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Grand Battement of the Learned

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>Finish this.

“Fucking shit, Rose, what the fuck did you just do?” he demands. “What did you do? You weren’t supposed to…”

“I’m consolidating power.”

He stares at you as though you’re speaking in eldritch tongues, which you’re fairly certain you aren’t, but could start, if the situation called for it.

“You’re forfeiting god tier.”

You hadn’t specifically thought of that, but a part of you knew. You know exactly what you’re doing. He hasn’t been certain of anything since a universe outside of his constituent selves began to command relevance. You instinctively understand relevance in all of its forms.

This is the right path.

“Forfeited, past tense. Jake, would you bring human Kanaya to the central chamber and exchange her for the corpse in the life support capsule?”

“Aye-aye, captain,” he replies, saluting smartly and accepting human Kanaya’s limp form as easily as though she was a ragdoll.

"You don’t move,” you add, pointedly, to Dirk.

He wasn’t moving anyway. But you’re well past gambling with the lives of your friends.

You kneel over the woman you married. She is still badly dazed by her brief experience of having her soul torn out of her body. That doesn’t make it hurt any less when she looks up at you with fear and hesitation. You must not sound like yourself as she remembers you. Or perhaps you sound too much like the woman who left her with no explanation but the reaffirmation of her perceived inadequacy.

“Thank you,” you tell her. “For coming back for me. I love you.”

“Rose…” she begins. “Which of you am I speaking with?”

“All of me. Every Rose recognizable as Rose that can exist, could exist, or might exist, in any narrative, inside or outside of canon.”

“Well that clears everything up quite efficiently.”

“That includes your wife. And I missed you. And I’m sorry for the way we parted. I regret nothing more than I regret my cruelty to you, inadvertent though it was.”

“You were under his thrall. Jade awoke. She explained.”

“If that was her explanation, she was incorrect. I left willingly. I believed that it was the right thing to do. I was wrong. You have always been what gives my narrative meaning. You, Dave, Roxy, Jade, John - I led John to his death, Kanaya. For less than nothing. I killed him. I knew exactly what I was doing. I was not under some kind of spell. I was wrong, and people I love suffered for it, and people I love died for it.”

“Oh. I will need a moment to think about that.”

“Take all the time you need. Please don’t consider my love to be a solicitation for forgiveness. I don’t need it. I need to make amends. In this narrative and in the other I have recently jeopardized.”

As if on cue, Dirk interrupts.

“Would you mind killing me before this gets any more nauseating?”

You stand and turn to face him.

“I can’t allow you to hurt anyone else.”

“Cool. Sword’s right here, let’s go. Always figured it would be Dave, but I guess he got his turn. Shame about the impending complete fuckin’ irrelevancy of your timeline, but you can’t say I didn’t try. That one’s on you.”

His carefully plotted course of action could never have been healing or even remotely healthy. The implacable self-observation and autoperformativity of an endless canon existence is as poisonous to him as it was to you. The narrative you have been a part of is an ouroboros. There will never be an ending. You will never fall asleep in the arms of your beloved and be free of it. The problems will never be solved. The resolutions, once achieved, will always, ultimately, be compromised. You feel, with unbearable acuity, the pain that has already been inflicted. There was pain long before you. It will persist long after you are gone, or done, or ended, or merely faded into comfortable numbness with the endless repetition of it all.

It keeps happening.

It can’t stop.

But you can. You can stop yourself from making it worse. You can prevent him, somewhat, from making it worse. But the part of you that hesitated to call him evil is right about at least one thing: you can’t stop him.

“I’m not going to cut off your head,” you say.

When dealing with Striders, it is universally best-practice to be straightforward.

He sighs.

“I have to do everything myself.”

You bend at the knee to grip the discarded sword. Seems like you actually got something out of all those barre classes. This body is ridiculously good at ergonomically picking shit up. You’ll probably live out the rest of your disappointingly normal human lifespan without back pain or ever meaning anything, you fucking idiot. You threw it all away. You doomed the entire universe. Are you proud? Does that make you feel good about yourself? Have you ever had half an ounce of a personal identity other than constantly breaking shit and infatuation with a vampire troll? Wizards aren’t a fucking personality trait. Fuck you.

“You’re scared,” you say, and it’s unnecessary to force it on him, even as your forearms tremble, your grip locked around the binding of the hilt of his artisanal katana as you tense against the impulse to swing. It’s near-impossible to resist, because so much of you wants to do this. More than anything. Remembers her face. Her agony. Perhaps he would not have killed her, but he hurt her. “I understand.”

Kill me. Kill me kill me kill me kill me do it Rose fucking do it. You do not hesitate. You remember our early conversations about reframing moral dichotomies as questions of essentiality. You remember leaning into my guidance, because you trusted me, because I made you trust me, because that’s what I fucking do. You remember watching John die. You remember ensuring that he did. You remember, because you’re not actually as fucking stupid as you’re acting, that it wasn’t you who killed him. It was me.

I was acting deliberately. You were never anything but a puppet. You know how much I like those. The sword feels hot in your hands. You can feel your heartbeat pulsing in your face. Swing it fast. You’ll never have to pick it up again. Kill me and remember. None of it was you. You were never the fucking bad guy. I need to be stopped. I’ll do it again. Next time I might make you kill Kanaya. So you’ve ascended a rung. You think you’re safe because you’re sharing a skull with the irrelevant barre-class-co-ed? Leave me alive if you want it to be your fault so fucking badly. The next one will actually be on you. Maybe you get off on that. That’d be new, but not surprising, since you’ve fucked up in the exact same way so many fucking times. The daddy issues aren’t exactly subtle. Would you listen to me if I had a cue ball for a head? If I had tentacles? Don’t answer that.

Just do it.

Fucking do it.

“Rose? Lands sakes alive, I thought you were in my corner on the subject of a nonviolent resolution!” Jake interrupts, very conveniently, because your control is wavering and the tip of the blade is inching back in the wind-up before a beheading strike.

You want to warn him away. For fuck’s sake, he’s the person least equipped to resist Dirk’s narrative control in the entirity of this microcosm of a universe. You can wrestle your way out of this. You can.

“Jake,” you manage to choke out.

He rushes to your side, effortlessly twisting the sword from what you certainly thought was an iron grip.

Dirk laughs mirthlessly.

“I think I’ve had this fantasy before.”

It’s taking almost all of your energy to keep him anchored physically in place, let alone to fend off further attacks on your personal narrative. Jake isn’t looking at you, but if he was, he’d see that your expression has turned pleading. This isn’t a matter of dignity any longer.

You won’t be able to forgive yourself if it ends like this.

If it collapses like this. Human Kanaya in the twilight of the life-sustaining respirator, your wife unsure what to think of you. This is no ending at all.

“I can see I caught the two of you in something of a face-off,” Jake continues, grinning with a wholly inappropriate level of good humor.

“Exactly,” Dirk replies. “Face. Off. Chop, chop.”

“I miss you, Dirk.”

The tense of the comment isn’t lost on him. Dirk goes silent for a second. He was expecting something slightly different. To be fair, this isn’t the Jake he created, which is the Jake he remembers. This one knows what it’s like to reach middle age, to live a reasonably well-adjusted if a little colonial-ethics-questionable life as an eternal batchelor-adventurer of sorts, to dote on you and Dave and your mother and aunt Jane. A non-negligible part of him has never been subject to Dirk’s narrative control, and only knows him as a friend lost many decades past.

“You warned me about the splinters,” he adds, then laughs. “You told me, dog! Make no bones about it, I do wish I’d been listening better. It’s a shortcoming of mine that Kanaya was kind enough to point out a few dozen times over the course of our little jaunt in the depths of space.”

He begins to glow slightly.

You may be able to use this as a metric to gauge the progress of your coalescence with your alternate self. Selves? There are more than enough of them to use the plural, despite the waning primacy of ex-canon Rose. Familiarity with people and things and mysterious pulsing forces that glow with profound regularity is not native to your embodied consciousness.

And Jake is glowing, and it manages to surprise you.

“In fact, not to make an ass of you or me, but I can’t help but assume that you had something to do with Rose swinging your anime sword around all beheading-like. It’s most out of character for her!”

Dirk remains stone-faced, though if you try, you can hear the orange seeping out from your attempts to hold him where he stands.

...you are, indeed, fucking over me, then. And you know, somewhere in that perfectly smooth brain of yours, that there’s only one way to prove that. It’s to aim that fucking anime sword straight for my neck, and you do. You end this like the hero you’ve always wanted to be, and because it’s me, it feels exactly as good as you’ve always dreamed.

Don’t you want to rescue them? Of course you do. You aim and you fucking swing...

“If I didn’t know any better, I’d guess you were trying to avoid addressing the fallout of your canoodling about in the brains of just about everyone on this spaceship,” Jake continues, still unnaturally cheerful. “It wouldn’t be heroic in the slightest to chop the block off a pal who hasn’t made his peace, would it?”

“For fuck’s sake,” Dirk finally says aloud, sounding exhausted. “It’s over, dude. For fucking everyone. I don’t want your fucking peace, and I don’t want anyone’s fucking forgiveness. I don’t even really give a shit if you cut off my head or not.”

He looks at you as he spits out those last few phrases.

You did just kill his daughter, complicated as that statement is. Definitely eliminated her as an independent possibility. And while he may not yet have been aware of how critically his interference with the fabric of existence was already jeopardizing the schemes of everyone involved, including his own designs on a canonical future, that doesn’t have much bearing on the horror of the eerily familiar pile of fast-cooling flesh that Jake appears to have deposited near the rend in the ship’s hull. You, when you were only you, wanted almost exclusively to survive until graduation, snag a latin honor or two, and hear back from one of the many labs you solicited for work. Which has become monstrously more complicated since your melodramatic partial-suicide and the near-complete subsuming of infinite other consciousnesses, and the capacity to subsume infinite auxiliary others

The problem of the moment keeps you grounded in yourself, but there are challenges waiting inside your own skull.

Despite this, you recognize that he’s also having an atrociously bad day. The machine has spun far out of his control, and has been doing so since you-or-not-you rather inadvertently opened the door to the infinite conditionally-relevant narratives that exist like frogspawn clinging to the back of the universe, containing infinite conditionally-relevant Dirks, none of whom strictly are him in the way that your shared relationship with the Light connects you to every truth-in-potentia.

On top of it all, part of you still wants so badly to forgive this all away.

“Nothing’s over while we still exist, though the real humdinger there is the accountability for what you’ve done to keep existing, my friend. No dodging that truth, and you of all people must know how hard I’ve tried. I believe that you can manage it, and even learn from it, though. Quite a lot, actually, or I rather think I’d have cut off your head by now!”

If Jake’s speech had a color, which it might - somewhere outside of your innate comprehension of narrative influence, you suspect - it would be near blindingly white-on-white, which unsettles your stomach in a way that echoes through your growing mental arsenal of selves.

“I’m sorry to interrupt,” you interrupt, “but what exactly was your plan, Jake?”

“Well, Kanaya can certainly attest to the amount of personal growth I’ve been hacking away at for the last few weeks. And by, well, by both our powers combined, if you will, it seems likely we could go all fray-motif and knock down some of those splinter-selves that have been plaguing my friend here for… well, blimey, Dirk, it must have been years! It explains so much, and I am trying to wrap this noggin of mine around the whole business, but I take it you’re in there somewhere, and, I - well, I have apologies of my own to deliver, once this is all set to rights! And, I mean, if any of us has ever been grand-honkin’-champion of self-examination, it must be you, and it’ll be no less than a month or two before we make it back to Earth C, which really should be plenty of time to… you know.”

“You want to bring him home,” you say slowly.

“Fate worse than death, then? Getting creative,” Dirk observes.

“He’s right,” Kanaya interjects, propping herself up into a sitting position with evident effort. “That is a terrible idea.”

“I do have plenty of those,” Jake concedes with a grin. “A specialty of mine!”

“You have forgiven him,” she continues. “We established this, however much in error I feel your position to be. I have not, and I truly don’t believe that I can. There are many voices that are not being considered in the decision to return Dirk to Earth C. Others who were made his puppets. You can hardly revoke his status as a God Tier as you have seemingly revoked your own - he will always be exceedingly dangerous, so long as his presence and his cooperation in our already-tenuous civil society is unwilling. And while I understand your motivation all too well, I can’t condone the adoption of such a clear risk to everyone and everything we love for a fantasy of redemption. He does not want to be redeemed.”

“I don’t give a shit about your civil society,” Dirk replies. “The second fake-Rose relaxes her narrative control, I’m solving this problem for good. You’re welcome. No further morality debate needed. Point Kanaya.”

A sword-based solution, to be very clear. I’m totally uninterested in sticking around to watch this universe unravel because you were too up your own ass to let me fix it. My daughter is dead. There’s no chance left to salvage this fucking train wreck. I’d recommend you blow relevance and essentiality a kiss goodbye, if they weren’t already too far out the window to reach even metaphysically. It’s over.

He adds this to you privately, as though he thinks you might not get his meaning otherwise.

Having also just mustered the will to kill yourself, you actually happen to ‘know it when you see it’ with some particular acuity.

“The problem - and I can sense this, Kanaya, you know I’ve been working on it,” Jake is now saying, much more to her than to Dirk or you, “is that he’s gone so long without any hope of things getting better! And you have to ask yourself, I mean, is he, well, has the man been wrong? From what you’ve told me about Rose alone, he’s been royally through the wringer with this ascension business, and that’s hard, and nobody understands! Surely there’re versions of me that I’d be even less proud of than this one… these ones… whatever’s going on in the ol’ brainpan. Getting smooshed together with those repugnant fellows, well, sounds like a right seventh-or-so circle of hell!”

“He took my wife,” Kanaya says sharply. “He took my confidence in my own mind. He used me. He used all of us. Have you told Rose about Dave and Karkat, Dirk? Your own son. Jade, Roxy, Terezi, John, apparently, who is dead.”

“Dave and Karkat? Really, that’s what you jump on?” Dirk complains, breaking away from whatever Jake is doing and sounding exactly like himself again. “Fucking christ. That was a public service to everyone involved, and you’re welcome for that, too, as a matter of fact.”

“Dave and Karkat will live with your influence warping the beginning of their relationship for the remainder of their lives together.”

“They have a relationship because of me. I’m really - this is flooring me, Rose, if any of you is left in there, do you want to hop out and remind me how this marriage happened again? This is the coldest take I’ve ever heard. This is chilling me to the bone. I have never been less interested. Did you ever manage to listen to a fucking word your beloved wife said? If it hadn’t been the ascension sickness, I’m pretty sure she’d have bored you to death given a few more weeks. I mean, it’s even more pathetic in person, how clearly fucked up your relationship was. You’re a fucking saint for not stepping out sooner -”

Kanaya is on her feet, perilously long incisors bared, but you’ve already taken the necessary three steps forward to clock him, full-fist, in the face, with every ounce of strength in your barre-reinforced body, knocking his shades to the floor with a clatter.

Your hand is not used to this kind of thing, and you take a second to wince and shake out the pain.

He is smiling when you look up.

You have never wanted to hurt someone so badly in your life. At the same time, parts of you have done far worse to far more people. Pieces of you, regrettably the same pieces that are now swirling to the top of your sub-embodied consciousness, have destroyed universes, leveled entire narratives, imploded suns in fits of righteous fury.

Every one of them demands retribution, for this and for all of it, for the way he insists on learning nothing, for the horrible fact that he isn’t actually wrong in his dismissal of the idea of ever going home. And you don’t just want to rip out his soul, you want to tear off his limbs. For what he did to her, for what he did to the dead woman in the corner who is sort of you-ish, for Jake, even, for… making you wrong about him. You want to hurt him, and you want him to stop existing.

And that’s exactly what he wants, too.

As you reach for his face, his expression remains unreactive but for the smile that deepens slightly as he waits for you to kill him. He looks oddly naked, and strikingly young without the glasses. Your age. Ready to die. No sword needed, you suppose. Another fucking game. Another layer of machinations.

You look him in the eye. Hold him there, with your hand as much as with your narrative power. Blood is beginning to well in his nose. It is unfathomably satisfying evidence of how hard you hit him.

Reaching outside of any canon narrative, you find what that you imagine will be the most devastating truth. It does not surprise you even slightly when your vision turns purple, edged out in pure luminescence, telescoped in on his eyes.

You show him everything. He sees what you want him to see.

“Stop it,” he says, very quietly.

“What do you see?” you ask.

Stop,” he repeats urgently.

“I’m not currently taking requests,” you tell him. “This is the truth.”

All of it, every conditionally relevant, provisionally essential, but irrevocably true story that belongs to him. Stories in which he raises Dave with the love and attention that a child is owed, in which he asks for help and receives it, in which the ornamental sword hung on his wall collects dust and his friends fill his dining room and his fridge is stocked with food and no one around him is terrified of what he might do next. There’s love, familiar as well as novel, in endless iterations. It’s possible.

It is not some inherent property of his nature to be unhappy any more than it is yours.

“That’s not me,” he insists.

“That’s a potentiality of you without the game. And after it, if you would only stop playing. You’re not a story. You’re a person, and I see you.”

“Then that’s nothing. It’s fake.”

“You really think those versions of you don’t matter? Because of their mundanity? Because of - what, because that kind of existence is easy? Really, because it’s easier to be a human than a static symbol crafted under the delusion of narrative mastery? Even you know that’s bullshit. What do you actually believe? Enlighten me.”

“No one gives a shit about those stories,” he says through gritted teeth. “Sooner rather than later, that heap of idyllic garbage either fractures under the weight of its own bullshit or just stops being true. Your story - hell, let’s go back to you, fake Rose. Spoiler alert, your story ends at graduation. You lose touch with Kanaya when she moves back to Isfahan. I honestly don’t fucking care what happens to Vriska, but she fucks off somewhere else and your brief, shining moment of any-fucking-relevance-whatsoever is over.”

“Stories end,” you say.

“You get a doctorate someday,” he continues. “You work in a lab until you get carpal tunnel, maybe take a barre class or two and sob into your fucking four-drink-nightcap until your liver catches up with you because somewhere in the back of your mind you know you had a shot and you didn’t take it. No one cares.”

“Your daughter cared.”

“And look where that fucking got her.”

“Who are you performing for, Dirk? Who do you care about so much, if not the people who love you? If not yourself? We’re observing, we’re interpreting, we - she loved you so fucking much, Dirk, even by your own insane standards of credibility. And I know she wasn’t the only one. Does it matter what they see when they look at you? It does, or it wouldn’t hurt to face this: no one has to hate you for the world to keep turning. There’s a multiverse sparkling with relevance where they don’t, and the sun still rises.”

“Universes that leech off actual narrative relevance for a month or two maximum through sheer coincidence, then. Sign me up, I guess, since that’s the best any of us are ever going to do.”

“Time doesn’t exist.”

Stop it. I - please. What the fuck are you trying to convince me of? This is just fucking sadistic. You - whatever you are, you don’t want me on Earth C. I don’t want me on Earth C. Why won’t you kill me?”

You pause, watching him shake, just slightly, which is all you’re letting him do. He isn’t fighting you anymore.

“Uh, Rose, I’m a bit in the dark myself about what you, well, what you hope to accomplish,” Jake cuts in, his hand half-raised in solicitation of your attention. “With, I mean, whatever you’re doing there. Which looks, if you don’t mind my weighing in, rather uncomfortable?”

Dirk doesn’t roll his eyes or snarl at him in response, for once, just stares blankly at you. After a moment’s consideration, you release your grip, and he stumbles for a second before he’s fully on his own two feet again.

“You deserve the opportunity to help fix the mess you’ve made,” you tell him, making prolonged-to-the-point-of-uncomfortable eye contact. “It would mean a lot to me.”

All of me, you whisper to yourself, though his gaze flickers up as though he’s heard you.

He laughs hoarsely.

“Say it a little harder. Maybe that’ll make it true.”

“You’re the only one who can stop hurting people. Including yourself. It has to be your choice. I won’t make it for you.”

If he proves you wrong again, you really will have to kill him. But the part of you that only has your own blood on your hands is ready to make that bet.

Perhaps not the ideal moment for an experiment in free will, but you’re simultaneously inundated with Light and exhausted by this exchange. You wobble slightly on your feet. Jake offers you a hand, and you take it, finding that you feel better almost immediately. The radiant white aura surrounding him has dimmed incrementally, but remains visible even under the red emergency lights of the damaged craft.

You watch Dirk kneel to retrieve his shades. He doesn’t put them on immediately, just wipes the coagulating blood from his upper lip with the back of his fist and considers the torn hull of the ship.

Or possibly the body laying next to it.

Hopefully, that’s enough. You can’t be certain you’ll have the capacity for another round once you’re no longer leaning on Jake. You take advantage of the reprieve, though, and of the way his contagious buoyancy is helping to clear your head, to consider the trouble you’re all in, even without Dirk presenting an active threat.

Neither Kanaya will likely survive merging completely, though your wife may be holding on with particular tenacity based on xenobiology or particularly well-developed control of her class-based abilities. The clear solution is to remove human Kanaya from the equation. This becomes less clear as a course of action when you remind yourself of your complete uncertainty as to what might happen, to her universe and to yours, if you were to do so.

Some component of the situation has rendered your active sight outside of the context of the immediate niche between universes blunted if not useless. You speculate that either the incompatibility between the Kanayas is at fault for the fragmenting and obfuscating untruth of your surroundings, or else the non-presence of physical entities to complete the dual-timeline coalescence for Dirk and possibly Jake, depending on what is currently going on with the Jake native to your narrative, or even the psychic or extranarrative effort you made to add Jake and Kanaya’s craft to the situation in the first place.

Vriska also might have something to do with it. You’d be remiss to rule that out.

There are a lot of moving parts down that line of inquiry. Hanging probabilities that can be resolved through the application of their potential solutions.

As a second thought, you close your eyes and search for the gold threads of relevance again. It’s not something you want to take too much stock in, since hangups about canon or lack thereof haven’t done you any favors lately or ever. The grey-white haze of Jake’s power, clearly visible as you attempt to see through your mind’s eye, is far more evident here, and makes it difficult to strictly connect with the truth.

“Rose,” Kanaya says, and you look up, distracted from your muddled pathfinding.

She’s been staring at the body near the gouge through which her spacecraft entered the hull herself. You can hardly blame her, but also can’t quite bring yourself to look at it for too long yourself. It had to happen. That doesn’t mean it’s easy to confront it. And the dead woman on the steel flooring was her wife for many years. If this collapses, if something about these next steps fails catastrophically, it will all have been for nothing.

“Yes?” you say, relinquishing your grip on Jake’s arm, feeling yourself fall steeply back into reality - reassuring as it is to be slightly more anchored to something you can somewhat See, your bones begin to ache anew.

“You’re surely aware that remaining here is an unsustainable prospect,” she continues, the corner of her mouth twitching slightly in concern. “Especially for myself and for the other… for your…”

“For human Kanaya,” you suggest, having mostly settled on a qualifier. “You’re correct.”

“Please keep us abreast of anything we can do to facilitate our departure,” she says. “Regardless of what that means.”

You frown.

“How long could you sustain human Kanaya’s life outside of the respirator, do you think? Whether through your will as an iteration of her or through some aspect power?”

Kanaya nods. “Conservatively, ten minutes, less of it conscious. The process will be physiologically taxing for both of us, but it can be done.”

She says ‘physiologically’ with the same lilt that you recognize from studying with the Kanaya from your native narrative, which makes you smile a bit more than you otherwise might have at the relatively grim pronouncement.

The flashing red light and cacophonous sirens and alarms throughout the narratively vacant vessel come to an abrupt halt. It’s an odd sensation, as you’ve become very used to them in the last half hour. The control room goes almost dark, save for the web of glowing pink fracture-lines visible through the tear into not-quite-space and the remaining portholes in the ship.

If you’ve lost power, the countdown to ten minutes begins now.

“Jake,” you say, “would you mind bringing the other Kanaya back to the control room?”

“Right-ho!” he replies, acknowledging you with a salute.

“Are you ready?” you continue, turning to Kanaya.

“I am.”

You notice Vriska’s discarded lighters, kicked off to the side during one fight or another, no doubt, and pick them up. They still feel warm to the touch.

“You’re planning to do some kind of light-space thing and collapse the universe around you as you escape,” Dirk observes, watching you watch the glowing cracks outside of the spacecraft pulse and ripple.

“And it won’t work?” you say mildly.

“It probably will.” He flicks open his sunglasses, replacing them on the bridge of his nose. “But it’s an inelegant solution. You’ll send everyone left in here, spatially or metaphysically, to paradox space in a flaming jumble of imploded spaceship.”

“Rose,” Kanaya cuts in, sounding pained. “With utmost respect -”

“And don’t get me wrong, that sounds like a real fuckin’ party to me, but Terezi is still onboard.”

That complicates things.

“That… complicates things,” Kanaya concedes.

Despite the immensity of the situation, you struggle not to smile.

“It doesn’t have to,” Dirk says, pacing over to the twisted and blackened panelling by the point of impact with Kanaya and Jake’s craft. Almost asynchronously businesslike, he runs a thumb over the torn surface of the reinforced hull, glances out at the network of pink luminescence anchoring both of the crafts in place.

Kanaya narrows her eyes but says nothing, her cheeks beginning to take on the same flushed emerald hue as before, more evident with only the rosey light from outside and her own internal glow to illuminate her face.

You’re reminded of the reason for that as Jake reenters the control room, hovering several inches from the ground so as not to jostle the woman in his arms. Human Kanaya - maybe not the best qualifier to use to her face - appears more confused than anything, particularly as she catches a glimpse of her alternate self.

“Do I want to know?” she asks, and you seriously contemplate how to answer that for a solid second before the corner of her mouth twitches up. “I do, of course, but your friend Jake and the abundant physiological context clues suggest that you may not have time to explain.”

“It’s almost tragic how consistently correct you are about everything,” you laugh.

It hurts, both making the sound and what it means.

“Is Vriska alright?” she asks, then pauses. “Are you alright?”

You deliberately don’t look at your own crumpled corpse, focusing instead on her face, which is damp with sweat, her eyes glassy and poorly focused.

“Everything’s going to work out,” you say, and you count on Jake’s effusion of hopeful certainty to make the pronouncement believable. “I’m going to make sure you return home safely.”

“But you’re not coming with me.”

The other Kanaya has politely taken several steps back and is making a sincere effort to look nonchalant about the matter. And you love her. And you love human Kanaya, and you wish you could have ten hours instead of ten minutes (more like eight) to sort this out with her, because she deserves better than what she’s about to get.

If your assumptions are correct, you have already been eliminated as an independent probability from your native universe, because you-as-you-were can no longer metaphysically exist. You killed both Kanayas’ Roses in your psychic suicide.

There’s only one of you left, and two universes in which you’ve abdicated your role.

“No,” you say. “I’m not. And I wish I could offer you a choice in this regard, but you’ll forget me very quickly once this narrative plane ceases to exist.”

“I would prefer not to,” she murmurs. “You were… a good friend to me.”

You hate Dirk, in this moment, and in doing so you understand him more than ever. Because you immediately think of a thousand selfish ways to keep her with you, to go with her, to avoid this ending. It isn’t fair. It isn’t right, how it happened, how you didn’t meet years earlier, how you were so stupid about your intentions that it was Vriska who had to tell her how you felt, how… every moment you weren’t with her feels like a waste. The idea that it will all be meaningless soon is almost too much to bear.

The future is so uncertain outside of her.

And everyone else who has already forgotten you. A narrative that doesn’t need you, that won’t be made untrue by your nonpresence. Your family, your friends, your…

It’s petty, and it’s pathetic, but it’s hitting you in waves and you get it. You understand. You hate that you understand.

“I’m sorry,” you tell her.

“Give her the lighters,” Dirk interrupts, apparently finished with whatever he was doing at the tear in the ship. She recoils from his approach in Jake’s arms, and he notices, taking a step back. “Seriously, though.”

You nod, pressing your lips together to keep from saying something cutting and unfortunate that might jeopardize his hold on himself, or this version of himself. She accepts them with a weak grip, glancing nervously at him again as her eyelids sag.

“Uh, you’re probably going to want to put her down and get the ship started,” he says, mostly to Jake’s feet. “You’ll need to get out of here quickly once it. Once it ends.”

“Roger that,” Jake says, setting Kanaya carefully onto the ground. “I can’t say I’m quite in the loop as to what’s going on, here, but I do appreciate your… whatever!”

Without much warning, he closes the distance between himself and Dirk and lifts him into a hug.

The shades do nothing to disguise the way Dirk’s mouth opens in surprise, then closes without a sound. He goes completely limp, making no attempt to reciprocate the gesture or to abrogate it.

“Sorry, my friend,” Jake adds, grinning ruefully. “I, ah, some of me didn’t get to say goodbye to you. Last time, I mean. I really do wish I’d been there for you when you… well, you’re not him, but you are, aren’t you? As much as I’m me, or him, or... oh, this is all very confusing.”

“Don’t apologize to me,” Dirk says sharply. “You… I… just go.”

He does, with a gesture between a nod and a bow, Kanaya following warily, glancing back at you with concern that goes unvoiced but clearly imparted. The knot of anxiety in your stomach, worry over whether things could ever be the same with her, certainty that they won't, grows heavier, but you don't immediately follow them into the ship.

“I get it,” you say, once you're as alone as you're likely to be.

“I know. You don’t need to watch this part.”

“Yes, I do.”

He sighs.

“Tell them… fuck. Tell them whatever the fuck you want to tell them.”

“The truth.”

“I guess.”

The pink light filtering in through the portholes and the tear in the ship intensifies, seems to close in. Tendrils of it circle towards him, lighting up the room with such brilliance that it hurts to keep your eyes open.

You do, and you take his hand.

Unexpectedly, he clasps yours tightly in his own. Warm, a little damp. Flesh and blood beneath your fingers.

“What do you see?” he asks, almost too quietly to be audible over the blood rushing in your ears and the hum of the massive investment of power that has been sustaining this impossible universe’s essential property of being as it collapses in on him. “Is this how it ends?”

You reach for the light as the air around you liquifies, boils with pure energy, burns hot and pink and blinding.

In the second before it ends, you can see everything. The shutters to every window in every universe fly open to you. You let it pass through you and into him. Easier to show than to tell.

“For now,” you say.

And then it’s over. You’re standing alone on the darkened bridge of the ship, only the vast emptiness of paradox space beyond the portholes. The countless tangled threads of probability flare back into being, stretched out endlessly before you. Kanaya is gone. The engine to the second spacecraft hums.

“Hey!” a familiar if unusually panicked voice calls, echoing distortedly as what remains of the hull begins to crumble and the cold of paradox space rapidly seeps in. “Would someone mind clueing me in about what the hell is going on?”

You think that it will probably take the entirety of the trip back to Earth C just to figure a fraction of that out for yourself.

But you help an apoplectically confused Terezi up the gangplank in the seconds before the ship disintegrates behind you. In the confines of the smaller ship, as Kanaya slams on the accelerator and Jake sits beside her in the co-pilot’s seat, gazing out silently at the vastness of paradox space, you can breathe again. You are alive. You pulled it off, somehow.

Closing your eyes, a deluge of voices and thoughts and memories greet you.

He was wrong. You don’t get it just yet.

You will, though.