A large tremble shook the base. No one really reacted to it, having long grown used to the sort of earth-shaking thud Ghidorah made when he landed in the massive field beside the building. He often stopped by if he knew Maddie would be there, something everyone had accepted long ago.
Of the three currently-active Titans, he was the only one who didn’t have an established territory. Ghidorah came and went as he pleased, and the only common trend in where he wandered or landed to rest was a staunch avoidance of colder temperatures.
He seemed particularly fond of deserts, and had been observed on more than one occasion wiling away the hours, simply lounging in the sand as if it was the most comfortable bed imaginable.
This base, while not originally dedicated to him, had become the closest thing to an assigned Titan outpost for Ghidorah, given the proximity of the Russells’ home. If Mark ever needed to use lab space or do anything that couldn’t be done at their house, this base, nicknamed Sahara for Ghidorah-related reasons, was his go-to.
As a result, Maddie was often found wandering the halls, something Ghidorah had taken notice of early on. That it had a nice tall landing area for helicopters, perfect for dropping off half-kidnapped teenagers, was just the cherry on top.
So, no. The familiar tremble garnered no reactions. Maddie skidding into the busy control room, nearly drenched in blood, did.
Mark, who’d been talking to an on-site Titan researcher about Ghidorah’s bizarre dietary preferences, dropped his tablet in shock. A number of alarmed shouts interrupted the usual day-to-day hustle and bustle.
Several people were quick to approach her, Mark being one of them once he got over his initial heart attack. He joined the growing group just in time to hear his daughter reassure someone, “It’s not mine, I’m fine, I swear.”
Maddie wasn’t one to lie about injuries these days, and it would’ve been useless to do so now, when a small puddle of blood was forming on the floor around her.
“Ghidorah,” she answered, finally finding Mark in the crowd. Her shoulders sagged a little in obvious relief.
“What happened?” he asked, already feeling calmer with the knowledge that his daughter wasn’t mortally wounded or something.
“I’m not entirely sure,” she admitted, looking down at her red-stained hands. “Kevin and Ichi were messing around with some old scrap metal or something—I think they were playing tug-of-war—and the next thing I know, there’s blood everywhere and a metal pipe is sticking out of Kevin’s jaw.”
“Yikes,” someone muttered.
“And how did so much blood get on you?” Mark asked.
“There was a weird net-thing caught with the pipe, and it got all hooked inside Ichi’s mouth, but since it was attached to the pipe, their heads were basically connected. I—I got all the hooks out, I think, but the net was too tangled.” Distress clouded her eyes. “I couldn’t get it off Kevin, Dad.”
“Okay, that’s okay. Take a deep breath, all right? It’s gonna be fine, Maddie.” Mark turned to the researcher he’d been talking to, a woman by the name of Elise. “Can you make some calls? See if anyone in Monarch has—I don’t even know what sort of experience.”
She was already nodded as she stepped away. “I’ll ask around, see who might be able to help.”
“He was whimpering,” Maddie said. Mark didn’t like how pale and distant she was looking.
“Is he still here?” Mark asked urgently. If it was as bad as he was imagining, based on the amount of blood and Maddie’s horrified reaction, Ghidorah was going to need human assistance. And they couldn’t help him if he flew off.
Luckily, she nodded.
Looking around at the rest of the crowd, who all seemed to have turned to him for a plan, Mark blew out a slow breath. “All right,” he said, forcing his voice to remain steady. “If someone could get out there and assess the injury, see if Ichi needs attention too or if it’s just Kevin we’ve got to worry about, that’d be great. Someone else needs to gather supplies. I don’t know what all goes into a surgical removal like this, or if it’ll even be necessary, but I’d rather be prepared for the worst.”
“Maybe we should get some food to bribe him?” someone suggested. “I don’t think anesthetics will do much for him.”
“Good point,” Mark agreed. “Maybe lay down some tarps or something, so we don’t have to worry about dirt or debris getting in the wound if he puts his head on the ground. Got all that?”
A chorus of agreements answered him, and people immediately split off to fulfill his orders. Mark turned his attention to Maddie, who seemed to have gone a little bit into shock. Knowing how much it took to turn her stomach, he withheld a wince.
“C’mon, kiddo,” he coaxed softly. “Let’s go get you cleaned up. I don’t think Kevin would want you to be…” Covered in his blood. He snapped his mouth shut.
Maddie nodded slightly and allowed him to guide her to the women’s locker room, which connected to a full bathroom for people who needed to clean up but didn’t have a room on-site.
“I’ll go get your spare clothes, okay? Think you can handle washing off by yourself?”
She mustered up enough of her usual sass to give him a flat look before disappearing through the door. He hurried off to the main lounge to grab the duffle they always brought with them, containing a full set of clothes for each of them in case of mishaps. They stowed it very securely beside one of the couches, in plain view.
He frowned when he realized shoes weren’t a part of their kit, and hers were definitely ruined. Knowing Maddie, she probably wouldn’t care too much if she had to run around barefoot, but if they were going to be dealing with metal debris—and the devil himself wouldn’t be able to keep her from being in the thick of things—he’d rather she had some sort of footwear.
Remembering a lab technician who was on the petite side, Mark managed to track her down and obtain a spare pair of boots she kept for occasions when she forgot to bring close-toed shoes on lab days. They’d fit Maddie well enough, and were certainly more durable than a pair of sneakers.
He caught someone going into the locker room who gladly agreed to deliver the bundle of clothes to his daughter. It was only a few minutes later that Maddie emerged, looking much better, and less like she had walked straight out of a murder crime scene.
She wiggled one of the borrowed boots at him, which admittedly looked a little silly with her t-shirt and shorts.
“I’m not letting you out there without something, kiddo.”
“I figured,” she said. “Can we go now?”
They left the base and headed into the bustling field. Someone had apparently found a couple old mattresses, which were piled up for Kevin to gingerly rest his head on at an angle, exposing the injured side. Ni and Ichi were hovering over him, and Ichi hissed lightly whenever someone tried to coax him down to look at his own bloody mouth.
“They’re worried about him,” Maddie said, clearly aching to run closer. For now, she managed to restrain herself and hang back while the professionals did their examinations.
Those are some brave men and women, Mark couldn’t help but think, watching the people fearlessly poke around in a Titan’s mouth. Nice or not, akin to a puppy or not, Mark wouldn’t have been willing to get that close to the teeth of any creature that size.
They stopped at a safe distance away to wait for someone to give them the go-ahead to come closer.
Mark examined Kevin with a sinking feeling in his gut. It was worse than he’d expected.
Like Maddie had said, a metal pipe stuck out of his lower jaw at an odd angle, a little more than midway back from the front. The part jutting into his mouth forced him to keep his jaw locked open or risk impaling the top part as well. The other side jutted out right below the curve, in the fleshy underside, probably only barely missing the bone.
But it wasn’t just a pipe, which he guessed to be about a foot and a half in diameter. There were smaller bits sticking out of the main tube like twisted, bloody barbs. He had no idea what the piece was from, but it looked as if something had been punched out from the inside of the pipe, resulting in the numerous jagged protrusions.
Viscera clung to those barbs, swinging with each little movement of Kevin’s head. The scales and flesh where the pipe stuck out of was horrifically mangled and dripping blood. And tangled around the whole area, flopping against the outside of Kevin’s jaw, was what looked like a giant piece of metal netting with cables attached to each side. Blood-stained hooks dangled from the visible portion, and based on Maddie’s brief description, there were likely others caught on the inside of Kevin’s mouth.
From where Mark was standing, it didn’t look like any of his teeth had taken damage, but he had no idea what the state of things were inside his maw.
Poor Kevin’s eyes were clenched closed in pain. Weak whines and whimpers filled the air, choked and faint from him not being able to close his mouth.
Mark swallowed down every exclamation he wanted to make, because not a single one would do anything to reassure Maddie that her friend would be okay. He refused to make her panic just because he couldn’t restrain his own reactions.
“So who won the tug-of-war?” he asked instead. The urge to smack himself overtook him—foot in mouth, much?—but before he could succumb, Maddie laughed a little.
“I think Kevin deserves the win for that one,” she said, wrapping her arms around herself. He watched her gnaw on the inside of her cheek.
Tilting his head, Mark tried to make sense of the positioning. “How did he even get it like that?”
“I didn’t see it happen,” Maddie said with a little sniffle. Her eyes were glassy when he peeked down at her. “I was talking to Ni and showing him how tic-tac-toe works.” She shrugged. “They started screeching like crazy, and I looked up, and just—” She waved at the scene in front of them. “That.”
He turned around to see Elise hurrying in their direction, with two strangers trailing after her.
She continued once she was closer, “We were in luck.” She gestured at her companions as they quickly strode past, to the center of the action, sending grim nods in his direction. “They were nearby and have experience with surgical procedures on unusual animals. I figured that was the closest we were going to get to a Titan vet.”
“Thank you,” he replied, sagging with relief.
Tilting her head, she smiled briefly. “It was the least I could do. We’re in communication with other bases’ Titan specialists who wouldn’t make it here in time to help with the… removal,” she said tactfully, her eyes darting briefly to Maddie, who was rocking up and down on the balls of her feet.
“Any new developments?” he asked.
Elise hesitated before inching closer to lean in on his side away from Maddie. Hushed, she told him, “They came to the conclusion that neither sedatives nor anesthetics would have any effect on him. His natural healing factor, though this injury won’t be helped much by it, would burn through them too quickly even if we had enough to give him.”
Mark blew out a breath to keep from reacting and drawing Maddie’s attention. “So there’s nothing we can do?”
She gave him a helpless look. Her phone pinged a moment later, and she left him to deliver the upsetting news to his daughter.
“Maybe we should wait inside until they’re done,” he suggested nonchalantly.
Maddie shook her head. “I want to wait here.”
“Even if it gets really gross?”
He sighed. “It’s only going to distress you if we watch them get the pipe out. And I don’t think he’d want that.”
“I’ll feel better if I can watch them help him.”
“Maddie,” Mark finally said, immediately gaining her attention with the seriousness in his voice. “They’re not going to be able to give him anything for the pain. He’ll be awake and aware for the surgery, and that’s not something I want you to see.”
He watched her curl in on herself, silent and upset, and bit back his relief when she finally nodded a single time in reluctant agreement. Sending one last look at the injured Titan, Mark gently herded her back inside.
• • •
It was only twenty minutes later, after they’d settled in the deeper levels of the base, where Ghidorah’s vocalizations couldn’t be heard well, that someone in protective, blood-stained surgery-wear tracked them down.
“How’s it going?” Mark asked, desperately hoping he had good news. It was hard to tell with the mask, but he thought it was one of the specialists Elise had tracked down.
“Quite frankly, it’s not going at all,” the doctor said. “The injured head can’t hold still long enough for us to do anything, and his distress is only making it harder for the other two to stay calm.”
“You’re not just gonna leave the pipe there, are you?” Maddie asked, fiddling with her phone.
“It’s not an option,” he said grimly. “Infection has set in. We need to get the pipe out as soon as possible to begin treatment. Madison Russell, I presume?”
“Based on what some of the others were discussing, we were hoping you’d be able to lend us your assistance. I realize it’s a lot to ask of you, especially given your friendship with Ghidorah.”
Maddie popped to her feet. “I’d do anything to help him.”
The doctor nodded and looked to Mark, who offered no refusal, knowing full well that Maddie would go even if he said no. And that was how Mark found himself using a breathing exercise to stay calm as Maddie ran right up to Kevin’s gaping jaw.
• • •
Kevin’s mental voice had long since devolved into pained wails and whimpers, and the occasional repetition of, Hurts, hurts, hurts. His responses to his brothers were weak and few and far between.
Neither Ichi nor Ni had ever been as worried for their brother as they were now. A sick smell of rot was beginning to form around the wound, which would only further hinder their healing ability.
Unable to pace, or even move around much at all, so as not to jostle Kevin while the humans attempted to help, they were left to hover anxiously over their suffering brother, growing increasingly agitated.
You have to hold still, Ichi growled when Kevin pulled away from the humans for the nth time since their cautious efforts began. They can’t remove the pipe if you keep moving.
Hurts, Kevin sobbed. The wound—and thus, the pain—was localized to his head, and so he was left alone to bear the entirety of it. Sharp sting, cold ache, stab-stab-stab, he deliriously tried to explain.
The pipe was a cold burn in his jaw, heavy and unyielding, and any little movement of it and the jagged bits along the sides sent spikes of unbearable agony through him.
Hurts, hurts, hurts, he repeated, partially to himself. His eyes were clenched closed, his mouth wedged open, and no matter how much he knew the humans to be trying to help, their little hands just kept making it worse.
It has to come out, Kevin, Ni said. Either you let them do it nicely or I’ll rip it out myself!
Kevin moaned helplessly, wiggling and twisting his head atop the bloody mattresses the humans had brought him. A burst of dismayed muttering broke out among the humans as he shied away from them yet again.
His eyes slitted open to see Starlight running toward him. He whimpered at her as she climbed up in front of him, sitting cross-legged. A human adult followed behind her, rejoining the others at the wound site.
“Hey,” Starlight cooed, reaching her hands up to him. He gladly went to her, letting his lower jaw nudge into her lap. Her soft, warm palms rubbed at his scales, ignoring the dried blood staining them. “I know it hurts, buddy, I know it’s awful. But you gotta let them help you, and then it’ll stop hurting so much.”
Whining, he tried to hold still for her. When the pain spiked again, though, he went to move out of the humans’ reach, only to freeze when Starlight pulled at his jaw, holding him in place. Though her strength was nothing compared to his, he accepted her insistent grip as an inescapable, unshakeable force. She started humming as she pet him, and Kevin involuntarily let his eyes slip shut again, though not so tightly as before.
Her warm touch had always been soothing, so he tried to force himself to relax into it as he always had. It helped to block out the agony, and these days, it was a true treat to get Starlight to himself.
Kevin focused intently on the bright spot she was in his senses, at the eternal comfort her warmth provided. She was their first warmth, and as he settled as much in her lap as he could, given his current predicament, he let the memory of their initial meeting wash over him.
Her humming became an anchor as much as her calming stroking was.
It was only distantly that he registered the quiet flurry of activity the other humans flew into to take advantage of his motionless state.
That’s it, Ichi hissed gently. It looks like they’re going to try and slide something around the pipe to protect you from the barbs.
Fear and anticipation coiled inside him. He tensed.
Starlight’s humming got louder, and he felt her lean forward against his jaw, completely unafraid of the proximity of his teeth.
The awful pain of something sliding against his open wound pierced the forced calm in his mind, but Starlight’s presence kept him from pulling away that time. He whined again, and it climbed higher in pitch as the twisting and shoving continued.
Blessedly, after a small eternity from his view, it stopped. A burning ache took its place, the tender puncture aggravated beyond measure. Yet, the pipe no longer yanked quite so terribly at his flesh. At long last, Kevin relaxed a tiny bit, completely naturally.
You’re doing good, Ni told him. They want to make sure there are no hooks caught in your mouth before they pull the pipe out.
He felt feather-light prodding along the edge of his stinging tongue and sore gums. Sharp pinches of pain made him tremble in place, but it was much easier to withstand than what they had done before.
Kevin heard a tinkling sound and cracked open a bleary eye. The metal netting, no longer attached to him, was being carried away by two humans, his blood streaking off it and into the sparse grass. He sighed in relief.
“I’m so proud of you,” Starlight whispered, warming his insides with happiness. Had he been able, he would have wiggled in response. “The worst is almost over, Kevin, and you’ll be feeling better soon.”
Because of whatever the humans had slid between the pipe and his raw flesh, he only felt the sensation of movement when they finally began to pull it free. Just imagining how it might have felt if they had attempted to remove it with the jagged barbs still exposed had him whimpering gratefully.
A great weight suddenly left his horribly aching jaw and he weakly cried out in tired joy, wordless with the release of his misery.
It’s gone, it’s gone, Ichi babbled. They got the pipe out, Kevin, it’s gone.
You can’t move yet, though, Ni added quickly. There’s rot in the wound. They must treat it.
Yes, he sobbed, yes, fine, they may do whatever they like.
Starlight began talking as the humans worked, and the pain now was nothing compared to what it had been, and Kevin went boneless against her while keeping his mouth locked open to allow access to his wounds.
“Does that feel better?” she asked, petting him soothingly. “They’re gonna clean the hole and try to patch it up as much as they can. It’s infected, but you’re tough, aren’t you, Kevin? You won’t let a little infection beat you, right? We’ll be careful to keep it clean while it heals—no more playing with random scrap metal, okay?—but they’ll probably stitch up as much as they can inside your mouth so you can still eat without having to worry about food getting stuck.”
He could feel them working, leaning over his teeth to get at the smaller holes caused by the net’s hooks. Liquid rushed over the raw flesh, stinging as it went, but he trusted the humans. They were helping.
Off to the side, Ichi finally lowered his head to the ground to allow his own minor puncture wounds to be looked at and treated accordingly.
“I had to get stitches once,” Starlight continued distracting him. Kevin payed closer attention now, as he and his brothers always did when she spoke of her younger years. It wasn’t often that she did. “We were jumping off some big boulders into the ocean, but it got slippery and I lost my balance. There was a sharp edge that I slid against as I fell, and it left a huge cut between my elbow and wrist. It wouldn’t stop bleeding, so they stitched it up.”
Quick, sharp little pokes assaulted his tender mouth, but he barely noticed thanks to Starlight’s story.
She stopped petting him for a moment to lift her left arm. “You can barely even see it now, but there’s still a scar there.” He focused on the small area and saw what she meant—a faint silvery line along the side of her arm, puckered and faded. “So it’ll be okay,” she reassured him as her hands returned to his jaw. “The stitches might feel weird, but they’ll really help you heal faster.”
He snorted in exhausted agreement. After spending so long tense with pain and adrenaline, his part of their body was positively drained and in need of a long nap.
We all are, Ichi agreed to his wordless need. As soon as they’re done, we’ll rest.
His promise was the only thing that kept Kevin awake to the end of the procedure, when the humans finally stepped back with mutual sighs of relief, and proclaimed they had done everything they possibly could. He didn’t move from the mattress pile as the humans packed up their supplies and returned to the building, leaving only Starlight and the man they knew as her father in the field.
“You gonna stay out here, kiddo?” her father called, sounding unconcerned. They knew he put effort into trusting them as much as he did. His casual bearing was a gift.
Starlight twisted around to look back at him. “Yeah. I think a nap is in order.”
She’s so smart, Ni said as he and Ichi carefully settled on the ground beside him, allowing him the mattresses to himself. Faint trembles wracked their whole body, the last of the tension finally released.
The man left, and Kevin carefully worked at his jaw, stiff from how long he’d kept it locked open. A bone-deep ache filled his head as he slowly closed it with a soft click of his teeth. Exhausted beyond words, he pushed a sleepy, Good night, at his brothers.
Notably, neither corrected him to say it was early afternoon at best. Starlight stood long enough to move to a different area, near his injury but not so close as to aggravate it. She leaned her side against him, once more uncaring about the blood, and ran her hand over the closest intact scales to the impalement site. It helped ease away the worst of the pain, and he sighed.
“You’ll feel even better when you wake up,” she promised softly. “Sweet dreams, you guys. You definitely deserve them.”
Kevin rumbled in hopeful agreement, and the last thing he heard was his brothers echoing his purr. He slipped into sleep with the warmth of Starlight’s hand offering comfort long into the darkness.