76531-SI looked up from their work when—
(the princess? Entrapta? his partner? his master? how was he to refer to her?)
—she stood suddenly. Her eyes were wet, and he straightened, looking around to see what had caused her distress so he could—
“I’m sorry!” she blurted. “I have to—“ She took a breath, shoulders hitching. His hands flexed, and he looked around, unsure what to do with them. “Excuse me. I have to. Leave. I’ll be back! Just—I’ll be back!”
His ears flexed and he cocked his head, but he didn’t know how to express his concern, his desire to help. Before he could make a decision, she was gone, her hair pulling her up through the vents. He was, briefly, reminded of an enemy fleeing battle, and his hearts skittered and skipped. She was his—(?????)—and his dormant battle protocols should not tag her as a target! Even in simile or metaphor. Had Big Brother ever detected such a lapse, he’d have—
Well. 76531-SI would have been sent for reconditioning, as was proper. No clone could turn against his maker. It was a sure sign of lunacy to even think it. He was lucky she wasn’t his Big Brother—
His hearts stopped briefly, then their beat kicked up, hammering harder. He searched the room, expecting his traitorous thoughts to be broadcast to his brothers, expecting them to appear and rebuke him for his obvious faults. But they didn’t appear, and he walked himself through his memories. Big Brother was Gone. Really and truly. Entrapta had graciously offered him a space in her kingdom, allowing him to serve her. (That’s not what she had said. She called him Lab Partner. And friend. But he could not presume the words were more than that—words. Big Brother called them all brothers, after all, and insisted they do the same. But none were foolish enough to presume that was anything other than a kindness he extended to them. Putting more weight in it than that was a sign of deficiency.)
He swallowed and took a breath, re-writing his thoughts. His new master—not a replacement for the old, of course, for who could replace the Sun? Or re-write the Stars?—was troubled. He was her servant. It was his duty to assist her.
Mental knot untangled, he cocked his head, ears twitching as he listened. She was still in the vents. He followed the echo of her passage, walking along the halls until they fell silent. She had to be close.
He scented the air, grateful that there were so few Etherians on her staff. It was easier to sort her scent from the scent of oil and machinery. He followed it to her bedroom door and waited outside. Then he remembered—these doors were not like the doors of Big Brother’s ship. They would not open to admit welcome parties or remain shut to exclude unwelcome ones.
He had to turn the knob, as Entrapta had shown him. It would be locked if he was not welcome.
He hesitated. But this was part of his purpose, wasn’t it? To assist her. She permitted him that much, even if she denied him the right to fully serve her as his conditioning intended. (She was right to do so. He was invalid, after all. A flawed clone. It was a mercy that he had been allowed to live at all.)
He tried the door and found it opened easily for him. “Princess?”
She whirled to face him. “Hordak?!”
The name—(henamedhimselfhowdarehenamehimselfwormswerenotworthyofNAMES)—set his hearts racing, and he recoiled from it, panic causing his limbs to freeze. “Wait!” Her hair grabbed him and pulled the door closed behind him. He didn’t fight the tendrils, just allowed her to pull him close, even as he tried to settle his hearts.
(He was 76531-SI. That was his designation. He had been reconditioned after his flawed programming was discovered. Big Brother was Good. He was Merciful. He allowed 76531-SI to live, despite his flaws. The name was nothing to him. Nothing. It meant nothing.)
“I’m sorry,” she said, strands of hair brushing the tears from her cheeks, even as she patted his shoulders and his arms—as if checking him for damage. “Are you okay?”
His ears flattened and he lifted his chin. “I’m fine.” There was a soft growl in his voice, a remnant of his irritation. He had no reason to react to what was, in essence, a word. A stupid, meaningless word. “I came to see if I could assist you. You seemed...upset.”
Her hair uncoiled from him slowly, and she took a step back, forcing a smile. “Oh. You know. Just one of those things. I think there’s a biochemical explanation. I could probably find a way to interrupt the uptake of the chemicals involved or maybe heighten my sensitivity to others, but—“ She faltered. “—all my research indicates that chemical alteration is an inadvisable means of dealing with grief. In the long term, at least. So....” She trailed off, shrugging with her whole upper body—hair, arms, shoulders.
“I see.” He looked around, noting that her room was messy and disordered, much like her lab. “Is there another means? Something I could assist with?”
She tugged on a lock of hair, turning away from him and pacing. Around him, the tendrils spread out to reorder and reorganize the discarded clothing and personal items scattered about her room, though he could discern no pattern to the new arrangement. “Well...they say that time helps. And-and talking about it, too. But most of my friends don’t really understand why I’m so upset that he’s—gone.” She froze, hands tight around the lock of hair. “And it’s just. It’s complicated—“
“I am here.” She called him a friend. She could talk about it with him, couldn’t she?
“Exactly! You’re here! But you’re not you, you’re—“
She turned, and he cocked his head. Her face crumpled, and she wiped frantically at her face, as if trying to stop the tears. “Ah! I can’t stop crying! I don’t know why!”
He stepped closer, reaching out to run a hand through her hair. She was more receptive to that than to a touch on the hand or body. “Etherians release oxytocin and endorphins while crying, correct?”
She hesitated. “...Yes?”
“Then why are you trying to stop? Those chemicals should naturally counteract the cortisol, with no need to artificially alter your brain chemistry.”
“So, I should just...?”
“Cry.” He continued to run soothing fingers through her hair. “Is it helping?”
She sniffed, hugging herself. “I. I don’t know. My stomach hurts and-and I can’t breathe and—“ She looked at him again. She squeezed her eyes shut, pulling in on herself. “I just. I miss—“ She swallowed. “Him. I miss him. He was my friend. And for a long time, I thought...I thought he’d abandoned me. But he didn’t! And then, when I got back, he was, he was....” She gave him a look that cut him to his core. “Gone.” For a moment, they regarded each other in silence, only the sound her quiet sniffling audible.
“I’m sorry.” It was inadequate. He knew that.
“Yeah. Me too.”
He stepped a bit closer, something in him starting to ache. He touched the crystal at his chest, closing his eyes. Something wriggled in the corner of his mind, and the ache grew sharper. “I....”
He looked down, fingers curling. “I think...I have known grief.”
Her eyes widened. “What? When?” She pressed closer, her hair hovering around them as if ready, at any moment, to dive into action. “You remember something? Anything?”
He hesitated. “I.” His ears flicked down, and his mouth turned downward in a scowl. “I remember feelings. I remember betrayal. And rage and—“ He swallowed hard. “And an ache. Here.” He touched his chest. “I lost someone. Someone important.“
Not his Big Brother. And that was a frightening realization. Whatever he’d lost was more important than—
He shut the thought down, starting to shiver. “I’m sorry,” he repeated. “But I think...I know how you feel.”
She was in front of him now, and her arms wrapped tight around his waist. His hands lifted high and he inhaled sharply, unsure what to do with them. Slowly, when she didn’t pull away, he lowered his hands to her shoulders, squeezing. More tears glimmered in her eyes. “Is the oxytocin helping?”
She laughed and hugged him tighter, nodding. For now, he was content to assist her in this way, even if he didn’t fully understand it.