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Dea ex Machina

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His first breath hurts, drawn through a windpipe crushed raw and aching. The second, too, though less so, the pain receding like a wave drawing back from the shore of his consciousness. By the third breath it is more memory than moment, and he becomes aware of the secondary pain, driven sharp and hard through his leg at the knee. He makes a noise that he fears is horribly undignified, and wishes shamefully that he had Aurthour or—or even Nepeta there to comfort him, ridiculous and improper as she almost always is.

And then the pain in his leg eases, also, and he becomes aware of the hand on his chest, a gentle warmth rising and falling with every breath he is now free to take. Equius dares to open his eyes.

Aradia is smiling at him.

She looks nothing like he last saw her, wearing the mechanical body that was his finest creation—this Aradia is unmistakably alive, practically glowing with it, a pair of delicate wings arching back from the slim shapes of her shoulders. "How are you feeling?" she asks.

Equius raises one cautious hand to touch his throat. He can remember hurting, but he feels fine now; confused, yes, but unharmed. "I am well," he says cautiously. "What happened to you?"

Aradia giggles. The sound is utterly undignified and unbearably lovely. "I got better," she says. She lets go of him and sits back on her heels. "I'd stay and tell you about it, but our timeline needs a lot of work if we're all going to pull through."

"The highblood," Equius says, sitting up as more of his memories fall back into place. "Gamzee. He has—" He reaches for Aradia's hand, but stops himself in time. "He is dangerous. Please, be careful."

"You, too," Aradia says, laying her hand over his, and—is she looking at him with pity? Sweat breaks out fresh across his brow. "I can fix this. I won't let this stupid game finish us off. Just be patient, okay? From where you're sitting, it won't take long at all." She leans over and kisses his forehead, a gentle brush of warm lips, and then she's gone in a flutter of bright wings.

It's hard work getting a dozen mostly-grown trolls to stop killing each other once they've gotten started, especially when there are a lot of external stresses to contend with. And when one of the trolls in question is worst-possible-God-Tier Vriska, who seems like she's actively trying to ruin things a few times. Aradia won't let herself be bested this time, though; she redoubles her determination and makes her efforts a blistering, caliginous fuck you to Vriska's luck and chance.

Though in the end, perhaps it's Vriska's insistence on meddling—her obnoxious, loathsome insistence on meddling—that makes things end up as well as they do: it's next to impossible for them to escape from Jack, after all, odds of some appallingly high number to one, and it's the power of Vriska's game-breaking luck that means they do it anyway. Aradia's willingness to brawl with the timeline keeps them all from turning on each other and Vriska's delight in cheating lands them in an implausibly safe zone.

They celebrate with a screaming, biting, clawing hookup that would probably have killed one of them if that were easier to accomplish now that they're God Tier, and then move into the avoiding-each-other phase.

Which is just as well, because getting everyone settled on their secret planet hideaway seems easier to accomplish without too many black passions running high. The crashed lab functions as a makeshift hiveblock; it's closer quarters than any of them really prefer, but it'll do for now. Careful scouting finds a natural cavern where Kanaya can hatch the matriorb—it won't reach brooding age for a few sweeps, but knowing it will puts the subject on everyone's minds. More than usual, even.

Aradia's curled up in a pile of circuitry with Sollux, and they've been talking about how things are going with Feferi—reely good, he tells her with a grin—when he takes a deep breath and asks, not looking at her, "How about you? You thtill theeing that thweaty athhole?"

"I—I'm not sure," Aradia says. She remembers clearly what it felt like to wind back time for him, to watch the blue bruising on his face recede and see him take those first gasping breaths. In that moment she burned with pity for him. "I...haven't seen much of him lately."

"He'th avoiding you?" Sollux asks. He snorts. "Who doeth he think he ith?"

Aradia smothers a laugh. "I can't believe you're upset about that," she says. "I thought you didn't like him."

"I don't," Sollux says, shrugging defensively. "You could do worthe, that'th all."

"High praise, coming from you," Aradia says. She snuggles closer to him, her head pillowed on his shoulder; it feels good to be able to share this again. "I'll let you know if anything happens."

Sollux shudders. "Don't tell me any groth detailth."

Aradia bites his shoulder in mock annoyance, and he retaliates by poking the ticklish spot under her ribs, and the play-fight that follows is all they have to say about that.

She does go looking for Equius after that, though; she's curious now. She finds him in the room he's converted into a robotics workshop, working on some piece of circuitry with his ears curled down in concentration. Nepeta lolls upside-down on a table talking to him excitedly about something, but she hops up when she sees Aradia in the doorway.

"Aradia!" she says, and at that Equius goes completely still. "Did you come fur a visit?"

"If that's all right," Aradia says. "I wouldn't want to intrude."

Equius sets his tools down with careful precision. "You do not," he says. "You are welcome here."

Nepeta practically sparkles. "Phew!" she says. "I was afurraid you'd never work things out!" She bounds over to the door, squeezing past Aradia on her way out and ignoring Equius's pained expression. "I'm rooting fur you!"

"Well," Aradia says, stepping into the room more completely and giving Equius a wry smile. "I suppose we do have things to talk about."

For Nepeta to abandon him in a moment like this is both wanton cruelty and completely expected. Equius reaches for a towel and wipes his brow as he tries to figure out where to begin. "I have not yet thanked you," he tries after an awkward moment of silence. "I understand that your actions saved all of our lives. For my own sake and for Nepeta's, I—"

"You don't need to thank me," Aradia says. She smiles—easily, warmly, such an un-troll-like thing to do, this smile with no edge of ferocity to it. "I wanted to. None of us wanted to lose that stupid game."

"Of course," Equius says. It seems hard to believe she's the same girl who once trolled him as apocalypseArisen, the same soul who animated his elegant trollbot. Disembodied, she had the cold reserve of an aristocrat; animating the robot, she had the brutal ferocity of a conqueror. Now, she has...a ready smile and a pair of frankly ridiculous wings, and he doesn't know what to make of her at all. "You had something you wished to discuss?"

She shrugs one slender shoulder. "I thought it might be something you'd like to talk about, too," she says.

Equius wipes his face again and then reaches for a second towel. "My advances toward you during the game."

"It wasn't all you," Aradia says. "After a while." She isn't smiling now, watching him steadily with a nervous and perhaps hopeful expression. Even the most civilized of trolls would not seek to formalize a kismesis with such courtesy.

"Forgive me if I misunderstand you," Equius says, picking his words with care, as if they might shatter as easily as anything he touches. "I had thought your feelings leaned more black than red." There has never been any doubt for him; the most he could summon was a certainty that he should hate her, for being who she was and affecting him the way she did, which has never felt anything like hatred at all.

Aradia blushes, her cheeks turning pink with her atrociously common blood. He should be ashamed to even have this conversation with her, when she is as far from him on the spectrum as it is possible to be—and yet she behaves so graciously, and her powers have made her a savior for them all. "Well, I was angry with you when you tried to give me that awful heart," she says. She frowns, more thoughtful than still angry. "And I barely had any feelings at all when I was dead. So when I moved into the body you gave me, it was hard for me to get used to emotions again."

"But now presumably have come to a decision," Equius says. The words choke him.

"The black feelings I had for you were—they didn't run that deep," Aradia says, tangling her fingers together. "And, well. If I'm being honest with myself, I think I've always known who I hate most. It would be hard for anyone else to take her place."

It feels as though all the air has been sucked out of the room, as though there is a chasm opening up to swallow him. He is the Heir of Void. He will not fear emptiness. "Thank you for your honesty," he says, and if his voice is uncomfortably thick, he prays she will have the decency not to mention it.

"I'm not done, silly," she says, and his spine stiffens with affront—only Nepeta calls him that, and it is inappropriate then, too. Aradia's wings flutter delicately as if to emphasize her words: "You were always more flushed for me, weren't you?"

He doesn't have enough towels. "Yes," he admits. It would be obvious even if he denied it; building her a fully-functioning robot body fueled with his own blood is hardly an act of hatred.

She takes a deep breath. "Are you still?"

"I—" He sits stunned by the question for an instant. Does he pity her? Now, after all that's changed—all that's happened to them and all that she's become? "I'm not sure," he says. Her ears curl down nervously and his heart clenches, making a liar of him immediately.

Aradia takes a deep breath, squaring her shoulders with nervous courage. "Would you like to find out together?"

Equius doesn't let himself think twice. "Yes," he says.

They spend more time together after that first conversation, and it becomes slowly but steadily clear—to both of them, Aradia thinks—that yes, there is still something there between them. His formality and exaggerated caution with everything he touches (and everything he won't let himself touch) move her new vascular pump to pity; he tries so hard to control himself, must try so hard to control himself, that his strength seems to be also his weakness. He watches her with something that looks like awe and longing, as if every flutter of her wings undoes him.

It's a restrained, quiet courtship for the first few perigees. At first Aradia thinks it's just more of Equius's blueblooded formality, some sort of ritual thing that makes sense for trolls whose lifespans will go on for what might as well be forever. Except that he seems frustrated by it as much as she is: as they wax redder for each other, he seems to spend more and more time trouncing his robots, and he is ever more likely to accidentally twist his tools into awkward knots when his concentration slips.

When she figures it out, she can't believe it took her so long. He's been trying not to let himself touch her. "I can't," he tells her helplessly when she finally corners him in his workroom—when she corners him, backs him up against a wall even though he's at least twice her size, because he's trying that hard to keep his distance. "I don't dare, Aradia, please stay back. My tools are—are reinforced, are inanimate, are replaceable. I can trust them not to move, and if I break one anyway it doesn't matter, but you—"

"You aren't going to break me," she says. "I'm not going to let you." She reaches up to take his sunglasses off so she can see his face; the blue in his eyes is starting to come in, though behind his shades it's usually impossible to tell. His expression is pleading now when she looks at his naked face.

"Aradia," he says, hoarse and desperate. "Please."

"Trust me," she says.

She reaches out with her mind and holds him, using the oldest of her powers to simply keep him where he is, while her wings lift her up to his level. He looks like he might cry. Did he think this wouldn't be possible now that she's flesh and blood again? She's more capable as a god than she was as a robot. She pities him for every moment he doubted, for every time he told himself he had to keep his distance no matter what he wanted.

Equius breathes her name again, soft and reverent. Aradia rests her hands on his broad shoulders to steady herself and leans in for a kiss. It's nothing like the first time she kissed him: it's deliberate, and slow, and so gentle that neither of them bleed.

And it's perfect.