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the run and go

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The universe shits you out straight onto the roof where you entered the game, and you catch yourself with your face.

The pain of your tooth cracking in half is nothing in comparison to the pounding of your head, and you lie there for a good while just. Waiting.

The pain doesn’t pass, nor does the throbbing headache, and you roll over with a sigh. The air is a warm breeze on your face, the stench of burning gravel and city smog filtered through a bloodied nose. It takes a moment before you can fully grasp where you are, and then you frantically push yourself up, ignoring the searing pain of the sun on your exposed eyes.

Holy shit. You'd know that shitty skyline anywhere.

You laugh.

You are separated you are whole you are broken you’re reborn you have legs and you laugh.

You remember the soul crushing weight of being a sprite, of having your own feelings suppressed and ground down until you were no longer sad and you laugh.

You are Davesprite. You are Dave. You are whole, and you are alive.There’s coughing and choking to your left, and you crane your head to see - “Dave?”

He springs to his feet on reflex, catches his foot on his cape, and immediately collapses on his ass.

You laugh again. “Nice going, asshole,” you tell him, and it’s like he’s seeing you for the first time.

“Wha--” He looks you up and down, and his eyes are hidden by his shades, but his mouth is hanging wide open. “What the fuck happened to you?”

You can’t think clearly without your fucking shades, but he’s still staring and you’re annoyed. “I don’t fucking know dude, I got my shit pushed in by Lord English, there’s really not much to say on the matter.”

He just shakes his head, mouth still open like a bass trying to catch flies. You think. You’re almost sure that's how the metaphor goes.

There’s a groan from somewhere behind you, and by the time your head has turned, Dave’s already there, hunching over Dirk and talking to him in a low voice, helping him upright. There’s something tender between them and if you could feel anything but exhilaration for being alive right now, you might be jealous that you don’t get to have that.

Dirk tilts his head at you and then presses his lips together. “Dave,” he says, and his voice is a controlled calm. “That’s quite the recoloring you got goin’ there.”

You have no idea what he means, but he nods down at you and you finally take a moment to look at your hands.

Your hands that have no claws.

Your hands that, clawless, are tanner than you’ve ever seen them, spattered with freckles that dance all the way up your arms. Your tan, freckled hands raise to tug at your hair, and burnished gold falls into your eyes.

“What the fuck,” is what comes out.

“Looks like the sprite thing had some consequences,” Dave says.

You stare at your hands. “What the fuck.”

“Your kernel was orange, right?” Dirk is saying, but it all kind of fades away because you cannot stop staring at your hands. Is this gonna be your life from now on? You’re just a carbon copy recolor of the Real Dave? You can’t ever be Just Dave ever again. You’ll always be Orange Dave, like you’re stuck in a game of Mortal Combat for the rest of eternity.

You flinch when a hand drops onto your shoulder, and Dave steps back, palms up. “Hey, whoa. Sorry.”

“S’fine,” you say, lamely.

“We’re going inside to see what the fuck is up,” Dave says, jerking a thumb over his shoulder towards the exit door. “You should come, it’s hot as hell up here.”

Oh. Yeah, he’s got a point. You go to push yourself upright and --

immediately collapse on the ground.

“Dude, don’t mess around.” Dave nudges you with his shoe.

“I’m not,” you grunt, smacking his leg, and you try to climb to your feet again. You’re starting to think that maybe there’s something actually wrong with you. "Just fucking help me up."

 

You see him over Dave’s shoulder when he tries to haul you up, right before your legs collapse beneath you. He’s tucked under the air conditioning unit, long legs sticking out in front of him, and you’d know those ugly fucking shoes anywhere.

“Bro,” you rasp, and there’s nothing dignified about the way you shove Dave off you. “Dude, behind the AC, it’s Bro.”

Dave freezes in place but you are in a panic. It’s pathetic, trying to push yourself to get across the roof, but you get a couple feet in before Dirk is sweeping you up bridal style and carrying you over to your bro-dad-dickhead combo.

Bro is pale as hell, blood staining the corner of his mouth and hair sticking up every which way. His hat and shades are missing. Guess not everything made it. You think he’s dead for half a minute, feel cold water flood your veins, think “not again”, and then you see his chest moving, stuttering little jerks like he can’t breathe.

Dave hangs back, but you don’t care. You watched this fucker die before and you’re not doing it again, so when Dirk sets you down, you basically crawl on top of him, shaking his shirt and smacking at his face.

“Hey. Hey asshole, wake up. Bro. Dude. Come the fuck on.” He doesn't move.

“Dave-” Dirk starts awkwardly, stops. You’re not listening.

“I know you’re in there, dickhead, I can see you. You’ve got a fuckton to answer for.” You poke him in the chest, shake him roughly, and slap his face a few more times. Y’know. For good measure. Nothing seems to work until you go to brush the hair out of his eyes with a sigh. “Bro, c’mon, please.”

Before your hand can finish the delicate gesture, it’s caught in a vice grip, and you’ve never been so still as you are when you see his half-lidded eyes leering at you. “What the fuck do you think you’re doing,” he says, and you can’t help it. You laugh.

“There you are, you colossal asshole. Was worried you were gonna die on me. Again.”

He stares for a beat and then lets you go, and you back off so he can breathe, sitting back on his legs because, fun surprise, yours still aren’t working.

It takes him a minute, and even then he looks like he’s having trouble breathing, like he can’t quite get a grip on his surroundings. He looks from you, to Dave, to Dirk, and back again, like he doesn’t know you, and that scares the shit out of you.

“Bro?” you call, but it’s like he’s in a trance, like he doesn’t even know where he is, and then his hand twitches. “Bro...?”

You blink and Dirk is dragging you back by your shirt, cursing. “Shit, Dave, no come here, he’s--”

You blink and Bro falls to the side, his entire body convulsing, and you hear yourself shout but it might be Dave and all three of you are swearing and somebody says “should we call an ambulance?” and you can’t do anything but stare at your not-quite-dead brother as he shakes and twitches, drool pouring out of his mouth, eyelids fluttering and pupils blown wide.

Nobody calls an ambulance.

Bro stops seizing, but his chest keeps giving those shaky little stutters, and you wonder if he’s dying again. You poke him in the leg, just to be sure. Poke, poke. When you don’t get a response, you shove at him. “Stop,” he grunts. Okay, not dying. Cool, cool.

You are totally freaking out.

Dave shoves something into your hands and you realize it’s your shades, and you put them on with trembling fingers.

“We should get inside and contact the others,” Dirk says eventually. His arms are still wrapped around you in this gentle, careful way that makes you want to cry. God, when is the last time someone actually wanted to hug you?

“Okay,” you whisper. You don’t want to leave Bro here, though. You say as much.

Dave sighs so hard it’s surprising he doesn’t cough up a lung. “Dave--”

“Davesprite,” you correct. You’re not Just Dave anymore. You get that now.

Dave gives you a scathing look that's all Rose. “Dude, do you think any of us are capable of hauling his fat ass down the stairs?”

You glare at him. “I don’t care, I can --”

“Your legs aren’t even working right now. You ain’t doing shit.”

“Dave,” Dirk says softly, lifting a hand. When he talks to you, it’s like he’s addressing a child, but his arms are warm and you’re too upset to care. “I can take you down first and then Dave ‘n I will come back for him, okay?”

He squeezes your hand, and you cave. “Okay.”

Dave starts to protest, but you and Dirk both look at him and he shuts up.

You try not to think about the fact that you can’t feel Dirk’s arm under your legs, make a crack at his Princely demeanor to deflect. You feel like a winner when he goes pink around the ears, cracks a smile. It’s cool he does that. You don’t really remember that shape on Bro’s mouth.

Dave stays up on the roof, watching you go, and you see him start to kneel by Bro’s head as Dirk carries you down the stairs.

Dirk sets you down carefully on the futon and you give him a shaky thanks, attempt a smile. He gives you an awkward little nod, opens his mouth like he wants to say something, and then takes off before he can start. Maybe he’s a bit more like Bro than you thought.

The apartment looks basically the same to you, Bro’s Xbox tucked under the TV, the controllers thrown haphazardly on the floor the way you remember. There are some (what you assume to be) Dirk-like touches-- a weird horse statue in the kitchen made from what looks like coat hangers, and fenestrated windows littering the floor -- but most of it seems to be Bro’s ninja bullshit.

There are, much to your dismay, still puppets all over, but they’re more a minor annoyance than anything, and don’t bother you like you thought they would. You had three years on the ship to get over your shitty fear, and most of your bitterness and malcontent with Bro was buried with his corpse on LOHAC. There’s shitty swords and the scent of stale Doritos, but the whole place is still pretty much clinically sanitized. You wipe a finger along the edge of the table. It comes back clean.

And tan.

You’re kind of freaking out about that part. As far as you can tell, you’ve got all the right bits and pieces. The freckles are new, but Dirk and Rose both have freckles, even if you never did, so that’s probably just. The melanin increase. Yeah. Your hair, on the other hand, is fucking atrocious, but honestly you can kind of handle it. You don’t look like Dave, so much. It only hurts a little bit. At least no one will confuse the two of you.

The legs are a little bit more worrisome, but maybe if you talk to Nanna or you know, a real fucking doctor, they’ll know what’s up.

Dirk and Dave practically kick the door down and you get to watch in amusement as they stagger in, Bro’s arms over their shoulders, dead weight against them. It’s funny, in a way, watching them struggle to lift your brother, taller by almost half a foot, but it’s also kinda sad, and scary. Bro looks dead. It’s extremely unsettling.

Dirk slips out from under the weight first, and Dave basically shoves him onto you, his body flopping onto the futon like--

like a puppet.

His head lands in your lap and you don’t complain, just turn his face to the side so he can breathe, brush aside the hair falling in his eyes. It feels uncomfortably tender, but the guy just came back to life, he deserves at least a little bit of affection from somebody. Might as well be you. No one else is volunteering.

You give him a solid pat on the head. Pat pat. He grunts.

Dave sits on the coffee table and stares at him. You pretend not to be extremely uncomfortable, keep your lips pursed and fingers curled into the back of Bro’s head.
Dirk gives Dave a squeeze on the shoulder and then just stands there staring into space, which you assume means he’s talking to his glasses or whatever. You wonder if AR made it, too.

“You don’t have to treat him like that,” Dave whispers to you.

You frown, narrow your eyes. What the fuck is his game? “I’m not doing anything.”

“Dude, you’re mothering the shit out of this asshole.”

“So?” You shrug. Dave doesn’t get it. You knew he wouldn’t.

He shifts and it’s obvious he’s uncomfortable. “So he doesn’t deserve it.”

You look down at Bro’s ears, the way they curve up to an almost elven point. Rose got her ears from him.

“He treated us like shit,” Dave continues. “I’m pretty sure he hated us.”

“Cal hated us,” you say. Bro flinches.

“Dave -”

“Davesprite.”

“Dave,” he plows on, “you can’t pretend what happened to us isn’t fucked up, and we don’t even know he’s actually gone for good.”

“It wouldn’t matter if he was,” you mutter. “Probably still find a way to come back.”

Dave hums. “D’you think Cal ever --” Bro flinches again.

“Don’t say its name,” you hiss. You hate that he’s right. You hate that you can’t argue.

Dave opens his mouth to protest, but looks down at the way Bro’s body is wound tight, like a bowstring ready to snap. His jaw clicks shut.

You give Bro another aggressive pat. His eyes remain closed. Ugh, this is weird.

“Do you think he deserves a chance?” Dave asks eventually.

“No,” you sigh. Shrug. “Yes. I don’t know.”

“Yeah.” Dave gives a heaving breath, shoulders slumping down. He cards a hand through his own hair, hides his face in his hands. “Me neither.”

Everyone is back, in some way or another. Dirk contacted Roxy first, and you’re more than relieved to know Rose is okay. There’s only one of her, and you guess her Sprite didn't make it back, which is kind of fucked up, but you can't bring it up without sounding ungrateful, so you don't.

You’re a little worried about John and Jade, about if Nanna came back, too, but you don’t ask, because Dirk probably wants to talk to his friends on his own. You can talk later. Shit, you should probably be writing up some mad long apologies to ease the process. You’re so fucking screwed.

 

-*-


The first night finds you tucked up on the futon with Bro, bed folded down so he can perch on the edge and you can be as far away as possible while still being close enough if something happens. (Dirk had offered to take your place, still tenderly cautious with you like he was with Dave, but you had declined. You buried the fucker, you’re mostly at peace with his fucked up shit, and you’re also absolutely paranoid he’s going to die again.)

You face the kitchen and trace the outline of the counters, the microwave, the weird horse, illuminated by the window. You listen to the hum of the fridge, the tick tick tick of the analog clock, the sound of Bro breathing in and out, in and out, somewhere behind you.

You can’t sleep.

It feels weird, being back. You spent three years soaring through time and space on a big fucking boat, in a place outside your realm of knowledge as a sprite. You’ve had sleepovers on this futon, watched movies and fell asleep with nothing outside the window but a glowing flow of lava and turning gears.

You remember telling Jade you didn’t want to date anymore in the kitchen, can still see the way she crackled green all the way down to her core.

You remember being miserable.

You still are, kinda, but you think you don’t mind it as much.

It feels weird being yourself again, and you wonder if you would be okay, just being “Dave.” If it’ll ever feel normal.

Texas in April is already hot as hell, and you lie in your shirt, sans pants, and miss LOHAC. You wonder if Dave and Dirk have fallen asleep yet. You wonder if you could pester John or Jade. If they’d respond. Better not take any chances. They’ve probably got a lot on their plate as is. And they’d probably rather talk to the real Dave, anyway.

“Hey Bro?”

You don’t think he’ll answer. He hasn’t spoken since he woke up, and Jesus dicks, what if he dies in the night, what if you should have called the fucking ambulance after all, what if--

“What d’you want.” Bro’s tone doesn’t invite response, but he’s never really been much of a question guy.

“Just wondering if you were awake.” You don’t apologize. He wouldn’t appreciate it.

He only hums.

“What are you thinking about?”

That startles what you’re almost positive could have been a laugh out of him. “Christ, kid,” is what he says.

“I miss LOHAC,” you tell him, because you don’t have anyone else to tell.

“Lohac.”

“Land of Heat and Clockwork.”

“That the bigass volcano you dropped us in?”

“Haha. Yeah.”

“Can’t say I feel the same way.”

“My bad, then. I kinda buried you there.”

“What’d you do, drop me in the fucking lava?”

“... Sorta.”

“Touching. This is a place you miss.”

You try to remember talking to Bro this much outside a rap battle. You fail. “It wasn’t... I hated it, at first. Because of you, I guess. It was hot and noisy and all I heard day in and day out for months was screeching metal and --” Calsprite, but you don’t say that. “It was like my own personal hell.”

“Guess I’m not winning any guardian of the year awards.” He doesn’t say it with any measure of bitterness, like he doesn’t care. He probably doesn’t.

“Nah.” You roll over to face his back, watch his side move up and down as he breathes quietly. You don’t think you’ve ever actually seen him sleep before. “Your technique was a major shit show.”

“Yeah, I’m starting to realize that now.”

“Kinda surprising you didn’t realize it sooner.” It’s not, really.

“Yeah, I --” He cuts himself off and you tense up, watch the lines of his shoulders for movement. “I don’t know.”

“What are thinking about?” you ask again, when you lapse into silence.

“How nice it’d be if my kid would shut the fuck up and let me sleep.”

“Sorry,” you whisper, and fuck, he’s right. You just got back, he had a fucking seizure, he’s probably wiped.

He sighs, and you barely stop yourself from shooting out of the bed when he rolls over. His eyes are exposed, and you feel stupid that your shades are still on (sprite habits die hard, apparently), so you take them off and tuck them under your pillow.

You nearly jump out of your skin when he finally answers, after staring at your for a long moment. "Blurry."

“What?” It comes out embarrassingly high-pitched.

“I just keep thinking about how everything feels blurred,” he says, sighs out his nose. “Like my damn head’s been filled with cotton for so long it’s forgotten how to work properly. Hollow. Confused. Tired. Empty.” He reaches up and a hand and rubs at his eyes. You pretend you didn’t flinch and he doesn’t say anything. “That good enough for you?”

“It’s more of a how than a what,” you manage, and the look he gives you is pure aggravation.

“I don’t do feelings,” he grunts.

You shrug. Thirteen-year-old Dave would be baffled by your gall. “I kinda get the feeling nobody in this family really does anything normal or healthy, but I figured it couldn’t hurt to ask.”

Bro scoffs and rolls onto his back to stare at the ceiling. He’s quiet, and you think maybe that’s the end of your conversation. When he does answer, it’s soft, a little gravelly. “I'm thinking it’s pretty fucked up that I’m here right now.”

“Like on the futon?”

“Like alive, mostly.”

You stare at his profile, purple bruising beneath his eyes and the sharp angle of his nose, the bump from a break that’s been there as long as you can remember. He looks tired, older than you remember, but still too young to be a parent.

“You don’t want a second chance?” It comes out so soft you almost don’t realize you said it out loud.

A puff of air escapes his lips and you swear for a second you see him smile. “That’s one helluva loaded question, Dave.”

You don’t know how to respond to that. He hasn’t called you by name in years. It’s odd. “You seem better,” you say instead. “Than you were earlier.” You hope he doesn’t bring up the coddling.

He doesn’t. He’s thoughtful for a moment, rubs his eyes again like there’s something stuck in them. “Yeah, it was always quieter at night.”

“You mean --” You choke on the name. HEEHEEHAAHAAHOOHOO echoes in the back of your mind. “I didn’t know he. It. Talked. To you.”

Bro just hums, squints at the ceiling like it’s wronged him.

He wouldn’t know, you realize. Lord English wasn’t part of his timeline; he was long gone and buried by the time Jolly Green showed his ugly mug. For him, the puppet that haunted your childhood was a separate, albeit ominous entity. You wonder how much he knows. “You’re not still hearing him, are you?” It sounds small to your ears. Meek.

You see his Adam’s apple bob as he swallows. “Go to bed, Dave.”

You open your mouth to protest but he rolls back over, and you’re faced with the wall of his shoulders that tells you end of discussion.

It’s not like he’s ever said goodnight to you before, but you kinda wish he would, anyway.

Chapter Text

Bro’s still sleeping when you wake up the next morning. At some point in the night he rolled over again, so when your eyes open you get a face full of snoozing Strider. It almost startles you out of the bed; you’ve never seen him sleep before and he... looks normal. Tired. Kinda old. It’s freaky.

You take five seconds to weigh the consequences and then reach back your hand and--

Bro grabs your wrist before you even reach his nose, and you think his eyes are a much prettier color when they’re full of life.

“Morning,” you say.

He glares, drops your hand, and rolls away. You get the pleasure of watching him stumble to his feet and promptly fall flat on his face.

You don’t laugh, but you can’t hide a grin. “You okay?”

He grunts, which you assume means, “yes, Dave, thank you for asking.”

“You should take it slow,” you tell him, pulling out your phone.

“I’m getting that,” he monotones.

Dave and Dirk appear in the hall, and they look at you, then Bro on the floor.

“Why is Bro on the floor?” Dave’s voice is that kind of controlled, closed off tone that you’d know anywhere.

“Fell,” the both of you say.

Dave sighs. “What the fuck.”

You shrug. Jade’s not online. Maybe she’s sleeping. “He had a seizure, man, he’s got issues.” John’s not online, either, but it’s early for him, and they’ve probably got family shit to sort out. God knows you do.

Dave makes a face at you, but Dirk just hovers behind him, looking nervous. You note with mild interest that he’s wearing a tank top that in no way could have come from your closet. Guess your room got an upgrade, too. He mumbles something in Dave’s ear and then retreats back down the hall to the bedroom.

You watch him go. “Sup with him?”

“He’s got issues,” Dave parrots, crossing his arms protectively. You give him a thousand yard stare. He sighs, drops his shoulders, and comes to flop on the futon. “He was raised in the middle of an ocean. I don’t know. The city’s noisy or something, it’s freaking him out.” He tilts his chin at you. “How’re the legs? Any improvement?”

You chew on the inside of you lip because no, fuck no. What you say is, “Did you see my toes wiggle just now?”

“No.”

“Then no.”

The look he gives you is so scathingly Rose it makes you cringe. He rolls over to the edge of the futon to peer down at Bro. “How’s our resident member of the AARP?”

Bro flips him off, and you see a miracle in Dave’s crooked smile.

 

You convince Dave to carry you to the bathroom after Bro trips on a fenestrated window on the way to the kitchen.

“I see your point,” he says, looking at Bro’s sprawled form. He’s lying face first in puppet ass and shows no sign of removing himself any time soon. It’s pretty much the worst thing that’s ever happened to you.

“He keeps doing it.”

“It keeps happening?” Dave suggests, and you hide a smile by rolling over to the other side of the mattress. “You okay, asshole?” you ask Bro, figure you’re safe with him on the ground.

He gives a vague sound of recognition and offers you a thumbs up.

“See he’s fine.” You wiggle your hands towards Dave.

“This is stupid,” he grunts, hefting you up, and you slap at his face.

“Less talky more walky, loser.”

He jostles you. “Fuck you.”

“Dude, I will literally piss on you.”

“You fucking piss on me I will drop you out the window so fast.”

“Just for that, I’m going to shit my pants.”

 

You manage to wash your fucking hands like an absolute doll and knock on the door so Dave knows the coast is clear.

“Can I - we go to my - your room?” you ask, choppy and hesitant.

He pulls you up. “Why?”

“I just. Want to check on him. Dirk.” You shrug. “Make sure he’s cool.” He’s not your Bro but he’s A Bro and that counts for something. He calls you Dave. That counts for something, too.

Dave hesitates, but nods, and kicks the door closed behind him before dropping you on the lumpy surface of his bed.

The bed grunts, and you wiggle your ass until you’re only halfway on top of what can only be Dirk’s bony body.

He curses and wrestles out from under his blanket prison to glare at the both of you.

“Good morning,” you tell him.

He stares from behind shades. Who wears shades to bed? (You, idiot.) “Hey.”

“Sorry it’s so shitty here,” you say, apropos of nothing. You’ve never been much for subtlety. “Lohac was - was like this too. Loud, I mean. Hot. With metal and stuff. Lots more lava, though.”

He cracks the weak beginnings of a smile. “I suppose with my limited exposure in the medium I assumed I would be ready for anything. It appears I drastically underestimated the size and uh, noise, of Houston in the 21st century.”

“Sometimes it be like that,” you say.

“And like that sometimes it be,” Dave echoes.

You fistbump.

“Is it going to be like this forever?” Dirk asks dryly. “The two of you leaving me out of bumps?”

“Hell no, get in here,” you say, and he lets you grab one of his wrists, pull it in towards yours and Dave’s for a righteous bunp. You stop just short of making a three-way joke.

“Fuck yes.”

“I’ll try harder,” Dirk says, after a minute, when you finally give his hand back.

“I don’t think you have to,” you say, and find you mean it. “I mean. I don’t think I’m really trying at all right now. Dave and I got a head start, and we’re basically at rock bottom.”

“Hey!” Dave shoves you in the shoulder. “Don’t listen to him, dude. You’re doing fine. Houston’s a big fucking city. And it smells like shit. You just need time.”

And god, you hope he’s right.

 

Jade isn’t talking to you. That’s kinda okay. You’re not really ready for that discussion, anyway.

John is, though, after you spammed his pesterchum with apologies for 24 hours straight. Call it excessive, but you almost cry when he finally responds to tell you to shut the fuck up. You honestly even smile the first time he calls you Dave Sprite.

EB: sorry, i guess it's just dave again, huh?
TG: nah its nice to be remembered for once
TG: for who i actually am
TG: or was i guess
TG: dave give you the lowdown on my sick color rearrangement
EB: haha yeah you look like a beverly hills house wife.
TG: hell yeah i do
TG: im so ready for my first fucking summer sunburn free
EB: you know being slightly less white and pasty doesn't automatically protect you from the sun, right?
TG: dude come on dont fucking ruin this for me
EB: oh i'm soooo sorry :B but if i can get a sunburn, then you're screwed, dude!
EB: still, maybe dad will let us plan a family beach trip!
EB: extended family, i guess. really extended now. it's really weird how much jane's dad looks like my dad.
TG: john please i am literally living with myself from an alternate timeline your two dad crisis pales in comparison
TG: especially in comparison to my sick suntan
EB: yeah, if you're going for a donald trump look, i guess.
TG: dude
EB: hahaha
EB: sorry, dave. for real this time, i mean.
TG: davesprite
EB: i think you mean dave sprite.
TG: hell yeah now youre getting it

 

-*-

 

You wake up on the second day to find Bro clicking around on his computer. There’s something soothing about the way he’s perched on the edge of his chair like an overgrown gargoyle. You watch him for a few minutes until he throws a smuppet at your head, and turns away before you finish telling him off.

You let him work in peace, since he’s probably the only person here who is currently making any money, and you pester Jade again. She still hasn’t talked to you. You remember brief flashes of kissing her as Davepeta. Ugh, you want to die all over again. How fucking embarrassing.

Another smuppet hits you straight in the face and you will never admit to screeching like a little girl as you send it flying across the room in a panic.

“I can hear you thinking from here,” Bro says, sitting there like he hasn’t moved an inch. “Shut the fuck up.”

“Fuck off,” you say, weakly. “I’m a teenager, man, I got a lotta angst going on over here, can’t you go scroll through fetish forums somewhere else?” He snorts softly out the nose and doesn’t retort. You roll to the other side of the futon and try to peek over his shoulder. “What are you doing, anyway?”

“Finances,” he says, types another steady flow of numbers into whatever nonsense program he’s using. “Plushrumps has, miracle beyond miracles, been active for the past three years, and I’m not about to question this insane profit. But,” and here he sighs, sounds so much like an old man you almost roll your eyes, “my spreadsheets are three fuckin’ years behind, and whatever stand-in the Game imposed to take care of all this has neglected to do any of my taxes.”

“Wow,” you drawl, and it comes out so naturally, you almost forget this is your brother, who can beat your ass to kingdom come, “you sound like an old fucking man.”
“Like twenty years older’n you, kid,” he says, rubs at his eyes. He’s being doing that a lot lately.

“Need me to get your reading glasses, grandpa? Or maybe we can just buy you a screen reader.”

“Don’t push your luck,” Bro says, and it’s That Voice. The one of finality, the strife, rooftop, now. You shrink down.

“Are we still gonna have to strife?” It’s a stupid question, you know as soon as you ask, because Bro turns his chair around and you see real emotions on his face for the first time in your life.

Brows up, eyes blown wide, he looks like a cartoon. He opens his mouth, closes it, and you’re throwing yourself across the floor before his chair has even fully tipped.

Dave is there in a blink, handing you a pillow to shove under his head and you count the time on Bro’s computer as he twitches so you don’t have to watch.

You stare at the shitty Muppet poster while Dave gets Dirk to help haul Bro back onto the futon and feel anger start to burn in your chest.

HEEHEEHAAHAAHOOHOO

It takes about three minutes of maneuvering and your arms shake the whole time, but you climb into Bro’s chair and rip the fucking poster off the wall. They watch you push yourself off the desk, send the chair sliding across the room so you can dislodge another.

“Dave,” Dirk says slowly, like he’s worried you’ll snap, “what are you doing?”

“Cleaning house,” you grunt, and rip one of them in half.

 

It takes a couple hours for the three of you to clean up. You tear down posters, throw out anything that reminds you of puppetry aside from the smuppets, which you shove into the storage closet until further notice (it’s not clean money, but it’s still money).The sink is emptied, then the dishwasher and fridge, all things sharp and pointy are locked away in Dirk and Dave’s room, to be thrown out or sold at a later date.

Bro was always a stickler for sanitation, but you haven’t seen the apartment this clean in your entire life.

Dave seems more comfortable when it’s empty, when all that’s left is Dirk’s weird horse statue and that big fucking bust of Snoop Dogg left in the hall.

At a second thought, you go through the apartment with them and dismantle all Bro’s booby traps.

Dave watches you in absolute horror as you point and instruct like it’s not a big deal, and you can even reach some of the ones in the closet and on the counter. You can only shrug. You had three years of snooping to find them all, and the smuppets don’t really annoy you anymore. (Dirk has nothing to say about it, but you know it’s because their room is now home to a pile of hats and smuppets of his own make.)

 

-*-

 

It’s been almost a week and shit is getting weird in the Strider household.

You spend most of your time laying around on the futon because hey, fun surprise, your legs still don’t fucking work!

You pinch at them off and on, hoping. You can feel it, but just barely, and definitely not well enough for your liking. You kinda think you need a doctor, kinda think a doctor visit would send you right into the hands of CPS, which honestly without any other legal family to speak of, would be the worst fucking thing that’s ever happened to you. Barring most of your childhood and the entirety of the time you spent in the game and y’know, maybe you’re just not destined to have any good in your shit life.

Dave stays in his room, mostly. You’re not sure who he’s trying to avoid, you or Bro. You guess Bro. You wish he’d come out more often, but you guess he’s just not ready to face him yet. That’s cool. I mean sure, you can’t fucking walk and definitely can’t get to the bathroom by yourself but it’s cool. You like having to pester Dirk and ask him to send in the response team.

Okay, maybe you do kind of like it, and it is a little cool. He seems like he’s trying to adjust, and he’s not completely failing.

You’ve never seen him leave the house, but he’s gotten to the point where he’ll hang in the kitchen long enough for you to hold a conversation before retreating. You’re guessing he doesn’t love facing Bro, either.

But you do see him glance out the window from time to time, usually after your piss break.

“You can go out there, you know,” you tell him on one such occasion, settling back into the cushions. You see the tiniest twitch of Bro’s hat that lets you know you’ve got his attention.

Dirk opens his mouth like he could agree, but then shakes his head, a small jerk. “Don’t think I’m quite ready for that yet, dude. Even looking at all these buildings from up here makes me fucking nauseous.”

“Have you ever considered you might be afraid of heights?” you ask.

That startles a laugh out of him, and you’d be lying if you said you didn’t enjoy the way it catches in his throat, like he tried to stop it half way. “If that were the case, my planet would be even more of a massive joke. As it stands, nothing to fear from a fall except death.” He looks back out the window and you get the sense of longing from the rise of his brow. “And I’ve already been there, done that.”

You glance at Bro and wonder if he’s curious about Dirk. You can ask him later, but he’s been kinda weird the past few days, zoning out and dropping shit like a completely normal human being.

You wouldn’t worry if it was Dave, or you, or anyone else (except maybe Dirk, what with the whole technically being Bro thing going on), but with Bro, you’re seriously starting to freak.

He goes through these moments where it seems like he’s not all there. He doesn’t talk much anyway, only at night when you’re lying there unable to sleep, and you basically harass him until he gives up and rolls over to listen to you babble, but it’s noticeable. He’ll stand up and freeze halfway through the motion, like he’s forgotten what he’s doing.

He’ll reach for you, stop. He’ll go to the kitchen, stop. He’ll start typing, stop.

You’ve been googling seizures for days, and the results are not favorable. You’re pretty sure you need to get this asshole to a fucking hospital.

“Stop staring at me,” is all he says now, and you let out a squawk of distress as a smuppet goes flying at your head.

Okay, maybe you’re not completely over your fear of puppets.

Chapter Text

-- turntechGodhead [TG] began pestering gardenGnostic [GG]  --

TG: so i know this is like
TG: the nth time ive pestered you
TG: fuck i dont even know if youre getting this at all
TG: being that im somehow using my handle at the same time as dave but whatever
TG: beggars cant be choosers
TG: just so were aware i am 10000% the beggar in this scenario
TG: maybe you dont even remember half the shit i brought up and now ive made it too awkward for you to respond
TG: in which case please ignore everything i said

-- gardenGnostic [GG] is an idle chum! --

TG: yeah yeah i get it
TG: just
TG: im sorry okay
TG: for everything that happened

-- turntechGodhead [TG] ceased pestering gardenGnostic [GG] --

 

“Y’know, if you keep pestering her, she’s not going to respond,” Dirk says, reading over your shoulder.

You clutch your phone to your chest, nudge him away with your elbow. “That is literally the most hypocritical thing I have ever heard in my entire life.”

Dirk doesn’t quite mask a cringe, but he smiles anyway. “Arquiusprite told you about that too, huh?”

You hum, put your head on his shoulder. Rose is online, but you don’t have the guts to ask if she remembers you. “Kinda. He might’ve glossed over a few things in pursuit of more muscle-focused conversation topics, but I got the gist of the breakup.”

“Was that a cat pun I heard?”

You elbow him so hard in the gut that he wheezes, falls over on the bed snickering.

“Okay, okay, sorry, sorry.” He smiles up at you and you are disgusted to find yourself warm from head to toe. “We’re both kinda fucked up, huh?”

“Yeah,” you sigh, flopping back against the wall. It’s cold against your neck, but you don’t care enough to move. “We kinda suck.”

You share a solid bump over your mutual suckage. It makes you feel a little better.

At least right up until the door to the bedroom opens and closes with a loud slam, and there’s Dave, with his back pressed against the door, face deadly pale. “I broke Bro,” he blurts, before you can even open your mouth.

You have no idea what that means.

“I have no idea what that means.” It doesn’t sound fucking good, whatever it is. Did he piss him off? Are you going to go out there and see your new bedroom in ruins? You would have heard it, right? You would know if something happened. Dirk would have noticed. But he looks unscathed, though fully clothed and dry, despite having left to take a shower. You reckon he never got that far.

“Dave, what the fuck did you do?”

Dave just shakes his head, mouth flapping like a guppy.

He didn’t actually do anything. He went to take a shower, ran into Bro, panicked, they argued, and Bro just. Stopped.

Dirk furrows his brow, bites his lip. “Stopped what?”

Dave moves his arms jerkily, like he can’t find the right words. “Just. Stopped. Everything? Like a fucking robot outta batteries, mid-sentence, didn’t even get past ‘listen kiddo’, old man style, fucking full on dementia-level stopped.” He opens the door, peeks into the hall, and closes it again. “Now he’s just sitting out there on the floor, staring into space, and I’m in here, freaking out. Does it seem like I’m freaking out? I feel hot. Is it hot in here?”

Dirk looks back at you, eyebrows raised high over his shades, full askance, and you shrug helplessly. You have no fucking clue. Dude is weird, but you’re not 100% sure you could put it past him to pull a shitty prank like this.

Dirk just sighs through his nose, looks up at the ceiling. It’s a trait he shares with Bro that you never thought to look for. You’re finding more of those these days. “Dave,” he says, and it’s gentle authority, coaxing, and (you worry not) entirely sincere. He opens an arm and Dave goes to him in an instant, folds against his side like he belongs there.

You are irritatingly, irrationally jealous.

But it’s little more than a simple side hug before Dirk is on his feet, leaving Dave tucked into the pillows and blankets. “You can stay. Dave ‘n I will investigate. I know you want to, yeah?”

He’s looking at you, and he’s right, of course he is, but you gnaw on the inside of your cheek. A part of you just wants to stay here, not have to deal with this, not have to deal with the panic and stress just for five more fucking minutes.

You glance at Dave and know, instantly, that he’s miserable. That he genuinely thinks he did something. You don’t know. Maybe he did. Probably not. Still, it’s your self-imposed burden to bear, so you let Dirk drag you up, try not to complain when his movements are a little too rough.

 

True to his word, there’s Bro, right where Dave left him. He’s sitting cross-legged now, if he wasn’t before, and his head is in his hands.

“Bro,” you call, and when he doesn’t answer, you tell Dirk to kick him.

He winces. “I’d rather not.”

“Nah, look, it won’t hurt him for more’n a sec, just do it.” It is, admittedly, mostly (pun intended) for kicks. “Drop me here and I’ll do it myself.”

Dirk does neither. Instead, mouth pinched into a thin line, he reaches out a socked toe and prods your brother in the knee.

“Don’t,” Bro says, voice rough and cracked around the edges.

“Why are you sitting on the floor, dude?” It’s a perfectly valid question. You’re tired of being carried like a prima ballerina in a stage production of When the Bird Takes Flight. Or something. Whatever. Knowing you, it’s always going to be bird-related. Just your fucking luck. You try for honesty. “You really freaked Dave out.”

“I don’t know,” Bro grunts. You look at the curve of his spine, how he’s folded into himself as small as he can go.

“Are you having another seizure?” It comes out around a sigh, and there is something like guilt there, red iron hot against your chest.

“No,” he says, and you can hear the hesitation in his voice now.

“Do you need help?” And that’s Dirk, soft as anything, jaw clenched, body tense.

That makes Bro snort, though it’s not unkind. “Understatement of the year, right there.”

“I’m going to put you on the futon,” Dirk tells you with finality, like this is a chore he has to do every day. It wouldn’t be far off, really. Your life has been a comedy routine in seven parts since last week.

You let him, don’t protest. Don’t grunt when you’re dropped onto the weak spot in the mattress and you can feel the boards underneath collide ever-so-magnificently with your tender ass muscles. You are going to bruise like a peach.

You message Dave from the bedroom, because you can, and because it’s faster. Tell him Bro isn’t dead, at least not yet, and that you’re handling it, which you hope is true.

Dirk doesn’t look pleased as he walks back toward the hall. And why should he? Facing this older version of himself, mouth twisted sour, you wonder suddenly if he’s been putting on a show for you. For both of you.

Shame roils in your gut. Facing a version of yourself who isn’t you, that you may or may not turn out to be... That’s some heavy shit.

You watch him hold out a hand to help Bro to his feet and wonder if he needs someone to talk to about it.

That person probably shouldn’t be you.

Your shades light up in fluorescent green and you almost startle yourself off the futon.

-- gardenGnostic [GG] began pestering turntechGodhead [TG] --

GG: hi dave!!!
GG: or davesprite, i guess :\ john told me you were insisting on going by that silly name
GG: i got um! some of your messages
GG: and stuff!!

Oh no. Oh my god. Not right now.

GG: i figured maybe we could talk about, if you wanted to
GG: things are still kinda fuzzy!!
GG: and not just our connection over here on hell murder island, either!
GG: although admittedly the weather has been pretty bad this year :(
TG: jade i absolutely want to talk about this and we totally will
TG: but right now is literally the worst possible time for this and i cannot stress enough how absolutely we should talk about this

Bro rolls to his feet with only half as much trouble as usual, and you watch Dave and Dirk follow behind him as he comes stumbling into the living room.

TG: but not right now

You shut the window and put your shades on your head so you don’t have to see her reply. Press your hands over your face and try not to scream. Oh my god.

“What’s eating you?” Bro’s snark is not appreciated, and neither is the way he flops onto the futon bodily, feet landing unwanted in your lap, face-planting in your favorite pillow.

“Bit me,” you snap, because you’re freaking out right now and are surrounded on all sides by complete assholes.

“Don’t tempt me,” Bro mutters, voice muffled, and you shove his feet away from you. Stupid heavy asshole.

“This is getting ridiculous,” Dave says, watching Bro roll over and away from you. “We can’t keep doing this.”

“Well it’s not like I have a backup plan,” you say, and you’re just being mean now, aggravated and embarrassed. “Dave, Christ, I didn’t even expect either of us to come back here alive. What the fuck do you want from me?”

He stares at you, muscle in his jaw jumping. He looks like he’s going to hit you. At this point, you’d almost fucking welcome it. But you must look like shit like this, squinting in the light, fed up and exhausted. He quickly deflates. He’s fed up, too. “I don’t. I don’t know.”

“Can you go not know somewhere else?” Bro rasps, hands pressed over his eyes. “My head’s fuckin’ killing me, and you chucklefucks certainly aren’t helping.”

“Fuck off, Bro,” you sigh, rolling your eyes, but Dave retreats without another word, shoulders square and face blank.

Dirk hesitates, lingering in between the hall and the coffee table. He wrings his hands together, feet shifting like he’s not quite sure whether to stay or go. “He’s right, DS,” he says after a moment.

And you know, you really do, but you just. Can’t deal with it right now.

 

Bro’s mood doesn’t improve throughout the day. He doesn’t want to talk, doesn’t want to listen, and you find yourself growing smaller and smaller the longer time goes on.

In the end, you have to bite the bullet and needle him for a good twenty minutes before he agrees to carry you to your room. Dave’s room. You don’t know. You’re really tired of trying to figure it out.

He finally does it with a look that usually spells death for you, and you think you’d really like him better if he was wearing shades. You’ll ask Dirk for a pair. God, you hope he has spares.

Being carried like a wet bundle of grapes, held out in front of Bro like you’re a baby who pissed himself, is so fucking embarrassing, and you scowl the whole time, just to make sure he knows exactly how much you hate this.

“Then don’t ask next time,” is all he says before kicking open Dave’s door, dropping you on the floor, and absconding.

God, he’s such a fucking dick.

“Dude, what the fuck,” Dave says, and you look over at them, and almost regret your decision to come back.

Dirk and Dave are a tangle of limbs on the bed, Dave’s laptop between them, sharing headphones and watching videos. God you wish that were you. Ugh.

“Sorry,” you say weakly, fight extinguished. You pull your feet until you’re cross-legged. Drop your head. Maybe you’ll just pull a Bro and sit on the floor for the rest of the night. “I didn’t want to be out there right now.”

You hear bed covers shift, the sound of feet padding across the floor, ultralight, left foot first. Dave drops to a crouch by your side. “Nah, man. It’s cool. We can... It’s cool, okay? We’ll figure it out. You wanna watch Youtube? If we play it real quiet, Bro won’t hear. C’mon, we’ll make room, I promise.”

Your own voice shouldn’t be soothing, but maybe you’re programmed that way, maybe you’re just really, really fucking lonely. Whatever it is, you nod, pathetic, and Dave helps you up, lets you settle between them, and you fall asleep there, and you definitely aren’t sad, and you definitely don’t totally forget your shades, sitting on the bedside table, blinking green.

 

Chapter Text

You have lived in the 21st century for a week and a half, and honestly? You're kind of disappointed.

It's not that you don't like Dave's company, because you do. Davesprite, too. Getting to know both of them, watching the divergence of their personalities, how three years apart shaped them into disturbingly (yet fascinatingly) different people. It's great, really. They've both got very good, if somewhat fatalistic, senses of humor, and they tolerate all the ways in which you aren't particularly funny.

But still, you are unhappy.

And maybe that's just like you, to be so miserable when you are given a gift like this. When your friends are safe and alive and you have your brother twice over. And they're funny and good and wonderful, and they love you, and they accept you as their own bro.

Except, of course, they are not your bro.

And ain't that just the rub, the grind in your metaphorical and very physical gears. Your friends are safe, they are alive, and everyone's got a guardian.

Everyone but you and Roxy.

You don't know what you were expecting, when you saw your Sunday evening project horse sitting there in the living room the first time, hope fluttering in your stomach like so many butterflies. For him to come around the corner, perhaps. To be awake with you all on the rooftop, shades cracked and clothes a little rumpled, but very much alive.

You just wanted that chance, to know Your Dave Strider. To talk to him, tell him about yourself, tell him everything you know about. Well. You don't know. Everything, you guess.

You just wanted so, so badly.

But you didn't get that.

Instead, you got heat and noise and misery, the cacophony of horns honking, police sirens and car engines below and airplanes overhead. Instead, you are forced to deal with a reflection of yourself you weren't expecting to see, bigger and older and so easily someone you could be, if you had lived a different life.

You cannot stop Davesprite from the way he hovers protectively, from the way he forces this burden upon himself, but you can lessen the strain.

After all, you have plenty of practice dealing with versions of yourself you don't particularly like. What's one more?

And you do dislike him, in all the same ways you dislike yourself, and several more. There is a cruelty to his movements that you recognize, an indifference that terrifies you.

While you are confident in your intelligence and strength, you have never had particularly high self-esteem.

 

Davesprite falls asleep in his bed with Dave beside him and they are like mirrors of each other, heads lulled to the side, mouths slightly parted. One touches the other and they both grunt, roll over the opposite way. It'd be laughable, if you were that kind of person, but honestly it just makes you a little sad. You miss Lil Cal.

You have these moments often, when you are captive audience to your own brain. Where you don't want to (read: can't) sleep, so you sit and think and fuss and pace, and feel yourself start to spiral.

Dave's usually game to stay awake with you as long as he can, til he's slurring words and laughing at nothing. Til he drags you to bed, clings so tight that you're forced to finally find sleep for how bored you are, trapped against him (but you also kind of love it -- touch-starved much??).

There is something about nights like these that you cannot explain. It's an ache in your chest, a desire to escape, a craving for a feeling you cannot obtain.

You are restless, you always have been. It is far from your greatest fault.

And so you climb out the window, a rational thing to do, in your own apartment, go hand over hand, foothold to familiar foothold, until you're back on the roof.

It's something you haven't told Dave yet, not either of them. You're not lying, exactly. You don't necessarily leave the apartment. It's just that. That sometimes you need a minute. That sometimes, your own brain is so much that it cripples you, and you need to (have to) escape. And the only escape you're used to is the rooftop of an apartment building that was - or will be, or will never be - in the middle of the ocean.

So you climb up, tuck yourself at the base of the radio tower, and take off your shades.

Light floods through the city, late as it is, but up here, you can almost see the sky, smog reflecting the dull orange and yellow lights that come from below. Moisture clings to the air here, just like it did back home, and even under the cover of night, you feel it settle around you like a second, sticky skin.

You want to think Houston is beautiful. The truth is far more depressing.

"Not much to look at, is it?"

The hair on the back of your neck stands straight up and you jump to your feet in an instant, release your broken katana from your sylladex.

Stark blonde hair hits the light of the radio tower and Bro Strider stands before you, one hand in his pocket, the other holding a lit cigarette. "Hey."

You mentally kick yourself for losing track of your surroundings. He snuck up on you so soundly. Or maybe he was already there? Fuck, you're losing your touch.

And he's still standing there, still as anything, waiting for you to speak. You think. You wonder if you're that unnerving to everyone around you.

Anger curls up in the pit of your stomach like a viper, ready to strike. "What do you want."

He shrugs, takes a drag, holds it in a way you get never seen anyone hold a cigarette before. "Not to argue semantics," he drawls, blowing out smoke in a thick cloud, "but I was here first. Should be askin' you." His accent is stronger than yours or the Daves', rolls low on the Rs and comes from deep in his chest. You've got a few years yet before you can sound like that.

The smoke drifts over you before you can answer, smells earthy and a little skunky, stings your nose enough that your eyes water. That is. Not a cigarette. Okay. Well. Alright, then. "Are you seriously just up here smoking weed right now?"

Even shadeless his face is a blank slate, straight lines and thousand yard stare. But you know yourself, and Bro Strider is all micro-expressions, little pieces only you find meaning in, memorized moments from television and movies, a caricature of an Average Person, but ten times less sincere. The twitch of his lips speaks a thousand words. "Yup." He takes a hit, holds it and offers you the joint.

Your name is Dirk Strider, you are sixteen(ish) years old, and you have never been offered weed before.

"I'm sixteen," you say weakly.

He sighs out his nose, smoke pouring from his nostrils like a cartoon dragon. "I know."

You stare at him, sword limp at your side, and he stares back. A stalemate, neither party willing to cave.

"It's fine," he finally says, pulls it back. "If you wanna be a pussy about it."

"No, I -" you start, snap your mouth shut. What the fuck are you even doing? You don't know. You don't know. You mutter a soft curse and tuck away your sword.

Bro watches you silently and you wonder what he really thinks of you. There is practiced disinterest there, in the loose slope of his shoulders, the hunched curve of his spine. He has worse posture than Dave, Jesus. The two of you have been very purposefully distant, at least as far as you can be. He doesn't speak to you, and you don't speak to him. You think of his hand in yours, pulling him to his feet. How your skin burned on contact, calluses scraping against each other, the worn leather of his glove catching at your palm. He hadn't thanked you, had barely even glanced your way. You wonder if your existence embarrasses him the same way his is slowly eating away at you.

When you hold out your hand, it feels like defeat, but the alternative feels more so, and you carefully do not look at him when he passes you the joint, shapes it in your fingers so you're holding it the right way. You are not an idiot, nor a child, and you scoff at him, jerk away. You can do it on your own.

A stutter of air out his nose. He's laughing at you. Fuck him. You bring it to your lips, try not to be so aware of his eyes on you, and suck in.

It does not

go down smoothly.

You cough and splutter and he's actually smiling now, teeth flashing in the dim light, plucks it from your fingers before you toss it off the roof. "It's not a cigarette, kid."

"I know that," you snap, level a glare his way. Your other hand curls into a fist and you become acutely aware that you are still holding your shades, the edges digging into your palm.

Bro just takes another hit, looks you right in the eye, and you color red in useless shame, turn to stalk away across the roof. He's just trying to embarrass you, you know that. Rile you up, get under your skin. Hal was the same way.

God, you never thought you'd say it but you really fucking miss him. (And that had been the most miserable part of your return, reaching out for Hal, finding him missing, the program specs there but no where to be found. You may or may not still be obsessing over it.)

"Gets loud in there sometimes, doesn't it?" Bro calls after you, and you stutter to a halt.

When you turn around, he's regarding you carefully, a slight tilt to his head that spells hesitation, curiosity. You don't know what game he's playing. Because right now, it doesn't feel like any game at all.

You might regret what you're about to do. You might not. But there's no one here right now to tell you no, to tell you not to follow that insatiable need to know, and so you turn back, come to stand before him, face to face.

He's a good four inches taller than you, easily, hair not included. Guess you can look forward to another growth spurt. From the way he tips his head down to look at you, it's something he's used to, being the tallest person in a room.

"I can't sleep sometimes," you tell him, watch for any reaction at all. "I just keep thinking, and thinking, like my brain won't turn off, like there's so much more I could be doing than sleeping, so many things I could accomplish if I could just --" You cut yourself off, look down at your feet. "I don't know how to sleep here. In this city. In this world." And maybe it's almost fetishistic, to lay yourself bare for your own reflection, instead of someone who actually fucking cares about you. It's so depressingly stereotypical of you that you let loose a caustic laugh. "This is so fucking stupid."

Bro hums, and when he holds out the joint again, you take it, roll back through your memory to the movies you've seen, let Bro pantomime for you. Breathe in, hold, release.

A little smoke comes out your nose, and you give a small cough, but the rest filters smooth from your lungs, makes the air around you taste crisper in the aftermath.

"Better," he comments, not quite praise.

"It tastes like shit," you manage.

"Yeah," he sighs as you pass it back. "S'least three years old, now. Probably do some good to text my dealer." He pauses, thinks about it. "I hope he didn't die when the meteor hit. Be a damn shame."

"Dave said you cut the meteor in half," you say, because you don't know what else you're supposed to do.

"Twice as likely, then," he says, and it's more emotion than you've ever heard, real disappointment leaking through the cracks. You are horrified, and horrifying fascinated.

You feel like you should say something reassuring. What the fuck do you say when someone's weed dealer gets blown up by a meteor? You are extremely uncomfortable with this entire situation. "I mean, you came back to life, right?"

"Got me there, junior. Might be hope for us, yet." He gives you one more hit. You don't choke this time, and when you're done, he drops the charred remains, squashes them under his heel. "You want something to eat?" As if on cue, your stomach grows in agreement. His mouth turns up a pixel fraction. "Cool."

Bro does not wait for you to leave, turns to the side and disappears in a flash, and you stand on the rooftop, feeling bare and exposed, and more confused than you were before. You put your shades back on, if for no other reason than the comfort it gives you.

When you step back into the apartment, Bro is nowhere to be seen, and you tread carefully across the room, stand in the kitchen because you don't know where else to be. The only light comes from his computer, a blue glow that rebounds off the walls in a diamond shaped refraction.

Bro reappears in a blink, a movement you can almost follow, faster than you've ever been able to step, and it almost startles your sword loose from your sylladex all over again.

"Chill," he monotones. He's holding two cans of orange soda, and he shoves one of them into your hands.

You almost drop it in surprise when the cold metal touches your bare skin, but Bro either doesn't notice or doesn't care, cracks his open and drinks half of it in one go.

"I didn't see anything in the fridge last time we cleaned it," you say finally.

"Mini-fridge," he shrugs. He's gone and back again, and this time he has two instant noodle cups that look like what you, Dave, and DS have been eating for the past week.

Your fingers curl in the edge of the counter. "Does Dave know you have a mini-fridge?" It comes out meaner than you want it to, or maybe it doesn't, and you shouldn't really be the one to talk. You had never used your fridge for anything but storage, either.

He doesn't even blink, flipping on the tap. "Had to keep him on his toes. Don't know why he even bothered checking that often, anyway."

You feel that anxiety again, that specific, cruel tightness in your chest. You can see it, now. How the parts of yourself that seemed so innocent before -- the genuine drive to better your friends, to make them stronger -- reflected upon someone else, come across so dangerously. Your grasp on the counter tightens as you start to feel sick. "That's." Your voice wavers. "That's fucked up. You know that's fucked up, right?"

Bro just shrugs again, shoves both cups in the microwave.

You feel the effects hitting you now, your brain's constant, but errant chatter becoming more like a distant echo. All you can focus on now is how messed up this entire situation is. How laughable this moment in time really is.

"You're not a good person," you tell him, and feel calm. Feel panicked. Feel like you're going to pass out.

Bro is quiet for a long, long moment. He watches the microwave, the cups inside going round and round. You don't think he heard you, at first. Or he's ignoring you. But then he looks at you, and his eyes are darker than yours, glowing in the dim light. His gaze is steady, his expression blank. When he speaks, it's the ghost of a whisper, an exhalation on a held breath. "I know."

 

You eat in perfect silence, sitting on the edge of the futon, shaking with exhaustion and an undercurrent of rage. You don't know what else to say.

If Bro's thinking at all about what you said, he doesn't mention it, slurps his noodles beside you.

When you get up to retreat to your/Dave's room, he stops you, a hand laid ever so gently on your wrist. "Hey."

You pause, press your lips together. You're so deeply uncomfortable, so stressed, all you want is to hide.

But then he reaches up, left hand first, and pulls a sword out of his sylladex.

Your heart slams in your chest, blood rushing in your ears. You stumble back, go for your own.

"Shit, no, c'mon, it's not like that." A hand raised in surrender. He holds it out. "Here."

You stare at the sword.

Look at him.

Back at the sword.

He sighs heavy through his nose, drops his free hand on his knee, looks at you with such open exasperation you expect --

You don't know. Whatever kids in movies get when their parents are upset with them.

"Are you gonna fuckin' take it or not, kid?"

"My name is Dirk," you say, for lack of anything else.

His eyebrows skyrocket, and he looks younger like that, mouth slightly parted, eyes wide. "I," he chokes. "I know."

"Okay," you say.

"Okay." He offers the sword up to you again. And you realize it's your sword, or his sword, or both or neither. You know immediately that the blue cloth wrapped around the hilt is Roxy's. This is the sword she used to kill the Batterwitch.

"I don't want that," you say, voice strangled.

"Neither do I." He wiggles it at you. "Take it."

"No," you say forcefully.

He pinches his lips together, eyebrows slanting downward.

You imagine the two of you look ridiculous, you standing there like you want to run, him sitting there with his chin in one hand, a sword extended to you in the other.

"We can trade," he says. "I'll get yours fixed, you can borrow mine, at least have a functioning weapon."

"I don't know if it can be fixed," you blurt before you can stop yourself.

He quirks a brow. "Why not?"

"Dave cut it with Caledfwlch when he killed me."

That receives what is literally the most terrifying response you have ever seen. His face goes completely blank, like a statue, body still, voice flat. "What." It isn't a question.

"I had to --" You flex your hands, look around like it'll help you. You settle for folding your arms across your chest. "He cut off my head to kill Jack. It was the only way. The sword was collateral damage."

He takes that better than you thought he would, becomes softer, almost human again. Rubs at his eyes, pinches the bridge of his nose. "Okay. I... Alright. Neither of us want the sword." With the wave of his hand and the flash of a blade, the sword is gone. "We'll deal with it later, just. Just go to bed, kid."

You could collapse right there in relief, and drop your shoulders with a deep breath. "It's Dirk," you say softly.

He turns his head to look at you, and you think he almost looks amused like this, mouth curled up on one side, eyes drooped with exhaustion. "I'm not calling you that."

"It's my fucking name," you say.

"Yeah," he says, and there's the flash of crooked teeth again, "I know."

Chapter Text

GG: like i said its all just really fuzzy!
GG: im still having nightmares about johns planet blowing up and ive been talking to him every night.....
TG: well thats
TG: thats good
GG: oh davesprite its not that i didnt want to talk to you because i guess the you from that timeline died too
GG: its just......
GG: well you said some pretty sad things :( about our relationship
GG: and it made me think about them too
GG: and how even though i dont remember entirely it still makes me really sad that you feel that way
GG: or felt that way
TG: jade i told you i was just going through some shit okay
TG: im still going through some shit honestly i dont know how everyone else seems to have their shit on complete lockdown like this
TG: like everyone got into the panic room before me and closed the hatch and now im out here with the killer
TG: except the killer is my bro
TG: who honestly i dont even know what to do with right now
TG: he seems like
TG: i dunno
TG: not as terrible
TG: except in the ways that he still is of course
TG: and now hes worse in some others
GG: dave said that too :\
GG: about your brother being alive i mean
GG: and weird!! but he always seemed really weird to me anyway :p
TG: yeah shits just
TG: really confusing i guess i dont know
TG: im happy hes alive i think
GG: you think??
TG: well yeah
TG: because hes my brother and stuff and watching him die the first time was super fucked up
GG: yeah :( i thought you were dead too back then
GG: im glad i was wrong!
TG: yeah
TG: but its just you know like
TG: i dont know
TG: theres the whole thing with cal and whether or not he was really
TG: anyway it doesnt matter
TG: im sorry we all know our relationship was a shit show john as our witness we wont do it again and im ready to just try to keep living and be friends again
TG: if you want
GG: of course were friends!!!! but i feel like we havent really talked about all the stuff you said
TG: i was an asshole jade
TG: theres really not much else to say on the matter
TG: how high do i even need to reach forgiveness here
GG: well okay >:\
GG: i will give you a temporary pass because i dont remember and because you went out of your way to make a funny reference
GG: but when i do we are talking about this!!!!!
TG: okay okay cool whatever just tell me how shits going on hell murder island you going crazy yet
GG: well!! no not exactly!!!
GG: im actually really happy to have grandpa back because honestly it was really lonely before :(
GG: but jakes here now too!! and i think he was feeling kind of bummed out at first.......
GG: on account of his grandma version of me not existing yet and everything
GG: but i think the quiet is doing him some good
GG: or at least as much quiet as living with grandpa gives a person :p hes kind of silly!
TG: woah now harley rewind for a sec
TG: what do you mean yet
TG: your space bark dog powers working over there
TG: btw do you totally still have the ears
TG: i bet you do
GG: dave!!! you should know better than to ask a girl about her ears!!
GG: but the answer is yes
GG: and also, i dont know!
GG: its just this feeling i keep having.....
GG: that things arent settled yet
GG: The Game isnt finished yet
TG: harley youve said a lot of things to make me cry but this is by all accounts the worst
GG: oh i dont know if i mean that in a bad way
GG; at least not yet!
GG: i think we just need to be patient :)
TG: do you think
TG; like other things will come back
TG: or people i guess
GG: i hope so! rose said that roxys been kind of upset too......
GG: about her mom who is also rose
GG: i wonder if dirk feels the same way? :o
TG: idk honestly the dude is pretty impenetrable
TG: like emotionally i mean
TG: got hells of secrets up there in that brain who even knows
GG: :\
GG: you havent asked him have you?
TG: no
TG: i mean i thought about it
TG: well no i guess i havent actually
TG: what with dealing with the not dead bro and stuff
TG: hey that reminds me has your grandpa seemed off after coming back
GG: off how??
TG: like weird or different in any way
TG: like seizures or acting like hes about to die again
GG: hmmmm...........
GG: nope!!!!
GG: he seemed a little surprised to see jake i guess! and maybe a little embarrassed because hes old and stuff i think
GG: we had to listen to him talk about his adventures when he was young for a couple hours hehe
GG: it only sucked a little though and anyway jake was having fun
GG: why? is your bro acting like that??? dave that sounds really serious!!
TG: no
TG: no hes fine and stuff i just
TG: its weird that theyre alive again
TG: i just keep waiting for the other shoe to drop
GG: well maybe thats your problem!!!
GG: theres nothing wrong you just keep expecting the worst to happen
GG: maybe you need to try and be more positive!!
TG: right
TG hey jade im gonna go
TG: shower calls and all
TG: try not to peek with your dog vision
GG: dave please
GG: there are plenty other things i could see with my dog vision first!
TG: wow that feels so hella rude
GG: but its not actually working either :(
GG: i just have the feeling about the stuff i already said
TG: okay well try not to have any feelings about me in the shower okay
GG: strider!!!!!!!!!!!! >:oooo
TG: heh
TG: later jade

-- turntechGodhead [TG] ceased pestering gardenGnostic [GG] --

 

You take off your shades and sigh shakily, press your fingers into your eyes until you see stars.

It's the same shit all over again. God you're such a fuckup. You shouldn't have brought it up. You shouldn't have said anything.

You hear the front door click closed quietly and raise your head, squint in the light.

Bro's standing just inside the doorway, holding two bags in his hands from the CVS down the street. "Sup."

"Hey," you croak. Your throat betrays you, and you clear it, blink a few times. "Where the fuck did you go? Woke up all alone this morning, cold and afraid, worried you fucking died of a heart attack in the shower, or slipped on the soap and bumped your noggin. Or whatever. I don't know. What's in the bag?" You kinda lost your train of thought there, and you're not feeling good enough to care.

Totally shocking, Bro doesn't answer. He toes off his shoes, leaves them by the door, and crosses the room in mismatched socks. You don't know where he even found a blue sock in this place. That's a mystery for another time. "Was just picking up a few things. Almost outta soap, anyway, and figured the stash took a pretty major hit the past few weeks."

You can't stop your heart picking up a bit. He knows about the stash of instant noodles shoved deep in your closet. But he doesn't sound mad, just matter-of-fact, and you're kind of in the middle of wallowing right now, so who cares? "Okay," is all you can muster.

He pauses, then, setting the bags by the sink. When he turns back around, his expression is unreadable, new shades borrowed from Dirk masking any and all feeling he had left to bare to you. "What crawled up your ass and died?"

Wow. Eloquent, as always.

"Nothing," you say, instead of everything. You push the heels of your hands into your eyes again, grind at them. "Can't a guy just have a bad fucking day?"

He shrugs, leans up against the counter. "Kinda seems like you've been having a bad fuckin' day every day since we came back."

"No shit," you snap, drop your hands, palms up. You're so tired. You're so fucking done with this horseshit. "Can you please just leave me the fuck alone for like five damn minutes? Can anybody?"

You lose it, just for a second.

"Yes, I'm having a shitty day! I'm so fucking tired of this stupid futon, but I can't sleep in my bed because I feel like Dave has more claim over it than I do, because he's the real Dave and I'm not, and because I really want Dirk to like me, even though I shouldn't care because he's just another version of you who hasn't figured out how much I suck yet. My friends don't really want to talk to me, because they'd rather talk to Dave, and I'm not even mad about it!"

You're shouting now.

"Even worse, my ex-girlfriend doesn't remember we dated because it happened in a different reality that wasn't even technically a timeline, so she doesn't understand why we broke up, or why she'd even have feelings for me in the first place! My skin is the wrong color! My hair is the wrong color! I'm barely even Dave anymore and no one seems to care, and worst of all, I can't even do anything about it because my legs don't work, and I can't do anything on my own!" Your face is burning, your eyes stinging, and the apartment is perfectly, deadly still. You can't breathe, your nose is clogged, and you want to burrow into the blankets and die there.

Bro is a rock, immovable, arms crossed over his chest, face blank and pose casual.

You drag your shades back over your eyes, try to hide the way your hands are starting to shake. "It doesn't matter. Can you just - can you take me to the bathroom? I told Jade I was going to shower."

Bro doesn't acknowledge you spoke and you don't even care anymore. You curl yourself up, as small as you can go, and tuck your head between your knees.

Not a single sound comes from anywhere. Dirk and Dave must still be on the roof. You told them you wanted to be alone. Now you're not so sure.

You flinch when the futon shifts, a sudden weight dipping down that you weren't expecting.

"Hey." It comes so soft, low, like he's trying not to frighten a deer, that you almost can't believe it came from your Bro. But you'd know his voice anywhere, could pick it up in a crowd of a hundred, maybe a million people. "Dave, look at me."

And you do, because you've never been good at saying no, not to anyone, but especially not to him.

He doesn't sacrifice for you, keeps his shades on, hat pulled low over his head. He looks the way he's supposed to like this, and you almost feel a little better. You think he's going to say something, tongue darting out to lick his lips. But he hesitates (and it's something he taught you never to do, don't hesitate, don't give your enemy any openings, never hesitate for a moment), and instead, shifts, rolls a hand over to reveal his offering.

And it's a little apple juice, in the bottle instead of the box because you like them better, and they stay cooler longer. You choke on a laugh. This is so dumb.

You take it from him, don't open it, just hold it, and he sits there with you, gives you a minute to compose yourself.

"Sorry," you say, embarrassed, scrubbing at your eyes. You feel hot with shame. It's not like he even knows much about your friends, you think. He probably doesn't even care.

"You are the real Dave," he says finally, and it's monotone, but earnest. He pauses, clarifies, "To me. Doesn't matter what you think. Don't change the facts, not one bit."

And that just.

Means everything to you.

And it shouldn't, because it's kind of a mediocre thing to say, especially considering all the shit he's put you through, but the bar is real low right now, and there's not a huge line of people ready to test it. You don't say thank you, because it sounds cheesy, and Bro doesn't say anything at all, but he sits with you, turns on the TV so neither of you have to talk.

It is almost, almost, ALMOST enough to make you feel better, at least for a moment.

 

Dave and Dirk do come down, not much later, and you can see apprehension spread through Dave's entire body as soon as he sees Bro sitting there.

Bro, for his part, doesn't even look their way, eyes set firmly on the horseshit on before you. You think he's doing it on purpose.

"Hey, DS, we're gonna watch a movie with John," Dave says, and you know he's testing the waters. You cool?  "Wanna come?"

You do. You absolutely do. There is almost nothing in this world you'd find more appealing than sitting awkwardly with your Bro who is trying to make you feel better. Like you said, the bar is real, REAL low.

"Yeah," you say, and then louder, "Fucking yes please. If Bro's up to carry me?" It's your little sorry, sorry you're running away. And maybe also just a little bit of you poking the bear. Curiosity. You wonder who you get that from.

Bro sighs out his nose, looks heavenward. "Fine. Sure."

The way he moves still makes you flinch, so much faster than you, still leaves you chasing his after image.

Bro picks you up and this time, it's not nearly as embarrassing, yet somehow, so much worse. He hefts you under his arm like a football, and you squawk in dismay to find yourself jostled like a sport metaphor.

"Why do I feel like I've been carried like this before," you mutter.

"Used to have to catch you if I wanted to bathe you,' Bro says, an answer you weren't expecting. "It's like you were trying to set the world record for Texas's smelliest toddler."

Dirk lets out a breathy laugh in front of you, and you're pretty sure you and Dave turn bright red at the same time.

"That is bullshit," Dave says, but you can tell he's unsure. "That's straight up defamation and I am going to call my lawyer and have him sue you."

"Pretty sure I got pictures somewhere," Bro says, and yeah, there is no way he is not being a shithead right now.

"No fucking way," you say.

"Can I see them?" Dirk asks.

You and Dave look at him in betrayed horror.

He lifts his hands up in a placating manner. "It's for science."

"Fuck you!" Dave says, but there's a smile starting there at the corner of his mouth.

Bro doesn't answer, lets out a stutter of air from his nose, and you only panic briefly when he turns into the bathroom instead of your room.

"Hey man, what the fuck?"

"Told your girlfriend you were showering, right?" He leans over, flips the tap, and you writhe in his grasp. Damn him and his stupid arm strength. "You need one. You smell like shit."

"Fuck you, she's my ex!" you grunt, pushing at him now, trying wiggle free.

Dave is actually laughing now, a monotone, "Hahaha oh my god," that's so much more irritating from the outside. "Dude, just take a shower, we can wait for you to finish."

"Judas!" You try rolling. Nothing works. "I'm gonna fucking punch you, dude, I'm so serious right now, this is bullshit."

"Yeah, yeah," Bro says, but his voice is warm, is almost something close to affection. He sticks his hand under the water, seems satisfied by what he finds. "You want me to strip you buck naked too, or are you a big enough boy to do that yourself?"

Dave, in the hallway, screeches between his teeth, and you see Dirk steer him into your room as Bro kicks the door shut behind him.

"No!" you yelp, elbowing his stomach. What is he made out of, rocks??

"Alright, alright." He sets you down on the closed lid of the toilet, leans back against the door.

All at once it's too quiet. You can hear Dave howling from across the hall. The steady beat of the water against the cubicle. The room is starting to heat up, condensation building up under your shades. You count the lines of grout between the tiles. Think about what Jade said. The Game isn't done with you. Sburb isn't done with you. Yet. She said yet. Your insides twist in knots.

"You cool?" Bro asks, voice soft.

You let out a shuddering breath, fingers curled into the fabric of your sweatpants. "Yeah," you mumble, and you're not sure if you mean it. "Yeah, I'm cool."

"Well." An intake of breath. A pause. "Message me, then. When you're done."

You look at him, raise an eyebrow. "You want me to pester you?" He never lets you pester him.

His mouth twitches. "Yeah, sure. Whatever, bro."

"Okay," you say weakly. Rub at your eyes, just pull off your shades because they're fogging up like crazy anyway. "Thanks," you add. "For uh. You know."

Bro nods, flexes his hands. "Yup." And then he's gone in a flash, somehow locked the door behind him.

You realize, as you shift to pull your shirt over your head, that there's something written on the mirror. You laugh, and then laugh again, and you definitely aren't crying at all, and definitely not because of the now dripping image of Hella Jeff scribbled shittily in the condensation.

Chapter Text

It's not that you don't like Dirk.

Because you do. And it comes to you easily. So, so easily. You accept him into your life with less struggle than anything you've ever done before, this smaller, less intimidating version of your brother. It's like there's something programmed into you, that you cannot physically (or emotionally, Jesus Christ) help. You see the dude and have to bare your deepest, most intimidate thoughts.

So the problem isn't that you don't like him.

You don't even really mind that he doesn't sleep like a normal person, that behind his shades he hides circles deep enough to bruise. You don't mind that he gets so absorbed in his work that he ignores you for hours sometimes, or that he hunches in the corner like a gremlin, muttering to himself while he untangles wires, or spins screws into place, or whatever fucked up shit he does as a hobby. Who are you to judge?

You're only just barely miffed at the definition of his arms, that he gave himself his first and only tattoo (you would die for that tattoo), and that he has such little interest in the actual flavor of food, that he'll just kind of eat whatever you hand him, and thank you for it (the first time you handed him a banana will haunt you for the rest of your life).

The problem isn't even that he looks like your Bro, or is Bro, anyway, because Bro is alive now, and you can see the differences between them as starkly as you can see the similarities, and you know that Bro would never be so desperate for your approval, or could even smile half as much. God, he really is an oven of a cuddler, even if you have to trick him into it (dude's got hangups, who doesn't).

Sure, maybe he's a little jumpy, quick to draw his sword on a guy, and maybe that makes you scream sometimes, but you do genuinely like spending time with him. Even if you catch him staring at his shades for uniquely long periods of time, or that his only two bathing habits are "I forgot and it's been a week" or spending so much time in the shower that the water has long gone cold when your turn rolls around.

You're definitely not still mad about the time you woke up and he was sitting on the computer desk, head in his hands, reeking of weed. You don't even know where he found weed. You don't even know if he knows how to smoke weed. You haven't thought of a creative way to ask him about it.

The real problem is, start to finish,

You cannot stop thinking about cutting off his head.

 

It haunts you at night when you watch him pace, and plagues your dreams when you fall asleep. You feel like a creep when you wake up and check to make sure he's still there, that his head is still in the right place. Of course it is, you watched Jane fix him, it shouldn't bother you this much.

You cuddle up to him when you watch videos and try not to think about how there's no scar across his throat, no indication it ever happened at all. He hasn't even brought it up once, has shown exactly zero hesitation in trusting your place beside him.

But it makes you cringe when he stretches his arms up, tilts his neck to the side with a sickening pop that seems to bother no one but you. You suck in air between your teeth if he rolls his head back too far to look at you. You want to beg him to stop when he curls himself up in his sleep so it's bent at a weird angle.

And it's not that you want to do it again, because you definitely definitely definitely don't, it's just.

You can't stop thinking about it.

You cannot stop thinking about your sword, slicing through his neck like butter, sharp as anything, the way his blood sprayed across your cape and soaked into your shirt (at least you're wearing red, at least you can't see it), the sensation of his dead body, loose and heavy in your arms, the way you cradled his head so delicately, still warm in your hands, like holding it the wrong way would squish it like a grape.

You've never actually killed another human being before.

The worst part is (start to finish), it was one of the easiest things you've ever done. You didn't even hesitate (and you shouldn't, don't ever hesitate), just swung your metaphorical bat like a baseball all star during the season finale. Or whatever. It was like second nature, the placement of your feet, surging forward, the bend of your elbow and the weight of your sword, two-handed, in your grasp.

You feel sick.

You wish you could talk to Karkat about it. Or Terezi, because at least she would kinda crossways get it. But you can't, because they're not here.

Rose thinks you should tell him.

You think she's fucking nuts.

TG: have you ever had to kill someone rose
TG: no everyone else got the easy way out they just had to murder a bunch of monsters filled with goo and oil or whatever that spit out weird rock gushers
TG: meanwhile im over here in the killer club
TG: just me myself and i
TG: not even davesprite is invited this is a one man party of three
TG: one to do the deed one to catch the head and the other to cradle his dead fucking body to my chest while i try not to puke
TG: i can still smell it did i tell you that
TG: some of that shit definitely went up my nose and it didnt make it back into his body when johns hot mom fixed him
TG: hell never be complete again because i fucking snorted some of his life essence
TG: like a hot hollywood celeb at a rap party
TG: jonesing for a fix bc the hard works all done and all thats left is to let fucking loose
TG: except the wrap party is also a cult meeting where you snort your family members blood
TT: You can't keep calling Jane "John's hot mom".
TG; am i wrong
TG: and is that all youre taking away from this
TT: No, on both accounts. I just think it's interesting that you're so heavily focused on this one act. You let Jade watch you die and didn't say a word to her about it, nor to me or John.
TG: yeah because it wasnt her fault and it had to happen in order for shit to progress
TG: thats the problem with time travel rose i keep telling yall but no one is listening
TT: Hmm. That sure is some stuff you said about it not being someone else's fault.
TG: okay see i get what youre trying to do here but it doesnt apply because i didnt actually have to do it
TG: it wasnt like i knew it was the only way
TG: it was like
TG: like
TG: okay imagine youve been given a job and the ad says one thing
TG: like show up at our restaurant in a pizza costume be our new pizza dancing sign boy
TG: but then you get there and its a james bond movie and you look through the scope and see your fiancee on the the side of the scope but also shes right behind you at the same time saying take the shot
TG: and you do even though it goes against everything you have ever said or stood for
TT: It's an interesting analogy, I'll say that.
TG: did i tell you hes still dragging around that fucking sword
TG: all broken and shit like it is
TG: would it be rude of me to throw it away and get him a new one
TT: I'll admit I don't know him well enough to make a judgement call on his behalf, but I will say from personal experience that I highly discourage it.
TG: what why
TT: There's most certainly a reason he's held onto it, Dave.
TT: Perhaps it holds special meaning to him in some way.
TT: A gift from the guardian he never met, or something similar.
TG: no way he calls it the legendary piece of shit
TG: far as i can tell its the same sword bro has
TG: jesus did bros sword even come back it was really stuck on johns planet last i checked
TT: Roxy used it to kill Betty Crocker in the final battle, but it was not in her inventory upon arriving here.
TT: She, similarly, did not manage to remove it from the carapace.
TT: Ironically, it was quite stuck in her sternum.
TG: ugh okay so we can bump up the killer count to me and roxy
TG: and even then i dont know if that counts because she was a bad guy and you have to defeat those anyway
TG: also the not a human thing
TG: but trolls are also people so
TG: idk
TT: One might argue that perhaps you were, in a way, attempting to defeat your own brand of "bad guy".
TG: who dirk
TG: no way hes pretty much harmless
TG: at least as far as hurting anyone on our side i mean hes a big ol softy
TG: i guess barring the emotional trauma side of things which you know not really any of your business
TG: shit bananas insane fighter though lol dude is literally not afraid of death if hes even one percent sure that death wont be heroic or just
TG: in retrospect thats a little fucked up
TT: I was speaking about his alternate universe double, of course.
TT: I can call him our father, if you like.
TG: i do fucking not like thank you very much
TG: and i mean yeah hes like
TG: kinda shitty
TG: to a point
TG: it feels a little contrived
TG: calling him a bad guy
TG: at least in the sense that were discussing here
TT: You don't think he falls under the category?
TG: no its more like
TG: idk bad guy in this sense of the word implies a kind of irredeemable evil
TG: and i dont know if i believe that
TT: You don't believe your brother is capable of being evil? Not even under the influence of the puppet we shalln't speak into existence?
TG: no i think that i believe
TG: well i dont know what i believe anymore
TG: i definitely believe shallnt isnt a word
TT: It is.
TG: okay it totally isnt but i also kinda dont care
TG: but it feels wrong to call him evil
TG: before the final battle dirk and i had this big long discussion about bro and all the shit that went down my whole life
TG: you know like you do when you meet your alternate ectosideways clone parent
TT: Of course.
TG: and how he feels like hes struggled all his life with trying to be a good person
TG: and working to make the right decisions
TG: and i dont know if bro ever did because well
TG: i mean obviously ive never asked but it kinda seems like he didnt
TG: and before i thought
TG: i thought that line was a lot clearer in the sand than maybe it actually is
TG: see i dont know if i believe that a human can be completely evil
TG: once again in the context were using here
TT: You're wondering if killing Dirk, despite his quite literal permission and, in fact, suggestion, makes you responsible for some part in the idea of evil.
TT: Do you feel evil, Dave?
TG: no
TG: well
TG: i dont feel good about it
TT: .......................
TG: rose a million times i cannot fucking tell him any of this
TT: Have you considered telling your brother? Or Dave?
TG: nah i dont think davesprite would care tbh hes a little wrapped up in not being a bird and his whole thing with jade
TT: There's a thing with Jade?
TG: see if he didnt tell you i certainly fucking cant
TT: My cross-timeline brother that you refer to hasn't deemed to pester me as of yet.
TT: If I am being honest I find myself a little hurt. Perhaps you could consider telling him to check in?
TT: It would be reassuring, if nothing else. I know Roxy would love to meet him.
TG: yeah idk about that hes been kind of
TG: going through some shit
TG: ill bring it up though i swear
TT: Alright, thank you.
TT: Now, about your Bro.
TG: okay we didnt need to circle back on this
TG: i cannot tell bro that ive been pseudo-fantasizing about cutting off the head of his alternate universe clone
TT: The fact that you refer to it as fantasizing is not even the most fascinating part of this entire car crash of a conversation.
TG: rose thems just the facts alright you do not tell a guy that you keep thinking about cutting off his head and you definitely dont tell him that you are questioning whether it was really the right thing to do
TG: and before you mention bro again i would just like to remind you this is the man who kept swords in the fridge and as far as i can tell based on dirks general neuroses actually fucking loves puppets as like
TG: a hobby
TT: Dave, I think perhaps it is time you evaluated whether or not your continued existence in the apartment is healthy for you.
TT: You cannot live the rest of your life tiptoeing around him.
TT: I don't know everything, but I do know that continuing to allow the kind of trauma you suffered to fester will ultimately lead to your downfall.
TG: yeah and im sure youve been real big on talking to your mom and patching things right up
TT: ........
TG: hey shit i didnt mean that rose im sorry i didnt mean that
TG: i know its hard
TG: i dont know how to talk to him either
TG; i never thought id have the chance and now that i do well
TG: i dont know what to say
TT: Yes.
TT: Yes I find myself in a similar situation.
TT: I think I'd like to go now, Dave, if that's alright with you.
TG: yeah
TG; yeah its cool
TG: sorry
TG: again
TT: I know, Dave. It's alright.
TG: kay later i guess
TT: Goodnight, Dave.

-- tentacleTherapist [TT] ceased pestering turntechGodhead [TG] --

 

You do think about what Rose said. At least as much as you ever think about anything she says. It's not really like you two were especially good at being close on the meteor, not in either timeline (as far as you can tell, it's just you and Davesprite who remember things with perfect clarity). But she's been your friend for years, and you trust her. You just cannot fucking find a way to bring it up, not to anybody.

You try with Dave-Not-Actually-a-Sprite, first. He at least cared enough about you to come back and change your fate, dooming himself in the process (you wonder, errantly, if he's still doomed, or if his continued existence is doomed enough already). You figure maybe he'll at least listen to you before he calls you a freak. And he's kind of you, anyway, so the percentage of success seems higher.

Of course, it's hard to get him alone. He spends most of his time in the living room, harassing Bro, and you gotta say, kid's got some major fucking balls. You wonder if dooming yourself just does that to a guy. Maybe he's just braver than you.

But Bro's been acting more normal lately, disappearing into the ether whenever you enter a room, and minding his own fucking business. Without the traps waiting for you, you're starting to think he might be attempting actual goddamn manners. Or, he's finally lost it. The latter seems more likely.

"Hey," you say, flopping next to Dave. You narrowly miss The Spot, and your ass thanks you. "Can I talk to you?"

Dave paused the game he was playing as soon as you spoke, but he hesitates now, eyeing you suspiciously behind his shades. You stare. He stares back. "Well," he sighs, handing you a controller, "you're already fuckin' here."

He's playing Mad Snacks Yo III, which came out in your absence but ported itself to Bro's Xbox like a gift from the gods of shitty video games. You wonder if that's you, now.

"So I know you weren't really around for the final battle," you start, and know immediately that it's the wrong thing to say.

"I... was," he says, slowly. Winces. "Well, 33.333 repeating percent of me was, anyway."

"Yeah," you say, but you already don't want to talk about it. That's really fucked up. "Kind of a bummer I never got to see your sick moves," you offer.

He drops his eyes, shrugs. "I wouldn't have wanted you to see me like that."

You remember tossing your dead body into the lava so Jade wouldn't have to see it. Ugh your entire set of lives is so morbid. "I get it. Still really brave, though."

He shrugs again. Shit, you're fucking floundering here. Somebody toss you a goddamn life ring. Life saver? Isn't that a candy? Whatever.

"So on the roof, I had to. Um. Well okay we were on Dirk's planet right, because I guess that's just where things had to happen? Terezi was there but not til later. Anyway the Jacks got a hold of Dirk and I had to... Uhhhh." Wow, there's really no way to say this.

Davesprite, by merit of being you, and familiar with your own personal brand of horseshit, is not amused. "Can you just spit it out already? You're messing with my combo, dude."

Shit he's right. Your character lays like a limp noodle while his is currently glitching through fifteen layers of bullshit. He's still an asshole, though.

"Look, man, I'm really trying to lay my soul bare here. You're kinda harshing our combined mellow."

He snorts. "Please, we're about as harsh as marshmallows."

"Haha. Yeah."

It's silent for a long minute, nothing but the clicking of controllers and quiet curses under your breath.

"I had to -"

"Jade told me that Sburb isn't done with us yet and I don't know what that means," Davesprite blurts, before you can get the rest of your words out.

"Um," you say.

"Cool, glad I got that out. What's your thing?"

"Dude," you whisper, mortified.

He purses his lips, clicks faster. "I'm trying not to think about it." His character flips upside down so fast that his head twists through his spine. You shudder. He notices. "You cool?"

"Don't change the subject." You press your fingers to your temples, stop yourself before you pull a full dad motion. "What the fuck did she mean when she said that? What were you talking about?"

Dave looks uncomfortable, and you roll your eyes where he can't see. Jesus, yourself is so embarrassing. "I don't care about your shitty relationship." Pause. "Well I do, but only in the ways where it affects my relationship with her. My friendship, I mean."

"Ugh, shut up." He shoves you, but it's playful. You stare at the freckles on his arm. Your arm. Ugh, weird. "Look, man, if I knew, I'd tell you. But I'm not a game construct anymore. And she didn't really tell me anything. We were talking about baby grandpa being depressed his grandma's dead or some shit, and she said, and I quote," he pitches his voice up, and it's so surprisingly similar to the goofy tone she uses that it actually makes you a little uncomfortable, "'I think he was feeling kind of bummed out at first, on account of his grandma version of me not existing yet and everything', end quote." He shifts, pulls one of his feet so it's tucked close under his leg. "It really freaked me out. I highly doubt Grannysmith Jade is the only surprise we'd have to deal with."

"Apple reference, nice," you say, and offer him a bump.

He takes it. "Thanks. I really thought it was kinda reaching."

"Reaching for an apple pun."

"Hell yeah." He coughs, glances at you, then away. "So like. Listen... If Grandma Harley does come back -"

"It's English, I think. Jake's last name."

Roll of the eyes. "Whatever. If she comes back, other people could. Could come back. From the dead, I mean. Or maybe into existence at all." He glances around, like he's just now noticing something missing. "Where's Dirk?"

You feel a little smug, and definitely way too proud. "Sleeping. Finally convinced him last night. Don't have the heart to wake him when he gets like that."

Dave hums. "How many days, this time?"

You grimace. Always the realist, this Dave. Can't enjoy anything for five seconds without poking a hole in your confidence balloon. "Three."

"Huh. Personal record's a week. At least as far as I we know."

"He's pretty dodgy," you confess. "I think he just doesn't want to freak me out. I know he used to balance being awake on Derse and Earth at the same time, but honestly, it's kinda fucking me up how he just. Goes like that."

He nods, like that makes sense, twists his controller around in his hand nervously. "I just think we should be prepared if. If maybe Dirk's Dave? Comes back?"

You pause to consider that. "I don't know if I can even visualize myself as an old dude."

Dave makes a fake gagging noise. "God, if that ever happens just kill me so I can avoid the further embarrassment."

"Only if you kill me first."

He snorts a laugh. "What did you want to tell me? Before I so rudely interrupted?"

And you want to say it, you do.

Say it.

I can't stop thinking about cutting off Dirk's head.

Say it.

I keep thinking about how easy it was to cut off Dirk's head and I can't stop wondering if that makes me a bad person.

C'mon, just say it.

Did I make the right decision?

What you finally say is, "Does it bother you that Bro is back?"

He drops his controller, stares at you blankly. "Um."

"Because it's kind of fucking me up how chill you seem to be."

Dave's face darkens, eyebrows pulling low, mouth turned down. "I am not chill."

"Oh really?" you drawl, and can't help the way it comes out, spiteful and maybe a little cruel. "Because far as I can tell, you've been spending near every night buddied up with him like it ain't even a problem."

He shrugs helplessly. "He's just. I don't know. It's kind of pathetic." He pauses the game, drops his eyes down to his lap. "I want him to be a better person. Like, I really, REALLY want him to be. I feel like if I got a second chance, then I should -" He looks at you, and it's a little jarring, seeing your own sadness reflected back at you. "I should be able to do something about it."

You stare at him and think, Is this really what I look like all the time? It can't possibly be, of course. He's got freckles dusting across his nose, in places you never have before. It makes you - him, fuck - look younger. "Isn't that the point though?" you mumble. "Of second a chance. To do something different?"

He raises his eyebrows at you, snorting softly. When he speaks, it's quiet, maybe a little irritated. "I am."

 

 So you don't tell him. It's kind of a bust, and has you questioning yourself more than ever. That leaves. Well. You don't know. Roxy saw Rose die, in the alternate timeline, but since she's the only other person who remembers everything aside from you, DS and John, you think it's probably unfair to unload on her. Also she's not actually your mom and you don't want it to get. Weird.

You could ask John, maybe, since he saw a lot of shit go down, but it's kind of a bummer subject and you're really, really happy with how things are going on that front. You don't have Karkat to bug, anymore, so it's back to constantly barraging John. He's okay with it though. Number one best friend spot is secure AF.

TT: Hey,
TT: Just realized you've probably never had a Doritos Locos Taco, and that's a crime against humanity I cannot physically stand for.

Dirk pestering you from the shower is such commonplace that you don't even jump now. Sometimes you get him and Dave confused though. Orange ass text. You're still not sure how he's using your handle at the same time as you.

TG: alright that sounds like a super made up thing you just said
TT: Google it, you fucking plebeian. You're gonna love it.

You do.

TG: holy fuck
TG: this is literally the most disgusting thing i can imagine and yet
TG: i have never wanted anything more in my entire life
TT: Had a feeling you might say that.
TG: wait werent humans extinct how tf do you know anything about them
TT: Historical documents purporting their use in classic human culture as a "dank snack" date back to centuries before our kind's final demise.
TG: what really
TT: No, Dave.
TT: I'm obviously fucking joking.
TT: They were featured at a somewhat obsessive length in your alternate self's movies. I wish I still had them to show you. I think you would have enjoyed them very much.
TG: so these things literally came out like a month and a half ago
TG: how am i supposed to trust theyre any fucking good
TT: You can't. But the memes are endless, and I have put a lot of work researching them in the past.
TT: Beyond everything else I've said, I also begged Jane to try one for me.
TG: did she go for that
TT: No, not even in the slightest.
TG: you know we can just go get some theres probably a taco bell not too far from here
TT: Yeah. I've seen them on Google Maps. There's nineteen within driving distance.
TT: I don't suppose they deliver?

Shit, Dave, way to shove your foot right into your own fucking mouth. Just what your agoraphobic future bro needs: to be reminded that he doesn't want to leave the house.

TG: well
TG: no
TG: god can you imagine though
TG: the raw and addictive power of being able to have fast food delivered to your house
TG: id never fucking leave again
TT: Heh.
TT: That certainly would be a novel concept, were someone to create such a powerful service.
TT: A shame, really.
TG: okay youre being cryptic so either this is a trait you genetically passed on to rose or you know some shit i dont
TT: Lettuce say,
TT: Perhaps both are true.
TG: dude did you just food pun me what are you a crockbert
TT: It's just the hazard of brain to shades power, Dave. Sometimes the translations can be a little off.
TG: you totally did it on purpose i know you did im goin to come in there and arrest you
TT: I think it is very possible that what you find will not be to your liking. And also, the door is locked.
TG: well fine
TG: ill forgive you for now but i wont forget this grave and egregious error of dad humor so easily
TT: I am already screenshotting this and sending it to Jane and Roxy in case of my future murder.

It's like all of your insides flip upside down at once, this ceaseless slamming of your heart in your ears, a tight, squirming feeling in your chest that leaves you a little breathless. Your palms start to sweat, your head feels light. Are you hyperventilating? You feel like you might be.

Orange text continues to flash across your eyes but you can't read it, suddenly all too aware of the calluses on your fingertips, and the scars that wind around your hands like cat scratches that haven't quite faded.

Get your shit together, you tell yourself, head in your hands. He's just dicking around. Everything is fine.

You think about the tufts of his hair, sticky with blood, clumped between your fingers, and shudder so hard you almost vomit.

You hear the water heater turn off with a heavy clunk, and purposefully loud footsteps crossing the hall before your door creaks open, ever so slowly.

"Hey," Dirk says, and you let all the air out of your lungs. You didn't even realize you weren't breathing. You know he's standing there, either completely or mostly nude.

You look up. Thank Christ, at least he put a towel on this time.

He looks sheepish, and a little like you, hair sopping wet, hanging in his eyes, shades pushed up on top of his head. There is concern there, in the wrinkle between his brow, the purse of his lips. God, he really does look so much like you.

Or you look like him, anyway.

"Sorry," you say, still hunkered in your computer chair. "Just got really caught up in this SBaHJ page."

He doesn't mention that the canvas is almost entirely blank, or that you'd started doodling a Dorito taco in the corner.

"Was just worried I'd said something to upset you," he says, and it's that hesitant voice, soft, like he isn't aware of the proper volume to use. "I know that sounds fucking idiotic, but my brain gets stuck on things like that. I'm trying not to apologize for it nearly as much." There is almost a zero percent chance that he doesn't notice something is totally up with you, but is too worried and emotionally constipated to mention it. God, this family blows at communicating.

"I think you're doing okay," you say, shrugging. Your head feels like your brain is trying to escape. One might say you're feeling a bit light-headed. "Haven't apologized to me once."

He scratches at his chest absently. You notice the variety of marks across his body and think about how he's been fighting his whole life for survival. Wonder if he ever thinks about that. "Sorry, then, if I did offend you," he says. And then, "Can you please stop staring at me? It's making me a little uncomfortable."

You let out a laugh. It comes out so earnest, so unexpected, so completely unlike him that you just can't help yourself. God, he's so weird.

"Okay," you say between giggles. You don't mention how hypocritical that is. "I am so sorry for daring to view your godly visage. Forgive me?"

He huffs, puts his hands on his hips. "It is clear that you are completely fine, and that I can leave to resume my ablutions in peace."

"Go in peace, then," you say, a little morbidly, and the eye roll he gives you is so magnificent, you warm from the inside out.

You are going to get him that Dorito Locos taco.

 

It's a shitty plan, really. You don't know why you're doing this. You don't even think you want a taco that bad. You certainly don't know if you're up to this task at all.

Which is, of course, why you leave Dave and Dirk in your room, sat on your bed, with a quiet "I've got this," all you say before you leave to accomplish The Task.

It could go very badly, you think, walking the way to the living room like you're giving the green mile her final bow. You keep your hand pressed to the wall like it can hide you, or do anything at all. It gives you some stability, anyway.

You're just asking him a question. It's just one little favor. He owes you that much.

Bro is lying on the futon, arm over his eyes, new shades curled in his other hand, which drags on the carpet beside his hat pile.

It infuriates you, a little, to see him like that, body lax, acting like he's got no cares in this fucking world.

You let that feeling build up in your chest, and find it at war with your desperate need to make sure he isn't dying again. Fuck you couldn't even get the katana out of his chest.

You wonder, hysterically, if he's got a scar. Holy shit you wonder if you've got a scar. You hadn't thought to check.

"If you're just gonna stand there and stare, I'd appreciate you do it somewhere else," he says, and you jump a foot in the air.

"Sorry," you say, fingers curling into the chipping paint of the hallway door.

He must not be expecting that, because you watch him inhale and hold it. Lift his arm up away from his eyes. Jesus, dude's got bags you could see from outer space. "Dave," he says softly.

And it's. It's not what you were expecting. You keep expecting him to be the same, and he keeps not doing that. You're so frustrated. So confused. "Hey," you say lamely. He stares and you realize he's waiting for you to speak. Fuck him, you're not that much of a conversation hog. Well maybe you are. You talk to yourself, more than anyone. And maybe doubly so now, what with Davesprite back in the picture. Okay you're doing it again.

"Okay so, hear me out, alright?" You pull out your phone, your visual aid, and recite as much of a speech as you managed to put together (which to be fair, wasn't much; "fuck this I'll wing it" is practically the meaning of your goddamn name).

"So there's this new thing, we only missed it by like a month, so there's no use writing to Game Bro about it, but Dirk said the other version of me - I mean obviously not the current other version, more like a future past version I guess - was obsessed with them, so it'd kind of be a sin for me not to try one? And it's not like we've been there recently, so it kind of seems like a crime not to visit, and I can't drive, obviously, because last time I was inside a human car I was thirteen, but Dirk still can't leave the house, not to mention Dave, kinda fucked up we never got him a wheelchair or something, right? And anyways it isn't far, it wouldn't even be a ten minute drive --"

He holds up a hand, stops you mid-sentence. "Dave," and his voice is a painful silencer, steady, patient. "What the fuck are you trying to ask me."

"I want a Doritos locos taco," you practically shout, and sound like a child for it.

He sits up, rubs at his eyes. "Alright. I have no idea what or where that is."

"Taco Bell," you say, quieter this time.

He looks at you, still clutching the door like you're about to slam it shut, and drags a hand through his hair, looks skyward. "Okay."

"Um. Okay...?"

He shoves his shades back on, replaces his hat with the closest one on the stack. It's red. It's very strange. "C'mon. I'll take you. Been meaning to get outta the house, anyway."

"Uh. Alright." It feels weird, putting your shoes on in the living room, like you're a kid getting ready for school all over again. You don't put on socks. You don't remember where they are.

Bro's loitering by the door, keys in hand, when you return from reporting the good news. He spins them between his thumb and pointer finger, back and forth, back and forth. It's been a long time since you've seen those keys. Oh my God he still has that shitty lanyard from fifth grade camp. You can't remember if the gesture was genuine or ironic. Holy fuck how embarrassing.

Dirk follows you out, hands still covered in oil from one of his projects. He wipes them on his pants. Well at least you know why he wears black. Gross. He reaches out a hand like he's going to stop you, touches your elbow lightly instead. "Pester me? If things get too weird, I mean." There is a good chance he'll pester you anyway. You don't mind too much, are used to it now.

"Yeah," you say, and can't stop the way your mouth curls up at the side. "Yeah, man."

"And bring me back a beefy nacho burrito, too," he adds, and okay, that's the thing he really wanted, because his eyes are super fucking serious, brows a severe, straight line.

"Okay, okay, don't carried away," you snicker, bump his shoulder with yours. "It's not my money we're spending."

"No shit," Bro calls from where he's leaning against the door jam, waiting for you.

Dirk looks at him in challenge, shades to shades, and completely serious he says, "Two beefy nacho burritos."

Bro does not bother replying, slips out the door before you and is already standing in front of the elevator by the time you get your shit together.

You hesitate. Bro never takes the elevator. You've seen him swing down the stairs like some kind of monkey on a jungle gym a thousand times over. You didn't even know what the elevator was for the first few years of your life.

He sighs through his nose, tilts his head towards the elevator. "You coming or not?"

"I don't know, are you gonna push me down the stairs if I press the button?" you snap, with a surprising amount of bite. Oh fuck. You said that out loud. Oh fuck.

His reaction is all of Dirk's exasperation, from the downward pull of his lip to the slight rise in his eyebrows. The fact that you can read it now, see the cracks in his mask, makes you more uncomfortable than you've ever been. "Jesus pantshitting Christ," is all he says. He elbows the button and then steps back as it opens, gives a gesture that clearly means, "after you."

You stare. He curtsies. You scowl.

This is just another game, you think, and you take the bait.

Here is what you expect will happen: you, darting forward, reaching for the open door. Him, grabbing you by the scruff of the neck, monotone voice, "did you think it would be that easy?"

Here is what does happen: you dart forward, a single step, faster than you used to be, and he doesn't move. He watches you, stares blankly as the doors to the elevator close with you inside. Your ride down is quiet, just the sound of your slightly uneven breath and the hum of machinery.

He meets you in the garage, exits the stairwell just as you're stepping out.

"Getting slow," you say, just to test the waters.

He scoffs. "Faster'n you. That performance inside the hall? Fucking abysmal."

"I was pausing for dramatic effect. Also, fuck you." You follow him towards his truck, and feel a surge of affection when you see it again, beat up and cloudy blue, the one thing from your childhood you love with precisely no irony at all. You grasp the door handle, press your cheek to the window, ignore how cool it is. You're so glad that Sburb returned it to you. You remember rides to the public pool, sitting in the back on the way home (you're not getting in the truck lookin' like a drowned cat), eating junk food (kid fucking watch the carpet, Christ, it costs an arm and a leg to clean this thing), hanging halfway out the window in the summer when the AC wasn't working. You threw up for the first time in this truck. There's still a stain left on the rug, you remember.

"Are you gonna start making out with the damn thing? Because I'm about to drive away and leave you here."

You try to hide the way you jump, frown at him through the window. "Can't a man reacquaint himself with the only love his young life has ever known? I was practically fucking raised in this truck. We have a special bond that no one will ever understand, and its continued existence is a testament to the strength of that bond. Not a single man, woman, or troll could get between me and this truck."

You swear, just for a moment, he almost smiles. "Okay, whatever. Just get the fuck in, already."

You jiggle the handle aggressively. "I will if you fucking unlock it."

"I am rolling my eyes, right now," he deadpans, leaning across the seats to let you in. "That's how absolutely fucking ridiculous you're being."

"I'm a kid, that's my fucking job." You crawl inside, marvel at how much easier it is now, half a foot taller and three years older. The inside smells a little musty, like old french fries and a bit of smoke. You remember that, too. How he never let you catch him, but you could smell it on him when he came inside, and you always wondered where he kept his cigarettes, because you never found any in the apartment.

"I thought you were supposed to be a god," he says conversationally.

"Well," you start, hesitate. You look at your feet. Yep, there's the puke stain. That's the good shit. "I don't know about any of that. Anymore, I mean."

"Sure look the part," Bro says, staring pointedly at your godtier garb.

And.

Okay, maybe he does have a point, you have been wearing it for almost a full month, but you've also been wearing it for three years. You kinda. Forgot about that.

Oh my God you're wearing a cape to a fucking Taco Bell.

"They're self-cleaning," you say, defensively.

"Uh-huh," he says, in a way that clearly means, "I have the grossest kid in the multiverse."

"I've been wearing them since I was thirteen," you say, and that literally startles a sound out of him that you've never heard before.

"Dave," he says, and you only barely hunch when he puts a hand behind your headrest, twisting around to back out of his parking space, "that's really fucking gross."

You force down a nervous laugh. "Yeah, I know."

Bro just hums, and you wonder if he can even see in this dim-ass garage with his shades on.

You don't talk for a few minutes, let him get out onto the road. It's barely noon and it's already heating up inside the cab, so you flick on the fans. A blast of hot air hits you both in the face and you curse in unison, scramble to turn the grates.

"Guess some things never change," he sighs, and turns the crank on the window instead.

"Yeah," you mumble. You realize that's not true, though. Not really. You don't know how to talk to him, anymore. Maybe you never did. Maybe you were always just filling the silence between you.

You glance at him, and when he doesn't seem to notice, eyes on the road, you stare openly. He seems the same as you remember, crooked nose, pointed eyebrows, stubble on his chin from a few days not shaving. You see a lot of Dirk in there, when you pick him apart, like the fractals of a mosaic. The sharp line of his jaw, the prominent Adam's apple. Thin eyelashes you see when he blinks, how he furrows his brow when he notices you staring -- ah, shit.

A hand comes up and mashes you right in the face, soft leather across your cheek, fingers in your nose. "Ain't anyone ever teach you staring's rude?"

"Guess I didn't have the best teacher," you sneer, shoving him away from you.

"Nah," he says, but he's chewing on his cheek now, the same way Dirk does when he's trying not to smile.

It's hard.

It's really, really hard for you.

This is the dude that really fucked up your childhood. Who you used to sword fight on the roof. Who tortured you with weird puppets. Who used to bathe you, who you used to build forts with. Who ground you into the pavement. Who drove you to the pool in the summer, who taught you to swim.

It's really, really hard.

You know what you said on the roof, and you mean it, you do. You hold a deep, genuine grudge against him, and you still want to ask him, every day, what the fuck.

But you also love him. And how can you not, the only guardian you've ever known, who taught you to speak, to play music and rap, who split a meteor in two for you. It makes your chest tight, makes your stomach churn. You are so, so deeply hurt by everything he's done, and you still love him.

You think about what Davesprite said. I want him to be a better person.

And you wonder.

And you wonder if you do, too.

His eyes flick to you behind his glasses and he huffs. It's weird, a little too earnest. "Stop fucking staring at me, kid. It's making me uncomfortable."

And you can't help snorting, because Jesus Christ. Your life is a sitcom. "Don't you think it's kind of fucked up that you haven't aged at all?" comes out instead of "sorry."

This time, when you reach a stop light, he does actually turn his head to look at you. Opens his mouth, closes it. Taps his fingers on the steering wheel. "I was dead, Dave."

"Yeah," you say. That's true. Guess you can't age if you're dead. "You missed three birthdays, too."

He sighs, puts his elbow on the sill and leans against his hand while you wait for the light. Downtown traffic blows. "You want me to buy you a cake?"

You consider that. It might be kind of funny, celebrating your birthday not only three years late, but with an additional four, almost five months tacked on. The pictures of your birthday in the spring would certain make for a laughable moment some time in the future. But maybe that's a bit much, even for you. "Nah," you say. "I'll stick with the tacos today."

"A'ight. Show me the picture again?"

You do.

He squints at it, frowns like it's taking all his concentration. "And you're sure it's real."

"Dirk is a connoisseur on all things Dave Strider," you say. Add, "Future Dave Strider, I mean."

"You keep saying that." He doesn't look at the stop light, but seems to know when it changes, anyway. Ugh, so weird. Your Bro is so weird. "I don't really know what it means."

"It's a long story," you say. "I kinda thought it was self-explanatory."

"Sure, if you like things that make no fucking sense," he sighs, and you're almost there now, practically vibrate in your seat.

"I kinda do," you say, picking at a small hole in the seat.

He smacks your little pizza hands like some kind of peripheral vision ninja. "Don't fuck with my car."

"Your car is a piece of shit," you grunt, rub at your hand and pout.

"Says the kid who was literally waxing poetic not ten minutes ago."

"It was supposed to be ironic," you lie, badly. "It's the only car I've ever been in, what the fuck else do I have for frame of reference?"

He thinks about that, drums a beat on the wheel with his thumbs. Bro drives like a lady in her nineties, hands at ten and two. "Bus," he offers, finally.

You blink. What. "What?"

"When you were a baby," he says, shrugs a little. "Couldn't afford a car back then. We took the bus loads of times."

You struggle to find something to say. You didn't know that. You didn't know a lot about him, you're finding out, and the whiplash it's giving you is seriously fucking with you. "Oh," you manage.

"I probably have an old Kodak somewhere," Bro says. He glances at you for a long moment, then away, pulls into the parking lot. "Things weren't always --" His hands flex, like he can't control them, and he curls them tight on the wheel. "Well. Anyways. Shit's fucked sideways now. Gotta make the best of it, I guess." He rolls the window back up, and only pauses when you're about to climb out of the car.

"What."

"Are you really going to wear the cape inside?"

Just for that, you tug on your tight little hood, and storm towards the building.

You are at least 30 percent sure that the high-pitched sound you hear behind your back is Bro, but you're almost too afraid to check, so you don't. Fuck him, he's the parental guardian here. Your disaster of an outfit is on his shoulders.

 

"Oh my God," you moan, mouth full.

Bro hums.

"Oh my fucking God," you say.

"Shut up," he says, and lettuce falls out of his mouth.

"We have to go back," you say, and your voice is so fucking serious. "Bro, we need to go back. I cannot physically stop myself from eating each and every one of these tacos."

He wrinkles his nose, takes another bite.

You smack him in the arm with your third wrapper. "Dude, I am so fucking serious right now. Dirk will literally skin me alive with that broken fucking sword and then you'll have my death on your hands, too, so we'll be sideways even, I guess. But Davesprite is gonna flip the fuck out either way and I'm worried if I don't bring him a taco he's one disappointment away from crying."

What he says is, "Christ, is he STILL carrying that thing around?"

"Yeah," you say, like it's obvious. And then, "How the fuck do you know?"

He shrugs, wipes orange dust across his mouth. "Spooked him on the roof."

"Haha, yeah, he's like that." You think about that for a minute. Dirk hasn't shown much inclination for interacting with Bro, beyond his initial arrival and the problems it caused. He hasn't said anything to you about it.

You remember, with perfect clarity, Dirk sitting on the computer desk, head in his hands, his clothes drenched in the cloying stench of weed.

"Did you fucking get Dirk high?" It comes out so much louder than you meant it to, and you spit Dorito crumbs all over his shirt.

Bro brushes them off absently, hooks a hand around the wheel as he pulls a U-turn. "Hardly. He had maybe two or three proper hits. Fast learner, though."

That's. That's the weirdest thing you've ever heard your bro say. "You never offered me weed," you say, and you're absolutely not pouting.

He snorts a little, chokes on another taco. "You were a little kid."

"I'm still a kid," you protest, softly. "Dude, he's impressionable. You can't just a kid high."

"He can make his own decisions," Bro says, and his voice is steady, gentle confidence. It's foreign, in that way. Bro has never been particularly genuine with you. "He was having a rough night."

"Most nights are rough nights," you admit, but you're a little hurt Dirk hasn't deigned to mention it to you.

"It's easy to get caught up in yourself," Bro says, so soft you almost miss it.

You think about ambushing Dave, the way he'd looked at you, irritation leaking through the cracks, how Dirk smiles with the left side of his mouth first.

"I keep thinking about cutting Dirk's head off," you blurt.

Bro slams on the break so hard your seatbelt strangles you, and the cars behind him lay on their horns. It's like he realized what he did before he completely stopped, starts up again and pulls off into a CVS parking garage immediately.

"Dude what the fuck?" you gripe, undo your belt and rub at your neck. Gag a little. "You could have fucking killed us!"

Bro isn't listening, or he is, and is ignoring you, wheel clutched in his hands, staring straight ahead.

"I'm serious, dude, that was really fucking dangerous, what if we had been in an intersection? I don't have time powers anymore, dawg, I can't bring you back if you die again. Someone could've rammed their bumper up our asses and we'd be crushed up like a bag of chips under a fat dude's ass."

"Dave," he says, deadly quiet.

"He probably didn't mean to sit down, y'know, but who's considerate enough to check, these days, anyway-"

"Dave," Bro snaps.

Your eyes drop to your lap. The garage is empty, a little dark. A light flickers by the emergency exit.

"I can't stop," you mumble, stare at your hands. They're orange, like Davesprite, like Dorito dust. "It's not like. Like an obsession, or anything. I think? And it's not like it feels good. Like I want to do it again, because I don't. But every time I close my eyes..." You curl your hands into fists. "I can still hear it. Fuck, I can still feel it." You laugh, a little hysterically. "Some of his blood went up my nose."

Bro takes a deep breath, but you keep going.

"And I can't fucking tell him, because whenever I try to explain, it sounds like I have a weird fetish, like hey, man, I know we've only known each other a month, but I keep thinking about what your decapitated head feels like in my hands."

Bro doesn't say anything to you, and when you look up, his face is blank, set in stone like so much granite, and you want to cry. Then he's moving, unbuckling his seatbelt, and you flatten yourself against the door, reach for your specibus without pause.

But he just opens the driver side, rolls out of the car, and you watch him come around towards you, choke on protests.

"Over," he commands, ripping your door open. You curl away from him, and he shoves you brusquely. "Dave, move it, now."

Confused, you scramble to the other side of the cab, press yourself into the space between the steering wheel and the window. "What the fuck," you whisper.

"I'm teaching you how to drive," he says simply, pulling the belt over his lap.

You let out a sound that is neither a laugh not a screech. "Now???"

"Yes." He leans over, ignores how you cringe, turns the key for you. "Look, here, you gotta put it in neutral first."

It's bizarre, what he's doing right now. He doesn't blink when you slowly unfold, doesn't gripe when you hesitate to follow his instructions. You go around the garage a few times, practically careen into a pole on three separate occasions (Bro swears between his teeth, lunges at the wheel with a startled yelp every time). At the point in which it's been too long and Dirk starts to message you, once then twice, then enough that you can't see in front of you, Bro plucks your glasses off your face and tucks them into his polo.

He makes you drive in circles until you can pull into a space and then back out appropriately (you still release the clutch too early sometimes), before he finally lets you out of the garage, guides you back to the Taco Bell. If you didn't know better, you'd think he was trying to cheer you up.

He's quiet in the drive thru, doesn't complain when you order five times as many tacos as originally promised, just throws his wallet into your lap.

It rolls open and you see one of your shitty selfies stuck in the bill fold. You... don't know how to feel about that.

He doesn't speak til you're waiting for your food, his feet up on the dashboard, hat skewed to the side after his acrobatics to keep you from killing yourself. "You should tell him," he says, like it's just that simple.

You swallow around the lump in your throat. "Yeah?"

"Mm," he says, nods. He still has your shades. "You'll feel better."

You squeeze the steering wheel, run a thumb over the ridges. Ten and two. Ten and two. "You think so? I feel like it's a really fucked up thing to say."

He shrugs. "He's a fucked up guy."

Well. You can't fault his logic.

"I'd want to know," he says so softly you jump. When you look at him, seat leaned back, you can see his eyes over the brim of his shades, expression as open as you've ever seen it. "If it was me," he clarifies. "I'd want to know."

You lick your lips, shift on your own. "Alright."

I'd want to know.

"Okay."

 

Dirk is pacing in the living room when you get home, and the look he gives you when you enter, sans shades and wielding tacos, is so unimpressed you're surprised he doesn't fucking ground you.

"Dave -" he starts.

"Guess who can officially sort of drive," you announce, eager to ignore the problem. "Sorry," you add, handing him the bag. "Bro decided we've mooched off rides long enough. Gave me a couple lessons."

Dirk doesn't look like he completely buys that, eyes narrowed behind shades, but he nods.
He's a little disappointed that he didn't get to see your first response, but you think Dave more than makes up for it, the way he shouts, "Holy FUCK," at the top of his lungs. When Bro finally makes it back in, smoke clinging to the back of his heels, you frown, but he just flips you off, takes four of your tacos, and disappears again.

"Driving lessons, huh," Dirk says, mouth curled down.

"Swear on the good book, bro," you say, hand raised in mock salute. "You should see me park."

He snorts, and Davesprite lets out another wail as he bites into the nacho burrito.

If it was me. I'd want to know.

Okay.

 

It takes a week for you to tell him. You spend the entire time agonizing, trying to find a way to word it so you don't sound like a freak. You fail, brutally. It is impossible for you to tell Dirk that you keep thinking about decapitating him without sounding like you've lost it.

And you do tell him, practically shouting down at him from across the bedroom where he sits on the floor.

He stares at you for a long moment, what can only be stunned silence. You fucked up. You shouldn't have said anything, it was such a stupid idea.

And then his vision slides right off you, like meat off bone, like his head off his shoulders. His gaze focuses on the window, which is now securely duct taped over where the hole had been before. "Did you..." His breath hitches in his th roat, and when he speaks next, his voice is low, thoughtful. "Did you want to do it again..?"

And you just,

You just literally do not know how to deal with that.

So you puke on the carpet.

It's not like you were expecting to puke, or had any sort of ammunition ready, but it all comes up at once, unbidden, and you retch, and retch again.

Dirk, for his part, just watches you, and that fire burns inside you, pent up frustration to the point of tears.

You laugh weakly. "See this? This is what I'm talking about. This is what I tried to tell Rose. I told her you either wouldn't get it and would think I'm a freak with a fetish and that I fantasize about killing you because I have dormant feelings about Bro's death that I haven't worked through yet. Or," you rasp, throat clogged, "you'd act like this." You wave a hand at just. All of him.

He shifts a little, puts down the robot arm and mini torch he was cradling. "Dave -"

"And why do you act like this? Like your life doesn't matter? Like it's all just some silly fucking game?"

The look he gives you is not entirely unfriendly, but it is colder than you are used to, amused like you're a little kid, playing around. "It isn't the first time I've gotten my head cut off to achieve the means to an end, Dave. I admit it wasn't the perfect solution, but it's not like we had many choices. The chance of an opening like that again was slim to none."

You can't help it. You laugh again. Rake your hands back through your hair. "See this? This is literally what I'm saying to you. You don't care about yourself, Dirk." You wave an arm before you, at the general. General Dirkness, that he is. Hunched over in the corner, turning gears again. "You're really fucked up, dude. You don't think maybe I care? You don't think maybe I was negatively fucking affected by killing my own brother?"

His neck shredding against your blade, his head in your arms, his mouth lax, his eyes rolled up --

You puke again and you let your legs buckle, let yourself fall, boneless, knee landing in a puddle of sick.

"Dave," he says, and this time it's gentle, laced with pity. He gets up, footsteps soft as anything, and comes to squat beside you, rubs your back soothingly. "I'm not going to need you to cut off my head again. Probably."

"You're a freak," you accuse.

"Yeah," he says, and tips up your head so he can smile at you, wipe the sick away from your mouth with a glove. "But you like me anyway."

You sit before him, kneeling in vomit, tired and desperate and begging for answers. "You don't think I'm weird, right?"

"For sorta wanting to cut off my head?" And he sees right through you, because of course he does. He doesn't even give the thought pause. "Nah."

"How am I supposed to know if it was right or not?" you ask. "Killing you to defeat Jack. Or English. Or whatever his name was. How do I know there wasn't another way?"

He thinks about it for a minute, taps a line of code against your face. "Because if it wasn't the right thing to do, I wouldn't have died."

You can't help the way you frown, how your eyebrows bunch up. Your chest clenches tight, your stomach rolls. "But that's not. That's not good justification."

"Well," he says instead, sounds thoughtful. His eyes look over the top of your head, flick from the posters on the wall to the window again. "Because we're not in a doomed timeline, Dave. We're here, aren't we? I'm here."

"What if this IS the doomed timeline?" you whisper, and it's all the fears you were too afraid to say, an entire existential crises in one sentence.

He sighs out his nose, drops down to sit next to you on the floor. "Okay." He shifts so that he's just out of your puke puddle. "I will pretend to play your game because I love you, but --"

Your head jerks up, mouth open. You probably look like a fucking clown. You definitely feel like one. "You love me?" You did not just shout that.

He blinks. Okay, maybe you did. "Um. Yeah...?"

"Haha. Oh man I." You turn red from your chest up to the roots of your hair. "No one's ever uh. I mean. Y'know. At least not while sober, anyway."

Dirk, if anything, seems to pale at this. "Oh," he chokes. "Alright."

Shit, better nip that in the bud right fucking now. "No, see, you're doing it again." You grab his hand, the one not covered in vomit. "It's okay. It's fine. Keep talking. You will pretend to play my doomed timeline game. Have you ever been in a doomed timeline?"

His smile is wry. "The entirety of my childhood was, on a technicality, a doomed timeline."

"Okay so far you are passing the basic requirements I set for this." You pull off his glove, turn his palm over.

He watches you play with his hand, running your thumb over the calluses, counting scars. It reminds you a lot of Bro. He doesn't stop you, so you keep doing it. You've never been good at sitting still. "Alright, so we live in a doomed timeline," he says. "What's the worst that can happen now? We won't be gods?"

"I don't know if I'm responsible enough to be a god," you shrug. He has a callus at the base of his thumb that you don't have, probably from the way he holds his tools. Haha gross. Okay, don't laugh. Don't tell him you were -- Well, just don't make that joke. "I kinda just like being Dave the guy."

"So the doomed timeline where we aren't gods is your perfect fantasy," he says, and you can hear his smile.

"Well it'd obviously be worse," you say, curl his fingers in. "In a doomed timeline, everyone dies." You press on his fingers, pop the joints one by one. "You'd catch on fire or explode." Pop. "Or roll off the roof." Crack. "Or I'd trip and fall and cut your head off." Pop.

"The likelihood of that last one seems a bit slim," he murmurs, eyes focused on your hands. Dirk is quiet a lot, when he's lost in thought or talking to his friends or listening to you ramble. But most of the time, you feel like he's quiet for you. Like he doesn't want to be a burden in your space, or take up too much room. You rarely see him silent because of you.

"That's the problem with timelines, bro." You roll his hand around, put it back on his knee. "Uncertainty makes it more likely."

Dirk hums, eyes still fixed on where your hand was linked to his. You wonder if he's lonely, if he misses his friends as much as you do. "I don't think this is a doomed timeline," he says, sudden enough to make you start. He smiles at you, thin and genuine. His lashes are pale like yours, and there are freckles that trace the line under his eyes.

Part of your brain remembers the way they rolled up in his head, shiny and orange like they didn't know he was dead yet. "Yeah?"

"Yeah," he says. He grabs your hand, turns it up. There's a scar at the curve of your thumb knuckle from when you broke a cup as a kid. "Not everything is perfect, and a lot of it sucks. It's not really what I was expecting when we were promised a new world. But I'm willing to. To figure it out with you." He presses the center of your palmaris tendon and your pinky and ring finger curl involuntarily. "And I'll try not to suggest you ever cut off my head again. But if you want to, I won't tell you no."

You let out a helpless giggle. "This is super fucked up."

"I know," he says, gives a breathy laugh. "I'm sorry."

"Thank you," you tell him, and you mean it.

You don't think you actually solved anything, and you definitely think you're going to wake up in a cold sweat later now that you know you're not the only person who thinks about you cutting off his head.

But still, for some reason, you feel a little better.

(And you think you love him, too.)

Chapter Text

It is May 22nd. You have existed here for one month, 9 days, and 12 hours, and your life is batshit insane.

You guess it could be worse. You've had your ups and downs, anyway.

Dave's been more sociable with you, like he finally noticed that maybe you were feeling a little isolated, out here on your futon island. It's been kinda strained since your talk the other day, when you brought up what Jade said. She's still a sore subject between the two of you, and it's a rift you don't know how to fix.

But he's trying, at least. He and Dirk have been playing Mad Snacks Yo with you a lot, even if Bro is on his computer or loitering in the kitchen. So you know he's serious about putting in the effort.

Dirk's great, even in all the ways he isn't, but you don't really mind. It's kind of funny, seeing a version of your brother with actual human flaws and emotions. Watching him slowly go through the entire Taco Bell menu is a trip; at this rate maybe he'll start growing some food preferences, after all. You feel a bit more welcome to chill, anyway.

But like anything in your life, there's a creeping feeling that's sinking low into your gut, that shit's about to go very, very sideways.

Y'see, Bro's been sleeping a lot more lately.

Since introducing Taco Bell back into your life last week, he's been fairly accommodating about the sudden increase in demand. He doesn't really complain about the gas, or that he's too busy to bother. Hell, most of the time he lets Dave tag along. If Dave is telling the truth, (and since you know yourself, you know he is) he's even been getting a couple weird, kind of fucked up driving lessons while they're at it (and Dirk wants to go, so very badly, and you can see the war on his face when the door closes, when he pauses for a moment too long before turning back to you with a look of defeat).

But it's like all the new activity is taking a lot out of him. He sleeps long past when you usually wake up, and you've caught him napping in the shower about three times since Saturday.

The extra sleep makes him cranky, makes him a little unsteady, and it feels like your first week back all over again. You don't know what it means. You just know it makes you nervous.

 

So it's May 22nd, 2012, and you wake up to someone’s fingers carding through your hair, hushed voices speaking above you. Your eyes snap open and the first person you see is Bro, already dressed, sitting on the coffee table, arms folded across his chest, mouth curled in displeasure. You shift a half fraction and his eyes move to you immediately. “Hey.”

You grunt, and a soft laugh echoes behind your head. Craning your neck back, you come face to face with Mom Lalonde. “Oh.”

She notices you and breaks into a sunny smile. “Hi, sweetheart!”

You look back at Bro, but he's giving you nothing, and then suddenly he's just not there anymore. That’s. So abnormally normal that it’s almost concerning. You kinda wish you could just flash step away right now. Lucky bastard.

Dave is there, hovering awkwardly. The look on his face makes it obvious that this was not at all his idea, and you two share a moment of panic from where he stands, pressing himself into the door frame like he wants to disappear.

You clearly aren’t getting help, so you push yourself up and look between Mom and now Rose, who you spot standing in the kitchen. Clear your throat. What the fuck. "Uhh. Hey. What’s up?”

What. The. Fuck.

"Good morning," Mom says, and she's all shining teeth and big pink eyes, pink cheeks, and staggeringly sweet perfume. It's a lot to take in. "It's so good to finally meet you! I've heard so much about you from Rose, and I know we've never met, but I've always wanted another kid, a boy and a girl you know? Although theoretically I have two of each now, though I'm unsure if an ectoplasmic clone from an alternate timeline really counts, however -"

"Mother, please don't crowd him," Rose says, and there is a look in her eye that means you are in twenty kinds of fucking trouble.

"Oh, Rosie, I wouldn't," she says, standing up and stepping away politely. "It's just the first time we've met, after all, and I've been so looking forward to meeting you. Both of you, I suppose."

"Mom," Rose tries again, and Mom bites her lip.

"I'll go find your dad, okay?" she murmurs, gives you a little pat on the back.

"Okay," you say, dumbfounded, and you and Dave watch her go with equally startled expressions.

Rose doesn't really breathe until after she leaves, shoulders slumping down, blowing her bangs out of her face.

"Don't you get tired of that?" Dave asks, wandering in and plopping down next to you, so that your shoulders are squished together. You jostle him, perturbed, but if anything, he just presses closer.

"She's trying," Rose says, weakly. "We discussed boundaries before we left, she just... Gets carried away, that's all." She crosses the room and wraps both of you in her arms without asking. You feel stilted, awkward, and pat at her back hesitantly. You haven't spoken in literal years. "I didn't know if you'd come back," she says as she pulls away, gives you a thin-lipped smile, squeezes your shoulders. "It would have been nice to hear from you."

Ouch. Yeah. You've been so focused on. Well. Other things. Yourself, you guess. Bro, maybe. You just kind of... forgot. Sort of. "I didn't think you'd care," you admit, and the way her face falls, eyebrows bunching up, mouth pursed, makes your insides writhe with guilt.

"You're my brother, Dave. We were friends for years."

Yeah. Were. You just hunch a little, shrug. "Yeah. Sorry. I'm sorry, Rose." And you are, of course you are. But it's hard, being the Other Dave, even if no one else seems to think so. Even if no one but John remembers you were friends for the past three years.

The look she gives you is a familiar brand of sadness, and she sighs, pats your cheek a little harshly. "It's done with, now. But next time, you better pester me first."

You give a half-hearted smile, shove at her hands. "Okay, okay, Jesus. What are you even doing here?"

She hesitates at that. "Well. It's a bit more complicated than I'd like."

"Mom didn't tell you, huh?" Dave says, and you think he's pretending not to be anxious, is probably hiding behind you, right now. Bastard.

Rose gives him a withering look and sits down hard on the mattress. "We're just not entirely sure what happened. Last week she got a phone call while we were out to brunch - don't roll your eyes - and she practically ran out of the diner. It was mortifying." She shrugs. "Next thing, she buys plane tickets and tells us we're going to 'visit your dad's for a little while' and now..." She spreads her fingers. "Here we are."

Huh. Weird.

"Huh," Dave says. "Weird."

"I assumed your brother called her," Rose says softly.

You make a face. "Fucking unlikely. I've never seen the dude call anyone for a reason that didn't involve food in my entire life."

"The principal called him that one time in first grade," Dave says. "When we drew him holding a sword for a project."

"Shit, yeah," you laugh. "They wanted to know why the fuck a kid even knew what a sword was. Oh my God, Bro had to be in his twenties, right? How did they take him seriously, Jesus."

"The two of you do not make the idea of meeting him properly at all inspiring," Rose monotones, mouth turned down at the corners. Ha, she looks like Dirk when she does that.

And oh, fuck.

"Hey, where's Dirk?"

Rose presses her lips together until they become a thin line. It's the kind of silence that you remember from pesterlogs, and not something you know how to parse in person.

Dave has no such dilemmas. He shrugs, nudges at you lightly in warning. "Mid-reunion with Roxy right now, probably. They apparently have a lot to talk about. Kicked me outta my room first thing in the goddamn morning." You glance over. He sure is still wearing his godtier gear.

Rose's eyes drop to the floor. "She really wanted to meet her, ah, version of me. She and Mom get along okay, she's been a great help with - with everything, these past few weeks. It's just that I..." Her eyebrows furrow. "I feel guilty, I suppose. And I know it's not my fault, of course we couldn't control the outcome of The Game, but. For them - for Roxy, and Dirk, and Jake, and maybe even Jane - oh it must be such a disappointment."

You hadn't really thought about it that much. I mean. You've been thinking about Dirk's Bro non-stop since Jade brought it up, wondering how the fuck that'll effect your dynamic, how Bro will take it. So maybe you have been thinking about it a little too much. Just. Not about how it'll effect everyone else.

You take Rose's hand in yours, level her with the kindest stare your shades can manage. "We'll deal with it together. It's not your fault."

She hugs you again and you let her, cross your hands over each other between her shoulder blades. Your eyes sting. Fuck, when's the last time someone hugged you?

"Wow, this is such an intimate emotional moment," Dave drawls. "It'd be such a shame if someone got jealous and inserted themselves without invitation."

You do not laugh when he throws his arms over both you, but you cannot stop a snort when he presses his lips to your head so hard he may as well be trying to maul you, pulling away with a loud smacking sound.

Rose gets a similar treatment, though she handles it with more grace, and you get a flash of bright white teeth as she releases you.

"Wow, these are some straight up serious fucking kid cuddles happenin' out here, and we're missing it all!" It's almost uncanny, how much she sounds like Momlonde, and you wish you could stop yourself from staring when you see her. It's just. You've never met Roxy before.

"Hi, mom," Dave says, like he can't stop himself, and then covers his face in such a display of embarrassment you, yourself, are mortified.

"However you're feeling, right now," Dirk says, shades on shades with you, "I am currently feeling that at approximately 200% the intensity. This is it, this is the nightmare goddamn scenario."

"Oh, I wouldn't say we've reached the absolute apex of humiliation until someone's called you Daddy," Rose says, smile bright and shark-like.

Dirk takes that about as well as you can imagine, face morphing in horror and disgust.

"Rose, don't tease Dirk! We just got all reunited-like, save it for after the family photo, at least." Roxy is beautiful, in all the ways Mom Lalonde is, with her big pink eyes and cheeks and a grin from ear to ear. "Hi, Dave. Again. And also, Dave! Rose told me about some of the wacky shit you were up to, sounded hells of fucked up."

You manage a wavering smile. "It wasn't all bad. And I'm me, again, anyway."

"You are you again, anyways." She nods, like it all makes sense, and you feel stilted, awkward, unable to talk to. Well. A normal person. Or at least as normal as it gets for you. "I don't really mind that Dave calls me mom, tbh. Like, if you also ended up doing that thing he does with the insane slippage of Freudian foot-to-mouth syndrome, Ro-Lal ain't blinkin' for a sec over here." She beams, and she's all soft face and rounded edges.

But of course, like all of you, she's batshit fucking insane, and it's something you don't realize until the precise moment she dive-bombs the three of you seated on the futon. "Say cheese, motherfuckers!" is about as much warning you get before Roxy has her phone up, camera out, snapping selfies like there's no tomorrow.

"This is stupid," you say, squinting as your shades are dislodged, and you attempt to find the camera in the sudden too bright light.

"Not nearly as stupid as it could be," is what Dirk says next to your head, and you don't even remember him sitting down, or moving at all. You don't flinch, and feel proud for it. He moves, lightning quick, and you cannot stop a laugh for the sudden realization that he's switched your shades with his.
It is, without a doubt, the weirdest day you've had so far. But you're smiling, easily more than you have in the past month.

 

Mom drives you and Bro to the hospital. Dirk offers to help at least carry you, but Mom Lalonde quite literally says “LOL” out loud and hefts you over her shoulder with one arm. Dave looks like he’s about to cry laughing, and you flip him off behind her back as she carries you out the door. You are never going to live this down.

You squish into the cab of the truck and feel a wave of nostalgia, childhood delight and an overwhelming calm.

Right up until they make you straddle the hump, the horrible little seat between Bro and Mom, though Bro doesn't protest when you shove yourself into his space, too afraid you'll be in the way of her driving if you put your legs on either side.

It's weird, seeing your brother as a passenger. You get a sense that he is aggravated, watching Mom adjust his mirrors all wrong, muttering to herself the entire time. Heh. Guess you know where you got that.

"Ready?" she says, when she's completely fucked everything up. You haven't seen those mirrors move in your entire life.

Bro sighs through his nose, puts his elbow on the window sill, and leans out as far from both of you as he can get.

Well. Guess he's just going to be like that, then.

Mom chats the whole way, asks you about your hobbies, calls Bro "Dirk", wants to know how your school is going.

You look over at Bro for that one. "Uhhh. I forgot."

Mom gets this wrinkle in her brow for a second. "What do you mean 'forgot'? Dirk! Have you not been helping them finish the rest of the homeschool year?"

"Forgot," Bro parrots, doesn't bother turning to look at either of you.

"Well," she huffs, squeezes the wheel. "I'll take a look, see if we can't get in there and get some of the lessons out of the way."

It's weird, it's very very weird, squished between the two adults who are, you guess, on some level your real actual parents, talking about going back to school, helping with homework like you didn't survive three years in a reality-bending video game. It feels normal. Laughably so, and it makes you feel that much more uneasy.

 

The first thing they do is get you a wheelchair. They ask why your legs don’t work, why you’ve got scrapes on your hands, why you didn't come in earlier.

You slipped during track, you tell them sarcastically. Look, man, taking a piss by yourself when your legs don't work is hard. Get off your back.

Mom plays the part of the worried parent, says it’s such a shock, she was devastated when you woke up one day and couldn’t walk, and she keeps talking and talking until they wave her away.

They can’t really explain it. Simple muscle degeneration from lack of use, they say.

Lack of existence, you mutter to Mom, and she squeezes your shoulders and gives you a bitter smile.

The second thing they do is test Bro for epilepsy, after you betray his trust and tell them about his seizures. The look he gives you would kill a lesser man.

They talk to him in another examination room for about twenty minutes before they let you in, and when they order blood tests, you see, for just a moment, the fear in Bro's eyes. He's not afraid of blood, never has been, but then, you've never met someone who enjoyed getting jabbed in the arm by a nervous med student.

Mom didn't seem shocked to hear about his seizures, sits in the chair next to his bed with her legs crossed. "Why didn't you go to a doctor sooner?" she hisses, after they've left. "Dirk, this is really fu-" She glances at you. "Fu-rickin' serious!"

"Didn't want to bother," he mutters, rubs at his eyes. "Doctors are a bunch of fuckin' quacks, they don't know what they're talking about."

"Uh, pretty sure it's their job to know what they're talking about," you say, wryly, and he grunts.

"Don't like doctors."

"Yeah," you scoff, "that's pretty fucking apparent in how long it took you to get me a goddamn wheelchair." For emphasis, you roll it back and forth.

"Language, both of you," Mom says.

Bro just rolls his eyes and then rolls away.

You sit in the hall with your mom while they do the big tests, scans and x-rays, shit you don't know what it is.

And holy fuck she is your mom, isn't she? Like, really. Wow.

"He'll be okay," she says, and sounds confident. "Dirk has always been a pretty tough guy. And not just in the pretend sense." She gives you an honest to god wink-and-a-nudge.

You have never heard anyone refer to Bro as anything but, and it feels weird. You just shrug, because your arms are already tired, and because you're more worried than you're willing to admit.

It's weird, though. All of this. Mom being here, waiting in a hospital for Bro. You haven't been to a hospital since you were a kid, the one and only time you tried to climb a tree like you'd seen on TV. Didn't pan out properly.

"Are you and Bro friends?" you ask her, because if anyone has dirt, it's gotta be someone who calls him by the Forbidden Name.

That seems to spook her a little, eyebrows up, eyes wide. She looks like you, a little. Dave, a lot. Her eyes drop to the floor, just like Rose. "We were," she says around a sigh. "When we were younger. Really good friends! Pretty much the only friend I had, honestly. Got me through my babysitting job plenty of times, even when I wasn't completely coherent." She laughs, soft, a little sad. "I don't think he was too proud of me, then. But he never abandoned me. Not until..." She trails off, eyes flicking to you and then away. "It doesn't matter. I had a lot on my plate, after Rose. I guess he must have, too."

You want to tell her about Cal. You don't know how much she knows already. You should tell her.

Tell her.

Tell her, come on, Dave, she should know.

You don't tell her.

"Cool," you say instead. "I didn't know he had any friends. It's reassuring, knowing he wasn't just out there alone all those years."

She gives you a smile that doesn't quite reach her eyes, and you feel like a fuck up.

All the tests they get results for today come back negative, and Bro looks annoyed and strung out by the end of it.

He seems confused, they say. He might have brain damage, they say. Did he have any accidents, they want to know.

He died, you think, but instead you shrug. Mom died too, and she’s fit as a fiddle. Ugh, yuck, put that one back in the box.

He gets a CT scan, but they can’t see anything on his brain, nothing to suggest trauma.

They ask (pressure) you about Bro’s past drug use, and you shrug again. He was a DJ when you were a baby, you don’t really know much about drugs. He’s probably taken uppers, how are you supposed to know what that means. Is that what DJs do? You've smelled weed on him, yeah, whose older brother doesn't smoke weed. He’s jumpy sometimes, but he’s always been like that. He’s not an addict. Probably.

You don’t mention the demon puppet thing, but maybe ripping him away so suddenly has fucked up your brother irreparably. Maybe there was something deeper there that you don't - can't - understand.

When they let him back in the room with you, he looks spent, and won’t speak to either of you.

They give him some anxiety meds and pain killers and tell you to keep an eye on him.

(Mom drives home again, with you in the passenger seat and Bro laying down in the back, arm over his eyes, shaking in fury.)

It feels a little like defeat, with no leads on Bro, and no questions answered regarding your legs, but it feels kinda good when you roll into the apartment all on your own. Your arms ache already, and you're so tired. But Dirk gives you a thumbs up and Dave actually pulls up his shades and gives a low whistle.

“Lookin’ good, birdbrain.”

“I’ll run over your toes,” you tell him, but you’re beaming.

Mom brings Bro in and the room is quiet as she gets him settled on the futon, fluffing his pillow and taking off his hat for him.

He only moves when she steps away, grabs her wrist, lightning fast. Dirk and Dave flinch, but you freeze, dumbfounded, curious.

“Yes, Dirk?” is all she says, and you think she sounds tired.

He just holds her there for a long, long moment. Dave looks pensive, a little nervous, but Rose looks like she’s about to burst a blood vessel.

But in the end, Bro just gives a shuddering sigh and whispers, “Thanks.”

And just like that, all the bad air evaporates.

“Oh, you silly man,” Mom sighs, and she smooths his hair back gently. When she kisses him on the forehead, you think Dave might have an aneurysm. You’re kind of just relieved it didn’t turn into a fight.

 

Sleeping conditions get weird, after that. The girls take the bedroom, which is no skin off your back, and the boys are kicked out into the hallway.

Which is all and good, right up until you get kicked off the futon, which not only peels the skin from your back, it proceeds to flaunt it by wearing it to your birthday party. You (sullenly) join Dirk and Dave in the hall. No one is sleeping with your dangerous, potentially epileptic brodad except for Mom.

The hall camp out lasts exactly as long as it takes for the door to the living room to close, and then Roxy and Rose drag you, Dirk, and Dave into the bedroom for a slumber party.

You fill each other in on missed time. Rose and Roxy have held down the fort, helping Mom stay dry, trying to patch shit up one awkward conversation at a time. Mom spends a lot of her time in her lab, like nothing happened, but they've moved all the booze out of the bar, put it in storage. They don't know what to do with it.

No word from the trolls at all, though the constellations are all there in the sky, and Rose and Dave share a look you don’t understand, and honestly don’t care to. Your experience with trolls was limited, and honestly? Fairly bad. You're pretty happy never to meet another troll again. Or be one, either.

"They figured out trans-galactic communication before, maybe they'll do it again," Dirk offers, with a little shrug. "Hell, if you want, Roxy 'n I could poke at it, see if we can't figure something out?"

Roxy nods vigorously. "Yeah, yeah! You just leave the smartypants science junk to us smartypants nerds, okay? We'll get ur trolls back in no time at all. Scout's honor."

"While I appreciate the thought," Rose says, pauses. "I hardly think it appropriate for something that benefits only Dave and I to become the main focus of your attention, especially given the current circumstances here."

Dave huffs. "Rose, we're fine, I keep tellin' you. Shit's going down smooth as buttermilk in this here house. Everything on lockdown."

"Yes," she says, and it's snarky passive-aggression, "you're right, Dave. We didn't just find out that your brother is having seizures, which you somehow failed to mention previously. And I definitely didn't find out until we got here that Dave's legs aren't working, either!"

"I don't really feel like that should be a surprise," you protest weakly. "John said Nanna Egbert is wheelbound too, it's not like it's a secret that being a sprite had some setbacks."

"Oh, and how could I forget." Rose rolls her eyes, and your stomach twists in knots. You're angry, you're embarrassed. You want this, whatever it is, to stop. "Nobody thought to even take you to a hospital! You could have been seriously injured this entire time, and he didn't even consider -"

Roxy puts a hand on her arm, shooshes her gently. "'S gonna be okay now, Rose. We're here, and we're gonna help fix whatever needs fixin'!"

"I don't need fixing," you say, agonized, but before she can reply, there's a heavy thud from the living room, followed by a loud curse and another thud.

Rose and Dave are up in a heartbeat, out of the room before you can blink.

Dirk and Roxy don't move at all, and Dirk, lounging next to you, leans over, drags you down into the blanket pile. "Roxy's only saying all that because she already yelled at me," he says softly.

"Okay," you say, just the tiniest bit miserable.

"I heard that, mister," Roxy says from the bed. She wiggles her hand at you until you take it, squeezes it once before letting go. "I'm sorry, Dave. I didn't mean to make it sound like you was broken or nothing."

"Davesprite," you say, and bite back a wince. "If it's easier for you, to differentiate between us. You can call me Davesprite."

She thinks about that for a minute, chin in her hands, mouth set in a frown. "Nah," she says, and she gives you a flash of sparkling white teeth. "I don't think I like that much at all."

You pinch your lips together, get ready to complain. You're not the real Dave, you're not even A Dave, really, not much anymore, but Dave and Rose are back.

Rose looks like she swallowed a lemon whole, and Dave is red from the neck up.

"What happened to you, Jesus Christ. Is Bro okay?" Did he have another seizure, you mean.

"They were," Rose starts, hesitates.

"Wrestling," Dave manages, voice high and strangled.

Roxy is starting turn pink at the ears, and rolling your head back, Dirk looks like he might pass out. "You mean, like --"

"Literal wrestling," Rose says, hand over her mouth, and suddenly she's laughing, snickers coming from between her fingers. "They were fighting over a blanket. Literally."

"Dave," Dirk chokes, "I changed my mind. About what I said before."

And that, for whatever reason, just makes Dave fucking lose it.

Your life is, literally, batshit insane.

Chapter Text

Your name is Bro Strider, and you are not a beloved storybook character. You're a dude who lived, a dude who died, and you're getting real fucking tired of people asking if you're okay.

The short answer is no.

The long answer is that you're not entirely sure what or how you feel. Angry, some days. Empty, others. Like a piece of you was carved out, like you lost something but you don't know what it is.

(An insane clown puppet, apparently.)

(Some days, you still miss him.)

 

It's a hot night. Really fucking hot. Houston is like that, Texas in general, but especially jammed up against the coast, heat that could scour the meat off your bones and air thick enough to spoon into your bowl like soup.

You lay on your futon, sweat stuck to the back of your neck, and you cannot sleep. You've been trying for approximately two hours, and you are having absolutely zero fucking luck.

It isn't always like this. You've been getting more than enough sleep, lately. An excess amount in the exact measurement of a metric shit ton, in fact.

But right now, lying with your arm curled under your head (Rox took your pillow), blanket pooled by your feet (you won that fight, if only by pity, and it's too hot, besides), you cannot fucking sleep.

And you should be able to, by all accounts. You've got "medication" now, not that that means anything, and your thoughts don't race, your brain doesn't scramble the information like a bad radio signal until everything's so jumbled up you can't think straight. You just. Can't sleep. You can hear the mumble of words through the wall, hear the hum of your broken fridge, the thrum of your heart in your ears, like the tick of a clock. Your foot shakes, your fingers flex, and you feel like dying again would be easier.

You become aware, very shortly, that Roxy is watching you. You can feel her eyes on your back, and it's a talent as much as a curse, the way it sends your skin crawling, this sensation you cannot stop, have never been able to shake.

"Dirk," she whispers. Jesus Christ. "Are you awake?" She knows you are. Lady's crazy smart, or was, last time you saw her. Maybe the alcohol fried some of her brain cells. Not that you have room to talk. Not to mention the fact that your jittering is probably keeping her up. You should just lay on the floor. Do push ups. Something.

"Yeah," you say. Leave me alone, you don't.

"Are you really okay with this?" she says, and you sigh out your nose, roll over. This again. She stares at you, in her pink silk cat pajamas, hair in perfect pin curls, and you soften, ever so slightly.

"S'fine. Nowhere else for you to sleep. Could still take the floor, if you wanted me to." You'd almost prefer it, at this point. You could probably get some work done down there, at least.

She makes a face in the dim light, punches up the pillow she stole from you. You don't care. You don't really need a pillow anyway. "You've been having seizures, Dirk. You're not sleeping on any kinda floor, not on my watch."

"If someone's gotta stop me from choking on vomit," you say, not too unkindly.

She reaches out and boops your nose. "Exactly."

You hum short agreement and goddamn, you're so fucking tired. Close your eyes, ignore how they burn under the lids.

You hear the click of her tongue on the top of her mouth as she opens it to speak. Here we fucking go. "You really should consider getting a proper bed."

You grunt. "A bed in the middle of the living room wouldn't exactly be efficient, Rox."

"Then move," she pushes.

"I don't -" you start, too mean, and you bite back on it, try to reign in your hair trigger aggression. Jesus, you're trying so fucking hard. "I like it here," you say instead.

"You're only saying that because you've never lived anywhere else," she tells you, and you hate that she's mostly right.

The problem is, you're stubborn, and you resent her for it, so you argue. "I used to have a bedroom, Rox, and then I adopted a meteor baby. And now it's his bedroom. It's my fucking penthouse suite, I'll do what I want with it."

"It's a shit hole," she says, amused.

"Not all of us can inherit a laboratory in the middle of the woods," you sneer.

"I didn't want --" She pinches her lips together, eyebrows bunching up. She looks so much like Dave. "I had to, Dirk. You know that."

"Yeah," you sigh, give a shaky breath. You know a lot of things. You know too many things, or maybe you don't know enough. Maybe the things you thought you knew were all wrong. "I know."

"They made it, though," she whispers, and her eyes glow with pride. She pauses, thinks about that. "Well, maybe they had a little bit of help."

"I'd say a helluva lot of help," you snort, happy to change the subject. "Otherwise, there wouldn't be a bunch of doubles runnin' around like our lives're a Saturday morning cartoon."

"Yeah," she says, thoughtful. "I'm still not sure how exactly that worked. Or even started? They call it --"

"The scratch," you say, remember heat that burned through your shoes, stung at your eyes, sweat pooling at the base of your neck, screeching metal, whispers in the dark, a sinister jester with jet black wings. You slam your eyes closed again.

"Dirk?"

Laughter, echoing across the back of your skull, be better, do better, push harder. Heat and misery. Green fire and barking dogs.

"Dirk!"

She touches your face and you grab her hand, hold it away from you as you breathe.

"I'm okay," you say, slowly, like that means anything. "I'm just." You're just tired. You feel like part of your soul has been scraped out through your eyeballs. You rub at them with the back of your hand. "I'm just tired."

"It's hard, being back," she whispers, and you think she sounds sad. "It's okay if you can't do it alone, Dirk."

"I can handle it," you say, even though you don't really want to. You won't show weakness. You can't. You don't know how.

"You very clearly can't," she says, and it's snarky, a little mean. "Dirk, you can't even handle yourself, how are you planning on taking care of three kids? Isn't that why I'm here?" The sweetness of her tone fades away into something harsh and throaty, the kind of Roxy who could kill a man to protect her young. That's fair, you can handle it.

What you say is, "You can't even handle your own alcohol dependency," and watch her deflate like a balloon.

You didn't mean that. Yes you did. You're kind of sorry. The world you grew up in carved you into an cruel, unkind person. The idea of apologizing makes your stomach curdle.

"You're right," she admits instead. Flicks you on the nose.

"As per fucking usual," you drawl. You wonder if the shame you feel leaks through the cracks. You think you're almost okay with that.

"I don't want to fight," she says, hand curling back in towards herself. Her mouth is a thin line, so naked without the signature black of her lipstick. It's almost foreign to you now.

"I know," you say. Struggle to finish.

Say sorry.

Say you're fucking sorry.

You're sorry.

"I need a drink." You are careful not to move too quickly, don't know if you're up for it, anyway. Maybe dealing with Dave has trained you this way, and you roll off the couch, back up to your feet in a beat.

"Fix me one," she says with a shitty smile, flopping her hand after you.

"No," you say, and she grins. You know fucking better than to keep alcohol in the house with Roxy here, but you grab two lukewarm sodas from the fridge and toss one at her, hide a smile when she fumbles to catch it, curses loudly.

She squints at it and you think maybe you should turn on a light, think about your poor fucking head, and decide against it.

"One of D-Stri's premium beloved orange sodas?" she gasps, all delight and false sincerity. "I'm honored!"

"Treasure it," you say, dropping down on the arm of your bed. "I ain't givin' you another if you drop that one."

"I wouldn't dream of it," she says, but she's beaming. You missed this. How easy it is, to be with her. To be yourself. Whoever the fuck that is, anymore. What do you know?

"I don't think I can do this by myself," she admits, and it's soft, softer than anything. "Rose is trying so hard for me, Dirk. She's just a kid, she shouldn't have to put up with. With my." Her lip quivers, and you reach over, crack her cola open for her.

"Drink," you say, gentle as you can. You hold your hand against hers.

"That's the problem," she sighs, but does what you tell her.

"I can't help you, Rox," you say, and it's true, and it hurts, just a little. "I don't know if I'll ever be ready for any of this, I never have been. But look at you. Look at how far you've come. You're here now, huh?"

"But I failed," she says, lip wobbling dangerously. "I died."

And damn, if that doesn't just fucking gut you. Roxy is the strongest gal you've ever met, has pretty much been your only friend for forever. She has no reason to be getting down on herself when your dumb ass is sitting right here.

"Hey," you say, and you take her hand with your own, the way you've seen a thousand times, like they do in movies, like you've seen Dave reach for Mini-You. "You're not the only one who died, okay? I bit it too, real fucking hard." And you're never going to be able to look at dogs the same way, not ever again. Ugh. Thank fuck Dave never asked for a pet. Kid was always more interested in dead things. Kind of fucked up, but you guess it worked out.

"You really suck at this," she sniffles.

"Yeah," you say around a sigh, carefully don't lean away as she puts her head on your shoulder. Your skin crawls at the contact. "Yeah, I know."

"I want to trust you again," she says, and you feel yourself freeze, feel your fingers turn to stone, your body go numb as dread floods through you like so much ice in the veins.

"You don't have to," you say, and it's mechanical to your ears, a fact, and nothing more. "I don't deserve it."

"I know," she says, pushes against you. "But I want to try. I want you to feel like you deserve it."

It's.

It's too much. The trust, this kindness, the emotional connection and how open you feel with her, how safe. It's like there's a piece of you that just shrivels up and dies to hear that, to know she's giving you so much when you deserve so little. You aren't worthy of second chances, not yet. Your cruelty is a part of you, settled around your shoulders like the weight of a King's heavy velvet cape. It defines you. It controls you.

And you realize, stiff as a mannequin on a bed you've had for thirteen years, that you are not in control.

It's too much.

So you flash away, halfway across the room, stumbling as you go, scrambling for your shoes. You feel panicked, heart picking up, thudding in your ears. It's like adrenaline, a fight-or-flight when there's nothing to face, no monster to defeat except the shadow of yourself.

"Where are you going," she asks, pure aggravation, soda slopped across her PJs, mouth open and eyebrows knit in disappointment.

It's too much.

"Roof," you say, and don't look back.

Chapter Text

GG: It hasn't been that terrible, really. It's kind of odd, getting used to sharing a room with myself!
GG: Or at least, as much as she is me, I suppose.
GG: You and Roxy know all about that now, I'm sure.
GG: Dad and Mr. Egbert are talking about a house expansion this summer, but they have to get a permit from the HOA, and I don't actually remember the last time I even visited the Dad Depot!
TT: But it is weird, right? Not sleeping in your own room.
GG: Yes :(
GG: I'm trying not to be too bothered by it. John sacrificed so much for so long, he deserves to at least sleep in his own bed.
GG: But I miss the privacy, and the way things were before.
GG: I know that's selfish, and I should be more grateful, it's just hard sometimes.
TT: I don't think that's selfish, Jane.
TT: I'm thankful every goddamn day I wake up and Dave's there beside me. But do I wish he'd stop kicking me in the balls in my sleep? Hell fucking yes.
TT: Do I think his sheets are kinda lame and totally miss my sweet setup? Read: hell fucking yes.
TT: You can miss what you don't have without spending every damn second moping about it day in and day out.
TT: I think it's really fucking awesome that you'd let John have the room, even if it's clearly hard for you, and the fact that you didn't bring it up til now is a testament to that fact.
GG: Well, shucks, buster! No need to lay on the flattery so hard!
TT: I'm a hard dude. I hardly know how to do anything else.
GG: >:B
GG: I should say, it isn't all bad. I make it sound worse than it is, and I'm at least familiar with Nanna, to a point.
GG: You might imagine we have some hobbies in common ;B
TT: Slow your very literal roll right there, Miss Crocker. This conversation is about to transmogrify into a discussion of sweets and cookery I can no longer enjoy given our lack of proximity to each other, and I cannot bear it.
TT: Neither emotionally, nor physically.
GG: Dave is still making fun of you for having no preference towards food, huh?
TT: To borrow your earlier phrase,
TT: Yes (insert a version of a frown emoji that would be appropriate in this context for me if you can).
GG: You can tell him you like sweets, Dirk. It's not the end of your masculinity to enjoy a treat once in awhile!
TT: No I know that.
TT: It's just. I don't know. I want him to think I'm cool, still. I think.
TT: I am aware of how silly that sounds.
GG: Hmm it is a little silly.
TT: Jane, you're breaking my heart over here.
GG: It's silly because you ARE cool, Dirk!
GG: Maybe not in the ways you previously thought, or in a way that you think matters at all. But you're a good friend, and I feel lucky every day to call you one of my own.
TT: Jane,
TT: You are a much better friend than I deserve. One might say, the best, even.
GG: I try to be! <3
GG: How's progress on your side? Any inklings towards venturing outdoors?
TT: Well.
TT: Yes and no.
TT: I offered to take Dave to the car when he and Rose's Mom went to the hospital, but was denied. I suppose technically that wouldn't have been a real venture, anyhow. The garage is underground, from what I have been told.
GG: I am certain it is the thought that counts.
TT: It felt lame.
GG: Sometimes feelings can be very lame, Dirk :( I should know all about that, and the mess I made during Sburb.
TT: Hey, but we fixed you right up, didn't we? No more possession, no more evil grandmother.
GG: I was speaking about the Juju, and our unfortunate rise to godtier.
TT: I wouldn't say unfortunate, entirely. Saved my bacon, didn't you?
TT: As for Juju speak. Well. You and I both have messes to clean up, there.
TT: But perhaps they can wait until we all settle in here, in whatever fucked up version of Earth we've found for ourselves.
TT: Speaking of, as the official heiress and soon to be CEO of the Crocker Corp, do you have any words for the press?
GG: Oh, I'm not quite ready for all that, I think.
GG: I'd like to be a kid a little while longer :B Dad and Nanna are going to help me manage until I turn eighteen.
TT: God that's great, Jane.
GG: It isn't official yet, of course. John's version of the Condesce didn't care much for Nanna, either.
GG: The deed and title currently belongs to one Mr. Jacob Harley.
TT: Ah.
GG: Jade's grandpa.
TT: I see the dilemma.
GG: :(
TT: We have to talk to him eventually, Jane.
GG: I know. But I don't want to :(
TT: Me neither.
TT: I mean, I do. We've been friends pretty much our whole lives, or at least your life from your perspective, and my life from mine. It's laughable that we cannot wrap our equally genius noggins around this conundrum.
TT: roxy thinks ur both dummies!!
GG: She is correct! We are! Cowardly dummies.
GG: Hi, Roxy :B
TT: She says hi.
TT: And I say, this is my phone, and if she wants to pester you, she can do it with her own. I could be using my shades instead, you know.
GG: She still owes me all the "sweet pix", do not let her forget, Strider.
TT: Wouldn't dream of it.
TT: We should really hook you up with Dave, too, he's a barrel of laughs when you get him going.
TT: Hook him up with your chum handle.
TT: I mean.
TT: Obviously.

"Jeeeezus, Dirk, you're a mess," Roxy laughs, snatching your phone and elbowing you simultaneously so that it flies from your grasp before you can stop her. "Let me handle this."

You ignore her, reaching for it desperately, because Christ, she's right, you are such a huge mess, you have to apologize, you have to make it clear what you meant or you'll die.

"Clam down, Strider," she says, and this time her voice is gentle, and the hand over yours is warm and small. "It's just a joke. She's not mad. You know she thinks the world of you."

"Yeah," you mumble, lean into her. You're still pouting, just a little. "I know."

You could just open pesterchum on your shades, log Roxy out and tell Jane to ignore her, but you don't really mind too much, kind of like the company.

The two of you sit curled up in the corner of the room, trying not to wake up the other three.

"They're cute when they're sleepin', right?" Roxy whispers. "Like, hella cute."

The Daves are sleeping back to back, both curled the opposite way like a fucked up Rorschach. Rose fell asleep stubbornly trying to beat the two of you, and failed. She sits slumped over on Dave's bed, legs criss-crossed, upper body clutching his pillow and drooling all over. Haha. You're kinda glad it's not yours. "Hella cute," you agree.

The front door slams closed hard enough to shake the floor, but the kids don't wake, and you're the only one who flinches so hard you jump to your feet.

Roxy looks up at you in that way she has, where you know she's thinking, "Seriously?"

"I'll just," you choke, flex your hands. Your sword is still broken. You don't know what's waiting for you. "I'm just going to check. For a second."

She gives you the human equivalent of a slashy face, and then shoos you off. "Go, then. I'll tell Janey we're getting ready for bed, anyway."

You are already halfway gone.

It only takes a second. Mom is sitting on the bed, cradling a Crush can and her phone, looking sour as a lemon, and Bro is nowhere to be seen. Well. Okay.

You don't have to do what you're about to do, but you do it anyway, because your self-esteem is low, but your narcissism is off the charts.

You use the kitchen window, ignore her exclamation, and you're hand over foot up the building before anyone can stop you.

And there he is, Bro, squatting on the edge of the roof like a gargoyle, spine like a C curve, staring at the streets below like they hold the answers.

"Bro," you say, voice low, stuck in your throat like phlegm. He doesn't turn. "Dirk," you try, louder.

Like some kind of horror movie, he rises to full height, ever so slowly, like each bit of unfolding is a mechanical process. You could probably design a more efficient android, studying the way this too tall man unfurls.

He glances back at you and lets out a long stream of air, and this time, when you smell smoke, it's definitely a cigarette. "Hey," he says, but his voice falters, and without his shades, you can see his pupils blown wide, can read the crease of his brow and the lines under his eyes.

You realize, absently, that this is your first time seeing panic on your face, from the outside.

"Uh," you say. You hesitate, then, and the space between you feels like a chasm. You are not emotionally equipped to deal with... with whatever this is. You should go back inside.

Go back inside, Dirk.

Dirk, you should go back inside.

You cross the roof because you are curious, and because you're not actually tired, and because it's you, on a carnal level, at the base of everything, genetically, this is you.

So you cross the roof and you stand next to him, feet touching the very edge of the verge, and you look at him.

Bro is 6 feet and 5 inches of douchebag, of this you are almost certain, with your eye for structure and the height disparity between you. But standing there, spine bowed and shoulders hunched, he looks smaller, more vulnerable.

"Are you," you start, stop. Go back inside. "Are you okay?"

"No," he says. Takes a long drag. "But I am real fuckin' tired of people asking me that question."

"Yeah," you say, feel a little lame. "But they're asking because they care about you."

He seems almost amused by that, tilts his head a fraction of an inch, mouth twisted in a sardonic half-smile. "You don't, though. Care about me."

Well. You weren't expecting that. "Not in the traditional sense, no," you admit, contrite. "But I care about the well-being of Dave, and I know how much you mean to him, and that matters to me."

He hums, flicks ashes off into the night.

"He does care about you, you know," you say, because it's true, and because you think maybe he needs to hear that. "Both of them."

"That's the problem," is what he says instead, and you're a little baffled when he tips his head back, presses the heels of his hands into his eyes. "I really need a fucking drink."

"Surprised you don't have a stash for that, too," you say, because the idea of drinking makes you even more uncomfortable than smoking.

He drops his hands, and the way he looks at you makes you want to crawl into a hole and die. "I did. But I can't keep alcohol in the house with the kids' mom here, Christ, kid."

"Yeah," you murmur, because you're surprised. Surprised that he knows about that, and that he cares enough to prevent it happening. "That's. That's really cool of you, man."

"She's my only friend," he offers, shrugs. Flick go the ashes. "I'm not really looking to live out a fantasy of mutually assured destruction here."

You ponder that. "You think she lets you get away with too much."

He sighs, pinches his nose with his free hand. "She's too forgiving, too eager to look past. Well. Most of the fucked up shit that happened. I'd say she believes in me too much, but that sounds really fucking lame."

But you know exactly how that feels, you know exactly what he means. You think about the kindness handed to you on a silver platter by Roxy, by Jane, and feel an ache in your chest. "Do you want to be forgiven?" you blurt, and try not to back down when he outright laughs at you.

"What is it with you kids and your fucked up questions?" he manages, dragging a hand down his face.

"Well, you could try fuckin' answering them, for starters," you say. Shrug.

Bro watches you a long moment, like he's debating something. You don't know what.

"You gonna offer me a cigarette next?" you snap, a little cruelly, because you don't like it when people stare at you. Especially not when that person is you.

He wrinkles his nose, stubs out the butt on the cement with his foot. "Fuck no. You're a kid, and smoking's a bad fucking habit you don't need."

You raise an eyebrow over your shades. "You gave me a joint last time."

"Weed ain't a highly addictive and damaging substance, it just makes you stupid for awhile," he snorts, but you think he's almost smiling. "If you want more weed, I'll give you more weed."

You hesitate. "I don't. I don't know."

"You might have to share with Dave, though," he adds, and yeah, that's definitely a smile curling at the corner of his mouth.

"You think he could handle that?" You're not really sure what Dave high would be like. Either hilarious, or really fucking depressing.

"Mm, hard to say, honestly." He pulls out another cigarette and you see that his hands shake, just a little. "Figure it'll either make his comics off the fucking chain hilarious, or he'll cry. He was always a sensitive kid."

"No thanks to you," you say dryly.

He nods, muffles a laugh. It's a little sad. "Yeah. He gets that from Rox."

"And you're cool with that? Getting him high when he doesn't really trust you."

"I didn't really think he'd want to at all," Bro says, and he sighs, sends a cloud of smoke up into the air that stings your eyes. "But he found out about our lil rendezvous and got hells of jealous. Figure I'd rather have him obtain weed from a reputable source, in the safety of his own home, than play out some antiquated teenage rebellion scene involving a shady grifter and a back alley that smells like piss."

"That might be the most mature thing you've ever said in recent history," you offer.

"Should watch me do the absolute shitshow worth of backlogged taxes I'm filing," he says, wry, a little exasperated. "Dave dragged the shit out of me for 'sounding like an old man'." The accuracy of his impression both unnerves and, well, impresses you.

You are reminded, very suddenly, that both of you fucking love puppets.

"I had a Cal," you blurt, and watch him go rigid before you, mouth slightly parted, cigarette between two fingers, eyes hooded mid-blink, face drained of color like marble, glowing in the ugly yellow street lights. You don't know why you said that. It has been heavily implied by both Dave and DS and pretty much everyone else that it's part of why his shit went sideways. Curiosity, maybe. A deep-seated cruelty based in fascination.

"He was empty, though," you keep going. "Not like. Like yours. But I know what it's like. To lose something you felt defined you."

Bro drags in air like he wasn't breathing, shoves the cigarette between his lips. "Yeah, uh. Yeah, losing my main man fucking sucks, I guess but. I, I don't -" He stutters and your anxiety turns your stomach in knots. "I don't know," he says weakly, shoulders slumping further. It's kind of a wonder his clothes don't just roll off him, the way his form curls and twists like water, fluid and weird and slouching.

"Sorry," you manage, so small your voice cracks.

Bro sighs, drops down into a crouch again, presses his hands over his eyes. "Don't apologize. It's not your fault."

"I'm not sure that's entirely true," you say, and mean it. "I've always felt partially at fault for any of my splinter selves, and regardless of outside influence, I am aware of my many character flaws."

"You shouldn't," he says, peeking at you comically from between his fingers. "I'm trying to own up to my own shit, here. I don't need help, and I don't think as an adult that letting you try to take on the burden of my own shit is very responsible."

"Well," you say. Shrug weakly. It's the only way you know how to be. "I wasn't really expecting to ever meet you, if I'm being frank."

"I thought you were Dirk," he says, and his voice is a low drawl and you feel yourself turn pink from the tip of your ears down to your toes.

"Fuck you!"

He wheezes a soft laugh, grinds the unfinished half of his cigarette into the verge. "C'mon, come with me."

You watch his retreating back and you are so fucking flabbergasted, so mortified. You just got dad joked by yourself. This is lame. You are so fucking lame.

But you follow him, skip to keep up with his loping pace, trot down the stairs in perfect harmony.

 

He takes you to the parking garage.

You've never seen the parking garage before. It still existed in your time, of course, made of metal and concrete beams, but being street level, you could never safely swim that far down. You have seen the pitted roof a hundred times over, have always wondered.

It's not much to look at, really. Low ceiling, dim lights. Two obvious exists, an emergency door. You don't feel proud of yourself, just underwhelmed.

Bro doesn't wait for you, halfway across the floor before you notice he's missing.

You have heard about The Truck. You've heard how much the clutch sticks when shifting gears, how the AC doesn't work, how Dave puked on the floor as a kid. You know it probably needs a fucking oil change, sitting here for three damn years.

"What are you doing?" you ask, because you don't remember Bro grabbing his keys, but he has them now, is climbing into the cab and adjusting his mirrors, muttering under his breath.

"Hmm. Thought I'd go for a drive." The careful way he regards you, one hand on the wheel, leg swinging outside the door, brings you back to the roof that night, him holding out a hand to you.

"Gets loud in there sometimes, doesn't it?"

He's offering you something. He is giving you an opportunity.

"I don't know," you say.

"That's fine," he shrugs. Spins the keys around his fingers.

But it isn't fine.

You don't want to be afraid anymore.

Hell, even Roxy can make it out and fucking about. You're embarrassed, to be crippled by something so simple.
Jane and Roxy would be disappointed to know you've fallen back into this loop of being harsh on yourself, but they're not here, and you stomp around the other side, yank the door open.

"I don't know how this is going to go," you tell him.

"That's okay," he says, and doesn't blink when you cringe away from him as he leans over, pulls a belt across your lap. "In this house, we buckle the fuck up."

"Why," you grouse, but he slaps your hands when you attempt to unbuckle. You hate feeling trapped.

"Kid, ain't you ever seen an after school special? Don't fucking test me on this I will lock you in there."

"I'd like to see you try," you protest, albeit weakly. You have seen movies. You know better than to argue with the person driving the giant blue death machine.

The look he gives you makes it very clear this is something he can, and will do, so you drop it, raise your hands in surrender.

"It's not that bad, at night," he says gently. "We're just gonna circle the block a few times, a'ight? Nothing you can't see from the roof."

"Why are you being so -" nice to me. You bite your cheek.

Bro sighs, backs up and lets the wheel roll beneath his fingers. "Because I'm fucking high. I don't know. Because I need outta this place. Take it or fucking leave it, I guess."
"You're a dick," you grunt, though you can't really be mad, because he's you, and you're also kind of a dick.

"I know that," he says, goes around the garage once, and you count one more emergency door, and a ramp that's locked. "Think you can handle this?" He pauses by the exit, looks at you, and it's weird, still, seeing your face unshaded, but older, nose crooked, scruff across the chin. At least you'll age well, you guess.

"I don't know," you say honestly, hunker down a little. "Are you really high?"

"Nah," he says, one hand draped over the wheel, the other on the stick. "Meds're just kicking in, I think."

"Kinda fucked up you were driving around unmedicated before, seems a little dangerous."

He hums, shrugs. "Didn't really think about it, honestly. Tacos were worth it, anyway."

Your entire stomach rattles as he rolls up the ramp onto the street, and suddenly your heart is in your throat. You can't do this. You can. You're not ready. You can do this.

According to your shades, the local time is 3:12 am, and the streets are mostly empty. Pavement is shaded in sallow gold, cars on the side of the road ranging from shiny new to dingy old. A few cars roll by while Bro sits there, and you can't tell if he's gauging your reaction, or just tired and thinking about going back upstairs to sleep.

"Houston ain't much to look at during the off hours," he sighs, and finally pulls onto the road. "But it's quiet, anyhow." You watch him unroll the window, don't flinch for the warm air that buffers your face.

He doesn't comment on the way you've sunk into your seat, or that you're pretty sure your heart is beating loud enough for both of you to hear. You stare up at the sparse trees lining the roads, taste the humidity in the air, and you feel sad.

You recognize a lot of the buildings, for sure. You're just used to seeing them under a million gallons of fucking water, dilapidated and crumbling.

You pass an empty billboard you'd know anywhere, the old ad for SBaHJ so pointedly missing, and you feel your chest tighten, your throat close up.

It's exactly what you feared. Not a trace of him. Not a single fragment of him anywhere.

You want your Dave so bad it hurts.

"Did you really know what the scratch was?" you murmur, when you've gone around for a second time. The sky is cloudless tonight, but that grey-brown smog clings like a film, and you can't see the stars.

Bro sighs so softly, drums his fingers across the wheel. "To a point. I could tell shit was going tits-up, I had this..." You can practically hear his teeth grind together. "I just knew it had to be done."

You get the very distinct feeling that if you don't change the subject, he's going to lose it.

"The only thing I know I like is orange soda and Jane's cupcakes and I don't want to tell Dave because it's really fucking lame."

Well.

Hadn't planned on that coming out.

"Jane like Jane Egbert?" Bro asks, and you think he sounds surprised.

"It's Crocker, actually."

"Mm. I don't think he'll - well okay he might, but you can mock him for literally only eating applesauce and pepperoni pizza for the first four years of his life, if you want. Ain't nothing wrong with sweets."

You bite your cheek. "He really ate just applesauce?"

"Hated baby food," Bro groans, and it's like you're talking to a normal person, who is also a dad. It's odd, but kind of charming. "He'd cry if I didn't fuckin give him his juice, and God I wish I was kidding, but nah, he was pretty much the fussiest baby in the world."

You don't remember a lot of being little. You're pretty sure most people don't, and you know it's just because you're hella smart, and maybe a little fucked up. You remember finding canned food for the first time, and crying because you couldn't get the lid open. Somehow that's less upsetting than driving around the block five times.

Maybe it's not so bad, being out here at night, in a car that's quiet aside from the vibration of the floor, that's dark aside from passing lights, swinging over you and then away. "Could fall asleep like this," you mumble, don't think much of it.

"Heh, yeah," Bro says, and you hear the smile in his voice. "When I first got the truck, back when Dave was two? Maybe three? He started having trouble sleeping, and he'd cry and cry. Like seriously, nothing would fucking get him to stop. I started taking him with me to work." You do look at Bro then, your head against the window, your shades pushed into your hair.

And he is smiling, a fragile little thing, eyes on the road, hands at ten and two, just like Dave said.

"Even when I stopped working nights, it always seemed to help. Then I -" He licks his lips, voice going faint. "I don't know what happened. Things changed. I changed."

"It's not too late to change again," you offer, and think you mean it.

Bro inhales through his nose, Adam's apple bobbing up and down. "Yes," he says, ever so softly, voice broken, deep and sad.

"Hmm?" you hum, half-asleep against the window.

He doesn't look at you, but you can see the nervous clench of his jaw, the way his knuckles are going white. "Yes," he says again, "I want to be forgiven. I just don't know how."

Chapter Text

The Lalondes have been in your life for almost two weeks, but you feel a little bit better than you did before. (You feel a little CROWDED, honestly, but at least you can move by yourself now.)

Mom is crazy into parenting, drags you to Houston Funplex, begs you go to the Rainforest Cafe, and a bunch of other silly shit you haven't done since you were really little. And wildest of all, Bro tolerates it, tags along or even just drives you there.

The meds are working, you think. They're doing something, at least. He seems more coherent, sleeps less and hangs around a bit longer when you gather together, drags a card table out from some ungodly place so that you can all eat dinner.

You watch him like a hawk, follow him around the entire apartment, take note of how he grunts and snarks a bit with Mom, and (ow) kicks you under the table during meals when you quip at him. It's like he's actually trying, even if it's clear how fucking uncomfortable he is, the way he side-eyes Rose and avoids Roxy all together.

Mom also gets you and Dave back into the swing of homeschool, your online courses that are now way fucking above your last three years of education.

But Mom is smart, good with math, and you'd say "this must be where you get it" but you've seen Dirk at work in the corner, muttering to himself. You got two hells of smart parents.

Dirk and Roxy, coincidentally, don't technically exist, and therefore don't have any kind of school at all. You're a bit miffed, but Roxy says she can cheat the system and pass you guys, if you want.

"No," Bro says, when he hears her plan, and the way she hides her smile, eyes sparkling with mischief, makes it clear she is neither afraid of, nor going to listen to, your brother.

"Just let me tutor you," Mom says, exasperated.

"I hate school," you and Dave say.

"Shut up," they both tell you.

This is really happening. You are seriously getting parented right now. It's kind of bullshit.

You also start physical therapy, which is hard, and sucks a lot. They won't let you wear your shades in the building, and Mom is the one who takes you because she doesn't trust Bro not to cave under pressure.

"I'm not a child," he says, and you think he sounds more amused than annoyed.

"It's very clear you have a soft spot when it comes to Dave," Mom says, too cheerful, and you realize she's trying to embarrass him. "Knowing you, you'll end up at god... dang Taco Bell instead and I'll get a call saying he never showed up!"

Bro looks at you, raises an eyebrow, and shrugs. She's got a point, he's saying.

"You fucking suck," you tell him, and his lips twitch.

"I know."

 

The next time he has a seizure, he falls in the kitchen and hits his head against the counter, cuts his leg open on a star that you missed, fuck, how could you have MISSED --
Rose is the closest, and she's got something soft under his head, is shouting at Dave for time, time, Dave she needs the TIME, before you can even get your chair into the other room.

She's the one who rides with Mom to the hospital, leaving you home ripping your fucking hair out over your own stupidity.

You should have been more careful. You should have checked again.

"It's okay, Dave," Roxy says, gentle as anything, squatting before you. She grabs your hand and gives you a big smile, though it doesn't quite reach her eyes. It's the first time it's happened since they got there, and you almost feel guilty that they had to see that. "He'll be okay, the docs r gonna fix him right up!"

You don't know about that, but you roll back to the futon, sit in the corner by Bro's pillow, and Dirk sits next to you, close enough that your knees touch. (Dave is in the bathroom, puking, and no one wants to disturb him.)

"He's been better though, hasn't he?" Dirk says, and it's quiet, cajoling. He doesn't know how to make you feel better, and you don't know how to let him.

"Yeah," you murmur. Lick your lips. "Yeah he. He's funnier now, huh? Than he was before."

And you guess that's kind of true. Bro's sense of humor has always skewed wildly to the side, to the point where you couldn't tell what was genuine and ironic. You know now a lot of that was bullshit, and also probably not entirely him, but you don't mind the way he is now, with his crooked smile and fucked up death wish.

"Figure you had to get that somewhere," he says, offers a smile. "He dad joked me the other day, you know."

"Bullshit," you scoff, shove him in the shoulder.

"Mm, it's true," Roxy says, crawling over the back of the futon and rolling into Dirk's lap, her feet square in yours. You don't protest. "The other night he took Dirk out for a drive at like, 3 am. 'Pparently told him all sorts of goofy stories about u as a kiddo."

You feel yourself pale, ears tingeing red. "Are you fucking - dude you can't just keep that from me, that's private goddamn information. This is a defamation lawsuit waiting to happen."

"It was mostly about your insatiable AJ craving," Dirk says, but he's fighting a grin.

"That is so fucking lame," you mutter, cover your face with your hand. "I can't believe he remembers all that."

"I think it's probs in the job description," Roxy says, but she's sounding super fucking amused. "Momlonde blabbed all sorts of stuff about Rose when she was a lil cutie, too. She used to talk to Jaspers and tell him all her secrets, hells of fucking cute, am I right?"

You muffle a laugh in your hand. "God, letting you two near them was the worst possible thing we coulda done, huh?"

"Only in the sense that we're now forced to watch ourselves age rapidly before we have the chance to even reach that stage in our lives," Dirk says, a bit morbidly.

"You're kind of a fucked up dude," you tell him, albeit lightly.

"I keep trying to tell him that," your voice comes in stereo, and you roll your head back to see Dave, leaning against the door frame, looking unearthly pale and a little shaky.

"Aww, c'mere, Davey." Roxy opens her arms, never mind that she's on Dirk's lap, and he shuffles into the room, hugging himself and going boneless on the futon.

"It'll be okay," she says, pats his head. Pat pat.

Dirk looks at you a little helplessly, but you smile, squeeze Dave's shin.

"Dude's practically, unkillable man. You know that."

"M'just really tired of seeing him that way," Dave murmurs, and he buries his face in Dirk's armpit. It's really fucking embarrassing, and he shows no sign of moving any time soon.

"Stop being gross," you tell him.

"No," he says.

Dirk lets out a breathy laugh, puts an arm over your shoulders. "It's okay. Let him be weird and gross."

"It's making me look bad, I cannot have him going around armpit huffing." You try to smack at him over Roxy's head.

"Fuck you, it's my new kink now, this is all I'm going to do for the rest of my life," Dave says stubbornly, shoving your hands away and clinging tight to Dirk's shirt with the other. "I'm gonna spend the rest of my days like this, nose shoved in the armpits of random dudes, lamenting my loss of innocence in a world so cruel."

Dirk sighs, looks at the ceiling. "I take it back. Dave, please stop fucking talking."

"No, you stop fucking talking! I'm over here, doing my best, trying to get my chill on, pouting on my best bro and teen mom, and none'a y'all will let me live. Do I mock your weird puppet fetish? Nah, even though it'd be so damn easy, and fuck man you make it so easy. Let me pretend to be into armpits for five minutes."

"Dave, you are kinda gross," Roxy says, but she's snickering now.

"I am being kinkshamed by this whole family," is his muffled reply, and you finally crack.

 

Mom spent approximately twenty minutes yelling at the doctors.

Rose recounts this in great detail, head in her hands, extremely embarrassed. She and Bro had sat in the hall, trying not to look involved, while she swore so loud the entire emergency room could hear her. Bro looked like he was stuck between laughing and sinking through the floor, so Rose had pat him on the leg, and she was still feeling weird about it.

They come home with new meds, anticonvulsants, and you add them to the growing stock in your bathroom cabinet.

Bro doesn't even seem to care that you're all piled on the futon, just kicks off his shoes and drops face first onto the carpet where he falls the fuck asleep. Well. Okay. Not concerning at all.

 

He finds you later, after you get Mom to drag you and your wheelchair up to the roof. It's not a lot of privacy, but it's the most you get, and physical therapy always makes you cranky. You hate the way they treat you, like an idiot kid, and how Mom always asks how it went a little too patronizingly. You didn't even want to go, not after Bro's seizure, not when you spend the entire time obsessed with thinking he might die again. You really wish you could still fucking fly, and then none of it would matter anymore.

He drops down next to you, hiding in the shade behind the AC Unit, and leans back against it, the only refuge from the heat.

"Hey," he says. "Heard you weren't feeling too hot."

"I'd say I'm feeling pretty fucking hot," you snap, hands gripping your wheels til your knuckles go white. "It's like a hundred goddamn degrees out here, I'm sitting in a metal death trap, and my knees hurt."

"There's a joke to be made there," he says blandly.

"Not by you," you say, quickly, desperately.

He breathes out his nose in a way you know now means laughter. "Alright, alright, c'mere." You cringe away when he reaches for you, but he persists, grabs your wrist and pulls you so gently from your chair it's like slow motion, until you're folded beside him on the ground, neck against cool metal, hands to the still hot gravel.

"Better?" he asks, voice soft. He sounds tired.

"I guess so," you shrug. "It's just. It gets really cramped sometimes? And I can just fucking hear them hesitate, and everyone asks if I need help all the time."

He hums agreement, and it's quiet for awhile.

"Sorry," he says eventually, and it's stilted, awkward. He doesn't look at you, not even when your head wheels around in shock. You have never heard Bro apologize to anyone. He's frowning, looking at his hands.

"What?" you manage.

"That you had to see that, again," he says. "I thought I had it under control. I'm sorry, Dave."

You're. Speechless, really. It's completely outside what you consider your realm of possibility, and you choke on a reply. "Okay," you say.

He sighs, cracks the joints in his fingers. He's always been like that, high-strung, fidgety. "Yeah."

"I just really want to be alone sometimes," you admit suddenly, like you can't control it. "It's part of why I broke up with Jade, I think. I was just thinking about a lot of stuff, I guess, about how there were all those consorts, and how it was so hard to just get a moment of peace, and how they always made me feel like I was the odd man out, even when it was just the two of us." You pull your knees to your chest. "And I don't mind having the Lalondes here. I mean, fuck, it's the most normal I think my life has ever felt. It's cool having a real parental guardian," you tell him, don't add, "no offense."

"But I still can't sleep in my bed, and I don't really mind the floor, but I kinda um. I LIKED sleeping next to you. I felt. Uhm." You look away, pick at your shoelace. It's really fucking embarrassing, what you're doing here. You should knock it off. "I didn't feel as afraid, as I maybe used to be? Like I know you're still an insane sword-wielding asshole, but I felt less like it was aimed in my direction, and more at imaginary intruders. Sorry," you say, suddenly red to the roots. "That sounds really fucking lame."

"It's more than I deserve," he says, and you glance at him in time to see him smile at his feet. "But I appreciate the sentiment, all the same."

"Haha, yeah. Idk, man, I just. Sometimes, even though I can tell they're trying, I still feel like the fifth wheel. It sucks. I know I complain a lot, I know. I just. Keep expecting it to get better? Than it is."

"Right," he says, and then he does look at you. You can tell immediately that he's got some kind of speech planned, is hesitating like Dirk does when he doesn't want to talk about something. "You know it's okay, if you don't want to be Dave anymore."

That stuns you, more than you're willing to let on. "No, I- I do," you say in a rush. "Like that's the problem? I am Dave. I know I'm Dave. I just. Hate being the extra. I feel like a spare." Your insides clench, your breath hitches in your chest. "I feel like even if I died tomorrow, in a week it wouldn't matter because I served my purpose, and Dave will still exist without me."

Bro lets out a long breath, takes off his hat, runs a hand through his hair. "Christ, kid."

"Sorry," you offer weakly.

"Dave," he says

You curl into yourself. "No, I know."

"Dave," he says again. "You remember that. That thing. Chess piece. With the wings."

Fuck, how could you forget. The sensation of your wing in his hands as he ripped it off your body, the horrifying realization that he was growing a snout and ears, how he crackled green all the way down. "His name was Jack."

He grunts. Pauses, clears his throat. "You know, when I took that blow, that wasn't for a spare Dave," he murmurs. He rolls his head back to stare at you, gaze steady. "That wasn't even for Dave. That was for you."

And maybe you're weak, and maybe it's too easy, to say all that, to fake genuine emotion like that, but you don't care. Your eyes burn, and you blink rapidly. "Yeah?" you croak.

He smiles, just for you, thin and small, and puts a gloved hand carefully on your head, so you see it coming, so you don't flinch. "Yeah."

You stay like that for a long time, until the sun starts to go down and the light comes around the opposite side of the AC unit. He helps you back into your chair without being asked, follows after you slowly.

"Dave," he says, pausing at the top the stairs. You think maybe he's going to make a joke, warn you and then push you down feet first, but the look on his face is pinched, thoughtful.

"Bro," you drawl, facetiously.

He doesn't respond to that, the pull of his lip serious, his eyebrows furrowed. "Do you or Dave still have your time powers?"

That throws you for such a loop that you do almost roll into the stairs, and he stops you with a single hand on the back of your chair. "Um," you choke, "Not that I know of?"

He pauses just a second longer, sighs through his nose. Rubs at his eyes. "Alright."

When he walks you down the stairs, your fingers curled in his shirt, you feel, just for a moment, like you're missing something.

Chapter Text

There are a few things you have accepted in this new world: that your legs don't work, that Dorito Locos Tacos are a gift from god, that Obama still being president is fucking dope, and that there is no magic here.

You think about Bro's words for days, don't say shit to the others, even though you so desperately want to blab to Rose it isn't funny.

What the fuck did he mean?

Is it like before? Does Bro know something you don't? (The likelihood of this, you realize, is extremely high.)

Needless to say, the first time Dave rewinds time, you almost fucking puke.

Mom and Bro reach the apex of their stress levels by the first month. The Lalondes have been in Houston for long enough that you can't fucking remember what a bed feels like, and your legs, while still not entirely working, have got enough feeling back for you to know they're fucking aching.

Bro finally drives them out of the apartment at the beginning of July (you're still not sure what happened, you woke up to the tail end of Mom telling him "Fine," and Bro sighing, pinching his nose, and helping her with her bags). You almost weep for joy, the first time you roll back onto the futon. Bro hides a smile, pretends not to notice, and you don't mention that he looks a little strung out.

They don't leave though (thank God, can you even imagine), have a hotel down the street, and you, Dirk, and Dave have been making frequent visits to swim in the pool. It's awesome, seeing Dirk out of the house, a little less hesitant, and growing more confident at every turn. He swims like a fucking fish, can hold his breath for way too long, and it's little embarrassing, comparing yourself to him, so you try not to. But it's good for you, anyway, and it's more exercise than you've gotten in months.

Mom does eventually trust Bro to take you to physical therapy, although he always picks her up first, and much to her exasperation, always gets Taco Bell after, to the point where her rant about bad health choices is pretty much seared into your skull. It's okay, though, because you think you're almost happy like this.


You're sitting in the kitchen when it happens, just for a change in fucking scenery, just for something to do. Your butt's a little damp, water running in the sink, splashed up all over the counter, and you say, "Dude, can you get me a towel? I apparently don't know shit about washing dishes." Which you don't, because you've never had dishes to wash. The ones from last night are still there, and Mom told you that they better fucking be gone before tonight or she wasn't gonna help with dinner again.

Bro sighs, pausing his game and pushing himself up off the couch and he says -

Time goes wavy around you. You can't explain it, can't describe what it's like, to feel the continuum stutter to a halt, like a glitch, like a stutter in the system.

There's a hiss, then a pop, a wink in existence, and everything shifts to the left as Dave appears next to Bro by the futon.

"Down," Dave says, hand on your brother's chest. His hands are shaking, hard. "I really wish I had more time to explain this to you but please just lie the fuck back down and trust me for once in your miserable fucking life."

Bro, for his part, looks completely unbothered by this, and aside from leaning away from Dave's touch, does as he's told, flopping back on the futon like a puppet.

You're immediately scrambling into your chair, practically roll off the counter, ignore how your elbow crashes into the arm of it.

"What the fuck," you say, and Dave isn't listening, shuffling around Bro, muttering to himself. "Dave," you try.

You sit there by the table, flabbergasted, watching as Dave keeps maneuvering Bro, shoving him onto his side and tucking the pillow under his head, voice soft, just "No, like this. And this over here..."

Bro is pliant, curling at the knees and not protesting when Dave plucks off his glasses and folds them gently before handing them to you.

"What the fuck," you say again.

Dave gives you a look you almost don't recognize, eyebrows furrowed, mouth slightly open. "I don't know how much time I have," he says.

"I don't know what that means," you whisper, anxiety sinking into your bones. You don't know what's happening, you can't stop the way you feel your body flush hot, scorching fear, heart slamming in your ears.

Dave looks at Bro, head tilted to the side, and nods. He sits down hard on the coffee table, and offers his hand to him, elbow propped on his knee, and you notice how shaken he is, bone white and covered in a thin sheen of sweat, hair sticking to his forehead in unattractive clumps.

Bro presses his lips together in a way that reminds you so much of Dirk. He doesn't look like he wants to take it. "That bad?"

Dave nods, short, curt.

He lets out a shuddering breath and wraps his hand in Dave's, holds it so tight you can see his palmaris tendon flexing.

"Hey, did you guys feel - whoa."

Dave stares at Dave and then at you, then to where he and Bro are entwined. "What the fuck."

"Dude," you say, weak, shaky. You shrug. "Don't look at me, I have no idea what's going on."

"You can still time travel?" Dirk pops his head over Dave's shoulder.

"I don't know," he says weakly, and future Dave says, "yeah I guess? Surprise?"

"What are you doing," Dave asks from Bro, and he just sighs, doesn't let go of Dave's hand.

"Wasn't my idea. Apparently I'm about to fucking die or something and..." He trails off, looks at future Dave, then you, then current Dave. He puts his tongue in his cheek. "Anyone else seeing triple?"

"That's not funny," all three of you say together, and Dirk looks heavenward.

"You're not going to die," you tell Bro, shoving his leg. He kicks you for it, and you let it roll you back a little. You look at Future Dave. "Is he?"

"I don't know yet," he admits, refusing to look at you. He's refusing to look at any of you.

You furrow your brow, squeeze the wheel of your chair. "What do you mean you don't -"

"Call Rose," he tells Dave, who is standing there helplessly, fists clenched and frowning.

He grapples for his phone but can't find it, so you offer yours, and pretend not to see the hesitation on his face as he comes to stand next to you. Your fingers brush lightly and you think about how cold his hands are, try to remember if yours were ever that frigid.

"Is there anything I can do?" Dirk asks helplessly, standing to the side and looking very much like he'd rather leave.

"You can come hold my other hand if you want," Bro drawls, wiggling his fingers at him. There's something weirdly kind about his words, like he's joking, but not really. He's always like that with Dirk, this kind of tentative friendliness that only seems to develop when nobody else is looking.

Dirk stares at the worn leather glove like it might bite him, and shakes his head, mouth curling down in misery.

Bro lets his arm flop back down, rests it under his chin. Even without his glasses, his expression is cool, unimpressed, but you know better, and pat his leg, though it's more for your benefit than his.

"And I'm gonna need someone who isn't currently me to keep count," future Dave says, and his leg is shaking, teeth chattering, "because I have it on good authority that this really, really fucking hurts."

Bro frowns. "Jesus kid I'm not gonna to rip your arm off -" He tries to tug away but Dave latches on with his other hand, and you watch Bro's eyes glaze over, and you know what's coming next but you can't look away.

It occurs to you that Dave's already on the phone before Bro even starts to convulse.

It's bad.

It's worse than the time he sliced his knee on the star, it's worse than the first time, whole body vibrating, legs jerking and blood pooling out of mouth and then his nose and you want to look away but you can't.

Future Dave doesn't move, both hands clamped over Bro's, teeth grit, brows knit, leg bouncing. His eyes are open, you can see around his shades, and they're blurry with tears.
You can hear Dave muttering behind you, but when you manage a look at him, you realize he's counting, eyes wide and shoulders shaking. Dirk is holding his hand.

You hunch in your chair, try not to puke, and wrap your hand uselessly in Dave's cape, try not to look at Bro, try not to think about blood.

The Lalondes are home before it's over, and you figure it can't have been more than five minutes (but Christ he's never had one so long before he's never bled like that he's dying), but it feels like eons.

Nobody speaks as Mom hoists Bro effortlessly, folding him into her arms like he weighs nothing. He makes a faint noise of cognition but that's all, and his skin looks thin and papery, ghost white and veins prominent. Mom doesn't complain when she's followed out of the apartment, Roxy and Rose taking either side of Dirk, who is shaking from head to toe and staggers to walk.

Future Dave stops Dave before he can follow them, and the look that crosses his face damn near breaks your heart. Future Dave shakes his head. "Sorry, dude, this is when you get off."

"But -" he goes to step forward, and Dave pushes him in the chest.

"Look, man, there's already two of us -"

"I'm not -"

"The hospital's not gonna fall for the twin thing when we're the exact same person," Future Dave snaps, aggravated. "It's your turn to be me now. Try like. Idk man, just take it slowly and try not to break anything? Maybe if you ask nicely, DS will give you some pointers."

He slams the door in both your faces, and you watch as Dave struggles to say something.

You wait a minute, but it's like he's paralyzed, frozen in place.

When he doesn't move, you wheel over to the futon and haul yourself up onto it, careful to avoid the blood. "I don't really like hospitals, anyways."

It's like he's just realizing you're still here (go figure), face stuck in surprised fear. "Thanks," he says, softly, and then he just stands there.

"He didn't even ask if I wanted to go," you lament, trying not to be pissed. You fail. It's not fair. Your hands curl into your pants, shaking in fury. It's not fair. It's not fucking fair.

What if he dies.

Fuck, what if he dies?

"Maybe he knew I'd need you," Dave offers, vaguely humorless, and comes to sit in front of you on the coffee table. He takes off his glasses, presses his face into his hands, and lets out a shuddering breath.

You don't know what to do, stuck here with yourself, miserable as anything. You hesitate, and then reach out, ignore how he flinches when you push the hair out of his eyes. "I can't time travel," you whisper. "I don't know how I can help you."

"It's not your fault," he manages, and the two of you sit there, bowed together, feeling pathetic and useless.

==> Be the Other Dave
 

Bro does not come home with them that night, and neither does Mom.

They find you alone, clutching your phone and staring at the wall, and Roxy walks right up to you without a word. Wraps her arms around you tight, kisses your forehead, strokes your hair.

Dave nods to you, but he hangs back by the door while Rose comes around the other side of you and sits down, takes your hands in hers.

You're expecting the worst, especially when you don't see Dirk, and your heart pounds in your ears while Rose works up the courage to speak. Her lipstick has all but been smeared away, and it's bizarre, feels too intimate.

"Please just tell me he's not fucking dead," you croak, and you don't care that they can tell you've been crying.

"He's not," Roxy blurts, before Rose can.

"They think he had a intracerebral hemmorhage," Rose says, voice tempered. "A bleed in his brain. They don't know for sure. They couldn't do an MRI scan right now because -"

"Pins in his arm," you and Dave say at once.

"He fell down the stairs when he was twelve," you finish.

Rose squeezes your hands. "They're not sure how bad it was. He's been having seizures for awhile, they're worried it happened weeks ago and they missed it. They're keeping him overnight, maybe longer. Mom decided to stay with him."

You can't look at any of them, just keep thinking about Dave's hands, heating up in yours, the way his form flickered like he couldn't stay grounded to reality. What you say is, "Where's Dirk?"

Roxy and Dave share an uncomfortable look. "He needed a minute," she says softly. "He went to the roof."


When you find Dirk, he's still puking. Roxy sets your wheelchair down delicately, and then you in it, and she's absconded before you get your hands on your wheels.

It's another hot one tonight, and your palms are burning from earlier, you still feel fuzzy around the edges, like you aren't real.

"Hey," you call, make sure your approach is as squeaky and obnoxious as it can be, so he doesn't flinch.

He freezes up instead, still as a statue, and you open your mouth to apologize. You don't get that far, his facade buckling as he dry-heaves and coughs spittle all over the ground before him. "Sorry," he intones, voice dead. He doesn't look at you.

"Yeah." You stare at the gravel, wet with ick. "Are you okay?"

"No," he says, miserable, and you wheel around his other side when he sits down, puts his head in his hands. He's all folded up, small as he can go, and the hair on the back of his head is flattened, a little matted.

"I get it." You should leave him alone. Or shouldn't, anyway, because fuck knows what this guy will do if you leave him to fester in his thoughts. You consider the ramifications of having to ask for help later, how much you don't want anyone to fucking touch you, the terror of you leaking all over him like you did Dave. But you decide the good it'll do him outweighs the bad it'll cost you. So you pitch yourself from your chair and throw your arms around him.

Dirk freezes up again. He smells like sweat and vomit and you only just keep yourself from gagging. Not his fault. His arms are clammy, shoulders like a still as stone, just like Bro.

"It'll be okay," you tell him, even though you don't believe it. Even though he won't believe it. You cling as tight as you can. "He'll be okay."

He heaves a little and it becomes a cough, and when his finally moves his hands, clutches your arm to keep you there, you don't bring up the fact that he's crying.


Future Dave - Just Dave - is the only one waiting for you when you and Dirk come back downstairs. He's standing next to the futon, staring at the place where some of Bro's blood stains the fabric.

"M'going to bed," Dirk murmurs, squeezing your hand, and you let him go to Dave, don't mind the way he leans over, whispers something in his ear. They press their foreheads together, stay there for a second, and then Dirk slumps off towards their room, arms wrapped around himself.

"Thanks for that," Dave says to you, when the door closes.

You just hum, wipe your hands off on your pants. "Rox and Rose?"

"Convinced them to take the floor," he says, and he turns to look at you. "Dirk needs the bed."

"He didn't even shower," you point out.

Dave shrugs. "Can you blame him?"

"No," you say, let out a shaky sigh. "But hey. You figured it out, huh?"

Dave looks calm now, though he's still deadly pale, hair still a mess. "Yeah," he says. "Yeah I remember." It's like he's aged in less than a few hours, and the way he holds himself makes you dreadfully uncomfortable.

"He won't die now, will he?" you ask, soft as you can to mask your terror.

"I told you," he sighs, and there's Dave again, slumping shoulders and limp arms. "I don't know yet. I think we made it in time. But I don't know."

You feel cold and hot all at once, stomach still roiling. You're sweaty, and Dirk's vomit is on your shirt. You really want to go to bed. But you aren't tired. "Stay up with me?" you whisper, and it's a big ask, you know it is. Dude just rediscovered time travel, has done more work than you and looks the part.

Dave stares at you blankly. You think he's going say no. "Uh." He coughs, clears his throat. "Yeah. Yeah, man. I just. Uh. Yeah." He darts around the apartment, drags out blankets and pillows, and the two of you make a nest on the floor, huddle together. You both smell like shit, but it's the most comfortable you've felt in hours, and when your eyes finally close, your head dropping onto his shoulder, you take your first deep breath.

 

Chapter Text

Shit.

Shit shit shit shit shit shit SHIT.

You want to scream.

Shit fuck shit.

You want to scream and rip your hair out and you don't want to time travel, you don't want to play by the same shitty rules that governed you for three years.

Fuck fuck fuck.

You want to shake Dave, make him tell you what he knows. You want to be at the hospital. You want Bro to be okay. You don't want him to die.

You and Dave sit there for a long time in complete silence. "What do I need to do," you say finally, when it's too much, when your hands are shaking, when you can't bear the quiet any longer.

"Dude, don't look at me, I never reached godtier." He shrugs, wraps his arms around his knees. You feel bad, most days, that he can't walk. It's not fair, and it's not his fault. He was trying to save you. Trying to save all of you.

"Dave said -"

"I don't care what he said," he grouses, buries his face so you can't see him. When he speaks, his voice is clogged and muffled. "I can't time travel, dude, I can't even fucking walk."

"Then what did he mean?"

"Dunno."

"Dave, look -"

"Davesprite."

"Look, man, I don't know what he means but can you just like. Fucking try?" It sounds callous, you know, and when his head snaps up, shades lopsided, you see he's crying.

"Fuck you."

Okay, that's pretty fucking valid.

"Dude, we're kinda working within some magic time constraints right now, and I have no idea how to do this alone." You rub your eyes, blink back against the way they sting.

"I don't know," he says, and he yanks at his hair absently.

Hurry up, you want to say.

Still, you're quiet as he thinks, and you can see the concentration in his knit brow, how his eyes flick back and forth like he's reading something. "I... remember that this isn't how it went. The first time."

The first time. What. "What?"

"You were always supposed to come back, I think," he says slowly, and it IS like he's reading, like he's seeing something you can't. "But if you hadn't. That wouldn't have happened." His face contorts and you can practically see it all laid out before you. "Bro fell. I asked him to get a towel and we were arguing and he was going to fall, he came back but he fell, hit his head on the futon and --" He looks sick, pale. More like you, you guess. "Oh god. Oh God."

He scrambles back like he's trying to curl into a tighter ball and you panic, snapping an arm out to grab him.

"Hey, man, what the fuck are yo--"

Your hands covered in soapy water, ass on the cold counter, knees damp. "Hey man grab me a towel?"

Bro sighing, climbing to his feet, "No one told you to do the dishes, birdbrain -"

Staggering.

"Bro?"

A hum, rubbing his eyes.

"Bro!"

Dropping, slamming his head against the arm of the futon on the way down, a shock of blood against stark white hair, shouting, convulsions, seeing yourself stagger out of the bedroom holding a sword and you -

- drop Dave's arm like it's burned you, blood pounding in your ears, memories that don't belong to you rattling through your head like an echo chamber.
"What the hell was that," you say, flexing your hand.

He's looking at his own like he sees something you can't, horror and recognition dawning on his face. "No," he whispers. But you don't see anything.

"Dude chill, what's your damage?" He shakes his head and you roll your eyes, grab his hand again, and suddenly, you can see.

Dave - Davesprite's hands feel like the fuzz of an old TV screen, a vibration through your skin, a tingling halo that makes his fingers florescent orange. You let go and it disappears. You grab it and he lights up like a Christmas tree.

"That's... weird," you say weakly.

His mouth moves up and down in soundless misery, but when you touch him again, it's already fading, and then it's like nothing happened at all, just an average dude with average hands. "What the fuck," he whispers. "What did you do?"

"I didn't do anything," you say, hands up in front of you. Freeze, keep 'em where I can see 'em style. "You're the one with the doomed memories over here."

"Fuck you," he says again, and he looks at the space between you like he's trying to figure something out. "Maybe." He bites his lip, furrows his brow. "Maybe it's the sprite thing? Jade said Sburb wasn't done with us, right? Maybe I still..." He trails off, drops his eyes.

"You're not going to die," you say. He can't. Fuck knows he's been through enough. "Whatever Jade meant, it can't be that."

"I don't want to be a walking tutorial again," he murmurs.

"Well I don't think you'll have to worry about the walking part," you say lightly. The look he gives you is two parts Bro, three parts Rose. "Sorry."

"Dude," he mutters, wipes his arm across his face. "Okay. Okay, so I'm supposed to. What? Help you remember how to time travel?"

"I know how to fucking time travel," you say, but you're not actually sure anymore.

You reach deep down, look for the tug in your stomach, look for the ticking sound that haunted your days and nights, and find a hollow space. "Well. Okay I think I remember."

But you don't know. It's something you've been actively avoiding, since before the end of the game, since before you even landed in the new session. The last time you traveled was to grab Dirk's head, and the idea makes you recoil hard. "I don't know," you say, and feel uneasy.

"Well you better figure it out," he snorts.

"You're supposed to help me," you say, frustration and anxiety bleeding through.

"But I can't anymore, Dave, I keep fucking telling you that." His expression is open, palms up, helpless, and you feel defeat roll off him in waves. "I couldn't do shit as Davesprite, and I certainly can't do shit now as Dave-Not-A-Sprite."

"So you admit it," you say, and when he stares at you, elaborate, "you're not Davesprite anymore."

"Dude, shut up," he mutters. "It's not the time."

"It seems like now is exactly the time." You kick him in the shin. He jerks away, smacks at you.

"My identity issues have nothing to do with you," he snaps.

"It seems to me they've got everything to do with me," you say, amused, a little annoyed. "And the fact that you're Dave, and so am I."

"It's not that simple," Dave groans, and he drops his head to his knees again. "I really don't want to talk about this with you, of all people."

"I think I'd be better practice than anyone else."

"Yeah, and you're not even mildly self-centered about that fact at all." He rolls his head to the side, looks at you, unimpressed. "Tell you what. You figure out time travel and I'll let you lecture me about this later, when you're Future Dave."

"Okay, that's." That's fair, you guess. You're not really happy with it. You've been trying to drag this inferiority complex out of him for literally three months. But he's also right, you do have more important shit to do right now. You might be procrastinating. "Fine," you huff, cross your arms. "So, whaddya got?"

"I mean." He flaps a hand at you. "I have my hand?" He offers it to you, limp and unenthusiastic.

You take it. It's warm, a little sweaty, but otherwise entirely ordinary, like nothing ever happened. "Well this is bullshit and useless. What did you do before? That made it happen?"

He shrugs. "I just thought about Bro, and how it was gonna go and..."

And your hands fuzz together again, like a channel has opened up between you.

You see green fire, Jack Noir's hound dog face, feel the burning sensation as part of your body is torn away, scrambling across the cold blue earth of John's planet, and turning in time to watch Bro --

"Okay, okay, I get it," you yelp, snatching your hand back before you can watch the sword pierce his sternum. "So, what? We're the wonder twins now? Except with weird psychic backwards visions?"

"Dunno," he says, and drags you back towards him. "Let me try something else."

His touch is like electricity, buzzing under your skin, and you see Jade, hair wild and soft, like a cloud around your face as she leans in -

- and then John, smile lopsided, as he shoves a cake under your nose, Nanna grinning over his shoulder, the way their glasses catch the shimmering golden light of the boat -

Dave sits back, releasing you, and you blink, see the way he smiles softly. "Whoa," he murmurs, voice dreamy. "That's really fucking weird."

"Okay, I really don't appreciate you projecting your crushes onto my brain," you snap, feel your face heating up. You can still feel Jade's lips - ugh weird.

"Fuck off," he snorts, rolls his eyes. "Let me have five seconds before we dive into awakening your latent god powers."

"When I see John again, I do not need to be dragging around your feelings like dead weight."

"Oh, yes, soooo sorry, Alpha Dave," he says, but the smirk curling on his face is ugly. "I'll try not to feel anything ever again. Let's just get this over with." He drums his fingers on his knee, thinks. "Do you remember the first time we time traveled?"

"Uh," you start. Think. "Vaguely." You don't, really. It was so fucking long ago. Christ, you really got a huge fucking boost from Dave, didn't you?

"Well. I do," he says, and his gaze is steady. "Try to fucking remember, okay?" He goes for your hand, hesitates. "Listen, man," he edges. "If we get in there, you're gonna have to deal with Calsprite."

You feel your stomach drop, dread spreading through you like ice in the veins. You can't thing of anything to say. "Um."

"If you can't handle him, I can't help you."

"No, I can," you say quickly, desperately. You think. Maybe.

"It'll be fine," he dismisses, dragging your hand into his grasp.

You squeeze your eyes closed and think about the first time, the real first time. The pull at your gut and the way you were dizzy and how desperate you'd been to just get away from all the fighting. You try not to focus on Dave's hand on yours, how it feels like a hum of energy, warm and fuzzy like it did when he was a game construct, tangible but not entirely there.

His experience oozes across your memories, four months of desperation, heat and fear and the tick of a clock.

HEEHEEHAAHAAHOOHOO rakes across the back of your brain and you flinch, jerk your hand away, give him a glare and bare your teeth.

"What the fuck?"

Dave looks at you and you see your eyes, you see Dirk's eyes, how the colors fold over each other. His face is blank. He knows.

He knows.

"I told you, dude. If you can't handle Calsprite then I can't fucking help you." He wiggles his hand. "It's not real. Try not to think about him." You continue glaring, and he sighs, rolls his eyes. "Okay, I'LL try not to think about him, how's that?"

"Better," you grunt, but you're hesitant to take it again, counting the freckles on his knuckles.

"Dave," he says, and it's soft, a little froggy with unshed tears. "I know it's scary. I don't understand it either. I don't know what's up with me and you, I don't get this weird half-assed freaky Friday shituation, and honestly I can't even tell Time anymore. But this is all I have to offer."

You can't blame him, and so you grab his hand again, try not to think about that needling hum.

A clock ticks behind your right ear and that, at least, is familiar. The sensation of falling, sweat trapped between your skin and a starched black suit, the sing of screeching metal in your ears.

HEEHEE HAAHAA and the flap of wings, that existential dread, where is Bro, where did he go did he die he's gone where's John why are you all alone.

The ticking of time across the back of your eyelids, the thrum of the universe as everything around you shifts to the left --

You let go of him and know what you have to do. You just don't know if you can.

Davesprite looks at you, raises his eyebrows. You nod.

You have to concentrate, focus on your breathing, until you're inhaling 4-4 time, until you can feel the beat in your chest, til sweat starts to bead on your forehead from effort.

"Okay." You flex your fingers. Think about it, hand his phone back to him. "Alright."

 

You aim for small. Or, try to. Two weeks ago you all went to the Funplex with Mom and Bro. It was the last weekend before they moved into the hotel. You, Rose, DS, Roxy, and Dirk rode a virtual roller coaster. You ended up vomiting.

Dave laughed for ten minutes straight, your own goofy monotone of "ahahaha oh my god" reflected back at you.

You went to find Mom and Bro in the food court, and Bro just stared while Mom cooed over you and tried not to laugh.

Bro brought you a shirt while you were in the bathroom, an ugly green nightmare with the Funplex logo on it.

You had said, "Oh my god, this is the ugliest thing I've ever seen," with a wild grin, and Bro had smiled, a fragile crack in his impenetrable armor.

"I know," he said, amusement and relief all in two words. "Now clean the fuck up, you've got that shit in your hair." He took your sullied shirt without asking and walked away, and you stood there shirtless in a public bathroom watching him go.

When you got home, he let you change back into your godtier outfit, took the green shirt, and stuffed it under the futon. You remember wanting it back so you could hang it on your wall.

You think about his smile, think about him balling up your white shirt, covered in puke, like it wasn't the most disgusting thing.

Okay. Alright.

You step across the room, step back, and then you lift your hands. You don't have your time tables, but you close your eyes, take a deep breath, and let your place in the universe go.

 

You land with a wobble and a curse, stumbling in the sudden blackness.

It feels like the wind got knocked out of you, armpits pooling with sweat, trapped in the layers of your clothes. Your head spins from vertigo, your eyes straining to the point of pain. You gag, almost puke.

Holy shit, you did it.

Holy fuck you time traveled.

Holy fuck you are a god.

"Dave?" Bro's voice comes soft from across the room, head lifted off the futon to look at you.

You flinch and step backwards into the door knob, pretend that didn't startle you.

He watches, silent. His hair and face are just barely illuminated from the dull light of the window, shading him in pale gold. Whatever he's thinking, his face is a steady mask, a puzzle you cannot solve.

"Hey," you say awkwardly.

He doesn't answer. There's a fragmented piece of you that is so, so relieved to see him, to see that he's okay, and you don't even move when he shifts, props himself up on his elbow.

"This isn't the bathroom," he says, and suddenly you're six years old, shaking like a leaf and chasing the tails of a nightmare.

You remember thinking it was the first time you saw his eyes, how tired he looked, and how young he must have been. How it was the last time he let you climb into bed with him, how you fell asleep clinging to his shirt and woke up cold, and alone, in your still-new bed.

You forget your line, words all gummed up in your throat, and settle on, "Yeah."

He stares at you, amber eyes, face blank, and then carefully, without a word, lifts up the covers for you.

You hesitate. You're sixteen now, and you haven't relied on him for almost as long. But this Bro is okay. Hes alive, he's breathing, and. Well. You're already here, you may as well ride it out.

Padding across the floor, you notice Mom is there, curled on the opposite side of the futon, clutching at Bro's stolen pillow like her life depends on it.

He scooches back to leave you a wide berth as you settle in, and you tuck your elbow behind your head in lieu of a pillow.

Bro curves the blanket over you without so much as touching you, and you try not to smile as Mom rolls over and wraps half her body around him.

"Is she like this every night?" you whisper.

He nods, rolls his shoulder to try and dislodge her. "Pretty much. God forbid I try'n get up to piss."

"Dirk is like that too, but. Um." You shift uncomfortably at the face he makes when you say his name. "Not that we. Share. Or cuddle. Or whatever. Anymore, I mean."

He stares at you and you feel bare and uncomfortable. You think this is a mistake. You did it, you traveled. You don't need to stay here.

"You were like that too."

You try to hide how you jump, but you know he saw it. "What?"

Bro rolls his shoulder again. Mom just snores louder. "When you were a baby. Fucking strongest grip I ever saw. Sometimes I couldn't even get you to let go when I had to go to work. You almost broke my finger one time."

You don't know what to say to that.

"It was a long time ago," he says, like he can read your mind. "So what's up. Sister hoggin' the bed again?"

Haha, he means Rose. "Are you intentionally avoiding saying her name?" He makes a face and you laugh. "It's not that weird."

"It's not really. What I would have chosen. As a name, I guess."

"Did you choose?"

He raises his eyebrows. "Is that a serious question?"

You shrug, suddenly self-conscious.

It's quiet, and you memorize the shape of his nose in the dark, the shade of scruff that scrapes along his chin.

"Yes," he says after a little while.

You give a start. "What?"

He coughs softly, eyes flicking to yours. "I named you."

"Oh."

"Yeah."

"Cool."

"Mmhm."

Mom snorts, hand worming around and sneaking its way under his shirt. The look on his face is all Dirk, teeth grit as he gently removes her. You muffle a laugh.

"Yeah, yeah, yuck it up," he mutters, but he's chewing on a smile.

"She's really your only friend, huh?" you whisper.

He frowns. "What gave it away?"

"I've never seen you tolerate anyone like that before. Shit, you wouldn't even let me sleep with you."

"I didn't give up my room for you to follow me in here," he huffs softly. Trying to keep his voice down. "It took me three months to get you to stop sneaking in every night. Lord, you fucking cried." He sighs out and his breath is plain black coffee, peppermint toothpaste. "And here you are again."

"Yeah," you say. You stare at his eyes, his hair, the smooth, sharp arch of his cheekbones, the only parts of him highlighted by the street lights, and think of something to say. You can't tell him why you're here, can't tell him what happened. The burden of time travel. You can't tell him to be more careful, to take care of himself, or move the futon.

"I called her," he says suddenly.

"What?" you all but squeak.

He shifts, pulls the covers over you a little more when Mom rolls the opposite way, dragging them with her. "Your mom. Told her what was up. That we weren't doin' so hot."

"Oh. I thought that Rose was maybe exaggerating that," you say. Try not to sound surprised.

"Yeah, well," he yawns. "Rox was never really one to turn down someone in need. Came right away, didn't she?"

"Yeah." You smile. "She's cool. Like, having a mom and stuff. It's really cool."

"Thought you might like that," he murmurs, eyes half-lidded, smile a little sloppy. He's falling asleep, you think.

You close your eyes. You can't sleep here, you know that. You're still a little shaky, feel like your world is trying to tilt sideways.

"Bad dreams?" Bro's voice is low, soft, like the roll of distant thunder, and you open your eyes, see concern painted on his face. It's so foreign to you, and yet you see it in such increasing volume lately.

You inhale, curl a hand into the blankets. "Something like that."

"S'okay to be afraid sometimes," he says.

"Never thought I'd hear you say that." You kick him experimentally under the blanket, and he gives you an unimpressed look. Well, fuck him. You're valid.

He sighs, and it's like you watch all the fight go out of him. "I'm trying to be better about that. Roxy's orders."

And that. Well, okay. You knew his sudden mellowing had something to do with Cal, maybe something to do with popping back to life, and you're really fucking grateful for that, you are. But it's almost amusing, thinking about any Roxy essentially laying a hand on any Dirk's arm and saying, "calm down, bud."

"I think you're nicer to Dirk than you are to either of us," is what you say.

Bro wipes a hand across his face, shakes out some of the sleep. "That ain't true. He just keeps finding me at the wrong moments." He looks at you, looks away. "And he isn't. Afraid of me."

Shit. He's got your number. "Yeah, well," you mumble, press your face into your arm. "I don't want to be."

You jump when his fingers brush your forehead, shift a clump of hair away from your eyes. "You're sweatin', kiddo. You sure you're alright?"

"Still feeling bad from earlier," you say, and it's not really a lie, he just doesn't know which day you mean.

"You sure did make a fucking scene." But there's amusement in his voice. "Had to throw away your shirt. Let's hope some poor sadsack didn't have to touch it later."

"Sorry," you say, and feel lame.

His fingers are rough on your skin, and you shiver, bite back against the sting in your eyes. "Don't apologize. S'okay."

"Bro, you're not dying again are you?" you blurt, all in one rush. "I mean. Not right now, obviously. Obviously you're totally fine and if something was up you'd tell me. Or Dave. Or someone. If you thought that you weren't okay. Because emotionally speaking I don't think I can handle it again. Not that I seemed that shocked when it happened, obviously. Cool kids don't cry and all that. I'm just saying, some of us would be real fucking disappointed if you kicked it. And stuff."

"Jesus Christ," is all he says, and you freeze when he cups the back of your neck, pulls you close enough to bonk your foreheads together. "No, Dave. I ain't fucking dying again." He thinks for a moment. "Probably."

That startles a laugh out of you. He and Dirk really are cut from the same damn cloth. "Okay," you say weakly. "I'll take that."

"Mm," he says, and you can tell he's falling asleep again. Dave has slept next to Bro for two outta three months here, and you have never been jealous of him. But to see Bro here, so human, with his slow blinking eyes and long steady breaths, the rough pad of his thumb running along the knobs of your vertebrae, you feel almost... sad.

"I'm not gonna let you die again," you tell him.

"Okay," he drawls, closes his eyes. He clearly thinks you're full of absolute shit. "I appreciate that."

And then you do let him fall asleep. He deserves it, you guess, putting up with you, putting up with Mom. His breath evens out, his hand going limp, and you wriggle out of the blankets, take a quick look around the living room, and head to the roof.


<== Be the Other Other Dave Again

 

You wait until Roxy drags Rose off to bed by the hand, both of them looking after you with concern. You give a weak smile, a pathetic wave. You're coming, you're fine, just give you a minute.

When the door closes you take a deep breath in the silence, flash to the kitchen, and puke in the sink.

You rest there, forehead on the cool metal, water splashing up from bottom, drenching your bangs. You pull up pesterchum on your shades, send out a quick set of messages before slumping back into the living room to wait for Dirk and Dave.

Chapter Text

You do not complain when Mom rents a car, when she drives to the airport and you have to sit in the backseat, even though it makes you ultra nauseous, and you aren't strong enough to go inside the crowded mall. (She laughs at you, cuffs the top of your head affectionately. "Just the same," she says, and she leaves you loitering by the garage, pacing the rows of cars like a caged animal.)

Roxy and Dave go in your stead, and when you see them crossing the lot, Roxy on one arm, Dave preening on the other, you cannot help yourself.

You flash forward, scoop Jane up from between them, and spin her around like it's a romcom and this is your last big chance to film.

She hoots and hollers and eventually begs, Dirk, please, seriously, please, oh good golly Jesus put her down, and you do, and you cup her face, and your own feels like it might snap in half.

"Hi," you breathe, and she's so beautiful, so round and shiny and sleep-tousled, you feel like you might cry.

"Oh jeez, Dirk, you need to get out of this sun," she says, wiping the sweat from your brow and fanning her own face. "You're going bonkers out here, I think. It's much too hot for humans here, I don't know how you stand it!"

"Yeah, if by 'bonkers' you're referring to how batshit insane he's been all morning waiting for you," Dave snorts, but he hauls Jane's luggage with zero complaint, parks it dutifully in Mom's trunk without being told, like the perfect fucking knight he is.

"I wouldn't worry too much," Roxy says, coming up behind Jane and squeezing the three of you together in a big hug. "I think he's the perfect amount of out of his mind crazy for our favorite gal pal, here!"

You are not huge on physical affection from anyone who is not (a) Dave or Roxy, but you think that circle has officially widened to Jane, because you feel yourself practically melt against her, bowed around her tiny, soft form as you inhale the scent of sugar cookies.

"Missed you," you murmur into her hair, and she laughs again, a soft "hoo hoo hoo."

She rubs at your back in an utterly sincere way. "I've missed you too, dear Mr. Strider. Now, let's get us back home so you can give me a tour of your infamous apartment, and I can attempt to relearn -no pun intended - life-saving magicks in less than a day!"

"If anyone can do it," you tell her, escorting her hand in hand with Roxy to Mom's car, where she and Jane's dad now stand, talking right up, "it'll be you."

God Jane's Dad is still pretty hot, you kinda forgot, and Roxy only has to weakly call him "MR. CROCKER" three times before Mom finally takes the hint; You have heard that they look very similar. You wonder, watching the adult version of your friend trip over herself in front of him, how similar they must really be.

The ride home is a little easier, with all of you squeezed in the back, too busy listening to Jane catch you up to worry about the motion of the car under your feet.

"John so wanted to come," she tells Dave. "I've never had to deal with the soul-crushed face of a son who isn't actually my son before. It was quite a bit like being a mother, I must say."

"Did you tell him it isn't a leisure trip?" you ask, but you squeeze Dave's shoulder gently, because you know he must miss John, too.

"I think he was just disappointed that he can't really help," she says, offers Dave a little hand pat, which you watch him take much too well. "But it's not like you won't visit, of course! After all this, I mean. I was very much hoping to host something of a get together before the school year starts again!"

"Jade 'n Jakey are gonna come all the way to the mainland next month, right?" Roxy says, but she's looking at you.

You look at Jane. She has her head tucked down, her fingers curled around each other. She didn't. She didn't tell you that. "Jane," you start.

"Later, please," she squeaks, and the misery there is what stops you.

Right. She's right. Maybe not in the car, squished illegally in the back without seat belts and Momlonde and Jane's dad listening in. Right.


Her dad promises to take care of all the hotel arrangements so that Mom can drop the three of you off at the apartment, though she makes it very clear she will be right back, and not to do anything weird or burn the place down.

"Cross my heart," Dave says, but he doesn't, and Mom just laughs, gives him a sideways hug. You don't mention how he goes pink in the face, just sigh and drag them both up the building front.

"Let's just get this over with."

Jane did not fly all the way from Washington to look at your messy apartment, but you still feel self-conscious, like it's the first time she's seeing it, although technically that's untrue.

She runs a hand along Bro's computer desk, over the multitude of holes where his posters were, eyes the stains on the couch judiciously, and eventually wanders into the kitchen. You wince when she opens the fridge, still devoid of shelves and completely barren, and the look she gives you is mortified humor.

"It's broken, anyway," you say, and she sighs.

"Dirk, when will any version of you learn to throw out your broken things?"

"It served a purpose," you say, keeping Dave in your peripherals as you edge forward to close the door. "It's just done doing that now."

Jane rolls her eyes and ducks under your arm, snooping in your shelves before you can stop her. She opens the cupboard, stares, and then closes it. "You've been here since April," she says, slowly.

"We've been busy," you offer.

"Hmm," she says, but turns around, looking over your shoulder, and her gaze softens. "You must be the Dave I've heard so much about."

You could kiss DS for his timing, and rolling your head back, there he is, frozen halfway across the living room, hands on his wheels, looking like he's been caught doing something he ought not be doing.

Which. Alright, now.

Given that his face is quite red, you have a feeling that you did, in fact, catch him doing something he ought not be doing.

"Eyes up top, Strider," Roxy drawls, before you can speak, and he splutters.

"I wasn't looking at. Anything. Uh, I mean. Obviously I was looking at her and thinking 'huh that must be Jane, John's hot Mom.' I mean just mom. Well not his mom I guess like you're not my mom, but in the sense you actually are. Uh." He clears his throat.

Jane puts her hands on her cheeks to hide the blotchy blush that starts spreading. God, your life is ridiculous. Someone help these poor kids. "Gosh, you Striders and your weird sense of humor and irony I'll never understand."

"Jane," you say, putting an arm around her shoulders, maintaining careful eye contact with Davesprite, "Dave, my beloved brother. Who I love. So much. Dave, Jane. My best friend." You tighten your grasp. "Who I would both die, and also kill for."

"Jesus, we get it, but quit hoggin' her, already," Dave snorts, striding forward and snaking his way in between you and her. "M'lady, our shit hole bedroom awaits." And with a light jostle to shake you loose, he's suddenly halfway across the room, dragging Jane towards your room and grinning like a shitty little kid.

"Don't use your powers for evil," DS says, but he doesn't look impressed, rolling after them hesitantly.

"I'll use my powers for whatever I want, considering I'm the only one who has them," Dave says dryly.

Roxy shimmies up to where you stand frozen in the kitchen. "You know he's just messin' around right? He don't mean nothing by it."

"I know," you say. You do. You think you do. I mean, of course. Jesus. "I just don't..."

"Don't want her precious maiden heart to break, I know." She pats you on the chest gently and then loops her arm around yours. "Come on, let's go watch our not-kids trip all over themselves in front of a hot babe. It'll be cathartic."

"It will fucking not," you all but laugh, but she's insistent, and you let her pull you along so she can make fun of Rose before she can compose herself entirely.

It kind of is, honestly, watching Jane walking around, absently picking up things up off the floor and moving them to the laundry as she talks to them, Dave looking now quite embarrassed by the room, and Rose curled up in the corner holding a book and trying not to look at her.

"I'm not quite sure how I'm supposed to learn how to heal people again," Jane is saying when you enter. "I didn't even do it consciously the first time, and I very much doubt that adrenaline and a pressured situation will do anything other than make me cry." She laughs, a little weakly.

Wow, you really need to sit down with her and Roxy and have A Talk. You think, absently, that maybe they are the ones who need to have a talk with you, because you're definitely doing it again. You need to stop trying to control the situation just because someone is uncomfortable. You just don't know how.

"I don't think anyone's gonna ask you to cry, Jesus, Crocker," Dave says, and he looks like he wants to stop her, but he doesn't know how.

"Nah, but how the fuck are we supposed to turn her into Nurse fuckin' Joy without. Without some kind of trigger?" Davesprite chews on the inside of his lip.

You shrug. "Could always throw one of us down the stairs and see if Jane can heal them."

"No, we fucking cannot," Roxy says quickly, smacking at you. "Nobody is getting seriously hurt here!"

"Someone technically already is," Rose says, very quietly, and that's enough to shut you all up.

It has been only three days since. Since the seizure. Davesprite has finally gotten to see Bro, all sequestered off in his little hospital room. You remember the smell of antiseptic, the sting of alcohol in your nose, and suppress a shudder. You can't bring yourself to go back there. You just can't.

"I will try, you know," Jane says, and she comes to stand before both Daves, takes their hands and gives a hardy squeeze. "Not a single Dirk is going to die on this Maid's watch. You can bet your buttons on that, alright?"

"Sometimes, I have trouble believing you're real, Jane Crocker," Rose sighs, giving her a watery smile when Jane reaches out to take hers next.


Mom does come to collect you, not too long after that. She's been absolutely adamant about you three sleeping in the hotel instead of the apartment, which mildly rakes the skin off your very stubborn back.

It isn't that you particularly enjoy the idea of sleeping in a place where you almost watched your alternate self die (and where you have technically died now, twice over). It is more that the idea of sleeping in an unfamiliar bed, in an unfamiliar room, is so completely foreign to you that the idea of doing so cripples you with fear you can neither express nor completely mask.

Dave and DS are trying, they really fucking are, piling you high in a sick ass blanket fort, clinging on either side of you in a suffocating, if somewhat endearing, way. You know they are both hurting, and that you are not the person they really want to see, or maybe you just think that way because you enjoy wallowing, but you are trying for them. It is making you, despite best efforts, considerably cranky.

You have taken to pacing the halls of the fourteenth floor, from one end to the other and back again, counting doors, the distance between exits, and where the nearest fire extinguisher is. You have learned to avoid the elevators if you don't want to talk to anyone, and instead climb the last few flights that lead to the roof on an almost nightly basis.

Jane's stay, quite unfortunately for you, is a quarter inch screw in the immaculate cogs of your routine processes.

You cannot say no to a sleepover, not with the shine in her eyes, the curl of her lip over too big teeth. Your friends have always been like that with you, all open expressions and a kindness you never entirely felt you deserved. It was like no matter how hard you tried, a part of you was shut off from the rest of the functioning fucking public and you were Dirk Strider, boy loser and socially crippled stone-face.

Dave looks at DS when you tell them, together, that you're going to spend the night in Jane's room. You grab Dave's hand, because you don't know how to comfort yet, and because it molds so well to yours, and offer him a squeeze of apology.

"Just for tonight," you tell him, and then both of them.

Davesprite still has this way of looking at you like he doesn't entirely trust you, like you might have something you are holding back from him, but you cannot blame him, really. Given your past record, and your general caginess when it comes to. Well most things, you reckon. His suspicion is well-deserved, if somewhat painful for you.

"I think we can handle one night not having to essentially hog tie you to a mattress pad to keep you from shaking your foot so hard the floor vibrates," he drawls, and he sounds bored, but there is a kindness to the smile at the corner of his mouth.

"I trust Rose will make an acceptable substitute for my somewhat long-winded way of speaking," you say, dragging up your Designated Hotel Blankie off the floor. "Of course, given her rather esoteric topics of choice and, in general, lack of empathy when it comes to say, grilling the fuck outta both of you, you might want to just have a boys only night."

"With a z!" Roxy shouts from the hall.

"With a z," you amend.

"I would take offense to that," Rose says from where she sits on the other bed, "but given my lack of private time due in part to so many Striders these past few weeks, I am willing to let it slide."

You smile at her in thanks. She'll watch them, even if she won't admit it to you, and you follow Roxy out quietly, shut the door soft so you don't wake up the other hotel guests.

"It's kinda almost perfect, huh?" Roxy whispers on your way up. She humors you when you head for the stairs, even with the juggling act the two of you are doing. "Like when we first started the session and stuff."

You remember immediately, that first sleepover on Jane's planet. How she cooked a cake for all of you even though it was her birthday, how you pinned blankets over the windows so that you could pretend it was actually night time. You remember the gut pulling anxiety of talking to them all the first time, and the patient friendliness you were handed in return. You think about the earnest look on Jake's face, the first time he asked if he might have a kiss, and then you clamp down on that immediately.

Nope.

Not going back there.

"Yep," you say instead, hauling open the heavy stairwell door for her.

Jane is waiting outside her room, holding her phone and texting someone with a morose look on her face. When the door gives a clunk, alerting you to her presence, the two of you are immediately treated to the comedy routine of watching her squeak in surprise and almost throw her phone, grapple for it, and ultimately drop it so that it bounces down the hall.

"Oh, fiddle faddle," she mutters, but you touch her shoulder gently, trot over to pick it up. You may not be a nasty excuse for a human being like Dave, but you're still a fucking prince.

You surreptitiously note that the pesterchum window is all in blues, and then turn off the screen and return it to her hand.

She gives you a small smile and then turns it up to one hundred as she beams at Roxy. "Ready? Dad let me have an adjoining room, so we'll have some privacy, at least." She looks around briefly, like she's expecting someone to pop up behind you. "Rose and the Daves didn't want to tag along tonight?"

"Please, Janey, this is a big kids sleepover!" Roxy nudges past her into the room, hip bumping you as she goes. "No younger sibbies invited!"

"Technically, we are the same exact age," you point out, following.

"Omfg Dirk, don't ruin my modern day life fantasy. No younger siblings allowed, that's that." She throws her blankets on one bed, and then herself.

You share a look with Jane, and she rolls her eyes, but she's smiling. 'Let's just go with it.'

"So what's the first order of business?" you say, dropping everything in a pile in the middle of the floor. You grab the remote and the TV menu. "Food service? Maybe a lovely five dollar water to accompany our mac and cheese?"

"I think the first order of any successful business is always to make a sick fucking fort," Roxy says, but she doesn't wait for you or Jane to start ripping the bed apart.

You laugh softly when they roll you in between the beds, build the fort around you while you scramble from the inside to provide integral support and keep all the sheets afloat. When you are done, it is at least twenty times uglier than the one that Dave and DS made, but you don't care to change that, and Jane and Roxy crawl in so that you're on the  outside edge, with Jane in the middle, and if you really tried, you could probably worm under the bed and escape. These two really are the fucking best.

You can just barely see the TV from your position but it doesn't bother you, and it's the price you pay for being like a foot taller anyway. At least they can see.

"It really has been awhile, huh?" Jane whispers, when you're watching the Squiddles and eating pilfered chips from the vending machine. Who even know they'd make it through the wormhole? Incredible. "Since we've all been together."

"But we're not all together," Roxy slurs, soft and sleepy against Jane's shirt. "S'not the same without Jake."

And she's right, but. You and Jane look at each other, matching discomfort and identical unease.

"It's just complicated, Rox," you say gently, reach over Jane to pull a piece of hair away from her mouth.

"I know," she says, and her eyes crack open to frown at you. "But I'm gettin' real tired of the Jake n Pony show featuring Roxy and a dead fucking horse. If he asks me one more time if we fuckin' hate him, Dirk? My brain will explode."

"We don't hate him," Jane says, and her mouth is pulling all kinds of sour faces. You and Roxy both reach out to smooth her locks. "It's just, just complicated. And oh, how I wish I could take back all those silly things I said while holding that lollipop, and then all the absolutely cruel things I said while under the influence of that horrible woman. Even Jake didn't deserve that."

Roxy laughs, low and a little morbid. "Okey, maybe we don't word it like that, but you're right. We were all kinda messed up though, way bigger and sillier than our kid-kids ever got to be."

"I didn't need a piece of candy or a tiara to be cruel," you say, and bury your face in Jane's hair to hide your distress. "I was just straight up a fucking jackass."

"Maybe a little ways," Roxy says, and you feel the familiar pat pat of her hand on your arm. "But that doesn't mean you're beyond help! That's what friends r for, Dirkleton. We look out for each other, and we forgive each other's hella fucked up mistakes."

You hum, don't dislodge yourself from your dark hair prison. She's right, to a point. You think about Bro on the roof, taking a drag off his cigarette, his frustration for Rose's mom painted all over his face. You change the subject. "Jane. In the car. You said that Jake and Jade were coming to the mainland?" Okay, you only kind of change the subject.

You feel her freeze against you, and feel Roxy's hand trace the side of her face, across to wear your arm wraps around her stomach.

"Jaaaaane," she says, and it's pseudo-strict, the way you've heard Mom call to Rose and Dave on multiple occasions.

"It's not such a big deal," she says, though it sounds like it is. "Jade's grandfather is bringing all the. The documents? To sign? And then I'll be the, the heiress again..."

Okay, something is very obviously wrong here, and you prop yourself up on your elbow to get a better look at her. And yup, just as you suspected, there's a wobbly chin, big glassy blue eyes, and you, Dirk Strider, do not fucking know what to do when a girl cries. "Hey, hey, no, let's not," you try, panicked and choking. You move her hands away from her face as she attempts to hide. "C'mon, Janey, talk to us here. What's wrong? Really wrong."

"What if I mess up," she whispers. "What if I do something wrong or she comes back and I'm just her pawn again? What if I can't stop her?"

"She's dead," Roxy shushes, and she sits up too, petting Jane's face and her arms, trying to rub warmth back into her. "She's dead and fuckin' gone and she ain't never comin back, okay? Would Dirk and I be here otherwise? Probably not goddamn who knows, but she's gone, Janey, it's just you and your Nanna and you won, okay? We won."

"I really wanted to meet Poppop," she hiccups, and your heart aches in your chest. You get it. You get it all too fucking well.

"I know, Crocker," you soothe, keep your voice low, rub the back of your hand along her side. "I know. We did, too. Woulda loved to meet old man John. Bet he was a fucking riot, huh? With the corny old man jokes or whatever."

"It is so clear you never watched Night Court," Jane giggles through her hands, which she's using to cover her face again. "But I appreciate the sentiment, Strider. And equally, I would have liked to meet your brother, even if his movies were all pretty much terrible."

"Do not tell Dave that," you whisper, but you're smiling. "It'd gut him to know another Crockbert thinks his sense of humor is atrocious."

"John doesn't think he's atrocious at all," Jane says, wiping her eyes clear. "He just likes messing with people. You two would get along quite well, I think."

You look at Roxy for confirmation, and she's grinning real big. "Kid's totes hilarious tbh. And he's a cutie, besides."

"Roxy noooo!" Jane smacks at her leg lightly. "Please not this again!"

Roxy rolls her eyes for your benefit, but she wiggles her eyebrows, too. She goes back to petting Jane's hair. "Don't worry, Janey. Dirk and I will come to Washington and support u. Right Dirk?"

"Uh," you say, because the idea of seeing Jake again terrifies you, and you've never ridden an airplane before. Jane peeks up from between her fingers, biting her lip, eyes red around the edges, and you fucking cave like a castle made of sand. "Yeah. Yeah, I'd like that."

"Family road trip!" is Roxy's take away, and she wraps her arms around both of you tight enough to choke.

You aren't sure who moves first when you hear the knock on the door, but in between point A and point B, you and Jane crack heads, and you feel a blistering pain shoot through your nose, followed by the metallic smell of blood.

"Uh-oh," Roxy whispers, but Jane just outright curses, has a fucking hanky in hand which she presses into yours before hurrying to the door (it is just Dad, because of course it is, and he is just making sure everything is okay, he heard shouting, and wants to know if you need anything, because of course he does).

"Oh shit, Jesus Christmas, fuck," Jane says as soon as the door has closed again, and she's dragging you into the bathroom, tipping your head forward over the sink. "Oh Dirk, I'm so sorry!"

"Y'got a hard fucking head, Crocker," you manage, splashing some water up into your nose. "As I should have expected from a stalwart lady such as yourself."

"Dirk, please stop talking," she sighs, and then she herds you up, sits you on the closed toilet lid. The bite of her lip is not promising. "Oh, jeez."

"Is it broken?" Roxy is hovering in the doorway, looking a bit unsure of what to do. "Should I get Momlonde in here?"

"I don't... know," Jane says, hesitant.

"S'fine if it's broken," you shrug, raise your hands to the right height. "I can set it -"

"No!" she yelps, horrified, batting your hands away.

You frown, furrow your brow. What is the problem? "Jane," you try, "it's fine. I've set my own nose before. It'll only hurt for a second -"

"No," she says, firmer, and when her eyes soften, there's that pity, the sadness you saw in her face the first time she visited your planet, the first time she saw Roxy's house. It doesn't sit well in your stomach, and you shift uncomfortably to look away. "Hey, no, I don't mean it like -" She inhales through her nose, sighs out her mouth. Wow, what a show off. "Let me try to. Well." She wiggles her fingers, offers a smile. "What's better practice, right?"

"Oh," you say. Blink. Yeah. "Yeah, fuck yeah. Get to it, Crocker. Magic me a straight fucking nose."

"Okay," she says, all steely determination and serious face. "Close your eyes. Let me see if I can just..."

God help you, you have never trusted anyone in your life the way a normal human being should, but you do as you're told and close your eyes.

It's silent a moment, and then you feel a soft little peck against your nose, with the accompanying "smooch" sound.

Your eyes fly open to the sound of Roxy's howls of laughter, and Jane grinning from ear to ear.

"Sorry," she says. "I've just always wanted to catch you off guard like that."

You are genuinely dumbfounded for a moment. "I," you say, and then stop. Feel your ears start to burn.

If it was anyone else, you think, you would be absolutely livid. But these two ladies have you wrapped so tightly around their collective finger that you don't think you'd even notice bending over backwards for them.

Roxy is still snickering, and you try not to think about the fact that she is holding her phone to her chest while Jane puts her thumbs on either side of your nose.

"Okay," Jane says, and this time when she breathes out, you actually see her hands go blue.

It's almost startling, the suddenness with which it comes on, and you flinch, have to bite back against your automatic desire to pull out your strife specibus. It's like peppermint on your tongue, frost across your teeth, and the smell of menthol so overwhelming you almost gag, a flare of white-hot pain as your nose cartilage snaps back like elastic.

"Holy fuck, Jane," Roxy says.

"Holy shit," Jane says.

"Ow, my nose," you say.

 

"You don't have to come with," Jane tells you on the way to the hospital. You're sitting in Bro's truck, just you, Dave, and Jane, and your hands are fucking shaking.

"I think he does have to come with," Dave says, and you mask a wince as he shifts too early and you hear the engine, in the back of your head, die a little bit more. "He's my emotional support Dirk. I need him."

"Dave," Jane says delicately.

"Jane," Dave returns.

"Are you sure you know how to drive?"

"Well now that's just fucking rude," he says, but you can see the pinch in his face as he turns slowly into the parking garage. "I am a certified time god, I don't need a license."

"I'm pretty sure you do, bro," you say, but you are trying so hard to keep your stomach from doing backflips that you don't really have time to critique his driving skills.

"Hey, Mom said I could," he huffs, hunches over the wheel a little. You are almost 80% sure, in this moment, that he loves this car more than you.

He's right, besides. Mom did say he could, said she'd be right behind him if anything happened. You aren't entirely sure why Jane agreed to right with you.

"Hey," she murmurs, and you look down at your hands to see them gripping your knees, covered in sweat, and suddenly you know exactly why. "It's going to be okay, Dirk." Her eyes are calm as the ocean blue, gaze steady and steadfast. "I'm going to help him."

You can't find the right words, you don't know how to say thank you, with your heart in your ears and slamming into your chest like it's trying to escape. So you nod, and you look down at your lap, and you breathe through your unbroken nose.


Bro's hospital room is as quiet as it's ever been, the steady sound of beeping machines, the muffled voices and footsteps just outside.

Jane moves fast, because you have to, because it could go wrong, and it feels wrong, watching her now, bow over this meaner, bigger version of yourself.

Bro, for his part, doesn't wake up until she reaches out to touch him, and even half-speed, half-asleep, he stops her in her tracks. "Egbert?" he slurs, squints like the light hurts.

"No sir, Mr. Strider," Jane says, gentle as anything. "Just Jane. I'm here to help, if you'll let me."

He stares at her, eyes drooping like he's fighting to keep them open, and then he shrugs, closes them and rolls his head away. "Suit yourself."

When Jane touches him, Bro's entire body goes icicle blue, his skin otherworldly and glowing like a fucking ghost. It's unsettling. He lets out a loud hiss, hunches in on himself, but that's all you see before she's shifting away and Bro is lying there, looking dead as a doornail, curled into a ball as tight as he can go.

"Well?" you ask, hesitant to touch her.

Jane shudders, wraps her arms around herself. She looks pale, a little sweaty. "I, I think it worked? I could see it all, though, Jiminy Christmas, what a nightmare."

"I take offense to that," Bro says, weak but crystal clear. "Head hurts like a motherfucker, though. Christ, this is worse than the Macy's holiday parade circa 1994."

You have absolutely zero idea what that means, but have you never, ever been more relieved to hear him speak.

Chapter Text

You do not miss the hotel. You thought you would, and maybe part of you definitely does. The fresh air, the free pool, the smell of clean laundry. You even appreciated the wider halls, the fact that you never had to clean, the unfailing elevator, and the trustworthy AC.

But rolling back into your shitty apartment is like a breath of well-deserved Dorito dust, and though you are careful to sidle to the opposite side of the futon, you are, pretty dramatically, happy to be home.

Bro drags your bags back in (Mom offered and his only response was "nah") and dumps them by the door. He didn't talk much on the way home, just stared at the back of Jane's head a lot and winced every time Dave, in front of Mom's car, stalled the truck a little bit. He comes to stand by his bed, and for a moment you imagine he's not all there. He looks the stain. Looks at you. Back at the stain. Then he says, voice hollow and completely unimpressed, "You just left the blood to soak in there, huh."

You freeze halfway out of your chair, give him what you hope is an appropriately sheepish look. "My legs don't work, Bro."

"I didn't realize crippled legs prevented your arms from working," he snorts. Sighs, drops his head. "Alright."

You fold yourself onto the mattress, carefully quiet as he moves around the apartment. "I'm pretty sure you're not allowed to say crippled," you tell him, when he's bent over under the cupboard looking for the bleach.

"And I'm pretty sure leaving my apartment to a bunch of grubby teenagers was the worst mistake I ever made."

"That is literally so far from fucking true, and I definitely shouldn't have to tell you that," you say, with more balls than you have the right to.

Bro pauses in the kitchen, holding a bottle of cleaner and a roll of paper towels. "Dave," he says, but there's not vitriol in it, and he gives up before he starts. He's not in the mood for banter right now, you guess.

You grab your phone and drag it up to your face so he doesn't see you watching him.

It does seem like he's okay, you guess, or at least better than he was ('pretty much dead' isn't really much of a bottom line, though).

TG: hey man everything cool over there
TG: i mean i know you just got home im not saying every single thing is gonna go to shit right away i mean definitely not because jane just fixed bro and for him to die right away would be kinda fucked up
TG: just got back to the hotel btw we should be back tomorrow
TG: well maybe idk mom might let dirk and i have our own room for a bit which is cool because fuck yeah ac
TG: and also because rooming with a bunch of flighty broads is exhausting
TG: i know we dont talk about it but the energy between rose and mom gets really fucking stressful and thats saying something
TG: considering who we spent the past thirteen years with i mean
TG: do you even get these messages
TG: like
TG: when i message you does it just look like im talking to myself
TG: am i just sending these messages out into the abyss to be taken by the gods in the dark
TG: i dont know about every time but im definitely seeing them this time
TG: so whats up
TG: oh
TG: hey
TG: hey
TG: uh
TG: yeah anyway is he cool
TG: bro i mean
TG: dude you literally saw him less than twenty minutes ago
TG: yeah
TG: but
TG: shut up
TG: hes fine i think
TG: everything seems to be back to where its supposed to
TG: blood and brain wise i mean
TG: hes ignoring me anyway idk i tried bantering with him you know how sometimes hell go for a good banter
TG: classic
TG: right
TG: but i think hes just tired right now

Bro is actually leering at you over the top of his shades while he cleans, look so pointed it may as well be a throwing star.

TG: actually right now hes cleaning the blood off the futon and looking at me
TG: he is not happy dude
TG: aw bro come on man hes the one who fucking bled everywhere in the first place
TG: aint like the futons never seen blood sport before
TG: he mostly just thinks were gross i think
TG: tell him fuck him hes gross
TG: no fucking way you pester him yourself
TG: no just tell him
TG: do it if hes tired he probably wont beat your ass
TG: i am making a roxy slashy face right fucking now dave
TG: i double dave dare you
TG: look what roxy is doing to me man i just made a pun like some kind of lalonde
TG: cmon do it for me

You sigh, roll you eyes, and peek up at Bro.

He's dabbing at the fabric now, pulling away, dabbing more. He notices you. Scowls. "What."

"Dave says you're gross," you tell him because you're not a coward.

(Okay maybe you are a little bit.)

Bro's eyebrows shoot up into his hairline, and he gives a breathy little almost-laugh that makes you herniate. "Christ, both of you are killing me," he mutters, goes to rub at his eyes.

"Chemicals!" you shout, like an idiot. His look says as much. "Quit rubbing your fucking eyes," you tell him.

"Can't help it," he grunts, climbing to his feet and heading back to the kitchen. "Shit itches." He looks at you as he flips the tap, as he shoves his hands under the water, as he lathers with soap.

"I get it," you groan. "I'm not your mom, yadda yadda, fuck you."

TG: did you do it
TG: yeah he laughed
TG: yo he did what

"Dave," he says again, and this time when he comes back, he sits right next to you on the futon. This cannot be good. You are getting red alert dad vibes over here. He hesitates, pauses to take off his shoes. His fucking socks don't match again, and you are so fucking baffled because honestly? You don't even know where he keeps his clothes. "You don't have to keep hovering over me like a hen in a nest. It's not your job."

Uh. "Uh," you say. Shift so that your back is against the arm of the futon. "I know. I mean. Fuck, I'm not hovering. Not really?" You twist your fingers around each other nervously. "Well maybe a little, but it's only cuz I promised them I'd watch you, you know, make sure you don't do dumb idiot shit or whatever. Someone's gotta make sure you don't die, and I guess since I'm the only one who's seen you kick it before, I'd be the best judge of that."

Bro sighs through his nose, takes off his shades, and puts them in his polo. Massages the bridge of his nose. "Regardless of the fact that I am - debatably, I reckon, given my track record - an adult, you know I don't know what to say when you say shit like that, right?"

"I don't know," you say weakly, shrug. Look down at your phone again.

TG: dave
TG: dave come on
TG: dude you cant just drop mad truth bombs vis a vis bro laughing like a person and then disappear
TG: sorry
TG: i think im getting lectured right now
TG: whoa
TG: about what

Bro stares at you, and you decide he does look a better, circles under his eyes less prominent, little red indents on his nose from his glasses, giving you this indiscernible expression that you just can't parse. Jane did a good job, bringing your brother back (okay Christ he wasn't dead). You wonder if he should still be taking his AEDs, and decide it's probably better he does, just in case.

TG: its kind of hard to explain
TG: he thinks i care too much or something i dont know
TG: hes so fucking frustrating i dont know what he wants from us
TG: from me

"You should sleep in your own room tonight," he says, suddenly enough that you start.

"What?" And then, catching up, "Oh fuck no, you ain't getting out of watch duty that easy!" You shove your shades up onto your forehead so that he can see how serious you are. So goddamn serious. "You think I'll let you pull that shit your first night back?"

He shrugs. "It's your chance to have the bed to yourself, yeah? It'll be good for you, to get some privacy, maybe get some proper sleep."

"I sleep just fine out here," you huff, although your spine protests this. The mattress is old. You definitely need a new one that isn't covered in Bro's blood stains.

"Kid," he says, and the look he gives you makes it clear he can see right through you. "You ain't a fucking nurse. You're definitely not any use to me as a servant or voyeur. C'mon, you'll be one room away if shit goes sideways. Doesn't take that much energy to get up into that chair now, huh? You'll be there quicker'n a jack rabbit, I trust you."

"Okay," you say, voice strained, "we should probably unpack the fact that you just said you trust me for the first time fucking ever, but how about we focus on the fact that you almost died, and that I don't fucking trust you."

"Dave," he starts.

You laugh, a little hysterical. "I honestly don't know what to fucking do with you, dude. Sometimes you seem so." You gesture to just. All of him. "So the same as you used to be, like a big mean fucking robot that I live with in the place of a guardian. One minute I feel like I'm gonna shit my pants in terror, and the next, you're carrying my dumbass down the stairs, or telling me you died for me, or - or -" Your eyes burn, and you look at him, can't hide the raw emotion that is making its way across your face. "You almost died again," you whisper. "And I couldn't do anything to stop it."

And there it is, there's the rub. It's been on your mind for days, it's all your anxiety, all the tightness in your chest, your sanity circling the drain. Dave is the one who saved him. Not you. You didn't do shit but remember, and for what? You're not a hero, and you never were, and Bro died because of you, and almost died again, and you couldn't do shit. You never do anything.

The panic in Bro's eyes shouldn't be as pathetically comical as it is, but it is, and you laugh again, eyes welling up. "This is so fucking stupid. Every time I do this, I think 'Dave, why you do you fucking bother?' and honestly I don't fucking know. I don't know why I keep blurting all this shit out to you. It's like a soundboard for my own stupidity, echoing back for all eternity into the void, until it reaches the horror terrors and they swallow it and shit it out into dream bubbles or whatever."

Bro finally moves, covering his face with his hands, dragging them down in a wiping motion. He's frustrated, you realize. Well fuck him, welcome to your world twenty-four goddamn seven. He drops them into his lap, curls long fingers over his knees. You watch the veins you can see through his skin, the way the tendons flex when his grip tightens. Restraint.

"Dave," he says, and there is something cruel in his voice, or not cruel, but angry, and you realize you don't know how to tell the difference. "You cannot keep blaming yourself for my death."

"I didn't say I did," you say, and know exactly how fucking dumb and small it sounds.

"That's fucking bullshit, and you n' I both know it." Bro takes a deep breath, releases it. You curl into yourself. He looks so mad. "I ain't - I'm not the guardian of the year. Hell, I definitely ain't fucking anywhere near the podium, neither, but even I can see plain as goddamn day that you're dwelling hard on this shit. And I don't know how to stop it."

"You can't," you groan, pull your knees up and bang your head on them. "It's me. I'm the problem. If I had tried harder -"

"So fucking what if you tried harder?" he snaps, and it's the first time Bro has risen his voice to you, really risen it.

"So maybe I coulda..." you press your lips together, furrow your brow. "I don't know. Helped? Been any help at all instead of fucking it all up? What's your fucking problem? I'm trying to apologize to you for letting you die -"

He snorts, rolls his eyes, and it is cruel. He's so angry, so fucking angry. "You think that if, what, I had trained you harder? Made your life even more fucking miserable, that you could have prevented that? Jesus, Dave, he was a fucking monster, twice as bad as I ever got to be. You think if I didn't stand a damn chance, you could have done anything?"

You stare at him, mouth open, completely speechless for the first time in your life. You have no idea what to say. Bro has never yelled at you, even when correcting you, tone always even, always sturdy and cold. You've never even heard Dirk yell, and the sound doesn't terrify you so much as render you unable to process what just fucking happened.

Bro seems to realize what he's done, because he sneers, curses under his breath, and then suddenly he's halfway across the room, shoes on, shoving his keys into his pocket and fumbling with a lighter.

"Where are you fucking going?" you croak, and you're scared, and you're hurt, and you don't want him to leave.

"Roof," he grunts. He pulls a cigarette out of somewhere, and it's the first time you've caught him in the act. You're a little baffled by how your brain hones in on the detail, like that's what's fucking important right now. American Spirits. Wow what a fucking hipster. What the fuck.

"Will you come back?"

It's quiet, deadly damn quiet in the apartment, his shoulders bowed, his hand on the doorknob. When he does speak, it's with more surprise, more hesitation than you're used to. "Do you want me to?"

And you. You have to think for a minute, pulse racing, heart staccato in your ears. "I don't really want you to leave at all," you admit, and it sounds lame, even if it is true. The idea of being here alone, in the silence again, is devastating. You think, absently, that you might be really fucking lonely.

Bro exhales, a big gust of air that blows smoke into the apartment, and then he's walking back across the room, half speed, so that you're not left chasing his after image.

"What are you -"

He's swung you over his shoulder before you finish, folded up your chair, and with a hop, skip and a literal step, you're on the roof.

"What the fuck!" You kick at him weakly.

"Can't smoke in the apartment," he says simply, like that solves everything, and the way he sets you down in your chair is twenty times more delicate than you expect from him.

You still land like a bundle of grapes in a grocery store scale.

Bro wanders away from you, across the roof, and you watch him, all predator long legs and strong shoulders that shift through his shirt. He's scary, your older brother. You have never doubted that. And he has never felt so human to you, as he drops onto the edge of the roof in a single fluid motion, like a puppet with the strings cut.

You linger by the door, uncertain. He was so... mad at you. Or maybe he wasn't, and maybe you're projecting, and both of you are kinda freaked out right now.

Well. He's not running away from you anymore, at least. You wheel quietly over, come to sit next to him. Your palms are sweating, and you still feel a little breathless.

"I'm not actively trying to kill myself, Dave," he says, and all the fight has gone out of him, all the vitriol burned away in a cloud of smoke. "And I know you don't trust me. Honest to Christ, I don't even know if I fucking want you to, but I'm the adult." He looks at you, and his eyes burn into yours. You can see the anger there, trapped under the surface. He is trying so fucking hard, right now, for you.

It terrifies you.

"I am the adult, and if I tell you to back off, you need to back the fuck off."

"I don't want to," you say stubbornly. You don't know why you're fighting this so hard. A few months ago you would have turned tail and run at the first sign of trouble.

"I didn't ask if you wanted to," Bro says, takes a heavy drag. He holds it between his fingers with such ease, and you wonder, uselessly, how long he's smoked. "I told you, as your fucking guardian. What you're doing is unhealthy, and I'm tired of watching you pull these acrobatic fucking pirouettes off the handle to justify the way you're acting right now. I'm sick of it, sick of being responsible for it. Back off, Dave."

"Well you weren't much of a guardian for the past thirteen - fuck, sixteen years," you say, and it comes out in as close to a snarl as you can. "Why should I even listen to you? You can't fucking take care of yourself, that much is goddamn clear. Dirk, Dave, and I have basically been walking around mopping up your shit for months now. I've had to watch you seize more times than I've actually seen you die.

Which," you're barely breathing now, fury flooding through your body like white-hot metal, "is exactly twice as much as most people have to see their parents die! Not to mention I haven't brought up fucking once the absolute bullshit you put me through as a kid. And I think about it, 'Bro', all the time, all the fucking time, like it's some kind of repetitive obsession, like a fucked up song I got stuck in my head. You think you have it so bad because we're smothering you? Try having to take care of a dude who fucked up everything for the first thirteen years of your life, and yet for some un-fucking-discernible reason, you love the absolute shit out of him!"

"I never asked you to!" he barks, and you are stunned silent as he crushes his entire cigarette in his hand.

It is, all too suddenly, all too perfectly still, and you're not even sure if you could breathe if you tried. Bro exhales from his nose, another cloud of smoke, and his eyes are as sharp and mean as you've ever seen them.

"That's," you whisper, and you blink, too rapidly. "That's not fair."

He watches as you start to cry, and it's like everything you wanted to say is stuck in your throat, like everything you've struggled to achieve just falls apart right in front of you. "I don't know what you want me to say," he mutters, rakes a hand back through his hair.

"I want you to be better," you choke, and you sound bitter, and frustrated, and hurt. "I want a better Bro, I want a better fucking guardian, and it's not. It's not fair that everyone else got someone who loves them, and I got -" You. You got him. Your bro, who you love so much, who's made so much progress, he has, who you thought, almost, was so close to a fucking epiphany.

Bro looks away, then, and it hurts, more than anything else, that he doesn't want to see you cry. He drops the crumpled remains of his cigarette, wipes his hand on his pants. Doesn't mention the perfectly circular ring burned through his glove. "Yeah, well. Ain't the first time I've disappointed someone."

"But that's your fucking problem, Bro," you say, and your legs are not strong, but you kick him, anyway. You hurt so, so deep inside. "You don't get to decide how other people feel about you. You don't get to decide how I feel about you. I don't want you to be better because I hate you. Don't you get that?"

You don't know what else to say. You've layed yourself bare, and you feel cold, hollow inside.

"Dave," he says on an inhalation, and you push at him.

"You have to want to be better," you say, and you are crying now, real crying. You're so tired. "You have to try."

"I am trying," he grouses.

"I know," you sigh. Your voice feels faint, even to you. "But you have to try harder. You have to try if you want to change."

"I can't fix shit -"

"You have to try harder," you say with force. "You can't - you can't just jerk me and Dave around forever. You can't leave us in this weird fucking place where we don't know where we stand with you. Where I don't know where I stand with you." Your hands are tight on your wheels, your body shaking. You're afraid, you're miserable. Why do you keep talking? You clear your throat, struggle with your words. It feels like a million barbs, trapped in your lungs, sharper with every breath. "I don't even know if you love me."

"Dave," he says again, and he doesn't sound mad now, just kind of tired as he fishes another cigarette free from his pocket. "What I did? The shit that went down? I don't know how to -" His fingers shake on his lighter. He takes a drag, blows it out, takes another. "I don't know, now, looking back. What I was thinking."

Your heart drops into your stomach, and he must know, because he clarifies, "Why I pushed you so hard. I think about it, all the time now. What'd you say? Repetitive obsession? These past few months have been. I don't know." He picks absently at his glove. "I can see it, y'know. The difference. How things are now, the stark contrast from before, like night and fuckin' day. And the truth is? I don't fucking know what to say.

"I think a part of me thought, if I can just get this kid through the game alive, that'll be enough. If I can make sure he's strong enough not to bite it, it'll justify why I -" He stops, then, glances at you, turns away. "Somewhere in there I lost control. Or maybe I had too much control. I sure as fuck don't have any, now." He lets out a strangled laugh, and it startles the shit out of you, that rusty, ugly sound, like he's never fucking tried.

"I can't justify what I did. I'm not going to." He looks at you, and his expression is as open as you've ever seen it. Tired, lips thin, eyes earnest, perfectly dry. "But I can see why it was wrong, and I can acknowledge it. I was wrong. I can't rewrite the past, and I can't ever make up for what I did. But I'm sorry, and I mean that. I'm so fucking sorry, Dave."

The roof is very quiet, then. A siren starts up in the distance, and then it's a harmony.

You breathe in, once.

Bro breathes out through the nostrils, stubs out his cigarette, shifts as if to move.

"Don't," you say quickly, and he freezes. "Um." Your voice shakes. "I want to..." You roll backwards, turn your chair, and then fling yourself at him.

You know without batting a lash that he'll catch you, keep you both safe, that he wouldn't let either of you fall off the fucking roof. You wrap your arms tight around his neck, and you don't let go.

You don't say, "it's okay", because it's not, and you don't say "I forgive you", because you don't, but when his hands come up, hesitant, delicate as anything, to touch the space between your shoulder blades, you almost sob. "Thank you," you say, and mean it.

 

Chapter Text

You enter the apartment with something leaning towards hesitance. Dave didn't tell you everything from the other night, just that Bro had apologized for something or another after lecturing him about feelings, and that they were cool. You're still not entirely sure you buy it.

You're not actually sure you buy your own made up story, when they finally got Bro a scan and he was cleared to go home (the faces of his doctors when he walked out into the hallway were priceless), but he's better now, at least. You hope. Jane promised to do a once-over, a little medi-magic checkup, though she's still learning, and sometimes it doesn't seem to work all the way? Dirk's nose took some quite literal tweaking before it was completely straight.

But then there he is on the futon, and it's like the squeeze on your throat finally releases. He's sitting with his legs up, a smuppet in one hand, sewing earnestly while Dave plays the Xbox, and you feel a kind of soothing nostalgia. Bro's sewing days used to be your only reprieve from ceaseless macho bullshit, when he was too busy working to bother you. He also let you play the Xbox for hours, if you finished your homework first, and he wouldn't even mock you too brutally for breaking it after fifteen minutes (or less, and you can hear his voice now, “Really, kid? Again?” Haha).

Bro just barely looks up at you, the shift of his hat bill, the twitch of his shades, and he says, "Hey. Welcome back."

You feel like he's trying too hard, maybe, so that you won't freak, or maybe he still feels weird about the time travel thing. Fuck, you still feel weird about the time travel thing. You haven't tried since. You're not afraid to, not really, it's just.

Well.

You made it pretty fucking clear when Jade was batshit grimbark that you had precisely zero inclination towards doing it ever again. The fact that you HAVE, despite protests, doesn't exactly make you happy, either.

It's like losing a sense of purpose, you know, like everything you stand for as a guy suddenly means shit and you're left floundering in the sweaty armpit of the universe.
You really need to cool it with the armpit jokes; Roxy hasn't let you live that down and it's slowly killing you.

Bro is still staring at you, and you flounder, don't know why you can't think of anything to say.

Rose has exactly zero problems, and exactly zero tact, or maybe too much, and she shoulders past you in the doorway, comes to sit delicately on the edge of the futon, in the space between him and Dave.

Dave eyes her suspiciously and then grunts, scooting away and looking uncomfortable.

And for good fucking reason, because when she speaks it is like a horror terror has left you in a doomed time bubble full of embarrassment so cringe-worthy it could end up on America's Funniest.

"Hello, Father," she says, and the predatory shine in her eyes is at full steam. "I'm glad to see you recovering."

You die a little inside, right there in that doorway, can just feel pieces of you crumble and drop off like dead leaves.

Bro goes so still you think, for a moment, he's pretending to be made of wax. Then he adjusts, tilting away from her, elbow making a heavy sound as it lands on the arm of the futon. "I don't recall giving you any kind of permission to call me that."

"Oh, I didn't figure I'd need it, considering our genetic relation," Rose says, too cheerfully. "However, since I am quite comfortable calling Dave my brother, it would then follow that perhaps you'd prefer that I, too, call you by a familiar moniker? Perhaps Brother Dearest? Brother Mine?"

A muscle in Bro's jaw jumps. It is never a good sign.

"Rose," Dave mutters weakly, clenching his controller close to his stomach. You don't fucking envy him, that's for damn sure.

"Of course," Rose keeps going, louder now, "given that you have never been much of a guardian to Dave, nor to myself, perhaps we should call you by your given name, Dirk."

You suck in air through your teeth, and Dave completely freezes. The air in the apartment feels cold, stagnant, and you almost shiver.

"I think I'd prefer if you didn't call me anything," Bro says, voice terse now, stabbing his needle into the puppet's ass pointedly. You know that if it was you, he'd probably be making you strife on the fucking roof right now.

"I think I prefer Father," Rose says like she doesn't even notice, and she pats his leg. "I have always wanted a dad."

Dave looks like he's about to sink through the floor, and his head jerks to you desperately, mouthing wordlessly. Fucking do something, Dave.

If your life is a horror movie, Bro is Regan MacNeil and Rose is Father fucking Merrim, and his head turns so slowly that you can't imagine this panning out in a way that's interpretable as "good".

You have only seen him absolutely furious with you maybe three times in your life; when you broke his new turntables (the first time), when you tried to drown Cal in the shower (you're totally vindicated for that one you think), and that time you climbed a tree and broke your fucking arm and Bro had to pick you up from the school (he told you not to do it, he fucking told you to be careful, Jesus, Dave, what were you thinking?)

You know the tells before they come, and you know that Bro's about to fucking lose it in the quietest way possible.

"Rose," you say, voice strangled, "can I talk to you for a minute? Alone."

"I don't see why whatever you need to say can't be said in front of our dearest old dad," Rose says, but she is challenging and angry, smile blithe and eyebrows slanted dangerously.

What the fuck is her problem? Rose has shown almost no inclination towards Bro this entire trip, and you've watched them tiptoe around each other, carefully avoid discussing - well, anything. You don't actually know if you've ever seen them speak. Certainly not while you or Mom were in the room. Not that they'd have anything to talk about, you think. Except maybe to bond over how fucking stupid you are.

Bro puts down the puppet and you expect

You don't know. An explosion. Some kind of fucked up family feud in the middle of the living room. Get behind the podiums, kids, it's Lalonde vs Strider on why provoking a dangerous adult is a bad idea, and I'm your host, John O'Hurley!

That one's a little much, even for you. You wonder if, by some cosmic mistake, you've missed a changing in hosts since 2009, and maybe your joke isn't as funny now. (It wasn't really funny at all.)

You definitely expect the way Bro is now rising to his feet, and you see Dave start to scramble for his chair, folded nearby. Rose seems to hesitate, then. And she isn't short, your sister, and it's hard to tell now, where you get it from, but he dwarfs her, especially when sitting.

"Bro," you start, paper thin and a little too high-pitched.

"I'm going to," he interrupts, monotone but vaguely choked, "The store. For cigarettes."

Well. Okay. Wasn't expecting that at all?? It's like he's forgotten all about being menacing, like his only goal now is "escape". You can't blame him, you have a pretty similar reaction to most confrontational situations. You love Rose, you think, but she can be a bit much.

"Is this one of those scenarios in which you don't come back?" Rose does not let up, not even for a moment, but Bro sighs out his nose and storms across the apartment towards the door, and towards you.

You go to. Well, you don't know. Move? Make fucking way? Stop him? But you get stuck halfway, just stand there stupidly.

He stops, there in the doorway, and then leans past you, the arm of his shirt brushing your hair, as he snatches his keys and a hat.

"I'm glad you're not dead again," you blurt in a panic.

Bro turns to stone and back in under a second flat, 0.833 repeating, but who's counting, certainly not you, why would you say that, who can even count that low? When he shifts it's like he's moving through wet concrete, slow as buffet soft serve. His hand collides with the top of your head and you flinch. He doesn't remove it. Keeps it there. Pat pat.
And then, like the cryptic fucking disaster he is, Bro is gone entirely, in less enough of a second that you don't even finish blinking. Ugh, he's a freak.

But you kinda feel. You don't know. Pat pat. Heh.

Still, you've got bigger fish to fry.

Or in this case, a fucking sister.

You turn on her and she's sitting there, looking just the tiniest bit contrite, all Lalonde-ish and frustrating and you want to. You don't know. Yell? You can't possibly yell at her. You've never yelled at Rose before, not even when she was drunk and tripping all over herself talking to you. God, you're a shitty brother. "Can I fucking talk to you in my room now?"

She stands slowly, glances at Dave, who is now muttering angrily to himself as he locks his ride into place. "What about -"

"I wouldn't fucking worry about me," he snaps, and he won't even look at her. You think, if anything, he's even more steamed than you are. Dude's practically got it coming out his ears over here. "Just get out of here before I lose my goddamn mind. I won't even listen. I'll turn up the TV or, or whatever. Who cares. Fuck off, Rose."

You don't really have time to unpack why he's so upset, because it's probably the same reason you're so upset.

She couldn't even give you a moment to talk to him, to answer on your own time. You would have. You don't know. Said something. Sorry I couldn't keep that all from happening? Sorry I time-traveled but didn't actually do anything to stop what was probably your second death? You're welcome? Fuck, at least you got out part of a sentence. That's progress, baby.

You're just tired, you think, of everyone intervening on your behalf, or curating your experience to fit their idea of how you should feel about something. It happened more and more on the meteor, even if you loathe to admit it, and seeing Rose do it now, when you have cross-timeline memories where she did and didn't care, or caused your discomfort, or unfairly prevented it, is infuriating.

You're mad as hell and frustrated and for once you wish Rose would just listen to you when you asked her not to do something.

Maybe your relationship isn't as good as you thought.

You flash over, grab her by the hand before she can complain, and drag her into your room without a word. You don't even know where to start.

Or you do, because you start by shoving her in and slamming the door and saying, "Rose, what the fuck was THAT?"

She whips around, and there is anger there, dark and sour, written all over her face. "What was what, dear brother? My attempt at friendly conversation?"

"That wasn't anything approaching friendly," you say, throw your arms up. "That was you being all wildly passive-aggressive even though both Dave and I were obviously uncomfortable."

"You and Dave are easily the least comfortable people I have ever met," she says, and the roll of her eyes is so much of you it hurts all the way down. "I have never met two people set on claiming to be so calm and yet so riddled with anxiety you can't even speak to the person who raised you."

"I was going to!" you snap, ignore her absolutely verbal goddamn lashing. "I was just building up the cool guy tension, was gonna have a real chill nod between me and the guy, maybe sit down there. Between him and Dave, I guess. Just right next to Bro. Like a person." As you speak you lose steam. It sounds dumb and lame and like you're afraid again. "And anyway he's my weird guardian, get your own fucked up male antagonist to angst over."

Rose's face morphs in a way you can't explain, into something between sadness and resentment, and a quiet, seething rage you've only ever seen on Bro. "He's my father, too, Dave."

"Yeah but you can't just call him that," you anguish, barrel right over that weird fucked up thing she just said.

The look she gives you is cynical amusement. "Why not? You call my mother 'Mom', and I have stopped neither of you in that regard. In fact, I even allow you to call Roxy 'mom' despite having mentioned several times how much I wish you would not."

You open your mouth. Close it. That's. Sort of fair, you guess. Still. "Because she's Mom! He's not my dad!" Well. Okay. "I mean he is, I guess, in the genetic sense, but that's pretty much where we draw the line."

Bro's pretty much always going to be an older brother figure for you, you think, even with that knowledge. Dude's still kinda young to be a "dad", he doesn't really have the vibe, and he's hells of less responsible than Mom. If anything, he's more of an Uncle Buck type. Wacky hi-jinks all the way down.

"He's my brother," you say, and find you mean it earnestly. It's not so bad, really, having a weird brodad. At least as long as he keeps being. Well. Just like that you guess. "And we're cool like that, and honestly I'm over here trying to like. I don't know. Figure our shit out? And starting shit with him is kind of a bit much, Rose, Jesus pantshitting Christ."

She crosses her arms, sits on your bed and cocks an eyebrow. Very standard Lalonde posture, there. She is not taking you nearly as seriously as you want her to. “You think he can't handle a little ribbing?”

You sigh, flex you hands. Rose has a way of getting under your skin that almost no one else does. Maybe it’s a crux of being related, or maybe it’s just a crux of being related to Dirk. “I'm not saying that, I'm just saying I'm like trying to make progress with the guy and. And you fucking it up with your flighty broad bullshit is making it worse." You wince. You sound defensive, and feel like a dumb little kid again. Like when you were still thirteen, and she’d needle you for details about growing up, during those boring hours on the meteor before she learned how to alchemize liquor. You fold your arms, decide that’s too obvious, and cross the room to flop into your/Dirk’s chair. Rub at your eyes under your shades. "Man, I don’t know, he almost fucking died, maybe we should give him a break?"

She rolls her eyes again, and it’s a wonder they don’t roll out of her damn head, meatballs in a kid’s song style. "Oh, yes, because you think his almost-death has absolved him from being held accountable for his past actions, and that he’s so completely fragile he can’t handle his genetic daughter mocking him."

"Because I want him in my life!" you shout, too honest. It comes out too loud, too angry, your chest burning, your heartbeat unsteady. "Because it's my decision, even if it's shitty, even if everyone else doesn't want me to.” It isn’t about her making fun of him, not really. You don’t think. You don’t know. You’re just so. Tired. “You think I'm not afraid of him Rose? That everything’s all fixed now because I managed to go back in time and have a heart-to-fucking-heart I didn’t realize we already had? That I’m cool with the way he skulks around our apartment like a teenager trying to sneak out for cigarettes and booze? That Dirk and all his fucking puppets and how damn hard he tries to hide his interests from me doesn’t still fuck with me? We ain’t even remotely out of the woods yet, we’re stuck in the fucking ground with roots wrapped around our feet or some shit, this is a Hans Goddamn Christian Andersen fairytale now and we’re entrenched in it. Gonna be befriending chicken and fox people next week, catch me at the farm stealing a bunch of carrots from a guy or something.”

“That’s Beatrix Potter,” she says quietly.

“Okay, cool, good to know.” You drag your hands down your face. “Rose, you want to know Bro? The real Bro? I can’t help you. I don't know anything about the guy. I don't know how much of Bro is Dirk and how much was Cal, and if any of that is left because let's face it he's not exactly the most straightforward guy. Dude's on tighter lockdown than a brief case in a business meeting and all the same old dudes keep clambering over it because they can't tell whose is whose and so they all keep trying their combinations."

Rose's face is all exhaustion and irritation. "Skip to the point, Dave."

"Right." She's right. Shit. Uh. "Uh."

She sighs out her nose, folds one leg over the other, foot shaking uselessly. “Our father isn't forthcoming. I get that. But do you really think it’s so strange for me to want to know anything about him? Anything at all?”

Well. Shit, you don’t know. You guess maybe that’s fair. You kinda crashed her and Roxy on the platform that one time. And Rose has been taking care to prod Dirk quietly for hobbies and interests, but you kinda figured. You don’t know. Maybe she wouldn’t be interested in knowing Bro? Because he’s a weird fucked up version of Dirk with major issues that neither of you are ready to deal with.

“But why?” is what comes out, like you can’t stop yourself. You’re not protective, not really. And you’re not entirely jealous. I mean maybe a little piece of you does want to keep Rose to yourself, or keep her from being disappointed when she realizes Bro isn’t.... you don’t know.

Rose shifts and takes on a posture you’re not used to. Leaning forward, elbow on her knee, staring at the floor. She looks tired. “Dave, I have known my mother my whole life, and yet not at all. Frankly, it's been somewhat exhausting, getting to know her again, as a seemingly more mature young adult.” She smiles at you, as if sharing a private joke. It kind of is, you guess, insomuch that Sburb made all your lives into a giant cosmic joke. “I am unsure if it is misguided sentiment on my part or just - just the desire to escape the idea that my mother makes up the whole of my nature but I...” She presses her lips together, smearing lipstick at the corners where her mouth turns down.

You’re starting to realize that yeah, maybe you’re the dick in this shituation, and that you were playing protective older brother when you didn’t have the right. Might still need a few more lessons before you take on the S stages. Looks like you’re still stuck at D (D is for Dave, and for Dickhead). “Are you seriously gonna look to Bro for the nature vs nurture argument?” you ask her, use your foot to rotate your chair 360. “I dunno if you’ve seen Dirk, but those two never met and I could tell from the first ten minutes interacting exactly how similar they are.”

She laughs a little, smile widening until it reaches her eyes. They crinkle at the corners the same way Dirk’s do, and you’re struck again how much the angle of her nose reminds you of him. Family is weird like that, you guess. “I suppose I can already see a pretty good indication of the argument in you. You have, despite everything, grown up quite kind, Dave.”

"I'm not kind," you snap, and don't know why. It wasn’t an insult. It just feels like a compliment you don’t deserve.You shrug, tug self-consciously at your shirt. "I just. Don't know how to be mean."

"Oh, you very much do." She laughs, but it is caustic, and short-lived. "And I have seen it play out time and time again. But there is something inherently good-intentioned at the baser level of your actions, Dave. It's not a bad thing, to be selfless.” You wince, but she doesn’t seem to notice, or doesn’t care to mention it. “You are a good person. If," she says playfully, "not a particularly good brother."

And damn, if she ain’t one hunny percent spot on with that. You don’t really know what to say in reply. You spin again, give yourself a second out of Lalonde Vision. Stare at your computer screen, the background, one of Roxy’s selfies, all of you squished together, Dave’s glasses on Rose’s head and your face mashed into Dirk’s eye. Heh. “I know,” you tell her, and you’re not lying. You know. You remember cramming your headphones on, ignoring her, letting her drink herself into a fucking nightmare. “I’m sorry.”

She sighs and you hear her shift, step across the room. You’ll never get used to that, the sound of everyone’s feet on the floor, like that’s just a thing people do. Her arms reach around and squeeze you at the throat, choking you a little. Her head drops on top of yours. “We can both try harder, okay?”

“Okay,” you say, and you hold her there, take the hug where you can get it. God, you’re probably such a fucking nightmare to deal with. Like a fucking gecko with sticky pads all over your toes except the sticky pads are your dumbass little pizza hands, clinging to anyone that touches you for more than a second.

Of course, like a fucking genius, you open your mouth to ruin everything. “Why are you so hard on her? Your mom, I mean. I’ve seen her with you, y’know. She loves the shit outta you.”

“Dave,” she says weakly, but she doesn’t move, like she can tell you don’t want her to. “Just because... Because she’s not like your brother doesn’t mean that we don’t have problems.”

And you know that, you do, because you used it as a snide little remark a dozen times over, when she was all liquored up and stumbling around after you. Didn’t your mom used to drink? Didn’t you hate it? “But she’s trying really hard. I ain’t seen her have a drink, not once. And she’s kinda awesome.”

“The first week back was very difficult,” she murmurs, and then she is stepping back, turning you in the chair so you can see her. All the vitriol is gone, and all that’s left is your sister, tired and a little sad. “As I’m sure you are well aware. Recovery from addiction is a lifelong process, Dave. You should know it might not...” She sighs, looks away, back again. She squeezes your shoulders, and her face is serious. “It might not always be like this. Be good. She could relapse, worse than she was before, or Roxy could -”

“Hey,” you say, because you get the idea that a Good Brother would stop her here, now, before she cries. “Hey now, Rose, don’t, it’s okay, it’s a’ight, c’mon. We’ll face that together. I’ll, I’ll help. Or some shit. I’ll ask Bro to help. Y’all can bond over how stupid I am. Or how bad I am at comforting people. I told him I was glad he wasn’t dead again, Rose. That's how fucking good I am."

She laughs softly, breathy and light, an exhaled stutter. “Alright, alright, cool your overactive fuel engines, Strider. I’m not going to have a meltdown.”

“Yer goddamn right,” you say, and you throw your arms around her stomach and squeeze, as hard as you can.

“I believe it’s ‘ur’,” she says gently, pats you on the head. Pat pat.

“I know,” you say, muffled into the fabric of her shirt. “But I still have no clue how you and Roxy do it.”


When your pale pal jam is goddamn done and over, you both shuffle out into the living room. Dave’s still there on the futon, one hand resting tentatively on his chair, and he lets out a huge sigh of relief when you both turn up in tact.

“Didn’t kill each other,” he says blandly. “Cool. Was getting worried.”

You shrug, because you’re still feeling really weird and guilty, and also unsure of how to talk to Bro about Rose, which apparently is a thing you have to do now. Your life is a spiral of bad and strange choices that you never want to make, but someone always seems to make for you. Maybe that’s just how you’re meant to be, as a Time player. It fucking sucks. You wish you could ask Aradia.

“Why, Dave Strider, absolute lamb of the Strider-Lalonde brood, brave enough to kill anyone else? Surely you think too highly of yourself, brother,” Rose says, and it’s a little mean-spirited, considering she knows exactly how you feel about it, but if everyone else can joke about it, maybe you’re being kind of a tight-ass.

Dave looks at you in a way that means he very clearly knows something is wrong with that statement, but won’t make you talk in front of Rose. “Okay, I am going to pretend I’m totally included in exactly what the fuck is going on with that and say ‘hahaha’ but I won’t mean it, really.”

“Can always trust you to be kind of a dick,” you snort, and then launch yourself onto the futon, feet landing square in his lap. You know he hates it because you hate it, but he just mutters under his breath and shoves them away. You roll your head to stare at a bleached spot that probably used to be blood. “Bro come back in yet?”

“No,” he says, looks pointedly at Rose.

She smacks his hand and drops down to sit square on your ass, like some kind of fucking Disney villain. “I am not apologizing for lightly mocking an adult human being.”

“Debatably human,” you and Dave say, and then both of you snicker.

Your shades flicker blue at the corner of your vision, but it’s just Jane, not John, asking when a good time to come over to check on your brother is. You don’t really know, because he’s not fucking here now. Thanks, Rose. Gonna have to send out the recon team to find the motherfucker. You wonder if you can still fly, but you know you’re definitely not enough of a man to test that one out. You certainly ain’t jumping off the roof. The idea sends your stomach cramping, and you can’t breathe for a moment.
Although on second thought, that might be Rose, who is slowly crushing you to death.

Davesprite, being the absolute demon that he is, grabs your toes and presses on them so they all crack at once. You yelp and shoot upright, dislodging Rose and kicking him square in the jaw as you escape into the kitchen.

“Dude,” he groans, rubbing at his face.

“Dave, what the fuck,” Rose says as she climbs to her feet, and the way they both look at you makes it so fucking obvious how related you are.

“Sorry,” you say on reflex, pause. “Except no I’m fucking not! I’m not a chair, man, and I am definitely not any kind of hard-shell crustacean, okay, you don’t just grab a man by the feet and crack his toes, that’s how you break shit, Dave, you should goddamn know better than that.”

He just laughs, head craned back, and then leans forward, grabs his Xbox controller. “Whatever, baby. Hey, Rose, you ever play Mad Snacks Yo?”

“No,” she says, giving you the hairy eyeball from the coffee table.

“Well, sit the fuck down, ignore that douche, and play with me, okay?” You are unsure if he should really be letting Rose use Bro’s controller, but he’s not here so who fucking cares, you guess.

“You’re the favorite now,” Rose tells him, sitting down in the spot you just vacated.

“Hey!” you say.

“Haha,” Dave says, then he shows her how to play, and he’s way fucking better than you ever learned to be, and a much better teacher, too.

You might need some outside brother help to get this whole thing right.

Chapter Text

Bro does eventually come back. You shouldn't be surprised; he's rarely sincere about that kind of shit (although he did threaten to leave you in the Chuck E Cheese once, when you wouldn't get out of the ball pit to go home, and he made it all the way to the parking lot before you came running out, bawling at the top of your lungs). Still, you're relieved to find out that his trip wasn't for naught, as he's holding a CVS bag and a 6-pack of cokes when he walks in.

He scowls at Rose, but luckily for you she doesn't seem to mind, tapping away at the game, somehow managing to avoid the jpeg artifacts and get through the halfpipe without breaking it. He leaves those on the table in front of you with a purposeful clunk, almost like he's trying to be nice or something. God, what a weirdo.

"Hey, Bro," you say, soft as anything, and then you flash step over to him when he retreats to the kitchen, before he can try to escape. The way he not-quite flinches, his left hand curling like he almost reached for his sylladex, makes it clear that you're definitely faster than you used to be. Hell yeah. Take that, Bro. "Can I like. Can we talk? Real talk. On the roof."

He regards you carefully and then nods, sets down the bag and puts something in his pocket. "Sure, kid. Why don't you head up? Gimme a minute here."

You nod, glance back at the futon. "You're not gonna kill Rose, are you?"

This close you can see his eyebrows raise a decimal, and he snorts. "No, I ain't gonna kill your damn sister. Go, but I'm tellin' you, it's hot as balls out there. Just need to change my shirt." He disappears and you wonder, tracking the faint after image, if you'll ever figure out where the fuck the dude keeps his dresser. Maybe you just always imagined he wore the same damn clothes every day.

Actually, wait, that's just you now.

And you know what? Yeah you're still wearing the damn godtier robes, so sue you they're fucking comfy. Not everyone got a magic wardrobifier in place of a dresser okay. And Davesprite may be cool wearing Dirk's old sweatpants and jeans, but you've got class, and you are NOT wearing a hat on your shirt.

Dave gives you a nervous glance when you make your way across the room, and you shrug. You don't know what you're fucking doing, either.

You have no clue what to say to him, how to talk to a guy who you've known for thirteen years and yet not at all. I mean it's not like you haven't talked to him, lately. And you even told him you were glad he wasn't dead (definitely nailed that one, definitely NOT dying inside from embarrassment or anything). It's just. You don't know how to. Talk about the emotional stuff. The weird stuff. The Rose stuff.

And Bro's right, because as half-hearted as the AC is, sputtering into your apartment, it is nothing compared to July in Houston goddamn Texas, and you very suddenly want to sit here in the stairwell. Maybe go back downstairs. Ask Bro if you can talk in the garage. He might even take you to Taco Bell, if you're lucky, but you don't know if either of you could handle the heat stroke sitting in a hot car would cause you on a day like today.

Well. You ain't fucking going back out there, that's for damn sure. You walk back to your apartment landing, and then turn the corner and drop down onto the second flight of stairs. He'll find you, eventually, if he doesn't immediately. He's always been good at finding you like that. It hasn't always been a bad thing.
The air is stagnant here, but it's cool, and dark, and a welcome reprieve from the outside scorch. You wonder if Bro will take you to the pool this year, if you're allowed normal summer activities now that. Well. Now that you're a god, you guess.

He certainly fucking made you finish the school year like you were a normal kid, he and Mom dragging you and Dave both kicking and screaming the whole way. Fuck's sake. Oh well. Guess maybe one day you'll go to. To college or something?

Oh my God does that even matter anymore?

Does any of that matter? And what about the Game? What about everything you fought for? What the fuck was any of that even for if you're just. Just back here in Houston goddamn Texas, sitting on the stairwell of an apartment you've lived in your entire life, doing the same mundane shit you've always done. Why did you have to beat the fucking game, what did you even fucking kill Dirk for?

Where's the new world you were promised? And if this is it, where's your place in it?

A cold hand slaps the back of your neck and you yelp, jump a foot in the air, sword dislodging itself from your sylladex and firing down the stairs and into the wall above the emergency exit sign.

You hear a breathy laugh, an almost "hahaha" and then Bro drops beside you in a loose pile of limbs.

"Dude," you gasp, clutch your chest for the drama, and also because your heart is going a million miles an hour. "What the fuck."

"Could hear you thinking from upstairs," he says, and yeah, he's definitely smiling now and yeah, it is super weird. "Just thought I'd snap you out of it."

"With what, a mitten made of fucking ice?" Which, point of fucking order, he's not wearing his gloves. Or a white polo. Uh?? He's also holding two cokes, one orange, one root beer. You wrinkle your nose. "I don't like root beer."

"I know," he sighs, pushes the Fanta can into your grasp. "But your friends do."

"Friends," you say slowly, taking it and rolling it between your hands. It's a welcome chill on your sweaty skin, and you press it your forehead for a brief second before messing with it again. "What fucking friends?"

Bro sure is sitting there wearing a blue polo (collar popped, gotta stay on brand) you've never seen before. "Lalonde and Crocker." The chest pocket says Ron's Downtown Auto Service. Who the fuck is this guy?

"What do you know about Jane," you scoff. You shouldn't ask. Knowing him lately, he'll drop some sick knowledge bomb on you about how he used to go skiing in the Alps with her dad. Somehow.

"Honestly, Dave?" He shrugs, cracks open the root beer. "Not fucking much at all. I just asked. Someone."

What? Oh, he means - “You mean Dirk.” He scowls, doesn’t answer. Yup. Definitely means Dirk. “When the fuck did you have time to ask him for his chum handle?” Dirk hasn’t so much as looked at Bro since you got back from the hospital day before yesterday, and you can’t blame him for it, either.

Bro looks at you like you’re a stupid little kid about 9 times outta 10, and it’s a ratio you’re comfortable with. Idiot Little Brother is pretty much your exact steez, and ain’t nobody gonna jock it from you. Point of fucked up pride and all that. Still, watching him tip his head back, shades to the ceiling, and then roll his neck to look at you, is a special kind of stupid that’s usually reserved for Red Rings. “I didn’t have to, Dave.”

“Oh,” you say, because wow. Wow, okay, this is officially the dumbest you’ve ever been. You are not smarter than a Fifth-Grader, and if Jeff Foxworthy were here, he’d personally shove you down the stairs in pure southern shame. Speaking of stairs, when was the last time you even updated SBaHJ?? “Right. Fuck, I’m a dumbass.”

“Yeah,” he snorts into his drink, elbows you lightly. “But it’s alright. I won’t tell him.”

“I wouldn’t care if you did,” you say defensively, like a liar. You doubt that Dirk would do more than smile at you, but he’d do it with his tongue pressed into his cheek, and he’d look right through you for a few minutes in a way that would make it very clear he was telling one of his friends about the stupid thing you just said. You cannot fucking have that. But you are not about to tell Bro. Instead you say, “What the fuck is up with your shirt, dude?”

He raises an eyebrow, looks down at himself like he’s seeing it for the first time, then back up at you. His entire face goes so blank and dry that you feel yourself shrivel up and die a little inside. “Normal people change their clothes, Dave.”

Fuck you, he is never going to let you live that one time in the Taco Bell down. Only one person took a picture. The cashier didn’t even actually cry. “Okay, this is literally coming from the guy who has been wearing the same outfit pretty much every day of my entire life.”

He shrugs. “A guy’s got a reputation to uphold.”

“Of being the world’s biggest tool,” you say.

“Exactly that,” he nods.

You keep staring.

He stares back. Cracks, sighs, rolls his fucking eyes so hard you can see it behind his shades. “I was out walkin’ in hundred degree weather, I grabbed the first fucking shirt I could find. That answer your question well enough?”

“No,” you say, even though it does, kinda. It’s more boring than you would have liked. “Why do you have an auto service shirt just - just wherever the fuck you keep your clothes? Who the fuck is Ron? And where DO you keep your clothes? I have never once in this house seen you near anything considered a dresser. But you also don’t walk around smelling like week old feces, so what gives? Where the fuck are you keeping all these apparently identical fucking polos? And why aren’t you wearing your stupid gloves?”

Bro lets you talk with the patience of a seasoned Dave’s Ramble victim, chin in his hand. “My hands aren’t immune from sweating, Dave. I’m not a fucking robot.”

“Coulda fooled me,” you mutter without thinking.

You expect him to smack you upside the head, or to curse at you, or to rake you over the coals. Something. Anything. Instead, he sighs heavy through the nose and looks at Caledfwlch, down the stairs, still stuck in the wall. “I’m. Sorry for leaving earlier. I shouldn’t’a done that. It was shitty.”

You’re almost certain, right then, that you accidentally freeze time, with how your heart seems to stop, how it feels so still and quiet in that stairwell that you could hear a pin drop. How Bro sits, one hand curled around a root beer, the other tucked under his chin. It’s over in less than the tick of a clock. You feel a wave of nausea and you can just hear the blood rushing into your ears, and both of you breathe in sync for a moment, a century. “Um,” you manage. Dig around for something to say. Bro has never apologized to you, not for anything. “Yeah, it’s. It’s actually probably better you left. I kinda exploded on Rose after you bailed.”

He looks at you. “For real?”

“Yeah,” you say weakly, roll the Fanta around a bit more nervously. You aren’t really thirsty, but you feel hot under the collar - or cape, anyway, and like you need to escape. You might be a little embarrassed. “It’s uh. It’s cool now. That’s actually what I wanted to talk to you about.”

Bro’s jaw clenches tight and you shift, put down the can between your feet. If you need to outrun him, you can probably make a quick scramble down the side of the stairs. And then he says, “Alright,” and you release all the tension you were holding. You’re getting real sick and tired of this guy and his delayed reactions to shit. You’re gonna die of stress this way.

“Okay you see the thing with Rose is, she’s just like that? Like really passive-aggressive and talkin’ in circles until you’re all spun around like a dude on a bucking bronco because hell yeah, Texan references. The thing is, she never really means half the shit she says. Like, she doesn’t hate you, I think. I mean, she kinda implied to me that she really specifically DOESN’T? Lotta that going around lately, haha, sorry. Anyway my point is that sometimes you’re looking at a heaping pile of Lalonde-colored horseshit and you don’t know which way is up. Like, like one of those paintings.”

“Escher,” he says gently. “But most of them aren’t actually paintings.”

“Okay, sure, that guy. Except the guy is a girl and the girl is your genetic sister and she’s trying to unwrap some mystery that you didn’t goddamn realize was a mystery until she pointed it out and now you’re kinda like? Questioning everything. Well. Not everything. Just maybe I - I mean, you were looking at the not-painting a certain way and you were sure that was the ONLY way, and - and maybe.” You take a deep breathe in, choke on it. “Maybe you’re starting to realize you were wrong? But like. Really wrong? And you messed up really bad.”

“Did you mess up really bad?” His voice is low, but soft, neither pushing nor prodding.

“Kinda,” you mumble. Pick at the lid of your can without popping it. “I hurt her feelings saying some stuff that I didn't realize was a problem. And I just feel like a really shitty brother right now. Not just cuz of today, but cuz’a things that happened in the past three years, and across timelines no one but me n Dave remember, and I’m just really thinking I dropped the ball on being there for her.”

“Maybe you did,” he says carefully. You don’t jump when his hand touches your back this time, just curl in a little bit. He presses the space between your shoulders before retreating, and it almost feels like a comfort. “Family isn’t - it ain’t ever easy, kid. You can’t force people to change themselves over night. And I sure as fuck know what it’s like, to mess up royally. Could say I’m pretty much the king of it.”

“At least a prince,” you say, with humor. You’re not entirely sure he’ll understand it, but it makes you smile.

“Sure. Thing is, you’re still a kid. It ain’t your job to fix all your shit by yourself. Whatever - whatever Rose,” and he says her name with a certain measure of distaste, “is going through, or went through on that front, it isn’t your burden to fix that.”

“But there’s no one else,” you say. “And I don’t know how to help her.”

“I -” Bro sighs heavily out his nose, his foot starting to tap, his fingers a rolling beat across his chin. “I am the last person on this fucking planet that can help your sister, Dave. But I’ll talk to Roxy, if it’ll help you feel better.”

You don’t think it will. You don’t know how to bring up the alcoholism thing without sounding like you’re whining, or blaming yourself. Maybe it’s a little bit of both. “I don’t know if she’d be the right person to ask,” you hedge.

You don’t expect Bro to get it. He’s not stupid, far from it, Christ you’ve met Dirk, but you don’t know. Maybe he’s a little willfully dense? But he does get it, immediately, and you can see the moment he puts it together, like a light coming on in a studio. He pushes his fingers up under his shades to press on his eyes. “Christ,” he mutters, sits there for a long minute. “Roxy Jr. too?”

“Um,” you say, shift nervously. It kinda feels like private information maybe? But you kinda dropped the ball (again, fuck) blabbing about Rose. “Yeah. But she’s. Uh. She doesn’t. You know.”

He grunts, wipes his hands down his face. “Okay.” He climbs to his feet and you almost grab for his shirt in a panic.

“Hey, wait -”

But he just trots down the stairs, dislodges Caledfwlch from the wall with a carefully placed foot and a helluva lot more upper arm strength than you. Probably for the best. You woulda broken it. He weighs it in his hand, looks it over with a measure of reverence. “Heavy,” he says, but it sounds like praise.

“Two-hander,” you agree. It feels weird, to see someone else holding it. Hysterically, you think of the irony of a Dirk holding the weapon you used to kill him. You think of your hands poised to swing, think of the way it cut like butter -

"Stop looking at me like that," Bro says, and he walks back up the stairs, does a sweeping bow and a dramatic gesture as he kneels before you, sword offered above his head. "For you, King Arthur."

"What are you, fucking Lancelot?" you snort, hesitant to take it. Your fingers brush his, chilly, rough, and you feel the weight of your execution weapon in your hands for the first time since the Game ended.

"Well I sure ain't no fucking Galahad," he says dryly, and he drops there, a few steps below you, so that you have to look down over your shades to see him folded up there.
"I don't think it's an actual magical British sword," you say, and mumble a quick beat to banish it back into your strife specibus. Your chest feels lighter when it's gone. "More like a bad mockery."

"Mm, got the job done though, didn't it?" Bro's cavalier attitude towards death both disturbs and intrigues the shit out of you, because you, Dave Strider, have always felt quite the opposite.

What you blurt is, "Do you have a scar?"

It really is too bad that you don't have a phone or camera ready, because Bro's face is fucking priceless.

It's gone as soon as it came, and suddenly it's a mask, maybe a little discomfort. "Do you really want to know the answer to that question?"

"No," you say on reflex. Amend, almost immediately, "Yes."

Bro gnaws on his lip, a display of hesitance you're not used to, or comfortable with. You think maybe that was a really fucked up thing to ask. But fuck, you've been wondering for months now, and it just kinda. Came out. Dirk doesn't have a single mark of death on him, and (yeah, you checked) neither do you. You already asked, anyway, nowhere to go but up from here. "Yeah," he says eventually.

"Can I see it?" you ask, like the macabre sonnuvabitch you have apparently become. You don't know why you said that, and you don't know why you're not taking it back right now. You just. Really want to know.

Bro gives you the most dead-eyed stare he can manage with shades on. "Seriously?"

You think about coming across him on John's planet, lifeblood still oozing from his body, pinned to the ground by his own sword like a butterfly to a corkboard. Dumbstruck by yourself, and morbidly curious, you nod.

Bro drops his head, sighs through his nose. "A'ight. But I want you to know, Dave, that this is definitely something we're probably gonna need to talk about later."

"I don't have the best history with talking about this kind of thing in a healthy or normal way," you mumble, shoving your shades up onto your head so you can see in the dark.
He lets out an honest to god laugh, like he's some kind of human person. It's just like Dave said. The glint of teeth, a crooked smile, rusted stutter. "No shit." He takes off his hat, his shades, puts them down gently on the step by your feet, and then, one-handed, like an absolute tool, he drags his shirt off over his head.

You've seen Bro shirtless plenty of times, it's nothing new. The hilarity of his farmer's tan, where the freckles cut off and your matching pasty skin begins. The scar that runs up across the left side of his chest (car accident, indeterminate age, but predating you). The long, raised white line that drags up his arm from the base of his bicep towards the shoulder, the one and only time you drew blood on him. You've seen it all. Most of Bro's scars are across the ridges of his knuckles, same as Dirk's, too much discipline at too young an age.

You do spare a second to snicker at the way his hair sticks up all over, like Dirk when he falls asleep before a shower, or he drags his hands through it, sticking on gel. He looks stupid. It's a good moment for you. But then your eyes flick down to his chest, and you see it, and you'll never get over the fact that your brain's first reaction is "that's it?"

It's not much of anything, really, a sliver of a starburst but stretched thin, right in the center of his sternum, and the aesthetic of the positioning would, you think inanely, make for a pretty cool photo. But beyond the positioning, and the uncomfortable vision that skates across the back of your eyes, Davesprite's memory of his sword in Jack's hand, drawn back, positioned to impale, it doesn't bring you nearly as much satisfaction as you thought it would.

"Huh," you say, because you're an idiot who can't keep his mouth closed. "Does it go through the back?"

Bro's shoulders drop when he sighs, and he turns enough that you can see that yeah, it does, and that it caves in like a dimple, like the sword was ripped straight out of him on his way back up to the land of the living.

"Cool," you say. And then, like a polite little southern gentleman, "Thanks."

"Yee-up," he says, in a way that makes it very clear exactly how weird and uncomfortable you have made this conversation. He tugs his shirt back on, runs a hand absently through his hair, and replaces his shades, leaves the hat.

You offer it to him, but he waves you off, drops back down next to you again. "Need a shower later, anyway."

"Good, you stink," you say, and laugh when he shoves you in the head lightly.

"I'm gonna fucking take those clothes and burn them," he huffs, picks up his coke and slurps at it.

"I don't actually know if you can," you admit, watch him stare into space a little. "They're pretty fucking magic."

"I can fucking try."

The sleeves of his shirt are rolled up so they're a little shorter than they should be, and there's a stain on the shoulder that, when you lean back, bleeds further back towards the collar.

"What," he says, disinterested. You're staring again, you know.

"Where the fuck did you get this shirt?" you demand, and because you're feeling brave, and you already made him show you his horrible death wound, you reach out and hook two fingers into the sleeve, tug on it. It feels worn thin, not particularly soft, and catches on the edge of your calluses.

He drains the root beer, holds out his hand. You give him the Fanta. You don't want it, anyway. "It's not an interesting story, Dave."

"But it might be," you say. "To me." You're sitting there, holding onto your brother like a little kid again, just as demanding, just as self-conscious. Is it so fucking much to ask one question? To want in past the flat mouth and dead eyes? You don't know anything about him, other than that he likes puppets? That you can't say Cal's name around him (you haven't tried, not since that first day, you're petrified), and that he's still pretty much on his anime ninja bullshit, just turned down from 11 to 3, maybe 4 on a bad day.
He gives you a long-suffering look that you see from the side of his shades. Pale eyelashes, lines that crease the corners, cheekbones void of Dirk's freckles. You don't know anything about him, and you are floundering.

"Rose wants to get to know you better," you say, like that justifies the intensity of your badgering. Like it makes more sense than your own (completely fucking valid) curiosity. "That's why she was picking fights. Why she was so mad at me. She just wants to like. Idk. See herself in you? Or something?"

"Dave," he sighs. Runs his hand back through his hair again. A nervous habit, maybe? Something Dirk doesn't share, still too fussy and insecure about his hair. "I ain't really in the place to..."

"She doesn't need an actual parent, she just." You shrug, helpless. "Wants to know you, man. Just a little."

He hums, but he doesn't sound happy.

"Think about it?" you wheedle. "For me?"

He scowls. "That's some low ass shit, Dave."

"I know," you say quietly, and you give one final tug at his shirt. "If it's just a shirt, then why do you still have it?"

Bro tilts his head to regard you carefully. "Not everything I do has some messed up purpose, you know that, right?"

"No," you admit, and suddenly you feel exposed, sitting there with your shades on your head and your hand curled into his sleeve. You think about the way he moves, with purpose, the way he ripped your sword free safely (haha sword in the stone, except sword in the plaster), Stop looking at me like that, how he brandished your sword one-handed, how he knelt in front of you. "How do you do that thing? Where you always know when someone's looking at you?"

His mouth ticks down at the corner. "I don't know. And I don't really want to talk about it." He frees himself from you when he moves his arm to rub at the back of his neck, like he's trying to chase something away. You've struck a nerve, you can tell, you just don't know why. "But I'll think about it. What you said. 'Bout talking to Rose."
You lean away when he rolls to his feet, finally retrieves his hat. "What about me?" you ask meekly.

He looks at you over his shades, hand still poised to grab his hat. Orange eyes, like amber, like fire. "Are you really that fucking curious about my shirt?"

"Yes," you say, just to be stubborn. You didn't care that much at the start, honestly. It just bothers you that he's being so cagey about it. Now you're fucking invested. You have to know. You'll die if you don't know.

Bro sighs, wedges his cap back over his wild hair. "It ain't much of a story." And then he moves, slow, like he doesn't really want to, and he reaches into the breast pocket and fishes something free. "Don't say I never gave you nothing." And he slaps whatever it is into your palm.

You expect it to be. You don't know. Something secret, or cool, maybe weed or a lighter or even a cigarette?

It is none of those things.

You uncurl your hand and you're holding a nametag, embroidered red on white, long-since torn from it's place on a shirt older than you are.

"Dirk," you read softly.

He pops the tab of your orange soda, drains about half of it. "Told you. Isn't an interesting story."

"I didn't know you knew how to do that kind of thing." You rub a thumb along the D, look at the imperfection of the cursive k. "Mechanic stuff."

"It's been a long time," he shrugs.

You feel silly now, holding his old name tag, sitting in a dark stairwell. You don't need a lot of effort to think about Bro as a teenager, Dirk's face smeared with grease, all long limbs and too wide shoulders. It makes sense, really. Him and his beatup truck, how it never fell into disrepair, not even that one summer drive to El Paso and back. It wasn't really much of a story, just like he said. But it makes you happy. "Dirk likes to do that kind of thing, too. Build stuff. Robots, mostly."

"Yeah?"

You nod. "Yeah. He made a robot version of himself once that I heard kicked some pretty serious ass. You woulda liked it."

"I used to be in a robotics club in high school," he offers, quiet and a little stilted. "Won a couple awards. It's pretty neat stuff."

You stare at him. You just heard your bro, your big scary brother with his intimidating facial features and indomitable height, say the word neat. "That's so fucking lame, dude," you whisper.

"Go to hell," he says, kicks you in the shin. "Anyway, didn't go much of anywhere. Graduated early, got a job at the shop. Was okay money, for a kid." He hunches up his shoulders in a mighty shrug, chugs the second half of his coke, and crushes it in his hand. "You wanna go back up? Maybe you can introduce me to Lalonde all nice and proper."

"I don't know if she's ready for that," you admit, but you take his hand when he offers it to you, let him drag you up like you weigh a half pound of jackshit. "And honestly? Neither am I."

"Join the damn club, kid." Bro releases you immediately, bows to grab the other can. "But we can try, a'ight? Together."

And you know what? You don't expect a lot from Bro, you haven't in a long fucking time, but right here? Right now? You let that tentative look on his face, the press of his lips, the offer of an attempt, make you smile. "Yeah. Hell yeah, man. Let's crush it."

He lets you lead the way up the stairs and you don't turn back in fear, today, not even once.

Chapter Text

Your name is Dirk Strider, and like every goddamn day since your arrival on this fucked up, bizarre world, you are kind of freaking the fuck out.

It is officially August, Jane has been in Houston for a week and a half, and you are, despite your best efforts, on the verge of losing it.

It isn’t the change in scenery, as of late. You’ve gotten used to hotel sleepovers, the comfort of the hard floor beneath you, wedged between Roxy or Jane, and the wall or Dave (when he’s up to it, and fuck that took some goddamn time). You can fall asleep with someone's head on your shoulder, don't panic as bad if someone besides Dave rolls over onto your arm or traps your leg. You are unlearning your neuroses, one by one, and you are making good progress.

You can handle the extra people, because they are, as time passes, becoming your people, and you don’t even mind the way Rose prods at you like a kid with a stick, curious smile and too-sharp eyes. You see yourself in there, just like Roxy told you, and you’re not sure if it’s a good thing. (It doesn’t necessarily feel like a bad one, anyway.) You don't really listen when Mom Lalonde tells you to do things, but it kind of seems like that's what she expects from you, anyway. DS and Dave certainly aren't hurting for the attention, and you're happy to let them have it.

And you’re not panicking about settling in back home, even though you haven’t talked to Bro since Jane fixed him (because you don’t know what to say, and because he’s been pretty busy trying to avoid the growing number of people who traffic his over-glorified bedroom throughout the day). The apartment is still your safe space, even with Dave's bed, and your desk, and the mishmash of items that are neither yours nor his but somewhere in between. You are the most comfortable when you are here, Bro or no Bro.

It’s just. 

Jane’s leaving on Monday, and the following week, you’re supposed to go visit her. Which would be fine, you’d be fine, if it was a walk down the street, because you can do that, you are the big man, you HAVE the confidence. Maybe you’d even say hi to the neighbors, offer to walk someone’s dog. You’re charitable, you’re a good personality and southern charm. You can totally do all those things, and you would, if Jane lived in Texas.

But Jane does not live down the street, or in Texas, or even within driving distance whatsoever.

She lives in Washington.

There are no teleporters here, in this world (at least not until Jade figures out her powers, if she still has them, and puts them to the test, and even then, the idea of stepping through the physical form of another being makes you want to, ironically, vomit pretty badly). The main long distance mode of transportation is, of course, flying. You have never been on a plane before and frankly, your backlog of movies is doing very little to help ease you into the idea of a ten ton death machine operated by a human you have never met before and therefore do not inherently trust with your life.


“You flew across the fuckin’ ocean on a glorified hoverboard to come save me, tho,” Roxy says, currently pulling your hair into something resembling two tiny pigtails (it’s okay, you said she could, and you are only regretting it a little).

“That’s... different,” you say slowly, frowning in concentration. You swipe a delicate layer of polish onto DS’s finger. “I used experimental technology and trusted myself not to get killed.” You think about that for a second, add reluctantly, “Prematurely.”

“Well, you ain’t fucking rocket-boarding to Washington,” Dave says, and he may as well be in heaven right now, letting Jane brush his hair earnestly into something resembling a braid. You want her to teach you but you don’t know how to ask. “Mom would kill you.”

“Please don’t remind Bro that that’s an option,” DS sighs, head getting jerked back as Rose snaps another ribbon into place. “Mom hasn’t even told him she’s dragging him along yet. He’ll fucking try it, if we let him.”

“Which is why we ain’t gonna,” Dave says, giving you a pointed stare. It’s kind of hard to take him seriously, wearing one of Roxy’s shirts that slumps off his shoulder and is at least two times too short for his torso, exposing his entire lack of any kind of tan. It is, despite all your fondness, absolutely hilarious. He jabs a finger in your direction. “If anyone here is gonna crack, it’s you, Dirk.”

You put your hands up in defense. They have a very good fucking point, regarding both you and Bro, because if they let you, you’d rocketboard your ass to fucking Alaska before riding in an airplane. “We barely communicate. I ain’t doin’ shit.”

“If you just talked to him about how much it means to you that he accompanies you, I’m sure he’d come around to the idea of safe travel,” Jane says. Ever the optimist when it comes to matters of the Heart, your Jane. She has too much faith in you, and by extension, Bro. The fact that she isn’t afraid of him is something you’ll never get used to. She turns Dave’s chair around to face her, regarding her work with the tilt of her head and the stroke of a chin. “Hum, I’m not much for makeup. Roxy, perhaps you and I should switch...?”

“Say no more!” Roxy has exactly zero qualms abandoning your half-assed hairdo. You can’t believe you agreed to this. You can’t believe you showered for this.

You sigh heavily through your nose, focus on adding another round of shrimply divine to Dave’s pinky. You could be working right now. You could be concocting an actual scheme using the transportalizers and a fenestrated window.

You wonder, amused, maybe a little guilty, if you’d resurrect properly if you sent yourself piece by piece to Washington. Bite down on that thought, rewind and adjust for normal morbidity filters. You come back with a solid “Probably not fucking cool to joke about in front of your friends.” You glance over at the back of Dave’s head, the way his short hairs are already falling out of Jane’s neat little braids. Probably especially not fucking cool to joke about in front of him.

There’s a slight tug on your hair and you slingshot yourself back, blink up at the smiling face of Jane. You’d be embarrassed you got lost in thought, but you have a feeling she is covering for you right now, gives you a secret wink. It’s okay.

“Mind if I touch your, ah, intricate flock of nesting birds, Mr. Strider?”

“It looked just fucking fine before Roxy mangled me,” you say, offer a slanted smile. Thank you. “But yes, Miss Crocker. You have my permission, at your leisure.”

She scooches behind you, settles into the chair, and digs her fingers in, immediately begins to loose the knots caused by Roxy’s over-eager hands. “Jesus Christmas,” she sighs, and then you feel her start to drag your bangs back into the beginnings of a braid, short nails scraping lightly against your scalp.

It’s kinda nice, after all.

“If it eases your fears, I’m sure mother has gone above and beyond regarding seating and accommodations,” Rose says simply, trying in vain to tuck DS’s hair behind his ear. She frowns when the stubborn golden locks slip free like filament, and you muffle a snicker. Fine-ass baby haired chumps.

“I don’t know if that’s entirely what I’m worried about,” you say, and upon realizing your mistake, amend, “and I don’t recall saying anything about being afraid.”

Dave speaks before anyone can call you on your horseshit and lies. “Of course you’re not afraid, because it’s gonna be cool as fuck, seeing John and Jade again, and I for one could not be fucking happier to get out of this hell hole of a heatwave.”

“Amen to fucking that,” DS mutters, although his mouth has curled into a frown, and you wonder if he and Jade will be any worse off in a room than you and Jake. You think, bitterly, that at least Jade doesn’t remember the entirety of their relationship. Squash that down. It’s not Dave’s fault. You’re being a dick, as well as a huge fucking mess.

And Jesus pantshitting Christ, would you believe it? You are that self-centered. While yes, you are currently absolutely petrified of air travel, and while that is definitely one of two things currently emotionally crippling you, the prospect of seeing Jake again is really what’s got you tied in fucking knots.

You have been preoccupied with it since Roxy volunteered you both for what’s now become a Huge Fucking Deal of a trip. You didn’t sleep, the first two days after (you know some shit went down with Rose and Dave, but you haven’t had the mental energy to ask, and they’ve both been kind of hedging around it, so you don’t want to pry). And for the next few days after that, when you DID sleep, it was fitful, and you oscillated between the hallway and the roof of the hotel, and when you were tired, moved to the bathroom, spent a couple hours staring at the decorative ceiling until Roxy found you and dragged you back down.

You don't mean to get so wrapped up in your own thoughts, to the point where they're corrosive, where they gnaw and gnaw at you, where your body starts to wear down in protest. It's just that you can't control them.

It's not Jake's fault that they're visiting Washington, or that you've been signed up as an emotional support Dirk (Jane's going to have to loan you out through Dave's rental services, you think, maybe pay a fee, if this is going to be a regular thing).

It's not his fault that you were such a shitty boyfriend (it is a little his fault, in fairness, that he returned the favor in kind, but you pushed him to it, you think). 

It’s not that you want to date Jake again, or make up in any way that can be seen as romantic, because you definitely definitely definitely don’t. You saw the road that lead you down, and honest-to-Betsy, it wasn’t fucking healthy, not for either of you. You know that. That and you ‘n Jane really need... Well. You don’t know. You think maybe it’ll just be better for the absolutely claustrophobic relationship between your tiny friend group if you just. Don’t.

More than anything in the entire world, you want to apologize to him. You want to be friends again. You just don’t know how.

“There,” Roxy says, loud enough to bring you back down. She spins the chair around to reveal Dave and you

You just kind of stare.

DS lets out a crow of startled laughter.

“Well?” Dave drawls, and the crooked grin curling on the left side of his mouth is such genuine amusement that you can’t help but respond in kind. “How do I look? Am I hot?”

“The eyeliner might be a bit,” Rose chokes, “on the heavy side.” She drops DS’s hair bows in favor of covering her mouth.

Dave just outright pouts, and honestly that makes it so much worse.

“I think he looks pretty,” Jane says gently, but this close you can hear the way her laughter squeaks against the roof of her mouth. “Right, Dirk?”

Roxy’s face is falling, and falling fast. DS kicks you, and when you don’t speak, he kicks you again. Those physical therapy hours are making him lethal, Jesus Christ, your poor fucking shin.

“Uh.” You run through a list of things you can say in your head. Raccoon, comes to mind. Badger, after it. “Yeah. Yeah, hot as fuck,” you manage. “For. For a girl.”

“Wow,” Dave says dryly, brows arching spectacularly above the shadow on his lids. His eyes pop like something out of a horror story, demon red, surrounded on all sides by charcoal. The dark lipstick, you think hysterically, does not suit him. “You did not need to no-hetero me, bro. You could have just said, ‘hey Dave you look hot as fuck I’m so jealous right now.’ And I’d go, I’d say, ‘no need to be jealous man, you’re the most stunning man with a crown braid I’ve ever seen in my entire life.’ ‘Oh thanks Dave that means a lot.’ ‘No problem dawg you know I got you’ -”

Roxy slaps her hand over his mouth before he can keep talking. “Okay, Davey, I think we all get the picture pretty dang well. Ro-Lal did a bombass job and everyone is jealous of everyone else.”

Dave says something else, muffled behind her hand, but you are not listening because you are trying to sink through the floor. Rose is staring between you and Dave with a grin like a shark, and you know that if she can’t corner you later, Dave’s dead fucking meat.

There’s a steady rap on the door, 4-4 time beat, and it cracks open. You should not be so amused to see Bro’s head pop in the door, hesitant, so completely the dad in a sitcom and he has no fucking clue.

“Pizza’s here,” he says, leans further in, mouth open to add something else. Then he sees all of you. DS with his hair bows and you and your braid, Dave, in general. You can see the exact moment he freezes, how his mouth clicks shut, face closing up, void of all expression.

“Hi, Bro,” Dave whispers. His mouth is open in a perfect “o”. With his lipstick smeared from Roxy’s hand, it is NOT a good look.

Bro gives a single nod. You can practically hear the joints in his neck creak. “Don’t get that shit on the floor,” is all he says, directed at you, and then he turns on heel and speeds out of sight.

Dave makes a sound in the back of his throat that might be a scream, might be a laugh, but you don’t take the time to comfort him. He’ll get over it. Anyway, pizza fucking awaits and all that.

“I’ll get it,” you tell them, hand DS the polish. “Can you handle your right hand?”

“I dunno,” DS says, voice strangled around a giggle. His eyes are wide, focused solely on how Dave seems to be having an internal meltdown.

“Okay,” you say, and give Jane a small smile when her hands slip from your hair as you stand. “Be right back, then.”

You’d be lying if you said your motives were purely food-based. There’s nothing wrong with pizza, of course. In fact, you actually really like it. Bread and cheese, what a novel concept, right? So you don’t care what’s on it, so you don’t mind if it’s a little burnt, or a little under-cooked. Pizza’s pretty much a universal constant for the picky eater. Or, in your case, the opposite. You still think the anchovies weren’t that bad.

So yes, pizza is great. In fact, you might say it’s your favorite food, if sweets don’t count.

But you are much more interested in seeing what Bro does after his intrusion.

You wander down the hall and into the living room, and not disappointing, there’s Bro, sitting on the futon, phone in his hand, mouth pressed into a thin line, tongue in his cheek as he taps away at warp fucking speed.

“Dave’s dying from embarrassment right now,” you say, and definitely don’t smirk when he not-quite jumps, shoulders tensing for just a moment, left arm moving in a jerky motion. It’s a good thing this dude’s got better control of his mouth than Dave, or you’d be fucking impaled right now, you’re almost certain. You think about your first night with him on the roof, and how you pulled your broken sword on him. Talk about embarrassment.

Bro glances over, realizes it’s just you, and sighs so hard you watch the tension leak out of all his muscles at once. God he’s got such bad fucking posture. Are you really like that? Do you really move your spine in such an ungodly fucking way? Oh my God, Dave was serious about you hunching in the corner. Jesus Christ.

“He ain’t got nothing to be embarrassed for,” Bro says, and he leans towards the table, pops open the pizza box all the way on the end. You wander over, fight a smile. Anchovy. “Except maybe that abysmal-ass makeup job. Kid’s way too pale to pull off such a dark color.”

You snort softly, plop down next to him on the futon. “That was Roxy’s doing. She gets a little carried away, sometimes.”

“I know,” he says, and between the drawl, you can hear the fondness in his voice. There are things in this world that you know, without a doubt, are universal constants (pumpkins, always, frogs, sometimes, your unwavering desire to make things better, unreasonably). And this you loves his Roxy just as much as you love yours, of this you are absolutely certain.

"Can I ask you a question?" You inch your hand towards the box. When he doesn't smack you away, you grab the biggest slice you can.

"I have a feeling you're going to regardless of what I say," Bro sighs, leaning back, closing his eyes. His phone buzzes, but he ignores it.

"I don't really feel the need to apologize for that." You shrug, matter-of-fact. Take a bite, talk around it because you know he won't care. "I am aware we are not the same goddamn person, insomuch that we are. However, if I am being presumptuous, and perhaps a little narcissistic, our similarities are far more plenty than our differences. If you were to ask me anything, I find I would be quite curious about what you had to say, from the perspective of someone who is me, and yet paradoxically, simultaneously, isn't."

"Okay, you caught me, you're so smart," he says, low and sarcastic and maybe a little defensive. It feels chillingly similar to the relationship between you and Hal. Stop. Squash that down. "So what the fuck do you want to know?"

What would YOU do if you saw your ex again? How do you apologize for something that was definitely your fault, without making it sound like you’re just prostrating yourself for the sake of your own loathing? Damn, has Bro even ever HAD an ex??

 "Have you ever been in an airplane?" you blurt, because of course you cannot get your shit together enough to tell him the truth.

He opens his eyes to stare at you blankly, and you realize you kinda just. You kinda just blew it, huh.

"Yes," he says, short, a little suspicious. "Why."

"I have never even seen a plane up close," you deflect, like a champion. "I find, despite my strengths, my lack of ability to control the situation, or the future of it, anyway, is putting me on edge, somewhat."

"Understatement," Bro says. Motherfucker reads you like a book. "So what, you think I can give you advice?"

"No," you snort. Well. "Maybe at least some tips on comfortable travel would be appreciated?"

 Bro stares and for a second you think he's going to make fun of you. Then he goes back to his phone. "Don't look out the window, buy some fucking ear plugs, and take a nap. Can't get much simpler than that."

"I can't -" you begin, frustrated. You scowl at him. "I can't just ignore my way out of this. What good will that do?"

Bro shrugs, digs his way into a different pizza box. "You asked. Best I can do."

"You suck at this," you tell him, put your chin in your hand. Take a lazy bite. "You know shit doesn't just go away because you want it to, right?"

"And you know that thinking yourself into circles doesn't do shit but bury you waist deep in the sand, ass-up," Bro scoffs.

"Please, if anyone of us has his head buried in the sand, it's you," you say, and you mean it, but you shouldn't say it, not to him, not right now.

"You don't know what the hell you're talking about," Bro says, and he puts on a good show but you know he's angry now, you can hear it in his voice, so even, so dangerously similar to your own. The tense lines of his shoulders, the twitch of a muscle in his jaw. There is a deadliness to that quiet anger, and you know it like the back of your hand.

You could fight him, here, easily. Could push and push until he punches you or you flee in fear or whatever other self-destructive bullshit you two are capable of. But you don't want to. You don't want to destroy this fragile connection in its (admittedly pathetic) infancy.

And neither does he, apparently, because his posture slackens, and he sags back into the futon. "I don't understand what you want from me," he mutters, rubs his eyes.

"I don't know," you admit on an exhaled breath. You move your idle hand to pick at a seam that's starting to curl off the corner. "Nothing, I guess. It's mostly selfish, on my part. Everyone else expects something from me. For me to be. To be a hero, or a prince, or a brother, or. I don't know. A lotta shit. Mainly my own views of others' expectations warped through a fetishistic narcissism, I suppose. But you don't expect anything from me." You tilt your head to look at him, shades to shades, as close to intimacy as you can get when you're both hiding yourselves. "I like that."

"You like that, so you insult me." He snorts softly. "Where have I heard that before."

He- ah. You crack a smile. "Rose finally got to you, huh?"

He grunts agreement, holds his hand out for the rest of your crust, like he knows you don't want it.

You hand it to him, reach for more pizza. "It was only a matter of time, I'm afraid. She's borderline bored to death of picking me apart, thought by thought. Makes sense she'd come for Dirk 1.0, next."

"Don't," he starts, and you actually see him wince a little, "call me that."

"Why not?" You can imagine exactly why the fuck not, but you know it isn't healthy, or sane, although you can understand that maybe it's just a little bit weird, hearing your own name from what is technically your own mouth.

Bro frowns at you, shoves the whole of your crust into his mouth so he doesn't have to answer. Fine. Be like that, then.

"You don't even like the crust," you accuse him, nibble at an anchovy.

"You don't have any proof of that," he says, spits crumbs all over his shirt. There are times where you can see Dave in Bro, habits Dave must’ve picked up from him, like the way he pops joints when he’s nervous or fidgeting, or now, when he shoves food into his mouth or does something else to deflect. You don’t entirely hate it. You are not necessarily more comfortable around Bro than you used to be, it's just that you have a rough idea of what to expect, and it's not much. There is an underlying, childish stubbornness to him that you know all too well, and it does nothing more than make you roll your eyes.

“What are you going to do when the Lalondes leave?” you ask instead, because it’s something you’ve been thinking about, and you’re pretty sure he won’t mind answering that.

Bro chews while he thinks, sighs out his nose and swallows. He cracks his knuckles, and you hide a smile. “Not sure, yet. Reckon we’re in better shape than we were, anyway. Might see if Dave’d like to visit New York for a bit.”

That makes your head jerk around, but Bro’s expression is calm, thoughtful. “You’d... let him?” you ask. “You’d want him to live with them?”

He sighs again, shrugs. Dude really just looks hells of tired all the time, huh? That's probably just your shit-ass curse. Bad sleeping habits and an overactive sense of self-loathing. “Both, if at all possible. Doesn’t have to be forever, ‘course. I don’t think it’d be fair to Rox for me to do that to her.” He looks down at his lap, and you see a little piece of yourself there, in the drop of his shoulders, the pinch of his lips. “I know I ain’t much, but she’s still got -” His hand flexes. “She’s got shit to work through, y'know. Dumping them on her forever, even if I wanted to? That would be fucked up, and sure as fuck wouldn't be responsible."

You can’t argue with that. Christ, you wouldn’t trust Bro with a lit candle and a dead fish, but with Mom’s recovery process hanging delicately in the balance, and no outside help, you can see where he’s coming from. “What about me?” you ask, unable to stop yourself.

It’s not that you’d mind visiting Roxy’s childhood home, certainly now that it’s no longer surrounded on all sides by pawns, and she isn’t lying dead on the floor there. But part of you feels. You don't know. Drawn here. This is your home, through and through. You wouldn’t want to leave. You’re comfortable, and you’ve never liked change. This was your bro’s apartment, too.

Bro looks up at you, eyebrows raised over the edge of his shades, like he hadn’t considered that. “What would you want to do?” It’s gentle, almost kind, like he actually gives a shit about what you want.

“I’m not -” you choke, suddenly feeling exposed, flounder at the center of his attention. “I’m not sure.”

"Hey, thought you were bringing the pizza back - aw, c'mon now, you're just out here eating it all with Bro? Seriously? Not fucking cool, dude."

You hadn't forgotten about Dave's makeover. You had just kind of. Mentally blocked it out. He comes around the corner and you and Bro let out a wheeze in unison.

You realize, belatedly, he was not running away in horror; he was running away because he was trying not to laugh.

Dave stands in the doorway, hands on his hips, frowning at both of you, shades still missing and shirt even more hilariously small now that he's standing. "Okay, this is just super fucking insulting now. What you're doing? That's offensive right there."

"Your lipstick is what's goddamn offensive," Bro says, but he's not even trying to hide a smile now. He swipes a slice of your pizza and then holds out one of the boxes to Dave. "Take 'em, so I don't gotta look at you with that shit smeared across your face."

"That wasn't my fault," Dave sniffs, but he walks across the room in such a jarringly confident way that the image you see doesn't match up how well you know him. You try really hard not to snicker when he lifts up the lid to see and wrinkles his nose. "Dude, fucking yuck. No taste, neither of you."

"Runs in the family," Bro says dryly, and then he flops back, adjusts his hat when it tries to bounce away.

"Offensive," Dave says again, jabbing a finger at him. You're glad to see them getting along, even if you can feel this kind of undercurrent of tension. Honestly though, you might be the one causing it.

You freeze when Dave turns on you, and without his shades you can see his expression soften a little. "Hey, you wanna help me carry these back? Girls're getting bored, and Dave made a huge fucking mess with the nail polish."

"That is literally the opposite of what I said to do," Bro monotones.

"Yeah," you say, ignore him, smile at Dave. You'll help clean up, and Bro knows it.

Dave grins, lopsided, and you see him under there, with the lipstick smeared across his cheek like he was attacked by a particularly persistent grandma, like in the movies you watched as a kid. He helps you stack up the boxes (four of them, Christ, is Bro trying to feed an army?) and make your way back to the room.

"Hey," Bro calls, right before you close the door.

You hesitate, turn back to him.

"Think about it," he says, and the set of his mouth is genuine, serious. "What you want to do."

You put a hand between Dave's shoulder blades when he protests, nudge him forward towards the bedroom. "I will," you say simply, and then it's like Bro was never even there at all.

What the fuck does he even do with his free time?

 

You do think about it, but it's not on the top list of your priorities right now.

There is misery in the car on the way to the airport, and this time you don't protest when Mom piles you all in the back. Dave stays home with Bro and DS, and they all say goodbye to Jane at the door.

She hugs both the Daves, squeezes them tight individually, and it's funny, almost, to watch the way she goes to hug Bro, like he really is just a big Dirk, before remembering herself, and you feel a surge of affection.

He offers a handshake instead, though you can see his mouth tick up at the corner. "A pleasure to meet you, Miss Crocker," he says, in his best mannered tone. "Thank you kindly." You know he's just putting on a show, but she giggles and almost curtsies at him and you don't want to embarrass her.

Still, in the car you and Roxy cling like a couple'a babies, squeeze her in the middle, holding a hand each.

"It'll be okay," she whispers to you at the gate, arms looped around your shoulders, standing on her tiptoes.

Still, you are bowed over her, and you don't cry, because it takes a lot, to make you cry, but you nod wordlessly, bury your nose in her hair like her first day here.

"You call as soon as you get home, Janey, you hear me?" Roxy draws her away from you, but doesn't make you let go of her hand. Her chin wobbles, and Jane sniffles in reply. It isn't long before you're mashed into the biggest, soggiest hug of your life, and then Jane's dad has a hand on her shoulder, and they're walking through the gate, and you have to say goodbye.

Mom drives back in relative silence, though she keeps glancing back in the mirror to look at you. You didn't ask to sit in front this time. You don't really care about the churning of your stomach. "Hey," she says softly, and when you both look at her, she smiles. "How 'bout some ice cream, huh?" She doesn't wait for you to reply, pulls off the highway at the next exit.

You try not to let panic rise in your chest, unfamiliar territory, just as bad every single time, try and keep your bearings, you aren't too far from the airport, maybe about a few miles from home, now. It's fine. Jesus, Dirk, get your shit together.

Roxy takes your hand in hers, and gives you a patient smile. You wonder when you became so bad at hiding yourself from her.

Still, you're kind of intrigued, watching Roxy and Momlonde together, as you follow them into the Ice cream parlor. You haven't really seen a lot of one-on-one with them. Rose is usually there as a barrier between you, shooing her out of the room before she can get too close. You know why, in a sense. You've seen Roxy drunk, you know how she is. But Mom hasn't had a drop, far as you can tell, and... Well. You don't know. You still just barely get Bro, what the fuck do you know?

"Dirk, sweetie?" Mom's voice is lower than Roxy's, a little throatier, and you jump to feel her hand on your shoulder. In heels, she's easily as tall as Dave, and barely has to look up when she gives you a patient smile. "What flavor do you want, dear?"

You get the distinct feeling, from the look on Roxy's face, that this is not the first time she has asked you, but neither of them mention it. "Uh," you say, flounder.
"He ain't never had ice cream before, Mrs, uh, Lalonde, ma'am," Roxy says, haltingly.

Mom makes a face you rarely see on Roxy, not quite juvenile enough to be a pout, but not coarse enough to be proper irritation. "Roxy, darlin, I told you, you don't have to call me that. You can call me whatever you like."

Roxy looks uncomfortable, fidgets with the edge of her skirt. "Yeah I kno, it just feels weird, since I call my mom 'Mom', and you're me, and that'd be like calling Dave's bro 'Dirk' n stuff."

Mom taps her chin in such an exaggerated way it's hard to believe she's not a cartoon. "Hmm, I s'pose that's true." Her smile thins, and she reaches out and gives Roxy a soft little rub on the shoulder that would make you cringe, but doesn't seem to bother her. Guess Roxys are just genetically that touchy. Doesn't really surprise you, you've seen Dave. "We'll figure somethin out, 'kay?" And then she whirls on you, and that's Roxy's sparkling smile, all teeth and eyes that bunch with joy.

You take a small step back, put a little distance between you. This does nothing to deter her.

"You live in one of the hottest states in the continental US and you ain't never had ice cream? What has Dirk been doing to you poor kids?"

"We've," you choke, "been a little busy." It's a fair question, though you know the answer. You still aren't much for leaving the house, and besides your weird family outings, you still prefer drifting between home and the hotel room. Familiarity, you suppose. Wow, you're literally like an old man stuck in his ways.

Mom sighs, deflates a little. "Okay, well you like sweets, right? I know just the thing for you."

You do not ask her why she knows about your apparently now widespread love of sweets, though in your defense you did specifically say that you loved Jane's cakes, and very little else.

You must be staring like a dumbass, because Roxy grabs your hand, leans over and whispers, "It's best not to question it. She knows all sorts of shit like that, I think it's a big adult super power."

You snort softly, squeeze her fingers in yours. You will never admit to the way she grounds you, how you're hyper aware of the fact that there's only one exit, how many people are squeezed into the small space, desperate to get out of the Texas heat. "You don't figure maybe it's just the adults who are ectobiologically us, and we happen to be super fucking weird?"

"Hmm, that too," Roxy says, and she drags you over to a little table in the corner, where you can keep your back to the wall and have a clear view of the door. God, she really is just the best fuckin' gal you know. You squeeze her hand again and she gives you an amused smile. "You ain't as hard to read as you think, Mr. Tough Guy."

"Yeah," you say around a shaky sigh. "I'm starting to get that."

Roxy frowns, nudges you. "We'll see Jane again real soon, Dirk, s'okay. Planes aren't so bad! I had a lot of fun!"

You try to smile, but it feels more like a grimace. Why did she have to bring up the fucking plane? "Dunno how to tell you this, but you always have fun."

She gasps dramatically, shoves you. "Lies and deceit!! I am just out here trying to fucking live life to it's fullest goshdarn potential! Do not smear my good and powerful name!"
You bite the inside of your cheek to keep yourself from grinning. "Wouldn't dream of it."

She gives you that weird slashy face again, drops her elbow onto the table. "Have you considered talking to Dave about it? All serious like?"

You think about the last time you and Dave spoke, "all serious like". You think of him kneeling on the floor in his own vomit, the embarrassing fucking way you touched his face. "I don't think he and I are quite ready for that, Rox."

Roxy tilts her head, curls falling to the side, and she reminds you of Dave, of Rose's needling curiosity. God, you really are turning into a fucking family. "Why not? Rose and I talk about everything! We're like, irl sisters now, all legit and shit. Did you think those big and lil sibby remarks were JOKES, Strider? Please, we're tighter than Jane's ass on a Saturday night out on the town."

Momlonde pops up before you can speak, juggling two cones and a small cup of something orange. "Okay, I definitely missed something here, but let's watch the language in front of all these kiddies." She doesn't sound mad, though, just amused, and she hands Roxy one of the cones. "Here, eat quick, Dirk's getting all worried 'bout you guys."

"I absolutely refuse to believe that," you snort, because the idea of Bro worrying about either you or Roxy enough to bug Mom is both slightly embarrassing and also extremely unrealistic.

Mom outright smirks at you, wiggles her eyebrows. "Wanna bet?" You frown, uncertain now, but she just laughs, pushes the cup across the table to you. "Here, Baby Dirk, try this. Orange sherbet, couldn't get more stereotypical if I tried."

You grab it, take the proffered spoon. You know what fucking ice cream is, obviously. You've seen movies, you've heard Jane talk about the ice cream truck a hundred times, and you know it's supposed to be something all little kids scream for. Still, you aren't really ready for how cold, and how fucking good it really is. "Holy fuck," you whisper.

"Nailed it," Mom whispers, puts her fist up.

Roxy bumps it, grinning so wide her face I practically split in two. "Such a Dirk," she whispers.

"Suuuch a Dirk," Mom laughs.

You are being made fun of, here, but you don't really care, because you have just discovered orange sherbet, and you love it.

"Can I see ur texts with Big Dirk?" Roxy asks while you devour the entire cup. You don't know why they didn't get you a cone. You might've liked it, could have eaten it, and Roxy seems happy about it, anyway.

Mom grins again, and it's all Rose, devilish, conspiratorial. She slides her phone across the table, and curious, you lean over. You're intrigued to see both of them appear to have changed their chum handles, although you don't think you'd be brave enough to ask Bro for his. Or what you'd even talk about, if you did.

TT: hey.
TT: where are you guys.
TT: roxy. seriously it's been a fucking hour.
TT: i know it don't take that long to drop off one kid and their uptight dad at the airport.
TG: Awww Dirk u know I wouldnt do nothing to them!!
TG: Theyre fine were getting ice cream becos they were sad! Dont u worry ur sweet lil buns hun well be home before u know it!!!
TT: i ain't fucking worried.
TT: kids're starting to get restless, that's all.
TG: Ohhhhh I totally believe you Mr Big Stoic and Nasty!!
TG: Got me all shakin in my booties here
TG: Hey by the way A why the fuck havent u ever bought our goddamn kids ice cream
TG: And B what kind do you think Lil Dirk would like??
TT: are you fucking kidding me right now.
TG: No!!! This is so dang serious!!
TT: this is so fucking stupid, is what it is.
TG: Come onnnn play along
TG: What kind of ice cream does Big Dirk like? I bet I know lol
TT: why should i even tell you.
TG: Its orange sherbet isnt it
TG: OMG It totally is!!
TT: fuck off, roxy.
TT: put it in a cup, no cone.
TG: You are so fucking predictable <3

It is so fucking clear how much of you and Roxy leaks through here, and you are so goddamn embarrassed you want to die.

Roxy does not share this sentiment, because she's too busy aww'ing. "It's like watching a weird mix between you and Dave," she snickers, elbowing you.

You huff, try to hunch in hopes they can't see your ears burning. "Hardly. It's like he's a cardboard version of me, if anything."

"Aww, don't be too hard on him," Mom says, tugging her phone back into her purse. "He's really goofy when he feels like it!" She frowns thoughtfully. "Or he used to be, anyway. We fell out of touch for awhile, there."

You know that's an understatement, but you're not going to bring it up, because seeing any version of Roxy cry again is not on your list of things to do today. You put your spoon down, pick at the edge of the table, try to figure out a good way to bring this up. "Have you, uh, figured out how to tell him? About Washington?"

"No," she admits, sighs. "Honestly, I'm worried I'll tell him I bought him a ticket an' he'll flee the fucking state." She slaps her hands over her mouth. "You didn't hear me say that!!"

"Ms. Lalonde, Roxy and I are sixteen fucking years old," you say, amused. It's kind of funny how hard she tries (she's not very good at it).

"Nooo, that's not the point, I'm supposed to set a good example!"

"I think it doesn't count since ur not actually our parental unit," Roxy says, clearly enjoying this too much. You know she's been trying to get Mom to swear at almost every turn.

"That's.... sort of true," Mom says slowly, and then she gasps. "Obviously I'm not your Momma, right? But!! If you and Rose are like sisters, maybe she and I could be, too! What if you call me Aunt Ro-Lal? Would that be alright with u?"

Roxy's face softens in a way she usually saves for Rose. "Yeah, I -" Her hands twist together in her lap, but aside from blinking a little too fast, looks happier. "I think I'd like that okay."

"Bitchin'," Mom says, and then slaps both hands over her mouth. "Oh noooo!!"


"So what will you do?" you ask in the car on the way home. You finally concede to sitting up front, even though it feels weird to leave Rox in the back. She doesn't seem to mind, though, clinging to the frozen to-go containers.

"Hmm." Mom chews on her cone. "Tranq him," she says slowly. "Trap him, release him."

That startles an almost laugh at of you, and you're not even entirely offended when Mom and Roxy high-five between the seats.

 

It's been three days since Jane left, and you are no closer to figuring out what to do, or what to say, or how the fuck you're going to handle flying, and how Mom is going to tell Bro about the trip, because she hasn't yet, and you can tell she hasn't, because Bro is watching you and Dave pack while eating a power bar and looking entirely bored with the whole thing.

"You could help, you know," DS snaps at him, dragging some of the clothes he's collected over the past few months (some of his old pants, too short, and shirts you never wear, fine but a little holey) into his suitcase haphazardly. The three of you are currently sharing, due to your lack of a case at all, and the fact that most of their clothes are more fit for a preteen than for a bigass sixteen-year old.

Bro shrugs, takes another bite. He's hovering an awful lot for someone who pretends not to care.

Dave throws a shoe at his head, and he catches it, tosses it back. Dave dodges, but he ducks his head to hide a smile.

You don't speak, because you're afraid you're going to blurt something stupid, or tell him before Mom is ready, or something. You don't know. You continue gently rolling your shirts in hopes of efficiency. You've never packed a suitcase before, but Jane told you she'd give you some pointers if you had trouble.

"Do you want mine?" Bro says after a minute, but he's looking at you.

"Uh." You look at DS, look at Dave. They both jerk their heads slightly, please God no. "No, I. Don't need it. I don't reckon Dave or Dave really have much in the way of clothes to bring, so the only person takin' up room in there'll be me, anyway."

Goddammit.

Bro inhales, exhales through his nose heavily, and then stomps off down the hall. God you really fucked that up.

"It's okay, he kinda deserved it," DS tells you lightly, reaches across to give you a pat on the knee.

"I cannot fucking believe he didn't kill you," Dave whispers, and he sounds kind of impressed. You just feel guilty.

"Nah, he's got a soft spot for Dirk, it's hilarious," DS says, and you feel uncomfortably exposed, and a little hot in the face.

"He doesn't," you say in lame defense. "I think he's just trying to make me feel less like a complete idiot than I actually am."

"Hey," Dave murmurs, and instead of getting up, like a normal human, he rolls across the carpet until he can wrap his arms around your waist. "You're not an idiot, dude. Bro's completely inscrutable. Who the fuck knows what that guy's even thinking?"

"I feel like I should, though," you mumble. You pull your fingers through the hair that sticks up on the back of his head lightly, and when he doesn't flinch, you comb a little more, try to smooth it flat.

"Nah," Dave says, voice muffled against your stomach. "It's not your job, Dirk. I like you the way you are. You don't need to be a Bro translation device on top of everything else."

"Okay," you say, but it feels pretty shitty.

You hear him coming, but neither of the Daves do, because when Bro comes back, drops a bright orange suitcase on the floor by the bed, both of them jump a foot in the air.
"What the absolute FUCK, Bro?" DS yelps, and you're almost amused, seeing him look so scandalized, rather than pantshittingly terrified.

Bro just shrugs, squats down and flips it open. He pulls out what looks like a couple old socks and a bright pink t-shirt, which he quickly balls up in his hand and tucks in his pocket.

It hangs out, though, and you're kind of just staring at it, because no way in fuck that would fit him, not in a million years.

"S'kinda old, now," he says, sounding completely uninterested as he pulls out a shitty-looking smuppet with the leg falling off, some paperwork, and a water bottle. "Haven't used it in a real long time. But it should work just fine. Use it for whatever, I guess."

Call you crazy, but there is something extremely fucking familiar about that dirty orange smuppet, almost bald with a few whisps of yellow hair, one of the eyes missing. Huh.

"Who the fuck's shirt is that?" Dave demands, pointing like a little kid.

Bro stares, sighs through his nose. "Story for another time, kiddo."

"You suck," Dave says dryly.

"I know," Bro says, and then he flashsteps away with all his old shit in tow, leaving the small orange suitcase behind.

You're a little disappointed; you were really interested in that smuppet.

 

It's Sunday, you're supposed to leave on Thursday, and you're doing laps in the hotel while DS drifts around the shallow end. Mom brought him over after his therapy session today, and he agreed to come down with you, but he doesn't seem to be having much fun.

You like the pool, as much as you can, with the sting of the chlorine, and how it goes up your nose if you forget yourself. Water has pretty much always been calming to you, and the bane of your existence, from the moment you landed on Earth, drifting along clinging to Cal like some kind of miniature Tom Hanks. It's what lulled you to sleep at night, what reminded you of how trapped you were, the desperation of your situation.

(You wonder, errantly, if the others had refused to play with you, would you have been brave enough to attempt the Game alone?)

But you like the burn in your muscles when you work hard, the gratification of a job well done, how all the thoughts in your head don't bother you so much while you're under, nothing but the feel of the water between your fingers, how you cut through it in such straight, perfect lines.

You surface next to Dave and he only jumps a little. "Sorry," you say on automatic. "You look tired. You wanna head up?" Honestly, he mostly just looks miserable, and you're too crippled emotionally to bring it up without sounding like a jackass.

Your relationship with DS is more tentative than yours and Dave's, and you're not entirely sure how to rectify it. You guess Dave has the advantage of literally unloading all his hang-ups with Bro on you, and it's not something you can really ask DS to do. You don't really want to, if you're being blunt, and the shit he dealt with in the Game makes the defensive layer he protects himself with a little harder to permeate. You can't tell if it's him, or you, or a bit of both.

Still, he doesn't hide himself from you, sighs, shoulders sagging. "Nah, I ain't. I ain't tired, really. Just..." He mumbles something you don't hear, arms folded over the edge of the pool.

You nudge at him lightly. "Can't understand you when you're mumbling, dude."

He groans, bangs his head on the concrete. "It's dumb. Dirk, it's so fuckin' dumb."

"It ain't dumb," you say, put one of your feet on the ladder to rest there. "C'mon, I won't tell Rose, I promise. No umprompted psychoanalysis on my watch. Like my watch is so tight, not a single brother, mother, dog, or cat is getting trapped in an unwarranted Lalonde barrage, s'long as Dirk the goddamn lifeguard is here to protect all your asses."

"Keeping our asses straight outta the hands of lipsticked sisters who all be wanting up in these melons. Like, actual metaphorical versions of those deep sea-space nightmares she's obsessed with."

"Yeah," you say, pillow your head on your arms. "But she was actually a little bit right about that."

"Ugh, don't remind me," he groans. "Look, the less I ever have to think about horror terrors whispering to me in my sleep, or Derse, or Cal? Ever again? The better."

"Mm, for sure," you say, even though a piece of you still aches for your Cal. "So what's up? What's got The Dave Strider all in a tizzy?"

"I'm more A Dave Strider," he says with a sardonic half-smile you remember on Bro's face. You don't, though. Care about me. "But I sure as fuck am in a goddamn tizzy."

"Let it loose, dawg," you drawl, reach out a hand to lightly bump your knuckles against his. "You can tell me anything, bro."

"Dunno about anything," Dave says, sighs hard. "It's just..." He lifts up at his head, squints at his hands. You'll never get used to his eyes, not quite yours, not quite Dave's, not his own. You wonder if you'd have that disconnect, were you to have come back from being a sprite, red layered over the entirety of your being. Can't be easy on him, fuck. You could barely handle a little soda can in your hair.

"I keep thinking about the whole thing with Jade," he says, and you go very quiet, and very still.

"Oh?"

"Yeah. I know it's dumb. I know she doesn't remember." He looks at you, dark eyebrows all bunched up, frustration, a little resentment. "No one else remembers."

That's not entirely true, though to be fair to him, it mostly is. There are little splinters of memories here and there, none of them good. Overwhelming failure, pixels grasped in your hands like shards of glass. You don't bring that up.

"But I have the memories, I know it happened. John knows it happened. But I can't just be like 'oh yeah, here's a list of things we did. Don't believe me? That's fine, just ask him!'" He curls into himself again, legs swishing half-heartedly below the surface. "John's the only one who still called me Dave, after everything. And he doesn't even really fucking like me that much."

"That's not true," you say, lay a hand on his shoulder delicately. "Besides me 'n Dave, he's pretty much the only person you talk to, yeah?"

"Yeah," he snorts, glances at you nervously. "And Jane, now, sometimes."

You give him a shitty little grin. "Dave, I'm not gonna kill you for trying to make friends." You put on your most serious frown. "But if you try to snipe my number one friend spot from me, legal action will be required."

He actually laughs at that, low and breathy. "Okay, okay, I'll lay off on my bffl proposals, for now."

"Damn right," you huff. Kick your feet to swim around the other side of him, dry off your hands and reach for your phone. It hasn't been more than an hour since you came down, and you're surprised DS has lasted this long. "You know, it's okay if she doesn't remember, dude. Like, everything. I think it's okay for you to tell her some of the shit." You think about that, add, "Maybe not like, the really gooey romantic shit, or the parts where you fucked up, you've done that enough, but." He winces. "But the cool shit, like the sleepovers? Movie nights and stuff? Totally cool."

"But I don't want her to think I want to date again," he anguishes. "Because I'm not - ugh." He hugs himself a little. "It's not even just because of the sprite shit, like I get I'm kind of a universe fuckup, and that Dave's right there, you know? But the other stuff. Like, how bad I was feeling, and how she and John never really brought any of that up? That shit was fucked, dude." He drops his eyes. "I don't want to go back to that."

And god, you get it. You do, to a point. Even if you actually WERE the toxic element, you understand. You make a strong decision and drift over, wrap your arms over him. "Its okay, Dave. To not know. And to be afraid. I'm scared, too. Of Jake, and not knowing what to say. But I'll be there, if you want me to be."

"Dirk, dude," he laughs, gives your arm a little squeeze to keep you there, "I kinda always want you to be."

 

Eventually, Mom does have to fucking tell him.

You just kinda wish maybe she hadn't waited until the day before you were due to leave? And maybe hadn't done it while Dave was at physical therapy? And maybe not while you and Dave were home (Rose and Roxy were at the hotel packing - chronic procrastinators, the both of them, no surprise there) without anywhere to hide but the bedroom.
They've been fighting for ten minutes now, ever since they came back from dropping off DS.

You hear the aggressive slam of the kitchen cabinets, hushed voices raised just enough above a whisper that you can tell they're unfriendly.

You feel like you need to. You don't know. Stop them? Try to explain to Bro? Justify why Mom won't let him stay behind? That he's still a huge fucking mess that no one trusts as far as they can throw (and Jesus fuck, you bet Mom could toss him across a football field).

It's bad enough that you've been obsessing over this trip for the past week, but you're getting really fucking tired of cleaning up the mess versions of you and Roxy made.

You move to roll off the bed, but Dave stops you, hand on your wrist, the other holding his phone. You can see a conversation with Rose open. That's. Probably good? Your heart is slamming in your ears, the urge to go, to fight, to take flight, all mixed up in your head with two days of no sleep, hysteria on high like the fucking circus is in town.

"Don't," he whispers. His eyes are wide behind his shades, his lips pressed together in a thin line. Dave has never seen his brother fight with anyone before, you realize, and it doesn't surprise you. It took a helluva lot to upset you enough to yell at anybody, and this isn't a movie, it's not a sitcom where everyone makes up at the end, and you don't know what to say to him.

"I just want to check," you murmur, try to free yourself. You tug lightly, but he tightens his grasp, and it almost irritates you, the way his fingers close around your wrist with such ease, the way it reminds you you're still just a shitty kid with rail thin limbs and a big ego.

"No," he says, louder. "Dirk, please. Not right now. I don't - please."

It's hard, for you. To say no to Dave, to stop him from bossing you around or stop yourself from bowing to his every wish like you're a genie in a lamp, and he's prince fucking Ali.

So even though your body shakes, trembles with exhaustion and adrenaline, you shift back down, so you're facing him, his hand on yours, your breath unsteady. When you speak, it's a strained whisper, the fight of your lips against the chatter of your teeth. "What do you want me to do?"

He shrugs pathetically, presses his face into the pillows. "I don't know. Wait with me?"

You don't answer, but you nod, tuck your free arm behind your head and lie there in bed and try not to panic. Will your breath to even out. Nothing is going to happen. You're pretty sure nothing will happen. And even if it does, if Roxy is anything like Mom, she can handle Dave's bro. What would you even do out there, anyway?

Dave doesn't let go of your wrist, and you try not to think about how much he must not trust you, tilt crane your neck to stare at the Midnight Crew poster over your heads, think about your Stiller and Wilson posters. Kinda fucked up how history just erased them entirely. Couldn't they have left you fucking anything?

"What did you think was going to happen, Dirk?" comes from between thin walls, and you hear the distant rumble of his quiet reply.

The front door slams after that, and you both hear Mom curse, and Dave can't quite hold back a tiny laugh.

"She really is trying too hard, huh?"

"She shouldn't bother," you manage, between a smile and a snicker. "You shoulda seen her in the ice cream parlor. She's just as bad a Roxy."

"Yeah," Dave says, and he finally lets you go, reaches under his shades with both hands to press on his eyes. "Should we. Should we check it out? See if the coast is clear?"

You can tell he doesn't really want to. Dave's not a very confrontational person. It doesn't usually bother you, but you've had a long fucking week, stressing out about this exact thing, and if you sit still one more goddamn minute you're going to explode.

Still you try to be gentle with him, squeeze his hand, pat him on the hair the way you've seen Roxy and Rose both do. "I'll go, Dave. You can stay here if you want. Won't be more'n a minute, I swear."

"No," Dave says, and he grabs the back of your shirt, then your arm, somehow manages to wrap his entire upper torso around it.

"Dave," you sigh, and it's all your aggravation, the end of your patience. You shake your arm, but if anything, he clings tighter. "C'mon, dude. Do you really want to be stuck in a small-ass space with him when he's acting like this?"

"No," he says again, presses his face against your arm. "I didn't mean - no, I can go with. I'm just really goddamn sick of letting you clean up everything like you think you've got some kind of responsibility for all the fucked up shit that goes down."

Okay well. He's kinda got you there. You struggle for something to say that doesn't sound condescending or dickish.

"Heh," he says, headbutts you in the tattoo. "Can't think of a smart guy comeback for that one, huh?"

"No," you admit softly, feel a little sheepish. You don't know what to do with your body in this situation so you just kind of. Stand there. Look away, try not to fall into a pattern of your own self-loathing (you can always do that later, when you can't sleep, and now's not really the time). "Sorry. I'm kinda used to shouldering a lot of shit by myself. If for no reason other than I am a giant fucking megalomaniac. I know I -"

"You get carried away," he interrupts, drops off your arm and rolls to his feet. "And you don't know how to knock it off. I know. But you ain't gotta do that shit anymore." He offers you a hand, and a fragile smile. "It's not a crime, asking for help, you know."

"I," you choke, reach for him. "I know."

He raised his eyebrows. "Do you?"

You have to stop yourself from pulling away, going on the defense. "I'll try harder," you promise, a little half-hearted.

He just laughs softly, drags you into a hug, and you let yourself drape your arms over his shoulders, go a little limp. "Dirk, your head? Is a big fucking mess, dude."

"I know," you groan, press your face into his shoulder. "I really am sorry. About - just. Everything."

"I know," he sighs, presses his fingers along your spine. "Now c'mon, I'm being a big boy now, putting on my Pampers pull-ups all by myself. My days of shitting the bed are over. Let's fucking. I dunno. Go yell at Bro or something, I guess."

"Okay, okay," you laugh, and follow him out of the room. God, you're really fucking grateful to have a Dave Strider in your dumbass life.


Mom is muttering to herself as she packs a suitcase in the living room, folding white shirts and some you've never seen before. "Ungrateful," she grunts, tossing in a pair of balled up socks. "Stupid, stubborn, giant fucking -"

"Hey, Mom," Dave says blandly, strolls in with his hands shoved in his pockets like he doesn't have a care in the goddamn world. Your brother is good at posturing, you'll give him that.

"Oh," Mom sniffs, and she's not crying, but you can see that she's trying very hard not to look cross, and wow you really just thought 'cross'  like she's some kind of school teacher or some shit. What the fuck is this, Matilda? "Hey, Dave, sweetie. You don't need to worry about me or nothin', I'm fine. Your dad is just being a big stubborn jerk."

"Probably has nothing to do with the fact that you waited until the day before we leave to tell him, haha." Dave's words are not particularly kind, but he has a way of saying them that makes them come across as something closer to a joke.

"Well," Mom chuckles, shrugs. "You know how he gets about airplanes."

Uhh. What?

They both look at you.

You feel extremely uncomfortable, and against your will, your palms start to sweat.

Mom just offers you a pinched a smile. "I was a bit worried he'd get too far if I told him in advance."

"Which way did he go?" you sigh, as if you don't already have a pretty goddamn good idea.

"Let me guess," Dave drawls, and they both point up at the same time, share a grin at his expense, and yours, you guess. "We'll take care of it," he says, waves off Mom when she opens her mouth. "Seriously, Mom. I'll like. Beg him or whatever, it'll be fine."

It will NOT be fine, you think hysterically, but you follow him.

Dave gets out of the apartment, door closing, before he collapses against it, drags in air through his mouth.

Yeah, you pretty much thought so. "Dave," you say, touch his shoulder.

"S'fine," he grunts, bangs his head back against the wood. "Just. Don't know what to say to him, I guess."

You think about sitting in the pool with DS, his arms folded together, eyes downcast.

"I'll be there," you say, but it's all too lame.

"Yeah," he mumbles, shakes his hands to dislodge some of the anxiety. "Yeah, right let's, uh. Let's go up there, then."


Bro is on the roof ledge, just like he always seems to be, and your stomach clenches as you think, Just one more step and he'd fall to the ground. He wouldn't, you're sure he wouldn't, but fuck if it isn't unsettling, seeing him stand there.

You're used to Bro smoking as an escape now, but Dave looks a little mesmerized, like he can't quite believe it, tiptoeing across the roof like he thinks he can sneak up on him.

"You're about as subtle as an elephant, kid," Bro says, and Dave spooks a bit.

"How the fuck does he always do that," he mutters, and then pretty much stomps the rest of the way, with you trailing after. "Can you not stand there like you're about to jump, you're freaking me out." You'll give it to Dave: he's honest.

Bro's head drops back as he looks up, and then rolls his neck to glare at both of you. "Can y'all not crawl up my ass for five fuckin' seconds?"

"If someone didn't, you'd be halfway across Texas right now," Dave snorts. "Now get the fuck down."

Bro sighs, and he drops in a jumble of limps, legs over the edge, but ass planted safely away from the verge. "Better?"

"Good e-fucking-nough, I guess." Dave hops up and then after hesitating a second, sits next to Bro. You take the place beside him. It's not that you're not interested, because you are. It's just that the relationship between them feels so fragile sometimes, so tenuous, and you're afraid your presence will fuck it up.

His brother takes a deep drag, blows out a cloud of smoke, carefully facing away from Dave. Heh. "This about your mom and her shitty plan?"

"You can't really think we'd be cool, leaving you here on your own," Dave says slowly. Like he's almost shy to be so genuine in front of Bro.

"I'm a big boy, I can take care of myself. Unlike a certain someone who still legally needs a guardian to drive him to Taco Bell."

"Hey, fuck you!" Dave actually reaches out and shoves him, and you smile when Bro rocks lightly, bounces back.

"Ow," he monotones.

"Dude, come on," he wheedles. "Just let her mom you. You know Dave'll flip if you say you're not going."

"Dave needs to stop hovering," he grunts, but he's getting defensive. You can see the way his spine curls in a little, how a line pulls at the corner of his mouth.

"What if you have a seizure," Dave whispers, and you feel like a voyeur here, for how small his voice is, how vulnerable.

Bro actually stops at that, turns to look at him, then you. "We don't actually know if the meds're helping. Or if whatever the Crocker kid did fixed me up right as rain."

"But what if it didn't," you say, and mentally kick yourself. It's not your conversation, Dirk. You're just here for moral support. "In the Game, she could only bring someone who was truly dead back one time, outside the realm of godtier revitalization. And then..." They're both staring at you, now, so you drop your eyes to your hands.

Dave bumps his hand against one of yours, and out of the corner of your eye, you see him turn to Bro. "This is really fucking embarrassing, so I'm only gonna say it once. Bro, please, for my sake, and Mom's, and Dave's. Or even just like. As a general courtesy to your shitty puppet porn fans, please don't stay. Please come with us."

You do peek at Bro, then, turn your head just enough to see the whole of his expression.

It's almost like that night on the roof, when you thought he might really jump, eyebrows up, mouth parted. He's not used to looking vulnerable, and you both know it.
He closes it off faster than you can blink, seals it away in his Huge Dickhead vault. But he stubs out his cigarette, climbs to his feet.

Dave reaches out in a panic, grabs his pant leg like a child.

"Fine," Bro finally says, voice curt, not nearly as emotionless as you both like. "But you say one word to your mom about Crocker only being able to heal me once, and I'll test your death-defying god bullshit myself."

It's an empty threat, but still a threat, and Dave just nods meekly, lets go of his bro.

Bro wipes a hand down his face, sighs hard. "Christ, you boys're lucky I fucking..."

He cuts himself off, but you can imagine exactly what he was going to say, and based on the smile growing on Dave's face, you guess he can, too.

 

Chapter Text

The airport is already your own personal hell. Dropping off Jane had been a cacophony of noise and people and even expecting it did nothing to prepare you for the exact size of the complex, and how many people could fit inside it. And sure, you did it, and sure, you’d do it again. But moving in a large group? Is such a huge fucking nightmare, and you are in agony.

It’s still early, Dave assures you, it can get so much worse, but your head is on a swivel, tracking familiar paths, trying to learn new routes, and making sure not a single one of these assholes leaves your sight.

Bro is actually the one who notices, god fucking help you. He waits until your little group stops at the information desk and you’re counting heads before he knocks into your suitcase with his own, spooks you almost a foot straight in the air. He leans down to put a hand over where you grip the handle, white-knuckled and trembling, and his voice is low by your ear. “Knock it off.”

“I’m not -” you start, bite your tongue. I'm not doing anything. You’re not, you’re not, you just. You aren’t sure how to - you’re not doing anything.

“You don’t need to babysit them,” Bro says, and he’s prying your hand free from the suitcase, uncurls your fingers like your strength means nothing to him. It drops to the floor, and both Mom and Rose turn at the noise, but he waves them off, ignores your glare. “They aren’t ducklings, you ain’t Mother Goose, and even if you were, no one would trust you to be in charge. Lalonde ‘n I are right here. You think she’d let me outta her sight for a fucking minute? Relax.” He bends at the knees, picks up the case, and sets it upright beside you. “And if you can’t relax, at least take a fucking chill pill.”

You think of a hundred nasty things you could say to him, right then and there. How he doesn’t want to do this any more than you do, how he doesn’t care about you anyway, fuck off, what does he know? How he seems to care positively for so little in his life you’re surprised he even has the energy for hobbies.

But you don’t get that far, because suddenly, Bro isn’t beside you anymore, Roxy is, hands empty, and Dave is now holding both his own suitcase, as well as hers, looking baffled, then a little annoyed, and finally upon seeing you, resigned.

“Yo,  Mini-Roxy,” Bro says, points at her. “You’re officially on idiot duty until we board. Keep his panties from crawling so far up his ass the cavity search team calls in backup. Comprende?”

Roxy just laughs, delighted, and grabs your hand in hers. “Yes sir, Mr. Strider sir.” She gives him what is very obviously a WONK, which he does not appreciate.

He turns heel and quickly makes his way to the other side of Mom, and you choke on a laugh; he’s hiding behind her.


Boarding with DS is. Well. You’re not him, so you don’t know, but he doesn’t look like he’s having any fucking fun. You’re pretty sure the process would have taken twice as long except for the fact that Bro, standing beside him with his arms crossed, looks so fucking menacing they don’t want to put up a fight. (DS looks about ready to sink through the floor or just outright cry when they show up with a transfer seat, but Bro genuinely puts a hand on his shoulder, and you watch him relax, just a fraction. You’re pretty sure you just watched some real goddamn affection happen right before your eyes.)

His chair is tucked neatly into the little closet at the front, and you only notice because you are currently counting the seats and storage spaces, wondering if you crawled into one and fucking died, if it’d be more comfortable than being sandwiched into this hell pod.

Bro’s head nearly brushes the ceiling, and when he ducks into the seat closest to the window, you think about just booking it, right there. You cannot fucking do this.

But Dave’s hand is on your wrist, and he guides you in, murmuring soft encouragement, nudging you in the knees. You wonder if he can hear your thoughts, if you and Bro are less of a threat with him preventing your escape. You stand there, awkwardly bowed in the cramped space, and consider the repercussions of bodily throwing yourself towards the door.

DS is up at the front with Mom, Rox, and Rose, and he keeps looking back at you and Dave with an expression that spells "kill me."

You jump a little when a rough hand drags you down into your seat.

“Sit down, you look like an idiot,” Bro mutters, but he’s not looking at you, free hand over his mouth, staring out the window. His left leg is starting to shake violently, and you note how his knees bump up against the chair in front of him. He’s going to get you both in a lot of trouble that way, you can see it now.

The pilot announces you’re about to watch a shitty little video on your fancy chairs, and when the plane starts to move on the tarmac, you grab both armrests, Bro and Dave’s hands included, and you do not fucking breath until you are in the air.

It isn’t fun. Roxy was wrong, it isn’t fun. You are not having fun. Your ears pop, like when you’d dive too deep into the ruins, desperate for one more look, just one more clue of humanity’s presence, anything at all, and you breathe just about as well, keep your eyes trained on the floor, your beatup sneakers,  the off-beat shake of your foot against Bro’s.

You feel the plane even out before they say anything, and it’s a dip in your stomach, the same shift under your feet as your rocketboard, but 100 times bigger. You hear the pilot speak between the blood roaring in your ears and when Bro shrugs you off, you grab your knees. Okay. Alright. Okay, okay, it’s fine. You’re fine. You can breathe. You’re not dead (but that’d be easier, you think hysterically). You’re fine. Alive. It’s fine.

You wonder if you could set up a kind of transport system between your home and Roxy’s with the fenestrated windows, and then create a relay between the others from there. Maybe if Jade figured out her powers, she could change the size. Wouldn’t need to be as big as a plane and no, no, we’re not thinking about the plane, we’re focusing on other things. All things. Anything else.

Bro reaches over you, jars you out of your thoughts, and you choke a little at the close contact. He smells like pine needles and the off-brand detergent that used to be stacked sky-high under your kitchen counters growing up. It’s almost comforting, in a totally self-involved way. His voice rumbles in his chest when he speaks, and you cannot say you dislike it. You might sounds like that someday, holy shit.

You tune them out for a minute, wipe the sweat off your hands and on your knees, and start when you see him looking down at you. Because you weren’t just totally being a creep, Jesus dicks what the fuck is wrong with you.

“Want anything?” he asks again, without prompting. He looks a little impatient.

“Just get him water,” Dave grouses, snatching Bro’s wallet and shoving a wad of bills at the flight attendant.

Bro grunts, but drops the water into the your lap as he flops back in his seat, holding a single cup of ice and an entire bottle of whiskey. You and Dave watch as he proceeds to down like half of it in one go, pull his hat over his eyes, and fold himself so small into his seat you can barely believe he fucking fits.

You. Guess he’s just doing that, then. You had been curious why he picked the window seat, when you’re pretty sure he doesn’t enjoy this any more than you do. Now you kind of get it, and you aren’t very fucking impressed.

When he’s out, Dave offers his hand to you, palm up, and an awkward smile. “Not the same when you’re not in control, huh?”

You don’t answer, feeling ill, just nod and take his hand, focus on his voice as he tells you a rambling tale of his trip with Bro to Florida one year. They got kicked out of a very popular theme park. You have never seen Florida (it was all underwater), but you think it sounds nice, even if they were asked politely yet firmly to leave.

Dave starts talking, and he does not stop, and this time, you don’t particularly care what he has to say. Something, anything, the longer and more convoluted the better. Dave has been to El Paso, no you don’t think any of it lasted, though you don’t have proof. They ate burritos at a local gas station and it was better than anything he’s ever had since. One time Bro drove them to Vegas. Dave was only four then, and he doesn’t even know if Bro was old enough to have business there in the first place. He doesn’t remember, but there are pictures of him sitting in the fountain at Caesar’s Palace, and then pictures of them fleeing the crime scene. (Dave leans around you to consider Bro for a second, admits he may have actually done that all for the sake of a good joke. It can be hard to tell with him.)

You don’t drink your water because you are absolutely unwilling to piss mid-flight, but you roll it between your hands to calm your nerves, and don’t set it in the little seat pocket until it’s long gone warm.

It is impossible for Dave to talk the whole way, and he’s tired, you’re tired, have spent the last three days being tired. You had to leave early this morning, and you can tell that Dave’s struggling to keep himself alert for you. Bro’s having zero fucking trouble now, head tucked against the window in a way that it looks like his neck is broken. You’re kinda jealous. Your teeth chatter with nerves, but you don’t feel as bad, by the time you enter Washington airspace. And god, how you’re mesmerized by the glittering ocean in the distance, feel an ache in your chest that isn’t anxiety at all.

Dave leans across you with zero respect for boundaries (not that you care), puts his elbow on Bro’s armrest. “It’s cool, huh? I’ve never uh. I never did get to visit John, all those years we were friends.” You see his eyes, over his shades, how they flick to you, then back down. “Was just really busy, I guess.”

You bonk your head against his lightly, don’t fuss over your hair (you’re three days in, anyway, you don’t even remember when you last brushed it and it’s already crushed on one side, so fuck it). “You’re here now, bro. That counts for something.”

“Yeah,” he says, and then he smiles, like he sees something you don’t. “Yeah, fuck yeah I am.”



There is no way in hell Bro is sober by the time you disembark, but the second you land he unfolds like fucking Wall-E, has somehow crawled over both of you, and is kneeling by DS before the first overhead compartment has even opened. Dude’s fast, you’ll give him that.

You look at Dave, and he just laughs, shrugs helplessly. “I have no fucking clue, dude. He’s your weird alternate universe self, not mine.”

And. Okay you can’t really be mad at him for that, because it’s fair, but it hurts a little. You squash that down, and Dave elbows you lightly.

“Hey, man. You did it.”

And hey, fuck, he’s right.

You never want to do it again.

You wait for Bro and DS in the baggage claim, stand with Roxy on one hand and Dave pressed against your other arm. It’s still early here, and most of the people look beat down, grumpy, and not particularly sociable. It’s all and fine with you, because your stress levels are already at maximum, but you still feel better when you finally see them exiting the elevator, Dave back in his chair and looking way more fucking comfortable.

“When are they supposed to meet us?” Mom asks around a yawn, and Rose is halfway through a reply when you hear an ungodly (or godly, if you prefer irony) loud shout.

John Egbert comes speeding across the baggage claim, arms flailing, moving at a rate that can only be boosted by his godtier abilities. You wonder if he’s noticed yet.

Right now, he uses them to quite literally hurl himself onto Davesprite’s wheelchair, arms and legs and all, and Bro’s hand on the back is the only thing that keeps them from flying into the wall.

DS is swearing up a storm, scared shitless, and John is laughing, and laughing, and smushing his hands into his hair, then his face, and Dave, beside you, has gone very still.

If you are being honest (and cruel, and oh, Dirk, how you can be so very cruel), you had been preparing for a version of this inevitability. You had suspected it would be quite the opposite, to be fair, but the hurt you see on your brother’s face, as he watches John and Dave, is something you had known would occur, and you feel a small sting of guilt. You could have said something sooner, or discussed it with either of them or -

But that would be meddling, and you’re trying not to do that anymore, you promised you’d stop (or try, anyhow) and god, it’s so fucking hard for you. You’re such a controlling, nosy bitch.

But Dave needs you to be a good Support Dirk, so you slide your fingers down his arm in warning, lace your hands together carefully, give a squeeze. It's the best you can do, and it feels like shit when he doesn't respond in kind.

"I can't believe you're actually like, kinda orange," is what John is saying, holding his arm up to Davesprite's, rumpling his hair. "It's like Beverly Hills House wives in here. Damn, dude, what happened?"

"If I fucking knew that, Egbert, I wouldn't be rocking the spray tan west Hollywood makeover, now would I?" DS drawls, but he looks a tad miffed. This doesn't surprise you, you have heard John can be a little insensitive. It definitely runs on one side of the family.

"Wow, way to snub the main attraction," Rose sighs, dragging her suitcase over. "I spend several hours on an aircraft, suffer through the Olympic feats it takes to keep my family from being kicked off said plane, and this is how I am treated? John, I am not only hurt, I am outright ashamed." She's the only one of you who has been keeping track of the damn things. An oversight on your behalf. Dave's fingers finally curl into yours and you're forced to watch sadly as Bro's beatup little suitcase rolls around the opposite side of the claim again.

But then John turns on all of you, and kid's got a mouth that could make an orthodontist cry, but you are so painfully aware in this moment how much he is related to Jake.
He untangles himself from DS, and you get almost no warning to move as Roxy drags you out of the way before he throws himself at Dave and Rose, one arm for each, and drags them into the biggest hug either of them has probably had.

"I can't believe they actually convinced you to change out of your tight little hood," John says to Dave, squeezing his shoulders and frowning. "I was really looking forward to that."

"Bro wouldn't let him leave the apartment until he changed," DS says as he rolls over, wearing the biggest shit-eating grin. "He threatened to like, take away the Xbox and everything. It was ridiculous how much effort it took to get him to change."

"But you're still wearing the shades," John scoffs, and you are kind of impressed that Dave does not move a muscle when he reaches out and makes a play at adjusting them. You never even let Roxy touch your shades.

"I don't know why I have to keep defending my sweet ass knight-wear to a windsock-wearing asshole," Dave drawls, but you can see the smile curling on his left side, how his cheek dimples like Roxy's. You tell yourself you are not jealous, because you have no reason to be, and even if you were, it'd be completely unreasonable.

"I see introductions are well under way," comes an even, amused tone, and you know that this man, slightly too young to be Jane's father, tie the wrong color, and hat a little more beat up, can be none other than the famous Dad Egbert.

Whoa, they really do look similar.

"Wow, they really look the damn same, don't they?" Bro asks, and he's standing beside all of you now, looking bonelessly relaxed and leaning heavily on Roxy's suitcase. There is no way he is not still drunk.

"Mr. Egbert," Mom says, and her cheeks are tinged pink, her voice low. "A pleasure to see you again."

"And you as well, Ms. Lalonde," Egbert says, and honest to God kisses her hand.

Mom lets out a girlish giggle that makes you frown, but the only two people who look truly bothered are John and Rose, their faces set like they shared the same nasty lemon. Roxy just looks embarrassed, you think, and at least you're not alone for five fucking seconds.

"Gross, that's our mom," DS sighs softly, and Dave snorts, kicks one of his wheels.

Bro nudges your hand with the back of his knuckles, and when you crane your head to look at him, he wiggles his eyebrows. Yep, definitely not sober.

You hate this fucking family.

It's not that John does not interest you, because you are extremely interested in the person who claims to be your brother's BFF (twice over, you guess) but you do really want that fucking suitcase. You spent way too long at the CVS down the road from the apartment picking out the shittiest souvenirs for this trip, and you will not rest until you know your novelty snow globes are in tact.

Also, Bro is making you a little uncomfortable.

You watch them from the belt, how John smiles at the Daves, looking from DS to Dave and back again, and you guess all DS's worries were for naught. They seem to be getting on okay.

You lift your suitcase off the rack, and then after a moment, drag Bro's along as well (it's black, identical to all the others, aside from the luggage tag that reads 'Princess' in bright pink glitter font). At this point, you're sure he'll forget it, and you really don't want that to be a fight later.

" -efinitely more of a Jane than a Jake," Roxy is saying as you sidle up next to them, and she socks John in the arm.

"Oh, wow, that hurt sooooo much," John says with an eye roll. Pauses, rubs at his arm with a wince. "Actually, it did hurt a little. You're stronger than you look, Roxy, hehe."

"Could probably bench you like a rubber dumbbell, Egbert," you say, and turn to hand off Bro's case to him, only to find

That he's not

He's not fucking there.

"Huh," is the first thing out of your mouth, and you don't know why you say it, or why you're even surprised at this point, that after HE was the one who told you to chill out, that he didn't need babysitting, that he's the one who has wandered off and apparently gotten completely fucking lost.

DS literally just puts his head in his hands for a second, pinches the bridge of his nose like he's fighting a headache. "Did anyone fucking see where Bro went?"

Rose and Roxy shrug, Dave looks mildly constipated, and John looks completely unconcerned.

"He can't have gotten far," Rose says, but she sounds unsure. "He could barely walk straight, anyway. What did you do to him?"

"He did that to himself," Dave snaps, coughs a little, looks sheepish. "He's a nervous flier, he uh." He looks at you for help, eyebrows up, bunched in the middle. As if you weren't already a sucker for his bullshit.

"He drank a metric shit ton of whiskey," you say, and you're embarrassed on multiple accounts now, for all that Bro is crossways you and apparently incapable of handling liquor.

John doesn't really seem to get the big deal, because he just laughs again. "He's an adult, guys, come on. He probably just went to the bathroom or something."

You want to explain to John, maybe in the slowest of technical terms, that he's kind of hammered, dangerous, and an idiot troublemaker who promised not to cause any trouble, which yeah, you know, you should have thought of before trusting him. It was an oversight on your behalf, you apologize. But it is mildly imperative that you find this weird overgrown child.

This is, of course, when Mom notices he's not in her line of sight, and she says, "Oh now what the hell!" so loud you are almost certain half the airport heard her.

Your eyes roam the crowd, but you don't see him anywhere (he's hard to miss, standing like a tall, pale beacon in a hat), and you bite the bullet, and make a rash decision.

You pester him.

TT: Hey idiot.
TT: And I don't mean that in the endearing way that Dave does, not either of them.
TT: And certainly not in the way you probably feel deserves to be considered funny, because what you are doing right now is neither funny nor endearing.
TT: hey.
TT: Don't fucking "hey" me right now. Where the fuck are you?
TT: i don't actually feel like i need to answer that.
TT: in part because as you've so rudely pointed out, i am neither endearing nor particularly funny.
TT: and also being inscrutable is just part of my charm.
TT: No part of your personality is anywhere remotely within the realm of what I'd consider charming.
TT: gee, mister strider, you sure know how to make a girl feel special.
TT: I'll take you to the ball when you learn how to fucking behave. Now seriously,
TT: Where the hell are you, dude?
TT: gettin' a coffee at the starbucks.

You crane your neck around, but there is neither a coffee joint nor a Bro in sight. His chat flickers in the corner of your vision.

TT: haha made you look.
TT: You know, you're a huge fucking dick.
TT: i know.
TT: Seriously? You "know"? That's all you have to say in this situation?
TT: You fucking promised me in Houston. Promised me, bro, that you wouldn't pull this absolute horseshit.
TT: i don't reckon i remember promising you anything, little man.

He's right, he didn't, you know he didn't, but you were hoping he didn't remember, that he would take you at face value. Guess he's just going to be a huge fucking asshole, no surprise there.

TT: nor do i find it at all adorable that you trusted me in the first place.
TT: it's.
TT: dare i say,
TT: "charming".
TT: Go fuck yourself.
TT: oh c'mon, sweetheart.
TT: you'll have to try a little harder than that if you really want to hurt my feelings.

Bile rises up in the back of your throat, your hands curling into fists. He's just trying to get a rise out of you. You don't know why you're playing along, why you even bothered. DS may think he has soft spot for you, but you know that's not true, could never be true. Bro feels the same way about you as any Dirk has ever felt about any other Dirk, and it was foolish of you to pretend otherwise.

Dave's hand is warm on your shoulder, and you roll him off you without thinking, have to stop yourself, rewind, replay. Fuck. Fuck, shit, no, you didn't mean to do that.

"Hey, sorry," he mumbles, and you scramble to grab him before he slinks away.

They're all staring at you now, and you want to crawl into a hole and die there. "No, shit, sorry, Dave, I'm - I'm sorry. I'm pestering him."

"Is he talkin'?" Mom's hands are on her hips, and her face is stormy.

"Yes," you say curtly as another message rolls across your lens. "But he's being unsurprisingly recalcitrant about his location. I'm actually starting to wonder why I fucking bothered."

"Language," Mom and Egbert say at once, and John rolls his eyes while Roxy snickers.

"Dirkleton, they're your spares, right? Why don't you just turn on the GPS?"

You blink. Oh. Yeah. Right. She's right. "Rox, you're a genius," you say, and it takes a second of you waiting for Hal (stop, bite down on guilt) before you remember to run the program yourself.

It doesn't ping very far, since the only place you've ever needed to find lost glasses was your apartment, but if you get within 10-15 feet, it should light him up like a Christmas tree, and you can follow the signal from there.

The problem is, you're going to have to take a walk. Preferably alone, to cut down on distraction, and with him as your only speaking companion. Ugh.

"You don't have to do it by yourself," Dave says, before you can open your mouth. He's fucking good, caught you right in the middle of your thought process and brought the train to a screeching halt.

"But I kind of do," you tell him, shrug. Try to think of a way to tell Dave he's a distraction, without saying it at all. It won't be that bad, you tell yourself. You can do it. You're a big fucking kid now, Jesus, you're not a dainty little princess. You can walk across an airport without getting lost. Probably.

Dave gives you this look which you're pretty sure means he knows you're full of shit, but he nods. "A'ight, but if you get lost, and Dave 'n I have to come get you, I'm never letting you live it down."

"Dave," you sigh, pushing your shades up on your nose, setting your suitcase next to Bro's and Roxy's, "there is very little dignity I have left in this world, at this point. Save me at least a fraction, alright?"

He doesn't seem to know what to say to that, so you pinch your nose, mutter "Christ," under your breath, and start off across the baggage claim, heading back the way you came in hopes of finding. Something. A clue, you guess. You open his log again, anyway, and regret it.

TT: aww did big baby get his panties in a knot.
TT: I just didn't see any point in me responding when all you really have to say is a bunch of useless insults wrapped up in poor phrasing and a lack of proper enunciation.
TT Would you prefer I mimic the perfect syntax of my youth?
TT: Break away from the slapstick humor of my "aww hell naw" Texan routine, put on a show of self-congratulatory wit worthy of my acumen?
TT: Leaving us both wondering, which came first? The alpha, or the beta?
TT: Are you superior to me simply because you are the antithesis of what I claim to be?
TT: Or perhaps because you talk in large, looping circles around me and all your little cronies?
TT: Or am I superior in that I am fully aware of our ironic pageantry, and the fact that friends and family alike find it tiring, as well as distastefully condescending?
TT: Truthfully, is there any satisfaction in driving people away with your pedantic, bitterly lonely rants about the meaning of the universe, and your place in it?
TT: Do you ever tire of our egregious sense of self-importance, or the need for a handle so vague and morbid your poor audience needs a dictionary to dissect it?
TT: Do you think everyone will forget you if you aren't guiding them? Pulling at their strings like they're worthless to you as anything but puppets?
TT: Do you fear that your life has no meaning, if you are not the smartest among your peers, Dirk?
TT: Fuck you.
TT: haha.
TT: there's not much appeal left in any of that for me.
TT: the smartypants snob thing, i mean.
TT: not anymore.
TT: i ain't got nothing to prove to anybody, least of all you.
TT: How are you this much of an asshole while you're drunk?
TT: i would venture to say i am always this much of an asshole, and you have just never taken the time to get to know me.

He's right, sort of, and you don't know why you bother feeling hurt by any of this. He doesn't care about you. You know that. To fool yourself into thinking otherwise was childish, stupid.

TT: You know what I think?
TT: i'm sure you'll tell me exactly what you think, kid.
TT: just like you always do.
TT: I think,

You start, and you're not even looking where you're going now, hands curled into fists at your sides, breath uneven. You're frustrated, you're furious. If he was in front of you, you're sure you'd punch him.

TT: I think you're afraid of people getting to know the real you.
TT: I think you resent me because I'm a second chance you will never get to have, and I represent all the things you hate most about yourself.
TT: And that the idea of me, or you, or any version of any Dirk being vulnerable with anyone?
TT: Scares the absolute shit out of you.
TT: I think you push me and Dave and everyone else away because you're terrified.
TT: And I think that deep down? You're just as lonely as I am.

You shouldn't care about him, and you shouldn't care what he thinks, or doesn't, or the fact that he gets right into your head, right into the core of your own bitterness, right into the part of yourself that's corrosive, eats at you from the inside out.

TT: maybe you're right.

His signal gets brighter as you head towards the escalators.

TT: But you don't have to be.

You shouldn't care.

TT: You have me.
TT: And Dave.
TT: yknow it's almost kinda cute how much you kids think your positive little dandelion-through-the-cracks speeches will fix everything.
TT: They love you, bro. I know you know that.
TT: unfortunately for me, i do
TT: i don't know why i fucking agreed to this oh fuck hold on oh shit
TT: that's really fucking gross

Thought-to-text isn't easy for anyone, and you're actually kind of impressed he picked it up this quickly. You're also pretty sure he just threw up on you.

You follow the now blinking red dot straight into a bathroom, tucked behind a shop selling outdated magazines and ugly neck pillows. You have been in public bathrooms, but the appeal is still next to zilch for you, and you wrinkle your nose, tread carefully around the sinks, avoid looking at your own reflection, lest you get sucked into trying to fix your hair.

There's only two closed spaces here, past the line of urinals, and you can see one of his feet sticking out from under the door of the handicap stall, besides.

You fight with your words, stuck between a "Dirk" and a "Bro", when he speaks for you. "M'here."

"I can't open the door from the outside," you say simply.

He groans softly. "Can't you climb under the door like a normal kid?"

"You, of all people, should know that I, of all people, am not a normal kid," you say, and just to prove a point, you grab the top of the stall and pull your weight until you can rest well enough to see him sprawled on the floor, arms folded over the toilet seat.

He peeks up at you and wiggles his hands in jazzy gesture, says "You fooound me," in complete monotone. All the fight, the vitriol, all the mean things you had to say, all of it leaks away when you see him there, clutching his porcelain throne like he's trying to live and die there.

"You're in big fucking trouble, mister," you say, swing yourself over the door to drop down next to him. "What the fuck were you thinking?"

"Wasn't," he mutters, presses his forehead to the back of one hand. His hat is missing again, and glancing away, you see it hanging from the door hook. Wow. You wonder what that says about you.

"So what, you decided on a whim to take a walk? Ended up in a disgusting bathroom stall? And for what? Mom's gonna fucking kill you, you know."

"Maintenance crew just came through when we exited the gate," he mumbles into his arm, rolls his head to look at you. There's spittle crusted to the corner of his mouth, and you do not gag. "Cleanest place I could find, barring a trash can. Meds ain't sitting so well with my rash decisions, as it turns out."

And shit, why didn't you think about that before? You and Dave should have - well you are just kids. Still, you should have checked his prescriptions before you left or. Or something.

You don't know what to say, because he was just being a huge fucking dick to you, and because now you feel needlessly guilty for something that wasn't technically your fault. "You good now?" is what you settle on.

He laughs softly, rusty chainsaw on a rusted swing, and slowly pushes himself upright. "Don't really have much left to lose, I s'pose." He pauses, and when he looks at you, the twinkle in his eye makes it clear he is still intoxicated. "That was another pun, in case you were wondering."

"I wasn't," you grunt, reaching out a hand and dragging him to his feet. "C'mon. The sooner we get your sorry ass back, the sooner I get out of this hell hole."

"Amen to fucking that," he sighs, dragging a hand back through his hair before replacing his hat, delicate as anything.

You wait patiently while he washes his hands and face, and pester Dave to let him know you found him in one piece.

TT: Hey. Found him in a bathroom by the gate.
TT: He's alive, if a little bit hard to fucking deal with right now.
TG: oh thank god
TT: You can just call me Dirk, if you like.
TG: haha yeah but also fuck off
TG: tell him daves gonna kick his ass to hell and back btw
TG: he aint fucking happy

"Dave says he's going to kick your ass," you tell him.

He almost-smiles. "Yeah, I'll just bet."

You're still pretty fuckin' mad at him, honestly, but you don't know how to bring it up without yelling at him in a public space, and it's not something you're brave enough to do.
He lopes alongside you at half-pace, neither particularly slow nor in a hurry to go anywhere. "Hey," he says, bumps a hand against your elbow lightly. "I uh. What I said back there."

"Let me guess," you bite out, terse. "You 'didnt mean any of it', and you're hoping I won't take it to heart."

"No, I meant it," Bro says, and there is a sardonic amusement to his tone. "But I didn't have to say it like that. It ain't fun, getting ripped to shreds like that. I didn't have to snap at you because I felt like shit. M'sorry about that, if anything."

You stop mid-step, stare at him.

He stares back, eyebrow cocked above his frames.

"Are you fucking kidding me," you say, and it comes screeching from between your teeth. "You're apologizing for hurting my feelings after viciously mocking me for shit you and I both do, or have done? Or keep doing? That's what you're taking away from all this? Do you understand how messed up that is?"

"Vaguely," he says, winces. "Or, I'm starting to, anyway."

"You're completely unbelievable," you say, and mean it. He's going to give you a headache.

"Yeah," he sighs, and when you start up again, he follows. "I know."


DS does in fact kick the shit out of him, and Bro lets him, stands there like a fool while his shins are straight up assassinated. You're too tired to laugh, but Dave takes a few pictures, and John seems to enjoy it.

Mom drags him away from all of you as you start the parade out of the baggage claim and towards the parking garage, and you're sure he's gonna get an earful.
Dave bumps your shoulder carefully, and you don't flinch, hunch in a little. "Hey. You okay, man?"
"Yes," you say on reflex. Sigh. Correct, "No."
Dave doesn't ask, because he's not good at asking you for things, still, after all these months, but he slides his hand down, molds his palm against yours. And he doesn't have to, and maybe it's a little embarrassing, but it makes you feel better, and you don't try to pull away.

John and the Daves bicker pretty much all the way over the skybridge, all the way down the escalators and all the way across the garage until your little parade finally comes to a halt before two identical white cars.

You're a little surprised when John trots around one of them, crawls into the driver's side and pops the trunk. "Start loading up, kids. We're about to hit the fucking road."
"Language," Dad warns, but he's opening the door of the other car for Mom.

It doesn't take a genius to figure out what's going on here.

"No fucking way you already have your license," Dave says, though he sounds hesitant, maybe a little jealous.

John grins wildly, but Davesprite wheels up to the passenger side, unphased. "I call shotgun."

Dave balks. "You are not seriously going to trust John of all people to drive, are you?"

DS's smile is crooked, amused. "He's got more practice than you."

"We used to fly the car across Skaia," John says, adjusting his mirrors and reaching across DS to move the seat to accommodate what you can only assume is going to be you, sitting in the back. "It was a little more messed up back then, though. But with some help from Jade and stuff, we got it working!"

"Dunno if I'm even gonna fit, Egbert," you say, peering into the back. There are three seats. There are four of you left.

"Aww, Dirk, come onnnnn, live a little," Roxy says, and her teeth glitter in the dim light of the garage.

"John," his father says in warning, shutting the door gently behind Bro, who has crawled into the back seat and immediately passed out.

"Aw, c'mon, Dad, please, it's only 45 minutes," John wheedles, puts on these huge blue blinkers so bright you almost shield your fucking eyes. "We'll double buckle, I swear!" He looks at you, holds a finger to his lips as if his dad can't fucking see it.

"No we fucking will not," Dave says, but Rose is already manhandling him into the middle.

"No need to be afraid, brother dear. Aren't you supposed to be a fearless knight?"

"I'd rather be an alive knight," he snorts, but after you crawl in next to him, he doesn't protest when there's nowhere for your arm to go but around his shoulders, and then Roxy's as she squishes in with Rose. Pfft. Bet he just fucking loves that, little creep.

"Fucking incredible," DS whispers from the front, all shit-eating grin, watching you in the backseat. "Fuck, hold on, let me get my phone -"

"Daaave, don't move my mirrors," John gripes, shifting it back. This time when you catch eyes with him in the mirror, he winks at you.

You flush red and look away.

This entire trip is a giant fucking mistake, and you are helplessly unequipped to deal with it.

Chapter Text

When John defense tackled you (nice, sports reference) in the airport, you thought, “he cannot have possibly meant that to be for me.”

But he talks your ear off all the way home, tells you how nice it is for Nanna to be back, how happy it makes his dad, how Jane can bake, without mixes, and how even though he doesn’t love cake, he loves that they both want to teach him how to actually cook. It’s like nothing ever happened, like before the ship crashed through the window, like before you all started to fight, and you got so depressed you stopped actually showing up for dinner and started leaving cryptic watermarks where you knew only John would find them (and he thought they were funny, for awhile, he did, but he tired of those too, just like he did you).

You don’t know what this visit will bring, and you feel about as comfortable as Dirk looks, sitting behind you, knees practically folded to his chest. You wonder how he’ll fucking live when he hits that last growth spurt, leaves you and Dave in the dust and no longer fits in standard passenger vehicles.

You don’t know how to face Jade.

You don’t know what you’re supposed to say.

And you know, okay, you do, that she doesn’t remember, not really, in the way that Dirk remembers, but not really, and how he won’t tell Dave (and it’s not his fault, you know, that you woke him from a nightmare too soon, that he almost gave you an impromptu haircut, that he’s too ashamed to tell Dave how much he feels like a failure).

You know that what you have to say will sound insane, that you’ll have to rely on John’s testimony to the fact, that he wasn’t even around for most of that stuff, the personal stuff. And fuck you, you’re still so fucking not off the hook for all the horseshit you pulled on his fifteenth birthday, and how you avoided both of them, and how you isolated yourself. You feel like John never really forgave you, for that. And you don’t know if he should, because you never fucking apologized.

You were a really shitty friend, and you think that once the high of “everyone’s alive and isn’t this fun!” wear off, you are going to be up shit creek without a paddle, and no way fucking back down.

God, you should have asked Rose.

You still haven’t really talked to her about Bro yet, though. You don’t know how to tell her, or Dave, or even Dirk about that night, and it definitely feels a little bit like lying. You are at least 90% sure you are the only person your bro has hugged in the past thirteen years, and it’s not like it was great, and you were kind of too miserable to enjoy, anyway. (It was still kinda cool, in its own way, the soft “umph” of the air leaving his lungs, how he didn’t let go of you until you were ready, even though he was obviously uncomfortable.)

Despite his best attempts, Dave falls asleep in the backseat within the first fifteen minutes. No surprise, there. Long car rides may as well be a fucking pacifier and lullaby combo for you (and him, you guess), and you’ve always been helpless to stay awake during road trips. The lack of sleep he got sharing a room with Dirk this week probably didn’t help, either, though, haha. But Dirk doesn’t shrug him off, adjusts Dave’s shades so that they don’t dig into his shoulder so much. It’s kind of sweet, in an overly cliche and saccharine way. You’ve never let anyone but John touch your shades before, except Jade, and even that was only once.

Dave trusts him, and you’re starting to. You can talk to him, at least. Dirk, you mean. There’s no need for fear, no judgment. You’re kinda shitty, he’s been kinda shitty. You get each other. He’s fair, if a little biased with his kindness towards you. If you were being a dick, there’s a good chance he’d mention it, you think. You respect that.

Rose and Roxy follow shortly after Dave, make it about 30 minutes in to John’s shitty jokes before they nod off. John keeps talking, but drops his voice considerably. If Dirk cares to listen at all, he doesn’t mention it, elbow propped up on the window ledge and chin in his palm. You know the dude gets majorly car sick, you should have let him ride up front.

Ugh. 

Now you feel like a dick again.

“Aww,” John murmurs, looking in his rearview, and you feel your guts churn at the smile on his face, so gentle, a little nostalgic. He hasn’t looked at you like that since before your fourteenth birthday, back when you were still trying to clean up the apartment in your spare time and didn’t want to talk to anyone (they found you, anyway, he and Nanna, and they had made you a cake, even though you know John hated baking).

He looks at you now, and his smile fades, and you feel the small black hole inside you tear just a little bit more. He opens his mouth, closes it again. Clears his throat. “Hey. It really is cool that you’re back, Dave. Uh, Dave Sprite. And not dead, and stuff. We wouldn’t be here right now without you, you know. Or I wouldn’t be, at least.”

“John,” you start weakly. You don’t really want to play along. You don’t want to get into this right now, especially not with this weird angle he’s playing, all nice and gentle, like nothing ever fucking -- but maybe you’re being difficult again, maybe this is all in your fucking head and how are you supposed to tell if no one will just. Just be HONEST with you?

John does not take the fucking hint. “And even when you were a weird cat-bird-person, Jade said you helped -”

“Stop!” you snap, quiet as you can. You don’t mean to. You don’t mean to at all, your hands curling on your knees, palms sweating, chest tightening until you feel like you can’t breathe. You’re drowning, choking on air, and you can’t fucking breathe. You don’t mean to snap, but you cannot do this right now, you cannot deal with this, you cannot handle whatever he’s going to say to you, not right now. Not right now, you aren’t prepared, you aren’t ready.

Dirk raises his head in your peripherals, curious, but the others don’t stir. You don’t tell him to back off because you don’t have the patience for both of them at the moment, and because you don’t know what he’d even say, and you just can’t. You can’t.

“I really fucking - I can’t - I can’t fucking -”

you think about claws, you think about hair curling around your cheeks, you think about being ground into dust

“I just want everyone to stop bringing that up! I hate thinking about myself like that, about how I -”

about how you weren’t Dave, you weren’t depressed Dave, you weren’t much of any Dave, not anymore, how youbutnotyou were

but it wasn’t you and you

You squeeze your eyes shut, press your hands to your temples. “John, please. Can we at least wait until we get back to your house before we lay all our shit bare like this?”

John hesitates, and you’re almost impressed to see how much he’s grown, when you weren’t looking, how he keeps his hands on the wheel, opposite Bro’s, at eight and four. “Um. Okayyy... I, I am sorry, Dave. For. You know.”

“No, Egbert,” you laugh, and it’s pathetic, a little mean. You glance back at Dave and Rose, hope to god they’re actually asleep. “I don’t know. But I am so fucking excited to find out exactly what I should ‘know’.”

“Dude, are you seriously going to just start being a dick again right out of the gate?” John whispers back, and he’s frowning at you now, and there’s a face you recognize, the way the left side of his face scrunches up first. You hear the wheel creak between his fingers. “I’m trying to apologize to you, even though -”

Dirk’s long arm snakes its way from the back viper fast, and he puts a steady hand on John’s shoulder. “Save it for later, kid.” And he sounds so much like Bro you almost jump.

Dave groans at having lost his pillow, but he doesn’t wake, just wraps his arms around Dirk’s torso in a way that cannot possibly be comfortable. Dirk leans back anyway, puts his arm back on the window sill, looks away with practiced disinterest.

John doesn’t say anything at all, after that, not for a long time, and it’s not until about ten minutes later, when his gears have finished turning past angry that he switches subjects and barrels forward, like nothing happened at all.


John’s house looks the same way you remember it, except not at fucking all. Rose’s additions were kind of a bizarre copy-paste, a never-ending Egbert Jenga tower. They’re all gone, now, and the additions on two sides as you drive around the corner are even, smooth, and blend so seamlessly that it’s a kind of uncanny valley moment when you realize what you’re looking at.

“Whoa,” you say.

“Damn, dude,” Dirk says, gives a low whistle. “Your house is fucking huge now.”

“Yeah,” John laughs, pulls into the spot just next to the mailbox. “We finished the extension this week! Jane’s still moving into her room, you guys can probably help.” He glances at you, grimaces awkwardly. Way to go, Egbert. “Uh. I’m sure Nanna won’t mind someone to hang out with, downstairs.”

“Gee, thanks,” you grind out, between your teeth. Because you wanted to be reminded how absolutely useless you are twice in an hour. Cool. Thanks, John.

“I wasn’t trying to -” John throws his hands up, then covers his face, groans. “Ugh! I told myself I wasn’t gonna do this right now, so we’re not! Let’s just go inside before Jade comes out and climbs all over the car again.”

You don’t know what he means by “again”, but you’re not willing to wait long enough to find out, so you open the door, and everyone else wakes up and sleepily piles out, and you

You fucking wait.

And wait.

And wait.....

“John,” you say, and try not to sound like an ass. A pathetic ass, who snapped at him and now needs help. “Or fuckin’, uh. Somebody?” You are definitely pathetic right now. You hate asking for help, more than anything in the world, and you feel useless, sitting here, staring at the ground, with legs that can kick but can’t fucking hold you up. “Guys? I can’t -”

But then there’s Bro, standing next to the door, unfolding your chair, locking it into place.

You stare at him, mouth open to form, “What the fuck.”

“My bad,” he says, monotone, but eyebrows pinched up in the middle. If you didn’t know better, you’d say he looks guilty. “They put it in the backseat with me. I shoulda been on top of that. C’mon, kiddo.”

You know he was just being a huge ass in the airport, that he made you and Mom and everyone kinda flip, but you think he’s trying to make up for that now. If only in the shittiest way possible. He’s really fucking bad at this. But he waits for you to drag yourself into your chair, doesn’t make fun of the way you falter slightly.

You pause when you get situated, drum your hands on the arms for a second. “What if I’m not ready?” you mumble, look up at him, shades to shades. You try to find his eyes under the glass, will him to understand how fucking scared you are, and that if he teases you right now you’ll fucking kick him in the balls.

He sighs, and you think he’s probably still drunk, leaning heavy on the car door, or halfway to hungover, at least (and Dirk said he’d been puking, that his meds reacted badly, and shit you should’ve been on top of that, should’ve paid more attention). He watches Dave and Dirk carefully dragging everyone’s suitcases out of the trunk, looks back at you. “Whaddya got to lose?”

“My fucking dignity?” you say, and he snorts. You shove his leg. “She might not remember enough for me to... to apologize, I guess. And I can’t really call her out on shit if she doesn’t know what I’m talking about.” The more you talk, the more you curl into yourself, stare at your shoes. “I don’t know.”

“Christ, look at us,” he not-laughs, rubs at the center of his chest absently. You think about the way his sword pierced his sternum, right between the bone, and try not to wince. “Guess we’re all just owing up to shit these days, huh?”

“Some of us are having more trouble than others,” you say, and don’t know if you mean him, or you, or maybe even Dirk, who is definitely looking at John and Jane’s house like it’s a stockade, and not really in the usual way.

Bro stares at you, presses his lips together. You hate when he does that, because that’s what Dirk does when he’s making a decision and he hasn’t determined if the outcome is worth the trouble yet. It’s a fraction of a second, and then he grabs the back of your chair, starts pushing you across the lawn and towards the front door.

You scramble for purchase, give up trying to stop him when you scrape your palms against the wheels. “Dude! Bro! Not fucking cool!”

“We all have to face our fears eventually, kid,” he says, and no one helps you, as he hoists your entire chair up onto the stoop, stands beside you like he’s waiting for YOU to get the courage to open the door. “You dragged my ass all the way from Houston. You better make it worth it.”

“You are a grade-A asshole,” you hiss to him, struggle with deciding if trying to kick him right now will be worth it.

“Right back at you, Dave,” he says, and he smiles when you squawk, leans around you and presses the doorbell after all.

You are halfway through a “fuck you” when the door swings open with such great force you almost roll backwards.

“Davesprite!” Jade shouts, and there she is, and she’s the same way you remember her, warm brown skin and bright green eyes and wild hair that floats around her like a cloud and then she’s throwing her arms around your shoulders and you feel like you might suffocate, or cry. “There you are! Hi! Hello! So good to see you alive!”

“Uh,” you say, and your voice is definitely a little froggy. You raise a shaky hand, fight with returning the hug,and settle for a gentle pat on the back. “Hey.”

“I wasn’t sure if you would make it with John driving,” she says as she pulls away, and you don’t ache to pull her back, let her hand slip away from yours. She rolls her eyes, gives a toothy grin. “He is suuuuch a boring driver. He won’t even let me stick my head out the window!”

Haha. Dog jokes bubble up just behind your tongue and you have to bite back on them. Wow, you almost forgot about that, and she sure does have those fluffy white ears, and they sure do twitch on their own, huh. Wow.

Bro seems to notice at the same time, and he steps around her with some level of unease, quarter speed, like when he’s trying not to scare you. You have a feeling maybe he’s not such a big fan of dogs, now.

(You cannot blame him.)

“I don’t let you stick your head out because it’s dangerous!” John says, and he sidles up beside you, dragging Rose’s suitcase along behind him. Heh. Perfect fucking gentleman, this one. At least to some people.

“Please, Egbert,” Dave drawls behind him, “everyone sticks their head out the window from time to time, she ain’t special.”

“Yeah, but not everyone does it every single time they’re in a car! And they definitely don’t stick their tongue out of their mouths when they do it!”

“John!!” Jade practically leaps over you to smack at her brother while he laughs. “You don’t have to tell them that! It was one! Time!”

“I find I’m more disappointed that we do not have photo evidence of this event occurring,” Rose says, and you crane your neck back to see her. The smile on her painted lips is shining affection and sleep-saturated relief.

Here you all are, together for the first time as friends since the end of the Game, and you feel bitterly, stupidly alone.

“Not that I’m not having fun in this surprisingly hot-as-balls bullshit weather, but can we please fucking go inside?” Dirk speaks up, and you’re kinda glad he’s around, after all. Second time he’s save your ass today. Christ, which one of you is supposed to be the knight again??

“You’re not going to be too happy about it, I’m afraid,” John’s dad says, but he’s smiling, carrying Mom’s luggage. “We have the AC units installed in the bedroom windows, but the house itself doesn’t have central air. It’s rare for Washington to stay hot long enough to justify the cost.”

“That is the worst news you coulda ever given,” Roxy says around a big sigh. “After the gosh-dang trauma we’ve been enduring in Texas since May, Mr. Egbert.”

“When will the heatwave end,” Rose laments, and then she shoves past you into the house. Well. You fucking never. She smiles at you, though, and you know she’s giving you a pity in.

“Listen, Lalonde, you coulda left any old damn time, and we would’ve been fine.” It’s a complete fucking lie, of course, but you don’t thank her as she holds the door open for you, roll in to find Bro standing in the middle of the living room,

Well.

Actually, it’s kind of hard to process what you’re seeing.

That’s definitely Nanna, and you’d know her anywhere, even with her hair steely blue and her arms painted an almost inhuman shade, but she’s got Bro solidly by the hand, has both of them trapping one of his, forcing your brother to bow at an awkward angle.

But he doesn’t look that upset by it, face placid as this little old lady natters away at him with a grin on her face.

“Oh, it has been an age, hasn't it, Strider?” she says, and tilts her head a little to the side, a clear indication that he’s being allowed to speak.

“Yes, ma’am.” His voice is a low rumble, something approaching uncomfortably gentle. “Nearin’ on seventeen years.” He pauses, clears his throat, corrects, “Twenty, now, I reckon.”

Nanna is the one who sees you first, and her wrinkled face pinches further, delight that sparkles in her eyes, and you finally see Jane there, in the roundness of her cheeks, her too-big front teeth and heavy eyelids. “We’ll talk later, dear,” she says to Bro, pats him on the arm before letting him go to turn her holy shit fancy fucking electric chair towards you. “Dave, sweetie!”

You choke on a reply, and you’re not going to fucking cry, you’re not going to admit how absolutely ecstatic you are that she’s here, the person who used to leave food outside your door, who’d float through the walls to find you if it’d been a few days since you bothered to show your face. It was a kindness you’ve never known, and yeah she was silly, and part fucked up clown-sprite, but she was so fucking NICE to you, and no one had ever been that nice to you and all you can get out is, “Yeah.”

She can’t hug you like this, but she cups your face, squishes your cheeks in a kind mimic of John at the airport, laughs a soft “hoo hoo hoo!”

“Hi, Nanna,” you mumble, feel your cheeks go hot under her cool touch. You don’t really want Bro to see any of this shit, it’s really fucking embarrassing, and she’s not even your grandma.

Bro is just standing there, though, looking at her in a way you can only describe as “soft”, and you feel kind of weird, flick your eyes back and forth between them. He finally notices you and Rose staring. Rose grins at him, waves, and he scowls, speeds off towards the kitchen, where the door slams and you hear thunderous laughter that you are so fucking unwilling to investigate because you cannot handle more horseshit mind-blowing nonsense, not today.

You are grilling the shit out of him later, though.

“How are you, dear?” Nanna asks, lets you go as you wheel backwards a little, shy and uncomfortable.

“Better,” you tell her softly, and mean it. “I uh. Wish I could walk? But I don’t feel as...” You trail off, shrug, don’t really want to talk about it, especially not with Rose staring at you like you’re fucking chum.

Nanna is no less sharp than Jane, she sees your sister standing there all Too-Polite, and she winks at you. “It’s good to see you, Dave. If you have any more questions, maybe you can help me bake dessert later, alright?”

“Yeah,” you say, and then she’s rolling off to follow Bro into the kitchen, and you fucking WISH you had that much control, or a motor to go with it.

“Haha, you so got Nanna’d, dude,” John literally laughs at you, sticks a hand into your hair and ruffles it like feathers. You let out a squawk, burn red in shame when he laughs again, and he sets Rose’s luggage off to the side, heads towards the stairs. “I’ll go get Jane and Jake! He said he was gonna move her bed but.” He rolls his eyes. “Jane can totally do it without anyone’s help, and honestly I’m pretty sure he’d be better off just moving the chest.”

“I’ll,” Dirk says, hesitates just inside the door. His hands flex, and you know damn well why he cannot fucking move. “Uh.”

"We’ll go with!” Roxy says, pushing him from behind so that he stumbles, almost crashes into you. Fuck. "Won't we, Dirk?" Fuck, this is it, isn't it?

"Uh-huh," he says, but it feels far away, and you think you really wish that you could change, and that you weren't wearing sweatpants, and that your shirt was red or black or any other color but white. Fuck.

“Dude, Roxy, don’t fucking kill him,” Dave laughs, and you don’t stop him when he gently guides your chair over to the couch. You don’t really remember even freezing, don’t really care one way or the other. Fuck, dude.

You’re so. You’re so fucking confused. Overwhelmed. You don’t know how to - fuck, Dirk left, now, and it’s just you and Dave and Rose and. And Jade, who comes to stand in the middle of the living room, looks at you, bites her lip.

Fuck.

Fuck fuck fuck.

"Listen, Davesprite," Jade hedges carefully, fingers twisting together. "Um. I think we should talk? About stuff. Like, big stuff. Maybe alone?"

And you hate that you're stuck in your chair, that you can't stand and face her, and maybe that'd be a bad idea, too, using your height against her, towering over her like some kind of asshole. But "alone" sounds like the worst fucking idea, it sounds like you literally prostrating yourself on the ground, begging her to just forget.

Rose, god fucking help you, does not need to butt in. Which is, of course, precisely what she does. "Jade... Perhaps given the nature of, ah, our memories, and the somewhat fragile state of, of your relationship, maybe it'd be better if we -"

"Does this really have to be a huge fucking deal?" you non-laugh, and you don't know why you think it's a good idea, and you're definitely going to regret it, but you climb carefully onto the couch - you even almost-stand, just for a second, and you hope they all saw holy shit. You lean back into the cushions and fuck, okay, maybe it wasn't a terrible plan, because you missed this fucking couch, and proper furniture, and comfort that wasn't just sleep-based, but you sure as fuck could use a nap, right here, right now.

And then you realize that Dave is watching both of you, that he looks like a civilian stuck in a face-off. Rose is still by the door, and anger and resentment start to bubble in your chest.

"Can everyone just sit the fuck down and stop making me feel like a little kid?" you manage, and you're proud that you only sound a little mad. "Like, fuck, I'll, I'll talk. I'll stop making it weird, anything, whatever but." Your fingers find your knees again, and you feel like an extra in a soap opera. "But I can't stand up, and it feels like y'all are pretty metafuckingphorically lookin' down on me right now."

And of course this is when Mom and Dad walk in, and they freeze, and you can see the concern and apprehension on Mom's face. You are going to fucking die right here, right now.

You don't know how to handle this, but Dave apparently does, because he comes to sit beside you, leg pressed too close to yours, and you really wish he'd stop doing this, you think he's getting this habit from Dirk, which is so fucking ironic because you have never met a human so allergic to absent touches as Dirk "here let me sit really close to you but refuse to ask for a hug" Strider. He really is Bro, all the way deep down. Or maybe it's the other way around.

He makes a really unnecessary show of adjusting his shades, and you realize what he's doing before he finishes doing it, and before the kitchen door creaks open again.

You are so unused to the idea of Bro being hesitant, still, after all this time. But he leans his head out in a way that's almost human, like a kid checking to see if their parents have stopped fighting. Joke's on him; you haven't even started. He looks at your friends, looks at you and Dave, and you consider the consequences of opening his chat. Wonder if it'd be fucking rude.

Fuck him, it's your handle too.

TG: bro
TG: s o fucking s

That actually explains. Well. A lot, really. You're almost impressed. Poignant, cuts to the heart of the matter. Relying on Bro to parse it was a gamble.
But Bro doesn't need more than a minute to determine the actual problem here, and then he's across the room, has both Mom and Dad by the place where their shoulders become their necks, and there is something disconcertingly threatening about the gesture.

Mom starts to protest, dig her heels in, but Bro murmurs words too soft to hear, and then all three adults are ducking into the kitchen again and it is just the fucking four of you and the large tumbleweed you're imagining waiting to roll across the floor.

"Y'all can sit, now," Dave says, and he sounds about as annoyed as you feel. He leans back, settles in, crosses his arms, and if you weren't so irritated that he's crowding you right now, you'd feel kinda glad he seems to be on your side in this.

Jade frowns. "Dave you don't have to..."

Dave snorts, and it feels kind of aggressive, weird, like he's mad, too, and what could he possibly have beef with Jade for? "Yeah I kinda do. We're practically the same fucking person, right, Jade?"

Okay, wow, rude.

"That's not true! You never -" Jade bites her lip. "Oh, I don't know. Davesprite is the one who -"

"Hey you're the one who said I broke your heart," Dave drawls, and there is no way on Earth that he isn't just being a little bit mean.

"Dave, maybe we shouldn't -" Rose starts.

"That's because I was upset, and you called Davesprite a neurotic douche!" Jade shouts, and she stomps her foot.

And

Okay,
Wait a minute.

What?

You gape at her, and Dave sits up, completely straight and perfectly still. "You remember that???"

You definitely don't, and you are not fucking happy that they were talking about you at any point at all, and it definitely feels really fucking shitty.

Jade throws her hands up. "Yes! No! Not really?" She drags them down her face, covers her big round glasses. "I don't know! Sometimes it's all there, like when I used to dream on Prospit, but then I wake up and I can't remember! And when I do remember, it's just brief flashes, but only when someone mentions it, and never by myself." She peeks at both of you between her fingers. "Do you know how hard it is, being told all the things you did and said, and having the vague feeling that someone is telling the truth, but no way to prove it?"

"No," both of you say, and neither of you mention the burden of a Time player, because it isn't really the right conversation, or, appropriately, the right time for it.

"Exactly! Because you both always think you know everything, and that whatever it is, it's always right! Even Rose remembers more than me!"

You look at her, because this is fucking news to you, and she's cringing hard, and okay, you guess. Conversation for another time, maybe.

"But you could just ask," you tell her, palms up. You're having a hard time processing everything right now. "About all the shit, and fuck, Jade, I tried, didn't I? To lay all our shit bare, and I know it was shitty of me, going on and on, but -"

"That's the problem, Davesprite!" And you've gotten so used to people calling you Dave, you just want to be Dave again. She finally comes over, hesitates, and then sits down on the floor before you, and fuck, John's dad, or Jane's dad, or any dad, should really consider a second fucking sofa in this barren-ass living room. "The problem isn't that I don't want to know, it's that everyone treats me like I SHOULD know."

Her eyes are big and sad and green and you feel guilt bubble in your stomach. "How am I supposed to know how I feel if everyone keeps telling me how they feel about what I did! Or didn't do! Or, or whatever!" She throws her hands up again, waves them around wildly. "It's like I don't even get a chance to decide! I don't even know why Dave's so mad at me right now!"

"I am not," Dave says, too quickly, defensive.

"Yes you are," you, and Rose, and Jade all say at once, and he scowls.

"Look, okay, maybe I'm starting to realize it'll sound really douchey if I just say it -"

"Then get it out now, before I go insane!" Jade snaps. "Both of you are so fucking cryptic, all the time! Always dancing around the issues! Always saying everything is fine so I won't worry, even when it's not!"

"You tried to kill the Mayor!" Dave blurts, and then covers his mouth, covers his face.

Are you - is he serious right now?

"Okay," Jade says slowly, but she sounds completely perplexed "I vaguely recall that. But I was also being really evil then, I think, and I guess I am sorry for almost killing your friend."

"He wasn't just my friend, he was The Mayor," Dave says, and Christ, you look at Rose, because you have no clue what the fuck his actual issue is. He sounds really beat up about it, anyway.

Rose rolls her eyes magnificently, comes to sit next to Dave on the couch. Pats his back. Pat pat. "Dave, maybe now isn't the best time. I'm absolutely positive Jade would never do anything to hurt him whilst in her right mind. And surely now the Mayor is safe and happy out there in paradox space."

"He fucking better be," comes Dave's muffled response. "Or I will literally fucking cry."

Rose looks like she's trying not to laugh, but you feel weird and kind of uncomfortable, so you look at Jade instead.

She's glaring back at you, hard, and you feel disappointment roll off her in waves. "You lied to me, Dave," she says quietly. "About your brother. Rose told me the truth." Her eyebrows bunch up and her lip quivers. "I'm not a little kid, you know! I don't need to be protected from stuff. You and Dave don't have to treat me like I can't handle hard shit, because you certainly can't, and neither can John!"

And you hadn't noticed John, before, standing at the bottom of the stairs, looking hesitant and a little out of place.

"Uh," he says. "Roxy threw me out."

You can't help the pathetic laugh that bubbles out from that. "Well, fuck, dude, you're just in time, why don't you get your ass over here for some hard truths and real Jerry Springer bullshit."

He doesn't like that, you can tell, but after a glance at Rose - and of course he'll listen to her, ugh - he wanders over cautiously, comes to lean against the arm of the chair on her side. "I don't really know if I'm cool with you guys talking about me behind my back," he says, and you laugh again, and it's so fucking mean.

Jade gets to him first. "That is literally what you and everyone else have been doing! It's like you forget I'm not actually that Jade, even though, I guess, technically, I am! That my John, my Davesprite, they both fucking died, and I spent three years thinking it was my fault!"

And. And shit, you hadn't thought of it that way, hadn't spared a thought for how she must have felt, and you should have. You should have because this Jade isn't just Not-Your-Jade, she's Not-Your-Jade-Once-Removed, and as far as she's concerned, you're not her Davesprite. You should have thought about it because you know exactly how it fucking feels, losing John, and losing Jade, and you feel like shit now, on top of everything else.

"Jade," you say, and when no one else speaks, you push forward. "I'm really sorry. Not just for, for not thinking about your feelings, when it came to the dating stuff, or the memory stuff, because fuck, that's really unfair, and I am so fucking sorry. But for not thinking about the people you lost. The versions of me 'n John."

You push up your shades so she can see your eyes, see you're completely fucking serious. "I know how that feels, and it fucking sucks. I'm sorry."

Jade looks like she's about to cry, and she doesn't protest when John drops to the floor, puts an arm around her shoulder. They were always more comfortable with each comforting each other than you were.

"We sucked, though, too," John says, and he looks at you the same way he did in the car. "And I know you were being a huge dick because of your weird bird shit or whatever, but we could have..." He sighs, and you think it's the first time you've seen John look so tired. "We could've been better friends. I was really wrapped up in all the stuff with my Dad, and I just felt trapped and..." He shrugs. "Anyway. It wasn't cool. I'm sorry, Dave."

"Okay," you say, and it isn't a laugh, and this time you don't mind having Dave's leg against yours. "We should probably talk later about how my issues were literally never about being a bird, and more about how fucking depressed I was." You wince. "Am. Uh. Still, but maybe not as much?"

You drop your gaze because you've been bottling this up for so long, and because it's all your feelings, all your anger and resentment and the heavy, leaden weight sitting on your chest. "You guys never really treated me like I was the real Dave, even though I was, and am, especially now. And maybe I felt like I didn't deserve it? Because I had given up my spot in the timeline to save you, and reminding you of that would be shitty, but it hurt so fucking much that none of you seemed to -" Your eyes burn, and you bite the inside of your cheek.

"But I didn't have to act like that. I shouldn't have broken up with you without telling you how I felt, Jade. And John, fuck, dude. That shit with your dad? I am so fucking sorry about that. I don't know what I was thinking, or doing, or trying to do. I'm sorry, guys."
And it's kind of a shitty apology, and you could go all day, you really could, have been holding this all in for so long, but you stop yourself, because you don't want to cry, especially not in front of Dave, and especially not in front of Rose.

And then you're covered in a cloud of hair, the smell of lemongrass, and Jade's arms are a bit too strong as she crushes you to her chest.

"I am sorry, Dave," she says, and she IS crying, and you feel like a dick even though it's only sort of your fault (it is completely your fault). "For all the things I do remember, and for the things I don't. I'm sorry I wasn't there for you, and that I didn't notice how bad you were feeling. Even if you didn't tell me. It takes a bad friend not to notice."

"I think this is where you are supposed to say 'group hug', and make everyone laugh," Rose says to Dave, and he sighs loudly, dramatic as always. No surprise there.

"If I gotta do everything around here. C'mon, Egbert, you heard the lady, let's get the fuck IN here."

And then Dave's horrible noodles wriggle around your middle, and John is laughing, but he sounds a little choked up, and you smell rain, the scent of ozone, as he flops his head on top of yours, arms joining Dave's to crush you and Jade together into a StriHarlbert conglomerate.

"I'm sorry, too," he mumbles. "To both of you, and also, pretty much everyone else. When I was trying to - to fix shit that got all messed up. Sometimes I feel like I made things worse."

"Yeah," you sigh, and bury your nose in Jade's hair, don't think about the fact that John might not actually notice his godtier powers in the works (you have no idea how to start that conversation). "But we're all alive now, right?"

"You are all dreadful at apologies and affirmations," Rose sighs, from the top of the pile. Crank that baby up to StrilonHarlbert, your ball of sweaty teenage angst is finally complete.

"Definitely," you agree, and you're glad no one can see how your eyes sting at the corners, how you're probably ruining Jade's hair. "But I think it counts for something that we're all trying so damn hard."

And you are, and you will, and there's definitely still shit that needs to get sorted. You still need to tell Jade everything that has happened, now, and you need to talk to them about being. Being not you. But that can wait.

And you're not happy, not exactly, but in this moment, trapped beneath all your friends, and yourself, you feel just a little bit lighter.

Chapter Text

Roxy drags you by the hand up the stairs, following after John, and you think about how you promised Dave you would stay with him, how you’d be there if he wanted you to be, how you’re fucking it up right now, fuck. Fuck. But you can’t pull away now, not with the steel in Roxy’s grip, not with the way your heart is starting to race, your palm going damp. Being a teenager is fucking disgusting, and this stress-induced sweating makes your skin crawl, makes you long for a shower. You wonder, absently, if Jane’s water pressure is still better than yours.

“Rox,” you try, but your words get stuck in your throat, breath shallow, chest tight.

You cannot do this.

You cannot talk to Jake right now, you’re not ready, you don’t have a plan, you haven’t decided what to say, how you’re going to apologize, and how can you, properly? With Hal gone, with you unable to justify how fucked up you were, and how you orchestrated the whole thing like some kind of vainglorious circus ringleader.

You cannot do this.

If you’re being honest with yourself (and ain’t that a rare note at the bottom of a long list detailing the contrary), you don’t really want to. It’s embarrassing. Thinking about it makes your stomach turn over, reminds you of every stupid ass thing you ever said. You pretty much spilled your entire guts to the guy. You yelled at him. You never yell. But fuck, he was all. You don’t know. High on candy or whatever so you don’t even know if anything you said counted.

And that’s the worst part of it all. The first time you were able to lay out all your emotions, lay out all your problems that had been building and building for not just weeks but months, and he was probably way too fucking high to even fully comprehend all of it. But what do you know? You haven’t asked him.

Shit, you haven’t spoken since. Since after you came back to life, you guess. And you weren’t really speaking much at all then, neither (sore throat, haha).

You have not slept in three days, and you think you might be a hair and a half away from an honest to god panic attack. Huh.

“Dirk, can you please hold it together long enough to get up these dang stairs?” Roxy says gently, and you realize you’ve faltered in your steps.

“Sorry,” you murmur, and you must be an absolute fucking mess, because she actually looks really worried, and that’s the last thing you ever wanted.

You think about what Bro said to you, black text scraping against your head and your ego, and you take your hand back with a pinched smile, climb the rest of the stairs with your eyes on your feet.

You can do this.

You’re going to do this and you’re not even going to make it all about you.

(Even though, theoretically, you could, and maybe you should, because it is specifically YOUR problem.)

“Hey, Jane! Jake! Got a special delivery for you!” John pushes open a door at the end of the hall that definitely didn’t exist before, and you feel yourself physically gulp as he swings it open to reveal them, and they’re.

Uh.

Just.

Yikes.

Jane is sitting on her recently moved bed, it seems, hands knit together, lips pressed into a thin line, eyes focused on the poster on the far wall. She looks miserable.

Jake, in contrast, stands by the window, about as far as he can get from her without leaving the room, and fuck, there he is, and at least he’s not wearing that silly ass godtier outfit (and god, what an ass, are you right or are you right) anymore.

The AC unit probably isn’t helping the situation, but the atmosphere in the room is ice fucking cold, and you can practically fucking smell the unease from here (though to be fair, that could be the teenage hormones).

Jane looks up on your entry, and you can see her eyes light up, brows raising from their scrunched position, cheeks dimpling against her will. There she is, that’s your gal. You fight off a smile and a wave. You can’t fucking help it, you have no idea what’s wrong with you.

“Oh, yes,” she manages, mechanical, stiff. “Thank you, John.” Her eyes flick towards Jake, who has turned to see you, and fuck, you wish he hadn’t for how the expression on his face goes tight and uncomfortable.

Fuck.

Fuck fuck fuck.

But Roxy pushes forward, because she’s your strongest, best, most beautiful fucking friend in the whole world, who isn’t afraid of nothing and keeps you grounded, even at your worst. “Jake! Get your dumbass over here and give me a hug!”

Right. It’s not about you. Roxy missed Jake, too. You’re all friends here.

You hope.

You desperately, desperately hope.

“Hi, Roxy,” he says, and you think he sounds meek, keeps looking between you and her and Jane, and you feel like a fucking loser all over again.

Fuck.

“Wow, I really expected more tears than this,” John jokes, elbows you tentatively.

Because you are not completely without humor, you turn your head slowly, give him your most deadpan stare.

He only looks mildly uncomfortable. “Okay, maybe not from you.” Rolls his eyes, no real fear there. You’re relieved. “I always forget how uptight you Striders are about your Coolkid shtick.”

And because Jane’s soft smile is fading away and because Jake is grinning at Roxy, and you cannot stop fucking meddling, and you feel weird and the urge to control just keeps growing, you decide, for today, that you are not going to be the tightass in this situation. It’s not about you.

“The only uptight person here is your Nanmasister, who ain’t even bothered to fucking welcome me to her abode properly. Seriously, Jane? You let all these people into your room without a single hug for any of us? Not even a little one? Shit, at this point I’d take a pity side-hug, anything. And after we welcomed you so warmly into our felicitous family home. For shame, Crocker. And you call yourself a lady.”

And you know what? Yeah, you have fucking boundary issues, and a hug always sounds good until you’re trapped in one and you want out but don’t know how to politely detach. And yeah, Dave is pretty much the only person who seems to know the exact moment you’re ready to let go before even you do, but.

But you cannot watch Jane make that sad little face in her brand new bedroom, in her own fucking house, so you open your arms like a broken-ass video game model and walk across the room all on your own, feet dragging like lead, face not kind enough for this gesture.

Jane lets out an amused snort as you drape yourself over her, and you think about Bro, bent at the waist to accommodate Nanna, how you could never be surprised at that gentleness in his face like everyone else seemed to be. You’ve seen him with Mom, why would his relationship with another Jane be any different?

And wow, that’s something you’re going to have to face. Nanna Egbert is, without a doubt, as kind and wonderful as her younger counterpart. But to see Jane like that... you don’t know.

“Strider,” she says now, as her hands pat gently at the lower center of your back, where she can reach, “your house was barren of anything close to what I’d call ‘warm’ or ‘felicitous’.”

“That is literally so fucking rude, and I am absolutely flabbergasted that you would ever imply I would forget to have Dave clean up our room before your visit.” But you’re almost smiling now, into her hair where no one else can see it. She smells like strawberry shampoo, a little like sugar coating. They were probably baking again. Haha.

“I don’t think your room was the problem,” Jane laughs, pushes you away a little to stare up at you sternly. The effect is dulled somewhat by the smile that tugs at the corner of her mouth. “Tell me you’ve gone grocery shopping since I was last there and I will not lecture you right now.”

You can’t, so you don’t, because lying would be... bad, you think. You’re trying not to do that so much. Lie, manipulate things in your favor. You’re so tired, you can’t even get your brain to come up with a convincing distraction.

“Auntie Ro-Lal can’t cook,” says Roxy, to the rescue, but she sounds absolutely gleeful, launches herself onto the bed and rolls until she’s curled around Jane’s legs. “Well. Okey, that might not be completely true, because her hangover cure food? Fucking bomb. But I’ve never actually seen her cook anything else, an’ if she can’t cook for beans, I’m bettin’ Mr. Big Bad Strider is absolutely useless, lol.”

“Dude, Dave has never eaten anything that didn’t come out of a can, bottle, or a box and we all know it,” John says, and you almost forgot he was there, leaning in the doorway, this little smile playing on his face. Relief, amusement. He was probably worried about Jane, you think. Christ, they wear their emotions like fucking billboard messages. How do they live like this?? He looks at Jake instead of all of you. “Jake, you grew up alone after your Grandma, right? Did you ever learn to cook?”

Jake opens his mouth and all of you look at him, and you use it as an excuse to check for... You don’t know. Changes? Something different? Anything? You guess? It’s been four months, so something has to have changed, right? But he’s just the same as always, maybe a little bit scruffier around the edge of his chin.

(You’ll never grow a beard properly, you think, or wouldn’t know, anyway, because Bro is constantly in Depression 5 o’clock Shadow Mode, and you’ve never actually caught him shaving, don’t know if he does at all or if he’s just somehow willed his body to do that.)

You watch Jake struggle to speak and wonder if it’d be better if you just left all together. Maybe go find Bro. Beg him to criticize you more so you have an excuse to cry or some horseshit. You’d both probably enjoy it, anyway.

But John is truly a friendleader among gods, and his smile is patient, unwavering. Kid might be a little insensitive about shit, but he’s got a good heart and an alright head on those shoulders.

Jake’s guard drops a tick, and he rubs the back of his neck self-consciously. “Honest to Betsy, John, the truth is a bit shameful, really. Let us just say I have had enough of pumpkins for the rest of my life, however long that’ll be now.” He pauses to think. “Do we still grow up, as gods?”

“Good fucking question,” you say before you can stop yourself, and immediately feel a little bit of yourself die inside.
Roxy nudges at you lightly, and you pull away from Jane entirely, let her keep her hand on your back, fingers in your shirt like an anchor.
“Jane and Dave are currently the only ones who freely know how to use their powers. And ‘know’ is a bit of an over-exaggeration, there, since we haven’t really had time to test it, nor do I feel like we should. Pokin’ the bear and all that.” You do not look at John. You should really mention something to him, but maybe not right here, in the middle of Jane’s room, with all the boxes and clothes neatly folded on the floor. Just in case he doesn’t take it well. “And since we have no idea what this mess of a world actually is, or means, I’d say we’re pretty much waitin’ for the other shoe to drop. Unless it has, and nobody else fuckin’ noticed.”

You try to pretend you are not waiting for Jake to take the bait, to just play along with you a little longer. C’mon, English, let’s just be civil for five more fucking minutes, c’mon, prove we can still be friends. Please.

“Uh,” he says, and you feel your shoulders start to curl in. “Yeah. Yes, you’re quite right, old chap. In regards to the confounding nature of this blasted game, and the supposed reward we were to receive. I’ve not experienced much in the way of godly powers.” He laughs a little, rubs at the place where you know his tattoo is. “Though I suppose that’s to be expected, given my predilection towards hopelessness.”

And.

And okay, you’re used to wallowing in your own shit, you’re completely used to self-hate and all-consuming feelings of worthlessness and the general apathy towards the idea of bettering yourself, from time to time. Everyone slips, everyone falls. But this is fucking bullshit.

You open your mouth, but Roxy beats you to it. “That’s fuckin’ bullshit, Jake English, and we both know it.”

“Uh,” John says, loudly, and you think maybe he got the hint, that this is about to go south very fast. “Hey, c’mon, Jake, we talked about this! No reason to go feeling down about shit that’s all in the past and stuff. We’re all here now, right?”

And you saw John, in the car. How he sorta-kinda-not-really tried to apologize to Dave, how it was clear he’s still holding a grudge of some kind or another, and you are aware of how absolutely hypocritical his words are right now. “John,” you say, honey sweet, channel all of the insincerity that drips from Bro’s lips across your words, “don’t you think it’d be best if you joined your little friends? Downstairs? Somewhere else?”

John frowns, and you see his mouth twist in a way that is the same almost slashy-face that you’ve only ever seen Roxy make. “Okayyyy, well first of all? That was pretty fucking rude,  and definitely uncalled for. What’s your problem, bro?”

“I don’t have a -” you start, Stop. Pinch the bridge of your nose.

Roxy to the rescue (again), jumping to her feet. “John, sweetie, for real tho, you haven’t seen your buds in how long? Sounds like the perfect opportunity!”

He hesitates, digs his heels in when she turns him by the shoulders. “Well, I don’t know. Jade and Dave seemed kinda -”

“Great!” Roxy says loudly, and she is bodily pushing him out of Jane’s room now. “Maybe they need you to talk, like I need these idiots to talk! Bye, John!” And she slams the fucking door in his face.

You would laugh, if you weren’t now trapped in this room with Roxy blocking one exit and Jake standing in front of the other.

“Talk,” she commands, when you all stare blankly at her.

“Uh,” you say.

“Um,” Jake says, scratches absently at his chin. “Maybe Dirk and I should pop outside for a hot minute? If you think that’s a good idea, we do have quite the load to discuss, after all.”

Roxy’s eyes are like lasers, sharp as anything, and maybe Rose didn’t get that all from you, for the tight stubbornness to her posture. “But that’s not fair,” she says, and your entire brain grinds to a halt.

Uh.

What?

“Roxy,” you start.

“It’s -” She huffs, presses her lips together, puts her hands on her hips. “Don’t u think at this point it kind of like, involves us too??”

You cannot help it. You frown. Is she serious with this right now? She knows how much you already don’t want to fucking do this. “I’d say I think that’s a bit presumptuous of you to assume -”

Jane’s hand in your shirt gives a tug. “Dirk.” A warning, and you snap your mouth shut.

“Maybe Roxy’s right, after all,” Jake says, but he sounds hesitant, and you watch him struggle with how exposed he is, nowhere to hide, nothing to lean against. He crosses his arms. “See now, the thing is, I thought I understood. Or was starting to understand, anyhow. That I’d be okay by myself, if I just stopped bothering all of you, all together. And if I’m being square with you, living with... Uh, let’s call him Grandpa, I guess? Has only enforced that.” His eyebrows furrow, and he looks down. He looks frustrated, maybe a little sad. Your heart, cruelly, does not ache. “But Jade says that’s not healthy.”

“She’s fucking right,” Roxy snaps, and she hasn’t moved from the door. You get the feeling she’s not going to, any time soon. “We’re literally your only friends, and you’re one of ours, and you think that’s smart? Closin’ yourself off like that? Do you know how scared I was, when u just stopped messaging me?”

Jake grimaces, and the expression is still as unpleasant as when you caught him making it during the game, back when you were dating and you just kept talking because. Because you don’t know. You were lonely, you guess. “I know that. But I see, now, how I really bollocksed it all up. I was so selfish and consumed with my own thoughts and I just. Think I was so lonely, out there on that island, and having two people...” He glances at Roxy. “Three people like me so much felt. Good. Nice, even if I didn’t understand it, and boy howdy, it feels like a bit of a farce now.” He laughs, but it’s a bad sound, unfriendly and self-deprecating. “But I do. Get it, that is. How absolutely downright uncouth I have been to all three of you. I dicked up our friendship something awful. I should have talked to you, and instead of ignoring our problems, confronted them head on like the brave lad I always said I was.”

He drops his shoulders, his arms, and looks at the ground. “If none of you ever want to speak to me again, I will completely understand.”

“Jake, you’re an idiot,” Jane laughs, harsh, sardonic. She lets go of your shirt, puts her head in her hands. “You can’t just beat up on yourself and call it an apology! That’s not how they work!”

“Uh,” he says, shifts nervously. God, he really is just absolutely dense sometimes, isn’t he. “But aren’t I the problem...?”

“No,” you say, at the same time Jane says, “Yes.”

She gives you a long-suffering look before turning back to Jake. “The thing is, we were never together, and so you can’t just give. Give a blanket statement that doesn’t apply to both of us! You hurt me and Roxy both with your ignorance, and all three of us for how you ignored us.”

And maybe. Maybe you’re not an expert at relationships, and maybe you are definitely to blame for a good chunk of this shit, but Jane’s got a good damn point, and you can’t stop yourself or the words that come out of your stupid ass mouth. “She’s right,” you say, and his head snaps up to look at you, and you press forward. Idiot. Idiot, idiot. “The laughably long amount of time you and I spent together ignoring each other was bad enough, but to find out you were unloading all our shit onto my only other two friends in the entire world? That’s fucking low, dude. I ain’t a saint, I did my fair share of ignoring, but I never talked about you like that.”

“Well, I -” he begins, but you keep going.

Stupid.

“And you abso-fucking-lutely shouldn’t have been pesterin’ Rox this whole time, not after we got back, over and over, acting like she was your last bastion against the deluge of imaginary hate you assumed Jane and I had waiting for you. It’s just the same shit, all over again,” you say. Curl your hands into fists. “You understand that, Jake?”

“Well I’d hardly have called you charming, Strider,” he snaps. And there’s bite in that, sass, and you deserve that, expect it, almost want it. Frustration. Anger. Anything, as long as he’s being honest with you. "What with how you treated our relationship, how you prattled on and on about yourself, never left room for anyone else, least of all me, and how if you weren't pestering me, your robot sidekick sure as heck was!"

You count down from ten, pull your nails from your palms, put your hands up. You can only be honest here. You will not let yourself fall apart. You are so tired.  “Listen, I’m not saying I definitely don’t deserve that, because honestly? I came in here thinkin’ I was gonna lay it out as completely my fault.” And you were, and you’ve been obsessing over it for weeks and weeks. “But the more you lay the blame on yourself, the more pissed off I feel. Sayin’ you wanted peace and quiet, how you’d rather be alone and shit, but you never said anything to me? And maybe I don’t understand your nonfucking verbal cues because I.” You stutter a little, feel Jane’s hand curl back into your shirt. An anchor. Grounding.

You take a deep breath, you drop your hands back into fists, you move forward.

“Because I’ve been alone a long damn time with no one to talk to. In person, face to face. Y’all were my only damn friends in the entire fucking world. Literally. And you were supposed to be there for me, Jake.” You laugh, and it’s pathetic, caustic, burns in your throat. “All according to my plan, and Hal’s, I guess. And I truly am sorry about him, and by proxy, myself. I’ll be the first one to fucking say it, because someone has to, and because we’re a fucking mess. I’m sorry. I’m so fucking sorry, guys. For all the ways I let you down, Roxy. For not being there for your in regards to the drinking shit, and being a coward and not just outright tellin’ you how I felt. And, and for. For all the stuff I pushed onto all of you, but especially you, Jake, for making you feel like you had to date me and shit. And you Jane. I pushed you both so much harder, and I don’t know why. I don’t know what I was thinking.” Your throat feels froggy, your eyes burn at the corners. God, you must be really fucking tired. “I’m sorry.”

Jake’s expression is open, and it seems softer around the edges, and he’s almost the boy you loved, just for a minute. When he speaks, his voice is sad, a little wet. “You didn’t make me, Strider. I quite fancied you, as well. I -”

“But the point is I feel like I did,” you say, shake your head. “I shouldn’t have panicked and suffocated you when I thought you were losing interest. Or were, anyway. I get it. But I shouldn’t have forced you into that corner in the first place with all my horseshit. I’m trying not to be like that anymore. I don’t want a relationship, dude. I just want my friend back.” You quirk your lips into a smile. “Minus the angst, and maybe some of the weird robot shit.”

“Well.” He’s almost grinning now, stupid crooked teeth and all. “I’d be honored to be considered for the friend zone. I just.” He flexes his hands. “Might need a little time. You can punch me if you want,” he says suddenly, and he definitely sounds way too excited about it. “Old school style, like in the movies, after the dame has her heart broken. Er, but you’re not a dame, I suppose. And neither am I.”

You do not roll your eyes at him, but you know what?

Yeah, you will fucking punch him.

But not for you.

(Okay, maybe a little for you.)

You flash step because Jane would never let you do this on your own, and you slug Jake in the face so hard he goes down like a sack of potatoes. You do not smile for how you definitely grew since you last saw him, and for how your arm follows through with perfect grace. You didn’t even practice that. “That was for Jane’s birthday party,” you drawl, flex your hand. Not broken, but dude’s got a jaw of steel, Jesus fuck.

“I,” he chokes. “What. Strider!”

“Haha,” you say, and then Roxy’s hugging you around the middle.

“You’re an idiot,” she says into your back, but you feel the tears dampening your shirt. “A big, stupid, soft-hearted idiot.”

“Am not,” you say, and you will not fucking cry, not here, not now.

“You are, a little,” Jane says, and she shuffles across the room in her bunny slippers, how is she that fucking cute, and she helps Jake to his feet, gives him twinkling eyes and a mischievous smile. “But you never actually apologized, Jake. And perhaps that’s my fault, somewhat, that I haven’t either. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you how I felt. And that I scared you something awful, back when she was. Was.” Her lip trembles, and Jake covers her hands with his, gives a squeeze. He’s an idiot, but you are still friends, deep down in there.

“I know, Jane, and you’re right. I really flayed myself there before all of you, and didn’t do a bang up job of actually saying ‘sorry’, did I?” He pulls her gently, gives her time to run, but she doesn’t, and Jake hugs her, presses his cheek to her head. “I’m sorry, all of you. Dirk, Roxy. And Jane, old gal. Will you forgive me?”

“Humph,” she says, voice muffled. “How did everyone end up so much taller than me?”

“That’s not actually a yes or no, Janey,” you say, and a laugh bubbles out that is giddy, a little hysterical. You’ll all be okay, you think. You drag them towards you by Jake’s shoulder, trap him around the head under your arm so you can rub your knuckles across his scalp. “You want I should punch ‘im again? Maybe shrink his ego enough he drops an inch?”

“If anyone needs an ego-otomy, Strider, it’s definitely you.” Roxy wriggles her way into the middle of the hug and you know you should probably work harder on some real apologies, maybe take them aside one by one and drag out the mental list you’ve been building since April.

But right now you have your friends back together, and you can smile, and you know Jake isn’t ready, maybe, to be such good friends again, and that he and Jane will have to talk later, just like you, but you feel. Better. A lot fucking better.

And that’s definitely fuckin’ something.

 

Chapter Text

You don’t know if it’s because they had a chance to talk or if you’re projecting, but Dave and DS both look happier next time you see them, when you find them sitting all scrunched together and playing video games on the TV.

You wonder if you should bother them, John and Jade cross-legged on the floor, leaning against Dave’s legs, Rose all tucked up on the far side of the couch and DS wedged against the arm like he belongs there. They’re finally here with their friends, no one is fucking fighting, maybe you should just -

But Roxy has zero qualms about interrupting, launching herself straight at the couch, flopping across them, feet in DS’s lap, head in Rose’s. You are part of a family of blonde idiots and you love it, and you can never tell them.

You come to hover nearby, try to think of a cool way to broach the subject of their Talk. Fail, settle for sincerity. You lean on the arm of the couch so you’re eye level with DS. “Hey,” you say softly, and Dave, squished in the middle, pretends not to listen for half a second. “You okay now?”

“Better, at least,” DS whispers and you see him smile, just a little. “It uh. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. How ‘bout you? You figure your shit out?”

“I think,” you start, take a deep breath. Dave’s fingers wiggle behind DS’s back and you give them a little solidarity bump. “I think it’s gonna take us some time, but we’ll be okay. We’re gonna make it as friends. Or die trying, anyway.”

“Hell yeah,” Dave says, way too loud to be discreet, but no one tells him to shut up. They’re probably used to it.

Rose brushes her hands through Roxy’s hair and you like that they both look happy that way, and so you just settle down there, on the arm of the couch, and watch Jade crush it at some shitty racing game for awhile. Lean back at an angle so your leg is pressed against DS, your elbow on Dave’s arm.

You could get used to this, you think. The ease of chilling with other people your age, how Jane and Jake settle down on either side of Jade, how Jane smiles, between her and John, how Jake hoots and hollers when she passes the other cars.

It’s nice.

It feels nice.

Maybe the plane ride was worth the trouble, after all.


It’s not til later that you realize the real problem here, and that is that Dave, in his chair, is not getting up those stairs by himself.

“We can have a sleepover downstairs,” Jane offers, hesitant, worrying at her lip.

“No, that’s,” Davesprite chokes, turns pink in the ears. You try not to feel too protective. He’s just making friends, and you need to chill. “It’s cool, I can like. Well. Okay, I can’t actually walk. I can chill down here, though, I don’t mind.”

“No the fuck you cannot,” Dave says, kicking his chair wheel. It’s a bad habit he’s started, and you think he probably shouldn’t. Do that. “I don’t care if I have to drag your dumbass up the stairs myself, you’re coming.”

“If you touch me, I will piss on you, so fucking help me,” DS says, and he kicks him, leg fully extended.

Dave leaps back, smacks him, gets kicked again for his trouble.

“Dave, if you can use your legs, why are you even in a wheelchair?” John asks, like an absolute moron, and you think yeah, okay, maybe Jake isn’t the only one getting slugged today.

DS pauses, stares at him with an open mouth, and Dave just whispers, “Dude.”

“It’s called muscle atrophy, Egbert, you ableist troglodyte,” comes your voice, but two pitches deeper. And there’s Bro, leaning against the wall by the door, expression neutral and hair sticking up sideways from under his hat. Huh. You’re intrigued, but not willing to point it out in case he’s still feeling irascible. “Just because he can kick your ass doesn’t mean he can chase you down afterwards. Don’t be fucking rude.”

John doesn’t answer because DS scowls, pulls his wheelchair around to face Bro. “Fuck off, dude, I can call my own friend an idiot without your help.”

Bro raises his shoulder in a shrug. “Ain’t my fault his daddy never taught him goddamn manners.”

“Language, Strider,” one of the Dads (you’re not entirely sure which is which now, but you’re not going to mention it) says, and he stops to smile at all of you. “John’s Nan saw fit to make dessert tonight, but we thought you kids might enjoy some pizza for dinner. How about it?”

There is a resounding cheer and this time, when you look at Bro, he raises his eyebrows. Yeah, there’s no way he didn’t have something to do with this. You give him a nod, he returns it with the tip of his hat. It’s so fucking extra and yet so completely him (and by extension, you) that you struggle to hide a smile.

Mom literally saunters out holding a scratchpad, which she then uses to tally pizza requests, and Dad (now identified) Egbert hesitates for a moment. Opens his mouth to speak, but Bro bumps his arm with a set of knuckles.

“I’ll take it from here, Bigbert. You and Lalonde get the pizza. Crocker, your presence is formally requested in the dining area.”

Jane goes completely still, and your heart aches for how she looks round at you, like you’re supposed to be able to change something about this situation. “Can I...” she starts, and she sounds so small, so unlike herself, unsure and sad. You trip and flounder over yourself, try to think of something to say.

“We’re coming with,” Roxy says, standing up and somehow dragging you along. Welp. At least one of you is on it. You look at Jake, but he winces. That’s a no, then. He’s got his reasons, you reckon. What are you gonna do? Force him? Not fucking again.

Dave grabs the hem of your shirt and furrows his brow at you. You give a tiny shake of the head. It’s okay, your sort of signed up for this. He presses his lips together, you tap his knuckles with your own. It’s okay.

Bro isn’t impressed, doesn’t really seem to exhibit anything about this at all, and that makes you feel worse. “Okay,” is all he says, and then he leans back to push open the door, inclines his head. “At your leisure, then, your fucking highness.”

“Language,” Dad says again, but Bro is silent as Jane takes Roxy’s hand and leads you in a chain around him and into the kitchen.

Jane’s Dad waits for you there at the table, with Nanna and a man you have never met but a face you know intimately. You have never actually seen Jade’s grandpa before, but you kind of get it now.

“Well I’ll be damned, Strider, he’s the spittin’ image of you, straight up to the hair!” he laughs, and his voice is booming, his accent strange, and you try not to wince, or really look directly at him at all. It’s the same kind of uncanny effect as Nanna, where you know he’s Jake, sort of, his skin worn and brown, hair a shock of white, and you really just. Can’t fucking deal with these ancient versions of your friends. That sure is a fucking mustache right there, sitting on his lip, huh?

You look at Bro, but his face is placid stone, complete disinterest. “Yup,” is all he says, and you wonder, because of course you do, what the history is there.

He pulls a chair out for Jane, putting her between her dad and Nanna, leaving you and Roxy standing there, feeling vaguely useless as you sidle up behind her.

“Why are you even here?” you ask, and it sounds so much nastier than you really mean it to, and yeah, maybe you’re still fucking mad at him for earlier, but you are completely justified in that. You think.

Roxy nudges you, and you carefully do not glance her way.

Bro doesn’t even look at you. “Neutral witness.” Clears his throat, is now very pointedly looking anywhere else. “Egbert asked me to.”

Okay, now you definitely get it. It’s less a You-and-Him thing and more a Him-and-Nanna thing. You have absolutely zero reason to feel smug about this, given your predisposition to listening to both Jane and Roxy, but you do think it’s a little funny, anyway.

“Oh, yes, Strider will do anything dear Jane asks of him, but heaven forbid I request a tussle, and I get told to ‘shove it up my arse, old man’,” Grandpa huffs, with a magnificent eye roll, and Nanna smacks him on the hand.

“Oh, Jake, behave yourself! You don’t need to bully Dirk just because you haven’t had a nap!”

Grandpa Harley splutters, something like “Well I never!” under his breath, but another look from Nanna and his grumblings cease.

“Forgive him, he’s had a long journey,” Nanna says, and there’s a glimmer in her eye you’d recognize anywhere. “He can be quite cranky, my little brother.”

You and Roxy sneak a peek at Bro. He keeps his shades glued to the far side of the wall.

“Ur so fucking multiverse whipped,” Roxy whispers to you, and you scowl, elbow her away.

All the legal jargon’s not really interesting, in the same way it is. Grandpa Harley has obviously invested a large portion of it in projects, including Skaianet, but Jane doesn’t really have much interest there, and what she gains and makes as official heiress is up to her, now that the Condesce is out of the picture for good. Mr. Crocker and Nanna will help take care of things til she’s at least eighteen, or longer if she’s not ready, and all the money earned by Skaianet and whatever “malarkey” (Nanna and Grandpa’s word, not yours) he’s involved in will henceforth be separated from the Crocker baking empire.

This is really the first time Jane digs her heels in, face pinched, obviously uncomfortable. “Do we... Do I have to call it that?”

Nanna blinks at her, the same big blue eyes, unnaturally light, shining in a way that you’re sure matched John’s sprite perfectly. Like DS, how his eyes seem multi-layered, something wrong about the color, how it’s set over the top like a filter. She takes Jane’s hand in both of hers, presses it gently between them, the same way she had done with Bro. “We don’t have to call it anything you don’t want to, dear. It doesn’t belong to her. Not anymore.”

Grandpa clears his throat a little. “There is some measure of honor, preserving -”

“Hass,” Bro says, voice low, even, and you can hear the old man’s jaw click shut from here. He looks at Jane then, and it’s not often you see kindness there, on Bro Strider, but he offers Jane a piece of himself you’ve rarely seen him give to anyone else. “You don’t gotta do anything you don’t wanna do, Miss Crocker. S’your company now.”

“Mr. Strider is right,” Dad Crocker says, but when he smiles, Bro looks away. “This is your choice, honey. We’ll support you no matter what.”

You do not beg to see the paperwork, even though you want to, even though you want to rake over it with a careful eye for any caveats, any holes in the framing. But you’re here for support, end of story, and so you put your hand on her shoulder, give a careful squeeze.

She pats you gently back. It’s okay, she’s got this. “I don’t want to call it an empire,” Jane says, and her voice is like steel. “I want the spoon logo back where it was, we’ll say it was a publicity stunt, and I’ll spend my entire life fixing her mistakes if I have to, but I will not let her poison ruin this for me.”

“Atta girl,” Roxy whispers, holds her other shoulder, shakes it firmly. "Atta fucking girl."

Jane just nods, sharp, and when she signs her name with a flourish, you glance at Bro before you press your lips to the top of her head.

He snorts, but only maybe at you, maybe at the way Roxy drapes over her shoulders, kisses her loudly on the cheek, over and over, until she giggles.

You don’t fucking understand this guy, and it drives you crazy.

Nanna is the one who gathers all the paperwork when it’s done, who bats at Grandpa’s hands when he tries to help, who chastises him with curt words until he looks properly cowed. She’s a tough gal, she’s not your Jane, and you think the world of her, anyway.

Eventually Mom and John’s Dad poke their heads back in, pizza’s here, yes, Strider, they got the absolutely revolting order you requested, and no, no one else has even looked at it yet.

You are, despite being plenty pissed the fuck off at him, somewhat touched.

You don’t think he’s trying to make it up to you, because neither of you are especially like that. You, particularly, are more likely to write an obsessive list in your head of all the things you did wrong, and try not to do them again, without anyone ever mentioning it bugged them in the first place.

You might be a bit of a mess in a few departments, but at least you’ve got the apology section well under construction. At this rate, you’ll be finished before next spring. Dave’s gonna need a forklift to drag you out from under the weight of your own bullshit, though. Gonna have to keep you in the basement and nurse you back to health with. You don’t know. Friendship and shitty pizza, you guess. You’re fucking tired, dude. You’ve lost track of the metaphor, if you ever had any track to follow in the first place.

Still, shitty pizza and hopefully some orange fucking soda await you, and you do not stumble after Rox and Jane on your way to the living room with the rest of your friends.

The adults do not follow you.

You try not to let that bother you so much, and you can’t really figure out why it does, at all.

Curiosity, probably.

General busybodying, more likely.

The silly little doors swing shut and there are both Daves, waiting for you, and you are going to carry DS’s dumb non-bird butt up the stairs yourself if he won’t fucking listen to reason. No point in sleeping down here, Bro’ll want the couch, you’re sure, and anyway John’s bedroom is close as fuck to the bathroom. So much simpler, at least as far as you’re concerned.


And you do get him up the stairs, after something close to a fight between him and Dave, ended by Bro, who walks - walks - in, picks up his wheelchair, folds it neatly, and proceeds to walk it upstairs without a word.

You don’t know what you’re expecting from that, it’s maybe a bit bolder than you would have gone, but it’s the straw that breaks Dave’s back, and he finally acquiesces to Roxy (and only Roxy) hauling him up the stairs like a sack of potatoes trapped in a fireman’s carry.

Now you just have to get through the night sleeping in a strange place.

Well.

Alright.

It isn’t that strange.

You have slept in Jane’s house before, you guess, during those five months of the game where the four of you waded through nuclear levels of bullshit that made up your broken session. It was always a little unnerving, when you did sleep, and what at first felt like a fun adventure slowly turned into a disconcerting, skeleton-themed nightmare.

Fuck, at least Jane’s planet had water. Got really fucking lucky, there.

So, sure, maybe her house is a little more palatable in John’s ice cold bedroom at one am, AC humming in the window, your face pillowed against the floor with your elbow. You should definitely feel less threatened in a suburban neighborhood on Earth, with an honest-to-god street light out on the corner of the yard, and a house full of no less than eight (8) gods, two (2) confirmed dangerous adults, and what Jane has assured you before is a pretty sturdy house alarm.

But you still can’t fucking sleep.

There’s no sense to it, really. You are safe. You know that. You know Jane, down the hall with the other girls, would never lie to you about that kind of thing. You know that Dave (both of them, probably) wouldn’t let anything happen to you, nor would you allow anything to happen to any of them.

The AC unit ain’t bothering you none, trapped under a layer of blankets with Dave’s warmth seeping into your back. You’re used to going to bed with the whoosh of a fan, almost can’t sleep without it. Well. When you sleep at all.

It’s frustrating, anyway. This limbo you live in. Close your eyes for a minute, maybe trip over a few hypnagogic hallucinations, get enough rest that your body decides it isn’t time to break down yet. Grasp at something resembling a dream, only for your brain to hemorrhage stress that snaps you awake faster’n you can say “crackerjack”. Not that you ever have. It just seems like something people from Texas should probably say.

Maybe you need some fucking medication, who knows. You’re a mess. But you can’t fall asleep now, not even three days into what’s shaping up to be a pretty gnarly run. You hope Dave’s not counting. He never really brings it up, but you can tell when he starts looking at you like. Well. Like That. It’s embarrassing.

Your heart thumps in your ears, follows the rhythmic sound of Dave’s breathing, leaves a measure of room for Jake’s snorts, for how John mumbles in his sleep, restless, but not afraid. It’s amusing, anyway. Could probably round this into a beat, if you tried. Squarewave’d like it, as much as he liked anything.

And fuck, where is he? What kind of shitty ass robot master are you if you can’t keep track of your own creations?

Probably not a very good one.

You could count sheep, maybe, except you don’t really want to, and you don’t have Hal here to talk to, haven’t for months, don’t have anyone to keep you company in the dark, to keep your thoughts from straying towards...

You cannot keep dwelling on your bro.

Except, of course, that you can.

It just. Doesn’t make any fucking sense. Jane’s dad is here, the dead guardians of the beta session are all fucking here.

Where’s your second chance with an estranged older brother? Do you have a right to call him estranged if you never even knew each other in the first place?

You are going to spiral like this, you know, because you have done before, and so you drag yourself up, off the sleeping bag pile you share with Dave (both of them, and fuck you love the bastards but they kick like MLS all stars), get stopped by a hand curled into your shirt.

“Dirk?” Dave slurs, eight-tenths in dreamland.

You smooth his hair back from his face with one hand, pry him loose with the other. “S’okay. I’ll be right back, promise.”

He hums, mumbles something softly, drags your side of the blanket closer to him before rolling back over. Heh. Loser.

You don’t have a plan, not really. Pace, probably. Count the new doors, new windows, potential exits. You can’t go into their rooms, fuck that, you’re not getting swat at like a fly, but you walk the length of both halls, bedrooms to bathrooms and back, and then head downstairs.

You’re halfway towards the front door, squinting in the dark (your shades definitely aren’t helping, you’re a moron, fuck), when you realize the room is completely empty. The couch is still made up all nice, some straight up hotel-level fluffed pillow BS, covers all tucked up, and someone should definitely be sleeping there.

But he’s not.

You guess he had a long nap earlier.

Fuck, is it really still the same day?

You guess it is.

Goddamn. Hello, Day Four.

There’s really no sense pretending you’re not going to look for Bro.

If he’s the only other person awake, at least you’ll have an excuse to be pissy in the morning. You do one more sweep through the kitchen, pop your head into the laundry, before you walk back towards the stairs. If you know anything (and you happen to know a metric shit ton), you know pretty much exactly where he’ll be.


You find Bro on the upper deck, just to the side of a partially disassembled telescope. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out he’s probably the one who did it, and you bet all your dimes and nickels he won’t put it back together again without coercion.

You smell the weed before you see it and he gives you a hazy smile, lulls his head to the side. “Hey.”

“Hey,” you say cautiously, approach on the right, just in case he - well he won’t, so it doesn’t matter.

“Mm,” he hums, pats the space beside him. You’ve seen Bro half-asleep, and you’ve seen him buzzed before, but he just looks tired now, head resting on his knees, hat tipped at an angle, eyes bleary and shades hooked into his polo. “Thought you’d find me here.”

Your hands curl on automatic, and you flex them to shake it loose, do your best not to look defensive in any way. “I wasn’t -”

“Yeah, yeah, you weren’t lookin’.” He snorts. “Sure. Well you found me, anyway. You wanna try again?”

You stare at the neatly rolled joint in his hand. Open your mouth. Close it. “How did you... We literally came directly from the airport.”

Bro lets out a sound that could be a laugh. “Please, kiddo, this is Washington. And anyway, you really think their pops is straight as all that? Dude smokes out of a pipe.”

You crack the knuckles of your left hand absently, imagine telling Jane and John any of this. Maybe they already know, who are you to say. “Hmm.”

“S’just a lil one.” He wiggles it at you, and you try not to wince when ash falls on his hand. He doesn’t even flinch. “Won’t give you more than two or three hits. Shit’s expensive. C’mon, no pressure, but you look like you need it.”

Jesus, you hate the way he looks right through you like that. It’s not infuriating, not really. Just kind of annoying, and a little embarrassing. “I,” you start. Stop. Remember months ago, on a rooftop, eyes like a sunset, panic reflected back at you. “Alright. Okay.”

Bro quirks an eyebrow. “You remember how?”

You give him a look and his smile is softer than you’re used to, amused, maybe a little too fucked up to properly care about masking his emotions.

“Yes,” you hiss.

“Okay, okay,” he snickers. “C’mon, c’mere.” Bro’s hand is warm, callused in a familiar way, and he drags you down beside him, pulls you close so your shoulders press together.

You try not to shy away. Washington apparently has zero frame of reference for what a normal night temperature should be in the summer, and you’re not shivering, but you definitely aren’t as comfortable in your shirt and pajama pants as you want to be. Bro, by contrast, radiates all his heat outwards, and you don’t mind it as much as you used to, coming in direct contact with him.

He shows you how to do it again anyway, and you think back to videos of Dave, your Dave, ripped right from twitter or fan sites. Clips of him in the bathroom at the Kodak Theatre, or a ballroom, or what you’re still pretty sure is Snoop Dogg’s backyard. They hold it the same way, blow out smoke the same way. You wonder if, paradoxically, the same person taught them how.

“You’re still not off the hook for that shit you did to me in the airport,” you tell him on your second drag. You feel okay. Maybe a little uncomfortable. You’re not used to inhaling anything like this.

“I know,” he murmurs, watching the way the smoke curls away from his fingers. There are circles under his eyes, just like yours. Exhaustion, days without sleep for no good reason other than ‘you just can’t.’ He clucks his tongue, mouth curling down in clear displeasure. “I shouldn’t have fucking - What I said was -” Bro is you all the way down, quiet anger, festering self-loathing, you’re sure, you’re so sure. You’ve never been more sure. This is a man who does not like himself, bravado be damned. “I was just. Tired. Pissed off. At myself. Or something.” He rubs at his eyes, and you carefully push your shades up so you can see him clearly. He doesn’t look any less tired for it. “I don’t know.”

“If you’re trying to apologize, it sounds like absolute dog shit,” you say, try to keep your voice as close to friendly as you can. You’re still holding the joint, take another puff at it because you think you might be starting to relax, even if it’s just a little.

He snorts again. “Ouch. First of all, I’m pretty sure you’re biased. Second of all, I do have feelings, y’know.”

You hand him the joint, say, deadpan, “None that I can see,” like a liar.

He muffles a laugh as he takes a hit. “See that? Right there? That’s the fucking prejudice I’m talking about.”

You don’t say anything, and he doesn’t actually apologize to you, but it’s okay, because you can feel the muscles in your shoulders loosen, feel a pleasant buzz in your head. Your stress is muffled, like cotton between your ears. “You seem better,” you say eventually. “Than earlier.”

“Yeah,” he says around a sigh, shifts his legs til they’re folded crisscross, his elbows leaning heavy on them. It bothers you, how small he can make himself. Dude’s practically an amateur contortionist. “I have been told I’m an absolute fucking riot at night.”

“Oh, don’t I just bet,” you scoff, before you can help yourself. He’s easy to get along with like this, with both of you a little too relaxed to care that you kinda-sorta hate each other, or at least yourselves. It’s almost the same thing, you think.

“You better believe it,” he drawls, like it’s a joke, and he cannot be doing that right now, you refuse to acknowledge it. He offers you the joint again. “Here, before I smoke it all.”

You hesitate, press your lips together. There is a part of you that is acutely aware of how kinda messed up this is. “Bro, I’m still kind of a kid.”

“Yeah, I know.” He shrugs. “You’re sixteen, though.”

You have no idea what to say in reply to that. You choke, manage, “So?”

“So most kids start earlier. Look at me, super adult here, giving you permission and everything.”

You frown. He’s. This is weird. “Are you sure you’re not still drunk?”

His expression drops, mouth a straight line, eyes blank. “Dirk,” and it’s the most natural sound you’ve ever heard, “are you asking if I’m cross-faded right now?”

“I don’t really know what that means,” you admit slowly. This is weird. You feel kinda weird.

“Yeah,” he says, and he’s still hunched forward, rolls his neck til it lets out a sickening crack. “And if I have my say, you never will. No back alleys for you.”

“You seem really focused on that,” you say, because he does.

“Only when it involves Dave, I guess,” he says, shrugs again.

“And me?”

“Oh, I don’t know.” Bro gives you a lopsided smile. “That’d be admitting to caring about someone else.”

“Or yourself,” you mumble.

“Or myself,” he nods. “See, you got it just fine.”

It still feels weird. “Maybe that’s a little inappropriate?”

“I ain’t your daddy, kiddo,” he snarks, rolls his eyes at you.

“I mean,” you start, like an ass, “technically -”

“Technically we’re our own dad, yeah fucking yeah,” he sighs, exasperated, drags a hand down his face. “Everyone yuck it up. Great. Just what I wanted to think about.” He takes the last hit anyway, stubs the roach (see, you can learn words too, fuck you) out on the bottom of his shoe. “You wanna head inside? This place is killing my hair vibe something harsh.”

Uh. “Uh. Yeah. Yeah, sure. Moisture in the air, who needs that?”

“Damn right,” he mutters, takes off his hat, runs his hand through his hair like that’ll save it. It does not.

“How did you get through the alarm system?” you ask on your way downstairs again, because you didn’t do shit to disable it, and nothing went off.

“Mm, not hard. If you know what you’re lookin’ for, anyway.” He puts a finger to his lips as you hit the bottom, and it’s odd, to watch him slip his shoes off, though he has no need, feet silent as he crosses the room, turns on the TV with a soft click, mutes it.

You don’t love the idea of sitting in complete darkness with the guy, so you turn on the lamp, flip your shades back down for comfort, let him sit on the couch before you. You have no plans for this. You don’t even know what you were thinking. Honestly, you don’t really care. The couch is soft, the blankets softer. It’s pretty alright.

“Hey,” Bro says after a few minutes. You’re watching Family Feud, and the closed captioning isn’t great. You hum, and he keeps talking. “It is kinda fucked up, isn’t it? That we don’t have genetic progenitors.”

You’re more surprised he knew the word in the first place. Shrug. “Mm. Neither does Roxy.”

“That’s true.” He sighs, changes the channel. Someone is losing their shit over a set of glass dishware. “Feel like she got most of the luck though, right?”

“I don’t know,” you sigh, twist your fingers together. You don’t really want to talk about it. “Roxy struggled pretty heavily with addiction from a really young age.” You roll your head over to look at him. You wonder how he broke his nose, the first time. “You don’t seem like you do.”

“I think you forget I had a little.” He hesitates, then. It’s getting less foreign to you. “A little help.”

And uh. Whoa. Okay. So you’re talking about that, you guess. “Right,” you say, sit up a little more to face him. “You uh. You cool to talk about that?”

“What, Cal?” he says, like it’s the easiest thing in the world, and you feel every muscle in your body go completely still. He just snorts, and you are thrown off guard. “Nah. I mean. Usually nah. Tell you the truth, kid, I’m baked off my ass right now.” He looks at you, and you’re struck again by the color of your own eyes. “Might make it a little easier if we’re being honest.”

“And neither of us usually are.”

“Haha.”

“Yeah.”

Bro taps his fingers on the arm of the couch, shakes his leg endlessly. He’s not watching the TV, you note. He’s doing what you do. Counting doors, windows. Christ, you really fucking hate this guy. Or just yourself, at least. “The problem is - or seems to be, maybe. I dunno. I don’t feel any less like me. I mean I am, in a way.” He finally stops, looks up at the ceiling. “I feel like shit. Tired, like I ain’t slept in eighteen years, you know?”

“Yeah,” you say, but you only kind of do.

He sighs, puts a hand over his eyes, sinks lower. “But I miss him. I know shit was fucked. But Cal was always there for me when I was a kid. When shit felt unachievable. He was my only friend.”

It’s the same shitty story reflected back at you, and you think, Wow, what a pair of losers we make. “I thought Roxy was your only friend.”

That makes him not-quite laugh. “Most people aren’t born knowing each other, idiot.”

“I know that,” you snap, shove his leg. “And we weren’t born, anyway.”

“Well, you’re not wrong,” he says. Bro is restless energy, compounded anxiety, and if you weren’t so sure it was him, you’d think it was coming from you. “I don’t fully understand what Cal - what he was. Or did, or whatever. To me, or Dave, or anyone else. Don’t reckon I ever will. He’s gone now, anyhow.” He flexes his hand, his leg shakes faster. You have a feeling you should stop him. “Like I said, everything feels pretty much the same. Maybe a little more intense, I dunno. Maybe I never realized it’d gotten that fucking bad, in the first place.”

You have never felt more exposed and uncomfortable in your life. As far as you can recall, this is only the second time he’s even said Cal’s name since revival. You. Don’t know how to feel about that. “That’s really fucking intimate,” is what comes out of your mouth. “Don’t you have other people to share this with?”

“Not sober,” he drawls, and the grin aimed your way is depressingly self-deprecating. It’s wiped off his mouth in a fraction of a second, and then you are confronted with your own discomfort, reflected on his face. “You just. You said you had a Cal, growing up. Figured if anyone would understand, it’s you.”

“Yeah,” you say weakly, try not to pick at your hands. “Would you ever -”

“No,” he says, immediate, sharp, too fast, too aware. He presses his lips into a thin line, sighs out the nose. “Once upon a time, I woulda said I’d do anything to get him back. But now..” Bro bunches his eyebrows and you think he looks like Rose, like Dave, like his age, just for once. “Now that I don’t have him, I don’t really want him. I don’t know when that changed.”

It’s pretty fucked up that he kind of acknowledged that Cal was probably fucking with him, even if he doesn’t completely understand it. You scramble for something to say. “But you still love puppets,” is what comes out.

He laughs, low and easy. “Dude, fuck, you KNOW I love fucking puppets.”

He offers a fist for a bump and just this once, you take it.

“You’re not so bad, you know,” he says softly, and there’s that smile again. He still hasn’t apologized. “I shouldn’t have... Fuck, dude. It ain’t easy for me to talk about this shit.”

“I know,” you say, because it’s not easy for you, either.

“I am trying,” he says, but it sounds half-hearted.

“Yeah,” you sigh. “Me too. But you’re worse at it than I am.”

“I have years of practice,” he says, and he leans back into the couch, stretches his arms up over his head with a groan.

And for a minute you imagine you can see,

Well, you don’t know how to describe what the fuck you’re seeing, because you might be honest to god fucking hallucinating, now.

It’s like a fire made of broken glass, fractal patterns, burning bright in the middle of his chest, and you can fucking see it.

You blink and it doesn’t go away.

You are so.

It’s pink, first, and past that, orange and red. The little flame shines like a mirror for you, crumbling around what can only be described as a cavity in the center, a dark spot that oozes black ichor, and it speaks to a part of you that you don’t recognize, or maybe you do, and it’s panic, fear, and a sudden wave of surprise that he can even fucking stand, let alone walk around with that

that thing in the place where his -

What?

You blink and it’s there. You blink and it’s gone.

You reach out without thinking, your only goal to touch, to feel, to wedge your hand deep inside his chest. Touch that dark spot, see if it’s real, chip it away or, you think hysterically, seal it up like you’re caulking a bathroom floor.

You can’t help yourself, like you’re stuck in a daze, and oh, Dirk, how it calls out to you, the thrum of your heart, or his heart, pounding in your ears, static at the edge of your fingers.

Bro does not appreciate it in the slightest. He grabs you by the wrist before you can even graze the fabric of his shirt and twists. Hard.

You snap back to reality, yelp, full body flinch as you come to your senses, vision too bright, his hand wrapped all the way around your arm til his fingers touch.

“What the fuck was that for?” you grouse, scowl at him, mind in a muddle, skin hot, face burning. You try to jerk away, fail. “I was just -”

But you don’t know what you were “just”. You don’t know what you were doing. What the fuck were you doing?

“I thought I saw...” You curl your hand up, flex it, watch your fingertips for phantom sparks. Think about. You don’t know. Pink things. The smell of pine needles. The way his hand burned on contact, all those months ago.

Bro holds you still, like he’s afraid to let go, and then he frowns. Leans in close. You try not to lean away. “When’s the last time you slept, kid?”

You give a weak shrug, staring hard at the center of his chest. You saw it, you know you did.

Splinters, you think hysterically. Splinters all the way down.

He sighs, drops you like you’re a dead fucking fish. When he stands and steps away, your eyes follow him, hungry, desperate for another look, something, anything to prove you right.

You saw it.

You saw it.

Dave descends on you little more than a second later, eyes red and wide and oh, he’s not wearing his shades, when did that happen, when did he get here, what’s even going on right now. He shoves into your space and you flinch back, but he follows you, hand on your cheek, tipping your shades up to reveal the shitshow that is your dumb, tired-ass face.

“Hey,” he mumbles, and it betrays how sleepy he is, fuck, Bro must’ve woken him up, must’ve told him. You, you don’t know. Dave’s eyebrows bunch in the middle. Frustration, maybe? No, concern, it’s got to be. “Hey, come lay down, Dirk, okay? C’mon, the guys’ll help move Jane’s stuff tomorrow, you uh. You can just chill. You look like you need a nap. Or twenty.”

And maybe he’s right, maybe you’re exhausted, but you are absolutely, one hundred percent sure that you just saw Bro’s fucking soul.

You have no idea how to tell him.

So you don’t.

 

Chapter Text

Something is bothering you.

Rose would say, “Dave, something is always bothering you.”

And you’d say, that’s patently untrue, you are a god among men, more chill than anyone has a right to be. You want patience? You’ve got it in spades, baby, you’re literally made of time, you potentially physically HAVE all the time in the world.

Actually, now that you think about it, maybe you just spent a good chunk of your life pretending that things didn’t bother you.

It’s a bit hard to tell.

Still, fuck Rose, you’re not a drama queen, and your feelings are valid, okay, and you do not over-exaggerate everything just for the sake of a good joke.

Most of the time.

And you know what? Maybe, just maybe (yeah okay this time it is a little dramatic), there are several things that happen to be bothering you at once, and maybe they’re more complicated than you like, or maybe you complicated them just by virtue of being yourself. You don’t know.

It’s just that they’re kinda related? And you could totally count them as one very big thing, all snowballed together, when it comes down to it.


“But when?”

“I told you, Dave,” Jade sighs, rolling her eyes. She doesn’t even look at you. She’s playing the Wii again and she’s really fucking good at it. You are so not jealous. It’s like, the shittiest game ever anyway. Of course John has it, though. Christ. “I don’t know when! It’s just a feeling I have. If I could tell you, I would! It’s really frustrating, you know. We don’t have dreamselves anymore, it’s not like when Skaia would show me things! I’m only part barkbeast -”

“Ugh don’t call it that -”

“- and I don’t even know how to use my powers again yet! Although I guess it’s cool that I have them at all, or at least that you do. Speaking of which...” She grins at you, cheeks dimpling, teeth a little too sharp to be completely human. She’s still so fucking cute. “Aren’t you supposed to be the time guy? Made of time?”

“That’s Aradia,” you say, taking the bait, and she laughs, bumps your shoulders together.

You missed this. Talking to Jade, the dumb jokes, this ease you got to have around her, at least for the few hours you spent together on LOFAF. You know. Before you bit it.

“You can’t give me like, an ETA or something?” you wheedle. Wiggle your eyebrows up over your shades. “C’mon, make something up. I won’t tell anybody.”

“Dave, ‘near’ omniscience doesn’t mean I actually even knew everything!” She throws her hands up, still manages to hit the boss character. Show off. “And I don’t even know how to access those powers right now. I’m not like you or Jane, I don’t have anything that needs to be - to be shrunk or made big or whatever! Have you tried asking Rose yet?”

As the fuck if. You’re not sure Rose would answer you, even if she could. You both know how much she’s struggled with all her - her stuff. Seers just got it rough like that, you guess.

You miss Terezi. She’d probably be able to

Hm, okay, she might not actually be willing to help. She was always kind of difficult if it made the situation funny, and it wasn’t life or death.

Well.

Sometimes death, you guess.

“Not yet,” you lie, when you realize Jade is staring at you.

The thing is, you don’t even know if you really want them to come back at all. The alpha versions of you, you mean. Shit’s super fucked up without anyone else making it complicated. Even calling them “alpha” feels weird. Makes you feel insignificant by comparison. Sure, you became a god, but you didn’t take down any clown presidents, didn’t really take a stand against anything at all, can’t even say you’d do the same thing if you were in his position. Do you really need another Dave? Fuck, ain’t two enough already?

But you know that Dirk is hearbroken (haha) even if he’ll never say it, and Rose is guilty for no reason other than not being what Roxy was expecting so you’re both kind of. Stuck, you guess.

“They’ll come back,” Jade says, and she pauses the game, turns to look at you straight on, grabs your hands in hers. Her eyes are bright green, pupils ringed with gold, and you try to remember if they’ve always been like that. “It’ll be okay, Dave.” She bites her lip. “Actually, I don’t know if okay is the right word? A lot of it seems to depend on...”

Her eyes go unfocused and you feel deeply uncomfortable like this, with her staring right through you, seeing something you can’t or. Or. You don’t know. “Jade...?”

She snaps out of it, blinks rapidly. “Sorry! Sorry, I really thought I had something there.”

“You are super freaky, Harley,” you sigh, flop back against the opposite side of the couch, pull your feet up off the floor.

She shrugs, chews on her bottom lip. “Have you talked to Dirk or Roxy about it yet?”

You freeze, try not to kick her as you unfold a little, uncomfortable with your knees all bunched up. It’s like a curse, you keep fucking growing, you’re in hell. Bro’s a bastard for a lot of reasons but this might be the worst of it. “Uh,” you say. No, you haven’t.

“Daaaaaaave,” she groans, shakes your knees. “You and Davesprite were supposed to tell him before the trip!! Now it’ll be all weird!”

“Well it’s not like you’re giving me a lot to work with,” you protest, inch closer so that your socked feet are almost in her lap. It’s cooler today, and you almost feel like a human again. Washington weather is a mystery to you, but you’ll take an almost twenty degree temperature drop if it means you’re not sweating your balls off, fuck. “You literally wouldn’t even tell me WHEN, and you know what Dirk’s first goddamn question is going to be? When. Followed by ‘What the fuck’, and then ‘Dave I can’t believe you lied to me by omission for like three months don’t you feel horrible and maybe a little like you’re dying inside because you can’t keep a secret?’ Don’t know if you noticed, Harley, but the guy doesn’t exactly like surprises.”

“It runs in the family,” she mutters, and you pretend not to hear because A, rude and B, hurtful, if true.

“Anyway,” you say, louder, “it’s not really - I don’t have to tell Roxy, right? Rose can do it.”

You can’t really handle it if she like. Cries or something. You’re not a crier. You definitely have never cried from anything but laughter or onions, not in your life. But it makes you uncomfortable, seeing other people do it. Anxiety, guilt, a compound of emotions you don’t really want to unpack.

Her face is all John then, and you don’t know how you never noticed before, the unimpressed line of the mouth, eyebrow raised. “You just don’t want to get in trouble of she cries, huh?”

Shit, she’s on to you.

“Uh,” you say, again. C’mon, Strider, it’s just Jade. You know how to talk to her. You’re friends, come on. You try not to be bothered that the voice in your head sounds a little too much like Bro sometimes.

“Listen, Harley,” you try, and yes, there it is, Texan drawl, exaggerated, low and sweet, a crooked smile, “you ever make your own mom cry? I’m guessing no, because Jane is an absolute ball of hyper-skeptical fucking sunshine with a sprinkling of pixie dust. Gal’s so unflappable she makes Dirk twist into pretzel knots trying to make her smile. Fuck, Jane could make John cry, and the dude is practically a dry-eyed hysteric. And anyway, thanks to him, or not, I don’t actually know? I got two moms now, and I gotta spend the rest of my life trying not to make either of them cry. Cut me a break, huh? If either of them shed a single tear cuz of me, there is someone in this house who will literally kick my ass. I will get served. So fucking hard.”

“Like a dude on butler island,” she snickers, and then throws her arms around your middle when you grin. “I missed you, Dave.”

Your chest floods with a warmth that you can’t explain, and you pat her hair gently. Try not to think about how much softer it is than troll hair. “Missed you too, Jade,” you mumble, but you mean it. You worry sometimes, that three years apart has fucked up your friendships irreparably. Maybe it has. You’re kinda hoping it hasn’t. You’re pretty sure it hasn’t.

“They do need to know,” she says, voice muffled into your side. “You have to tell Dirk, if no one else.”

You know that. “Do I?”

“Yes,” she says, and it’s this knowing amusement that makes you huff.

“Can’t Dave do it instead?”

She lifts up her head, digs the point of her chin into your sternum, makes you think, unpleasantly, about being gutted with a sword. “Mmmno,” she settles on, reaches out like she’s going to -

You flinch before you can stop it, grab her wrist on automatic, and Jade looks shocked, first, then embarrassed, drops her face so you can’t see it, but can feel her cheeks warm against your shirt.

“Sorry!” she practically shouts. “Sorry, I wasn’t thinking, that was super uncool of me! It’s just that I used to - well not in my timeline I guess, but um.”

Oh. Right. The Dave thing. He probably let her touch the shades, huh? That sounds really uh. Intimate. And stuff.

“It’s okay,” you settle on, feel lame. You let her go, squash down the guilt that you might have hurt her. You would never hurt Jade. “Sorry,” you add, because you guess it technically is kinda cross-existence your fault, a little.

“It’s okay,” she says, and when she does look at you again, she smiles. “I’m mostly just glad everyone is alive again.”

“Me too,” you whisper. It feels stilted, maybe a little forced, but you push your shades up anyway, into your hair where you know the nose piece will get tangled and you’ll regret it later.

It’s kinda worth it when she beams. This time when she reaches forward, she flicks you on the nose. “You still have to tell him. He’s your brother! He won’t be mad!”

“How did you tell Jake?” you ask, though honestly, you’ve met Jake, you can’t imagine it was that bad.

“Um,” she says, winces. “He cried.”

You give her a flat stare. “Harley.”

“Because he was happy!” she tries, pillows her chin on her hands so she’s not killing you. Probably poor word choice. “I think? I don’t know! His grandma died when he was little, it was probably really traumatizing! I’ve tried to convince John to tell Jane about her Poppop, but he won’t because he says it’s a weird thing to say! And I don’t wanna do it because I -” She puffs out her cheeks.

You try not to feel smug. “Because you what, Jade?” you drawl, poke her sides. “What don’t you want to happen, Jade?”

“Shut up!” she laughs, shoving at your hands. “You’re the one who said it’s like, illegal to upset her!”

“I guess that’s true,” you relent. “If she’s anything like John, she might not believe you anyway.” You drum a hand on her arm as you lay there, try to think of a way to tell Dirk.

Or Roxy? You guess? Maybe both of them together?

No, Dirk wouldn’t like that. Dude really doesn’t do surprises, especially for someone who says super fucked up shit like “no obviously I’ve never had milk before” and “I don’t know, I always kinda thought public schools sounded neat, in theory.”

You don’t want it to turn into an argument. You’ve never actually argued before, but you have a feeling this is something that’d do it. You bet if Dave told him it’d be fine. Their relationship is.

You don’t know.

It’s not complicated, not really. You’re both Dave, he likes you plenty, you’re sure. but Dave is still doing that thing where he thinks he’s not the real Dave, nudges you towards each other, takes a (metaphorical) step back. You guess maybe you’re partially to blame for that.

You haven’t been especially good at sharing. You should probably talk to him about it. He does owe you, after all.

(And maybe you owe him, too.)



You find him in Jane’s room, all alone, back hunched away from the door, surrounded by mechanical detritus like he owns the place. You’re pretty sure he’s only been up here half an hour.

“Hey, can I talk to you about something?” you ask, and you shouldn’t, because Dirk often gives you this look that makes it clear he thinks it’s ridiculous you’d even ask in the first place. That you didn’t just sit down right there and start the conversation mid-rant.

And okay, okay, you’ve definitely done that before, and you’re definitely guilty as charged, but for him to pick up that keenly on your bad habits? The same way you pick up on his? So uncomfortably sentimental, the both of you. Someone has to put a stop to this.

But you promised you weren’t gonna be That Dave today, the Dave who says he has important shit to say and then talks about something else.

You are fucking doing this, you are about to Make. It. Happen.

“It’s about time travel,” you say, step carefully over a discarded screwdriver and a pile of nails, hover uselessly off to the side. Dirk doesn’t like it when people stand over him, and you don’t want to crowd him if he’s not in the headspace for it right now.

There’s not a lot of places to escape to, in the Crockbert house, not with nine kids, five (debatable, really) guardians, and someone essentially occupying every possible room at any given time. He crashed hard that first night, when you wrestled him to bed, still reeking of weed, but it’s still been more difficult than either of you would like. (You think about Bro, kneeling by your head, the way he shook you awake carefully, how soft his voice had been, trying not to wake the others. You wonder if he’ll ever let you see him high like that again. You know. For science.)

But as much as Dirk has caved, let you curl your hand in his shirt, let you drag a leg over his to keep him still for the past three days, you know he’s not fucking happy about it. And he’s well within his rights, you think. Sharing John’s space with four other guys is kind a shitty, and he can hardly sleep in Jane’s (slightly bigger, Jade doesn’t know how but she can just tell) room. The girls are definitely having more fun than you, you think, because Jake snores and John is a lipsmacker and you and Dave are both kickers and clingers, which you know Dirk doesn’t love.

He’s finally managed refuge in Jane’s room, at least for the time being, and you know he needs a minute sometimes, like Bro’s propensity for unoccupied space, but he doesn’t look too displeased to find you here. He’s cradling the exo for a small metal rabbit, and you do not even want to know where he got it or if it is any of the multidimensional rabbits that plague your lives.

“His name is Lil Sebastian,” Dirk tells you anyway, and he goes back to working on the little guy like you didn’t just say something super ominous. “C’mon down here, bro, and you can talk about whatever the fuck you like. Can’t pretend I’ll understand it, though. Time’s one of the few things outside my expertise.” He glances up, and at this angle you can see the soft look in his eyes when he smiles at you. “Don’t know if you noticed.”

“I may have caught on to some of the clues,” you admit, practically throw yourself into his space. It’s not as weird as it used to be, and he doesn’t even complain when you put your hand on his leg absently to steady yourself, or when you pretty much go one hunny percent slack against his right. Guess he doesn’t care if he can still do his work - he’s a lefty, just like you. “What are you doing?”

He looks amused, and okay, so you’re easily distracted, you’ll get around to it eventually, and you both know it, so he humors you. “Trying to get him to work properly again. Or at least, work long enough that I can check for flaws in his programming. Jane said he was hiding in John’s bed when they arrived.” The smile that curls on his face is just a little bit rude. “They had to buy a new mattress.”

“Haha,” you say, but honestly it is just fucking like Dirk (any Dirk, you’re not picky) to program something like that. You note that the bunny looks a little worse for the wear, half an ear missing and chasis dented. “So what’s wrong with him?”

Dirk’s mouth twists down, and his turn of the screwdriver seems just a little more aggressive. You practically force yourself to relax, but if he notices, he doesn’t say anything. “Nothing, hypothetically. Last time we saw him was on Derse, and the game must have reset him here with Jane. But he looks like hell, and John’s father has requested that perhaps I tone down his survival instincts, ‘just a smidge’.”

Awww, okay, he’s just upset about that. Dirk’s kind of an overachiever, no surprise there. You wouldn’t put it past him to design some kind of murder-based bunny bot. You try to be chill about it. “Why does he even have survival instincts in the first place?”

Dirk looks at you and you think, for a moment, maybe he’s a little embarrassed. He’s not good at hiding things, not from you. He’s practically an open fucking book, next to Bro. So you can see it, when the discomfort shifts from slight shame to something more like insecurity. “To keep Jane safe.”

That is literally the sweetest thing your stupid alt-ecto-bro has ever said to your face, and you cannot quite fight the grin making its way across your face. “That is literally the cutest shit you could have possibly said to me,” you say, in part to watch the way his ears turn just the slightest shade of pink. In part because it honestly really fucking is. Dirk isn’t really much for talking about his feelings, not even after all this time, and he’ll very rarely admit it, but you know he loves the absolute shit out of his friends.

“Don’t be a dick,” he mutters, but he doesn’t shove you off. “Anyway, Batterbitch is gone now, but as far as I’m concerned, Jane’s still the heiress, and she’s probably still got a huge fucking target painted on her back. There’s a chance that her enemies could still be out there, plotting or some shit.”

Okay, same old paranoid Dirk, you guess. You bonk your head against his shoulder. “Think she can protect herself pretty fucking well, dude. Did you see that giant ass pitchfork she keeps in the corner of her room? Kinda weird she doesn’t put it in her sylladex, but who am I to judge? Have you seen my sword pile? Got a hundred of the motherfuckers all jammed in there, it’s like looking for hay in a needle stack.”

He smiles. “You only use one strife deck, Dave. But you’re probably right. And I know that? But Seb was...” He runs a thumb over the little blue hat that’s been scratched away at the center. “He was a gift. And it was all I could do, back then.” Pauses, thinks. “Or will do. Or will never do in this timeline, I suppose.”

“You’re here now, Dirk,” you say gently. “That’s what counts.” And it’s important, you think, for him to stop doing that. Thinking about a timeline that was, or won’t be, anymore. It’s a road you’re intimate with. Fuck, it was your first kiss. Probably would have taken you to prom, if you were still in public school. Or the world hadn’t ended when you were thirteen.

You wonder if you can still have a prom now. Maybe convince Bro to buy you a tuxedo handmade by a human person. If it’s funny enough, he’ll probably go for it.

Dirk doesn’t answer, turns another screw to finally open the core panel.

Wait for it...

Wait for it......

“Yes,” he murmurs thoughtfully, and you see the corner of his mouth curl up.

One point for Dave, hell yeah.

And then you immediately deflate because Christ on a fucking cracker, it’s another goddamn bunny.

“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” you say, and he stutters a breath out his nose; Bro’s version of a laugh.

“Your alternate universe self had an entire museum dedicated to the movie Con Air. It’s kind of a long story, but I never really understood it, myself.”

You understand perfectly fucking well why and it’s the most embarrassing thing you have heard thus far. “I really don’t know if I can deal with the end of that story,” you say instead, watch him handle the beat-up rabbit with such delicacy and care he may as well be cradling glass.

“It ends with me stealing it through somewhat nefarious means, with Roxy’s assistance. I don’t know if he ever missed it.” He smiles down at the bunny, pulls a zipper that you know damn well did not exist on the rabbit you gave John.

Lil Sebastian’s insides light up green and you have a feeling that’s definitely uranium you’re looking at, right there.

“Uh,” you say, though you already have your doubts. “Is that safe to touch with your hands?”

He shrugs as he digs his fingers in. “’M a god now, aren’t I? What’s a little radiation poisoning between friends?”

“Okay,” you say slowly, watch the way it glows, turns his skin and everything around it a sickening color, “but when you’re done with your build-a-bear workshop here? We are going downstairs and Jane is checking both of us for super cancer.”

That pulls a real laugh out of him. “Alright. Though I should warn you this isn’t going to be the last time.” He leans over you to put the solid little chunk on his tool roll. You didn’t even realize he brought it with him. It’s covered in oil and some other shit you don’t recognize, and you realize it’s just a ratty old shirt.

Huh.

Maybe you should buy him like. An actual roll for his birthday? Or something? Actually when is his birthday? Do you have the same birthday? You don’t know. Bro never told you.

“Dude, there are absolutely safer forms of energy than this.”

“Mm, none available to me at the time of creation.” He clucks his tongue. “I suppose I could take him back to Houston, see if I’ve got anything on hand now. Although in fairness to me, I do believe the technology I’m using hasn’t officially been developed yet.”

“Hey, not everyone creates a cognizant AI from their own brain at the tender age of thirteen, but there’s no need to brag about it, bro.” You wonder if he knows how simultaneously insanely smart and terrifying that makes him.

He hums again, and his eyebrows knit. You wonder, in a moment of panic, if you’ve upset him. “If I’m being honest with you, Dave, I -” He coughs a little, clears his throat. He’s upset, but not with you. “I was hoping that some of Hal’s data might still be present in Lil Seb’s hard drive. I won’t know until I run it through an actual computer but I... I’m hesitant to attempt it, all the same.”

You know it’s been bothering him. He hasn’t really talked about it with anyone else, as far as you know. You never really interacted with anything other than Arquiusprite, and at that point you were still a little... well. Freaked. You guess.

“I don’t really know enough to help,” you say, shrug a little, settle back in when it’s clear he doesn’t have to move for anything else.

He jostles your shoulder against his gently. “You’re keeping me company, that’s plenty help enough. The others seem to think that if I don’t grab at least ten minutes a day for myself, I’ll burst into flames.”

Yeah, you kinda thought that too. You remember how he used to wrap himself up in your blankets with his head under the pillow, your big noise-canceling headphones jammed over his ears. Those first couple weeks were super rough for both of you.

You don’t mention it, though, because honestly? You’ve been up in each other’s business 24/7 and he hasn’t complained once. Maybe you’re just special. (You kinda hope you’re just special.)

“Don’t you, though?” you ask, despite yourself. “Need quiet time.”

“Quiet doesn’t have to mean alone, Dave,” he says on an exhale, looks a little wry. “But I suppose I can see where they’re coming from.”

“I don’t think they’re doing it to be mean,” you say anyway, pull out your phone. “No offense, bro, but your friends love you.”

You don’t really have anyone to text right now, since they’re all either downstairs or in John’s room or just. You don’t know. Around. DS and Jade were helping Nanna bake last you checked. A “past-time” or something? You won’t admit to being jealous, neither, because Dave is you (sort of) and he and Jade are still kinda feeling out this whole cross-timeline post-relationship friend thing.

God your lives are so stupid.

“You’re also the one who pretty much volunteered to sit up here and fix the rabbit in the first place,” you add, though not to be cruel.

He grunts, and you can tell that he doesn’t really like that you’re probably right. It’s okay, though, you know he’s not actually mad at you. You hope.

“I can message Rose or Jane or something if you want,” you offer, bend your elbow to knock him lightly in the guts. You don’t really want to overextend your welcome, and if he’d rather chill with Roxy or Jake or whatever, you don’t want to get in the way.

“No,” he sighs softly, and you know his shades are more advanced than yours, but you can actually hear the whir they make when he pulls Lil Sebastian close, gets really up in the wiring and shit. You don’t know what you’re talking about, you really don’t. “You don’t have to worry about that, you know.”

“What.” You play along, but you feel your stomach clench, try not to tense too much. What did you do? 

He pauses, then, and he doesn’t quite look at you straight on, but you can see around his shades, how he’s regarding you. There is no way he does not realize you’re full of shit. “You don’t have to try’n quantify how much I care about you by measuring my interest in spending time with people other than you.” Shit. “You know I like you, Dave. And frankly you know that well enough that I shouldn’t have to tell you again. Your company is more than enough for me. Alright?”

And fuck, the dude can be a bit heavy with the words, his kindness doesn’t always cushion the sting, but he doesn’t aim to hurt. And he admitted he likes you, which is. Heh.

“Okay,” you say, and you bump hard against him. You’re kind of a huge pain in the neck. “But tell me again anyways.”

He presses his tongue into his cheek and goes back to business, bunny near the face, tiny soldering gun held like a pen and both hands despite your weight.

You realize, watching his hands work, careful, beyond delicate, that you still haven’t said shit and fuck, you did it again. Classic Dave shit right here.

“So,” you say, and talk right over the breathy laugh he makes, “about time travel.”

“Yes, Dave?” And he’s grinning now, trying not to.

Except.

Okay, so it’s not actually about time travel. That just kind of came out, as if you really need an excuse to talk to the guy, which you definitely don’t, except when you’re justifying it to yourself in your head. So it’s not about time travel, except in the ways that it sort of is? Kinda everything about you and your godtierhood encompasses the subject, it’s a bit of a nightmare, really. There’s no such thing as a successful session without a time player, etc etc.

The problem being with that, of course, that you’re no longer in a session. And you still have time travel powers, which you don’t really know if you have total control of, or even want, or what that will mean for the rest of.

Uh.

Huh.

Forever? Maybe?

“Do you think we’ll die one day?” Fuck you didn’t mean to say that.

He actually stops for a moment, looks at you. Clears his throat. Starts working again. “Is this a ‘the sun will implode one day and destroy the universe as we know it’ question, or a specific to us hypothetical?”

“The second one,” you say, flop backwards onto the floor, scroll through your chum roll again, just for something to do. Rose is online, at least. Even if she’s not looking now, she will later. You’re really bad at getting to the point.

-- turntechGodhead [TG]began pestering tentacleTherapist [TT] --

TG: rose do you think when all of our family and shit die and theres only eight of us left well still be friends
TG: or do you think well get sick of each other
TG: fly out into space or something
TG: could literally roll into the sun for sport i guess
TG: maybe actually go find the trolls
TG: if were still godtier do you think they are too

“You want me to tell you whether I think being godtier prevents us from aging or death?”

“Well,” you say. Bite your cheek. “I guess that’s a lot to ask. No? Cuz I already know we can age, since obviously I’m not thirteen anymore, and neither is anyone else.” You prop yourself up on your elbow. “It’s not really wanted I wanted to talk about, tbh. It just kind of came out.”

“Dave,” Dirk says, and you can hear his smile, “your head is a mess.”

“Don’t feed my own bullshit back to me,” you huff, but don’t shove him, because he’s working and you don’t have a death wish. “I think. I think maybe it’s something I could stop? If I wanted? Does that make sense?”

“Death?” he asks patiently. “Or aging?”

You think about that a minute. It’s something you and Aradia discussed, briefly. Time buddies and all, but she definitely had better control over the god aspect of the whole thing than you ever did. You were limited by your fear of death, you think, where her own had set her free. It’s something you’ve never gotten completely over.

“Both,” you say. “What’s the point of control over time if I can’t influence the mortal coil. Not that I would ever like. Try it or anything. That’s pretty fucked up. Like I said, I didn’t really want to talk about it. Or don’t now. It’s more about time travel specifically as it relates to you. Your session, really.”

You know this is a sensitive subject specifically because it’s one both of you stalwartly avoid. His bro, Roxy’s mom. The whole mystery of the missing guardians in general. You tried telling Jade, it’s just. Not something either of you talk about.

His teeth click together so hard you can hear it, a muscle jumping in his jaw. “Okay,” he says, but you know he doesn’t want to.

“So I was thinking,” you say, don’t know why you hesitate. You promised you would do this, but. Ugh. It’s so hard to bring up. You’re so much better at deflecting. “We basically interrupted your session, right? Like. Crashed it like a bachelorette party, full stop, inserted our planets into your incipisphere without even askin’. Or I guess you guys knew we’d be there, right? Eventually.”

“Yes. Calliope told us - yes.”

Fuck you forgot about their little alien bud. You wonder - well it’s probably just as well you don’t think about that, the same way you try not to miss Terezi or Karkat or, or Kanaya. Fuck, Rose won’t even talk about her.

“But John’s the one who opened the door, right?” you say, stare at Jane’s ceiling. Girl needs some glow in the dark stars up in here. “Even though it wasn’t our door, he’s the one who opened it, so I was just thinking, like, if I went back, if one of you opened the door instead -”

“No,” Dirk says immediately, and he’s not working anymore, has twisted at an impossible angle to look at you.

Well, you weren’t expecting that. I mean, you weren’t really supposed to offer to go back in time and wreck shop on your game, either, but sometimes things just come down the Strider pipeline and you’re helpless to stop them. “But -”

“You cannot create a doomed timeline,” he says, and there is something pained in his voice. His mouth turns down at the corners, but you wish you could see his eyes. You watch his adam’s apple bob as he swallows. “Dave this is - this is it. For better or worse. We talked about that.”

“I know,” you mumble, try not to sound miserable about it. You don’t want to be the god of a world you watched burn down once already. “I just. I dunno. I just thought if I gave you the choice...”

His hand touches the top of your head in this tentative way, even after all these months, and you don’t complain when his callused fingertips snag lightly at your hair. “I wouldn’t give you up,” he says, and yes, he’s definitely turning red now, and yes, this is definitely awkward, and yes, your face is slowly splitting in half because Christ, Dirk. This dude is so fucking bad at feelings it’s hilarious. It’s embarrassing how hilarious and charming this is.

“Thanks, Rick Astley,” you drawl, grab his hand and tug in askance. “But you don’t need to quantify how much you love me through memes.”

“Don’t feed my own bullshit back to me,” he says dryly, lets you pull him down. He gives you a shitty little smile. You kind of love it. His shades press into the floor so he takes them off, and you push yours up, roll so you’re on your side and then you’re both just kinda. Lying on the floor in Jane’s room.

Totally not weird at all. Maybe she’s cool with it. You don’t know what Dirk does and doesn’t tell her.

Could be worse places, you guess, to lie on the floor with a dude.

“I have something to tell you,” you say, and you don’t want it to be weird. Above anything else, you really don’t want this to be the thing that fucks it all up.

Dirk is Bro in as many ways as he’s not, and you get the distinct impression that the pause he gives is entirely for your benefit. “This isn’t going to be one of those ‘I should have told you sooner’ situations, is it?”

Well, shit. “Uh.” You tuck your arm under your head before it goes numb against your side. “Maybe a little. I didn’t like, give you herpes or anything, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

“Dave,” he says, and the patience in his voice is two parts amusement, about twenty parts anything else. “I’d be more worried if you had found a way to obtain them yourself, in the first place.”

“Hey, you don’t know. I could have like. Space herpes. From trolls, or something.” He stares at you, eyebrows up. You cough. “I don’t know why I said that.” You’re already kicking yourself mentally. You’re a mess. God. Why. Help. “Sometimes I just say shit, I know you know that,” you near-snap when he opens his mouth, and you’re embarrassed that he doesn’t look more upset with you.

“Yeah, I know,” he murmurs, and his eyes crinkle at the corners, smile lopsided. It’s been a long summer, and you can count freckles you’ll never have as they march across his nose. It almost offsets the slight intimidation factor. Although he’s not so scary now, anyway, once you’ve seen him with his hair stuck to his face, drooling on a borrowed pink pillowcase.

You press your fingers to the floor so they pop one by one. Remind yourself that this is the same dude you told you have a repetitive compulsion involving his death, and who not only accepted that but offered to indulge in it with you. You think maybe both of you are a little fucked up that way.

“Okay so like,” you start, and there’s nowhere to look, really, except his face. Dirk’s stare is intense, unwavering, even when he blinks, and you think he looks better now, than he did, less tired. Probably still needs more sleep. How do you convince him to nap? Jade naps all the time. Napping as a group activity sounds, frankly, fucking awesome.

“So like,” he coaxes, when you don’t continue.

Goddammit. “So Jade used to see shit in Skaia, right? That’s Prospit privilege at its finest, right there. Goddamn disgusting misuse of game mechanics, really.”

Dirk hums. “Jane never put too much thought into her dreams. It was like pulling teeth, trying to get her to tell me anything.” He rolls his eyes. “Skeptics.”

“To be fair, I was apparently awake the whole time, I just never noticed,” you say, shrug. “No revolution for me.”

“You were probably safer that way,” he says, and you don’t flinch when he moves his hand over you, plucks your shades out of your hair without them getting tangled. He folds the ears and places them carefully next to his own, looks back at you.

“Guess so,” you mumble. You still feel kind of lame. You spent years just. Having crappy Cal-fueled nightmares while he actually DID stuff. “So Jade can’t do that anymore, right? No more connection to the game except. Uh. Okay so her dog was this fucking. It was crazy, right? You know, the whole Jack thing, bad dog, worst friend. Anyway it was like. Omniscient, and omnipotent also? I guess? Don’t know how Jade never seemed to mention that to any of us. So sometimes she. Well I guess we never really thought much about it. Jade’s always known things nobody else ever could. And we don’t have proof, it’s just a feeling, but you still deserve to know, it’s like. Kind of a big deal, and I definitely should have said something, I don’t know why I didn’t, I’m sorry, fuck -”

Dirk’s hand is warm on your arm, and you stop, drop your eyes. Take a deep breath.

“Jade thinks your guardians are going to come back. And before you ask, she won’t tell me when. She can’t. And I can’t. And I know it sounds stupid, and I want to be able to tell you more. But I can’t.” You're afraid to look at him. Afraid of what you'll find there.

Dirk is perfectly silent, perfectly still. When you peek up at him, his mouth is a straight line, but his eyes, normally covered, scrunch up, pupils slightly dilated. "You don't know when," he repeats, and it's mechanical, sends your brain into a panicked flurry. This is it, the reaction you dreaded most. He's angry at you, you know it.

"I, I," you stutter. "I don't know."

"She couldn't tell you anything else? Not where? How? Anything?" he presses, and you fight the urge to curl in.

"No, I -" And it sounds meek. A little pathetic. "No, I'm sorry, I don't know. Sorry."

You know he's not Bro, you know, but that silence, the way he can go so completely motionless. It terrifies you. And then he sighs, tilts his head to look at something over your shoulder. His hand on your arm flexes a little, fingers tapping across the skin briefly. He's trying to calm himself down. "No," he says softly. "No, I'm. I'm sorry, Dave. I shouldn't have - it's not your fault." He flicks his eyes back to look at you and he doesn't look angry, or happy, or anything positive. He just looks anxious. "They're really..?"

"Yes," you say, and you don't know why you reach out, grab him by the back of the neck. Drag him until your heads press together. It's reminiscent of the night Bro not-died, and you feel weirdly vulnerable. Trying to steady him. It's like a fucked up joke. "Yeah, man. They're gonna come back. You're gonna meet your bro."

"Oh," he says, and his voice sounds a little froggy. He clears his throat in vain. "That's. That's cool. I mean. I had sort of given up? I think, so I." He lets out a shuddering breath, and yeah, this is pretty much the most intimate way you could've chosen to do this. Maybe shouldn't have. Dirk's hands curl into your t-shirt. "I wasn't really expecting..."

"It's okay to cry, dude," you whisper, run your thumb over the knobs of his spine, thank god and especially Jane that you even get this chance.

"Fuck you," he coughs, gives a wet laugh.

You muffle a snicker, pull back enough to tap your heads together. You really, really don't want another Dave, but honestly? You wouldn't be yourself if you weren't willing to make a couple sacrifices for the people you love.

Chapter Text

Days in the past (but not many)...

 

You finally let Jane Egbert hug you when the kitchen door swings closed behind your kids, and it's all too quiet all too fast.

"Oh, Mr. Strider," she sighs softly, and you lean over her, practically folded in half as she gets you around the middle. Her hair is wiry against your cheek, the fabric of her shirt warm where you press your nose. She smells like cookies. "What have you gone and done this time?"

"Nothing," you grunt on reflex. Undeserved anger, curling in your stomach, confused indignation. Stop. You need to stop. You curl your fingers gently into the edge of her worn apron, drum a beat on her shoulder where your free hand wants desperately to let go. Ugh. Stop. Sigh, squeeze your eyes shut. They burn, but just for a moment. "I don't know. Messed up, same as usual. I had this, this notion that I could... Well. It doesn't matter now." You don't try to justify yourself to her, couldn't, even if you wanted to. You never had a mom. But Jane is the closest thing, you think, that you ever came to something resembling one (or she tried to be, anyway, before you turned your back on her, on everyone, before you decided you were betterfasterstrongerbolder on your own). "I was - cruel. Hurt someone's feelings, same as I always do. Don't know what I was thinking."

"I shall say, I rather think you weren't," Nanna Egbert says, and she lets you go, straightens your shirt with her too-blue hands, gives you another lookover. "Jumping Jehoshaphat, Strider, you look like hell's hangover."

"I know," you mumble, and you get the distinct feeling you are being judged and appraised, like a prize cow at the county fair. You try to ignore the other "Dad" in the room, who is looking both amused and a little uncomfortable. Fuck that guy, he's - well okay maybe he's identical to Egbert, maybe a little older. You don't fucking know, you've been dead, who are you to judge a dude's age? You don't like that he's staring at you, or that this is the second time you've met and you still can't remember his name.

Egbert can't like what she finds, frowns at you in a way that makes you want to. To hide? Maybe? Not that you'd ever admit that, of course, because that'd be admitting defeat, and you can't possibly have that. You're no shrinking violet, but she gets to the heart of you like no one but Roxy ever has, and you'd resent her for it if you hadn't been the one who fucked it all up in the first place.

"I'm sorry," sits on the tip of your tongue and you battle it a second too long, don't quite get there. Your best defense is silence, and it shrouds you like a veil, always has.

Hass is still sitting at the kitchen table, arms crossed like a spoiled brat. He tried to ambush you upon entry, got you in a headlock before you could step away. Wily old fucker, you'll give him that. You missed that. Fuck, you missed him, too, in spite of everything.

"Time heals all wounds, Dirk," Jane - Nanna, now, you remind yourself, says, like she can really read your mind. She pats your hand again, and you don't jerk away. Fuck, they should give you a medal for this shit. "But I think perhaps some cuts are deeper than others, eh? Why don't you sit a spell, you look like you could use a drink."

"Probably just a drink of water, ma'am," you sigh, and you hate yourself, a little, for the way you fight a smile.

A look you can't discern flickers across her face, but you don't really care to unpack that right now, stuck somewhere between hungover and still more drunk than you like to be. "Of course, dear," she murmurs, and she wheels over to the counters to fetch you a glass.

"Come now, Jane," Hass says, and he doesn't sound entirely mad, maybe just a little tense. Which is fine, you have that effect on people, you're well aware of it. Jacob Harley was never an exception to that rule. "He's a grown man, he doesn't need you to baby him."

And he's definitely right, and you definitely don't, but that don't mean you don't miss it.

You can see the exact moment where Egbert realizes she can't reach the glassware, and there's something less like amusement and more like pity that stirs in your gut.
"Oh, Nanna, let me -" the Crockdad starts, but you wave him off.

"I got it," you say as you walk over, reach for the cupboard where she's always kept them, and hand it down to her.

"Oh." She blinks up at you and then beams. "Thank you, Dirk. Silly old me, I wasn't even thinking, was I?" And fuck, she's gotten so old, hasn't she. When did she get so old? Somewhere in your unkindness you lost track of them. You lost them entirely.

She does get you that glass of water, and you let her, keep your eyes focused on the table so you don't have to deal with the way Hass and Little Jane's dad both stare at you. It's like bugs crawling across your skin, a tickle down your spine. It sends your jaw muscles jumping, pulls at the corner of your mouth. You cross your arms, pop your knuckles absently when they start to tighten, but you will not be the one who starts a fight, not today.

You hear the whine of Nanna's chair and are careful not to flinch when she pulls up beside you. "Oh, we can't possibly have a proper reunion like this! Where has Roxy and that son of mine gotten off to?"

"I think you should worry more about what they've gotten off to," you say, and you have to press your tongue into your teeth to keep from smiling when Harley guffaws, although Egbert is less amused, smacks you upside the head - or at least as high as she can reach.

"Dietrich!"

"Not actually my name, Egbert."

"Oh, you are such a bother," she huffs, and you know that, but you can see the twist of her mouth, how she tries to hide her smile. "You're lucky I can't catch you or I'd wash that filth from your mouth with soap!"

She wouldn't, you think. She's way too soft on you, Hass is right. God, it almost feels good, doesn't it? To be alive, to see them again.

Your glasses ping and you hate that the window opens on automatic. You should take them apart, fix the software. But they're not actually yours (not everything came back from the game whole, yourself included, haha) and you're not willing to risk whatever nightmare future tech may or may not be embedded in them.

It's just Dave, anyway, and the red text causes you pause like no one else ever has. Dave doesn't pester you.

TG: bro
TG: s o fucking s

You stand fast, too fast, slide a hand along the wall to steady yourself, fleeting, hopefully fast enough that no one notices.

"Strider -" Harley starts. Fuck. Cover blown. There's something dangerously close to worry in your name.

You don't really have time to mull over that right now, so you ignore him and poke your head out the door. The living room looks like a Mexican fucking standoff, and you only need a moment to determine the source of the problem and it's one (1) Roxanne Lalonde and her Egbertian friend, one (1) gentleman baker.

Well. Okay. You guess.

You know Dave has been just fucking. Tearing himself apart over this for literal months, and while you were very little help with any of that, when it comes down to it, you can do this one thing.

You grab them by the necks. You don't know why. It's completely impractical, a little menacing. You didn't really think about it. Egbert's ears immediately turn pink, but Roxy digs her heels in, and it takes a muttered curse too rude for prying ears before she gets the hint. She's still going to kick the shit out of you for it later, you just know she will (and you're definitely not still miffed that she can lift you like a prima ballerina, no sir).

But they let you steer them after a second, softer, "not right now," and you're behind closed doors and out of prying range in no time.

Just as well for you. Having that many eyes on you at once is a nightmare.

"Dirk, what the fu-" Roxy starts, but she stops as soon as she sees Nanna, her eyes lighting up, a high-pitched, girlish squeal bursting out of her. "Ohhhhh, Jane!!"

You step away, sag into the far chair, where you can press your back to the wall, and no one will look directly at you. You're definitely still a little bit drunk. You're happy, anyway, for Roxy to get the attention, don't even quip when she starts grilling on Hass, ruffles his hair and calls him an old fart. You're tired. You're not in the mood. You'd prefer if, just this once, you didn't have to be the center of anyone's attention.

Shit rarely works out in your favor, however, and you can tell that you're about to be volunteered for something you don't want to do before Nanna Egbert has even turned to look at you.


You thought after Dave collected mini-you maybe you'd finally get some sleep. You've earned it, you reckon, between the long flight and the absolute circus that is wrangling a bunch of teenagers for half the day ( Roxy would argue that she did most of the work, and you'd argue that she at least got on that airplane by choice).

You settle into the blanket nest created for you, even take off your hat like a gentleman. You're going to catch some mad z's, the world isn't even fucking ready for how sick the z's you're about to catch are. Call the CDC, this sleep is about to get so ill it's liable to drop dead.

You are very fucking high, and very fucking exhausted.

You've been awake more days than you can count, it feels like, and quite honestly, "sick'n tired" doesn't even begin to describe all the ways in which you feel like shit. Could be worse. Fuck, little you was actually goddamn cracking, wasn't he? You haven't been that bad in - well you don't know, do you? How bad you may or may not have been. The pits in your memory are a conglomeration of your own faults and those of
of Cal, you guess.

You stare at the ceiling and breathe in, breathe out, tap your foot to the tick tock of the clock on the wall, drum your fingers along the edge of the couch. You remember being (c'mon, dude, just call him Dirk) his age, sitting in this living room, thinking "holy fuck I can't deal with this." All the expectations, the plans Hass and, and Egbert had for you. The reality of your situation and how your life would go, and you knew better than anyone, didn't you? You knew from the get-go, and you were okay with it. You had to be. You were on a predetermined path and you didn't want

"I hope you're not out here thinking too much." You hear the whir before you see her coming. "We all know how dangerous that is."

You keep your eyes trained on the overhead light, ignore the urge to itch at them, do not move your legs out of the way so she can sit. She doesn't ask you to. "Wouldn't be the most dangerous thing I've done in my life."

"I don't know if dying counts, Strider," she says cheerfully, and you do raise your head, then. Steel hair turned ghost-pale blue, skin no longer as warm as it once was, but you know her face as well as anything, even when she rolls her eyes at you, twenty years younger in a single moment. "Don't you give me that look, young man. I know how reckless you can be."

"Wasn't giving you any kind of look, ma'am," you say, although you can't be sure, drowsy with sleep loss and higher than you meant to get. Faces do all sorts of weird shit when you lose track of them. God help you if Dave ever caught you like this. He'd probably cry.

"That's part of the problem, son," she says, and you never got used to that, the pinch of her eyebrows, the slant of her mouth. Unearned pity, misplaced concern. You used to think she was disappointed in you. You wonder now if maybe you were just more fucked up than you originally thought. Haha. Well. No surprise there, you guess.

"It's part of my brand," you say blandly, fold your hands over your stomach. Stay still. Don't fidget, she won't like that, it shows weakness. You wish you could leave this conversation. You'd pay good money for an escape route right about now.

She sighs, pats your leg. "That boy get off to bed alright?"

You stifle a yawn, bob your head in a lazy nod. "Finally. Took long enough."

"Hum, and I'm sure you were no help."

A shrug. "I do what I can."

A soft hoo, a fragile smile. You can't count the wrinkles around her eyes, and your chest feels heavy and sad. "'What you can' isn't what most people need, dear."

"I know that," you say. And you do. You've done an absolutely piss poor job of doing much at all since coming back to life. But fuck, what do you say to a kid who's lost everything? Or when that same kid, yet separate - and they're both yours, on top of it, as if that doesn't complicate the shit out of everything - became a god, a killer, a hero. You don't really have any right to be proud of that, Bro Strider. You really don't.

"You know," Jane says, loud enough to stir you from your thoughts, "being a sprite may make us privy to information of the known universe, at least in context relating to the Game, but it does not mean I know everything. I can't read minds, after all."

Your teeth clench so hard you can hear it in your ears. Stop. You take a deep breath, let out a shuddering sigh. Give in to the desire to rub your eyes. "I don't know what you want me to say."

She frowns, and there she is, that's your fighter. Its enough of an evil eye that you almost feel contrite. "Somehow I very much doubt that."

A sting in the back of your mind, laughter scraping across your brain. "Do you want me to say sorry again?"

Her hands tighten on the arms of her chair. "I don't recall you saying it a first time, Dietrich."

You snort, ground the heels of your hands into your eye. "Still not my name, Egbert."

She ignores you. "Roxy seems to think you feel as though you are beyond forgiveness. Do you truly think so litttle of yourself?"

Christ, she's relentless. You want to tell her to fuck off, but you can't. Shouldn't, anyway. The ridiculousness of this whole situation is not lost on you, and you laugh a little. "I don't need to worry about that. It's pretty clear exactly what kind of person I am, now."

"And what might that be?" she murmurs, but you can tell she doesn't want to hear the answer, is looking at you like - like you don't know.

You smile, wish for a cigarette. "A bad one."

She doesn't correct you, but her lips press together, and you know you've upset her again. Jane was always soft inside, even at her cruellest moments. She looks away, towards the fire place, where you know, through Dave, became her final resting place. "Despite what you may think, I was not perfect in my first life. Not everything I did was for the good of someone else, nor entirely myself. I daresay I spent a very good portion of that time being afraid. Of my mother, of myself and my potential."

You drop your hands, consider pulling the covers over your head. This is about ten times more honest and intimate than you generally like to be. "What are you trying to say?"

Jane's face is all pity, and she pats you on the leg again, gives a squeeze. "The world isn't black and white, dear. It's not a sin to seek forgiveness."

You hesitate, lick your lips. Indecision chokes you. "You don't think so?"

"Mm," Jane murmurs. "I've been on this planet long enough to see - to understand the meaning of true evil." She looks back at you thoughtfully, and there is kindness in her gaze that you do not feel you deserve. When she smiles, her teeth are still overly large, charmingly crooked. "And you're not evil, Dirk. Misguided, maybe. Cruel, perhaps." You wince. She moves closer to you, and you go completely, perfectly still. Keep your hands on your chest. Do not flinch when her fingers sweep the hair off your forehead. "But you are not evil."

You can't help it. You laugh. It's preposterous. Overworked. Evil versus... you don't know. Good, you guess. You're not even entirely sure you believe in any of that. You certainly don't remember any version of hell, anyway (green fire, barking dogs, sweat pooling at the base of your neck). It's not something you can really recall struggling with, so set on your preparations, making sure Dave would survive, so blinded by -
Nothing good.

There really isn't anyone you can talk to about this, nor (and isn't that just sad) would you want to.

"I appreciate the vote of confidence," you manage, when it's been a hot minute and you realize you haven't said anything.

"I don't think you actually believe me," she sighs, turns her chair towards the kitchen. "But I think you might learn to, one day."

You should've gotten Dave a fancy fucking wheelchair. God knows you can afford it. Would he want something like that? Kinda seems like he's moving towards some kind of recovery, although you're not entirely sure. Lil Crocker didn't seem like she could do anything about it, anyway. You don't know. Probably good for his arms, at least. Maybe?
"Where're you goin'?" you ask as an afterthought, tip your head so you can follow her path.

"I thought you might want to finish that glass of water before you head off to bed. If you're still trying to avoid a hangover."

There's a twinkle in her eyes you don't appreciate, and you grunt, don't say thanks.

You are not evil.

You don't know about that. But you kinda hope she's right.

 


You spend the entire trip trying to stay out of Lalonde and her boytoy's hair, and everyone's hair in general. You smoke some weed to deal with nerves you didn't realize you had until you hit your last one (and you should have noticed, given the current population to space ratio of the house), and Hass finally gets his tussle when the kids go out to the lake nearby (you don't trust the Egbert kid to drive, not for the life of you, but at least his car is automatic). You end up breaking the picnic table out back in half with an overenthusiastic piledriver. You worry for a moment that you've killed the old man, until he starts laughing so hard he hiccups, which is all good until he wraps his legs around your ankles, drops you to the ground and gets you in another headlock, where he proceeds to noogie the ever-loving shit out of you while the others do nothing to stop him (and honestly, you do very little to stop it, too).

You have a beer vs root beer chugging contest with Roxy while Egbert times you on the third day, and on the fourth day they finally leave you alone long enough that you put the telescope back together with Dirk (he mutters under his breath the whole time, you don't think he even realizes he's doing it).

You're almost relieved Lalonde is too fucking busy to pin you down with touchy-feely shit, because while she won't pressure you, Nanna's kindness has gotten increasingly more drastic in the past few nights. She gets you water from the kitchen, asks if you need to talk about anything, and when you finally snap at her to fuck off (figuratively, as if you even had the balls to tell the woman who could lift a fridge to fuck anywhere), she just sighs softly, pats your leg, and wheels off to bed.

You're starting to feel really weird about it.

Maybe a little guilty. You still can't talk to anyone, still don't really want to.


You like the peace and quiet when everyone finally goes to fucking sleep. When it's just you and the couch and the quiet creaks of the house settling. The oscillating fan in the corner spins and clicks, blowing cool air in predictable waves. It is almost enough to lull you to sleep. The anxiety medication probably helps. They never actually took you off them when they gave you proper AEDs. You're not worried about it.

Which is all and good, because you ARE starting to worry about Dave.

Not the god (though that's pretty fucked up, isn't it, that he can time travel and shit, and neither of you have talked about it because you're pretty sure - well you don't like to be wrong so you're not going to talk about it), and you should really come up with a better way to differentiate. "The one who fused with the sprite" is too fucked up, and you can't call them Thing 1 and Thing 2 because chronologically the one who WAS a sprite is Thing 1 and you don't think either of them would appreciate being Thing 2.

So whatever. You know which is which (not that the palette rearrangement and fucked up legs aren't a dead give away, but like fuck you'd say that to his face, you're not trying to make him hate you. Again. Or more, anyway).

And maybe you don't really have much right to be worrying about him, and you're not entirely sure when exactly the feeling started, but around day five, you begin to notice something... off. Again.

You notice because you're starting to get pissy, have been for days, and not enough cigarettes in the world could deal with your frayed fucking nerves. Every little thing everyone does is an irritant, every laugh and snort and shout is just. Fucking annoying.

You'd worry about your mini-me (not that you ever have, obviously, because that would be admitting you cared about - well you just wouldn't) if you didn't know for a fact (so embarrassing you want to crawl under a goddamn rock) that Dave and all his little friends are babying the absolute shit out of him. He can't possibly like that, how they tiptoe around him, leave him to his own devices (by your count) at least three times a day. But at least he gets some measure of peace and quiet. Lucky bastard.

So maybe you start fleeing to the roof again, even though you promised you wouldn't, and after you find Dave on the balcony, two days running, you decide maybe you should actually fucking talk to him. Instead of just. Jumping up to the place behind the chimney and kind of. Watching him?

Which, in retrospect, is probably super fucking creepy.

It's not like he's doing anything, just kinda sitting there. He brings out his phone, puts it away. You see him reach for the telescope, abort the motion. You don't think he even knows how one works. You never needed one in Houston.

There are about a hundred ways you could approach the situation, but dropping down behind him silently and saying, "I could show you how it works, if you want," is probably nowhere near the list marked 'acceptable'.

He shouts, because who fucking wouldn't, and isn't it comically like Dave, to have an extra sword lodged in his sylladex, which goes flying over the balcony railing and embeds itself in the tree. Just barely missed the tire swing, which is probably a good thing. What the fuck is it with Dave and his swords?

What you say is, "You still carrying around that piece of crap sword?" You can't pretend you don't recognize it, that you aren't acutely aware it is the same sword he drew from his sternum like it was a scabbard (and that, alone, unsettles you now, makes your chest ache in a way you cannot explain). Even if you didn't spot it by the curve of the blade, you'd know that sword; you can see from the balcony that it, too, is tinted the color of your eyes.

"Jesus fucking Christ," he sighs, when he realizes it's just you. You wait for him to process what you said, watch him wince and clear his throat. "I guess I didn't think about - it's just kind of -"

"It was a part of you," you say, not unkindly. You fold yourself down on the floor beside his chair, hope he feels less threatened with you positioned lower to the ground. Your height can be a lot, you know.

"Yeah," he mumbles, picks at the peeling vinyl of the left arm. You reach out and smack his little pizza hands. It shouldn't be that beat up already, and the fact that it is means he's formed a bad fucking habit which you have no qualms about stopping. "Ow, Bro!"

"Knock it off."

"Dude fuck you, this is my wheelchair, you didn't even pay for it! If I wanna make it look shitty for fun and irony that's my own damn business." It's a low blow on his part, but he's only a little right.

"I ain't buying you a new chair just so you can ruin it twice as fast as this one. Stop pickin' at it."

He purses his lips, hides a scowl behind those shades. You can see the wrinkle in his brow. "You're an ass."

"Takes one to know one," you say, like a hypocrite. He huffs and you hide a smile. It is not inherently easy for you, to have this relationship with him. Looking at Dave - any Dave, at this point - for too long makes part of your brain go a little funny, a pinprick of a headache trying to form behind the eyes. You push back against it because fuck, it's just Dave. You raised the kid, sort of, and you definitely messed it up, but you still... like him, you think. He's funny. A little shitty. It's cool. He's a Strider. Being a little shitty is just part of the deal.

He huffs, grabs his wheels like he's thinking about taking off, doesn't. Nerves, then.

"Hey," you murmur, bump your knuckles against the hand you can reach. "What's up. Why aren't you inside chilling with the goon squad?"

You shouldn't have asked. Or maybe you should have. Dave's mask breaks open and leaves both of you so completely vulnerable that you nearly abscond for lack of desire at this blatant display of parent-child bullshit. You are the well-meaning sitcom father figure, it is you.

He drops his gaze and chews on his lip. You are used to the way Dave fidgets. He gets it from you, you know. Cracking knuckles, drumming fingers. Poorly managed anxiety, uselessness during moments of quiet, only still and perfect and poised when fighting, when trying desperately not to

Well you did that, didn't you?

He puts his hands in his lap, fingers twisting around each other. You can see the freckles on his knuckles, how they match the ones that used to cover your own. "I uh. I just feel weird, sometimes."

You hum, try not to dwell on whatever the fuck that means. Almost everything this kid says throws you for a loop. What are you supposed to say to that? Everyone feels weird sometimes? No that's a sex talk thing. I feel weird all the time? He'd laugh, agree, but it wouldn't help. "Kid, you're gonna have to be more specific."

He snorts, hand moving towards the chair arm again before thinking better. Good, he's learning. "I don't know why you care so much."

Fuck. Okay. This is getting a little... Hm. You battle your brain, hard. I don't, you want to say, though it is patently untrue. Kinda. You're at least invested in his well-being, if nothing else. "It's my job," you say, and it's not a lie, but it doesn't come across nearly as gentle as you would've liked.

He must know that, too, because Dave jerks his head up to look at you, and even behind shades it's accusatory.

"You're my kid, Dave," you clarify. "When you're upset it makes me -" Don't grind your teeth, you big idiot. Stop being an asshole. You squeeze your eyes shut briefly, adjust your shades so you can rub at them a bit. There's no way he didn't catch that. Don't freak out. Don't fuck this up. "I worry about you. Am worried. You looked..." But you don't know, because you couldn't see his face from the roof when you were, y'know, creeping on him. "You look kinda shitty, honestly."

He lets out an ugly bark of laughter. "Wow, thanks. As if I'm not already a self-conscious teen struggling with his identity, now on top of that I look like SHIT and it's apparently fucking obvious to everyone I even remotely interact with."

Aw fuck, you fucked it up. "That's not what I meant, Dave. 'N I'm pretty sure you know that."

"Maybe." He drops his head back, knocks it into the chair a couple times. "I don't know what's wrong with me. It's not even that they're ignoring me, because they're not? Fuck, Dirk's friends are even going out of their way to ask me to chill with them? And shit with Jade is really weird but she acts like she likes having me around, like even when Dave is right there she'd still rather talk to me? Or something? Or she at least doesn't stop talking to me just cuz he shows up. I shouldn't feel like a complete social reject but I..." Dave is growing again, both of them, and his height doesn't lend itself well to small space, but you get the feeling that if he wasn't stuck in his chair, he'd probably curl his knees to his chest.

"Hey," you say, and you reach out, god awful slow, god awful careful, and grab his wrist. Give a lil tug. "C'mon, come on down here, get your ass outta that chair a hot minute. I know you ain't done shit since we got here. Stretch your gangly little legs. Unless you're going to physical therapy behind all our backs or something. Got yourself a fancy new Washington doctor who drives a Prius or some shit."

"Fuck you," Dave says, but it's half-hearted. He acquiesces after a beat, settles in next to you with his legs folded up and his spine bent in a C-curve. You can hardly criticize him for it, it's not like you're the prime example of good posture.

You hesitate a moment too long to complete the gesture but fuck it, you're here, you may as well do something. You put a hand between his shoulders, touch light as you can, and give a single back and forth motion. Good ol' "there there, it'll be alright," before retreating.

Apparently it wasn't the right thing to do, because Dave freezes, still like a marble statue, and stares at you like you've grown a second head.

You sigh, take off your shades. It's dark out here and both of you look cool as shit, but he's not going to remove them if you don't do something first. You never did very well, leading by example. "Listen, Dave," you start, and then you have nothing to say.

You have nothing you feel you deserve to say. Dave was Bro-less for three years, he's made it this far. He's the only one who watched you die, he's the first person you've yelled at in at least ten years, and he's. He's your shitty little kid brother and you -

You don't want him to feel like garbage, but you don't know what to say. What are you allowed to say?

"You don't have to try'n give me some pep talk about like. How my feelings or valid, or how good a person I am or some shit," Dave says, but he sounds... Well. You can't say "like shit" again. That'd be really fucking rude.

You also can't say you're surprised, because you've been watching him pick and tear at himself for months, watched him spiral, come up for air, and do it all over again. Maybe you recognize it because it feels familiar. Maybe because you've never known him well enough to notice. You hope it's the former because the latter hurts a part of you, deep inside.

He picks at the lace of his beatup sneakers. Jesus dicks, okay, you should definitely take them shopping. Never mind that you fucking hate it. There's no way in hell you bought him those shoes, which means he had to have borrowed them from mini-you, and that's just an embarrassing oversight on your part. Get it together, Bro.

"Dunno if I'd go that far," you say, but you keep it light. Don't want him thinking it's a genuine criticism of his character. You are acutely aware of how he feels about you, in general. The fear, the discomfort. Anything resembling a rebuke from you will be taken twice as harsh as it's intended, and you're not looking to make this situation worse than it already is. "Kid, I'll be honest with you, it kinda sounds like you're feeling pretty depressed, and that's not really something I'm equipped to -"

"I know," he snaps, cutting you off, and you don't cut him down to size.

Take a moment, bite back a retort. This is about Dave right now. You ARE the well-intentioned sitcom dad, you WILL be supportive. So instead of saying more, you stay quiet, know that with Dave, sometimes all it takes is a little time.

In this instance, you barely count forty-three seconds.

"Sorry," he grumbles, drags his knees to his chest. "It's really dumb. I just feel bad. I don't know why. Is that lame?"

"All feelings are lame," you say.

Fuck, no, shit, that's not what you wanted to say. If Roxy heard you say that she'd pound the snot out of you.

"I mean, they're not, fuck, I shouldn't have said that, why would you even listen to me." You scramble for the right words, something, anything. Think appropriate, parental. "It's not lame. That's some serious shit, if you're struggling with. With feeling happy or whatever?" You move your hand to run it through your hair, remember your hat, adjust the bill instead. "Fuck, Dave, I'm not exactly an expert here. But no kid should be feelin' like that. S'okay that you do, though," you add, just in case.

Dave stares at you, pushes his shades up after a moment. Then he snorts, and you see his mouth crook up at the corner. "Yeah. Thanks, Bro."

You hum, look away. Consider the sword jammed in the tree, the sunny glow it casts across the bark. Maybe you should get Dave a non-word based modus for his birthday. Something. He's gonna get hurt one of these days. Or. You don't know. Worse? You think both of you have already been through "worse".

You see him start picking at his laces again in your peripherals. "We don't have to talk about it if you don't wanna," he mumbles, just loud enough for you to hear him. Kid hasn't changed a lick in that respect.

Goddammit.

"Dave," you start, sigh heavy out your nose. "I'm here, aren't I?"

"Uh. Uh, yeah." Uncomfortable shift, the scuff of his shoes across the balcony, his knuckles cracking one by one. "Sometimes I just feel - well I feel like we already kinda hashed it out? But I still feel like shit about it. Not all the time," he says hastily, before you can speak (You should've known better - it's fucking Dave, after all.) "Okay this sounds like - it sounds dumb, even in my head, but sometimes I look at them and think 'this is great, but that's not my John, that's not my Jade. These aren't my friends'. Twice over on the Jade thing now, on top of everything. I'm like." His breath hitches and you go very, very still. "I feel like a game piece that got left over. Why did I get spit out? What use am I if there's already - I mean I like Dave, right? Kinda. He's a dick. Don't know if you noticed." He looks at you and yeah, he's starting to look a little wobbly around the edges. You are in the salt water splash zone and you didn't buy your Sea World poncho on entry. Fuck that was stupid. Fuck you're an idiot.

"Can't imagine where he gets it," you say, manage to maintain some level of cool. You really don't want him to notice you freaking out. You cannot freak out in front of him, not right now. "You really need to stop this secondary Dave bullshit," you tell him, and hope it doesn't come across half as cruel as usual. You remember trying to suggest him sleeping in his own bed, how that dissolved into such a fucking mess it kept you up for three days. You missed Cal a lot, then. Hated him more, probably.

"I know," he groans, presses the heels of his hands into his eyes. Heh. Can't imagine where he gets it. "But it's not that, I think? I mean sometimes I just feel like shit for no good reason." And fuck, ain't that relatable. "It's just. Everyone I knew in my timeline is dead. It feels bad. I feel bad. I miss them? Maybe? I don't know. They're my friends, but they're not." Dave drops his head, bonks it against his knees. "Sometimes I think maybe things'd be better if I just... wasn't here."

Fuck. Fuck.

"Hey," you say, gruffer than you mean to be, drop your hand heavy on his head. He flinches a little, but you think you'll both get over it. "Don't fuckin' - don't talk like that. Shit's not okay. Dunno how many times I gotta tell you, kid, you're the real as fuck Dave. Don't matter if there's two of you. There's two of me, ain't there?"

Dave almost laughs. "I don't know if Dirk has done enough to deserve that."

You ignore him because wow, rude. Truth aside. "Thing is, kiddo, sprite or no sprite, tail or no tail. You're still my Dave. You'll always be my Dave."

"But you're not my Bro," he says immediately, and.

And fuck, if that ain't just a punch in the gut, a fracture in the part of you that's already damaged. You do not have to fight back anger, or loathing, or anything this time, because you are so. So deeply overcome with whatever emotion this is that you flounder. You are a man of few words, during the best of times. A man of distressingly, cruelly plenty, at the worst of times.

But his words shatter your heart so bad you can hear it break inside your chest.

You finally manage a soft, "Oh," take your hand back, place both of them on your knees because uh. Because. You don't know.

"Not that I don't want you to be!" he all but shouts. He grabs the sleeve of your shirt with so much force he practically punches you. "Bro, I didn't mean - fuck, I really didn't mean for that to sound like - shit fuck, I really. You are Bro, I mean obviously you are, I don't know what I'm fucking talking about, I don't -"

The alarm on his face is so uncomfortably comical you don't even know what to say. A part of you you almost don't recognize softens, just a fraction. You grab his hand, gently, gently, pry it free from your shirt. "I know, Dave. It's okay." You're at fault here, too. You should have thought more about. Fuck, his feelings, you guess. You kinda forget he's not from this timeline, either. He was the only Dave, once. He had his own Bro, once. Wonder what happened to the bastard, to leave him all alone. (You have a pretty good idea.) "I'm sorry too, okay? I ain't out here trying to pressure you into - well whatever that was." You don't know what to do with his hand like this, so you drop it back in his lap, try not to fall into the pattern of looking away just because you can't handle healthy connection with another human being. That's all on you.

His eyes make you so uncomfortable, orange over red, too light to be his, too dark to be yours. He's sad, he's a little afraid, you think. He feels like he fucked up, you KNOW you fucked up. You're the adult here. You have to be. "We'll figure it out," you say lamely. Don't say, I want to be your Bro, too.

"Yeah," Dave says, and you think he gets it, even if he looks all wobbly again. "Yeah, I wanna - yeah."

You really fucking suck at this. You offer a fist bump and almost feel normal when he takes it.

You need to try harder.

Chapter Text

You’re all leaving on Monday, with only a little under ten days until the start of the next school year. You’re not really looking forward to it. In the meantime, you have all been trying to squeeze as much summer vacation into the last week as physically possible.

You go to the pool, then the lake, then the pool again. You eat a shit ton of pizza, play a crap ton of video games. On Friday you drive into Seattle and Bro shells out way too much fucking money for you all to ride up to the top of the Space Needle in an elevator older than everyone but maybe Nanna and Grandpa. You aren’t afraid of heights, never have been, but looking out across the city, the sound, you miss your wings.

You’re definitely too old for the children’s museum, but you stare enviously down at the fake dinosaurs while you eat lunch in the Seattle Center.

Dad, watching all of you while Mom and Bro fuck off to take a break somewhere else (probably doing something illegal, you can never tell with them), says, “Don’t even think about it,” as if you would dare. Which, to be fair, okay, you would, but you’d be up and out before they ever caught you. Well YOU wouldn’t. Dave probably could, if he really wanted to, and he’s you, so he probably does.

On Saturday you go to the mall like a bunch of red-blooded American kids, which would be hell, except that John’s plan is actually to convince you to go to the tiniest movie theater you’ve ever seen to watch, of all godforsaken things, Ghostbusters 2.

“They were playing the first one earlier,” he explains, laughing, “but it was already sold out.”

It’s. Okay, you guess. You get to sit in the fancy seats that are “reserved”, though you only invite Jane and Roxy to sit with you, and Dave boos and throws popcorn at your head until the girls, laughing, throw it back. (It’s not worth it, because in the end Jane and Rose won’t let you leave the screening until it’s all picked up, though you convince Jake that you can’t possibly be of any help, and none of his friends bother to tell him you’re full of shit, so he ends up with your share of the work, what a fucking gentleman.)


Dirk finally manages to fix up Jane’s robobunny, and you are only slightly horrified and amazed to find it has its own miniature katana. It (he, they remind you) finds her as soon as activated, and you have never seen Dirk smile so much as he does when she sees him, squeezes him (his name is Lil Sebastian, you know) to her chest and laughs. Relief, delight. She hugs Dirk, after, and you watch him go bright fucking magenta, share a look with Dave. You shoulda had a camera ready, he’s never going to let you catch him off-guard like this again.

Bro’s face when he sees the rabbit for the first time is absolutely priceless. There’s a moment where you think he’s going to dropkick him, when Lil Seb scampers up to him, curious, leaves him standing frozen in the doorway. “What the fuck.”

“His name is Lil Sebastian,” Dirk sighs, sounds more annoyed than anything. Maybe it’s just Bro, maybe it’s that embarrassing as fuck name that you can’t bash because Jane gave it to him and they have some kind of... thing about it you guess? Whatever.

And then Bro’s expression softens ever so slightly, mouth ticking up at the corner. He scoops up the rabbit right before it can test its new katana on his leg (Dirk insists he’s still working out the kinks but it seems pretty intent on perceiving the dude as a threat, in your opinion). He gives him a look over, and you’ve never seen Bro exam anything that closely that wasn’t graced with a bulbous ass or foam nose. He lets out an appreciative hum, gives a short nod. “Heavier than I thought he’d be. Not lithium powered, then.”

“Yeah, because it’s fucking URANIUM,” Dave says, tone accusatory, while Dirk looks heavenward and pinches the bridge of his nose.

“Dave, I told you, it’s not a big deal. Jane said in doses this small we won’t develop super cancer until long after everyone in the known universe dies.”

“I definitely didn’t say that,” Jane protests weakly.

Bro drops Lil Seb to the ground immediately, though the bunny lands on his feet. “You made a mini Chernobyl waiting to happen, is what you’re tellin’ me.”

Dirk’s mouth curls down, and you see his jaw clench tight. “Technically -”

“It’s okay, really,” Jane says quickly, and she speeds forward, grabs Lil Seb up gently. He wiggles free and climbs until he’s perched on her shoulder like a parrot. “I haven’t noticed any kind of negative reactions without direct contact to his core, although I have a feeling that has a lot to do with his protective candy coating, wouldn’t you agree, Mr. Strider?”

“Uh,” Dirk says, and you watch him relax a little, shoulders lowering from their defensive curl. Jane is a straight-up Dirk whisperer and none of you give her enough credit. You’ve never seen him so speechless in your life. “Yeah, it’s. Yeah.”

Bro hums, regarding both of them, and then gives a slow nod, makes a hasty retreat across the room towards the front door. He pauses for a second, and you think he’s going to say something, but changes his mind at the last minute.

Dave sighs when the door slams closed behind him. “I would almost kinda love like, five seconds of narration for what goes on in that guy’s head.”

“No,” you say around a snort, a crooked smile, “you really wouldn’t.”

 

“Hey Dave?” John whispers to you after dinner, and he looks a little uncomfortable. It’s your worst goddamn nightmare, this weird look he’s giving you, and the fact that you’ve been cool for the past week doesn’t seem to have lessened the awkward tension between you. “Can I talk to you about something? In, um, private?”

You are currently experiencing what scientists of the future will call “OH FUCK” syndrome, anxiety pouring off of you in what you’re pretty sure is palpable waves, but the only sound you can make is a strangled, “Uh-huh.”

He grins, doesn’t give you anything else, and then turns to your friends. “Dave and I are going to buy ice cream for everyone. No need to thank us, it’s hard work but someone’s gotta do it! Any flavor requests?”

It turns out they do, in fact, have flavor requests, but Dirk doesn’t say anything at all, is staring directly at you over Jake’s shoulder in a way that’s a little unnerving.

He tips his head to the side and you understand, give a half-hearted shrug, shake your head an inch. You’re not happy, but it’s cool. Probably?

List in hand, you head towards the door, wonder if John even remembers he’s got to pop the trunk for your chair, that you can fold it yourself but can’t quite lock it into place without help when you’re sitting in the passenger seat. Fuck this is stupid.

And then you feel bad for doubting him, because of course he’s been watching Bro or someone else do it for a week, and he doesn’t even ask as you crawl into the seat, has it folded up and is hauling it into the trunk without a word.

Uh. Whoa.

You feel warmth spread in your chest, then you feel like you’re giving him to much credit, and then you come back around to feeling guilty for not trusting him in the first place.

“Thanks,” you say anyway, when he trots back around and climbs into the front seat. He deserves that, at least.

John grins at you, rolls his eyes. “Duh, you’re welcome. It’s not like you would do it yourself, even if you could.”

Your hand tenses on the buckle but you know he’s just messing around, that you’re being jumpy for no reason, so you say, “Yeah you’re probably right. What kind of dapper gentleman  would you be if I didn’t let you give me the proper treatment a lady of my caliber deserves?”

He just snorts at you and starts the car. “I know it’s too dark for you to see with your silly shades on, but just know, I am absolutely rolling my eyes at you again. Right now.”

People keep doing things for you, and you keep being surprised. Maybe it’s because you - You don’t know. Isolated yourself? For so long? Under a maybe (you’re starting to realize) misguided pretext that they didn’t want you around in the first place. John called you Dave first, didn’t he? He still does, even thought it gets confusing and you

You don’t know.

You feel like you’re rationalizing how shitty things were. You’re still workings through some stuff, you guess.

You want it to be better now, anyway.

He keeps glancing at you on the way to the store. You kinda thought maybe it was a ruse, just trying to get you alone, that you’d sit in the driveway for a few minutes, and when you came back empty-handed you’d be in on some kind of joke. But John has always been genuine that way, you guess. He’s no stalwart skeptic, not like Jane, but he’s got a pretty solid head on those shoulders.

“If you’ve got something to say you should say it, dude,” you finally tell him, when the glances increase to three-and-five second intervals and you start to get uncomfortable. “Your hasty lil glances are only cute in romantic subplots and the trashy novels your grandma read at night when she thought no one was lookin’.”

“Gross! Nanna does not read -”

“How would you know?” You smirk when he snaps his mouth closed, and even though it was kinda dickish, you give yourself a point on the board anyway.

John huffs, bites his lip with his big dumb teeth. It’s dark in the car, quiet. The roads that make loops around his neighborhood are quiet, empty during the dinner hour, and the two of you steal peeks across the center console in the dim light provided by streetlight after streetlight. You wonder when it got so hard for you to talk to other people. Or at least, to John. You kinda wish he’d turn on some music or. Or something. What do they even listen to in Washington? Do they have radio stations? I mean, duh, of course, they gotta. Duh. You bet they don’t have Que Buena live from Houston goddamn Texas though. Fucking shameful, right there.

“Um,” he finally says, bites his cheek. John’s jaw is squarer than you remember, or maybe it’s not, and you really are further out of the loop than you thought. He really is starting to look like Jake, though, haha. Cleaner shaven, though. Jake’s pathetic boy-whiskers have been the source of many a “right bullying” since your trip began.

“Hey,” you interrupt, and he looks at you briefly. “Remember the fist time you shaved on the ship?”

John snorts. “I remember you being a huge dick about it, is what I remember.” But he’s smiling. “That’s back when you were still using your sprite powers all the time.”

“Yeah.” Shit was still fun, then. You and Jade had started dating that year, and you guys were still playing shitty games together. “It’s not my fault you couldn’t read an entire book in less than five minutes by absorbing it magically, y’know. You and Jade both, reading like 250 words per minute like a couple’a chumps. Fuckin’ embarrassing if you ask me. Someone had to pick up the slack.”

“Heh,” he says. “I think you’re just mad because you didn’t have anything to read anymore after that second year. We stopped playing board games that year too, huh? I wonder if we just got tired of doing the same thing over and over.”

“Yeah,” and fuck, no, Dave, stop, “or maybe it’s because after Jade and I broke up you stopped talking to me pretty much full fucking stop.” Fuck, shit, you didn’t mean to say that. You squeeze your eyes shut tight. Idiot idiot idiot.

John frowns, squeezes the wheel in both hands. “Um. Okaaaay, I didn’t mean to make you mad again. If I knew you wanted to play games and stuff I would have -”

“I didn’t,” you snap. “There was no point. I knew all the rules. It felt like cheating every time I fucking ground you guys to dust at Clue, of all things.”

“Then why did you bring it up!” He throws up a hand before returning it quickly to proper steering position. Perfect little boyscout, over here. “I’m sorry things sucked so hard for you, being a bird-sprite person, and I”m really tired of fighting with you, Dave! It’s terrible and I hate it!”

“I know,” you sigh, grind your hands into your eyes. “Shit, I know, dude, but you can’t keep blaming shit on me being part bird. I’m not even doing that anymore. Or, I never did.”

“But I don’t know how to handle your -” He flaps his hand vaguely. “Your whatever it is you’re trying to do here? I’ll be honesty dude I don’t actually get what you’re picking a fight about right now?”

“I don’t know.” You drag your hands down your face, hide there and try to breathe for a moment. “I don’t know. Maybe I’m just trying to sabotage whatever you wanna talk about now because I don’t want to talk about my feelings later? It’s not a big deal, s’not like you ever cared before.”

“I would have if you let me!” John all but shouts, slaps his hands against the wheel for lack of anything else to do. It lets out a horrible groan.

Uh.

“John.”

“No one ever told me anything because you all thought I was sooooo immature! That I’d freak out if you said anything at all.”

“John, uh -”

“You two always kept secrets from me, it was so lame. Dude, Jade didn’t even want to tell me when you guys broke up. I had to like. Bug her into it.” The smell of ozone fills the car, like rain before a lightning strike. Sharp. Clear.

He’s not listening, you don’t think he even realizes he’s doing it. “John -”

“You became a sprite and you knew everything - or you thought you did, and.” You pull up to the stop sign and all the fight goes out of him in a single beat, his shoulders dropping, his grip slackening. He sighs so hard you can practically see the air roll across the dashboard, rolls his head to look at you. “And you were so fucking mean, Dave.”

He’s - he’s right. You were. You were downright nasty to John sometimes, even when you didn’t really mean to be. You did a lot of shit you regret now, and you can hardly say “sorry, I was going through some shit!” even if you were. “I -” you choke. “I know. I was just. Frustrated. You guys always acted like I was just some extra asshole along for the ride. She and I were sprites together and it - it wasn’t fair. You and Jade were godtier and I was just.” You drop your head, pinch your lips. Fuck. “I was just Davesprite. I was stuck there. I felt alone.”

“But it wasn’t just us, Dave,” and he’s not trying to be an asshole. You know John better than he’d like, and he can be an absolute idiot, but he’s rarely cruel on purpose. Asshole, yes, but never cruel. “We had Nanna. And Jaspers too, I guess?”

Your teeth grind together so hard you can hear your jaw squeak. “That’s my other point.”

“What?”

“Nanna. Jaspers. The fucking cat. But I was always Davesprite. Or Dave Sprite.”

He mouth flaps uselessly for a second. “You asked people to call you that!”

“Because I didn’t feel like I deserved to be Dave!” And now you’re throwing your arms up and it’s a fucking disaster.

“What do you want me to do, Dave? I’m trying to make up but I feel like you’re making it really hard.”

“I know,” you groan, bury your face in your hands again. “I’m sorry.” You really thought you could stop doing this after you all apologized the other day, but you guess you’re kind of a mess. You should have known better.

“I just,” John starts, trails off a second. He doesn’t sound mad at you, doesn’t look angry at all, when you raise your head Wind tickles the edge of his bangs and you suppress a shiver as cold air brushes against your neck. “I don’t get it, Dave. Like, my dad died, too. I had to bury him. My own dad. And your Bro, and Rose’s mom, too. And that sucked.”

You know. You remember. They both laughed at Bro’s funeral. You bite down on that. “It was really fucking gross, for sure.”

“But we didn’t respond to that by being huge assholes to everyone else,” he says, and you get the idea he means it lightly. There is a veritable air current in the car now, and you feel a little uncomfortable. Or more uncomfortable, anyway.

“I mean,” you say, even thought you shouldn’t, “you kinda did. You forgot me every time I turned my back for five seconds. For three years.”

He lets out a startled, mostly humorless laugh. “Dude are you serious? You hid in your room half the time! We couldn’t even find you!”

“Maybe because I was fucking depressed? Dude? I felt like shit. You really didn’t notice me sleeping ninety percent of the time?”

He knocks his head back against the seat. “What do you want me to say?”

And for a moment, you don’t know. He already (kinda) apologized to you for shit being crazy. He’s still John (not your John), he’s still your best friend (he’s Dave’s best friend), and you still desperately want - you don’t know. Something. You want everything to be okay. “I want you to admit that even though I sucked, maybe you sucked just as much.” Welp.

“You made fun of my dead dad, Dave!” He’s gripping the wheel again. It groans ominously. Wind starts to whip up around both of you, and the windows shake a little. You scramble to grip the door handle in a panic. You’ve never seen him this out of control.

“John -”

He doesn’t fucking notice, because of course he doesn’t, he’s too busy throwing a goddamn tantrum while you’re trapped in a confined space together, sitting in the middle of the road like a couple of assholes.

“I know you were time hopping or whatever but it was one day for me before the ship. One fucking day!” The wheel shudders.

“John, pull over.”

“I couldn’t even save him because my powers are useless!”

A crack appears on the driver’s side window.

“John! Pull over! You need to stop -”

“You weren’t the only one mourning someone, Dave!”

Glass can break at about a mile a second, and you are already too late by the time “No!” makes it out of your mouth.

Everything happens in bullet time. The sound of cracking, shattering. Your hands, stretched out on both sides, an automatic, foolish reaction. John, curling his arm up to cover his face, steering wheel still tight in his grasp.

With your fingers outstretched, you feel energy flood your veins, like the first time you traveled in the medium, like when you helped Dave, like when you were Dave, still Just Dave, and it radiates outwards like a pulse as the windows explode in a million pieces, and everything in the car but you and John goes completely still.

The first thing you notice is that the shards of glass, frozen midair, remind you of snow. The second is that John is clutching the steering wheel to his chest, and that he has somehow pulled it completely out of the socket.

“Uh,” John says.

“Uh,” you say.

“What the fuck,” he whispers, and he’s the first to move, reaches out to move away some of the fragments that were about to blast him in the face. They don’t resist, but also don’t fall away at his touch, not even when you drop your hands, dumbfounded.

“Uh,” you say again

“What, uh,” he giggles nervously. “What’s going on there?”

You have no fucking clue. You’re not godtier, you’re not any kind of tier as far as you know, and you haven’t done any version of time traveling since you became a sprite, if you don’t count whatever the fuck you did that night back in July. But you’re not a sprite anymore, you guess, so.

“I don’t know,” you say weakly. You should both get out of the car, push it out of the street or, or clear the glass away before you hurt yourselves or. Something? You need to do something. You have no idea what. A nervous laugh. You just froze time.

John is still holding the wheel at eight and four. “Can you like. Fix it?”

“No,” you say immediately. Wince. “Maybe? No, I don’t know. I don’t have my timetables, and I’m not - I’m not a god.”

“Then how the fuck are we supposed to ...” John holds up his wheel in both hands and you start laughing. It’s not even - well okay it’s pretty funny. You’re not sure if you’re the one keeping the airbags from going off but you kind of fucking hope so.

“Dude,” you say, snorts muffled behind your hand, “hell if fucking I know.”

He sighs, head dropping. “This was all really ridiculous, huh?”

“Yeah,” you say, but you don’t feel as stressed now. The wind is gone, the smell of wet asphalt all that’s really left of his tantrum. “You know that was you, right?”

“Umm, yeah,” he says slowly, mouth twisting down. “I mean. I’ve been trying to control it for awhile, but honestly I haven’t had much luck."

You guess you can get that. Well you can't. You and Dave didn't know either of you could do anything until it was happening. John is... Well. Powerful, for one goddamn thing. Terrifying, for another. "Does your dad know?"

"No," he says immediately. "I don't really want to worry them with all this. It’s not like it was in the game, you know? Things are... different. The air is different.” He looks at you. “Does that make sense?”

“No,” you tell him, and his face falls, so you backpedal. “I mean, I was always the Time guy, I never learned shit about other aspects, John. Fuck do I know about your little windsock-based hurricane bullshit? Fucking nothing, is what. You think they let you keep all your knowledge when you stop being a sprite? Absolutely fucking not. I’m a certified idiot, good luck, you’re on your own, kid.”

John cracks a grin, looks down at his hands. “Dad is gonna ground me for an eternity for this.”

“Unless we can fix it,” you say.

“Unless we can fix it,” he agrees, and you wait for him to catch the drift. “Oh - oh, shit! Yeah!” He scrambles for his phone and you wince when he almost gets his whole face sliced open by hovering death shards, grab his hand before you can stop yourself. He gives you this curious look and you clear your throat, look away.

“Sorry. The glass is - just be careful, alright?”

You have never been particularly strong against that crooked smile, the shine in his blue eyes, and you scowl when he laughs.

“Wooowwww, Dave, don’t make it too obvious you care about me, someone might see you doing something nice for once.”

“Dude, Egbert, fuck off,” you mumble, but he laughs even when you rip your hand back and shove him a little.


The car is quiet while you two wait. John is staring at the wheel like he might try to put it back on, while you try to count the speckles of glass that hang millimeters from your eyes. It’s kinda bullshit, really. You can freeze such a small area in time, but you can’t do anything else. Can’t fucking unfreeze it, that’s for damn sure. You hope you don’t make a habit of this. You’re not really up for the responsibility of having like. Actual time powers in whatever context that means outside the game. This is - well, calling it the real world seems lame. It’s something. It’s supposed to be your happy ending, you guess. Or Dave’s, anyway.

“Hey. John,” you say, in a pathetic attempt to distract yourself.

“Mm?”

“What did you want to talk to me about? Before I fucked it all up.”

He lets out a puff of air that’s not quite a laugh. “You didn’t fuck it up all by yourself. It’s my fault too. For saying those things about you being a bird, or not being a bird or whatever. Being depressed - like, really depressed? That sounds like a pretty big deal, and like it was really hard for you to deal with, and stuff.”

“It still is,” you say softly, though you don’t mean to.

He nods, and his smile is weak. “I know shit was pretty messed up with your bro. Well. I didn’t really know, before. But I guess I kinda do, now. I shouldn’t have said those things about him versus my dad. It wasn’t ever a competition.”

“Yeah,” you mumble, let out a shuddering breath. “There’s an awful good chance that I was pretty bitter about how good you had it with your dad, even though you guys all complained and stuff. They really loved you and - anyway, it doesn’t matter. I’m sorry, John. Again. For everything that happened there.”

He reaches out and you almost flinch away, go completely still when he grabs your hand, gives it a little squeeze before retreating. “Me too. I’m sorry. I, uh, did fuck up - well a lot, actually? But especially with you. And how you’re just Dave - and you always were, and somewhere in there I acted like I forgot that, and that’s my fault too. I’m sorry dude.”

There is something just absolutely liberating about being “Just Dave”, even if it’s coming three years late, even if you and him have been really shitty to each other. It feels good. It feels. Well. It feels right, again. Maybe for the first time in a long time. “Bros?” You offer a fist.

He gives you a toothy grin, and you squash down the warmth that floods through you when he bumps you back. Not right now, loser. “C’mon, man, always.”

“So what was it?” you ask again. You figure it couldn’t have been any of the shit you just laid bare. He said he was tired of fighting, and fuck you are too, and you two couldn’t have possible talked about Jade without dissolving into bickering, so again, unlikely.

“I dunno if it’s really -”

Sigh. You are so tired of this. “Dude, just fucking tell me.”

“I want to take Jade and Jake ice skating,” he blurts, and the car goes completely silent.

You cannot help the laugh that bubbles out of your mouth. You know immediately exactly why he didn’t want to say it in front of everyone else, and that doesn’t make it any less stupid. “Hahaha,” comes out before you can stop it. “Are you fucking kidding me? All this trouble for that?”

“Dave, shut up, I’m serious,” he groans. “I didn’t want to hurt your feelings on account of - of, you know, the uhhh..”

You grin like an absolute shit head. “On account’a what, John? Why did you think I’d be bothered, John?”

“Ugh, Dave, come on, shut up.” He hides his face, peeks at you between fingers. “It doesn’t bug you?”

“Nah,” you say, and you shrug. You get it. You know why he’s worried. But you’ve never been ice skating anyway, so what do you care? Bro had you running ragged near every goddamn day, but skating was never on the syllabus. “I don’t know how, even if I could. It’d be embarrassing as fuck.” You pause, think about it. “I reckon watching Dave eat shit is going to be pretty hilarious, though.”

“That’s not the point, Dave,” he says, and when you frown, quirk a brow, he doesn’t quite laugh. “Seriously? Oh my god.” John rubs his eyes, drags them down his face. “It’s not the fact that you don’t know how. It’s that we’re going to do something you can't do. I didn’t ask because I was worried you might not know how and it’d be embarrassing. Even if you don’t want to, your feelings matter, dude. If we go you’d either be staying home or like. Coming with and sitting on the sidelines. I don’t want that to be a big point of contention between us. Does that make sense? So you’re sure it doesn’t bother you?”

You open your mouth. Close it. That’s. Probably the most considerate anyone has ever been to you since. Well, ever, really. At least as long as you’ve been a sprite, maybe longer. It’s definitely the fucking nicest John’s been to you, personally. You choke on a reply. “Uh. Yeah, I don’t.” You shouldn’t feel this emotional. It’s silly. It’s not a big deal. You don’t want it to be a big deal. You’ve never wanted any of this to be a big deal. “It’s fine. I don’t care that much. I mean,” because you do, actually, and if you lie you’ll just fight again. “I guess I care, a little. It sucks, because that’s something I don’t think I’m ever going to be able to do? Who knows. But uh. Nah. Nah, man, let’s do it. Show those island bums a good fucking time, watch everyone fall on their asses for a good hour or whatever.”

John laughs, part relief, part mischief. “Do you think Rose has ever gone before?”

You snort. “Please, Rose “perfect at everything” Lalonde? I’m sure she has medals, dude.”

“I don’t know about that,” he says, almost like he knows something you don’t, but you don’t care enough to ask. You’re not falling into another trap of Egbertian make, not again. “So it’s cool?” he asks again.

“John,” you say, slowly, so he gets it, “if you ask me a-fucking-gain, I’m going to punch you. And it’s going to hurt.”

“Okay, okay,” he huffs, rolls his eyes in the dark. He holds up the wheel so you can see. “Any chance Dirk can help me put this back on before Dad sees?”

Your mouth curls up, all on its own. “Not a chance in fucking hell, dude.”


Dave rolls up in the other car less than ten minutes later. You two are only a couple blocks away from the store, you could probably walk from here, (bad phrasing), but instead you stay where you are because being pricked by a thousand tiny pieces of glass isn’t your idea of a good time. He hangs heavy out the passenger side, chin in hands, a rude grin spread across his face. “Well howdy there, ladies, y’all need a lift on this fine evening? Gonna be up front, we’re gonna need payment, and these fellas here don’t accept nothin’ but cold hard japes. I’m talking your finest, most carefully crafted puns, gags, and goofs. None of that knock-knock shit, or you’ll be knock-knocked the fuck out, y’hear? So what say you? Lookin’ for a ride?”

“Not from you,” John laughs, sticks out his tongue. “The only thing less sexy than hanging out a window like a doofus is the fact that you’re wearing sunglasses at night. Please, Dave, haven’t you heard? Ladies don’t want your number, no -”

“We’re not gonna give you ours, yeah, yeah, yuck it up later,” you interrupt loudly. “Can you please just fucking park and help us outta this shit-ass conundrum that I definitely played a part in creating but which, tellin’ the illest of truths here, is definitely mostly John’s fault?”

“Hey!” he says, smacking at you, but you brush him off, trying to wiggle around the glass to pull the handle open.

Jane's the one driving, and she pulls off to the side of the road carefully. Heh. She's a better driver than John. You’re lucky it’s late, that the street isn’t crowded, or at least that no one has driven by, yet. What a fucking mess to explain that would be. Her eyes are huge as she circles the car, comes around your side to help you open the door. “What the hell happened?”

“Well uh,” you laugh weakly, make a show of nudging the glass shards.

“Can you fix it?” John is asking Dave, who’s poking his head in to have a look.

He winces when a bit of the mess slices his cheek open, clucks his tongue. “Probably can’t do anything about the wheel, but... Do I have to? Can’t you just like. Buy new windows?”

“Dude,” you say, and you really shouldn’t have to. The car is essentially frozen in fucking time right now. There is shit hovering in mid-goddamn-air and you know he can see it. “What do you think is gonna happen if we show up at an auto shop like this? They’re just gonna think, ‘huh that’s real weird, but a’ight, seen worse. Let’s get to work, boys’? Fuck no. Just fix it.”

Dave frowns at you, sighs. “Okay, I can give it a shot, but I just wanna say, this seems hells of rude, makin’ me clean up a mess you two made.”

“If I was a god, I’d do something about it,” you grunt. “You want me to pray to you first?”

“Nah, that ain’t my style,” he says, but his voice sounds distant, and you know he's concentrating now, swear you can see something change around him, and you all cringe when he stretches his arm out, pushes right into the thick of the glass like it’s a bowl of pudding instead of sharp as shit diamond dust. He mutters something under his breath you don't quite catch, but makes John laugh a little, and when he flicks his wrist, you feel a pull in your gut as everything shifts to the left and you are suddenly debilitated by nausea you cannot control or explain.

The air shudders, vibrates outward from his hand like ripples through water, following a sound only you can hear, the heavy bass beat of Time. The glass sings to the thump thump thump of your heart in your ears, ozone burning in your nostrils, the phantom of a Breeze caressing your neck, all in reverse. And then Dave steps back, hand still splayed, long thin fingers dragging the window shards in reverse. No one else seems to feel it the way you do, and you have to close your eyes against the red that burns their corners, the ticking clock that beats at your skull.

You hear the crack and hum of glass shattering, or unshattering, John whispering “holy shit” softly, and then all at once it’s over. Your stomach settles, your headache dulls, and you open your eyes.

John is frowning down at his steering wheel, still disconnected from the console, and Jane has leaned in beside you, one hand on the newly repaired door, the other touching your own. Her fingers are warm, unreasonably small. You are sure you’re imagining the way your face heats up under her scrutiny.

“Stop making that face, it’s embarrassing,” Dave says, voice muffled behind a pane of glass on the driver’s side, and you yank your hand back from Jane so you can flip him off.

“Whatever the fuck you just did?” you rasp, still feeling shaky around the corners, “don’t do it again.”

“I keep tellin’ you I don’t want to,” Dave says, gives a shrug. “But no fucking promises, I guess, if this keeps happening.”

You, John, and Jane all see the opportunity, and you take it. In perfect, monotone glory, you say, “It keeps hapening,” and Dave turns bright fucking red. You hide a smile.

Chapter Text

John’s dad radiates Fatherly Disappointment like Jade used to ooze green light, but honestly it still seems like he gets off easy to you, with a frown and a “We’ll talk about this later.” Which, to be fair, you don’t have the best frame of reference for punishment, so maybe it’s suitable, considering none of you actually got ice cream, in the end. Straight up children’s movie bullshit, if anyone asks you, which they haven’t. You did a shit job, son, now go to bed without your dessert. Fucking abysmal.

The car snafu will wait until morning, which is all and good for you, considering that talk left you exhausted and desperately in need of a fucking break.

Dirk is the one who takes you upstairs, and you are still tired of it, maybe getting more and more irritated each day, but you let him, because you know he wants to check on you, and because it means at least a moment of silence with no Crockharlishberts, and you need that. Desperately.

“Everything cool now?” he asks, and you grin, don’t grunt when he all but drops you in the blanket nest. Pile. Whatever.

“Yeah,” you say, and mean it. He may be Bro, to a point, but there’s a kindness there that you don’t really see too often. It’s ridiculously endearing. “I wasn’t really expecting - yeah. I mean, we’re lucky I didn’t get glass in my fucking eyes. Going blind on top of being a cripple would just be a shitty cosmic joke, and I’ve got enough of that going on already.”

He doesn’t quite smile at that, something a little closer to a grimace, and okay, maybe your morbid-ass jokes don’t have to land every time. Shake it off, Dave, there’s always next time. You tug his hand and drag him down into the pile. Dude can literally always use a nap. You’ve never met a human that slept less than he does. “You don’t have to worry so much all the time, y’know. John ‘n I are friends.”

“Mm,” he hums, doesn’t really look at you. You can almost see the gears turning there, behind his shades. He’s more transparent than he thinks he is. Heh. “I suppose I just -” He clucks his tongue. “Might be projecting a little, if we're being honest with ourselves, here. It’s hard for me not to see the parallels between your relationship with John and mine, with Jake.”

Oh. You feel yourself go red from the neck up. “Uh - I mean we were never - I didn’t - well, okay I - um.” You cover your face with your hands. “Dirk, have you ever considered you think too much?”

“See that’s what I'm saying,” Dave says as he pops up around the edge of the door. Dirk just snorts, doesn’t complain when Dave pretty much bowls him over. “I’m fucking beat after using my super awesome time powers to save your skin. Can we please go to bed now?”

You and Dirk snicker and you set your shades aside so Dave can see you roll your eyes. Then you grab your favorite blanket and cocoon yourself before they can stop you.


You very much expect for most of your day to be spent bored out of your gourd watching your friends do something you can’t.

What you don’t expect is to start that day sitting in Jane’s dad’s car staring at the back of Bro’s head.

“Did I really need to come with for this?” you gripe, tug at the seatbelt until it locks into place. It’s not having any of your shit today, and it definitely doesn’t care how unhappy you are. Safety first, dunkass.

Dave, beside you, leans over and pokes you in the side, hard. “Hey, you’re part of the problem here, you’re gonna help fix it.”

“Then why are you here,” you huff, bat at his hands. “Why didn’t you invite Dirk instead?”

“Cuz, this asshole actually knows shit about cars.” Dave kicks the back of Bro’s seat, receives a nasty glare in return. You think the two of you are getting pretty ballsy, and maybe you should reel it in a little. Or maybe nah. He probably wouldn’t push your shit in with Jane here. Which, okay, now, hold on just a fucking minute.

“I notice John ain’t here. He’s the one who fucking ripped the wheel clean off, I didn’t do anything but try’n stop his little tantrum, how come he doesn’t have to play pit crew today?”

“That would be because he’s getting a breakfast lecture from his father,” Jane says instead. “About the importance of responsibility and respecting other people’s things.” At the stop sign, she cranes her head to give you a patient look, amusement that sparkles in her eyes, big and blue and Jesus, you’re a mess. “Do you want a breakfast lecture, Dave?”

“Uh,” you say, will yourself not to turn bright red.

Bro looks at you in the rearview smugly. “Yeah, Dave,” he drawls. “You wanna lecture? It’s a bit on the spot, but I’m sure I could whip somethin’ up right now, if you want.”

“Not from you,” both of you snap, and you don’t think you’re imagining the way his mouth crooks up as he turns away.


You know you’re not imagining the absolutely batshit smile he gets on his face when he pulls the door open and you, sitting in the passenger’s side of John’s car, hand him the wheel.

“Dude, stop,” you say, watching him climb in, long limbs folding into the space with too much ease. Why did you agree to this? (You didn’t, really, but Jane suggested it with her big dumb eyes and Dave threw you to the oversized wolf and well. Here you are.) “It’s bad enough I had no clue you could do this in the first place, I don’t need to watch you get off on this shit on top of it.”

He snorts softly, ignores you as he looks over the groove where the wheel is supposed to fit. “Doesn’t seem too hard a fix. If we can get that bolt out, it’ll be smooth sailin’.”

“You can actually do it?” You don’t mean to sound surprised. Maybe you’re just a little miffed that Dave knows something about him you don’t. That’s probably stupid. You’re - okay, you’re not the same. Something close, maybe. “Fix cars, I mean,” you clarify. “You never brought that up before. Uh. Not that we talked about that kind of stuff. Or anything, at all, I guess.” You clear your throat, hands twisting involuntarily into your shirt. You’re not afraid of him, you think. Not like you used to be, but sometimes you still. You don’t know. Can’t find the right words, you guess. It’s hard. Asking Bro for things. “I don’t really know where I’m going with this.”

He sighs out his nose. “Any way I can say ‘you never asked’ and get you off my back about this?”

“No,” you snap, and maybe it’s not so fucking hard after all. God, he can be so - ugh. It doesn’t matter. “Like seriously, what’s up with that, anyway? I don’t remember you ever having a job like that, not the entire time you existed.” Saying ‘lived’ is morbid, and last time you brought up his death was. Well you fucked up. That’s all there is to say on the matter.

“And what the fuck was your job, anyway? I used to think you did some kind of -” You flap a hand around, struggle for words that don’t sound fucking idiotic. “I don’t fucking know. Rap-slash-ventriloquist act with Cal? Or something? But the older I got the more I realized how ridiculous that sounded, like John thinkin’ his dad was a street performer with a, a businessman shtick, or whatever.” You drop your head against the seat, stare at your hands. “I really don’t know anything about you, do I?”

“Dave,” he mutters, and you hear the click of him tapping John’s wheel against the dashboard. You really need to stop unloading on the most emotionally unavailable person you know. There’s only the gentle tap for a hot minute, and you know he’s fishing around for something to say. “Look, kid,” he starts, only hesitates a second. “Look kid, I got time, I’ll listen to you while you spit rhymes. Catch me sittin’ here on the threshold, don’t mind if you bear your soul, so long as you can hold this roll.” Bro’s tool roll appears in his hand instantly. Like magic. Like his modus, and you wrestle on a grin you can’t quite stop as he shoves it into your lap. He turned on tech-hop for you.

“I thought it didn’t let you get away with slant rhymes,” is all you say, unfolding it and handing him back what you hope is actually a wrench.

“Yeah, well,” he says, shrugs. He’s got his tongue in his cheek. “You’d be surprised what a shitty outdated system lets you get away with.”

“You really shouldn’t talk about yourself that way,” you say without thinking, pulling your phone out of your pocket. You really can’t imagine you’ll do much good here.

“Watch it,” he grouches, but it’s not a tone you recognize immediately, more distracted than actually annoyed as he puts the seat all the way back and gets to work. It reminds you of seeing him hunched over his computer, typing code, or fixing the Xbox for the thousandth time (you have yet to red ring it since you got back - an impressive accomplishment for you, as far as you’re concerned). It’s Bro in his comfort zone, Bro something approximating ease, and you feel weird, out of place. It’s not like before, nothing’s like it was before, and you can’t stop worrying something will go wrong. He’ll go wrong. He’ll change his mind, make you fix everything, he’ll - fuck. You don’t know. You’re panicking for no reason. Everything is fine. You’re being ridiculous.

“So,” you say, because you stew in your own thoughts the way most people brine meat. “Egbert’s couch. Better than the futon, yes or yes?”

“Mm, I’d say solid seven outta ten,” he says, and you scoff, appalled. “It beats the futon in comfort, shit’s softer than puppet ass, may as well be sleepin’ on a fucking cloud, but.” His eyes flick to you behind his shades and his cheek muscles spasm in something resembling a smile. “Futon beats it for length to vertical ratio. My feet’ve been numb for nearin’ on a week now.”

You don’t return it. That couch holds precious sleep-filled memories for you. “Then why don’t you sleep on the floor?”

“I have,” he snorts, turns the wheel over to look at the locking mechanism. “Twice. How the fuck did he get this out so cleanly?”

“Crockbert lineage. They’re hells of strong.” You hand him the roll when he flaps his hand at you. “What happened?”

He takes it without thanks. Dick. “Got yelled at, obviously.” Bro picks up something, squints. Puts it back. Ends up with a pair of tiny pliers before he shoves the whole thing back into your lap. “Best not to let it happen again.”

It’s funny, in a way. You can’t really imagine anyone yelling at Bro. Mom, maybe. You sorta did, that one time. But you don’t know. It’s foreign. Makes him feel more like... you don’t know. A person, you guess. Ugh. Weird. You think of him standing there in the living room, bent at the waist, Nanna beaming with her hundred watt smile.

“You really did know her, huh?”

He doesn’t even look, twists himself so that he’s halfway upside down just under the dashboard. It’s improbable and uncomfortable all at the same time. “Who.”

“John’s Nanna. Um.” You cough a little. “Jane.”

Bro’s mouth is as even and unkind as ever, and you think maybe you pissed him off. “I guess,” he mumbles, quiet enough that it almost makes you jump. “For a short while, anyway.”

You have no clue what that fucking means. He’s not giving you much to work with. But he’s always kinda been like that. “It’s funny,” you offer. “How that worked out. But it makes sense.”

His mouth curls down a little. “Mm.”

“Have you seen Dirk with her?” You decide to push it, just a little. “Dude you’re like. The same person sometimes, it’s hilarious.”

“I think we should change the subject,” he says, terse. Uncomfortable. And you don’t want to, because you feel like you were getting somewhere, but you’re not going to risk - whatever. Whatever him being mad now will mean for you.

“Okay,” you say instead. “Are you almost done?”

“Could be if this screw wasn’t stuck,” he says between grit teeth.

You shrug, even though he can’t see it. “S’a old car, sort of. If it’s the same one, it was stuck on Skaia for a bit.”

“Do much driving?”

You don’t really want to talk about it. “Nah. John wouldn’t let me, or I didn’t want to.” You drum a hand along the seat, think about his wild grin and wind-swept hair. “Wings didn’t fit real well in a car, anyway, and I didn’t have. Um. Feet. To push the pedals with. So.” Shrug again.

“Yeah, that’s - right.” He untangles himself and sits back in the seat. Clears his throat like he’s gonna say something important. “Listen, Dave -”

“I don’t care,” you blurt. “I mean. It’s fine. And stuff. It’s not like I would even know what to do if I had tried, after all.”

Bro’s gaze has become no less intimidating than it’s always been, and you wish you could tell him how much it fucks with you. “Do you want to learn.”

Uh. What? “Uh,” you say intelligently.

“I mean. Not right now obviously.” He almost-smiles again. “Getcha in a heap of trouble with little Crocker, wouldn’t I? But when we get -” He presses his lips together, a moment, a century. “When we get home.”

“Oh.” You turn away, look down at the floor between your shoes. “I don’t um. I don’t know if my legs are strong enough to do that. Drive, I mean.”

“Sure seems like they’re strong enough to kick a crack in my shinbone,” he offers.

“Yeah, but that’s. Different.” You shrug.

“I don’t know about that,” Bro says around a sigh.

“What if I can’t -” can’t do it. What if you can’t do it.

And he does the unthinkable. He hands you back the pliers, but lets your knuckles bump lightly before he shies away. “Then I’ll be there. I won’t let anything happen.” He turns away and it’s like it never happened. “As if I’d let either of you destroy my truck, no matter how hard you try.”

“Fuck you,” you say immediately. “I wouldn’t be as shitty as him.”

He snorts loudly. “Sure, kid. I totally believe you.”

The wheel bolt makes a horrible groaning sound as he twists it, and you grimace, look away. Watch Jane and Dave a moment, him leaning against the car door and her perched on the hood. He says something, mouth curled into a crooked smile, and she laughs openly, a flash of teeth, shaking shoulders. You let your teeth grind down, ever so slightly.

You’re not jealous, it’s dumb for you to be. Dirk’s friends like you just as much, he’s assure you already, and you know Dave’s you, anyway, so there’s no reason to worry like you do. You’re being. Ridiculous. It’s ridiculous.

Bro must see, or maybe he doesn’t, you don’t know, you’re not looking, but he coughs quietly, arches an eyebrow over his shades. “You figure your shit out? With your little girlfriend.”

“She’s my ex,” you grunt.

“I know,” he says, but that just means he’s being shitty again and you’re not really in the mood.

You think of the way she smiled at you, how she held both your hands and said that it was okay to just be friends. You struggle against the way your voice catches in your throat. “Yeah. Yeah it’s. All good on the Strider front. And stuff.”

“Mm. And the Egbert kid?” He holds the wheel up. “You cool?”

You don’t know what he’d do if you said no. Can’t imagine, don’t really want to. “Uh. He just...” You are so tired of sighing, bonk your head back against the headrest a couple times. “He doesn’t mean it, when he’s an asshole. Most of the time, anyway. But it wasn’t like that. We’re cool. He just can’t control his.” You wave your hand around vaguely. “Windy powers. It’s all real fuckin’ tangible. The worst kind of powers, tbh. Unpredictable, leaves nothing to the imagination.” You pick at a string on your jeans. “Destructive, probably.”

“Probably,” Bro murmurs, and the two of you sit in silence for a beat. You wonder what he’s thinking. If he even understands aspects in relation to the Game. If he knows where that leaves him. You think of your heart(s?) beating in yourbutnotyour ears, how it ached in yourbutnotyour chest. Think of Dirk’s fingertips buzzing purple in his sleep. Probably best not to mention it. Just more shit on your plate you can’t deal with.

There’s a creak, a screeching sound, and a final click, and Bro lets out a noise dangerously close to a laugh. “There we are. Good as fucking new.”

You blink, look at the wheel, which he’s no turning into place. “Really? Just like that?”

“No,” he snarks, but he’s smiling. “But gimme a minute and I’ll have it.”

You give him a minute, and he does have it, and when he turns on the car and turns it around, Jane cheers, and Dave, forgetting himself a moment, joins her.


There’s a couple things you expected from the rink: ice, children, and cheesy, over the top pop music from the early to mid-nineties. You didn’t factor in that it’d be genuinely cold as fucking balls.

You sit on the bleachers ringside like a proud ice princess pageant mom with your hands shoved firmly in your pockets while your teeth chatter and you wish, desperately, that you had the foresight to bring a hoodie. John told you, bro. He warned you, dog. He said, hey, it’s gonna be cold, dude. Even Jade and Jake are borrowing sweaters. You’re a fool, Dave Strider. A damned fool.

The only person objectively worse than you is two sweater tyrant Dirk, and he’s not sharing. Asshole.

Jane is a better skater than Rose, to your genuine surprise. You guess she clocked more modern Earth time than all of you, in the end, and she oscillates between leading Jake or Dirk around the ring one by one for the better part of an hour until they get the hang of it.

There is something utterly amusing about watching them. Jane’s wild laughter (hoo hoo hoo!!) as she swerves backwards on her skates, Dirk bent at the waist, trying to keep a hold on her hands while maintaining his cool (it’s not working, anyway, and you can see him grinning from here).

Roxy doesn’t need half as much help, and it only takes falling on her ass once before she’s up and on her way, following earnestly after Rose, much to her (and your) delight.

It’s all very good and wholesome, but your one (1) true bliss comes from the way all of them skate (literal) circles around Dave as he clings to the wall and swears. You make eye contact precisely once, and when you start to smirk, he flips you off and scoots along the wall more rapidly. You laugh. John offered to help him, you don’t know why he’s being so stubborn.

You don’t want to be jealous, especially after you told John it was cool, but you absolutely cannot handle the way your gut turns over when Roxy finally takes pity on Dave, taking his hand and begging Jane to help your poor... uh. Twin isn’t the right word, here. You guess you’re sort of twins now, in a way. Ugh. Gross.

“You could have told him no,” Rose says to your immediate left, and you nearly jump out of your fucking skin. Goddamn nosy broad and her spooky witchcraft bullshit.

“No, I couldn’ta,” you grunt, shoot her a glare. “You think I want to deny John his weird ectofamily portrait fantasy?” On cue, John and Jade pass in front of you, giggling and falling all over themselves as John wrestles to help her stay the fuck upright. “See that shit? Please, I’m an asshole, but I’m not cruel.”

“Hmm,” she hums, crosses her knees primly. She’s wearing a puffy blue coat that can’t have possibly fit John since he was thirteen, and that in conjunction with the rosy flush of her cheeks is a bizarre contrast to her personality, and you just barely stop from mentioning it to her. That’d be embarrassing. Also, she’d probably kill you.

“So, what,” you say, to change the subject before it begins, “come over here just to harass me? Should I take this as a compliment?”

“Hardly,” Rose retorts, though her gaze is level. “I came to check on you because you’re my brother and you looked lonely.”

Your gut twists and your fingers curl in your pockets. “I’m not.”

“Could’ve fooled me.”

You both watch Dirk as he scoots alongside Dave and Jane, smiles encouragingly at him when he finally coaxes him away from the wall. Your mouth twists sour of its own accord.

This doesn’t escape Rose’s attention. “You seem...” She clucks her tongue softly, the way Dirk does when he’s thinking. “Jealous.”

That startles a laugh out of you, though it’s a fight against your own panic. “Why the fuck would I be jealous?”

“Dave has created an intimate relationship with a version of your brother unique to the two of them that you weren’t able to achieve. It’s okay to be upset.”

“Why would I be?” But it comes out a touch too mean. “He’s me.”

“Only when it’s convenient for both of you.”

You look at her then, and there’s nothing like amusement on her face. She looks disappointed, or unimpressed, or concerned, and you feel weird, maybe a little exposed. You have to turn away. “He can’t even skate, it’s not like I’m missing out on anything.”

“Oh, certainly the way you’re separated from your friends with a literal wall is healthy and not at all isolating,” she says with false cheer. “You’re right, I’m sorry for doubting you.”

“Fuck off, Rose,” you mutter, pull your hands out of your pockets to fold your arms over each other. You’re no less cold for it. “It’s not a big deal, I - Maybe I’m just not meant for that kind of shit. Dirk is - I dunno. He’s cool ‘n all, but we’re not...” You struggle for words, and when you can’t find them without admitting she’s right, you shut up.

Her hand is warm against the chilled skin of your arm. “It’s alright to be jealous, Dave.”

“As if I’d be jealous of them,” you snort, half-hearted. “Have you seen the two of them together? They’re ridiculous.” As if on cue, Dirk pauses to wrestle one of his sweaters off and hand it to Dave. “Jesus Christ.”

“You weren’t half as worried about this sort of conundrum at our tea party,” she ribs gently,  and you manage an uncomfortable wince.

Then it really clicks with you and a cold sort of dread floods over your from head to toe. “You. Remember that?”

“Hmm, I wonder,” she says, smile intentionally insouciant.

“That’s not fucking funny, Lalonde,” you all but snarl, and you don’t feel so at ease, nor any sort of positive emotion at all, all of it squashed beneath panic and a sick, sinking feeling in your gut.

“Oh, I quite thought we were having fun,” she says in a somewhat playful tone. You don’t return it and she sighs, drops it. “Didn’t you ever wonder? What happened to that Rose? Or Jaspers?”

“The cat?” You raise your eyebrows. “I mean, not fucking really. That’s like asking if I wondered what happened to the giant floppy clown doll Nanna was fused with. Or the dead bird. Why would I care about that?”

“Well,” she huffs, rolls her eyes again. “He’s fine, by the way. Mom was custom ordering him a tiny wheelchair when we left.”

“You just left him there? Alone in the house?”

She shrugs. “Mom wasn’t worried. She hired a sitter, I believe.”

You stare. “A sitter. For your cat.”

“Jaspers is a part of our family,” she says primly, but cracks another smile. “It’s Mom, what else would you expect?”

“I guess that’s fair.”

You lull into silence for a minute while you struggle with the idea that this Rose saw you as... Well you can’t call them your worst self. That’d be unfair to Nepeta. To a side of you that you’re retroactively ashamed of being.

“If it helps, I don’t think we would have worked out,” she offers after a beat, and you get so spooked you can’t stop the laugh until it’s halfway out your mouth.

“That’s a fucked up thing you just said, right there,” you say, fighting a smile. “But thanks, I guess.”

“Is it better or worse than when you used to make extremely inappropriate innuendo about our shared genetic mother?” she says, with a shark-like grin.

The smile drops off your face and you elbow her as hard as you can through her puffy coat. “Ugh, don’t fucking remind me.”

“You would never let me live it down if I made similar advances on our father,” Rose says, and you grimace. “But perish the fucking thought, Dave, because over one of, or perhaps all of my dead bodies.”

“You did die a couple times, huh,” you muse, try to think back over how many times you died. You kinda lost track after you stopped being a sprite, or at least stopped being Davesprite.

“Several more than was strictly necessary, I think,” she sighs, and you two are quiet again.

“Sorry you had to see me like that,” you say, for no reason other than the idea she saw you like that at all makes you want to crawl into a hole and die. “I never wanted - well. I don’t know what I wanted then. But I’m sorry.”

“I think it’s probably okay,” Rose says gently, and this time she takes your hand, wrestles your arms free of each other. “I don’t have all those memories, and I rather wish alcohol was not such a prominent part of it, but...” She laces your fingers together and you don’t tug away. “I remember being a sprite. The lift of a burden that, quite frankly, I think is just part of being alive, Dave. It’s okay to be afraid of that. But we, especially, shouldn’t think of it like that anymore.”

“Like what?” you ask, and you feel small. Feel ashamed that you’ve been avoiding her for so long.

“Like living is a burden,” Rose whispers, and her eyes scrunch up at the corners, like Dirk’s, like yours.

John picks this exact time to smash his whole face and part of his upper body into the glass. “Hey, what are you losers talking about? How much better at ice skating I am? It’s okay to be jealous, I know I’m pretty much the best.”

You fight a smile, give a snort. “Please, Egbert, we all know Rose could wipe the floor with your sorry ass. You should be thanking me for taking her away so you can pretend to show off your quite honestly pathetic moves.”

“Oh fuck you, Dave,” he laughs, sticks out his tongue. Gross. Probably not sanitary.

“I think he’s right,” Rose purrs, standing and clunking down the metal bleachers on her skates. The sound sends an ache in your teeth and makes John look a little nervous. “But why don’t you show me your ‘moves’. I’m sure I could stand to learn a thing or two from the master.”

“Uh,” John says, stepping away from the gate as she pushes it open. “Yeah. Yeah, I will!”

“Doubt it,” Dirk monotones as he slides by, Jane on one arm, Dave (wobbling) on the other.

“Fucking Striders,” John moans, dropping his head back, and this time, you actually laugh.

(The next time around Jade gives you her sweater, and you don’t even try to play it off, just shove it over your head as fast as physically possible.)

 


“You’re sure you’ll be okay?” Rose asks, for the billionth fucking time as you wait in the airport. You wrestle with telling her to fuck off, but shes not technically talking to you, you think, and Dave just frowns at her behind his shades.

“I’m not a fucking baby,” he says, for the billionth time. “We can handle -” His gaze wanders across the way to where Bro and Mom stand, heads bent together, typing on their respective phones furiously. You have no fucking clue what’s going on there. You kinda don’t want to know.

“We can handle it,” you cut in, curving your wheelchair to face them a little better. You saw Jade and Jake off at the port this morning with Grandpa. You don’t think you’ll ever get over that ridiculous mustache. You’re going to have nightmares of giant musclebeasts with the faces of gentlemen for weeks. “Go back to New York and change Jaspers filthy fuckin’ litter box.”

“He had a kitty sitter,” Roxy says as she leans over Dirk’s shoulder. The two of them have been all but curled in the airport chairs with Jane for the past twenty minutes.

“I know,” you groan. “It was a shitty joke.”

“Or was it a shitty joke,” she says, wiggles her eyebrows.

“Boo,” Dirk monotones. He’s rubbing Jane’s back while she snuffles into his shoulder. You wish John were half as sentimental.

But he’s not, hands in his pockets and big smiles as he watches Rose and Dave trade barbs while you wait just beside the gate for your flight time to creep ever closer.

“But you’ll message us,” Rose presses, lips thinned. “If things get bad again -”

“Obviously,” Dave snaps, and you wish you could argue with either of them. You’re just excited to go home.

Rose chokes you with a hug that’s a little soggier than you want it to be, but you can’t even glare at her when Roxy and Jane both take over and you’re smushed between two fine ladies (reel it in, Strider, Christ), and they’re crying on your shoulders.

“Save some for me, huh,” John mutters as he pushes you free of them, and you don’t snap at him for it. When you’re safely out of range, he turns, bends down just a little. “So, uh. Pester me? When you get home, I mean. I already talked to Dave, I know he’ll be talkin’ my ear off the whole way but...”

You smile, really smile at him. “Yeah, man.” Your voice is soft, maybe a little wet. “Yeah, I will. I promise.”

“Good,” he says, and smashes his hand into your hair. “You owe me one.”

“Bull fucking shit,” you scoff. “If anything, you owe me plenty more than that. Who saved whose life here?”

“You cannot keep using that,” he laughs, but he follows beside you with a skip in his step, and helps carry your suitcase without complaint.


Bro sits beside you on the flight this time, follows you with the same evil eye to any staff member who even so much as looks your way, and this time you feel smug when you see Dirk and Dave squish in a few seats back, knowing your fine ass is going to be the first one on the ground when you land.

Chapter Text

There is a list of things you are trying not to do anymore, and it is approximately miles in fucking length. Seriously. You could probably climb to the moon on your list of bad habits and bullshit, and you’re not even sure if you’d suffocate and die on the way there or not.

Being godtier sure does change your outlook on death.

Or maybe it would, if you were anyone but you.

But you’re not, so it doesn’t, and you won’t classify it as a fetish, because that’s an entirely different kind of list, but let’s just say you’ve got your hands full trying not to creep the absolute hell out of Dave.

And Jesus, there’s half your list in a word.

Dave, you mean.

Never in your life have you cared so deeply what another human being thought of you, and every time he cringes, every little grimace or groan or yelp of unparalleled fear?

It digs at you like nothing you’ve ever experienced before. It’s agony, how much you want him to like you. It’s painful, how much it burns when you can see that he’s afraid of you.

He’s not trying to be, Christ on a fucking cracker, he’s not, but there are moments in between your closeness that are cluttered with uncertainty and fear, and you hate it, and in turn hate yourself, and that’s not even the worst feeling you’ve ever had.

 

TG: have u tried sleeping WITHOUT a broken sword in ur strife deck???

It’s meant to be gentle teasing, you know, because she’s said it before, with both of you sitting in Jane’s room, squished together on the floor with your backs against the bed. But now you just feel kind of twisted up inside, maybe a little sick.

TT: I can’t.

And it disgusts you, how much you mean it. It’s not to say that you’ve tried, because you haven’t, and it’s not as though you’d be defenseless without it. But the mere thought sends you spiraling into a loop of anxiety-riddled “what if” scenarios and subsequent self-loathing the likes of which no one, least of all your friends, needs be privy to.

TT: I’m completely aware of how preposterous it is, of course.
TT: The kinds of dangers one might face in the twenty-first century pales drastically in comparison, by all accounts, to the way we lived in our youth.
TT: Fuck, for an intruder to even make it to me or Dave they’d have to beat the first floor boss.
TT: Who is, coincidentally, also the top floor boss.
TT: Dude’s a fucking mess but I find the odds of his defeat, barring radiation-infused dogs, somewhat unlikely.
TT: The probability of a death even counting as Just or Heroic in that instance is equally low.
TG: this is getting a little out of hand i think lol
TT: Well you know what they say when the bird flies outta your hand and back into the bush.
TG: “holy fuck sum1 catch that damn bird!!” probs right
TT: Probably.
TT: I suppose it seems trivial to you, and perhaps a tad bit unnecessary?
TG: lmao duh dirk
TT: It’s just a feeling I get sometimes, Rox. I just can’t explain it.
TT: If I don’t have it within reach I feel,
TT: Well,
TT: Naked, in a way.
TG: all vulnerable like
TT: Precisely.
TG: dirk idk what to tell u!!
TG: it kinda seems like u kno its all silly bs but u done gone n got urself a bunnified habit over there
TG: (note the importance of the bunny pun at this time plz and thank u)
TT: I am noting, appreciating, and completely disregarding it.
TG: ok well rude but still
TG: like i get it u know shit was super fucked and sometimes it still feels like one day ill wake up and itll all have been a dream n stuff
TG: and rose will b gone and ill be alone again :((
TG: and sometimes i think ye u know maybe id be more comfy sleepin w a gun strapped to my chest or whatever
TG: but tbh its just not very reasonable :\
TG: dont wanna hit rose in the face or nothing lmao
TT: Didn’t you say Rose’s mom set you up your own room?
TG: yus!! :3
TG: theyre called sleepovers dirk get w the program
TG: sheesh u think ud know all about that what w ur jumpy AF bunk buddy n all
TG: also i cant stop thonkin
TG: *thonkin lol
TG: when my mom comes home shell want her own room back! and i dont want 2 make a big ol mess or nothing
TT: Yeah, about that.
TG: di stri the next words outta that big dumb brain butter not include “what if” or “im just sayin yo”
TT: I was just going to mention,
TG: ................................................... (lots o dots)
TT: That maybe it’s a bit early for us to get our hopes up?
TG: dirk thats literally the same thing
TT: I guess so.
TT: Forgive me for being skeptical about the idea of our guardian figures appearing at a completely unknown time after they’ve been missing for almost six months.
TG: :((
TG: you think jade was lying?
TT: Sign.
TG: !! <3
TT: No, I wouldn’t say that. I don’t think Jade is the kind of person who lies about shit like that, especially not to Jake or Jane.
TG: not that janeys notorious for not gettin her belief on about stuff like that or nothin lol
TT: True.
TT: But given how much her Poppop meant to hear, I’m inclined to imagine Jade isn’t lying.
TT: Or at least she doesn’t think she is.
TG: :\\
TG: that sounds like fakey fake paranoid bs 2 me but fine
TG: u know who else might have a clue?? bein mr time guy and all?? ;))
TT: Roxy, we already talked about this.
TG: but we DINT talk about ur avoiding talking about ur fucked up swordy ninja bullshit!
TT: Swordy?
TG: sord...................y!!!
TT: I told you, I just don’t want to upset him or freak him out anymore.
TG: maybe u should try
TG: oh i dunno
TG: TALKIN 2 HIM ABT IT????
TG: kinda seems like the logical step here
TG: im no expert or nuthin but im js
TT: I,
TT: I don’t know.
TG: why tf not??
TG: rosie n i talk abt all sorts a stuff!
TG: like
TG: espesh when i do somethin that reminds her of her mom??
TG: (bc duh i am her)
TG: even tho logically we both know im not her it aint about that
TG: we talk abt it!! and we figure out how to compromise on shit or w/e
TG: jesus dirk u guys share a bed but u cant talk about ur fuckin feelings???
TT: That’s.
TT: Different.
TG: u could just ask big dirk for like
TG: an air mattress or smthn
TG: if its bothering both of you so much!!
TG: but ur not willin to part with your shit sword lol
TT: It’s not.
TT: I mean I hope it’s not. It’s crowded, for sure.
TT: He’s a little clingy, maybe.
TT: But I don’t mind.
TG: okay good so maybe u can....
TT: I can’t.
TG: have u at least like............
TT: No.
TT: And that’s none of your business.
TG: what!!
TG: why not??
TT: Because shut up.
TT: Shut up is why.
TG: ok now ur just being extra cagey on purpose cuz u know im rite
TT: Right or wrong is wholly fuckin’ subjective here.
TT: My problem remains and I have yet to find a solution.
TG: :\
TG: there is 1 fuckin solution and ur ignoring it!!
TG: r u ready for the big reveal?
TG: wait for it...............
TT: Roxy.
TG: u gotta..............
TG: ......................................
TG: (o fuck those ellipses r gettin away....).......................
TT: This is stupid.
TG: stfu ur stupid!!1!1!!
TG: ................. u gotta.......................
TG: TALK TO HIM DIRK!!!!!!!
TT: But,

tipsyGnostalgic [TG] ceased pestering timaeusTestified [TT]

TT: Dammit.

Part of the problem is that you don’t know how to talk to him about this.

The thing is, your relationship has been skewed towards something nearing on one-sided venting, and you don’t want to unload on him unprompted. That’d be hells of disastrous, there’s little doubt in your mind. Your position as Not-Bro is tenuous at best, as far as you’re concerned, and while the solid evidence is certainly there, Roxy is right.

Logically, it doesn’t make a difference.

Because technically (duh), you are Bro.

And he’s you.

The two of you clowns have enough issues between you to keep an army of therapists tripping over verbal and quite literally phalluses (fuck yes dick pun) for decades, and that’s almost shameful enough on its own to warrant never speaking to Dave about anything, ever again.

He is, however (near tragically), impossible for you to avoid.



Dave sleeps on the inside edge of the bed with his face practically crushed against the wall and you stare at the back of his head and think about.

Well. Everything.

You never really stop thinking about anything, once you start. How can you solve this, how can you tweak that, how can you repair a relationship you just began when it’s been irreparably broken by a version of yourself you barely even know? It’s kind of a shitty habit. Definitely a bad one.

It’s been three days since you got home from Washington and you’ve fallen back into your old routines seamlessly. You dick around on your various computers, surreptitiously pester Roxy about your bullshit, and try not to fall deep enough asleep that any sudden movements trigger your itchy lil strifin’ fingers (it only happened once during your stay up north, but it was more than enough - Dave’s yelp, the perfect O of Jake’s mouth as he froze in the middle of the room, hand outstretched towards the doorknob. You never wanted anyone else to see you like that).

You can’t say you’re frustrated with him, because that wouldn’t be fair, and you’re man enough (laughable, really) to admit when you’re in the wrong (sometimes). But it is exhausting, at times, carving out these little chunks of yourself that so perfectly mirror your counterpart.

Dave insists it doesn't bother him, of course, which is another part of the problem; you very much doubt even Rose is this hard to deal with when it comes to matters of. Well. You don’t really know what to call it.

Transdimensional bad habits that are apparently fucking incurable, you guess.

You cannot possibly restore your 1/2 bladekind to its former glory like this, with your propensity for half-asleep death threats and jumpy AF bunk buddies.

God, you wish you could fucking talk to him about this.

You’re not mad at him, you don’t think, or you hope you’re not. It’s irrational, anyway, He didn’t mean to keep it from you. Your Bro. Roxy’s Mom. Jade’s somewhat equivocal prediction.

There’s a chance, you reckon, that it’s wrong. That she’s wrong.

Your stomach turns and you close your eyes, try not to think about the way they water, tell yourself you’re just tired again, perfectly normal, just human shit, nothin’ to see here.

What’s the use of being a god if you can’t skip a few days of sleep here and there?

Lame ass shit.

So it’s been three days, you’re tired, a little paranoid, and you’re beginning to think you seriously need a chill pill. Like fuck, you made it kid, you rode a GOTDAM plane. Twice. Didn’t even make a big deal about it the second time, played it so fucking cool you only almost ripped Dave’s hand off during landing. You probably won’t even have to leave the house again for the next three weeks, if you don’t want to (and you don’t, not really). You’re home, you’re in your bed, and no one is in immediate danger of dying (at least not any time soon).

And Christ, you had almost forgotten about that, in the same way you could never fucking forget that nightmare (like shattered glass, mirror shards, pink and red and firelight orange repeating over and over and)

On the list of things that could potentially terrify Dave, there is a line somewhere near the top (wedged between “puppets” and “pulling sword on people while partially comatose”) that probably just reads “talking about fucked up soul prince powers”. You guess they’d be kinda cool, if you knew literally anything about them and what they did, and if the mere thought of that crumbling hole in Bro’s chest didn’t make your throat close up, didn’t make you think about pixelated chunks of planetary matter, grasped in your hands, crawling through your lungs, consuming you from the outside in, like a virus, like a 

Well. It never happened, anyway, so it probably doesn’t matter.

You think your list might just be growing the more you dwell on it, so you roll away, press your shoulders back against his, and squeeze your eyes closed shut and hope, hope (Hope?) you’ll fall the fuck asleep.



You should have known better than to ask Jane - you definitely know better than to ask Jake. But while you desperately love your friend, she’s not exactly someone who tells you want you want to hear.

At least.

Not anymore.

It’s almost worse that she’s gutsy enough a fucking gumshoe to figure you out almost immediately.

GG: Wait.
GG: Is this about that silly half-sword you’re carrying around in your specibus while you sleep?
TT: Damn.
TT: May I ask how in the absolute FUCK you already know about that?
GG: Hm, I’m not sure I should say! I don’t want you to be mad at anyone!
TT: Was it Roxy?
GG: It was most certainly not >:B
GG: John told me!
TT: Well fuck. That’s embarrassing.

You drag a hand down your face, show it up under your shades to bonk your head against the wall. Well. Cat’s outta the bag. May as well tell her the whole story.

Or at least the parts that matter. And aren’t as fucking embarrassing.

She takes it better than you expect. Not so much as a wink or wonk or anything but a kind ear and a general unwillingness to bend to your desperate wish for someone to agree with you.

GG: I don’t know what to tell you, Dirk!
GG: I think talking about things that bother you is the first step to any good relationship. It certainly patched things up between my dad and I when we’d get into an altercation!
GG: But I also kind of feel like talking is all you and Dave ever do, if I’m being honest :B
TT: Haha. You’re probably right.
GG: Truthfully, I don’t really know Dave that well!
GG: At least, not as well as you, or even his friends might. Not to say we are not also becoming better friends, which is swell as all get out!
TT: Jane.
TT: That’s adorable.
GG: <3!!
GG: Dirk, have you considered talking to Rose?
TT: Why the fuck would I do that.
TT: I mean, in regards to the current subject.
TT: The subject being Dave.
TT: If he found out, he’d fucking kill me. Again.
GG: Don’t give me that sass, mister!!!!
GG: John and I have a relatively easy time, navigating the ins and outs of our interactions, due to the separation both of us had from our mutual counterparts.
GG: And perhaps in the similarities between our fathers, we found an understanding!
GG: I am trying to say we did not grow up with versions of ourselves, of course.
TT: I got that.
GG: Roxy and Rose no doubt deal with similar quandaries on a daily basis! If you can’t talk to Roxy about it, I don’t see why Rose would be too far a stretch!
GG: And she’s quite funny and charming, much like yourself :B I think you’d get along better than you imagine.



You don’t completely buy it, but you can’t really deny it, either. It’s probably about time you and Rose had a conversation that went beyond the vague needling questions about your hobbies and growing up alone.

On second thought, this really seems like it’ll lead to further needling about your childhood and relationship with Dave, which you’re not feeling terribly amenable to an impromptu therapy session right fucking now.

“I wouldn’t ask Rose,” DS says immediately, when you mention it in passing. “And it doesn’t really bother me that much, if you were wondering,” he adds, glancing sideways at you.

You were. “Alright,” you say, keep your face neutral. Dave is not particularly good at Mariokart but DS is notorious for exploiting glitches in the game (you’re unsure if this is a symptom of his spritehood or a benefit, at this point). If you look away for a second, or even give him a hint that you’re gonna shell his ass, he’ll pull out some kind of nightmare trick and fuck you and every NPC six ways to Sunday.

“I guess it’s prolly cuz I don’t sleep six inches from your face,” he says, but there’s a shitty little smirk curling on his face. You can see his stupid ugly Toad kart coming up behind you on the screen and you do NOT appreciate it. “I don’t have the benefit of repeated experience scarring me. And Bro sleeps like the dead, these days.” He grimaces, shrugs. “Honestly, that’s probably for the best. I don’t think post-sprite powers include any second lives.”

“I don’t really want to find out,” you assure him, and you can’t quite stop yourself from cursing loudly he curves tighter around the corner than you and wins by less than a second. “Motherfucker,” you groan.

He just laughs.



“I don’t want to do this,” he groans two days later, simply, crankily, holding a no. 2 pencil in his left hand and an absolutely monstrous calculator in the other.

“Too fuckin’ bad,” Bro says, and the pencil in HIS hand rolls between his fingers in a distracting manner, tapping out a rhythm (1-2-3, 1-2-3) on the coffee table they’re both hunched in front of.

“Did we really spend this much time working on math before the Game?” Dave asks, voice muffled by the textbook lying open over his face. He’s sprawled out in front of the television and you watch, amused, from your corner on the futon, just far enough away that if you curl into the wood of the arm, you and Bro won’t touch.

“I told you I’d help, if you wanted,” you tell them, though honestly? It’s not that interesting. High school math is kinda beneath you, at this point, and you’re not all that keen on doing repetitive homework assignments for little to no reward. But you like the both of them enough to offer, and you still don’t officially exist, which is depressing, so it’s not like you’ve got anything better to do. 

“No,” Bro says sternly, but he’s chewing on the eraser now, reading his own book over the rim of his shades.

“Probably be all boring and whatever for you, anyway, man,” Dave says. He lifts his head so you can see his face peeking up over the edge of the book. “It’s fuckin’ baby stuff, compared to what you can do.”

“It’s not baby stuff,” Bro says. If you didn’t know better, you’d imagine his voice errs on the side of gentle. “Ain’t no kid of mine walking around with a middle school reading level and no diploma. Gods still have to go to college. Now do your fucking work.” He cranes his head back to look at you and you carefully do not scowl. “Listen,” and he still hesitates there, every time, still won’t say your name, as if you’ll forget that night in Washington, as if you’ll forget - it doesn’t matter. “If you’re seriously bored here -” you expect very much for him to tell you to go fuck yourself, leave them alone and stop distracting Dave and DS. “I probably have a college-level textbook layin’ around somewhere. If you wanted to take a look at it.”

Oh.

Uh.

You blink, open your mouth, blink again.

You have no idea what to say to that. “I’m not sure -”

“Bro, he doesn’t wanna do fake homework in solidarity,” DS says, but he sounds dangerously close to laughter. He seems better since you got home, maybe a little higher in spirits and leaps and bounds less jumpy.

Bro just grunts and shrugs, but he turns away before you can reply, and by then it’s too late.

You’re curious, though, what he could have possibly gone to school for.

He’s certainly not using it now.

You suppose he knew enough to fix cars, and Dave has mentioned (somewhat hysterically) that he was in a robotics club. Not enough technology to go anywhere with it back then, you know, but very little else. You wonder what kind of shit he’s got hiding wherever he keeps... well you don’t know. Wherever adults keep their past shit when it’s not on display. The crawlspace, maybe.

(Yours was filled with shit you didn’t need til you were old enough to reach, and you don’t even remember what the exact contents were, or are, or will be, or won’t be, not anymore.)


Dave is still hung up on it, hours later.

You lie on the bed, absently scrolling forums while he.

Okay, there’s no other word for it. He’s pacing. It’s kind of endearing.

“You know I still don’t fuckin’ know where he keeps his clothes?” he’s saying, and you’ve learned you don’t need more than a hum or a soft sound of reply to keep him going. “Fuck, dude, last time I asked him about his shirt and it was like pulling teeth trying to get him to tell me anything at all!” He throws up his hands in your peripherals. “I don’t know why he’s so hellbent on being mysterious, anyway. The jig is up, dawg, hands in the air, you are under fucking arrest. For something. Shit, probably a fuck ton, haha.”

Dave has a tendency to talk to himself, more than anyone specific, a lonely sort of habit he either inherited from you, or learned somewhere along the way. Could be a somewhat depressing side-effect of a stalwartly silent guardian, you reckon. You don’t particularly mind it, anyway, even if you’re not really focusing on what he’s saying.

It usually takes him longer to notice, but today he launches himself onto you and the bed, flopping across your legs with a “hey man are you listening?”, and you wince to pull your hand away from your strife deck, a hair trigger response you can’t quite stop in time.

“Sorry,” he says meekly, and it just kills you inside to see him like that, the way he rolls off you, shies away until he’s all but curled at the foot of the bed.

Fuck, at least when you do deploy your blade (Jesus, phrasing), he curses loudly and jumps away. You can both pretend it’s like a pathetically funny joke. He maybe gets a little rant going, keeps on verbally marching along until he changes the subject.

Now he just looks.

Nothing.

His expression is blank, his posture cool.

You hate it.

“No, I -”

Tell him.

Talk to him, Dirk.

Do it.

C’mon, don’t be a fucking infant.

Do it.

What else do you have to lose?

Everything.

“No,” you say around a sigh, and you pull back away from him further, don’t watch the way he winces, push yourself upright. “Dude, shit, I'm fucking sorry.” You wriggle until your ass is perched on the outside edge of the bed, elbow digging into the bedside table, and pat the empty space beside you.

You can physically see him hesitate, the way he opens his mouth, closes it, presses his lips together in a thin line. You can’t see his eyes, but you’re used to that, don’t worry, try not to stare directly at him because you know he doesn’t like it (you don’t like it, either, but you’re getting used to it as time goes on, or you’re trying to).

Eventually you can’t really stop the sigh, and you give the bed a firmer pat. “C’mon, dude, just let me fuckin’ apologize to you, afterschool special style, so we can get back to our day and you can finish your homework before Bro finds out you’ve been slacking.”

“He doesn’t usually care if it’s a little late,” is all he says, but he gingerly crawls up next to you and presses his back into the corner where the two walls meet. It’s kind of hilarious, watching him fold his limbs close to his body, and his toes just barely touch the edge of your knees. It’s an improvement, you guess.

There’s not a good way for you to do this, not really, because no matter what, it involves you and swords and it’s a subject you both avoid pretty well, all things considered.

“What the fuck kind of teacher lets you turn your homework in late for full credit? I have seen about a metric fuckton of twenty-first century movies that tell me that’s hells of irresponsible,” you say, but you’re smiling, can imagine exactly how hard it is to say no to this asshole. But you don’t know. Bro could be strict about that kind of thing. You don’t think you’d give a shit, though. It’s Dave.

“Honestly I’ve never actually seen the program specs, but I’m pretty sure it’s just gotta be in before midnight,” he shrugs. “He usually checks my work first, though. You’re lookin’ at a motherfucker who ain’t never got anything less than ninety-goddamn-six on a test, okay, I’m the shit at math.” He pauses, thinks about that. “I want to say that factored into the whole business with the LOHACSE but between you and me? Those gators were fucking idiots.”

“I’m pretty sure they were technically crocodiles,” you say, and when he kicks you lightly, you let out a breathy laugh. “Listen, Dave -”

“Is this gonna be another heart-to-heart?” he blurts, and you try very hard not to shove him. “Cuz I don’t know if we’re allotted more than one of those per month. Sure you wanna burn that token now?”

You don’t correct his malaphor, but you can’t stop the smile making its way across your face. “I reckon if we find ourselves needing a second one, we can always file a request with the home office, pay that premium overnight shipping, expedite the fuck out of that extra heart-to-heart.”

“What if the office is closed and it’s late on a Saturday?” he asks. “That shit’ll sit there til Monday, and who knows what in god’s name will have transpired by then.”

“We’ll have to build that bridge when we get to it,” you say, and the two of you could do this all day, you  could, but you’d rather not prolong this feeling of anxiety and tension that’s building up in your gut. “Look,” and this time he doesn’t interrupt you, and you trip over yourself because you don’t know what comes after.

You settle on probably the worst possible move, and summon your sword. It’s been a few days since you’ve done more than reach for it, and it’s familiar in your hand, even at half-size. the cut is clean, the edge still sharp as anything. Your heart aches to see it broken.

“I didn’t always sleep with it,” you start, and it feels dumb, holding it like this, so you rest it in your lap, facing away from Dave. He’s gone completely still, you’re not even sure he’s breathing. Ugh. “It used to sit on my desk, not even next to my fucking bed. Which is laughable, considering I think I was in greater danger my entire life in that fucking apartment than perhaps any time spent in the Game. Except the end, anyway,” you add, and the two of you share a private, kinda fucked up joke in the quiet of your bedroom.

“I can’t promise I can let it go,” you say, and it sounds stupid. It’s not a grudge. It’s just - It’s just an object. “I don’t know if I ever will, but I can -” You bite your lip, push forward. You cannot keep doing this. “I can try. Harder.”

“You don’t have to do this all the time,” Dave says, smile sweet, a little crooked. He looks uncomfortable, and you push down at the guilt choking you. “Adjust yourself for my comfort or whatever. Any dude would be scared if someone pulled a sword on them, Dirk, it’s not -”

“But it is,” you say, and this time you push over his protests. “Before we left for Maple Valley you told me it was okay to ask for help, and I said I’d try. And I haven't been trying, not really, and that’s fucked up.” You hesitate, try not to grind your teeth, and then you pick up your katana and offer it to him. “I fucked up. I’m sorry. I don’t know how to make it up to you.”

“You don’t have to,” he says, and there’s an edge of exasperation to his words. You can tell he doesn’t want your fucking sword, probably wants nothing to do with the damn thing, but in the end he takes it from you, thumb grazing your knuckles as it changes hands. “We don’t live in a soap opera, bro. We’re just two dudes, navigating this labyrinth called friendship.” He tips it up towards the light, follows the reflection of his hand on the surface. “It’s not as heavy. As I remembered, I mean.”

“It’s broken, Dave,” you remind him gently, and he huffs, kicks you in the knee. You snicker.

“I fucking know that, douchenozzle!” That’s not what he meant and you both know it.

Your face aches at the corners from smiling. “It was left here. For - for me, I suppose. Or have always kind of thought, I guess.” You wonder if you should feel more, watching him now. Dave Strider, holding the (broken) unbreakable katana. You mostly feel fond, maybe a little warm inside. “I don’t know if it actually belonged to my bro, or if I always imagined it did because it made me feel better, and a little less lonely. Maybe it is just a legendary piece of shit, I don’t know.”

“Mm, I don’t know,” he murmurs, running his thumb along the edge of the guard. “Bro’s been using it as long as I can remember. It’s the first sword I ever held, you know.”

That. Surprises you. “Really?”

“Haha, yeah. Back when I was six. I was having a lot of bad dreams back then. About uh. Cal. And stuff. I begged him to let me learn. Shoulda known better.” He brandishes it, smiles softly. “I was too small. It was heavy as shit and I fuckin’ dropped it. Sliced a hole right through the carpet. Bro laughed.” His smile falters. “I think. Or maybe I just tell myself that because the truth was probably way more depressing, I don’t know.”

You grimace. “Dave...”

Shrug. “It’s cool. Not all of it was bad, I told you before. I think maybe I just don’t want to strife again for awhile. Or um.” He drops his gaze, peeks at you just over the rim of his shades. “Maybe ever?”

“I get it,” you say, keep your voice low, even. “I mean to be honest I think we both saw enough action at the end there to last a lifetime but. I don’t know.” You can’t quite hide a self-deprecating smile. “I’ve always kinda liked swords, and I wouldn’t mind getting some practice in, now and again.”

“Yeah, maybe,” he mumbles, leans across you to put the sword on the table. His godtier shirt is soft on your cheek, and you wonder if it’d be dumb to sleep in just your hero shirt. “But not before you get it fucking fixed. I could probably reverse it, if you wanted. Maybe. I had to do that a couple’a times in-game.”

You think about it and wonder, for a moment, if Time shit is easier to deal with, or if the three years practice he has on you just makes that much of a difference.

Maybe it’s all about your nature, when it comes down to it.

Your stomach turns over like the engine of an old car.

“No,” you say, but you smile again, tap your head against his lightly. “I can take care of it. Or,” you add quickly, watching his mouth turn down, “I’ll try to, and when I inevitably live up to my title and make it worse, I’ll come crawling back. How’s that sound?”

“It sounds like some worrying ass shit, if I’m bein’ honest here, Dirk,” he says, and you see the way he gnaws on the inside of his cheek. “But I’m gonna go ahead and trust you, cuz you told me about the sword thing, and because I - uh.” He coughs, looks down. “You know.”

You would not classify Dave as a shy person, not by a long shot, but there is something gentle, bordering on tender, in the crooked slant of his smile.

“I know,” you say, coloring uselessly. “Me, uh. Me too.”

Absolutely pathetic, both of you.

“If you ever did, uh. Like, hurt me?” Dave says after a beat, and you raise an eyebrow in question. “On accident or something? I wouldn’t like, hate you or anything. I can tell that’s what’s really freaking you out, here.”

“Dave, Christ, that’s not what I want to hear.” You pinch the bridge of your nose, and you know it reminds him of Bro, you know, but fuck, you did a really bad job, here.

“Yeah, I know,” he says, shrugs. He picks at a loose thread on your jeans. “I’m just sayin’. Sword accidents happen, bro. S’part of the Strider experience, and until you’re comfortable, shit, man, I’m not gonna pretend like I don’t know it’s there or something. That’s just as much on me as it is on you.”

“Okay,” you murmur. “For the record, I don’t want to cut your head off in like, retaliation or anything. That’s not really what I’m angling for, here.”

That makes him laugh. “I don’t know if I’m ready to experience death for shits and giggles yet, either, but trust me, if I ever am, you’ll be the first guy to know.”

“The offer is still on the table, you know,” you say, and it’s a little disgusting, the thrill that rises in your chest when you think about it. “No fucking pressure, though.”

Dave’s expression says as much, but it quickly dissolves into a grin. “You are a really fucked up dude, you know that?”

“Yeah,” you say, bumping your knuckles together, “I know.”

Chapter Text

September passes in increments of time no one but you probably bothers to measure. Things at home are quiet, and honestly you just feel kind of weird, sleeping in your bed with Dirk and knowing you won’t see Mom or Rose or Roxy again in the morning.

So sue you, you’ve gotten a little emotionally attached. Ain’t nothing wrong with loving your friends (and mom) and missing them, especially when those friends are kinda sorta your family now.

Not that you’d like.

Tell them that, though. Lalonde women be hells of inscrutable, man. You’re not looking for something Rose can hold over your head for the rest of your life. Who even knows how long that will fucking be.

Doesn’t stop you from pestering everyone 24/7.

TG: heres what i dont get right
TG: so we build a universe we step through the door and
TG: what
TG: we dont get the ultimate prize??
TG: did we do something wrong
TG: is it a glitch in the system
TG: just another fuck you from paradox space because
TG: man idk
TG: you fucked up shit irreparably or whatever
TG: warned you not to mess with the timeline bro
EB: you warned me dog?
TG: i warned you oh
TG: hey john
EB: *SIGH*
EB: hi, dave.
TG: hey man been iming you all fucking morning where have you been
TG: sleeping or some shit what kind of hero of earth are you
EB: okay, well first of all i know you absolutely have NOT been, because i can still see the beginning of the chat from here and it is not even that long!
EB: secondly no, i was doing my homework! school started last monday, duh.
TG: yeah i know that
TG: i may not go to public school like some chumps i know but we still got school here in texas
TG: class in session professor bro is in the HOUSE
TG: today were learning how to do sick stunts with your four-wheeled device and a balcony rail
EB: how does that even work? does he actually have a teaching certificate or whatever?
TG: i dont fucking know dude i mean hes smart or whatever hes got the same brains as dirk remember
TG: unless that shit like
TG: idk
TG: turned to mush and leaked out his ears along with the whole cal thing but tbh he seems like he knows his shit a la mathematics
EB: oh yes, dave, we are all super impressed by your two smart bros and their big brains. *ROLLS EYES*
EB: but that reminds me, there’s something i forgot to tell you!
EB: jeez sorry, all this new stuff is seriously kicking my ass, haha.
TG: wow pulling a jade on me now huh guess you two really are related.
EB: shut up, dave!! i’m trying to tell you, god.
EB: i’m homeschooling with jane now.
TG: whoa what why
EB: it just felt like the right thing to do, i guess.
EB: the subjects are a lot harder now and jane can help me catch up.
EB: and also....
EB: if i’m being honest, it just feels weird? being back home like everything hasn’t changed.
TG: yeah no kidding
TG: i mean kickass time powers aside shit has been fucked sideways since we got back idk how im even handling that piping hot garbage right now
EB: well from what dave’s said and i’ve seen i’d say not very well :B
TG: wow egbert that is hells of rude coming from a dude with windy powers and literally no self control
EB: oh man i am laughing so hard at this SICK burn, i cannot believe how badly i have been burned just now.
EB: i keep telling you, it’s just different now, STRIDER!!
EB: like i’m pretty sure i hit peak god tier during that final battle, but nothing here works the same as it did in the game. it’s weird!
TG: weird is definitely a word for it
TG: fucked beyond all measure is another
EB: or several, haha.
TG: ha yeah
TG: doesnt really feel like this world is set up to worship us as gods or some bullshit
TG: at least i havent seen any temples or gotten any sacrifices or nothing
TG: unless youve been holding out on us egbert
EB: i don’t know about that.
TG: wtf does that mean
EB: it means i don’t know, dave!
EB: about us being actual gods or this being like, the final world?
EB: our world, i mean. that we created!
TG: k john i think ive really lost track of what were talking about here
EB: well okay it’s just,
EB: this was always one of our wishes, right?
TG: what
EB: to save our planet! to save earth :(
TG: oh
TG: uh yeah i guess i mean we all kind of assumed that at the start right
TG: but the trolls said thats not how it worked
TG: so what we created a paradox and were all fucking doomed is that what youre saying
EB: well, maybe!
TG: not inspiring confidence here john
EB: unless....
TG: unless
EB: unless it’s not OUR earth? does that make sense?
TG: not a goddamn lick dude
EB: bluh bluh you’re being obtuse on purpose because you’re so cool bluh bluh.
TG: you knock those human bluhs off right this instant i aint your hate crush this is some serious shit
TG: youre talking doomed timeline biz
TG: aka the exact biz of yours truly
EB: i think it’s more dave’s, than yours. but it doesn’t really matter!
EB: i am honestly just repeating a light theory, here.
TG: let me guess
TG: jade
EB: haha, duuuuhhhh.
EB: i just think, well, she hasn’t been wrong so far!
TG: so this isnt our earth then whose is it
EB: i don’t really think i should have to tell you!
EB: but because i am so magnanimous and cool, i will!
TG: nope too late i figured it out and dont need you anymore im just going to ask jade
TG: later dude

turntechGodhead [TG] ceased pestering ectoBiologist [EB]

EB: striiiiiiiiiderrrrrr!!!!!!!!

And maybe you will ask Jade about it, but probably not. It’s not that you’re not curious about the theory, it’s just that it brings you back around to Dirk’s missing bro, Jade’s vague prediction, and the uncertainty of what your future holds. So it’s not that you don’t want to know, it’s just. Okay, you kinda don’t want to know. Classic Time player stuff, they just don’t get it. And stuff.


Your second week of September is spent lying on the floor in the living room waiting for the heat to break.

“I’m dying,” you say, to no one, to all of them.

“Join the club,” Dirk groans, from somewhere to your left. He’s lying on the linoleum in the kitchen, and when you tried to scoot over to him, he kicked you away. Selfish bastard.

“Didn’t you live in the middle of the ocean? Did it still get hot like this?” Dave asks. He’s hanging half off the futon, just out of your reach but still directly in line with the fan as it pauses its oscillating for a merciful 3.5 seconds to cool the secondary layer of sweat on your skin.

You’re kind of disgusting, and not in a pubescent nasty way. At least you hope not. Karkat was probably right, you fucking reeked for, what? Two outta three years at least. Terezi never fuckin’ complained about it, anyway.

Haha.

God, you miss them sometimes. (A lot of the time.)

“Hard to compare, I think,” Dirk sighs, and you adjust yourself to look at him, lying on his back with his hands folded on his stomach. He abandoned his shirt an hour ago and you follow the curve of a scar that marches its way up over his shoulder and behind his neck. “Nights were cooler, I guess. With the breeze off the water ‘n all. Everything else is just...” He raises a hand and kind of waves it in the air. “Statistics. I hardly had a means of keeping track. In his infinite wisdom, my Bro did not think to include a thermometer for my use.”

“You didn’t hate that?” you blurt, foolishly. “Not knowing.”

He lulls his head towards you, and shadeless, there is something bordering on sweet to his smile. “No. There’s a lot of things I resent about my childhood and concurrent isolation, but forgetting to pack a thermometer is the least of my concerns.”

And it’s stupid, for you to feel guilty about that. For you you to feel even the tiniest bit bad about something as insignificant and completely out of your control, but you do. He has that effect on you, Dirk. You’re kind of learning to live with it.

“Oh,” you say. Then, “Sorry.”

He lets out a little snort and rolls away from you, instead of looping you both into a constant stream of apologizing to one another. You’re getting better at that. Gold stars all around.

Instead you flail an arm up onto the futon until you hit Bro on the leg. He hums acknowledgment, which you figure is more than enough to proceed with your terrible plan. “Hey. Fix the AC.”

He shakes you off half-heartedly. You assume whole-hearted would involve something like a foot to the teeth, or you being tossed off something. You don’t know. “Fuck you,” he rasps, and his voice sticks in this throat, tired and thirsty like the rest of you. “Go study or some shit. You got a test due on Monday. Or whatever.”

You absolutely do not. He’s full of shit and you both know it. “No way, man,” you say, slap at him petulantly. “It’s too hot for that, I can’t possibly concentrate in these conditions. My focus is solely on not melting through the fucking floor. Seriously, my brains are gonna start leaking out my ears. Gonna leave a pretty nasty stain on the carpet. Probably take weeks to get that shit out, and on top of it you’ll be down one Dave. How depressing would that be?”

“I resent that,” Dave monotones, voice muffled into the mattress. He gathers up the energy and flips you off, on top of it.

You almost tell him you’re proud, he’s braver than any U.S. marine, expending energy like that, but instead you ignore him, batting at the futon insistently. “C’mon, Bro. You’re mister mechanical genius, I don’t see why you can’t get your ass up onto the roof to like. Do whatever. Fix it? Show it who’s boss? Why is it even broken again, how much do you pay for this shithole, anyway?”

He sighs out his nose and drags both legs over the side of the couch til his feet hit the floor, almost kicks you in the head. You stubbornly slap at him. You will not be deterred that easily. “Dude, seriously. Seriously. Bro. Bro c’mon, please? I’m fucking dying here.”

“For the record,” he says as he climbs to his feet, and you think you do a great job not flinching away when his hand almost touches yours on his knee, “I’m not doing this for you."

“Fuck you,” you say weakly, don’t move when he steps over you and walks over to pull on the crawlspace cord. He’s been doing that a lot lately.

Walking, you mean. Instead of flashstepping.

Instead of a lot of things, really.

For a dude who claims not to do shit for you, he sure does... do shit. For you.

Sometimes.

“What are you doing?” you ask, and he pauses a beat, completely blank, just for a second. You hate it when he does that. It throws you for a fucking loop.

“I look magic to you, brat?” He snorts. “Need my tools.” And he hops up, grabs the rim of the opening, and hoists himself up in one fluid motion. It’s almost more disturbing when you can actually see him do it. Maybe you prefer the flashstep, after all.

You roll onto your stomach, wince as your shirt bunches up and you hit warmed carpet. Ugh. Summer can be fucking over any goddamn day now. This shit is getting ridiculous.

You haven’t been young enough to lift like a football since you were thirteen easy, so needless to say when you find yourself hoisted very suddenly, you let out a noise more akin to a shriek than a yelp. “What the FUCK -” is all you manage, and then you are, in a single blink, dropped into the shade of some smelly ass melting gravel.

You groan, scrambling for purchase and settling for flipping onto your back so you can glare at Bro, who’s hunched beside you, already elbow deep in wires with a shitty little grin on his stupid fucking face.

“What the fuck,” you repeat, just in case he missed it the first time.

“You wanted me to fix the AC,” he says lightly, pulling a full bundle of wires out in a tangle. “Figured you wouldn’t mind volunteering to play assistant for the day.”

You grunt, push yourself upright. “You’re an ass. We both know there’s nothing up here for me to do, and you just wanted an excuse to be shitty for fun.” You wipe your hands on your pants. The roof isn’t fun to land on, but you’re not actually hurt.

“Maybe,” he says, but he’s distracted, starts to wrap some of the cording around his arm until it’s neatly spooled.

You watch for a few minutes. You realized right away that your phone is still downstairs on the floor, and you have no way of accessing it right now, and absconding the situation isn’t on your top priorities. Bro is kinda shitty, and it’s hot, of course, but he’s not actually doing anything right now, so you may as well

You can hardly say “enjoy” it.

Tolerate, maybe.

It startles the absolute fuck out of you when he talks first. “So.” You see his mouth twitch down when you full-body flinch, and you struggle very hard not to look guilty. Fuck him, you’re well within your rights.

You knew Bro for thirteen years of your life, and you have recently known him for five months more (days hours minutes run through the back of your mind like the tick of a clock that you can almost block out, if you ignore it hard enough), and you are still unfamiliar with the complicated array of micro-expressions that cross his face in a way that cannot be voluntary.

Instead he looks away, down towards the wiring system, and you see his lashes around the edge of his shades, the way he’s almost human in these stilted moments of awkward silence.

“So,” he says again, an exhalation on a held breath. “You and - and him.”

Bro rarely spoke without purpose growing up. Not in all things, of course, but in the ones that mattered. or you thought mattered, back then. The hesitance now, the way you can see Dirk between the cracks. It’s bizarre. It probably always will be.

You fold your legs up towards your chin, tilt your head an inch. “Who, Dirk?”

He grunts. You take that to mean ‘Obviously, idiot.’ 

“What,” you snap on reflex, defensive for no sane reason you can think of. “What about us?”

Bro sighs, drops the cord and shoves both hands into the side panel. “You’re...” He trails off, clucks his tongue.

Ugh. You groan, wipe a hand down your face. “You and everyone else needs to hop the fuck off that train right now.”

Bro scowls, gives you a look that could kill a man unprepared, and you regret interrupting him immediately. You scoot back so you’re on the ege of the shade, can feel the sun burning your fucking arm hair. “You’re close,” he says slowly, like you don’t get it, or he doesn’t want to say. “In a -” He stops, looks down at his work. Clears his throat. “A meaningful way. You get along.”

“Oh,” you say, and feel yourself turn red, and not really from the heat. “Well. Yeah, uh. We get along really well, actually. I dunno. Got a lot in common and everything.” You flick your eyes to him, think about how Dirk will look just like him, one day. Barring the broken nose, maybe. Might be too early to tell. “I guess.”

Both of you continue not to speak, him perhaps because he doesn’t have anything to say, you because you don’t know what you should say.

“Did you drag me up here just to ask me that?” you finally ask, when it’s been silent too long and you feel like you might burst.

He furrows his eyebrows. “What?” Then, before you can answer, “No, Jesus fuck. I was just -” Bro sets his hands on his knees, breathes in heavy through his nose, sighs again.

“Just what?” you murmur, and if it was Dirk, you’d take his hand, or you’d touch his knee, or any of the other absolutely ridiculous gestures that have cultivated between you like bad habits shared by toddlers. You crack your knuckles against your knee for lack of anything better to do with your hands.

Bro’s silence has bothered you a thousand times, and you’re sure it’ll bother you a thousand more. He drags a hand down his face, a familiar gesture, leans forward until the bill of his hat bonks against the AC unit. “Reckon I was just making polite conversation. It’s kind of pathetic, isn’t it? Checkin’ on you like I’ve got any right at all to do just that.”

You stutter to a stop. Open your mouth. Close it. Your internal clock ticks five seconds, then ten, then thirty, and you choke on a reply. It’s not that you don’t know that Bro sees you both, obviously he does, and obviously you’ve been in close proximity since you beat the game, but you didn’t really think about how he might - well there’s a lot you don’t really think about, anyway.

You grind hard against the urge to shake your leg to the beat of a clock no one else can hear. It’s been bugging you since the night you time-traveled, has increased in presence and volume since you shoved your hand into a tangled web of frozen time and yanked it free.

“It does feel a little weird,” you admit quietly, even though you didn’t really want to tell him. The Dirk Effect, you decide, is starting to bleed a little bit. “I mean, shit with us is kinda.... It’ll probably always be a little bit weird? With the way things were, its - Well, I’M weird, and you’re -”

“Me.” He snorts softly, but he’s almost smiling, you think. “Yeah, I know. I get that. But you’re cool? You and him.”

It’s not really any of his business, and you don’t particularly want to talk about your shit with Dirk, with Bro of all people, because it’s not fair to him, not here to defend himself, on top of being fucking weird, and not fair to you, because you have known Bro all your life and he is your own, glaringly obvious weak spot.

You drop your eyes to look at the hole starting to wear in your jeans. You should put your pajamas back on. No one would stop you, you think, and they’d probably hold up better against the sauna that is your fucking body right now, anyway.

“Yeah,” you say eventually, because Bro always expects you to answer his questions when he asks them, and you always have, so why break the goddamn streak?

You falter for something else to say, but can’t come up with anything convincingly chill or funny. Bro probably wouldn’t care either way.

And maybe he doesn’t, or maybe he’s trying. To care, you mean. You don’t know. You don’t really get this guy, lately (it’s becoming more clear that you never really got him at all). “You still think about -” His breath hitches, his mouth curls in a confusing way stuck between a grimace and something like a frown. Concern, discomfort, painted in the tightness of his jaw, the furrow of his brow.

You know what he means immediately, and your stomach goes sour, your chest aching and your fingers numb for how tightly they curl into fists. “Sometimes,” you tell him through grit and chattering teeth. It’s a fight against the phantom weight of your sword in your hand, against the mental image that drags itself to the forefront at the slightest mention. You laugh and it comes out rough, pathetic. “Not as much as I used to, but sometimes, still. Mostly when -” When Dirk brings it up, or you see his sword, or your sword, the way it’s just fucking sittin’ up there in your strife deck, mocking you. Only when one of your friends jokes about dying or you think about Bro’s seizures, the way he still goes too slow from time to time, like a machine with a stuck cog that needs to be greased. There’s a lot more shit going on in your life now than you planned on.

You don’t really want to say all that. So you don’t. “I don’t know. Maybe just more than I wish I did?”

Bro seems to roll this over in his head, watching you in that intense way he has, that he shares with Dirk, and you really fucking wish he didn’t. It’s like he’s a fucking lie detector, scanning your vitals or some shit. You don’t know. “Okay,” he says simply, doesn’t sound convinced. “That’s - well I ain’t gonna call it good. Better, maybe.” He brings a hand up towards his head, ends up pausing to adjust his hat before dropping it again. He doesn’t touch you.

“I didn’t think you’d really care enough to remember that,” you admit, like a moron. It’s a stupid thing to say, and you don’t know why you say it. You’re testing him, maybe, waiting to see what he does.

What he does is open his mouth, close it, and go so completely still and silent that you think you froze time, just for a second. He still does that, sometimes. It makes you deeply uncomfortable. The way he isn’t really staring at anything, how it feels in those milliseconds between a breath, how much like a mannequin, or a puppet, or something entirely unreal he becomes.

And then he takes a deep breath, sighs through his nose, and looks towards the heavens. “Dave, the shit you went through - all of it, I guess, I dunno, maybe I’ve been fucking it up since day one.” He has. He lets out something dangerously close to a wheezing laugh. “I know I’ve been fucking it up since day one. But that Sburb shit? That game shit? I can’t even fuckin’ fathom what that must’ve been like after I bit it. Don’t reckon I ever will. It’s enough to give anybody nightmares.”

There’s a lot to process there, from him admitting to fucking you up, to basically telling you he doesn’t actually know everything (though you guess you kinda knew that, already). What you say is, ”You have nightmares?”

Surprisingly, he just shrugs. “Lots of times, sure. It’s all bullshit, isn’t it? Seems a little miserable, in retrospect, to relive a death over and over.” He stops, then, drums a hand on his knee, one-two-three-pinky, then back again, one-two-three-index. Bro’s always moving in four-four time, a predictable beat, comfortable, familiar. You don’t hate it. “That might be a little harsh,” he admits. “I’m sure your mom would tell me that’s a little harsh.”

“Maybe,” you say. You’re still thinking about the fucked up thing he said immediately before that. “The game threw a lot of stuff at us. Outside forces certainly didn’t fuckin’ help. I guess some of the spaghetti had to stick to the wall.” Then, because you hate yourself, “You dream about dying?”

Bro purses his lips together, tight and thin, a muscle in his jaw jumping. He doesn’t answer you immediately, starts jamming his thumb into the control pad and - doing something. Not clear enough for you to know what. Hopefully fixing the fucking thing. Sweat is starting to pool between your shoulder blades, makes its slow, horrible descent down your spine towards your ass.

“Yes,” he says, quiet enough that you jump, and he sounds mad, he looks mad, working aggressively at the wires and the little metal box in his hands. “Not always, can’t control your fucking dreams, that’d be wild, wouldn’t it? What a concept. But enough for it to -” He sucks in air between his teeth, lets out a heaving sigh that sends the tension tumbling from his frame. It’s a rare sight, to see defeat in the outline of Bro’s form.

You don’t know what to say to that. You have dreams of from doomed timelines all the time. It’s become so common place you forgot it probably isn’t normal. Oops. “Um,” you say.

“Don’t tell your mom,” is all he says, when he finally speaks again.

You can’t help but laugh. This whole thing is fucking ridiculous. “Okay,” you say. You feel a little hysterical. “I won’t. Wouldn’t, even if she asked. Even if she somehow cornered me and demanded I tell her all about your secret dream diary. Shit ain’t passing these lips. Shit’s on lockdown, practically Alcatraz. Grounded for life as an abstract concept, instead of a shitty early 2000’s sitcom.”

“Great,” Bro monotones, as if he’s listening at all, and it’s sweet sweet relief when the AC unit as a whole coughs and sputters to life. “But we’re probably somewhat outdated on our meme references by about three years. Might be time to study up if we ever hope to grace the halls of the Game Bro guest spotlight reviews ever again.”

“Do you think they’re still making that piece of garbage? And I do mean literal garbage.”

His mouth pulls at the corner, curls upward. “Been gettin’ a copy every month since we got back.” He pulls himself to his feet in a singular fluid motion that almost hurts your head to follow. You don’t think he even realizes he does it, sometimes.

You hop up, a little clumsy as you trip after him towards the stairs. “And you didn’t share that shit? That’s practically fucking treason, bro. You have spit in my face, thrown a glove down, a gauntlet, if you will. Now we’ll have to duel at sundown or some shit, while my wife weeps at my imminent death and I wear all black cuz hey, might as well dress for the funeral -”

You don’t realize he’s stopped until you run into his back, almost go tumbling down the stairs.

Bro stops you with a single hand on your wrist, grip steady, if a little warm with sweat. “Easy,” he says, soft, doesn’t complain when you jerk away.

“What gives?” you snap anyway, press yourself tight against the wall so that maybe if you’re fast, you can slip by him.

Bro looks like he’s about to say something, maybe critique your stupid mistake, maybe tell you to fuck off. But then he doesn’t, just turns back around and trots down the stairs, leaving you to follow after him, baffled and a little bit uneasy.


The heat finally breaks two days before the end of September when, against all odds, it fucking rains.

You haven’t seen rain in three years, on that barren wasteland of a meteor, all recycled air and unrealistic game mechanics. You’d expected it in Washington (hadn’t gotten it, and John and Jane mocked you mercilessly for asking), so when you hear the telltale pitter patter against the roof, smell that sharp sting of wet pavement, you untangle yourself from the covers, trip all over Dirk climbing out of bed, and flashstep to the living room before you even bother putting on a shirt.

Bro is already gone for the day, wherever he goes when he’s not working on shit at home, you don’t know, but Dave is up, sitting in his chair with the window wide open. He only turns his head a tick to see you for a moment before looking back out at that blissfully grey sky. “Hey.”

“Mornin’,” you say, and because you have poor social etiquette and also don’t give a shit, you wander over, curve around his shoulder to stick your entire arm out the window. Rain hits your fingertips, cool as anything, and you grin. Holy shit. “Thank fucking god.”

“Thank yourself,” Dave snorts. He rolls back over to the futon and crawls up on it, pulls it upright and curls into the corner. Sometimes you remember Bro almost died on the futon and it grosses you out, just a little. “About fucking time, huh? Didn’t think we’d ever see a normal weather pattern ever again.”

“Kinda fucked up neither of us had weather for three years,” you say, and he just shrugs.

Things with you and Dave oscillate between completely okay and fucked beyond all belief, and it looks like today’s gonna be one of Those days. You guess it’s par for the course on dealing with other versions of yourself. You don’t know. Bro and Dirk get on vaguely okay, even if their relationship seems to be centered mainly around Dirk stumbling on Bro whenever he’s high. You still haven’t gotten to see that, it’s kinda unfair, in your opinion. But they’re wacky, both of them, maybe a little concerning.
The space between you and Dave may as well stretch for a fucking mile. “So,” you start, keep your hand out the window, measure the moments that exist between drops, “where’s Bro?”

He scoffs softly, and you’d know your own eye roll anywhere. “Wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

“Which means you gotta, now.”

Dave sighs, knocks his head back against the couch. You wonder if it’s subconscious, how both of you tend towards dropping your deadpan around each other. Maybe it’s just the depression. “Yeah.”

You should ask if he’s okay. Or maybe that’d come across asshole-ish. You’re not really as much of a master at dealing with your own shit as you like to pretend, probably.

Especially not with him.

You don’t wait for him to speak, walk over to the futon and flop down, stretch out enough that your feet almost touch his knee. He scowls in warning. He knows exactly what you’re doing. “Has he seemed weird to you since we got back?”

You don’t have to say who. Dave leans forward and grabs the remote. “More than normal?”

You hold your hand out for the other pillow. He hesitates, then hands you Bro’s, which you wedge behind your head. It smells like hair gel and CVS brand detergent. You better get comfortable. Dirk’ll wake up when he’s ready and not a minute sooner, and it’s too early to text any of your friends. Bunch of sleepy dicks, the lot of them. “Yeah,” you say. “It’s like -”

“He’s nicer,” Dave suggests.

You make a face. “I was going to say, less of a creep.”

“Right.” He does a full head eye roll again. “That’s what nicer means, dimwit.”

“Yeah, but I don’t know if I believe he knows how to be nice?” That probably came across more paranoid than you meant it to. Well. You’re right, anyway.

Dave sighs again, flips through the channels absently. “Idk,” he mumbles. “Maybe he just misses Mom.”

You raise your head to look at him, the way he keeps his eyes straight ahead and how he’s not really smiling. “Do you really believe that?”

He snorts. “No.” His thumb flips the channels in quick succession, one by one, like low bpm music, like a heartbeat, and you wonder if he knows he’s doing it. He speaks after a minute, quiet, barely a murmur. “But I do.”

“Yeah,” you say, curl an arm under the pillow to prop up a little better. “Me too.”

You watch Saturday morning cartoons on mute for fifteen minutes of tense, uninterrupted silence, and it bothers you so much you almost leave just to escape it. You don’t know what’s wrong with you. Why you can’t just like. Chill.

“So, where is he?” you blurt, on a third commercial break. “Bro, I mean.”

That startles a laugh out of him that is entirely unfriendly. “He said he was going shopping.”

A part of your mind goes completely blank, unable to fill in a proper image because - because you don’t have one. You don’t know if you have any memories of ever going to the store with Bro, beyond the CVS or a random gas station. You remember him letting you collect the Mountain Dew and the road trip snacks, remember bringing him a glass bottle of apple juice, maybe the first time you’ve ever seen him smile. It’s fuzzy, strange, and absolutely absurd. “Are you sure he meant like. Shopping? For what, exactly? Fuckin’ replacement posters? New hats? Taking a quick browse through the brajshop after his extended departure?”

“I think he meant like, grocery shopping,” Dave says, and this time you laugh.

“Are you kidding me? That’s ridiculous, man. Where would we even keep that shit? The fridge has been busted for years, and it’s always been full of shitty swords.” He just shrugs, and you frown. “You actually believe him.”

Dave looks uncomfortable, like he always does when the two of you talk about Bro. You don’t know how this keeps happening. “Why wouldn’t I? If he’s trying to be less shitty then it makes sense that he’d like. Actually buy food? Or whatever.”

Acid curls in your stomach, and your accusation is entirely unfair, comes out low and callous. “You trust him.”

“No,” he says immediately, with such certainty you can’t debate him. He looks down at his hands. “Well. I’m trying to.”

“Yeah, I noticed,” you say, and know immediately that it is too unkind, too bitter in a way that sits on your tongue and burns.

His face screws up and he drops the remote, looks at you. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Don’t answer that.

Don’t do this right now.

You’re not going to like the results, you know it, you fucking know it.

“You’ve been acting like this since we got back,” you say, now in complete idiot mode. Fuck. “Since we beat the game. Like he isn’t a complete douchebag who spent years fucking with both of us.” Shit.

Dave so comfortably fills the space beside Bro, exists side by side with your brother with an ease you never managed.

“Why are you so fucking cool with him? You act like all of this is just no big deal, par for the fucking course.” It’s startlingly like listening to you argue with Rose, all over again. And because you may as well fuck up everything while you’re at it, you say, “Did being part bird screw with your memory or what?”

Dave’s face is like poison, eyebrows set, the shape of his mouth cruel and dangerous. It’s the most you’ve ever seen Bro on your own face, seen Rose insidious, snarling. “Fuck you,” he says, and it’s quiet, dripping with fury.

You messed up. You messed up so fucking bad, and you can’t even rewind time to fucking fix it because you’re pretty sure it wouldn’t effect him. “Shit, dude, I didn’t mean to -”

“I think you know exactly what you did,” Dave snaps, and you’re almost certain that if hadn’t put down the remote, he’d throw it at you. “I don’t need your help, being reminded of my own failures,” he says, and he stares right at you, or through you, in a way that is intensely intimate and a little overwhelming. “Least of all from you. Seriously, you wouldn’t even fucking time travel when Jade was threatening you? I thought I was neurotic, but you’re a fucking mess.”

“At least I’m not projecting all my insecurities onto Bro like some kind of desperate little kid,” you snap, because it stings, even if it’s true.

“No, because you’re too busy projecting them onto Dirk,” and it’s a wonder neither of you has punched the other, because at this point you probably both deserve it.

Your hands curl into fists, and you sit upright, open your mouth to - you don’t know. Make it fucking worse, you guess.

He beats you to it. “You’re the Dave everybody wants and you act like none of that even matters.”

Your mouth snaps shut, your chest goes tight. Uh. SHIT, man. “We’re the same fucking guy, dude.”

“But we’re not,” he says, and he doesn’t look angry now, just kind of sad, small. You wonder if you ever look like that. If you weren’t all fucked up and albino if your cheeks would really freckle like that in the sun. “We haven’t been for a long time.”

“Yeah,” you mumble, uncurl yourself and pop the joint of your thumb against the knob of your ankle. “I know. Do you think -” You take a deep breath. It’s a bad theory if you’re wrong. He won’t want to hear it. It certainly doesn’t feel good to think about. “The reason there’s only one of everyone else. They all fused, right? But maybe we didn’t because -”

“We’re too different?” Dave sighs shakily, taps his fingers against his knee. One-two-three-pinky, one-two-three-index, just like Bro. You wonder, absently, if you’ll always be so similar to him. “Do you think that’s we can. Can do that thing?”

You think about the way his fingers fuzzed into yours, bordering on intangible, how it felt like you licked a battery after you let go. “I don’t know,” you say truthfully, and your skin buzzes at the memory. You hide an unpleasant grimace, but poorly. “I fucking hope not. No offense.”

He just shrugs, but you definitely made it worse than you could have, and your lapse into silence sucks, is fraught with discomfort and tension. You’re considering the downsides of waking up Dirk when Dave speaks again, unprompted, and you don’t expect it.
“He apologized to me, y’know,” he says, and when you jerk your head up, he puts his shades on his forehead, looks at you with those fucked orange eyes, like sunset, like LOHAC lava.

He doesn’t have to say who. “For what?” you ask, but you don’t really want to know. It’s something you can’t really wrap your head all the way around. You remember Bro sitting beside you in a stairwell, pushing a can of coke into your hands, shirt the wrong color and voice too soft.

Dave laughs, but it’s borderline hysterical. “I don’t know. Everything? Kind of? Like all of our - our shit. The ugly messed up stuff no one wants to see.” He winces, and you see yourself in the narrowing of his eyes, how he doesn’t meet your own. “It was kind of a lot to process at the time, and emotions were running pretty hot, but he seemed sincere. I wanted to believe him. I do believe him.” He drops his head, picks at one of his socks absently. “I still haven’t forgiven him yet. Not that he asked me to or anything. I just.... didn’t say anything.”

Your stomach turns over like an old engine, and you swallow back bile. “Why not?” Your voice is rough, throat gummy.

Dave’s eyebrows pinch together, and he bites his lip, lets out a shaky breath. “Honestly? I guess I just don’t know how.”

“Oh,” you say, wrestling with the urge to go puke in the bathroom. “That’s cool, I guess.”

He just shrugs again and you realize, sitting there, burning with misplaced anger and confusion, that what you’re feeling is jealousy.

Chapter Text

“So I was thinking,” and let it be said that this phrase, uttered from Roxy under any circumstances, has never boded well for you in any way, shape or form, “we should do something for Halloween.”

“I am doing something,” you say, leaning back in your chair, phone pressed between your ear and shoulder as you work.

You’re actually doing several somethings. October is a busy month for you, always has been, and foot traffic on your site increases twofold (if not more) with your somewhat odd fanbase’s interest in your Halloween Horror specials. If for nothing more than the morbid curiosity it attracts.

Fine with you. That is, after all, one of the main points (the other points being, of course, motherfucking puppets). All this really means is that you’ve got a pretty tight schedule, and the entire first week and a half has come and gone in a flurry of filming that culminated in a climactic and brutally bloody ending (and you don’t enjoy it half as much as you used to, don’t enjoy a lot of shit the way you used to, and the worst part is you’re not even sure if you care).

You can’t remember the last time you ate (don’t know), let alone slept (don’t care), and you haven’t seen hide nor hair of the Daves (plus one) since the start of it all. Just as well to kick them out, you guess.

Well.

Honestly Dave has always made himself scarce during October (at least during the dreaded film week, he usually comes back around when you hit the editing phase) and you can hardly complain. It’s a lot easier to splatter blood without extra bodies to be conscious of, blocking light sources and getting their feet in shots (you let him help, when he was little, and he still squealed and laughed and tracked bloody fuckin’ rainboot prints all over the floor for weeks). You’d go as far as to say you appreciate the space, but probably not for the right reasons.

“Your weird puppet snuff movies can take a backseat for five seconds, Dirk,” Roxy says, and you roll your eyes. “Don’t roll your eyes,” she adds. You scowl.

“I have a lot of work to do,” you sigh, staring at the hours of editing software that’s looking right back, and it’s not gonna blink first. Fuck you and your overachieving stupid ass bullshit.

“C’moooon,” she wheedles, and the warm, bright tone in her voice makes it abundantly clear that she knows exactly where this is heading. You have never been particularly good at telling her no, not even when you wanted to. “It’ll be fun! And great for the kids, yanno, there’s no game anymore, there’s nothing to stop them from being all normal-like and whatnot!”

You can think of a few things. God level power, for one.

Being born in a lab and hurtled towards Earth on a meteor, for another.

“Do I have to?” It comes out more childish than you meant it to, and you grimace where no one can see you. You’re still a bit of a dick (understatement), even after all this time (not that that’ll ever change, you don’t think). You want to think (pretend) you’re changing, that you’ve changed, and maybe you have (you definitely have, just not enough), but the thing of it all is that you still don’t particularly enjoy the company of practically anybody, and most of the time, you think you’d be better off alone.

Or dead. Again.

Honestly you’re not feeling that picky, at the moment.

Roxy pretends to think it over for a moment. “Yes,” she says simply, and you know you can’t argue. Won’t bother, anyway. She’d win, every time. Universal law, and all that. “C’mon, Dirkleton, live a little. You always liked Halloween, right? It’ll be great! What do you two usually do?”

“Nothing,” you say, and you hear the door creak open slowly behind you, would know the hesitant shuffle of those footsteps anywhere. “Kid trick-or-treat on his own, I worked. The end.”

“Boooo liar!”

You turn in your chair to catch Dave still clutching the doorknob, looking at you like he’s about to track mud all over the carpet. His hair is damp, hangs in his eyes and dapples waters on his shoulders and you think for a moment fuck, is it raining? before you note the towel under his arm, the shorts Rox bought for him three months ago and you remember this morning.

You pull the phone away from your ear. Be cool, bro. “Hey. How was the pool?”

Dave opens his mouth, sucks in a breath of air. You can read the hesitation in his shoulders, the way his feet are planted for a quick escape. You’d know it anywhere. You’re the one who taught him that. It speaks volumes, and it also makes you feel like shit.

“Crowded,” his voice says, but not from his mouth, and there’s your other Dave, rolling in past him, towel in his lap and hair dry and looking irritated. You should have known better than to send them alone. You should have taken Dave to physical therapy instead. Idiot.

You can hear the increased volume of Roxy and you sigh, drag the phone back up. “Hey, sorry. Kids just got back.”

Dave continues to stare at you, and you don’t really know what else to say so you turn back towards the computer, wedge Roxy between your ear and your shoulder, and carefully do not listen to creaking wheels or padding feet.

 

“What is that even supposed to be?”

You don’t sigh, because that would show irritation, and being mad at a kid isn’t going to do anything for you but make you mad at yourself, later, completing some kind of predictable circle of self-loathing you really don’t need, so you keep editing and count to ten before answering Dave. “Severed limbs, non-specific Kermit-like entity. Just obscure enough to keep the copyright lawyers scratching their heads for the next few centuries.”

To your surprise, he lets out something like a muffled laugh, but it’s nervous, maybe a little closer to fear than you’d like. “Jesus Christ, dude.”

“You don’t have to hang out with me,” you monotone, because it’s easier than telling him to get lost. Well. Not easier. More effort, for starters.

(Nicer. It’s nicer, Bro.)

“No, I -” he starts, stops. You hear the shuffle of the blankets and don’t turn around. Sometimes he looks at you like he. You don’t know. Expects something more from you. Maybe something better, maybe something worse. It’s so fucking hard for you to tell. “I don’t wanna say ‘I want to’ because to be honest, you’re kind of boring, dude,” he admits, and you snort.

“I’m working,” you say, drag your headphones off the desk. “Look, kid, you can play the Xbox or whatever if you promise not to break it again.” And this time you do look at him. He scowls magnificently, and you hide a smile.

“Fuck you, Bro,” he says, but it’s not a no. It’s also not a thank you, either, ungrateful little shit, but you think you’ll live.


“Would you take the kids for a week?”

It comes with no pretext, not because you’re trying to kill her, but it bubbles to the forefront of your mind. You think of early summer, Dirk standing away from you, poised to go but hesitant, curious enough to stay. Cautious, always.

“Uh,” Lalonde says, chokes on a laugh that is entirely uncomfortable. “What the fuck.”

“Yeah, sorry, what did you say before that?” You’re getting better at sorry, but the chronic self-absorption and somewhat genetic lack of empathy is a daily struggle. You’re kind of a mess.

“I asked if you had thought any more about our Halloween plans! Jesus, Dirk, get your head out of your ass.”

“Mm, can’t,” you hum, lean back against the AC unit. You should be working right now, but the kids are playing games and shit (together, for once, Christ), and you’re acutely aware of how absolutely exposing and exhausting it is, being on the phone in front of three people who watch you like a hawk. “Been stuck there for thirty years plus, why break a streak.”

“You’re the worst,” she huffs, but you can hear the smile. Your relationship with Roxy hasn’t been easy, not in a long time, but she tolerates you better than most people might.

“I know,” you say, and alone on the roof, you allow your mouth to curl.

“I could, if you wanted,” she murmurs after a moment, and the echo of her heels on tile means she’s in the labs again. You can’t imagine what she even does in there, now that it’s all over. It’s probably better, not knowing.

You’ve never had much of a vested interest in the inner workings of Skaianet. Never had the time, anyway.

You don’t have to ask what she means. “I’d appreciate it. S’not that I don’t like havin’ them around here, I just -”

“Don't, I know,” she snarks, and you think she sounds disappointed (and she’s well within her right to be, isn’t she, with how much you’ve fucked up - you don’t think you’ve ever apologized to her for that). “Will you ever talk to me about -”

“There’s nothing to say,” you lie, and it’s an ache in your chest, the now-familiar burn of something entirely unpleasant. Your hand finds the area at the base of your ribs and presses at it absently. Death may not have stuck, but the memories most certainly fucking did.

“Do you have a scar?” Dave had asked, because he’s your perfect little freak, and you had seen no reason to lie.

You wonder now if that was the responsible decision.

Probably not.

Roxy sighs, and the two of you sit silent like that for a long moment. You should ask how she’s holding up. If she’s really gotten rid of that whole room, the reek of liquor you could smell from the hallway, the way she promised she was going to.

But you can’t ask her that, the same way you can’t tell her that you’re proud of her (you think, you want to be), that you know she’s always been capable of great things, that everyone makes mistakes.

But how can you, after everything you’ve done, the decisions you made, the way you turn and run at every opportunity, the way your lip pulls in disdain at the mere thought of being open for once in your miserable fucking life.

And you think, for a beat (like a heart, like a drum), that maybe you have changed, after all, twisted yourself into this impossible shape that can’t possibly lead to anything more than a broken spine and collapsing ribs.

You need to try harder.

“When?” Rox finally asks, and you do not flinch, consumed in your thoughts, her words a warm beckon backwards.

“After Halloween. Doesn’t even have to be a full week, just -”

A couple days, maybe a few weeks, maybe a few fucking months, Jesus Christ, what you wouldn’t give to sleep ALONE again.

“A couple days, to get my head on straight. Been feelin’...”

Feeling at all, in a sense you can explain, is still taking time you think would be better spent on literally anything else. And you can’t say weird, you can’t say off, you definitely cannot say incomplete.

“Crowded. Since Washington. Maybe longer.” Definitely longer. “Be nice to get some work done in peace.”

“Don’t talk to me about peace!” she scoffs, and you hear the heels again, clack-clack-clack in 3-4 time, same as always, as she crosses the power grid. “As if I could ever get anything done with two girls around!”

She says this as if she is not the one with the shortest attention span out of all of you.

And yes, this time, you are including Jake Harley.

You press your tongue into your cheek to fight the affection threatening to spill into your voice when you reply. She has a way of pulling (yanking, maybe dragging) out a piece of yourself you seldom (if ever) see. “Three boys, Rox.” It’s a bit hard to count the alternate version of yourself currently calling himself Dirk, but neither of you are responsible enough, you think, not to count, either.

“And you want to bring my count up to five all together!” Roxy practically shrieks, and you can hear her hand flapping around from here.

You think about Dirk, sitting next to you with his hand stuck in a pizza box no one else will eat, you own voice asking, “what would you want to do?”

“Maybe only four,” you murmur, and it’s a hard sell, as it stands, asking so much from her when she’s only six months sober, both of you six months alive, hands full, and to add Dave’s chair and accessibility needs on top of it...

But she’d do anything for the boys, you know, because Roxy may be selfish, may not always work to benefit everyone surrounding her, but she is nothing if not capable, if not so full of love she’s bursting at the fucking seams.

Christ, you don’t have to worry how the boys will survive it. You know the little fuckers will eat that shit right up.

Serves them right, after what you did.

What you’re still doing, maybe, if only just a little, and in a completely different way.

“What about your seizures?” Roxy pushes, and you know, you’d think everyone would give you a break for like, five fucking minutes.

You squeeze your eyes shut, give yourself a moment to pinch the bridge of your nose. Bite back on hair trigger anger. Don’t say (it’s none of your fucking business, can’t you just leave me alone, it doesn’t fucking matter) anything you’re going to regret.

You settle on cracking your knuckles one by one and counting to ten. “It’s been months.”

“Barely two!” she reminds you. You roll your eyes. “I do worry, you know, Dirk,” and her voice is soft, vulnerable, and a part of you recoils, and a part of you grits your teeth hard against that.

Push forward. Push past that. “I know,” you manage. “But I’m not a child, and you can’t babysit me forever.”

“I can try,” she says petulantly, and this time, you reward her with something you might even call a laugh.

 

You never did stretch out in your sleep. Not that you spent a lot of time sleeping, anyway, and when you did, it wasn't for very long. You’ve been sleeping on the futon almost half your life, in that narrow little space, and you never bothered to lower it until Dave needed

Well you’re still not entirely sure exactly what he needs, sometimes. You mostly just want him out of your hair, but you can't do that because the other two are already sharing a bed and. Jesus, this apartment is too fucking small. You could just get them bunk beds, or some stupid shit like that.

But he’s got hangups and you’re fucking exhausted, so you lie on your side staring at the TV and thinking you should tell him the plan. Wonder, minutely, if he even wants to go in the first place.

“Your mom’s comin’ back to stay with us next week,” you tell him, and you can hear as much as feel his flinch. You push back against frustration. You know how he gets. How they both get. Your brusque, somewhat informal way of breaking news is not a hit with your one and only audience.

“Oh,” he says, and you don’t speak. Wait for him to say more. With Dave (any Dave) there is always more. He’s always been like that. The rustle of sheets as he rolls over. “Couldn’t even make it two months, could we? What kind of pathetic ass example are we setting for the future? Rose is never gonna let us live this down, and I hope you fuckin’ know that.”

You snort. “It’s Halloween next week, dipshit. Her idea, not mine.”

“Oh,” he says again, and you heave a sigh, maneuver to face him. He’s not much for masking the way he feels without shades to hide behind. You can see how his jaw clenches in the low light, how he avoids looking you in the eye. “I forgot about that.”

You think there’s a very slim chance that is even remotely true, considering he’s been watching you edit and code at light speeds for the past three weeks, but you shrug anyway. Might as well go along with it. “Your mom figures you could use a break, soak up some downtime. What better way than to dress in shitty costumes and parade around downtown looking like an idiot?”

He hums, tucks his pillow between his head and an arm. You know the little fucker will come up with something to say that makes you feel terrible, he just has that effect on you (it’s part of the problem, you think), and you think about what it must have been like, losing three years to the game. “What about you?”

There he goes again, pushing at you. You don’t blink. “Who cares about me?”

“I do,” he mumbles, and it’s more sincere than you like. He’s always more sincere than you like. It’s not that you raised him to be a liar, ‘course, you just genuinely cannot handle the insane amount of emotional honestly that’s been thrust at you in the past four months, maybe longer.

Sigh, bite back a retort. If you fuck up again, Crocker will know, you would bet your boots on it. “Who gives a shit, kid.” You try bargaining. “Look, I’ll drive you over to River Oaks, figure those motherfuckers can afford a full size candy bars, make your trip short ‘n sweet.”

“Over to -” he splutters, and he’s not even pretending to whisper now. “We’re going trick-or-treating? Aren’t we like, too old for that now?”

You roll your eyes, try not to be bothered that he can actually see you do it. You cannot believe you are having this conversation right now. “Who fuckin’ cares. Your mom trick-or-treated until she was almost eighteen.”

He squints at you silently, pinches his lips together while he figures out how to respond. “Nuh-uh.”

“Mmhm,” you say, and you’re not smiling, not even a little, tuck your arm under your pillow slowly (always so fucking slowly these days, like moving through jello, like you need a fucking walker, Christ). “Pretty sure she’ll still have pictures somewhere. She was a nightmare with a Polaroid.” Your mouth turns sour and you don’t have to imagine the way he tenses up, out of the corner of your eye, but you are not cruel enough to mention it, not this time, even if it bothers you (and so many things do, these days). “Then she discovered house parties and -” Okay you can’t fucking tell him that. “Well. Doesn’t matter. She ‘n I fell out of contact pretty soon after that. She didn’t need me anymore.” A shrug here, keeping the bitter disappointment out of your voice there. All in a day’s work. You don’t want him to think any less of Roxy, not when she’s been working so fucking hard to fix everything all on her own. You haven’t helped as much as you should. “Your mom has never really needed anyone. Even if she thinks she does.”

Dave doesn’t seem to know what to say to that, staring at you in that uncomfortable, intense way he has. There’s accusation in his eyes, when he looks at you. Well-deserved, you know. But it doesn’t make it any easier.

Not many things in your life have been easy, since you rose from the dead like some kind of fucked up video game version of Lazarus.

Instead, he says, “Did you trick-or-treat?” and it throws you off enough that your eyebrows rocket up towards your hairline.

“What?”

It comes out harsher than you meant it to, you can tell, because Dave curves in towards himself in increments, millimeters no one would notice but you. You cannot say sorry, because it is not something you have inherently done wrong, and to apologize for being yourself would be.

Problematic, even for you.

Especially for you.

You don’t let him repeat himself. You’re an idiot. A cruel, somewhat inept idiot, but you’re not a fucking addle pate. You try to think about the last time you did, in fact, trick-or-fucking-treat. It had to be before you moved out. Before you were on your own (you have always been on your own, in the same way you were never on your own, but now isn’t really the time to think about that, definitely not in front of Dave). “Yes,” you say, and then add, when he opens his mouth, “I don’t have any pictures.”

You think he looks disappointed, and a little tightness balls itself up in your chest, a foreign sensation that leaves you entirely uncomfortable.

(You will realize, later, that it’s a kind of guilt.)

“Okay,” he says, and you fight (and lose against) a sigh.

There are very few ways you can approach Dave and Dave that does not immediately make them cringe, but you remind yourself to be patient, because they sure as fuck have been, and it’s disturbingly easy, reaching out, giving him an almost-pat, half-hair ruffle. It pulls through your fingers like down and you try not to think about the flap of wings, the horrible growling, the teeth-chattering laughter that played in the back of your head like a record stuck on repeat.

“Go to bed, kiddo,” you say, and your voice is soft, low as it always has been, but perhaps, you imagine, just for a second, just a touch kinder.

He doesn’t shrink away from you as he rolls over with a huff, more embarrassed than anything, and you let your hand fall away, don’t quite stop a smile. “Goodnight, Bro,” he says, meek as anything, and you see the knobs of his spine caused by the hunch of his shoulders.

There are better ways to respond to this. There are kind, soft ways. What comes out of your mouth is “Uh-huh,” and you think, God fucking dammit.

 

You don’t tell them about your plans with Rox. It’s not that it’s none of their business - just the opposite, it’s just that you’re not really in the mood to deal with what will be an inevitable argument from one of them, and you haven’t yelled at anyone since

You don’t really like talking about it.

You pick up her and the girls alone (the boys take up too much room on their own, and you already hate driving rentals, to start with) on the Monday before Halloween, and you feel strange, standing alone in the middle of the baggage claim. It reminds you of being younger, of being alone (but you weren’t alone you had him), clutching a single electric orange suitcase in one hand and a soft little mitten in the other.

There are better ways to spend a weekday, of course, and you think about your files at home, ready to launch in two days if all goes according to plan. You’re thinkin’ midnight drop, watch the numbers rise for an hour before you pass out or something. If Rox weren’t here, you might even drink a beer. Oh well. Better safe than sorry with her, always.

You wish you were at home, in your bed sleeping instead of standing here, feeling like a dude watching paint dry while the airport fills up and people swarm around you in groups of twos and threes and more. You could just leave, but Rox would absolutely eviscerate you if she had to take a cab, or potentially just kick you in the balls. She’s not too picky.

You hear her before you see her, and isn’t that just so on fucking brand. Her squeals of delight echo down the gangway as she shuffles towards you in high-heeled boots.

“DIRK!!” is the only warning you get before she throws her arms around you and proceeds to choke the ever living shit out of you.

There are two ways to deal with this, and trying to pry her off of you only results in her clinging tighter. So you sigh, you cave, and you bow your head enough that your forehead bonks against hers. There is something warm there, when you touch your hands to the place between her shoulder blades, and a smile pressed into her hair as you turn your head to hide it belongs to the two of you, and the two of you only. 


You don’t hate mini-Roxy, for several reasons. She has a magnanimous personality that makes her hard to dislike and the bright, borderline maniacal way she laughs is so reminiscent of your own Lalonde that you have a difficult time trying to ignore her.

Still, it tests your patience when she leans over your shoulder, hand warm through your shirt, and it sends needles down your spine at the unexpected contact. Casual affection is a foreign, uncomfortable new element in your life, and you do not like it any more than you did six months ago.

“Whatcha doin’?” Roxy speaks with the same kind of off-rhythm tone as Dirk, twisted into New York staccato instead of a drawl. It’s like a badly tuned piano, like the idea of what someone thinks an accent should sound like. You’re not judging too harshly. You know things were... different, for them. You don’t really understand all the details. Or have a hard time believing them, anyway.

“Waiting,” you grunt, try to roll her off you. She only drapes more aggressively, and you sigh, figure fuck, may as well let it happen. She’s stubborn, you’ll give her that.

Lalonde lets out a wild roar of a snore behind you, and it startles a laugh out of you that you clamp down on immediately.

It’s too late, of course. You can hear Roxy grin before she speaks. “Don’t,” you warn.

“I didn’t say nothin’,” she huffs, shoves at you gently. You’d be impressed she isn’t scared of you if she wasn’t so damn smug about it. “So what are you actually doing?”

“Your doppelganger’s in my spot,” you monotone simply, drum an impatient hand along the keyboard. Tick-tick-tick as you struggle not to shake your leg like a child. “I’m hoping she rolls the fuck over so I can go to bed.”

“It’s almost midnight,” she points out. “If I know me - or not-me, I guess, lol - she ain’t movin’ anytime soon, dawg.”

You know that. She knows you know that. You know she knows you know that. Circles on circles on circles.

You guess it doesn’t really matter if she knows. Your Roxy has always thought you were weird, probably always will. Doesn’t bother you none. “The official release for the Halloween special is midnight. It has to be on the dot or I’ll get email upon fuckin’ email about it til the cows come home.”

“People really say that?” she blurts, and you tilt your head just enough to look at her.

There’s genuine curiosity there, and that just makes it worse, the wide pink of her eyes, the way her mouth seems to curl up naturally, stark contrast with traditional Lalonde black. You’ll never understand these dames and their godforsaken lipstick.

“Sometimes,” you tell her, and it’s still weird, and you wish she wouldn’t touch you, but don’t know how to ask her to stop it, and if Dave weren’t passed out on the floor of his room (and you checked, too, because you - you don’t know, that’s what parents do? you think?) he’d probably be flipping his shit right now. “Rarely. It doesn’t really matter. Bottom line, shit’s gotta be done and I’m the man pullin’ the strings. Figuratively, and in this situation, quite fucking literally.”

Roxy actually does smile at that, left cheek dimpling before the right, and you don’t look away because it feels like a challenge. “You know,” she starts, and Christ, here we fucking go “you’re a lot like Dirk.”

Well. That certainly is something she just said, there.

You’re kind of unsure of how to respond to that, grapple for a retort. Finally settle on, “No shit.”

“I mean, beyond the genetic duplication, dummy,” she says, knocks her elbow roughly against the side of your head. Your hat tips to the point of falling.

It doesn’t hurt, so you let it go, shift and remove your hat entirely. You’re not really in the mood for this conversation, at 11:47 pm the night before Halloween, with a pesudo-clone of your one and only best-worst friend. You are very suddenly, all at once, completely fucking exhausted. “Okay,” you say. You don’t really want to do this right now. Or ever.

“You work too much,” she explains, and there is warmth in her voice, a bleed from her Dirk to you, you’re almost certain. “You get these wacky ideas that you just can’t fuckin’ stop yourself from doing, even if someone tells you not to, and then you spend so much time wrapped up in your shit to the point that you forget everything else exists, or matters, and that other people have feelings, too.”

She’s not wrong, but you resent it, so you ignore her. Ten more minutes.

She’s staring at you. You can feel it, and you curl the fingers of your right hand until the nails press into your palm. You will not snap at a little girl. Not even Roxy Lalonde. Maybe especially her.

“I don’t really give a shit,” you say.

Roxy moves her hand off your shoulder turns to lean against the desk instead. “I think that’s probs not true, but I don’t know you well enough to dispute it.” She pauses, thinks about that. “At least not this u. Dirk’s not an easy book to read, but he always gives a helluva lot more shits than he pretends to.”  She goes quiet for a moment, pinks at the edge of your speaker. They probably make better quality stuff now, three years down the line. You don’t know if you’ll bother replacing them, though. You have never liked change. When she does speak again, it’s a murmur. “I think you probably do, too.”

You sigh out your nose, lean back in your chair. You don’t love the idea of being compared to the kid, even if she’s not completely off the mark. This isn’t really how you expected to spend this evening. Your eyes itch and burn and you grind the heel of your hand into them because she’s probably the only one who won’t stop you. “Kid, I really don’t think this is an appropriate conversation for you ‘n I to be having.”

“Because I’m a teenie?” She wiggles her eyebrows. You scowl.

“Because it’s fucking weird. Don’t any of you ever fucking sleep?”

“Mmmmmnope!” She waves her hands at you, and you watch the clock tick 11:58. Two more minutes. “I’m just sayin’, you get rly focused on your shit, just like Dirk, and sometimes it gets to the people around him. Or you, I guess.”

You pivot your foot so that your chair faces her straight on. You can see how uncertain she is now, how she gnaws at her lip, how, in the blue of the computer screen, you can see the bitten edges of her nails. Maybe you’re worse than you thought. “You’re not talking about Dave,” you say. If she was, it wouldn’t be Roxy, bugging you at - your eyes flick to the bottom right corner of the screen - 11:59. Sixty seconds and counting. “What do you want from me, Lalonde?”

That makes her eyebrows knit together, a frown forming in familiar lines across her face. You have known Roxy Lalonde for a long, long time.

You look away long enough to hit enter and sigh again. Relief, anxiety. There it goes, out onto the internet for whatever fucked up audience you have left. It’s over now, anyway. You can crash, if you want. Maybe for a few days, if everything works out.

“What I want doesn’t matter,” she insists. You sincerely doubt that. It’s unfair to say your Roxy is selfish, even if it’s probably true. But you don’t know her duplicate well enough to tell, and you’d be a hypocrite to mention it.

“But there is something you want,” you say patiently. You don’t know why you’re tolerating this horseshit.

Well.

You do, but you hate that soft part of yourself more than you can properly express, and it’s kind of late to pull a one-eighty now.

Roxy looks down at her hands, and you think about how much Dave really does look like her. You’d forgotten, you think, how Lalonde used to be, as a kid. “I’m trying not to make everything about me, even tho I know you don’t really care if I think it is or not. Rose doesn’t -” Her hand finds her mouth absently while she talks, and she bites at her thumbnail, doesn’t look you in the eye. You don’t try to stop her. Not your shitty kid.

You have a faint, somewhat annoying idea of what she wants to say, and you’re honestly not really in the fucking mood for it, but oh well. You’re kind of trapped, with her standing between you and the only exit available. “You want me to talk to Dave’s sister? That’s what this is about?”

She at least has the balls to look aggravated at that, and you wonder if no one’s told her yet that she doesn’t have to pretend to be happy all the time to make everyone else’s lives her perceived notion of easier. “She has a name,” she says, and you just shrug.

“I’m aware of that.”

That earns something closer to a pout than a scowl, but at least she’s on the right track. “It’s not weird for her to want to know you. U get that, right? You’re a Dirk, too, I kno at least a lil bitty part of you is just as curious about her as she is about u.”

Lalonde the younger has not gone unnoticed by you, no. The fact that she stares at you, that she’s always gone a cutting little remark waiting for you definitely hasn’t. Not that that really bothers you. It’s not so much a point of interest for you as a point of terror. The uncomfortable knowledge that another human shares half your genes, and the pieces of you that shine through so clearly just make you

You don’t know.

Nauseous, maybe.

Like dread dripping down the spine, like hot sour bile climbing up the back of your throat.

It is not her fault (mostly), but you have spent the past few months avoiding being the only other person alone in a room with your, your daughter?

Christ, should you be paying child support or - or some shit? Holy fuck. What the fuck.

“I’ll take it into consideration,” is what you say to Roxy, who is staring at you with her lips pressed together, fists curled loosely at her sides, stance good enough for fighting.

Which reminds you.

Roxy gets into your good books simply by merit of being the only person so far who, when you reach into your strife deck, does not immediately yelp or scramble backwards. You brandish your sword, hold out the hilt towards her with the blue cloth visible. “This your handy work?”

She lets out a gasp and it’s simple Roxy Lalonde 101, because just like that, she’s completely distracted. She takes it from you with a look of wonder and delight, and when it leaves your fingers, you feel like a weight has been lifted off your chest, a tightness you never realized you were carrying. “Holy fuck, is this...?”

“Mmhm.” The way she’s holding it is entirely unsafe to the point of making you grimace, but you can keep an eye on her and take a moment without your murder weapon to breathe at the same. “Not sure how it founds its way back to me. Reckon when the Game ended, certain factors reset to their default location. For us, it was the roof. For the sword, guess it was with me. Barring what I assume is your uh. Ribbon?”

“It’s a mask,” she says with a grin, pulls it off with one hand, balances the sword in the other. It wobbles. “I’m one heck of a rogue, all stealing stuff that don’t exist and whatevs.” Christ al-fucking-mighty, that is dangerous, but she seems to manage it okay. Probably uses fistkind, with arm strength like that. Guess some things are universal constants. She frowns. “I guess I stole Her life, too, huh?”

You don’t really know what that means, at first, until you remember what Dirk told you about Dave cutting off his head. That said, you do NOT need to have another conversation about murder with a teenager. You’re still kind of avoiding the first one. “I think killing a villain is something that heroes are supposed to do,” you say, gentle as you can. When you reach out, pry the sword from her hands, she lets you, and you try to ignore the way your stomach drops, guts all twisted up inside.

There are burdens you can handle on your own, regardless of whether or not you want them. This is one of them.

You banish it back to your deck with a wave of your hand and then she’s just standing there, holding a mask and looking a little defeated. “It’s okay to feel bad about it, though, if you do,” you add, like some kind of bizarre obligation you can’t quite stop yourself from fulfilling. You think, absently, that you’re getting too much practice at this.

“The thing is,” Roxy starts, and her voice catches in her throat. “The thing is, I don’t.” She laughs, but it’s harsh, a little hysterical. “I feel like maybe I should? Feel worse about it, but when I think about what she did, to me an’ Dirk, to Janey and Jake and just...” She takes a deep breath, squeezes the mask tight until it vanishes with a pop. You both stare at her empty hand.

“Does that happen often?” you ask, try to keep your voice casual.

She sputters a laugh, weak and soft. “Not recently!”

“That seemed like a god thing. Did it feel like a god thing?”

“I don’t know.” She shrugs, rubs her hands together like it’ll help the nerves, and her smile slides back off her face before it can really acclimate to its time there. “I don’t feel bad. About it. Just kind of uneasy-like and maybe a little - um. Satisfied?”

Well. You’re extra not built for this kind of conversation. You’re struck again by how young they all are, how it must be, to be a god at such a young age. Whatever that entails. “I think that’s okay, too,” you say, and wish these conversations would stop happening.

She sniffs, looks at your with shining eyes. “Yeah?”

You don’t lie as a habit, simply because you have never especially needed to, so you sigh out your nose, turn the chair back around, and say, “Yeah.”

 

“I don’t think people are going to understand what you’re going for here,” Rose says, leaning into the bathroom to watch Dave and Dirk apply their somewhat bizarre if delightfully terrible makeup.

You think that’s probably part of the point. You hover behind her and too the side, just far enough that neither of you touch. You came over here to tell them to shut the fuck up, but came to a complete halt when you saw the way they were dressed. Now you’ve all been standing here just watching this train wreck happen. You probably could have offered to help. Should have, anyway.

“I think that’s part of the point,” Roxy says with a giggle, validating you entirely. She’s perched on the edge of the toilet, face painted grey and white-blonde hair pinned to look short. You think you’re missing the significance of the green suit and red bowtie, but you’re not about to ask any of them, either.

She’s like, a wizard? You think? She has a wand. The rest... you’re not entirely sure about.

What the fuck ever.

“It absolutely is,” Dave says, and when he turns to you with the outline of some kind of psychotically bad mouth drawn over the lower half of his face, you have to physically leave before you fucking lose it.

“Did he just laugh?” follows after you, but you are already speeding away, still battling a smile when you reach the kitchen.

Their mom went to pick up Dave from his physical therapy appointment five minutes ago, and the kids’ll have to hold out long enough for him to change and get ready before you take them out. You grab a can of Crush and flop back on the futon, turn on the TV. Close your eyes. It’s rare you don’t have at least some form of a headache, but you figure that’s just part of dealing with. Well. Just everything, you guess. Being alive. Five fucking kids. You know. Life stuff.

You’re scrolling through your websites’ traffic on your phone when she speaks. “I’ve heard a somewhat discredited rumor that you are capable of laughter.”

You freeze with your can at your lips, only stutter a millisecond before catching yourself. Rose stands leaning against the door, her arms crossed and smiling that way she has that makes her look like a fucking shark. Her lips are still painted black, but the whiskers on her cheeks twist with the curve of her mouth.

“Unheard of,” you say, put the coke down on the table. You look from her white ears to the tall cone-shaped at and long, tentacle like sleeves covering her hands. “Please tell me you are literally just a cat and nothing weird or fucked up that I’ll have to search for on the internet later.”

“The tentacles don’t give it away?” she asks, flops them towards you in a comical way. I’m a cat-tentacle princess hybrid, obviously. An ode to our beloved Jaspersprite, now just Jaspers once more. You should get your eyes checked. Squinting at everyone from behind those ridiculous glasses can’t possibly good for someone your age.”

Your blow air out your nose, bite the inside of your cheek. She’s a mean little fucker, this girl, but you almost kind of like that about her. Aside from the existential dread her mere existence provides you, you almost don’t mind that you can see yourself in the line of her nose, the point of her chin. It’s narcissistic, at best. Fucking freaky, at worst. “Gonna be honest, we’ve been livin’ in Houston so damn long I’m pretty fuckin’ sure the shades are the only reason neither of us are blind at all. Dunno how any of you can see in all that mess.”

“We can’t,” she sighs, sits down with enough space between you to make it clear the gesture is passive-aggressive. “At the very least, I can’t. I can’t speak for Mother or Roxy, since neither of them really complain about anything.” She leans forward, drops and elbow on her knees and puts her chin in her hand. “It’s somewhat aggravating, dealing with both of them at once. Roxy is okay, she and I are quite adept at dealing with each other’s multiple neuroses. But...” She rolls her head to look at you. “I’m not quite sure how you handled her, all those years.”

You lift a brow. “Your mom?”

She shrugs. There is something hesitant in her face now, so unlike how she was mere moments ago. You guess you’re partially to blame for that. “I suppose I just keep expecting her to... to revert. For things to go back to the way they were before, when I was thirteen. I suppose I spent so long absorbed in the woman she was, I never expected to deal with the woman she might become, if given a second chance. More time.”

“Christ, we were just kids when she and I were still -” You sigh, lean back. Things with Roxy have been difficult for a long, long time. Since you were teenagers. Maybe before that, you don’t know. There’s a line that blurs in there somewhere, the parts of you that were closer to Cal than yourself.

You guess.

Roxy’s... general problems - habits, addictions, whatever - are the worst kept secret this side of the Mississippi, but you can hardly talk bad on her when you’re.

Well.

You’re you.

"I didn't do much in the way of handling her alcoholism, if that's what you're asking me," you say, and Jesus, isn't this a way to start off your first full conversation. "Why ARE you asking me?"

Rose gnaws on her lip, and you don't need a degree to figure out where she gets it. "Because everyone else acts like it doesn't still affect them. Or me. Especially me. Specifically me, it appears, since everyone - fuck, maybe I should just say Dave - seems to think everything is entirely fine. The herd has moved on, if you will. They don't care that I think it is nigh unfathomable to accept that my mother is cured because she hasn't dipped back into the sauce!" And she doesn't sound like an uppity little brat who's too smart for her own good. Just a kid hurt by her mom who's taking it out (justifiable, really) on you.

There are a lot of ways you could handle this. You could get up and walk away and just. Hide until her mom comes back. You could drag Dave in here and make him deal with this himself. But you told Roxy Jr. you would try (kind of) and if there's anything you're familiar with, it's Roxy Sr.'s alcoholism.

"Your mom wasted a lot of her life," you say, and it is true, but it feels like a betrayal. "She spent a lot of time trying to forget what we - well." You look at Rose, and she pulls her knees up onto the couch, wraps her long sleeves around her legs. "Being a guardian meant dealing with a lot of shit. Knowing a lot of really fucked up shit. We all dealt with that differently." You think about Hass. Yourself. "Or, we didn't deal with it at all. "She got shit done, Lalonde, but she fucked up plenty along the way."

Rose hums, puts drops her head, but not her eyes. The steadiness of her gaze reminds you more of Dirk than it does you. "I spent a long time thinking I could understand her by..." She wrinkles her nose. "By drinking, by putting myself in her shoes. Or my idea of what that meant. I thought, she was just a lonely single mom and it's not her fault. She did what she had to do." She flaps a hand. Or rather, a sleeve. "But that was all postmortem. I feel like I forgave her because she was dead, and I'd never see her again, and that's all there was to say on the matter. And if I didn't let go, I'd never be able to move on. But now..." She releases a shuddering breath, bonks her head against her knees. "I don't know. I suppose I couldn't have possibly fathomed getting a second chance with her. Now that I have it, I'm at a loss for what to do."

And don't you fucking know it. You've spent the last seven months scrambling for purchase, fucking shit up and wishing, desperately, for everyone to leave you alone. You're on the opposite end of the scale, here, but you at least understand where she's coming from.
Somewhat, anyway.

“Your mom is doing her best, now,” you tell her, because it’s true. “She may not have always made the right decisions," which is also true, "but she ain’t malicious, not like you or me. Whatever your perceived idea of her during your upbringing was. Her intent was probably always to do right by you, kid. But that doesn't mean she was right. That you can't be frustrated, or angry." You shrug, roll your shoulders in discomfort. "Rox may not like hearin' what you have to say, but she'll never stop you from sayin' it. You should talk to her. Doesn't gotta be right now, but you should."

Rose frowns. It’s two parts Roxy, one part you, and whole leagues of Dave. You guess they’re sorta-kinda twins? Or something? “You think I’m malicious?”

You snort. Wow, what a thing to latch on to. “I don’t think. I know you are. Same as me. You...” You grimace, and you can’t hide it fast enough, so you don’t really bother. “You remind me of myself, sometimes,” you say, keep your voice low and even. “When I was your age. Doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but I wouldn’t necessarily call it a good thing, either.”

She goes very quiet, unfolds herself to sit, prim and proper, on the edge of the couch. "You don't know what you're talking about." Her voice shakes, and you realize you may have made her angry. Well. Tough shit.

"I told you," you say, and you put your feet up on the table, stretch out your legs. "It doesn't have to be a bad thing. I'm not tellin' you that to insult you, Rose. I'm telling you because I don't want you to end up like me."

Her head whips around. "Mind controlled by a puppet?"

"Alone," you murmur, don't let your mask fall. "Cruel as fuck, and completely alone."

She hums, regards you carefully. It's quiet a beat longer before she speaks. "You called me Rose."

You groan, tip your head back, pull off your hat. You've always pulled your hands through your hair when you were feeling nervous. It is a habit, you've noticed lately, that you cannot quite stop. "It's your fucking name, isn't it?"

"Yes," she says simply, but she's smiling when you roll your neck to look at her. "Thanks, Father."

"Gross," you say, and your mouth turns sour. "Don't call me that."

"What shall I call you, then?" she teases. "Genetic progenitor? Ectoplasm donator? Pops, Padre? Dad? Surely you can't expect me to call you Mister Strider for the rest of our lives? Or at least yours."

"Don't push it," you say. Add, softly, "That last one isn't too bad."

When Rose laughs, it's all you, and it's weird, and it's weirder that you don't complete hate it, or her, after all.


You let her ride in front on the way to River Oaks, despite the (rather loud) complaints from both Daves.

"Because she's not a shitty little brat like all of you," is your answer, when Dave complains for the thirteenth time. "Now shut up and get out of my car."

Dave - DS, Dirk calls him - takes a bit longer to maneuver out onto the road, and you're not entirely sure the angel costume is in good taste, especially here of all places, but you commend the irony and give him a bump before you take off.

"Call me," your mouth say, before you can stop yourself. "If anything happens."

"Oh, yes," he drawls rolling his entire head so you get the picture. "I'll be so fucking sure to do that."

Rose is the last one to depart, standing at the edge of the sidewalk holding her pillow case in one floppy-sleeved hand. You're not sure she'll actually speak to you, for a moment. And then she squints at you, mouth quirked up at the corners. "Should you really be driving at night with sunglasses on?"

You do not smile, not even for an instant, but you lean across the seats, put your shades up on the bill of your hat, and roll the window up without a word before taking off.

Roxy is ready with the movies when you get back, already in her silk pajamas and clutching the biggest fucking bowl of popcorn you've ever seen. "I got it at the mall," she whispers conspiratorially, and you cannot quite stop the air from stuttering out your nose.

"That better be the only thing," you tell her, kicking off your shoes and heading to the kitchen to quickly clean up the kernels she's somehow spread all over the counter.

"No, duh," she snorts as you flop down beside her, curl an arm over her shoulders as you settle in. You grab a fist full of popcorn and shove it in your mouth while she hits play. "I got you some matching jammies!"

And this time you laugh so hard you spew popcorn all over the coffee table.

Chapter Text

To say your SBaHJ costumes go over well during Halloween would be an overstatement, at the least, and a catastrophic lie, at the worst.

Still, you post plenty of pictures to your group chat, and you remind Dave that even if no one else gets it now, if he ever makes it big in this universe, you were the first cosplayers.

He scrolls through his phone roll of badly taken selfies, half of your poorly drawn on beard in one picture and his hilariously perfect Jeff mouth in another, and he smiles. “I shoulda autographed your face while I had the chance.”

Oh God, you sort of would have loved that.

“Appreciate the offer,” you tell him instead, knock your elbow into his, “but absolutely fucking not.”

“The fact that they even gave you candy in the first place is still a mystery to me,” Rose says, shaking her head.

“Please, with Dave ‘I’m literally an angel’ sitting right there next to us?” Dave scoffs. “They didn’t stand a chance.”

“Are you kidding me?” DS is lying upside down on the floor, and he frowns, though it looks more like a pout to you than anything. “That old woman almost fucking eviscerated me, all goin’ against the lord’s work and mocking our savior, blah blah blah.”

“Well,” Rose says, and she’s grinning, “Roxy’s costume certainly shut her up, didn’t it?”

It most certainly fucking did. People reacted to her with a mix between wonder and just straight up horror. It was kind of fantastic.

“Only because they didn’t get it!” Roxy huffs, and you smile when she purses her lips in a mimic of Dave’s pout. It isn’t really her fault, of course, that both of you are somewhat displaced in your pop culture references. It’s hard sometimes, realizing how much of your predecessors work has truly influenced your lives.

“You still looked great,” you reassure her. You know she spent weeks with Mom getting it together, even before you had any inkling they were going to come out this way at all.

She sighs and you feel a twinge of guilt. You know how she feels, and even though you can do precisely nothing to change that, you still want to

You don’t know.

Fix it, you guess.

It’s almost a tragedy, you suppose, how you just can’t help the way you pick and pluck and dig into every single little issue like it’s your burden and yours alone.

You don’t mean to, of course, in the same sense that you do. It’s just so easy, and when you feel like you can really, truly do something, you get so caught up in helping that sometimes all you do is hurt.

You know that.

You really, really need to stop.

But when it comes to Roxy, you just can’t help yourself.

She’s your best friend, your first friend, and above everything (and almost everyone) else, you want her to be happy.

You just don’t know how to fix this, yet. That’s all.

Bro showing up in the doorway unannounced is not new for him. Should hardly be worth mentioning at all, and would probably have gone entirely unnoticed if your head hadn’t jerked up at the hint of movement, sending both Daves jumping when they see him standing there.

You make eye contact (or something close to it) and you both grimace a little, yours prominent, his little more than the twist of his lips.

“Hey,” he says, and his tone is even, low. Trying not to spook them like frightened fauna. It’s something approaching pathetic, even if it’s kind of sweet. “Need to talk to the boys a sec. Scram, Lalondes Junior and Other.”

“Am I junior or is she?” Rose asks at the same time as Roxy says, “Am I s’posed to be Other or Junior?”

Bro’s mouth opens a millimeter before he presses his lips together, and you almost can’t tell if it’s frustration or humor. “Scram,” he repeats, this time with a jerk of the head.

“Don’t we get a say in this?” Dave asks, voice edging towards nervous, but no one is listening to him. You pat his hand. There there.

Rose stares at Bro in the same unnerving way she looks at you, needling intensity and the suggestion that she want to crack your head open and take a look inside.

And then just like that, she climbs to her feet, Roxy along with her. “Okay.”

DS gapes. “Just like that?”

“How can I say no when he asked so nicely?” Rose’s voice is saccharine sweet and completely incomprehensible. She comes to stand before him, and she looks at him with a smile that is nowhere near as sweet. “Excuse me, Father, but if you would remove your behemoth form from the doorway, Roxy and I would be happy to depart.”

Dave lets out a hysterical, shrill little sound that’s not quite a laugh. “What the fuck?”

Here’s the thing: Rose has been curt with you for the past few days, almost exactly before you left on Halloween night, and you were (still are) almost entirely sure that it has to do with Bro and something weird (possibly fucked up?) he must have said to her. If she realizes she’s taking it out on you, she hasn’t said, but you are smart enough to recognize something has transpired between them, though not enough of a fool to ask Rose about it.

You’re trying to avoid as much poking and prodding as physically (and psychologically) possible.

You touch the back of Dave’s hand again, shake your head, and he drops it, watches the girls go before giving you a look you can’t entirely read. You may have just taken the wrong side, but you also don’t entirely care. You’re pretty sure the two of you can handle disagreeing from time to time, and it’s probably healthy, besides.

“If this is some weird sex talk situation, let me know so I can opt out of it,” DS says, and Bro scowls, unimpressed.

He steps just inside the room, doesn’t close the door. You wonder (suspect, really) if he’s aware of how threatening he looks, filling the frame like that, everyone’s least favorite shadow. “Your mom and sister...s,” he says carefully, like he still hasn’t decided he likes the sound of it. You certainly don’t. “- are headed back to New York next week. Friday. They’ve also got three empty seats booked.” He clears his throat, shifts, and you become acutely aware of just how uncomfortable he is. “If you’re interested in them, anyway.”

Of all the things you expected him to say, this is not it. You had hoped beyond all hopes that he’d forgotten (you almost had), or in the very least that he’d have taken the time to tell (remind) you before dropping that shit like a ten ton nuclear bomb.

“Uh,” DS says.

Dave is less hesitant. He snorts. “An all expense paid trip to the middle of fucking nowhere to hang out with Mom? Sign me the fuck up.” It sounds like a joke, but you can hear the thrill in his voice, the idea of getting out from under Bro’s shadow a bit, having some room to breathe. Not that (in your opinion and experience) Rose’s mom does leave much room at all to breathe. She’s kind of a helicopter.

A fact you’ll probably never share, given her genetic relation to your (aforementioned) best friend.

You watch Dave’s face start to go flat as he thinks about it a little harder. “Wait. For how long?”

Bro folds his arms across his chest, leans against the door jam, and shrugs. “Long as you want. Your mom and I figured a couple’a days to start, but if you need more time, it’s yours.”

“You’ve had this planned for how long and didn’t think to mention it to any of us?” DS rolls himself up into a sitting position, although you reckon it might just be so he can glare more pointedly Bro’s way.

He just shrugs again, spares him a glance. “Week or so before Halloween, maybe. Not long enough to get your panties in a wad over.”

“Fuck you, dude,” DS snaps, and you think it’s inappropriate to be so proud of someone you’re still getting to know, but then, he’s Dave too, isn’t it? Just different circumstances. Just like- like you and Bro.

(They’re nothing like you and Bro.)

“You can’t really expect us to go along with this harebrained scheme to get us to fuck off outta here for long enough that you manage to get yourself killed. Hopefully by accident.”

Bro’s mouth pulls down at the corner, his jaw twitching, but he doesn’t speak.

“Dave’s right,” Dave says carefully, like he’s afraid that Bro will - you don’t know. Honestly, even after all this time, there are still moments with Dave that you don’t entirely understand, no matter how desperately you want to. “You can’t expect us to leave you here, dude. Not after the fit I fucking threw to get you to Washington.” And fuck, you still haven’t told them about what you saw, have you? Oops. “It just kinda seems like a hilariously bad idea, letting you be by yourself after you’ve almost died like, three times in the past six months.”

“Dave,” Bro mutters, and in a moment of humanity, he lets the three of you see him massage the bridge of his nose.

There is something almost touching about them together like this, in the most fucked up whackadoodle way. It’s almost too tender, really, in this moment, a Strider showing his weak side.

They care about him. You know it, Bro knows it, and you are almost (almost) certain Dave knows it.

DS definitely does, even if his tendency towards kindness with Bro comes across more like bullying than anything else. You don’t mind. You think it’s funny.

But however they choose to show it, it makes Bro deeply uncomfortable (it makes them all deeply uncomfortable), and you can tell because he’s you (or you’re him), just how much he wants them to leave him alone.

The thing of it all is, you don’t really want them to say yes.

You’re not an optimist by nature. Any one of your friends could tell you that, would tell you that, if you asked, but there is a deep, very firmly rooted part of you that cannot stop the obsessive thought that your bro might come back.

And it could be any day, it would be any day, it will be literally any fucking day, to the point of arbitration, and it drives you absolutely batshit.

You have always managed well, dealing in absolutes.

The idea of your bro - your Dave - coming back, and you not being here, it’s

It’s too much.

The idea is too much, and it digs into your guys like the claws of an imperial drone, like needles in the base of your skull.

You cannot possibly leave, you cannot possibly be somewhere he can’t find you, you couldn’t handle it, and the possibility cripples you.

“Your mom and I have talked about it already,” Bro says, and when the Daves give him nothing, he raises a hand in mock salute. “Cross my heart.”

“Fuck you,” DS says again, but he sounds hesitant now, chewing the idea over in his head. “I guess it wouldn’t - I mean, I survived the plane ride to Washington, right? What’s fourteen hundred miles in the opposite direction?”

You pause to think about that. “Did you just calculate that off the top of your head?”

DS makes a face that ends with him looking down at his hands. He shrugs. “Dunno. I guess? I was mostly just spinning shit off the top of my dome, I don’t know.” And it’s kind of pathetic, so you drop it. He’s smarter than he thinks he is, but now isn’t really the time for that.

“Dave?” Bro asks, and it’s not demanding, it’s probably nice than he’s used to being, has ever been, but Dave still hunches into himself in a spectacular C-curve, and you feel entirely misplaced at his side. Guilty, in a way you don’t want to be. “I guess,” he mutters. “I mean, I want to go, obviously, I do. Spending time with my friends is fucking awesome, and getting to sleep in a room on my own sounds better. I just don’t know if I can handle Rose for that many days in a row.”

Bro lets out a stutter of air from the nose, but you guess he takes that as a yes, because now he’s looking at you. He cocks an eyebrow, doesn’t say a word. He doesn’t need to.

There are a few ways you could respond. You know that, of course, roll them over in your head intricately in half-frames while you think of what to say. You could take the easy way out, because it’s being offered to you. Cave, here and now. Just go along with it.

You think about Bro, head cocked to the side, curiosity to rival your own, voice lilting up in an honest question, distant but not uncaring. “What do you want to do?”

And then you say the thing that makes Dave look at you like you’ve grown a second head (please, Dave, you can barely keep a handle on the first). “I don’t know.”

“What?” Dave whispers, wraps his hand around your wrist, tugs. “Dude, what?”

Bro gives a short nod, a one-shoulder shrug. It’s pretty much what you expected from him in the first place. “S’fair. Take your time. Like I said, you got a week to decide.”

Then he’s gone, and Dave is staring at you over the edge of his shades, and DS is, out of the corner of your eye, looking like he’d rather be anywhere else.


Dave doesn’t bring it up until later that night, when their mom and the girls have headed off to a hotel for the night (you’ve found that Mom and Bro can handle each other for a few days before they start sniping and bickering when they think no one is looking or around to hear them, and you don’t think they even realize how funny it is to you and Roxy both). It’s a tense couple of hours until then, though, and when you finally climb in after him, he turns to face the wall, and you lie with one foot stuck out of the blankets and an arm tucked under your head, just kinda. Waiting, you guess. You still don’t fall asleep easily most days, not even with the fan in the corner buzzing pleasantly. It’s an adjustment, for certain. Extra bodies, breathing, the lack of ocean waves.

Some days you still feel the hole where your loneliness used to live.

You go still when Dave finally prods at you, a knee to the back of your own, and you know that there’s no way either of you are getting any sleep at all until he gets what he wants.

In this case, that’s a huge heaping helping of “What the fuck, Dirk?”

“Hey, are you sleeping?” he whispers, and you can’t quite help the puff of air that escapes you.

“Did you just 'u up' me?”

“No, shut up,” he huffs, shoves at you. You feel a hand curl and tug into the fabric of your hero shirt. “Maybe?”

You sigh, try not to grin for the affection that floods your veins like dopamine, and roll over, careful not to elbow him directly in the face. He’s not wearing his shades, and you can just make out the crease in his brow in the dim light that bounces from the window and back across the room. “Why can’t you just ask to talk to me like a normal human being?”

“That would require serious and genuine thought,” Dave scoffs, rolls his eyes. “Like, I’d spend literal hours crafting how I asked if you were awake, then I’d lay down an ill beat, have you practically swooning over my rhyme game, and you’d never want to sleep again.”

“And just when you thought you finally had me, all shakin’ in my boots from excitement, quivering like a puppet proboscis -” he wrinkles his nose and it’s only because you’re so dedicated that you don’t laugh, smashing a hand playfully into his face, “I’d pass the fuck out on you like I got beat with a narcolepsy stick. Because - and this might surprise you, Dave - I’m fucking exhausted.”

“It does, kinda,” Dave says, taking your hand and guiding it away from where your pinky finger is lodged firmly up his nose. “But I think normal people get tired like that all the time, after staying up 32 hours straight.”

Damn, was he counting again? You were almost certain he wasn’t actually counting this time.

In truth, you aren’t actually all the tired. You’ve just been waiting for him in the dark like an absolute creep. “I’m trying this new thing where I pretend to sleep from midnight til at least six am, like an average American with a job might incline towards. Whether I’ll succeed or not seems entirely based around if you’ll tell me what’s wrong.” You pause, and when you speak again, it’s soft, so you can be sure no one else would hear, even if they were listening. “And you can tell me, if you want. Or ask, anyway, because I know you will. You’re not gonna like the answer, though.”

“See the thing is, I never really like your answers.” He reaches out and moves a loose chunk of hair out of your eyes. It still astounds you similar the two of you are, at least when it comes to your hair. Without product, it really does just do whatever it wants. It’s something Dave has somewhat mastered. You - not so much. “Honestly dude you’re different from Bro, but when it comes to shit like that? You’re not THAT different. I still kinda feel like I’m talking to him, sometimes, and that’s not your fault,” he adds hastily, when your face falls, “and it gets funnier as time passes, but it can still get hella weird.”

Everything about the two of you is fucking weird.

And you know that, fuck, you really do, but hearing him say it still feels like a kick in the balls.

He smiles, tucks his hand back under his chin. “Now you’re doing that other thing we both hate, where you look like I punched you in the throat and you’re trying to pretend it’s totally fine.”

“I was thinking a little lower,” you admit, coloring uselessly, “but you caught me.”

Dave hums and you think he looks tired, think about how quiet he is now, the soft tone of his voice, like he’s afraid to piss you off, or wake someone else up, even thought you both know he couldn’t and won’t, even if he tried. Well. Maybe if he tried. You don’t particularly like the idea of testing the wall density, especially not with how cranky you can personally be when you get woken from a dream.

(And fuck, you sure hope what you’ve been having is dreams. You’d rather not talk about it, though.)

“I’m not doing it to spite you,” you tell him, because you care about him, and because it’s true. “Staying behind and all that shit.”

“Oh,” he murmurs, eyes flicking down to your hands. “I didn’t know you made up your mind.”

“Yeah.” You resist the urge to chew on your cheek. “I mean, I knew my answer before he even asked. It wasn’t ever really an option for me.”

Dave frowns. “You say that like you don’t have a choice. Like you gotta stay behind with him. If you’re doing this for me, or Dave, I don’t think I really -”

“No,” you interrupt immediately. You touch his arm, fleeting, and shy away. You don’t want to crowd. “Fuck, if it was just about me and him I wouldn’t have -” You drag in a breath, let it out. “It’s really not even about us, insomuch as it is. As anything is, or always is.” You think about that, look to the ceiling and back again. “You ever noticed how our lives keep revolving around alternating iterations of ourselves?”

He snickers. “To be honest dude, I try not to. Time player shenanigans and all that horseshit. It’s a real one trick pony parade, when it comes down to it. Dave after Dave after fucking Dave. I’m practically a functioning sentient Xerox machine.”

“God, I’ve always wanted to see one of those,” you blurt, foolish but drunk on lack of sleep.

He actually laughs at that, a soft “hahaha” you’ve come to appreciate and resent in equal measure. “Fuck, dude, next time I’ll skip the art gallery and take you to a goddamn Staples. You can ogle the ancient hardware and dunk on how shitty our technology is compared to yours.”

“In fairness, humans didn’t advance much further in my timeline before they fell to the Batterwitch,” you say, raining on the parade earlier than you had intended. “Jane’s honestly got most of the remaining upgrades worth keeping at all, and at this point I’m almost certain she’s trashed them.”

“Welp,” Dave monotones, face-palming dramatically. He peeks at you between fingers. “That sure became depressing right out of the gate, huh?”

“Yeah, but it was still pretty funny. I’d give yourself a little more credit.”

“Dude, I’d go as far as to say you give me too much credit. Like if this were seventh hour and you were a teacher desperately trying to keep me from failing, it’d be crazy how much extra credit I’d be getting.”

You quirk an eyebrow and his face goes completely flat.

“That came out wrong.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Dirk,” he says slowly, wrapping a hand in your shirt and shaking you lightly. “Dirk, you cannot tell Rose about this. You can’t.”

“I won’t,” you say, but you’re laughing, soft breathy laughter that escapes of its own volition as he shakes you. “I won’t, I won’t!”

And it would be so worth it, to see Rose’s face light up like a Christmas tree, but you won’t do that to Dave, not this time. He’d probably kill you, or threaten to at least, and that’d just end in tears in a way you’re not certain either of you are ready to deal with.

“I’m going to pretend not to be selfish for five seconds,” Dave says, getting you both back on track as he parrots, “So it’s not about us, but...?”

The little wall of invulnerability you have built around yourself wobbles dangerously as the insecurity floods through you like ice water. You cannot word this in a way that doesn’t make you sound like a child.

As if sensing that, Dave reaches out, and does something obscenely odd by human standards, but with the confidence of someone who has done this before. He pats your face.

“Dirk,” he says after a moment, when you aren’t really thinking about anything other than how cold his fingers are, how rough the calluses are across your cheek, “just fuckin’ talk to me, dude.”

And so you do.

Or try to.

Haltingly.

“Despite finding myself uncomfortably skeptical, and perhaps something leaning towards scornfully pessimistic in regards to Jade’s increasingly nebulous predictions -”

“Dude, seriously? You can always trust Jade, she’s like, wicked smart and all be like, knowin’ stuff or whatever.”

You give him a look and he zips it. “I still find that a very small - or perhaps not so small, as it turns out? A very small part of me is afraid that were my bro - my session’s version of Dave, of you - to come back, whatever that entails, while I was in New York, he wouldn’t...” You sigh, close your eyes. “He wouldn’t be able to find me? Or maybe he wouldn’t even think to look in the first place, I don’t know.”

He wouldn’t be able to find you, and he’d give up, go back to the life he used to live, just keep moving along without you holding him back with worries and fears of the kind of person you’d be, how you’d even grow up at all in the middle of ocean.

You don’t know.

It’s all just so insane, when you say it out loud.

“You really think I wouldn’t do that?” Dave murmurs, and it’s so soft, so egocentric, so genuinely vulnerable, that you wobble again, just for a moment.

“Fuck, shit, no,” you say quickly, fast as you can get it out of your mouth, anything to stop him from making that ridiculous face, all crumpled up in vulnerable worry. “I mean, to say that would be to equate the two of you, and as you’re so fond of telling me, ‘you’re not him’.” You pat his face fondly, and it only seems to soften the blow a little. “He just -” You suck in air through your teeth, look towards the ceiling like it holds the answers. It has nothing for you, predictably, and you let out your shaky breath, skate your hand down his shoulder to give his hand a squeeze. “He was a busy guy, Dave. To expect him to have endless time and energy for me would be ridiculous.”

Dave makes a small, half-asleep noise and closes his eyes, but he smiles, left to right, just like you. “Adults, huh?”

“Yeah,” you snort. “Adults.”

“If it were me,” Dave mumbles, and he’s falling asleep now, you can tell, “I wouldn’t forget. I’d drop it like it was hot and just like, fire everyone who got in my way if it meant finding and hanging out with my cool bro. If I had one.”

“Oh fuck you,” you say, but it’s tinged warm shades of pink.

You can’t thank him, and you can’t tell him you haven’t changed your mind, even though you should, so you let him fall asleep and then roll onto your back.

Stare at the ceiling.

Count the seconds between heartbeats in your head like a ten gallon drum, try not to think about the fear of rejection that consumes your thoughts when you close your eyes just for a moment.

 

DS doesn’t mention it until a couple days later, when you’re in the hotel pool. Roxy has been talking about you visiting her for two days straight, and no one has had the heart (haha) to tell her you’re not fucking going. Every time she brings it up, Rose and Dave both look your way, and you can’t tell if it’s willful on her part to ignore you, or if she really hasn’t caught on.

You don’t know why you’re putting it off. It’s not fair of you, and definitely not kind. But somehow, breaking her heart (again, Christ) when she’s this fucking excited seems... worse, somehow.

The pool may be chlorinated, and it’s definitely not big enough, but doing laps, just you and your stupid brain, keeping your breath even, keeping your strokes long, is a moment of peace you need sometimes. All you have to do is focus on not drowning, on going and going, just one more lap, then one more, then another.

It’s quiet, it’s thoughtless.

It’s nice.

You almost bump into DS’s legs on your way back to the shallow end, and you surface to see him sitting there in nothing but an ugly pair of neon pink swim trunks and an uninflated pool floaty (it’s shaped like a donut - Roxy’s choice, not yours, but enjoyable nonetheless). “Hey,” you say, immediately on edge for the morose look on his face. It usually means someone said something shitty to him. That person is usually Rose, if it wasn’t you or Bro.

“How long are you gonna keep Roxy in the dark about the New York trip?” is the first thing out of his mouth, and you let your face go into a neutral mask.

“I’m not -”

“Lying by omission is still lying,” Dave says, and you guess he’s got experience now, dealing with you, or at least with Bro, to the point where he can call you out like this.

You maneuver to rest your arms on the edge of the pool, fold them to put your chin down. “It doesn’t seem cruel to you, to make her spend her last week here moping about and wondering why her best friend won’t visit a version of her childhood home which serves no benefit to me except a long plane ride fueled by claustrophobia and my own battle with my lack of interest in all things people related?”

You’ve been trying to get over it, you have, but beyond trips to Taco Bell and the walk from here to the apartment, your social interaction has been limited and quite frankly, a little pathetic.

You kind of prefer it that way.

DS regards you with an even expression, and despite the shades, you can tell he’s staring right at you. “You just don’t want her to badger you all week, huh?”

You sigh, roll over in the water to float on your back. “Part of it, probably. You’ve never been on the end of one’a her guilt spirals. It’s not that she does it on purpose, I don’t think, but she makes you feel like absolute dirt about it.”

He hums, slides into the water. You note, with some level of interest (erring on the edge of fascination) that he does in fact seem to have a scar, a slim, pale little thing that drags from navel towards the edge of his rib cage. Huh. “I still think it’d be easier than pretending you want to go at all. You don’t, right?”

Lying before Daves was so much easier. “The last time I was in Roxy’s house wasn’t... the best experience,” you tell him, and you don’t really want to talk about it. There’s a lot you don’t really want to talk about right now. “She was still drinking, then, and it was our sixteenth birthdays and shit was just -” You pinch your lips together. You spent a long time hating yourself, back then, in between the moments of thrilling euphoria that followed starting to date Jake English. You guess you still kinda do. You wave a hand around dismissively. “It was just Sburb bullshit. Backwards hornse’s ass nonsense. It doesn’t matter.”

Except that it probably kinda does. You guess.

“Dave said you don’t wanna go because of your Dave,” he says to you, and maybe you should offer to blow up his pool floaty. It’s probably the polite thing to do. “You really want them to come back, huh?”

“Yes,” you say without hesitation. “More than anything.”

Dave just shrugs. “Good enough for me. But you should still tell her.” And then he dunks your head under the water.

 


TT: I said I believed it to be ill-advised, not that the entire experience will be for naught and you’ll be “left holding the end of an extremely short stick.”
TT: Rose, not sure if you know this about yourself, but there’s a lot you, specifically, do not need to say to get across in more than just tone.
TT: I’m sure I can’t possibly know what you’re talking about.
TT: Hardy fucking har.
TT: Look, I don’t really need another person trying to convince me that this is a bad idea.
TT: The thing is, I kind of already know that?
TT: However, ill-advised though it may be, I have reasons that I feel outweigh what I’m sure will be just absolutely epic layers of horseshit that I’ve come to associate almost exclusively with him.
TT: I’m worried you may have my concern confused.
TT: I have no doubt you two are both suited and yet entirely unsuited for,
TT: And you’ll have to pardon my phrasing here,
TT: Handling each other.
TT: My concern lies not with you, but rather the effect it will have on our mutual brother.
TT: Or brothers, I suppose.
TT: I hope he knows I’m not doing this to spite him.
TT: It really is all for selfish gain.
TT: I can hardly lie and tell you I’ll hate it, because I don’t know.
TT: There are times where I think, Jesus fucking Christ, am I really that much of a crazy dick?
TT: Then he’ll say some other shit and I’m struck with the sickening realization that we’re more similar than I wish we were.
TT: Do you want my opinion on the matter?
TT: Rose, I like you so I ain’t gonna tell you to fuck off outta the blue,
TT: But I’m not looking to build any kind of psych profile of another, more messed up version of myself in some kind of pathetic attempt to get better acquainted with the flaws of my own inner self or some such fuckin’ nonsense.
TT: I did plenty of that back in my day and quite frankly, I’m trying to put those days behind me.
TT: So nah, no thanks, I think I’ll live.
TT: Back in my day implies any type of age or wisdom.
TT: To which you’ll say I have none, correct?
TT: Oh, I don’t know about that.
TT: Would you prefer me to equate you to our closest common ancestor?
TT: Do you want me to call you Daddy, Dirk?
TT: Absolutely fucking not.
TT: I ain’t even putting a pin in this conversation because I’d rather put a nail in its coffin so we can bury it and never speak of it again.
TT: I’d thank you to refrain from comparing him to me in that, or really any sense at all.
TT: I hardly have to. You do so well succeeding on that all on your own, without my help.
TT: You two are, by far, the most maladapted human beings I have ever met.
TT: And I’m including Dave, just so you know how serious it is.
TT: Yeah. Can’t really argue with that.
TT: Has he said anything to you?
TT: The idea that Dave ever ceases speaking to me at all makes me wonder if you even truly know him at all.
TT: But let us just say, more than Roxy has in the past twenty-four hours, at least.
TT: Thanks for that, by the way.
TT: She still not talking to you, huh?
TT: She seems to be under the impression that everyone else knew and was intentionally keeping it from her.
TT: She’s not wrong, of course.
TT: Though our intentions were not ill at heart, the repercussions are somewhat unseen and, if I am being honest, quite hurtful.
TT: Still, seems kinda unfair of her to blame you when the Daves and I are right there.
TT: Fault of one party does not negate the fault of another, Dirk.
TT: All the same, I imagine there is one person I am almost certain she'd be willing to talk to,
TT: Were that party less of a, as Dave would say, scared little bitch.
TT: Are you trying to call me a pussy, Rose?
TT: Normally, perhaps, but given the circumstances?
TT: I think we all know the answer to that.



You find Roxy alone on the hotel roof, with one night to go before they leave for New York. You don't really want to do this right now, but the idea of her leaving still mad at you is enough to drive you absolutely batshit.

Also, Dave dropped you off here, locked the car door, and told you to text him when you were done grovelling.

(Rose is not the only one with a bug up their ass about Roxy not talking to them, it seems. You're not really allowed to blame them.)

Roxy is curled at the corner of the building, and knowing she is a god who can potentially fly is the one thing that keeps you from flashing forward and ripping her back from the edge.

"You try flying yet?" you call, and you pauses in whatever it was she was doing, pivots just enough to frown at you before turning away.

You sigh, drop the act, and come to stand beside her. It's chillier now, and the short sleeves of your shirt aren't enough to keep the chill off your skin. "Look, Rox, I'm sorry, okay? I shoulda just told you. It wasn't Dave or DS or Rose's idea. That's all on me."

You see her lipstick thin as she presses her lips together.

"I won't lie to you again," you try. "I shouldn't have bothered in the first place, it was my mistake, I wasn't thinking. I just -" You rub at your arm. "I didn't want to hurt your feelings."

Roxy finally laughs, tips her head back to look up before turning to you. "But that's the problem, dork!" She doesn't take it back, which means it was probably intentional. "Ur just doin' the same thing you always do where you think you know what's best for all of us, and it sucks! You did hurt my feelings, but it's more frustrating that you don't rly get that you can't keep doing this to everyone!"

And shit, she's right. She's right, you fucked up again, and you do this every time, don't you, you're so selfish, aren't you?

She sighs, and when she smiles, her mouth slants up, eyebrows bunched but eyes warm. "You're kind of a huge dumbass, Dirk. You know that, right?"
"Yeah, I -" You cough, clear your throat. "I know. I'm sorry."

"I know," Roxy says around another sigh, and she throws her arms around you. "I'mma forgive you this time, because I'm wicked kind and super smart and wonderful, but just..." She squeezes you close. "You'll tell me, right? If something goes wrong?"

"Rox," you mumble, hands meeting in the middle of her back, face pressed into her hair. "You'll be the first person I tell."

"I better be?" She knocks her head against your chin, and when she pulls away, her lip is quivering. "I wouldn't want her to forget me either, you know?"

She doesn't have to explain. You do, but you just nod and drag her into another hug.

You're going to be better.

You have to be.

 

Bro drives you and the Daves to the airport, snug to the point of discomfort in the cab of his truck, doesn't speed, avoids potholes, and Dave dozes against you while DS grumbles beside Bro. He doesn't even complain, just follows dutifully behind Mom at snail's pace, so early in the morning the birds aren't chirping and the sky is still painted dark blue.

Roxy tries very hard to to cause death via well-intentioned strangulation, and DS bumps your knuckles against his. You don't fuss for a hug. You know he doesn't like airports any more than you do. Rose's smile is polite, and the touch to your shoulder is warm, kind. She wishes you good luck, and you accept it with a strained grin.

Dave wraps you in the biggest hug of your life, his hands gripping the back of your jacket like a lifeline, cold nose pressed to your neck. "You don't have to stay," he whispers, but you know he's wrong.

"I want to," you tell him, patting at the soft leather of his coat. You know Bro got it for him, brought it home yesterday.

When Dave pulls back, there's conflict in his face, something you don't quite understand, maybe a glimmer of confusion, but then you're being pulled in for another hug.

You return it gentle as you can. It's a hug that says goodbye, and it hurts when he steps away.

You wait in line with them at the gate, and the squeeze of Dave's hand is the last thing he gives you. You don't cry.

He doesn't hug Bro goodbye. None of them do, and you wonder if Mom said goodbye to him when none of you were looking.

If it bothers him, he doesn't say, but he lets you stay until their plane takes off, only tips his head in a "shall we?" manner when you finally turn from the smudged glass.

He's quiet on your way back to the car, lets you stick close to him. The hub is coming to life with activity, and you have to pretend not to be freaked out by the busy paths or mall shops, pretend not to flinch when someone laughs too loud. People stare, but you're getting used to that. Bro is tall and unearthly pale, you're literally his clone. People always stare.

You tug at the sleeves of your coat, trying to keep yourself together, and let him lead you through the too big parking garage, trying not to think of all the things you might have done wrong, all the ways you could have made it better before they left.

You clamber into the battered old truck, buckle your seatbelt without being told. Only took a few months of constant beration to sink in, and it's probably for the best, isn't it? Perhaps you should incorporate more safety features if you ever rebuild the rocketboard. But then, what would be the fun in that?

Bro climbs in next to you, and it takes a minute before you notice he's just sitting there.

You open your mouth like you're going to - what? Call out to him? Ask if he's okay?

"Are we -" you start, hesitate. "Are we going home?"

"Uh," Bro says, and he's staring at the wheel now, hands at ten and two, a muscle in his jaw jumping. "Yeah. Yeah, sure."

"Okay," you say slowly.

"Okay," he repeats, but you sit in the parking lot for another five minutes before he finally starts the car.

Chapter Text

It’s six am when your phone rings.

You’re wide awake, hunched in the corner of your shared room, clutching Sawtooth’s spare head and a screwdriver, which goes flying when it buzzes off the table. You’ve been here since you got home from the airport yesterday, and you guess you lost track of time.

You drop the head, scramble for the green call button. No one has ever called you before. They’ve never needed to.

“Hello?” you ask, shaky, maybe a little nervous. You don’t recognize the number.

You do recognize the voice; low, syrupy delight pitched down. “Hey, sweetie!”

It surprises you. “R- Mo- Ms. Lalonde,” you choke out.

“Hi Dirky dear,” she sing-songs. Embarrassment settles in your gut, but she doesn’t seem to notice. Her voice is richer than Roxy’s, has that motherly quality to it that leaves each of her words dripping with affection. “Were you sleepin’? I didn’t wake you up, did I?”

“Uh, no,” you manage. “It’s early, though. What uh, what’s up?” Jesus, that was lame.

Mom lets out a loud sigh that causes the phone to crackle. “Dirk - well, other Dirk is ignoring my calls. And my texts. Dave gave me your number!”

“It’s six am,” you say weakly.

“Please,” she scoffs, “as if either of you ever sleep.”

She’s right, but you don’t want to admit it.

“Now I don’t suppose you’d mind going out there to the big bad wolf himself and lettin’ him borrow your phone so we can have a chat, wouldja?”

Shit, wow, you sure are in this situation, huh? You feel like an idiot. “Yeah,” you croak. “Yeah, let me um. Yeah.”

“At your leisure,” she says, and you let out a breathy laugh that Roxy will tease you about later. Mom doesn’t say a word.

Bro is laying on the futon when you poke your head around the corner, quiet as you can, but he’s not asleep. Big surprise there. One arm is flung over his eyes like he’s trying to block out everything, shades in his other hand, resting on his stomach.

You’re not sure how to address him so you step over the computer cords and the already small collection of smuppet ass to stand in front of the TV, jut your phone out without pretense. “Phone for you,” you say intelligently.

There’s a brief moment where he lifts his arm and you get a good look at his eyes for the first time in awhile, and it kind of fucks with you. They’re atomic orange, same as you, and there’s something horrible about having your own mutation reflected back at you. Then he’s moving, pushing his glasses on and taking your phone, sitting up, and you step back, retreat into the kitchen as he lets out a gruff, “Sup.”

There is no way in hell what you’re doing right now could be mistaken for anything other than eavesdropping, even if the term doesn’t technically apply to the situation. You can only catch his side, of course, but you wish desperately that you could hear them both. There’s probably a way to program that function, maybe at a later date. You could look into it.

“Lalonde,” he sighs, rubs a hand down his face. “What? Fuck no.” He glances over the back of the futon at you, and you pretend to be interested in a spare dish that’s been left in the sink for something closing in on a week.

He spends the better part of the phone call just mumbling, and you don’t really hear as much as you wanted to. A couple of fucks here, a dash of nos there. He gets up at one point, starts pacing around. A shared habit, then, and something you recognize and have seen in Dave. The thought is comforting.

“It wasn’t my fucking idea,” he snarls, sudden enough to make you flinch, but he immediately stops himself, gives you a long-suffering look and pinches the bridge of his nose. “Sorry, I’m sorry. Just - just a headache, this time. It’s fine.” He sighs again. “No.” An almost laugh. “No, it’s fine. Yes. No.” He looks at you again. “Yeah, no, he’s right here, nosy little shit.”

You make a face and he turns away, starts burning a hole through the carpet in front of the tv until he stutters to a sudden stop.

“What? Fuck, Rox, of course not. I’m not gonna starve him, Jesus Christ.”

He stands there, tall and stooped and vulnerable, and you think his hands might be shaking. His next words are lost in a mumble, but you see his face darken, shoulders tensing. “That wasn’t -” He doesn’t finish. He doesn’t need to. You can hear the unspoken “me” in the tone of his voice. “It’s fine,” he murmurs, turns away from you.

You measure the curve of his shoulders against your own, can see all the places you’ve got room to grow. Looks like fifteen wasn’t the end of your growth spurt, after all, though you kind of already knew that.

“C’mon,” he cajoles lightly, and there’s a warm tone in his voice that’s more familiar to you, “you really think I can’t handle one kid? He’s like half my size.”

“I’m six foot one,” you call to him, picking at the loose string of a puppet.

“Like half my size,” Bro repeats, but you see the corners of his mouth turning up as he peeks back at you. “Listen, I’d take him to the airport yesterday if it meant getting him outta my hair.”

You detect a note of sincerity there that might be veiled sarcasm, but find it fascinating, regardless. You’re still not going anywhere, but it’s nice to know you have a way out.

His voice goes low, and when you strain to hear, you only catch a few words. “Fine”, and “yeah” are about it. You catch a “Dave” and try not to dwell on the way his shoulders hunch when he says it. He eventually hangs up without letting you say anything, but you don’t mention it, nor particularly care. You can ask Dave about it later, or Roxy, if she was the one listening in.

He hits the end call and you watch, amused, as he double takes at your cell phone. “Christ. What is this, an iPhone 87? Galaxy S9000?”

“Close,” you say, slipping out of the kitchen and coming around the futon with a hand out. “But no. I designed it myself.” You sound smug and hate yourself a little for it, but if the way his eyebrows climb high is any indication, he’s impressed. You embrace the warmth in your gut. It feels like a victory.

You pause before returning to Dave’s room. “Thanks,” you tell him. Awkwardly.

He just shrugs.

 

You do finally get to sleep, pillow tucked under your head and fingers tracing across the hearts and spades over and over until your eyes finally close, and you think about how much you hate them. How much they didn’t bother you before you found yourself completely alone.

You wake up late, when the sun is dipping low and the temperature has dropped enough that your feet, sticking out from between the sheets, have lost almost all feeling. You lay there a moment, consider the quiet of the room without Dave or DS there, always moving, fidgeting or muttering or rambling.

You realize, with a pathetic start, that you’re lonely.

Maybe for the first time in a long time.

There are a few cures to that, and you consider your next action carefully before deciding fuck it, it’s been long enough already. Jesus dicks, dude.

timaeusTestified [TT] began pestering golgothasTerror [GT]

TT: So I’m aware some time has passed since our last conversation.
TT: I must admit that’s entirely on me. Still trying to give you the aforementioned space desired.
TT: However, given the time of day and the dilemma I find myself facing, I thought,
TT: Well fuck me, Jake English really is the only guy for the job.
TT: So here I am. Apologies in advance, bro.
GT: Strider consarn it! Its six in the goddamn morning!
TT: Yeah, I know.
TT: It’s almost precisely why I’ve chosen now to message you at all.
TT: Symbolic parallels and all that.
GT: Pardon my noggin for being a bit scrambled (having just woken up!!!!!) but am i supposed to know what in the dickens youre going on about?
TT: Not even a devil fucking? Just a regular old dickens, huh? Oh how the tides have turned. The times have changed, just as must we all.
TT: Also no, not entirely. Or even a bit at all.
GT: *SIGH*
GT: What do you want dirk? Not that im not pleased as all get out to hear from you mind. I do miss chewing the fat with you please dont doubt that one lick!
TT: To paraphrase Roxy, “el oh el”, Jake.
TT: But I’m glad to hear it. I miss our daily exchanges, even though given recent circumstances I don’t reckon they’d amount to much more than “sup” and “nm u?”
TT: I must admit I’m actually here with a question.
GT: Well can you cut to it quick? Id like to get back to sleep over here! Jade and i have a long day of adventuring ahead of us.
TT: I’m hardly willing to believe Jade is up for any kind of adventuring within an hour or even five of waking up.
GT: Perhaps not were it a normal day but tomorrow grandpa harley is leaving for a couple passes of the sun to grab us up some more supplies.
GT: Not ideal given the weather weve been having but necessary nonetheless!
TT: You cannot possibly call him Grandpa Harley.
GT: Well i couldnt go on about calling him jake now could i?
GT: How in the devil would i ever get away with doing a whackadoodle thing like that!
TT: Dude, I don’t fucking know.
TT: But you don’t think that’s a super fucked up and weird thing to do?
GT: I must say i have heard on multiple accounts from multiple sources that you refer to daves brother as simply bro.
GT: The circumstances hardly seem to differ to me!
GT: He is me but he is also a funny old man who is extremely embarrassing to jade and also quite admittedly myself.
TT: Not getting along too well with yourself after all, are you?
GT: Probably a couple licks better than you and daves brother!!!!!
GT: But not within the realm of near bliss that jane and roxy have managed with their dopplegangers. I must admit i find myself quite jealous.
GT: All the same jade loves him and i rather worry shell be lonely with him off and away!
TT: That’s actually what I wanted to ask you about.
GT: Oh? *nervously adjusts collar*
TT: It’s seven in the fucking morning. You and I both know you’re not wearing a collar of any sort, are you, Jake?
GT: JESUS JUMPING BULL SNOT *ADJUSTS GLASSES!!!
GT: *Which i most definitely wear!!!!!!*
TT: You keep those glasses firmly on your filthy fucking face you adventure-happy hooligan.
GT: Willikers!
TT: My problem centers around,
TT: And you’ll have to forgive me for being predictable,
TT: Myself. Hold your applause.
TT: Or at least, insomuch as anyone’s feelings always inescapably center around themselves.
TT: I’m aware the concept is hardly new, especially for me. Maybe entirely too often me, but you’ll have to humor me for just a bit longer, I’m afraid.
TT: Haven’t found a cure for being self-centered yet, and at the rate our technology fell apart in our original timeline, I suspect they never will.
GT: Dirk?
TT: Yeah.
GT: For petes sake just spit it out man.
TT: Okay.
TT: Dave left yesterday with DS and his mom and I’m aware it’s been less than a day but I find myself inexplicably lonely.
TT: It’s an outcome I somehow overlooked upon making my decision, and I wondered if you remembered what it was like, living on the island before.
TT: Being alone like that for so long, all of us isolated in our own ways.
GT: Of course i remember! I spent so long talking to myself i should rather say it was pathetic as a rabbit with its ears on backwards!
GT: The batterwitch certainly did a number on us didnt she?
GT: I dont suppose i have anything approaching advice to give you im afraid.
GT: You could still follow and join our girl roxy in new york could you not?
TT: I,
TT: I can’t.
TT: I don’t suppose I need to tell you what that feels like? Waiting for them to come back.
GT: No i dont reckon you do. Still there are times where i wonder if the day will ever come to pass.
TT: Still no word from Jade on that, huh?
GT: Christ dirk i can hardly push her!
GT: Theres still so much we dont know about our powers and how they work here! John and your lad dave are the only ones who have shown promise im afraid.
TT: Damn. Well I wouldn’t worry too much about it, Jake. If nothing else, it’s probably important that you continue to believe in her as hard as your somewhat misguided heart can possibly manage.
GT: Jumping jehoshaphat! Not friendly dirk!!
TT: No, I suppose not.
TT: I’ll let you go, then. Guess I’ll be weathering my isolation with no further questions answered.
GT: Sorry old boy. I really wish i could assist further on the matter.
TT: Nah, it’s cool.
TT: Get some sleep, Jake.
GT: Ah yes. You too dirk!
GT: When its appropriate of course! Not right now!!!!
TT: Jesus fucking Christ.
TT: Goodnight, Jake.
GT: *Tips hat and rolls away to catch another forty winks!*

golgothasTerror [GT] ceased pestering timaeusTestified [TT]

You can’t just lay here all day.

Well.

You can, but you shouldn’t.

Checking your messages shows a hundred notifications from Dave and Roxy both, but you’re still feeling a little sorry for yourself so you decide to put them off while you see what Bro is up to. It’s not that you particularly desire checking on him (making sure he doesn’t foam at the mouth and die, choke on his own tongue, whatever), it’s just that you don’t particularly think spending all of your time completely isolated is healthy for you right now.

The answer is, in short, not much.

You don’t know what you expected, but when you wander out into the living room he’s just sitting on the futon, feet up and eating a bag of chips that have been drifting around the apartment into various rooms for almost a week.

His head jerks towards you like lightning, then away. The movement is so slight you would have missed it, if you were anyone else. “Jesus, you’re finally up? Dave’s been pestering me all damn day thinkin’ I killed you already. Thought you kicked it for a minute there.”

The “already” does not go unnoticed by you. “You could have just checked in and told him I was fine.” He shrugs, and you guess you should have known better. You hover there in your hesitance, in the nebulous space between the futon and the hallway before deciding fuck it (again), and shuffling close enough to take a seat on the far side of the couch. “Aren’t those stale by now?”

He pauses, spares you a millisecond glance, and shoves a whole ‘nother handful into his mouth. “Only a little.”

You don’t really know what to say to that, and the whole situation feels weirder than you want it to, with him sober and you here, alone, without Dave?

Jesus Christ, what the fuck did you do?

What were you thinking?

“Is this your plan?” you ask, before your brain can shut down and overanalyze. “Sit here all day and eat chips? That’s why you chased the Daves outta the house?”

He hums, sticks his fingers in his mouth one by one to lick off the dust. “Tried to chase you out, too. Don’t reckon that worked so well.”

You frown. “You told me I could stay.”

“Yeah. It’s cool. Ideally, of course, this would have been a solitary weekend with some room to breathe, but one stank-ass teenager instead of three to five is still an improvement.”

That

That was an insult.

He just insulted you.

When you answer, it’s a bit more defensive than you usually like to be. “It’s my house, too.”

“Technically,” he drawls, and you can hear in his voice every bit of smug douchebaggery you’ve ever reflected, “it’s an apartment.”

“Technically,” you say, snatching the remote up flashstep fast, and now your goal is simply to antagonize, to bother, “it’s my fucking apartment, too.”

Bro doesn’t protest your changing of the channels, but you can feel him watching you. It almost makes it worse that he doesn’t say another word, not even when you flick through them rapid enough your eyes almost can’t follow.

 

You do finally check up on Dave and Roxy later that evening, although they inform you straight off the bat that Bro already told Mom you were alive, and “already had your panties in a twist” - his words, not theirs, and abso-fucking-lutely not appreciated, either.

You’re trying to behave closer to what may be considered normal, for 21st century life, and perhaps lying on the floor of the bathroom on a towel, in nothing BUT a towel and a pair of shades doesn’t count, but you also don’t really want to face him again. Not just yet.

TG: i always forget just how astronomically huge roses house is
TG: like on a goddamn meteoric level this shit is off the chain huge
TG: like it wants nothing to do with the chain it has divorced the chain took the house left the kids moved to miami and has started over
TG: doesnt even remember the chains name anymore its over baby time to let go
TT: I feel that if one were to put it into perspective with say,
TT: The planet of fucking Jupiter,
TT: Or perhaps just in comparison to one (1) small single bedroom apartment in Houston, the size scale might, in reality, reveal itself to be quite skewed.
TG: god sometimes i forget how much you sound like rose over text
TT: First of all, I believe she is the one who sounds like me.
TT: Second of all, sorry, not much I can do about that.
TT: I mean, I could try some 360 syntax flip off the fucking handle but to be honest with you, that’s not really on brand for me.
TG: nah i dont really mind that much
TG: i mean if i was color blind or some shit it might be more confusing but besides the halloween themed horror show of orange vs purple its not that hard to tell you two apart
TT: Bit surprising you’re not colorblind, given the general albinism thing our family seems to have going for us.
TG: yeah
TG: i dunno if were really albino tho i think we might just be freaks
TG: like just an ectobiology bullshit situation you know
TG: you ever see the harlengcrockberts?
TG: ectobiology dont make no sense at all not a lick
TT: Wow, the rare punctuation mark, all for lil ol’ me?
TG: you know it wouldnt let you spend the rest of the week worrying what youre missing out on over here
TG: which honestly is just an absolute fuck ton of jack and shit
TG: mom still made us do our homework can you fucking believe that
TG: like i come all this way survive the longest car ride known to man
TT: I have heard a rumor that it is possibly the longest forty minutes in the known universe.
TG: exactly
TG: fuck dude do you have any idea how many green ass trees there are over here
TG: all not dying and shit
TG: oh and did i forget to mention
TG: its also fucking snowing
TG: shits insane
TT: It sounds like it’ll be great, and you’ll have fun.
TT: And possibly also freeze to death.
TG: yeah
TG: i still like
TG: miss you though
TG: and wish you were here
TT: Is this where I hashtag Pink Floyd and shout-out to all the bros out there listening?
TG: abso-fucking-lutely
TG: if i ever miss a single hashtag may god strike me the fuck down for my belligerence
TG: except oh shit im the god
TG: now its my show and the spotlight is all on me bro
TT: Now his girl’s on your arm.
TT: Also she’s a dude and he's gay.
TG: jesus dude you are the light of my short absolutely shit insane life
TT: I’m perfectly aware of that.
TT: And I miss you, too.


You run into a problem shortly after your shower-plus-lie-down (only two hours, this time, and mostly because you are trying to be polite, aware you are not the only person in this house for once).

Dave handles most of your outside social interaction approximately 99% of the time, and you let him. You pretty much follow his routine; shower after he showers, eat when he’s hungry, just kinda do whatever in-between. Usually, you don’t mind, because your insular little group of friends and family is enough for you, and you don’t care to expand on that, in really any capacity.

The trouble comes when your stomach growls and you realize, to your own dismay, that you are hungry.

Alone in your apartment (location: Houston, fucking Atlantis), the only person you could depend on for food was yourself.

But here, now (Houston, Texas, 2012 AD), there’s no fucking ocean, no means of survival or blocks upon blocks of nonperishable foods stuffed in all the worst places.

There’s just you, a box of ramen in the closet (untouched for nearing on three months now, since Taco Bell became the favored option), and a version of yourself that you don’t know how to ask for favors nor, to your continued dismay, do you particularly like.

“I’m hungry,” you decide on, standing in the doorway, clutching the knob and ready to dart if need be. So you’re only wearing boxers and a t-shirt. So you definitely don’t have shoes on. If nothing else, it’ll make you more agile.

Bro is folded into his chair like an origami gargoyle and it is, quite frankly, as disturbing as it is impressive that he can even maintain the position. He pauses in his work when you speak, and it’s purposeful slow motion as he rolls his head to look at you. “Okay?”

Well.

“Okay.” You didn’t think you’d get this far, and now you find yourself faltering, unsure of where to go from here.

Bro raises a brow, and you feel more uncomfortable for him having his eyes on you. When you can’t think of anything funny or clever to say (or shitty, for that matter) he sighs, and starts to unfold himself. “Fine, fine. What do you want, then?”

“I don’t know,” you say honestly, give a helpless shrug. You don’t want to admit your hesitance to ask in the first place, and Bro’s face twists into something nearing on impatience.

You think he’ll be cruel, for a moment, expect him to be. Then he turns his head towards the ceiling, wipes a hand across his mouth. “Taco Bell’s open til 2 am, if you want. We’d have to eat in the truck, but I don’t really give a shit about the carpet at this point. You want Chinese or somethin’? There’s a place on JFK that’s probably still open.” You must make a face because he sighs, mutters under his breath, rolls out of his chair. He drops with a disturbing lack of sound, crosses the room to pluck one of the takeout menus off the fridge. “Pizza again, then.”

You don’t protest, because you don’t know what you’re allowed to say, and you like pizza, anyway, don’t have to tell him what you want, or don’t want. That part is easy.

Sitting down on the futon still feels weird without Dave, though, without a safety net or anyone to act as a buoy of sorts, and it puts you on edge in the worst way.

He’s kind of a nightmare to deal with, if you’re being honest.

Bro’s voice is a low rumble from the kitchen while he orders, and you are careful not to shift when he steps over you to settle back into his spot when he hangs up.

Silence falls over you like a down blanket, and you are hyper aware of the space between you, struggle in the discomfort your proximity provides.

“You sleepin’ okay in the room?” he asks, and it’s somewhat out of the blue. Your head jerks, not quite a flinch.

If he sees, he doesn’t mention it, and you chew on an answer, roll the words around a couple times before you speak. “It’s. Fine. More room to sleep, anyway. Sucks a bit less, not getting kicked in the nuts every night by Dave.”

He snorts, mouth curling up, and there is warmth to him, for a fraction of a second. “Preachin’ to the choir. I’ve never seen such an unsound sleeper in my entire fucking life.”

“I think that’s just what the Game does to you,” you mumble, and he grunts, the atmosphere lost between you. It’s inappropriate, you think, to ask him if he dreams.

There are no more bubbles, you know, and the thought is sad, somewhat lonely. Cut off entirely from the Game, the space between you and your friends has never been so stark, and felt so far. Not since you were a kid, anyway.

(You’re still a kid.)

“Sometimes he talks in his sleep,” Bro says softly, and you look at him to find his gaze thoughtful behind shades, maybe a little uncomfortable.

“What about?” And you shouldn’t ask, shouldn’t pry, don’t need to know, probably shouldn’t.

Bro looks like he’s not going to answer you at first, and you think about apologizing, decide against it.

Fuck that guy, are you right or are you right?

“His friends, mostly,” he says finally, and you pause, wait. “The Egbert kid, Harley’s girl. Some shit that’s not really either of our business. Sometimes...” His breath hitches, and you get a pretty good idea where that train of thought is leading. He doesn’t say anything else, and you don’t ask him to.

You don’t know all the details of how he died, because Dave doesn’t really talk about the specifics, and DS definitely doesn’t, but you are aware he was there when it happened, and that shit was pretty much fucked completely sideways.

“You could be nicer to him about it,” you offer.

He frowns, lips thinning. “Nah, I really fuckin’ couldn’t.”

You don’t know what that means, so you just shrug, let it go instead. Some hills just ain’t worth dying on.

“Did you really send them all the way to New York just to get them out of your hair?” you ask instead, and realize, immediately, that you shouldn’t have.

Bro’s face goes dark, and you freeze, poised to dart at a moment’s notice, but then miracle upon miracles, he reigns it in. Wipes a hand from eye to chin, tips his head back. “Yes,” he says simply. “And no. It wasn’t my intention to punish them in any way, to give the illusion of banishment.” And Jesus Christ, sometimes he sounds so much like you it turns your stomach. “But Christ, I cannot fucking remember the last time I had the whole living room to myself.”

“But I’m still here,” you whisper, soft, tentative.

He looks at you in a way you can’t entirely process, brows furrowed and eyes intense. He’s not angry at you, you know, because he’s you, but there is something there you can’t quite figure out. Like a puzzle you can't solve. Or maybe don’t want to. “Yeah,” he finally says, looking away. “You are.”

You sit together in silence the rest of the time it takes the delivery boy to get there, you on the edge of the futon, ready to jump at any sudden move, him lounging, more comfortable in the quiet than any Dirk has the right to be.

You hate that you don’t know what to say, resent that he doesn’t care to offer anything back to you.

“You don’t have to stay here,” is all he says when he gets up to answer the door, right before the poor fucker even has a chance to knock.

 

You  really hate these fucking sheets, and it gets to you more than ever at 10 am the next day, after you spent all night wrapped up in them sulking.

You let it slip (read: explode) to Bro in a twenty minute rant during “breakfast” which mostly consists of you eating dry cereal and him shoveling in a slice of pizza from dinner last night (neither of you offered or, you’re pretty sure, actually know how to cook).

One minute Bro is staring at you with a single eyebrow raised, half a piece of pepperoni still hanging out of his mouth, and the next you find yourself standing in the bed and bath section of Target, unironically clutching a set of pool ball sheets that match your own t oa fucking tee, staring at your counterpart with big, dewy eyes like it’ll prevent him from mocking you relentlessly.

He doesn’t even blink (not that you can fucking tell), just takes them from your hands, turns them over to get a better look at the pattern. “These the ones you want?”

You nod, hesitant.

“Cool,” he says, and tosses them in the cart without another word.

You make it to checkout with new sheets, matching cases, and a pillow shaped like a horse.

“Well ain’t that sweet,” the cashier croons when you put them on the counter. “Gettin’ a present for your little sister?” She beams at you, old and wrinkled with smile lines.

You know she don’t mean nothing by it, it’s a perfectly innocent question, but you freeze up, embarrassed and unsure. You don’t do much of the talking when it comes to store associates, preferring to hide behind Dave or just avoid them all together. It’s worked pretty damn well for you so far, to the point that now, standing here alone with her eyes on you and you alone, you don’t know what to say.

Bro takes one look at you and without missing a beat says, “Yep.”

And just like that the conversation is over, good job everyone, no participation award for Dirk.

You are humiliated, overcome with your own self-loathing to the point of misery, and you curl up in the front seat of the truck, bang your head against your knees.

Idiot, idiot.

You cannot have an anxiety attack right now, in front of maybe the only person in your life who cares less about you than you do.

“Kid, you gotta learn not to freeze up like that,” Bro says, voice low, hesitant to the point of kindness. “Dunno if it’d be any help, but -”

“What kind of help have you ever given anyone?” you snap. “Did you ever even help Dave at all?”

Bro goes quiet, stares at you just long enough that you think he’ll kick your ass. At least smack you upside the head, something. Anything. Then he turns away, starts the car. “Dave,” he begins, and his fingers flex on the steering wheel, “is from this fucking century. I’ve seen you in the airport, kid.” That’s hypocrisy at it’s fucking finest. “You’re a mess.”

“I’m you,” you grunt, rightfully offended.

His lips twitch. “Never said you weren’t.”

You’re not sure how to take that but he just sighs, spins the wheel as he navigates the parking garage. “Listen... Dirk.” The word comes awkward. Forced, like it’s challenging for him. “I ain’t exactly a people person.” He gives you Dave’s sardonic half-smile, and it only hurts a little. “Don’t know if you noticed.”

“I might have had an inkling,” you mumble, and all you can do is shrug. Bro has a habit of bringing out the worst in people, and it’s as annoying as it is uncomfortable. Unfortunately for you, there’s also the side effect of psychic damage you suffer from literally being the same person.

“I’m not promisin’ I can make you good enough to perform on national television or nothing, but eventually you’re gonna be on your own again. And you need to be prepared for that.”

“What the fuck does that even mean,” you sigh, tip your head back as you uncurl. He managed to short-circuit your anxiety attack, if only because this whole thing is tremendously ridiculous.

“It means, if I kick it, and something were to happen to you or Dave or - Dave...” He frowns at that. Dealing in doubles never has worked out for you, or anyone else. “I don’t know. Reckon it’s best to be prepared or some shit. Best I can do, anyway.”

You realize, in a moment of clarity, that he’s trying to be nice.

“What do you propose,” you manage eventually, try to keep your voice even. Uninterested. You think you just sound frustrated.

“Reckon we can start small. Try goin’ out tomorrow, maybe the next day, just til the kids come back. Your choice,” he adds when you open your mouth. “But it has to be full of people or I’m pickin’ instead. Comprende?”

You grind your teeth against the irritation that comes from an adult making decisions for you and manage a nod. “What makes you so sure I want your help.”

“You dont,” he says simply, shrugs. “But it embarrasses you. Kid, I was right there, I watched you shut down faster than Main Street during a holiday parade. You were fuckin’ humiliated. That kinda self-loathing? Ain’t healthy.”

You snort. “You have no idea.”

He hums, doesn’t respond.

“What if.” You inhale, exhale, shake your hands to dislodge some anxiety. This is stupid. You sound like a fucking baby. “What if I can’t do it.” It’s not really a question.

He seems to consider that as you roll to a stop at the freeway entrance, fingers tapping a rhythm on the wheel. You don’t think he’ll answer before he changes gears and floors it. “Baby steps, dude.”

 

TG: and you agreed to that??
TT: It’s not like he really gave me much of a choice.
TG: it kinda sounds like he did
TG: albeit not much of one ill give you that
TT: So what do you suggest I do? The main reason I’m asking you and not Dave is because on the whole, I feel as though your answer might be a bit more complicated than “don’t.”
TT: The other reason being that I trust your judgment, in that you are somewhat closer to him than anyone else I know, currently.
TT: For better or worse.
TG: well
TG: i dunno
TG: bros never really done much in the way of helping me get over my fears
TG: more causing them you know
TT: I’m aware.
TG: yeah
TG: so idk
TG: i mean for curiositys sake im tempted to say go for it
TG: like whats the worst that can happen
TG: hell make fun of you forever and youll be haunted by whatever his alternative is
TG: i guess that does sound pretty bad
TT: You aren’t helping.
TG: yeah i guess not
TT: Let’s just say I don’t like dealing with open-ended,
TT: Well anything really.
TT: I’m not afraid of him, at least not in the sense that anyone else seems to be.
TT: Not that the implication here is that they are not within their rights. It’s well-deserved, really.
TT: I simply have the advantage of also being him, to a point.
TG: some would call that a disadvantage
TT: And you’d be inclined to agree. Correct?
TG: yeah
TG: but its okay
TG: i know youre a genuinely good guy even if youve got faults and flaws like us old human folk
TT: Finally admitting to your humanity, are we?
TG: well i guess i mean i can hardly ridicule a god now can i
TT: I still don’t know if we’re anything close to counting as real gods. More like overpowered teenagers in a sci-fi novel, but I guess that’s fair as an overall statement.
TG: oh man
TT: What?
TG: nothing like
TG: bad or anything just
TG: our text is an absolute shit show to read
TT: Yeah, I reckon some mistakes were certainly made while choosing text color in this instance.
TG: yeah yikes i guess thats my cue to fuck off huh
TT: You don’t have to, you know.
TT: I do enjoy talking to you as more than just a supplement for Dave. You don’t have to play second fiddle all the time.
TG: yeah but were actually eating pizza tonight so like
TG: i kinda wanna
TT: That’s fine, Dave. I’ll be around if you want to talk again later, though.
TG: lmao dude you always are
TG: dont remember the last time i actually saw you go to bed at a normal time
TG: pretty sure you sleep even less than i used to as a little kid
TG: anyway goodnight
TG: Goodnight, Dave.
TG: and dirk
TG: Yes, Dave.
TG: ive really been trying to give him a shot at doing his weird fucked up idea of nice thing
TG: i kinda think maybe you should too
TG: at least this time

turntechGodhead [TG] ceased pestering timaeusTestified [TT]


It's three in the afternoon and you and Bro sit alone on a park bench in downtown Houston.

There's a green lawn stretched out before you, riddled with falling leaves of varying shades in reds and golds, and it's completely fucking empty but for a couple of children laughing and screaming, and an old lady across the street walking the biggest dog you've ever seen.

Bro doesn't say a word, hasn't since you told him where you wanted to go, and he's got his arms crossed, legs stretched out like he's got all day.

Your fingers dig into the rotting wood so hard it hurts, anxiety and anger curled in your stomach like a viper. "I get it," you say, try to keep the desperation out of your voice. "I fucked up. I get it, I'm an idiot, I'm sorry."

It isn't that you necessarily thought a park would be the busiest place. In fact you chose it precisely for its common lack of hub activity associated with most other places you've been dragged to in the six months.

Still, the pathetic lack of people is truly abysmal, and the open space is starting to make you antsy. "I learned my lesson and now it is apparent to everyone that not only do I not understand modern day culture but I'm also an asinine fool with no good sense. Can we stop this charade now?"

"Don't apologize," is all Bro says. He doesn't move, and neither do you.

It's like a game of chicken you don't want to play, yet find yourself afraid to lose. You consider pestering one of the Daves and asking for advice, but you don't want more trouble than you already have, now, and you don't expect Bro would listen to either of them, anyway.

You sit there for a good half hour in perfect silence, and you think it's worse than being lectured for how it grates at your nerves, every minute that ticks by another wire frayed, another hair gone grey.

"Are you hungry?" he asks eventually.

It's so out of left field that you full body flinch, head jerking around hard enough that you almost give yourself whiplash. "What?"

"I'm starving." He flashes away so quick you don't even register it until he's walking away at a loping pace, and you stumble up after him as he leads the way back to the car.

He drives you to a beat up restaurant with faded red paint and burnished gold dragons out front. It's bizarre, albeit interesting, and you follow him inside after only a moment's hesitation.

"You like Chinese food?" he asks as you slide into a booth.

"I don't know," you admit. "I've never had any."

He looks at you and his eyebrows climb sky high. "That's the saddest fucking thing I ever did hear."

"You have been almost the sole provider of food since we got here," you point out, picking up a menu and holding it up so you can't see his face for at least a couple minutes.

He scoffs at you, mutters under his breath, but otherwise lets you go, and you're thankful for the reprieve it gives you to breathe.

After a moment a waitress comes over, gives you and Bro two glasses of water. He orders "two cokes - orange, whatever you have," and you think of the vein that popped on Rose's neck when she and Dave got into an argument about soda versus coke.
Roxy interrupting to say "pop?" did nothing but make the situation worse.

At first you think about mentioning that there aren't very many people here, and of course, just as with all things in your messed up life, that's when the place starts to fill up.

The noise of people, coughing, talking, laughing, it surrounds you on all sides, makes you feel like you can't breathe. Can't think. You scan the restaurant, count a hundred pillars, at least two fish tanks, more booths in the same brown and green as your own, and you feel sick.

And then Bro kicks you under the table.

You jerk your head up to find him regarding you with a complete pokerface, and find it twenty times more annoying when it's reflected back at you. "What the fuck?" you hiss.

"You're being hysterical," he says simply, flips a page of his menu. "It looks ridiculous."

"You look ridiculous," you say defensively, and sound like a child for it. He just snorts, and you watch him for a minute longer. Bro has not left the house any more than you have. And actually, you realize in annoyance, it's been a whole lot less. Fuck him.

If he can hear you thinking mean thoughts from here, he doesn't mention, just sighs, folds the menu back up, and puts it face down, rests his arms on top of it. "Look, we're here, it's too late to