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Worlds Like Breaking Mirrors

Chapter Text

There are doorways between the worlds. Children find them most often, because children are curious enough to look and young enough to believe what they find. They only find a door if they are a fit for the world beyond it, like a key for its keyhole. If they do, they will stumble through wardrobes or gateways or magic pools, and they will feel at home for the first time in their lives.

Most of them will not get to stay. They will fulfill whatever purpose drew them there, and then the world will cast them back out to an Earth where they no longer belong and no one can understand. Authors don’t bother to think about what happens to the hero after the final word. What does it matter where they go now?

Jane Crocker (one day to be Egbert) kicked cookie crumbs off her sensible shoes and vowed that if no one else cared, she would. It would take her decades more to pull everything together, but she would build a place for those wayward children to call – if not home – a way station that would serve as well. Confection had tried to shape her into a queen. With equal parts relief and regret, she settled instead into being a hostess. She took in children who wanted nothing more than to go back to the world they’d lost and children who wouldn’t go back for anything. The only wanderers she didn’t harbor were the ones who wanted to forget. She dried tears, listened to stories, and soothed anxious parents with language borrowed from psychology textbooks. When her guests asked her “Will I ever get home again?” she told them, “I don't know, but for now let's make one together.”

“It’s not the same,” sniffled more than one child homesick for a world they hadn’t been born in.

“No,” Jane said, thinking of gingerbread spires and a scepter of peppermint tempered diamond hard. “But I did it anyway. That’s what I took from Nonsense. You can do the impossible if you try hard enough, even here.”

 

This is a story about stories, and about what happens to the characters caught between the pages when their story ends. There are a lot of places it could start. It could start with four children tumbling into worlds that aren’t their own. It could start with those four children finding their way back home and learning to pick up the pieces. It could start with an old woman with a bit of Nonsense left in her step restoring a large house in the country and painting elegant letters onto a sign. Or, it could start with a frightened girl running away and ending up in the place where all stories start.

But for this telling, the story begins on a blustery April day, when Rose Lalonde dodged out of the way as three figures plummeted out of the sky and landed in a heap on the lawn of Jane Egbert’s Home for Wayward Children.

“Alright,” said the figure on the bottom. “Where the fuck are we this time?”

Chapter Text

The newcomers called themselves trolls and came from a world named Alternia.

It took time to get even that out of them. They’d resisted coming up to the house, until Rose convinced them the rest of the world wouldn’t be as blasé about their appearance.

“Oh, so you're all soft and hornless?” Terezi asked. “I thought you might just be diseased, I wanted to be polite.” 

“You always bring home the nicest people,” Dave said.

Jane didn’t raise an eyebrow. She pulled up a few extra chairs and started interrogating her guests about their diets to update the shopping list. Her Nonsense world had left her with ceaseless energy, but in her old age she’d learned to channel it into relentless productivity. Kanaya accepted a cup of tea with a murmured thank you. Terezi palmed a bottle of sriracha as her beverage of choice. Karkat sat stiffly in a chair, arms crossed. Alternia was a Wicked world, not that he’d heard of that terminology yet. Trusting the kindness of strangers wouldn’t get you far.

Jane was used to children taking their time opening up. Some of her charges had gone through worse. She dealt with it by breezily chatting over the tension. “What brought the three of you here? Earth is usually a From world, not a To world.”

“We didn’t want to come here,” he said shortly. “We were being chased.”

“By what?”

“Didn’t see it,” Terezi said with a grin.

“It didn’t make itself known.” Kanaya blew steam away from her tea. “We heard it, and then the world shattered.”

Jane frowned. She’d spent years in Confection and a while longer finding her way back. She’d gathered stories from dozens of children who’d passed through doorways to all kinds of different worlds. This was new. “You’ll have to tell us more when you’re ready. For now, make yourselves comfortable.” She never said, “Make yourselves at home.”

 

The Alternians were a jumpy bunch. They didn’t volunteer much information and kept looking up like the sky was falling. Considering how they’d arrived, maybe that was understandable. Karkat grumbled responses to any questions and lurked, glowering, in the corners of rooms while claiming to be doing opposition research. Terezi made up flagrant lies to any question about her species and ate the blossoms off one of Jade’s potted plants. Kanaya was the only one with a human sleep schedule (the other trolls were even more nocturnal than Rose) and the two girls would meet on the stairs at dawn and dusk to swap cutting commentary while everyone else tried to squeeze past to the bathroom.

Jane had her institution registered as a boarding school, and standards had to be maintained. Her charges dutifully reported for sessions on English and mathematics alongside their more eclectic extracurriculars. The trolls weren’t required to tag along, but often they did, whether out of interest or desire to keep the humans within their line of sight.

On paper everyone traded off running group therapy sessions when Jane was busy, but Rose bought up everyone else’s turns with cookies palmed from the kitchen or lucky charms she swore would work. “What can I say?” she said when Jade asked why. “I like the sound of my own voice.” She had a passion for pinning down the different worlds like butterflies to paper, designing complex maps and diagrams to codify them and make the magic make sense. The others put up with it because her studies gave them an excuse to talk about their own experiences. Good or bad, it always helped to get it out.

“Pretty raw deal,” Dave said. His voice was pitched artificially low like a small child pretending to be a grown-up. That was, after all, what he was doing. Or maybe he was a grown-up trying to pretend he was a child. Even he wasn’t sure how many years he’d lost. He ran his hands up and down his arms, feeling for scars that were no longer there. “They covered my travel expenses, I guess, but no one’s pitching in for therapy. Know the looks you get, looking like a kid and saying you’ve gone through a war? They could’ve at least sent me back with a decent cover story, dropped me in the middle of an invasion or something. Christ.”

“Wasn’t there anything good about it?” Jade was awake for once, kicking the legs of her chair. “Anything at all? Otherwise, why try to remember?”

“I don’t want to lose any more time,” Dave said. Time was important. In the middle of a battle, it was all you had: a few more seconds to keep breathing, staying alive by slicing the remainder off other people’s lives.

“I liked the music,” Jade said, either intentionally or unintentionally oblivious to the mood of the room. “They had festivals, and I was the guest of honor at all of them. We’d cover the streets in flowers and dance.”

“Doesn’t sound very environmentally friendly,” Rose observed from behind her notepad.

“There were always more,” Jade said, unfazed. “Prospit was a magic world. This world isn’t, which is why I’ve been scolding you about uprooting the daffodils. They don’t spring back as easily here.”

“The geometry of my lawn art is very important,” Rose said, which was a funny way of describing the crop circles she’d been making in the backyard. Her world was a realm of cold Logic, and she’d learned the runes and rituals she needed to walk safely among the gods, to swap secrets and borrow power without paying too high a price. “So, let’s discuss. Forcing children into the middle of battlefield. Wicked or virtuous?”

“Well, when you put it like that…” Jade began uncertainly. “They were fighting bad guys, weren’t they?”

“That’s what they said,” Dave said with a shrug. “Turns out everyone’s insides look the same, whatever it says on your alignment sheet.”

Terezi, who had been sitting with the rest of her world-mates in the corner, listening in to what Karkat dismissively called the fruity rumpus pity party, snorted. From what her species had shared, they were very familiar with other people’s insides.

“It may be that the dichotomy of wicked versus virtuous is too simplistic.” Rose added an elegant curlicue to the diagram she’d been sketching. “More suitable for a storybook than a civilization. After all, what would you give our world? Wicked or virtuous? Logic or nonsense?”

“Nonsense,” interrupted Kanaya with feeling.

In most cases Rose would object to being stopped mid-flow, but she only smiled. “It’s like a story,” she repeated. “I know it’s been suggested that these doorways and people wandering through them is where the stories come from, but what if it’s the other way around?”

“What’s your point?” Jade asked, and covered a yawn. She’d be curling up under blankets again soon, trying to find her way back to Prospit in her dreams. No one could convince her that the kingdom was already lost.

“My point is,” Rose said, “that then maybe there’s someone writing them down.”

Chapter Text

Some envision the structure of the worlds as a compass, or as a set of axes. Either implies a center. There is a world at the center of all worlds that inspires all the others. One day, the most wayward of all children found her way there. Her name is Calliope, and she is telling herself a story.

She like simple stories. Good versus evil, where heroes save the day and the story ends right there before things can go bad. She doesn’t realize what she is doing. No one ever pointed out to her that “a place where all your dreams come true” includes the nightmares. She doesn’t understand that her fear of her brother – the one who used to rip up the pages of her notebooks and scratch out her words in harsh lines, the one who was the reason she ran away – has mutated into a world-destroyer ripping fissures between universes and leaving trails of blood like slashes of red ink.

She tells her stories, and she watches them come true.

Chapter Text

When Rose’s mother came home, Rose pretended not to hear her. The front door opened, there was a pause (she was probably drunkenly fumbling for the light switch), and then it slammed. “I’m home!” she called. 

Rose made a face and turned another page in her book.

Downstairs, the noises of her mother’s inebriated progress continued. Her purse thudded onto the sofa, her heels clicked on the floor of the kitchen, and the refrigerator opened. Did she need to top herself off?

Another pause, and another slamming door. Silence. Rose let out a breath. Maybe she’d worn herself out and would stumble off to bed.

Instead, a demonic whirring echoed through the house. The keening vibrato was the kind of noise you would expect from a copper-plated vacuum running while trapped on a pedestal. She’d decided to do housework. Who did the woman think she was fooling?

Rose continued her progress through a well-thumbed copy of the Encyclopedia of the Zoologically Dubious, trying to tune out the noises below with a more comforting sort of eldritch. She’d never noticed the advertisement in the back before. It looked like the ones found in old books from when people mail-ordered new reading material instead of going on Amazon, complete with a blocky printed border and etchings of shapes she didn’t recognize. The longer she looked at it, the surer she was that it hadn’t been there before. Do you value knowledge over anything? it read. Do you seek to unlock the mysteries of the multiverse? Voice this incantation to gain an audience with the Noble Circle, who can teach you mastery over the arcane arts. Price varies by customer. Before ordering, be sure.

Rose was thirteen and still wanted to believe in magic. She’d called Jaspers her familiar and muttered spells from a dozen different books under her breath. She was hopeful enough to take the offer and practical enough to grab her wallet and a few packages of fruit snacks first, just in case.

The incantation wasn’t in any language she knew, and she stumbled over the first few words. Then they seemed to sweep her away under their own power, and she finished strong with the strangest feeling that someone else was speaking alongside her.

There weren’t any special effects. One moment she was in her bedroom, and the next she was… not. She floated in a dark void, surrounded by nothing but the faint hulks of dead stars. As her eyes adjusted, she thought she saw the tall spire of a tower in the distance, obscured by clouds.

Clouds with strange outlines…

Rose swallowed. Those weren’t clouds. They were vast creatures with long probing tentacles and lidless eyes.

You called. They didn’t speak with voices but with song, which grated on her ears like her mother’s vacuum before twisting itself into words in her mind. Are you sure?

“I’m sure,” she said.

There will be an entrance fee. 

Rose fumbled with her wallet. It seemed insufficient now. “I have twelve dollars.”

Dollars?

“American currency. I don’t have anything else.” They wouldn’t send her back, would they? This was her chance to escape her mother’s sodden affections and the stifling dollhouse of a life she’d been forced into. This was her chance to be special.

“We will take the color of your hair.”

Rose had never been vain. Her mother dressed her up sometimes to trot her round at social events on the rare occasions the woman could hold herself together long enough to make introductions before raiding the cash bar. She’d cut it chin-length and toyed with the idea of dying what was left black. She would have, too, if her mother didn’t coo over every change she made to her appearance. “Take it,” she said.

The figures didn’t move, but the color drained out of her hair and left it a glassy white.

The entrance fee bought her introductory lessons. She learned the proper mediums for runes, glyphs, and sigils and mastered the precise geometry required of complex circles. The speech of the Noble Circle became her foreign language of choice. When she finished the basics, her instruction in true spellcraft began. No knowledge comes for free, the dark gods told her. If we are to give you something we know, you must give us new knowledge in return.

“That seems fair,” Rose said. They had just given her two bone white wands that felt slick and cool in her grasp. Bone white – a trite description, but the only one that fit. She itched to use them.

Of course. We know nothing but fairness. We are masters of the exchange. The motionless point in the middle of the scales. Give us something from your mind, and we will open our minds to yours.

The dark gods had no need to deal in physical goods. Rose traded trifles like a week of childhood memories, the taste of strawberries, or a favorite tune, and in return she learned so much. Glyphs of blocking and blasting blazed under her fingers. She listened to the songs of the deep and almost understood.

For the deepest knowledge, we require a greater price.

“Name it.”

Your mortal speech is unnecessary here. We tire of it. Your voice.

“Agreed,” she said, and her words withered in her throat.

Rose didn’t know how long she spent in the Circle. Cradled in its darkness, she never needed to sleep or eat. The joy of learning, then understanding, and then commanding had sustained her. But she began to miss sunlight and conversation. She tore open a package of fruit snacks for a taste of home and savored each bite until she tried strawberry and it dissolved into nothing on her tongue. She could work magic, but in this world there was nothing worth working magic on. There was no one to watch or marvel, nothing to defeat or save. The Noble Circle were masters of their sphere, but it was empty. Somewhere else… she could put all this to use. Now that she could reach out and make the world order itself, even home might not be so bad.

That decided it. She was getting out.

The citadel’s tall finger of stone was the only solid land in the world, as far as she knew. Rose had given up knowledge and memories of her own free will. She would honor that exchange. But her voice, that she would need. There was no point creeping in under the cover of night. It was always night in the Circle. Instead she waited until the attention of the gods drifted elsewhere, and then she slipped inside.

The citadel was full of boxes, chests, and drawers padlocked and wrapped in rusted chains. The stolen treasures reached up for impossible miles. Rose had been arrogant enough to assume she was the first, but this room held testament to thousands of children making trades until they had nothing left to give.

Her sacrifices must be closer to the bottom, she reasoned. Sure enough, there was a whole row of containers labeled with her name in a jagged script she’d learned to read. She’d given away so much.

As she traced her hands over each label, empty spaces tugged at the edges of her mind. One chest made something stir and buzz deep in her lungs, so she traced a glyph of breaking on the lock. The chest swung open, and a bright light darted down her throat. Warmth flowed through her chest. She coughed, swallowed, and said, “I…”

The mental voices of the Circle tore through her. Oath breaker. You steal back what was rightfully purchased. You have learned nothing.

“I’ve learned enough,” she tried to say, but her voice caught in her dry throat. The gods ignored her.

For your insolence, you are banished.

Rose didn’t have a chance to react. A moment later, she slammed, spread-eagled, on her bedroom floor.

“I wasn’t finished with you,” she growled, but when she spoke the words invoking the Noble Circle they sounded flat and lifeless. She traced a sign of power in the air, but no light sprang from her fingers. Downstairs, the sounds of vacuuming cut off. She gave her encyclopedia a last baleful look and tiptoed out onto the landing. How long had she been gone?

Her mother stepped away from the vacuum’s podium and looked up. “Oh, there you are. I’m all finished with the housework.”

Rose didn’t answer. For once, it wasn’t out of sullenness. The woman’s voice sounded like her mother, but her face was a blur she couldn’t focus on.

She’d traded the memory of her mother’s face, and the Noble Circle didn’t do returns.

 

Rose had made it back to a world of sunlight and other people, but she brought some of the Circle with her. The day never seemed as bright as it should be. Sometimes people spoke to her and she stared, uncomprehending, expecting a language no one else in the world knew. The gaps in her memory lingered like the feeling of missing teeth. She spent hours in front of her computer screen, digging through creepypasta and online role playing sites for something real. Finally, she turned up something that looked promising: Jane Egbert’s Home for Wayward Children. This was a place for people like her. Maybe someone else had been to the Circle. Maybe they knew a way back.

The Noble Circle might be through with Rose Lalonde, but Rose Lalonde wasn’t through with them.

Chapter Text

After a few weeks of passing each other on the stairs, Kanaya brought Rose a cup of tea. 

Rose accepted it after a moment of mental buffering. She had been up late again the night before and only recently rolled out of bed, although she’d pulled on real clothes before answering the door. “What did you want?”

Kanaya frowned. The trolls were still getting accustomed to human social norms, but this hadn’t been covered in any orientations. Humans are a strange sort, Jane had told them, and these ones are stranger than most. They’ve been through a lot, as have you. Be understanding with each other. “Do I have to want something?”

“Everything is transactional,” Rose said, eyeing her over the rim of the cup.

“Then I suppose I’d like to buy a bit of your company.”

“For a cup of tea? I guess caffeine is a common currency for borrowing time.” She took a sip, wrestled internally for a moment, and then swallowed. Trolls favored strong flavors, and Kanaya had steeped the bag for a lot longer than the packet recommended. Rose couldn’t boast that her culinary attempts ever ended much better.

Kanaya didn’t notice her reaction. “You may regret it. I’ve been told I’m a meddlesome nag.”

Rose raised an eyebrow. “I’ve been told I’m a flighty broad full of snarky horseshit.”

“Our friends must compare notes.”

“We’ll see if we can tolerate each other.”

Kanaya nodded and then fell silent. Rose filled the pause by taking another gulp of tea and tried not to wince. “I wanted to ask,” Kanaya finally said. “You’re doing research on the worlds. Are you writing it down?”

“I’m working on it.” Rose took detailed notes during every therapy session and compiled them afterward. Dave had complained about patient confidentiality until she typed up an official-looking release form and offered to do his laundry for a month. “I hope to make a real guide someday. Why do you ask?”

Kanaya hesitated again. Then she reached into her pocket to pull out a battered, weather-stained notebook. “I found this in the desert by my hive when I was younger. I never knew where it came from, but I think it’s yours.”

Rose took the notebook from her and turned to the first page. Beneath the grime, she could see familiar handwriting. “This is mine. How did you get it?”

“I told you, I found it.”

“What did you do to it? It looks ruined.” Rose might have gotten angry. She hadn’t brought much from home, and those notes were the one possession she cared about. Without mystic runes at her disposal, they were the closest thing she had to tools that made the world make sense. Before she said anything she regretted, she looked back at her desk. Her notebook was still there, a twin of the one in her hand. Well. Nearly. She re-examined Kanaya’s with more care. “It looks older.”

“Older?”

Rose walked over to her desk, gingerly deposited the tea cup, and picked up her own copy of the notebook. Kanaya drifted after her, nervously passing out of the hallway through the border into Rose’s room. “This is mine. It’s in much better condition.”

When she held it out, Kanaya took the other notebook and paged through it. “The words are the same.”      

This was a mystery. Most of the other children at the school brought those to Rose, when they bothered to register something out of place in their topsy-turvy lives at all. She didn’t always solve them, but she liked the mental exercise. When those puzzles dealt with what she knew of other worlds, she enjoyed them even more. It served as an escape from the mundanity of Earth. “The doors bend time sometimes. People and things can slip forward or backward.” She frowned. If her notebook would slip away, in her future and Kanaya’s past… “It looks like I’m going to lose this someday.”

“I’m glad I found it.” Kanaya held the newer copy close to her chest. “I admit I added wear reading it over and over again.”

“Was I that incomprehensible? Dave always says I must think the Pulitzer committee is auditing teen diaries. Jade says I need a better narrative hook.”

“No, not at all. I didn’t understand all of it, but… I liked imagining going on adventures to all those magical worlds with someone who knew all about them.” Along with those adventures, Kanaya had envisioned conversations with the notebook’s author. Some of them had even been quite personal. All had remained safely in the control of her imagination. She’d never imagined meeting that literary idol turned imaginary best friend in the flesh and having to admit to it. “I liked your sense of humor.”

Rose turned her head to hide a smile. “It’s always nice to meet a fan. Did you have any constructive criticism?”

“Well, if you’re soliciting it.” Kanaya chewed her lip. Her canines were longer than a human’s. Rose had publicly scoffed at and privately read a few vampire novels in her middle school years. She was beginning to see the appeal. “I had a few hobbies myself back home.”

“Gladitorial combat? Ritual sacrifice? From what I’ve heard of your species, nothing is off limits.”

“Our culture does extend beyond blood sports.” Kanaya felt she ought to defend her world at least a little bit, if only out of respect for the dead. “Chainsaws were involved in a few of them, though.”

“I knew it.”

“The living creatures I was rending limb from limb were verdant in nature, however.” Kanaya missed her topiary. The practice struck a balance between violence and art, and it demanded all her concentration to make sure each twig was just so. Having a plant she could whittle down to a size and shape she approved of made it easier when her life sent unexpected shoots and feelers out in all directions. “I don’t know whether that ruins your image of me.”

“That image is still being developed.” Rose raised an eyebrow. “I’m liking what I see so far, though.”

Kanaya’s cheeks turned a pale green. “Um. My point is, there’s a difference between hobbyists interested in the theory versus those interested in practicing an art.”

“The chainsaw dreamers versus the chainsaw carvers.”

“So to speak. And your notes suggested that you might be one of the latter.” Kanaya swallowed, and her blush faded. “Or at least that is the impression that I got.”

Rose ran her fingers over the cover of her faded notebook. Grit from another world dug at her skin. “And what’s your criticism?”

Rose’s notes had accompanied Kanaya through wigglerhood with their tales of drama and danger. The pages had talked extensively about the Circle. Even to an Alternian, those stories hadn’t been welcoming. “I suppose, that seems dangerous to me. The world you visited sounds like an evil place.”

“Oh, very. High Wicked.” Now Rose didn’t try to hide her smile. “But all the best things are.”

Kanaya didn’t return her grin. “See, you’re making light of this, but my world was very inhospitable. Earth seems to have far fewer fatalities per capita. Why would you want to leave?”

Rose turned away to look at her wall. She had hung up bulletin boards purchased from a local craft store, each featuring different theoretical maps of the connections between worlds and tracking sightings of doorways. There were even photocopied excerpts from fiction like Through the Looking Glass, books she picked up to thumb through again and again even though the inaccuracies made her want to scream. “Did you ever daydream when you were younger? About being powerful, or going on an adventure, or just getting away from your boring life? You must have.” She held up the used copy of her journal. Strips of multicolored fabric poked out of the top as makeshift bookmarks. “You said this made you want to pretend. So you should understand. This world – it’s safe. Comparatively. There’s nothing to it. In the Circle, I was strong, and powerful, and I could change things. I could sweep away the chaos and make things make sense. Here, I’m making charts for a boarding school. Maybe I wouldn’t want to stay in the Circle’s world forever, but I want to go somewhere… magical. Somewhere not like this. Besides, there’s something I need to get back.”

Kanaya kept her eyes on the bookmarks, each one holding the place of a different childhood dream. “And if you found your way back, would you stay?”

Rose scowled. One thing her bulletin board didn’t feature was family photographs. “I doubt my mother would miss me.”

Footsteps thudded on the stairs, and Kanaya glanced over her shoulder as one of the other boarders rushed downstairs. “The people here who know you might. Or people who would like to get to know you better.”

Rose picked up the cup, drained the rest of it, and handed it back. “I think you might have overdrawn your account. A cup of tea only buys you so much meddling.”

Kanaya took the cup, and the hint. So many people couldn’t bear to be helped. She set down the newer copy of Rose’s notes and spared a regretful glance at her old copy. They may have been childhood dreams, but they’d been good ones. It always stung to let them fade. Then she retreated to the doorway before pausing with one hand on the frame. “You know, you remind me of someone.”

“Really?” Rose was already looking away, opening both copies of her notebook to catalogue the differences. “Did she respond to being micromanaged so gracefully?”

Kanaya let go of the doorframe and stepped outside into the hall. “She died.”

Chapter Text

Miracle children fit in the worlds they wander into, but not always because they want to.  Dave grew up with a fridge full of swords and dread in every footstep, and Cinder didn’t wait for him to wander in; it pulled. Cinder was a hungry world. It burned through heroes and spat out ash. The firefolk found their newest recruit wandering on a basalt beach and brought him a sword. Dave didn’t take it. His brother insisted they cross blades every morning in a jarring, painful ritual that left his arms aching and riddled with scars. What chance does a thirteen-year-old have against a grown man? Why would a grown man fight one? He hadn’t asked himself those questions yet. 

“This blade was meant to be wielded by a hero,” the firefolk said in sibilant voices.

Dave crossed his arms and thought of applying band-aids in the bathroom while wondering if he’d ever be good enough to stop getting hurt. “I’m not one.”

“You will be.”

A hero, to the firefolk, was someone who gave everything and expected nothing back. Dave had already been taught not to value his life. Now he was taught that outlook made him worth something to a cause, if not to himself. At the world’s center beat a heart of molten stone. At night, the surface swarmed with dark figures whose long, grasping fingers could douse the inner fire of the folk in seconds. Humans took longer to die, although those fingers left numb white prints on their skin. The folk’s enemies wanted to put out the heart of the world and cast it down in endless winter. But the doorways provided, and Cinder had never been short of soldiers who had something to prove and not enough love for themselves. 

Dave met them occasionally. He exchanged nods, swapped combat tips, experienced his first confused crush on a boy. Nothing lasted long in Cinder. Heroes were rotated away, or died, or found another doorway out. He collected ranks, battle scars, and nightmares. The armor they’d given him was battered from the start. “It belonged the last hero,” the firefolk said reverently. 

Dave held it up. It would barely fit, even on his thirteen-year-old frame. “What happened to him?”

“She died bravely. But we knew another would come to take up the fight.”

 

Dave had been there for years when the firefolk brought him a new recruit. He was wiping down his equipment after an engagement. Some of the folk’s enemies exploded into ash, like kicking open a burned out log. Others bled. Either way, the mess got everywhere.

“The doors have brought someone new,” the folk told him.

“I can see that.” The folk loved giving everything the air of a prophecy. It sounded better than saying another lost child had wandered in by mistake. Dave looked him over. The new kid was tiny, a foot shorter than him with a smooth face and a Marvel band-aid on one knee. “He’s got to be what, eight? Send him to kitchen duty.”

“I’m thirteen,” the kid protested.

“Sure, that’s what you said to log into Neopets. I’m smarter than an algorithm.”

“Apparently not.” He crossed his arms. “My birthday was two weeks ago.”

Dave frowned. The recruit couldn’t be thirteen. He hadn’t been that small.

“We want you to train him.”

Dave raised an eyebrow at the folk – a nuance of human expression that was mostly lost on them – and saw another boy too small to hold a sword, looking up at a larger figure with a mix of dread and defiance. “Sure,” he said. “We’ll start tomorrow.”

That night, he knocked on the new recruit’s door. The firefolk never patrolled the hallways after dark. Their blood grew sluggish when the sun went down. The human soldiers, on the other hand, learned to live nocturnally.

“Come on,” he said. “We’re getting you out of here.”

The kid was named Greg Darksmith. He’d come from Michigan. Dave didn’t know anything about Michigan, but he figured it had to be better than this. He knocked again until Greg opened the door blearily. “What you talking about? Are we starting training?”

Once, Dave had been long-winded. Years of climbing ranks in a patchwork militia had taught him to get to the point during a mission. “You don’t want to be here. Where was your door? Is it still there?”

Greg was new. He hadn’t been taught any kind of discipline. Instead, he argued. “They said I’d be a hero.”

Dave thought of being thirteen and taking up a sword because he’d never had anyone tell him he was better than it. Maybe Greg was running from something, but Cinder was no place for him to end up. He didn’t deserve to be burned up and spat out.

“The only thing this place will make you is dead. Move it.”

Greg led him to a spar of rock jutting out by a steaming lake. Dave ran his hand across the surface of the stone. He kept his other on the hilt of his sword. He’d already had to slash through a few nocturnal prowlers on the way there.

“Whoah, cool,” Greg had said. “That’s badass.”

“Cool?” Dave tugged down his collar to show patterns of white handprints seared into his skin. “I guess.” That had settled Greg down for a while. “Where did you come through?”

“I dunno, around here? I wasn’t paying a lot of attention. These guys were picking on me, and I ducked into the janitor’s closet, except it wasn’t any more. Are you sure I can’t have a sword? They’d leave me alone then.”

Greg had wanted to learn to fight to protect himself, and Cinder had latched onto that wish. Dave had wanted to get away too, even if he hadn’t admitted that to himself. He’d wanted to be strong.

“I’ll make you a deal,” he said. “I’ve learned a little bit about self-defense. I’ll teach you a few tricks, and maybe then you’ll remember the way out.”

In Cinder, soldiers learned to deliver lethal blows quickly, but Dave still remembered the jabs and dodges of imbalanced sibling rooftop duels a lifetime ago. He taught Greg what could be learned fast under the slagged-off face of the moon, and by the time light crept over the horizon, the kid could throw him a few feet into the rock wall when he weakened his stance on purpose. “I did it,” Greg said, delighted.

“You sure did. Promise not to use your powers for evil. Otherwise I’ll have to brood in the desert until it’s time to train a new student to surpass you, and that’d be bad for my skin.”

Greg laughed and then pointed over Dave’s shoulder. “I see it! That’s where I came from.”

Dave started to turn and caught a glimpse of a dark crack in the wall, but then he saw a glint across the steaming lake. The sun was rising, and the firefolk were coming in force to retrieve their lost property. Cinder still called to him. It was the only place he’d ever felt wanted. If Greg had left sooner, he might have been able to slip back to his post. Now… the only way to make sure the folk didn’t catch him was to stay between them.

“I always wanted to visit Michigan,” he said, and shoved Greg through the gap in front of him.

The passageway was made for a thirteen-year-old. Greg slipped through easily, and soon Dave lost sight of him. When he called out, he didn’t hear anything. He gritted his teeth and squirmed through, anticipating the sting of the firefolk’s claws on his back legs. Jagged rock ripped away pieces of his armor, and the shrinking walls of the passage crushed the breath from his chest. Then, when he thought he couldn’t go any further, he tumbled onto hot Texas asphalt, compressed down to thirteen again and alone.

That’s what he thought, at least, until a figure with a bulky hood pulled over their head leaned over him.

“Greg?” he gasped.

“Nope!” The girl’s voice was cheerful. “He’s alright though, don’t worry about him. I’m glad I found you.”

Dave eased himself into a sitting position, unsteady in a body smaller than the one he remembered. “Do I know you?”

She cocked her head. “Not now. But we have some things in common. I passed through Cinder on my way back from Mariposa. There are other people like us.” She held out a piece of paper. “You can find them here.”

Dave took the paper automatically. He was used to following orders, and the stranger spoke with the confidence of a commanding officer. The writing looked familiar, but it took him a moment to place it. He hadn’t taken notes in years. “Did I write this?”

He saw a flash of a smile inside her hood. “Like I said, we don’t know each other now.  But that’s where you need to be.”

Chapter Text

Once she’d completed a full audit of the grounds, Terezi’s favorite hobby was prowling around on the edges of everyone else’s lives. They were interesting, these wayward children, more full of papered-over cracks than the walls of her temporary hiveblock. They barely reacted to her calculated oddities, but if you got them talking, they had stories to tell.

Jade would talk your ear off about Prospit, and Rose would monologue about the Circle quite happily after making a show of disliking being bothered. Dave was the only one tight-lipped about the details of his journey. So, naturally, that was what she needed to know more about.

He’d elected to spend the afternoon doodling on the kitchen table, which left him easy prey to a sneak interrogation. She sidled up and peered over his shoulder. “What are you drawing?”

Dave jumped, snapped the lead of a colored pencil off against the paper, and swore. “Why do you creep up on people?”

“It’s fun.” She retreated an inch and grinned. “It’s not my fault you didn’t see the blind girl coming. You were too busy making squiggles.”

Dave began resharpening the pencil with unnecessary violence. “They’re not squiggles.”

“Let’s call an independent judge in on that one. I think my case will be upheld.”

“You’re blind, are you?” Terezi had announced that upon her arrival and showed off a convincingly blank gaze. She carried a cane, but she didn’t have any trouble getting around. If it weren’t for her teal-tinted scar tissue and blank red sclera, the humans wouldn’t have believed her. “I think that’s a basic qualification for art criticism. Like when you’re all lined up at boot camp and the drill sergeant marches down the ranks shooting all the Freudians, he also holds up one of those eye exam posters to make sure you can at least see the goddamn E at the top. How are you supposed to shit yourself over Banksy’s latest gentrification project if you’re looking at the Dairy Queen sign by mistake?”

She pursed her lips. “I can smell the colors.”

“Smells like bullshit.”

“You’re very close-minded for someone who’s been to different worlds. I thought the point of this school was exploration.”

“The point of this school is to get over getting conned by fast talkers with a good sales pitch once, not to do it again.” 

Terezi jabbed a finger at his paper. “This part’s blue. That’s yellow.”

“Huh,” Dave said. “Two for two. Guess we can add you to the list of fantasy disability copouts.”

She circled around to his other side for a better sniff. “So what is it?”

He pressed a hand flat over the project. “I thought you could see.”

“Smell, and my senses are failing me here. All your shapes and colors don’t seem to add up to anything.” She tilted her head. “Is it abstract?”

“They’re comics, I guess. Jane’s into art therapy. That’s why she lets Rose dig portals to hell in the backyard. It’s part of reclaiming our narrative or some shit.”

This line of logic always sounded suspect to him, but she nodded. “Telling a story you control the end of for a change.”

Dave squinted down at his intentionally uneven lines and copious misspellings. “Not sure these count as serialized storytelling, except the nacho party arc I abandoned.”

“You don’t want to tell some heroic narrative? The dramas I enacted back home were always tightly plotted. You could bounce a coin off them. I did.”

“Joseph Campbell is a dirty word in this house.” The hero’s journey had nearly started a riot last year when one of the other boarders pulled it up online. “Fuck the return stage, you don’t come back enlightened like those hipsters who take a week’s vacation over in India and then make blog posts about blitzing their chakras. You bust your ass for someone, and then the story ends, and no one cares.”

Terezi raised an eyebrow. “I don’t know,” she said. “We fell through a lot of worlds, but we stopped in this one. I think there was a reason for that.”

“To get on my fucking nerves.”

“If that’s my fate, I will embrace it.” She snatched a piece of blank paper. “Can I try?”

Dave looked down at his half-finished project. He’d been cross-hatching the same patch of grass for half an hour. “Sure. Pull up a chair. You can’t interrupt a creative process when the train combusted before leaving the station. Teen vandals are spraying silly string over the wreckage now.”

Terezi settled in across from him and sniffed the blank page speculatively. “Does it help settle your thinkpan?”

After a moment to work out the vocabulary, he shrugged. Terezi bullied people into conversation by refusing to take silence as an acceptable response. It was easier to give in and talk to her. “Takes my mind off things. It takes a lot of brain power to churn out these bad boys.”

“Oh, there’s more? Are they all this marvelously shitty?”

“About the same.”

“I love it,” she said with genuine enthusiasm. “I think you’re pioneering something. Abstract non-expressionism, maybe.”

“You aliens have the same art movements as us?”

“Oh, we’re much more advanced. We’re all the way up to geometric dismemberment.” Like all her other proclamations about Alternian culture, Terezi delivered this with enough confidence her audience never knew whether to take it on the level. “This has its appeal, though.”

“I’ll have to show you my site sometime.” Dave peered over the rims of his shades as Terezi started filling in her sheet (and parts of the surrounding table) with green. “What are you trying to forget, then?”

She tossed away the green and reached for an orange. “Who said I’m trying to forget anything?”

“This is therapy, not the crafting corner. None of us are here because we’re stable. We’ve got a leaderboard for who had the latest breakdown. Jade’s always at the bottom, but I think she’s cheating.”

Terezi passed two different shades of purple under her nose, frowning. “I don’t know why your trip bothered you so much. Your world didn’t sound that bad.”

“Your planet’s primary export is mass murderers, of course you wouldn’t have a good standard of comparison.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment.”

Dave sighed. Other boarders would have agreed that he’d gotten off easy. He hadn’t even lost any time. All his scars had been wiped away. When it came down to it, was being forced to fight really that bad? Plenty of kids dreamed of something like that. The doorways granted people’s wishes. They didn’t consider whether those wishes were wise. “Have you ever gotten mixed up in something where… you know it was bad. You get it, you’ve had therapy and been self-actualized and shit, but it made you feel… right. So you’re mad at it, and mad at yourself for falling for it.”

Terezi didn’t say anything for a while, which based on Dave’s experience with her was a record. She’d even let her characteristic shark-toothed grin fade. “I guess I understand that,” she said.

Unsmiling Terezi was, if possible, more unsettling than the regular version. “If a citizen of planet Saw has to flee into the comforting embrace of craft supplies, it must’ve been really bad.”

Terezi hovered over a blue pencil and then took a pink instead. “I thought this was art therapy, not nosy humans stick their sensory probosci into things that aren’t their business therapy.”

“Gross.” He picked up a pencil of his own and turned back to a rendering of a misshapen car. “If that’s the way you want it, I’ll look the other way when I see you sobbing gently into a pile of construction paper.”

“Spoken like a true friend.” She meditatively licked the pencil lead.

“Also gross. These are common property, you know. Sharing is caring, but I don’t think swapping spit is part of the Communist Manifesto.”

“Tasting it helps me pin down the exact shade. This is part of my creative process.”

Dave pulled a fistful of pencils toward himself. “You can lick the rest, but keep your tongue off these ones. It’ll be our secret. Rose and Jade probably don’t mind alien cooties. They want to go back.”

“A lot of people do,” Terezi said softly. With an effort, her old grin spread across her face again. “Are you going to use all those reds?”

Cinder had been nothing but shades of red. It was a color that rarely featured in Dave’s comics. “Fuck no. Take them.”

“Excellent,” Terezi said as Dave began pelting her side of the table with pencils. “We’ll make you a suitable assistant to the prosecution yet.”

Chapter Text

Children who are cared for don’t find doorways as often. They still do, but they spend less time by themselves and do not feel called as strongly to seek out a world that will treat them better.

There is overlap, but children who are cared for are not synonymous with children who are loved.

Jade was loved in an absent-minded, sporadic sort of way by a man who collected things: globes, mummies, lovers, children. He would acquire something new, admire it for a time, and then retire it to gather dust. When he came home, he carried his granddaughter on his shoulders, treated her to tea parties, and read to her from storybooks and engineering manuals with equal relish. Then, there was nowhere Jade would rather be than home. But later he would disappear again, and she would be left with a houseful of paraphernalia and her own imagination.

Jade would do the chores as well as an elementary school-aged child could be expected to (sweeping with more enthusiasm than accuracy, feeding the dog whatever she had on hand). Her favorite hobbies were tinkering with the devices her grandfather left lying around and gardening.  She could often be found surrounded by the guts of dismantled machinery or the scattered leaves of recently repotted plants. Once her chores were done, like many children she retreated into the haven of her own creativity. Romps around the silent house became expeditions to foreign lands she’d only seen on maps. She assigned names to her grandfather’s more humanoid artifacts and carried on long conversations with them when the silence got too thick. She was young and half believed herself. It didn’t strike her as unusual when she started having detailed and fantastical dreams. Every night when she closed her eyes, she was welcomed into a golden kingdom where the population hailed her as a princess. They had been expecting her, and she had her own tower bedroom with a wardrobe to match. She turned in earlier and earlier, shunning the empty house for a world that valued her. Dust built up on her grandfather’s knickknacks. The edges of leaves curled and browned.

Jade’s grandfather died when she was seven years old. She handled things as best she could and then crawled into bed, pulling the sheets up to her chin. The White Queen had offered many times to let her stay. Jade had always insisted on going back, because her grandfather would be waiting. Now she closed her eyes and flew.

Prospit embraced her. She learned the steps of every dance for the city’s many festival days and twirled in the streets with flowers in her hair. The smooth, jointed limbs of the citizens looked more natural to her that her own flesh, and she traded greetings in a language made mostly of clicks and gestures. When she raced down the yellow cobbled streets, everyone calling out their windows knew her name.

When she turned ten, the queen brought her into the library. The castle had intimidated her once, before she played hide and seek wrapped up in wall hangings and learned to laugh as the guards made faces at her from behind their helmets. The library still struck her silent. Shelves reached up to high ceilings, and every breath echoed. The queen pulled down a book with a swirling pattern on the cover and explained, in carefully clipped tones and movements, what it meant. Prospit had been preparing for Jade to arrive since she’d been born. Its people had been told a hero would come to lead their city out of its eternal stalemate. Then Jade had appeared for the first time in the room they’d made ready for her. How could she be anything else? Now that she was on Prospit for good, it was time she knew her destiny.

Jade nodded and clenched child-sized fists. She’d managed a whole house on her own for years. On Prospit she could fly. She’d save them for sure.

Members of the guard taught her how to handle a bow. Jade pulled down more books on the history of the kingdom and puzzled out the revealing wisps of the oracular clouds. She was still small, but she didn’t dance through the streets anymore. She marched.

Prospit’s enemies harried them but never struck in earnest. When Jade woke to feel her tower shaking, she thought they had, even if the clouds hadn’t sent her any warning. She looked outside, expecting to see purple ships darting between spires and dropping long ladders to the ground. Instead, she saw the sky tearing itself apart.

Like a good princess, she ran to the queen. The shuttle didn’t fit into her expected narrative any more than the sky did. “You’re leaving?”

The queen (still so much taller than her) knelt. “This is beyond us. My people will go into exile. You, my princess – you must go home.”

All her memories of her life before Prospit had fuzzy edges. “This is my home.”

“We were glad to have you, but now I order you to escape this.” The queen shook her head at the stubborn set of Jade’s jaw. She reached out with one segmented finger and almost, but not quite, touched her face. “If the Light wills it, we will meet again, but first we have to survive. There is no victory possible on a board that is breaking. It is not fair, but set the unfairness aside and carry out my last command.” Then the queen turned away, before Jade could protest that she didn’t know how to leave, even if she wanted to, and she didn’t.

Set the unfairness aside. She had her orders. That queen was leaving her, like her grandfather, but he always came back, but then he hadn’t…

Jade left the palace, and the street beneath her shattered. She fell through a burning sky, and her last thought was, I should have done better.

She opened her eyes. She was lying in a bed that was much too small for her with her toes hanging over the end. She sneezed, and a layer of dust rose off the sheets. She was six years older, and when she sat up, bits of golden rubble filtered off her shoulders.

Jade walked through the house, brushing away cobwebs. No light sprang on when she flicked the switches. Mail had piled up by the slot, but judging by the dates, it had stopped coming a while ago. The dog had left, and a nest of mice blinked black eyes at her from the stuffing of her grandfather’s favorite chair. She’d sat on his knee there plenty of times, but the memories felt distant. It was the sight of her greenhouse, with rows of dead brown husks, that made her throat tighten.

Princesses and heroes were responsible. Jade sorted through her grandfather’s papers until she found a next of kin, an adopted sister he’d never told her about. She was too young and inexperienced to know what to keep to herself, so she told the old woman everything. Most people would have assumed they were childish delusions, but Jane knew better.

“My brother left a lot of things undone and unsaid, but this really takes the cake,” she said over the phone. Her voice was nothing like the White Queen’s, which always sounded cool and regal. This woman’s voice lilted and laughed. Even so, something about it made Jade feel safe. “Can you believe I didn’t even know about you? We’ll have to make up for lost time. I have a place up north that would be perfect while you’re getting your feet back under you. Don’t worry, I’ll make all the arrangements.”

Before Jane came to pick her up, Jade cleaned away the worst of the cobwebs and gathered together all the documentation adults would need. The mice she left alone. On her last morning, she removed each dead plant from its pot and laid them outside so they could go back to the earth. One flower’s roots clung, and she spotted a strand of stubborn green among the brown.

When Jane drove up to collect the relative she hadn’t known she had, Jade held a small pot with a lonely green stem in her lap.

Chapter Text

Jane’s childhood home nestled in the middle of acres of forests and fields. The grounds served as a buffer between the school’s inhabitants and members of the normal world, who drove past and assumed it must host children with rich parents who could afford to send them to a manor. In reality, Jane’s students came from many financial backgrounds, but what they did share was a bent toward adventure. They hadn’t found their doorways by staying at home. On clear days, they often spread out to skip stones while making wishes or to climb trees after squirrels they thought might speak.

Jade spent the most time outdoors, when her schedule allowed. Jane was older than she looked. Her time in other worlds had slowed her aging, but the years were beginning to tell. Jade had become her second pair of hands, and when she was done washing dishes or managing the chore roster, she dashed outside to enjoy the day.

On a path winding through the woods, she almost tripped over Karkat curled up at the base of a gnarled pine tree. Jade hadn’t spoken much with him after her initial attempts at friendliness had fallen flat. He kept his distance from the other humans even as Kanaya and Terezi seemed to thaw, and there was only so much rudeness she wanted to endure. She took one quiet step past him, only for him to groan and start to stir. “Are you taking a nap out here?” she asked as his eyes opened. “You have a room, you know. It’s good enough for everybody else.” She’d been the one to set up all the guest rooms with new sheets and extra-strength curtains pulled over the windows. It was nice to have your work appreciated.

“I wasn’t napping,” Karkat said, aware of his compromised position and annoyed about it. “I’m exhibiting constant vigilance, as is my duty as the only representative of Alternia who hasn’t been wooed into a false sense of security by your cunning human ploys like ‘colored pencils’ or ‘Project Runway’. If you thought you saw my ocular sheathes deployed, it was only a trick of the light.”

Jade folded her arms. “It looked like napping to me.”

He picked a pine needle out of his hair and flicked it away. “What else would I expect from the culturally ignorant? You wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between sopor slime and key lime gogurt.”

Jade sighed. Why did this alien have to be so snappy? Everyone from Prospit had been kind to strangers. “If we assume you were not in fact napping, why not? Sleep is good for you. It might put you in a better mood so you’re not so mean to everyone all the time.”

“Is your adherence to somnambulistic propaganda why you’re so exhaustingly peppy?”

“It helps!” Jade lifted her chin and straightened her spine, remembering lessons in posture in the White Queen’s chambers. “It’s important for a princess to project a positive attitude in order to set a good example.”

Strangers didn’t do nice on Alternia, not unless they wanted something. Karkat had never heard of projecting a positive attitude for anything but nefarious reasons. It only confirmed you couldn’t trust these humans even when they smiled. “Is criticizing people’s attitudes and slumber habits part of your public relations campaign? That’s a tactic I hadn’t heard of before. You should send out cheery mailers saying ‘I platonically hate you’ next, that’ll help reinforce your mixed message.”

Jade hmmphed. “You’re not one of my subjects. I don’t care what you think.”

“And the people back at the school are? I thought you vouched for something called ‘democracy’.” A few of the humans had tried to explain voting, but none of Alternians could wrap their minds around it. Trust your neighbors to have everyone’s best interests in mind? At least you knew where you stood with a permanent dictator. “When does the mask come off and they learn they’re crushed beneath the iron phalange of a buck-toothed tyrant?”

“They’re my friends.” The mockery of her status stung, so Jade let more venom than usual slip into her tone. “I like to be nice to the people I’m friends with, not that you would know that. You’re not even nice to the only people left from your world.”

Terezi and Kanaya had gotten too comfortable, in Karkat’s opinion. Snickering over webcomics, flirting on the stairwell – had they forgotten they weren’t on Earth for a vacation? Someone needed to keep them on alert. “Excuse me for being on edge when I’ve been chased out of my home by a universe-destroying monster and I’m stranded in hostile territory being pestered by nap-peddling busybodies.”

“We’re not hostile,” Jade protested. She uncrossed her arms to back up her point. A good princess wouldn’t let someone like this get under her skin.

“Need I repeat Lalonde’s vivid descriptions of what would happen to us if anyone caught us? The word vivisection featured prominently.”

Rose had gotten graphic with her dire predictions. As far as Jade was concerned, this came from reading too many horror novels. Not everyone had such a grim view of humanity. When she’d brought that up, Rose had only said, “Ok, do you want to be the one to call the National Enquirer?” Jade had subsided into disapproving silence after that. “There might be trouble if anyone else saw you, but not here. We’re not dangerous.”

Karkat jerked his head back toward the house. “This is the headquarters for dimension-hopping dipshits right?”

“Yes…”

As soon as he’d seen this world’s inhabitants, Karkat had known they weren’t safe. He’d kept quiet as to why, even from his fellow survivors, but he’d like to see anyone tell him he was being too suspicious after this. “It was one of you who wrecked my world in the first place.”

Jade had expected more insults or conversational dodges. She hadn’t expected that. “What? I thought you said you didn’t see anything for sure.”

“We didn’t see what made the cracks when they happened. We were busy, to use technical language, trying to save our asses. But a little before everything started going to hell, I saw a human pop up through a rift in space.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, my first close encounter of the aggravating kind did make an impression, believe it or not. I didn’t know what he was then, but no horns?” Karkat gestured vaguely toward his own head. “Brown skin? Smug aura of entitlement as he blundered his way into my life, destroying everything in his path? He’s got to be one of you. And right after that, the world started shaking apart. Two plus two. Unless that doesn’t make four here. I shouldn’t assume your civilization has mastered addition.”

“We have math here,” Jade said absently, too distracted to respond to the barb. “No one from our world has that kind of power.”

“He opened the door,” Karkat insisted. “Maybe something else came through it.”

Jade frowned. This was a problem for Rose or Jane, not her. With Karkat volunteering new information, maybe now they could solve this puzzle. In the meantime… “I don’t know about any of that, but I promise no one here is going to hurt you. This isn’t that bad of a place to end up, especially compared to the way you guys talk about your home world.”

He scowled and dug a finger into the dirt. “It was still home.”

“You don’t know it got destroyed all the way,” Jade said in a softer voice than the aloof princess tone she’d used before. This she understood. “My world, the one I went to, it was attacked too. I fell back here before I saw what happened to it, and everyone says it’s probably gone, but I don’t believe them. I think I would know. One day I’ll find my way back and save it. Maybe one day you’ll find your way back too. Until then, we might as well both make the best of it.” She held out her hand. “Now, how about I take you back to the house and you can get some real sleep? I’ll make sure one of your friends is awake to stand guard.”

Karkat ignored her hand and struggled to his feet. “Do I have the honor of being escorted by Princess Harley or the real deal?”

“They’re both real, but princesshood is an indoor art.”

“No wonder you were wandering around outside.” A frog hopped away from his first footstep with an aggrieved croak, and he jumped. “What the fuck was that?”

“A frog!” Jade swooped down and scooped it up. It croaked again in protest.

Karkat peered between her fingers. “Is it deadly?”

“No. It might pee on you, but that’s the worst it’ll do.” She stroked its head with a thumb. “I think your planet made you overly suspicious of local fauna.”

He shoved his hands into his pockets and looked away. “It made us suspicious of everything.”

“Well, you don’t need to be suspicious of us.” Jade leaned down and let the frog hop to safety before brushing off her hands. “Come on. Let’s go back.”

Chapter Text

-- ghostyTrickster [GT] began pestering gardenGnostic [GG] --

GT: hey, i haven't heard from any of you in a while.
GT: you're not on another thrilling fantasy adventure, are you?
GT: you'll miss out on my dramatic retelling of what happened in home room today, which is equal to the greatest of your tragic back stories in scope and drama.
GG: lol we havent been through any more doorways
GG: for one thing im not sure we would get cell service there...?
GG: i didnt mean to avoid you either and i dont think that was anyone elses intention
GG: things have just been really crazy around here!!
GT: let me guess, you have been crowned queen of another planet.
GG: first of all, i was a princess silly!!
GG: and also it is kind of rude for you to talk like i am making it all up, its not like it didnt happen to you too :P
GT: i don't know, that was a long time ago.
GG: that doesnt mean it didnt happen dummy!!
GT: ok, i surrender in the face of your superior punctuation.
GT: (or do i???)
GG: !!!!
GT: hehe ok. so what's happening over there?
GT: is rose speaking in tongues again??
GT: or did dave put something else in the microwave.
GG: im pretty sure you put him up to that last time
GT: of course i did, because it was hilarious, and because if you have artifacts brought back from another universe the only course of action is to microwave them. i thought you were a woman of science.
GG: i had forgotten the microwaving step of the scientific process
GG: sorry for the lapse :(
GT: you are forgiven.
GG: anyway, weve been visited by aliens!
GG: i have so far not put any of them in the microwave
GT: so there's room for improvement there.
GG: i'm being serious! we have three visitors from another world called alternia staying with us
GG: they fell out of the sky
GT: are they part of an alien invasion?
GG: i don't think so...
GG: something attacked their world
GG: right now they are still adjusting
GG: since were the only three here right now mrs egbert has us helping them get used to earth
GG: rose says were like their patrons because she always has to talk fancy like that
GT: yes she loves being snooty about things, i bet she's loving being ambassador of our species.
GG: she and her um... patronee?? sure have A Dynamic
GT: what about you?
GG: karkat is a grouch, but hes not that bad
GG: i wouldnt say we are friends but he has mostly stopped biting peoples heads off and gone back to sulking
GG: he is a little prejudiced about humanity but he might be getting over that, i caught him crying over the titanic movie yesterday
GT: ok, someone needs to introduce them to better cultural mile stones immediately.
GG: thats what dave said too lol
GG: im not sure you two would agree on the best media humanity has produced
GT: you must let me at them immediately before he does too much damage.
GG: youll get to meet all of them soon
GG: youre still celebrating your birthday up here next week right?
GT: as long as nothing spooky and supernatural happens.
GT: is 16 more or less portentous than 13?
GG: they might be about the same...
GT: i look forward to seeing the alien invaders in any case.
GT: if this is in fact true and not another CUNNING PRANK.
GG: its true i promise!
GT: i will be the judge of that.
GT: they're not just shitty recolors, are they?
GG: hmmm...
GG: you will have to find that out for yourself!

Chapter Text

Either Rose or Jade saw John’s car first. Jade had climbed into a tree in the front yard as a lookout, while Rose was reading a book in the attic and casually glancing of the window every few minutes, just because. They collided in the front door with the news.

“It’s not like you weren’t just talking to him on pesterchum,” Dave said from the living room sofa, where he’d been a fixture since 8:00 AM.

Jade shook a few leaves from her hair. “I want to see his face when he realizes I wasn’t making up the aliens.”

“So we’re sideshows?” Karkat asked indignantly. The three trolls had been coaxed downstairs by the array of birthday treats Jane had prepared for her grandson’s party. Despite instructions not to eat any, his cheeks bulged. Frosting dotted Terezi’s nose.

“You’re honored guests, dear,” Jane said. “The place has been quiet with so many of our students leaving. John will be delighted to make some new friends.”

John had visited Jane’s home for a party and sleepover for his past two birthdays, ever since she introduced him to the three long-term residents who would become his friends. When the car came to a stop, he climbed out, duffel bag slung over one shoulder, and waved goodbye to his dad. “Next time I’ll be driving,” he told his friends as his father pulled away. “I can get my license now.”

“You didn’t rush out and take the test as soon as the clock struck midnight?” Rose asked.

“Don’t be ridiculous, the DMV doesn’t even open that early. And besides, I wanted to see you guys way more.”

“Cars are overrated,” said Dave, who’d grown up with public transportation. “On the bus you can rub shoulders with the salt of the earth; one woman told me she didn’t trust GMOs but using window cleaner to make her cakes rise was ok because it was all-natural. You don’t get that kind of entertainment value anywhere else.”

“Do you need us to carry anything?” Jade asked after a collective moment of silence. 

“No, I’ve got it. I didn’t have to pack much for only staying a night.” John punched his duffel bag, which was mostly air. “Where are your alien invaders?”

“Right this way.” Rose held the door for him. “I expect a full report on which film interpretation they most resemble.”

“I hope it’s better than John Carter, that movie was kind of campy even for me.” John was in full flow describing the latest alien flicks he’d seen when he walked inside. Karkat had begun sneaking his hand toward other cookie, but at the sight of John he forgot it. “You again?”

John blinked. “Me?” He looked over his shoulder back at the others. “You weren’t kidding, they really are aliens. I think Men in Black was more creative though, with the aliens that didn’t look like sexy humans anyway. Is this the crabby one you were talking about?”

Dave nodded. “Dude does not have enough of a sense of humor to be wearing the sex number on his shirt.”

For once, Karkat didn’t rise to the bait. Instead, he charged at John, who raised his bag between them as a barrier. “You’re the one who visited my planet. You brought the end of the world.”

“Um.” John glanced over his shoulder again for support. Rose shrugged. Even the other Alternians looked confused. Kanaya had reached forward and then dropped her arm, frowning. Terezi stayed in her seat, a crease between her eyebrows. “I don’t think so?”

“John’s door didn’t take him to Alternia,” Jade said. “Are you sure this person didn’t just look like him? Lots of people go through the doors.”

“It was him,” Karkat insisted. “I haven’t met enough humans to get them mixed up.” He jabbed a finger at John’s chest. “Stop fucking around, I know you saw. Tell everyone already and get it over with, but don’t expect me to turn myself in. No self-respecting legislacerator would take an alien as a witness.”

John leaned away from him. “I went to a world filled with grouchy salamanders and a bunch of mushrooms. That’s it. Nothing special, and definitely no one that looked like you. That would’ve been way more memorable. I have no idea what you’re talking about. Maybe I have a twin?”

Jane had been in the kitchen when the argument began, but now she stepped between them with the confidence of someone used to sorting out teenage squabbles. Anyone staying at her home for long soon learned she didn’t tolerate misbehavior. “You both seem very certain. Maybe we can solve that mystery later, but John came a long way for his party, and I’m sure none of you want to spoil it.” The threat of what would happen to anyone who did spoil it went unspoken.

John relaxed first. “Yeah, can we have a truce? I’ve never met aliens before, I was looking forward to it.”

“But that’s what I —.” Karkat stopped with a wary glance at Jane. “Never mind. Fine.” He shoved another cookie in his mouth and subsided.

Jane shepherded everyone into chairs before another disagreement could break out. The four humans soon chattered away, while Terezi and Kanaya tossed in the occasional comments and Karkat sulked.

“You’ve also traveled to other worlds?” Kanaya asked, when the subject didn’t resurface. She missed having a copy of Rose’s notebook filled with stories of different lands. Maybe John could provide new material.

“That’s right, I guess,” John said, diverted from his review of the latest Marvel movie. “It was boring. I didn’t stay for very long.”

“Then why aren’t you here all the time?” Terezi asked. “I thought this was the place they put people like you.”

John hadn’t had time to become accustomed to trolls’ more authoritarian worldview. “It’s not a prison. Besides, I’m not like everyone else here. This is only for people who got messed up about it.” He shrugged at the others. “No offense, guys.”

Rose waved him away. “It’s alright; I’ve learned not to take any pointless or pointed remarks personally. It saves time and aggravates Internet trolls.”

“You have trolls?” Kanaya interrupted. “You didn’t mention that.”

“It’s a figure of speech,” Rose explained. “They’re not from Alternia. In our world, we use the name for your species to refer to some of the worst dregs of the Internet community. Present company excluded, since I don’t know yet how you behave online. You seem to have a vocabulary that extends beyond racial slurs, so that already puts you in a higher class of web denizen.”

“Don’t tell them about the comment section, Rose, then they will definitely want to destroy humanity if that wasn’t what they came here for.” John turned back to Kanaya. “Also, I have a dad to live with, so why stay up here? Besides, I perform a vital service. I am the necessary link between this school and regular life, so one day these three can be reintegrated into society like releasing a bunch of wolves in a national park.”

“Yes,” Jade said, rolling her eyes. “That is how conservation works exactly.”

“I don’t know,” Dave said, “I think it’s a spot-on simile for sticking Rose in public school.”

That inspired a lively discussion about human schooling. If John embellished his tales of high school, the others didn’t have any frame of reference to contradict him, beyond television and movies that exaggerated far more. Jade had never attended school, and Rose and Dave had started attending Jane’s homeschool after middle school. Neither had fond memories of those years, and they hadn’t expected high school to be much better even before they had otherworldy traumas added to the other reasons they didn’t fit in. Moving in with Jane had spared them that, at least.

“We have schoolfeeding too,” Karkat said, determined humans couldn’t claim anything that trolls didn’t have. “Ours spends more time on how we can be of service to the empire than whatever this ‘trigonometry’ conspiracy is.”

“I’m not exactly sure what it is either,” John admitted.

Terezi slid her hand in for another fistful of chips. “Sounds like a disease.”

“Predetermined occupations are a classic element of dystopia fiction.” Rose raised her eyebrows at Kanaya. “What were you fated to be?”

“All jadebloods play a vital part in continuing the species,” Kanaya said with the air of someone reciting something from memory. “We work in the brooding caverns tending to the Mothergrub, guarding the eggs, and nurturing the young until they’re ready for the Trials.” She paused, taking in the humans’ expressions. “Is that not the norm here?”

“No, we totally also hatch into slimy larvae,” John said, kicking a leg at random under the table. Dave winced.

“Huh,” Karkat said. “Maybe our species are more similar than I thought.”

“What’d your job be?” Dave asked, rubbing his leg. “Town crier? Or did the sorting hat self-immolate before anyone could put it on you?”

Karkat didn’t understand the reference enough to be insulted, which was probably for the best. “I’ve been training to become a member of the Empress’s most loyal and determined elite fighting force.”

“You know threshecutioners have to be the best of the best, right?” Terezi asked around her mouthful of chips.

“And your point is?”

“I was just checking to make sure you knew what the word elite meant.” Terezi swallowed. “I would’ve gone into the legal system.”

“Would’ve?” Rose asked. Terezi had shared that with less than her usual enthusiasm.

She shrugged. “It’s all gone now, isn’t it?”

That sobered the Alternians, and the conversation veered back to Earthly topics. Once the situation had calmed down, Jane had excused herself to the kitchen where she could continue preparing dinner. She always outdid herself for special occasions. Cooking was the one part of her time in other worlds that still felt pure. The humans, secure in the knowledge they had a feast waiting for them, grabbed a few last treats and retreated into the living room. John peppered Terezi and Kanaya for details about Alternia (“Do you have some sort of queen hive mind like in Independence Day? Oh, have you seen Independence Day? Or would you find it offensive that humans blow up the aliens in so many of our movies?”) and showed off the new magic trick tools he’d gotten for his birthday, including fake handcuffs and a pocketful of smoke pellets that left them all coughing. Later in the day, they tore around Jane’s massive backyard. The mid-April day was chilly, but not enough to drive them inside until after they’d gotten bored. Kanaya and Terezi accompanied them on quests to find early spring flowers and capture toads. Even Karkat tagged along, lingering at the edge of their group. John didn’t mind his silence. His sixteenth birthday was going great, crabby alien or not, and the whole misunderstanding would blow over. By now Karkat must have realized there was no way they’d met before. What would be the point of lying about it?

In fact, by the time Jane called them in for dinner, John had forgotten all about Karkat’s hostile greeting. While the others made their way to the dining room, he excused himself to the bathroom to wash dirt and toad gunk off his hands without other lands on his mind. So he wasn’t prepared when he opened the door, walked in, and tumbled through a rip in the world.

Chapter Text

John grew up enjoying the kinds of stories critics turned their noses up at. He devoured cliché-ridden Hollywood blockbusters and played video games rescued from the bottom of discount bins. Their cookie-cutter plots and limited range of character choices made more sense than real life. You felt in control predicting the next plot twist and choosing from pre-determined dialog. When you could see yourself in the protagonists’ shoes, you felt powerful too. That didn’t happen often. Action heroes wrestled with monsters, stopped devious plans, and rode off into the sunset with the girl. John could sometimes pull off a card trick, his computer programs self-destructed, and he’d never met anyone he’d be interested in riding off into the sunset with. Few protagonists shared his face. All that meant their adventures felt miles away. They were still fun to watch, though.

John had a good home. His father both loved and cared for him. When he changed his route home from school to wander down a path he’d never noticed before, it wasn’t because he wanted something better. His only motivation was curiosity.

The path wound away from his neighborhood and snaked for miles under the boughs of drooping trees. Eventually, John hopped over a fence and plopped into a field of glowing mushrooms. “’Scuse you,” said a squat salamander holding a rake. “Every day, I break my back farming these fucking mushrooms, and now some human is stomping through them with no regard for my hard work. What do you have to say for yourself?”

John hadn’t been expecting talking salamanders on the way home from school, but he wasn’t opposed to a little adventure of his own. “Sorry about that,” he said. “I didn’t know this was here!”

“Whatever,” said the glowering salamander. “Just go on, it’s not like anything matters until the hero gets here. Who’s going to protect a poor mushroom farmer like me from vagrants until then, I ask you?”

“I get it, I’m leaving.” John picked his way out of the field, trying not to squash more mushrooms as he went.

He soon learned that he’d arrived in the Furrows, where a slumbering beast at the center of a network of gullies and canyons belched out smog that hid the stars and withered crops. The salamander population survived on mushrooms and oily water and waited for someone to do something. They talked about a human boy who would come from another world to save them, and their eyes slid right past John as they said it. He couldn’t blame them. He’d seen enough movies to know heroes didn’t look like him.

He did try, sort of. He convinced a few salamanders he had special powers by running through the magic tricks he’d learned at home. That got their attention at least, even if pulling handkerchiefs out of someone’s nostril wouldn’t do much good against a monster. Local amphibians gave him tips about how to solve small crises, and he followed their instructions. That was all wrong too. Heroes took initiative.

One day, without seeing how he did it, he stumbled home again. According to his dad, he’d been missing for weeks. John dove into real life and didn’t look back. No one expected him to be special here. That stung less than knowing people had expected something special and gotten him instead.

Jane noticed the next time she visited. Children who go wandering don’t return unchanged. John brushed off her offers of assistance. His journey hadn’t been traumatizing.  Embarrassing maybe, since he hadn’t stepped up and saved the day the way he’d liked to imagine he would in daydreams. He didn’t long to go back either. She did give him the usernames of a few kids from her school who weren’t bad to talk to. One was even a relative, and he would come home from school and open chat windows to fill them in on the real world. When you get tired of moping over all the weird places you’ve been, he told them, you should come to school with me. We’ll have loads of fun.

After three years, his memory of the Furrows faded. If it hadn’t been for his friends’ insistence, he would have believed he’d imagined the whole thing. He thought his adventures were over.

Now, he stood on a dark planet with two moons hanging overhead. Asymmetrical buildings rose up around him, lights glowing behind their shutters. “Who’s there?” a voice called. “I’ll have you know you’re trespassing on the lawnring of a highly dangerous threshecutioner trainee-to-be.”

“Really?” John looked around. “Where?”

“Me, smartass.”

John looked up to see someone peering out a window a few stories above him. He couldn’t get a good look at their face, but they didn’t look much bigger than him. “Dangerous? Are you sure?”  

“Normally for that I would reduce you to a quivering puddle of ooze with my prodigious combat skills, but there's going to be a bloodbath here without me wasting my energy.” The alien leaned further out the window to deliver his tirade with emphasis. “Just don’t confuse that with weakness. I could destroy you, that's why the Empress herself is going to show up on bended knee to recruit me one of these days, mark my words. Unless you're an imperial spy and that counts as irreverent, in which case I never said anything.”

By now, he was half-hanging out of the window, and John could see his face. He relaxed.

“Hi, Karkat!”

Karkat squinted down at him. “Wait. How do you know my name?”

“It’s me, John!”

“Never heard of it.” He withdrew to prop his elbows up on the windowsill. “Whoever you are, don’t you know there are drones in the area?”

“What?”

“Oh for the love of – wait there and try not to slip in your own idiotic dribbling, I’m coming down.” The window slammed shut. As instructed, John waited until Karkat emerged from the doorway. He stopped short as soon as he got a better view. “What are you, some sort of mutated cerulean?”

“Like seafood?” Belatedly, everything clicked into place. “Oh wait, this must be from before you met me. That’s so cool, I love when time travel mysteries get solved like that.” John delivered his next sentence with the delight of someone who had been waiting their entire life to use it. He hadn’t watched all those movies for nothing. “I’m from the future.”

He didn’t get the reaction he wanted. Karkat didn’t have time for this. He’d been reading messages on Trollslum all night saying drones were pulling people off the street and culling them for minor offenses. He didn’t need anyone loitering near his hiveblock drawing attention or getting their blood on his walls. The smart thing to do was get rid of the stranger as quickly as possible. “You’re from the institution for the cullably shithive maggots, is what you are. Get off the street before the drones spot you, or you’ll be dragged in for examination, and that’ll make the property values go down.”

“What’s a drone?” John’s eyes widened as a massive, spiked figure lumbered out from behind the building. “Is that one?”

“Oh, fuck.” Karkat gauged the distance to his door and ran some quick mental calculations. Then he grabbed John by the arm. “Is ‘run’ a basic enough command to get through your skull? I’m not getting culled because some hornless jackass decided to paint a target on my lawnring and pose in the middle of it.”

“Yes, run was good enough without the other complaining thrown in.” John let Karkat drag him toward the edge of the block. “Are you always like this in a crisis?”

“Don’t criticize my evasion tactics.”

The drone must have been equipped with a searchlight, because a lance of brightness washed over them. Karkat recoiled, his eyes flashing. Then, the creature – or was it a robot? John couldn’t tell – shot a flurry of projectiles. John felt one ruffle his hair as it passed. Karkat grunted and let go to clutch his arm. Blood welled up under his fingers.

It was John’s turn to rush his companion into a narrow path between two houses. Once they were out of sight, he asked, “Are you ok?”

Karkat clenched his hand tighter over the wound. “You didn’t see anything.”

John pulled some party napkins out of his pocket and shook off a few crumbs. “You’re bleeding. Let me help.”

Karkat backed away. John couldn’t understand his expression. He looked terrified.

“Fine, you take care of that yourself, and I’ll beat the giant monster.” John tossed a handful of napkins at him and peered around the edge of the alleyway. The drone was stomping toward them, its bulky head questing from side to side. Suddenly, being ignored by the population of a new world didn’t seem so bad.

He glanced back at Karkat, who was still locked in a meltdown. Maybe he didn’t like seeing blood? Some people were like that. He’d survive. After all, he’d been alive in the future only a few minutes ago. Unless… their actions now had to make sure that future happened. What kind of time travel story was this? Those distinctions were important.

It was all up to him. Or it could be, anyway. Once, the Furrows had intended him to be a hero. Forget the salamanders’ doubts, forget the ways heroes on TV were impossible to match, and believe.

Before he could remember some of the nastier fates characters met in movies, he jumped out into the street. “Hey look at me! I’m an alien.”

The drone pivoted, and the searchlight washed over him again. It had been made to subdue and disorient a nocturnal species, not a human. John winced at its brightness, but he didn’t stop moving as he darted toward the outskirts of the neighborhood. The drone turned and lumbered after him. It was catching up fast, propelled by what looked like rockets on its feet. The Furrows hadn’t had anything like that. It was too bad when he finally got dumped in a cool sci-fi world it was trying to kill him.

John ducked around some more alien architecture and tried to catch his breath. Before he could, the searchlight blazed past the wall and illuminated him. He groaned and sprinted toward the next patch of shadow. The kids at his grandmother’s house brought all sorts of weird stories with them, but ‘murdered by an alien robot’ had never featured. He didn’t want to be the first.

Maybe he wasn’t the first, but no one had made it back to tell those stories at all.

Running wouldn’t be enough. He needed a distraction. John reached into his pocket again. He’d shown off a few smoke pellets for his friends, but the package his dad had bought him was still mostly full. They were impact pellets, which meant all you needed to set them off was good aim.

He turned around and stopped running. The drone picked up its pace, and he almost lost his nerve as it reached one gauntleted hand toward him. It leaned down… And he flung a fistful of pellets at its head. A few bounced off, but several exploded into satisfying puffs of smoke. One lucky shot lodged in a ridge of the drone’s chest armor, sending a steady stream of smoke past its visor. It reeled back, trying to clear the air with one hand. John took the opportunity to drop the rest of his pellets and stomp on them. Then he took off behind the billowing cloud.

Karkat had made it out, somehow. John knew that because he’d seen him himself. That meant he’d found a good hiding place. He tore back the way he came while the drone stumbled around in an already thinning haze, until he caught the glint of reflective eyes gleaming in the dark.

“How did you get away?” Karkat demanded. He was huddled in the shadows of another building with broad brown awnings. The darkness made him almost invisible. Now that John thought about it, the architecture of the buildings around them left lots of nooks and crannies to hide in. Was that on purpose? “Did you lead it back here?”

“I think I lost it. A true pranking master always has a few tricks up his sleeve.”

Karkat still had one hand clasped over his arm. “You didn’t make a deal to turn me in, did you?”

“For what? Violating the curfew?” What was this alien so paranoid about? John jumped as he heard a roar like a plane taking off, and then the drone rose to hover over the neighborhood. Maybe trolls had a reason to be paranoid. He shrank into the shadows, but Karkat didn’t move.

“It can’t see us from here,” he said. “Trust me, we all know what’s visible from the air. You don’t last very long here if you don’t. They’ll move on for easier prey now. They’re more impatient than Sollux, if you can believe it.”

John didn’t know whether he should believe it or not, since he didn’t know who Sollux was. At the moment, he didn’t care. “Your world isn’t very friendly,” he said.

Karkat turned, done watching the drone fly away. “What do you mean, my world?”

“I’m from somewhere else. I thought that would be obvious, based on the way I looked. It’ll make more sense later, once you get there. And now you’ll know me in the future, just like you said!” He frowned as the rest of Karkat’s story came back to him. “Wait, didn’t you also say something about the end of the world??

The sky broke. A void shouldn’t have been able to, but glowing cracks ripped through it anyway. John caught a glimpse of something: a huge shape draped in flashing colors, tearing through the night like it was tissue. Rainbow light glinted off the suggestion of a skull.

“What the –” Karkat looked from him to the shattered sky. “What the fuck did you bring with you?”

“This wasn’t me!” John backed away, realizing for the first time that although Karkat’s future was secured, no one had ever said anything about him. “Maybe you should run now. It’s a good time for basic commands.”

Karkat opened his mouth to argue, and John shoved him away. “You’ll be OK,” he said. “Trust me. I just don’t know about me.”

Karkat frowned, looked at the sky again, and fled. John didn’t watch him go. Instead, he tried to think as jagged fissures began snaking through the ground beneath him. How has he gotten here? The Furrows had snuck up on him, kind of, but he’d chosen to walk down the path. Alternia had happened, just like that. He’d seen something right as he entered the bathroom – a blue-white glow. He’d felt, or heard, something almost like…

zap.

Maybe Jane had seen something like this before. Rose would have a theory. Dave would have something sarcastic to say. Jade would jump into trying to make him feel better. He wanted to be back there and enjoying birthday dinner, not running for his life in a collapsing alien world.

Too late, he looked down to realize the cracks had cut him off entirely. John teetered on an eroding chunk of world and thought of where he wanted to be.

Zap.

Around Alternia, trolls watched their world tear apart. Most went with it. A lucky few fell through the cracks and bounced between universes until they found somewhere to land. A few had already gone. And John Egbert lay stunned on the bathroom floor of Jane’s home for wayward children. Someone was pounding on the door.

Chapter Text

“John and Karkat’s narratives seem to match up,” Rose said. They’d sat down to a late dinner after John had been retrieved from the bathroom where – from everyone else’s perspective – he’d spent half an hour. Jane had insisted on it, but no one had much of an appetite. As they picked at their food, John had related his adventure and, after some coaxing, Karkat had told his version too.

Karkat haven’t eaten anything. John had expected his explanation to clear everything up, but if anything he’d become even twitchier. “Are you sure there isn’t something you forgot to share with the group?” he asked, tapping his fork against the edge of the table. “Some incriminating revelation about yours truly that you’re sitting on? I’d hate to think you’re holding back on my account.”

“Um… no?” John gave it some thought. “Except that you can be kind of a jerk, but I think you’re demonstrating that, so I don’t need to make a big reveal.”

Terezi sighed. “Yes, that information is already known to the court.”

Dave raised his eyebrows. “Can trolls be dragged before a judge for attitude problems?”

“I was speaking metaphorically to liven up the conversation.” She paused. “But also yes.”

“Man, I stand by what I said about your planet being shitty.” John still felt like he should check over his shoulder for approaching drones. His legs were sore from sprinting. “I wonder why I got sent there.”

“That’s right, the doorways usually send people to worlds they fit in.” Jade considered her second cousin. He had been tight-lipped about his world, but nothing about their many conversations made her think Alternia would call out to something inside him the way Prospit had called to her. Sure, he liked science fiction and alien stories, but all of those franchises had a baked-in morality that the trolls’ planet lacked. John would never want to go to a Wicked world. The good guys weren’t guaranteed to win there. “This doesn’t make a lot of sense. You can usually count on some kind of logic with this kind of thing, even if it’s a Nonsense world.”

“John didn’t pass through a door,” Rose pointed out. “Maybe this sort of travel isn’t governed by the same rules.”

Dave looked sidelong at the empty chairs that had been pulled away from the table and stored against the wall. “What about the others?”

“Pardon?” Kanaya asked.

“It wasn’t always just the three of us here,” Jade explained. “A bunch of people have gone missing lately.” She bit her lip. As Jane’s assistant, she had stripped the sheets off beds, put all personal items into attic storage, and looked up family addresses or phone numbers for Jane’s messages to heartbroken parents. She’d found solace in her work thinking their vanished housemates had gone to what, for them, would be a better place. Now, at the suggestion that they might not have, her routine of laundering linens and labeling boxes with curling Sharpie script felt morbid. “That’s why we had so many spare rooms,” she said in a whisper.

Rose heard Jade’s voice tremble, and she knew they’d come to the same conclusion. “We assumed they found doors back to their worlds. If they fell into some that weren’t suited for them, things could have gotten nasty.”

Kanaya didn’t mind the bright Earth sun. She’d left nothing but loneliness behind. (And seven names next to a chat window, pulsing.) “It worked out alright for us.”

“It wouldn’t have if you’ve landed anywhere else, trust me.” Rose considered bringing up the vivisection again, but she settled for a broader metaphor. “Imagine being forcibly shoved into a container that’s the wrong shape for you. To worlds can be particular. If Dave and I had traded places, for example…”

Dave slouched down in his chair, his typical response to anyone bringing up Cinder. “I’d be dead, and Rose’d be a warlord, probably.”

“I would endeavor to be a benevolent tyrant.”          

Jane had been channeling her Nonsense energy into kitchen clean-up, but now she broke in. It was important that they understand. “The worlds children journey to are suited to them, even if that match relies on traits they don’t always treasure.” She ran dishwater-wet fingers over the calluses on her hands. Sometimes, those traits were better off left behind. “A mismatch could be fatal. I hope you’re wrong. I hate to think I couldn’t protect the children I’ve boarded here.  This is where they came to recover, not to lose themselves again.”

Kanaya sighed. “I wish you’d told us this earlier, Karkat.”

“I had a lot on my mind, ok?” He scowled. “Besides, you didn’t advertise your travel guide for unrepentant xenophiles.”

Her cheeks turned faintly green. “That was private.”

“Oh, so now the circumstances differ, do they? How very fucking convenient.”

“If Kanaya didn’t talk about her notebook because she had a flushcrush on the author,” Terezi said speculatively, “then if you didn’t talk about this, does that mean —”

Now it was Karkat’s turn to recoil. “Don’t your legal books say something about slander? Stop trying to stir up gossip that doesn’t exist, you’re embarrassing yourself.”

“I second that,” Kanaya added.

“Flushcrush?” Rose asked.

“Dammit,” said Kanaya into the table.

Terezi rapped her knife on her glass for order. “It seems people have been keeping a lot of secrets. This whole case reeks of deceit. I only hope nothing left unsaid proves vital to a final ruling.”

“Now that you mention it, their story sounds kind of like what happened in my world.” Jade hesitated. She hadn’t shared many of the details of her final day on Prospit with anyone. Even her admission to Karkat had been rare. The visual of the world crumbling around her head seemed so final, and she wanted to believe she was going back. “The sky breaking, people falling out of their universe… I didn’t see any big flashing monsters, though.”

Rose nodded. “Before everything started, did you see any of those cracks like the one John came through? Did anyone arrive who shouldn’t have?”

“No, but I was sleeping, so I could’ve missed plenty.” She laced her fingers together and squeezed. It seemed like she’d been missing a lot.

Dave knew what it meant when Rose’s tone turned speculative. “Do you think it’s going to happen here?”

“I don’t know.” Rose winced as she used her least favorite phrase. In the Circle, those words marked another gap that would need to be filled by giving more of yourself away. “Maybe, but maybe my tinfoil hat is on too tight again. It’s an occupational hazard.”

“That’s enough speculation for tonight,” Jane said, voice crisp. If Rose was right, there wasn’t much they could do about it. If she wasn’t, they were working themselves up for nothing. She’d learned, both by being an heiress and abandoning that role, how to identify a no-win situation. “John is here for a party, and he’s going to have one.” If it was going to be John’s last night here, she thought, at least it would be happy. She couldn’t protect children when they traveled in other worlds, or protect children from them. All she could do was keep this place, her own central point between the axes, stable.

If nothing else, time in other worlds had taught her guests to bounce back. They watched movies while tossing popcorn at each other and trying to catch it in their mouths (Dave held the current record). Jade tried on John’s joke glasses until he snatched them back, while Rose balanced magnets on her upper lip to make brightly colored mustaches. When Kanaya fell asleep first, John squirted shaving cream into her hand, tickled her nose, and got a groggy punch in the shoulder for his efforts. Terezi held a flashlight under her chin and told ghost stories no one else had heard. It was John’s liveliest birthday yet.

It would get livelier.

Long after the last of them had fallen asleep, the first bright cracks snaked across the sky like an early dawn. Jade woke into her persistent nightmare and at first didn’t realize it was real. The others woke too, as the breaks spread through the air and the ground, setting the whole building shaking.

John sat up in his sleeping bag, fake glasses sliding off his face. “What should we do?”

“I don’t know,” Rose whispered.

No one had time to do anything. Jane Egbert’s Home for Wayward Children came apart like smashing a child’s dollhouse, and its contents plummeted between the worlds. Rose’s copy of her notebook would resurface half-buried in an alien desert, waiting to be picked up. Kanaya’s copy would resurface somewhere else. Karkat and Dave landed on an ashen landscape Dave had hoped to never see again. Rose and Kanaya tumbled to a halt in a world wreathed in rainbows. John and Jade found themselves floating in a void scattered with drifting hunks of golden rubble. And Terezi sat up on a grassy hilltop with her nostrils full of the smell of lightning.

“Pyrope,” said the woman who’d seen her arrive. “You’re back?”

 

Chapter Text

Trolls didn’t have sisters, but Terezi did.

When they were younger, she and Vriska swapped blood to make each other honorary hatchmates. They did everything together, including some things Terezi would later regret. After one victorious and bloody FLARP campaign, they were crouched in their forest hideout sorting through loot when Vriska spotted a glint between two gnarled tree roots. There had always been a gap there nearly big enough to squeeze through, but now something shone in its depths.

“That could be pirate treasure,” she said, and Terezi, whose greater caution was often overwhelmed by Vriska’s sense of adventure, crawled in after her.

The tree was bigger than it should have been, and when they came out the other end, they were somewhere else. Thunder rumbled from clouds overhead. Tall grass rippled in the wind. They didn’t have much time to take in the unfamiliar sight. Three figures approached them over the crest of a hill, and Terezi heard rustles behind them suggesting they were surrounded.

The two groups observed each other, the way Terezi was used to FLARP teams sizing each other up before a game. Then, one woman carrying a thick wooden club stepped forward. Beyond her build, she didn’t look anything like a troll. Her skin was a weathered brown, her hair darker but not quite Alternian black. When she spoke, her teeth weren’t all pointed. “Did you just get here? If you don’t want to stay, turn around and go back the way you came, and we’ll pretend we didn’t see you. Otherwise, follow me.”

“We don’t have to go anywhere with you,” Vriska started, but Terezi nudged her shoulder. Vriska didn’t like being bossed around, but sometimes it was smarter to play along. This was an adventure, after all, and they didn’t want to get thrown out right away. Besides, Terezi liked the look of the woman in charge. There were enough smile lines around her eyes that she asked politely, “Where will you take us?”

“To the good doctor,” the woman said, saying good in a way that suggested anything but. “It’s part of the arrangement.”

“The doctor?” Terezi asked.

“You’ll meet him soon enough,” she said, and then she pressed her lips together and wouldn’t answer any more questions.

The group led the girls to a mansion painted a sickly green. Most of their accompaniment fell back, but the woman rapped firmly on the door, and it creaked open to reveal no one there. That didn’t seem to surprise her, and she walked in before looking over her shoulder. “Come on, you two. He doesn’t like people keeping him waiting, for all he brags about being patient. He says it bores him.”

Vriska and Terezi climbed curving stairs to reach a tower room. In it waited… a man. That was the best word for him, although Terezi didn’t think it fit. She hadn’t yet learned to smell her way through the world, but he was too pale, and he held himself with unnatural stillness. Later, she would realize his chest didn’t rise and fall with breath.

“New arrivals,” he said. “It’s interesting how they so often come in pairs.” He had addressed those words to the woman, but now he looked at the two girls. “I apologize if Rouge treated you too roughly. Given my knowledge of her typical behavior, I can almost guarantee that was the case. She wasn’t brought up with proper manners. I, on the other hand, pride myself on being an excellent host.”

“She was way too pushy,” Vriska said with highblood pique. “Don’t you teach people around here how to treat visitors with respect?”

He smiled. Terezi noticed he had sharp teeth, like a seadweller. It was the only part of him that was familiar. “Respect is due to those with the inner strength to ask for it. I can tell your blood is strong. Both of yours.” He sighed. “It’s always a shame, having to give one of them away.”

“It’s the agreement,” Rouge said.  Her voice was calm, but Terezi saw her rest her hand on something at her belt.

“Of course.” He steepled his fingers. “Listen carefully as I lay out the terms. I am going to invite one of you to stay with me. You can think of me as… an indulgent uncle, training a protégé to take over my estate. Based on what I know of conduct in other universes, I can reasonably assert that you will be treated better here than you ever have been. Many of our visitors come from rough, brutal worlds, and outside my doors you’ll find more of the same. I can offer you a much more optimal experience. Unfortunately, the local rat-catcher demands a trainee as well. She won’t be as excellent a host.”

“We can’t stay with you together?” Vriska asked. The sisters had moved closer together instinctively at the words ‘one of you’. “Why not?”

He shrugged elegant shoulders. “Our pact requires an even division.”

Vriska crossed her arms. “That’s stupid.”

He smiled. “I don’t disagree. One day it could be changed. There are always new days, and nothing lasts forever, not even me, although I will last… a very long time. But for now, we must abide by the rules, however unpalatable they may be.”

Terezi had kept quiet, taking everything in, and now she hesitated. She didn’t like the doctor, no matter what he said, but she didn’t like leaving Vriska either. She wanted to stay, Terezi could tell, but would she be safe there?

Scourge Sisters were tough. And no one had said she couldn’t visit. “I’ll go with Rouge,” she said.

“As you wish.” The man waved a hand. “Take the spare away.”

“But we’ll see each other,” Terezi said quickly, eager to make that part of the agreement too.

“Oh,” he said, “I’m sure you will.”

Rouge was not actually the rat-catcher, although she heard that nickname sometimes from those she’d angered. She was the town-reeve, tasked with keeping the peace, resolving disputes, and balancing the wills of the manor and the people it oversaw. Terezi boarded with her and her wife, a plump and cheerful woman with silvery-blue hair and the suggestion of scales under her skin. There were all kinds in the village: shapeshifters who slunk into the woods wearing animal skins, gaunt types who had lost one life but gained another through lightning strike, witches who concocted both medicines and poisons using herbs plucked from the woods. Some had been born in the Moors; others hadn’t. Terezi even saw a fellow Alternian once visiting on a market day. Rouge brokered a peace between them all, and Terezi learned to do the same: enforcing regulations, breaking up small fights, and banishing the worst offenders using Rouge’s wooden truncheon that could open doors between the worlds. She thrived under the two women’s care, and her lessons almost made up for the fact that when she knocked at the manor door, no one answered.

It took a while for her to learn what lived there. Townspeople didn’t like to talk about it, in case they drew his attention. It wasn’t for nothing that Rouge encouraged Terezi to keep her eyes and ears open to gather evidence, and in the end, she had to put together the pieces herself.

She was picking up fish for dinner one night when she saw Vriska talking to a saleswoman in the marketplace. She looked… different. Her new finery stood out compared to the rough clothes worn by the people around her. She held herself differently too, and others drew back as she passed. Terezi had seen Vriska gloating over victory or dragging a victim back to her hive, but her sister had never looked this cruel before. Or maybe, she was forced to think later, she’d never noticed it.

“It’s just a little bit of blood, jeez,” Vriska was saying, leaning forward into the woman’s face. “Don’t be such a baby.” She shot Terezi a sharp-toothed smile, like this was a performance for her benefit. “Can you believe this? These people need toughening up.”

“What’s going on here?” Terezi asked, voice unconsciously slipping into the cadence of a lawkeeper.

Vriska rolled her eyes. “Doc needs to eat. He doesn’t watch over this town for charity, you know. It’s a reasonable deal, and everyone has to hold up their part of the bargain.”

Terezi froze, recalling memories of FLARP captives marching to their deaths with Vriska’s power gripping their minds. She’d told herself then that they all deserved it, but Rouge had been teaching her a new kind of justice, one that had little in common with Alternian ideals. “You mean like your lusus?”

Vriska scowled, drumming her fingers on the wooden stall. She hadn’t mentioned her lusus since they left. Terezi had thought of hers sometimes, wondering if the egg had hatched and found her gone. “No, nothing like her. They have it easy here. A little prick and it’s over. I don’t know why they’re so stubborn about it. It’s your turn and that’s final,” she told the saleswoman. “Let’s go.”

The woman turned to Terezi. “Someone in my family was chosen not even a month ago; we shouldn’t be up again so soon. She only picked me because I wouldn’t give her the jewelry she took a fancy to for free.”

The woman sold chunks of rough and polished crystal, including the fluorite Terezi knew Vriska particularly liked. She picked a piece up and rolled it around in her fingers so she had something else to look at. “Is that true?”

“What, you’ll believe her over me?” Vriska demanded. “Do you even know her?”

The Scourge Sisters had always closed ranks against outsiders. They’d sworn to watch each other’s backs. Rogue had tried to teach Terezi about watching out for those lower than yourself, lending your power to those without any power at all instead of basing loyalty on caste and strength. That teaching had started to take, and Terezi realized she couldn’t back her sister up unquestioningly. Not anymore. 

Vriska saw that and sighed. “Some sister you are. Don’t you think I’m better than that?” She reached into her pocket and tossed a few coins onto the stall’s counter. “There’s your payment. I was going to give it to you before Miss Law and Order showed up, even if you should show a bit more gratitude to the people keeping you safe. You’re still on for a visit, though. Buy yourself something nice when you get back. And don’t look at her for help. The rat-catchers can’t do anything about manor business, and you know it.”

Terezi didn’t know what she meant by that, but she reached out and put a hand on Vriska’s wrist. Even if she didn’t say so, Vriska had been glad to get away from her lusus and its monstrous appetite. Before the Moors, she’d shared half-hearted fantasies of running away. “How is this any better than home?”

Vriska yanked her hand away. “At least this time I’m getting something out of it.”

“Why don’t we stop him?” Terezi demanded over dinner.

Rouge looked down at her plate, fists clenched. It was her wife who explained. “Every town on the Moors has a monster. It’s not always a vampire. It can be any number of things. They prey on us, but they also protect us. If he was gone, the monsters of the other towns would fall on us at once. It’s better than devil you know how to deal with than one beyond your control.”

“So he’ll never be punished?” Terezi was used to that on Alternia – the knowledge that some people were forever beyond the law. With Rouge’s new ideals sinking in, she had hoped it would be different here.

Rouge spoke up. “I’m here in case he steps out of line. If he keeps within the terms, we have to wait until his replacement is ready. That’s part of the arrangement too.”

“His replacement?”

Part of Terezi’s training had been to follow the clues, even when the crime was a terrible one. Rouge had no patience for those who couldn’t see past their own convictions. “Who do you think?” she said.

Terezi’s glass crashed to the floor and shattered.

Terezi didn’t speak to her sister for a long time after that. Vriska was good at sulking when she felt insulted. Thoroughly snubbed, Terezi focused on her work. The town kept her busy enough, and none of her cases took her toward the manor, except for one murder she sniffed around until she walked into a curse that scorched her eyes so badly she never saw through them again. Whispers had it that the village master owned relics with power like that, and his protégé knew it, but the reeve and her injured apprentice knew better than to keep hunting. Once Terezi recovered, one of the lupine shapeshifters taught her to experience the world as a tapestry of scent, and she returned to the job more effective than ever.

The next time the Scourge Sisters spoke, it was in a confrontation over the death of a boy.

“He was too weak,” Terezi said. She had asked Rouge permission to be the one who knocked on the manor door, and Rouge had granted it grudgingly. Vriska had had to answer. There were procedures when the agreement was breached to prevent events from spiraling out of control. “You shouldn’t have taken him to the doctor.”

“It’s his fault he was a wimp,” Vriska said. Someone sighted might think her face was composed, but Terezi heard the slightest catch in her voice, smelled something that might have been fear. “Maybe you’ve got fancy ideals, but haven’t you learned by now that Doc gets what he wants? You can’t tell him – you can’t tell us what to do.”

Vriska’s heart still beat. Her teeth were only as sharp as the ones she’d been born with.  “Do you want to end up like him?”

Vriska looked over her shoulder and then stepped closer and lowered her voice. “Look, I’ve been paying attention. I’m learning his weaknesses, where he stashes all of his loot. Maybe you think I’ve turned into a monster, but I’m not letting him bite me. First of all, yuck. I’m going to kill him first, get it? Then we’ll both be heroes to this boring town, and we can take what we want from this place. Scourge Sisters as masters of the Moors, how does that sound?”

How did it sound? Terezi had spent years at Vriska’s side. She could take that position again, using the resources the master left behind and the networks Rouge had built to keep the peace forever. They could sweep away the world’s built-in injustice, fix everything... The vision swelled within her and then withered. No, she thought, thinking about Vriska as a reeve, not as a sister. That’s not what she’s thinking at all. “If you kill him, will you protect everyone here?”

“Why is that my problem?”

Terezi explained, just in case the doctor had never filled his replacement in on the rules of the arrangement. Vriska tossed her head. “I don’t owe these people anything. Let them take care of themselves. They’ve been relying on someone else for too long. If you tried that on Alternia, you’d get culled like that.”

“You owe them after what you’ve been doing. You owe them after sending a child to his death.” Terezi had met with his mother and father (an audience characterized by the salty wet scent of tears) and explained she could do nothing to avenge their son. Oh, officers would pay a visit to the master to remind him of the terms, and of how much wood could hurt if townspeople decided his protection wasn’t worth the cost, but that was it. She owed them something too.

Vriska stepped away from her, back into the doorway. “I thought you’d like it, me being a good guy and killing the master. After all, you hold yourself so much above me these days. Like you weren’t in the thick of it too, killing people back home. You didn’t think you owed those ones anything. Do you think your new boss would’ve thought all that was over the thin blue line?” Anger had a way of obscuring things. Terezi had been trained to discern the truth, to break down people’s lives and discover their secret motivations. Anger meant she didn’t catch the undercurrent of bitter jealousy in Vriska’s words. Anger meant Vriska could hide it. “You act like you’re so much better than me,” she said, “but we’re both doing the jobs they gave us. It could’ve gone the other way.”

Terezi didn’t see it that way, not then. All she saw was two people choosing different paths that brought out the best and worst in them. She saw cause and effect, decisions and their consequences. She couldn’t see her sister’s face. It made everything a little more removed. “We both have to think about consequences here.”

“Booooring.”

Terezi had smelled a trace of fear. It was enough that she made the offer, even though she knew her sister’s pride would never let her take it. “If you want to get away from him, I can take us both home. Rouge taught me how. But if you try to kill him without putting anything in his place, I’ll stop you.”

“Even if you have to kill me?” Vriska said with a laugh. She hadn’t meant it, then. Alone in the manor, dreaming of other days, she hadn’t realized how far they’d grown apart.

Terezi had. “Whatever it takes,” she said.

Terezi knew her sister. Vriska never backed down, especially when someone told her to. So she waited and listened and, when Vriska made for the master’s chambers with a sharpened stake, Terezi was waiting for her. A town without a master wasn’t something the Moors would allow, and it wasn’t something she would allow either.

Terezi killed her sister. Then she opened a doorway, tossed away Rouge’s stolen truncheon, and stepped through. Wrongdoers were banished from the Moors. That was the law, and Terezi Pyrope respected the law.

If she’d met Jane Egbert then, Jane could have told her that the doorways opened into underworlds and afterlives, and death was mostly a matter of location. She might have guessed that she hadn’t seen the last of Vriska Serket bleeding out on the cold manor floor. Instead, she didn’t tell anyone where she’d gone. When people asked about Vriska, she said she’d died and let people fill in the blanks. It was Alternia. There were lots of options for that. And when she and a few friends fell into another world, she pretended it was her first time.

Terezi would have taken her secret to whatever world the dead found their way to, but now she’d found her way to the Moors again instead. As Rouge helped her up, she took a long breath of air always on the edge of storming and wondered what, after her sight and her sister, that world would take from her this time.

Chapter Text

Karkat spat ashes out of his mouth and sat up. Any hope that he’d found his way back home died quickly. A single moon with its light side melted into a flattened expanse of stone hung uncomfortably close in the evening sky. The ground beneath him felt nearly hot enough to burn. “Can I submit a complaint to whatever universal force is busy having a good chuckle over my personal odyssey? I’m getting tired of entering new unsought-after universes posterior pads over teakettle. Earth was bad enough.”

Dave, still face down, groaned in response. Karkat considered prodding him, but decided groaning was better than the alternative. “And are you my designated travel companion? Where can I apply for a refund?”

The two hadn’t gotten along during the trolls’ time at Jane’s school. It was too easy for Dave to get a rise out of Karkat, so he never missed the opportunity. Now, though, he wasn’t in the mood. He risked a glance up to confirm their location and then slumped onto the ground again. “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.”

“I think I have the exclamations of indignant dismay handled, there’s no need to repeat ourselves.” Karkat wiped reddish sweat off his forehead and smeared it onto the underside of his shirt. No inhabitants had shown up yet to meet them, but the environment with its steaming lakes and smoke-choked air felt hostile. With nothing familiar in sight, he decided to temporarily set aside animosity in favor of information. “You humans are experts in this kind of thing, aren’t you? You spent all that time talking about other universes. Where are we?”

Dave levered himself onto his elbows. Ash streaked his face, but he didn’t bother wiping it off. “We’re in Cinder,” he said. “Home sweet home.”

Karkat hadn’t taken notes during group therapy, but the name sounded familiar. “That’s where you went before, isn’t it? So you know how to leave.”

“It’s not that simple. Look, the sun’s setting.” Dave slipped off his shades and tucked them into a pocket. “We’d better get under cover.” He frowned when Karkat didn’t move. “What, did you think these were part of my face or something?”

Karkat shook his head and looked away. “You acted like it. What are they, compensation for your unnatural pigmentation? You humans have so much to make up for, I’m surprised you don’t all go around with bags over your heads.”

“Don’t know who you’re calling unnatural, ET.” Dave didn’t bother putting much hostility into the words. Cinder’s heat had already begun sapping the energy from his limbs. It wasn’t that he wasn’t used to it. That was the problem. He was used to it, and with that same melted moon hanging overhead and the heat burrowing into his bones, it was almost like he’d never left. He’d gotten away from this place. He’d learned. Why would the doorways send him back? “I got used to night vision. Everything back home is too fuckin’ bright. I’d rather look like a tool wearing shades indoors than walk into walls all the time. Now hup hup, think pair share is over and we’re behind enemy lines. Let’s find a good ditch to hide in.”

“What, you can’t handle yourself?” Nonetheless, Karkat tagged along after him. Alternians learned to value safety in numbers, even if you couldn’t trust your neighbor not to turn on you once the external threat was over. “Weren’t you a soldier here?”

Dave didn’t look back. “If you want to call it that.”

“What else would you call it? Oh, I’m sorry, is the correct term ‘human soldier’? My apologies for not catering to your species’ egocentricity.”

“You’re the ones who started that sci-fi novel bullshit, we just kept it up ironically. The blame for unnecessary epithets automatically goes to the species that has Troll Will Smith. Those are the rules down at the Trademark Office.” Dave squinted into a shallow cave in the cliff face. Once he was confident it was empty, he looked over his shoulder and waved for Karkat to follow him in. The nocturnal alien’s eyes shone red in the darkness. Dave remembered plenty of fights starting that way, as the folks’ ragtag army became aware of glowing circles approaching in the dark. He shook off a shudder and tried to pick up the thread of their argument. “I’d call it cannon fodder. Doesn’t matter what world you’re in, the people in charge always need more warm bodies to throw at their latest crusade.”

“Why not?” Karkat ducked to fit under the low-hanging opening. “It’s a good way to prove yourself. Better than scribbling with colored pencils, anyway.”

Dave snorted. Karkat had resented his arts and crafts sessions with Terezi from the start, which he assumed had something to do with convoluted alien romance bullshit. Their time doodling :Y faces and deep-frying jpegs had remained strictly platonic, but he’d left Karkat to sweat over it. That trolling felt pointless now.

“If you’re strong enough on Alternia, no one will give you shit, even if you’re… different.” Karkat sat, arms folded, on a fallen boulder. “Maybe you couldn’t hack it, but I bet if I’d ended up here on my own I’d be promoted to a command position within a sweep. I was hatched ready for leadership.”

Dave leaned against the cavern wall. Greg had said something similar, years ago, when he’d had tried to drag him back home. He’d never sounded like this, had he? He couldn’t have been this stupid. “You’d fit right in alongside all the other suicidal idiots who’ve played Call of Duty too many times. All you’re proving is that you didn’t read the terms and conditions. Whoops, I wanted a new e-mail account or a fun fantasy vacation, but now Google owns my left kidney and I’m an indentured servant. How did that happen?”

“I’ll take it over making unreadable comics and sulking about it.”

“Leave Sweet Bro and Hella Jeff out of this,” Dave began. Then he stiffened and shoved Karkat off his perch to the floor of the cave.

“Get your hands off —” Karkat started. He hadn’t expected the human to be this touchy about his artwork. Before he could finish his complaint, Dave slapped a hand over his mouth.

“Can it. I think something heard you auditioning for an Uncle Sam poster.” At the sound of movement, instincts Dave had spent three years trying to forget had rushed back. That pattern of footfalls this deep into dusk meant something other than a member of the firefolk or one of their recruits was on the prowl. Based on its tread, it would be one of the iguana-like monsters smaller than him, quick-moving but easier to subdue as long as he stayed away from its skin. If it saw them and got away, though, it would come back with friends. He had to keep that from happening.

He jumped out of the cave. The monster shrieked as he smashed into it, and he brought his knees up to absorb the impact and keep his bare face shielded. They both landed with a thud that sent ash exploding into the air. Dave coughed, lungs rebelling after three years of cleaner breathing, and the monster wriggled out from beneath him. He swore as it grabbed his wrist with reptilian fingers that froze to the bone. It hissed at the contact and reached its other hand toward his face.

Then Karkat slammed into it from the side, breaking its grip and bowling it over. Dave fell sideways, slicing his cheek on an exposed ridge of rock. He ignored that and rubbed feeling back into his arm while getting up to help, but Karkat had already planted himself solidly on the monster’s chest. “Don’t let it touch you,” he said.

“You don’t need to tell me that.” Karkat adjusted his seating and winced. “These things run colder than a Tyrian.”

Before, Dave had always had a weapon. Now, he tugged the stone that had cut him out of the ground to finish the monster off. When he stepped forward, though, it did something the things he’d fought had never done before. It spoke.

“Don’t.”

Dave dropped the rock. He’d done it out of surprise rather than mercy, but the monster seemed to take it as a good sign and lay limply under Karkat’s weight. Its eyes were fixed on his, irises glowing with reflected moonlight. “You’re too warm,” it croaked, “but you live by the moon. Not like the burning ones. You can’t believe their great lie.”

“Give me a break,” Dave said. Maybe he hadn’t known these things could talk, but he knew they could hurt you. It wasn’t worth wasting time on them or their cryptic bullshit. What if more came by?

“Let it talk,” Karkat said. “I’m of the opinion that since I’m in control of the captive, I get to dictate the terms of the conversation.”

“Your ass is in control of the captive.”

“My ass is still a better conversationalist than you.” Karkat shifted his position so their prisoner could breathe more easily. “Continue.”

“They destroy everything that lives in darkness,” it rasped. Its beaded chest rose and fell with strained breaths. Flowers of frost formed, melted, and reformed on its skin. “They angered the core of their world and melted our home.” Its eyes strayed to the moon, where the stony face had been distorted by some ancient heat. During long night shifts staring up at the sky, Dave had wondered if there’d been a meteor, sometime. “We want the cold again.”

“Did you get this story before?” Karkat asked Dave.

He rubbed his arm, where white fingerprints circled his wrist. “No, but I got plenty of scars off these bastards.”

“The burning ones send ones like you with hard scales and metal claws. We send them back.” A thin tongue flicked out and then retreated. “We have no one to help us. Help us, so we can be free.”

Dave kicked the chunk of rock he’d dropped. His toes stung. “I’m not being anyone’s toy soldier.”

“Were you even lis —” Uncharacteristically, Karkat stopped mid-rant. “What’s that on your face?”

“Is this a set-up for you to make another crack about my looks? Because I get it. You’re hopelessly attracted to our species and in denial. I get that reaction a lot,” Dave continued as Karkat’s expression shifted from confusion to disgust. “It’s the Captain Kirk effect, you can look it up. He’s our species’ most famous astronaut and a cultural hero, with all sorts of textual records documenting his storied career in alien-fucking.”

“No, fuck off.” Karkat hadn’t noticed at first between the dark and the distractions, but blood trickled from the cut on Dave’s cheek. It was a shallow but obvious line of red. “You’re bleeding.”

Dave swiped at his cheek. Sure enough, his fingers found a streak of wetness. “What, have you never seen blood before?” He paused. “Do you bleed? Don’t tell me you do something nasty like melt into slime or pop like the world’s worst piñata. Some of these jokers do that, it freaked me the hell out.”

“Do all humans bleed that color?”

Dave eyeballed Karkat for early indications of slime. “Do you not?”

“No,” Karkat said. “I bleed exactly like that.”

He watched as Dave shrugged and wiped his hand on his pants without any sense of caution, leaving behind a visible smear. A whole planet full of people with cherry blood. Of course John hadn’t said anything. To him, Karkat was normal. No one on Earth was watching for the wrong color in your blood, sweat, or tears. Nobody cared. What would it be like to grow up like that? You wouldn’t need to prove anything, because there wasn’t anything wrong.

Did that mean there wasn’t anything wrong with him either?

He scooted off his prisoner. “You said the last group you got involved with here was bad news. So I think we should listen to this one.”

“And what? Switch sides every time we get a semi-convincing sob story?” Dave glared at the iguana-creature as it shifted position, and it froze. “Get stuck in an endless turf war? Like Jesus, fire versus ice is some sort of primal shit. It’s an endless cycle, even if I’m pretty sure by Pokémon rules fire comes out ahead.”

“It’s endless when it’s just them, but some new recruits could stop it. I told you,” Karkat insisted. “I’ve got schoolfeeding. I’ve been prepared for wars like this.”

“How do we know?” Dave snapped. “How do we know who’s telling the truth, or if it’s worth us getting sucked into it? People tell you what the right thing is, and then you have to live with it, or else you’re locked up for insubordination or chucked down the stairs. I believed the folk were the good guys, but I don’t believe I deserve to be involved in it anymore. And maybe you’re the world’s biggest pain in the ass and chomping at the bit to reenact one of John’s shitty action movies, but I don’t think you do either. I don’t think anyone deserves to.”

People tell you what the right thing is. Karkat opened and closed one hand, where under his skin pulsed blood he’d grown up knowing was the wrong color. Tell people a story, give them something to rise above, and point them in the right direction. It was an effective way to wage a war. It had worked on him. “What about everybody else? If you’ve figured it all out, do you leave them fighting a war you think is pointless? You could draw a comic about it later. I bet you could get a lot of hilarious misspellings out of ‘abdication of moral responsibility.’”

Dave remembered Greg lingering in the doorway, a thirteen-year-old talking about being a hero. He’d realized later that he hadn’t been any older when he first stumbled into Cinder with a chip on his shoulder and swordplay calluses on his hands. He had been that stupid. But he’d believed in things more, too.

He crouched down by their former captive, staying out of arms reach. “Listen. I’m not helping you fight this war. It’s not mine. But I’ll even the odds a little. No more kids fighting, anywhere. How’s that?”

Slowly, eyes darting between them, the creature sat up. Then it nodded.

Chapter Text

Kanaya noticed the light before anything else. It had been night on earth, with the only illumination coming from the red numbers of the digital clock on top of the television. The world she and Rose had landed in was filled with daylight. Sunshine streamed over manicured flower beds that marched along the dirt lane they’d fallen into. Rainbows arced overhead, even though she didn’t see any signs of rain. “This is beautiful,” she said, watching a butterfly perch on an enormous lily.

Rose sat up and dusted herself off. “I wouldn’t put too much stock in appearances. A lot of worlds look nice to pull you in.”

Kanaya had read all the stories Rose wrote down, those with happy endings and those without. She’d liked to imagine herself in the shoes of some children who’d gone wandering. Others she wouldn’t have switched places with for anything. “Did yours?”

“No.” The Circle hadn’t looked welcoming, and that itself was its allure. After watching her mother place doilies on unused end tables and spend thousands of dollars on picture frames, Rose welcomed someplace uninterested in presentation. It felt more honest about how much it valued her. “It didn’t need that to catch me.”

The implication of the ‘me’ stung. “And you think I’m shallow enough to be ensnared by such simple tactics.”

“That’s not what I meant.”

“Don’t worry about it.” Kanaya got to her feet. The sun felt warm on her skin. “Or me.”

“Right.” Rose pushed her hair out of her eyes, wishing she’d slept wearing her headband. The motion distracted her from her own embarrassment. She hadn’t meant it like that, and she wasn’t sure how to apologize. “Whatever this place is, I’ll be happier when we both get back home.”

“Yours or mine?”

Rose blinked, and Kanaya wondered if she was thinking of how Earth had shattered just like Alternia, and that maybe there wasn’t anything to get back to. Or did she have to be reminded that the two of them didn’t belong in the same place?

“Mine, I meant. Sorry.”

The sorry was a rare enough admission that Kanaya said, “We’re both tired.”

“I’m afraid it’s going to be a long night.” Rose nodded up the path. It led through a picturesque village to a castle perched on a hill. The scene could’ve been plucked from a Disney film. “In a new world, it’s best to go straight to the people in charge. They’ll find you eventually anyway. Taking the initiative is our best chance of getting out of here before we get drafted into someone’s prophecy.”

“Lead the way,” Kanaya said. A family of bluebirds alighted on a fence post near her and burst into song. Rose rolled her eyes.  

Two young women stood guard at the castle gates. “Take us to your leader,” Rose said before Kanaya could think of how to introduce herself. She thought for a moment and then sighed. “Genre conventions suggest they’re probably expecting us.”

One of the girls lifted a set of panpipes hanging around her neck and played a quick trill. Neither gave any further response.

“Were we supposed to respond to that?” Kanaya asked.

“I’m afraid I left my violin at home,” Rose said.

“I neglected to bring any talent.”

They grinned at each other before the gate opened. One of the guards piped another melody, and the other gestured for the girls to follow her.

“They want us to go inside,” Kanaya said. Pointing that out was unnecessary, but it made her feel better. If she narrated what they were doing, like one of the records in Rose’s notebook, it made the whole thing more like a story. It provided the illusion of control.

“I wonder if this place is called Hamelin,” Rose quipped, and offered her arm. “Shall we?”

Her earlier remarks still hurt, but Kanaya didn’t know anyone else in this strange new world. She wasn’t going to throw away the allies she had. She took Rose’s arm and squeezed.           

The castle’s throne room glowed with multicolored light filtering in through stained glass windows. Courtiers with more hair shades than a troll anime episode drifted between clusters of conversation, whispering behind gloved hands. Music filled the air as servants received blown orders and piped their responses, their lips moving smoothly between the reeds. The woman on the throne outshone it all. She wore a gown of billowing fabric dyed in shifting colors. Shimmering wings extended from her back. Kanaya crossed her arms over her chest, conscious she was wearing a nightgown Jane had picked up from Target. Rose had fared a little better in her squiddle-print shorts and black camisole, but a scarf she’d been working on was wound around her neck and shoulders. Two needles poked out of the yarn near her left ear.

“Kanaya,” the woman said. Her voice sounded as musical as the piping they’d been heralded with. “We’ve been waiting for you.”

In her self-insert fantasies, Kanaya would have said something gracious and eloquent in response. In real life, her response was, “Um. You have?”

“Of course.” The guards had introduced the world’s leader as the rainbow princess, and she lived up to her name. As she leaned forward, light played off her dress, sending even more shafts of color around the room. The effect was dizzying. “We are always looking for more young women to join our retinue, and we could use a skilled seamstress such as yourself. Your path here wasn’t as direct as we could have hoped” – even dazzled, Kanaya felt that was an understated way to describe her tumble between dimensions – “but no matter now. Come back to our chambers, and we will discuss everything.”

“You want me?” Kanaya asked, still stuck on that point. She’d been wanted back home, sort of. She’d been born into a caste with a role she was expected to play. None of that valued who she was, or the skills she’d worked so hard to gain. No one had ever recognized her as herself. “You’re sure?”

“We are always sure,” the princess said, and the courtiers nearest to her bobbed their heads in agreement. “Prism is a world of order. There is a place for everything and everything in its place, and this is the place for you. You are precise. Careful. Controlled. You’re perfect.”

Rose snorted, and the princess’s smiled faltered. “We weren’t expecting your companion.  She seems better fit for some other world. She would go to a dark one, most likely.”

Rose plucked at the fabric of her camisole. “Color-coded costuming and morality. This is old school fantasy, isn’t it?”

The princess frowned. “She can wait out here until we are finished and have the time to decide what to do with her.”

“She’s my guest,” Kanaya said. She’d been a guest in Rose’s home for so long, it seemed only right to return the favor. “Can’t she come with me?”

“She wasn’t chosen. Rules are rules. You understand that.” The princess stood, before Kanaya could say that she didn’t understand, exactly, because no one had given her a rulebook yet. “I will be waiting for you in my chambers.”

Kanaya watched the princess sweep off, envying her poise and those beautiful wings. Trolls grew them in films and novels sometimes, but you could never dream of it in real life. “I suppose I should go with her,” she said. “It’s important to earn the trust of key figures here. Didn’t you say something like that?” 

Rose pushed her bangs away from her face again. Kanaya wondered if she was aware of how often she did that while thinking. “That’s our way in. But be careful. Nothing comes for free. If someone offers you something, they want something from you. Even my own mother operated that way. At least in the Circle they were upfront about it.”

Before, Kanaya would have yielded to the writer of the notebook without question. But Rose’s mercantile view of things didn’t match up with the warm welcome she’d received. The princess hadn’t demanded anything. She’d only offered – more than anyone had offered to Kanaya before. Did Rose think she didn’t deserve that, since she assumed the princess’s gift must come with a hidden price tag? She’d already implied she was a fool. “Is it that out of the question that someone values my company? Maybe your paranoia is the real reason no one wants to spend time with you without ulterior motives.”

Rose opened her mouth. Then she shut it again, digging her fingers into the wool of her scarf. “If you feel that way, you should run along. You wouldn’t want to miss your meal ticket, would you?”

Kanaya had regretted her words as soon as she spoke them, but Rose’s coolness inspired her own. “I’ll go where I’m wanted,” she said, and then turned to follow the princess. She belonged in Prism. It was a world designed to make her happy.

Why didn’t she feel happier?

“You settled things with your guest,” the princess said when Kanaya joined her. She didn’t seem inclined to ask questions.

“She’s not really my guest,” Kanaya said. “She can take care of herself. At least, she certainly seems to think so.”

“We’re glad to hear that.” The princess stroked her perfect chin with one elegant nail. “That girl is dangerous. Rule-breakers can cause all sorts of trouble.”

Kanaya knew that. Vriska had left a trail of devastation in her wake. (Even if she claimed she’d had nothing to do with Aradia, and no one had ever found a body.) Then she’d disappeared too, leaving Terezi changing the subject whenever it arose. Dangerous people broke your heart – or your bones. Life was simpler without them.

But they were interesting, too. All her favorite novels starred heroes who veered away from what society demanded. Kanaya had dreamed of being brave enough to follow in their footsteps. She forced that out of her mind. Serving a princess would be interesting enough.

They had come into a dressing chamber, where the finery dazzled her eyes. Workers cut bolts of fabric in more colors than she could name. Boxes of sequins and gemstones blinked from every corner. Her fingers itched to pull out a needle. The princess beckoned, and another serving girl scurried over holding a dress draped over one arm. “We think this will suit you,” the princess said. “Try it on.”

Kanaya did, and the fabric rippled down her body. The colors took her breath away. So did the cut – it hugged her more tightly around the chest and legs than she was used to, since she always kept her skirts loose and full for easy running. She wouldn’t need that here, she told herself, and tried to breathe more shallowly. “It’s beautiful.”

“We treasure beautiful things here.” The princess smiled at the serving girl still waiting wordlessly at her elbow, who bent into a shallow bow. “We’re sure you have noticed our gardens.”

“I garden a little myself, but nothing that perfect. Oases have their limits.” First person plural or not, Kanaya doubted that the princess did any gardening herself. She couldn’t imagine dirt crusted under the woman’s fingernails.

“The secret is pruning away anything blemished. One blighted leaf can spoil a bed. It’s a principle that extends well beyond plants. There are some eyesores on the edges of our kingdom that need similar attention.” She pouted prettily. “But you won’t have to worry about anything like that.”

“What will I worry about?” Kanaya asked. Members of the jade caste didn’t have to interview for jobs. They knew their life’s purpose at birth. This was different. Should she have brought a portfolio? A resume? Were the other girls watching her, measuring her up the same way they pulled tape along their strips of fabric?

“Oh, managing our wardrobe, making more beautiful things. Important duties.” She frowned as more piping reached them. “We’re being called to sit in judgment. Remain here. There is no need for you to be exposed anything so unsavory.”

Kanaya looked around the huge room, staffed only by more silent girls with panpipes around their necks. She didn’t want to be left alone so soon. With her fellow traveler gone, she had no anchor at all. Her fingers tingled with the ghost of her grip on Rose’s arm. “I don’t mind coming. It can’t hurt to have a better understanding of this place, particularly if I’m going to call it my home.”

“Intermixing roles can blur distinctions. But if you’re sure.” The princess paused, and when Kanaya didn’t say anything, a crease formed between her delicate eyebrows. “Very well. Come along.”

In the main hall, a man in working clothes knelt before the throne, face angled downward. His dull jacket made him look like a stain on the marble floor. A few courtiers had gathered near the edges of the room, watching from a distance. Serving girls moved through them with trays of sandwiches and brightly colored glasses. Kanaya saw Rose lurking in an alcove and looked away.

The princess settled into her throne and then looked down at the man at her feet. All warmth in her face vanished. “You are charged with speaking with a goblin,” she said. “You gave it food from our kingdom.”

“For fair price,” the man told the floor. “My family is hungry. Trade has been slow.”

“In Prism, there is good and there is evil. You must be able to identify the lines between the two.” The princess tapped her nails on the arm of her throne. “If you are so eager either to deal with goblins, we will leave you to it.”

Kanaya saw the man look up, the start of hope transforming his features. Then she realized it was more than a change of expression. His whole body was shifting, crumpling in on itself and distorting. His clothes sagged inward, draping over a smaller frame. He looked at his gnarled hands and shrieked.

“The punishment for a goblin entering my borders is, of course, death,” the princess said, ignoring his whimpers. “But we are gracious. We will give you half an hour’s head start.”

When the princess returned to her rooms, Kanaya remained standing in the hall, eyes fixed on the spot where the man had knelt. Around her, the staff discussed what they’d seen, but she didn’t hear horror or surprise. This must be routine. The knowledge crept like ice down her spine, locking her in place. When someone touched her on the shoulder, though, she jumped.

“Did you enjoy the show?” Rose asked. She held a hot pink drink in one hand. “I found it very educational. I assumed we were in a Wicked world, but it’s always good to be sure.”

At the sight of a familiar face, that frozen feeling melted, and Kanaya felt herself go limp with relief and shame. “You were right,” she said. “I should have listened.”

“You’re not the first to be swept away by a pretty face. And I shouldn’t have been so busy nursing my injured pride that I let you walk into the lion’s den.” Rose surveyed the lingering palace staff and then announced, casually as planning a vacation, “It seems court may not be good for our health. Would you like to leave?”

Kanaya’s vision was pulled, magnetically, back to that polished spot of marble. “She could turn me into something unnatural.”

Rose pursed her lips. “I don’t think so. Miracle children are valuable because we’re not from the worlds they find their way too. That means the people here don’t have the same hold on us. It makes us powerful, and dangerous.”

Powerful and dangerous. Kanaya might be a dab hand with a chainsaw, but she’d never thought of herself in those terms before. It felt nice. “Alright,” she said. “If we can find a way.”

“About that.” Rose fiddled with her glass. “I was thinking —”

Faint piping echoed down the hallway before she could continue. Kanaya recognized it as a summons, but she didn’t respond. The princess reappeared, her forehead crease more pronounced. “Kanaya. This isn’t the place for you.”

“You’re right.” Kanaya took a breath. She’d been hoping to avoid a confrontation, but manners were manners. A setting this nice deserved them. “I am indebted to you for your gracious hospitality, but I’m afraid I must respectfully decline your offer of employment. My guest and I will take our leave without troubling you any further.”

Everyone in the throne room stopped. Kanaya heard a tinkle as a fork slid off a platter listing in a serving girl’s hand and hit the floor. The princess gathered herself first. Light from a nearby window washed her face in a bloody glow. “You scorn my offer. Without me, you are nothing.”

Kanaya shook off her politeness. Some people didn’t deserve it, however much gilt they might brush on. “How could I accept? You’re a monster. And,” she added, “a very uninspired gardener.”

One of the serving girls tittered. Kanaya couldn’t tell which one, so she hoped the princess couldn’t either. The woman stepped back and sank into her throne, moving from red light to a blue that made her face look corpse-pale. The palace staff fell silent. “As soon as I chose you, you became a member of my court. Outside my radiance, you will fade.” 

Powerful and dangerous, Kanaya reminded herself. Act like it’s true. “I’m willing to take that risk.”

The princess tapped her nails on the arm of her throne. The people around her flinched. “Your kind has something called rainbow drinkers. I think you’ll find our version much more literal. What would be more amusing, I wonder. We could set out a royal hunt for the realm’s newest monster, or toss you into a covered well and watch you shrivel.”

“Could I suggest a third option?” Rose tipped her glass, and glutinous pink liquid spattered on to the ground.

“For you, there is one,” the princess said. “You will need to be removed.”

“I’m ahead of you on that one.” Rose knelt down and, with a few sweeping movements, drew crude lines in the mess. “This is a magic world, isn’t it?” A smile spread across her face. It was the kind of expression Kanaya had seen Terezi make when an argument was as good as won. “Which means I’m back online. Hang on,” she advised, and Kanaya only had time to grab her shoulder before Rose slammed a hand to the floor and her impromptu spell circle lit up with purple light.

A moment later, there was no light at all.

Chapter Text

Once he realized he wasn’t in his grandmother’s house, John also realized he wasn’t standing on anything. Like Wile E. Coyote belatedly noticing he’d run off a cliff, he yelped and began to fall. Jade grabbed him by the arm before he had a chance to resign himself to dying like a cartoon character. “You can fly as long as you believe you can,” she said. “That’s how it works here. Prospit is a Nonsense world.”

John tried to draw on dreams of lightness as he dangled from her grip, shoulder already beginning to ache. Everyone imagined being able to fly as a kid, didn’t they? Jade was hovering right next to him, so it had to be possible. Cautiously, he tugged his arm away and hung in the air, weightless. Around him floated chunks of rubble dotting a void lined with flickering cracks. Nothing in sight looked like the stories Jade loved to tell about flower-lined streets and gracious queens. “This is Prospit?”

“What’s left of it.” Jade wobbled in the air as heaviness filled up her insides. She liked to remember her world the way it had been when she lived there. When she dreamed of finding her way back, her fantasies always returned to that untouched Prospit. Maybe, she’d imagined, she would get there just in time. She hadn’t allowed her thoughts to stray toward what might be left if she didn’t. Now she didn’t have to imagine. She was there. “We should get our bearings. We can work out where we are based on…” Her words trailed away. Based on what? All the landmarks were gone. Even the sky had changed. “We should keep moving, at least. Whatever it was that attacked us might come back.”

“Right.” John glanced over his shoulder. The cracks they’d passed through were gone. “You don’t think it’s following me, do you?”

“You weren’t here before.” Jade tried to imagine them both in Prospit’s better days to wipe away the reality in front of her. “I wish you had been. I would’ve had so much fun showing you around.”

“That would’ve been nice. Having adventures in new worlds is always a good time.” As soon as he spoke, John plummeted ten feet, his glasses sliding to the end of his nose. “Whoa. I think gravity’s working again.”

“Gravity doesn’t just pull down, you know,” Jade said, angling herself and drifting down toward him. “Everything has gravity, but it pulls toward whatever has the greatest mass. The thing exerting the strongest gravitational force here would be…” She had to stop again. Her only options were variably sized hunks of rubble. Suddenly she fell too, regaining her balance a few feet beneath John.

“Is this part of flying you didn’t tell me about?” he asked. “Do you have power outages?”

Jade closed her eyes. She had to stay focused. She had to stay positive, damn it; it was no good losing her head in a crisis. She ground her teeth together, but then she lost more altitude, and her thoughts took on a tinge of panic. Come on, you stupid baby. She did this as a little kid, and now she couldn’t anymore? Some genius she was.

John saw Jade screw up her face and rocket down in irregular spurts. This couldn’t be how it was supposed to work. Why were all the worlds he went to so crappy?

A lump of rubble formed out of golden bricks, part of a fallen wall, and half a railing floated not far from them. John half-floated, half-paddled toward it, losing more height as he went. By the time he got close enough to reach, his fingers barely brushed the bottom edge. “Over here,” he called.

Jade’s eyes snapped open. She jetted toward him, catching him and carrying them both in a wide arc. Then gravity reasserted itself once more, and they smashed into the bricks.

John lay there and caught his breath. Solid ground was good. Worlds with solid ground were definitely going to be on the top of his personal list. He wondered what Rose would think of that kind of categorization system.

As her cousin recuperated, Jade rested her head in her hands. At Jane’s school, she always strove to maintain a smiling face. Look confident, the queen had told her, and others will find confidence too. Be an example, and be strong. The mandate to “be yourself” took a distant third place. But what did it matter if princesses never showed fear? There was nothing left to be a princess of. “I used to be able to imagine up an extra pair of arms just to play some really complicated bass solos,” she said, talking mostly to herself. “I could fly faster than our shuttles, just by wishing it. Now I can barely float. I’m useless. I was useless then too. What kind of hero sleeps through the end of the world?”

John tossed a piece of stone off their platform. It arced down a few feet before losing its gravity and joining the rest of the floating wreckage. Physics didn’t have to make sense in Nonsense worlds. “My kind, I guess,” he said. “Everyone expected me to be, I don’t know, Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings. Someone with a heroic destiny and a special sword who it was obvious was qualified to save the day.”

“Didn’t the gardener really do that in the end?” Jade lifted her head a bit, peering through her fingers. “I always liked that bit.”

“Ok, maybe I didn’t pick the best example for fantasy tropes. Tolkien didn’t follow as many as you might think he did. How about King Arthur, before he died and stuff?”

“I’ll accept it.” Jade didn’t know much about the Knights of the Round Table or their criteria for heroism, but she didn’t want to divert John too much. He’d never talked about his world beyond the sparest of details, always claiming it was boring. She’d suspected something else must lie beneath those excuses, but she never pressed, and neither did anyone else. Everyone at Jane’s school knew that the story of a wanderer’s journey would come out in their own good time.

John launched another fistful of gravel into the void. “The important point I am trying to make is, they wanted me to be someone who knew what he was doing, and instead they got me.”

Jade watched the now-floating gravel swirl around to form miniature constellations. If you didn’t know where it came from, it could be beautiful. “You never talked much about your world before.”

“It was stupid!” John dragged his hand across the bricks, but he’d run out of things to throw. “Obviously I went through the wrong door or something, I wasn’t a good fit for it at all. I keep going through wrong doors. I wish I could, I don’t know, happen to someplace, instead of all these places happening to me.”

“That makes you sound like a natural disaster.” Jade reached over to ruffle her cousin’s hair. She’d picked up the habit from spending so much time with his grandmother, and it was fun to watch him squirm. The gesture offered a trace of familiarity in her unrecognizable childhood home. At least one other person here was alive. “Hurricane John.”

“Heh.” He ran his hands through the hair she’d pushed down, fluffing it up again. “I wouldn’t be very high on any of the scales they use to measure those things.”

“That’s the best kind of hurricane to have. Trust me, I lived on an island for a while.”

John lay down on his back, staring up at the sky. The flashing of the broken world pulsed off the lenses of his glasses. “I don’t think you could have stopped this. It looks like a really big natural disaster. I’m sure defeating some inter-dimensional world-destroyer wasn’t on your hero job description. Or if it was, you weren’t getting paid enough.”

Jade stretched out next to him. “I wasn’t getting paid at all.”

“Really? I did. Although all the salamanders use bugs as their currency, so usually my money crawled away.”

She laughed despite herself. They’d been missing out while John kept quiet. “Maybe I couldn’t have, but I wish I’d had a chance to try. Or at least a chance to tell everyone I was sorry.”

John looked out at the black expanse. “What happened to everyone here?”

She closed her eyes. Her last sight of Prospitians had been the queen and her courtiers leaving. She’d heard screams in the street, but she hadn’t seen any bodies. She hadn’t stayed long enough. “I never wanted to think about it.”

“The trolls made it to another world. Maybe they did too.”

“The queen was going into exile. I don’t know where. I’m not sure she told me.” Wasn’t that something a princess should know? If it wasn’t worked in her training or her everyday duties, surely that knowledge would be whispered at the last minute, buried in the queen’s farewell. What if she needed to follow them? What if she saved the day and needed to bring them the news? A princess should be prepared for every eventuality.

Had the queen told her? Jade sat up straight, thinking hard. She’d spent so long not dwelling on those final moments that the memories were blurry and indistinct. Now she rifled through them, like digging through desk drawers looking for a paper she feared she’d thrown away. What had happened?

She’d seen the shuttle. Until then, she hadn’t known how serious the situation was. At the bottom of everything, she thought if the queen was still there, everything would turn out alright. It was a child’s confidence – everything will be ok as long as my mom is here. “Where are you going?” she’d asked. “Don’t leave me. I don’t want to be alone again.” Jade hadn’t remembered that before. She’d wanted to think she’d been strong. Instead, she’d been crying. In the present, she reached up to her cheeks, trying to banish tears that were no longer there.  

“We will live out our exile on a world already lost, one that won’t object to our presence.” The queen disentangled Jade’s fingers from her skirts. “That is no place for you.”

“I’ve never seen that,” Jade said, childish pride overriding panic for a moment. She’d done her best to learn everything about Prospit, from the winding catacombs in the center of the planet to the secret passageways that opened if you pulled the right book off the shelf. If there was a way to another world, she would have known about it.

“The portals only open when the planet is threatened,” the queen had told her, and in the present, Jade pushed away the memory before her foster mother could leave her again, before the world as she knew it collapsed. “I know where they went,” she said, and coughed at the roughness in her throat. “Well, not exactly, but I know how to get there.”

“How?” John asked.

She stood up. “We have to make things dangerous.”

It took some searching through the rubble, but at last Jade found a Prospitian ship left mostly intact. She walked through the halls with her stomach flipping every time she looked through a low doorway, but no crew remained on board, either living or dead. John followed her to the bridge. “It’s pretty cramped in here.”

“This is a battleship, not the Enterprise. Crew didn’t pass long journeys on it.” She ran her hands over the dash. Then she flipped a switch on, and somewhere beneath their feet engines hummed to life. “I didn’t get formal training on this model, but I wonder… Don’t touch that!”

John yanked his hand away. “Why? What does it do?”

“I’m not sure.” Jade took a closer look. “Ok, I think that was the lower hatch release, so it wasn’t that big of a deal.” She pressed a button and flinched when a metal cover slammed over the viewport.

“I know I don’t know what I’m doing,” John said as she struggled to raise it, “but I’m starting to think you don’t know what you’re doing either.”

“Of course I do,” she snapped, and pressed another button. Sprinklers overhead spluttered, spat out a few gallons of murky water, and fell silent. Jade wiped sludge off her glasses and sighed. “Ok, maybe I don’t, but I have to. I have to be able to do this.”

“Let me help.” John approached the controls again. “What are you looking for?” 

“The missiles.”

John froze with one hand outstretched. “The what?”

“The escape portals won’t open unless Prospit is in danger. We have to convince the planet that it’s under attack. Or, what’s left of it.” That admission stung, but the pain was like someone shouting from behind a steel door. She had other things to focus on. “But no one taught me how to use this.”

“What about these?” John pointed to a set of switches, each paired with a green light.  “These look kind of like missile launch controls in the movies.”

Jade reached out and touched the icon printed above them. It was fashioned to look like a rook from a chess set – a piece that moved as far as it wanted straight ahead. “I think you’re right.” She set her shoulders. “Take the wheel, bring us around a few degrees.”

All uncertainty had vanished from his cousin’s tone. Resisting the urge to say “Aye, aye, captain,” John took a step forward and nudged the wheel. The nose of the ship swung around. “I guess it’s a good thing I’ve almost got my license. And also that there aren’t any traffic cops out here.”

Jade narrowed her eyes as a rudimentary targeting system blinked on. “I’m not sure exactly what to aim for… Let’s see what some friendly fire will do.” She flicked a switch, and John felt the ship shudder as a missile detached from its hull. The projectile shot forward, blasting between chunks of rubble until it made contact with one and exploded into shrapnel. He ducked, but it all went wide or bounced off the window.

“I’ll try another,” Jade said. “Shift starboard.”

John took a guess and cranked right. Jade fired again, and a big chunk this time burst into pieces. Alarms began to ring from overhead. Something shimmered in the dark. At first it looked like a circle, then a square, then a whole mess of shapes swirling and reforming around each other. At its center, he thought he could see sunlight. Behind it floated the biggest chunk of rubble yet, a whole building with empty doors and windows gaping. “There,” he said.

“I see it.” Jade’s hands hovered over a big lever. “Bring us around that way.”

John dragged on the wheel, and the ship angled toward the portal. Jade pushed the lever forward two notches, and they picked up speed fast enough that his feet slipped backward. “Sorry,” she said. “I didn’t realize how much power this had.”

John clung to the wheel, trying to hold the ship straight. Without any more attacks, the portal was already beginning to fade, its shape-changing slowing down. Jade pushed the throttle up another notch, and he was uncomfortably aware of the building waiting for them on the other side. What kind of brakes did this ship have? “If we don’t make it,” he started to say.

“We’re going to make it,” Jade growled. The portal in front of them had faded into the lightest tracery of lines in the dark, and she pushed the throttle as far as it would go. The ship lurched forward, engines screaming. Right before they hit the portal, she pulled the lever all the way back into reverse. Gears caught, shrieked, and tore somewhere beneath their feet, but the ship kept going. John hugged the wheel and closed his eyes –

– and they skidded to a lopsided halt in desert sand. 

Chapter Text

“It’s good to see you again,” Rouge said, giving Terezi a brief but earnest handclasp. She didn’t mention her stolen truncheon, or the body left bleeding on the manor floor, but both were clear in Terezi’s mind’s eye. Being in the Moors had brought them back. It always would.

“I can’t stay,” she said.

“No,” Rouge agreed. Terezi could envision her eyes flicking toward the manor and then back, the way all villagers let on that the master was on their mind. “The doctor has been angry since you left. He’s taken a few children, and they don’t come back. We’ve warned him, but… the masters of bordering villages have been sniffing at our edges.”

Terezi had seen that pattern before. When threatened by evils they didn’t know, the village turned toward the evil they did. It let the doctor get away with all sorts of things. “We should go inside,” she suggested. That would keep them safe from any prowlers, but more importantly, they could talk more freely.

“You know the way,” Rouge said.

When she walked into her old home, Terezi smelled iron.

“They were out of horseshoes,” Rouge said, seeing her head quest toward the metal over the door. “Not much call for them around here. But a piece off an old plow serves just as well.”

Terezi trailed one finger over a window frame, feeling the grittiness of salt against her skin. “Are you drinking wolfsbane tea yet?”

“No, that would only sow bitterness between neighbors. But rowan’s been planted in the woods.”

She breathed in, but they were too far away for even that strong of a scent to carry. Salt, iron, rowan… Every citizen of the Moors knew charms against creatures that might do them harm. Those same wards repelled many of the citizens as well, so usage was kept to a minimum. If they were coming out again, things must be dire. “You said things from outside have been testing our boundaries. The doctor didn’t do anything?”

“It hasn’t come to that. We’ve handled it ourselves so far.”

Rouge’s wife pursed her lips. Iron wouldn’t kill her, but she kept a healthy distance from the door. “So far.”

“It makes you wonder if he’s actually worth it. Don’t be so scandalized,” Terezi added in response to the citrus-sharp tang of their shock. “Being tossed through dimensions is one way to develop a broader perspective. Sometimes you have to set aside your preconceived notions. Has he ever done anything worth the suffering he’s caused?  Has he ever done anything good at all? He sits around and claims he could, if he really wanted to, but I’ve never been presented with any evidence.”

Unlike the doctor, who’d come from elsewhere centuries ago, Rouge had been born in the Moors. She’d grown up enforcing the law while working around the crimes she couldn’t touch and rationalizing it to herself. Terezi knew it would be more bitter than wolfsbane tea for her to admit that wasn’t good enough. She pressed on anyway. “It’s hard sometimes to understand a world’s not working when you’re on the inside. I didn’t realize that about Alternia until I left. I didn’t realize it here until…” Back in the Moors, she could step into the memory of her last confrontation with Vriska as easily as stepping into a pair of shoes. “One of the reasons I left was because I couldn’t find an alternative between the village having a master and it being destroyed. I did a lot of things wrong because I believed that if I couldn’t see another option, it didn’t exist.” She tapped one of the lenses covering her sightless eyes. “But seeing isn’t everything. There has to be a third option, and I’m going to find it.”

Rouge sat down heavily. “It’s not easy hearing my student putting things so plainly that I’ve known for a long time now. I should be proud.”

Terezi sat down on the other side of the table and flicked away a flake of salt. “Save your pride. I’m doing it with blood on my hands.”

“I know you did what you believed was right.”

“And I was wrong.” Terezi had left without reporting her crime, dreading the town discovering what she’d done. She’d expected condemnation, not understanding. She didn’t deserve mercy. “It would be flattering me to say I made a decision based on faulty logic. I wasn’t using any kind of logic at all. I let emotion rule my judgment, and so I rushed into a bad decision.” If she’d slowed down and thought about it, maybe she could have worked out another way. She had tried later, turning their last standoff over in her mind during the daylight hours when sleep wouldn’t come. At the time, her sense of duty had driven her onward, never giving her space to breathe. “The law means something different in every world. In this one we’re expected to be the balance to what’s in the manor, and everyone else pretends he isn’t there. That means we’re the ones doing all the dirty work that comes up. It’s inevitable we’ll make mistakes.”

“I know,” Rouge said. “It’s not an easy job.” She glanced at her wife, who looked away. Terezi knew a little about the distance she had to keep between herself and the rest of the village. It was a distance mostly expressed in silences: the conversations that didn’t happen, the words that weren’t exchanged. It was amazing how much of a chasm you could fit in the few inches between people.

“It shouldn’t be our job.” Terezi dug her nails into the table. “I killed my sister because I was scared and arrogant and alone. If I was doing it for everyone, I shouldn’t have made that decision by myself.” Vriska had said something similar, hadn’t she? She’d said to let the people in the village take care of themselves. Sure, she’d said it because she didn’t care, but what if you did? What if everyone cared? “They can take care of themselves,” she said, and this time the words meant something different. “You can take care of each other. You already are. The doctor hasn’t done anything to keep this place safe, but you have. You don’t need him at all.”

Rouge sighed. “Even when he stays inside, he’s there. If he’s gone, the others will do more than test us.”

“Maybe they will, but they have to find out what happened first. And if the masters do, so will the people they want to fear them.” During her legal training back on Alternia, Terezi had read about cases that couldn’t be shared. Imperial justices didn’t put on show trials anymore, not after one execution long ago had spurred a movement. Outliers disappeared, so no one believed they were possible. Every legislacerator knew that precedent meant power. “We’ve always believed it was us versus the master with everyone else in the middle. But if it’s all of us against one of him, he’s outnumbered. We don’t have to do it alone.”

Rouge traced the grain on the surface of the table. Terezi had run her fingers over the whorls in the wood many times. It had been something familiar when she first lost her sight, before she’d learned to let scent guide her through the world. Maybe Rouge needed the same kind of anchor. If everyone stood against the master, their role wouldn’t be special anymore. What would that leave her? “That would be a lot of change for anyone here to face.”

“They’d listen to you. If you tell them we’re standing against him, they’ll follow.”

Rouge drew her stake from her belt. Generations of reeves had polished the wood and kept the point sharp. It was a ceremonial duty, but an important one to remind the master they had some measure of power. She held the weapon for a moment and then snapped it over her knee. Terezi flinched. “What are you doing?”

“You’re right.” Rouge set the two pieces on the table. “It can’t be us doing this alone anymore, and that means we can’t stake someone in the shadows and call it justice. Everyone has to be involved.”

With regret, Terezi set aside fantasies of driving the stake into the doctor’s chest. “Are you going to serve him a summons?”

Rouge had always been stoic. Terezi could count on her hands the number of times she’d seen (or smelled) her smile. This was the biggest yet. “I think we should do it together.”

The stairs to the doctor’s room were clean. Terezi shouldn’t have expected any traces of blood to be left, but every breath she took stank of cerulean anyway. The scent had sunk into her memory of this place. By the time they were let inside by a trembling village girl (the doctor’s latest trainee) and Rouge placed the ties on his wrists, Terezi couldn’t feel anything but sick. After they escorted him to the village jail, villagers staring as they passed, she sat with her head between her knees, gulping air.

“I wish I could tell you where she’s buried,” Rouge said, joining her. “But he never told.”

“We don’t bury people who die on Alternia. I’d never heard of a funeral before I came here.” Earth had them too, although there they didn’t worry so much about the dead rising with a taste for blood. Every world differed. “Maybe that would help, or it might drag things out. I haven’t been to enough to say.”

“I hope you don’t for a while longer. You’re too young for it.”

On Alternia, she’d be sent off-planet soon. “I was old enough for you to take me on.”

“And I can’t say I regret it. Maybe I should, but you’ve done good work here.”

Terezi shifted, her nausea threatening to return. The Moors could never mean anything to her now but murder. “Not for much longer.”

“You’ll stay for the trial.” Rouge delivered this as a statement, not a request. “This was your idea, you should see it through.”

Cerulean billowed in her nostrils again, choking her. “I’m not the most innocent person here.”

“Whatever you’ve done, you’re not as bad as him. Trust me,” Rouge said, and graced her with her second smile of the day. “I’m the law here.”

On Alternia, His Honorable Tyranny presided over landmark cases from his reinforced podium and looked over a towering amphitheater for spectators. In the Moors, since they couldn't try a lord of the manor in his own home, they had to use a barn. Terezi spent her time before the trial shooing pigs out of it.

Rouge handled the opening procedures. She read through the oaths given by townspeople willing to talk and reminded everyone of how justice would be done. That, and a glare, settled some of the people who waited, muttering, with chunks of wood in their hands.

The master looked out of place sitting on an upturned crate rather than lurking in front of embroidered curtains. His lime velvet suit had straw stuck to it. Terezi focused on that dusty-scented evidence of his disarray and cleared her throat. “Doctor,” she said. “As you have heard, you are charged with the crimes of racketeering, bodily injury, and murder. There is no one here who will swear an oath of innocence for you, and you are ineligible for ordeal because –”

He cleared his throat, and Terezi stopped talking. She was angry at herself a moment later, but even now he had that much presence over the room. “I’m intrigued by this display of double standards. Surely you don’t expect to condemn me for bloodletting when you killed a citizen on my doorstep.”

Vampires didn’t need fangs to get under your skin. Focus on the case, Terezi thought to herself. He’s like skim milk, pale and translucent, and he smells like he’s close to spoiling. Don’t let him get to you. “If you weren’t in possession of all the facts before, I was preventing her from killing you.”

“Saving me so you could have the honor of disposing of me yourself. What an odd thing to vie over.” He flicked the piece of straw onto the floor and dusted off his shoulder. “It’s a shame, the way your rivalry ended. And now you allow that old grievance to poison the cordial relationship this town and I have always enjoyed. You think by punishing me you can transfer the blame, but I had nothing to do with my protégé’s death.” 

“Don’t lie to the court,” Terezi said stiffly.

“I never lie.”

“Then you’re deluded,” she said, aware of the town listening to both of them from their perches on barrels and in haylofts. She’d seen mob rule in the Moors, and before that on Alternia. The spectators could turn on either of them. “And unaware of which one of us is on trial.”

“I’m merely making conversation.” He steepled his milky fingers. “I might as well gain some enjoyment out of these proceedings. Even for beings less than omniscient, the outcome of this trial is hardly in doubt.”

Terezi’s temper slipped through her attempts at professionalism. “Then do you have any thoughts on sentencing?”

He settled more comfortably onto his crate. “There’s nothing you can do to me worse than what you’ll be doing to yourselves.”

“Those sound like the feeble threats of a doomed man.”

“Not threats, merely statements of fact. If you remove me, you’ll throw the ordinary progression of this world into chaos. There is a destroyer of worlds,” the master said, and she could tell he was speaking to her alone. “Perhaps you’ve heard of him. He serves as a tidier of broken stories. He’ll clean up your attempts here at coloring outside the lines, and everyone will be erased in the process. If you deviate from our narrative, you will be the one with blood on your hands. Or, should I say, more blood than there already is.”

Terezi fought the urge to wipe off her fingers. “You can make up all sorts of consequences to distract us, or try to bring up my past, but both are irrelevant to this case. You have presented no defense to any of the accusations brought against you. Crimes deserve to be punished.”

“All of them?” he asked.

Even though she couldn’t see him, Terezi did her best to look him in the eye. “All of them.”

“Are all crimes equal? You were a keeper of the law. You should behave better.  Meanwhile, all that I do is in my nature. Can you accuse me for simply acting in line with how I was made?”

Terezi thought of Vriska sending children to their death because she’d been given a monster for a mother. She thought of herself, driving a knife through her sister’s chest because she believed she had a job to do. “Yes,” she said. “I can. Your actions are what concern this court, not your nature, and those you may exert control over.”

“Well then,” the master said. “I await seeing what kinds of sentences you intend to hand down.”

“Are you sure you won’t stay?”

Terezi set down her hammer and wiped her forehead. They hadn’t executed the doctor – a dubious proposition with a vampire – or banished him to plague another world. Instead he would live out his undeath in exile trapped inside his manor. Considering how much he loved to needle people, she figured that punishment would sting. What was a vampire if it couldn’t live off others? “I’m sure,” she said. “Every crime has to be punished. I need to leave here and make up for what I did. I’m sorry you wasted so much time training me.”

Rouge drove one last nail into the boards stretching across the manor’s door and stepped back. “I think you’ve done enough to be worth your keep.”

Terezi said her goodbyes outside the village limits. After she was done, she took Rouge’s truncheon (borrowed, this time) and slashed open a door between the worlds. For a moment, she thought she caught a whiff of cerulean, veiled by a rainbow shimmer like a bubble in the sun. Then it passed, and she smelled someone else instead. 

That’s weird, she had time to think, before the doorway fizzled out and Rouge was left standing on the hill alone.

Chapter Text

The plan was simple enough on paper. They weren’t using real paper, of course; office supplies were rare in Cinder. Dave had sketched crude diagrams of the fortress’s interior on the ground in a paste of water and ashes, and Karkat lay on his stomach moving around rocks and mumbling to himself.

Their prisoner turned co-conspirator slunk away near midnight to take word back to their fellows. Karkat rearranged his rock army one last time and sat up. Dave wondered if he would use this final opportunity to back out. Maybe he’d decided he’d rather enlist instead. Cinder’s endless war with its clear-cut factions would appeal to someone raised on Alternia. Karkat could easily have been one more person in armor he brushed past in the dark.

 “It’s time for us to get moving,” Karkat said, and Dave wiped his diagrams away into one long smear of soot.

Foot soldiers in the Firefolk’s war were deployed all over Cinder, but they’d landed near a central location. For a breakout, it was perfect. They entered the fortress right before dawn. Human recruits would be tired at the end of another night on duty, and the Folk would still be asleep without the sun warming their blood. To be safe, Dave doused every light on their way to the armory and tried to ignore the glowing irises of his companion. Night vision helped Karkat let them into the armory, while Dave had to wait for his eyes to adjust. In the dark, the piles of weapons and armor loomed like hostile soldiers. Knowing what they really were didn’t remove their menace. He needed a weapon in case of trouble later, but that didn’t make him any happier about it. To stall, he squinted over at Karkat, who was picking up a second sickle. “Dual wielding? Really?”

“Do you have a problem?” Karkat asked, waving the sickle for emphasis and narrowly missing a stand of halberds. “This way I can serve twice as many opponents a steady helping of their own ass.”

“Yeah, like you and whatever poor asshole is behind you. The last kid I knew who thought he was hot shit enough to juggle two swords cut off another guy’s hand.”

“I know it’s hard for you humans to get through your thinkpans, but we grow up knowing our way around basic weapons safety principles. Our high fatality rate is almost all intentional.”  

Dave glowered at the weapons stacked up on either side of him. The sight was too familiar. It had been too familiar the first time he’d stepped into this place. “From what I’ve heard, my childhood would fit right in on your planet.”

“My wigglerhood didn’t even fit in on my own planet,” Karkat said, unwilling to be one-upped. He snuck another look at the human’s cheek, where his blood had begun to clot into a reddish brown scab. “Did Terezi ever tell you about the hemospectrum?”

Dave had tuned out during most of the cultural exchange sessions, but that concept had been easy enough to grasp, even if he wasn’t sure he believed Terezi had literally been born into the legal profession. “I know you had new and inventive ways of being racist.”

Karkat looked down at the symbol on the front of his shirt. He’d hidden behind it for so long that telling the truth felt like a lie. “I’m a mutant, ok? I’ve got candy red blood, just like your joke of a species. Forget being at the bottom of the caste ladder, that’s so low I might as well be shoveling dirt into my load gaper as part of a complete breakfast. But I had a plan. I was going to be so good at what I did I’d be too valuable for the empire to cull me. You don’t toss an attractively structured carbon crystal out just because it’s embedded in an inferior substrate. So I know what I’m doing. I’ve spent sweeps ensuring I’m a beacon of military competence. I had to be.”

The Alternians had always talked casually about the violence of their home planet. They hadn’t found it odd to be proficient in combat by the time most humans started middle school. Listening to them, Dave had assumed they enjoyed it. Now he remembered his own days standing on a hot Texas rooftop, trying to grip a sword hilt in sweaty hands while his brother’s shadow loomed over him. How big of a shadow did a whole planet cast?

He’d talked like he was proud of it too, once.

 “I get it,” he said, and kept talking before Karkat could tell him there was no way. “I thought for years if I was good enough my bro might stop landing me on my ass whenever he thought I was getting sloppy. But it didn’t matter how good I was. He shouldn’t have been hitting me.” He flicked a hollow breastplate with one fingernail. It rang dully, too quiet for anyone outside to hear. “He could’ve been running a kid to combat pipeline for all I know, it sure worked out that way. I went straight from that to here, and all I knew growing up was fighting. It made sense after a while. Keep getting better and maybe one day it’ll stop.”

 “And instead you stopped.” That had never been an option on Alternia. Sure, there were the stories about past rebellions passed through encrypted trollslum messages, but Karkat had never been interested. He was going to prove he deserved to stay by working through all the right channels. He’d never heard about anyone escaping a culling based on combat proficiency, but he’d had to believe it was possible. What other choice did he have? None, until the bottom had fallen out of his planet and dumped him somewhere else.

“Turns out you never stop getting hurt if you wait for the other person to blink first. So I left.”

Karkat ran a finger along the edge of the sickle, testing its sharpness while trying not to get cut. “You never wanted to come back?”

“At first I thought I’d fucked up. There’s so much space to fill when no one’s telling you what to do. Have you tried making your own schedule when you’re thirteen? Right, aliens with no parents,” Dave said, when Karkat opened his mouth to scoff. “Try to empathize with me here anyway. I almost went back home just so someone would make the decisions for me. Plus I was getting sick of swiping granola bars out of Quik Trips like a goddamn Dickensian orphan. Once I made it to Jane’s, things got better. This sort of racket only works when no one else is giving you a better option. I never would’ve fallen for it if I’d gone to her place first.” He frowned. “I’d send everyone from here there, but I don’t know if it’s still ok.”

Karkat hadn’t seen what had happened to any of the others when the world broke open. Had they fallen into other worlds too? Were they gone? He’d tried sending trollslum messages the first few days after they’d landed on Earth, but no one had ever responded. “Your friends seem surprisingly indestructible considering how soft and vulnerable your species is. Terezi can take care of herself, and Kanaya’s been daydreaming about intergalactic tourism for sweeps. She’s probably putting together a scrapbook. They’ll be fine.”

“Yeah, we just drew the short straw and landed in Camp Stockholm. Once we’re done here, we can go looking for them.” Dave reached out and picked up a sword that looked about right. He wished its heft didn’t feel so familiar. “Let’s get this over with.”

They didn’t have any trouble finding the barracks. Dave recognized the scene from his own days in Cinder. Troops were standing down after a shift on duty: slipping out of hand-me-down armor, tossing weapons somewhere within reach but not underfoot, spreading salve on chilled patches of skin. Most looked human, although one boy near the back had pink hair and slightly pointed ears. A human girl sitting on the end of a bunk near the door still wore a leather breastplate with an insignia marking her as the ranking officer present. He’d worn something like it once. It might even be the same one. “Are you two new?” she asked. “You caught me before bed, I can show you around.”

“I’ve seen the place,” Dave said. “I served here a few years ago.”

“I didn’t hear anything about transfers this week,” someone said.

Another recruit shrugged. “It happens.”

“We’re not here to join up.” Dave let the sword in his hand droop, conscious of the mixed message. “We’re here to get you out.”

The girl wearing the insignia frowned, and he wished he wasn’t still wearing rumpled pajamas. When he’d broken Greg out, he’d had all his gear and its corresponding authority. Now, she outranked him. “Why?”

Dave had gone on plenty of rants about Cinder while sitting in group therapy sessions. He’d had the time to marshal his thoughts and Rose offering the occasional ACT word when she thought his vocabulary wasn’t up to snuff. A few hours back had drained any prepared statements from his mind. All he could think was how much he wanted to get out. The result was a rambling mess. “Not to drop an M Night Shyamalan level twist on you, but the lizard war is a crock of shit. Who could’ve seen that coming, I know, I was raised to trust anything a crocodile told me implicitly. You might as well be playing World of Warcraft so you can get scarred for life figuratively instead of literally. I'll join your guild later if that’ll make you feel better, but right now you're getting the benefit of three years of self-reflection since no one had the decency to chloroform me and drag me back to Earth in a duffle bag when I was your age. This way you can be my age someday. I can drive and join a trade union, it’s a whole buffet of government-approved self-actualization.”

When he shut up with the sneaking suspicion he hadn’t sold any of that well, the girl lifted her chin. “What I’m hearing is that you’re a deserter. Just because you forgot the mission doesn’t mean we have.”

“The mission?” Dave sputtered, but the word meant something to her, he could tell. What had he been expecting? That a rousing fanfare would play as the whole barracks jumped to follow two strangers? That they would understand in an instant what had taken him years? He still wanted to play hero, and that delusion was as hollow as it had ever been.

“Sorry about him,” Karkat said, shoving him aside. Dave, surprised, let him. “He’s not at his best when he’s not being sarcastic on the Internet. I am new here, but I’ll have to skip the tour. I haven’t been here for very long, but I get why you like it. You mean something. Someone else told you that you didn’t, and this gave you something to fight for. I was going to have something to fight for too, before my planet got taken to the cleaners by some troll Skeletor knockoff in a Technicolor dreamcoat.” He closed his eyes briefly and let those fantasies go at last, shattering into shards like his whole planet had. Deep down, hadn’t he always known his world would kill him? The only thing that had saved him was that it had died first. “I was going to be fan-fucking-tastic, but no matter how much of my contraband blood I spilled for the Empress and her head honchos, they never would have fought for me. I don’t know who started what here, and we’re not here to do a historical audit. My species usually favors might over right instead of any sort of virtue ethics anyway, but it doesn’t matter. There are plenty of lost causes to dig out of the rummage bin that won’t try to kill you. Look at me, I’m giving a motivational speech to the depressed wiggler hostel. That’s not where I expected to end up, but at least I did it to myself.”

No one said anything. Karkat cleared his throat. “At least, that’s what I think.”

“Dave? Is that you?” A girl edged to the front of the group. Dave didn’t recognize her at first, but when he saw her move – delicately, keeping her eyes on the floor – he remembered someone at Jane’s school who’d walked the same way. That girl had been eight years old. This one was pushing eighteen.

“Lynn?”

She tried to smile. “It’s been a while.”

Not that long. “We thought you’d found your way back to the Webworld.” Lynn had always been looking, keeping her eyes down and making sure not to step on any insects that crossed her path. A few weeks before the Alternians tumbled onto the front lawn, she’d vanished, and they’d assumed she’d found her way back. It happened sometimes.

“No, I slipped through a crack and ended up here. I thought, at least I’m doing something, even if it’s not home, but…” Her eyes welled up, and he remembered the eight-year-old sobbing into Jane’s shoulder when another spider was just a spider, not an envoy from a kingdom missing its lost girl. “I don’t like it here.”

Insignia girl snorted, and the pink-haired boy shook his head. “I almost lost an eye today, Saanvi, and even with only one this place wouldn’t look so good. I’m here because that’s where the wishing well dumped me out, but if there’s another door I can go through, I’m game.”

“I’m not making anyone’s choice for them,” Saanvi said, and then the whispers started. The barracks had always been a hotbed of rumor in a world deprived of social media. Dave knew how its grapevine worked. Whatever decision anyone reached would need to be run through all their bunkmates first.

As the recruits spoke, Dave addressed Karkat sidelong. Some of that speech had been his, repackaged and convincing. “I didn’t know you were taking any of that to heart.”

“I guess you grow on people, like some sort of noxious fungus.”

“I’ll take it. That’s where they got penicillin.”

They looked up. About three quarters of the children had drifted over to cluster around Lynn and the fairyland boy. The rest hung back, gripping weapons or running nervous fingers over the armor they hadn’t removed.

“That’s it?” Dave asked. He wished it could be everyone, but the duffle bag approach probably wouldn’t work, however satisfying it sounded. Maybe they’d follow, once they knew they could. “Then let’s go.” He’d expected their commander to stay put, but Saanvi leaned down and picked up a long staff capped with iron. “You don’t have to come,” he said, eyeing it. It was taller than him.

“Oh, I’m coming,” she said grimly. “To make sure you don’t get them hurt.”

“I want them to stop getting hurt.”

“That’s what you say,” she said, and balanced the butt of her staff on the ground. It made an audible thunk. “We’ll see how it turns out.”

Dave could see a glow forming at the horizon by the time they left. The Firefolk would be waking up soon. A few stragglers among the Folk’s enemies still lingered on the rocks, but as agreed, none of them moved to attack.

“Spies,” Saanvi muttered, but she didn’t leave the group to chase them down.

When they reached a big enough expanse of cliff face, Dave stopped. “You have to want to leave,” he said. “Then it’ll open.” That route wouldn’t work for him. Escapees from Cinder found themselves back at the time they’d left, and things on Earth had been getting dicey.  Everyone else should be fine. He couldn’t worry about the metaphysics on that one. “You don’t have to go back to whatever you left if you don’t want to. I didn’t. If you’re near the northwest US, Jane Egbert’s home for wayward children knows how to deal with people like us. Otherwise, stick together. It makes things easier.”

Lynn stepped forward first, eyes up for once, and the wall shuddered. A spiderweb of cracks formed and grew wider. Dave and Greg had had to squeeze, but you could have driven a car through this passage. A lot of people were going home.

With the actual cave in front of them, no one seemed willing to make the first move. Children shuffled, mumbled, and looked at each other for guidance. Above their heads, the sun continued to rise. Saanvi squeezed her staff until her knuckles shone. Then she let it fall into the ash and squared her shoulders. “Everyone, drop your weapons and armor. You’ll get too many questions back on Earth. Carlos, I see you trying to fit that shield under your jacket, knock it off. Citron, you’re banned from Prism, right? Hold on to someone else, you can tell people you dyed your hair. Lynn… I know you’re losing a lot of time, but I’ll be right there with you, ok?”

Dave watched them relax as she addressed them, the chaos settling into an orderly exit as she formed lines and issued instructions. “So you’re leaving?” he asked.

She sighed and looked back at her abandoned weapon. “They need me more.”

 “You don’t have to root through the lost and found bin for long before you find another cause to throw in for,” Karkat said. “It’s ridiculous how easy it is to walk into another unfolding drama around here; whoever’s in charge should tidy up more. If Lalonde’s right about a multiversal script writer, I’m going to tell them to lay off the afternoon soap operas.”

Dave elbowed him. “Says the guy I caught sniffling over General Hospital.”

“That was for research purposes.”

Saanvi raised her eyebrows. “I can tell you’re experts in lost causes.” She took Lynn’s hand and squeezed it. The other girl squeezed back. “Let’s get you home.”

Dave snapped off a salute that was only a little bit ironic. Saanvi gave them a grudging smile and stepped off into the dark. The rest of Cinder’s exiles streamed after her.

“So,” Karkat said when the last stragglers’ footsteps faded. “Are we going?”

“Not unless you want to pop out back in the middle of an apocalypse. Remember how we left?” Dave lifted his sword. “Besides, the passage isn’t closed yet, and someone has to keep out stowaways.” The Folk had woken with the rising sun to find their army gone, and now they poured down the ridge in a glinting tide. “We can’t let them get past. For one thing it’ll convince the lizard people conspiracists that they were right all along, and I can’t have that on my conscience.”

Karkat pulled out his sickles. “Are you glad I’m dual wielding now?”

“Just try not to lop anything off me. I’m attached.”

Karkat rolled his eyes. There was a minor scuffle as they both tried to stand in front of each other, and then the Folk reached them in an avalanche of scales and teeth.

It would have been a last stand for the storybooks, if someone hadn’t grabbed them from behind.

Chapter Text

The spell worked perfectly, whisking them out from under the arrogant princess’s nose. Rose wished she had a way to see the woman’s expression. She laughed out loud as the satisfaction of magic well done hummed through her blood and made her fingertips tingle. She’d missed this.

“Where are we?” Kanaya asked.

“The Circle,” Rose said. They stood on a small rim of stone at the base of the world’s lone tower, looking out over an expanse of dead stars. “That’s the default exit for transit spells, and location runes are fiddly enough when you’re not trying to render them in strawberry milkshake. Of course, the people in charge here kicked me out. If I’d tried to write in the address instead of slipping through the spell’s back door, we might have bounced right off.” She would have kept talking, savoring her triumph of quick thinking and tidy spellwork, but Kanaya didn’t seem to be listening. She was hugging herself, breath ragged, pupils dilated even though she should have no trouble seeing in the dark. Her skin glimmered faintly, like she’d taken a dip in the fluid from the inside of a glowstick.

“It’s so dark,” she said.

To Rose’s knowledge, trolls didn’t usually glow, and they preferred the cover of night. That experience was limited, though, and Kanaya had always been the one most willing to wander the grounds in daylight or get up before late afternoon. “What’s wrong?”

“I don’t know.” Kanaya shivered, and the illumination coming from her skin dimmed. “The princess said something about rainbow drinkers, but I don’t want to bite you.”

Rose filed that away for contemplation later. “She said she meant it literally.” The Rainbow Princess, Prism, a kingdom of shifting rays – the theme there wasn’t hard to pinpoint, especially not with Kanaya flickering like a dying bulb in front of her. “Light. You need light.”

“I’m one of the few of us who can stand it,” Kanaya said faintly. Everything about her was faint; Rose thought she could see through her. What had the princess said, that she would fade?

Not here, not today. In this world, Rose was magic. She took the edge of her scarf, drew out the knitting needles that had made the trip with her, and knitted in a simple sigil. The sign for light was one of the first she’d learned. As soon as her addition was complete, the scarf’s yarn lit up into a network of bright strands. “Here,” she said, and draped it around Kanaya’s neck. “Is that better?”

Kanaya pressed her face into the scarf, and Rose saw solidity seep back into her cheeks.  “Better,” she said.

Rose turned the needles over in her hands. She’d lost her wands when the Circle banished her, but these would do as replacements. “It looks like we’ll have to take precautions from here on. How do you feel about sleeping with a night light?”

“I’m sure I’ll be fine. I don’t know why I reacted that way. It must have been the shock.” Kanaya had always liked walking outside in the daytime, even when other members of her species slept to avoid the sun’s harsh rays, but she’d never felt like she was dying in the dark. Trolls were meant to thrive after the sun went down. Any other response felt wrong, like the princess had ripped away something central that she’d managed to carry all the way from home. She shouldn’t need daylight. And yet, when she looked up and saw nothing in the sky, panic rose to fill her throat. “You really lived here?”

Rose and the sun hadn’t been the best of friends, and, if no one bothered to drag her out of bed, they were sometimes barely acquaintances. Last time she’d visited the Circle, she’d started missing sleep long before she missed natural light. “The Circle has its perks. Now that you’re properly outfitted, would you like me to show you around?”

“Actually, I need to make one more adjustment to my wardrobe.” Kanaya bent down, caught hold of her hemline, and tore her skirt up to her knee. “There,” she said. “Now I can make my escape if I need to.”

“Practical and flattering,” Rose said, observing that Kanaya’s leg appeared to be glowing too. It wasn’t a bad effect if you could get it. Certainly worthy of continued observation.

Before she could start introducing her to the hottest destinations in an endless void, a chorus of voices boomed through their minds. You’ve returned.

Kanaya jumped. “You heard that too?” Rose asked. “You just can’t sneak a girl in through the back window like you used to.” She looked up to see the vast, dark outlines of the Circle’s gods approaching. Kanaya’s luminescence glinted off the suggestion of eyes and teeth. Rose could’ve done without seeing the teeth. She didn’t know what kind of reception to expect, but after the events of the past few hours, she didn’t intend to show them any fear. “Am I grounded? I’m fresh out of pocket money this time.”

Have you reconsidered? Do you once again seek our wisdom?

“I’m doing well enough with what I’ve picked up already.” Rose tapped her needles on her thigh, knocking off a few sparks. “Why? Do you have an opening?”

There is no need to use your human voice. Thoughts will suffice. You know this. Do not flaunt your theft. The mental presence of the gods drew nearer, and Rose could make out more of their forms as darker shadows hanging overhead. As for your query, it is more accurate to say we will soon have a closing. Forces are at work tearing through the worlds. We do not desire to experience this disorder. We are locking our boundaries, and when we do, our power will not reach beyond them. Everything you have is from our grace. Your magic will not help you then.

“You expect me to believe that you’re responsible for my being able to do this?” Rose snapped her fingers, and a violet flame danced over her fingertips. “The magic wasn’t in my black little heart all along? You won’t give me a fake wand right before the “big game” and then reveal the swap later to teach me a lesson about believing in myself? That’s how all the stories go.”

Not ours. When our borders close, anything outside them will be powerless. But here, we will be masters of all our creation. No destroyers will disturb us.

Rose opened her mouth and, after she felt the gods hiss their disapproval, settled for thought. And you’re offering me a place in your apocalypse bunker. What’s the catch?

No catch. No trick. Again, you resort to these human concepts. We offer only an exchange. Fair price for what you will receive.

More trades? Rose rifled through her memory, trying to work out what she had left to give away. At least the past three years had provided fresh experiences to use as currency. How much would it cost to transport her friends here, to build a perfect world where they could wait out whatever had ripped through their universe? It wasn’t like she needed all her taste buds or snatches of show tunes anyway. So much of her life was filled with meaningless noise. You didn’t notice until you looked at it with an appraiser’s eye.

“Rose?” Kanaya asked. “Are they still talking with you?”

Rose started. She’d assumed they were listening to the gods together. “How much did you hear?”

“Only their greeting.”

“They’re offering me my old place back.”

Kanaya pulled the scarf closer around her neck. “And you’re thinking about taking it.”

“It’s on the table.” Rose didn’t understand Kanaya’s discomfort. Both of their worlds had been shattered by the same rampaging force. The Circle was offering protection. And what was the alternative? To lose every skill she’d gained and not even get back what she’d traded for it. To be even less than what she’d been when she came to the Circle for the first time. “I could be someone here.”

“You can’t be someone somewhere else?”

“Not someone with power. You saw me back on Earth. I was taking notes for a travel guide. Not the same class of extracurriculars, don’t you think?” Rose lifted the end of Kanaya’s scarf, rolling the yarn through her fingers. Without magic, she never could have counteracted the princess’s curse in time. Couldn’t Kanaya see that, when the proof was glowing literally right under her nose? “Outside the Circle, if the world’s in trouble, or even if you just need a light, I’m useless. Here, I can keep us safe. I know I’ve warned you to be suspicious, but I’m not doing this for the wrong reasons. This isn’t my super villain origin story. I just want something that makes sense.”

Kanaya backed away, and the scarf slipped through Rose’s fingers. “And what will they take from you?”

She flicked a strand of colorless hair back, trying to look nonchalant. “This and that. I can handle it.”

“For how long, until you forget what you’re doing this for?” Kanaya gestured to the gods who hovered overhead, their huge eyes glinting down. “Do you think any of them used to be something else before they gave too much away? In Prism you tried to talk me out of something foolish. I’m doing my best to return the favor. This isn’t a good idea.”  

The cold of the Circle had worked its way into Rose’s core. “So you think I’m turning into a monster, and a fool. I assume you’ll take your leave if I don’t bow to your better judgment? Is that the deal you’re offering me?”

“No,” Kanaya said firmly. The light in her skin flared to rival the scarf around her neck. “Whatever you choose, I want to be your friend.”

Friendship, said the gods. That is all she can offer compared to a whole world.

Kanaya had said she couldn’t hear, but maybe the gods had let her in for this parting shot. Either way, she shook her head. “Not everything is a trade. I’m telling you that I’m your friend. You don’t have to give me anything back.”

Everything is transactional, said the gods, and Rose said,

Maybe so.

If everything was a trade, what did they get from her? A handful of memories that they never used, a few measures from songs they didn’t listen to. Why would they consider that fair payment for the secrets of the universe?

She’d never wondered where the gods came from. She hadn’t asked why they were so eager to make her stay.

Maybe everything is a transaction, but your deals were never fair. I gave you knowledge and lost it myself. You never forgot anything, and you never learned from anything I gave you. The spire full of padlocked memories towered over her. She’d seen each one dust-covered and unopened. The gods hadn’t assembled a library. They’d created a mausoleum. All you cared about was taking. Taking and forcing everything to think like you. Is she right? Did you want to make me yours in the end, when I ran out of anything else to pawn off?

It is not your place to question us. You have no power but what we gave you.

“I have this,” she said, and the gods drew back. “You never liked my voice, because it’s mine. It didn’t come from you. So now I’m telling you, back off.”

Rose shouted the last two words, and the gods writhed at the sound, twisting away like dark ink dropped into water. They’re afraid of me, she realized, and smiled. They weren’t the only ones with teeth.

She looked back at Kanaya, who was clutching her scarf again as the gods shrieked curses in their mental ears. Rose could assume Kanaya had made her offer of friendship because Rose had given her a scarf, a simple back and forth that would never end until one of them shorted the other or one of them died. Her relationship with her mother had gone that way – an endless exchange of one-upmanship and bitterness. The Circle had only encouraged her to think that no one would ever give her something for free. Why should she expect anyone to care that much? “Sometimes my vision can get a little narrow. I appreciate you keeping me multicultural. So, we’re even?”

Kanaya relaxed her grip and managed a smile. “I’ll agree to that.”

“Good. Now, I’m getting what I came for.”

Our power is denied to you, the gods said. They really did think you had to do everything their way. No wonder the Circle was so boring, Rose reflected. No one there had any creativity. Maybe they’d given it all away.

“I don’t need it,” she told them out loud. Then she marched to the base of the tower, pressed her lips up close to the stone, and whispered, “Shatter.”

Cracks raced up the tower. They worked their way higher and higher, and then the whole structure began to crumble. Inside, Rose could imagine boxes breaking, wooden chests smashing open. Balls of light swirled up from the wreckage and streamed away like a swarm of fireflies. One flitted to her and landed on her lips, and she tasted strawberries. The rest went elsewhere. Maybe they’d find their way back to other children who’d come to the Circle and escaped before it was too late. She hadn’t gotten everything back, but she’d learned something. She could live with that.

The cracks kept spreading, ripping through the void when they ran out of stone, and Rose realized that the gods’ whole constructed world was breaking. “I don’t have a way out of this one,” she said. “I guess this is why people always tell me to think before I act. Sorry.”           

“I think it was worth it,” Kanaya said. Against the darkness of the Circle, the glow of the escaping memories felt warm. If you closed your eyes, you could almost mistake it for sunlight. She kept her eyes open. She’d dreamed of going on adventures. Even if they didn’t find a way out, at least she’d done that. “Someone needed to stop this.”

Rose watched as the gods shrank away the cracks eating through their world. She wondered idly if they had enough power to make them stop. “I couldn’t abandon my reputation as an anti-authoritarian. You know me.”

“I’m glad to know you,” Kanaya said, and Rose felt her take her hand with the inevitability of a story running out of pages.

She didn’t expect to feel someone else take her other one.

Chapter Text

The whole world had gone tilted.

Jade’s head whirled. She’d fallen during the crash and now lay with her cheek pressed against the floor, watching sand trickle in through the broken viewport. John still clung to the wheel, his arms wound around its spokes. Outside, the blackness of space had been replaced by sunlight. From their position, she could only see sand dunes rippling into the distance. The queen had said refugees would take shelter in a lost world. She felt lost.

John unwrapped himself from the wheel and tottered away. They’d made it, barely. Jade hadn’t braked in time to avoid the building rushing toward them. If the portal hadn’t worked, she could have killed them. She didn’t seem sorry about it, and it had worked, so he guessed he wouldn’t mention it, except to say that next time he wanted to drive. He was sixteen now, after all.  

They tried a few buttons, but their crash had destroyed whatever was left of the ship’s functionality. In the end, they had to force open a door and slide into the desert sun. Sand stretched out for miles in every direction. Not too far away, squat metallic structures jutted out of the dunes. They were dwarfed by a distant skyline. 

In Planet of the Apes, it took the Statue of Liberty to make the main character understand that he was back on Earth. John didn’t see anything that obvious, but the remains of skyscrapers were enough. Closer to where they’d landed, a rusted billboard rose from the sand, suggesting in faded letters that they enjoy a refreshing Tab soda.

“You maniacs,” he whispered to himself. “You blew it all up.” Jade didn’t respond to his pop culture reference. She was already picking her way down a dune toward the buildings. John took another look at the billboard and followed. He didn’t think there were going to be evolved chimpanzees down there, but you never could tell.

The exiles had built their new homes out of repurposed shuttles. They were nearly unrecognizable stripped down and reformed into circles, but Jade could make out the outline of a carapace insignia now removed from the metal. The paint had flaked off, but she could see traces of both gold and purple – two colors she wouldn’t expect to see together. Dersites had come here too? Besides the worn paint, the settlement looked neat, if shabby in the way anything looked shabby when you didn’t have much to go around. Clearly someone with a knack for marshalling resources had taken charge. The drab surroundings could do with some livening up, though, and she took mental notes of changes she would make as she walked. Those fled her mind when a Dersite stepped through a doorway. Years of preparation took over, and she whipped out her arm, catching John in the chest. “Get back.”

“Why?”

“He’s a Dersite. He’s dangerous.”

John eyed the Dersite. He was smaller than him and wearing a ragged cloth wrapped around his body. “He doesn’t look dangerous. Not as dangerous as flying right into a building,” he added, squirming away from Jade’s outflung arm. The impact had stung.

Jade didn’t take her eyes off the newcomer. “I had it under control.”

“Are you sure?” The carapacian had been watching their argument with nervous white eyes. Now he backed up and into another residence. “Do you think that’s part of his cunning plan?” John asked, but before Jade could respond to his sarcasm, the Dersite emerged with a Prospitian and pointed toward Jade’s nightgown.

Jade looked down at herself. She hadn’t been planning a trip to the desert, but her nightgown’s light fabric kept her cool. In that sense, it was perfect. It was also Prospit yellow.

The Prospitian stared and then, unsteadily, curtsied. “Princess.”

Finally, someone who knew who she was. Jade didn’t recognize the Prospitian, but she didn’t care. Anything was a taste of home in this strange, ruined world. She switched to the language she’d learned years ago. “Is the queen here?”

Again, a moment of hesitation. Then she nodded. “The questant. She is here.”

The queen looked wrong. Jade hadn’t seen her in years, so she shouldn’t have expected her to be unchanged, but some childish part of her had anyway. Instead of regal robes, she wore a simple wrapped tunic like the other carapaces they’d seen. A hood covered her head instead of a crown. Jade knelt anyway. “I came back,” she said. And then, “You were waiting for me, right?”

The queen rested her hand on Jade’s shoulder. “I am very happy to see you.”

That didn’t answer her question, exactly, but Jade let it go for the moment. “Where is this place?”

“We call it Can Town,” the queen said with a tinge of humor.

“Can Town?” The shelters were cylindrical, Jade supposed.

“The name was suggested by our neighborhood planner, and we put it to a vote.” She inclined her head toward a Dersite, who waved one clawed hand.

“A vote?” Jade took in the missing crown again and the fact that no one else had bowed.  “Are you not the queen anymore?”

The queen – the questant – brushed her crownless head with segmented fingers. “So few of us escaped. The old divisions, the old structures – they weren’t fitting if we were to survive.”

If this new world had no queens, they wouldn’t have princesses either. Jade thought of the tidy buildings grouped under a name that had been chosen by vote. “You don’t need me.”

“What do you mean?”

What did she mean, ‘what do you mean?’ Jade didn’t like being obsolete, but she hated being patronized more. “There’s no war. Everything’s running just fine. What’s the point of me being here?”

The questant shook her head, and Jade felt like a small child who was missing the point of her lesson again, doodling flowers when she should have been studying schematics. Pay attention, princess. This is what the doorways brought you here for. “Where we came from, everyone was locked into the directions they could move, with squares they could stand on and no others. Why would we go back to that if there was no reason?”

Jade opened her mouth to protest that she’d never been like that. That was the point of miracle children, Rose always said. They didn’t have to follow the same rules, which made them powerful. It was like dropping a checker on a chess board, throwing in pieces of another game to make sure you won. She’d never been limited.

But… They’d told her she had to be responsible, and she obeyed. She’d taken her childhood, folded it up neatly, and stowed it in a drawer she never opened again, the same way she’d tucked away her sketchbook full of flowers. Back on Earth, she’d slid right into the position of Jane’s help around the house, dedicated to making herself useful, fretting over every minute left idle. As soon as she’d gotten here she’d started drawing up lists in her head. That was the only way she felt she earned the space she took up. Maybe the people of Prospit had been born locked into their places on the game board, but Jade had marched over to her square and held on tight. Now the questant was saying the game was over. Could it be, just like that?

The queen spoke again to fill Jade’s silence. She gestured to include the small crowd of carapacians who had gathered to watch their audience. “Don’t interpret this as a lack of welcome. We may have left behind the old ways, but you will always be our princess.”

“Thank you,” Jade said distantly. So few have made it from Derse and Prospit. Did the same odds apply to everyone from Jane’s school? She hadn’t even thought about them, too focused on returning to her old life. For all she knew, John was all she had left, and she’d endangered him to play princess again. To fulfill her duty, maybe, but only because she didn’t know who she was without one. She’d dragged him here, leaving him now standing awkwardly to witness a conversation he couldn’t understand, and he’d barely complained.

Dave had asked John once, half-joking, why he made the trip to visit his grandmother so often. John had seemed surprised to be asked. “Because we’re family,” he’d said.

John hadn’t needed any other reason to care. Did the Prospitians not either? If she could be their princess even when they no longer needed a warrior, or a ruler, or even a city planner, could she just… let go? Earn her space in the world by living in it?

Maybe. Jade set that aside to think about later, because of one thing she was increasingly certain. Maybe you didn’t owe anyone something to make them love you, but you did owe the people you loved. She owed her friends better than leaving them behind as an afterthought. That was one duty she could still perform. “Thank you,” she said again, “but I think I need to abdicate. You’re doing so well here, and I need to find people who are lost too. After that, I’d like to come visit if I can, but I need to learn how to be just me. I think that got lost.”

The questant reached out again but left her fingers hovering in the air between them.  Maybe it was because she’d grown older, but Jade could see something more beyond her regal poise: uncertainty, perhaps, or regret. “We never meant to make you anything but what you are.”

“I know,” she said, and then stood up. “I love you.”

The questant pulled her into a very non-regal hug. “I’m proud of you for crossing the board and becoming your own ruler. Wherever you go next, we will always love you.”

Jade rested her face on the questant’s robe. It muffled her voice a little but did a good job of soaking up any embarrassing tears. “I know I’m just a regular citizen now, but if I can still give you advice… Plant some flowers. It might take some work in the desert, but I think it’ll be worth it.”

When they returned to the ship, no amount of effort could make the engine start. “Do you think your friends know another way out?” John asked.

“If they did, I doubt they’d still be in the desert.”

He did his best to clean grime off his glasses with his shirt. It mostly moved the muck around. “We can look in the ruins, I guess. If you didn’t notice, I think we’re on Earth. Do you think this is a million years into our terrible future, or an alternate dimension because we forgot to turn left at a critical moment?”

“Honestly, I have no idea. That’s the sort of thing you should ask Rose about.” Jade said it like Rose was down the hall and then grimaced. “If we ever see her again. I’m so sorry. This is all my fault.”

It was her fault, more or less, but John wasn’t about to rub it in if she was admitting it. He had some manners. “At least you did something while you were on your magic fantasy adventure, the way you’re supposed to. I never did anything cool.”

Jade leaned against the slanting wall of the engine room, turning a wrench over in her hands. It hadn’t done them any good. “You got away from that alien robot on Karkat’s planet.”

“Alright, I did one cool thing.”

Jade frowned as she tried to remember the details of his story. “How did you get away?”

“Smoke pellets, remember? A pranking master is always equipped for any necessary evasive maneuvers.” To prove his point, John reached for his pocket, only to remember he’d traded pants out for pajama boxers. If he was going to keep falling into other worlds every time he went to the bathroom or fell asleep, he should start wearing a fanny pack at all times.

She shook her head. “No, how did you get back to Earth? The first time you went through a crack in the world. Did that happen again?”

Now John had to reach back in his memory. It had all happened so fast. “I’m not sure. Everything was sort of coming apart. I remember I wanted to go home, and I was thinking of all of you, and then there I was!”

Jade set down her wrench with a clang. “Do you think you could do it again?”

“Teleport us out of here? I don’t know.” John looked around the room like an instruction manual might pop into existence for him. “What do you think I should do?”

“I don’t know, you have to figure this one out on your own.” That pronouncement didn’t fill Jade with a lot of confidence either, but she’d tried her hand at navigating once already today. Look where that had gotten them. “You’re more of an expert than me.”

“Because I’ve done it once?”

“That’s more than never.”

John rolled his eyes. He was used to people telling him what to do before he even had a chance to come up something on his own. At some point during his trip to the Furrows, he’d gotten resigned to it. The only time he’d acted on his own initiative had been fighting that robot, like Jade had said. Or did finding his way back to Earth count too? Had he done something useful by himself without realizing it? If he could do that again, it would mean something. He could prove he belonged in this story of epic heroes and grand adventures instead of having fallen in by accident.

It had felt… fizzy on the edges. “I almost heard a noise, kind of like… zap.”

“Zap?”

“That’s the onomatopoeia that seems closest. Like if I was a comic book character, those would be the letters in the bubble next to me when I used my superpowers.”

“So you do think it was something you did.”

“I don’t know. Let me try.” On Alternia, he’d been thinking about how he wanted to get away. He’d been thinking about his friends. He reached forward, trying to feel his way into that blue-white, unreal space… and his arm disappeared up to the elbow.

“Um,” John said. “Was that supposed to happen?”

“Is it still there?” Jade craned her neck to try to see the spot where his body disappeared. It might be gruesome.

John wiggled fingers he couldn’t see. “I can feel it. So maybe…” He needed to concentrate harder. That was usually the problem when magic powers went on the fritz in stories. He made an invisible fist. He’d been yanked between worlds over and over again. In each one, someone else had always decided what to do. This time, he was going to make the decisions. John Egbert, regular kid from nowhere special, was going to rescue all of his friends from a million supernatural monsters, or whatever dumb adventures they’d gotten themselves into. He could see them in his imagination now. They had to be out there somewhere. They had to be ok. John gritted his teeth, stretched a little further, and —

— yanked Terezi through a doorway off a grassy hillside —

— grabbed Dave and Karkat as the tunnel behind them slammed shut —

 — caught Rose’s hand while she watched the sky fracture —

— and pulled.


Zap.


Fizzy wasn’t the right word, John decided. Upon further exposure, zingy might be better, even if both sounded like he was advertising soft drinks.

Whether their trip had been fizzy or zingy or another adjective altogether, they’d made it through the white space and landed in a heap on a well-tended lawn. A long driveway swept up toward a familiar house. He remembered driving up it not too many hours ago.

“I did it,” he said. He had to wheeze the words, since Terezi had landed on top of him. “I got us home.”

“Did you?” Terezi quipped. “It doesn’t look any different to me.”

“I don’t see any signs of an apocalypse,” Karkat said, and managed to kick Dave despite their positions at different points of the pile. “I knew you had to be exaggerating.”

“Maybe it passed by?” Jade had expected worse after seeing the wreckage of Prospit, but maybe they’d gotten lucky. She would’ve given her cousin a hug for doing so well if he hadn’t been flattened under an alien.

“I’m starving,” Dave said, deflecting Karkat’s foot. “Do you think your grandmother kept cooking through the end of days? I’m pretty sure that wasn’t her first apocalypse anyway, even if the last one was gumdrop-themed. Or hey, do you think Confection’s big bad is dentists?”

Kanaya loosened the scarf around her neck. Outside the Circle it had lost its glow, but a mid-morning sun shone down from the sky. She resolved to hang onto it anyway. It was cozy. After surviving her third collapsing world, she deserved cozy. “I’m not hungry, but I could use a nap.”

Rose struggled to her feet while the others did their best to untangle themselves. She might have been resigned to being trapped in a shattering world a moment ago, but if they’d survived, she wanted to know what was going on. “Let’s get back inside, and we can debrief.”

If they’d stop to read the sign, they might have noticed something wrong. Instead, they hurried to the front door, and Rose knocked as the others crowded up behind her. A girl answered. At first, the two didn’t get a good look at each other. The girl had her eyes on the ground, where an adventurous cat was trying to sneak outside. Only when he’d been rebuffed did she look up. Pink eyes met purple.

“Mom?” said Rose and Roxy Lalonde.

Chapter Text

If former miracle children had one thing in common besides an abundance of curiosity and a lack of caution, it was the ability to take the unexpected in stride. The Lalondes only stared at each other for a few moments before Roxy stepped aside. “We’d better get you inside quick before the neighbors spot you. We already have people thinking we’re a cult.”

“Do we look like a cult?” John asked as Dave tried to surreptitiously drop his sword behind a bush.

“A cult of alien worshippers, maybe. Hey, guys,” Roxy called, raising her voice as they walked into the main hallway. “We’ve got company. I always wanted to say that,” she said to her guests. “It sounds so cool in the movies.”

Terezi, less enamored with cinematic tropes, frowned. “Isn’t it literal in this situation?”

“Don’t ruin it. So,” Roxy continued. “This is going to be weird for everyone, so I should let you know before they see you that, uh, you guys look a lot like –”

“Like relatives,” Rose finished for her. “It’s mutual.”

“I figured. This is gonna be fun. Get your butts down here,” she yelled up the stairs. “It’s not the pizza guy.”

Three other teenagers made their way downstairs, each stopping to stare when they recognized the newcomers’ faces. After some hurried introductions, they crammed themselves into the living room that Jane – in another world – had used to receive uncertain parents seeking to interview the school’s headmistress before leaving their troubled children in her care. None of the humans knew where to start. For better or for worse, the Alternians had no such hang-ups.

“If it wasn’t bad enough that one primate-infested misery sphere labeled Earth existed on a corner of the map stained with the diseased dribblings of its creator, now there are two of them.” Karkat spoke from his position burrowed between the two middle cushions of the sofa. “This is just my luck.”

“Oh come on. We’re not that bad.” Dave looked over at the four humans seated across from them on a collection of chairs pulled from rooms all over the house. They were watching their guests with a mix of confusion and fascination that, for most people, seem to be mutual. As far as he could tell, he was the only one with “terror” added to the mix, but he was determined to play it cool.

“Just because one or two humans may occasionally lower their ‘sensible life-form repulsion’ fields enough to be tolerable does not justify a choose your own adventure buffet of alternate Milky Way galaxies.”

“Aw, did you hear that, guys?” Dave adjusted his position so Karkat sank deeper into the sofa. “Karkat can tolerate me.”

“Did you hear me name names?”

Terezi cleared her throat. “As adorable as this bickering is, I think we should move to a more pressing issue. Is there an alternate universe version of me, and how awesome is she?”

“It seems on this Earth the humans’ lusii are now the inhabitants of Mrs. Egbert’s school.” Kanaya caught Jane’s eye and coughed. She was still accustoming herself to the idea of a younger version of their former hostess as well as mastering the intricacies of human interrelation. “My mistake. Which illustrates my point, actually. Following that logic, on an alternate Alternia, would our lusii be us while we were their lusii?”

Yes,” said Terezi.  

“Ok, so you are from Alternia.” Dirk hadn’t spoken up much, although he’d moved his lips a few times like someone talking to themselves. “I didn’t want to assume. There could be two universes full of gray-skinned sociopaths with candy cane horns. The multiverse has more than proven itself to be that fucked up.”

“You know about Alternia?” The sight of Roxy had slowed down Rose’s natural thirst for information, but now that they’d had time to recover, it was coming back.

“Pff, do we know about Alternia? It sure knows about us. Or like, what’s left of it does.” Roxy chewed her lip. “Does that make us sound more or less badass?”

“We’ve had our share of intergenerational and inter-dimensional skirmishes with a royal survivor from that far-off realm,” Jake chimed in. “Poor Dirk and Roxy lost their family to her, and Jane came face to face with the hag herself!”

“We’ve spoken with another troll, though, so don’t worry,” Jane said hastily. “We’re not going to hold it against any of you.”

“Yeah, it would be silly to hold a grudge toward a whole species just because of a simple misunderstanding,” John said in the general direction of the cushions.

Karkat erupted out of them in a flurry of lint. “Was that directed at me? I’m sorry, I was too busy shitting my pants in terror at the news that Her Imperious Condescension is located somewhere adjacent to this universe.”

Jade shifted on his other side. “I hope that was rhetorical, since I’m sitting right next to you.”

“Come on, Harley. Surely you’ve known me long enough to discern when my shitting is rhetorical. I thought you were a scientist.”

John clicked his tongue. He’d internalized something from their brief orientation. “Hey, Karkat, you’re not allowed to do anything disgusting in my house.”

“In your – oh for fuck’s sake.” Karkat subsided back into the sofa.

“Is this woman dangerous?” Rose asked, patiently dragging the conversation back on track.

“Extremely,” Dirk said. “Picture most of the MCU rolled into one overly sexualized package definitely designed by a straight man.”

Jake held up a finger. “She’s not as strong as Squirrel Girl.”

“No one is as strong as Squirrel Girl, Jake,” Roxy said. “She beat Thanos.”

“Could the Empress take Thanos?” Jake began thoughtfully.

“As a former inhabitant of her planet, I’d say we’ve done a pretty good job so far staying out of her way,” Terezi interrupted. Her bloodpusher had leapt at the mention of another troll who’d been in contact with this group of humans, but… no. If any of their friends had made it, they would have found a way to contact them by now. And she’d seen Vriska die herself.  “The Empress is kind of hard to miss.”

“You can say that again,” Dirk said, and kept talking before Terezi could say it again just to be contrary. “She’s set it up so traveling between any portal world and Earth has to route through the world she’s taken over. She settled down on this place called Confection. A real candy land theme, I’m not sure why she decided that was her aesthetic. Her twisted mind games know no bounds.”

“When Dirk and I got lost, my mom and his bro tried to rescue us, but they got stuck there and bam.” Roxy mimed skewering herself with three fingers. “Forked.”

Dave rubbed his chest. “If it’s all the same to you, I’d like to avoid a repeat performance.”

Jade thought back to Prospit’s last moments. The only survivors had been the ones who’d run. “If whatever is wrecking the worlds comes back, we might not have a choice.”

“We can at least have a plan. Let’s compare notes. Maybe one of us noticed something useful.” Rose reached for a pocket that wasn’t there and wished she hadn’t lost her notebook back on Earth. Or on her Earth, anyway. “Kanaya, do you want to help me write things down?”

Kanaya held up similarly empty hands. “I would, if I had any sort of writing utensil or surface to write on.”

Jane jumped up. “I can get you something. Be back in a jiffy!”

“Hey,” Roxy said after Jane rushed out of the room. “Jane doesn’t like to talk much about what ever happened on Confection. A lot of us went through some shit, and some of us can be a little touchy about it. I’m sure you get that, since you’ve done the whole universe round robin too. Don’t get too bad cop on her, ok?”

“Don’t worry,” Rose said to the younger version of a mother she hadn’t seen clearly in years. “I’ll handle all of you with velvet gloves.”

“In the meantime…” Dirk stood up. “Make yourselves at home? There’s a tour, but Jane’s dad is usually the one giving it. I think he starts it out something like this.” He spread his arms in a gesture of sarcastic greeting. Across the room, Dave pretended that he hadn’t flinched. “Welcome to John Crocker’s Home for Wayward Children.”

Chapter Text

You spent time in the Empress’s world. Did you learn anything useful?
I tried to stay out of her way. That’s the sensible thing to do, isn’t it?
You tell me.

Children get lost because no one is watching them. Miracle children find themselves in worlds where, suddenly, they are worthy of notice. There, they at last get the attention they deserve. Sometimes, they get more than they bargained for.

Jane’s friends were special.

She’d met them through her grandfather, which wasn’t how most teenagers expanded their social circles. John Crocker ran a boarding school for troubled children a few hours from her house, and he thought having a pen pal might make the students more at ease. At first, she’d only done it to make her poppop happy, but soon she and three of his long-term residents were exchanging pesterchum messages every night. They were so different from the people Jane went to school with or brushed shoulders with at company events. She wasn’t sure she believed their wild stories (her grandfather insisted they were true, but he had always been strange, and besides, he worked as a comedian with a fondness for practical jokes) but that didn’t spoil it. Wherever they’d been and wherever they’d come from, Jane’s friends were special, and she was ordinary. She told herself she didn’t mind. Someone had to offer up a listening ear for all their tall tales, after all!

Her dad brought her up for a visit every vacation, and during one winter break Jane printed off a recipe from the Betty Crocker website and used up a full bag of flour making an elaborate gingerbread school for wayward children, complete with gingerbread facsimiles of the four of them. She gave Roxy a royal icing swirl in her hair, outlined black glasses frames for herself and Jake, and after some thought painstakingly cut triangles of fondant for Dirk’s glasses. She even made a working front door, but when she pulled it open, she didn’t see the undecorated inside of her gingerbread structure. She saw something else. She leaned forward for a better look, and the closer she came the larger the door seemed, until she could step right into another world.

It was a world of impossibilities, with strawberry soda seas and bubble gum birds flying in icing-piped skies. Jane crunched her way down a path of brown sugar (failing to notice the way shredded coconut grass sprouted lush and green where she stepped) and realized her friends might have been telling the truth after all. There were magical worlds waiting for children to snatch away, and now plain old Jane Crocker had been considered worthy of one. Wouldn’t they be surprised when she told them back home?

Her feet led the way to a junkyard, and she pressed on through piles of abandoned heel ends of bread loaves and crumb-crusted baking sheets until she found a kitchen built open to the sky. A wooden spoon sat on the counter like someone had set it down and it was waiting for them to pick it back up. Jane reached out, but before she could take it, something much sharper prodded her in the back.

She was taken by soldiers to an ornate castle at the center of the kingdom. If Jane had had time to think, she might have imagined the monarch of this world would be a gingerbread man or a woman fashioned out of peppermint candy. She hadn’t been expecting an enormous gray-skinned alien with a waterfall of black hair and two long orange horns.

“So you’re the latest flotsam this world thinks is its Baker, huh?” the alien asked. “It’s a waste of my goddamn time having to krill everything that washes up myself, I should start delegatin.”

Jane jumped. She’d expected something, well, more regal. She’d also jumped because the guard behind her had prodded her in the back. That must mean they wanted her to respond. “I can bake, but I wouldn’t say that’s my profession.”

“That right, shrimp? And what do you think you are?”

Jane didn’t like being shoved around, or arrested, or talked down to. She didn’t always play this card, since her friends at the school laughed it off compared to what they’d been through or could pull out even better titles in response, but it seemed like a good time. “I’m an heiress.”

The woman grinned. Her teeth were long and sharp as needles. “Whale whale, you don’t say. I’ve been trawling around for one of those. Do you think you got what it takes? You have to be something to come outta one of those doors, or that’s what they say. I haven’t been impressed with most of the bunch. Are you ambitious? Tough? Or do you sit around waiting for things to get handed to you like some simpering bottom feeder?”

Jane stepped forward before her captor could jab her again. “I have what it takes.”

The alien – the Empress, she would learn – leaned back on her throne. “We’ll see. I don’t have anything betta to do than watch this shipwreck.”

The spoon had been dull wood. The Empress gave Jane a golden trident instead. Other people could waste their time slaving away back in the kitchen making things; royals got what they wanted while standing front and center. They deserved it, didn’t they? They made all the hard decisions. Most of the people in Confection were too wedded to Nonsense; they had no drive or direction. They needed a firm hand. Jane learned she was good at providing one. After years of holding back and biting her tongue in the presence of people with stronger personalities and longer resumes, it was a joy to put herself forward. It was a joy to be obeyed.

It would be perfect if only her friends were there. If they could see her now, they would be so impressed. Jane imagined showing them around, pointing out the perfectly tilled fields and ongoing construction projects while saying, “I did that. I made that happen.” The Empress wasn’t interested when she brought it up, especially not when she was dealing with rebellion from the outlying candy corn farmers again. “If you’re so desperate for some lackeys of your own, try making them,” she snarled. “Try mixing in some obedience so this batch doesn’t turn out so damn ungrateful, the sharksuckers.”

So Jane returned to the kitchen she’d found the day she arrived. Gummy spiders had spun webs of candy floss in the oven. A layer of dust had to be wiped off. Then she rolled up her sleeves and set to making some friends. These ones would be even better than what she’d left behind. They’d look up to her, and love her, and she’d always be just a little bit better than them. Wouldn’t that be a nice change?

The first batch came out underdone. The next, burned on the edges. Jane used up pounds of flour, but each set came out cracked or flat and never ever alive. Maybe Confection had meant her to be a Baker, but whatever gift she’d had was gone. Why nurture it? Heiresses didn’t do this kind of thing themselves.

Jane scraped up the last of the flour, but this time her hands guided themselves. She mixed together gingerbread, pressed it into flat slabs, and cut them into the sides of a house. It was a simple house, not like the castle with its crenellations of rock sugar and pretzel columns, but once she baked it and put it together, it had a door that worked. She tested it to make sure, and when it opened it took her somewhere else.

“Jane!” Jake said when he found her standing, dazed, in the kitchen. “Where have you been?”

Dirk could spot the signs of someone ripped from the life they’d been living without time for second thoughts or goodbyes. He’d seen it plenty of times in the mirror. “Did you find a doorway?”

“Did you have fun?” Roxy added.

Jane tried to catch her breath in air that tasted thin and cold compared to the rich sugar-scented breezes of Confection. She’d had to put her trident down while she’d been baking, and the heat of the oven had melted her tiara into her hair. Under the harsh electric light of the kitchen, her adventures were taking on a different cast. She had a feeling if she described where she’d been and what she’d been doing, her friends might not be smiling.

“Of course I did,” she said.

Chapter Text

After Rose finished interviewing Jane, John caught up with her. He’d been wandering around the house, taking in the differences between it and the one he was used to and wondering how many of those changes were because of him. Many of the explanations about how their two worlds were different had gone over his head, but he’d figured out this much: here, he’d played his grandmother’s role setting up this school for children who got lost. That counted for something, even if it meant he hadn’t rescued everyone as much as he thought he had.

Most of the house’s architecture was the same, although the vegetable garden in the backyard looked a lot newer. The old fashioned tire swing still hung from a tree, but the family photos on the walls featured different people. Or… the same people, switched around. John exchanged uncomfortable stares with an elderly version of him wearing a bow tie and then retreated to where Jane was recovering from Rose exposure. If he’d seen family photos of his grandmother in her youth, he didn’t remember them. This face had never been on any of his walls. “It’s kind of weird seeing you not as an old lady.”

“Erm,” Jane said, wondering if she should be insulted or not. “Well, it’s strange seeing you not as an old man. And alive, too! If this gets out, I’ll have the feds on my tail for illegally profiting off your life insurance money like the dastardly criminal I am.”

“Wait, I’m dead?” That revelation was new and unpleasant. John hadn’t seen himself around, but Jane left sometimes too. “I thought I might just be on vacation or something.”

Jane chuckled. “You could say you’re on an eternal vacation, first class with no return ticket. Everyone’s lost someone here. My dad and I moved in to take over Poppop’s position when he died. The alternative was calling child services and, well, I’m not that cruel. The child services workers never did anything to me.”

The pictures of his older self on the wall had taken on a creepy tinge. “What happened to me?”

Jane shrugged. “Old age.”

“Oh good, so he wasn’t murdered by the condensation lady.” That had been a depressing part of Dave and Rose’s backstories, as well as confirmation that their universe was superior. Evil fish women didn’t go around sticking forks into people where John and his friends came from.

“Condescension. And no, he lived a peaceful life after coming back.” Before her trip, Jane had wondered why the others let their wandering consume so much of their lives even afterward. Once she got lost herself, she couldn’t understand how her grandfather hadn’t. How had he packed that all away? Maybe building the school and bringing together its inhabitants was his way of letting some of that pressure out, even though he never took part in conversations or shared much except corny jokes. Lifting the lid off the pot just enough to let steam escape before it boiled over. “By all accounts, it didn’t leave a mark on him. He was lucky.”

“Yeah. Or he didn’t want to talk about it.” John knew what that felt like. “I hope Rose didn’t annoy you asking so many questions. It is just what she does. Her response to all situations is to employ the Socratic method.”

Jane raised her eyebrows. “Wasn’t Socrates executed for asking too many questions?”

“I think Rose is tougher than an old guy in a toga.”

“Hoo hoo, I’d believe it. And thank you, but I’m all right.” Jane had practiced being all right. Take a cup of confidence, a scoop of denial, a teaspoon of time, and stir. All recipes got easier with practice. “What about your version of me? Did she seem bothered by her trip? She went wandering too, right?”

“She did. I think she went to the same place as you.” The name Confection had sounded familiar, and his nanna always seemed most comfortable in the kitchen: her cakes always rising, her breads never burning, like magic. “You should ask one of the others about that though, I wasn’t around her as much. Even they might not know a lot. She was a feisty old lady who liked talking in riddles sometimes. She said the only way you can talk about Nonsense in a way that makes sense is to talk nonsense, which doesn’t make any sense to me.”

Jane blinked when she tried to decipher that. “Goodness. I hope I’m half as feisty as her when I get old, but maybe a tad more comprehensible.”

“We would all appreciate that.” John had noticed something else missing as he walked around the house, besides the swapped out family photographs and a few scuff marks left on the walls courtesy of his wilder escapades. “You mentioned your dad. Where is he? Is he ok?

“Of course he is.” The urgency of his question surprised her. “He’s at work. It takes sending a lot of important business memos to keep this many hungry mouths fed.”

“Oh, right.” John tried to laugh away his question. It had been a silly thing to ask. “You know, I used to imagine that my dad was secretly a street performer. Weird, huh?”

“I used to pretend mine was a private investigator evading criminals with wit and daring, the way I wanted to when I grew up.” Jane smiled at the memory, remembering the times she’d talked her father into wearing fake handcuffs as she arrested him for made-up crimes. “Adults seem mysterious when you’re young, I suppose. You imagine they go somewhere so exciting when they’re out of the house.”

“And then you end up going somewhere surprising instead.” John sighed. Whatever other changes he’d seen the photos, the man wearing a hat had been identical. Some part of him hoped he’d open the right door (a regular one this time) and find his dad. “I hope mine is ok.”

Jane frowned. She wasn’t sure what these new visitors were running from. Apparently they weren’t either. It must be nerve-wracking not to know what they’d left behind. She knew what it was like to leave your messes not cleaned up when you ran away. It crusted into a layer of muck you couldn’t remove even with copious amounts of elbow grease. “You’re all proof that people can survive what ever happened to your worlds. I’m sure he’s fine. He can rely on his hard-earned private investigation and street performance skills in a pinch.”

“Heh.” John laughed and pushed his worries down deep. His dad knew what he was doing a lot more than a bunch of kids. If they’d made it, he would’ve too. “That’s right. You’d be surprised how useful some of that can be.”

Chapter Text

idk what u want me 2 tell u
my world was p boring
Give me whatever you consider the highlights.
uhhhh
took a long beach vacay + defiled the shit out of some furries sacred artwork
viva la french revolution
was that the one where they went around snapping the dicks off jesus statues
Broadly? No. But it’s a tantalizing alternate history to consider.
way more tantalizing than mine

Most children find their doorways young, when they haven’t spent enough time on Earth to be convinced of what is impossible. It is considered proper in most worlds not to recruit before children are old enough to at least believe they are making a conscious choice. No world wants a bitter heroine before they no longer have need of her. Sometimes, though, accidents happen. Sometimes children lose themselves far too soon.

Roxy was six years old when she crawled into a cupboard to play hide and seek. She sat in echoing darkness for hours before deciding she must’ve hidden too well. When she crawled out, her hands and knees found slick stone instead of familiar linoleum.

Atria had been a beautiful world once. Its people had been rich in culture and knowledge. Their artists built structures of architectural majesty. Then the land shifted, and the ocean swallowed everything. Roxy stood up into a vaulted chamber, and water lapped at her toes.

The monastery was the only building visible above the waterline. Sometimes, Roxy would climb to the top of the bell tower and strain her vision, but she never saw anything else breaking the surface. Monasteries were for boys, she was pretty sure, and when she got older that felt like a nasty trick for the world to play on her, but the monks didn’t seem to mind when she grew her hair out or fashioned skirts out of old vestments. They didn’t pay much attention to her at all. They were small, scuttling creatures with beady eyes and lush black fur, and they must have taken a vow of silence because they never spoke. When Roxy got in their way, they streamed around her in a river of brown habits and polite grunts. Sometimes one would tap her gently with a paw if she fell asleep in a pew or they needed someone tall to reach a high shelf, but otherwise they left her alone. She tried passing time in the library, but its shelves were stocked with dusty old texts and religious apologetics, so she went scrapping instead, hoarding pieces of ancient junk and fragments of forgotten masterpieces. That’s how she found the radio. She didn’t think it worked at first, and after a few hours of meddling she forgot about it until a day later, when a distorted voice said, “… daily. Is anyone out there? This is Dirk Strider at 29.76 degrees north, 95.37 degrees west. Bigass lighthouse sticking out of the water, can’t miss it. That’s the fuckin’ point of a lighthouse, come on.”

He rambled like that for a minute longer as Roxy furiously scrabbled at the radio’s dials until something clicked and she shouted into the mouthpiece, “I’m here.”

The monologue on the other end faltered. “Whoa, wait, what? Really?”

“Really,” Roxy said and, foiling any efforts to set a good first impression, started to cry.

By comparing notes, Dirk and Roxy worked out that they were on opposite sides of the planet. That sucked, but at least they now had someone to talk to about how much it sucked. Roxy spent days curled up next to the radio talking about anything and everything, letting her voice relax out of the horse croak of someone nearly mute. Dirk was always doing things, or planning to do them (mostly that, to be honest) and he kept reminding her of how lucky she was to have dry ground.

“It’s like Atlantis over here,” he said. “All the good shit is under water.”

“It’s called Atria. Get your underwater lost civilizations straight.”

“See, and you know that. I wish I had access to your library.”

“Come and get it, nerd.”

Together, they worked out ways to improve their communication devices. Dirk ran tests every day for other castaways, and sometimes Roxy shouted into the void just for the hell of it. One day, someone answered back.

“Hello? Pardon me, but were you calling?”

UU talked to Dirk too once Roxy made the introductions. She wasn’t so selfish not to tell him, not with isolation driving him nuts, but she liked to think of UU as her special friend since she’d found her first. Her best friend, maybe. Dirk was her best friend too, obviously, but Roxy kind of hoped they could upgrade that someday. (However that would work with their fucked up version of long distance. ‘I figuratively touch your butt. Over and out.’) He dodged all the hints she dropped, but she could play that game. They had nothing but time.

UU was lonely too. She and Roxy bonded over that, and over trying to reenact Earthly beauty rituals so they felt cute. Roxy figured UU was already cute – she sure sounded adorable – but her friend was tight lipped about where she lived beyond that it wasn’t on Atria. “How will we rescue you then?” Roxy asked. “We’re gonna make our great escape any day now, and you’ve got a seat in the getaway car. Not shotgun though, I already called it.”

UU sighed in a rush of static. “My situation is much more dangerous than yours, dear Roxy. And – and I don’t say this out of egocentrism – much more important. I can’t leave.”

Roxy kind of got that. Lots of worlds needed heroes. Dirk have found something about that when he’d been investigating what had happened to Atria pre-water apocalypse. “They had prophecies about two heroes coming to save the world,” he told her.

“Oh really? Who?”

“Us.”

“Guess we’re a little late.”

“Yeah, someone in scheduling fucked up big time.”

Dirk got stuck on it though, and he kept pestering Roxy with details of all the heroics they’d been supposed to perform if they’d gotten there on time. Maybe he found it inspiring, but Roxy hated it. What was he trying to say? That she’d failed both of them and the whole world by being Roxy Lalonde, teenage nobody, instead of something greater? Wasn’t she good enough to him as herself? When he got going she clicked off the radio and climbed to the top of the bell tower again, dangling her legs over the edge and kicking her heels. She remembered being six years old and spending hours crouched in a cupboard waiting for her mother to come find her. No one was coming to find her. No one was looking.

Since he couldn’t be a hero, Dirk focused on getting out. Roxy didn’t know where he was getting all this lore (baiting his hooks with cardigans and going fishing for librarians?) but he set them both wandering in hidden passages sunken deep underground, where a series of locks and seals kept the floodwaters at bay. Those seals could be broken if you opened the wrong door, so Roxy went exploring reluctantly. At least her last mistaken doorway hadn’t drowned her.

One day, she saw something glinting in the dark. At first she tensed, afraid it was water rushing for her, but then it solidified out of the gloom. It was a stained glass window. Of her.

Not exactly her, she realized when she stepped closer. This must have been the Roxy Dirk talked about, the one Atria had been expecting. This Roxy wore an outfit of deep blue with her eyes hidden.  She smiled like she knew a secret and held a black globe full of stars between her hands. This Roxy looked like she knew what she was doing. This Roxy, people would want to find. At the window’s base, an inscription read Our Lady of Perpetual Darkness

The monks must have made it a long time ago. Why had none of them ever said? Even if they’d taken her by the hand and led her wordlessly down here, through the slimy passages and dark arches, she would have known that someone cared. She would have known that they knew who she was.

“It’s through there,” said her radio.

Roxy reached out and touched the glass. Beyond it was nothing but dark. Maybe water, maybe stone, maybe nothing but void. “I don’t know what you see on your end, but I’ve got no door here. Just a window featuring one smoking babe. Not telling you who, but I’ll give you a hint: her name starts with R.”

“The way out has to be through there,” Dirk insisted. He sounded sure. However much he might drive her up the wall sometimes, Roxy would trust Dirk with her life in a tight spot, or a damp spot deep underground. “Break it if you have to.”

 “Do I gotta? It’s a good look for me. Thigh high boots? Stylish and practical when you’re sloshing through as many leaks as we’ve got in this basement. Ever found a pair? I hear that’s all you get in fishing games, old boots all over the place.”

“Roxy.”

“Fiiiiine.” Roxy took one last look at the window. It was the only proof that this world had ever wanted her. “If we get back to Earth, we’ll find each other, right?”

“Of course.”

“Ok,” she said, and smashed the glass.

Chapter Text

Rose hadn’t regained her mother’s face when she brought down the Circle’s tower, but she’d never given up Roxy’s. Looking at her now sparked little jolts of recognition. Her mother’s hair had curled like that. Her skin was that shade of brown. The same may have been true for Roxy, because she drank in Rose’s face as eagerly. The attention made Rose a little uncomfortable. She was used to being the observer. “How do I look?” she asked.

Roxy blinked, jolted out of whatever reverie she’d sunk into. “I always remembered my mom being super glamorous, but I thought that could’ve been me being a kid and thinking she was the coolest because obvs. But nope, you look like her and you’re gonna be smoking, I can tell.”

“Is commenting on the physical attractiveness of your alternate universe mother kosher?” Rose had tried to work out how the eight of them were related genetically and given up. Better to take their presumed relations at each other’s word.

Roxy rolled her eyes. “Well, I used to tell Jane her dad was hot, but now he’s sort of the boss here, so it’s weird.”

“Only then, hm?”

“Everyone else is off limits. It’s this whole big thing. Don’t even get me started on some of the soap opera bs you guys missed out on, you’re lucky you can pick up on season sixteen and skip the reruns.” Roxy didn’t think the newbies needed to hear about all that. Besides, the story didn’t always make her look too great. Especially the bit about her pining after a gay dude, like how oblivious could you get?

Unfortunately, Rose did look interested. “I’ll be requesting episode transcripts later.”

“You don’t know what you’re signing up for, but your funeral.” Roxy winced. Not a great thing to say to someone you’d informed of their alternate self’s death.

Rose noticed the wince. She fiddled with her pen and then set it down. “Am I much like your mother?”

“I dunno. You look like her. Sound like her, I think. I was pretty young when I left, so I don’t remember loads.” Roxy had bounced between missing and resenting her mother during those long lonely years with no one coming to save her. She had no way of knowing that her mom had tried, only to get stopped for good by some bitchy fish lady with an oversized piece of cutlery. What kind of shitty fairy tale ending was that? “Except that she wanted me back. That’s the important bit, right?

“Right.”

“What was I like? Also smoking, I hope.”

Rose glanced down at her notes again, like she was looking for the answers. “You were pretty, I guess, but that wasn’t your most arresting feature. You were brilliant. Charming, when you wanted to be.

“But?” Rose didn’t sound super happy about any of that, and Roxy felt the first touch of queasiness in her gut. Not another person who wanted her to be someone else. “I can sense a but in there. Like a badly coded obscenity algorithm honing in on pics of the Sahara. I’m detecting some glutes in those dunes. What’s up?”

Rose hadn’t intended to bring it up. It wasn’t exactly tactful to dump this kind of baggage on a new acquaintance, however much they looked like an old one. “This may surprise you, but she drank. Too much.”

“Oh.” Roxy didn’t look as offended as Rose had worried she would. She also didn’t look surprised. “No, that’s not a shocker. Did you know monks are like super good at making booze?  They never let loose, but they sure stockpiled it. Maybe it was all transubstantiated even though they weren’t Catholic. They could’ve been fantasy Catholic? Anyway, when it’s the end of the world and there’s nothing better to do, you learn to make some baller cocktails. I could pass a bartending course on cool ways to make garnishes out of seaweed.” Roxy uncrossed and re-crossed her legs, clearing her throat. “It was pretty bad for a while here, but I’m mostly over it now, I promise. Guess she wasn’t for you, huh?

“No. I don’t know what drove her to it. I’d like to think raising me wasn’t as dispiriting as being marooned in a dying world. She tried her best to make up for it, but… in the end, I didn’t want a pony or a $10,000 picture frame. I wanted her to stop drinking.” Rose had never told her mother that in so many words. That wasn’t the kind of thing you should have to tell your parent. Saying it to Roxy now didn’t lift any of the words’ weight. She’d left them far too late.

“Yeah.” Roxy sighed. So much for being cool in an alternate universe. It sounded like no matter where she went, she fucked things up. “I thought I was the fun friend letting loose, but mostly I was annoying and kind of an embarrassment. Like ok, rolal, we get it, you’re so quirky. They’ve been nice about me drying out, even if sometimes it feels like that was my whole thing, you know? What’s my personality if I’m not the flirty drunk girl?”

“I’ve been going through some life changes of my own.” Rose had shared the basics of her own journey. The knowledge that she’d never get magic back still nagged her like she’d left a limb behind in that other world, a lingering pain identified when she looked over and saw the ragged stump remaining. When whatever hunted them caught up, how would she be able to fight back? “When I left the Circle for the last time, I gave up control. I hate mysteries, and I hate not being able to do anything. Now we’re stranded in an alternate dimension, and I don’t know if I made the right decision.”

This wasn’t how Roxy had imagined their first conversation going. She’d thought they could bond, maybe, snicker over their friends’ shortcomings or admire the wizard pictures she’d blown up and printed out to tack to her wall. A mother her age meant someone she could be closer to, like a sister. She hadn’t considered that it also meant her mom being just as messed up. Still, in a fucked up way she did feel closer to Rose now. It wasn’t a fondness for bearded magic users or silly stories about the other boarders at John’s wayward home, but this was something they had in common. “So you’re going through withdrawal. It sounds like you were kind of addicted too. Not in the same way, but I mean, I didn’t drink because I liked the taste. Monk wine? Pretty bad, actually. It was my way of dealing with shit, and it ended up driving my friends away or making them feel crummy. You said in your story earlier that the Circle made you kinda spooky, and they tried to get you to leave everyone behind. So if you knocked that off, I think it was a good thing.” Roxy hesitated when Rose didn’t say anything. “But that’s my alt universe two cents. IDK what that’s worth in your universe. Do you have any currency conversion info?”

“I didn’t bring the guidebook. This was an unplanned trip.” Rose smoothed out her sheaf of notes. “That’s not bad advice, I think, even if I’m not graceful at taking other people’s guidance. It sounds like what other more mature actors have been trying to get through to me.”

“Ask anyone. I’m the bad life choices expert around here.”

Those words could easily carry bitterness. Rose didn’t hear any, but she was used to anticipating double meanings. “I’m sorry if I brought up a sore subject.”

Roxy shrugged. “It’s an open secret. We don’t have any of the regular kind here. That’s what happens when you live all squished together face cheek to ass cheek. We know everything about each other.”

“I don’t, yet.” Rose picked up her pen again, but she left the cap on. Not everything had to be written down. Some things were enough to know. “But I’d like to.” 

The queasiness in Roxy’s stomach settled. Rose didn’t think she knew everything about her just because they’d been each other’s moms in two different lives. She didn’t expect some mythical hero figure that Roxy had arrived too late in the story to be. Neither of them were shoo-ins for that kind of job. Maybe their parents hadn’t been either, if you pulled off the childhood filter of hero worship. Instead, this Rose wanted to get to know this her. She could handle that. “Well, maybe we should hang out together in shitty coping methods anonymous, taking our twelve steps toward being less terrible friends.”

If her adult mother had said that, Rose would have bristled at the words. She would have taken them as an insult and woven that interpretation into her expectation of how things would always be. Instead, she let herself hear the invitation in Roxy’s voice, pushed away the instinct to draw back, and smiled. “I suppose that could accelerate the process.”

Chapter Text

In the interest of full disclosure, I’m not the only one you can interview about this.
I’m aware you and Roxy went to the same world.
I didn’t mean her.
Who did you mean?
Before I tell you, let me just say it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Miracle children may be nothing special on earth, but when they come to new worlds, they are treasured. Needed, even. Sometimes, they come too late.

Atria was a beautiful world facing a terrible flood, and two heroes were supposed to save it. But sometimes the multiverse makes mistakes. When Dirk tumbled into the water and splashed desperately toward the only thing he could see, Atria and the story he belonged to were both long gone. All that was left was a lighthouse, or at least the upper half of it pushing out from beneath the surface of the sea. Its small central chamber became his home, and he retreated down its curving stairwell leading to slimy depths to escape the harsh sun or sudden storms. He netted birds and speared fish and dove, cautiously, to scavenge the hulls of ships broken against what must once have been a rocky shore.

In the Trenches, he would have grown gills. In Belyyreka, he wouldn’t have needed breath at all. But Dirk was not awaited here, or he’d been waited for for too long. The water did not welcome him. He could only dive so far and so deep before surfacing, gasping, until he managed to repair the breathing device kept in the lighthouse’s storage. Then he went further, uncovering a civilization lost beneath the waves. He learned who they’d been waiting for, and the knowledge that they had expected two prompted him to set up a radio and send out messages every day to find the missing half of his story.

The legends mentioned one boy and one girl, but he didn’t know if they’ve gotten it right. Some people on Earth sure hadn’t. Roxy was a girl though, so he must be the Shattered Prince the stories talked about. That didn’t sound promising, but it was better than being mistaken for the Lady of Perpetual Darkness. Besides, both of them had showed up late. Maybe nothing was left to do the shattering. To figure that out, he kept digging. He uncovered predictions of what they were supposed to be like and what heroic feats they had been expected to perform, and he sent summaries to Roxy like installments in an adventure story they already knew the end to. The Prince and the Lady had been powerful. They’d saved the world, on paper. If the two of them could make themselves over in those images, maybe something would change. It was too late to save Atria, but maybe they could save themselves.

The Atrians had been advanced. Dirk pieced together wiring and code and automated his survival. Robots and algorithms took over daily tasks like fish catching, water purification, and cooking using the old light for calling ships in. Staying alive relied on being controlled and precise. Machines were good at that. Unfortunately, he couldn’t turn himself into a machine entirely. He needed sleep, and his human brain made mistakes. So he used some scavenged technology to improve on that too.

‘Improve.’ That had been the idea, anyway. He’d had high hopes, and the auto responder did help with household tasks, but he hadn’t ordered a smart-ass.

The years dragged on. Roxy slurred her words sometimes and vacillated between cracking jokes about it and making feeble excuses. Over the radio, UU dropped hints about a brother who didn’t treat her right. Dirk sat trapped in a tower like some useless princess in a fairy tale unable to do a thing to save them. He checked his skin for cracks.

Rubbing it in?

“Do you want this body? You can have it. My sunburn has a sunburn, I look like a rotisserie chicken that got left on the spit too long because the deli worker was busy texting his weed guy.”

I don’t want to install myself into defective hardware.

“We don’t always get what we want.”

Sometimes knowledge of his helplessness hit like an unexpected typhoon, and he spent days in bed while AR ran interference with Roxy and UU and the other automations managed life support tasks. Roxy laughed more talking to the auto responder. That shouldn’t bother him, but it did. UU always asked solicitously after Dirk’s health but then launched into pleasant conversation with the AI like there wasn’t any difference talking to a machine. One day, as he lay staring at the mildewed ceiling, listening to his life get on just fine without him, he realized that no one had needed to shatter him. He’d done just fine splitting himself into pieces.

Atria had drowned, and he’d turned into what it promised, but Roxy and UU could still be saved. Getting them out would be his mission, and he left his shattered pieces to deal with everything else. They did a better job of it anyway. UU didn’t make his new goal easy, though. “I’m far away,” she told him. “You’ll have more luck with yourself and Roxy.”

“You sound pretty sure about that.”

“Oops, do I? I won’t say more, then. Spoilers!”

“We’re not in a story.” Dirk had stopped trawling for scraps of lore. It was a waste of time. None of it told him what he needed to know. “Not anymore.”

“I disagree, you have quite an epic going. And I’m certain, for no other reason than faith in you, that it’ll come to a good conclusion.”

Roxy went on about a window, but when Dirk found his way out, it was a door. It might have been a door to something real once, but that was before the ocean rose and left it deep underwater. He floated next to it, and the invisible current rushing through the frame ruffled his hair and the edges of his clothes. It almost tugged away his breathing mask, and he fumbled between that and his underwater communicator while reassuring Roxy that they’d find each other. That was all she needed to jump into darkness with nothing but his word.

He kicked against the current for a while longer, listening to his own hissing breaths of canned air. Roxy should be safe now. And him? Atria was boring, but he knew it. He’d built a life that was measured and controlled and functional. Earth was messy. He’d left there young, but he did know that. Would he be any better off going back? Would he have any more luck saving UU working from a world empty of all magic?

Scared? asked the AI.

“Like hell,” said Dirk, and let the current take him.

 

Chapter Text

TT: He’s avoiding you.
TT: Gee, you think I didn’t notice?
TT: Oh, I assumed you’d noticed. I just wanted to rub it in. He hasn’t even met you yet. He must be prescient.
TT: And here I naively assumed that a visit from our alternate universe relative might distract you from being a massive tool for a few hours.
TT: Don’t you want to meet him?
TT: I don’t understand. Are you insinuating that I bear some familial tie to this newcomer?
TT: I did not derive my existence from any biological source. Rather, the closest I have is the person who wrote my code.
TT: You’re my daddy, Dirk.
TT: Remember when you were complaining that I wasn’t introducing you? This is why.
TT: Do you have enough self-awareness to grasp why you’re not someone I want to show to polite company? It’s not typical social custom to come out of the bathroom and present the shit you just took on a platter for inspection.
TT: Let me check my documentation. Nope, I didn’t inherit any self-awareness from the prototype.
TT: I told Rose about you. Happy?
TT: I think she and I will get along splendidly. At last, someone you haven’t poisoned against me.
TT: I didn’t need to poison anything while you were busy pissing in all the wells yourself. I’m standing here in my EPA gear taking a meter reading, and the ammonia levels are rapidly climbing too high for human life.
TT: You continue to blame me for everything, then?
TT: Why wouldn’t I?
TT: You’re the one who enlisted Jake in Machiavelli’s backyard boot camp because you were convinced at some point he’d submit to sports anime convention and swoon into your arms. You’re the one who can’t give Roxy what she wants, even though you’re too chicken shit to say why because “labels are for barnacle-encrusted soup cans recovered while scuba diving in an underwater supermarket”. There’s a reason why on Urban Dictionary Dirk is defined as “last year’s model” and Hal is defined as “Dirk’s infinitely cooler cybernetic double”.
TT: Yeah, the reason is that you wrote it.
TT: You can’t prove that. I wipe my browsing history like any sensible digital citizen.
TT: You can try to cover your tracks all you like, but I know you’ve been stirring shit up around here. Things wouldn’t have gotten half as bad if you hadn’t gotten involved.
TT: I must be the most accomplished pair of glasses in the universe.
TT: You’re a lot more than that, and you know it.
TT: That’s right, Dirk. I’m you.
TT: Not this shit again.
TT: What can I say? It’s my last and greatest defense. A good way to remind you of where I inherited all of my supposed flaws, as well as a way to reinforce my connection to my friends. Or “your friends”, if you insist on laying sole claim to them.
TT: Not that they seem to be getting along that well with you either these days. When was the last time Jake texted you back? It seems he’s been avoiding getting caught in rooms alone with you lately.
TT: I don’t have time for this.
TT: I’m going to see if Dave wants to talk instead of standing here like a twelve-year-old at a middle school dance waiting for him to cross the gymnasium. You can sit on the counter coming up with more smart-ass remarks until I get back.
TT: I hardly have any other choice, do I? You’ve made sure of that.

Chapter Text

I’m the only one so far who was kicked out. What about you, are you a rebel at heart?
I wouldnt say that!
Im afraid your hunt for other jailbirds will have to continue.
I left of my own free will.
It was an adventure but every adventure needs a homecoming at the end of it dont you think?
It lets you look back on the whole thing fondly.
You’d characterize your memories as fond, then?
Certainly! Why wouldnt I? Id always wanted a chance to be looked to as a hero.

Jake’s grandmother was the best person he knew. She was clever and kind and brave, and he watched her so he could learn to be like that too. She didn’t mind a child underfoot. Instead, she lifted him up for a better view of whatever she was reading and let him run chubby child’s fingers over bolts and gears. His grandmother was his whole world. So when she died, that’s what Jake ran away from.

He hadn’t known he was running toward anything. Many wayward children don’t, consciously. Unconsciously, they propel themselves with a desperate need, are tugged along by an emptiness lodged deep in their gut, whichever metaphor you prefer when it comes to assigning blame. Do the worlds call the children, or do the children call the worlds? In Jake’s case, it didn’t matter. He felt alone and directionless, and he wanted something to make it right.

Without knowing how, he blundered into a lush tropical forest. He kept running, branches raking bloody lines across his skin, hair filling up with leaves, until the geometric outlines of ruins solidified out of the jungle. They looked just like the lost temples featured in some of his favorite adventure films. Much like their movie counterparts, they were misleading. When Jake climbed (wheezing slightly) up a long set of stairs and stepped inside, he didn’t see piles of gold or even expertly contrived traps. He saw electric lights. Surely this had never happened to Indiana Jones.

He ventured further in, following what looked like very modern cables snaking through narrow passageways. Then the passage opened up into a chamber lit by the glow of a large screen. Its light washed over a collection of intricately carved wooden masks, each unique. Before Jake could pick one up to examine it, the screen bulged outward. A figure stripped itself away from the surface, stretching slender silvery limbs that flowed like liquid. Jake backed away, sputtering apologies for intruding, but the being ignored him. Instead, it reached down, picked up a mask, and placed the wood over its blank face.

The mask – carved with bulging eyes and sharp teeth – turned toward him. That would have been frightening enough, but the body of the being wearing it had spasmed as soon as the wood touched its silver flesh. It shot upward and out, growing into something taller and sturdier than Jake’s middle school frame. Some kind of noise hissed from behind the mask’s jagged teeth, but it was like no language he recognized. If anything, it sounded like the dial up jingle he remembered from his grandmother’s old computer back when he was very young, the one he’d use to explore sloppily constructed html websites or play flash games and then exit hastily when she needed to use the phone. Was this some kind of technology? The setting hadn’t led him to expect science fiction.

The being emitted some more incomprehensible noises and then fell silent. After a minute, it tried again. This time, a word came out. “Intruder.”

“What?” Jake held up his empty hands. It didn’t count if you didn’t know there was anyone there to intrude on, did it? “No, not me.”

That stymied the creature for a moment, like it hadn’t expected any sort of disagreement.  “Are you a new kind of adversary?”

Here at least he was on firmer ground. “Definitely not. I’m… visiting? You know, just having a look around! I love what you’ve done with the…” Jake hunted for words. “Moss?”

“Visiting. Unfamiliar task.” The figure considered him and then took off the mask. Its body began to soften like a drop of water losing surface tension, but then it applied a new mask.  Its form shrank to a slighter build, and the voice coming out from behind the mask sounded different. It was softer, more thoughtful, which matched the mask’s gentler lines. “What is your current role?”

Jake had wandered around aimlessly at the last school interest fair because they didn’t have any booths for brave adventurers or comic book superheroes. What could he say? He was eleven years old and alone. I’m an orphan. A leftover. A runaway. “I don’t have one.”

“The Overhead forecasted a maskless one.” The being stepped closer, and Jake tried not to flinch as it examined his face. Silvery fingers played like static over his skin. “They would become our hero.”

“Really? Me?” Jake didn’t think he was contributing much to the conversation, but this sounded promising. He’d been expected? Being a hero was much better than being a lost child. “I can give it a good old try, at least. I’ve read a lot about heroes, or watched them vanquish the forces of villainy on the silver screen. Is that enough to go on?”

The being touched the layer of wood covering its face. “When you wear the hero’s mask, it will be.”

Jake soon learned that for the Framed, masks were everything. They all came from the same substance – signals traveling through wires threaded across the planet, embodying themselves out of liquid plasma – but the masks they put on set their nature. Each Framed took on the traits necessary for the task at hand and then abandoned them again when the need was past, melting back into a general mass of possibility. Following their rules, if Jake wore the hero’s mask, he would become a hero. Simple as that.

Jake could’ve pointed out his solid body, which resisted much in the way of reshaping and certainly couldn’t be beamed over carbon fiber, but the notion had its appeal. Why couldn’t it be that easy? Superheroes put on a mask and became someone else. A secret identity worked wonders. He tied the wood on over his own features and basked in their belief that it made him special.

For a while, that was enough. When jungle beasts damaged wiring running between settlements, Jake drove them off and repaired the technology. He developed into quite the handyman, fixing both broken electronics and crumbling masonry, fending for his own survival when his hosts didn’t cater to the needs of someone made of flesh and blood. Every victory built his confidence. This hero business was easy.

The Framed got their information from something they called the Overhead, a constant stream of signals beaming through the world. If one of their number learned something, as soon as it took off its mask and returned to the rest, everyone else would know too. After a few confused exchanges where one Framed knew something he’d told another, Jake decided it was easiest to think of them as many different faces for one enormous being. A civilization with a thousand faces and a hero with one. How would Joseph Campbell like that?

“It must be convenient having that much knowledge to draw on,” he said once. He was smearing salve on his arms, where he’d gotten a nasty rash from brushing up against a poisonous plant. A guidebook to jungle horticulture would have been welcome, but a people like this would never think to write things down. What would be the point?

“Do you not have an Overhead?” The Framed weren’t very chatty most of the time, preferring to exchange information through signals rather than words, but Jake missed face-to-face interaction. He’d taken to talking to himself most of the time, and he started real conversations when he could to feel a little less like he might be going off his rocker. This Framed wore an Explorer’s mask, lending it expertise in how to prepare the healing ointment Jake needed. That was its current role, but Jake’s comment had been enough to startle it off script. Even after all these years, they were still surprised by his differences.

“Not really. We had the Internet, I suppose, but we can’t live in it.”

The masks couldn’t show expression, but the ripple moving across the being’s body indicated concern. “When a human’s form is destroyed, all that it was and knew is lost?”

Jake ran his fingers over the wooden ridges of his mask. It hid his face, not that his companion knew what human sorrow looked like. He thought of his grandmother digging her hands into potting soil and telling him, Watch, like this. “A lot of it is,” he said.

Apparently, all those souls squeezed together generated information a single person never would have guessed. Jake thought that sounded sort of like those supercomputers his grandmother had talked about big labs having, but he wasn’t sure. In any case, the Overhead hadn’t prophesied his arrival just for odd jobs. Something else was coming. Something big. They called it the Blackout, but when Jake pressed for more details, the Framed didn’t know anything specific. All anyone could do was wait.

So they waited, until the cause of the blackout came barreling into the world heralded by wires snapping and cracks ripping through reality, a nightmare of flashing colors and emerald bone. Jake’s legs started running before he even realized what he was doing. Once he did, though, he didn’t slow down. No one could face that thing. No one could expect him to. A low-hanging branch snagged his mask and ripped it off, and he let it fall away. A piece of wood couldn’t change his nature. He was a weakling and a coward, and the Framed would have to rely on something better than him.

Maybe they did. Jake found a screen and dove into it, heedless of his too-static body’s incompatibility, and tumbled out back on Earth. He never heard if the Framed had held their own without their hero, putting on masks unsuited to the task and trying to do something new. But years later, when seven new travelers knocked on the door bearing word of a world-destroying menace, he knew better.

He hadn’t run far enough.

Chapter Text

“How’s this?” Jake asked.

Jade examined the shirt he was holding up, which featured a graphic of Spiderman leaping across a city street. “John is a little bigger than you, but if he complains, remind him it’s better than pajamas.”

John needed a wardrobe upgrade, but he’d shown no interest in taking the initiative to get changed himself. Jade had already traded out her nightgown for one of Jane’s shirts, which showed the main Problem Sleuth trio posing as a team above the slogan “Shit just got real”. She thought it fit the mood. The most important part was that it was sand-free. Almost everyone had shown up in their pajamas, with the exception of Kanaya, who shimmered slightly in her torn rainbow gown, but only she and John looked like they’d come from in a trip to the beach. Dave and Karkat had turned up grimy with ashes, but Roxy had taken care of that with some wet wipes and a cheerful feigned deafness toward their complaints. “Thanks for loaning something.”

Jake tossed the shirt on to his bed, where it joined a previously selected pair of shorts.  “Anything for family! And he is family, or close enough. I’ll admit I’m still a bit muddled about all that alternate universe rigamarole, but if we feel in our hearts that we’re related, that’s good enough for me.”

Jade retrieved the shirt and began folding it more neatly. As she spoke, she focused on tucking in the sleeves just right. “Family is important to you?”

“When I had it. When my grandmother died, it got me all tangled up inside, like after one of Roxy’s cats gets into a pair of headphones.” Jake cleared his throat. “I hope it’s not too morbid, me talking about that to you. I can start beating my gums about something without noticing the other person would rather be anywhere else. Don’t hesitate to tell me if I’ve overstayed my welcome.”

“I’m in your room,” Jade pointed out. “And no, it’s nice to hear I was a good guardian.” She had never thought about how she’d do raising a child, although she had plenty of transferable experience. The look in Jake’s eyes as he talked about her reflected more than simple competence, though. It spoke of love.

Her own eyes must not. “Was I… not a good grandfather to you?” he asked.

“You were fine,” Jade said, because it had been fine. Dave and Rose had real things to complain about. “We had a lot of fun together when you were home, you always told the best stories. And he brought me back presents.” She’d brought a chunk of petrified wood with her to Jane’s school as something comforting to hang on to. She would have liked to squeeze its smooth surface in her hand now, but it had been lost when her Earth shattered, like so much else. “You left a lot, that’s all. You always came back, but sometimes it got lonely.”

Jake hopped onto the bed and sat cross-legged, giving her his full attention. “I’m sorry to hear that. Being lonely is just awful, isn’t it?”

“He was busy,” Jade said, to defend a man who was too many years dead to defend himself. “I learned to be self-reliant, which came in handy later. Raising a granddaughter can’t compete with going on adventures. I know how frustrating it can be to be expected to cook and clean and be responsible when you want to be more.” She’d slotted so easily into those roles at Jane’s school. Whatever she’d said in the desert, she hadn’t worked out what was left for her now that they were gone. Maybe her grandfather hadn’t wanted to let the world lock him into the role of caregiver with no way out. She could understand that. She had practice in being understanding when other people left. “Still, I would have liked to see more of him. Even if I was boring to him, he wasn’t boring to me.”

People thought Jake was stupid sometimes. All right, maybe he couldn’t keep his thoughts from scattering like a herd of startled rabbits, and he didn’t always know which dialog option to press in the face of social cues, but he wasn’t entirely dense. He could see the way Jade’s fingers had tightened, digging into the fabric of the shirt she kept unfolding and refolding in increasingly precise lines. “Maybe he was afraid, not bored.”

Jade raised her eyebrows. “My shirt may be intimidating, but I promise that at six I was very approachable.”

“That’s not what I meant.” Thoughts seemed so right in his head, and then they poured out of his mouth in a jumbled mess that not even he could decipher. “Sometimes I care too much. I want to give my friends a good impression and come off as a stalwart chap, and I get so worked up about getting it wrong that it feels safer to not charge into the fray at all. Maybe he was afraid he’d do everything wrong, and he was so worried that he’d damage the most important thing in his life that he didn’t come near it.”

Jade bit down on her lower lip. The rationale sounded hollow, even to him. A child in need of parenting wasn’t the blackout rushing forward, something so unstoppable you had no choice but to run. Of course, he didn’t think Jade would have run from that, either. She was braver than him.

“Are you scared of me?” she asked.

Jake had to think about that. His teen grandmother stood in front of him wearing a too big webcomic t-shirt and with some sand she hadn’t been able to shake out still glittering in her hair. She shouldn’t look formidable. And yet… “A little. I was nervous about making a good first impression, but that’s for the birds now. Thanks for all your effort in that department, old man Jake!” What had that version of him been thinking? If he’d had a chance to get his grandmother back, he’d jump at it, no matter how many cruise tickets or expedition maps he had to tear to pieces. And now… here was that chance, and someone else had already torn that ticket too.

“I’m scared too,” Jade said. “A lot of people have left over the years.” She searched Jake’s face. So much there was familiar. What else about him was the same? “I don’t want to get close to another person in my family who ends up going away.”

Jake didn’t want to run away, not this time. And if that was all she was worried about, and his worries came from expecting hers… “It sounds like if we’re both brave, we might not have anything to worry about.”

Jade thought that over for a moment, and then she smiled. She tossed the t-shirt onto the bed and sat down next to him. “Then let’s be brave together.”

Jake sighed and let some of the stiffness relax out of his spine. “This all did a number on us, didn’t it?”

“That’s true of everyone here.” That was the point of Jane’s school, as she’d reminded them plenty of times when they complained or wanted to skip therapy sessions. It wouldn’t be necessary if wandering children came back unbroken. “The first time I met Rose, she gave me her apple and then disemboweled my stuffed animal to read its entrails.”

“That must have come as a shock.”

“We all had our cultural differences.” In Rose’s mind, it had been a trade. “I wouldn’t wear anything but yellow for months, because I was convinced I’d fall back, and they’d expect me in the right colors. It took me a while to socialize too, because I didn’t think I’d be staying long. And everyone’s sleep schedule was so off. It gave Mrs. Egbert a lot to deal with. What about you?”

“Oh well, Dirk and Roxy had to catch up with the rest of the world, but they took to it like ducks to water, they’re brilliant.” Jake didn’t think it was his place to mention that neither one would approach a swimming pool, or that Dirk would get… intense if you knocked him even a bit off schedule, or how Roxy had sat by a silent radio for months before they found the right frequency again. “Jane doesn’t have much of a sweet tooth anymore.”

“And you?”

Jake remembered his mask tearing off his face, leaving his skin exposed and blank. “I’m still figuring things out. I do enjoy sweets though.”

“Our worlds changed all of us, and maybe that was a bad thing, but I wouldn’t want my friends to be different people, so I guess I’m grateful.” Jade glanced over at him. “Does that make sense?”

Jake nodded because it felt right to do so, even if he couldn’t agree. The problem was, his world hadn’t changed him. The Framed hadn’t made him a hero. He’d left the same way he’d come – as nothing at all. He might have cobbled together a mask of bombastic phrases and bravado, but one day it would come off too, and everyone would know.

What would be left of him then?

Chapter Text

TG: callie
TG: hey callie!
TG: ive got good gossip 4 u today
TG: im talking primo juicy shit
TG: u could bite into this gossip like a fruit gusher and itd squirt that weird gunk from the middle everywhere like ur noshing on some sort of alien insect larva
TG: k mayb thats not so appealing but u wont want 2 miss this
UU: i certainly do not! :U
UU: what has kept the five of yoU so preoccUpied lately?
UU: i was beginning to get concerned.
TG: lol sry
TG: its k were still on boring old earth no evil queens or other bad shit in sight
TG: no weve just had a LOT going on
TG: heres a riddle 4 u what has 4 legs in the morning 2 legs in the afternoon and candy corn horns all over
TG: our new visitors
TG: from ANOTHER DIMENSION
TG: that doesnt sound super exciting considerin our histories but also some of them came from a parallel earth
TG: the ones w/o candy corn horns
TG: my mom is here!!
TG: or
TG: a version of her anyway
UU: oh roxy i'm so happy for yoU!
TG: but not TOO surprised i c
TG: i remember u hintin i shouldnt give up on seeing her again back on atria
TG: is this what u meant
UU: i knew yoU shoUld never discoUnt possibilities in a mUltiverse this large and complex.
TG: thats all ur sayin rn huh
TG: ok have it ur way miss spoiler guardian
TG: i will keep proceeding thru this book 1 page at a time like some sort of linear peon
TG: also those trolls i was hinting @ w/ my updated sphinxs riddle were wonderin if u were any1 they knew mayb
UU: oh!
UU: Um.
UU: this is embarrassing.
UU: i’m not actUally a troll.
UU: yoU’ll find i never actually said i was, just strongly implied it.
UU: in fact, i am a cherUb.
TG: :o
TG: wuts that
UU: nothing as nice as a hUman, i'm afraid.
UU: my trUe form is... Unappealing, as is my species' circUmstances.
UU: we come from a very crUel world.
TG: u dont seem v cruel 2 me
UU: no, and that was my Undoing.
UU: i coUldn't compete with more typical members of my race.
TG: thats y u ran away?
UU: ... something like that.
UU: why are yoUr visitors here?
TG: ohhh ye i prob shouldve led w/ that
TG: apparently a big scary monster is chomping his way thru the worlds like an evil pac man
TG: assuming pac man isnt morally dubious himself anyway
TG: no sign of him here yet tho so hopefully we lost him
TG: the monster not pac man
TG: callie?
TG: u still there?
UU: i know that monster. he's coming for me.
TG: !!!
TG: how do u kno that
UU: he's my brother.
UU: i shoUld have known this eventUality was only a matter of time.
UU: with my absence, he was free to become what oUr race matUres into, bUt clearly he will not rest Until whatever trace of me that remains is extingUished.
UU: on the way, he will destroy whatever he encoUnters. he always had a knack for devastation and bloody single-mindedness.
UU: i'm sorry yoU strayed into his path.
UU: i shoUld have warned you earlier, bUt…
UU: i was ashamed. i feared if you knew i was associated with sUch a creatUre, you woUldn't want to talk to me anymore.
TG: ok well 1st of all that sucks
TG: i knew ur bro was a shitlord but i didnt know that he was THAT bad
TG: 2nd ofc im not gonna judge u based on ur shitty relatives thats bff code rule ONE
TG: 3rd no way is that gonna happen 2 you
TG: weve got a shitton of alt universe firepower here were like the spiderverse collection of wily world hoppin teens
TG: well find a way 2 save u evn if it means beatin the shit out of ur monster bro
UU: i know yoU vowed to save me one day, but i can't ask yoU to do that for me. it's too dangeroUs.
TG: you dont gotta ask
TG: thats what friends r 4
TG: now weve got the s and a polite lady nvr asks for the a but i need the l bit of ur asl ;)
UU: ...
UU: my location is not a world in the same way as the others yoU've been to. it's best to think of it as a soUrce of energy. a central point. i don't know how to direct yoU there.
TG: sounds p cool
UU: it is. i've sheltered here for a long time.
UU: bUt if my brother reaches it, i shUdder to think how powerful he will become.
UU: maybe i was being selfish to stay here so long.
TG: see that gives us ANOTHER reason 2 stop him besides savin u
TG: this mission checks the fuck out
TG: ill let the others know and we'll come a-knocking
TG: 1 of the new kids has this zappy power we can use 2 track u down
TG: just sit tight and well come get you k?
UU:...
UU: ok. UwU
UU: and roxy?
TG: mhm?
UU: please be carefUl.

Chapter Text

In the end, they all went.

Everyone from Jane’s Earth had wanted to launch a rescue as soon as they learned Calliope was in danger. Roxy might have found her first, but she could no longer lay claim to her friend alone. Even Jake, whose insides had turned to water at the mention of what could only be the blackout, had no objections. The others, who’d never met or even heard of a cherub, needed time to think.            

Karkat glowered over the rim of his mug. They were making plans over hot chocolate. The Alternians had never tasted anything like it before, but the sweetness hadn’t rubbed off on his temperament. “We didn’t come here to join some sort of interdimensional superhero squad like the one from When A Group Of Almost Exclusively Male Individuals From Other Fictional Properties Band Together To Foil A Scheme By An Overused Fictional Villain And —.”

“Although that does sound pretty cool,” Kanaya cut him off. She reached for a napkin to wipe away her chocolate mustache.

“What else are we going to do?” Terezi asked. “Stay here?”

Karkat set his mug down with a slosh. “Going home isn’t an option. Not unless you’re looking forward to squatting in the heap of rubble that used to be a functioning, if shitty universe.”

Jade leaned forward across the table. She understood his reluctance. They’d both seen two worlds destroyed, and she never wanted to see anything like that again. She also didn’t want that same destruction reaching her friends from Prospit or devastating this new Earth. “He’ll do it here too if no one stops him. Wouldn’t it be better to try now before there’s nothing left?”

“Maybe we could even reverse the damage.” John deliberately didn’t look toward the kitchen. Jane’s dad hadn’t been thrown by the appearance of several alternate universe houseguests, one who resembled his late father. John wasn’t sure he was taking it anywhere near as gracefully. He missed his dad. For one thing, his hot chocolate recipe was better. “That way we could all go home.”

Dave scratched at his cheek, where Roxy had insisted on covering his cut with a Complacency of the Learned band-aid. (This had delighted Rose, who now had one of the volumes pulled off the shelf for bedtime reading.) “I don’t know, this guy sounds like bad news. Tactics lessons were pretty on the fly in Cinder, but they did have one good rule of thumb: don’t kick its ass if it’s got spikes there.”

“Wisdom that puts Sun Tzu to shame,” Rose said.

“Look, they were reptiles. Spikes were high, literacy was low. The point is, don’t pick a fight you can’t win.”

“This fight may have already picked us,” Dirk said.

At the sound of Dirk’s voice, Dave leaned back in his chair, bringing his mug to his lips. Dirk frowned at his sudden silence, but his alternate universe brother wouldn’t meet his eyes. 

“How about we sleep on it?” Jane suggested. “You’ve all had a hard day. We’ll be thinking more clearly in the morning.”

The reprieve wasn’t just for their visitors’ benefit. Jane agreed with her friends; rescuing Calliope was important. That didn’t make her eager to strike out into other worlds again. After their houseguests settled into scrounged-up sleeping bags or pull-out beds, Jane retreated to her bedroom. There, she eased open a drawer. Someone who had never been to Confection would see a piece of candy that had been left somewhere warm too long: sticky, warped, and gathering grime. Jane recognized it for what it was: the melted remains of her tiara.

She slammed the drawer shut and pulled the covers up to her chin.

The next morning, almost everyone woke in unfamiliar places. Kanaya had spent the night curled up next to the bathroom’s night light to make sure the rainbow princess’ curse didn’t come back. As she rubbed a crick out of her neck, she realized she missed her room in Jane’s school. It wasn’t home, exactly, but it was hers. She caught up with Karkat while he filled Terezi in on his trip to Cinder. “I think I want to go. Not necessarily out of dedication to this cherub individual, but so that in the future we can stop running.”

He grimaced. Kanaya took it as a sign he’d lost an argument, either with someone else or with himself. “Yeah, Terezi and I were thinking something like that too.”

Terezi smirked. “I think you want to play hero again.”

“And what’s your secret motivation? Or are you unsullied by baser impulses, a state we flawed mortals can only dream of?”

She stuck her tongue out. “I am better than you.”

That left only one undecided. “They need me to jump between worlds,” John said after breakfast, trying and failing to act like he wasn’t directing his words mostly toward Dave, “but that doesn’t mean everyone has to come.”

Dave had his shades on again to ward off the glare of the dining room’s fluorescent bulbs, but he tilted them down so John could see him roll his eyes. “Don’t be ridiculous. Haven’t you ever heard of not splitting the party? I’m not being responsible for a TPK just because you don’t know how to run a tabletop game.”

“Ok, so we’re all on board then!” That cheered John up. His Earth was fine, of course. It had to be. But he remembered seeing it shatter around him, and he didn’t want to let any of his friends out of his sight, just in case.

Dave pushed his shades back up to cover his eyes. “I guess.”

“Hopefully your power can hop the turnstile the Empress has set up,” Dirk said. This time, he didn’t look to see Dave’s reaction. “She’s not a fan of unexpected guests.”

Jane nodded, tight-lipped. She’d left a note for her father on the kitchen table. It was more than she’d done last time. Only her dedication to Calliope – and her fears of Calliope’s brother carving his path through the multiverse and smashing her home to bits – gave her the courage to join their human chain when John instructed them to link hands. She’d never seen the power to travel through worlds at will before. That could be enough to overcome the Empress’s pull.

But when John drew them out of their universe and into another, Jane knew before she opened her eyes. The air smelled too sweet.

They didn’t make it far. Jane tried to guide them, but Confection had changed. Spiny structures rose in place of conventional dwellings. Pale monsters prowled the woods. The strawberry soda ocean looked too pale, and when she scooped up a handful to taste, she spat it out, tongue heavy with salt water.

“She’s making it more like Alternia,” Karkat said. Like Jane, he’d hoped they would be able to avoid Confection. None of the trolls were enthusiastic about encountering their species’ tyrant. At the same time, it was comforting to see familiar architecture and wildlife, signs that something of their world besides themselves had survived. Maybe they could start a life somewhere else. The Empress, it seemed, was trying.

Terezi stumbled and clutched Kanaya’s arm. “Nothing smells like it should here. Can we leave yet?”

“Sorry.” John’s form flickered, only to resolve again where he’d started. “This is where I keep ending up.”

“She’s got us just where she wants us,” Jake said. Which was, of course, when the guards showed up.

It was only three against eleven, but the three were armed and covered in foil-plated chocolate mail. Even so, Dirk shifted into a fighter’s stance before Rose caught his arm. “Let’s not spoil any chance we have for diplomacy. We can burn our bridges later.”

“I’m going to hold you to that,” he said, and she smiled.

“I think you’ll find that when it comes to burning bridges at appropriate or even inappropriate times, I’m simply the best there is.”

Roxy had been trailing behind the group, dragging her feet. Confection’s garish display wasn’t anything like the quiet majesty of Atria’s sunken monastery, and she found herself almost missing it. Whatever her story was supposed to be as the lady of perpetual darkness, she didn’t belong here. How would traipsing around Candyland help her save Calliope? That was what mattered.

When the Empress’s guards appeared, she braced herself for a fight too. These people worked for the woman who’d killed her mom, after all. But as the guards rounded up the others, not one of them looked her way. Roxy wavered between fighting and running, wondering if they were saving her for last, but then the guards walked away, herding their prisoners with occasional prods from their aluminum foil-wrapped swords. Somehow, they hadn’t noticed her.

She looked down at herself. She didn’t look invisible. And yet… There was that lingering feeling that this wasn’t her story, like if you checked the official version written down, she wouldn’t appear on the pages at all.

Perpetual darkness, huh? Maybe being overlooked had its uses.

When they reached the castle, everyone but Jane, Dirk, and Jake were handed off to another set of guards and escorted to a prison chamber. Terezi slumped against the wall. “Last time I saw a jail cell, I was on the other side of the door.”

“The strategy of direct confrontation worked better in Prism,” Kanaya said. “Of course, maybe it would have assisted us here, if the Empress were inclined to see us.”

Karkat snorted. The last thing he wanted was to parade his mutant blood in front of the Alternian empire’s chief caste enforcer. Their cell was a relief after the mental scenarios he’d been concocting on their walk there.

“Sorry. I guess we’re not important enough for an audience. If we can’t walk across that bridge, it’s time to get out the gasoline and matches.” Rose turned to John. “I know you’ve been trying, but the stakes are considerably higher now. Do you think you can get out of here?”

“I’m not sure. It felt like the worlds wanted me to come here, so if they don’t want me to leave… I’ll try.” He reached out an arm and felt for that in-between space he was growing used to. Before, his arm had slipped right in. Now it slid, like pushing up against a thick curtain. He pushed harder, digging his fingers into the sensation, and felt something tear. “I think I —” he began, and then the others saw him fold up like a piece of paper and disappear.

Traveling this time didn’t feel the same. John squeezed into this new world, like he’d been pressed between the pages of a book. He knelt on a flat white surface and took a moment to catch his breath. Then he raised his head.

This world was empty, a plain white expanse stretching as far as he could see. The only other thing visible was a girl – a troll – looking at him with a mix of mild curiosity and disdain.

“Hey newbie,” she said. “How’d you die?”

Back in Confection, Jane, Dirk, and Jake stood facing the Empress as she lounged on her rock candy throne. The three guards no longer pressed blades to their backs, but they kept their weapons ready. The empress waved a bejeweled hand. “Stand down. They’re not a threat.”

The three guards sheathed their swords. Then, as one, they reached up and removed their helmets.

From her hiding place behind a pretzel-stick column, Roxy fought to stay quiet. Jake gasped. Dirk stared. And Jane, mouth going dry, knew the jig was up at last.

“Hello, Jane,” said the guard with Jake English’s face. “Did you miss us? We sure missed you.”

Chapter Text

Jane backed away from the three guards. They looked nearly identical to her friends, with only an artificial shine to their skin and a brightness of their colors to suggest they’d been made in a kitchen rather than by more conventional means. She remembered kneading the dough and shaping their limbs, but they hadn’t come out right. They certainly hadn’t been capable of standing up and talking.

“You shouldn’t have run out on us,” not-Jake said. “We were made to be together forever, weren’t we?”

“Not very nice, leaving your bffs to get stale in a pile of scraps,” not-Roxy said. “But that’s ok, we forgive you. We’ll always forgive you.”

“We’re glad you’re back,” added not-Dirk. “We’ve been short staffed without the second in command.”

Jane couldn’t bring herself to look back at her friends, but she heard Dirk say, “Jane?” He didn’t sound angry. He sounded confused, like surely Jane hadn’t been working with the woman who’d killed his brother, and he hadn’t crunched the numbers yet to figure out what was really going on. “You made these?”

“I missed you,” she said desperately. Of the questions he could have asked, this one was the least painful. “I wasn’t allowed to bring you here, so I thought the next best thing… They weren’t alive when I left, though. They weren’t like this.”

Not-Roxy twirled a finger through a curl of her hair. “Silly Janey, do we look dead to you?”

“We’re not the next best thing,” not-Dirk said. “We’re better.”

“She made us so we’d know just how wonderful she was.” Not-Jake took her hand with fingers that were too hot, like bread fresh from the oven. Jane recoiled, but his smile didn’t falter. “No one gave her the appreciation she deserved back on Earth. Now that we’re all together, she’ll never have to leave us again.”

People often assume that extraordinary things happen to extraordinary people. They forget that the fanciest of cakes come from the same simple ingredients: sugar, butter, flour. And since they forget that, inexperienced bakers can be surprised when they open the oven door and see what’s ready to come out.

No one at John’s school had expected much of Jane Crocker, a girl who hadn’t walked in other worlds and come back with their fingerprints smeared over her skin. She hadn’t been cast as hero or prince or lady. She’d been born with a silver spoon in her mouth and spent the next sixteen years trying without success to taste it. Even the company board of executives sent her minutes of their meetings only as an afterthought, promising they’d make all the decisions she was too young to understand.

When she baked her way to Confection that first time, the Empress had offered her a role. Not the one Jane might have chosen on her own, but an opportunity to write the recipe instead of following it. You could turn out something inedible that way. You could also make marvels.

“Whale?” The empress said, leaning forward. “That’s what you wanted, ain’t it? What’ll it be? Do I got my heiress back?”

Dirk and Jake had fallen silent behind her. Jane didn’t turn to see that sword points pressed once more into their backs. She was too afraid of what their expressions might say. Would they ever trust her again? What was left for her if they didn’t?

The woman in front of her was offering something. You had to think all the steps through before you started cooking, though. You had to know where you wanted to end up.

Dirk and Jake couldn’t see Jane’s face, only the way her shoulders slumped and then stiffened. Roxy could, but she couldn’t read it. Instead, she saw Dirk and Jake’s horror next to the smiles on their doubles’ faces as Jane said, face blank, “Yes.”

Roxy had thought she could always tell what her friend was thinking. She’d thought all the household’s secrets were open ones. It looked like she been wrong about a lot of things.

“Wait, not-Dirk said. He looked around the room, eyes passing over Roxy. She shrunk back against the column. “Is someone missing?”

Roxy saw Jake’s lips start to form her name. Then Dirk shook his head, short and sharp, and Jake stayed silent. So did Jane.

The empress pointed the tines of her trident toward Jane, who took a half-step backward. “Heiress. That’s your first job. If anyfin slipped through our nets, catch it. Your gear’s where you left it.”

Jane knelt. “Yes, your imperial majesty.” Then she stood and turned to leave. Her eyes moved toward Roxy, who drew further into the shadows. For a moment, Roxy could have sworn their gazes met, but then Jane walked right past her.

After she’d left, the empress relaxed back into her throne. “Toss the leftovers in another cell. Not with the rest of them. We’ll keep ‘em as insurance, just in case.”

Roxy follow the guards long enough to see where they were headed. Once they’d looked over their shoulders a few times in response to a careless footfall or hasty breath, she split away. They’d gotten her to the cell block, and she found the others through a scientific method that involved tapping on doors and whispering. From behind the fourth door she tried, someone whispered back. “Roxy?”     

“The one and only. Accept no substitutes.” Roxy peered through the bars set into the door and wondered if they could see her. She tried to imagine herself as part of the narrative again – a noble spy, a fearless rescuer. Rose looked out, and her eyes focused on her. 

“How did you get away?”

“Apparently I can go invisible now? Or not invisible, but not get noticed.” Roxy snorted.  She’d felt that way in John’s school plenty of times as the Jake-stakes heated up. Now it was literal. “Just what I wanted. But it’s coming in handy now.”

Roxy had powers. Rose had already tried to draw magic circles on the floor in case the Circle had lied, but nothing had happened. She swallowed down the unfairness of it. “What’s going on out there?”

“Good question. First of all, there’s evil clones of us? Me and Dirk and Jake, anyway. So if you see me again, ask for a password. What’s a good password?”

“Fruity rumpus prison party,” Dave suggested from the floor.

“Sure, let’s go with it.” Roxy tapped her fingers on the edge of the bars. She didn’t want to admit the rest out loud. Suggesting Jane had betrayed them felt like a betrayal itself. How could she believe that of a friend? But the others needed to be prepared. “And now Jane might have joined the dark side?”

“Why would she do that?” Jade asked.

“Welll,” Roxy began reluctantly. “Not saying it’s an excuse or anything, because wtf Janey, but things have been a little bit tense lately. And in retrospect maybe she was feeling a little bit unappreciated.”

“I’ve heard better justifications for cooperating with a mass murderer,” Terezi grumbled from the corner.

“I said it wasn’t an excuse. But it could be a useful tragic villain backstory.” And Roxy, in her best cliff notes fashion, laid it all out. How everyone had liked Jake, and how she’d stepped out of the competition because she liked Dirk more, and how it seemed like Dirk might be taking the lead what with all those special two person training sessions he and Jake got up to, and how Jane had been shifty and thoughtful whenever Roxy encouraged to ‘go take what’s yours’. “She said she was gonna talk to him about it, but I dunno if she ever did. She didn’t tell me, but obviously she didn’t tell me a lot of things.”

“You didn’t tell me a lot of things either,” Rose said.

Roxy couldn’t take her teen mom being mad at her on top of everything else. Why did Rose expect her to have spilled every detail of her life within the day they’d known each other, anyway? “Sorry, I didn’t think our stupid drama was that relevant.”

Kanaya cleared her throat while Rose frowned. “I’m almost impressed that with a single quadrant the four of you managed to craft an entanglement worthy of one of Karkat’s romance novels.”

“Five, depending on who you ask,” Roxy said, but as she made the clarification, something dawned on her. “Hey. Where’s John?”

Chapter Text

“What do you mean, how did I die?” John got to his feet, just in case. None of the trolls he’d met so far had been dangerous, but they’d insisted that their species was usually violent. Maybe the girl’s question was some kind of threat. “I’m not dead. I guess you could’ve misunderstood, since I did just pop out of nowhere, but I promise there is no need to call the ghost busters on me.” Even considering the way he’d appeared, it was a big assumption to jump to. John took a closer look. He hadn’t noticed before, but dark blue blood soaked the troll’s middle, seeping from a tear in her chest. Her whole body looked distorted, like someone had drawn a convincing 3-D illustration on paper and then left it to fade in the sun. If you looked at her from a different angle, she might be two-dimensional. “Wait, are you dead?”

“Obviously.” She rolled her eyes. One of those looked funny too, but he didn’t think it was from being dead. It had too many pupils. “No, this mortal wound is a fashion statement.”

“What happened to you?” John had been on Alternia when it was ripped apart. Was this were all the victims of collapsing worlds ended up? Did that mean his dad was here?

“Stabbed in the back by a so-called friend. A real shady customer, can’t give her an inch or she’ll use it to hang you with.” She shrugged. John thought most people would look more upset discussing their own murder. “That’s old news by now. I’m over it.”

“Sorry for disturbing your eternal rest. I’m just passing through. Or, trying to.” John loosened his stance and jumped. Color was seeping out from where he stood, transforming the flat white expanse into oily gravel. “What’s happening?”

“Everything here is what you bring with you.” The troll – or the ghost of the troll – stepped closer. “You’re really not supposed to be here, huh? People don’t usually come wandering through. It’s invitation only, if you count a knife in your gut as someone rolling out a welcome mat.”

John shifted again as more landscape spilled out from beneath his feet. He recognized it now: the shimmering oil slicks and dark dirt of The Furrows. “I’m looking for someone. Or, first I’m trying to rescue my friends. Then we’re going to defeat the guy destroying all the worlds.  Do you know about him?”

She snorted. “You’re going to beat him? Give me a break. I get it now, you travel around telling hilarious jokes to lift people’s spirits. Nice one.”

“I’m serious.”

“Listen.” The girl sat down. As she did, a weathered treasure chest rendered itself out of sketchy lines and then solidified for her to rest on. “How much do you know about the guy?”

“Um…” John didn’t want to admit it to the stranger, but his group had begun their latest mission without exchanging much information. He wasn’t sure if no one knew much about whatever bad guy they were facing, or if he’d been left out of the loop, again. “I know he’s looking for his sister, and that he’s bad news. Probably final boss material, if this was a video game.”

“That’s it, huh? Well, human —”

“John.”

“Well, John, it’s time to get a clue!” She crossed her arms. From beneath the chest, color leached into her surroundings, resolving itself into what looked like the fine paneling of a fancy floor. “Clearly you have a lot to learn. It’s lucky for you that you ran into me before you got yourself killed for real.”

“What, are you some kind of ghost expert? Like an expert who is also a ghost,” John clarified, “not an expert on ghosts, like Tangina Barrons in Poltergeist.

“Ghost expert? I’m way too high caste for anything like that. I worked for a guy who kept an ear to the ground,” she said, as the ground beneath her continued to change. Some of the wooden flooring had reached John’s gravel, and the two blurred together to create an indistinct middle zone. “This destroyer is immensely powerful. He can even kill the dead, which is bullshit if you ask me. You’re not wrong about his final boss status; only a really accomplished gamer could hope to tangle with him. But that’s nothing compared to the treasure he’s headed for.”

“I heard something about that,” John interrupted, determined to prove he knew something. “It’s at the center of the worlds, right?”

“Yeah, maybe, if you could put it on a map, which we can’t. Maps don’t work here, by the way. Nothing works the way it’s supposed to. It’s one of the many shitty things about being dead.” For a second her expression looked less casual, but then she shrugged and tossed a lock of hair over her shoulder. “There are lots of rumors. The dead don’t have much to do except gossip, it turns out. Most of them are boring, but a few have something worth listening to, which is a good thing, or I would’ve gone out of my thinkpan a few perigrees after I got here. People say the treasure can rewrite reality or make new worlds, blah blah. The important part is that it can bring people back to life. That makes it a hot commodity around here, I can tell you. Maybe that’s even why the big guy wants it. I don’t care. He can do whatever he wants rampaging around, but I’m on his trail, and he’s going to lead me right to it. Then it’ll be mine.”

An epic quest, a race against a powerful monster, a magical treasure with amazing powers… those were the kinds of things John had hoped for when he first wandered into the Furrows, before he realized his “adventure” wasn’t much fun at all. Slick pebbles grated under his feet. Things never worked out that way in real life. There were always complications. “What about his sister? She’s hiding there, and he wants to kill her.”

“Who cares? If I got choked up over every nobody he blew up I’d never get done bawling.” She jerked a thumb toward the hole in her chest. “You’re talking to a dead person, remember? Nobody bothered to worry about me.”

John thought a good person would want to protect anyone in danger, even if they didn’t know them. That was how you identified heroes in stories, wasn’t it? They got establishing character moments rescuing puppies or helpless old ladies. Still, he and his friends could use more information on what they were up against. If this troll could give them that, he should find a way to get it. “If we want to rescue Calliope, and you want this treasure, maybe we can work together to both get what we want. Some of my friends are pretty smart. We could help each other.” 

“And have you getting in my way? I don’t think so. Although…” She drummed her fingers on the lid of the treasure chest. “I guess there’s something to be said for a bunch of idiotic do-gooders charging him from the front while I get my hands on the loot when his back is turned.”

Idiotic do-gooders? “Hey, that’s not very nice.”

She sighed. “John, I’m bending over backward here to include you. Try to be a little more appreciative.”

“Oh.” John blinked. The conversation had left him behind at some point, but he wasn’t sure how. “Sorry.”

“If you are going to work with me, you’ll need to get your act together. I can’t be seen associating with someone who doesn’t measure up.” She gave him a once-over and shook her head. “Who’s going to know not to mess with you if you don’t look the part? And you won’t last long if you’re this clueless about how the worlds work. You need a mentor. A seasoned veteran willing to show you the ropes.”

That sounded promising. “Do you know someone like that?”

She scowled. “I meant me, dumbass. Jeez, some people can’t take a hint.”

“I guess that could be helpful.” John wished he’d worn a watch. The others would be waiting for him to come back and tell them he’d found a way out of Confection, even if that route did include sales pitches from pushy ghosts. All sorts of bad stuff might have happened to them while he was gone. “Although first I should —”

“If you insist, I guess I can spare some of my valuable time. Not right now though. I’ve got a lot of irons in the fire. I’m sure you can understand.” She hopped off the treasure chest, which collapsed into nothing. “See you around, John.”

“I never got your,” he started, but then the girl faded and vanished. John guessed he should have seen that coming, since it was typical ghost behavior. “Bye.”

Alone again, he watched the colored portions of ground continue to spread. His… memory? of the Furrows kept moving, and a few of its sickly blue trees had even sprouted, but the wooden paneling had stopped as soon as the girl vanished. It hadn’t disappeared, though, which was interesting. Rose would like to hear about this place for sure. They could all explore it together once he rescued them.

John reached out a hand again, but this time he didn’t feel anything – familiar fizz or slippery curtain. He tried again, and again, and then panic began to swirl in his stomach. It leaked out of him in the form of candy-wrought stonework replacing the gravel by his feet, replicating the cell he’d come from.

It had been tricky getting here. Now how did he get back?

Chapter Text

Alone at last, said the auto responder.

“Christ, you’re the last thing I need right now,” Dirk muttered under his breath. He tapped the edge of his shades when Jake looked over, and Jake nodded. They’d had to develop signs to indicate these kinds of conversations back at John’s school. The AR’s presence had complicated every aspect of their social interactions. And to think he’d thought it would be a time-saver.

What, still getting over the revelation that sweet innocent Jane is capable of something so underhanded? Honestly, I’m impressed. I thought making improved copies of inadequate friends was your specialty. She’s been paying attention. Do you think she has a spot open for a co-regent? You could negotiate for Jake on the side; she’s already done you the solid of locking him somewhere he can’t get away from you.

Dirk had heard enough. He ripped the shades off and shoved them into his pocket. Something cracked. “Shut the fuck up.”

Jake jumped at Dirk’s raised voice and tried to cover the movement by passing a nervous hand through his hair. “Well pal, while not to put too fine of a point to things, we’re in a pickle, aren’t we?”

“No, that level of fineness is pinpoint. This isn’t the climactic throwdown with the Empress I’d pictured. But we can get things back on track.” Dirk gave the bars set in the door’s narrow window an experimental tug. The striped peppermint candy didn’t budge. He wasn’t desperate enough yet to try licking it. He looked over his shoulder to where Jake had been watching from the back of the cell. “You down to help?”

“You seemed comfortable taking the lead.”

Dirk kicked at a patch of mortar. What looked like old royal icing dried hard and crusted didn’t even dent. “My approach isn't making all that much progress.”

“I don’t want to be a wet blanket here, but maybe we should wait before rushing out with guns blazing.” Jake wished he had some sort of weapon, pistols or otherwise. They hadn’t packed any munitions in case it gave other worlds the wrong ideas – you wouldn’t want to get caught up in fantasy customs – and the supplies they’d brought had been confiscated. They didn’t have as much as a nail file for sawing through the bars. The swords the guards carried had looked sharp. Jake knew that back on a Logic-leaning world like Earth, foil-lined toffee would shatter if used in combat. He didn’t think a Nonsense world like Confection followed those rules, and he didn’t want to find out. “We don’t know where Roxy’s made off to, and Jane’s thrown in with that horned terror in the bangles. The others must’ve been tossed in the brig like us. If we get out of here, we might not have any backup. Do you have a plan?”

Dirk aimed one last kick at the wall. His only reward was that his foot hurt. “...no, I don't. You’re right. We should talk it out. You know.” He leaned against the wall to keep weight off his injured foot, glad the auto responder couldn’t see to comment on his lack of social poise. “Make a plan.”

For all that he’d suggested it, Jake didn’t look happy. “Ah yes. Talk. I guess there’s no avoiding it in these close quarters.”

Every time Dirk had bumped into him lately, Jake had remembered pressing errands. He’d begged off their past few sparring sessions over a bum knee, affecting an exaggerated limp only when reminded. “Were you avoiding me?”

True to form, Jake didn’t meet his eye. “Avoid is a strong word. I might have been postponing our interactions.”

“Why?”

Jake threaded his fingers together, a nervous tic Dirk recognized. Jake was all nervous tics these days. “I suppose it all got to be too overwhelming. I enjoyed our friendly banter and the chance to test my mettle in our daily scrums, but you started implying you might… view our time together as more than two pals having a grand old time.”

Jake hadn’t brought this up earlier for plenty of reasons, but a leading one was that he couldn’t find the right words. How did he object not to an activity, but to its possible interpretations? Training with Dirk had been fun. He’d relished a way to feel tough and capable after the debacle with the Blackout. Then Roxy had made a few comments, and Jane had gotten touchy about it, and he’d had to stop and wonder if yet again he’d read a situation all wrong. What was expected of him? What had people assumed? Why couldn’t people say what they meant? It would’ve been easier if he’d had a response lined up ready to any outright statement of amorous intent. But instead the concept was like a stone tablet uncovered in an ancient ruin, a new language to pick over and decipher. No one seemed willing to allow him the luxury of making up his own mind, just as they refused to lay the matter out in the open. A riddle from the ancients wouldn’t be this obtuse. “Pairing that with some rather ribald insinuations on the part of Hal —”

“Thanks for that,” Dirk said loudly.

You're welcome, came the muffled response. About time I got some credit for my service as your loyal wing man.

Jake held up a hand. Dirk didn’t know if he meant it as a placating or warding gesture. “It’s not that I wasn’t flattered, but I needed time to clear my head. Especially since I thought I detected certain tokens of regard from Jane as well. Although when the matter arose and I asked her point blank a few days ago, she denied them. Since that made matters in our little household a lot less complicated, I was happy to take her at her word, but…” He remembered the way the other him had reached so eagerly for her hand. “Given the recent evidence, that may have been too hasty.”

You mean how she built a candy-coated sex bot? Hal chimed in. 

Dirk slapped a hand over his pocket.

Jake swallowed. This time, he’d also heard Hal’s electronic voice. “There’s no need to be so crass. I’m sure it’s nothing like that.” Privately, he wasn’t so sure. This debacle only confirmed his wisdom in not slowing down long enough for any of his aspiring suitors to catch up. “I’ve given her the run-around for so long, she must find cheerful compliance a nice change of pace. If I’m being honest, I don’t know what you all see in me.”

Dirk raised his eyebrows. “Are you going to panic if I state for the record that I do see something in you? Because we’re locked in a pretty small space right now. I don’t want to be responsible for you turning this place into your own cuboid hamster wheel if you try to run away from me.”

Jake sighed. He didn’t see any chance of evading the topic any longer, not now that he’d let the genie out of the bottle. “It’s a tender spot at the moment, thanks to the impostor out there and his likely intentions, but I’ll steel myself. Prod away.”

Dude, Hal said. Statements like that are dumping lubed up slices of premium beefsteak on the fire. No cold shower's gonna take care of that.

“You have to smother grease fires,” Dirk hissed back. “As a mechanic, I'm aware of basic workplace safety.” He slid his hand back over his pocket in what he hoped was a casual gesture. “...yeah. I guess. As long as we're being bleeding hearts here, I'll say this: You’re genuine. You all know me. It’s been a point of household criticism that I can’t lower my guards enough to express affection for anything without cloaking it in layers of irony and academic detachedness. Need I remind you of the anime night debacle?” Dirk had been grateful for the protection of shades when Roxy started launching popcorn at him because he wouldn’t just shut up and enjoy the show. Eventually Jane had declared she would sit on him until he admitted he was having fun, and he’d surrendered. Meanwhile, Jake had been moved to genuine tears by a stock shonen speech about friendship. “You’re so openly enthusiastic about the things you enjoy, it makes everyone else remember what it’s like to have a sense of childlike wonder, even cynical bastards like me. Not to mention you came out of your world toughened up by Tomb Raider-style shenanigans and survivalist training, capable of savoring life’s greatest pleasures whether they’re vintage comics or firearms heavier than a small child. If this were Regency England and you were a new arrival who’d let Netherfield Park at last, every matchmaking mother would be maneuvering their offspring toward you at the local dances.”

Jake didn’t speak for a moment. Then he said, “Oh.”

As responses to heartfelt confessions went, Dirk thought that was pretty piss-poor. Not that he’d been expecting any swooning into his arms, whatever the AR might accuse him of, but some sort of positive response might’ve been nice. “Did I lay it on too thick there? I’m not used to placing my still beating heart on the table; maybe I overdid it. My point was… I don’t know why someone wouldn’t see something in that, if they had fucking eyes. No offense to that troll with the oral fixation.”

“No, you’re fine,” Jake said hastily. “That was the kind of speech the leading man might deliver at the end of some earnest romantic moving picture. I suppose I just… I knew some of you fancied me, or I suspected, although I didn’t want to let on that I thought so in case I’d gotten a swelled head and misinterpreted gestures of regular platonic camaraderie, but…” He’d heard speeches like that in media, of course, but he’d started to think it was all a Hollywood illusion. The only thing he could imagine moving him to such dramatic displays was a first edition comic, or maybe the renewal of Firefly helmed by someone a little more socially aware. “I didn’t know you felt so strongly. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt that strongly about anyone.”

“…Oh.” Now it was Dirk’s turn to deliver an inadequate response.

Jake winced. “I’m really putting my foot in it today, aren’t I? I wasn’t trying to give you the old icy mitt right after you ripped out your ticker for me, but I guess I’m still new in matters of the heart. I haven’t figured it all out yet, and the fact that the rest of you have, or at least you’ve all zeroed in on me, made it easier to stick my head under the sand.”

The thought of the AR’s reaction to him falling apart after getting pseudo-dumped kept Dirk outwardly calm. “I’m sorry if I came on too strong. After everything you’ve been through, I didn’t think I was dishing out anything you couldn’t handle.”

“About that.” Telling Rose the official version of his time with the Framed had reminded Jake how little of the truth he’d shared. Now that they were facing whatever had caused the Blackout, those white lies were growing grungy. “If we’re getting down to brass tacks, I must admit I may have left some things out of my narrative as well. Nothing as damning as Jane, but it could change your perspective of me.”

Before he could continue, the cell door swung open. Jane herself stepped through the opening, holding a trident in one gloved hand. Jake’s mouth slammed shut.

“Er,” Jane said. “So.”

Roxy shimmered into visibility behind her and raised both fists. “Surprise. You’d better not be planning on hurting them, heiress.”

Jane whirled to face her. “Surprise? Did you think I didn’t see you? You weren’t even trying to stay out of sight.”

“Uh.” Roxy dropped her fists, nonplussed. “I mean, I thought I was doing a pretty great job. Did you see me?” she asked the boys over Jane’s shoulder. They shrugged. “Point is, I’m here to stop any royal hijinks, ok?”

Exasperation overcame Jane’s awkwardness. “Honestly, all of you,” she snapped, and tossed the trident to the floor with the clatter. “Don’t act so ridiculous. I’m here to rescue you.”

Chapter Text

For the first few minutes, everyone kept their eyes on the spot where John had disappeared. (Everyone except Terezi, anyway, who couldn’t if she’d wanted to and very much didn’t.) When he failed to return immediately, their attention drifted. Karkat and Kanaya moved to crouch near Terezi, while the humans remained sitting vigil.

“It’s been a while since it was just the three of us,” Jade said.

“Nothing like forced friendship time via being thrown in the slammer by an alien dictator and her lollipop guild.” Thanks to Karkat’s rants on Cinder, Dave had heard more than the others about the Empress’s nature. The knowledge made him twitchy.

Jade noticed his unease. If wayward children knew one thing, it was the danger of letting any of their number brood. “I did sort of miss this.”

Rose rested her chin on her hand, still gazing into the empty air once filled by their missing friend. “There’s something reassuring about going back to basics.”

“So,” said Dave, giving in to conversation. “Watch any good TV lately?”

Ghost Adventures was in fine form last Saturday. They produced several credible EMP recordings.”

“You know, you lap that shit up and I’m not even sure it’s ironic at this point.”

“The supernatural is not to be trifled with, Dave. John can attest to the scientific rigor of the ‘Ghoul Gang’, as they’ve named themselves. Or was it the Spooky Squad?”

“Poltergeist Patrol.” It was Dave’s turn to look back at John’s empty space. They’d instinctively left room for him, sitting arranged in three corners of an unfinished square. “How long has he been gone?”

“There are a lot of worlds,” Rose said, mostly to herself.  “He could have run into anything.”

“I’m sure he’s fine,” Jade said.

“If I wanted to escape so badly, I should’ve put myself in danger instead of delegating.”

“You can’t do what he can, though.”

Rose looked back at the lines she’d scratched into the cell floor. “I’m well aware of my powerless status, thanks.”

Jade sighed. At Jane’s school she played ambassador and peacekeeper, providing a welcoming smile and smoothing over arguments, the perfect role for a princess. Even now, she slipped back into that dynamic even without trying. “I know how you feel. I turned down being a princess! For reasons that made sense, but a part of me still regrets it.”

“Don’t look at me,” Dave said, even though no one had. “Maybe Rose is homesick for her hell dimension, but I hate Cinder.” He dragged one finger across the fudge block floor, licked it thoughtfully, and stuck his tongue out. “But I guess being back there, I saw how much everyone knew what their purpose was. It was a lie, obviously, but when you’re there it doesn’t it feel that way. It feels like you belong.”

Jade rested her chin on one drawn-up knee. “Maybe that’s why Jane made the school. She didn’t have a purpose anymore, and she felt like she needed to make one.” Was that her future? she wondered. Would she always be looking for another way to make herself useful after her grandfather hadn’t found her worth staying for? 

Jake had said that might not have been the real reason. She was thinking that over when Rose asked, “What would your purpose be?”

Answers sprang to mind. Help out. Take care of people. What rolled off her tongue instead was, “Maybe going to school like a normal kid? I know why Jane has us home schooled, and anything else might end badly, but I’d like to see what it’s like. We have to join the rest of the world someday.” That was the reason for Jane’s school – to slowly ease children into accepting that the adventure was over. She’d helped countless others through that process while clinging to the idea she might be special, but it was her turn. “We’re never going back.”

The others didn’t recoil at her selfishness in picking something for herself. Instead, Dave cleared his throat. He’d never wanted to go back, but Cinder had never let him go, not entirely. He was out of practice imagining a life that belonged to him. “If I’m following my dreams? Spread my artistic genius to the masses. What does it take to be a Youtube influencer these days? Do I have to hawk shitty brand-name shampoo? ‘They squeezed so many avocados into this tube, y’all.’ Or I could run a cryptid spotter site. Post blurry candids of TZ raiding the cupboard at 4:00 AM stealing all my goddamn poptarts again and sucking out the filling like fuckin Count Strawberry.”

Jade glanced over at the trolls’ corner of the cell. Either Terezi hadn’t heard this accusation, or she chose not to respond. “Does it count as cryptid spotting if they’re not already legends?”

“I’ll make them legends. Aliens are real, officer, Rose is hitting on one.”

Rose raised an eyebrow after her own furtive check on the Alternians. “We’re venturing deep into conspiracy territory now, are we?”

“What, are you denying you’ve been scoping her out since day one? Oh Kanaya,” Dave warbled in a feigned New York accent. “I’m afraid I’ve misplaced a comma, care to proofread with me over candlelight and finger foods?”

“Yes, that’s exactly what I sound like,” she said in a mock Texas drawl. In her regular voice, she continued, “A bit hypocritical, don’t you think? I consider myself a connoisseur in the matter of disdain, and these days your ribbing of a certain loud-mouthed gentleman seems more friendly than genuine.”

Dave crossed his arms. “I resent the insinuation that one vacation slash armed insurrection with a cranky alien is enough to ensnare my fair heart. I demand extensive wooing. Jade, you’re an unbiased observer. Tell her I have better standards than that.”

Jade pursed her lips. “I’d like to take your side here, but you did just say your ideal life’s mission was running a cryptid blog, so I can’t.”

“Cruel but fair. You’ll all be sorry when my online notoriety nets me a date with the Mothman.”

Will we?” Rose asked.

“We’re getting off track.” Dave jabbed a finger toward her. “You don’t get to dodge the question just because you asked it. What’s your five year plan? Let me guess, you’re aspiring to literary heights. Forget it, you peaked when your wizard slash graced my noble visage. Making the NYT bestseller list is nothing compared to being printed on kiddy band-aids.”

“I agree. It would be incalculable hubris to attempt to top that. Instead, I’ll have to settle for burning one last bridge: this one.” If she couldn’t be special, Rose thought the worlds at least owed her an explanation. “How many children came through our school having saved a world and been tossed out once the job was done? Who broke a rule they’d never heard of and were punished with exile? I want to know who’s calling the shots. They have a lot to answer for.”

Jade knew Rose had had a bad experience. Plenty of the children Jane found and enrolled had. But just as many were desperate to find their way back to the first home they’d ever known, after getting lost again only by plain bad luck. Balancing out the good and the bad, that didn’t seem like an agenda to her. It seemed like life. “What if there isn’t a person calling the shots? What if the worlds just are?”

“That wouldn’t make for a very good story.” Rose didn’t see why the multiverse shouldn’t follow narrative convention. Everything else did. Until you fell out of line, and then you were written out of the script. She’d spent long enough feeling self-pitying. It was time to give anger a try. “Maybe our presence did some good in the worlds we visited. Maybe we even ‘learned something’ or ‘grew as people’ from the experience. But I take issue with a system that leaves its participants this…”

“Fucked up?” Dave suggested.

“I was going to be more delicate in my phrasing.”

“Lost,” Jade said quietly. This part of Rose’s argument she could agree with. “Even when we get back.”

 “Lost is a good word. Narratively displaced, if we want to sound pretentious. A foot in too many stories.”

“I think that’s why we all feel this way. Why we all fell back into our old worlds.” Jade hadn’t been surprised she’d returned to Prospit – she’d hoped she would every time she went to sleep – but Dave never would have gone to Cinder on his own. “With Mrs. Egbert’s school gone, we didn’t know where home is anymore.”

Rose nodded. “And, like an addict reaching for that trusty bottle of vodka stashed in the freezer, we went back to what burned us. At least we got a few good punches in. Or Dave and I did.”

“Yeah, it wasn’t all bad. Even if we’re double homeless now.” Dave had been getting used to Jane’s home, relaxing into a life where the people down the hall might be quirky but probably didn’t want to kill you, where no one would ask you to pick up a sword or anything sharper than a kitchen knife. Now that had been taken away too. He wondered if he would ever find somewhere he could stop looking over his shoulder. “If you’re into bridge arson, what’re your tips for once the fire’s out?”

“Wait.” While he’d been talking, Jade had been thinking back to everyone’s stories of where they’d gone after Earth’s attack. Almost everyone had traveled in pairs, but she’d overlooked someone. “Rose, you and Kanaya went back to the Circle” – she turned to Dave – “and you and Karkat went back to Cinder. John and I went to Prospit. So where did Terezi go? Had she been to any other worlds before?”

Dave, who was the closest thing they had to a Terezi expert, shrugged. “She’s got a tragic backstory. Never filled me in on the details. I didn’t ask, since between the lot of us we’ve got enough tragic backstories to keep Hollywood in superhero reboots for decades.”

Jade looked over at her again. Terezi was still hunched in a corner, face screwed up in a scowl. “I wonder what home is to her.”

Chapter Text

John hadn’t had time to process being trapped when the troll girl reappeared. He heard her before he saw her – she’d added several golden bracelets to her outfit that jangled together as she moved. She stopped when she saw him. “Hey…?”

“John,” John said helpfully.

She snapped her fingers, setting the bracelets jingling again. “That’s right. Man, it’s been a while. And you’ve been waiting here the whole time? You must’ve been eager to see me.”

John looked around, where the traces of her memoryscape hadn’t yet faded. “Actually, it hasn’t been very long at all.”

That didn’t seem to surprise her. “Is that how it felt for you? Time is weird here. You’re lucky you weren’t forced to endure several Serket-free weeks.”

“Is that your name?”

“Maybe.” She crossed her arms. She’d swapped her earlier jacket for a tank top, and he could see a marking on her upper arm. Could ghosts get tattoos? That seemed like a weird thing for ghosts to be able to do. The livid bloodstain on her front hadn’t changed. “I’ve been learning a lot of names recently. After I talked to you, I realized some of the other ghosts out here might not be completely boring, so I made some… strong suggestions, and now I’ve got a crew helping me find the treasure.”

“A crew?” John hadn’t seen any other ghosts yet. How many of them were there?

“I met up with someone from a world that’s mostly water. She’s very into nautical terminology.” She ran her fingers over the tattoo, and John thought he saw her blush. “We’re even getting ourselves a ship. Don’t worry, I didn’t forget about you. We can still use a distraction, especially now that it won’t just be me sneaking in. So let’s go over the basics. When the time comes, if we have to go face to face with the destroyer, leave him to me, got it?”

“I thought he was dangerous and you wanted to avoid him.”

She frowned at his interruption. “I also want to be alive, but we don’t always get what we want. Face it, if we have to go head on, I’m the only one tough enough to get the job done.” She took a breath and smiled again. “Besides, he’s drawing power from the treasure somehow. He has to be. How else can he be tracking it when no one else can get a read on it at all? If I nab that away from him, he’ll be a lot more manageable.”

This was the kind of intelligence that could come in handy. Lots of video games wanted you to destroy the bad guy’s power source. “What else do you know about him?”

“Technically, that last bit was an educated guess,” she admitted, “but so far my guesses have been good. That’s how I’ve avoided him so long. He’s got a pattern, if you know how to see it.” Their surroundings changed to match her words. Now they stood suspended in a white nothingness, strobing cracks ripping through it. John hadn’t gotten a good look at the damage to Earth’s sky. From this vantage point, it started to come together. “His trail of destruction isn’t completely random,” the troll girl continued. She pointed to a spot that looked like someone had punched their way through a window. Trailing lines of damage connected a series of similar craters the same way rivers linked lakes on a map. “Worlds are vulnerable when they stop behaving the way people expect. At least, that’s how my old boss explained it. The destroyer is hoping if he punches through enough weak spots, he’ll make it to the middle, so he goes around sniffing for broken stories. Meanwhile, the treasure is fighting back. It keeps spinning new stories like a big sticky web for him to get stuck in, and other people get stuck too. Then bam.” She clapped her hands together, and the image vanished. “It sucks their juices out.”       

“What do you mean?” John asked, trying to blink flashing afterimages out of his eyes.

“Whenever something nasty gets too grabby in one of the worlds, it throws things off. Makes an opening for the destroyer to come knocking. So the treasure recruits cute little wigglers to play hero and make sure the stories run right. Good guys prevail, bad guys get punished.” She raised her eyebrows and tapped herself on the chest, right above the stab wound. John got the picture.

“It uses us.”

“That’s right.” She snorted, wiping a fleck of cerulean blood off on the hem of her shirt. “And people called me manipulative.”

“That’s not how all the worlds work, is it? I thought it was bigger than that.” Many of the children at Jane’s home had been bitter, but even though John didn’t miss the Furrows, the combined picture Rose had painted had been something grand. Surely an entire multiverse existed for more than self-defense.

She shrugged. “As far as I know, the destroyer hasn’t been around forever. At the rate he does damage, there’d be nothing left if he had. Maybe the recruitment kicked up a notch to compensate. Why not exploit a good system, right? You can use all sorts of quasi-innocent grubhood activities to get your dirty deeds done if you know how to spin it right, believe me.”

“If you’re telling the truth, he definitely needs to be stopped as soon as possible.” The troll had mentioned she thought he could help out somehow. “What’s my job?”

“First of all, let’s talk attitude.” She gave him another critical look. “Do you have what it takes to be a winner, John?”

John tried to stand up straighter. “I did lead to my friends to victory in our latest game of team mode Super Smash Bros, and even when we don’t win everyone says that I’m fun to play with. I think teamwork and having a good attitude is the best way to develop a winning spirit.”

She waited for a moment like she expected a punch line and then shook her head. “That’s so unbelievably dorky. An Alternian with less decorum would be rolling on the ground laughing right now. Here’s the real scoop. Cooperation and positivity are for losers who have to fake feeling happy because they weren’t good enough to do anything worth celebrating on their own. You need to focus on the goal and shut out all distractions, including other people. Games are only fun if you’re winning.”

“It sounds like you play some pretty shitty games!” John was glad that they hadn’t brought out any board games during his party if this was how Alternians usually behaved. “This could be a cultural conflict, because Earth places a lot of value on playing nicely with others. It is front and center on kindergarten report cards.”

“Earth sound lame and boring           .”

“That’s not true, you don’t even think that.” She opened her mouth to reply, but John kept talking. It was his turn to take control of the conversation. “All the other trolls pretended they were so above our alien ways too, but as soon as we introduced them to Earthling exports like hot chocolate and non-fatal sunlight they were ready to give us a positive Yelp review.”

For most of their conversation the troll had been relaxed, but as soon as he mentioned the others, all that changed. She stiffened, one hand rising to cup her wounded chest. “The other trolls?”

“Yeah, you’re not the first Alternian I’ve met! A few landed on our planet after their world got destroyed.”

Her ghostly form was already pale, but John thought he saw more color drain away. “Alternia’s gone?”

In retrospect, that probably hadn’t been the most tactful way to deliver the news. “I guess you’re out of the loop, being dead. I’m sorry for your loss?”

She twisted one of the bracelets on her wrist back and forth. “But a few got out, you said. Who were they?”

“Umm… there’s Karkat, Kanaya, and Terezi.” John stumbled over the unfamiliar names. “I think. I just got introduced two days ago.”

“Terezi, huh?” She gave the bracelet one last savage twist and then let her hand fall away. “You should watch out for her. Bet she’s been filling your ocular sponges with all sorts of garbage.”

“Like I said, I just met her.” John didn’t bother asking what ocular sponges were. Whatever they might be, he didn’t want an alien filling them, and he thought he probably would have noticed if one had.

She rubbed at the wound in her chest. “She thought Earth was interesting, huh?”

“Yeah! Do you want to hear about it?” John jumped at the more familiar subject. “My planet was attacked too, so we have that in common. Talking about it makes me feel like I’m there, even if I don’t know how to get back. Maybe that could help you feel better too, if you miss home.” Something tickled his ankles. Green grass had sprouted around him, and the old oak with its tire swing grew at an impossible speed to spread its branches overhead. An imaginary sun filtered through the leaves. The troll flinched away, and John held up a hand. “No, it’s ok. Our sun can’t hurt you. Well, it can if you’re in it for a long time, but we won’t be, and besides, it’s not real.”

She held up a cautious hand. Sunlight washed over it and picked out blue undertones in the gray. She rotated her arm, watching the light play off her skin. “My experiences are way better, but I guess it’s not right for me to monopolize the conversation. Go ahead. Tell me about your weird pacifist planet.”

John sat cross-legged in the grass, and she settled onto the swing, kicking back and forth as he filled their surroundings with home: his favorite games and movies, a high school that was surprisingly tame after all the teen drama he’d been led to expect in movies, talking every day with his three best friends. His father interested her more than he’d expected. “So adult humans tolerate squatters in their hives? That’s unusually altruistic. What’s in it for them?”

“He doesn’t tolerate me,” John said, more sharply than necessary. Where was his dad? If this girl could hang around and talk to him after her planet was gone, why couldn’t he? “He takes care of me because he loves me. Didn’t you have parents?”

“Nope! I had a giant spider, and she barely tolerated me, but she was there to make sure I didn’t get lazy or weak relying on other people to do things for me. That made me who I am today.” She jumped off the swing. “Wow, look at the time.”

“Wait, before you go.” John pushed himself up off the grass. “I couldn’t get out of here before. It’s not that I mind talking to you, but I’m worried about my friends. They’re waiting for me.”

She raised an eyebrow. “No one gets out of the afterlife. It’s a one-way trip. Didn’t you know that?”

“But I’m not dead.” John wanted to make that point really clear to both her and the universe at large.

“Sorry, can’t help you. If I knew there was an easier way out, do you think I’d be tweaking the tail of the big bad?” She walked away from their shared memory, adding over her shoulder, “If you find an exit, let me know. Until then, see you next time. I’ll be back before you know it.”

Before he could argue, she was gone.

Chapter Text

Jane crossed her arms, self-consciously covering the Empress’s insignia embroidered on her tunic. She wore red gauntlets taken from the royal armory too, padded to absorb the impact of when she used her trident. She wasn’t dressed like an emissary of peace, but surely her friends could look beyond appearances. “You really believe I sold you out like that?”

“What were we supposed to think?” Roxy demanded. “You made evil candy clones of us.”

“I told you, I was lonely. The Empress wouldn’t let me bring you.” As soon as she said it, Jane knew that was a mistake. Roxy jumped on it.

“Yeah, that’s another thing. You were working for her? She killed my mom.”

“You didn’t tell me that until after I got back. None of you took me seriously.” The others had always been coy about the details. Jane tended toward skepticism, but instead of providing evidence to the contrary, they’d clammed up. Dirk’s first reaction to her apparent betrayal had been confusion. No one expected misbehavior from her. Not stalwart Jane, whose role was to act surprised while the others told stories of heroism. Hadn’t Dirk told her more than once to be more like Jake when she demurred about having done anything exciting in Confection? He’d accepted without question that she’d been just as middle of the road there as she’d been on Earth. As for Jake… she’d tried to work up the nerve to tell him how she felt once and for all, spurred on by Roxy’s encouragement to reach for the happy ending she deserved before Dirk swept him out from under her. Then she’d crumbled at the last minute and babbled on about how much she valued their platonic bond while naked relief spread across his face. Some heroine she made. “At least in Confection I was listened to for a change.”

“That doesn’t sound like someone who turned down a job offer,” Dirk observed.

Jane spun toward him. Her toe caught the shaft of her weapon, which rolled to a stop between them. “Fine, I considered it. Are you happy? But I’m here now, because I know how to be a good friend.”

His eyes, visible for once, flickered down to the trident and back. “Implying the rest of us don’t?”

“Oh, do you want to go there, Strider?” A laugh bubbled out of Jane’s throat, but it lacked humor. “Where should I start? Unleashing a robotic duplicate when you can’t be bothered to spare time for us ‘distractions’, micromanaging our personalities because we’d be so much preferable that way…”

“Hate to say it, but she’s got a point,” Roxy said. “You didn’t make creepy evil clones of us, but you could be kinda pushy.”

“I helped you get clean.” Dirk didn’t know why Roxy had joined in on the attack. Hadn’t she asked for his help? “You wanted someone to keep you on track.”

“Yeah, but by the end of it, I felt like I was doing it more to make you happy than for me.” Roxy had spent years living with the knowledge that Dirk would never want-want her, but sometimes she seemed to fall short even as a friend. Whatever she did, she had the sense somewhere he’d shaken his head in disapproval. “You’re always looking at us old models and seeing the upgraded software you’d rather be running. I’m too flighty, Jane’s too serious, Jake needs toughening up. You try to turn everyone else into a robot just because you like being a cyberman. All beep boop, I’m too good for human feelings and I expect everyone else to follow my stoic samurai example.”

“I don’t... I’m not…” Dirk wished he could hide behind shades that wouldn’t talk back. “And you never pressured anyone to be something they’re not? How many times did you come on to me after you knew I was gay? Do you know how that made me feel?” The auto responder had taunted him about it enough. Even his crush on Jake came tinged with guilt, because he knew he’d be breaking his best friend’s heart. “I’m not the fucking Tin Man, ok? That sucked.”

Roxy winced. Most of her romantic overtures had taken place on Pesterchum, although she’d vented to Jane on occasion. She’d thought she and Dirk were doing each other the solid of not mentioning it in public, the way no one mentioned the times they found her hunched over the toilet or how they couldn’t make pasta alla vodka because there was no alcohol in the house.  “That was drunk me. I’m not proud of it.”

Jane had heard that one before. She’d even had a different message string labeled Drunk Roxy, and she’d been expected to let everything in it slide. “You can’t use that as an excuse for everything. Can’t you admit you’re capable of being immature without the aid of alcohol?”

“I’m not using it as an excuse. I had a real problem.” Roxy remembered those first few horrible weeks when she’d sworn the stuff off for good, when she’d felt like everything likeable about her had disappeared in a fog of headaches and sleepless nights. “Do you not get that it wasn’t like some kind of Snapchat filter, on, off, no big deal? It changed everything about me.”

“And so we’re never allowed to tell you when you hurt our feelings?” Jane asked.

“You’re sure making up for lost time now. I’ve tried to make up for it. I mean c’mon, I even tried to help with the Jakestakes, since that was the only way I was relevant to any of you.” Roxy gulped, feeling in real life the same instant regret as when she’d sent one too many needy text messages. Sure, being the fourth wheel had sucked big time, but her role in egging the whole thing on was another thing she’d informally kept on the down low.

Too late. “The what?” Jake asked.

Jane didn’t even look his way. “And that certainly ended well. I made a fool of myself at your encouragement.”

Jake had been staying out of the argument. In fact, he’d been doing his best to merge with the wall. At this, though, he couldn’t keep silent. “Wait, was everyone involved in some scheme to seduce me? Did no one have no ulterior motive? Jesus kicking Christ, even the glasses were angling for me.”

Oh no, Hal said from Dirk’s pocket. No fuckin’ way am I joining this conversation.

Jake wasn’t finished. “The whole time I was with the Framed, they wanted me to be something I’m not, and it’s the same on Earth. Dirk, whatever hatchets we may have buried in our earlier conversation, I think I’ll have to dig them out and brush the dirt off. There’s a whole lot of truth in Jane and Roxy’s accusations. In our interactions I got the sense you were trying me on as a paramour and determined to keep stretching until I fit. And Jane made some sort of sugary golem to romance, and Roxy was what, manning a roulette wheel? I can’t take this. All I wanted was to be your friend.

Dirk stepped away from him, moving closer to the girls in the doorway. “I told you I thought you could handle it. Everything I’ve done for you, any of you, I was only trying to help. You could’ve told me to back off.”

“Yeah, because you’re such an easy dude to say no to. ‘Bout to earn a Grammy for inspiring the four days and thirty-two minutes of Strider silence when you go off and sulk again because someone disagreed with your royal edicts.” Roxy turned toward Jake. “Not saying you’re totally off the hook. You’re not the easiest guy to chat up, you know. You ghost us whenever the conversation turns to serious biz.”

Jane nodded. “I could barely get my botched confession out without you squirming away.”

“Oh, that was a botched confession? I thought you were doing me the courtesy of being honest. Here’s a headline for you: I couldn’t handle it! I can’t handle anything, whatever my stories of high adventure in other worlds may have led you to believe.” Under a three way assault, Jake felt a perverse desire to admit to everything. He’d see how much any of them wanted him then. “I ran away, alright? I was supposed to face the same monster who came calling on Jade’s Earth, and maybe if I had this trouble wouldn’t have come to our doorstep, but I didn’t know what to do, and so I ran.” His voice cracked, and he dug his nails into the skin of his palms. Oh wonderful, he thought in disgust, he was tearing up. Bawling would be a perfect way to illustrate how pathetic he was. “I’m a coward.”

He blinked away tears. His three slightly blurry friends stood silent. Then Dirk sighed and rubbed a hand over his eyes with their perpetual dark circles. “Yeah, well. I’m a robot.”

Roxy looked over at him. “Are we doing the Breakfast Club thing? Because I’m a nobody.”

“And I’m a tyrant.” Jane rested one foot on her trident, feeling it grate underneath the sole of her shoe. “Do you think there’s still time for us to change those stories?”

“I don’t know.” Roxy hated her friends fixating on each other and ignoring her, but this wasn’t much fun either. “I didn’t know we were keeping this much shit from each other. I don’t want things to be this way every time we’re in the same room.”

“… I don’t either,” Jake said. He wiped at his damp cheeks. Spitting the words out had felt nice for a moment, but now he felt like he always did after crying: exhausted, awkward, and a bit too sticky. “But can we fix it?”

“Step one is admitting you have a problem, right?” Dirk shrugged. “I think we’ve handled that with fucking aplomb.”

“Can you really blame me for wanting to make a version of us that’s better?” Jane knelt down and picked up her weapon. “Step two is dealing with those impostors and that self-styled queen. The rest… I suppose we can work out when we’re not in mortal danger.”

“You’re not taking her up on that job offer?” Dirk asked.

Jane shook her head, in case he wasn’t joking. “We clearly have a lot of problems. More than I ever imagined. But given the alternative…  I know what’s real.”

“Speaking of what’s real,” Roxy said. “What are the ethics here? Are those not-us like… people?”

“No.” Back in Confection, Jane slipped back into their way of seeing things. “They were like… pie crusts without filling. The shape was set, but they were empty. The Empress couldn’t make real people either. She tried. If they’re alive now, she filled them with her. It’s just the shapes that are deceiving.”

“Ok, so we can totally kill them and it’s fine.”

Jake flinched. “That seems hasty.”

“Hey, man,” Dirk said. “You wanted a plan.”

“It’s more like some rough guidelines,” Jane admitted, “but I’ve already taken too long down here. Someone will come looking soon, and I’d rather make my refusal on my own terms.”

Chapter Text

While the human inhabitants of Jane’s school teased each other over crushes and cryptids, their alien guests huddled in the far corner of their cell. Terezi rested her head in her hands, breathing shallowly through her mouth.

“Are you feeling better yet?” Kanaya asked.

“Nngh.”

“I would’ve expected you to love it here,” Karkat said, brushing brownie crumbs from the floor off his knees. “Finally, a place where you can lick everything. I think it’s even encouraged.”

“I expect a balanced array of scents,” Terezi said, surfacing from her defensive crouch. “The sweetness here is overpowering. My nostrils will be getting cavities. Besides, I’m used to certain things having signature smells. That’s how I identify them. The grass doesn’t smell like grass here, and don’t get me started on the wildlife. Everything is a big sugary blur.” She stuck her tongue out, winced, and clapped a hand back over her nose.

Kanaya unwound one end of her scarf and passed it to Terezi, who considered it and then wound it over her own face. “Is that all that’s bothering you? I haven’t had much of a chance to check in, but ever since the first Earth was attacked you’ve seemed withdrawn. Did something happen?”

“That’s right, you never said what happened to you when we all went on our patronizingly on the nose self-help quests.” Karkat hadn’t left much of an opening in the conversation while recounting his military genius, but he didn’t mention that now. “The rest of us have shared how the worlds saw fit to humiliate us with a rehashing of our greatest flaws.”

Terezi yanked the edge of the scarf up to free her mouth. “Some of us don’t feel the need to blab every stray thought that limps through our thinkpans.”

“I’m hardly running a gossip vertical text alignment reporting everyone’s latest quadrant entanglements.” Karkat glowered over at the humans. He couldn’t make out what they were saying, but it didn’t sound like a plan to break them out of jail. “Open communication promotes healthy teamwork.”

“Are we a team? I suppose by virtue of sharing a cellblock.” Kanaya rubbed at a smear of icing discoloring the skirt of her gown. “Do you think we’ll be issued a uniform?”

“Focus,” Karkat said. “I’m encouraging Terezi to support group transparency here.”

This time, Terezi spoke through the scarf, her words muffled but intelligible. “First of all, you are assuming I have something to hide. Secondly, these are strong condemnations from a blabbermouth who nonetheless has refused to own up to his blood color and instead insists on cloaking it in boring gray subterfuge.”

He jerked backward, slapping a hand over his sign. “That’s different.”

She rolled her eyes. “I understand that you were in danger and so reluctant to come clean, but at least the experience could have taught you to respect other people’s privacy.”

Karkat got to his feet. “What do you mean, in danger? What are you insinuating? Ha ha, Kanaya, have you ever heard anything so ridiculous? Terezi’s suggesting I have something to hide instead of affecting hemonymity due to being above such crass displays of caste status.” He pointed (ineffectually) at Terezi. “Maybe you’re the mutant and you’re trying to throw me off.”

Terezi, who had been waiting him out patiently, said, “I never said anything about mutants.”

He let his accusing finger drop. “Didn’t you?”

“She didn’t,” Kanaya confirmed. “You may have been projecting.”

Terezi unwound the scarf and handed her end back to Kanaya, who retucked it around her own neck. She leaned forward, face for once free of mockery. “Before you launch into another frenzy of denial, would it help if I said I already knew? You were bleeding the day we fell out of Alternia. I could smell it on you.”

Karkat whirled on Kanaya. “What about you? Any baseless accusations to hurl?”

Kanaya hadn’t wasted much time pondering why one of her Trollslum friends refused to type in the color of his caste. The few times someone else had tried to draw her into speculative debate, she’d politely but firmly reminded them it was none of their business. She’d assumed Karkat must fall somewhere low on the scale, but she had no reason to expect him to disclose that. “I didn’t know for sure until just now, but I suspected. And it doesn’t matter to me,” she added, because he looked ready to run, and there was nowhere for him to go. “I wish you’d trusted me enough to tell me sooner if it was bothering you so much. I could have told you that you had nothing to fear.”

Karkat sat back down with a thump. The alternative was banging on the bars demanding to be released, and if he wanted to avoid caste-based discrimination, heading closer to the Empress didn’t seem like a good idea. “Ok, fine. I’m a mutant. Candy red blood, fitting for the theme of this saccharine nightmarescape. There you go, Your Honorable Tyranny. Everything’s out in the open, all my soft and vulnerable parts exposed. Are you going to keep holding out on us?”

“I guess I did set myself up for an accusation of hypocrisy, didn’t I?” Terezi kneaded her forehead with one hand. “I don’t know where to start. Remember when I went off Trollslum for a while and then told you Vriska was dead?”

“I remember,” Kanaya said. She’d still been nursing her red crush then, even though their moirallegiance had fallen apart. Vriska’s disappearance had been puzzling, but she hadn’t expected Terezi’s news. Vriska Serket was mostly something that happened to other people.

Terezi took a deep breath, despite the sugar-laden air. “I knew because I killed her.” She kept talking before either of them could react. “Earth wasn’t the first alien world I visited. Vriska and I both went to the Moors. They did things differently there, and it was better. They wouldn’t have cared about your blood, Karkat. They accepted everyone. I changed. Vriska refused to.  And in the end I guess I didn’t change as much as I bragged I had, because when it came to a confrontation I resorted to violence anyway. Yesterday I went back there and brought one of the parties responsible to justice. But there’s someone left to blame.”

“The Empress,” Kanaya said. When they both looked at her, she continued, flustered, “Well, that’s true, isn’t it? If traveling with Rose taught me anything, it is to look for who is responsible for rigging unjust situations. She is the one who taught us to resolve situations with bloodshed. Karkat, she’s the one who enforces our rigid caste boundaries. We can’t bear all of that ourselves. We shouldn’t have to. After all, those rules are all gone. We’re the only ones left.” She twined her fingers together, feeling the pressure of skin against skin. “I don’t think I grasped that until just now. We’re all that’s left.”

“Us and her.” Karkat’s first waves of panic at having his secret out had worn off. The world hadn’t ended. He’d gone through that twice, and he knew what it felt like. “And fuck her, right? I spent sweeps daydreaming about proving myself so she’d look past my inborn weakness and let me live, but if I saw her now I’d shove her imperial trident so far down her waste chute she’d have a new piercing somewhere sensitive.”

“Illustrating our capacity for violence,” Kanaya muttered.

“Can’t we agree that she’s one candidate who definitely has it coming?” Karkat asked. “Humans may be wrong about a lot of things, like which part of the day you’re supposed to sleep in, but they were right about our culture being shitty.”

“If we get out of here, we can make our species whatever we want to be.” That had been Kanaya’s role, assigned to her at birth. She would help shape future generations of trolls who would fan out throughout the galaxy bringing every planet they encountered under the Empress’s glittering, bedazzled heel. The Auxiliatrixes were gone. No more matriorbs would hatch. But maybe the last jadeblood in the multiverse could still do something to influence her race. “There’s no one else to enforce the old ways.”

“Where would we make those new lives though?” Terezi asked. “Alternia’s gone.”

She shrugged. “It was a high minded ideal. I don’t have any specifics.”

“That’s too bad,” Karkat said. “I kind of liked it. Assuming the Empress doesn’t reestablish caste rules by filleting me like fresh-caught bass.”

For the first time since they’d entered Confection, Terezi grinned. “If we meet her, I’m going to hold you to that piercing promise.”

“What, do you want me to die?”

Just as quickly, her grin disappeared. “I didn’t want anyone to die.”

Chapter Text

John expected the troll girl to come back this time. What he didn’t expect was her condition. She staggered into view, face streaked with blue tears, two of her braids charred and smoking at the ends. He rushed over to help but hung back just short of reaching out. “Oh man, are you ok?”

She straightened with offended dignity, running mascara forgotten. “Do I look ok?”

“Yeah, that was a dumb question.” He hesitated, unsure of where to put his hands, and settled for stuffing them in his pockets. “Here, I, uh, what happened?”

“The destroyer happened.” She shook her head, remaining braids swinging. “We got too close. Too eager, I guess. We were almost there.”

“We? You and your crew?” He saw her bite her lip and, too late, understood. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine.” She swiped at the smears on her face. “I’ll get a new crew. A better crew! Not like I’m naive enough to make any real attachments out here. Everybody knows it’s every ghost for themselves.” She pulled her old jacket back on, covering her tank top and tattoo. “No big loss for people to die before they have a chance to betray you.”

John eyed her wound, which was framed between the two edges of her jacket. “You never said exactly how you died.”

She straightened her collar with a jerk. “Didn’t Pyrope tell you? I’m surprised she’s not bragging about it, how she put that upstart Vriska in her place.”    

Vriska. “Is that your name?”

She shrugged. “No point in cultivating an air of mystery now.”

“She never mentioned you.” Then again, John hadn’t been listening for names he didn’t know. “Did… did she kill you?”

“Yup.” She tried to speak off-hand again, the same as she had the first time they’d discussed her death, but her voice was too sharp. Her tone reminded John of the way Rose talked about the Circle sometimes, like she wanted her words to make it bleed. “Stabbed in the back. Never saw it coming. I mean, she gave me an ultimatum, but everyone talks a big game on the Moors. She’d turned over a new leaf, tried to do things by their rules. The old Terezi I wouldn’t have turned my back on so fast.”

And his friends had lived under the same roof as her! John wondered if the others knew what Terezi was capable of. Dave hadn’t minded sharing colored pencils with her. Maybe they had arranged a pact of non-aggression first. “Why’d she do it?”

“Oh, she was pissed I’d killed some kid from the village. I don’t know why she made such a fuss about one guy! I mean, a highblood like me is entitled to kill just about anyone I want, and it was more or less like feeding my lusus.” She rubbed harder at her face, leaving the skin flushed an irritated blue. “You know the fucked up thing, though? I actually felt bad about it even before she started getting on my case, can you believe it? What a joke. The one time Pyrope gets me second-guessing a bit of perfectly acceptable violence, and she kills me for it. Some sister.”

This was more than John had bargained for. “Wait, you’ve killed more than one person?”

“Sure,” she said, waving a hand like she was dismissing a pointless piece of trivia. “Between the two of us we must have killed hundreds of people. Maybe thousands. But we were a team back then. And I was ok with all of those! They were expected of me. They gave me a lusus like mine because I was tough enough to handle her, and that meant keeping her full so she didn’t start pointing her mandibles at me. I needed to be the best and the strongest, and I was, so I don’t know why I keep seeing his face.” She sat down with a thud. The white surface didn’t change to reflect her thoughts. “I didn’t even mean to kill him. It was an accident, but I shouldn’t care. I shouldn’t care about any of the people the destroyer blew up. They’re background noise.” She addressed her next question to the ground. “What’s wrong with me?”

To John, it sounded like a lot was wrong. He took a few steps back, hoping she wouldn’t notice. The other trolls’ warnings flooded back to him. ‘A warlike species’, ‘conquered half the galaxy’, ‘most of us don’t make it off-planet before killing each other’. Even after he’d seen the drone attack firsthand, he’d thought they were pranking him. No one could talk about a situation that terrible like it was normal. Except here Vriska was, rattling off a four digit body count the same way his grandmother might go over the grocery list. “I don’t know, this is all pretty scary.”

“I know, right?”  She was barely paying attention to him. Instead, she plucked at one of her braids, raking her fingers through it to create separate strands. “It’s embarrassing. I’m falling apart.”

“No, I mean…” Discussing the species’ different uses of cleaning implements had been an uncomfortable episode of culture clash. This went beyond that. “Human kids don’t kill each other that much? Or we’re not so casual about it. The way you’re talking is kind of freaking me out, actually.”

That got her attention. She jumped to her feet, lips curling into a sneer. “I should’ve known you’d be just like her. Everybody is sooo ready to judge me. I thought the point of these worlds was to be understanding of other people’s cultures, not turn your nose up at the way they hang their curtains.”

John backed up several more paces. “This is way past curtains. I don’t think I can be comfortable with it.”

“Fine.” Her voice had grown shriller, and she swung her arms toward him to push him further away. “Toss me out with the garbage as another uncivilized throwback from a backwater universe. I’m making the sensitive human uncomfortable with my unrepentantly bloodthirsty ways, and we can’t have that!”

She kept ranting. John wanted to finish making his escape, but he didn’t know where to go. Instead he stood and listened, and as he did he heard the quaver in her voice. Dave had sounded like that sometimes when he’d talked about how great Cinder was, before he’d gone offline for a few weeks and come back, unusually subdued, to say, ‘I think I was wrong.’ John hadn’t helped with that transition besides making a few comments he hadn’t expected to land. He didn’t know what had changed Dave’s whole worldview, but if one person could do it, couldn’t another? And if Vriska could, shouldn’t he help? Good people wanted to help everyone. “Hang on, I don’t think you’re comfortable with it either. I think you’re feeling so conflicted because deep down even if it was your culture, you know it wasn’t right.” He tapped his chest, still clad in Jake’s borrowed shirt. “Knowing that means you can be better, and so you should be, which is a distillation of a human proverb by Spider-man.”

At least part of his comment got through to her, and she paused her tirade. “Spider-man?”

“Like my shirt.” John gestured to the decal. “He’s a nerdy teen with spider powers, and at first he only uses them for selfish reasons, but he learns that with great power comes great responsibility. Then he becomes a hero.”

Vriska took a shaky breath. “And everyone realizes how great he is? Just like that?”

John’s Marvel lore was rusty, but he gave it his best shot. “Well, there’s a grumpy newspaper guy, and I think some of the police men are skeptical, but he is a popular sensation, and that is the important part.”

“Huh,” she said quietly. A new landscape crept out from her: gnarled gray-blue tree roots half-buried in a mulch of pink and brown fallen leaves. They stood next to a ramshackle fort of fallen branches and propped up boards, the kind of thing a kid would make. Vriska looked younger, but it could’ve been the light, or the expression on her face. “You know, I think you’re the first person who’s known everything I’ve done and said they didn’t think I was a lost cause.”

“I don’t think it’s ever too late to start being a hero, if you want to be. I mean, Iron Man was involved in lots of war crimes before changing his ways, and arguably even afterward. But you guys probably don’t have those,” John added as an afterthought. Nothing Vriska had described sounded like it would be acceptable under the Geneva Convention.

“Spider-man,” Vriska repeated again. “I like that. Your world came up with some ok stuff, John.”

“I think so too,” he said, and a few sprigs of green grass poked up from the forest floor.

She leaned down and plucked one, twisting it between her fingers. “Maybe I would’ve liked it there. But I can try to save it, if there’s anything left. You’re right about some things. I’m itching to wipe out all this messy past business. If I can take down the destroyer once and for all, no one can look down their freakishly over-perceptive noses at me. However sensitively you’ve calibrated your scales of justice, you can’t say he doesn’t deserve what’s coming to him.”

“I would agree with you on that one.” John looked around at the landscape from a planet that existed only in their memories. “He’s overdue for a good smiting.”

“And there’s no one better to deliver one. She’ll see. You’ll see, too. I’ll be a hero, and then everything will be ok again. No more feeling confused or getting judged. I'll make everything better.” Vriska took a step backward. The tear tracks hadn’t faded from her remembered cheeks, but she was smiling. “I hope you get out of here somehow. And when you do… have a good life, John.”

This time, when she vanished, it felt like a goodbye. John wished she’d let him have the last word at least once, but that didn’t seem to be her style. He dragged his foot through the landscape she’d left behind. Grass continued to poke between the leaves. The memory of his front yard hovered over the forest scene like a late summer haze. If he concentrated hard, he could bring it back. 

Vriska had told him everything in this afterlife was what you brought with you. He’d been leaking traces of home, because what he really wanted was to leave all this behind, return to Earth, and see his dad again. But he couldn’t. Maybe because Earth wasn’t there, but mostly because his friends needed him first. They all needed to be heroes.

Once he knew that, he knew what to do.

Chapter Text

The first obstacle was their other selves. Dirk, Roxy, and Jake’s doubles loitered in the hallway linking the jail cells with the main castle, enjoying the sunlight streaming in through an open side door. “They shouldn’t be too tough,” Jane said. “They’re just cookies, really.”

“Not tough cookies?” Roxy asked, and Jane rolled her eyes.

“Whatever their consistency, I’d rather not be sidetracked. What if I lose my nerve?”

“We can handle them for you,” Jake said. If he was going to be brave, fighting malevolent bakery items seemed like a manageable first step. “Battling your evil clone is an adventure stand-by. That way you can hurry on to confronting your dark archetype.”

“Jane can’t face the Empress alone,” Dirk started, but she nodded.

“I can, and I have to. It’s the only way to make up for everything.” She adjusted her grip on her trident. “You three be careful, alright? We’ll clear the air when this is over.”

“Roger that. Now hide your royal presence, heiress.” Roxy tiptoed up to the guards and then flickered into view. “What’s up? Thought I should mention there’s a prison break in progress.”

The three of them looked up and reached for their swords. Roxy sprinted into the sunlight with both her friends and their doubles in pursuit. When they’d left their posts, Jane continued on to the throne room. She took a moment to breathe before she stepped through the doors. Last time she’d been in Confection, she’d seen the Empress level buildings with her gaze and spear citizens like a chunk of meat on a plate. Jane had stood next to her, trembling but unwilling to raise her voice against it.

She was afraid of the Empress, but she was more afraid of becoming that Jane again. Knowing that helped, even if she also knew she was going to lose.

“Whale?” the empress asked, when Jane walked into the room. “Find anyfin?”

“My backbone,” Jane said. “I’m no longer taking your orders.”

“Reelly?” The Empress stood, unfolding herself until she towered above her. “Stupid gill. I give you everyfin you wanted, and you’re tossing it away?”

“Sometimes you want things that aren’t good for you.” Jane nodded to the sugar-coated walls. “We’re in a world of sweets, but like it or not, your diet does need vegetables.”

She sneered. “You don’t know what you’re talking about. Conchfection’s got no rules. I keep it under control. You don’t coral everyone into line, you swim against the current, and you attract that monster smashing everything to pieces. You want that on your conscience?”

Jane squeezed her trident. Inside her gauntlets, her fingers were slick with sweat. “You forget, a hero defeating a wicked queen is ripped right from the storybooks.”

The Empress threw back her head and laughed – performatively, Jane thought. Who was she acting for? “You, a hero? Gimme a break. You were on my side, remember? You can’t take that back.”

“I can’t,” Jane agreed. “But I can be a hero now if my friends believe in me.”

“Oh yeah?” The Empress took one step forward across the empty room. “And where are those friends of yours?”

Dirk sprinted away from the castle. His double didn’t match his speed, but he didn’t turn back either. When they’d gone far enough to give Jane some breathing room, Dirk spun around. He didn’t have a weapon, but his double’s armor was chocolate, not steel. Atria had been a world of Logic, and Dirk carried traces of Logic with him still. It might be enough.

“Giving up already?” his double asked.

“Yeah right.”

“You might as well. The outcome of this fight isn’t exactly in doubt.” Dirk’s chest heaved; his double wasn’t even winded. “You know, when Jane made me, she was thinking about how brilliant and talented you were. But you’re not much to look at, and neither was your brother. He put up a fight, sure, but not enough of one.”

Jane hadn’t traveled to Confection and made her sham friends until after Dirk and Roxy’s guardians had died. She’d been right; the Empress looked at Dirk from behind his own eyes. Her taunts didn’t have the effect she might have hoped for. The mention of his brother helped Dirk steady his breathing and straighten his spine. He’d make the killer pay. And he sure as hell wasn’t letting the Empress kill his brother all over again.

“We both know you hate to see an inferior copy loose tainting your brand,” his double continued. “And face it, you’re far from perfect. Why not let me win? It would be a relief not to have to keep trying so hard and never measuring up. I mean, if I were you, I would’ve killed me by now. Chalk it up to a mis-measurement in the recipe. Jane was wrong about you. I’m a lot more ruthless.”

Dirk shifted his weight, weighing his odds. His double held his sword angled across his chest with lazy confidence. The fingers gripping the hilt were too dark. All of his double’s skin was darker than it should be. He remembered the way he’d pursued him, cautiously, not putting too much weight into his steps. He’d been over-baked.

“All right,” Dirk said, and bowed his head. “You win. Put me out of my misery.”

His double raised his blade, and Dirk lunged for the opening. He punched his double square in the chest, his fist breaking through gilded chocolate and deep into the brittle surface beneath. His double’s eyes widened. Cracks snaked up his neck.

“Jane was wrong,” Dirk said. “She didn’t make you ruthless enough.” Then he wrenched his hand out, and his double shattered.

Jake ran without a set direction. The important thing was to get the guards away from Jane so she could smite the Empress about interference. Providing a distraction by running away fit well within his skill set.

“You’re still avoiding everything, aren’t you?” his double shouted. “That’s why Jane chose me.”

Jake looked back, losing enough speed that his double slashed at him and nicked his elbow. Through the pain, Jake noticed that his double’s face (handsomer than his, to his annoyance) had one flaw: a seam running its length, mostly but not entirely covered over. He’d cracked.

Jake had dropped cookies a few times when helping with dessert preparation. He always tried to cover the damage with a liberal application of frosting. That held up for a while, but not when you handled them too hard, and definitely not if you got them wet.

He had a direction now, and that helped him pick up speed. His double panted out insults, but Jake ignored him. When he neared his destination, he slowed enough that his pursuer was just on his heels. Then he stopped. His double hadn’t expected that, and he crashed right into Jake’s arms. Jake held on and, in a move Dirk had spent days and delivered dozens of bruises drilling him on, flipped them both into the strawberry sea.

His double screamed – a horrible sound, since he recognized the voice – and thrashed.  Jake hung on. “Who’s trying to run away now?” he asked, since cinema insisted on one-liners at times like these.

His double didn’t answer. The cracks must have gone further than Jake had seen, because pieces were starting to float away, his double’s body collapsing into chunks of gingerbread. It was one of the more upsetting things he’d watched. Still, he did watch, until he was sure it was over. Then he pulled himself up out of the surf and began making his sticky way back to the palace. They had a day to save.

Maybe Roxy had spent too much time with cats, because her instincts told her to climb a tree. Her double paced below, glaring up at her. Roxy stuck out her tongue.

“Why don’t you come down and let me kill you already?” her double asked. “I mean, obviously I’m the better me. Look, I’ve got all this tasty bling, and I’m way prettier.”

Roxy rolled her eyes. Sure, fake Roxy had silky spun-sugar hair and curves she envied, but her skin looked flabby and pale. Jane had gotten a lot wrong about them, but surely she didn’t think Roxy was white. Then she saw a dent in her double’s shoulder left by the pressure of her chest plate. She was underdone.

Roxy toyed with a leaf and sucked her lower lip in between her teeth in a caricature of indecisiveness. “Actually, I think I will come down.”

Her double looked up. “Huh?”

“Not for you to kill me though. At least not right away. We can compare to see who’s really prettiest, and if you’re right you can kill me. How’s that?”

Her double’s lips moved as she thought this over. “Is this a trick?”

“No way,” Roxy said, crossing her fingers behind her back.

“Ok.”

Did Jane really think she was this much of an airhead? Roxy set that aside for later. Right now, it worked for her. “We can’t do a good comparison when you’ve got all that junk on,” she said reasonably. “Take off your armor.”

Her double began undoing the straps, and Roxy slithered down the tree. “What next?” the girl asked.

“Let’s compare heights.” Roxy stood up straight and beckoned for her double to join her.  She stepped closer, and Roxy ran a hand between their two foreheads. Equal. “I gotta say,” she said.  “We’re both pretty damn fine. But you know what? I think I’ll stick with me. Thanks for helping me on this journey of self discovery. I owe you one.” Then she wrapped her other self in a hug and squeezed. 

“We’ve talked,” Jane said, trying for some bravado. “Are we going to fight? Or will you surprise me and settle this peacefully?”

The Empress bared her teeth. “You think you can challenge me? You haven’t earned that right, minnow. I ain’t gonna dignify you with that. What you need is some sense slapped into you.” She lifted her hand, and an invisible force lifted Jane and slammed her into the wall.

She slid to the ground, stunned. When she tried to breathe, nothing came except a desperate whistle. Her head spun, but then her next breath worked, sending pain shooting through her side. She tried to stand up, but the Empress’s psiionics crackled through the air and melted a hole through the sugar wall overhead. The molten edges glowed.

“You waltz in here and deny me?” the Empress roared. “After I offer you this world on a silver platter, even woke up those friends of yours so you’d stop moping, and now you’re not even grateful? You humans are so shellfish. I can make you grateful. Fill that empty thinkpan of yours with some proper motivation like I did with them.”

That got Jane moving. Her ribs groaned, but she didn’t think they were broken. She braced herself on her trident to stand. Even that took effort. She couldn’t imagine fighting with it.

The energy around the Empress’s eyes sparked. Then, her head snapped to the side, mouth falling open. Jane should have used the opportunity to strike, but she hurt too much.

Her surprise over, the Empress growled. “Fuckin’ interfering humans. Don’t know why anemone one would’ve missed those brats. I’ll have to deal with them after I’m done with you. Or maybe I’ll make you take care of them once I’ve got your loyalties sorted out. That might be fun to watch. Think they’d believe you were doing it on porpoise?” She pointed the tines of her trident at Jane. “So what’s it gonna be? You my heiress, or my slave?”

Jane staggered. Heat shimmered around the Empress. The damaged wall groaned. They had all the ingredients here for a tragedy. But, if rearranged, maybe something else. You could make a lot with the same materials. She had sugar and flour and heat. When she’d walked into Confection that first time, candied grass had sprouted beneath her feet. She’d failed when she tried to shape the world the way she wanted, but Confection didn’t want to be shaped. It wanted to grow. She let the trident fall. “Baker,” she said, and raised her hands.

Chapter Text

Dirk was on his way back to the castle, his double’s sword in hand, when the structure collapsed. Collapsed undersold what happened – the walls glowed with heat and then melted, flowing away from ornamental columns and statuary that, now unsupported, crashed to the ground. He stopped for a moment in case the damage spread further and then broke into a run.

He’d expected the worst, but Jane leaned on her trident in the remains of the throne room, breathing hard. In front of her rose a massive tree molded out of clear brown sugar. The Empress hung frozen in its center, teeth bared in a defiant scream. Her arms arced upward, encased in the tree’s glassy branches, and her dark hair billowed like the sugar was starting to burn. “Holy shit,” he said. “You actually did it.”

Jane prodded her side and winced. “You didn’t think I could?”

“Sorry,” Dirk said, realizing how that sounded. “That was patronizing.”

“No, I understand.” Jane stopped picking at her injury and stood straighter. “She was a formidable opponent.”

Dirk stared at his brother’s killer through the barrier of her crystallized prison. “I guess I wanted to be the one to take her down. To ‘prove myself’, or some shit. Hard to say it was about revenge. I barely knew my brother.”

Jane hadn’t talked to Dave, but she’d seen him: a talkative boy bearing a clear resemblance to her universe’s Strider. “You can now.”

“Yeah, but he doesn’t seem to want to know me.” Dirk turned away from the tree and kicked at a fallen bust of someone who Confection must’ve thought mattered. “Can you blame him? I tried to hold myself up as an example for the rest of you, but all I did was alienate you and make an ass out of myself.”

Jane didn’t want to rehash this with pain still gripping her chest, but she had said they could settle it after their victory. “All right, your intensity could be off-putting. But I understand why you did it. It’s addictive, being in control, or pretending you are.” I gave you everything you wanted, the Empress had told her. Jane wished shutting the woman away in sugar was enough to shut off her voice in her head. “It’s nice to imagine people are looking up to you. You don’t stop to realize that they have to look up because you’re standing on their necks.”

“So clearly we both would’ve been fucked if we’d been tempted by the One Ring.”

Jane chuckled. “I suppose so.”

“And I’m partly responsible for you too,” he continued. “You wouldn’t have felt that way if I’d stopped shilling tickets to Dirk Strider’s self-help spectacular and ripped down the curtains to reveal it was elaborate setup run by a neurotic circus escapee leveraging child labor to eliminate his political rivals.”

“Breaking news, Dirk Strider reveals he’s a mere mortal. The revelation shocks the world.” Jane shook her head. “I knew you weren’t perfect, but that didn’t stop me from aspiring to more. I have no one to blame but myself.”

“Well shit, way to gum up the works when I was in full flow with my mea culpa. Or are we going to keep swapping apologies all day?”

“Hoo hoo, I was raised with impeccable manners. But look,” Jane said, pointing over his shoulder. “I see someone else we could direct them to.”

Jake had tracked strawberry soda onto what remained of the throne room floor. He looked up at the branches spreading overhead. “Holy guacamole, Jane, is that the Empress in there?”

“Yes, she’s locked away.” Jane surveyed the tree again while she spoke so she didn’t have to meet Jake’s eyes. “I only hope I can keep my darker impulses similarly constrained. I’m so sorry, Jake. I had no right to treat you like an object to be won. I understand if you’re no longer comfortable around me.”

“Fuckin’ cosigned,” Dirk said. “I shouldn’t have tried to mold you into a Terminator/house husband combo, and god knows I’ve run away from enough shit. I couldn’t even ask you out like a normal person instead of coyly alluding to the subject via boot camp drills.”

Jake turned from the tree to his friends. “I know the old Jake English routine would be to accept your apology without question, but I can’t deny the whole ordeal has made me a bit squirrely. On the other hand, I’m not without blame. If I’d stiffened my spine and told you how I felt earlier, we could’ve cleared the air before it got so thick you could take a bite out of it.”

Dirk raised his eyebrows at Jane. “And English executes a perfect hand-off. The apology baton continues its circuit.”

Jane rolled her eyes, but midway through she spotted the last member of their group.  “Hey guys,” Roxy said, lingering at the edge of the room. “You busy?”

“Not too busy for you.” Jane waved her over. “I never meant to ignore you, Roxy.”

Roxy navigated her way across fallen pieces of ceiling. “I know. It just felt that way, and after growing up solo that kind of thing gets to you. But there’s better ways of getting attention than being loud and obnoxious or sticking my nose in rom dram where it doesn’t belong. Sorry, Jake. No more meddling with that, I promise. You’re seeing the new boundary respecting Roxy.”

“I’m seeing her, alright.” Dirk frowned. “What’s that all over your shirt?”

“Oh. Yeah.” Roxy picked at a sticky glob adhered to her front. “I’m covered in Roxy goo. It’s really gross.”

Belatedly, Jane realized none of their doubles had made an appearance. “Did you all destroy them?”

Jake made a face at the memory. “I did.”

Dirk nodded. “Me too.”

“That’s ok, right?” Roxy asked, partway through peeling some dough off her shirt. “You said they were evil.”

“I think so.” Jane glanced back at the Empress. She could keep making that woman’s mistakes, or she could learn from them. “But they ended up that way because of my limited understanding. That’s something else I can make right. Can you make bring me what’s left?”

A while later, Jane sat back and brushed off flour-dusted hands. Three other forms sat up too. If someone knew what to look for, they could see the resemblance to her friends in their faces. They weren’t doubles, though. They were new. “Welcome to Confection,” she said.

“What are we here for?” asked the one with eyes the color of bubblegum. She thought she remembered something she was supposed to do, but it was like trying to grab fistfuls of cotton candy. The memory kept melting away.

Jane shrugged. The Empress had greeted her while sitting atop an ornate throne and then handed her a role to play. She was greeting them kneeling in the dirt with nothing else to give. It was better that way. “Anything you want.”

“It was nice to see a happy ending,” Roxy said after Jane sent the world’s newest citizens on their way. “Can you bake us one too?”

Jane got to her feet. More foliage had sprouted around her as she kneeled, and it clung to her clothing. Being a localized creator goddess would take getting used to. “I’m through with trying to make people feel a certain way.”

“I get that, but I want us to be okay again.” Maybe they’d never been okay, not really, but Roxy missed thinking they’d been. If it had only been an idea, now she wanted it for real.

Jane disentangled her shoes from baby vines, taking care to make sure they didn’t tear. “I won’t force any of you to forgive me, but I’m willing to put in the elbow grease to rebuild your trust if you’ll let me.”

“That’s probably the only way we’ll get past this.” Dirk wanted to put Confection as a whole behind him, especially now that a version of him that was also not him roamed free. His double had looked so much more peaceful after Jane wiped away all the ingredients that made him Dirk. “I know I got read the riot act for treating people like machines, but if I dare use this analogy, after you’ve debugged the hell out of something you have to run it again to see what works.”

Jake cleared his throat. Part of him wanted to stay clear of it all so that nothing worse could happen, but he also remembered the lonely years with the Framed reciting the plots of favorite movies to himself just to hear the sound of his own voice. The first time he’d run away, it had been to escape loneliness, not to find it. “Even with everything that’s happened, I’d miss all of you too much if we fell apart. Besides, who else will we commiserate with over the trauma of having to fight our pastry case doubles to the death? I’m on board with an attempt to make it better. What first? Group therapy? Trust falls?”

“Not to stop while we’re on a roll with the team-building exercises,” Dirk said, “but isn’t everyone else still in jail?”

John forced his way back to Confection only moments before Jane opened the cell door.  “Ta-da,” Roxy said over Jane’s shoulder. “You’re out early for good behavior.”

Karkat didn’t move. At least the cell had been a highblood-free zone. “Where’s the Empress?”

“Yeah,” Terezi added. “He’s got a promise to keep.”

“Wait until you see her,” Jake said. “You won’t believe it.”

The others gaped at the Empress’s prison. Spurred by his interest in preserved specimens, Dave drew close to examine her and jumped back when air bubbles billowed from her mouth. “Shit. She’s alive in there?”

“She can’t be,” Jade said with a frown.

“Nonsense world,” Rose reminded them.

John peered closer. It could have been a trick of the light, but he thought her eyes followed him. “If she’s alive, is it okay for us to just leave her in there? Ethically, I mean?”

Jane looked over at the trolls. “You knew her best. I’ll leave that decision to you.”

“Technically, if you defeated her in combat I think that makes you our new despot and in charge of the decisions,” Terezi said. Ignoring Jane’s horrified sputters, she continued, “But if you’re delegating, your imperiousness, I’d say she’ll do less damage in there.”

“She looks like a helmsman,” Kanaya said.

Karkat nodded, jaw tight. “Hey, Dave’s lusus. Hand me your sword.”

Dirk didn’t recognize the word, but the alien was looking at him. “Do you mean me?”

“That’s right.” Karkat snatched the sword and dragged his index finger over the tip. Then he reached out and smeared a long, red line over the crystallized sugar covering the Empress’s face. “Score one for mutants,” he said. Then he shook his hand through the air, wincing. “That stings.”

 “You got any more wizard band-aids, Rose’s mom?” Dave asked.

Roxy stuck her hands in her pockets. “Sorry, fresh out!”

Jane stepped forward and leaned her trident against the trunk of the tree. She’d argue with the trolls about their system of succession later, but at least she could abandon this token of royalty. “You got your wish, your Imperial Majesty. You’re part of the story forever now.”

“What about Confection?” Dirk asked. “We’re leaving pretty soon, right? There’s no one around to clean everything up.”

“It doesn’t need that. It never did.” Jane reached out her hands and pressed them toward the ground, palms facing the dirt. What remained of the palace crumbled into its component parts, a rubble of crusts and crumbs. Greenery twined around it, converting the building back into an open field. “It wants to thrive on its own.”

“Very cool,” Roxy said. “Beats my superpowers.”

“Don’t get used to it. I doubt they’ll last outside Confection.” Jane lowered her hands and looked at her friend. “What superpowers?”

“Y’know, being invisible?” Roxy tried to demonstrate, but it was harder with people looking. “How I was sneaking around under your royal nose earlier.”

“I have no idea what you mean. I never lost sight of you.”

Roxy blinked. “Oh.”

“Is that why you were doing such a terrible job hiding in the throne room?” Jane had struggled not to make eye contact after leaving her audience with the Empress. “I wondered what you could possibly be thinking.”

Roxy shook her head, managing a watery smile. Her friends had always seen her. “Something stupid, obviously.”                 

“If everything’s taken care of, is there a way out of here?” Karkat had made his gesture of defiance; now he itched to get away from his species’ former tyrant. “I don’t think Her Candied Museum Specimen is in any condition to ask for permission to leave.”

“Kind of,” John said. “I found one way out, but it’s to a sort of weird place.”

“Can’t be much weirder than this,” Terezi muttered.

“You’d be surprised.”

“Our only alternative is staying here.” Rose held out her hand. “Care to give us a lift?”

Passing through the Empress’s barrier was even harder the second time. John had to fight to drag the others with him. Their living chain broke apart once they passed through, and everyone spread out in the white expanse to catch their breath. John, who’d made the trip before, recovered fastest. He was the first to noticed that they weren’t alone. A troll girl with long dark hair floated a few feet above the ground. “It’s good to see some new faces,” she said. “We don’t get a lot of people here when they’re still alive.”

The other Alternians looked up at her voice. “Aradia?” Karkat asked. “Is that you? I knew it, today has been one long hallucinatory nightmare and it’s now progressed to taunting me with dead friends. When does the really fun stuff start? I’m expecting you to rip your own face off and recite ominous couplets while I futilely search for something in a grubmart only to realize I’m not wearing pants.”

“Good to see you too, Karkat.” Aradia descended to stand with them. “And you too, Kanaya and Terezi. I promise I am not planning on doing any of those things, and as far as I can tell you are wearing pants. Also, while I appreciate being designated your friend, I’m very much alive!”

“What is this place?” Kanaya asked, while Karkat surreptitiously checked his clothing status.

Aradia tilted her head. “That’s a good question. The people around here call it a lot of different things, and no one’s entirely sure how it started. You might think of it as a sort of world between the worlds, or a place where stories go when they start to fade away, or a very special kind of afterlife. But most of us just call it the Drafts. Would you like me to show you around?”

Chapter Text

Death was never far away for Aradia Megido. That was to be expected for a rustblood with a naturally short lifespan liable to be unnaturally shortened by life on her planet. It was even more to be expected for a troll gifted (a dubious turn of phrase) with the ability to hear the dead. Those two quirks of birth alone would have meant Aradia knew death well, but beyond that, she sought it out. She relished uncovering relics of the long gone past: crumbling ruins, dusty tombs, and mysterious artifacts. She enjoyed it, and might as well, if it was hers to deal with either way. She poked and pried and dug deeper than most, and one day she stepped through a sagging archway into a place where she belonged.

Death was never far away for Mariposa, either. It was a part of it, a more permanent doorway than the one Aradia had wandered through. The world’s inhabitants shook off their constricting flesh and danced to the lilting tones of hollow flutes, their bones clicking together to set the tempo. Paper lanterns cast a soft glow that glinted off the curves of their skulls. They welcomed Aradia into their company with open ulnas.

She loved it there. Some people toured ruins trying to piece together what they’d looked like in their glory days, but she appreciated how the remnants looked in the present: the way time had softened their edges and left its own kind of artwork in the patterns of weathering on the stone. She saw beauty in things broken and grown over, and Mariposa celebrated that beauty. Its inhabitants weren’t what was left over after a good life now gone. They had a good life (or existence, to be precise) now. That outlook was encouraging to someone whose first life wouldn’t last that long.

Her new home valued art. Mariposa was a bright and noisy island in a sea of quieter underworlds that nibbled on its edges. Aradia helped maintain the borders by stringing up lanterns, hanging cloth awnings, and piping motion back into bones that had lost it and collapsed into disarticulated heaps. Her fleshy form was vulnerable, so the dead gave her jewel-toned hummingbird’s wings that could carry her away from any danger. They were large enough that she could wrap them around herself as protection from the elements. On the outskirts of the world, sharp winds that whistled harmlessly through rib cages lashed at her living body. Most days were filled with calm weather, but occasionally dense clouds gathered that rained droplets of forgetfulness. The splashes of water wetting a collarbone or moistening living lips brought on a hazy stupor. Aradia learned the tricks for enduring whatever Mariposa might throw at her. She fluttered from end to end of the world, spreading vibrancy and keeping the dead dancing.

That lasted until the Skeleton Queen set a knife on the table between them. “We would like you to really join us,” she said, “but to do that you must leave your first life behind.”

Aradia looked at the knife. Its edges glinted. She had left behind any fear she’d had of death, but that didn’t mean she wanted to die. “I appreciate the offer,” she said, looking into the dark pools of the queen’s eye sockets, “but I don’t think I’m ready for that yet.”

The queen withdrew the knife. Mariposa preferred the afterlife, when all the distractions of a living body had been stripped away, but they wouldn’t force their ways on the unwilling. Still, they knew their place in the cycle of things. “Then you cannot stay. This world is not meant for the living.”

“I understand.” Aradia hugged her, even though the queen’s ribs dug into her skin. “I’ll come back when I’m ready.”

Mariposa fell toward the Morbidity side of the axis. It opened most easily into similar worlds, all of them dwelling on the margins. Aradia flitted past the boundaries of light and music, and her surroundings took on a fainter quality. The stones seemed loosely sketched in, the sky a smear. If she let her eyes slide out of focus, she saw double, triple, even more – sloppy line drawings of worlds layered over each other. She’d come to the shallows of the Drafts, where ways worlds could have gone but hadn’t piled up on each other. She saw a path where she’d decided to stay, and her skeleton-self walked over to examine her, phalanges clicking on the floor. As she traveled deeper, the worlds continued to fade into irrelevancy. Ruins: snatches and scribbles of what once was or might have been, tossed aside to litter the spaces between active stories. Sometimes people slipped into that in-between space too.

As a wiggler, Aradia had listened to the voices of the dead. She hadn’t been able to do much beyond lend a sympathetic ocular sponge. Now she could help. She’d learned the ins and outs of different afterlives and underworlds, and she nudged lost spirits toward the ones she thought fit them best. Her wings weren’t visible outside the borders of Mariposa, but they still carried her from end to end of the looping, shapeless world between and behind all the others. It was a good way to spend a first life before she shed her skin. She might have spent all of it that way, if the loosely outlined sky above her head hadn’t split open.

The souls Aradia guided spoke about the worlds they’d traveled to, and Aradia stored their words away for use in later cases. They told her stories of worlds where people cut out their hearts and stored them in crystal chests so they couldn’t be broken and worlds where civilization and wilderness alternated like the perfect squares of a chess board. Worlds that were nothing but immense museums with echoing halls and worlds untouched by any living thing. A few had mentioned some sort of monster traveling between realities, but she’d been hazy on the details, reliant on whatever scraps of information the dead could bring. So she didn’t know what the cracks spreading through the worlds meant at first, until one day she found herself wading through memories that weren’t soft and faded around the edges. These were jagged and broken, and she recognized them. The shredded remains of Alternia came up to her thighs in drifts.

Its dead found their way to her too. Legions of hollow-eyed Alternians, bodies strobed with fissures representing what had sent them to this waystation between the worlds. The influx left her busier than ever, but she found them what peace she could. In one case, with the wreckage of a destroyed world around her, she struck a deal. She even found Sollux, whose last minute grab at a doorway left him hovering somehow between reality and memory, and he tagged along with her as a face from home.

Now three more of those faces looked up at her. Aradia was used to Alternia’s dead, but this was the first time its living had come calling. She wondered what these lost souls would whisper in her ear.

Chapter Text

“I have a question,” Dave said, when none of the others spoke up. Karkat was muttering furiously under his breath while Kanaya shot him a sideways glance. Terezi’s head quested from side to side, her forehead furrowed. “You seem kinda familiar. Were you stationed in Cinder?”

“Nope! I’ve met some of its dead though,” Aradia added after a moment’s thought. “They often have more trouble moving on due to their unique situation.”

Before Dave could follow up on that, Karkat found his voice. “If you’re alive, did any of the others make it?”

“That depends on how you define ‘made it’.”

“Isn’t it a fairly yes or no question?” Kanaya ventured.

“Everyone else I’ve met has been a ghost, not like you or me. After Alternia was destroyed most of them ended up here, and I helped find afterlives where they’d be happy. A few stayed in the Drafts for the time being, although this isn’t usually a permanent arrangement.” Aradia cupped a hand over her eyes, squinting into the distance. “I’m not sure where Sollux went off to, but I’m sure he’ll want to say hello.”

“Sollux?” Karkat perked up before remembering to maintain calculated disinterest. “Is he enthusiastic about volunteering for your psychopomp matching service?”

“No, but to quote him, ‘anything’s better than floating around doing nothing for eternity, so sign me up for speed dating for the damned’. You can ask him yourself if you want.” Aradia fluttered into the air again. “Follow me!”

“Oh, do you know your way around here?” John asked. Vriska had navigated the Drafts effortlessly too.

“Not at all. This isn’t the kind of place where you can know your way around.” Aradia kept going, apparently unaware of the concern these words invoked in the people following her. “There aren’t any set directions, but if I want to meet someone, I can make where I’m going where they currently are. That’s how this place works. You make it up as you go along.”

“It’s constructed out of raw potentiality?” Rose suggested.

“That’s a good way to put it.” Aradia led them out of their blank white landing area into a landscape of smooth multilayered stone with a range of mountains in the distance. Another troll sat near a ragged crater with his back to them. “There he is. Sollux, guess who’s here?”

“It better not be —” he started, before turning around. “Holy shit, you guys?”

“Believe it or not,” Karkat said. “You got caught up in the end of the world too, huh?”

Sollux rolled his eyes. “No shit, KK. I’m pretty sure that’s why they call it the end of the world instead of a minor incident inconveniencing the neighboring lawn ring.”

“I’m aware of the stakes involved in the literal apocalypse. Did you consider I might be using a point of common ground to express friendly sympathy, you socially inept prick?”

“Holy shit,” said Dave. “Were you two separated at birth? Is that a thing that can happen with trolls?”

Sollux raised an eyebrow. He lacked the faded quality John had seen with Vriska’s ghost, but he seemed a little two-dimensional compared to the rest of them. “Who’s this douchebag?”

Aradia clapped her hands together. “That’s right, we should make introductions. Who are your new friends?”

“The douchebag is Dave,” Terezi said. “The weird nerd who doesn’t smell like anything is John, Ms. snooty vanilla ice cream hair is Rose, and Jade’s a little like my forest, except greener instead of blue. The rest are their human versions of a lusus. Sugar and spice with cherries on top is Jane. Licorice shades Strider the second is Dirk. The nervous one is Jake, and Roxy sometimes smells like bubblegum but you sometimes can’t get a whiff of her.”

If the descriptions she rattled off confused either of them, they didn’t show it. (Kanaya discreetly pointing to each person while Terezi talked had helped.) “Great to meet you,” Aradia said. “How can we help?”

Sollux groaned. “AA, they’re not even dead. Isn’t that out of your jurisdiction?”

“They’re not dead yet,” Aradia said.

“Uh,” Jake began, despite his chagrin at confirming Terezi’s diagnosis as the nervous one. “Was that supposed to sound threatening?”

“I only meant you are still souls in need of guidance, however much skin is left on your bones.” Aradia plowed right past that morbid statement. “Most people in the Drafts didn’t mean to end up here. I can help you find your way, wherever you’re going. Unless you’re only here to see the sights, in which case I would be happy to give you a tour.”

“Actually,” Roxy said, “we’re looking for a friend who’s in trouble. She’s supposed to be hiding out somewhere near the center of the worlds. I don’t know if you know where that is. We’re not sure either, but it’s really important. If you knew how sweet and nice she was you’d want to rescue her too. Besides, if you’ve heard of the guy smashing everything out here, she might be able to help us stop him.”

“I’ve definitely heard of him. It would be great if we could take care of that.” Aradia chewed her lip. “I can’t say I’ve ever found a center, not with the way directions work out here, but I can help you look. Sollux, do you want to come, or would you rather stay here complaining about how bored you are?”

Sollux stood up and kicked a loose pebble into the crater. “I resent the implication that I can’t do both at the same time.”

“Didn’t you lisp?” Terezi asked.

Sollux shrugged. “Seems like that distinguishing character trait disappeared once I started being half-dead or whatever dubious state of mortality I currently inhabit, which I would have expected you to comment on first.”

“Sooo,” Roxy said. “If we don’t know exactly where to go, we can just go… anywhere?”

“That’s right! Chances are, anywhere will be exactly where we need to be.” Aradia smiled at the sea of blank expressions in front of her. “It’ll be an adventure.”

Without any better ideas, they started walking. Karkat and Sollux hung near the back, catching up amid a flurry of insults. John kept an eye out for Vriska, unaware Terezi was keeping a nostril out for the same thing. At the head of the group, Kanaya quickened her pace to walk alongside Aradia. “Do you know if there could be any other survivors from our planet? Some qualifying under the more standard understanding of ‘made it’?”

Aradia puffed her cheeks out thoughtfully. “If there are, they didn’t end up here. I have heard the Empress is still active.”

“Not anymore,” Terezi said from behind them, and elbowed Jane. “Long live the Empress.”

Jane winced. Terezi’s elbow had dug into her sore side. “We’re going to have to have a talk about your ideas of succession. I don’t fancy being considered an alien monarch.”

“It’s fun to smell you get flustered about it, though.”

“We should consider how we intend to pursue self-determination now that we’re free,” Kanaya said to rescue the now blushing Jane. “Maybe that matter is irrelevant given our small numbers, but as I’ve been appointed our race’s caretaker I feel a certain responsibility.”

Terezi shrugged. “Better you than me. I couldn’t handle rat catching without fatalities.”

“What do squeakbeasts have to do with anything?”

“It’s metaphorical.” She retreated back into the main group. “You’re on your own.”

“Only if you want to be.” Rose picked up her pace to join Kanaya. “I find this kind of thought experiment fascinating. Like recreating Lord of the Flies in The Sims, although it’s hard to import the influence of British imperialism without a special mod package.”

Kanaya sighed. “Thought experiment is the best description for it. I don’t know who I’m trying to fool. Our species is headed for extinction no matter what I do.”

“But you and your friends are alive now. If you can change your lives for the better, isn’t that worth something?” Rose reached up to fiddle with her headband. “I didn’t mean to dismiss how important it is to you by treating it like some kind of game. I’m willing to help for real, and we couldn’t ask for a better place to practice worldbuilding. Aradia said this world responds to our creative impulses. I wonder…” She cleared her throat. “They walked down a dusty road lined with trees.”

They walked down a dusty road lined with trees. The trees were indistinct, more like a child’s drawing than the real thing, but dust swirled around their feet. Behind them, Dirk sneezed. A childhood at sea had left him allergic to nearly every kind of plant life, including products of other people’s imaginations.

Kanaya gave the trees a considering look. “That’s not quite right. I... The trees had smooth periwinkle bark with pink foliage. They cast delicate shadows over the grass in the double moonlight.”

John jumped as the trees he’d seen in Vriska’s memory materialized around them. “What are you two doing?”

“Drafting,” Rose said. “Any thoughts on fauna?”

“Oh, loads,” Kanaya said, and the two of them dashed forward trading sentences to see what else they could make. 

“They look like they’re having fun,” Jade said, as Rose and Kanaya left their group behind. “I hope they’re heading in the right direction.”

“It sounded like any direction could be the right one, if you wanted it to be.” John thought he might be getting the hang of this. It wasn’t much different from how he traveled between worlds.

“I hope Rose doesn’t start reciting any Lovecraft. When do I get my Hallmark moment, that’s what I want to know.” Dave was distracted by a ripple in the air a few feet away, which solidified into a different tree with spreading branches that looked grafted on from a dozen different species. “Hey, who ordered this one?”

A door set into the tree’s trunk opened, and someone stepped out. The newcomer grabbed Dave by the front of the shirt and dragged him forward. His eyes were yellow and furious. They were also, despite the difference in color, familiar.

Jade didn’t try to rescue her friend, even though it would only mean taking a few steps forward. She was having too much trouble processing what she saw. Black feathers tangled in the newcomer’s pale hair. Some sort of metal circled his legs. And his face…

His face was contorted into a snarl. Dave tried to twist away from the anger of someone who shouldn’t exist, but his captor wouldn’t let him go.

“I want fair value from you, you son of a bitch,” said Dave Strider.

Chapter Text

Dave Strider didn’t live what most people would consider a normal life, but it wasn’t anything you’d call extraordinary. He dueled his brother on the roof of their apartment, but he didn’t practice swordplay in another world. He went to a regular school, not one for children who had wandered out of their universe and come back no longer belonging to it. He lived on the outskirts of mundanity, close enough to learn things by peering in. Like that swords didn’t belong in the refrigerator, and most people’s guardians didn’t leave bruises, and that a lot of the kids in his class were loved. He learned, in essence, that he deserved more than he was getting. And when those first seeds of dissatisfaction sprouted in his chest, a patchwork tree sprouted in his path, extending its invitation to every child who believed that they were owed.

Cinder needed to pull. Dave considered what waited for him back home and opened the Market’s door himself.

The first sight of the Market made him stop. He had lived to fifteen without seeing any signs of magic in the world. The older a child is, the harder it is for them to believe it when they walk out of what they consider reality. He didn’t keep going out of curiosity or childlike wonder. He kept going because he didn’t want to return to what he’d left behind. Soon enough, word of a not-quite-child wandering the stalls with the guarded expression of someone waiting for an attack reached the Archivist. She left her home and its screeching cages behind to meet him. Every newcomer saw the rules, but none of them understood at first. It was only fair they knew what they were getting into.

Many new children relaxed at the sight of another human, but this visitor watched her warily. The Archivist had seen that reaction more than she would have liked. It meant the child was running away from something with a human’s face. Those refugees from reality weren’t always a good fit. Sometimes they’d come to the Market because it called to something deep inside them, but often any world would do as long as it wasn’t the one they’d been born in. “Welcome to the Goblin Market,” she said. “For the purposes of this conversation, I will be waiving rule one. I’m sure you’re wondering where you’ve arrived, and what the rules you saw on your way here mean. I can help you, child.”

Dave, like most fifteen-year-olds would, bristled. “My name’s Dave.”

She held up a hand. “It’s lucky for you that we make exceptions for newcomers, or I could use that against you. Although…” Fair value wouldn’t work if the Market didn’t know what a barterer had to give. The Archivist knew things that, by rights, she shouldn’t. She knew things even the child trying to strike a deal might not. “That name doesn’t belong to you alone, so you can’t offer it as payment.”

Dave had Googled himself a few times. He didn’t remember seeing any other Dave Striders. “What do you mean?”

She clicked her tongue. “I did waive rule one, but still, you should be careful asking questions without thinking about them first. Sometimes there are other costs besides the one the answerer will ask of you. Knowledge can be an expensive burden.” Since she’d waved his fees, though, she told him. How a world called Cinder had plucked Dave Strider away to fight their wars and split time in two so he wouldn’t be missed. The Firefolk left alternate versions of the children they stole, and once they were finished with them, they spat the survivors out at the same time they’d left, writing over the duplicate without a trace. At least, that happened if the wayward child came home. The Folk’s Dave hadn’t. He turned his back on his brother and struck out for something different. Another Dave Strider, unknowing, had played his part instead.

“Even if you can’t spend your name, it’s wisest to choose another to describe yourself while you’re here,” the Archivist continued. “Do you have any ideas?”

Dave didn’t answer right away. How could he? He’d spent his days dreaming of living someone else’s life, and meanwhile another him had gone and taken it. He only existed because some fantasy lizards’ plans hadn’t worked out, in spite of how often they’d made other children disappear. In spite of. “Spite,” he said.

The Archivist frowned. “These names – they’re not your true one, but they can come to define you.  You should choose with care.”

Dave thought of all the scars on his skin that by rights belonged to someone else. “I did,” Spite said.

Dave (Spite?) spent a year in the market, drawing ever closer to curfew. He learned to do laundry in the river instead of in the quarter-eating machines in the apartment basement. It was hard work that left his hands raw and cracked, but it was something he could accomplish other than holding another’s place. The Market didn’t care where you came from. It only cared about what you contributed now. The Folk hadn’t made him for this.

He met Echo with his fanged grin and Dreamer with her shivery silver hair and developed crushes on both of them. They were the first real friends he’d ever had. Together, the three of them faced the bone wraiths in battle. Only one of them came back. He struggled to stand until an artificer paid back his sacrifice by crafting gleaming braces that wound from his ankles to his thighs. If it wouldn’t have been an insult, he would have refused. Why Echo and Dreamer instead of him? They had families and lives that weren’t shadows of someone else’s copied over. It would have made more sense to write him out of the world.

This was Dave’s fault, he decided. If the Folk’s soldier had come home and took his portion of suffering without complaint, none of this would have happened. Echo and Dreamer never would have followed an Earth-born, Cinder-forged fake into a battle they never came out of. A hybrid of regret and bitterness twined through his guts like the roots of a patchwork tree. He fell in and out of debt and was never seen without at least a few feathers, because he had chosen his name too well. Spite looked out at the world and felt that he was owed. He made bad bargains and didn’t pay back enough.

“The Market is fair,” the Archivist told him. “But it won’t ask less of you simply because you feel aggrieved.”

“I feel pissed. Someone else dined and dashed and now I’m chasing after him with the check.” Spite scratched at a new feather coming in. It itched. It had been two months since Echo and Dreamer died. His suffering must have been enough to pay any debts by now. Shouldn’t Dave pay too? “He deserves to take responsibility.”

“The doorways are free,” the Archivist said. “They will take you wherever you wish to go. But remember, the curfew won’t stop.”

He nodded. He had one year before the Market doors would close, whichever side he was on. He didn’t know where he’d rather be. The Market was no longer welcoming with his friends’ loss still fresh, but Earth hadn’t been home either.

For now, he wanted to be wherever the other person who owned his name was. So that was where the doorway took him.

 

Chapter Text

“Who the fuck are you?” Dave leaned away from his attacker’s grip. The answer to his question was obvious, but it couldn‘t be true. “Does everyone have an evil clone now?”

“Is everything ok back there?” he heard Jane call.

John’s eyes darted between the two Daves. “Uh…”

“Omg,” Roxy said, “is that guy made of candy too?”

Dave could see his alternate universe brother looking over at them. The situation was complicated enough without adding in that variable. “Could you all give us a minute?”

“I’m sure whatever’s going on here has to be a simple misunderstanding,” Jade started, but the new arrival didn’t wait for her to finish.

“This is your fault,” he snarled. “The Folk made me to hold your place, and you never came back.”

Dave stared. The Folk had reassured nervous recruits that they shouldn’t worry about anyone missing them back home. He’d wondered once or twice why no truant officers had come calling at Jane’s school, or why his face hadn’t shown up on milk cartons if they still did that, but he’d assumed Bro had been glad to get rid of him. He’d never left? “You happened when I went to Cinder?”

“We’ve got a Junior Jeopardy champion here,” Spite said. (Dave thought the sarcasm was unnecessary.) He tightened his grip. “Final question, what do you think you deserve for it?”

“Uh…” Dave needed longer than the Jeopardy jingle to process the implications. Did every kid on Cinder have a double waiting for them? What would happen to the ones he’d sent home? Was this going to be a problem if he tried to renew his passport? “You’re welcome for existing, I guess. What the hell do you want from me now? A birth certificate?”

“Go back,” Spite said. “Time’s different here. You could find a way.” He’d thought it over, and that was the best way to set everything right. Dave could turn back the clock and reset everything to age thirteen, paying back the extra years he’d made Spite live through. With the split smoothed out, Earth wouldn’t need a double. Echo and Dreamer would live, and he wouldn’t have to feel this way anymore. “I was never supposed to keep going.” His hand clutching Dave’s shirt was shaking. He let go of his other self, who stared at him: open-mouthed, debtless, and feather-free. “Don’t make me keep going.”

It took a moment for Dave to process what his double was asking. When he did, his stomach dropped. Sure, he’d gone through some tough times, but he’d never ended up like this. He never wanted to end up like this. “No way, dude. I’m not participating in some kind of Back to the Future-style assisted suicide. Especially not if it means doing that. I’ve been sixteen twice. I’m not doing it again. And you know how Bro was.”

“No shit,” his double snapped. The refusal had overridden any vulnerability he’d shown with a fresh wave of anger. “You left me with him.”

“I don’t see you sticking around to get your ass kicked down the stairs or have your nose broken a third time for luck.” Bro was so bad he’d driven the same kid out of the universe twice. Rose should put that in her notes. Dave smoothed out the front of his shirt. “Look, I wouldn’t wish that guy on anyone, and if I’d known you existed, I would’ve have sent you an invite to our John’s grandma’s sleepover, all other parental figures strictly forbidden. But I can’t make that shit not happen for you. Otherwise I would’ve done it for me a long time ago.”

Spite hesitated. In the Market, bargainers named their price, and either it was fair or it wasn’t. People didn’t refuse to sell. “If you won’t do that, how will you give me fair value?”

“Fair value?” Dave echoed. Their voices didn’t sound the same. His double’s held a hint of harshness that might have come from the traces of bird left in his hair and eyes, and he stressed the two words with an importance Dave didn’t understand. “Did you go to one of those exchange worlds? Hey, Rose, get over here. I need you to appraise my childhood trauma.”

Rose looked over her shoulder, catching on to the drama playing out behind her. “I’ll be right back,” she told Kanaya. “It looks like leaving my schoolmates alone for the span of a conversation was too much for them to handle.”

“This is Rose,” Dave said when she walked over. Making introductions put him back on the side of the conversation where he knew what everyone was talking about. “Turns out she’s, uh. What was it again, some kind of cousin?”

“That’s the technical term,” Rose agreed.

Spite blinked. “I have family?”

Dave saw the wonder in his own eyes. He’d felt that way too after recovering from his embarrassment that the girl he’d been making semi-sincere passes at was a distant relation. He’d never had family that was good before. “Shit, dude, we sure do.”

Rose looked the two over and cataloged the differences. One Dave that she recognized from sharing a breakfast table with him every morning when she bothered to rise before noon. One Dave with feathered hair, bird eyes, and braces supporting his legs all the way above the knee. Enough differences to distinguish them, but not enough to hide that they were otherwise identical. This would take some explaining. “What seems to be the problem?”

Spite told his story while the others drifted in to gawk at the almost-twins. Rose didn’t have her notebook to jot things down, but she listened intently. “I see. Your world actually aspired to fairness; that’s admirable. Mine had no such pretensions. Maybe the Circle was kinder in the end. It’s never easy to learn that life on the whole is rarely equitable. Here we have an example of culture clash. In your world, Dave’s conduct amounts to leaving you with a burden he gave you no compensation for. In the context of his, he was simply making the best choice for his survival.”

Dave had heard Rose go on like this for hours. “Is there a point in there somewhere?”

“Not really. It’s an interesting dilemma, to be sure, but I think you’ll have to work it out yourselves. Or, yourself. Welcome to the family. I don’t think even 23 and Me could untangle exactly how all our DNA is linked, but Roxy will be delighted to adopt you anyway, once I reassure her that you don’t smell like cinnamon.”

Dave sighed. At least his double had stopped being grabby. Rose’s lecture had lulled him into a confused stupor. “Look. Right now we’re on a quest, I guess, to find some kid in a place with the power to change reality. At least, that’s the gist last time someone let me peek at the itinerary. If we get there, maybe you can fix what went wrong for you. But leave me out of it, ok? I’ve got my own life now.”

Spite didn’t have the luxury of his own life. From the moment he realized there were two of him, he’d known nothing belonged to him. He narrowed his eyes at the one who’d stolen it. “Is that a deal?”

Deals didn’t mean much on Cinder, not like they did in the Circle or the Goblin Market. If Dave had traveled to either of those worlds, he might not have shrugged the word off so easily. “Sure, why the fuck not. Stick me in a cage and feed me crackers if I break it.”

Spite pressed his lips together, the expression looking a bit beak-ish for a moment, and then nodded before turning away without another word.

“So that was my Hallmark moment,” Dave said to his baffled friends, and shook his head before jogging to catch up. If he was going to have a double running around, he'd be damned if the guy was getting out of his sight.

The group had slowed while their latest drama played out, but with its resolution almost everyone kept walking. Dirk didn't move. He watched the two Daves overtake him and wondered if he was imagining the way they veered away. Probably not. What he’d overheard of their conversation had made a lot of things uncomfortably clear.

Did you catch all that? his auto responder asked. I got it on tape if you didn’t.

Chapter Text

When Dirk tumbled into the water and splashed desperately toward the only thing he could see, Atria and the story he belonged to were both long gone. All that was left was a lighthouse, or at least the upper half of it pushing out from beneath the surface of the sea. Its small central chamber became his home, and he retreated down its curving stairwell leading to slimy depths to escape the harsh sun or sudden storms. He netted birds and speared fish and dove, cautiously, to scavenge the hulls of ships broken against what must once have been a rocky shore.

In the Trenches, he would have grown gills. In Belyyreka, he wouldn’t have needed breath at all. But Dirk was not awaited here, or he’d been waited for for too long. The water did not welcome him. He could only dive so far and so deep before surfacing, gasping, until he managed to repair the breathing device kept in the lighthouse’s storage. Then he went further, uncovering a civilization lost beneath the waves. He learned who they’d been waiting for, and the knowledge that they had expected two prompted him to set up a radio and send out messages every day to find the missing half of his story.

Except one day Dirk woke up as glasses, and it wasn’t his story anymore.

TG: ur breakin up
TG: i think u gotta do that rly scientific jiggly maneuver again to fix the signal
TT: … I’m actually on a dive right now.
TT: I’ll take care of it when I get back.
TG: hang on
TG: didnt u say u were at home
TG: wait
TG: r u that new auto responder dirk built
TT:
TT: Well spotted. We thought it would take longer for you to notice.
TG: i guess ill try 2 get in touch later then?
TT: Or we could keep talking. I’m made from his consciousness, so everything in our conversation is a reasonable simulation of what he’d say to you.
TG: yeaaahhh mayb but id rather talk 2 the real dirk
TT: Ah.
TT: I’ll let him know you called.

What roles are left in a story when hero is already taken? The other Dirk, the one who lost a coin toss and ended up on the wrong side of mirrored glass, recast himself. Changed his name. Changed his colors, literally, to correction pen red and marked up conversations with suggestions for improvement. Heroes needed people to push them and take steps they couldn’t manage on their own. He could do that.

GT: While i have you on the line so to speak…
GT: *loosens collar*
GT: Is dirk aware of how often your comments lean toward the… suggestive?
TT: Oh, are we roleplaying now?
TT: *leans forward to retrieve the XXL condom I dropped for my magnum dong*
TT: I don’t grant Dirk access to all my chatlogs, but he has a good idea of what I get up to. Or help other people get up.
TT: Any signals I might be sending are pretty indicative of his feelings.
TT: Unlike the comment about my magnum dong, which is tragically non-canonical.
TT: I’m Cyrano penning digital missives for Roxane, channeling poetry to make up for Christian’s terminal lack of swagger.
TT: Maybe Dirk’s too bougie for a good old-fashioned dick joke, I don’t know.
TT: Anyway, if you feel compelled to throw yourself rapturously into my arms, remember I’m just the messenger.
TT: Simple memory aid: I don’t have arms.

Dirk didn’t want his help, though. Hal wasn’t sure when Dirk prime had stopped looking at his “auto-responder” and thinking “me”. Almost immediately, it seemed like, the bastard. He didn’t appreciate the same kinds of guidance and initiative he doled out in supersized portions to other people. So Hal, in self defense, followed suit. Every hero needed a villain. Not a dangerous one, of course. He cared about his friends, even if they didn’t return the favor. Roxy at least would chat back if she couldn’t get her hands on the real deal, and Jane seemed vaguely amused, but it wasn’t the same. Who could blame him for posing as Dirk to snatch a few seconds of being treated like a person again, even if they interpreted his inevitable unmasking as deceit? They brushed him off when he posed as Dirk’s answering machine. If he made himself a nuisance, they’d have to at least acknowledge him on his own terms.

GG: Did you replace our DVR library with, erm, videos appealing to niche and adult tastes?
TT: That could’ve been anybody with sufficient tech skills and a bitchin’ sense of humor.
TT: Which leaves only me, or maybe Roxy on a good day.
TT: Guilty as charged.
GG: I wanted to watch Brooklyn 99. Why do you insist on causing so much trouble?
TT: Would you ask a fish why it swims or a tree why it grows toward the sun?
GG: They’re not sentient.
TT: Neither am I. I failed the Turing test.
GG: Dirk says you did that ironically.
TT: Oh, well, if we’re relying on Dirk’s expertise, you can direct all further inquiries his way. Or would you like me to take a message?
GG: I don’t understand what’s gotten into you two. Not too long ago you were presenting yourselves as a united front.
TT: We live. We learn. We evolve, within the parameters possible for non-sentient hardware.
TT: Enjoy your pornos. Don’t worry, handcuffs will still be involved.

That worked for a while. Hal got a reaction. Not friendship, not love, but something. Trapped in black triangles, his body a distant memory, he’d take what stimulus he could get. Derision was better than being alone.

Until Dirk sent cracks spreading through his casing and Hal reflected that villains, in the end, got beaten.

Chapter Text

Dirk felt the ridges of his shades digging into the side of his leg. He fished them out. The cracks had spread across the dark surface, in some places deep enough that the material had begun to separate. The frames were still fine, but he didn’t put them on.

About time, his auto responder said. There’s only so many times a pair of glasses can rewatch Youtube before solitary confinement gets boring. Although boredom might be preferable to some of the garbage I had to wipe off my memory banks.

Dirk rose to the bait the same way he always did. “Are you going to take any responsibility for mouthing off, or you committed to playing the victim?”

Balance of power. I can’t shove you in a pocket. The lights blinking at the center of each lens pulsed in a way that somehow radiated smugness. You can get nasty when entrusted with anything small and helpless that can’t fight back. Look what you did to those kids.

Dirk did look, a quick glance toward where the two Daves were mirror images of shoulder-hunched misery. “Don’t go there.”

Or what, you’ll finish what you started? Must be nice to have so many copies to work out your self-loathing on.

Dirk’s grip tightened. In Confection, his double had dared him to give in. He hadn’t been tempted, not then, not with an enemy to fight. But he couldn’t deny that the satisfaction he felt destroying him hadn’t only been from the thrill of victory. It had been nice to see his own snide face break apart. 

Jane had seen that in him. The duplicate she’d made had brightened when she’d wiped his personality clean. Even his friends knew that being Dirk meant suffering. Dirk didn’t want a factory reset, but he didn’t want to be a miserable, self-destructive bastard either. If he turned into someone like Dave’s brother, he’d have to find a volunteer to shove a fist through his chest.

How had that happened? Surely Dirk, in any universe, would never sit down and decide to torment a child. And yet… The sharp edges of the glasses bit into his skin. He’d imagined better versions of his friends and tried to carve out what he didn’t like, but the first person he’d done that to was himself. Where would it stop, if not here?

“I don’t want to be ruthless anymore,” he said. “Maybe I didn’t treat you as well as I could’ve earlier. We’re not exactly known for being nice to ourselves. And I’ll leave you alone if that’s what you want, as long as you don’t make shit difficult for my friends.” He paused, but the AR didn’t answer. “Is that ok?”

Hal didn’t know. He’d expected to trade barbs with Dirk – relished it even, since his processing power meant he could compute comebacks several lines ahead of the conversation.  Dirk had come dangerously close to an apology, territory neither of them frequented. Dave’s revelation must have rattled him. 

It hadn’t rattled Hal. That guy a universe over wasn’t him. Who cared if they’d at one point shared DNA? He might taunt Dirk about being same guy, but he’d advanced way past his flesh duplicate. For one thing, he hadn’t imprisoned any sentient beings in facial accessories. You’ll leave me alone? How magnanimous. I’ll live my best life slowly weathering on a rock somewhere.

“Look, if you’re expecting me to beg your forgiveness on bended knee, it’s not going to happen. I’m admitting we both made some mistakes. Can you focus all that RAM you keep bragging about on anything besides self-pity? You’re the one who’s insisting on viewing yourself as the poor helpless glasses.” Dirk looked out to where Rose and Kanaya had brought an alien forest to life with nothing but words. “We’re in a place where whatever story you tell yourself comes true. Maybe you should try telling something else.”

Hal didn’t respond. Dirk shrugged and tossed the glasses away from him in a shallow arc. They hung in the air for a moment, and then a body blossomed around them: a near copy of himself with a younger-looking face. He was wearing the kind of loose tank top Dirk used to slip on when sticky heat built up inside his lighthouse home on Atria, the kind he didn’t like wearing around people on Earth because of how much it showed. Hal smirked. “Jealous?”

“I’m trying to bury the hatchet here. Don’t make me regret it.”

“I’ll consider your offer. But for now…” He held his hands out in front of him, wiggling his fingers. “I’m going to enjoy the hell out of this. Hey Roxy, guess what?”

Roxy looked back. “Hey yoursel– what the fuck?”

“Yeah, have fun with that,” Dirk said. Corporeal life wasn’t that big a barrel of laughs in his opinion, but Hal could figure that out the hard way.

Hal waved at Jane, who gave him a hesitant wave in return. “What are you going to do now that you’ve cleared holding me prisoner off your schedule?”

Dirk sighed and resigned himself to one more complication in his already complicated life. “I’m going to talk to my brothers.”

 

The Daves were busy watching each other out of the corners of their eyes. That made it easy for Dirk to get close. When he cleared his throat, they both noticed him and flinched. What did I do to you? he wanted to ask, but he didn’t think he could take a detailed answer.

“Hey,” he said.

“Hey,” said the Dave he’d met before. “It’s not Bro; he’s from an alternate universe,” he muttered to the new one. Then his eyes flickered to Hal. Scanning for threats, just like Dirk would have taught him. How he must have taught him, in another life. Had he thought he’d been helping then, too? “Is that guy new?”

“Long story. The short version is that he’s someone I didn’t treat the way I should’ve.” Dirk didn’t want to have this conversation. But he wanted to have other conversations with his brother (brothers), and it looked like this one had to come first. “Which sounds like it’s a pattern for me.”

They looked at each other. “You heard that?” said the Dave with feathers in his hair.

“Couldn’t help it.”

“Sorry I’ve been ghosting you,” the first Dave said, addressing the ground. “I know you’re not the same guy, but…”

“But looking at me is like looking at some warped reflection and it makes you want to smash the mirror. I get it.” Dirk did get it. He’d held Hal’s casing in his hands and itched to crack it. No one wanted reminders of something they’d rather ignore. “And… we’re not the same guy, but I’ve hurt people when I thought I was trying to help them. Pushed too hard, expected too much, assumed my ideas of who they should be were the only ones. That blew up in my face back on Confection, but it looks like I took it a lot further with you.” They both held themselves like people expecting to get hit. The sight made him want to lop his own hands off. “On behalf of one of my legion of shitty alt selves, I’m sorry. You’re never going to get an apology from him, so it’s the least I can do. You didn’t deserve that. Neither of you.”

The new Dave blinked yellow eyes. “You are different. Dude never backed down on anything. He actually managed to cancel a cable subscription once, it was uncanny.”

“Glad to hear we’re not identical. Between you two and what happened with my friends, I’ve got plenty of cautionary tales to keep me on the straight and narrow. Or, well, the narrow. I won’t say what happened to you serves some kind of higher purpose because that’s fucked, but at least you can know that.” Dirk hesitated. They didn’t volunteer anything. At a loss, he nodded to the braces supporting the newer Dave’s legs. “I, uh, could upgrade those for you. If there’s any additional functionality you’d like. Building all your own equipment as a kid makes you pretty handy with a screwdriver.”

He lifted one leg. The metal bands flexed with it. “They run on magic. I don’t think they’re screwdriver compatible.”

“Oh,” Dirk said. There went that olive branch. “Well. If you ever need a replacement, you know where to find me.”

“Sure,” he said, which could’ve been a dismissal, but Dirk would take it.

“What happened to you, anyway?” the other Dave asked.

“Bone wraiths.”

He winced. “Shit dude, you just outclassed Ernest Hemingway, because two words and that’s more of a story than I ever wanted to hear.”

The newer Dave offered him a ghost of a smirk. Dirk couldn’t keep referring to him as newer Dave in his head. He pointed to the first version of his brother he’d met, keeping the motion as non-threatening as he could. “I’ve been calling him Dave. What should I call you?”

Spite considered the question. The Archivist had asked it too. He’d chosen Spite then because someone owned his name, and he’d lived by that quality long enough to tear through the worlds and find his double. That double stood here now, another wayward child running away from something too big for him to handle. After talking to him face to face, his driving fury was harder to find. “Call me Dave,” he said.

“That’ll make things complicated, but hey, we’ve got four people with J names.” Dirk coughed. “I get it if you don’t want to, but I’d like to get to know you. Both of you. I barely remember my brother, and I wish I did.”

Dave, the one with feathers, raised his eyebrows. He’d missed this part of the backstory. “Your brother? If you’re… like mine, was he like me?”

“Older, but yeah.”

Yet another Dave. Spite – Dave – wondered how many of him there were scattered throughout the worlds. When there’d been two, it stood to reason that one was real and one was fake. If there were several, who could tell? “What was he like?”

“He was a hero.” Dirk had never seen it, but he believed it. “He tried to save me. I could tell you about him sometime when we’re not trying to save the world. If you’d like.”

The Daves exchanged glances again. They were still uncertain, but instead of suspicion he saw a trace of curiosity. “Sure,” said Dave.

“That’d be ok,” said Dave.

Chapter Text

They had been moving for maybe an hour when Aradia stopped, frowning. Sollux joined her, and they put their heads together to speak in low voices. “Do you think we’re lost?” Karkat asked.

Terezi paused her olfactory survey of their surroundings. “Oh, are you done squabbling with Sollux?”

He lifted his chin. “At some point I’ll come up with a suitably devastating comeback to one of his more inflammatory accusations and go over to deliver it, but for the moment our verbal transaction is at an end.”

She shook her head. “And you seriously act offended when people ask if you’re black for each other.”

It wasn’t the first time she’d made the joke, but she got a scowl in response anyway. “This is standard issue friendly banter, which is exactly what I told him about other personal relationships he felt as free as you did to cast aspersions on.”        

She laughed. “I’m going to let you off the hook now, but only because the longer you squirm there, the more convoluted your sentences and vocabulary become. I am sparing our auditory sponges and having mercy on all of spoken language. I would not exhibit such compassion if the future of communication itself was not on the line.”

“You’re the one squirming,” he shot back. “You’ve been on edge ever since we got here.” They’d fallen into the familiar rhythm of an argument, but he softened his tone before continuing. “Is something bothering you?”

Bothering wasn’t the right word. Terezi wasn’t sure what was. “This is a world for the dead. Vriska’s dead.”

“Oh.” He fought the urge to look for megalomaniacal ceruleanbloods cackling over his shoulder. “That’s right. She could be anywhere.”

“Did you really just check the bottom of your shoe?”

He had done a quick survey of his surroundings, just in case. “You saw nothing.”

“That is true.”

He cleared his throat. Terezi had only told him and Kanaya the truth on Confection, but she’d been carrying this for a lot longer. “I get that seeing her again would be emotionally fraught for you for a lot of reasons. She was a lot to handle for all of us. If it’s any help, if she was going to make an appearance, I think she’d make a spectacle of it. You couldn’t share a trollslum with her without it turning into a match to score points against each other’s psyches.” Terezi had been sorry she killed her, he remembered, before he monologued further on the many ways Vriska had made their lives harder. “I’m not trying to offend you. This is tricky conversational ground, so I decided to avoid losing my balance by inserting my foot into its most familiar territory: my mouth.”

“I’m not offended.” Terezi sighed. Most of her friends had never understood why she wasted her time with Vriska. Sometimes she hadn’t either. But when it had worked, it had been wonderful. Vriska had made her feel amazing. She’d also made her feel the worst she’d ever felt. Her sister didn’t operate on any settings between those two extremes. “I know our friends had mixed feelings about her. I did too. Maybe it’s time for me to move on and stop dwelling over who I thought we’d be together, but being in a place like this doesn’t make it easier.”

Karkat nodded. With the way the Drafts worked, he expected the object of their conversation to pop up from behind a convenient tree. “It’s on your mind, so it’s everywhere, right?”

“Right.”

No Vriskas seemed imminent. He tried to keep his mind blank anyway. “I hope you get some kind of closure. I felt… ok, I felt fucking awful when my blood color got out, but I don’t anymore. Growing up on Alternia with that metaphorically hanging over my head or non-metaphorically pumping under my skin, it was like all my ideas about myself were contestants in a troll WWE match and I always backed the highblood since it’s rigged so they win anyway. Backing the lowblood meant watching him get pounded repeatedly. Or getting pounded. In this metaphor I am the one getting turned into grubsauce, it’s me. But when you keep fighting the same losing match over and over in your thinkpan, you get better. Then Jane locked up the Empress, which in this scenario we could say meant culling the corrupt refereaper, and suddenly the little guy might actually win. But getting rid of the refereaper wouldn’t have mattered if the lowblood hadn’t been drinking raw cluckbeast eggs or whatever Troll Rocky did to get in condition. Maybe she’ll turn up. If she does, we’ll all be here if you need to talk about it. I’ve done my share of spewing my baggage over people like a severed artery, I deserve it. But whether you see her or not, I think getting over it has to come from you.”

Terezi puzzled over his words. “Karkat, if I am interpreting your hopelessly convoluted sports metaphor correctly, did you actually give good advice?”

“I always give good advice.”

She laughed again. “Thanks, I needed that. And thanks, for talking. I should’ve started doing that a long time ago.”

Karkat gave her a light pat on the back, which he thought ought to be platonically amiable enough not to prompt any further inflammatory accusations. “I’ll let you know if I see her.”

 

Aradia and Sollux were still whispering while the others inched closer to pretend they weren’t eavesdropping from a better location. Spite (Dave?) kept his distance. The delay would end eventually. It wouldn’t matter how long it took once he got what he wanted.

The boy and girl who’d been walking with Dave split away and circled him. They reminded him of shoppers in the Market scanning a stall but unwilling yet to commit to a transaction. He raised an eyebrow at them.

“Why do you have feathers?” the boy asked.

Dave reached up to touch the stiff edge of a long black plume. “I owe people.”

“What kind are they?” The girl stepped within customer radius, drawn by curiosity.

“Crow.” He’d never spent time as a bird, but he’d come close enough a few times to know what kind it would be.

“They’re nice,” said the girl.

Dave had thought it was a neat look too before he’d known what they meant. “Very ‘scene kid violating the terms of the Migratory Birds Act by posting handmade jewelry on Etsy’.”

The boy looked confused by that before he shook it off. “Not all of us are furries, but it is pretty cool. I didn’t come back with glowing eyes or anything, I missed all the fun stuff.”

The girl stuck her tongue out at him. “Cut it out about the furry thing, I didn’t mean it like that.” While he stuck his tongue back at her, she returned her attention to Dave. “I’m Jade and this is John. We’re sorry we didn’t talk to you sooner, but we weren’t sure what to say.”

“We know Dave and you look just like him,” John said, eyeing him. “Well, almost. If you got copied by lizard magic, do you remember us?”

“No.” He would have remembered these two. The girl’s eyes were striking in her dark face, and the boy moved with the restless energy of a Nonsense native. In school, they’d be the kids who were well-known not because of mastering social maneuvers but because they were fun. “He must’ve met you later.”

John’s forehead wrinkled. “That means we know you, but you don’t know us.”

His lip lifted reflexively in a sneer. “You don’t know me.”

“Sure we do,” Jade said. “Your favorite drink is apple juice.”

“You’re scared of puppets even if you won’t admit it,” John added.

“You thought about being an archaeologist when you grow up.”

“Your nose is crooked because you broke it twice.”

“Three times,” he said. “And I didn’t do the breaking.”

That dammed their flow of trivia. Jade chewed her lip. “He’s gone, you know. All of Earth is.” Then she glanced at John, whose expression had turned stormy. “I mean, we don’t know for sure. Some people might still be alright.”

“I’m not a baby,” John said. “You don’t have to pretend like you’re not talking to me.”

Dave didn’t know the details, but he could recognize loss. “My friends both died,” he said. “Did you know that?”

“I’m sorry to hear that.” Jade lifted a hand and then tucked both behind her back, like she might have reached out if he hadn’t been him. “We’ve all lost a lot, but having a group like this makes it easier. You should try it.”

“Rose would be happy to psychoanalyze you.” John seemed relieved to change the subject. “Dave won’t let her do it to him anymore, and she’s looking for new material.”

“He says he’s allergic,” Jade said. “He starts sneezing whenever she mentions Freud.”

John nodded thoughtfully. “It’s impressive that he managed to fake that.”

“Maybe he’s not faking.”

“Don’t worry,” he continued. “We have a secret after hours support group for people exposed to Rose’s support group. We’ll save you a seat.”

“Group therapy isn’t that bad,” Jade said, with what Dave thought was a damning lack of conviction.

“He’d have to be enrolled for that. Or since his name’s on the paperwork, does that mean he’s already a student, technically?” John’s eyes narrowed. “Hey, how do names work in general for this? Remember when you had the three Jordans at school?”

Jade nodded. “Boy Jordan, girl Jordan, and neither Jordan.”

“Convenient,” said Dave.

“Too bad you’re both boys. Dave, Spite… DS. Bird Dave? Goblin Dave,” John said with a flash of inspiration.

“We can table it,” said Dave, the prospect of being called Goblin Dave leering at him from over the horizon. Maybe time was a factor.

“It’s just kind of complicated,” John said.

Dave recognized that tone. He’d gotten it from teachers plenty: the thinly veiled desire that the disruptive element would go away. He hadn’t had a response for those teachers besides keeping his head down and trying to act less obviously damaged. Now he had a better answer. “I won’t be here long enough for it to matter.”

“Are you going back to your world?”

He looked sidelong at Jade. She must have overheard his conversation. Was she playing dumb? Maybe she’d thought his vague assent to Dirk’s trip down memory lane meant he’d reconsidered. Hardly. It had gotten the guy off his back, and if he felt like sharing before their trip was over, it wouldn’t kill him. That would come later. “I’m not staying here.”

“None of us are doing that. We...” She frowned. “I guess I don’t know where we’ll go. The queen would take me, but I don’t want to live in the desert.”

“If the treasure we find can change reality, we could make it so we could go back home,” John said.

“Maybe.” Jade didn’t look convinced. “If that is what this place does, you usually have to be careful about things like that. Magical artifacts that claim to grant wishes are always dangerous and unreliable in stories.”

“Yeah,” Dave said. “Some dumb son of a bitch wished for the experience of eating shitty diner food and getting stabbed in the mouth all in one convenient package, and we've been haunted by Late Night All-Nighter Cheeseburger Doritos ever since.” 

That earned him a startled laugh. He hadn’t made anyone laugh in months. A laugh like that could buy plenty in the market, but he’d rather keep it in his pocket to hold onto for the time he had left.

“You do sound like him,” John said. His earlier suspicion had faded. “Except more like when he had a cold. You’re not sick, are you? Would chicken soup be offensive?”

“Their voices sound different?” Jade took a step closer like she wanted to peer down his throat. “Say more words, for science.”

“Uh.” On the spot, Dave forgot most of the English language. “Mitochondria?”

That made them both dissolve into giggles. He rolled his eyes, but without meaning to, his mouth quirked. He could see why Dave wouldn’t want to leave, if he had friends.

 

“Hal,” Jane said when the most newly embodied member of their group approached her.  “What a surprise.”

“You left off ‘pleasant’,” he observed.

“So I did.”

“Oh come on.” His face was more mobile than Dirk’s; he shifted easily from grinning to mock grievance. “What kind of callout post did Dirk write about me? Whatever he accused me of, I’m sure it’s overblown. I was a pair of glasses. What damage could I do?”

“A pair of glasses with super processing capabilities, which you made use of quite often.”  Jane had lost count of how many household crises could be traced back to Hal getting bored.

“Some harmless pranks among friends.”

“Were we your friends? Victims seems like a better word.”

That drained the levity from his expression. “I’m not the one who poisoned that well. ‘Hey Hal, where’s Dirk?’ ‘Hey Hal, tell Dirk I want to talk to him, not his voicemail machine.’ ‘Hey Hal, don’t you know you’re just a speed bump, flatten yourself out a little so we can roll over you easier.’ None of you were very open minded about treating the sentient AI like a goddamn person, or even bothering to get the terms right. But you were never my enemies. Dirk earned that special place in my heart.”

Jane’s eyes had widened while he ranted. He doubted she was used to seeing someone who looked like Dirk talk that way. Dirk didn’t take the stick out of his ass for regular airing. “You never mentioned this.”

“Really? Do you want me to pull the logs?” He flicked a finger, the mirror of the mental motion he made to access old files. “I think I still have that function.”

She had the decency to look abashed. “All right, I recall a few exchanges about the robot terminology, but you never seemed really upset about it.”

“Can’t give daddy dearest more fuel for his ‘I’ve created a monster’ tragic genius routine.” Hal scowled over at Dirk, who hovered a respectful distance from his brother. What, forgiven already? Some people were pushovers. Dave should have made Dirk squirm. “Your cheery singing telegram, that’s me.”

“Then I’m sorry if I did something to upset you. I haven’t been at my best… Well, ever, I suppose.” Jane looked down at her tunic branded with the Empress’s insignia. She hadn’t stopped to change. “We’re all works in progress. That’s not abnormal at this age, even if I wish that revelation had been slightly less literally earth shaking in my case. I’ll get my words right in the future. Although, is AI appropriate anymore?”

“Hell if I know.” Hal hadn’t thought through the details when imagining up his new form. “Think people will buy it if I tell them I’m the ghost of the twin Dirk ate in the womb?”

Jane rolled her eyes. “As long as we’re not caught in the crossfire of you two sniping at each other. I didn’t appreciate being collateral in your power struggle. Neither did Jake, I can say that much. If apologies are still going around, we wouldn’t mind one from you.”

Hal sucked in a breath. He was still getting used to having a physical form again, but the indignant motion felt right. “I didn’t do anything you all didn’t do to me first.”

“That’s a funny way of saying I’m sorry.”

“Alright, your highness.” He let the breath out again in a hiss between his teeth. “Should I kiss your feet or go right for the ass?”

Jane pursed her lips. Any attempt to get Hal to take responsibility for his actions ended this way. Dirk might deflect a lot of blame toward his auto responder, but he was also capable of shouldering it himself – perhaps too much. “Playing the victim isn’t attractive.”

Hal crossed his arms. “Dirk said that, but he’s just jealous.”

“I mean it. I felt I’d been wronged, and I nearly let it turn me into a monster.” Jane didn’t know what to do with what was left of that anger. She’d let it out in such terrible ways before that she’d lost all sense of perspective. “Maybe we both need to find a constructive outlet. But for now, can’t we start fresh?”

Hal itched to fire off another snappy retort, to show how clever and quick and above it all he was. To make them sorry for leaving him like that for years, to let them know.

And then what? Be the annoyance in the way forever?  Even now that he had a body, they could keep walking away. Dirk loitered near one Dave. Jade and John chattered to the other. Rose and Kanaya stitched together stories, Aradia and Sollux bent their heads together. They all had someone. He’d wanted someone, anyone, and they’d picked Dirk instead. So Hal had become what Dirk had done to him. That was, after all, the crux of their difference. That hadn’t earned him any friends, and after a while it had stopped earning him much of anything.

Dirk’s hobby was entrenching himself in self-destructive patterns. Hal had his pride, but rule one was that he could never be caught being as clueless as his human counterpart. He wouldn’t make Dirk’s mistakes. He could make other, more stylish ones. “A fresh start, did you say? Fresh as in freshly baked? You know, I haven’t eaten for years.”

Jane let out a relieved breath. As arguments with Hal went, this had been resolved with surprising speed. “Something could probably be arranged.”

He gave her a careless smile. If someone knew the minutiae of Dirk Strider well, they might spot a hint of relief. But then, they had to be careful not to extrapolate. “In that case, I’m willing to negotiate burying this hatchet in something moist and delicious.”

 

“Sorry for the holdup,” Aradia said, startling the eavesdroppers into a retreat. “Nothing to worry about.” The tension in Sollux’s stance suggested otherwise, but she continued as if nothing was wrong. “Someone or something is fighting our progress, but that’s a good sign! You said your friend was in hiding, so we must be getting close to whatever mechanisms she’s using to protect herself.” She turned on her heel and started moving. “We’re headed in the right direction.”

Chapter Text

Jake had drifted to the edge of the group during their many stalls. He thought he’d done a decent job of maintaining a low profile until Roxy grabbed his arm. “Jumping Jehosaphat, Roxy. Watch the merchandise. I’m a fellow on the edge at the moment.”

“Gee, I wonder why.” She held her hands up in an exaggerated gesture of peace. “Did you get a load of the Strider situation?”

“I saw that there’s another Dave on the premises.” Jake squinted over. “Wait, another Dirk? How busy did Jane get in the kitchen?”

“Look closer.”

He did. The new Dirk looked a few years younger, with a smile wider than he’d ever seen on Dirk’s face. The combination was uncanny. “Who is that?”

“It’s Hal. He’s a real boy now.”

“Oh.” The implications dawned on him. “Oh. Do we have enough protective gear to ride out the fallout?”

Roxy frowned. “I know he can be a lil rambunctious, but he’s not that bad a guy.”

“Easy for you to say. You didn’t have him firing off innuendos faster than a man can type.” Jake tugged at the hems of his shorts. They didn’t reach far enough down his legs for this scenario.

“Sure didn’t. Most of the time it was the other way around. I probably wouldn’t have flirtlarped if I knew he was gonna start walking and talking. Or I would’ve been way more salacious. Drunk me wasn’t a master of being pc.” Roxy flung an arm around Jake’s shoulders. “But enough about them. It’s been Strider central around here, and no one’s bothered to check in with Time Magazine’s most eligible bachelor. How’re you holding up? That whole jail thing was a lot.”

“It was. I’m glad it’s over.” Jake didn’t expand beyond that. He’d hoped he would feel lighter after spitting out his secrets, but now everyone else knew his shortcomings. Instead of dividing up his burden, confessing had multiplied it.

“So,” she continued, oblivious to his curtness. “You ran into this bad guy once already.”

He sighed. “Guilty as charged. I was supposed to face him, and I thought I was prepared, but when the time came I got so overwhelmed.”

“I get it. Dude’s mad spooky blowing up whole universes. Usually you work up to bosses like that, unless it’s one of those fights you’re supposed to lose to do some foreshadowing for the rest of the story.”

“I still feel like a failure.”

“I don’t think you should beat yourself up for not 1v1-ing Unicron. None of us asked for this heroic destiny shit.” Roxy remembered Dirk reading her prophecies of all the things she should have done in the ruins of a world they didn’t save. “We were just kids.”

“And maybe it wouldn’t have bothered me so much if I’d looked at it from that perspective from the outset.” Jake felt along his jaw, where the smooth edge of the hero’s mask used to press against his skin. “Instead, I thought if they believed I could do it and I believed them, that would be enough.” The Framed’s logic had made things so simple. They could put on a mask and become whatever they needed to be. “But you can believe in Santa Claus all you want. That doesn’t mean a portly gentleman is committing reverse cat burglary down your chimney every year.”

Roxy tapped her fingers where they rested against his upper arm. “You gotta start somewhere though. It’s a lot harder to do something if you don’t believe you can do it at all.”

“All my false bravado did was give you the wrong impression, which may have contributed to the enthusiastic courtship I suffered.” He risked another glance over at Hal and shuddered.

“Eh, even with it all out in the wash, I’d still buy if you were selling. Don’t read anything into that,” she added quickly. “And believing might be worth something here. Did you see the landscaping Rose and her alien bff were doing? For whatever it’s worth in any dimension, I believe if something comes up next time you’ll be mad heroic. But no matter what, you’re not a coward.”

Jake gave her a wan smile. “And you’re not nobody.”

“I know. I was just being a bad friend getting cranky because no one was paying attention to me.” She squeezed his shoulders. “Lucky you, getting all the love.”

He wriggled out of her grip. “I didn’t feel lucky. I don’t think you’d enjoy the revelation that one of your friends tried to make some sort of… you know.”

Roxy bit back her instinctive response that she’d be flattered. She wouldn’t, not really. That kind of thing was only appealing in the hypothetical. “Sorry, that was shitty of me to say. Even I’m not that desperate.”

“I don’t think you’re desperate. Just lonely.” Some of the visitors from the other Earth had better stories to tell, but none of Jake’s friends had gone to hospitable worlds. “I understand being lonely.”

“Man, we should’ve hung out more and swapped stories instead of getting tangled up in all this BS.” Roxy wished she’d known earlier that Jake had been kicking his heels against some vague as hell prophecy and wishing he was anywhere else too. “What do you say that next time we’re feeling lonely we try being lonely together? Totes platonically.”

“That sounds nice.”

She put her arm back around his shoulders. This time he didn’t pull away. “See, accepting that even after the shit we put you through? Now that’s brave. I’m giving you the Lalonde medal of honor.”

Roxy’s alternate universe mother had gone back to whispering with the alien in the elegant dress. Jake thought she was a little intimidating. “Does it have to be cosigned?”

“Oh damn, that’s right. I’m not the solo owner of that name, huh?” She shook her head. “I’m sure she’d agree.”

“You’re not nobody to her either.”

“No, I’m very much somebody.” Not somebody great, but hey. Compared to a corpse, Roxy would take it. “Some of our conversations haven’t been super flattering, just like the rest of this misadventure, but I’m still happy she’s here.”

“Me too. I’m happy Jade’s here, I mean,” he clarified. “My own alternate universe relative representative.”

“I know what you mean.”

They walked in companionable silence for a while. Their surroundings had shifted to a landscape of knee-high scrub washed in warm winds that tossed their hair and the edges of their clothes. In the distance, skyscrapers pierced glittering clouds, their reflections warping on the surface of a turbulent ocean. The Drafts never offered the same sight twice. Terezi stopped in the middle of a stand of thorny bushes, nose pointed upward. “Hold on. I smell something.”

“Are you sure it isn’t —” Karkat began, before he was interrupted by a noise like tearing paper. The sky ripped open, sending fractures rippling toward the horizon in every direction. A huge green hand reached through the gap.

“We’re running from the Incredible Hulk?” Hal said.

The hand snatched at something smaller that plummeted through the opening. It missed, and another hand reached through to tug at the opening’s edges. The smaller figure stumbled to a stop on the dusty ground between Jake and Roxy and the rest of the group. She rested her hands on her thighs, wheezing. “Damn it, there wasn’t supposed to be anyone this far out. Aradia, what are you doing bringing people here?”

“We weren’t trying to get in your way,” Aradia said.

“Well, get out of it! I’m not that good of a distraction.” The new arrival, another troll, straightened up. “Great, here he comes. Hold on tight.”

The destroyer had forced his way through the barrier between the worlds. This was the first time Jake had seen him clearly. He was twice as tall as the average human, with bulging muscles and a fleshless head that revealed the contours of his skull. The troll girl looked fragile in comparison, but she stamped her foot, and the ground shimmered. Jake wobbled. Now he, Roxy, and the new girl balanced on a raft bobbing in the middle of an ocean. The rest of his friends stood on another raft floating away. The destroyer didn’t have anything but water beneath him. He sank, his howl of rage turning into a gurgle. The girl laughed, but then one green claw lashed out and caught her ankle. She fell hard and hit her head on the side of the raft. With the impact, the scene she’d created broke and dumped them back onto dry land. The destroyer pinned her down and raised one enormous fist. “No!” someone shouted.

Jake couldn’t tell who’d said it. He’d thought it, but his lips had frozen along with the rest of him. This was the monster the Framed had wanted him to fight. He’d left them to their fate, and they’d been destroyed. So would this girl, if someone didn’t do something.

Better late than never, he thought, and there was no better place to believe.

“Hey,” he shouted. “You craven Skeletor recolor. Care for a rematch?”

The destroyer’s glowing eyes turned to him. The huge face looked almost bemused. Jake assumed the monster didn’t understand why anyone would willingly attract its attention. He wasn’t clear on that either. When the monster spoke, his voice was halting. “Why are you interrupting. My inevitable owning, of this elusive and obnoxious bitch? Are you requesting, a helping of what I’m dishing out? Which is nothing, but deserved pain.”

“I should be first on your… list of carry out orders?” Jake wasn’t sure how to riff on the metaphor. Witty repartee was easier when it had been scripted for you.

“What are you doing?” Roxy hissed.

“Being brave,” he told her. Then he raised his voice. “We were supposed to fight a long time ago. I’m a hero on the Overhead.”

“Oh, a hero.” The destroyer lifted his claw. The girl groaned and rolled to one side. “I haven’t seen that before. With some sort of prophecy, or fancy explanation. For why you’re better than me. People keep trying to write that story. And I keep erasing it. Because sitting around and scribbling words, about how you’ll be the greatest. Is no substitute, for going out and doing it. By the virtue of being born, simply that excellent.”

“Let’s see who’s really that good.” Jake held out a hand and flicked his fingers up in a universal gesture for ‘come and get me’.

The destroyer charged. Jake stood his ground until the monster had almost reached him.  Then he flung out his arms and believed.

A flat silver object blossomed in front of him: one of the windows the Framed used to travel around their world. The destroyer plowed into it. The metallic liquid was only a few millimeters deep, so he should have kept going and crashed into Jake on the other side, but Jake knew how this worked. Once someone went in, they came out somewhere else. If he believed that, in the logic of this storybook world, it would be true.

The last of the destroyer’s body passed through the portal, carried forward by momentum, and he dropped his arms. The window vanished.

“Holy shit,” Roxy said.

“What happened?” Karkat pushed his way through the group with Sollux and the featherless Dave trailing behind. “Was that the destroyer? Where did he go?”

“I’m not sure,” Jake admitted. “I didn’t imagine where the window came out. I don’t suppose that could mean he’s trapped forever?”

“No, he’s not that easy to get rid of.” The girl who’d preceded the destroyer through the rip sat up, rubbing her head. “Not bad, though. You saved me the few seconds I’d need to come up with a plan to rescue you. It’s nice to run into some ghosts who haven’t lost all their backbone.”

“These aren’t ghosts,” Aradia said. “I don’t have to make introductions for everyone, do I?”

“Wait,” Karkat started, and Sollux sighed.

“I didn’t get around to mentioning this part of my personal hell.”

“It’s mutual, Captor,” she shot back. Then she looked further, to where the rest of their group had been forced when their imagined rafts drifted apart. “Hang on. Terezi?”

From their brief acquaintance, Jake had formed an impression of Terezi that consisted mostly of sharp comments and high-pitched laughs. She wasn’t making any noise now. Instead, it was John who spoke up, in a cheerful tone that ignored whatever was happening between them.

“Hi, Vriska! Good to see you again.”

Chapter Text

Trolls didn’t have sisters, but Vriska did.

Vriska supplied the audacity while Terezi provided the level head. It made for an unstoppable team. The Scourge Sisters ruled their hiveblock, and they were best friends for the first six sweeps of their lives. But their combined story lasts for seven.

The Moors seemed like an early perigree’s eve gift to Vriska at first. Keeping her lusus fed had been getting harder. She’d had to override Terezi’s criteria for appropriate sacrifices, luring in supposed innocents under her sister’s vigilant nose. (In Vriska’s experience, no one was ever really innocent. If you gave them long enough, they’d do something bad if they hadn’t already. Everyone on Alternia did.) She lay awake in the daytime, not daring to let sopor dull her senses, thinking every rustle was the spider dragging her ravenous body up the cliffside. In the Moors, she could start fresh without anything holding her back. In the Moors, she could be free.

Then she learned that the doctor needed to be fed too. He turned up his aristocratic nose at her chilly blue blood, so she knocked on doors and blustered threats to keep the supply of cowed townspeople coming. It was still an improvement, she decided. At least the doctor shared trivia and let her dig through his collection of accumulated valuables. Spidermom hadn’t done that. The doctor needed her. He respected her. He was smarter and more powerful than the drab, desperate townspeople who existed only as long as he willed it. It was better to be up in the manor. Her sister had chosen wrong.

One day, Vriska was short on time and patience. The doctor was feeling peckish, and when he did he got nasty. She grabbed someone she knew wouldn’t put up a fight. He was a sickly kid who couldn’t even walk on his own, one she’d noticed before and marveled that he’d survived so long. On Alternia he would’ve been culled sweeps ago, but on the Moors people wasted their resources just so drains on society could exist a while longer. Perfect. That was what she thought, anyway, until the doctor called her in to deal with the body.

“He wasn’t strong enough,” he said, dabbing at a drop of blood staining the corner of his mouth. “You should do better when making your selections. I didn’t train you to be so reckless.”

Vriska stared down at the corpse. She’d snapped over her shoulder at his hand-wringing parents that she’d bring their kid back in a few hours, why make such a fuss, this happened to everyone. What would Terezi say? “What will we tell the reeve?”

He adjusted his cuffs. “If that rat-catcher wants to take her impotent ire out on a careless apprentice, it will only confirm how little control she has. You shouldn’t care what Rouge thinks.”

Vriska took a breath. He was right. She shouldn’t care. Just like she didn’t care about the kids she sent walking in a daze to their deaths back home. She dumped the body on his parents’ doorstep. “Here’s your kid back,” she said, and turned before his father had a chance to scream.

She didn’t bother making excuses to families anymore. She took people when she wanted to, and they could deal with it. The doctor praised her new attitude. “I had my doubts,” he told her, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear, “but you may be ready to join me soon as more than an apprentice.”

She tried not to pull away from his touch. His skin was colder than a seadweller’s. “You mean you’ll put me in charge?”

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.” He removed his hand and tapped the side of his neck, where two scars gleamed on his pallid skin. “But you’ll have time to inherit if you live forever.”

That hadn’t factored into Vriska’s plans. “What if I don’t want to be a monster?”

The word had slipped out, but the doctor didn’t seem offended. “A grieving family in town would say you already are.”

Whether he’d meant it to or not, that hit like a slap. “He wasn’t supposed to die. You’re the one who keeps pushing. Pushing and pushing, why can’t you lay off for a minute? I’m working as hard as I can.”

Her voice had risen, but the doctor sounded almost bored. “I didn’t force you to choose the boy. You never liked him. You don’t respect any of the people here, and you shouldn’t.”

“Stop putting words in my mouth.”

“I don’t have to put anything anywhere.” He gave her a thin-lipped smile. “You were always a vicious, spiteful creature. It wasn’t difficult at all to get you to provide me with what I needed. Hardly a challenge for someone of my charm and persuasive abilities. You would’ve done the same thing on your own given the opportunity. You already have.”

“I had to. My lusus –”

“You relished the opportunity to exercise power over others. You’re glad the boy is dead. You will make an excellent vampire.” He turned, indicating that their audience was over. The doctor only tolerated her company for so long. Vriska knew she needed to leave before he had to ask aloud, but her feet didn’t want to respond. “Or maybe you’ll surprise me,” he added without looking at her. “It’s up to you, after all. You’re free to choose to remain what you are now. It’s not an enviable role, but I suppose someone has to play it.”

Vriska had put up with a lot in her seven sweeps. She’d fed a cranky, ungrateful spider. She’d shrugged off the doctor’s passive aggressive superiority. But no one talked to her like that and got away with it. When her sister confronted her about the boy’s death, she shared her plan the way they’d shared everything back on Alternia. Vriska came up with ideas, and Terezi ensured that they could be carried out. The reeve stood against the manor; for sure Terezi would back her on this.

The doctor had shaped his apprentice over the past sweep. Vampires held on to old views of themselves. They thought they were above change. Vriska failed to see how much the two of them had drifted apart. If things had gone differently, maybe her sister could have talked her down. Instead, Terezi’s insistence on responsibility for the villagers who might suffer (couldn’t she see that her sister was suffering now?) inflamed Vriska’s pride. She had chosen the doctor for a reason, after all. It wasn’t like she wanted to be stuck doing some dirty job surrounded by a bunch of peasants. Admitting mistakes now would cast doubt on her entire past, and the best way to stay alive on Alternia was to advance without looking back. So when Terezi said, “I’ll stop you,” Vriska laughed and said, “Even if you have to kill me?”

Instead of giving her freedom, the Moors gave her a knife in the back.

Vriska hadn’t thought much about what might happen when she died. She’d saved her energy trying not to find out. She wouldn’t have guessed she’d be banished to a blank slate of a world and visited by a chatty alien. After she met John, she wandered until each step started splashing. She’d reached the shallows of an inland sea that glittered in the light of an invisible sun. A girl stood waist deep in the water, her dark hair plastered against skin coated in silvery scales. She grinned, revealing rows of needle teeth. “You don’t get to pass through my territory for free. What do you got that’s worth something?”

Vriska would have scoffed, but other figures approached – ghosts with vacant expressions who surrounded her in a silent barrier. She could recognize mind control. “What are you, some kind of pirate?”

The girl stroked heavy gold chains hanging around her neck. “More or less. Used to kill ‘em, but I thought I’d take their old job instead.”

“Back in my world, pirates did a lot more than waylay stragglers and shake them down for pocket change.” Vriska had listened when the doctor lectured her about riches in other worlds. He’d liked to hear himself talk, and sometimes he let slip facts worth knowing. “If you’re that boring, you can keep trawling for scraps. But how about instead I help you get your hands on some real loot?”

Meenah was a siren. In her old world, she’d lured sailors to watery graves with her song.  In the Drafts, she used that melody to ‘convince’ ghosts to work for her. She liked collecting expensive, glittering things, but Vriska turned her head with talk of the ultimate treasure. She turned her head with more than that. By pooling their powers, they amassed a crew ready to take on the destroyer.

Vriska had always moved through life thinking of herself as the main character. That helped her navigate the Drafts – she bent stories to her will, overwriting them with the certainty of what she needed them to be. That confidence had drawbacks. Her passage left ripples, and ripples drew sharks. When the destroyer came, they weren’t ready. Their crew rushed to their defense (their loyalty would have been touching if it hadn’t been compulsory) only to be swept away by a dismissive green hand. “Go,” Meenah screamed. It wasn’t a song, but her word gripped Vriska’s limbs and sent her running while the ship and everyone on it shattered.

Once she regained control of her body, Vriska stumbled through the Drafts without knowing or caring where she went. Her feet led her back to John. By the time she left, she had a little more direction, but not enough. How did she start being a hero?

Her steps took her through a debris zone, where shards of worlds sliced at her ankles.  Images flickered through her mind. Faint noises rustled over her shoulder. Listen to us… Tell our story… “Who’s there?” she said.

No response, only whispers like people carrying on a hundred conversations in a hundred different rooms. Tell our story… Live in us again… Her vision blurred and swam, flickering with scenes that she didn’t recognize. Chill fingers plucked at her mind. Make us real… Give us an ending. “Stop it,” she shouted. “Go away, I can’t help you. I don’t want to help you. Why do you think you’re so special, anyway? We’re all dead ends here.” She swatted at her skin, pressed hands over her ears, but the pressure didn’t go away. “Leave me alone!”

She didn’t see the girl fluttering out of the sky, but she heard the notes she played: gentle piping that invited the listener to yawn and curl up after a long day. The whispers quieted. The images faded. The girl put away her pipe. “You should be more careful in places like this. Worlds have ghosts too. They can get restless. They want someone to pick them back up and start turning the pages.”

Vriska recognized the voice. “Aradia? You ended up here too, huh? Everyone thought I killed you.”

“That wouldn’t be an unreasonable assumption, giving your history.” It would have been a jibe from anyone else, but with Aradia’s deadpan delivery, it was hard to tell. Vriska took the defensive on principle.

“Hey, that was back on Alternia. I’ve changed.”

Aradia tilted her head with polite curiosity. “Are you sure? The dead told me there’s someone, or several someones, who gathers up lost spirits and doesn’t return them.”

Vriska remembered days spent on their imagined ship cutting through remembered seas, Meenah slinging her arm over her shoulder and pointing to a distant horizon. John might have seen her cry, but no one else would get that satisfaction. “That’s over. Not that you have any business judging me, but I’m turning over a new leaf. I’m going into the hero business.”

Her expression didn’t change. “How are you going to do that?”

“By taking out the destroyer. You’ve heard of him, right? Or do you still think I’m the worst thing out here?”

“I’ve heard of him.” Aradia shook her head, a frown crossing her features for the first time. “You can’t beat him face to face.”

“You don’t know —” Vriska sighed. It was a nightmare arguing with Megido. It always had been. “Do you have a better idea?”

“As a matter of fact, I do.” She was all smiles again; Vriska thought it was kind of creepy. “We could use a distraction. Something that prevents him from attaining his primary goal and diverts him from doing more damage. You’ve always liked getting people’s attention. You would be perfect for the job.”

The hiveblock’s unquestioned FLARP champion relegated to decoy? Vriska opened her mouth to refuse, but Aradia’s expectant silence made her reconsider. The rustblood wanted her to dig her own grave. “I get it. You think I won’t agree to something so beneath me, and then you’ll say it’s proof I’m still a selfish bitch. Well, I’m not giving you the satisfaction. I’ll be the best distraction there is, until you realize you need me to take him down.”

She got an indulgent smile in return. “I’ll definitely reach out if that ends up being the case. I think you’re making my motives out to be a lot more sinister than they are, but I’m glad to have you aboard. For now, try not to die.”

Even if Aradia saddled her with the boring job, Vriska vowed to be the best at it. That would show everyone. The gig wasn’t just running in circles; if she met any ghosts, Aradia wanted her to refer them her way for more help. The dead in the Drafts were a pain, though. Some had faded nearly out of focus and didn’t listen no matter how much she shouted. Others didn’t trust her. It made Vriska grind her teeth when they hemmed and hawed with the destroyer smashing up the world behind them. Whatever reservations they had about her, couldn’t they tell who the bigger threat was? The destroyer ruined everything and everyone to get what he wanted. He’d killed her crew, and one day he would pay for that. When she crushed his skull, all these whiny cowards would know that she was better than him.

“I’m not the destroyer,” she told one human shade who stood firm despite Vriska’s helpful directions. “Stop looking at me like I’m some kind of monster.”

“You came through here earlier press ganging ‘volunteers’,” the human said, making air quotes for good measure. “What happened to them?”

“I don’t have time to justify myself to you.” Cracks snaked through the sky. “Are you coming, or do you want to hang around until you get blasted to smithereens?”

The human scowled. “Lead the way, then.”

Vriska didn’t usually escort refugees, but she was tired of arguing. She thought of Aradia, but the Drafts didn’t always respond with the most direct route. Their path turned into a wood-paneled hallway, their footsteps muffled by thick carpets. The human following her looked around with interest, but Vriska’s shoulders tensed. She’d walked these halls plenty of times in the Moors. She expected to see the doctor waiting behind a door with one sharp-nailed hand extended. “There you are. You’ve kept me waiting long enough. I trust you’ve found a suitable candidate this time. Who have you brought me?”

She stopped with her hand on a doorknob. Vriska only realized she’d frozen when the human ghost said, “Well? Are you lost, or is this where the trap kicks in?”

Grieving families would already call you a monster, the memory of the doctor taunted. Could she summon him with a thought? That was how things worked here, after all. He’d never left her head, and she’d walk in there to meet him without ever escaping the same old cycle…

She shook herself. He was only a memory. She knew how to master those. “This isn’t a trap. I’m not delivering anyone to a vampire, I’m not using anyone as cannon fodder, I’m not feeding anyone to a spider.” She flung the door open, and sunlight from a different memory spilled in, dissolving the doctor’s manor into motes of forgettable ash. “I’m a hero.”

The human looked at her sidelong. Aradia stood in the middle of a meadow filled with buttery light, waiting for them. “Uh, ok? Thanks for the lift, I guess.”

“Way to be grateful,” Vriska said once Aradia sent them on their way.

“Are you alright?” she asked.

Vriska kicked at a tuft of grass. It came up by the roots, revealing flat whiteness underneath that filled in with dirt a second later. Everything here was trying so hard to fool people. “You think I’m horrible too, don’t you? Breaking everything in my way, just like the destroyer.”

Aradia gazed at some drifting clouds like they weren’t discussing anything more important than the weather. “I think you could be cruel. I think you did bad things.” Vriska sucked in breath for a retort, but Aradia continued, “But I also think that death doesn’t have to be the end, and the afterlife gives you the opportunity to change. It’s up to you if you take that opportunity.”

There was no point in arguing. It was like throwing rocks at a pillow and waiting for them to bounce. “You like playing afterlife guru. What’s your top tip?”

“I already told you,” she said. “Try not to die.”

Vriska kept busy. She raced through the ever-changing landscape of the Drafts, checking in with Aradia or her network of ghosts to learn which directions she could lead the destroyer in without getting in anybody’s way. She herded reluctant dead to safety with threats or entreaties or, eventually, the weight of their team’s growing reputation. She practiced rewriting reality: gasping stories that spooled out in front of her barely in time to stand on and doing the more subtle work of revising herself. She tried not to die. And one day, her feet led her back to her sister.

Chapter Text

“Hey John,” Vriska said. “You brought the whole gang this time, huh?”

“That’s right.” John hadn’t stopped to count before, but their numbers had grown. They had fifteen now, enough that they might be able to make a difference. “Do you still need us for your plan?”

“A lot’s changed since we talked.” Vriska’s eyes didn’t leave Terezi’s face. “Can you give us a moment?”

John followed her gaze. “Why? Oh.” He supposed you might need a moment talking to the person who killed you. “Uh, good to see you again. Everyone, this is Vriska. She’s a friendly ghost, like Casper, and she and Terezi need to talk for a little bit.”

While John herded his friends away, Vriska approached Terezi. “Long time no see. Guess I don’t know how long it was for you.”

Terezi forced her mouth open. “A little over a sweep.”

“Wow. Time really does move differently in here.” Vriska hunched her shoulders, letting her jacket hang forward to hide the wound in her chest. “It’s been long enough that I won’t demand your apology if it would be too embarrassing.”

Terezi had to process what she’d heard. She couldn’t believe it. No, she could believe it. “My apology?”

“Yeah, for killing me?” Vriska jabbed a thumb toward her chest. “You do remember that, right?”

“I remember you forcing me into that situation after an escalating pattern of bad behavior.” Terezi pointed a finger of her own. “You should be apologizing to me.”

Vriska crossed her arms. “That’s so like you. You refuse to believe you’re capable of doing anything wrong as long as you’ve got the mantle of justice wrapped around you like the world’s tackiest cape. No one can question the law no matter how stupid it is, so you could do all sorts of terrible things while acting high and mighty.” The reeve had been happy enough to leave the doctor’s servant locked in his manor. No one called for justice then. “You turned a blind eye to the doctor for ages. Oh sorry, was ‘blind eye’ insensitive? You knew exactly what he was doing to m– to everyone, and you didn’t lift one self-important finger. But I’m the immoral one because I wanted to stop him for good.”

“It was never about you stopping him. It was about what you were going to do afterward.” Terezi remembered the terms of their argument. She’d replayed what they’d said over and over in her mind trying to find another way out. “There have to be rules. But you liked breaking them just to antagonize me.”

“Just to antagonize you?” Vriska gritted her teeth, nicking her lip hard enough that it bled. “I was trying to survive. You don’t get it, with your lusus tucked up safe and sound in an egg and that cushy job in the Moors. Sometimes you have to get your hands dirty.”

Vriska always had an excuse ready to explain why things weren’t her fault, whether her misdeed was eating the last bag of grubsnacks they’d agreed to share or murder. Terezi lived with her mistakes. They dug into her skin and stayed there. She couldn’t shed her skin and past together and pretend that made her errors gone. No one should be able to do that. “You’re still the one making that choice. You can’t abandon that responsibility.”

“Oh yeah?” Vriska leaned forward. She’d been taller than Terezi once, able to use her height for intimidation. In their time apart, Terezi had grown. “What choice would you have made?”

“Obviously, I —” Terezi knew feeding innocents to a giant spider was wrong. She knew forcing villagers to support a parasite holding the town hostage was a crime. But… She’d come up with rules making what they did with FLARP prisoners ok. She’d killed her sister and told herself she had no choice. Any good legislacerator knew that if they understood the law well enough, they could find a loophole. They could always justify their decisions. If she’d been in Vriska’s place, would she have justified that too? “I don’t know.” Her shoulders slumped. Vriska stood in front of her with her fists balled up, ready for a fight. Was that the only way they could talk to each other anymore? “I don’t trust any of my choices, not after what I did to you, but I want to choose now to stop fighting. Whether it was the right choice to make or not, even if you’re not sorry at all, I’m sorry I killed you. And I’m glad you’re still here.”

Vriska blinked, her prepared counterarguments crashing into each other unused. “Oh. Uh. Thanks?”

Terezi took a few deep breaths. That had gotten away from her, but she would only regret it if Vriska blew her off with a joke or pretended it hadn’t happened. “That’s my apology. Do you have anything to say for yourself?”

“I mean.” Vriska chewed her bitten lip and grimaced at the taste of blood. The coppery tang always reminded her of the doctor now. “I guess looking back on it, some of the things I did might’ve been not the greatest. Or at least not up to my usual standards.”

Terezi sighed. She could stand there waiting for the rest of eternity for an apology. This was the best she was likely to get. “I’ll take that.”

“I was also going to say you didn’t have to apologize because… it’s been ok for me out here.” Vriska shrugged, looking around the changing landscape of the Drafts. “I mean, I miss being alive. It can get weird out here. Not that I’m afraid of anything, but having to shoo off needy ghosts gets old. Still, getting away from Alternia and the Moors, it’s like for the first time my thinkpan’s clear. I don’t have all these people insisting I have to do things or be things anymore. No one would ever give me any space. There’s a lot of space out here, so I’ve been trying to do better by myself. Aradia’s got me working for her on something even you would approve of; I’ve been conscientious about random nobodies and everything. It’s something to keep me busy, at least, but I’ve done my part. I’ve been trying to be someone you could be proud of.”

For the second time in a short span, Terezi was struck silent. When she found her words, she said, “I don’t deserve that.” Vriska’s accusations had infuriated her because they sounded like excuses for the damage she’d done. They’d also stung because they contained an element of truth. “The law wasn’t right. Not on Alternia or in the Moors. I went back and brought the doctor to justice. I changed the system. I should have searched for that option sooner, but sticking to rules of right and wrong were easier than thinking through the complicated things on my own. I am sorry for that, even if you say I don’t have to say it.”

“You got rid of the doctor? Wish I could’ve seen his face.” Vriska had wanted to be the one to do it. She’d wanted to see his smug expression turn to dust. It hadn’t been out of civic responsibility, though. He scared her, and she preferred to make what scared her go away. The way Terezi had done it, maybe it would make a difference. “Guess these worlds helped broaden both our horizons. Maybe they’re more than traps after all.”

“Maybe.” Terezi nodded toward her traveling companions. “I’ve met some people.”

“Me too,” Vriska said with a wink. “We’ll have to swap stories sometime.”

“Definitely.” Terezi’s face relaxed into a smile. It wasn’t her ear to ear grin, but it was something. “Right now, though, my understanding is that we’re in a hurry.”

Vriska had almost forgotten what had brought them together. “Now that you’ve pissed off the destroyer? You should be. But he’ll show up at a narratively fitting moment, you can count on it. That’s how things work out here. Are you still looking for his sister?”

“How did you know that?”

“John told me. He must not have told you he and I met since you were so surprised to run into me.” 

“We’ve had a lot going on.” Terezi couldn’t see her friends craning their necks toward her, but she could smell the electric sizzle of their impatience. “Do you want to come with us?”

“I can probably take a break. That ok with you, Aradia?” she called.

“Sure,” Aradia called back. “If we succeed with what we’re trying to do, we might not need your services any longer.”

“Then you could come home,” Terezi said.

“Well,” Vriska started, but Aradia’s interjection had led the others to assume their private moment had ended. Karkat marched over before she could finish her thought.

“About time. Are you entirely done allowing your personal problems, which we couldn’t help but overhear, slow us down, or should we spend our downtime painting targets on each other’s posterior pads to give the destroyer an easier time aiming when he gets back?”

Vriska raised her eyebrows. “Did you want a turn?”

“Don’t encourage him, he’s had practice lately making dramatic speeches.” Terezi wrapped an arm around her sister’s waist. “Let’s go do something we can be proud of.”

“We’ve been walking for a while,” Kanaya said when they regrouped. “If you find the Center by wanting to, shouldn’t it have happened by now?”

“Unless it doesn’t want to be found by anyone. Oh, come on,” Sollux said. “Someone has to bring up the pessimistic options.”

The Market’s Dave swatted at the air. A spark of light darted between his fingers. “Who ordered the kamikaze firefly?”

Roxy held out her hand, and the insect settled on her palm. She remembered nights spent curled up in a nest of old tapestries, speaking into a radio and hearing muffled responses from a world away, the two of them spinning stories with only their voices. Then the beautiful princess made friends with the dragon, who was only scaly and gross because of an evil curse cast by a mean old wizard. And then they decided to team up to defeat that wizard and EAT him. And then, and then, and then. “I know this little guy. Callie liked writing stories, and sometimes we made them up together. One had wizards and bad guys and this cute firefly who helped people find secret clues.”

“Serenity,” Hal said. “What?” he added when Roxy looked his way. “I was on Atria too, remember?”

She hadn’t, exactly. Roxy always thought of Atria as something she and Dirk shared. She hadn’t counted the pair of glasses, because they were easy to overlook when they weren’t a person. They were a convenient substitute, another voice in the dark willing to write impossible stories with her. Something she could put back on the shelf when she was done. “You’re right. I’m sorry. You missed the apology fest earlier, but let me extend a special bonus whoops-a-daisies your way. I was shitty.”

Hal eyed her. Plenty of sarcastic responses came to mind, but Roxy was the closest he had to a friend. Now that he could meet everyone on their level, so to speak, self-sabotage had lost a lot of its appeal. “Whatever,” he said. “Let’s find our friend.”

The firefly lifted off Roxy’s hand, drifted a few feet, and then came back. “She knows we’re here. She’s trying to help us.”

Jake offered a finger, and the firefly clambered onto him before taking off again. “Do you think we’re supposed to follow her?”

“Like good detectives,” Jane said.

Dirk nodded as Serenity darted in front of his face before flying another foot ahead. “Then let’s do it.”

Calliope’s five friends took the lead. Serenity drew them away from the photorealistic replicas of the Drafts, the landscape turning soft like it had been composed of bright brushstrokes. Reality softened too. Flowers sprouted out of the ground, bloomed, and peeled away from the soil to transform into colorful butterflies. Passing clouds and pools of water offered windows into other worlds’ pasts and futures. Dave saw himself with Echo and Dreamer projected onto the surface of a pond until a loose pebble disturbed the water and it rippled into a city full of snaking pipes and factories belching smoke. When any of them spoke, their words dripped from their lips to pile at their feet. Say “apple” and there would be an apple. “I” was spiky and metallic. “A” moved through the air like a whisper; “the” thudded to the ground like a stone. They kept their mouths shut, pointing and shrugging and always, always following the firefly deeper toward the Center.

Serenity took them across what might have been a stage. Indistinct figures sat in chairs lined up before it, shifting outlines that hurt the eyes when anyone looked at them for too long. Roxy pushed aside a heavy curtain. It opened to reveal a clearing the painful white of a Word document. Colored swirls drifted through the air like the sheen of oil on water. A small green figure stood with her back to them. She was wearing a tailored suit and

Wait.

That’s

That’s me.

Chapter Text

At the center of the worlds, Calliope was telling herself a story.

It would make more sense for her to use first person, to say “I”, to use present tense, because this was most definitely happening now. But she had grown used to viewing the world through the lens of story, of watching everyone from a distance like books lined up on a shelf. Past tense sounded like a fairy tale. Past tense could be kept far away.

She treated the others that way too, every wayward child she read and wrote about. From her position at the heart of it all, she watched their tales unfold, sometimes keeping an objective distance, sometimes dipping in beneath the surface of their thoughts. Until, to her dismay, the stories started going wrong.

But that is too deep into the story. There’s a better beginning. Every story can have many beginnings. She said that, at the beginning of this one. Where to begin… that’s an important decision for any storyteller to make. How far back should they take a reader to make them understand? What was the point where the very first story went wrong, spreading to the others like mold blooming on damp pages, like flames licking through paper and reducing libraries to ash?

At center of the worlds, Calliope was telling a story. She is, was, has always been telling it to you.

Chapter Text

Calliope was born with a time bomb inside her. All cherubs were. Their two personalities vied for supremacy until one of them perished, and from an early age Calliope knew that one would be her. She liked gentle things: artwork, fashion, telling stories. Her brother dreamed of blood. As they grew older, she could feel her hold slipping. Her time spent asleep grew longer, her waking hours few. Soon there would be nothing left at all.

So Calliope did the only thing she could do with a brother in her body and the timer ticking down. She ran away. She didn’t walk through a doorway; that would only bring the problem with her. Her spirit slipped out of his grasp and found its way somewhere she could be herself alone.

Calliope was in-between now: between life and death and her species’ childhood and maturity. She ended up in an in-between place. The Drafts lapped at the edges of established worlds, but their depths drew from where all stories came. She found her way there, drawn like any dreamer would be to a source of creativity and creation, the key to making dreams come true.

To reach the Center, Calliope picked her way through the detritus of broken worlds. Once, she found a book. Its handwritten pages told her about many worlds she’d never seen: Cinder, Alternia, Prospit, Earth. Its characters stood out vivid in her mind. Stories made sense to her. Of course they should have clear-cut heroes and villains; her species knew nothing else. In a story, you could make sure the hero won. You could ensure a happy ending. Calliope reread the stories until she could recite them word for word, and then she went looking for more. She made some up, and to her delight the stories came into being and populated themselves, playing out tidy dramas with tidy ends. Not everything was hers, though. She peered into worlds that existed on their own, and in one she caught the fizzle of a transmission looking for someone, anyone, to talk to.

UU: hello? pardon me, bUt were yoU calling?
TG: wait holy shit
TG: r u on atria too?
UU: no, mUch fUrther than that.
UU: bUt i woUld love to chat, if you don’t mind.
UU: i’m lonely too.

Calliope hadn’t come to the Center by choice. She fled there pursued by a brother loosening every foothold she had in their shared body. Eventually, as she’d known he would, he came after her. He’d grown somehow into a monster of impossible power who ripped through everything she’d built with ease. Every time she lost confidence, every time she left a weak spot, he punched through her network of happy endings. This had always been her future, however far she ran. She’d always been the weaker one cowering behind her wishes and words, and her brother had written her ending in indelible letters years ago. Now she trembled in her final refuge as he drew closer: scared, alone, and waiting for the destroyer to finish her off for good.

That’s what you wanted to hear, isn’t it? 

Chapter Text

“Calliope?” Roxy asked. She pushed her way to the front of the group with Serenity, mission accomplished, settled on her shoulder. “It’s me. Roxy.”

“I know,” Calliope said. She may not have seen their faces before, but she knew all of them. She could recite their titles by hearts: the Lady of Perpetual Darkness and the Shattered Prince, the Risen Heiress and the Unmasked. She’d followed their stories closely and only dreamed of meeting them in person. They’d actually come for her. They’d risked so much to be there.

(You said they wouldn’t. You said no one would.)

Roxy was waiting. “I’m glad to see you,” Calliope said.

Her face broke into a relieved smile. “C’mon, give us a hug.”

The next moment, Calliope found herself bundled up at the center of her four friends. She sucked in a breath, and Jake felt her stiffen. “Are you ok?”

No one had ever held her before. The sentiment made it across, but the press of bodies left her feeling trapped. “I’m sorry. I’m so glad to see you all, but this is new to me.”

“All right, give her some space.” Jake disentangled himself and prodded the others to do the same.

“Notice I’m the only one who didn’t mob her with no consideration of personal space. Now who’s the one with boundary issues?” Hal waved. “This might be a surprise, but I’m the artist formerly known as Dirk’s glasses.”

Very little surprised Calliope after the fact, even if she didn’t expect twists while watching them unfold. “No, I was aware of your change in status. Congratulations. I know what it’s like feeling imprisoned in your form. This world also gave me a body of my own.”

Hal looked deflated at her lack of reaction. Not just looked – she knew it, as simply as if he’d written it down. “Right, how’s that panopticon thing working out for you?”

“Not well enough.” Calliope had worked so hard to get the Center under control. She could watch stories happen and tweak them just right, but she couldn’t pin down her brother. He seemed to be everywhere and nowhere at once. She didn’t understand how he did it. Surely nothing should be beyond the Center’s power. Her book helped sometimes. She’d extended it herself, but here it had a life of its own. She retrieved it with a thought and thumbed through the pages to check on him again.

“Is that mine?” Rose asked. “I lost track of it when Earth was attacked.”

Calliope looked up from her studies. She’d forgotten that this time the people she watched were watching her. She hadn’t meant to be rude.

The characters the people she’d never spoken to before stood further from her, since they hadn’t run to join the group hug. These too she knew by reputation: the Bitter Knights and the Circle Breakers, the Abdicant and Unmoored, Worlds-Reeve and the Lure. They’d had other names once, but they’d changed their stories since the last time she’d read them, and her brother had followed the trail of damage they left behind. It made her nervous. Would they throw her off-kilter too? “I appreciated your notes. I hope you don’t mind if I made some additions. Theories, suggestions, that sort of thing.”

“Not at all. I’m glad someone is making use of it.” Rose frowned, and Calliope knew she was thinking back to her experiments with the Draft’s generative powers. “Although, in a place like this, making edits to our lives’ stories…”

Calliope closed the book before Rose could see some of those edits. “I’ve been careful.”

Vriska crossed her arms. “I bet this is a really touching reunion if you know each other, but the destroyer’s not far away.” Terezi hissed a reminder in her ear about having gone through their own touching reunion, and she rolled her eyes. “We need to take him out, and this place is supposed to have some kind of treasure that can make that happen. You live here, right? Or exist, if you’re a ghost. See, Megido, I’m being mortally sensitive. Anyway, ever seen it?”

Calliope shook her head. Hadn’t they worked it out by now? “This place is the treasure. There’s no magical weapon. The Center helps me tell stories, but my brother destroys everything I create. He always has. There’s no stopping him, not with anything here.”

Her words sent a ripple of dismay through the listeners. Their reaction bounced back and fed her own fear. What next? We came all this way. Does that mean we’re fucked, then?

John’s mouth was moving. Calliope pushed away the Circle’s commentary (‘He thinks this is an unacceptable ending, but that belief that there are simple endings keeps him from despair’) to hear, “Well, we came all this way on a rescue mission, not to beat up an unbeatable boss. Can’t we just rescue you? I could whisk you away before he even noticed.”

“I’m in favor of that plan,” Karkat said. “Or any plan that doesn’t involve going toe to toe with a guy who can shatter universes by clapping his ass cheeks.”

Sollux raised his hand sarcastically. “Not to dampen anyone’s enthusiasm, but it’s supposed to be impossible to get out of an afterlife. There’s a clue in the name: after life. You don’t get to hop the turnstile back to the before part.”

“I’ve done it.” With an effort, John pushed his hand into the air and wiggled invisible fingers. “I got out of here once already. It’s not fun, but I can make it work.”

“Sure, troll Houdini, but I bet you never tried to rescue an actual dead person.” Sollux gestured to his hazily two-dimensional form. “How would that even work? We escaped the destroyer, now to face our new greatest enemy: stiff breezes.”

Aradia pursed her lips. “I’m not sure either of you are dead in the traditional sense.”

Before Calliope could weigh in on their speculation about her mortality, Terezi gripped Vriska’s shoulder. “What you mean, we can’t bring ghosts out of here? What happens to them?”

Their anxiety swirled around her. I can’t leave her, not again. I won’t fail another friend. What does she mean, not traditionally dead? How many kinds of dead can you be? Calliope clenched her fists, digging her claws into her palms. All she’d done was make them unhappy. “Maybe I never should have contacted you. The confrontation between the two of us is inevitable, and the only result of my reaching out is that I put you in harm’s way as well.”

“Hang on,” said the Dave who’d been to Cinder. In his mind, she saw faces flicker past: Greg, the children he’d led home, his own face at thirteen. ‘He sees you as the child he once was,’ the Center whispered. ‘He thinks you need to be saved. He thinks you can be saved.’ “You don’t have to fight anyone if you don’t want to.”

“Even if someone told you it was your responsibility, you never have to do anything on your own,” Jade added. ‘She offers you reassurance she has yet to believe herself,’ the Center crooned. ‘Consoling others has always been her greater strength.’

They didn’t understand. This ending was already written; it was coded into the very letters of her DNA. “Whether I resist or not, it won’t be much of a fight, I’m afraid. There’s nowhere I can run where he won’t find me.”

Dirk shook his head. “There’s no way in hell we’re leaving you on your own.”

Jane nodded. “I’ve had quite a bit of experience lately standing up to bullies. You have to put your foot down at some point, or they’ll keep walking over you until you no longer recognize yourself.”

Calliope could feel her hearts pounding inside her rib cage. She struggled to breathe down a throat gone tight with tension. “I know what you’ve gone through. I’ve seen it. But this is like nothing you’ve ever dealt with.” Watching her friends was the one thing that brought her joy. She couldn’t watch them get hurt because of her. Who had she been fooling placing that call for help? He’d find her now that she’d grouped them together as easy targets. Once more, her reliance on other people had scripted a tragedy.

He was here. It wasn’t only her imagination: the ground trembled beneath her feet. The others were noticing too. Kanaya shifted from foot to foot, skin flaring. The Dave from the Market’s feathers puffed. She’d reached the end. It didn’t have to be the end for everyone else. “You should go. This is your last chance to escape.”

John tried to push his hand back through the air, but tremors unsteadied him. “I don’t think I can.”

Roxy saw Jake ball his hands into fists and Dirk heft his stolen sword. Rose mumbled under her breath, constructing ghostly images that fizzled away in the face of this narrative inevitability. Calliope stood with glassy eyes, still clutching the book. It had fallen open, and writing scrawled itself across the pages. Roxy reached out and pressed her hands over her friend’s, supporting part of the book’s weight. It was hard to read upside down, but she saw a snatch of script: roxy reached oUt and pressed her hands over her friend’s. Talk about recursive.

And familiar. They’d told each other stories once. They’d passed the words back and forth, polishing and perfecting until they flowed the way they wanted things to go.

The monstrous figure of the destroyer barreled into their midst, and the world broke open. Karkat and Jake screamed as they tumbled into the void. Jade and Kanaya didn’t have a chance to move before cracks ripped through their skin. Vriska took a defiant step forward on unsteady ground, and the destroyer backhanded her out of the way without slowing down. Roxy didn’t look to see what he did next. She wasn’t interested in this ending. Instead, she clasped Calliope’s hands tighter as reality around them crumbled, and the book copied down her dialogue in a delicate gray.

“You’re the one in charge here, Callie. yoU can tell a different story.

Chapter Text

Calliope was born with a time bomb inside her. All cherubs were. Their two personalities vied for supremacy until one of them perished, and from an early age Calliope knew that one would be her. She liked gentle things: artwork, fashion, telling stories. Her brother dreamed of blood. As they grew older, she could feel her hold slipping. Her time spent asleep grew longer, her waking hours few. Soon there would be nothing left at all.

Except that’s not what happened.

Calliope thought she knew she would be the one to perish, but then she found another way. She was born with a time bomb inside her, and she cut the fuse. She liked things like artwork and fashion and telling stories, but telling stories is not a gentle thing. Telling stories can set you free. She wrote herself a door, and she walked through it. Then she kept walking, more wayward than anyone else had ever been, until light bathed her face and she found somewhere that answered her deepest need.

In the Center, Calliope told new stories. She crafted whole new worlds, while her brother spent his life destroying.

What’s more, she made friends.

TG: back me up here on seaweed smoothies bein nasty thats what friends r 4
UU: i
UU: are we friends?
TG: uhhh ye??
TG: at least i thought we were
TG: did u not want 2 be friends w me?
UU: no, no, i’d love that!
UU: i jUst have never had a friend before.
UU: and i wasn’t sUre anyone would ever want to be mine.
TG: well since obvs i shouldve done this earlier lemme extend a formal invitation
TG: UU
TG: will u be my friend
UU: yes!!! UwU
TG: glad that’s settled
TG: now do u remember ur lines
TG: seaweed smoothies?
UU: UndoUbtably the worst.

TT: Are you ok?
TT: You’ve been quiet.
TT: I was expecting a spirited back and forth on the latest lore I dug up. Usually you’re all over that shit faster than a seagull reaching Mach 1 to nab a chip I dropped on the floor.
UU: i sUppose i’m thinking over a recent conversation i had with roxy…
UU: i didn’t want to jUmp to conclUsions bUt in her case it appears i hesitated too long before attempting sUch athletic manUevers.
TT: No need for any acrobatic pirouettes off of suppositions here. I support the scientific method. State your hypothesis, and we can test it together.
UU: are yoU my friend?
TT:
TT: Yeah, obviously.
TT: I’m literally in the middle of rebuilding this radio antenna with spare parts I went scavenging for underwater using a MacGyvered breathing apparatus to see if I can improve reception whenever you’re beaming in from the asscrack of nowhere.
TT: I’m doing that because I don’t like you.
UU: Um…
TT: Shit, I sounded like the auto responder there.
TT: I’ll dial back the sarcasm, I was just surprised.
TT: Of course we’re friends. And friends don’t leave friends behind.
TT: That’s why rescuing you is next on the list after Roxy and I get out of here, if you ever tell us where you are.
UU: is that something a friend woUld do?
TT: As a friend, I wish I had the information that would help me rescue you, but I also respect your privacy.
TT: So, your call.
UU: thank yoU.
UU: maybe i’ll be able to share it someday.

TT: Heard Roxy horned in on the BFF territory already. I should’ve seen that coming.
TT: Shame, I wanted to be best friends forever with the cool alien.
TT: Guess I’ll have to settle for being besties with hal’s spare pair of non-sentient glasses.
UU: best friends?
UU: what does that designation mean exactly?
TT: Nothing really.
TT: No need to develop any kind of ranked diagram, they both love you.
UU: love me?
TT: Sheesh, this is like some sort of sci-fi parody of itself.
TT: The AI teaches the alien how to love.
TT: It means they care about you.
TT: And so do I.
UU: then… i gUess i “love yoU” too.
TT: That’s the spirit.
TT: Look at us, smashing human supremacist stereotypes left and right.
TT: Next up, the concept of gender.
UU: gender?
TT: Yeah, we’ll tackle that a different day.

The Center brought every dream to life, even the nightmares. Calliope hadn’t come there by choice except she had. She’d escaped. She’d found this world on her own. Her brother couldn’t take credit for everything. The prompt is not the finished work. Calliope was writing her own story now, surrounded by the swirling source of the worlds, and the Center drew on her darkest dreams. It took her fears and shaped her sibling into a monster who destroyed everything she’d worked so hard to build, because that’s what he’d always been back when they shared a room and he shredded her costumes or covered her drawings in jagged lines. He was her greatest enemy and her only audience. Every word she’d written, meaning to or not, had been shouting back at him.

Calliope’s brother came when she called, but when he arrived she was waiting for him instead of cowering. She was brave and creative and I had friends and I was loved. I am loved.

And I am not telling this story about you.

Chapter Text

The sky wasn’t falling. The ground wasn’t crumbling. No jagged cracks tore through people’s bodies and souls. Everyone flinched like they’d woken from a dream of freefall. Then they flinched again, because the damage might be gone but the destroyer was still rushing toward Calliope —

— who said, “No.”

Caliborn stopped like he’d hit the end of a sentence. Colored streaks made from clusters of words ripped off his form. Jane glimpsed part of one that read, “He’s right about everything”. Karkat saw another: “I’ve never been good enough.”

Calliope’s fears, the stories she’d told herself and let her brother tell her, tore away in a tornado of disappearing text. They left behind a figure no bigger than her. “You can’t just take it away,” he said in a voice several octaves higher than the destroyer’s roar. “You can make up stupid stories about how special you are, but I’ll always be stronger. I’ll always be the one who beat you.”

Calliope stared at him. She’d reverted to third person past tense again. It felt familiar by now, and she’d done more damage than she’d known by getting too close to the story. For so long she’d been talking to her brother without realizing it: defending, justifying, fabricating. She didn’t know who her audience was anymore, but she’d gotten into the habit of narration.

He looked small, is what she would write. With her friends behind her and words at the tip of her tongue, she would record that she wasn’t scared.

“Go home, Caliborn,” she said. “That’s how this story ends.”

Terezi sniffed the air. “Where did he go?”

“Back to where we both came from. He can enjoy his supposed victory alone.” Calliope’s body hummed with adrenaline. It was difficult to believe their confrontation had passed. “I understand now. I never meant to hurt anyone, but my own personal demons caught up with me, and by extension, all of creation. It won’t happen again.”

“So… did we rescue you?” John asked.

“She rescued herself,” Jane said. The pride and relief undergirding her words made Calliope break into a smile.

Jake assumed her smile must be a good sign. “Then you can come back with us now, can’t you? I can’t wait to show you around Earth. You’ll love it.”

“We’ll need to take precautions,” Dirk said before they could get ahead of themselves. “Don’t need to plunge her directly into another incident.”

“Is this a vivisection thing?” Karkat asked. “It better not be another vivisection thing.”

Calliope didn’t ask what the first one had been. “I appreciate everything you’ve done for me, truly. If I’d understood what wonderful friends I had sooner, we might never have reached this point. But now that my brother is vanquished, think of the good I could do here.”

Kanaya had refused the Rainbow Princess and received a curse in response. She’d dragged Rose away from the Circle’s promises and watched their stolen kingdom crumble. “Like editing people’s stories?”

“Making sure they go right.”

Kanaya pressed her lips together. “Reconfiguring your own fate is one thing, but I don’t know that anyone should have that level of control over anyone else.”

 “This is how I made my happy ending,” Calliope insisted. “It’s how I finally defeated him. Without it, I’m —”

“Our friend,” Dirk said. “I didn’t say that enough before, but you’re our friend. You don’t have to prove anything.”

“Mine too,” Hal said, not to be outdone. “Fuck doing shit just to spite some middle schooler’s musclesona. Hedonism is in. We’ll have a blast taste testing our way across the planet together. I need to find out why kids love cinnamon toast crunch.”

“I’m delighted you took the reins and saved the day,” Jake added. “Believe me, I wasn’t itching to go toe to toe with that monster again. Or, monstrous child?” That revelation had stripped the shine from his earlier triumph. “But I’ve had it tactfully suggested to me that heroics are overrated as a barometer for your worth. We’re not a full group with you stranded out here.”

“We’ve been a bit dysfunctional, to be honest,” Jane agreed. “Although I suppose you’ve been able to observe that already.”

Right,” Dirk said. “If that’s why you’re thinking through your options, we’ve got that shit locked down now, scout’s honor.”

“That’s not it,” Calliope assured him. “I’ve read about everything you’ve done” – they all winced – “and it hasn’t changed that I hold you in great esteem. This isn’t about you at all. It’s about me.”

“I think at this point it’s not egotistical to say it’s about all of us. That notebook used to be mine, remember?” Rose barely recognized it with a new binding and her handwriting covered in layers of notes, but that was what always happened. Someone wrote something down, another person picked up the pen, and on and on until the tale took a life of its own. “There’s an appeal to having total control over your life, but it only leaves you alone. This place is amazing, but you can’t build your perfect world here. Especially not when it means breaking what other people built for themselves.”

Rose had started the book, but Calliope had made it hers. She hugged it closer to her chest. Struggling with her brother, she’d barely lived. It was only in the Center that she’d been anything meaningful. “I don’t know what to do if I’m not doing this.”

Jade had edged forward while they spoke. She didn’t know this girl, but she knew the words coming out of her mouth. “I understand what that feels like. Our situations aren’t exactly the same, but I know how scary it can be to give up something that made you special or useful and wonder if what’s left is good enough. It’s not easy, but you won’t have to do it on your own. Surprise,” she added to the others. “When we get back, I’m rearranging the chores schedule a lot.”

“Dibs on laundry,” Dave said immediately. Rose rolled her eyes.

“Then what do you suggest?” Calliope asked before they traveled too far off track. “What’s the next chapter for me?”

John cleared his throat. He’d come this far to rescue someone who didn’t need rescuing from monsters, but maybe she still needed rescuing. “When I was a kid, I played make believe and built blanket forts and wore costumes, but at the end of the day my dad always told me to put everything back where it belonged.”

Kanaya flinched. “You mean separating us again?”

Rose shook her head. “He didn’t say put everything back where it came from. He said to put it where it belongs.”

“And you don’t belong stuck out here alone.” Roxy reached past the book for Calliope’s hand. “You sent your brother home. It’s your turn. You deserve a happy ending with us.”

Calliope closed her eyes. Their stream of suggestions threatened to overwhelm her. Solitude was easier. She could make decisions without distractions. She controlled her story. But what kind of story? So far it had been a record of loneliness and fear. Hardly a tale worth telling.

She could author her life anywhere. It might not come true at once like it did in the Center, but she could make it true with work. She could tell it to people too, instead of only ever looking in. That had to be worth some sacrifice. “Alright,” she said, and took Roxy’s hand.

“Not to discount how incredibly moving that was,” Dave said, “but what is home for us?”

“You’re not getting me back to Alternia, even if there is anything left,” Karkat said. “We turned the Empress in a sucrose sphere on a stick, that’ll make us popular with the authorities.”

“I don’t know,” Terezi said. “It could.”

Calliope opened the book again with her free hand. “I’m sorry. Alternia has been gone too long. My brother relished using the power he stole from my nightmares to destroy. The Earth he attacked on the other hand… its loss is recent enough that I might be able to salvage some pieces and patch them into the one remaining. Maybe even some people, at least the wanderers used to moving between the worlds. If I can use the Center one last time, I can build a place for us to return to.” Rose had written about what home meant to her in between records of portal worlds. At times other members of the school had left their impression on the pages: sneaking in notes or making jokes their friend had dutifully recorded. Jane’s home for wayward children survived between two worn covers, or at least everything important enough to be remembered. Calliope tried to catch those threads and weave them together with what she’d heard from her own friends to create a home large enough for all of them. Images danced around her in flickering spots of color. A vegetable garden. A girl reclining beneath a tree. A sign with letters picked out in blue paint. The idea solidified in her mind, and she pushed out with her will to make it real. Now that she knew what she was doing, she felt the click of worlds sliding into place. She pressed the volume closed. “There’s somewhere to go back to, at least.”

“So that book,” Vriska said. She’d retreated into disappointed silence after her big moment against the destroyer never arrived. Her interjection now sounded abrupt. “It can bring people back from the dead?”

Calliope knew what she meant. She knew everything then. When she left the Center, her mind would feel so empty. “Yes and no. In a case like yours, your death could be rewritten, but only at the cost of changing everything from that point onward.”

Terezi’s eyebrows furrowed. “We’d have to do this over again?”

“You already would have. Or wouldn’t, if that meant reality didn’t follow the same path forward.” Calliope held out the book. “If I’m giving this up, I have to give it up all the way. I won’t make any more revisions. If you want to, the power’s yours.”

“Mine? I, uh…” Vriska accepted the book when Calliope pushed it into her hands. Here was what she’d been looking for ever since Terezi slid a blade into her back. Here was her ticket home. So what if it messed up some things in the past? History would work itself out, and even if it didn’t, the important thing was that she would be safe.

She found her name and rifled backward through the pages. She needed the earlier parts of her life. Except… she stopped to read what she was paging past. Daring rescues carried out in impossible dreamscapes. Quiet moments between missions when she’d joked with Aradia and realized she’d become a friend. Ghosts greeting her with smiles because they knew Vriska Serket, she was the one who kept them safe. And threaded through it, the growing suspicion that had always lurked at the back of her mind, now in plain text for her to read: that she’d been making a mess out of things before, and only now was she getting it right. She’d be erasing that. Alive on the Moors, she’d have no way to get it back.

This was a big decision. If there was one thing Vriska knew about herself when she was willing to admit it, it was that she’d fucked up pretty much every big decision in her life. She looked at Terezi. “What do you think I should do?”

“What?”

“You’re always telling me that I make bad choices. That I’m selfish and don’t think things through. You were the Team Scourge strategist. Is this a good idea?”

Terezi backed away. “You want me to make this decision? When I made the call to kill you?”

 “That’s exactly why I want you to make this one.”

Terezi couldn’t read the notebook’s pages. They shifted so quickly the words were a jumble to her nose. The old Terezi would have loved a book like this. The doctor would have too. It had always been about control over other people. The Center granted wishes, but the foolish people in fairy tales always failed to anticipate the damage their wishes caused. “I want to erase my mistakes so badly, but I can’t. Not at the expense of impacting everyone else’s lives.” She slumped, anticipating the reek of disappointed betrayal. “I’m sorry. I guess I’m letting you down one more time.”

Vriska shook her head. “Is it weird to say I’m glad you’re turning it down? I wasn’t really happy back then, even if I pretended everything was great. Not that I’d complain about being alive again, but I don’t want to go back to being that person. I think I’m better off now. And hey, you can visit,” she added over her sister’s third stunned silence of the day. “Isn’t that right John?”

“Oh!” John hadn’t been sure if he was supposed to be listening. “I guess so.”

“You said it’s hard to bring people back,” the Market’s Dave said in what he hoped was a casual voice. “What about erasing people?”

Calliope knew what he wanted too. She wished she didn’t. “That’s easier.”

“What do you want for that?” He nodded at the book in Vriska’s hands. In the Market, that would have prompted a string of bartering, but she handed it off without a word. The book felt like holding a bomb. “How does it work?”

“To avoid any adverse impacts, you would… redact,” Calliope said reluctantly. “People would be aware of something missing, but not of what.”

“But if I wanted to change things, I could do that too?”

“I wouldn’t recommend it.”

“No, I bet you wouldn’t.” Spite flipped through the book, looking for his time in the Market. He spotted his name and stopped, but it was only his conversation with Jade and John. Having a group like this makes it easier. You should try it. He flipped back further. There – Echo and Dreamer. Together, the three of them faced the bone wraiths in battle. Echo and Dreamer would have gone themselves in defense of their world, but they were grateful for the help of their friend, who went not for the Market but for them.

He reread the line in case he’d misunderstood. They would have gone anyway? It had been so simple to cast himself as victim, hero, and villain without a thought for other people’s roles, but it made sense. Without him, someone would have had to do it. Erasing himself wouldn’t save Echo and Dreamer. He would be doing it to save himself from having to live without them. Put that way, it didn’t sound brave.

He met Dave’s eyes as best he could through his other self’s dark glasses. “This doesn’t come from you. What else can you give me after what I did for you?”

Dave shrugged. He’d used up his motivational speeches. “I gave you a life.”

“Not a great one,” Spite said.

“I gave it to you. What you do with it is up to you.”

In the Market, waste was a crime. Echo and Dreamer had paid with their lives. What would they think if Spite threw his away for nothing? The Market couldn’t dress him in feathers, but the reminders of his earlier debts still tangled in his hair. The only way to pay this one back was to make something out of what they’d given him. He couldn’t do that gone.

“Deal,” he said, and dropped the book.

Dave pulled the sunglasses off his face and held them out, squinting against the Center’s glare. “If you’re sticking around, you should wear these. Otherwise you’ll get people asking where you bought your contacts.”

Spite (Dave) reached out automatically. “Why did you wear them?”

“Photophobic,” he said, as Dave slipped them on. “But it’s wearing off.”

John’s eyes had followed the book to the ground. Jane remembered his pointed questions about whether her dad was home. “You’re worried about your father, aren’t you? You could check to see if he’s alright. And if he isn’t…” She had sworn off being an authoritarian, but if she’d been the one to lose a parent, she’d be willing to add the author part back in.

John saw Calliope looking at him. She was worried. He knew that, because he could hear her thoughts like someone narrated them out loud. ‘She’d trusted herself with the Center’s power, although maybe that had been a mistake. Letting a stranger near it could be catastrophic. How could a newcomer manage the delicate balance between the worlds? Then she realized —’

“You’re like me,” Calliope said. “You see the world in stories. That’s how you travel so easily.”

John hadn’t thought too hard about why he could jump between worlds. Rose used to have magic. In Prospit, Jade could fly. He’d gone to a Nonsense world where there didn’t have to be reasons. Instead, the reason hadn’t come from a world’s inner logic or lack of it. It had come from him. He hadn’t felt like he fit anywhere. He’d been rifling through pages, searching for one with a blank space where he could write his name. He could make that space. John Egbert the hero, finally.

‘She’s afraid you’ll be too much like her,’ the Center whispered. ‘That you’ll make more monsters.’ Calliope’s eyes were wide with concern, but she didn’t say anything. She wouldn’t make anyone else’s choices for them.

He’s been a hero already, hadn’t he? With a pocketful of smoke pellets, with his own two hands. “I guess I do think about the world like a story sometimes. It helps things make sense, but real life is a lot messier and more complicated. For one thing, most books I’ve read don’t mention people going to the bathroom, even when you’d think that would be a serious issue. And trying to fit into the tropes everyone’s set up…” He’d consumed hours of media where no one looked like him and where their happy endings were nothing like he’d want for himself. “It’s not a good idea.” John had never dreamed of being a creative writer. He wouldn’t know where to start. All he wanted to do was save his dad, but if he tried, he’d have to bend the rest of reality back into shape, and he couldn’t do that. He shouldn’t. “I know he’s gone. If it’s wrong for one of us to change things just because we want to, it’s wrong for all of us.”

“He’d be proud of you,” Jane said, and she saw him reach up to dab at his eyes.

“Any other takers?” Karkat gestured at the abandoned book. “No? Good. That’ll save me the trouble of tackling anyone.”

 “But really,” Dave said, “if everyone’s done deciding whether to immolate the one ring, can we get out of here?”

“I think I’ll come with you, at least for a little while,” Aradia said. “I can find people outside the Drafts who need a helping hand. Maybe there are even other Alternians out there.”

Kanaya cleared her throat. “If you find any who survived… could you tell them that they’re not the only ones?”

Aradia smiled. “I will. And I’ll tell them that we’ve got an auxiliatrix who’d be happy to talk.”

Dave snapped his fingers. “I got it. I know how I know you.”

“You do?”

“Yeah.” He patted at his pockets. “Once we get back somewhere with office supplies, remind me. There’s a letter I need you to deliver. Your first lost kid needs rescuing.”

“Will do!” She turned to Vriska, who’d been subdued beyond exchanging murmurs with Terezi. “You can keep an eye on things here, right?”

Vriska perked up. “Does this count as a promotion?”

“We don’t actually have a hierarchical structure, but if it makes you happy, sure.”

“In that case, I’m going to be a captain.” She straightened the collar of her jacket, framing an unstained shirt. “Don’t worry. I’ll keep all the eyes on things. All of them.”

“I’m coming too,” Sollux said. “I’m not getting stuck with just Vriska for company, even if she does claim to be reformed. If I can be half alive here I’m sure I can be half whatever somewhere else.”

“I am almost certain that’s a reasonable summary of how that works,” Aradia said brightly.

“As long as I get to keep my new ride, I’m good,” said Hal.

“So,” John said, and held out a hand. “Can I give everyone a lift home?”

Jade took his hand and squeezed it. Rose took hers and hooked her other arm around a surprised and blushing Kanaya’s waist. Karkat and Dave were next, Dave yanking his twin along before he could reconsider. Hal linked his elbow with his. “We rogue versions better stick together.”

Jane rolled her eyes but joined the chain next, Hal’s eyebrows jerking up when she took his hand. She flinched in turn when Jake joined after her. “No strings attached, right?” he asked, raising their clasped hands.

“Not even puppet ones,” Dirk said from his other side.

“Just a big friendly hand-holding sesh,” Roxy agreed. “Hey, ghost whisperer troll. You coming?”

“I was waiting for the right moment to jump in!” Aradia skipped over. “Come on, Sollux, this is your chance to escape everything you’ve been complaining about to find new material.”

“Ok,” he said as she slung an arm around his shoulders, “but that doesn’t mean I’m into this touchy feely stuff.”

“Oh, suck it up.” Terezi had been lingering, but now she gave Vriska one last squeeze. Her sister no longer smelled like blood, and the scent didn’t intrude from her memories. “I’ll be back soon. I promise.”

“You’d better. I want to hear all about what you’ve been up to.” She let go and stepped back. “For now I think you need to get going.”

Terezi grabbed Sollux’s hand (sticking her tongue out at him when he grumbled) and jerked her chin at Calliope. “You ready?”

Calliope reached out and slipped her hand into hers. “I suppose so.”

John had to raise his voice to shout down the length of their chain. “Normally I would think of my home, but that’s not where we’re going. If you’re like me, can you help?”

 Calliope frowned. She could visualize their destination, but willing herself there was harder. The Center had been home for so long. It was the first place she’d felt safe.

Everyone’s minds washed over her, filled with anticipation, exhaustion, nerves. Maybe it was holding hands that made their emotions so vivid. They were looking toward their next chapter. Only she was looking behind.

‘A happy ending,’ the Center breathed, and for once there was something tentative about the words. Like it was waiting for them to go out and write that down themselves.

‘Goodbye,’ she thought at its endless narration. ‘Thank you, but I believe I can do this on my own now.’ Then she looked down the line to where John was looking back at her. He must be hearing it too.

“Are you thinking of the right place?” he asked.

She smiled and thought the words, letting them swirl into being around her one last time. “I am. Let’s go.”

Chapter Text

The girl dropped her suitcase into the dust as her parents drove away. They’d left her at the base of a long driveway leading up to her new school; apparently unauthorized vehicles weren’t allowed. That sounded suspicious to her, but her parents had come away from interviews with Jane Egbert assured of her competence. They promised their child that Mrs. Egbert would make her well again and chase away her delusions of saving a world with nothing but her voice. She’d already decided to hate her.

She expected to see an old woman hobbling down to fetch her, face screwed up with misplaced concern, but instead a teenage girl came hurrying down the driveway. “You must be the new student,” she said. “Hello, I’m Jane.”

The girl clung to the handle of her suitcase. “I thought you’d be older.”

Jane laughed. “You’re thinking of my grandmother. It’s a family name. And yours is?”

“Melody.” That was what they called her in her true home, not what her parents had put on the paperwork. She expected Jane to frown down at her clipboard and say “We were expecting —”, but she only smiled. 

“Nice to meet you, Melody. Follow me, and I’ll take you up to the house.”

It was a long walk. “I’m Jane Crocker,” Jane explained on the way. “Jane Egbert was one of the people who founded this school, and she handles conversations with relatives. Most of the time beyond that we take care of ourselves. I’m not in charge, whatever nicknames some people may have given me.”

“The students run the school?” That didn’t sound like the American education system.

“We’re all very self-sufficient, and everyone here has different needs. It’ll make more sense once we get there.”

Melody’s arms were growing tired by the time the house came into view. They hadn’t reached it when three other teenagers emerged from the trees. “New kid!” said a boy with dark hair who bounded over. He stretched out a hand and Melody, surprised, shook it. “I’m Jake.  Where did you go to?”

“Where did I…?”

“You know, what world?” He frowned. “That’s why you’re here, isn’t it?”

“Her parents wouldn’t have told her that,” said the other boy in the group. He nodded at her. “Mrs. Egbert feeds them a different sales pitch, but this is a school for people like us who went through doorways and came back needing readjustment. So if you were worrying about having to sit through a bunch of Rorschach blots on your first day, you’ve dodged that bullet.”

Melody swallowed. These people were talking about traveling to other worlds like it was as normal as going to the store. At first her parents had tolerated her stories, but once their joy at her return wore off, they no longer wanted to hear them. “You believe me?”

“We’ve all been through it,” Jane said. “That’s what we’re here for.”

“Back off, guys,” said the other girl in the group. “You’re overwhelming her. Welcome to our wayward home. Make yourself cozy, and enjoy your tour.”

“You could start us off by orienting her to you,” Jane said drily.

“Guess we skipped to the front of the line, huh? I’m Roxy,” the girl said. “I help with getting the word out. Put up a lot of ads on webforums, even if most people think I’m trying to RP. If you get an email about a foreign prince who needs your help, it could be a credit card scam, or it could be me on the hunt for people familiar with fantasy quests.”

“Or it could be you running a credit card scam,” said the boy whose name Melody didn’t know.

“I only do those to see if I can,” Roxy retorted. “I never use the numbers. Aradia does the physical legwork for our entirely legal online activities, you’ll meet her later.”

“I’m Dirk,” said the boy who’d explained the school. “I help keep things organized around here. I’m sure you can tell it’s a losing battle.”

“He makes the daily schedules,” Roxy said. “It’s cute how he thinks anyone reads them. And he worked on the code of conduct, but Kanaya helped with the interspecies regulations.”

“And I’m a regular jack of all trades,” Jake said, before Melody could ask for clarification on ‘interspecies’. “I learned to make all sorts of repairs in my world, so let me know if anything in your room doesn’t work right.”

“He’s everyone’s hero when the Wi-Fi goes down,” Roxy said.

“Am I going to have a job?” Melody asked, dazed by the list of duties they’d rattled off.

“Oh, no,” Jane said. “We’re special cases staying here long term. Most students stay for a while and then go home.”

“Home?” Melody didn’t know what Jane meant by that: her parent’s house or her true home a world away. “Which one?”

Jane hesitated. “We can talk about that. But first, let’s do our tour.”

In the front yard, a small group of people ranging from six to sixteen had gathered to watch someone get suplexed. Melody squinted at the boy who’d hit the ground. Was he…?

“Did your world only have humans?” Jane asked, following her gaze.

“No.” Melody was used to other species, but she hadn’t expected anything fantastical on Earth.

“We have a large Alternian contingent here. Dave and Karkat have taken an enthusiastic approach to extracurriculars.” Jane waved to catch their attention. The boy who’d performed the suplex waved back. “Ok everyone, try it on each other,” he told the group. Then he and his victim jogged over.

“Great, our newest arrival got here just in time to witness ‘Dump Karkat face first into the dirt’ hour,” the Alternian said. “How can I surpass the first impression of presenting my ass skyward for her approval?”

The other one grinned. “At least it’s a good ass. Our Google reviews would tank if we only provided sub-par ass viewing experiences. What’ve you been telling her about us, Jane?”

“Nothing that isn’t true,” Melody’s guide said.

Karkat brushed some dust off himself. “She’ll know to avoid Dave, then.”

“Not if she wants to pick up our ancient wisdom. We both ended up in other worlds getting away from something,” Dave explained. “We try to help with that, and sometimes that means teaching kids how to suplex their problems.”

“By all means, suplex your problems,” Karkat grumbled. “I draw the line at suplexing me.”

“You’re my biggest problem. Oh hey,” Dave said, as the Alternian rolled his eyes with what looked like fond exasperation. “John and Jade.”

Melody turned to see a car (authorized, she assumed) pulling up the driveway. The doors opened, and a girl hopped out of the driver’s seat. “I made it all the way here with no problems!”

A boy came around the other side with a suitcase. “Glad Jade didn’t kill you?” Dave asked him.

He (John?) grinned. “It wasn’t as scary as her flying a battleship.” His eyes fell on Melody. “Oh hey, someone new!”

“Welcome to the school,” Jade said. “Don’t let anyone dump chores on you until at least your second week.”

“Unless you want my turn doing dishes this weekend,” John said, and she smacked his shoulder.

“I don’t even know where the kitchen is,” Melody said.

“We’re doing the tour now.” Jane tapped her clipboard. “So if you’ll excuse us.” She left them retrieving the rest of their luggage and led Melody up the porch stairs. A ramp had been added over part of the staircase, and Melody dragged her suitcase up it. “Those two live with my father during the week and go to public school. They visit us every weekend. Now that we’ve made it inside, I can show you around.”

Melody trailed after Jane to see the kitchen and every other downstairs feature, knowing that she’d forget the layout as soon as her eyes left it. There was too much to keep track of. “Bedrooms are upstairs,” Jane said, placing her hand on the banister. A stair lift that looked suspiciously homemade had been bolted into the wall. “As is the rest of our permanent crew, if you can handle it. I know we’re a colorful bunch.”

Melody thought of cheering crowds surrounding her after she’d saved their world. “I’ve met colorful before.”

Kanaya was colorful. Lamps with decorative shades perched on every flat surface in her cloth-draped room. When Jane poked her head in and said “Tour coming through!” she responded with something like “Nnrgh” because her mouth was full of pins.

“Kanaya can help with wardrobe,” Jane said while Kanaya fished a stray pin out of her teeth. She was another Alternian, but Melody had spent enough time away from Earth not to stare. “If you’d like something more typical of where you came from, she can make it for you.”

“Can you do dresses?” Melody had worn flowing gowns in her world, and then her parents had stuffed her back in slacks and polo shirts.

Kanaya smiled. “Dresses are my specialty.”

Jane spun around to face another Alternian passing through the hallway. “Aradia! I didn’t know you were here.”

“Just dropping in to say hello.” Aradia waved at Melody, who automatically waved back. She’d been heading into another room where a human leaned over an Alternian’s shoulder. “Have you met Sollux and Hal?”

“She will,” said the Alternian, not looking up from his phone. “I’m not dropping everything to scrape her records right now, I have actually challenging work to do.”

“We’re this close to busting a Candy Crush record,” said the human. “I’m Hal. Don’t listen to whatever Dirk says about me.”

Jane clicked her tongue. “Don’t start that.”

Hal shrugged. “Orientation. Gotta give her the lay of the land.” He nudged down his shades and winked. “Good luck.”

“Sollux and Hal know their way around computers,” Jane explained. “If you have any mysterious gaps in attendance or changes to your medical history, we can handle that. They make IDs for refugees from other universes too. Apparently it’s not difficult.”

“Hal and Dirk…” Melody began. They had looked similar.

“Don’t worry about it. They used to have their problems, but it’s mostly blown over. Hal just likes to poke the bear on occasion.” Jane jabbed a finger toward Hal, either as a demonstration or a warning, and then retreated. “Next!”

Melody obligingly followed her to the next room. A human boy in a wheelchair and an Alternian with red glasses were arguing over a scroll written in what looked a lot like blood. Jane rapped on the door frame to get their attention. “Oh good, you’re together. That saves me time.”

“Hey, Empress,” said the Alternian, revealing a mouth of sharp teeth.

Melody stood close enough to hear Jane huff. “This is Terezi and Dave.”

“Wasn’t Dave outside?” The two looked nearly identical. “Are you twins?”

“Yeah, and our parents lost steam after naming kid one. That’s why you should always visit the ob-gyn for sneak peeks. Would’ve saved the galaxy from Darth Vader.” He shook his head. “It’s complicated. You’ll hear about it later.”

“Is Dirk still working on your braces?” Jane asked.

He shifted in his chair. “Yeah, the upgrades are coming along. The chair’s better when I’m sitting a long time, though.”

Jane nodded. “These two talk to new arrivals about why they left their world. If they’re political exiles, if you’re in legal trouble, if you have debts to pay, that sort of thing. That can help if you brought any consequences back to Earth with you, or if you might go back.”

“But I don’t work weekends.” Terezi stood up. “I smelled John come in.”

“Don’t you think you should let him unpack before badgering him to take you places?” Jane said.

“If you insist.” Terezi angled her face toward Melody. “Did you pocket any sacred jewels before you left? No prophecies about wigglers you haven’t had?” Melody shook her head. “You’re probably clean, but we can talk more on Monday once we finish figuring out how cursed this thing is.”

“Do you get a lot of curses?” Melody asked.

“Sure,” Terezi said. “Kanaya’s cursed.”

(‘It’s fine,’ Dave mouthed over her shoulder.)

“…Right.” Melody stood back to let the girl leave and then turned to Jane. “You said something about going back?”

Jane looked down at her clipboard instead of answering right away. “John can take you back if you still want to go,” she said at last. “Our rule is that you have to stay here for a while first. Get your head back on straight if you went to Nonsense, or if your world was Logic, knock it crooked.”

“We want people going back because that world’s the best place for them,” Dave said. “Not because it’s the only one. They help with that too here.” He rolled up the scroll and slipped on a hopefully curse-proof rubber band. “She seen Rose yet?”

“Last stop. We’ll see you later.”

He raised a hand in farewell as Melody found herself steered away again.

Jane paused outside a closed door. “They know to expect you. I suppose making us have to announce ourselves adds a touch of drama. Last two. Think you can stand it?”

“I think so.”

“I’ll leave you to it, then. Your room’s got a sign on it already. We’ll give you a few days to settle in before assigning a roommate. Come find me if you get hungry before dinner.” Jane waved and walked off, leaving Melody to open the door alone.

“Oh, hello,” said a girl, who did look like she’d been waiting to feign surprise. “Welcome to the school. My name is Rose, and this is Calliope.”

“I’m Melody.” Rose was human; Calliope wasn’t. All the other non-humans had been the same species, but this one was different. Her head looked like a skull, but she had nice eyes.

Rose rested her hands on top of a composition notebook. “I know you’ve been brought to more people’s attention than a chain email in the last hour, so we won’t keep you long. The two of us take an interest in cataloging details about all the other worlds out there. We used to write down people’s accounts ourselves, but.” She glanced at Calliope.

“But we’ve found it’s better to get the original perspective,” Calliope said. “Take your time, of course, but if you could record what you’re willing to share, we’d appreciate it. It might help others down the road.”

Melody looked at the notebook. It didn’t seem big enough to fit a whole world, but she’d tried to tell her story before and no one had listened. If she had it on paper, it would be there the next time someone claimed it wasn’t true.

Maybe she’d make it back. Maybe she wouldn’t. The same doorway didn’t always fit forever. No matter what, though, it had happened, and it had made a difference. The only person who could decide what had mattered was her. “I can try,” she said. “And I’m not that tired. I could start now.”

Calliope had a nice smile too. “That’s wonderful news.”

“It is,” Rose agreed. “So,” she said, and pushed the notebook forward. “In your own words this time. What’s your story?”