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Dirt in the Sky, chapter two
3,653 words


In this exciting installment of Drake's self-indulgent and over-plotted slavefic AU, Equius makes a new friend and Nepeta receives a death threat. Some cursing and blood.

He had sorely underestimated her indeed. Her assumption was turned prediction: they did become neighbors, in a sense even greater than those of the mostly tightly-knit lawnring. Once he, faltering and shy, had explained his situation to her, she nearly fell over herself with eagerness to share with him all she had. It was his first taste of kindness; he dutifully repaid it with his knowledge and strength. Where she might have been content with a simple hole hewed into the mountainside, he insisted the drone dig deeper, until it had dug a proper hive for them both, with plenty of space to grow into. Where she, out of boredom and disinterest, might have ignored the antenna and receiver included in her starter kit in favor of hunting and exploring the wilds, he set up both, and shared with her the things he had learned while he carried her kills back to their hive. They fit so seamlessly into each other's lives that it could only have been fate that brought them together, and the idea that they were fated for each other seemed so natural that sweeps and sweeps would pass before the word "moirallegiance" would even cross either of their minds.

But that was for the future. They spent their first sweep together concerned with little more than survival, and beginning the long, arduous path of self-directed training that would impart the lion's share of the skills they would need for their adult lives. Equius thought they would be working at a severe disadvantage, out in the wilderness by themselves, but Nepeta proved to have been hatched with an innate sense of direction which allowed her to re-establish contact with her hatching mates and the lawnring they had formed. Equius had been reluctant to accompany her, but even more reluctant to let her make the journey alone. Fortunately it seemed the greens had received no more or less cultural indoctrination than his own caste had; they were weary of him for his height, already a head over theirs though less than a sweep had passed since his hatching, and for his lusus, far stronger than any two or three of theirs put together, but refrained from outward objection once Nepeta stridently declared him to be "with her." Working as a group for their own safety, the greens had already begun to trade with the nearest adult settlement, and through them Equius and Nepeta were able to obtain the supplies they needed.

The first sign of trouble didn't come until they were older, sweeps older. Nepeta had grown into a fine hunter and tracker, with skills far surpassing anyone in her brooding group or the nearby town. Indeed, Equius sometimes wondered if there was anyone in the entire world to match her abilities. He, meanwhile, had cultivated an interest in mechanical devices of all sorts, developing what Nepeta insisted was quite an extraordinary ability for repairing broken machines, though of course she didn't couch it in precisely those terms. He designed his own devices, as well; his portion of their hive was filled with haphazardly stacked blueprints. It was entirely likely that he could have made a decent living off his skills, without even bothering to travel past the nearest town – if he had dared go to town. He was haunted by the spectre of the adults who had stolen his hatching mates, and with good reason, for he had realized very early in his life what their true purpose had been. It was illegal for a blueblood to walk free – and what would he do, if he were discovered? What would become of him? He even began to accompany Nepeta on her trips to the greenblooded lawnring less and less often, even though those who lived there had long since come to regard him as some sort of extension of Nepeta's presence, like her lusus perhaps, or an extra limb. Nepeta missed his company, but didn't require it; she had long since grown capable of defending herself from nearly any threat, and outrunning what she could not fight.

Still, he had not abandoned her to her own devices completely. One of the very first things he had built had been a set of handheld, two-way radios; Nepeta took to carrying one of the set with her whenever she left the hive, and Equius in turn had made sure his own half of the set was always in an easily-accessible place, no matter how cluttered his part of the hive grew. They'd seen occasional use before that night; sometimes Nepeta's hunts and trips into town would keep her away for days at a time, and she claimed to miss hearing Equius's voice. When the radio suddenly crackled into life and he heard her voice, Equius assumed she was radioing him for the same purpose as always; but it turned out he was quite mistaken.

"I have a job for you!" she said with her usual good cheer. "A good one! Can you meet me by that one ravine out on the plain where the rocks are that funny shade of red and Pounce once got all freaked out because she tried to take a nap on top of a burrowbeast village and they collapsed the roof of the main burrow right out from underneath her?"

"I can be there in twenty minutes," he said immediately, and was surprised to hear voices other than hers muttering to each other on the other end of the line. "Is someone there with you?"

"Just some new friends! We've got a motorized four wheeled device with a busted engine out here that's kind of going THUNK thunk KKKchow –"

"I'll be certain to bring my tools with me," he said dryly, amused as always by her attempts to help him diagnose mechanical problems.

"Okay!" she said happily – but then there was a pause, and when she spoke again it was with a lowered, nearly inaudible voice, "Just make sure not to wear anything that has your sign on it, okay?"

"…All right," he said, and ended the call. It was the middle of the cold, dark season; he found himself thankful for the foresight that had led him to leaving the outside of his warmest jacket blank, though for safety's sake he also changed into a blank shirt before calling Aurthour and throwing the already-packed haversack the lusus offered him over his shoulder.

He reached the ravine in a little over ten minutes; he'd always been taller and stronger than Nepeta or anyone else in her hatching group, but over the past sweep or so the difference had become even more dramatic. He'd forced to take special care when handling anything delicate – and as time went on, 'anything delicate' came to apply to more and more objects, Nepeta among them. She insisted the change was only temporary, and that he would eventually grow used to his strength, but Equius wasn't so sure. But in the meantime, even he had to admit it had its uses, and traveling any significant distance was one of them -- even if he did have to deliberately slow himself down a little so Aurthour could keep up. There'd been no question of not bringing his lusus along; he trusted the security measures he'd installed around the hive to keep his and Nepeta's belongings safe, while these strangers she'd met were completely unknown.

As he'd been led to expect, there was a motorized four wheeled device parked by the ravine, and Equius slowed to a brisk walk as it came into view, his lusus falling into step just behind him. It was a large device, rather like a small mobile hive in structure, and with a trailer hitched to the back. As he drew closer he could make out the shapes of three lusii and trolls sitting in a group by the side of the device – and then one of the trolls was pushing herself to her feet and bounding up to him, and it was Nepeta, throwing her arms around his neck in one of the ferocious hugs he quietly treasured.

"You made it!" she said with a grin, grabbing him by the arm and tugging him over to where the other two trolls and their lusii waited. "This is my meowrail, Equius!" she called out to them. "He knows pretty much everything about machines!" One of the strangers laughed, but it wasn't an overtly cruel sound; Equius found himself smiling shyly at them as he and Nepeta got close, even though they were both at least a head taller than him, and greenbloods by the color of their signs.

"I'm glad to hear it," said one of them, a woman, who had been sitting on the ground with her back against a massive six-legged bear lusus, but who was now standing and brushing herself off. "I thought we'd fallen into some seriously deep shit when the old heap quit on us." Her companion, a male, laughed derisively; he was also pushing himself to his feet, but it was the woman who came forward to greet them, politely holding both her hands before her so Equius and Nepeta could see they were empty. "I'm Kaylen Portel, and this is MY moirail, Cidres Tephen." The male waved, grinning; of the two lusii neither of them said anything. Equius supposed it was due to their greater degree of maturity, and so refrained from introducing Aurthour – though he could not help but mark the two creatures regardless. The six-legged bear was nearly as large as the four-wheeled device, and next to it rested a low-bellied scorpion, its two tails curled over its back in a position that seemed to belie the casual friendliness of the trolls it traveled with.

"They're traders," Nepeta said excitedly in his ear. "They're willing to give us some of their stuff if you can fix their device!"

Kaylen laughed, throwing up her hands. "ONLY if you can fix it," she said firmly, her eyes glowing with amusement. "If I start giving stuff away for free, I'll drive myself out of business."

"I'm sure it's nothing I can't handle," Equius said quietly, but with certainty. How bad could the problem possibly be?

****

Very bad, as it turned out.

"I'm going to fucking kill that piece of shit who calls himself a mechanic," Kaylen had said fervently, once Equius had explained the problem to her. The motorized four wheeled device represented her livelihood, perhaps even more so than the trade goods it carried; and like any responsible trader she'd taken it in for a tune-up before attempting to cross the wasteland between cities. But it seemed the mechanic she'd taken it to was the sort of troll who preferred to skate by on as little effort as possible; while he'd done everything she'd asked him to, he'd gone about it in such a careless manner that several the organic connections transferring electricity from one part of the engine to another had been shaken loose. Dysfunction had been inevitable; in a sense she and Cidres had been lucky that the engine had "only" stopped working.

Cidres had taken the news in stride, but Kaylen had appeared ready to start spitting nails by the time he'd made the entirety of the situation plain. Yet she hadn't tried to take it out on Nepeta or him, as the bearers of bad news; she'd threatened the absent mechanic extensively, and walked away for a few minutes to kick some rocks, but by the time she came back all she had to say was a question – how long would it take to fix the damage? – and an invitation – would Nepeta like to come look at their stock and see if there was anything she liked? Nepeta had jumped on the invitation with almost unseemly glee; she loved shopping, and while their lifestyle allowed them to afford the necessities and the basic tools of their respective trades, they rarely had enough credit left over just to buy things for the sake of having them. Cidres led her around to the trailer at the rear of the four wheeled device, while Aurthour and Pounce rested by the side of the truck with the two trader lusii, leaving him alone with the engine block and Kaylen.

He suspected that the real reason she stayed close to watch him work was out of a suspicious desire to make sure he was actually working, and not trying to cheat her like the other troll had; but while he was still slightly suspicious of her just on basic principle, it was hard to remember why as time went on. She made the time pass more quickly by telling him about herself and her moirail, and the business they were trying to run, and while she had a somewhat crude demeanor it would be a lie to say he found her an entirely unpleasant conversationalist. He actually found her stories rather fascinating; it was like a glimpse into another world, much larger than the one he'd known, and he couldn't help but be a little envious of this greenblood who was less than three sweeps older than him, who had one day decided to sell nearly everything she and her moirail owned and set themselves up as itinerant traders.

They were trying to gather capital, it turned out, for a shop in Y Cythreuliaid, one of the major southern cities. This was entirely normal; anyone could build a hive anywhere in the wasteland that they wanted to, but land in the cities was closely regulated. They were making a circuit of the small towns and lawnrings in the region, trading with anyone who would let them close enough. “But isn’t it dangerous,” he’d asked her eventually, “with just the four of you?”

She’d snorted with laughter. “Not nearly as much as you think.” He ducked his head slightly, hiding his face behind his hair lest he blush with embarrassment. But Kaylen wasn’t even looking at him; she was staring off into the distance, her head cocked slightly in the direction of the trailer, perhaps to better hear the drifting sounds of Cidres and Nepeta’s conversation. The two seemed to be getting along well, if the often-repeated sounds of laughter were any indication. “Cidres is the best shot this side of the Caregogs –“ she said proudly, naming a large mountain range to the west that divided the interior of the continent from the coast; what she was really saying was that only among the Cavalreapers would you find a better marksman – “and I’ve yet to meet the troll or beast that can take on Bruina and Petet when they’re working together.” She glanced back at him suddenly, a secretive smile creasing her lips. “And I’ve got a few tricks of my own up my sleeve.”

“Of course,” he said, stammering slightly. “I never meant to suggest you couldn’t handle yourselves, I mean –“

She laughed again and clapped his back. “Relax kid,” she said firmly. “I ain’t gonna bite you NOW that we’re getting to know each other.” Meaning she might have been bitten him earlier, he wondered dazedly. It was the first time anyone other than Nepeta or Aurthour had touched him in sweeps. And then, when his guard was down, came the question he’d been dreading.

“So what about you and Nepeta?” she asked, resting her elbows on the rim of the engine block and her chin on her hands. “They don’t put lawnrings on the fucking maps, but I have it from a very reliable source that the nearest one ain’t closer than a good three or four days on foot. You kids have a couple of motorized devices hiding somewhere out there in the bush or something?”

“Of course not,” he said immediately – the idea of a pair of trolls their age being able to afford even one motorized device, even a small one, was completely preposterous – but he silently cursed himself as soon as the words passed his lips. Would it have been better to let her think he and Nepeta were richer than average, rather than trying to come up with some other explanation for their presence? Or would that have just exposed a new layer of trouble. “I…know the lawnring you’re talking about,” he said slowly, deciding on the fly that giving part of the truth would probably be better than fabricating a complete lie. “But we don’t actually live there. Nepeta prefers the wilderness.”

She was giving him a skeptical look. “So what, you kids live all the way out here just for the fucking hell of it?”

“…More or less?” Equius suddenly realized that he was giving her a blatantly pleading look, as immediately schooled his expression into a calmer, more professional demeanor. Making himself look pitiful wouldn’t make her accept the gaping holes in his story.

But, it seemed, it might make her willing to overlook them. “Whatever,” she said, her grin returning as though it had never left. “Like I give a shit about what a bunch of fucking wigglers think anyway; if the Legislacerators don’t give a damn why should I?”

She’d apparently decided either he or Nepeta had committed some crime bad enough to get the two of them exiled from the lawnring; Equius cringed, but didn’t bother to correct her. He was almost finished with the engine block anyway, and said as much. The last few connections were deep inside the block, almost out of his reach completely; he made a mental note to check those connections first, the next time he took a job like this.

He would also make sure to wear gloves, he thought inanely, as he stared at his own hand in shock. In his relief over finishing the job and escaping the awkward turn the conversation had taken, he’d grown careless and caught his hand on one of the many sharp edges that filled the engine block, tearing off a small patch of skin. It was a minor injury, scarcely worth worrying about – or it would have been, if he were anything other than a blueblood.

That split-second’s hesitation was his undoing; his first instinct, once his mind began to work again, was to conceal the injury, but it was too late. Kaylen had already seen it, and before he had time to move, it seemed almost before he had time to BLINK, a small knife had appeared in her hand, and he could feel the needle-sharp point press against his throat. So that was what she’d meant by keeping a few tricks up her sleeve.

“…I was wondering why you weren’t wearing a sign,” she said after a moment, staring at him wide-eyed. She seemed almost as shocked as him. The point of the blade moved slowly across his throat, pushing the collar of his jacket slightly to the side. “No collar either, huh…” she murmured, and then suddenly grinned, showing him all of her dagger-sharp teeth. It was if anything even more frightening than the knife at his throat. “Oh lucky day,” she sang quietly, and then suddenly raised her voice, calling out, “Cid! On guard!”

Nepeta cried out; a short, startled exclamation, and he heard Pounce answer with a warning growl. Every instinct Equius possessed screamed at him to go to her, but Kaylen pressed the knife against his throat, hard enough to draw a small drop of blood that trickled down over his skin. “Ah ah ah,” she chided him, still grinning hungrily. “You’re not going anywhere, blueblood.” Then Cidres appeared, his crossbow trained on a frightened and staring Nepeta, who was demanding to know what was going on, and the four lusii followed, the bear standing between Cidres and Pounce, and the scorpion threatening Aurthour with raised tails and clicking pincers.

“What the hell, Kayl?” Cidres called out; he at least seemed almost as shocked by Kaylen’s behavior as Nepeta was – but it hadn’t stopped him from following his moirail’s orders.

“Looks like I caught us a feral!” Kaylen sang out, her gaze and knife still locked on Equius; she seemed unwilling to take her eyes off him for a second. “You got any idea how much these things are worth?” Equius’s blood ran cold in his veins, even as Cidres put two and two together and let out an excited whoop. Kaylen’s teeth might as well have been chips of ice, her smile was so cold. “You are going to make us very rich, blueblood,” she told him confidently.
“What are you talking about?” Nepeta snapped, staring wildly between Equius, the two traders, and the crossbow that was still trained on her chest. “Equius isn’t feral, he’s my moirail!”

“This coming from a half-grown, half-wild wiggler?” Cidres sneered, brandishing his crossbow. “Credit where credit’s due, it takes TALENT to reach your age and still be that naïve.”

“Sad, but true,” Kaylen said, her voice heavy with a sickeningly condescending kindness. “I guess you didn’t realize that your so-called moirail is illegal contraband. You should be thanking us for taking him off your hands.”

Nepeta hissed furiously. “Screw that!” she said – she was so flushed with anger that only habit kept her from using harsher language. Pounce began to growl, quietly, every hair on the cat lusus’s back standing on end, and Kaylen’s bear lusus stood up on the hindmost pair of its six legs in warning. Nepeta ignored them both; to Equius’s horror he suddenly realized that she wasn’t even looking at Cidres, despite the obvious and immediate threat he represented; all her attention was on Kaylen. “I’m not letting you take him anywhere!” she declared stridently, the very picture of firm resolution.

There was a pregnant pause; Equius was suddenly aware of his own pulse, pounding fearfully in his ears. At last Kaylen shrugged. “Sorry to hear that,” she said, then nodded to Cidres. “Kill her.”