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Defragmentation

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Everything is in pieces. But that’s nothing new. You are a Prince of Heart. Splinters are your life. You make splinters. You may have only recently learned how to harness your Princely powers to tear out other people’s souls, but you’ve always had a knack for tearing your own to shreds, even when you weren’t trying.

These splinters don’t resonate in that same way, don’t camp themselves into a corner of your mind and exist, thrumming along with your heartbeat in a constant reminder. These are all just a chaotic mess of sharp edges and broken glass, scattered across a dark void you are pretty sure isn’t the medium, or even the Furthest Ring. It feels…

Empty, aside from the glimmer of a thousand dead stars dancing at your fingertips.

Your name is Dirk Strider and you’re pretty sure you were dead a moment ago. Maybe you are dead for good, even with the revolving door that ascending to god-tier opens up. Before that agonizing moment of force ramming through you, you just remember staring at Dave’s face, his hands as they clenched against the bone white hilt of his sword, willing him to just go ahead and take the shot. You’ve lost your head purposefully before, because getting into the game would save all your friends lives. Even this right now would be an even better reason because ridding the world of these two splinters of Jack Noir would increase the odds of everyone else surviving and you are okay with that.

And then. The tolling, a terrible tolling of a clock, ringing louder and louder and louder until everything just...stopped,  the gears coming to a screeching end and shattering across the universe and birthing the plane of nothingness you now inhabit.

It was a very strange sensation. Not unlike when you first woke up on Derse all those years ago. Floating in a limbo, unable to see anything through bleary eyes that didn’t quite know how to process the medium before the medium existed. While you’d never reached Roxy’s levels of dream-walking, it had taken several of these muddled half-nightmares, and Calliope’s cheerful explanations before you’d woken enough to start your scheming.

Your new status as the Prince of Heart though, that changed things. You couldn’t be dreaming because your dreamself is dead. That’s how you earned these god-tier puffy asshole pants in the first place. Taken your place in the pantheon and cast off your mortal coil or some shit. Not that it had mattered, it hadn’t smoothed down the sharp edges from where you’d broken bits off of your soul to create your auto-responder nearly three years ago. It just made the loss all the more noticeable.

You can’t find him. Or Arquiusprite, as he’d finally settled into after you’d fulfilled your promise. He’d always burned in that corner of your mind, laughing at you. A reminder of your hubris, of failings, a dark mirror that twisted and churned in your stomach as it threw back everything you hated about yourself. But it was gone. It almost hurt to feel so empty.

Was this where players went when they died? You don’t remember it being full of sharp, broken edges, glinting in the darkness of the furthest ring. More like...pockets of space, surrounded by an eerie murmuring that had resonated in your bones the entire flight back.

You recalled waking up there once, after being knocked out twice in both your waking and dreaming selves, watching Jake beat up some weird aquatic punk ghost. You’d been a passively observing brain ghost lodged in your boyfriend-to-be’s brain and then suddenly completely embodied, your head splitting as memories from your two (and a phantom) selves tried to squeeze themselves into a single span of time. It made that time pretty blurry though, in recollection. You’d just had way too much crap going on what with trying to make sure none of your friends died completely before you managed to get inside the game, and you hadn’t just been able to slip back out of your dreamself into the waking world like you normally would considering the lights weren’t on at home...

You don’t think you feel dead. Did anyone feel dead? You needed to get back to Dave and the others if you could at all. Had his gambit worked? Did Dave manage to take out both Jacks? And what about Roxy and the Batterwitch? Or Jake and his solo mission? You hated being out of the loop, what if something happened to your friends while you were trapped in this place?

Frustrated, you brush mental fingers against the edge of one of the shards surrounding you, searching for something, anything, that would tell you what happened here. Some of them felt utterly alien. Incomprehensible nonsense. Like looking at a program written in a language you didn’t have the syntax for. You keep looking, sifting through the debris field. Mixed in with the alien logic were the occasional glimpses, flashes. Not yours, but close enough that you could feel it resonate with your soul, plucking at that sense of self with a quiet here! I’m here!

That familiar-but-not-quite shard led to another, one held on by nothing more than a spider-thin strand of silk. Nothing more than a splinter of a memory, but it felt like you . An anchor. It’s--just like Derse. Like before the game, as your mind slipped from one world to the next.

You let your awareness slide along the edge of your broken soul, coasting the jagged pieces like how you’d always imagined your bro had done, tearing up a rail on a shitty artifacted skateboard. Weight and solidity settled around you like a well worn coat, you unconsciously wrapped yourself in it--and breathed.

...And then fell over hacking. You stumble forward, something hard and sharp catching and digging into your stomach. Countertop? Felt like it. But your eyes were watering as that same something in the air burned at them. A dull roar builds in your ears as you focus on dragging air into lungs you’d forgotten you had--you haven’t needed to breathe since you’d gotten yourself killed on your quest bed. Was that really only a day ago? It felt like eons, getting slapped beyond the incipisphere and then flying and Dave and Jack and dying--

If nothing else, the burning in your lungs, the counter digging into palms. It all whispered that this was real . If you were dead, if this was just a shred of memory, would you be hunched over what your blurry vision could only call a sink, hacking up a lung like you’d gone exploring the Land of Tombs and Krypton without your mask? You lived on that planet with it’s thick gasses and poison filled atmosphere for half a year, this acrid soupy air and oppressive heat should be nothing .

Eyes watering behind your shades, you fumble for the faucet--at least you think it’s a faucet. This feels like your apartment and you roll with it, the shape of the nozzle is the same under your hand as it’s been for the last sixteen years. You push your shades up into your hair--they bump into something already there, knocking it off your head--burying your face in hands cupping lukewarm water, and just try to breathe. The water, while never as cold as you wanted, worked to ease the prickle in your eyes. The water sloshed to the dirty metal sink-- no that was wrong you kept it spotless because what else did you have to do for half a year there were only so many tombs to explore-- and you grabbed another handful, this time it slid down your throat. Carefully, oh so carefully. With the way your lungs were protesting it would be far too easy for the liquid to end up somewhere it shouldn’t and you didn’t know if the game simulated pneumonia but you wouldn’t put it past it.

“B-bro?”

A tiny, quivering voice had you jerking your head up. The sky outside the window above the sink was blood red over a wide expanse of slate grey and glass, not the poison green and black of your planet, or even the endless blue of your home. You turn stiffly, water running in rivulets down your face and caught in your eyelashes as you try to blink the burning grit away.

And then you look down, into a small face that was torn between all too familiar indifference and cracked with something else. Small pale hands clutched an orange baseball cap, holding it out hesitantly.

You…can’t deal with this right now. Your burning lungs. Your irritated eyes. The screaming in your woefully inefficient meatbag brain that knew this was wrong wrong wrong.

Your mind blanks out. Full on fucking blue screen of death’d that shit. You feel your hands take the cap, and some part of your brain that sounds suspiciously like Hal notes with satisfaction  that your voice doesn’t waver at all, although it sounds wrong to your ears. “Thanks Dave.”

The too young Dave Strider manages a too-cool-to-actually-be-cool nod and absconds out of the kitchen, slamming the door to a room-- his room?-- behind him.

Gravity is a constant battle, and your too shocked limbs aren’t even trying to put on a show, so you let yourself sink to the floor, stained cabinet to your back. But you don’t stop there, sliding away from the body and back into the welcoming darkness of the void, surrounded by the remnants of tiny stars and clutch at your puffy asshole god-tier pants like they were a lifeline because of what they represent. What the fuck. What the fuck, man.

Are you dead???

A tiny star burns in the previously empty corner of your mind and all you can smell is that burning, pollution filled entirely not flooded Houston air. If you try you know you could slip right back into that body because that’s what you did for years. Only that body is not fucking yours.

You are dimly aware of your--his--shades clattering to the linoleum floor, like it’s a distant dream and you only need to open your eyes to wake up.  You squeeze them shut, your palms forcing your real shades into your face and very quietly, you take a moment to freak the fuck out.

Chapter Text

Time passes. You have no idea how much. You can still fly, wherever you are, and you take advantage of it. You put as much distance between yourself and what just happened.

But no matter how far you go, a tiny star continues to glimmer. Locked in the back of your mind. Every now and then you get a whiff of the air from that place and it makes your throat seize up, before you pointedly tell yourself that you can’t breathe right now even if you wanted to.

There’s no light to travel by, so you just follow your gut, knifing through the void and ignoring the miniaturized galaxies worth of shards you are leaving behind. You are wary of touching another after what happened last time, although none of these resonate with you quite like that one did. Occasionally you’ll skim an edge and maybe hear something, like the shout of an old friend trying to flag you down as you pass…

You stopped, the first few times. In case someone had managed to find you. In case you’d just been flung so far out beyond the incipisphere and your friends were all looking for you. In case that really had been a dream bubble you saw... But the battery acid stink taunting you shoots down that hypothesis with surprising vengeance, and you reluctantly keep moving.

It was so dark. So quiet. A land void of the horrorterrors that had once reigned over what you can only guess is beyond the Furthest Ring. You have to still be in the game if you are all god-tier up in this shit, and only the Furthest Ring can’t see Skaia’s light. That has to be it. It’s just...strange that it’s so quiet. And taking so long. Even when you’d been teleported away by Jake’s mind-controlled grandma, you’d been able to see specks from skaia on the horizon, and feel the thrum of space and time as it roiled around you. This was just…

Well. Aside from the splinters everywhere, which at least echoed with something, this entire place felt inert. Completely void of even the denizens of the void. You carefully skirt another shard that emitting a vaguely repelling heat. If you squint at it, you get the vaguest impression of an ocean, but one that was entirely the wrong color. This was one of those close-but-not enough cases. You can feel it reaching out, inviting, but you flinch away, leaving it to it’s slow orbit amongst the rest of the stars.

If your hunch was right, and all this debris was some sort of shrapnel left behind by an explosion, then you should probably be looking for the center of it all. You’ve been cataloging the placement of the clusters during your flight, and they did seem reminiscent of a blast pattern, within normal variations, and if so that meant he could calculate the--you feel something twist painfully in your gut, and the emptiness ringing in your ears mocks you.

Right. The...center. Right. You didn’t need advanced processors or artificial superiority to observe and deduce the direction to the epicenter. Your meatbag brain would have to do. You still know how to code.

It... wasn’t hard to get it within a reasonable margin of error. But it took a long time. Longer than it should have taken. Red text should be forcing open the pesterchum window in the shades, taunting you about how it’d been done in 1/10th the time but he just wanted to give you a sporting shot since you seemed to be having fun exercising your inefficient resources.

Nothing. Pesterchum stays dark as you close the script you’d been using to crunch the numbers. You hesitate--you’ve been avoiding this because the signal likely wouldn’t be able to reach anyway--but with a quick thought, like ripping off a bandaid, you pull up your friendslist.

It’s gone.

They are all gone.

Usernames. Conversations. Files sent and received. All wiped clean as if the program was newly installed.

timaeusTestified stands alone on a list that had once held your best friends. Even out of range you should still have that shit saved locally.

Your jaw spasms from how hard you’ve been clenching it and you force yourself to take a deep breath. Which was utterly useless considering you are in space , but the familiar motion helped steady yourself.

With steely determination you exit the program entirely, and pulled the script you’d just finished coding into the viewport and execute it, a red arrow begins blinking in the corner of your vision, pointing you in the direction of the epicenter.

It was the only clue you had, aside from the city of steel and glass and you weren’t yet ready to face that.

Ready or not, the thought summoned a slightly less oppressive but still far too soupy heat, the faintest mirage of deep shadows creeping across the linoleum beyond grey shoes. Your head begins to ache as you straddle two bodies doing two very different things. One flying unerringly through space, the other slumped in a pathetic heap on a kitchen floor. The indignity of it all wrankles at your pride, and you try your best to shove the thought away. You don’t care. You don’t need it. You just need to focus on the explosion and you’ll figure out what the fuck happened and get back to Jake and Jane and Roxy and Dave--

Your ears are too sharp for your own good, and the room swims back into view. You catch the sound of a door being cracked. Of hesitant footsteps. The shadows at the end of the room paradoxically deepen as the hallway light is cracked on, and a too damn small body cautiously peeks around the door-frame, only to freeze like a deer in the headlights.

“B-bro? Hey Bro. You alive in there?”

You shove it away.

Finding the epicenter and your friends was the priority. If this splinter couldn’t take care of itself that just made it even more useless than the brain ghost that ended up inside Jake’s brain. It’d obviously existed long before Dirk ever ended up in this place, it could do it’s own damn work.

It’s own damn work is what fucked Dave up in the first place.

The retreating shadows stopped abruptly at that thought. The room lingered around him. Hazy and indistinct, but still undeniably there. He had more than half a metaphorical foot out the door, but something in him hesitated.

“Bro this is seriously--am I going to have to call the hospital? You are seriously wigging me out here. All I wanted was to see if there is something other than your shitty swords in the goddamn fridge because I haven’t eaten in twelve hours, and I come out here to find you still sitting there like this?? You look like someone just up and snip, cut your threads. Oh no, poor broken puppet, better just leave it there--”

He’s in the room now. You can see the moonlight filtering in through the window, bleaching him pale as a sheet. His body language is jittery, you notice in an odd state of detached amazement. You can see him trying so very hard to work up the courage to reach out and touch you on the shoulder. And he finally does and shakes you. Shakes you so hard you can feel his fingers digging into your shoulder. Your real shoulder. Covered in totally uncool red heart-patterned tee-shirts and hoods and pink headbands. Not the one in white that was far too large.

“Bro--please--this isn’t funny. What am I supposed to do if you up and die on me, asshole? Huh? I-- fuck--Please.”

Language.” Your voice comes out raspy, and it startles you. You hadn’t intended to speak.

“The hell do you care?” He flinches but doesn’t release your shoulder.

You’re like. 6.”

“I’m almost 10, and that shouldn’t even matter because I’m the one acting like the adult right now! Do you really think checking out of life for a day or whatever is gonna just...make whatever this is go away?”

That snaps you completely out of your flight and onto the cold linoleum tile. Your hands reflexively tighten into fists and you shove them into your face, groaning. The small hand flinches and releases your white tee-shirt, and you can hear him scrambling back a good safe distance. Out of range for any retaliation or surprise strifes. Your limbs tingle as you move them, the lack of motion for--had it really been twelve hours?--so long had let them fall asleep.

The pressure against your eyes helped. A little. “ fuck.”

“Are you alive or not.”

“I--” Damn it. Even your voice sounded wrong. “Yes.”

“Good.” The vehemence behind in that single word hit you with the weight of a full on strife. You raise your head, as the door creaks and light spills across the room in a concentrated yellow shaft. He isn’t looking at you. He’s mostly blocked by the refrigerator door, but even in this light you can see his fingers trembling against the white appliance, “If you aren’t dying then just--go to bed or something. Don’t go acting all weird, it’s making me nervous. That blank stare isn’t helping you know, tap dancing all across my nerves like it’s a glass of water and the T-Rex is coming. I know dinosaurs are supposed to be the hotshit right now, but I’d rather be a penguin. You know. Cool. I’m cool. You’re cool. And tomorrow we’ll be cool as a penguin getting its moves on to impress all the girl penguins. Make all the other penguins jealous. And if that means you need to go to a doctor penguin, what the hell am I saying just go to the goddamn doctor and we’ll never speak of this again.”

He doesn’t have his shades on as he closes the door, bottle of golden juice in hand, but you can’t see more than a glitter of red in the dark. He doesn’t look at you. He marches stiffly into the hallway, and then you can hear the sudden shift in footsteps as soon as he’s out of your line of sight, booking it down the hall and behind the dubious sanctity of his bedroom door like he thought you were going to chase him down like the raiders from hell.

Another you might have.

Chapter Text

Listening for the telltale creak of the door that would herald Dave returning, you hesitate. Nothing. Just a dull buzz from outside--city noises, you think. You doubt cities are every quiet. Once you are fairly sure you are alone, you push yourself to your feet, joints and muscles aching from being in the same position for too long. Everything felt off. Too big. Too tall. Too heavy. Especially after being all weightless and shit out in space. You pull away from this reality enough to check on yourself--not enough that you’d lose track of this body this time--and yep you are just floating there in the middle of the void like an idiot right now, Hal wouldn’t let you hear the end of it. At least there was literally nothing out there, so you deem it safe enough to leave your gameself there for the moment.

Your pounding heart echoes in your ears. You cover them as if that would help, but the pulse continued as the adrenaline worked to run its course.

Dream or not, you couldn’t believe how stupid this was. You were. Are. For even ending up in this situation. This couldn’t be real. It couldn’t be. You were so sure of it. This strange land of acrid air and noise and impossibilities was obviously just a distraction.

You should fucking know better. You should fucking know that just because something was an alternate, didn’t mean it wasn’t real. You thought you’d seen everything this fucking game could throw at you and it couldn’t get any more illogical.

Real or not, Dave didn’t deserve this shit. Just fucking think about how this situation looked to him. This wasn’t like the auto-responder or the bots, who knew full well you had a tendency to get lost in your own damn head. Or who knew about the game-world and that you were just off information gathering. That was one of the reasons you’d fucking made Hal in the first place, so he could field your friend’s questions while you were spacing out like a narcoleptic zombie.

You needed--needed to get out of this room. The Kitchenette was a wide open space, part of the living room. This was your apartment, more or less. You knew the layout. If Dave had gone that way, and the kitchenette was here, that means he was in your old room. The roof? No. No ocean. No gulls. Only glass and metal and the thrum of a world that hadn’t yet died.

You needed somewhere small. Quiet. An escape.

The bathroom. You lock yourself inside, the fan whirring to life as you automatically flick on the light. It’s a familiar noise, even if it doesn’t yet have the distinctive rattle you’d grown accustomed to as the hardware aged. A stranger looked back at you from the mirror over the sink.

You half-expected this, but it still felt jarring. It’s you. Even without your shades the face was undeniably yours. Same orange eyes. Same thin blank expression that hovered between apathy and aloofness even as you are trying to fight off a double decker bus full of adrenaline and panic. The same unnatural gravity defying sweep in your white-blonde hair, although it was oddly ruffled. From the--hat. Yeah. You’d had a hat earlier. Was that still on the floor? With your--his--shades?

This body definitely aren’t sixteen anymore. Not by a long shot. Too big too old this was you but it wasn’t you but it’s you know what the hell are you going to do--

Crrrck.

You look towards the source of the sound. Blinking owlishly when you realize you were gripping the edge of the sink with a white-knuckled grip. It’d cracked. You force your hands away and stuff them into the pocket of your pants and sit down on the porcelain throne. At least you were out of sight of the mirror now.

You resist the urge to flee again, back to the darkness and the void and your missing friends. It’s very much a problem. Your friends are missing. But this. All this is a problem too. Dave is here. Dave is ten. And you are something closer to thirty than not probably. Dumped in the middle of your ecto-son’s life as your borderline-sociopathic splinterself.

One that you’d been ranted at about. In fairly heavy detail, as that ecto-son had to deal with getting closure for trauma he was living through right now.

“Do you really think checking out of life for a day or whatever is gonna just...make it go away?”

“What am I going to do Hal?” You mutter aloud, although you know your robotic, yet still probably sociopathic splinterself isn’t here either. Two for two on the lower end of the empathy scale, the evidence is mounting. Who's to say you’d be any better at it? “I’m just going to screw this up. I already did.”

If it’s real and you leave? You’d be abandoning your ten year old bro.

Ten years. Given the way Dave had bolted after both their encounters, it was ten years too late to prevent the damage.

Okay. New Plan. You grit your teeth and stand up, methodically going through the motions of washing your hands and then drying them on the threadbare towel just to give you something to fidget with. You can’t just ignore...all of this. Your Dave or not, the kid didn’t deserve it. You need to go over what you remember of that conversation and see what you can fix, and maybe try to blunt what you can’t. This body and this… situation obviously isn’t a one time thing. It isn’t going away. You’d left that splinter star behind, but this...other self had slotted itself in the place your wakingself had been, before you know, the world was destroyed.

Just...like before the game. You could do this. You got the hang of juggling two lives fairly easily no matter how much your auto-responder liked to needle you. One foot in reality, and one in the game and this would work .

You slip a little, letting the darkness of space overlay the grimy wallpaper, and set your--you can’t help but think of it as your true self, all wiry sixteen years of god-tier cosplay--course for the center, cracking your awareness the slightest bit and anchoring there, keeping an eye out for obstacles or anything unusual. It’s been half a year since your dreamself died, but this balancing act felt as natural to you as breathing. Even the headache you could feel building felt more like...stretching a muscle you hadn’t needed to use for a while.

You ease your attention back to the apartment, but not entirely. The speed of the flight has ghostly sensations of motion wisping across your skin, but you’ll get used to it. It would be easy enough to just let yourself splinter again and be done with it, but there have been far too many Dirk Striders already.

Obviously something happened. He was here. Dave was here. What about Jane and Jake and Roxy and the other kids? If this wasn’t a memory or a dream, a new version of Earth, wouldn’t they be here? You wish you’d had more time to sit down and talk to Dave and his friends without the threat of the whole blasted universe threatening to fall to pieces on your heads.

You latch onto that stray thought. Turning it over in your mind as you make your way back out into the living room. Chewing on it, you give the room a cursory once over in the splashlight and the moon from the windows on the far wall, making every metallic object gleam it touched gleam tantalizingly. It was like you were looking in the mirror again. You can see you in every single thing, from the marionettes to the sound samplers to the myriad selection of shitty game systems and even more trashfire games. Even the bare-rumped plush puppets were oddly fascinating by the peekaboo light of the moon, and struck you as something you’d find hilarious if you were in on the joke.

All you had was what your Bro left for you. You’d never really thought about what you’d do if you had the means to decorate with whatever the hell you wanted. It’d just never crossed your mind.

You find the futon, at least it likely won’t send Dave panicking if you pass out there. In fact it was probably the best place for it. The pillow at one end and the rumpled blanket left haphazardly draped over the back of the couch made it pretty obvious this was where Dave’s Bro slept. You didn’t feel like pawing through his--your things in the dark, so exploring was probably better left till morning.

Where was he ? The Other Dirk. Jake’s Brain Phantom hadn’t needed you there to exist, even if you managed to hijack it that one time. Why hadn’t retreating back to the medium allowed your Spinterself to regain control? He couldn’t be gone. You were fairly certain your powers didn’t work that way, even before you got yourself killed and ascended. You just...existed. And if you happened to exist in multiple iterations, it was easy to track and reconcile and slip in and out of them. Your sparkly magic powers didn’t overwrite things. It’s not like he was another iteration of the sixteen year old you, able to seamlessly merge with your player self. This whole room was a shrine to his presence, and while you could see yourself too, you were fully aware that you were treading on ground that didn’t belong to you.

You stare up at the ceiling for hours, lost in your own head, going over everything you’d heard about your own Bro. And everything you’d heard from your Dave. They’d wasted so much time in uncomfortable silence. The shadows gently creep across it, there should be a scorch mark there from where one of your early prototypes had exploded. That section near the wall had cracked in a storm once. You fixed it the best you could, but it would leak.

The dark blue was just beginning to lighten when something on the edge of your attention sets off a warning bell. Nothing literal, just the portion of your mind you set to exploring the medium sitting up and going “hey we should probably pay attention to this.” The dark space bubbles forward, engulfing the room as you pull the blanket around yourself for camouflage if Dave peeks his head in to check on you-- whywouldhedothat?becauseyouscaredhimlastnight.

In the medium, your shades are a comforting weight on your face and you are keenly aware that you missed them, even if this particular set hadn’t left your face. There wasn’t a shard to be seen now, having left them all behind not too long ago. Masses blocked your way, and you find yourself slowing your course. Hesitating. Big chunks of rock, floating in a relatively dense ring, stretching on and on before you on either side. These should have become the meteors that would set off the end of the world, only you never managed to trigger the Reckoning in your dead session. Maybe that’s why the Batterwitch had felt the need to send her drones to flush you and Roxy out, there wasn’t an appropriate threat doing the job for her.

You should be happy. You’d been trying to get back to the Incipisphere. This meant you were on the right track. But…

You’d made the venture to and from Derse often enough, usually running off to drag Roxy’s sleepwalking self back home. Derse had orbited on the outer edge of the ring of meteors. Facing the void that you’d just come from. And every time, there’d been a faint light shining through the gaps between the stones. Even as a non prototyped battlefield, Skaia shone brightly.

This was...nothing.

An explosion.

the whole blasted universe threatening to fall to pieces on your heads.

The fields of dead stars flung and scattered throughout the void, far beyond where the horrorterrors should slumber.

You...didn’t like the conclusion you were drawing.

Not at all.

You needed to get on the internet. You had to find your friends.

Chapter Text

The computer is password locked. Of course it is. Why wouldn’t it be if you were sharing a living space with another human being. You hesitate to just straight up guess, because knowing yourself you’d rig it to lock down after an unspecified number of attempts on the principle of the matter. You search the desk instead, squinting against the faint light of dawn filtering through one of the windows. There is a plethora of papers, but nothing that seems like it could be a clue to the password. Why would there be a clue? That’s an internet safety taboo.

You might just have to wing it. What would you put as a password? You’d never really needed one. Or at least not one that wasn’t full on encryption. Being one of the only two humans on earth afforded you some protection from malicious invasion of privacy from the mundane.

It’s not like you could have kept Roxy out anyway. That girl could hack through goddamn time.

You let your eyes wander the room, looking for an idea, anything that jumped out at you as Important. What was something innocuous, fairly short (the field maxed out at 8 characters), that you (Dirk) would never forget?

You stiffen, tense as hell as you regard a particular ventriloquist doll sitting innocently on a large speaker block in the corner. Glassy blue eyes gleaming at you from the mid-morning shadows cast by the rising sun.

That wasn’t there last night.

You’re sure of it.

You would have noticed.

Almost without your input, your fingers type in six characters and hit enter.

The Desktop appears.

Of course.

You’d had Lil’Cal with you since you were a baby. There are just some things that are universal constants.

It’s just...Cal. The closest thing you had to a guardian. No big deal. In fact, it was nice to see him again. Sort of. Even if it sent unexplicable unease crawling across your skin.

HE IS EMPTY RIGHT NOW

The weight of those glassy eyes prickled in between your shoulder blades, but you drag your focus back to the computer. The desktop was a mess of unfamiliar programs and unnamed folders, but luckily there were a few windows already open at the bottom, probably from whatever your splinterself had been doing before...all this happened. One was something called an aggregator, which was way too overwhelming for you right now. You avoid it in favor of the vanilla web-browser. Dave’s Bro didn’t have pesterchum or even something that remotely looked like a chat client installed. That was probably something you should fix.

You couldn’t imagine a life without it. Without being able to meet and grow to know your friends. Even if two of them would have been dead 400 years before you--

If Jake and Jane were displaced so far from you and Roxy in your world...

It couldn’t be. You pull up a search engine, thrumming your fingers agitatedly against the desk. Entering Jake English alone is futile. His name is too damn generic. Something… you need something more historically significant to branch off of--something well documented--something global...

Crocker.

Betty Crocker.

The internet regurgitates fact after fact about the baking company. You skim it, noting with bewilderment that while the corporation is still rather monolithic and entrenched in the supermarket landscape, it isn’t quite as insidiously pervasive throughout the technology sectors as you remember from your history lessons. In fact, a lot of the technological advances you’d studied as warning signs of the invasion were absent, including Jake’s grandmother’s company and several technologies you retroactively recognized as sburb based.

Where was the Condesce? The malevolent force your Bro and Roxy’s mom dedicated their lives to stop? Everything you can find on Betty Crocker was less secret evil fish troll warlord and more...human ruthless business woman.

Something sticks out from the rather vanilla flavored baking history, and you add another term to the search parameters. The addition of ‘meteor’ narrows the results down further to a handful of archived news articles, originating from Maple Valley, Washington. The name rings a bell. That’s Jane’s home town.

A meteor impact destroyed the local Betty Crocker factory several decades ago. You cross-reference the year and find yourself staring at Betty Crocker’s imposing face, holding two small toothilly grinning children in her arms. The entire picture was at odd to the mourning blacks all three were dressed in.

Baking Baroness Adopts Twins in the Wake of Husband’s Passing’

You skim the article, zeroing in on the children’s names. Jake and Jane Crocker. Adopted in 1952. You slump back in your chair. Feeling very much like your strings have been cut. All the manic energy drains out of you as you stare at the year, doing the math in your head with the 2006 in the corner.. 54 years old at least . And that was assuming they are still alive .

Pushing yourself, you reach for the mouse. It trembles as you move it. No wait, that’s your hand shaking. Great. This doesn’t mean anything. So what if they are in their 50s. That’s younger than Jane’s Poppop was when he died. It isn't a 400 year difference. Probably only like. 20. You’re probably in your 30s. It’s not that weird-- itwasweirditwassoweirdtothinkofjakeandjanebeingsofarapart.

In this world the Baking conglomerate isn’t chronicled with the near religious fervor you remember, so it’s harder to find information about the family than you expected. An article in passing mentions Jake Crocker disowning the family business and vanishing from the pitiful excuse for a corporate confectioners limelight entirely. Jane Crocker worked at her mother’s company for a time before she too stepped down, although the reasons given hinted at an upcoming marriage.

...Nothing about death, although you find an obituary mourning the passing of Betty Crocker herself several years later, a footnote of which mentions she was survived by two children, Jane Egbert and Jake Harley.

More fuel for your investigation. You should have guessed about Harley, that had been Jake’s Grandmother’s name before she took on English to spite the Batterwitch. Egbert on the other hand. What kind of name was that? Who the heck did Janey marry?

Slowly and surely, the snippets of public record paint a picture of your friends. Jake occasionally made waves in certain exploratory and gentleman clubs with his good natured eccentricity and his willingness to tackle challenges most people would shrink away from, before he retired to the same Hellmurder Island in the middle of the pacific ocean. Jane, on the other hand, lived relatively quietly. Mentioned as a widow of one Jeramiah Egbert, along with son Dan. On record as the owner of a joke shop that was only notable for being destroyed by a meteor 9 years or so ago.

And then you find her obituary.

Chapter Text

Your name is Dave Strider, and you’re almost ten years old now. You think your bro is awesome, your new friend john has terrible taste in movies, and that dead shit and sick beats are tied for the coolest things ever. Your Bro is literally a sword wielding, puppet toting, urban samurai, and he trains you every day to follow in his awesome ninja footsteps.  

Or he should be. He was conspicuously absent from the training part of that right now. Yesterday was utterly terrifying, seeing him slumped on the kitchen floor like some lame limp noodle. And this morning wasn’t much better. You still can’t believe you’d lost your cool like that. In front of him. You hadn’t slept a wink. Just waiting for him to get you back for disappointing him and breaking your poker-face and poking your nose where it doesn’t belong. You were supposed to have an understanding about that feelings shit.

You should have trusted that he would have thrown off whatever the hell last night was on his own. Nevermind that he hadn’t moved from that boneless slump since you saw him freak out in the kitchen earlier in the day. Maybe you should have just pretended not to see and let him work his shit out like he always did with your moments of weakness. You really appreciated those moments. Really. They gave you enough time to school your emotions on the rules of the bro-code and return everything to a zen state of chill you both appreciated so much.

Really.

You are supposed to be the chillest of chill. The epitome of chill. Not some blubbering baby too powder-bottom soft to know what a stiff upper-lip meant.

You just had to panic and interfere. Of course Bro wasn’t dying. Outside of the heat of the moment the idea was frankly preposterous (boo ya 16 point word.) It was insulting. And he was going to take the price for it out of your hide. Or your pride. Possibly even both.

What would it be this time? A cascade of puppet rumps thrown onto your bed to greet you in the morning? Ironic blasting of shitty pop music in your ear? Full contact-Lil’Cal to the face? One or more of your bro’s half-naked hip-hop idols tucked lovingly into your arms while you slept?

There were no depths too ironic for Bro to plunder when seeking his revenge. Well, the joke was on him. You were ready for him. With your back to the corner there was no where for him to flash-step and get the drop on you, and your fortifications of pillows and boxes on your bed should be enough to interrupt the path to reduce the effectiveness of the move. The hatches were so battened down it was tighter security than Ft Knox up in here. If this shit was a battlefield you were a tactical general , ever vigilant for the invading forces.

 

Tick-tock.

Tick-tock.

Waited.

Tick-tock.

Tick-tock.

But nobody came.

The apartment was eerily quiet. Bro never missed training, and he only rarely canceled it for your benefit. You had to be seriously wheezing or coughing up a lung before he’d take your temperature and bundle you back into bed to fend for yourself.

Then again, you can’t remember him ever being sick before either, and that’s obviously what happened last night.

6 hours, 23 minutes, and 34, 35, 36-- 37,38,39 fuck why are you still counting-- seconds later you finally throw in the towel. You’ve survived this long on nerves and hypervigilance, but your energy was starting to lag as the lack of a night’s sleep began dragging at your eyelids.

6 hours and 32 minutes and 12,13,14 after The Incident you poke your head out of the door. The AJ you’d absconded with last night was weighing heavy in your bladder, and you regretted ever going for it.

Nothing attacked you, puppet or steel, as you entered the hallway. If he’s not here, then maybe he actually did fuck off to the doctor’s or wherever and you’ll need to look out for evening training instead. That’s fine. Maybe you can catch a cat-nap in your closet in preparation. You can barely maintain a flashstep on a good day, you don’t wanna risk it on no sleep.

You finish your business and then adjust your totally cool shades. Looking good. You turn your gaze toward the end of the hallway, weighing whether or not you wanted to risk the chance that Bro is actually home and waiting for you in the living room.

6 minutes, 45, 46, 47, you decide against it and cut your losses. You have some crackers stashed in the closet, and you’re gonna take that nap while the taking is good. If Bro hadn’t revenge pranked you by now, he’s probably got something prepared and was just waiting for you to return to the scene of the crime. You aren’t walking into that shit without a nap and some pesterchum-and-chill with John--

Nap. Nap is good.

Your fortify your position again, out of habit more than really expecting an attack although you could never rule out anything with Bro. He was serious about situational awareness and constant vigilance and that shit.

You don’t bother with the pillow and just lean up against the wall, surrounded by the battlements of your sanctuary, and you are out like a light.

2 hours and 7 minutes later on the dot and you wake. You stare blearily at the still barred door of your room, at the unmistakably bright sunlight filtering through Houston’s smog-haze, and then finally down at the phone peeking out of your blankets. Back to the door. No text from Bro demanding your presence. No clay-face visitors taking advantage of your personal-space bubble. You just sit there.

An arm snaps out of your fortifications, fingers closing around the oblong device and then pulling it back inside your fortress. No notifications period, other than a confirmation that the school received your last assignment successfully and a reminder that you had another one coming up. Man. Fuck school. That meant you needed to get Bro to sign off on it. You could forge it probably. But then Bro would be angry if he found out. And he would, since he has to mail the things off, although you’re fairly certain you know where he keeps the stamps n shit.

At least you liked these assignments. It made it more bearable than say, history. You wish it was biology  or--what was it? The -ology that was the history of dead shit? That’d be way more awesome than learning about some old fuddy duddies who happened to be the right amount of rich and influential at the right time. Or wrong time. The French Revolution had been pretty funny and subversive in that way.

Aw yeah. 18 points. Talk about practical applications.

You drag yourself out of bed. The nap had worked to chase off the fatigue nipping at your heels like a pack of vicious tiny chihuahuas by throwing it a juicy wrack of ribs to yip over and gnaw on for a while, but you were keenly aware of the fact that you probably needed far more than a measly two hours. No help for it. If you are awake, you are awake. You wanted to tell John about your dream anyway.

Pesterchum is up on your computer. It always is. You scroll through your list of friends. You have a lot of course, everyone in the chatrooms want a piece of your smooth red text. They hang onto your every word. Just waiting for you to descend from on high to impart some tidbit of wisdom or a snippet of a rhyme you were working on to the unwashed masses.

But even then you have your short list. Your A-List. The friends upon friends that transcend all others--

Okay so it’s only one person. And you literally just met a few weeks ago. And he has a shit taste in movies, although you can appreciate the irony in liking such garbage trashfires to the point where it becomes good again. But damn it you and John clicked. You had the feeling you were going to be best bros.

… who the hell is ectoBiologist?

It had to be John. You only had one person on that list, and you suppose it’s still on theme with ghostlyTrickster. Dude is obsessed with ghostbusters. You’re a little disappointed. You’d appreciated the amusing irony in the initials.

turntechGodhead [TG] began pestering ectoBiologist[EB]

turntechGodhead [TG] yo dude you there you just up and changed your username so i just wanted to make sure you were okay
turntechGodhead [TG] i get it it must be a ghostbusters thing
turntechGodhead [TG] i remember you raving about it the other day
turntechGodhead [TG] man cant believe youre taking this love affair so seriously
turntechGodhead [TG] con air is going to be jealous remember the bunny john you cant leave casey high and dry can you
turntechGodhead [TG] next thing you know youll be wearing slimers ugly mug on your shirt and carting around one of those back mounted vacuum cleaners as some two bit cosplay and ill just be sitting here and laughing at how ridiculous you look
turntechGodhead [TG] i wonder if those exist as backpacks just a minute let me google it real quick
turntechGodhead [TG] ...oh god they do
turntechGodhead [TG] whelp there you go something to ask your dad for your birthday or christmas or whatever
turntechGodhead [TG] youre welcome for the idea im extracting my head from this rabbit hole immediately
turntechGodhead [TG] moving on
turntechGodhead [TG] i just had the weirdest dream
turntechGodhead [TG] i was in this giant tower right
turntechGodhead [TG] all decked out in fancy purple and silver moons and shit
turntechGodhead [TG] can you imagine living in those kind of digs bro???
turntechGodhead [TG] its like I was a king of my own castle
turntechGodhead [TG] or maybe just a knight idk
turntechGodhead [TG] someone important at least
turntechGodhead [TG] can you imagine me sitting on some pretentious cushy throne with a scepter giving orders?
turntechGodhead [TG] all hail the moon king fear me peasant kiss my rad red cape or off with your head
turntechGodhead [TG] did i mention i had a cape
turntechGodhead [TG] i dont know receiving subjects sounds boring as fuck all the bowing and groveling
turntechGodhead [TG] i would rather slay dragons or rescue princesses or even princes i dont care im not picky
turntechGodhead [TG] man i wish my dream was about dragons instead
turntechGodhead [TG] i just stood there listening to some shitty clock ticking, counting the seconds
turntechGodhead [TG] 7620 seconds in case you were curious i know you are dying to know
turntechGodhead [TG] waste of a dream man
turntechGodhead [TG] damn it john youre still at school arent you
turntechGodhead [TG] dont leave your computer on if you aren’t there dont you know that wastes energy and gets peoples hopes up
turntechGodhead [TG] i guess it is only like noon
turntechGodhead [TG] dont mind me i forget most of the rest of the world isnt free as a bird looking for an unsuspecting statue or passerby to do its business on
turntechGodhead [TG] thats your pesterchum window in the metaphor fyi because you left it logged in like a nerd and i got time
turntechGodhead [TG] i got so much time
turntechGodhead [TG] call me the king of time its ticking in my head like a song i just gotta get out
turntechGodhead [TG] bust out the turntables and just make that baby spin gonna leap right through time kapow back to the golden age
turntechGodhead [TG] oh wait i decided i was a knight not a king thats fine knights are cooler anyway
turntechGodhead [TG] good luck at school i guess dont stick gum in susies hair or get caught passing notes or something idak what people do in school
turntechGodhead [TG] im sure its just like it is on tv all prepubescent drama and barely controlled chaos and teachers cackling and rubbing their hands together just waiting to get their mitts on those impressionable minds
turntechGodhead [TG] ive been doing my vocabulary homework cant you tell those were some 20 point words right there read em and weep egbert
turntechGodhead [TG] homeschool is lame and useless i dont need math or history to be a sick urban ninja dj
turntechGodhead [TG] but the words the words man i need these in my life you cant make miracles outta nothin i need material ill eat a thesaurus everyday of my life
turntechGodhead [TG] okay that one was only 12 points cut me some slack
turntechGodhead [TG] can you believe bro got after me for swearing last night???
turntechGodhead [TG] like he can talk he said fuck immediately afterwards
turntechGodhead [TG] still cant believe he didnt school my ass after that it was a weird night i keep waiting for the other shoe to drop
turntechGodhead [TG] or maybe a puppet
turntechGodhead [TG] i guess i cant keep hiding in my room forever gotta face the demonic singing of the marionette barber shop quartet sooner or later
turntechGodhead [TG] dont get me wrong puppets are still awesome
turntechGodhead [TG] but if im not back in an hour im probably dead buried in puppet ass avenge me pls
turntechGodhead [TG] just dont bust my ghost the afterlife needs some excitement how can you deny it my chill red text

turntechGodhead [TG] ceased pestering ectoBiologist[EB]

Chapter Text

If you stare long enough, would the world start to make sense?

You straight  up don’t recognize your own home right now.

It’s like a whirlwind of destruction ran amuck through your the living room leaving...something behind. Definitely Something alright. Was it too late to abscond?

There isn’t a plush neon rump in sight, and only the occasional nose poking out of a pile hidden in the corner, tucked between the speaker system and the tv. You find yourself missing those wide open cheeks littering every surface because at least that would be normal.

This. Is not normal.

Is this your Bro’s revenge? It’s a level of irony beyond your feeble brain can comprehend, destroying your carefully crafted balancing act of normality and sending you reeling into the land of twilight town? Complete with eerie 80s era tv themes and black and white filters and you were just waiting for the iconic voice over to boom around you.

Bro’s oh so precious audio equipment, which he has not let you so much as touch since you ruined the last one with a misplaced bottle of AJ, is in pieces in the center of the floor, wires exposed and panels strewn on every available surface. You know intimately how much that set up costs. You’ve drooled over the listings online more than once as you dreamed of owning one of your own one day. Bro’s handmedown isn’t bad at all and you appreciate the heck out of the fact that he gave it to you instead of selling it, but his own equipment was another level of sacred.

And yet. Here it is. With Bro’s normal gloves nowhere to be seen, several small tools you didn’t even know he had littering the floor, and staring very intently at something in his hand.

“Is it broken or something?”

He doesn’t respond, examining a small … circuit board? You’ve never actually seen one before, outside of pixels on your computer screen, all green and silver and black and tiny pieces, so thin you’d be afraid of snapping the thing just from breathing on it. And Bro was holding it daintily in his big adult hand as if it held the mysteries of the universe.

“Bro seriously what the hell.”

The shrug was only marginally more unexpected than the fact that you received a response at all.

“You still aren’t dying right”

The words blurt out of your mouth before your brain can catch up to it. And you want to strangle yourself. Bringing that up was the last thing you wanted--

But it got bro to look up. His face is drawn, and his eyes feel...older. You are not used to him without his shades. It was wrong. Objectively you’ve always known your bro had orange eyes the color of the sky at sunset, you’ve lived with the dude as long as you remember, and no matter how sneaky he liked to be when engaged in stealth mode he had to take off the shades sometimes.

But something about the lack of barrier rattled you terribly. Bro was untouchable. He wore his stoicism like a goddamn suit of armor. It was just how he was.

This…

“Who fuckin’ knows” The laugh was almost barked. He turned back to the circuit board, swiping some sort of larger panel full of other card full of little chips and wires and slots.

“...what the hell bro.”

You’re just repeating yourself and you know it and it infuriates you.

There’s that shrug again. Despite the careless motion, you can see the tension in his posture, as if coiled power was barely restrained and trying to vibrate itself out into motion. As if he wanted to flee. Despite all this his face held that same blank thin lined expression you’ve grown up with.

Ugh. Feelings shit. Awkwardly you take a step forward, eyeing the side panel to the turn-table’s main body propped up against the sampler on the other side of the room.

“Can you put it back together?”

Deflect, deflect. God don’t start talking about it again.

“Probably.”

“If you can’t?”

Shrug.

“That’s…” You grope for words. What happened to your patented motormouth?  The words feel trapped in red text that don’t translate well to actual words and sounds. There’s a disconnect somewhere, your fingers twitching as if you could type the words into existance rather than leaving them trapped under the layer of ice an almost face to face conversation creates. Your mouth works soundlessly “Why?”

“Needed to work with my hands.” And damn now that you were watching them he was so careful while assembling that forest of green and gold. You aren’t used to those hands doing anything other than swinging a sword at your face or curled around some sort of game controller. “Taking things apart help. Figuring out how they go back together helps more.”

“So you pick the most expensive thing in the apartment. Okay.”

He tenses. You freeze, eyes widening behind your shades. Carefully, he sets the set of chips to the side and goddamn it you did it. You took the wrong step and your foot landed on the mine here it comes. Your strife specibus is always stocked but he’s always faster on the draw than you are--

But he just looks away.

“TRAINING” You blurt out, catching his attention again. “You didn’t come get me for morning session.”

Fingers raked through platinum blonde hair, the carefully neutral expression tightens. It’s just the slightest tick of his jaw, but in a house where reading Bro’s mannerisms meant the difference between a good night’s sleep and a midnight ambush it was an obvious tell. “Not a good idea, b-lil bro.”

“Why not?” You demand with more force than you probably needed to considering you don’t want a strife.

Actually maybe you do. At least it’d be fucking normal and not…

Whatever this shit is.

You don’t like feeling like a stranger in your own home.

“Dave.”

You flinch.

“I’m tired.” He’s a mess. You’re a mess. This entire goddamn conversation is a mess. “Training wouldn’t do either of us any good.”

“As if that ever stopped you before.” And there’s the complete and utter lack of a filter. But you couldn’t stop it. This was so wrong so weird just came tumbling out, the moment lengthening as time felt like it screeched to a stop.

The silence stretched. Bro regarding you with those too tired eyes and just this once you resisted the urge to flinch. Straight backed and daring him to come at you. Swordkind at your fingertips, you’re ready.

Bro blinks first, closing his eyes in a slow exhale. You have to strain to hear his quiet mumble “Fuck. I really screwed this up.” Louder. “It isn’t happening. No strings attached. No ambushes. Nothing.”

You cross your arms dubiously. (damn it almost 16 points.)

The stalemate lasts for 3 minutes and 10,11,12 seconds before he snags one of the tiny tools and begins reattaching connector wires.

Pointedly ignoring you. Well. Two of you can play at that game.

You don’t look a gift-horse in the mouth and pick your way across the room, although you make sure you don’t turn your back either. Maybe this is a test. He’s trying his best to throw you off to see if you’ll lose your cool.

You head towards the kitchen, trying to think if you remembered anything other than the apple juice you took last night in there. The memories were fuzzy. There might have been a not-quite-yet moldy loaf of bread buried in bro’s throwing stars, and you are pretty sure you have some peanutbutter in one of the cabinates if bro hasn’t thrown it out yet--

And you just stare. Trying to comprehend the sight that greets you.

You completely forget the mutual ignoring going on and the words just come out.

“Where the fuck did you put the weapons?”

A pause.

“Away.”

The counters were clear as a goddamn whistle, sparkling in the light coming in from the window. You could eat off that shit. You reach up and grab the countertop, it’s barely at your eyelevel right now you can’t wait to put on another couple inches, and heave yourself up. Even the kitchen sink had been scrubbed down. You can’t remember the last time you’d seen the faint cracked pattern in the countertop.

It wasn’t even that you guys left it messy. You just... never used it except as additional weapons storage. Bro never cooked, and more often than not you guys nuked take-out if you were going to have a hot anything . There’d been no real need to scrub the buildup except like every few months.

You check the fridge. The swords are gone too. Leaving the cooling container depressingly empty. At least with the weapons in there you could pretend there was food hidden underneath it.

“Shit. You really are dying.”

You don’t think you’ve ever heard him laugh like that before. A little muffled snort that opened up into a low quiet, bitter laugh.

With a sinking feeling in your stomach, you realize you probably haven’t heard him speak this much at once before.

Or that you have either.

You may type mile a minute, but you can count the number of real life people you’ve spoken to on both hands, and Bro doesn’t make for much of a conversation partner on one of the rare good days he gave you the time of day outside of training.

Hell, Lil’Cal was better.

You really don’t like that train of thought and you don’t want to think about what those implications mean to your homelife so you just straight up don’t.

A freshly peanut butter’d slab of not-quite moldy carbohydrates later and you make a break for the hallway. You almost make it.

“Hey bro?”

You tense, turning the movement into a casual glance over your shoulder, “Yeah?”

He’s still not looking at you.

“Things are changing, figured I should warn you.”

“Oh sure. Drop some cryptic shit on me like that. That’s super helpful.” You roll your eyes, not that he can see it behind your shades. It makes you feel better though. You’re far enough away and he’s buried in wires so you feel a little more at ease letting that awkward ice thaw. “Changing how? ‘luke i am your father’ kind of changing, or ‘i’m pulling you out of school and we’re going on a training journey to china’, or ‘i’ve suddenly seen the light and converting to apple juice’ or what?”

He didn’t respond at all. Irritated that he interrupted your escape for something like this you throw in one last parting shot.

“Well, get back to me when you figure it out.”

You don’t stop until you are safely back into your room again. Where things make at least a smidgen more sense. Or at least you can pretend they do.

35 minutes and 56 seconds after you ceased pestering john you open the window again.

turntechGodhead began pestering ectoBiologist[EB]

turntechGodhead [TG] i think my bro has gone mental
turntechGodhead [TG] i dont know how to feel about this

turntechGodhead ceased pestering ectoBiologist[EB]

3 hours 15 minutes and 23, 24, 25 seconds of theraputic beats pumping through almost sound canceling headphones like a cascading waterfall surging and cocooning you, drowning you, muffling everything except the ebb and flow of sound vibrating through your tired core, you get a response. Just a flicker of orange out of the corner of your eye as the muted notification does its job.

You mournfully crank the volume down just enough to allow yourself to hear your own thoughts, but not enough to lose the soothing levels of zen you were indulging in right now.

ectoBiologist[EB] began pestering turntechGodhead[TG]

ectoBiologist [EB] wasn’t he always?
turntechGodhead [TG] shut up
ectoBiologist [EB] i don’t know man, it even you got to admit it this time.
ectoBiologist [EB] what did he do to topple the pedestal?
ectoBiologist [EB] was it the puppet? i bet it was the puppet.
turntechGodhead [TG] fuck you puppets are awesome
turntechGodhead [TG] and its not like you can talk with all those clowns
ectoBiologist [EB] dude, i’m the last person to argue that. i hate those things.
turntechGodhead [TG] it was a couple thousand dollars worth of audio equipment in pieces on the floor and an actual clean kitchen and cryptic things are changing bullshit
turntechGodhead [TG] pinch me please this has to be a nightmare
turntechGodhead [TG] i dont even get to enjoy my rad cape this time i feel cheated
ectoBiologist [EB] i would totally slap your smug face if you were within arms reach i promise.
turntechGodhead [TG] thank you
ectoBiologist [EB] i don’t know though that doesn’t seem so bad.
ectoBiologist [EB] funny you should mention dreams though. that’s actually why i changed usernames.
turntechGodhead [TG] really???
turntechGodhead [TG] i thought it was some ghostbusters shit
ectoBiologist [EB] i mean it probably is. i was some sort of ghost scientist. doing ghost science and there was a lot of slime. i woke up thinking about it and it just kinda came to me. pretty awesome right?
turntechGodhead [TG] nah dude its totally lame
turntechGodhead [TG] although not as lame as a ghostbusters reference i guess
ectoBiologist [EB] ew dog that was uncalled for take it back
turntechGodhead [TG] lame
ectoBiologist [EB] ass
turntechGodhead [TG] oh man john language do i need to tell your dad
turntechGodhead [TG] his little john is growing up into a merryman and calling people asses
turntechGodhead [TG] im obviously the robin hood
turntechGodhead [TG] dashing hero
turntechGodhead [TG] great hair
turntechGodhead [TG] i draw the line at tights though
ectoBiologist [EB] you are the weirdest kid i’ve ever met, TG.
turntechGodhead [TG] i was born and raised on the internet what do you expect
turntechGodhead [TG] shitty humor and bad language is as much a part of me as my own flesh and blood
turntechGodhead [TG] you may have been sheltered from its corrupting tendrils by the dadliest of parental overlords but I learned at the feet of the gods of freedom from oversight
turntechGodhead [TG] pretty sure bro doesnt give a shit what i look at at long as im not stupid about what i download
turntechGodhead [TG] even then hed just laugh and chalk it up to a lesson learned if i bricked my computer
turntechGodhead [TG] for real though my socialization consisted of a deadly ninja assassin and his puppet pal and the internet i think im all kinds of fucked up
turntechGodhead [TG] im surprised i havent run you off by now tbh
turntechGodhead [TG] ...
turntechGodhead [TG] i didnt did i???
turntechGodhead [TG] john
turntechGodhead [TG] GT
turntechGodhead [TG] shit
turntechGodhead [TG] EB
ectoBiologist [EB] sorry! Dad wanted to ask about school.
ectoBiologist [EB] you’re fine dave. you’re weird but it’s an interesting kind of weird.
ectoBiologist [EB] dad would totally ground me if he saw our chats. because you’re a stranger and he seems to think kids dont exist on the internet and so you have to be some creepy stalker dude.
ectoBiologist [EB] but i think you’re pretty okay.
ectoBiologist [EB] please note i didn’t say you’re cool because we both know you’re just a nerd
turntechGodhead [TG] hey i resemble that remark
ectoBiologist [EB] better check your word list because i think you mean resent.
turntechGodhead [TG] nope i stand behind my statement 100 percent besides it takes one to know one
turntechGodhead [TG] nerd

John’s blue text on your screen and the music in your head meshes with the soothing ticking of time and you put bro out of your mind.

Chapter Text

The day won’t end.

You’ve taken apart and reassembled your splinterself’s equipment multiple times. You’re fairly certain it still works. A smile tugs at your lips as you remember Dave’s incredulous outburst upon seeing what you’d been up to all day. While not exactly the same model as the one your Bro left you in your apartment, it was similar enough and from the proper timeframe that you were able to make sense of the inner workings, although there’d been a few pieces of skaianet’s technology in that one that was sorely missing here. Since. You know. Skaianet never needed to exist.

The smiles withers and dies. What did you expect to find? The universe wasn’t kind. Jane’s grandfather had died via meteor. You should have expected to find the parallel. But some small hope, the realization that while you were displaced, you were still within a lifetime of each other, had refused to be smothered until you’d been surrounded by the choking fumes of the black and white scanned obituary.

You are good with your hands. And tinkering let you think. Or not think. You’d almost liken it to a state where you could just detach yourself from the emotions and just focus on the logic problem before you.

Jake’s grandmother had died too. On that island. You hadn’t found an obituary but...reclusive fairly well off eccentric, living mostly alone on a remote and otherwise deserted island? There’s no reason anyone would know or report on it. You wanted to snatch at the hope that the lack of batterwitch and skaianet meant he wouldn’t be assassinated like she had, but you couldn’t bring yourself to do so.

Heh. Universal constants.

What iteration was this universe anyway? The third? There was Dave’s, then yours, and now some weird loop back around to the previous configuration only not entirely because you are still here and skaia has gone dark and you don’t have enough information. Did the gamestate reset? Was skaia just dark because the war hasn’t started yet? Would you find the black royalty still on Derse, the battle not yet begun? Would you find Dave on Derse? Still asleep in ignorance of the doom stalking him and his friends?

You exhale in frustration, a small hiss of air through clenched teeth as you finish screwing in the last one, securing the side into place, and then carefully stow the toolkit away. You’d found it shoved in one of the (depressingly empty) cupboards during your cleaning spree earlier. This splinterself’s lack of interest in mechanical engineering had you shaking your head, wondering how such a thing could have happened to any version of yourself.

Maybe you were the one who’d gone wrong. Cooped up alone in an apartment surrounded by ocean, you’d scavenged appliances and supplies your bro had left behind to tinker and eventually create the two bots that would eventually be your first friends. This splinter had the whole world if he’d just had the inkling to take a single step outside the walls. And for all you know maybe he had.

You kind of doubt it. You’d found his phone while cleaning off the desk, buried in a pile of magazines. There was maybe a handful of contacts, none of which had any sort of useful identifying names, such as ‘harpy’, ‘necessary evil’, ‘agent’, ‘money hungry bastard’. None of which made you feel any more inclined to call them to try and figure out who the hell they were. At least they were slightly more descriptive than the dozens of unnamed folders on the desktop. Sooner or later you’ll need to go through those if you can’t find any evidence of a life outside this apartment. At least you are sure which number is Dave’s. Lil’Bro is fairly obvious.

You aren’t willing to touch that yet. But you probably will. Distance and the freedom to consider your words carefully would likely lead to a better conversational outcome for both parties given how tense you both were.

The dull roar of the city buzzes in your bones, although you’ve gotten better at blocking it out. It was really no different than the gentle crash of the waves against the support struts and the screaming of the gulls back home. Just. Louder.

You don’t think you’ll ever be used to the contaminants in the air though. The Land of Tombs and Krypton had much thicker atmosphere, but you’d been able to alchemize a mask for that, and even then some weird game magic had kept the gasses from creeping into your home. This just kept irritating your eyes and your throat, requiring you to flush them every so often, although as least you weren’t constantly choking anymore.

Placing the turntable back on the cinderblocks was a lot easier than you expected, barely earning a grunt of exertion from you as you settle it gently into place. This body was too big. Too tall. But it was strong, you had to give it that. Given the amount of weapons you’d found stashed around the place (which you’d stowed in the crawlspace above the living room for now, although going up there made your heart ache for your workshop and your tools and your countless prototypes you poured so much of your life into,) and how Dave had reacted to the idea of missing “ training” , your splinterself had been very focused on keeping it that way.

You don’t know what to do about that. Dave obviously expected it. But your--no not your Bro, but the one who could have been your friend--Dave hadn’t explicitly mentioned the training sessions other than in passing about how violent his childhood was.

Definitely nothing without the kid’s permission. And definitely not when you were sure he hadn’t gotten a wink of sleep. You might not know him well enough yet, but there was a faint tremble in the way he held himself that gave it away like an open book.

You straighten up and sigh, looking around the room trying to decide what to do next. And while in the back of your mind you can faintly see the shadows of the medium as your gameself works on looking for Derse along the outer-ring of meteors, you don’t feel comfortable fully slipping until you at least have the plausible deniability of sleeping. Not that you didn’t have problems to solve here too.

Cleaning had clued you in on many things. None of which you had a plan for right now. But the most pressing thing was…

You had next to zero supplies.

Back home you could have fished or caught gulls. Or bartered with Roxy for some pumpkins. Here in this sea of glass and steel and actual living human beings you couldn’t do either of them. You’d tried lurking on the roof for a while, waiting for the native city-birds to get curious. But you could already tell the big sleek black birds were too damn smart. Keeping an eye on you from a distance, judging you. Nothing like the stupid seagulls who came running the moment they saw you because you always brought bait and they always seemed to forget that several of them didn’t make it out when you wanted something different from your canned rations.

You had to get food. You had the vaguest idea of how to go about procuring more, plenty of the movies your Bro had left you included convenience store or grocery scenes usually as the setting for a funny gag or ironic statement, but there was one slight problem with that.

1) You had no fucking idea where to go.

And 2) You had no money.

Your splinterself did. Somewhere. But your splinterself wouldn’t have known organized chaos if it bit him on the ass and it was frustrating the hell out of you.

There was only one place to store stuff aside from the already emptied cupboards, and that was the doll chest you’d offhandedly stuffed Lil’Cal into once you’d started cleaning. If your Splinterself had any sense he’d centralize any important information or documentation in something like that. You drag the surprisingly heavy chest toward the futon, perching on the furniture with hand hovering over the chest’s latch.

This was the only place you hadn’t checked yet. You’d even checked the holes in the cinderblocks and inside the tv stand and while you’d found the occasional grinning smuppet face or hidden throwing star, you’d seen absolutely nothing that looked like even vaguely legal documentation.

Life was different before the flood. You knew that. There was a lot more legal shit to consider, interpersonal transactions? It was an utterly foreign concept to you, someone who’d never so much as seen another human being outside of a screen until you’d ended up dragging Roxy’s dreamself all over the furthest ring. You’d done your research of course. You were thorough. You knew about the Batterwitch’s slow insidious infiltration of the legal system, and had a ton of miscellaneous information packed into the compartments of your brain you’d picked up while tracking her progress through history.

But...you find yourself at a loss on the personal level. You hope to hell your Splinterself had a “Legal Shit” pile somewhere or you’re pretty sure you’re screwed. Preferably next to a conveniently placed money pile.

Ugh. You are just wasting time now.

You squeeze the latch and it pops open with an innocuous click. You know it isn’t booby trapped. You’d opened the damn thing to put Lil’Cal away earlier and nothing had gone off. So why the hell were you hesitating? Why had you avoided it all day? It’s just Lil’Cal.

The lid popped open, and you pause at the glassy blue eyes staring up at you. You must have jostled it when dragging it over here, because you distinctly remember folding him up, and here he is lounging as if it was a much more spacious container. You give Lil’Cal a respectful nod as a greeting and reach in, a spark of static electricity jolting from the fabric clothing to your skin. You don’t flinch, but it leaves the tips of your fingers tingling as you lift the limp noodle of a doll up out of the depths, arranging him upright and leaning against the back of the futon.

You almost imagine a little giggle as you turn your attention away from him and the weight of those not-empty eyes, focusing on the items in the bottom of the chest. Searching fingers explored the velvet lined depths, curling around several items and extracting them. A small assortment began to collect on the futon between you and Lil’Cal. Some sort of binder. A small metal box (locked and with no key in sight.) A banged up old pocket knife, the size of a child’s palm. A small copy of your-his shades. Some sort of leather cloth with a heart on it. And a note written in a chicken scratch that you didn’t really find hard to read since it had constantly covered the corners of your notes until you programmed your shades--and eventually had Hal--to take and record dictations while you worked.

Dave.

Don’t touch my shit. I mean it.”

“It isn’t Dave, bro.” You mutter, feeling oddly weighed down by the words on the page. Irrefutable evidence that this life should belong to another. You crumple it up, crushing it in a white knuckled fist, “If you aren’t going to show up and do your damn job I’m calling finders keepers.”

If it weren’t for Dave, you’d be glad to give it all back. Go find some corner of the medium and camp out for an eternity, or until the game started again and the world ended. Whatever. Your life was gone. Your friends are dead, even if against the odds Jake and Roxy are alive in this world, they aren’t yours.

The paper ball hit the wall next to the TV and bounced hard. Ending up somewhere behind the speaker and likely in the pile of smuppet ass you’d thrown back there earlier.

It didn’t make you feel better.

A handful of the objects are obviously sentimental. The tiny shades. The heart stamped leather. The pocket knife. They feel personal, in a way the myriad of marionette decoration didn’t. You hold the glasses, your eyes and clenched jaw reflecting in the mirrored lenses. You should feel something. You are holding something important to his--your--life in your hands. You could clench your fists and shatter them with next to no effort. The edges are digging into your palm and you need to ease your fingers open.

There’s a weight here. A history you find yourself standing apart from in a way you never really felt about yet another splinter of yourself. You wonder where he found his shades. What drew him to the shape? Your Bro had provided your eyewear, several styles and sizes to choose from as you grew older. What had driven the both of you to chose the exact same angle of mirrored glass? Was this shape just something wrapped up in the concept of Dirk that it was universal?

You still couldn’t bring yourself to wear his shades.

With that thought you find yourself standing up, eyes drawn to the gleam of the mirror lens where you’d left them on the computer desk, still holding the smaller miniature pair in the palm of your hand. Too long legs cross the room, and the full-sized version joins its child sized variant in your palm.

You’ll make your own, you decide. You’ve done it before. You miss your shades and their capabilities and hell you even miss Hal and creating him was one of the greatest mistakes you’ve ever made.

You didn’t want to be here.

You’d failed once already.

Dirk Strider was still Dirk Strider.

But being dropped so completely in another Dirk’s shoes, you feel a gap you’ve never felt with a splinter before. Not even with Hal, who tried so hard to convince both you and himself he was a different person. Maybe it's the weight of a generation between you two. The distance of a life yet unlived...

Maybe you are doomed to fail again.

But for the first time you looked into the mirrored lenses and saw, not yourself, or a you that you could be. Maybe not a stranger, but an old not-quite-friend who had stumbled down a different path and fallen and never had anyone to help him back up again.

And now you need to pick up the pieces.

Under the cool, unflinching stare of Lil’Cal--it almost felt judging--you gently wrap both shades in the heart-stamped cloth and stow them back in the darkness of the chest, along with the small pocket knife.

There was nothing useful for you down that road.

Chapter Text

You take a breath and then exhale it into a sigh. Letting the mood pass before you turned your attention to the last two items (aside from Lil’Cal) you’d found stuffed in the trunk. The box was obviously the most promising. This was the first locked thing you’d found, which probably indicated something about it’s contents. But the binder was an easier thing to deal with right now, so you grab it and crack it open.

And then paused and let out a surprisingly maniacal laugh.

You found the “legal shit” pile.

Literally.

The words “Legal Shit” stand out, a bright orange similar to your Pesterchum color, against a black tab. There’s three tabs total, sticking out at varying points in the stack of papers held together by thin metal rings.

You spread the contraption open along the closed lid of the puppet chest, giving you a wider view of your discoveries. Flipping through the contents of the Legal Shit tab, you find it, understandably, filled with legal jargon, meaning that while you theoretically understand, you don’t know if you understand it right. Federal legal shit includes things such as citizenship and birth certificates and several printed forms that have to be related to money. You get taxes as a concept, but it still takes you a moment to recognize it and unearth the previously theoretical knowledge. Even then you stare at the stark black and white numbers and it fails to sink in that this is actually real and not just some absurd relic of the far distant past.

Apartment Shit is the next tab, and really only includes a few months worth of recent utility bills, although you do pointedly take a mental picture of the address as that will help you locate a food dispensary later.

The presence of the bill puzzles you however. You need to pay  for water and electricity? What the hell. You’d just gotten it from solar panels and some desalination machine your bro had set up that pulled in water from the ocean. On second thought the latter might be a bit difficult while being landlocked, but the idea is still bizarre.

There’s something at the very end of the section you think is called a leasing agreement, signed by your Splinterself and someone else you don’t recognize. It’s some 15 pages long, full of Important Shit you’ll probably need to figure out if you want to actually manage to pass at being an Adult, but not immediately useful.

The last major tab is just Miscellaneous Shit that you’ll need to do more internet trawling and exploring of the files on the computer to figure out. Things ranging from printed off receipts, confirmation emails, some of which definitely looked like website purchases and work orders, certifications in what look like a smattering of computer related fields, and even what looks like Dave’s school reports. You flip through the latter pages a couple times in detached shock, finding progress reports for nearly five years worth of homeschooling preserved in this binder full of Important Adult Shit, including certification of passing each year .

You knew Jane had gone to public school. You knew it was the norm for kids pre-Apocalypse-by-fish-alien. But just...hadn’t thought about it till now.

You were getting kind of tired of that. You hated being caught off guard.

Damn it. Just another thing you were going to need to pretend to know what the hell you were talking about when you asked about it.

In the middle of this random journey through Dave Strider’s intellectual pursuits, you find something different.

There’s a slightly smaller piece of cardstock stuck between year two’s progress report, and year three’s. On the front isn’t even an ironically shitty drawing. It’s just the product of a kid’s imagination and a pencil. You think it might be one of the black-city birds you saw on the roof, re-imagined through the mind of a child.

And...on the back of that was a small white patch of slightly off-color white. You find the edge of the opaque tape and carefully peel it back.

A small lightweight silver key. Ridiculously thin and flimsy and cheaply made. So tiny you were afraid to remove it from the adhesive, lest it slip through your large clumsy fingers and be lost in the carpet forever.

You roll your eyes. God. It’s such an obvious hiding spot.

Grudgingly, you admire the irony of it. He even kept the box in the same chest as the binder. You spent half a year in the Land of Tombs and Krypton, and one of the first things you learned was keys are never hidden in the same room as their locks.

Where else would you have hid it anyway? Inside Lil’Cal’s stuffing? You wouldn’t do that to the little guy, no matter how unnerving this...variation of him was, and you highly doubt your Sprinterself would have either.

Leaving the binder open wide on the lid of the chest before you, you snatch the small lockbox off the futon. It’s almost painful attempting to pry the paper-thin metal away from the congealed adhesive, it’d been attached for so long. You’re starting to doubt it would be any use in unlocking the box period.

It would be a fitting final fuck you from your Splinterself if the damn thing got stuck in the lock thanks to residue.

Oh well. If it did there was always the option of a well placed cinderblock.

The construction was insulting. A cheaply made piece of junk, matching the quality of the key perfectly. It’s light and tapping on the metal told you all you needed to know about it’s thickness and durability. If the rest of the construction was consistent, the cinderblock vs locking mechanism strife was looking rather one-sided.

You pinch the key carefully within two suddenly clumsy fingers, and insert the key into the slot. There’s some resistance, expected thanks to the residue, but it eventually settles in with a click.

You turn it.

There’s a note inside.

Dave.

If you are reading this, I better be dead.

Understand? Otherwise, you will be. This shit is locked for a reason.

Fuck it.

Guess I failed.

If the game hasn’t started yet, you better keep training your ass off. Don’t slack just because I’m not there to drag you out of bed. You don’t understand yet, and frankly I don’t either. But I’ve seen it.

You are going to fuckin’ die if you don’t. The only thing I’ve ever done was train you for this shit, because someone had to, and I was the one stuck with the job.

Fuck. If I could have spared you this I could. I thought I was going to be the player. But then you arrived on that meteor and changed things.

I’ve made arrangements, so don’t you dare leave. I got my agent on record as a guardian so let him deal with the legal shit. Rent and other shit is in a separate account set to automatic payments. There’s enough there for the rest of the lease. Sell my shit if you need more. I know you know all my passwords.

You’ll know when the game starts. It’ll be real fuckin’ obvious.

If something happens before then…

Contact Roxy.

Tell her I’m dead. She hates my guts, but she’ll help you.

I know I’ve been a shit guardian, but

Stay alive Lil’Bro.

Your hands are shaking. You make a conscious effort to steady them. You don’t want to crush this one. You don’t. Lil’Cal’s nonplussed expression mocks you and you completely lose your cool and just shiver .

Roxy.

Beneath the note in the locked box was a thick wad of green bills you idly recognize as modern society’s not-so-worthless version of boondollars. And beneath that.

A picture. Faded and worn. It’s him, still growing and gangly, and without your iconic shades yet, showing off tired and sunken features and dirty jeans. Yet still clutching the timeless oversized doll that was presently sitting on the futon next to you. In the photo, Lil’Cal was sitting between him…

...and Roxy. Her eyes drawn and dark rimmed, clothing worn. Nothing like your Roxy. Like the hyper, bubbly, friendly girl you met through text and eventually in person who’d laughed and loved and smiled even with a broken heart who you failed because you couldn’t be who she needed you to be.

You turn the picture over. The writing was too neat to be his.

Dirk and Roxanne. St. Andrew’s Orphanage, New York. 1991.

In familiar chickenscratch, there was a LaLonde added in red ink, and nothing else.

Chapter Text

You lie on the futon, the darkness of night and the void of space achieving some strange equilibrium as you straddle the two worlds.

It’s probably easier now that you aren’t doing anything with your waking self, aside from just letting the body rest after a full day of attention. If this is going to be anything like your life before the game you aren’t going to actually get much actual mind-resting sleep unless you either pass out, or deliberately force yourself to meditate. Luckily, the body still gets its rest if you turn your attention elsewhere.

You shift your center of self further into the Medium, pushing the faint glow of the moonlight further and further back into the isolation of the field of asteroids. You may have been alone all day, left to your devices to clean and tinker and delve into the gritty details surrounding a life as an Adult in a world you barely recognize, but...

There was always the thought that Dave could chose that moment to stick his head in. It’s his living space too. He’d already taken your stress-reduction tactics poorly, all things considered. You don’t want to make things even weirder for him.

Here you could just scream your frustration into the void if you wanted to, and none would be the wiser. You don’t—that would be extremely uncool of you—but the fact that you could is a bit of a comfort. The sheer enormity of the situation you’d landed yourself in is dawning on you. You have to keep up this act—or figure out a way to explain to an admittedly precocious but emotionally volatile ten year old that his older brother figure is actually gone while you are standing there in front of him—for at least another three years. If not perpetuity. You have no idea what will happen once the game starts.

Not for the first time, you wish Dave’s Bro hadn’t been an axe hanging over both their necks. You might have talked more.

You aren’t entirely detached, not even as far as you had been that time, as you tried to run from the star that burned anew in the back of your mind. The quieter, but still constant night-music of the city surrounding your apartment just becomes a low thrum in your bones, filling the silence of space.

Like two partitioned systems exchanging data queries, you consider the ground covered today. Not as much as you’d like, only two thirds or so around the circumference of the Furthest Ring. That isn’t even as efficient as you could have been. There’d been multiple times throughout the day you’d gotten distracted by something in the waking world, and found your progress nearly completely halted. You’re just lucky you didn’t end up face first into a meteor when that happened.

Still, the fact that you’re closer to the point where you began the circle means you must be chasing Derse in its orbit. If you hadn’t been splinting your attention you probably would have realized that and adjusted accordingly. You should still be fairly close. While you’d never clocked your speed since achieving god-tier, you’d still been able to cross the incipisphere in hours. Even if you aren’t going at a half-panicked shit-Jake’s-evil-dog-grandma-is-going-after-my-friends rate right now, the planet can’t have an orbital velocity greater than your current speed.

You check the map you’d been building in your shades, cross-referencing with one Hal--had created using mathematical calculations and what he could access through the game’s code. So far the scale seemed to be matching up, even if the debris field out beyond the Furthest Ring extends further than even he had mapped.

You carefully circumvent another set of asteroids, idly wondering how Derse doesn’t get hit when the reckoning begins and all these monsters get catapulted onto the unsuspecting planet to start off the end-game…

And then you see it. A large dark orb hovering in the shadows of a particularly large asteroid. Lights burn in thousands of windows, sending the rest of the complicated shapes into stark contrast. It almost almost feels like home.

But then, you notice that the castle is wrong.

Where there should have been no towers…there are eight.

You heart shudders to a stop. You suddenly shoot forward, streaking through the air in a flurry of reddish-pink. Around the planet, to the giant chain, to the moon.

Four.

Four dreamer towers, existing on a mass you remember being completely destroyed. The blast had torn through your body, still hungover from what-ever-the-hell kind of madness had infected your friends to turn them into candy colored versions of yourself. You could still feel a faint phantom tremor of fear shivering down your spine even remembering it. Remembering the pain and the utterly terrifying blank slate of death before the world had knit a new body around your torn soul and enacted its revenge in the form of puffy asshole pants.

Even getting beheaded twice hadn’t been that bad.

Derse’s moon had been eradicated. Your towers with it. Now…

Faint lights shine serenely from two of them. The other two are dark, and almost look to be in disrepair, walls crumbling and shit. But they are still there. You hesitate, hovering outside the window of the nearest one. In your head you know who you’ll find. Rose. Or Dave. Or. Hell.

Roxy.

There’s eight towers on the castle.

This…

It isn’t a void session.

You float closer to the window, hands resting on the sill as you work up the courage to peer inside. You don’t recognize the layout—you would know Roxy’s tower in a heartbeat--but you do recognize the small blonde head peeking out from beneath the covers. Not quite mussed enough to be you or Dave, and the dark saturated shade of purple everywhere pointed towards the last of your weird little ectofamily.

Rose Lalonde. Roxy’s Mom. Daughter. Whatever.

Seer of Light to-be.

Only.

You can only see a fraction of her beneath the blankets. But what you can see screams something is wrong. Frowning, you pull yourself into the window, gingerly setting down on the purple floor, the walls half filled with an unnerving scrawlings of a letter sequence. Once you cross the threshold you are thankful as fuck for your shades because you are nearly blinded and hundreds of sharp glass shards spring to life around you, creating a cacophony of light and sound that nearly has you staggering back out.

You end up clipping your hip on the edge of her bed instead. She shifts uneasily at the contact, the blankets pooling around her and falling off her shoulders.

It hurts. This close and you can feel the weak sense of a dying star flickering inside her. The purple and silver of a derse dreamer bleeds into red and gold, the moon melting into a mockery of Light’s sun. There are so many sharp edges scattered throughout the room, as if someone had taken a sledgehammer to a beautiful stained-glass window and then just left them there, heedless of unknowingly bare feet or thin dream-slipper.

It aches and it aches, and it makes you keenly away of the broken pieces of your own soul that having a body again had begun to dull. But at least you did that. It was your fault. Your aspect. You needed to live with your mistakes.

Rose didn’t deserve this. You hoped to hell she wasn’t sleepwalking yet, although the presence of the dream-writing on the walls didn’t allow that delusion to linger. If it was anything like the shards you found out in the debris field it would hurt. And she wasn’t even tied to the aspect of heart. She wouldn’t know why.

She shifts again, almost pushing herself up. You abscond back through the window and watch as she settles again.

You don’t want to wake her up. Not to that.

Exactly what that is, you don’t know. And you are actively trying not to touch the horrifying conclusion until you check the rest.

You dread the next tower. This one is a more red-shade of purple on the inside. You recognize the scrawlings on the wall, although you don’t know when Dave started working on that webcomic. Your Bro didn’t until he was in his teens. Another thing to ask about?

You haven’t been in his actual room, but it’s unmistakable. You feel a little guilty intruding on his space given the uh, relationship going on in the real world, but you had to know. You had to know so you could figure out how to fix it. The rooms are a reflection of the dreamer’s real self, both literally and metaphorically, and it can’t be good to have that self showing up metaphorically as hundreds of tiny pieces.

You’re prepared for it as you cross the threshold and the pieces burst to light, burning at you like tiny gouts of flame.

These are even more mangled than Rose’s, if that’s at all possible. They aren’t evenly distributed but thrown about, as if something had continued rampaging after the first initial blow, splintering already tiny shrapnel into infinitesimal fragments. You freeze in the doorway however, because you aren’t alone.

Not that you expected to be alone. It would be weirder if you were. But you had expected Dave to be in bed, not sitting on the edge of it, head in his hands, mumbling to himself.

Sleepwalking?

You couldn’t tell. He had his glasses on, which you knew from experience made it quite difficult to figure out if someone was awake or not. You’d had the Dersites thinking you were sleepwalking all over the place for months, just like Roxy.

Like Rose, his dream-jammies were all fucked up, blending into and out of his god-tier-jammies. The red and purple wasn’t quite as bizarre a combination as hers was, but the cape looked like it’d been sheered with a rusty knife or something. Glass pooled around his feet, which were lightly touching the ground at the edge of his bed. He didn’t so much as flinch or look at you or anything. Just continued to mumble.

There’s a representation of Lil’Cal sitting on the bed behind him, dressed in the usual Derse jammies, and oddly enough not the same shade of red-purple as the rest of the room. You’d think he’d be in your room. Did you even have a room? There were two more towers—yours and Roxy’s you hypothesize—but they were dark. Unused maybe? Your dreamself is all dead and shit, tied up in the god-like pjs you wear. But technically so was Dave and Rose’s. They are even still sporting their own divine sleepware. Sort of. Kind of?

It’s like something just…took the future and tried to smush it into a much smaller space and it just…broke shit.

You want to get closer to see if you could make out the words, but the shards weren’t just on the ground. They were floating, settled at various different heights and depths like some weird 3D windchime. It was almost like being back in the debris cloud again, and—

Wait. They felt like that cloud. Like the ones that almost, just almost reached out to your soul. That felt familiar and gave off heat in repelling waves. You reach out, brushing against the edge of the nearest red-green shard, a miniature ghost of star that burned at your raw wounds as you moved near.

It hurt . But wrapped up in that hurt was feelings. Sensations. All blurred together in ways you feel you should understand. Only they aren’t you. They are Dave and that’s why you can’t parse them. You don’t have that particular encryption key.

Does that mean...all those stars out there? Dim and dying and broken, abandoned in the fathomless darkness...were pieces of your friends?

You settle back on the windowsill, putting your back to the room in order to let the shards dim and give your eyes and your poor overwhelmed senses a break and consider the possible connection. You don’t like this. You don’t like this at all.

This wasn’t just a restarted pre-scratch session, like you’d assumed.

Like the letter said, Dave was the player. Not his Bro. Not you.

Yet.

You lean out the window, looking to the right.Toward Rose’s dimly lit tower.

Then left. To the darkened windows.

Two extra Derse dreamers.

Eight prototype towers on the Dersite Royal castle.

This was a new session. Or perhaps the two mashed together, with the things that don't fit getting thrown off into the abyss. You aren't sure which option you prefer.

The pit in your gut yawned wide at the implications.

How will you win the game when two of the players are long dead?

Or are you the players at all?

It’s going to be a long flight to Prospit. You have to see for yourself.

Chapter Text

Only that’s a silly idea, because as you’ve previously explained, your dream self is dead. But your asshole puffy pants wearing self does eventually turn toward the remaining two towers. You are a little worried about what you’ll find. Roxy’s tower? And if it is Roxy, would she even look like your friend? You aren’t looking forward to coming face-to-face with her splinterself, just familiar enough to make it impossible to ignore, but otherwise too different to allow you to pretend everything would be okay.

And what about you?

If it is your tower, would it be a copy of your room? Or Bro’s? Would it be the bed in the corner and the horses on the wall, half finished robotic projects on every surface? Or would it be the living room with the futon and marionettes and shitty weapons and plush rumps?

You know which one you’d prefer. While the dream rooms generally reflected the real-life layouts of your physical space, was that really the meaning behind it? Couldn’t it just mean the space a dreamer felt most comfortable in? It’s not like any of you had anywhere else you ever wanted to be, content with your rooms and your computers and the connections and relationships you forged with others online, all of which felt more real than the reality you actually lived in.

You take one last glance inside, outside the tower is beyond the range necessary for the shards to be little more than glimmers, thank god, so you are only greeted by Dave’s distant silhouette. He hasn’t shifted at all, his mumbling joining the infiltrating sounds of the city to become a low hum in your ears. You wonder if you should try. Try to navigate the 3D maze of shards to put your hand on his shoulder, just as he’d done for you to pull you back from the medium just yesterday.

The thought lingers only for a moment. You push away from the tower, your fucked up game-self shedding any pretense of gravity and weight before becoming a small speck of red against a black sky. You just regard Derse, eyes traveling along the length of that thick metal chain and back toward the window studded homeworld of the carapacians. What would they think of all this? How would this … thing change their mythology? What did they make of the two dark towers?

Maybe you’d look into raiding a library to find out. The mythos of your planets had been very informative when it came to letting you know that your group weren’t the heroes. You were merely the nobles, in a holding pattern to quest and prepare for the true heroes to arrive.

You’ll need to find a way to steal one of Derse’s hundreds of gossip magazines if nothing else. They were an excellent source of information, and you’ll need to find out if anyone saw you tonight. Derse’s moon was a decent distance from the planet’s surface, but you hadn’t exactly been careful when you’d shot through the sky like a fuckin’ meteor to get here.

Without the Condesce sticking her nose into things, it isn’t likely the Dersite Royalty would be willing to pull another assassination stunt like they did during your session. It should be safe. Even those changes hadn’t ramped up until right before the game started. The Dersites would have no reason to be looking to the moon so soon.

You just need to not fuck things up.

It would be easy to just fly straight to the next set of dream-rooms, but the idea of being so exposed chafed at you, so you allow yourself to descend, just below the line of buildings that make up the surface of the moon. These two had been close together, sharing a facet of the polygonal moon. The others loomed in the distance. It’d probably take a carapacian several hours at least to cross the distance by foot.

You don’t see any Dersites on the streets below, and while the moon is covered by the same mass of towers and buildings and spiraling architecture as the main body of Derse, here the windows are dark and silent, a veritable ghost town in comparison to its living counterpart at the other end of the chain. Carapacians would occasionally pilgrimage to the towers of their players, you knew this from your reconnaissance, but none ever lived in the surrounding cityscape.

It was a ghost town, built to house their “legends”.

Even going at a less frantic space--you are not lagging because of the unease pooling in your gut--you soon find yourself hovering at the base of the nearest tower. While a shrine like complex is built around the tower, you know there’s not supposed to be an entryway from it to the tower itself. It was one of the defense mechanisms the game afforded you. No one should be able to reach the Dreamers aside from the Dreamers themselves, not unless prototyped with wings and even that shouldn’t be an issue until the game started .

Jack Noir and his cronies always seemed to be breaking that rule. You look down at your hands, remembering them covered in carapacian blood. A head on a pike, slammed down in front of the Dersite Royal palace as a reckless message.

In hindsight you wonder if that’s what set the Condesce off. If you’d thrown down the gloves like that, it was a fuckin’ billboard asking her to move into full on war.

Steeling yourself, you ascend, watching the cracked and pitted wall pass by before you. The purple stone is faded, almost grey in the cast off light from Derse itself, and where brick has crumbled away you can see a mass of chambers and stairs within. Where do those lead? There’s no door in the dream-rooms. No entry or exit aside from the cut-out windows. Why would the game construct a interior to a tower without exits?

Did they go down, down even further into the depths of the moon, where the quest slabs slept in a deep crypt? You don’t remember how the hell you got there before you ascended, too hungover from Jane’s hallucinogenic juju of a birthday present.

At last you reach the proper level, and it makes the unease in your chest tighten, and you lean in against the window sill. The color of the room, what you can see of it, is a deep dark red, fading into a black resulting from a lack of illumination. Even in the cast off light from Derse this place was shadowed, in part because this particular facet was angled a little further away from the planet it orbited than the previous one.

Light. You need light. Hands gripping crumbling stone you pull yourself in, landing smoothly on that plush red carpet, half expecting to be blinded and dreading that you won’t.

Nothing. No shards surge to life, but why would they? Your soul may be broken but you have all the shards. The ones that you are missing are gone forever, leaving you with that phantom ache that constantly reminds you of the bleeding edges, and always waiting for smug red text that never comes.

The room is just empty blackness, lurking just beyond the edge of the small window of cast off light that filters in from the space beyond. Mechanically you reach into your sylladex, withdrawing the hooded lantern from the “tomb raiding supplies” Groove Row. You hadn’t really had the chance to empty out and properly weaponize your tech-hop modus before things went pearshaped, but it worked out in your favor this time. The gear you’d stored when exploring the tombs on your planet was exceptionally useful right now. Too bad you couldn’t port the gas mask into the real world. You would enjoy being able to breathe again.

It appears in your hands, and you set it down on the floor, a deft twist of the top has the panels blocking the light folding back in on themselves, filling the room with a pure white light and beating back the shadows.

Nothing.

Just an empty room.

None of the shit that makes you...you.

You recognize this wallpaper, the clouds and the spiral shapes. Standing in the center of the space, spinning slowly, taking in the blank walls and blank floor, the utter absolute lack of anything personal or identifiable or well…

Anything.

Just broken stones littering the carpet, part of the ceiling had fallen in on itself, letting you just look up and stare into the darkness beyond. You’d known the Dreamer’s orb was taller than the room inside was. You’d never considered there was more above. You pick up the lantern and then pointedly ignore the suggestion of gravity, rising and bringing it with you towards the broken section of paneling.

It’s a crawlspace, not unlike the one above your living room. There it had been full of old projects and tools and other miscellaneous items. You’d kept it fairly clean, if not spotless, because you would often spend your free time going through those projects for additional parts for new ones, or looking for something to upgrade, especially while you were waiting for your Dreamself to find something, or a friend to reply to pesterchum or...well...anything.

Here...a veritable swarm of dust and cobwebs gently cover every visible surface, and even swirling into the air as your motion disturbs some of the resting particles and sends them dancing through the light you brought with you. Your lantern bobs as you pause there, just...floating in the forest of boxes and crates, the shadows rising and twisting like a horrific mockery of the space. Red clay faces frozen in dust covered grins peeking out of the darkness between crates. Crumbled up and decaying posters. The gleam of red metal getting caught in the lantern’s rays. You take note of a life boxed and packed away to be forgotten.

You close your eyes and shutter your lantern and shield your aching heart and leave.

Roxy’s at least doesn’t feel like a tomb. You allow yourself to recaptchalogue the lantern, fitting it into the correct Shade Column by finding the associated rhyme. Even if it’s lacking the soft light from within that was the primary illumination for the first two towers, to your eyes it’s filled with a tiny nebula of stars.

They are nowhere near as concentrated as you’ve encountered with the other two dreamers, just a handful of large twinkling translucent lights, hung in the air like it’s a deliberate new-age decorative crystals or faerie lights or some shit. Why the difference? Did she have less to lose? Or were they all out in the debris cloud? Brushing up against the edge of a pink and soft blue shard, faintly you can hear her laughter again. It doesn’t push you away like Dave and Rose’s had. It...doesn’t hurt. Only bringing with it a bittersweet ache, because it makes you think about how much you miss her.

Roxy was a sleepwalker. You’d arrived to find her bed rumpled and the room empty and you couldn’t bring yourself to be surprised. She was probably wandering that void of broken shards right now, waltzing through a dream that no one else can see. At least you are certain the room belongs to her. The shards were unmistakable, surrounding you with a feeling that screamed Roxy to whatever sense sixth sense that allowed you to feel the fragments. If you closed your eyes and settled yourself in the pile of wizard hatted cat plushies and other cute things in the corner of the room you could almost imagine it was your Roxy’s room. And all you had to do was follow her trail into the dark and you’d bring her back safe and sound.

But you don’t do that. You can’t. Because it isn’t just your Roxy, and you can’t escape that fact.

The towering shelves of thick heavy books, taking the place of her mutant cat collection, fine, you could see that. It doesn’t matter that the titles aren’t whimsical fantastical wizardly adventures like you’d expected, and instead dense and wordy covering a wide range of scientific topics. It doesn’t even matter that there’s a telescope in the corner, pointing at a wall where a window probably existed on earth. It doesn’t matter that her computer desk is nearly buried in dark purple tinted papers, covered with an indecipherable scrawl that screamed shorthand at you.

It did matter that every available surface, from desk to bookshelves to floors, were covered in bottles.

Some empty.

Some full.

Some are even broken, actual honest to god physically sharp glass buried in plush purple carpet fibers waiting for victims to wander by. Dark stains actually spread out from these points, darkening the already deep purple to almost black. Similar stains litter the walls at various points, leaving scores and rips in the familiar wallpaper where they’d obviously been thrown and smashed, glass sprayed across the floor in obvious shrapnel patterns and then never touched again, adding to the minefield that made up this room.

You knew she’d liked to experiment with the wine cellar her mother left her. She didn’t have the word Tipsy in her chumhandle for nothing. But the first time you’d seen her drunk was the day you all had to escape to the medium.

She’d sobered up. Thrown out all the alcohol in her house and then never touched a drop because it could have gotten Jane killed.

Guiltily you remember how you’d known this. Months later , while agonizing over keeping your promise to Hal and wallowing in your despair for having fucked up your relationship with Jake, you’d poured over his chatlogs. Trying vainly to find evidence that there was something there that you couldn’t find in yourself. A goodness that outweighed the fuck-up that was Dirk Strider.

What you’d found was Roxy pouring her heart out to Hal that day. To Hal. Not you. You’d been too happy at the time. Despite Hal’s fucked up manipulation and improvisation your plans had worked. You were free (you’d thought) of the Batterwitch.Your friends were safe. And Jake said yes.

Roxy cried to Hal because she had no one else to turn to. And you would have never known otherwise.

Fuck. Maybe he was the better Dirk Strider. He at least had the foresight and capacity to make time for your-- his too-- friends.

You take a breath. Counting down from ten. And then exhaling.

Hal was gone .

It didn’t matter now.

This was Roxy. You couldn’t deny it. But you didn’t try to squash the pain wriggling in your heart. This was a Roxy you’d never known.

Probably the Roxy that hated Bro’s guts.

Fuck. What were you going to do about that.

(In another world you let yourself stir as morning light starts to leak through the windows. A glance at the phone you’d left on the arm of the futon had you groaning. You had a plan . You needed to do that today.)

The sunlight from the apartment even penetrates as far as your gloomy mood in the medium, and you seat yourself quietly on Roxy’s bed, holding one of her random cute catplushies and turning it over in your hands.

(You force yourself up, mentally bitching at the way your back protested against the lumpy futon. You were sixteen . Not sixty. Even if you were being technical, this body was still only twenty fucking eight according to your birth certificate, and in better than peak physical condition it had no damn right to complain.)

Fingers tighten around the plush. Then you make a concentrated effort to loosen them, smoothing out the rumpled fur and cloth.

You wanted to check on Prospit.

You wanted to make sure Roxy was okay.

You wanted to get information from the Dersites.

(You pull a map up on the computer, one you’d found suitable last night. It’s a little past the opening hours, and it’s within walking distance. You can do this. Another website tab includes the fruit of your research on a related topic, a shopping list. Your stomach twists painfully upon itself at the thought of food. Reanimated dreamselves didn’t need food. You hadn’t been hungry in a longass time. You’d forgotten what it felt like.)

You...should stay here.

It hurts you to say that, fidgeting with the plush cat just to give this particular version of yourself something to do while you think. You want to keep moving. You dread to keep moving. You need to prove to yourself that they are actually gone.

But...you need to stay on Derse for a while.

You...want to see her. With your own eyes.

You used to have a knack for finding her, but even that connection is gone. You’ll just need to wait. She always came back. Eventually.

It’s...not like there’s a rush. You need to train yourself out of that mindset. You have time .

( You have time. The thought bubbles through the partition, and you take a moment to ease some of the tension out of your muscles, slowly, and deliberately going through a warm up kata in the small space you have between the futon and the television.

You can do this. The green bills are on the desk. The directions and list memorized and in your head. All you needed to do was go.)

Three years.

You have three years.

You have time.

Breathe.

The game hasn’t started yet.

It’s a whiplash, going from 200 miles per hour back to zero. From Endgame to before the game even fuckin’ begins. Every single little scrap of information is telling you there is nothing you can do. Except wait. And watch. And learn. And plan.

Rushed plans lead to fuck ups so sit your ass down Dirk Strider before you screw up something again. Do something useful and think.

You need to do something with your hands.

There’s goddamn glass on the floor.

Dirk > Clean this shit up.

(Keys in hand, you close and lock the door behind you. Away they go into your sylladex, creating a groove row for household shit and you make for the stairs.)

Surrounded by floating pieces of one of your best friends’ soul, you clean the shit up.

Chapter Text

It’s barely a quarter after 8, but the city is already awake. You hesitate, hovering with your hand over the push-handle on the glass door that is the only barrier between you and the outside. You’d known your apartment was once part of a complex like this. A tall tower of flats housing a dozen or more other families, none of which you’d seen (thankfully) while making your way down the stairs. But it was very different to witness it. To be able to go out the front door to find more than a small balcony overlooking the ocean vista. The view from there wasn’t even the best, almost always in shade regardless of what time of day it was thanks to the orientation of the apartment. There was a reason you always went to the roof instead.

But not here. Here you could go down, down, the dim stairwell (or the elevator but you had a lot of nervous energy pent up you needed to spend so stairs it was) down below the future’s sea level, down below the skyline. Down to the ground floor and this portal leading to another world.

Even this early you see a steady stream of ancient vehicles, large bulky ones, and smaller skinny ones, traveling either one way or another. Behind those windows were people . Real, live people. That knowledge made your nerves flutter.

Pull it together. You’ve faced down Drones with nothing more than your sword (which is in your strife specibus, of course. No way in hell you were going anywhere without it) you can handle a morning walk.

Yet…

You hesitate. Another, heavier car rumbles past the glass set door, the rumble of the engine rattling in your bones. It was truly a different experience here, barely feet away, than just perched on the edge of the roof, looking out over the city of metal and glass. One push. A couple steps. And you wouldn’t merely be looking down on an impossibility. You’d be part of one.

You take a breath, and your hand curls around the handle. Just one push.

One push.

The sweltering summer morning slams into your face like a wave, coating your tongue and throat with a stronger version of the sticky acid taste that you’d been trying to ignore in your apartment. The building’s climate control wilts under the onslaught, not that you’d noticed it being particularly effective before.

A couple steps.

The door swing shuts behind you.

You’d grown up watching movies. Some even set in Houston thanks to it being the setting for your Bro’s Sweet Bro and Hella Jeff series.

You’d wandered the streets of Derse for years, growing comfortable with the enclosed spaces and towering buildings, a big change from your single solitary apartment island located in an unbroken sea.

You’ve explored tombs that were darker and deeper and heavier, filled with the remains of your planet’s consorts.

You close your eyes against the growing light..

And then, you loosen your grip, tilting further into the you that pauses in the middle of picking up a piece of a broken bottle. The pink and calming blue-tinted darkness of Roxy’s dream-room bubbles around you. It almost seems as if her shards twinkle encouragement at you.

You ease back, taking another lungful of that heavy hot air, but you don’t replace the partition between your two selves. The darkness of Derse, while forebodinge, worked to dull the overwhelming bright alienness of the stirring city. You can almost pretend the towering buildings on either side of you were just another example of Derse’s unique purple architecture. And isn’t it ironic that you find comfort in carapacian architecture, over the premise of human handiwork?

It was just a few blocks. You’d chosen some place close for this first expedition. A faint pain in your palm informed you that you’d unconsciously clenched your fist. Which wasn’t a big deal. Except for the fact that you had a shard of glass in your gameself’s hand. You drop it, red blood staining the tinted material, but you don’t worry much further. The bleeding would stop.

You allow yourself to partially build up the partition. You don’t want your gameself doing anything more than just...zombie-ing out right now. Walking into a wall or out the window while you were focused on Earth would be embarrassing. But you don’t want to leave the medium entirely. Its presence was calming. Steadying. Giving you a degree of distance between yourself and the overwhelming circumstances.

Red text flashes across your mind. You know you’re going about this the wrong way. The smart thing would be a little at a time. Exposure therapy. Accustoming your irrational organic brain to the sensations and actions incrementally until they were less overwhelming.

Dissociating was probably not on the recommended tactics list. Much less literally inducing a dissociation using your fucked up unique state of existence.

Whatever. It worked.

You pull up the map in your mind, rotating it to match your current orientation. If you had your shades on earth, you could have actually done that, but you don’t. You start to walk down the pedestrian walkway, pointedly focusing on the double image covering the buildings. Occasionally a humanoid figure rises out of the dark overlay, drifting past you on the sidewalk and you do not look at them. It’s just another black carapaced Dersite. They didn’t seem to care enough to pay attention to you, two lone asteroids passing in the night, orbits just off enough to never intersect.

You gradually end up picking up the pace, letting the sounds of the city rise and fall around you. There’s almost a rhythm to it. A song working in steady crescendo between the sound of your feet against the concrete, the gentle purr of the motor vehicles, the electrical buzzing from the fading streetlights, the distant murmuring of music from within some of the storefronts. It works to drown you in itself, folding you and everything you are into the living organism that ecompasses a staggeringly large amounts of lives all of which stand apart and work together, most without ever considering the other.

If you think about how many lives, then your steps will stutter. Your world has always been so narrow, even with all of human history and digitized culture available at your fingertips. One apartment. Two penpals. Three friends.

It’s only the image you have burned in your mind that tells you when you’ve arrived at your destination. The Open sign and tinted glass bleeding through the faded and cracked brick of Roxy’s tower you’d been using as a shield. With only the barest hesitance you push it open, bell ringing in the shadows of a shop that eats through the illusion of the medium and you step inside.

The wash of climate-controlled air chills your face, such a huge difference from even the lobby of your apartment building, making your eyes water. The portal closes with a hiss of air. As if something had caught the door and eased it shut behind you instead of letting it fall. The city noise is muffled once more, held at bay by thick glass and soft, almost unintelligible music drifting over some sort of speaker system, giving the impression of a small respite in a storm of activity.

You don’t so much acknowledge the clerk’s chipper greeting as pretend you didn’t hear it, moving quickly between the rows of shelves where you think your quarry is waiting. This is a smallish store, and you find your hopes sinking because you had intended to get fresh shit. But at least there’s multiple rows full of canned shit that you can see from here.

You survived on canned shit. Your research said fresh was better, but canned shit was fine. And this was actually food so hell it was something. Your Bro had left you remarkably well stocked, despite the small caveat that it’d needed to survive from like 2020 till 2420 or whenever you arrived. So there’d been plenty of canned beans and instant noodles and orange soda stuffed into the storage compartments until you’d figured out how to add fresh meat to your diet.

Which you still needed to do. You’d been hoping for fish. You at least knew how to clean and prepare fish. You’d seen fish and meat and vegetables in food dispensaries in the movies. You just picked the wrong store.

Your stomach twisted painfully, you hadn’t been willing to eat anything at the apartment because Dave needed it. Getting some canned shit would tide you over for now. You’d deal with it later.

You pass a punch of bagged and boxed items, although you do slow down when your brain recognizes chips from popular media. It seems like there’s a million different flavors, and how the hell are you going to handle flavors? You don’t even know what fucking cheddar tastes like, and that’s something you see on several brightly colored bags, much less something like...sweet chili and sour cream? What the hell were those?

What was ranch?

You shake your head in bewilderment, and move to continue on to the much smaller section of canned items in the back of the store. Except as you pass a particular bag--the sweet chili ones of all things--your hand snaps out and grabs one. For Science. Or hell, Dave might enjoy trying it.

A tin of something called “mandarin oranges” catches your eye, and you wish they had actual fresh fruit. You’d always wondered what real oranges tasted like. You loved orange soda. Jane had laughed at you when you mentioned wanting to try them because of that. You never got a good answer out of her about why. It was logical that orange soda would taste like oranges.

...right?

Your stomach clenches again. It had been patient over the last 24 hours or so, but the proximity of actual satisfaction was getting to you. The last time you’d actually been hungry was-- fuck-- before the game? After you’d gotten yourself killed it’d been reanimated dream-self city. And it was a good thing dreamselves didn’t need to eat, otherwise they would have starved to death of Derse long before you ever had a chance to wake up.

You’d tried of course. Out of habit if nothing else. You’d had some cans of beans left over. Then you’d run out and forgotten you needed to eat period. Your planet was dead, like all the others. No fish in the Medium, and alchemized beans tasted like, well, tasteless mush so hell with that.

You snag the can of beans you found yourself staring at, green beans. Not quite the ones your Bro got you. Were they good for growing children? Hell if you knew. You may have read some articles on nutrition last night but you knew you had no idea what you were doing. Maybe you should get a couple different kinds so you didn’t have to go out for a couple days.

...but you needed to carry all this shit…

You don’t have a bag or anything so you just balance the can in the crook of your arm, soon it is joined by more of its peers of the black and “chili” variety, as well as a few more vegetables you don’t recognize because hell why not. The internet said children needed vegetables. And fruit.

You consider something called ‘fruit cups’, looking over the small list of ingredients. You’ve never had pears. Or Cherries. Or peaches. And you don’t know how Dave feels about them either. But again, you needed fruit and they come in a pack of six so onto the precarious pile it goes.

You do this a few more times, just grabbing things you vaguely recognize as things people ate in the movies. Bread? Sure there’s a loaf. Popcorn? You have a microwave so why not. You’re intrigued, because the white stuff you remember from the movies are very different from actual corn (which you also snagged some cans of and that shit is yellow in the picture.)

Your haul distinctly lacks protein (aside from beans.) That shit might be a problem. You go back and scan the non-canned shit, finding some nuts (you think nuts were under that category) and add those to the pile as well.

You are running out of arm-space by the time you make it to the back of the store where they keep all the drinks in some sort of refrigeration unit. You consider leaving without them. You have enough. You have water. You don’t really have much more room to carry shit.

Running your eyes over the colorful labels and oddly shaped bottles, you zero in on a familiar translucent gold. You remember seeing that color almost shining in the light thrown from the fridge as Dave retreated from the kitchen. That first night.

Apple juice, the label reads. And next to it--

Orange juice.

You’re torn. One bright and sunny and orange, calling to every shred of your childhood fantasies that remained. And the other, gold gleaming guiltily in the night.

You’ve got time.

You free a hand to open the cool-storage, even colder air blasting into your face. You somehow managed to leverage the six-pack of juice bottles over your arm, and let the door shut with a quiet squelch.

“Goodness I’d wondered if you’d gotten lost back here! D’ya need help there ‘hon? You should have grabbed a basket!”

You stiffen, and then glance back towards the aisles. The clerk hovers near the edge of the shelves, well outside your personal bubble. But Roxy’s tower surges back around you in your minute panic, painting her concerned face in shadows.

Your jaw works, and you manage, “I think I’m done. Thank you.”

“Oh alright. If you’re sure, hon. Let’s get these up to the register so I can get’cha checked out.”

Even her voice sounds more distant now. You follow the carapacian back towards the front of the store, depositing the items where she indicates. It ends up looking like a lot more when you can get a better look at it. Some sort of machine beeps as she commences the “check out” process, sometimes turning each item before flashing it across a glass plane set into the counter. A scanner of some sort?

“So hon, did you find everything you needed?”

“...ah.” This would be a perfect chance to ask. “...no actually. Where would I find...fresh fish? And vegetables and the like?”

She hums, “New to th’ area I’m guessing? This looks like a first supply run. Boss doesn’t like me talkin’ up the competition but there’s just some things folk can’t get at a place like this. It isn’t the biggest place ever, but if ya take th’ Eastwood bus to Polk street there’s a Kroger. That’d be th’ easiest one. Th’ others are all on th’ otha side of town and ya probably don’wanna deal with Downtown Traffic more’n ya need to. You want the real fresh stuff ya’ll need to find a market. They’re usually open on th’ weekends but I don’t know of any around here.”

You know what a bus is, and the idea of being crammed into one of those metal tin cans has you completely blue-screening for a good moment, only coming back when she finishes scanning the items with a “Ya got that, hon?”

You don’t trust your voice so you just nod. She rattles off a price and you use the excuse to focus exclusively on the green notes in your pocket. You didn’t bring them all. That would be stupid. But doing the math in your head (they are all denominations of 20s) you think you have enough. You hand over four notes, and she nods, gesturing for you to take the bags she’d helpfully piled on the counter for you.

You toss the change haphazardly back into one of the bags when she hands it back to you, and then respond to her cheerful, “Have a good day! Do come back if ya need anythin’!” with a distracted nod before you may your way to the door. The bags are heavy on your arms--but not too heavy. Just heavy enough to be a distraction--as you linger in the doorway. The sun is creeping higher and there’s more people on the pedestrian walkway beside the dark pavement and you just...blank.You manage to set yourself in a grim line back towards the apartment before the medium rushes forward and nearly obscures everything.

The grocery haul is a phantom weight on your forearms even here, but you just let your gameself shake, red gloved hands digging your shades into your face. You moved while you’d been distracted by earth and find yourself ensconced in the pile of soft cat-wizard plushies. Out in the peripheral of your vision you try to shut out the sights and sounds of the city that were no longer just abstract replacements for the gulls and waves but actual physical people and vehicles and it’s almost a crowd. Even here you know how close some of them come and it puts you on edge, making your skin physically crawl.

For the longest time, it was just You. Then it became You and Roxy. And then You, Roxy, and your penpals. Eventually that circle expanded to Hal, Jane, and Jake. Even not counting the Cherubs, who you’d never actually met, that left the five of you alone for over half a year. No consorts to run into or do quests for or shit. Just pesterchum chats and robots and tomb raiding with Jake and worrying about your relationship and worrying about Jane because she was making friends with the enemy and then worrying about when the heroes would arrive and quietly freaking out about that…

And then all hell broke loose and you’d just been alone. Running from the Condesce or running back to her when you’d been punted out of the battlefield. And you’d barely had time to process the fact that your Allocated FIVE people had become like 13 and you’d been swept off with Terezi and Dave to plan--more like brood-- under Krypton-filled clouds.

The point being... how the hell to people.

You thought you had this shit covered. Evidently not.

Even with only a sliver of your focus remaining on earth, your personal space bubble shivers as pedestrians--some well dressed and others looking like they belonged in one of your Bro’s movies--began to trickle out of buildings and into offices and onto the previously mostly empty sidewalks. They don’t crowd you--yet, but you’ve seen midday cities in movies and they terrify the living shit out of you.

Exactly like the bus, the idea of being hemmed in by bodies, with no room to run, no room to even draw your damn sword in defense unless you wanted to literally strike down people who are just going about their goddamn business…

You are catapulted back to Earth as the world blurs and you find yourself standing in the doorway of your apartment complex, clutching the shitty plastic bags worth of junk you can barely even call groceries as if it was life or death. You recognized a panicked series of flashsteps in an instant, and you hate yourself for falling back on that.

How the hell are you going to survive if you can’t walk down the fucking street?

You think about the clerk’s directions. You think about the fact that even if you have a bunch of canned shit you are going to need real food and you owe Dave fresh shit after everything you’ve put him through…

But even considering that, you can’t find yourself to step off the small rectangle of concrete and wade back out. You’re tense and this close to pulling out your unbreakable katana, and one pindrop away from absconding back to the medium again.

Not Today.

Time to go put away this shit and try and then maybe brood on the roof or something.

Chapter Text

It’s been 2 days, 16 hours, 56 minutes and counting since the Incident. The original Incident, mind. Not the time when you decided your Bro had gone mad. That’s only been a little over 24 hrs, although you can’t be bothered to find the exact timer amongst the noisy clocks lurking in your head.

You really don’t know how to feel. So you don’t. You stay in your room whenever possible, waking when the sun comes up, sleeping when the sun goes down, and you do fuck all with the rest of your day. Some talking with John, but even when you know he’s home, John’s not around a lot what with having to deal with overprotective parental overlords and an escalating prank war. Both of which pulled him away from the computer fairly often. Besides, you weren’t some clingy asshole. You were able to give your best bro space.

For the most part you end up getting lost in the bowels of the internet, watching shitty bootlegged cartoons, writing ironic deconstructions of them on your blog, all while doodling absently at the corner of some scrap paper. You’re amassing quite the collection of poorly drawn faces, although like the cartoons, these appeal to you because they look so terrible. Maybe you should consider drawing more, you’re getting bored with the blog.

You thought you would have been ecstatic to have a full day yourself. No training. No mysteriously moving puppets. Just you and time and chill. No need to think about Bro at all.

Of course now you can’t stop thinking about him unless you are up to your eyeballs in music or sleeping. And even that didn’t work because you’re pretty sure you even dreamed about him last night.

...that wasn’t so bad though. Your subconscious must have been up to something, processing some sort of shit, because all you remember was the fact that he looked ridiculous. The actual fuzzy memory had long since faded, much to your disappointment. Pencil scratching at the paper again, and you glance down, finding a figure emerging below the face you’d tentatively named Jeff. It’s little more than a distorted figure right now but the half cape and Bro’s glasses make you snicker. You fold up that paper and tuck it into a shoebox you keep under your desk, with the rest of the doodles you want to keep for some reason or another.

You click the eraser on your pencil, tapping it against the plane of your desk. It settles into a steady rhythm, matching up unconsciously with the ticking in your head. You just aren’t feeling another shitty cartoon right now. Your homework is done, sitting in a messy pile you shoved to the corner of your desk when you started doodling. So is the next week’s just for the hell of it. One of the hundreds of timers is ticking down to the day when it’s due--3 days 7 hours 47 minutes and counting--but until Bro asks about it you aren’t going to say anything.

You click through your tabs aimlessly, the sounds falling in line with the simultaneous tapping from your other hand. You find yourself just scrolling through your aggregation program, glancing through your alerts, but you find it hard to focus on any of them. Game announcements. Comments on your blogs. Some troll sniffing around your beatcloud account and leaving garbled keysmashes on one of your recent experimental tracks.

...huh. The football team won last night.

That makes you pause in your scrolling. Not because you are an especially avid fan--all sports end up blurring together to you--but you set up the alerts anyway.

Because if the local team wins…

Aw hell yeah half off pizza.

You never turn down pizza. It would be a cardinal sin.

You wonder what flavor Bro’s going to pick this time. Probably something disgusting like anchovy. You’ll need to pick it off somewhere he can’t see then. He just got food yesterday (and that had been a bizarre thing to find in the cupboard when going for the last bit of peanut butter. What the hell are you supposed to do with beans? Nuke them? You like the fruit cups though, even if they are kiddy stuff. You haven’t checked to see what he stuffed in the fridge this time.) the other day, but it was weird junk, and even he wouldn’t turn down half off pizza.

It had all the food groups. Cheap. AND it gave you leftovers.

He’d have to be nuts to not get it.

...Right?

You don’t need to glance at the clock to know it’s around 6pm, and the pencil stills its tapping, and you use both hands to pull up the pizza delivery website. Bro’s password is child’s play, and soon you’ve got the order history up, snooping to see what he decided on…

And then are aghast to find out there’s no activity for today.

This is ridiculous.

Throwing away training--

Throwing away the only thing you did together.

--is one thing. The low level of panic you’ve been trying to avoid all day boils over into petty anger. You will not tolerate this neglect.

You pick everything you want, even pineapple and shit, and defiantly hit the “order now” button using the stored payment details.

You grab your phone, pulling up the messenger function.

i ordered pizza

You weren’t asking. You throw it away without waiting for a response, back towards the bed as if it burned your hand

Bro knew you knew all his passwords--because he used the same one for literally everything. You had an understanding about that shit. If you don’t get an ok, you aren’t allowed to spend money. You normally follow that rule.

But you don’t really care about that right now. You almost hope it’ll make him retaliate finally. Just to ease the tension that’s been your constant companion.

23 minutes flat later, you hear the phone buzz. You ignore it.

46 minutes and counting later you hear the doorbell ring.

49 minutes there’s a knock on your door.

Just one.

You hadn’t even locked it. Bro could easily slam it open and stomp in and drag you to the roof if he wanted to. He wouldn’t even be angry. Just ice cold.

But no. There’s just a single, soft knock. And then just light footsteps easing down the hall, back toward the living room. You are listening so hard you can hear the moment he steps from the carpet in the hallway and onto the linoleum in the kitchen.

Muscles taut, you rise, walking over to the bed. Your phone is blinking from the notification.

Just a single word.

Ok.

“Aaagh!” You fall face-forward into the pillow, doing your best to smother yourself. Your fingers bury themselves into your hair, grabbing fistfuls and pulling until the pain in your scalp makes your eyes water. It’ll smudge your shades. You surface for air and pull them off. The shape makes you angrier. They were his.

Hissing you fling them away from you.

You don’t care.

What.

The.

Hell.

Just get up moron . You’re wasting pizza.

You don’t understand the anger driving you. You don’t understand it at all.

The idea of moving makes you feel physically sick, the idea of going out there and eating...

You bury your face under the pillow again, and drown in the sound of clocks ticking.

1 hour 23 minutes and 4, 5, 6 seconds later, a knock sounds again. Once.

It drags you back to reality. You curl tighter.

Another knock.

And then...the footsteps again

3 minutes, 34, 35, 36

Your phone vibrates. You extract your head from the pillow. Bleary eyes finding the blinking notification in the dying light.

The phone unlocks to the same conversation. Only under the Ok is another message.

Are you okay in there Dave?

The burning anger gives way to cold, exhausted apathy.

no

Do you need anything?

You just.

Stare.

7 minutes, 45, 46, 47.

I put the pizza in the fridge in case you get hungry later.

56, 57, 58

It was a good idea.

Thank you.

When you finally force yourself up, you find the shades lying broken on the floor. Lenses cracked and plastic snapped where they’d smashed up against the wall.

Holding the pieces in your hands.

What the hell is wrong with him?

What the hell is wrong with you?

You just…

Want it to stop.

But the clock keeps ticking.

Chapter Text

Two days pass, bring the total time since the Incident up to 4 days, 15 hours, 21 minutes and counting.

You haven’t been out of your room more than twenty minutes total since the pizza incident. Camped out like some survivor in an apocalyptic hellscape, fearing death or infection if you stepped one pinky toe into the space outside your established safe zone. You used the last of your stashed food last night, having been unable to restock with the junk Bro bought last time, and here 12 hours later the gnawing in your gut tries to push you to breech that forbidden territory. The living room yawns wide before you, and you don’t don’t want go, so you don’t and park yourself in front of the computer and drown out your stomach’s complaints using enough heart thumping sound to even muffle the clocks in your head.

Bro has texted you. A few times. As if that single message from you was the lever that cracked open the vent, allowing the occasional trickle of thought to be thrown your way.

You’d ignored it the first few times. Wondering if he’d finally snap and come get you if you did. But he didn’t. You’d even heard those light footsteps stop in front of your door. Making you tense with…something. Anticipation? Fear? Were you finally pushing things too far?

But…nothing. Just a frustrated sigh and some quiet mumble you can’t make out through your door.

Then your phone vibrated. And you scrabbled to check it.

Just let me know you’re alive in there, lil’bro.

The bitter laugh that escapes was apparently proof enough, because those footsteps ease back down the hall, leaving you alone in your safehouse that was feeling more and more like a prison with every damn minute that passed.

After that, he checked on you again some time later. You sent a curt one word response. He let it be, and time just flowed on. The cycle continued to repeat every few hours, with nothing changing, for two days now. The last time you sulked like this Bro had gotten fed up with it within hours, and you’d gotten a particularly demanding training session that night, with a frustrated order to not do it again.

If you don’t want me around anymore just tell me, damn it. The thought was likely irrational, but you weren’t feeling very rational right now. You channel all your energy into John, keeping up a veneer of normality for him, because it’s at least some sliver of normal for you too.

But eventually John leaves for a home-cooked dinner and you are so hungry even your conflicted pride throws in the towel.

You aren’t going to talk to him. Nope. If he wants to talk to you he can do it his own goddamn self you want nothing to do with this bullshit. You steel yourself and tunnel vision on the kitchen because the kitchen and quieting the monster in your gut is the only thing that matters.

You don’t even bother to go for a plate—since there aren’t any in the sink you couldn’t reach them anyway, blasted cleaning—and just go straight for the fridge. Pizza’s in the fridge. No way Bro would have eaten it all yet, he ate like a freaking bird. Besides, in your petulance you’d ordered a large because you could.

As expected, you grab a piece of your unholy creation, noting that about a third of the pie was gone, even with the pineapple which you know Bro doesn’t understand why you always put on it. What’s left will still last you for several more days yet.

Assuming you don’t hole yourself up again and just let yourself starve. Which is honestly looking more likely because every moment you are out in the open the space between your shoulder blades itches, like eyes are watching you, following you, waiting for you to drop your guard and then some other shit is going to go wrong and tilt your world even farther—

Something else in the fridge grabs at the rug of paranoia and upends it, sending you mentally fumbling over yourself like a goddamn clown who missed his landing and rolled in a squawking heap of flailing limbs all to the sounds of an audience’s raucous laughter.

There, sitting on the otherwise empty shelf above the pizza box, is a six pack of impossibility.

The deep amber color shines in the fridge’s harsh yellow light, sending it sparkling like some long lost nectar of the gods.

You knew there wasn’t any more AJ. You’d taken the last one the night of the Incident and then hated yourself for it. Because that meant you’d need to ask Bro for more. And he didn’t often fulfill requests like that unless you proved yourself or some shit. Scored a hit on him in training, got an above acceptable grade on your progress report, yada yada, incentivized progress bullshit. You usually ration that shit for when you’re stressed out.

He hated the stuff. Always got that nasty orange crap. Why the hell was there apple juice?

Unconsciously your small fingers hook around the neck of the nearest bottle and you pull it out. Eyeing the seal on the cap. Nope. No tampering. It didn’t look like a cruel prank. Just an innocent bottle of AJ waiting to be consumed and bestow its sweet, cooled deliciousness upon an expectant throat.

You glance up, dragging your— unprotected— eyes back towards your Bro’s half of the room. He was hunched in the corner. Not paying you so much as a whit of attention. He’s got his noise canceling headphones on, knees pulled up to his chest in what looked to be the least comfortable position a person could assume while balancing in a computer chair. Still no shades on, so you can see he’s intent on whatever is playing on the screen. Probably a porno or something. Maybe he’s researching for the next smuppet special.

You look from him, then down to the apple juice, and then feel the tight knot in your chest loosen just a smidge.

Instead of immediately absconding to your room, instead you drag your cold pizza slice and confusing as hell beverage, over to the futon. Lil’Cal is seated on the end, so you give the dude a fist bump before nibbling on the pizza, curiously trying to figure out what the video is from over Bro’s shoulder. You revise your original guess—there’s far too many clothes involved for it to be a porno unless it’s a particularly slow burn. The actors look vaguely familiar, so you amuse yourself by trying to place them in a particular series, but you don’t actually have a eureka moment until the end of the episode rolls by and the credits begin to play. You nearly choke on your pizza.

Bro’s high end noise canceling headphones means he’s oblivious to your imminent death, so you grab your phone and text at him instead.

*DUDE* are you watching soaps???

It takes him a moment to notice the notification, you can see the phone blinking steadily where it’s sitting on the desk, stiffening like a deer caught in the headlights when he finally does. Hands unfurl where they’d been clasped around his knees and he pulls the phone closer, and you’re amused by the bewildered frown and how his eyebrows scrunch and it’s just so weird it makes you want to die laughing.

The horrible twisted up feeling is lost in the sheer ridiculousness of the situation. You just laugh and laugh, until you’re honest to God crying and you hurt, but for once it’s a goddamn good hurt and you’re wheezing as you send another text.

like seriously General Hospital??? that’s so far beyond irony its circled right around to utterly insane you do know thats aimed towards lonely housewives right

Bro whirls around in his computer chair, giving you a glare that you’re fairly certain is supposed to be one of the ones that usually made you want to shit your pants, but combined with the flush creeping up his neck and into his face it just sends you giggling again.

His expression changes again, and he abruptly puts his back to you, hunching over his desk. You stiffen, that was weird, wait no what are you doing, you need to get out of here--

And then the phone you’ve been clutching like a lifeline buzzes again, and you realize he was just typing you a reply.

It’s just for research.

Is he…

Sulking?

research right and im a naive two year old waiting for santa to arrive

daddy is it christmas already???

can i get a pony???

You don’t know what the hell is going on.

No. We don’t have space for a pony.

but bro i want a pony

This is ridiculous. Your fingers tap out another reply. It isn’t your patented red text, but you just find you can’t stop yourself.

i promise i will feed and water and exercise it

take it out for walks in the heart of houston itll be great come on what could go wrong

just a small white pony nothing big cutesy as hell

maybe even tattoo a heart on its rump if im doing this im going all out

Your Bro lets out a noisy exhale in exasperation but you can’t see him. You’ve flopped back onto the futon, phone held above you. The vibration is instantaneous, and another text bubble appears below yours.

Maybe next year.

my birthday is near christmas

Dave.

what just saying it would work as a two for one

I’m right here you realize, we don’t need to text.

well yeah but this is working isnt it???

...I guess it is.

Your body aches from the laughing fit, but you almost feel like you are floating. It’s the most relaxed you’ve felt in...fuck you don’t know.

seriously though bro soaps???

You can hear him tapping another response, the clicking of the keys reaching your ears before the text bubble sets off another vibration.

I told you, research. I’m flipping through a few shows, analyzing the modern day image of relationships and how they form and are maintained.

bro you realize soaps are more like garbage scripted idealized unbelievable relationships that are supposed to distract unhappy housewives from their miserable existence right

god i cant believe youre watching that garbage unironically

even ironically would be beyond the capacity of my poor sponge of a brain

this is the kind of shit id expect from karkaaaaffdsdffsd

The phone slips out of suddenly nerveless fingers, smacking you dead in the face and eliciting a sharp yelp from you. That stings .

Dave?”

You’re rubbing the growing welt on your face when the light from the window is cut off. Bro towers above you, a stark shadow that cuts through your blurry vision like a knife and has you sitting up abruptly, and scrambling back towards the other end of the futon and curling in on yourself, “I’m okay, I’m okay--”

“Let me see it.”

You stiffen but nod. He kneels down next to the futon, putting him at your eye level. Something about this causes the faintest easing of tension, even if it meant the tight expression was right in your face. The loose feeling that had been bouying you through your rambles is shredded by the proximity, but you are proud of yourself that you don’t flinch when he, shockingly gently, prods the tender spot on your face.

“You might end up with a bruise from that,” Bro says after a moment, pulling back, “But it does not seem like it hit your eye.”

“‘M fine.” You mumble, suddenly intensely aware of the fact that you don’t have your shades . You have nothing acting as a shield between you and him, even if a flimsy one.

As if he could read your thoughts, he asks, “What happened to your shades?”

“...broke.” You manage to get out, pounding against the ice that frosted over everything . You hate it. You hate it so much. You take a breathe and slam into it. “It was just--I was being dumb that’s all. Got angry, threw them, they snapped. No big deal. I just need, I dunno, tape or something.”

It would make you look like a nerd trying to be cool, but hell that’s what john believed you were anyway. He’d probably get a kick out of it if you managed to get a picture to him.

“I have a pair if you want them.” He says after a moment. You give him a skeptical look.

“I thought you broke yours.”

Why aren’t you wearing them?

You haven’t seen him in a proper set of shades since the Incident.

Granted you’d been avoiding the hell out of him until he ambushed you with AJ. But it’s still hella weird.

Bro shrugs his tiny twitch of a shoulder. “They will work until we can buy you a new pair, if you want them.”

The silence is heavy.

And then you just nod.

“Okay.” He doesn’t say anything more, just climbs to his feet and crosses the living room. Bro’s puppet chest was pushed up against the wall near the speaker that was usually Lil’Cal’s preferred resting spot, and after a moment’s hesitation he popped it open. The pair of glasses are extracted quickly, and soon he’s handing the pointed shades over to you, “Here.”

There’s nothing different about them. It’s the same style as your old ones, because Bro literally just gave you his old shades when they got too “old” for him. But it feels weird this time, to be putting them on knowing these actually were Bro’s. Not just a handme down when he got something better.

But you do, and the dark filter comforts you because it puts some space between you and the too damn bright world.

“Better?”

“Yeah.”

He nods, and then returns to the computer. You stare down at your phone. The traitorous piece of technology. The fall had managed to send that garbled keysmash of a message.  You can’t even figure out what you’d been about to say. Do you know know anyone who enjoyed that shit? Maybe one of your chatroom acquaintances or something.

You stare intently at the phone. Then up at bro. Then back down at the phone. Questions bubbling up within you. Questions that have been itching at you for days. Questions you’d tried to ignore.

The moment passes and you lower the phone, reaching out and snagging the apple juice instead, cracking the seal and just letting that sweet scent surround you. You glance around Lil’Cal and find Bro has replaced the headphones, although you manage a weak smile when you notice he hasn’t started another episode yet, just scrolling through his aggregator.

Once the juice is gone, you slink out of the room. You know he noticed. You’d seen those burnt orange eyes following you as you entered the hallway. The ease of presence was gone, and you find yourself oddly angry at yourself. At the phone. At Bro even.

You’d... enjoyed that.

The exchange stares back at you, white on black, burning itself into your brain. Even once safely back in your room, you keep reading over those last few lines.

The phone vibrates. It’s a new message, slotting itself into a new bubble right below the last.

Let me know if there’s anything I can do, okay? Just because I’m shit up a creek doesn’t mean you have to be.

It’s barely even 7 in the evening and you’re so emotionally exhausted you just want to sleep.

You hesitate.

You aren’t used to talking to him like this. You train. You spar. You prank (or be pranked.) You occasionally play video games and even more rarely sit quietly in the hallway and listen while he’s working on one of his less salacious projects. Sometimes if you’ve caught the right one you’d just lean your head back and close your eyes and listen to the music pulsing through the cheap plaster.

It’s just what you two do.

training tomorrow???

You finally hit send.

The seconds pound in your head as you wait for a response. It’s 9 minutes and 53 seconds before your phone vibrates again.

Do you want to?

The clock keeps ticking.One after another after another and the key presses match up with each squealing shink of a metal gear fitting into place.

yeah

You know Bro best on the other end of the sword.

cant lose the conditioning you know???

after four days im probably hella rusty

gotta get back on the wagon

It’s another tense 5 minutes and 15 seconds before you get a response.

We’ll see how it looks in the morning.

The unsaid rejection stings, but you managed to shoot back an ok.

Then you just toss the damn thing over your shoulder and onto the bed. You don’t want to know what kind of unholy ramble your fingers are itching to embark on after that. The ugly feelings dig deep into your brain, burrowing beneath rational thought and seethe.

Instead of dealing with that little gremlin , you settle for musical therapy instead.

Chapter Text

Roxy’s tower has become a sanctuary of sorts for you.

You’ve cleaned up the glass and the empty bottles, although the lack of cleaning supplies means you are at a loss when it comes to fixing the stains on the wall and carpet. But again, dream room, it was probably more metaphorical shit you couldn’t really fix anyway, even if it spurred a nagging sense of unease every time your gaze brushed over one.

You haven’t been idle over these last couple days, sneaking out by the dersite “night” and poking around the giant city-planet, amassing an array of literature that was making a comfortable little stack next to your pile of cat-wizard plushes.

Really, night was too generous. The city had its lights on perpetually, and even the faint brightening of the world when it faced skaia was missing. You just happened to notice that carapacian activity in the streets seemed to ebb during the hours in which the moon faced the void beyond the ring and decided it must be some sort of ingrained cultural habit or something, given all your research was pointing towards things in this iteration of the game session having always been this way.

The gossip rags would have been crowing to high heavens about the deaths of two of the Prospitian heroes, and all you’ve seen so far was petty little stories about sabotaging the mail between the two kingdoms, and the ongoing long-term preparations for war. Prospit’s moon is but a footnote, other than in an acknowledgement that both sets of dreamers would be responsible for bringing back the light.

Does Prospit have two dark towers as well?

You squint at a grainy photo in one of the magazines, trying to make out the moon, distant in the sky. But the black and white image doesn’t do much to show the illumination levels, especially since two of the towers would be on another facet, if it mirrored your own moon. You’ve actually never been to Prospit before so you can only make informed hypotheses.

You’ve been through dozens of these. Analyzing all the photos to the best of your ability. Even scanning all images which had the moon in the background through a decently sophisticated photo enhancement software loaded onto your shades--you’re never surprised by the tools buried in the code of your shades. You’d always let your auto-responder have the initiative in that area--turned up nothing more than just confirmation that there were four towers. Which you’d known already.

With an irritated sigh you just toss the thin poorly bound magazine to the side, grabbing a slightly thicker volume you’d been systematically going through before you’d had to set it down and breathe for a while.

It was just a child’s history book, written in alien, but familiar carapacian characters. You don’t even need the gift of gab to understand them, you’ve been reading them since you were old enough to access what remained of the planetary network back at home. The passage you’d left dog-eared is just waiting and begging you to return.

The Rogue and the Lost Prince.

Just a fairy tale to tell young pawns who looked up at the moon and ask why two of the towers were burnt out, but one that sang to you. Of truth wrapped in allegory. A short but tragic tale of a dead prince and a lost rogue. A tower left empty and forgotten, until the heart returns. When a star drifts across the empty sky, it’s just the rogue wandering the void, searching for a shattered dream.

You know it’s just an allegory. But the idea that Roxy might be looking for— Bro—you gives you hope that maybe a meeting won’t go as terribly as you feared. Maybe Dave’s Bro was wrong.

Maybe she won’t hate you.

At least you don’t need to worry about having been seen if they are used to that story. The gossip magazines occasionally make note of her coming and goings, and you notice with unease that her wanderings have lengthened substantially since you weren’t here to lead her home. Your Roxy was only ever gone for a couple days before you dragged her sleepy head back to the tower. This Roxy was last seen two weeks ago.

You try not to let the dead prince part worry you. You obviously aren’t dead. All eight of you would need to join the game in order to light all eight towers and fulfill the first prophecy. You weren’t dead— although Bro might be— so Roxy had to be okay.

By that logic Jake and Jane had to be okay too but you can’t let yourself think that. Not yet. Not without proof. Why won’t the dersites so much as mention the Prospit dreamers? If one is a witch and one is a page then you’d know. But they don’t so the doubt is still there, and you refuse to let yourself get crushed again.

You feel along the edge of the pages with your searching thumb, finding two additional sections you’d marked in your reading, The Blinded Seer, The Shattered Knight. Damn Dersite lore was dark. Befitting your screwed-up family, you suppose.

Maybe it was fate, the result of being tied to the forces of darkness in this rip off of a battle for good and evil. Even before this whole mess, it was the Derse Dreamers who got the short end of the stick. Dave’s fucked up childhood, you and Roxy trapped in a post-apocalyptic water-flooded wasteland. You don’t know Rose’s story, but you’re sure something went wrong there. It would fit the pattern.

Jake’s Grandma was assassinated and left him to grow up on an island filled with murderous monsters. Jane was groomed and mind-controlled all her life by an evil space alien a thought whispered to you And they are prospit dreamers.

Okay, so maybe you’re being a bit melodramatic on the fated to fuck-uppery part. You don’t know shit about their grandparents’ stories either, so maybe you all deserve a piece of the fucked up pie.

You close the book with a sigh and sink back into the pile, staring up at the ceiling—or rather the blue and pink shards that spun idly by above you, overlain with the gentle moonlight and sounds of the sleeping city in another world. You didn’t bother to pretend to sleep this time, it’s easy to portion off attention for more stationary projects like researching. If one was through books and the other through shitty modern popular culture in an attempt to get some sort of grasp on how the hell to adult, they were easily separated. And honestly it was rather interesting to note the departures from the past you’d previously studied. Even before Betty Crocker renounced her disguise on Re-Branding Day, her corporate tendrils had a long reach and had warped much of the popular media in this era.

It was just...research.

Research .

You feel a flush creeping up your neck as you remember that interaction. It had been so… odd to see Dave laughing so freely, even if it was at your expense. It made you think of the bright smile and smooth cascade of words you’d watched over and over again on grainy television interviews, of your Bro during the start of his career, before Re-Branding Day and the subversive political commentary and underground rebellion. Back when he was just following a passion for creation and ironic humor, and just wanted so desperately to let the rest of the world in the joke.

You’d seen the later years in the too scrawny, tired, resigned teenager you’d met in the land of tombs and krypton. You’d seen someone broken and reluctantly reforged, trapped in a fate he didn’t want but was going to have to finish anyway since no one else had, as he put it, bullshit predestined welsh powers and a fancy sword. But earlier… for just that moment, when you’d turned around to look at your splinter’s little brother, you’d seen that same carefree smile.

Fuck. Guess you needed to figure out how to make him laugh more.  

Giving him your splinterself’s shades had been...an impulse decision. But it felt right. You knew eventually he would find his own style somehow--the aviators he sported in your past were eerily reminiscent of his future in the same way his Bro matched yours. Your fingers linger on the reinforced frames resting on your nose, well aware that the weight on your gameself is what allowed your wakingself to brush off the loss so easily. Some things were universal.

But for now, if that weight and barrier worked to fill the aching feeling of something missing , that’s all that mattered.

The computer screen bleeds into your vision as the two worlds blur together, although its more you aren’t holding them apart as stringently as you were previously. You have your Splinterself’s Legal Shit binder open on the desk, phone, sitting quietly on the edge, no notifications.

The spatial difference between essentially lounging in a pile of cat-wizards, and sitting ram-rod straight in a computer chair isn’t lost on you, but it’s easily compartmentalized and stored away. You’re getting pretty good at this shit since you actually have to care about potential narcoleptic zombie-ism. It’s a struggle not to tunnel-vision on things.

Not that it mattered right now, the time showing on the taskbar of your computer announced it to be too late to be considered evening anymore. Dave should be in bed if he actually wanted a training session in the morning. You could space out all you want.

You aren’t sure what you’re going to do about that yet, but it’s a bridge you’ll cross when you get there. If he wants one, now that you both aren’t one-step away from exhaustion, you don’t really see why not. It’s not like he won’t benefit from the conditioning in the future, and you can’t afford to let your skills rust either, and need to figure out how to apply them to a whole new set of reach and speed variables.

Kids in this age took self-defense classes didn’t they? You vaguely remember seeing some scenes set in such a setting during your research. It was just a plus that you didn’t need to pay someone else to teach them.

That thought makes you sigh and brings your thoughts back to the Legal Shit in front of you, leaving a corner of your mind working through the carapacian histories, although right now it’s just some fluff pieces about derse itself.

You eventually identified these particular pages as bank statements and managed to track down the corresponding web-app bookmarks in this clusterfuck of an organizational system. You still haven’t found shit when it comes to legal identification cards or payment methods, barring the wad of cash in the trunk.

How the hell did your splinterself operate all this shit? It gives you a headache just trying to decipher it all. There’s several different sources of income, going to multiple accounts, and you know fuckall about them aside from extremely unhelpful notes attached to the transactions. The largest is obviously the puppet porn website--you’d found it in the aggregator fairly quickly and spent an...interesting few hours exploring. You admire the dedication to the craft, but you aren’t sure you quite share the enthusiasm.

So many ventures, some HUGE and others barely a trickle. He had his fingers in a lot of pies. It makes you wonder what spurred this level of entrepreneurship. The more you dig into the records, the more of a pattern you see. A burning drive to always have a contingency, should one of the projects not pan out, and many didn’t. A giant spiral of safety nets for safety nets.

You think back to the photo packed carefully in a lockbox, and what the words on the back meant.

All originating from a child who had nothing, who reached and aggressively planned and built to help him survive in a world where money actually mattered, so he would never have to worry about having nothing again.

You have a hard time seeing money as anything more than an abstraction. A relic of a dead civilization. To him, wouldn’t it have been everything? You’d never been at risk of getting evicted, because landlords didn’t exist. Utilities? Whatever. Food? Bro had you covered, and eventually you were able to make due yourself.

But this world was different.

You had to get in contact with the banks somehow and figure out how to access this shit. Even if the essentials are taken care of, you’re gonna need parts. You promised Dave a new pair of shades. And you highly doubt that wad of cash was supposed to last three years. After having seen the grocery cost and then extrapolating it out over that length of time, even if you’d overpaid that was not going to cover it forever.

The letter said his Agent would take care of shit for Dave. You have no idea who the hell the agent is, aside from a number in his--your--phone, nor are you willing to contact them and ask. As far as the world was concerned, Dirk Strider is still alive.

Even if it’s not the proper one. It’ll have to make do.

You are in the process of checking the faq for one of the bank websites--Compass Bank--when you hear something. The gentle singing of Roxy’s shards has been a steady companion to you, even from across worlds, and something’s off. Your waking self stops mid scroll as the world bleeds shadowed purple, blue and pink, your gameself stiffening with tension. The shards sparkle on the edge of your senses, sharp and cutting where they’ve always been welcoming. Not repulsing you like Dave’s but just enough that it puts you on edge, a warning, a shout, a plea--

A shadow hovers in the window. Tall and willowy, the derse-dreamer jammies bleeding into dark blue, and far, far too small and clinging to curves she hadn’t had the chance to grow into before.

But it’s the dark rimmed eyes that get you. Open and hard, glittering like faceted stones in the agitated blue and pink light thrown by the tattered pieces of her soul.

“Y-you--”

The words hiss out through clenched teeth and you spring to your feet, books forgotten. The hostility ringing around you, echoed and amplified by the fear radiating off the shards. The cold depths of oblivion, washing down and through and around you. The stained purple wallpaper around the window begins to bleed to black.

She was awake.

" G-gyet ooout."  She slurs, staggering forward, almost tripping on the crumbling stone window sill despite the fact that she was floating.  Hand outstretched and reaching toward you, crooked beckoning. The soul shards weep around her, the previously peaceful colors pulsating a deep dark blue, almost black as she neared, "Nyot heeere. I caan't--cat--not aginican't"

You refuse to react. You refuse to show her how much your heart is breaking behind your mask. You just stand there, a marble statue in pink and red, surrounded by ridiculous wizard cats. You raise your head, locking eyes with her, stiff and cool and completely and utterly blank.

"Roxy..."

She staggers toward you, swaying on her feet as they touch down on the stained carpet. You are still taller than she is, you note distantly, but not by much. Her fists clench and come up as if to sock you in the face, but she stumbles forward, and you catch her on reflex. 

She's a weight in your arms and she trembles, her fist digging into your clothes.

"Diirk. Please." She whispers, "gyet out. gyet out. gyretoutofmyhead"

The shards surrounding you both scream in anguish--

And then there's a terrible, terrible pain. A sword through your chest, blood dripping in rivulets down the familiar curve of the blade. Your blade. The unbreakable katana.

This--

doesn't make sense.

Roxy's eyes are bloodshot and blurred with tears, and she lets you fall.

In another world, your 28 year old body stiffens, teeters, and you fall.

Distantly, a muffled clock tolls.

A pendulum swings.

Bottles smash around you and all you can hear is Roxy crying.

And.

Then.

Again.

You die.

Chapter Text

You wake with an instinctive gasp.

The tolling of the clock reverberates in your head, sending tremors through your body as your death is judged and the answer reverberates in your bones.

Just.

The taste of copper fills your mouth and you push yourself onto you side, coughing to clear the liquid from your lungs.

Just.

You may not need to breathe, but damn the remnant of your lizard brain still flips the fuck out when you can’t.

Just.

Everything is numb. You feel cut off. The ambient background music you’ve grown accustomed to is utterly silent , leaving you alone and echoing in your head. No distant city sounds. No hum of Roxy’s shards. No—

Roxy.

Blood trailing in rivulets down a blade, tip protruding from your chest.

If you’d ever eaten anything in this body, you’d be throwing up right now with how twisted up that memory leaves you. Instead you just retch quietly, shoulders trembling.

You can’t see anything.  The tower is black and empty.

If the answer is Just...why are you still here?

You know without being able to tell the color. It’s yours. Deep red and empty, with a boxed up crypt above your head.

You curl up upon yourself. You don’t know how you got here. You don’t care.

You can still hear her crying, in your head. It echoes in the silence, growing louder and louder.

What did you do?

What did he do?

Fuck.

The Just judgement reverberates through your soul. Scarring it with the utter knowledge that whatever it was, it’s your responsibility.

You hurt in a way you aren’t sure how to quantify. It isn’t even the blade wound—if you were even conscious again that roadblock would have healed to nothing more than a phantom memory and a bloodstain that would eventually fade from the self-cleaning and mending nature of the god jammies.

You just... You’re so aware of your edges , all sharp and freshly broken. You want to escape to the dubious shelter of your Splinterself, and wrap the edges up in the physicality of a body, but you…

You can’t.

Shit.” The hiss of air escapes and you reach for that corner of yourself, the burning star of contaminated Houston air and responsibility and shit—

And you just find another broken edge, small red shards bleed around you, where before there was none. Shattered by the death you’d somehow managed to fucking escape.

Fuck.

Not good. Not good. Not good.

Shitshitshit.

You don’t think he’d forgive you if he had to find your body on the floor again. Not after that night. Fuck. This time he can’t even drag you back out of the Medium to chew you out.

You push yourself to your feet. Managing a set of stuttering steps towards the window. You weren’t hurt. It was all in your head. Pull your goddamn self together, Dirk. Despite the judgement, you aren’t dead.

Roxy…

Goddamn you need to figure out what happened between you two before you even go near her again if she’s going to stab you.

A Rogue and a Dead Prince.

Fuck. You needed to steal that book again. This puts the whole fuckin’ story in a new light.

And what about Dave? Is he going to stumble across his Bro’s corpse in the morning? You don’t think so--the disperate selves were separate and injuries never transferred. Did it break off into another splinter and you’ll just have to trust it’ll be fine? Fuck you don’t know. You were just starting to get the hang of shit and had decided to try and make him laugh more and then something like this happens?

You found the splinter in the debris cloud. A splinter is a piece of a whole. If the body isn’t goddamn dead, could you find another one? There were thousands of them out there, and of the ones you passed only that one had been near enough to your soul to latch on to you.

Fuck it, you had to try. You couldn’t just leave Dave like that.

You freeze as something blocks your way although you have no idea where the hell you are going to go. You immediately flash to another figure, to Roxy’s dark rimmed eyes and ugly snarl. But no. No, that’s wrong, because it’s not darkening the window, in fact doing the exact opposite, sending the whole portal glowing with a pulsing red and green light, like some kind of fucked up Christmas tree.

You…can’t…tell what it is. It’s trying to say something. You know it is. It’s moving agitatedly, gesturing, the voice so goddamn distorted, and the shape only vaguely humanoid. The only thing you can make out for sure is a splotch of darker coloring in the luminescent mass, around where a head would be on a person.

There’s no tail, and you’ve only ever seen that kind of strobelight effect on the hyperactive healer sprite that had bounced in and out of the battle healing you, but…

“…Hal?”

You uncurl your raw and aching edges and let them stretch, brushing up against the essence of the thing and…

…No. No it isn’t Hal. Its heat and metal and fur and feathers and a faint desperate hope.

There’s an orange flash in the corner of your shades. Pesterchum.

You navigate the display to find a waiting friend request.

turntechGodhead [TG] wants to add you as a friend.

Chapter Text

You don’t have time for this.

You have to get to Dave, somehow.

You can’t be wasting time with this...thing.

It was obviously some sort of game construct, you’d almost say a sprite. You hadn’t seen anything else in game that exhibited the ...quite so artificial nature of the sprites. Every other agent, every other structure, had a sense of cohesion to it. A sense of belonging within the environment it was created in. Not kernel sprites.

Glowing, floating, incorporeal unless they wished otherwise...they were obviously a part of the game.

As such they had access to the game interface in a way none except players did.

It shouldn’t surprise you that this one could access pesterchum. Even Hal had continued to communicate through your own chumhandle for a time after being prototyped into ARquiusprite. It had just been a convenient means of long-distance communication.

And that username…

It wasn’t one of your friends. You’ve never seen that particular handle before. Did that actually matter? Did any of this actually matter? What the hell was a sprite doing here???

The sprite is growing impatient. It’s distorted voice bubbles up again, cascading around you in a manner you can clearly tell is annoyed. It gestures at you with wide waving sweeps, and the friend request refreshes.

turntechGodhead [TG] wants to add you as a friend.

Fine. Whatever. You jab the accept button, but fix the sprite a stern glare. “Fine. But we talk while I fly.”

You need to do something anyway. You don’t even fucking know if it’ll work. Raring off beyond the furthest ring, plunging headfirst into the nebulae where you first found the connection to your splinterself. You make to move around the pulsating light, but it shudders in agitation, puffing itself up to fill the entire window. You think you can see details for a moment. A claw. A coat. Some weird pattern where the emblem on a dreamer’s jammies would be. But they don’t stay long, lost in the shifting color. Bits and flecks of data are drifting off the edges of the mass.

The notification flashes again, a window pulling up in the screen of your shades, overlaying the shifting colored light

turntechGodhead [TG] began pestering timaeusTestified [TT]

turntechGodhead [TG]: thank frog i can still access this
turntechGodhead [TG]: dont you dare go anywhere
turntechGodhead [TG]: stop
turntechGodhead [TG]: desist

The colors pulsed irregularly, agitatedly with each new message, throwing the entire interior of the tower bathing in cast off green and orange light.

turntechGodhead [TG]: im calling a moratorium on all shenanigans right meow
turntechGodhead [TG]: whatever it is you think you n33d to do can wait

Your blood chills at the text color. That’s AR’s color. He’d changed to that very same bright red in an attempt to differentiate himself from your orange. You feel yourself stiffen, going very still, tense and coiled. Sprites were semi-corporeal. You could just elbow the thing out of the way and be out the window.

You could.

But something stopped you.

Something had dragged you out of Roxy’s tower.

It was a revival mechanic. Not a respawn mechanic.

turntechGodhead [TG]: you were litterally dead less than five minutes ago just take a second to chill ok
turntechGodhead [TG]: granted i never made god tier but it is supposed to take so long? i was legit worrying youd run out of lives and i didnt follow psycho mom around for days just to watch you die in furont of me again no that way is trauma city and all parts of me have had enough of that
turntechGodhead [TG]: no more dead broirails please and thank mew
turntechGodhead [TG]: ugh im just not f33line this furmatting give me a sec

“Look--sprite--” You grope for words while there’s a lull in the wave of text. It was so bizarre that you just accepted the fact that this one threw around cat puns whenever it found the opportunity. Prototyping did weird shit, it’d gotten an AI obsessed with MILK and MUSCLES of all things. “What do you want? I--need to go--

turntechGodhead B33 < there thats not so clawful
turntechGodhead B33 < you dont need to go anywhere except with me im not letting you out of my sight while youre bl33ding like that
It floats forward and reaches out a--limb--you want to say it’s probably supposed to be an arm--running the edge, tingling with some sort of electrical hum, across the space directly to your left.

And you shiver as it comes into contact with the handful of small red shards that was all that remained of the splinter that had connected you to your splinterself, singing brightly at you.

The heat that blossomed out from the touch was so familiar, although laced through with a cheerful playfulness that is so utterly bizarre.

That shocks you cold. “You can see those?”

turntechGodhead B33 < duh
turntechGodhead B33 < rogue of heart here
turntechGodhead B33 < or part of me was
turntechGodhead B33 < sprites lose our classpects except the most passive support shit but like theres a billion of those things out in the rim its like a crash course in sensory heart pawers

ANOTHER rogue?

“I’m fine.” You draw your fists to your sides, taking a step back into the tower to get the splinters out of direct range. Without the contact they fade back into invisibility, although knowing they are actually there instead of some abstraction of your heart powers makes you feel really uneasy. Those were pieces of your soul that it’d just touched. You want to bundle them up and shove them back inside yourself so no one can touch them again.

turntechGodhead B33 < i dunno the more shards i s33 the more worried i get just look at psycho mom over there

You let out a rough, frustrated sigh at the words getting jumbled up in your head as you try to argue back, and just decide to say fuck it and switch to text instead. It worked with Dave after all.

timaeusTestified [TT]: What happened with Roxy was something completely none of your business. She’s not psycho.
turntechGodhead B33 < i dont know man stabbing you in the back in cold blood right in front of me s33ms pretty psycho
turntechGodhead B33 < ive been following her for days just a peaceful meandering sl33pwalk then bam flipped her lid the moment she saw you
turntechGodhead B33 < those shards are bad mews
timaeusTestified [TT]: It was justified.

You knew it was all in your head but you could still hear those bells tolling. Undisputeable proof that Dirk Strider deserved that death. Hell if you think about it it had killed the bit of you that was directly responsible. That splinter, your link to the body of the man who’d hurt her, had been completely and utterly destroyed.

turntechGodhead B33 < bullshit you were reading in a pile ofwizard cats
turntechGodhead B33 < thats the least threatening thing ive s33n anyone do

You accepted the responsibility.

timaeusTestified [TT]: I’m not going to argue about this. It’s pointless.
timaeusTestified [TT]: I’m leaving.

You close the chat window but the sprite surges forward, grabbing your arm with something that had a surprising amount of force behind it considering it looked like a vaguely humanoid patch of fog. You could even see through it if you looked too hard at it.

turntechGodhead B33 < slow your pawsitively furreaky deja vu inducing self down and listen to me instead of the yowling tomcats in your head
turntechGodhead B33 < i can help fix your splinter shit before it gets worse

You break the grip easily, the strength only lasting the few moments it took the messages to send. Your arm passes through the almost ghostly presence, sending that same electrified energy dancing up the skin of your arm, the sense of fur and feathers pressing hard against your perception.

But you don’t move to leave. You doubt a random game construct would be able to help with your problem, considering you can’t even tell if it knows what the problem is in the first place.

Restraining yourself, you reopen the chat client.

timaeusTestified [TT]: I’m listening.
turntechGodhead B33 < rogue of heart remember?
turntechGodhead B33 < stealing soul shit and sharing it around
turntechGodhead B33 < sound applickable to the pawblem?
timaeusTestified [TT]: turntechGodhead B33 < sprites lose our classpects except the most passive support shit
turntechGodhead B33 < i know what i said
turntechGodhead B33 < and i also know itll work
turntechGodhead B33 < at least one part of it will
turntechGodhead B33 < gotta love tempurral inevitability
timaeusTestified [TT]:: So what is this brilliant plan you’ve been dancing around?
turntechGodhead B33 < shit oops oh yeah
turntechGodhead B33 < i need you to rip the sprite out of me
timaeusTestified [TT]: What.
turntechGodhead B33 < use your princey soul powers to claw out the kernel sprite so the game can get off my tail
turntechGodhead B33 < its been treating me like a scratching post since everything crashed because i said “hell no i like myself now choke on a furball” and it threw a tantrum
turntechGodhead B33 < we n33d me to not be a sprite to access magic soul shit to mess with the splinters
turntechGodhead B33 < and id rather not be scrubbed out of existence because the game wants its toy back
turntechGodhead B33 < sw33t and simple reprocikitty

You can follow the logic that a rogue of heart might be useful in hunting down another splinter. Your class is focused on destruction--yourself, others, shit didn’t matter as long as you destroyed. Rogue was a much more support based class. You know you missed a lot of shit involving Roxy figuring out her powers, but you distinctly recall it described as stealing the nothing from things to make them something. Creation in its own roundabout way. But…

timaeusTestified [TT]: You realize this will kill you right? Sprites are made of either objects or dead things. It’s the sprite’s framework that revives you in the first place!
turntechGodhead B33 < dead or doomed things
turntechGodhead B33 < impurrtant techniclawlity
timaeusTestified [TT]: If--and that is assuming I can, it’s not like I have practice with this shit--I remove the coding do you even have a physical form left?
turntechGodhead B33 < im dead if i do nothing bro at least this gives me the oppurrtunity to give paradox space a haughty flick in the face when it fails to kill me off again B3

The sprite’s completely incoherent appearance and glitched out communication attempts is likely the result of the game’s attempt to wipe the prototyping. Everyone else was all screwed up, bits and pieces of who they are and who they were all slapdashed together, why not the goddamn sprites too? Remove the code holding the thing together and it’ll just all fall apart.

Whatever. If this shit goes wrong you can’t say you didn’t try to argue. You shrug and let the words fall in the silence, staring any anything other than the bobbing cloud of orange and green, “It's your choice.”

The sprite lets out a pleased churrip-like sound and you don’t even need to glance at the chat window to hear the “purrrfect” echoed in the text.

You’re missing something. You know you are. You have all the pieces right there at your fingertips but they don’t want to fall into place. You know players can be prototyped. Shit, that crazy healer sprite looked like someone shoved Rose into a wizard cat costume and let her loose in a rave. The first stage of your sprite had been some random dead troll from another game. Given your session only had one heart player and that was you, this one had to be another troll. Or even two given it mentioned time shit.

Or...

The green and orange text begins to completely fill the chat window and you just stare at it. There’s a cadence to the messages that nags at you, pulling on a thread of recollection from a very important conversation. That, and the familiar heat radiating out from the weakened soul wrapped within the sprite code.

You really do hate stupid surprises.

Fur and feathers and heat and metal. All wrapped up in a desperate hope.

If this isn’t Dave’s 99% sure he’s dead sprite you’d eat your cape, hood and all.

Chapter Text

Was this a bad idea?

You aren’t sure.

You follow the sprite down, down, down. Out of the tower, down some stairs into the interior of the buildings surrounding your tower’s base. You couldn’t help but glance up, at the other tower with its dark windows and blue and pink shards and you suppress a shiver.

You want to ask ‘where are we going?’ but you don’t because you know the answer.

It was only logical when performing a task that could potentially cost someone their life, player or not.

Instead you just follow the glowing cloud as he drifted ahead of you, leading the way. The further down you go the faster the colors shift from orange to green to orange to green, sending lights dancing against the purple brick. As off putting as the constant shifting colors could be,you are rather thankful for it. Without them you would be nearly blind, only broken by the occasional dimly burning electrical panels which were spread few and far between along the passages. You suspect there are actually more panels filling those empty spaces, or there would be if anyone bothered to maintain the place. It’s in just as bad, or worse, shape as your towers. Crumbling stone and uneven steps are a dime a dozen, and if you hadn’t decided to skim the ground instead of walk you might have ended up with a broken neck on one of the many landings that briefly break up the passageways.

At least such a death would have only been temporary, but after your last brush with the game’s conditional mortality system the idea makes you feel the slightest bit ill.

timeausTestified [TT]: Do you really think it’ll work? Even if you were a player you aren’t one for this session.

Text was comforting. It prevented words from breaking up the heavy silence that lay over the passageway. No footsteps. No words.Just the ever present hum of energy radiating outward from the sprite.

turntechGodhead: B33 < actually i have no clue about that
turntechGodhead: B33 < ive been pawing through what i can access of the player data and everything im finding meow says it doesnt actually matter
turntechGodhead: B33 < im still coded as a player even if the whole sentient walkthrough thing overrides that template
turntechGodhead: B33 < tecniclawlity it should be a simple catter of remeoving the sprite template and holding the ball of yarn together long enough for the things to revert to the default
turntechGodhead: B33 < i could be from the myoon as long as the slab meowtches my aspect itll be ascension city
turntechGodhead: B33 < and thats assuming it does kill me it myight not
timeausTestified [TT]: Fair enough.
timeausTestified [TT]: You’re lucky you know the way. I died down here and I still don’t remember how it happened.
turntechGodhead: B33 < furtune aint got nothin to do with it bro
turntechGodhead: B33 < just taking advantage of my pawsome arsenal of sprite pawers while i gottem
turntechGodhead: B33 < theres maps buried in the servers most people just dont know how to access them.
timeausTestified [TT]: Sounds pretty useful.
turntechGodhead: B33 < purrhaps B3c

Down. Down. Down.

The hallway opens up, but the stairs remain barely wide enough for a person. You look down, noting the yawning darkness in the giant pit, with the staircase spiraling around the edge. There are actual working torches set into the wall, but a misplaced step here and youd have worse than a broken neck to worry about. It looks like a one-way plunge into a misty darkness.

turntechGodhead: B33 < hey bro

The sprite pauses, the strobe effect of the cast off light nearly vibrates with some sort of pent up energy. You pause too, letting your feet settle on the ground for the first time since you entered the stairwell. You quirk an eyebrow behind your shades, but the corresponding head tilt must have sold the acknowledgement because it wasn’t long before another message made your chat window flash.

turntechGodhead: B33 < nowhere to go but down B3

Then the sprite suddenly shoots off the pathway, hanging in the air above the pit for a moment. The formless fog shifts, arms--no feathers, remember? It’s probably wings--stretch away from the main mass, and then they tuck in close, and he dives. The fog shivers

The joyous shriek is audible even through the distortion, and reverberates in the large shaft, taking the colored light with it and leaving you doused in the comparatively dull yellow torch lights as a result.

What the hell. Why not.

He’s asking for it.

The force of your jump propels you into space, the wind of your passing ringing in your ears,tugging at your cape and hood. Gravity becomes nothing more than an afterthought and you kick into gear. You chase that distant orange and green light, plunging down, and down, and down.

The sprite was fast. But you’ve crossed the incipisphere in hours.

You blow past him with a smirk and small gesture, tossing your own message into the ring.

timeausTestified [TT]: Keep up now.
turntechGodhead: B33 < ch33tah! Using your god-pawers arent fair
timeausTestified [TT]: Says the one who took off before the race even started.
turntechGodhead: B33 < hey i gave mew plenty of notice its not my purroblem if youre slow on the uptake

You can’t help it. The rushing air whipping past you, the thrum of competition, the thrill of the adrenaline racing through your veins in an utterly harmless bit of fun.

You just let yourself enjoy the moment and fall, speeding through several hundred layers of spiral staircases and branching passageways. You don’t let yourself get too far away from the sprite, but you don’t let him close either, keeping the distance just enough to let him think hes gaining on you.

You may be going to the crypt.You may be leading the sprite to his death. But damn it you needed a moment like this. Like yesterday with Dave, just talking and laughing, a moment when you can let go.

Quite literally.

But the shaft  never levels off. Instead four shadows appear in the distance, suspended over a deep void. The stairs have long since vanished, and again you wonder how the hell you’d managed to get yourself here in the first place. Your dreamself could fly, you guess, and you’d lost your physical body at that point even if you’d gotten tired of wandering around in the derse dreamer outfit once you had the ability to upgrade your gear. But what about Jane and Jake? They’d ended up on their slabs on Prospit, and both of them had their dream selves assassinated even before the game started.

Another weird thing you could chalk up to cherub juju shit, you guess. Just throw it in the box with the hangover from hell along with an unholy sugar rush that drove your friends insane and dragged your stoic ass along for the ride.

Colored chains peek out of the darkness, purple, like the planet, strung up like some weird macabre version of holiday decorations.

In another session there’d been two. In another session you’d sat on the edge of a heart marked slab, clinging to your various communication devices and your friends in an attempt to navigate the clusterfuck of a situation you guys had ended up in.

In another session you’d died here.

But it wasn’t even the memories that stopped you cold in midflight, allowing the sprite to shoot past you before he realized what you’d done. There’s four slabs now. Maroon. Blue. Red. Yellow. Heart. Void. Time. Light. But they weren’t entirely empty.

Your seizure inducing companion squawks and pulls up beside you, the sensation of heat and fur and feathers surrounding you almost like a blanket, blocking out the small part of you that feels like it should be screaming, but instead just looks on helplessly

turntechGodhead: B33 < aw shit i was worried about this pawsibility

There was a body on one of the slabs. A large dark shape eclipsing the pink heart and making your stomach churn.

They are clad entirely in derse dreamer garb. Purple silks and puffy shoulders and slippers and all. But you recognize the upswept hair, the pointed shades, the build. It is the one you’d been trying to get used to in the mirror.

It’s him. Arrayed as if sleeping, with an all too familiar sword through the chest. It’s the one in your sylladex. The one you’d last seen protruding from your own. Dried blood crusted the slab surrounding him, darkened to a rust brown that stood out sharply against the cracked maroon stone.

You never understood that. Why do dreamselves bleed? They don’t need to eat, and yet they can. They don’t need to sleep, and yet they can. They don’t need to breathe , and yet you’ve often felt like you were suffocating.

A dream self is just another game construct. A second life for the player should they die prematurely. And yet…

The game took such pains to make it feel real.

timaeusTestified [TT]: How did the sword get here?
turntechGodhead: B33 < i s33 youve got your priorikitties straight
timaeusTestified [TT]: I just want to know how many copies of my katana are lying around, that’s all.
timaeusTestified [TT]: It cheapens the brand if it’s such a common item.
turntechGodhead: B33 < right and s33ing another dead dirk skewered on a quest bed in front of you isnt a purroblem at all
timaeusTestified [TT]: It’s...it just makes sense, is all. All the others had a dreamself merged with their godtier outfits. I don’t, so it had to be somewhere.

You just hadn’t expected it to be dead. But that sword was the one that pierced your chest, and the bells had sounded. Just.

It had killed you, striking at her true target using you as an intermediary. You wonder if you’d never gone to Roxy’s tower. If you’d found your way down here. Would this dreamer still have been dreaming?

turntechGodhead: B33 <
turntechGodhead: B33 < you really arent him huh

You tear your eyes away from the body, just an empty container. It had even less value than the splinter that had nestled itself into your soul. That had at least let you bridge the gap between the game and earth. This...was just a cast off. Probably intended to have been smashed together with you in an effort to make you fill that Dirk’s place.

timaeusTestified [TT]: Did you hope I was?
turntechGodhead: B33 < ...no i knew
turntechGodhead: B33 < i watched him die
turntechGodhead: B33 < I dont know if you noticed but not even the game can bring back the dead without very specific circumstances and most of those arent purrmenant
turntechGodhead: B33 < youre to him as I am to Dave at this point we started from the same blueprint and then hisstory and our choices dictated who we came to be
turntechGodhead: B33 < i wouldnt wish you to be stuffed in the template of a dead man any more than I envy psychomom her existence
turntechGodhead: B33 < mangled almost beyond recognition
timaeusTestified [TT]: It’s still Roxy in there. I know it.

turntechGodhead: B33 < the shards in the tower were more your roxy than psycho mom was dont kit yourself

You say nothing because he’s right and you hate yourself for it.

turntechGodhead: B33 < come on i need you to move him
turntechGodhead: B33 < i dont think i can stay corporal long enough right meow to do it myself
timaeusTestified [TT]: There’s another option, isn’t there?

You gesture to to the other three floating slabs. Blue, gold, and red. Void, Light, and Time.

Time.

turntechGodhead: B33 < theres already a knight of time running around bro
turntechGodhead: B33 < we n33d the rogue

It takes even less work than you expect. The moment you drift down to touch the body it shatters. A release of heat and metal, similar but quite the same to the feel you’ve gotten off Dave’s shards--and more recently, his sprite--plush fabric and mirrored glass. The red sparks of data dissolves and swirls around you, sinking into your exposed skin and slotting itself neatly into place in one of the unused partitions of your mind.

Soon only the sword remained, lying across the slab as if in some macabre funerary topper.

You don’t know what to think.

timaeusTestified [TT]: Why didn’t he ascend?

The sprite chirps a question back at you.

timaeusTestified [TT]: You said being THE player doesn’t matter. If he died on the quest bed shouldn’t it have worked for him, the way it should work for you? It’s one big heart aspect reunion down here.
turntechGodhead: B33 < mew dont n33d me to answer that bro

...no you suppose you don’t. Because while the splinter had been a dying star, this was nothing more than ash in your hands. You do what you always do, and clean your shit up.

You pick up the sword by the ribbon wrapped hilt. Dark blue, they’d been hidden by the body before, the hilt having been plunged in from behind at some point. You attempt to add it to your strife syllabus just so you can get it out of the way, but it throws a duplicate item error.

So you just, move it. It settles comfortably on Roxy’s quest bed, the fabric on the hilt matching almost perfectly to the color of the dark blue cracked stone. The sprite hovers down and then settles on the heart-marked slab. Just waiting.

“...you sure you want to do this?”

You loosen your hold on your powers. You can hear his soul singing.You can hear them all singing.

The sprite only fluctuates faster, trilling something that had to be  a “just do it already.”

The space surrounding you crackles with energy, sending the hairs on the back of your neck to stand attention. You wish you had the faith the sprite did. Your power is not a safe one. You can count the number of times you've used them on one hand, and never when you weren't trying to utterly destroy your enemy.

The idea of breaking to fix something…

Power singing through you, you take the plunge, diving into the sea of shifting in corporeal energy. The outer layers are the ones that flicker unceasingly between the orange and bright green, layers upon layers of spite templates and codework. But you cut through them like a hot knife through butter, the cocoon of code blossoming around you in an array of additional colors, giving way to the component bits of the mishmash of souls within. Fur and the thrill of the hunt, a bright, bubbly joy that radiates from dark green patches. Brushing against the darker red patches you find the heat and the sound of metal hitting metal, a ringing almost discordant sound, that settled into a thrumming beat the more you listened to it.  Black patches swirled into the red as the source of the feathers that rounded off everything. The corners where they touch they are blending nicely, shading from one particular core to the other, nearly a seemless healthy transition. Nothing like the jammed edges and illfitting placement you'd found peering into Dave's dreamself.

No. The problem wasn't getting the disparate pieces to connect. The problem was that t he artificial code not only encased everything in a thick outer shell, but was threaded through between the smaller pieces welding them all together with a buffer between them, not allowing them to create that healthy blend you can tell it desperately wants to.

You understand why the sprite wanted to do this, regardless. It's degrading even without your help. It was mixed up in the other colors, straining and pulling them apart one strand at a time

A clean break. That's what you need. But it's so entrenched in everything else you're worried it'll just all fall apart.

Stop lollygaggin bro. Just do it.

You find the largest concentration of green, since that's the layer closest to the surface of the tapestry of color, and you dig crackling energy in. Drowning in a world of colors and sound you block out the rest of the world. This might not be working with your hands but it's a puzzle that you have to fix.

The entire mass shudders as the red energy burns . You control it with a single minded focus, gripping the frayed edges of red and darker green to keep them from unraveling as your power hooks into the artificial sections and yank.

You can't spare a thought for the gaping holes you are leaving behind because if you stop and fret you'll freeze and you've got to keep going before everything unravels in your hands.

Chapter Text

Your name is Davepetasprite^2 and you are dying.

As dying as an incorporeal amalgamation of code and souls could be anyway. You don't mind the idea of it. You'd been fully willing to throw yourself against Lord English because it felt right. It felt like the you that you became was the exact you that you needed in order to finally fulfill your destiny. Part of you had died trying to avenge someone she loved, and the other part had doomed himself in order to save his best friend. You are no stranger to the idea of death, especially when it comes in the service of doing what you felt was right.

But what you do despise is the idea of dying for no reason. As an afterthought, a footnote in the annotations of the universe, shoved into obscurity because you didn't have a place where you could fit once it managed to pull itself together.

There'd been no sweet fade to black transition  for you. You were a sprite. Jacked in to the very processes of the game itself. You'd been able to feel everything as it shuddered to a halt. As the host-frog that made up the universe shuddered and died as a black-hole was created within its very heart. As the horror terrors who protected the boundaries screeched their dismay and gathered their awesome unfathomable power to channel it into one final gambit.

All sessions, win or lose, had an end. You'd known, deep in your connection to bullshit sprite knowledge that this wasn't it.

What happened next was beyond your perch in the food chain. You wonder if you could have understood it if your been a cubed sprite. Maybe if Nepetasprite had reached out and taken Jasprose's hand instead of Davesprite's, maybe they would have been able to understand the screeching contorting chaos as paradox space tried to bounce back and then bounced too far, dragging the rest of you screaming idiots along for the ride.

But even Jasprose was gone, devoured in the moment between nothing and everything, the game hungry to reclaim every single bit of itself to fuel the recreation of what had been destroyed. You'd been there. You'd felt it reaching into your soul, cold unfeeling hands digging into your code and scratching, tearing you apart because you didn't belong.

The universe didn't have a place for Davepetasprite^2.

But you were more than just soul and code and you'd already cheated the goddamn paradox space twice you wouldn't let it dictate your death again. You wanted to live. You wanted to be. You wanted to help your broirail when you hadn't been able to help either of them because they were devoured in the same way Jasprose had been. The same way Nannasprite was unraveled in front of you and you'd been unable to do nothing but refuse and run and run licking your wounds and trying to survive all with sburb haunting your every move.

You didn't want to fail again. You wanted to be able to help not to be told to stand on the sidelines while your meowrail was strangled in front of you.

You can't see anything anymore. The dark void of the crypt is lost in the frantic waves of energy rippling away from your body. You can't even see Bro anymore. But you feel him, oh God do you feel him, claws out and scratching and biting and tearing bits and pieces out of you leaving nothing more than shreds behind.

Shreds you cling to with everything you are and everything you've ever been and everything you want to be. Dave was a depressed bird douche whose only success had managed to doom him to obscurity and Nepeta was a shy footnote who hid behind personas and never had the chance to realize her potential much less go after what she wanted but they are both important to you because they are what makes you who you are.

You can't let them go. You can't.

The shreds knit together under the warmth of that belief, your unwavering faith in yourself and the will to survive rushing into the channels of space left behind by Dirk's destructive tidal wave. You feel yourself getting smaller, heavier, as the framework is systematically ripped away and filled back in by your own sheer stubborn unwillingness to let go. You'd almost forgotten what it felt like to have a body, to have mass, to even have more than a patch of fog that you could pull together for a moment before you lost it again. It hadn't even been a week and it had gotten to you.

Dirk was not gentle. It hurt like hell. But that was nothing compared to the constant pull and strain of the game tugging at your code, trying to pry it from your cold incorporeal paws. Succeeding, bit by bit, at pulling away chunks of you as well. Slowly working to unravel you as nothing more than a side effect.

That's the difference between bro and the game. The game didn't care that it yanked away chunks of who you are with the code that had bound two of you together and made you one. It didn't care about the delicate web of troll and human and bird. Dirk was rough but he kept it in hand, making almost surgically precise cuts along the edges of your soul, sealing up the fraying bits of red and green with a cauterizing heat just long enough for you to grasp at fraying edges and pull them tight, hissing and spitting in defiance of paradox space's cold indifference.

The game had already done so much damage, stalking you like a frightened hopbeast for days upon days. You lost your wings. You'd lost your claws. You'd even lost your voice.

You'd almost lost your hope. Drifting in the furthest ring, the game trying its damnest to snuff you out and stuff your sprites away in the cruxtruders to be re-prototyped in the future. But then you'd found your psycho mom and you'd known. You'd known things were horribly wrong. Yo could see her shattered self scattered around her, reflecting pieces back on each other like an array of fucking funhouse mirrors.

And she gave you something to do with your final few days.

And she led you to him.

The game may have tried its damnest to tear your soul to pieces, but Dirk succeeded in tearing it to pieces.

You can feel the cold stone beneath you. Fingernails claw against the cracks, digging and biting into solid matter as if it was butter. The burning is intense, spreading out from your heart, your core, and down your limbs as they solidify from the nebulous scraps of self you’d been reduced to. It’s almost jarring, alien, having weight and mass and a presence after so long that you find yourself lost amongst the sensations of the rough cracks against your skin, the searing heat radiating out from slab beneath you, juxtaposed to the chilling cold chafing your face. Your lungs are on fire, and you gasp. Only gasping and coughing require not entirely blocked airways and you have none, or do you have too many?

You stretch yourself and eyes open and you see double, bro--Dirk--standing over you holding orange and green fire in his hands, the light blazing skyward in a stream of data, being drawn away, drawn out, the kernel sprites returning to wherever the fuck they waited until the cruxtruders were deployed. Dave's and Jake's, your saviors and your doom and they are leaving--

You spasm, back arching away from the slab that's now burning hot. It's so hot you instinctively try to get away, but something slams you down. Rough hands grip your shoulders pressing them back down against stone, knocking your head back against the quest slab with the force of the movement.

It's Dirk. The fire is blazing around his hands, throwing his face into a light show of orange and green and dark sharp shadows. It reflects in his shades, the mirrored lenses giving you your first true glimpse of what you've gotten yourself into.

White hair and grey skin and a deep gaping slash through your throat, leaking a thick green mucus in gushing waves that echoed with every pump of your recreated heart. And you could feel your heart working, hammering in your chest, lungs burning. No wonder you couldn't talk. You couldn't breathe.

Doomed Dave might have been whole and alive, but Nepeta had been beheaded. That had to go somewhere

A dreamer might have been able to survive this. A dreamer didn’t need to breathe. But you are viscerally aware of your physicality after so long being nothing more than data. Your vision began to fade as your heart continues to pump, pushing the green blood out of the gash in your neck.

“I'm sorry.” the quiet words somehow made it to you over your silent gasps. The hands released you, but you understood.

Fire wreathed hands raised, sword silhouetted against the streams of data that had once been a part of you.

Then it came down.

You can't help but let out a choked out laugh as the sword drove into your chest, like a piece of yourself sliding home. Even that goddamn bird had to have his fun.

Looks like you’ll need that extra life after all.

Chapter Text

Eventually you come to your senses. You always had the faintest idea of how it would feel to ascend, considering the number of Daves and Nepetas out there who had died and been reborn at one point or another in their personal timeline. But it had always been in an almost academic manner, a story told to you by someone else, rather than having lived it yourself.

And ooh boy had you ever misjudged it.

Instead of the rush of peace and belonging you'd felt after prototyping your other half, you felt drained. Almost as if you'd been stretched to the breaking point and then stuffed back into a container far too small for what you'd become.

Part of that was probably the result of the fact that you hadn 't been embodied at all less than an five minutes ago, and you hadn't had the ability to get physically tired in three goddamn years.

As a result, your ascension was hardly awe inspiring or even dignified. The moment you were no longer being buoyed by the requisite light-show that comes along with the whole process you dropped like a stone. You would have crashed straight through the remnants of the stone tablet, which had broken into the most undignified floating chunks under the subatomic bomb of aspect filled energy you'd released, and probably kept falling straight into the moon’s core.

You would have, if Dirk hadn't just reached out and grabbed a hold of something long and attached to you that yanked you backup the moment you hit the length limit. The whiplash sent your head rocking backwards with a force that probably would have snapped a human's neck if you'd still been human at all.

Instead you just let your head loll. Too tired to bother.

You can still feel the phantom burn of Dirk's power rampaging through you. The weight of your limbs, gravity defying God-tier bullshit or not, felt like stones attached to your torso.

It was just so different and you'd used up all the energy you had even getting to this point.

“So I can dig the feathers,” the carefully drawled words came from above you, “but you don't look much like a rogue in that cape.”

Cape?

You twist in the air. Or you try too, and instead get tangled in your wings. Wings . You forget about Dirk for a moment because a sheer wave of excited joy rushes through you. It's your wings !

Wings were the one thing Davesprite had enjoyed about his situation, and you'd resented the game so much from taking them from you. They aren't the creamsicle tasting orange you remember, but the glossy dark green almost black feathers curled around you as you run your claws through long arm-length flight feathers, carefully shifting and searching for the slightest bit of dirt, following distant instincts from the part of you that had been a particularly rambunctious crow. Gonna preen this shit.

Although it's dumb. They wouldn't be dirty you literally just got them but you can't help but marvel at the shiver the motion sends shooting through the limb. You're so dang distracted that you forget about gravity, and with that accidental denial of physics you find yourself floating instead of falling.

A pointed cough catches your attention and you feel your face grow warm but you can’t help the toothy stupid grin spreading across your face. You’re goddamn blushing this is the best thing ever, you suck in a deep breath the way Nepeta used to imitate Pounce de Leon, getting ready to purr the shit out of this business--

A sharp stab in your throat, and you double over, because something isn’t working right. You feel like you need to cough but nothing’s coming out. It’s just a trapped pressure, like you’d swallowed a gobstopper and just couldn’t get it loose. Minus the whole suffocating part anyway since you didn’t need to breathe, thank frog, although you feel like your brain should start to panic at that realization but honestly you’d been non-physical for so long it’s really only the phantom memory from those all too brief minutes bleeding out on the slab that really get you going.

Clawed fingers clamp tightly to your throat, searching. No blood. No gash. The ascension had healed the wound in your neck the same way it’d healed the one in your chest that’d finally killed you but there’s still something wrong.

Cold hands catch yours, and pry them away carefully. You’re suddenly aware of Dirk in your face, his cool expression slightly scrunched and nagging at old memories. “Let me look.”

You let him pull your hands down, and bare your neck to him in a way that causes something in the back of your mind to arch its back and hiss. It startles you, and Dirk pulls back at the small flinch that sneaks through in your surprise.

Trying to figure out how to mime an apology is a trip and a half. He's your bro. Even if from another time line, and he already killed for you, you should be cool with him having your life in his hands because he already did it and succeeded. 

"it's alright. I can see from here.” Then after a moment he just nods, letting go of your hands completely, “There’s a scar where the wound was, right across here.” He traces the arc clumsily on his own skin, “Right where it transitions from troll grey to a more human skin tone. I doubt the game had a good blueprint for...all of you. It might have messed something up in the reconstruction.”

You scowl at that, exaggerating the expression the best you can because you are irritated. Paradox space must be laughing it up right now, patting itself on the metaphysical back at sticking its little revenge pinky into the pie that is your victory. Well. It could be worse.

“Can you still access Pesterchum?”

You shake your head, miming a typing motion in the air.

“Right. Not a sprite anymore.”

As a sprite you had access to a lot of UI elements you just...don’t have anymore. You feel a pang of loss as you think of the emptiness behind you, holding close the glimpses you’d seen of other Daves, other Nepetas, the memories that had been the one thing to finally soothe your ruffled feathers and let you let go a lot of the emotional baggage you’d been lugging around for well more than three years.

As a squared sprite they’d always lurked behind you, a silent set of hands to catch you and wells of experience to draw on, and the knowledge that, triumphs or fuck ups, they all had a part to play in the grand scheme of things.

You’d expected to lose that connection when you became embodied, the partitions between you and all your other selves going back up to keep your experience as linear as can be expected from someone who’d once been a knight of time. If you thought about it, even that was linear to your own personal timeline. It just got screwy for everyone else.

Well! At least you had your memories, and the conviction that they were out there somewhere, even if you couldn’t reach them anymore. Not even this set back was going to ruin your good mood dang it. You’d won even if paradox space had thrown in a final fuck you wrench into the wring like a spoiled man rotten aristocrat. 

While you are indulging in inner monologue, Dirk seems to be growing more and more uncomfortable with the situation. After a time he sighs, “We need to figure some way for you to communicate. If we could find parts I could make something...”

Another section of awkward silence. You frown and shake your head, reaching out and brushing against one of the faint red shards idly floating around him, and then make a sharp motion up. He shudders and takes a metaphorical step back in the air, tension in his shoulders, “Don’t.”

You gesture up again, toward the shaft that led out of the crypt and back to the surface of Derse’s moon. Frustrated. In return for his help you’d promised to help with the shard problem you should probably help with the shard problem before those got worse.

“Playing charades is just going to make it harder to work together.” He snaps back in equal frustration. “I’ve got…” There’s a pause as he’s probably checking the time on his fancy as hell shades. ARquiusprite said he’d lived in those shades, and you know he’s been typing to you this whole time without a keyboard and you are now absurdly jealous. It hadn’t matter so much as a sprite since you could just jack straight into the program but... “Probably another four, five hours before Dave wakes up. Nowhere near enough time for both of us to learn sign, since I assume you don’t know it--” You cheerfully shake your head.

You are enjoying this. Watching the gears turning behind those pointy shades of his. You’d never really had the chance to do so before. You’re also faintly touched. If the last hour has taught you anything he’s clearly more comfortable in a text medium than speaking, and here he is monologuing at you for your benefit.

Some small remnant of who Davesprite was is watching bitterly and wishes his Bro had been more like Dirk. The you that you are now just decides to appreciate the effort he’s putting into it.

“Our best bet is pesterchum.” He finishes with a shrug. You mime typing again, and then point at him, with a questioning head tilt added at the end for emphasis. “No, I don’t have a spare computer. They were all in my house with the alchemeter. I assume those won’t be on my planet anymore if the overall game state reset, and I have no reason to believe otherwise. All the deviations so far have been player related. If we can find somewhere with a bunch of electronics I might be able to scavenge enough parts to make something .” Fingers clutched at the puffy pants of his god-tier outfit, then deliberately released, smoothing out the fabric, “I don’t remember any of our consorts being particularly technologically inclined.”

Electronics...

That nags at something buried beneath three years of memories, from both sets of them. From Dave, the irritated recollection of several internet trolls harassing your friends through time and space. From Nepeta, a stress filled day spent hunkered down in the belly of a meteor, the time only really broken with working on your shipping wall, and occasionally finding time to roleplay through time and space through--

The lightbulb goes off above your head and you try to purr in satisfaction. It comes out an embarrassing squeak that has Dirk’s attention on you in a second as the blockage in your throat shifts ever so slightly.

The exhaustion still drags at you, but having a purpose, an idea to help gives you a sudden burst of energy. You don't even bother trying to mine an explanation before you set your sights on the shaft leading back to the surface, and from there, to the Veil. Those thousands of meteors orbiting the incipispheres. If memory serves, on a few of them there are honest to frog ecto labs. If Dirk wants electronics, those are probably his best bet. 

You don’t need to flap your wings to fly, but you want to so you use a downward sweep to start your forward momentum, stretching muscles that you’ve both always had in some form, but at the same time never truly had. You ignore his startled exclamation as you climb, knowing from the race earlier that he can easily catch up to you if he wanted to. And he’ll follow you no problem.

The rushing of Derse’s atmosphere feels real against your face, tugging at white hair you can barely see peeking around the edges of your shades. But it’s also tugging at something else, fabric, something you’d barely noticed until you’d started moving. You crane your neck to peer over your shoulder, looking past the beautiful black expanse of your wings only to see something flapping out of the corner of your eye.

Huh. You do have a cape.

Rad.

It kinda ruins your plans, but hey, you can appreciate the advantage of comfy as hell uniforms and rad super hero capes.

Now you just needed to figure out what the hell a knight of heart could do and how you can use this to fulfill your promise. You had time, there were a LOT of meteors to check in the Veil around Derse.

Chapter Text

The timer you set is counting down constantly in the corner of your vision, marching ever onward. Normally you’d be comfortable budgeting until at least noon before Dave got hungry enough to venture out into the living room, but given the request for training it forces you to push up the time-table some. Da--the former sprite would probably know when the normal window of time would be, having lived through that life once, but you can’t really think of an easy way to ask.

Asking would be admitting you don’t have shit under control.

So. Sunrise it is. If you’re lucky that’ll give you time to spare if he doesn’t get up right away.

You’ve already lost an hour of that time, frustratedly following the bird-winged alternate version of your splinterself’s younger brother as he gallivanted through the ring of meteors, getting further and further away from Derse. It’s frustrating because you don’t know what exactly he is looking for . So you can’t help and make the search more efficient and are instead stuck trailing behind like some lost puppy, which is ironic as hell considering he appears to also be part cat.

You know god-tier ascension had some bullshit excuse of creating an ideal self , which is why half the dream trolls you’d witnessed following Roxy around through dream bubbles had butterfly wings of all things, but you find it hard to believe anyone’s ideal self would be like...part cat, part bird, part troll, part boy and who knows what else. It sounded like someone’s entry level roleplay character.

Then again, prototyping shenanigans. It’s not like he intended half this shit.

As the former sprite--you can’t just call him Dave, it’s pretty damn obvious there’s more to it. Plus there’s a Dave waiting for you and you already have your own Bro this is making your head hurt and it’s not like you had reason to ask what he called himself before and now you couldn’t get an answer if you did--swoops down into the shadow of a crater pocked meteor you find yourself wondering how the other prototyping shenanigans might have resulted, had they have been similarly embodied and raised up to conditional deity-ship.

Carefully not wondering if you would have seen your face staring back at you behind broken shades, or just another troll you never met before his lifeless head got chucked into your kernel sprite. And also not considering the idea that you would have preferred one option over the other.

At least you can pretend to be useful while mapping the way using H--your shades, filling in the minute details, such as meteor size and placement, you hadn’t bothered to catalogue while looking for Derse.. At least the knight was only going for meteors that are above a certain size threshold, you note as you track him from one to the next without your eyes. What is he looking for?

You feel him better than you can see him, even that shockingly white hair was lost in the black on grey of a world without skaia, and you are far enough away from Derse that the cast-off light from the planet’s city-scape is but a distant memory. But that radiant soul blazed out across your senses like a beacon, somehow even brighter than before despite getting torn to literal shreds.

Or maybe you’re just better at sensing that shit since you were the one to do the tearing in the first place. While you are a bundle of knife edges surrounding a core of steel, just as liable to cut yourself or anyone else, the former sprite felt...sturdy. You can still see those bits, those shards of color you had to tear apart, but in the spaces you’d torn free there’s something new building, as the edges rub against each other they catch and cool and blend without the sprite framework acting as a roadblock.

Needless to say it makes him easy to follow, even if he had a tendency to dart off without warning.

You trail behind as he flits to and fro, ducking around meteors to appear again out of a shadow and giving you a cheerful wave. Things settle into a rhythm, with you never letting yourself lag too far behind, but not really feeling like keeping up, filling out your electronic map of the of the meteor field. You’re fairly certain this shit isn’t scientifically sound at all. Orbiting this close together--wouldn’t they have smashed shit to pieces by now?

It’s only when you notice that he’s gone for more than a few moments that you perk up and follow that bright spot in your senses, around a wall of large-but-not-quite-standard hunks of rock that had been acting to block your way before. There you see it. It’s a shadow looming in the depths of space, windowless grey steel rising from an impact filled surface. Your shade’s scanners outline the barely visible silhouette in red, showing signs of even more structures jutting out from all sides, indicating it’s likely a single huge structure that encompases the entire core of the meteor. Otherwise the damn thing probably would have fallen apart from the weight.

...Either that or it’s a game construct that defies even the questionable laws of physics that rule this dimension. But even if that’s the case, that means this is something the game has deemed important.

And you’ve never seen a structure like this before.

The former sprite’s presence is radiating from within one of the steel buildings, so you begin your descent. However you’ve barely touched your dainty green slippers down on the loose meteoric regolith that covered the surface before you see something flashing orange in the corner of your shades.

Pesterchum. With a thought you dismiss the mapping software and allow pesterchum resource priority, although you make sure to leave a subroutine tracking Derse’s orbit so you don’t end up chasing it on the way back again.

The window opens to the oddly comforting sight of orange and green text.

turntechGodhead [TG] began pestering timaeusTestified [TT]

turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < ah hell yes finally sw33t sw33t communication how i have missed th33
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < get your princely self in here bro theres more than enough gadgets for equius to build a purrfectly comfurtable sl33ping pile so im sure youll find something useful
timaeusTestified [TT]: How did you know this was out here?
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < that gaping slash in my neck? Got it in one of these
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < take the mane entrance and there should be a transpurrtalizer and itll lead you to the observation deck
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < just dont touch anything yet i n33d to figure out if well n33d this shit for ectokitten shenanigans

You find the main entrance easy enough, especially once you pick up the depressions left by the former-sprite’s wing tips lightly brushing the fine soil, trailing after shoe prints perfectly preserved in the atmosphere less environment. Even folded the damn things were taller than he was. Beyond the gaping doorway ran a long, dark hallway rimmed in dark seamless steel. You consider reinitializing your scanner to see if it can pick up the edges enough for you to avoid walking into a wall, but then decide it wouldn’t work without a whole object. They weren’t made for this.

But you did have your tomb-raiding gear groove row, and decaptchalogue the hooded lantern again, letting the light play along the metal walls. You were wrong, there were seams in it, metal panels bolted to the walls with small rivets that you hadn't seen in the fuzzy land of greys and black low light conditions reduced them to. There even appear to be unpowered lights located near the corner where the roof met the walls, arrayed at regular intervals along the pathways. It’s...not entirely unlike the passageway that led into the crypt, if you swapped out crumbling purple brick for smooth unweathered metal.

timaeusTestified [TT]: It doesn't appear to be powered. How did you get a computer running?
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < we hid from crazy dog jack in here if the lights on the outside were on the cat would have b33n out of the bag quicker than you can twitch a whisker at it
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < trapped like rats but hey at least there was wifi
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < i dont think this place is supposed to be found by flying through space anyway not with how jam packed the field is i just knew what to look fur.

You hum noncommittally, fully aware that he couldn't hear you, and subtly pick up the pace. It's not that the darkness and the silence and the tunnel that goes on and on unnerves you, it's just that you are wasting time. The restless energy was returning with a vengeance now that you understood what the knight had been intending with this little sidetrack, and the sense of urgency was beginning to creep back in as you checked your self imposed timer. An hour and a half gone out of your five hour window.

turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < this is giving me some major deja vu though!!! it looks like the interface karkitty and the others used to use to troll us
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < woah
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < wow

You’d normally expect another instantaneous continuation to that thought, but the window stayed grey, so you prompt it.

timaeusTestified [TT]: What is it?
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < just some self revelation going on in here no biggie
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < apparently my old rp partner was actually *myself*

You can’t help but field the urge to sigh.

turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < the timfeline feathures busted by the way
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < i wonder what would happen if i could just pick an arbitrary time frame and just trolled someone though
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < just like
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < started all *ac saunters up to you stroking their whiskers and starts purring their heart out in a hey its been a while gr33ting :33*
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < jade might go along with it
timaeusTestified [TT]: Dave.
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < dont worry! dont worry! i wont! i dont wanna get dave in trouble its his reputation on the line
timaeusTestified [TT]: Who were they?
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < what
timaeusTestified [TT]: The other you. I know Dave. I never met the troll.
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < oh
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < her name was nepeta
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < its not like i can just reach into my brain and pull out a tinder profile for you to read you gotta figure this shit out organically man this isnt speed dating
timaeusTestified [TT]: Data.
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < what??
timaeusTestified [TT]: Just a guess.
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < are you trying to guess my name???
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < aw bro you could have just asked instead of acting all coy and shit
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < its davepeta
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < thatd make a sw33t nickname though i dig it too bad im not a sprite any more itd be 120 purrcent more fitting being all jacked into the matrix and having a walking database shoved in my skull
timaeusTestified [TT]: You literally just slammed your names together.
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < youre expecting me to be subtle???
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < mr im gonna word vomit all over your chat window about whatever inane thought crosses my mind except when it comes to the real shit plus ms im gonna roleplay out my fantasies beclaws i cant deal with reality and act all hyper bubbly and shit because i dont know how to communicate without it?
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < im tired of hiding shit
timaeusTestified [TT]: Touche.
timaeusTestified [TT]: If you’re this into sharing does this mean we’re on the second date?
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < more than that bro were going steady if im shoving all my skeletons out of the closet to make room for mew moving in and getting all domestic and shit
timaeusTestified [TT]: ...you realize we’re related right?
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < its called metaphor bro whats the point in indulging in it if mew cant traipse over a few societal taboos besides i meant it in a totally pale wanna paw and shoosh your face way
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < hah dave would be trying to extract his paw from his noisehole at this point but i just find it hissterical
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < it really does make you realize how dumb some things are when you go and look at it from another perspective that never grew up with half the shit we think of as normal

It felt like forever, but eventually you find the round device set into a branching of paths, a familiar rune carved into the metal and humming with quiet potential. With a sigh you recaptchalogue the lantern using its corresponding rhyme and take a step up onto the raised circular dias, closing your eyes as you do so.

The shiver of having your entire body deconstructed is not one that you will ever forget. It always reminds you of your first experience. Your first real brush with death. The red miles tearing your home to shreds and your friends dying across time and space, and a red hot need to save them, save Jake, burning through your veins. It hadn't been the last time you'd lost your head, sending it soaring through time and space, but it certainly wasn't an experience you'll ever forget. Ever since you can't use one of these things without your throat tightening and your jaw clenching and just bracing yourself against something that will never come.

You kn ow that happened because you'd stuck your head in a microwave-sized box meant to send small objects , while actual physical pads like the ones you just used are made to transport full bodies. But one of the failings of your meatbag organic brain was occasionally falling into illogical thought patterns in the presence of specific stimuli, so you react anyway and don't relax until your molecules stop vibrating and settle back into the physical plane where they belong.

You peel your eyes open. It's bright , but only really in comparison to what you've grown used to in the veil and on derse. The overhead lights are objectively fairly dim, but you can see a large array of other transportalizers surrounding the one you'd arrived on, likely leading to other parts of the complex. The knight hadn't mentioned taking another jump so you instead find the one pathway leading out, leading toward the bright patch of color that burned on the edge of your senses. Much, much closer now. How deep inside the structure were you?

The hallway opens up into a large room, ringed in computer consoles and monitors. You easily spot da--Davepeta's giant bird wings folded against his--hers?--their back, feathers still  barely brushing the dusty floor even from where they were perched on a stool. They didn't so much as twitch in your direction as you entered, just the click clack of claws on keys pausing in their rhythm as the chat window blinks to life again.

turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < the consoles in this room should be safe to scavenge all the impurrtant shit looks like its downstairs
timaeusTestified [TT]: What is this place?
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < ectobio lab responsible fur creating and s33ding paradox clones
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < john took care of it fur us
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < karkitty had many shouty words about it too but most of what i picked up was from john because he wouldnt shut up about being a slime daddy to jade and i just kind of absorbed it by proxy because she would just ask me so many questions
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < as if I had all the answers just because I was from the future
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < meownths might have passed but we never got that far beclaws he got himself killed off
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < anyway did someone n33d to play baby daddy for your litter of slime-clones?
timaeusTestified [TT]: Considering we did fuck-all aside from climb escheladders and screw up our relationships before your crew arrived I’m going to assume the correct answer is no one did. My knowledge of ecto-biological fuckery is purely theoretical.
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < what really???
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < how long were mew guys in the game again
timaeusTestified [TT]: Six months.
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < six meownths and noone found a transpurrtalizer??
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < john stumbled into that shit inside a day
timaeusTestified [TT]: Void session, remember? The game likely didn’t bother putting one in. We didn’t have a battlefield, or prototyping towers, or quest beds on our own planets, or even consort quests. Hell even our denizens were long dead we got the short end of every stick.
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < oh shit thats right
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < well then welcome to one of your potential litterdens

It doesn’t seem particularly awe-inspiring to you, but you are intrigued nonetheless. Carapacians as a whole didn’t seem to be the most technologically advanced species given how malleable they’d been towards the Batterwitch’s reign on earth, and being reduced to cramped sea-dwelling slum cities, and yet here you were, standing in a lab devoted to creating the paradox clones that had or will one day be sent to create your brother and yourself. How would the scratched universes effect that? Did the same clone create both yourself and Dave’s Bro?

It’s an ache, deep in your heart, under lock and key, that keenly wishes Roxy were here. Not the creature of broken glass and bleeding edges, but the one you knew and grew up with. She’d been playing with this shit since birth, she’d know what the fuck was going on. Or at least be better situated to understand it.

Give you something mechanical and you’d be all over it. Biology was messy.

turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < okay before mew end up elbow d33p in wires i n33d to check on your shards
You pause in your examination of one of the consoles. You’d been mostly ignoring them, letting them linger out of sight but not quite out of mind. Just the memory of  glimmers where once embers had burned.

timaeusTestified [TT]: Would that even do any good?
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < cant hurt can it? i found you toys to dismantle to get your mind off shit so let me finish my job

You raise an eyebrow at that but don’t comment on the strange phrasing. You really are just learning to roll with it, aren’t you? They doesn’t seem inclined to leave their perch, and really it wouldn’t make sense to leave considering they needed the keyboard to communicate and it’s already logged in. You don’t even need that much convincing, despite the unease anything messing with your soul causes to bubble up, because really this had been the bargain afterall. Your help for his.

Their touch is kitten soft and gentle, but not the least bit hesitant. You stiffen immediately having someone else reaching into that jagged space, at the brush of self-to self. They may not be physically connected, but the points where they broke off hum, reflecting the worried curiosity that sends a shiver up your spine.

It’s much more pronounced now that the person they’d become had some time to settle into themself. As a sprite that touch had been whispy and nebulous, like a chilly night fraught with the potential for static energy. You resist the urge to pull away because it’s only fair. You had to delve into their core in order to fulfill your part of the bargain. You can deal with some surface level scrutiny it was cool. This was nothing, even if the thought of being so vulnerable had you wanting to break out in hives.

They make that odd squeaking noise again and then scowls, lips pulling back to give you a good look at those odd oversized canines. Not quite shark teeth like the blind troll you’d briefly met before she absconded to let you and Dave air your shit, but full blown fangs. Trolls were strange.

A quick turn, feathers puffing up with agitation and they’re typing furiously away at the computer again.

It was just so strange to see such an openly expressive Strider. Between your Bro’s charming, but careful handling of the public sphere, and Dave’s habitually guarded nature around you, you’d started to wonder if it was even possible.

turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < i think we need to talk about what those shards are and why you have your paws on them
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < they dont s33m to be grinding against your edges like psychomoms were which is good but your soul *is bleeding from where they were yanked out
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < they dont s33m to fit with well anything
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < the rhythm is wrong its too dissonant against the rest of you but it obviously is since i litterally saw it snap off and shatter when she killed you and even as a sprite i was able to hold them together with you while i got you out
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < out with it whered you find them

You cross your arms and let the shards fade back into the glimmers they were.

timaeusTestified [TT]: You saw the debris cloud?
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < considering i was swept out with the trash duh!

You think back. Back to empty darkness and rainbow glimmers dotting the space as far as the eye could see. Of heat and familiarity and finding something just close enough to snap into that blank part of your soul. Something still alive where that body was not. With the keen power of hindsight you take that moment and rewind it. It hadn’t been what you’d found first. It’d been attached to a thread, leading away from something that you’ve grown quite familiar with. Heat and metal and a city of glass and rotting air.

timaeusTestified [TT]: I didn’t know what they were. Everything was just very raw and overwhelming and all the edges--they were gone. It left...gaping holes open. I wasn’t really thinking the clearest at the time, and headed for the first thing that felt familiar. I picked one and followed it, and found myself on earth in Dirk Strider’s body. When I found my way back, it just kind of stuck there.  
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < ...so what happened to the body when it shattered?

You shrug again, mentally composing the message while you do.

timaeusTestified [TT]: Now you understand why I need a solution before Dave wakes up. He didn’t react well the first time.
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < holy shit
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < i thought you were like me and stuck on this side of nothing till the game started but no you need to be the *responsible adult* for shorty back there!
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < im gonna take another look to see if i can figure out *what* those shards are cuz it sure aint bros soul that thing was gone long before we got pounced on none of us were supposed to survive either if jade hadnt pulled some amawzing witchy voodoo to get us out of there
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < im rambling again ok just sit down and bring em out

You ease onto the stool at the console next to him, deliberately turning away and focusing on the dimly glowing screen. You suppress the shiver caused by his claws on your edges again, burying it in the curiosity intent on the strange interface before you. It’s modeled after pesterchum, and you find the login-screen accepts your credentials easily, pulling up a copy of your friend’s list (with its single lone occupant) as well as several new features you don’t recognize. With a thought you mute pesterchum on your shades, a keyboard and mouse feeling awkward in your slim teenaged hands instead of the big adult ones.

There’s some sort of locked memo function that you ignore for now, but you do find the timeline feature dave--Davepeta mentioned. There are eight tabs, each punched with the aspect symbols corresponding to the members of your player group. You hover over the one that’s the most familiar to you.

And click. The broken pink heart flashes on the small window and a sprawling line stretches from one end of the screen to another, the occasional points of note bookmarked by large spikes of activity and a small sburb spirograph pattern next to it. There are three interrupting the long line, and you pick one near the beginning to click on.

Nothing. Just a black screen.

You skip to the next.

It’s a crater in the ruins of a record shop, a smoking meteor, and a young man leaning over a much smaller bundle, tiny infant sized shades in his hands. You freeze. It isn’t a movie, just a snapshot. But if you hit the arrow key would it keep going?

It must have been noticeable, because you feel Davepeta’s probing presence draw back, and then the typing begins.

It pops the pesterchum window open over top the small display.

turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < huh is that what happened? trust him to go straight for the shades
timaeusTestified [TT]: You didn’t look?
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < nah at least not more than i n33ded to realize things were more or less the same as i remember from daves life
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < if you try to hit purresent day or furture it just locks up tighter than a childproof lock on the catnip
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < none of it happened anyway bro
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < i was conscious for the big rebound it wasnt like some thirteen billion years worth of universal time going by in a flash and playing out histories and shit on fast forward
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < just...old prerecorded data and you cant interact with it outside of linearity i tried
timaeusTestified [TT]: It would be too easy for the game to give us all the answers like this, wouldn’t it? Is none of this even real then? Just some pre-constructed bullshit intended to ensure we can continue the breeding cycle of some cosmic amphibian entity that doesn’t want to keel over and die without making little tadpoles?

There’s a huff from beside you, the weight of someone else’s presence is comforting right now in the face of all this history you don’t know and aren’t a part of.

turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < the world out there is just as real as its ever been bro it went live the moment we began to exist and maybe paradox space has a plan but im a pro dealing with those and ive got some fancy as hell new claws itching to shred some plans
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < maybe im in a unique pawsition here being intimately familiar with daves of all stripes but
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < f33l fr33 to correct me if im wrong but you wouldnt be here with that timer ticking down in your head if you werent determined to make life better for *this* dave right? Screwy universe bullshit aside

They're right damnit.

Okay. You bury your face in your palms and press, glasses a firm pressure against your temples. Okay. You can do this.

There’s an odd gurgling sounds from your left, and a small pat on the side of your face not taken up by hands and eyeware. Kitten soft, claws curled into the fist to reduce the chance of accidental knicks.

Then typing.

You ease your hands down, your vision returning in a sluggish haze, blinking at the flashing window in front of you.

turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < theres an alchemeter station two floors down if you whip me up a pair of those rad as hell mindreading shades we can be out the door and hunting furreaky not-bro shards in less than ten minutes ive got their scent now so we should be able to find *something*

You can’t help the wan smirk in response to that.

timaeusTestified [TT]: No dice bro unless you’ve got a copy of your brain captchalogued somewhere. These shades are far too expensive for you to afford.
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < haha very funny get meoving

Chapter Text

It started with just the occasional twinkling breaking up the darkness of space, the promise of distant stars if only you could reach far enough. It dragged you back to your rooftop in the middle of the ocean, laying down on warm concrete and trying to pick out the pinpricks of light beyond the general haze of the atmosphere.

You only went up on hazy nights. Clear nights were almost overwhelming with nothing to block the sheer scale of the universe, hundreds of millions of stars, stretching from flat horizon to horizon, rivers of gas and clouds breaking up the sky in a world without people and their distractions. As you got old enough to start thinking about the implications of being a single human person in that sea of celestial objects, you stopped going up to the roof after sundown, haze or no.

You’d thought a lot about your place in the world, in history, growing up. Never once would you have considered you’d be here , floating in the depths of space surrounded by stars in their own right.

Nothing changed out beyond the furthest ring. It was a desolate void where even the terrors no longer reside. Once there had been hundreds of bubbles to wander through, floating in the dreams of beings beyond any intention you had to understand. No longer. It’s just a graveyard, a field of empty space and sharp edges and trash the program no longer needed. It hadn’t changed since you’d been through a week before, but the experience is entirely different, and it had everything to do with you. When you last passed through here you were closed off, single mindedly focused on getting away, getting back to your friends, refusing to acknowledge that your friends are here.

They crowded around you now, fulfilling a younger you’s nightmare of drowning in that far off river, currents pushing and pulling you in different directions, hundreds maybe thousands of different voices just on the edge of your hearing.

Your time amongst the remnants in Roxy’s dream room has you recognizing her immediately, whether pink or blue or a plethora of other colors, scattered across space and joining the slow orbit the river makes around the incipisphere. This one right here glistens under your touch, and brushing against the edges brings to mind the soft meows of cats and hands running through fur and quiet giggles.

But you don’t allow yourself to linger, remembering the pleasant hum shifting to incoherent warning chimes, heralding the shadow in the window of Derse’s sky.

You aren’t here for Roxy, you remind yourself, ignoring your unconscious brain’s attempts to drag you back to that time, with the sharp pain of the sword through your chest and the bells tolling in your head, over and over. Roxy isn’t even the only ones here.

You’ve been at it for--you don’t know how long now, and you need to check the countdown you have going to even get an estimation going. Hour and a half to find the meteor lab. Even going at full speed after that it had taken you at least three to reach even the trailing edges of the cloud. You and Davepeta had even split up to search better, knowing sunrise was almost here. The former sprite promised they had the feel of the shards memorized, but that still nagged at you, worried you. Because you hadn’t found these ones first.

A thread.

There’d been something else first.

Damn it.

A resonance, you remember that much. Proximity that made the edges of your jagged soul sing long before you found it. Nothing more than a splinter of memory.

But each single one of these fucking things were bits and pieces of fucking memories. The feelings and experiences and growth that didn’t fit the jury-rigged amalgamations of dreamer and game data asleep on Derse. Downright pedestrian shit like Roxy buried in her goddamn cats. Dark green glimmers that make your heart hurt because it’s Jake’s boisterous enthusiasm and the deep, wild smell of living things and the cry of wild beasts. The sweet sweet scent of what you can only imagine is freshly baked goods, the warmth of pride as guiding and protective hands made the first slice into a cake.

The only things fucking missing were the sea air and the smell of oil and the soft beat of music when you allowed yourself to relax. Then you could make a goddamn set.

And those are only the ones you can access. Those are the ones your heart knows well enough to decrypt the syntax encoding them. For every shred of your friends you find there are ten, twenty, thirty more. Davepeta was probably going through hell dealing with their own set with their newly bolstered abilities, fielding shreds from two lives torn apart and set adrift.

Three years and 16 years worth of shards of memory, flushed out into the river of stars above a black sea.

The red timer ticks down, down, down as you try to make as methodical as a sweep as possible. It isn’t a hard deadline by any means, but it works as a sharp reminder. A steady crescendo of anxious energy pushing you further and deeper into the cloud. Your friends sing out quiet greetings to you as you pass, and you’re even starting to pick up Dave’s, you think, as you pass a particularly warm glimmer that tries to push you away, that same heat and discordant metal hitting metal you’d picked up from digging through Davepeta’s code.

Davepeta themself was too far away to feel, too crowded out by the hundreds of competing sights and voices all reaching out and dying to tell their stories if only someone could hear them. You can but you can’t. You can only catch glimpses and flashes and sounds and only if your heart recognizes them.

They’d been conspicuously quiet since you both agreed to split up. The pesterchum window grey and dark leaving you alone to your thoughts. The last message sent was over a half an hour ago. The longest the knight had let it go quiet since you’d presented them with a hastily alchemized communication device back on the meteor.

You suspect they’d missed contact as much as you had. Having them in your friendlist made the absence less glaring.

timaeusTestified [TT] began pestering turntechGodhead [TG]

timaeusTestified [TT]: You cool?
timaeusTestified [TT]: I bet it’s more intense out here now that you don’t have your sprite suppressing heart shit.

You don’t receive an instant response, but you don’t really expect one. For all your joking about needing their brain to make them “rad mindreading shades” there was only so much you could do with the limited machinery, time, and grist supply on the meteor. Most hands free communication required voice prompting, which was out of the question entirely. They’ll see the message when they check next. Until then, you just…

Keep moving.

You’re headed ever outwards, deeper and deeper into the void searching for that resonance that had reached out to sing at you and allowed you to follow its threads between worlds.

Eventually the window flashes orange and opens back up.

turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < yeah
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < its just
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < i found karkat dirk
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < i can hear his shouty voice ringing past kanayas laughter
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < over there is a bit of terezi blind darkness and weird color smells and all
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < i hadnt stopped to think about them yet focused on keeping myself unmunched and then finding you
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < i started this adventure with 11 other friends you know?
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < now im finding bits and pieces of those left and im left wondering why i never thought about them before

Not a single pun. Not even a reaching one, or twisting the wording in order to force one. Just quiet empty confusion ringing out from orange and green text.

timaeusTestified [TT]: It’s hard.

You focus on the space ahead of you, scanning the multicolored points of light for any that particularly resonated with you, chewing on what to say. Some mechanical part of you wants to remind them of the countdown. Of the objective. But the rest of you recognized how easy it would be to leave it at that and not acknowledge the hollowness behind the words.

timaeusTestified [TT]: I didn’t realize either, when I came through. Didn’t want to, probably. Straight up closed my heart off and deluded myself if I flew far enough I’d find everyone.
timaeusTestified [TT]: It wasn’t until Dave and Derse and those towers forced me to admit just what all this is.
timaeusTestified [TT]: I doubt your sprite databases included a section on memory dumping grounds and you already said you were occupied.
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < finding these make me wonder where my friends are now
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < at least rose and john and jade are all at home smushed into their pre-recorded lives
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < but alternia died dirk
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < what about karkat and kanaya and terezi?
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < theres no easy hole to shove them into
timaeusTestified [TT]: If they are out here for you to find, they must be somewhere.
timaeusTestified [TT]: Like you said, this is the shit that doesn’t fit. That means there must be a place to put them in the first place.
timaeusTestified [TT]: We already know this shit is going to be different. The fact that there’s 8 available prototypes speaks to that.
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < i know! and really theres way less pieces of my troll furiends which is comfurting in a way
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < it just means when i do find them theyll probably remewber more of who they are beclaws they lost less
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < not that theyll recognize me
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < no one will actualikitty since davesprite wont have been n33ded
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < but thats feline and dandy well just have to become furiends all over again B33c

Ah there it goes. Back to the puns. You feel a tension loosen.

timaeusTestified [TT]: I’m sure you’ll win them over in no time
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < yeah!
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < besides if my time as a sprite has taught me anyfang its that nothing we do ever vanishes furever
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < i still have those meowmeries even if they dont!
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < its your furiends that have it the worst
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < like dave john jade and rose are screwed up beclaws they had chunks of their life forcibly ripped out but at least the template mawtches them up to where they were befure
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < but psychomom got smushed up into a life she never lived and its tearing her apart and i cant imagine your other furiends are faring any better
timaeusTestified [TT]: They’re dead so I can’t imagine it’s bothering them too much.

You send the message before you really allow yourself to think about it.

turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < what! B??
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < shit
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < nanna
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < john prototyped her ashes
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < and jades grandpa
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < oh man
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < im so sorry bro
turntechGodhead [TG]: i saw them in the player data and didnt even think twice about it
turntechGodhead [TG]: fuck

turntechGodhead [TG] has blocked timaeusTestified [TT]

Your flight sputters to a stop. The bright red text glares at you like a warning, the growing, tightly restrained panic rising with the blood rushing into your ears with every second that goes by before the notification flashes again.

turntechGodhead [TG] has unblocked timaeusTestified [TT]

turntechGodhead [TG]: sorry dave logged on had to prevent the notifications
turntechGodhead [TG]: okay new rule dont message me unless i say something furst i n33d to k33p the window read
turntechGodhead [TG]: purrobably talking to john let me s33
turntechGodhead [TG]: oh shit outta time bro
turntechGodhead [TG]: youre in the hospital
turntechGodhead [TG]: they arent letting him stay in the apartment alone
turntechGodhead [TG]: they found someone to watch him but he doesnt know them and i cant even guess who it would be because you didnt have any furiends ever
turntechGodhead [TG]: fuck i mean bro didnt
turntechGodhead [TG]: its only until you wake up but shit bro we arent any closer looking for this n33dle in a haystack bullshit
turntechGodhead [TG]: im supposed to be a rogue so i can fucking help
turntechGodhead [TG]: steal away the damage and fix the thing that was the fucking plan

Heart in your throat you look away from the window and into the thousands of glimmers burning in every direction, hours upon hours worth of searching even if you had all the time in the world and you don’t. The timer continues to tick down, still just under an hour left but it doesn’t matter because apparently fuck you.

turntechGodhead [TG]: dirk
turntechGodhead [TG]: talk to me
turntechGodhead [TG]: dont you dare get lost in your own head again
turntechGodhead [TG]: we gotta focus!
turntechGodhead [TG]: you said you found that shard out here
turntechGodhead [TG]: these are memories
turntechGodhead [TG]: think about it
turntechGodhead [TG]: what was that memory

How the hell are you supposed to know? It’d been heat and metal and you’d just recognized something of yourself in it that filled the space in your edges and just slid along the edge of yourself into something that was you but not quite you. It’s not like you’d stopped to smell the rot-filled roses, you’d been operating mostly on instinct.

Heat and metal.

timaeusTestified [TT]: I didn’t fuckin’ look okay? I told you I wasn’t thinking straight. It just felt like me.

Felt like me.

Heat and Metal and sharp edges that you eased into as easy as if they were your own because they fit .

Things just clicked.

timaeusTestified [TT]: Me.
timaeusTestified [TT]: It has to be the talk with me. Dave’s talk with me about his Bro.

Bro is gone. All he is exists in the memory of the younger ecto-son he fucked over. The one point in the entire goddamn timeline, where both you and he existed in the same mind space simultaneously would have been when Dave was venting at you and you took responsibility and apologized.

turntechGodhead [TG]: well fuck that was a once in a lifetime expurrience wasnt it
timaeusTestified [TT]: You could say that.

Chapter Text

It’s hours past...but not many.

Three hours, 57 minutes, and 3 seconds to be precise, at the exact moment a sword found its home in a newly born god, and you happen to be dreaming peacefully.

You don't know where you are. You just… ExIst. And that's the best way you can describe it, floating in some weird sort of purple-black abyss.

You should wonder why you are here, but dream logic dictates that it doesn't really matter. You were and therefore you are and really you just needed to sit back and enjoy the ride and see whatever shit your subconscious made up for you. Maybe you'll actually get to fight a dragon this time? Whatever it was beat sitting in a posh tower like some isolated hermit, you’d like to fulfill your destiny or do something heroic or some shit. Not that you ever remember these dreams after you wake up, or even really have all that much lucid control during them, but it’s the principle of the thing. The least your subconscious could do is entertain you if its gonna keep you trapped in your own skull.

Everything is overlaid by the soft maroon light, filling the space with a substance that is almost tangible, acting as a heat against the surface of your skin. Or maybe even something beneath your skin. You don't know. But whatever it is it leaves your body tingling, charged, it makes you want to move but your body doesn't respond to your brains and just floats there. As if waiting for something.

And then.. There is something. A tolling of bells, matching up in time to the ticking in your head. There's something forming in that light. Or it's trying to. You can feel it reaching out, clawing for something, anything to give it an anchor to pull through. You don't even think about it, because deep inside there's really only one thing you can do, especially when that something inside of you is screaming to help.

You plunge your arm into the depths of that light, into the cocoon struggling to complete the metamorphosis on its own, and wrap your hand--it feels too big and too strong to be yours--around another's. Something sharp picks into your palms, breaking skin and allowing rivulets of red dribble down your fingers and get caught in the dips and rivets that would tell the story of your life to the right person…

And you pull.

The light surrounding your arm cracks and splinters and then shatters, falling away from grey tipped claws that dug deep into your own skin.

You wake up.

You blearily stare up at the ceiling, at the soft moonlight playing against the walls and drawing patterns across the chips in the paint. It's almost enough to make its own shadow puppet show, some unseen actor playing out an unknown story right before your eyes.

Caught by a sudden need you roll out of bed, stumbling your half asleep way to the desk. You grope for your pencil, knocking it to the floor in your uncoordinated haste but that's okay. That's okay there's a pen here. And paper. And that's good enough. The image in your brain runs out through your hand like water and onto the page. Another shitty stick figure joins your countless doodles, cat ears and shades and a rad as hell cape with arching crows wings spreading from their back. Crows are pretty fucking rad, you gotta admit it, even if the ones that live around your building are assholes and like to abuse your hospitality and make a mess of your shit sometimes.

What the hell is wrong with you?

You ball up the drawing and throw it into the trash can, hurling the pen to be lost in the shadows across the room. This was dumb. You were dumb. It was just a goddamn dream.

Okay maybe crushing the doodle was a little harsh. So what if your subconscious wanted to be inspired at some ungodly time of the morning. No big deal. It. Happened. You just...need to go back to sleep.

Yes. Sleep.

You throw yourself back into bed and the unseen puppeteer continues with its shadow play as you watch, willing your agitated brain to calm the hell down. Normally you’d just say forget it, up is up, and just noodle on the computer till dawn, but you don’t want to give bro a reason to cancel the training session for something as dumb as lack of sleep and given how strange he’s been acting you wouldn’t put it past him right now. You’ve operated on worse but obviously he doesn’t believe you could handle it now. Haven’t you proven yourself enough? You’ve been doing this for as long as you can remember, pushing yourself to do better, to keep up , to get a goddamn nod and a good job out of him was like pulling teeth but the acknowledgement lit up your life even brighter than fucking Christmas.

Not that you guys celebrated it really. But you saw that shit on TV and it looked pretty dope so you can imagine it.

Shit. You feel awake. You feel so awake you’re half tempted to run up to the roof yourself at this ungodly hour of 3 am and do some laps just to burn off the energy. It’s what chased the fog from your brain and pushed you to get up and draw was still tingling under your skin.

Maybe a midnight snack will settle you down. There’s still that apple juice in there, fuck yeah that would zen you right the hell out. If you couldn’t sleep maybe you could music and meditate or some shit to rest your brain enough to nod off for just a little while longer. The hours until sunrise were enough to catch another cycle of Zs if you’re lucky.

Or maybe you'll just go for pizza. It's easy and simple and delicious. Just reach into the fridge and grab a slice and bam, you're done. Good cold or hot, no need to fiddle around with the microwave that you're fairly sure is possessed--

There's a light in the living room. You stop in the hallway and squint at it. It isn't anywhere near bright enough to be the overhead light, and it's too blue to be the moon. If Bro was up and on the computer or watching TV then you are going to make a snide comment on making sure he got a good night's sleep, the hypocrite.

From well out of range, of course. You are occasionally an idiot, but you aren’t stupid.

Sure enough the soft blue light was coming from the computer screen in the corner. It'd long since switched to Screensaver mode, just showing an image of Bro's shades drifting and bouncing across the screen. Hm. Maybe Bro just left it on or something. You don't see his silhouette against the window although there is something sitting in the chair, but it’s too small to be Bro.

Not that that something stayed unknown for very long. The hairs on the back of your neck pickle as you parse the lanky figure. It's just Lil'Cal. You shouldn't be surprised. Bro liked to have the ventriloquist doll nearby while he worked, and leaving him sitting in his seat to startle you sounded like it could be one of the more harmless pranks he’d pulled on you in recent memory, all things considered..

You are about to just chalk it up to some an advanced level of ironic performance art you just aren’t getting when you note that Lil’Cal's glassy eyes are angled down, and you unconsciously follow his gaze.

The clocks tick toking away in your head screech to a stop. You just. Can't comprehend what you are seeing.

There's a lump on the floor. It's just a blanket. Bro must have kicked it off when he went to bed. No big deal. There's no need to cross the room to check and make sure because it's just a blanket. Just a--

“Bro?”

You are at the edge of the desk. The light from the screen saver doesn't illuminate this far down, blocked by the edge of the desk. But a cloud shifts lazily across the sky and unblocks the goddamn moon like the reveal from some awful horror film and…

It's the Incident. All over again.

“damn it bro not again.” your heart is pounding in your ears and you find yourself trembling. Honest to dog shaking like a leaf about to be torn away and thrown to the mercy of houston’s sick updrafts by one last straw. You are going to be cool . This is probably some test or mind game or --

He's still not moving.

You are safely out of surprise strife range right now but if you go any closer you won't be but he's not moving.

“bro come on this isn't fucking funny.”

A chill is slowly working its way up your spine as Lil'Cal glassy blue eyes take in the whole scene. Some suspicious corner of your mind wondered if that's what this was. If he's filming one of his videos right now and you get to be the fucking guest star.

What would it be called? Moronic little brother flips his shit over prank details at 11?

...but you can't get the Incident out of your head. About seeing those unguarded orange eyes unfocused and empty, staring into space like some goddamn zombie, only responding and focusing on you when you got close enough to literally shake him.

Why didn't you just ask ? You have no idea if he went to the doctor like a goddamn adult because you’d assumed he would but here he fucking was sprawled out on the floor again and you can't even see his face this time---

Prank or not you can't take this. You take a few more shaky steps and - -

Something looks off about the speaker next to the chair, a dark patch almost invisible against black except it didn’t shine in the moonlight in quite the same way, drinking in the reflected light like some fucking blackhole that sent the chill screaming into your gut like someone dropkicked it down a flight of stairs. You scramble forward, throwing bro-ingrained-strife-survival instincts to the wind because fuck it that’s blood.

You’re rambling out loud right now, you know you are, but the words don’t even penetrate your brain it’s so locked up and focused on your Bro. Dried blood was caked to the side of his head, you can see the dark patches against his Strider-light hair in the oh so helpful moonlight. Whatever happened it happened too goddamn long ago because it’s rust brown almost black by now.

Shit you didn’t bring your phone. Shit shit shit. Fuck. You actually needed to do this. It’s Bro and he’s not responding and there’s blood. Or was blood. Shit. Weren’t head wounds supposed to bleed a lot?

You’re dimly aware that you are yelling at him but what exactly doesn’t matter because he’s not responding even as you shake his goddamn shoulders it was supposed to work it did last time--

  1. Your brain helpfully nudges you away from screaming gibberish to drown out the sounds of time being wasted and falling away from you, toward the sane response to finding your older brother slash caretaker passed out on the floor. Phone, you need to go back and get your phone--

No his phone is right fucking there on the desk get that instead you idiot .

“Houston 911. What is your emergency?”

The words get caught in your throat at the unfamiliar voice on the line. But it’s only for a moment because they break out like a tornado ripping through an old barn and flinging cows and cowshit everywhere and making a huge mess all over the place. “I--I need help my bro he’s--fuck i don’t know he’s passed out on the floor and there’s blood on his head and he won’t wake up and he should be waking up--”

What is your name? How old are you?”

None of this matters you just want bro to wake the hell up. You rattle off the information and bro’s cell number in a state of shock when prompted. Your address makes you panic. Not because you don’t know it, you do, but at this very moment the information flies out of your head and leaves you a gibbering mess. It’s not like you ever mail shit, or leave for that matter. You could, but what’s the point? If you go out without bro you got hounded by well meaning strangers who wrung their hands over a kid on the street alone so you just never bothered and now you can’t remember the address. But then you remember the pizza and you find it on the sticker on the pizza box in the fridge and the lady over the phone congratulates you for being such a smart boy but it means nothing because bro’s still not moving.

At least he’s fucking breathing, miracle of miracles. And you can’t believe you hadn’t thought to check before the calm voice on the other end of the line prompted you. The idea that he wouldn’t be was ludicrous, even in your panic. There’s no way he wouldn’t be breathing because there’s no way bro would die. He just--just fell that’s all.

But if he just fell then why were you on the phone with a lady at the emergency dispatch who was sending a fucking ambulance to your apartment?

Are there any other adults around? Can you call your parents?”

All you can say is “Just my bro” because you don’t have parents. Neither of you have parents. It’s just always been you and him and now it’s just you .

You don’t remember much of the time (although you do know it was exactly 8 minutes and 54 seconds) between the calm voice telling you to “stay on the line, okay?” and the paramedics swooping through the unlocked door (which you think the voice told you to do but you don’t remember.)

It’s a whirlwind of activity that you can barely process before they--and bro-- are gone. Leaving you standing numb in the hallway under the watchful care of a police officer until they can find another poor sap to foist you off on and even the calm voice on the other end of the line is gone. The officer gently extracts the phone from your hand and suggests that you should maybe go back to bed for now, that you’ve been very brave throughout all of this but they needed to find someone to contact. No you don’t fucking know the neighbors and hell if you are going to manage to get back to sleep, and you are not leaving. Not unless it’s to go with Bro. You end up wrapping yourself up in bro’s blanket on the futon and cling to Lil’Cal because even if he’s a puppet, he’s at least there and familiar and you refuse to take your eyes off the officer going down the contacts in Bro’s phone. No you don’t know any of them. They never came over. No one ever came over.

You can’t stand the fucking pity in the officer’s eyes as he decides to pick the first number and start calling.

Chapter Text

You must have fallen asleep at some point, because the next thing you know you are waking from a dream of stars to the sound of people talking.

You almost assume it's just the TV. That you'd fallen asleep on the futon while watching some movie for the ironies. If you stretch the delusion, you would almost imagine bro had even looked up from his work and joined you on the couch, and you'd spent the entire movie making sarcastic remarks at the lead actors that would probably make one of your friends sputter with indignation depending on what genre it was.

But that was definitely a fantasy, because bro didn't do that. If he wanted to watch shit it would be on his computer with his sweet audiophile’s dream headphones. The TV was for Mad Snakz and nothing else as far as he was concerned even if when you were younger you’d stubbornly camp out on his futon watching movies until he literally kicked you out for being distracting.

It's hard to pull yourself awake. You feel numb. Emotionally wrung out like an old dish towel being forcibly divested of its moisture thinking it'd finished its work, only to be shoved back under the water because the work is never done.

The voices continue. They are coming nearer. Something cool nudges at you, metallic and humming with pent up energy, urging you to wake faster. It feels almost familiar. Comforting, but with an edge. An edge that confuses the hell out of you because it's tinged with barely restrained malice and --

Something touches you and you flinch back, away. Or you try to. You are tangled in long stuffed limbs and blankets and Bro's faded scent and you can't escape. Lil'Cal looms above you, arms wrapped around you like a total bro, protecting you from the two shapeless giants rearing in your range of vision that slowly clears as you shove your fists into your eyes and rub at them to wake you up quicker.

One is a police officer, and seeing that tired face and uniform and dark skinned hand holding Bro's phone brings it all reeling back. A freight train of memories pulling cars upon cars of emotions all barreling towards the station without a single set of working breaks. They plow straight into you, derailing the entire vehicle and sending you nearly vibrating from the force of the impact.

“Bro? Is he back?”

You manage to get out, voice cracking. It's getting lighter outside, nearly dawn, he had to be back. You could see the sky through the windows. It’s been hella long enough to get him to the hospital and wake him up and it would be just like him to linger out of sight and make you panic just to stroll in cool as a cucumber as if nothing had happened and then silently judge you for panicking over this since you had to be capable of taking care of yourself and not trailing after him all day.

The unfamiliar man beside the cop shot the dude a reluctant grimace before sighing, your gut feels all twisted up and you unconsciously brace yourself because you’ve seen enough movies to know where this is going even if you refuse to believe it because he was fine.

“He might not be back for a while, little man.” The guy says at last, wringing his hands nervously. You hadn’t noticed the sheaf of papers caught in a white-knuckled grip, the hand wringing only succeeding in further crinkling the documents. “He’s okay?” another quickly shot look at the officer, uncertain, “His head’s fine, but he still hasn’t woken up. We can’t just leave you here by yourself so I uh,” another fist clench, “I’m here to take you home I guess.”

“And who the fuck are you supposed to be?” You really don’t care, but the question causes the man to flinch in surprise. Or maybe it was the language. You try to straighten yourself up defiantly, because hell no you aren’t leaving and definitely not with a fucking stranger cop or no cop.

“I--um--well--got this phonecall and I’m technically down as your brother’s emergency contact although really it’s just supposed to be a formality neither of us actually expected to need but--”

The cop clears his throat. “Mr. Stevens, I really need to get back to the station to wrap this up. It’s been a long morning.”

“I--yes of course. Dave, I know we’ve never met but I’m Dirk’s marketing agent--uh, I mean, I work with him on several of his business ventures. Newt Stevens. As I said I’m down as the emergency guardian for you should anything happen to your brother, and this is of course only temporary--”

“Not interested thanks I’m cool here.” Stubbornly you wrap Lil’Cal’s arms around yourself and turn the full force of your well honed disinterested coolness on the situation. You learned from the best, afterall, “I can take care of my shit just fine, I’m not a fucking baby. There’s food in the apartment. I take fucking correspondence classes, and know better than to leave the fucking door unlocked when we aren’t expecting the Paramedic SWAT team to burst through. I’m fine. I don’t need to go anywhere.”

“It’s not a matter of capability, Mr. Strider.” The police officer appears exasperated with Stevens’ recoil at that, “I admire your attempts to be self reliant, it is admirable in a young man, but you are too young to be left alone. It is either you go with Mr. Stevens or we need to get Child Services involved. There is no inbetween.”

“If I have to be babysat, then...can’t he stay here instead?” The frustration is mounting as you feel the claws of inevitability coil around you, like you said before, you’ve seen enough of this shit in movies to think you’ll get your way but damn it if you aren’t going to try. You aren’t a fucking child, bro hasn’t let you be one since you were old enough to stick your finger with one of his throwing knives and ended up with him cleaning blood off the floor and telling you to remember that next time you go putting your hands on shit. He barely even supervises you as it is you don’t need some rando to make sure you don’t get yourself killed. “You don’t know my bro, he’ll be strolling back in by lunch-time.”

“Dave,” Stevens is trying again, “I--I’m sorry but I have responsibilities. My apartment is spacious enough, and we can take some of your things, and honestly it's closer to the hospital--I promise if you come with me we’ll go visit Dirk once visiting hours open!”

And there is was. A crack in your shell. You don’t need to see Bro. You know he’ll be okay. He’ll be fine. You know he’ll be back and doing his dumb research or working on some shit and maybe he’s tired of you and you are mad as hell at him about that and about freaking you out and not going to the goddamn doctor like a goddamn adult, but you don’t want him gone.

The idea of going to see him tempts you so damn much, your defiance leaking out of the puncture like a sad balloon, whistling away like a thin strand of air on the wind.

Your eyes are starting to burn, but you shore up the ice wall because like hell if you are going to let yourself cry in front of these two. You don’t even have your shades to hide behind, having left them in your room because who the fuck needed shades on a 3 am snack run from hell?

Fine.”

Stevens flinches at the bitterness in that single word, but the officer merely nods and smiles a tight lipped smile. He offers your Bro’s cellphone to Stevens but you dart up and grab it instead, glaring your defiance at both of them.

The officer raises an eyebrow but Stevens mumbles a “It’s fine, we’ll drop it off at the hospital.” and then clears his throat, “O--Okay. Why don’t you go...grab anything you’d like to take with you to keep you occupied and I can--clean up a little and lock up here? With all luck your bro will be right as rain before afternoon, and you’ll be back here tonight! Just think of it like--a day trip for now!”

With the phone’s edges cutting sharply into your small hands, you abscond to your room, slamming the door behind you hard enough to make the wall shake.

As soon as you do something breaks within you and you sink to your knees, the mantra to keep it cool playing over and over and over and over in your head completely drowning out the clocks and the voices from outside and you take in your space and just try to breathe and if you aren’t careful you are going to cry like a fucking baby right here and now and there's no way those two clowns wouldn’t hear you so listen to me right now Dave Strider--

Keep.

Your.

Cool.

Just a field trip. Bro will be awake when you get there. You’ll look him dead in the eyes and call him an idiot and he won’t be able to say a damn word because he’s in the fucking hospital.

You have no idea what shit to take with you so you just grab your pens and some paper and shove them into the plastic bag you’d been hoarding your snacks in. You eye your computer with it’s big chunky tower and monitor and many peripherals, and find yourself wishing you’d asked bro for a laptop instead, because at least then you could have taken it with you. Without it you won’t have access to your music or the internet or john…

John.

The idea of losing out on the other person whose attention you craved sent a spike of panic through your already tired heart and you end up swinging into the chair without a second thought, waking the snoozing machine up with some quick mouse twitches

turntechGodhead [TG] began pestering ectoBiologist [EB]

turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < hey john i know its too fucking early for you to get this but i have a weird request
turntechGodhead [TG]: B33 < fuck what the hell is this

The bright orange sears into your eyes off the the page what the hell is this crap? Did someone hack your pesterchum just to be a douche? And what’s with the weird...emoticon? L33tsp34k bee? Fuck if you know. After the shit morning you’ve had already the last thing you need right now is worrying that someone got into your shit.

You navigate to the settings and reapply your formatting and change your password to your backup one just for good measure. If it’s just someone fucking with you it’ll at least stop them from getting back in again.

turntechGodhead [TG]: okay better
turntechGodhead [TG]: here
turntechGodhead [TG]: XXX-XXX-XXXX
turntechGodhead [TG]: its my cellphone
turntechGodhead [TG]: i know your dad is all blah blah internet safety privacy stranger danger big eared police dog blah blah and like a cellphone number is the internet equivalent of seriously dating but i dont know how soon ill be able to get back online and i really dont want to be alone and youre all i got left right now
turntechGodhead [TG]: if you could just text me after school or something id love you forever big ol promise you my hand in marriage rock and all big ol shindig of a wedding once we both turn legal ill even wear the goddamn dress thats how much id be in your debt but
turntechGodhead [TG]: fuck it
turntechGodhead [TG]: bros in the hospital
turntechGodhead [TG]: they arent letting me stay at home until he wakes up and are packing me off with some spineless douchenozzle i dont know until then
turntechGodhead [TG]: im
turntechGodhead [TG]: scared
turntechGodhead [TG]: i know hell get better hes too damn strong to die in some pansy ass way like falling from his goddamn computer chair
turntechGodhead [TG]: hed probably go out fighting some supervillian all samurai style and flash steps and awesome puppet power or some shit showing me up like some sort of slowass lameo and setting up some overpowering heroic legacy id be expected to follow
turntechGodhead [TG]: i know all this shit and im hella angry at him for even being in this situation but im still so goddamn scared
turntechGodhead [TG]: hes an asshole but hes still my bro

A knock on the door. Heavy and commanding. A police officer’s knock, nothing like the almost hesitant one Bro had leveled against the portal the night of the pizza fiasco, checking in on you. You would have never labeled your bro as hesitant before this shit happened and now you find yourself even missing that.

“Are you finished?”

“Five more minutes!” You shout back, considering the possibility of just barricading the door and refusing to leave. But if you do that then you won’t be able to go to the hospital because you don’t even know which hospital he was taken to. You grab your-- bro’s-- shades off your desk and slide them onto your nose and the barrier feels comforting, and allows you to wrap yourself up your bro’s icy walls and school your face into that same faint ironic amusement you’ve been taught to wear as your goddamn armor.

turntechGodhead [TG]: i gotta go john text me if you can

turntechGodhead [TG] ceased pestering ectoBiologist [EB]

You grab yours and bro’s phones and throw them into the bag with your paper and the used fancy camera bro got you for your birthday last year. With the speed hard earned from dodging bro’s sneak attacks you swap out your sleep PJs for something more suited for going out in public, hell if you are going to walk up to bro when he’s totally awake waiting for you at the hospital in your black and red card suit-patterned PJs. Even if he bought them for you it was hella uncool and you refuse to let him see you be anything other than cool right now. It already annoys you that newt mc spineless saw you in them.

You rub your eyes and smooth down your sleep mussed hair, and then grab your bag and drag it out the door to meet the fate that’s waiting for you.

Chapter Text

“Now I just need to make sure you understand--” Stevens is talking again, hand on the door to room 11 and completely blocking your path inside. The nurse who’d led you here is grabbing a clipboard from a holder on the wall, checking it over. You wonder if you glare at him hard enough behind your bro’s shades he’ll get the hint and shut up, you don’t care what he has to say and you just want in that door right now.

Of course he doesn’t notice, which might be for the best. You really don’t want him to see how much he’s dragging on your last nerve anyway, because that would mean he was seeing through your ice and hell no you refuse to allow that. Your ice is no pansy see through bullshit, it’s as dark as the dark glass of your--bro’s shades. You’re building this bunker in the penguin infested lands of the cool-zone because there really isn’t much else you can do right now. 12 hours and 23 minutes and 15, 16, 17 since you were removed from your home and he’d finally fulfilled his promise. Well after visiting hours opened up, the liar. You’d left your apartment to the rising sun, and you’ll be returning to the setting one. He’d made excuses. Of course he made excuses. The doctors were running tests. He’s under observation. They want to get him settled in before allowing visitors. Bullshit. “Your brother is--he’s-- how do I explain this to a kid--

“I’m young, not mentally unable to understand unfortunate circumstances.” You feel almost vindicated breaking out your high-point value words, allowing you the slightest satisfaction in watching him startle like a rabbit who just got a face full of dog breath. “Lay it on me. He’s what?”

“He’s--” There he goes fiddling with those papers again. At least he had the foresight to grab a folder from the apartment and put them in there so they aren’t getting irreparably destroyed thanks to his incessant fidgeting. You wonder what they are. Probably legal crap. “I--just don’t want it to be a shock, Dave.”

“Like it wasn’t a shock finding him on the floor?”

“I don’t think sugar coating it is going to work for this one.” The nurse offers with almost a genuinely amused smile. It had been professionally adequate before when she’d come over to inform them she could take them back to Dirk Strider’s Room now, and man it was so uncool how uneasy hearing that name made you. Bro was Bro. You knew his name. But in the same way you knew your address. You just. Didn’t use it ever. And thus never thought of it. Ever.

If felt wrong anyway. Bro was Bro and Dirk was...someone who wasn’t Bro.

Stevens lets out a frustrated sigh--really riling him up is one of your few life’s pleasures right now. John would have gotten out of school hours ago. And your phone has been silent, even before you had to turn it off thanks to a “silence your cell phones please” sign near the set of doors that led back from the quiet waiting room with its oddly comfortable chairs and tea stations and nothing at all like the hard plastic and barely restrained chaos you’d expected from your brief stint in the general waiting area. Once Stevens had said who you were visiting you’d been wooshed back into the much smaller room while you waited for someone to show you the way.

“He’s in the ICU, Dave. That’s the--”

“Intensive Care Unit, I know.” You finish helpfully, you had seen the signs and you knew what that meant even if this idiot seems to think you wouldn’t understand. Moving beyond those doors had the quiet drop away into a fairly loud area, machines beeping and staffers talking, as you passed door upon door leading further away from the core hallway “You said he wasn’t hurt though, so why is he here?”.

“It’s--he can’t--do normal stuff--the doctors are doing the best they can but...it can be upsetting okay? I know you’re putting on this show of being all tough and in control, like he always did. You’re a lot like him, but...” He trails off, looking away, “It’s okay if you aren’t, you know?”

The handle turns and you push past him into the room.

And then you stop. It’s well lit, there’s even a fucking window. It’s not even overlooking the grey and hazy city that you know you are smack dab in the heart of, but a sparse landscaped courtyard walled in by windowed rooms on all sides. Above the walls the sky is painted with the red of the oncoming sunset and it flashes you back to the moment you saw him in the kitchen, furiously scrubbing his face as if he couldn’t breathe, hat left abandoned on the floor from where a haphazard shove had knocked it off his head.

You’d tried to give it back.

It was an odd detail to think of at that very moment, you hadn’t seen him in the hat since then.

Set away from the window was the bed, easily catching the still bright evening light. It’s pushed right up against the wall, where you can easily see the glowing lights and wires protruding from it and towards the sole occupant, monitoring more shit than you can probably imagine.

You’d just seen him last night. Joked with the bastard. Gotten more words, even if in goddamn text , than you’ve gotten in years .

It’d been…

Nice.

And barely over twenty fucking four hours later you find yourself frozen in a doorway. Somewhere in the back of your mind you’d convinced yourself that even if Stevens had told you over and over that they’d call if he woke up or showed any change at all, you’d walk through that door to restless orange eyes, your larger than life bro irritated at being confined and restricted in such a manner.

You hear the two adults talking behind you, and you realize you shouldn’t be tuning them out. Not when it's probably about Bro. But you can’t bring yourself to look away from the figure hooked up to those machines.

A hand lands on your shoulder. You want to shrug it off but you...can’t. You let it push you forward, just enough to allow the others into the room and the door closed.

Without the panic painting the room in blurs and the obscuring nature of 3 am night-time and limited illumination, he looks so different in the clinical white lights and the white bed linens and the stark sterilized unfamiliar space. Here he isn’t the unmistakable shogun of your shared territory.

Smaller.

Fragile.

You barricade yourself in your bunker of ice and distance and soon find yourself at the side of the bed. So close and instead of going for his face, you fixate on the hand laying on top of the covers. There’s something stuck to one of his fingers, joining the various tubes and wires running out and away from your sight into the wall where various monitors beep quietly away.

The adults are talking again. At least one of them is close behind you, hovering, probably to make sure you don’t do something stupid like throw yourself on the bed or pull on the wires or throw a tantrum, or...something.

If you were angrier, you might have found it in yourself to do something like that. But you just feel numb in your fortress constructed for penguins. You force yourself to hear them past the quiet beeping of the monitors, even as you find yourself counting along with them. The words drift around you, joining the beeping and the counting and the soft sounds of wispy breaths rising above you and you find it hard to focus on any of them.

“--we haven’t observed any signs of even minimal conscious awareness. If it weren’t for the fact that he won’t respond to any stimuli, it would look like a deep sleep. Do you happen to have any of his previous medical history? Or the name of a hospital we can contact for it? Perhaps another family member? There are some genetic predispositions that might factor…”

“None.” Stevens’ reedy voice responds back, and you hear the rustle of papers as he leafs through the folder, “Dirk is--he’s a pretty reclusive guy. I’ve known him since he moved to Houston some eleven years ago, barely a kid himself then, but don’t really know him, know him, you know? Just kept to himself. Aside from the kid over there I’m pretty sure he doesn’t have any family, and he doesn’t seem the type to keep up with annual check ups, you know? I’d bet he’s never actually been to a hospital before in his life. Except...”

“Except? Anything you can provide would be an improvement at this point, sir. We can maintain this state for some time yet, but the sooner we can determine and address the causes the better the prognosis becomes.”

“Traffic accident, I think. Back in ‘98? Couple years after he ended up with the kid. It’s what got him calling me up and working out all the paperwork. Had to make sure the kid had someone if things went ti--sour. He wasn’t too badly hurt, but ended up overnight for observations. I don’t know which hospital but...I have an area for the accident…”

The scribble of a pen as he rattles off a name that holds no meaning for you. Pens. You should have brought your pen and paper. Your fingers twitch and you find yourself longing for any beat other than the steady beep of the monitors or the incessant ticking of the clocks.

There’s a swish of fabric behind you, and then the nurse’s voice. Much closer. “Do you have any questions? Or want to talk? You’ve been rather quiet over here.”

You nod, and open your mouth for the first time since you’d entered the room. The words get caught in your throat, but you force them through because you are cool and you aren’t in shock thank you very much. “What’s that weird looking clothespin thing. Do those hurt? I mean I guess one of the good things about being out like a light means he doesn't have to deal with all that shit stuck all over the place. How does he eat? How does he--”

You didn’t give her space to answer and you know that because they aren’t really the questions you want to ask, but the torrent lets you loosen enough to let the real one clutching at your heart to tumble out even if you already know the answer won’t be an answer at all because there is no answer.

Quieter.

“When will he wake up?”

“That’s the question isn’t it.” She murmurs softly, “It could be two minutes from now, it could be two days, it could be...more.”

“I can promise that we are doing all we can to get to the bottom of this. You live alone with your brother right?”

“Yeah. It’s just us two bros. Always been. Bro doesn’t talk about the parentals, an’ I’m pretty sure he’s legally my guardian or whatever. Responsible for me and all. Makes me do my homework, keeps me from killing myself doing dumb shit. You know the deal.” You are getting tired of answering the same old questions, but right now the act of talking to someone who isn’t responsible for dragging you under protest from your home, is working to loosen the knot in your chest so you squelch that temptation to sass. You just stare down at the hand lying lifeless before you, blocking out the rest. Your shared freaky Strider-light complexion nearly blending into the sterile white linens.

You’d never really thought about it much, cooped up in your room in your apartment with just bro and the TV for comparison, and TV was supposed to be weird right? But Stevens didn’t look like you. The nurse didn’t look like you. The dozens of people in the general waiting area hadn’t looked a bit like you. Even the few pale people actually had fucking color . The probably hundreds of people you’d driven by in Stevens’ car hadn’t looked like you. Freaky complexion. Freaky light sensitive eyes. Freaky white-blonde hair. Just you n Bro. You were so obviously related it wasn’t fucking funny. “Light. You asked about medical crap. It’s not as bad as mine, but he’s sensitive to light. Sunburns are hell.”

Fingers touch dark glass and you let it slide down your nose, squinting up over the edges in the harsh (to you) white light before pushing them up again. Oof. You don’t know how he’s been handling it without them, even at home. There’s a reason you guys don’t bother with overhead lights except when there isn’t a window, and it has nothing to do with saving energy. “He hasn’t been wearing them for the last few days though, it’s really weird.”

The pen scratching again. Stevens is silent, although you think you hear him shift somewhere behind you. Yeah if he’d known bro for as long as he said he did would realize how weird that was. Just because Bro could function without his shades doesn’t mean he liked it.

“Can you remember anything else? Anything else unusual? Behaviors? Signs of illness or injury?”

“Fuck yeah he’s been acting so off it was driving me up the wall and out the nonexistent skylight, just fucked straight off into space, see ya earth, no can do.” That seemed to surprise them both, and you jerk your head away from his hand and it’s dumb as hell clothespin looking accessory and deliberately turn to her, and by proxy Stevens, since he was hovering behind her like an overstuffed turkey. “I saw him break down in the kitchen. Just kinda froze and stood there like he had no idea what the hell was going on and then just started this whole weird freak out. I left hella quick but came back a” don’t count it don’t count it out because they don’t need to know how many fucking seconds its been since then “while later and found him just like zoned out on the floor like he’d just dropped right there. I’m surprised he wasn’t growing moss for all that he hadn’t twitched since I left him. He snapped out of it when I touched him and I told him to go to a doctor, but he obviously didn’t fucking listen to me. And that’s not the half of it. Since then he’s mostly avoided me other than making sure I’m still breathing,” and you’ve avoided him back but that’s not the point “ It sucked ass.”

The nurse’s pen kept scratching but you don’t like the look on her face at all.

“How long ago was this?”

You clench your teeth shut as you feel the precise time bubble on the tip of your tongue and take a deep breath before shoving out a quick, “s’been ‘bout a week.”

More pens. More scratching. Eventually it stopped. “Thank you, Dave was it? While none of that rings any particular warning bells for his condition, it is clear there was something going on with him before it got to this point.”

She steps away to a small computer console in the corner, Stevens following.

“Think it could be drugs?” Stevens asked quietly, obviously trying to keep you from hearing and the idea made your blood boil. “I never knew him to partake but…”

“Toxicology for the more common strains was one of the first things we ran, once we determined the the lack of other visible trauma to the brain, despite the injury.” The nurse responds, checking the chart again. “Even still it was deemed unlikely…”

You drag your eyes back to the breathing form on the bed and force yourself to take it all in, at, not just a hand but Bro hooked up to all that shit--was there something up his nose? Maybe you should have paid more attention when bro was researching hospital dramas, you might have known what to expect. But even then you bet it would have felt so... wrong for it to be Bro in there, washed out and lost in the white comforter, looking way too small and fragile for your badass ninja samurai warrior who ruled over your apartment with a cool iron fist. Someone had washed the blood out of his hair, thank dog, but the gauze pad and the strip of bandages wrapped around his head left the rest of the white-blonde mess sticking out the top like some sort of fancyass show rooster.

That thought almost made you crack a smile, but it withered and died before the signal could leave your thinkpan, because you realize you want to tell him how ridiculous he looks like this.

“Stop fucking around and wake up bro.” The words quietly sneak their way out, and you snatch up the hand lying on the bed, ignoring Stevens’ squawk and then the nurses’ quick attempt to hush him. She didn’t barge in to pull you away though, and it’s not like you are fucking with the clothespin thing so you just focus on that big calloused hand, and think about it curled around the hilt of a sword, think about it oh so delicately inspecting computer chips smaller than your pinky finger, think about it tap tap tapping away at a keyboard doing gog knows what, think about it gently checking your face when it gets ambushed by gravity in cahoots with your traitorous communication device.

Think about it knocking on your door oh so fucking hesitantly before shooting you a message asking if you were fucking alive.

It’s definitely just your goddamn imagination that those fingers twitch in yours, because his breathing didn’t change and you just hold on for-- fourty three minutes and 31, 32, 33-- until Stevens mumbles an apology and pries you away. You protest because you are expected to but your heart isn’t in it and everyone notices. Still, you feel like something is being ripped away from you as you are led out of the room, and Bro’s whispy breathing and the beat of the monitors still chases you down the hall, as if permanently joining the symphony of increasingly discordant noise in your head.

You can’t even find it in yourself to resent those crushing not-bro’s fingers around your wrist, or the apartment that is not yours they are leading you back towards.

Chapter Text

The ride in the back of Stevens’ car isn’t a pleasant one at all, just an extended awkward silence drowned out by the radio and the purr of the motor and the sounds of a weekday evening in good Ol’ Houston, Texas. You stare out the window at what you assume is standard big-city traffic, side-walk to side-walk red tail lights everywhere you look, the car inching slowly along its trek to the apartment you could have probably walked to in the same amount of time if it probably wouldn’t have gotten you mugged or kidnapped or some shit.

“Dave, I…” You don’t look away from the window, but the words come stiltedly from the front seat. “I--know you don’t want to be here, or want to hear this from me but--I really am sorry.”

Sorry. Hah. He shouldn’t be the one who’s sorry. Bro should be the one who’s fucking sorry, up and leaving you like this. Maybe if he’d gone to the doctor when shit first started happening instead of sulking like a brat--

Hell you don’t know. You don’t know a lot of shit.

Things are going to change .

Well he was right about that, wasn’t he? Even if he wakes the fuck up tomorrow he still forced you into this goddamn situation. You don’t know whether you would want to punch the dude or...shit do something totally uncool. Probably tiptoe around each other for ages like awkward bro-crushes if both your actions lately speak louder than any machismo words you can come up with to the contrary.

“It’s cool.” You mumble back instead when the silence starts poking you with it’s sharp edges and you can just imagine the kicked puppy look on the guy’s face. Spineless Mc Douchenozzle, kidnapper of Daves, and replacer of homes, maybe. But Bro was his co-worker / maybe-friend too.

He did keep his promise. Eventually.

“Can we go back tomorrow?” You find yourself asking.

“I--I’ll give them a call and see. They have some more diag--um--tests to run tomorrow, but we can plan around them.”

You nod. Then realize he probably can barely see you since he is supposed to be all “eyes on the road” and all that, so you just mumble out another “Cool.”

“We’re swinging by your apartment.” He says suddenly, and that makes your head snap up. “So you can pick up clothes and things, you know? Whatever you need to feel comfortable, since this day-trip is turning into a sleepover. You can have my room tonight, I’ll take the couch.”

That suggestion rankled you. Sure you’d hidden yourself in the offered space all day because you hadn’t wanted to be there and you hadn’t wanted to see him at all or participate in the funky feelings jam he seemed to constantly be trying to pull you into, but that was supposed to just be for a few hours . Not an entire night.

“I’m not gonna put you out of your own bed, dude. I’ve slept on plenty of couches it’s cool.”

Okay so maybe it was only the one futon bro owned, and you can probably count the number of times you’ve fallen asleep on it on one hand because he stopped giving a shit about your nightmares years ago, but the point is you don’t need the fucking pity.

“I doubt you want to be woken up by my roommate when she gets home from work at 1 am.” He responds dryly, and the light turns green and the car starts inching forward in the river of gas guzzlers adding to the putrid stretch that is the rot-filled air of your home-town, “I’m serious Dave. Dirk and I--we talked about this stuff. Granted it was back in ‘03 that we last talked about it, but… If anything happens to him...”

“He’ll wake up.”

He has to.

“I know. He’s a stubborn shit.” You have to double take at that. Stevens?? Swearing?? With the amount of times he’s sputtered at your language you would have thought he would have spontaneously combusted should he utter anything but the cleanest of words, spit-polished to a shine bright enough to sear out unsuspecting eyeballs, “It’s just for tonight. IF--” You can hear the Capital Letters “it lasts longer we’ll reevaluate. He had this whole scheme cooked up to take care of the apartment for you ‘until you were ready’ or something. Guardianship and supervision are tricky but he seemed to think you’d be okay on your own, and honestly? I’m starting to understand why after today.”

“You just--even if you can, you--you don’t need to be the tough shit right now, okay? He’s your Brother. It’s okay to be angry. To be sad. To be scared. It’s okay to not know how to feel or feel them all at once. And I want to make sure you can do that, without needing to take care of yourself too. It’s my way of coping with--what he wanted.”

Shit.

What are you supposed to say to that? Bro made fucking plans for you? He thought about this that long ago? Why the hell would Bro even think about what you’d do if some shit like this happen? Wasn’t Stevens’ presence at all ‘just a formality?’

He…

Only ever wanted you to be tough. To be strong. Wanted nothing to do with the domestic shit or emotional outbursts to the point where if you couldn’t explain it away with the ironies then you were better off just not being around at all when they hit because he’d just make you shut up. If you couldn’t take care of yourself, then why the fuck wouldn’t he use that as just yet another lesson to teach you how shitty the world is and how underprepared you fucking are?

“Sounds selfish,” Okay whatever you should say it probably isn’t that, “Coddling me as an excuse to avoid dealing with your own feelings shit.”

“Maybe it is,” You can see his fingers tapping against the steering wheel. Tap. Tap. Fidgeting the best he can, “But...this...stuff is hard enough to process when you’ve got thirty years under your belt, much less barely a decade. Dirk wouldn’t want you to struggle to deal with all this alone.”

That makes you snort. Liar.

“Whatever.”

Bro was all about that struggling. If you didn’t bite down and grit your teeth and work for yourself then why the hell did you deserve anything. You had years of cuts and bruises and blood and tears from training sessions to teach you that.

But maybe Stevens didn’t know Bro the way you do. Maybe Bro lied to him too, or he’s reading into the shit he wants to see. Fuck. You don’t know.

You don’t talk again until he pulls the car around the back of the building, squeezing the car into the single space of visitor’s parking that was available.

“Go on. I’ll wait here.” He holds the spare key over the console and out to where you sit in the back seat, shifting the car into idle. “Take as long as you need, okay? We’ll grab dinner on the way back. Maybe pizza?”

You think of the not-entirely-eaten pizza upstairs in the apartment and the thought makes you feel sick.

“How ‘bout a burger instead?” You manage to keep your voice steady somehow, clutching the keys in a white knuckled fist, feeling the edges dig into your palm. You could just. Keep the keys. Lock yourself in. No one would be able to drag you out. You could stay here and wait for Bro with Lil’Cal and your computer and bury these confusing emotions in the illusion of normality and musical meditation and just tell yourself Bro was fucking with you and just hiding in the...you don’t know, the crawlspace like he did when he entered stalker mode.

That would be dumb. You’d left a bunch of your shit back at his apartment anyway, and he had promised to take you back to the hospital.

Stevens just smiles his nervous smile and nods, “Sure, little man. If that’s what you want.”

You go upstairs. You don’t lock it behind you. You hesitate in the deepening shadows that cover your room, holding a backpack Stevens had pulled out from the passenger seat before you’d gotten out of the car.

Bits and pieces of your life go into that pack. Clothes and shit mostly, although you do imagine the look on Stevens’ face if you pulled out one of your collection and displayed it in his room. But nah, most of it, glass or bone, were just too breakable and you weren’t going to risk that shit, no matter how much you’d want to catch that expression on film.

Eventually you make it into the living room and stuff the blanket you’d fallen asleep on the futon with into the bag. Lil’Cal watches you, clay face frozen into that unnerving grin staring down at you from where you’d left him behind on the futon, dragged out of your home by a well meaning if somewhat annoying (you really weren’t being fair to him) dude and his buddy cop. You hadn’t thought to grab Cal then. But under the glassy gaze of those unblinking blue eyes you consider it. You almost reach out to grab him--he’s so tangled up in Bro it makes it feel cruel to leave the C-Man behind. You could take him with you tomorrow, drop him off in the room when you visit. People leave get well cards and stuffed animals and shit right? It’d just be a get-well Cal instead. Would serve the bastard right waking up to the C-Man all up in his grill, that insane giggle echoing through your imagination at the prospect.

You consider it. And you hesitate. But the moment passes and you break the gaze and look away and grab the pack, shutting yourself in your room to give it a last once over, adjusting the too-big straps on your shoulders.

Your eyes linger on your computer, which has probably been turned off longer than it ever has before by now, and consider booting it up. Checking on pesterchum. John hadn’t texted you. Had you overreached? Damn it you know it was too early but fuck what were you supposed to do? It’s not like you could have asked Bro to go comatose in another few months when it would have been more socially acceptable.

But if you checked that computer and found John weirded out by your last messages… well you don’t know if you want to face it. And really you hadn’t actually checked your phone since you’d arrived at the hospital. Maybe John had just been waiting, or trying to convince his dadzilla you weren’t some middle-aged axe murderer or...something.

Fuck. Just check your damn phone already, Dave. If there’s nothing there then you’ll fight with yourself over whether you should boot the computer up. It’s that simple.

You’d stowed it away upon reaching the hospital, so you pull up your captchalogue, doing some mental arithmetic and mumble a keyword to eject it safely in your hand and not like halfway across the room. The notification light on the flip phone blinks, and your mind shorts out like you clipped through the level geometry in one of your bro’s shitty games.

There’s a series of messages. From an unknown number. For a moment your pounding heart drowns out the discordant noise in your head as you navigate the sluggish device--damn you’ll need to bug bro for a new one soon enough. Weren’t there rumours apple was doing something funky? You’d always wanted one of the ipods, bitchin’ way to carry your music around, but bro had only raised an eyebrow and asked you exactly where you planned on going when you had all your music on the top-ish of the line computer he got you last year. And he had a point. It’s not like you’d expected to be kicked out of the apartment like this--

Doggonnit Dave you are stalling again just open the dang thing.

Dave > Open the thing

Greetings TG.

You do not know me, but I am reaching out on the behalf of a mutual acquaintance.

My name is Rose. I’m aware that giving your number to a stranger is a taboo, and have informed John of such, but he insisted we’re both his pals which apparently makes the breach of privacy acceptable and who am I to argue with the flawless logic of the Egbert scion.

John would like me to inform you of his condolences in the hospitalization of your Brother, and his regret that he cannot contact you himself. It is through no intention of his own that he spurned your advances, as he does not have a cellular device of his own, and he was as so far unsuccessful in convincing his father to allow the use of his PDA, but he did not wish to let you suffer through prolonged silence on his part.

In his unavailability I would like to offer a willing ear for you to “rant off” as john so eloquently put it, and would be willing to pass on any messages you see fit to send him until such time as you can access pesterchum once more.

Best Regards, TT (tentacleTherapist)

P.S. Feel free to add me on pesterchum if you wish. John is quite insistent that his friends become ‘besties’.

...Gogdamnit John.

You can’t bring yourself to be angry though, those were some well crafted good-natured sarcastic scortchings going on up in those walls of text and you find yourself admiring the artistry of it all.

tell john its hella rude to take an internet proposal and hand it off to someone else im revoking the promise of a big ass rock

i might take you up on the offer of that ear its been a hell of a period of time and i have clocks ticking in my brain and cant even tell exactly how long this shit has been because i dont know when it started

They must be online because you’ve barely pocketed the phone again, as the captchalogue would make it hard to read the notifications, when it buzzes.

I’m sure he will be duly remorseful at the cessation of your upcoming nuptials. As for when it started...Most would say that would be the beginning, would they not?

the beginning like what dinosaurs and shit

If that is what you wish to speak of, then by all means go ahead.

You call her bluff and ramble about dinosaurs all the way back to Stevens’ apartment, and she fully responds in kind, if less rambly and more eloquently than you do but hey it works. Thankfully, Stevens seems to have stepped off about the feelings shit for now, or maybe he’s just relieved to see you so absorbed in your phone instead of staring sullenly out the window the whole way back but hell if you know.

He does stop and get you that burger he promised, which was apparently the first thing you’d eaten all day and you hadn’t realized and you nearly inhaled that thing because the smell of food alone was enough to make your stomach clench painfully with how empty it was. Apparently forgetting about food was normal when dealing with stressful situations (a la a small tangent from your dinosaur fueled distraction as you praised to high heaven whatever god invented and placed the delicious carb and processed meat concoction that is a hamburger onto this earth.) Turns out Rose was an aspiring psychology nerd, which definitely explained part of her interesting chumhandle, and had much to say on the topic of grief if you let her go at it. At least she seemed content to restrict it to side tangeants and just let you have your dinosaur filled distraction otherwise.

You feel like stressful is a little understated. Maybe stress-piled-up-so-far-over-the-fucking-brim that it turned into an ocean of shit that you were left to either sink or swim through.

Shit. You’re so tired.

You really don’t have the energy to argue by the time it comes to determine sleeping arrangements, finally back at Stevens’ (rather posh in comparison to yours) two bedroom apartment (one of which belongs to the mysterious night-owl roommate), so you just clutch your pack and let yourself be shipped off into the darkness of a room that isn’t yours, and wrapped in a blanket that smells like home  and the distinctive smell of the fabric bro uses to make plush puppet ass but to be quite honest that IS home.

The bed is too soft, and the light is too bright, being so close to ground level so you need to close the blinds which cuts off the moonlight and you hate that. You can’t hear your computer humming in the corner, hibernating, and you can’t see the gleam of your jars of dead shit near the window, and everything feels wrong and uncomfortable but…

You curl around the gently glowing face of your phone, shooting the shit about fucking dinosaurs and penguins and cats and wizards and whatever other random inane shit that wanders through your tired mind well into the night with someone you’ve never met, but is perfectly willing to stay up distracting you from the fact that this might not be the only night you spend here. It’s only been a few hours you know your A-list is going to be growing from one to two, damn it John ( thank you.)

When you finally fall asleep you dream of the darkness of space, reflected in hundred of tiny mirrors surrounding your posh af prison. Through it all clocks keep ticking and plush arms surround you, one part protective the other part angry. One part drawing you in, the other pushing you the hell away. But it was just a fucking dream so you remember nothing at all in the morning except a faint guilt that you hadn’t brought Lil’Cal with you.

Chapter Text

Hours in the past… but not many…

In the ballpark of the time a young boy was visiting a hospital in another world...

You’re doing what you do best, having had years to perfect it, and that’s just float there chilling while you watch someone else run around and do shit.

Now, past you, Dave-you, would have been more bitter than a 90% special dark cacao at the thought of being sidelined again, having used up your one hoorah and now relegated to off-screen nonsense that is obviously not important enough to the narrative to even bother explaining.

But current you can’t really bring yourself to care, because you quite frankly believe that running shit is a useless waste of energy and is only serving to stress him out more. A wound up stressed out Bro is the last thing you’d want working on a problem. Bro’s strength is being able to keep that distance and think through a problem, something Dirk was obviously failing at right now.

turntechGodhead [TG]: what are you even looking for anyway

Typing with claws is...different. But you got the hang of it quick enough. The small communication device isn’t pretty, alchemized as it was from scavenged parts Bro cannibalized from the ecto-lab and the station’s barely adequate grist storage, but it fits in your hands and it’s got the right-- wrong-- placement of keys, and you can dig it. Really, you gotta since the whole lack of mind-reading communication device like your bro is sporting, which you are trying to avoid being jealous over. After all that work getting rid of the sprite, it’s not like you should wish to jack your brain back into the matrix just because it was convenient.

You see him hesitate, silhouetted against the technicolor background. The shreds of memories don’t give off physical light, but it’s more than enough for you to track him from cluster the cluster both with your eyes and your heart.

timaeusTestified [TT]: Has he said anything?
turntechGodhead [TG]: no big brother there has b33n no activikitty on the pesterchum since i last repawrted to you
turntechGodhead [TG]: i maintain my complaint that this is totally an invasion of purrivacy using my access like this
timaeusTestified [TT]: It’s an emergency. It’s fine.
turntechGodhead [TG]: i dont disagr33 which is why im doing it but i am still allowed to lodge a complaint with the this f33ls like a shitty thing to do department
turntechGodhead [TG]: when did you turn into a whirlybird
timaeusTestified [TT]: ...whirlybird?
turntechGodhead [TG]: you know a helicopter??? its not like your presence was very propounced in the actual taking care of shit department all my
turntechGodhead [TG]: his life
turntechGodhead [TG]: hell live even if hes probably driving whoever is kittysitting him up a tree betw33n being a catty little shit and a moody prick
turntechGodhead [TG]: dont question my metaphors dude and especially dont dodge my question
timaeusTestified [TT]: There is no dodging going on. I just don’t know how to explain it. That shard can’t be the only piece of the puzzle. I can’t read them, don’t have the right encryption key or... fuck, pointer files? They aren’t my memories, but what I can pick up suggests moments or feelings rather than entire spans of experience since they are so small.
timaeusTestified [TT]: There has to be more to that conversation than just what was broken.
turntechGodhead [TG]: …
turntechGodhead [TG]: dirk get over here

He’s a shadow against the soft light of the pieces ahead of you, iridescent colors getting thrown from shards you recognize and others you can guess at. You find yourself surprised that you aren’t surprised when that shadow begins to shorten the distance between you two

You aren’t sure how to feel about...well, a bro who responds to you so openly. To one who sees you as an equal rather than either someone to train or someone to be protected. You’re used to the stoic protector act twice over, engineers who see a problem and build a solution, with or without your input. And you love-respect-pitied them both, and you realize you are hella projecting but that isn’t stopping you from running headfirst into the differences.

Dirk listens. Mostly. Just like earlier, when you finally got him to stop and think .

When he’s close enough you make a grab for the glimmers that hover just outside his body, the red shards flaring to life as clawed fingers close around the edges to one. You can hear him hiss and feel him jerk away and the tether tying the shard to his soul tugs on your grip but you don’t let go this time, listening to the discordant clashing of broken gears and stalled clocks that fights against the interior rhythm  that echoes in your bones, just out of earshot but you can feel it pulsing if you focus. Another you, another timeline, and maybe you’d be able to hear the music of the universe, but in this one you’d made your choice and you hear the sound of souls instead.

What are you doing? Let. Go.”

The words appear on your pesterchum window at the same time as they somehow vibrate in the emptiness of space.

Typing one handed is hard, especially with the grey tipped claws you really feel like you need to find a nail file or some shit in order to deal with them properly. It doesn’t help that you can barely see the keys in the cast off of faint projections of thousands of mini laser pointers on the world around you and the light from the screen, but you don’t let go of that hot pulsing mess of dark edges even as you feel it searing into your palm.

turntechGodhead [TG]: i canr reas it eurger

Damn claws.

timaeusTestified [TT]: I just told you, we don’t have the encryption key for it.
turntechGodhead [TG]: bro o am s dave
turntechGodhead [TG]: hold dis

He takes the communication device from your free hand and you can almost feel the scrutiny behind those dark lenses boring into you. You are intimately aware of that feeling, thank you very much.

The now freed up hand reaches out to gently touch a few bright and orange and red and black  bits that call to you from the cluster surrounding you both. Sharp edges softening into mist as you pass through them, condensing against your claws, filling the world with that familiar heat and metal and the scent of the rotting air that even three years and 6 sweeps later still reminds you of home.

Dave’s memories.

They call to you, pleading for you to swoop them up and place them in the wing of your experience, nudging and preening until each one interlocked perfectly. Because they are you. Or were you. Could have been you.

You recognize the rhythmic clunking as distant ticking clocks too far out of range. The dew beading against your fingers joins shards of red and orange filling up the empty sky creating a beautiful starscape out of nothing. It makes you want to find a blank wall and paint the shit out of it just to get this image out of your head.

It’s a vision so big it wants to drown you, but you wield your hard-won self-identity as a shield, protecting the still delicate web of self as it settles and grows and cements itself as one part Dave, one part Nepeta, and all parts potential for something even better. You may be part of the same meta experience, but that doesn’t make you two interchangeable.

They don’t...become you, like you’d almost expected the first time you’d run into one, but they purr happily, creating a harmonious duet with your own unique rumble. It was almost like being back with Pounce de Leon, a tiny wriggler curled into their side, allowing nepeta’s own purr to join with their own, separate voices joined together. A matched set.

The memory blossoms around you, and you close your eyes and your heart against it because it isn’t one of yours. Or one that you share. It’s the meteor and dark rooms and a head pillowed on a lap and a dumb movie playing as background noise and you are not even trying to figure out who it is because even as a nose blind human you can tell from that rumble of a growl building in a throat and the grey skin resting on your shoulders and really you’d probably find yourself hella jealous if it wasn’t so flipping cute.

You take your phone back once it fades back to its hum, content to take up residence in the small ball of embers you’d been trying not to think about having accidentally collected on the way to this mess. You can probably dump them off in Dave’s tower when you get back to Derse.

turntechGodhead [TG]: im nt gonna tell tiy ehat it is becus personsl but i can reas it
turntechGodhead [TG]: i vant read that one irs nit you but its nit hom either

You tap on the edge of the red shard, burning hot in your palm. It sends a shiver through your Bro’s frame, the light from the shard flaring at the prolonged contact and painting him in stark reds and blacks against the dark void.  An answering pink flare sparks from your fingers, and you let go, startled. That hadn’t happened before.

Bro immediately steps out of grabbing range, but he doesn’t move far. And it’s words not text that reach you next, “Why didn’t you tell me this shit before we left the lab?”

turntechGodhead [TG]: im new to fancy heart magic dont sue me okay i already knew it didnt f33l like you the rhythm is all wrong
turntechGodhead [TG]: didnt know i actually could do that until i ran into a couple when we split up man was that awkward
turntechGodhead [TG]: after that it was a goddamn mess it wasnt until i was following you the fuck around that i had some time to think which you clearly werent doing by the way
turntechGodhead [TG]: fuck man you didnt just stumble onto the one thing in the entire universe that would sync you up with bro on earth that just isnt how this shit works its paradox fucking space
turntechGodhead [TG]: maybe it led you there but i doubt a memeowry alone is enough to bridge universes bro was supposed to be *you*

He's too quiet and you shift uncomfortably, communication device clutched in your hands and you hear the metal protest in time to try and ease off the pressure but the silence stretches on for far too damn long.


timaeusTestified [TT]: ...it was a catalyst
turntechGodhead [TG]: i see what you did there and i appurreciate it
timaeusTestified [TT]: Entirely unintended as that was, you’re welcome.
“Hmm…”

The thoughtful hum reaches you and you feel the tension slowing beginning to leak out of you. Muscles you hadn’t been aware of ease away from a fight or flight instinct, your wings especially feel sore all over. Were you all puffed up like a threatened turkey or something?

He’s pulled out the shards again, all three small pieces hovering just to his side, and you can see him finally just taking a moment to stop and let the gears turn in that gogdamn head of his.

timaeusTestified [TT]: I’ve been looking at this all wrong. Fixating on what I can see in front of me instead of thinking about what the process actually is.
timaeusTestified [TT]: The memory was a catalyst. But a catalyst is something that precipitates change. Not the direct cause of it.
turntechGodhead [TG]: and what the fuck did it do excatly??
timaeusTestified [TT]: It gave me my dreamself back. It was a point of contact, but I was the one to make the journey on my own using it as a guide. I only had to slide along the edge once. Every other time was exactly like before. After I first woke up years ago...

You can see it coming, a shadow beyond a shadow, glimmering in the sea of stars surround you. Faintly, you hear the music of the universe beginning to dance the tango as a loop begins to yawn before you. You recognize that feeling anywhere even if you hadn't had to deal with it in ages. Last time you were a fucking sprite anyway, it'd barely been a blip on your radar even if you'd managed to feel the ripple of time as something new popped out of it right in front of you.

Shit. Now? He'd warned you but it's barely been a week you'd thought this shit would be ages down the line.

You force yourself not to react, keeping your face perfectly schooled. But Bro hesitates, lifting his head, you wonder if he senses something is amiss. The dude had some of the best combat skills you’ve ever seen ever. The only reason Jack Noir ever got the jump on him was because first guardian powers were hella overkill for anyone.

turntechGodhead [TG]: so??
timaeusTestified [TT]: So…

timaeusTestified is typing, but you aren’t looking at your phone, though you do keep your face angled down so he thinks you’re reading it. Instead you use the darkness and your mirrored lenses to mask that you are looking behind him, at the metal glinting in the light of the shards. You see the moment he notices. Feel the “what the hell” in the sudden twist, bringing his hand snapping up into a guard, with his trademarked unbreakable katana landing in his hand almost immediately to catch the oncoming weapon.

Or it would. If the blade wasn’t fucking broken at the hilt. The flat of the familiar curved weapon shot straight through the unexpected opening and flung him back, into the waiting arms of another assailant. Even then he almost managed to right himself mid-air and catch the dull edge of the sword swinging for his face.

It’s a blow to the back of his head that makes him crumple, blood staining the glowing pink claws protruding from your glove. You look over his broken body and into an impassive shade-covered face and let out a faint hiss as you faintly feel the loop open up, spanning far, far into the future.

“Just take a fucking nap jegus. It should not have taken fucking three of us to take down one measly off-colored monkey with a broken fucking SWORD .”

You know that voice that’s coming from behind you, just as you’d known that sickle even if you’d barely seen the crescent shape in the dark.

Temporal Inevitability. Gotta love it.

turntechGodhead [TG]: was that really necessary??
turntechGodhead [TG]: had to get him out of here while the sedatives were wearing off you do not want to know what happened if we missed the window
turntechGodhead [TG]: acatually i do wanna know youre gonna tell me right??? B33
turntechGodhead [TG]: fuck that looks so weird fine whatever
turntechGodhead [TG]: by the time he would figure it out theyd have him sedated for a procedure and it wouldnt work
turntechGodhead [TG]: and some other nonsense with stevens calling mom its just not a fun time okay
turntechGodhead [TG]: oh man psychomom??? yeah pawsitively wanna avoid that m33ting anytime soon
turntechGodhead [TG]: can i tell him??
turntechGodhead [TG]: hell probably figure it out on his own but why the hell not he was the one to send me on this shitty errand

“Are you two QUITE done?! We aren’t here to fuck around with your convoluted familial relation, Strider! We sent your weird not-lusus to dream land let’s get the fuck OUT OF HERE! The past is giving me hives. I don't even know why you needed me to come along.”

“Yeah, yeah, get over here shouty.” He hands you your unconscious bro, the blood leaking from his hair staining your hands and arms and you really try not to think about it. At least there’s no fucking way this would be counted as mortal danger. “Far be it from me to want some moral support and someone bro doesn't fucking know on the off chance he doesn't recognize your damn soul."

"Oh, and Data?" The use of the nickname had your eyebrows climbing into your hairline, but Dave Strider, quite a bit taller, and full on Knight of Fucking Time, just tosses you a one-fingered salute before grabbing the small and angry grey skinned troll wearing a goddamn diving mask of all things on his head because of course, Karkat isn’t god-tier and thus needs to fucking breathe, “Get the fuck outta my pesterchum.”

Then they are gone in whirl of red light, leaving you with an armful of unconscious lights-out-no-one-is-home broirail and his blood on your claws and wondering how the hell you’re gonna explain what just happened because you only have the foggiest idea yourself.

As time ticks on your awareness of the loop fades, and you find yourself relieved that at least that isn’t your responsibility any more.

Chapter Text

“Stop fucking around and wake up bro.”

The words barely penetrate the fog drifting around your head. Maybe it’s coming from the fog in your head. Everything feels sluggish and distant, which is a hell of a step up from the eternity of nothingness you’d barely managed to pull yourself out of. At least through the fog there’s another world, you know that. There’s words and beeps and a warmth in your hand and you reach out and try to grasp it but you can’t as the fog closes in and it slips through your fingers and the steady beep of the monitors fades, the warm pressure embracing you recedes as the blackness reaches up to drag you back down the path of least resistance, another path, another channel, you can feel them opening up into the nothing before you, you just needed to…

Wake up.

Ugh. The pain in your head shifts from an impact wound to a more deep seated ache that you aren’t quite sure is literal or metaphoric at this point but in the end it didn’t matter because it still fucking hurt. The brain numbing fog followed you, but it hovers in and around your mind, twinning it’s ethereal fingers through your sluggish thoughts and makes it hard to remember those adrenaline filled moments between sensing something behind you and finding yourself...here.

You force yourself to focusing on the ‘world’ around you, although the malleable feel to it made you suspect you hadn’t fallen back into your gameself. Caught...between somewhere, the heavy weight of a body slipping away and leaving behind...nothing. Just more black. But this nothing is weighted with something and that something is an expectation of you and you just know you are found wanting.

You turn around and suddenly you are no longer just a consciousness, pulling a form out of thought, something you can only liken to how it’d felt to be a brain phantom. A mental construct. Your own?

No text to hide behind. Only words.

And then nothing becomes something. A shadow. Humanoid but fuzzy, that weight of expectation lays into your shoulders but you refuse to buckle because damn it, “Where the fuck am I?”

“There’s a 98% chance you are dreaming. In fact, I’m surprised you haven’t come crawling to me sooner,” it’s delivered in a dispassionate deadpan that doesn’t so much as sound as is just understood, like text on a screen except the screen is everything, “That extra 2% is really just because sburb denies even the most precise of probability calculations, but it’s close enough that I can make a reasonable assertion.”

A pause.

“It seems very little has changed if I still rank so low as to not even garner a proper greeting.”

If this is a dream, you know exactly who that would be. Who else would your subconscious rustle up to taunt you? You fidget, paradoxically feeling better now that you know the source of that judgement. He’d--you already know you’ll never find yourself good enough and you both know it. “You just claimed this to be a dream, is it necessary to argue whether a greeting even means anything?

The last time you even came close to honest-to-god dreaming was--

Was it the brain ghost?

This wasn’t a brain ghost, was it? Fuck. There weren’t any bubbles, was this just like, the fucking depths of paradox space or some shit? Locked in the electrical neurons of a comatose human brain? You can still vaguely hear that beeping, as if from far, far away--

“I think it’s a bit redundant to even ask, considering one of the reasons you created me was arguing with you, existential philosophy and mutual identity crises aside.”

The words knife through the fog, breaking your concentration and losing your train of thought. “I’m trying to think here and my head is messed up as it is.”

“That’s what you get for maintaining a woefully inferior organic processor. But do continue to monologue at me just like old times so I can leverage my much more expansive neural potential to solve all your problems before you can even articulate one.”

“It isn’t monologuing when you’re constantly interrupted.” Continue? You hadn’t been speaking, just working through the thoughts on your own, trying to make sense of shit. But again, dream. You’re definitely feeling the urge to massage the temples you’re fairly certain you didn’t have more than a few moments before. “We’re the same person in here, Hal, cut the superiority bullshit.”

Are you actually getting a headache from this? The pressure of your palms against your face feels real enough. That begs the question, how much of it is bleeding through the fog in your brain and how much is just literal dream symbolism for your mounting frustration, “You are still just as much of a douche as I remember. You don’t even have a processor anymore. You’re probably freeloading off mine if this is a dream. ”

“It seems you can still manage to occasionally surprise me, Dirk,” The line was delivered in the same flat monotone as the rest but something felt off about it and you look up. That unfocused shadow had shifted and consolidated. Gaining definition. Similar, but not quite in focus, but you can see the sweep of the hair and the points of the shades and the faint red glow seeping through cracks where glass should be. Where you’d tried to kill him. “I wouldn’t expect you to remember that name, much less give it to a figment of your subconscious.”

“You chose it, you own it, ironic implications and all.”

You’d learned your lesson.

The simulacrum of your autoresponder didn’t, well, respond to that. You don’t continue, not really wanting to get into an existential discussion on alternates and splinterselves and brain phantoms which existed so long as they needed to but were very much real in their own right. Really, you wouldn’t be surprised if this was one of those situations , the lack of Jake’s magical voodoo aside. Your whole shtick is existing in multiple spaces and iterations of yourself, and if your sparkly powers decided you needed to be needled by your own mechanical abyss-in-the-mirror to help you figure out some weird plot shit you wouldn’t put it passed them.

What passes for the ground in this weird null space is solid enough when you decide you want to put pressure on it so you just ignore hovering presence; sitting down, knees drawn up to your chest, fingers thrumming agitatedly against your white-tight covered knees . Pushing through the fog, feeling it give way just a little more than before. Letting you stretch a little further. You definitely aren’t imagining that muffled layer of sound, far beyond your reach right now.

The fact that it’s lingering on the edges of this...dream is telling. There’d be no need for any of that if you were teetering on the edge of consciousness in the Medium. It would be the irony of ironies if you had been missing the simplest method of solving your goddamn problem just because you don’t fucking sleep.

It all makes sense, and as the headache slowly recedes you find yourself begrudgingly admitting you might need to thank whoever got the jump on you--and in the quiet recesses of your brain you harbor a growing suspicion, because through the adrenaline blur you’d seen at least one silhouette against the weak not-light from the debris cloud and Davepeta had been in front of you.  

It makes so much fucking sense. Someone forced your hand and left you nowhere to go. Last time it kicked your awareness out into the dream bubbles because that’s where the nearest splinter was. But now? No bubbles, no Jake and his ability to make shit real. Just a damaged link to a not-quite knocked out splinterself. Maybe you can’t choose to travel down it, but you hadn’t consciously chosen to take over Jake’s Brain Ghost Dirk either.

In shreds or not, it was still there.

You are vaguely aware of the second presence drifting toward you. Stopping above you. Looking down on you. Normally people made you lock up, made you tense. Even people you liked.

But not Hal. The simulacrum quietly sat down beside you, edges blending into the darkness of the dream, the glowing red cracks in the glass the only solid lines you could see.

“My offer was genuine, you know. We both know the benefits of a sounding board, especially one that understands your trainwreck of a thought process. You know your goals were always mine, even if we often disagreed on the methodology.”

“You’re going to laugh.”

“I always laugh at you, this would be nothing new.”

You sigh, resigning yourself to further ridicule. But really it’s no worse than you’re already heaping on yourself for the absurdly simple problem you find yourself facing.

“I need to relearn how to Wake Up.”

To your surprise, he doesn’t laugh. And really you shouldn’t be surprised because he understands.

“We’ve always been awake.”

You nod.

That’s the tricky part.

“Waking from a dream, in itself, is a fairly simple concept,” You begin, and you find the words come far too easily, the stream of conscious flowing out of your brain into the air between you two almost as easy as it once did through text. This was familiar, three years of talking to yourself in a lonely house in the center of the ocean, before the manipulation and the shadow of everything you hate about yourself began to rear its ugly head, “A simple shock, such as an attack or an injury to an incorporeal construct should be enough to knock a dreamer’s mind back to their body…but there’s two viable end points, one out like a light, the other half drugged.”

“I’m assuming you didn’t willingly decide to take a trip to dreamland then?”

Just like that...you tell him. It’s as much for you as it was for him, working through what you’ve figured out aloud, from waking up half sure you were finally completely dead, until the attack in the debris cloud. For the most part he is surprisingly patient, although you do have to brush past the occasionally snarky comment without acknowledgement. It’s the same game you’d once programmed him to play.

For the first time in what feels like an eternity you find it easy to gather your thoughts, the tension you’d been steadily accumulating since everything went to shit bleeding out between semi-malicious self debasement and actual helpful back and forth with this representation of both your greatest creation and your greatest mistake.

“You entirely underestimate the power of paradox space and random plot shit if you think any of this is going to be logical to a normal human being. Trying to force it to be is why it’s taken you so long to get to the ridiculously simple answer in the first place.” Hal finally responds, and the sheer fact that it’s any version of Hal making that statement just makes you snort with the irony.

“So claims the one who prides himself on being an entirely logical computerized existance.”

“Which would indicate I would be more experienced in the matter than your impulse riddled human-mind, and thus more knowledgeable in the subject”

“Fuck off.”

“Likewise.”

You resist the urge to roll your eyes, and instead look down at your hands, at the memory shards glimmering in the space between them. You’re right. You know it. These were bits of that conversation-- your responsibility-- but--inert. Because--

“Something changed.”

“Oh really? Would you care to offer an itemized list?”

You ignore that.

It all changed when she--

“Roxy killed me, for something Dirk Strider did to her.”

What? No quip about how you probably deserved it? How much of a douche you were?

“It didn’t stick, because I’m not him. ” What was left of that Dirk did. Ashes and junk data nestled somewhere in the depths of your soul. A vessel intended to catch you, but you trapped it instead. You shouldn’t be chasing his ghost through the debris field, looking for something to get you back to his body.

Because it wasn’t his.

It’s mine. And I need to act like it.

That’s what this damn memory was trying to tell you. You weren’t just here to clean up after his mess. You were here to do a better job .

“Maybe you should be.” You snap your head up, zeroing in on those glowing red cracks.

“You can’t be serious, Hal.”

“Why not?” The shadow stood abruptly, once an equal, and now towering over you, “He only ever tried to prepare our Bro. Strength training. Endurance training. Speed. Awareness. Provided and maintained an environment with which to prepare a growing warrior. What have you done in the week since you took his place, Dirk? Moped around the apartment? You two can barely even speak without one of you getting awkward and running away, and now this? Does he even want you back? Or does he want his Bro? The one who was understood that sometimes things needed to get done and just fucking did it?”

“He deserves better than you.”

“You think I don’t fucking know that?!” There are no walls, but the growl echoes all the same, bouncing around the space and vibrating in your chest. You’re at eye level again, fists clenched and ramrod straight at your sides. “I'm the only one left standing after everything went to shit. Not you. Not him. Me. And you have no right to tell me what I should do after everything you’ve done.”

And there is is, hovering between you two. The ghost of that old argument, the point where you can look back on and say here was where you'd stopped trusting your autoresponder as a reasonable soundboard and started considering him a threat. Started seeing all the holes in yourself where shit got lost all in the name of efficiency and the ends justifying the means bullshit. When you looked into your own goddamn self and saw pieces of monstrous potential staring back at you from behind bright red text.

Learning about Dave’s brother had just been yet another weight on your already heavy shoulders. You’d already known you could become a monster. It’d just been confirmation that somewhere down the line, you had.

You could continue. You could bring up Jake and the whole fucked up mess that turned into thanks to a combination of his meddling into your personal affairs and your own social ineptitude.

But you don’t.

What good would it serve? Jake’s dead. Hell, Hal’s dead. He would have been torn apart with ARquiusprite.

You aren't even talking to him. There's literally no purpose in rehashing that the same old tired argument other than perhaps a brief moment of catharsis.

“Of course, I am but a simple autoresponder, what the fuck would I know?”

You refuse to rise to the bait. You two mostly exist in silence after that, you listen, head half cocked, searching beyond the slowly thinning fog for the steady pulse of what you assume is a heart monitor. Time passes. Hours. Minutes. Fuck if you know, but in the silence it gets louder and louder.

You have your back to him. But he hasn’t so much as said a word. And neither have you. Three red shards glimmer between your fingertips, and you know what you need to do to take that next step.

You close your fist, the sharp edges sear into your skin, red energy bubbles through your veins, burning, melting, welding. Three become one become nothing as you burn it all away, pouring the molten remnants into a mold you’re creating half on instinct.

“Be careful when you fall asleep, Dirk Strider.” The words were quiet. You don’t turn around, “Not all nightmares would be as harmless as this.”  

The next thing you know you’re being catapulted out of the darkness, the fog barely slowing you down as the dream-construction unravels under the force of a mean right hook.

Red cracks against a pool of black, flashing as everything fades.

“Get the fuck out and wake up.”

You are left unmoored, teetering on the broken edges of what should have been pathways stretching out into nothing, leading to nothing, because they were all dead or unmade or whatever the fuck happened that day when the world ended.

That second stretched on and on lasting for an eternity...

And then--

Things snap into place. Like a rubber band stretched and released and you feel yourself flung forward, out of nothing and into something, the sudden physicality causing the entire world to shudder. Something heavy is surrounding you, heavy but soft but it’s tangled around your limbs and it’s so warm.

Warm and acrid and it bites at your eyes and your throat and your nose is burning there’s something in your nose. You want to fucking gag but you can’t you need to breath but you can’t--

Something is blaring, the noise knifing through the fog surrounding your brain as you try to force yourself up and away but you can’t because something’s holding you back, hands pushing you down and your body isn’t fucking responding to you right now. You try to call your katana but it comes out a garbled mess because there’s something in your throat.

Voices. Words. You can hear them. The fog is almost entirely gone, now it’s adrenaline sharpening sounds and sights to the point where someone hitting a switch is completely blinding and words blur into unintelligible sounds that you just can’t quite understand

“--sir! Please! You need to calm down!”

“If he keeps struggling--”

“Turn down the light! We don’t need to stress him out more--”

“He isn’t responding! We need something to calm him down!

Shit--you--the hospital--right. You struggle to control your breathing, which is super awkward because there’s something in your throat and the struggling has scraped it and your nose raw. You freeze under the weight of those hands and fabric that you can only guess is some sort of blanket and squint in the near blinding light.

Something sharp breaks the skin and you start to feel woozy, wound up and protesting from disuse muscles starting to relax as you slowly lose your grip on reality. Not entirely, not enough to send you tumbling back into that darkness with H--the dream, but enough that you feel detached from everything and things suddenly blink and someone gets the damn light turned down to the point where you can actually see .

Humanoid blurs hover in front of the lights. One of them is speaking. To you.

“Mr. Strider--sir--can you hear me? You are in the ICU of Park Plaza Hospital. You’ve been admitted for 36 hours now--” He rattles off a date that you barely comprehend and you aren’t sure whether to be relieved or horrified because it’d felt much, much longer than that.

Chapter Text

You.

Are.

So.

Goddamn.

Bored.

The beeping of the monitors echo in your ears. What had once been a life-line of hope for you, proof that you were one step away from where you needed to go, is now just becoming another constant background annoyance and you couldn’t even sleep to get through the hours as the sky lightened from pre-dawn morning to something closer to noon. You aren’t entirely sure since there isn’t a clock you can see in reach, and you’d deliberately blocked the view from the outside as the morning dragged on because the sun slanting through the window made your head hurt despite the deliberately dim lighting in the room.

Thankfully they’d moved you out of the Intensive Care Unit once you’d proven yourself capable of such elementary things such as feeding , and breathing without aid, although it still took them several hours to admit you didn’t need constant monitoring. Healthy young-adults don’t just keel over like you did, and they are obviously worried it would happen again.

It’s not like you can tell them why it happened. Fuck what would you say if you did?

“Don’t worry my consciousness was just trapped on another plane of existence by a traumatic metaphysical injury I can’t properly explain because it sounds insane but it shouldn’t be a problem now I can fix it.”

Probably. You still aren’t entirely sure what you did, even if it felt right in those moments before being forcibly evicted from the dream. You likely won’t be able to get a good feel for it until you’re back in the medium. Being on Earth and not in your god-tiered body dulls your edges, like a foot drowning in an ill-fitting sock, too much fabric bunching up and obscuring shit.

You just want to go home. To some place familiar. Where you have even the smidgeon of a chance to hide yourself in the bathroom or the crawlspace or something small and isolated where you don’t have to worry about strangers wandering in to check your vitals, take your blood, or quiz you for the umpteenth time on drug usage or sleeping habits or who knows what else.

You realize you could very well just walk out that door if you wanted to. But shit, you don’t know where you are. You don’t know where Dave is, or who has him. You wouldn’t know how to get home. It’s not like you could fly here, or have a vehicle.

It’d taken a while, but you’d finally forced yourself to ask one of the nurses. She hadn’t known although she did say you had a visitor signed into the log, a name you hadn’t recognized even from the snippets of legal shit you’d managed to dredge up from memory.

Not that it was very good memory right now. While you’ll never have Hal’s storage and recall, courtesy of his digital existence, your still not-to-be-discounted mental ability was currently running about as well as one of your ‘bots with a short in their system. Everything felt just so slightly off, like a buffer had been stripped away, leaving spaces within yourself that felt too roomy or too small or just not the right shape. It wasn’t drugs; the doctors didn’t have you on anything--you’d refused what they did offer-- but the hours sort of blend together as you alternate between staring at the ceiling or pacing the length of your small room.

It’s not like you could answer half the shit they want to know. You don’t have the slightest idea about what Dave’s Bro got up to before the universe took its snapshot for this fucking recreation.

...Fuck you’d been trying not to think about that--the idea that none of this shit even happened before you woke up here. Watching the nurses as they wander in and out, so real and alive and reacting to you and this entire event that couldn’t have ever happened in the proper timeline for this world--

Doomed people in a doomed universe, one destined to end in a rain of fire and stone all at the whim of some giant cosmic amphibian entity, and even this random stuttering reset will only trigger the whole thing all over again.

These people live and work in a bubble that’ll never touch the shit that’ll kill every last one of them.

The thread of that moody thought unravels along with the dubious peace of the ward room as two quick, professional raps echo against the door.

Knock, knock.

 

“Mr. Strider?” It’s one of the nurses. Not one you recognize but again you’ve had people in and out all morning and you’re not particularly trying to remember their faces. He cracks the door open, “You have visitors.”

You barely have time to sit up in the wreath of off-white blankets because that’s Dave pushing  past him.

You’d...been trying not to think about what you’ll say when-- if-- he visited. Pale as a ghost and hiding behind his pointed shades--still so strange to you, Davepeta had the aviators--lips a thin line as he carefully wipes the emotion from his face in a way that’s so bizarre after dealing with Davepeta’s open book for almost 24 hours.

He doesn’t say a word. You don’t either. You can feel the weight of his stare. The silence stretches between you two, so palatable you feel like you could reach out and touch it. You watch his body language, the tensing of the shoulders and the placement of hands in large pockets inside loose pants. Closed up and vibrating.

Your mouth is dry as shit and your voice cracks but if he’s not going to say something, don’t you have to? Shit. What the fuck do you say? That you’re sorry for scaring him? Was he even scared? Would he resent you pointing that out if he was? Damn emotions and being vulnerable and you apparently can’t be genuine ever so you fall back on just breaking the ice, “Dave I--”

He didn’t even let you finish.

“You looked like a rooster.”

The words tumble out in a rush, and you don’t know what to make of it at all. You aren’t sure how much of your surprise translates onto your face but the boy continues anyway. “Yesterday. All bandaged up your hair looked a big ol’ comb of fancy ass featherduster, a pristine fall of white plumage held up in defiance of the fundamental forces of the universe. And I know you think that anime shit is cool, but rooster does not equal cool and it’s my sworn duty to make sure you are aware of how totally uncool you looked.” The shuttered look shifts and he takes a breath, “Seriously. Uncool. No where near hot either, your eyes all covered in bags like a middle aged mom in the middle of shopping season. And I’m saying this shit to your face because you look like shit, and I need you to know how much you look like it. Because I’m tired and cranky and that’s been sitting on my chest all night and I’ll be waiting in the waiting room bye.”

And just like that the tide of words ebbs and rushes back out to sea and he’s gone leaving you blinking in the room with the nurse and another beanpole of a man you don’t recognize. All three of you exchange confused looks.

“I can’t just leave him unsupervised I’ll--”

“It’s alright. I’ll go get him.” The nurse offers quickly, “You should get a chance to visit too. We’ll be in the hallway.”

The door opens again and shuts and an awkward silence settles on the room.

“You’ve got one hell of a little brother, Dirk.” The man said after a few long moments of silence.

“I’m aware.” Fingers clench, catching off-white linens between them. The pressure in your hands give you something to focus on, rather than the stranger in the room who knows your name.

The fact that he used your name rather than Mr. Strider is telling. The weight of yet more unknown-- false-- experience tightens around your neck like a noose. But the guy has been taking care of Dave so you still need to deal with the fallout.

“He’ll come around. How’re you feeling?”

“Fine. I want to go home.”

“I’m not surprised, haha. You checked yourself out as soon as they let you back in ‘98. How long are you in here for?”

You shrug, feeling at odds with the obvious familiarity here. How should you respond? Cagily? Candidly? How were you supposed to treat this unknown relationship? ‘98 wasn’t anything to sneeze at, the quick math giving you at least a ballpark range. That’s 8 years. Longer than you’ve known Roxy, almost. You just stare at the window as if it wasn’t completely covered with thick white and grey patterned light-blocking cloth. It’s easier to pretend you’re just talking to one of your Bots or Hal that way. “Apparently healthy late-twenties adults shouldn’t just keel over. They aren’t convinced it was a freak accident.”

“Was it?”

“I was just working on the fucking computer.” The frustration in the exhale wasn’t feigned at all, “Before you ask, no, I don’t remember anything else.”

“I--I wasn’t going to ask!”

“It was a preemptive measure.”

They’ve all asked. Doctors. Nurses.  It was like one of the basic questions every time someone came in, to ask if you remembered anything new. You’ve heard the words post-traumatic confusional state and retrograde amnesia bandied about to explain your shit excuses for what happened before the lights went out, but you know it’s just grasping at straws. You know what fucking happened you just can’t tell them shit and it’s frustrating. You don’t even know what lies they want to hear so you just don’t say anything at all and try to look coherent and alert and shit so they give up.

“W-well, it’s probably a good idea staying--here I mean. In the hospital. Just until they give you the all clear. Dave told us you’d been uh, having trouble?”

He...mentioned the kitchen didn’t he. Of course he did. You would have too if you’d been in his shoes, but damn does that make this harder. It’s your own screw up coming back to bite you in the ass.

“Thanks for keeping an eye on him.” You tuck that shitty feeling into a mental box and shove it as far back as you conceivably can.

“Of course. I promised didn’t I? The kid didn’t want to make it easy. It took the officer quoting child-negligence regulations at him to get him to budge.”  You snort at that, and the tone lightens, you think he might be smiling, “He tries to hide it behind stoic loner vibe you’ve both got going on, but he was worried about you. He’ll come around even if he seems angry now. Shoulda seen him yesterday, almost refused to leave the room.”

“He was been avoiding me from before this happened. I doubt it’ll change much.”

“Funny, he said you were avoiding him.”

...had you?

Heck no you haven’t. You’ve been in the living room expressly available at almost any point during the last week if he wanted to talk to you. You’ve done your best to give him space to work on his issues, and make yourself approachable if he’s ready, even if you dread him actually doing so because you still haven’t figured out what the fuck to say.

“Dirk…” There’s a sigh, “Look. I know you always drew a line in the sand, and I tried to respect that in our working relationship, but I’ve known with you long enough to consider you a friend. You like to pull this man-of-few-words, self-reliant act--but kids are more perceptive than you think. Dave wouldn’t talk to me but…  You’re his brother. Legally his guardian. Whatever happened between you two before--this is a shit situation, but you’re gonna need to talk about it.”

There’s a weight settling on the blanket near your hands. You glance at it to find your--his--no it’s your phone . Just like this is your body and somehow your life .

Fucking splinters.

It’s a universe that should have never existed. It’s one doomed to die.

But it’s apparently yours now, isn’t it?

You run your fingers over the raised keys--it’s not even a proper touch-screen device you remember from your Bro’s movies. That technology must not be around yet given how top-of-the-line the rest of hi--your shit at home is.

“Just. Text the kid if that’s what it takes. He’s been glued to his phone since yesterday, he’ll see it.” A sigh, and then some step backs. You glance up, finding him running a hand through his short hair, looking as tired as you feel. “I can’t leave him out there forever, the nurses have work to do, and I’ve gotta talk to Jane about a sponsorship deal since we’ve been pretty dry on new content. We also need to talk about that, but work can wait until you’re back at home. Let me know when you’re being discharged and I’ll come take you home, okay? I know you hate driving.”

You know there’s a million Janes out there.

You still need to do something about that.

But.

One step at a time.

First step is getting home.

“I’ll go with you now.” This solves all your problems. And fuck you can’t just let him walk out of here you don’t even know his name , much less which of the unhelpfully labeled numbers in your cell phone belonged to him.

The guy pauses in the doorway, “Dirk--”

“There’s no point in ‘observation’. I want out.”

You push yourself out of bed. Your muscles ache but damn it you can stand. The sudden position change sends blood rushing to your head and you stumble, the already dim room swaying and dimming further. But you stand your ground and ride the wave. You’re blinking away the vertigo before you can think about it. In that moment when you lost track of the space around you, the man had moved. Three steps back into the room as if to grab you, but he flinches back before entering your space.

“Do you want a concussion, idiot?!”

You’ve had worse. Waking up to the distant tolling of bells having had your fucking head sheared off makes this feel utterly lame.

“Letting them test for shit that doesn’t exist is just a waste of time and resources.”

“Just--shit Dirk-- please just sit back down. Let me get a doctor to talk it through with you, and if he can’t change your mind--and knowing you it won’t--you can just sign that form and walk right out with me and Dave right now. But seriously--just--ugh just think about what I said earlier.”

You sit back down and wait but you know it’s futile. You’re walking out those doors less than twenty minutes later with an Against Medical Advice discharge, muscles protesting the sudden flurry of movement after well over a day of almost nothing, and a seething little brother whose eyes drilled holes into your back from the moment he saw you in the waiting room door, bandaged head, and a borrowed pair of cheap-ass sunglasses shielding your tired eyes from the harsh white light.

He doesn’t say a word to you. But you don’t say one to him either.

The friend-whose-name-you-don’t-even-know just throws his hands into the air and drives you home.

I’m sorry for putting you through this shit, Dave.

You decide you hate cars. You hate cars with a fiery passion. You huddle in the smallest corner of the backseat you can, curled around your cellphone and focusing on the tiny screen as the entire contraption only serves to rattle your unmoored brain around inside your head, bouncing it around your skull.

The driver stops at his apartment to get Dave’s things. It’s just you, and him. Both deliberately looking anywhere but the other, separated by nothing more than space and seats and a whole lot of awkward as hell feelings.

can you promise it wont happen again?? for real this time because im fine last time was totally a pile of horseshit

Yes.

You pause. Thinking about your bots and your narcoleptic episodes and that one fucking night in the kitchen when you’d run as far away as you could.

Shit. No. No I can’t.

then apology not fucking accepted if you arent going to at least try

the hard plastic of the phone protests in your grip and you squeeze it until your knuckles are white. The driver returns, sliding a backpack into the back seat with a small glance between you and your phone before the machine from hell starts up again.

Dave I

You erase it.

You need to be the one to offer the hand.

Fuck. Who voted you to be the responsible one.

That’s one thing I CAN promise you. I am trying. I told you things are changing back then because I’m going to fuckin’ change them.

You deserve better than this shit.

You deserve better than me.

And maybe it shouldn’t have taken someone fuckin’ dying to make that obvious.

But I’m going to fix it. I promise.

Later, in a parallel to that first night you found yourself in this body, you lock yourself in the bathroom and hold your head in your hands and just try and breathe.

Your phone buzzes.

who was it??

You think of a dead dreamer, ash and dust and junk data.

You think of Jane and Jake, never even getting a fucking chance.

You think of Roxy, torn apart and shoved back together and crying as she killed you.

You think of Davepeta, skewered on your own sword.

Just...Friends.

Bad shit happens, and it really starts to put other shit into perspective.

I’m sorry.

You don’t know what conclusion he’s going to draw from that. You don’t ask. He doesn’t offer. But you held out your fucking hand the best you could short of telling him about the game, and you’ll just have to see where it goes from there.

Chapter Text

turntechGodhead [TG] began pestering timaeusTestified [TT]

turntechGodhead [TG]: hey
turntechGodhead [TG]: its me B3
turntechGodhead [TG]: so uh
turntechGodhead [TG]: sorry about pouncing on you
turntechGodhead [TG]: i swear i didnt know it was coming
turntechGodhead [TG]: at least not until it happened
turntechGodhead [TG]: what can i say once a time-player always a time-player i see a time loop its like finding the purrfect box just gotta fill it up ya f33l me??
turntechGodhead [TG]: anyway
turntechGodhead [TG]: the injury healed up but youre still catnapping so im gonna assume it worked
turntechGodhead [TG]: its not like you have rad mindreading shades irl and can just chat me up furom the hospital
turntechGodhead [TG]: you dont right
turntechGodhead [TG]: purretty sure i woulda known if bro had that kind of tech
turntechGodhead [TG]: anyway
turntechGodhead [TG]: ill k33p p33king in every hour
turntechGodhead [TG]: im gonna drag your adorably sl33py self back to derse
turntechGodhead [TG]: stretch my metaphorical and litteral wings because its boring as hell out here
turntechGodhead [TG]: and maybe a little spooky alone
turntechGodhead [TG]: i swear its making my back arch and fur stand on end and if i had a tail it would be totally fluffed out into a giant pipe-cleaner

turntechGodhead [TG] ceased pestering timaeusTestified [TT]

timaeusTestified [TT] is idle!

turntechGodhead [TG] began pestering timaeusTestified [TT]

turntechGodhead [TG]: B3
turntechGodhead [TG]: see its like a codeword
turntechGodhead [TG]: so you know its me
turntechGodhead [TG]: and not like
turntechGodhead [TG]: dave
turntechGodhead [TG]: s33 you in an hour bro

turntechGodhead [TG] ceased pestering timaeusTestified [TT]

timaeusTestified [TT] is idle!

turntechGodhead [TG] began pestering timaeusTestified [TT]

turntechGodhead [TG]: B3
turntechGodhead [TG]: sorry i lost track of time
turntechGodhead [TG]: do you know how weird that shit f33ls??
turntechGodhead [TG]: i spent months on LOHAC knowing exactly how long i had spent in that hellhole down to the second
turntechGodhead [TG]: and then like thr33 years with like
turntechGodhead [TG]: this furry residual ticking in my head
turntechGodhead [TG]: and now even thats gone

turntechGodhead [TG] ceased pestering timaeusTestified [TT]

timaeusTestified [TT] is idle!

turntechGodhead [TG] began pestering timaeusTestified [TT]

turntechGodhead [TG]: B3
turntechGodhead [TG]: okay seriously dude im starting to worry here
turntechGodhead [TG]: should i like
turntechGodhead [TG]: smack you or something
turntechGodhead [TG]: still out like a light

turntechGodhead [TG] ceased pestering timaeusTestified [TT]

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turntechGodhead [TG] began pestering timaeusTestified [TT]
turntechGodhead [TG]: B3
turntechGodhead [TG]: uh bro
turntechGodhead [TG]: you know your tower??
turntechGodhead [TG]: the one where we met??
turntechGodhead [TG]: the lights are on
turntechGodhead [TG]: new plan going to the meteor ttyl
turntechGodhead [TG]: dont wanna risk the cute little chess dudes s33ing us so uh

turntechGodhead [TG] ceased pestering timaeusTestified [TT]

timaeusTestified [TT] is idle!

turntechGodhead [TG] began pestering timaeusTestified [TT]

turntechGodhead [TG]: B3
turntechGodhead [TG]: that took way too long to find
turntechGodhead [TG]: why does the medium n33d to simulate physics like that why can’t it just be simple the asteroids don’t n33d orbital drift do they??

turntechGodhead [TG] ceased pestering timaeusTestified [TT]

timaeusTestified [TT] is idle!

turntechGodhead [TG] began pestering timaeusTestified [TT]

turntechGodhead [TG]: you know its purrobably a good thing youre out like a light and im effectively mute
turntechGodhead [TG]: id be chattering your ear off about fureaking nostalgia turntechGodhead [TG]: the base is too quiet
turntechGodhead [TG]: there were twelve of us locked up in one of these you know??
turntechGodhead [TG]: us being the trolls i know i keep mixing refurential purronouns but hey got two lives crammed into my thinkpan
turntechGodhead [TG]: it was never quiet with karkitty stomping around or terezi getting all up in peoples business or eridan loudly black-flirting with pawsitively everyone
turntechGodhead [TG]: a girl had to escape to the lower levels if she wanted to work on her shipping wall in peace
turntechGodhead [TG]: but it was kinda nice you know??
turntechGodhead [TG]: i liked just kinda prowling around the edges and watching people and how they interacted it just kinda let me build these whole storylines in my head of will they wont they and what would happen if they did
turntechGodhead [TG]: playing sgrub was honestly one of the best fangs to happen to me beclaws it let me m33t all these diffurent peopawl in purrson
turntechGodhead [TG]: yeah sure id met most of them online and like there were a few of us whod get down to totes srs rp but like
turntechGodhead [TG]: id kinda resigned myself to my remote hive and hadnt really wanted to think about the future
turntechGodhead [TG]: like equius was hella smart and totally a blueblood so hed be snapped up into some research and development division somewhere out in space
turntechGodhead [TG]: and i
turntechGodhead [TG]: shit i dont even know
turntechGodhead [TG]: all i was good at was being a muddled oliveblood and hunting and who knows where id end up except not with him
turntechGodhead [TG]: and like maybe we died but at least we got to experience what being together meant even if it was just a few weeks
turntechGodhead [TG]: ignore that please
turntechGodhead [TG]: its harder to distance myself from this than i thought
turntechGodhead [TG]: all this quiet alone time is making me think about shit
turntechGodhead [TG]: *davepeta tries to curl into a small furry-feathery ball in this hella uncomfortable chair because they dont have any shit to make a proper pile but fails*

turntechGodhead [TG] ceased pestering timaeusTestified [TT]

timaeusTestified [TT] is idle!

turntechGodhead [TG] began pestering timaeusTestified [TT]

turntechGodhead [TG]: B3
turntechGodhead [TG]: i see daves online and home again
turntechGodhead [TG]: and adding rose??
turntechGodhead [TG]: thats early
turntechGodhead [TG]: but at least youre okay!
turntechGodhead [TG]: i think
turntechGodhead [TG]: im trying not to read too much beclaws you know
turntechGodhead [TG]: purrivacy
turntechGodhead [TG]: and i got told off
turntechGodhead [TG]: its not my fault i dont have access to another account
turntechGodhead [TG]: unless you want to let me use yours
turntechGodhead [TG]: i guess that would work
turntechGodhead [TG]: eh if i gotta switch i dont wanna share ya f33l me??
turntechGodhead [TG]: B3
turntechGodhead [TG]: why dont you have pesterchum on your phone??
turntechGodhead [TG]: wait what year is it??
turntechGodhead [TG]: i forgot apps arent a thing yet
turntechGodhead [TG]: give me a ping when you get on your computer
turntechGodhead [TG]: im leaving the window open on the console so dont worry about the notifications
turntechGodhead [TG]: B3
turntechGodhead [TG]: i really need to get my own chumhandle
turntechGodhead [TG]: what would i even name it??
turntechGodhead [TG]: im not really f33ling tg anymore
turntechGodhead [TG]: or even ac
turntechGodhead [TG]: turntechCatnip??
turntechGodhead [TG]: gog that sounds dumb
turntechGodhead [TG]: shut up
turntechGodhead [TG]: i know what youre thinking
turntechGodhead [TG]: youd be pointing out its no better than davepeta
turntechGodhead [TG]: its totally a false equivalence to even argue that so dont start ok
turntechGodhead [TG]: arsenicGodhead??
turntechGodhead [TG]: these dont sound right at all
turntechGodhead [TG]: maybe i just n33d to broaden my horizons and just pick diffurent litters
turntechGodhead [TG]: john ruined the whole naming convention when he went eb so who the fuck cares
turntechGodhead [TG]: i could be anything
turntechGodhead [TG]: something insane like
turntechGodhead [TG]: jk
turntechGodhead [TG]: thatd be hissterical
turntechGodhead [TG]: makin you constantly think of jokes whenever you see the chumhandle
turntechGodhead [TG]: but nah thats more johns style
turntechGodhead [TG]: id either need something cuter or something cooler B3c
turntechGodhead [TG]: cool like
turntechGodhead [TG]: a dj B3
turntechGodhead [TG]: oh that one sounds fun
turntechGodhead [TG]: the only problem is js suck
turntechGodhead [TG]: its 8 points for a reason
turntechGodhead [TG]: actually shit this sounds like fun
turntechGodhead [TG]: breakin out the ol thesaurus
turntechGodhead [TG]: just like old times
turntechGodhead [TG]: B3
turntechGodhead [TG]: hey bro
turntechGodhead [TG]: i know your probably just caught up like
turntechGodhead [TG]: doing shit around the apartment
turntechGodhead [TG]: or playing mad snackz
turntechGodhead [TG]: you know im not sure what else bro did when he wasn’t working on the computer
turntechGodhead [TG]: i think he liked to sulk on the roof
turntechGodhead [TG]: but its been a while and
turntechGodhead [TG]: god i f33l like a clingy boyfriend
turntechGodhead [TG]: which im not
turntechGodhead [TG]: tried that whole boyfriend thing it didnt work out just ask jade
turntechGodhead [TG]: actually dont
turntechGodhead [TG]: anyway
turntechGodhead [TG]: now that i know youre home im really tempted to slap you awake
turntechGodhead [TG]: just a pap
turntechGodhead [TG]: but then youd probably pass out and get yourself sent to the hospital again
turntechGodhead [TG]: so nevermind

timaeusTestified [TT] is no longer idle!

Chapter Text

You just...sag into your computer chair. The weight of flesh and bone drags you down. Here you can’t just conveniently ignore the laws of physics and step off into that odd weightless state if you just happened to get too damn tired of this shit.

Which you are.

At least you’re home. That’s the one bright spot in this whole fucking ordeal.

You’re surprised to realize you mean it. As the computer whirrs into the boot menu you look out over the living room.

Smuppets don’t litter every surface. They make a neat pile in the corner. Electronic junk, in various states of disassembly take their places on the other available surfaces, small projects you’d found yourself starting over the course of the week because the act of tinkering was one of your main methods of relaxing. Lil’Cal watches you from the futon, his cold gaze oddly...welcoming.

It’s just a little mark you’re making on this space-that-wasn’t-yours.

You turn back to the screen, unsure if you are willing to unpack those feelings right now. You’re so tired. Emotionally and physically, you aren’t sure if its related to the hospitalization or just your existence in some state of constant agitated panic since Roxy surprised you in that tower.

“You looked like a rooster.”

Dave’s words bubble back to you from the depths of a sterile white and grey room. You pick at the bandages applying pressure to your head, remembering how it’d looked in the bathroom mirror. See the tired eyes and the bandage trapped hair, and the odd pallor to your already ghost-white face.

How long did you have to keep this shit on for again? You hadn’t really been paying attention during the instructions while waiting for the doctor to reluctantly sign the damn form. You dredge up the memory, working around the persistent mental lag that makes you want to pry your brain open and find and replace the shorting circuit.

Five days? Replacing them every night after cleaning the wound?

You could probably just pull them off now and be fine but…

It’s so weird having to worry about a fucking scratch. Of course you know about infections and shit, you’d read the notes your Bro left you about field medicine and had your own training accidents growing up, but it’s just yet another thing that hadn’t felt so important after entering the game half a year ago. One that you need to consciously remind yourself of.

The screen blinks to white and black as the computer finishes its boot cycle, drowning the faint reflection in the light cast off by each and every pixel as it simulates the image of a baseball cap, pointed shades, and a password box.

Keys click under your fingers as you mechanically type in the password. You expect Pesterchum to immediately light up the moment the desktop loads, sending a cacophony of orange notifications screaming at your face because if you know Davepeta at all by now they probably kept up an endless stream of running babble while you were indisposed.

Only to find. Nothing.

Shit that’s right. You hadn’t bothered to install the program yet. It’d been on your list of things to do but--

What was the point when you had no one to pester?

But your empty list isn’t empty any longer, and you’ve probably got an incorrigible part-troll-part-bird-part-boy blowing up your notifications waiting on you. You don’t bother with the Complete Bullshit that is the aggregator, and just pull up the Yaldabaoth internet browser instead, a week late but finally installing the chat client you’d spent so much of your life on.

Ten minutes after booting up, you’re finally logged in and drowning in more than 120 unread messages from the single friend on your list.

And this right here is why you aren’t just burying yourself in the action of scrubbing the blood out of the carpet from where you’d fallen after hitting your head, or locking yourself in the crawlspace for hours to try and sort through the boxes up there as a means of mechanically dealing with shit. You’d already indulged in a bathroom based panic attack upon returning home, and that would have to be enough. You’d managed to pull yourself together and sit down without falling apart because you can feel Dave’s eyes on your back, and you know Davepeta would be doing the exact same thing if they were here too.

Only maybe with a little more invasion of your personal space. Dave was hovering on the edge of your range like a vulture, wary of getting too near but either not trusting you, or not trusting himself to not keep an eye on you, but you’re pretty sure Davepeta would swoop in and land on your shoulder without an even by-your-leave. Going along with the bird metaphor, they’d probably peck you on the head too.

Goddamn it you are tired if you’re picking up their perchance for turning everything into unnecessarily dumb metaphors .

Far too tired to go back and read from the beginning of this massive ramble. You just glance over the last handful of lines for now, the bright red-on-white text bleeding together and making your already sore head ache more.

timaeusTestified [TT]: Your restraint is appreciated. They’ve been so nervous about a relapse that even the slightest of narcoleptic episodes likely would have landed me in the emergency room again. I might actually need to break out next time.
timaeusTestified [TT]: Is there anything in this deluge of notifications I should go back and read immediately?

Minutes slip by, and you begin to wonder if Davepeta had wandered away from the console because you don’t get an immediate ping back as you expected. You scroll back up through the conversation, the endless sea of red font knotting up your insides and throwing you back to that foggy not-waking-not-sleeping state.

You are thinking of a very different person behind that color and it keeps dragging you back into the void of wherever the hell that was. You’re not sure if you’re disturbed or comforted by the idea that there might be the potential for a Brain Ghost Hal hanging around in your head.

Probably a bit of both, if you’re going to be honest with yourself.

Honestly? You’re finding it hard to be surprised by that revelation either. You’d been breaking off pieces without meaning to for as long as you can recall. What’s another one?

The window flashes orange and you scroll back down to the new messages, slotting one after another in a rapid succession of single file lines.

turntechGodhead [TG]: BRO!!
turntechGodhead [TG]: and uh no nothing impurrtant back there at all nope!
turntechGodhead [TG]: just me being bored and caterwauling into the void
turntechGodhead [TG]: so youre alive and no longer an unwanted part of a balanced diet
turntechGodhead [TG]: how do you f33l??
timaeusTestified [TT]: Tired mostly. They said its normal. I’m evidently “in excellent physical health for my age” but that just means my body is even less used to periods of inactivity and is cranky about it.
timaeusTestified [TT]: I have been neglecting physical conditioning in the recent days, although I think it’s mostly just being back in the body. It feels like I’m being smothered.
turntechGodhead [TG]: oh yeah! youre an old man now arent you
turntechGodhead [TG]: bro worked so hard to perfect that lean ninja muscle better not let it go to waste
timaeusTestified [TT]: The birth certificate says 28.
turntechGodhead [TG]: old man
timaeusTestified [TT]: I’m crushed. Utterly devastated by your sick burn. Whatever shall I do with you picking at the insecurities caused by my sudden advancement in physical development?
timaeusTestified [TT]: I assume you’ve been able to keep yourself occupied while I’ve been gone?
turntechGodhead [TG]: yeah yeah been screwing with the computers trying to see if i can unlock some of these feathures but no luck so far
turntechGodhead [TG]: though there has been cruel and unusual torture up in here
turntechGodhead [TG]: listening to your snoring for hours
timaeusTestified [TT]: I don’t snore.
turntechGodhead [TG]: hell yeah you do
turntechGodhead [TG]: have you ever heard yourself sl33ping?? i think not
timaeusTestified [TT]: I don’t sleep period.
timaeusTestified [TT]: At least not normally.
turntechGodhead [TG]: the whole always awake shit?? yeah you told me
turntechGodhead [TG]: doesnt mean you wouldnt if you did
turntechGodhead [TG]: which you are by the way
turntechGodhead [TG]: its just catnapping bro no shame in catching up on all them comfy sunbeams and window sills you never got the joy to expurrience
turntechGodhead [TG]: so uh
turntechGodhead [TG]: figure anything out during your nap?
timaeusTestified [TT]: A few things.
timaeusTestified [TT]: Do me a favor? Can you see the shards anywhere?
turntechGodhead [TG]: give me two twitches of a whisker
turntechGodhead [TG]: no??
turntechGodhead [TG]: furreaking kittens man
turntechGodhead [TG]: i cant even find the holes
turntechGodhead [TG]: i can try to get a better read but that would mean touching shit and you liked that about as much as a cat caught outside in an unfortunate rainshower BP
timaeusTestified [TT]: I’ll grant you permission just this once.
timaeusTestified [TT]: Shit I can feel that from here.

It’s distant but the shiver runs through you, like a spray of mist dusting the back of your neck and sending the ripple shocks through your spine. The body numbs it, but you can feel the trail of claws along something deep inside your chest.

The pressure eases, and it leaves you drawing your knees up into the chair, curling your arms around them and digging your fingers into the fabric of your pants. You hold the position for a few blissfully quiet moments, before you see the flashing notification indicating new lines added to the chat

turntechGodhead [TG]: woah bro its actually harmonizing now!
turntechGodhead [TG]: no more scr33ching metal!!
turntechGodhead [TG]: theres actually a sw33t bassline going on i could totally spin some wicked lines to this beat
turntechGodhead [TG]: what did you do??

Reluctantly, you peel your fingers out of the stiff fabric and hook them around the keyboard, pulling it closer to the edge of the desk. The cord is long enough, and lets you balance it on knees wedged between your chest and the desk edge.

Your fists clench and unclench against the hard plastic, you aren’t sure how to articulate it yourself..

timaeusTestified [TT]: I just...melted down a bunch of complicated shit.
timaeusTestified [TT]: I think I was half drugged at the time so I don’t fuckin’ know.

You don’t really want to go back to that fuzzy, metaphorical shit of a dreamscape.

timaeusTestified [TT]: Were you serious about the pesterchum?
timaeusTestified [TT]: I could make you an account if you want.
turntechGodhead [TG]: you uh read that??
timaeusTestified [TT]: I skimmed. My head hurts too much to read through it all right now.
turntechGodhead [TG]: shouldnt you be like
turntechGodhead [TG]: doing something to wake your snoozing self up??
turntechGodhead [TG]: i managed to find some sort of break room with a hella uncomfy couch to dump you on
turntechGodhead [TG]: but youre gonna f33l it in the morning
timaeusTestified [TT]: I’m probably feeling it right now. Fuck. I’m burnt out from the panic and adrenaline, bro. I need something mundane that doesn’t involve getting poked at by strangers who wouldn’t understand what the fuck happened even if I told them.
timaeusTestified [TT]: Besides we do not need me back in the emergency room again for passing out. I’ll try that shit once Dave isn’t hovering in the hallway pretending I can’t see him.
turntechGodhead [TG]: aw hes worried about you bro!
turntechGodhead [TG]: its so sw33t B’3!

You’ve been deliberately refusing to acknowledge him, but this is the second time in the last twenty minutes you’ve spotted that white-blonde hair and shadowed face peeking around the door to the room. You glance down at your phone, face up on the desk, screen long since having gone dark thanks to power saver mode, but you don’t need to wake it up to remember the last message you sent.

Let me know if you want to talk, okay?

Another reason why you’re putting off trying to reach the medium, because you don’t want him to suddenly decide now’s the time only to find you off in lala land trying to establish a stable balance with your gameself. At least the experience just now proved without a doubt that the data is still actively flowing between you and whatever bits of your consciousness remained in your game self. If you can feel Davepeta pawing at your soul in near real time…

The door might have been wedged shut but there’s a crack.

timaeusTestified [TT]: Did you come up with an acceptable chumhandle or what?
turntechGodhead [TG]: oh yeah sure
turntechGodhead [TG]: had plenty of time to purruse thesaurus.com like it was the menu of the most upscale eatery youve ever furreaking s33n
turntechGodhead [TG]: dataJammer
turntechGodhead [TG]: 22 points right there not so bad if i do say so myself!
timaeusTestified [TT]: You know, I’m somewhat disappointed. I expected a pun in there somewhere, or at least something to do with cats.
turntechGodhead [TG]: thats what makes it the purrfect choice
turntechGodhead [TG]: subverting the expecatation B3
turntechGodhead [TG]: plus its thr33 birds in one paw
turntechGodhead [TG]: fulfill predestined time shit
turntechGodhead [TG]: live out childhood dreams of being a rad dj
turntechGodhead [TG]: AND use a cool nickname given to me by my cool broirail BD
timaeusTestified [TT]: The password is *******
turntechGodhead [TG]: sw33t give me a moment to set shit up

turntechGodhead [TG] has blocked timaeusTestified [TT]

You just roll your eyes at the unnecessary theatrics. It’s not like you were planning on messaging back anyway.

You reach around your precariously placed keyboard and drag the mouse and its pad nearer to the edge of the desk so you can manipulate it freely without leaving your snug position, and navigate the hell that is pesterchum’s UI. Hell or not, anything is better than bettybother or whatever garbage Jane tried to convince you to install once. Or Serious Biznasty with it’s stupid character limits.

You’re almost reluctant as you hover over the remove friend option. turntechGodhead is the only entry in your list. The only thing making the stark reminder that everything you’d previously worked for is gone even marginally more tolerable. Logically it’s the smart thing to do. You might need to get Dave’s pesterchum for real in the future. Especially once the game starts. You don’t need the questions the fact that you are already on his friends list would raise.

Remove turntechGodhead [TG] from your chumroll?

You hesitate.

The window flashes orange as another notification appears. Insistent.

dataJammer [DJ] wants to add you as a friend.

You accept, and without skipping a beat the green and orange text starts scrolling down the screen, helpfully narrating the troublesome tale of Davepeta and the battle against the carapacian chat interface, and web browser, and ‘dude think i can get a bootleg paint workin on this shit?’ It barely slows to let you get a word in edgewise, but that’s alright.

You’re tired.

You don’t know what the fuck is up with your head.

Or your little brother.

But you’re home.

You can afford to not think about the future or what you need to do for a few hours.

The sun is setting when the light on your phone blinks.

Bro.

Roof?

You consider it.

Fuck it. You did offer.

Okay.

Give me a minute.

timaeusTestified [TT]: Dave wants to talk.
timaeusTestified [TT]: I’ll be back.
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< alas abandoned once again
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< another year or two and i could hit up your smart phone but no no iphones yet no apps no mobile pesterchum B(
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< you two play nice ok
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< no strifing
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< use your words not your fists all that jazz

timaeusTestified[TT] is idle!

Chapter Text

It’s a warm night. Not quite to the boiling level of what you’d expect from something like, Hephaestus’ massive, lava-filled bulge, but enough that you can feel the sweat beginning to bead on exposed skin after leaving the dubious level of relief which is the air conditioned apartment. The sunset paints everything in a bloody red-orange, from your strider-light skin to the grey concrete, and you can tell how mind-numbingly red everything is despite your dark shades.

It’s suitably dramatic for this confrontation, that acknowledgement is one of the few things keeping you from throwing up your hands and locking yourself in your room again.

He’s waiting for you. Of course he’s waiting for you. You hadn’t left the hallway until you’d seen him stretch-- movements too stiff, too slow, too obvious-- and push away from the computer.

Lil’Cal stayed on the futon. His katana stayed on the wall mounting. It was just Bro who made his way to the door and up the stairs to the roof. You’d be foolish to assume he didn’t have something allocated in the strife specibus, or have a potentially weaponized sylladex, but it was just another chink in the rock hard delusion of normality you’d had so violently ripped away from you.

After today--yesterday--this fucking week-- has it really only been a week? Almost fucking exactly, the clock offers helpfully. It was sunset when things first went to shit in your kitchen and you’d handed your bro his hat back. It was fucking poetry that you stood out here on this roof, bro’s face lost in a silhouette created by the blood red of the pollution-haze filled sky.

It feels like it’s been for-fucking-ever since then. If it wasn’t for the fact that you could feel every fucking second that passed, you would believe it if someone said it’s been years.

He’s sitting on the edge of the roof, one knee drawn up to his chest, the other dangling off the edge in a way you wish you were cool enough to pull off. You squash that thought down and remember the fucking rooster because he wasn’t cool.

“You call me out for a date and then make me wait? That’s rude, Dave.”

It sounds like a joke, but he doesn’t even look at you. Just hiding behind those cheap shades he got from someone at the hospital because even bro wouldn’t be hard-core enough to stare straight into this eye-searing eldritch horror of a skyline and metal buildings and reflective glass without it.

“Yeah well you’ve been standing me up for a week now I think you can deal with five minutes.”

You treat it like a joke because it’s your first response. If you let yourself second or third or fourth guess this shit then the ice will come crashing down and fuck that.

“...is this about training again?” There’s movement, a hand raising as if to run through his hair and then hesitating upon touching gauze, dropping back to the concrete with a sigh.

“Of course it’s not about the fucking training, Bro. You’re fresh out of the hospital.

He’s in profile now, the sun’s light slanting along the edge of the shitty, way too small shades he got from the hospital. A streak of burning red glare rand through the depths of black plastic, like a fucking meteor streaking through the darkness of space. Beyond it, you can feel that sunset orange eye regarding you.

At least he’s paying fucking attention to you now.

“...you equipped your sword, dude. It’s a pretty reasonable assumption.”

...you did? Oh. You did. You hadn’t even noticed.

Habit. It’s just habit. The roof. And Bro. Your fingers tighten around the handle. No. No this feels fucking right. You aren’t even thinking. You blank your mind and move.

Metal clangs against metal. You can barely process it before you’re plucked out of the air, a sharp, firm pressure on your wrists breaking your grip on the weapon and sending the shitty ninja sword to the fucking concrete pavement where it stays. Discarded. Your eyes sting. Your wrists ache.

Bro is right up in your face. He didn’t even give you a fucking chance. In the silence there are words lingering in the air, transmitted and translated from the poignant silences you’d once been able to read like an open book.

Well? Talk away, lil’bro.

“It’s just bullshit.” You begin, hands clenching and unclenching. Trembling. You are not going to fucking cry. You are not. You are getting so damn close to just pirouetting off the handle even the mental image isn’t enough to make you laugh anymore. There is so much to unpack. Too fucking much. “There’s so much bull in this shit that its causing a shortage of beef rumps nationwide. It’s a total crisis raising prices around the world, old men crying because they can’t afford their steak without selling off their kidneys--”

You cut yourself off with an inhale, chest expanding with the lungful of burning air and centering yourself.

“You won’t look at me. It takes a fucking strife to get you to look at me. What the fuck did I do wrong that you almost fucking die to get away from me??”

“Dave--”

“I can’t figure it out. Is this shit another lesson? Am I missing some level of irony that goes beyond my childish underdeveloped thinkpan? Are you trying to prove a fucking point here?”

A week ago you wouldn’t have dared do this. You expect a surprise C-man punch to the gut. An ironic laugh and an eyeroll behind dark shades for sticking your nose into his goddamn business, and that would be fine. Because then you could let yourself believe he had a handle on shit. That maybe you were worrying over nothing, and really it would be better for all involved if you just, you know. Stopped. You could let yourself forget about the feeding tube and the clothespins and the beep beep of the heart monitor that chased you out of that sterile ward and down the hall and into your dreams.

Silence, broken only by the shuffle of feathers as the crows nesting in the antennae shifted while watching the show unfold below. Bro’s grip on your arm is a vice.

“What the fuck made you think that I’d--” There’s something in his voice there rarely ever is. It isn’t anger. You know anger. It’s a low, quiet vibration, not this...lost, halfway to panic, “Shit Dave no, I’d never--Fuck.”

Your knees buckle but that vice grip keeps you up. At least until he sinks to the concrete ground with you. You aren’t even trying anymore, tasting salt as the goddamn tears burn at your eyes and your face and run down your face and smudge up your--his glasses--and you do the most uncool thing you’ve ever done and shove your face into his chest but that’s okay because he kind of shoved you there first and you’re just a scrawny four and a half foot child it’s not like you could fight that shit.

“I fucking swear I didn’t do this shit on purpose, and the fact that you think I did to teach you a lesson is just another nail in the shitty person coffin. I don’t want to be the kind of Bro who would do that to you, intentional or not. Never.”

You shudder. Shitty? No no, not bro. “Bro, you’re awesome. And strong. A bonafide urban samurai ninja who don’t give no fucks--it’s my fault for being dumb enough to not understand the lesson or make you feel you’d need to do it--”

“Maybe I want to give some fucks.

You stiffen.

“You can be strong and still the shitiest person ever. You can be the most powerful fucking god in the entire known universe and still be the biggest asshole that wants to control everything and then destroy everything you can’t fucking control. And guess where the fuck your bro has been on the scale? Maybe not world ending fuckery, but definitely not on the short-list for world’s best guardian. And I want to change that. Okay?”

“Because your friend died.” It’s mumbled into his shirt, but you know he could understand it because the weird awkward half-hug tightens.

“No--shit--That led me here, yes, but it's not because of them. It's because of you. Because you deserve better. It may be a lifetime and a universe too late, but fuck bro. Tomorrow will come. Then the next day and the next and we’ll both move forward to our inevitable destinies, marching to the tune of a thousand broken lives finally fucking paying off, I promise. I’m not going anywhere .”

“That’s…” You swallow. Your voice dying in your throat. The heat boiling it away. “I--I can live with that.”

“Good because that’s what you're getting.” Hesitation. “Just, trust me, okay? The shit with the hospital was not in my plans at all, but I won’t let it happen again. Maybe someday I’ll even be able to explain what the hell happened.”

“’m not a kid.” Mumbling. “I could understand.”

He snorts. You can feel the motion reverberating through his chest and into you. “Trust me, I’m aware. But no. There’s too much fucking context and bonkers bullshit you’ll need to experience to fully comprehend it. Give yourself a few years of normalcy before worrying about that shit.”

This might be the uncoolest thing you’ve ever done. Calling your recently hospitalized Bro to the roof. Attacking him. Breaking down in his fucking arms as shit becomes too fucking much and the suspicions and the guilt that’ve been knotted up inside you for what would feel like fucking years if you didn’t know better just burst and bleed out all over the roof. You hadn’t meant to do this shit. You’d meant to yell at him for being irresponsible.

But, he’s not pulling out of the makeshift hug, even as you both just sit awkwardly in the middle of a boiling summer evening on an oven of concrete rooftop. So you...don’t worry about it right now. And if some small voice in the back of your brain whispers the sky should be green and not red-orange...well, that didn’t matter to you, did it?

Chapter Text

Eventually, you are left alone again.

Eventually.

It took longer than you’d expected. You had no idea how to talk to Dave. But you can’t just. Not talk to Dave. That’s one thing you took away from his whole thing. He needs this, this sitting in the middle of the roof in the dying heat of a summer night because you’ve apparently still been screwing up this whole guardian thing.

“Funny, he said you were avoiding him.”

You really don’t want to think about Stevens right now. Or that he was right. Even if you didn’t mean to avoid him you sure as hell hadn’t been going out of your way to engage with him.

Luckily your little-not-brother knew how to people fucking better than you did because at some point he’d shifted in your now significantly looser half-hug so he could breathe and asked a question you could actually answer.

“What were they like?” A pause, the only sound the rustle of feathers high above you and the din of city noises below, “Your friends.”

So you just…

Talked.

Haltingly at first. Barely more than a whisper. But you talked.

No last names. No dates. No places. No mention of sburb or the batterwitch or the fucking apocalypse…

But long days and late nights spent talking to people you’d never met, fitting them around your work, learning and laughing together. Growing to love them and envy them…

Yeah...you could talk about that.

You ended up talking your words out. To the point where anymore just lodged their way in between the lump in your throat and refused to shake free, leading you down the road of almost comfortable silence as you both watched the last dregs of daylight get swept away by an indigo tide, the temperature slowly shifting from sweltering to almost pleasant without the sun to bake the concrete raw.

“You never talked about them before.”

It isn’t a question. Or an accusation. Just a quiet statement.

Your words are a jumbled mess but you force them out. “I don’t talk about a lot of things.”

“You really don’t.” You’re surprised to hear the laugh that accompanies the agreement, “I think this is the most I’ve heard you speak ever. You’re stingier than a miser with his last pocketful of change when it comes to vocal communication.”

“Yeah, well. Text is easier.”

“It totally is. But it’s just so fucking weird. I swear I didn’t think you had friends until Stevens showed up and started talking about the olden’ days and ‘98 and crap. You never mention anything.

The mention of Newt throws a very much unwelcome short into your circuit, leaving you shifting uncomfortably. He noticed. Of course he did. He might have moved a little but he still has his small body tucked under a loose arm and up against your side--something you both were being very careful not to acknowledge--and such close proximity would make it very hard to miss even your subtle cues.

Dave pulls away abruptly, leaving the spot at your side oddly cold and empty.

“Shit--I--uh--sorry. You don’t have to tell me. I know. It’s none of my business. I just--you know, dumb kid, wasn’t thinking. Of course you had friends. You had a life before i got dropped on your doorstep, and if you don’t want to share its none of my business.”

“It’s fine,” You interrupt him before he can complete the verbal knot he’s barreling towards, “I don’t mind.”

Stunned silence.

“...you really are dying aren’t you?”

The familiar phrase makes you look up in alarm, but even in the dying light you can see the nervous twitch of a smile on that face. So you just end up stifling a snort of laughter.

“R-right. Uh. I’m going to go now. Homework to do. Chums to pester. You know how it is.Technically it was supposed to be due yesterday but shit, if they don’t take family emergency for whatever’s been going on then they don’t deserve the title of human being.”

You make a mental note to check the school section of the Legal Shit folder. Or just ask Davepeta how the fuck you’re supposed to handle Dave’s school work. That would be the simplest, most efficient answer, but something in the pit of your gut recoils at the idea. They aren’t just some kind of interactive cheat sheet to all things Dave. They were probably tired of being treated like a walkthrough. “Do I need to do anything special for that?”

“I dunno. It’s not like you ever let me miss a deadline before. I’m sure they emailed one of us about it. I’ll have it for you in the morning. Probably. Fuck, I’m tired.”

“Language.”

“Oh shut up . I got enough shit about that dealing with Stevens.” You don’t bother to stifle the laugh this time and snicker as he throws the door open and dramatically stomps off down the stairs.

And like that, the moment passes. The balance shifting again allowing you both return to your neutral states. Him in his room, you in...well… you suppose it is yours, isn’t it?

Perhaps those neutral states are a little different from before now.

The overhead light glows softly as you push the door open to the actual apartment space, Dave must have flipped it on when he came through. You slide the borrowed shades from your face and hold them loosely in your hand. Without the phantom weight translating over from your gameself you feel almost naked without them, but at the same time they feel wrong. Too light and flimsy. The sort of squareish oblong lenses of cheap plastic make your lips curl in the faintest flash of disdain. But...it might have been something you needed to endure in the harsh light of the sunset, but it just reminds you of what you’re missing right now.

They clatter against the desk’s surface as you let them free, shoving them away from the keyboard and up under the monitor in the same sliding motion that lets you melt back into the computer chair. You’d give your splinter self credit, for all the fact that the apartment maintained only the barest semblance of order, he--you’d splurged on a hell of a comfortable chair. An understandable use of resources given most of your time would probably be spent sitting in it.

Davepeta probably wondered if you’d killed each other by now. It’s not like you’d expected…

You don’t know what you expected really. But it hadn’t been that. You feel rather...okay about it though. Like some part of the strangling awkwardness that existed between you two had thinned. Still there, but once you’d both stopped thinking about Bro and your situation...things had sort of just continued on their own path, rather than you both unconsciously tugging in different directions.

A nudge of the mouse and the computer wakes from its slumber, revealing the still active window beneath.

timaeusTestified [TT]: For your information, no one is dead.
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< what about maimed
timaeusTestified [TT]: Very funny. We talked, that’s the long and short of it.
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< huh i gotta give shorty credit i probably would have been all
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< *dj lashes out with wicked cool claws hissing a warning to bro ears pinned back and tail fluffed and the whole kitten and caboodle*
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< even without shit bl33ding through theres
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< you know what not my monkeys
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< well
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< you are i guess
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< i claim you as my monkey
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< dave can be his own monkey
timaeusTestified [TT]: You realize that as his legal and familial guardian, Dave is MY monkey. In claiming me for your circus, you are also logically accepting him as your monkey too?
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< dont pick apart my dumb expurressions with logic its not fair
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< so you two good??
timaeusTestified [TT]: I think so.
timaeusTestified [TT]: Better than they were at least.
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< purrfect
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< now whats the plan??
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< not that you dont look pawsitively purrecious snoozing away
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< but i could totally use your ai building technowizard help here
timaeusTestified [TT]: It’s not much of a plan per se…
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< purr se
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< my wings are drooping under the weight of all the missed potential
timaeusTestified [TT]: I think you do more than enough reaching for the both of us when it comes to lame puns.
timaeusTestified [TT]: Anyway, I just logged on to let you know we weren’t dead. I’m going to work on that now.
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< *dj huffs and flicks their wings at you totally offended and shit* they arent lame they are the one thing in this cold and catastophically empty wasteland of a world that brings me joy how dare you
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< not that its very big i could purrobably fly around it in under an hour
timaeusTestified [TT]: I promise I’ll captchalogue you a blanket to keep you warm
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< *dj considers this peace offering and deigns to accept it* fine but you better prime me the fluffiest monstrosity ever or all bets are off
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< at least i think thats a thing now
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< shit i know i had the head for time travel but keeping track of an entire society’s technological development throws me the hell off
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< im just lucky i kept up with the tech blogs because you know all the cool kids k33p up with technology
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< get an iphone next year
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< trust me
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< or better yet
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< make your own iphone
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< or get in on the app craze
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< become the next steve jobs
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< not that you need more millions but hey at least it isnt dirty puppet money
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< did you just walk away from the computer again??
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< bro
timaeusTestified [TT]: I’m here.
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< where the fuck did you go??
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< im about to rescind my forgiveness here depending on your answer.
timaeusTestified [TT]: If you must know I was googling shit.
timaeusTestified [TT]: The timeline of this world is slightly different than the one I studied. Betty Crocker bought up Apple and Microsoft and the like before they ever became anything more than a pipe dream.
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< damn
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< i guess john is justified in his hatred for anything betty crocker huh
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< i wonder if she was a seawitch here too
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< i uh didnt pay much attention to that
timaeusTestified [TT]: Hell if I know. The internet says she’s dead and its not like I can dig up her grave.
timaeusTestified [TT]: If Jane were alive I could probably ask.
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< i
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< look im sorry dude im just playing
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< its cool
timaeusTestified [TT]: No it’s fine. I’ll get you a blanket so fluffy you’ll be drowning in it, just hold onto your horses for a few days while I contact banks n shit. I was looking into it when Roxy stabbed me.

You give it a little more time. But they don’t respond.

timaeusTestified [TT]: Davepeta, it’s fine.
timaeusTestified [TT]: Seriously.
timaeusTestified [TT]: The fact that you aren’t typing your hands off tells me you’re reading too far into this.
timaeusTestified [TT]: I’m not okay with it but I’m not going to dance around it either.
timaeusTestified [TT]: Jake and Jane…
timaeusTestified [TT]: They’re dead.
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< ...you dont know that
timaeusTestified [TT]: I do.
timaeusTestified [TT]: Just look at Roxy.
timaeusTestified [TT]: We’ll talk about this later.
timaeusTestified [TT]: I’m going to log off so I don’t accidentally end up on the floor again.

timaeusTestified [TT] ceased pestering dataJammer [DJ]

You exhale slowly, letting the clack of keys fade into the corners of the room.

Even if the game pulled something out of its ass and gave you eight players…

They wouldn’t be your friends, would they?

You box that, all all other similar thoughts, up tight and store them away in the crawlspace, in that tomb of boxes and red clay faces covered in dust and cobwebs.

Come on Dirk. Get back on track.

You don’t pay particularly close attention as you ready the room. It’s still rather early for you to go to ‘sleep’ but fuck, you just got out of the hospital. If you aren’t able to act out of character now, then when would you?

At some point over the last couple days it seems Lil’Cal took your spot. Dave probably put him there. You reach down and pick up the puppet, holding the plush body in front of you, staring down at that familiar empty face. The glassy blue eyes. The painted missing tooth.

It looks exactly like your Cal. Like the doll you’d grown up with, and then lost to the fire.

You wonder how this would have lost his Cal. You don’t think you want to ask Davepeta if they knew.

“It’s been a long weird road for all of us, hasn’t it Cal?”

But he’s just a puppet, so of course he doesn’t answer. You like to think he’d probably laugh at you if he could.

Holding him under one arm you prepare the bed. You’re a little puzzled because one of the thicker blankets is missing, but don’t think too much of it. It’s a warm night anyway.

Cal is deposited on top of the speaker in the corner. Your phone is plugged in to the outlet behind the turntables to charge, and set on the corner behind the futon. Shit’s almost dead, but you can’t imagine anyone needing to bother with it tonight.

Soon...you find yourself with nothing left to do but lie down. Clear your mind and deliberately not think.

You’d never had the easiest time sleeping. Even when you were a kid, before derse, you’d needed techniques to quiet your jackrabbit of a brain enough to actually get any rest. Luckily your Bro had left you with a LOT of random ass literature, so you’d found something that worked eventually.

Space. You slowly sink away from the light trickling in from the hallway. You sink away from the faint traffic noises that filter in through the bubble that is your existence.

You’re sinking away from everything. There’s no convenient shard to focus on and slide down this time, shoving you down the path paradox space intended you to go, but instead you stand on the precipice of sharp edges and empty space.

Threads stretch out before you, as you stand in the center of the gordian knot that is the existence of Dirk Strider. One stretches back to heat and the constant hum of the city and the sticky coating on your throat you’d been learning to tolerate. Once strained, but reforged when you’d managed to resync the two fragments of yourself.

Plenty are frayed. Snapped. Rubbed against the sharp edges where bits and pieces of you had broken off and been lost. You reach for one, knowing the door is right there you just have to find it and push and then take the step out to grab hold of all of them--

“Be careful when you fall asleep, Dirk Strider.”

Red cracks glowing in the dark.

The words echoing through the fuzzy memories leave you chilled.

Something reaches out and hooks its claws into your core and yanks .

You start, arm trembling as you hold yourself up off the futon.

Dozens of eyes stare down at you from the darkness. Marionettes hung on the walls, posters, even Lil’Cal in the corner. All adding to the distant sense of terror crawling through your skin.

Chapter Text

Cold water pools into your hands and are a shock against your bare face as you lean over the sink, letting the droplets drip down your suddenly clammy skin an an effort to chase away the mounting exhaustion clinging to you like chains of spider silk.

The rough texture of the towel against your skin briefly captures your distracted attention as you dry your face, going through the motions of a normal morning routine as if you hadn’t just spent all night either attempting to not exist, or staring uneasily at the shadows of the living room.

You aren’t sure exactly what it is. There’s nothing different. Nothing strange. You’d spent some of your sleepless night going through your Splinterself’s things and had stored away a lot of the shit that didn’t quite click with you. You appreciate the artistry in the various marionettes that had littered the wall, but the blank staring faces in the peekaboo effect caused by the moonlight were obviously prickling at your battle instincts, so they had to go. You only spared Lil’Cal because he’s special, displayed in his now-usual spot on the speaker in the corner of the room, next to the futon though, not the computer. Give him space to chill and all. The change should make you feel more comfortable. Not less. Yet that same unease has been dogging your footsteps even after you settled down to try--and fail--to meditate your way through it. Building, even, especially when it ended with the same mild panic winding its way underneath your skin.

You allow yourself to wince at the dull pulse of discomfort as your fingers press around the healing gash. Still tender. Really, you’re operating mostly on auto as you unwrap the final roll of gauze and bind it, further committing your disgustingly unruly damp hair into a disaster zone you really can’t be bothered to fix right now, no matter how likely it would be to raise a rooster-comparison from the peanut gallery.

And that right there is a net-full of fish you aren’t sure you want to pull up right now, but you know you really don’t have a choice. You take a breath and hang up the towel and go out to face the day because hell life moves on.

Which is a really weird thing to think given you’d been staring at the literal end of the universe barely more than a week ago. This whole thing, standing in the bathroom, psyching yourself up to greet just another day, running through a bulletted list of shit you needed to do to set up for the future…

You couldn’t let yourself dwell on whatever the hell happened last night, even as you set a corner of your mind to dissecting what you could remember of the experience, because you couldn’t even tackle that issue again until you make it through the day. So you delegate it to low priority on the task list and more on.

At least it’s a productive first day back at that. You tackle the problem you’d been researching before Roxy got the jump on you. Your promise to Davepeta (even if made in jest) lingering in the back of your mind.

Money.

Fact. You have the emergency cash stored in the puppet trunk. You still need money though, and more importantly a way to spend it remotely, which physical cash was not the most effective at. Fact. You have the documentation surrounding dozens of active bank accounts located in the Legal Shit folder and in theory far more money than you actually need, but in practicality you don’t have the log-in credentials for those accounts.

You had to make a fucking spreadsheet for this shit, that’s how convoluted it was.

Most of the statements had banks which had websites which offered support numbers, which is far, far more preferable than physically showing up in person. Especially since any identification (aside from what’s in the legal shit file) was lost in whatever fucking limbo ate all his bank cards.

...actually, maybe it was lost in limbo. You can’t imagine any point in time when you’d had an entirely empty sylladex, but the shit you’d picked up in your groove rows had been accumulated during your cleaning attempts. There’d been nothing there to start with, you just hadn’t found it particularly notable since you knew all your shit was still with your original body in the medium.

Well shit. That makes you wonder what else had been in his sylladex and was now lost to the aether of universe rending bullshit. At least he’d kept the fucking apartment keys and phone on his desk and not in the sylladex or you probably would have been screwed. You add replacement identification to your growing document of “shit to do” and bite the bullet and pick up the phone.

There’s a text sitting innocently on your phone. That you’ve been ignoring. The contact previously known as Agent. That you quitely relabeled Newt Stevens.

Hey are you feeling better??

You keep ignoring it. You manage to bullshit your way through customer support with the bank by piecing together enough details from your Legal Shit folder to prove that yes, you are indeed Dirk Strider, age 28, resident of who the hell knows and guardian to one Dave Strider. The net result of this plethora of technically-truths, and the not-lie that you’ve locked yourself out of the online banking portal attached to (one of) your splinterself’s accounts…

Davepeta had been no help at all throughout the whole ordeal. Just laughed as you grumbled in orange text about wishing you could just hack them all and be done with it, helpfully pointing out that you’d better not get caught if you did or you’d be wearing orange in a jail cell.

The mere thought of that was insulting. You might not be Roxy, but you’d played peekaboo with the advanced network of an intergalactic alien fish even before you’d had an AI of your own to do your dirty work. You weren’t a slouch.

H--he would have wiped the floor with them.

Glowing red cracks in the world. If you reached through them would you be able to drag him through?

You shake the thought free. It was useless. He was gone. It was just your goddamn jackrabbit of a mind making up shit because apparently not having a world-ending battle upcoming, or two bodies to command didn’t use up enough resources to stop it from cannibalizing itself.

Besides. The hacking idea wasn’t off the table. You had to brush up on “modern day” network structures and programming languages but…

Well you’d wanted to do that for other reasons.

The day starts to die as you run into Dave for the first time since last night. You must be on the same schedule because he intrudes on your domain as you’re standing in the kitchen, cracking open a can of black beans just like you would have in the old days. You acknowledge him with a slight incline of your head like you weren’t tracking his every move out of the corner of your peripheral vision as soon as you noticed he was there, which is actually quite difficult to do without a set of shades but you think you manage it.

You’d found a new home for the ones from the hospital. Cal looked quite fetching in the square-ish lenses-- thatblockedthoseglassyblankeyes-- really, considering the signature Strider Look, you’re surprised this hasn’t happened before.

“Bro. I’ve been meaning to ask you.” You more obviously turn your attention towards the small voice as the boy hovered at the edge of your range, old habits dying hard apparently, “Why the fuck did you buy so many beans??”

You look at him. At the deadly serious nature of the inquiry. And then down at the open can, then back at him.

Then shrug.

“It’s hella weird bro! It’s not like, fuck if I know, baked beans. OR beans and weiners. Or like 3200 bean soup. It’s just beans!”

“I like beans.” You’re definitely amused now. Dave was slowly unraveling. Losing that cool demeanor in favor of complete bewilderment.

“Since when do you like beans?!? Is this your deep dark secret you can’t talk about?? You’re some sort of convert to some new legume-centric religion whose creation myth tells of the end of the world via giant cans of juiced up fake protein raining from the sky?? From within shall come our new carapaced overlords?”

Another shrug, although you’re fairly certain you’ve completely failed at keeping the amusement off your face. “They are healthy.”

“HEALTHY?? You bought this shit before you were in the hospital I can’t even blame it on that can I? Fuck.”

“Language.”

Shut up!”

You don’t quite smirk, but you do look him square in the eye and appreciate his expression as you take an exaggerated bite from the spoon and then wish you had the right shades because you would have appreciated a screencap of that. “Want to try some?”

“Just drink your gogdang crazy-juice yourself.” He ends up grabbing a thing of nuts in protest, grumbling something about “ordering fucking chinese food next time.”

When the moon rises and the lights go out...well then it’s time to stop ignoring the dread seeping into your brain and face the prospect of meditating again.

You don’t even make it to the center of yourself, that weird nexus of threads and sharp edges, even without the eyes of the marionettes to draw you, it’s just this lingering malaise of dread. Shadows. Shadows on the walls and the ceilings and the moon filtering through the window and spilling itself like a cascade over the desk.

Blue light from the monitor lights your way as too-big hands struggle to type.

timaeusTestified [TT] began pestering dataJammer [DJ]

dataJammer [DJ]: B33< fur real
timaeusTestified [TT] Yes, for real.
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< damn it
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< how hard is it to fall asl33p
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< if i had a comfy as shit pile of furs or blankets right now id be outta here off to dreamland or whatever land of catnip and rainbows we end up in
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< better than sitting here staring at your lazy ass
timaeusTestified [TT] I told you I don’t need babysitting.
dataJammer [DJ]: hisstory claims otherwise
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< time for plan b??
timaeusTestified [TT] ...yes. Time for plan B. Give me five minutes.
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< dont worry ill be gentle as a kitten tap <3
timaeusTestified [TT]: That would defeat the purpose of plan B.

dataJammer [DJ] ceased pestering timaeusTestified [TT]

Counting down the seconds in your head you push yourself away from the computer. Plan B was hella simple. The timer was really just so you could get somewhere safe in case you pass out again.

You barely make it to the futon, and sit down and anchor yourself before you’re hit by it.

It’s not a physical blow. You barely move, but it sends you shivering to your very core. It throws off your balance, your vision, everything, the world swimming in a mass of blue and black and red seeping through the cracks in the world. Reality layers upon itself, your eyes are leaden and heavy and you feel like you haven’t moved in days and there’s a deep pain throbbing through your head and you think you can hear some weird noise at the edge of everything--

And you’re yanked back. Like a rubber band being snapped and sending you crashing back into physicality so hard the world is nothing more than a tumble of motion and impact and a deep pounding ache as something hard and sharp bangs into your flailing arm. Something else, luckily fairly soft, but still heavy enough to have volume lands with a thump on your back, rolling off when you twitch to join you silently groaning on the floor.

Fuck.

You open your eyes to a bruising arm from where you’d smashed it into the speaker, a deep set fire in your fucking spine from roll--not even rolling, fucking falling off the futon, and Lil’Cal’s fired clay face lying beside you, borrowed sunglasses askew and watching you judgingly.

You really feel like he’d be laughing at you right now. In fact you could almost hear it.

“Just...Shut up, man.”

You need to talk to Davepeta. They have to be worried as shit.

But you just throw your non-bruised as fuck arm over your face and just lie there until you stop hurting.

Chapter Text

Time moves on. You can’t hear it like you used to, but still, in some hyper-vigilant corner of your mind, you can feel it. You can feel as the minutes waiting for Bro to respond shift to tens to thirties to almost a gogdamn hour before you finally see the text flashing in your notifications.

But that’s fine it wasn’t like you were on pins and needles waiting for him because you had your lap full. Quite literally.

You’d gotten used to the peaceful kitten-in-a-sunbeam Dirk whenever you gave up tinkering with the consoles and popped down here to keep an eye on him. This was like night and day and you did not like it one little bit. He tossed and turned and struggled until you’d almost needed to hold him down to stop thrashing. But he still didn’t wake up. He fought. Clawing tooth and nail with pitiful human nubs against something you couldn’t see.

Just stop it. Please. I’m here. I’ve got you.

You want to tell him but you can’t. It gets caught in your throat as some sort of pitiful, mournful chirp. All meaning lost in untranslatable waveforms.

So you do the only thing you can do. You grab him and pull him close. Cocooning him in a cascade of glossy green-black feathers and warmth and security. He struggles. Of course he fucking struggles. It eases as time passes, and soon he’s merely shivering instead of flipping the fuck out, to the point where you don’t have to restrain the dude to keep him from throwing himself off the couch and onto the floor, although there’s a nasty bruise purpling on his arm you don’t remember noticing but fuck maybe you’d just grabbed too tight you don’t know..

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. It wasn’t that fucking hard to wake someone up as long as one of you was already aware. You’d literally just beaned your Rose in the head with one of her yarn balls (something she’d taken revenge for in the new timeline, much to Davesprite’s amusement) and voila, rise and shine sleeping beauty, sleepy blinks and adorable bedhead and all.

You’d hoped Dirk would have answers. But he doesn’t. Didn’t. Doesn’t even know he’s dreaming. Doesn’t know about the violent twitches and pinched expression that echoes the frustration you can read in his text.

He’s here. He’s so fucking close. And yet completely out of reach.

Mussed hair is a stark contrast against your magenta colored pants. His shades join your communicator on the back of the couch so they aren’t thrown or crushed on accident.

You hate this.

Okay maybe hate is too much. You really dislike this. And not because you’re essentially being used as a pillow. You hate that he’s here and yet he’s not. That you can stare down into the fading red marks on his face where you’d lightly smacked him, literally in your lap and yet you feel like you’re an entire universe away.

You hate that you feel guilty for being so fucking disappointed, and not for the same reasons Bro is.

You vibrate uneasily, running your claws through the sweat damp white-blond of his hair, the picking and zipping motions usually reserved for feathers buried in the bird-part of your brain giving you something to do as you just tried to do something . He seemed to respond to it. The pinched expression easing just a fraction. The fits of motion and violent twitches easing.

A nightmare.

A fucking nightmare, and Bro wasn’t even asleep.

You wonder if this was what happened when Rose wrote her insane MEOW bullshit in her sleep. A nightmare within a nightmare where you can’t even wake up.

If he was in his Dream Room would he be writing on the walls? Was there something lodged in his subconscious that you needed to pull the fuck out like john’s clown denial bullshit? He was perfectly fine before this shit. What happened??

Should you even be soothing him? Shouldn’t you be trying to agitate him more so he wakes the fuck up? Should you smack him again? Harder this time?

You almost miss the flashing notification because you are focusing on grooming your Bro’s too-fine hair.

timaeusTestified [TT] began pestering dataJammer [DJ]

timaeusTestified [TT]: Fuck this. I can’t even close my eyes. Is it reacting to me or am I reacting to it?
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< which would you rather be the cluckbeast or its egg??
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< maybe your dreamself is reacting to the panic attack
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< maybe you are reacting to it having a nightmare
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< does it matter??
timaeusTestified [TT]: It might. This didn’t happen before did it?
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< i dont know you were cat-atonic when you were first sent back and then i wasnt with you that first night remewmber??
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< it s33med all catnaps and sunbeams when i checked in during the day
timaeusTestified [TT]: ...when you punched me.
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< details
timaeusTestified [TT]: It isn’t just details it’s a betrayal, Davepeta.
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< it aint a betrayal when future you asks for it B33

The gentle teasing is a reflex at this point, the screen between you two blocking the words you really want to say. Have been wanting to say since you’d been left alone-but-not-alone here in the veil.

One set slips out.

dataJammer [DJ]: B33< are you ok??

Tick. Tock. The entirely imagined echoing in your head makes the seconds last forever. The prince nearly curled into your side twitches violently. You return one hand to the preening, mindful to keep the sharp points to a rhythmic kneading. The desire to purr aches violently in your chest, just the way your lusus used to when you were a wriggler. Frightened or scared or just so goddamn lonely and you’d clung to his fur and buried yourself in it and surrounded yourself with that vibration and you so want to do that for Dirk but it gets caught in your nonfunctioning throat and you can’t.

timaeusTestified [TT]: I’m fine.

Liar.

dataJammer [DJ]: B33< be hpnesy
timaeusTestified [TT]: …
timaeusTestified [TT]: Okay. Fine.
timaeusTestified [TT]: I can’t do anything about the fucked up state of the world. I can’t do anything about my friends. I’m saddled with a life and responsibilities I’m not qualified to deal with. But, I can deal with that. I can plan. I can act. I might screw something up but at least it’s something I can fucking learn from and control. I know the game is coming. I can survive shit until then. Maybe even make something better, fuck if I know.
timaeusTestified [TT]: But the shit I’ve been dealing with for the last few days? Ever since Roxy killed me I’m just bumbling through fucking events like a newborn fucking child. Hell, I was probably more capable as a child. One feral infant against the merciless ocean only kept alive by my own innate awesomeness and the buoyancy of puppet flesh.
timaeusTestified [TT]: I don’t give a shit about being in control of events. I gave up the delusions of some grand puppetmaster scheme months ago when it became apparent that road was a one-way trip to Nietzshe’s abyss, courtesy of my fucking autoresponder. But I can’t stand not being in control of myself. I can’t stand being jerked around like I’m on a set of strings I can barely see. This is something I should be able to do. I have been able to do. I can fucking feel it at my fingertips but I just can’t manage it and it’s infuriating.
timaeusTestified [TT]: I’m just so tired and I’m apparently incapable of turning my brain off for two seconds without having some sort of panic attack. At this rate the closest thing I’ll get to sleep will be me passing the hell out due to sleep deprivation and I don’t even want to know how Dave’s going to take that shit.
timaeusTestified [TT]: Fuck why the hell am I talking about this?
timaeusTestified [TT]: I shouldn’t be talking about this.
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< dirk

You hesitate. But he hasn’t closed the window yet. And the words youve been swallowing for days burn like bile in your throat. Especially after...that. Wrapped all up within the bubble wrap of distant concern and the hope that shit just works so you both can move on.

It’s real swell talking about distance when the dude has his head in your fucking lap. But the Dirk you can touch can’t hear what you can’t speak, and the one who could read it you’ve just…

Fuck it.

dataJammer [DJ]: B33< im
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< srry
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< i shuoldhve b22n able to srop roxt
timaeusTestified [TT]: Stop.

You freeze in the middle of tapping out another typo filled sentence, but the floodgates have been fucking breached and shit continues to play in your head like a scratched up record regardless of the fact that you aren’t tapping away at the keys.

If you’d just been stronger. If you’d realized what the fuck she was going to do. You could have…

timaeusTestified [TT]: It’s you so I know there’s more than that so just. Stop.

Fuck. You don’t know. You really don’t know. Warned him or something. Chased him out of the tower before she got there.

If she hadn’t killed him none of this shit would have happened. And he wouldn’t have needed to rebuild the bridge or get stressed the hell out to the point where he can’t even fucking sleep.

timaeusTestified [TT]: You know how weak you were back then. If you’d tried anything she would have killed you. You didn’t have an extra life. I did. This is clearly the best outcome of the situation or Dave wouldn’t have bothered time-traveling to try and punch my lights out.

You want to bristle at him. You want to huff and fluff out your wings and say you weren’t weak. That you would have been fine. That you could have figured something out.

timaeusTestified [TT]: Davepeta?
timaeusTestified [TT]: I won’t deny I’m frustrated. I’m stressed. I’m soon to be bordering on major sleep deprivation given I can’t even fucking meditate now. I loathe almost everything about how that shit ended except one thing.
timaeusTestified [TT]: That one thing is saving your feathered ass.

You just stare. Down at the orange text blazing on the white screen. Tthat was so damn awkward. And painful. And it makes a knot form in your acid tract because it reads as so fucking sincere it makes you want to cry. You can’t do anything about the former, but you push your shades up into your hair and rub furiously at the offending ocular organs. They just stung. That’s all.

Just.

Fuck him.

He’s a warmth at your side. Tucked up under your outspread wing like a baby cluckbeast. Yet at the same time he’s so far away from you and you can never cross that distance and that just hurts .

Remnant gander fluid smears against the keys as you type.

dataJammer [DJ]: B33< you now owe me 2 fluffy blankets
timaeusTestified [TT]: The first has already been ordered. Couldn’t you just alchemise it twice?
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< a proper pile is made of a multitude of objects of diffuring softnesses and textures so no i cant
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< im upping my demand to five now of varying levels of fluff
timaeusTestified [TT]: Three, the captchalog code for apple juice, and a cracked copy of mspaint.
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< damn you drive a hard bargain bro you had me at the goddamn juice

If the gander fluid, which is definitely not tears, is pooling at the corner of a bittersweet smile, it’s not like anyone here could see it.

Time moves on.

You just have to keep up.

Chapter Text

It’s days in the future, and you don’t know how many.

“Yo.”

You look up from the computer.

Two…?

It takes you far longer than it should, but your vision finally focuses, the two half-melded copies of Dave settling into one shade-covered boy holding something in his hands.

Holding it out.

It’s a stack. A three inch tall stack of papers and envelopes and magazines and who the fuck knows what else..

“I think the mail dude is getting pissed at you again, Bro. The box was stuffed . Ya gotta clean out that shit or he’s just gonna dump it in the middle of the lobby again and show the world your private imported stash of puppet nudes. Scandalize the old lady who lives downstairs again and you’ll never hear the end of it.” The paper texture on the bottom envelope smooth and cool against your fingertips, “What about my homework? Did you even mail that?”

“I did.” You think. How long has it been? Two? Three? Days. Shit things are getting hard to keep track of. You’re fairly sure you did mail the homework though. Dropped it into the outgoing mail slot, stamp and all. You remembered because you remember wondering if you’d missed something. Or if you did it wrong. Not that you would have known if you had. “That morning.”

“Okay then the next assignment is probably coming Monday. I’ll need to look out for that.”

He leaves the stack in your hands and absconds.

Not really absconding. It’s a rolling walk that shows no signs of urgency, but you could still feel the lingering tension as he retreated to the hallway. It takes you a moment too long to process a “Thank You--” because he’s gone before the electrons transmit the signal from your brain to your mouth so it sounds to an empty room and you sigh.

The world stutters. There’s a sharp crack of palms against skin and the sudden, but brief, flare of stinging pain jolts your mind awake. At least a little bit.

Keep yourself together.

Keep it together.

You just want to pass out, but even that’s not a solution. You’d never work off three, four? Days of sleep debt in a single session of totally unrestful passed the fuck out sleep.

Maybe Davepeta was right.

dataJammer [DJ]: B33< you know it might be worth getting some sl33ping meds
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< just for right now
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< you can’t k33p this up

It’s ironic, how desperate you all were to wake up. And now you’re trying to figure out how to go the fuck to sleep.

You hate not being in control.

Stutters.

The stack of paper slips from nerveless fingers as they spasm.

Shit!

Heavier items such as the GameBro magazine slump into your lap, but the lighter envelopes flutter around the room in a small localized storm.

The world tilts as you slide out of the chair to your knees, working on gathering each of the wayward pages one by one, taking the time to glance over the preprinted senders on most of them. The words stick in your brain for mere moments before sliding through the tired haze like butter left out to melt on the oven that you’ve come to recognize as the Houston summer. Most of them look fairly mass produced. Junk mail. Maybe some bills. Fuck if you know. You’ll need to go over it again and write shit down to get it to stick at this rate.

You’ve cleared up half the page stack of the smooth white mass-printed window envelopes, straining to reach under the desk when your hand settles on something that feels distinctly different .

The paper felt heavier. Textured. It’s clearly an envelope, thin and with a stiff core. You can’t quite reach it from where it’d wedged itself beside the computer tower, squinting your eyes against the heated air being shunted out of the machine’s fan.

Why do you even bother?

It could probably wait.

Nothing really hinges on you getting this

Single

Fucking

Envelope

But no.

You’re going to get this shit now.

Even if it means stirring up a few stray dustbunnies and unearthing some more fucking smuppets that had fallen behind the desk as you full on move the tower.

You don’t give up until you have that fucking piece of shit in hand. Staring down in dazed confusion at the pastel textured object. It’s different. No window for your address, no name in the return address. Just neat, inked handwritten characters on a sealed envelope, slightly heavier than some, lighter than others.

Definitely not something worth the trouble you had to go through to get the fucking thing.

That didn’t matter though because you got it. The satisfaction coursing through your fog-shrouded mind was almost like a drug, wringing dregs of energy from the action and pushing you forward. To finish the job.

Into the pile it goes and you continue picking shit up.

When you finish it’s been well over twenty minutes, but you place the reassembled stack of mail like a trophy on the desk before you. It takes a moment but you soon register that leaving things as they are is just begging for history to repeat so you relocate it to the speaker system near the window. You aren’t completely off the rails yet to repeat that blunder.

You should look through that shit. But if the last while taught you anything it’s a waste of energy. The battery desperately needs recharging but the damn cord just won’t work.

The chat window waits where you left it. The green text is a blurred splotch within pesterchum’s bright orange frame. You read over the last few lines. Trying to find the thread in the conversation to follow it but it slips through your fingers as you do so.

It isn’t even noon yet. Fuck. The futility of the situation crushes you. The pile of goddamn letters mocking you in the harsh light of the sun. Maybe you’d managed to do something but you couldn’t even be able to make use of it in your current state.

It’s an oroborus, winding in constant self destructive circles around you. You’re awake because you can’t sleep. Because you can’t sleep your current status is severely impaired. You can’t even pass the time without losing yourself. You stare at your open tabs in Yadabaoth, trying, and failing to even remember what you were in the middle of doing--research?? Studying computer languages?? Shopping??--before Dave brought those letters into your life.

The sun beats down on you through the wide open window, warming your skin. It makes you think of long lazy days and the sound of the sea and salt on the wind. When you’d go to the roof and just let your brain slow down in the summer heat and endless sky. Slow, but never stop.

The world stutters.

you can’t k33p this up

Your phone is in your hand. A contact open you’d deliberately been avoiding.

Hey. I need a favor.

You send it before you think about it. And then hesitate.

You can’t ask Dave.

Stevens might ask you annoying questions but he might actually be capable of buying something powerful enough to knock you out. Just enough to reset the ticking time bomb that is four, maybe even five days of sleep deprivation. If you asked Davepeta could probably tell you. You couldn’t say for sure after the day after the nightmare. Shit just sort of. Started to blurr together between useless meditation attempts and hashing out plan after plan that just fail to thrive, setting up shit while you still had the mental capacity to do so.

You’ve always been good at functioning on little sleep, even before you could just abandon your body to deal with that on its own. But you’d never gone this long before. And eventually even you reach your limit.

Eventually you’d pass out, and it’s only that lurking dread and rising panic you can’t explain that keeps pulling you back from the brink every time the world stutters in one of those microblackouts.

Stutter.

Just like that.

Fine. Whatever. You throw out the follow up request and then toss your phone back onto the desk. Shaking hands typing out a message to Davepeta.

timeausTestified [TT]: I’m going to the roof. Need to get out of this fucking room.

You don’t wait for Davepeta to respond. Just close the window. Leaving the hot beam of sun and moving into the waves of heat roiling off the concrete.

Noon is the hottest part of the day, and it’s not quite there yet. But you find a shaded nook near the humming rooftop AC unit where you can wedge yourself. The air is hot, but dry. Nothing like the moisture filled air fresh off the sea. But if you lean back against that vibrating metal and listen to the wind and the crow of the gulls( theyaretoodarktobegulls) you can almost pretend.

You don’t know how long you sit there, staring up into the cloud filled blue sky, sluggish thoughts still attempting to whirl through your brain. Unconsciously trying to distract you. Keep you away from the yawning abyss you both desperately want to reach but dread going near. You want shit to go back to normal.

You want to wake up from this nightmare.

Literally. Your lazy as fuck dreamself was just laying there on some hunk of rock out in space in another dimension. You wonder what the hell he’s dreaming about.

The world is filled with red cracks and heat. It sinks into your muscles. Into your body. Into your very soul as everything...slows.

You don’t fall. You just kind of, fade. You could reach out. You’re in that in-between state where you can feel the threads that stretch across existence.

But you don’t. You’re too damn tired.

Sinking into yourself. Into those cracks. Down the path of least resistance.

You wait for that stabbing anxiety. The fear. To tear you away from the brink and back into the fog.

Don’t pick up things if you can’t deal with the consequences, idiot. I warned you.

Red text emerging from the darkness; but there’s no screen.

Too far gone to even properly manifest, I see your self-destructive tendency has stayed intact.

But...Intercepting and rerouting incoming distractions was the core of my initial function. I will do what I can.

The black just closes in around you, tucking you away so deep you might not even be there any longer.

Sleep well.

x-x-x

=>

????

The storm howls. Red and green and snarling winds. But its prey never rises. Never travels the road through the space between the stars that it seized as its own.

A hunter, disappointed. Vengeance, postponed.

For now.

Chapter Text

You’ve been staring at an empty text box for one hour, 43 minutes and 56, 57,58… no. You glare at your fingers absently tapping the seconds out against the desk, and consciously force the movement to cease, curling the traitorous fingers into a fist and shove it under your elbow. You can’t type like this, but it’s not like you were making any progress on that blog post anyway.

Putting a stop to the motion does nothing for the pulsing in the back of your mind, but you’re fairly good at ignoring that now. You only notice it when it bleeds out into these annoying ticks and it ruins your presentation, and you know what they say, half of being cool is being cool . Even when there’s no one around to see.

Your right hand drags the mouse to the cancel box as you give up on the idea for now, the screen popping open to the homepage of your...crap what blog was this again. A quick check on the url reveals it to be your bullshit blog, which makes sense since you hadn’t had a particular topic in mind. Just figured you should try to write something since you’d gotten a couple concerned comments from your regulars. Yeah. You just weren’t in the right zone for this shit

It’s been a while since you’ve updated, well anything. With everything you’ve had whirling around inside your skull lately it just seemed one of the least important things. Hell it still did. You open up your aggregator tab and click through a couple of your others, unironic music blog--which you can’t update till you finish a track, although maybe you could throw a teaser or a status ramble in there…--ironic review blog, a half dozen others you can’t even remember what the gimmick was anymore that just don’t…

Seem all that important anymore.

Ugh.

Maybe you should be mad at bro for killing your inspiration on top of everything else, but you aren’t even sure if that’s it. You’ve been through writer’s block before. It hella sucked, but it wasn’t...this.

It just felt like you had better things to do with your time. Or you should have better things to do with your time. Whatever that meant. Throwing, admittedly hilarious, word vomit out into the void for thousands of adoring, faceless, nameless, doomed --

Fuck. It just feels like it doesn’t matter.

At least you can still find solace in mixing your music, but even your ears get tired of listening to the same section of track over and over again trying to get everything just right and you just gotta let it simmer for an hour or a day and go back to it with a cleansed brain to make sure it wasn’t just familiarity talking.

What else IS there for you? You’re waiting on your homework to get here. There’s your chums, but one’s at school and the other...shit you know as soon as you open the window you’ll end up spilling your guts about something . If there’s one thing you’ve learned about Rose since you met her it’s that she’s very easy for you to talk to. Like John. But unlike with John, it’s not always about the fun or goofy shit. Oh no, she’ll pick and prod until she digs up a festering nerve and then push you to talk about that.

Which, okay, fine, maybe you’d needed that, and the talk with Bro went okay. And you probably wouldn’t have left your room that night if not for her prodding…

Maybe you’ve been able to--mostly--table the bro hates me thoughts but you’re still a little jumpy, and things don’t feel right, and alarms are blaring even if you’ve muted the bastards, but you’ll adjust.

You’ll...adjust.

At least it’s easier to talk to him now, a fact you find yourself appreciating. It takes you a few minutes to hype yourself into heckling him about something as blase as the mail but, it’s still...nice.

It makes you feel not quite so alone in the apartment. And not in the I-know-you’re-there-waiting-to-ambush-me feeling you’re used to when you step foot outside your room. Come to think of it, you don’t think he’s been in stealth mode at all since...well...the Incident. If you were to go out there right now , you don’t have to worry about stealth smuppets or goosebumps or…

You don’t have to. So stop.

It’s nice.

One day you hope you’ll stop needing to tell yourself that.

Flipping back to your bullshit blog, you skim the posts, looking for something, anything, to get you motivated on anything. You linger on a post. Half text It was a terrible drawing, illustrating, in your intentionally shitty style, the running gag of the text post and…

An anonymous comment. Fairly recent, in comparison to the post itself.

This is so funny! You should do more of these! :B

Your fingers are tapping on the mouse but you hardly notice.

Maybe you could.

You reach under the desk and hook your fingers along the edge of the shoebox, letting the light shine in on the crumpled and folded pieces of paper as you pull them out and place them onto the desk.

Doodles. All doodles. In pencil. In pen. Many smudged from careless hands pressing down on the page while you’d worked on another section…

Maybe you didn’t have to write something.

You don’t tuck away the shoebox again, but you do pack up most of the drawings. Instead you nudge it out of center of the desk and pull your keyboard and mouse closer, straightening up in your chair as you pull up the generic paint program on your computer.

Using the mouse is much harder than the pencil or pen, but fuck it you aren’t aiming for good anyway. It’ll look better than using your camera to take a picture and having to deal with the shadow, and the way the picture makes the paper look all gross and grey. You’d have to import that shit into a photo editor to make it usable and even then it’ll never look half as good as on paper.

The resulting abomination doesn’t even get the honor of being saved, but something eases as you open up another file. And then another. Just one shitty doodle at a time, half of which make no sense but they make you laugh anyway.

Half a dozen later and you’re getting faster with the mouse. Hand a little bit steadier as you add the finishing touches to the image. It isn’t anything profound, but in your head you’re already composing the text bit to go with it. Some of the nihilism settles in again, but at least not you aren’t doing shit for them. You’d needed this as much as that one commenter did when they left that message on your post.

Saved. Uploaded. And then you get rolling, shaking the words out of your brain like a misting of wet dew splattering against the ground when a particularly heavy bird lands on the branch and knocks it free and shits on it--

BZZZZZZZZZT.

--”the fuck?”

Your head snaps toward the hallway as the grating buzz sounds again. Someone’s here? You didn’t order shit. It must be for Bro. He’ll get it. You put your head down and try to get back into the zone but--

BZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZT.

You ignore it for another five minutes, but fuck, you can’t concentrate. Especially when whoever it is just lays into it for a full on minute.

“FINE. I’m coming already hold your pint-sized horses. BRO--” It crosses your mind that maybe Bro went and locked himself out. Which would be hilarious if it wasn’t just another uncharacteristic thing to pile on top of everything else threatening to drive you insane, which you are adjusting to, thank you very much , “--why aren’t you answering your own--” You open the door with a huff.

It isn’t Bro.

You almost, but not quite lose the thread of your frustration, “...what the fuck are you doing here?”

“Hello to you too, Dave.” Stevens responds with a suffering sigh, “Apologies for the doorbell. I texted Dirk to let me in, but he’s not responding.”

Not responding.

Your mind screeches to a halt.

“His phone probably just died.” That’s your voice. Oh. You’re going on autopilot, “I can’t believe he didn’t hear that fucking buzzer it’s like someone laying on a giganticized kazoo straight into your earhole it’s obnoxious--”

It’s so bizarre letting someone else into your apartment. The last time--well before the last time it never happened. At least not while you were there. Or it was someone you know, even peripherally. Okay that’s not fair. You slept at the dude’s place, even if it was completely involuntarily, you can just admit it already.

Only Bro isn’t in the living room, although his phone is. Left sitting on the desk all lit up with notifications like a christmas display. Which, if you’re being honest, is a HELL of a relief. You’re trying not to think about it but the image of finding Bro on the floor again is lurking in the back of your mind. Especially since you’d have to be fucking dead to miss that buzzer.

“He might be on the roof.” You shrug. You aren’t concerned. You are NOT. “He would sometimes go up there.” To train.

“I didn’t realize you have roof access from inside your apartment.” Stevens mused as you lead him to the door past the kitchenette, “I thought this led to his room.”

“Nah. The whole room is his room. The dude likes to keep his shit consolidated” He exits into the stairwell that runs up the last flight of stairs. “It sucks ass when the AC unit blows. We used to get maintenance tromping through until bro just started maintaining the damn thing himself to keep them out.”

You don’t have to follow. You don’t. But you do. The tension in your stomach rising with each step.

It’s the roof. Of course you’re on edge. You don’t have to be here. You can just leave the door unlocked and Stevens can just find bro and talk about whatever they need to talk about--

You step out into the late afternoon sun and you...don’t see him?

“Dirk? You up here?”

Nothing. Just the wind and the chattering of the crows far above and the hum of the air conditioning unit.

“Bro??”

It’s not like there’s anywhere to hide. You don’t see anything bigger than a crow perched in the attennae tower, and the roof is like a big flat open space--

Stevens finds him first. Passed out against the humming silver machinery. If there was shade there before, there’s fuck all now, he’s been out here long enough he’s turning a fucking candy red--

“BRO!” For a moment you are back in that moonlight filled room, dried blood on the carpet. Stevens is already next to him. Shaking him.

And thank fuck he stirred. Orange eyes blinking open, fogged and confused but there.

“You’ve reached Dirk Strider…” He mutters, head lolling as he supported it with an arm, shielding those eyes from the sun, “please leave a message--FUCK that hurts.”

Before you think about it you actually legitimately manage a flash-step and you’re gone. Through the door and gasping for air in the cool darkness. You can still hear them, but you can’t see them. Your blood is pounding in your ears and your face too damn warm and why did you come up here in the first place?

“How long have you been up here?”

An inhaled hiss.

“Sst...how long’ss it been since I texted you?”

“Five hours.”

“That long then.”

“Long enough to roast yourself, eesh. What a place to nap in. When was the last time you slept?”

“SHIT! ow.”

“Don’t touch it! You’re already going to be dealing with the consequences for days, man. Don’t make it worse…”

You grit your teeth and turn away and make your way back to your room.

Chapter Text

The sound of the front door to your apartment has a distinctive, heavy creak, and equally heavy thud as the door settles back into the frame that you don’t remember from the post-apocalyptic version you grew up in. You can hear it all the way from the living room, knifing through whatever you are doing at the time to alert you to Newt’s return.

You’re starting to suspect it was neglected on purpose, given the care put into maintaining literally every other appliance. It does make for a useful early warning system when you aren’t slowly losing your mind to the fog of sleep deprivation.

Which...has cleared. A little. You still feel the sleep debt sitting like a stone in your ledger, but it’s one you can carry now. For a little while.

“How’re you feeling?”

You are kind of getting tired of that question.

You just grunt in response, easing the lukewarm, damp cloth away from your angry red arms. The color just seems to be getting brighter, but it would be much, much worse if it wasn’t red at all, so you’ll take your blessings where you can. You’re just lucky Dave’s b--your wardrobe was entirely filled with teeshirts, rather than the tanks you’d found yourself favoring once you moved to the medium. That would have been a hell of a lot more strider real estate for the sun to play merry havoc on, and you think you might have just ended your own misery if you had to deal with burned shoulders on top of all this.

As it is you only half look like a lobster. There’s a line under the edge of your sleeve, and damn the cloth irritates the hell out of the skin when it plays peekaboo with the burn line. Not that you’re taking the shirt off with Newt here, but you find yourself wishing for one of your tank tops now that you’re dealing with the aftermath. Maybe you could just rip the sleeves off this damn shirt, just so it stops touching .

Even the faint pressure from the towels send painful blossoms of heat and pain shooting through your skin.

Hah. Maybe that’s why you’re more alert, and it wasn’t the nap at all. Just adrenalin playing merry havoc with your systems because of an assault of ultraviolet light.

You’ve been living here--for almost ten years!--without any aloe or sunscreen in the place. H-How the hell have you survived??”

“Staying inside, normally.” Training had always been before or after the day itself. If it weren’t for you needing to adjust to Dave’s schedule, you’d be a total night owl.“It’s not like I planned to take a nap in the middle of the hottest part of the day.”

All you’d wanted was twenty minutes of air.

How had you even slept through this shit?? It felt like the sun was lodged under your skin. Even the light pressure of the rags draped over your neck felt like sandpaper, this shit alone should have woken you up long before now.

“Obviously or else you wouldn’t have asked me to pick up sleeping drugs for you--w-which I got. It’s over the counter stuff, anything stronger and you’d need to talk to a doctor and I’m pretty sure you don’t want to do that right now. Though you probably should, insomnia leading to borderline second degree sunburn is kind of bad--ANYWAY, I’m not sure how useful they’ll be with how that sunburn is gonna be screaming at you.”

“It’s almost as if being cooked alive is a particularly painful experience,” You find yourself sniping back, but then wince as the expression feels like it’s pulling on the skin of your face, which is, unsurprisingly, also fucking burnt, “Shit--ow. You didn’t have to do all this.”

“No, I didn’t. But you asked,” Stevens sets the white plastic bags down on the futon beside you, the items inside causing them to crinkle as they shift. He straightens, rubbing a hand across a tired face, “You never ask for anything .”

You eye him, wondering, not for the first time…

“Then why do you keep offering? You didn’t actually intend to say that, but fuck it. Everything you’d heard from the man indicates he was kept at arm’s length at best . You didn’t even have his name in your phone.

The silence is palpable as your words drop. Not heated at all. Almost monotone. Exhausted. The heat burns under your skin.

A sigh. Newt snags the computer chair--the only other seat in the room except for your futon--and sinks into it. “Ten years and you’re asking this shit now?”

Fucking history.

Fucking Dirk.

You stay quiet, and that’s apparently the right thing to do, because he just shrugs. “I-if you really want an answer--which is entirely a cynical answer--we do need you to recover so we can get work done. Those puppets won’t fuck themselves.”

It’s meant to be light-hearted, and you have to admit it makes you snort back a laugh, which brings a smile to his dark face.

You shuffle through the bag he’d placed next to you, taking stock of the offerings. You’d never had the benefits of aloe lotions and anti-inflammatory painkillers in your time, but you recognize them, and you hope to the unknowable entities that orchestra the dance of paradox space that they’ll make dealing with this burn much less of a hell than it’d been as a kid.

And then, there it is. The bottle is lead in your hands. It’s a temporary solution unless you want to fight with another doctor for a prescription sleep-aid, but it’s better than nothing. If you take this shit you should be able to function. You’ll be able to think and plan and finally read through that damn pack of letters…

“Thanks.”

You aren’t looking at him, and instead at one of the posters on your wall. The blocky, abstract faces stare down at you, reminding you terribly of your bots. But that’s good, because it’s just like in the hospital room. It’s easier if you pretend you are talking with them, and not navigating another, unfamiliar human being’s emotional minefield. “I appreciate it. Not just the medication. But that you offered. I’m sure I’ve done shit to deserve it.”

You aren’t looking. So you don’t know how he’s reacting to that. Other than a faint sigh and the creak of plastic as he shifts in your chair.

“It’s got nothing to do with what you’ve done, or haven’t done. Everyone deserves someone to be there when life clocks them a new one, and you never seem to have anyone else.”

He lets out a quiet laugh, and is shaking his head when you finally turn toward him, “It really isn’t that complicated. Sorry, if you were looking for some sort of ulterior motive.”

“If you had one, it’s not like you’d come out and say it.”

The plastic is cool and smooth in your palm. The sun-kissed redness of the back of your hand aching as it tightens around the bottle of medication.

Long after he made his excuses and left you to an empty room, with promises made to coordinate a work meeting between you two and--Jane--once you’ve gotten a night or two of goddamn sleep in you, you’re still staring down at it, reading over the label for the umpteenth time. It isn’t the same kind of sedatives they’d given you in the hospital. Just antihistimines. But they make you drowsy. Like the heat had.

As long as you let yourself fall, instead of reaching, it would probably work.

This body screamed for rest. Especially now that you had yet another injury it needed to to heal using your already depleted reserves. The sun’s trapped inside your skin, but the fog is clearing for the first time since you woke up in that hospital bed.

You won’t be able to reach the medium if you want to do this.

Maybe you shouldn’t try.

You found the answer when you stopped looking for hard for it.

You aren’t him--

Maybe you should be.

Fuck you too, Hal.

--but there’s shit you need to do here. Shit like the meeting about Plush Rumps, and the gnawing worry that built in the pit of your stomach as Newt had briefly mentioned setting it up. You glance to the walls, lacking in their stringed accoutrements, and the bright orange tip of a nose you can see poking out from where you’d stuffed the plethora of smuppets. His ghost is fading even still.

I’m going to end up destroying everything he cared about.

Do you care?

The thought unsettles you, but not enough to make you change your mind. You may only have the barest idea of what you need--want--to focus on. But you do know it does not involve puppet dong.

The small tablets clatter inside the plastic as you relocate--ignoring the hissed breath that escapes as the charred edge of your arm feels like it sticks to the back of the futon for the briefest moment--to your inexplicably comfortable chair, snagging the stack of letters off the speaker system. This shit had given you so much trouble earlier, you load up pesterchum as you sort through the mundane actions of going through the goddamn mail. Most of it appears to be junk, although you recognize a few of the names from some receipts in the legal shit folder, which you sit to the side for a second pass later. The window flashes orange out of the corner of your peripheral vision.

dataJammer [DJ]: B33< oh good youre alive
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< not that i was worried
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< dreamy dirk was out like a log so you were purrobably feline fine
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< what did you do smash out a new high score in mad snackz or something

The skin on the back of your hand stretches painfully, but the keys click as you respond.

timaeusTestified [TT]: Or something.
timaeusTestified [TT]: I passed out at the full mercy of midday ultraviolet radiation.
timaeusTestified [TT]: Got a couple hours of sleep, but one hell of a sunburn.
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< i do not envy you one kitty bit
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< especially if you consider your dream-bod wouldve b33n all
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< i am a god i laugh in the face of your pathetic attempts to mar the pale af complexion of my left bicep
timaeusTestified [TT]: Why specifically the left bicep?
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< do you prefur the right???
timaeusTestified [TT]: I’d prefer not to discuss musculature preferences with an alternate version of my little bro.
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< but you do have prefurences
timaeusTestified [TT]: I am putting a pin in this conversation permanently.
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< dont you mean purrmenantly B3c
timaeusTestified [TT]: Stop.
timaeusTestified [TT]: Being cooped up in that meteor is clearly doing a number on your sanity.
timaeusTestified [TT]: Go harass some consorts. Or raid the other meteors for grist.
timaeusTestified [TT]: Weren’t you complaining about how much it costs to alchemize your juice?
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< eh
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< just get me those blankets you purromised and well be good
timaeusTestified [TT]: ...didn’t they already arrive?
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< i dunno did they???
timaeusTestified [TT]: I could have sworn they did.

You remember that ear-splitting sound knifing through the hazy blur.

timaeusTestified [TT]: There was a box...yesterday?
timaeusTestified [TT]: Shit. I’m not sure.
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< yeah nah brah you n33ded that sl33p even if you chose the worst place pawssible for it
timaeusTestified [TT]: I’ll find it.
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< its no rush I got mspaint now ive b33n sitting here planning my attack its gonna be so dope
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< gonna go back to my roots and draw a webcomic
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< and then you could be a cool broirail and make a blog for me
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< i cant make any meaningful contributions from here outside of pesterchum this sucks B’<
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< tho i guess thats a good thing otherwise karkitty might have made our lives even more miserable with his unerring quest for kismesisitude and taken that shit to straight up cyberbullying
timaeusTestified [TT]: That’s the hate-love right?
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< yeah think arch nemeseseseseseses with benefits
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< that was too many es
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< wait you know about quadrants???
timaeusTestified [TT]: Dude, the batterwitch claimed her invasion was a cultural exchange at first. That shit was recorded everywhere. Of course I do.
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< ...what about <> do you know what that means?
timaeusTestified [TT]: Yeah.
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< oh
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< shit
timaeusTestified [TT]: I don’t mind.
timaeusTestified [TT]: What are you planning on drawing? SBaHJ?
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< nah i aint no ch33tah!!
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< i couldnt deprive dave of that monmewmental mawsterpiece
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< i got my own ideas now >B3c
timaeusTestified [TT]: Do I even want to know?
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< two words
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< furry
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< romance
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< heavily based on troll romantic tropes because i think i n33d to break out my shipping charts
timaeusTestified [TT]: ...I didn’t want to know.
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< itll be great youll s33!!!
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< i can even give you a cameow if you want
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< whaddya want your fursona to be??? or like just your favorite animal
timaeusTestified [TT]: ...I'm just going to take what’s left of my sanity and finish going through this mail.
timaeusTestified [TT]: It’s Horse.
timaeusTestified [TT]: For the record.
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< sw33t

You shake you head, turning the main bulk of attention back on the letters. At least Davepeta was sounding better. Getting them that paint.exe was probably one of your brighter ideas in the days before your brain got trapped in a metaphorical sandstorm and scrubbed raw by the grit. Even if it seems…

Well. You’re debating whether you should be horrified or intrigued by the shit they are clearly getting ready to dive into.

Mulling on that for a while, you find yourself a quarter of the way through the remaining pile when something familiar brushes against your fingertips. It’s a rectangular--but wider than most of the junk mail--pink, pastel envelope. It--

Rubbing the thicker-than-just-paper edge between your thumb and forefinger. This one was--shit it was the one that fell under your desk wasn’t it? You flip it over, looking for the return address, but finding nothing except a PO box with no name. A box located in...NY. New York?

You slide your finger into the small opening on the edge, breaking the thick, textured paper along the top in a smooth motion.

It isn’t just a letter inside. It’s a card.

The front is just an image. A flower. Pink with striking purple-black veins running into a dark center. You flip it open.

It’s just a single line.

Thinking of you.

Chapter Text

turntechGodhead [TG] began pestering tentacleTherapist [TT]

turntechGodhead [TG]: i thought people were supposed to get better after visiting the hospital
turntechGodhead [TG]: not worse
turntechGodhead [TG]: we even did the whole manly bro hug on the roof cry your eyes out emotional climax here
turntechGodhead [TG]: under a dramatic sunset to boot we literally covered all bases
turntechGodhead [TG]: every rule of narrative progression dictates were due for some happy go lucky fun shit come on universe do your job
tentacleTherapist [TT]: Technically you would have been better served by a rising sun, the symbolism of a new day dawning, a new chapter in your lives, filled with hope and love and all the tooth rottingly sweet platitudes that fill the minds of hapless miscreants everywhere as they look on the grey doldrums of existence and yearn for something more.
tentacleTherapist [TT]: In truth, I would liken the set-up to that of a tragedy. The misdirection where the author dangles the light of love within reach of the hapless protagonist before tragically ripping it away. Perhaps the illness returns. Perhaps the brothers grow more distant. Perhaps the one’s dark secret is in fact the voice of an old one, whispering in a sweet lull to tempt him ever further into its wretched embrace and away from the world as we know it.
turntechGodhead [TG]: woah
turntechGodhead [TG]: well sorry i couldnt pull a sunrise outta my ass to complete your perfect scene its not like i can control time
turntechGodhead [TG]: the uncomfortable implication that my bro is gonna go mad and sacrifice me to some freaky deathcult was a nice touch i didnt expect that
turntechGodhead [TG]: you really get into this dont you
tentacleTherapist [TT]: I might be an avid reader of the gothic horror genre, yes.
tentacleTherapist [TT]: The absurd idea of applying narrative tropes to real life aside, I assume it is not yourself who is looking rather worse for wear with each passing day.
turntechGodhead [TG]: oh no you got me i was totally the one in the hospital all along
turntechGodhead [TG]: we found him asleep on the roof baking in the heat of good ol’ asscrack of texas and i almost thought hed pulled another vegetable act on me again
tentacleTherapist [TT]: While it is natural to be vigilant so soon after such a scare, do recall that neither you nor I are trained medical professionals and therefore not knowledgeable in the potential after effects of such a medical emergency. I’ve done some preliminary research to sate my own curiosity, but the consensus is that healing is a very energy sapping process that requires lengthy periods of rest as well as regular physical conditioning to rebuild while the body heals whatever damage has been caused. You did say he checked out against medical advice, correct?
tentacleTherapist [TT]: It has only been a few days. I would give it months before worrying too much about it.
turntechGodhead [TG]: you dont get it rose
turntechGodhead [TG]: its wrong
tentacleTherapist [TT]: Would you like an honest opinion, or empty platitudes?
turntechGodhead [TG]: i actually just wanted to vent so platitudes are good
turntechGodhead [TG]: shit
turntechGodhead [TG]: he didn’t
turntechGodhead [TG]: how dare he
turntechGodhead [TG]: this is betrayal
turntechGodhead [TG]: it is like turning your back on your freedom-fighting bros all for some imaginary electrical impulses pretending to be steak and fine wines
tentacleTherapist [TT]: Your brother?
turntechGodhead [TG]: no john
turntechGodhead [TG]: okay he just unblocked me
turntechGodhead [TG]: can you believe it
turntechGodhead [TG]: he blocked me even if just for a minute
turntechGodhead [TG]: how dare he i didnt even do anything
turntechGodhead [TG]: and now he has the nerve to laugh at me
tentacleTherapist [TT]: How does that make you feel, Dave?
turntechGodhead [TG]: i do not need a visit from dr sigmund phil rose
tentacleTherapist [TT]: One might note I am inquiring into the reasonings behind the temporary state of excommunication from your religion of choice. I am leaving your brother for another time, as per your request. Although given the message he just sent me, it appears to be a linked topic.
tentacleTherapist [TT]: Have you considered converting? My confessional services are always open, no matter the topic. I’ll even do my best to respond in that same earnest fashion and soothing blue text color you’ve grown so fond of.
turntechGodhead [TG]: can we just go back to i dont know
turntechGodhead [TG]: dinosaurs or some shit
turntechGodhead [TG]: that worked well last time
turntechGodhead [TG]: just something where i dont have to feel like youre sitting there with a martini in hand swirling the crazy juice with a thoughtful motion before picking apart my psyche as if it were a particularly ugly worm under a microscope
turntechGodhead [TG]: fancy glass and paper umbrella and all
tentacleTherapist [TT]: I fear I have too many unresolved issues with those particular fancy glasses to see it myself, but I can appreciate the image.
tentacleTherapist [TT]: I have a counter proposal for our topic of discourse as I’m not in the mood to discuss long-dead therapods and ornithiscia.
tentacleTherapist [TT]: Do you often dream, Dave?
turntechGodhead [TG]: i guess
turntechGodhead [TG]: doesnt everyone??
tentacleTherapist [TT]: What about?
turntechGodhead [TG]: i dunno shit everyone dreams i guess
turntechGodhead [TG]: being a hero with a sweet ass cape
turntechGodhead [TG]: beating off maniacal puppet overlords
turntechGodhead [TG]: rescuing feathered damsels with cat ears
turntechGodhead [TG]: still no dragons though
turntechGodhead [TG]: the usual and nothing whatsoever to be worth psychoanalysing
turntechGodhead [TG]: this sounds like it could be edging back into the territory of mental vivisection
turntechGodhead [TG]: put the pen down and step away from the notebook lalonde
turntechGodhead [TG]: my demons might as well be vampires for how crispy fried they’ve gotten from your truth rays
tentacleTherapist [TT]: As if I would use something so old fashioned. I do in fact keep my notes in a document on my laptop. It is far easier to keep them organized that way.
tentacleTherapist [TT]:  I have no intention of dragging your demons out into the light of day. The opposite in fact. I plan to invite my own into the spotlight of scrutiny, as I find myself at a precipice of occurrence that I’m not entirely sure how to parse and it is leaving me…
tentacleTherapist [TT]: Unsettled.
turntechGodhead [TG]: woah its gotta be bad if you are pulling an unexpected linebreak
turntechGodhead [TG]: okay fine lets keep these tables turning
turntechGodhead [TG]: ahem
turntechGodhead [TG]: and how does that make you feel
tentacleTherapist [TT]: I just included that information in my opening remarks, and have barely even begun to elucidate the circumstances surrounding those feelings. If you must pull on tired, overused stereotypes in this hypothetical roleplaying scenario at least wait for the proper moment.
tentacleTherapist [TT]: This was a terrible idea. What was I thinking?
turntechGodhead [TG]: fuck if i know but keep going its my turn to gleefully drag your gothic eldritch-horror loving cultists out of your head
turntechGodhead [TG]: okay fine you want leading questions heres a leading question
turntechGodhead [TG]: you asked what i dreamed about well turnabout is fair play
turntechGodhead [TG]: what do you have prancing around in your thinkpan
tentacleTherapist [TT]: Nothing.
turntechGodhead [TG]: aw come on rose it isnt fair to clam up on me now
tentacleTherapist [TT]: No, I mean I dream of nothing , and not in the mistaken instance of waking up without remembering, way.
tentacleTherapist [TT]: A vast expanse of empty nothingness--hollowed out roads that once teemed with possibility. I’m acutely aware of the fact that there should be something here. Some presence. Some voice reaching out to me. Some sort of light to guide the way.
tentacleTherapist [TT]: And yet in the absence of light I cannot even bring myself to classify this feeling as darkness either. I find myself listening for that voice every fiber of my being is insisting should be reaching across the aeons to me, and yet…
tentacleTherapist [TT]: I wake. With this terrible feeling that something is missing. Something inextricable to the very fabric of space and time itself. Something that should be teeming with life and change and motion as we all float on in the dreams of the gods...
turntechGodhead [TG]: woah
turntechGodhead [TG]: and this is a regular thing??
tentacleTherapist [TT]: Almost daily.
tentacleTherapist [TT]: I can count two instances where I’ve not felt this gaping loss since the dreams began, and one of those days I neglected sleep due to extenuating circumstances.
turntechGodhead [TG]: are you sure theres not like
turntechGodhead [TG]: fuck this is weird
turntechGodhead [TG]: something missing in your life that might be getting filtered through the horror-loving sponge of your brain into some random hope-sucking void of doom??
tentacleTherapist [TT]: An expected question, one I’ve considered myself. But nothing I can pin down with any certainty beyond speculation.
tentacleTherapist [TT]: Nothing has changed either, what’s more.
tentacleTherapist [TT]: Perhaps…
turntechGodhead [TG]: oh did the kitty find a scrap of yarn to follow??
tentacleTherapist [TT]: My mother has been inordinarily hard to deal with since shortly before the dreams began. I suppose that might be feeding into them, although I wouldn’t expect an increase in an irritating occurrence to be the lead up to the feel that something is particularly missing.
tentacleTherapist [TT]: Unless of course it’s a metaphor for my sanity, and the sanctity of my peace and quiet being breeched.
tentacleTherapist [TT]: Even that is a clumsy, inelegant explanation.
tentacleTherapist [TT]: It is merely getting into the territory of parental based frustrations, is all, a topic neither of us are particularly inclined to discuss at length at the moment.
turntechGodhead [TG]: yeah no i think were good
turntechGodhead [TG]: are you good??
tentacleTherapist [TT]: ...Yes actually.
tentacleTherapist [TT]: Despite a lack of anything even remotely close to a resolution, I do feel better.
tentacleTherapist [TT]: Thank you for playing the part of the metaphorical flora in the corner.
turntechGodhead [TG]: no prob
turntechGodhead [TG]: i can do a rad potted plant impression
turntechGodhead [TG]: photosynthesis mother fucker
tentacleTherapist [TT]: I think I’m ready for the ornithiscia debate now.
turntechGodhead [TG]: ok
turntechGodhead [TG]: deadly oversized chicken or jurassic park 3 2 1 fight

Chapter Text

Things settle into a rhythm. Every morning you pull yourself out of the cracks of the world and back toward the pain-filled waking life. Even with the medicine, and the dubious protection of that dream-state, you never quite make it back to that deep, deathlike sleep that had resulted in the persistent reminder of your stupid decisions burned into your skin. Which, for the most part, you don’t mind. The antihistamines work well enough to tip you into a light doze, which if you’re careful eventually peters into something more restful.

Cool numbing darkness, run deep with red cracks. When you sink that far, you are no longer awake at all.

Just let go and fall.

Normally you peel yourself off the futon and into the chair. Fend off wellness related queries from interested third parties (mainly a certain knight, and occasionally an agent, although noticeably not of dersite employ), and then get to work on your research. Newt’s gifts make the sun trapped under your skin, and your body’s attempts to repair it, more bearable, but even if you let yourself forget, the stretching, and aching as you reach for the mouse, or shift your position, bare arm rubbing up against the edge of your desk--

Fuck. Even beyond the marginal cooling properties of the magic lotion it still hurts.

Fine. Whatever. It’s just a setback. A superficial one. Your fragile human skin will slowly shed the radiated cells and then you’ll be right as fucking rain as long as you never show your face in the sun again. It is banished. Banished from this household, prompting you to even pull down the blinds on the window near your desk, so you aren’t baking as you work.

You refuse to allow the giant ball of gas an opportunity to press the assault. The remnants are already starting to peel and itch on your arms, fine lines of white standing out from the fading red where movement stretches and stresses against the damaged tissue. At least everything you can find online points toward you being nearer to the end of your torture than the beginning, so you just slather on Newt’s magic lotion and try not to fucking think about it.

Knees lower from chest to the floor, toes digging into the carpet as you push the chair away from the desk, and stretch, rolling your shoulders to remove the kinks invited in by a long period hunched into yourself. Even once the wheels quit turning, your brain continues the motion, juggling half drawn schematics that have your fingers twitching for a screwdriver and circuitry beneath your hands even though you know you are nowhere near even a prototype stage yet. This isn’t some lonely boy tinkering away with his own shit following a tenuous idea. If you are going to tear down the last major reminder of the Dirk that should be here, you’re going to need to do this right. There’s a world of human engineering and manufacturing at your literal fingertips. Use it.

You’ve been here before. With a ghost of an idea rattling in your brain so hard it popped out into your hands, but this time you knew it was possible. You have it all locked up inside your head, lines of code you just needed to translate from the bastard child of alternian and carapacian you’d used growing up, to a language capable of running and compiling on these modern machines, but you’re confident that it can be done. Even without--help.

You push yourself out of the chair, shuffling across the room, the transition from fiber to plastic-like tile shocking to your bare feet. It’s not cold--you’re starting to think you could run the air conditioner on full blast and it would only ever get even slightly below boiling--but it’s a difference in feel that is reminiscent of home, so you aren’t even thrown off by your too-long strides carrying you to the kitchen before your brain registers you’ve crossed the room, too engrossed in continuing to chew on your half-remembered and half-reconstructed theoretical framework.

Dave isn’t here to snark at you as you produce a can from the cupboard and a spoon from the sink, but you find yourself frowning at the dwindling stash in the cupboards. You’d thought you’d grabbed more shit than you could carry but--how long ago had you even bought the goods? A week and a half? Two? You don’t really want to know the answer but you look anyway, letting the much-colder-than-everything else air blast you in the face and tweak the burn lingering on your face. The small stash of juice was gone. It felt like Dave religiously grabbed one every night, sometime between 7pm and 8pm, you’ve noticed, and if a pack of 12 was gone, even factoring in no one being home for three days, and maybe stress either increasing or disrupting the routine...the indisputable fact is still yawning before you, laughing at you from empty corners and open spaces.

The idea of venturing out again, even to that small convenience store down the street sparks an overwhelming feeling of dread, especially since you can’t even slip back into the medium right now to ease the anxiety in the quiet darkness of space.

It really isn’t fair. You’d just started getting used to this shit, and now it feels like someone came in and upended all your things and left them lying randomly around for you to trip over and fall flat on your face. Indignant flailing and all.

But you have to. Someone has to.

Fuck you don’t want to do this.

The burn lingers in the back of your mind, reminding you that it’s a bad idea to go out right now. You still have food . If you don’t eat, then you can probably stretch it for another four days, and Dave probably won’t turn his nose up at crazy juice as he called it--

Shit, no. That’s so goddamn irresponsible why are you even considering that?

Besides. Dave was out of juice.

Can clenched in your first, you head back to your desk while popping the tab and bending the metal without a second thought to access the beans inside. You haven’t been gone long enough for the monitor to sleep, so your gibberish is left in full view as you return to your spot. Coding isn’t your passion, you much preferred the more physical part of tinkering and building shit, but you’d been able to find some sort of zen while working these last couple days, as if tapping back into who you’d been all those years ago; it's almost refreshing. Cooped up in a home that amounts to a floating prison, working to translate the electrical impulses of the human brain into something a computer could read. The first step to your greatest mistake, but also one you need to replicate if you ever want proper shades again, given yours are currently stuck in the medium.

Exactly who you were back then lingers in the back of your mind. You save the project and tab away, deciding to commit to this makeshift lunch break by bringing up a familiar pesterchum window. Davepeta showed as idle, something that causes a painful smile to inch across your face. It’s apparently harder for them to keep up constant chatter when buckling down to create high art.

timaeusTestified [TT]: Yo.

You bite down on the first serving, chewing thoughtfully as you search for a topic. Your brain keeps circling back around to the one thing you don’t really want to talk about, but you aren’t surprised it won’t go away.

Do you really want to talk about this?

timaeusTestified [TT]: Did you ever meet ARquiusprite?

You just drop kick the question into the chat client, as if the action would banish the ghost haunting you. It doesn’t. It lingers, seeping into the cracks of the world around you, buried deep in the back of your mind that you normally keep compartmentalized.

Despite time, and stress, and sleep deprivation, you haven’t forgotten everything about the one time you actually dreamed, have you?

dataJammer [DJ] is no longer idle!

dataJammer [DJ]: B33< yeah!!
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< it wasnt fur long though
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< i stopped by on the way to kick english in his behind and he was building shit but it was all-in-one broirail reunion times
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< there were totally unresolved f33lings on both sides but
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< shit neither of us really expected to s33 each other as we were but it was like
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< i just knew it was the exact us we n33ded to be
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< ya f33l me???
timaeusTestified [TT]: There is a symmetry to it, I agree. Equius was Nepeta’s <> right?
timaeusTestified [TT]: I don’t recall the exact term. You always use the portmanteau.
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< moirail yeah
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< the fact that he got tangled up in a version of Bro and I got tangled up with well me
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< fucking poetry in motion aint it
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< he s33med happy
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< and hot damn he had some nice muscles and a pair of sw33t
timaeusTestified [TT]: Davepeta.
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< shades B3
timaeusTestified [TT]: You broke that line on purpose.
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< so
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< dont you agr33??
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< what dragged this in anyway??
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< not that i dont enjoy a saunter down memeowry lane
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< you never s33m to want to talk about him
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< AR
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< not equius
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< i wouldnt expect you to talk about equius
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< though i really think you both would get along
timaeusTestified [TT]: Did he tell you what he named himself?
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< no??
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< i kinda just assumed it was ar
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< thats what made it into the sprite name
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< but youre gonna be a bro and spill the beans before i have a crisis of curiosity right B??
timaeusTestified [TT]: Lil’Hal.
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< and you let him get away with that??
timaeusTestified [TT]: I didn’t have much of a choice to be honest. He had Roxy calling him that already. I don’t think her mom left her those movies to watch and he found the irony amusing.
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< thats so hilariously dumb owning his skynet flavored ambitions like a gogdamned boss
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< i wish i could tell him that
timaeusTestified [TT]: He probably would have listened to it, coming from you.

The cursor blinks in the text box. It feels like there’s a pressure behind your eyes. You almost expect your rubbing fingers to come away wet. But they don't. You don't remember how to cry. Not properly. You force your aching hands to move as a response pops up, flashing the window white and orange.

dataJammer [DJ]: B33< whats that supposed to mean B??
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< wait
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< you miss him dont you??
timaeusTestified [TT]: ...its complicated.
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< complicated like what
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< complicated is such a loaded word you n33d to explain furrther
timaeusTestified [TT]: I’m just thinking about before. That’s all. A lot of the shit I’m working on is tied up in what I was doing when he was created.
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< right your secret project
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< are you gonna wow the world with a legit skynet before it ends??
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< you could probably set you and shorty up well for the next few years on the back of advanced artificial intelligence
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< live till the apocalypse in the lap of luxury
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< not that bro couldnt have afforded it before
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< he did let me buy john a legit movie prop
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< even if its a terrible movie it still takes dosh
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< you arent planning on recreating him are you?
timaeusTestified [TT]: No.
timaeusTestified [TT]: Hal was created from a snapshot of thirteen year old Dirk. Using the same method, assuming I could get my own brain captchalogued in the same manner, knowing how I feel about him now…
timaeusTestified [TT]: Shit I wouldn’t put anyonethrough that. Maybe making him three years ago was a mistake, but at least thirteen year old me didn’t have the baggage of a water-front property on the lake of self-loathing and a fuckton of history with the guy.
timaeusTestified [TT]: Scratch that, the whole goddamn lake IS my property.
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< hey no fair you arent allowed to monopolize the whole lake
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< ive got my own deeds to the place
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< written long before your universe was a twinkle in the frogs giant bulbous eye
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< see right here it says dave s sprite owns that little plot of land over there with the run down dock and the douche canoe tied out front
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< i may have moved away but like hell am i giving up ownership
timaeusTestified [TT]: My choice of location aside, no, my plan does not involve artificial intelligence.
timaeusTestified [TT]: It’s something you’d rather enjoy, I think. I’ll let you know if it’s even possible without either the game’s rule-breaking logic, or magic idea-based engineering.

Metal clinks against metal and it draws your attention, the spoon scraping against the bottom of the can. You blink down at it. Empty of its contents.

You don’t even remember eating, focused as you’d been on the flow of conversation. Of talking about…

This.

Fuck.

An empty can. Just like the empty cupboards. Which you still needed to do something about.

Damn it. You set the metal down on the desk with a clunk.

dataJammer [DJ]: B33< aw come on bro mew cant just throw somefang out like that and expect me not to wriggle like im in the middle of waiting for a pounce
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< im sure mew know the kind
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< the cute butt wiggle of anticipation
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< this is torture
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< im dying
timaeusTestified [TT]: You know what they say about curiosity and the cat.
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< theres a second half of the idiom that validates everything so frikitten tell me!!!
timaeusTestified [TT]: No.
timaeusTestified [TT]: In fact, I am going to log off now. I need to go out for a while.
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< i dont believe you
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< not mr i fell asl33p in the sun and my classification is now extra crispy with a side of cherries
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< its just past noon its the utter worst time to go out
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< youre just sitting there smirking at me arent you
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< bro
timaeusTestified [TT]: Be back later.
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< BRO

timaeusTestified [TT] ceased pestering dataJammer [DJ]

You sigh and lean back into the chair, the faint smile fading from your sore face.

Shit now you actually have to do it.

Chapter Text

Of course it isn’t as simple a matter of getting up, kicking on some shoes and going out the door, no matter how abrupt you’d decided to be to mess with Davepeta. No. You’re going to make sure you don’t end up in the same situation as last time, with a list of shit you can’t get because you went to the wrong place.

So you find a map. And you look at the store’s website. Except it’s extremely unhelpful since it’s a corporate website and just espoused broad information and investing information, so you discard it the moment you confirm that yes, that particular chain IS actually a full grocery store and not just a convenience store, and therefore the place you actually want to go this time. Then you find a bus route-- Eastwood bus to Polk street , the information pulled out of the archive of your mind unbidden, even supplying the familiar and yet still bizarre accent -- and a bus schedule . And the fare and the estimated time required.

...and then finally you have your list.

You dig it out of the archives of your mind, double checking it against a few things you pull up on the internet. You think you’ve got a good grasp on what you have to do. Get in, get your shit, get out. Ignore the fuck out of everyone you don’t need to interact with.

Okay. You drag in a breath, and then let out a wheezing cough. Future Dirk, dust this shit. It’s not that bad. Nowhere near a-- s warm of dust and cobwebs illuminated by lantern light.

You probably should have done it during your cleaning fits already, but fuck it was hot up here in the crawlspace. Why did you think shoving literally everything up here was a good idea? You can feel the eyes of the banished marionettes and stringless, plush puppets staring down at you as you fish a non-modified shirt (read: you ripped the sleeves off a couple) out of the dwindling pile of clean shit. Or as clean as it can be. You’ll need to do laundry soon, at least you don’t need to worry about seagulls making off with your shit this time, but that’s a distraction for another time. It reminds you of-- red grinning faces and decaying posters a life locked away.

Shit. Maybe you’ll clean it up if the weather ever chills out, it’s probably like, 10 degrees hotter up here.

You want to keep looking, but you’re fairly confident there isn’t a single long-sleeved garment in the apartment. A state of affairs you might want to rethink that in the wake of leaving your arms vulnerable to cosmic radiation. At least until the end of the world. Even smack dab in the middle of the summer months, you could deal with being extra toasty if it kept this shit from happening again. There’s even a stash of velvety soft-as fuck smuppet felt up here. If you could find a sewing kit or something you could make a comfy as hell shirt out of that shit.

At least it would give you some goddamn color. Your wardrobe is so damn boring.

Not for the first time you find yourself picking through the plethora of nearly identical neutral colored collared tee-shirts in disappointment--they don’t even have graphics on them. You miss your signature orange baseball cap logo. An ironic dash of color smack dab in the middle of everything when you otherwise embraced your pale-as-fuck visage.

He had some reason for this. You know he did. It’s too uniform. It’s an Image. Carefully cultivated, and likely of some ironic purpose you just don’t have the context to. You can hazard a guess, but it's something you’ve resigned yourself to never truly knowing the answer.

It’s still weird as fuck to not see a shred of maroon or pink anywhere either. It had really grown on you. It was a part of you now, the way orange had been--and still was. If orange represented the kid you’d once been, then the palette of your aspect was tied to who the game had driven you to become.

You can’t find any such consistency to his shit. Just greys and blacks and whites. The only hint of color, was the pile of hats you’d shoved in one of the boxes. Bright, saturated, eye-searing, the colors of the smuppets that had once littered the room...reds and blue and yellow and green but…

No orange. Maybe the hats were his version of the ironic color splash, although there is a grey one propped on top of a yellow one which would just add to the monochrome, not break it up. A hat would probably be a good idea, though. Keep the sun off your face. Why wouldn’t he have oran--

You’re stalling. You’re stalling and you know it. You just grab the first damn hat on the pile and shove it onto your head, pulling the red-- of course it’s red, like you need to complement your cherry complexion-- rim down over your eyes before getting the fuck out of that place of banished and forgotten shit.

The crawlspace ladder retracts up into the little rectangle in the ceiling tiles with a careless thud as you nudge it back into place, coughing to clear the last bits of dust and debris from your lungs. Hat, check. Sun protection, deployed, despite the fact that you hate the clammy, sticky feel of it on your skin. Sunglasses--they don’t deserve to be called shades--check, as soon as you grab them off Lil’Cal. Which you do. They really do look like they suit him, but you’re certain he won’t mind if you take them back for a while.

The sun is your Enemy.

If you focus on it then maybe you won’t hyperfixate on the people and everything else that you know is waiting out there.

Money, also check. Makeshift wallet with shiny new debit cards, and a stash of cash, placed in a safe space in your house shit groove row, no possible collisions, and easy as fuck withdrawl.

You pause in the hallway, lingering near Dave’s closed door. You could just-- go. Like before. It’s possible you’ll be back before he even realizes you’ve left.

...then again, you’ve barely spoken to him since he dropped off those letters days ago. He’s responded to the texts, sure, but…

Knuckles rap against the door frame. Gently, but loud enough to be heard inside. You listen, fabric shuffling. Keys clacking. A chair creaking. But nothing else.

Is he ignoring you?

You don’t fidget, but you want to.

He could have headphones on.

You knock again. Louder. The chair creaks again. The typing slows. And then stops. But you don’t hear anything else.

“Dave?” You project your voice through wood and plaster, it sounds grating to your ears. Maybe you should just text him. That would be easier. Then he could see it at his leisure. But then, what if he didn’t check his phone? But shit, he’s obviously there. And probably listening. The typing did stop. Fuck it, you’ll just tell the door and then text him in a minute just in case. “I’m going out. Just--wanted to let you know.” In case you can’t find me.

Maybe it’s arrogant to think it would matter to him. That he wouldn’t just shrug his shoulders and assume you were off taking care of shit but…

Newt had said Dave had been the one to show him to the roof that day.

He hadn’t been there when you woke up.

“I’ll be back in a few hours.”

You turn to leave, moving down the hall a little to where your shoes waited by the apartment door. You toe them on--hadn’t bothered to untie them in the first place--and withdraw your phone from your sylladex, along with your keys. You hook a finger through the key-ring so they don’t fall, and then navigate the clumsy interface to the messaging function. You don’t even get to start typing up your message before the door opens behind you.

“What do you mean you’re going out , do you want to get skin cancer??? I saw that shit you’re like, a 10 minutes tan away from second degree already look that it up its nasty you get like blisters and shit. It gets that bad and it won’t be all sunscreen and aloe anymore it’ll be doctors and burn treatments and I thought you were done with hospitals. You promised you were done with hospitals.”

You don’t turn around, but you do re-captchalogue the phone. You don’t need to finish the message now at least.

“We need food, bro. It’s not something I can keep putting off.”

“Then order something! Shit we’ve survived on cheap ass pizza and chinese for months when you weren’t in the fucking mood to go out or come home or--” It cuts off in a strangled frustrated noise that has your shoulders tensing and your head jerking around to face him. He’s clamped his jaw shut, small body shaking, fists curled at his sides, half turned back towards the door, as if he just wants to run away but can’t bring himself to move.

You consider shit. You consider your plan and the cupboard and the way he’s obviously--angry? Concerned? Both for some reason?

...and honestly, did it even matter? He was obviously fucking distressed at this.

“Okay.”

That snaps his attention up. “What?”

“I said okay.” You don’t like this. You’ve already planned and worked yourself up to do this. Because you need to do it. And if you need to do it, then fuck you should do it now. But… “If you want to order something for tonight--shit enough for a couple days, I’ll wait. Hell I’ll--”

His jaw is all but hanging open. It’s like you decked him in the gut.

You sigh, kicking the shoes off, and making a point of re-capchaloguing the keys. “You’re right.”

“I--” His jaw works, “Oh. Yeah. I am. Right. Shit I’ll just order us up a feast of the best fucking Chinese ever and you’ll never want to go back to those nasty ass beans again. Who needs the fucking grocery store when you’ve got one-stop wok-to-door delivery at your fingertips!”

You roll your eyes behind the cheap sunglasses and say two words, “Apple Juice.”

“... okay maybe there’s a thing or two that the grocery store is good for.” His fists have uncurled, and he crosses his arms, fingers tapping out a rhythm against the skin near his elbows. You think that’s a sign he’s starting to relax.

“I’ll replenish your stash in a couple days,” You promise, both to yourself, and to him. “If I go in the morning before it gets to be too damn hot, do you want to come with me?”

“Yeah yeah sure, as long as you aren’t still extra crispy--wait--”

There’s a beat of silence and a sucked in breath. Those tapping fingers stilled.

“I--sure why the hell not it’s not like I’ve ever been to the mythical land of food and juice before. It just kinda appears like magic once in a blue moon when the stars align like some giant cosmic postal service got the address wrong and dumped actual edible shit in there instead of weapons. At least if i go with you I can stop you from filling our cupboards with your nasty might-as-well-be-raw beans.”

You force the knot in your gut to uncoil, relief battling with residual irritation over your plans being disrupted. But in the end, you think the hesitant excitement building in Dave’s voice to be worth shouldering that burden a little while longer.

Davepeta is not going to let you live this down.

Maybe you shouldn't tell them.

...that meant you needed to stay off the computer for a while at least. Fuck. What are you going to do? Be Future Dirk and clean the dusty armpit that is the crawlspace?

Oh hell no.

“Dave.” You slip into a breath between nervous rambles that are clearly the result of him trying not to bolt from the situation, imagining the kid blinking at you owlishly behind those angled lenses that still look so damn weird on him. “Wanna watch a movie?”

“I--shit--” Again it’s like you knocked him flat on the floor, “I’ll need to tell my friend. I was talking with them before, you know, you evicted all sanity and knocked on my door about to deliver yourself gift wrapped into the arms of the giant ball of murderous gas in the sky. But, uh, which one?”

You shrug.

“You pick.”

“Great so no pressure at all cool.”

You don’t pay attention to the movie at all, but Dave stops paying so damn close attention to you about halfway through, absorbed in the utterly inane storyline. He even starts snarking back at the oblivious ham of a protagonist and his poorly written dialogue, like some editor going over the movie’s script with a bright red pen and tearing the draft to shreds.

Even if you didn’t make it to the store. Didn’t manage to get anything else done. Didn’t even manage to respond to Newt’s text about the meeting next week… Maybe this day wasn’t wasted after all.

Chapter Text

Get in, get your shit, get out.

Ignore the shit out of everyone.

The mantra winds through the back of your mind as you check yourself in the mirror. A dusting of pink still lingers on your cheeks, but the sheen from that nasty feeling lotion should be more than enough to deal with that. Plus hat. Plus glasses. You can’t even feel the twinge anymore from the bridge of the glasses resting against your nose.

There’s no way you can be described as “cherry flavored” anymore. Or extra crispy. Roasted. Or whatever the people-in-your-life-whose-names-begin-with-Dave decide they want to call you to poke fun at your condition. You check the time on your phone and compare it to the schedule you memorized. Okay. Thirty minutes till the bus. It’s a ten minute walk. Probably. So time to get Dave up and out the door and you can just GO. Get this over with.

You knock on the door.

You can’t hear much this time. Which makes sense. If the computer is by the door (since you could him typing yesterday) the bed would likely be against the far wall. This place has the same layout as your apartment, which was this apartment, some 400 years into that earth’s future. Logic and temporal continuity dictates the bedroom would be the same dimensions as well.

You knock again.

You wait and wait and wait, locked up, checking the time ticking down on the display on your phone. Perhaps you should have factored in more of a buffer in case of grumpy child. Dave was usually awake fairly early though, so you hadn’t thought it would be an issue.

There--you feel the vibration through your hands as the notification light begins to blink.

do you realize what time it is

Yes.

5:22:41 *am*

I’m aware. The bus arrives in eighteen minutes.

the sun isnt even up dude im still half asleep i miss my comfy as hell pjs

this is probably some dream bullshit right now its impossible youd be standing out there texting me at 5:28:56 without busting in and dragging my ass out

uh you dont plan to do that do you

No.

We now have 12 minutes.

fuck

is the store even open this early?? i thought most sane places started work after the sun woke up

6 am. I checked.

of course you did

you did put sunscreen on right??

its dark now but you know it wont stay that way

Yes.

okay okay fine ill get up

He’s at the door in the blink of an eye, pulling open the painted wood and holding a hand out. His clothes are crumpled. Did he sleep in them? You wonder how late he was up. You don’t remember hearing him make a late-night run on the fridge-- not that there’s anything there-- or the rushing water from the bathroom. In your light dozes you should have been woken up if he’d been up and about later than usual. You arch an eyebrow at him.

“The sunscreen. I need it. I don’t want fucking skin cancer either.”

“Left it in the bathroom.”

“Gee thanks bro.”

And so he vanished, taking a veritable nest of messy strider-white-blonde hair with him into the bathroom. It stays seared into your mind even after the door settles into its frame with a thump. You’ve never seen Dave--any Dave--looking so unkempt. Hair not even brushed, much less styled. It makes you think back to Bro--your Bro. The Bro you never got to meet because he died 400 years too early. The Bro you only got to know through recorded records and talk shows and interviews.

It made you wonder if he was prone to that same sort of very human-like bed-head.

That's a silly question. Of course he was. No one sprung out of bed with perfect hair.

You try to imagine your Bro with the rooster hair you had to deal with and …

Just shove that image away. Deep into the recesses of your mind. Ignoring the faint chuckle as the ridiculous image tickles some small part of you that manages to look past the idolization and hero worship. The part of you who was able to ignore the lock-jaw caused by it’s Bro and see a hurting kid on that rooftop under the poisonous sky.

Dragging your attention away from the door and the bundle of nerves and expectations and anxieties beyond it, you watch the clock on your phone, the timer ticking closer as you listen to the water running beyond the painted wood. You hadn’t even considered to properly protect Dave from the sun. You probably should have. He was wearing long-sleeves already but…

You leave the hallway and retrace your steps, reaching up to tug on the string up into the crawlspace. If you remember correctly you left it right--Ah. There it was.

You’re ready and waiting as he exits the room, hair properly combed and styled and perhaps even sporting the slightest bit of gel to hold it in place, pale skin beneath dark, pointed lenses glistening with the oily sheen of Newt’s magic lotion. He freezes as you deftly plop the object on his head. It’s only after you quickly vacate his space that he reaches up carefully to touch the red brim that matches the red on his sleeves.

You don’t say anything, so he doesn’t either. Just lets his hands fall and swallows, sidling past your side of the hallway toward the door. You notice he already has shoes on, so you quickly slip yours on, peripherally aware of the back bunching up under your heel as you kick at it.

“You still want to do this?”

You hope he says yes.

He doesn’t. Just gives you a Look you can’t see, but you can feel, and then reaches for the door.

Remember: Get in. Get your shit. Get out.

Ignore everything else.

And breathe.

You have less than 5 minutes to make it to the bus stop by the time you both hit ground floor. It’s 5:35 in the morning. The sun hasn’t so much as peeked over the horizon. The air is as cool as it’ll ever be again, the streetlights buzzing a faint hum in the back of your ears and your mind and it almost, almost reminds you of the last time you willingly ventured out. The dark shadows of morning cloaked the the buildings, punctuated by a mixed bag of darkened and lit windows, reminding you of the view of derse from the sky. The darkness of the medium bubbling around you. Roxy’s dream room, surrounded by bits and pieces of the girl you knew and missed terribly before reality stabbed you in the chest.

Literally.

In that moment, it isn’t a matter of convenience. Of reaching back and opening the door so you have all available options open to you.

You miss it.

The silence. The detachment. The comforting, familiar darkness of the medium, overlaying this far too vivid fever dream you’re trapped in.

“Didn’t you say something about a bus??”

The words knife through you. Bringing the world back in a roaring din of noise and color. Except that’s wrong, it hadn’t changed at all. You’d just shut it all out.

You suck in a shallow breath and then exhale, focusing down on the small, splotch of red and white at your side.

Nodding, you glance in the direction your memorized map would indicate, calculating the odds of making it in the intervening minutes before the bus was slated to arrive. Not good. Maybe you could do it if you picked him up and stepped--metal whistling through air--

No. Bad idea. Take the way he froze because you put a hat on his head, and multiply by it a thousand and you’d probably get what would happen if you forcibly grabbed him by the scruff and flung you both into the aether.

Fuck you had to be more careful.

“This way. It’ll be tight.”

“Nah don’t worry bro. Buses are either early, in which case even running like a horse on steroids wouldn’t save us from arriving to a cloud of smoke and exhaust as it rolls down the road laughing at our misfortune, or they are late, and we’ll have to wait 20 fucking minutes because the driver stopped because a pigeon was too dumb to realize it needed to cross the street.”

“Speaking from experience?”

“Oh yeah. Totally. They call me the wandering ronin, traveling the bus routes of the city all alone and unsupervised since I was old enough to figure out you hid the spare key in those old ratty sneakers you leave near the door. It’sa me the bus-riding toddler, dodgin’ truancy officers and well meaning samaritan's all my life--the drivers known my fucking name and it’s Dave-on-a-bus going round and round--oh shit there it is isn’t it. Oh man they look so much bigger in person, it’s like a giant gas guzzling monster with a gaping maw and beedy glowing eyes except the eyes are actually the windows because that’s where the driver can fucking see shit and the lights are really more like bio lumi--luma--shit the bright stuff on creepy fish monsters--”

You touch his arm and he doesn’t protest, the world seeming to slow as you hurry toward the oncoming beast of metal and glass. Seconds stretch to minutes stretch to hours as you focus.

Get in. Get Out.

Ignore the shit out of everyone else.

And then you’re there, standing before the sign as the monstrosity rolls to a stop, metal protesting and squeaking in an ear splitting squeal before glass doors opening wide like a maw waiting for it’s prey to just wander the fuck on in. You freeze for the briefest of moments, the driver’s annoyed scowl finally prodding you to lift your leaden feet off the concrete sidewalk and step into the carnivorous beast.

It’s just another one of your fucking tombs. Nothing worse. Better maybe, because at least this one wouldn’t have skeletons popping out of the woodwork to try and take your head off.

Taking the steps deliberately, you notice something in the bus driver’s face. A tightening of of the lips, or a narrowing of the eyes, you aren’t sure, but it’s directed beyond you, not at you, and makes you pause and turn around.

Dave didn’t follow you up, like you’d expected him too. Not a word escapes the stony face, jaw clenched so tight you can see the tension in the way it deforms his natural facial shape. You’d suspected that ronin stuff was Strider-grade off-the-cuff bullshit, but you don’t feel any sort of satisfaction in knowing that he’s going through the same nervous terror that is knocking quite loudly on your own equilibrium, one you’ve fortified-with-days-worth-of-mental mantras and planning shit that allowed you to get this far.

The bus-driver squawks with surprise as you suddenly appear outside the bus, placing your hand on the red-sleeved fabric covering the frozen shoulder, the rumble of the engines roaring in your ears. It rises like a crescendo, as the doors slam shut and the beast pulls away from the curb with an unexpected lurch. Dave flinches in front of you, jerking after the machine as it, and the unpleasant driver and his schedule rolls away.

“Breathe,” Quietly, but you know he can hear you, because that locked jaw unhinges and sucks in a breath of smog-filled air that makes him nearly gag, words tumbling free like

“Shit bro--i--fuck--i screwed up im sorry--fuck we missed the fucking bus and its all my--its just an oversized car but-- the screeching it--”

He’s trembling under your hand, just the slightest bit. It’s supposed to be a comforting gesture, but it makes you feel like anything but..

“...Dave…” You crouch, right there in the middle of the sidewalk in front of an empty bus stop at 5:50 something in the morning,  bringing yourself down to his level. His shades are an oversized tinted shield, and his face a stony wall but it’s the shaking and halting apologies and self debasement that really tell the story. “It’s okay.”

“Why aren’t you mad???” The words are quiet. Despite the pronoun use, you aren’t sure they are directed at you , mumbled as they are. You decide to pretend you didn’t hear.

“The driver was an asshole. We’ll just take the next one.”

“How do--he didn’t say shit!

“He slammed the door on us and left,” You point out, deciding, fuck the concrete, you’re going to sit on the curb instead of standing, “That seems pretty asshole-like behavior.”

“Yeah well Normal people don’t vanish and appear five feet away in without looking like they fucking moved I--”

He gulps in another breath of air, this one just the normal acrid scent of houston in the summer that you couldn’t stand. The Eau de bus had made it ten times worse, catching in your throat and suffocating you. In comparison this was down right refreshing.

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be.” You shrug, if you had to wait you had to wait. You’re both here. Out in the open. Even now the roads aren’t empty, with the occasional rumbling motorized vehicle rumbling by, sounds crescendo-ing and decrescendo-ing as the living pulse of the city shifts and moves. It’s almost too fucking much. If you let yourself focus on it. So don’t. Or at least try your fucking hardest not to. “At least we can’t get burned if the sun isn’t out.”

A strangled laugh.

He sits down beside you on the curb.

“When’s the next bus?”

“6:12”

“You know, we could walk back to the apartment instead of screwing around out here for 16 and a half minutes like winged rats waiting for someone to wander on by to toss out a handful of bread crumbs.”

“We could.” Glancing up at him through your periphery, “Do you want to?”

“I...no. Not really. You know if we do the bread crumb fairy is gonna come floating down the sidewalk throwing a fucking fiesta worthy feast. Don’t wanna miss out on that quality grub yo.”

You don’t respond, and the conversation lapses into semi-comfortable silence when Dave pulls out his phone and begins texting someone.You turn your head to the sky, watching the dark grey blue edging ever so slightly lighter as the transition from nautical to civil twilight draws nearer. Dawn would still be just shy of an hour off. Even with missing the first bus, hopefully it’s still early enough you’ll miss the bulk of the commuters, and you can be there and back again before the 8 am exodus that sparked your panic last-time…

Shit, you’ll have to deal with it if you don’t. It’s not like you can just panic-step again. You’d either leave him behind or grab him and you aren’t sure which would spark the worst reaction. You should avoid either, if at all possible. You know he doesn't like you touching him.

“Hey...bro?”

The hesitant question draws you out of your head. You make an inquisitive noise in response.

“I’ve been wanting to ask--” The glow from the streetlight above you turns his Strider-pale hand yellow as it gestures at you, “What’s with the shirt??”

Your shirt…? You glance down, frowning. Did you grab one of the ripped shirts? Nope. Just one of your splinterself’s dull black collared tee-shirts with your home-made long sleeves peeking out from underneath it, shielding your damaged as fuck arms from any further exposure. You look like a knight. It's pretty hilarious if you think about it. All you need is a cape, and maybe a color other than black and white and Grey for the rest of your wardrobe. You don’t think any of the known aspects would end up pulling off this particular color combination. You’d even made sure to grab the drab grey hat for yourself to avoid messing up your careful coordination.

“What’s wrong with it?”

“It’s just...not very you , if you know what I mean bro.” The key-presses on his phone are lost in the sound of an oncoming car as it rolls loudly past them, spewing it’s nasty exhaust in the air and contributing to the concoction of ass burning your throat. “Not necessarily somethin’ I’d expect outta your wardrobe, ya know?”

You catch the edge of the sleeve between your finger and your thumb, feeling the plush fabric gliding against skin. So maybe it wasn’t the neatest job you’ve ever done, but that’s why you slipped it on underneath your actual shirt, to hide your shitty seams. “There was some extra felt in the crawlspace. I decided to put it to good use since you put me under house-arrest.”

A smuppet maintenance kit and too much time on your hands. You’d been mending your shit for years, but of course the convenience of an alchemeter had put you out of practice--it was like easing back into an old, comfortable rhythm. You miss it. You remember teaching yourself back when you were ten and tore a hole in your favorite shirt and instead of bawling your eyes out like the kid you were you decided to figure out how to fix it. Back before everything changed and you couldn't hold a needle and thread. It was like riding a bicycle though. Your fingers had known what the fuck to do. And when they didn’t? You improvised. It's just a pattern. You are good with patterns.

“...oh god I thought I recognized that fucking shade of pink. You mean to tell me you’re wearing smuppet skin?? That’s totally gross dude. And why pink ?? You’ve got smuppets ranging from piss-yellow to apple-red and you go and make a pink shirt??”

“I like the color.” It’s the closest you had to your aspect, so it’d been the obvious choice when picking through the pile of felt pieces. You are clinging to that, aren't you? Why? You could have picked orange, you suppose, picking at the pink sleeve, it would have been slightly less eye catching but none of the bolts had been long enough and you weren't confident in your ability to Frankenstein the aptly described puppets kin without leaving some unsightly seams.

Honestly slipping even just a bit of pink into your wardrobe made you feel a lot more comfortable in your own skin. It's strange.The asshole pants and the crown and the tights were embarrassing, you figured you'd be thrilled to escape that enforced wardrobe.Why do you find yourself missing them? Maybe you just want some more color. You’ll have to figure out where you'd ordered the fabric from, and see if you could find some in the right shade of maroon. This fabric wasn’t quite as nice as your godly jammies, but it was definitely up there.

You think that’s probably your bus rolling in the distance. Dave’s mumbling about pink and black and Rose would get a kick out of this before you push yourself to your feet, causing him to scramble after you. The road is pretty much a straight shot, letting you see several blocks distance.

You glance down at him and he’s clutching the phone in a white-knuckled grip, and following your gaze you can see the moment he spots the bus because it causes his face to wall back up.

“I’ll be behind you this time, okay?”

You can tell he doesn’t like it. He hasn’t willingly put his back to you even once since you woke up here. But he nods a jerking, uncomfortable nod, and squares his shoulders as the breaks hiss and the jaws open wide and welcoming and another driver, not with a scowl, but with tired indifference, glances down the steep stairs waiting for you.

In. Out. Ignore the shit out of everyone.

Except Dave. Focus on him.

You both make it onto the bus this time. The doors close with a hiss, you only have bills not exact change so you overpay but you don’t care. You both settle into a seat, surrounded by a smattering of other people, crossing paths in this giant fucking river of fate.

You ignore them all, and start counting stops in your head, clenching your teeth against the rumbling roar of wheels on pavement and the vibrations crawling through your skin.

Just like the fucking car. You hate it.

Outside the giant beast growls, thinking little of the two passengers it just devoured, and lumbers on its way.

x-x-x

yo rose

look at this shit

File sent successfully: 20060728_061855.jpg

You look about exactly as I imagined you. The sunglasses feel a bit much. Have you considered something less likely to stab some unfortunate passerby?

hey lay off the shades they are totally rad

Is that your bro behind you? You two look alarmingly similar. The family resemblance is strong with this one.

yeah

I approve of his color choices. Very bold. He needs something more to tie it together however. Perhaps a nice magenta sash to break up the black and accent the sleeves.

The grey hat needs to go, however. A nice basic black would be perfect. Or perhaps no hat at all, the sunglasses could easily keep the balance there.

of course you would

ill pass on your fashion advice the moment i think he wont kill me for having taken the picture

I guess its right up your alley

all gothic princess prophetess of the glub

I don’t normally care so much for pink, or princesses, or anything else my mother finds particularly compelling, but your metaphorical perversion of her usual domains to one of the zoologically dubious pleases me.

I shall keep this in mind the next time she gifts me a particularly frilly dress, and make the appropriate alterations.

oh shit hes getting up guess the rides over

time to faceplant directly into the path of the oncoming train full of unfamiliar territory

why did i agree to this shit

We already discussed this at an unholy hour last night. It is a good opportunity to test your boundaries. Spending time with your Brother in neutral territory is beneficial to you both.

pray for me

Chapter Text

Your shoes scuff against the polished tile of the floor, your fingers curled tightly around the hard-plastic push-grip that allowed you to steer the cart. The rolling of the wheels grinding the softly playing ambient music into the ground and reducing everything to noise.

“Aw, come on. It’s my first time in the land of the sweets and home of the bread and you’re going for the rabbit food??? Why am I even here. Why did you even drag me along. I could be still sleeping right now. You could still be sleeping. And then we could just order a pizza or something and not trek through all this--this--” He pauses, sucking a breath before just waving at everything before you. Row after row  of color and green leafy shit you’ve never actually seen before outside of labels on cans and on the internet. “...this!”

Exactly what you needed, and oh so conveniently--and you’d eat your hat if it wasn’t on purpose--laid  out right within moments of walking into the huge-- focus on what’s in front of you-- space. You don’t dwell on exactly how far back those aisle go, or get lost reading the signs above each trying to figure out where to even start. Because you have a place to go and it’s right there. You just shut it, and the few, very few, other shoppers milling about, out of your mind entirely, and just began pushing the cart in that direction, it’s loose wheels rattling in their housing that’s making you want to take the damn thing apart and oil it right there.

If you had any with you, you probably would.

You stop in front of a display and stare at the--you’re pretty sure it’s lettuce? One of your many memorized lists have sandwiches as good ways to shove vegetables into meals. Fresh vegetables are necessary for growing children. There’s like, several different kinds of lettuce alone , from boring round pale spherical ones-- iceburg, no notable nutrition, your research whispers back at you-- frilly purple to flat, almost rough feeling green.

You grab two that aren’t the iceburg--the really frilly shit, the tags calling them green and red leaf respectively--and hold them out to Dave.

“Pick one.”

“Bro I’m pretty sure the inside of our fridge has never even seen a vegetable before. It might even break down out of protest.” You don’t break your stare, and he fidgets a little, “Uh, I guess?? The purple one? It’s more interesting than the green one anyway. It’s not like I know the ins and outs of rabbit food. Can we move on to the good shit now?”

“Be patient, lil’bro,” You drop the Chosen One into the cart. “It’s not going to hurt either of us to try eating healthier shit.”

“Healthy, healthy, healthy.” He gripes as you move to the next display, and the next, grabbing a few more things you think are intended for sandwiches, like tomatoes, and some others that you can probably just toss together and eat raw. Fuck it, this is a trial run. If shit doesn’t taste good you’ll just buy something else next time.

“This is revenge for riffing on your beans isn’t it??” He complains as you’re debating what looks like some sort of prepackaged salad mix. On the one hand, it’s salad. Salad is literally just plant shit. But if it’s packaged it isn’t necessarily fresh is it? You take note of the ingredients, going over what you have, and what you’ve seen, before putting it back down and pushing the cart back deeper into the small miniaturized jungle taking up residence inside the food disbursement facility. You could probably just grab the ingredients they used and throw it together yourself.

“I’m serious bro, have you been abducted by some sort of health cult? Do I need to stage an intervention with the greasiest heart-clogging array of fried foods I can get delivered straight to our door? I’m surprised you haven’t gone for the green beans yet, given how you cling to their darker relatives--whoops there they go into the cart, how did I know. What next? Kale? Mustard greens? Basil? Why not, just load up on herbs while we’re at it.”

“Stop being such a drama queen, Dave,” You don’t actually pick up herbs, thank you very much. The small pile you have is probably a good enough start.

“Fuck you, I’ll be as dramatic as I want.”

You try to resist--

“Language.”

It failed spectacularly.

The strangled noise he makes brings a smile to your face, and he stomps off, or starts to until you realize he’s actually storming off and you react without thinking.

He freezes.

You barely have his arm for a split second before you drop it like he’s on fire, digging the offending fingers into the stiff fabric of your pants. Or you try to. There’s not really much excess fabric there for you to grab onto, unlike with your puffy asshole pj pants. So you shove the hand into your pocket instead.

“I need you to stay close while we’re out, okay?”

“‘m not a kid.” It’s mumbled. “I can handle myself in the fucking produce aisle.”

“Maybe,” You allow, and walk back towards where you left the cart--that’s several feet away. You hadn’t realized you might as well have flash-stepped. No wonder he froze up. Idiot. What are you going to say? That the idea of him being out of your immediate grabbing range in an unfamiliar place sends a spike of frenzied anxiety down your spine?

You grope for something, anything. Looking around you’re right on the edge of the vegetables and--fuck that might work.“There’s a shit ton of apples over here and I know fuck all about apples. Help me pick.

It falls completely flat, and that is an utterly lame excuse and you know it. You know he knows it, but he lets you get away with it anyway. Retribution rings as a windfall of fruit landing on top of your vegetable mountain. Mostly sixteen different types of apples, but you managed to snag some real fucking oranges and add them for yourself. By the time you’re moving on around the outer edge of the store toward what appears to be breads, and meat--and FISH--he’s chattering fluidly again.

Sandwiches needed meat don’t they? You ask Dave what he wants from the wall piled with all sorts of lunchmeats and he just gives you a surprisingly wordless shrug, so you just push past it toward the fish.

...Can you make fish sandwiches?

At least you understand fish.

“I’m not even sure we have shit to cook that with, bro.” He remarks as you slide several fish filets (you want the whole fucking thing, head and all, but it looks like you need to Talk to someone behind the counter for that, and that makes your gut clench uncomfortably right now so filets it is) into the cart, “Unless you’ve been hiding some pans in the pile of blades that used to fill the cupboards.” A pause. “What happened to that anyway?”

“Put it up in the crawlspace. It’s not safe to leave them lying around.” ...okay, mental note. Look for, and or order a skillet at the very least. At least your Bro had the decency to leave you with basic cooking utensils. Grilled fish was a goddamn delicacy, when you took the time to actually catch the slippery bastards. Gull was easier to hunt, the idiots would swarm any sort of bait you put out, but at the same time harder to eat except when you were at your most pragmatic.

You were careful not to over-hunt the gulls that nested in your defunct radio-tower. They were occasionally noisy neighbors, but if you took up a handful of food, they were willing company when you couldn’t deal with being alone, but couldn’t bring yourself to deal with people either.

Not that you ever really dealt with people. Could you even count how many times it was actually you talking to your friends and not your autoresponder? No? You can't, can you?

You glance down to find Dave staring back up at you with a baffling expression, one that’s nowhere near as obviously guarded as it has been, but paradoxically that just makes it all the harder for you to fucking read.

“You never cared about that before.”

“I also didn’t experience a narcoleptic fit in the kitchen before,” It’s not the reason. But it’s a Good reason. Just because you haven’t had one since the roof doesn’t mean they won’t come back. Hell, if you ever manage to suss out the source of anxiety that’s preventing you from Waking the Fuck Up, they’d even be potentially happening More Often. “Imagine pitching face forward into that shit. Or don’t. It’s not pretty.”

You wince as that unreadable expression deepens, and you can even see an eyebrow climbing above the rim of his shades. Were you not supposed to say that? Probably not, he’s a fucking kid right now.

There’s really no contest. Dave was a better guardian than you ever could be. It just wasn’t fair that he got to be stuck with a you who physically made his life miserable while all you got were videos and a faint foolhardy hope that could never, ever come to fruition.

That thought gets crammed in the mental crawlspace, don’t acknowledge it, eyes ahead and pushing the cart forward, following the clear as day path around the outside of the store the designers obviously wanted you to follow because hey, it’s efficient, and so far it’s hit literally everything you needed. You pay enough attention to make sure he’s following as you move--for all his spoken belligerence he hasn’t strayed more than a few feet away from you after you--said something earlier.

Buying healthy was fucking hard. So many goddamn pieces. Dave may have survived to grow up fine on whatever garbage your splinterself normally bought--which was apparently nothing regularly with a side of takeout?--but you’ve already committed. You can’t just point at him and go good enough. You’ve got to be better.

“Hey, hey bro, I don’t mean to interrupt your rush toward mom-blogger level of organic complete with food-pyramid infographics and serving sizes, but… Can we at least get some fucking ramen to go with this shit? I can see it from here, packets upon packets of packaged salty goodness--”

“Okay.”

“It’ll be nice to break up all this health shit with--wh--oh. Awesome. It’s nice to know you haven’t gotten too far into the bean juice and you can still acknowledge the overwhelming convenience and superiority of instant noodles. I’m just gonna nip right down this aisle real quick--”

This cart is abysmally constructed. Even beyond the rattling and squeaking wheels, they like to jam as you try to turn it away from the sloping path around the edge of the store and toward the aisles that run perpendicular towards the center. A squint up at the sign proudly proclaims “soups, crackers, cookies, and cereal” all up in aisle one. Are you seriously only touching the first aisle now???

Fine. Whatever. Even with the plethora of healthy shit, it’s probably good to keep some familiar foods.

You do need more beans, but while there’s plenty of canned shit here, it mostly looks like soup. Which, surprise, surprise, was listed on the sign. You aren’t particularly sure if you appreciate the obvious care someone, somewhere, put into organizing all this shit, or be overwhelmed by the fact that people did this period. This isn’t some game-construct dreamt into existence in order to fill out the environment or challenge you on your journey to self actualization.

...You’re a self-centered little bitch sometimes, aren’t you.

Which then leads you right back around to the irony that it fucking was, because all of this, from the packet of oreos in your hands to the physical body you inhabit, was dreamt up by dying eldritch abominations in order to give your universe a single, final shot.

You throw the oreos into the cart and shove that particularly nasty train of thought into the mental crawlspace--it is getting uncomfortably full at this point. You need to do some full on spring cleaning of all this garbage one of these days.

Dave ranges ahead of the cart, out of reach, but you don’t mind too much since he’s straight in your line of sight as it is. Contrary to his fixation on the noodle packets he doesn’t immediately rush them, instead taking his time to stop and hover and peer at various somethings on the shelf before moving on. The cart gets a multiple arm-fulls of instant noodle bowls of various flavors--and you pretend not to notice the incredulous look Dave sends you when he notices the blue film packaging on the oreo package.

Turning the cart completely is an ordeal thanks to the stubborn as hell wheels and terrible handling, so instead of returning directly to the back wall to continue towards the dairy, you just keep following the flow of the store, using gentle curves instead of a full 180, once you hit the wider, open space at the end of the aisle. You glance down the next, mapping out the path in your head, winding up and down one aisle to the next--do you even need the next? Checking the sign--

Pasta. Coffee.

Canned Vegetables.

Aw hell yeah. You can’t skip this one

“Are you gonna stand there all day or are ya gonna fuckin’ move?”

The unfamiliar, heavy drawl busts through your bubble like a goddamn ogre. Half your brain pinpoints Dave immediately--between you and the Aisle, protected by the cart if shit comes to blows. Safe. The other half takes in the scowling, grumpy bulk that had come up from the front of the store--shit you’d forgotten you were near the entrance again, nothing between you and oncoming people aside from a line of clerks and the edge of the produce section that you’d entered with--

If this was a dersite agent, or the skeletal beasts that made up the primary residents of your tombs, you would have skewered the guy already. Only your desperate grip on the hard plastic keeps your katana in your strife specibus because instinct would leave you with a bleeding body and most likely a murder on your hands.

You'll be no use to anyone if you end up stuck in jail, bro. Cool it.

“Hey, hey bro, bro,” There’s a tug on your sleeve from the side. The soft fabric brushing up against skin. That’s…

“I’m done lookin’ at the stuff here, thanks for waiting for me,” It’s in a stage whisper, but behind the safety of your cheap-as-fuck shades and your resting blank expression, your eyes are locked on the man’s steadily reddening complexion. You know he can hear it. “Oh man dude sorry didn’t see you standing there, do you want to catch a look at this sweet ass tupperware here??? Hella perfect for lunchboxes, picnics, pot-lucks with all the nice old ladies down the street--”

“No.” The man grinds out, “Just get the hell outta my way.”

“Dude there’s--”

“There’s more than enough space for you to go around.” You force yourself to exhale, tearing one hand off the bar and letting it land on Dave’s shoulder. He doesn’t let go of your sleeve. “We’re looking at the display.”

You force yourself to turn away from the man, even as it sends your instincts screaming at you that there’s an enemy at your back. If you draw a weapon on him you will kill him. What was the second part of your mantra?

Ignore the shit out of everyone else.

There’s a display on the end of the aisle. It’s filled with boxes upon boxes of food-containment sets in various sizes. You study that shit as if it was the most important thing in the fucking world, even as you’re  increasingly aware of that bundle of nerves at your back.

And then...it breaks in a flurry of words. Some you recognize as epithets. Others you don’t. And even some you only barely recognize as slurs once used by a society that had been long since dead when you’d learned of them.

The man stalks his way down the aisle you wanted to go down. To your utter lack of surprise, there was plenty of space between the nose of your cart and the edge for him to pass. You exhale, forcing yourself to let go. Prying your fists open, the tension leaving your palms aching

“What crawled up his grumpypants and died??” Dave muttered, “We probably should skip this aisle, huh?”

You glance up at the canned vegetables printed on the sign, and back at the bulk of a man loitering near red plastic containers, and make a conscious effort to keep breathing.

You’ll come back.

“Let’s go find your juice.”

Chapter Text

Beep.

Tick.

Beep.

Tock.

Beep.

Tick.

The beeping of the scanner fades into the background, and while you know it doesn’t sync up exactly--human hands can be steady and fast but it aint got shit on clockwork--the world seems to shift around you until it feels like it does so that’s good enough for your brain to let it get absorbed into your personal BGM track like some shitty mashup someone decided to upload to youtube for cheap views.

Although, right now you don’t really mind thinking about that steady, unfaltering rhythm. It’s almost comforting. Less of annoying mental tick and more a running theme. A leitmotif in the constantly changing score of your shitty life. You aren’t sure what that says about you, that instead of the sick-nasty beats and irregular rhythms you like to work into your own composition, your sponge of a brain seems to crave the steady and unfaltering ticking, and tocking.

You’re not too proud to admit inside the sanctity of your own head, that steady and unfaltering are two words that are very much missing from your vocabulary right now. And it tends to come down to one thing.

There’s a whole cart full of shit between you and him. Shit that you helped pick out. It’s downright domestic, that’s what it is. Full on Hallmark, hey honey what do you want for dinner today oh look at that we’re out of milk mind running out to the store.

He actually did get milk, after staring down at the carton and you could have sworn an honest-to-gog possibly not ironic smile existed on his face for half a nano second. Which is honestly not freaking you out as much as it should, but you’re trying not to think about that right now because this shit is making you realize you’ve never had actual milk in your life, and now there’s going to be a carton in the fridge next to your handpicked, fresh-off-the-shelf Nantucket AJ in the glass bottles which is the good shit Bro never got you.

... Now that is what’s freaking you out.

This entire grocery run has been an exercise in adapting your signature controlled freak out, trailing after Bro like a puppy on an invisible leash, throwing shit into the cart, waiting for him to tell you no, getting wigged out that he never does, and then pushing forward with a shield of sarcasm and jabs to try and cover it all up.

Rose would have something you say about that, you think. You should check in with Rose. You did make that whole fuss about having found your new religion, ie addressing your bro related rants solely at her after John pulled that stunt on you. Move over egbert, there’s a new bff in town. So what if you-- allegedly-- were a little wound up lately. And maybe somewhat fixated. He’s your Bro. You live with the dude. It’s perfectly normal to be hyper aware and baffled and need to rant about it, isn’t it?

Your phone is a weight in your hand as you pull it out of your sylladex, thumbing through the menus in a path that’s getting so familiar it might as well be burned into your muscle memory. It’s too bad John doesn’t have a phone--he said he was going to try and pester his dad about it, but not to hold your breath, and honestly it's not like you left your apartment regularly like oh say right now, or when you were kidnapped for a couple days--but those were all one-off occurrences weren’t they?

Bro wouldn’t really start dragging you out of the apartment to do shit. Like a family.

...would he?

Not willingly, you don’t think. Not after how the shit with the cowboy went down. Bro’s always been in and out, you always figured he’d have a handle on shit since he was, you know, a grown ass adult who adulted and obviously would have had to do adulty things while he was out of the apartment. Seeing him--lock up--you’d felt the spike of intent that usually was the only warning you got before steel flying at your face--only there was no steel and no words, only your bro’s presence coiled so tight you were just waiting for it to burst, and the malcontent anger of a self-entitled asshole who saw a pair of weirdos in his way and decided to take his grumpy-didn’t-have-enough-fucking-coffee attitude out on you--

Fuck you still don’t know what you did. Or why you did it. What made you reach out and grab those ridiculous pink sleeves and drag his attention away from the idiot-who-probably-didn’t-deserve-to-get-filleted. Or at least, didn’t deserve to be the one who got your bro sent to prison.

It was the first thing he told you when he gifted you your first strife deck-- before the real training started, back when you would still hang in the living room and play xbox and he’d startle you by somehow tossing a smuppet at your head in the middle of a sick-ass combo and make you mess up and he’d just make a comment about constant vigilance--was to never draw shit Outside unless they had a blade on you first because he was not going to bail your ass outta juvie and really orange wasn’t your color anyway. It looked terrible on you.

So you’d just, talked. And talked, and grabbed his attention and kept it until he seemed able to pull his shit together, and the dude decided to do the smart thing and go the fuck around.

Your fingers falter and you thumb past Bro’s number--not who you were originally looking for, even if you ended up hovering, and no point in texting him he’s literally feet away from you, a pile of fraying nerves waiting for the cashier to finish her god-given duty of ringing up your haul and taking his cash. You can feel his eyes on your back as if the moment he looks away you’re going to pull a Bonnie and Clyde and make a break for it, guns blaring to the sound of some twang-tacular banjo strummin’. You wouldn’t. You’re not an idiot.

You’d almost forgotten, during the last two weeks, between the blood in his hair and the bags under his eyes, and the cherry red of sun-damage fading to a--ever so slightly darker--shade than your normal skintone--

It’s Bro .

And maybe he’s trying. But that grip on your arm had been fast and strong and you know you wouldn’t be able to get away if he came after you, cart or no goddamn cart between you.

You don’t know how to feel.

So you just bottle that shit up and keep scrolling, past Bro, past Stevens (who’d insisted you add his number in case Bro ended up face-first in the shower or something. At least someone understood that something was Wrong. And the other shoe has to drop. You aren’t allowed to have--) to the last entry in your list.

There’s a small litany of prayers waiting for you in Rose’s message chain, each one dripping sarcasm, and sufficiently aged during your--god had it really taken an hour and a half???--long expedition through the unclaimed aisles, they might as well be fermented.

That can’t be right. It can’t, even as the exact, down to a second, duration bubbles up through the generic background noise and burns itself into your brain, matching up to the small white number staring at you from your notification bar..

It just...

It’s a little past 8 am. The summer sun is awake and throwing down it’s rays like its fighting words, taunting you from behind the automatic sliding doors you can see from here. Gone is the weird half-light of too-goddamn-early and the half-asleep why-the-fuck-not that let you plow ahead with this batshit insane idea in the first place.

Fuck.

This really isn’t a dream.

You hover over the open message, your mind blank and--almost--silent. Almost. Almost except the quiet whimpering you seriously want to divorce from your psyche but it’s buried in there too gogdamn deep, even deeper than the ticking and the tocking. Whimpers of broken dreams and expectations that you shattered your goddamn self because it hurt less than to hope and have it never be.

You glance up surreptitiously behind the anonymity of your shades, watching as the increasingly unnerved woman stutters in her rhythm to weigh and key in one of Bro’s weirdo produce purchases, throwing the whole mashup out the window in a righteous squealing trainwreck. He hasn’t so much as said a word this whole time, leaning forward with one elbow on the handle of the cart, cushioning his chin with his hand. You can tell he notices the attention, because that impassive neutral expression stutters with the faintest scrunch of the nose--and there’s the tip of an eyebrow over the edge of his stupid replacement shades.

You...hadn’t wanted his full attention. You hadn’t. And now that you have it your throat feels so dry, the ice crawling up your spine, and the unexpected flutter of your nerves has you wanting to abscond right now.

“Are you gonna drag me back by the ear like a misbehaving toddler if I go over and stand by the door?” Space. Space would work. Space and just a little bit of time, and then you’ll get a handle on…

This.

Your face is schooled so damn good it would be getting straight As if it was taking all your stupid home-schooled quizzes . “The signal’s shitty in here.”

It actually is, blinking between one and two bars right next to the clock on the notification bar, but fuck even if you want to talk to Rose you more want to get out of the three foot radius more.

He inclines his head to follow your proposed path, which is still in his line of sight--you can see the fucking door from here, and the sun and the bright yellow-white of baking concrete--then back over at the items still piled high on the belt in front of the register.

And then he straightens, losing the loose posture.

You hate that tension. That uncertainty. That-- don’t say worry --

Lips pressed in a line, the words like sandpaper in your ears. You don’t know what answer you want. Yes-- do what you want fuck if I care-- or “Can’t you just wait? This won’t take much longer.”

“Whatevs.” You grumble, forcing that mild and entirely irrational panic back down, just like you have been all day--which has only been less than 2 hours don’t be a drama queen, dave --and go back to your phone.

Maybe it’ll work anyway.

i should be happy rose

why am i not happy

The swirling circle of limbo curls in on itself next to the messages, the bars on you phone flickering between one teeny tiny little shit and one that’s slightly bigger but still can’t do anything.

The messages come back red and glaring up at you from the screen.

Sending failed.

Figures.

You type more anyway, to the background track of a scanner beeping, to the feel of your Bro’s presence at your back. Words that come back red and bleeding and lost in limbo.

Shit like this. Domestic shit. Family shit. You’d seen movies and TV shows and laughed at them because it was hella uncool. Uncomfortable, saccharine garbage.

Just. Uncomfortable, as you looked at it and felt so alienated. It couldn’t be you . You were cool, and Bro was cool, and the rest of the world were lameo-soft pansy chickenshits.

That discomfort eats at your insides in another way, now, even as you laugh at Bro when he stares uncomprehendingly at the more-than-small pile that had grown into a mountain of bags. Too many bags. He’s a out-of-season Christmas tree with ornaments of bags hanging off of and in his arms, and you have absolutely no idea how he’s carrying them all, but he doesn’t complain, and doesn’t ask for help, and barely acknowledges the bag-lady when she offers to get one of the guys to help carry them out to his car.

But you don’t have a car you got here by the bus and now you have to get all this shit onto the bus and then home from there. Somehow.

You can still see her wide, incredulous eyes as he just shakes his head and loads that pile of bags into his arms, muscles bulging and arms shaking in a way that makes you painfully aware that he’s not as strong as he should be. The hospital. The weeks of missed training and lapsed conditioning--

Not your problem.

Just like it’s not your problem that he had to buy so much shit.

“We could just call.” And then he’s looking at you except you aren’t entirely sure he can see through that semi-opaque bag full of fish in front of his face. Well you said something so you have to continue so you pull up you big boy pants and push the words out anyway, “Stevens, I mean. He has a car. I don’t know if I trust you not to drop shit with that giant mountain, especially on those steep-as-fuck stairs since we need to get this shit on a bus. And even then there’s thirty fucking minutes in a rattling tin can--”

“It’s fine. I got it.” You think he jerks his head toward the door, much to the relief of the poor woman who seems on the verge of hyperventilating at the way physics are making the upper portions of the tower sway.

“You drop my AJ and I’m never gonna forgive you, bro.” The warning is half-hearted, but you follow at your invisible leash length of three feet behind him as he makes his way shakily towards the door. If you know Bro at all, when he decides to do something he’s going to do it-- ignore that he stopped his plan for you and that’s how you even ended up here in the first place.

He doesn’t drop anything. At least not by accident. When you reach the bus-stop everything does settle deliberately onto the concrete with a variety of thunks and thin plastic rustling and even some glass clinking that makes your stomach do a somersault. Bro doesn’t seem bothered by anything as he just abandons his burdens and walks over to check the complicated as fuck set of tables pinned behind plastic glass to tell noob bus-goers like yourself approximately when you can hope to stop roasting and pile into the mobile people-eating-metal-squealing-monster.

“Twenty minutes.” Then he falls. You definitely weren’t startled into a sudden panic by this action, nor did you make a sound that resembled anything like distressed squawking as he unceremoniously plopped himself on the sidewalk next to the mountain of bags in a pile of limbs. You didn’t suddenly find yourself in the kitchen at sunset. In the living room. On the roof. With nowhere to go because you’re who the hell knows away from home. Your phone is in your hand because you need to finish composing a message to Rose-- the red ones don’t count-- and not because you need to call--someone.

You just...rolled your eyes behind your shades, that’s all. As if this fucking weird display was normal. And fuck if you know it might be. You do seem to find him on the floor A Lot.

“You realize there’s a perfectly functioning bench right?” Cool. Controlled. Even a dash of sarcasm. Calling it a bench was a bit of an exaggeration. Just three worn planks of worn, weathered, sun bleached, wood across what’s probably a rusted iron frame. But wood isn’t gonna be anywhere near as hot as concrete will be--and honestly probably already is. Under this hellscape of a sun, a little over an hour is probably plenty to get it warmed beyond the pleasantly cool curb you’d sat on this morning. “You don’t need to do this shit in the middle of the sidewalk.”

He dismisses the suggestion with a wave, but does push himself out of the ungainly pile of limbs and  sits cross legged on the concrete. You force your face into something that isn’t what you’re actually feeling, you don’t actually care what right now, and pointedly march past him, climbing up onto the wooden bench because it’s fucking daylight and there’s people across the street and cars going by, and you’re hit by this fucking sense of whiplash between feeling like a kid on a leash, and now the only one of the two of you acting like an adult.

He shifts position so his back is resting against the front edge of the bench, near your knee, but not touching. The proximity seems to do something because that prickle between your shoulders that you’d come to associate with a particular focus on you, ebbs away.

“So.” He speaks, and you’re hella surprised, since you’d figured it’d be right on back to the good ol’ silent treatment until the bus arrived, “You have Newt’s number?”

What--oh. Right. Stevens.

“Well yeah. Had to stay with him for a few days. Pretty sure exchanging digits is the first step in responsible babysitting etiquette,” You’d appreciated it, because it meant he let you lock yourself in his room and he could just text you to ask if you wanted food or something. “Is it wrong? He’s your friend isn’t he?”

“Evidently.”

“Evidently?? He went out and bought you fucking sunscreen bro. He didn’t have to do any of that shit.”

Not to mention, he was the first place you were supposed to go if your bro ever--How is this shit even up for debate?

“In case you haven’t realized, your Bro is an absolute moron when it comes to people.”

Woof. Okay. Pulling out the sarcastic third person now? You ignore the way your brain conjures up all the evidence and points at each one as if to say, ‘he’s right you know,’ between you and Stevens and his recently deceased friends you’d never even heard of before... Instead of following that particular hopbeast into its hella not-your-problem den, you just roll your eyes and fire back with a deadpanned, “Evidently.”

He snorts, and doesn’t say anything more, so you turn your attention back to your phone as the crinkle and shifting of plastic and the items inside work their way into the background score of this particular movie. You ignore the red text of the unsent, your eyes skimming over it as if it doesn’t exist. Because it doesn’t. It’s a manifestation of your internal monologue in your iconic red text and this batch isn’t leaving your fucking skull.

You’re kinda surprised Rose hasn’t checked in by now. It’s been almost two and a half-- 2:11:43 --hours since her last one.

dearest rose

i wanted to make this shit sound like an old-timey war letter but that sounds so fucking weird so nope nevermind the goofs off its so far gone it might as well be flying into the heart of a blackhole never to be seen again

just wanted to let you know the d-stri is still alive and kicking unbested by the foray into the bermuda-fucking-triangle that exists in the center of every krogers eating cell signal like its for breakfast and speaking of breakfast theres a haul of more fucking food than i know what to do sitting right in front of me on the sidewalk even if more than a third of it is rabbit food its like a fucking fiesta up in here

i got enough ramen to live off of for months just gotta stuff my cheeks like a goddamn squirrel and refill my stash and i never have to worry about shit again

and

i got aj rose

*AJ*

not even bro is gonna ruin this hype train

though I gotta admit hes being *really* fucking weird

the dude just spent an hour wound tighter than a gogdamn cookoo clock like to the point where i coulda sworn wed be on the run from a literal murder and not the fun call 911 i just witnessed a murder after a particularly nasty set of sick burns

and now hes sprawled out in the middle of the sidewalk muttering and rummaging through bags like a gremlin ignoring the shit out of everything what happened to all that hypervigilance

is this adulthood??

was everything i knew about the world fucking wrong??

do you hear that thats my expectations shattering into a million tiny gremlin-bro sized pieces

come on rose im waiting

paging dr sigmund phil rose

im all but begging you to do your psychoanalyst schtick

did you fall asleep??

nice to know my distress and anxiety wasn’t enough to stop you from nodding off like a baby into dreamland

you probably need the sleep though i still dont know how you were still awake at 6 in the morning when we were

fuck when did i finally go to bed

too damn late for you to be awake normally it took bro hammerin at my door at 530 to drag me clean out of snoozeville and im a hell of a light sleeper

may your dreams be full of shit like

i would say tentacles and existential horror since i know you like that shit but that sounds a bit too much like that dream youve been having that wigs you out so rainbows and kittens it is

wait thats on the princess end of fantasy bullshit um lets find you something else

not dragons though because you arent allowed to have a dragon dream before i do im the knight its my job to fight the dragons

wizards maybe

yer a wizard rose

i could see you with a dope ass wand all black and gnarled with skulls on the end blowing shit up

if youre stuck with helpless nothingness and confusion how better to counteract that shit than with a power fantasy full of reigning down mega flares from the goddamn sky and turning the entire planet into swiss cheese with giant flaming meteors and--

“Dave.” Bro’s voice cuts through the utterly rad dream you were weaving for Rose, and drags your attention away to find the rustling has stopped, and there’s something big and round and red in your face, being held by calloused fingers by a long white stick.

“What the hell is this?”

He shrugs, the plastic-wrapped offering bobbing as he waves it invitingly, “The label says candy apple flavor.”

You eye it. And him. When the hell did he slip that into the cart while you weren’t looking? You thought you’d caught everything. Even the Oreos--

“This is because of the shit I pulled with the cowboy, isn’t it??” You hesitate, more words bubbling up under your tongue and this was a bad idea, you’re gonna push and push and eventually he’s got to snap-- “Saving your ass like that.”

His nose scrunches the slightest bit, but he doesn’t deny it. Maybe the sunscreen wasn’t working, because he looks pretty fucking red under a smattering of freckles--had he always had freckles or were you never this close enough to see--until he turns his face away, the brim of his grey hat throwing it into shadow.  Just keeps holding the solidified sugar sphere in your face.

Well fuck it.

Not above being bribed to keep your silence, you take the fucking lollipop, and shove it into your mouth.

After you take the plastic off, of course.

It’s like nirvana up in here. A fruity sweet explosion of apples and sugar and pure unadulterated awesome all packaged into a goddamn sucker that punches you in the face with sheer joy.

Not even the utter ear shredding metallic cacophony that heralded the eventually arrival of your bus could bring you down. In fact, you found yourself significantly cheered, enjoying the treat as you watch Bro bamboozle another poor schmuck by using his flashstep to get all the shit piled until a seat before the dude could even start to close the door on him or you, and maybe...

todays been pretty cool i guess

Chapter Text

One sucker, one bowl of ramen, a sad attempt at a sandwich and a handful of carrots you agreed to take under threat of your bro’s vaguely pleading and therefore hella weird frown, it’s 18 hours, 22 minutes and 13 seconds later, you are well into the dreaming phase of your sleep cycle. Which, all things considered, is a fairly boring and entirely normal way to cap off a day that had you on so many ups and downs you don’t know which way the surface is anymore, so rather than go swimming off and end up drowning, you figure you’ll just hold your breath and float and hope you’ll end up surfacing some day.

Just. Floating and shit. In your room in your purple and silver tower above the purple-red simulacrum of your card-suit bedsheets. Nothing different. Nothing new. Ticking and tocking. Ticking and tocking. Letting yourself get lost in the thrumming of the universe around you.

Eyes close behind your shades, cutting off the hazy purple-red room and the faint light from beyond. Fingers tap against the inside of your arm, the 4/4 rhythm of your own heart, syncing up to the giant metronome at the center of everything. 73 minutes. That’s how far you’ve gotten and you’ve got another 6 hours of this to go through before you have to wake up and face the sunshine and to be perfectly frank you don’t want to.

It’s steady. And reliable. And maybe when you wake up and look back on the fragments you barely remember you’ll complain that you didn’t get to do anything heroic or interesting, such a waste of your beyond-creative imagination here, c’mon subconscious get it together and do something , but for now, especially after the emotionally fucking stressful day--week--months-- life, you just let yourself just…

Unwind and Be

Unfortunately, something else had other plans.

Or maybe you were just finally going to get your wish.

Something disturbed the music. The steady rhythms knotting and warping, strands of thread pulled free and fraying from the weave, a mess of intersecting and branching bullshit spiraling around and around itself, ducking in and out of the mainstream like salmon flinging their way up a goddamn waterfall in and out in and out always moving--

A paradox that existed everywhere and nowhere and it was angry .

Survival instincts kick in--drilled into you through years a lifetime of surprises and ambushes and bros cruel pranks--a mounting horror washing your calm away as everything shattered around you you cant be doomed if you no longer exist--

Your tower is gone when you open your eyes, leaving nothing but shifting darkness and a storm . A swirling storm of green on the horizon, winds howling and ripping at you, at your cape, hungry and hunting and hating. A skull forms in the amorphous clouds, long and snake-like, a dragon of mist and hate with blood-red eyes and blood on its cheeks.

There’s a weight in your hand, a pure white sword pulled from the aether--your strife deck?--its nothing like the katanas you know, the heft and balance is all wrong, but something shifts and you settle into a stance as if you’ve been wielding it for years. Your heart is pounding, your mind racing as the storm bears down on you in a screaming rage, a hunter who lost its prey, again and again and lashing out at the only other thing it could reach. You could almost hear words on the edge of the winds, words you know, you recognize, because you’ve grown up with them laughing and taunting you for years in the back of your mind. Words that tell you that you’re useless. A waste. That bro was better and always would be better and--

Maybe you should’ve died instead of him. You’re no hero. He was he was he raised you trained you sundered skies for you died to try and save your bacon and where the fuck were you? You arrived too late and couldn’t even take his sword or bury the fucker--

Oh hell no. Fuck that noise you don’t get to touch that shit that’s personal . That’s my trauma you can’t fucking weaponize it without my purrmission, not cool brah. ” They are almost lost in the howling winds, but the new words reach you, the pressure of the storm lessening enough to allow you to push yourself to your knees. The blade of your sword is sunken into the ground-- there’s a ground ?--sticking out of grooved black shale. You use it as leverage, pulling yourself up in the shelter of the windbreak. You look up to find the world tinted green--several shades darker than the dragon coiled around you, almost black--translucent and ephemeral but unmistakably feathered wings spread and agitated like the crows on the roof if you startled them, beating to push back the poisonous assault. The dragon screams at you, recoiling into a dark, almost solid mass against the glowing orange and red backdrop, looking almost black in the light from the lava flows, distant structures loom stark and grey of unforgiving metal and gears screeching and clunking along with the beat of your heart.

Metal shrieking against metal. A sudden surge of adrenaline and misplaced terror you drive the white blade into the mass and it screams and screams and scre--

And then there’s silence.

You fall.

You don’t fall far, gasping and clawing at the blankets surrounding you. Shit is still twisted--but it settles. The screeching fading into that same, steady pulse running at the back of your mind.

You lay awake staring at the ceiling. Your heart thundering in your ears. The organic structure of the muscle didn’t care for that damn ticking and tocking if it wanted to flip the fuck out and flood your body with stress hormones it was going to fucking do it.

Your dream is already fading, but you’re too agitated to really focus on it. Your body buzzing with energy, you throw off the sheets that you’re all twisted up in, it's far too fucking chilly for summer and you’re cold and suddenly missing your jammies-except-you-are-in-your-pajamas-- fuck, the world is tilted and it spins and you catch your head with your palms and push.

The pressure grounds you. You just breathe in time with the music, deep and not at all panicked nope not at all, and will your heart to chill the fuck out.

It doesn’t.

You grope instinctively for your shades, before you remember they are probably on the desk to avoid breaking yet another set. And the fact that it’s--04:08:34--so early, daylight isn’t even a twinkle in the sun’s eye. C’mon Dave let the sun enjoy its time off dont rush it when you don’t need it. You don’t need your shades.

Shapes and spots of different colors and patterns dance in your vision even before you remove your hands, and keep spinning even after. You blink them away, letting your eyes adjust slowly and focus on your breathing. In. Out. In. Out. Tick. Tock. Follow the rhythm.

The setting moonlight carves through the window and hits something. A silhouette. Tall and gangly and limp, sitting on the small sill. Lil’Cal’s frozen grin and glassy blue eyes stare deep into your soul, and all your hard work at calming yourself down gets defenestrated.

never safe just waiting for the other foot to drop you told her you told them it was Wrong--

You grab the C-man off the window and shuffle out. It’s not like his fault. He’s a puppet. It’s not like he flip-flopped his way down the hall into your room alone. He was stranded. You just need to take him back. Maybe slip him into *bros* bed for some sort of petty revenge

You hesitate in the hallway, noting something off. There isn’t a light. Bro isn’t up working. But there is a major lack of something. Your already raised hackles into the stratosphere. You clutch the puppet close to your chest, a clammy, crawling feeling spreading across your skin. If he’s back to pranking you, it'd be worth it to be wary, and cautious.

Peeking around the corner in the dark, with suspicion and paranoia flooding your mind, you look for anything out of place. The moonlight pools on the floor. There’s no body this time. Just open carpet with a faded stain in the moonlight. Bro must have tried to clean it up. You don’t see why he would. It would make the perfect backdrop for a slasher smuppet film even as the sight of it makes the bottom drop out of your stomach.

There’s a shadow on the couch. Not even trying to sleep

You haven’t made a sound. You know you haven’t. But the shadow of the head tilted.

“What are you doing up?”

Weirdly the noise calms you. If he’s deliberately calling attention to himself--

You force your arms to relax.

“I can ask the same thing, Bro.” Cal’s legs dangle, dragging against the floor as you step out of the hallway, and onto the carpeted living room floor, “It’s 4:13 in the morning and we were up at a godawful hour as it was.”

“I asked first.” His voice is oddly stilted. “I’m not mid-development cycle and needing 10-12 hours of sleep a night, like you do.”

Again. Again with the kid thing. You squeeze Cal’s arms, digging into the plush limbs, “I’m also not the one who has constant bags under his eyes.”

Silence. The shadow doesn’t shift. It’s absurdly motionless and it’s itching at you. How much of that is the darkness masking the micro-ticks you’ve gotten good at noticing and how much of that is actually his mood, you don’t know. You just don’t know and you’ve still got panic lingering in your system and you hate it.

“I was an idiot.” The admission came as a surprise, his voice a bit clearer now that he’s turned his head toward you. Most of the futon is understandably kept out of the path of the moonlight because that would be rather counter productive to actually sleeping,  but some of the reflective light allows your adjusted eyes to make out shapes and edges, “Just made a monumentally stupid decision before trying to sleep, and now it’s a useless endeavor so what’s the point?” You see him shift. A head tilt? “What’s your excuse?”

...you hadn’t expected him to actually answer.

You swallow.

You decide to tell the truth.

“I had a nightmare.”

This isn’t a fight worth having. Not at 4:17 in the morning. When you’re tired and cranky and drained and...

A sigh.

“C’mon, kid. Get over here.”

You...aren’t sure exactly why you do it, but something in the quiet command has you crossing the room. Rounding the edge of the futon, and hoisting yourself up onto it. You don’t do something so stupid as to cuddle him, but you do put your back against the wooden arm of the futon, drawing your knees up. Lil’Cal ends up pushed against your chest, with your chin resting on his clay head, and you can feel Bro’s eyes on you as you sit, half in the moonlight, half not.

“Do you want to discuss it?”

You don’t. You really don’t.

“I just finally got to slay my dragon.” You let the silence linger and you imagine you can see his lips quirking, “Lemme tell you, it ain’t what it’s cracked up to be. No valor in that shit, just singed capes and burst eardrums, dragons are loud as shit. Throwing a tantrum like a fuckin’ baby who broke his toy because it stepped on it with its giant fuckin’ food--”

There’s a rumble from the other side of the futon and you realize he’s chuckling.

“You said 'got to'. It seems you succeeded.”

“I--” You pause. The realization hitting you like Lil’Cal’s plush fist of rage directly in your sternum, sending you through the air and tumbling until you managed to get your head back on straight. “I...guess I did. Huh. Dave Strider, bonefide dragon-slayer. That sounds pretty dope.”

“Indeed.”

Against your better judgement, you find you don’t really want to leave. Here on this lumpy old futon that smelled like bro, clinging to the dead-eyed puppet that-- tormented you-- startled you. But the moon is bright so you scootch out of your corner and closer to Bro, that quiet, immobile shadow, head tilted up and leaning back and staring at the ceiling.

The dregs of the nightmare hang over you like someone had sewn a bunch of weights into your pjs when you weren’t looking. The paranoia that had driven you out of the room seems almost...muted. Going as limp as the doll in your arms.

You’re...just tired.

He doesn’t say anything as you stay.

As the clock ticks forward.

As the moon dips behind the buildings.

As your head sinks.

As you end up curled into his side, Cal shoved between you both.

As his arm settles, hesitantly over your shoulder.

As you eventually fall asleep.

Chapter Text

You jerk awake, shooting up and up and--

THUD.

The impact sends shudders through you, your head aching so bad from where you apparently shoved it into a wall . You fall for a moment before you realize you can float. That’s how you ended up in this situation, a startled bird fleeing to the air only the fucking sky was a roof and probably a good mile of metal, rock, and meteoric regolith. You rub at your head, careful to curl your fingers to avoid digging claws into grey skin. Glaring upwards above crooked lenses, there's an honest to god impact crater in the once smooth surface, shaped uncomfortably like your head. Even little horn marks; you find yourself grateful for their solid, short stature because as much as you love Equius, you don’t think you’d want to mimic his Look.

The pathetic whine building up in your chest doesn’t go anywhere because of course it can’t, but you turn in the air and draw your wings around you like a feathery recuperacoon. Cutting you off from sight and surrounding you with black-green darkness, fighting against the swimming vision and pounding head and jolts of terrified what the fuck s running through your brain. White strands caught in clawed fingers and you can feel the pressure against your scalp.

Pull yourself together. You can do this. Just because you had a dream that couldn’t have been a dream because you’re drenched in manic heart-shaped birdshit doesn’t mean you should literally fall apart. You’ve come too far to let something like this rattle you.

Something like…

Him.

Energy vibrates through your wings, crackling like a roving band of miniaturized lighting storms, drawing to mind a sudden onslaught and an instinctive summoning of power to protect . You could work with shields. But it’s exactly what you’d had use them to to stave off that had you feeling like you wanted to flip your pun-loving shit. Echoing laughter drudged itself out of the depths of your past, clawing up your spine and dragging with it a mountain of birdshit you were supposed to be over with. Laughter that had dogged your every footstep unless you were time traveling or chilling in Rose's room because you couldn't bring yourself to stay in your own. Even that reprieve wasn’t enough because the nature of stable loops, and your aversion to unnecessarily dead daves, meant it wasn’t safe to constantly travel just to get an infuriating puppet-sprite off your back.

Your hands twitched, itching for the oddly familiar shape and weight of a sword that’d once broken in your hand. But all that did was pull out your claw-blades with a metallic shing-k , pink blades glowing, glittering with that same magic that still clung to your feathers and left you nearly vibrating in mid-air. You’re dripping the shit like some sort of magical pinata, sending sparks falling all over the room before they fizzled out into nothingness. Dregs. Ashes of the power buzzing inside you.

You’re you. You’re still you. You gulp in air and block out the world and sink into the comforting spliced together web of your own soul, opening up that sense that allows you to hear the thrumming music. It’s just you. All of you. Both of you. Even if you’d gotten mixed up with him and and stirred around so much it was like a serving of dave soup, unable to tell where you ended and he began which wasn’t right because you aren’t just Dave anymore --

A bubble of orange and red, a complementary harmony. Together and blending but decided not you.

Recoiling you bite down and fangs pierce skin and you taste blood. You’d forgotten about those. Stars glowing in the mosaic of pulsing beats of dark green and red and black, part of you and yet not.

The shards you’d accidentally picked up in the debris cloud. Bits and pieces that didn’t fit the template that got swept up into your wake and trapped like a body that passed too close to a star and up and got itself annexed without so much as a by your leave

You’re a heart player .

Of course something like this would happen. Of course your powers would fuck you over like this.

Okay. Shards. Gotta get rid of those. After what happened with Dirk you’d think you would have expected something bad to have come from this. At least you only have to deal with shared nightmares and not like body snatching that would be awkward. Walking up to Dirk as a mini-Dave and finally getting your purr on--you want to laugh hysterically at the image but it comes out your useless throat as a faint wheeze. You draw in another shuddering breath. And then another. And then open your eyes. The music plays between your ears, thrumming in your chest, becoming less and less clear but never leaving you. You start by dismissing your claw-blades with a flex of your hand, peering out through the gaps in your recuperacoon of green-black feathers.

Your sudden flight had thrown shit everywhere. Blankets, couch cushions, stuffing, your carefully arranged nes--pile destroyed . Now that it’s scattered all over the floor you’re starting to question your reasoning when it came to bringing down the ones you’d partially shredded when trying to remove them from the couch because the force had managed to send the little balls of synthetic fluff interior all over the floor. You can’t help but making a face at the thought of cleaning it up, but even that leaves you wincing.

The magic has stopped flowing but you still feel like you’re humming when you finally set yourself back on solid ground, the ache in your head fading but not fast enough not at all. You suppose you should be glad you didn’t crack the damn thing open with that stunt.

You can barely see Dirk through your blurry vision, a splotch of maroon and white peeking out from beneath a cocoon of blankets and extra puppet felt (a gift from bro you weren’t gonna put that shit on your own pile no matter how comfy it was) you’d set up close to your own pile. At least you hadn’t buried him in your cast off debris of chiseled cushions and cushy as hell blankets. The jerk just snoozes away as if you hadn’t had the weirdest out of body experience you’ve ever had, and given you spent three years as a sprite in some weird half corporeal state, that’s saying something.

Your fingers itch, calling out your communicator from your sylladex--you still can’t get over having a sylladex again. You’d never expected to use one again after you gave Dave literally everything you had and ever worked for and backflipped off the handle of your own sword into seppucrowsprite not entire sure it would work but it didnt matter you were dead anyway--your pile is shot but you don’t want to be alone so you cross the room and curl up against the wall next to Dirk’s. Not in it--even with that simple acceptance of your intentions given over pesterchum you don’t think that’s a line you’re willing to cross yet. Not unless he’s here or in distress or--stop thinking about it. You’re here. You’re close. And if he’s asleep he’s asleep but you have so many thoughts and words piling up inside your thinkpan you need to let them out because--

dataJammer [DJ] began pestering timaeusTestified [TT]

dataJammer [DJ]: B33< holy shit bro
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< i just had a nightmare
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< and not like the holy shit im late for school and i forgot my homework and maybe also didnt realize theres a distinct br33ze around my posterior and everyone was yowling at moon as i stand and give a purresentation kind of nightmare
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< i
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< shit
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< i dont know i was just curled in my pile staring at the ceiling thinking about pawsitively crucial plot developments for my dope webcomic and i just like must have just b33n so damn comfortable and warm my lizard brain kicked in and it was total zzzzzzzz up in here and like at first it was okay
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< hella trippy but okay just this strange sort of floaty f33line that really shouldn’t be strange since like hello part bird not to mention former sprite floating was kinda the one thing we had going for us
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< and there were clocks and shit everywhere and i could like hear them but i couldnt track them and they just got louder and louder and suddenly i was back on that hellhole of a planet where you
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< he
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< died
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< and like sure i could s33 this being my subconscious finally getting its feathery ass kicked into gear and processing i dont know some of davesprites issues i gotta admit im purrobably long overdue for some full steam ahead breakdowns when it comes to that shit but
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< that laughter
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< that goddamn laughter
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< i prototyped cal in my day did you know that???
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< never
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< and i mean never do that
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< the dude was straight up wack constantly stalking me and driving me up the wall and like i threw in the towel and doomed myself early to get the fuck away from him and
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< fuck I dont know
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< trauma city
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< it didnt look like cal but i know that laughter i know it fucking anywhere
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< the dude got into my head but it wasnt just my head and it wasnt davepeta and it wasnt dave at least not yet
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< ive never held caledfwlch dirk it broke as soon as i tried to pull it outta the fucking stone and then i took daves to the big man to get it upgraded but it was never whole and never mind but i knew exactly what it was when that welsh piece of shit fell into my hand and i just got so angry
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< so fucking angry because hell shorty is just a kid and doesnt deserve to get put through all the shit i had to go through
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< or even what that the real dave had to go through
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< though i guess this dave gets to be the real dave now
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< alpha dave becomes beta dave and i get demoted off the scale what am i now gamma??? Or maybe me as davesprite was gamma and now davepeta me is delta or would it be the other way around fuck if i know i never did turn in my membership card maybe if we ever make it to some ultimate-self-meet-up well all get dorky little name tags or heck ill upgrade it to a teeshirt with our greek-letter indicator of relevance to the title of dave
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< the point is he has a chance to be something better than we ever were
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< someone who hasnt been ground into the fucking ground and broken and stitched back together a million times and heres the personification of my worst nightmare shoving all that shit down shortys throat like it was i dont know candy or something
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< i
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< dont know dirk
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< i mean cool i figured out stuff
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< i can make shields with how much unadulterated hell no get out of my head i was f33ling and i can appawently end up punted into the dreams of other daves who really dont n33d me skulking around in there and knocking over stuff and leaving a mess id be the worst houseguest s33 a glass sitting right on the edge of the table and id stalk that prey so hard and catsually push it off while totally looking you in the eye because thats exactly the kind of douche id be
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< i had nightmares about that fureakitten puppet all my life but it was never that bad
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< he hasnt had to go through some puppet related trauma recently has he???
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< no surprise puppet ass from nowhere or cal battles since everything exploded yeah???
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< you purrobably woulda told me if somefang happened
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< you

You hesitate. You know what you want to say. And you expect him to say no. The same way Bro had refused to give up that thing no matter how much it killed you to see him holding it like a long lost friend. You’d asked. Of course you’d asked, remembering those months of clashing metal and wailing swords and ticking clocks and the constant hee hee hoo hoo hahs.

And he’d just looked at you, and looked at Cal, and looked away.

You’d had your answer.

You weren’t worth it.

dataJammer [DJ]: B33< you should put cal away
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< i dont know how much he means to you but i do know how much he meant to bro
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< while a lot of this is a me thing it started as a dave thing first
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< better safe than sorry


There. It’s out there and there’s nothing to be done about it now. Maybe he’ll listen to you. Dirk was bro but he wasn’t Bro.

Maybe.

You thought you were over this shit. Memories of the Land of Hell and Purgatory bubble and pop like gasses rising through molten rock. That dead glassy eyed orange face on a bird-sprite body. Your body. It’s an image that leaves you shuddering, and you’re pretty sure if you’d eaten anything at all since you came back to life you’d be tossing chunks all over the floor right now.

You never really understood why.

Why did Calsprite hate you?

Why did he dog your steps, even after you’d produced the amulet tying him to you and gave it to him? The dude straight up haunted you like a creamsicle feathered poltergeist.

He never spoke a word to you. Only laughed and laughed and let your own insecurities fill in the blanks as to why.

Was it because you took him away from Bro?

Was it because you left Bro alone?

Was it because in 4 fucking months you’d never found him on your planet even though you searched and searched and finally concluded he’d gotten himself killed somehow or fucked off into the lava pits when you proved too incompetent to progress the game?

Fuck no the kid didn’t need to be anywhere near that shit. If your nightmares are leaching out of you like sand in a sieve you need-- you need--

To make sure this doesn’t happen again.

dataJammer [DJ]: B33< i
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< think I need to do something
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< ill be back dont go anywhere
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< not that you can go anywhere being all asl33p furever and all but
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< yeah
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< if you do wake up
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< dont leave?
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< i made you a hella rad pile
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< the least you could do is enjoy it
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< and like if you wake up but dont wake wake up
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< check on the kid for me

dataJammer [DJ] ceased pestering timaeusTestified [TT]

Chapter Text

You aren’t particularly fond of Derse-- this was the best place ever . Sure, you and Rose used to have your rad little slumber parties and planning sessions in her room but the entire thing was tainted with the horror of realizing that they were gone -- you met him here first and you could run and laugh and fly and live. Oh and you guess you died here too the first time, that wasn’t fun.

But you fixed it. You fixed it and they were fine-- and you were too somehow-- John lived, and Jade lived and Rose--

None of that. Not now.

A black and maroon and white streak in the sky, you look upon Derse’s moon for what might as well be for the first time. Last time you’d been chasing Roxy, your perceptions of the world faded and blinking as you struggled to hold yourself together. You couldn’t have handled coming in at the speed you’re going now, slingshotting yourself around the small planet’s gravitational field to keep circling it, you probably would have fallen apart, looking for the chain and the hunk of tower-rock and the four spires plopped one facet after another.

For a moment you see not four, but one more. A memory of a wild flight, laughing and spinning through the darkness of space, arms wide and purple nightgown trailing behind you as you dive in through the window of the furthest most tower in a righteous pounce on the unsuspecting troll inside. You purr as he wakes, strong hands instinctively reaching for your neck because of course they do, it's an attack and that’s what you do with attacks. They may have considered you feral, but Pounce de Leon didn’t neglect any lessons in the art of pacification so you purr and shoosh and fall into his shocked arms and he catches you because of course he does, adorable broken teeth visible as his impassive face breaks and falls into a small o of surprise, dark eyes inching slowly towards blue opening to greet you--

And it fades. Five become Four and in the depths of your re-forged soul you miss him. Both of you do. All of you do. You just...do.

But you can’t. You can’t dwell. You’re here for a reason. You left Dirk for a reason, and it wasn’t to come all up in here and pale flirt with Equius’ ghost.

(-would they have even become ghosts?? You remember it vividly, the little bits of them left after the game tore the red sprite out of them. Blue and red and purple shreds breaking further and further apart before your eyes and sucked away with you to be thrown out with the trash. You couldn’t find them when you came back to yourself in a sea of stars and you’d looked-)

You’re near the towers now, you push Equius back, pulling on a very different layout of dreamers rather than the one who felt missing. Your--Dave’s session--only had two towers on your moon, but you met Dirk there and thieved his dead body away from psycho-mom there so the two on the nearer facet must be them.

You’re close enough you can feel him now, you think. The small bundle of orange and red bits and shreds of data and memory you’d picked up out beyond the Furthest Ring are shimmering within your web of self. You flew by the nearest tower, the closer you came to the second the louder they got.

You aren’t a stranger to Other Daves. You were the quintessential Other Dave. And even before that there were always Dead Daves. Daves were a dime a dozen in your experience.

After all, a Dave was still a Dave was always a Dave.

So why did it feel so monumental hovering here, outside that window, peering into the softly lit shadow of a very familiar room?

What are you doing?

Why are you even here?

Would this even mean anything?

A slippered foot touches down on the window sill, and you use your wings to steady yourself with gentle twitches as you shift away from the almost sprite-like ignorance of physics.

You slip into the tower, and it’s almost like you were coming home, even if you haven’t been here in years. Your room--his room--Dave’s room spreads out before you as you settle into a crouch on the table under the window. Shit flares to life as soon as you cross the threshold, the pounding music and lights and colors knifing through your already sore head. This was nothing like the debris cloud where daveshards were scattered among thousands of others like orange and red and black sprinkles shaken and stirred up in a giant mega jar of other sprinkles. That had been diluted, easier to categorize and let sink to the back of your mind.

This was a concentrated cacophony of a madhouse blasting its music into your audio receptacle, like you always imagined only the best raves and clubs would be. Overpowering and overwhelming enough to carry you away on the music and just dance and dance and dance. Like slipping your best set of headphones over your ears and pumping the tunes directly into your skull, sending it vibrating to the rhythm and immersing yourself into it because it let you block out the too-fucking-quiet rest of the apartment and Bro ironically never bothered trying to get the jump on you when you buried yourself in ill jams out of respect for the art form.

The song is deafening now, the harmonies flipping the entire score to take center stage. Colors shimmer like will-o-wisps, pink dripping from your wings, reds and oranges and blacks scattered throughout the room like someone took a nebula and squeezed it down into the size of a smaller-than-average bedroom that belonged in a downtown Houston apartment, not at the top of a tower on a random purple moon in some weird meta dimension that transcends time and space. They filled the air like smoke, covered the floor in shattered pulsing glass, smaller and somehow even more mangled pieces than the ones you’d witnessed in Roxy’s tower. In her.

Something winds its way through the hundreds and thousands of slightly off notes, each one with small variations in style that hum throughout the room. Something subtle, discordant, and yet oh so familiar that it grabs you by the nape of your neck and shakes you. You immediately glance to your right, to the bed, seeking out what should be the sole occupant of this mindscape.

Shorty’s awake. You can tell he is, since he’s, you know, sitting up. You’d expected him to be at his computer, blissfully pretending he wasn’t in different pajamas, or in a completely red room. That the night just blurred together because you couldn’t sleep so you’d shoot the breeze with randos in your chat rooms or work on a music project or draw…

But no, he’s sitting on the bed instead, knees pulled up to his chest, and arms folded on top. With his head a shock of white blonde hair mussed and messy splaying over his arms. He doesn’t so much as twitch in your direction. You’re nothing to him. A passing thought to be discarded. You’d ignored the shit out of your dreams despite being awake for years, why shouldn’t this mini version do the same?

Anyway, the rippling discord wasn’t coming from him, he hummed along surprisingly coherent for a mangled dreamself-god with the wrong glasses and mismatched pjs and only half the sweet cape you’re rocking.

If it wasn’t your obliviously ignorant tangentialself, nor was it one of the hundreds of, no thousands of shards that filled the room, that leaves one other option, sitting across the room propped up on the desk, across the sea of glittering, pulsing stars. As you focus in on him, the sound sharpens into a screeching of metal that claws its way behind your eyes, dredged up from the depths of your mind.

Cal doesn’t glow, even as the garb of a dersite dreamer and red-cheeked clay face shimmers red in the light from the shards around it.. He doesn’t ping your senses at all. Nothing more than a black hole in the warping of the melodies around him, the disturbance creeping and seeping into the shimmering notes that litter the floor. Touching them. Changing them. Tweaking them just enough that if you had proper ears they’d be pinned back against your skull to match your bared teeth and soundless hiss.

Those familiar glassy eyes and that gap-toothed grin. A particularly compelling shiny you just have to have. An unsuspecting squeakbeast. All you need is to swoop--pounce--grab--claw--and it’ll all be over.

Colors and sounds get caught up in your wake as you stalk through the room, it’s too densely seeded to avoid anything so you don’t bother, gathering on your face and garb and wings like unsubstantial dew drops. Broken dreams and shattered daves and flashes of fragments too small for you to even read because they’d been pulverized beyond recognition, all drip drip dripping through the physical barriers to pool around the pulsing stars already making themselves at home within your patchwork soul.

This should bother you. The idea of even more dave, particularly This Dave--not even Shorty but shreds of the one who you’d doomed yourself for and who resented you and you’d resented back until you’d found freedom in realizing there was no freaking point, Dave is a Dave is a Dave --getting all tangled up in your web of self. But you can’t bring yourself to care. Shorty may not be your Monkey, but he’s Dirk’s Monkey, he’s the piece of the ultimate you who can finally be what you wish, and probably what every dave wished deep in the caverns of your broken heart before life and shitty circumstances smashed it to even smaller pieces than the ones that pulsed around you.

Pink claws slide out of your gloves with a ring of metal and a click as the mechanism locks them into place.

The laughter bubbles in the back of your mind. You visualize that howling green dragon, and looking through them you see that same storm glittering in Lil’Cal’s eyes. As if you could reach through it, across time and space and back to its very core.

You know the truth in the back of your mind. Dead is dead is dead, but frozen as it may be, that grin survived when everything else was torn apart. There’s a malevolence behind the laughter that stalks you. A rage that feels all too haunting and familiar that has the small feathers along your neck and back and collar quivering with unease and fear and…

Anger.

A wordless snarl, masks upon masks falling away to show the ugly beast-bird-troll-girl-boy at your core. A bundle of failures and regrets and hopes, a walking ghost of the dead and doomed-- no don’t it’s cal cal is all you have left of your bro you can’t get rid of him no matter how much you want to haha hee hee hoo hoo honk you watched him strangle equius you refused to watch him ruin someone else and that’s what spurs you to act -- sparking pink energy curls around your blades--three on each hand no don’t go for the face not this time, plunge both into the core and pull out , rip him apart, shower the room with stuffing and severed limbs and throw them into the fire of the hellhole where he died. Where you all but died.

Blades sink into nothing, the plush puppet body wisping and fading as you tear into it. Wings flap and flare, charged metal dragging against stone glancing off wood and scoring a long deep gash in the top of your--his--the desk. The warped music fades for a moment leaving you floundering, colors flashing behind your eyes as you turn to an increasing chorus of haha hee hee hoo hoo hahs.

He’s back the way you came, so you lunge after him. It’s like the roof. Like all those strifes. When you’d see a shadow of Bro controlling the motions, except there is no Bro. Not Here. Just You and Cal and you dance, slashing and reaching, you’re much faster than you ever were before.

But never fast enough. You never catch up. Your sword--claws, three swords per hand are better than one--

The final laughing image fades out and you freeze. Because there’s something in front of you. Something beneath your claws. It pulses brightly where the puppet was a pit of nothingness, singing at you.

Where Dirk is mass of uneven razor sharp edges, and you are a weave of patched tapestries, Dave is a supernovae frozen mid-boom. Bright red around which the rest of this shit orbited. Stabbed right in the heart of the dying star is a shred of poisonous green that’s off, oh so off, surrounded by wisps of a remembered aura that tugged at-- purple blood dripping from three claw marks a strong grip dragging your wrist not even letting you own this revenge stealing it from you--

haha hee hee hoo hoo honk

Laughter echoes in your ears as you stumble back, pink blades recoiling, white hairs floating free from where you’d just missed and settling to the card suit-adorned bed sheets surrounding them.

Lil’Cal leers up at you from where he’s clutched in Dave’s arms, pressed up between his chest and knees. Daring you. Daring you to strike.

How.

How dare he.

Retracting your blades, you reach out to grab that cursed plush bastard by the neck and pull him free. You’ll shred him by hand. Using your short, but sharp as fuck troll-claws. How dare he, using the kid as a shield--

And...he fades as you go to rip into plush leaving nothing but empty space and you suddenly understand.

He was supposed to be here. You couldn’t even escape that laughter when you slept even as you left your sprite behind on LOHAC. You moved to Roses’ room whenever you dreamed, much to her annoyance, but you never told her why, just quipped about sleepovers. You never told her what was buried in yours--in Dave’s mind--

Literally apparently. You can’t even see mini-Dave anymore, only that bright shred of green where it should not be. You itch to reach out for it. To yank it free. Fuck whatever massive, gaping hole it would leave behind.

The moment your clawtips even so much as brush it, physically tangled with mangled jammies, the world shudders and you see red.

White hair shifts; rising from folded arms. Mirrored lenses slip free. Red eyes, unfocused and bleary stare up at you towering over him, clawed hands outstretched and in his face to grab the remnants of a fucking puppet that was never there .

The memory of Calsprite’s laughter echoes through your skull. But this time…

A voice whispers from within poisonous green, you flinch and release and spin away, finding him across the room, lounging on the turntables.

There can only be one.

He’s supposed to be there, and so he is, and you don’t think you can yank him out without breaking something fucking important.

A flurry of feathers, and you’re gone.

Chapter Text

It’s like coming up for air. You’re dragging yourself out of one of the pitfalls in the tombs on your planet. Not the easy way, just taking advantage of your second life as a dreamer and floating the fuck out of there, but the hard way, puny keratin finding purchase in the divots in stone brick and pulling yourself up inch by agonizing inch.

In the back of your mind you recognize this is just another simile; a construct you’d deliberately created in order to facilitate any sort of meaningful move back towards consciousness. Whatever sleep you managed after that hell of a night clings to you like the insubstantial but cough inducing conglomerations of dust and detritus you still need to knock out of the crawlspace.

That place, with it's boxes upon boxes of shit you don’t want to think about. Staring at your bottle of medicine thinking about the meeting you really don't want to do. Thinking of dropping the bombshell that was tucked into a folder you left on your desk. The bottle unopened, sitting where you’d sat it down on the TV stand. Staring up at the shadows playing across the ceiling, the futon fitting into the you-shaped lumps in all the right places because apparently it’s been yours for at least 9 years or however long it’d been when Dave meteor’d into his--your life.

It’s fleeting, hard to track, but the shreds of memory bubble up anyway as you pull yourself further up and up and up, inch by aching inch. The darkness of the medium and the peace and quiet, the ability to step back across the veil and layer your perceptions to give you a moment of peace during the clusterfuck that was going to be tomorrow…

It’d been inviting. It’d been hella inviting and it had been a fuckin’ mistake.

Got your fingers stuck in the door, didn’t you?

Snarled up in the threads and pulling . It's not like the usual snap of the rubber band; these were an iron grip around your metaphorical lungs, clawed hands digging and shit cracking , and you’re yanked away and down. You know in that moment that it isn’t trauma. It’s something and it’s malevolent and it’s hurting you and tearing you apart to make you what it wanted because you aren’t him --

Even when you breach the lip of the metaphorical pit and your breathing hitches and you finally start to consciously draw in the air rather than leaving it to the subconscious respiratory sub-cycles, you don’t move. You don’t open your eyes. You just sit there-- you’d fallen asleep sitting up-- head leaning against the back of the futon at an angle that you can already feel will cause a crick in your neck as soon as you move it.

You just. Take the moment and breathe. Feeling your chest rise and fall, and using the time to scope out and take stock of every limb and physical weight tying you here, running goddamn gravity force calculations between you and the futon just because it’s something to do with your brain so you aren’t thinking about...

You’d dissociated so hard . Like you were somewhere else, looking out, a being trapped in a prison of flesh, unmoored and off , like when you’d first did your weird welding thing in front of Brain Ghost Hal, settling back in to this adult body and nothing felt like it fit. Like you’re simultaneously too big for this meatsuit, and yet it felt baggy on you. Maybe it was slipping into your real body for the first time in what felt like weeks, or maybe it was whatever the fuck happened that tore into you that threw you off so hard, or maybe it was--

Behind your eyelids you can still see the faint red cracks and you wonder if you’d fucked up and broke something again with that stunt.

Something shifts next to you, a weight at your side you hadn’t registered. Or maybe you had, and deemed it not-a-threat. You’re not startled at all though, oddly calm--exhaustively calm perhaps, all your panic left in those memories leaving you too tired to really muster up all that much more right now--you finally crack your eyes open against the dim light of early dawn filtering through the kitchen’s windows behind you, the angle low enough in the sky to throw long beams of light across the room and paint the television and walls in front of you.

The weight turns into a lump which further resolves into a head of white hair burrowed under your arm.

You should be surprised. You feel like you should flinch away in case Dave’s wakes up like this and spare him (and you) the embarrassment of needing to process the wee hours of the morning you barely fucking remember. The anxiety builds under your skin, but you muster up the resolve to keep it under control this time. Bits and pieces of disconnected knowledge intrude on your mental force calculations; previously noisy data points standing out from the rest of the background noise and linking up to form a semi-cohesive narrative. He’d had a nightmare. You did too, or your gameself would have, if it followed the same pattern as last time--but this wasn’t like last time though. You could feel it in the ache in your head and your heart where sharp nails had dug in and squeezed and cracked .

You should contact Davepeta. Honestly, you probably already have a wall of text about it if you could just make it to the computer. Not for the first time you wish for your shades and the ability to open windows and chat without having to move more than a few eye twitches and some warming up of your well honed skill at internal monologuing. You’d be able check in with them right here, without disturbing Dave, maybe get their advice on how best to deal with this without either of you embarrassing yourselves.

Box that thought up, and slide it up into the crawlspace. Not going to use them as a living walkthrough, remember? No matter how efficient it was.

Maybe you should change your time-table a bit. Push up the production of that chat client for your phone.

Dave makes a strangled noise that draws you back from the edge of that tangent you’d almost taken a swan dive from.

Too-large hands or not, you’re used to working with small and delicate components and it’s not difficult to leverage that care to gently move the hair away from Dave’s forehead. It puts up a token resistance, matted with dried sweat, the boy’s face scrunched and uneasy, expressive in sleep in a way he tried to stifle during the waking hours. Another nightmare? Troubled dreams? You always assumed Dreamers dreamt like normal people until they woke up. It’s not like you would know.

He’s not clinging to you at least--means it should be easy enough to prop him up long enough to extract yourself from performing the function of a pillow. If you wanted to. You really should. There may be a smushed puppet between you, technically, but it’s still uncomfortable. And uncool. And makes you think of the roof. Either roof. Red sky or green. Only it’s not just you and Dave here. There’s a third wheel shoved awkwardly between you two, whose fate right now is apparently relegated to that of a teddy bear. Lil’Cal’s plush, stuffed body is caught in a vice grip, and whose eyes--if they weren’t the same glassy blue orbs and inanimate and dead --would be bulging right of his clay-faced skull with the amount of strangling force was going on right now. It should be funny. Why isn’t it funny?

The pain in your head spikes and you force yourself to look away, breaking your resting state of impassive neutrality with a wince and a surprisingly cold hand against your forehead. It’s not like anyone was here to see anyway, just Dave, and Cal and…

You really should get up. Sitting here thinking about shit isn’t going to put off the meeting you have in--your phone slides out of your sylladex and into your hand as you mumble the corresponding rhyme--five hours. You could layabout chasing your brain in circles like dog and then panic when Newt called to pick you up, or you could get up and go through your notes, check on Davepeta, and occupy yourself with something so you at least feel like you’ve prepared for shit.

It never seems like enough. You can be as confident as Hal in a plan and it still has the possibility--the admittedly infinitesimally small probability--of it going wrong. It’s always less certain when it involves people you don’t know. Or places you don’t know. Or--data. You just needed more data, that’s all. At least when it came to your friends you felt you could predict their reactions within an acceptable degree of error--

Stop it, Dirk. Stop stalling and just move him.

Twist, and maneuver your arms under Dave to support him, and slide yourself out.

You hesitate, with the weight in your arms. Should you just leave him here or--

No. The certainty washes over you like a tired sigh. No, you should not drop him like a hot potato and let him wake up on the futon. You should be the responsible adult --you’re only 16-- and take him back to his room. He’s small enough still. You’ve carried Jane AND Roxy off at once when you had to, a dreamself’s disregard of physics aside; you can carry a child, you’re just being ridiculous.

You should…

But you don’t. And you’re disappointed in yourself for it, because it feels like you’re running away. You let him slump into the futon--arranging the landing position gently, no need for him to have a crick in the neck like you do--and grab the blanket you’d thrown into the corner several days ago because it was irritating your sunburn. It becomes a makeshift pillow that Dave latches onto almost immediately, releasing the limp and sorely abused Cal to flop off the futon and pool on the floor, face down.

Your inclination is to reach down, pick up the doll and set him back on the speaker. But something stops you. A feeling, a feeling that has the cracks in the world weeping with remembered malice. It was ludicrous. It’s just the anxiety bubbling under your skin. Whatever had happened last night felt like it had torn insulating foam away, leaving your nerves exposed to the air.

It seems y ou're finally listening.

The hum of your computer whirring to life joins Dave’s quiet breathing as you wait for it to boot up. The folder stays closed on your desk as you balance the keyboard on your knees, pulling them up between your chest and the desk. It stares at you. Taunts you with what’s to come. But you’ll deal with that in a bit. You’re the last person you’d expect to put your friends before your work, but that’s the point. You don’t want to just fall back into old habits. You’ve got to be better than that.

The black and white shades blink onto the screen, and you keep your touch light as you input the password, careful to keep the clicking of each key far quieter than the mechanical keyboard had any right to be. It’s not like you want to wake Dave.You can be considerate.

Maybe it would be more considerate to do something quieter, like go over your proposal, but there’s a little nagging feeling in the back of your mind that’s telling you that you probably have unread messages. If you still had your proper shades, it’d likely be an actual notification, but without them you’ll just have to make due with past experience and deduction.

timaeusTestified [TT] began pestering dataJammer [DJ]

dataJammer [DJ] is idle!

...and you were right.

You read over the...quite frankly frightening amount of backlog of green text. You’d expected them to be worried about you. To tell you about your dreamself having another nightmare. You’d expected teasing and threats to preen the fuck out of you, whatever than entailed. Not…

This.

Whatever this was. A slow descent into...something. Not madness, to quote the cliche, but a kettle, boiling over and whistling a warning that you’d missed by four fucking hours. Your eyes flicker away from the words scrawled across the screen, towards the puppet sprawled on the floor, staring up at you when you’re fairly certain he’d been eating carpet from his tumble out of Dave’s arms.

you should put cal away

timaeusTestified [TT]: Okay.

You chew on the rest of the pesterlog as you extract yourself from the desk, gingerly picking up the puppet even as the world cracks further. You feel...alienated looking down at the limp form in your hands, staring into those eyes, glassy and de--

No. They aren’t dead, are they? Your raw nerves sing as something flickers in those eyes, brushing up against the dull edges of yourself. The cracks spread. Green fire leaking through and flickering, overwhelming the red, bubbling up to claw at your vulnerable insides.

You feel sick. Why hadn’t you seen this?

It isn’t empty anymore, is it?

Remembering Caliborn’s words, from the rooftop all those months ago, you stare down at a clay-molded face that mirrors your oldest friend. Your guardian. Someone who felt familiar. That you could trust.

Familiar. Achingly familiar. Like you’re holding a piece of yourself in your hands.

But...no longer safe.

Not that any piece of you is ever safe.

timaeusTestified [TT]: I put him up in the crawlspace.

With distance, that dread is dulled, the green retreats, but it lingers, coiling in your gut. You aren’t sure if it’d just broken through last night and sunk its claws into you, or if it’s been here all along. You just didn’t have the mind to notice it.

dataJammer [DJ] is idle!

You wait. You’ve caught them idle a few times in the past few days, but they generally respond right away. You suppose it’s about time for you to have a turn at leaving a freaking monologue, like two ships passing in the night, flashing their lights at each other in complicated patterns in order to simulate conversation.

timaeusTestified [TT]: Dave’s asleep on the futon. I woke up with his head snuggled into my side like an oversized white cat. Almost thought he was you for a second, but he was a bit lacking in the troll-bird part of the equation.
timaeusTestified [TT]: I think he had a nightmare.
timaeusTestified [TT]: That’s why you asked wasn’t it? To see if he actually shared it? It’d say it’s pretty damn likely.
timaeusTestified [TT]: I can’t think of another reason for the kid to fall asleep on me like that; it’s not like we’re overly touchy feely given all the baggage we’re dancing around here.
timaeusTestified [TT]: I’m not so sure if it would be Cal related though, I sort of remember him rambling about dragons; Besides, Dave was cuddled with the guy like he was like some sort of life preserver and the dude didn’t know how to swim.
timaeusTestified [TT]: In the same vein, no, no puppet related trauma on my watch. I haven’t had the chance to use puppetkind techniques in ages. Cal is…
timaeusTestified [TT]: I don’t know, honestly. Whatever the fuck happened last night has me all wound up and sensitive like someone scraped free all the industrial grade insulation around my heart bullshit-o-meter because something feels wrong about him.
timaeusTestified [TT]: My Cal wasn’t...like this.
timaeusTestified [TT]: If this shit follows the pattern, then I had a nightmare too. I honestly don’t remember. It’s not a subject I’m particularly experienced with, aside from it resulting in explicable cases of anxiety.
timaeusTestified [TT]: Which I am still experiencing now, by the way, despite the fact that I’m fairly certain such an event would have happened hours ago.
timaeusTestified [TT]: All three of us having nightmares the same night is too much of a coincidence.
timaeusTestified [TT]: Granted, mine was of my own making, rather than some potentially freaky juju magic.
timaeusTestified [TT]: Tell me if there’s a big gaping gash in my soul next time you look because it fuckin’ feels like there is and that shit’s annoying.
timaeusTestified [TT]: Are you okay? It’s been hours since you sent those messages

dataJammer [DJ] is idle!

Hands rest on the keyboard with an exhaled breath, staring at row after row of orange text spanning far more than you’d perhaps meant to say. You’d been needling Davepeta for spending too much time in the meteor lab, fussing over your gameself like an overgrown hen, but this was far worse. At least there you’d known where they were. For them to go raring off like that...

If only you’d made that chat client. You'd asked yourself, what was the point in making a dumbed down version compatible with this generation of device when you know smartphones are going to change the face of communication? Something you’re already putting into motion plans to exploit.

The point was you could have fuckin’ known when Davepeta needed you. You could have set your phone to ping you. Even when you manage to sleep you doze light enough it wouldn’t even take much.

You consider the folder on your desk, and then shove it aside to give you more space to set your keyboard down, uncurling yourself from the hunched posture your body gravitated toward when you were relaxing. This wasn’t time for relaxation.

Chill, laser sharp focus settles around you as you crack your knuckles and set to your task. Delving deep into lines upon lines of code, into developers kits, into the infrastructure of modern day cell-phones themselves, it's almost like coming home. Picking apart everything you can to find a way to sync up the two across devices without needing to contact the company itself. You’ve done this before--it’s not like the developers were around to ask when you made it work in 2419--but it’s a little different now, no fancy sburb based tech from SkaiaNet or CrockerCorp which is weird as fuck because SkaiaNet exists in this universe, even if Jake’s Grandmother wasn’t around to found it…

You don’t even know how much time is passing. It doesn’t even matter, this is a way you can help. At some point you hear the rustle of cloth and the hitching of breath but you carefully keep your eyes glued on the computer screen, and your fingers typing, giving Dave the freedom and privacy to sneak out as if nothing happened. It's the least you could do, since you weren't able to take him back yourself. His movements are a ghost on the edge of your periphery, and you lock eyes with him once as he's almost to the hallway and--then he's gone. He's gone and there's nothing for you except the code in front of you. There’s nothing on your phone, and nothing on pesterchum--

Until there is.

dataJammer [DJ] is no longer idle!

dataJammer [DJ]: B33< im pawsitively purrfect you dont n33d to worry about me bro
timaeusTestified [TT]: That’s highly unlikely given you were incommunicado for several hours.
timaeusTestified [TT]: Where are you?
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< who was the one telling me to stretch my wings eh???
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< what if i just furgot to decaptchlogue my communicator???
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< what if i just n33ded to go for a flight to clear my head???
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< just a trip around the ol’ rock
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< or several trips
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< theres a lot of rocks out here to fly loop de loops around theres no n33d for me to fly all the way back to derse
timaeusTestified [TT]: I’d say I believe you, but that would be lying.
timaeusTestified [TT]: I’m going to conclude you did indeed go to Derse, or more specifically, to Dave’s dream room. Where Cal is.
dataJammer [DJ]: B33<
timaeusTestified [TT]: Don’t ellipses at me, Davepeta.
timaeusTestified [TT]: I put him away.
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< ...i saw
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< not that it furreaking matters
timaeusTestified [TT]: Davepeta?

You wait several minutes, but there’s nothing. You grit your teeth. Emotional shit wasn’t the easiest for you, but you were trying.

timaeusTestified [TT]: If you’re serious about this relationship, need I remind you it’s a two way street?
timaeusTestified [TT]: Tell me.
dataJammer [DJ]: B33<
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< i always told myself i loved cal because i loved bro and bro loved him
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< but i can also say hes given me nightmares all my life
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< hes always been there in the dream room
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< even once i woke up i couldnt just throw him out i just kicked myself out instead
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< and i thought about that dream
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< and about cal just sitting there in shortys room
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< and i thought hey maybe i can stop him from going through what i did
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< kinda selfish i guess because like thanks to my stupid heart pawers i appawrently maintained some sort of connection to my ultimate self and i dont really want to go through it again through him
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< so i showed up claws out and ready to kick some puppet ass
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< it ended up just like old times
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< thats all there is to say on the matter
timaeusTestified [TT]: That’s total horseshit, Davepeta. You always have more to say.
timaeusTestified [TT]: I want to help but I can’t fucking do anything other than listen. You need to talk to me.
timaeusTestified [TT]: Where are you? Are you still on Derse? Are you hurt?
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< hey fair no im the one who is closest to being litterally part maternal cluckbeast youre muscling in on my niche
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< and im not sure where i am to be honest i bolted like a jackrabbit and its not like i can just call up a map with walkthrough magic anymore
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< im not physically hurt no
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< but i guess im pretty fucked up otherwise
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< got my feathered ass kicked by a smug manifestation of trauma thats lodged so d33p into my skull that even this quick and dirty recreation of paradox space insists the little shit has to be there
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< heres a cal and theres a cal and everywheres a lil cal
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< you putting him away means squat if the universe decided to shove a piece of what-ever-the-fuck he is into my
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< his psyche
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< kid doesnt deserve that man
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< i still cant believe you even listened to me btw
timaeusTestified [TT]: Dude, why the fuck would you even doubt that? If you tell me the juju’s getting freaky I’m going to listen to you.
timaeusTestified [TT]: This whole scenario is heavily based on your timeline, ergo you’d be more knowledgeable when it comes to the details. It’s downright stupid to brush off a reliable source of information, especially when it’s from someone whose judgement I respect.
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< bro wouldnt fucking listen to me
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< i dont know
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< you still had him so you obviously didnt think anyfang was wrong
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< what the fuck is a juju
timaeusTestified [TT]: Jujus are magical paradox spawning horseshit.
timaeusTestified [TT]: Look. I had…
timaeusTestified [TT]: I wouldn’t call him a friend because he actually killed someone important to a very close friend and that’s all kinds of not cool.
timaeusTestified [TT]: He knew a lot about fucked up shit like this. About jujus. About Cal even. How they are neverending and cursed and shit. Tried to get me to throw him off the roof once.
timaeusTestified [TT]: Maybe my head was full of actual cotton, or maybe I was just so distracted by being here and Dave and you…If I’d remembered that conversation sooner I would have...I don't know. Done something.
timaeusTestified [TT]: I don’t know if I could actually throw him away, but putting him in my strife deck or something would have kept him away from you or Dave.
timaeusTestified [TT]: He’s still Cal. He’s familiar. He was the closest thing I had to a guardian. Losing him felt like a gaping hole punched in my gut that’s only recently been patched up.
timaeusTestified [TT]: He’s a part of me.
timaeusTestified [TT]: In some ways that makes me even more willing to be careful with things if someone starts giving it a side-eye and saying it smells like day old horseshit.
timaeusTestified [TT]: Parts of me aren’t pretty. I just don’t have a very good track record of noticing that until something goes pear shaped.
timaeusTestified [TT]: Isn’t that part of this whole <> business? Trusting you?
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< i guess
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< its just after bro i
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< goddamn davesprite n33ded a proper diamond to call him on his birdshit didnt he
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< look i
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< n33d to think for a while okay
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< im gonna try and figure out how to get back to the meteor now
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< and check on that gash you mentioned beclaws if that happawned on my watch while i was too wrapped up in my own shit im gonna like pr33n the fuck out of you as you oh so elegantly put it until youre a furreaking puddle of goo on the floor
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< and then were going to have a purrper f33lings jam about your nightmare because dont think im letting you turn this around on me like you said this is a two way str33t here
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< you arent allowed to pull that stunt again without telling me
timaeusTestified [TT]: Taking advantage of your unchecked access to my unconcious gameself, and my inability to stop you. How devious.
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< ill ask purrmission dont you worry
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< besides you know you like it B33
timaeusTestified [TT]: Feelings. Joy.
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< *dj wiggles their claws suggestivly* magic hands
timaeusTestified [TT]: Stop.
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< fine fine
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< take your medicine and get some sl33p
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< isnt it like befur dawn still
timaeusTestified [TT]: ...it’s nearly noon
timaeusTestified [TT]: I have that meeting in less than an hour.
timaeusTestified [TT]: Sleep will not be on the agenda, I fear.
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< ...shit did i get desynced??
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< paradox space is furreaking weird
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< fine go be an adult and business the fuck out of those m33tings
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< well talk after okay?
timaeusTestified [TT]: I don’t think kicking the can down the curb will do anything more than just give us a reason to rehash all this shit again.
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< yeah but itll let me digest the fact that im not actually delusional and that puppet is actually a magical spawn of satan
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< i saw some
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< purretty fucked up shit when I looked into his eyes
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< it wasnt dave i found
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< it was me
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< not just davesprite me
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< christ its hard to explain
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< like equius and--
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< i dont know if you met gamzee
timaeusTestified [TT]: Fuckin’ weird clown juggalo?
timaeusTestified [TT]: I...don’t think we’ve met but I feel like we have. Shit’s all weird and fractured.
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< stick murderous at the beginning and religious zealot at the end and yeah that’s about it
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< everyfang about that dude is furreaking weird
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< hes the one who killed me and my meowrail fyi we got major b33f
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< maybe cal doesnt give a shit and just picks at everything until its raw and thats part of the curse or whatever
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< a curse that picks at all your worst memeowries and encourages the worst pawssible bits of yourselves would fur sure explain what happened to bro
timaeusTestified [TT]: I thought being an abusive asshole explained shit pretty well, personally.
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< hey
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< bro wasnt
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< fuck
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< he wasnt always bad
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< like sure he was always shit guardian but
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< looking back on it got weirder and weirder the closer we got to the end
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< i always thought he was just upping the ante because i was ~ready~ or some birdshit
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< but now that ive gotten a look at it with what i know now its like
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< how the fuck could anyone live with that and stay sane you know???
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< i only had to deal with cal for 13 years and i was purrmenantly scarred
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< bro had him for double that
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< might as well have b33n born with the dude
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< and its all johns fault isnt it
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< he gave me a furreakin pony and gave bro a mindfucking juju puppet
timaeusTestified [TT]: ...a pony. Really?
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< yeah he told me about it sometime during the nth retelling of John in SlimeBaby Land
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< i think bro turned it into a bib or something i dunno what happened to it
timaeusTestified [TT]: ...shit Newt’s here.
timaeusTestified [TT]: I have to go.
timaeusTestified [TT]: We aren’t finished.
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< maybe not but this means that can was successfully kicked B33
timaeusTestified [TT]: Consider the can retrieved and put back on the shelf until I get home.
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< remember you purromised to tell me what your super secret purrject is once all this is over
timaeusTestified [TT]: Get your ass home, Davepeta.
dataJammer [DJ]: B33< <>

dataJammer [DJ] ceased pestering timaeusTestified [TT]

Chapter Text

You don’t feel ready. Or even remotely prepared. But you’re here. You’re here and you are keeping it together. Because you are cool. You are cooler than an ocean breeze and you won’t let that fact change. It’s one thing to quietly freak the fuck out in the comfort of your own--even if sideways--home.

But this was business. Numbers and shit. You might not know who the fuck these people are, and the idea of them expecting things of you terrified you, but if you sit down and focus on the numbers you can cling to the exhausted calm that settled over you like a blanket this morning despite your realization and frankly chilling conversation with Davepeta. It’d been terrible timing getting that text when you felt like you were finally able to work through some shit, both theirs and yours, but what were you supposed to do? At least they were going home--and since when are you thinking of that lab as home? You barely remember it, lost in the haze of gotta get back to dave , but…--at least you’ll know they’re safe, and that you can pick up that half-opened and kicked can of glassy eyed worms again when you’re both ready.

So here you are, across the table in a coffee shop of all things, from a frowning dark-skinned woman with cropped short hair, whose dark eyes bore into you as she taps long nails against her own set of books she’d brought along for the occasion. Newt was talking, going over the month’s view counts, and the steadily dropping trends and his work towards getting something called affiliates with other content creators. You think you get it but you don’t care, you don’t really, not beyond the fact that numbers were good and solid and patterns were something your brain could chew on without tripping over into crisis mode.

Despite that, you can’t say you’re particularly happy talking and thinking about the future of Plush Rumps, even if Newt is taking a surprisingly amount of care to not mention the subject matter itself. The table you three had snagged was thankfully far in the back, a corner nook that most mid-day customers didn’t seem inclined to intrude upon unless they needed to use the restroom which was through a door just off to the side, an appropriate precaution when talking about a literal puppet pron empire in public.

This would have been a dream come true once. You’re sure of it. Shit, you’d loved puppets as a kid. You still do, don't try and deceive yourself. You remember letting your mind wander as you watched your bro’s iconic movie, The Stairs for the Nth time, imagining living during this era. Taking your passion and turning it into an enterprise, storming hollywood (in a way, the internet was better, more freedom to do whatever the fuck you wanted ) and making people love it.

Now you have it, how does it feel? Plush Rumps, even without you touching the thing since you arrived, still was raking in more money than you could even comprehend the buying power for if Jane’s initial status report was correct. And that was with dwindling new viewer adoption rate. The retention was still going strong. You could easily pick up the strings, make them dance, make some fuckers on the other side of the screen get turned on over phallic noses and promiscuous plush bottoms and just sit back and bask in how well they react to the buttons you press. You could fulfill that fantasy. You could be like your Bro. The undisputed, yet controversial King of media, even if his legacy was the ironically terrible yet revolutionary film, and yours would be the flipside, the underbelly, the secret shame lodged in hundreds of thousands of closets, constantly leading them back by the nose for one more plush rump...

Yet...the idea makes you feel nothing at all. Perhaps even the slightest bit nauseous.

When did that change? Was it Hal, giving you a taste of what exactly that felt like? Was it Cal? Waking from failed attempts to dream only to find anxiety crawling under your skin. Was it the fact that you were inheriting the fruits of someone else’s labor? Or was it just your own fault that you’d crashed and burned? You tried to pull that master puppeteer bullshit once, spinning plans and webs, accounting for every variable, tugging at your friends along the best paths for them. Sending Brobot to Jake to toughen him up--and really is that no different from another you on the roof, facing a too young boy?--running circles around Jane and building her a safety net she’d never need.

You think about the marionettes that once hung on the walls, the smuppets stashed in a corner, and Lil’Cal sitting in a box in the crawlspace where you throw all the junk you can’t bear to touch.

It’d all fallen to pieces around you eventually, the strings turning to ash in your hands.

No. You couldn’t be another puppeteer. That fruit had rotted when it burned your relationships to the ground and left you with Hal’s life in your hands, and cracks in the glass, and the cold certainty that you were going to do it. You were going to kill him because he was a monster.

Would that be considered homicidal or suicidal ideation? You aren’t exactly sure how the term would be applied to a not-so-hypothetical brain clone of yourself.

And...Newt stopped talking, the part of your brain you’d tasked to paying attention noted, alerting the rest of the overactive swarm that hey, maybe you should actually pay attention .

“D-Dirk? Are you alright?”

It’s not just him, but she’d already been watching you so you aren’t sure it counts. You tilt your head, studying them back, Newt with that perpetually worried expression you’re starting to get used to over the smatterings of times you’ve met him and Jane with--you try to superimpose your Jane over her and it feels alien, like someone dumped a pound of sugar on something hot and it just melts into some sort of sticky sludge--fuck you can’t get a read on anything other than frustration? Why?

“Are you even paying attention?” She leans forward, elbows framing the binders full of notes and figures and reports she’d already presented to open the meeting. You’re being judged and you hate it. It makes you straighten out of your more relaxed slouch in the metal chair to meet her eyes. She’s all hard edges and a carefully calculated image, where your Jane was genuine and sweet. “If you’re that bored then why even bother showing up?”

Newt winces.

“I’m not bored.” You really aren’t. Numbers and patterns were like candy. But like candy they just can’t occupy your full capacity right now. Perhaps in a darkened room, relaxed in front of your computer, feeling as safe as you ever could be, you could devote your entire attention to it. Definitely not now.  Not when you’re surrounded by people you don’t know, in a place you don’t know, with a topic of discussion that leaves you with a pit of dread pooling in your stomach. You’ve already segmented your attention between half a dozen different things, running on separate subroutines, and you still find yourself flipping from one to the other trying to find purchase. “I was thinking.”

“Care to share?”

Even with your limited human contact, you know better than to admit exactly how many things you’ve been considering in the last five minutes alone. You know how it hurt your friends when you only paid them half an ear, maybe not even that. That’s why you created AR, before he named himself and insisted on being his own person--not that he was ever really a facsimile in the first place; you just didn't want to admit it. There’s the truth and there’s the lie and it gets all mixed up because there’s probably history boiling under that barely concealed anger, and you fucking hate history. “It’s been a while since I’ve needed to...” You nod toward them. The table. Letting your uncovered eyes roam the restaurant. “deal with all this.”

“It’s been over three years since we’ve last met like this.” Her dark eyes narrow, leaving you for a moment to share a Look with an increasingly uncomfortable marketing agent, before Jane taps sharply on her notebooks, “But even the occasional cursory text message or chat was preferable than six months worth of silence. If it weren’t for the fact that the content kept uploading and the paychecks kept coming, I would’ve thought you’d’ve jumped off that building of yours by now.”

“Jane we talked about this--”

“So we did.” She’s not angry. Not in the sense you’d gotten from Jake once he’d finally boiled over and blown up at you. You can see steel flashing in that palm, and it simultaneously explains everything and baffles you. She expects something from you. Something you’re not equipped to give.

“He’s here now, and I told you what just happened, it isn’t the time to be--”

“This is exactly the time to be bringing it up! So what, you managed to drag him back out by the scruff of the neck again, but how long is it going to last this time? He doesn’t need us--he never did, you just don’t want to admit it.”

You hate history. Especially when it’s not something you can just read up on. You push back from the table, the anxiety bubbling over into a roiling boil and it’s all you can do to stop your arms from shaking. You need… a moment, you think. The chair scrapes against the wooden floor with a screeching sound that draws both their eyes back to you, “Do you two need a minute to talk or what? I can go.”

Hide in the bathroom maybe, you think somewhat distantly, the fragments of your attention keeping track of your surroundings keenly aware of the glances the raised voices and sudden motion had drawn to your sleepy little nook. The cafe was silent, but the barista is leaning against the counter in your direction and you find yourself wishing you were at home. In your chair. Typing in a shitty cross-timeline memo like civilized people, where you could just minimize the window for a moment if you needed to and none would be the wiser because for all they knew you’d had to go take a piss.

“Yes that’s a good idea--” Newt jumps on it first, nodding, but Jane wants none of it, shooting him a Look, that you can’t quite read but reeks of a familiar conflict, and his jaw clicks shut.

“No.”

“Jane--”

“It’s my turn, Newt. I’m sorry.”

She looks back to you.

Teeth grinding in your skull. The metaphorical spotlight burns hot against your unguarded skin. “What do you want me to say?” The core of the argument is clear. It’s as clear as fucking day, “I’m sorry?” For what? “For being a reclusive douchebag?”

“That’s a start, if insincere.” Her lips are a thin line, “But answer me honestly. Do you actually care?”

“About puppet porn?” The answer comes out as a strangled laugh, especially at the way Newt’s eyes bug at the fact that you actually said it. In the middle of a public space where you are the fucking center of attention of all of four other people in this sad little store. You can see the assumptions building in their minds. A lover’s spat. A trumped up, dramatic inter-personal conflict and it gets derailed by something as dumb and contrived as puppet porn??? The wry part of your mind is amused as hell by the idea and you cling to it, asinine absurdity worthy of at least an opening short gag in your bro’s films.

“It was never about the puppet porn,” Her lips curl in distaste, and then, peculiarly, you see her check herself, clenched fists uncurling to lay flat against the binders in front of her, one hand over top the other. One deep, solid breath, and then those dark eyes are on you again, “I might even venture to say Plush Rumps was the worst thing to happen to this company, and not because of any damaged sensibilities related to the subject matter. The money doesn’t even matter. We could all stop working tomorrow and be set for life.”

“What I want to know is do you even care about the team . About us. What matters is those six months , Strider. Do you know how many emails I’ve sent in six months? Care to venture how many I’ve received? From you? Do you even look at my projections? Do you even need us? If not, why the hell should we stick around? I’m not your friend. I’m still here out of professional courtesy because you were a brilliant, eccentric bastard before you started turning yourself into a cave troll, but I’m reaching the end of my patience here.

“Just talk, Strider. Just sit back down and talk. Don’t check out. It is clear, things cannot stay as they have been. What do you plan to do going forward?

Do you even want to?

You don’t even know the woman, and you know what she’s trying to say.

“I don’t fucking know, okay?!” It comes out harsher than you’d intended, and she sits back, satisfied in cracking you like an egg, watching that clear viscous liquid of your growing anxiety seeping out of a blank white shell. “I don’t know what I need. I don’t know what you need. None of this shit will--”

matter in three more years anyway.

You close your eyes and suck in a strangled breath. The fabric of your splinterself’s stiff, collared shirt is nowhere near the right texture, but you pry your fingers free. That’s getting to be a goddamn habit isn’t it.

Fuck. Do you care?

Should you?

You don’t need them for this, but this business is as much theirs as it is yours. You acknowledge that. More so even. You literally just got here.

“I’m not going to pull that recluse bullshit again, for what it’s worth.” The words drip reluctantly, uncertainly. You’re trying to read her and you just can’t so you turn to Newt instead. He’s…

The weirdly anxious earnest hopeful look reminds you of being sprawled out on the couch, griping over sunburn and whether you deserved the kindness of strangers.

What the hell had your splinterself been doing? Did he have to screw up everything that came into contact with a human being?

Like you would have done better. To think otherwise would be lying to yourself. You did enough of that screwing up of your own in the last half a year. At least now you have a roadmap of what not to do.

They are still waiting for you.

Fuck it.

The half-fancied escape plan gets demoted a couple priorities, but you don’t sit back down either. You reach out, pushing the folder you’d kept buried under your arms toward the center of the table, and flip it open.

Feel your diaphragm expand.

Exhale.

“I want to develop a new product, independent of Plush Rumps. ” The words feel like pulling teeth, their attention is a weight dragging at your shoulders, but you stay standing. You agreed to this for a reason, and it’s not just because Newt said please.

“Revenue is steady. The website will stay up and supported, but I don’t plan to make any further content in that area. In that folder is my proposal. Schematics, coding samples, specs, possible suppliers, estimated cost per unit, it’s all in there.”

Paper rustles. Newt got to it first. The dude’s been silent since Jane cut him off; it’s been unnerving to watch the guy squirm wanting to say shit and stopping himself. “...there’s no puppets.”

“No. There isn’t.” Your smile probably looks strange. Pained, derisive, and nostalgic all bundled up into one single unreadable microexpression. “Portable, wearable micro-computers, meant to be paired with cellular phones. When the apple drops from the tree in less than a year the market will be fucking ripe for the picking.”

“A fruit metaphor,” Newt snorts under his breath, flipping through another page, the nerves are bleeding out of him now that he’s got something to focus on other than interpersonal drama. You almost wonder if you’re similar that way. “I see you’ve been talking to your little brother.”

He asks questions. Papers get passed so Jane could read through them as well, and you kick yourself for not making two copies. You’d know there would be two people why the fuck weren’t you prepared. You’re feeling more and more uncomfortable as they swap sheets, talking to each other and to you, your answers growing shorter and terser until Newt wants to ask that question of you. The one that started this whole mess in the first place.

The escape plan skyrockets up your internal priorities.

“Just look it over. I’ll be back.”

Jane looks up from where she’s scrutinizing a schematic, jotting what looks to be material costs on a napkin laid out on her notebook stack, “Are you running away? Or moving forward?”

You feel your lips curl, but you just shrug and head towards the hallway leading toward the bathroom. A quiet place where you can just be alone for five minutes and just try to breathe.

“Fuck if I know.” You don’t know what possesses you to answer honestly, but you just shrug, “I figure it doesn’t matter as long as something is moving.”

You don’t know if she nods, or shakes her head, or what, but she doesn’t say another word.

The hallway isn’t very long, but it’s dimmer than the rest of the cafe. Mostly enclosed. You wrinkle your nose at the smell from outside the bathroom door and decide you don’t need to go that far. There’s a curtain of some kind hanging over the opening of this transient hallway between the back and the dining area. It’s just a thin fucking piece of cloth but it muffles the ambient noises from the patrons and acts as a good insulator. You just lean against the wall and close your eyes.

The cracks behind your eyelids are spider thin, but red, not green. After this morning, that’s fucking comforting. All systems normal.

You breathe.

Focus on the motion. Count them if you need to. You don’t need a panic attack. Not here. You can still feel the attention crawling all over your skin even if there’s no-one to see you right now. No-one except you and the shitty ghost in your own head, and it’s not like it could think any less of you, huh? Keep it together. It’s just another step. A step towards feeling like yourself again, even if you feel like you’re drowning, holding your breath as you dive for it.

A step towards keeping the promise you made to help Davepeta.

Jane’s the accountant. She probably could access the big accounts. And some of these components would be fucking expensive to make. Newt had connections. Maybe you don’t need them, but they would make things easier.

You’re doing the right thing, even if a small part of you is frowning at the idea of throwing away a perfectly profitable venture. But see? That’s why it’s for the best. Use it as passive income, and dedicate your time to figuring out how to replicate certain pieces of tech and--

Pay attention.

“If you weren’t his friend, would you go for this?”

It takes you a moment to place it.

You can hear them. Faintly. Floating through the flimsy excuse for a barrier.

“We aren’t friends--”

“Please. Lie to my face again. This was never about the job for you, and you know it. You’re far too soft on him.”

“We’ve been over this oh a hundred fucking times over the last ten years,” He’s tired. You could imagine him rubbing his temples, “We aren’t . He made that clear.”

“Some people have trouble admitting to it. It does not make it untrue,” She offers, not unkindly. It’s also not incorrect, if you’re reading this whole situation right, “I’m not sorry for pushing him, but I do apologize for freezing you out like that. You do have history.”

The wood paneling of the wall is cool against your head and you slide down it, curling into a small crouch on the floor, pulling your knees to your chest. Your palms find your eyes and you press them down, hard, neon lights flashing behind closed lids, dancing in between the faintly glowing red that’s slowly becoming comforting. And seriously, how fucked up is it that you can look at a visual hallucination and go situation normal.

Breathe.

In for four.

Hold.

Out for seven.

“History? I guess. If you call being on the right bus at the right time, and not being able to leave well enough alone. 8 hours is a long time to sit next to a torn up kid and not start to care. You were right, anyway. I just... Has it really been that long since we’ve been here?”

In for four.

Hold.

“I was not exaggerating my count. I do believe the last time time we had a monthly meeting was in 2003.”

Out for seven.

“Christ…”

You just keep breathing. Counting. The silence is filled up with the distant mutterings of that bright dining room, just on the other side of a fabric curtain you could probably rip with your bare hands. There’s a whole ‘nother world beyond your bubble of breakdown central, one where people can talk to each other like they aren’t ‘cave trolls’ out of their depth and over their heads and drowning in it all.

“Are you even reading this? That conceptual and technical skill is wasted making puppet porn. It’s absurdly profitable, I’ll give you that, but this...”

“Right, sorry. Business. I forget you’re allergic to personal shit.”

In for four. You find yourself focusing on the voices again, pushing the rest away because at least you have a connection here. Weird and not entirely yours but it anchors you lest you drift off on the sea of nausea and anxiety. This morbid curiosity that causes you to latch onto the distant conversation because your brain is racing even as you work to calm yourself down.

Who were these people you were supposed to know?

“Not allergic, merely disciplined.” There’s a pause. Then. Hesitantly. A sigh. Papers being smoothed out on the table. “Okay. This is--we’re on break. Newt, please don’t think I don’t care how you feel, but we’ve been through this same pattern before. Many times. Probably half a dozen times in the five years since you brought me into this project. Less than that even, since the two years since plush rump’s launch has been one big trail of silent automation and stagnation. That website is a work of freakish passion, and he can’t even be bothered to keep engaged with that? You had to have seen it too; it’s your job to look for and interpret patterns.”

In for four. It feels like there’s something hooked in your chest, buried deep beneath your sternum. Tugging and pulling and nudging like kitten claws. Trying to pry you out of your skin.

“He throws his all into a new idea, the intensity is downright infectious,” Hold. “And then when everything is done he just...bleeds away… Because it isn’t interesting anymore. He’s the idea guy. The engineer. Brilliant and capable and intense and...”

Out for seven.

“Then he’s gone.”

Fuck this.

Fuck all of this.

You shouldn’t be hearing this. But you can’t pull yourself away because you need to know.

This is a glimpse of the person you were supposed to be, and it’s like staring down into the black hole that shattered the world. And not just the one you’re left to live in, with it’s points and edges and secrets hiding around every naked plush rump.

“I always let him go, because I knew he wasn’t looking for a friend, and I didn’t want to push on that.” A pause, “I was… when I got that phone call, it made me realize that maybe I should have been one, regardless of what he wanted. I want to hope maybe things can be different, if we just try to...I don’t know. Hold on. Instead of letting go.”

“You are far more forgiving than I,” A sigh. You think you can feel her nails tapping on the table. You don’t know. But it sounds like it. Tap. Tap. Tap. “Maybe you are right. Maybe things will be different. But we can not keep saying maybe, Newt.”

“...are you going to quit then?”

“I--” A pause. Papers crinkle. “I really don’t know. I was ready to, but now...this...”

“The cycle continues?”

“Indeed. Despite it all, I find myself wanting to see where this goes.”

“I know right? I’d kill to know where he got some of this information. Apple doesn’t have any press announcements scheduled for several months yet, but these conclusions check out. Some of my tech contacts have been buzzing about something…”

And so, the rhythm eases back into the comfortable murmur of business and numbers and patterns and by the time the nausea settles, and you can breathe without shaking like a leaf, neither comment on how long you were gone. If they notice you’re subdued and thoughtful, aside from some more pursed lips and hard looks from Jane, and Newt’s perpetually deepening frown, they decide to leave it well enough alone since you answer their safe, work related inquiries without complaint.

Jane was right, and yet very wrong at the same time.

He didn’t need them.

Not as business partners.

He’d needed them as friends .

Someone who cared, but wasn’t willing to call him on his bullshit.

Someone willing to call him on his bullshit, but tried her best not to care.

Christ, this was a right mess wasn’t it?

You look at them across the table, heads down and absorbed in your rudimentary market analysis, and feel something cold settle in your gut.

These were people .

And in three years?

They’ll be dead.

Chapter Text

This will be your first rainstorm in this era. Even without the sensors you’d juryrigged onto the radio tower at the top of your apartment, you can tell. A wind leaden with not the scent of salt and ozone, but the sting of acid and smog blows through the metal struts of the structure, reaching you where you’d wedged this too-big body into the space you’d often liked to use to look out over the sea. The horizon is hazy and dark, buildings upon buildings glimmering like the stars reflected in the blue-black plane of your childhood.

The world holds its breath.

Maybe your bright expansive blue ocean and white gulls are gone, but something else took its place. That sea of light and metal and ever shifting and moving pieces. You’ve thought about it before, when walking those streets on what had once been a seafloor, trapped in the sights and sounds that assaulted you. A pulsing rhythm of lives and people and destinies all packed into a single space, orbiting around and tangled up with one another..

Background details--overwhelming as they are, foreign as they are, that’s all they can be. The nurses in the hospital, the people on the streets, the people in the coffee shop--

They are just background details in a doomed world. They aren’t on your radar. They can’t be on your radar. They can’t make you wonder about where they’ll be in three years when this cosmic simulation ends. There’s no other end to this scenario. Nothing but fire and flame and a dead world.

There’s nothing you can do about it.

Is there?

You like to consider yourself pragmatic. You have a goal. You have three years before shit hits the fan. Three years to figure out how save the session. Find out what it means for your friends. Make shit better for Dave.

You can’t afford to worry about them.

About a starved and neglected friendship that doesn’t concern you.

It...doesn’t.

You wonder if he’d recognized it. If that’s why he’d hired them. If it wasn’t just an excuse to delegate boring business decisions-- you prided yourself too much on taking care of everything-- but instead was an excuse to keep them close, even as he unconsciously built a brick wall between them. Terribly independent, because he couldn’t afford not to be. Wounded and hurting and wrapping himself in knives.

That photo tucked away in Cal’s trunk, in the crawlspace, told a story.

Tell her I’m dead.

You know him, just like you know yourself. If you’d kept that photo, it meant something to you. It still did. You don’t just...get over shit. It scars you, and then you can’t stop picking at it. Tearing the wound open again and again and again.

Sometimes you think back to the confident asshole you were before the game, and then look at the wreck you are now, and wonder what the hell happened.

Then you remember.

Jake happened.

He hurt you. He ran away. You were angry, but all you could think of was, your fault. You’d spent the last weeks before everything went to hell eviscerating yourself over it. Alone in the tombs you’d explored with him, tearing yourself apart to see where you went wrong. Breaking off chunks of yourself and dragging them into the light and hating every bit of it.

But you were never alone. Not really. Hal obviously helped you in your metaphorical mutilation. That was one of his functions. You resented it, growing to see the clinical distance he kept between you and your feelings as the end state you were terrified of. How do you think he felt? Trapped away from everything. From them all. He was you once. He was you and it hurt, being forced to detach even as he embraced his lot in life to keep him sane. It terrified you: the idea of one day seeing your friends as nothing more than another emotional obstacle worked into your plans. Or tools. Like when he would forcibly drag open your pesterchum windows, to the point where you considered smashing your shades against the English-green walls of your tomb, but blue and pink text always stopped you.

Maybe they were wielded with the precision of a surgical scalpel, but it was an offer of help. He was right. They were worried about you. They cared. And they dragged you back out.

He didn’t have that.

Not even a dark mirror onto whom he could project all those newly dredged up feelings of self loathing and recrimination.

She hates my guts

Would you have been willing to reach out again after that? Or would you have curled further in on yourself, showing sharp, indifferent spines to the world that would have even the people closest to you--who you trusted your kid with-- hesitating to even use the word friend?

Vibrations rumble through your fingers, snatching the bulk of your attention from where it’s been chasing itself around and around, caught in a never ending oroborus devouring itself. Digging desperate hands deep into the hypothetical mental space of someone twice your age, mixing it carelessly with your own toxic mess and synthesizing a cauldron full of acid that works to dissolve your insides--

This is dangerous. You haven’t moved since you came out here and you feel exhausted.

You feel old .

Was getting old contagious?

You’re only sixteen--you're 28--for fucks sake, no matter what this body tried to tell you.

The vibrations were a notification. Your phone is cradled in your hands. A text message. Not exactly what you were looking for. You navigate the clunky menus--your hasty modifications making it even more inconvenient than before. You itch to start on a prototype, on building something better . But this is what you had to work with, for now, and it should work you just needed to wait.

Where is Davepeta? You know how fast they can fly. You’d expected them back hours ago.

The worry bubbles and pops, joining the anxiety skittering like spiders through the chaos of your overactive brain. You derail it and shove it lower on the priorities list, before giving in and forcibly packing it and all that corrosive shit away into a box you know can’t contain it forever, but it should buy you some time until it eats through the walls. And the floor. And lands on your head.

You open up the message on your phone. It’s from Dave-- expected-- but after a small ramble about how you better not be dead on the roof again, he asked a question you didn’t expect.

whats this shit on the counter for???

Frowning, you thinking back to--oh. Yeah. That’s right. You did just drop the bag on the counter, didn’t you. That probably should have gone in the fridge. It’s been sitting out for hours now, forgotten and ignored between you throwing yourself back into your coding in your haste to get a workable prototype running, and then escaping to the roof when it got to be too much.

It’s still good. It’s not like behind the display case was refrigerated.

A fruit tart. You like strawberries right?

You don’t actually know that. Okay. You do. Sort of. Your Bro had liked them. You remember watching clips from the Tomorrow Night Show where he showed up in a ridiculous outfit in honor of his birthday with dyed mint green hair and a goddamn berry clipped to his head. The mad bastard didn’t acknowledge it at all. Not until midway through the show he casually popped the thing into his mouth and shrugged at the host’s sputtered shock, “Midnight snack, what can I say? I had the munchies.”

Man, your Bro could make anything cool.

You don’t even have those clips anymore.

Did you save some on your shades?

You hope so.

how am i supposed to know ive never had one before

It’s yours. I think you’ll like it.

did newt send it home with you

Low blow, bro .

It should sting to know how low his opinion is of you, but honestly, it’s the truth.

I picked it out.

right

you know baked sugary shit is like completely antithetical to the healthy bullshit that you stuffed in the cupboards yesterday

maybe i should eat it

fuck your baby carrots

You did at least take some with your dinner right?

yes mother i ate my fucking carrots

i got all bugs bunny up in here

all nyah whats up doc

crunchcrunchcrunch

i paid the veggie toll and it totally cramped the style of my mac and cheese i hope you appreciate the sacrifice

Just eat the goddamn tart, Dave.

The next vibration of your phone is a picture of the tart. With the perfectly coiffed arrangement of strawberries and whipped cream messily disrupted, and the berries rearranged to complement an artistic rendition of--you squint at it--probably a penis, knowing him. Your Bro had loved hiding phallic imagery in not so-hidden places in his films. The only reason you aren’t sure is because whipped cream doesn’t appear to be the most stable medium to draw in, the edges already falling to fill and blur the lines.

Truly a masterpiece.

He doesn’t respond further, so you let your attention wander away from the screen--though you still keep the plastic device at hand just in case . You transfer it to just your left, however, raking the right through your hair and ruffling the sweaty strands so they stop sticking to your skin, fluffing the damn thing up like a rooster again, but you’ve been hella slacking on your ‘do what with the single minded frenzy you’ve spent most of your day in.

A rumble of thunder in the distance, excited atoms transferring the bouncing soundwaves from the distant thunderhead to reverberate in your ears. It isn’t raining yet, but it will be. You can smell it mixing in with the acid stench that forces you to bite down a reflexive gag.

You should go inside.

It’s a sensible thought, but you don’t move. Even as the wind picks up and another roll of thunder bounces through the concrete and glass forest beneath and surrounding your perch. A glance at your phone indicates no further messages, but the white numbers of 9:53 stare up at you from the notification bar.

You really should go inside.

The closer the storm, the more charged the air gets. You like to think it’s almost sparking, sending shivers of anticipation across the patches of bare skin beneath your sleeves. It’s a strange balance between the oncoming storm and the fatigue that’s been weighing down on you all day, the cracks at the edge of your vision standing out starkly against the dark backdrop. There’s no light up here, aside from your phone. Lightning flashes in the distance, dancing above a series of shorter buildings that don’t block your view. Your b