When you first arrive on the new planet, you make it your business to keep track of the others. You were the leader, however little they respected that, and it's your responsibility to make sure they're doing well. Settling into a new world populated by two sapient species—and by both Beforan and Alternian trolls, who are so different from one another that you might almost be differing subspecies yourselves—is a stressful adjustment. You have to make sure the others manage.
As you all settle in, though, you also drift apart. It was probably inevitable, when several of you disliked each other in utterly nonromantic ways even from the start, and the endless stalled time of the dreambubbles helped fray what bonds the rest of you had. You get an account on Fiercebook and add as many of the others as you find there, Porrim and Latula and Rufioh and even Mituna, though you find his borderline obscene macros even more irritating than his constant flirting with Latula. Cronus doesn't seem to have an account; you wonder if he signed up for human Facebook instead.
The updates you get from them on Fiercebook are usually short and superficial, but at least you know generally that they're doing fine. You throw yourself into activism and education instead of dwelling on the past. Beforans and Alternians have vastly differing ideas about how culling should be implemented, and humans are stridently opposed to both of them. After wrestling with your conscience you determine that the human position is the only one you can support—you always resented being culled as much as you appreciated it, and no matter how you tried to articulate your concerns nobody listened.
So you devote yourself to your work and try not to worry too much about your old team. For a while it mostly works. Then Cronus sends you his new trolltag in an email, and you flinch at how appalling it is but you add it to your contact list anyway. The next day you notice he's online.
-- consideredGrievances [CG] began trolling courtingAbjection [CA] --
CG: I must say that y9ur ch9ice 9f this tr9lltag is extremely c9ncerning. Rejecting high6l99d privilege is 9ne thing, and an admira6le 9ne, 6ut a6asing y9urself 6egins t9 smack 9f acting 9ut in search 9f attenti9n. A pr96lem which, I might add, y9u have struggled with in the past.
CA: its swveeet of you to vworry, chief, but im doing okay these days. i been adjusting pretty vwell to livwing wvith humans.
CG: Well, I supp9se that is s9mething 9f a relief. I did w9nder if living am9ng real humans w9uld 6e triggering, c9nsidering y9ur difficulties with y9ur identity.
CA: nah, im fitting in great. wvhat about you? made any nevw friends?
CG: I'm n9t sure I w9uld call them friends yet, 6ut I've 6een v9lunteering at the l9cal Equal Rights Campaign 9ffice. S9me 9f the 9rganizati9n's mem6ers have pr9ved unf9rtunately sh9rt-sighted a69ut h9w the p9licies they adv9cate w9uld affect the new mixed-species envir9nment in which we all find 9urselves, 6ut I'm 9ptimistic that with reas9ned de6ate we can res9lve these issues and m9ve f9rward with l966ying f9r much-needed judicial ref9rm t9 pr9tect the rights and dignity 9f all the inha6itants 9f 9ur new w9rld.
CA: sounds like youre keeping busy pretty good. you got any free time to hang out vwith an old friend? id hate to think youd givwen up on me.
CG: 9f c9urse I haven't given up 9n y9u. I've just 6een w9rking hard lately, and y9u haven't really 6een making much 9f an eff9rt y9urself, y9u kn9w.
CA: im making an effort nowv.
CG: That's true, y9u are. D9es that mean y9u want t9 spend s9me time t9gether?
CA: if you can clear a couple hours from your wvorld-savwing schedule, thatd be pretty swveet, yeah.
CG: We're planning an imp9rtant rally this weekend, s9 I w9n't be availa6le t9 s9cialize. I'm assuming y9u w9n't 6e interested in supp9rting the cause, even th9ugh it w9uld 6e g99d f9r y9u and f9r us as well.
CA: sounds like you wvont havwe much time to chat tho, am i right?
CG: N9, pr96a6ly not. Shall we arrange a time next week?
CA: sounds great, chief.
You negotiate a time, and he gives you his address. You don't realize until you sign off what seemed so strange about that conversation—the way you remember him from Beforus, he would have come to the rally despite his disinterest, and then spent the entire time attempting to solicit romantic attention from someone there. Has he met someone, or is he simply growing up at last, now that you all have that chance?
You'll find out, you think, as you climb the stairs to his apartment building. It seemed like there were two possibilities for Cronus, in a world that trolls shared with humans: he could melt down horribly on the discovery that he still didn't fit in, or he could throw himself into their culture and thrive. From the sound of your earlier conversation, you're hoping he has managed the latter, and the building you're entering now reinforces that impression. It's human-style, an apartment building rather than a hivestem, and most of the names on the call box look like human ones. Not that you can always tell, of course, but really. Johnson? Yamamoto? Not trollish names at all.
Cronus buzzes you in and you take the stairs up to his apartment. It's an older building; retro, he probably calls it. At least his affectations make him happy.
Happier than you've ever seen him, you realize when he opens the apartment door and beams at you. You're not even sure what to do with the fact that he's smiling at first. "Hiya, chief," he says. "Welcome to my cozy little bachelor pad."
Some other human thing, you assume. "Thank you," you say as he steps back to let you inside. "You certainly seem to be adjusting well."
"You too," he says. "Getting all involved, pushing people around until they sort their shit out."
"That's hardly a flattering way to put it," you complain.
Cronus just shrugs, still grinning. "You gonna tell me you don't have at least a little fun with the job?"
"Fun isn't the point," you say tartly. "And if I do find it rewarding to know that I'm making a difference, that's hardly something worth leering about."
"Bro, that ain't even a leer, and believe me, I could show you the difference," he says, and when you bristle, about to remind him how little you appreciate being the recipient of his sexual advances, he just waves the subject away. "But come on, lemme show you around."
You follow him dutifully around the apartment, letting him point out his favorite things to you. The furnishings he's chosen are considerably less ostentatious than they could have been, and the walls are decorated with posters of humans—illustrations rather than photographs. Some of them feature slogans about victory, and others show young underdressed women smiling at the viewer. You sniff. "I can't say that I'm pleased to see you participating in such obvious commodification of sexuality," you reproach him.
"It's strictly an aesthetic appreciation," he says, his eyes wide. "The style there's emblematic of a real particular moment in human history, a kinda pinnacle of wholesomeness thing. Come on, champ, don't frown like that. Here, come see the view I got." In the interests of keeping the conversation civil, you allow the subject to drop and follow his direction. From the larger of the two windows in the leisureblock, you can just see the bridge in the distance, its supports lit up as night comes on.
It is a rather striking view, and you tell him so. He seems delighted. He ushers you into the apartment's little nutritionblock, with its fixtures and furnishings that seem almost familiar—too squared off to be trollish, none of the soothing organic shapes you expect, but their functions all seem to be the same. Cronus points out which of of the fixtures are "vintage," installed when the building was first built, with more than a little pride.
Then he shows you the respiteblock. The primitive static wardrobifier is no surprise. The human-style sleeping platform is exactly what you would have expected. But then the glitter of steel catches your eye and you realize those are chains wrapped around the bars of the headboard; there are thick leather restraints hanging from them.
You take an involuntary step back. Suddenly you feel like you're not looking at a friend, but a predator. "And I suppose," you say as you gesture at them, your voice more shrill than you intend, "you'll tell me those are entirely for aesthetic appreciation as well?"
Cronus winces, but then he laughs, too. "Sorry, buddy, guess I forgot to put those away after the last time I had company over."
The image that puts in your head gives you chills, makes you queasy. You picture some poor soft vulnerable human chained down there, at Cronus's mercy, unable to resist even the worst excesses of his selfishness. Your throat feels dry and your nerves jangle with alarm. "What have you been doing?" you ask in dismay.
He rubs the nape of his neck and grins at you crookedly. "Whatever he tells me to, pretty much."
That stops you short. "You—"
"And lemme tell you, he's a hell of a top."
Then—your thinkpan unhelpfully reverses that image: Cronus on his back, his hands bound, letting himself be used—your body utterly betrays you, your bulge throbbing painfully despite how utterly reprehensible that makes you. You're going to be ill.
"Excuse me," you say. You practically dive for the ablutionblock, slamming the door behind you and taking deep, gulping breaths as you stare at yourself in the mirror. What's wrong with you? You've long since made peace with your decision not to indulge sexually. The fact that something like this would make your body respond only proves that was the right decision. You couldn't be trusted. You're depraved. You'd never even considered Cronus as a concupiscent partner before this, despite his best efforts, but now, picturing him unable to resist—
He raps at the door. "You okay in there, babe?"
"I just—need a moment," you call. Your hands are shaking. You turn on the cold water at the sink and don't catch what he says in reply. It can wait; you can ask him to repeat himself later. So long as he doesn't come after you. You're not safe.
You splash cold water on your face and try to calm down. In a minute you're going to walk back out out there and act like nothing is wrong. You're still friends. Nothing has changed. Clearly he needs you now, needs you to help him come to his senses and stop subjecting himself to—god. You don't even know what he's been allowing this human (you assume it's a human) to do to him. Has he been beaten? If you stripped off his shirt, would there be bruises?
No, you need to stop, you can't keep thinking like that. You aren't going to do any such thing. You aren't even going to let yourself consider it.
The water simply doesn't run cold enough. You feel feverish, stuck in this nightmare state that's equal parts horror and arousal. You give up and shut off the water, blotting your face dry and trying to collect your dignity.
"I'm sorry," you say as you step back out into the leisureblock. "I know it's terribly rude of me to turn and run out on you when I've just gotten here, but I'm not feeling well, and I—"
"Hey, wait, come on," Cronus says, his fins folding down in distress, which makes you feel terrible and makes your bulge twitch. "Was it something I said? We can talk it out, you know I'm good at listening."
You shake your head. "I'm afraid not," you say. Your composure feels so strained, like the least additional pressure will cause you to snap.
"You sure?" Cronus asks, that wheedling tone he uses when he doesn't want to hear no. "Thought you were big on process and dialectic and all that."
"Later," you promise. "I'll explain all you like, but—not tonight, I'm sorry."
You flee before things can get any worse.
By the time you get home you already have messages from him, asking you to reassure him that you still like him, that you aren't angry, that he hasn't done anything wrong. You send him the briefest possible reassuring message and then throw yourself into your work until you're too tired to keep typing; there are statistics to compile and blog posts to write and presentations to draft and it's all orderly, and productive, and not at all interesting to your depraved genitals.
The next day he sends you more messages, starting almost as soon as you sign in, and you're struck by his trolltag all over again. courtingAbjection. On his knees, baring his throat, his fins folded down in supplication...
No. You are celibate. You are celibate for a reason, and this whole wrenching episode is just a demonstration of why you need to be. You promise Cronus that you aren't offended. You're glad that he feels comfortable enough with you to share such things, truly. You point out that as his friend you can't help worrying about him when he tells you he's been engaging in risky behaviors like that.
He sends you links to articles with titles like Playing Safe, Sane, and Consensual (which you are fairly sure has implicit ableism problems) and Negotiation Basics (as if you aren't familiar with those already). You barely skim them. He insists that the man who's been doing these things to him is patient, respectful, and kind. You chew on your lip as you compose replies, trying to point out how incompatible kindness is with tying someone up and beating them. You know that. There's nothing kind in your heart when you want—
You can't even face the thought. You leave Cronus's last email unanswered and put the subject out of your mind as best you can. Your work will distract you, as it always has.
Your office is championing a disabled lowblood who's been having trouble with the Alternian owner of his hivestem refusing to provide what the human legal system calls "reasonable accommodations." You volunteer to go serve notice that the Equal Rights Campaign will be filing suit to force compliance; you've had enough practice with confrontation that you're one of the local office's more outspoken members. You handle the tough jobs. It feels good.
The hivestem owner is an oliveblood, which if anything incenses you further. She is not so hemoprivileged herself that she could afford ignorance of the cruelties of the Alternian system! Surely she could do better than she has been to help those who were its victims. There is nothing noble about petty injustice. You press your case stridently, until she has no choice but to agree with you, her horns tipped back and her throat visible as she promises to look into the installation of proper ramps and elevators. Your nerves sing with triumph as you begin the trip back to the office, your whole body flushed and alive with victory.
Oh. Oh no.
You duck into a bookstore instead of heading straight back to the office, a big one with row upon row of shelves to lose yourself behind. You're not in control of your impulses after all. Your hands are shaking as you replay that scene in your mind, as you realize how aggressively you pushed that conversation, how intently you hounded her until she rewarded you with that submissive posture.
This... this wasn't the first time, was it? You've done this sort of thing before. You've made a habit of it. Getting all involved, pushing people around until they sort their shit out, Cronus said, as if it was obvious that was what you would end up doing. You gonna tell me you don't have at least a little fun with the job?
You sink down into one of the plush chairs the store provides, burying your face in your hands. You've never been in control of it, have you? You've avoided doing anyone physical harm, but that doesn't leave you blameless by any means. You know how much damage can be done without a blow ever landing.
You dig out your phone and turn it over in your hands. You need to talk to someone, need to process this realization somehow. You can't face confessing to anyone who might lose respect for you. God, what if they all know? What if it's been obvious this whole time to everyone but you? You're going to be sick with shame and self-loathing.
In the end you take the only option you can, and you call Cronus. He won't think less of you for it, and you know he's already familiar with the concept. Intimately so, even, and you can't allow yourself to follow that line of thought any further. You listen to the phone ring, your gastric sac in knots.
"Hey, chief," Cronus says when he comes on the line. He sounds happy that you've called.
For a few awful seconds your voice won't work. "Hello," you say at last. "I wanted to offer my apologies, again, for my untimely and frankly impolite departure after you were cordial enough to invite me to your home. You deserved better, and I was—I was..."
"We'll just give it another go sometime, yeah?" Cronus says. You nod, and then remember how little good that does over the phone.
"Yes. I'd like that." You take a deep breath, trying to find a way to phrase what you need to say next. The confession won't come. Instead you say, quite conscious of the fact that you're deflecting and unable to resist the urge, "Tell me about him."
Cronus laughs, and you're struck again by how content he seems, how comfortable. This isn't the attitude you'd expect from someone being subjected to abuse. "Man, where do I even start? He's ridiculously smart. Like, builds his own robots kind of smart. Hot as hell. Funny, in this quiet blink-and-you-miss-it way. The fucking perfect boyfriend."
"Boyfriend," you echo. You shouldn't be surprised. You doubt there's any limit to how far Cronus will take his human fascination now that it's rewarding him.
"It feels like doing all the quadrants at once," he says. "It's fucking amazing."
"Then the... the bondage and so on." You still haven't asked for details, which of the practices discussed in those websites are things he actually allows himself to be subjected to. "That fills in for caliginous attention?"
"I guess sometimes," he says. "It's still like flushed more of the time, and he's been treating me pale in-scene since the first night."
"I find that hard to imagine," you admit.
Cronus makes a thoughtful humming sound. "You want to meet him? Ask him how it works from where he's standing?"
That might actually be for the best. Cronus is clearly too smitten to see any problems here. And perhaps meeting this man will give you a better idea how to approach this argument in the future. He can't possibly be as saintly as Cronus claims. Perhaps meeting him, seeing his flaws, will help strengthen your resolve to resist your urges. "Yes. I think that sounds like a good idea."
You arrange to meet in a cafe, early in the evening, later that same week: a neutral, public space where it would be a simple matter to disengage and leave should you need to. The neighborhood is not yours, but not Cronus's, either. The cafe itself shares space with a bookstore, tables and chairs tucked between rows of shelves, some sort of popular human music playing over the speaker system. Cronus and his human "boyfriend" are waiting for you when you arrive.
The human tips his head toward you when you walk up to them; he's wearing sunglasses even indoors and after sunset, like a highblood troll. You wonder if he has as many cross-species affectations as Cronus does, if that's why they have found common ground.
He extends a hand to you. "You must be Cronus's friend. I'm Dirk. Dirk Strider."
You take his hand and shake twice, firmly, the correct form of the human greeting. "Kankri Vantas."
"Good to meet you, Kankri," Dirk says. "Cronus talks about you a lot. You want to get our orders in?"
The three of you line up at the counter to order your drinks, and you must admit you appreciate the human policy of not privileging any particular class in line. On Beforus, a highblood would have ushered you gently to the front immediately, as a 'kindness,' so that you could waste as little of your brief lifespan as possible. Here, nobody seems to consider it, and as a result you feel far less self-conscious.
Drinks acquired, the three of you make your way to an unoccupied table. Dirk leads the way, clearly in his element, moving with the sort of confidence that makes other people yield to him without thinking twice. You envy him and wish you didn't.
When he sits down at the corner table he takes the sunglasses off, the movement precise and deliberate. His eyes are a bright orange you've never seen before in either of your species—though of course you haven't known that many humans. Possibly it's an uncommon but not abnormal color for them.
"So," Dirk says as you sit down across from him. "I heard you were going to have questions for me."
"Not one to spend your time on small talk, I see," you say. "I appreciate your willingness to be direct rather than requiring that we first fence around the subject tediously. It may be less appropriate to say that I have questions, however, than to say that I have concerns. Cronus is... my friend, and he has always been rather susceptible to unwholesome influences when it seems likely to reward him with attention, particularly of a romantic nature—"
"Dude," Dirk interrupts. "You let him just talk about you like this?"
It takes you an instant to realize that he's talking to Cronus, who shrugs. "It's cool, it's just how Kankri is. He don't mean any harm by it."
Dirk does something very human—and, you suspect, very judgmental—with his eyebrows. "Okay, if that's your deal." He looks at you again. "Sorry, you were saying?"
You realize you might need to give him the abbreviated version. "Given the fact of Cronus's history, I have severe misgivings about his safety in a relationship with someone who wants to render him helpless and then hurt him." Cronus for some reason is giving you a delighted little smile; when you frown at him he holds up his hands, touching his fingertips together to make a diamond. "Stop that, I'm speaking as your friend!"
Dirk's expression hasn't changed at all but you somehow have the impression that he's smirking. "It's a good impulse for a friend. I'm glad he's got someone to look out for him." Phrasing like that won't blunt the edges of Cronus's pale fantasies at all. "But really, he's nowhere near as helpless as all that. He can always tell me to stop, any time something goes too far or turns in a bad direction."
"I'm not reassured by the idea that he has a choice between 'let me do this' and 'I'll stop touching you'."
"Good," Dirk says, nodding slowly as though he's the one interrogating you and you've just given a right answer. "If those were the only choices, I'd be an asshole and not safe to play with. A good top never punishes his bottom for having limits."
You decide to approach the issue from a different direction. "All right then. Why do you do it? How do you justify what you do to him—what you do to people who have romantic feelings for you?"
"The implication that I don't have romantic feelings is noted and not particularly appreciated," Dirk says. "I may be a big scary mean top," and he sounds amused and disbelieving at the idea that anyone could think so, "but I have just as much heart as the next guy."
You nod, acknowledging the point. "I will endeavor to be more careful with my language. But you have not answered the question."
"Right. How do I live with myself, et cetera. Same way you live with any position of responsibility, dude. Keep the lines of communication open. Pay attention to who or what you're responsible for. Know when to back off, and do it."
"And it doesn't bother you, having these violent impulses?" You have to fight to keep your voice level; this is beginning to feel too personal.
"Controlling impulses, mostly, but whatever. It actually bothers me a lot less now that I have kink as an outlet." He snorts. "Probably bothers my friends a lot less, too."
That stings. You know how little patience most of your team has—had—for you. Were you taking your repressed desires out on them?
"If you feel that need to dominate—to be in charge, to win—then this is actually a pretty safe way of dealing with that," Dirk says, looking you in the eyes. It doesn't sound like a general, impersonal 'you' at all. "You get what you want and so does your partner. It's not a lot like the bullshit you see in the media."
"But I sh—it's not right to want that," you say, and by now your nerves are thrumming with an echo of the same panic you felt in Cronus's apartment.
Dirk shrugs. "You can spend your whole life trying to make yourself normal, whatever the fuck that actually means, or you can accept how you're different and start looking for ways to be happy."
You bristle. "You think I don't know that? You think I'm not fully aware of how difficult it is to be abnormal?" Your hands are shaking and you have to put down your cup. "How dare you suggest that your perversion is at all comparable?"
Cronus has been squirming uncomfortably in his seat as you get more worked up—as you get louder, you realize in dismay—and now he says, "It's okay, champ, come on, let's all just relax here an—" Dirk touches his shoulder and he goes quiet. This feeling churning in your gut is revulsion, not jealousy. It has to be.
"I'm suggesting that sexual desire is a potent axis of identity formation, at least among humans and probably across both our species," Dirk says calmly. "I'm suggesting that a commitment to respecting individual difference should be as broadly intersectional as possible."
You glance at Cronus again. How much did he tell Dirk about you? "Now you're just saying what I want to hear."
Dirk takes a sip of his coffee and sets it down before he answers. "I thought I'd have to actually make the offer before you accused me of that."
He's transparently prompting you but you can't help yourself. "What offer?"
"Come back to my place with us. See what it's really like." For all that he calls it an offer, the way he stares at you makes it a challenge. "You can just watch if you want to, or I'll give you some pointers and you can try him out."
Your bulge throbs, and heat washes over your skin. "You can't—you can't just offer someone else up like that," you protest.
Dirk looks at Cronus, arching an eyebrow. Handing him responsibility for the conversation, you realize. "We talked about it before we came over here," Cronus says. "Negotiating, you know? If I'd be into that, in case it came up."
They discussed this. "And you were willing to..." You've always resorted to more words, not fewer, when you felt unsettled, but this particular weakness is not one you're used to talking about. "You were willing to be offered up for domination," you manage, not quite able to add by me to the end of that sentence. Cronus nods, his fins pulsing slowly wider, the thin membranes between the tines flushing deeper violet. You want to dig your nails into them and hear the noises he would make, and being aware of that desire is terrifying. "Why?"
He looks over at Dirk helplessly, but Dirk just takes another casual sip of his coffee. "The man's asking you, bro. I can't give you a cheat code here." You find it reassures you some that he refuses to speak on Cronus's behalf.
Cronus fidgets. Nervous is an unsettlingly good look on him. "I don't know, it's... It feels good," he says, which is nowhere near enough information. You think he knows it, too. "I like the... I like knowing how to make him happy with me. Not having to guess and hope and fuck it up all the time. In the middle of things I kind of... I feel like the center of the fucking universe, you know? And I guess..." He looks sidelong at Dirk with an expression that says he's trying to decide what he can get away with. And you know Cronus; you know he always comes down on the side of taking the risk. "I like seeing what I can do to him by saying yes."
Dirk gives him the sort of smoldering look that makes you feel like you're intruding on something, never mind that this is a public place; you can see the need thrumming between them, the predatory hunger that you hadn't associated with humans at all. It would probably be prudent to just leave.
But Dirk turns that challenging stare on you next. "So what do you think? Satisfied that I'm not hideously mistreating him, or do you need to come see for yourself?"
You can't move. You can barely breathe. You're so conscious of your body, of the appetites you've been ignoring for as long as you can remember. Your sheath feels uncomfortably tight around the swelling of your bulge, and when you look at Cronus's expression—hopeful, pleading, hanging on your decision—your nook pulses wetly.
"If I went with you," you say, "I wouldn't be going just to watch."
Cronus squirms in his seat, his eyes wide. "Please," he says. You're going to soak right through your jeans if you stay here.
You take a deep breath and then just freeze, your answer trapped in your throat while your blood thunders in your auricular spongeclots. "All right," you say at last. You can't believe your own daring. "I'll go."