She is delivered on a Tuesday.
This is not what you intended when you signed up to be a foster home. At the most you got starving kittens or beaten dogs. One time you got a horse with an infected hoof, that was a real doozy. Either way, a bit of love and nursing to health, then his charges would be ready for trial, and a rewarding, happy home.
If you can choke back the pun, this is another critter entirely. Like most of your cases she arrives in a steel crate, a leather muzzle fastened over her jaw. She's sedated- her mouth slack, prickly limbs curled defensively against her body.
"She'll be down for a few more hours. Don't take her from the crate- this one's dangerous."
You'd seen trolls on television and YouTube, they were popular exotic pets with celebrities. Certain breeds were even useful for guide pets and companion animals for the elderly. Since they were almost-sentient, of course. Almost.
Those trolls were well-groomed, sometimes even wearing outfits more expensive than their human counterparts'. This one is barely dressed at all, wearing only a dingy, pale scrub top. You knew enough to know the mottling of cerulean bruises were not markings on her grey skin.
"Wow," you breathe as you crouch to meet her, "What even happened? She looks like she got in a fight with a lawnmower and lost."
That explains the tight bandages around her knuckles and chest, the vicious scarring on her legs, and perhaps her most grotesque feature. One eye is gone- the wound sewn shut clumsily, scar tissue black and burnt. She's a pile of sharp ribs, elbows, matted dark hair and jutting knees, and you want to help her so desperately it makes your insides churn like the sea.
It's too little. Let her out. What did she do? She's not the criminal here.
"No lawnmower, just another troll. Picked her up from a fighting ring. She's a champ if she lived. It should only be a few days, swift and speedy trial and all. I know it's a bit different than your normal fare, John, but can you take her?"
The troll squirms, trying to find a comfortable place on the cage's floor and deciding there simply isn't one. Her body heaves a sigh- rattling the rest of her with it. Dealing would simply be necessary. Five fingers, you note. She's got five little fingers that curl and fist at the bars, torn and bloody from cracking against bone.
"Sure. Does she have a name?"
"Not that she's told us."
Moving her crate does not even stir her. The officer left you with a flimsy pamphlet on Troll care, and basic supplies. In the meantime, you flop across your sofa and flip through the brightly-colored gloss paper. The trolls in the photos were smiling and bright-eyed, with rows of perfect white teeth, like plastic dolls.
Too creepy. Their eyes are hollow! Weird.
All you saw of her teeth were the two sharp fangs that overhung her swollen blue lips, shielded by her muzzle.
Her owner must have called her something.
The sedative must have really wiped her out. Hours later, She's still asleep- she hadn't even budged from her crumpled little ball. Not stretched even once or resettled. This at least gave you time to moderately "troll-proof" the house. Bullshit, you were not going to let her languish inside that crate the whole of her stay. Your house was small- but it was tidy for the most part. The old family home, in a comfortable suburb. It seemed far more aligned to a small, young family than a young twenty-something, but you wouldn't give it up for anything. Besides, the yard is nice, and your swing is still there.
You turn back to your charge, still slumped against the bars.
The floor of that crate CANNOT be comfy. It'd be like sleeping on a rock. Do trolls care? I mean. Sure they do. But hell, cats sleep upside-down on broken lightbulbs.
Hm. Judging from all the bandages, she's probably more comfortable asleep than awake to begin with. You can only guess what the injuries are. It's written somewhere on the manifest. You flip through the papers- broken ribs, cracked knuckles, hipbone, multiple bruises on her head. Yeah, it's probably best you just let her sleep. But you have to feed her eventually, right? trolls have opposable thumbs, so the bindings on her muzzle were made especially tricky. You trust the drugs to do their job as you unlatch the crate and reach inside. First things first- you wipe her down with a warm sponge. Dogs needed baths, groomed themselves- you assumed trolls were somewhere in between. And some animals couldn't have contact with water. You didn't want to get it wrong.
Her face fits into the cup of your palm. The dry, taught texture of her skin makes you draw back. She needed water. Can trolls use straws? Do they need a bottle?
A water bottle should be good enough- you find one somewhere in your mess of a pantry, hiding behind cake mixes you never used but like to keep for familiarity. From a distance you can see how tiny she is, huddled in the corner of her crate. It broke your heart to see dogs nervously bunched up like this, tail between their legs- but seeing her this way is a feeling you can't quite describe. You press the cap down on the bottle, now full of fresh water. It's better than a bowl she could kick over.
She's both too small and too big at the same time. Too slim to seem healthy, and definitely too tall to be jammed into this little cell. You support her cheek gingerly with your hand as you slip the muzzle off. Her nose is bandaged and crooked- probably broken, too. Even her face bears needlethin scars. Once the leather is worked off, you can gently lay her head back down to the threadbare, thin blanket. She should have a pillow at least. But she'd probably shred it. Among your supplies you were given some of the Betty Crocker© TrollChow™, a bland bag of pellets that more resembled shredded cardboard than food. Still, if it's what's best for trolls, then that's what you leave for her in a little bowl at her feet. Only then does she squirm, drawing her legs away from your touch.
Poor thing. What do trolls eat in the wild? Are there even wild trolls? Where do they come from? How long have they been domesticated? Can they use a litter box?
This is going to take some googling.
You'd nodded off, trusty laptop slid off the sofa onto the piles of god-knows-what-John-Egbert-debris scattered around your living space. Troll googling and youtube came before cleaning, obviously.
Did I leave the TV on?
It's soft, raspy- and bored- Phone message?
You'd almost forgotten your new housemate, when you notice your charge is sitting up, the bowl of chow balanced in the fold of her legs. She eats like how children eat cereal- grabbing two fistfuls at a time and mashing them into her mouth. Save for the hooked horns and grey skin, some instinctual part of you wants to let this kid out of the box.
"Hi?" It's the first time you've had an assignment talk back at you.
"So did my owner get caught or whatever?"
For such a little voice, it's gaining volume awful fast.
"Um." Glorious response there, Egbert.
"Man, you must be dumb. I guess they did. They were dumb, too. Dumb! Letting themselves get caught." Another mouthful of chow- she chews openmouthed like a naughty child.
"I'm not dumb!" You're arguing with a troll. You are so dumb. Well done, John. You scrub a hand across your nose, drag it down your eyes. "Do you have a name?"
"Vriska," she cheeped, puffing up, "Prizefighter, champion!"
"Well Vriska, I'm John. Can you at least chew with your mouth closed? That's gross."
She rams her face against the bars and chews as obnoxiously as she can.
Work is dull- or as dull as working in Sassacre's Novelty and Magic shop might be. It was a quiet afternoon and only a few brats came in trying to snatch your trick bubblegum that glues your teeth shut. You hated wagging the hammer at them. Sometimes you wonder what it'd be like if you'd gone to college. But you love the shop too much to think of doing anything else. You'd forgotten it- no, her, no, Vriska, until you came home, a bag of groceries under one arm. She's curled on her side on the floor of her crate, just as you left her. For all of the warnings, she seemed easy to care for. Like a hamster!
Frozen foods go in first- you indulge in some Gushers without even putting the box away. Mmm, delicious processed gummy sweets. In the quiet you can hear her gasping. Casually you wander to her crate, licking the gushers goop off your fingers. Oh. Not a hamster. Judging from the mess in the corner of the crate- she's gotten ill.
"Vriska?" It's strange to ask after one of your animals and expect a response now, "Vriska, c'mon."
She whines to you. "John, I don't feel good."
"No shit," you snap at her- and instantly feel guilt for being so harsh, "Come on."
Tentatively you unlatch her crate- praying she doesn't leap and scratch your face off instantly. She hasn't nearly the energy for that. Her eye only twitches up to watch you. You're not sure how to pick her up- with cats you support their tail and their chest- dogs their neck and side… How do you pick up a Troll? Trolls are relatively person-shaped. So you slip one hand under her knees, and the other against her spiky shoulders. She's hot to the touch, damp with sweat. Picking Vriska up is like holding a coiled spring- every skinny inch of her is wound muscle, waiting to lash and strike. Poor thing.
This close, you could suddenly smell her. Ew.
A bath. Bath first.
"Vriska," you begin patiently, "You need a bath. Can you wash?"
Her head bobs against you. One arm cradling her, you take her into the harsh light of the bathroom. She hisses, burying closer.
"Shh, I'm sorry! Let me get the light."
You flip off a few, leaving the bathroom a dark violet glow, only enough to see by. A lukewarm bath would be best. Nothing too hot or too cold for her system, and not too deep. Certainly you didn't want her bandages getting wet, you don't know how to replace them. You knew that trolls have bizarre body temperatures that varied depending on their blood. Weird. From what little you knew, blue fell into a chillier category. In one swift motion you slip her in and pull away the shirt, back turned. You're grateful for the thick suds obscuring all of… god, what do trolls even have? This is so awkward.
For a long, long time she just soaks, drinking in the heat and comfort. It doesn't take long for the bathwater to turn a dingy color. You offer a scrubby, and she takes it, hands sluggish. At the very least, you can manage her hair. It takes half a bottle of your Pert Plus It Was On Sale Whatever shampoo to finally scrub it clean, and no shortage of cries and shouts from Vriska when approached with a comb. But by the time the water cools, you can at least run a wide-toothed comb through it, and Vriska is too exhausted to fight you. The water and suds drained- and before anything could be seen you swept her up in a thirsty towel.
She's fascinated with the hairdryer, batting at the air with her hands. Her jaw is still slack- you think to try and release the tightness from the muzzle from the day before. Once her hair was dry enough- you grab the first shirt you can find that's clean- some humongous number with a ghost on the front, and pull it over her head. It was a bit hard to navigate the neckhole over her horns at first. So here she stood, this battered troll, asleep on her feet and swaying. You lightly touch her back for permission. She lifts her elbows, enough to let you lift her again.
At least she seems comfortable with letting you pick her up. She's lethargic, sagging in your arms as if she might just melt right through them into the floor, and it bothers you. Where was the troll that gnashed her breakfast at you hours earlier? You leave the bathroom to carry her to your bedroom.
In your research last night you learned trolls nested in piles. Anything would do, really. Piles of newspapers, dvds, piles of broomsticks. It didn't matter. Most owners swore by nesting material, or let their trolls select items from the house to clump together. These were the crazy owners who referred to their trolls as their "grey children," and had Bible verses in their forum signatures. Still, the concept of a cuddly-soft nest made sense to sleep in. In this messed up hole in the wall, though, there was a severe lack of tinder for it. Soft toys were more your sister Jade's deal. You own exactly one soft toy, a ragged, patchwork toy rabbit from a zillion birthdays ago that sits on a high shelf sandwiched between DVDs.
Vriska was light, birdlike. Her hands feebly pressed against you, she whined "noooooooo" in a tinny wail. You sought pillows- blankets- anything. A shoebox of a house had little to yield. Ugh. Fuck it. You carry her into the only bedroom and spread her out on your squashy mattress, propped against the puffy pillow. The room was quiet, with only one window and thick curtains. It could be cool and hushed for her. Even just carrying her inside, you felt her physically relax. She's never laid out flat like this, it's obvious. She's stiff, confused and delirious from fever.
Your bed's a complete mess- the sheet had slithered off somewhere in incomprehensible knots and the comforter was wadded up on the floor, but you spread both over her neatly and tuck the ends in the mattress, almost a feeble attempt to buckle her in. She shudders, her chest heaving, bandages twisting with each breath. Absently you smooth over the covers over and over, hoping to right her with touch.
"Shit," you grumble, "Who do I even call? I mean, what do I even do? Call a vet?"
"No vets!" She screamed, thrashing little hands, "No vets!"
"OK, OK, shush, don't. Damnit, you were fine earlier!"
"The food you gave me made me sick," she whined and flopped back, making a concerted effort to look as pitiful as possible.
You consider her- and the small bump on her skinny stomach, just beneath her ribs.
"How much did you eat?"
"All of it," She huffed, "Of course. Never seen that much food in my life!" She held both hands over her head. "My life!"
Dammit. You sigh, pinch the bridge of your nose hard enough to upset your glasses.
"Vriska, that was supposed to last you all day!"
"How was I supposed to know you were coming back?" She snarled.
You haven't an answer for her now. She's equally quiet, groaning and writhing against the bed as if she had caught the plague. Of course. She's not used to normal meals. Even crummy TrollChow™ was probably too rich for her stomach. God knows what her previous owner fed her. If he fed her at all.
"You've just got a tummy ache," you sigh and press a hand to her head, "Sleep it off."
While you had just carried her and tucked her in, hell, you even bathed her- the touch to her head must have been too intimate. In a flash her teeth have sunken down in the tender skin between your thumb and forefinger, and latched on tight. The sound you make is not exactly human and more of a startled shriek. She continues to clamp down.
Dogs, cats, and other assorted fauna have bitten you- but this is entirely different, entirely alien. Her fangs tangibly flex in your skin like a spider's, threatening to inject venom. Her good eye is locked on you, gaging your reaction. After the initial, er, manly bellow, you calm, sweat beading down your neck.
Don't give her the upper hand. It's just like a dog bite. Don't show fear. Don't reward her.
"Vriska," you say calmly, "Let go. We won't have any of that."
Her eye narrows- blue and ringed in dark circles. She studies you- and slowly, slowly releases your hand. The fangs make an audible pop as they uncork from the skin. She hadn't bitten hard enough to draw blood, but she runs her tongue across the spot and murmurs.
The apology almost seems sincere as she turns over under the covers and buries her face against the pillow. Now you know not to touch her head, at least. Slowly you ease onto the bed, your own bed, god how ridiculous, perched on the side. She's quieting already, comforted by the softness surrounding her. It shows on her face, the way the pinched features ease, the way her brow slowly untwists. The bath soaps and shampoo left her smelling sweet, like vanilla. Your hand ghosts the fibers of the quilt before you lay it against her side. She jerks into a wary knot- but you weave your hand in swirls along her side- her shoulders. Your Nanna did this for you when you were small and couldn't sleep, maybe it could help her?
The expression she gives you is so wearily, heartbreakingly human. Grateful. Pained. Exhausted.
"Get some rest, Vriska. You're safe here, OK?"
"OK." Her face falls to the down, and she is gone.