There was a clatter as Equius dropped his spanner, the shadows disappeared from around Gamzee, and every eye in the room turned to Eridan. The crew was silent, looking at him, trying to figure out exactly what he had meant. They all knew of his sordid past from when he was conscripted, but if the recent past proved anything it was that assumptions were not something they should rely on.
"What do you mean you didn't want to?" Kanaya asked slowly, trying to ask delicately, so as not to upset Eridan any more than he already was. "Were you not attracted to them? Or… was it perhaps something else?"
Far from being any more upset than he had been already, Eridan looked confused. "Wwhat do you mean? C'mon, guys, wwhy wwould I wwant to do somefin that hurt that much? I mean, yeah, I'll do it, I'm not gonna be a wwuss about it, but …"
"Well, yeah, we know it can hurt," Nepeta said, glancing proudly at a burn scar on her arm and its clawed counterpart on Sollux's. "But even if you thought that was what was happening, didn't you think it's unfair for someone to try a kismesissitude with someone half their siz-"
"Wwait, kismesissitude? No, I mean in general. Sorry, Nep, I thought you'd red-pailed before."
Karkat paled. "Fuck. We've got another one."
"Aw, fuck," Gamzee murmured, looking ill. "Fuck, who be up and putting an idea like that in your head, fishbro? I mean, okay, I talked a lotta shit, but I wasn't really gonna do nothin'. I ain't that big of an asshole, I'm just angry, and I wouldn't even have motherfucking said it if I'd known…"
"It isn't like any of them…" Eridan paused, thinking of how to word it. "… carved into me." He flinched reflexively; no one but Karkat was supposed to know about that, but they'd all seen Gamzee's scars. When Gamzee didn't attack he finished his thought. "It was just the regular, you knoww, normal levels of painful."
"Oh my god." Tavros put a hand to his mouth. "Who was it? What did they do?"
Eridan blinked, or at least closed his remaining eye, then laughed. "Aww, guys. Come on, wwe're a bit beyond this wwriggler shit… Oh cod, I'm surrounded by wirgins."
Vriska laughed, "I don't think all of us are virgins, Eridan. I mean you and me, me and Terezi… Nepeta and Sollux? Nepeta and Karkat, then Karkat and Terezi? How about you and Feferi, huh? Sure, some of us probably are. But saying all of us are is flat out wrong. You should know from personal experience." Vriska glanced around the room. "Actually, I think the only virgin here is Toreasnore."
"Ah, actually one time when Aradia and Sollux were flipping pale again she came to my place for a Fiduspawn tournament and we, ummm…"
Vriska stared at Tavros' blush. "Or not. Huh, Pupa Pan's all grown up. Congrats!" She raised her fist for a bump, but he ignored it. Kanaya and Equius both blushed slightly and said nothing.
"So wwhy are you still keepin' up wwith this thin'?" Eridan asked, looking confused again. "I mean, you didn't fake likin' it wwith me, Wris…"
Vriska rolled her eye. "Eridan, I hated our first time because you sucked at it. Excuse the pun."
Eridan scoffed, "It might not have been 'the best', wwe wwere both young. Don't just try to be difficult for the sake of bein' difficult. You didn't fake wwith me, the only troll I'we ewer pailed wwith that didn't. You obwiously knoww the truth behind wwhat they try to forcefeed all of us."
"Eridan, what are you talking about?" Feferi sounded confused and exasperated.
"Oh come on, are you all just tryin' to mess wwith me? Ha ha, wery funny, mess wwith Eridan. I get it, I'm the laughin' stock around here, but at least I'm not afraid to be honest about it. Pailin' is gross an' creepy an' really glubbin' painful, no matter the quadrant you do it in. So you all can stop messin' wwith me now, because I am honestly unafraid to say it. Trust me, I tried ewerythin', tryin' to find any truth in the lies they taught us. You actually beliewe all that romantic shit? They just wwant to keep up the bucket supply! I can't beliewe you're all that gullible! Come on, wwhy wwould you still be lyin'? Wwe left, wwe're newer goin' to hawe to send in a bucket!"
Gamzee wasn't so sure about that final point, but he pushed it out of his mind. He looked at Eridan, whose eye was starting to fill with tears, and his contempt mixed with a rush of platonic pity. Little as he wanted to test it at the moment, at least he hadn't been broken so thoroughly he believed pailing could never be anything but a trial for anyone. What the hell had happened to Eridan? He stepped forward and raised a hand, letting it hover in the rough vicinity of Eridan's shoulder, not quite sure if he should touch him.
"I ain't exactly the authority on not-painful pailing. It really ain't something if you enjoyed it, that's all being biology and natural, but you didn't want it and it kind of hurt? Or did you ever say to any of your partners 'no' or like 'stop' and they didn't put their hearclots to your words? Or maybe inside your own thinkpan you wanted it to stop but you didn't say nothing because you knew it wouldn't make any kind of mattering at the troll, or for some reason you couldn't up and be speaking the words?"
Eridan slapped Gamzee's hand away and glared. "I newer said no, I didn't wwant to do it. I kneww it wwould be painful. It wwasn't like that wwas goin' to be a surprise. I mean, seriously, Gam, just because you didn't knoww wwhat wwas goin' to happen doesn't mean all of us are that stupid. Some of us actually did more with our wwrigglerhoods then get high, wwatch the ocean, and announce wwhenever their pants wwere put on correctly. You missed the signs, fine, I can say that is pretty stupid. You wwere in his lap for Gl'bgolyb's sake, wwhat else does that mean? But howw could you not knoww it wwould hurt, wwere you so full of soporific toxins that you didn't even touch yourself? I mean honestly, wwe all had to knoww."
The room was silent, staring at Eridan. All of them were shocked, mostly confused, and no one really knew what to say to him. Eridan's speech had gotten louder as time went on, the silence was long enough that it allowed him to continue.
"I'll admit, I'll owwn up to my past of sleepin' wwith wwhoever I wwanted. That 'wwanted' is used to mean I asked. I tried to believe wwhat they told us in romantic mowies, and I tried to find any part of it that wwas enjoyable. Of course, I thought maybe it wwas the troll, so I wwent through a feww. Can you fault me for trying to find somethin' more than terrible in it? Instead it wwas alwways disgustin' and painful. I honestly wwish I could reject the entire experience, but I can't. At least I learned that eweryone is too afraid to be honest about pailin'. Wwell, fine, I will be. I-"
"Wait," Kanaya interjected, ruining Eridan's diatribe combo. "So you asked them, even though you thought - or knew - that you were going to hate it… Pardon my rudeness, but…" She blinked at him, and finally said "Then why would you do it?"She shook her head. "I mean, really. I had the sense to tell you and Equius my flushed quadrant wasn't open to… well, you know what I mean. I didn't just go along with it."
"Oh my god!" Terezi cackled. "How dumb do you have to be to get pailing wrong?"
Vriska joined in her laughter, whooping loudly. "So when you threw up all over me and cried like a grub, that wasn't just because we were drunk?"
"Okay, yeah, I can see how using your nook would be a problem," Karkat said, shaking his head in disbelief, "but short of fucking a cholerbear-trap, how the hell did you manage to make using your bulge hurt?"
Equius gaped, too surprised to even require a towel for the moment. "Uh, wow. That's… either an extremely inappropriate joke or a whole new level of incompetence."
"Um, yeah, ED, that… that doethn't really thound normal."
Sollux's use of the word "normal" seemed to cut through the last of Eridan's defenses. He backed towards the door and a sob bubbled up in his throat.
"Okay." Eridan's voice was tense. "I get it, I'm the laughin' stock of this stupid tugship. But I'm being serious, stop fuckin' wwith me."
"For once we're not actually fucking with you." Karkat shook his head. "Seriously, Eridan. We're not - teasing, maybe, but we're not messing with you. It seems more like you are fucking with us. Why would anyone ever pail if it hurt? Do you have no grasp of basic evolutionary principles on top of all the stupidities we knew about? C'mon, if this is a joke, making it in front of Gamzee is fucking disgusting. Seriously."
Eridan sputtered and shook his head. He opened his mouth, but quickly closed it; he didn't have words for this circumstance. He didn't have any idea what he could say. All of them were still angry, still being mean for no good reason. He didn't want to pail either, but he still did it.
"What is this really about, Eridan?" Vriska asked. "Do you want some type of excuse for why you became the ship's go-to whore? Or are you just trying to pull some type of joke?" Eridan shook his head, swallowing, trying to hold in his sobs.
"Vriska!" Nepeta interrupted quickly.
"Thith ith a really lame joke, ED, if that'th what it ith. Couldn't you have tried thomething a little better or more inventive? One that didn't make uth think you were beating your thex organs with a bag of broken glath."
"Sollux!" Nepeta turned to him.
"Want to give us details or was something recorded?" Feferi hissed.
"Guys, stop it!" Nepeta shouted. "I think he's crying. We-"
"I hope the lot of you get chained up and flayed!" Eridan tried to growl between holding in his sobs. "You're all a bunch of twwisted perwerts, and I hope you get wwhat's comin' to you. At least Gam was proactive enough to get wwhat he deserved." Eridan turned quickly and marched out of the room, keeping his head low and his walk nearly a run.
All of them were left staring at the door, too confused to do more than just stare at where Eridan had vanished off to.
"Was he being serious?" Karkat asked.
"I think he was. Some friends all of you are." Nepeta was shaking her head. "Couldn't you all see how much your words were hurting him? Some of what you said is uncalled for unless you're his kismesis, and the three of you are all broken up with him. You don't get to say those things any more."
Sollux and Feferi looked away from Nepeta, obviously ashamed of their actions. Vriska shook her head. "There's no way he could be serious. Pailing doesn't hurt… Unless you don't want it." Vriska added the last part quickly, glancing over to Gamzee.
"Even then…" Gamzee mumbled.
"You're not about to freak out on him, right?" Nepeta asked softly, putting her hand on Gamzee's shoulder briefly before pulling it away. "'Cause I don't think he can handle it right now."
Gamzee shook his head. "No, he was mad, said things he didn't be meaning. Or maybe he did, but it ain't like it got the matter. I want to, but I won't."
Tavros suddenly stood up from where he was sitting. "Oh, oh."
"What?" Kanaya turned to look at Tavros.
"Uhh. Gamzee," he said softly before his voice gained confidence. "I know you're mad at him, and I don't want to make you mad at me, but, I think I should go after him."
"Why-" Vriska looked at Tavros, and realisation lit up her eyes. "Oh. Oohh, this is like your thing, not like Gamzee's thing… okay, yeah, good idea. Someone should talk to him and you're probably the best choice." She shuffled awkwardly. "Shit, I should have guessed…"
"Huh?" Gamzee stared at Tavros. "What? Did something happen to you?"
"No! No, this is… it's hard to explain, I should talk to him first." Tavros wasn't using his exaggerated "Rufio" mannerisms; he was entirely serious and sure of himself. "I, uhh, I know what he said was horrible, but, well, I'm worried he's going to hurt himself. Karkat's right, we need to avoid anyone getting hurt, that'll just hurt everyone."
Gamzee reached out and let his fingers brush Tavros' hand. "Okay. If you think you can help."
Eridan was curled up in a corner. His gun was in his lap, his left hand draped over it and resting on the trigger. In his right hand, he held three pills from Terezi's bottle. He would only need one.
"Uhh, hey, Eridan." The gun was pointing at Tavros before he could blink. "Okay, I get that you're upset, but I'm here to help."
"Howw can you help?" Eridan turned away, wiping his eye on his scarf.
"Okay." Tavros took a deep breath and sat down next to him. "When you said it hurt, how did you mean?"
"Wwhat, you askin' me if I got some kinda disease?"
"No! Just asking."
Eridan sighed. "Stomach ache. Feelin' sick. Tense. Guess that last one made it worse when I figured lettin' someone fuck me might work better'n stickin' it in them." He sobbed, mucus running down to his lower lip; he'd been crying hard enough that it was tinted with violet blood. "Guess I shoulda fuckin' known better. Like I'd be allowwed to be normal."
"Uhh, I don't think a normal troll would be on this ship anyway. I mean, look at the rest of us." Tavros chuckled, but Eridan only cried harder. "But, seriously, it sounds like you were just really unhappy and freaked out. And, um, what you said sounded kind of familiar, and that sort of confirms it. I've heard some other people say that."
"Are you here to mock me more?"
"No, really, Eridan, it sounds familiar, not exact, but I'm not here to, uhh, tease you or anything. It's kind of a long story, and I don't think now is the right, uhh, time to tell it. But it's familiar."
"So, wwe're all wweird and my wweird is familiar. Wwonderful. Is that all? I'd like to go back to bein' alone."
"It's not weird… well, I guess it is. But, it's not a bad weird, it's just different, and that's not a bad thing."
"Yeah, somefin wwhich could get me killed is a perfect thin'."
"Eridan!" Tavros gripped his shoulders, making him drop the pills, and looked him in the eye. "You are not the only one. I… it's not exactly the same thing, but what you said is… kinda how I felt. Well, mine is just for the one quadrant, but it's the same sort of thing. And I looked around, and I found there are actually a lot of trolls who don't… don't want to pail. Well, not really a lot, but more than you'd think."
Eridan blinked. "W-wwhat?" He grabbed Tavros' shoulders, and hope flooded into his face. "So you must knoww howw to fix it! I just hoped if I kept goin' it'd wwork, but it didn't, there's gotta be somefin else I can do!"
"Um. No, it can't be fixed. It's not something you did, or anything. Just some grubs hatch and grow up that way."
Eridan stared at Tavros, still holding his shoulder. The look of hope and excitement slowly faded until only a hurt, slightly grim expression was left on his features. "Wwhat? No, it has to be fixable."
"It's not, but it's okay."
"No, it's not okay, I'll be killed."
"Who is going to kill you? Uhh, other than the fleet who is chasing us because we are deserters and a rebel group. I don't think anyone here would, uhh, kill you for that. By that logic, they should have already killed all of us for being rebels."
"Taw, Taw, please there has to be somefin. Anythin'."
"I'm sorry. I looked for a cure for myself, but, uhh, no, it doesn't work that way. But it's okay. There's this website I used, um, but I'd rather tell everyone the details at once if I'm going to, because they'll want to know what's going on, as well. But, well, nobody's going to hurt you."
Eridan looked at the floor between his feet, and sobbed again. "I just wwanted to be like eweryone else. I thought if I kept tryin' it'd start to wwork, and then I thought I'd look ewen stranger if I suddenly started saying no after I did all that shit. And then I thought wwhat Gam wwas talkin' about wwas just normal nerwes 'cause I thought it alwways felt that awwful."
"Uhh, 'everyone else' is allowed to say no if they want to, you know?" Tavros held Eridan's hand, and looked a little sterner. "You know what you were doing was really, really dangerous?"
"Wwhy are you helpin' me? I thought you wwere still mad about wwhat I said to Gam."
"That doesn't mean it would have been okay if the same thing happened to you!"
"I don't think the same thing would hawe happened…"
"It could have, though, you, uhh, put yourself in a lot of danger, by building that kind of reputation, on top of the normal rivalries that emerge in a troll's life. I don't mean it it would be your fault if someone did something, but you could have drawn the wrong kind of attention, and even if you don't like it normally, I'm pretty sure being outright forced would be much worse. Or what if you caught some horrible illness from someone, or someone used it to get you alone and unarmed? Even with what, uhh, happened, I might be mad at you… But it's friendship angry, it's not just blind angry. I don't want and I wouldn't, uhh, wish anything like that to happen to you. Despite everything we're all still friends. After what Vriska, uhh, did, and Aradia, and Terezi. They are all still my friends. So are you, just right now I'm, uhh, a little mad. Friends work through those kinds of things. It takes time though, you know?"
Eridan stared. "That sounded kind of, um… pale."
"Oh, uhh, does that make you uncomfortable too? I don't want to make you feel sick or, uhh, anything."
"No." Eridan was still staring, surprised at not only the words but that he was having his conversation. "That doesn't make me feel sick." He laughed bitterly. "I'm pretty sure my feelin's about all the quadrants except the bucket parts really are normal. That's wwhy I thought eweryfin I felt wwas. I thought I could find someone wwho admitted they didn't like it either and wwe could just not do it outside drone season. I thought I could still hawe a normal life…"
"Yeah, 'normal' isn't really an option for anyone here anymore, but, um, that doesn't mean 'happy' isn't. Do you want that website?" Tavros said nervously, trying to disregard how his words sounded; he wouldn't say much more about the whole situation without further prompting. "Sollux set up a thing where we can use the internet without being tracked. We can't send outgoing messages till he fiddles with it a bit more, but reading it might help."
"… Yeah, okay." Eridan shifted and looked at the floor. "Um, if it's not gonna make you feel wweird… could you hug me?"
Tavros unhesitatingly wrapped his arms around Eridan, and after a brief struggle to avoid his wings, Eridan returned the hug.
"I think I got snot on your shirt. Sorry."
"Oh, don't worry about that, it's just a shirt. So, um, is this a thing now? Like, a pale thing?"
"If…" Eridan started, then paused, before finding the right words."If you don't think it wwould complicate anythin' and you wwant. I knoww I could use a moirail. I don't knoww about you. But I wwould like it if it was."
"Wow, well… okay, yeah, so would I. In that case, uhh, you and Gamzee probably really do need an auspistice. I don't want to have to choose a side."
"'Kay," Eridan mumbled, nodding. "I'll go talk to Nep."
Karkat squinted at the screen. "The 'Aconcupiscent Invisibility and Education Network'? What the fuck?"
"Uhh, yeah, 'fuck' being the operative term and the answer being 'nothing'. As in, it's for trolls who don't like to. Fuck, I mean." Tavros was slightly orange in the face, and nobody was quite sure if it was because of the topic or because he'd just cursed twice in quick succession.
Gamzee blinked, totally confused. "Huh?"
Tavros pointed and read off the screen, his voice unusually steady. "'Aconcupiscence, sometimes known as non-concupiscence, may refer to any of the following: 1) a lack of sexual attraction to others, 2) a lack of interest in sex, 3) a lack of romantic interest in one or more quadrants. Despite the common term, lack of interest in the conciliatory quadrants is also possible. This condition is not caused by any illness or trauma, and is not a failing on the part of the troll, but under Empire law is punishable by culling. The mission of the AIEN is to collect information about the condition and spread knowledge of and sympathy for our plight, while simultaneously doing all in our power to protect and support our individual members'."
Equius frowned. "Some might call this treasonous talk, Nitram."
"Uhh, we're already just a little bit beyond worrying about that, don't you think?" Tavros said, as Eridan quietly facepalmed.
Vriska nodded. "Yeah, I guess I owe you an apology, Eridan. I should have guessed from what you said, Tavros told me enough about it before - actually this is why he and I needed Kanaya to step in. I was quadrant-flipping pretty hard, and he wasn't flushed and can't feel black."
"And you didn't make fun of him or immediately spread it around?" Karkat sounded shocked. "Wow, Kanaya has been good for you."
"Hey, I figured it was just a phase! I was a pretty late bloomer flushed-wise, I thought it was the same thing for him. Guess it wasn't."
"It worked out okay for us, though, didn't it?" Tavros said, smiling at Kanaya, who ruffled his hair.
"Yeah, it'th a bit weird but it'th not like any of uth were keen to pail ED anyway," Sollux said with a grin.
Eridan scowled. "I blame you for this, you knoww. You sent me all those stupid shock wideos, no wwonder I greww up wwith a wwarped wieww of pailing."
"Hey, I watched thothe too and I don't puke when AA and I-"
Eridan clasped his hands over his hearducts and started to sing loudly and off-key. "Lalala I am not listening lalala god I hate you…." Aradia gently poked Sollux in the ribs as everyone tried not to laugh.
"So, yeah, that's what was going on, and, uhh, Eridan really needs help right now, so now, um, we're, uhh…" Tavros' blush deepened. "…moirails. Which is why I really think he and Gamzee need Nepeta. I'd like both of them to stay alive."
Nepeta smiled. "I'm okay with it, how about the both of you? Because, really, we need to get to this place alive."
Gamzee looked at Eridan and sighed. More than just Tavros' words echoed around his head. He nodded. "Fine, I can let it happen. I owe both of you a motherfucking lot, least I can be doing is try."
Nepeta clapped. "How about you, Eridan? I know you kind of talked to me, but are you still okay with it?" Eridan nodded. He felt awkward enough with talking about all of this, he just found out the name for it and learned the basics. He still didn't know exactly how he felt. He still felt a little bit like a freak, but some part of him was comforted he wasn't alone and that it wasn't a sickness.
Nepeta clapped again, and grabbed onto Eridan's wrist and drug him over to Gamzee. "The furst order of business is to have both of you apologize and say something nice. I can do that no purroblem. Eridan and Gamzee, I'm sorry if I said anything or did anything that hurt you. And both of you are pretty awesome. Eridan can shoot his rifle with one hand, which is awesome. And Gamzee, I don't know anyone in the world who is as funny as you can be." Nepeta's smile was almost contagious.
"Okay, uhh, well… I'm real sorry, kittysis. I shouldn't have dragged you into this mess and what I said was fucking terrible, though I guess this is something good that's coming from it." Gamzee stared at his shoes. "You're the most forgiving troll I know. Nobody woulda batted an eye if you killed someone who did that to you, but now I'm in your quadrant." Gamzee shuffled for a moment. "And, uhm, Eridan… Well, it ain't like this is making me magically not-mad, but… shit, bro, that ain't no way to live! Sorry, for freaking you out, but you gotta admit, not even a warning was a little cold. But I'll forgive you for the stuff even though that don't stop me from being mad, but I'm real sorry about what I did to you too. What I did was worse and I was wrong and at least I can sorta see why you said what you did now but I didn't have any reasons other than being an asshole. And I won't do it again and I owe you big and shit I'm rambling… You get me. Is that okay, kittysis?"
Nepeta shrugged. "Close enough. Now, Mr. Ampurra?"
"Sorry I used to creep you out, Nepeta, I guess. It wwasn't intentional… And um, sorry for not wwarnin' you, Gam."
Nepeta pulled her hands away from Eridan's wrist to clap again. "Look, see, progress, and we can all be furrends, or close to furrends again."
Both of them nodded, and without Nepeta holding on to him Eridan reflexively backed up a little bit from being that close to both of them. He fidgeted for a moment. "By the wway, thanks, Gam. I mean that, about sayin' it's no way to liwe. I know what you meant, at least I'm pretty sure, and thanks for being nice about it."
"Why wouldn't I be? It ain't like you got to choose to be that way." Gamzee shrugged. "If it's something that comes natural to you I won't fault you for being like it. And… I was wrong. You're not a coward. You stepped in for Nepeta when she was needing someone."
"Heh. Thanks." Eridan rubbed his neck and smiled. "You're not such a bad guy, Gam. Wwell, you wwon't be if you let yourself be helped."
"Thank you too." Gamzee looked at Tavros. "You said it's only the black quadrant you're missing, right?"
"'Missing' isn't the way I'd choose to put it, but, uhh, yeah, that's the only one I don't do. Are you asking for the reason I think you're asking?"
Gamzee looked down, pity filling his heart more than ever. He smiled just a bit and shrugged. He didn't really feel like bring it up in front of everyone. Karkat and him had a very public announcement of their moirallegiance, now this, he didn't feel like making it a trend with his romantic life. Anyway, there was a big risk in him talking about it, and he didn't feel like taking it when everything was starting to look up. Now wasn't the time to push his luck.
"We can talk about it more later, bro. Right now, I think there are some other things we have got to do."
Nepeta clenched her fists and crossed her arms in front of her. Gamzee and Eridan looked at each other, then assumed the position themselves, and they executed a perfect three-way fist-bump.
"Purrfect!" Nepeta squealed. "I am so purroud of you both!"
"Aww," Eridan mumbled, smiling and shrugging.
Nepeta scurried off into the corner and picked up her computer.
"Hey, what's up there, kittysis?… Are you updating that stupid shipping wall?"
Eridan slapped his forehead again. "Oh cod, the fuckin' shipping wall - wwe're gonna end up auspisticisin' for Nep and eweryone else when she rambles on about this…"
"See?" Nepeta said, delighted. "Already you're agreeing on something!"
Gamzee looked sideways at Eridan. "Uh. Sorry about everything. Really I am."
"It's okay, I'm sorry about wwhat I said, too. An' it could hawe been wworse," Eridan said, tugging gently at his eyepatch. "I still hawe enough eyes to see, and I guess this got me an in wwith Taw, he says I look pretty pitiful noww." He chuckled. "Okay, you hurt me pretty bad, but you also led to me learnin' there's a name for wwhat wwas goin' on wwith me and gettin' twwo quadrants filled in a day, and they're the ones I don't ewer hawe to pail in. I think I wwin."