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Touched By An Angel

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~*~

“The road to your recovery will be a long one.”

Kal’tsit sat at her desk, spinning a stylus between her fingers. The light of her computer monitor glinted off the pair of reading glasses she had perched on her nose. Amiya stood beside her, silent and attentive, a clipboard clutched to her chest.

Across her office, Lappland sat on a low leather couch, her hands stubbornly folded across her chest.

“You were unconscious when we found you,” Kal’tsit continued, data streaming down her terminal and reflected in her glasses. “Operator Exusiai led the retrieval team that escorted you and operator Texas back to Rhodes Island. You required immediate emergency trauma surgery. Dr. Silence oversaw your operation.”

Kal’tsit glanced beside her, nodding to Amiya and her clipboard.

“I’ve prescribed a number of medications. Some, to deal with chronic pain. Others, to help stabilize your mood. Amiya here will fetch those for you. From now on, you’ll be taking them twice a day, once in the morning and again at night.”

Lappland said nothing. Her tail swished, restless. Kal’tsit met her gaze.

“Effective immediately, you are confined to this ship for six weeks of mandatory medical leave.”

Lappland’s eyes flashed, dangerous.

“It’ll be longer if you do anything stupid,” Kal’tsit said, returning Lappland’s glare. “You’re stable for now, but your condition will have to be monitored closely. It will be quite some time until you are allowed out of the medical wing, much less return to combat. And it will be even longer if you don’t cooperate. Are we clear?”

Nothing. Kal’tsit pressed her lips into a line, and set her stylus down on her desk.

“It won’t be easy. It won’t do any of us any good to pretend it will be. Rhodes Island will, of course, treat you free of charge. We’re not monsters. But if you are to truly make a full recovery, you will need to follow our treatment plan to the letter. That means taking your meds. That means listening to our medical staff. That means being open and honest about your symptoms, both physical and mental, so that we can treat you properly. Are we clear?”

Lappland glowered, her arms crossed. Kal’tsit’s lips curled into a frown.

“Are we clear, operator Lappland?” Kal’tsit repeated. Lappland met her eyes and didn’t say a word. Kal’tsit shook her head. “You just won’t talk to me, will you?”

“She only really talks to Texas,” Amiya offered.

Kal’tsit met Lappland’s fierce gaze. “...Do you think you’re better than all this…?”

Lappland barked out a laugh. She sat up in her chair, grinning bitterly.

“...Frankly, I thought I’d be dead by now, and I wouldn’t have to deal with any of this.”

Amiya winced in sympathy. Kal’tsit pressed her lips into a line.

“You made your choice,” Kal’tsit said, firm. “Now, you have to live with it.”

~*~

Fuck that!” Lappland growled. “Who does that old cat think she is?”

“Rhodes Island’s Chief of Medicine,” Texas said, matter-of-fact, waiting just outside her door. “And she’s the reason you have a roof over your head and a safe place to sleep, so do me a favor and  try not to bite the hand that feeds, okay?”

“Whatever…”

Lappland stood up, and barked out in pain. Texas threw the door open and was at her side in an instant.

“I told you to call me when you were done,” Texas chided. She guided Lappland’s arm over her shoulder and helped her get to her feet, Lappland hissing in pain as the effort tugged at the stitches across her ribs.

“...I was fine…” Lappland said through gritted teeth.

“Sure you were,” Texas said flatly. She propped Lappland up on her shoulder and helped her limp her way back to her bed.

Lappland fell onto her bed and blew out a sigh. Even the short walk from the bathroom left her sweating and out of breath. Texas lingered at the foot of her bed. Lappland’s tail swished, restless, thumping against Texas’ legs.

“I hate doctors telling me what to do,” Lappland muttered. “I hated it back then. I hate it now. Nobody tells me what to do.”

“Lapp,” Texas began, as patiently as she could, “some of those people telling you what to do are doing it because they care about you.”

“Yeah, and what does that get me?” Lappland scoffed. “A nice, shiny, state-of-the-art cage. Doctors breathing down my neck. Banned from combat for six weeks, at least. Can’t even get to the bathroom by myself.”

Lappland shook her head. She sighed, long and low.

“I kinda wish you’d just… let me die.”

Texas gripped Lappland’s hand so tight it made her gasp.

“No,” Texas said, fiercely meeting her eyes. “Don’t talk like that.”

Lappland flinched away from her stare. “...But it’s true,” she muttered, shaken.

“Lapp--” Texas began, then stopped herself. She sighed. “...I care about you, Lapp. I want you to live. I want you to want it, too.”

Lappland couldn’t lie to those eyes. She swallowed hard, working her jaw.

“...I-I don’t… know if I can,” she admitted.

“Listen to the Doc,” Texas urged. “Stick to the plan. If you can’t, or won’t, do it for yourself… then do it for me. Please.”

Texas’ tail curled around hers, just for a moment. Lappland squeezed her hand tight.

“...Okay,” she said. “I can do that.”

Texas breathed out a sigh of relief. “...Okay.”

Texas, usually so dour, actually managed a small smile. At the sight of it, Lappland’s face lit up, Her entire demeanor changed, her own lips splitting into a wild, jackal grin.

“I’ll show you!” Lappland crowed. “I can beat this! I’ve got rocks in my brain and stitches in my ribs. I’m outnumbered two to one, and they’re still no match for me! Watch me, Texas! I’ll get through this without even breaking a sweat!”

~*~

Lappland hit the mat with a thud. She lay there, gasping, drenched in sweat. Above her, operator Shining stamped her staff onto the floor as if it were a judge’s gavel.

“I think that will be enough for today,” Shining said, solemn.

“What, are you kidding?” Lappland boasted from the floor. “I can… I can do this all day…!”

Lappland crumpled back into a sweaty, panting heap. Shining watched her, stony-faced. Texas, only somewhat less dour, appeared beside her.

“How is she?” Texas asked quietly.

“It’s early yet,” Shining rumbled in her somber, smoky contralto. “But she’s a fighter, certainly. Physically, I’m confident she’ll make a full recovery. But it will take time. It will be a long while before she’s moving without pain, much less wielding her swords.”

Texas nodded, thoughtful. “I’ll need to find someone to get her back into fighting shape.”

“Why not you?” Shining offered.

Texas frowned. She crossed over to the crash mat Lappland was sprawled across and crouched down beside her.

“Hey, you,” Lappland grinned.

“Hey, you,” Texas said gently. “How was your first day at physical therapy?”

“Oh, it was great. It was easy,” Lappland said with a cocksure smile, though her labored breathing said otherwise. “Tell you what would’ve made it easier, though: if you helped me double team Horns over here. We’d have a real fight.”

Texas glanced over at Shining. She was chuckling, smiling a mysterious smile.

“...I don’t think that’d be fair to Shining,” Texas said.

“Are you kidding?” Lappland asked, her eyes wide. “You should see her fight. She’s a monster --”

“I’m sure it might seem that way, to someone only a week out of surgery,” Shining said, serene.

“No, I’m telling you, she’s an incredible fighter!” Lappland insisted.

“Uh-huh,” Texas said patiently. “Come on, Lapp.”

Texas carefully helped Lappland to her feet. She wobbled precariously, leaning on Texas for support, before Shining unfolded a wheelchair and helped ease Lappland down. Texas thanked Shining with a tip of her head, and started wheeling Lappland back to her room.

Lappland’s tail thumped against Texas’ knees. She leaned back in her wheelchair, flashing Texas a languid smile.

Texas made a face. “...What?”

“You know, puppy,” Lappland smiled dangerously, biting her lip. “I wouldn’t mind working up a sweat with you .”

“Lapp,” Texas growled.

Lappland glanced away, her ears twitching downwards in apology. “...Just sayin’.”

Texas rolled her eyes. She sighed, and kept on walking.

“How have you been feeling?” she asked, distracted, gazing out the hall windows at a brilliant, bloody sunset.

“I’m just glad to get out of my room,” Lappland admitted. “Glad I could get my blood pumping. When I’m stuck in that bed, my thoughts feel so… trapped… like… steel wool, scraping out the inside of my skull. When I’m moving, I get to forget all that.”

“Have you told any of this to Dr. Kal’tsit?”

“Pfft. No,” Lappland smiled. “That’s why I have you.”

A flicker of… something passed across Texas’ usually stern, inscrutable face. She pressed her lips into a line.

“...Well,” she continued, carefully, “I’m glad you’ve been in a better mood lately, at least.”

“Yeah...” Lappland laughed, grinning that jackal grin. “Who knows how long that will last.”

~*~

Lappland groaned wordlessly into her pillow. She was a lump of sprawled limbs and wild white hair, her face buried in her sheets. Her limbs felt so heavy. It was like she was being crushed into her bed by a slab of concrete. When someone knocked on her door, all she could manage was a grunt and a halfhearted swipe to get them to go away.

“Lapp? Are you okay?” Texas wondered, slipping inside. She walked up to Lappland’s bedside, gently laying a hand in her hair. “Lapp.”

“Muh.”

“Hey. It’s almost noon. Are you just going to lay in bed all day?”

Lappland groaned, mashing her face into her pillow. “...rocks in my brain…”

Texas frowned. She pulled out the plastic 7-day pill planner on Lappland’s nightstand and checked the box for this morning-- still full.

“Hey,” Texas urged. “I know this is the last thing you want to hear right now, but if you just stay in bed all day the depression’s just gonna get worse. Get up. Take your meds.”

“What’s the point?” Lappland grumbled into her pillow. “They don’t work.”

“They don’t work overnight, Lapp,” Texas urged. “The point is to be consistent.”

“Consistently annoying…” Lappland muttered. Texas smiled, despite everything.

After a few minutes of struggling, her stiff muscles protesting her every move, Lappland finally managed to roll over in bed. She took the water bottle Texas handed her and downed a handful of pills, grimacing in distaste as they went down her parched throat. She lay back in bed, aching and groaning, blinking as her eyes adjusted to the light. Texas, all geared up and ready for work, resolved amidst her blurring vision.

“Hey, puppy,” Lappland said, surprisingly tender. “You look good. I probably look like a mess right now.”

“You do,” Texas said bluntly. “But you’re my mess.”

Lappland grinned. “...Give me a kiss?”

“Maybe after you brush your teeth,” Texas teased.

They laughed together like they’d done a thousand times before. Before Rhodes Island. Before… everything. A tender moment bloomed between them; soft, fragile, like a snowflake on your tongue.

Texas glanced away, her smile growing pained.

“Listen, Lapp, I…”

“Yeah?” Lappland chimed in, smiling a languid smile.

“...I came here to say goodbye.”

“What?!”

Lappland bolted upright in shock-- only to hiss at the pain flaring out from her ribs. She gasped, cringing, wrapping her arms around herself.

“Whoa, Lapp, not-- not like that,” Texas clarified, catching Lappland by the shoulders and carefully easing her back into bed. “...It’s just… my boss needs me in the field. I’m sorry.”

“I get it,” Lappland hissed, wincing. “It wasn’t your decision.”

“...Yeah…” Texas murmured, her expression clouding. “But, hey. I know you hate doctors, so I’m not going to leave you alone here. I asked a friend if they could keep you company while I’m away.”

“Uh oh,” Lappland winced. “Who is it?”

~*~

“Hiiii!” Exusiai chirped.

“Oh, God,” Lappland drawled.

“I’m gonna be taking care of you while the Boss has Texas’ hands full,” Exusiai grinned. “Texas put me on the job and I’m not gonna let her down!”

“Well, aren’t you a little miss sunshine?” Lappland muttered.

“I try,” Exusiai smiled. “So! What do you wanna do today? I know you’re not really allowed to leave this room except for physical therapy, but I can bring some stuff to you. We can watch movies, we can play games…”

“Here, I’ve got one,” Lappland grumbled, grinding her knuckles into her temple. “How about we stop talking and let me get some sleep?”

“Okay! I can do that!” Exusiai grinned, undeterred. She flashed Lappland a two-fingered salute, before plopping down in the chair beside her hospital bed, her hands behind her head.

Lappland scowled. She rolled over in bed so she didn’t have to look at Exusiai, pulled her blanket up over her ears, and went to sleep.

She woke up hours later, her depression nap knocking her out long enough to leave a weird taste in her mouth and for the lights aboard Rhodes Island to already be dimmed for night cycle.

Exusiai was still in her chair, air drumming along to a killer drum solo. When she saw Lappland getting out of bed, she sat up, pulling her headphones down from her ears.

“Oh, your meds…!” she called.

“In a minute,” Lappland growled, stalking over to the bathroom.

Later, she emerged, and trudged her way back to her bed. Again, Exusiai was halfway out of her chair.

“Do you want me to--”

“I don’t. Need. Help,” Lappland growled. Exusiai backed off, her hands up in apology. Lappland grit her teeth and forced her way forward, one shaky step at a time, before finally falling back into bed with a groan. She stubbornly rolled away from Exusiai, staring at the wall.

On some level, Lappland realized she shouldn’t be so sour. She wasn’t really mad at Exusiai. No matter who was here keeping her company, she still would’ve been irrationally annoyed that it wasn’t Texas. Not that she was ever the most rational person.

That still didn’t mean she had to make small talk.

“Hey,” Lappland began, before she could change her mind.

Exusiai paused, her headphones halfway to her ears. “...Yeah?”

“So you’re one of Texas’ buddies at Club Penguin, huh?”

“Hehe, Club Penguin, that’s good. Just like that… old…” Exusiai saw Lappland glowering at her. She cleared her throat. “...Uh, yeah. Been working with her for about two years, now.”

“Mm.”

Exusiai waited, expecting Lappland to continue the conversation. She clicked off her music and pulled her headphones down around her neck, watching, waiting. Lappland, who hadn’t thought this far ahead, saw the optimistic gleam in Exusiai’s eyes and immediately regretted speaking up.

“So, um…” Exusiai began, attempting to break the ice.

“What,” Lappland said flatly.

“...what are you in for?” Exusiai asked, lamely.

Lappland’s gaze turned cold. “...I’m here because I have late-stage Oripathy and wanted to die on my own terms, forced the only person I care about in the world to help me commit suicide by cop, Texas stabbed me in the heart, and now, for some reason I still can’t fathom, I’m still alive.”

Exusiai winced. “...O-Oh.”

Their eyes met in the tense quiet. Then Exusiai’s lips twitched into a smile, and she clapped a guilty hand over her mouth.

“What’s so funny?” Lappland growled.

“I-I’m sorry, but what you're saying is…” Exusiai swallowed hard, fighting her smile. “… you’re in the hospital… with a broken heart...?”

Lappland stared at her. Exusiai held her breath. Finally, Lappland… laughed.

Lappland barked out laughter, and Exusiai, still a little shrill and pinched with nerves, joined her. It was amazing how much softer Lappland looked when she was laughing-- really, genuinely laughing, not the cackling she got into on a manic upswing that was all teeth and no warmth.

“Alright,” Lappland grinned, giving Exusiai an affectionate punch in the arm. “You’re alright, sunshine.”

“Great,” Exusiai beamed, her halo shining bright. She blinked, remembering. “Oh, but seriously, though. Take your meds.”

Lappland rolled her eyes.

“Okay, well, don’t ruin it…”

~*~

Lappland hit the mat with a thud. She lay there for a long moment, gasping, drenched in her own sweat. Shining loomed above her, looking somber and inscrutable as always. She studied her for a moment, before offering a hand and hoisting Lappland to her feet.

“You’re getting better,” Shining said simply.

“I don’t know how you can tell…” Lappland muttered, dazed.

“I can tell,” Shining said.

“Damn, Lappland!” Exusiai whistled. “She kicked your ass!”

“Hey!” Lappland huffed. “Why don’t you come over here and see how you do against her?”

“Ehehe...  I think I’ll pass,” Exusiai chuckled, sheepish. “In Laterano, hand-to-hand combat isn’t really our thing.”

“Oh yeah? I just had surgery two weeks ago. What’s your excuse?” Lappland teased.

“I think that’s enough for this session,” Shining intoned.

“Uh-huh,” Lappland said, mopping sweat from her brow with a towel and slinging her jacket over her shoulder. “You know, someday, you’re gonna have to tell me how a faith healer got so damn good at fighting.”

“Physical therapy,” Shining said. “Not fighting.”

“Uh-huh.”

Exusiai had Lappland’s wheelchair ready. Lappland was getting steadier on her feet and stronger every day, but her chest and arms were still so stiff, and they burned whenever she got any real exercise. Exusiai tipped Shining a lighthearted, two-fingered salute before wheeling Lappland down the hall.

Exusiai leaned in with a conspiratorial grin. “Psst. Hey. I’ve got a surprise waiting for you back at your room.”

“Oooh,” Lappland grinned back. “What kinda surprise?”

“I got us a couple of cold ones~”

“Holy shit, seriously?” Lappland crowed. “Yoooooo--”

“Yo, what the hell is this?” Lappland scoffed, a few minutes later.

“What?” Exusiai said, defensive. “You said you wanted drinks, I got us drinks. Some of my favorites, even!”

“‘Arizona’?” Lappland teased. “You got us fucking vintage soda?”

“Excuse you, it’s vintage iced tea,” Exusiai huffed. “I’ll have you know, in Laterano, we love iced tea. We probably drink more iced tea than we drink regular water.”

“Why? What’s wrong with your water?”

“Nothing! Sh-Shut up!” Exusiai gave Lappland a shove. “At least try it first.”

Lappland rolled her eyes. She popped the tab with a satisfying hiss, clinked her can against Exusiai’s, and took a sip. She made a face, smacking her lips.

“Mm! It’s sweet. I never really had sweets back in Siracusa,” Lappland said.

“Yeah. You’re welcome,” Exusiai grinned. “Take a fucking sip, babe.”

Lappland snorted. The two of them dissolved into snickers, Exusiai’s halo shining bright, Lappland’s tail thumping against her legs.

~*~

Hands shaking. Heart racing. An electric thrill from her fingers all the way to her toes.

Exusiai peered anxiously out the window, careful to keep herself out of view. Her halo sparked and sizzled with a wild, restless energy. She’d never felt so alive.

Something grabbed her. She went stiff--

Lappland clapped a hand over her mouth an instant before she could scream.

“It’s just me,” Lappland said, grinning her trademark, devil-may-care grin. “How are you feeling?”

“I can’t believe we’re doing this,” Exusiai grinned back. “We’re gonna get in so much trouble!”

“Only if we get caught,” Lappland winked. “Do you have the list?”

Exusiai pulled it out of her jacket. “Right here.”

Lappland snatched the list out of her hand and scanned it. For a moment, her manic grin faded into puzzlement. “...Are you sure?”

“Yeah, I’m sure,” Exusiai nodded.

“Alright.” Lappland took Exusiai’s shoulder with a squeeze. “Wait here.”

Exusiai nodded, and Lappland slipped away. She gave one last anxious glance out the window before sliding down into her seat, excitement thrumming in her fingers.

A few moments later, Lappland reappeared, plastic tray in hand. She practically sprinted back to Exusiai’s table and howled in triumph, slapping the tray down so hard that french fries went flying everywhere.

“I am ready , baby!” Lappland cried.

“Shhh!” Exusiai hissed. She pulled Lappland down into their booth, the two of them already giggling like mad. “God, Lapp, you’re crazy, you know that?”

“So I’ve heard,” Lappland flashed her a jackal grin.

She dumped two boxes of chicken nuggets onto the tray alongside a veritable mountain of fries, before turning to Exusiai and holding up a pair of dipping sauces.

“So, Ex, are you a sweet and sour slut or a barbecue bitch?”

Exusiai snorted and punched her in the arm. “I can’t believe we snuck all the way into Lungmen just to get McDonald’s.”

“I can’t believe all you wanted was, like, ten apple pies,” Lappland grinned and gave her a shove.

“I just really like their apple pies, okay?” Exusiai shoved her back. “You know, if you were so sick of hospital food, you could’ve just had me get you something from Rhodes Island’s other kitchens.”

“Rhodes Island is a hospital ship. It’s all hospital food,” Lappland said.

Lappland dipped one end of a chicken nugget in barbecue sauce, the other in sweet and sour, and then tossed the whole morsel of dipping sauce anarchy into her mouth.

“Besides,” Lappland continued, her mouth full. “When you’re on a manic upswing, sometimes you just gotta say ‘fuck the rules’! Nobody can tell me what to do, babe! I’ve got rocks in my brain!”

Other customers were starting to stare. Exusiai tugged on Lappland’s arm, trying to pull her back into her seat before she decided to stand on the table. She could feel the manic energy surging through Lappland’s veins, so strong it seemed Lappland would fly right through the ceiling if Exusiai didn’t hold her down.

“Hey, Lapp? Maybe we should… take it easy, a little bit? Maybe?” Exusiai urged.

“Too late for that, babe!” Lappland laughed, her eyes wild. She howled into the ceiling. “ Rocks in my brain!!!

~*~

A few hours later, Lappland and Exusiai were sitting on Lappland’s hospital bed, staring at their feet like guilty schoolchildren, while Amiya stood in front of them, tapping her foot. Projekt Red lurked beside her, silent and inscrutable, after having dragged the duo back to Rhodes Island for their scolding. Now, Amiya was doing her best impression of someone who could actually deliver a scolding while looking stern instead of cute as a button. It was… a noble effort.

“Do you have anything to say for yourselves?” Amiya demanded, hands on her hips.

Lappland and Exusiai exchanged glances, stifling snickers. Lappland raised her hand.

“Uh, in my defense, I have rocks in my brain,” she grinned.

“Yeah? And what’s her excuse?” Red drawled.

“It was my fault,” Exusiai chimed in. “I take full responsibility.”

Amiya pinched the bridge of her nose. She blew out an exasperated sigh.

“You’re already refusing your one-on-ones with Dr. Kal’tsit,” Amiya said, as patiently as she could. “Could you at least do me a favor and stay on the ship, at least? We can’t treat you if you aren’t here. I know that sounds stifling, but these rules are for your protection. Are we clear?”

Lappland chuckled. “You sound like your mom.”

If Amiya heard that, she didn’t show it. “Are we clear, operator Lappland?” she repeated.

“Yeah, I got it, I got it,” Lappland relented. “Won’t happen again.”

“Good,” Amiya said, breathing out a sigh of relief. “That will be all, then.”

Amiya hugged her clipboard to her chest and strode out of the room.

Red lingered in the doorway, a few steps behind. She pointed to her eyes, then pointed to Lappland. Lappland mockingly returned the gesture. Red stuck her tongue out. Lappland made a V with her fingers and made a much cruder gesture. Red’s eyes went wide. She turned on her heel and hurried away, red flicking across her cheeks.

Lappland snickered, amused with her little victory. She dug an elbow into Exusiai’s side.

“...You know, when I first came aboard, I was convinced Red was gonna kill me someday. Then it turns out she’s just a mouthy little shit. Just like her sister.”

“Hey,” Exusiai warned.

“In a good way! In a good way,” Lappland grinned. She lay back in her hospital bed. To her surprise, Exusiai did, too. And she didn’t push her away.

Lappland curled an arm around Exusiai’s shoulders without a word. She took a deep breath, and let it out slow.

“Tired?” Exusiai wondered.

“Yeah,” Lappland said. She put a hand on her stomach, groaning. “...I think I ate too much.”

Exusiai snorted. “Was it worth it?”

Lappland grinned. “Oh, yeah.”

~*~

Another evening on mandatory medical leave. The days started blurring together-- less because of Lappland’s mania or depression leaving foggy gaps in her memory, and more because Exusiai was genuinely fun to have around. She was so unlike Texas. So cheerful and unashamed. Bright on Lappland’s bad days. A partner in crime during her wild ones.

Today, Exusiai was listening to some pounding techno beats, her headphones swiveled around into speaker mode while hanging around her neck. Lappland was laying in bed, restlessly drumming her fingertips against her thigh. The medication, the clinical routine, the talks with Ex that were filling in for time on Kal’tsit’s couch, they were starting to add up. Lappland was spending more and more time genuinely lucid. But sometimes, the mania still lingered, trapped and buzzing in her hands.

“What day is today?” Lappland muttered, distracted.

“Tuesday,” Exusiai replied.

“When’s my next session with Shining?”

“Tomorrow,” Exusiai said patiently. “You already went today.”

“I know. I remember. I just…” Lappland grit her teeth, her tail swishing. She flexed her fingers. “I just need to do something. Get my blood pumping.”

Lappland huffed out a frustrated sigh. She glanced over to Exusiai in the chair beside her bed. She bumped her elbow against hers.

“Hey,” Lappland said. “Wanna fuck?”

“What?!” Exusiai squeaked, her wings flushing a deeper shade of red.

“Relax, relax,” Lappland scoffed. “Take a joke, would you?”

Exusiai glanced away, embarrassed. She reached for her phone and clicked off her music.

“Actually, um,” Exusiai cleared her throat. “There was something I wanted to ask you.”

Lappland grinned. “Oh my god, do you actually want to fuck?”

“What? No!” Exusiai babbled, flustered. “I-- I wanted to ask you something about Texas.”

Lappland blinked. She sat up. “...Oh.”

Exusiai pulled off her headphones and set them aside. She folded her hands in her lap, fidgeting, tugging at the edges of her gloves.

“So, um… I’ve been working with Texas for awhile…”

“Uh-huh.”

“...and she’s… great, y’know? She’s really great.”

“Uh-huh.”

“And I… kind of… have… this…”

Lappland rolled her eyes. “Spit it out, sunshine.”

“...crush,” Exusiai cringed. “And I wanted to ask you if that was… okay.”

Lappland stared at her. She scoffed. A scoff became a snort. A snort became a bark. That bark became full-blown, vicious, mocking laughter.

“Don’t laugh,” Exusiai said, shaken. “Don’t laugh!”

“‘Oooh, I like someone, how am I going to tell them?’ What are you, twelve?” Lappland cackled. “Let me guess. You meet a suave, dark-haired Lupo at work with a mysterious past, and oh, you’re smitten. You’re smitten from day one. And then you keep working with her for-- what? Two years? And you just can’t say anything because ooooh, I don’t want to ruin our friendship !”

Lappland kept laughing. It was not a friendly laugh. Exusiai stared at her, eyes watering, as if she’d just been slapped in the face.

“I...I was just trying to be considerate and ask you first!” Exusiai wailed, helpless.

“For what? Permission ?” Lappland scoffed. “I don’t own her, sunshine. Don’t tell me I’m the reason you haven’t said anything to her yet!”

“I… I was going to, but…” Exusiai faltered. “...but then you showed up, and things got complicated, and-- Texas cares about you. She worries about you! I mean, I know Texas normally worries about stuff anyway, but ever since you showed up you’ve been all she can think about!”

Lappland threw her hands up. “Who cares what Texas thinks?”

You should!” Exusiai snapped, gaining confidence. “You are just… the most… selfish --”

Lappland was on her feet. “Oh, I’m selfish? I’m selfish when I’ve spent the last month in this fucking hospital bed, when Texas is the one who put me here!”

“You didn’t give her a choice!” Exusiai fired back, holding her ground. “You forced her into a position she never should have been in! You gave her an ultimatum, kill or be killed, and somehow, thank God, both of you are still alive! You know you really scared her, right? That’s why she hasn’t been around!”

“She ran,” Lappland spat, “just like she always does! She ran when I first told her I was Infected! She ran when I dared her to kill me! She’s running right now! She can’t even look at me!”

“She loves you, Lappland!” Exusiai cried, desperate. “But when you love someone that much, it hurts to see them in so much pain! To see them struggle so hard!”

“I get it, alright? I get it!” Lappland roared. “I fucked it all up! I hurt people! Even, no, especially, the people I care about. I hurt her! I hurt you! I hurt myself! I’m out of control! There, I said it! So I get it, alright? I know that now!”

She loomed over Exusiai, clenching and unclenching her fists. They were so close, the air burning between them, breathing in each other’s fury. Exusiai met her gaze and didn’t back down.

“...How many people did you hurt before you did?”

Exusiai’s question hung, ghost-like, in the air between them. Exusiai took a deep breath, turned on her heel, and stalked out of the room without a word.

Lappland sank back into her hospital bed, clutching fistfuls of her hair in frustration.

Alone again. And it was her fault. Just like it always was.

~*~

Hours passed. Exusiai wasn’t sure how many, but it was enough for the sun to dip below the horizon and the stars to come out. Cloudless skies were a rarity on Terra in this day and age, so often obscured by smog or smoke. Being able to see the stars was a rare opportunity.

But Exusiai wasn’t stargazing. She was sitting on Rhodes Island’s roof, atop dust-scoured hull plating, hugging her knees to her chest. She spent a long time out there, alone with her thoughts. She was out there for so long, that when a shadow loomed beside her, she genuinely thought it was a ghost.

A slim hand curled around her mouth before she could scream.

“Why do they always scream?” Projekt Red wondered, as she melted out of the shadows. “Here. This is for you.”

Exusiai glanced down, and took the can of Arizona Red handed to her. Red nodded across Rhodes Island’s roof. Lappland was waiting a little further back, a bright shock of white in the evening dark, holding a can of her own.

Her task done, Red made her way back to the roof access hatch. She brushed past Lappland in what she assumed was sympathy, though Red’s tail curled against hers for a suspiciously long moment.

“I’m going to try not to read into that,” Lappland muttered, as she made her way over to Exusiai. She sat down beside her, both of them staring ahead across the wilderness.

Exusiai’s halo flickered, unsteady. Lappland blew out a sigh, flattening her ears against her skull in apology.

“I’m sorry,” she muttered.

Exusiai blew out a breath.

“I get it,” she said. “You have rocks in your brain.”

“Well, sure,” Lappland shrugged. “But I don’t have to be such a bitch about it.”

Exusiai nodded, mute. She popped the tab on her Arizona can, clinked it against Lappland’s, and took a sip. She glanced at Lappland sidelong, meeting her eyes.

“Did you really want to die?” she asked quietly.

Lappland’s ears twitched. Her tail swished, restless.

“Not really,” she said. “But I was tired of doctors telling me what to do. I didn’t want to let Oripathy control me. I figured, if I’m gonna die either way, then I’m gonna do it on my terms, because that’s the last bit of control I have over my life. Having Texas do it… I dunno, made sense? I thought it would give me some… closure. I didn’t think about how she would have to live with it.”

“Now you do, too,” Exusiai offered.

“...Yeah.”

Exusiai blew out a sigh. She lay back on the deck, her hands behind her head, gazing up at the stars. Carefully, Lappland eased her way down beside her. They stared up at the night sky together, drinking in the solemn, serene quiet.

“I get it,” Exusiai muttered. “You meet someone when you’re young, and in a bad place, and you rely on each other to survive. And now that things aren’t as bad as they were back then, maybe you don’t need to rely on them so much anymore. But you’re lost without them now. Even if you’re strong enough on your own. I know how it feels.”

Exusiai bumped an elbow against Lappland’s. She turned, and their eyes met.

“I had someone like that, too,” Exusiai said reverently, like a prayer. “She was my whole world.”

“What happened to her?” Lappland asked.

“I don’t know,” Exusiai shrugged. “And I don’t know how I would react if she showed up in my life again now, so maybe I don’t really know how Texas feels. But I get it, you know? Texas is your whole world. But her world is bigger than you, now. She has a new life.”

“I know,” Lappland said, somber. “I just want to be part of it.”

Exusiai blew out a sigh. She sat up, glancing down at Lappland on the floor.

“Listen. You’ve known Texas a lot longer than I have, and things between you two now are complicated enough without me getting involved. So, if you want me to just… back off, and make things simpler… I get it.”

Lappland frowned. “...That’s not what I want.”

“What do you want?” Exusiai pressed.

“You’re sounding dangerously close to a therapist,” Lappland teased.

Exusiai laughed, despite everything. “...Well?”

Lappland sighed. “...I don’t know. I feel like ninety percent of the time I’m with Texas, it’s not even the real me there. I feel like a whole different person nowadays. Like I can finally see clearly. But I don’t like everything I see.”

“You’ve gone untreated for a long time,” Exusiai said gently. “Seeing clearly is just the start. You’ve still got work to do.”

“Yeah…” Lappland said, wistful. “I think… I just want to see us clearly. Under all the baggage, under all the bullshit. No more games. No more running. I want us to be friends. Real friends, not this obsessive, codependent shit. I want us to be… okay. Really okay. I want to finally be straight with her.”

Exusiai snickered. She clapped a guilty hand over her mouth.

Lappland grinned. “...You know what I mean.”

“Do you really mean that?”

Exusiai bolted upright in shock. Lappland followed-- a little bit more slowly and carefully, hissing as Exusiai pulled her to her feet.

Texas was standing before them, a Penguin Logistics duffel bag slung over her shoulder.

“Hey, puppy,” Lappland smiled. “When’d you get back?”

“Just now.”

“How’d you find us?” Exusiai wondered.

Texas nodded towards the roof access hatch. Projekt Red, lurking in the dark, raised her hand and snapped off a two-fingered salute. Somehow, coming from her, it seemed a lot more sarcastic than when Exusiai did it.

“...Figures,” Exusiai muttered.

“Lapp,” Texas said gently, “do you really mean what you said? About us?”

Lappland met her eyes. She could never lie to those eyes.

“...I do,” she said. “At least… until the meds wear off, and I’m back on my bullshit again.”

Texas stepped forward. She reached out, curled a pinky around Lappland’s, before taking her hand in hers and lacing their fingers together with a squeeze. Lappland’s hair shone in the moonlight, almost like a halo-- as if Texas was truly seeing her for the very first time.

Exusiai cleared her throat.

“Um, sorry,” she said sheepish, “but Texas, um, how long were you standing there? You didn’t happen to hear anything about me, would you…?”

Texas laughed, despite everything. She gave Lappland’s hand a squeeze, before reaching out and taking Exusiai’s, too.

“Listen. Can we talk?” Texas said, pointedly meeting Exusiai’s gaze. “All three of us?”

Exusiai blinked, caught off guard.

“Um. Sure,” she smiled, flustered. She held up her bag. “Do… do you want some Arizona?”

~*~

Six weeks after Lappland was admitted to Rhodes Island with a broken heart, a medical board, led by Dr. Kal’tsit, reviewed whether she was ready to be discharged. With input from Shining, Amiya, even Red (“she’ll do what she wants”), the board decided that, while Lappland still required medical supervision and physical therapy, she would be permitted to leave the hospital wing.

Her first day out… wasn’t as exciting as you might think.

“Man,” Lappland drawled, “when they said they were letting me out of my room, I didn’t think it’d be for shit like this .”

“Hey, cheer up,” Exusiai chirped. She packed a box of materials, taped it shut, and tossed it over her shoulder onto a passing conveyor belt. “We only have four hours left in our shift!”

Lappland groaned. She planted herself face down on the conveyor belt and let it pull her along.

“Get off,” Texas swatted at her, grabbing her wrist and pulling her up before she could tumble down a sorting chute. “And hey. At least you’re getting some exercise.”

“I think I’d rather have Shining kick my ass,” Lappland grumbled.

“Oh, yeah,” Exusiai giggled. “Have you heard Lapp’s theory about how Shining’s actually a master swordfighter?”

“I have,” Texas chuckled.

“She is! I have proof!” Lappland railed.

“So Shining can beat you in unarmed combat,” Texas teased. “So what? It’s not like that’s hard.”

“Fuck off!” Lappland punched her in the arm. Texas feigned injury, while Exusiai giggled away.

“I see how it is,” Lappland huffed. “Hey, Ex. Here’s a dirty little secret about Texas: she used to smoke.”

Exusiai gasped, affronted. “Really?”

“...That’s not true,” Texas bristled.

“Sure it is,” Lappland crowed. “Haven’t you ever wondered why she eats so much Pocky? It’s the oral fixation, baby. The only way she could quit is if she had something else to su--”

Texas shoved her. Lappland shoved her back. They were on the verge of a full-blown slappy-fight before Exusiai got between them and broke it up.

“Guys, guys, come on,” Exusiai urged.

Texas glanced at her.

“...I don’t smoke,” she said.

“Any more,” Lappland teased.

Lappland grinned, reaching down to hoist another completed package onto the belt. She dropped the box harder than she intended, clutching her ribs with a hiss.

“What’s up?” Texas said.

“Are you okay?” Exusiai murmured.

“I’m fine, it’s just… some of these boxes are heavy as shit,” Lappland said through gritted teeth.

“There are gold bars in some of these,” Texas admitted. “Pure gold is a lot heavier than most people realize.”

“Do you need help?” Exusiai offered.

“I’m okay, I just need-- whoa!”

Lappland tripped over a stray gold bar on the trading post floor. She threw her arm forward to stop herself, and her hand thudded into the wall, right next to Exusiai’s face.

Exusiai’s breath caught in her chest. Lappland had her cornered. They froze, staring at each other, the two of them so tantalizingly close…

“...Hey,” Lappland breathed.

“Hi,” Exusiai squeaked.

There was the tell-tale click of a phone camera behind them. Exusiai went bright red.

“T-Texas!” she screeched, mortified, shoving past Lappland and reaching for Texas’ phone.

Texas snatched her phone away from Exusiai’s grasp, vaulting over a conveyor belt and sticking the landing on the other side. She caught Lappland’s eyes.

“Parkour,” Texas said with a wink.

“Texas! Delete that right now!” Exusiai squealed, chasing her through the warehouse, her wings shining bright pink.

“Hey, puppy!” Lappland called after her, with a smile brighter and more genuine than she’s ever had. “Send me that photo!”

~*~