Universally enthusiastic chaos-artist & storyteller

Chapter 37: Old hurt

“A harpoon? Seriously?!” Tungsten exclaims indignantly as he steps into the small, shelf covered room. Glassware and bottles, meticulously sorted and displayed, tremble at the big man’s voice.
I look closer at the bottles, unlike Tungstens’ collection that feature floating bits and pieces from animals and men alike inside these bottles feature an array of powders, liquids and leaves in all kinds of shapes and colours.
The alchemist Neon is sitting with his back turned to us over a black lacquer dresser pulling double duty as a workbench. His back is slender, arms rail-thin and hair the colour of the moon.
His shoulders jump at Tungsten’s accusation. But he keeps his eyes focused to his work as he gets up from his chair “I found it in the tunnels.” His voice isn’t loud by any means, but this place is so oppressively silent it sounds clear like glass “I had a faint hope it would strike your lungs and leave you gasping just long enough that I can set down my work and watch you die.” It’s hard to make out what his hands are doing until I notice the signature bright green glasses unfolding in his hands. He puts on his face before turning to us. “You know, you’re no longer welcome here Tungsten.”
“Yes, I know but I’m not here for me, I’m here for the kid-”
“You misunderstand.” he says calmly. “I’m telling you to get out.”
“Neon I-”
“Now, Tungsten. I have nothing to say to you but that.”
“Neon, I get why you’re angry but this isn’t about us right now.”
He picks up a plant mister of all things from the workbench. Yet coming from what we just went through in the tunnels I don’t think we can afford to take out chances with it. “You can either walk out of this place right now and never come back or I will kill you like I should have done years ago.”
Tungsten puts up his hands in innocence “Would killing me really make you feel better?”
And Neon sighs “There’s only one way to find out-”
“You wouldn’t.”
“For the love of sanity don’t taunt him you idiot.” I call out trying my best to sound authoritative. “Look, I don’t know what happened between the two of you and frankly I don’t care but there’s a more pressing matter right now. And I need everyone to focus for a bit.”
Neon’s eyes glance over me, acknowledging my presence Neon sets his attention on me “You’re Mercury’s ion right? Didn’t you bail out and call it quits?”
“Not quite, well, I was but I left when she tried to take an axe to my doll friend and exposed herself as a terrible person.
“And yet you think the things Tungsten did are excusable somehow?”
“What do you mean?”
He scoffs, then turns to Tungsten again.“He doesn’t know?”
Tungsten crosses his arms “Of course he doesn’t. Why would I tell him?”
A wry smile forms on the pale man’s face “So you come in here all high and mighty. The ‘big hero’ of the story and you didn’t even have the balls to tell him what you did to me?”
“Why would I? That’s all in the past it shouldn’t matter-”
“It matters!” The spray bottle starts to tremble in the thin man’s arms. He sets it down with a grunt and shakes his hands as if that would help them stop. “To me it matters. I don’t have the luxury of two dozen forgettable exes, I only had you.” His face flushes red as he steps toward him “And you dare to tell me it didn’t matter!” he balls his hands into fists and swings it clumsily at Tungsten’s face.
Tungsten catches his arms with no effort whatsoever. “I’m not here to fight you Neon.”
“Let go of me!”
“Calm down first.”
“Fuck you!”
“And here I thought you lost your sex drive.” Tungsten chuckles.
Neon spits in Tungsten’s face in response. “You’re a monster of a man and I wish I never met you.” his legs are shaking, his whole body’s shaking.
It looks pitiful.
He looks pitiful.
I almost feel sorry for him.
But he helped kidnap Pristoli. He’s part of the problem we’re trying to solve.
Tungsten lets go of Neon’s arm with a huff “I never claimed to be a good person Neon.”
Neon crosses his arms “Then you shouldn’t feel embarrassed to tell him.”
“Look if you want my apology for leaving you, you can have it.”
“I don’t want your apology, I know you wouldn’t mean it anyway. What I want is for you to get off your high horse and admit to the shit you pulled or get out and leave me alone.”
“All right, I shouldn’t have left you the way I did.”
“So why did you do it then?” Neon bites.
“Look sometimes things don’t work out, that’s no one’s fault.”
Tungsten scowls “I don’t know what you want me to say Neon.”
“You left because I’m sick and you’re tired of taking care of me.”
“That’s not true.”
“You rather just forget about me and go back to your life of gambling, fighting and sleeping around.”
“No, Neon I swear I-”
“You what Tungsten!?”
“I didn’t want to-”
“Really? You didn’t want to leave?”
“I just didn’t want to watch you die!” Tungsten’s retaliation thunders from his lips then a breath gets caught in his throat as tears spring into his eyes “I was too scared to watch you die.”
“And you think that justifies anything!?” Neon scoffs “I’m scared too you asshole! I keep dropping things because my hands won’t stop shaking. I can barely stand for longer than an hour, my head is killing me right now. Each time I go to bed I spend three hours wondering whether I’ll wake up again and when I do I wonder what for and I had to go it alone because you ran out in the middle of the night and pretended we we were strangers at the next meeting erasing everything we had together!!”
“I’m sorry.”
“No you’re not.”
“I am I-” Tungsten crumples through his knees as the lank man stands across from him in victory. “I didn’t know what to do, I panicked.”
And then the green glasses start to leak and streak over pale, hollow cheeks. “At first I hoped you just went out for breakfast. I knew it was bullshit but I still waited for hours for you to come back.”
“I’m sorry.”
“I hate you, so, so much.”
“I know.”
“You blame me for lying to you but this is exactly why I wanted to keep it a secret.”
“I’m sorry.” The big man’s shoulders are trembling as bitter tears fall to the ground “I wanted to lose you on my own terms. I thought it would hurt less if it was my decision.”
Neon scoffs tearfully “Does it?”
“Not at all.” Tungsten sobs weakly.
“Good.” And then the pale thin alchemist drops to his knees and wraps his emaciated arms around the big guy.
They embrace.
No one speaks.
I look upon the tableau feeling like some strange voyeur to pain I’m not at all privy to.
I have no words.
No context.
Nothing to add.
And so I just stand here, waiting for this tightness in my chest to ease and the tension in the air to clear.
“Yes Neon.”
“Please don’t fight back.”
“hu-?” Tungsten drops to the floor like massive sack of flour and I just look at the display with rising panic.
“Neon, what did you do?”
“He’s fine, just passed out.” Neon pulls himself from under the big mad and drops a little syringe on the table, it looks just like the ones Tungsten found outside. “You can check his pulse if you like.”
What the hell is it with today and people getting knocked out!?
I shoot towards him kneeling down and feeling his neck then his chest. How do you check if someone’s pulse?
“Try his wrist.” He calls out walking further into the den. I follow him warily with my eyes to a steel bed and a nightstand with a bowl of water. He’s mumbling something under his breath but it’s hard to make out. Facing the wall he takes off his glasses and dunks his head into it in one fluid motion. He holds it in there for a couple moments.
I find Tungsten’s pulse, I’m not sure how fast it’s supposed to be but checking it against my own I think it’s fine?
There’s a gasp for air further into the den pulling my attention back to Neon as he wipes his face on a rag.
“Did you have to knock him out?” I ask the back of his head.
“You wanted to talk didn’t you?” he asks putting his glasses back onto his face before turning towards me. He feels different now. Like the whole exchange with Tungsten just now didn’t happen.
But I’m not sure if I’m okay with that excuse.
“He could have waited outside.” I tell him.
“He’s a distraction. If you want my attention you have it now so I suggest you start talking about why you’re here.” He pulls a chair away from his work table and drags it towards me before sitting down. “I’d offer you a chair but I only have the one, I don’t get guests very often.”
“That’s okay…” I take a moment to recall my argument again. It’s been so hectic I feel a bit lost to be honest. “I’m here because the dolls want to talk about ways to stop doll fever.”
“How?” Neon asks and being this close to him I notice a dark blue line between his teeth and gums. It looks unnerving.
“Uh- They’re willing to grant the alchemists permission to study the heart of Stegarius. Under the condition no one else needs to get hurt.”
He cocks his head at this, thinks for a moment and let’s out a “Sure.”
“But I don’t expect an aswe-” I blink for a moment “Huh?”
“Sounds like a good solution, now if that’s all you can take your dog and go.”
“I, uh, expected more of a fight to be honest.”
“I just do as Steel tells me.” He rests his elbows on his knees and his head on his hand. “I’ll be dead before the end of the year anyway. This world can burn to the ground for all I care”
“Can I… ask what you’re dying off?”
He chuckles listlessly “Turns out twenty years of smelting lead and ether together is bad for a person.” His hands are trembling, he raises his head and shakes them for a bit. “Maybe Steel would have left me to perish in peace if all they needed to keep that doll contained was some restraints, but Mercury insisted on a full sized cage for the thing. And I didn’t have nearly enough arty in stock for that.”
Wait is he talking about the cage Pristoli was kept in, I thought that was titanium it was so strong “The cage is made of lead?”
“Artificial tungsten, arty for short, the greatest invention I ever made and which will kill me dead without so much as an ounce of recognition.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.” I tell him and I’m surprised to see I genuinely feel sorry for him.
He scoffs and pulls a hand through his hair “It’s okay, it wasn’t all bad.”
I’m not even sure what to think of that, nevermind what to say. He looks about a decade older than be but that’s still under forty that’s way too young to die.
But then people die all the time from illness, accidents, childbirth and a whole host of other causes. I guess alchemy isn’t any safer than working in a factory. So why does this feel so unbelievably tragic? “I have a question?”
“Go on?”
“You’re a full alchemists right?”
“Then why do you still call Steel your master? Shouldn’t you be an equal to him by now?”
He shakes his head weakly “Steel became my master when I was just a stupid little kid. Even if he wanted to, he could never see me as an equal, at best I’m his gifted student, at worst I’m merely an extension of him and his business.” His eyes glaze over with fatigue and memories, he buries his head in his hand and mumbles “I’m tired, you should go.”
“There’s one more question, if you’ll permit me.”
He groans “What is it?”
“Uhm, Tin told me you know how to convince Steel to go along with our cause…”
Two pale eyebrows peek out from above the glasses “That man is motivated by money and money alone.”
“Really? That easy huh?” it almost feels insulting.
“He doesn’t have a very complex character.”
“I, right…thank you for your help. Do you have enough strength to attend a meeting? So the dolls can hear from you you have intention of harming them. If not that’s all right of course-”
“After I had some sleep.” He then pulls himself off the chair with a grunt “Tungsten should be awake by now, if he isn’t just pinch his ear, the human ones he keeps under his hair cause he’s afraid to slice them off for real.”
The mass of muscles and fur groans “Not afraid, two sets of ears is more convenient.”
“Sure it is, just get out, you stupid mutt.”
“Can I come back?” Tungsten asks as he struggles to his feet with tail wagging hopefully “If you say no I’d understand it’s just. I’d like to be less of a dick to you.”
Neon bites his lip, thinking for a second before saying “I’ll think about it, now please.” He signals weakly at the door.
Tungsten nods, “Sleep tight.”
We walk back through the tunnels the way we came.
We walk in silence. I’m still trying to parse what happened in there.
I reckon Tungsten is doing the same but moreso.
There were no surprises, no more harpoons.
We watched our step.
Knew what was coming.
It seemed almost trivial to walk back.
As we row into the morning glow I find Neon isn’t the only one who’s tired.
We scramble back onto the docks. Let the boat slip under the docks again.
“Can we go back to the den to sleep?”
“I think that’s an excellent idea.”

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