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Fifth Iteration

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The village is beautiful from the sea.

Its cliffs and stone buildings are chalk white, rising in terraces around the cut of its river valley, decadent with trees in all colors of the spectrum. A tower guards each of the two bluffs which wrap around its bay, one fluttering with flags, the other crowned with the steel struts of Sollux's radio antenna. Further back in the valley proper, the low bulk of First House lounges on a grassy rise. Slanted morning light catches on the red roof of the co-friendleaders' house next door and picks out the cottages and cabins scattered at the edge of the trees. Terraced fields and garden plots give way to a fringe of dunes and waving saltgrass. Windmills spin bucolically in the rising breeze, reminding you mostly the hours of maintenance you and Equius put into them.

The green ribbon of the river spills into one side of the green bay, which is swollen with the highest tide you've seen since you settled here. The little house you share with Gamzee sits in the shadow of the cliff, close to the sand. You'd thought it was a comfortable distance, but now the waves lap not very many steps from your front door. You're glad you built it up on stable rock, a ledge above the sand proper. The tide will probably climb even higher in the next few days as three of the four moons come into conjunction. Eridan guides your sailboat expertly around the line of breakers that marks the new, now submerged, breakwater. That was another project that left everyone wrung out and exhausted for days, especially the telekinetics. You hope it will come through without too much damage.

You gentle the breeze as you near the beach, preparing to hop out and help drag the heavy boat in to shore. You were terrified of boats at first, the ghost of your dirt-brown blood screaming for dry land. But your body is new and different like this world is new and different. The blood flowing through everyones' veins is the same animal red now, and the gills at everyones' necks made you all at least a little bit seadweller. Only the former sea-dwellers plus Roxy are truly able to live in water indefinitely. But your own small pairs of gill-slits along with your new legs gave you enough confidence that you'd actually learned how to swim, splashing and shrieking with everyone in the twilight. Your powers let you hold your Breath much longer than some people with lots more gills than you. Your Breath powers also mean that you get press-ganged into a lot of fishing trips, so it's a very good thing overall that you aren't afraid of boats anymore.

Gamzee splashes out to meet you in jeans and bare feet, catching the bow. You feel the gritty crunch of sand under the daggerboard. Eridan and Roxy are jumping out, laughing at some comment one or the other made and Gamzee is reaching for you with his huge, gentle hands. He kisses you on the mouth, arms twining around you, pulling you hard up against the gunwale. His tongue flicks the seam of your lips pleadingly, so you open a little and let him trace the blunted angles of your teeth. You suck a breath through your nose. The smell of him makes you dizzy.

“Jeez, you two, get a cabin or somethin,” Eridan drawls. “Or, at least help us get this shit landed before you start pailin fuckin indiscreetly in the middle a the public beach.”

With some difficulty, you peel Gamzee away from your face and look back at your friends. They stand in the waves, stabilizing the other side of the boat so you and the night's catch don't tumble indiscreetly right out of it. Roxy is amused, indulgent. Eridan is endeavoring to look annoyed, his smile squashed into a disapproving squint. There's ease and good humor in their faces, the satisfaction of hard work and a shadow of disbelief still common to all those who the game spat out in this world, just over half a sweep ago. It is not, you think, an expression that Eridan would have ever worn back on Alternia.

Gamzee's coaxing fingers and a low murmur of “Tav,” bring your attention back to him. His face is olivey tan with melanin, his hair catching indigo iridescence in the predawn light, his scars picked out in purply-pink. You fall into another kiss like falling into sleep. You hardly realize what you're doing until Roxy and Eridan are playfully tugging the boat away, tearing your lips apart.

“Break it up! I have important fish-related business to rub our fearless leader's face in. Another record catch, schools so vast we couldn't see the water between, like to see him do better and similar. Am I just talkin to myself here or what?”

“Uh, sorry, guys,” you stammer. “Gamzee, what-”

Gamzee plucks you bodily over the side as if you weigh nothing. You should be annoyed. You are a little annoyed - he knows you've never liked being carried. And he's kissing you, tenderly, desperately, making small sounds in his throat. The waves wash up around your thighs, soaking your shorts.

“C'mon Er, this ain't a sight fit for delicate ladies such as ourselves,” Roxy giggles. Her imitation of Eridan's accent is almost perfect, but her voice somehow sidesteps mockery into affection. Their splashing and banter recedes with the heavy drag of the fish-laden boat on the sand.

You'd never managed to find Gamzee in the dream bubbles. You'd looked and waited and searched without really admitting to yourself it was for him. Finally, you got a glimpse of him when you and Vriska became a sprite. He was still alive but empty-eyed and strange and then Vriska had freaked out and ruined it like she ruins everything. After that, you'd finally let yourself think of him. You'd worried for him every step of your long walk through the desert of the afterlife.

And then Karkat and Terezi and the humans had won, and the whole lot of you waiting in the furthest ring had been pulled back into life. Twenty four trolls, eight humans and a cherub appearified in a new universe, transformed into something that was like and unlike a troll or a human. You'd searched the crowd for him as people gathered in the wreckage of ejected sylladexes that marked the closed Door. When you finally spotted him, he was still standing at the edge of the trees, as if he were afraid to come closer. You'd elbowed your way out of the milling mass of aliens and started toward him. He watched you, still as rock, disbelief and hope and joy and sorrow all layered together on his sharp, unpainted face. You felt like someone scraped out your guts, empty and light. With each step toward him, the wound bled pity and hot tenderness until you were full again. You'd kissed him when you reached him, kind of the way he was kissing you now.

You bury your face in Gamzee's shoulder, gasping. He smells of the sea, the smoky-yeasty-sweet smell of the village kitchens, and something else that gives you the urge to tear his clothes off with your teeth. He slots his face between your horns, his lips cool in the stubble along your mohawk.

You are hardly able to let go of each other enough to stumble home. You leave a trail of wet clothes that starts on your front step and leads to your respite platform.

“Had the itch all night,” Gamzee pants, sprawling backwards onto the sheets. “I need you up in my nook, motherfucker.”

He spreads himself, showing you everything. His nook is inflamed, blossoming purple-pink and ready, with a dew of opalescent-indigo fluid. His bulge is halfway out of its sheath – thick and tangling with his own fingers as he teases his nooklips wider. He is beautiful and strange and shamelessly exposed. You have both become strange creatures. You reach for him and the distance between you collapses in an instant.

He hooks you close with one long leg, fingers painting the scent of his arousal on your face. Your bulge slides out, dancing with his thicker bulge all over your stomachs, twining and sliding wetly until you see stars.

“Tav, Tav,” he croons, “Motherfucking get inside me right now.”

You moan against his lips. Your bulge wants to bury itself in him, but the intensity of this wanting makes you nervous. You don't want to hurt him, don't know if he could tell the difference in his weird desperation. You concentrate hard, letting your thin tip dart in and out, shallowly, teasing him like he teased you with his tongue the first night you'd tried Roxy's wine.

“Gamzee,” you whisper.

His bulge thrashes, desperately trying to nudge you toward his nook. “Please,” he moans, hips grinding into yours. “Please.” Then, “Fuuuuuuuck,” as you let yourself sink inside him, his nook spreading soft and hot around you.

One of you makes a strangled noise, but you're far beyond being able to tell who it is. Your matesprit clings to your every surface as if he'll never let you go. Your bulge knows what to do without any direction from you, sinuous and searching in his nook, playing along every turn of it. You've never been so aroused, never really knew there was so much to your bulge. It is thicker even than his at the base and he takes it all, greedily, until you are full inside him as you physically can be. And then his bulge wraps down around, slips its tip inside your nook and presses, and somewhere deep in his body, the very tip of you is sucked and caught and pulled and you don't even have time to think “pail” before your entire self explodes in a coppery heat and you're coming.

You blink away black spots from your vision, only to loose your mind again as his nook convulses and his bulge milks that spot inside you. He's beyond speech, his mouth open and his head thrown back as you shudder together again and again. It's almost impossible to think through the those crashing breakers of pleasure, but dimly you cling to your feeling that something is strange, weird, off. Pails. Pailing. Something.

Gamzee is not responding to his name, seems to not hear you at all. You pap his face, kiss him, and he just shudders and drags you through another deep wave of pleasure, his fingers digging into your back. You try to pull away but realize you literally can't – his nook is sucking you in so tight you can only hold on, riding him as his shudders slow and gentle and he finally passes out.

You withdraw, exhausted and awed and a little frightened. His bulge slides limply from your body and begins to retract. His smile is small and peaceful. It makes your chest cavity bubble over with tenderness for him. You collapse at his side, brush his hair back from his sweaty face.

The realization pops to the surface of your mind. No pail, no genetic material anywhere. That is, you could feel yours leaving you, lots of it, but the puddle that's formed under you is barely more than a drip, a slight damp patch smelling of sex. As if that sucking you felt had kept it all deep inside him somehow.

Gamzee's skin is hot and clammy and he won't wake up. His nook is still open, its puffy pink flesh smeared with too little pearly indigo and brown. There is a hard knot low in his abdomen, just where, you think, the deepest part of his nook must reach. You probe gently at it, trying to feel its shape. He moans, low and rumbling, and there's a burst of that smell that makes you want to- to-

You abscond into the living room, throw open Gamzee's husktop. The timestamp disorients you – it can't have been that long since you tumbled into bed together, can it? Not many people are online at this time of afternoon – most are sleeping or doing chores. Karkat's chumhandle is greyed out but you try it anyway.

--adiosToreador [AT] started trolling carcinoGeneticist [CG]--

AT: kARKAT
AT: kARKAT, uH, i
AT: gAMZEE, uHH, kIND OF SEEMS LIKE
AT: tHERE MIGHT BE, uH, sOMETHING WRONG WITH HIM
AT: lIKE, sOMETHING, uHHH, iDON'T REALLY KNOW HOW SERIOUS
AT: bUT I THINK I MIGHT HAVE, uH

This is so embarassing. How do you tell someone that you might have broken their moirail with your bulge? Especially someone like Karkat. Gog, he is going to yell at you forever.

You notice that Aradia's handle has lit up and latch onto that, gratefully. You wish she were just up the cliff in the tower she shares with Sollux and Feferi, not miles away up river at the waterwheel construction site.

--adiosToreador [AT] started trolling apocalypseArisen [AA]--

AT: aRADIA, i tHINK i, uH, BROKE gAMZEE,
AT: hE'S SLEEPING NOW, BUT, i UH
AT: hE SEEMS, LIKE HE'S RUNNING A FEVER, AND HE KIND OF REALLY WANTED TO, uH,
AT: yOU KNOW, pAIL,
AT: sO i DID, tHAT IS, wE DID, aND, uH, hE PASSED OUT, AND
AT: iT WASN'T, nORMAL
AT: oH GOG, kARKAT IS GOING TO,
AT: fLAY ME ALIVE WITH MY OWN, cHITINOUS
AT: sOMETHING
AA: tavros! stop panicking!
AA: what do you mean it wasn't normal 0_0
AA: not that i need all the details, but
AA: um, could you maybe elaborate a little on why you're so upset?
AT: uHHHHHHHHHHH
AT: i, uH, i'M NOT SURE HOW TO EXPLAIN IT WITHOUT
AT: gOING INTO SOME KIND OF DISTRESSING DETAILS
AA: well, ok, if he's running a fever, shouldn't you get Jane or Fef?

There's a heavy pounding on your door and Karkat's familiar, gravely voice shouting your name. You notice that your other chat window has blown up with his gray all-caps while you weren't paying attention.

“NITRAM! OPEN THIS DOOR RIGHT THE FUCK NOW OR I SWEAR ON THE MOST HIGHLY TRAFFICKED OF THE NO-LONGER EXTANT MOTHER GRUB'S DISDENED ORIFICES I WILL KICK IT CLEAN OFF ITS FUCKING HINGES. GAMZEE!! YOU SHAMBLING WASTE, IF I FIND OUT THERE'S BEEN ANY MURDERCLOWNING GOING ON IN THERE SO HELP ME-”

It's only as you throw the door open that you remember you're completely naked. You freeze. Karkat's eyes flicker down your body, then hastily back up. He stares at you like he's trying to make your head explode with the force of his gaze.

“Whoa, what the fuck,” Dave says, next to him. He raises an eyebrow over his shades.

“Put some gogdamned clothes on,” Karkat spits, shoving you out of the way. He stomps across your front room and into the respite block, lip curled in distaste.

You scramble for the first fabric-related item you can lay eyes on which happens to be your beach blanket, folded messily and slung over the back of the couch. You wrap it around yourself. The tip of your bulge is still out of its sheath and it quests through the blanket's fringe trying to find an opening. Your blush is so volcanic you think your eyeballs may actually boil in their sockets.

Dave remains on your doorstep, peering into the gloom of your entry block. He toes your t-shirt inside from where you'd dropped it on the stoop.

“So, is there any murderclowing going on?” he asks.

You shake your head no.

“'Kay, I'll just be on my way, then. Got shit to do. You know. Irons. Fires. Egbert's got the forge heating up for me as we speak. So yeah, laters.”

You nod, unable to even look at him. He leaves, closing the door softly.

You can hear Karkat's voice rising and falling in the other block, fussing. Gamzee makes a few sleepy rumbles. You drift toward the door, your claws fisting in the sandy blanket.

A sudden hush descends and, into the stillness, you hear your matesprit say your name.

“Tav?” he calls, his voice breaking over the short vowel.

Your heart picks up until you can almost feel your pulse fluttering in your gills. You peek inside the respite block.

Your matesprit is kicking his way free of the blankets even as Karkat continues to try to cocoon him in them. Gamzee's pink flush goes all the way down his chest and he's a little wild around the eyes, his hands reaching for you. The smell of his arousal hits you right in the thinkpan, disabling all think-related functions.

“Tav,” he says, like the bark of a motor, “Need you.”

You go to him.

*

You may never be able to look Karkat in the face again. Your windows, all of them, are thrown open to the sea breeze but your house still smells faintly of genetic material. Outside, every single sheet, blanket and towel you own hangs drying on your clotheslines. In the past few days you have pailed Gamzee, or not-pailed, since no actual pails were involved, on every single piece of furniture in your house and also on bunch of non-furniture surfaces, like the countertop, the ablution trap and both walls in the narrow hallway. Gog, the hallway. Karkat braved dropping in daily to deliver food and Aradia had flown home from the waterwheel camp to help him. You're not totally sure how much they saw since you were very, um, distracted. Just, it was kind of statistically very likely that if they dropped in it was while you were pailing Gamzee.

Now, a meeting has convened at your house and the committee is standing around awkwardly, trying not to touch anything - except for Rose and Kanaya who are perfectly graceful and poised about it. Them, plus Karkat and Aradia and for some reason John and Jade, too, have all descended on your poor, spunk-fogged house first thing in the evening. For a meeting. About pailing. Or not-pailing.

You're tired and you ache in places you've never hurt before. Your legs are nearly as limp as they were after Vriska jumped you off that cliff, which stirs up some old, illogical fear and anger. You're sprawled on the couch in nothing but pajama pants, letting its padded back support your horns. Gamzee lays with his head in your lap, naked under a sheet and smiling up at you. One huge hand is splayed out over the round, hard, much bigger now bump in his abdomen, petting it absently. The smell of his hair – salt-spray and baking, even after a week away from the kitchens - keeps you calm.

Finally, Jane knocks and sheepishly sticks her head in the door.

“Am I the last one here? Sorry, clean-up after dinner got a little out of hand. Equius and Eridan – Well, never mind.”

“I have less than no desire to ever think about those two bulgestains and their oily dishwater blackrom,” Karkat says. “Let's get this shit-show on the road before I start hacking up all the fine mist of genetic material I've inhaled this week.”

John rolls his eyes and pokes Karkat in the side. Karkat makes a funny, pinched sort of face at him.

Jane perches herself on the edge of the couch by Gamzee's hip. You are glad it's her. She's stable and sensible. She and Gamzee run the kitchen crew together, turning out four meals a day from the huge stove and ovens of First House. The results of their occasional bake-offs leave the whole village in a sugar coma for days.

Jane closes her eyes, her palms sliding lightly over Gamzee's chest and stomach. She frowns, does it again. You're surprised when she moves over to you next, sweeping her hands just above your skin.

“Well, you seem to be all right, Tavros. Just tired. Eat some extra protein and get lots of sleep,” she tells you, smiling kindly. “As for you, Mr. Makara.”

“Lay it on me chef-sis,” Gamzee says, blissful as you'd ever seen him on sopor. Not that he's on sopor, since there is no sopor in this universe. You're glad about that, even when you have nightmares.

Jane brings her hand over his over the lump. It's taught like a stretched-skin rhythm instrument to the touch. You've touched it a lot, in various states of arousal, confusion, alarm, and uncomfortably growing acceptance.

“If I didn't know better,” Jane says, “Which, I suppose I really don't, since I've never seen anything like this. But, if I didn't know better, I'd say you were pregnant.”

There is a beat of silence.

Rose says, “Oh my,” at the same time John says “Holy fuck.” Jade lets out a little squeal.

Beat.

“What's pregnant?” you ask.