Nate remembers everything.
He remembers the first time he and Violet discovered the Gallows Dance book and their parents thought it was great they had found something they could agree on; he remembers the time Alice was round at their house so Violet could help her get ready for some date or other and he’d sneaked in to throw a water bomb at them; he remembers his parents not being happy about some of the words Katie had taught him.
Yet he also remembers things that he knows aren’t real, they’re memories from a past that Alice and Violet created for him, and yet they still feel like they’re a part of his past, they’re still just as much his memories as his memories of home. As he remembers the water bomb incident with Violet, he also remembers an early life with the sister Alice had created for him in her attempt to beat Fanboy at his own game, the sister who had sung him to sleep every night, the sister who he imagines succumbing to Oscar’s Imp virus. She looks like Violet, and yet she doesn’t – the sister in these memories is thinner, has a scar running across her left eyebrow (from a fall sustained while running away from another girl she had never liked; Nate shouldn’t remember this, since Alice had never created this backstory in her fic, and yet he can still picture the scene as the blood had run down her face).
And he remembers life as an Imp, remembers how he had constantly felt inferior, how he had known he had the intelligence to be part of the Gems, the Genetically Enhanced Men, and yet could never be accepted by them. He remembers the constant struggles to find enough to eat; when he’s with his old friends now and anyone casually mentions being “starving”, there’s a part of Nate that wants to yell at them that they can never possibly understand what being hungry is really like. He knows a life where he can’t take running water and electricity for granted; sometimes he finds himself getting angry at his parents if they leave the room for any length of time leaving the lights on, and yet he knows they will never understand.
He hasn’t felt able to talk to Violet about all of this. She’d been so determined to get him back home, plus she’d really only spent a matter of days in the Gallows Dance universe, it had never really become home for her in the way that it had for Nate. And he is happy to be back with them, of course he is; he just can’t shake the feeling of foreboding that without him, without Ash, with Thorn a shadow of his former self, the Gallows Dance universe could find itself facing another Gem uprising, with no one else there to help defeat them. But he doesn’t expect Violet to understand the thoughts he sometimes has of going back there.
Ash understands better in some ways. The Gallows Dance universe was the only one he had ever known; he has some of the same struggles as Nate does in accepting that yes, he has more freedom in this verse, that he is not oppressed as he was before. And yet at the same time it’s different for him as well; Nate had had a life here that it was possible to slot into, while Ash has had to create a backstory out of thin air, has little to no knowledge of the world he now finds himself in.
This is his home, Nate knows that, and he’s mostly happy that Violet brought him back. Yet he sometimes still thinks of the Gallows Dance verse, wonders whether he should ever have left.
Ash hasn’t admitted to Violet that he sometimes still thinks about going back.
On the face of it, everything should be perfect here. He has the freedoms that he had only ever been able to dream of back home, never has to want for anything now, and he’s with Violet, who he now knows he belongs with, never Daisy, never Rose.
What he’s finding hard to come to terms with is his sense of his own identity; he’d never had any reason to question things before, and hadn’t consciously thought about his sense of identity when Violet first broke it to him about the book. But now that he’s here, Ash is finding it hard to deal with his new perception of himself that he’s not a real person at all, not Imp nor Gem but a figment of the imagination of this woman named Sally King who he has never met. He’d picked up Violet’s copy of the Gallows Dance novel, and while that novel had focused so much more on Willow and Rose’s story, Ash was reading things about himself, about Saskia and Matthew, Baba, Thorn, and felt he had to slam the book shut because he couldn’t deal with reading his own life story written down like that, as though it was someone else’s story entirely.
As for Violet and Alice’s fan site, he had never intended to read that either. Then one day Violet was talking about how she had banned some troll who was persistently asking people if they did requests, and then leaving multiple identical comments of abuse to anyone who didn’t act on their (extremely specific) requests, and Ash had made the mistake of deciding to check the website out. He had got as far as the most recent story, something called Every Rose Has Its Thorn, and while he could acknowledge that it was technically well written, and the dialogue read as words the characters would say, it was hard for Ash to imagine any universe where the characters Rose and Thorn would ever form any kind of relationship. Everyone who had ever met Thorn knew how devoted he was to the memory of Ruth, the Imp hanged by the Gems on their discovery of Ruth and Thorn’s relationship, how he had blamed himself for her death, which had been the catalyst for his turning his back on his people and joining with the Imp rebels. And Rose…Ash had seen her and Willow himself, in one of the iterations of the story before Violet’s arrival had broken the loop, and the idea of her with Thorn made no sense to him. Violet had said that the vision she and Alice had for the site was for anyone to be able to write whatever they wanted about whichever characters they wanted, and if someone wanted to pair Rose and Thorn, she was happy for them to do that, and Ash understood where she was coming from. Her intention was to prevent another Fanboy becoming dominant; he understood her need to protect the universe. Sometimes he battled with his guilt over choosing not to read the site when he knew how much it meant to Violet; yet he also knew how strange it was for him to read such things about himself, about people he had been close to, and he knew that right now it was the right decision for him. Maybe some day; but not yet.
Violet had explained Ash to her parents as someone she had met at university. Ash hadn’t even thought about it being an issue until the day he actually met her parents and they asked her how she and Ash knew each other. Violet had looked panicked at first and then blurted that out. Ash had kept a straight face, nodded along as though that was true, but inside was wanting to scream. Him? At university? Imps had always been lucky to get a couple of years of education at most. What did any of their Gem leaders care if the Imps received any kind of education? Ash had been fourteen before he could write his own name. He still remembered the day he had succeeded in that; remembered the feeling that now he could truly think of himself as Ash, no more Imp-469107, the tattoo on his back designating his Imp number, which the Gems used to use to refer to Imps to avoid having to use their names.
Every day he walks through that world, it reminds him of his ignorance in comparison to all those around him. He knows that of course, according to this Sally King, this must have been his past too; although dates had ceased to mean much to him over there he was aware that the Gems had taken power in the twenty second century, Baba’s era; that he was living in the twenty seventh, and here he is now in the twenty first. But it still feels strange to him at times as he walks through the streets of London, sees an Underground network which is fully functioning (he had tried talking about this once with Violet and her friends; Danny had laughed and said “You’ve obviously never been on the Northern line, mate”. As all the others had laughed with him, the joke had meant nothing to Ash, and had reminded him all over again of his continuing sense that this place would never really be home to him in the same way that it was to them), and seeing buildings such as St Paul’s Cathedral still standing, where in Ash’s home such buildings were little more than rubble.
Violet had told Ash that one day that she didn’t belong in his universe. Ash had replied “Then neither do I”, and in that moment, he had meant every word he said.
The trouble is, he’s no longer so sure he belongs in her universe either.
One day Nate goes to him, tells him there’s a story on the site that Ash needs to see. Ash reads over his shoulder, sees that the story is about Thorn, how he is struggling to hold it together and help lead his people to form the new world. “Look at that,” he says. “That’s talking about when Thorn accidentally shot Katie.”
“I’m still not sure I’m ready to read these, Nate,” Ash begins, but Nate continues “You’re not seeing it. How would this writer even know that happened? It was never on Fanboy’s site, or here, or anywhere that someone could have read it by chance. Katie was never in the canon. How would someone have known to write about that? And look at this one,” he said, clicking into another fic about Jeremy Harper, how he was haunted every night by the flashbacks to the day he killed his son, how he was arguing with himself over planning to take Willow’s place leading the Imp/Gem alliance in his memory versus his feelings of anger towards the Imp rebellion which had led to the situation in the first place. Someone, probably the same troll Violet had mentioned banning, had commented “Willow’s a prat and I’m glad he’s dead”.
“That never made it into Fanboy’s story either. No one apart from us knows about it. How would someone know enough of the details to be able to write that? It doesn’t make sense, unless…”
Ash finishes his sentence. “Unless someone else from over there has crossed over.”
“Violet and Alice said they were going to police it, to stop anyone taking over, to keep the universe safe. But it’s been eating away at me, Willow’s gone, Thorn’s useless, Daisy’s effectively left on her own to handle things. I can remember things, things from the Imp past that Alice never wrote for me. Other people, they’re filling in those gaps, giving me a history. And that idiot who got banned, he kept requesting another Gem uprising. What if someone’s actually writing that as we speak? We need to check the site again, see what we’re dealing with.”
Ash looks at Nate, knows they are thinking the same thing. “We may have to go back.” It may be time for both of them to make a final choice, to decide which universe is truly their home.
He just doesn’t know which he will choose…..