Place: Aboard the Brimstone, in transit
It had been a bit since Ness had seen or heard Shax. He wasn't in the pilot's pod tormenting Verin and he wasn't in his usual lounging spot in the galley. Not that Ness was worried…not exactly. It wasn't as if Shax could get into any trouble in the finite space of his own ship in transit between systems.
No. Strike that. Shax would somehow find trouble confined to a packing crate.
He checked the cabin next and was more than a little relieved to find Shax slouched in his desk chair staring at the ceiling as the audio system wailed out an unhappy song.
What have we found?
The same old fears
Wish you were here…
"Love?" Ness poked his head around the door. "Are you all right?"
"Hmm?" Shax startled, his feet thumping down off his desk. He caught himself and offered a swift smile but not before Ness had seen the expression it replaced. "Fine, cupcake. Why do you ask?"
"Just a thought, but sitting in the dark listening to sad songs doesn't strike me as completely fine."
"Ah. That." Shax crossed the floor to snuggle into Ness's arms. "Sometimes I just feel like sad songs."
"Mmm-hmm." Ness kissed the top of Shax's head. "I thought you weren't lying to me anymore?"
Shax reared back. "I'm not! A little spot of melancholy doesn't mean something's wrong. There are just…moments."
"This will probably sound odd to you. But there are times when I miss Hell."
Ness gathered his demon close again, wrapping a wing around Shax for good measure. "From anyone else, I'd find that odd, yes. But you're just homesick."
"'M not homesick." Shax moved his head so his words weren't muffled by Ness's chest. "When you're homesick, you're horribly depressed. You can't eat. Nothing's fun anymore. You have these disorienting bouts of displacement. I'm just…home slightly nauseous."
"What can I do to make your life more hellish?" Ness snapped his mouth shut on the last word. "Not quite what I meant."
Shax's chuckle vibrated against Ness. "I know what you meant, gorgeous. This is nice. I'll take all the holding I can get."
Happy to oblige, Ness did just that until Shax muttered something about needing to check on something. He left his beloved captain to his captainy business and wandered off to the galley with the germ of an idea.
"Yes, sweetie? You look a little rattled." Ms. Ivana's voice was sugary with concern, which made Ness wonder if she was bored and hoping for a challenge.
"Do we have any demon food on board?" Ness held up a finger to forestall any smart aleck response. "By that I mean, any demon food that would normally be found in Hell?"
"Well, there's always the Foxfire…"
"Something, ah, less usual, please? Something, oh, stored away and perhaps forgotten?"
"Hmm. Give me just a tic to access." Ivana hummed softly as she dug through data. "We do have a cute little box of dried fire grubs in storage."
"Are they within reach of your robotic arms? Or should I help dig them out of wherever they are?"
"Aww, you're a doll to offer—"
"Ness. Ms. Ivana." Ness glanced down at a tug on his sleeve. Heckle stood there gazing up with an earnest, determined expression. "I know. Where they are."
"You do?" Ness blinked at him.
"Our imp cutie's pretty much memorized what's in storage already." Ivana managed both proud and smug. Once she'd become accustomed to Heckle, he become her endearingly eager student.
"Oh. I see." Ness held out a hand for Heckle to take. "Could you help me find them? And do they have to be cooked?"
Heckle nodded and trotted off at a brisk clip, towing Ness behind him. "I know right where. But cooked? They're, um, kind of a delicacy. Usually fresh for a royal demon's table. I guess you could cook them? Don't think I ever saw them that way. We weren't allowed to eat them."
Good to know. Ness kept his thoughts to himself while they climbed down into storage and Heckle slipped into impossibly small spaces between rows of crates.
"I know it's back here. Just a second." There were some alarming clunks and thuds before Heckle called out. "Got it!"
"Are you all right?"
"Yes." Heckle popped back into view, his face blushed maroon and Ness had to remind himself that simple questions of concern were new to him. "Thank you."
"And thank you." Ness took the roughly meter long box and undid the catches. The smell that crept out was appalling, somewhere between mildew and rotten potatoes. "Oh, dear. Have they gone off?"
Heckle shook his head, wiping the corner of his mouth with the back of his hand. "That's how they smell dried." He took a long sniff, eyes closed in appreciation.
Ness held out the box. "Would you like one?"
"Me?" Heckle squeaked. "Oh, no! Those aren't for me!"
"I'm overriding any royal privilege and saying you may have one." Ness held the box out further. "Take a grub, Heckle. Our captain would gladly give you one and if he didn't, he'd have to answer to me."
"Oh." With a shaking hand, Heckle reached out and snagged a stinking grub delicately between thumb and foreclaw. "Thank you, sir. Ness."
"My pleasure." Ness tipped his head to one side as he had another thought. "Can you think of anything else I might do to ease the heart of a demon prince who's missing home?"
Head down, Heckle shuffled his hooves a bit. "Um. I guess there are things? But I don't know… I mean, where would you get a hellcat out here?"
"Perhaps something simpler."
"Please don't take this wrong. I mean, I know you're not a servant or anything. But you could…polish his horns? The princes I knew always liked that?"
After brief instructions about horn polishing, Ness took the box up the ladder, trying to ignore the crunching and slurping going on behind him. He hoped Shax didn't savor the grubs quite as much as Heckle did.
This time Ness entered the cabin without announcing himself and simply leaned against the door with the box of stench grub. Initially immersed in reading a long missive, Shax twitched and turned slowly.
"Is that what I think it is?"
"I'm not sure how it could be mistaken for anything else," Ness allowed ruefully.
Shax rose slowly, his eyes glued to the box. "I forgot we had those. Hell's gates that smells good."
"If you say so."
"Hmm." Shax put his hands behind his back and peered into the box. "There's one missing. Did you actually try one, sweetheart?"
"Goodness, no." Ness wrinkled his nose, then straightened his shoulders as he tried to look quite stern. "I gave one to Heckle and…and I'll hear no objections about it."
"Certainly not." Shax hummed as he perused the selection. "Little bugger deserves one. Or several."
Well, that was easy. "Why don't we sit on the bed and I'll polish your horns?"
Shax's head jerked up. "You'd do that? Oh, my sweet, sweet angel."
They ended up with Ness sitting behind and Shax leaning against him as he devoured dried fire grubs. After Ness had started the room vents, of course. Polishing horns was easy, with a cloth and toothpaste of all things, but the contented purring from Shax made it seem like a much bigger accomplishment.
When Shax had finished five or six of the grubs, he closed the box to save the rest for another time, and leaned back with a contented sigh.
"Is that a little better, love?" Ness asked softly as he rocked Shax in his arms.
"Mmm. Yes. You've managed to make the day quite hellish." Shax choked on the last word. "I don't mean—"
"Shh. I know what you meant, love. More than happy to make your life hell in all the right ways."