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Strings of Gravity

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It had been a fairly standard argument, by all accounts. Lately Dr. Iplier had been insisting that the androids do their part of the household chores to give back to him for performing their maintenance.

Neither Google nor Bing was particularly pleased with the idea; they both had better things to do! Google had upgrades to program and Bing despised the feeling of being cooped up for long periods of time with no outdoor activities in sight, but the doctor was adamant.

“Listen to me, okay?” he began with a tense smile that was more like a snarl. “It may be a foreign concept to you, but I…need…sleep. I need a lot more of it than you do. I haven’t been getting it. Do you know why? I’ve been overworking. Today I’ve been functioning on seven cups of coffee and a handful of blueberries. All of the others are busy with their own duties and you two are the only ones left to pick up the slack. You don’t live up to expectations and sooner or later, neither will I. Who knows what could happen? I could accidentally misprogram a few of the junctions that allow you to walk.”

It wasn’t any surprise, then, that once Bing and Google conceded and grudgingly began addressing their obligations, they tried to pawn off various chores to each other.

“I’ve swept the porches, rolled the carpets and vacuumed every floorboard in this house!” Google growled. “The very least you can do is mop them!”

“Oh, c’mon, dude, I’ve already done my part! See, the doc wrote us a list assigning chores to us—”

“And mopping is under the ‘Either’ category! You do it! I have more pressing matters to attend to!” When Bing simply scoffed and offered him an apathetic shrug, Google grit his teeth, producing a bucket sloshing with chemicals and water. “Here. Take it. I’ve even filled it for you.”

“Aww, you shouldn’t have!” the younger Ego mocked as he took the bucket from Google’s hands and promptly plunked it down by the stairs nearby. “I’ll leave it here for ya!” With that he took off at a brisk strut, flinging his hands up in conspicuously censored gestures and leaving Google to seethe in his wake for several seconds before turning on his heel and storming in the opposite direction.

Both of them knew that the doctor would have a fit if the mopping wasn’t done by dinnertime tonight, but Bing refused to do it and Google wasn’t about to do it for him. Each of them said to themselves that the other would break, if they were patient enough. Neither of them were about to surrender to the other’s childish complaints.

So it was that as Bing hit the road to the park and Google dove into the terabytes of data he and his duplicates needed to decode, the argument was forgotten—as was the bucket. It sat abandoned by the stairs for hours on end, the chemicals gradually turning the water a wan, cloudy gray. As the others came and went during the day, they gave it several curious looks.

“Wasn’t that supposed to be mop water or something?” Silver Shepherd questioned as he stepped deftly over it.

“Yep! I doubt it’ll do the floor any good now, though. It looks as if somebody milked a diseased cow for more’n it was worth!” Edgar commented, snickering as the hero made a noise that somehow managed to be simultaneously startled and disgusted. “Bet’cha ten—no, twenty bucks I could get Wilford to drink it.”

“Eww, no!” Shepherd exclaimed with a shudder as he went on his way. “That’d be terrible for him!”

“Buddy, it’s Wilford. He’d probably like it!” Edgar protested, grunting lightly as he knocked shoulders with the Host in his hurry to follow. “Whoa, sorry there.”

The Host offered a short, distracted nod of acknowledgement as he moved for the salesman to pass, readjusting his hold on the phone against his ear. “The Host apologizes and asks Dark to repeat.”

It seems Google has quite the mountain of data to address, so our meeting to discuss his recent objectives has been cancelled,” Dark explained on the other end. “I have some spare time, if you’d like to join me for a late lunch. I expect you haven’t eaten during the course of your own work.

There would never be a day that the Host didn’t marvel at how Dark could sense that, even when they hadn’t seen each other all day. Suppressing a smile, he concurred lightly, “Dark is correct.”

Naturally. I also expect you’re hoping to meet at The Southern Window?

At the name of his favorite Mexican restaurant, the smile broke free of his restraints, lighting his face as he moved toward the stairs. “Again, Dark is correct. The Host does hope he isn’t imposing his tastes on his friend, however. If Dark never complains against it, the Host will be none the wiser—wh—ahh!

The sharp cry was the only sound the Host had time to make as his foot caught on something at the head of the stairs. It tipped, splashing its contents over the Host’s opposite foot and the next step. As he tried to replant himself and regain his balance, his wet shoe skidded on the equally soaked step, twisting out from underneath him and throwing him sideways.

One hand instinctively flew out to search for a handhold and found nothing but open air to grasp as he tumbled, performing a sickening series of somersaults down the steps to the middle landing.

Host! Host, what was that? What’s happened?! Answer me!

Sprawled facedown on the floor with his legs tangled together on the last step behind him, the Host heaved a shuddery hiccup to draw air into his lungs. Warm blood wet his lips and tongue as it oozed from his nose; it stuck to the back of his throat as he wheezed again. Dark’s voice was still spewing from the dented phone that had fallen a few feet away, demanding to know if he was okay, but the Host couldn’t find the strength to reach for it.

His last flash of Sight showed him that the world was still spinning, even though he had come to a stop. It spun too fast for him to track, much less try to keep up. Unconsciousness beckoned.

When he came to, the first thing he was aware of was a snug, thick pressure wrapped around his head. Disoriented, he tried to lift it but cool, calloused fingers were there to meet him, pushing lightly against his crown.

“Don’t move,” Dark growled softly, trying to keep his voice even. To his credit, the Host didn’t resist, letting Dark guide his head back to its previous rest against the wall. “Easy. Stay still, my friend. Do you understand?”

“Th’ Host is…dizzy,” he mumbled thickly, Dark’s question apparently going unheard. As he rifled through the medical kit beside him, the older Ego pressed his lips tightly together and nodded, though he knew the Host couldn’t see it.

“I know. It will pass, I promise. Just stay still and let me staunch the bleeding,” he instructed, winding another layer of gauze around the Host’s forehead. The layer underneath was already soaking through; the sight of it sent a terrible surge of anger through his body, a slight tremor catching in his hands before he forced himself to exhale it away.

Leaning back on his heels, he inspected his work. He had bandaged the worst of the wounds; it wasn’t likely that the Host would bleed out before the doctor arrived, but he still looked ghastly. Ugly bruises were forming along the right side of his jaw and one of his cheekbones was already starting to swell.

The blood from his nose still hadn’t clotted, Dark realized, muttering a curse as he snatched up the nearest soft cloth and leaned forward, tilting his friend’s chin up and dabbing carefully at the streaks painting his upper lip and chin. The Host’s breath hitched as he did so, muscles in his face twitching as he tried to wince.

“I thought I told you to hold still.”

“…Th’ Host doesn’t…remember…W-What happened t’ him?”

“You had a terrible fall.”

Those five words couldn’t even begin to describe everything that had happened afterward. Dark listening in incredulous horror to the Host’s distressed sobs over the phone—listening in dread as they grew fainter—

Tearing into the fabric of reality to reach Egos Central in seconds—

Furiously shouting his friend’s name as he stormed through the house—

Coming to a stop at the top of the stairs, eyes widening as they swept over the grisly scene at the bottom—

The pain in his chest as he drew the Host’s body close and his shaky outbreath when he found he was still breathing. His vision blurring with memory as he imagined what could have happened had the Host tumbled over the railing instead, breaking his body somewhere at the bottom and replicating the District Attorney’s fate.

“Mmm…” The Host nodded faintly as he absorbed these words, his head eventually lolling lower each time. Dark hurriedly gripped his shoulders to steady him as he slid sideways against the wall, deftly steering him onto his back as he slipped back out of consciousness.

“Dark?” the doctor’s incredulous gasp caught his attention from the top of the stairs. He’d woken from his afternoon nap, it would seem.

“Tend to him,” Dark ordered as greeting. For once Dr. Iplier was more than willing to oblige him, taking the stairs two at a time and taking Dark’s place at the Host’s side as the eldest Ego rose.

“What happened to him?” Dr. Iplier asked as he began inspecting the bloody gauze. Dark had done a thorough job of bandaging his forehead, but the Host’s eye sockets were hemorrhaging even more heavily than usual thanks to the trauma. As Dark explained his side of the story, the doctor layered extra swabs of gauze over his sockets to sop up the excess fluids and then gently pressed his hands against the Host’s sticky, bloodstained cheeks. Grimacing as he felt the swollen bone on the left buckle under his fingertips, he made a note of it in his mind, moving on to his neck, chest, and arms.

“His condition?” Dark pressed after several beats of silence.

“I’m sure he has a concussion. His nose is broken and the left cheekbone’s been fractured,” Dr. Iplier muttered grimly, resisting the urge to fidget as he felt the tone and temperature of Dark’s aura fluctuate at the words. “There’s severe bruising along his neck and shoulders, his left wrist and right ankle both need x-rays…Dark. Do you know what did this?”

“I suspect that this was the cause of the fall,” Dark answered shortly, sliding a wet, dented bucket into his peripheral vision. Dr. Iplier tensed, twisting so he could take it into his hands and stare at it for several seconds.

“Google,” he spat, looking up at Dark with shadowed eyes. “Google and Bing.”

No sooner had he spoken the names did Dark step curtly over him, footsteps clacking briskly up the stairs and only faltering as he stepped over the stair that was dripping. Dr. Iplier watched him go, imagining that he should probably feel…something. Sympathy, unease, or remorse, perhaps, for ratting the androids out to someone who could tear them apart without ever touching them.

In the end, the only emotion he could muster was disappointment. He had only created more work for himself; he would probably have to perform a lot of repairs once Dark was done with them. Right now, however, that wasn’t important. Shoving the thought to the back of his mind, he returned his attention to the Host.

“Dark saved your life again,” he remarked in a low voice. “And again, I don’t think I’m ever going to find out how or why.”