or a whine or happy laughter so you give up and just kiss him, slippery-uncoordinated and open and needy.
==>Sollux: slow down.
You can't slow down. You try to stop moving, try to keep yourself under some shred of control, and it's just not happening - your fangs click awkwardly against his and he puts his tongue in your mouth, that tongue just like yours and god, it does things to you, like that very first moment of recognition. No amount of anticipation could ever describe this, no amount of expectation could ever have prepared you for how the sounds he's making crawl into your thinkpan and shut off everything but pity and hot lust and the effort of keeping his pain tamped down in the back of your head and the squirming warm pressure of his bulge against yours and your bodies pressed together and it ruins you.
You try to warn him and you can't even speak. All you manage is a muffled sob into his mouth as you tangle your hands in his hair and your bulge jerks and writhes in the grip of his, streams of genetic material escaping sticky and hot between your bodies, each crest of orgasm shuddering through you and making you rock into him hard and frenetic.
He arches up into you and crushes you close through it, clings and makes a throaty, unformed, amazed sound as his mouth slips off yours, as if he's catching at the edges of the waves of completion as they overcome you and you come down limp and shaky to feel his hands stroking along your back, slow and smooth and mirroring how you touched him at the beginning of this. His legs are still tangled up with yours, his bulge still coils and presses through the mess on your stomach but he's just holding and stroking and looking so intently up at you and murmuring half-formed and lust-glazed "You're brilliant, you're amazing, you're so beautiful, shhhh..."
- even as you get your voice back and lisp a shaky small apology at him, "Sorry, sorry, I -" still breathing hard and twitching with whole-body aftershocks and you don't know what to do with the sheer glow of his regard, you feel oddly exposed by the words of praise, but his hands calm you and you ease into the touch and purr softly.
"Don't say that, I - " He kisses your shoulder, soft and reassuring, just a press of lips, and he’s still pressing up against you - your bulge has retreated a little but it's pinned under your stomach against him, soft and oversensitized and when he shifts you make a small awkward too-much noise and your fingers hook into the divots of his collarbones, trying not to claw him and failing. He shudders when your claws break skin, trying to still, muscles tense under your fingers and breath heavy with effort. "The way you looked - just please - please -"
His hands dapple along your sides and against your shoulders, soothing but also seeking contact, he's stopped moving his hips but he can't stop touching you, comforting but a little lost, and when he pleads like that it goes straight into you, it twists in your gut and in your bloodpusher and your bulge is still recovering but the tips flutter weakly and you make a little incoherent noise in your throat and reach for him.
"I, I want to make you feel good, I want -" You can't name half the things you want and the rest are either tritely obscene or straight-up impossible, things like to hold you forever so no one will ever hurt you again so you just nestle a hand down between your bodies and touch him, sliding fingers down gently into the crevice between the tendrils of his bulge and rubbing up and down along the inner sides, knowing how wonderful it feels when you touch yourself that way, bringing the memory of it into focus so he can have it if he needs to...
He leans into the touch, into the memory, eyes brimming with light and wider than you would have thought possible like he's trying to stare straight into your thinkpan and he's responding, too, to your thoughts, desires too loud to wall away from him, "I know, I know - mmmm - pity you, I -"
But you don't know just how completely you're reaching him until a wispy thread of his power drifts up toward you, reaching warm and prickly-light for your chest and stomach and lower, following the motions of your own hands in the memory you're feeding him as his bulges curl responsive around your fingers - strands of force pulsing around and into and through your still-slippery tendrils.
It's all you can do not to scream out loud: the sensation is so intense, and more than that stunningly intimate - he's touching you in a way you never expected to be touched by anyone else, finding and lighting up nerve endings inside your bulge that only you knew about, making you thicken up again faster than you ever have before. It almost hurts to have your bulge up and moving already but in the mess of sensory impressions you're still siphoning from him, the wrecked exhaustion seeping through from not-here that you started this to try to assuage, you can barely tell what hurts and what doesn’t, barely know the difference or care. You try to keep working at him but your hand clenches and stops as you squirm and cry out from the overstimulation - you're used to doing both these things at once but not while you're still shaking from an orgasm, every inch of your skin tingly-sensitive -
"I'm sorry," he chokes out as you twitch and your hand stills - "am I -" His psionics thin and pull back, buzzing faintly against your skin.
"No, it's - it's good, it's - oh, I -" You give a shaky exhale as the intensity goes down a notch and you're caught between relief and missing it terribly and you kiss his throat, harder than you meant to, while you rock and press up into him, letting your hand slide loose from him somewhat and letting friction work on both of you for a moment, and manage a half-coherent stream of words into his ear: "-you're incredible, you're - oh - it's, it's so much but don't stop - I mean unless you need -"
"I need -" and you catch the echoes from his mind of anythingidon'tknowmore but he doesn't say it and you've finally, finally rendered him wordless, bottom lip split open on his own fang and eyes slitted as he struggles to keep looking at you. He's so tense, every line of him, so close, and the need to unknot him and rewrite with your touch the last corner of his mind where he's still locked tight and bracing for pain and see him undone for you is as immediate and as physical as the shifting electric pulse when - oh - he wraps your entwined bulges in escalating washes of power and pressure, wraps your whole bodies in vibrant seething incandescent touch and you aren't sure how much of this he's doing on purpose and how much is an overwhelmed psionic outflowing.
Your bulge is still sore and heavy with arousal and jittering with the pulses of light that flow over and through, and suddenly now questing between his legs, the upper member coiling around his where your hand still cradles his grasping tendrils, the lower one seeking deeper, and you hadn't planned to go quite this far tonight you wanted to be so careful and slow but when he says the word need it reaches a part of you that doesn't do plans. You hold yourself back with that hand, bracing on his shoulder with the other, but still your bulge pushes forward so insistent and instinctive that by the time you say his name questioningly, "Astris - I - is this -" the tip is slipping inside him and only the grip of your hand holds it back from sliding deeper.
A hot shock of want rises like an updraft from his mind and slams almost-physical into you, and your whole arms ache and your claws slice into him but you can't do this until he says it.
He's gasping and swallowing and straining every remaining raveled scrap of will to answer, beyond reaching even the most basic affirmation so he moans the one word he can still grasp, closes his arms and pulls you in and "Sollux" - and your lower bulge tries again to surge forward, still vibrating and hot-bright with currents of energy, and you wrap your arms around him completely and let go, let it strain and burrow deeper into his slick warmth - when you shut your eyes it doesn't close your sight, leaving everything outlined in fizzing red and blue, and you're barely aware of the keening noises you're making high up in your throat over the roar of sensation -
==> Astris: feel everything.
You must be making this up. Some almost-lost memory so buried in time that it barely makes it through tired, frayed neurons into consciousness whispers useless and ignored that it couldn't possibly have felt like this, like all your reeling unmoored awareness gathers in the lips of your nook the moment he touches you and there has never been a touch in your life so tender and so simple, the sweet coiling hesitancy as the tip of his bulge strokes against you a call and a catalyst and all the diffuse incomprehensible longing in your body condenses down into a glittering sharp near-painful thing dead center between your hipbones and you strangle and writhe and need and speak -
His bulge curls and presses and pushes in and lights you up so gradually that you feel warped and inside-out and you do, it's like you imagined, like you half-feared: You feel everywhere. His hips fall flush against yours and his bulge moves and reaches and quirks up, toward your stomach, and there, there, it's like -
It's like being stroked at the palate of your mouth and the soles of your feet and the very center of your brain. It's like he's kindling a small sun inside you, right there, slowly, the pull and the condensing-in and the hot dense ignition and the light, coral-colored and shimmery-pleasurable and saturating the whole continuity of your skin and sinking, suffusing, impossibly deeper with each shift, each long laving shudder of his bulge as he does this to you. (And oh, you know this isn't - there are no nerves - your body doesn't care, pleasure condenses viscous in the marrow of your newly-knit bones, builds and dissolves into shoulders and wrists and muscles that you can no longer name because it's been centuries -) Floods up and over until you're flickering and moaning and bleeding light from every plane of you and it's almost not physical but it is, grounding and gorgeous as the other fork of his bulge uncurls downward until the very tip of it slips, circles, stretches further at the entrance of your nook and it veers toward painful as the tendril wraps deep into you but somehow misses entirely and there's friction, now, there's detail in the pleasure, hallucinatory-intricate, the fullness and the lovely-unbearable twining and so many places inside you that sing when he ripples against them.
And oh, it's real, it's Sollux crying out again and again as you take him in, arms trapped hard and thin between the cushions and your shoulderblades, chest sweat-slick and slipping as he clenches and shakes against you, ribs digging in with fast uneven breaths -
But it's also this, like bathing in light as he fluoresces against you, skin skittering and sparking and throwing off wavering tongues of bicolored flame - pleasure that swirls through the harsh battering pound of your bloodpusher and sets your every capillary alight, thrumming and careening and taking you over until it's too much for your makeshift dreamspun body and for a blinding moment you are flowing consciousness, you are the curvature of this space that you and he created, you are hot glowing air surrounding skin and you begin everywhere his body ends and you are the whorls of his ears and the dips between his fingers, and as your body clenches hard around his tendrils, as you babble and keen for him and he strains and thrashes and sobs for you, you pour yourself into his mind and hold him there (I would teach you vastness I would hold you through the birth of everything I would feed you stars one by one) - touch the bruised trembling reservoir where he bears a thick skein of your pain - before you fall into the onrushing edge of his desire and let yourself be consumed, pity like a bonfire, the crushing jumble of sensation from his body, the desperate, boundless wonder...
- You slam back into your body and you're not sure if you heard your name on his lips or in his mind and you convulse, so intense that it's like being hurt, it grips your nook and lashes up your spine and sears through your limbs into your wires, oh god, like being rewritten, there in the wreck of your bones and here where you are buried in his arms and there in every mutilated edge where skin meets graft, and here, here, where you crash and tremble and pour out warm thick fluid in pulse after pulse around his deep-coiled bulges and onto your own stomach and your mind sheets over in perfect glaring white.
Chapter 15: I will let you breathe through me
Afterglow and coda; old words and new meanings.
When you come down, he is heavy and loose-limbed sprawled over you, his head tucked into the curve under your chin, purring weak and exhausted into your shoulder. A debauched mess, sides smeared over with genetic material and hair mussed into impossible angles, sticking to your skin and getting in your mouth, welts darkening on his sides where you must have scratched him when you came and it’s so easy to find him beautiful like this, to reach -
(the very first stabbing of the needle up past the first bone of your neck, pressure and snicking and the shock -)
You blank and freeze and recognize and as soon as it pierces you it’s gone, just the warm weight of Sollux as he stirs and stills and recloses his eyes, and you aren’t in much better shape than he is, yellow dripping onto fabric from the hollows between your ribs -
(the tap and the whirr and the scraping out of bone where ribs met spine and something cold and hollow and only then the pain -)
It rolls in, this time, covers you over and then drains away, pain familiar as breathing, and you wrap your arms around your descendant as he washes in and out of his spent haze, reach still-shaky energy for his scalp and whisper, trying not to startle him back into awareness, “Give it back now, it’s all right -”
(the third bore and the fourth and the anchoring into cheekbones as they fit the goggles and the tendrils and the years - the years - the slow etching away at hands and wrists - the freeze of the void and the crunch of metal and the claws and the burrowing and the regrowth -)
And it fits like a worn-in prosthetic, designed agony, a map of pain grooved into you through centuries of ceaseless looping travel - until he awakes.
A half-aware mumble into your neck, your name, a murmur of vague satisfaction and then he moves, hair tickling your face, opening his eyes, blinking -
You school yourself calm for him and for a weird disconnected moment it’s as if none of this ever happened, you smiling up at him but roiling underneath, face and mind enclosed and so, so careful - until he shifts a little, tests muscles, arches his back under your hands in a tired half-stretch -
And it comes back to you, quiet and internal, the uncoiling as the memory of his spine stretched to fit into your body, solid and responsive under his fingers - you can almost feel the shift in your own body as he moves - and you aren’t sure, so used to spreading your senses so far outside yourself that you don’t even know which sense it is that’s feeling this, but it’s there, like the fuzz of double vision after long concentration: the place where the memory-branded path of pain, the track of hollow needles down your centerline, and the course of your living spine begin to grow apart. Two layers of perception converging at the same point - and it pinches, it prickles, there’s a disorienting tingle in that space where it’s - not old pain, suddenly, but this strange fresh thing, good and bad at once and you make a soft noise in your throat.
That it was a noise of distress you see only in how Sollux is suddenly looking at you, staring up alert and alarmed as his lips make a small o of concern around his fangs.
...and from that to a downright aghast expression as he realizes: “I tried to carry you - and I let you fall -”
It’s so tempting, sometimes, to hear nothing more than yourself echoed in him - the selective way you would have seen this, long ago, before - but you would never have - “Sit up, come on -” You can’t quite help wincing as you do it, unprepared for the pinch and ache and the protests from nerves that have been dead for you as long as you can remember, and he looks like he’s going to start apologizing again at any moment until you lean in close, chest to chest again, and guide his arms around you, hands over the dips and ridges of your unmarred spine - “You gave this to me,” you remind him, letting him take his time, his exploratory touch easing the strangeness just a little. “It’s yours.... you’re holding me up, you brilliant idiot.”
He folds around you then, tight enough that the little noise of wonder he makes is muffled against your shoulder and you feel, rather than see, the way his whole face draws up in a smile. He can’t or won’t take his hands off you, but he pulls back enough to say “- shit, I guess I did,” and chuckle, surprised, the way he does when he’s indulging a momentary sense of accomplishment.
That pride warms you in ways that you’re still too fuzzy with exhaustion to analyze, but the twinge that shoots up your not-quite-spine at the slight change of angle when he moves reminds you that he did carry you, in the way he meant, and that for some now utterly incomprehensible reason you didn’t stop him. Trolls just aren’t built for what you bear, and even though he’s smiling into your shoulder he must just be -
“Are you...” But him being all right isn’t really a possibility, not after - you change your question, rub at the spot on his scalp closest to where he kept your pain, almost expecting to feel a bruise or a crack or some... some dream-created mark, like your spine, to show what he endured for you. “How are you feeling? I don’t know how you... did that.” (It’s a wrigglerish habit, not naming facts that you would rather not look square in the face, but you’ve been exhausted beyond the point of fighting yourself since you got here, that’s the problem.)
There's the quiet edge of a purr from him that you feel, more than hear. "I don't break easily," Sollux says, his voice rough and stubborn and prideful. "You of all people should know that."
"You could have," you argue, almost just for the sake of arguing, strange and edgy and twitchy-fingered like your claws are trying to sink into something, because - "You of all people should know all the ways that could have broken you. How many times do I need to ask, Sollux? And then the first moment when I'm weak -" - because you're still a liminal buzzing mess of pain and not-pain and on some level at the bottom of all this, no matter how clear he makes it, you still can't understand why he wanted to - because the start of a bleed could be inside his brain right now and he wouldn't even know - because you leaned in and you freely offered him your hands and in that moment you were grateful and you let this happen - because you're both still naked and he's all nestled into you and his closeness is almost getting to you again and you don't know if you want it to -
Sollux swallows and looks at you, just looks at you, and his eyes flash in a way that no one but you would even notice, not psionic brightness but a different kind of fire entirely. "You," he says, in a weird tone, sideways and haunted and almost reverent. "You - every night of your life you. just. endure. All of that. And you forget we're made from the same things. You sit there strained nearly to capacity and shove it down like it's nothing and you fear for me because I'm so young and pure." Sarcasm, there, and then this sheer fierce vehemence - "You forget that I'm also resilient. Maybe impossibly resilient, if we're as much alike as we think. You forget that my resilience is nearly untapped. That I have a hell of a lot left in me."
"You think it hasn't broken me already?" And you regret it even as you say it - hurting him to defend yourself - but it isn't just that he held your pain. It's what you've let him see, over perigees of this, but the way you lost yourself to memories today, over and over, may have been the last blow to the illusion that you have any self-discipline left at all and god damn it sometimes you need that illusion, sometimes it's the only thing that distinguishes you from the circuit boards that run the fucking air conditioner. You aren't as strong as he thinks you are. (If you were what he thinks you are you would have forced a way out by now, if you were strong enough you would be dead -) "You've seen the inside of my head. Don't kid yourself, there's no pride in being resilient like this." You want to say listen to yourself, you’re more than that, you’ll get hurt because you’re more than that, I pity you because you’re more than that - but you’re too close, still, to the edge of this void that’s opening inside your thinkpan, shame and bone-deep aching and animal exhaustion, to form the words -
"Did I sound proud?" he asks, quietly. He didn't quite; he sounded bitter and determined and even resigned; he learned that from you, too - "How long do you think I've been preparing to do that for you - to -" Sollux changes tracks mid-sentence; you know the exact frustrated cast of his mouth when he doesn't know how to articulate something; you think it mirrors your own-- "Do you think I haven't watched what you've been doing this whole time to keep a lid on that shit, do you think I haven't learned?" Now there's a kind of bitter, sharp intellectual satisfaction in what he's saying. "I'm proud, all right, I'm proud that I did what I've wanted to do for perigees, that I've given you a moment free of it -" and his voice quavers and breaks and you can almost hear the rest, I wanted to do this no matter how hard I had to fight you for it -
You can't help it, you're curling your hands into his hair and your heartrate is climbing back up off resting and as much as you want to soothe your tongue over this glorious sharp edge of him until it can't turn inward and hurt him anymore, you want him to dig his sharpness into you and carve your pain out. Because no matter how much bravado he shows about how far he's willing to push you - even if he does want this in some way that's too inextricably him for you to reach - even if you're wrong, and this won't hurt him in the fundamental ways you expect it to - you could still tell him, right now, ’Never do that again.’ You could tell him, ’I don't want that from you.’ And it would be a rank lie, but he wouldn't touch your suffering again... and everything would end, all of this, right here. Because not being alone is by definition a mutual thing, because pity requires this of you, that you expose your frailty and viciousness and misshapen incompleteness and offer them to someone who will wrap your wounds and bare his own for you in the same breath.
If you want the right to protect him (if you want the right to hold him again, if you want his claws on your collarbone and his power sparking against you and the sounds - stop -) - then he is right, you have no choice. Your pain is as much his as the rest of you; as this fierce bitter triumph of his is yours.
And you're so afraid for him that you could sob. "I'm sorry," you tell him, painfully, and you can't count how many times you've said it to him, these past perigees - can't enumerate how differently you mean it now. "That I have... thought too little of you. I'm so sorry, you are - " You want to kiss him, you want to babble something about a moon in the fog, water on a barefoot journey, a universe unto yourself, you want to shed this pain without loading it on his shoulders, you're far too close to his burning eyes and you're crying.
Through the film of tears you can see the way his anger dissolves. His slender fingers reach up and cup the side of your face like he's going to kiss you, but for a long moment he doesn't, he just looks at you, takes in the sight of you, steadily, holds there - so exposed it's like the singe of sunlight, judged and somehow not found wanting.
If you ever imagined this (words and sounds jumbled and encrypted and slipped between calculations like junk data; red and blue and gray flecks of his face seeded into the files containing your own self-image - so carefully, and always unsure why -) then it would never have looked like this, not at all, but nothing about that matters, and you turn your head into his hand and close your eyes against his palm and think Home, and you sob until the tears run hot between his fingers.
And Sollux just holds you there, leans in and enfolds you with his hand, stroking the other along your neck - "Always," he says, "yours, always," responding out loud to what you didn't say - and there's mercy in not naming it beyond that, and there's wonder in his voice and certainty but there's also fear stretched tight and you find that oddly comforting because he's right to fear this, and you had failed to give him credit for it -
There's something frightening and wonderful in letting tears fall without trying to stop yourself, just press your lips to his palm, taste the charge where his power would come through, immerse yourself in the lingering draw where he pulled you in perigees ago. "I won't let go, Astris," he says, “I won’t let go,” and he doesn't mean only right here and right now - and last cycle or even minutes ago those words would have bristled with defensiveness but now he says them like the way you're weeping into his hand gives him permission, somehow, to be calm and soothing and surer than you've ever seen him.
And for just a while longer you can ignore the undocking calculations, the warning countdown of the sleep-wake cycle, just for a while longer you can be here and there's one thing you need to show him. You let go of his hand and kiss him fierce and determined and careless with your fangs and you need him to know that, now that you have given yourself to this, he is not the only one who is willing to fight for it.
It takes a long time to convince yourself that you can separate your mouth from his enough to say the words that have condensed inside your thinkpan and are settling weighty at its edges. He must have heard them by now, mind to mind, is already rolling over their strangeness, an expression that was already almost Old Alternian by your time, but that - that - you have to say it - And frightened and grateful and wreathed in pity, eyes and fingertips and the whole of your psionic attention on his lit-up expectant face, you say, “I love you,” in the lilting-accented old form, in the words you would have used if this had happened a millennium ago, when you were free.
You wake well before sunset, sprawled cramped on the couch in a mess of your own genetic material, itchy from the lack of sopor, tiny stray scraps of fabric from annihilated clothing on the floor and your ancestor’s words ringing in your head, words that nobody uses anymore.
There are other phrases that say the same thing, more specific and more commonplace, but - you've heard the form before, skimming through old literatures in your schoolfeeding, and the words seemed archaic and stilted then - but when Astris said them they were natural, and you find yourself looking the words up in a dictionary, because there are nuances and exactitudes and you like to know what things mean, down to the very bottom, where they came from and what they are. And repeating in idle moments all night, between jags of coding, I love you, subvocal, shaping the sounds with your lips until they seem like real words, ones you could use -
A troll could say this thing to a moirail or a matesprit or a kismesis, and it would mean, the bond between us runs deeper than any passing kind of pity or hate. The words name someone a quadrantmate without specifying the quadrant; they say we are linked inextricably and you're not sure whether the reason they've gone out of fashion is because of a push towards clarity in the Alternian language or because I value you as a part of myself could be a compliment or an insult or because of the sheer terrifying certainty implied in the expression.
You wonder, not for the first time, what it felt like for Terezi when she burned out her eyes staring into the sun. She’s always so calm when she speaks of it - of her lusus reaching out to her, guiding her out of her hive in the middle of the day, the uncanny visions she saw in the clouds, here and not-here at once.
And you wonder if it felt anything like this. You pity your ancestor and you love him and you’re spitted on an axis reaching through time and space, one end pointing to the Battleship Condescension and the other anchored to the end of the world. Two endless strings of code that make up the boundaries of your existence, leaving you at once eerily serene and frightened out of your wits.
Chapter 16: my body is a cage (that keeps me from dancing with the one I love)
An argument revisited; a tryst attempted and finally achieved; a secret unveiled; a reckoning pushed aside - for now.
The incomprehensibly-outsized centuries collide with the gold-flushed pared-down need of now, merging into that odd concept he means when he says that he has waited for you, even though the word doesn't quite fit –
- and still, through the immensity he is this awkward shaking thing in your arms that looks so much like you, forming a sorry through his panting and carefully drawing his fangs away.
The most terrifying thing, you think sometimes, is how well all of this is working. Is. Has been.
Anyone you told about all of this would believe your thinkpan had finally cracked straight down the middle, and that's okay too, though you try not to think about it too much.
Thinking about it makes you start worrying about the things that could go wrong. You know it's no good, how much sleep you've been missing - that you're a little bit manic right now, your thinkpan running a little too fast, it's just hard to make yourself mind that - you've been trying to fine-tune it so that you're only asleep when Astris can be there, trying to maximize your time with him, trying to avoid - moments alone when your control sometimes slips, landing you in visions of impending destruction or simple stress dreams.
And you'd rather see the world ending in front of you, rather stare into the certainty of your own death, than wander through banal situations where he turns away from you or says I never really felt that way and laughs, bitter and flat.
It's a macabre and terrible thought, to realize that, but for once you're not disgusted with yourself for it. Because right now, dreaming of the end of the world is informationally useful. It's part of your function, your purpose. And you know the difference between a true-dream and a lie your thinkpan tells you, especially where the Psiioniic is concerned, and so when you pull out of some stupid vignette of abandonment, you wake knowing it's just your own brain running you in circles. Too fucked-up to trust, to just enjoy a good thing while you have it.
Except that most of the time you do. Each moment of shy laughter and dream-spun touch is impossibly perfect - deep and tender and exploratory and sarcastic, a perfect island of stillness in a sea of horrors, an island you build for each other -
So when he refuses your help, one day, your bloodpusher catches in your throat.
"Wait – Just this once – Wait –" he's saying as your hands tangle up with his between your bodies, the reassuring touch you've learned for this, asking to share his burden for a while, quiet and firm and safe. He curls a palm around your chin, eye-glow as steady as he's ever managed, and you can tell he's trying to project solidity and detail, there's effort in every line of his dream-body and he repeats, "Just for once, my stubborn love, will you leave my pain with me? Be free of it, this time, do it for me –" The scant smirk's-edge of a challenge over yearning never dulled–
You don't tell him that doing this for him is as important to you as pailing or more, because he already knows it, already knew you would argue; his protests are too maddeningly rehearsed for it to be otherwise, and you're thrown off your balance, scared of losing him now. Something in your head insists this means he's pulling away. "You know I can handle it, you know you can trust me, why can't you just let me take care of you - give you what you need -"
"I need this," a sudden vulnerable half-whined rush, and you can almost see plans shattering in his head as he veers off script. "Do I have to tell you why? You know me –" You'll think of my reasons before I can speak, his mind whispers to yours – "I do trust you, I trust you to know what to do if – if this goes wrong –" And even if I let you take my pain everything could still go wrong – And you know he heard your fear, or felt it echoed in himself, because he speaks softer, slower, rubbing your fingers between his, "I need this because I pity you desperately, you have to know that." And I know you hurt, and I'm sorry, and I want –
You know you're going to give in as soon as you hear the way he sounds, you know it and you're angry at yourself for it and it makes you press further. "We know how to make this work, I'm okay and I've been okay and -" and you're not and you can't be, and you close down on the thought because it's true and too harsh and you don't even want him to hear it unspoken, and it reminds you, anyway, of the rest of the world closing in on you and you shut your eyes and sigh. "Fine. Fine, I can't tell you no, I just - I know what you go through, I know how to take you away from it, you call me stubborn -”
Underneath, you’re frightened, too, of what will happen if this works; scared that if he refuses you once he’ll decide to seal his suffering away from you and be alone with it again, forever, smiling on the outside even as -
But you can’t see the look in his eyes and tell him not to try.
==> Astris: try.
Today Sollux is all achingly slow-opening kisses, press of hands to your sides careful to incremental to expectation-strung excruciating in their gradual working toward your back, and yes, you still feel the ghostly sting of wires and slip of current there when you think too much of it or too little – phantom chill and unreal little reminders of faraway sensation, almost the words cold and pain traversing up your spine rather than their referents – yes, there's a shadowing in this, a double-vision of the body but that's why you keep feeding him images of his hands there, projecting the wanting hard into his mind where he worries through his purr – image his hands on your back all thin and soft and nervous-circling, spindly-warm, his hands to banish and replace and center, solidify you here, remind you.
You think of that, bring the picture clear until you're humming with want, his hands, they're on your ribcage now and this gentleness tears you right down the center, you're growing into it like a vine, to crave it when you crave him, the patience, the insistent guiding, his voice around your name melodic-calming with the edges on the sibilants all smoothed away –
- It tears because you want it and you want to break from it; because he has a disbelieving look that hollows out your heart and an adoring one that does the same and this is a relatively good day for your pain as they go and the possibility that you could just – could, can, just do this without first handing over a portion of your pain for him to lock into his own body; can teach yourself and be taught touches and fine control of fingers and tongue and his high lovely gasps and even if your thoughts are strung more simple than they would be with the mediation of that terrible gift – you pull your mouth from his like this with a tiny wet sound and tongue at the base of a small horn instead, hair getting in your mouth warm and weird and clean-tasting but the membrane smoother than skin and softer than horn when you find it, prickling with the stored-up light underneath, and see if you can coax little sounds from him; your fingers in the delicate fuzz of hair that meets his neck, stuck in the novelty of softness -
That you could just learn to be perfectly present as he arches against you, sharp and soft at once - you know all the forms of geometric perfection and you want a word that means the lines of his bones and only that in some definitive ideal and you have his name but that means all of him and you say it anyway, your teeth press into the membrane as your lips move around the sound and you feel under your fingers the vibration in his throat as he keens high and startled, startling, turns it into "-Yes -" before you can pull away, fingers skating along your sides with a bright-hot tingle of static, curling tight around your hips, reaching to pull you nearer, to straddle over him where he reclines into the cushions flush-faced and panting.
You draw a hand all the way down his torso, giddy with the luxury of just seeing what will happen, claws gliding without digging in, just to watch him react, but you wind up covering any noises he makes with your own, "Oh," and "oh" again, he shivers and stares and he wants you, still so far beyond expectation and comprehension that you have to take it on the word of your senses.
And it's in his pulse where you tasted it flickering under the membrane and it's in his sweat and in his voice through the sharp suddenness and in his mind, there, trampling at the worry and that, that's what you're looking for, you hover above him and your body is responding faster each time and the first swell and twist of your bulge are a known rhythm but not a familiar one and you're a little dizzy with it – bloodflow and lightness and your eyes focusing so hard on him that everything else ripples and tips a little sideways and the edges blur – and your nook feels warm and strained inside and you brush against his thigh reaching across him to kiss at his shoulder. Hiss breath and almost bite your tongue and grind down without meaning to, fumbling with one hand on the cushions as the other slips on his chest – pleasurable pressure diffuse and shivery and up your neck and ringing your fingers and – a startled filling of lungs and you're two, and you're wreathed around where your breath is and – contradictions – far away but still in easy reach is pain that you know, and here is weird bright new but good but only half-retaught.
He's asking are you okay, and you answer with a little tight nod, you just have to concentrate – draw yourself down from above your own head like a flying toy, grit your teeth and stay here but the harder you focus on the way his lips press to your neck, fangs grazing lightly and the vibration of his voice – the more your attention goes to nerve-endings and sensation, the more your focus misfires, and in your thirst for all that you can know of touch you draw in phantoms from there unmeaning (incisions and their slow knitting and corrosion and regrowth –)
And his tongue goes twin-pointed flicking to soothe away the scratch of his fangs and it's soft and teasing and has nothing to do with the sharp tendon-clenching twinges that shoot up from knuckles to wrists and that perpetual weight crushing down on your feet – the way his thighs squirm and settle under you, that must be more real than the ancient ache and chill, it has to - you choose this to be real and solid, fill your eyes with him and your lungs with the warm charge-laced atmosphere between you and try mirroring him, finally pressing in close and filling your mouth with the skin of his neck, the taste of ions and sharp salt and the movement of his swallow and he pulls at you, closes arms around your back clutching instinctive-sudden and groans -
You focus on the sound, the way his voice goes low and rough in his throat when his sheath loosens suddenly, you’re learning it and your body here is learning to respond, coming together piece by piece, particle by particle. His voice catches at you like it’s in your own throat and you align to him simple as opening your eyes, always braced but never ready for that first slip and radiant shock of the thin wet tips of your bulge meeting his - hot-bright and grasping and tightening, his bulge and all of him, mouth soft against your collarbone and hips rocking to press toward you, making a tight place between his belly and yours around twined tendrils -
You still aren't sure if you, how anyone has ever handled how wonderful this feels, the way it rushes up through you more sudden than moonrise and closer and this whole patchwork-reconstituted precarious body strains and shouts to affirm it, you're choked silent and tearstruck and quivering with it, that your nascent body being handed something so dearly desired still hardly comprehends the gift. Stimulation sparks in empty spaces, between your horns, out past your fingertips, slick pressure and twining in scattered nonsense chorus – (the note on which it all rests that says it's him, it's him, that feels for doubling and finds it –)
Hollow rush of bored-in crumbled-open agony up through finger-joints and in, until –
Overwhelmed and vertiginous with desire and only just beginning, and the wet sucking-slipping sound when you try to press closer –
Like cold steel claws resettling into brow and temple –
You've come unmoored before – you don't know what to do with it all, the pleasure, it's gone diffuse, run through and wrapped around and out of you – you've been thrown out of yourself with the suddenness of contact -
- but your pain has never waited at the edges gape-jawed to be thrown into, always been curled up safe inside his head and you hurt and you can't – your body here is cracking through with pain and instinct says run and you do – Stretch out into this space all made of your power and in your reach - You spin for a moment in strangeness, vertiginous but free of shins and forehead and drilling pain -
And you look down.
And you look down. Down on your own back arced and shining with sweat and blue flame – and Sollux's face downturned and sweetly sharpened with focus on your body, but you aren't there – you open your mouth but your mouth doesn't open, and your Don't, I'm not never forms – you're disembodied, voiceless, a hovering mote broken free of pain but walled away from contact, and he strokes fingers down your back all dappling and pleasure-shaky and you need it and you can't feel it and you can't stop it – you're directionless and amorphous and unsure even how you would orient your mind to speak into his but still you think it clear as you can through phantom rushing noise and gripping at nothing, Wait – please – Sollux –
He freezes, face drawn with concentration, his palms splayed half-touching, hovering in air - “Astris - Astris?” - his voice distorted, echoing-distant, as he strains to pull back.
You know by now the look of him when he just suspends everything, and it shatters you; spins another soft silken layer of trust around your heart each time you need him to pull back and he does, but it crushes you with anger that you should need him to at all. A hot constant lash of internal resentment and you feed on its goading to force yourself back into your body, brace yourself for unbound riotous pain and now, in the undistracted stillness between you, you can pick each individual screaming pinpoint of it up piece by piece, re-catalog it all in its bitter variety and wrap it all back to a size you've learned to manage, pinioned in your mind, single-tracked and oblivious to anything that once was pleasure. Can open your eyes, once you've swallowed back enough of it, and rest your forehead on his shoulder, tense but grounding and secure and here as you get your breath back, although you cringe to allow yourself even that – let out a long, pain-hitched breath and mutter, "Ugh, I outdo myself. Every time I think I've found the most improbable way to fuck this up..."
He rearranges his legs, relaxing out of a position you realize he was holding carefully to the point of cramping. "I don't know, seemed pretty probable to me," he says and then breathes in sharp and sudden the way he does sometimes after saying something impulsive - like he's trying to test whether he regrets it, whether he's going to stand behind it now that it's spoken - his brows tighten together sad and frustrated and even as his voice sounds irritable there’s something oddly stung underneath it. “I told you I had this. Couldn’t you just -” It’s the argument from earlier, trust me, let me, stick with what works -
You straighten up and look at Sollux as he speaks; need to look at him, to see how badly you've frightened him this time – and when you see irritation instead it's almost a relief. It's good, in an odd painful way like scratching an itch on thin skin, to hear him finally call you out on your breakdowns and lapses – you adore his patience but you need his honesty. But you also need –
"No," you say, holding a palm to his cheek so he knows you're not angry, just – "No, I couldn't have gone without trying it. Guilt would have eaten me alive, I trust you but – I had to try. To stand on my own two feet in front of you, you are worth the struggle, you make me want to be –" Something more than what I am, and I am, I'm becoming more, rebuilding over old lost self, I'm doing it for and through you – "To be an equal participant in this, not to lean on you so heavily, don't you ever –" And thinking of the flickers of self-doubt he's sometimes let you see beneath his bravado you lose your way in pity, lose your vehemence and with a little aimless movement of your hand against his face say softly, "I failed, I know, and I'm sorry, you deserve so much better, so much more, but – don't you understand why I wanted it so badly?"
You can feel, under your hand, the way his cheek draws in when his face falls, before his lip drops, before he stares at you openmouthed and apologetic.
"No, I'm sorry, fuck, I should've -" he says. Then his eyes narrow again, his face a mash of conflicting expressions, puzzlement and frustration finally coming out on top. "I'm flushed for you, I pity you, don't forget it is equal - the number of times you've picked me up off the ground, literally or figuratively, is fucking astounding; me and the ground are the best of enemies - but I can't stand to refuse you what you want, even if I should be taking care of you and you should be letting me. No - I mean even if my instincts tell me I should be, because I wouldn't -" He swallows, drops his eyes, "Wouldn't deny -" his throat closes around words and finally gives them up quiet and strained - "Any choice I can give you."
"You're taking such good care of me," you say hoarse and tight and now you're just as unable to look at him, dragged down with the awful encrusted weight of the old desire he's raised to the surface; that you know he sees in ugly mocking overlay every time he looks at you, the finality of what he would let you do if you finally got the chance – "However intolerable everything gets, however much I would give for every last thing about this be different – I still soak in every moment of what you do for me, I'm not going to pretend I don't, I'm so grateful and I'm so in pity with you – I just wanted to show you –" Your eyes have gone traitor and turned to his face again, your thumb to the edge of his eye to catch a half-formed tear, and pitying him is an endless stream of too much, so much more than anything your memory can reach for you, all time-dim and unused – "I just wanted to make you feel good without that talisman in your head of – of what the world really is to us – just once, and I've done the opposite, god, I'm so sorry –"
Sollux is pulling you close, wrapping arms tight around your head, bringing your face down to press cheek to cheek - "Oh, love, never feel like I'm - it's easier for me, I keep telling you, it's not the same, I can feel that in your head, even though - I don't know why exactly, I have my theories, maybe it's because your pain doesn't belong to my own body and I'm just intercepting, but - look, don't worry about that now, just let us have what we can..."
"I – yes, and what we have now is wonderful, too wonderful, you're –" You nuzzle down into his neck at the jawline, mumbling into his skin, breathing him in all warm rarefied energy and reassurance, and he understands, that's what matters; knows what you would give him if you had it to give, and you need this, need him infinitely more than you need the flimsy illusion of managing on your own.
So it starts as it always does; you begin to open your mind to him, ready yourself to divide off a molten handful of pain and entrust it to him and -
it's not as if it will matter for long if -
His thought strays murky through layers of confused images, lines of code and the synaesthetic smoke-trace of prophecy, faint and pushed back as soon as it surfaces - soaked in a conflicted mess of grasped-at contradictory meaning and fleeting, as if seen out of a corner of your inward-turned mind, and you don't pull away, but you do freeze, shallowly chilled with the flash of transferred solemnity like a cold brand.
"Something is wrong," you say carefully, and you want to look at him but don't want to stop holding him – "Something is wrong, and you're trying not to show me." You're halfway guessing, mostly locked-up unthinking waiting, stroking the back of his head as much for the feel of him there (not numinous or illusory, but here) as to reassure him – halfway afraid of what you'll find if you reach into his mind further, halfway wanting to delve in and draw his secret out, but in the end respect and pity run too deep now to let you pick the locks on what he chooses to hide.
"I'm sorry." A bare guilt-charged whisper - "I didn't want to tell you yet, I just wanted this to be -" And then Sollux starts shaking against you, and at first you think he's crying but then you hear his breathy laughter, sardonic and a little bitter - "Wow. Wow, look at us, it's almost like we're the same person or something. There you are trying to protect me and there I am trying to protect you, all by doing the same dumb shit."
You do pull back then, barely, gradually, to look at his face, the rueful preoccupied cast to it that you can’t believe you failed to catch before, so drawn away with pain and wrapped up in what you were trying to do. "You just said it yourself," you say. Even reaching for known truths is difficult still spot-blinded and knocked off-center by echoes of pain, and you aren't sure if you're choosing the right words to convey them - "The great wrong isn't that we try to shield each other, it's that we live in a world that forces awful secrets on us. It's all right, but I want you to tell me."
"Oh, I will now," he says, shaky, settling leaned into your shoulder so you can see his face a little as he speaks - "You know how - I just get these little scraps of things, not voices but something else on the same frequency, like a memo, sometimes no context given - like about going blind -" You'd known about that premonition before, feared it might mean the worst for him, that all your efforts were in vain, but without any more than just that, there was no way to know, and you listen close, holding your breath - "I know that's tied to the game now. Somehow. It just slid into the back of my head when I wasn't looking. And I'm also supposed to die twice," he says a little too carefully to actually be as casual as the sound of his voice, "whatever the fuck that means."
"Okay," you're saying, soft, almost involuntary, "Okay," a placeholder, a tic, nothing more. You still feel locked out of two-thirds of your own mind, but there can't be any part of you that knows what to do with this – and before you know what you're saying you're talking about yourself, trying to reason it through by anchoring it to your commonalities, even though if this has anything, anything in common with your own long-ago softly-spoken sibilant internal voice you're going to blow this place and both of you to pieces, no, to molecules, you will find a goddamn way –
"When I was told my fate, it was – I didn't understand, I didn't even begin to understand, I heard the voice before two thirds of the technology for my doom even existed. Wires and stars, it said to me. Hah. Slavery in wires and stars. I was already a slave - I knew of others pressed into moving ships through the stars, but nothing like -” - like the creeping-inward of the wires, the deliberate sneering torment, the slaughter, the eternity - “How would I have known?" Your bitter laughter is like your descendant's, open-eyed against the onrushing dark. He still stands on the shore of an impossible divide, a rift in the flow of everything that you have already crossed.
"But remember that I chose my doom, although I didn't know what I was choosing. He came for me, and I felt that there was a choice. And I went with him." You put a hand to his cheek and you don't scream, or sob, or disappear into the oblivion of coordinates and code, although it calls to you. You tell him the truth: "You are an anomaly of fate already just for getting this far, my love, an aberration and a wonder and I pity you impossibly for it –" I will bend the fabric of the universe with the sheer weight of how much I need you, I will have you back if doom takes you, I will – "But we can't know. These premonitions are twofold, just like everything else, there's always a side that we don't see. We can't know."
Sollux nods along as you speak, and if he senses the roiling under the smoothed-over calm he only answers it by how tightly he locks his fingers around yours, how he leans in so you feel his horns pressed to your chest when you speak of the past, by the things he doesn't answer. "So much ties to the game - endings and new beginnings and I can't even unpiece the half of it."
The things he says by not speaking: that blanks in his knowledge scare him, that the machinery of fate will go forward with or without him - things he's already told you, or never needed to.
"I wish,” he says. Then he stops short and shakes his head, tilts up and just kisses you, and in the scratch of his fingers tangling in your hair you know that none of the ends to that sentence would have been a mercy to hear.
Beneath his hands and in the glow behind your closed eyes and held-back and tight with centuries of implosive rage siphoned too close to the surface for safety – made of thwarted protective instinct and fear with no place else to go, cold as seawater seeping into your stomach – you know that this is how it is for him too, know from the urgent slide of his tongue and the burning lines his claws leave on your scalp, but still it startles you almost to sickening, how pity whorls this all together and condenses it down into your body. Until you want him still tangled and confused and barely-awakened but with the force of despair, hard disconnected balled-up ache in the palms of your hands and the soles of your feet that doesn’t answer just to this incipient touch, but equally has nothing to do with the old pain held encircled in your mind.
Take it, you're whispering into his head, guiding him toward that reservoir, letting him as deep into your thinkpan as he needs to go – Get it over with, my pain, it's all right, we both need – You're running your aching palms down his sides, scrabbling for his grubscars, careless, hungry, inflamed at how much of Sollux still goes unmapped in your mind, that you should know the ribs and keel of some meaninglessly distant speeding hulk intimate and inward but not this, imperiled and so lovely.
Shaky in his stillness, hands on the base of your skull, he lifts it away like every time before, the way his breathing slows cautious-precarious, stutters once on the inhale, the only outward sign but that you're - everything is lighter, clearer, the air more breathable, more of you is here. And knowing the hurt has seeped into him even if it somehow doesn't take him away from this the way it does to you - that knowledge just wrenches at you, all the more because you tried to keep him from it this time, feeds into pity until it becomes a dizzy rush through the bright-hot core of you, and you shudder into his hands and he mouths at the side of your neck with soothing soft noises, purring deep in his chest under your fingers -
You whine his name high and shocked and much louder than you meant and whimper it again and this has never been so much of a rush, phantom hands touching distant bowed-in sinew and tugging out scraps of pain from wet aching places that don't have any analog in this body here in his arms. Luxuriant, almost excessive relief like being plunged into warm water after a trek through the hardening crunch of the cold dark season. Your bulge is half out again by the time he's done and you don't even notice it happening until it brushes against the inside of his thigh and you jolt, unprepared for this urgency but not as afraid of it as for a moment you thought you might be (he has you, you're within the perimeter of a body of his creation, he has you.)
And it still echoes inside your mind, let me show you how to feel this – remembering the grounded, solidified twin of your strange remnant desire mirrored in him, affirmation and permission and fill to the dizzy blanks in the map of what you want. Though this is fast and a little blinding and you aren't sure where your mouth is going until it closes onto his ear in a wet clumsy sucking of lips and tongue, though intellect tells you the muscle-memory in your fingertips when they go to trace the edges of his sheath is a borrowed thing unrooted in anything you can call physically yours, still you trust and fall into the impulse to touch him free of the slow call-and-response mimicry of before – to keep trying until you can write over what he is enduring for you, asking into his mind Is this all right, are you – can I – in thoughts all fuzzed-over warm with the movements of your bulge against his skin.
==> Sollux: hold him.
You have him - braced up against you, thighs tangled loose over yours and quivering, and it gets a little easier to do this for him every time, your control a little harder to slip, though you gasp startled when he mouths your ear, and you don't know what he's asking exactly but answer out loud, anyway, "Yes, oh, yes, please," he's so careful, always, in his yearning, you can't imagine anything he'd want from you that you wouldn't beg to give him. Still shaken from his sudden lapse, from your own equally sudden confession, you press closer and pull your thighs wider and hang onto his sides, points of warmth, palms against grubscars, lean your head further into his awkward kisses, horns against the side of his neck, you've never seen him quite so frantic before, never seen him unsheathe so fast and wet and it makes your own bulge swell in answer and the tips rise out seeping moisture from the aperture -
With a short throaty moan at your affirmation Astris meets the leaning in of your body, a little off alignment so that his bulge rubs and ruts at the crease of your thigh and his hand is trapped between the two of you, knuckles digging awkwardly into your stomach, but taking the tips of your tendrils between the pads of his fingers and coaxing at them in gentle circular strokes, concentrating so hard on the movements of his hand that you see them pictured in intricate clarity in his mind where he never closed it off after you sealed away his pain. I need to – he's talking into your mind again, sensing your confusion, a little distressed at your trust, veering between trying to form the thought and trying to articulate it – to learn what you've given me – all of this, to learn you – while I can, while I have you –
And he leans down and gets his mouth on your collarbone, slides his tongue along it, humming with a high anxious purr, nervous energy pushing up through his throat until the vibrations are almost so tight together that you can't feel them in his lips on your skin. Arcs of wasted power spark and glow off his horns as he focuses on the physical, hands and mouth and the arch of his back, all sweat and warmth and sliding together as if he were trying in closeness to argue down the disembodiment that stopped you last time.
You close your arms around his head convulsively, wind your fingers around his horns, enmesh them in the buzz and snap of undirected light - every moment alternates between heady fascination and overpowering need. The touch of his hands brings you out completely, makes you tip your head back against the cushions behind you and you can't manage words for a moment, just a high startled breathy "Hh-hnnnnn!" as your bulge wraps and curls against his hand and itself and still panting and whimpering you try to control the movements, to loose the tight coils a little and let it sway back and forth in his fingers. But even though it's sensitive and slick under his fingers it's nothing next to the way you can feel your own pulse in the walls of your nook, so touch-desperate and slippery-moist and while he still holds his mind open for you, you show him how it feels -
The transferred sensation broadsides him like a physical blow; his fangs scrape at the dip above your collarbone and he crushes closer to you, his bulge tangling in with his fingers and your tendrils, all pressed almost tight enough to hurt between your bodies. For a moment your mind is so full of his reverberating, fragmented emotion that your own thoughts fade to almost invisible. It’s overflow like a landslide, heavy and strange-familiar, how the incomprehensibly-outsized centuries collide with the gold-flushed pared-down need of now, merging into that odd concept he means when he says that he has waited for you, even though the word doesn't quite fit –
- and still, through the immensity he is this awkward shaking thing in your arms that looks so much like you, forming a sorry through his panting and carefully drawing his fangs away, his breath a salve against wet skin. An apology that merges into "–But please – yes –"
The look on his face, the way his lip hangs open breathless wanting that you know mirrors your own face sometimes (have only started to know, from his mind and the resonance of seeing this in each other) - it undoes you, at once you can barely believe it and it tugs at you deep and primal and you dip your head down to kiss him roughly, clicking fangs and not caring, overrun by brightness and complexity and if the need that answers in you is small and simple it's no less white-hot - You draw him down with you, all gangling limbs spilling sideways on the couch, squirm and bring your knees up on either side of him, and only then take your lips off his, murmuring and moaning small ohs and come here and cursing when his bulge hooks and slides hanging onto yours along the way.
Astris slides his arms clinging around your waist as you topple over together, only kept from landing hard on you when he breaks his fall with psionics at the last moment, moaning stifled and continuous into your mouth, his lower bulge slipping between your legs almost before your back reaches the cushions. His eyes are screwed shut but his other sight takes you in, power skittering over your skin in sensory pulse and echo, crackling at the lips of your nook as he guides himself – hesitates, his mind a canvas all poured-over warm reds and pity and trembling, his fingers clenching against your back, even the upper tendril stilling in its writhing between yours.
Slowed by wrenching effort, sinuous, he pushes in with a groan rough and rich with the undulation of purring, all enveloping unraveled pleasure except for the part that is self-control and stubborn exertion as the second tendril rings the bases of yours in trying to go lower and he isn't letting it, and still he sinks into you careful gradual curls and inches, his forehead brand-hot against your neck, his arms locked behind you.
You moan, deep and loud and perfectly undone, the one bulge inside you and the other circling your own and it's not quite too much but exactly, precisely enough. Between the way he ripples velvety-forceful inside of you and the weird all-over pressure and mental exercise of keeping his pain locked down - you imagine with a vicious thrill that if the voices of prophecy tried to visit your thinkpan right now they'd get a busy signal, sorry, Sollux Captor is occupied and you laugh throaty and giddy and amazed. The tip of the tendril reaches further, flicks against inner walls so deep it almost hurts, and every time he touches you wakes up desperate desire to teach him something for everything you've learned and you keep throwing the sensations back to him, waypoints to share between you, twisting your hands into his hair and purring now too, licking his face in light dancing touches.
When his hips finally bump up against yours again and his bulge still strains and shudders inside you and curves back on itself but there's no further in to press, he finally reopens his eyes, still clasping you to him almost tight enough to mark where his hands are, and his groaning trails off to quiet, all of him still but for the exploratory twist and push of his bulge. His face is flushed dusky-yellow all over under your tongue, pitystruck and fascinated smiling, and there's less effort in his voice than you would have thought when he forms your name, like he couldn't conceive of not saying it, as his upper bulge squeezes both of your tendrils together and spirals up them. His power still walks your skin, gathers in the creases of your elbows and licks between your lips and gives soft nuzzling touches to all the places he can't reach, somehow just as intimate as the deepest strokes inside your nook, like the way he drinks in each sense-impression you share – memorizing touches, resculpting you inside his head like this, clenching around his bulge and unraveling and warmth and thighs and mouth –
You hold him tighter still, greedy-incredulous at the languid warm weight of him and the press of skin against skin, and you can't help how loud you're thinking never thought I'd have you like this, have the chance to show you - even as you breathe in shaky-deep and say his name back, call and response - let your own crackling unformed field of energy flow against the wash of his psionics and against the skin of his dream-body and tug and grasp and play -
A pull of recognition from his mind, pity and clawing fear twinned and woven - Yes, yes, you do, you are – even if I blinked now and you were – you could be a millionth of my eternity, I would still – and his bulge ripples all down the length of it, a wave of movement inside you that builds and crests and repeats, all amplified rhythmic pressure radiating from your core - Written into me now – everything you've shown me – always – and his hands slide clutching up your spine as if to drag the sensation up and from your nook and all through you – and you give up on trying to speak words and just gasp and whine, your inner walls seizing hard around him as you arch into the cushions and pull his mouth to yours with a fizz of power, your hands too busy sliding against his hips to bring his head down so you can catch at him with your lips -
A desperate taken-over mewl breaks from his mouth pressed tight against yours, his tongue swiping and tangling and his eyes snapping open in a burst of radiance, too bright, so close the flash of them seems to go off inside your own head – and the coiling of his upper bulge around yours closes from a caress to an unyielding cinch and the warning from his mind isn't even close to sounding like he's going to stop himself, his arms buckle around you and his bulge wrings and writhes inside you, and the near-scream he makes as pleasure wrenches through him is hoarse as a cry of grief before he floods you in spurts and hot trembling pulses.
You're so close, and it's so easy for the lashing of his bulge and the burst of pleasure from his mind to drag you over the edge, but you hang on just a moment longer because you want to feel completely how raw and bright it is for him, the way his presence for a single perfect instant goes livewire-hot and clean of everything else and you're so awed by it and inordinately proud, to give him this, to hold yourself back just barely, quivering and sensitized, and watch and hold and feel as the waves of euphoria crash through him, it's as real as anything you've ever accomplished.
And it's that feeling that you let take you over the brink, finally, the last wobbly shudders so slick inside you and the sound of relief as his cries trail off to breathy moans, and you let the sensations break over you, break you open, the sharp exquisite twisting deep inside you shivering out into every little ripple of your nook and twitch of your bulge, drawing a high incoherent noise from your throat and a pulse of crackling energy out across your skin.
And you drop your head to his chest, sated and panting, still storing his pain in your mind, proud not to lose cognizance - he’s tangled up around you all slackened joints and short, warm little kisses lips to jawline to shoulders and resonant belly-deep purring -
You know he's going to tell you to stop, any moment now, and you're going to let him take that all back in, when he has to live with it constantly. And you breathe, and rest against him, and let thoughts circle in your head, chasing each other around. You always did think too much, and you’re thinking too much now, and the gravity of everything you’re shutting out is sinking into your head in a way you can’t stop looking at.
The realization hits you like a backhand slap, cracks through the pleasant fuzz of post-coital lassitude. Solving problems is what you do. It should make you feel happier than this, shouldn't be like a terrible sucking hole opening up inside of you - and there's not a question of hiding it, it wouldn't be fair even if you could keep from broadcasting the sudden hell of your feelings on your face, wide-eyed and shocked and "Oh -"
“Hmm?” His purring rises into a question but doesn’t pause, and his look of rising out of contentment into eyebrows-raised adoring concern just makes this worse, his mind is transparent, he thinks you might be in pain, or thinking about doom again - hasn’t guessed - and your hands are shaking, somewhere between the frenzied mental rush of ideas clicking into place in your head and the distress those ideas are causing you.
You're talking in fragments, too excited to speak coherently, broadcasting thoughts loudly in echo a half-moment before you say them, voice breaking, terrified of the words coming out of your mouth but too deeply in pity to shut this thought down and shove it away - "I could - god, I don't know why I didn't think of it sooner, I could reach across and - and end -" and end it for you -
His mind is crying out before he finds his voice, struggles up to precariously half-sitting beside you, power sparking barely-managed as mind and body still wade through echoes of pleasure and pity and he slurs furious as he speaks – "You – oh no. No. You try that and I'll stop you myself, no matter what I have to do to you, to both of us for it, you're pail-addled, pity-blind, think. My prideful, naïve, beautiful – you still overjudge your power by orders of magnitude if you really think you could subvert the protections on me long enough to give me that. There is Life around me enough to quash the death you can offer a thousandfold."
(For now, his mind slips in, internal, tiny and muffled under a seethe of noise and emotion –)
"And if you did – if you outfought Life and all my power turned on you against my will and did – What do you think they would do to the troll who culled me? They would find you, Sollux, they would chain you in my place, and if there is one selfishness left that I am still spared from it is this, that I will not –" He can't even speak it a second time, can't look at you and think it, just says, flat with sudden exhaustion, "I don't need you pity-simple and sacrificing yourself for nothing in my name, I need you with me." (–Thinking for me when I lose hold of reason – inventing such strange gorgeous new ways to care for me, one after the other, that I in my limitations cannot fathom – need you, and when your doom takes you I –)
You don’t realize you’re crying with relief until tears slip silently from the edge of your chin - knowing you’ll still have to deal with this eventually but not today, not - not now, just when you’ve found - you're still trembling, heartsick, and you pull him to you tightly, guilty for how glad you are that he's forbidden you.
And going by your intuitions, you'll be dead - twice somehow - before you're powerful enough to challenge that. Though you might never have to anyway. The end of the world -
"Good," you say, forcing a smirk through your tears, "I get to be the selfish one, then. Because left to my own devices I want -" Your arms curl around him closer - "I want this, with you, everything we can have for as long as we can, I'm greedy and I'm sorry for it but it's true, and - I'm having the sudden feeling you'd rather I'd be unapologetic and just - face up to the fact that I'm taking as well as giving -"
"Everything we can have," he echoes, at once relieved and wound-tight longing, hands going to your face and around the back of your neck in that newly-familiar gesture of confirmation of sight, all caught up in tight-throated tear-damp brightness – until with a softening into tiny wry smile and a little shuddery shift of his shoulders he muses, bitterly arch, "We couldn't just have ordinary troll problems like wanting different things from each other – we're Captors, we're exceptional.”
He matches his breathing to yours as it slows from crying, quiet self-conscious concentration until he murmurs again, almost-unspoken softly, everything, and just for a moment longer his bitterness sinks out of sight and you shut your eyes against approaching doom.
Chapter 17: i favored it, though it healed true
A triumph of code; a narrative crossroads; a paradoxical apocalypse.
You throw yourself into Astris’ arms while the dreamspace is still half-raveled, shaking and clinging even though you’re being too abrupt and he is startled, still getting his bearings, phasing in and out of solidity. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” you’re saying, the words coming out your mouth faster than you can actually think them through. “I - I think I chose the wrong way, I didn’t know what he was saying, what he was offering me, and I’m too selfish, I’m always too selfish -”
With the final flicker he gathers you in but it’s automatic, it isn’t really comforting, he doesn’t know. “Sollux, d -” He stops, his face half-buried in your hair. You hold your breath - “Your memory” - but he only pulls you in tighter - “What happened to your memory?”
==> Be Past Sollux.
You’ve just been on an 18-hour coding bender. No, it was going to be 18 hours; you think you’ve gone twenty now… no, twenty-six. You check the clock from time to time and it keeps changing on you, but this is working out so well and you’re having so much fun and your lusus complained bitterly when you went up to feed him but you can pretty much fend him off easily these days even after he’s had a lot of mind honey. So you continue. Theme of the night - that is, day - no, night again: variations on “sicknasty viruses”. It’s a creative experiment to try to understand the arcane dialect of ~ATH in which the game is written.
Most of your attempts so far have been successful. Since this involves linkage between the ends of things, code, and consequences, you’ve tied most of your routines to the deaths of bees that were already on their way out, and ran the things on spare machines cobbled together from spare parts. So far you’ve torn a hole in the hivestem wall (you’ll paste it back together later), caused a tree out your window to wither (nobody’s going to trace it back to you), exploded several computers, and induced a large loud BANG to go off in the distance – there was weird pinkish smoke coming up from its direction when you went to look, but the voices in your head hadn’t signaled that anyone was about to die, nor had any of them gone suddenly quiet, so you shrugged and went back to gleefully facilitating the implosions of assorted objects.
The last virus you write is the best (worst), perfect and compact and broadly lethal, and under no circumstance should anyone run it, but you’ve been sending KK your favorites as you turn them out and it’s too much a work of genius not to brag about.
twinArmageddons [TA] began trolling carcinoGeneticist [CG]
TA: ha ha 2ucker, try two top thii2, oh wait you cant, becau2e you cant code for 2hiit.
TA: dont ever run thii2, though.
CG: WHY THE FUCK ARE YOU SENDING IT TO ME THEN. IS WASTING SPACE ON MY COMPUTER SOME KIND OF HACKNEYED METAPHOR FOR THE POINTLESS HOURS I’VE SPENT STARING AT YOUR LOATHSOME MUSTARDY TEXT?
TA: 2o you can read iit and 2niivel iintwo your 2leeve about the lou2y 2tate of your 2kiill2.
CG: THIS DOESN’T MAKE ANY SENSE.
TA: maybe iit wiill iif you get motiivated two learn 2omethiing, who know2.
CG: WHY ARE YOU EVEN STILL UP. YOU SAID YOU WERE GOING TO COON HOURS AGO.
TA: ii am now.
CG: YEAH RIGHT.
But you do sleep (after a little tiny bit more work anyway) just to spite him.
==> Be Present Sollux.
You throw yourself into Astris’ arms while the dreamspace is still half-raveled, shaking and clinging even though you’re being too abrupt and he is startled, still getting his bearings, phasing in and out of solidity. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” you’re saying, the words coming out your mouth faster than you can actually think them through. “I - I think I chose the wrong way, I didn’t know what he was saying, what he was offering me, and I’m too selfish, I’m always too selfish -”
With the final flicker he gathers you in but it’s automatic, it isn’t really comforting, he doesn’t know. “Sollux, d -” He stops, his face half-buried in your hair. You hold your breath - “Your memory” - but he only pulls you in tighter - “What happened to your memory?”
“I haven’t, I haven’t lost anything, I remember too much,” you stammer, “I don’t know if I can explain everything -” and for once you’re the one being judicious, the one holding back floods of information, scared that the wrong thing let slip might devastate.
But what you are not being now is tenuous. Frightened and exhilarated, giddy with relief soured all over with guilt but you know what you know and the only way to go is forward. You don’t know if you can tell him the right things, or if he’ll believe you, but that matters less because there are other secrets now, and other reserves against doubt.
“Too much -” he echoes - “Too much - it’s blurred - planets -” - his hold shifts, measuring - “You’ve changed, your... shoulders are - no -” His hands grapple frantically at the back of your head, rush down your spine, and you have to tell him.
“It’s okay, I - I’m still real,” you blurt out and it’s only when you do that you realize one of the things that’s changed for you: that you’re more sure of him than you ever have been before, you’ve completely discarded the last shreds of doubt that cast him as a projection of your own mind. Both your hands still brace on his ribcage, as you draw back just enough to look him in the eye - “The timeline changed. It - there were things that were going to happen in the next half-sweep, to the - the machinery of the universe. Things that did happen. I lived through it all and I remember - and I’m not the only one who remembers -”
You’re trying every tactic you know to dim or dull the memories he shouldn't hear, but there’s one that in your rush of apology you couldn’t help but let slip - that crawls bare and readable across your mental screen every time you hear him speak -
“Your voices,” he whispers, and brushes fingertips across your temple as if that would help him draw the memory out, as if just listening to him hadn’t turned your thinkpan into a broken wireless tower broadcasting echoes of old grief. “You never told me.”
And then he pulls you back in and presses his cheek to yours and just listens and you know what he’s listening for but can’t tell what he’s finding until - “But you don’t hear me anymore.”
“I never told you because that never happened. It happened and then it never happened. I would have started hearing you just days from now - but now I won’t, now I -”
It catches in your throat, a swallowed sob, and the words break into pieces on it, this roiling mess of emotions so violently felt and so contradictory that they push and shove at each other and make a hot blur of distress, the selfish grief that gnawed at you and the profound relief of knowing he finally had peace, would never be hurt again, and now both of them are over and all you can say is “I’m sorry,” again, “I’m sorry.”
==> Be Future Sollux.
Which Future Sollux do you mean, Past Future Sollux or Present Future Sollux?
==> What even the hell. You know what I mean. The Sollux from the timeline that doesn’t happen. That happens and then unhappens.
You mean the Sollux from the CANCELLED SESSION.
==> This is going to require some exposition, isn’t it.
Almost certainly. And I will be delighted to provide, when the time comes; it is, after all, one of my traditional functions.
But you’re going to have to wait for it. You’re too busy being Past Future Sollux, with several doomed but nonetheless significant tasks in front of you.
==> Past Future Sollux: Initiate.
You finish re-working the riddle of the game into something that can be played on an actual extant computer, and send it off to Aradia. Then to KK, who you give some shitfor a while. It’s nice and satisfying and simple. It’s also like standing on a balcony in the cool midnight hours while the pressure drops around you and the storm blows in.
When you bring TZ in on the planning you stop hedging around, because ever since her misadventure with her lusus and the light of high noon, she is oddly canny, underneath the exuberant attitude. She knows things about you that you don’t tell her; things about the course of the world, as well. Sometimes you wonder if she’s pale for you, but it’s better to leave well enough alone, when you’re not sure if you see her that way and you’re definitely not ready for it even if you did.
Which brings you to AA. Talking to her is an exercise in bitterness. You get mean and petty sometimes, though you hate that you do. You’re trying to reach through to her on a level where she’s not present anymore, and it doesn’t seem to matter what you say. When you stare at her words on your screen you feel the soft fuzz of her kinked hair trailing across your hand in a sense-memory that won’t leave you alone; imagine hearing her voice, like a balm to nerves that have only ever been scorched and snapping since the night you were wielded as a weapon to kill her, but the memories don’t fill the hole. Long ago you used to insult her only in the worst desperation, and then she’d be fierce at you until the unruly hateful parts of you were knocked flat. Now you flail through attempts at communication and feel like you’re shouting into a silence.
And Karkat gets prideful. You know what he’s about to do before he does it because voices that weren’t there before bust in on you, dozens of them right away, an indistinct buzz of more approaching, and you know - with a sense of eerie remove, no less, you know that this was foreordained, destined and doomed and sealed into being, even as you still try to tell him not to -
He runs the virus.
And the death of Alternia approaches on wings of fire.
Aradia knows more than she’s told you, and you go to her in desperation as time runs short. And she says she’s here. That hasn’t happened, you’ve never seen her since -
- maybe it will be different, somehow, maybe she’ll -
- you look out the window, and she snaps her fingers, and your last waking thought is that it would have been so convenient if she had been able to do that, when she was still alive.
Then you surface on the moon of Prospit, staring out a gilt-rimmed window at a cloud-swept vista you have and have not seen before, and the chorus of voices draws toward you like distant thunder.