Mostly this fic is a chance for me to a). write weird fairy tales b). jam in all of my sci-fi worldbuilding fixations and c). hint aggressively at my headcanons without explaining any of them!
I'm posting this on my cartoon tumblr (sea-tonic) as well; that version will probably update more quickly. I promise one day I'll write normal shipping fic.
I also should mention a slight choking warning for this chapter.
He takes over a moon and it's beautiful.
Dirt, dry, dust. Red like brick, like the buildings on Trenelli 4, like the rusted waterfalls of Madorex that he discovered when he was nothing but an upstart on the cosmic scale of things, wandering from planet to planet hoping to find chinks in the power structure that he could exploit.
A long time ago, that.
Now his dictatorship is galactic in scale, and he comes down on a planet with the force of an army, minions ready to jump with almighty anticipation of taking a world by storm, simple as breathing, simple as the tongue of the mothership rolling out and laying everything low.
The conquest of Artellus would have been perfect, like so many victories before (the people live underground; they might not have even seen him coming), but something goes wrong.
The Watchdogs march out, two-by-two, directly into the entrance tunnel they've pierced into the skin of the planet via laser beam. Nothing out of the ordinary there – the fluctuations in the bridge readings, there and gone in a flash, could be attributed to the dense upper atmospheric layer they passed through, or the incompetence of one of the junior officers. He has the communications officer who brings him the report booted from the hovering vessel from a hilarious height for interrupting crucial monologue prep time.
He's counting down the moments until his big entrance on the planet's surface – he's the last one onboard the ship, as it should be, as it always was – when something otherworldly slams into the titanium plating and carries the giant skull 50 kilometers to the northeast.
The ship's huge tongue trails behind, and the jaw unwittingly bites down – Hater feels its phantom blood welling in his mouth. Sixteen seconds later, before he's had time to stand upright again, another force-electric blast sends his ship spinning out of control, ripping across the tops of forests, clipping the sides of desert plateaus. He's slammed against the ship's wall from the sheer momentum; all attempts at resistance are met with equal and opposite force. This world, he thinks distantly as he tries not to choke on the laws of physics, is protected by some kind of magnetic sphere he's never seen before.
The ship climbs higher. He doesn't know where he is. Mountains reach towards the viewscreens, trying to throw him down.
At some point he must lose consciousness, because when he wakes up his ship is split and smoldering. He lies in dust, dry and red. The stars are out in force, though he can also see Artellus' giant sun. The curved horizon is closer to his prone body than it would be on a planet of Artellus' size.
The impudent hunk of rock has thrown him away. Deposited him on a wretched, neutral, utterly inconsequential moon.
He struggles to stand, supporting himself on the wreckage of his ship. It burns too passively. He chalks the phenomenon up to thin atmosphere, but "breathing" has never been high on his list of priorities so he doesn't worry.
He finds a pitiful, charred flag lying not far from the wreck and sets it upright.
He takes over a moon and it's beautiful.
It takes him, by his reckoning, three hours in Intersolar Standard Time to find the cave.
In those hours he is buffeted by rough winds, no doubt the effects of the blasts he felt on the planet's surface. It's unusual for a moon to have an atmosphere at all, much less one with momentum. Grains of red sand barrage his eyes and bite at his cheekbones, trying to make him smooth.
The Watchdogs do not make contact, though Hater suspects it would be tough to get a signal through those thick layers of yellow cloud on Artellus. It occurs to him that Peepers may not even know he is gone – the planet's people live in darkness, and Peepers led the charge down the deep, deep tunnel to the well-defended metropolis that Hater had coveted. He may not realize anything's wrong until the mop-up, when it becomes clear that Hater hasn't done his customary gloating yet.
Either way, it's become clear why the people shun life on the surface; with the possibility of being blasted off into space at any moment, who could stay?
From the outside, the cave looks like a shallow crack on the side of a low incline, but he can see the rocky floor inside dropping off to create a room he may even be able to stand in. With a bit of contortionism he manages to shove himself in feet first, only getting stuck once – his robe betrays him, catching on the ledge and rising up past his waist as he dangles there, boxers bared to the darkness. With a grunt he pushes himself the rest of the way through, awkwardly tilting his head sideways to avoid catching his jagged yellow bone prominences on the stone.
Once he fixes his robe and gets his footing on the cave floor, he finds himself at eye level with his entranceway.
He hears the scatter-scraping sounds of pebbles moving behind him.
He catches his breath – he's found the lair of some insatiable beast, he's going to die here in infamy and stupid Peepers is going to take control of his hard-earned empire, the universe is so unfair to him, how dare–
He closes his eyes. He prays to some unknown evil deity, begging for the power to undo whatever awful knot in time and space led to this precise moment and every iteration of this moment that came before it.
"Ya know, I think the stars are really an improvement. I like the color combination too."
Heat rises to coat Hater's skeletal face as he realizes what exactly Wander is complimenting. He whirls around to face him, fists clenched at his sides. "How dare you approve of the color of my underwear!" he roars.
Wander is sitting against the wall, a small fire stuttering in front of him. His banjo is on his lap, though at the moment he isn't playing – his hands pillow the back of his head against the harsh stone. "I like that kinda burgundy color," he says as though he hasn't heard. "I think it sets off your eyes real nice, too." His face is the picture of serene grace, flickering in the firelight, and Hater wants to kill him possibly more than ever.
For now he settles for looming, moving close enough for the side of his robe to brush the outermost kindling of Wander's pitiful little fire. "What," he growls in his most intimidating interrogation voice, "are you doing here?"
"Same as you, I reckon. Seein' the sights. Or I guess, I was seein' the sights on Artellus, but we had barely gotten to the surface before some great almighty wind blew me away!" He sounds absolutely delighted by this turn of events, and Hater is disgusted.
The use of the "we," however, reminds him of something important. "And where is your little Zbornak friend?" he asks, sneering his words so he doesn't feel the impulse to glance anxiously over his shoulder for signs of the powerful creature.
"The way I figure she's still on the planet," Wander muses, tilting his head back in thought. "After we were separated I saw her grabbing on to some tree – or maybe it was a moldy statue? – anyway, she's so strong that she must have made it through that nasty turn of the weather."
There are so many questionable elements of this story that Hater doesn't know where to begin: Wander's problems describing the scenery, his referring to a severely unstable magnetic field as "nasty weather," or his conviction that his companion could fight a planet and win.
Instead he says: "You're alone then," and stretches himself as tall and imposing as his vertebrae will allow, leaning over Wander's tiny body and leaving him in shadow. His smile, he has been told, is terrifying to creatures of Wander's size.
He thrusts his arm out and grabs the Nomad by his throat, raising him up to eye level. "Now I can finally deal with you, without your knight in shining bridle coming to the rescue!" He shakes him, and the banjo slides down Wander's body and lands on the ground with a series of musical thuds.
The wind outside howls against the rocks.
Wander, to his outrage, does not look upset. He shrugs his shoulders (a difficult feat considering that Hater's fist is fixed around his neck) and smiles ruefully. "I'm glad we got to meet up again like this," he says, wheezing slightly. "But ya know, you're right, we should probably wait for Sylvia before we do anything really fun. It'd be unfair to her, right?"
"What do you not understand about this situation?!" Hater howls, shaking Wander like a rag doll. "She's not going to save you!"
Wander rolls his eyes while still managing to look too friendly, somehow. (What are his neck muscles made of, that this isn't hurting him?) "That'd be a first, wouldn't it?"
Hater opens his mouth to argue. Then he blinks and closes it again.
Wander is obviously a dangerous presence capable of introducing chaos to previously-controlled situations, disrupting the social order, and instilling revolution in local populations. Some days Hater thinks of him as some kind of ultimate test, while on other days it's obvious that he is a cosmic joke at Hater's expense.
Either way, while Wander circles some infernal axis of chaos, his loyal companion is the force that orbits him, flinging herself around and around again to barrel all obstacles out of Wander's way. She is his moon and his guardian and his escape route. It's like clockwork, and it happens fast.
He thinks of how long it will take for Peepers to even realize anything is wrong. Past that, the search will take ages. His species doesn't have many physical demands, but eventually he will need to eat.
Wander is smiling at him in a way that Hater hesitates to describe as "knowing," because Wander shouldn't know anything at all.
He is loath to admit it, but the Zbornak could fight a planet and win.
He drops the Nomad to the ground, where he begins to cough and wheeze.
"So she'll find you," Hater sneers. "Fine. She'll find me too. And your little morals will stop you two from leaving me stranded here."
Wander takes longer than anticipated to recover, for all the lack of concern he displayed while being threatened – his breath rasps as he massages his neck. "Sure, Hater," he says, which sends him into another bout of coughs. Each intake of breath seems shaky.
What a bizarre species.
Once he can control his breathing, he looks up at Hater's disapproving face and smiles. "You know what we could do," he says, reaching for his banjo. He still sounds oddly out of breath. The firelight plays in the crevices of his face, gleams against his shining teeth.
"We could tell stories."