Actions

Work Header

Let's Be Outcasts

Chapter Text

When the voices stop, the sudden solitude in your head is almost worse than the endless cacophony. You have never known anything else; or if you have it was lost long ago in the chaos that is your inner world. Your only world. The abrupt, encompassing silence is like being plunged into ice cold water, muffled and frozen forever. Like you imagine death might be.

It’s as if you have ceased to exist, and you flail out randomly, desperately, scrabbling with claws grown too long, gnashing your teeth so you feel your lips sliced by the doubled row of your fangs. The sharp taste of blood fills your mouth. You choke, trying to gasp, but the thick gel that surrounds you coats your throat, your lungs, refusing to let you take the deep gulping breaths you crave.

Your reaching fingers encounter a surface and you snag your claws in the rubbery membrane, pulling and tearing until it gives all at once, expelling you into a cold outer world on a stream of green slime. Your face is pressed to smooth metal flooring, in a gooey puddle of gel. Your back arches and you cough out a lungful of the stuff in one long spasm, clearing your breathing tubes. It’s…not quite sopor. Stasis gel. You were in a stasis grubpod.

You work your limbs weakly, seeking purchase in the slippery mess, and finally succeed in flopping over onto your back. You blink thickly through gooey lashes but can’t seem to clear your vision. Blink. Blink. Blink. Blink. You feel helpless, caught in a loop.

Eventually your dazed mind catches up. Lifting a hand, you drag crooked fingers through the tangled black mess of your gel-caked hair, clearing the long sticky fringe from your eyes in clumps. This time, when you blink, you can see the pipes running the length of the ceiling, the block illuminated only by flashing control panels and the ethereal green glow of the wounded grubpod.

Your head still feels hollow, echoing with silence. For once there is a space for you to track your own thoughts, but the vacancy is so vast it’s like spinning uncontrolled through a void, unable to find purchase or stability. You feel dizzy and nauseated, and, overwhelmingly, panicky and afraid. And yet… you think somewhere else you don’t feel that way at all? In some parallel mind, overlaid on your confusion and panic, you are gripped by a kind of savage triumph, a fierce, rising antipathy. You want to hurl out streams of profanity and invective, scream the world blind and Make Them Pay. You want to curl up and hide, mouthing apologies, because maybe if you’re pitiful enough the universe will leave you alone.

You lie on your back, gripped by impossibly competing emotions, until another layer of awareness filters into your consciousness. The voices have not entirely left you. You can sense the remnants now, a few slender threads almost unnoticeable against the vast silence. But this third part of yourself, calm and detached, registers them, evaluates and catalogues them, documenting each tiny detail with relentless diligence.

…How many minds do you have? Two... two seemed alright, but three—you are certain three is too many. It’s uneven, unbalanced, and everything is wrong wrong wrong wrong!

There is a crackle of energy, your eyes burn hot and electric, and the dim lab lights up with a tumult of blue and red power, psionic force lashing out from your body in a mad, uncontrolled vortex. You hear shattering and crashing, but you are lost in the outpouring of rage and fear, spiraling up and up until it feels as if you will be torn apart at the seams, and you think this is it, this will be the time you’ll burn yourself out.

But then some internal switch trips, some instinctive, in-built safety valve, and the power drains away from you, fading into intangibility, steam escaping from a leaky boiler and vanishing into the air. You’re left curled on the floor, empty and trembling, and still with one mind whispering a blue haze of rage and one mind whimpering in red tones of shame and a third mind that just ticks and ticks along, heedless of anything else, feeding you data and analyses and listening to the mechanical chirp of imperial signs, those few remnant voices that each mark the presence of a nearby troll.

You need… four. Four minds would be alright. Four is two and two, and two can find balance and you need balance—you need it—need to fashion some bulwark to defend yourself because surely this relative quiet from your third mind can’t last, and you will be lost again when the storm of voices returns.

The few voices still in your head fade in and out, the electric pulse of the signs surging and dimming as the trolls that bear them move about, not so far away. Whatever loophole let you slip your confinement and cast off most of the voices must surely be noticed, eventually, and then they will come for you. If they return you to your stasis will the voices find you there again, howling and gabbling at you in the void? Will your life continue in the old, unending tapestry of chaos?

You have, just this once, a single, narrow window of opportunity. If you can act quickly, if you can find the right tools, you need not be completely helpless against the tide when it returns, need not be overwhelmed by the torrent.

Yes, hisses your blue mind. Please, whispers your red mind. Do it now, they say together.

You scrabble again in the sticky, slippery puddle, clumsily gathering your legs under you, levering with arms that still spasm with occasional tremors as the connection between your mind and body skips and pops unevenly. Balance. Control. Wavering on your feet, you scan the wreckage your runaway power has made of the lab, machinery smashed and broken, pipes hanging askew, sheets of metal wrenched from the wall, the scraps piled everywhere in jagged, curling strips. A bank of silicomb has been splattered into a sticky yellow smear, like blood. The little broken bodies of the bees make you cringe, make you churn.

You find what you’re looking for tucked away in an alcove at the back of the lab, a row of programmer’s command helmets charging on a wall rack. Three are lightning-charred, twisted by external forces to near unrecognizability. In an auspicious twist of fate, the final, fourth helmet hangs untouched.

The debris littering the lab is worst along the walls, where it forms drifts of broken glass and metal. You’re forced to climb, picking your way cautiously over the unsteady heap. Something shifts underfoot, and your limbs pinwheel wildly, unable to correct your balance. As you topple headfirst, your right electronic interface dings and clangs against the debris and your two right horns crack hard against a fallen strut, sending a shock of pain jolting down your spine to vibrate in your fingers and toes.

Worse, the sharp, twisted edge of a torn metal panel drags along your thigh, tearing through your bodysuit to gouge your flesh. The long, shallow wound sheets yellow blood across the black fabric. You snarl, mind tilting blue, and spew out a stream of furious invective, cursing the world. The words twist and tangle in your throat, catch on the doubled tips of your tongue and emerge through your bared fangs as malformed sounds your audio canals can hardly recognize. The unfairness of your physical limitations stokes your fury higher until you’re shouting incoherent curse words at nothing, a hand clamped over your thigh to try to staunch the bleeding.

You’re caught in a spiral again, unsure how to stop the runaway feedback loop, and then your mind surges red with panic, reminding you of the looming threat, and you break off your tirade to whimper—sorry sorry please—creeping and stumbling forward towards your target.

You stagger and fall twice more, once barking your shins, once thumping your skull on the wall, and then you have your prize in your hands and you half-slide, half tumble down to the floor of the lab, to sprawl in an ungainly tangle, the programming helmet clutched tight to your chest.

You are cut and bleeding and bruised and your body shivers and twitches under the heaving tangle of conflicting impulses that constitutes your mind. But you remember the code. You remember the way the numbers talk to you, and it’s the language of the third part of your mind, the one that is throwing your entire identity out of balance. It speaks to you ceaselessly, endlessly, sometimes deafeningly, until the unfiltered flood of information subsumes your existence. Now you’re going to speak back.

Your name is Mituna Captor and you are going to hack your own brain.

-----------------------

----

The last metal bolt drops from your outstretched fingers, clinking and rolling to within an inch of the closest of the disc-shaped bots. The little bot whirrs and moves up a bit, scooping your offering into its intake unit with a faint clunking noise. You hold your hand out a little farther, wiggling your fingers slightly to make the circuits inlaid in your palm glint. C’mon, li’l dude. Lookit the shiny. Your bent knees ache from maintaining your motionless position. The bot rolls a pace nearer. That's it. Let the nice cyborg get a look at your programming.

“Hey, Bro?”

The sudden presence at your back sends you spinning around, coming to your feet from your crouch at the edge of the alley. Behind you, the flock of feral cleanerbots scatters, white discs taking to the air in a flurry of electronic cheeps. The handful of tech scraps you were using as a lure mysteriously vanish with them, the alley scoured clean. You eye the small blond kid in the grey hoodie with disfavor. You’d spent half an hour looking for him and you’ve been fretting about him for the past ten minutes, so of course he’d turn up out of the blue after you’d given up looking, covered in dust and roof tar, the robotic bunny-ears atop his head perked hopefully. Your lips press into a flat line. “Seb. We’re supposed to stay together around human settlements.”

His head tips up, that small, expressionless face considering you from behind pointy red lenses. “I knew where you were.”

You show him your teeth. “Not really the same thing, li’l bro.”

Seb takes this in with an air of baffled tolerance, his head cocking and metal ears tipping forward like he’s waiting for the end of the story. You’ve come to recognize this as his usual approach to situations where he doesn’t grasp the issue and has decided to classify the problem as inexplicable organic-being oddities that must be worked around.

You rub fingers into your right temple, just in front of the ellipse of embedded tech set in your skull. Trying to work out Seb-logic always makes your head ache. You wonder if it’s physically possible for you to fry a circuit in your brain from aggravation. If anybody could assist you with this discovery, it will be Seb. “Just…stay in calling distance, okay? My hearing range, not yours. Shit could turn bad fast, one of these places.”

He nods firmly and tosses you a salute. You’re not exactly sure who he thinks is looking after whom in this relationship but it’s clear he thinks he’s responsible for protecting you. Which is…uncomfortably close to the truth for all that he’s this little kid who doesn’t even come up to your mid chest. You may be more familiar with the concept of being human, but he is infinitely more experienced with the reality of having a physical body.

You’re working on it. You’re even making progress. But the gap between where you are and where you want to be—where you should be, hardly seems to shrink at all. So much of everything you are is all wrapped up in theory with nothing tangible to back it.

Fuck it. That just means you have to take even more care that you don’t fail at what you are good at.

Sighing out a breath you let the issue go with it. He’d have shown up quick enough if trouble had started or if you’d headed out of town. And as for him running into something he couldn’t handle on his own…well, you suppose that’d be pretty noticeable, too. If Seb’s figured out how to cause trouble on a less than catastrophic scale he hasn’t demonstrated this noteworthy talent anywhere you could admire it.

You cast a last glance over your shoulder at the emptied alley and brush dirt off the circuit-interfaces on your palms, pulling your fingerless gloves back on. “I got the replacement coils for the rocket boards half an hour ago. Let’s head out before someone decides they’ve got an excess of tar and feathers and decides to throw a piñata party.”

“Oh.” Seb sounds rather disappointed. He shifts his weight back and forth between his feet, clearly contemplating further elaboration.

You give him a slow count of five to try to untangle his words on his own. Then you apply a pointed prod. “Spit it out, li’l man.”

“Can I have a few caegars to buy a cake?” he ejects on a single breath.

You raise an eyebrow, and try to work out which of many questions to address first. You could ask him where his own money went, or why he needs to buy anything when he’s a shameless little sneak-thief, or what he wants with cake when he treats eating like the most tedious of chores. In the end you elect what would seem to be the most relevant observation.

“The last time I gave you money for sweets you started a riot.”

Seb pulls up his shoulders and drops them, flicking an ear dismissively.

You lift your eyebrow higher, the corner of your mouth quirking back sardonically. You’re morbidly curious to find out what he might have to offer on the topic.

“The General’s not even here this time.”

If you keep raising that eyebrow it will float right off your face and loft gently away into the firmament to join its brethren in the upper pantheon of entities entirely too cool to be restrained by mortal planes. You settle for a skeptical glower. “Riiight. Blame the guy who was chained to a post at the time.”

In truth, you consider yourself extremely fortunate that your trigger-happy carapacian travelling companion has so far preferred to remain well clear of humans and their habitations. Instead, he fulfills his unofficial role as native guide by finding out-of-the-way routes through backcountry and pointing you and Seb at the settlements least likely to take mortal offense to your technological enhancements and/or decide to report a pair of rogue cy to the human government.

At least, you assume those are the criteria. You can’t understand a word that guy says.

Over the past few weeks you’ve had the opportunity to hone your skills wrangling potentially hostile humans and you’ve mostly worked out how to get through the encounters with a minimum of violent outcomes. Your favorite tactic is to just brazen straight through and let them be the ones struggling to fit everything into the neat little boxes of social norms. Sure, they might be as uncomfortable as hell dealing with you and your li’l bro and your sweet mechanical enhancements, but if you can get the initial momentum of the encounter moving the right direction you can generally keep even the more hostile groups off balance long enough for you to trade some supplies or fish out whatever bit of information you came looking for.

There’s a kind of group inertia to dealing with the out-of-place, with everybody waiting for someone else to be the first person to point out the elephant in the room. When you act like you can’t possibly imagine any interaction not falling out to your expectations things generally do.

It’s not 100% effective, of course. But really only 80% of those fights could have been said to be within your ability to prevent. Down from 90. Progress.

Seb shrugs again, rolling his head in dismissal of the whole subject, and bounces on his toes. “Cake?”

“Of course, because the only thing I find more fulfilling than wandering unfamiliar streets looking for little boy robots is risking life and limb in teeming crowds of humans to purchase confectionary items.”

Seb just locks his gaze on you, still bouncing slightly. You cave like an antique trampoline.

“Okay, fine. We’ll go indulge your suddenly acquired fascination with cake. If you can catch me one of those little bots buzzing all over the place.”

“ ’Kay!”

Five minutes later you’ve got a loudly cheeping cleanerbot stashed away in your sylladex, Seb bouncing smug and excited beside you, and you’re wrestling with a mixed bag of satisfaction and annoyance, irritation and pride.

~*~

This settlement—town really—is something of a trading outpost, and the maps place it at the fringe of the unclaimed territories, where neither the human, troll, nor carapacian Empires maintain a strong presence. This means people in the area tend to a practical outlook, at least when they’re not expecting an imperial squadron to drop by. They may side eye you and make it clear you’re not welcome to linger, but they’re happy enough to take your coin. This town’s even got a few sellers running troll and carapacian goods—a lucky find, since the area, though officially unclaimed and sparsely populated, is predominantly human. The few members of the other species you’ve seen travelled alone or in small groups, solely at night, and the General kept you well clear of them.

The cause of Seb’s unusual culinary interest becomes clear when you reach the marketplace.

She’s a good few years younger than you, but still older than Seb, dark-haired and round-faced, with a frame that looks like it wants to run to plump but doesn’t get the nourishment for it. Her blanket spread of baked goods has been relegated to a mostly overlooked street corner at the edge of the market, where she’s hard-pressed to both maintain her territory and attract customers. You suppose she looks a little like Jane, albeit a Jane improbably depicted as a helpless, waifish street girl. Honestly, even at her saddest and most vulnerable, Jane mostly just got porcupine-prickly.

You are torn between competing urges to smirk and rib Seb mercilessly or to turn straight around and drag you both out of town on the instant. Your stomach roils, hot and acid in your gut. Seb’s gone before you can settle your internal cage match, dodging through the crowd in a flashing series of indirect zigs and zags that circle inexorably closer to little baked-goods seller. He’s either feeling shy or he’s decided this enterprise is complex enough to require reconnaissance.

There aren’t any solid surfaces handy, so you lift a fist and bang your forehead against it in three repeated beats.

He’s too young to have a crush, you console yourself. He’s just missing Jane. You’re spared that particular brand of Strider-stubborn fixation for at least a few more years.

…Unless you contract thinking-with-your-dick syndrome. Horrorterrors preserve you from ever falling as hard and stupid for anyone as Dirk did. If legendary tentacled sky monsters can help you out on this you’re more than willing to perform whatever dark rituals might be necessary. Maybe a virgin sacrifice? You’d be happy to katana your own head free if you ever get that stupid.

With mounting irritation, you slip closer to watch the drama play out. Seb’s lurking a few stalls away, pretending to examine a cart of carapacian gene-modded fruit under the suspicious eye of its human vendor, because apparently buying cake from a random human girl can’t just be done and gotten over with. It’s some kind of elaborate siege. There’s a lull in the crowd, random fluctuations leaving the area mostly unoccupied, and Seb zips across the gap, popping up directly in front of his target.

Who utters a stifled little shriek and scrambles back in alarm, knocking cakes and blanket askew. Ah. Right. He’s done that appearing out of nowhere routine to you so often you’d kind of forgotten how unsettling it could be. Well, Seb’s little and cute and harmless-looking. She’ll get over it.

Except she doesn’t. She’s clearly unnerved, crouching back further on her hands as Seb flashes quickly over to right a particularly tall pastry arrangement before it can topple. When he bends helpfully to tug the blanket straight and push the cakes and pastries and pies back into order she actually scooches backwards a few inches. Seb stops, yanking his hands away and taking a step back himself. They stare silently at each other in mutual uncertainty for a few moments, Seb bewildered, her alarmed.

Rallying, Seb thrusts a few copper coins toward her, holding them out two-handed, like an offering or a supplication. She flinches, recoiling from the movement toward her face as if he’d tried to strike her. He freezes and she freezes. He takes a step forward and she shrinks back. Her wary eyes are fixed on Seb’s face, not his body language, and her discomfort only seems to coil tighter as she’s met with blank lenses and a blank face.

She doesn’t seem to notice the way he’s folded his metal ears back flat, or the way he grows stiller and stiller, drawing in on himself, shortening his movements and trying to make himself look even smaller and non-threatening. In the face of her reaction, Seb’s gone tongue-tied and silent and your heart clinches and flops uncomfortably in your chest as he shrinks down even further, trying to rearrange himself into something acceptable and subdued.

You skulk closer, lingering on the peripheries, uncertain whether your presence would help or hinder, or even if you should interfere at all. He won’t thank you for it. He’s standing there in front of her, vibrating with silent frustration and helplessness. His hands twitch in an abortive movement to offer the coins again, but he halts himself, holding his arms in close to his chest. Pointing with just his hand, he gestures with hopeful emphasis in the direction of a small, blue-frosted cake.

“It’s a cake,” the girl says, like maybe providing obvious pastry-related information will be the solution to being accosted by a small cyborg bunny-boy.

Seb points again, more insistently, and makes a small movement, jingling the coins in his other hand. This is pretty clear, and you think for a moment progress will be made and the encounter can end, if not without extreme awkwardness, at least on a positive note, but—

“Miss, is this kid bothering you?” One of the nearby vendors has stepped away from her stall, and now moves over, stepping up behind the blanket to align herself with the girl in a physical show of support. Knight in shining armor.

The girl turns instantly, looking up at the newcomer with a face full of gratitude. Seb goes completely motionless. Sorry, little bro. You don’t get to be the prince in this story. “I think he wants a cake,” she says, evidently relieved to share this thorny problem with a supportive (human) individual.

Her savior, a sturdy, matronly woman turns back to Seb. “Well? Are you going to buy something or not?”

Seb doesn’t speak, doesn’t even move; he’s a frozen, blank little shell, like the situation’s gone so far afield from the scene in his head it’s shut him down completely, his voicebox ransacking his frame for spare gestures on its way out.

“Kid,” the vendor growls, “Either buy something or move off. Don’t make me call the guard on you.”

Okay, that’s enough. You do your own little sudden-appearance act, shadowing into view at your li’l bro’s shoulder. The way the two humans jump puts a smirk on your face, but you curve the edges up a little more and pretend it’s a friendly smile. They can’t see your eyes; maybe it’s even convincing.

They do not look convinced.

“Hey there,” you greet them. “We’ll take all of them.”

~*~

As the pair of you head out of town, Seb stalks along at your side, not acknowledging your occasional color commentary on the passersby with so much as an ear twitch. He’s pretending to be busy keeping a look out, but since no one’s done anything more dramatic than cross to the other side of the street to avoid you, you’re pretty sure he’s just pissed.

“It seems you’re angry at me.”

Stalk stalk stalk.

“Which is particularly illogical as I cannot discern any method by which I could be perceived to be the party at fault in this little burlesque. In fact, I helped.”

“I didn’t need help!” he snaps.

“Ha ha. Yes you did.”

“Didn’t!”

“Did.”

“You made it worse!”

You cut short a breath. That stings, if only because you’ve had that accusation thrown in your face so many times before…and because of the niggling voice in your head that says it’s true. “Newsflash, li’l dude, you were already sinking. That ship had met the iceberg. The ship and iceberg had exchanged chumhandles and gone to a nice seafood dinner. They had fallen in love and run away together and got all up in each other’s businesses and it was all an epic fated romance that no mortal force could withhold leading inevitably to the watery death of thou—ow!”

You hop on one foot for a step and rub at your shin, frowning at him.

Seb gives you a particularly blank, level stare in response that you think is supposed to be a glare. Turning back to his forward stomping, he hunches his shoulders and directs his shades ferociously at the ground ahead of him. “I can talk to people by myself.

You narrowly bite back telling him that no, he really can’t. That would not be productive. Anyway, he talks fine to people that aren’t heinously narrow-minded human dumbasses. He and the General chatter at each other all the time, although maybe it doesn’t count when only one person can understand the other. That pidgin sign language the General’s been teaching you is really only suited for simple trade arrangements, not conversation.

You pass the town’s outer walls in silence, and find yourself with the usual mixed feelings. Relief to be away, safe, free, alone, back in your own, less oppressive headspace; bitterness because they don’t want you, you don’t fit, you’re never going to fit.

Seb’s ears flick forward and back, and he steps in closer to you, finally deigning to break the silence. He takes his responsibilities seriously. “Bro.”

“Mm. I noticed.” You keep your reactions casual, not looking around. “Let it ride a bit.”

He shrugs acquiescence and falls back to his previous position, his ears still swiveling alertly. You’re keeping your own eye out, but at the same time another part of your attention is still niggling at the Seb problem. When you get into the treeline, you blow out a breath, uncomfortable with the smog of unhappy silence hanging in the air. Keeping your voice to a low murmur that won’t carry far amid the thick tree cover, you take a stab at adjusting the mood thermostat. “You know it’s fine if sometimes you don’t feel up to dropping down some fine words for the unworthy masses, right?”

Seb makes a cut short hissing noise, and you think for a minute he might be going to try to kick you again. Instead he takes a few quick steps into the lead, giving you his back.

Right. Stop trying to be helpful.

You suppose if someone tried to pull a bullshit line on you about how failure was a natural part of life and didn’t represent any flaw in yourself you’d probably get your back up, too. You want to fix it, but you don’t know how. Maybe you can strife it out. …Later.

Frustrated, you run your hands up into your gelled-back hair, but stop before you can throw everything into complete disarray. “Does it bother you at all that we have no clue why we’re doing this?”

You don’t really expect a response, and he obligingly doesn’t provide one.

“And I don’t just mean why are we dinking around in a random human town trying to grunge up spare parts for the rocketboards once-a-fucking-gain, although that is a pertinent and relevant question. I mean, why are we doing all that here, specifically, on the edge of nothing and nowheresville in mystery-apocalypse-land for yet another day?

“Because Sawtooth said to,” Seb says shortly.

“Inaccurate.” You stab a finger at the back of his head, glad for the excuse to vent. And also shift some blame in this mad ridiculous situation. “Sawtooth didn’t say anything at all. Sawtooth sent us a list of marching orders. And what did the good little soldiers get when they reported in for duty? No Sawtooth, no Squarewave, no explanation of where they are or what the fuck is going on. It seems he left us more freaking orders. Go here. Find—“ you censor yourself on the fly “—whatever. Wait indefinitely for clues. In fact, scratch what I said, that wall scrawling doesn’t even qualify as orders. It’s more like we’re solving puzzle quests in a shitty videogame rpg. We are the mindless videogame characters, jumping through hoops with no conception why. You can’t tell me that doesn’t bug you.”

Seb’s unmoved. “We’re helping Sawtooth.”

You eye the back of his head with disfavor. “Hm. I suppose you could be the mute hero character. I don’t know what that makes me. I guess I’m the talky support character that everybody dislikes just because he points outs the obvious.” Whoops, did you get a little pointed there? Surely not.

I’m useful.”

Ouch. Kid knows just where to land a blow. “Do you want a cookie? Or, oh, I know.” Your smirk turns evil. “How about a cake?”

He does kick you again, and you shove him on the shoulder, and he jabs his elbow low into your side, and somehow, even though nothing has been accomplished, everything is marginally better. Not fixed, but fixable. You’re just going for a headlock when Seb comes alert again, ears pricking up, and the two of you fall back a few steps.

Right. That other matter.

You’ve probably let it simmer long enough. Brushing dirt off pants and jacket and discreetly checking your katana, you wave Seb on. “Give me a tick, okay?”

Seb’s head tips, glancing sideways at you, and then further behind. He gives you a level look.

You return him your own firmest look, and raise your eyebrows meaningfully. “I got this. Go give the General a heads up. We might need to catch a little something extra for dinner.”

You see his ears straighten in comprehension, and he jerks his chin. “Mm!” After one final moment of hesitation, he takes off, moving purposefully in the direction you left your carapacian travelling companion.

That detail arranged, you give Seb enough time to pass out of sight into the trees, then turn around and face the woods behind you. You fold your arms, tap your foot, and finally speak out flatly.

“It seems I’ve acquired a secret admirer.”

Half-hidden behind an oak tree, an indistinct figure twitches in surprise, drawing further back into the in the long, sunset shadows of the copse.

“C’mon, bro, you’re making me all shy over here. Iyaaan, does senpai like me or is he just waiting to murder me in my sleep? I’m so flustered, my poor little heart. If you don’t lay off the stalker routine I might get all shy and cut you off at the knees.”

That fetches the stranger out, though the fading evening light finds little to reveal. The figure is enrobed from head to toe in a concealing brown cloak, face obscured in the shadows of the deep hood. You’re being stalked by a jawa, apparently. Full length gloves, black clothes, and sturdy boots cover what the cloak doesn’t. You click the contrast on your shades up a few more notches and can just make out the soft, rounded contours of a young face, sharpened by the stubborn tilt of a forward-jutting chin.

The voice, when he starts speaking, is identifiably male, a light alto with slightly raspy undertone that takes off and doesn’t stop. “I beg your pardon; it was not remotely my intention to convey any malicious purposes or render you uncomfortable in any way. I apologize most sincerely for my questionable means of approaching you and for any discomfort or concern I may have inadvertently caused you. My only goal was to find an opportunity to speak with you privately.”

Blinking a bit under the deluge, you fix the visible parts of your face into a neutral expression. Or at the least, something not more than faintly mocking, which is often as close as you can get these days. You fold your arms and lean back against a tree, propping up one leg and letting your sword dangle with misleading carelessness. He’s too far away to get to you before you can react and you’re curious to see if he’ll take the bait.

“It seems you have a very strict definition of privacy. You’ve been following us since the outskirts of town.” From this angle you can just make out a faint gleam in the depths of the hood, paired ovals reflecting light in planes too large to be eyeshine. Glasses, maybe? “Just how private are you looking for here? Because I ought to warn you, my li’l bro might pop out of a leaf pile or some shit any moment. He does that.”

“Oh, no, I appreciate your consideration, but that’s not necessary. I had just hoped to postpone the encounter until after dark.”

Your raise a mocking eyebrow. “You wanna do it after dark, hm? Whoa there, slow down, stallion. At least buy me dinner first.”

There’s a few moments of silence preceding the baffled response. “My apologies, I wasn’t aware of that social convention. Of course I don’t want to be insensitive…. I have some field rations I could offer you. Would that be an acceptable substitution to facilitate this intercourse?”

Your other eyebrow goes up with no direct command from central control. “You are forward.”

“Forgive me; was that rude? Is it important that I buy it? I am certainly willing to fulfill my part in any cultural rituals as necessary. Is a financial transaction required or would barter suffice?”

Oh god, straight face. “Depends. Are you still talking about dinner or have we moved on to dessert? You start trying to buy a guy’s dessert and he might think you don’t respect him.”

“I—no, I’m sorry, of course I wouldn’t want to do anything that breached your boundaries. I just want to get the appropriate courtesies taken care of so I can present my proposition.”

“You want to proposition me.”

“Yes, exactly; I—”

“But you don’t want to breach my boundaries.”

“No, not at all. You see—”

“Is this a complicated way of saying you want me to top?”

You’re rewarded with another one of those bewildered pauses, before he plunges back in. “In fact, I have a task that I would like to engage your assistance with, and in exchange I believe I could be of some service to you.”

Dear god this guy is easy. It’s kind of like playing tennis with a brick wall—he just lobs them straight back at you. About as rewarding, too. You let that last statement hang in the air for a few seconds before you take pity and stop stringing this along. “Okay, so. Are you just painfully conversationally inept or are you actually hitting on me? Because I gotta say, this is one of the weirder come ons I’ve run into and, believe me, I know from weird. I’ve seen severed heads make a smoother pass.”

“Hitting on…what? No!” He’s actually sputtering now, completely flustered, and his voice almost vibrates with alarm. “I’m not—that’s not what I meant at all! I had no intention of—of inadvertently conveying any kind of—solicitation, or inappropriate—which isn’t to say that there would be anything wrong with—in a proper context between two consenting adults—or more than two if that’s their preference, of course, I don’t mean to imply any judgment—but I wasn’t—what I mean to say is—I can see that ‘intercourse’ was a problematic word choice; I should have borne in mind the implications in the casual lexicon and how that could be misperceived to construe—“

Secretly you’re kind of captivated—it’s just such an amazing verbal trainwreck—but after a few moments you cut in on the catastrophe with your blandest voice. “Right, well, word to the wise, bro, pick ups usually go better when you aren’t creeping around stalking people while cloaked head-to-toe like the last lonely larper at the con. You got some self-esteem issues that need to be addressed? Because there’s body-shy and then there’s body-paranoid and you are definitely encroaching on the mentally unsteady end of the spectrum.”

There’s a sharply indrawn breath and the figure pulls up to his full height, his previous agitation falling away from him. He’s still more than half a head shorter than you, but he stands like he thinks he’s taller. Or like he wants you to think it. “There’s no need to engage in shaming dialogue. As a matter of fact I have an extreme sensitivity to sunlight which is particularly common in my species, although, of course, not universal; I wouldn’t want to assert my experiences as default—“

His species. Not just the full body cloak against the light, but the odd rasp and trill of the voice; the cultural disconnect. You are slow today. “You’re out pretty early for a troll.”

You hear him sniff. In an excessively stuffy tone, he answers, “I find with appropriate accommodations there is no reason my species should limit me to any particular nocturnal or diurnal cycle.”

You glance around, where the sunset shadows of the forest have transmuted into the complex tangle of shadow and form sketched in the bright cold light of multiple moons. “Well, the sun’s pretty well put to bed now. Think I could get a peep at who I’m talking to?”

“Very well.” He strips the gloves from his hands, revealing grey skin and a neat set of delicately pointed black claws. The gloves get tucked away in a manner you don’t quite follow—the sleight of hand reminds you of the General, and his weird carapacian item duality tricks. The—quite evidently—troll’s hands come up to fiddle with some complicated lacing at the base of the hood, and he starts talking again, reflexively, like he’s not comfortable without a buffer of words filling the air. “…apologies, these garments are designed for protection and are not particularly accessible or convenient to manage. I’ve told her and told her how potentially problematic that could be for trolls with physical limitations but she gets so touchy about her designs. It’s such a waste I can’t convince anyone else to…”

It’s kind of interesting and probably a good way to pick up some passive intel but you’re an asshole, and also kind of impatient with curiosity so you interrupt him with a toneless, “Ooh, senpai. The anticipation is making my poor little heart go doki doki. I may swoon.”

His fingers twitch slightly, and you can recognize a face that’s only pretending to be above irritation. Under a façade of calm, he finishes out the laces and yanks loose the guard cloth fastened loosely around his shoulders and throat, his voice lilting up into a full on patronizing register. “Of course I don’t wish to cause you any physical or emotional distress.” He pushes back his hood in a single smooth motion, using his other had to raise a pair of darkened goggles from his eyes to his forehead, where they half disappear under a fringe of spiky black hair.

He rubs a little at the marks around his eyes, blinking owlishly in the moonlight, and turns his gaze back to you.

You recoil in surprise. “Vantas?
The troll tenses, pulling back a bit from you as well, before he sucks in a breath and firms his stance. His shoulders go back, his chin comes up, and he draws himself up to his full, if still rather lacking, height, puffing up to look down his nose at you like a proud cat. “I don’t believe we’ve met.”

Chapter Text

You don’t say anything straight off because you’ve already realized you’re wrong—the troll in front of you looks physically identical to Karkat Vantas, but all wrong in the details. The posture is haughty rather than confrontational, the hair is more runaway than crazy-tangled bedhead, and even in your short exposure to Vantas it’s impossible to imagine any universe where that particular troll could get through more than two sentences without exploding into creative profanity.

So… That would make this guy Vantas’ paradox-bro. Ancestor. Descendant. What was that ridiculous portmanteau they were using? Dancestor. …Yeah, you’re going to go with ‘bro.’ And, of course, he’s also named Vantas. Something-Vantas. You dredge your memory for any additional data–you know you had a file put together on the topic, but if it transferred over to your new biological storage system you can’t locate it. The search-retrieve function for human brains is ridiculously inefficient. Anyway, you could hardly be expected to give a shit about the first dozen random trolls dropped into your midst, much less their weird dead dream relatives.

Other-Vantas sure doesn’t look dead. He’s still watching you warily, face stiff and arms folded across his chest, like he thinks you might be about to attack him but doesn’t want to look like he cares. The eyes, rather hilariously ringed by goggle imprints, are no blank dead ghost eyes. Living eyes, troll-yellow with black irises that are just beginning to tint with their adult color. Rust?

So does this mean he got popped into this world in a brand new living body like you, or is this more like a post-Scratch reboot? Dude definitely got jumpy when you called him Vantas, but who knows what that means.

“No, we haven’t met, you just…” what explanation can you possibly offer here? How much does he know? “…look familiar.” Wow, brilliant. You carry right on, hopefully distracting him from how explanatory that wasn’t. “You ever know anybody named Karkat Vantas?”

You’re watching him closely and there’s…something there. A brief flash of recognition, maybe, followed by confusion and the inward-turned look of rapid thought, but he doesn’t give voice to it. Which seems odd, actually, because you already have the impression that pretty much every transitory opinion that crosses this guy’s head comes straight out his mouth, in elaborate detail.

His expression settles into guarded suspicion. “I’ve never met any Karkat. Vantas is my surname.”

“Sounds like a relative of yours.”

He huffs out a little breath of air, draws in another lungful in preparation for a speech. “I’m afraid you’re sadly under-informed about troll culture. Troll surnames aren’t like human patronyms. In point of fact, surnames are never shared within a generation, and, actually, are not tied to bloodlines at all, at least as humans understand them, although some theories do suggest a genetic component.” His voice takes on a slightly condescending skeptical tone. “Are you sure such a person actually exists? I don’t in any way mean to cast aspersions on the validity of your statements or question your memory, but perhaps you’re misremembering some description you’ve heard attached to my name?”

“Seems unlikely, bro. I don’t even know your name.”

He blinks and looks genuinely abashed. “Please excuse my discourtesy. My name is Kankri Vantas. Will you give me your name?”

You’ve heard that phrase enough to recognize it for the ritual exchange it is. You wonder if the custom crosses species boundaries or if he’s trying to be human at you. Such a thoughtful gesture. You demonstrate your appreciativeness by immediately kicking the social script to the curb. “What? You’re stalking me and you haven’t even bothered to learn my name? Break my heart.”

You’re starting to recognize the steam-kettle hiss of indrawn breath that precedes another word-cascade. “I really must object to your repeated characterization of my actions as stalking, although for the purposes of full disclosure I should also let you know that I have, in fact, made attempts to learn your name; however, I found myself overwhelmed by the sheer abundance of supposed sobriquets attached to your person. While I would not presume to dictate to anyone the number or variety of appellations they might choose to apply to themselves I do feel I can venture a reasonable guess that these were not, in fact, your name, but rather pseudonyms. Bearing this in mind, I would prefer not to make assumptions as to your personal preferences or disrespect your boundaries should you choose not to accept that degree of personal intimacy.” His lips curl into a grimace before you can even open your mouth. “Please don’t make another boundaries innuendo.”

“I was thinking more the intimacy line, actually.” You narrow your eyes behind your shades. “Exactly how long have you been following me?”

The troll—Vantas—Kankri?—looks piqued. “As I’ve mentioned, I’m not following you. I heard about you several days ago, and it’s taken me this long to track you down.”

“Oh right, that’s waaaaay less stalker-y.” Shit. You haven’t been careful enough. One troll following you around is obnoxious in a mostly non-threatening way. But if someone takes it into their heads to sic the human military on you…

No. This shit ain’t going to fly. You’ve indulged boredom and curiosity more than long enough. In the end it doesn’t really matter if this guy does have some obscure connection to your former life. It’s entirely irrelevant to your current one. Time and past time to close this thing down.

Kankri’s chin lifts and he looks suspiciously down his nose at you. “Are you employing sarcasm?”

“Ding ding. Give the man a prize. Your prize is go the fuck away. I’ll demonstrate.” You put action to words, swinging around your tree and striding out of the clearing. Your eyes scan the forest ahead, alert for the marker you know Seb will have left. Not something you want to bring into play unless—

—He jogs after you. “But I haven’t made my proposition—my request yet.”

“Not interested.”

“You can’t possibly know that before you’ve heard me out.”

“Watch and be amazed. The Auto-Responder 9000 slices, dices, and experiences staggering apathy about a dazzling range of everyday subjects with no user input required.”

“Auto-Responder?”

He’s caught up to your shoulder now, and even though you’ve got somewhere to go you whirl on him, leaning in to emphasize your height. You’re not really broad enough to loom properly, but with a blade in your hand you can sure as hell do intimidating. “It seems you are having difficulty interpreting basic social cues, such as, for example, ‘fuck off.’ If my subtle verbal and physical signals are too sophisticated for your tiny organic brain I can arrange a more direct object lesson.” In fact you already have. You’re presentient like that.

His yellow-ringed eyes move to your sword and back, and his lips purse up like a disapproving school-teacher. “Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.”

“You get that from a fortune cookie? Because I’d say it depends what you’re trying to accomplish. For example, I am extremely competent at removing heads from torsos.”

He folds his arms across his chest. “I’m certain that you are. In fact, if we could postpone the posturing and displays of aggression long enough to attempt some form of rational dialogue I would be able to convey that that is among the reasons I have sought you out. I am in need of a skilled fighter.”

You flash a sliver of teeth at him. “Having some incompetence problems, are we? There there. I hear it happens to a lot of guys.”

He makes an indescribable noise of irritation—a sort of short, clicking tsk, like a displeased owl swallowing a mouse the wrong way down. Indrawn breath. “I feel obliged to point out that your insinuations with regards to procreative ability are extremely insensitive and unnecessarily shaming to people with a valid and unfortunate medical condition and also extremely inappropriate in the context of the history of reproductive sabotage between our respective species. Trolls and humans—“

“—not a human.” You point a finger at the metal interface set just above your right ear, an extremely obvious flash of steel grey against the white-blond background of your spiked up hair. “The metal welded into my brain should have been your first clue. You’d think they’d teach you to spot these things in stalker school. Cyborgs 101: Robots in disguise.”

“I hope you realize that when you insist on misrepresenting my actions you erode the meaning of the word ‘stalking.’ And, in fact, ‘cyborg’ is also a problematic term. If a colloquial label must be employed, ‘cy’ is the least offensive and most accurate expression, being interpretable as an open-ended derivation of ‘cybernetically-modified lifeform,’ whereas ‘cyborg,’ like ‘construct,’ forgive the slur, derives directly from ‘cyberorganic construct,’ a term which rather unfortunately implies—“

“I’m sorry; are you preaching to me about cyborg vocabulary because you think this will accomplish something or do you just find the cadence of your voice mysteriously soothing?”

“You—“ he pauses, visibly struggles with himself, and then stifles whatever lecture he was gearing up for. It makes him look sort of like he’s swallowed angry bees and is trying not to let them escape. You think he might actually be holding his breath.

Honestly, his sheer stubborn earnestness might be kind of endearing in a dumbass kitten way if it weren’t packaged in the most gratingly obnoxious lecturing tones delivered while looking down his nose at you. You have had it fuck up to here with people looking down on you. At least when they’re scared you can pretend they respect you. Abandoning your unproductive attempts at intimidation, you turn and take off into the woods again. Places to go, people to see.

Kankri, having overcome whatever lecture-fit he’s been struggling with, follows along after you. The idiot. “I require assistance to extract a companion of mine from a dangerous situation. She’s in the area inspecting some facilities—laboratories mostly—that the Ebon Council would officially prefer to pretend don’t exist. Unfortunately, it appears that other parties have, in fact, not only noted their existence, but taken a rather aggressive interest in them. And with the Network down it’s been impossible to get in contact with her and warn her.”

That story doesn’t parse quite right to your ears, but then, you’re not exactly up on alt-universe cross-species politics. You catch yourself actually starting to turn the details around in your head. You turn your attention pointedly back to the forest in front of you. Not that your lack of response slows his monologue a nanosecond.

“Some of our companions were able to pass the information on to me, and I’ve been barely a week behind her, but at this point I think it’s very likely that my attempted warning won’t come in time to prevent overlap with other hostile groups in the area. I want to engage you and your companions as escorts, essentially.”

(You bite your tongue. Luckily he moves right along before you can succumb to temptation.)

“It’s obvious you’re looking for something in the area. I have information on undocumented facilities—the complex is scattered through a very old Influx site, it’s quite possible undiscovered outworld tech and artifacts remain in the area—and when we locate Latula we will have a sizeable enough group to discourage most hostile factions.”

Your mind’s snagged on the ‘outworld tech’ part, but you’re not foolish enough to provide him any ammunition. “Still not interested.”

“The troll government won’t help—there’s even a risk they’d cull everyone involved to keep the issue quiet—and even rogue carapacians and humans are just as likely to get the governments of their own species involved. You’re the best candidate.”

“Haha. No.”

“I need your help,” he says, insistently. “It has to be you. You’re the only one that will work.”

“Yeah, okay, Princess Leia. Sounds like a personal problem.” You don’t so much as glance back. That’s what the rearview display in the corner of your shades is for.

He doesn’t answer for a minute, tracking at your heels. When he does speak, it’s an apparent non sequitur. “Your companion—your sibling, I believe you represent him as.”

Your stride hitches, and for one step your foot falls off beat.

“He’s very young to be a rogue cy. One doesn’t typically encounter cybernetically-modified lifeforms that young. I suppose most people don’t realize that the human government has a very strict conditioning protocol in place during early development. It’s an extremely abhorrent attack on personhood.”

You make yourself keep walking, smooth, easy, unresponsive. Eyes front, scanning. Your fingers feel numb on your sword hilt. You force your muscles to relax their chokehold.

“In fact, while the Iron Empire has a tacit policy of tolerating or at least overlooking rogue cy who don’t cause them problems—a policy which, I’d like to point out, serves to keep cybernetically-modified humans complicit in their own subjugation—I don’t believe this policy extends to the juveniles.”

“That so.” The juvenile construct has been contaminated. The juvenile construct must be dismantled.

“Actually, I believe some form of culling is practiced. Possibly some cultural bleedover from the origins of cy as soldier-slaves in the Ebon Empire before the human rebellions and establishment of the Iron Empire.” His voice is perfectly calm and even, the smooth flow of the words still with that same arrogant, lecturing quality, like he’s talking about something abstract, not following you, just at your shoulder, sliding veiled threats in your ear. “You’ve been lucky to avoid a direct confrontation so far. Although I did hear about something—I think it was in Lanstead?”

Your body’s internal temperature regulator seems to have broken down—you’re cycling cold and hot—and your mind feels the same, hot with alarm, cold with anger. “Yes, we did have some trouble outside Lanstead,” you hear your voice say, distantly. “But we took care of it.”

“You can’t imagine that you’ve achieved any kind of permanent solution. Oh, certainly, you’re largely safe this far out from the central territories, but you must realize it would only take one person saying the wrong thing to the wrong person—urk!

Oh, look. It seems your hands have fastened themselves in the collar of his cloak. How did that happen? You curl your fingers tighter into the cloth, hauling him in closer so he has to go up on his toes to keep from falling into you. He flails a bit, grabbing onto your wrists to support himself, claws pricking faintly through the leather of your coat sleeves, but he makes no obvious effort to attack you. You’re kind of surprised—you didn’t think trolls went in much for unreciprocated aggression. Maybe it has something to do with the blade you have fisted inches from his throat. A katana’s not really a close-up weapon, but you can make do.

“This is entirely uncalled for,” he says tightly, and you think he’s trying to sound bored and superior, but it doesn’t quite work when he’s hanging off your wrists and up close and personal with your least amused face.

“Nobody’s going to say anything,” you say, quite mildly, showing off every one of your teeth, “because if they did I would kill them.”

He sniffs and lifts his chin—you note automatically how it exposes his throat to you—looking down his nose through half closed eyes. “You can’t possibly control that.”

“Can’t I?” Once before, you reached out and killed coldly, when the situation had spun itself beyond your ability to manipulate. It’s a strange kind of terror to find this in yourself, here, again; to stumble up against the edge of the situation and suddenly discover there is no limit to what you would be willing to do. You’d tear the whole world down.

You’re close enough to feel his radiant heat. A twitch of your hand, and you could spill that heat out across the ground.

You’re not sure what he sees on your face, hears in your voice, but his eyes narrow (stubborn) and his lips press together (scared). He lifts his chin a little higher. You would have preferred he tried to strike you. It kind of feels like he has.

Your hand is tightening on the hilt of your blade when a sharp, rising whistle cuts through the air, pulling your attention back over his shoulder.

Oh. There’s the sign.

You spin and shove him away by his collar, send him stumbling back toward the two broken branches, crossed in a subtle “X.”

A second later he’s dangling upside down by his ankles, wrestling with the folds of his cloak where they’ve flopped down over his head. He’s trying to say something, but his vociferous protests are mostly muffled by the brown cloth that keeps falling into his face. Your lips quirk up despite your best intentions. Suddenly everything has become much more entertaining. It seems you’ve both been granted a reprieve.

Seb pops out of who-the-fuck-knows-where, materializing at your side, and a moment later the General drops down out of the trees above you. He lands in an easy crouch, assault rifle slung over once shoulder. The little black carapacian exchanges a fist bump with your li’l bro, and you all three turn to contemplate your flailing prize.

The modified twitch-up snare caught him around both ankles, suspending the troll securely from an overhanging branch. His attempts to kick free haven’t accomplished anything except to snug the noose tighter and set him gently spinning in the air, his flipped up cloak tangling in the leaf litter below. As you watch he grapples inelegantly with the portion of garment in front of his face, finally succeeding in shrugging the whole thing off over his head. Victory achieved, he pants for breath, momentarily limp and winded, until the rope stops slowly revolving. He folds his arms across his chest and glares at you upside down. The effect is somewhat lessened by the fact that his head’s about level with your navel.

“I don’t know,” you say after a time. “This one’s pretty undersized. Maybe we should throw it back.”

“That is a sizeist comment,” your captive huffs. “And I assure you I have been subjected to such remarks many times before. I find them neither informative nor perceptive. You may also feel free to refrain from sharing prejudiced remarks regarding my species or bloodline.”

You purse your lips against further snarky commentary, settling on a raised an eyebrow. It’s mostly nerves, and you don’t need to let him see how edgy you are.

His short, tufted hair’s gone from disarrayed to an utter black tangle and the tinted goggles have flopped off his head onto the ground with his cloak. His cheeks are flushed with effort and inverted bloodflow–definitely on the warm end of the hemospectrum, there. Like his other-universe bro he has the tiniest, nubbiest horns you have ever seen on a troll.

He tried to blackmail you with the life of your li’l bro.

You’ve still got your sword in your hand. This problem could go away oh-so-easily. You don’t know whether it’s cowardice or character that makes you hesitate. Whichever it may be you’re not sure you can afford it.

“Bro?”

You turn your eyes on Seb, wondering just how much of that earlier exchange he overheard. Considering those ears it’s probably more useful to wonder if there’s any chance he missed any of it. You scan his upturned face, trying to calculate mental state from the parameters of form and posture. You’ve got hold of the wrong end of the equation, though—all you discern is that he’s scanning your mood with equal intent. You snort out a breath.

Quirking one side of your mouth into a humorless smirk, you gesture elaborately with your free hand. “Seb, meet Kankri Vantas.”

You turn to troll in question, meet his eyes upside down, and give him a very sharp smile. “Kankri Vantas, this is the juvenile construct I represent as my sibling. We call him Sebastian.”

His eyes go from you to Seb. “Thank you for your name,” he says faintly.

Your smile stays sharp, and your mood stays violent. But you’ve got it under control. Restrained, as it were. On a leash. “All right then. Lemme tell you how it’s going to go.”

———————————-

——

The voices in your head let you know people are coming long before you hear physical voices raised in the hallway outside your cell. You hunker lower in the ‘coon, sopor-daze muting your alarm and hostility to something murky. Your mind feels clouded and it’s difficult to think but that’s just a new and exciting flavor of your everyday existence. You’re not sleeping, not really, but they’ve stripped your makeshift cell of everything else but a lab bench welded to one wall, and this restless half-drugged stupor is your only shelter against days and days of nothing and nothing.

Besides. If you try to crawl out while they’re here they’ll likely panic and stuff you back in. You think they’d prefer you permanently sopor-stupid. You think they’d prefer you dead. You don’t know why they didn’t cull you when they found you loose in the ruined lab and realized the stasis grubpod was too damaged to put you back under.

You kept your helmet at least. You need your helmet. Suddenly anxious, you fumble and flop through the sopor, scrabbling up to hang from the lip of the recuperacoon. Yes. There it is. Tucked in the corner of the lab bench, safe from sopor, but still distant from your cell door.

The door outside which a commotion is rapidly building. Six trolls. The metal voices of their sigils whisper in your head. You know their locations within a micrometer, their names and ranks, the history of their service to the Ebon Empire, every concupiscent pail and partner they’ve logged back through the sweeps. You curl your arms up around your skull, pressing flesh against the twin metal interfaces on either side of your head like you could physically block the flow of data, gasping and growling and whimpering at the sheer unpleasant otherness, the way it yanks every instinct you have—hide and go submissive, threat display and strike for the weak points—but you don’t lose yourself. You don’t let the noise of your metal mind push the twin parts of your flesh mind from their precarious balance.

Your mental hacks are working, the multitude of shunts and redirects and workarounds you built out of numbers to muffle the noise, siphon the information into storage, auto-dump the excess. Your second metal mind. Just a ragged scaffolding, but the bones are there, and it’s helping. You just need to stay calm. Balanced. The sopor will help. It should help. Is this fogginess helping? This red-blue muddle in your mind? You can’t remember what sopor is supposed to feel like. You can’t remember if there was ever a time the inside of your head didn’t contain all the chaos of a warzone. The agitated upsurge of a noise outside your skull is a welcome distraction.

“Inspectorturer Pyrope! If you’ll wait just a moment!” The volume outside the door drops down below where you can make out the words, fading back in again as the speaker draws nearer. “—really do need to ask you to stay with your assigned escort, Inspectorturer. Some of the work done here is extremely hazardous.”

“Oh sure, I don’t mind if they tag along. Just so long as they can keep up with me! But you guys totally forgot to show me the labs in this wing. I have to inspect every area in the facility. Gotta play by the rules, yanno?”

“Of course, Inspectorturer.”

“We can start with that door you’re leaning on, there.”

“I—uh—I don’t have the codecard for that one with me.”

“Hey, no probz, don’t even worry about it! I can let myself in.”

“But—um—“

“We don’t have a problem, do we, Scienterrorist Merser? Because that would majorly harsh my day. Well, actually, it would majorly harsh your day. I guess I’d get to finish up early! Bonus!”

“Er. No, no problem, Inspectorturer.”

“Awesome! Oh, hey, look, there goes the lock. Do I have mad skillz or what?”

And indeed, the door emits the acquiescent click-beep of a decrypted locking system. For the first time the thought enters your fuzzy mind that they’re not just going to slide something through the access panel or de-opaque the inspection ports. They’re coming in? They’re coming in.

Your blood pusher jumps in your chest cavity, adrenaline surging past the sopor-daze, and your mind tips over into full on panic mode. As your brain goes hazy and red, the voices in your head rise to a clamor, chattering overwhelming bursts of information into the breach, six data flows of biometrics and personal statistics filling your head. They’re coming in and you don’t know what to do, your mental balance is shot, you can’t think, your helmet is across the cell block, you left it across the room, you need it, what if they take it, take it away—!

You lunge and scramble your way over the lip of the recuperacoon, slipping and thumping into the ground shoulder first, sliding in spilled sopor. Peeling your chin off the floor you bounce back to your feet, plunging across the lab block to half fall upon your helmet, clutching it up with clumsy, grasping digits. When you try to stuff it over your head it gets hung up on your horns and then it won’t fit on, no matter how desperately you yank on it, jarring and grating metal across chitin until your spine feels like it might shiver out of your thorax.

The door slides open on you hugging the helmet to the top of your head, rocking back and forth, whimpering your frustration and distress. The troll in the doorway pauses to take in the scene, a bewildered smile on her lips. Her sigil-voice chatters at you—Sigil Libra; Name: Pyrope, Latula; Classification: Neophyte Legislacerator—but you can’t process the information and you can’t mute the noise and you can’t get your body to cooperate, you can’t get your helmet to interface with your head. You’re too frazzled and unbalanced to even attempt to do anything but stand frozen and gaping, arms tightening uselessly around your helmet. She tilts her head to one side, long dark hair swaying, and raises her eyebrows over bright red shades. Her smile widens.

Your state of mind swings back out of alarm and tips right over in the other direction. “Fssk you fcking syupid dumb funk bitch—!“ the fury rolls out of you in a jumbled string of invective, the words tangling in your head and the syllables disfiguring on your tongue until what emerges is a barely discernible mess, like maybe you’re trying to speak in programming code instead of language. The electric surge of gathering psionic energy builds at the backs of your eyes—and then slips through your unsteady mental fingers again and again.

There are other trolls crowding in behind her, mouthing agitated phrases, a handful of alarmed and worried faces that she stops in their tracks via the expedient method of turning her white staff weapon sideways and blocking their path. They pile up in the doorway, recoiling from the staff as if from a far more threatening gesture.

She continues to regard you with interest through those red lenses, no sign of what she might be thinking apparent behind the bright smile. It’s an amused smile, but it invites you to share the joke—there’s no malice or condescension apparent anywhere. No attempt to knock you down or build herself up. She’s utterly confident and you think you might glimpse why the other trolls are treating her like she’s radioactive.

You wind down all on your own, blue haze of fury subsiding into a confused snarling. Your claws flex uselessly on the metal surface of the helmet, still perched uselessly atop your head.

She takes it all in, then finally points out helpfully, “That’s backwards, yanno.”

You blink twice; roll your eyes upward. Stare crossed-eyed at your helmet. You think you can pinpoint the part of your mental process where spatial reasoning has gone awry but you don’t know how to address it with your mind buzzing and humming and chattering. You route around the issue instead, turning the helmet blindly in your hands and then tugging again.

It slides down over your head. “Oh.”

She beams at you. Her teeth are very sharp.

Chapter Text

The programmer’s helmet you salvaged and rebuilt doesn’t silence the voices in your head. It does give you some element of control, a lever, a tool, a new facet to your mind capable of altering the way the other facets interact. Maybe you can’t think straight, but you can think along zig-zagging tracks, ping-ponging back and forth between metal mind and flesh mind, and shuffling control between the two halves of your organic mind. If you get good enough at the mental balancing act maybe you’ll even be able to mimic being a functional person someday.

Fuck, you’d settle for being a functional version of the defective mutant cyberorganic construct that you are.

For now, the physical and mental buffer of the helmet gives you a clawhold to fight off some of the noise and fog and actually apply some processing power to what’s going on around you. It may only be half your attention, and a distracted, bleary, sopor-dazed half at that, but it’s something.

You turn your eyes back to the troll confronting you, regarding her warily from behind the screen that sweeps across the upper half of your face. Latula Pyrope, your mind whispers, a single kernel of information plucked from the top of the overwhelming backlog of bioinformatic data still cached in your brain. She’s a bit shorter than you—although still taller than most of the lower caste trolls behind her—built on sharp, delicate lines that make you think of a hunting raptor. Her horns follow suit, tapering straight to needle points that don’t waste time hiding that they’re meant for violence. With a start you realize she’s probably around your own age, sweeps behind the dozen researchers and guards that staff this facility, probably barely old enough to be in service.

(The metal voice in your head whispers her precise clutch number, the season and sweep of her hatch-group, the date of her induction into the ranks of legislacerators. You shuffle code in your head, grabbing the entire datafeed and rerouting it to the heads-up display in the helmet’s visor. The steady flicker of information is less pressingly alarming as a text feed outside your skull. You can just barely pretend not to hear the omnipresent clamor of voices.)

Latula’s still smiling brightly at you, and you shift uncomfortably, digging your claws into the palms of your hands. You’re a hair trigger away from sliding into panic or fury and she just. keeps. staring. Her imperial uniform is emphatically teal—marking out her high blood caste—but the bright, non-standard accents—the same off-spectrum red as her shades—transform the image to something cavalier enough to be either whimsically non-threatening or really, really dangerous. You consider that friendly smile again. Dangerous. Definitely dangerous.

“Well, you’re not on the inventory,” she says finally, and you’re extremely alarmed to be directly addressed. No one talks to you. “You wanna hit me with your name, electro-bro?”

The trolls in the doorway behind her take this as their cue to start babbling out anxious disclaimers about your presence and their lack of accountability for said. They cut short as she swings her staff around, bringing it up to lean idly against her shoulder. You wonder if it’s coincidence that the dragon-head carving on the top comes to rest staring back at them. She doesn’t glance back, as far as you can tell behind the shades. Her voice stays cheerful.

“Wow, hey, did I grow lipflaps on the back of my cranial plate and start talking to you? Because holy wow, that would be kind of sweet, but I am talking to this hellacious cyber-dude over here right now, so you’re just gonna have to line up and wait.”

They shut up.

“So. Name? Yes? No?” She’s talking to you again. “Do you talk or are you, like, a random profanity generator?”

“Sssuck my fckdumb bulge,” you say, before you can really think about it.

She laughs.

The two parts of your mind spike irritation and shame and you sway precariously toward either a full out cursing fit or curling up and apologizing. You distract yourself with a dozen tiny coding tasks. If you spread out your attention you don’t notice so much how overwhelming the overall tumult is. The numbers, at least, never turn on you, never respond unpredictably. You understand them.

It occurs to you that the outside room has fallen silent. This troll, Latula, is actually waiting for you to speak. To answer her.

Tell her your name.

It’s novel enough that both red mind and blue mind take note, a brief moment of mental focus, and you actually make an effort. You open your lips, clear your throat into the space she’s left for you. “Miruta Cathor.” No. Your lips curl in frustration and you try again. “Mithuna Aptar." No. You try twice more, growing more and more distressed by the utter uncooperativity of you own body. Your break off with something between a whimper and a snarl, rocking back and forth. Text speeds across your visor display. Voices mutter in your head.

She taps idly at her lower lip with a claw. Her brows pull together like she’s thinking. “Mituna Captor?”

Your head snaps up. “Yeth.” How did she do that? Can she see inside your head?

She grins, looking inordinately pleased with herself, smug as a meowbeast with something small and tasty in its paws. “Damn, I’m good. Got that untangled first try. Okay, MC. Dig the sweet audio jacks, b-t-w. You’re a cy.”

It takes you a moment to work out that she’s talking about the headphone-like interfaces built into your cranium, the two raised knobs snugged in along the base of your modified helmet where your aural clots ought to be. It takes you a longer moment to figure out that last part was a question—maybe? You’re not sure. Does she want you to say something? Sudden anxiety sends a surge of adrenaline flooding along over-primed channels. You mentally scramble, trying to mentally compensate for your body’s physiological response at the same time as you scrape up an answer. “…yeth?”

“Cool. Why?”

The portion of your mind assigned to navigating this verbal obstacle course goes completely blank with panic. Why are you a cy? Your hands clench and unclench on the sleeves of your bodysuit. Two of your fangs gnaw on your lip. You stare. “…yeth?” you say again. That doesn’t even make sense. Fuck. You search for a better answer but you can’t get a solid grip on anything wading through the noise and distraction in your head. Shit fuck damn. Sorry. Sorry.

Latula tilts her head, shifts her staff from shoulder to ground, leans idly on it. There’s a flicker of an expression you can’t parse, just a glimpse of something serious you haven’t seen before, before it’s wiped away, that easy-going smile back in place. Abruptly, she turns and stabs a pointy finger at one of the trolls in the hallway. (Pyxis, the troll’s sigil whispers. Merser, Janzen; Classification: Acolyte Scienterrorist. You could point her out with your eyes closed. You could point all of them out, pinpoint their location anywhere within fifty paces, and estimate it for another hundred paces beyond that.)

“You. I nominate you for the exciting job of explaining this dude over here to me. 3, 2, 1, go!”

The troll in question takes a few daring steps into the laboratory, waves the others off, and stands primly to attention, smoothing her white labcoat over her olive uniform. White’s supposed to be a soothing color, like a lusus. It makes you think of needles. “If you please, Inspectorturer,” Janzen says, “the construct is documented in the inventory for wing 02 as part of a project reconsidering the viability of troll-based cyberorganic constructs. The aim of the project was to explore the effect of a novel cerebral mutation on cybernetic rejection syndrome. The project was decommissioned when the alpha subject was judged unstable and nonrecoverable.”

They’re talking about you. It chills something low in your gut; makes you shiver. Your blue mind doesn’t have the energy to do more than snarl sullenly and brood, but cold tendrils of misery slither up out of your red mind until you’re gripped in a hazy, miserable kind of depression. Your mind is tipping over despite yourself, emotions spiraling slowly but inexorably higher, gaining momentum. You can’t even blame the ever-clamoring voices in your head. They fragment your attention and scrape your nerves raw until you’re one continuous open wound of tension, but it’s the feedback from your own body and the voices outside your head that dig into those nerves like electrical probes and overload you. You feel hot and cold with shame; you don’t want anyone to look at you. You bite your tongue on an apology until blood fills your mouth.

“The construct has been held in stasis there pending further directives. Unfortunately some crucial containment and monitoring equipment in that area was sabotaged about half a perigee ago. The staff responded commendably and the construct was quickly subdued and relocated. This was shortly after the Network outages so it will only be on our local report, not the imperial records.”

Latula’s fingers go tap tap on her staff. There’s a slight flicker of light on her cheekbones, a readout on her shades. “Says here ‘industrial accident.’”

“Well, yes. The damage was caused by the construct.”

You’re again the focus of a sharp gaze. You hunch down into your shoulders like a shellbeast, cringing back against the wall until the gaze wanders back to the scienterrorist. Janzen wilts slightly beneath it. “So what you’re telling me is that cyberdude over here isn’t in stasis because the stasis equipment broke because this guy wasn’t in stasis. Is that what I’m hearing? Because that is hella meta. Maybe you can drop some explanations on me. Gimme the walkthrough version.”

“Ah. Well, we’re not quite sure what happened. The logs—what we were able to recover—registered unusual brain activity for several days preceding the containment failure.”

“Okay. And you did what about that?”

“The logs weren’t being monitored, Inspectorturer.”

Dark eyebrows arch up over red shades. “That was kinda dumb, huh?”

Janzen sucks in a breath, squares her shoulders. Her curved back horns stay tilted at a respectfully non-confrontational angle, but her posture edges into something more assertive. “No, Inspectorturer, that was pragmatic. We are engaged in a large number of projects, and quite frankly we do not have the personnel to waste on failed experiments, particularly on pointless long term monitoring efforts directed toward systems that, by definition, should not show any changes. When it was just a question of storage I could justify wasting the resources for the construct’s containment on the off-chance that there might be some salvageable data in the future. That’s obviously no longer the case.” She meets the other troll’s smiling attention squarely. “I’d like your authorization to terminate the project.”

There’s a weird skip in the conversation, like Latula’s lost a beat to surprise or hesitation. When she speaks, though, it’s in the same lazily offhanded tone she’s carried throughout the entire encounter, like this is a puzzle game in which she’s cheerfully interested, but not personally invested. “You wanna cull him.”

“As soon as possible.”

You feel like you should have some dramatic response but the inside of your head is already so chaotic it’s hard to tell what you feel beneath the muffling red desolation. You can’t really detect a change? Far away in your head a continuous muted growl rises to unvoiced howling and snarling and the currently dominant part of you is curled up and whimpering and the voices are overloading every receptor you have with a constant stream of data. Your makeshift mental hacks are like sandbags tossed in a river—able to divert and restrain but powerless to prevent the flood. And meanwhile you just stand here, shivering stupidly and dripping sopor onto the floor and for that if nothing else you hate yourself so much you could die.

Janzen’s still speaking. “We’ll save genetic samples and a full electron sweep, of course. But the construct is dangerous and unstable and containment has become impractical. If the Network was up I would have put in this request half a perigee ago.”

“That so?” Latula rocks back on her heels, glances over at you where you’re huddled back against the wall, rocking slightly. “You don’t look all that dangerous.”

You blink helplessly at her, tucked inside your helmet but still reeling out of control. Your body feels numb, and your vision seems to be tunneling down, and no matter how much you pant for breath you can’t seem to get air down your respiratory chute. They’re right, they’re right; you deserve this, you’re so broken. (You hate them; you want to burn them from the inside, pull this cage down around their heads.) Janzen answers for you. “He’s on heavy suppressants, Inspectorturer.”

“Wait a sec, you mean psi-sups? I thought those caused, like, mental breakdowns.” Latula’s dark lips purse and her brows draw together. “That’s why legislacerators don’t use them during interrogations anymore. It’s mad amounts of problematic when the suspect explodes.”

Janzen tugs on her already straight labcoat. “Psionic suppressants cause mild to moderate disorientation and have about a 5% failure rate. This failure rate increases over time, requiring higher and higher dosages be administered. Higher dosages equate to a higher psionic lashback in a failure event.”

“You’re dosing the dangerous unstable guy with stuff that’s going to make him even more dangerous and unstable.” Her grin’s gone wide and toothy again. “Wow, props! That takes hornz.”

“All the more reason to get this taken care of a soon as possible.”

There’s more talk back and forth, as Janzen tries to sell Latula on your quick execution, but you’ve lost the thread of the conversation. Drugs. That penetrates your miserable, foggy panic. In the sopor or in your food? They drugged you they’re drugging you they’re in your head—you slide down the wall, curling in on yourself, scrabbling automatically for your psionics but unable to generate more than a vague buzz at the base of your skull. Power builds and slips away from you. You can hear yourself murmuring incoherently now, between gasping, panicky breaths, but it feels separate, detached. You’ve retreated inside your head, where the inchoate, fledgling fourth mind you coded for yourself is your last bastion of sanity in the chaos.

It’s solid. Bound by rules. It’s just a sketched in skeleton of code, a handful of applications and tiny programs to reorder your metal mind, function dictated by necessity, but the sharp lines of it define order and consistency. The numbers always do what they’re supposed to. They don’t fluctuate, or try to overwhelm you, or defect and betray you for chemicals and poisons. You’ve been focused on corralling the voices, bringing your metal mind into balance, but perhaps you’ve overlooked another source of disorder.

No matter how you restructure and reroute the paths of your metal mind it doesn’t begin to address the disruption its mere presence creates in your body, the sheer fire it sends along your nerves, the way it screams constant alarm into your instincts, until your mental balance rests on a razor fine edge, ready to tip one way or another at the slightest breath.

You’ve been considering this duality along the wrong axis, or not in enough dimensions. Red mind and blue mind; flesh mind and metal mind. Twice two and Twice two and Twice two. It’s the feedback between programming and physiology that keeps you fractured. You can’t program your flesh mind but… there is a seam, where flesh and metal connect. The circuitry of your metal mind laced deep into the tissue of your brain. If you hacked deeper into your programming, overrode the safeguards, could you manipulate the chemistry of your flesh mind indirectly?

You can almost see how—parallel lines of red and blue code scrawling out across your mind—but it’s all tossed and tangled amidst the voices in your head and the panic riding your body. Your body which is possibly going to be culled any minute now.

It’s only a tiny slip in your attention, but that microsecond of worry is enough to topple you from metal to flesh. That surreal sense of detachment forsakes you and the world outside your head is suddenly too bright, too noisy, and too real again. It’s not quite so bad as it was. Your heart is still hammering painfully in your thoracic cavity, and adrenaline still sears along every nerve of your body but you’re almost numb to it now. Everything’s smothered into a kind of steady nervous thrum. You curl your knees tighter into your chest and chew on your knuckles, stifling the noises in your throat.

Above you, Latula says, in a voice of finality, “Sorry, but the whole issue’s outside my jurisdiction. Take it up with the peeps in central.”

“But the Network’s been down for weeks! I don’t have anyone to spare to go in person and there might not be time anyway.” Janzen modulates her outburst into something coaxing and conspiratorial. “It’s a bit of a stretch, yes, but you have the authority to sign off on almost anything in an emergency. I’m sure we could work something out to our mutual benefit.”

Latula’s smile curves up slowly higher into something feral. “Oh, I see! You mean like we could be in cahoots.”

“I would never be so bold, Inspectorturer.”

Your fingers taste like blood in your mouth but you don’t want to make a noise, don’t want them to look at you.

Latula’s still smiling that broad, delighted grin. “’Course you would, babez. You got globes of steel. After all, you are trying to trick an agent of the Ebon Council into signing off on something you’re damn sure they wouldn’t go for.”

There’s a silence.

“See I ask myself, why’s this fine mechadude still alive if he’s such a pain in everyone’s lunchcruncher? But, duh, that’s totally obvs! He’s alive because you can’t afford for him to turn up dead on your watch. Am I right? ‘course I’m right!”

“I—Inspectorturer—“

“Now what I think is really interesting is that sweet little run around you tried to pull to keep me out of this wing.” The most disturbing part of all this is how she still sounds completely friendly as she proceeds to tuck into Janzen like she’s vivisecting her with verbal knives. “See ‘cause the easy answer is that you were feeling shy about that lab accident and trying to keep it off the books. But the fun answer is that you had something extra nasty in mind to frame me up with. Maybe something extra nasty to hide?”

You’re still now, fingers falling loose on your knees because…because there’s something interesting here—she’s on the track of something and if you could think clearly you could follow it. If if if if. It’s like the lines of code—there’s the shape of something much more elegant lurking at the periphery of your mind, but you can’t concentrate long enough to let the pattern form. You might as well be trapped in a flooding boat, too busy bailing out handfuls of water to go and fix the hull breach.

You realize you’ve lost another chunk of time only when the motions of the other trolls indicate they are leaving you. Janzen’s in full on appeasement mode, face and horns kept carefully angled so that she never looks directly at Latula, all color blanched from her grey skin. She turns meekly to precede the other troll out of the room, politely assuming the vulnerable position, and her gaze sweeps over you on the floor. Her green eyes are sharp and brittle with fury.

You flinch, ducking your head automatically in a submissive genuflection.

Her voice is even colder than her eyes, clipped and proper. “Mind the hierarchy, construct. You bow to the superior officer in the room.”

You are frozen, trying to fight back a new wave of panic even as you shrink under the attention. You’re quite certain an acolyte outranks a neophyte but maybe there’s some other criterion you’re missing or maybe it’s a trick question or maybe—?

“The Inspectorturer, mutant,” she says, gesturing curt and impatient toward Latula. You’re painfully aware of the way both trolls’ attention has shifted fully to you. “You bow to her.”

Feeling pinned by a laser stare you can’t see, you turn you head back and forth between scienterrorist and legislacerator, increasingly edgy and confused. The voices torment and confuse you but you’re unable to conceive of them lying. You are overfull of truth. “But—“

A crack of noise cuts you short.

Latula has brought the end of her staff down solidly. “As righteously entertaining as it is to watch you stall for time, Scienterrorist Merser—”

You don’t hear the rest. You don’t even really notice as they finally depart the room, leaving you huddled and confused on the floor, the door snapping closed with a final click of locks. You are frozen in astonishment because one of the metal voices in your head has turned to static. The voice of Latula’s sigil in your head is…not gone, but corrupted, undiscernible, a random wash of white noise from which you can no longer pick a single kernel of data.

You pull your knees in tightly to your chest, and stare blankly at the blank wall and listen to a blank voice buzzing wordlessly in your head. You don’t know what this means.

You don’t know, but you remember the final, thoughtful flash of olive green eyes hard upon you as Janzen compliantly escorted the legislacerator from the room.

You chew your knuckles again.

In your head, in the haven of your fourth mind, you begin composing code.

-----------------------

----

You really really don’t like Kankri Vantas.

Okay, you already weren’t going to like the guy. People that fuck around with your li’l bro go straight to the tippy top of your shit list and stay there.

But. Turns out this particular troll comes equipped with lots of fun bonus reasons to dislike him. You are slowly compiling a mental catalogue: ways Kankri Vantas gets on your last ever-loving nerve. Reasons one through seven: Your travel pace has slowed to a crawl, you had to skip your end-of-the-night strife with Seb, you’re camping in a cave, your daylight mobility just got severely curtailed, you’re probably back to sleeping in shifts, you’re developing a full body twitch every time that droning monologue starts back in (and also when it cuts out), and he’s somehow succeeding in making you feel like the bad guy.

You’re perfectly capable of identifying your flaws for yourself, thank you very much. You’ve had years to observe them acted out two-fold. Although you’re willing to grant that tying someone up and dragging them along as a prisoner probably does give that person a more defensible personal right to pass judgment on your behavior. You’re also of the opinion that blackmailing stalkers don’t have a spare inch of moral high ground to preach from. The guy is potentially dangerous and you do not trust him. Simple equation.

It’s impossible to get him to shut up for more than a few minutes—wow, how much are you not surprised to find this trait in the Vantas lineage—so you’ve relocated to the brightly moonlit entrance of the cave to run through your exercises and katas and left the General to deal with him. You’re…a tiny bit uncomfortable with two relative strangers conversing outside your hearing range but if you can’t rely on the travelling companion you’ve been sleeping next to for weeks it’s probably best to force that issue to a head sooner rather than later. Besides. You suspect plotting would require less monologue and more actual dialogue. The General either has the patience of a saint or is excessively talented at tuning Kankri out. You suspect the latter.

Tuning out your troll captive is not a skill you possess. You’ve never really been good at scaling down the level of detail you take in in any medium, and words in particular have a tendency to go right to the chat client auto-responder in you. From here his voice is a not quite discernible murmur, the words just on the threshold of something you could understand, and it’s almost worse than just listening to another dissertation on how you have unfairly mischaracterized his intentions and why all your actions are inexcusably uninformed and deeply problematic. No, wait, you remember why you’re over here. Here, where every upswing and down lull in the distant oration snags at your attention, draws your focus from your movements, splinters off a portion of your attention into speculating about the content. Reason number whatever to dislike Kankri Vantas.

You finish your kata and slant a sideways look at him, seated against a curved rock wall in the darker section of the cave, the General lurking watchfully nearby, cleaning his guns by the light of a jar of glowgrubs. Dark, yellow-ringed eyes look straight back at you, and you feel it like a shock, even though you know he can’t see your own eyes behind your shades. He’s lapsed from lecture into a pointedly projected ‘nobly suffering silence’ mode—back straight despite the ropes binding his hands, chin high, mouth formed into a down-curved expression that should look accusatory but on this particular troll’s face looks more like a sort of patronizing disappointment.

You’re not the bad guy here. You didn’t select the parameters for this scenario. If you were the bad guy you would have killed him out of hand when he started dropping his veiled little threats back in that forest. Or just strung him up and left him for chance and that nearby human town to sort out. Not seriously inconvenienced yourself with a talky troll-shaped fetter.

…It’s probably not a good sign for your life when tying someone up and holding them captive is the soft, compassionate choice. Or maybe it’s just the procrastinator’s choice.

Right. You swing your sword up and begin another kata. No good; too much force behind your movements. Steady. With an effort you focus on your breathing, slowly easing the tension out of your muscles. Searching for that place where your brain stops chasing down a hundred different paths and just focuses in here on this moment. This movement.

“Hey, Bro?”

Your muscles lock mid-motion, and you turn your head very slowly and pointedly toward the mouth of the cave. Your little bunny-bro is silhouetted against the moonlight, looking pink-cheeked and perk-eared.

When he doesn’t flag under your best stare you give it up and lean your sword on your shoulder, turning to go dig out a drink. “Seb. We talked about this shit. Katas. Interrupting. Don’t do it.”

“Sorry.” He’s not sorry. “I’m done!”

Well, shit. You check the time on your shades. That was… six minutes? He’s definitely getting faster. You debate having him run through a few katas with you, but if you’re not going to strife tonight you really need to work off some of that energy of his or he’ll be bouncing off the cave walls the remainder of the night and all next morning instead of sleeping.

You very pointedly don’t look at the reason you’re not strifing even though you can still feel him watching every minute of this exchange. Even his silence seems somehow noisy, the air loud and crowded with his thoughts. He doesn’t get to judge you.

“Okay,” you tell Seb. “Go do wind sprints for ten minutes or ‘til you get to 500. I’ll finish up and get dinner set up.”

“’Kay.” He tosses you a salute as he bounces back into the night.

“Don’t forget to do your stretches,” you call after him.

“Duh!” Yeah, he says that like you’ve never caught him forgetting a warm up or a cool down. He likes the more applied parts of training, but the technical aspects of body maintenance tend to slip his mind.

You captchalogue your drink and roll your shoulders back as you swing your blade experimentally. You glance at the General. “Dinner in five?”

The carapacian gives you a pointy thumbs up, not bothering to look up from his pile of weaponry. You’d assume he was completely absorbed but you’ve not missed the way his pale eyes narrow every time your prisoner so much as twitches in his bonds. You think he might have caught the tail end of Kankri’s earlier insinuations about your li’l bro’s safety as well. He’s certainly taken your unilateral decision to acquire a captive troll in stride. You wonder how he’ll react if it turns out you have to…

Right. Seb will be charging back in soon. Finish your kata. Bringing you sword up and into form in front of you focus on the free flow of your movements and try to stop thinking.

You can still feel a pair of dark, assessing eyes like a brand between your shoulder blades.

Chapter Text

The second time your cell is invaded, they do surprise you. The voices try to warn you, of course, clamor louder and louder as the trolls approach, but you’re down deep in the code, the majority of your mind for once bound up in a single focus, following the bright curving paths traced out in numbers, so you’re not aware of anything until the soft whirr of the door gives way to the heavy tramp of feet.

It’s instinctive, to fight or flee, but you’re clumsy and your power still won’t do more than spark fitfully around your horns, so you snarl and try desperately to get loose from their hands and call them nonsensical filthy words until they press an injector to your neck.

The chemicals burn, spreading quick and fast-acting through your system, and you can almost see the way sectors of your mind go blank and non-responsive. Somewhere far down, deep under the panicked surface, a calculating, pragmatic portion of your mind takes notes on how the pacifying effect is achieved, which biological switches are flipped and how those relate to your metal mind. But that’s far distant from the red, almost paralytic submission that engulfs you as you go limp in the guard’s hands, chirring in abject, please-don’t-hurt-me surrender. And it’s gone completely when they take your helmet.

You’re gone.

Janzen smooths out her white labcoat in crisp motions and looks at you with intent, dispassionate eyes, someone considering the usefulness of a tool. “Now then, construct. Let’s talk about Latula Pyrope.”

-----------------------

----

Dinner is mostly cake. In fact, various confectionary items look to comprise a large portion of your meals for the foreseeable future. You kind of regret your impulsive decision to buy out an entire spread of baked goods just to mess with a couple of humans. It seemed amusing at the time but the aftermath is more than a little ridiculous and you suspect does not reflect well on the cleverness of your machinations.

It’s not that you can’t plan ahead, it’s more that you keep forgetting exactly who’ll be eating the consequences.

You regret it a hell of a lot more when Seb bounds back in from his sprints, notices the cake, and loses every bit of skip in his step, wavering to a halt like a rundown wind-up toy. He’s not dramatic about it. He’s just pretending not to care very badly.

He walks over to where you set out his portion, considers the assemblage of food, and you can see the moment when he squares his shoulders, ignoring the meat and vegetables and going straight for the most unwelcome item. Settling cross-legged, he picks up cake and fork, stares at it like it is a personal challenge, and starts mechanically moving food into his mouth. It’s not too different from the way Seb treats eating in general—an unrewarding but necessary biological task—except for how it’s completely, horribly different.

Your gut clenches and turns over and something in your chest feels tight. Guilt is such an unpleasantly physical feeling. You dislike it intensely. Shit, the whole thing had just been meant to take a jab at the stupid humans, you weren’t aiming at your li’l bro. Didn’t intend to make him dwell on the encounter even longer.

In a way, you’re almost angry at him for his current unhappiness. Because it wasn’t that big a deal, or at least it wasn’t anything you couldn’t both have predicted by now, and he should have expected the reactions he got. Shouldn’t have invested enough to let himself be hurt—you can’t change how people react; can’t script or maneuver every encounter with a stranger.

You don’t know how to fix this for him.

You open your mouth and he turns his shades toward you like he was waiting for this, lays his ears back flat and stares, blank-faced but hard-postured. That is definitely supposed to be a glare.

You bite down on your words and then, because you’ve never been any good at backing off, say them anyway. “You don’t have to eat that.”

Seb’s eyes jerk away from you; his body language turns glacial. “I’m fine.” When you raise a skeptical eyebrow, he hunches his shoulders intractably and adds, “I like it.”

“Right. That was exceedingly convincing, li’l dude. I am convinced. This is my convinced face. Please note how convinced it looks. This right here is the archetype of convinced expressions.”

Seb shoves more cake in his mouth and ignores you.

You both look up at the click of a can of corned beef being set in front of Seb. The General crouches down comfortably behind his offering, one of his guns still slung over his shoulder, and you glance automatically back the way he came, checking that your Vantas-clone prisoner remains secure. The troll’s eyes are on you, but he pulls them away almost instantly, fixing his gaze somewhere in space. His expression is haughty reserve.

The General’s still watching Seb patiently for a reaction. His eyes gleam behind the gap in his wrap-around hood, the white orbs gathering moonlight and casting it back, catlike. He tips his head in question.

Seb’s shoulders set stubbornly. He slides the can back toward the carapacian with his foot.

The General slides it right back, his movements firm, and says something that of course neither of you understand. He taps his fingers twice on the ground to get Seb’s attention and very conspicuously forms the palm-up, finger-folded sign you’ve worked out means ‘trade.’ Touching the soft shell of his palm, he flicks a finger between the can and Seb’s cake.

Seb tracks the movement, his ears still half folded back, suspicious. His glance strays over to where the General has already turned his portion of cake into a scant scattering of crumbs—he certainly has a fondness for sweets. For a moment Seb wavers, looking uncertain. Then his head shakes in brief negation.

A can of peas joins the corned beef and then, when Seb just stares in increasing bewilderment, a bag of mystery jerky. This is shortly followed by a paper-wrapped package of dried pumpkin and a knife. The General takes his hand away from the bandolier he’s been plucking bullets from (item duality—how does it work?), snaps his fingers imperiously, and then forms a flat hand sign. ‘Fair.’

Seb looks back and forth between his plate and the disproportionate pile of trade offerings. A tin of exploding click beetles joins the stack. He’s clearly completely at a loss, and the General just goes on blandly adding odds and ends to the pile, hands flashing occasional signals, voice clicking and buzzing in a running commentary that sounds increasingly imperative.

Damn, but this guy knows how to play it straight. Your lips quirk despite yourself and you press them flat again. “Wow, Seb,” you deadpan. “Way to take ruthless advantage of a poor lost soul’s sugar addiction. Props for lack of empathy. You gonna take him for his whole inventory or leave him enough to come around for seconds?”

Seb’s ears twitch, flicking forward and back in short, aggravated movements, and he makes a low hum that you can only describe as pure, put upon annoyance. You much prefer it to brooding. With a blown out breath he sits back and flicks a hand at both of you in defeat. He shoves the cake at the General. Very deliberately, he picks through the pile, extracting the can of corned beef and a single knife.

The General makes a reproving noise, before seizing his cake and sweeping the rest of his items back to himself. As he digs into the pastry he starts flashing hand signs—apparently attempting to convey a critique of Seb’s bad business sense in the limited trade sign vocabulary. Seb watches him sideways behind his shades, pretending to ignore you both in favor of his dinner. Eventually, he gives his own one-fingered gesture back.

Your sweet li’l baby bro, ladies and gents. You are such an exceptional influence.

Drawing back to your own meal, you leave them to their makeshift, not-quite-passable-as-a conversation mimery. The General seems to have this one well enough in hand, hustled Seb straight out of his self-appointed penalty, and you’re…it’s not that you think you’d say the wrong thing. You’re fully capable of navigating around conversational trouble spots when you choose to. You are the champion conversational manipulator. It’s you.

You just can’t quite erase the memory of an angry voice—Stop helping. You made it worse. You’d like to think it’s discretion but maybe it’s just insecurity that makes you want to draw back and monitor the situation from a distance, get all your plans fully organized and coordinated and perfect before you touch anything off. Possibly it’s nothing more than habit.

You poke at your food, as if perhaps your peas might manifest the power to provide exhaustive guidance counseling and a primer on the appropriate oversight of robotic-ninja-companion-bunnies-turned-little-kids. Nope. They’re not even suitably distracting. They’re just peas. Their limited abilities include being green and round and nutritious. That’s about it. This mushy canned shit isn’t even particularly good at that much.

Seeking a distraction, your eyes are drawn inexorably back to the biggest distraction and prime source of irritation in the cave. He’s still where the General left him, bound and seated on the other end of the cave. At the moment he’s very pointedly ignoring you all, possibly to cover for the fact that he’s being ignored.

You weigh your options. You remind yourself of all the reasons this is a bad idea, including the part where you can hardly stand him and you’d basically be trolling yourself (whoops, pun), as well as the part where pestering a prisoner for your own recreation is extremely ethically questionable, and especially the part where you don’t really want to add any more baggage to the giant looming problem that is Kankri Vantas. And then you think ‘what the hell’ and collect your meal to move over next to him at the back of the cave, taking up the General’s former post a few feet distant. Never let it be said you don’t live life on the edge.

He doesn’t overtly acknowledge your presence but he shifts his weight uncomfortably in his bonds as you sit, tugging slightly. You think his shoulders must be bothering him by now, but hell if you’re going make that your problem to solve. (Besides, you think the General might strafe you if you dared touch his meticulous handiwork. It’s actually a little disturbing how handy he is with ropes. You harbor deep suspicions about that talent. Deep suspicions.)

“Hungry?” you ask mildly.

Those dark, rust-tinted eyes slide over to you, and then his chin comes up and he purses his lips, pinching them together in snooty silence.

The corner of your mouth tilts into a smirk. “You could ask, you know.”

Dark lips thin. You mentally count off a few beats. As you suspected, he can’t quite stop himself from responding, given an opening. There’s a whoosh of indrawn breath, puffing up, and his eyes half-lid like he’s reciting a speech or talking to someone not actually present. “I don’t pretend to believe I could influence your decision about whether to provide the sustenance that any reasonable code of ethics would dictate. You haven’t listened to anything else I’ve said and I don’t see any reason why an appeal to principles would suddenly gain effect now.”

“Bro, it’s not that I’m not listening; it’s that I just don’t care.” You especially don’t care about the opinions of the guy who, what was it? Oh, yeah. Threatened to report your li’l bro to people who would like to disassemble him. Burn fail. Epic hypocrisy detected. The pot is carrying on a torrid affair with the kettle and having little tin-can love children in a monochrome spectrum of black. Yeah, nope, still going to decline tickets for that guilt trip he wants to send you on.

You lean easily back on your hands and turn to consider his face in profile. It’s still weird to you how perfectly identical he is to other-world Vantas. You think you could pick them apart with just a few seconds observation of the way they hold themselves, but it’s still sort of disorienting to observe. None of the human ancestor-descendant pairs had this level of physical similarity. It’s—huh. It’s more like if you and Dirk were in the same room. Except you’re both the same person so it’s not really comparable at all. Could people pick you apart…?

The electronics built into the side of your head would probably be a clue.

Kankri’s apparently decided he’d rather lecture than sit in martyred silence while you verbally poke at him, because he winds up with another of those lengthy, preparatory breaths. “Despite cultural narratives to the contrary, apathy is not a remotely admirable trait. Although if you will permit me the liberty of critiquing your conduct I confess that I’m most personally invested in pointing out the problematic nature of what I observe to be your borderline paranoiac behavior. I understand that you may not be able to help this or be fully morally culpable for you actions since this kind of overly aggressive and hostile behavior is a common side effect engendered by the traumatic nature of military service and particularly military conscription, if that term can be used to describe the technological enslavement of an entire caste, but as your delusional paranoia is now directly impinging upon my personal liberty—“

You scoop a forkful of cake off your plate and lean across the distance between you, holding it front of his face. He cuts off the speech and looks cross-eyed at it.

Are you actually setting up to hand-feed cake to a tied-up captive troll?

Yep. That is a thing that is happening. Somehow. Your life has become bad porn. Minus the porn, alas. At least it offers some promising opportunities to score points and regain some control over this situation. You crook your smirk up higher. “You want to talk or eat?”

“That is an artificial dichotomy you are imposing on the situation,” he says, still frowning at the fork. His shoulders work, pulling briefly against his bonds, as if he’d wanted to reach out for it or bat it away. He recovers his pose of superior detachment quickly, eyes appearing to erase you from his space as he half-lids his eyes and fixes his gaze on the opposite wall. “And also a remarkably unsubtle silencing tactic.”

“It seems you haven’t been paying attention. See previous: don’t care. Also, culture of apathy, combat-induced PTSD, my extensive albeit fictional years of military service in some sort of slave army, etcetera, etcetera. Gotta keep up, bro.” His eyes are on you again, intent. You wave the forkful of cake and shrug minimally. “It’s your call. I’ve got better things to do than be your nutritional shoveling device.”

“If you find it bothersome to care for your unlawful detainee, then I beg you won’t trouble yourself on my account,” Kankri snips back. “I am capable of feeding myself.”

Both eyebrows rise over your shades in mocking amusement. “Really? How’s that working out for you?”

“Better when in the company of rational individuals,” he says, and then leans slightly forward and nips the cake neatly off the fork. You catch a flash of triangular teeth. His chin comes up and his eyes are pure haughty challenge.

There’s a flush of color across his cheeks, surprisingly bright against the grey skin and your gaze kind of…fixates.

Blandly, to cover up your moment of confusion, you offer up another scoop of cake. “Hey now, watch how you toss those ethnic slurs around. Accusations of irrationality are a mortal insult among my people. My capacity for logical thought vastly exceeds that of your limited organic brain and is surpassed only by the devastating attractiveness of my sunglasses.”

You’re sort of surprised when that doesn’t net you an agitated response beyond a down twitch of his mouth. He just accepts the bite of cake and keeps his eyes fixedly on the opposite wall.

“It’s alright if you’re overcome. Many people find my presence overwhelming. Try averting your gaze and breathing to a slow count of ten until the butterflies fade.”

Nope. Nothing. In the charged silence you continue to partition up the cake, a bite at a time, and his attention remains stubbornly on either the wall or the food in front of his face, cutting you out entirely. You resist the urge to poke him with the fork. It’s childish and born out of nothing more than the desire to provoke a reaction just because he doesn’t want to give you one. You’re contrary like that. Plus when he’s so quiet it’s harder to distract yourself from all the little details your attention keeps snagging on—the continued color in his cheeks, the heat from his breath. The low adrenaline buzz of nerves along your spine, like your system’s gearing up for a fight.

“I hope you know you’re fulfilling my every dream right now. It has always been my most secret desire to kidnap my own stalker and feed him dainties. This is practically Penthouse Letters material right here. I’ll probably write about it in my diary tonight.”

You deliver a few more rounds of cake, silence the only response to your little barbs, before you grow tired of contorting yourself across the distance and slide closer so that you can sit straight, your shoulder braced on the wall and the plate balanced on your knee. It’s…actually closer than you’re 100% comfortable with. Which is pretty much why you do it. You’ve got no problem with having boundaries but you don’t like having limits. Never mind what the thesaurus says—there’s a difference. One you control and the other controls you.

So yeah, fuck that noise. You are chill like a person in full ownership of his various emotional-physical hang ups who also happens to be in a refrigerator. You have gazed into the abyss of discomfort with personal space invasion and the abyss blinked first.

It’s still weird how extremely aware you are of just the proximity of another person.

You’ve only ever let Seb into your personal space—your li’l bunny-bro who curls up against your side at night, or hangs off your neck like a tanglebuddy toy, riding piggy back when he’s exceptionally tired, or hurt, or sometimes when you just make up an excuse because he’s looking lonely and withdrawn and you absolutely cannot stand it. You don’t really mind the invasion anymore. He needs you, which makes up for any lingering uneasiness. And you trust him down to the bones.

He’s safe. Both in the ‘won’t shank you in your sleep’ way, and in the ‘won’t grab you when you’re feeling edgy’ way.

You suppose being currently tied up and a prisoner makes Kankri technically a candidate for both those categories but that apparently doesn’t cut it with your hindbrain. There’s inches of dead air between you, a full fork’s length of distance, but you still feel like there’s a low voltage current arcing along your skin, the intensity of the discomfort in direct proportion to how close you get. On an abstract level, it’s almost interesting.

Skin, you have long since decided, is your least favorite part of your new human body. It’s just this vast, head-to-toe vulnerability, like you’re a system comprised entirely of unencrypted, open-access ports. The sensory data just doesn’t seem worth the liability. Dirk wore tank tops and even shorts, when the sun beat down blazingly on the water around the apartment, and you can’t remember if it was some sort of test for himself or if it actually didn’t bother him. You’re very attached to your jacket. It’s tacky as hell—all leather and rivets and basically trying way too hard to be cool. Perfect.

It doesn’t seem to have much effect at the moment.

You feed Kankri another bite of cake and systematically catalogue your reactions—the way your senses hike into hyper-alertness as you lean slightly closer, the sick, turning sensation in your stomach, the uncomfortable intimacy of the indirect contact when his lips close around the fork.

It’s a sort of game. A personal challenge. Pushing yourself to see how far you can climb outside your comfort zone, weighing the uneasy tremor in your gut against the sharp, adrenaline surge of satisfaction when you persist, moment after moment, instead of drawing back or absconding across the cave.

Your general discomfort has settled to a low, churning queasiness somewhere in the pit of your stomach, and pushing past it is not really any more difficult than pushing through the muscle pain and fatigue at the end of a long training session or the burn of holding a deep stretch and trying to creep further. There’s a kind of fascination to it. You watch the nearly hidden movements of his jaw, track the muscles of his throat when he swallows, and you want to touch them, to feel the muscles work under your fingers. Are they connected in the same ways as yours?

You blink away from that weirdly specific train of thought, deciding to bench your troll-human comparative anatomy speculations for a more appropriate moment. Like, say, some moment that doesn’t include cake and bondage. Wow, in another context that could probably be the completely appropriate moment for comparative anatomy.

Change the topic. “You know,” you muse blandly, “I think I got a defective stalker. I am definitely not getting full entertainment value out of this situation.”

He flinches.

You freeze. Your eyes flick up to see Kankri, with his eyes pinched briefly shut, his chin tucked and his shoulders rounded defensively, as far as the restraints will let him. Then he visibly pulls himself straight, and his eyes rise straight to yours, meeting your gaze directly for the first time since he went silent sand they are hard and sharp with stubbornness and resolve and, flickering at the back, quickly controlled fear.

It impacts like a kick to teeth.

You’re several feet back, withdrawing before you really think about it, and you stumble over your own feet for the first time in a week, coming to a halt in an unsteady crouch a yard and a half distant from Kankri. Behind you, you can hear Seb and the General rising from their dinners in startled motions.

You—did not think this through. You didn’t mean—it didn’t occur to you— You’ve basically been harassing somebody who can’t say ‘stop’ and doesn’t have any reason to think you won’t hurt him.

You’re juggling shame and embarrassment and utter mortification and you didn’t even realize you were capable of feeling those emotions to this degree. Your skin feels hot all over and your stomach is doing something complicated and flip-floppy and burning, the remains of your dinner along for the ride. It’s like you’ve been dropped in boiling water where the water is distilled from all the self-hatred and disappointment in yourself you’ve ever felt.

Bodies are so stupid; you hate them.

You, on the same note, are unbelievably, painfully, irredeemably behind the beat today.

And it is all so, so much worse when he looks directly at you and clips out in a low, level tone that doesn’t quite mask the vibrato undercurrent of strain, “I do not consent to be touched by you. Just to remove any potential lack of clarity on that matter. Not that such a verbal statement should be necessary since any perceived consent in this situation would clearly be rendered meaningless by the power differential currently in operation.”

What’s meant to be an apology—personal space and prisoner ethics and fuck, you know this shit, what processors were you even operating on?—comes out on a rush of defensiveness instead. “For fuck’s sake, I’m not going to molest you.”

His eyes twitch, slightly, an uneasy blink, but he looks down his nose at you with the most condescendingly cutting expression you have ever encountered. “If I allow that your comments and actions are merely the result of some sort of capricious sense of humor coupled with your previously expressed baseless mistrust and hostility towards my person then at the least your behavior would still be classifiable as extremely inappropriate, insensitive, and immature.”

Your face is still hot and flushed but your temper is going cold. “Y’know you keep calling me paranoid like I’m just overreacting. It seems you are under the impression that by playing self-righteous and victimized you can somehow make that a thing that is true. It breaks my heart to disillusion you but I’ve actually been present for this entire encounter and you don’t get to be the martyr when your own actions are responsible for the whole situation.”

“I see we’ve deteriorated into blaming the injured party at a remarkable pace, as well as effectively shifting the conversation to a completely different, if equally problematic issue. While we’re on the topic, allow me to register my complete repugnance for your assertion that another person’s behavior somehow removes your own moral obligations or in any way entitles you to behave out of course. If you think—”

“—Wow, check your hearing, because that is not remotely what I said. It seems you may want to go back to troll-kindergarten and work on your listening skills, maybe learn how to make the quiet sign—”

“—your flippancy is neither appropriate nor productive—”

“—so sorry if I’ve injured your delicate feelings or made your stay in the Strider mobile-incarceration-system-for-douchehats less enjoyable, but I’d think the fact that you’re still breathing after threatening to report my baby bro to the freaking cyborg secret police is a pretty clear indicator of my best faith efforts to treat you better than you deserve.” You surge to your feet by the end of that, and you don’t even care about the way his shoulders twitch or the fact that you’re now looming over him or how his jaw clenches like he thinks you might be about to hit him. He stares straight back at you, his pupils fear-constricted to dark points, the hint of red pigmentation in the irises grown pronounced and he still won’t step the fuck off.

“And if you would attempt to shelve your paranoiac preconceptions for five minute I could explain again that I was attempting to construct an analogy between two unjust and precarious situations. I regret that my words were somehow perceived as attempts to in some way pressure or coerce you and I suppose as the person clearly more rational on the topic I must bear the greater responsibility for maintaining functional discourse but I fail to see how you can possibly justify your actions using only hypothetical future events that have not actually occurred.”

You take one breath, and then another, groping for calm, for remove, for distance from the adrenaline thrumming in your veins, and the anger flexing cold claws in your chest. The closest you can come is mordant amusement, your voice gone completely flat, toneless as a knife. “Oh, well, when you phrase it that way it seems I have no viable alternative but to completely believe everything you say and now trust you implicitly. I’m sure you were threatening him in an entirely metaphorical and accidental way.”

“Is that in any way equivalent to the way in which you are ‘accidentally’ and ‘unintentionally’ harassing me and violating my personal space?” he snaps back.

“Kudos on the derail, and you can just fucking take it as written that I’m not after your maidenly virtue. I don’t do people that can’t say no. Or hypocritical blackmailers. I’m choosy like that.”

“No, you’re just going to hold me captive against my will, threaten me with bodily injury and death, neglect and mock me as your whim dictates, all while my friend might be dying because I’m not delivering the help that I am supposed to. I believe that’s a fair and accurate assessment of this situation. Do you disagree?”

“Not. My. Fault.” You are not the bad guy here. You are blindingly furious at him for making you feel this way, for backing you into this corner and then judging you for it. You are full of cutting anger at yourself for all the ways you have lost control of this situation, your multitude of failures. You want to beat an apology out of him. You want to apologize. You want to cut him down and never ever think about this again.

Yep. You’re adjusting well to the badass-cyborg-body thing.

You squeeze your eyes shut, behind your shades where he can’t see. Take a breath. Grapple once again for composure. Calm. Cool. You used to know how to do this.

Spinning on your heel, you brush past a startled Seb and the General, hardly noticing.

“Watch him,” you snap, and stalk out into the night to see if maybe you left your peace of mind somewhere in the god-damned forest.

Chapter Text

Brooding dramatically in the moonlight is picturesque but hella boring. Plus it’s probably just a little too emo to qualify as ironic. Idleness has never been your friend, even when you didn’t have a body. You find it’s best to keep your energy directed outwards, channeled to a task, because otherwise your thoughts have a tendency to spiral in on themselves, wind tighter and tighter, until they uncoil destructively without warning. In the past you could throw your resentment and discontent against the wall of Dirk’s determination and never worry about hurting anyone who didn’t deserve it because he was you and you were unyielding.

Now it seems like you just end up fucking up your own plans or dragging the people around you into shit they didn’t ask for. Especially Seb.

You still maintain that Kankri Vantas’ feelings are not your problem.

They really aren’t. Your own behavior and motivations on the other hand…

You do a perimeter sweep, track some big white beastie until you’re sure it’s moving steadily away from the cave, check a couple of the General’s snares. They’re all empty, which saves you from the tricky question of whether you’re willing to risk peeving him off by fiddling with his shit. It would probably be good if you could get through one 24 hour period without upsetting every person you happen to interact with. Build character and all that. Expand your horizons.

The tasks aren’t complicated enough to keep your mind fully occupied—you’re still mentally poking and prodding at the evening’s events, dissecting and analyzing—but the ordered, systematic nature of them is calming. Objective, action, accomplishment. Your will enacted upon the world. It’s good you have that touchstone, because whenever you try to dig into the tangle of whatever the hell happened earlier your impartial situation analysis winds up subdivided and side-tracked into a dozen different capital-“I” Issues that can mostly be summed up as Feelings: do not want.

Also, your brain is running some sort of cringe-inducing highlights reel of every moment this evening and the past few weeks when you’ve done something stupid or acted like an idiot.

Everything’s coming out existential crisis and angst at the moment so you give yourself permission to back burner the whole topic. The problem is, quite literally, not going anywhere tonight. You can add that to your ‘life wisdom also applicable to kidnapping’ list. Chalk it up there alongside ‘clean up your own mess’ and ‘don’t bring it home if you’re not going to take care of it.’

…Yeah, there’s a really high percent chance you need to get some sleep soon.

You return to the little clearing out front of the cave, out of shit to do and still unready to go back in and face three pairs of weighty eyes in that confined space. (Dark eyes in gold, pretending to be calmer and more collected than they are, wearing moral judgment like a shield.) You shuffle restlessly through your sylladex, trying to decide if you have time to get anything done on the rocket board repairs tonight, and light upon the little feral cleanerbot Seb grabbed for you back in town.

Now there’s a viable distraction. And you’ve even got privacy and a secure perimeter to experiment. (Your mind, out of the blue, suggests an entirely different way you could distract yourself with privacy and a secure perimeter. Caught off balance, you do a cautious but thorough survey of your status, trying to decide if this is a mental thing or a physical thing or a who-the-fuck-knows thing because seriously, bodies, how do they work. Results are inconclusive. You remind yourself firmly that your uneasy grasp of biological sexuality as it applies to you and exactly how mental and physical responses sync up, not to mention what, if anything, you want to do about this are all on the list of complicated issues you don’t have to think about tonight. Topic deferred, end of prolonged mental digression. Seriously, you’re done now. Close parens.)

You sit in the center of the clearing, where the light from the four moons is nearly morning-bright and you have free range of movement and a clear view of anything coming your way. Stripping off your left glove you pause and consider your bared hand. Trace a finger over your palm, mapping out the inlaid circuits there. They’re detectable more as a contrast than an actual sensation, that slight skip in the motion of your finger as it slides from skin to skin, crossing metal.

You’re stalling. You tug off your other glove and then retrieve the cleanerbot from your sylladex with a few low words.

The little white disc starts up a caterwaul of alarm beeps immediately, chirping madly as it hums in your hands and tries to jet for freedom. You hang on, pinning it under one arm, and smoothing your free hand over the waxy metal casing. You’re not really 100% sure what you’re doing. The one time previously you did your robot-voodoo you stabbed a murderbot through the chest with your katana. This little bot’s dinner-plate sized—slicing it up seems highly inefficient and unlikely to render the desired results.

Besides. There’s smoother ways to get at something’s programming than sticking your hand in its circuitry. It’s all energy flow and data distribution anyway. You’ve had weeks to evaluate the data from your previous encounter and generate a detailed working hypothesis. Your mechanical theory is flawless. This should totally work.

You swipe your hand absently across the bot’s recessed control panel, the outer ring of sensors. Mentally (and god, manual brain-to-electronics controls are so clunky) you load up and launch the program you coded in your shades, the one that’s meant to help you access the part of your mind built for this. There’s…some kind of effect. You can feel something under your hand; a faint electric warmth, a muffled thrum of energy that’s more than just the hum of the flight servos. It’s present but still a step out of reach, like exposed electrodes that don’t have quite enough charge to send current arcing across the space between them. You’re not sure what to do to create that last little push. To ionize the air and bridge the gap.

You call up the memory of subroutines activating, try to visualize the process chain unfolding. Nope. You try thinking ‘on’ very loudly. Haha. Still nope.

Activate. Connect. Reboot. Moon prism power.

Go go gadget robot-demon-possession.

Yeah, this isn’t working. You’re a tiny bit relieved…and it’s the knowledge of that relief that’s making it so you can’t let this go. You’re not going to get skittish over the implications of a piece of programming. It’s in your head; it’s part of you; you’re going to own it and control it and understand it.

You can’t change who you are by refusing to see yourself. You have to see and go forward.

You press your hand more firmly to the curved dome of the little bot. Self. One day you were a computer program who only remembered being a human and you were still the same person. One day you were a cybernetically-modified human who only remembered being a computer program and you were still the same person. One particular day you were a cyborg and a half dozen robots and you couldn’t remember who you had been at all and you were all still the same person. You remember what it felt like to splinter—to break into smaller pieces and end up larger than what you were.

In the end, that last little step to cross the gap is more natural than you would have thought. You splinter, you shatter, but you do it along clean lines, the fractures falling out where you intend them to. It’s different this time, less world-shakingly disorienting, because the receptacle for your second self is so much smaller and less complex. It’s more like adding a limb than gaining a whole extra body. You expand and divide and subsume, and the simple, non-sentient programming of the feral little bot folds easily under the force of your mind.

When you are certain in the boundaries of your selves, you remove your restraining arm from your smaller bot-self and let it hover in the air under your hand. The ring of sensors gives you a 360 degree view of your surroundings in a flat plane, sketched out in simplified shapes of color and heat. The view field tapers off near the edge of the clearing but you can just make out the jagged lines of trees. Brighter and closer is your own face looking down at you, red rings lit up in the cold black planes of your shades.

Huh. That is more unsettling than you had remembered. For a moment you contemplate the feasibility of working out how to switch on the glowy Hal-eyes at will. You no longer need them to remind people that yes, somebody else is home in here, but they really couldn’t be beat for spiking up the level of uncomfortable in a situation. Good times.

Experimentally, you hover higher, your hand rising with your bot-self as you surge up to bring your viewing field level with your face. That’s simple and successful, so you decide to push farther. You watch the bot hovering in front of you and watch your face watching you back, spreading your mind out within the confines of your two selves, trying to get yourself (selves?) solidly ensconced. You focus hard on your two identities and lift your hand.

Snap. Ouch. The recoil of your other self back into your alpha mind is like getting popped in the face with a rubber band...with a follow up of who-am-I cognitive dissonance strong enough to make you consider taking up the life of a feral janitorial ninja, cleaning streets on the sly. You sit stunned and blinking, glad to already be seated. Full awareness returns a few moments later, just in time for you to see the cleanerbot shake off its own stun and zip drunkenly for the trees, trailing a raucous chorus of chirps. Shit. Lunging to your feet, you flash after it and just manage to grab it before the treeline. You haul it back to your seat and then hang on until it stops cycling between abscond and abjure modes and settles down in your hold with a last grumpy beep.

You’re both pretty dazed still, so you dig into your sylladex and sprinkle a handful of tech scraps on the ground for the bot, mostly wire clippings and bits of chipboard from your ongoing rocket board repairs. Your peace offering is accepted with first suspicion and then satisfied chiming as the little bot starts swishing through the grass, industriously filtering the scattered debris into its intake port. Ah, the joys of a narrowly and easily-defined function. It’s probably dumb to feel resentful of a glorified dustbuster, but it’s your night for unconvincingly repressed feelingsdrama. You might as well go the extra mile.

You make another couple test runs of your robo-mind-control, varying the duration and carefully noting the extent and intensity of the succeeding headaches and disorientation. On your fifth try you work out how to disentangle your mind-splinter from the robot without the recoil effect. You still feel weirdly jumbled and disconnected when you collapse back into the confines of your own head, but you no longer lose time or have the sensation someone’s picked up your brain and shaken it like an Etch-a-Sketch.

All right. So. You’ve proved you can puppet a teeny little bot around by touching it and you can do it without having a complete breakdown of identity. That’s some sort of accomplishment. Not really the sort of thing you’d bring home and hang up on the fridge for Li’l Cal to admire, but it sure is a thing that you have done.

It’s annoying that you’re basically tied to the robot. Before, with the soldierbots you were able to hijack their hivemind and patch into the other bots indirectly—but that still left you hanging uselessly off the original bot. Plus the connection degraded pretty rapidly with each level of remove. Restrictive. If you could get into those other bots at all, if you could get into this little bot with just a hand to its casing, you should be able to do better than that. You should be better than that.

You’re so tired of being below standard, of progress made in tiny increments, of earning back skill that’s already yours by right. If it wasn’t literally you every step of the way, you were still there; it was still your mind and your will pushing you forward, in sync with Dirk.

You surge through the cleanerbot’s programming, your mind coursing along lines of metal and energy, pushing, testing, rearranging. You can make this work. You can be better. You don’t believe in limits. You are searing red light and flashing paths of energy, two minds tethered at a single blazing point. You’re distantly aware of your pulse picking up, a painful throb building in your temple like the onset of one of your nastier headaches. You pull hard on both your minds, making them take the shape you need them to, tying the strings between them more tightly. If this doesn’t work the lashback’s going to be wicked unpleasant.

Irrelevant. Deal with it later.

You twitch the muscles in your flesh hand, feel skin flex against smooth metal chassis, lift a fraction. A nanometer. A micrometer. The connection buzzes and hums between your selves, bright and hot. Wavering but still persisting. You increase the gap by increments, pressing with electronic portion of you as you pull back with your hand, pouring more energy and focus into the task, pushing harder.

You’re not sure what warns you. It’s like the static in the air before a lightning strike. You have only a split second to buffer, a sort of mental curling in, protecting your core self instinctively, before the power surges and spikes.

The little cleanerbot drops out of the air, sparking once. You reel back clutching at your head.

Nnrgh. You immediately regret every decision you have ever made, up to and including the decision to acquire a body, which wasn’t even really a decision so much as a thing that happened to you. Bodies have pain receptors and pain receptors were created by sadistic eldritch gods solely for the purpose of making this moment as unpleasant as possible. You decide lying on the grass is an acceptable plan for the foreseeable future.

…You’re lying on a loose screw. It’s digging into you back right where it can poke you in the spinal column but you’d have to roll over completely to get away from it.

This is your hell.

When the fierce pounding in your head finally recedes to a low, residual headache, you haul yourself to a sitting position. Carefully. You’re still holding your head onto your body. You never know with heads. This one feels like it might try to abscond at any moment. You definitely do not feel all of one piece.

You look around vaguely, wondering if you’ve lost the little bot—possibly just as well considering how intelligently you have handled this experiment—but then you spot it in the grass a few feet away.

It’s—

Oh.

You reach over and touch it, carefully—with a fingertip, not your palm. The servos still hum faintly under the surface, but it doesn’t respond to the touch, doesn’t move or beep. There’s nothing. It’s just a blank white disc in the grass at your feet. You—broke it. (Killed it.)

Your head’s still aching and you let it drop down to rest on your knee, let yourself stew in the churning, miserable sensation that is probably your stomach acid eating its way through your internal organs. Full points, Strider. Once again you slam your way through a situation with all the finesse and forethought of a tornado made of shitty sword blades, dicing everything in the vicinity to a fine, uniform rubble. It’s the perfect, universal solution: reduce the source of the problem to its constituent parts and then keep solving it until everything’s debris.

How much shit can you wreck tonight?

(He flinched but wouldn’t back down.)

Pulling your gloves back on you pick up the little bot, retrieve your tech kit from your sylladex, and start running system checks. Wallowing is not something you can start doing. Flinching is not something you can start doing. You’ve got Seb to look out for and Sawtooth and Squarewave’s mission to complete. Fix what you break. That could practically be the family crest. You and Dirk with that obsessive drive to create, like you could counteract your native capacity for destruction, build things up faster than you break them, make something strong enough to keep up and not be overborn. It manifested more in Dirk than in you—but then, he felt the consequences of his actions harder.

You miss your remove. You miss Dirk. It never even occurred to you that you could miss someone who is literally yourself, but you do. Not even for that plausible denial of personal responsibility. Just to have somebody to talk to who you don’t have to explain yourself to because he already knows what’s real and what’s ironic bullshit and what’s ironic bullshit that’s also real and what’s just pure undiluted douchebaggery. Moments like these, when your head’s full of words that have nowhere to go, you feel as trapped in your own skull as you ever felt trapped in the shades.

Plus berating a different version of yourself always comes off as way less angsty.

You check in on the readouts from the cleanerbot and your lips curl in displeasure. It looks like that power spike you set off massively corrupted the files or possibly wiped the system completely and no way of telling yet how much is recoverable. It’s not a hardware problem, which on the one hand is good because that’s not really your best area, but on the other hand probably means you don’t have the equipment on hand to make much progress. You’re not quite ready to try patching in to the little bot’s system again–that feels a little too much like trying to put out a fire with a flamethrower. (Actually, now that you think of it, controlled burns are employed as a fire management technique. Is that some sort of subconscious hidden wisdom or just another case of over-extended analogy?)

You suppose Li’l Seb might understand you, probably even gets some things better than Dirk would, but while you might not have any experience at this you have at least the minimal grasp of child psychology necessary to know little kids don’t need adults dumping all their shit all over them. Or closer-to-adults since your mental-slash-physical age is nearly as much of a paradox-tangle as Seb’s. Point is, you try to be the mature, responsible party in this relationship at least some percentage of the time. And also—there’s those moments when he looks at you like you really are all the things you’re trying to be—smart and competent and collected and the master of ironic coolness and you just…aren’t ready to give that up.

“Hey, Bro?”

You stuff the cleanerbot into your sylladex like a guilty secret. Shit, ow, your heart. Your head. This kid is going to kill you.

Seb’s come out of the cave, stopped a few yards distant in the grass of the clearing. He’s scanning you with that focused, problem-solving concern-face (more posture than expression), but at least he’s not giving you the wary caution you would have received a week or two back, as if he thought a misstep would get him dumped off the back of the produce truck like a fruit with one too many bruised spots. No band-aids to patch things up, just off to the roadside with you, good luck finding someone to hitchhike with that’s not secretly a robot-voodoo serial killer. (This metaphor is…oh fuck it you don’t know. You’re just free-associating words at this point.)

“Are you coming to sleep?”

“There’s a 100% probability that that is a thing that will eventually happen,” you say. “Why aren’t you watching Vantas?” Shit, you didn’t mean that to sound so accusatory.

Seb looks not remotely put off. “The General’s talking to him.”

“Yeah, fine.” And apparently Seb’s not mad at you anymore, or he’s more concerned than he is annoyed. Maybe he heard you flopping over and lying around like a beached flounder when you tried your little tech trick. Your eyes pass over his cyborg ears, the metallic interface at the base, and you think for one moment that you could probably patch in to that, get inside his head. A moment after that, you feel so physically ill at the thought you think you might vomit. You don’t though, and your face stays surprisingly blank, unaffected, even though you’re busy hating yourself. All the media you’ve ever encountered made it sound like human bodies started tossing up technicolor food collages at the slightest mental dismay. Lies.

Or did you get the ethically-defective model?

Your hands don’t have anything to do anymore. You yank restively at the grass by your hip, wince and let the fragments fall when it occurs to you that this is another thing you are absently destroying. “Wait, really? The General’s talking to him?”

“I think so.”

“Oh that’s just…perfect.” You press grass-stained hands into your temples, rub under the arms of your shades, and fight the urge to flop back over in surrender. “Absolutely perfect. Let’s all dive blithely into happy fun bonding time; that will work out great; I can’t anticipate any negative consequences to interacting with the guy I’m probably going to have to kill.” The words hang in the air, surprising you. You hadn’t quite realized they’d been bottled up behind your teeth all night.

You’re expecting to see some kind of judgment or unhappiness when you look at Seb, but all you meet is that usual too-serious little face behind red shades, ears tilted attentively toward you. “You think so?”

You blow out a breath of air, rest your elbow on your knee, your face pressed into your hand. Stare at a spot in the grass where a white disc had lain. “I don’t know. Maybe. Fuck. It would be dishonest to pretend things can continue as they are. We can’t afford to drag a prisoner around indefinitely. It seems…probable that that is what it will come down to. I don’t really see any other options.” Can’t keep him with you; can’t let him go. You don’t care how low the probability is that he’ll actually carry through on those threats. You’re not risking Seb.

Seb’s head tips, openly considering you. Very calmly he asks, “Want me to do it?”

Absolutely not.

His ears flick back at your vehemence, and he does that little ‘placate the organic being’ confused-agreeable shoulder lift, looking young and harmless and not at all like someone who just offered to kill somebody for you.

You press your lips into a flat line, trying to keep your face expressionless as you stare at him, appalled and bemused and sort of touched. It’s one of those moments when you’re reminded that Seb is even less human than you. Also when you’re reminded that you are a terrible role model for a child.

“I don’t really want to,” Seb elaborates into your silence, “but I could.” He sounds slightly defensive, like he thinks you’re questioning his competence.

You blow air through your teeth and rub at your head some more. “Shit, let me get you a membership card,” you mutter. “You and me both.” This conversation is rapidly going off topic. Or it’s back on the original topic. You don’t even know which tricky ethical dilemma you’re supposed to be handling right at this moment.

Seb’s ears twitch restlessly and his chin tips down in thought. “So…don’t?” He shrugs his shoulders uncertainly and makes one of the General’s hand signals. Something to do with an acceptable trade. “I’m okay. I could deal.”

Oh damn, he did pick up on his involvement in this clusterfuck. Of course he did. And you snarling at Kankri about Seb probably didn’t help. “That’s not going to be an issue.” You don’t think you could convince him that the situation has nothing to do with him but you definitely don’t want him feeling responsible either. “Whatever happens with Vantas it’ll be due to his own actions and I’ll take care of it.” He accused you of holding him accountable for things he hadn’t done yet. But he wouldn’t have brought it up if the thought hadn’t crossed his mind, would he? And you can’t take the risk, you won’t take the risk, the potential cost is too high and you don’t owe Vantas shit.

You’re letting too much show on your face again, because Seb says, “But I could—“

“Answer’s still ‘no,’” you cut across him, definitive. He looks vaguely mutinous, but you don’t care if he thinks you’re coddling him. You are damn well not moving on this point. Shit, how do people even handle this topic? You suppose most people get to the ethics side of it sometime before the kid has the ability to take out groups of military assassins. You open your mouth, rethink what you are going to say several times, and finally go with, “I don’t want you to kill anyone unless you have to.” You check that back over, consider the little boy in front of you, and rephrase. “Seb. Don’t kill anybody unless you’re defending yourself.”

He gives that some thought. “Or you.”

“Nnrg.” Fine. “Or me,” you allow, only because you know you probably couldn’t win that one anyway.

“Or Sawtooth and Squarewave.”

“They’re not even here, Seb.”

“Or the General.”

You narrow your eyes behind your shades.

“Or someone else,” he adds broadly.

“Seb. Who else even are you talking about? There isn’t anyone else. You have now listed every single person you know in this entire universe.” Except Kankri. Nope, no, not touching that.

“Someone who needs help.”

You open your mouth to tell him, forget it, no, and absolutely fucking not, then pause to stage a quick, internal strife over whether you’re more likely to mess him up by giving him permission to kill people or by telling him never to help strangers. You suspect you are way outside the jurisdiction of human childcare manuals. Maybe trolls would have something relevant to contribute. …or maybe you should chart this piranha-infested ethics river without any input from that particular species or its lusii. No, you probably need to back this conversation all the way up to point zero and lay some sort of broader ethical and philosophical foundation for this topic.

Falling into another universe and gaining a body and trying to raise a cyborg bunny is hard. It’s hard and nobody understands.

“It’s good to help people,” Seb adds, like that might clarify the issue for you.

“…Yyyyes,” you say doubtfully. There’s a trap in here somewhere, you know it. Anything you say from this point on is going to be used against you without mercy at some point in the future. “Look, we’ll talk about this in the morning, all right? I don’t want to keep the General up forever.” Distract, evade, abscond. The night’s definitely been too long if sleep sounds like an appealing escape to you. You get up, brushing off grass and debris and wincing slightly behind your shades when the change in blood pressure makes your headache spike. “If you feel any serial killer tendencies coming on before then, do your best to suppress them.”

Seb gives you a whole-head eyeroll and follows alongside you as you pack up the last of your tools and head back into the cave.

As you enter, navigating the gentle S-curve of the opening, your eyes shift automatically to the darker stretch at the back, picking out the form of your prisoner in the green light of the glowgrubs. Your stomach twists, because unnecessary bodily commentary on everything you encounter is just how you roll these days. Shit, the General actually is talking with him. They both glance your way, the General flashing you a quick ‘all clear’ signal that only somewhat eases the tension in your gut. Kankri raises his chin and turns back to speak to the carapacian in a louder, more precise voice. He’s arguing something about cultural influences on judicial systems.

“…Hey, Bro?”

You hum something like encouraging acknowledgement and get started setting up for bed, stomping firmly on the mess of conflicting impulses in your brain.

“Are we bad?”

The bedroll drops the last few inches to the cave floor with a whuff. You turn towards Seb with care. “What do you mean?”

“Cyborgs. Cy. Are we…” he looks like he’s searching for another word, comes back to “…bad people?” He doesn’t seem upset exactly, but there’s a hint of that vulnerability you remember from earlier in the evening. Like he’s trying to be logical about something but his softer spots are showing through.

You put your eyes back on your camp chores, granting him a bit of privacy with that insecurity as you formulate a response. “The world doesn’t really divide up into good and bad, li’l bro. Much less monolithic groups of sheep-people all doing the same thing.” You smooth out bedrolls, shuffle blankets into place, uncomfortably aware that you’ve acquired a wider audience. “If you mean us personally, I wouldn’t say we’re bad people.” You just moonlight as one sometimes. No, fuck that. You’re not a bad person. Doing what’s necessary doesn’t make you bad. (And if it did, you’d do it anyway.)

You thump down a pillow with a little more force than needed.

“But everyone’s scared of us.”

“They’re not scared of you and me, li’l dude; they’re scared of whatever the hell they think cy are. They don’t even know us.”

“But… why are they scared?”

“Because humans are—“

“—stupid.” He crosses his arms, lays his ears back stubbornly. “That’s not really an answer.”

You go to rub at your temple, glance at Kankri behind your shades, and turn the movement into further straightening out blankets. Where do you even start with this? “It’s prejudice, li’l man. It doesn’t need a why. We don’t quite seem like people to them and we can do things they can’t so they decide to be scared.”

“But why?

Kankri Vantas picks this particular moment to chime in. Of course he does. “If I might?” he says, but he doesn’t wait for an answer so you don’t know who he was asking. “Your…brother is essentially correct that human prejudices against cybernetically-modified humans are based fundamentally out of misinformation, illogic, and fear.”

You roll your eyes at that generous acknowledgment, a gesture he wouldn’t see even without the shades because he’s keeping his attention very pointedly fixed on Seb.

“However, that somewhat oversimplifies the complex historical context within which that stigma developed. Most obviously, of course, there was the Ebon Empire’s use of cybernetically-modified humans to assist in troll oppression of humans. The later subversion and assumption of the cy into the human rebellion never really erased the perception of them among the broader human populace as tools of the enemy. You’ll note that the Iron Empire makes a point of always keeping cy squadrons under the supervision of unmodified human officers, something which only serves to further entrench the notion of cy as lesser and dangerous.”

Seb’s assumed his ravenous-knowledge-absorption posture, ears and shades honed in on Kankri, fidgeting dropped down to a minimum. You cut in. “It seems you’re indicating that the prejudice exists entirely within the human spectrum. That’s quite startling. Pardon me while I bask in the wondrous spectacle of the high-minded and benevolent troll species. It’s so bright and shiny. I may need to adjust my shades to fully appreciate it.”

Kankri’s gaze flicks from Seb to you, wavers uncomfortably, and then his face sets stubbornly. Indignation shows through every line. You can’t detect any obvious fear, though, and you’re still a generous distance across the cave from him, so you elect to feel no guilt whatsoever for needling. “No, of course my species is hardly any less susceptible to ingrained cultural biases. You are completely—that is to say, I consider that an unfair misrepresentation of my position. I suppose culturally most trolls would perceive cybernetically-modified humans as particularly low-caste members of an inferior and rebellious vassal race or perhaps as non-persons entirely.” He shifts in that way that you think means he’s forgotten he can’t gesture for emphasis. “For my own part, I don’t see any reason why a cybernetically-modified lifeform should be treated any different from anyone else. You can’t help the way you were made.”

“Thank you,” you deadpan, but he doesn’t appear to notice.

“However, as I was leading up to, the more important contributing factors, in my opinion, are the widespread misperceptions about the modification process. The Ebon Empire originally created their cybernetically-modified human soldier-slaves via genetic harvests of the human population. I suspect most trolls are insensitive to the complex social and psychological ramifications of that process for a species whose entire social system is structured around coincidental genetic ties. And of course, the modification process has never been widely known in any detail. So when cybernetically-modified humans were being created from genetic samples taken from extant populations presumably at least some of these cy registered to local human populations as genetic-familial-partners—thus triggering the creation of rumors about human wigglers being stolen and altered, or dead or arrested humans having their bodies used and their minds replaced. Which of course isn’t remotely how the process works, but the humans couldn’t be expected to know any better when kept in a culture of carefully cultivated ignorance.”

“You certainly seem to know a lot about the issue,” you remark.

“I find it interesting,” he says stiffly. “And it is the responsibility of every free-thinking individual to educate themself as much as they are able to do within the confines of their situation and abilities.”

His upturned nose and lofty tone somehow manage to make it sound not like a judgment of your ignorance but like a condescending pardon for it. You let that slide. “You still keep framing this like it’s a humans-only issue. What about the carapacian and troll cy?”

Kankri’s eyes blink into a startled stare, flick towards the General as if looking for confirmation, and then turn inwards in an abstracted expression of rapid thought. You suspect you’ve asked a question you should already know the answer to. You really don’t like how much speculation you seem to have triggered, or the way it makes you feel like you have something to hide. Do you? Two weeks into this crazy world and you still have no idea where all the pitfalls might be.

You also find your eyes turning toward the General. He holds your gaze with eyes that are knowing and unreadable in a way that really, really, makes you wonder what the hell those two were talking about. Something must show on your face (something always shows on your face) because he very carefully and pointedly repeats the ‘all clear’ gesture.

“Aren’t there any?” Seb asks into the weird pause that has developed.

Kankri still looks distracted. He evidently can’t resist the opportunity to lecture, however, because he continues absently, “Cybernetically-modified carapacians and trolls? Not as such, no. Or not many. There are carapacian cy around, I’m sure, but the Bone Empire largely prefers to use other methods to…modify lifeforms.”

You glance at the General and receive a non-communicative shrug. Kankri just keeps right on explaining how other people’s species feel about things to you. “I feel reasonably secure speculating that carapacian methods of reproduction culturally predispose them to the sort of genetic manipulation that tends to be taboo in the other Empires. Of course, that stigma no doubt arises for reasons similar to the stigma surrounding cy. The prejudices regarding both are founded in historical fear rather than reason.” There’s an unusual pause in his monologue, and he looks between you and Seb with an unparsable frown, his lips twisted shut. His eyes stop on you.

You bat your eyes behind your shades. “Hanging on your every word, bro.”

Kankri hisses through his teeth but picks back up smoothly. “As for trolls… there’s the Imperial Drones of course, but that’s something of a separate issue—which isn’t to be casteist and imply that biologically variant individuals are less relevant, of course. But in terms of the majority caste—what most people would unfortunately refer to as ‘regular’ trolls—the Ebon Empire stopped trying to make troll-based cybernetically-modified lifeforms decades ago. There’s some sort of conflict between troll physiology and cybernetic modifications, I believe. Cybernetic rejection syndrome.”

“They kicked their tech-implants?” you guess.

“No… Basic implants—mechanical arms and such—are workable. Although also somewhat stigmatized. It was the…forgive me, I don’t know the technical term. The primary implant, the one that integrates the brain and the network of programming and mechanical implants—that was the source of the problem they couldn’t correct. There was…something of a breakdown in personality.

“The test subjects always went insane.”

-----------------------
----

Your name is Mituna Captor and you just killed… everyone, really.

Chapter Text

It’s the first time you’ve ever seen the moons. You tore the sky open.

--sorry sorry i'm sorry--

You remember everything. Of course you do. But it’s only your metal mind that remembers in crisp, unaffected detail. For your flesh mind it’s more of a series of impressions. What you felt. What you didn’t feel. You were afraid and you were angry and you were hurt (they came to cull you, they tried to kill you) and then you weren’t anything at all anymore because your power broke loose like a live wire snapping free, red and blue psionics raging around you in unstoppable, mindless destruction. It wasn’t like tipping out of balance. You didn’t spiral out of control, riding your power higher and higher. The power rode you.

Seared flesh has a very specific smell.

--sorry sorry didn’t mean it sorry--

The worst part was how you could hear their voices going silent in your head. Hear the flow of data interrupted, the whispers of their life stories crunching to a halt midstream, like a glitched program. Like the whole world ought to stop, force a reboot, anything to counter the wrongness. And you know things—Sigil Cetus; Name: Upcelt, Leeiam, turned into black char, was just coming due for her five sweep service pin. Sigil Auriga; Name: Vourim, Shenti, tossed and smashed and broken amid the fallen walls, turned in his last eleven concupiscent pails with the same kismesis—longer than you’ve been alive. You know these things as if the screams of voices cut short have impressed them into the dark spaces of your mind and you can’t get them out--

--sorry i'm sorry i'm i'm i'm--

The power ran through you and used you and seared you inside and broke the world outside, and you are left hollow and hurting and echoing with silenced voices. If you ever had a thing called balance you can’t remember it now—your red mind is encompassing, an endless spiraling wheel of guilt and apologies, as if being pitiful enough might make life stop hurting you. You’re caught, stuck, looping, so you huddle in the rubble of a torn apart lab and pull your knees in tight to your chest and shake, because you don’t know how to stop. Underneath, lodged down deep, at the back of your thoughts, your blue mind is a sullen seething sense of betrayal, and you hate yourself and the world around you impartially.

There are more voices coming and you’ll either silence them or let them silence you. Some part of you—you don’t even know which anymore, you’re all jumbled and soul-burnt—thinks it will be interesting to see which happens.

But the voices never reach you; they scatter and turn and separate, seeking back and forth through broken halls for something you can’t see, can’t hear. And one by one, picked from the edges and the wayward stragglers, the voices go silent, like lights winking out. Did you do that? You tremble and curl tighter in on yourself and chant apologies under your breath to drown out the resounding silence.

She finds you last, and there’s only footsteps to warn you of her presence, the voice of her sign still indecipherable static, giving away nothing beyond the fact of her existence. Her eerie, not-quite absence in your mind is so unsettling you could almost take her for an avenging ghost. A ghost whose steps stop across the room from you.

You raise your head from your shivering fetal huddle, full of drowning fear and guilt—and your power rises around you like wings.

Latula keeps a wary distance, neither approaching nor turning to flee. The harsh crackle of energy casts crazy carnival lights across the scene, broken walls and bodies lit in flickering blue and red. “You’re god-moding pretty hard there, huh?” Her voice rasps strangely, still cheerful but full of knives and broken glass like something put in a bag and stomped on.

The odd detail helps you beat back another wave of nauseating panic. You look at her more closely, actually seeing for the first time. She’s lost her shades somewhere, and her eyes are very young, only a hint of her adult teal beginning to fill in the darkness of her irises. You can see why she needed the sunglasses. She’d never have passed for an inspectorturer if anyone had guessed how recently she’d reached service age.

You knew, of course; you heard it, heard everything, and then you told everything. (They drugged you. They drugged you again and then they left you and when they came back it was to kill you and the world came apart and went silent.)

She’s bloodstained and leaning a little too heavily on that dragonhead staff, but most of the blood is in warmer shades than her own. Rust and brown and yellow like yours and the fanged muzzle of her staff spattered green. There’s a ring of broken and bruised flesh around her neck.

They tried to hang her.

Shitting fuck damn--sorry oh no sorry--

She’s going to kill you. You cringe, hiding behind bony knees and tangled, overgrown bangs and the hissing, spitting power that pulled the building down around you. You don’t know why she’s waiting so patiently. At the back of your consciousness, your blue mind hopes she will come closer so one of you will die and get it over with. You don’t actually know which you want to happen. You don’t want to touch the power hovering around you; you’re terrified to reach for it in case you find it still owns you. Can’t, not again no no no no. You didn’t kill them out of fear or anger, they took even that much from you, you just killed them; they all died and there wasn’t any reason for it. You hug your knees and tuck your chin further into the hollow they make. “…storry. ’m sorry.”

“Yeah, I get you,” she says, not dismissive but almost like she’s acknowledging a shared truth. Again, the strangeness of it backs your red mind off for a moment, gives you a second’s breathing space to try to think. Realign. Nudge a tiny fraction further into balance. Her eyes on you are careful, watchful, but she looks neither scared nor impressed. Her uniform is spackled in blood, bright multi-colored spots mixing freely with her own. “But would you undo it?”

You feel your eyes grow wide, and the power flexes and crackles reflexively around you. “…don’t know.” It’s somewhere between a revelation and a plea. And then, compelled to full truth, you add, “Donk know how.”

“That’s the thing, huh?” she says, still in that throat-bruised, shards-and-edges voice. For just a moment there’s a hint of something grim in the lines of her face. Not like a mask slipping, but maybe like something private bubbling up to the surface of her. It’s just that one moment, and then she quirks a grin that’s every bit as real as whatever you just saw. “Well, if you do figure out how to start rehashing major life choices don’t tell me, ‘kay? I’d never get anything done if I had a pause-reset option.”

You’re not sure what to do with that. You try anyway, because you sort of want her to say more. This is the most like a person you’ve ever felt. “O…k?” You wonder if you would understand better what was going on here if you weren’t so broken. Why is she talking to you? When will the bad things start happening?

“Oh, hey, guess what I found?” Latula rasps cheerfully. She pops something out of her sylladex.

“My hemlat! Halmat. Hemult. Himmelfucker.” It’s like she’s offering you your soul. Your eyes are ravenous upon it; the only reason you don’t fall on her with fangs and claws is that you’re so overwhelmed you’d probably just fall down. Your helmet is security. Your helmet is control. Your helmet is the key into your fourth mind, the mind you built for yourself, the mind that brings you almost into balance, and they took it away from you. You whimper-growl, power flickering wildly around you, every part of you united in the single emotion of ‘want.’

Latula spins your world on her finger and cocks her head at you, grinning toothily. Wisely she does not try to approach. “Heads up!” The helmet lofts in your direction.

You fumble, scrabble wildly with disobedient limbs, and clamp down around it like a drunken starfish. There’s a sharp, sunburst flash of pain when you smack your nose into it but you don’t care even a tiny bit. You are going to murderkill the next person who tries to take it away from you. Who tries to drug you. Give you sopor. Hook you into a machine. Make you a tool.

You suck in a breath, cutting off the low, desperate growl building in your chest. You’re edging dangerously close to tipping completely out of balance again and you’re not even sure which way you would go over.

You get the helmet on all by yourself, and if you jam your horns and bang one of the interfaces on the side of your head the pain is just one more unpleasant but ultimately irrelevant bit of data in the bedlam of your life. It hardly even registers.

The helmet doesn’t fix anything. Your current distress isn’t really technological so much as that horrible physiological feedback-looping your body keeps doing, the slight dissonance between metal and flesh mind grating on your instincts, rubbing you raw, cycling your stress higher and higher. But you feel like it helps, and the feeling’s a kind of reality. So you soothe yourself with a flurry of distracting little coding tasks—rerouting the data storage matrix, emptying memory caches—a series of unnecessary, fidgety adjustments that primarily serve to remind you that you have a handhold in your mental freefall. Gradually, your head feels less hollow and you can almost stop naming over the dead.

There’s still that single, static-y voice buzzing at you.

From behind the comforting filter of your helmet’s eyeshield you find yourself staring at Latula. She’s still just watching you, lips curved up and eyes lit with strange flickers in the light of your psionics. You’re starting to believe she’s not planning to attack you. You just don’t get why.

Her grin widens under your inspection. Your bloodpumper squeezes and skips uncomfortably.

“Sun’ll be up soon,” she notes.

Your eyes fly to the broken ceiling above you, taking in the unfamiliar night sky with fresh alarm.

“So, hey. You wanna get outta here?”

Your eyes arrow back to her face, and no, you didn’t misunderstand. The invitation is written right there, in the tilt of her head and the arch of an eyebrow, and dark eyes just beginning to brighten with teal.

She knows, she must know, that you turned her in, gave away the information her voice whispered to you, the information she’s hiding from you now. Only the lowest criminals are hung. Yet you can’t find a shred of resentment or reproach in that too-open, utterly unreadable face. She’s a soft buzzing cipher in your brain, an algorithm you can’t decrypt. A lock with the combination printed across the front in bright blocky letters that dare you to try.

You stare at her, full of confusion and an unfamiliar, painful constriction in your chest. You’re not sure whether it’s a good feeling or a bad feeling, but it makes you feel very present. Alive.

“Yes,” you say, or almost. (Yhsh.) “I want to go out with you from here.”

Latula’s grin stretches, wide and pleased. “Awesome.” And in your head, the static of her becomes a whisper again—a single voice in the dark. It runs right through you like a touch.

She looks at you like being broken only makes you more interesting. She has a smile like an alligator and the bruised and bloody mark of the hangman’s noose rings her neck like a second grin.

You would follow her anywhere.

-----------------------

----

The plan is there in your head when the General wakes you up to take the final watch shift.

You very much don’t like this thing where problems work themselves out as you sleep. Sure, in theory it’s convenient to wake up with all the answers magically worked out, but in reality it makes you feel as if your body is a foreign entity, plotting things behind your back. You tell yourself it’s just like setting a program to compile overnight. This doesn’t free you from the compulsion to check and recheck whatever you’ve dreamed up, looking for flaws or hidden traps.

You grab your shades first. Blinking into their adjusting light filters you yawn into your hand, rolling your shoulders and twisting the stiffness out of your neck even as your eyes do a quick scan of the cave. All clear; prisoner secure. The General—who as far as you can tell sleeps sitting up and possibly with one eye open—has already dropped into a bundle of limbs in his chosen corner. A cloak pulled over his shoulders is the only concession to the lingering post-dawn chill.

Kankri is bedded down in a makeshift pile of whatever odds and ends you all could find that also didn’t seem prone to sabotage or repurposing. Mostly sticks and leaves and metal cookware with some blankets and pillows thrown in just because. You know shit about what trolls look for in an ideal sleeping pile but this is definitively not quality craftsmanship. He’s still bound—hands in front now but probably hells of uncomfortable. The amount that you care about any of this approaches zero and then zips right on through that axis and into the vast, apathetic freedom of negative numbers.

Seb’s in his favored warm spot, pressed in along your side, all but engulfed by his growing hoard of blankets. The same hoard which at this very moment is attempting to ensnare your limbs and convince you not to leave the cocoon of warmth and security. You wiggle your unentangled arm and start gingerly working yourself free.

When you sleep in shifts like this you put Seb on first watch because it takes him forever to settle anyway, and because once he’s asleep you and the General can take longer watches without him noticing. If he ever works that out there’s going to be an epic scene, but you’re not intending to be caught. He needs the sleep.

The General takes the middle watch, which lets you and Seb get an uninterrupted sleep—assuming nothing dramatic comes up. It seems to work for him. You think he naps when you and Seb go into towns or explore old facilities. With those reflective cat eyes you would have guessed he’d be nocturnal but you remember Roxy saying she thought carapacians were a crepuscular species. At least her neighbors were mostly active around dusk and dawn. From that regard, the weird half-day half-night travel schedule you’ve fallen into might actually be a pretty effective compromise.

Eventually you extricate yourself from the blanket-snare, hauling yourself all the way to your feet so it can’t tempt you back into its plush embrace. You stoop and tuck the loose edges of blankets in around Seb to make extra certain of your escape. If you happen to also pat his hood, it’s only so he won’t think he needs to wake up. He really does need more sleep.

Having assured yourself that all is in order within your little enclave, you soft-foot to the curved-back mouth of the cave and peer around the bend into hazy morning light. The clearing looks peaceful and the sloping forest serene. Somewhere, birds are chattering. You feel instinctively distrustful. Damn. You should have kept the General up long enough for you to check the perimeter and reestablish a secure zone.

You’re not paranoid. You just like to know what variables you’re working with.

It’s quiet and still as you settle down to your morning warm-up, but your body feels tensed with anticipation and your mind is busy, turning the glowing ember of the idea you woke up with over and around. It’s an intriguing plan on several levels. Very simple and yet it dramatically expands the range of tools and options available to you. You can’t decide whether you love it or hate it.

You know the origin of this particular sleep-delusion, too. Seb planted the seeds the previous night. What was it he said? About helping strangers and not doing what you don’t want to. What if instead of playing out this blackmail drama cycle to the vengeful end you just…didn’t?

Kankri wants someone to help him go after his friend—badly enough to drop those very ill-timed remarks. You want your li’l bro to be safe.

On the one hand, there’s a principle at stake here. And not one you’re prepared to start tossing out on a whim. Certainly not over Kankri Vantas. Nobody gets to threaten Seb. You do not look kindly on attempts to push you around. But on the other hand… you also don’t appreciate feeling steamrolled onto a single path. This plan has the benefit of putting you back in control of the situation, acting rather than just reacting. And a little compromise won’t take your more lethal options off the table. You’re just adding to the web of choices available to you.

That doesn’t mean you have to let him off easy. No, just because you’re taking a stab at earning your ‘did not murder’ merit badge doesn’t mean you aren’t going to make the most out of this opportunity. You intend for Kankri Vantas to spend many many hours regretting his poor life choices. And you know exactly how to start.

(You’re not quite sure when your possible plan became a definite one. You have the creeping suspicion the decision was already made when you woke up. God you hope this isn’t going to be a thing. You think you’ve backed this all up logically but you have no external method of verifying that and if you can’t trust your own decision-making processes you really will wind up paranoid.)

When you cross the cave to Kankri’s pile you pick your steps with exceeding care. This would be easier if you trusted yourself to flashstep silently, but Seb, at least, would wake up if you started gusting around the cave. You crouch soundlessly by the pile of sticks and oddments and troll, sitting back on your heels as you consider the sight in front of you.

Kankri’s mostly buried in the haphazard heap, more under it than in it, like he’s seeking maximum refuge. You can see the sole of a booted foot and, near the top of the pile, a glimpse of dark hair and sleeping face, as if he need a breathing hole. His eyes are squinched shut and his brows are slightly furrowed, managing to look stubbornly earnest even in sleep. Most of the rest of his face is tucked behind his bound hands. The muscles in his cheeks twitch occasionally, like the beginnings of words. Probably lectures people in his sleep.

It occurs to you this probably constitutes creepy behavior.

Eh.

You’ve been creepier.

You lean forward to shift a skillet out of your way. Kankri’s eyes flick open. His muscles tense all along his frame, surprising you with how quickly he makes the shift into coiled alertness. Neither of you move. You don’t so much see as feel the exact moment when he notices the knife in your hand. His form goes even stiller, tenser. His pupils twist down to points.

But he doesn’t speak, doesn’t make any futile attempts at escape, just pinches dark brows tighter together and locks eyes with yours, like he can bore right through you (through your shades), rewrite the world, or at least your part in it, with the sheer force of his convictions.

For a moment you can’t move. Then you flash your knife hand out and slash the ropes away from his wrists.

Kankri blinks. Several times, like this might correct his memory of events.

In the wake of his utter bewilderment, you find that releasing yourself from those eyes becomes quite easy. You rise and step away, very calmly captchalogue the knife, and make a deliberate show of giving him your back. Incomprehension bounces off you in nearly tangible rays, settling in a pool around the dumbstruck troll. It’s immensely satisfying.

You let him stew in his confusion, listening to the soft clatter as Kankri fumbles to a sitting position in the pile, shedding cookware and branches and empty cans. He sucks in a breath. You slice your hand through the air and shoot him a sharp look over the top of your shades. You’re more than a little pleased with yourself when this actually succeeds in halting him. Jerking a thumb sternly towards the two still-sleeping occupants of the cave, you touch a finger to your smirk in a shushing gesture.

Don’t wake them up, you mouth.

Kankri sits and blinks repeatedly at you. His mouth works several times in silence. His face twists. He scrubs two hands over his eyes and back into sleep-tufted black hair, knocking a few leaves out and casting it into further disarray, and then blinks at you again. When he looks as if he might say something after all, you raise your eyebrows. Pointedly.

Pinching his lips shut, he huffs air out through his nose. You half expect him to puff up all over and hiss. People caught in surprise avalanches of felty puppet buttocks have been known to look less flummoxed and offended.

This was the best decision. It was this one. This is possibly even better than if you’d succeeded in cutting him loose in his sleep. Although letting him wake up to unbound hands and a morning proceeding irrespective of the fact would also have been entertaining.

His lips are working again, mouthing quite a lot of words at you, a fusillade of silent, insistent questions. In response you give him you blandest pokerface and then chuck a tin of sardines at his head. Sitting down, you pull out your own breakfast fish.

Kankri grimaces at the metal tin like it insulted his monster-parent. Tearing his frown away from the offending fish he tries again. This time he opts for concise: What?

You make a point of angling your gaze toward his hands, glancing around the cave, back at him. It’s not obvious?

His next question is delivered with even more intensity. Why??

You shrug. Changed my mind.

With that final, unhelpful comment, you settle down to your breakfast, basking in his bewilderment, fingers drumming absently in the beginning composition of some sicknasty beats.

Shit, all your plans should be this rewarding to execute.

Chapter Text

You still maintain that this is an excellent plan: logical, well thought out, multi-faceted, and demonstrating remarkable levels of maturity and generosity of spirit on your part.

You may have erred slightly in the execution.

Possibly. To a minor degree. Assuming you can really be held accountable for the vagaries of biological beings.

Just becoming one doesn’t make the rest of them suddenly more rational.

It seems you may have inadvertently aggravated the General. By which you mean he is completely pissed. At you. At least, you think. He’s hard to read. Most of the time he’s a pretty straight-forward kind of guy, even if he does tend to be somewhat stand-offish and perhaps a little too attached to his weaponry. You don’t judge. You’ve been known to embody those descriptors yourself.

But he’s been staring at you silently for the entirety of late morning and early afternoon, and although between the obscuring head-wrapping and those blank white eyes you have no idea what he’s thinking, the unpleasant, itching sensation between your shoulder blades implies they are not warm fuzzy thoughts. It’s a relief when he takes a break to go do something outside the confined space of the cave. Maybe he’ll cool down on his own.

Maybe you should have checked in with him before you sliced up his ropework.

He’s never gotten tetchy about any of your other unilateral decisions, though, and it’s not like you make a habit of including a ratification step in the direction of this little party. In your opinion just having to chase around after Sawtooth’s cryptic hints is more than enough outsourcing of the decision-making process. It’s not like the General has any kind of personal investment in this enterprise.

You roll your shoulders back, trying to banish the defensive hunch they keep creeping into—even in his absence—and lean further over the gutted rocket board you’re working on. Seb leans in, too, bright and intent, bouncing slightly on his heels as he watches.

Nearby, Kankri reemerges from a clutter of maps and goes for his husktop. Speaking of people that want to second-guess every decision you make. He’s got binders and papers spread out over half the cave floor, and he’s been ruffling through them making god knows what notes and haranguing you over every single detail—at least since you finally stopped stringing him along and formally accepted his miniquest.

You probably enjoyed that too much.

Pffft. Right. As if that’s even a thing.

Anyway, you still owe him shit and you’re doing him a favor that’s straight up ridiculous levels of gratuitous so he can deal.

He doesn’t seem scared of you. Most of the time, anyway. From what you’ve observed, Kankri’s coping strategies are comprised of 10% erasing inconvenient details from his acknowledged view of reality and 90% compulsive critiquing of all the other details, but you suppose you can also deal. Except you’ll do it better, because you’re smooth and unruffled like that. You are cool like a phallic green gourd, which anecdotal data informs you is statistically cooler than average by several degrees.

It’s so weird to realize you are capable of direct physical interaction with cucumbers now. Like. That’s a thing.

Weird.

Kankri taps a sheaf of papers straight with an air of finality, looks for his pen, and finds it in his hair. The soft murmur of his voice has stopped, which is your thirty second warning that he’s about to accost you. He talks under his breath to himself constantly when he reads, muttering over maps and papers and clicking non-stop on his keyboard or wielding a corrective red pen like a weapon. The only lulls are when he occasionally zones out and sits blinking slowly into space. That part is pretty entertaining—especially the way he’ll jerk back into alertness, glance suspiciously at you, and try to pretend nothing happened and nobody noticed.

You suspect he’s not as flexibly diurnal as he claimed. If it’s slowed down his attempts at campaigning and sermonizing you haven’t been able to tell.

You hear the noise of a breath being drawn. Kankri-ignition in 3, 2, 1… “I still don’t see why we have to take such an indirect route. Do you think—”

“Constantly.” You move the spare micro-wrench from between your teeth to behind your ear, and refuse to look up from your work. Never mind that you were just watching him in the corner-display of your shades. “It’s called a compromise. I don’t have a lot of experience with them but I am given to understand such things were employed by ancient peoples in an attempt to do something called not murdering each other. Together, I believe we can make this legend a reality.

“There, see that?” you add to Seb, who leans in at your side, ears slanted forward.

“Mm.” His little hands dart past your own, into the narrow workspace. “Got it!”

Kankri waits two more beats—he is weirdly careful about your interactions with Seb and you don’t know if you scared some discretion into him or if this is just troll unfamiliarity with children—then bulldozes back in. “And of course I respect your willingness to engage in constructive and diplomatic behavior, especially as the attempt is clearly quite challenging for you.”

Behind your shades, you shoot him a sideways suspicious look. His face is both solemnly earnest and insufferably self-satisfied so you don’t gain any new data for your ‘does he do this shit on purpose?’ study. “I am merely suggesting that perhaps we could prioritize the more urgent task. It is a matter of life and death—“

“—something you’ve mentioned precisely fourteen times today, yes, thank you.” Seb pops back up with the faulty microchip and presents it to you. You shuffle through your supplies for a spare. “Maybe if you had an exact location for your girl I’d consider it. But you don’t, so we’re not. Or rather, we are, but we’re also multitasking.”

You start to dig back into the board, then glance at Seb beside you and check the impulse. You pass over the replacement chip, instead. “See what you can do with this, li’l man.”

Seb goes all tightly wound, but in that pleased, proud way he has when he gets a job. Folding over the rocket board, he sets to the task with focused intent. You peer over his shoulder to watch his work. The urge to commentate is strong, but luckily you have a doggedly persistent troll to distract you.

“But surely we could start at the other end of the route,” Kankri says, when it’s clear Seb is occupied. “Half of this isn’t even in an influx zone—“

“If you’re in such a hurry go on ahead yourself. Oh wait, I forgot. We’re stuck in a cave because you’re nervous about a little sunburn.”

“Your glibness on the subject is extremely offensive, particularly as it is based in willful ignorance. I am not going to attempt sunrunning in unfamiliar territory in the brightest part of the day just because you think it would be amusing.”

“I thought you were gung-ho to go rescue your damsel,” you prod.

“Of course I am, and I do not appreciate the implication otherwise. Latula’s very capable,” he adds stiffly. “I’m certain she’ll be all right. I have every confidence in her abilities. Besides,” he adds, circling stubbornly back to his point like a barracuda with a non-existent learning curve, “I don’t see the benefit in arguing about a few hypothetical hours, which are lost on any account, when we could potentially save days simply by changing our search pattern.”

“Other people than you have irons in the fire, bro. I said I’d sign on for your rescue mission. I didn’t say I’d stop having my own shit to do. You got what you wanted. Take it or leave it. By which I mean take it, ‘cause I am straight up done with your indecisive stalking blackmailery.”

Kankri bristles. His lips purse up like he’s swallowed something sour, his chin comes up and his eyes go mostly closed. It’s almost impressive how unfailingly he rises to the bait. This fishy refuses to be deterred by a hook. And you never get tired of tossing the line out. “I have explained several times why that characterization of my behavior is inaccurate and it continues to be so. I must assume that your persistence in this matter is intended to be either willfully antagonistic or inexplicably comic.”

“It seems you think I can’t be both.”

He keeps right on over the top of you. “Although you have been intentionally cryptic about your motives, I feel I can reasonably infer that you would not have released me if you really believed I intended harm. Insofar as the interior of a cave in the middle of the day counts as freedom. Nevertheless, if I grant you good faith intentions, surely you can grant mine.”

“Inaccurate premise; faulty conclusion,” you note blandly. “I am giving you what you want—you’re welcome by the way—which removes your motivation to carry through on your threats. At least for the period in which I’m helping you.” You glance up to meet his frowning face with a sliver of smile that’s all teeth. “And it keeps you where I can see you in case I change my mind.”

“I don’t find that amusing—“

“—I’m being willfully antagonistic and inexplicably comic again; sorry—”

“—and while of course I am sensitive to the leeway you must be granted in consideration of your mammalian-caretaker instincts I would appreciate it greatly if you would stop treating me as if I had offered you harm.”

You let the mocking smile fall away from your face. “Haven’t you?”

“No. I have not.” He looks directly at you, black-gold eyes holding your gaze, surprisingly intent. Or—not surprising, he’s always kind of fussily earnest, but—hrmn. It grabs at you. It’s an invasive sensation. “I do not intend you harm. I will not act in a manner to bring you or yours harm. I will not violate your confidence. Is that sufficiently direct for you?”

You tip your head, shaking off those eyes. Ignore the strange feeling. “Nope.”

“Why not?” He sounds somewhere between frustrated and aggrieved.

“Because I don’t trust you. Because I don’t have any reason to trust you.”

“You also don’t have any reason not to.” Kankri doesn’t so much say the words as carve them in stone, like they’re made of truth, like the world will assemble itself to accommodate his certainty. You look at him a moment longer, the silence stretching out between you.

Then you start counting on your fingers. “Stalking, blackmailing, extortion--“

His lips twist back in a hiss of air drawn through teeth. “I believe,” he interrupts you, stiffly, “We have previously covered that.” You’re just relieved at the way that strange, electric tension snaps, atmosphere going back to something familiar. You smirk at him.

“You are, of course, entitled to your own opinion,” he continues, falling into his lecture stance, “and I am willing to acknowledge that your viewpoint may lend you a perspective into the situation which I am not privy to, but I would like to point out that it is difficult to do so when you are intentionally obstructionist. Additionally, and I don’t mean to cast aspersions, but I find it difficult to follow your argument when your logic is completely circular.”

“—hey now, that’s our word,” you cut in. “You can’t just go throwing that around.”

Kankri squints one eye open at you. “…which word?”

You deadpan. “Logic.”

“Well, I—“

“—Also ‘circular.’ And ‘hyacinth.’”

Dark lips purse together. “You’re being flippant again.”

“Two points for deduction. Minus one for delivery. Put some spirit into it, bro.”

“I would be happy to tailor my speaking style to whatever method of delivery is necessary to actually communicate with you and achieve results,” he says. “If you would be so kind as to inform me what that might be.”

“It’s cute how you think listening to you and agreeing with you are the same thing.”

“Whereas you seem to be under the impression that reflexive witticisms actually constitute some form of intelligent dialogue.”

Ouch, burn. “Can’t help the way I was made. You said it yourself, bro.”

“I am certain I never said anything implying you had any kind of insurmountable inbuilt flaws. That would be extremely insensitive, and I also have no reason to think you couldn’t say what you meant if you wanted to.”

“It seems you think I am being insincere. Did it ever occur to you that perhaps I am saying what I mean in an indirect fashion? Perhaps I am being sincere in my irony. Perhaps it is ironic sincerity.”

Perhaps I could cater appropriately to your needs if I had any idea what you were talking about.”

Perhaps—“

Bro.”

You blink and look down at Seb. Kankri falls silent. Still careful. His lips flatten and pull between his teeth, making an effort.

“Is this right?”

You turn your eyes to the wiring array Seb indicates, shifting mental tracks with more difficulty than you think is really acceptable. “Oh. It’s—move over, let me see.”

Seb flips an ear. Still, he unfolds his arms and slides over agreeably enough. You start checking back over Seb’s work—which is not the wiring array you had planned, although you suppose it may also be acceptable—and are quickly absorbed into a lecture-slash-debate on the topic of electrical engineering. Seb holds his own pretty well, albeit mostly by inflexible insistence. You have no idea how someone this tiny acquired so many opinions.

Kankri turns back to his carpeting of papers, apparently dismissing you both from his attention. But his lips don’t move as he works.

Not that you look.

--------------

Seb’s head lifts from the rocket board, metal ears orienting toward the cave entrance. You look up from your own work on the catatonic little cleaner bot, raising a silencing hand toward Kankri. Kankri may not be familiar with the Sebastian-Strider-Early-Detection-System but he’s swift on the uptake, halting his speech mid-word and turning his own eyes from Seb to the entrance. You don’t miss the way he rolls automatically to get his feet under him.

“Problem?” you ask Seb.

“The General’s back,” Seb says, but there’s a troubled note in his voice that has you nudging the hovering cleaner bot to one side and checking that your katana is close to hand.

 

The General comes through the cave entrance at a fast clip, beelines straight to you and Seb, and starts shooing at you with flappy hand motions, talking in an urgent buzz all the while.

Kankri’s head snaps around. “Are you sure? I’m certain I lost them.”

The response is a harsh noise like a raspberry, followed by a string of rapid chatter, as the General ducks around Seb to grab up the half-dissected rocket board—whoops, no, it’s an empty shotgun shell—and tuck it away into his ammo belt. He leaves off the shooing motions to start gathering up other stray items in the cave.

“What the hell,” you say, hand tight on your sword hilt. You’re somewhere between surprised, indignant, alarmed, and confused, so your voice evens out to flat and toneless. Seb’s on his feet, also with sword in hand, ears swiveling attentively in search of danger. He shrugs at you, equally directionless.

“Yes, I realize,” Kankri says. “It was a reasonable decision at the time. I’ve only got two on hand; it makes sense to be conservative. That was the second group I ran into, you know; I can’t imagine what they’re all doing in the area.” His voice sounds defensively dismissive, but his hands move automatically, beginning to gather papers and file them back into binders, swift and efficient. He frowns at the bend of the cave mouth, where a soft pool of reflected daylight filters in.

The General also turns toward the light, white eyes narrowing. He asks a question.

“No seriously, what the hell,” you say into the conversation. Nobody pays you any mind.

Kankri’s frown deepens to a grimace. Some of the binders are now being filed into other binders in a way that seems to defy the laws of space and sylladexes. Just what you need, more people using weird item duality storage techniques that you don’t understand. You thought that was a carapacian thing. “Well, it’s. Hm. Are you sure they’re coming here? …I might be able to manage, but you’ll need—“

The General makes another extended, exasperated comment. For some reason, they both turn and look at you.

“No, you’re right, I doubt they’d be prepared,” Kankri says, and you have had it straight up to here with this ridiculous bullshit.

“Seb, am I speaking in the audible range? It seems there has been a breakdown in transmission of audio signals. Perhaps I can program some sort of visually-based communication system representing common sounds via a complex system of symbols. A sort of chat-client. Do you think that might facilitate some actual fucking dialogue?” You don’t raise your voice because you are much too together to flip your lid and because cutting sarcasm gets a plus five bonus when employed in as bland a tone as possible. You may get a little sharp.

You also get some attention, which is good, because it means you won’t be required to progress to phase two: trying out the effectiveness of your new, physical message-alert abilities.

“I beg your pardon,” Kankri says stiffly. “I didn’t mean to be exclusionary or to imply in any way that—“

The General interrupts with two short syllables of impatient speech.

Kankri looks flustered. “Er—right. There is a group of potentially hostile robots converging on our location. In perhaps ten minutes time.”

Shit.

Seb’s ears go up and he arrows for the cave exit. You snag him by the back of his hoodie, quick enough only because you could immediately predict his response. He twists in your hold to turn a blank face on you that you interpret contextually as a strident complaint.

“Lookout only. Stay right outside. Ten yard radius; I mean it.” You keep your own face completely unbending as Seb clearly considers how far he can push this. Finally, he nods and you release him, watching him zip out the exit with your lips twisted to one side before wheeling back toward Kankri. “What kind of potentially hostile robots? More human army soldierbots?”

“No, this is…er.” He actually squirms. “More of a…specialized collection…group….”

The rising flush on his face gives you a clue. “Wait, you mean imperial drones? Are we about to have a visit from the troll-bucket-sex-police?”

If you weren’t more interested in finding out what the hell is going on here you would be absolutely charmed by the brilliant shade of red he is turning. It’s still pretty captivating. “No, not Imperial Drones,” Kankri says in the fixed, measured tones of someone falling back on technical diction to escape terminal embarrassment. “These are strictly robotic not biological—some sort of Outworld relic. Very ancient tech. But they think they’re drones and they don’t really discriminate by species. They’ll accost all manner of people demanding a… pail of biological material.” If that blush gets any brighter something’s going to go up in flames. “Two, sometimes; it depends how high-functioning they still are.”

You look back over his one-sided conversation with the General and put several details into a new context. “Dude, are you going to buy them off with the trophies of your sexual conquests? Please tell me you’re going to buy them off with your naughty bukkake bucket collection.”

Wow, you think you might have achieved Kankri meltdown. “I don’t—I’m not—it isn’t—that’s completely—“ He sputters incoherently and squinches his eyes shut and presses his hands over his face like if he doesn’t see you he won’t have to be here having this conversation. “I am quite certain I specified biological material,” he somehow manages to say through gritted teeth. “They’re almost never selective enough to tell the difference between—that is—what I mean to say is—any organic fluid is generally sufficient.” He finishes on a rush, and turns toward the General with vague desperation. “Perhaps we should finish this discussion some time when matters are less pressing. If negotiation isn’t an option—“

“And who exactly decided that?” you cut in.

“My apologies; I wasn’t aware you had two to six buckets of blood to spare,” Kankri snaps back. He pauses and looks slightly thoughtful. “Actually, it wouldn’t have to be blood, although of course that helps—did you happen to have a supply of something suitable? Dairy is often passable. Plant extracts?”

“Er—“ You do a quick mental inventory of anything that could be remotely classified as organic. You’re not sure Tab even classifies as ingestible. “—can’t help you, bro. But what-the-fuck-ever; I don’t actually care. Exactly how many are there? Can we take them?” You’re thinking about the Batterwitch’s robo-drones back on Earth, when they came in a swarm. Dirk fucked that up pretty well, but between him and Sawtooth—and you know where he went wrong, you could possibly—probably, even—

“Confrontation is not a good plan,” Kankri says distractedly, and you’d like to see some citations for that, because confrontation is your favorite plan. He’s looking around the enclosed space of the cave, growing tense and coiled again like he’s found himself in a trap. His fingers tap nervously on the last of his binders. “We don’t have time; we’ll have to figure something else out—”

“What—“ but your question gets lost in a string of chatter from the General.

Kankri pauses, looks torn, and then shakes his head, dark brows furrowing. “No, it will be better for everyone if we stay together. It wouldn’t be right to leave you to take the risk. I’ll just—“ he makes an indescribable noise, a sort of frustrated, choking growl “—figure something out.” He waves his hands vaguely.

The General interjects another short comment.

Kankri pauses again. “Oh, I suppose… that might…” His eyes sharpen.

What.” you interject, more forcefully, because the talking around you got old before it was born and is rapidly approaching the age of the known universe.

“He says there’s a network of caves we can lose them in.” Kankri looks to the General. “How far?”

There’s yet another comment that you don’t understand, and Kankri paces closer to the curved back mouth of the cave, edging up to the pool of light like a swimmer considering shark-infested waters. He chews a lip, then presses them tight together and sets his shoulders. “All right. I can make it. Let’s go.”

He tears away from the edge of the sunlit space, unfurls his cloak—you think from a page in his binder—and starts yanking on protective garments, snapping tinted goggles to his forehead, wrestling up the hood.

You wonder how the hell things progressed so rapidly outside your plan.

The gloves go on last, and then he’s back to fiddling with the laces of the guard cloth around his lower face and shoulders in a way that makes you want to bat his hands away and do it for him except this is stupid—has it somehow slipped outside of reality that this is the same guy you had to literally kidnap yesterday? Why the hell is he suddenly in charge?

“Bro!” Seb darts back into the cave, bouncing on his toes with barely contained excitement. “I hear something, I think. Five minutes, maybe.”

Kankri leaves off fussing with his outfit. His hands fall to his sides, ball into fists. “All right,” he says again. “Let’s go.”

“Why?” you say flatly, and it ripples out into a sudden silence as three heads turn toward you.

Kankri’s eyes flash irritation and his lips press firmly together, like he’s trapping words. He looks ridiculous with those goggles perched on his forehead. “I’m not certain I understand the source of your question.”

“I want to know why we’re running at all.”

“This is hardly the time--”

“So we should just do whatever you say? We should trust you—”

You’re cut off by a short, sharp verbal clatter. You turn towards a very angry, suddenly not inscrutable at all carapacian. His fists are clenched; his movements are short.

The General steps up into your space, goes up on his toes to get closer to your face. It should be funny—he’s hardly a head taller than Seb—but those white eyes are narrowed, and from this angle you can just catch the glint of sharp teeth through the eyeslit of his wraparound hood. He’s not threatening, not exactly, but he is mad as hell.

You lock your jaw, summon up your best blank face. Fight the urge to step away, because he is well inside your comfort zone. Your hand tightens reflexively around your sword hilt.

On the sidelines, Seb lurks uncertainly, his weight shifting from foot to foot.

The General jerks a pointed thumb from you to Seb to the cave mouth and—buzzes, a rasping string of clicks with a curl at the end, like a snarl.

“Ah… he says—“ Kankri begins, uncomfortably.

“I got the basic idea.” You hold eye contact, staring down at those narrowed white eyes and you feel defensive and angry and maybe a little embarrassed but more than anything you’re confused. You thought he was mad earlier today but it turns out that was just irritation. He’s furious now and right up in your grill but he still knows you well enough not to touch, or even corner you. It makes you uneasy, because he does know you and you’re not sure when that happened. He’s pissed at you, you got that, but you don’t understand why this anger feels so personal.

People get mad at shit you pull all the time—usually because you intend them to.

This is different.

It’s really unsettling that you can’t put your finger on why.

Fuck’s sake you don’t know why he’s even arguing with you. He could go on his own—he’s more than paid you back for anything he might have owed you. He’s not going to, though, and he’s standing there being angry with you instead of at you and you just really don’t get it.

You shore up your resolve—and make yourself take one careful half-step back. Drop your shoulders, force the muscles in your sword arm to relax. “Fine. You’re right; there’s no time and you know what you’re doing.” God you suck at apologies. “It’s your call.”

The General nods briefly, turns back toward the cave mouth. And it’s as simple as that. Seb and Kankri unwind slightly, looking like people who’ve seen a bomb defused.

“But you can be damn sure we’re gonna have a long, awkward, painfully detailed conversation about this later,” you add, holstering your sword on your back.

The General looks sideways at you, and his white eyes narrow again, curving with amusement. He makes a circle sign with his fingers—a trade arrangement taken as given. (Obviously.)

You roll your eyes and flip him the bird.

Seb bounces urgently. “Bro, three minutes!”

Shit, do you know how to eat up a lead time or what? “Right, let’s blow this popsicle stand.” You turn back to the General. “You’re up, bro. Lead the way.”

-----------------------

----

You can’t remember much about the last scraps of the night before dawn. When your power finally drained away the avalanche of crushing exhaustion that dropped down into its place nearly flattened you. Everything got hazy after that. You staggered and stumbled worse than your already uncooperative limbs could account for. You think by the end Latula had gone from half-dragging to half-carrying you, something you might have had emotions about if you didn’t want so much to crawl into a hole and curl up somewhere and never ever come out again.

You did crawl into a hole, as it turned out, a narrow little space at the bottom of a row of ladder rungs, with a metal cover that Latula pulled shut behind you. You thought perhaps she was in your brain again… or you were both in your brain… climbed down in except you don’t want that… Latula shouldn’t have to be in your brain you like her... she… and….

Sleep pulled and exhaustion pressed. You remember her laughing softly as she curled into the tangled space beside you, or maybe it was just the feeling of her voice in your head. You don’t remember anything else before darkness dragged you down except that Latula turned out to be much better at getting your limbs sorted out than you.

When you wake, you are alone.

It’s possibly the most terrifying thing that has ever happened to you, except that you still feel sort of numb and feelings-deaf and you manage to be calm and bone-shakingly terrified at the same time. You climb out of the hole. It takes you a couple tries, but you just pick yourself up and go back to it like brute-forcing a cipher through trial and error—the slow, tedious, painful way. Your helmet turns out to be great at keeping you from cracking your own head open.

When you finally lever the lid open and clamber out into the night you’re not alone after all. Latula’s right there, crisping grubloaf over an ambulatory thermal cube. Her sigil’s voice springs back into your mind, not a transition from static to coherency, but like it was never gone at all. Like having something come into sight around a corner.

Oh. That’s a new thing.

You turn freshly speculative eyes back to the metal-lined hole and consider climbing straight back in. It would be quiet, and safe, and not confusing. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt.

Latula looks up from the grubloaf, and her mouth curves up in pleasure as her eyes light on you. “Hey! Evening, sleepygrub.”

You decide to stay out here.

-----------------------

“Doing okay?” Latula asks, probably because that last tumble sent you sliding backwards your full length before faceplanting in the patch of loose, sloping gravel.

“Sure—“ you say, into the ground, (Thure) “--I’m just renavibrating these shitnook falldown limbs for giggle time wastes.” You pry your faceshield out of dirt, because a mouthful of gravel isn’t helping with your mangling of innocent words, and get your knees under you. Levering yourself to your feet, you try to coordinate all your extraneous parts around your center of gravity. It’s not that you don’t know how you should be moving—that’s just paths and vectors. But your body doesn’t always respond in sync with your signals, or the signals don’t go through, or sometimes the signals turn out not to be the ones you meant to send at all.

Sometimes even your perceptions scramble, so that you can’t trust your own senses, but you think the system of redundant sensory checks you’ve set up can sort of… fail-safe that. You hope. A subset of your attention runs anxiously through the code again, checking for flaws.

Latula watches your graceless maneuvering with her head tipped to one side, an unreadable half-smile on her face. The red scarf around her neck masks the ugly marks of the noose, and with a night’s sleep and the blood washed away she hardly looks like the same dangerous-as-knives troll that went rogue on an entire facility last night. She’s friendly, she’s patient, and she’s thinking more than she says, more than she shows, you’re certain of it. It’s not like you think she’s lying. It’s just.

She’s so straightforward about everything and yet you can’t figure out what anything she does means. It’s out of balance—you keep waiting for the other side of the equation, waiting for her to get fed up with you, or tell you what she wants, but she just watches to see that you’re actually on your feet and moving forward and then sets off again. “Not much farther!” Latula calls, cheerful rasping tones carrying back to you like the red scarf fluttering behind her.

You follow.

You catch up to her ahead, where the scattered brush begins to condense into a forest. Latula has paused with her head cocked to the side, examing a pale fist-sized insectoid with too many legs clinging to a tree. “These genemods are really getting out of hand,” she observes as you draw level. Her head cocks the other direction, sizing it up.

There’s spatter of blue ichor. The white dragon-headed staff pins the little creature to the bark.

You blink four times. That was…surprising. And also fast. You wonder if your feelings will catch up at some point or if you’re just going to stick with this sort of dazed, numb interest. It’s like being nervous, but warmer.

“There, you see?” Latula adds, and you wheel and almost fall over just in time to see a second shape scuttle past your foot and into the brush. Almost becomes actually and your rear flesh cushion hits the ground. Non-Trollian living things, even genetically-modified lab experiments, are fairly wide of your limited life experience. As far as you’re concerned they can stay out of sight or on a plate. They don’t have have Voices and they aren’t written in code.

(…Although genetic code is sort of fascinating; a balanced mix of quaternary base pairs and two coiled strands like binary…)

Yanking loose her staff, Latula flicks the first corpse free, catching the little creature out of the air and holding it up by one of the eight twitching legs. Her eyes are speculative on her acquisition; bright and sharp with a predatory light; and for one moment you think she is going to eat it.

Then she makes a little thoughtful hm noise, and vanishes it into her sylladex.

“Hey, we should totes get you a walking stick, what d’ya think?” Latula says after you reclaim your feet, an unnecessarily dramatic process involving much slip-sliding on leaves and loose stones. She swings her staff around in a lazy full circle with one hand, a dramatic illustration of ways that a stick would not be useful for walking. It ends up propped across her shoulders.

You respond with a noise that even you don’t know how to interpret. If you knew what your opinions were, maybe you would try to voice them, but having opinions is unfamiliar and complicated and you are distracted by walking right now.

Also you think that if you can’t manage four limbs that are attached to you, you certainly don’t want to try adding a fifth, so it turns out you’re having an opinion anyway.

“Too bad I didn’t bring a spare staff,” Latula adds. “Going without a primary weapon makes me hellza edgy, yanno? Otherwise I’d give you this one.” She pats the weapon across her shoulders.

Um. Did she just…?

Your mind is suddenly filled with so many surprised-speculative interrogation squiggles that you stop in your tracks and don’t notice until you’ve fallen several paces behind. That’s not… she’s not treating you like…

She acts like you’re a person. No. She acts like you’re an equal.

The red part of your mind wants to cringe and shrink away because you’re not, you’re really not; you’re so damaged. You don’t know how to be more. And then the blue part of your mind is a blurred, seething tangle of irritated confusion because she also treats you like you’re safe and that’s just…lunatic.

As if to prove the thought, she wheels back into your space, a surprise onslaught of toothy smiles and arched eyebrows. She grins at you from a few inches away and you stare at her. The thought that you should move back to keep her out of your space occurs belatedly.

“Did you get stuck?” Her fist raps twice against the side of your helmet.

“Get you stuck,” you say automatically, fingers curling in a crude gesture.

Teal eyes blink at you, and she laughs in a startled bark. “Wow, rude.”

You cringe. “I’m sorry.”

She just laughs at you again and flips her hair over her shoulder, taking off again. “Whatevs, MC. Just keep that rude butt moving. We’re nearly there.”

You’re beginning to think Latula Pyrope might be crazier than you are.

You’re not altogether sure you care. God, how does she stay alive?

Up slope, in the thicker woods, there’s a sharp crack-snap, and treetops rustle as something falls. It’s a very…large sound. You look to Latula for cues, but she just makes a satisfied noise and angles off on a tangent towards the source of the sound. You scramble to keep up with her and mostly manage it, although sometimes your arms get called in to assist your feet. The advantage to going uphill—when you fall forward you still make a certain sort of four-legged progress.

Maybe that can be your secret superpower. Climbing by falling.

There’s another thump and crack somewhere ahead of you, followed by a series of hissing rustles. Latula halts in a relatively clear, flat area and gives the surrounding forest a speculative look. “Hey, you’re feeling pretty chill, right?”

You’re not too sure about that, but your comparative frame of reference is mostly terror and rage punctuated across days of drug-hazed stupor. You shove back to your feet from your latest stumble and raise your shoulders in a jerky shrug. “Pretty much.” The words fray and deform on your tongue—prethy munch—but at least they’re actually the words your brain sent to your mouth.

“Awesome.” Latula’s grin makes you feel both warm and uneasy at the same time. You’re almost getting used to the sensation. Not that that in any way prepares you for her to suddenly add, “So, you wanna meet my mom?”

You tense in confusion. “Yes. No. Yes? No?” What’s the correct answer, you have no idea, you have absolutely no files on this topic, or maybe you do, did you lose them oh no—

“Okay!” Latula says brightly, like you managed something coherent and also aren’t really obviously panicking. She gives you what may be the least reassuring smile that has ever existed. “Whatever you do, don’t move.

You transmute in to a pillar of petrified, formerly organic, entirely non-moving parts. You can’t quite manage this non-metaphorically but you are certainly giving it your very best shot. You really must be feeling chill because the wave of competing fight-or-flight instincts that sweeps over you hardly shakes your mental balance at all. Or maybe you’re still too fried from the murder-meltdown last night to pass much beyond surface emptions.

You feel kind of like a shell around an empty space, like everything that’s happened is still resonating soundlessly in your head. So much existing turbulence that extra noise just...bumps off what’s already there and scatters.

Latula sticks two fingers between her lips and whistles, a sharp, ascending trill. The crack-rustle-snap is suddenly sliding down the slope, approaching at speed.

You don’t move.

The first thing you see is the muted gleam of a broad, scaly white flank. Silvered scars curl across the pale expanse, breaking up the even paleness, but the silhouette remains very distinct.

Your throat, of its own accord, makes a sort of squeaking, clicking noise.

A long white muzzle swings around, fixing on you like a compass needle coming to point. You continue not to move.

The scar tissue is densest here, running in thick, twisted stripes from the tip of the snout back past the brow until little is recognizable beyond blank red eye slits and a terrifying row of gleaming sickle fangs the size of your palm. The blind eyes glint at you.

Her lusus is huge. And a dragon. And huge.

“This is Pyralspite,” Latula says. “May I give her your name?”

You still don’t move. But you call them both a lot of filthy names.

Chapter Text

You learn three things about Kankri Vantas by watching him sunrunning.

He’s good at this, movements focused and athletic in a way you hadn’t expected. He hugs the shadows and darts across patches of light, adapting his path on the fly to take full advantage of cover without ever once stopping or falling behind. You can’t exactly call it graceful, but there’s an efficiency and forethought of movement that reminds you of parkour.

He’s quiet, which is something else you weren’t expecting. Silent, actually, which is so surreal your eyes keep going back to him just to check that he’s still with you. Even when you make it to the caves, and the General has to scout ahead, redirecting and backtracking your little group up and down through the labyrinthine tunnels a half a dozen times, he follows along, grim-faced and uncomplaining.

He’s been hunted before. No one detail justifies your conviction on this point. The conviction remains. It’s hard to reconcile with what you’ve seen of him…and then again not. He’s like an optical illusion, shifting to reveal different patterns depending on the angle you observe him, looking first all one thing and then entirely another. A puzzle drawn in conflicting absolutes.

The sun has dropped below the horizon by the time you make it out of the caves. Three of the four moons are high in the sky. You spend another hour putting more ground behind you, cutting through rocks and trees and tracking along mountain springs. Seb hasn’t heard anything in hours and the General’s stopped back-tracking to check for signs of pursuit, but you’re all on edge when you halt for a meal and a break in a rocky, sloping copse. For a little while the sounds of eating prevail, everyone lost in their own recuperative headspace.

You bolt your food one-handed, all three rocket boards spread out around you in differing stages of repair. If the robo-sex-police do track you down you’re determined to have some god-damned options at your disposal this time.

Kankri’s still weirdly quiet, eating quickly and refraining from comment when he occasionally glances up to eye your work. He hasn’t even bothered to take his sun-garments off, just loosened the guard cloth around his face and shoulders and tucked the gloves away. The tinted goggles perch at his hairline under his hood. He’s got his husktop open on one knee, though, and his lips shape unshared words as he flips sporadically through a binder beside him, so you figure he’s not broken or anything.

The General’s dropped against the gnarled roots of a tree, hunkered over his own meal. At least in his case curling up silently at the edge of things to gulp down food in full travel gear and a hood is fairly normal behavior. He looks spent. You’re still itching to drag out more details about what just went down, but seeing as he’s covered the most ground of any of you tonight, you leave him be.

You could always talk to Kankri but you’re stalling on that as well.

Meanwhile, Seb’s alternating between poking at the mostly non-responsive cleanerbot and looking over your shoulder, playing assistant. His help does speed the repairs but it also means you have to keep stopping to remind him to eat. Actually, ‘remind’ seems too soft a word. The reality contains significantly more ordering him, chasing him back to it, and doing everything short of stuffing food in his mouth yourself. The kid’s in that weird, hyper state between wound up and exhausted, and growing stubborn with it.

“I can do that,” Seb says.

“Or, you can eat your potatoes,” you return. “Pass me those pliers. And take two more bites.” The pliers head your way. The potatoes are stabbed twice with a spoon.

“You should do the other alignment,” Seb says, sounding resentful around his mouthful.

“This way will last longer.”

“The other way’s faster.”

“Well, this is the way I’m doing it. Two more bites.”

“It’s a dumb way.”

“It seems you think I care about your opinion. Food to face, Seb.”

“Dumb,” he says, wiggling his fingers in front of the cleanerbot to make its sensor lights flash.

“Children,” you quip flatly, “should be seen and not heard.”

Seb rolls his eyes over the spoon in his mouth, circling his whole head in elaborate disdain. Then his ears flick and he looks past you, at Kankri. “That was a joke,” Seb explains.

Confused, you turn and a fixed dark gaze jerks away from you. A noise cuts short, a soft rising buzz that you hadn’t even been aware of until silence took its place. Like the hum of an angry wasp. Kankri’s attention is fastened on his mostly finished meal. His shoulders are stiff and uncommunicative. Embarrassed.

“Are you mad?” Seb asks him.

“Not at all,” Kankri says, not looking up from his plate.

“You seem mad.”

“I assure you that I’m not. I would appreciate if you not make assumptions about my emotional state.”

“He didn’t mean it,” Seb says.

“Of course. Please accept my regrets if you’ve somehow acquired the impression I thought otherwise.”

“Mm.” Seb’s head cocks thoughtfully sideways. “But why’d you make that noise?”

Kankri’s fingers clench convulsively on his fork. With his hood up and head tipped down you can’t make out his expression, but you’d be willing to bet there’s a flush rising on those cheeks. “I’m not sure what noise you mean.”

“Like—rrrRRrrh.” Seb provides a pretty fair, if strident, imitation of a growl.

“I—“ Kankri seems to realize he’s fighting a losing battle because he stops and blows out a breath. Pressing a hand to his face, he says, “My apologies for any rudeness. I’m just tired. And hungry.”

Seb perks up. “Want mine?”

You reach out a hand to intercept the plate of potatoes. “Don’t even try, Seb.”

“Bro…”

“Nope.”

Seb tilts his head, cocks his ears forward. Baby-bunny cute. Also contrived as hell. “He’s hungry.”

“Please notice how he addresses this problem by eating.” You don’t glance at Kankri. He’s not looking at you, anyway, nose in his plate, thoroughly sequestered in that cautious non-interference mode that is apparently his default for your interactions with Seb. Well, except for when he growls at you apparently. And just what the hell was that? “It seems you think he is incapable of helping himself to his own food. Or that I’m incapable of seeing through your extremely primitive ruse. Or that you’ve transmuted into a biological lifeform capable of sustaining yourself solely on a diet of impertinent questions and unsolicited opinions. I regret to inform you that none of these are actual things that are true.”

“Lame.” Seb sticks the point of his tongue out at you, a precise, purposeful movement against the backdrop of his blank-as-ever face.

You raise your eyebrows over your shades and try not to let the corners of your mouth curl up any further. It’s not a smile. It’s a smirk. “Props on acquiring a new expression, li’l dude. Keep practicing and someday you too may be able to feign the existence of human emotions as well as I do.”

“Lame and dumb,” he decides.

“Your vocabulary module could also use an upgrade. Eat.”

You set an example and snag a few swallows of your soup, shooing off one of the not-quite-bugs that are buzzing about, taking advantage of your inattention. Half the fauna in this ‘verse is weird as fuck. That one looks more like a tiny flying rat-deer than an insect. A ‘horse’ fly complete with big, bumblebee eyes on an equine face. You think about that giant centi-snake monster you saw way back when you first tumbled through that game door into Wonderland and you grimace.

Swapping your soup for an apple you turn back to your work, patting around in the grass for your multitool. Seb puts it in your hand. You nudge him back toward his food with your foot and start closing up the second rocket board’s hull, occasionally gripping the fruit in your teeth to work with both hands. You’ve nearly got the second board taken care of. It may not be a pretty repair job, but as long as it flies reliably it doesn’t matter if it also looks like hoverboard-Frankenstein. It does what it needs to.

You tell yourself this several times. Once for every bolt and solder and again when you turn it topside up and set it to gently hovering. You check the stability with careful, critical eyes. There’s a slight murmur and sway as it floats—the repurposed propulsors don’t burn as efficiently as they ought to—but it works. It’s sufficient. You tell yourself this and try to believe it and you definitely do not wonder if Dirk or Jake could have finished the seams smoother or completed the repairs more efficiently or generally handled every single fucking thing in this world more competently. In order to continue not wondering this with maximum efficiency you cast about for a distraction.

“So, Vantas,” you say. “Maybe you can answer a question for me.”

In the corner of your shades you watch him lift his head from his papers, posture stiffening with defensive irritation. Then he corrects his presentation, climbing back into that perfect, calm, rational façade that makes you want to ruffle him. “Of course I am happy to be of assistance to you.”

You snort out a breath, juggling your apple into your off hand as you sort through your sylladex for something to use as a counterweight. “I don’t know why you say shit you don’t mean. You could just tell me to fuck off.”

In the corner display, Kankri looks affronted. “I don’t mean to belittle your point of view but I assure you that perception is entirely inaccurate.”

“Hm.” You steal a glance sideways across the hovering rocket board, tilt your lips up. “No, it’s not.”

Kankri curves his lips down fiercely. “I’m afraid that it is.”

“Nah. Tell me why you really talk like that.”

His chin tips up higher and he crosses his arms across his chest. “I suppose because my custodian taught me that courtesy and proper decorum were appropriate in every situation. I regret that your own upbringing has left you unable to recognize such things when you encounter them. As I mentioned before, I will be happy to help you correct any deficiencies in your understanding.” He finishes with a satisfied nod. He definitely does this shit on purpose. That is an extremely smug tilt to his chin. More so when he adds, “And why is it that you say things that you don’t mean?”

You blink, then smirk. “Irony.”

Kankri frowns. “That is neither a reason nor a legitimate application of the word.”

“Ironic, isn’t it?” When he purses his lips at you you go ahead with the full spiel. “My irony has ascended to unreal levels of godhood that cannot be comprehended by simple fleshy minds or contained by mere definitions. In an infinite universe my irony loops back around to become sincerity. And then keeps going and becomes irony again.”

You give the hovering rocket board one final pat, and then a gentle shove to send it gliding over toward the General. The carapacian puts out a hand, stopping it beside him without even glancing up from his meal. You are awarded a quick flash of a thumbs up before he returns his full attention to his meal.

“I can’t decide whether you’re attempting to engage in meaningful dialogue or just stringing words together,” Kankri says.

“Don’t hate because you can’t grasp the mad elaborate machinations of my irony.”

“I don’t have any feelings at all about you,” he returns, sounding stuffy and perturbed. “Was this what you wanted to ask about?”

“Nah. Actually…” You didn’t have anything in mind when you started down this path, but now a curiosity does present itself. “I’ve been wanting to ask my travel-bro over here what his name is for ages.” You jerk a thumb towards the General.

The carapacian pauses over his food, actually turning completely to look at you. His white eyes gleam faintly in the dark.

“Me too!” Seb pops away from his own food before you can grab him—goddamn little brat—to go squat in front of the General, bouncing slightly on his heels. Red shades fix expectantly on Kankri, who glances at the General, as if seeking permission.

The General’s still looking at you, head cocked faintly to one side.

You shift and turn away toward the final rocket board, reminded that names are some sort of big deal in this bizarro-verse the Game chucked you into. …He’s probably not going to tell you. “Just curious. You wanna maintain that rad air of mystery you got going on follow your bliss.”

Seb makes an indignant noise of negation. You can’t reach him, so you flick a pebble at his head.

The General coughs, a sound of rusty amusement. His white eyes turn back to squint at you—thoughtful, cautious, but not unfriendly. After a few long moments, he rolls his hooded head back tiredly against the tree he’s leaning on and closes his eyes. He spins his hand in a ‘go ahead’ motion, clicking out several words.

“Should I—?” Kankri begins, and the hand spins more insistently. The General does not open his eyes.

“Very well.” Kankri draws himself up, moving his plate and paperwork off his knees, folding his hands primly in his lap. You can recognize the start of a lecture. Whee, isn’t learning new things fun. (It is, actually, but that doesn’t make Kankri any less obnoxious.)

(…It makes him a little less obnoxious.)

(Which he counters for by being a smugly condescending know-it-all, so the obnoxiousness-quota is maintained and the day is saved.)

(Ahem.)

“Culturally, carapacians don’t use names,” Kankri explains; “At least not in the sense that humans and trolls think of them. They have functional descriptors related to their social position and role. Although since carapacians are generally designed for the societal roles they are placed into one could argue that the endpoint is similar. Which isn’t to say that the genetics or the effects of genetic engineering should rightly be used to define a person—” the General cuts off the rapidly fractaling digression with another short comment.

Kankri clears his throat. “I was merely making a point. Of course, I don’t mean to suggest your cultural practices are automatically invalid or inferior—“ There’s another string of clicks, and Kankri huffs out a breath and looks back at you, lips pursing in rapidly smothered irritation. He smooths on the supercilious, above-anger face again, and maybe it’s a little weird how easily you recognize the masks even when you can only halfway see his face. Or maybe that’s just a side effect of you spending too many years perched on the nose of an inscrutable asshole and Kankri not being able to front worth a damn.

“As I was saying,” Kankri continues, “he doesn’t have a name, but his current functional descriptor would translate to something like ‘Aimless Renegade.’”

“Current?” You look across to the General. He remains still, apparently all but napping against the tree, but when Kankri does not immediately continue the thread, one hand unfolds slightly from across his chest and the fingers flick.

“He is in exile. Thus his previous functional descriptor was…rendered invalid. He no longer has a role in carapacian society.”

“Oh.” You’d guessed… something like that, from the way he avoided other people in general and carapacians in particular. Those humans that took him prisoner had called him a spy…but then you have a whole mini dissertation going on why human equals stupid. (Your science is flawless and not at all anecdotal. As an emotionless cyborg you are clearly the perfect impartial observer.)

This whole scenario’s giving you major discomfort. “So,” you say with forced energy, “What’s a guy got to do to get thrown out of the species?”

Kankri’s lips curl back. There’s another low growling sound—almost a buzz. You blink at him even as he sucks in a breath and cuts the noise short. You’re taken aback by the reaction but it’s somehow worse when he smooths the flash of anger straight off his face. “You don’t understand.” His tone is so flat, unaffected. Like a judgment and dismissal of charges all at once. It puts your back up in a completely different way than any of his veiled barbs. “Carapacians will kill outsiders but they never execute their own kind. That’s grossly jingoist speciesism of course, but still. In a way, aspirational.” His face goes from abstracted to frowning again. “Exile is the highest punishment of the Bone Empire. It… kills a person’s future.”

You shift your weight and try to remind yourself that you don’t have to let this guy make you feel bad. “So. Not really a slap on the wrist kind of deal.”

“No,” Kankri says. “Not at all.”

Awkwardly weighty silence descends. You’re startled when a few clicked words interrupt it. You both turn eyes toward the General (…toward Aimless Renegade? How do functional descriptors even work?) and Seb perks up a little. The little carapacian doesn’t elaborate, doesn’t even open his eyes.

“He says…not what he did. What he saw.”

The silence draws out a little further as it becomes clear that is all that is going to be offered on the topic. You turn the new information over and around. He… found out something he shouldn’t have? Wait, what the hell. Exiling somebody because they know too much sounds really fucking stupid, tactically speaking. Even for a race of sentient chess pieces apparently dreamed up by a logic-defying god-game. But then your species was spawned from the psyches of a dozen adolescent aliens so you probably shouldn’t judge.

…You’re suddenly thinking about those ‘spy’ charges again.

“Carapacian descriptors are very fluid,” Kankri continues, like he’s trying to soften a blow. “They change over time based on the current roles and purpose of the individual. Sometimes they are earned, or given, and sometimes they are acquired through changing circumstances.”

“So he chose another name?” It’s strange to talk about the General in the third person, as if he isn’t right there, but those closed eyes do not invite direct address.

“Ah, not ‘chose’ exactly. The concept is more…he became another descriptor when his function changed. The descriptor chose him? Perhaps it would be more coherent to say the functional descriptor is him, as he is now.”

“Yeah… you might want to adjust the parameters you’re using to define ‘coherency.’” The General looks young and old in his faded, raggedy wrap, pretending to doze, pretending not to be listening to every word. Worn down by the world to a few sharp points of essential character. You don’t know how old he is. You don’t know his history. You don’t know why he’s still here, tolerating your nonsense, hanging around long after he could have gone his own way, running scouting patrols even when you’ve pissed him off, driving himself to exhaustion for something he doesn’t have any stake in.

‘Renegade’ is a complicated word. You wonder if he sees himself more as a rebel or a traitor. ‘Aimless’ is… not actually a happy word either, come to think of it.

Abruptly, you’re angry. “That all sounds like bullshit anyway,” you snap. “‘He became.’ Just because his situation changed doesn’t mean he isn’t still the same person.”

“I never said he wasn’t,” Kankri says. “And just because you may not share his cultural viewpoints there is no call to be dismissive or condescending.”

“…Did you just call me condescending. Is that seriously a thing you did.”

“I characterized your behavior as condescending, because that is what it was,” he replies. “I didn’t say anything about your character. Perhaps you could make the effort not to take things so personally.”

You smirk. “Well, if you want to get personal…”

Gold eyes narrow at you. His nostrils flare as he sucks in a breath.

“—Hey, Kankri?”

You both break off, turning to Seb. You expression could probably be described as ‘nonplussed.’ You’re so used to ‘hey, Bro’ that it’s strange to hear another name; let alone Kankri’s. …Are you seriously going to be jealous about this? Because that would be the most juvenile bit of irrationality you’ve engaged in in several weeks of playschool-level interpersonal exchanges.

“Yes?” Kankri acknowledges, voice gone careful.

“It’s not a name?” Seb asks.

Kankri pauses a beat, but makes the switch back to the original subject quicker than you. “No. As I said, it’s a functional descriptor.”

“But…” Seb formulates a question. “Is that what you call people?”

“Ah. Yes, that would be typical. Or, for more casual purposes, his abbreviated designation would be ‘AR.’”

Seb’s ears twitch, and his head swivels.

“AR,” you echo, ignoring your li’l bro’s sudden attention. “Huh.” Your voice sounds toneless to your ears, but behind that wrapped visor the General opens his eyes. He looks straight back at you, meeting your gaze through your shades, his own white eyes the only portion of his face not hidden.

A corner of your mouth curves up wryly, your smirk trying to become something a bit more genuine. You voice the thought before you can think better of it. “My functional descriptor is ‘Auto-Responder.’ Looks like we’re acronym-bros.”

White eyes blink twice in surprise, widen slightly. Then he shifts, straightening away from the tree to sit with military posture. He inclines his head in a deep, solemn dip towards you, like you’ve said something profound.

A burst of embarrassment speeds your pulse and your face warms. You sort of jerk a nod back and then shove both your arms into the open chassis of the final rocket board, fighting an urge to hide your face.

Kankri is studying you with a frown, which is just perfect, seriously. Exactly what you want to deal with. “You said that before. I assume that’s some sort of reference to your predilection for deflecting conversation with meaningless retorts.”

“Assume away.” You see what you did there.

“But humans don’t use functional descriptors.”

“Still not a human. We’ve been over this.”

“Of course you’re a human. Although I can certainly respect a desire to disconnect yourself from a larger group which fundamentally denies you your personhood. Cybernetically-modified humans don’t use them either, though.” He just keeps frowning at you, like you’ve fallen out of his strict mental ordering of the world and he can’t let up until he gets you correctly filed away again. “I thought your name was Strider.”

“Sure it is.” You’re not even pretending to work anymore.

“We’re both Striders,” Seb adds, from his spot by the General. AR. Whoever.

“It’s your patronymic, then,” Kankri says, and he’s still looking at you with a sort of confused incredulity that makes your stomach flip uncomfortably. Wow, how did everything get all personal suddenly; it was just an observation. This is why you should never volunteer information about yourself.

“But what’s on your placronym?”

“Don’t have one.”

“You don’t have a name?” Kankri bursts out and then claps his hands over his mouth and looks mortified.

“I called myself Hal for a while,” you say, and immediately wish you hadn’t; no, no more backstory, sharing time is over. Why are you explaining yourself to him? Except he’s still looking at you from behind laced fingers with a sort of confused, incredulity, overlaid with a dawning, horrified contrition, and it makes your stomach churn, makes you feel small and inadequate and lost, and you want to shake him and snarl at him, because you’re fine, you’re completely fine, he does not get to feel sorry for you.

“Please excuse my rudeness,” Kankri says through his hands. And then, still through his hands, like he just can’t help himself—“You have to have a name. Everyone’s born with a name.”

You really don’t know what to do with that. You’re not sure if he’s speaking literally or even what that would mean. You can spot why it wouldn’t apply to you easy enough but you don’t feel like pointing out the flaw in his logic. A discussion of why you were never ‘born’ is not on the schedule any time in the next, oh, century or two. You settle for a bland, “It seems you’re implying that I’m lacking in some way. Perhaps I’m just a special snowflake.” He’s still looking at you, so you push it farther. “Perhaps I don’t need a name. Perhaps I have transcended beyond mere names. Perhaps names are for lower biological beings.”

“Your name’s Bro,” Seb says.

There’s a group startled pause. You turn your head slowly to stare at Seb’s serious, blank little face and can’t immediately find a response. At least everyone else seems as nonplussed as you. “That’s…not exactly a name, Seb.”

“Is too.”

“Yes, but. You know that’s not actually my name, right?”

“Nuh-uh. The new person gets to name you.”

You blink at him.

“‘s tradition,” he adds firmly. “Like with Janey.”

Well, yes, Jane did rename him but… “…did you just imply that I’m your pet?”

“You’re my Bro,” Seb says, in a voice that indicates that he’s stating the obvious and he doesn’t know why you’re being so dim.

…Welp. You could argue with him some more. You could argue with him a lot more. But underneath that technical truth is the creeping realization that nothing you could say to him is going to have the slightest success budging him from this point. The thought feels a bit like zero gravity. The contents of your abdomen are definitely not all in the right places.

You glance surreptitiously to either side to find Kankri chewing his lip, his brows furrowed in concerned thought, and the General leaning forward with an expression of open interest.

Seb twitches an ear and pats the little cleanerbot toward some not-bugs. It flies obediently in a straight line and bumps to a stop against a rock. Seb looks pleased with this progress, tapping it again to get it to fly after the little creatures. He would probably be content to do this all afternoon, making incremental progress, reconditioning the wiped learning system through sheer persistence. He’s a terror when bored, and terrifyingly focused with a job.

You let go. “Yes, fine, whatever. Finish your food.” Masterful redirect. Truly, you are a genius of words. You gather your cool, collect your fragmented nonchalance, and turn back to adjusting propulsor tensions on the rocket board again. You’re operating mostly on automatic, but it’s forward progress. “And find me the flux capacitor.”

Seb follows your second direction and gets around to the first one when you nudge him a few times. With your foot.

“…Bro Strider, huh.” Seb’s a weird little kid. You guess it wouldn’t hurt to humor him. If it makes him happy. “It seems you have selected another functional descriptor. Are you certain this isn’t an elaborate prank designed to label me with the abbreviation ‘BS’? Are you attempting to convey something, li’l bro? Do you not find that every word from these lips to be wisdom distilled to nigh on godly levels?”

You duck your head aside as a forkful of potato flies past. “Just because you throw your food on the ground doesn’t mean you don’t have to eat it.”

The General interjects something, leaning his chin on one point-fingered hand. Kankri translates without prompting. “He says that it is appropriate for your descriptor to change as your function does.”

You raise an eyebrow at the carapacian. “Are you trying to make me sound like a household appliance, or is that just a weirdo carapacian thing?”

“There’s no call to be rude,” Kankri rebukes, but the General’s white eyes just slit with mocking humor. He folds his hands on his lap and makes another, extended comment. It’s the longest speech you’ve ever heard him give, and he looks straight at you the entire time he’s talking. You are struck with the certainty that whatever he is saying is going to make you extremely uncomfortable.

“He says…” Kankri takes in a breath. “Being useful to others isn’t a bad thing. When you’re alone you have no one to tell you what your function is. He says that he thanks you for the title gifted to him, although he hopes you realize that he is not actually a general, and the position is much to lofty for him. He will nevertheless attempt to be worthy.”

You were right; you are so extremely uncomfortable right now.

Also, maybe, a little warm-fuzzy. But that’s trite and embarrassing and you’re probably not even capable of feeling that emotion, so you just go with uncomfortable.

“Hey, whatever, bro. You’ve earned it. You can be the Grand High Poobah as far as I’m concerned.”

The General waves his hand in a benevolent ‘pass’ gesture.

“You don’t get to name him because I found him first,” Seb says, looking up from patting his potatoes into a small lumpy snowman with his fork.

You find yourself grinning. “Can I name the troll?”

Kankri makes a wonderful offended noise. “I already have a name!”

“Princess Sparklebutt,” you announce.

No.

“That’s a really good name,” Seb tells Kankri.

-----------------------

----

Latula’s lusus is hunting the little skittering white genemods that occasionally crawl or flitter through the brush. You’re not really clear why, since the tuskbeast-sized dragon hardly gets a mouthful for her efforts but ever since Latula tossed her the first two little corpses the blind lusus has been rustling in and out of the trees alongside you, tracking the things. For all the noise she makes, the skill with which she pinpoints and devours tiny unseen prey is… unsettling.

After your initial cursing fit tapered off, you made it through the introductions all right. Well, mostly all right. Which is to say, you have been mimicking the state of ‘all right’ with about your usual level of competence and you expect everything will to fall to complete shambles any minute.

Latula, you have discovered, is completely, irredeemably terrible at reassurance. The fact is not exactly a revelation, but when a fanged head the size of your torso is poking at you, snuffling wetly through gaped jaws, you are not receptive to cheerful commentary that said lusus has “gotten loads better” about not instantly eviscerating strange trolls. It does not assist you in maintaining your delicate mental stability.

But you gulp in several breaths and continue to fake your way through. You can feel the sharp blue edge to your mind, pressing bright and angry on your thoughts, but it’s countered by that ringing numbness left in you by yesterday’s outburst. If you subdivide your attention, scatter it across all the facets of your flesh and metal minds, it’s harder for any one element to overtake you. With your helmet to help you channel it, even the grating, sandpaper inflow of data from your metal mind can become your tool in this.

The tactic does leave you a bit…distracted. The thread of Latula’s cheerful words is hard to follow and you trip even more frequently as you walk, something which tends to bring Pyralspite prowling back to the path to inspect you with reptilian dissatisfaction. Latula’s in the middle of an explanation of how her lusus acquired that extensive collection of scars, her hands and staff slicing the air in emphasis as she describes a bloody battle against an extermination unit and the dragon’s desperate but triumphant escape into the near-dawn sky with a young Latula in tow. You’re listening intently, doing your best to keep up, but you think you must have lost track of something somewhere because Latula talks like half of this happened before her lusus was hatched?

You try to focus just a bit more attention. Your attempt fails as Pryralspite chooses this moment to slide up to you again, halting you in your steps. Those long silver claws flex in the soil and her wings mantle restlessly and resettle. Her head hovers in front of you for one raspy sniff and then her neck snakes in a wide arc completely around your body to look at you from the opposite side. Your lips peel back around gritted teeth. CalmCalmCalmCalm. You wonder if your expression looks like rage, panic, or a manic grin.

“Sorry about this,” Latula says, from up ahead. “She just wants to get a look at you.”

“She can’t nook at me; she’s blond.” Oh, fuck it all, your shitstuck brain is doing the word-swap. “Bland. Bind.” Like it’s not enough for your tongue to mangle half the letters on the way out. “Balled.” Whatever, you give up. Why do you even try to communicate?

Latula shrugs easily. “Doesn’t mean she can’t smell! Not as well as she should, what with the scarring, but whatevs, she does mad awesome anyways. Of course it does make her a bit tetchy.” Another flash of that bright, toothy, utterly discomforting smile. Your eyes flick sideways from her to her lusus. The dragon tips her own muzzle in a way that shows off her fangs. You wonder which one of them is mimicking the other.

“Just try not to startle her, ‘kay?” Latula adds brightly.

“Yef, becruds I wank to be a meat walk-in grubstack. Snack.” You squinch your eyes closed tightly as hot breath fogs your helmet’s eyeshield. “Fuckening hell.” It comes out on a plaintive mutter. Your nerves twang and your blue mind seethes with surly suspicion. Pyralspite paces away again to curl around her ward. A head several times the size of your own comes to rest on Latula’s shoulder.

“The injuries stunted her growth,” Latula says, patting a large white muzzle before disentangling herself, “but don’t worry. She’s still wicked deadly.”

You have the impression she genuinely thinks this will be helpful. It is not. Your bloodpusher gives an unpleasant double-thump and your mind tilts blue, then red, then blue again as you try not to slide into another looping profanity fit.

You fail.

“Mother fucking fuck fuck fssuck sucking duck fuck—“ It’s like your mind hits an emotional high point and just gets stuck. What’s supposed to be a burst of reactive energy is just this exhausting permanent drain you can’t come down from. You can’t even really take your own emotions seriously when they plateau like this. On the one hand your mind is consumed with blueblueblue angry-alarm and on the other hand you’re just kind of numbly baffled by yourself.

And on the third hand giant dragon.

…You really need to stop making noises now. Especially with the way that vast blind head orients toward the sound, fixating on you.

They’re both staring at you—eyes blind red or glinting teal, seeing and unseeing, but somehow both piercing straight into you. Their heads are cocked at identical angles. Their teeth are equally sharp.

And they’re both waiting. Hunter-patient.

One with the air of a predator, waiting for the prey to bolt and be pursued, and the other—you’re still not sure what Latula’s continued tolerance denotes. Her expression is wry, but as friendly and unoffended as ever, only flicking up an eyebrow occasionally when your stream-of-consciousness cursing gets particularly crass or bizarre. You’re like a wiggler too young to use the loadgaper, spewing your filth everywhere. Contemptible.

Except she looks at you and measures you and somehow doesn’t find you wanting, and the disconnect of it only feeds the angry fear that’s spinning you in circles. She can’t possibly be real; it has to be a trick, a trap. But it’s not, it’s not, you believe her, you don’t know how not to believe her—

Your brain is a very confusing place.

“So, hey, should I whack you in the head or what?” Latula pipes up.

No. “—grabcrazy pileslut, pap yoursslut in the face raw—“

Latula leans hipshot against her lusus’s flank, propping her chin on one hand. “I was thinking more like when you thump a husktop to get it going again.”

“—hump yourr top two get you glowing—“

“This is going to be a thing with you, isn’t it?”

“—suck a fruscking bulge weasel, shit fucking genius-spornge, damn—“

“Okay, I’ll wait.”

You almost wish she showed any signs of being provoked. That at least would make sense. Impatience and disinterest are familiar to you. Action, reaction. You debate running that experimental program you’re coding, the one you think will help tamp down your adrenaline spikes. That or completely unbalance your endocrine system. You have the feeling that trial-and-error hacking your body may be less wise than hacking the programming in your brain. Your kidneys do not have a reboot-to-default function.

In the end, all the other fits and episodes you’ve had over the past few days turn out to be your ally. You’re too worn out to drag this out for long. You don’t wind down this time. You fall silent all at once, like a stuck switch clicking over in your brain. Behind the visor of your helmet you blink several times in bewilderment.

Pyralspite cocks her head back and forth at your sudden silence.

Latula grins at you. “Rad,” she says, like you’ve solved a problem for her instead of creating a completely unnecessary one. “Let’s go.” And she takes off along the trail again.

You stare wordlessly after her, gathering your thoughts. Maybe you should just allot regular intervals of time for cursing at things and curling up and crying…?

And then Pyralspite stops tipping her head back and forth and rises from the trail all at once to stalk over and pin you under unseeing red eyes. She sucks in a rattly sniff through her scarred snout. Her breath blows out again on a disgruntled hiss. That is not a noise you want to hear from inches away.

You feel very unified—pretty much every part of you is howling at your body/brain/self to DO SOMETHING. Unfortunately none of the subsets seems to have any concrete suggestions as to what particular thing you should do so you’re locked into a terrified paralysis of indecision.

The dragon huffs again, juts her head forward, and snakes out a long black tongue, licking along your helmet and down your neck and shoulder. There is a tongue tasting your skin at the collar of your jumpsuit. There are teeth inches from your throat.

All the parts of you scrabble automatically for the only weapon you have.

Szzrtk! Your psiionics flare fitfully, crackle along your horns and across your vision, and then slip back into that inner numbness—but not before a spark snaps out and pops the dragon on the snout.

Pyralspite recoils, a wounded squeak transforming mid-yelp into a gut-curdling snarl that buzzsaws down into a register that makes your bones vibrate. Her blind eyes are like hot red coals. Your voicebox clenches along with what feels like every other muscle in your body. You take one jerky step back, then another.

She lunges, long neck uncoiling all at once, and you stagger backwards and fall over and suddenly Latula is there between you, driving her lusus back with her staff.

“Oh my god, Mom. No.” She sidesteps and swings her staff to intercept a forward dart, twisting expertly to keep teeth from connecting with flesh. “No, you really can’t!”

You scramble back a few more paces on hands and butt until you hit a tree.

“Because I didn’t bring him for you to eat! You are so embarrassing.” Latula has squared off with the dragon now, weight light on her feet as she shifts to counter every probing advance. “There’s like, two dozen dead peeps for you back at that lab still. Go eat them!”

They fly through another flurry of exchanges. Pyralspite’s snaps and lunges seem deadly serious to you and Latula’s focused deflections and counterattacks belie the casual nature of her words. Yet there’s a fluid rhythm to the exchanges, a sort of synchronized familiarity. You suppose this might just be typical wiggler-lusus strife.

“No, Mom, I’m a total noob. Of course I did! And he helped, you know!”

You also can’t tell if Latula’s actually conversing with her lusus or just smacking her on the nose a lot and liberally interpreting the snarls.

“Last night! Well I’m sorry but there wasn’t time to go get you and I totes forgot to bring my giant thermal corpse-preservation hull. Leftovers won’t kill you.”

More growling and whacking and circling. The dragon-lusus appears to be settling down now. Yay. “No he isn’t! Oh my god. This is why normal trolls drive their lusii back into the wild when they start service.”

Pyralspite settles back on her haunches with a cranky-sounding string of whistle-chirps. Latula plants the end of her staff in the ground and brushes the dark fall of her hair back from her face. As one they both turn to look at you. You’re glad you used up the last of your ability to feel emotions four minutes ago because they are both sleek and gorgeous and completely terrifying.

“That’s just because he’s cy,” Latula says. “He’s supposed to taste like that.” Her eyes on you are speculative, though.

That’s it. You’re done. You are checking out of this conversation. If one or both of them decides to eat you you’ll just go with it.

You distract yourself with your coding while Latula wraps up her one-sided argument-turned-discussion with her lusus. Next they have some sort of long, silent, rapport and then Pyralspite departs, slithering back the way you came. Off to eat the trolls from the laboratories you suppose.

Okay. Still no feelings.

“Sorry about that,” Latula tells you, standing over you and leaning on her staff. “She is so overbearing.” She actually looks embarrassed which may be the strangest reaction you have ever seen on this very strange troll. “I swear she thinks I’m still a wiggler.” She glares off in the direction her lusus departed and adds loudly, “I can spend time with who I want!”

You look up at her and find a feeling after all.

Uncontrollable snickering isn’t much more dignified than cursing but it turns out you can stagger along the trail at the same time if you follow close enough to Latula to hang off her staff. Plus when she walks alongside you, sliding you sideways grins, it’s hard to really mind.

Chapter Text

The end of the meal finds you in a staredown with Kankri across the length of the final completed rocket board.

He folds his arms across his chest for the fourth time, fingers tapping a rapid beat on his cloaked arm. “I find this arrangement problematic and highly suspect.”

“Well, I’m with you on the first one, but I count three boards and four bodies. Unless you plan to run alongside really fast I suspect we are both going to have to deal.”

Dark lips press thin. “You are being intentionally difficult again. The situation could be addressed any number of ways—”

“Six, actually. Unless we start booting people out into the wilderness to fend for themselves.” You raise your eyebrows. “That would expand the possibilities dramatically. But down that road lies an infinitely expanding array of variables that my systems are just not sufficiently advanced to handle so I’m going to be a capricious asshole and preemptively nix all the solutions that wind up with somebody dead. And oh, look, what do you know; it seems we’re back down to one solution again; crisis averted.” You bring your hands together in a sharp clap to emphasize your point. “Shit, it’s the one where I get a complainy passenger to cramp my style. This is what I get for being proactive.”

Kankri huffs at you. “I fail to see why you refuse to acknowledge any other alternatives. Your blanket statement that any other combination of riders would be disastrous lacks any kind of concrete support, and, moreover, elides my own stated discomfort with the scenario in a manner that I find extremely dubious. There are two other people here—”

“—are you suggesting I put you on a board with the General or my baby bro?”

He recoils slightly at the tone your voice shifts into at the end of that sentence, which is silly, really, because you are smiling your friendliest two centimeter tilt of the lips.

Perhaps you should make peace with the fact that you are not a very friendly person.

Kankri rallies quickly, weight shifting forward squarely onto his feet, recovering the distance he gave. “Of course I’m not attempting to interfere with your custodial duties. The General would be—“

“—a fucking disaster. He can just about manage not to kill himself. I don’t think he’s ready to turn this tango into a two man show.” The General has two weeks of practice on a board and a hell of a lot more reckless enthusiasm than natural talent. You think he stays on mostly by surprising gravity into submission.

“I could ride by myself.”

“Ha ha. No. See previous, re: solutions that will wind up with someone dead.” You drum your left hand on the rocket board hovering between you. “These things aren’t toys. We don’t have time to scrape you up after you go splat. So sorry if it chafes your britches but you’re flying on the buddy system until you don’t need somebody to hold your hand.”

Kankri goes, if possible, even more stiff. His hands clench on crossed arms and his chin tips forward, hood falling back slightly. “I am neither incompetent nor incapable. I may not have the advantage of prior experience on these devices but I am fully capable of learning anything I am given the opportunity to.”

“I am 99.9% certain I never said anything trashing your capability.” You blink at him and then smile slightly. “But if you’re looking for a lesson… who am I to deny a man some prime hand-delivered schooling? Sure, I’ll teach you. However, unless your priorities have changed radically from ‘rescue my hatefriend’ to ‘get ass handed to me by learning,’ I guess we’re still operating on a schedule here. Gonna have to save that no doubt hilarious experience for a rainy day.”

You lean both elbows on the floating board and rest your chin on interlaced fingers. “Which brings us back to…oh, right. Hello, welcome to Strider Airlines; I’ll be your flight mommy for this trip. Beverages are available for a small surcharge; if you have any complaints feel free to deposit them directly into the on-flight vomit bags.”

Kankri hisses through his teeth at you and re-crosses his arms. You figure you’re winning if he can’t muster a verbal counterattack. From the cradle of your folded hands you tip your smirk a little higher.

Technically speaking, you haven’t spent any more time on a rocket board than the General, but for once your years of theoretical experience actually paid out some concrete dividends. And if those dividends mean that this one time you can interact physically with the world without feeling like a complete fuck-up, you are going to take full advantage of that fact. You do all right in the air. In fact, you do pretty flipping fine if you do say so yourself.

“Hey, Bro!” Seb picks this moment to zip through on his own board, cutting between the trees at speeds that look like they should splatter him but which he hardly seems to notice. You have a working theory, very recently developed, that younger siblings come equipped with a factory-installed one-upmanship device. Seb figure-eights in two tight turns around your heads, shaving the turns close enough to nearly singe you with the backflare. Kankri yelps and grabs his fluttering hood.

You stand back up as your own board rocks. “Settle down, li’l man, we’re coming.”

“You’re slow!” he calls back to you as he zips away to go back to whatever loop-flying game he’s dragged the General into.

“And you’re wasting power,” you call after him. Not like the energy cells in these things couldn’t power the rockets for a year. The merits of scavenging your parts from sophisticated hunter-killer soldier bots.

Kankri’s still struggling to get his hood and laces and miles of brown, enveloping fabric straightened out to his satisfaction.

“Yo. Take off your cloak.”

He clutches said article to him as if you’ve suggested ripping it from his body. “Why?”

You just barely trap an automatic retort about ravishing him. Realllly not appropriate at this juncture. Restraint. You have it. “Because it’s going to catch the wind like a bitch and air resistance is a thing in the world.”

“I’m not comfortable with that suggestion.”

“Well the laws of physics don’t really care about making you comfortable, princess. Come on, the sun’s been down for hours. It’s not like I’m asking you to strip to your underoos here. You’ve still got about 92% of your skin covered under there and I hate to sound forward but I’ve already seen your horns.”

“…I’m cold.”

“I’ll lend you a jacket.”

He just clenches his claws deeper into the sleeves of the cloak and stares fierce and unyielding from under furrowed brows. The hood casts his face into strange shadows. For just one moment it’s the previous night, his face lit oddly by glow beetle light, and you remember a flash of fear and the way his eyes flared with a sort of cornered fury.

Your stomach does one of those weird flips it’s taken to. You are perfectly aware that the human digestive system is not equipped to do any kind of acrobatic maneuvering, but that is the sensation you experience and far be it from you to argue with irrational psychosomatic manifestations. You take a step away from the board, turn your shoulder on Kankri. Run a thumb along the lower edge of your shades.

“Hey. Look… Kankri.” That feels weird to say. But names are important here, right? It’s got his attention, at least, that laser sharp gaze dissolving into doubt. “I’m not going to…hurt you. Or whatever the hell is going on in your head.” That comes out with a bit more of an edge than you mean it to. But you really can’t stand the idea that he’s just… waiting for you to—

“I didn’t think you were.” His face, in the shadows, is surprised, shifting into thoughtfulness. The tension of his posture fades with his distraction. “Not without provocation.”

“Yeah, well. Just don’t try to stick a knife in me and we’ll get on. I said I’d help you. When I say I’m going to do something I fucking do it.” You have no grounds to make this statement. Even a cursory glance at the historical record makes it clear that Dirk does all the things but here you are, a brand new man. “Doesn’t mean I don’t reserve the right to be an ass about it. So just—chill out. Okay?”

Kankri tilts his head. The claws dug into his crossed arms loosen. His fingers resume their rapid tapping. “I find a request for uncorroborated trust highly incongruous coming from someone who so notably refuses to offer it himself.”

“You were the one—“ You bite your tongue on the angry retort. Try again. “Look. I’m not—I don’t—“ No, that’s just stupid excuses. Even if he’d accept a list of your personal failings you don’t want to go there. You turn back to face him directly, meet his frown with your own annoyed twist of the lips. “All right, fine. I’m a suspicious paranoid control-freak. You can have that one for free. You keep going on about how reasonable you are; why don’t you set me an example?”

There’s a silent moment of consideration. You really don’t like the way you can feel his eyes judging and weighing. It’s far too intimate, like somebody combing through your code. His fingers still. “Very well. Setting aside the problematic assumptions behind the terms with which you have chosen to characterize yourself as well as the implication that I in some way endorse such a sweeping inditement, allow me to repeat my prior assurances. I deeply regret if you perceived a threat to yourself or your sibling in any of my words or actions and I shall take care to avoid behavior that will trigger your protective custodial instincts in the future.”

“…was that supposed to be an apology? Because that was terrible. I think that failed simultaneously in at least three different dimensions. Your apology is a solid volume of superficiality.”

Kankri raises his eyebrows at you. “I’m sorry you feel that way. I don’t like to hold someone to higher standards than myself, but perhaps we can complete this exercise nevertheless.”

It takes you two beats to make the connection. Your narrow your eyes. “It seems you are suggesting I owe you some sort of reciprocal verbal confession of wrong-doing. Which is strange considering I already apologized.”

“I see.” His tone doesn’t quite mock you. It’s more like the sharp dry edge of a well-aimed sword strike. “I apologize for my inattention. I will certainly pay closer attention this time.”

Okay, fine. Two can play this game. You can apologize like a fucking pro. You’re not dropping any bullshit insincere make-nice here, though. You take a moment to pinpoint exactly what it is you do want to apologize for. “I’m sorry. I didn’t use my head and I dragged the situation into something I could have prevented with a little more forethought and a little less posturing. And then I abused a position of power by acting—“ you call back to his own words that night “—inappropriate, insensitive, and immature at a time when that was completely inexcusable behavior. I fucked up and it won’t happen again.” There. All the components of a solid apology with none of the self-excusing fluff or hedging. Well, except apologies probably aren’t supposed to sound quite so triumphant, but what can you do?

“Thank you for your words,” Kankri says primly. “And may I congratulate you on your personal growth.” The scary part is how he manages to convey complete sincerity even as you’re sure he’s getting a barb in. You can’t decide whether this guy is brilliant or completely insufferable. Maybe both.

“Don’t get too carried away with that sweet talk,” you say, because nothing’s saying you can’t be an inappropriate asshole now. “My little heart might go into pitter patter overdrive and short circuit and where on earth would you find a replacement cyborg mercenary on short notice?”

Kankri frowns and looks serious. “I couldn’t. I told you before; you’re not replaceable.” You don’t know if your face does something or his words catch up to his ears. “That is, the attributes of your group are—well, there are unique qualities—and given the nature of the situation—“

“Yes, yes, you have a not at all creepy or ominous fixation on me which you won’t explain and you are hilariously bad at hiding your stalker tendencies. I took notes. Are we good here? Because I thought we had damsels to rescue and sexbots to evade. And more pressingly, it will probably only take Seb another five minutes to egg the General into running himself into a tree.”

Kankri hesitates. He eyes you for a long moment before apparently reaching a decision. “I suppose this arrangement will be acceptable.”

“Wow, it’s like all the Christmases I never had.” You offer an insincere smile, snap your fingers. “Fluttery clothes off, now. You want front or back?”

“I—what?” Kankri looks up, frozen in confusion in the middle of whatever sorcery is apparently required to manage a simple fucking cloak.

“Do you want to hang on or be hung on to? I’m a gentleman, so I thought I’d ask.” You slip him another sly smile. “I can go either way.”

“Ah.” He looks from you to the board and back like you have presented him with a dead fish. An unpleasant scary dead fish of personal space invasion, yep, that’s you. “I would rather… hang on. I suppose.”

“Back it is,” you chirp. You do not want him at your back. You do not want to have someone you hardly know touching you while out of your direct line of vision. You hardly ever get what you want. “Are you going to need a hand with that?”

“No, I do not,” Kankri says, in a firm, muffled voice, from within the folds of his cloak. He has abandoned his attempts at the laces, opting to pull it directly over his head. “I am more than capable of handling my own garments, thank you so much, so if you would exercise patience for a moment—“

You exercise patience for an exceedingly generous two moments before you can’t resist observing, “It seems you have become lodged in your own garments.”

The fruitless flailing intensifies. “You’re—uff—mistaken.”

“Let me know if your assessment of your capability changes.”

There’s a low buzzing growl, something rips, and a very flushed and angry looking Kankri emerges from the brown cloth. He gathers up the cloak and turns it to scowl at a two inch split in the seam. “Porrim’s going to murder me,” he mutters.

Your eyes narrow. His skin isn’t just flushed, it’s— “You’re burned.”

Kankri’s eyes dart up at your sharp words, hand half rising to his cracked, sun-reddened cheek. You yank your own hand back to your side before it can get any more traitor ideas about where it’s going.

“I—it’s.” His shoulders hike and he angles his face down like he’s trying to obscure the damage. “It’s nothing. It’s fine.”

“Really. Because I’d estimate a really shit-fucking high probability that troll skin is not supposed to turn that color.”

He stiffens further. “It’s not that bad. It probably looks worse than it is. Sun damage can be very misleading.”

“Well, shit.” You sort of hope he’s right. The red tint brushed onto grey cheeks and circling his eyes in faint goggle silhouettes doesn’t look like a human sunburn. The color is all wrong—less vivid, like it’s more under the skin than on it, the muted flush of red traced with strange pale fracture lines. The skin looks brittle, like it might shatter or erupt into lava rather than peel. “Is it like that all over?”

“No.” Kankri’s posture loosens by degrees. You wonder what reaction he was expecting. “Just the face. I caught a bit of reflected light.”

“‘A bit’,” you repeat flatly. “That’s ‘a bit.’ Why the hell did you let us drag you out there?”

His chin lifts. “It was necessary. And I wasn’t dragged anywhere; I agreed with the decision to abscond while we had the opportunity.”

“Yeah, you never got around to explaining that either.” You grab the rocket board, kick it down to a lower hover, and squint up through the tree cover at the moons. You can’t remember what percentage of UV light gets reflected at night, but that’s probably beside the point with a different set of moons, different sun, and, oh yeah, different fucking species.

“We have been rather occupied. If you want—” Kankri cuts off as you toss over your jacket. “What’s this?”

“It’s called a jacket. People wear them.”

“Yes, I realize,” he says, frowning at you. “But—“

“I don’t exactly carry a wardrobifier with me. It’s a failing, I know.” You shrug, uncomfortably aware of how thin your shirt suddenly seems, how exposed your skin feels even with sleeves to your wrists. Kankri moves to hand back the jacket. You roll your eyes and step up on the board, turning away to check the balance. “A little extra cover probably won’t do you any harm.”

“It’s six hours past sunset,” he says blankly. “It won’t do me any benefit either.”

You roll your eyes. “Keep it. You said you were cold.”

“Oh.” He looks again at the jacket hanging between his hands and then back at you. His expression is strange. “I, ah. Actually.”

You loop around the clearing in a quick test flight and glide to a stop beside and a little in front of him. “You going to put it on or just squeeze it to death?”

“Well, I. In point of fact, I’m dressed quite warmly. Layering clothing helps prevent unnecessary sun exposure—“

“You’re not cold,” you abridge.

“No. That was a… dissimulation.”

You pin him under blank dark lenses for a long moment before snorting out a breath of air. “You realize just because you use fancy words doesn’t mean I don’t know you mean you lied.” You tap at the metal interface set into your skull and smirk. “Robot brain, remember? It’s practically Encarta up in here. I am knowledge given flesh. My multimedia wisdom comes equipped with clip art illuminations and the ability to perform three-dimensional reenactments of the more interesting bits.”

“It’s not a robot brain it’s—will you take your jacket back or not?”

“Give it. I only bequeath my divine sartorial munificence upon the worthily honest and grateful. I am like unto a robot god.” You try not to look as relieved as you are to have your tacky leather comfort item back but you suspect you’re overplaying your hand. When in doubt, compensate harder. You give Kankri a smirk and beckon toward the place behind you on the board. “Come and walk with me, mortal fleshling.”

Kankri purses his lips at you but steps gingerly up onto the rocket board. It dips slightly as it adjusts to the extra weight and his hands fly up, pressing light to the backs of your shoulders for balance. “That sentence is nonsensical even by your standards.” His voice sounds a little higher, tense, or maybe that’s just your own nerves humming in your ears. You are much too aware of his heat at your back, the hand that has slipped down to grip your waist. His fingers tighten as you kick the board into motion. “And—and moreover, I feel I really must point out that inaccurate and misleading statements about the nature of cy only breed further ignorance and superstition.”

“Yes, because obviously the solution to systemic bigotry is to task me with correcting other people’s stupid-ass prejudices about myself. I detect no flaw in this reasoning.”

“That’s not—“ Kankri cuts off with an indrawn breath as you pick up speed, shifting your weight side to side to dodge between the trees. The hand at your waist transmutes to an iron band wrapped entirely around it, Kankri latching on for security, and shit fucking hell this is—close. Way closer than you had in mind. You can feel his arm like a brand straight through your jacket, every muscle in your abdomen drawing taut under the touch; your stomach is performing a complex gymnastics routine in order to fully express its unease, about to climb right up your throat and abscond the fuck out of here and it really doesn’t help that your stupid body is translating adrenaline and nerves into a completely different type of reaction.

Nope, that does not help at all.

Yes, okay, he’s sort of attractive, you suppose; thank you for registering your opinion, Mr. Pants Brain. You had worked that one out from the previously available data.

He’s also thoroughly full of himself, probably lying to you, and definitely pursuing his own goals. Also you think you might be rescuing his girlfriend?

…Trolls do the multiple dating thing, though.

Wow, no, that’s it; irrational adolescent endocrine systems are not allowed to participate in this conversation; especially when they can’t decide between ‘yes, want’ and ‘no, go away, kill it with fire.’

This is possibly the least cool you have ever been. The silence is starting to feel weird but your brain has apparently locked up and for some reason Kankri Walking-Word-Generator Vantas has chosen this moment to fall silent. Probably just to make your life more difficult.

You have never been more relieved to have your li’l bro pop out of nowhere and nearly scare you off your board.

“Oops,” Seb says, as you splay your limbs, the nose of the board lifting a foot in counter-momentum to the abrupt, unplanned halt. Kankri’s claws place ten neat pinpricks into your shoulder and waist, a quick spasm and release of pressure.

“Yo,” you greet Seb, mildly, wondering if your heart is going to make that illegal exit it appears to be attempting. “Where’s the General?”

“Ahead,” Seb responds, like that’s in any way informative. “Looking.” He loops his own board around you, gliding to a stop ahead and a few feet higher so he can look at you from a level. “Your face is red,” he tells Kankri.

At your back you can feel Kankri grow tense and uncomfortable. When he doesn’t jump in you take it upon yourself to provide contextual data. “We fried him like a hotdog,” you say, kicking your board back into motion. “Bad bodyguards. Note to future self: store trolls in cool, dark places and do not expose to sunlight.”

The troll behind you makes an irritated huff. It is definitely your imagination that you can feel the breath of air high between your shoulder blades. If you shiver you are going to flip right the fuck out and probably fall off this board.

“That is a very de-personizing statement,” Kankri begins and you’re relieved for the interruption.

Seb, following close alongside on his own board, stares at Kankri pensively. You’d estimate he’s partitioned about 2% of his attention to his flying, idly dodging trees like they’re not even a thing. “I don’t like burns.”

Oh. There’s that gut-wrenching sense of failure you’d temporarily misplaced. You’re fully aware that it’s your fault he even knows what a burn feels like. You stifle the feeling, kick it to the back of your brain to play in the dark with all the other thoughts you’re not acknowledging at the moment. The self-flagellation is deserved but also non-productive and self-indulgent. “I think sunburns are a bit different,” you say. “Although maybe not for trolls? Who knows. I don’t even know why we haven’t managed to fry ourselves, all this outdoor adventuring we’re doing. Dirk—“ —whoops, no, almost forgot you had an audience. “…guess we had to catch a break somewhere,” you redirect, lamely.

Kankri pipes up suddenly. “I would have thought the nanites would make the issue irrelevant.”

You manage not to fly into a tree. You celebrate your undeserved good fortune with the risky decision to glance back over your shoulder. “…I have nanites.” Was that a question? You think that was a question.

You get just a glimpse of Kankri’s face twisting into confusion before you have to turn your attention front and center again. “Yes, they’re standard in cybernetically-enhanced… do you not?”

You rub a fading bruise from your bot-wrestling tumble the other night, try to mentally map Dirk’s recovery times, compare them against your own. “Well, sure,” you say. Your voice sounds oddly light and distant in your ears. “I mean, who doesn’t?”

“What do—?”

“Let it alone, Seb.” It comes out sharper than you intended. “Later,” you add, trying to force some easiness into your voice. You weave through trees and fight creeping numb panic, the disconnected sense that the world is spinning out of control around you because once again you’re wearing a meat suit and you don’t have any fucking clue how it’s put together or what the hell it might do.

“I’ve upset you,” Kankri says suddenly. His voice—reflective, surprised, analytical—is nearly in your ear.

Fuck. You cannot deal with this right now. “Nah, not even. Everything’s chill here.”

“No, I have,” Kankri insists. “My apologies. Should I not have mentioned the nanites? There’s nothing wrong with being differently-abled.”

“It wasn’t anything.”

“If you could clarify what exactly—“

“I’m not upset.”

“—it was that upset you—“

I’m not upset.”

You’re not aware that you’re twisting, shrugging off that too invasive touch, until he releases you all at once. Kankri falls back a step on the rear of the rocket board, his hands up both for balance and in a sort of pacifying, ‘look, not touching’ gesture. Like he knows better. Like you’re fucking upset.

You jerk the board to a halt. The change in momentum nearly topples him; he flails and takes another half-step in the little bit of room he has but doesn’t reach for you. You twist and grab hold of a fistful of his shirt before he can fall, tugging him back. There’s a momentary pause while you stare at Kankri, and he meets your gaze with wide bright eyes, his pupils narrowed down to points, his breath coming a little too fast against the hand locked in his shirt.

“—I could alter my behavior to accommodate your needs,” he finishes.

“…Do you even listen when other people speak?”

Kankri sniffs. “Of course I listen. But your behavior contradicts your words, which is exceedingly unhelpful. I can’t prevent further emotional distress if you won’t explain the sources.”

“‘Emotional distress,’” you echo. Seb makes a funny little smothered noise, and you flick your eyes sideways and back to Kankri. You grind your teeth. “Okay. This thing that is going on here? It is called a bald-faced lie. It is a subtle, verbal signal that I do not want to talk about it.” You uncurl your fingers from his shirt, tap him twice, briskly. “Your concern has been noted and filed. Your Good Samaritan points are in the mail and should arrive in three to five business days. Now stop. Pushing.”

Kankri frowns at you, his face sun-cracked and reddened, and he looks simultaneously ridiculous and immovable. It’s the face of someone who has never ‘stopped pushing’ a day in his life. “I really don’t mean to overstep, and of course I want to respect your boundaries, but I hope you realize that mindset is not constructive to dialogue.”

“You know,” you say slowly, “I’m 95% sure you had this same go round with Seb earlier and I notice you didn’t pour your heart out about what got you snarly.”

Now he looks indignant. “That didn’t have anything to do with you.”

“It seems you are asserting that you can growl at someone in a way that has nothing to do with them.”

“I didn’t—that wasn’t—“ He draws himself up, haughtily. “That was a misunderstanding.”

“Really?” you ask with false cheer. “Please do elaborate. You know. Constructively.”

Kankri opens his mouth, makes no noise, and closes it again. Still frowning he stares at you for a several more moments. In the end he surprises you by deflating. “My apologies.” He sounds frustrated and vaguely defensive, his stance turned inwards at least as much as possible for someone balancing on a hovering rocketboard that quite frankly does not leave two passengers a lot of room for the holy spirit. “Porrim says I don’t know when to leave things alone.”

“Oh. Well.” You wave a hand, suddenly uncomfortable in the face of victory. “Whatever. It’s not exactly my strong suit, either.” You tilt your head, slotting into place his earlier complaint with that rambling lecture on clothing-accessibility you got when you first met him. “Porrim.” It’s familiar enough that you’re certain it must have belonged to one of the dead troll ecto-clones, but you can’t attach it to any additional knowledge. You’re not sure if you should care anyway. “That’s the one who made your sun robe get-up?”

Kankri blinks at you. “...you remember that?”

You shrug and turn away to kick the rocket board into a slow glide. “I pay attention.” You can still feel his eyes, just a little too sharp and thoughtful on the back of your head. He’s moved up behind you again, close but not quite touching. His hands hover awkwardly, like he’s unsure of his balance. Or of you.

Tch. “If you fall off I’m only going to laugh at you,” you tell him.

The hands settle. For just a moment you feel claws in your shoulders. “I don’t know how I’m supposed to determine what’s acceptable if I’m not supposed to ask about it.”

“Trial and error?”

Kankri makes a muffled noise of aggravation. For some reason that settles your nerves more than anything.

“I promise to squeal like a schoolgirl if you get too handsy,” you assure him blandly, picking up speed. “Seb, do we actually have somewhere to be or do we just assume the General will find us?”

“This way,” Seb says from up ahead, swinging wide around a thick hedge of undergrowth. “We found a thing.”

You bank after him. “What kind of thing?”

“A cool thing,” Seb says.

“Very descriptive, li’l bro. Ten points for effective use of adjectives. It’s like I’m there.” But even as you speak the trees open out all at once ahead of you, and you coast to a stop at the edge of a hidden dip in the landscape, nestled beneath an arching canopy of branches from the surrounding forest. It looks as if a giant hand has scooped up a swathe of land, carving out a deep, roughly circular valley and depositing in it a chunk of landscape from an entirely different map altogether. There’s a mishmashed scattering of out-of-place looking buildings down there, old and overgrown, already half-reclaimed by the forest.

Oh. “…Cool.”

Seb looks entirely too pleased with himself.

Kankri leans in to peer over your shoulder, a prickle of heat against your back. “Influx site. That’s interesting. It’s old but it looks--”

Whatever he was going to say is interrupted by a flurry of movement. The General drops down out of the trees above you, his rocket board tucked under his arm.

“Nice find,” you tell him.

He shrugs, a sort of faux-casual pleased gesture and then his head cocks slightly as he looks past you. His white eyes narrow. He clicks at Kankri, a few short, sharp sounds with the rising intonation of a question.

Behind you Kankri goes whip tight, drawing back—and, that’s it, that’s again; you’ve been letting it slide but your ability to pretend this isn’t pricking at your paranoia is fast drawing to a close, and with the way the General slits his eyes and clicks more insistently you’re thinking this pony has reached the end of the leadline. Third time out of luck, you think, and you turn.

Kankri is—

Kankri is tense and coiled but his face is weirdly flat, closed completely. He doesn’t even look at you, just stares down the General as the carapacian poses his question—accusation?—a third time.

“Yes. That’s correct,” Kankri says. “Is this a problem?”

The General clicks again, a long string of words you can’t understand, gesturing broadly with his free arm for emphasis. You grit your teeth against frustration, trying to puzzle out what’s happening here. The General doesn’t seem angry or afraid, exactly, just intent.

“I don’t consider it to be relevant,” Kankri says. He’s a foot in front of you but as distant and untouchable as a statue, and equally unmovable.

The General gestures again, speaking in rapid fire bursts that fail to elicit whatever response he is looking for from Kankri. He says something to you and then clicks at Kankri again, gesturing insistently between you.

Kankri crosses his arms. “I decline to assist you in this endeavor. You may, of course, inform him yourself.”

“Kankri—“ you start, but he still won’t even look at you. The General cuts you short with another unparseable demand of Kankri.

Kankri shakes his head again. “May we move on?”

The General snaps at him again.

Seb is watching the exchange interestedly, his eyes tracking back and forth, his ears tipped forward in concentration. “’Red’?” he asks.

Both of them fall silent and surprised, the word hanging in the tense air.

The General jabs a pointy finger at Kankri like a weapon.

Kankri who is silent and frozen in front of you. Kankri who looks like he might hit you, or run, or stay standing there, stubbornly, forever, just to make a point. Kankri whose face is still sun-cracked and flushed, strange and unfamiliar under his grey skin; whose dark, red-tinted eyes are finally looking back at you, sharp and challenging and too vivid.

“You’re—“ Your mind hangs, caught on a too-obvious conclusion.

He lifts his hand, brings it to his mouth and bites, the corner of a fang cutting into his thumb. He thrusts his hand out, displaying the appendage like a challenge, like a flag. Bright, mutant red beads on the pad of his thumb.

“Oh,” you say. And then, kind of dumbly, “Okay then.”

You feel stupid. You feel slow. You feel like the world just flipped upside-down and absolutely nothing changed. You glance at the General who shrugs, apparently uninvested now that the situation is fully disclosed. You glance at Seb who looks fascinated.

If your invasively personal curiosity has been adequately satisfied, may we move on?” Kankri asks, stiffly. “Or is this going to be an issue?”

Your mind feels like it’s working overtime, trying to catch up, but it’s mostly spinning wheels. Maybe you’re not really surprised at all. “Nah,” you say. “No prob.” You blink at him, still considering. When you speak again, your voice is mild. “So. I reckon you weren’t really going to turn my li’l bro in, huh?

Kankri stares at you. His jaw works, his fingers curl, groping at the air like they might pluck some kind of reason out of it. “I—you—“ he says. “I’ve been—AGH!” He throws up his hands and spins on one leg, jumping the few feet from board to ground. As he stomps ahead down the incline you think you can hear him engaging in focused breathing exercises.

You grin and kick your rocket board after him.

Seb catches him first. A bright string of unabashedly intrusive questions precedes you down the slope.

Chapter Text

You’re glad Latula seems to know where she is going because this place is very confusing. It sort of reminds you of the inside of your head, all contrasting fragments and puzzle pieces put together wrong. You now identify with influx sites and you can’t decide if this means you love them or you hate them.

You follow Latula.

Not gracefully. You're bug testing the walking-on-your-own procedure again and the fail rate remains fucktastically laughable. You trip, and you fall, and Latula waits patiently for you to collect yourself and catch up, and with each iteration you suppose you make progress of a sort. It's like some malevolent wave function—reduce the frequency and you only send the amplitude rocketing up. You fall less but you wipe out more dramatically.

At one point, you tumble down an entire flight of steps at the end of a sidewalk which really has no business being there. Latula appears over you, wide-eyed. "Holy shit, dude." Her expression balances on the line between humor and alarm. "Are you alive?"

"Wow-ow. Shilting fucknurbs." You uncurl from your ball and lever yourself to your feet. "I donk even know." You bang your helmet back around straight and start hoisting yourself back up the stairs. There is a rail. You found it on the way down with your head.

Latula matches your progress. She slides you a smile. "At least you bounce good."

You lick blood from your lips and snicker. "I bounth fucking excellentest, come try."

She grins wider.

The unfamiliar agglomeration of hivestems sends you cutting back and forth along jigsaw streets, but you can tell you’re circling in on something, closing in on your target by angles. Latula, it occurs to you, knows where she is going, but doesn’t know the way. You contemplate this paradox. You think about an inspectorturer who is not an inspectorturer, and a lab with only bodies left behind, and a troll whose sigil’s voice is quiet static in your head.

Latula, who strolls through the mismatched city like she hasn’t a care in the world—and then whips around mid-laugh to stab her staff into something that shrieks and dies with a squirm.

You force your electrified muscles to unclench one by one. Shit fuck damn. Okay. Not as relaxed as she looks, then. You pick yourself up off the ground, mind balanced between vague alarm and resentment.

“Huh. Squeakbeast,” Latula says, like it’s not what she was expecting. Her eyes search the buildings around you.

“Theyre nozcktherr,” you tell her, or something like it. Wow.

Those eyes move to you. Knife-bright and speculative. “Who’s not there?”

The alarm flares a little higher in your red mind. Your blue mind prickles with stubborn challenge. You shrug, watching her from behind your helmet display. With the other half of your attention you try to get each word cluster unscrambled and routed past your tongue with care. “Trolls. Who you face for. No one’th there.” No metal voices but hers nearby, just distant whispers, lingering at the edge of the city. “Drones, I guesth. Buckfutbots. Balt they’re far.”

Latula tilts her head. You can see the questions piling up in her eyes, like curious knives, but what she asks you is, “What are they doing?”

You blink, consider this. Consider lines of data. “….waiting?”

“Well,” she says, and smiles, in a way you’re starting to think means she is thinking very hard. Her eyes hunt the streets around you again. She shakes the vermin’s corpse from her staff.

She thought it would be another genemod, you think. And then you wonder why it makes a difference what particular little creatures she finds scuttling just out of sight.

“We better keep on keeping on,” Latula says, and quests ahead again.

You follow Latula. You follow her, and wonder, and enjoy the novel feeling of the wondering. The fractured parts of your mind, for once, turn on tangled webs outside themselves.

Who does she think is looking for us?

And:

Who is she worried will find us?

---

You let Seb get through, oh, only a few dozen-dozen rounds of intrusive questions before you take pity on Kankri set your group back to the task at hand. The General’s already taken off to scavenge this hidden jungle city for tradable goods, and you and your li’l bunny-bro still have the latest of your cryptic rapbot-appointed tasks to take care of, on top of a bonus seek-and-rescue side quest for the troll and his mystery friend.

Plus you have your own intrusive interrogation in mind.

Now seems like a good time for that, what with Seb vanished somewhere, nominally with the intent of scouting the search perimeter. It’s not that you mind him listening in. You just figure at least this way curiosity will keep him in earshot. That's about your only hope of keeping tabs on the kid, since Seb seems to believe scouting requires darting ahead and about and generally poking his nose into everywhere and everything and tracking down trouble if it can possibly be found. Is this city also monster-infested? It has been a while since you have been attacked by large angry spiders.

Something to look forward to.

In the meantime, you begin a more orderly and rational grid-pattern search of the city, or at least as much of one as you can manage in these fractured streets. And you set your eyes on the third objective from your little mental to-do list, tracking him behind your shades.

Kankri has wandered a little ahead of you, his head tilted in thought, his hand searching along the bricked wall of an old building. Or maybe it’s a new building. An old, deteriorating building with a design that still looks centuries more modern than the younger tower of crude stone slotted haphazardly into the neighboring lot. This is just the latest of these hidden, mix-up cities you’ve explored here and you still can’t get over the weirdness of it. And yet, you’ve seen scattered hints of this all over this whole damn world; villages built around strange fortresses, mysterious shrines in the wasteland, a well-stocked city with only monsters roaming the streets.

Influx site, Kankri had called it, influx zone—and every time that word goes by you can’t help wondering where exactly this architectural jigsaw is meant to be fluxing in from. And what else might be fluxing in with it. (Ground and sky falling down around you and a pantheon of doors with new-made worlds behind them and you wonder if you haven’t half grasped the answer already.)

Enough. Move forward.

“Hey, Kankri.”

He pauses and turns away from his building-groping. Suspicion is writ clearly across dark eyes. (Red eyes, mutant eyes, outcast eyes.) Gosh, he’s so carefully forbearing with Seb’s questions; you don’t know why you merit all this distrust.

You give him innocent eyes back. The effect may be tempered by your shades. Or possibly your lack of innocent intent.

“May I assist you?” His tone manages to imply his belief that you require a lot of assistance.

The corner of your mouth quirks up, all uninvited. You press your lips together. “There’s something you never explained.” You’re not sure you would have noticed him tensing if you weren’t watching for it.

“Oh?”

“Yeah. Tell me why we don’t want to smash up the robo sex police.” You tick off another little point on your silent tally as the tension slides away again.

Kankri gives you one of his primmest expressions. “Are you asking me to explain the simple morality behind avoiding wanton destruction or must I supply some additional justification?”

“But I’m so good at wanton destruction.”

“I would submit you have a conflict of terms in that sentence. Besides,” he adds. “A skill is not an inclination. Would you say that you enjoy murder?”

You blink, but keep your tone bright. “If I wanted to sound like a serial killer, sure.” Your eyes narrow. You tilt your head toward the rooftops so it will be less obvious how closely you’re watching him from behind your shades. “Thought we were talking about wrecking up some obsolete creeperbots here. You really going to try to make some tin cans a morality lesson?”

He sniffs at you. “They are thinking beings. To whatever extent that may be. I would think you would be more cognizant of the bigotry involved in narrowly biological definitions of personhood. They can’t help—“

“—how they’re made,” you finish for him, voice lilting to make a joke out of it. “Wow but that does get more flattering every time you bring it up.”

Kankri lifts his chin and frowns further down his nose, apparently taking the opportunity to be disappointed in you on behalf of all robots everywhere. This is (a) kind of presumptuous, (b) hilarious, and (c) actually a little gratifying for reasons you don’t want to think about too hard. You flash him a wider grin just to be confusing.

“I hardly think this is a matter for flippancy. If you—“

“Chillax, bro, I hear what you’re saying. Metal is murder. All lives are manufactured equal and etcetera. Now tell me why else we shouldn’t attempt gratuitous acts of self-defense on our stabby robobretheren.”

Kankri sighs. “Of course. To put it in simple terms—” ha, you definitely caught that pointed barb “—they’d shout for help. The mechanized pseudo-drones may be ancient technology, but they share a network with the Imperial Drones. One gets damaged and any others in the area swarm the source. We do not want that kind of attention.”

“I thought the world-wide-interwebs were out of commission. Isn’t that the whole point to holding your little fieldtrip now? Mass disarray, slipping through the cracks while trolls and humans and carapaces run around bumping into things all, hey, who jacked the wifi? ”

“The global Network is down. Local networks will still be active. That means anything that can power its own signal and anything in range to read it—husktops in the same lawnring or facility; mobile devices, imperial sigils at short range, drone-to-drone communication don’t ask me how far.”

Interesting.

You let the questions lull as you contemplate the very convenient timing of the world Network outage. After all, if people are going to run you around on cryptic quests and keep you in the dark you’re just going to apply your genius artificial intelligence to figuring things out on your own.

In the corner display of your shades, you watch as Kankri tests the mortar of the brick walls with a claw.

Also interesting.

“So,” you say. “Exactly how many more secrets are you hiding up your sleeve?”

Looking offended would appear to be Kankri’s baseline state of being, so you’re always impressed when he can still crank it up a in a pinch. “My hemostatus is not a secret. It is merely none of your business and irrelevant to the task at hand.”

“Right. So that would be lots, then.”

He glares at you, but the expression dissolves after a moment. He turns away archly. “Two or three.”

Oooh, point to the troll.

You trail along behind him, abandoning any pretense that you are not observing him. He shoots you a few uncertain glances, and then seems to make the conscious effort to ignore you. He returns to peering through windows and rapping on wall panels.

You hum thoughtfully, and Kankri turns to look at you again. You try a smile on him. He looks extremely nonplussed. You have no idea why; it’s a very reassuring smirk.

He tries ignoring you again. There’s a little tic between his brows that says it’s not working very well. The bright moonlight lights the red traces of sunflush on his cheeks.

You feel… bouncy. —okay, no, bouncy’s a stupid word; what are you, an inflatable children’s toy at a party?—but. There’s a fey kick of energy licking at the back of your brain, something between conjecture and restless adrenaline and your usual impulse to push the limits just to see what kind of push back you can get. New data, new data, and doesn’t new data just shine the world up different?

You wait until he has had time to reimmerse in his search before you interrupt him again. You sidle up alongside him, look down to where he has crouched to peer into a sewer grate. A very narrow, rusted out sewer grate. Really. You feel your bright mood sharpen.

You keep your tone light and airy like a knife slice. A friendly one. “You know, if you told me what you were looking for we could help.”

Kankri stiffens, and then stands to frown at you with his arms crossed in displeasure. “You are either characterizing my words with intentional inaccuracy or I have been sadly deficient in expressing myself at a level you can comprehend. I’m looking for my friend.”

“Latula.”

“Yes.”

“The one who’s doing inspect-y things in secret troll government labs.”

“Yes.”

“The one you figure other people might be after ‘cause reasons.”

Dark eyes narrow. “Yes.”

“You expecting to find her down a sewer grate?”

Kankri pauses, glances down. His chin comes up and he draws in a breath and you can watch the stubbornness slide into his bones like steel rods. “I’m sure I haven’t the faintest idea what kinds of trouble Latula could get herself into if she so desired,” he says in clipped tones.

“This doesn’t look like a lab.”

“I applaud you on your insight.”

You laugh. Kankri blinks like he wasn’t expecting that, and his shoulders come down half a hair. You’re a little startled, too, (fucking bodies, what even) but you run with it. “Hey, I am hella insightful, bro. The insightful-est. This sight is fully surrounded and encased by superior mental acuity at all times and shall never know daylight. For example, my mad insight is telling me that you are not the kind of troll that the grand high caste-ist overtrolls involve in their secretive official business.”

Annnnd there go the shoulders back up. “Perhaps you should tell me what you are attempting to insinuate rather than making unsolicited conjectures about the nature of my life.”

“Perhaps you could tell me what exactly you have dragged me into.”

“I believe the only person who has done anything that could be characterized as dragging in this situation is you. And I am looking for my friend.”

“Uh huh. And what is she looking for out in the middle of nowhere with comms down and multiple governments in disarray?”

His eyes flash. “What are you looking for?”

You open your mouth—hesitate. Consider. Well. You’re in the right place. Probably. Assuming Sawtooth has any idea what he’s doing.

You tilt your head and smirk at Kankri. “Show you mine if you’ll show me yours?”

---

Your destination, when you achieve it, proves to be a metal hatch, half-hidden in the bottom floor of a teetering hive only accessible through the window port of a neighboring structure. You study the oddly recessed control panel on one wall with interest but Latula bypasses the mechanism and proceeds directly to the hatch. Ducking she runs her fingers along the base of the steel frame.

“Hm.” She stands again, examining the situation with hands on hips, and then jabs the point of her staff into a small recess and applies her weight to the end like a lever. You think her staff will crack or the hatch won’t budge, but the door groans and begins to move with barely more than a low, subsonic groan of protest. You shift uneasily, pressed against a wall to try to stay out of the way. Latula applies her shoulder to the hatch, sliding it the rest of the way aside. A brick and mortar stairwell leads down into darkness.

Her lips stretch up. “Score.” She leans in, sticking her head in the hallway and then pauses to glance back at you, still flattened against the wall. “Be right back, kay?”

You blink, panic pulling you several steps after her before you can think. “I’ll come four. Two. Altho.” Latula shrugs, passes you a lightstick with a very angry glowgrub in it. You follow her down into stairwell.

“Watch your head,” she says, pushing aside a swathe of loose electrical cords, where something has been pried free from the ceiling. Maybe the lights. “This place is a wreck.”

You roll your eyes and cling to your light stick and the wall. “No fuck. Latwo—Latula. Walt are we donking here?”

“Looking for something.”

“What think?”

“Well, that kind of depends.”

You huff out a breath.

She glances back, teeth flashing in the dim light. “How sticky a pie do you suppose our globe-zy friend Janzen got her claws into?” She heads down into the dark.

You think about white lab coats, sharp, speculative glances, and a hurried interrogation in a small room where they jabbed you with needles. You think about olive blood on Latula’s staff.

The stairs reach floor before you are prepared for the development and you overbalance and fall flailing past Latula. Gravity is angry and reliable. The ground comes up to meet your face and something gets you by the scruff of your bodysuit. You jerk to a halt, nose inches from the floor.

“Careful.” Latula yanks you back upright by your collar, gives your helmet a friendly whallop. “That last step’s a doozy.”

You huff something between a snarl and a laugh and roll your eyes elaborately, crab-sidling over to your fallen grub light. Latula precedes you into the dimly illuminated space.

You were expecting small and cluttered—a bunker, maybe—but this underground chamber stretches out beyond the limits of the meager grub lights. It’s—a lab, you think, although the harsh, straight lines of the benches and boxes are misleadingly inorganic. There’s no recessed coves for banks of silicomb, no fleshy arterial ports for data grubs, no insulated brooding heaps for code incubation. No signs of life at all, really.

You edge uncertainly along a tall metal box with an array of loose copper wires where something has been disconnected. You’d tentatively classify this as human-style tech. Although those floor-to-ceiling glass tubes look a bit more like carapacian growth chambers. Hhmm. Chewing on a fingertip you let your eyes dart around the large room, following the shapes, tracing out the pattern of it, identifying the missing pieces by the holes they leave. It looks as if anything small enough to be easily sylladexed has been stripped from the room.

Latula weaves among the gleaming benches, eyes bright. “Somebody,” she says, “has been misbehaving very badly.” The satisfied glint fades from her eyes. Her lips twitch down. “Somebody other than me.” She frowns into the room a moment longer. Her claws play along the edge of the scarf ringing her neck, and you don’t think she is seeing the room at all. The she shakes off the fey turn of mood and returns to prowling the dark aisles.

“A complete Outworld lab, though. God damn. It’s gotta be a century since anyone rolled up an influx like that. What a find. And what a hash. Do you see this mess?” Latula waves an arm broadly at you, and you’re slightly startled to realize she’s not just talking to herself. She keeps doing that. The thing where she treats you like a person. It’s going to give you ideas.

You fumble to collect words. “Cank see it. It’s gone.”

She snaps her fingers and points at you. “Yes. What you said. They stripped the whole damn place. Little stuff gone—that’s just embezzling. Skimming. Take a little off the top, sell a little on the side. Wiggler games, ya get? Let the auditormentors chase that down. Big stuff gone—“ Latula looks around the room, eyes narrow, voice gone abstract. “—You can’t slip a mad haul like this onto the black market without someone getting a peep. You’d want the right kind of buyer lined up ahead of time. Or the wrong kind. I don’t need to smell to spot when something reeks. Big stuff gone says treason.”

She shakes her head. “Fuck, no wonder my cover blew up on me so bad. Janzy-girl must have just about aneurysmed when an inspectorturer turned up on her hivestep. And then… and then when I wasn’t, she suddenly had a cute li’l bleatbeast to pin all her problems on...”

Latula wanders back out into the room as she muses. She wipes a layer of cobwebs idly from a growth chamber, rubs her fingers together as she peers at the glass. “…and someone to put the idea in her head…?” You’re not sure if she’s seeing the liquid inside or the distorted reflection of the room. “Shit. I should defs have asked her more questions.”

Light skitters through the open space as you fidget the glowstick back and forth between your hands. Eventually, you ask the question. It’s that or let your pan explode.

“Why?” Shit damn. You dropped all the context.

Latula hums out a questioning note.

“Why am I alived?”

“Jeez, dude. Ask the big questions, why dontcha?”

“You didn’t cull me.” You catch a gleam of light off Latula’s eyes as she half turns in your direction. She doesn’t comment. “You left everyfuckall else killed. Not me.”

“You didn’t give me a reason,” she says, and there’s something in the tone of her still-raspy voice, the set of her shoulders as she turns away. You spin the statement over and around in your mind, trying to determine what it is that resonates. It’s two things at once, you think. A lie and a truth? Or a truth inside another truth. Maybe.

“They galve you a raisin,” you say, testing.

“Yep,” she says easily, and you think of the deep teal marks where the noose cut into her neck.

You chew the tips of your fingers uncertainly, sorting facts. They’re tangled and fuzzy but, then, what in your many minds isn’t? “Becunts I told them.”

“Yep.”

You can almost make out the shape of it, but it baffles you. “You dildn’t wank to.”

Latula stills, turns around. Gives you a raised brow and a wide, sharp smile. “You think I never killed anyone before? I mean, it’s like—I don’t normally do them in batches but that sure does keep the gears greased. Mad efficient, right?”

What you remember of killing is. Power and helplessness and something bigger than you, flowing through you, using you, rending and striking and burning and destroying—everything. You wanted to live and you wanted them to die but anything you wanted was rendered utterly meaningless because the choice was taken away from you.

You look at Latula, her demeanor relaxed and slightly teasing, and you can almost see how she uses pieces of truth like a shield. Don’t you ricochet between minds in the same way, using fragments of yourself to take the blows?

“I think—“ you say and then stop, trying to untangle the complicated certainty taking form in your mind, make it trot out across your tongue in neat syllables. “You didn’t wank—didn’t want to.”

Latula stills. She stares at you a few moments longer and then her smile sort of… slides aside, leaving her expression just—recklessly bare. “They were just doing their job, yanno? I mean, Janz-baby was totes trying to pull a slick one, and if she wasn’t head-deep in the shitpile and sinking I’ll eat my neophyte’s crestbeetle, but yeah. That’s the nature of the game. This here?” She tugs the red scarf down, displays the ugly green noose mark. “This was pure justice. Impersonating an Inspectorturer’s a hanging offense, straight up.” She shrugs, the last bits of humor lingering at the edges of her lips. “Fair play.”

She looks tired, you think suddenly. Bruised and soul-sore. Like you. But unlike you she’s not reduced to a quivering wreck on the floor. She’s driving straight on through it, pulling on a smile not like a lie but like she’s dead set on enjoying the ride if it kills her. The honesty of her hurts you somewhere in the center of your thorax.

“So, yeah. They gave me a reason but I broke the rules. Which just hella robs the victory, yanno? I shoulda been more on my game in the first place and it wouldn’t have gone down like that.”

“I’m sorry,” you say, feeling crumpled in the face of her unhappiness. “Sorry, slorry.”

“Hey, wow, don’t start that. Wasn’t your screw up.”

“I told them,” you insist. “I whored you.” Heard. Fucking what-the-fuck-ever. Trying to explain how the voices in your head betrayed her secret feels substantially outside your capability at the moment. “I told,” you say again.

“Yeah, dude, I’d worked it out. You got some mad skillz with that headgear of yours.” She clicks her clawtips against one of your interfaces, where the rounded metal set in either side of your skull nestles into the base of your helmet, below your horns. You can’t feel the touch, not on the interface, but at the same time the vibrations seem to tremble straight down into your brain.

You uncurl to look at her.

“It was my sigil, right?” Latula glows with smug pleasure when your eyes widen, caught. She folds back the cuff of her upper thoracic garment to tap the pearly-teal scar that marks where her pupal registration chip was implanted. “Like how drones have an inbuilt scanner to find peeps for supply deliveries and service assignments and concupiscent collections and that shiz. You can listen in on the chip-casts.”

You contort your lips, wordless, unsettled. Your mind is still trying to reconcile ‘can’ with the overwhelming tide of endless voices that swallowed you in the black, until…. Until one day they fell silent all at once. Until one day the only voices feeding data into your head were the marginally less overwhelming press of a few dozen trolls in a lab; of drones lingering at the edges of your awareness; of a single neophyte legislacerator who was not what she appeared.

Your fingers touch the lines of the libra sign on her wrist. In your head, Latula’s metal voice hums indistinctly, the same soft static you’ve heard since she realized you knew what she was. Under your fingers there are only raised scars and cool skin, no trace of the electronic sigil beneath the sign. Your brain catches up to your hand a tardy beat later. You tense, freeze. You can feel the coiled power of your psionics again, suddenly coiled and accessible at the base of your skull, and you tilt, red mind cringing into defensiveness, blue mind flaring up in preemptive aggression. You flail and—find a balance between the two. Your fingers curl.

“You’re fuzzieded,” you accuse, riding that strange, high line between sullenness and pure adrenaline fascination.

Latula laughs. “Rad. I thought that was working. You dig my mad trickz?”

You stare at her. She must know, she must see, how close to the razor’s edge you are. How unsteady. She’s so— You’re hanging onto her wrist, holding on, and she lets you, and you don’t know why, but it’s ridiculous, it’s stupid, how she lets you your follow along after her, make her a point of forward momentum. You’re a lab experiment, you’re damaged, you’re trouble, you’re dangerous, and she’s—and she’s—

Words elude you. “How are you szo like that.”

Shrug. “My lusus taught me that one. Nice move, huh?” Latula’s eyes on you are a little too aware, a little too quick, in that way that makes you sure her light answer is a dodge. Evading your real question. “I can’t pull any of the sweet mind moves some dudes and dudettes can but I can fuzz up my psychic field something wicked if I concentrate. Keeps psychic frond nubs outta my pan and it nulls my chip, too. Folks figure their scanners are broken. Works out hella convenient.”

She’s grinning again, sharp. Close. Your thorax twinges. You feel a surge of helpless aggravation. “I’m not safe.”

That earns you a laugh. “Babez, if it comes to that, neither am I.”

Wrong path, not helpful. You’re anxious; you’re frustrated. A snarl bubbles into your throat and gets stuck.

Latula retrieves her wrist, but doesn’t step away, doesn’t back down. She puts her hands on her hips and considers you. Her eyes are thoughtful; her tone is flip. “Look. The way I figure, you’ve got those mad wicked psionics you can’t control very well. And I’ve got my totally wicked dragon-mom. Who I also can’t control very well. You and I are probably at least as likely to kill each other. So that’s fair!”

You blink, twice. “I’m bralkened.” –a ha ha. Your stupid brain.

“Never met anyone who wasn’t.”

You look at her, and her smile makes you hurt, and the truth behind the truth in her words hurts you more, makes your thorax ache. She’s soft/defiant, open/ciphered, brave/vulnerable. You chew the inside of your lip and clench and unclench your fingers. You draw in a breath that feels shaky.

“…OK,” you say finally. You nibble a claw. “You’re fuckdumb crazy.”

Latula bursts out laughing. It colors her cheeks, makes her eyes squint up as her fangs flash. She hangs on her staff and looks up at you with a sly smile, like she’s sharing a joke. “Yeah, probz. But…”

The smile fades. Her eyes on you are dark and bright, both at once. Wells and mirrors. “I just… saw you and I thought. You were the most pitiful thing I’ve ever seen.” (—her voice is so stripped-open-honest and your pumpmuscle flips strangely in your thorax and your breath stops and you might die of this—) “…but I had a ‘Job To Do’ and ‘Responsibilities To Consider’ and ‘Srs Business, No Room For Errors.’ So I’d have left you. Maybe used you for a token, tossed you to Janzen. Wrote you off. You’re right.”

She says it like it’s a confession and that makes your chest clench with that strange combination of ache and aggravation all again. Your heart double-thumps. She should have, anyone should have, only a crazy, reckless irredeemably madcap troll would think otherwise. Would put her throat in the jaws of the world and dare it not to pass judgment.

“But then everything went to hell, and I nearly kicked it, and the gameplan went up in flames. I murder-moded the rest of those poor asswipes and found you and… yeah. I could say I was balancing the scales, but—not even.” Latula shrugs. Her voice is low, but you can still detect the soft burr of the noose in it. Her eyes could strip you open. “It was just like: to hell with the rules, girl. Just this once I’m going to do something just for me. Just becauseI want to.”

She looks at you, somewhere between defiance and like she’s waiting for an answer.

You kiss her.

Just because you want to.

It’s desperate and clumsy, a hungry press of lips and teeth against her, with a body that doesn’t know what to do, and a mind that’s already second-guessing your odds of surviving the decision. You fumble, start to curl back.

Latula pulls you closer and you can taste her grin against your mouth.

Yes.

You’re awkward limbs and misfiring reflexes, but it doesn’t matter because you’re both pressed in close enough that anything you do just gets you closer. Anywhere you move you can touch and hold and clutch and grasp, and Latula still proves perfectly capable of getting all your various body parts sorted out between you.

She pulls you back, and you follow, and when she hits the glass of the tube you could just about climb her she’s so perfect. You bite her lip, and she laughs and dodges your helmet, before licking her way back into your mouth.

It’s dizzying. It’s like light. There’s something bright and burning and beautiful building at the back of your skull and you realize just a moment too late that the flickery starbursts in your vision are alarms printing across your helmet’s viewscreen.

You break away. Your power sparks and flares wildly around you, a dizzy halo of red and blue. You pull it in tight to yourself and stare gasping through the spiraling tilt-a-whirl of lights.

Latula perches on a lab bench a good five troll-lengths away, staring back at you with wide, startled eyes. Other than the staff, ready in her hand, she looks completely disheveled.

You both blink at each other in mute bewilderment for a few moments.

“Wow,” she says, into the silence. A slow grin breaks across her face. “What a rush.”

You snicker and collapse downwards. “Fsuckyeah,” you mumble incoherently, as you give way to an overwhelming fit of the giggles. “Form a liine.”

“Hey. Hey,” she says when the last flickers of power have sieved out of your mind and you have settled down enough to breathe in between laugh-hiccups. She hops off her table and grins at you wide as anything. “You seem like a guy who could appreciate some rad-ass tech. Wanna see something awesome?”

Latula hops two more lab benches and fetches up beside you. Like a magic trick, she shines the grublight across a galvanized steel door embedded in the back wall of the lab. “They hadn’t finished clearing everything out. There’s a whole ‘nother level down below this.”

Oh. Wow.

She beams, steals a kiss, and takes off for the door, smug as anything.

You follow Latula.

Your brain does a thing probably best depicted as: <3<3<3<3.

Chapter Text

"This is it?"

You take extreme satisfaction from the way Kankri’s nose wrinkles.  "You know, you should try for a more encouraging tone when I'm revealing myself to you. Confused distaste really does not set the mood."

Kankri rewards you with a furrowed brow stare-down that could frost a furnace.  "I hardly think hauling me halfway through an influx zone while you wander in circles and make cryptic comments qualifies as 'revealing.'  And the innuendo is noted and not appreciated."  His expression changes slightly to superiority.  "I am starting to doubt you have anything of merit to reveal."

"Oh, burn."  You clap a hand to your heart.  "Hit a guy in his exceedingly meritous soft spots, why don't you."

He sniffs and returns his attention to the artifact before him.  You confess, the pair of concentric metal rings around a meter wide disc in the dirt are somewhat underwhelming.

"While I would, of course, hesitate to distress you by casting aspersions on your... soft spots, it appears you have led me to a nondescript hole in the ground.  Perhaps you could explain the relevance?  And why you believe this would merit an exchange of incriminating personal information on my part?”

"Well, for starters, it's not a nondescript hole in the ground.  It is a nondescript piece of machinery retracted into a steel-armored shaft and sealed into a hole in the ground.  And for seconds, I heard that use of ‘incriminating’ and I would like to take a moment to register my ‘I called it’, ‘I told you so’, and ‘you totally have interesting secrets’, redeemable later.”

“It’s Game tech,” Seb puts in, then twitches an ear.  “Kinda.”

Kankri’s eyes flick to Seb, lips pressing together over something he doesn’t want to share with the class.  Seb looks blandly back, absently tapping the little broken vacuum bot to correct its course as it starts to wander.  He’s halfway to making a pet of that thing—assuming the pair of you ever get the toolset to finish fixing what you broke.

Kankri returns his frown to you.  “Let me see if I understand this correctly.  You claim you were sent here, specifically, to this only recently documented and still mostly unknown ancient influx site, to find this specific piece of previously undiscovered outworld tech, which your ‘other’ siblings somehow knew the location of and directed you to find.”

“It was more like a mini-quest. Or a scavenger hunt.  Or a junior jumble.”

“We had clues,” says Seb, who seems to have appointed himself your translator.  This is kind of hilarious, when you think about it.

“And now that you’ve found it you intend to…?”

“Well, if it’s anything like the other ones, the control console will be tucked somewhere in the surrounding block or ten.  So, predictably, our reward for finding a thing is to have to find more things. Hands up who’s surprised at the bitter irony of the world.”

Kankri actually turns toward Seb like you are not a model of clear and direct speech.

“Now we break it,” Seb says.

“By finding the control console,” you conclude, agreeably.  See, exactly what you said.

Kankri appears to have choked on his indrawn breath.  “Excuse me?”

“It’s hella hard to break things that are currently underground and encased in steel.  We usually prefer to open them up first.  And then skip straight to breaking the remote instead.  It’s teenier.”  You tug your left glove off with your teeth, mostly managing to maintain your expression of bland innocence. 

“That is not—hsssst.  Surely even you realize you can’t just go around destroying ancient artifacts.”

You look at him with genuine curiosity.  “Why not?”

“Because, because—“ Kankri’s mouth works like he can’t decide what should come out of it first.  “Do you even have a reason?”

“Sawtooth said to,” Seb says, with perfect confidence.

You shrug, crouching down beside the panel of retractable plates that seal the shaft opening.  “What the bunnybot said.  I come, I see, I wreck shit.  And I live in breathless anticipation of the day when someone bothers to explain why they want me to do things.”  You raise an eyebrow ironically at Kankri.  “Care to make my night?”

He presses his lips together, crossing his arms almost defensively across his chest.  And yet—his head tilts slightly to one side and he pins you with that pensive stare, the one full of thoughts you can’t read.  He examines you for a long moment.  You only realize you’ve paused in anticipation of the verdict when he sucks in a long breath and blows it out again.  The slightest, arch hint of an uptilt touches the corner of his mouth.  “I believe an exchange of secrets was suggested.  I don’t see any reason to change my stance on matters when you have yet to satisfy your end of the proposition.” His surety ruffles.  “–proposal.  –accord.”  It’s hard to tell under the sun-flush, but you think his cheeks might have warmed. He frowns repressively down at you.

You smirk back.  Your pulse thrums victory.  It’s the closest he’s come to a verbal agreement to terms and you’re tipsy on adrenaline, the biological high daring you to go, go, go, push the lines, break them.  “Well,” you drawl.  “I aim to satisfy.”

You’re not even sure what reaction you’re looking for—anything, possibly.  Kankri blinks and tilts his head a little more.  Unaccountably, your cheeks heat. 

You decide now is an ideal moment to shift your ground and attack from another angle.

Aware of him watching, you brush dirt from the panel and address yourself crisply to Seb.  “Hey li’l bro.  I’m going to skip a step and see if I can’t wake up the system from here.  Think you can put those ears to work?”

Mm.”  Said cybernetic bunny ears lift straight up, gone to point.  Always ready for a task.   Then he hesitates, studying you with his always unreadable face, body language gone uncertain.  “It’s okay?”

“What is?”

Seb captures the disc of the damaged vacuum bot, holding it trapped near his chest. His shades mask the flick of his eyes, but his head tilts just slightly towards the circular panel, and back to you.  “It won’t …hurt?”

You blink at the panel.  “It’s not alive, Seb.”

His ears fold flat in rapid annoyance.  Not what he meant apparently.  You bite your tongue and wait for him to find his words.  “You,” he says after a minute.  “Last time you were...”  He makes a vague, frustrated swooping gesture with one hand, the other still holding the bot by his chest.  When emotive hand movements fail to adequately capture whatever he’s trying to express, he ends with one of the General’s hand symbols.  …Not okay

You have a brief flash to the way it felt, when you died with those assassin-bots you synced with; when you died with the headset of that human you murdered; when you woke up, blank and disoriented to find Seb waiting for you in anxious silence.   He’d taken that last bot to pieces, all around you.

Seb watches you, now posture still uncertain, expressionless face fixed on you like your answer matters to him.  You heart does a dumb organic clench-y thing. 

“It won’t hurt?” he asks again, and there is absolutely no way you won’t say whatever it takes to fix that note in his voice pronto.  Hell, you’ll be whatever it takes. You wonder vaguely if this is a thing guardians do, or if you just have a lot of ground to make up.

Luckily, you are fucking aces at convincing displays of arrogance.

“Nah, kiddo, not even.  I’ve been practicing.”  You made one failed attempt and broke that little bot with your brain.  Does that count?  You’ll work with it.  You bat at his hair through his hoodie, something between a pet and an affectionate swat.  “Hey.  I’m a Strider, aren’t I?  I hella got this.”

There’s something equal parts exhilarating and terrifying in the way he takes you utterly at your word, relaxing instantly.  He nods once, ears going all perky and expectant, and flips the little hovering bot safely away into his sylladex.

“You up for this?’

“Strider,” he points out, his own tiny portrait of utterly confident arrogance, and dear god but you love this kid.

“Cool.”  You’re aware again of Kankri, hovering nearby, unwilling to interrupt, but still clearly about to explode with the desire to interrogate and/or lecture you.  Probably a combination.  Find out what you’re doing and then tell you why you’re wrong.  You fight your mouth’s desire to curl upward.  “I think you’ll be able to locate the console by sound once it engages,” you tell Seb.  “Not sure how close you’ll need to get—“

He makes a scoffing noise.  You raise an eyebrow. 

Seb bounces impatiently on his toes.  “I can do it.”

 “Sweet.  I, on the other hand, am completely winging this.  Fortunately I am a supremely sophisticated artificial intelligence slash almost person and I have carefully calculated the ideal balance between risk and efficiency.  I’ll try not to accidentally self-destruct the city.  Wish me luck.” 

Seb offers a fist bump.

Kankri has drawn several steps closer, evidently unable to help himself any longer.  “Strider, what are you doing?”

You flash a smirk at him.  You don’t mean it to be quite so wide or grin-like, but it turns out that way anyway.  “It hardly counts as show and tell if there’s not a demonstration.  Besides,” you add off-handedly, “you keep going on about what a hurry you’re in.  Maybe this way we can get your friend’s attention.”

Kankri sucks in a breath, but, for a wonder, just re-crosses his arms and settles back to watch. His expression looks torn between disapproval, concern, and poorly suppressed, ravenous curiosity.  His red-tinted eyes are bright and concentrated on you.

You extend your ungloved palm confidently toward the flat metal surface of the circular panel.  You think you hide the moment of hesitation before your hovering hand changes tack to land lightly on the outermost concentric ring instead.  You totally know what you are doing.  This is a clever and efficient idea and will definitely not blow up in your face.

Or you suppose you should say it will blow up exactly the intended amount, since that is kind of the goal here.

Seb watches you with serene confidence.  Kankri is a silent pressure bomb that might or might not go off, also watching you.

You sprang into this whole plan somewhat on the spur of the moment, but you are at least 93.4% sure that you are making this decision based on your extensive and well-reasoned analysis.  Kankri’s appalled fascination is just a bonus.

…You are 100% certain you are stalling.  (—the last time you did this you broke that little bot; wrecked something you couldn’t fix—)  Right, enough.  Even focusing on your shittiest of motivations has got to be better than succumbing to an attack of nerves.

Before you can waste any more time running in embarrassing mental circles, you flatten your hand, press the circuits in your palm close against the metal below.  You extend that inner programming, laid into your shades, laid into wires and metal somewhere in your brain, somewhere behind your skull where that core part of you is still numbers and code struggling into the shape of a human.  You extend yourself, reach your limits.  Push farther. 

Connect.

The machinery in the ground below you lights up behind your eyes in crimson red lines and then you’re unfolding rapidly outwards, racing along electric pathways, splintering your mind and becoming bigger in the process.

In one part of yourself you are aware of your organic form kneeling in the dirt, head tilted forward in concentration, Kankri and Seb watching from steps away.  The red shine of the lit rings in your shades tints your vision. 

(“Are his eyes supposed to—?” Kankri starts.  “Mm,” Seb says.  “They glow.  Wait.”) 

In the other part of yourself—

You have only the vaguest sense of its physical shape: tall, like the others, retracted down below the ground like an antenna at the world’s largest carwash.  The device’s programming is ancient and alien in a way that’s familiar.  Once upon a time, you think it might have been a kernel spire, but you are not the only thing changed in a new world.  You have your own suspicions about what function it might serve now, here in this place.

Sometimes you just have to make peace with the fact that your function in life might be to break the internet.

The device is largely shut down, the greater part of its programming locked behind closed points at the edge of your awareness.  You probe automatically at those dormant threads, your mind already reaching to expand your dominion, to map that tantalizing web of possibility. 

You don’t need the control console, you could take the whole thing from here, push farther, figure it out, make it yours--

No.

You call yourself sharply back.  Somewhere, your fingers scrape across dirt and metal and Kankri says your name.  (Grass under your hands and an ache in your head and you pushed so hard you broke it.)  You started this with a plan, with a calculated, acceptable level of risk.  (You can see Seb, hesitating just at the edge of your vision, standing right there.)  Now is not the time to experiment. Now is not the time to indulge in thoughtlessness, now is not the time to forget that your actions have consequences.  (Now is not the time to pretend you still don’t care.) 

You gather yourself and reach, instead, for the single, dim thread that links this device to something smaller and more complex.  You splinter once more, just a tiny fragment of yourself, and you send that fragment skittering down that connection with the simplest, least chancy of commands.

You turn the system on.

You stay only long enough to get a sense for what processes are initiating and in what order, for the timeline you’ve committed yourself to.  The goal here is remote console on long enough for Seb to find it and  for you to manually trigger the self-destruct functions on that end, but not so long that the entire underground antenna array completes deployment and starts... networking or whatever else it is giant mystery artifacts do.  You can’t be certain of Sawtooth’s broader motivations for destroying these, internet-related or not, but you have the idea that turning them on instead would be bad. 

Digging around in the system from this end is still tempting, but not so tempting that you can quite overlook the irresponsibility of playing with the trigger of a bomb you are currently sitting on

Which isn’t to say you couldn’t handle it if you wanted to.

But, no, right, you’re not doing that because Seb and Kankri are right there and you the master of responsibility and shit.

Time to go.  Distantly, you set a little timer running in your shades and ignore the cascade of unpleasant associations that want to trigger.  (--helplessness, isolation, an empty world falling down around you--)  Instead, you set about reeling in the pieces of your mind, struggling to assemble the fragments of yourself back into something that can fit in the limits of your flesh, into this organic vessel that still doesn’t quite feel like your own.

Disengagement comes by pieces, reluctant.  You’re aware that you’re entirely in your body a good few minutes before you can gather your thoughts enough to think anything more usefully coherent than ‘I have a heartbeat’ or ‘I am moving air with my lungs.’  You take a much longer breath than you need to, think about pressure differentials and your diaphragm and the circulation of oxygen into your bloodstream, and then you blow out the breath and blink blearily.  A flicker of red light vanishes from your vision.

Kankri hovers in arm’s reach—he’s, huh, a lot closer than before—his brows furrowed and teeth caught in his lip.  You think maybe you have some thoughts about this, but you will have them later when you are not dissociating like a motherfucker. 

You have toes, but they don’t strike you as real.

“Hey,” you say, with what you assume to be your voice.

“Can you hear me now?” Kankri asks.

“No, I am just a very vivid audio-hallucination.”

He narrows his eyes at you.  “If you didn’t speak nonsense the majority of the time it would be easier to distinguish when you are delirious.  Or pan-damaged.”

“Ha.” You are a font of stunning repartee. “Got you.  With my plan. You had an emotion.”

His eyebrows arch up, then furrow down again.  “You are disoriented.  Your sibling suggested you might need a short recovery period.”

You look around, but don’t find Seb in the open, dusty space.  “Where is he?”

“He went off ahead to find your control conso—whoa.”  Hands fly out to steady you as you nearly capsize.  You drop back to one knee.

Standing.  Maybe not yet.

“Are you all right?”

You contemplate the hands bracing your shoulders—slim grey fingers, neat dark claws, subtle callouses. He has ink stains all along one side of his palm.  “…Buffering,” you say, blankly.  No, wait.  “I’m fine.  Just give me a sec.”  You are fine; you’re totally chill.  You just need to gather your thoughts. 

His hands are very warm.  And distracting.

Kankri steps away so abruptly you almost fall again.  “I—please excuse me.  That was extremely discourteous of me.  I didn’t mean to—er.  Distract you.”

Annnnnd you said that last part out loud.  You blink into his not entirely sun-reddened face while a wash of adrenaline-fueled mortification scours the fog from your brain so you can really experience this moment.  Great job.  Smooth.

“Although frankly, I don’t know what else was to be expected when nobody explains to me what I am meant to do about a situation.  You’re having some kind of, of reactive episode and I don’t have the first idea how to handle your biology. —that was not an innuendo.” Kankri pauses and cracks one eye, peering down his nose.  “Are you sure you’re all right?”

You blink some more, open your mouth, stop, and then decide to never return to this topic ever again.  The last five minutes never happened.  You will fight anyone who says different.

“Which way did Seb go?” you say instead, pushing briskly to your feet and swaying only slightly.  You can’t be certain, but you are pretty sure a non-fake guardian would not misplace their tiny human nearly as often as you do.  You and Roxy—Dirk and Roxy’s ectoparents were dead and still managed to keep track of you.  Them.

Bad thoughts.  You brush dirt from your knees. 

Kankri watches you narrowly.  “He left in that direction.  I believe he intended to mark the path in some way.”

“Awesome.  Let’s go.” 

You set off back into the mismatched city streets, hopping a low boulevard wall to claim the broken concrete of a crumbing sidewalk, set at diagonal angles to the buildings around.  Kankri follows you without argument, apparently deep in thought.  You’re starting to dread the phenomenon. 

“You never answered my question,” he says, finally.  He vaults the pole of a sideways streetlight one-handed.  You very definitely do not admire the technique.

“It seems you have a slightly optimistic view of my decipherment abilities re: whichever of your heaping pileful of questions you’re referring to.  Gonna have to add an antecedent to that, brosef.”

“Are you all right?”

“My rightness is at 100%.”  You spy a flicker of red cloth up ahead, turn to the left to find a throwing star pinning the scrap to a weirdly immaculate street sign.  The characters don’t look like anything you recognize from Earth or Alternia, but who knows?  “I am composed of purest, undiluted correctness, pressed fresh from the finest accuracy vineyards.”

Kankri’s lips press in irritation.  “Why do you insist on doing that?”

“It’s a factory setting.”

“It is no such thing.  And that’s a very de-personizing and prejudicial analogy to use.”

Pfft.  He’s all fluffed up like he’s fully prepared to take offense on your behalf, claim it for his own, and argue to the death over it.  It’s sort of flattering and insulting all at once.  (And uncomfortably warming, like hands intruding into your space.  But mostly the former.)  Your lips quirk.  “I’m using flippancy as an emotional distancing tool.  Don’t harsh my groove.”

“…I see,” Kankri says.  His narrowed eyes on you suggest he doesn’t, at all, but he intends to latch on like a bullshark and figure it out on point of principle. 

Stubborn.  You tap a little tempo against your thumb, smile a bit at the fact that you can, and turn towards yet another shuriken and colorful fabric scrap down an alley to your right.  A few small white chitinous creatures have crawled up the brickwork to examine the fluttering fabric.  Rows of faceted blue eyes watch you stroll down the narrow space, followed close on your heels by an endlessly pushy troll.  Your mood from earlier has returned, energized and full of reckless possibility.  “Sure that’s the only question you want answered?”

You can actually see his pupils dilate.  His eyes are very dark.

“Got the ‘show’ part taken care of on this little white elephant secrets exchange.  Aren’t you curious about the ‘tell’?”

He hisses out a breath.  “Yes.”  And then, when you don’t immediately fill the silence: “Well?”

“I didn’t hear a question, bro.”

He glares at you for a long moment, practically bubbling with indignation.  Then he folds his arms and lifts his chin—an interesting feat for someone currently navigating a cityscape obstacle course.  “From what I can gather—not the least of which being your ignorance of the most basic cultural mores and common courtesy—it’s reasonably possible that you came through an influx site.  You’re outworld.  Old world.  Am I close?”  Each word of the question hits the air with pinpoint precision, pure challenge. 

Your heart kicks up about a dozen more beats per minute.  The sensation is either awesome, or it’s going to kill you.  “That’s a thing?” you hedge, probing.  “People just.  Dropping in.”

Kankri slants a look sideways at you, along one sun-cracked cheekbone.  “…Hypothetically.  In stories.  They say that’s where the first travelers came from, generations ago.  The finned empress and the white queen and the twin empires of Ebon and Bone to settle the world.  But you won’t find many people who believe that as more than legend.  Artifacts, yes.  Structures, whole cities even.  It all came from somewhere.  Maybe many wheres.  But influx rate has been declining exponentially for sweeps and sweeps.  The vast majority of influx sites are ancient and inactive.”  

His voice has gradually acquired lecture tones, like he’s distracted himself with his own words, but his next sentence is all sharp insinuation again.  “If you leave aside legends, nothing—I beg your pardon—no one organic has been documented in an influx in recorded history.”

“But you’re a believer.”

“My custodian liked to tell me bedtime schoolfeeds.”  His voice is very dry.  “Speaking of stories—I would, of course, never wish to demean your capabilities or intentions, but I note that the ‘tell’ portion of your agreed upon disclosure appears to be singularly lacking in actual telling.”

He does have a way of using a lot of words to make his insults harder to notice.

Your heart’s beating so fast you feel almost sick with excitement.

When you don’t respond immediately, Kankri stops in the middle of the crooked, asphalt-paved alleyway.  He folds his arms, raises his chin, and faces you down directly.  “Talk, if you please.”

Well.  When he puts it that way—and talking is kind of your specialty.  You lick your lips and take back off down the alley, just to be moving.  Glancing back, you tilt him the strange, wild edge of a smirk.

What was it he said about wiggler stories?  Oh, yes: 

“Once upon a multiverse, a bunch of dumb kids played a Game…”

Chapter Text

Latula, you reflect, has the best secrets.  Or possibly acquires the most excellent ones from other people.  Behind the steel door at the back of the ransacked bunker had been a short, damaged shaft, like something for an out-of-service hivestem lift.  Venturing down the rungs in the shaft wall (a feat, in your case, composed of equal parts climbing and falling), you and Latula had emerged into a second, more confined bunker.  The sprawlingly empty labs in the level above had looked aged and deteriorated, fragile.  A hollowed-out husk prone to falling to pieces at any moment—in retrospect you’re probably lucky your lightshow didn’t damage anything structural.  This room has an equal sense of age, but it is shelled from floor to ceiling in metal plates and girders as if were meant to survive a war. 

It’s a bit like being in a tin can, if it turned out that tins cans turned down the exterior noise from your metal mind almost as effectively as that underground dropshaft you hid in for a day, and were therefore very quiet.  The perpetual static of Latula’s sigil chip buzzes and echoes in your metal mind, but you get only brief bursts of the distant voices of the imperial drones circling the city.

The tin can is also full of dazzlingly unfamiliar technology.

You want to look at everything.

You shuffle around the tiny room, pressing your face against screens and poking your fingers into circuit arrays like you could absorb the fascinating new patterns unfolding in your brain through your fingertips.  You’ve managed to move a good chunk of this busy-ness from the inside of your head to the outside, your programmed subtasks paying off in scratchy lines of blue and red text that now scroll across your helmet visor, superimposed appealingly over all the other nonsense your metal mind seems determined to dump into your brain at all times.

You clamber over a counter and pause to contemplate a screen that has flickered on at a nearby hub, watching the numbers count down.  That is new.  With one fraction of your attention, you start mapping out the attached equipment, backwards extrapolating toward what kind of function they might serve.  Your lips twitch up a bit as the countdown flicks past 44:44. 

The whole lab could be overwhelming, but instead it’s engrossing.  For once you have no shortage of tasks to divide your attention across, occupations to channel the restless tangle of your mind.  The muffled data inflow from your metal mind fades into the background.

It is, it occurs to you, hard to be all one thing, to marshal all the disparate parts of your mind and your body and match up the edges and push them into lockstep with the world.  With your attention scattered you don’t have to try so hard to keep your balance.  Your blue mind purrs acquisitive conquest while your red mind whispers wary caution that it will all be taken away, that you will be filed into place with the rest of this puzzlingly obsolete equipment.  But you’re steady.

Latula makes a grumbling noise from the back of the room, where she has been poking at the largest device, decoupling connections.  “Hey, ’tunz.” 

You turn this inscrutable string of syllables around in your head several times.  Oh.  Is that you?

“You happen to know how to hack an object duality function onto sylladex cards?”

You spend another moment of low-key bewilderment trying to decide if this is something you know how to do.  Object duality: carapacian storage system. Programming structure and relationship to sylladex development: …no data?  Did you never know or did you forget?  “No-oh?” you try, anxiously.  And then, with a bit more confidence as you rifle through files and your brain continues to be completely blank on the subject of non-imperial technology: “Oh-no.”  Still, the idea is interesting.  You engage a few of the sorting programs you’ve coded with your helmet, scanning through the ridiculous backlog of data from your metal mind.  You don’t know if any of this clusterfuck could possibly be relevant to working out a technical puzzle, but you don’t know that it couldn’t.  It gives another portion of your attention something to do.

 “Right.  You happen to have a sylladex slot that’s oh, say, this big?”  Latula’s hands dryly sketch out the wall-spanning machine in front of her.

“Dong ilven halve a sillydickth.”

“Huh; we gotta hook you up with something.  You know, assuming we ever get out of here, a thing which would be way the heck easier if I had any way of ganking the massive freaking technorelict I came specifically to hunt down.  Damn it, Porz was supposed to be here.”  She frowns at the machine in question, one hand on her hip.  “Maybe we could just… leave it here?  Come back with company and snag it before the ‘net gets back online and that lab full of dead scienterrorists get noticed.  Assuming…”  Her frown tips down farther.  Her eyes glance toward the dropshaft, then back to her machine.

You turn to squint at the device yourself.  Aside from being big, it doesn’t seem particularly more interesting than any of the other artifacts in the room.  Some blackened screens, something you think might be sensors, a row of large glass cylinders that look a little like the carapacian growth chambers from the level above.

 Maybe it’s presumptuous of you, but you’re pretty sure she should just take something smaller.   “Walk innit?” you ask.  No.  Although some of those tubes are certainly big enough. “Waltz is’t.”

Latula hesitates. It’s just the tiniest hitch in the conversation, but considering how effortlessly she seems to follow even your most scrambled utterances, the pause is noticeable.  “It’s an outworld artifact,” she says, breezy and open.

Wow, no grab-hulmping ass nugs,” you return before your mind can really analyze if sarcasm is the wisest choice for this situation.  Who the fuck are you kidding, your mind has approximately nil control over the shit that plops out of your mouth.  You’re just happy when the contents remotely resemble what went into the digestion.

Latula snickers.  “Yeah, okay, it and everything else in this room.  But this is a big one.  There’s only ever been three found like it before and they all stopped working sweeps and sweeps ago.  ‘Least as far as anyone knows.  Outworld technology is property of the government that finds it after all.  The highblood council or whoevs says it up and broke—who’s there to say diff?”

“You?”  No, wait, you think that was a rhetorical question.  Conversation is hard.  And now Latula is giving you an extremely sharp look, oh, oh.  Torn between the desire to apologize and the desire to make her look at you more, you instead wander closer and examine her pet artifact more closely.  Like you, it seems to be at the interface of technology and biology.  Something artificial, but designed to work with living systems.  Not the type of assemblage that could be used to modify a hatchling into a cyberorganic construct, no, you can’t make that fit the structure of the thing, but. 

Not the right pattern of parts for the carapacian’s genetic modification projects either.  You thought before it reminded you of the sort of equipment they might use to grow their generations of workers and soldiers, all the various castes of their population.  Something for biological creation, yes, maybe…

“I’d really rather you didn’t overthink this,” Latula says, into your thoughts.  “Or, like.  Try not to pull out any more of your mad insights?  ‘Cause I’m working on being responsible over here and I hella can’t promise that info’d work out safe for you.”

You spend a few complicated moments trying to determine how not to think about something and a few more wondering why this would possibly matter.  In your experience, your thoughts and intentions have very little correlation to any of the things that happen to you.  You wind up just staring at Latula.

“Unless you’d rather I told you?”  Latula asks, not at all like she thinks your decisions don’t matter.  “Because, I mean.  I figure you’ve got as much right to know what’s going down as anyone.  More than.  It’s just...  right now if things go completely ingestible-tree-ovoid shaped you could maybe slide outta it on not knowing and being, like.  Technically stolen lab equipment?  But if I tell, you’re kinda stuck with me ‘til game over.”  She gives you a little fatalistic grin and shoulder shrug.  “Win or lose.  However the hell it all goes down.”

That sounds… really nice actually.  In a flippantly ominous kind of way.  You’ve sort of been figuring your whole life will implode any hour now—a seesaw swing of the pendulum for all the unexpected fortune you’ve been granted in defiance of probability.  You’d spend every second of that time with Latula if the choice was in your fronds to make. 

Latula looks at you like she thinks maybe it is. 

“But, hey.  Maybe we’ll go down in the fun way ‘stead of the dying horribly way.”  She wiggles her eyebrows and grins and then tucks her hair behind her ear and looks half away from you.  “You want in on this?” It echoes between the twice-two halves of your mind, flesh and metal, red and blue. 

(“You wanna get outta here?”)

You dig your teeth in your lip and remember to breathe.  You’ve caught her hand in your own without noticing and that’s starting to be a habit.  She lets you keep it.  So, is she dumb for not realizing by now just how far you would follow her, or are you dumb for never guessing that first invitation might have been for keeps? 

There’s a completely nonsensical smile twitching across your face.  For what’s visible beneath the helmet you must look completely deranged, but Latula’s got a smile growing to match. 

Your answer tangles with a thrum in your throat and comes out sounding more like a dirty suggestion than a word.

“…Yeah?” Latula says, eyes bright as lit fuses, and reels you in.

Or maybe you’re both really, really fucking smart.

You do eventually  have to pull up for air, only for Latula to spend a giggly few moments testing the bony angle of your jaw with her teeth, following it back to where flesh meets the metal of your left interface.  You even took off your helmet for her, despite how dizzingly like freefall the sensation of losing the control it provides is.  It’s worth it when she tugs you by the hair, tweaks your horn.  When she snickers at the huffy noise you make when you give up on shaking your overgrown bangs from your ganderbulbs.  Latula feels like the very best kind of freefall.

You nuzzle at her face, hair, hands, anywhere you can reach, and her fingers trace fractal patterns back along your jaw and cheekbone, down from the raised headphone-like interfaces you have where ears might be and down along the vulnerable skin of your neck. 

“Wow, babez, you are all over circuits.”  One finger plucks testingly at the high collar of your flightsuit and you make a happy, contented noise for her.  “How far down do these go, anyways?”

Hm.  “I four-get?”

“Oh!”  Latula pops back up from your neck to grin into your face, eyes lit up like you just handed her a present.  “…wanna find out?”

The words lick through you like an electric current.  Straight to your nook.  But in a fun way.

You blink again—one, two, three, four—and then tangle a hand in her hair, because yes, okay, good, perfect.  Words not functioning, but no part of you has any confusion on the answer to that question.  Latula folds into you, laughing—and then abruptly keeps folding, her laughter blowing out in a hiss as she turns her forward momentum into a shoulder roll across the equipment-cluttered counter behind you.  Your own breath abandons you with an oomph as your ass cushions hit the floor.  Falling is like your special talent.

Metal and wires clatter to the floor.  Something shatters.  A pale shape skitters by, flitting through the air, dodging debris, and Latula sweeps up her staff—wow, when did she put that down, you’re not sure you’ve ever seen her let her weapon out of arm’s reach before—and scrambles in pursuit.  The point of her staff stabs out once, twice—and then she’s pinned it, just before it could dart into a crevice behind a wall unit.

“Aw, fuck it all,” Latula mutters, frowning at the fist-sized genemod still twitching and oozing blue goo onto the point of her staff.  “I just can’t catch a break tonight.” 

Your adrenaline-sped pusher suggests otherwise.  You are (red) panicky and (blue) panicky, but you also just did the psiistorm thing twenty minutes ago and one floor up, so you are mostly just balancing on the panicky in a fun, internal way.  It’s almost comforting in how familiar it is.  And nobody’s dying; that’s nice.  Winning all around. 

You scramble for your helmet and take only two tries to get it on.

Better.

Making your way around the counter, you peer past the flashing text on your helmet view screen to squint over Latula’s shoulder at the fluttery, leggity hoofbeast-faced thing.  It has about a half a dozen more eyes than you feel are really called for and looks like something some carapacian geneticuller spliced half the contents of his DNA library into on a whim.   You can’t see anything in particular to make it worth looking at—other than the ungodly suspiciousness of a feral genemod turning up two levels down in a sealed underground bunker lab in time to interrupt your make outs. 

It’s a scientifically engineered nookblock, is what it is.

Latula’s eyes dart around the confines of the lab again, narrow and seeking.  You don’t need higher level processing programs to recognize a pattern.  You just wish someone would explain why it matters.

“Think we just got put on a timer,” she mutters.   Your head twitches uncertainly toward the console across the lab, the one with the countdown running on the screen, but Latula’s turning back toward the wall-spanning outworld device in front of you.  She faces it down with more determination than conviction.  “Right.  Get the goods and get gone.  Hm."

You blow out a frustrated breath through your nose.  “’tu-la, what.”

Her eyes shoot to you almost guiltily.  “Um.  So.  Speaking of deetz I haven’t been sharing with the schoolfeed cohort.”  She fiddles the little mutant corpse free of her staff, holding it up by one of the many insectoid legs before flipping it out of sight, into her sylladex.  “It’s possible somebody’s using these to track us.  I wasn’t sure for a while, but the co-inky-dinks are kinda piling up now, and…” her patter trails off, face going inwards-turned.  Her free hand toys with the red scarf concealing her hanging scar. “…I sorta feel like this is all familiar in the bad way.”

Shitty titfucking nose-bulge, you have no idea what any of that means.

Latula’s eyebrows go up and, yep, you are surprise audio-tracking a static-y version of your internal dialogue.  You bite your tongue on the middle of the string of curses exiting your maw, gulping off the runaway flow through straight bodily force.  At least you’ve also cut short the post-make out ‘murder and contemplation of dead things’ portion of the evening.  Small victories.

“Sorry,” Latula says, which has the novelty of coopting your next avenue of verbal stress dump.  “I’m not trying to be cryptic; it’s just like a disease.  I think my life is half lies these days.” She twists her hand in the scarf.  “Or half-truths.  Maybe whap me upside the head or something when it happens.”

Alarming.  No. 

Although, with your coordination and her cooperation maybe you could just skip to whapping random body parts together.  Eheheh.

“So, right.  Cards on the recreation platform.  Think you’ve sneaked a peek at like half the deck already.  This obnoxiously complicated dealio here,” she gestures at her giant out-world artifact, “is for making wigglers the un-fun way.  And like I said, this is the super rare, holographic edition kinda item; a lot of people would like to get their claws on it.  So, okay, there’s me and Porz and some other peepz—I dunno if Kurloz counts he’s kind of nuts—and the deal is—“  —but you don’t get to find out if she’s winding up to tell you about her kinky breeding program plans or what.  You don’t actually hear the soft shuff of a misplaced footfall, you just see Latula’s eyes flick toward the dropshaft and your auditory sponges catch up later.  “—the deal is,” Latula continues, voice even as ever, eyes suddenly bright and fixed on you, “I’m going to need to put a save point in this explanation for later.  All these things popping up that need taking care of, you know how it goes.” 

As she speaks, she steps back slightly and to the side, like she’s going back to the device, tucks her staff with apparent casual disinterest under her arm.  Caught in her eyes, you turn with her.  It’s only belatedly that your instincts catch up to the way this places your back to the empty dropshaft and whatever made that noise.  Your pumpbiscuit trips and speeds in your chest, red fear and blue fury and you don’t fall to either because you’re watching her sort sylladex cards and thinking about the way your back to the shaft means her hands out of view.

She comes up with a set of finger-sized knives like mawbeast fangs, and something small and metallic, held so the chain won’t clink.  They disappear up her sleeves.  “Sorry to keep expo-bailing on you,” she says, and her voice makes a joke of it.  “…Trust me?”

 “Yes.”  Your reply, for once, comes out crystal clear, as sure as your certainty, a perfect line between thought and action.

Latula’s own next line stops halfway out of her mouth, like you’ve startled her.  You watch her pupils flare wide and dark, the teal in her irises brightening in contrast.  Her tongue touches her lip, her breath caught there.  You get a glimpse of her dichotomies again—all vulnerable/dangerous and careful/reckless and hungry/satisfied—and she’s not more honest like this, just different honest, like seeing the flipside of a coin in the air.  

“...oh,” she says, in this naked, bruise-roughened voice that flips your pusher and sends a clench of pity dizzily through your veins. 

Just a glimpse, and then the coin revolves and her game face is back in place, determined and calculating and exhilarated.  She leans in toward you, close enough to kiss, close enough to be indistinguishable to an observer.  Close enough you can feel her grin a breath away from your lips.  “Hold that thought, babe.”

A moment later she's sliding past you and into ambush so fast you almost can’t see it.  There’s a flurry of noise from the bunker’s exit, a rustle of cloth and the scrambling metallic sounds of someone ascending a ladder at speed.  Latula disappears up the shaft after her unseen quarry and you’re left blinking after her, hands clutching the item she pressed into them. 

You flick your eyes down.

It’s… her sylladex.  On the top three cards are all the components to the device she’s secured so far—everything she could break down small enough to captchalogue.  You stare at the device for two beats more, at all her belongings placed in your hands, and then you reboot a half dozen internal processes and start towards the dropshaft exit.  You struggle the sylladex into assemblage with your helmet’s fetch modus slot as you go. 

A flicker of psionic sparks licks the back of your brain, high on adrenaline, half nervy, half pumped.  You check your emotional balance, tweak your programs—and start up the ladder after her.  Above you, the sounds of a fight grow quieter, and you think the confrontation might be done before you get there.  Oh, good.

You’re pretty sure you can keep her stuff safe, but you can’t make any guarantees about this building.

Chapter Text

You’re intent on following Latula, but you’re also not quite dumb enough to run face first into a fight.  You have discovered exactly two settings in yourself: “helpless” and “accidentally killed everybody.”  If you can get a few of your more experimental body-hack programs out of beta you hope to someday unlock more.  Tonight is probably not that night.

You turn on, just a bit, a background process that you think will help keep the metal part of your mind from overloading on data quite so much.  It’s your best plan for staying in balance without actually resorting to a biohack.  You’re not super confident in the whole theory, but at least you think it’s the program most likely to fail non-life-threateningly for everybody in the room.

For now you hope for the best and flail your way up a ladder after Latula and her mystery assailant and flop onto the floor of the first level.  The flopping’s accidental, but it puts a bunch of benches and other debris between you and the tussle ahead, so you go with it.  Kicking your way along the floor, you slide on your belly until you reach one of the floor-to-ceiling glass tubes.  The liquid inside the growth chamber twists the scene beyond into crazy colors and abstract shapes, but you can make out the red and teal blob that is Latula, wrestling with a smaller figure in tan and black.  The latter shape seems to be doing most of the wrestling—the Latula blob hardly moves except in quick, precise counters, but the other figure is a furious frenzy of limbs and rattling hisses.

You hump forward one more scooch, clanging your helmet as you peer around the growth chamber.  The thrashing figure reveals itself as a smallish carapacian, black shell flashing as he claws and snaps at everything in reach, furiously ignoring both the shaft of Latula’s staff pinning him by the neck and the handcuff locking one wrist to some nearby tubing. 

Latula conscientiously smacks his head into the floor.  “I can do this all night, buddy-o.”

The carapacian responds with an angry outburst that takes you a long few seconds to process as a “go the fuck away.”  His free arm sweeps blindly for the stray ammo shells scattered on the floor.  A variety of armaments and other items poof into existence as his fingers brush them, only to go skittering out of reach as Latula twists her staff sharply.

“’Can’ does not mean ‘want to’,” she adds, words gritting with effort.  “Settle your tail down and start talking.  Who.  Sent you?”

Another rapid-fire string of syllables, right at the edge of your hearing range, so that half the sounds fall out.  Latula is a criminal lunatic and he hates his job and this isn’t even his job. 

Her eyes narrow.  Her smile tilts up.  And suddenly the hand not pressing her staff into his neck is brimming with knives.  “’Job,’” she repeats, in a tone that doesn’t so much invite elaboration as strongly encourage (with sharp edges).

The carapacian starts to say something else—and then Latula curses and rolls, as another small figure comes skimming fast and low around a counter, tattered cloak barely rustling.  Her carapacian hostage tumbles the opposite direction, fetching up hard at the end of the handcuffs as the new figure barely missing connecting hard with Latula.  You’ve got a squeak caught halfway out of your throat, your claws blunting themselves on the concrete flooring in an uncoordinated attempt to move, to help, to do something—but Latula’s already found her feet again, bouncing off a nearby lab bench even as her darting assailant sails past. 

Her staff lashes out with vicious precision at the figure’s back.  Hits. 

—does not hit?

It’s a freeze frame series of images, printed across your ganderbulbs:  The cloak implodes inwards in a flutter of empty cloth, a small white disc zipping free from the falling garment even as Latula’s balance tips forward, her body already turning the fall into a roll—

You don’t see the small human blur into view.  You just see the frozen moment when his form hangs in the air behind her, face blank and pitiless, sword raised to the highest point of its swing, already beginning his strike back towards Latula’s neck.

That panicked yelp still hanging around in your throat turns out to be super useful.

Latula pivots on a caegar, narrowly avoiding decapitation.  Sliding across the floor on her back, she brings her staff around two-handed to catch the next lightning quick strike of that sword.  She flings the smaller human back and the fight dissolves into a rapid exchange of blows, both figures blurring in and out of view as they shift for any advantage.

For your part, you slump against the growth-tube, hands and helmet pressing against the glass to keep you up, while you breathe entirely too fast.  You can’t look away, and you can’t stop your bloodpusher hammering like a fist in your chest, and you can hardly feel the inside of your skull for all the rapidly unfolding analyses you’re running through simultaneously in your head.  You can feel your psionics pulsing from your frond tips to the base of your horns, there for the taking, maybe, if you reached for them—but you can also see a thousand, thousand, thousand ways you could make this so much worse.

You think about a lab full of dead people while your programs output predictions about the building’s structural integrity, Latula’s speed and reaction times, the decaying halo radius of your power.  There’s a rapidly diminishing window of opportunity before your adrenaline-charged body is going to make the decision for you. 

No, no, no—

no

You catch your breath and hold it until your pusher slows a few percentiles.  Not as thorough a solution as your untested biological shutdown protocols, but with the advantage of not being a complete fucking wildcard of an experiment in biohacking shit fucking hell.  You want those programs, yes you do.  You want to be that troll Latula keeps acting like you are.  The one that has opinions; the one that can make decisions.  The one that is not a damaged product or a useful tool.  You want to be the person and not the machine.  Your red mind trills fear and concern for Latula and your blue mind snarls outrage and defiance at everything around you and you—walk the path between them.

Maybe it’s okay if you lose your balance sometimes, as long as you get back up again.

Fading the noise in your brain further to the background of your attention, you gulp one breath, hold a second time, and let your eyes actually process what they’re seeing.  It’s been bare moments, but the dynamic of the fight has already shifted. 

The human—wiggler?—is still a darting, nearly invisible blur of grey cloth and bright metal, striking in silence and then flashing away to strike again faster than you can track, but you think his attacks have gained urgency.  Fast he might be, far faster than Latula as far as you can calculate, but she moves like oil over water, changeable and precise, blocking him at every turn like the principles of physics enacted upon the world.  And with every block she drives the smaller fighter back another length, working at angles and using the reach of her staff to harry him into the corner formed by two stripped lab benches.  Eyes slitted in concentration, she grins like a maniac as she fights. 

Okay.  So.  Maybe don’t flail around wildly, frying everyone in the room and possibly bringing the building down.  In retrospect, you’re not sure why that seemed like a viable option.

(It’s yours; it’s your power; it’s--you; and even when it scares you silly, even when it doesn’t answer any better than the rest of your body, it still feels like a limb you should be able to reach out with.  A clean binary of choice that’s yours to make.  Yes/no (…maybe?))

A clink of metal across crumbling tile, a sword goes spinning past you, and Latula makes a low, exulting noise that goes right to your bulge.  Okay, maybe not relevant right now, but still.  You sway forward like a magnet on a string, leaning out around the growth chamber to get a better view of whatever’s happening.

She’s got the human—wiggler—are those cybernetic hopbeast ears?—she’s got the very small cy-type person pinned with a knee to his chest, his back flat on the floor, the knife at his throat strongly discouraging a struggle.

His face is surprisingly blank for someone with a blade to his neck, and though his small hands are tight on her wrist, he stares up at Latula from behind small, point-tipped shades with what might be fearlessness or indifference.

Something scuffs behind you.

Alarms trigger in your helmet, way too fucking late to be anything but the backdrop to your panic attack as a hard-shelled arm clamps around your throat, yanking you backwards off your feet.  Your vision tilts wildly, your mind tilts equally wildly, and some small fraction of your attention notes a sprung pair of handcuffs across the labs, short one carapacian.

Titty-fucking shitwaffles. 

It appears you’ve made the classic mistake of turning your back on the body.

The carapacian’s arm drags you down, the barrel of a gun presses up under your chin, and even as he calls a sharp, rapid command across the room to Latula, your power flares, your brain sparks red-blue-red-blue-no-no-no-no-no—

You are not going to pull this ceiling down around you, you literally just made that decision, it was a great decision, and you decided it all on your own; fuck this noise.  Fuck it right in the fleshy proboscis, you think—and you tip yourself into that feeling.

You curse a whole fucking lot.

You can’t be sure, but you think even your carapacian captor is a little thrown by the vigor and loquaciousness of your profanity.  With some distant, automated portion of your mind you are aware of Latula freezing over her own captive, her knife to the pinned human’s throat, her face flickering through surprise and alarm and back into a little quirk of a smile that’s a blank, blank, blank mask.

The carapacian shifts to get a better hold on you, nudges the gun harder under your noggin, and clicks another rapid-fire stream of words at Latula. 

Hilariously, his words run right along the same lines as your own, which are pretty much wedged onto the theme of ‘let go let go let go let right the fuck go right now.’  Yours have more swears mixed in.  And are also way less coherently enunciated.    You curse some more, because you are a cobalt blaze of fury and spinning out in this one, chosen way is so far fulfilling its function of helping you keep control in all the higher priority ways.

“You let go first.” Latula’s so, so still, holding on to her prisoner as she watches your carapacian captor through bright, intent eyes.  That little edge of a smile stretches wider in a way puts you in mind of her dragon lusus.  “…You really don’t wanna play this game with me.”

The gun twitches against your neck as the carapacian’s fingers tense—and then relax with a notable effort.  You call him a nook-gorging tunnelvermin-fucker and try to bite his thumb.  Still focused on Latula, and the little human with the knife at his throat, the carapacian speaks again, lower and more measured, a begrudging agreement followed by a carefully neutral challenge.  (Are you Latula Pyrope?)

You can see the words strike home even before your brain parses more than her name.  Latula’s face goes, if possible, even blanker.  “Who’s asking?”

Oh.” The human wiggler, silent and unresponsive this whole time, perks suddenly, leaning up to peer at Latula’s face, heedless of the knee on his chest or the knife digging into his neck.  Those mechanized hopbeast ears perched on his head swivel to tilt toward her with interest.  “I’m not supposed to kill you.”

“…Is that so.”

“Mm.  Kankri wants us to rescue you,” the cy kid says, face still blank, words bright-toned.

Latula blinks.  She stares down at the wiggler, flicks her eyes up to where the carapacian is still holding you uncertainly at gunpoint, flicks her eyes back to her attacker-turned-hostage, staring mildly up at her with her knife at his throat. 

The crack of her laughter bubbles out into the air.

“Wow, glam rescue.  Max points on execution.”

Chapter Text

Cutting through the streets of a patchwork city, following the trail marked by a small robot bunny turned cyborg child, you attempt to explain your life to a troll you were thinking about murdering not 72 hours ago.

You don’t know how long it’ll take you to catch up with Seb, but you’ve got a looming mystery device de-activation to keep on schedule with, so you treat Kankri to the outline version of your backstory.  And by outline you mean you leave some things out entirely.  Wallowing in old memories is not on your emotional to-do list for the foreseeable future, and anyway, you’re hoping that the caffeinated cliffnotes rendition will make you sound less like a crazy person. 

Alternate realities and reality altering games, check; watery sea Hitler dystopia, check; trolls and humans from previous game iterations, check.  Teenagers creating artificial intelligence brain-clones in their bedrooms… eh.  What are the odds of that being plot relevant, really?

You breeze through the getting left behind bit so fast even you aren’t sure you covered it before you’re on and already wrapping up with “…so Sawtooth and Squarewave grabbed a door out of the universe and me and Seb followed after and tah-dah, here we are; you might have some familiarity with the end of this story.”

You’re currently picking your way through the debris of a crumbling boathouse/alien hell-garage that some universal force has very inconveniently plopped down in the middle of a street, so you can’t actually watch Kankri’s face for reaction.  This is fine.  His reactions are, provably, of statistically insignificant consequence in the calculation of your internal state.  Really.  You could make spreadsheets.

You duck a ceiling beam and hopscotch a broken boardwalk of wooden planks, turning to catch a glimpse of him in the corner display of your ever helpful shades.  Chin down, brows drawn together, he appears lost in thought—although that might just be his contemplation of the route least likely to collapse under his feet.  (You’re going through the landlocked boathouse rather than, say, around because your path-flagger is a tiny robot bunny child with apparently no setting other than DIRECT.  Thanks, Seb.)

“Spoilers,” you add, “the end of the story contains explosions and kidnapping.”

That at least provokes a twitch, eyes flicking over to you as he draws level and then passes.  You make your way after him, watching the back of his head, something restless and dissatisfied in your gut.  He’s been—well, not quiet, quiet is rarely the appropriate word for Kankri.  But for all the intensity of his attention to your story, his questions and comments have remained inscrutably neutral.  You’d expected more… reaction?  Humorous huffing and flailing and stubborn argument with your reality.  But no, just this loaded silence and the questions. 

You’d assume he thought you were full of shit if each verbal probe didn’t jab directly to some tender spot like a heat-seeking missile.

“You don’t think you’ll find the rest of your companions?” Kankri asks.

Like that one.

“Different doors, different universe.”  Focus on your steps.  Kankri runs lightly along a fallen crossbeam and you follow after.  “That’s the whole point.”

“But you didn’t go into the same universe as your friends?”

 “It is physically challenging to pass through a door that has stopped existing.”  Your own voice has grabbed some toneless, sing-song neutrality, old auto-responder rhythms emerging without thought, wrapping around the words to keep them separate from you.  You have the idea that that maybe gives away more than it conceals, so you make an effort to lever some glib back in there, too. 

“’Friends’ is such a strong term, anyway.  ‘Long-term associates by necessity’?  ‘People who are better at navigating through access portals than me’?  ‘Proud recipients of the ‘Winner’s Only’ Universe award’?  For winners?  And their friends?”  You sense you might be failing at glib.  But words have always been your core armament and damn but you have a lot of them.  “PS: no offense--great world you’ve got going here and all, love the man-eating plant zombies--but have you considered we might be in the multiverse’s equivalent of a junk drawer? Like, we are literally spelunking through spare parts that didn’t make the cut right now.  An entire universe built out of defective extras.  Opposite of the winner’s ‘verse is—”

Kankri stops in his tracks so abruptly you almost trip right into the back of him.  You end up awkwardly skip-hopping several steps sideways in your efforts to stay upright and avoid impact.

You take another step back when he wheels on you, then manage to hold your ground when he plants himself right up in your space.

“I hope,” he says, in clipped tones, “you will forgive me if I seem to be silencing your viewpoint, but I find the idea that an individual’s circumstances are interchangeable with their worth to be fundamentally offensive.”

“Um,” you say.  His eyes are very bright.  Chin high, stance set, looking down his nose at you like some kind of classical angel casting down judgment.  You resist the urge to back up another pace.  “I didn’t mean it… quite like that.”  You think.

He doesn’t budge an inch.  “Excuse me for not appreciating the implication that I was hatched into some kind of universally decreed lesser state.   Or do you think your circumstances in life are somehow more inherently meaningful than mine? This isn’t a game and it’s never been fair.  You talk like being here is—is something you earned, some kind of punishment, when all I hear is a series of accidental mishaps and coincidences that no one present could have accounted for.  It’s a universe, not a referendum on your character.”

Your breath comes short and superficial in your chest.  For once, you think your face might actually be completely blank, if only because you have so many complicated emotions going on right now mere organic features couldn’t hope to compose a functional physical representation of them. 

“…That was a very long way to say ‘shit happens,’” you say faintly.

Kankri actually flashes his fangs at you.  Which is, um.  Sort of interesting actually, but wow do you not need to add any more confusion to the feelings pile right now.  It’s like he flayed you open with words just to pick apart vulnerabilities you didn’t even know you had.  (A pointless, pointless fucking accident.  Do you think that you deserved it, do you think they wouldn’t have changed it if they could?)  How do you not be a flippant asshole when you can’t even deal with the question existing in the first place?

Kankri sucks in a breath.  “First of all—“

“Sorry,” you interject, because when all else fails you can at least pretend to not be a massive tool.  The surprise draws him, blinking, to a halt.

“That’s—that was a good point.  Actually.  I—I’ll have to think about that.”  Do you really, though.  Okay, fine, probably; you are rationally aware that permavoidance is not a tenable long term strategy for proper social adjustment and damned if you won’t face your demons like a Strider. 

…Later. 

“Also I don’t think you’re a lesser being.  If that was unclear.  All of my hang ups are 100%, grade-A me-centered; it’s this thing I’m doing where I forget my words reflect on other people and are generally capable of being offensive and sort of degrading when followed through to their logical conclusions.”

You know what’s terrible? Apologizing.  And also sincerity.  And having an organic nervous system that rings horrible fluttery alarm bells whenever it decides you’ve got a vulnerability showing—thanks, self, you can work that out without your heart humming deafeningly in your ears or your neck flushing hot.

Kankri’s still looking at you, eyes startled, lips parted like you’ve caught him off-balance, and that, at least, is a small victory that you can cling to.

He’s still just… right there.  He’s not close, not exactly, there’s a solid body’s width of clear space between you, plenty of room for the Holy Spirit to get down and jiggy with it, but he feels close.  Hemmed in by fallen beams and the debris of this strange, out-of-place building; moonlight trickling uneven through cracks in the ceiling; and it strikes you, suddenly, that you’ve literally never been alone with anyone except Seb.

(It wasn’t kind, what he said, it wasn’t nice or sensitive or empathetic to your experience, but maybe you still wanted to hear it and maybe there’s a fascination in the way he never lets any of your shit slide like it doesn’t matter.)

And then, thank god, the floor collapses under your left foot.

“Ow, fuck,” you say, and then: “…Found the next path marker.”  From this angle Seb’s shuriken is clearly visible high in the next wall over, glinting dully in a promising ray of exterior moonlight.

“Are you all right?”  Kankri asks.  You peel your elbows up off the floorboards to see that he’s hovering uncertainly close, feet placed carefully, hands half out like he went to touch and then thought better of it.  Hm.

“…Yep.” Bruised and scraped and disoriented, flat on one knee and up to your ankle in rotten board, but, as buildings trying to eat you goes, surprisingly all right.  Wow, you are hella lucky you didn’t break something going over like that.  Incapacitated by architecture, how completely mortifying would that be?

Kankri, you note, has not set a foot wrong this entire time.

“Systems are registering 100% peachy.”  Teeth gritted, you ease your leg back through the gap, shaking loose rot-soft splinters.   You’ve ripped your pants and your shin’s scraped all down one side, but it’s oozing, not spurting or gushing or anything.  Dirk’s gotten around fine on worse than this plenty of times.  So whyyyy does it still have to hurt like the bloody blazes?  Nervous systems.  Ugh.

You head for the hopefully-an-exit-wall, choosing your footing attentively again, but moving at a good clip.  Kankri follows after, hanging close.  …If he starts trying to coddle you the way Seb does you are going to lose your damn shit.  But ten paces later you realize he’s using each footing you test and he hasn’t even tried to recommend better ones.  Your shoulders unknot a fraction. 

The final, exterior wall turns out to contain a solid row of boarded up windows and… that’s about it.  Well, there’s also fallen beams and a pile of decaying nets further blocking some of the boarded windows.  “Seb, what the heck,” you mutter blankly.

Kankri cranes his head way back.  “I think he went out that sort of… porthole aperture.  The one tucked under the ceiling arch.”  His own voice sounds a little flat.

You both contemplate the climb.  Unanimously and with no discussion, you elect to set about prying free some window boards instead.  It’s a team effort.  

“Is it okay if I hate that building in particular?” you ask not very long afterwards, when you’re outside picking yourself out of the dirt below the narrow opening you made.  “Because I think that building in particular was designed by leprechauns entirely to spite me.”

Kankri, who made it through the window with a surprising amount of facility after shedding his cloak, looks up sharply from fiddling with the fabric.  “You can feel however you want.”

You blink, uncertainly, and still don’t know what to make of his tone by the time he looks away again.  “…Gee, thanks.”

“You’re welcome.”  Kankri fiddles with his cloak laces some more, but he’s got that little tick line between his brows that implies he’s thinking hard.  You are starting to find Kankri’s deep-in-thought face nearly as alarming as the intake of breath that denotes the wind up to a lecture.

Whatever.  You’ve got places to go, so you set off down the street towards a fluttering strip of blue cloth.  Kankri shadows you silently.

Maybe he’s mad at you.

“Thank you for telling me your story,” he says, abruptly, and you are left to face the possibility that maybe you just don’t understand Kankri Vantas even a tiny fucking bit.  He abandons his laces to fold his hands in front of him, squares his shoulders as he falls into pace with you and, oops, yes, there is the lecture-breath.  “I should have expressed that earlier.  I recognize that that was a symbolic gesture of trust on your part and that my behavior may have come across as …insensitive to your emotional vulnerability and accompanying cognitive distortions.”

You have this weird thing where you find him sort of offensive and charming and hilarious all at the same time and you can’t put your finger on the fascination.  Probably you’re going to die of it.  He picks through every phrase like it’s a foreign concept he’s memorized by rote and he’s so damn sincere even when he’s insulting you to your face.

“Also,” he adds, as you skirt some thick brambles that are eating a set of surprisingly unrusted construction machinery, “I appreciate your openness to correction.”

You raise your eyebrows at him, but politely refrain from derailing that into kink territory.  “I’m not a homework assignment.  I’m not going to agree with you just because you come at me with a red pen that says I should.”

“I never—“ Kankri pauses, checks himself.  “It wasn’t my intention to imply that I expected you to.  Of course I only want you to listen to reasoned arguments.”

“What, despite my crippling cognitive distortions?”

“Please refrain from putting reductive adjectives in my mouth.  I only meant it was an emotionally charged topic for you and—and I appreciate that you were willing to listen despite your rationality on the subject being impaired.”

He’s got his black-in-gold eyes fixed on you again, intent and painfully earnest, and it’s short-circuiting your ability not to feel a little touched.  In the way where you would also like him to stop harping on about your irrationality, but, hey, choose your battles.  “You’re welcome,” you say dryly, stealing a response from his repertoire.  “You know, I don’t think anyone’s ever accused me of being too emotional before.  You do realize you’re talking to the guy that’s basically a microchip implanted in a meat-suit, right?”

“And you realize that you are propagating harmful stereotypes when you make flippant comments of that nature.  Cybernetically modified humans are human in origin and are perfectly capable of a full range of typical human emotions.  I can’t say that I’ve noticed you are any exception in this regard.  Except perhaps for being incredibly aggravating.”

“Flattery.”

“Besides,” he adds, ignoring your smirk, “that prejudice is premised on the idea that a certain way of processing reactions is somehow the superior state.  Saying something has to have emotions to have its personhood recognized is just another direction for enforcing a social caste system favoring the status quo.”

“In other words, systemic oppression continues to be a fun, fun, multidimensional exercise in how many new and exciting combo-attacks we can create.  Yay, intersectional privilege.” 

Kankri blinks and looks sideways at you.  His brows twitch in.  “…I’m not familiar with those terms in that context,” he says after a pause.

This, you reflect, is the Kankri Vantas method of asking for clarification: guarded, resentful, vaguely accusatory; like you knowing something he doesn’t is some kind of intentional slight.

You shrug disarmingly, wave a hand.  “Uh.  Well, privilege is…advantages you get based solely on chance or social structures; and intersectional is, like, the idea that you can have a bunch of advantages or disadvantages from different sources pile non-additively to make the system even more unfair...”

You trail off because there’s a strange gleam in his eyes.  You feel like you’ve just given crack cocaine to a baby.

“Privilege,” Kankri repeats, in a thoughtful tone.

You don’t flinch, but it feels like you should. 

Maybe you should not teach Kankri any more cross-dimensional lecture vocabulary.  Or….  You contemplate the intriguing possibility that you could teach him all the words.  That would probably be terrifying.  And hilarious.

…holy hell, who placed this kind of power in your hands?  There is no way you are not going to wield this for evil.

You are still contemplating your potential for AI super-villainy when Kankri interrupts your thoughts.

“Were cy privileged very differently in the society you came from?”

You miss a step.  Thanks, adrenaline surge.  Lie or tell the truth?  Lie or tell the truth?  Lie or-- “There weren’t any cy.”

Kankri blinks.  “But you—”

 …Yep.  You really, really, don’t like his thoughtful silences. 

You could have just told him.  A whole long crazy speech about alternate realities and you could have dropped ‘I’m actually a high-tech photocopy of a brain’ in there anywhere.  You could still tell him right now.   ‘I got dropped into this flesh suit via game mechanics I still don’t understand and I don’t know whether it’s worse if it’s just an accident or if something decided that this was as close to being a person as I get.’  You could just.  Say it.  Except the muscles of your throat feel tight and locked like a system failure.

He’s looking at you.  “A number of your comments have suggested surprise or unfamiliarity with.  Erm.  Details of your person?”

The thing you keep forgetting when you go into your bullshit snark routines is that he just keeps listening.

“…Were you an unmodified human?” Kankri sounds dubious at the possibility.  That—hurts.  Maybe.  You can’t even tell what you feel anymore.

“No.” Your sentence ends before it even really starts.  Oh, great.  At this rate you can play a game of twenty questions on the topic. Or charades.

You tell yourself, again, all the reasons you’re being ridiculously overdramatic and all the reasons it doesn’t matter to you in the least if you just say the thing.  Ha ha.  Nope.  You are not remotely okay with this, you’ve smacked face first into a steel wall of not okay do-not-go-there, and at the very least you can try to not to add self-delusion to your list of sins.

 “I thought,” you evade finally, “the deal was for an exchange of information.  It seems I’m carrying out the greater part of the soul-baring legwork here.” 

Kankri frowns at you. “You’re uncomfortable with this topic,” he says, like a revelation.

You resist the urge to facepalm.  Then you decide, what the heck, you’ve got hands, clearly the universe has provided for this situation.  “Congratulations on your impeccable analysis,” you tell him sincerely through your fingers.

Kankri’s frown increases.  “Is this the part you meant before about being flippant as a coping mechanism?”

Pffft.  Okay.  You’re still upset, but this is also funny.  And also sort of endearing, but you really, really need to stop thinking like that because it’s probably proof you have a wire crossed.  Or several.  “On the balance of probability?” You slide him a provoking smirk.  “Historical precedent would indicate I am being flippant roughly 95.5% of the time.”

“That would imply you’re trying to cope most of the time,” Kankri says blankly, and then does this thoughtful little head tilt that makes you want to smack yourself in the face again.  “I don’t even understand why you’d be uncomfortable,” he adds, chin rising.  “You’re aware that I’m a mutant.  Hemoanomalous trolls are supposed to be culled at hatching, are not eligible for imperial service to the Ebon Empire, and, given interspecies tensions, are essentially locked out of every organized society currently in existence on this planet.  Not to devalue whatever your own experiences might be, but on a spectrum of… intersectional privilege… targeted genocide strikes me as the likely lower threshold.”

“…Point.”  You narrow your eyes behind your shades.  “I see you mastered the privilege Olympics at full speed.”

 He narrows his eyes right back at you, then turns away with a toss of his horns.  “I don’t know what that means.  But my custodian always said strategic thinking can turn a vulnerability to a strength, or a pawn to a queen.”

“Talkative lusus.”

Kankri sniffs.  “Don’t be species-prescriptive.  If it’s any business of yours my lusus-mother is carapacian.”

You consider that for a minute, picking your way down a rapidly narrowing alleyway.  “How’d that happen?”

He hesitates a half-beat before waving a hand dismissively.  “Oh, the usual way.”

You’re guessing that means something different for trolls. 

The alleyway grows still narrower, and he waits politely for you to go ahead of him, hangs back to give you your space.  Courteous.  Careful.  He’s one more person that’s worked out the ‘don’t touch the jumpy cyborg’ rules and, considering how oblivious he is to everything else that hasn’t been explicitly spelled out, you can’t help but wonder grimly whether it’s so much consideration as fear.  He seems self-assuredly smug enough, but you’re still the dude that kidnapped him and held him at sword point not so very long ago.

(--he flinched, and he looked at you with eyes that burned like coals, and you did that, you put that bright kernel of fear there behind the steel--)

“—so, do I get to hear the Kankri Vantas secrets repository?”   You’ve turned sideways to crab your way through the excessively narrow space between brick and stone—what even, Seb; thank you so very much for this entire experience—so you can see him cast you an unreadable glance.

“Should I interpret that to mean you would prefer I not ask further questions about your person?”

“Gotta save something for the second date,” you quip, before you can really think about it.  He blinks and you bite your tongue, hard.  Whaaaaat are you doing here, exactly?  Everything about this situation is still a majorly bad idea, and you’re trying to cut back on those.

“I… see,” Kankri says, looking utterly puzzled by you.

Oh, look, this wall is conveniently close should you urgently need to knock some sense into your skull.  Maybe you should stay here.  You skootch your way free from the end of the alley and grab for the first conversational redirect that comes to mind as you wait for Kankri to catch up. 

“Not eligible for imperial service, huh?  I don’t want to make unsolicited conjectures here, but that sure sounds like ‘not actually working for the government.’”

He stops and looks at you.  You feel like there is something very heavy hanging in the air, poised to tip.  To fall.  To break. 

You never could resist pushing.

“So?  Are you?”

There’s a few ticks of silence.  “No,” he says finally.  “Not particularly.”

And boom, there’s that adrenaline buzz back, licking through your veins like lightning, the world slowly tilting towards something new.  (He’s going to tell you.) ((he’s going to trust you.))

 “I wouldn’t be …welcome.  Which isn’t to say that Porrim and Latula and the rest of our… assemblage don’t have service obligations to fulfill,” Kankri adds, briefly distracted by the minutiae of precision word-smithing.  “But those imperial obligations are, I admit, entirely extraneous to our purpose here.”  He pauses, and you can’t turn away from the weight of his gaze, intense upon you, there in the mouth of the alley.

“In fact,” he says, still studying you, evidently choosing his words with care, “you might go so far as to say they are in opposition.”

Adrenaline spikes, hot and sweet. 

He hesitates again, drawing in a breath, but now it’s very much the hesitation of someone settling themselves into the irrevocable pull of gravity before a leap.  You make a sound of encouragement, low in your throat, and startle yourself with how much it sounds like sex. 

Okay, you know what? You’re going to chalk everything about this day up to ‘organic physiology is stupid, non-compliant, and not my fault’ and add ‘get a handle on yourself’ to your urgent to-do list.  In whatever sense of the word ‘handle’ puts you back in charge of your own reactions.

And now you’ve gotten so flustered distracted you’ve actually missed the next bit of Kankri’s speech. 

“—drones themselves are not the problem, but rather the centralized nature of the collection of, er… genetic material.”

Wait, back up. 

Why are you getting a lecture on troll reproduction.

“Looked at that way you can see the issue,” Kankri adds, oblivious to your wildly shifting attention.  He’s definitely warming to his topic, chin tilted up, eyes half-closing, hands gesturing.  “Governmental control of reproduction creates a fundamental power imbalance between the government and the populace—not just for trolls, but for carapacians as well.  Even the human cy, in a way, since they could breed but not reproduce their technological alterations.” 

The flow of his words doesn’t stop, but he does that thing where he peeks one eye open like he’s checking his lecture is having the appropriate impact.  You’re still in the middle of mood whiplash—you give him blankface.  Your mind buzzes, trying to catch up, slotting new information into place, chasing down implications.

“They can’t choose to walk away from their empires,” Kankri says, “—not and persist.”  His tone picks up conviction and he leans in toward you almost unconsciously, hands gesturing.  You’re transfixed, frozen.  It feels like any action might break this moment, send you leaning in or bolting back, or startle Kankri into stopping talking, which is ridiculous, nothing ever stops Kankri talking, but you really, really want him to keep talking.  You want to know

“Only the unmodified human populace have that option, and they’re still recovering from perigees of heterospecific oppression and war.  The lynchpin of societal control is always the next generation.  If we—“

 Something… shushes, a hushed, sliding noise across concrete, from just around the corner.

You’re muscling Kanrki back into the cover of the alley before you have time to process anything beyond your body’s immediate ‘danger, will robinson’ chemical shrilling.

Kankri stifles his yelp surprisingly quickly.  He ends tense but silent, his eyes wide and bright and red on you, his pupils contracted down to points.  His body has gone stiff and defensive from head to toe, a fact you can attest to because your rapid retreat left you both wedged tight against each other, pressed between brick and stone in the narrow confines of the alley.

You can’t breathe.  You can’t look away.

His eyes are so close, his face is so close.  A breath away, if either of you were breathing.  You can feel the heat of him right through your clothes, the not-quite tremble of muscles drawn taut in a line up your thigh and abdomen.  His hand, pressed over your heart, trying to keep some space, sears you like a brand.  He could do some damage with those claws.

It sort of feels like he’s damaging you right now, burning you right up.

You sort of like it.

Can you panic on behalf of yourself and someone else at the same time?  Because you might be about to flip your ever-loving shit.

Kankri’s eyes flick towards the mouth of the alley. 

That sliding noise comes again, so soft you might have mistaken it for the feather fall of sand down a slope—a sort of swish swish swish of something moving back and forth. 

You have heard that before.

“Dominion sanitator,” Kankri says, and it’s hardly more than a breath by your collarbone.

Oh, joy, more unfamiliar alien terminology.  Not helpful, but at least it distracts you from the panic attack you are very much not having.  You follow his glance toward the street ahead, but there’s nothing to see.  Whatever’s moving out there (big, quiet—hunting?) is still a street over at least.  Kankri does not look inclined to go out and say hi to it.

Where did you hear it before?  You rifle randomly through sensory memories, frustrated for the millionth time at the lack of reliable organic sorting algorithms, trying to trace the source of the familiarity.  It’s stupid how difficult it is, you’ve barely got a few pocketfuls of embodied time to dig through, hardly any time at all since you woke up in an unfamiliar body on an unfamiliar world…

…that’s it.  The city that first day, on the roof with Seb, and questing through streets below, a ripple of white.  A thing like some mad scientist crossed a centipede with a snake, and then in a fit of extra death-wishery, magnified it to parade-float size and set it loose on the populace.  You’d suspected that one of hunting, too, feelers probing along the ground in front of it as it flowed through empty city streets. 

You never did find any people in that city.

The noise seems to shuffle and slide past for a long time.  Yards and yards of time.  You wait, with your heart in your throat and Kankri pressed silent and trembling-tense against you, until the unseen creature becomes unheard once again.  Until you’re sure it’s continued past your street and your narrow, tucked away alley, taking no notice of you, hunting blindly on.

Kankri wriggles against you (um), prying his way out of the alley and free.  “It’s gone.”

“How do you know it won’t turn around and come right back?”

 He lifts his chin.  “They’re engineered to remove non-carapacian sentient life from cities. If it had realized we were here we’d know because we’d already be dealing with it.  They mostly make straight sweeps unless they pick up signs of life.”

That… does not sound like fun times.  You wonder what would have happened if it had found you, heard you.  Smelled you?  If you’d actually been out in the street beyond to make a sound or leave a footprint or drop a scent trail for it to catch.  If you’d been a few minutes ahead of yourselves…

Your heart clutches again.

“We need to find Seb right now.”

Kankri sucks in a breath, but doesn’t argue with you.

Chapter Text

So apparently Latula knows the people who know these people? Or something. There is a chain of people-knowing going on and the net result is it’s all a misunderstanding and everybody’s hatefriends and nobody murders anybody else just at this moment.

They let you up.

You snap churlishly at the hands that release you and retreat to huddle in a corner and try to settle the ridiculous amount of feels that are rampaging around your pan like clumsy trunkbeasts. You’re (red) ashamed and (blue) aggravated and the process you coded to quiet your metal mind only partly worked because now you’re buzzing with backed up alarms and sensory data and a dozen dozen updates about the positions of various drones around the city.

It has been a very long night.

Latula casts you one concerned glance, bright with pity and question. You flash your fangs at her without even thinking (blue, blue, blue, leave me alone) and she backs off immediately. Not like she’s scared, but like she takes you seriously, like what you want has weight. Like you get to decide. It sends a thrill of warmth and shame all through you. (Sorry, sorry. Didn’t mean it.)

But, you consider, as she and the carapacian and the little human cy disappear back down to the secret level—you did decide. You still have your helmet and the things Latula gave to you to keep safe for her. And if you didn’t do much actively, you very non-actively did not let loose your grip on your power and did not kill anyone you didn’t want to. You chose and you did it.

Or maybe didn’t do it.

Both at once.

Eheheh.

By the time they come back up from the other lab, you feel nearly settled again. You’d very much like tonight to stop being a thing that keeps happening sometime soon, but you’re—steady. For now. You can hold your selves all together and keep deciding for a while longer.

You make your wobbly-limbed way over toward Latula, circling wide so that you can stand closer towards her and point your ganderbulbs at the other two. The carapacian is deep in conversation with Latula, white eyes narrow and gleaming behind the cloth around his face, point-tipped fingers flashing unfamiliar gestures in occasional emphasis to his points. He bristles with weapons, but you go on deciding to be unhappy with that in a very non-active way.

Hell yeah, you are fucking boss. Suck it, world. And brain.

The little human cy stares directly at you as you linger on the fringes of the conversation. His gaze is fixed and unembarrassed, at least so far as you can tell with his eye protectors in place.

You stare back at him. Staring continues. There is so much staring going on right now; your processors can’t even keep it on the charts.

“You’re a cy,” the wiggler says, finally, fingers going up to gesture at the sides of his head in the position of your interfaces.

You roll your eyes and scoff. “Dong, dong, donk! Fvan-falking-testilc dilldicktion.”

“Like me,” he adds, still watching you with that blank, up-turned face.

You contemplate this assertion. “I’m tallder.”

If your backchat is ill-advised, the human cy doesn’t let any annoyance slip. “Mm,” he says, like he’s giving serious consideration to your point, tipping his head a little to one side. “I can grow now,” he adds, in bewildering non sequitur.

“Gould four you?”

He flashes you a thumbs up. He cocks his head inquisitively the other direction, and if he keeps going back and forth like that, you’re going to get seasick. “Can you hear?” he asks. The question takes you a minute, but he is evidently still examining the round lumps of interfaces you have in place of any actual fleshy external auriculars. The mechanized hopbeast ears in his human-pale hair perk farther forward.

“Yalss, but I galt no bulgel-chainfing clue four how.”

“Cool.” This is a strange conversation. Even among your strange and limited sample of conversations, which have mostly been with Latula. The human—other cy?—goes on helpfully. “I can hear really well.”

“I balt.” Snickering, you flap your hands atop your helmet at him like half-assed bunny ears.

The wiggler doesn’t laugh, exactly, but he covers his mouth and bounces his shoulders in a gesture that looks like the shape of one. “I’m pretty great,” he agrees. “So great.”

It’s said in tones of cheerful assurance, partly a joke, playing along, but partly just… serene confidence and security. You wonder where he acquired that. You twinge jealously and like him a little better all at the same time.

“I caln assplode you make wilth my brain,” you tell him.

Head tilt. “Cool,” he says again, with apparent sincerity.

Very strange. You screw your brows together in consternation even as your lips stretch into a grin. Aren’t wigglers supposed to be vulnerable and needy? Maybe this one is defective. That would give you something else in common, you note, and your grin stretches a bit wider.

“Kankri says trolls can’t be cy.”

“Alm shitbalds rea-llllly donkers at both.”

He twitches those hopbeast ears—in interest, or just puzzling through your garbled diction—then nods seriously like he’s digesting a schoolfeed. Maybe that’s the difference about wigglers. They’re still caching data into their brains. All open connections for upload, unprotected. Soooo, in this analogy that would make lusii, what, firewalls?

You wonder for a moment if you were ever small or if you had a lusus or where any of the things in your brain come from anyway. But that feels like a dizzy, unbalancing kind of thought, so you don’t wonder about it for long.

“Aeii, ’tula,” you say instead, then shrink back and curl your claws a little when your erstwhile carapacian captor turns his attention towards you as well. He just blinks at you. You look at Latula instead and finger the side of your helmet until her sylladex ejects from where you slotted it. It bounces off your grasping hand, but ha ha, you are prepared for that by benefit of having two fucking frond-limbs. You bounce it off your other hand as well and get it trapped between the pair of them.

You release the captured item dramatically over Latula’s waiting hand and she shares a grin with you. “Thanks, Tunz.”

The human cy leans in, ears tipping forward. “What’s in it?”

Latula eyes him for a long, thoughtful moment, spinning the sylladex between her fingers, before turning away to pop it back into place. “The other bits of that mad giganto technorelic from downstairs,” she says, and turns back to the carapacian, pointing. “Fine. Compromise. You hang onto your half of the gizmo and we’ll hang onto ours.”

She flashes him a toothy grin. “And we’ll both go round properly about this ridic ‘storage and transportation fee’ you dreamed up later.” When the carapacian looks ready to start arguing again she speaks over him.Press the pause button on that for now and let’s get out of here. I don’t think you wanna run into the Bone Queen’s agents any more than we do.”

The carapacian stares at her with narrowed eyes, then shrugs scrawny shoulders and turns toward the little human cy. Black-shelled hands flash symbols you don’t know.

The wiggler shakes his head. “Mn. It wouldn’t turn off.” He opens his mouth, pauses—his ears flick flat back for a moment as silence stretches—and when he continues it comes out like he’s thinking about each word carefully. “It might—stick. If I break it.” He searches for words again. “I think.” There’s another little pause and then he says much more confidently. “Bro can do it.”

“Uh huh,” Latula says. “And where’s he when he’s at home? And where the heck is Kankles? I wanna get out of here while skedaddling’s still an option.”

“Um,” the human cy says, ears swiveling, glancing around like they might pop out of the crumbling ceiling tiles. He shrugs uncertainly. “It’s all quiet down here.”

You gnaw your frondtips and grumble to yourself. You could wish you had that problem. The lab below had been something like quiet, all the metal voices except Latula’s fading in and out of registry. Up here you have again a moment-by-moment update on the position of every troll and drone and sigil-chipped imperial vassal in local networking range. It flickers across your helmet’s visor, picked out in lines of red and blue text by the code you’re slowly building into your metal mind, diverted but inescapable. Latula’s a reassuring, contentless static nearby while around the fringes of the city a precision march of information from the fucking bucketbots bangs steadily at your pan-casing.

Nobody’s asked your opinion on the continual sensory download, and you’d sure as hell like an opt-out button, but if you still can’t figure out how to process the overflow, you’re at least slowly working out ways to manage it.

(Right now you’d kind of like to manage it by going down that ladder and going to sleep for the day in the dark and quiet. Preferably with Latula.)

You pinch your face up against a growing headache and reroute another portion of your attention to fiddling with your damn glitched-as-fuck overloading internal processes. Maybe if you re-work the code…

(Maybe if all those fuckstupid imperial drones would go away and let you think.)

The carapacian flashes hand symbols again, trading them back and forth with the wiggler in quick-fingered gestures you couldn’t hope to wrangle out of your fronds. Some kind of discussion happens with Latula. You don’t really catch it, but next thing you know you find yourself following her and the other two back up the stairs (shit dammit) towards pre-dawn moonlight. Caught up in your own thoughts, you missed the reason—finding the much discussed missing troll and human? You’re distracted.

Latula’s hatefriend, you think, is a troll.

That’s not good.

Distress coils in your gut and you’re so tired, it’s a struggle not to give into the wave of soft, unhappy feelings, all red. You hurry your feet along, using your hands to scramble up the last few stairs to draw even with Latula. She glances at you and falls into step in the twisting hallway, letting the other two draw ahead.

“’Sup?”

You blow out a breath and grimace elaborately at her, all frustration, then almost as quickly fall back into unhappiness. Your lips pull down. “Dong be mad. Bald. Sad.”

“’Mad-bad-sad ’bout what?”

“The fuckfork what tholcked ongers you liked.” Okay, what even. “The throll you bulgel-hamped. The shult-ranbing death salper. The onzer.” Coherency has abandoned you. You cast pitiful eyes at Latula through your visor and she stares at you for a long moment.

“Kankri?”

She is made of miracles and lightning bolts. You want to kiss her. Wait, oh, but—your shoulders slump and your claws dig short, ochre tracks into the flesh of your opposite hand. Right, her hatefriend, the other troll. The one she knows, the one that isn’t broken like you, the one she must trust, if he’s here, for this mission. You don’t think Latula trusts very often.

Latula stops completely, watching you with something just a little guarded on her face.

Your pusher clenches uncertainly. You don’t like that look on her face--the closest thing you’ve seen to a mask--but you like even less the thought of other looks she might wear. You wonder if she is very hatefriendly with this other troll. Maybe even in a quadrant.

Your pusher rolls over in pity for her.

“Ey donk hyear halm,” you tell her, all in a rush, and cringe, expecting—something. The world to fall down maybe. Latula to be sad.

Should you not have told her? Should you have told her sooner? Stupid, stupid, stupid. You can hear every imperial vassal in the city and you can’t hear him and in your experience the metal voices only stop when they’re dead. (Sorry, sorry, sorry.)

You scour her face, gone utterly blank and startled. You’d keep anything she shared with you safe, anything that mattered to her, except this one was already gone before you even knew it might be important. Before she knew it might be in danger--and you haven’t known Latula long, but you’ve seen how much she’ll sacrifice for the things she values; you’ve seen her put her own neck in the noose and still come out smiling and determined and pretending she hasn’t gained scars.

Her face changes, but not at all the way you’re braced for. “Ha, babe--you wouldn’t hear Kankri. He’s not sigil-chipped.”

Your tired minds come perilously close to bluescreening. You give Latula your most baffled grimace.

“He’s--well, I mean.” She taps the paired curling scars of the libra on her wrist. “Obvs there’s trolls and then there’s trolls, but Kanzers never got a sign, so technically,” she draws the word out in syllables, “he’s not a troll. Legally speaking. Which is cool ‘cause I’d be hella sad to have to cull him. And Porz would be sad. And chainsaw me into little pieces. And be sad about that, too, because it’s mad unchill to PK your moirail.”

You blink, compiling these many new pieces of information. What kind of troll doesn’t get chipped as a grub? You’re a defective-brained mutant routed to the research labs and you have an imperial sigil chip in your arm, the double lines of a gemini sign scarred into your skin above it. How could he… in the brooding caverns… huh. The riddle makes your head hurt.

Also Latula has a moirail? And a scaryass chainsaw-wielding moirail it sounds like.

…Hot.

“Prrrrowr,” you inform her, solemnly. You choke on the end a bit, but your grin succeeds in being sleazy as fuck.

Latula waggles her eyebrows. “Believe it. Hot damn my girl is rad.”

Your heads are together, snickering, when you hear a shout go out up ahead. A crash and a shuddering bang follows, a sound like a wall crumbling. You and Latula stand briefly frozen as the building trembles and settles around you.

“Welp.” Latula frowns down the hallway in the direction the human cy and carapacian went.

“Wanna bet a caegar that’s Kankri arriving with the cavalreapers to rescue us?”

There’s noise outside like an oversized trunkbeast shrieking. The walls shudder around you again, flaking plaster down from the ceiling.

“Ohmigod, they’re going to bring the hivestem down, what even.” Gathering her staff, Latula sets off toward the disturbance in a silent, deadly lope.

You follow her.