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Mother

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None of you slept the first night after you won the game, you all stayed up and talked and just sat together because it was all too much. And The Mayor had made arrangements for you on Earth C, which for him translated to each of you having your own personalised houses and also one large communal house with your own rooms. The Mayor is too precious for this or any world.

You frown as you enter the lounge room and see that Dirk is exactly where he was when you went to sleep last night, sitting on the couch, watching one of his Dave’s terrible movies and clutching a cushion to his chest.

‘Dirk,’ you say. ‘How long has it been since you slept?’

‘Good morning, Rose,’ he says. ‘There’s coffee in the pot.’

He doesn’t look away from the screen. You find this inexcusably rude.

‘Dirk Strider, I lived on a meteor with Karkat for three years, I can tell when someone isn’t getting enough sleep.’

‘I only met the guy a few days ago, I don’t know him nearly well enough to contextualise that comment.’

He continues to stare at the screen. Why on earth do your stupid brothers insist on wearing those shades all the time, even indoors, even when watching movies?

You stand in front of Dirk, in between him and the TV and put your hands on your hips.

‘How long?’ you insist.

Dirk sits up a little straighter. You were very amused to find that he is somewhat starstruck by both you and Dave, having grown up reading and watching content that alternate versions of the two of you had created. You don’t think he’s capable of ignoring a direct question from anyone, but certainly not from one of his idols.

‘I find it ridiculous that we have become literal gods and yet we are still bound by the physical needs of sleeping and eating. I want a refund, I didn’t get myself blown up for second rate immortality, this is quite sincerely bullshit.’

You narrow your eyes at him.

‘I haven’t slept since I died. If dying counts as sleeping. Hamlet would say yes.’

‘Right,’ you say. You turn the TV off. ‘That’s far too long. I’m technically your mother and I’m sending you to bed.’

Dirk scrunches back on the couch and adopts an expression you’re familiar with. You’ve seen it on Dave. If you want him to move, you’re going to have to move him. You’re not quite desperate enough to whip out your wands, though you definitely have the impulse to remind him that you have never once had to carry something you didn’t want to in this game and you’re not about to start now.

But Dirk barely knows you and is completely unaware that a Lalonde never has to resort to such brutish things as force. You’re not quite sure if Roxy counts as a true Lalonde for your purposes. Your mother and you had quite a different code to this new mushed together family of yours.

You sit on the couch next to him and place your hand gently on his knee. Very non-threatening. Twenty points to Rose.

‘It’s quite normal to want to avoid dreaming after a traumatic experience,’ you say, soft and understanding.

‘What traumatic experience?’ he says. ‘ Oh , you mean the battle? That wasn’t a big deal.’

Your eyebrows go up almost without your permission.

‘I mean, okay, sure, it wasn’t a small deal, it was the biggest fight I’ve ever had, but really it wasn’t that different to fighting off drones or imps or whatever. And I had the Dave Strider at my back.’ He smiles sheepishly. ‘Like, I know he’s not my Bro, but he’s pretty fucking close and that’s kinda all I wanted growing up. Used to imagine he was on the roof, too. God, that’s some next level embarrassing shit, please don’t tell him that.’

You take your hand away and look at him curiously. You need to stop comparing him to Dave and treat him as a new patient. A new friend. He’s your friend.

‘So, what’s bothering you?’ Minus five points to Rose for not knowing automatically. Plus ten points to Rose for being fair about the point system.

‘It’s really nothing, I just don’t fancy sleeping. It’s kind of nice to not have to worry about being in fighting condition all the time, don’t you think?

Oh, he’s good. He can deflect quite nicely. He can have ten points. He’s not as good as you are, though. You’re going to find out what his problem is, fifty points for him confiding in you, fifty points if he cries. The usual stakes. You don’t make the rules. (Yes, you do. You magnanimously do not award yourself points for making the rules.)

‘I found when I had that option I rather stopped taking care of myself,’ you say. ‘It could have been disastrous if I hadn’t gotten help.’

His mouth tics upwards with something like amusement. You think he’s awarding you points in his own system, so you go ahead and give yourself five points, too.

‘I suppose you just came out and asked for help?’ he asks.

‘No. Someone offered it. Rather forcefully.’

His tiny smile becomes a full smirk. You smile back pleasantly.

‘Okay,’ he says. ‘In my world, your alternate self had a passion for psychology and habitually made her interviewers cry when they just wanted to know when she was releasing her next book. Now, that’s all well and good to admire from a distance, but I think I’m being reasonably cautious here.’

You are once again incredibly pleased to hear that you are consistent across timelines and realities. You cock your head to the side and affect a slightly hurt expression.

‘Does that mean you’ll never relax your guard around me?’

‘Maybe not in the first week of knowing you,’ he says.

You sigh.

He adjusts himself on the couch. You don’t think it’s for comfort. You think it’s for the opposite. You did mention you’ve got experience with people avoiding sleep.

‘Okay, well, maybe you can understand,’ he says after a while of you both sitting in silence.

You look up at him, surprised. Dave will out-stubborn you every time, you’ve never gotten someone to talk just by sitting quietly.

‘In the 1950s, a psychologist wanted to find out whether monkeys, and therefore kids, bonded to their mothers because of comfort or just because they provided food. Literally measuring love.’

With anyone else you would inform them that you are familiar with Dr Harlow’s work. You think you should be a bit more patient with Dirk. He’s looking at the pillow he’s still holding instead of looking at you, and because you’re to the side you can see his eyes, narrowed like he’s glaring.

‘He gave these tiny baby monkeys a “soft” mother and a “food” mother made out of chicken wire and the monkeys might have taken the food from the wire mother but they always went back to the soft mother because even though she was just made out of cloth it was still something. Especially when they frightened them.’

He glances up at you as if making sure you’re still paying attention. You’ve rarely paid more attention to anything.

‘These poor fucking monkeys, right? Like, psychologists in the 1900s, scary shit. But he proved what he needed to, kids need affection, especially when they’re little, even a fucking stuffed toy of a mother is better than a wire mother or no mother at all … Do you know what I mean?’

‘I know the experiments, yes. I’m not quite sure how it relates to you.’

‘I …’

He hesitates and forcefully places the pillow beside him, folds his hands on his lap.

‘I made Squarewave, my first robot, when I was five. He talked almost exclusively in slang terms from the 1980s and 90s, he helped me locate fish and other stuff so I didn’t have to live off 400 year old powdered food. He protected me from drones until I made a better robot and could fight them myself. But he was a metal … bro.’

‘If you’re wary of slipping into my psychoanalytic clutches, I have to say talking about your mother-figures is an odd way of avoiding it,’ you point out.

Dirk waves his hand.

‘I have to give you background on this,’ he says. ‘Because if I come right out … Look, I have no reason to feel unsafe, I have a sword, a really fucking cool sword. I’m a literal god. But …’

He’s suddenly fidgety and unsure. You put your hand back on his knee, this time not to earn points but out of the hope that it will ground him.

‘Cal is missing. My puppet.’

You fill in the blanks.

‘Your soft mother.’

He laughs, and it’s a sad, broken kind of laugh. A laugh that acknowledges the ridiculousness of a sixteen-year-old god not being able to sleep because he doesn’t have a toy, a strange toy from the great unknown of paradox space that looks vaguely like something a comedian in the 80s should feel mildly embarrassed about including in their act.

‘You can’t sleep without him.’

Dirk shakes his head.

‘Tried sleeping with Jane. Thought a real body’d be better. Wasn’t.’

You swear under your breath and squeeze his knee. You have no idea how to solve this one.

‘I feel heartless for suggesting it, but I feel heartless for not suggesting it, so I’ll say it anyway: Kanaya could make an identical copy. Obviously he can’t be replaced, I would never suggest that. But it might be close enough for some … so you can at least sleep.’

‘Thank you,’ he says carefully. ‘I don’t think I could … It’s not just the feel or look. It’s not like he was my only puppet.’

You nod, mind racing.

‘Um, can this stay between us?’ he asks.

‘Of course,’ you say. ‘I wouldn’t … Of course.’

He’s trusting you with a lot. You’re not sure what you’ve done to earn his trust. Perhaps not knowing you that well is actually an advantage on that front. Though, as much as Dave complains about your prying and analysing, he still comes to you whenever he has a weird dream. He didn’t even know your alternate self, and from how he and Roxy talk you don’t think he thought of her as a guardian any more than Roxy thought of Dave as hers.

But you are his mother. You might not have really done anything to earn that title, but you’re feeling the truth of it now. Your son is hurting and you hurt with him. You might not be able to fix his achingly lonely childhood, but you’re fucking here now.

‘Would it be okay if I hugged you?’ you ask.

Dirk looks at you. He’s started playing with the pillow again, just with one hand as if that makes it less obvious.

‘Um, okay,’ he says. ‘I’m not very good at hugs.’

‘Me neither,’ you say. ‘We will simply have to make do. I have it on good authority that our family picks up new talents very quickly.’

He smiles at you and you shift closer so you can put your arms around him. It’s incredibly awkward. He’s taller than you and his arms are not at all in the right spot. You huff in annoyance.

‘I can do this,’ you tell him.

He laughs quietly. You smile privately behind his head. It soothes the aching feeling in your chest to hear him make a happy noise. It makes you less self-conscious. You place your hand on his head and direct him so he’s resting on your shoulder. He moves his arms automatically and you suddenly don’t have an elbow stabbing you. Success.

‘Take your shades off,’ you tell him. You don’t take them from him. You know they’re more than just protection from light.

He hesitates, but does, folding them carefully before stowing them in his sylladex. And now you don’t have them stabbing you in your chest. Excellent. This hug is actually on the verge of comfortable. Ridiculous that you can hold Kanaya without thinking about it but with everyone else you have no idea what to do.

You stroke his hair tentatively. It stands out of his face but doesn’t have the stiffness that you expected. You wonder if he is using some kind of future product or if his hair naturally goes … up. You can’t see his face. You hope he’s not uncomfortable.

‘Is this okay?’ you ask.

‘Yeah,’ he says quietly.

You stroke your fingers through his hair again. His head is heavier on you now, like he’s relaxing. You shift slightly so that he won’t fall off you if he succumbs further to gravity. He moves with you, and you realise that this could more accurately be defined as a cuddle than a hug. You fully intend to hold him for a long time, and he seems to be okay with that. You resume your work on his hair and listen to his breathing as it slowly becomes more deep and even.

When Terezi comes into the room a little while later, you wave her over.

‘Is he asleep?’ you ask in a low voice.

She sniffs carefully. She nods.

‘Can you please stop anyone from disturbing us?’

She grins at you and gives you a thumbs up. You pull a book from your sylladex and begin to read. It’s one of Roxy’s. It’s so nice to have new material.

You don’t see any reason to move for a while. You lean your cheek on Dirk’s ridiculous head of hair as you read. You will do whatever you can to find a permanent solution later, but for now he just needs rest.