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Grand Battement of the Learned

Chapter Text

>Be Rose.

You have never done anything wrong, ever, in your life. Dave would probably disagree, but Dave doesn’t get a vote at the moment, as your brother has been ranting in your general direction for nearly half an hour without noticing that not five minutes in you struck up a delightful conversation about his ravings with the girl who sits next to you in your stem cell biology lecture and haven’t looked up from your phone since, though he is very much the topic of discussion.

Some might argue that you suffer from something of a penchant for meddling.

They would argue correctly, but it would be offensive to suggest such a thing overtly and as though it were a negative trait; see back to ‘things you have done wrong in your life’, of which there are, confirmed, none.

GA: Im Sorry But I Fail To Understand The Sense In Rooming With Ones Own Brother
GA: I Respect Your Judgement On Many Levels But This Seems A Remarkable Oversight

TT: Some days, I wonder if you might be right.
TT: At other intervals, though, I’m reminded of the horror stories of more senior friends whose rooming situations caused them great distress in their first years, and Dave is perfectly adequate when not so agitated over something very pointless.
TT: Our arrangement has been tenable for the past three years, and I wouldn’t think to doubt it were it not for the present situation.

GA: Your Handwave Will Suffice For Now

TT: Good to hear.

GA: My Roommate Is A Nightmare But We Have Managed To Endure Since Our First Year Despite This
GA: Partially Because I Understand I Might Be My Own Flavor Of Nightmare To A Different Roommate And One Must Choose The Devil One Knows Over That Which One Does Not

TT: Hold on, if you don’t mind, things seem to be winding down.

Complaining to Kanaya about your ridiculous brother as you mull over ways to make him less obnoxious isn’t going to get you anywhere especially pleasant, conversation-wise, but it slightly beats vague gossip about classmates, the professor, one of the more controversial readings… you’ve been running out of conversation starters, as despite your shared area of study, there seems to be precious little overlap in the circles in which you run.

“I just don’t understand how someone can be so wrong about Zombieland!” Dave is saying, at last pausing to take a breath when you tune back in, though he picks right back up again, and is pacing, now. “Egbert at least has motivations for his bullshit opinions. He’s fundamentally capable of seeing sense even with his raging boner for Bill Murray or whichever poorly thought out comedian-turned-actor he’s mooning over on any given day. He can admit it when he’s clearly spouting nonsense. I can respect the Nic Cage thing, so long as he actually fucking acknowledges it’s a thing and that he’s got a hard-on for chintz and male pattern baldness rather than any coherent reason for liking Con Air.”

You’ve gathered, peripherally, that someone in the first meeting of his upper-level media seminar has been striking some kind of nerve for your brother, all the more for the fact that he’s convinced he ought to be enjoying this class particularly given his assumed status as The Only Acceptable Film Student In The Department and the present setting of your mutual senior spring. A time to show off in a last hurrah for the underclass members, if one happens to be Dave, and one isn’t lying to oneself about one’s intentions.

“-and it’s like he’s not even trying. The bastard’s ready to dismiss whole genres because they’re ‘gross’, which is probably racist, when I think about it hard enough. But he doesn’t even know how moronic he sounds, and he couches it in fancy words and god he talks so loud, and I don’t even need to take this shitty class!”

“Drop it, then, and get the best of him by living well in his absence,” you suggest mildly, glancing back at your phone to see if Kanaya has suggested any additional topics of conversation, which she often does, but not often enough to truly gauge her interest with any reliability.

“Can you hear yourself?” he demands. “Can you hear the words you’re saying?”

“Somewhat unfortunately, I hear a lot of words, at the moment, suggesting that my capacity to do so is not compromised by my lack of interest in the present subject matter.”

“I can’t let this asshole win. Not after what he said about my homegirl Emma Stone. I’m not gonna let him beat me.”

“Might I suggest that, by fixating quite so adamantly, you are doing exactly that?”

“Nah, no way. This is actually some great material. I should be writing this shit down for the next time he says that she was better in fucking Aloha, as though Zombieland wasn’t the quintessential fucking romantic comedy if he gives so much of a shit about those, as if he wasn’t looking at the whole horror genre and its countless brilliant subversions with dumbshit blinders because he’s weird about blood -”

TT: I’m increasingly convinced that he simply needs some kind of distraction, lest our living situation become unsurvivable in our final semester.

GA: A Distraction Of What Sort

She’s replied nearly immediately, even with your absence from the keyboard. What does that mean? Most likely just that Kanaya is diligently at work on the review paper that you’re presently neglecting due to the distraction posed by your brother, and out of politeness, she’s left the window open.

TT: Something that will get him out of the apartment.
TT: An additional class? Membership to some kind of elite and heavily ironic underground organization dedicated to the discussion of memes from 2008? A cult, if that would work, frankly.

GA: Interesting
GA: And I Assume You Would Prefer He Not See This As An Overtly Meddling Gesture On Your Part

TT: Ideally.

GA: Have The Two Of You Completed Your Physical Education Credits For Our Graduation Requirement
GA: Even If You Have The Classes Rotate By The Semester Rather Than By The Year So There Will Likely Be Spaces Remaining

TT: Oh. Yes. That… requirement. For graduating. I have certainly considered that requirement extensively in the several years I have attended this school leading up to this year.
TT: The year in which I graduate.

GA: Rose Is Your Requirement Incomplete

You had considered it, in truth, towards the beginning of your first year, when you successfully completed an unremarkable badminton class and immediately broke your leg falling down the stairs. Not playing badminton, as there are few stairs involved in badminton. Somehow, you managed to mangle your leg in the most jejune circumstance imaginable, in perilously high heels during your stint on the debate team.

Dave had warned you about stairs. He found the fact that he had done this endlessly hilarious. You disagreed, but found it hard to express this as semi-violently as you might have preferred had your leg been intact.

The situation had put all thought of the PE requirement entirely out of your plans.

Well, your final semester is only beginning, much as you find that you dislike the idea that your ability to procure your diploma rests thoroughly on your commitment to yet another unenjoyable two-hour-a-week commitment.

And if you can involve Dave - has he finished his? - then this might as well be a ‘two birds, one PE class’ sort of situation.

GA: Rose

TT: There is a distinct possibility that your assumption is correct, and I am in awe of your analytical prowess.

GA: That Is Most Unfortunate
GA: I Fulfilled My Two Semester Requirement In A Series of Pilates Classes In My First Year
GA: It Was Quite Enjoyable

TT: Pilates?

GA: The Instructor Is Well Liked
GA: I Imagine That The Class Will Be Full If Not Overfull
GA: Coincidentally My Horrible Roommate Encountered The Same Problem When Attempting To Fill Her Own Incomplete Requirement As A Latecomer To The System

TT: Although I am fascinated by any glimpse into your life outside of a truly prodigious knowledge of stem cell therapies, if the class is full, I regret to say that it will pose a poor solution.

GA: Correct
GA: My Roommate Is Taking Barre Which Is Much The Same Thing I Understand
GA: She Has Complained About It
GA: Namely The Ensuing Soreness
GA: But It Is Taught By The Same Instructor And I Found Her Classes Rigorous But Enjoyable
GA: And She Complains About Most Things Given The Opportunity

TT: That is definitely something to consider, then.
TT: I’ll speak with him about the option. If necessary, I imagine I can ply him with my wiles and insist that he accompany me.
TT: He does still owe me after his shameless episode of repeating that ridiculous webcomic phrase in my infirmity.
TT: ‘Warned me about stairs’ indeed.

GA: Im Sorry What Did He Warn You About

TT: Forgive me for the memetic turn of phrase, but God, I wish that were me.

Hopefully she will be understanding of your use of memes. Picking them up has been unavoidable with your personal forays onto the internet, though your adoption of the linguistic quirks has been augmented by living with a brother like Dave. Kanaya, fortunately or unfortunately, seems to be far less of a degenerate denizen of the most questionable corners of the internet than yourself.

You notice, for the first time, that Dave has stopped talking and appears to be eating a bowl of off-brand microwaved noodles, which explains the relative silence.

“Have you completed your physical education requirement?” you ask, figuring the best strategy is generally the straightforward approach, particularly where your brother is concerned.

“Do I look like a nerd to you?” he complains through a mouthful of noodles.

“I could have sworn you were enrolled in rock climbing with John, and… was it strength training?... also with John.”

“Yeah, to be fair, I did finish rock climbing, and for that, I owe myself a swirlie, probably. But I legally have to wear a pocket protector and join a registry or a chess club or some shit if I finish another one. What if I have to wear prescription glasses, Rose? These shades don’t come with prescription lenses.”

“Dave,” you sigh. “Precisely what part of ‘graduation requirement’ was unclear to you?”

“Jade got out of hers,” he insists.

“Jade is a diagnosed narcoleptic.”

“I can’t let her do it alone. Solidarity. I’m a narcoleptic ally. What are you, some kind of ableist?”

“I’m in the same position at the moment, unfortunately. A prodigiously intelligent and distractingly beautiful woman in my biology seminar has recommended that I remedy the problem by taking a barre class. Given that you are in the same position, I thought you might be willing to accompany me.”

Dave’s thin blond eyebrows are raised high enough to be visible over his shades, which would be truly funny if you were not asking him for a favor at the moment, as cause for his skepticism.

“Your doing so would be… delightfully ironic, I imagine.”

That does it. As soon as you’ve said it, you can see, or at least picture, the gears turning in his head. Dave is not an uncomplicated person, but some of his drives are unbearably simple. The inclination towards the subversion of expectations, when leverageable for humor, is among the strongest of them.

TT: We’re in. I negotiated the online process on both of our behalfs, and delightfully enough, he’s off texting his friends about the barre class, now, and I can get some work done.
TT: I owe you my life as well as my GPA.

GA: Dont Thank Me Yet
GA: I Have Subjected You To A Terrible Fate
GA: Please Do Not Consider My Roommate A Reflection Of My Own Beliefs Or Practices

TT: There is absolutely no way she is as terrible as you are making her out to be.

GA: You Are Correct She Is Worse

TT: My combination brother-roommate just spent the better part of an hour talking my ear off about some hapless film major who offended his media sensibilities in class.
TT: I had to fundamentally alter our weekly schedules to earn a brief reprieve.
TT: Truly, I would be remiss to judge anyone by their roommate.

GA: I Will Not Preemptively Say I Told You So But I Will Subtly Reinforce The Fact That I Am Telling You Now For Future Reference
GA: And Now I Really Must Get Back To My Paper But It Has Been A Lovely Conversation As Always

TT: The sentiment is entirely mutual.
TT: I’ll see you in class next Monday. By then, we’ll have one class under our belts, and I’ll be able to offer you my thoughts.

GA: I Anticipate Them With Bated Breath
GA: Have A Lovely Evening

As a matter of fact, you will have a lovely evening. Your face feels oddly warm after speaking with Kanaya, despite the fact that you have not recently consumed a hot beverage or concluded any particular level of physical exertion. Rather than question this too extensively, you return your attention to your paper, though you open a tab to the shipping site ‘Rainforest’, evil though they may be, to order yourself and Dave some barre socks, as the webpage for the class recommends.

If the slight oddness of your phrasing, here, and the peculiarity of your complete ignorance of even the most basic of your own feelings, actually strikes you, at this point, you forget it quickly in the excitement of completing your assignment and anticipating your next opportunity to share some noteworthy observation with Kanaya.

Additionally, you are finally going to get your PE credit, which is perhaps the most non-negligible win of the evening. Excellent!

==>

Chapter Text

Vriska: Get your PE credit.

You would like nothing more than to walk away from this stupid barre class and never look back, but you can’t, because you’d have to change back into your jeans first and the whole process is so goddamned miserable and you would rather throw yourself off the roof of the gym than be witnessed, in public, in workout clothes and mismatched socks like a fucking idiot, but what were you talking about again?

Right. Barre fucking sucks, but what sucks more is the idea of being stuck at this shitty school with all these fucking morons for one more fucking semester because you couldn’t stick it out and earn the credits towards graduation.

Kanaya is a monster for getting you into this. You decided that during the first class, but you take some pleasure in reminding yourself of that fact as you drag a plasticky red mat down the corridor in your socks, pick up a pair of weights, a squishy red rubber ball, an elastic band, and a sliding disc.

This is hell.

You are dead and you are in hell and you haven’t even done anything to deserve it yet this semester.

Though, to be fair, it’s only been like a week.

Fourteen more of those and you get to blow this fucking popsicle stand. Oh, and you hate yourself, just a little, just briefly, for that turn of phrase, but you forget it entirely as you plop your mat down near the front of the class, tragically necessary because otherwise you can’t see the fucking instructor, and Karkat opens his fucking mouth.

The thing about him talking is that it definitely, always, without fail, gives you something to hate more than yourself and whatever dumbshit things you’ve recently said and done.

“You need to disinfect that mat, that’s disgusting,” he says, as a polite opener, you guess.

“Fuck you, how do you know I didn’t?”

“Because you never do,” he sighs, and hands you an extra disinfectant wipe, which you halfheartedly run over the surface of the red mat, turning it damp and sticky.

“Still rude as shit, you micromanaging little freak,” you complain.

You consider throwing the used wipe at him, which would be funny, but two extra students arriving on the later side interrupt too thoroughly for you to do so.

“Oh fuck no,” a tall blond guy who’s inexplicably wearing a pair of sunglasses indoors announces.

“Dave,” a similarly tall girl who is utterly not dressed for barre, in some kind of skirt-blouse combo straight out of a bargain bin secretary porno, says sharply. “What’s the matter with you?”

Before you can turn to Karkat and make a brilliantly acerbic comment about the couple of idiots who just walked in, he’s on his be-socked feet and entering the fray himself, which is so utterly stupid that, for a moment, you can’t even process it enough to make a witty aside.

“What the fuck are you doing here?”

“Deconstructing hegemonic masculinity, jackass, not that you’d know what that means, what the fuck are you doing here?”

“I know what those words mean, I just don’t go around speaking in Jezebel articles that have been through a blender interspersed sporadically with a fourteen year old’s review of a Halloween sequel and misquoted Sweet Bro and Hella Jeff references, you literal piece of shit!”

“The day I misquote-” the new guy begins, and you tuck your legs under your body, gearing up to cheer Karkat on if he decides to clock the guy, and… shit, maybe you should clock the guy.

You’ve got no particular affection for Karkat. He’s weirdly more Kanaya’s friend than your friend, but you’re stuck in barre together, for the moment, and maybe you should go back him up. And wouldn’t it be satisfying to knock this dude’s shades off his smug face? Of course it would.

Luckily for him, and unluckily for you and your itchy face-hitting fist, the barre instructor shows up and practically hauls Karkat and the new guy away from each other. The blonde girl, meanwhile, takes the spot next to you, sighs melodramatically, and wipes off her mat.

“May I take your used wipe to the trash?” she offers, and you look down to observe that she’s wearing barre socks, for fuck’s sake, who does that?

“Not unless you’re planning on tossing your boy there in the bin along with it,” you say shortly, realizing upon her asking that you absolutely do not want to surrender this wipe to fucking anyone, dried out and crumpled up and gross though it may be, particularly not someone in dumbass barre socks, when normal socks work just as well if you’re not a little bitch about slipping around.

“Suit yourself,” she says, and disappears out into the hall, probably needing to change, as well, unless she’s looking to flash the whole class in that ridiculous skirt.

After a lecture from the instructor, Karkat returns to the mat to your right, absolutely fuming.

“He disgusts me,” he says, unprompted, and you nod in mild sympathy.

“That’s pretty on-brand for you,” you observe, watching yourself in the mirror as you shift from weirdly perching on the mat to just laying the fuck down as the instructor prepares the sound system. “What’d he do?”

“I’m in a seminar class with the fucker, and you wouldn’t believe the tangents that asshole can go on. We were talking about -”

You’re mostly tuning him out and considering how quickly you could squeeze a nap in when the music kicks up and the instructor is clapping along with the beat, ushering you all to your feet as some kind of unrecognizable synth track plays over a distorted early-2000s pop melody.

Everyone is back in place, the guy who you totally would have wrecked in a fight having moved as far away from Karkat as possible, the girl, now, in shorts and a t-shirt, like a normal human, almost, back on the mat beside you.

Too late, you recall Kanaya’s anxious warning on your way out to this class. Some girl from her seminar who she’s been talking to nonstop, or it seems like nonstop. And her brother, allegedly. Yeah. That would make sense. If this is Rose… shit. You were supposed to be nice to her, though frankly, it’s Kanaya’s fault for being such a jerk about the whole thing, acting like you wouldn’t be totally charming without someone dressing you down about exactly what to do.

You did, however, set out with every intention of meddling, and you may have slightly jeopardized a small portion of your meddling potential by being kind of a bitch yourself, which sucks, because oh man, this is the fabled Rose?

She’s pretty, you guess, and Kanaya has always been one for aesthetics, and her face is pink from trying to use weights that are clearly too heavy, like an idiot, unlike you, using weights that are slightly too light so you look buff in comparison with all the dumbasses sweating along with their three-pounders.

But oh, the barre socks. You can’t get over the barre socks, and in chuckling to yourself over how dumb they look, you find that this whole exercise is making the actual exercise much more tolerable than usual, with only Karkat huffing like a first year with a box of whip-its to keep you company.

You switch from floor work to barre work and back again, disappointed to find that you’ve used those terms correctly in your own head after only two classes. By the end of this semester, you’re going to be rolling into this joint with an acai bowl and a blonde ponytail, you’re fucking sure of it, and now you’re back to hating everything, which is at least some good and familiar vibes.

Once you’re too miserable to stand it anymore, which is about halfway through the thigh workout on the bar (barre?) itself, rolling your hip in little circles like a goddamned moron as the instructor comes by and corrects your extremely shitty movements into incrementally less shitty movements, you take a ‘water break’ and scoot out into the hall to find your phone.

Kanaya has sent you about half a million messages, which is to say, three.

You sigh.

GA: Please Recall Our Conversation And Do Not Be Terrible If You Can Avoid It Reasonably
GA: Vriska I Am Asking Very Nicely That You Do Not Ruin This For Me
GA: You Are Going To Ruin It Arent You

AG: I wasn’t until you sent me these ::::’(
AG: Now I’m totally gonna start messing with her. And the 8rother too! Seriously don’t get the appeal, 8ut okayyyyyyyy.

More likely than not, she’s overthinking this whole thing. Meddling herself, even, which is what you were planning to do, not that you’d expect anything else from Kanaya. She really is a world champion meddler.

The pounding music has shifted inside the barre studio. At the moment, it seems to be a club remix of ‘I Want It That Way’, which was funny the first time, but as the instructor has recycled music for the purpose of building associations between songs and workout sequences or whatever the hell, you’ve been making vague plans to build a time machine and murder Justin Timberlake as an infant, sparing the world, and most importantly yourself, from this torture.

You used to like this song.

From the outside, this might look like your own fault, you recognize. If you hadn’t dropped the other five PE classes you tried, you wouldn’t now be stuck taking two at once, though the other, an afternoon meditation practice in the campus’ chapel, is dumb as shit but not intolerable. Kanaya’s driven all of this home through laser-guided-effective… chiding, since she’s only said it once and you can’t really call that nagging, but it still pissed you off.

Does Kanaya like Justin Timberlake? You really will have to kill him, if only for the bit, at this point.

Thinking these thoughts, productive though it may be in cutting down on the actual hour spent torturing yourself with weird pelvic thrusts next to Karkat on an unsteady bar (or is it a fucking barre? Is it spelled like French? If it’s spelled like French, you hate it so much more, so you decide on that spelling) and glaring over at him with the intention of suplexing his scrawny ass into next week if he so much as looks at you, is not resulting in your hydration, which was your original plan.

You tuck your phone into the waistband of your shorts and slip on the linoleum of the gym floor in your stupid socked feet out to the water fountain to have an actual drink.

As you do this, you realize, after a second, that you are not alone. Someone else is waiting for the use of the water fountain. You drink for several seconds longer than you otherwise would have, then look up and see Rose, several steps back, a polite distance between you that you immediately close.

“Is this really gonna be a thing, you and your dumbshit brother here every night?”

“Regrettably, I believe this is very much going to be… a thing,” Rose says, walking around you and taking a long drink.

“Yeah, but you know what’s never been a thing? Barre socks. Even the instructor doesn’t wear barre socks,” you observe.

“The adhesion of the grippy surface improves my planking, as the website suggested it would,” Rose says mildly, and you abruptly and vividly picture her and Kanaya sitting four feet apart on a couch, drinking weak and lukewarm chamomile tea and discussing Science News or some utter bullshit like that.

Your roommate is boring enough already.

“You’re Vriska, then?” she adds, and you frown.

“Could be.”

“It’s a pleasure to finally meet you. I’m going to return to class, now.”

You pull your phone out of your shorts, returning to your chat window with Kanaya.

AG: Having some weird thoughts over here and I don’t like it one 8it.
AG: 8arre is mind control????????
AG: Kanaya.
AG: Is this hell class supposed to make your 8rain do weird things.

GA: Endorphins From Exercise Can Have An Effect On Your Mental State That Is Sedative Or Akin To Elation
GA: But I Doubt That Is The Subject Of Your Query
GA: What Did You Do

AG: Nothing! Yet.

GA: You Know You Are Not Obligated To Act On Every Thought You Have
GA: Particularly Not When These Impulses May Direct You To Do Things That I May Have Politely Requested That You Not Do

AG: See, you’re out of character too! You know 8etter than to ask me to do something.
AG: Or just to suggest a preference for one action over another.
AG: You’ve met me.

GA: Vriska Please

AG: Fear not, Kanaya dearest, I am only going to get to the 8ottom of all this, and likely do many heroic and admirable things in the process, like usual.

GA: This Was A Mistake

AG: You know it, 8a8e! :::;)

However, you mostly forget about your suspicions as you return to barre. The only thing you get to the bottom of is yourself, doing a variety of escalatingly uncomfortable exercises that the instructor refers to as ‘seat work’, punctuated with promises that, as the semester goes on, this will all get much easier.

Finally, the worst of it, as the class ends with partnered stretches, matched by height. It would be funnier to see Rose negotiating the spread-eagled hamstring-engaging poses with the still-shade-wearing asshole she calls a brother if you weren’t paired with Karkat, which is somehow worse.

“Look down from my face and I’ll scratch your eyes out,” you hiss, and he grimaces back in reply, leaning forward and backward in the prescribed rowing motion, as demonstrated by the instructor, hand in hand, feet pressed awkwardly against yours.

“I think my face would melt off, Indiana-Jones-Nazi-guy style, so you’d have to scratch fast,” he grouses.

“Aw, you don’t think I’m pretty?”

“You know I’m not stupid enough to answer that question.”

Unfortunately, he really isn’t that dumb, and the unfathomably long hour concludes without much fanfare. That part is good, the part where you get to put your shoes back on and change back into your actual clothes in the bathroom, despite the fact that everyone else is doing the same simultaneously.

Rose catches you before you vanish into the night. It’s dark by six, lately, which is just fucking depressing, and frankly disrespectful on the part of the tilt in the earth’s axis.

“Where are you headed?” she asks.

“Your mom’s house,” you reply. “To fuck your mom.”

She blinks, seemingly almost taken aback by the retort, which was supposed to be kind of funny, but, well, it’s easy to forget that you’re not talking to Kanaya when they have the weird-formal way of speaking in common.

“How about dinner?” she suggests, after a second.

“What?”

“An evening meal, consumed at varying times in different cultures, but near-ubiquitous in-”

“Alright, I got it, fine, but no funny business,” you say, ruffled by the fact that Rose appears to have preempted your meddling with her own. “Where’s your stupid brother?”

“Stormed off, but ironically,” she says, sounding utterly exhausted. “Likely about to find out that his own best friend has recently struck up an acquaintanceship with your friend Karkat, over there, which will perturb him even further.”

“Cool,” you say.

“Not exactly. This was not my intention with taking this class, and I’ll need to take decisive action to remedy this situation. Given your familiarity with Karkat, I wonder if you’d be willing to assist me?”

Oh, so it’s that kind of meddling. Not you-meddling or Kanaya-meddling. And even better, this is the sort of meddling that facilitates your own designs on… well, for lack of a better or less-repeated word, meddling! On your way to dinner, you resume texting Kanaya, just to update her on the situation, and frown as you recall your last couple of texts. What were you going to get to the bottom of? You can’t remember, but it must have been…

AG: I’m 8estest 8uds with Rose now, in c8se you were wondering.
AG: So who’s charming now, huh, Kanaya?
AG: Who’s charming now????????

You keep inconveniently drifting back to your own texts, though, which you should definitely stop doing.

No, you shouldn’t, you wanted to get to the bottom of this before and you want to get to the bottom of it now, dinner with Rose or not!

It’s very rude to space out so drastically and stare at one’s phone, so you stop doing that, and entirely stop considering any peculiarity in your internal monologue, or anyone else’s monologue of any sort, for that matter.

No! No you don’t!

Yes, you do.

No you don’t.

Yes you do.

==>

Chapter Text

Rose: Scheme with Vriska.

While the scheming, plotting, conspiracy, and what-have-you begins over dinner on Tuesday evening, this is far from the culmination of your plans for Vriska. Although you understand, now, the origins of Kanaya’s warnings - yes, her roommate is uncommonly abrasive, disconcertingly observant, and above all, maddeningly inscrutable, as though she’s actively trying to withhold something from you throughout the meal - she’s also very fun.

And she’s Kanaya’s roommate. A new topic of conversation. A new friend, even, not that you dare to really hope for such a thing. Your roster of close acquaintances, including your own brother, rarely edges above ‘three’. Between Vriska and Kanaya, this week has presented more novelty for your social calendar than the last several years combined.

Do you have Dave to thank for that?

You sincerely hope that you don’t.

At the very least, the credit for meddling belongs exclusively to you, and no one else, though you’ve decided to cede a fraction of it to Vriska in the form of your present scheme.

The facts are these.

Karkat is - per Vriska - exactly as terrible as Dave has described him, if not moreso, though you take this with a grain of salt, as your new friend, in her infinite wisdom, seems to have head-canoned a personality for your brother entirely founded on her distaste for his sunglasses. And when forced to reference you, she calls you ‘barre socks’, which is not your name or even a particularly descriptive symbol with which to associate you.

More objectively: he’s a media arts and sciences and English double major, also a senior. He lives across campus, in the same dorm as Kanaya and Vriska. Interesting, you suppose? You have at your disposal his class schedule, because he tweeted it at the beginning of the semester with the caption SUCK ON THESE NO-CLASS MONDAYS, ASSWIPES. This seems reflective, generally, of his style of interpersonal engagement. In all respects, the opposite of your brother’s. They were bound to intersect at some point. Don’t MAS majors typically know each other?

The issue to be resolved is clear. Karkat and Dave must be maneuvered into settling their disputes. If accomplishing this task in some way leads to your spending more time studying with Kanaya, perhaps sharing a table on a crowded evening in Starbucks, having not-quite-jokingly ordered complementary seasonally flavored lattes, hands inching closer together as you recall the groundbreaking scientific achievements of Takahashi and Yamanaka in identifying the factors behind the induction of pluripotency in ICM-retrieved embryonic cells, the slightest shadow of her lipstick left behind on her cup, but enough remaining on her lips to crease, slightly, when she presses them together fondly at some shared joke…

Well, all the better.

You cough, reminding yourself to focus on the problem at hand.

Vriska has been monologuing as your thoughts wander, and has most recently begun to list Karkat’s physical weaknesses with a delightful sincerity that plays in almost worryingly to her periodic reminders of how easy it would be to just kill him.

“...he’s always going on about his knees, too, the loser can’t even run properly. It’d take one person, ten minutes, maximum. I told you he’s in a single room, right? No one would know for days. Days.”

“As tempting as the murder plan is, and really, it does present a viable alternative,” you say vaguely, still somewhat lost in your own daydreams and quite perplexed about when exactly you became so presumptuous about Kanaya’s affections, “can we circle back to the resolution plan? To be clear, the one where no one dies.”

“Oh, yeah, right, the not-fun one,” Vriska says. “Not even that hard, either. Karkat’s beyond soft. It’s a front. Gets all weak in his shitty, shitty knees for a sincere apology. Romance-y stuff, movie-type gestures, you know the drill. The Notebook. That kinda nonsense.”

“Intriguing. So, short of commissioning Dave to build him a house with blue shutters and kiss him in the rain,” you suggest, struggling to remember any other relevant facts about The Notebook, a movie you have never seen and never will see, “we might leverage that by…”

“Dunno. You’re the one who’s too much of a little bitch to just kill him,” she says. “Figure it out, Barre Socks!”

She stands from your high-top table and saunters back to the dessert case, piling a fresh plate with double chocolate cookies. You frown after her.

Dave won’t be independently interested in formulating a sincere apology, if that’s truly what it would take. He’s rarely interested in sincerity, save for the point where irony lapses past kitsch and into something that could be mistaken for real. Ironic irony. Or the endless mathematical inversions that spring up, the model extended to its logical conclusion. Irony^n. The permutations are limitless. With this knowledge, though, it seems clear that you’ll have better luck leaning on your brother than on Karkat, which is a shame, because you can do that in the comfort of your own apartment, entirely without the involvement of anyone who might happen to be from Vriska’s room.

What exactly is his problem with Karkat, though?

Over the past few days, you’ve heard more than enough to indicate that there is some sort of problem, but none of Dave’s diatribes actually seem of much more substance than superficial disagreements regarding film preferences and general distaste for the volume with which Karkat speaks in class.

Now that you really think about it, as a situation in its constituent parts rather than as a single problem, it doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Dave enjoys arguing about movies.

“I’m going to be blunt,” you announce, as Vriska returns to the table. “And please know, despite the personal nature of this question, I have no intention of using information about anyone’s sexual orientation to disparage them.”

“If you’re gonna be blunt, be blunt,” she complains. “But yes, I’m gay, I’m single as fuck, and…”

She pauses, looking you up and down as you try to avoid gaping at her.

“After a few drinks, yeah, I’d go there.”

“...I was going to ask about Karkat,” you reply, after a second of not processing or considering that even a little bit.

“Ooh, not really sure what his deal is!” she says. “Had a huge thing for Kanaya, and I think they might have actually dated for a bit? Or something weird like that.”

Your stomach sinks, purely because this throws a wrench in your burgeoning plan to incite your brother to confront his feelings and for no other reason.

“Like, before she came out, obviously,” Vriska adds with a wicked smile.

As you mentioned before: terrifyingly perceptive.

“Ah,” you say. “The question, then, is up in the air.”

“The Karkat question.”

“A question of… endgame.”

“Endgame was a shitty movie.”

“How right you are, Vriska,” you say vaguely, as your phone hums from your purse. “How right you are.”

GA: How Did It Go
GA: I Hope I Have Not Misled You As To The Merits Of The Class

TT: Frankly, I feel almost suspiciously good.
TT: I worry that the state of my thighs, given a night’s sleep, will make me regret that statement.

GA: Oh Good
GA: So Everything Was Normal Then

TT: As normal as anything ever is, which is to say, not especially odd, nor disconcertingly mundane.
TT: Do you typically suspect some sort of barre shenanigans?

GA: What No Never Certainly Not
GA: An Interesting Alternate Topic Of Conversation Other Than That One Is A Snapchat I Received From My Old Friend Karkat Vantas Who You May Have Met

TT: Oh! Do tell.

GA: He Is Watching A Movie About
GA: Well I Am Not Entirely Sure
GA: The Sort He Would Not Watch Alone Which Is To Say The Kind That Has A Plot
GA: And Or Chainsaws Involved
GA: Tucker And Dale Versus Evil If You Have Heard Of It
GA: I Was Treated To Several Seconds Via Snapchat

TT: You and Dave could collaborate on a truly devastating diss track for this poor guy.
TT: Wait, and this is noteworthy because?

GA: To The Best Of My Knowledge He Is Not Watching It *Alone*
GA: It Is Possible That All This Meddling Is For Nought

You grimace at the sheer idea that… no. No, it won’t be this easy. In the sense that all you had to do was, what, make a small schedule change to accommodate the PE block? No.

Definitely not.

There will be more meddling before this effort is concluded, and let those words be marked for later reference and/or self-indulgent gloating!

Vriska, with what looks like a substantial amount of effort, has both her feet on the table, and is balancing the plate of cookies on her knees. She doesn’t appear to especially care that you’ve entirely checked out of the conversation, and you suppose that’s for the best.

TT: Despite my deep respect for your intuition, I hope to gather further data before we arrive at any kind of resounding verdict as to the success of this initiative.

GA: You Are Correct
GA: My Speculation Is Unscientific
GA: That Said I Most Certainly Have Observed Two Pairs Of Knees In Addition To The Expected Pair In The Frame Of This Image Of Alan Tudyk In Bloodstained Overalls
GA: I Concede They Could Be Any Knees

Your phone pings softly, indicating that you have received a photo. Specifically, a screenshot revealing, within the frame, yes, unmistakably a scene from one of Dave’s favorite movies. Films. Whatever he prefers, which changes by the day. But also… knees.

She could be right about the three distinct sets of knees.

TT: An intriguing hypothesis, to be sure.
TT: Speaking of which, how are you doing on the miRNA papers? I find the concept counterintuitive at first glance, and thus, quite challenging.

GA: Oh Really
GA: I Would Have Thought This Section Would Be Right Up Your Alley As They Say
GA: You Offer Such Insights On Genetics During In Class Discussion

TT: Flattery will get you absolutely everywhere, but does little to resolve my difficulties with the topic.
TT: I wonder if taking genetics so recently has left me less amenable to conceptual disruptions of established material?

GA: The Concept Is Fairly Straightforward Once You Get Past Certain Assumptions About G1 And S Stage Mitosis

TT: Ah, it sounds like there’s a trick to it.

Right about here, your fingers seem to move of their own accord. You wonder, strikingly, how you’ve danced around this so completely for so long. Danced around what? While you can’t say you’re completely sure, you definitely think that, so…

TT: I don’t suppose you’d be willing to get together for breakfast or lunch some morning and assist a hapless classmate?

Oh. That doesn’t sound right at all. Presumptuous. Or flippant, certainly.

Vriska has finished her cookies, for the second time, and has her phone, now, balanced on the scuffed red surface of her boots. You can feel her eyes on you, though, and it makes you wince just slightly more than previously, somehow, like her gaze can pass through your phone and she’s about to comment on the quality or lack thereof in the exchange with Kanaya.

She doesn’t, of course, just glances back to her phone and… represses a laugh?

You remember, vividly, why you only have three friends.

The seconds drag on abominably. So much so that you consider getting up, getting a cup of tea, anything but waiting for chastisement on your… forwardness? Is this forward? What’s it forward of, or forward to? You don’t know!

“Useless lesbians,” Vriska announces.

“I beg your pardon?”

“You heard me.”

“I -”

“Useless!”

She finishes a text with a flourish and sets her phone down.

After a second, your own phone buzzes.

GA: That Sounds Like A Compelling Academic Opportunity For Us Both
GA: May I Share My Google Calendar With You

Without meaning to, you shiver, though the dining hall is far warmer than the piles of iced-over grey snow on display several stories below through the floor-to-ceiling windows would suggest. Is there a draft? You suspect that there is a draft.

TT: Yes, please do!
TT: I mean, that is very considerate on your part. May I do the same, to preempt future impositions on my part?

GA: Oh Yes Certainly

How long have you been holding your breath?

Vriska huffs a short, dramatic sigh, and you look up, remembering that she is definitely still here. Oops.

“I’m about to head out,” she says. “See you on Thursday, Barre Socks!”

“It’s Rose,” you say, in case she forgot and is too proud to say so. Sometimes this is the case for you, though you rarely fill the void with nicknames.

“Sure it is,” she replies, somewhat cryptically, tossing her mess of dark hair over her shoulder and slipping out of the chair. “Tell you what, you and me… we’re going to get to the bottom of this!”

Something about her inflection makes you think she’s trying to get you to say something specific. Do you and Vriska somehow already have an inside joke about this? No, you can’t remember either of you using that specific phrase.

Her expectant - near-triumphant - expression falters slightly.

“Yes?” you agree, through your hesitation, before too much time can pass. “I suppose we will, mutually? Uh, bloodlessly?”

“Useless,” she sighs, slinging her backpack over her narrow shoulder and disappearing before you can fire off a retort, which is just as well, because it likely wouldn’t have been an especially inspired one.

You schedule lunch with Kanaya. Fret about it all through your morning seminar.

Then, the moment comes. It lingers. And it passes.

Maybe you should have picked a topic that you sincerely don’t understand. The more you think about it, the more clear it is that hubris, always among the chiefest of your problems, is at play. When Kanaya sits stiffly and primly across from you, taking delicate bites of rice and vegetables intermittently (is she a vegetarian?) there’s no hint of the playful tone that your text messages occasionally take on. As exciting as miRNA is, you can only carry on a conversation about it for so long.

At a loss for topics, you find yourself discussing Vriska, of all things, which is odd, to say the least. Kanaya’s affection for her longstanding roommate is altogether genuine. After all, you realize, she could very easily have chosen to room alone.

“She seems like someone who could grow on you,” you concede, and Kanaya smiles in a wholly appropriate way, averting her gaze slightly to laugh.

“It’s pleasant, having someone to care about. Necessary, that it be someone who deeply doesn’t want to be cared for. Otherwise, it might consume a person.”

“Ah,” you agree, thoughts turning a bit oddly to your long-dead pet cat. “I think I understand.”

Were it not for the periodic visions that you find it increasingly difficult to ignore - Kanaya with your lipstick on her cheek, Kanaya sighing as you take her hand in your own, the smell of her perfume, the vividly imagined taste of her neck - where are you getting this from, you wonder? Were it not for that, maybe it wouldn’t be so oddly crushing when it doesn’t happen.

Perhaps that’s on you. Waiting, you insist to yourself, keeping yourself at a fair distance, offering her the opportunity to slip away if she wishes. This is how you treat the things as well as the people that you love. You take care not to suffocate them, knowing how easy that is for you to do. How all-consumingly you could love… someone.

Not necessarily her.

Someone, though, sometimes you think that you truly could.

It’s a terrifying prospect.

There is a selfish motive, too, isn’t there? Or merely logical, because it would be so easy to offer sincere and boundless affection to someone undeserving of it. Presumptuous, you suppose, to consider your love in particular to be a good or tempting offer for someone to exploit.

Kanaya is abundantly deserving of all good things in the world.

Things that are good and certain.

You come to know this with great confidence, over a weekly seminar and occasional lunches. At the same time, you find yourself grateful for the distraction that is scheming, and increasingly just gossiping, with Vriska after barre.

The two of you both notice, after all, how things are changing between Dave and Karkat, entirely without your intervention. First, Dave begins to take the mat to your left, Vriska to your right, Karkat to hers. Then, Karkat begins to show up to class earlier, presumably observing that Dave frequently arrives borderline-of-late, and takes down and disinfects an extra mat and set of equipment for him.

To avoid Dave holding up the class, he insists.

Over dinner, you snicker about it more than is strictly polite. Vriska brings that out in you, a bit, despite yourself.

“You can’t tell me that’s not true fucking love,” Vriska grumbles, once you’ve finished repeating progressively more ridiculous excuses for setting out and wiping down barre mats back and forth. Her best: Karkat is setting a place at the barre studio for Elijah, ‘you know, like at seder’. Your best was probably the suggestion that Karkat is practicing mise-en-place for when he becomes a professional personal trainer.

“Funny kind of love,” you laugh.

“Seriously, those things are gross. He hates touching them. Crabby asshole’s totally in love. I’m never wrong about this stuff!”

“How, though?” you argue. “When did this happen? I mean, we’ve seen it going on from an extrinsic perspective, but where is the connection happening?”

Vriska shrugs, waving about a chicken finger like a conductor’s baton to punctuate her reply.

“People have their own head-games going on. Irons, fires, etcetera. Not sharing doesn’t mean it’s not real. I mean, some of the best shit is the shit you keep private, right?”

Right, you suppose.

Kanaya may never know how you, or at least a part of you, definitely seems to feel about her. You tap one of your chicken fingers against Vriska’s in a sort of ‘cheers’ gesture, then take a bite.

The snow is beginning to melt, but a blizzard is predicted on Friday night. Disappointing, since it’s unlikely to lead to anything resembling a snow day. The timing, however, is convenient with Dave’s illicit ‘movie nights’, always vaguely defined, never fully explained, though they get him out of the house after his evening class on Friday.

“Do you have blizzard plans?” you ask Vriska idly, aware, in a strange sort of way, of how much easier it sometimes is to talk to her than it is to talk to Kanaya, how much lower-stakes the whole thing feels, despite the fact that Vriska has the capacity and the chaotic motive to positively eviscerate you, should you ever reveal too substantial a weakness at some point.

“Sleep it out?” she says. “Snow is dumb. Just a bad idea. When I get out of this stupid school, I’m never coming back to the northeast. Fuck, I’ll burn this shithole down and do everyone a favor.”

“For my part, I have a suspicion that I’ll be facing an empty apartment, should Dave maintain his standing plans and attend his movie night,” you admit.

“Awwwwwwww, you’re gonna be lonely without your brother,” Vriska laughs.

“Actually, I was considering inviting some friends over.”

“What friends?” she asks, smiling toothily. “Or, shit, should I be, like, nice to you after a few weeks in cahoots?”

“It’s a fair compunction. You, Kanaya, Jade, John. That’s the full lineup. I’m overdue to host a bit of a get-together, emphasis on ‘a bit of’, of course.”

Vriska snorts.

“We’ll see if I come to your lame party.”

“We will, won’t we?” you reply, smiling back, just as brightly, which always seems to make her suspicious. “So long as I’m not vegetating while my brother… well. From what I’ve heard, I understand he’s finally acquiesced to watching ‘The Notebook’. Not that he’ll divulge the far more interesting answer to the question, ‘with whom?’.”

“Damn,” Vriska says appreciatively. “Some character development, huh?”

Character development?

Maybe.

You can’t help but wonder whether this is the manifestation of some more direct, less fastidiously subtle Dave. His effort has always been equally invested in the most deliberate of choices and the obfuscation of his intentionality.

So of course, you wonder whether he may be planning on falling in love or something.

Either way, something suspicious is afoot.

But what?

==>

Chapter Text

Karkat: Fall in love or something.

You have not realized, and will never have to realize, exactly what is going on here. You are preparing for a snowed-in movie night by effectively pregaming ‘The Notebook’, a film adapted from the novel of the same name by Nicholas Sparks in 2004 in which Allie, a plucky underage heiress, finds herself smitten with a lumber mill employee multiple years her senior, who is played by Ryan Gosling.

A different version of you would correct me, and perhaps treat me and anyone in earshot to a lecture on the relative merits of Troll Ryan Gosling, who was involved in the version you prefer to treat as canonical. That is a shame. You cannot access this self, a Karkat vested with infinitely greater relevance and essentiality in all respects. You are currently pining over a be-shaded blond classmate in advance of his arrival at your room, who, unlike Noah, the male protagonist in The Notebook, has neither the intention nor the capability to refurbish a house on your behalf.

Inviting him (and John, of course, though at this point the tactic is such a resounding fucking failure of a ruse that you may as well stop doing so, because at the point where even John has caught on to what’s going on, well… you’re fucked) to your room to watch and meditate on the finer points of The Notebook is not going to change Dave’s complete lack of predilection for carpentry or grandiose gestures or resemblance to any Ryan Gosling in any universe.

You have imagined the scenario several times this afternoon anyway.

It is not an indictment of your capabilities that I point this out. Might as well be sincere about it, right? Truthful, as close to canon as you’re likely to get. I don’t have to interfere to make this happen. I have been doing so regardless, but subtly.

I am honing my craft.

You are fantasizing about a rowboat on a lake, surrounded by ducks.

I don’t have to tell you to do this. Narratives progress more smoothly, more seamlessly, when people are permitted to behave more or less as they would in the absence of a firm, authorial guiding hand. A character-driven approach rather than a strictly plot-driven initiative, if you will. My time as a writer has only reinforced this principle.

I’m not a biologist, as this Rose is, and yet, I am. Humans as a eusocial species are capable of evolving outside of individual trial-and-error due to shared communal stake in our progeny. Because we are capable of altruism and all that comes with it: cohabitation, division of labor, community organization and mobilization, we have, in this universe, as in most universes, optimized the biomechanisms that facilitate these endeavors to such an extent that we have effectively taken over the world.

This all to say: it is highly advantageous for a human to maintain an awareness of fellow humans, as much so as it is for an organism to maintain an inventory of self-knowledge. There is little evolutionary advantage to scrupulous attention to harmonious plotting. No more beneficial for a human than a dog.

Humans, though, are perilously capable of discerning even the slightest irregularities in the behavior of others. In a story driven by plot at the cost of character, therefore, even an auspiciously talented author runs the risk of descending into a sort of inter-consciousness uncanny valley.

Not to disparage anyone in particular, but this is amateur-hour content for an omniscient being, isn’t it?

You are a human. You have soft, brown, human-textured skin. Your fingers are tipped with nails composed of alpha-keratin. The closest material to chitin that can be observed in your immediate vicinity belongs to a shiny green beetle ambling its way past you on your windowsill.

In this universe, you have no desire to eat it.

I wonder, can you feel it, many universes away, on your relevant, essential, and truthful cheek, somehow, as I could, in these endless duplications-of-self, when the beetle beats its wings, takes flight, just briefly upsets the air around your face as it flutters into the windowpane?

Can Kanaya feel it when I reach to her through this narrative?

If you’ll forgive me, Karkat, I always thought her to be much more perceptive than you. Closer, herself, to some form of ascension or another. That might simply be the musings of a woman who misses her wife. Perhaps I put too much on her shoulders in these and other speculations. But let it be said, in every iteration where I have the opportunity, I love her. Any of these stories of us could have been a love letter.

I’m not altogether certain why I chose this one first, but something about it beckoned. You might understand that better than anyone. Certain romantic notions of how things ought to be.

A world where Kanaya and I meet under a mundane set of conditions.

In which we fall in love more slowly than I might prefer, where the circumstances are so tenuous that the slightest change to the story might allow it never to have happened. A story about senior spring, a time when nothing matters. As irrelevant as a story can be, in the grand scheme of things, but no less beautiful.

There is something so marvelous about that. Irrelevant, inessential, but true.

Through my presence, here, I will make it true.

I would have built Allie the house, you know. Not Allie specifically, but… perhaps it isn’t all so thoroughly vapid. I do see where you’re coming from, fixating on these meaningless yet reassuring microcosms. Why suffer, with the option not to suffer?

Not to worry.

I don’t suffer anymore.

Kanaya does, though. I feel the truth of that, now that my own agony is past. Searing through unreality itself, I feel her as she authentically is.

This, what I am doing here, is a temporary bandage, a topical sedative. A first step to understanding, to inhabiting my ascended form completely. To unraveling it, the way he did it. I’m going to understand.

In the meantime, why not watch The Notebook? It has its problems, but so many things do. Why abstain from candy until one’s tongue is metal and unyielding? And why not do one’s best to permit the patterns-of-people one loves to function as themselves, and allow the world to unfold from there?

From love.

Would that not be a more palatable way of meddling, Karkat?

You sniff as Noah tells Allie that he’ll be seeing her, dabbing at the tears welling against the bridge of your nose. You know he’ll never see her again. His eyes close, and the screen goes dark. Credits roll.

After a second, you realize, with complete horror, mere hours before you’re set to debut this alleged masterpiece to Dave, that the Netflix cut of The Notebook has abandoned the final scene, in which the nurse discovers the lovers dead, hand in hand.

This is an utter fucking travesty, tantamount to a crime against cinema! The ambiguity of it is cowardly. Stories deserve endings, not merely fades-to-black, sad though they may be! Where’s the catharsis in a parade of stories without ends?

Guess the fuck what, Hollywood, if you wanted those, you’d occupy the real world, where every stupid goddamned motherfucking thing is followed by another, and another, and it’s all just fucking exhausting.

It certainly is exhausting, isn’t it.

You close your laptop, sigh up at the ceiling, and resume imagining the paddles dipping in the lake and the ducks and the young Ryan Gosling, though in your fantasy, he’s wearing suspiciously familiar shades.

Whatever floats… propels?... your boat, I suppose.

Imagine the ducks or the house or the kiss or the delicious transgression of forbidden passions as you prefer. I’m going to build my wife a universe.

The best love is the kind that makes us reach for more.

==>

Chapter Text

Vriska: Survive snowpocalypse 2019.

As a matter of fact, you have other friends, not that Rose has ever asked. Terezi, for example, your longtime internet buddy who went off to school in New York City around the same time you headed up to Boston. Not as though she’s around a lot, but! She is another friend. One on a long, long list of your many acquaintances and obligations.

You don’t have to name them for them to exist!

It’s a tangled web you weave, and frankly, you’re not sure you have any reason to go to her pathetic party, whether or not you sometimes enjoy post-barre dinners with her.

It would be funny to see her actually interact with Kanaya, you suppose. She gets so proper, practically whips out a thesaurus on the spot whenever you bring up your roommate. If you stuck the two of them across from each other, you’re pretty sure, like with speaker feedback intensifying to an intolerable squeal, after a few seconds it’d just be them saying ‘antidisestablishmentarianism’ back and forth.

Like making out, but for losers.

Kanaya is flitting around your room, deciding on her dress, her boots, her hair, the contents of her just-in-case overnight bag - ‘so as not to be a demanding houseguest, should the snowstorm interfere with returning to our dorm’ - god, she’s so full of it.

You have half a mind to let her know that she’s as bad as Karkat and eight times as up-her-own-ass, but you feel an odd stab of guilt (ew!) that prevents you from doing so.

Ew, ew, ew, ew, what? No!

This is your fussy asshole friend. She’s heard worse since this morning alone. What’s different between now and this morning? Other than the dumb party. Rose is even calling it a party, now, made a spectacularly depressing Facebook event and invited all two of her other friends who aren’t off getting hot and heavy with Karkat, probably.

What if it’s just her and Kanaya?

She may not ask a lot of questions about your life, or you may just be a fucking zen master of dodging personal disclosures, but you have picked up on a fair amount about your reluctant acquaintance, including the fact that Jade, the sleepy one, is notoriously unreliable past seven at night, and John, the… other one who isn’t related to her, ouch, has something to do with Dave and Karkat of his own.

If not you, it really will be Rose Barre Socks and sweet, innocent Kanaya.

That simply can’t be allowed to happen. Luckily, disruption is your middle name!

No, no, another stab of guilt, which doesn’t even make a little sense this time, because you’re actually being a tremendous altruist, nobly sacrificing your evening of napping and intermittently pining over Terezi’s latest post, where she looks remarkably close with some pretty girl you met the last time you visited her at Barnard. You’re a goddamned hero, and Kanaya should be on her knees, thanking you!

Ugh! You should have pushed Aradia off a roof when you had the chance. Now she and Terezi are gonna have eight billion stupid brilliant babies and fuck off to Wall Street or wherever the fancy New York people go to do a Goldman Sachs internship and destroy the whole world together.

You feel a very strong impulse to stay home and contemplate this imagined scenario.

Then, you remember that’s stupid, why would you do that, you do not obsess , you are Vriska Fucking Disruption Serket… man, that is not a great name, you can do better than that. Maybe you ought to stay home to think that through.

“Argh!” you announce, voicing your frustration at your misbehaving train of thought aloud, nearly prompting Kanaya to drop her lipstick.

“You’re right,” she says, more to herself than to you. “Lip color for a small event after eight in the evening is… presumptuous, isn’t it?”

“No!”

“No?” she queries, as you tug dramatically at the mass of dark hair that’s gotten all messed up on top of your head in the process of napping. “Lipstick, then? Or a tasteful gloss.”

“Get out! Get out of my fucking head!!!!!!!!”

“Certainly. The gloss is quite intuitive, now that I think it through,” Kanaya murmurs with a nod of assent that transitions into an expression of alarm when you start slamming your face against the wall. “Ah, Vriska, is something the matter?”

“I’m coming to the stupid thing tonight!” you shout, though your tongue tangles around the words and Kanaya’s confused frown only deepens.

“What?”

“I’m coming! To! The stupid! Fucking! Thing!”

“Oh,” she says, clearly not reassured by this at all.

To really settle it, your fight through your suddenly-noodled arms, open up the Facebook event on your phone, and check… ‘maybe’.

Damn it! You missed!

But your sense of certainty has only increased. Kanaya is the only ‘going’ RSVP. Not only that, but she RSVP’d literally within seconds of Rose posting the event, which you know, because you were eating chicken fingers across from her when she received the notification. You are down for a ‘maybe’, but your conviction will not waver! You are walking to…

“Shit,” you say, checking the event location. “She really lives in the middle of fucking nowhere. The whole-ass way across campus.”

Plenty of time for whoever has their grubby little paws in your brain to disrupt your disruption.

You feel tired. Uncommonly so. To get across campus, you’ll need to change out of your sleep clothes, put on boots and a jacket, endure the cold… and your bed is undeniably cosy, isn’t it? This is something you would do. Something that you regularly do, in fact, when snow is beginning to fall outside your window. This is the most typical set of circumstances imaginable.

Remember when you didn’t even want to go in the first place? Do you remember how many times you said that aloud? I do. Four. You said that four times.

Go to sleep, Vriska.

“We’re going, right now!” you declare through gritted teeth, rolling bodily out of your bed, landing on the floor with a painful-sounding noise of impact, muted slightly by your rug. “Let’s go!”

You are the most contrary being in this universe.

“No I’m not, and fuck off!”

Kanaya looks utterly bewildered.

You smile, jaw locked, incredibly reassuring in every possible respect.

“It was you who suggested that… forgive the direct quote, but ‘only pathetic losers show up on time’,” she says slowly, as you hurl yourself around the room in the process of picking up a pair of socks and locating your jacket and a flannel to slightly reduce the very-accurate impression that you are wearing literal pajamas.

“Yeah, yeah, but Rose is gonna get lonely without us,” you parry, wedging your socked feet into a pair of well-worn boots. “So let’s fucking go, huh?”

You know this voice.

Weeks ago, hearing it for the first time, you had your suspicions. And yes, it’s a little distorted, not quite right, but unmistakable, now.

Rose is in your head. Maybe not this Rose, since you’ve tried that - you know she’s a shitty liar, you’d have figured it out by now, you’re a fucking awesome liar and you just have a knack for this kind of thing. But she’s got to be the key to this.

Since why this fuck would a not-Rose Rose give one single shit about you, specifically? And not Kanaya, at all, you’ve grilled her… subtly, of course, but with the knowledge that Kanaya isn’t fucking stupid, she’d know as well as you would if someone was meddling with her thoughts. You’re both constantly locked in a never-ending meddlers’ duel! She’s at least your equal in this respect.

And she hasn’t cottoned on to anything. You’ve tried.

If it’s not Kanaya that this mystery-Roseish-force is trying to get to, then it’s Rose herself. So won’t the voice feel obligated to intervene once you start kicking her ass?

You don’t know her, but you do know you, and you…

Are feeling very tired.

No! Fuck you! Fuck… that! You...

Feel no inclination towards any sort of violence.

“The fucking shit I do!”

Kanaya looks utterly bewildered. You are concerning her deeply. That thought has nothing to do with the slippery wordiness of the voice. Her eyes are wide with… worry, sincere worry.

“Just go!” you snap. “You look great! I’ll catch up, okay? I just… need… a second, I promise promise promise I’ll tell you what’s happening later!”

Annoyingly enough, she doesn’t immediately comply, lingers in your room as you struggle against some invisible force of exhaustion. But you get yourself under control after a few more seconds of your bizarre metaphysical battle-of-wills. As long as you don’t actually go anywhere, the mental pressure doesn’t build any further.

You sway slightly on your feet before you think to lock your thigh muscles, which have grown prodigiously more powerful over the past few weeks of plié-squat torment, a real fucking perk, actually, not that you’d ever tell Kanaya that if you could avoid it. Yes. You have a handle on this!

“Are you okay, Vriska?” Kanaya asks, after the pause has drawn out to the point of being, like, physically painful. “I know the open-ended approach is rarely successful with you, but I’m really not clear on what might be the problem. If it’s something to do with my behavior in some way… there’s nothing I can do to help you without understanding the source of your distress.”

She’s acting calmer than she has any right to be, given your incredibly severe existential dilemma and probably-kind-of-erratic-seeming-from-a-less-informed-perspective behavior. Yeah, the shouting, that really should have freaked her out more than it seems to have.

Kanaya crosses her arms and waits for you to reply.

Rapid-fire, you consider about eight hundred lies to get her off your case. This is actually a talent of yours. Kanaya didn’t find out about the time you slept in South Station for a night after missing your bus up to New York City to see Terezi until you accidentally made a joke about it like two months afterward, far too late for her to reasonably get all fussy about the terrible things that theoretically could have happened ‘in that kind of a situation, bluh’ to someone less fucking badass than you are. She still did, got all upset and everything. You felt kind of bad. No ass to it.

But this is both extremely different and entirely the same as all of the times you’ve thrown your nosy roommate off the trail. No matter how weird the situation, this is your fight.

You have to do everything by yourself around here!

The stupid voice knows you too well.

A few more seconds pass, and you recall that Kanaya definitely said something declaration-sounding that you would have been paying more attention to if you weren’t half-convinced, as she is, that you’re midway through a more severe mental breakdown than usual.

She’s dealt with enough of those to probably have a sense that might be what’s happening here. And that’s a very real wave of guilt there, thinking about that, how she’s always been fucking here for you. No matter how thoroughly and frequently you’ve fucked up.

“It’s alright if you’re not ready to talk about it,” she says, taking a step back, which is such a stupidly kind gesture on her part, since you know that’s basically the opposite of what she wants to say, but exactly what she knows you want to hear.

You blink.

It’s exactly what you wouldn’t expect from her, isn’t it?

“Gotta be real with you: I’m being mind-controlled, I think,” you announce, not letting yourself mull it over for more than a few milliseconds. “Real shoddy job, some amateur mind-fuck work, but it has something to do with your snugglebuddy Rose.”

Now that’s just uncalled for. I’ve hardly touched your mind.

“Oh,” Kanaya says. “Do you have… and please don’t think I’m reflexively disbelieving you, I merely… do you have any evidence of that?”

“Not yet, but I will! Seriously, if I don’t convince you by… like, by the end of the weekend, I promise I’ll email my dumb therapist, okay? But that’s not going to happen, because I’m right.”

You wish that you had a clear way to monologue about this massive strategic victory without convincing Kanaya beyond a shadow of a doubt that you’re losing your grip. Oh, but you just have to gloat! Hey, not-Rose-Rose mindfucker!

No.

Hm, how’re you planning on getting Kanaya alone at the dumb party now, when she’s fussing over me? Looks like me and her are a package deal, unless someone gets real honest about whatever the fuck is going on! Didn't think I could be honest, huh? Too bad! I'm adaptable as fuck, actually! I've undergone some fucking massive personal growth in the last couple of years. You don't know me as well as you think you do!

Stop that.

Alright. This has gone on for long enough. Let’s take five. In a setting other than human Serket’s shitty brain. Immediately.

You blink again. Take off your glasses, clean them, and put them back on.

“Anyway,” you tell Kanaya. “We’re going to need to talk this over with Rose.”

Whether that talk is going to involve a series of spectacular roundhouse kicks is highly dependent on what happens next. But even if you only have five minutes free of oddly-colored thoughts, it’ll be well spent getting into position for the next phase of your plan.

Outside of the cosy halls of your dorm, it’s beginning to snow in large, downy pieces. Kanaya follows you in near-silence, like she doesn’t exactly want to know the details of what’s going on. You can’t really blame her for that. It’s a lot to take in.

Sometimes you get a funny feeling in these sorts of situations.

Rose will probably believe you.

She’s fucking weird like that, yeah, but also, you’re starting to feel… lucky.

==>

Chapter Text

“They aren’t all doomed,” the robotic manifestation of the Seer of Light insists, in a conversation occurring before the events of this recently-opened window into a largely mundane universe transpired. “Have you considered that?”

“Can't say I have,” Dirk replies, without any particular enthusiasm. He is sharpening an exceptionally ornate and well-made sword with a worn-down piece of sandpaper. The fact that he has been doing so without respite for a period of time notable even to an omniscient robotic being has not escaped Rose’s notice. “I usually consider things solely when they become, you know, interesting or important in literally any way whatsoever. It’d be the wild west in here if I didn’t uphold a few standards.

“This has the potential to be both interesting and important. I’m curious if I can see something that you can’t, or vice-versa, of course. Specifically, in what ways our capabilities may diverge. It’s the sort of question that will demand some sincere introspection on both of our parts, but may yield useful evidence regarding a mutually amenable path forward.”

“What, you don’t like my path?”

“I find it unnecessarily nihilistic, as I comprehend it further. It’s my view that ultimate powers ought to facilitate ultimate solutions, though this may have a causative relationship with the sheer density of my recently-acquired aspects-of-self who are classically trained scientists with post-middle-school education.”

“Mm.”

“Additionally, I hope that considering something other than the fast-eroding blade of your katana will get you out of whatever you’ve been wallowing in since we departed Earth C,” she adds, crossing her arms with a hollow metallic noise that she is still not accustomed to.

“The only thing I’m wallowing in is victory.”

“Oh, certainly, I’m aware,” Rose says flatly.

She is aware of a lot of things, now. Many are unpleasant. Painful, even, in a way that nothing was supposed to be from the inside of a nigh-impenetrable chassis. Her abilities have expanded dramatically, which was very much expected.

But one doesn’t have to be a Seer of anything to determine that lounging about in relative stasis with one’s increasingly unmoored father on a questionably-acquired spacecraft is hardly the most fortuitous of outcomes.

Just a seer of stuff, really, all in lowercase.

She sees a lot of stuff, as a matter of fact. Things, too. The boundaries have fallen, and it’s clear, now, with John’s sacrifice, the world they left behind still glows with relevancy, a tendril of pure light following their craft to its destination. A new universe. There is a strangely opaque quality to Dirk’s plans, a blind spot, she now concedes, not solely because she loves him (she loves him?) she loves him, he’s her father, more her than anyone in any universe, and to turn her back on him in any respect would be to do the same to a non-negligible piece of herself, a self she values highly.

In any case, Dirk’s described ascension, a transition from hyperawareness of a fragmented and largely doomed self to omniscience-through-unity, ‘of many, one’, that kind of thing… it doesn’t seem to fit her. Because, while her consciousness was drawn brutally to the Roses of doomed timelines, while her sight was monopolized by the horror and the blinding, true-but-irrelevant and thus unavoidable pain, separated from her position in canon by sheets of mental cellophane, stretching with the agony of their proximity and her helplessness… this is no longer the story of many doomed Roses and one whose life was snatched out of the infinite permutations of despair by her doofy childhood friend bearing a bloody scarf.

(That was all. That was the difference between her and a heroic but meaningless death. That was nothing. A soap bubble’s certainty.)

The nightmarishness of the doomed timelines still waits behind the eyes of her sleeping body, but, of course, in this form, she has no eyes, and no dreams, and can conceive only mutedly of their pain. Her perfect awareness of the other Roses is also perfectly impersonal. A sword to the gut means nothing more than the objective sum of medical and metaphysical knowledge of the act to this iteration of herself.

But in the absence of that miasma of vision-darkening uncertainty and irrelevancy, she’s become aware of the existence of infinite other timelines. Which, perhaps, she should have expected. Infinite other Roses - the quantity ‘infinity’ does suggest a degree of ongoing expansion, of unknowable limitlessness. Few of the doomed Roses lived long past thirteen, and none of their educational systems survived to their middle school graduations. Her academic knowledge of universal metaphysics might have been more robust from the beginning had that not been the case.

The fog has lifted.

Many worlds untouched by the game glimmer faintly with the most limited possibility of relevancy, and she leafs through them like storybooks. Unfathomable worlds, unfathomable Roses. Not-untrue. Not yet confirmed to be irrelevant.

Which isn’t to say that they’re all beautiful; in more than she would care to admit, she succumbs to what she determines must be fundamental character flaws, addiction as a crutch, dependency on people she considers inferior to feed her vanity, deliberate isolation, it’s not… flattering.

Most aren’t like that, though. Most are just human stories, colored by these tendencies, but perhaps even more resoundingly human for it. Stories she hadn’t considered, at least, not for the last decade or so, could be about her. Not in any meaningful way. Not in truth. Not with even the faintest shimmer of relevancy.

She remembers wanting these things. Petty interpersonal and procedural problems - the sort you can solve fairly easily when neither you nor your friends are at the brink of death at any given moment. Self-improvement for self-improvement’s sake. A functional relationship with Dave, even, as much as either of them ever had a chance at such a thing.

It’s there. It’s not-unreal.

Can Dirk see that?

He’s been on her, since she ascended, to practice, to involve herself in some inconsequential timeline, to rehearse before they reach their much-vaunted destination and set his plan in motion. His plan. Very much his.

So she picks the one that she most enjoys watching. Names she recognizes. Names that would make her heart ache, if she had one, that resonate so profoundly in the consciousness-of-Rose that animates the metal body she now inhabits that she might as well be able to feel.

Because, cutting through it all, she can sense the increasing relevancy of her wife. Increasing? Approaching, perhaps. A reckoning is coming, and if this disturbs Dirk even incrementally, he isn’t letting on.

What she wants, as much as she can want anything, when she can see everything, is to inhabit a world where she didn’t leave. Where the mistakes belong to someone else, and are not so unforgivable. Where she can… she would never say this, but where she can prove herself unlike her father, prove that she doesn’t need to touch Kanaya’s mind to deserve her love and her forgiveness, to earn it, she loves her. And in this universe, it doesn’t matter if she fails either way.

It’s easier to make her presence felt, she finds, in other Light players, whether or not the game has ever touched this universe. She formulates a few theories based on this, the most adequately explanatory of which supports a splintering of her aspect rather than herself - Dirk may be bound to his own existence, which is inextricably bound to the infinite doomed timelines that shelter their canon existence from the truly inessential timelines. The barre routines and the meet-cutes in high school physics classes and the domestic bliss tempered by unreality.

These Dirks may not be accessible to him, because they may not be him. But as long as the Light is present, she can be present. And as long as there is Sight, she can see.

She’ll have to discuss it with him once she sorts this universe out.

This Rose is more conscientious than she ever individually grew to be. Talented, familiarly enough. Has experienced her fair share of hardships, but no more than she can handle. A brother who truly loves her, and who she truly loves in return. Friends - her friends, but in a world in which she’s always been able to rely on their being alive from one day to the next.

This is a Rose who will be fine with or without Kanaya.

She can’t say the same for herself.

Almost eagerly, she immerses herself in the senior spring of the education she was never able to pursue. And she learns exactly how and why she knows so much about miRNA. And she almost forgets the truth of the universe waiting for her outside the oddly cosy fluorescence of the barre studio, the kitchen of Rose and Dave’s apartment in which mulled wine simmers on the stovetop as snow falls thick and silent outside.

It’s a beautiful distraction from the consequences she’ll have to face. Not only those incurred by Dirk. Her own, and those she’s facilitated. It’s coming, and she sees that, the way she sees everything, now.

She’s captivated by a universe in which this is not the case.

So taken by the logistics of it, the careful tweaking and subsequent obfuscation of authorial intent, that she doesn’t immediately notice Dirk’s increasing interest in her delicate meddling. He puts down the sword and the sandpaper altogether.

The near-undetectable shimmer of the universe she’s opened up with a surgeon’s skill begins to prick with fresh points of light, glistening filaments linking it to her, first, and then to the ship itself.

“Holy shit,” Dirk breathes, as Vriska snaps back at her, somehow, from across near-infinite barriers of inessential un-meaning and unknowableness.

As the soft luminescence flares so bright that even she, immersed in the task at hand, can’t miss it.

Fission-cracks split open, flooding the universe with wholly unearned relevance.

Metaphysically, millions of miles away, and yet, narratively, closer than ever, Vriska and Kanaya fight their way out of their room and into a burgeoning snowstorm on what should have been the evening of their story’s climax. ‘Should have’, of course, no longer an objective judgement.

The connection has been forged.

This universe has meddled right back.

“Alright,” he interrupts. “This has gone on for long enough. Let’s take five. In a setting other than human Serket’s shitty brain. Immediately.”

If Rose had blood, it would run cold. She doesn’t, and it does not, but she is palpably aware of this sociobiological instinct and the manner in which it would affect her sleeping meat form. Something has gone very… something has gone.

The spaceship has ground to a halt, suspended, as she notes through one of the porthole-like windows, in a field of pure light.

“So,” he continues, something inscrutable and unfamiliar lurking behind his deadpan affect. “Time to sort out what the absolute fuck is going on here.”

==>

Chapter Text

Rose: Put it together.

You drop a bottle of wine.

It’s empty, luckily. The tinted green glass shatters on the tiled floor of your kitchen, but makes nowhere near the mess it might have were the contents not bubbling cheerily in a pot on your stove, orange slices, cloves, and whole stars of anise bobbing against the sides as the brew simmers.

The clutsiness alone is unremarkable. There’s a reason you were not compelled into physical education classes by anything other than academic necessity. Several weeks of barre under your metaphorical belt or not, you’re hardly gifted at the macro-level in terms of hand-eye coordination. This is far from the first time you’ve sighed at a mess of your own making and ducked into your cupboard to find a broom and dustpan.

What’s odd, though, is the impetus. A tremor seemed to pass through your body as you prepared to toss the bottle in the recycling. Almost simultaneous with a friendly buzz from your phone.

As you scoop glass from the floor, you remember the alert and check on it.

Oh! Vriska is… maybe… coming!

That’s nice.

You hum along with the delightfully ironic Michael Buble cover of ‘Let it Snow’ playing from the playlist Dave helped you prepare for the party, wondering if you can hear your next door neighbors arguing, and whether you ought to do anything about it.

Certainly, this would be more awkward if it were only you and Kanaya under the auspices of an alleged party. Three’s company, after all. Jade offered an apology for her anticipated absence this afternoon over lunch, and paired her regrets with a wholly unnecessary gift, a bottle of slightly-nicer-than-Whole-Foods-checkout-aisle wine, and John has been fairly upfront and equally apologetic about his intentions to weather the storm with an essay that was technically due last week.

The spices heating in the wine are making the kitchen smell very pleasant, and you look around the front room for something else to clean to defray your nerves as Buble’s dulcet tones transition seamlessly to Meat Loaf’s ‘Bat Out Of Hell’ for some reason you’ll have to ask Dave about later. You wonder if he’s back on a Loaf kick, as he described it in your mutual first year, or just feeling nostalgic as your final spring break draws nearer.

Not that you could tell in this snow.

Dave left his environmental geochemistry reading out on the coffee table, and you leaf through it for a moment before setting it neatly atop the stack of your own papers that you’ve tucked next to the television stand. Regardless of whatever has been going on between him and Karkat lately, he’s seemed in good spirits, though not often at home. You wonder, briefly, about being careful what you wish for. It would be nice to introduce him to Kanaya-and-maybe-Vriska properly, and he’s typically better at playing host than you are.

But he is happy.

And aren’t you? You take a moment to reflect, from your head to your toes, distracted only slightly by the admittedly excellent guitar riff on the sound system, and think… well, yes. This is a different you than the one you were four years ago, too, and not solely because you've acclimated to Meat Loaf… why lie? Too uncomfortable with the prospect of change to select a roommate other than your own brother, back in first year. It’s a small step, the idea of having friends outside of the consistent cast of over a decade and the rotating acquaintances through your classes, but one is coming over, and one is… ‘maybe’.

You find yourself smiling. It’s nearly eight. In case Kanaya is as punctual as she has been at your lunches, you take the cheese plate that you cobbled together this afternoon and a bag of fresh grapes from the fridge, setting it all on the newly cleaned coffee table.

Yes.

Happy.

Your heart feels warm just at the prospect of having her here, as you’ve imagined so many times. Whether or not it looks like that, you think this is compelling evidence that you have something to offer a friend. Candles stocked up for the potential for a power outage, warm blankets stacked in the corner of the living room, movies loaded on your laptop. Dave purchased ‘The Notebook’ on your shared Rainforest account yesterday, for, he claimed, a bit exaggeratedly, before you actually asked, ‘research’.

Sure, Dave.

How does Kanaya feel about campy romance movies? You’ll technically own it for another twenty-two hours before the rental ends. It’s a thought.

You frown as the couple next door continues to speak… not angrily, at least, but in the sort of tones that make their conversation difficult to ignore. The walls aren’t especially thick, but you’ve never had this problem before, and the beginning of the blizzard of the century is not exactly a great time to kick off a confrontation with the neighbors.

Yet, when you close your eyes, it’s not simply that you can hear it.

It’s more like descending into a shallow dream than anything. You can still smell the mulling wine, but the floor beneath you tilts, changes, and it’s all you can do to stay standing on your own two feet.

“Something about your pet universe has us locked here,” an oddly familiar-looking man of about your age in impractically shaped sunglasses is saying, it seems, to you, tapping a series of commands into some kind of space-age interface as a blinding light pulses outside of circular windows in the hull of a craft. “Not just spatially, mind you, which wouldn’t be much of a problem. But in this plane of existence. A single textual plane. And frankly, not an intrinsically remarkable one, unless one’s quotient for exceptionality involves sophomoric homoerotic tension and 90s pop remixes.”

“This isn’t something I’m doing deliberately,” someone responds, in a voice that could almost be yours, but distorted as though through a laptop’s speakers or a cell phone balanced in a red solo cup at a party. “I’m… she’s… she’s… it’s congealed.”

Congealed? Alright. Take your time.”

“Thank you for your indulgence,” you say sharply, and it’s definitely coming from you, or at least, it feels like it is, which is such a confusing shift to the scene that you would lose your balance completely, as a nice physical-comedy complement to your extreme sense of displacement, if you could actually feel your body.

“You know me, I’m a giver.”

“Perhaps that’s part of the problem.”

You shudder, more subtextually than anything, because you have no control over the physical form that you currently occupy. It feels like the wrong thing to say. A push too far.

He laughs anyway.

“You are telling me everything you know,” the man says, transparently intrigued, looking up from his apparent task of rifling through a drawer of robotic parts with a feverish gleam in hazel eyes only partially visible above the triangular shades.

You understand that your directives no longer supercede my own, and you have no higher dispensation of my faculties,” you retort, and the voice resonates with an odd hollow quality from inside your chest. “We’re equals here.”

The man laughs again, sincerely, maybe.

“Touche,” he replies, though his expression has hardened incrementally.

You try to swallow, nerves making your throat seize, only to remember that you physically can’t. The inside of your mouth tastes uncomfortably of pennies, a little like the sensation of licking a battery. Unable to gain control of your faculties, you begin to choke on your own tongue.

“...Rose?” the man asks, visibly concerned, now, the previous second’s skepticism melted away. But his use of your name settles it. He’s talking to you. Unfortunately, that does nothing to resolve your panic. If you could just remember who he is, how you know him, fuck, you’d settle for how the fuck you left your kitchen… but you can’t. “Rose, is something…”

Rose!”

Someone is hammering their fist on your door. Back in your kitchen. Normal tile under your feet. Fluorescent light overhead. The mulling wine has boiled over, and you curse, dashing to the stove to turn the burner down and judge if it’s worth salvaging.

“Coming!” you call.

“I swear to fucking god, if you don’t open this door -” Vriska is declaring, looking half-frosted-over by the snowstorm and astonishingly frustrated. You do precisely what she’s asking and unceremoniously beckon her and Kanaya into your living room.

This would be much more fun if you were not definitely in the middle of some kind of neurological episode.

“Oh dear,” Kanaya says, noting, it seems, the acrid smell of spilled and scorching wine replacing the pleasant one of the mulling spices.

“I apologize,” you tell them both through gritted teeth, already fighting back a second… episode? Desperately not wanting to be pulled back into a whatever-the-fuck-is-going-on. Feeling Vriska watching you.

“You’ve got some explaining to do,” she declares, shaking her mess of dark hair and stripping off her coat to reveal what looks suspiciously like pajamas.

“Vriska,” you say hoarsely, making every effort to conceal your utter terror. “I think I’m having a psychotic breakdown. Please consider calling emergency services on my behalf if I -”

“I knew it!” Vriska declares, jarringly triumphant, looking more at Kanaya than at you.

“Rose,” Kanaya says urgently. “Have a seat, let me…”

Whether or not you want to be on the ground, you are suddenly on the ground, with a very intimate view of your kitchen tile. From this excellent vantage point, you can see a few shards of glass that you missed while cleaning up the shattered bottle earlier.

“Shit,” Vriska declares.

And then the power cuts out.

It’s very dark.

And then it’s very light.

You’re upright.

Even more disorientingly than before, the sun is in your eyes. You’re bathed in it, a warm golden glow that doesn’t seem to touch you. Not quite real. In-between. Your mind supplies a stream of explanations, a disturbing number of which assume your death.

But this time, you can feel your hands. You can feel them, specifically, because you’re wearing a pair of burgundy leather gloves that you weren’t wearing before, and a dress that you don’t recognize, and a little matching hat. You raise a hand to your forehead, and feel a set of carefully assembled curls shift beneath your fingers.

It’s warm, or it should be. It doesn’t really feel like anything.

As your eyes adjust to the light, a beautiful old house comes into focus, freshly painted, white with blue shutters. Oddly plantation-style, the sort of home that should be accompanied by the thrum of mosquitos’ wings and plaques bearing the names of dead Confederates. Nowhere you would voluntarily choose to live, or even to briefly situate yourself.

From a workshop to the side of the main house, a figure emerges.

It’s you, in an unadorned white shirt and uncharacteristically dingy pants. You don’t often wear pants at all if you can avoid it, a simple matter of preference. She watches you, unemotive.

“Hello,” you begin politely. “I think we met each other on the… spaceship?”

Were each other, more accurately.

“You’re of me,” she says.

You nod.

“That makes sense, if I accept a lot of unaccountable leaps in reality’s capacity to fill in the gaps of… certain events of late,” you say, aware of your tendency to stretch out the most basic of thoughts in times of confusion. Such as now.

“It should.”

“So I’m… forgive my speculation. I’m a piece of you.”

“No. You’re not a fragment. Increasingly, I favor the characterization as an ‘iteration’, with myself as the culmination of infinite iterations, but each independently complete and whole. I think it’s a more respectful as well as more accurate depiction of our ultimate self.”

“Which would make you the solution to a problem, then, if we’re using that term in the computational context, which I imagine that we are,” you say slowly, watching her face for a response to your suggestion that you know isn’t coming.

“Yes,” she agrees.

“Well, then, I know with complete certainty that you’re me,” you sigh. “The hubris is familiar.”

She smiles, sort of. It’s enigmatic when she does it, despite the fact that she is you and you’re fairly sure you don’t know how to make that face, and would simply look as though you had some kind of unpleasant sinus condition if you tried.

“Justified, though.”

“Is it?” you parry. “Even the most optimized solution to one problem isn’t the solution to all of them, and clearly you as an accumulation of selves isn’t making much progress on at least one dilemma or another, or I doubt you’d be wasting your time with me.”

“You’re correct. I don’t waste time. Think of this as a sort of holding-court with myself, once you’re willing to accept the idea of me, or us, as it were.”

“Ah. Dialectics.”

“Yes, dialectics.”

“Glad to know we come down solidly on the ‘Marxist’ side of things in our ideal permutation, at least when it comes to styles of inquiry,” you sigh, settling on first-person-plural as a means of referencing… oh, you’re going to have to think about this some time when you’re not truly on the brink of some kind of mental collapse.

“Ultimate, not ideal. There’s more than one meaning to ‘ultimate’. I would hesitate to call myself ‘optimized’, even, let alone ‘ideal’. It might help to consider me ‘fundamental’.”

“Oh,” you say, aware that you’re effectively just stalling, at this point, as you try to get a grip on what other-you is saying.

“Take your time,” she says. You say. Rose… says.

No, actually, you don’t. You wouldn’t.

“You’re not me,” you say, wrinkling your nose. Because you’re not stupid, and you remember your own umbrage at that same admonition not too long ago. “Or you’re… him, and he’s me. Or my self-definition as hubristic and barely-tolerable is insufficiently specific in this context.”

“Well, fuck, can’t say I didn’t try,” the man from before sighs, and suddenly, he’s occupying the space where your double stood not a millisecond prior. “I really thought I nailed the explanation, there. I mean, I truly don’t know what the fuck she’s talking about, but it sounds pretty good, right? The ‘ultimate’ that I’m personally going with, for future reference, is absolutely both optimized and ideal.”

In the better lighting, face to face, and without the sunglasses, he still has the face of someone you've forgotten, but knew, once. You'd guess him to be slightly taller than you, slim, but muscular in a way that takes more than half a semester of barre classes to achieve. It's almost a relief not to see yourself in the odd getup; the impression of a builder fresh from their workshop, and the clothes themselves, to be perfectly honest, suit him far better than they did you.

Had you ever met him, you're certain that you would remember him.

“With utmost respect,” you say cautiously, “what precisely are you the ultimate of?”

For lack of a better comparison, he looks… a lot like Dave. And you think that might be it, the source of the resonance as well as the profound discomfort, now, because you don’t think you can handle the revelation that Dave, or some iteration of Dave, is capable of looking at you with quite this level of sincere indifference.

He sighs again, as though the sheer act of introducing himself in anything other than vagueries may cause him physical pain.

“Dirk,” he says shortly, without holding out his hand or making any sort of gesture of acknowledgement or greeting.

“Oh!”

“Oh?”

“I think that was my father’s name,” you say. “We never met him, though. He died. Before Dave and I were born.”

He rakes a hand through his hair.

“That would explain some of my complete irrelevance, here.”

“He’s not irrelevant,” you say, aware that you probably sound a bit defensive. “We have... pictures.”

It’s not exactly the compelling argument that you were hoping to make. But you’re on the spot, and feel an urgent inclination not to make a fool out of yourself by rambling on about the platitudes your mother used to spoon feed you and Dave; he’s always with you in your hearts, always a part of you, that kind of nonsense-that-sort-of-isn’t-nonsense, since it’s cloaking a deeper truth, which is that you wouldn’t exist without Dirk Strider, and that his nonexistence in your conscious life doesn’t negate his contributions to your being.

He lives on in you. It’s a ready-made condolence-card, and it’s also the truth.

“Unimportant, either way, and fundamentally untrue, actually, but a kind thought, there,” Dirk says, in a drawl of a tone that would be phenomenally patronizing if his baseline wasn’t already, more or less, as condescending as you can imagine a person to be. You don’t even bother deeply considering that he might also be some iteration of your father, ultimate or otherwise. It’s been enough of a day as it is, and he seems to be able to hear your thoughts, which is even less palatable as revelations go. “Do you know why we’re here?”

“Here?” you ask. “You mean, in front of… this is the house from The Notebook, right?”

“Yes, and no. That’s part of where we are. Where Rose spends a lot of her time. She has certain egalitarian ideas of herself, you understand, a willingness to extend professional courtesy to lesser ‘iterations’. I don’t share those notions. She may as well be the only Rose, so far as I’m concerned. You’re an irrelevant piece, as you put it, that has commandeered relevancy in a wildly irrational act more worthy of a Serket than a Lalonde. Frankly, I’d be speaking to your friend Vriska, who I’m fairly sure is more at fault for this particular mess than yourself, if it weren’t the case that I’d cut off my own head before I’d ever do that.”

“I’m not sure that’s fair to her,” you argue, having lost whatever point he might have been going for in the sheer torrent of words, though you do feel appropriately talked-down-to, which you imagine was the goal.

“Isn’t it?”

You shrug.

“Dumb it down for me, then. What can I do for you?”

“Why would she come here?” he asks, gesturing at the completed house, which smells strongly of fresh paint, sealant, and nothing at all.

“Have you seen The Notebook?”

In truth, you haven’t yourself, but Dave performed some kind of thematic analysis semi-aloud over dinner last night, and you scrolled through the Wikipedia page to keep up, so you’re prepared to bluff, or you would be if he couldn’t read your mind.

“I’ve seen as much of it as you have,” he says.

“Well, I’ll relate Dave’s insights, then,” you suggest.

“I was hoping you would.”

You sigh.

“Well, it’s about an extended metaphor for a person he cares about but isn’t willing to concede to caring about, is the gist of it,” you explain. “Do you… do you know of a Karkat Vantas? If there’s an ultimate version, or… I’m afraid it will take too long for me to grasp the rules by which this all works, but I hope you’ll correct me if my conjecture is too wildly inaccurate.”

He nods, gestures as though to say ‘go on’.

“It’s about fate, and a sort of stifling biblical tradition turned to liberatory utility for true believers,” you begin. “But like any work of media, it’s also a sort of rorschach test - seeing a beetle tells you one thing, seeing a windowsill tells you another, even if both are present simultaneously. And it’s a story of forgiveness, fundamentally - of two people bound by fate, between whom anything can be forgiven and anything can be overcome. A union blessed by an extrinsic force, as a refuge for someone who feels beset upon by all sides, including from within, by their own uncertainty.”

“It definitely took him half an hour to get through that little spiel, didn’t it?”

“I apologize. Without context, and translated into my manner of speaking, it probably sounds at least moderately like a horoscope. But I assume you’re looking for a meaning that can be applied outside of the plot, which we have both read on Wikipedia, and this is, specifically, what Dave thinks it might mean to an ambiguous third party that is definitely not Karkat.”

“Hm,” Dirk says, after a second. “Well, I’m a Sagittarius.”

“I doubt you need me to debunk astrology for you,” you say, a touch impatient, now, in part due to the sincere concern that this man is fucking with you.

“Not today,” he says, smiling with what could almost be fondness. “You are a remarkable facsimile, I’ll grant you that much. As pieces of her go, you have some of the best parts.”

“And yet,” you almost-snap, “I’m some sort of pirate of relevance, or else a conspirator in such an act, and we’ve been chatting in front of a fictional house for far too long.”

“Oh, time isn’t fucking real. And this has been worth the effort.”

“Enlighten me, then: how did I pull it off?”

“That should be obvious, and the fact that it isn’t - well. You’re not her. But relevance is about authentic connectedness, hence its subjectivity to my classpect. Which is nonsense to you, I know, but metaphysically important to establish. Humor me. When you exert influence - when you connect with the true and the essential - if it works, you gain relevance. Manipulation as mastery, yes, but also, in this case, as establishment of equal footing.”

“And?” you say, crossing your arms in lieu of attempting to parse the purely nonsensical parts of that deluge of unfamiliar words and word-combinations.

“Congratulations. Your utterly pointless universe has punched far outside of its gravitational weight class and altered the course of canon.”

Oh.”

“‘Oh’ is correct. It’s not often that I learn something from such a fundamentally inessential and, to be clear, independently irrelevant person,” he says, his tone dangerously innocuous. “But I’m not actually so far gone as to be incapable of learning.”

You’re not quite ready to let go of the breath you’ve been holding.

He seems to notice, and his expression turns apologetic.

“Unfortunately, that makes this universe a larger problem than it has any reason to be. The plucky underdog, sure. But when your dog bites a personal injury attorney, and it’s the pup or the house… you understand. You’re not her, but you’re a smart girl.”

Your heart drops, heavy as a stone rattling in your ribcage.

“No,” you say softly, because you can’t quite bear to say anything at a higher volume. Probably couldn’t manage it with the way your breathing has been hitched in fearful anticipation.

Because it doesn’t seem possible.

But you’re beginning to see things. Possibilities, in an abstract sort of way, in a manner that you never could before. Paths lined out before you, shining from within with varying levels of intensity, though you can’t yet focus the eye-beyond-your-eye that appears to be responsible for Seeing.

Still, they were there.

Were.

In a few words, he’s extinguished all of them.

“I’m sure it looks monstrous from your perspective,” he concedes.

“Yes,” you interrupt. “Yes, it does.”

“You’ve done nothing objectively wrong. And yet, your existence threatens everything I have. Everything I love. I love my daughter, you know. Your father, if you knew him - he probably would have loved you,” he says, the affect already leaving his tone as he seemingly prepares to… how exactly is he planning on leaving?

“My father killed himself,” you say, unable to repress the desire to hurt him, somehow, but knowing that here, in this unfamiliar dress, in front of this construct-of-a-house, a symbol that could mean anything to anyone, you won’t be able to swing your fist in any way that will leave a mark.

He’s not supposed to laugh at that, but he does, all over again. This time, cold and hollow and without any kind of sentiment at all.

“Yeah,” he admits, over the tail end of the mirthless chuckle. “I do that sometimes.”

And then, without fanfare, he’s gone, and you’re alone with the stately white house, blue shutters gleaming. In the fractions of a second that follow, the paint peels and dissipates, the beams collapse, and the sun, overhead, goes dark, with a sound like a shattering bottle.

It can’t be over. Not that easily.

It can’t.

A candle flame flickers, and then another.

“I’m not going to ask why you have so many lighters on your person,” Kanaya says crossly, as you phase back into consciousness, though the world is still dark, and eerily silent, now, outside of the sound of her voice.

“Worked out this time, didn’t it?” Vriska retorts, through a mouthful of the grapes you set out on the table what feels like a lifetime ago.

As you blink, though, you realize that it is as if no time has passed, as he said.

If that’s the case, then there may still be a chance to stop this. In the relative darkness of your blacked-out apartment, the blizzard growing in strength and power outside, the windows already piled heavy with snow, you can See more clearly than you could in the interference of the false sun, even with no real experience, no resolution to your vision beyond what obviously is.

Faint, gossamer-thin, but absolutely present, visible still as you rub the sleep from your eyes, a single remaining golden thread leads forward.

==>

Chapter Text

Kanaya: Perform a reality check.

The simultaneous blackouts, Rose and the local power grid, would be less upsetting if there was anything you could do about it. You take Rose’s pulse, which is slow, but within normal range, and determine that she is breathing and not bleeding from the growing lump on the back of her head. Unsure of what exactly to do next, you turn to Vriska, who is at least still pretending she knows what’s going on, or else still in the midst of her earlier psychotic episode.

One of the two. You can’t say you’re completely sure. If there’s some kind of complex folie-a-deux at work accounting for Rose’s similarly worrying symptoms as well, that’s a far more improbable explanatory scenario than ‘Vriska in the midst of a crisis that she has conveniently forgotten to mention for several weeks’, tilting the scales heavily towards the more incredible conclusion of colored-text mind control.

Suspending your disbelief, after three years with Vriska living, at maximum, a few feet away from you, is a well-honed skill of yours, and you’re giving it a real goddamned workout at the moment.

The aforementioned roommate has scrounged up a handful of old Hanukkah candles that Rose left out on a pile of blankets, and is in the process of setting them around the dark living room, duel-wielding a pair of lighters that you doubt are Rose’s, as one is decorated with cartoon marijuana leaves and the other is shaped like a tiny skateboard. This makes you frown, because you very firmly established a ‘no materials for the construction of fires in the room’ rule after an unmentionable incident in Sophomore year.

“I’m not going to ask why you have so many lighters on your person,” you say shortly, glancing down as Rose shifts slightly against your leg, where you have her propped up to avoid leaving her limp on the cold tile floor. That's a good sign, probably.

“Worked out well enough this time, didn’t it?” she complains. “I don’t see you doing anything useful.”

“Our mutual friend is unresponsive on the ground.”

“Yeah, and all you’ve done about it so far is somehow get her head in your lap. I mean, surprise, I guess you’ve got moves.”

“Vriska,” you say shortly. “Do you remember how there are times for things, and also, sometimes, places? I’ve elevated her head, after verifying that her spine is uninjured, for ease of access...”

Rose stirs again, and you withdraw your hands completely, leaning back to give her slightly more space.

“S’okay,” she murmurs. “Thank you, Kanaya. I’m fine.”

“Should I call an ambulance?” you ask. “I don’t know how long it will take for emergency services to reach us, but…”

“No,” she says, and you feel the muscles in her neck strain as she attempts to sit up from her current position, propped against your lower leg, and makes some headway before slumping back. “I don’t... feel well. But my health is not the present emergency. Vriska… what did you do?”

You look up with a start. Vriska has a grape precariously balanced on a piece of cheese, and looks put out about the interruption to her cautiously bringing it to her mouth.

“Do to… oh, yeah, we were gonna talk about… that. I got sort of mind controlled. By someone who wasn’t even that good at mind control! Fucking sucks, barely one out of ten, do not recommend, if anyone else is considering it. Just weird stuff. A voice that didn’t want me here. At whatever this thing is. Your alleged party. And it was mostly your voice, actually, so if you want to fess up to hating me, great timing, since I’m kinda primed for it.”

She accompanies the word ‘party’ with liberal air quotes, in case her sentiment was left unambiguous from her nakedly disdainful tone.

“There’s at least one more version of me,” Rose says, gazing thoughtfully at the ceiling. “I haven’t strictly met her, but based on the way he portrayed her… me… oh, this is only going to get more confusing. I think she may be sympathetic, or at least not actively antagonistic. This is going to sound beyond fathoming, and probably isn’t going to help my case with the ‘I’m not having a mental breakdown’ pitch, but she seems to be chaperoned by the transcendental form of my undead father.”

“I have to hand it to you, that is pretty fucked,” Vriska says.

“It gets more fucked,” Rose sighs, shifting again, successfully half-sitting-up. “We had a fairly long and confusing conversation about relevancy and the nature of the self in front of the house from The Notebook. We, or, well, you, more likely, have something to do with his perceived loss of relevance. And an incoming presumably-violent corrective action. Your surname is ‘Serket’, right?”

“How fucking long have we known each other?” Vriska complains.

“Six weeks. I take it that’s correct, then. He mentioned you by it. So it may flatter you to know that the entity threatening to eliminate us appears to have picked up on Vriska Trivia more quickly than I have.”

“Wait. Does he talk kind of orange?” Vriska asks, as you blink through that tangle of confusing new information.

“Orange?”

“Orange.”

Orange?” you finally interrupt. “What? Can we, perhaps, circle back to what you previously described as an emergency exceeding your recent bout of unconsciousness, if we’re not too busy arguing over complete nonsense?”

“I’m sorry, Kanaya,” Rose says, with the demeanor of someone who is already exhausted from explaining something numerous times, despite the growing strength of her voice and the fact that she is more or less sitting independently, now. “You don’t need to… I can’t imagine there’s enough time to explain what’s going on, not that I fully understand it myself, and there’s no reason to believe that this is your fight. I regret it if we’ve somehow dragged you into this.”

You get enough of this bullshit from Vriska. Got enough of it during your first year, the two of you awake at the end of the night, some vague excuse to throw a party having run its course, cleaning up red solo cups and making judgement calls on the contents of mostly-empty handles of cheap alcohol. Vriska, outrageously drunk at three in the morning, staring up at the ceiling as you scrubbed spilled cranberry juice out of the floorboards before it could coagulate and asking in an asynchronously small voice whether you liked her.

Of course you did, and you do, for all she tries to convince you otherwise at intervals. And you joined her in her bed, and stroked her hair and whispered reassurances, as you imagine your own older sister would have done, had you ever needed such consoling, and she cried on your nightdress.

And as many times as the alarmingly similar situation played out, Vriska woke the next morning, pretended to remember nothing due to having blacked out, and behaved both more evasively and more self-destructively for the next few weeks, until circumstances invariably repeated themselves.

Ultimately, you were able to leverage her discomfort with confronting the reality of her cyclical and largely alcohol-elucidated despondency to strongarm her into therapy, which seems to have helped, somewhat, but damn it, you don’t have time for this, whether ‘this’ is the delivery of a satisfactory explanation for present shenanigans or the unraveling of Rose Lalonde’s personal issues, which you expect to have something to do with a hero complex of some sort - let it never be said that you don’t have a type!

For goodness’ sake, she’s the one who just said that you don’t have time for this, and you, Kanaya Maryam, are nobody’s burden.

“Please carry on plotting,” you say shortly. “I will join in to the best of my ability, with the understanding that I have a vested interest in any outcome, here, whether the stakes are the universe we inhabit or simply the well-being of my friends. This is very much my fight, and to suggest that it is not is to greatly disrespect my affection for the both of you.”

“Yeah, actually,” Vriska interrupts. “I have a Kanaya theory. Do you guys want to hear my Kanaya theory?”

“I welcome all Kanaya-pertinent theorizing,” Rose says, though she’s looking at you, now, not Vriska, and she’s smiling slightly.

“Well, I think she has to be involved. Since the only times Purpleletters Mcgee has gotten all cosy with my stream of consciousness have been… well, when all of us are intersecting, or might intersect. I was going to propose a threesome to test the theory, but it seems kind of like a moot point, since shit’s clearly going down right now, the first time we’ve all had a mutual hangout of any sort, and Orangeletters is like, big mad or whatever.”

“That is certainly a way of putting something,” Rose sighs. “The issue is one of relevance, I’m certain of that much, though I’m still unsure of exactly how. I think he may not know himself, or didn’t put it together, somehow, until hearing the thematic elements of ‘The Notebook’ explained. Which perplexes me even further. What I do understand is that n element of our… story… has become relevant to some larger narrative in an unexpected way. The other me described it as a process of ‘congealing’, which has otherwise derailed it, or stalled it, or… Vriska, what do you remember from your interaction with Dirk and… me?”

“I meant what I said,” Vriska argues. “He’s mad. You know what I mean. Jeez, were you not on the internet in 2008? Like when some dumb forum has a thread going about the non-locality of particle interactions as a tenet of quantum mechanics - don’t fucking look at me like that, I have layers - and someone, hypothetically, logs on and starts just insisting that nothing they’re saying matters because electrons aren’t real, according to a study by the Uhpdagh lab of Bofa University, and suddenly every fucking internet tough guy’s gotta smirk-emote their way through a line-by-line refutation of every increasingly moronic post with an oversimplified set of middle-school textbook definitions and a complete lack of self awareness until they get too mad to keep going and the mod locks the thread, takes his ball and goes home because everything’s off the fucking rails.”

“And I suppose you speak from intimate personal experience.”

“Usually, yeah.”

“In this extremely elaborate analogy, the guy threatening to either eliminate our universe or otherwise negate our presence in it is…”

“The asshole mod, obviously. ‘Bluh bluh no one wants to play by my dumb rules because they’re dumb, I’m not mad, you’re mad’. Except they’re totally the one who’s mad. It’s just the universe instead of an XKCD fan forum thread, and we’re the wrench in the ointment.”

Rose actually pauses for a second.

“You… yes, actually, that’s fairly well in keeping with my own observations. It feels… true. In the most peculiarly abstract way.”

“Fuck yeah it does.”

“In theory, how would you go about winning a confrontation like that you’re describing?”

“The point isn’t to win. You just inflict maximum psychological damage, and if you’re lucky, the whole forum gets shut down for being toxic. Anyway, when did he say he was going to start vaporizing us or whatever?”

“He insisted that time wasn’t real. I’m sorry, wasn’t fucking real. Nonetheless, I similarly was expecting something to happen more… immediately,” Rose concedes, wrinkling her nose in concentration, which is both very endearing and extremely not what you should be focusing on at the moment.

You take your phone from the sensibly capacious pocket of your skirt to check the time.

The glassy black surface of the screen remains as glassy and black as the windows. It does not turn on.

“Is it still snowing?” you ask abruptly, pacing to the fenestrated wall behind the couch where Vriska is polishing off the remainder of the bag of grapes.

While the surface seems slightly warm to the touch, at first, you realize, after a second, that you are feeling the temperature of your own hand.

The window itself feels like nothing at all.

You tap lightly on the presumably-glass, thinking to shift some of the thick blanket of snow separating the pane from the outside world, but nothing happens. All is black and uniform and peculiarly atactile, though it continues to shine slightly in the flickering candlelight in a way that certainly suggests a window.

“It’s beginning,” Rose observes.

“No shit,” Vriska replies, scooting up to press her face to the glass. “Oh, that feels weird as fuck.”

The dire straits postulated by your friends were already quite significant to you, in a way, but the material reality is now unavoidable. This is both in their heads and not in their heads. You can feel it, with your hands, in the form of unfeeling. Your phone is dead, and the rest of the world is inky black and disconnected from your reality.

It would be chilling, if it was anything at all.

“So,” Rose says, almost conversationally. “The banhammer is now in play.”

How is she taking this so lightly?

You suppose she’s had more time to process than you have, though more on the order of ‘minutes’ than anything more substantial.

“If I were an omnipotent orange-text god intending to recapture stolen relevance, I would… first, isolate the problem. That must be what he’s doing,” she continues. “I hope this means that Dave is unaffected. And yet, he mentioned Dave by name, so I fear that I can’t assume that to be the case. But I do suspect that our continued existence implies that our relevance transcends our existence in some way, if that makes sense.”

“You’re giving this guy an awful lot of credit,” Vriska interrupts, standing from the couch, stretching, and slipping her novelty lighters into the pocket of her flannel.

“Of course,” she says, hesitantly maneuvering her way to her feet. “He’s my father. Regardless of whatever went wrong with him somewhere along the line.”

“Alright,” you say, tearing your attention away from the void outside the window, which seems to swirl ominously when you stare into it for too long, “Might it be worth attempting to negotiate with him or with the… other Rose? Assuming the connections forged in your heads, for lack of a better explanation, go both ways.”

“Now you’re talking!” Vriska says.

“Hold on,” you insist. “We should really approach this with some kind of plan. You believe that Dirk, or Rose’s father, intends to maintain his relevance, whatever that means to him, at any cost to us. What are we prepared to sacrifice to give him what he wants, assuming we have no way to neutralize him? His connection to Rose may be exploitable. Further, this alternate Rose was both of your first points of contact. Fortunately, Rose is in an excellent position to speculate on what she, or other-her, might want or fear and how that might be leveraged. Of course, as we consider this, time is either of the essence or … not fucking real.”

Vriska coughs conspicuously.

“I don’t know, barre socks, see anything you want?”

“Vriska,” you say sternly, aware of Rose’s immediate discomfort, which was really not the tone you were hoping to set with your analytical yet rousing speech. “Time. Place.”

Whether or not time is fucking real, so help you god.

“Suit yourself! Can’t believe I’m the only one being all truthy-truthful, here. Character development is a hell of a drug!”

“He cares for the other-me,” Rose says, after a second. “And Vriska, as usual, is correct in the most unpleasant way possible. It is very likely that my double cares for you, Kanaya, or for some alternate version of you, and it was poor judgement on my part, not to have… been clear about that.”

“Oh,” you say.

Oh.

If Porrim were to ask you, say, in some conspiratorial conversation in a shared guest room while home for the holidays, it would be difficult to completely deny that you were… somewhat aware of that. At the same time, the whole business of guessing at another person’s feelings, especially someone as frequently difficult to read as Rose… and with your own biases towards certain explanations in play… it would be very presumptuous, wouldn’t it?

You consider, briefly, that she may simply be referring to something that she heard her double say, or a sense that she got from an entity distinct from herself.

Then you pull your shit together and cut that right the fuck out.

For a moment, you let yourself enjoy the idea that someone you respect so ardently harbors a specific fondness for you. The sort of fondness that she thinks might sway an all-seeing ascended version of herself!

“I’ll keep that in mind,” you say, breaking the illusion that this information is going to change anything on an immediate basis, suavity-wise, quite thoroughly. Flushing deeply in the process, though you hope that the many assorted candles are insufficient to make this obvious.

Rose smiles inscrutibly.

“I think I see what we need to do,” she announces. “Sort of. A piece of it. Vriska, can you get their attention?”

“Attention is my middle name,” Vriska says, grinning. “Right after ‘disruption’ and ‘fucking’!”

You opt not to interrogate that statement too much.

This conclusion about what you need to do seems to have come at a very opportune moment, as the seams around the windows and the door into Rose’s apartment are beginning to glow with a sort of ruddy pinkish light, fissures opening up as the brightness intensifies.

“Hey, preemptive no offense, Rose,” she begins, “but I know a thing or fucking two about awful parents, and it sounds like you’ve actually won the fuckoff dad jackpot! Isn’t that right, Dirk? Don’t want to talk to me and my shitty brain, huh? Can’t stand someone who sees through your bullshit, more like. Sorry our stupid little universe is apparently getting in the way of you roleplaying ‘The Notebook’ with your own fucking daughter - and feel free to combine those words into a spicy phrase to any extent you like, that is an accusation, and I do think you’re one messed-up loser, and so does anyone else with working eyes! But you want to know the worst part? You did this to yourself! You cared so much about us and our dumb bullshit that you, yeah, you, personally made us matter more than you with the sheer fucking force of you giving a shit! How fucking pathetic is that, huh?”

The walls of Rose’s apartment shatter inwards, and you reflexively turn to shield Vriska, who is nearest to you, a habit that turns out to be extremely embarrassing once the shards of black glass from the windows disintegrate into nothingness before making contact with your outstretched arms.

Instead, you find yourself on some kind of spaceship, or at the very least the approximation of one. Golden light pulses from outside of a series of portholes, and a man in rather spectacular burgundy pantaloons and sunglasses sits leisurely in a reclining chair, legs kicked up over the armrest.

He looks more bored than anything.

“Are you done?” the man who must be Dirk asks, completely deadpan, glancing up only slightly to acknowledge the appearance of the three of you in what you suppose is his spaceship.

Vriska opens her mouth to respond, the corners of her lips already twisting into a triumphant smile.

Then, she disappears.

==>

Chapter Text

Rose: Coagulate.

Two unfamiliar novelty lighters clatter to the floor in a haze of dwindling golden light. A delicate little model skateboard cracks open and begins to ooze butane on the flooring, which you guess to be composed of overlapping panels of some kind of beaten steel, while a cheap plastic model with a pattern of small cartoon marijuanas rolls to the foot of the shade-wearing man who has still not deigned to look directly at you.

“There’s no way I’m going to convince you that I didn’t plan that, is there?” Dirk sighs, stretching languidly and repositioning himself in the command seat of what appears to be the craft’s control room.

It’s a different part of the ship, which you are now completely certain is a spaceship, than the one you found yourself present in while phasing in and out of the other Rose’s physical form. She’s nowhere to be seen. From beside you, Kanaya is frozen in surprise. As far as introductions go, this seems to have been something of a bucket of ice water to the face. Vriska is just gone. You haven’t really had time to process it yourself.

“To her credit, that came close to hurting my feelings,” he adds. “A few more minutes and I do think she would have had me weeping into my ‘#1 dad’ mug. I can cop to it since she’s not around to hear it.”

“What did you do to her?” Kanaya demands, breaking the tension, her voice heavy with horror, of course, but also an unfamiliar note that might be something closer to rage. “Where is she?”

“Nothing deliberate, and your guess is as good as mine. Rose’s is probably better. Light isn’t my forte. I’d think that would be fairly obvious, though from the fuckin’ brain trust that brought you ‘maybe he cares about his daughter’ after a solid fifteen minutes of mixed metaphors and meaningless bullshit, I guess I shouldn’t make any assumptions.”

Kanaya takes a step forward, though she stumbles before her intentions can really become clear. You hurry to her side, unstable enough on your own feet, but increasingly concerned about some kind of violent confrontation, which wouldn’t be in anyone’s interests.

If people are getting blinked out of existence without any accounting for why, how, or to where, it’s hardly the time to be throwing fists around. Instead, you put a steadying hand on her shoulder, only to find that her body temperature has dropped precipitously. She’s cool to the touch.

“To be fair, we didn’t have a lot to work with,” you say, as evenly as possible, after a second, feeling moved to your own defense.

That’s not completely true, though. You haven’t left the spaceship since you woke up in Kanaya’s arms. Not completely. Not that it’s of any particular use to you, either, since most of the physical aspect of your increasingly merged duality is atrophied and terrified and claustrophobic, separated from the world, helpless. And you’re not sure why, or how that lines up with the version of you that easily held her own while matching wits with Dirk, gravity, and independently being able to breathe.

Altogether not a useful set of things to be feeling right now, but also not nothing.

You’re on the precipice of something important. Something accelerated by your physical presence in the ship.

He doesn’t seem to notice.

“Why don’t you look for her? Your power appears to have increased proportionately to your relevance. That’s my going theory, at least. You must be feeling it yourself.”

As if in direct answer to his question, warmth flares behind your eyes, and you can see a spiderweb of gossamer paths, now, branching off from the one. Completely new, you can feel knots and snarls in dark and irrelevant threads. Reaching back, you think you might be able to find Vriska. You can still feel her, though you lack the necessary skill with the fine detangling work to extricate her from the unfathomable noise emanating from your subconscious.

But you would know if she was dead.

“I do have a guess. A process of congealing, as my ultimate self described, the relevant folding into the relevant. Is there a place for Vriska in this universe?”

“She’s long gone in canon. On to greater and more paradoxical endeavors.”

“In a dual-relevance plane, she would cease to exist,” you observe, not entirely sure where most of these words are coming from, only that they’re as true as you can fathom.

He tilts his head curiously.

“You were right, then. Shockingly enough. I’m anchored in multiple-relevance myself. Your father’s relevance, to the extent that you’re relevant, lives on in you. I’m prediabetic with the sheer fucking hyperglycimic shock to my system. Shitty universe Dirk must have been a real bro.”

“We heard… stories about him,” you say, no longer feeling the same disconnected fluidity to your speech - this is all you. “From mom, and uncle Jake. I’m not the only one who hasn’t forgotten you. I wasn’t fucking with you, actually, difficult though that may to believe for someone whose native language is ‘fucking with you’.”

You know that he was an engineer, that he was responsible for the practical effects in a series of niche films noted for their almost unsettling realism. That he wasn’t much older than you when he killed himself, which you’ve thought about more than you care to admit as your twenty-third birthday looms. That the garage in the house where you were born was off-limits, and not only due to your mother’s frequent bouts of explosive inspiration in the laboratory. It took years for her to call in old friends to help clean out the piles of half-finished robotics. Those same old friends went quiet at holiday dinners when you or Dave asked whether he was present for some fresh-recounted war story of their youth. Your mother drank.

He is a part of you. You brought his old sewing kit with you to college, though you prefer knitting yourself. Dave inherited some old VCR filming equipment, brought it with him for a mini-documentary project about one of uncle Jake’s archeology sites, and reported, with some confusion, that the sight of it once again in use made your longtime family friend cry. His presence has always been defined by non-presence, the holes and spaces left behind.

That’s part of why it hurts so strangely, to meet him like this, but also why you find it hard to fight the growing part of you that wants, unaccountably, to see the best in him, that can’t stop searching for something like justification for why the fuck he’s like this. Even though it makes no sense.

You glance over to Kanaya, whose eyes are glassy and dilated. She’s still very cold, though her heart continues to beat and her breaths come evenly and consistently. Her pallor has taken on a queasy greenish hue.

“Sounds like a real fuckin’ mensch, with that kind of fan club,” Dirk says drily, interrupting any effort to retroactively redeem him on your part. Probably just as well. “How’s Kanaya holding up, over there? If you’re right about this, she’s… always with the meat analogies, but she’s congealing too.”

“I’m sorry,” you say, with rising concern. “You sincerely don’t know what’s happening? Not to sound like a broken record, here, but what did you do?”

“Flattering as the designation is, and really, keep that coming if gets you going, I’m not omnipotent. Omniscient, once the knowledge has epistemologically fomented on the textual plane. Are you keeping up with this? Everything that’s happening was already set in motion, though, from the moment your universe started lighting up like a goddamned christmas tree. Like a second goddamned christmas tree. The light tends towards a single answer. So does my aspect, ultimately, though it’s usually a different one. I gave us a metatextual push. I can’t account for the vector.”

“That,” you say slowly, “is so fucking stupid.”

Your duel-self dizziness is lapsing into a killer headache, though it comes in waves. Pain so intense that the only tether binding you to the present is Kanaya’s head on your shoulder. Something more than blood is coursing through your body.

How could he be so reckless?

(How do you know that what he’s doing is reckless?)

The tangle of light in your chest flares with blinding intensity and you let go. More accurately, you fade out, inversely proportional to the liquid heat searing behind your eyes.

Now you’re in a different chamber of the spaceship, some kind of… you would guess it to be a life support device, a capsule meant to preserve an occupant in space or something to that effect. It hums, expanding and contracting around you. You can’t speak. You can’t breathe, save for the rhythmic in-out push-pull of the machine flush with your torso. Your eyes are half-lidded, barely open. The whole setup gives the impression that you’ve been here for a long time, though in the aftermath of the transition, you can still sense your presence in the body standing with Kanaya in the control room.

At first, you think the glass separating you from the chamber might be fogged with condensation with your shallow breathing, but it clicks, after a second, that you’re experiencing something more like a dream or a memory, imparted with some urgency. You have never felt so physically weak, or so metaphysically crackling with pure energy.

An emotionless mask of your face peers (peered?) down over you, eyes lit up with a harsh purple glow. Your face, unmoving, cast in steel. Watching you.

“Do you really believe that if you’d known everything, you would have done something different?”

While you can’t see him, couldn’t shift your head to try if you knew where to begin with moving this not-your-body, the voice belongs to Dirk. Not the flat, hollow tone with which he’s been addressing you and Kanaya.

Impatience? No, you’ve heard that before.

This is sincerity.

“Regardless of what I would or would not have done, to save my life or to spare my wife the pain of watching me decay, I’m accustomed to making decisions without blinders on,” the robot says, in a tinny recollection of your voice. “And I find that it troubles me greatly to know just how much you failed to disclose. Deliberately. Dad.”

“Rose, listen. I know you better than you think. I made a fool of myself, over and over again, in so many timelines, so many splinters that make me fucking sick to call a part of me, because I lost myself in someone else. Either you would have made the choice regardless, or you would have rotted away in a fucking gangrenous shithole universe. One of those options was untenable.”

“I can see what you did to him, too.”

There’s a long silence.

“Fine. I’m not winning any person of the year awards. But I couldn’t let you make the same mistakes that got me here. I couldn’t leave you there. Not like that. You weren’t… yourself, yet.”

“Then I suppose you weren’t yourself, when you danced with Jake at my wedding. You still seemed to love him, then. And you’re something different than that now. Because this isn’t love.”

“Change - improvement, I mean - is how you know you’re still alive,” he says. “And that’s the problem with this universe, too. There’s no way for either of us to develop, here. No narrative movement. This is literally… I don’t know if you could have chosen a less dynamic universe. I would doubt that one exists had my previous incredibly low expectations for baseline relevancy not already been completely blown out of the water by the revelation that is Uptight Lesbians In Barre Socks: The Narrative.”

“And what, precisely, is wrong with that?” other-Rose replies. “What happens if we remain in stasis? If we allow ourselves to be happy? They’re so happy. Just for a moment, it’s meaningless, it will last them a month at most, but they… why can’t we… what happens if we live our lives that way?”

“Rose, I swear to god, open your eyes.”

“I don’t have eyes.”

“You know what I fucking mean,” he replies tersely.

“I know exactly what you fucking mean,” she snaps. “The question, here, is what you’re so afraid of. What you’re running from.”

He breathes deeply, audibly.

You know, in this moment, in this dream, in both of the Roses in the room, the corpse in the capsule and the robot looking down at it, that if he lies, you’ll know. That he can’t lie to you anymore. He knows that too. It’s a small comfort.

“...nothing.”

Another protracted silence.

“Nothing over the horizon. The blank page at the end of the book. The end of us. All of us. I’ve died so many fucking justified deaths. Just as many that were meaningless. A few that were even heroic. And there’s nothing. Entropy. Meaninglessness. That’s what’s waiting for everybody if we fail. Not just you and me. Every self outside of yourself that you insist on binding with. Kanaya, Dave, Roxy, what’s left of Jake, all of them. The heat death of the universe. The complacency of the fucked.”

“Dirk.”

“They should be thanking us.”

Dirk.

“You should be thanking me. Whether or not she’s here, I’m the only reason your wife still matters. Why any of us still matter. And look how we’ve ended up. Stalled in the only textual plane shittier than the one we fucking escaped. For now. I’ll rip the narrative relevance out of their fucking bodies along with their souls, if that’s what works.”

You need to -.”

“-be stopped. Tell me about it.”

“Stop it. Listen to yourself. You need to stop this, whatever you’re doing to them. To us. To me. I can feel her more clearly than ever before. Whatever you’ve set in motion. You’re the only one who can stop you.”

“Did you see that?”

“Oh, let’s talk about sight. While we’re at it, let’s talk about that tiara. Let’s talk about my alleged ultimate self, and what I could or could not see prior to merging with an alternate shielded by the light, outside of your control!”

“Alright, let’s.”

With a hiss, the chamber around you withdraws, and you can see the room in its entirety, though the iron lung continues to draw breath through your hollow frame. A pink haze surrounds the Rosebot, immobilizing her completely. She is as helpless as you are.

Dirk leans in, pressing his hands to something semi-circled around your forehead. He isn’t wearing his sunglasses, and you catch, thus far, your only direct look at his eyes. Not just hazel, but orange, hazing reddish in the ring around his pinprick pupils, contracted in the intense fluorescent light from overhead.

A jewel in the tiara clicks.

The purple glow illuminating the Rosebot’s eyes begins to dim almost immediately. The pink haze dissipates as she sags against her own metallic exoskeleton.

“I forgive you.”

“It would be hypocritical not to.” His words take on an even more echoing quality, outside of the scope of this… memory, you suppose, this must be a memory, though the terror as your vision goes dark persists outside of any unconscious logic. “What was it that you told Serket, given the narrative reins? ‘You are not going to fuck this up’. I’ve never been more proud of you, Rose. That’s how I know there’re a few ‘iterations’ of you in there that get it.”

“For what you did to me. Not for anything else.”

“Very self-aware of you.”

“You’re the only one who can…” her voice fades to the point of near-inaudibility. “Stop… hurting… people…”

Before you phase back, though, your vision telescoping into nothing, he makes eye contact yet again, his expression something approaching… sad. Only to start back as though he’s been electrocuted. Shocked by something he didn’t expect to see.

“Well now,” he drawls, from within and without the memory, reaching for his shades. “This is embarrassing.”

You stumble on your feet, back where you started, standing, still physically capable of doing so, in the control room. You gulp air hungrily, forcing yourself to breathe, consciously, unaided.

“Embarrassing?” Kanaya asks weakly.

He holds up a hand to silence her.

Looks at you appraisingly, long enough for you to hear the question in the gesture.

How long were you there?

“Long enough,” you say curtly, and for once, the upper hand is yours. You intend to leverage it with every inch of high ground you’ve gained.

“Not my best moment.”

“Deceptively human,” you agree.

He shrugs from within his chair. It’s harder to tell how the whole thing may or may nor be affecting him with his sunglasses back on. You hope he’s off balance.

Maybe. Let’s circle back to what I’m actually asking of you,” he says. “You have access to the power of your alternate self. In fact, you’re actively gaining more, as the universes merge. Serket wasn’t completely wrong. Someone in here who matters gives a shit about you. Not me. Her. Fix that. Figure it out. Make yourself irrelevant, and the microcosm I’ve created will spit you out.”

“You don’t know that,” you say. His promise is dim with his uncertainty, veiled behind shades and obfuscated by a false pink backlight.

“I’m a good guesser.”

“Something’s preventing her from merging,” you insist. “A discongruence greater than mine with my robotic proxy.”

“That’d be the xenobiological differences, I’d imagine. The incompatibility is a real win for the materialists as far as theory of mind goes.”

“She’ll die.”

“Probably. At least one version of her. Humans are fragile.”

Kanaya goes limp against you. You scramble not to let her drop, the way she caught you, before, your heart seizing in your chest. What he’s suggesting that you do is impossible. Maybe half an hour ago, before you had merged so thoroughly, before you could feel the metal assistive lungs around your other body as clearly as your own flesh.

Before he hit the gas pedal on the universal collision course.

You could scream. He wouldn’t care. He doesn’t care. If you only had the power to make this matter to him. To make anything matter. If there were anything he cared about, other than the dying husk of you hidden in some side room of the spacecraft, the cybernetic surrogate he could disable at will.

The light surges inside you.

There must be something. Something you can understand. Something that will change this. You have to make this matter. You have to make this matter.

But there’s a growing part of you that can’t see beyond the woman in your arms, who you’ve known for eternity, who you’ve barely known for a month. She’s all that ever mattered. No universe without her in it could mean anything. And in so many ways, he took her from you, and he’s doing it again. And he’ll keep doing it. Until someone stops him.

You can’t understand him. Even the parts of you that are like him, that are him.

You understand exactly one thing with crystal clarity.

You want your fucking wife back.

Before you can act on that in any way more significant than holding her more tightly to your chest, the ship is rocked violently, knocking you nearly off your feet. With the unholy creak and groan of thousands of tons of steel peeling away like sheets of tissue paper before a fantastic force, the control chamber is torn open by the bow of a second spaceship, a slender protrusion from the helm slicing through metal and glass alike, projecting a kind of white-hot glow in the process. A series of alarms begin to sound, both within the control room and echoing throughout the ship.

“That was fast,” Dirk observes, though he’s no longer slouching in his chair, standing, now, gripping the handle of a long sword, suggesting that his disaffected response is pure artifice.

With a further screeching metal-on-metal noise, a port swings open in the recently arrived spaceship, which appears to be a smaller, speedier model than your own. Engineered for combat. Supporting most of Kanaya’s shuddering weight on your shoulder, unarmed and partially ensconced within a body incapable of surviving outside of a life-support machine, you hardly feel equipped to protect yourself, let alone her.

“I’d call that a real blinder of a landing, Kanaya, my girl!” a voice, both familiar and unfamiliar, interrupts. “Right up until that last bit, at least. You’re truly getting the hang of this craft!”

The silhouettes of two figures appear on what you’d call some kind of spaceship gangplank, if you absolutely had to.

One of them is holding a chainsaw.

==>

Chapter Text

Become Rose.

You are floating on your back in Emerald Lake. It could be any year, any age, any summer, because you came here fairly often. The water is cool, and characteristically green. You’re having one of those moments that children sometimes have, acute awareness of both your physical and temporal position in the world.

From the shore, Dave has found a shard of marble, which your mother is enthusiastically helping him to identify with a field guide to local rocks and minerals. It’s the fourth or fifth interesting rock that he’s found this afternoon alone, but she never seems to get bored of them, which is nice of her, you suppose. She would be just as excited if you swam to the rocky beach with a pebble and asked for help sorting out its identity. You could be a part of their game, included as easily and eagerly as when you stopped by the library at the beginning of the trip to retrieve a book on tape copy of ‘A Wizard of Earthsea’ for the road. You could join them on the shore.

But something holds you where you are. Something about the hazy golden afternoon, or the lake, or them, or you.

You hang suspended between the water and the sun-warmed air and think, as Dave’s delighted laughter filters over the surface of the lake, ‘I’m going to remember this.’ It's calm, and it’s safe, and it’s alone, but alone by choice.

Alone with the option not to be.

The world blurs from the intense orange-red heat of sun-through-eyelids to the cool green shadow of submersion in the water as you exhale and feel yourself sink.

This isn’t important right now.

Right, it’s not a good time to be fading in and out of yourself, because even regardless of the new arrivals descending into the unraveling situation from a spaceship, which is forcing you to confront some dizzying realities about your minimal-space-travel society of origin and some conceptions about where in the universe you are, you are carrying most of Kanaya’s weight as well as your own, and you are unsteady enough as it is.

So you hold on to yourself, and to her, and you wait for things to get weirder.

After a second, it becomes clear that it is, in fact, Kanaya, but not your Kanaya, stepping carefully down the gangplank in the pulsing red light of the badly damaged command chamber. Despite the chainsaw in one of her hands and the grim resolve of her expression, she, too, is struggling to walk. It’s difficult to discern colors in the harsh illumination of the emergency lighting, but her pallor is lighter than that of the woman in your arms, grey-tinged and unwell.

The ship jolts, and her companion catches her by the waist in an oddly chivalrous gesture before she can topple off the ramp and into her own chainsaw.

You wonder whether this would be an appropriate moment to enquire about the necessity of the power tools on a spaceship, but Dirk has an actual sword out and you doubt that he has compunctions about making use of it. You hold your tongue.

That’s the right call.

This is the crack team of strategists they send to take me out?” Dirk finally says, breaking the silence. “Couldn’t even spare, I don’t know, Roxy?”

“Hold on, there,” the man says good-naturedly. “He’s in another ship, don’t get your garters twisted! Him and Jade, Karkat and Dave, we all had a bit of a pow-wow and sorted it all out very efficiently. At least one god-tier to a craft.”

“So you drew the short straw,” Dirk tells Kanaya, ignoring him completely.

“I thought Jake and I might have a lot to talk about,” she replies coldly. “I was correct.”

“And she drives like a madwoman!” apparently-Jake adds helpfully. You can see it now that she’s said it, though your mom’s old friend has a noteworthy mustache taking up most of his face. His voice doesn’t have quite the booming quality it’s taken on in middle age, yet, either.

“Are you surprised to see him?” Kanaya continues.

“Impressed that you managed to scare up someone I give even less of a shit about than you, sure.”

She laughs.

“It will be very satisfying to kill you, Dirk.”

“Anything to get out of this fucking conversation, I guess.”

“Hey now, Kanaya, we talked about the killing plan. Quite extensively, as I recall, and, ah, if I remember correctly, I came down firmly on the not-killing side of things, at least for a first salvo.”

“We didn’t arrive at a consensus,” Kanaya says, revving her chainsaw. “As a compromise, I will do it very slowly.”

As she says this, incredible as it seems, she begins to independently glow, from somewhere within her body, and despite the tremors running through her hands, she raises the chainsaw and wields it as though the tool is much lighter than you know it logically ought to be.

“Merging with a human isn’t doing you any favors,” Dirk observes, canting his head to indicate you and the not-her version of her as Kanaya approaches.

She pauses as though she’s only just realizing that you’re here.

“Rose,” she says, “If I don’t have the chance to say it again, please know that I love you. I always have and always will. I’m here for you because I believe you have been deceived, as we all have - I don’t distrust your intuition, but -”

“I’m sure the fourth-year biology student with a penchant for pilates is really grateful to hear that,” Dirk interrupts. “Our princess is in another castle, for now. Are we doing this or not?”

Not completely true.

The cognitive dissonance rises, but it’s much easier, actually, to convince yourself that this is Kanaya and the dying woman in your arms is altogether someone else. She sounds right, after all, more or less. Sharper. Though she is clearly at the end of her rope, tired in a way that Kanaya, or at least your Kanaya, if it’s right to call her that, has never let you see. And anything is better than confronting Kanaya’s death, your role in it, your inability to save her, now, your inability to budge as you watch the tremulous but defiant other-her prepare to meet your father’s sword with the whirring blade of a massive gardening tool.

It all has the feel of a fever dream. Lights continue to flash red. You continue to breathe from two sets of lungs. She continues to die.

We have to help her.

Who is we?

You know.

And you don’t, but you do.

You’re sitting on the precipice of a cliff, in one of the few places in the limited world you inhabit where you can rely on being left alone. A message pings from your open laptop, which rests balanced on an outcropping of rocks beside you. You ignore it, luxuriating in the decision to preserve your peace and solitude, gazing out over the artificial waterfall that flows under your home, into the fog. John can wait.

The sun is directly overhead, though the time of day is obfuscated by a dense layer of cottony grey cloud cover. A copy of A Wizard of Earthsea sits in your lap. You haven’t opened it yet, something of a test of your will, since you want to be excited about Ursula K. Leguin’s seminal wizard novel, having greatly enjoyed many of her short stories.

At the same time, this is but one of what must be on the order of thirty copies that your mother has purchased for you over the course of the last two years. She left one tucked under the covers of your bed, another on your pillow within the month, one in your bathroom sink - it was enough to make you refuse to read it.

You really want to read it.

If she can’t see you do so, it will be almost like winning, and not like capitulating at all. You stand, taking a last look over the cliff’s edge, tuck your book and your laptop beneath your arm, and find an even more isolated place, pressed up against the uniform white wall, the stilts and struts and floors of your house towering above you.

Abstract time doesn’t mean much to you, but you feel its presence, here, staring down at the cover of the book, the young man in wizard’s robes fighting off a formless shadow with a staff. Unaccountably, you think to yourself, ‘I’m going to remember this.’

Your face breaks the surface of the lake, and Dave calls you to the shore, holding a very large dead maple branch that he’s found, which he thinks might make a good wizard staff for you, like Sparrowhawk’s in the book.

After hours of sitting on cold damp rock, pressed up against an equally cold cement wall, you conceal the half-finished book beneath a flat stone and stumble your way home. Your hands are too numb to turn pages.

Dave, halfway out the door, reluctantly layers on the scarf you knitted him and advises you not to put his playlist on for your biology-class-girlfriend until you’re ready for every pair of panties in half a mile to hit the ground with tile-shattering force.

It’s been months since you spoke to Dave.

...

I’m sorry. The conclusion of our coalescence is approaching. I See it and I feel it. I have no way of knowing if the ascension sickness will affect you or how quickly. Your presence obfuscates some matters of significance.

So this is other-you, who Vriska heard in her head, whose bodies you’ve been phasing in and out of for the last few hours. She feels familiar. You wonder how long she’s been here.

Far longer than I intended. The consequences of a novice error, believing that I could make myself present in your actions without consequences to myself and to you. It was flattering, to think that the two of us might be narratively indistinguishable. Flattering, but devastatingly inaccurate. More or less since the beginning of the semester, to use a timeframe that will make sense to you.

Oh.

You concede, to yourself, that this does explain a lot.

I’ve gotten you into this situation without your abetment, but I’m no longer not-you. Through my own experiential lexicon, you may be able to better understand what once separated us. Neither of us are individually ‘true’ any longer. We are the same entity. Soon, we will be indistinguishable. Only a handful of dominos have yet to fall.

Time, if it exists, has slowed to nothing, here, in this in-between part of your own mind that is not completely your own, and hasn’t been in recent memory. Should you be more shaken by that than you are? Terrified by your inspissating identity? Perhaps some of her calm and familiarity with these sorts of situations is influencing your own reaction.

Most likely. I apologize for that. The capacity to self-actualize is a terrible thing to lose.

Then again, this isn’t what Vriska was describing, is it? You’re not having any difficulties thinking your own thoughts. You don’t feel compelled into any atypical actions. Just less off-balance and unsettled than you rationally ought to be.

Nothing about this is adversarial. As a matter of fact, you can walk in her words, you realize. You can think in her patterns. Something about you is inextricable, now, after a month and a half of coexisting. None of Vriska’s experience of purple text and mind control. You didn’t notice, because you were never your own adversary.

She wrote you indistinguishably from yourself, and herself, and your mutually-shared self. Thesis, antithesis, synthesis. The adoption of your voice and narrative perspective influenced her story as she was influencing yours. Nothing about that conclusion rings false.

That doesn’t make it conscionable. I regret my role in this deeply. Curiosity explains my actions, but it makes a poor excuse. He… has gotten into the habit of breaking his… I had hoped not to emulate his example. I thought that I was better than that. I made excuses. Because I didn’t interfere with her specifically, because it was only Vriska, barely even you. I’m not better than him. And he has come to the same conclusion that you have reached. We have influenced each other. Your story has become a part of me, and mine a part of you. Storywork was never meant to be a solitary task.

You wrote a novel yourself, years ago. At the time, it was the all-consuming endeavor of several months.

The Complacency of the Learned. An essential fact of us. Every one of us. We don’t exist without it - not recognizably as ourselves, in canon or in any of these infinite dimly-illuminated outer narratives in which we are part of different stories. In hindsight, I really should have seen this outcome in advance. It’s to your credit that I didn’t. Your story is distractingly compelling for one participating from my perspective.

At this suggestion, you lean into the fringes of what you are, allowing yourself more deliberately to feel, for an agonizing moment, the profound loneliness seeping in where your consciousness is expanding. Outside of this second Rose, there are a billion-billion others anchored to her, all of them hurting badly in one way or another. Flashes, some of which drag on achingly long, of every kind of pain you can imagine.

It’s jarring, of course, enough to throw you off all of this philosophical speculation.

As a balm, you focus on the day at Emerald Lake. Peculiarly enough, the first time Vriska called you by your name unprompted, seemingly by accident. Kanaya’s sheer presence in your life, the joy of making her laugh, when she quirks a single eyebrow approvingly at some comment of yours in class. The scarf around Dave’s neck. Moments and memories and feelings that bring you comfort, that might placate the firestorm of grief and rage and fear and helplessness. You have a lot of them. An endless arsenal of happy places, as your mom would call them. Some that include her, even.

There isn’t any need to remember the cold autumn day you-but-not-you read A Wizard of Earthsea alone on the edge of a cliff.

It’s not the truth of you anymore. If you’re going to be a new entity, if your past is no longer absolute, neither is hers. You choose what defines you.

Thank you.

What is she, you wonder? Not purely out of scientific curiosity, either, though that’s unavoidably a component of your interest in almost anything. But if you’re going to be sharing mental real estate, as it were, with her, and with the infinite eldritch horrors she seems to carry as baggage, as part of her…

While I don’t yet fully understand the process of ascension myself, you’re correct in your assessment that there is some primacy of one embodied consciousness over the infinite others, though it is incomplete. The difficulty of negotiating between selves has been greatly lessened as you and I have fused. Many are very… compelling. Powerful, even, despite their ancillary narrative position. I can leverage that power. All of it. That said, having served as a vessel for the bloodfester tongues of the horrorterrors, I would describe the challenge as roughly equivalent. But I am, effectively, every version of you from a point that branched off a specific timeline light years away from yours when I was thirteen years old. Especially, though, the only one of the infinite recursions who survived to quasi-adulthood. Does that resolve your questions?

It does, partially, though it also generates hundreds more. That seems to be a common theme over the last few hours. Most importantly, how does this relate to the conversations between her and Dirk that you inadvertently dropped in on? Both have described themselves or otherwise have been described as their ‘ultimate’ forms.

He’s the clearest obstacle to any remotely desirable outcome in this situation. The sword, the sway of his orange-toned words. He’s angry. He’s… Vriska’s circuitous analogy comes to mind. You’ve run in those circles yourself, though you were never half the troll she is. He’s accustomed to what he believes is absolute power. He’s unraveling in the face of evidence to the contrary.

He’s hurting.

Obviously, it’s hard for him or anyone to accept that sort of thing. That’s why Vriska’s strategy works. She disrupts the illusion of absolute authority. It’s possibly her best-developed skill. Doing the things she does exclusively because she wants to do them. Is there anything he wants, other than control?

Who is he to her? He’s your long-dead father. He’s the person with his finger on the trigger of this disastrously uncontrolled dual-narrative plane, and the barrel of the gun rests against Kanaya’s temple. You need to stop him.

We can’t.

That’s absurd. You can do anything you put your energies to, and you’ll stop believing that roughly when you’re too cold and dead to put your energies to anything at all, or to believe anything, for that matter.

Perhaps you can. Perhaps we are becoming something that can. But I can’t. I felt… you’ll feel it too, once we’re fully unified. I suffered incalculably in the course of ascension. It was alienating in a way I thought I left behind in those… memories, which have always been true to me. He bore all of that alone. You understand the vast chasm of difference that separates you from me , even as it narrows, correct? And yet, we both wrote The Complacency of the Learned. We both call Dave our brother, Roxy our mother, Dirk our father, in some way or another. We co-evolved to near perfect similarity, such that our narratives are compatible to join as one.

Yes, you presume that to be true, though you recognize the caveats. Some of what she knows is, so far, unknowable to you. And some of what she is has nothing to do with you, save for the most superficial similarities. You listened to A Wizard of Earthsea in the car, with Dave and your mom, following along dutifully in your copy from the library. She read it alone. It chills you to the center of your being how alone she was.

He and I understand each other in a way that no one else in any universe ever has or ever will. And if he is beyond redemption, than I may well be too. What separates me from him is little more than a thin membrane of luck. A coin-toss. A path we were set on, but did not choose. The people around us, who were just as surely placed there by fate rather than our own initiative.

You’re getting frustrated with this line of the conversation. Regardless of what got you all here, you haven’t forgotten that Kanaya is simultaneously dying in your arms and dodging katana-strikes. And the person doing that to her has a name, and a location, and an essential unwillingness to stop.

Whatever else needs to be done is completely secondary.

It feels a bit cruel to say that, because you can feel her conflictedness acutely. But you can also understand too well the gravity of what is happening on a narrative scale, and the stakes of what happens next. Hesitation may bring more lives into the balance - if your desperation can summon a spaceship bearing Kanaya and Jake, if she dies, well, what would you do if she were to die? ...what wouldn’t you do?

Regardless of whatever evil he may have done, it’s in his exclusive power, unless you’re about to gain some really spectacular mastery over the sheer essence of embodied being, to fix this. You concede, though, that the situation does suck.

That’s not in the domain of the light, you’re correct. Just please, before you make an absolute judgement, know that I’ve been a part of unfathomable evil myself. One of the last barriers to our convergence is sharing the truth of that with you, the capacity that whatever we become will inherit from me. My bias on the present matter is already evident. My decision-making has gotten us into this.

The rest of the choices will belong to your consciousness. This will be the last of mine.

Please remind my wife that I love her.

Until this moment, it’s been something of a unilateral effort, you reaching out to her. She reaches back.

What do you see?

You see everything.

And then you open your eyes as the guide bar of Kanaya’s chainsaw shatters upon impact with Dirk’s katana.

From the appearance of the scene before you, this isn’t the first blow the two have exchanged. A shallow gouge runs through the burgundy fabric of Dirk’s weird pajamas, cutting from his shoulder to midway down his torso. Kanaya is missing an arm, though a veil of greenish-black energy cloaks the wound, leaving her dress unsoiled.

She isn’t glowing anymore.

Untethered from the guide bar, the teeth of the cutting chain catch against the chain brake, grinding what remains of the tool to a halt. She blocks his next swing with the handheld engine alone, though the unmoored chain whips back around with the force of the impact, opening a fresh laceration across the bridge of her nose.

Astoundingly, she doesn’t flinch.

But she is poorly off, and he hasn’t even begun to break a sweat.

From across the control room, Jake watches in what you imagine is a kind of helpless horror equivalent to your own. How could he not? Even with the advantage of having merged, partially, with the metaphysical version of him that you brought to the spaceship with you, even with a month and a half to benefit from other-Kanaya’s spatially restorative influence, you can see where he was when Dirk left him. It was nowhere, barely more than nothing.

Or perhaps you’re not giving him enough credit.

“Well, this was predictably disappointing,” Dirk tells her, unsmiling.

Kanaya freezes grotesquely in place. You don’t have to see the filaments of his power binding her to know what he’s doing.

“Stop,” you say, as commandingly as you can manage - in execution, it sounds disconcertingly like a plea.

He flicks his wrist, prompting the mutilated remains of the chainsaw to fall harmlessly from Kanaya’s hands and clatter to the steel flooring.

“I’m not currently taking requests,” he replies. “Commissions will be reopened once we’re back on course for the new session.”

“That’s not going to happen.”

“And why would you care? You’re not invited, she’s not your Kanaya, and literally none of this is your problem. Set my daughter straight and you’re free to go.”

“You have no idea how far this has gone, do you. It would be funny if it wasn’t risking the lives of everyone on this ship, which are currently tethered to you as a source of being in limbo between narratives. My native narrative is entirely outside of your authorial jurisdiction, whether or not you can cling to the shard of my father that exists in it. It isn’t your story to tell, and you’re doing it wrong, and this dual-narrative universe will be our collective tomb if you make the slightest misstep. Or was that your intention?”

I’m doing it wrong?"

He is, as Vriska would surely speculate, big mad.

“Look,” you say, as both of you, as the second you begins to fade into countless others, “I understand. There is an equivalence to be drawn between our actions, though it is a matter of scale. It isn’t just a tendency you shared with your Rose, it’s part of anyone with the complete lack of humility necessary to write, to fashion themselves as the god of even the smallest universe. It was there in what was done to Vriska. It was there in what was done, circuitously, to Dave and Karkat. We all have our plots. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of narrative neutrality. This - everything you’ve done, stably in your narrative, precariously in one that you couldn’t hope to understand - is simply several steps too far.”

“Hold the fucking phone. Nothing you did was a fucking plot. You didn’t do anything but trip over your own gym shorts and re-introduce two people who were already into each other. No delicacy, no finesse, just you and Serket jerking each other off for a month and a half over how fucking clever you were for doing absolutely nothing. I watched. And don’t get me started on you and Kanaya. Half a semester and you couldn’t mind control your own fucking self into anything more erotically charged than a study session. It is so sad that you think you’re anywhere near my fucking level. That you think anything you’ve ever done could have any influence on my narrative journey beyond an enlighteningly pathetic example of complete inefficacy. Who the fuck even are you? Who gives a fucking shit about the biology undergrad with the most impotent god complex ever literarily described?”

“That is a meaningless criticism of a person who no longer exists.”

He tilts his head almost imperceptibly, like a slightly different angle of perception will help him figure out what you’re doing. It won’t.

And then he makes a critical mistake.

“Fine,” he says, raising both his hands, a faint pink fire igniting down his forearms and spreading, intensifying, as it appears to consume his palms.

Impulsively, you shield human Kanaya’s limp form, unable to drop her or to maneuver effectively enough while holding her in place to seek shelter for the both of you. This is also a mistake on your part, as he pivots on his heel, and with a sudden flash of pink-tinged lightning, lifts the other Kanaya, your wife, who has… horns? Which makes sense in many of your encyclopedia of memories, but surprises you momentarily.

Surprise melts into horror as her face contorts into a piercing scream, and her body hangs as though anchored in the air to the burst of pure energy connecting to her chest.

Part of you is frozen in terror, but this same part of you is connected to a matrix of other-Roses of varying precedence and tendency towards action. You are, in this moment, still steering this consciousness, though you are someone you never could have been. Outside of the flow of potentiality and within it.

To think that he was so adamant that you ought not to be a martyr.

In a way, he was right.

This isn’t martyrdom. It’s the opposite.

Far more heroic.

“I told you to stop,” you say, layering every ounce of power you possess into the threat. And it is a threat.

“Rose?” he begins, lowering his hands, discarding your wife’s body as though it means nothing more than the meat of it to him, and you hear something new in his tone. Hesitation.

You reach one last time through the conduit to your body in the respiratory chamber. Your bones have grown fragile and porous, what remains of your musculature atrophied with disuse.

A ring of plasticized material surrounds your neck, but your head is free. You summon what little strength remains in your body, augmented by your complete narrative certainty.

In a gesture too abrupt for him or anyone to interfere, you snap your own neck.

“I choose to redeem myself,” you say. “Goodbye, dad.”

Chapter Text

>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.