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at night you still are wondering if you'll dream again so soon

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No one else knows it yet, but something is wrong.

Possibly no one else would ever know it; even if he said something, he's so easily dismissed as insane, lying, covering up some part of himself to keep from being hurt. He knows the truth, can see through to the hidden side of things-- but he... understands, he supposes. He gets it. It's hard to grasp your existence is bound in by rules you don't know, can't see, can never comprehend, if you're not someone who can see them from the inside.

And even if someone did understand the rules, in those empty times where they're not entertaining the protagonist, they'd forget them as soon as the path ended, and it all looped back to start.

The new student sliding into detention is breaking all the rules.

As the roll is called, and Davesprite's fellow romantic options obligingly introduced their personalities for the protagonist, Davesprite tried to relax. It's probably okay, he tells himself, something went wrong but it's probably okay-- and at worst, he only had to put up with this for a few days before they're back to the usual, loop after loop after loop of the same people, the same lines, the same story-- at least it's predictable. At least it's low-stakes. At least no worlds will end. Probably Cousin just tripped on their cute little space unitard and broke their katamari, and the game decided it needed someone to fill the protagonist position.

Maybe it'll even be fun, for a few days.

"Sup," he responds when his name is called, and puts his chin in his hand as Dig Dug calls for their newest face.

Chara smiles mildly, and raises a hand.

---

The differences strike fast.

Chara methodically works through the entire class during an endless detention-- Davesprite hasn't seen Cousin do that in a long, long time, and it's made him wonder if, maybe, Cousin remembers a little, if Cousin remembers him, but can't say anything because it's not part of the game. The other students still don't know that it's wrong, and the respond obligingly to Chara's attentions, though their scripts go off the rails within seconds.

"What’cha in for?" Al asks, and here, Cousin would stammer, their innocent face openly confused and a little pink in the face of that much muscular chest, no matter how many times before they'd been asked that same question-- Chara's little smile widens instead.

"What do you think I'm in for?" they ask, fiddling with the locket around their neck, and draw out an answering smile from their current target.

They continue around the room, engaging with each and every person, spaceship, sapient drum, and weird adorable furry-- not for the first time, Davesprite wonders what kind of detention this is supposed to be. It's basically a free period for making friends, isn't it? But then, he supposes it's a convenient framing device for introducing the protagonist to a variety of dating options without having them know them beforehand--

Distracted by his thoughts, he doesn't see when it happens; he just looks up, and the protagonist-- Chara-- is in front of him.

He straightens up a little, opening his mouth to start his usual dialogue. But something in that smile...

"... Okay, you've got to let me know: did you do something to Cousin?" he asks, even though it'll be reset in less than a week. "Because I was totally expecting someone else to come in today, and, like, no offense, or whatever, but you're not them. Your sweater isn't even near as awesome as their space unitard. Anyways. Cousin. What happened to them?"

"Who's Cousin?" the new protagonist asks, their smile unfaltering.

"... Nevermind. It doesn't matter," he says. "None of it matters anyways. This conversation doesn't even matter. You can just zone out for a few minutes or whatever. Unless you want to know how to get the good ending or whatever-- then I guess you can stick with me, get this bullshit over with faster." Does he even care about this? He's not sure he even cares about this, and he heaves a sigh. "I dunno, are you interested in optimal play? It's not like it matters much, nothing is much longer or shorter either way, the events are pretty set in stone."

Chara waits, patiently, for him to keep going.

Cousin would never. Cousin has never. This is weird, and Dave can't keep his tail from twitching, his feathers from fluffing. He knows where he stands (or floats or whatever) with Cousin. What's this person's deal?

"... Like, you can keep checking people out, you don't have to hang around me," he ventures, uncomfortably. "Have you met Terezi? You should meet Terezi. She'll bump into you and feed you something about all trolls being blind, and then try and lick your lemon-lime sweater or whatever. It's way more interesting than anything I can offer. I mean, unless you're REALLY into depressed second-string clones who draw shitty comics or whatever? If that's your thing, I'm totally your guy, but otherwise, try Terezi. She's a little less insane than I am. I mean, only a little, but also in a way more interesting way, you know? Yeah."

"I think you're very interesting," Chara says, when Davesprite mumbles to a stop, and their smile doesn't waver, but Davesprite isn't sure he likes how it's not wavering-- but they turn away, to get their moment with Jane, and Davesprite drapes himself across the desk, feeling weird as hell.

They don't try to date him, though. After that first day, they spend all their time with Galaga, and they're a fantastic Romeo to its Juliet, and then the loop starts again. Davesprite's glad; he hadn't realized how much he'd miss just seeing Cousin, with their sweet and open expressions and loud, loud thoughts. He couldn't get a read on that Chara character at all.

This time, he decides, slumped over a desk in detention, he's gonna try and catch Cousin's attention. It's insane how much shit it sucks, to go on dates with them and then be forgotten, but at least he always gets another chance...

But Cousin never shows up.

---

"Hello," Chara says, and Davesprite wonders if they ever stop smiling.

"... Sup," he ventures, and their smile creeps wider; they sit on his desk, a little too close for comfort.

"You're special, aren't you?" they ask, fiddling with their locket. "You remember."

What the fuck, Davesprite thinks, and then he says, "What the fuck," because what the fuck?

"I knew you were interesting!" they chirp, and boop his nose-- Davesprite recoils, startled, because no one touches each other unscripted. No one ever touches him at all, except when he's the chosen victim. They giggle. "You made a... webcomic club, right?"

According to the rules, to how the game's structured, they can't know that yet. It's day 0, this is the day where the concept and characters are introduced, a couple people mention their clubs but Davesprite's never gets brought up until day 1--

He draws in a deep breath, and lets it out, and says, quietly, "You remember the loops."

Chara hums, pleasantly, fiddles with their cuffs, tips their head to the side. "I do," they say, after leaving Davesprite in suspense for a second. "Isn't it fun?"

"Dunno if that's the word I'd use for it," Davesprite mumbles. "I'd rather... be free of it."

"But you can do anything, if it all resets. You can be anything. You can do whatever you want, and there will never be a consequence... don't you think that's fun?"

"... It depends on what you want to do," Davesprite says, quietly, watching their hands as they fiddle with their hair, their locket, their sweater, a loop of not being able to sit still. "And you're the protagonist. You get to choose. I'm stuck in one path."

They hum again, eyes bright under the long fringe of their bangs.

"I mean, I could do something different, I guess. I'm doing something different right now. But it's because-- you're here," he explains, "it's the power of being the protagonist. You get to roll in here with your choices and paths, and what you do determines everything else that happens, so once you leave I'm back on my preset path, right? I come to detention, you speak to me or you don't, you chose me for your events or you don't. I don't get a say in it. I don't even get to go look for Cousin." What did they do to Cousin, Davesprite wonders, as Chara smiles down at him.

"You're so interesting," they tell him again. He's so tired. "How much do things have to change to break you out of your path?"

Davesprite doesn't know. He hasn't thought about it.

"I want to see what it takes," Chara says, and hops off his desk, with a jaunty little wave.

---

They don't choose him that loop. He watches them choose Richard, and encourage his bad habits, twist the romance path into something weird and very, very fast. They still defeat Evil Namco High at the end, so... congrats?

The next loop, he looks for Cousin during the day, before detention starts, which he's not sure he's ever done before. He can't find them at all.

Chara is already in the detention classroom when he gets there, talking to Lolo, a smile on their face as they agree, yeah, sometimes it does all feel hopeless and miserable and like you shouldn't care about anyone. (Davesprite wishes he could be numb like that, but he can't be. He's not made to be. He has to care, because he's made to care, at least a little, about the protagonist's progress.)

Chara and Lolo don't defeat Evil Namco High. They join it. That's new and weird, but all the same, the loop starts over.

--

Davesprite's not surprised when it's Chara again, not Cousin. He misses Cousin. It's been sixteen days (and eight hours and fourteen minutes and two seconds) since he saw his friend, his sometimes-romance. He's gone a lot longer than that without being chosen, but-- but Cousin had always been there, ever since this started.

Chara leans on his desk, and offers him a bite of their chocolate bar. He doesn't need to eat, but he takes a couple squares anyways, watches as his digital skin doesn't melt it.

He can still taste it, though. It tastes good.

"Thanks, dude. What are you buttering me up for?" he asks, and Chara laughs.

"I just wanted to make sure I had your attention," Chara says, smile as sweet and mild as always. "I'm going to do something exciting this time."

Something in Davesprite-- something that's the sprite-- is alarmed, wants him to tell them not to do it, wants to tell them that this isn't what they should do.

The Dave part of him raises the chocolate in salute and says, "Sounds like a terrible idea, I'm looking forward to it."

They laugh again. "I like you!" they tell him, and push away as Principal Dig Dug and King come in, to start their roll call again. The NPCs don't even blink as Chara walks up to them, stuck in their script.

Davesprite sees the flash of the metal only a moment before Chara kills King.

"... Holy fucking shit," he says, into the sudden silence, and looks around at his fellow romance targets. Terezi's mouth is hanging open, and she's huffing in through her nose, like she can't believe what she's smelling. Some of the other students don't seem to notice at all-- Jane-- but some start to yelp, scream, reach for their own weapons, as Chara laughs, knife in hand, standing over the body of their detention-dealing overlord.

"Dave," Terezi says next to him, and his wing fluffs up in surprise, "Did the new kid just commit murder?"

He hasn't tried to talk to her in a long time, and he stares at her for a moment, startled. When had he started thinking of her as an NPC, too--?

"... Uh, yeah, looks like it," he says, slowly. "Looks a lot like it. That's an awful lot of blood for it to not be murder. Like, damn, I haven't seen that much red since we were back in the Medium, what a fucking weird flashback that is, I can almost hear the gears grinding to go with it--"

"You're babbling!" she scolds, with a grin, and smacks his tail with her cane, as Chara calmly walks back towards them, ignoring the other students in detention with them, ducking out of the way of swung fists and Wrestleball balls and shit without pausing. "Hey, Dave, Dave, help me put them on trial!"

Dave shakes his head at her, and Chara plonks their butt right on the desk in front of Dave, looking pleased, blood splattered across their sweater. The NPCs behind them stumble to a halt; they're in a conversation now, after all.

"What do you think?" they ask, eyes bright, smile wider than Davesprite's ever seen it before.

It's absurd. It's so absurd. It's insane, like, totally insane-- he kind of wants to make a comic about it? God fuck DAMN. "... You're right, it was pretty fucking exciting," he says, and Chara preens. "Even though it's not going to stick, but, like--"

"Oh, I know," Chara says, "it doesn't matter. But I bet that's derailed the plot, huh?"

Davesprite can't say that it didn't, and he laughs, a little breathlessly. "You're totally nuts," he tells Chara, but-- the plot can't stay intact. They can probably all leave detention, for one thing-- what'll that be like? What's out there, beyond the walls of this classroom and the date events? Oh, man. "Oh, man, dude, what the hell happens next?"

"Let's find out," Chara says, and grabs Davesprite's wrist, to pull him from the classroom.