Every evening she wakes you up too early, singing the songs of the fishering girls. The crab cages rattle as she hauls them off the boat, horrible fuckin counterpoint to her horrible fuckin singing:
I went to pick the kelp in bloom and saw a highblood passing by;
come and shelter, sir, said I,
hiding in the kelping bloom
seek and catch me, bye-and-bye --
You’d prefer your rest. The caught crabs make plip-plop noises as she tosses them to the party-coloured clouds of cuttlefishes, hungry for their breakfast, and she calls them each by name.
Nightbreak. Sunset will be rippling in red and gold on the horizon, glowing through the thin curtains on this miserable little rock on this miserable shipwreck hive, and your moirail will be out there coaxing your daily bread to take another leggy mouthful. Fef couldn’t carry a tune in a filial pail, and her voice drifts over the water like one more oilslick. You love her so much you want to die of it.
Market night. You roll over in the sopor and try to sleep.
“Wake up, wake up! Arise! Arise!”
The slime’s too thin to really want to lie around in it. Sopor’s expensive. You both cut it with agar and fill your recuperacoons, and you’re both always badly wanting more, especially on account of you pouring half yours into hers to get her a good day’s rest. It’s the dreams; Fef sleeps uneasy. None of this prevents you from saluting her with a middle finger as she paddles sopor slime over your hair. “Up!” she says. “Food is ready, night has broken, and I’m glubbing bored waiting for you to be awake.”
“What a fintastic fuckin reason to wake me.”
“You don’t need any more beauty sleep,” she says, “on account of you being already beau-ti-ful,” and it’s such a tired old saw that it has dust on but you laugh anyway. It is a sour sort of laugh. Seven sweeps, sixteen scars, a seadweller with ribs all sticky-out: you are not beau-ti-ful, but there she is walking her fingers up your shoulder and it’s such a sweet lie. “Besides, you are driving me so demented! If I got to go to the city I’d be gone already. You would not see me for foam.”
Drip-drying’s necessary, hauling yourself out of bed. Every dribble of sopor is precious. It does mean she’s treated to the sight of you buck naked and shivering, but this Feferi regards with no more interest than investigating the back of your knee with a thumb. Nobody but her is ever going to see you willingly nude, nobody nobody nobody.
“Wouldn’t see you for a big splat of snailblood purple and fins, like,” you say. “They would kill you, Fef Peixes. They would peel your hands so you could watch them pick their teeth with your fingerbones, use the rest of you for boots. Get me?”
“Sometimes I think dying would be less boring,” she says pensively, and she throws you a bit of towel. “Don’t give me that look! You and I, we die together. I go and you go. Like this: pchooo! I just wish you’d stop doing it alone.”
“Clam it with the morbid crap. I bet you didn’t sleep, neither.”
“I bet you I did.”
“Coddamnit, you know how you get when you don’t fuckin sleep.” You reach out, tug on a twist of one of her curls. It’s thick with salt-rime and the sharp reek of pollutants. “How long were you under, Fef?”
She laughs, utterly carefree. “Days and days,” she sing-songs. “Lonely nights before me and the guttergulls behind; I’ll see you when I’m sleeping and I’ll leave your bones behind!”
“Rinse, you loon,” you tell her, “‘fore you grow barnacles up in your brainstem,” and when she makes a face you snap the towel at her so she skitters back.
“I’ll keep it on forever,” she says. “A big salt coat made of the sea, I’ll grow a shell like a crab!”
“You’d go madder as a crab, Fef, and you know it. Get yourself decent.”
“If I was mad you’d never leave me,” she says, and for one awful frozen moment you almost think she means it. Then she breaks out into silvery laughter once more and skips away to your rainbarrels.
At times she talks such dreadful fuckin rot. It’s how you know she’s worrying. The sleep’s a problem, too, her staying up working in the roaring depths where the sun can’t get her and trying to outrun her own thoughts and pickling herself on pollutant and anoxia. Generally she’s as sensible as she is spoiled, and she’s pretty spoiled and pretty sensible, but whenever you’re apart she starts to churn and doesn’t know her excretion shunt from her elbow. Just another reason you can never ever let her go to shore.
“Come and eat,” she says, coming back dripping wet and a little clearer-eyed, smelling like rain and wet wood. “I’m sorry, Eridan.”
When your pants are on Feferi watches you drink your evening soup, chin in her hands, tiny little fuschia cuts at her knuckles, and she cracks a handful of fresh mussels open for you. “I’ve done up the accounts to hand in,” she says. “I didn’t have to cook the books so much this time. Not a big shipment, so not a big excise! Glub glub. You’ll have to sign it, though.”
“Please. You know how to write your name.”
She shrugs, and even her indifference turns up the corners of her mouth. “I’ll write for landdwellers the day they want to read what I have to say. So never!”
Fef taps your mouth like she’s sealing a deal, and you can do nothing but kiss her thumb and ache inside.
On the breakfast table she has laid out all your knives: two flick-knives, the clam-shucking dagger they so magnanimously deign to allow at your hip, the shank you made out of an old spoon you’ve been carrying since you were three sweeps old. Sometimes you think she knows what you’ve done with them. Sometimes you think she really doesn’t. Outside the great grey waves groan in a way you’re suddenly loath to leave. “So how about I bring you home somebody’s thumbs?”
“Gross! Don’t. If you’re going to kill someone, bring me their heart!”
“Do you even know how completely fuckin disgustin a heart looks?”
“Less disgusting than thumbs! And no way have you ever glubbing seen someone’s heart.”
“Have! I live a hell of a life,” you brag, and you reach over and steal the faded red handkerchief she’s got tying her black curls. You loop it around your wrist instead, a kind of thieved tattered favour. Feferi snatches at it as you circle round the table. “They got a word for me on the streets. Quake in their recuperacoons when they hear I’m comin -- I have seen bunches and bunches of landdweller hearts, you poor ignorant fish girl, you just got no idea of it -- ”
“Lame,” she pronounces, laughter loud and lovely, and after brief chase you hold the hairband high over her head where she can’t steal it back. Instead she wraps her arms around your middle and presses her face right into your shoulderblades, elbows squeezing painfully next to your gillflaps as she gets in close. At your stomach she splays her thumbs and forefingers to a diamond, pressing the old familiar sign right into your belly. “Pale for you,” she says.
“Pale for you,” you say back. It’s an old call-and-reply. The thought of leaving her makes your digestion sac tie up in knots. One day you’ll come back and she won’t be here, you’ll come back with the money and she’ll be a pile of gills and gibs showing where someone used her up --
“Pale as foam.”
-- or she’ll be gone to the deeps for good, one more ragged monster to keep the landdwellers on their toes. Better that you’re used, little by numb little, than her all at once. This is why you keep her hidden, Alternia’s only fuschia-blood, your moirail.
“Don’t fuckin fret, Fef. I’m Eridan Ampora; I’ll be fine.”
“You never really come back fine,” she murmurs.
This is unfortunately true.
By the time the cuttlefish are packed away in their little tanks for transport, you’re due to go. Feferi has optimistically laid your clothes out on the table. Her idea of going-out things are the nondescript rags worn only by the real sad type of sea-leper, a cacophony of beiges. It’s all complete with a bandanna meant to hide your earfins just in case someone gets offended from having to see them. You wouldn’t whitewash the walls wearing these. They look like depression.
Your pride picks what it always does: ransacks the drawers and gets your nice pair of striped trousers, patched as invisibly as you could sew. Your button-up shirt with real buttons: slubby old silk tie over that, hot with anger and vanity now, slipping together the ties at your cuffs. The tie’s purple. The shirt might once have been blue. The jacket, now, the jacket’s grey and you’ve spent whole perigees carefully sponging the blood stains off it, that jacket’s swag as fuck with a big sharp collar and one pocket over the breast. You knot the tie to Fef’s complaints.
“That’s not inconspicuous!”
She wrings her hands in excited despair. “You’re so glubbing vain!”
It’s true. Each spare Imperial sestertii you ever hustled you’ve spent on snacks, scarves, socks and thread, and sometimes the ones you couldn’t spare. It is the one thing she understands but can’t accept. You’ve told her over and over: it’s worse surprising someone with the fact you’re one of the fisherfolk, and if you’re gonna expose your fins to the bright midnight light then you sure as shell will give a show. So you’re sea offal. You like the shamelessness of pointing a big glittery finger at yourself: daring the world to come at you.
You wish you weren’t a little fucking surprised when the world, time and time again, comes at you.
“Give us the comb, Fef,” is all you say, and you fuss over your hair, twisting that mutant purple streak in your hair into a zig-zag fuck you to the world and scooping out a fingerful of cheap pomade trying to get your coif to look just so. Hard when the mirror’s a salt-streaked, wax-stained piece of rubbish. Good thing you’re pretty. Pretty ugly, says the mirror. “And my rings, they’re in the top drawer.”
With bad grace, your moirail scatters them down in an untidy jangle on the dresser. Mostly rings aren’t your thing, not really, only they double as knuckledusters when you’re desperate. Foremost is the only piece of jewelry that’s worth anything to speak of. Coincidentally, it’s the one piece of jewelry you’re not wearing for pity nor money. “Not the topaz.”
“If you wore your kismesis ring maybe people would leave you alone. Alone! Did you ever think about that!”
“If I wore my kismesis ring I’d want to puke blood outta my protein chute.”
Most people wear their caliginous ring on the outside fingers of the left hand, the flushed on the right. The conciliatory rings go to the insides on either. Ever since you were little you’ve worn a chipped-out diamond of pink abalone for Feferi Peixes and you’d slit your gills before taking it off, spit in contempt and love if it got the littlest bit of question, but your flawless yellow spade stone feels like a noose. A lisping, skinny-assed warmblood noose.
One who probably takes a real nasty pleasure in how incongruous that yellow stone is on a seadweller’s finger. The day you carried that one home you and Fef turned it over and over and over all in wonder, both a little in awe you couldn’t swallow down. Six sweeps old with a real kismesis. That had been -- something.
You hate him so much. You should hock it again today; it’s been almost a perigee and there’s a line between long enough for the insult to really sting and long enough that it looks like you’re maybe getting a little reluctant.
“You’ll be puking blood out your protein chute if they mistake you for a feral.”
“Nobody mistakes me for a feral,” you remind her,but you slip the ring in your pocket nonetheless. “Leastways not twice.”
“Just don’t waste all your money on buttons, you anemone,” she says, pensive and intent, “because we need nails, though I don’t know where you’d get them. And you need to see what the market price is at the moment for sopor. If it’s below fifteen Imperials, see if you can’t cart some home. Glub! That’s all, I think! Oh, and measuring tape: I don’t know how much it costs, but if it’s too dear, don’t.”
This list follows you right to the deck of your hive and down to the cargo tug, which is a fancy name for a dinghy with an engine you bothered and begged parts for over the course of a whole frigging sweep. The things you did for that engine, the engine should be embarrassed about. You’re still getting schoolfed as she unties ropes, pressing a cheek briefly to the grubby cuttlefish tanks and not pausing for breath: “ -- and don’t buy scissors but try to see how they work, ‘cause I can’t see how we wouldn’t be able to make some ourselves, as we are two lit-tle glubbing carp-en-ter drones. And don’t steal!”
You come over to the bylines and you smother Fef’s sprinting hands in yours, her claws digging a little into your palms, eyes wild and drunk. Overexcited. The moment you’ll go she’ll be pacing, pacing, pacing through the big rotten wreck of your shiphive, picking burrs from her clothing and wood from the walls and then at herself, and the look in her eye is a tiny appeal. Let me go, it says. Let me go! I’ll rip the gulping throat out any landdweller who looks at you. So she would, just not before she blew up a building.
“You’d carping steal in a heartbeat. Stop frothing.” Your moirail takes a shuddery breath. “Go and pour all the sopor from my recuperacoon into yours and have a sleep, all right? And you take the Crosshairs and put it next to the cocoon, and you don’t let that leave you ‘till I’m safe back home. Be best fuckin palechums with it.”
She says, “Don’t let anyone touch you.”
“I never let anyone touch me,” you say, and you step over the railing and into the tug and start working the winch downwards. Feferi pillows her cheek on her arms and watches as you settle yourself and the boat down on the iron-grey sea, and you toss her a crisp mock salute on account of there you are with your chill jacket and your boat and they should swear you in as a glubbin admiral or something. You’re Eridan Ampora: ruin of the seas, sharp-cut scoundrel, total fuckin handsome badass, and also a shellacious prissy beach of a coward who never wants to do this again.
Too superstitious to say goodbye, you call: “Sisters will bring me back home.”
“The Green Sister of the dreaming deeps’ll bring you home!” she calls back. “The Green Sister likes me!”
You know without looking she stays at that railing long after you’re out of sight, away with a grunting engine to the great greasy bay of the Capitol.
Back home, Eridan Ampora means a lot of things: moirail, handyman, beggarman, lusus, but out here in the City you shed that skin and become something else altogether. Seadweller, that’s the main one, because even when you’re pulling into the harbour getting stamped by the customs carapace that’s the thing they always see: bluebloods lounging on the docks catcalling some, which you got to ignore right up until your cargo’s seen to, on account of it not being worth your hide till then.
So it’s seadweller, seller, and the one that gets your stamp done quicker is agent, the Imperial intelligence seal on your mouldy identification papers. The tiny customs dinghy bobs up next to your tug, and after a look at that they don’t even go over your boat for contraband. “Ah,” says the carapace wonderingly, “a Captorman,” and you nearly lose your breakfast there and then.
“Not so friggin loud, please!”
“Uh, yes. Yes, of course.”
Oh God, he’s been in power six months and ‘Captormen’ already. Probably chortles himself to sleep each morning on that one.
Being Agent’s an important one to hide, because after seadweller you’re a crim, and those two don’t sit easy together. What the hell else could you be? What else could the frills on your fuckin face make you? You wear your clam knife at your hip because that’s all you get, being fisherfolk, but you wear it and gladly. You give the customs guard a brigandine sneer. “Dock three,” says the carapace, who works with bluebloods all damn day and obviously gives hardly a fuck, and off you go to tie up your boat.
Feferi sells most of her cuttlefish stock to the Fleet. They make good pets for ship life: they live in tanks, they eat frozen food, and they come in lots of colours. It goes to show how many of your people end up making it to Ascension Day, though, because you can’t imagine any seadweller worth their salt wanting to keep a fuckin cuttlefish around, but you try not to think about that too hard.
Then it’s off to haggle with the exporter, or at least the exporter’s agents -- hoity-toity greenbloods in sharp black coats who think they’re hot shit because they answer to the Minister of Customs, an adult who’s more shipside than planetside, and they’re called the Incorruptibles because they don’t take bribes. This is a load of unpleasant squidshit because they answer to the warmblood families, that’s all, nice and easy and they never call all the party invitations a bribe, and what you haggle for the goods is way less than they’re worth.
“You’ll be processed and paid by tomorrow, no earlier, and you’re haul number #413-2B,” says the agent. She tells you the final price. At your snort of distaste, she says what they always say: “There’s less call for pets shipside this season.”
“Whatever, you’ll offload every one and they’ll be bought in credits, and you’ll be paid a lot of money.”
This agent seems a little surprised, and she taps her clipboard thoughtfully. Under the big warehouse lights her uniform shines a slick black. “It’s a very complicated process called supply and demand,” she says and you realise she drawled out comp-li-ca-ted so you can understand it, and she’s not even being sarcastic. She is being genuinely helpful to this poor seadweller trying to sell his shit not understanding why he’s too amphibious to earn a full pay rate. “It’s difficult, and it’s a competitive market for luxury goods. I know it’s a hard concept.”
You have been selling your goods here for sweeps upon fuckin sweeps, and you know about supply and demand. You also know about getting bilked senseless, and you know oceans about being patronized. You would rather be patronized than all of the alternatives because you know far more about serious wounds, but it sticks in your craw nonetheless.
“I’ll be comin back tomorrow with the haul price,” you promise, hoping that this threat carries any weight. Of course it doesn’t. You’ll come back tomorrow with all the details you can scrounge about what the last cargo went for, and you will probably get the same price or a different agent and a lower one and told to get the fuck outta there before they make it lower, saltblood, and if you got angry they’d call for help because you’re being aggressive and maybe even feral and at that point not even Captor could --
She is staring flatly at your snarl. “Thank you,” you say through clenched fangs, and the greenblood looks sort of mollified-- God why can’t you just shoot her-- and out you go.
You count your budget all the way back to the street, trying to fit the puzzle of what you need into the frame of what you'll get, thoroughly distracted by how the numbers don't add. You're mentally wrestling mathematics up against the wall by the time you notice you're being followed, which is frankly a welcome distraction from the money question.
Of course you're being followed; your kismesis has you followed every time, has done for a sweep. This time it’s even one of his nerdlings, which has got to be pretty much the glittery paper crown on top of the shit parade that your night is apparently fucking determined to become. The day Eridan Ampora can be properly kept tabs on by some fumbling warmblood thumbs-up-his-nook pet programicomber is the day that he will be lying in an alley flat-out deceased, and you’d sort of thought he might have noticed this by now. For a guy that likes to think he’s so fucking smart, sometimes it feels like you spend the greater parts of your miserable life re-educating him.
Admittedly, you would have done a bit of loitering just to make sure you were being followed in the first place. Would be downright insulting if you hadn’t gotten any kind of tail.
The dock-side gutter-blood hoodrings are a warren of twisting streets, foul-named and foul to walk and even fouler to smell, built in a haphazard tangle of hivecells and shopnooks and torn-up sewage channels. No one’s got any real chance of knowing their way around but the assholes who build the place, and life expectancy isn’t anything to brag about round here neither so it’s not like anyone’s got a real set of cordinations. But there are rules a thumb you can follow, and if you walk fast and look scary you’re bound to get somewhere, somewhen.
You head up one Fuckstreet and take a sharp left at a twisty-looking Murderville Boulevard-- Her Royal Luminesce didn’t name this grid-- and then it’s two fuckobvious hops back and forth over a stream of raw sewage just to give your tail a little shot of delight to encounter. Three more similarly-themed streets later you fetch up in a dead end, but there’s enough thrown-out garbage washed up against that end that you can scramble up the corpses of couches and torn-up recuperacoons and ancient thermal hulls to the nearest sagging roof. A good kick sends the whole pile scattering with a crash and a pungent series of squelches back down the the alley floor, and you sulk off along the broken-backed ridgeline.
The nearest hole in the roof drops you into a dim, reeking little hivesquat. Someone stirs in a pile of tattery paper and an unseen lusus starts up a scary, rattling buzz: you head downstairs fast, nearly falling over a startled pair of bluebloods getting their pail on right on the goddamn steps. They shout, and you shout back on the principle of fuck that shit, and bolt the rest of the way before they can get untangled enough to try anything.
The night air is comparatively fresh once you bolt out of the door, and the buildings are starting to get a little less raggedy. You take a deep and appreciative breath, and cruise down Assfuck Avenue on the basis that it’s big and actually a little bit lit up. You stick out a tad here, but lights mean shops and shops mean a chance to pawn this sorry excuse for a concupiscent anchor in your pocket.
There: ‘PON SHOP’ in big crooked glow-in-the-dark letters. Fucking Capitol trolls like to light up damn near everything that’ll hold still, a big glaring school of neon betas all trying to be the most special. Hurts your head, but what can you do? You tack over across foot traffic and push your way inside.
It is repulsively bright inside: every lamp and string of fairy lights that have fallen into this douchebag’s giggling clutches has been plugged in. You practically trip over the long white streak of a serpentine lusus fumbling your way toward the counter, then lean your elbows on it like you got the deeds to the place as you give whoever the fuck is behind the counter your most ferocious grin.
“How’d you like a deal today, buddy?”
“Ain’t your buddy,” they growl. A girl, big and mean looking, but fuck it, damn near everyone round here’s big and mean looking. She leans forward, and you can hear the rasp of scales as her snakemom shifts across the floor behind you.
“So what you got for me, saltlick?”
You pull the ring out of your pocket with a theatrical little fuck-you flourish, walk it across your knuckles so’s it shines. The lusus hisses, and the girl’s eyes narrow.
“Colored glass?” she snorts. “You’re tryin’a pull my frond? Give you a wooden dupondus and a knuckle sandwich for that kind of shit.”
You drop it on the counter, pick up the nearest lamp-- some heavy blue monstrosity of two hoofbeasts fucking -- and bash the glittery little circlet as hard as you can. The wooden counter gouges in with a dull crunch; a ceramic phallus flies off the base of the lamp; and when you pull the lamp back the ring is still sitting there, pristine and a mite accusative.
“Titanium and topaz,” you say. “You want it?”
She wants it. “You stole this,” she says.
She considers. You do your best not to twitch your fins doorward and give any actual sign of how hard you’re listening for any sign of your tail.
“You’re Captor’s boy, ain’t you?” she asks. She picks up the ring, squints at it. “I heard ‘bout this ring.”
You very carefully do not rip off her head and beat her to death with it. “Then you know it’s fuckin good. Gimme an aureus and I’ll get off your bulge.”
“Oh, scalp me, why don’t you? Twenty.”
“Maybe I will. Three.”
“It’s worth three aureii just for the glubbin’ stone, you utter fuckwit.”
“And if you cared you’d be at a jeweller’s. Give you five denarii.”
“I’ll take nine if you promise to give the little palace starlin that’s gonna pick this up a run for every scrap a bullion he got.”
“I’ll give you ten if you let me touch your fins.”
“But the guy -- ”
“I don’t like pissbloods any more’n you, saltlick, you know I’m game.” She pulls out a handful of coins from her sleeve. “Going once? Twice?”
The lusus behind you rattles its tail, and you do your best not to shudder.
“Fuck you. Sure, give it here.”
She drops them in your hand: the silver’s warm against your own base temperature, and her fingers rasp, curious, across the flesh of your palm. Like a street magician revealing a trick, you run your hands behind the three-starred dorsal that decorates every unlucky fuck with salt blood. You grit your teeth and lean in, and she tugs, almost gently, at the middle lobe of your left fins.
“Never saw a seadweller this close up,” she says softly, and runs her fingers over the achingly sensitive violet-flushed tips.
“We’re like unicorns,” you grit out through your fangs, “only a long fuckin sight handsomer. You fill a pail yet, sweetglobes?”
“Don’t try your luck.” She flicks the lowest tip, a lighting-bright stab of pain you’re altogether used to, and pushes you away while you’re still wincing.
You attempt something like a charming smile. “So, there a back door in this gaudy deathtrap you’re callin a shop?”
“Course there fucking ain’t, finface.”
“Yeah, course, and where wouldn’t it be?”
“Not behind that death-sitar over there.”
You flip her the friendliest finger you can manage and slouch off, fins still tingling. The door that isn’t there is pretty well hidden behind battered old ominous looking lowblood musical instruments, and it’s not half tricky to squeeze your way through without getting yourself diced. As you ease the door back closed, you hear the sound of someone stumbling over a lamp, and your new friend remarking, with sadistic cheer: “I hope you can fucking pay for that, Greenie.”
By the time you get out of the backstreets you’re feeling pretty good about yourself and about the ten denarii burning a hole in your pocket, which will cover the cost of the flopring you’ll stay in for the day. It’ll cover a few barrels of sopor, which you’re bringing home for Fef whether it’s at a good price or not, and it’ll cover about half the little things she wants and doesn’t expect you to bring back home. And the ugly yellow flush on Captor’s face later you’ll get for free, all free, and at that point you’re laughing and drunk on being Eridan fuckin’ Ampora: seadweller, seller, agent, roustabout and magnificent bastard, that’s you, and Gods help the tail you left back in the slums.
Because he’ll be hard-pressed to follow the route that lead you out here, the cavalcade of Fuckstreets and Bulge Lane terminating in the slightly more salubrious Wharf Road -- the streets here are cleaner and the toxin-tang from the harbour is mixed with the scent of fishmeal, not the various pleasant smells you get from blueblood tenements. Stuff from the fisheries’ll get brought here, then shipped out to the refineries and processed. Some of it gets sold in the city, you guess, though you’ve seen the fish in the harbour and you wouldn’t put them in your chum bucket.
The cityhives are big, graceful blocks from here on in, with streetnames like Star Crescent and Twin Moons Place. The multitiered estates are all painted in warm colours which age into reddish creams, hung with leafy green trellises. Further in and those trellises will turn into fragrant, fussy-leafed hedges not worth the trimming and real grand warmblood homes, lacquer doors and a bunch of assholes hoping to impress Fleet bureaucrats come Ascension, but like hell you’d venture that far with fins on your face.
It’s nice out: a warm night with a lady’s veil of clouds overhead. Tealbloods chatter on the street and trolls weave in and around, going about their business and trying to look important, when basically you’re all the same grubclutch and playing at shops. A troll and his tortoise lusus come plodding down hawking market food, misting chiller bins strapped to its big white shell, filled with fruitpops and sorbet in unlikely colours. Atop these are perched big baskets of melons and vegetables and lots of stuff you don’t know the names of. A grubby fountain tinkles musically in the distance, filled with equally grubby lilypads in homage to the Goddess of Froth and Frogs, or whatever they call her here; clusters of lights winking white and pink and yellow are swagged up over the streetlamps. People give you a second glance, make sure their hand’s on their wallet pocket, and forget about you otherwise.
When you pass by the tinkling fountain, you feel so carefree you gob a little heretical spit into the water. Froth and Frogs! Only landdwellers. It sticks in your craw and you’ve got no good feeling for God.
As you amble down Wharf Road feeling basically good about the world, you buy a fruitpop and a baby orange from the hawker. The orange is slippery and kind of squashy -- you put it in your pocket for later, though it totally fuckin ruins your silhouette -- but the fruitpop’s perfect. You crunch off a bite and let it dissolve on your tongue all sweet and syrup and cold, tasting like no fruit you or Fef have ever eaten, and it’s in this stupid fug that you get jumped.
The first blow’s just a shove that makes you stumble forward, which lets another guy in a filthy coat shoulder-check you off to the side. In this manner you’re folded into an alleyway like the little dipshit rube you are, blinking over your fruitpop at three big bluebloods in boots. They herd you into the wall and beyond them you can see the pale blur of some lusii setting up a perimeter.
“Does he look like the description?” says one.
“Well, piss my pants, he looks like a seadweller and that was the whole description, nookfuck.”
One’s a girl with curly horns and no hair and the other two are boys with too much hair comparatively and you yank out your clam knife, but all three of them pull out shanks as big as shortswords. “Don’t even,” breathes one of the boys. “Oh, sweet Gods, don’t you even, I will fucking cut you. I will fillet you like the fish you are.”
“Firstly, I am so fuckin impressed you know the word fillet, that is a big one and I bet you can’t spell it,” you say. “Secondly, what the shit buckets do you want?”
The girl takes you by your carefully done hair and she bashes the back of your head against the wall, scraping your horns on the brick, and in response you bite her hand bloody. Your teeth sink into the soft fold between thumb and forefinger, and she screams until one of the others pulls her off and shoves a hand over her mouth. You see soft-focus stars.
“Are you the squealer?” one demands.
“Am I the flippin fancy what.”
“Are. You. The. Squealer,” says the girl, but one of the others is going, “yeah, naw, c’mon, if he’s the squealer he’s not gonna up and say he’s the squealer -- “
One of them seems more urgent, more on the ball. “Where were you last week, fishman, fifth cycle?”
“Pailin your matesprit.”
This earns you another blustery backhand but you don’t move, you don’t move a sweet inch because this isn’t the first beating you’ve ever had in an alleyway but this is the most confusing. They’ve got no gang patch; they’re not the Shitbloods, the Fuckbuckets or the Sunshine Crew. For one thing, they’d know you for who you are. These kids don’t know you, all they see is the fins, and you really could’ve used your Captorman tail right about now.
“Take him in anyway,” suggests the girl, who’s nursing a bloody blue hand and an ugly expression. “If it turns out he’s not the one, who gives a nook?”
“Fuck’s sake, this is the first talky fishtroll we found all these nights, rest’re monsters -- ”
You are a seadweller, jackass and thug of all trades, but your aerating oxygen sac sinks because deep to the core of you you’re also an infomerchant and secrets are your job -- “Maybe I can help you out.”
The second boy lifts your chin with the point of his knife and you go with it, you calculate all the while how much reach your arm’s got and how much splatter you’d get on your jacket. “Maybe you can shut your seedflap. God, you things are pretty.”
“Pretty weird,” says the girl, and they snigger.
“You lookin for a seadweller? I know every seadweller haunt in the Capitol, bulgemunch, good luck findin your troll because they’re sure as shit not me.”
“Look, what if he ain’t shit,” says the third suddenly, and tugs on the first boy’s sleeve. Doubt is starting to flicker in his eyes. “You know they’re not looking for a feral, aren’t they now, and I’m not going into the Septics even for three aureii, that place is a killhole, what if we just -- “
The girl steps very hard on this boy’s foot and the first boy’s face has gone all hard and inflexible. “You start doing the talking,” he says. “Or I start cutting the talk out of you. Are. You. The. Palace. Squealer.”
A cold stab of fear runs down your spine at the word palace. Maybe they do know who you are and you’re fucked. “Get your aurals checked,” you say. “I already said no, hunkrump, so you are borin the everlivin blood out of me at this point. I said no.”
“I’ll believe it once you’re bleeding a little,” says the girl, and she raises her blade. “They probably don’t need you that alive.”
“I hear they have gills all everywhere,” says the second.
“I hear seatrolls don’t got regular junk like trolls should have, down there,” says the first boy, pleasantly, “they have this, like, a tentacle with fins on -- what’s in your pants, saltlick? Fancy a show?”
You take your forgotten fruitpop and you slam it into his forehead, a drippy wet slush. He gives a yell and the girl and the other boy slam you back into the wall, pin you so hard you hear something crack, and in their eyes is a terrible mad hunger.
“None a you are my types, bilgebloods,” you slur. “Deal with it.”
“Fucking hark at it, it called us bilgebloods,” says the girl, and suddenly that knife goes back to your fins and gently scrapes along the underside and you want to die, more than just a little you want to die. It’s like a red-hot brand held to every nerve, just the lightest touch of that blade to you and the soft sensitive frill underneath and then the second’s pushing your shirt up over the scum-purple gashes between your ribs, palming over your nook like he’s seriously checking for tentacle. Every gill you got is flushed and flaring, a panic reaction that’s going to get you killed one of these days, as you gulp dizzily for air that you can’t keep long enough to process, choking on nothing with your throat untouched. The others watch so hard their oculars should fall out.
“How many people can say they pailed with seameat?” he breathes.
“How many people would want to?” the girl says sourly, but she’s not stopping him.
And his hand on you is every single other hand that has ever been laid on you so that’s when your knife cuts a wide, silky arc over his belly, as easy as anything could ever be, and your brain’s one long litany of God oh help me God because you don’t know how many more times you can go through with this before there’s nothing left of you.
His guts spill out like a hatching day gift. You slice again and blue sprays over your trousers, all over the others too, and he’s trying to hold himself in and just getting handsfuls of slippery ropes for his trouble. He keels over, his eyes gone stupid with shock.
The Violet Sister must have heard you way down in her abyss, though, because even before he stops thrashing the guy’s blood is edging with the little oily curls of smoke that means She’s taken this death as a dedication. Or whatever process it is that happens when someone dies unduly and starts their meandering slide downwards to undeath, although you’ve never believed in the Sisters as much as you do that moment. It smells like nothing so much as burning trash, sharp and sour in a way that feels dirty across the skin. The others can see it too, smell it, and before they can hold you down and carve you up they’re trying to stop the corpse before its undeath first, saw its head off before they’ve got a revenant on their hands. But it’s already thrashing again, come back fast, so fast, and there’s this terrible rising growl that hurts like needles through the auricle sponges and you just take the opportunity to fucking scarper while everyone’s screaming.
You walk briskly past the panicking lusii and out the alleyway, never run, because it’s never good to be a running seadweller anywhere in the Capitol.You just stride down the street putting your knife back in your belt and clenching your fists real tight, whistling because you’ve got blue blood on your clothes so you better suddenly look really casual. There is a hard tremble in your heart all the way back to the slums. You’re in a perfect fucking daze through the backlanes and straight to your fleapit flophive, THE JOLLY WHELK, and when you’re there you don’t even haggle for the room.
The room’s got a recuperacoon with some dodgy-looking sopor, and a desk with a wobbly stool. You leave and spend quite some time in the communal ablution trap, sponging the blood off your trousers at a sink that’s probably seen quite a few trolls sponging blood off their clothes, and you block out all the world that isn’t water and some wadded-up towel. At least nothing got on your jacket, though you note with a little tremor of bitterness that the gutterbloods were so interested as to what was in your pants that they didn’t care about your orange. Unlike you, it’s not even bruised.
You lick your fingers and pat the back of your cut-up fin till they come back clear and squint at the rising welts you’ve earned, viciously purple against your too-pale clammy face: black eye, a perigee’s worth of growth scraped off your horns, a vicious bite across the side of your mouth you don’t even remember getting bestowed. You look like the world’s biggest hate stud, and you rest your head against the mirror so you can stop looking at your own thousand-yard stare.
You need to be anywhere but here right now and you spare yourself a sparse handful of seconds to carefully catalogue Fef in your mind’s eye: her cool hands, her quick smile, the delicious loose curls all over her head that smell like salt and sweet, and once you remember every little thing and how she’s waiting for you to come home to her you quit the shakes. You’re Eridan fuckin Ampora, murderer and moirail, and you’ve got shit to do.
Apparently you quit the shakes about two minutes too early, though, because when you get back you have a nice little surprise waiting for you. You’d left your door locked. A note and a tiny tissue-wrapped parcel lie there on your desk: you’d prefer if someone had clucked like a chicken and shit on it.
get to the palace a2ap liike your job entaiil2, you egregiiou2 2hiitwa2te. ii am FAR TWO BUSY to deal wiith your crap at thii2 precii2e moment.
from gue22 who.
po2t2criipt for iidiiot2:
do not make me 2end for you.
ii am goiing two 2hove that riing 2o far up your wa2te chute you will have two fii2h out your fuckiing biile 2ack next tiime you want two try two get coy wiith me.
In the tissue paper is a small bicolour lapel pin, red and blue. Filigreed in gold is a miniature, perfectly-wrought bumblebee: symbol of one Sollux Captor, spymaster to her Luminescence and all-around shit stick.
You have a headache the size of your whole body.
The palace castlehold of the Empress Elect is a fairytale of towers, endless spires needling the skyline. You personally hope it falls into the river and gets washed out to sea for the crabs to make their nests in. You’ve never gotten to see its vaulted rooms and balustrades and buttresses or whatever it is all her Luminescence’s warmblood pals get to look at: you’re an agent for her Master of Information, going unseen and preferably unheard. For you there’s the nondescript servants’ entrance and a whole bunch of suspicious carapaces to get hustled past, like you haven’t been coming here every month since last sweep, and by the time you’re let into Captor’s hivewing you’re ready to piss acid. You storm down the narrow hallways and when you get to his doors, you kick them open with a resounding WHUMP.
They open on a stuffy little room that reeks of beeswax, filled to the brim with nerds. A dozen startled nerdly heads perk up from their cubicles, half of them in spectacles; when they see it’s you their surprise turns to an altogether gratifying brand of terror. “Sol,” you bellow, and they huddle close to their computers trying to look real busy. The hum of bees is counterpoint to your yelling: “Sol, get your lithping skinny ass out here right now so help me, I’ll shank one a your honeyheads each minute you don’t show -- ”
You hear one of the nerdlings whimper, “Oh, God,” and you give that one’s desk a good rattling kick as you go past. Kid nearly wets himself. Sol’s picked up this sorry lot from the far corners of Alternia, each genius hacker he could get his hands on all the way across the hemospectrum, and they all have that kind of wall-eyed look you get when you speak in nothing but silicomb and never see moonlight. They all think you shoot lusii and fuck mountains for entertainment and that’s the way you like it, normally, only right now you could not give a frothy cuttleshit -- you shout, “Captor!”
From the back offices a knock-kneed, dishevelled figure appears. He’s skinny as a streetpost with bicoloured lenses and an ill-coordinated glitter of red and blue and gold crusting his bony digits. The nerdlingers cringe. You can tell right now that Sollux Captor hasn’t slept for two days and hasn’t changed his clothes for one, and a surge of awful, contemptuous loathing wells up for you at the cold fury in his face. He is nominally your boss, in every respect your kismesis, and you want to deck him so much it makes all your organs itch.
“You,” he says, and he strides over to get all up in your grill. You try to loom over each other, desperate for each inch you’re getting as you grow, him a full head taller and you with your hard-earned brawler’s frame just aching to pop him one in his scrawny gut. “You can’t follow the firtht fucking order I ever gave you, that order being my agenth check in with me the moment they thtep into the Capitol -- “
“I’ve been here four glubbin hours!”
“Then you should have been here three hourth and forty-five fucking minuteth ago, due to that being three hourth and forty-five minuteth I’ve been patting my nook and, and thith ith the part I like best, watching my empire fall into amazing goddamned dithrepair all around me! The one time I could have done with your thorry bulge for thomething and you’re playing ganger in the hoodring? You fuck.”
“Yeah, I was havin a real wonderful time, no skin offa my nose at all -- how the shell was I meant to know? I’m not a psionic, pissblood!”
“Yeth, thith hath been previouthly noted due to my acquithition of one, eyeth; two, a thinkpan,” says Sollux, his lisp hissing out of all control as he looms even farther into your space. “You’re an incompetent athwipe and the motht godawful thpy in my cell. Grow a bulge, a pan and a heart and then we’ll see if you’ll make it ath an agent before I die of old age.”
“Go fuck yourself!”
“Thtop pawning my ring! And check your methageth!”
“‘Methageth’,” you sneer, delighting in his futile incoherence, “do not make me coddamn bust a gut laughin -- methageth, say it again.”
“Good God, go die,” he says, and for a moment you feel the dry crackle of telekinetics sweep across your skin. But instead of a ghostly foot kicking you ass over teakettle, he simply cracks one skinny long-fingered hand across your face. Sol slaps like a wiggler but the rings catch at the cuts on your mouth and your swelling eye, a bright prickling cluster of pain. “You look like you’ve been pailing half the dock.”
He really is a mess, you realise, there’s a sleepless high-nerve tremor in his fingers and he smells like sweat. This isn’t some workaholic bender he’s been going on. “Next time I’ll fuckin let you watch, Sol,” you grunt, and he does that weird formal warmblood thing where he surges forward and kisses you on both cheeks, two hard grudging pecks of greeting. In return, you grab yourself a handful of his stupid highblood nerdcape and pull him forward for a real smooch.
You’ve missed this, though you’d never admit it come rack and thumbscrews. His teeth grind up against yours and scrape down on your lips just a little, not enough to break the skin but enough to remind you that he can and could later, and he sinks all his irritation into the well of your mouth. You hate this boy with the pressure of a thousand deep seas. Your fingers gnaw at each other’s shirtfronts before he pulls away saying “Shove off, ED,” and abruptly brushes himself down.
The nerds are all staring like they’ve never seen two kismeses kiss before. Hell, probably never have, dumb kids they are. Sollux snaps, “Get back to work, or I’ll nail the Apiculture manual to your foreheadth,” and they all find something interesting to look at on their screens.
“Come to my office,” the Spymaster says lowly. “Now.”
“Damn, I thought you’d never ask -- ”
The back rooms look like a bomb hit them, one made of paperwork. Files are scattered all over the servers, thick with honeycomb and murmuring drones, and the couch in the corner looks as though he’s been sleeping on it. That’s just unnatural. Empty cups litter the desk, rimmed with yesterday’s caffeine.
“You look like shit,” he says, and sprawls in an untidy pile of limbs on his typing chair. “Did you see the hoofbeatht that kicked you into the bucket, or did it happen too quickly?”
“Har har har,” you say, and you tip folders off another chair before you sink into it. “I got jumped by a load a bluebloods on Wharf Road, didn’t I.”
“Then thtop having an offenthive fathe.” Sol’s scrubbing at his own, yanking off his glasses to pinch the bridge of his pointy nose. “I’m undergoing a fucking coup here, thingth are not looking good. Some limeblood’th gunning for my job, never mind I’m the only one on thith whole thorry rock qualified for the mitherable pothitition. Never mind this ithn’t a politician’s lurk, so you can shove your hand halfway up any warmblood noble’s tight clenching butthole all you want and it won’t make anyone able to do what I do -- they’re calling vote of no confidence, they’ll have AA up before a tribunal if thith continueth.”
You understood about half that. “You got titled by her Luminescence herself,” you say, “they can’t vote your sorry ass out, right?”
“They can appeal the decithion,” he says impatiently. “They can get together a little wiggler Called Court and make it impothible for uth to get anything done while they posture around making petitionth -- thith ith all becauthe I don’t go along to court and talk about what the fuck everyone’th eating or wearing.”
“Hell, you wouldn’t even know people were wearin if you had binoculars and a fuckin field guide.”
“If you’ll thtop rubbing your nook to the thound of your own voithe and lithen, I can finish. Thith girl they’re favouring ith neck-deep in blueblood gangth, I fucking know it or I’ll eat my third thervercomb -- that’ll thet the warmblood thniffing apparatuth right out of joint if they knew their golden girl wath giving the coldbloodth a line up to the central ringth. And on top of that we don’t need the coldbloodth all thuddenly taking umbrage to AA’s regime, either, thinking anyone elthe could run thith whole thorry dithathter of a capitol any better. Two of my agenth’ve already turned up dead.” You sit up straighter. That’s a bit more interesting. “We got a girl ready to turn informant, but she bolted when our limey gold-digger’th goonth showed up. Trouble being, the informant’th a -- ”
“Seadweller,” you say, in answer to the sinking feeling in your nutrient sac. “A saltlicker, a fisherfolk, a fuckin finface. Correct?”
There are few things better than the taken-aback, slightly slackjawed, gorgeous shock on Captor’s face. He hates it when you’re smart, which is just perfect because you are fucking smart as shit all the time.
“Correct,” he says, like it physically pains him to get the word out. Course, with Captor the best offense is a good offense, so he says irritably: “How the mitherable fuck did you know?”
If you were really looking for a throttling you’d touch the side of your nasals wisely and say, that’d be telling, but you already got throttled a little once today and you really do think a vein might bust in his thinkpan. If he keeled over and died right in front of you it’d mean no pay and the end of what passes for fun in your life. “Like I said, I got my shit jumped on Wharf Road and it wasn’t on account a me lookin so coddamned beautiful,” you say. “That was a bounty hunt. A pretty dumb bounty hunt, but they wanted a seadweller and they wanted one bad.”
“That’th why you look like yethterday’s grub burger?”
Oh, God, maybe he’s worried, maybe he’s going to pry. Those lens-smoked eyes sweep over your face again sharply. “Yeah, well -- ”
“Fuck! We could have uthed you ath bait!”
“There is nothin I like more than feelin needed, Sol,” you sigh, treating him to your two favorite fingers.
“It’th okay, I can put you out to be crowfood come dawn if you’re feeling neglected,” Sollux says, “The clocktower flock’th getting a little lean -- ”
And you’re just about to get up and deck him when some douchebag you’ve never seen before backs into the room, hands full of steaming mugs. He’s the shortest guy you’ve ever seen your age and bony enough to give Sollux a run for his money as Most Likely Mistaken For A Coatrack, and he’s wearing a jacket of perfect, pristine white.
“Okay one, why does no one ever clean the damn pot out between brews,” the Threshecutioner says, “and two, I am almost entirely positive I am not your fucking hired help, why the fuck am I even getting you coffee in the first place.”
“Becauthe I athked you nithely,” Sollux says, scrambling over to his side in a flurry of grasping fingers. “Oh, God, give me that.”
“You did not fucking ask fucking nicely,” the new guy says sourly. “You said you would ‘cull yourthelf’ after you brought the whole palace down with targeted smartrockets if someone didn’t fetch you caffeine in the next five minutes and apparently your useless pack of fuckasses can’t tell the difference between a bomb scare, a nervous breakdown, and business as fucking usual with your insufferably high strung little bitchfits, the key factor being that there is none. Why are you such a pain in the goddamn nook?”
“I love you too, KK,” Sollux says, and drains the rest of the mug. “Give me that other one.”
“Your bloodfiltering sac’s got to be the size of a walnut by now, you know that? No, fuck off, this one’s for me.” Sollux pries it out of his hands anyway.
The guy leans around Sollux’s narrow frame, and he looks you up and down. He’s got weird eyes, the irises still a perfectly neutral gray despite the obvious green-gold tint to the heavy bags underneath, and it makes him look sweet and scary in equal measure. Something about his gaze is fine and frank and laser-targeted straight at your face, unwavering, not flicking once to a fin.
“You must be Eridan,” he says. “Sollux giving you shit? He gets kind of hysterical sometimes.”
“Yeah, the empire ith crumbling around our fucking hornth and what’th really important ith my emotional thtatuth, thankth ever tho,” Sollux grumbles, and you are almost entirely sure that this guy steps on his foot as he comes over to you. He holds his fist out, and it takes you a long moment to tear your eyes off that jacket and bump your knuckles against his.
“Vantas,” he says. “Karkat Vantas. Maybe Sollux has complained about me?”
Karkat Vantas is Sollux’s moirail. Karkat Vantas is a Threshecutioner. Karkat Vantas is two bricks and a fucking button high and he’s got nubby little horns and you’re tongue-tied in front of him.
“I didn’t know you were important,” you say, and then you want to die.
“He’th not,” Sollux says.
“And he’s jealous,” Karkat says easily, and kisses you gently on each cheek. His mouth is feverishly warm against your skin, even for a highblood.
“Uh,” you say, very intelligently. After a second you remember to close your mouth. After another second, you dare to kiss him back, each searingly hot green-flushed cheek, and he pats your shoulder approvingly like you’ve past some kind of test when you finish.
“Thith all the coffee?” Sollux asks, almost plaintively. “Like, all of it?”
“No, but it’s the last you’re going to get,” he says, turning away from you with a tired scowl. “I give you any more and Terezi’s going to be able to indict me on willful malpractice, and I need another excuse to wind up with her extra credit projects like I need a hole in my thinkpan. Now, what have you got for me that’s actually on the order of legitimate business?”
“It all dependth what the Threshecutioner ith legitimately offering,” comes the reply, filtered liberally through big mouthfuls of coffee. “If he planth on doing nothing more thtrenuouth than admiring his own bony gluteth in the mirror, then he can fill hith schedule with going and fucking himthelf. If he’d like to take the time out to go and actively get my job back, I’ll give him thome orderth.”
“I live to serve,” Karkat drawls, “or so they fucking tell me.”
“Good,” he says, bringing up a gut-churningly familiar map on his desk-sized holotop, “becauthe you’re about to go on a magical journey to get my mole in one piethe, a beautiful adventure where I bet you’ve never been before. Thee, my informant was last thighted heading down to be with all her other fishy friendth, all the way down to a mythical land known ath -- “
“ -- oh, no, fuck, no,” you breathe.
“The Theptics!” says Sollux, with glee.
You and Karkat glance at each other, and on his gaunt face is your own dawning horror.
“I’m sorry, Captor, I forgot we were in the quadrant where you legitimately want me to die,” Karkat says with all the eerie pleasantness of an oncoming storm. “Him I can understand -- ”
He quirks an eyebrow at you.
“Yeah, okay,” you concede.
“ -- but I don’t remember us flipping from ‘Oh Karkat you’re going to get yourself fucking killed up there let me hold your hand like a overwrought lusus and cry bitchtears over your papercuts’ to ‘By the way you and the God of Pulse and Fucking Haze should maybe get to know each other a little more fucking intimately, I’m sending you to him myself.’”
“Let me refer you to two very important referendums I preprepared jutht for you,” Sollux says, and raises two middle fingers. “One: Fucking deal. Two: with it. All the available evidenth pointh to -- to the thhh -- ”
Sollux yawns abruptly, and sags back in his chair. “The Theptics. So I ssuggetht you... you...” Then his eyes fly open wide and he launches over the desk to grab hold of Karkat’s crisp lapels.
“You giant fucking nookfuck made of shit,” he hisses, “you fucking doped the fucking coffee, didn’t you?”
“I think the real question isn’t whether I just fed you four solid ounces of sopor, it’s why the fuck do you keep falling for it,” Karkat grins, and sets him gently back in his chair. “Now get some fucking sleep before I have to inject the stuff straight into your miserable tweaked-out little veins, okay?”
“I hate you. I hate you. I hate you forever go die.” He yawns, and his head lolls limply to his shoulder. “If you don’t have... that sharkfucker... back to me in, in once piece... by... the time I wake up I will... flip...my...” his eyes shutter closed. After a moment, he snores.
Karkat leans over and squeezes one of his horns. “Sollux? You out? Hey? Yeah, he’s out. God, if he weren’t so fucking cute when he’s being a bitch I would just let him choke to death on his own backed-up ragetubes and it would serve the difficult little shit right.”
For a moment there is something strange and wistful in the way he runs his claws through his moirail’s short hair, but then he blinks and is all furious efficiency once more. With quick, birdlike little motions he takes control of the map, twists it around and studies it himself. Then he sighs, sets it back to default, and renames the file II AM A MII2ERABLE PANT2HIITTIING A22MUCH AND KARKAT II2 MY GODKIING.
“This is going to suck big giant hoofbeast phallus,” he says wearily. “This is going to suck so much hoofbeast phallus we are going to get impregnated with foals and when the monstrosities finish gestating in our bile sacs they will be birthed into the world already chanting fuck you, Sollux Captor.”
“We’re going into the Septics, aren’t we,” you say.
He claps a hand on your shoulder. “Look, one of us is a hardened killing machine, forged in relentless battle to be an unbeatable warrior of justice and might, and the other one has this really nice white jacket. We are probably going to be at least some definition of fine.”
Oh, shit, jackets. All your thoughts about the Septics and how much you want to dump Sollux in them crystallize into one thought, that thought being you’re about to take your clothes down into the Septics. “Hell, are you kiddin,” you say, dismay writ large on your face. “I can’t go down there, do you know how long it takes to get shit outta clothes? Let me tell you somethin: I know exactly how long it takes to get shit outta clothes, and the answer is forever.”
Karkat looks at you with the blank stare of someone who has never cared about getting shit out of his clothes, and you have to bite back the urge to ask him what the hell that Threshecutioner coat’s made of. It looks as lusus-white as it must’ve done the day it was tailored. God, he probably gets covered in blood and yuk and stuff all the time and you feel like a wiggler meeting some kind of holodrama celebrity. “Get new clothes,” he suggests. “Put them on his tab.”
“This jacket’s couture!”
“And once again I thank my every lucky star that I do not know that word, nor will I ever,” he says. “God save me. Okay, my recommendation is you stop wearing clothes for girls and that we go get some food before I keel over and expire, because all I’ve been doing for the last six hours is stopping Captor from putting his head in the thermal convectory, and then we’re going to go on a delightful little shit-romp! Clear?”
“Fuckin transparent,” you say, and your voice don’t shake even a little.
“Just give me a moment,” he says, “because as little a shit I give about what you are wearing, I am not walking around with someone who looks like he just pailed a combination harvester.” Before you can protest, punch him or abscond, he suddenly has this huge white hanky the size of a frigging towel out his pocket and he licks it, and then he’s suddenly up in your face dabbing at the side of your mouth and your cuts as you yowl. “Hold still, asshole!”
You don’t hold still, but you hold enough to let him do it, feeling awkwardly over-intimate as Kar’s salivary pheromones kick your body’s healing factor into overdrive-- you only really ever had Sol and Fef to swap spit with, and even then Fef’s got to practically ride your horns. You just don’t need people taking care of you. “Gettin pale with your moirail’s kismesis?” you snipe, covering your unease. “You fuckin sicko.”
“You wish, bitch.” Karkat gives you a final dab, studies his handiwork with a critical eye, and tucks the hanky away as abruptly as he got it. “Do you always dress like a movie gangster, or are you legitimately blind?”
“Are you always this much of a nosy mould-for-blood fuss tit, Kar, or are you tryin’a impress me?”
At Kar he blinks, and then he throws his head back and he laughs and laughs and laughs. His laughter isn’t pleasant; it’s a hacking, raspy bark, and you sort of like it. “Yeah,” he says. “Yeah, we’re going to get on just fine.”
You both decide to wait until the sun’s nearly up to go into the sewer system, hoping that anybody down there wanting a smoke or a loiter will be gone by sunup and also wanting to put it off as long as possible. So you take a leisurely Imperial Street to get your really late dinner, and he buys some hot skewers from a stall along with a whole box of fried dough. You sit on a park bench and eat in the shadow of a big flowering tree, and you feel the unusual and real pleasure of not being the only one getting gawked at.
You eat grilled hoofbeast off sticks, sandwiched between some fibrous red tree meat, as neatly as you can while feeling awkwardly outclassed. And of course, you’re gawked at a little, seeing as you’re a seadweller out with a Threshecutioner and this sounds like the beginning to some awful joke, and who wouldn’t want to hang around waiting for the punchline? Finally fed up with playing pet, you sling one arm over the back of the bench and pull meat off the stick with a little more teeth than necessary and when one gutsy greenbood lingers too long you narrow your eyes real slow.
“Hey, you!” Karkat says. “Not you with the teeth, you with the dumb horns, yeah, you with the knowing fuckall about pretending like you’re not the rudest sack of shit in the Capitol. Take a picture, motherfucker, it’ll last longer.”
The greenie blinks, looks at him, looks at you. Karkat gestures encouragingly.
“Pose for the nice fuckass, Eridan,” he says.
“What?” you say.
The cameracomm flashes.
“Nice. Nice. Did we smile? Here, bring it over, let me see.” Karkat gestures, and the guy comes, almost stumbling over his feet in his eagerness.
“You don’t photograph well, Fins,” Karkat says, cheerfully --
-- and snaps the comm in half.
“Now get the fuck out before I have you arrested for trying to record classified Threshecutioner business,” he says, and his voice is a black whip of a snarl. The greenie falls back, his eyes going so wide.
“But my camera--”
“It was junk anyway. Now fuck off before we fuck you up.” The greenblood fucks off.
“And get your arm off the back of the bench, you look like an imbecile,” Karkat tells you. “Do you want some of these grubcakes?”
“Uh.” You blink at the broken halves of the camera and the big clear empty space around your bench, and you carefully fold your hands in your lap. “Sure.”
The little cake balls are chewy and crisp at the same time, dripping powdered sugar and being damn difficult to eat. He slits those green-shadowed eyes and pops four of them in his mouth all at once, and then he licks his fingers like he’s five.
Both of you people-watch the dregs of the crowd: greenbloods, tealbloods, most of them ambling home after getting their business sorted, passing in careful arcs around the two of you. Everything that’s happened to you tonight feels a thousand sweeps away. You feel strange and numb around the edges, but Karkat gives off the strangest sensation of being a rock planted firm in the path of any and all storms, and in the leeward side of this space you are sort of carefully, tentatively okay.
When you’re finally overcome by curiosity and you ask him what it’s like being a Threshecutioner, he pulls a dour, thoughtful face. “It’s about responsibility, is the thing, it’s not just a white jacket and people wanting to lick your toes,” he says, “they took us up into space for a whole sweep and stuck the whole world on our shoulders -- it’s small, this planet, it’s so incredibly small. And it’s heavy.” Then he pauses. “Okay, no, who am I kidding? Being a Threshecutioner’s fucking bad ass and I will fight anyone who says otherwise.”
You realize, with a pang of horrified shock, that you like this boy so much.
After a little conversation you have found out that Karkat Vantas likes cake, romcoms and what you like, which is gossiping the fuck out of everything. When he scopes your pink moirail ring he gets all interested, and in careful, precision word strikes he gets you to tell more about her than you’ve told anyone else in the whole damn world.
“Is that shell?” is what he asks first off, fingers frying-hot on yours.
“Abalone. We’re seaborn, right, don’t have much cause to go grubbin through mines for diamonds, you get me?” You’re on your guard again, wary -- you don’t want to have to stick a knife in this guy -- but he just sneers like you got all your feelings writ right across your face when he sits back.
“Nothing wrong with not sporting some big gaudy chunk of rock, put your shame globes away before you embarrass yourself. So you and your-- girl, yeah? You two been together long?”
“Girl, yeah. Most of our lives, give or take a pupation.”
He whistles. “Damn. No way.”
“Yes, fuckin way!” you fire back. “We met when we were just wrigglers, like, fuckin literally, first sweep outta the caverns.”
“Sounds rough. How’d it go?”
“Well, it was like, my lusus’d just... you know, just died, aquatic lusii don’t... don’t last, and I don’t know as she ever even had one at all. We washed up together, colonizin the same shipwreck for our hives by sheer coincidentals and we just stuck, I guess?” Goddamn but you’re babbling, and he just nods like he’s still interested. “I was this scabby-kneed grub, and she was -- she wasn’t afraid of shit and she was crazy... we started talkin and she said she’d be my lusus if I’d be hers, and I was so alone and I said yes -- I know, I know that’s pathetic, Sollux is always on about it -- ”
“That’s because Sollux is a dunkass with all the appreciation of the miracle of romantic serendipity as your average rock,” Karkat says wearily. “No, sorry, that’s an insult to rocks. There’s nothing wrong with a pair of moirails really looking out for each other like that, I mean, look at how Tav and Aradia turned out.”
You blink. “Who?”
“Her Luminescence and the Premier, fuckstick. They’ve been sort of specifically trained their whole lives to have what you and your girl just kind of fell into.”
“...you know her Luminescence?” This is a horrifying thought.
“Yes, that is exactly the point of all those noises I just ejaculated from my windtube. You bump bulges on a regular bases with Sollux of all people, it’s not like you’re exactly scraping the bottom of the social ladder for connections.”
You look away, uncomfortable. “It’s not the same thing at all.”
“The fuck it isn’t. You know Sollux is like, the highest goldblood of the bunch? Pure yellow. Probably the only reason everyone neglected to throw him in the Scratch with bricks tied to his horns when he was four or five, come to think of it.”
That little piece of information gives you skinprickles, bad ones. “Kar, it’s not like I’m all fuckin scones and tea with him while we discuss our plans for empire! I run his errands for enough cash to scrape and the opportunity to remind him he don’t get to be the boss a everyone. With my fists. That’s all.”
Karkat’s staring at you in a way that makes you really uncomfortable. He’s good at that: sometimes his gaze is so intense you want to look away as much as you want to keep looking. The kid is compelling as shit, a pocket-sized firestorm, and you’re not sure what to think at all. “He respects you, you know.”
You grimace. “How about we talk about somethin else now? What about your love life, if you’re done pokin at mine? You’re Sol’s moirail, little Gods only know how you forget a slit your wrists every mornin on a cause a that, but you got anyone, uh, concupiscent?”
“Oh my God, don’t even start,” he says. The dough’s all gone, so now he’s carefully shaking out the remnant sugar into his hand and eating it, which is a little disgusting. On his right hand you note the diamond-shaped topaz, stone-mate to your own not-so-dearly-departed spade, and bare fingers otherwise. “We are not going to amble down Humiliation Lane by way of It’s Fucking Complicated Street, set conveniently close to Red-Black Reacharound Avenue. Let’s leave it at that.”
“Bad luck, pal.”
He barks that raspy laugh again. “You don’t even know the half of her.”
“You know there really is a Humiliation Lane, right?”
“Oh, fuck you,” he says amiably, and he wipes sugar off on his trousers. Karkat doesn’t have elegant hands: he’s got practical calloused fingers, short square palms, a bit like the rest of him. He looks all bones and blocks, but he wears his scarred-up skin proud as any parliament lordling you’ve ever seen. “So do you have a matesprit in your life, or what?”
You school your features into a roguish smoulder, and you bat your eyelashes like you’re gonna achieve takeoff. “Why, Mr. Vantas, this is so fuckin sudden -- ”
He is completely unmoved by the raw sensual power of you. “Fuck you again!”
“Too good for a saltlicker, right?”
“No, too good for someone who literally wears a tie at your age,” he says. “You look like an unbelievable douchewagon and you’re transparently flushed for your couture. So!” Another brush of sugar off his knuckles and he’s standing, tossing the box in a long graceful overhand to a nearby rubbish bin. The sky has lightened to a dim, warning grey in the east, and he shields his eyes to squint. Whatever he sees satisfies, because he salutes the sky in a way that would look like complete douchebaggery on anyone else and on him is -- complete douchebaggery with panache.
All theatrical smugness, Karkat turns to you with a shit-eating smirk and an outstretched hand: “Want to go wade through the contents of one million load gapers with me?”
You’re grinning despite yourself. “I thought you’d never ask.”
Ten minutes later, you are grinning less. The entrance to the Septics is every bit as dark and ominous as the gaping black maw of Hell itself should be, which is fitting because that is what it is. Only, it smells worse.
“After you,” you say.
“After you,” he says.
“I quit,” you say. “I quit, I’m going home, I am gonna spend the rest a my fuckin life sitting on a rock in the middle a sharkfuck nowhere eatin crabs and seaweed and every fuckin night I am gonna look up at the moons and say, ‘thank you, Gods, for not makin me wade through shit for Sollux fuckin Captor.”
“Fine, fine, fuck you, I’ll go in first if you just stop fucking whining,” Karkat growls, and punches you hard in the gills as he shoulders past into the gloom of the busted-up storm drain.
“How is it?” you call anxiously, as his footsteps fade quieter and then stop.
“I can feel my soul dying already,” he calls back. “Though for a good time I am being advised to pester ‘egregiousBucketfuls’. Aside from how someone has managed to misspell the four-letter adjective ‘good’ it’s fine, you gigantic creampuff.”
“So, uh... any ravening hordes a slaughterous feral seatrolls? Or monsters as might be lurkin around, hypothetically?”
“I think they were all so ashamed of you they left. Now get your ever-so-dainty ass in gear and let’s both go and be miserable fucks before I am forced to dice you up and sell you to the dockworms as chum.”
You suck in a breath and follow, holding it for as long as you can. It is profoundly fucking dark down here. The smell’s like low tide and shit, basically, all the different spectrums of fecal matter you could ever want mixed with dead body. Some of the blueblood crews like to dump corpses down here instead of into the sea or the wooded parks like decent people, so there’s every chance you are smelling a rainbow of shit and putrefaction. You tug your jacket tight over your chest and hope to God you don’t graze the greasy walls.
It is not fine and he is a horrible liar. From deep within the sewer system you hear something churning, the low groan of some mechanism helping all the runoff get its just reward, counterpoint to the plinkety plink plink of dripping water. Your oculars adjust to the dimness eventually, the tiny shakelight in your hand doing no better but to throw silver spots in the gloom. All it reveals is wall after wall after same old wall and a lattice of pipes, the vacant slow-running murmur of the oily river next to you. Minutes feel like hours.
There are no sounds of slaughterous feral seatrolls, monsters either, though to make up for it there’s no dearth of graffiti. Karkat wasn’t kidding about egregiousBucketfuls. He’s got better eyesight than you so as you squint at the holomap, he calls out some for your edification: Keelsi Gaswat is a sick pale slut, Raaqel gets her glutes dirty. Fucked a whale down here!! YFF YFF and KILL THE SYSTEM, THE SESSION HAS CORRUPTED.
A depressed poet has left:
My heart is black but my soul is blue
You don’t hate me like I hate you
along with any amount of letters with scratches between them: spades, diamonds, hearts, a couple clubs. None of this changes the fact that you’re running around in a dirty great shitcomb looking for a political dissident.
It’s actually strange, how few rabid creatures are running around down here. Usually something crawls out of the sewers each week to try to take something back down with it, any number of gatorbeasts and spiderkind, but the place has been cleaned out. This is suspect. Not a hint of fangfish, not a whisper of a feral. You’re not gonna let yourself relax.
“God, stop sighing,” says Karkat impatiently. His voice echoes down the cramped tunnels. “You are proving you have the garb of an asshole and the nerves of a juvenile puffbeast.”
“It’s makin me stoop. This ain’t a problem you share, nubby, and I’m completely certain these tunnels got tuberculosis.”
“As though anything short of a pneumatic fucking drill could pierce your hair gel?”
Something runs over your boot. Probably a gnawbeast -- fuck knows there are enough of them in the slums, too -- but down here in the dark it makes you suck your cheeks into your teeth and wish for Sollux to drown in a puddle of piss. Your voices bounce strange reflections off the grimy, gutter-black brickwork, and you realise with revulsion that all the sea-dwellers down here could’ve been Fef. Could’ve been you.
You’re about to tell him to head left down a drippy little byway when he stops dead, like a startled cat. He just suddenly goes still, supernaturally still, more still than any living thing has a right to be. Karkat’s hand slices down in the universal motion for kill the lights, and you fumble with the flashlight and fumble with the holomap til you’re plunged into darkness. Your breath steams loudly in your aurals. The normal symphony of clanks and hisses from the Septics suddenly coalesce into meaningful clanks and hisses, and footsteps rattle all over the walls.
Footsteps, plural; muffled curses. Unlike anyone fuckin sensible Kar heads right for the sound, crouched low in the tunnel as he makes a beeline for the noise, and fool him for doing this and more fool you for following but you creep behind. The sound gains texture, meaning:
“ -- right way -- ”
“ -- fuck up, it’s all over my -- ”
“ -- shut your seedflap, quiet.”
Both of you huddle at the mouth of a crawlway, looking at a cluster of burly silhouettes: bluebloods! There’s about six of them, trudging two abreast and carrying lamps, scraping their elbows on the rocks and elbowing each other to step in the shit. One of them’s got curly horns on a clean-shorn head; you feel a bit sick.
“Shit,” you hiss. “Bounty hunters, Kar, those are fuckin bounty hunters.”
“Oh, thank you! I had taken them for a morale committee.”
“Listen to me, I fuckin mean it -- I ran into some earlier, why d’you think I look like I kissed a pond dredger?”
Karkat flicks a glance to your face, hisses a few curses underneath his breath. Half of them just seem to be ordinary nouns attached to ‘fuck.’ “Map,” he says tersely, and you two crouch down in the crawlway and stare at it: the Septics are a twisty-turny labyrinth that have a sort of belatedness to them, a deep catacomb probably made by her Luminesce as a pupa the night she got told about plumbing and not a moment afterwards. This is why they shouldn’t leave architecture up to little kids: a snarl of sewers, and a park called Fairyblossom Gate.
“They’re headed in the wrong direction,” he says.
“Yeah, and they’ll realise that when they hit the dead end over here.”
“Well, then.” The map illuminates his face in green and red: shining eyes and a glassy, eager grin, one that says the wheel’s running but the squeakbeast has left the vicinity. This close he’s warm, warmer than any arsenicblood ever had a right to be, like he’s running five fevers all at once. “Put your enormous adult undergarments on, Fins, this just turned into a fucking race.”
He jumps back to his feet, and takes three increasingly juddery steps before something happens and he goes to one knee like a puppet string got cut.
“Fuck!” you yelp, scrambling over. “Kar, what the -- ”
He paps your face. He fucking paps your face. You are speechless with indignation.
“I’m fine,” he rasps out, one hand squeezing at his chest, one hand vaguely rubbing your cheek. His own face is twisted up into some utterly unreadable private expression, his eyes darting back and forth behind closed lids as he breathes fast and shallow.
“Don’t look any kind a fine I ever did get treated the sight of,” you say slowly, daring a hand on the back of his neck. It’s damp with sweat. This close you can hardly avoid catching the smell of him, spice-sharp in a strange unfamiliar way that sends prickles down your spine, no color or sickness you ever got this close to before. He smells hot, like inside himself he is very literally burning up.
“Just a blood condition,” he finally grits out. “‘S nothing that’ll slow us down, Fins, quit your fucking fretting.” He heaves valiantly up to his feet one more time. The hand against your face turns into a vicegrip on your shoulder, and he lists heavily to one side, his fangs flashing in the darkness as he snarls. He shakes his head like a man trying to shrug off an entirely expected uppercut.
“Sol know about this?”
“Sol helps me manage this, so, yes.”
“You don’t look fuckin managed, Kar, you look like you’re on the fast road to dead in a ditch.”
“Fins -- Eridan -- get off me.”
You catch his face in your palms, stroke your thumb up the sweat-damp curve of one cheek. He’s flushed as sunlight through a leaf and he fairly sags into your attentions, gasping for breath in a way that makes you feel shivery tender as if you were holding Fef.
“I think you might want to tell me what the bloody fuck is going on with you, Kar,” you say carefully. “We can sit here, and -- ”
“What’s going on is I got my moirail’s fucking kismesis going pale as a cluckbeast lusus for a chance to climb onto my understandably magnificent bone bulge. You seadwellers got a different concept of family or what?”
The way he says ‘family’ fair steams your fins off your face. You nearly dump him on his ass, you snatch your hands away so fast.
“Don’t have to get downright nasty,” you say, kind of hurt despite yourself. He just shines his teeth at you in the darkness, a slice of fangs that’s no kind of smile at all, and braces one hand against the slime-dark tunnel wall.
“Heel, Fins,” he says, and if the first step away from you is wobbly as all terrifying hell then the next one is less so, and he makes his way along fast enough that you have to stay on your toes to keep pace regardless.
The mad scramble through the Septics is worse than any run you’ve ever had to do for Sollux Captor. It’s worse than any run you had to do before Sol, when you really were just a crim who did handpay work for the Sunshine Crew and the Fuckbuckets, giving scares and dumping bodies. Those were the good days, back when you really were all kids and it didn’t involve much more than a few punches to the shame globes. A couple times your leg scrapes up against the wall and you know you’re gonna have to burn your trousers, just put them in a lit pyre and squeeze out a couple tears in loving memory...
So it’s through muddy little tunnels and reeking corridors, and skinning down one ladder so cold and slippery you can’t believe it and you’re a sea troll; down to where the smell of the sea starts to mix in with the smell of everything else, Karkat’s ragged breath becomes damp white puffs and then farther into the cold and he steams all over, bright eyed and burning. Down here you can hear running water, and as you trip along another chilly byway you start to hit camp.
At first it’s just bits of cloth in alcoves, somebody’s abandoned clothes, then you start to get makeshift recuperacoons, tin baths and cracked plastic drums filled with crusting sopor. A box filled with plastic sheeting for the same: they sleep cold here. Transient rubbish crunches underfoot, books, old filthy plushtoys, throw-away palmgames, and the tunnel opens up to the shantytown proper, a stilt village in the middle of a great, slowly-shifting underground lake. Electric lights fizz dismally overhead, clusters of pilfered waste-processors bouncing scratchy echos back and forth, doing their best to keep black-brown water some kind of nonlethal and coughing out clouds of greasy smoke from the effort. Everyone’s tried to keep their makeshift hives all neat and square and nice, but they were built by neither carpenter drones or you and Fef. Walls sag. Ceilings are just tacked-on planks and tarps, stolen sailcloth swagged here and there. Some of the hives are half-submerged, slicked down with algae. This smells like the sea and trash and too many people living close enough to eat each other.
Now that you’re in better light, you see a funny expression on Kar’s face. There’s a little furrow in his brow and a weird pulled-up scowl to his mouth, and you realise that it’s very deep pity. You don’t like it at all. “It’s a damn sight cleaner than the slums,” you say, and you realise you’re bristling.
“It’s also a damn sight more underwater.” But he relents: “Where the hell is everyone?”
“Not stupid, that’s for sure! They’ll be in the lake. Let’s go have a glubbin look, anyhow.”
There’s a rickety bridge -- more tin flats and rotting wood than anything else -- to the first platform. In the dingy center of these hives, there’s a single lusus: a mangy oilfeather beakbeast bobbing in a plastic tank of water, and it honks at you furiously. Well, not at you: it’s honking at Karkat, flapping its wings threateningly and showing all the teeth in its beak. “Shush,” he says bravely: “Shush-a-shush, good lusus, good little feathery fuckwaddler,” and it hisses at him.
You pull aside dirty tarps and check in doors. The stink of refuse and stale sopor rises from within. “Have fun with that, Kar.”
There’s a bitten-off curse and flapping as you peer into windows, kick under tables, listen for a telltale harsh, anxious breath. “It’s trying to bite me,” Karkat protests, with the obvious rising disbelief of someone who has never been bitten before. “It’s trying to fucking bite me. This is an outrage. Shush-a-shush, shush shush -- “
There’s nothing and nobody. You elbow aside a broken box. All around you is waiting silence, apart from the quiet lapping of the water at its ferroxcrete shore and the steady drip, drip, drip. “Are you seriously tryin to shoosh a lusus?”
“Everything I shoosh,” he says with certainty, “stays mollified.”
“That thing don’t like landdwellers!”
“It’s a bigot?”
“It’s somebody’s duckmom, idiot!”
“That is diddly horseshit and how the fuck can you tell,” says Karkat calmly. “I refuse to believe you are some kind of mystical lusus whisperer, able to tell at a glance if it assumes one gender or the other, lusus gendering generally being between a troll and its guardian and not motherfucking ‘I, Eridan, prince of lusii secrets’ -- ”
“Do you ever stop rubbing your nook to the sound of your own glubbin voice?”
You unlatch someone’s excuse for a door, peer into stultifying darkness, and feel the barrel of a gun press up against your head.
This is not your sweep.
This is approximately the forty billionth time you have had a weapon up against your skull. Knives, crossbows, spears, morningstars, you’ve had them all; but the cold kiss of a gun’s not one you’re particularly fond of, and you shoot your hands into the air. A gun up against your head’s the opening to a negotiation, not an aggrieve. If they wanted to aggrieve, they woulda pulled the trigger.
The gun nudges you out the hive and into the open, where the lusus is honking like crazy. From the corner of your eye you see Karkat raise his hands, slow, palms held outwards, beseeching and perfectly calm.
Your gunner’s a gungirl. And your gungirl’s not well. The jittery hand dancing the gun in your direction means that trigger finger’s a hell of a lot more dangerous than it might be, and that hand’s covered in open, weeping sores, lesions that follow up the elbow into a scummy t-shirt damp with sweat. Her half-arc horns look dry and scabby in the half-light, and she stares at you with pupils that are little black dots in a sea of yellow.
“God, God, God, God, God,” the girl chants, teeth gritted, voice jerky. “You want me? You got me.”
“We’re just here to help you,” says Karkat, with infinite gentleness. “I promise.”
Her eyes scour over his white coat. She’s not even a seadweller; her blood’s indigo at its purplest, ears barely ridged and ribs slit by vestigial bruised-up gillflaps that wouldn’t breathe mist. One of those inbetweeners, caught between the ocean and the land and belonging to neither. “You’re hiding more,” she says, in the taut, galloping syllables of someone who’s high as a kite and comedown-paranoid. “Where are they? Where are they hiding? I know you brought more so stop hiding them, stop hiding from me, I know -- I know -- ”
“It’s okay,” Karkat says. “You’re fine. There’s only us here, me and my friend with the tight pants. We’re not going to hurt you, we’re going to get you the hell out of here.”
“Are you a real Threshecutioner?”
“Last time I checked.”
“Are you real?”
“Last time I checked, yeah, and I checked pretty goddamn thoroughly.”
“Shit -- just because I got paid dirty money by some arsenicblood, lost my job -- shifted junk at the refinery for cash, right? Right up till it was gang business, didn’t even care but didn’t want a bulge of it -- don’t think you can pull my frond, don’t think you fucking can, I know there’s more of you I know there’s more you motherfuckers, fuck you, fuck your politics, fuck your games...”
“Shh. Shhhhhh. Tell me what you’re coming down from,” says Karkat, advancing while she rambles, his hands still up in that don’t-hurt-me submissive stance. You recognise it; it’s so that his hands are closest target to her face and that gun, but she’d never notice. “It’s not sopor. Rock candy, right? Not what you’re used to, neither.”
You see her swallow, hard, and she nods four times fast.
“Made me take it, made me, nothing’s real, anymore nothing’s gone right,” she whimpers. “Didn’t want to but it hurts, and I’m a good girl, they made me fucking unreal, they took away what little world they ever gave me, you know? I’m good!”
“Sure you are, sure. Shush, now. You have a pale quadrant, don’t you?” he continues, ruthlessly calm and soft-voiced. Now he’s up next to you shoulder-to-shoulder and that gun’s still pointed right between your eyes and shaking there, her eyes flicking from him to you to him. “Wouldn’t have lasted ten fucking minutes without them, I expect, you’re not the mean type, are you?”
“She’s a tealblood,” the girl says, and her mouth is a hard crumpled line. “Nine seven three Mapleheart Road, down the back alley and through the window and it sticks and she’s waiting for me I know it, but I can’t go to her, can’t go, they’re watching her -- I want my fucking moirail!”
This last comes out as a truly exhausted wail. Taking the gun is easy after that. You lift it right out her hand and she goes for the lusus-white shoulder of Karkat’s coat, all tears and mucus and open wealy wounds, sort of hammering her fist on him at the same time as she shakes. She’s like a head taller than him but he’s all patting her solicitously despite the fact that she’s probably got something communicable.
“Shhh,” he hums, a low peaceful throb of sound that goes down to your bones, “Shush, shushhh.”
"This is fucking bullshit,” she sniffles into his shoulder, “you ever thought about it, you ever really thought about it, they’re eating our childhoods... we’re all just kids and posers... I hate it down here, I’m not even a real saltlicker...”
“That’s why she’s not down below with the others,” you offer, and the indigo lets loose a gratingly pitiful wail, and Karkat just gives you an irritated sort of yes I know glance that makes you feel all of three sweeps old.
He practically up and hauls the girl off to sit out in the low electric light, huddled into herself on an old crate. The duckmom waddles over and scrambles up into her lap, preening at her tattered t-shirt, and she bends over the scruffy little thing while Karkat curls up around her like he’s playing happy families, stroking her greasy hair and murmuring low and soft. It only half-calms her; she’s mad with sobriety and must have steel guts to be this lucid at all. That’s an indigoblood for you, though.
“Here, now, come on, don’t cry, be brave, shooosh. Shhhhh. My best friend Eridan here has a snack for you, did you know, he’s pulling it out right now,” his voice still modulated so velvety persuasive that you’re fumbling your saved orange out of your jacket before you can think twice. He plucks the bright sphere out of your fingers with his own stubby claws, twists it open. The smell of sweet fruit rings out bright and clear against the sewer-reek, and she eyes it with a shocked and disbelieving hunger.
“Oh, come on, that was mine,” you say, though not particular strenuously.
“Seriously?” He peels away a long white thread of pith and pops a segment in her mouth, where she mulches it with her teeth. “Seriously.”
“You owe me an orange, is all I’m glubbin.”
“I owe you an asskicking. Here, kid, get some sugar in you, that’s right, good girl, shhh-a-shh, that’s right,” he murmurs, feeding her bit after bit. She clings and lets him, looking less like a strung-out maniac and more like just one more lost girl, each moment as passes, her eyes wide and hopeful and her hands easing bit by bit away from being gnarled up claws.
“There,” Karkat says, stroking her hair, “there, now, not so bad, are you? No, you’re fine now, shhh,” and she gives him a tentative, wobbly little smile as the lusus tucks its bill in the crook of one elbow and huffs a peaceful sigh.
It is this moment, of all times, that your blue-blooded compatriots seize to make their entrance. They come swaggering up the bridge towards the three of you, kicking litter off the side and elbowing each other up. Something like ten or eleven of them, and only the three of you -- it doesn’t look good and they know it.
“Wellll,” drawls the biggest one up in front, “well, well, well, what d’we got here?”
You are stupid grateful to see Karkat rolling his eyes too. If you got a dupondus for every time some swaggering hardass went well well well at you, you could near enough afford your own fucking palace. From the deeply unimpressed set of Karkat’s horns, his palace’d be something like the same size. But your indigo huddles into herself, looking a fraction of a freak-out from shitting a million bricks, and the lusus untucks itself and warbles high and menacing.
You step in front of Karkat and his ward, and raise your stolen gun. The bluebloods all raise their own weapons, more of an are you shitting me than a real let’s kick your ass but one’ll become the other soon enough, and you’re really, really hoping that your gun’s packing heat when you get a Threshecutioner kick to your calf.
“What the flippin hell, Kar?”
“Weapon down,” he says, and he unwinds himself from the jittering indigo on her crate. He comes to stand next to you, flushed lemon green and jaw set. “Attention, assholes!” he demands. “Do you know who I am?”
One of them jabs their weapon in his direction, which appears to be nothing less horrifying than a spear with a small buzzsaw attached to the end. It’s got a little engine and everything. “You’re a Threshecutioner,” they say, with a grudging kind of don’t expect me to be impressed air to it.
“Congratulations! You get ten points and a hearty fuck-you.” A couple of the bluebloods snigger; you can’t ever say that the spectrum ain’t got a sense of humour. They’ll crack jokes right up to and after they crack your head, now, won’t they though. “So who out of all of you gets the bounty money?”
Another blueblood, scar-faced and sharp-horned, jerks her head to the rest of the mob’s direction. “Split ten ways,” she says. “Aureus each.”
“Oh, you cannot think they’re really going to pony up with ten aureii,” says Karkat, shoving his hands in his pockets. It’s funny how big he seems in that jacket, those dirty, billowing pants, the nubby horns that hardly show up out of his hair. He holds himself like he’s the size of a hive, and somehow it works. “I never met a warmblood who wasn’t so tight their nook squeaked. I should know.”
The biggest one says, “You got a better offer?”
“Yeah,” he says. “Go the fuck home. When did bluebloods start being muscle-for-hire for some arsenicblood?” There’s a few mutters at that and, Gods in their heaven, you can’t believe the shit coming out his mouth. “I am telling you that you’re not going to get paid, you’re certainly not going to be paid in Imperial red gold, and you’re going to come out of this with shit on your face or dead! You want to be the laughingstock of the slums when it came out you went all the way down here for a fishtroll and got horseshit to show for it?”
“Don’t talk down to us, Threshecutioner,” says the scar-faced one again, quite quietly for a blueblood. “We can’t be played, we can’t be lead.”
“You can be bought.”
“Everyone‘s buyable,” says the biggest of the pack.
“Everyone can go play a merry game of grab-ass, too, because what do you know, I just made you all stand around discussing philosophy,” says Karkat. That gets a barking laugh from another. You can see the way they look at him; it’s not just the jacket, this thing that makes you all sit still and shut up, that makes you all turn to him, it’s something like a red-hot kernel implanted in his chest that shines out through his skin, something that you can’t name but it feels like you’ve always been hungry for. Fuck, you’re getting soppy, what the glubbin goddamn hell is wrong with you?
“Look, wigglers,” he sighs, “I’ll use the last card in my deck. I’m a Threshecutioner and I don’t want any trouble, and you’ll be in a reeking loadgaper of it if you push this.”
“What, if we have a dead Threshecutioner on our hands?” says one.
“Oh, no,” says Karkat. “If I have eleven dead bluebloods on mine.”
For a moment, everyone believes the spell conjured by his jacket and his voice. You believe it too; a hard, involuntary shiver runs down the back of your neck, prickling at your palms. This sorcery is ruined by his mouth twitching, lips pursing together some, and you think he’s going to burst out laughing except that he bursts out with a wrenching cough instead.
It’s a wet, racking, gross sound, cheeks burning green as he struggles for breath until he sweats. Now you all watch him like dazed, dumb animals, indigo included, and it’s in this truly auspicious situation that one of the bluebloods elbows to the front. It’s the curly-horned girl with the clean-shorn head, and she’s alight with recognition and pain.
“It is you, you fuck,” she says, and she’s talking right at you. “You fucking unreal piece of shit, you saltlicker, bubbleblower -- you turned Iskarr into a fucking ghast and it took us ten minutes to hack him to pieces and he was my fucking auspistice!”
This is the equivalent of chucking sodium into a pond: immediate fizzing. Karkat, still gasping, swings his head around to you with the bug-eyed expression that flatly says what the fuck, and one of the bluebloods is going “what, that guy, but -- ” and just like that, the mood shifts south. Right into the shitter.
“Oh, you are corpsemeat,” says the girl, who’s shaking and bloodied and afire with a hate that’s got nothing to do with kisses. “I don’t give a shit about the squealer any more, you’re mine. Get the girl and leave the whitecoat, this is balls and I want blood.”
“No,” you say, your mind racing, the angles all coming together, “no, dipshits. Hey. Hey!”
They look at you.
You kick Karkat over. This isn’t hard; in his condition it’s like tipping a docile hoofbeast, he sort of goes down in a perfect arc to thwump in front of the panicking indigo. The beakbeast lusus is honking like mad. While he’s down, you strip your jacket off -- your beloved grey jacket that fits right to your waistline like it was tailored for you, bless it, the first time you tried it on it was flattering as shit -- and you drop it over his head. You can’t bear to think of dragging it through what you’re about to do.
“What the fuck -- ”
“Take care a this for me,” you say. “Also that indigoblood, I guess.”
“Don’t you fucking dare,” Karkat says, and you kick him again, a hard blow to his stomach that he apparently isn’t expecting one bit, leaves him breathless. You hear all the air exit his lungs in a sharp little wheeeee.
“You caught us,” you say to the bluebloods, coming towards them as fearlessly as anyone going to their guillotine could, “okay, don’t hurt them, he was just tryin to save my skin, right? I’m the seadweller you want, it was me.”
“Oh my God, you utter fuckstick,” comes the gasp from behind you. “Don’t you dare -- ”
The girl with the curled horns grabs you by one of yours. It breaks their indecision and suddenly there are hands on you everywhere; someone says, “What about the Thresher,” and someone else laughs triumphantly, so you grip hard to your gun. You ram it up into the guts of the nearest blue and he stares down at you, the smile slowly fading off his face.
“Go home, Kar,” you grit out, raising your voice in the throng. You sound a hell of a lot more cavalier than you feel. Inside, a tiny voice says: coddamn, this is it. Another, less tiny voice says: fuck this noise. “Tell Sollux to go fuck himself for me if I don’t get back soon enough.”
“You reject hatchling of an imbecilic toad, I am not fucking leaving your criminally stupid purple ass down here, you complete moron -- ”
“I’m Eridan fucking Ampora, thank you ever so,” you snap. “I’m half shark and half hurricane, you get me? I can outrun, outfight, and outfuck any ten trolls put together and this was never your glubbin show in the first place!”
You pull the trigger of the gun. It’s a multi-chamber with bullets, turns out, and the shot blows a ragged hole in the guy right in front. Eats right through to the guy behind him, and a smaller hole in the girl behind him. The recoil hurts something fierce and numbs your hands, to say nothing of your fucking aural receptors, and the blues scatter like a flock of ragged skylings.
“Anyone as wants a slice of this choice ass they better bring a fuckin army!” you shout at them, and run to the bridge. They all shriek with rage and set off after you.
You don’t have any kind of plan other than run like fuck. You’ve got the vaguest of inklings of the terrain around here from your prior trip down, slightly better night vision than some, one clam knife, and two fins that make you a target for everyone in the fucking world and about seven severely pissed off bluebloods in particular. You have a tiny little voice screaming BOW DOWN TO YOUR KING where most people would have common sense. Put bluntly, you’re fucked.
The tunnels are all without exception cold and wet and slippery, and bounce echoes to the point where you have no idea how close pursuit is. They’re screaming, loud enough to fill the air with deafening, terrifying noise, and when one of them slams into your back you can’t say you’re surprised. You tumble over and over in the slime and the dark, and you can feel the hard edge of something you really hope isn’t attached to a blade. You get your knife into chunks of him, his blood spilling out warm and wet across your hands and face, and he slams your head into the floor in a way that makes you see too godamn many stars. He rolls some bit of himself between your legs and there are teeth scraping up against your throat, and again you can’t say you’re surprised that any of them are getting off on this. You’d be surprised if they weren’t, them so worked up and furious and you so fucking lowblooded that you should be fucking grateful anyone’d care to touch you at all, you with your fucking blood that screams use me to anyone as wants to take a shot.
Nothing worse than being on your back. It’s the worst position you can get into. Someone down at the docks asks the brawlers alright, then, what d’you do when someone gets you on your back, the answer’s always don’t let them get you on your fucking back! He pins your wrist down with the knife and gets one hand untucking your shirt, smearing fingers over your gills, and when you struggle he pops one thumb near in one and you just about die. He paws between your legs and you lie still as a piece of driftwood, letting him think you’re numb with fear which you aren’t ‘cause if fear makes you anything you’ve learned not to get numb.
The grip on your wrist relaxes. You arch up into his grasp for just long enough that the stupid bilgefuck thinks you’re coming on to him, thinks you’ve got any use for a black fling this fuckin dense, and when he goes in for a stupid, greedy kiss you know where the rest of him must be and you cut his guts out. It’s so much easier this time, and the smell of oily burning rises up from his lukewarm blood like a benediction. You grab a handful of writhing, slimy ropes and you just wrench, savoring his scream for one ultraviolet moment of utter, vicious bliss. The second set of hands that catch up to you get the same treatment and then it is nothing but the thrill of your blade moving through a grand design no longer entirely of your own making. The rush of power’s all through you, guts writhing like snakes around your feet and the blood and the death wound up in a thrumming charge black and strong as a night with no moons at all, black as all the crushing sea-deeps.
Oh, Sisters: right now you could do anything, power like this inside you, you could kill anyone and it feels like your feet hardly touch the floor as you slash your thin little blade through a third mark’s belly. He’s convulsing with the black before the steel comes clear. In the giddy roaring of your blood in your ears, you think you hear a high voice call your name.
Someone hits you over the head with the flat of a battle-axe and you crumple, dazed, back to the ground, knife clattering from your fingers, the spell breaking. A handful of trolls pile on you all at once and then it’s just the same old squirming scrum you’re more than used to. Someone kicks you and you kick back, someone grabs your neck with long tearing claws and you sink teeth deep into their arm and get an agonizing punch to the right fin for it. Desperately you kick and buck your way out to the edge of the pile, then thrash wildly till you catch a breathless little break; you take it, and run for your fucking life, angling deeper with every tunnel taken and branch chosen. One of these tunnels is bound to come out underwater, and as little as you ever wanted to breathe baywater it’s going to beat not breathing any more at all.
And you’d better get there soon -- you can’t keep this up, running on the ragged edge between hope and desperation, wondering if Karkat got out, wondering if Karkat got out with the indigoblood, wondering if you’ll get out. Your head throbs, your balance is shot to pieces, and you’re already run down from your first beating tonight; your body’s begging you to let up a little, you’re running on adrenaline. Hands keep grabbing for you, blades and clubs skimming your back, and a hard blow to one horn results in a sickening splintery crack that has you retching, staggering, as the remaining horde catches you up in a wrathful storm.
You go down a final time under hands, everywhere, passed between hard angry fists and ripping claws and you’d give anything for everyone never to touch you again, you’re so desperately tired of being so used to this, curling into the blows and keeping your legs tucked close. Your back is now to a splintering wall, and you feel shreds of wood tear raw patches out of your shoulders.
With another blow your left fin gets smashed up against the wood, and through the blaze of agony you start to laugh. The wood’s sodden wet, and you can feel it soaking through the remains of your shirt, now, water, because that’s it, you’re out. You’ve won. You made it.
The girl with the curled horns is all in your face again, her breath hot and blood-scented against your mouth. Her blade’s right in front of your groin, pricking lightly and making your hips flush back against the wall. “Any last fucking words before I peel your fucking nook loose, sharkpailer?”
“Go to hell,” you laugh, giddy with the oncoming taste of your triumph, “and tell them Eridan fuckin Ampora sent you.”
You dig your heels into the rough tunnel floor, and jam backwards with all your strength. The barricade breaks wetly, rotten soggy wood fair to crumpling under your force, and you spill into a little alcove and then it’s just hard-packed silt and clay everywhere and a release valve, and you’re saved.
You pounce on the valve wheel and wrench it open. A sluice gate squeals open, and all eleventyzillion PSI of baywater floods down from above. The roar of the water is so thunderously loud, so magnificently, terribly loud, that you don’t even hear your pursuers screaming as they drown.
You kick against the tide, clinging tight to the wheel, until the rush and roar has tapered off some. Then force your way up the sluice gate, hand over hand up a rust-rough ladder, choking on foulness with every breath but taking another regardless. There’s grating, of all things, over the pipe that leads out to open water, crammed tight with junk and old bones and a very surprised lobstery looking critter that tries to take a swipe at you. You brace your back against the shaft wall and kick up till you’ve separated the rusty metal from the crumbling old cement in a big enough patch to squeeze through, and you stab the lobstery thing just because you’re fucking mad and tired and sore. It skitters off, trailing violet blood through the murk.
You let go of the sluice gate and kick upwards. You’re far below the surface, not so deep comparative to some of the pressures you can get up to in the ocean, but deep enough that the burning Alternian morning can’t catch you just yet. The taste of blood in your mouth is so thick that you can almost focus on that instead of the overpoweringly sick offal-and-grease tang of the water around here. You cough out lacy purple clouds, spewing chips of teeth like little white stars.
By the time you get to the dock morning’s broken, and even with the overhead cover the light is uncomfortably dazzling. Your body hates you with each step you take, hauling yourself up to the pier and scuttling into your tug before the carapace watch sees you.
God, you hope Kar and your mark made it up okay.
You make it to the bow and pull a tarp over yourself in a makeshift cloak before you lose all control of your stomach, and you prop yourself over the water and engage in alternately purging every last scrap of anything you ever ate in your whole life and gasping wetly for air with lungs that aren’t so keen on staying pressurized anymore. Drinking this filthy dreck that dares to pass itself off as water would fuck anyone right up but it’s a million times worse to have had it run all through you, and your gills burn with the first warning throb of infection.
Eventually you wear your own sickness out, and you drift off to a dazed and half-sleeping stupor, huddled under the thick protection of the tarp and lulled by the relentless soothing rock and glimmer of the oily waves. Time passes. Could be seconds and it could be hours because you’ve got no glubbin frame of reference. Daymares take you, black hungry claws reaching up from water, stroking your face, girls with faces like bleached skulls sitting front and stern of you, pouring sweet poisons into your aural canals you’re never going to be able to carry back to the world of waking things.
Prince, the wraith girl at your head whispers, and you can feel her fingers in your hair, feel her hot breath as she whispers to you: when the time arises to make the list of those that pass, your name will be one written into the book of life, your hand raised to take my own when the sea of fire drowns all else. Only entrust to me and mine your soul and all your darkness will be loved, and your pain made sacrament.
Her words are like having all your blood set gently aflame. “What’s goin on?” you croak, “What the fuck are you tryin’a pull -- ” You crack open your heavy eyelids, and for a moment the wraith is still there: her face is utterly alien, white as bones, but her eyes shine a clear true violet. She smells, not of the reeking oily bay or the achingly poisoned deeps, but of sweet flowers and clear bright rain.
She smiles. It’s not altogether nice.
Princeling, consider this your first lesson in showmanship.
She leans forward and then her lips are on yours, hot as fever and strong as the sea, near and dear as fear itself -- everything in you fills up, for one brief and burning moment, with light. Your eyes shutter closed. When you open them again there’s a headachy flash of gold off the water, and you wake up all the way: there’s nobody there.
Sunset comes in pale reddish waves from the window. Some tattered remnant of self-preservation spurred you into dragging your sorry carcass into the cabin at some point in your delirium. You feel like you just chundered paraffin. You tell yourself you still don’t believe in God, but that you’re more than resigned to the power of the seaward fever-dreams.
When you swing your legs over the side and stand, the world tilts a bit back and forth in time with your muscles screaming at you for being a rank-and-file dipshit thinking you can move. For some dumb reason you’d maybe thought there’d be a note from Sol on the shabby sill, like his arm would extend this far, and when it’s not you don’t even have it in you to be annoyed. You don’t have it in you to be bereft. You don’t have it in you to be anything. The ocean has gotten into your brain and you wonder if this is what Fef feels, how she copes if this is what the sea terrors is like.
Karkat. You’ve got to see if Kar made it out. Pure willpower takes the tarp and wraps it around your shoulders, hood your head, look like someone who sits on street corners and has a shabby box out for pennies. Now you look like a real seadweller, and isn’t that funny? It will be downright hilarious when you stop wanting your face to melt off.
The sparse foot traffic gives you a damn wide berth when you take to the pavement, hiding in the covered walkways from the light. At more than one point you have to stop and crouch, dizzy and certain you’re about to lose your digestion sac in the gutter, struggling for each breath of air, but blind need seizes your legs and drives you onwards to the Palace. You feel nothing except the deranged idea that you’ve got to check in, complete the mission, get your paycheck, maybe see if Karkat Vantas isn’t a corpse floating in the shit of the Septics along with your escort quest. Some small piece of fortune remains with you: you’ve lost your shirt and your jacket and most of your wits, but the red and blue lapel pin with the little gold bee has remained in your trouser pocket this whole time and it buys you-- tattered, wordless, staggering you-- just enough respect to get you past the guards. You end up lurching into the servant’s entrance covered in distressed carapaces wanting you to slow the fuck down, blind and deaf to their fussy little chirps -- please, Mister Captorman, please wait for someone to take you to -- as you slope into Captor’s hivewing.
From there it’s the narrow hallways and when you get to his doors, your hands forget how to quite work the handle. You stare at it like it’s some new, mysterious piece of tech that you and Fef have to figure out or there’ll be consequences, tugging it and twisting it until you give up and figure that your legs will know what to do. You kick open the door, and the nerdlings look up from their desks like a pack of hopbeasts under the shadow of a roc.
You don’t even care enough to give them grief -- you make your way slowly through the apprehensive silence, from desk to desk with your head spinning, and when you trip over someone’s waste disposal container you almost go down and the nearest few kids startle up from their chairs. Are they going to grab you?
“Hold on,” one of them blurts out, “Mister Ampora -- Mister Ampora, could you, maybe, please sit down?”
Kids your own age, and they’re too scared not to call you Mister. It almost makes you laugh. You shrug off soft, palid hands, and push on towards Sollux’s office. He’s waiting for you, and you’re so late -- he’s going to say something snarky and contemptuous, some familiar worn-out denigration that you could mouth by heart, gonna call you saltlick, sharkfuck, wharfwarden, and you’re gonna wrap your claws into his stupid highblood silks and satins and kiss every trace of a snarl right off his face.
He’s waiting for you -- no.
No, he’s not.
You stand in the doorway and stare.
“Where’s Sol?” you ask, stunned stupid. The words don’t come out right: you have to swallow and say them again, and for the first time a flicker of something starts to break down all your thinkpan synapses. “Where’s Sol?”
“He’s, uh,” the nerdling at your back whimpers. “That is, uh, to say, he’s um, away?”
You take two precise steps forward, dig your claws into the lip of Sollux’s desk, and flip it over. It crashes over with a blaze of sparks and grubpaste. The nerdling squeaks, and you spin around and flip him over too, ass over horns, and kick him while he sprawls.
“I want Sollux!” you scream at the rest of them, and flip over another desk. More sparks, the hot scent of burning husk-shell and hivewax and spilled out mind honey. Someone gets in your way and you headbutt him right in the face, flip a third desk. Fire is spreading everywhere, blessed heat, and you’re seablood, salt for brains, you run too cold to be a proper person is what you can read in everyone’s hungry, hating eyes all your life and you’re not stupid, you know this is bad, you know you’re bad and finally something in you has snapped, something in you wants the world to fucking burn. You’d dedicate this whole palace to the deeps, if they gave you the tiniest bit of a chance, burn it down and pull out their guts like party ribbons, but you’ve lost all your knives along the way of this terrible night and so you’ll have to settle for taking this whole place apart with your bare fucking hands. Violet Sister knows you could do it. You’ve woken up this evening only halfway an atheist anymore and that half-convinced, half-converted part you wants to burn this world down to the water for the sake of some lunatic wild hope and that other half that’s in charge of being reasonable has thrown its lot in with the killing everyone gameplan because that half wants to see someone who’s got any kind of cause to care about you and it wants that now.
“I want Sollux,” you roar, flip a fourth desk, and soft sticky hands are all over you, grabbing your arms. You go sprawling to your stomach under the dogpile, kicking and screaming and finding energy from some adrenaline reserve you didn’t know existed. Something in you uselessly hollers, “I want my fucking moirail,” like you’re the druggie indigoblood back in the Septics and like yelling it will make it happen, like somehow Fef will round the corner and you can bury yourself in her. Someone is wrenching your hands together behind your back, tying them with cables. What’s left of your mind dissolves into pure feral terror.
You’re trapped, you’re trapped, oh God oh God oh fuck you’re trapped you can’t hands you’re trapped. This is one last indignity in a twenty-four hour spate of indignities. You scream and scream and kick hard enough to feel things break under your lashing heels, your scything horns, and finally --
-- Karkat is there.
“Oh, my scumpailing Gods, what the fuck are you idiots even on about?” he’s demanding. “You fucking tied him up, were you fucking trying to send him feral? Get out. Everyone get the hell out!”
Warm hands against your face -- you try to bite, but he holds you steady. His storm-cloud eyes are wide with pity. “Shhh,” he gentles you, holding you close and untying your hands, “Shoooosh, shh, it’s okay, man, it’s okay.”
He’s nothing like Fef, too warm and too solid. He smells of sugar where Fef smells of salt. But he’s gentle with you and his fingers are soft along all your damage; he’s pale-white and strong and when he strokes your face it almost feels like waking up, like you’re coming back to yourself from a long and terrible delirium.
“Where’s Sol?” you ask, and you’re horrified to realize that you’re on the teetering verge of tears. “Where is he, why isn’t he here? Doesn’t he want me anymore?”
“Oh, God.” He sounds almost like he’s crying himself, but that can’t be right-- the shine on his hectic green-fevered cheeks is clear as rainwater. “Oh, God, kid. Eridan. You poor stupid bastard.”
“Did we -- ” You don’t have the words any more to describe what you’re after. All you come up with is a stupid, “Did we win?” which makes not the slightest sense.
“I’ll let Thollucks tell you that himself, if your rubric of winning is did we completely sink that coup. He’s busy in a meeting with the Luminesce, with the rider that if you turned up you should be set on fire and then brought to him, though that part was thoroughly fucking unclear -- Ampora, you look like shit, what happened?”
You can’t answer. You just say, “Sollux,” sort of muzzily, and his mouth twists up and he looks infinitely, indescribably sad. Karkat sort of gathers you up and you’re not ready to really be touched, your pride and your pain receptors are disembowelled and bleeding on the floor -- but he holds you, thrashing, like you’re a bad animal to pap into silence. At least he doesn’t verbally shoosh you any more. He just holds you some, and that highblood warmth inside his skin burns its way into your skull until you’re quiet and still and you are wrapped in his embrace. It is more intimate than you have ever gotten with anyone who wasn’t in your quadrants, but it drives you back to sanity in a way you can’t quite define. Being with him like this is like something in the back of your head is relieved, is coming home, is getting something you wanted for a very long time: Karkat burns you clean.
In the end you must have an extra cortex for purposes of being a glubbin smartass, because you hear yourself slur, “You do think I’m irresistible.”
“I think you are dumber than fuck!” says Karkat. “Thank you for having the good taste of being alive.”
And with that, you have one arm bodily slung over his shoulders, and you are half-carried half-dragged from the computer room. He’s shorter than you are but stone-work solid, and he simply tucks you underneath his fucking armpit as though it is the most natural thing in the world. You sort of despise him at the same time that you are sort of grateful and are sort of sick and overwhelmed, you want to claw him open, you want to cut yourself to ribbons.
“Does he want to see me?” you say, wondering and dumb like a grub.
“He thinks you’re dead, and I’m not sure seeing you would prove otherwise -- that sopor I dosed him with, it always cuts out his assfuck precognitives for a while, makes him fucking loopy as shitwings and it’s, I mean, usually it’s just funny but this time, God, we just didn’t know -- ” and for one horrifying moment Karkat looks every bit as young as all the rest of you, seven sweeps old and twisted into himself with fear and shame. Then he takes a breath, wipes his face, and goes steely calm once more. “I am going to stash you in a room where you are not to move and you can make yourself a little less horrifying. I’m not sure he wouldn’t just have a breakdown when he saw you.”
“I’m not dead,” you mumble, patting at him with the last shreds of reassurance you got in you. He laughs a little.
“Could have fooled us, you utter douchewagon. Look -- ” and here he props you up against a wall, stares hard right straight into you. “Look at me. Look at my face. This is the face I use for being utterly grubfuck serious, you get me? And believe me when I tell you this: if you ever do something so incredibly stupid as throw yourself away playing bigshot hardass soldier boy on a fucking fetch quest, I swear to all the Gods and little fishes that I will cull you myself with a rusted-out spoon.”
You can do nothing but nod. This boy is made out of lasers.
He strokes your face, gently, and smiles. “You saved my sorry fucking hide, though, I’m not too much of a dirtbag that I can’t admit that. Just don’t do it again and we’re fucking square, okay?”
You nod again. It is apparently the right answer, because he tugs you back into stumbling motion.
“After all, we’re family now,” he says, as casually as if he really believes a guy like him is in any shape fit to call a guy like you his in-clade, as if at seven sweeps any of you could even tell an in-clade from an incubus. You just nod dumbly, and let his white shoulder hold your weight.
He has the grace not to haul you too much farther, just around another hallway into a chain of waiting rooms bigger than most slumring hives, and he leaves you settled down in the very first. This one was duly decorated in the theme of green, because it looks like a big ornate peppermint threw up on it. Emerald tapestries glitter on the walls, the sitting platforms are slathered in green velvet, and underneath the plush carpets are an inch thick and green as you could never want.
None of this matters, due to two things:
1. There’s a table with a steaming kettle full of hot water and a glass, and a bowl overflowing with oranges. You’re going to kick Karkat in the shin the next time you see him, except
2. There’s your jacket.
Your jacket is laid over the back of one chair, perfectly clean and unhurt. You hurry over to it quick smart and lift it up to the light, just to check its wounds, but every button of it is present and accounted for. It’s spotless. Hell, it might even be a little cleaner than when you left it. A rush of happiness overcomes you and you hug that fucking jacket to your chest in unabashed joy. “I am never,” you say, “lettin you out of my sight ever again.”
The jacket doesn’t answer back. It’s a jacket. If it could talk, though, you’re pretty sure it would’ve been happy to see you too. You carefully drape it over the back of the chair, making sure the arms don’t get wrinkles and the breadth of it can’t catch on anything, and you throw your foul day-cloak over the back of your own, and then you drink hot spicy tea and eat oranges ‘til your stomach aches.
Just when you’re starting to feel a little bit more like a troll and less like a seamonster, the door flies open and shut in two short clicks. The lock is snapped down, and when you turn your head in surprise to see who it is, it’s a girl.
It’s a girl in half a pretty party frock. Half because most of it hangs down in ribbons she’s clutching to her middle, her -- chest, you sort of look away, and she walks steadily over to the restchairs before throwing herself down in them. There are big weals all down her collarbones and her lips are gruesome green tatters, she practically matches the room. A flush rises to your face. Her dress is soaking wet in stuff that sure as shit ain’t grubsauce, and she places her skinny hands between her knees and leans forward a bit and she shakes like a leaf.
Through some belated sixth sense she looks up, and she stares directly at you. Your mouth is the purple parody of her mouth. Your black eye is the moirail of the clawmark sliding down her sternum, and she’s wet -- she’s wet with -- and nobody shivers like that after a visit to their kismesis either, nobody stares at you the way she’s staring. You know that expression on her fine-boned, slant-jawed face. She might look like she got dragged through a bush backwards and her short choppy hair is slathered over her forehead with sweat, but she’s going to kill you. It’s written nakedly on her body. She is going to kill you for you seeing her like this and not even care.
Sometimes you’ve lain awake in your recuperacoon at day thinking about Fef looking like that, panicking all hot with anger in the palms of your hands, but mainly that’s to distract remembering yourself looking like that in an uncountable plethora different mirrors in truly terrible amount of different ways. You look like that right now. You are an embarrassment. It takes away the last thing you are, which is seadweller, and it makes you finally into thing -- makes you into an object, a cringe reaction, a ripped-up dress with blood all over it, something that never got the chance to say no. Some boy whose body is freehold. Some girl who’s been used as a bucket.
You take your jacket and you cross over not to her but to the sofa, and you sit on the other end. Once you’re there you hold it out by the collar so she knows what you’re suggesting, and she hesitates only a second or two before she takes it and slides it on.
She buttons herself up into it right to the neck and pops the collar around the bites on her throat, and then she sits there in her oversized jacket hiding the marks on her skirt with her hands and you think, a little blasphemously, that the Luminescence couldn’t look more like a queen.
Before you can say anything or do anything she stands and looks at you dead in the eye. Her own are ringed with soft, vivid green -- green like the room, a kind of luminous waterweed green -- and she opens her ruined mouth like she’s going to speak. Maybe about your lips or your hurts or your torn-up, filthy clothes, you don’t know. But she doesn’t. She holds out the breadth of her skirt instead, and she drops to you the first curtsey you’ve ever been given in your life. There is not one whit of insincerity to it; she simply bobs down in one fluid, elegant movement, chin tucked to her jacketed chest so that for a single moment you understand what a curtsey’s for, and then she turns from you and flees.
It’s a dignified exit. One moment she’s there, then she’s unlocking the door and slipping out the room as quietly as she slipped in. There’s not a single stain to say she was ever there at all.
The back of the settee pokes when you loll your head into it, where you have the sinking, giddy feeling you won’t see that jacket again. Shit. It matched everything.
You are more asleep again than not by the time the door clicks back open. For a long moment you’re unsure if you’re just hallucinating again, and you raise your throbbing head off the arm of the sofa and try to get your eyes to uncross.
“Sol?” you rasp, and push a shaky set of claws out into the green haze of the room. “Sol, I won, okay? I won.”
He comes up like a thunderstorm made of bones and expensive fabric, and pain explodes across your face -- once, then another burst in your chest. It takes you a moment to realize that you just got punched. You hiss, curling up around yourself, and he smacks you across the back of your head.
“You thtupid idiot,” Sol snarls, his fingers brutal against your wrecked-up body, tearing your ragged shirt from your shoulders, “you thtupid, thtupid grubfucking wiggler. I thought you were dead! I thought you fucking threw yourthelf away on a pack of thcum-thucking thugs -- ”
“‘M not!” you protest, grabbing clumsily at his thin wrists, but he twists and hisses and keeps hurting you. “‘M here, Sol, an’ you weren’t -- ”
Sollux sinks in his claws until you cry out, and then he lets go of you like he stuck his hands into a fire. You realise that he is terrified, and he drops to his knees by the rest platform. “Fuck,” he says, and he scrubs one hand over his thin, horrified face. “No one gets to hurt you but me, never again. Do you comprehend me, ED? God, I thought I’d never thee you again -- ”
“Thought you didn’t w-want me -- ”
“Didn’t want you? Didn’t want you? Shut your theed-flap before you choke on your own imbethility, you utter freakishly dumb reject excuthe for a thane and dethent article of trollthcum. I hate you tho much, you thtupid fucking waste of air piece-of-thit agent, drive me into an early cullditch, I can’t fucking believe you -- ”
“Never want anyone but you, Sol, I swear it -- ”
“Choke on my fucking flap and die -- ”
At some point he’s started kissing you, very gently, his mouth testing over each wound. You must taste of salt and blood and worse things and he sucks at your lips like he’s drowning for you, cutting himself on your chipped teeth. You lick at him back, and find yourself abruptly shuddering-greedy at the taste of rich gold blood -- so different from blue or violet in some indescribable way, sharper, the iron tang ringing out clear and nearly overwhelming. He’s thin and warm and soft as his satins, utterly and effortlessly beautiful and the pain is clean and he is yours.
He groans like someone dying, and rests his head on your shoulder.
“You’re going to kill me, Ampora,” he says, his voice all twisted up strange. This close you can see the weary burnt-mustard tinge below his blank bicolored occulars, the stress lines sunk deep between his eyebrows. For some reason it makes something fierce inside you very quiet instead.
“Wouldn’t let anyone else,” you promise.
He pulls you off the couch, and it’s your turn to groan. You’ve gone stiff as rigor mortis, waiting for him, and every joint of you has turned to splinters and jelly. If someone tried to cull you right now you’d probably let them and your ghost’d thank them kindly after.
“Can you walk?”
Karkat you’d let haul you. Sollux, you’d rather eat razors. You struggle up to your feet, one set of claws fisted up in the shoulder piece of Sollux’s cape strictly for balance. His hands hover awkwardly around you like long gray squids uninvited to a party.
“God,” he says. “Oh, God.” One of his hands catches at your wrist, squeezes it full of claws like he don’t know what else to do with himself.
“‘K,” you mutter, casting around. You’re not sure where his officesuites are from here. “You need a report?”
“You need a shower,” he corrects, backing carefully out of the room. You put one foot in front of the other and mostly succeed at not falling over or letting go of him.
He takes you through passages you never seen before, small dark tunnels behind tapestries and through bookshelves, winding up in some place full of gold and red and blue -- computers, wallscrolls, gamegrubs, everything -- and you realize with a creepy thrill that he’s taken you to his own respite block.
“This place is the tackiest goddamn thing I have ever had the fuckin misfortune of layin eyes on,” you say, briefly shocked into full coherency by the ornate monstrosity of Sollux’s gold-plated honey-comb patterned everything. There are little chubby bee-winged wrigglers molded on to any free space that could conceivably use one, and a great deal more spaces as couldn’t. It’s like someone gave a bee a dump-truck of money in exchange for most of its frontal lobes. Despite the mess of ostentation all over, it’s surprisingly tidy: the desks are drifts of papers and old data grubhusks, but you’d expected something that looked like a bomb had hit it.
“Thith ithn’t a thenic tour, get moving,” he snaps, prodding you hard in the back.
You’re dragged through a room with a bifurcated recuperacoon -- you hadn’t known that slime came in any other colors than green -- and past that, into an ablution chamber.
“Get your panth off,” he grunts, rummaging around in a tall, fruity-smelling freestanding cabinet full of weird boxes and jars.
“Oh my god, are you goin to gild me?” you ask.
“Don’t push your fucking luck,” Sollux grumbles, cuffing you roughly over the head. “Thtop thquirming, get naked, and haul your thorry carcath into the trap before I fucking throw you.”
“I’m not showerin in front a your skinny ass!”
“Oh, God. I’ll turn my back, pretherve your modethty. Shoeth off, at leatht.”
You oblige, grumbling, slinging each of your filthy shoes off after him one by one and hitting him right in the shins from across the room. He beans you back between the eyes with a bar of some unknowable highblood soapstuff, and you nearly trip over the edge of the trap. He laughs unkindly even as he hurries over to prop you upright.
“Run this through your gillth,” he says, shoving a tall jug of something into your hands. “Latht time you went through the bay you were out three whole perigees, I don’t have the time any more to let my fucking archargent take that kind of vacation -- ”
“Archagent?” you ask, shocked.
His cheeks go dull gold, and he hunches up -- no one does awkwardly defensive like Sollux. His shoulders are shields and his back’s a formation. “If you make it through tonight without perishing of vaporth like a delicate woolly maidenbeatht, then yeah, sure, why not?”
The contents of the jug consist of mouthwash with a whole handful of salt mixed into the chemical-mint tang of it; it is astonishingly foul, and you nearly spew it across his chamber’s floor. You suck it down with effort, gargling out a moan as it runs out through your swollen gillslits, and slouch down shaking against the ablution trap’s cool wall. He hunkers down over the mess of you, undaunted when you snap at him, and pries open your gill covers to take an extremely obscene look-see into your insides.
“Here, hold it, you got -- shit, your gill fillamenth are an utter fucking dithathter, what the fuck ith even in that water? Run more of the tholution through, we’re going to try and coat them all over before we give you a rinthe. If we don’t get them cleaned out they’ll thcar shut.”
It’s too much, too close, and you press a hand down and squeeze one thumb into his throat until he yelps and backs off. He doesn’t seem to be too put out at this treatment, though; maybe knowing that even this is pushing it, his expression grim and even. Now he just holds you up, one hand at your chest.
“How do you even know this stuff?” you manage to gasp out. You’re not sure if you want to squirm away from him or not -- his claws are dull and his hands are no more firm with you than they need to be.
“Thome of us decline to thpend all our thchoolfeed credith on pretty dretheth,” Sollux drawls, his fingers slick and gritty with mouthwash and salt. Dretheth out of his mouth is a fuckin marvel, but you’re too dizzy to enjoy it. “Thome of uth like to know a bit of bathic anatomy.”
“Some of us wouldn’t know a pretty dresssssss if it minced up with a bucket,” you retort, and gulp down another hefty slug of this terrible witch’s brew that’s trying to pawn itself off as medicine. You’re seeing stars and faint for want of breathable air -- breathable anything -- and this gunk still tastes like distilled misery and burns like all hell, but even you can tell it’s the good kind of hurt. Already you can flex yourself open and shut easier, the gummy scabrous rime of infection sluicing away. The last of the jug goes down smoothly: you’re going to be just fine, you realize with a little stab of shock, you’re going to need a long-ass nap but you’re going to be fine. It’s almost enough to make a guy wax just the tiniest bit of scarlet for this douchebag.
As if he can read this thought through your skin, Sollux palms your slits closed, and you abruptly choke and double over to cough the last of the wash back up the way it’d gone down. It tastes even fouler passing through your facehole a second time, and you’re hoarse and gasping when he says, “Pants off.”
Taking them off is hell, but your dignity is flopping and heaving on the floor. He makes a big asshole show of averting his gaze, tapping his shitty little foot impatiently as you struggle. Each button is a riddle and you’re all thumbs, but eventually they’re a sodden mess on the floor and you wind a bit of the shower curtain about your hips, stubborn to the last breath of you. When he turns around his eye-roll should by rights make his stinking oculars pop right out, but he doesn’t say a word; simply pulls the sprayfaucet down and goes to town on your body.
The hot water eases through your hair and makes it curl long and stringy down your cheeks but it’s good, even dissolving all the blood and gunk it’s good. You stand there overwhelmed and resentful and swaying on the spot when he angles down your neck, your chest, surgical and completely uninterested in doing anything but cleaning you. He is unmercifully gentle. With the cake of silky perfumed kind of soap he rubs your scabs clear under the water. Sol doesn’t say anything, doesn’t look disgusted, just works at you like you’re a coding tangle and he’s going to unravel your knots.
This is humiliating as fuck. You get the feeling he’ll let you live it down.
The soap snaps at your wounds but all the dirt goes away, blood and grime all down the plughole, sifted through your hair as you close your eyes tight against the sting. It seems strange that anyone should have their kismesis doing this for them. You’re tired, you hate him for it and you’re tired, you are tired and it seems like he’s the last person in the world who knows you. And he’s very calm, is Sol. When he’s like this nobody is calmer; he’s rain after a storm pitter-pattering over the sea. You’d almost never believe he’s someone who can throw a computer through a window and then set fire to a desk in two minutes flat, screaming all the while.
Just as you’re relaxing he sluices the clear water up and down your thorax, pries you open one last unbearable time to clean out traces of the solution. You flip your shit. The water is hot and clear and running across you the wrong way through, intolerably alien, and you wind up flinching and glubbing and crying like a wiggler as he curses and struggles you down with the horrible dry tingle of his psionics and hoses off every single bit of you.
“Done, you utter nookthtain,” he finally grunts, going and hooking the faucet back up above you. The spray ceases. You drop your chin to chest and pant for breath and try to get yourself back under control, and every last fiber of your being screams to aggress but you’re so tired.
“You thmell like thomething,” he says, a little bit astonished and a little bit suspicious. “Like fucking flowerth -- ” and before you can protest he gets all up in your grill and his mouth behind your earfrill, sniffing, and you lash back with your horns but the damage is done. “God, you oceanhorror, you reek of Light and Rain!”
“I smell like God? Come on, Sol -- ”
“I’ve been around enough zealots to know what God thmellth like, you fuck,” he says darkly, wrapping his long thin fingers around your shoulders. “Terezi shits pure Heat and Clockwork -- forgive me my trethpatheth, Lord -- and thmellth like a fucking forge, and you thmell like Light and Rain.”
“Okay, look,” you say, scrub at your wet face. “I know you warmbloods love your little altars and your little statues and thinkin there’s five sky pixies up there hangin off your each and every word, but Eridan Ampora’s the man a science. What you assholes call God’s just there to explicate perfectly reasonable happenins, and prayer’s done me ‘bout as much good as a chocolate bucket -- ”
“How the mitherable fuck do you explain the undead, moron?”
“Nature’s way a sayin ‘fuck you, Alternians!’”
He looks one tick from strangling you with the faucet hose. “Oh, come on, there’th whole reamth of empirical evidenthe -- ”
“I’m as atheist as you’ll ever find and I called up a revenant the other fuckin day, Sol, ‘splain that to your glubbin zealots -- ”
“Wait,” he says, and he looks all... pinched-up, suddenly, wary in a way as gives you the creeps, and he actually scoots back a little. “You. You raithed a Revenant? The Wharf Thtreet revenant?” Uncomfortably, you give a sort of agreeing shrug. “Are you altho rethponthible for the oneth currently running around in our thewer thythtem? Tell me you are not the perpetrator of the three revenanth running around in the Theptics.”
“Well,” you hedge, “how about I tell you I wasn’t, and we call it a day?”
“Eridan.” He rarely uses your full name. Sol scrubs his palm down his cheek like he just got told the world’s melting and love’s gonna die, and you squirm a little and he don’t even tug your ears or anything. He just looks horrified. “You. Raithed. Four. Revenanth. In two nights? Do you know what the followerth of Light and Rain get up to courting Her attention for an accepted dedication, much leth a raithing?”
“No, on account of I don’t give a shit,” you say. “Light and Rain -- sweet glubbin Sisters, listen to you, ‘light and rain’! It’s just -- it’s coincidence, don’t you pay it never no mind.”
“Thithterth,” he slurs hollowly, tipping his head against the trap’s wall, laughing a little high and wild, “Good fuck, lithten to you, mithter big bucket tough guy athietht. You thalt-lickth and your fucking Thithterth... What am I meant to do with you, Ampora?”
“Dunno. Don’t care.”
“Jutht... Are you going to raithe any -- any more?”
“Not purposeful, I don’t think,” you admit, and for an instant you feel those twisting bloody ropes in your hands, the rush of power.
He just sighs, heavy enough as to rattle his fucking fangs. What’s he going to do with you? What the fuck are you going to do with him, more like, what the hell are you ever going to do with each other. That’s the question left unanswered ever since you two clapped eyes on each other. What the shit are you meant to do about Sollux Captor?
“You’re thomething elthe, Ampora,” he says, hollow and kind of wondering-lost, and stands up. “Alright, thweet printhe, a flight of fucking angelth thing thee to thy retht and all that shit.”
Everything feels a little too hot and bright, and in your auricles is a sudden thunderous roaring that makes it hard to hear. You sag a little and so does your grip on the shower curtain, and thankfully you’re too far gone to really see how he gently hikes it up. You’re shivering and it’s got nothing to do with temperatures. “I’m nobody’s prince,” you manage, and you’re sorry to say it comes out as half a gasp. “Nobody’s.”
For one horrible moment you think he’s going to apologize. Then he says, “Thlow down, crazy,” and goes to get a drycloth.
There’s an awkward pass-the-parcel where he gives you a big soft towel and you wrap it round yourself, peeling away the shower curtain and not caring if you look like a priss. You step out the trap and stand there dripping on the tiles, mirrors misted up warm and wet, and he does you a kindness: he leans forward and licks a bite on the side of your jaw, all savage. He is as ferocious as if he really thinks spit and spite can erase it off you. Like he can make you anything other than what you are, Eridan Ampora sore and small, old before his time and being fussed over by his kismesis because he’s too wrecked to wipe his own fucking face.
“You’re mine,” he says finally, simply, pushing into one of your bruises. You yowl some. “I own you. Did you really think that thome shalebloodth from the hoodring could get their ugly pawth on you and take you away?”
“Don’t,” you croak, and you’re five again, not knowing whether you want him to not talk about it or not know or not -- stop, basically, all tied up in this terrible nausea of tenderness. “Don’t.”
“You owe me,” is all he says, and licks at his lips-- not ragged tatters like your own, just barely nicked, just barely even teased at. The dark flesh is barely punctuated with little stars of gold and the thought of coaxing out more of that warm blood of his sort of makes a spark of desire roil in your belly but you’re not ready, not tonight. Just the thought still makes you a bit sick. You’re not any kind of ready. You worry you’ll never be ready ever again.
His hand on your hurts, infuriating -- you step back and his fingers fall away. “I owe you a steamin crockfull’a shit-all, Captor,” you correct him, breathing hard, “and that I’ll pay up with interest.”
Instead of responding to this with any of the due goddamn respect it deserves, he perambulates you outside the ablution chamber. You settle back down into yourself once he stops looking at you so hard, kind of doze standing up as he locates an old pair of his breeches for you to struggle on. Modesty preserved, you watch out the corner of your eye as he gets naked. Sol just skins off all his clothes with the cavalier air of someone who don’t give even half a shit: slim as a blade and beautiful long clean bones like no one your color’s gotten away with keeping, dropping the expensive fabrics to the floor like they’re so many rags and putting his tinted glasses on the sideboard last of all. You watch him sink into one half of his recuperacoon, and you perch up close on the rim. Just the warming fumes of his tacky-ass red sopor-- did he seriously dye this shit or something? -- nearly have your eyelids slamming. You’re not gonna dream in this stuff.
Whatever the hell it is.
“The coup’th over, you know,” he says, tilting his neck back and letting slime slick back his hair. You realise again with an awful start: he’s lovely. “The mole’th under legithlatherator oath and that jumped-up politician ith under hive arretht. Tried to thay that the indigoblood couldn’t tethtify, but TZ could croth-quethtion a mimicbeatht and they’d end up taking it ath evidenth. Good work locating the moirail, by the way, alwayth lookth better in court if there’th a moirail.”
That wakes you up. “You got her arrested?”
“Terezi worked out that paying the blueblood gangerth wath technically forming a militia,” he says, halfway purring from sheer smugness. “That’th been illegal long before the Colony period. We won’t thee her hang, but nobody will come after me for a long, long time... at leatht a theathon.”
“Oh, a season,” you sigh. “Here was I worryin that when you said a ‘long, long time’ you meant an actual long, long time, right, like more’n a few perigees, on account a how there’s nothin more that I do love besides keepin on my fuckin toes for you.”
“Eheheh, bitch, you can’t deny it,” he snickers, all grand indulgence. His sticky thin fingers flick your knee. “A theathon of calm in thith induthtry ith like a fucking holiday, ED. You’ll thee.”
“Oh, will I?”
“Of courthe. You’re going down with me, you nookweal. Archagent Ampora... God, the courtierth will love it when I trot out with that.” Sol sinks deeper into the slime and sighs dreamily, and the sound of it does things to your guts you don’t wanna even think about. He flicks your knee again. “Get in here.”
You do, a little shamefacedly, feeling overclothed in your breeches but sure as hell not taking them off. You also ease into his side of the recuperacoon after he impatiently waves you closer and you sort of twitch and fidget against each other until your head’s pillowed on his shoulder. The price of Sol’s pretty frame means he’s got collarbones like razorblades and elbows like caltrops. He’s a fucking horrid cuddle; Kar must have dents. The only likeable thing is that he’s warm warm warm, warm as sweet summer winds, warm as tea. His bluntish claws scrape sopor through your hair.
“Thtay,” he says all sudden, when you’ve made something like a comfortable position and you’re all pressed up against each other. It’s -- nice, is what it is, it’s nice, when Sollux touches you you know nothing is going to happen but him touching you. He sounds nearly asleep. “For the week. Need to thtart building you up into a real agent... KK will introduthe you to the people you need to get introduthed to. No more playtime gothip-collection from drunk bluebloodth. I’ll be keeping you on your phalangeal boneth, now, I hope you know.”
For a moment, it sounds tempting. “Can’t,” you say. “My moirail’s waiting, I’m already doin her a day late. And my cargo -- shit, my fuckin cargo, I was meant to go check the ticket tonight -- ”
“Hush up,” he says. “None of it goes offplanet for two thycleth, dipshit. You’ve got plenty of time. And you’re due back here in three weekth if you’re interethted.”
“Just three? Fuck you.”
“You’re an Archagent now, bulgerot, begin acting like one.”
Both of you lie together in a little bit of awkward silence, all around you nothing but the ambient low burble and gloop of warm sopor. Eventually he shifts and reaches a long bony arm out for the sleepside table, bringing his hand back as a closed fist around whatever he’s got, looking back on you with one eye liquid crimson and one eye deep blue ink. His knuckles brush over your torn-up lips and you couldn’t be more naked if he peeled off your skin as well as your pants.
“Here,” he says.
When he unfolds his fingers, there’s your rings; titanium and topaz for one and titanium and amethyst for the other, twins, carved into spades. Sollux slides yours to the slippery third finger of your left hand and you let him, your skin feeling so much realer where his own fingers connect: it’s all slow and odd and formal, and it makes you want to turn away and hide your face and cut off your forearms. But the thought of him wearing any color but yours... he’s got it wrong, that he owns you, or at least only half right, but the look in those bi-colored eyes: you own him back, is the other half of it, and he knows it, and he’s okay with you knowing it too. He’s got your ring in his palm like a little question noodle and you’re all thumbs again but you wrestle it on to his finger regardless, claiming what’s being offered up to you, what you’d take if it weren’t. When it’s done the silence between you is wound tight enough as to be near screaming.
He rolls his teeth around in his mouth. When he talks he talks with excruciating slowness, tongue held low, lisp coming out as little more than some slushy vowels. “If I opened your body,” he says carefully, “If I opened up your ribs... and tore apart your waste gizzard... and didn’t see Sollux Captor written there... I would be fucking astonished. Nobody, not th -- scumsucking blues, not anyone -- can ever change how I see you without your.... express... consent, asshole.”
Despite best efforts, it still comes out athhole. And before you can fall in love with him, he thankfully pinches your belly. “And if you thnore I will dethtroy you.”
You fall asleep all tucked up in his armpit and dozing like a little bleatbeast. You don’t dream.
That evening you ambled over to the customs building with a spring in your step and drycleaned clothes: shopping bag filled with three pairs of scissors, measuring tape, nails you bought from a scrap seller and a price receipt for the six barrels of sopor you’ve got stored in the boat. Karkat had walked you down from the palace and so under your arm now is tucked a box bursting full with grubcakes, a card scribbled with carcinoGenerosity and a bracelet enamelled with funny little frogs. At the last you’d gawked at Karkat Vantas in open confusion.
“Well, it’s pretty, Kar, but it ain’t -- ”
“For your moirail, dumbfuck,” he said tartly, and that was you, you were lost forever. He could’ve gifted you pure electrum and it wouldn’t’ve touched sides, but the bastard went and thought of Fef. “I never met a seadweller girl who didn’t like frogs in a big, disturbing way. Can’t fucking stand them myself. They always look like they’ve got a syndrome.”
You’d tried to rally. “When have you had the time to go meet seadwellin girls, Kar?”
“Threshecutioner training,” he said, which was as unexpected as it was -- sort of unbelievable, and he’d given an impatient puff of a sigh at your blink. “Apparently some of them do more than sit around all day admiring how much ass they have in their pants, which -- before you take it as a compliment -- you have not a lot.”
“I’m not the one standin here sweetly talkin smack about my glutes,” you said, and the frog bracelet jingled in your hand. “God, what would a fishtroll want to go be a Threshecutioner for? It’s all greenbloods with a saviour complex, Kar, no offence.”
“Offence ceaselessly taken!”
“So what -- there’s a Thresh saltlicker runnin around in that jacket and with those trousers, helpin to save the galaxy from dumb fuckin landdweller problems?”
“Story for another time,” he said, a little grim, a lot kind. You weren’t sure you even wanted that story, not really, and all your words died gruesome in your windpipe.
Then both of you eyed each other in awkward surmise. You’re always hopeless with goodbyes -- what the flippin hell are you meant to do, come over all sentimental, sob a little in your stained hanky? -- but he stepped forward after a moment, which after everything still hitched your breath. All you did was get a brief impression of those grey-ringed grub’s eyes and then he went and kissed you slow on both cheeks highblood-style, mouth burning like a holy furnace and tender enough to hurt, and you held so carefully spellbound-still. You knew that your mouth sort of ached for him to finish the job, but what did your mouth ever do but get you into trouble?
“Try to keep yourself in one fuck-ugly piece, Fins,” Karkat said, “I’ll see you around,” and he tucked his fists into his pockets. You watched him strut off into the distance with that snow-white shell and the air of someone who had fifty things he hadn’t done and they were all more important than anyone in his way, and your bye, Kar got lost in the crush.
Now the exporter’s agents are all crawling over everywhere, checking mountains of parcels and big trunks for materiel, giving you the same old side-eye only moreso because you still look like you pailed a steamroller. It feels like a sweep ago that you were here last: another world entirely, another Eridan. Your old outfit was utterly trashed -- some carapace had burnt it while you were sleeping -- and your borrowed clothes are too long in the limbs and too tight across the shoulders. It took you a full fuckin hour to comb your hair with your claws in Sol’s mirror while he dozed deadweight in the slime. No pomade, Sol keeps his hair so short he don’t even own a comb: you slicked it down with water but it still falls in lank little curls, brushing your collar and flopping over your forehead and just a disgrace.
You smooth your bare, too-long cuffs over your knuckles and you go find your black-coated greenblood, checking things off with her clipboard and looking like it’s the sum of all excitement.
“You!” she says, and beams all over her face magnanimously. “I have good news.”
That makes you perk up and takes a bit of the fight outta you. “You do?”
“I’ve been looking at the exchange rates, and I decided that I could probably pay a little bit more than I was planning on,” she says, and she winks at you like you two have a big salacious secret. She is still so nervous she could pee, you can tell. Her eyes flicker from your bruises to your earfins to your cut-up mouth not knowing what to stare at first, linger on the rough patches of your lapels where you peeled off Sollux’s sign. “But you shouldn’t expect this to always happen if you make a fuss. It’s one time only. Are you ready?”
She tells you the price. It is five sestertii more than you were getting. This is basically less than a one percent increase. She is all shining and waiting breathlessly for you to thank her, and all you can think of is: fuck your little clipboard, fuck your coat which you haven’t brushed proper, fuck your fussy calculated hairdo, fuck your commission pay. Fuck you, yesterday and yesternight I raised three screamin unlivin things and I think I got smooched by God. Fuck you, I’ve been kissed too much and kissed too little lately. Fuck you expectin me to lick your bulge over five sestertii, I’ve got a prince’s ransom on one coddamned finger!
“Thank you,” you say, a little hopelessly. Because there is nothing else you can do. She gives you one of those sickeningly coy smiles of, and now don’t be so conniving the next time! and hands you the wrapped envelope of your money. It’s very light. When you drop it down into your shopping basket it makes hardly a sound. You think about doing all sorts of things -- flashing your Captorman badge and smiling a self-satisfied smile, giving her the middle finger, throwing her shitty sestertii back into her face, but you haven’t got it in you any more.
Your pride’s died a little. When you turn and walk out you’re sorry and empty, filthy as the Septics, carrying all the dirt out under your skin where nobody can get at it. Not even Sollux, not even Karkat. There’s only one person who can hold you close and gently wipe it out of you, salt you clean and pack you away as they take your madness into theirs, and she’s waiting in a shipwreck far out to sea.
Going home to her is just that, going home -- sometimes it kills you a little that the only place you belong, the only place that’s yours, is a mouldering rock with a mouldering shiphive in a sea that gets more toxic by the sweep. It’s funny; you spend so much time being seadweller in the Capitol, but when you come home Eridan Ampora means misfit. Moirail and mock-lusus, handyman and beggarman, stranger in a strange land, fish forever out of fucking water. You’re two worlds and you don’t belong to either. Pieces of you have been placed, sometimes torn or manhandled, in both; you’re not entirely sure whether Fef understands you one lick better than any given handful of dockside thugs, better than Sollux Captor, who hates you for everything you can’t help.
No. She does; that’s your problem, tender and terrible. If you had to pick you’d pick her without a second’s thought.
When you get dock clearance from the customs carapace and head back into the tug, there’s a little note folded neatly on the sill:
three week2, archagent.
do try not two dii2apoiint.
You decide pawning your kismesis ring is getting a little old. Next time, you’ll pawn his kismesis ring. That’ll give the bastard something to think about.
The great greasy bay looks almost friendly in the evening: the lights from the dock gleam in the water, a million colors, and you smell five different kinds of smoke -- diesel smoke, oil smoke, the smoke from somebody’s stove. In the distance the palace of her Imperial Luminscence rises in toothpick parapets. You give it all a farewell fuck-you, and then you never look back.
There it is: your rock and your ship, its winged-woman figurehead worn smooth and faceless from the sun and the wind. She was a seadweller’s ship from the Satellite Wars, one of Dualscar’s fleet before the Sundering, of beautiful make. You know its blurred letters on her wood and steel side through memory: the Corbenic, and a long, long time ago she was something to behold. Since then time and tide and your own four hands have carved the grand old battle-dame into something near as fancy as her Luminesence’s palace, coral and decay and patchwork fighting it out in mosaics with the ironwood and the dull steel of the hull. You know every inch of it by touch; it’s home, it’s the hive for your heart.
And as for your heart itself, one Feferi Peixes: she waits for you, always, at the railing. Usually she starts her camp there the moment sunset stains the horizon, blinking a little in the burning light, and you know the night before she would have been sitting there waiting all the while. She holds vigil. It means that by the time you’re home she’s a mess and you have to hold her close while she makes sure you’re real, sometimes digging her claws into you to make the violet come out where she can see it for sure -- for shore, she says, all fishpuns and seasalt rimed up thick between her earfins and barnacles where her brain should be. Counting pieces of the ocean to mark away the hours. When she’s ensured you’re neither ghast nor ghost you just hold each other and wait for her to breathe. She’ll sort of laugh and weep in all one sound, say, oh, you were gone for -- ev -- er -- and so was I!
When your shiphive comes in sight, there’s no familiar figure sitting at the rail. You figure she might have fallen asleep propped-up against the stern, but as the tug chugs homeward there’s nobody on deck. And that’s the first time you start to feel afraid.
You barely tie up the tug; with hurrying hands you rope her off the starboard quarter, slither up the lines. One of your tripwires has been snapped. A gooey sea of grease covers the foredeck, which was meant to stall initial raiders as you sniped from the sagging fo’castle. There’s a window, freshly broken; you want to scream Fef, Fef, Fef, but your head’s smarter than your heart. You draw your clam knife and haul yourself over the side, skinning down a barnacle-crusty chain to a porthole you know is unlocked. The wind whips cold and cruel through your thin shirt. You’re not as skinny as you were a couple sweeps back, but with a bit of effort and fear as oil you squeeze through.
No sound on the inside, barring the usual creaks and groans. At the first corridor you turn there’s grievous dents in the walls, like someone slammed into them hard with a bat and showered the floor with splinters. You don’t just think landdweller raiders, now, you think ghoul, you think what the fuck could’ve chewed through solid wood like that, you think Fef, Fef, Fef, and you hate everything, you hate yourself. You wish the bluebloods had fucked you dead. You think you’ll tie yourself a noose and have no heart to even tell Sollux goodbye, Kar neither, they’ll find the empty shell that used to be you if they ever come looking. The wooden stairs leading down to the second deck are all char up top, cleanly scythed through, which is the Crosshairs’ work if anything. Fef could never aim for shit.
Second deck you walk on silent feet past the false-door with the crossbow trigger in’t and squash round past to the hidden one behind crates and painted cloth, listen for guttural gobbling or chatter. As you get close to the consumption block you hear a low, grinding sound, one you don’t parse for stupefaction.
Inside the block, on a throne-pile of cages and nets is your Feferi, curled up neat as an urchin and reading a book of birds. One of her arms is in a sling and she has a stunner of a black eye, nose crusted with two rings of fuschia and mouth no better, lashy marks all over her middle and legs. She’s purring. You notice belatedly that a large part of the pile consists of a strange limp troll, a pillow propped over its face, a long, long troll with splayed-out arms and big broken hands, and if you’d thought that your moirail looked bad then that’s nothing to this corpse. It is wrecked, patterned all over with Fef-sized indigo bruises on near every inch of its skin, bloody bracelets of Fef-sized bites, little butterflies of blood daubed in a gruesome flight up each ruined arm. She reclines as regal as any queen over her conquest, splendid and terrible and utterly wild.
But then she sees you: she utters a low cry and scrabbles up, skinned knees, torn mouth -- you drop the knife and wrap your arms around her and she laughs, a wet, wealy sound and you’re home, you’re home.
“Oh,” she says, and kisses you on the mouth, your cheeks, your nose, finding a cut on your jaw and giving it a quick lick, the smell of blood everywhere like a daymare, like waking from one. Your hands are all over each other’s bodies and hissing when you find hurts, your bruised up ribs and a split gillslit on her. The world falls away. “Oh -- oh, you were gone for ever, and so was I!”
Then the body you had assumed was a dead body shifts, stretches itself out. It removes the pillow from its face and reveals itself to be a ginormous gangling landdweller, pupils ringed in indigo and mouth an easy grin. This isn’t as important as to how his glubbin face is daubed with the glubbin pierrot paint of a clown cultist. You’re halfway picking up your knife to finish the job Fef somehow neglected when she tugs at your sleeve.
“Charmed, motherfucker,” the not-a-corpse says, and holds out one long-fingered hand. Fef nudges into you a little anxiously. His palm is nearly cold as yours, when you take it.
“Eridan,” says Fef, “this is Gamzee.”
I am the wound that will not heal
I am the song you cannot sing
I am an endless, restless ache:
I am, I am the Fisher-King.
-- Carrie Newcomer