Second Best - NoBrandHero - Homestuck [Archive of Our Own] (2024)

Chapter 1

Chapter Text

Dave died in the final battle. It wasn't anything spectacular; he didn't come even close to landing the final blow. He just took a hit that was meant for John and that was it. Heroic death. No coming back. Now you're the only Dave left in this whole operation.

You don't think much on it at first. You're going to follow in his footsteps soon enough, after all. If the Real Dave couldn't manage to survive this crap, you're definitely SOL. No point getting your angst on in the final hours of your existence.

How would you go about grieving some asshole who's basically you but better anyway? That's some existential bullsh*t, right there. It's not like you "knew" the guy in the sense of hanging out and being buds. It's hard to say you'll miss him as a person, let alone as a friend. It's just freaky to know the guy who's supposed to take over from you already failed just as hard as you will.

This timeline's lost a really cool dude and that is a damn shame, but it's gonna lose a second one before the end of the game.

You tell yourself that all the way through the final encounter, all the way through preparing the Genesis Frog for its final stage. It's only when the endgame door stands before you that you realize maybe you're still alive and that's not changing.

There are no other casualties. John's alive, Jade's alive, Rose's alive, your teen parents are alive, a bunch of aliens you don't actually know very well are alive... You're just down one stupid asshole who swore he'd never play the role of reluctant hero and ate his f*cking words like a bowl of Cheerios.

You hover separately from the rest of the group. You don't belong with the real kids. They don't bother beckoning you closer either. Dirk's the only one who looks your direction, but you're both too cool to initiate any brotherly comfort.

John reaches for the doorknob in tandem with Karkat and Jane. Maybe you shouldn't go through the door. Were sprites even meant to leave the game? Will it delete you before a game leftover can infiltrate the Real World? Of all the knowledge Sburb stuck into your sprite brain, of course it couldn't be assed to include whether you're allowed to live past the end of the game.

You wonder if game constructs get dreambubble ghosts or just... fade into nothing. You wonder which you'd prefer.

Whatever choice you would have made doesn't even matter. You don't have to step through the door. The instant the three session leaders pull it open, it blasts you all with blinding light. You almost assume it's a trap, except it doesn't actually hurt; it just feels weird. Your skin tingles and your insides squirm. You can't seem to move and even when you force your eyes open you can't see anything but white.

You squeeze your eyes shut and wait for the bullsh*t magic of Sburb to get to the f*cking point.

* * *

You're on your back. You don't remember falling -- you're not sure you have fallen since you became a sprite, seeing as you goddamn float all the time -- but your back kinda hurts and you feel a hard surface beneath you. Putting two and two together, you apparently blacked out long enough to fall.

It's hot out. Not as hot as LOHAC usually is, but it's warm enough that you feel sweat run down your temple. It's not an atmospheric heat either; it's beating down on you.

You crack your eyes open. An orange sun shines overhead and your only respite from its nauseating light is the limited shadows cast by the radio tower standing above you. It's so damn bright that even your shades barely act as a suit of armor for your poor abused eyeballs. You can barely remember the last time you saw a real sun sitting in the sky like a normal thing. Light just kinda... happens in the medium, logic be damned.

An ambulance siren blares, echoing so wide that you don't even know which direction it comes from. Some asshole leans on their horn for a good four seconds. Tires screech against pavement. You turn your head enough to see the other skyscrapers in the distance.

You're in Houston. It's been three f*cking years, yet you'd still know that view anywhere. It's permanently seared into your brain and you didn't even know it until this exact moment.

You raise a shaking hand to your face to confirm a sneaking suspicion: Your skin is white. It's f*cking white, not orange or glowing. You can't feel your wings anymore, or your ghost tail anymore, or your embarrassing craving for insects and small rodents anymore. Not only is your brain free from avian yearnings, it isn't even set to Game Guide Exposition mode.

As if you don't have enough to take in already, you swear you hear a rocket board in the distance and blasting closer. You should probably get up and check, but f*ck that, you're too busy being dazed and confused.

It's definitely getting closer, though. Unless it makes a sudden turn, it'll be on you soon. You tilt your head back to catch an upside down glimpse of the familiar figure flying a red board through the air like a smooth badass.

Huh. You guess it makes sense that Dirk landed in Texas with you. He's kinda tall for Dirk, though. And wearing the wrong clothes. And too old. Probably because it's not Dirk at all, actually. It's Bro.

You're in Houston, you're not half-bird anymore, and Bro's alive. It's as if you were never in the Medium at all. You're even wearing the same damn T-shirt from before. The ripped up shreds of that creepy puppet are the only thing missing from the scene -- well, that and the deadly meteors hurtling towards the city.

Nothing for it. No more uselessly gawking now that Bro's around. You sit up and make to take to the air, except, oh hey. You don't have a ghost tail anymore. Those are legs. Guess what can't f*cking float? All you manage to accomplish is flopping on your face like some kind of idiot dolphin that decided to leap out of the water and land smack in the middle of pavement. So f*cking graceful, you don't even know.

C'mon, you f*cking got this. You remember legs. How hard can they be to work? You only used them for thirteen years. Who cares that you spent the last three years floating? You just gotta get your lazy ass onto your feet and you can wave off the first faceplant as totally ironic.

Bro leaps off his board and captchalogues it in the same moment that his feet hit the roof. Perfect landing, 10/10, still the same badass Strider even post-death. "Get up, bro," he says in his usual monotone. Such heartfelt reunions going around.

You grunt. "Hey, don't judge. I am just getting reacquainted with our sweetass roof over here. It's cooler than it looks." Yeah, there's really no saving face in this situation, especially when you're still failing to get on your damn feet.

Never a guy with anything resembling patience, Bro kneels and catches you by your armpits. You try not to die of humiliation as he hoists you into the air, straightens you out, and sets you on your feet. The moment he releases you, your legs crumple and you're back on the ground with an uncool thump.

Ow. f*ck. You must look like hot sh*t right about now.

What is the damn hold up here? Sure, you're out of practice, but it can't be that hard to stand, can it?

After watching you uselessly flail for a few more seconds, Bro picks you up same as before. You brace yourself for your inevitable plummet, but instead of releasing you, he says, "Kick at me."

You know a trap when you hear it, even if you don't know what exactly he's got planned for you. Might as well go with it, seeing as you're f*cked either way. You lift your leg to... You lift your... You...

Why isn't your leg lifting? It kinda sways when you try to move, as if it wants to go up, but you can't hoist your knee more than half an inch before it goes back to dangling like a lazy limp ragdoll. Neither of your legs can be assed to f*cking move, let alone hold weight, after three years of not existing.

Welcome home, asshole. Enjoy a souvenir from your stint as a friendly video game guide.

* * *

The doctors have never seen a case like yours. Of course they haven't.

They run you through endless tests, scanning your legs and your back and even your brain. They run some blood tests because why the f*ck not? Spending hours and hours in the hospital is totally how you want to spend your first day back on Earth.

The results are turning up Something Is Wrong, just not Wrong in the ways they know how to diagnose. In the end, they chalk your paralysis up to a mysterious spinal injury mixed with muscle atrophy.

Will you ever be able to walk again? They hem and haw, ramble about statistics, point to the X-rays again... Bro has to repeat the question in a sterner tone of voice before they'll admit upfront that they just don't know. You need physical therapy or you won't have a chance in hell, but even then recovery is murky. They recommend you brace yourself for the long haul.

Well... whatever. You can figure out how to bring your patented Strider coolness to a wheelchair if you have to.

Which, yeah, you have to. There's no getting around it, or getting around anywhere if you refuse. You're the indifferent owner of a shiny new wheelchair by late evening. Okay, it's not shiny at all; it's actually boring as sh*t, but you can deck it out later or something. At least Bro doesn't have to carry you out of the hospital.

These things are not remotely as easy to use as TV makes them look though. How the f*ck do you make them turn? Why does it take so much effort to push the wheels into motion? Since when are sidewalks so damn bumpy?

Your arms are tired long before you reach the car, but Bro doesn't offer to push you, which means it's pointless to ask (and uncool besides). He doesn't even help you with the door or clawing your way into the passenger seat. The most he does for you is fold up the wheelchair and haul it into the trunk. That, and he grabs you Taco Bell on the ride home.

Taco Bell counts for a lot, in your book, especially after spending an entire f*cking day in a hospital with only the sh*ttiest food to survive on. Both of you are famished for food with flavor, and a greasy taco has never tasted so sweet.

You'd practically forgotten the taste of sh*tty fast food after living so long on alchemized bird seed and Jade's garden produce. (John and Jade were both very firmly against any attempts to alchemize roadkill. Bird seed was an embarrassing compromise.) God, Taco Bell is so terrible and so great. The only way it could be any better is if the shells were made of Doritos. Too bad no one's created an invention that ironically perfect yet. Maybe in 2012 or something.

You stare out the window at the night city as you drive through the downtown area. You honestly never thought you'd see buildings and streetlights and hobos again, but here they all are, good as new despite the apocalypse.

Bro doesn't talk for most of the drive and you just about jump when he says, "How long did the game end up lasting?"

"Three years." You flick a piece of fallen lettuce off your seat and it lands on your shoe. You can't wriggle your foot enough to remove it. "You remember it?" Neither of you had actually mentioned it until just now.

"What little there is to remember on my end, sure." He sighs and almost sounds a little tired as he says, "That bitch of a chess piece f*cking killed me, didn't he?" You're not used to hearing Bro almost have an emotion, but you guess he's worn out from spending all that time around doctors and sick people.

"Yeah, but don't feel too bad about it or anything. Neither of us stood a f*cking chance once he got Harley's nuclear dog powers." You dig through the plastic bag in search of another taco. "You saw what the bastard did to my wing."

He takes his attention off the road for a moment. "You're the Dave who merged with a sprite?"

"Yeah?" you say, furrowing your brow in confusion. Who the f*ck else does he think- Oh, god f*ckin' dammit.

Bro grunts. "That explains why your legs are f*cked up." He brings the car to a stop at a red light and taps a rhythm on the steering wheel. "So what happened to the non-bird Dave?"

"He died." As the words leave your lips, your insides do all kinds of athletics as if they're practicing for the Olympics. Yep, Dave's dead and you're the consolation prize.

Bro goes very still, his expression as guarded as ever. "How?"

You shrug. "He took a lethal blow protecting someone else." Just like Bro did for you. "Guess Skaia figured he didn't deserve to be revived when there was a spare Dave already hanging around that just needed de-birdified."

He nods, his lips thin, and stares out the windshield. If you didn't know better, you'd say he's gone pale, but that's impossible on multiple levels. (He's already pale as a ghost all the time, for one, and he doesn't have it in him to show that kind of discomfort anyway.)

The light turns green but the car doesn't move.

"Bro," you say after a moment. No response. "Bro." You nudge him and get your wrist caught in a vice-grip for your troubles. You scowl, not even bothering to struggle. "Dude, the light's f*ckin' green!"

The truck behind you lays on the horn and that snaps Bro out of his thoughts. He releases your arm and returns his attention to driving. He doesn't say another word the rest of the way to the apartment and you don't mind that in the slightest. sh*t was headed right down Angst Avenue anyway.

You half-expect Bro to abandon you in the parking garage to find your own way back into the apartment, but for as much as he refuses to help you, he also won't leave you by yourself. He watches your back all the way to the elevator, at which point he disappears with a flashstep, probably to take the stairs.

It's some small comfort that he's not making you take the stairs with him, but apparently a wheelchair is a good enough excuse to skip the exercise, even by his standards. Stairs are dangerous sh*t anyway. Elevators are sweet and straightforward. Just gotta roll your way inside and... Okay, cool, you're staring at the wall and there's not enough room to turn the chair around. Beautiful. You reach around and manage to hit the button for your floor at least.

Adjusting to this sh*t is gonna be annoying as hell.

The apartment's unlocked when you get to the top floor. You have no clue where Bro's hiding, whether he's on the roof or standing in your blind spot, but that's just business as usual.

It takes you an embarrassing amount of time to maneuver yourself through the obstacle course of a living room and make your way to the safety of your bedroom. It's a mess, but none of the game objects Jade placed are still there, so most of your furniture has miraculously been recovered. That's not actually as comforting as it should be.

God, you don't want to learn how to foist yourself out of the wheelchair and onto your mattress, not right now. Maybe you'll dick around online until you fall asleep in your chair. That won't involve finding new ways to move an uncooperative body, right? You just shove aside your computer chair and settle in front of your desk. Yeah, this works fine.

John's the only one online. sh*t, you should have contacted one of your friends earlier and made sure they were safely back home, but you got a little distracted by the whole medical emergency thing. John messages you before you can even hover your mouse over your chumlist.

-- ectoBiologist [EB] began pestering turntechGodhead [TG] --

EB: yessssssssssss, i knew it!!
EB: took you long enough to log in, you heroic bag of sh*t! here i almost thought skaia went and revived our guardians without bringing you back!
EB: welcome back, bro! you f*cking scared us!

f*ck. Your. Life.

Chapter 2


Perhaps it's just as well / That I still look like hell / At least the world can tell us apart

Is it true? Well, it's true enough I guess / Come join the chorus of the second best

-- "Second Best," Barenaked Ladies

Chapter Text

For once in your life you're at a complete loss for what the hell to write. You just stare at the blinking cursor on your monitor for a few minutes in numb shock. Pesterchum's automatically signed you in with red font and John's called you a "heroic bag of sh*t." This is not f*cking happening.

EB: dave?
EB: you there, dude?
EB: c'mon, don't leave me hanging right now!

You should reply. You need to bring your hands to the keyboard before John can fire off a round of worried messages. It's basic f*cking etiquette to at least greet him so he's not talking to himself.

TG: yo slow down there egbert
TG: let me get settled in before you start serenading me with long tales of the forelorn heartache you felt in my absence
TG: gotta keep our priorities straight here
TG: as opposed to keeping our priorities hella gay
TG: also hey sup

Well, he got the "bag of sh*t" part right, anyway.

* * *

Your friends forgot you again. Not one goddamn person thinks to ask if you're the real Dave and no one asks what happened to Davesprite either. What, are they just gonna assume the door vaporized you or something in exchange for resurrecting the Dave who was supposed to survive? It sure as hell doesn't occur to them that maybe the bargain bin Dave they beat the game with is the one they're stuck with.

You can't correct them.

This is the friendliest John's been to you in... f*ck, three and a half years, if you count the months he was dead in your doomed timeline. Jade's cheer isn't awkward and forced from trying to dance around any mention of your failed romance. You don't have much comparison for Rose, but it's nice to hear from her again, period.

It's almost like everything's back to normal. Game? What game? Obviously you got in some kind of motor accident and that's why you're in a wheelchair. You've never been on poor terms with your friends, let alone turned into a ghost-bird hybrid.

Okay, you can't actually buy the denial angle for even two seconds, but a guy can daydream.

At least Pesterchum gives you a small illusion of normalcy, because Bro's acting weird. He keeps to himself, same as usual, but he hasn't jumped you in the middle of the night or dropped a pile of gross puppets on you or ordered you to the roof for an uneven strife.

You're not sure whether or not to put your guard down. Maybe he's planning to swoop in when you least expect it and kick your ass, or maybe this is what he's like without that demonic puppet around to drive him f*cking insane.

Or maybe he doesn't think you're worth training anymore as a fake Dave. You know it's not the wheelchair, because there's no way he's afraid of putting pressure on a disabled kid.

You don't tell your friends about the leg paralysis thing though. It's kind of an awkward subject to breach. Good window of opportunity just hasn't come up for it, so what can you do? Likewise the whole dealie where you're not the alpha Dave.

You should probably tell them that. You definitely should. You don't.

If they find out you're not Dave, they'll go right back to holding you at a distance as an Honorary Friend who's filling in for the real star of the show. (If they find out you're lying, they'll f*cking despise you and even you won't blame them.)

* * *

Your eyes have changed colors.

You don't notice for a few weeks, since you've never made a habit of taking off your shades around reflective surfaces. Instead you make this discovery at physical therapy one day, when they finally get sick of the coolkid shtick and tell you to remove your shades while you're indoors since you don't have any eye problems.

"Those are some unique peepers," your trainer says as you go through the usual stretches.

Those seem to be one of the consistent side effects of being an ectoslime baby: ridiculously bright eyes, impossibly white skin, and a high tolerance against physical damage. Since explaining that would make you sound crazy, you just say, "Yup."

"They almost look orange in this light. They're brown, right?"

No, but brown is what you tell people when you don't feel like bullsh*tting humorous excuses about why you've got red eyes. "Yu-" Wait. Orange?

You snap out your phone and turn on the inner camera. You stare at a pair of very orange eyes on the screen. They're the same hue as Bro's.

By the end of the appointment, you have never been so glad to jam your shades back on before anyone else can see your momentary lapse of coolness.

* * *

You have a nightmare that you're a sprite again. You're surrounded by what must be at least one hundred other normal Daves, chatting amongst themselves and ignoring you. Some of them are God Tier, some of them are wearing regular T-shirts and jeans, and a small number of them are even wearing the various suits Dave alchemized over the course of the game.

On the rare occasion that any of them let their shades slip, usually for cleaning or by accident when jostled, you spot blank white eyes hiding behind them. It's almost funny: you're trapped in a crowd of ghosts, yet you're the only bastard with the appropriate tail.

There's so damn many of them that it's overwhelming to study them in their identicalness. You don't even notice the social butterfly wandering amongst them, at first. Most of them find conversation partners with whoever's nearest and call it a day, but one God Tiered Dave makes his way from one group to the next, butting in on conversations that are probably none of his business.

Every Dave that the wandering one speaks to disappears afterwards, fading into nothing. You involuntarily shudder, but you can't seem to move from your spot even as the Daves around you slowly dwindle from the lethal conversation.

Some of them frown at the Murderer Dave, yet they never seem all that distressed as they dissolve at his invisible urging. A few even look f*cking relieved to see the dude. You never hear what they say.

What used to be a crowd is quickly becoming a handful. You're no longer surrounded. You could leave without bumping into anyone, if you could just bring yourself to move.

The penultimate Dave fades away, leaving you alone with the serial killer.

Dave sighs and his shoulders slump. He turns your direction for some reason- No, you aren't as invisible as you thought and the f*cker is actually looking at you. If you had any doubt of that, he even slips his shades down low enough to look you over with his ghostly white eyes.

"Hey," he says. "You gotta make this so f*cking difficult?"

You jolt awake. You're not even sure why your breath is shallow from a nightmare that f*cking tame -- it's not like any puppets leapt at you -- but it still takes you at least three hours before you can slip back to sleep.

* * *

You almost come clean to Jade. She of all people deserves to know who she's dealing with again. Besides, she's the only one who seems to remember you even in passing.

GG: hey dave
GG: are you um
GG: flirting with me? :x
TG: no

You kind of were. You didn't mean anything by it, but old habits die hard, okay?

TG: why
TG: do you want me to
GG: oh no no no no noooooo
GG: i am actually really relieved that i was imagining things :)
TG: hey f*ckin ow
GG: sorry, i didnt mean it like that!
GG: its just
GG: well you know about me and davesprite
TG: yeah that sh*t didnt go so hot
GG: yeah :\
GG: its difficult sometimes because you remind me of him and i know its unfair to think of you two in a similar vein but...
TG: nah i get it
TG: all aboard for awkward city population strider right
TG: this trains riding express have your tickets ready cos otherwise the conductors might just dropkick you out the window
GG: heheh
TG: so i remind you of davesprite
GG: yes that is pretty inevitable i guess :\
GG: i will remember that you are different though, dont worry!!
TG: yeah um
GG: its just in terms of flirting and dating and all that messy stuff...
GG: well........
GG: there are a lot of things i never got a chance to work out with davesprite
GG: and it just would feel really weird and maybe even a bit disrespectful to date another dave with all of those uncomfortable feelings left unresolved
GG: so thats why i am really glad you werent flirting!
TG: right
TG: hey
TG: sorry for hurting you
GG: aww, dave, that is a nice gesture but you dont have to apologize for something davesprite did!
GG: you cant hold yourself responsible for someone elses actions
GG: you are two different people!
TG: yeah i guess we are
TG: still
TG: sorry

That's the most you can bring yourself to say on the matter.

God, she deserved better than you.

* * *

Keeping sh*t to yourself instead of blurting it out in a fountain of rambling metaphors has never been your strong point. The dam finally breaks after your eighth week in physical therapy.

You've been to the physical rehabilitation center so often now that you know the building's layout like the back of your hand. You can make your way through hallways that used to feel like a labyrinth and reach the exit in no time flat, ignoring the "to lobby" signs because you know what you're doing, thanks.

Sometimes you get a kick out of referring to your appointments as "going to rehab," because you gotta find humor somewhere in all this. It'd be pretty funny, anyway, if you actually told people about it.

Bro's the only one who knows you're down here five days a week. He's the only one who knows you're going to physical therapy at all. There is only one single jerk outside of yourself who's in on the secret that you're an ex-sprite with useless legs; of course that jerk is also a guy you can't actually talk to because he's so damn cool and aloof and distant.

He's also the jerk you gotta rely on for rides. You make your way out of the building and watch for his car by the door. You always wonder if this will be the time he just sends you a text ordering you to find your own way home, but so far he's always pulled into the parking lot within ten minutes. He's never early for you.

You wonder what he's even getting out of this. He knows you aren't the real Dave, he doesn't treat you like he used to, yet he's willing to drive you to physical therapy on a near-daily basis? Is he hoping to restore you back to the Default Dave state if he can just get your legs working again? Joke's on him. You'll never be Default Dave again and your legs are probably a lost cause anyway.

You stew in your amateur attempt at conspiracy theories, until Bro pulls his car up to the curb and steps out to move your wheelchair to the trunk. Neither of you say a word in greeting until you're both settled in the car.

"How'd it go?" Bro asks, not really paying attention to you as he turns out of the parking lot.

"Fine," is the answer you should give. It's not wholly positive, but it dodges negative connotations well enough. That's what you usually tell him and he's always accepted it.

Instead you say, "It went same as usual, no change, still can't walk, still no chance I'll ever get to walk again, which ain't really that big of a deal except for how it's a constant f*cking reminder that I'm the spare Dave and that I have to hide these appointments from my friends, because if they knew that my legs don't work they'd probably put two and two together, since after all there's no reason for Dave to be in a wheelchair, but- oh sh*t, what about the asshole with the ghost tail? The lightbulb goes off, the room's illuminated and, Jesus Christ, it's a pig sty and no one could even tell in the dark, so everyone goes back to hating me and everything associated with my giant mess of a room because no one likes traipsing through garbage strewn across the floor, which means if I can't get my sh*t picked up and put away in the closet before someone sees me again in person, I'm f*cked, but who cares anyway because it's not like I don't deserve it after all the crap I put them through." You only stop there because you need to f*cking breathe.

Bro slowly turns his head towards you, his face as unreadable as ever. "What?" is all he says.

You tense. Oh god, you f*cked up, you so f*cked up, and Bro doesn't even care about your bullsh*t anyway. "Nothing."

"Right, talking so damn fast you forgot to pause between words long enough to sound coherent is nothing." He pulls the car over, leaving the ignition on to keep the AC running. He leans his arms against the steering wheel and stares at you for a long moment. "What's going on, little bro?"

You hold up a finger. "Dude, first of all, nothing is going on. Second of all," you lift another finger, "it's none of your damn business. It's my business." You pat your chest. "I'm the manager and the owner, I decide what we keep in stock, and I can refuse service to whoever I want. Hours are posted on the door and right now we are f*ckin' closed, so would-be customers can do their shopping tomorrow or head on over to Wal-Mart."

Bro settles back into his seat. "Cool, then call me your nosy landlord. You don't cooperate, maybe I'll raise the rent just to be a spiteful asshole."

You frown. "I'll move and then you'll have an empty building. What now, bitch?"

"Now I remind you that this car isn't obligated to go anywhere if I don't feel like it." He crosses his arms and stares out the windshield. "I barely understood half of what you blathered back there, but I still caught some sh*t I wasn't thrilled to hear, kid."

f*ck, which sh*t? You can't narrow it down when everything you said was a worthy candidate for the Piss Bro Off competition. Since it's too damn late to play dumb, you try a half-truth. "Rehab felt really long and pointless today, all right?" You shrug. "It ain't worth making a f*cking production out of it."

"That it?" he says.


He goes still and silent for at least half a minute and you don't have the slightest f*cking clue what's going through his mind. Is he weighing your honesty? Drawing out the tension until he calls you out on your sh*t? Debating what to order for dinner?

He finally reaches for the gear lever and pulls the car back onto the road without a word. You release a breath you didn't realize you'd been holding and relax against your seat. Maybe you've actually dodged a bullet.

You really, really should know better than to put your defenses down, where Bro's concerned.

The rest of the ride home is uneventful and you've all but forgotten your outburst by the time you're taking the elevator to the top floor of your apartment building. Bro's taken the stairs and left you alone, as per usual, but you reach for your keys in case the bastard didn't leave the door open for you. It's only as the elevator opens and you wheel towards the apartment that you notice anything amiss.

There's a note taped to the door: "Bro. Roof. Now."

Oh, shi-

Bro flashsteps behind you, yanks you up by the back of your shirt, captchalogues your wheelchair, and throws you over his shoulder like you're a sack of f*cking potatoes, all in the span of half a second.

"Dude!" You knee him in the chest, for all the good it does with your leg's complete lack of strength.

"Just sparing you from your justifiable aversion towards stairs, li'l bro," he says, flashstepping to the roof so fast that you're lucky you don't throw up.

He sets your wheelchair on the ground and unceremoniously drops you into it. Before you can regain your bearings, he tosses one of your old sh*tty swords at you. You catch it with a startled yelp.

He can't be serious.


Oh god, he's serious.

The strife UI's up and running as Bro equips a katana, backing away to give you adequate starting space.

You lay your sword across your lap so your hands are free to retreat -- for as much as you can retreat, in the middle of a goddamn roof with stairs blocking the only escape route. "Dude, are you f*cking nuts?"

He raises his sword at you but doesn't advance. "C'mon, bro, you trying to tell me it took you less than a day to figure out how to fight with a pair of chicken wings but a wheelchair is too complicated for you?"

You increase your grip on your right wheel. Oh, it's f*cking on. You'll figure out some way to work the damn wheelchair one-handed, or you'll switch sword hands often enough it won't matter, or something, so f*cking help you. "Those were crow wings, motherf*cker." Your sword feels heavy and awkward to lift after so many weeks of disuse, but the hilt feels right in your palm.

For a split second, you almost swear there's a glimpse of a smile on your brother's face, but then he's charging you and the only thing you have time to concentrate on is dodging his blade.

It's just like old times, except where it's not.

You get your ass handed to you, as if you could ever expect any other outcome. What's actually shocking is that Bro ends the strife early. You're panting and sweating, but your worst injury is a scrape from when you misjudged a turn and capsized your wheelchair. For some reason he held off hitting you hard, but you can't bring yourself to complain that he "went easy" on you. (It's not like it's the first time he's surprised you since the game ended.)

You utterly sucked anyway. You're out of practice and used to fighting in a sprite body, not to mention the giant elephant in the room with four wheels.

Bro nods to you all the same and holds his arm out for a fistbump. "You'll get better, bro."

Chapter 3

Chapter Text

Your legs can mostly move again by late summer. Hold weight... not so much. You can kick your feet and wriggle your toes and sh*t, but any and all attempts at standing still result in faceplants.

The doctors are more certain than ever that a full recovery is off the table. Maybe you'll regain enough strength to stand again someday, but you are absolutely never gonna reach a point where you can walk the full length of a block again.

At least you've got the hang of the wheelchair. Your arms haven't been sore in months and you've got the controls down to near perfection, like a stubborn video game button scheme you finally mastered. Now that you know what you're doing, it's hard to remember why you had trouble in the first place.

(Bulky door thresholds are still the worst, though. The very worst. They're like mini stairs: too small to be an official hazard, but just large enough that it takes extra effort to get your damn wheels over them. Also, f*ck small door frames.)

Overall, life... isn't that sh*tty right now, which is pretty weird. You forgot what it felt like to not dread waking up in the morning.

Your friends are actually friendly to you -- what a novel f*ckin' concept, right? -- and you aren't embarrassing yourself with involuntary cawing every few minutes... Hell, you're not even doing too bad in your strifes against Bro. He goes easy on you, sure, but you know your own strength well enough to recognize that you're actually sorta getting the hang of sh*t again.

You never stop waiting for the other shoe to fall though. You're not that easily lulled into a false sense of security. Things never go this well for long.

The shoe doesn't fall all at once; you notice it start to wobble first.

-- ectoBiologist [EB] began pestering turntechGodhead [TG] --

EB: hey, when are you free soon?
TG: never
TG: i am f*cking expensive john
TG: its hard enough to catch me on sale so youre definitely not gonna find me in the bogo bin anytime soon
TG: but maybe if you ask for a gift card for xmas youll be able to afford me without spending a cent of your own hard earned moolah
EB: suuure, dude.
TG: why the sudden interest in purchasing my hot merchandise
EB: reunions!
TG: ok
TG: that explains nothing
EB: pffffff, jade's grandpa is bringing her to the mainland in october!
EB: it's the worst timing EVER, but we still gotta take advantage while she's here and meet up again!
TG: wait you mean in person
TG: like a high school reunion
TG: a sburb beta reunion
TG: time to find out who got a hot girlfriend and who started balding
TG: watch out for the punch i hear the jock spiked it
TG: theyre playing a bunch of inappropriate green day songs during the dance and all the teachers think its such a sweet tribute cos they never noticed that the song is f*cking titled good riddance
EB: hell f*cking yes, bro. exactly like that.
EB: i've got a really tight window of opportunity, though, 'cos i'll be back in f*cking school. bluh, bluh!
EB: so you and rose should get your home schooled butts up here.
EB: send me your fall schedule! i'm gonna try to coordinate the timing so we can all hang out in washington for a week!
TG: nah
EB: what?????
EB: dude, BULL! don't you "nah" me!
TG: i will nah who i like
TG: and i nah at you sir
EB: but we haven't seen each other in-person since the game ended!
EB: don't tell me you can't afford the plane ticket.
TG: i just dont want to deal with convincing bro
EB: i will personally kick your brother's ass if he won't let you come.
EB: we can't have a sburb beta reunion without our badass time player!
TG: i cant go to washington dude i dont own a coat
EB: you can borrow one of mine, you southern wimp!!
EB: dave, what's ACTUALLY going on? why are you trying to bail on us, man?
TG: sorry egbert theres a lot of complex grownup conflicts on my end
TG: cant make commitments right now
TG: nothing personal
EB: we can work around it! c'mon, dude, you seriously aren't even gonna try to see your best friends again?
TG: give me a date and ill see if i can make it
TG: hows that
EB: that's still lame!!
EB: but fine, whatever, i'll coordinate with the girls for now. if the timing doesn't work for you, then we'll just find a way to fly down to texas en masse!
TG: perf

"Perf," your ass. This sucks hairy gorilla balls. Now you've gotta scrounge up a cover story for the wheelchair or run the risk of diving face-first into probing questions when everyone sees you. Maybe John won't think too hard on why "Alpha" Dave's legs don't work, but the girls are capable of critical thought.

Okay, calm down, how hard can it be to explain away a wheelchair? You can just blame Bro and tell the others that he injured you in a strife.

Wait, no, that could get Bro in hot water. Not like pleasantly hot bath water, either; you're talking boiling temperature and then some, plus the splash that'll hit you as CPS drags you to a foster home.

Maybe a car wreck. A story about a car wreck should work. People come away from traffic accidents with f*cked up injuries all the time. You're pretty sure car crashes don't usually end up in the news either, so no one will be suspicious when they can't google a record of it.

You'll just avoid the Internet for a week, then return with a story of drunk drivers, red lights, and permanent injuries. Nothing suspicious at all about that.

Nothing underhanded about blatantly lying to your friends.


You lean back and stare at the ceiling.

What the hell are you doing? How f*cking far are you taking this facade? It's one thing to keep your mouth shut and let your friends believe what they want about you, but now you're going to execute a week-long game of deception, like some kind of sleazy con man?

Yeah, that's... that's kinda f*cked up, even for you. You aren't the type to stoop that low, you f*cking hope.

You'll just have to tell your friends that you can't make it to any damn reunions.

* * *

No one actually knows for sure what happened to the other Sburb players. Jade thinks they went back to their own reset universes, which you don't find very comforting, and so far Rose's mom agrees with Jade's hypothesis.

Of course the science broads would start exchanging emails. From what you can understand, they're using their combined brains and tech to test for alternate realities where your friends may or may not be living. Sending wavelengths out at certain frequencies, reversing the polarity of the neutron flow, you don't even know. "Science!" or something.

You don't actually bother to ask for the deets and your eyes roll into the back of your head whenever Jade volunteers explanations of her complicated methods.

At least you're not alone. Rose and John also have no damn clue what the science-inclined member of your party is spouting half the time. Rose pretends, though. Seeing as she lives with one of the mad scientists, she's usually the first to hear of any progress and pass it on in a slightly more digestible package.

-- tentacleTherapist [TT] began pestering turntechGodhead [TG] --

TT: Mom's made a connection to the trolls' dimension.
TT: We can't manage a steady enough signal to contact them on Pesterchum or similar real-time platforms, but she says she can send a message through.
TG: whoa way to go mom lalonde
TG: knew an older hotter roxy could handle that sh*t
TT: ...
TG: older smarter
TG: i meant smarter
TG: im looking at p*rn it distracted me and i typed the wrong thing
TG: like my brain is all hell yes roses mom is totally smart and my fingers are like wow look at these choice babes on my screen theyre so hot
TG: and then oh sh*t i typed hot instead of smart
TG: could have happened to anybody
TT: Anybody with a secret attraction to his biological mother.
TG: gdi i am not attracted to your hot mom
TG: i mean
TG: goddamn im closing this f*cking p*rn tab
TG: that is more than enough smokin babes for me today
TT: Is it a p*rn site that specializes in MILFs?
TG: so about those trolls
TG: those awesome awesome trolls who we all miss so much
TG: we all want to hear about them asap whats the hold on that
TT: Well, we're sending them a message, obviously.
TT: There's a chance they won't be able to reply, but we can at least let them know that we all survived.
TT: Do you want to give your regards? I thought it would be appropriate to include personalizations from all four of us.
TG: uhhh sh*t thats intense
TG: tell em
TG: watch out for stairs
TT: Well, duh. Warning them of stairs was the first paragraph I composed!
TT: Anything more heartfelt and personal to go along with such universal nuggets of wisdom?
TG: idk what are you saying
TT: I... plan to include something for Kanaya and to tell her a few things I should have earlier.
TT: If you want to say anything to Terezi, now's your chance.
TG: terezi
TG: why terezi
TT: I don't know, because your relationship ended on a sour note even though you clearly still cared for each other?
TG: oh right
TG: uh i dont know it might be best just to let that one go
TG: dont wanna get her hopes up or anything when were trapped in different dimensions and all
TT: If you're sure. You have a little time to decide.
TT: You might also compose something for the rest of our meteor roommates, if you'd like. Karkat probably wouldn't mind hearing from you.
TT: It's a shame we don't know how to contact the mayor.
TG: well the dude was a game construct wasnt he what can you expect
TG: its pretty nuts that we can contact the trolls
TG: itd be nothing short of a f*cking miracle if we could contact some mayor guy who lives in our unique instance of the medium
TT: ..........
TT: Who the hell are you?
TG: what
TT: "Some mayor guy"? You've made some odd choices of phrasing as of late, but this one takes the f*cking cake and crams it down its greedy throat.
TG: uh sorry to be one note here but im gonna stick to my previous reaction
TG: what
TT: The Dave I knew for three years on the meteor would never speak so glibly of the mayor.
TT: So who are you?
TT: You know Sburb at least. Are you a version of Dave whose memories stop before we initiated the Scratch?
TT: Only I can't see your motivation for lying to us, in that case.
TG: rose what the f*ck are you talking about youre being creepy
TG: not that creepy is weird for you
TG: but this brand of creepy is kind of legit uncomfortable
TT: Just answer me this, then: what did troll coffee taste like?
TG: im not gonna dignify that with an answer
TG: this is some grade-a bullsh*t rose congrats the teacher even gave you a little sticker on your assignment
TG: trying to corner me into some kind of mass conspiracy because omg strider cant be assed to describe a taste to someone
TG: as if taste is something you can pin down
TG: what am i supposed to do describe things like the opposite of how terezi does
TG: it tasted like the color green
TT: For f*ck's sake, it tasted like peppermint.
TG: fine or you could word it like that
TG: maybe i didnt feel like it was an appropriate moment for holiday cheer rose did you ever think of that
TG: what are you doing reminding me of christmas in summer like a douche
TG: now im dreaming of a white christmas in goddamn august
TG: in texas no less do you know how rare snow is around here thats just salt in the wound
TT: I lied again. It didn't taste like peppermint in the slightest.
TT: Which you'd know, if you were who you claimed to be.
TG: stop it
TT: No.
TT: I will reveal you to the other two without mercy if you don't explain yourself.
TG: rose dont for the love of god no crime deserves a punishment that cruel and unusual theyll f*cking hate me worse than john hates the critics who panned nic cages wicker man you cant out me here
TT: There's a very simple way to dissuade me.
TT: Tell me who the hell you are and why you've been lying to us.
TG: youre not going to like it
TT: And I love being lied to, let me tell you.
TG: jesus why are you so gung ho about bad news are you collecting misery on purpose now you goth broad
TG: im just the bird guy you probably forgot all the f*ck about and never wanted to see again anyway
TG: even pesterchum went and changed my font back to red like i never existed
TT: ...
TT: Davesprite.
TG: yep
TT: Then Dave's...
TT: The alpha Dave's still dead.
TG: yep
TG: daves dead yall
TG: the game decided itd rather give me a pair of legs again than give you your real brother back
TT: I need to go AFK for a moment.
TG: uh k

Well, that's it. The other shoe's fallen. You knew life was too good to be true lately.

You're too tense to even switch to another window as you wait for Rose to return and destroy you.

TG: hi to you too
TT: Sorry, I had to get that out and it wasn't working to just yell at my knitting. IDIOT!
TG: i probably deserve that
TT: Absolutely. That's why I don't feel too guilty for shouting it at you.
TT: Am I the only one who knows?
TG: other than bro yeah mostly
TT: Tell the other two.
TG: wow how about f*ck no
TT: Oh, so you want me to drop that bomb on them? I'm sure that will go swimmingly.
TG: whoa wait
TG: you said if i came clean to you then you wouldnt tell them
TG: we had a written contract here you cant go back on that
TT: What are you planning? Are you just going to deceive them indefinitely?
TT: Or, more accurately, until they find a crack in your facade like I did?
TG: pretty much
TT: Are you f*cking insane?
TG: no dude ive thought this over and under and even sideways
TG: i can either tell them early and theyll hate me
TG: or i can put it off as long as i can get away with and theyll hate me
TG: either way they hate me after the reveal so i might as well cling to this privilege called friendship while i still can
TT: They aren't going to hate you if you're honest with them, moron.
TG: ok apparently you missed the part where im davesprite and not their dead buddy
TT: You're still my obnoxious big brother and their lame friend.
TT: The problem isn't that you're not the alpha Dave. The problem is that you're trying to deceive us for god knows what reason.
TG: because
TG: seriously get your ears checked out lalonde cos i dont know how you still missed this
TG: im not the real dave
TG: and theyre never gonna want to deal with me again if they know that
TG: youd feel that way too if youd actually known me for very long
TG: holy jegus lay off the caffeine
TT: I will decorate my language with caps lock if I feel like it, STRIDER!
TT: Just because you're not the Dave I knew on the meteor doesn't mean all that time we shared before the game is suddenly erased!
TT: To say that I'm pissed off at you and grieving is a f*cking understatement, but I don't HATE you.
TT: You're still my friend, even if you are an idiot.
TT: You're still John and Jade's friend, and they don't deserve to be deceived.
TG: maybe they dont deserve it but theyll never talk to me again otherwise so yeah
TT: Do you really have that little faith in us?
TG: my faith was kinda shaken in the three years i bunked with them
TT: Either you tell them or I will. End of story.
TG: wait
TG: wait wait wait
TG: rose cmon dont do this
TT: You're being ridiculous. And paranoid.
TT: Are you projecting some kind of self-esteem issues onto your friends so that you don't have to face your own self-loathing?
TG: oh god not the freudian sh*t
TG: go back to threatening to ruin my friendships
TT: Then I'll write them an email ASAP, though I'm sure they'd give you a lot more leeway if you came clean yourself.
TG: fffff*ck can you just
TG: give me a little breathing room here
TG: youre practically asking me to chop off my own limb
TG: gotta at least steel myself for this sh*t maybe take a few painkillers first
TT: So you'll do it?
TG: eventually
TT: Within two weeks.
TG: two weeks??
TT: I could make it one. Seven days should be more than enough time to prepare.
TG: ok ok ill get this sh*t sorted in two weeks
TT: I'll hold you to that.
TT: If that's settled, I need to lie down and compose myself before I write anything to the trolls.
TT: Even though you barely knew any of them, you're still welcome to contribute.
TG: ill brainstorm on it
TG: and rose
TG: im really f*cking sorry
TT: ...I know, Dave. I'll forgive you later.

-- tentacleTherapist [TT] ceased pestering turntechGodhead [TG] --

Chapter 4


(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

You're dead. You're so dead. You're so f*cking dead.

No, just kidding, that's Dave.

sh*t would be way simpler if you were actually dead instead of Dave. The stupid bastard makes your life difficult even from beyond the grave.

You've got two weeks to come clean about who you really are to John and Jade. Less than fourteen days before your friends go back to treating you like a cheap imitation of Dave at best. You can't wait to hear, "Sorry, I was talking about normal Dave," all over again. Not to mention, "You know, I don't think normal Dave would act like that!" As if you need an external reminder that you're the spare.

You were just getting the hang of normal again.

You drag your feet like a lazy asshole and let the days pile up, partly to put off the inevitable, but mostly because you don't have a damn clue what you're doing. How does a guy bring up a heavy topic like "Hey, guess who's secretly a reject Dave?" during casual conversation in the first place?

Bro's not thrilled by how much your strifes are suffering lately and even your physical therapist notices that you're distracted. What, is it a crime to get lost in thought for a week straight from fretting over how to tell your friends that you're a clone from a doomed timeline and not the real Dave after all? That's not even a misdemeanor, is it?

Rose is kind enough not to prod you more than once a day. Hell, she's shockingly nice to you despite being in on your dirty secret. She just asks, "So, have you told them yet?" and then carries on a regular conversation as if nothing's changed.

It's almost more nerve wracking that way.

You're running out of time: tell them today, tell them tomorrow, or risk that Rose wasn't bluffing when she threatened to expose you. You'll tell them... maybe later. Other sh*t's going on that you probably shouldn't interrupt today.

tentacleTherapist [TT] opened memo on board Chat Amidst the Beta Human Players.
TT: Testing 1, 2, 3, does Pesterchum's new memo feature work as intended?
ectoBiologist [EB] responded to memo.
EB: i'm in!
turntechGodhead [TG] responded to memo.
TG: yknow skype is a thing that exists
TG: just sayin
TG: you didnt have to ask your mom to code us special add ons for pesterchum when we could just
TG: i dunno
TG: use skypes group chat
gardenGnostic [GG] responded to memo.
GG: skype isnt as fun though :D weve been through so much together on pesterchum!
GG: and i would miss our pretty chat colors
EB: some douchebag already took my username anyway.
TT: That's always been the upshot of Pesterchum. The userbase is low enough that we can swipe the best usernames without adding a string of numbers to them.
TT: I'm sure Dave would jump for joy at the chance to take on the identity of turntechGodhead69696969, but I'd rather not be tentacleTherapist1025 or whatever it takes to find an available variation of my usual handle.
GG: yeah and it would be pretty confusing if we all changed our names!
GG: sometimes im still startled when john isnt ghostyTrickster anymore, heheh
TG: ok fine strider has been overruled on the skype proposal
TG: we will stick with the lame and underpowered instant messenger out of nostalgic attachment
TG: like sad adults who still think the eighties transformers cartoons were any good
EB: hey, i liked that show!
TG: case in point
TT: Can I call this meeting to order now?
TG: no way im bashing on beloved childrens cartoons over here how could you even dream of interrupting such an important lecture
TT: Oh, well, in that case.
TT: The meeting is called to order so fast that it's already underway before you can interrupt it.
EB: hear, hear!
TT: Today's itinerary starts with some updates on contacting our missing allies.
EB: please tell me we've got awesome news.
EB: this would be the dumbest meeting ever if we only gathered to share bad news.
GG: well, so far we still havent had any luck contacting our friends from the alpha session :(
GG: ms. lalonde and grandpa and i will keep trying, but it was a lot easier to contact another universe than its been to contact an alternate timeline
EB: that kind of sounds like dave's domain anyway.
TG: uh yeah except for the whole bit where theyre trying to build a software program and coding is sorta not my thing
TG: you want me to rap at it
TG: i can rap at it
EB: rap at it!
TT: Don't rap at it.
TG: ok jade get those sweet beats started here we go
TT: So you're not interested to hear that Mom got a reply from the trolls?
GG: !!!!!!!! :D
TG: excuse you we are busy composing a masterpiece in lyrical poetry
EB: dude, we can take a rain check on the sh*tty raps!
EB: we've got a message from the trolls??
TT: From Karkat, specifically. With aid from Sollux, who none of us got to know particularly well.
EB: i sort of knew him, actually!
EB: he was pretty moody.
TG: so hes just like the others
GG: shhhh i want to know what karkat said!
TT: Thank you for keeping us on track, Jade.
GG: <3
TT: Anyway, I'll email you the full message once Mom is done celebrating a job well done, but the gist of it is that Karkat was jubilant to hear from us and he'd like us to know that all of his dead friends and lusii are alive and safe on his home world.
GG: yaaaaay!!
EB: wait, i've heard a thing or two about that home world. how is that sh*tty place "safe"?
TT: I'll ask Karkat in our next correspondence.
TT: He also sends his condolences.
EB: for being so lame that we can't talk to him properly or be buddies except via interdimensional penpal methods?
TT: Well, probably that too, but he was thoughtful enough to put priority on offering sympathy in light of our fallen comrade.
TG: uh
GG: ohhhh :( oh no, that is so nice of karkat
EB: wait, what?
EB: rose, did you forget to tell him that we all got revived? pffffff, how did karkat even miss that when his dead friends are all okay now too?
GG: john, he meant davesprite!! D:
EB: ohhhhhhhhhh.
TT: I was completely honest to the trolls about the state of our team. They know who made it to the post-game and who didn't, so Karkat was appropriately regretful to hear the news.
EB: okay, i see.
EB: man, i forgot about dave sprite though.
TG: dude seriously?
EB: what? is he even dead?
GG: i... dont know o__o i wonder what happened to him
GG: you didnt merge with him or anything did you dave? like me and jadesprite?
TG: nah we stayed pretty separate
GG: he might have just disappeared with the game then :(
GG: thats kind of spooky....
GG: poor guy!
TG: you miss him or something
GG: well
GG: its more complicated than that.....
EB: yeah, i dunno. like, we did have some fun times, especially in that first year.
EB: ha ha, remember the ghostbusters 2 mmo, jade?
GG: yeah that was pretty fun! we played it a lot, even though it wasnt a very well made game! we came up with all kinds of ways to goof around with the consorts and davesprite :)
TT: Hrm, I'm sensing an incoming "but"...
EB: pfff, buuuuut...
EB: dave sprite just caused a sh*t ton of drama later on.
EB: i was probably kinda unfair to him at the time, actually, and i feel a little bad about that. but in my defense, he was an asshole.
EB: a ghost butt asshole.
TG: welp
EB: no offense, dave! it was like he came from the asshole time line where we were all assholes for no reason.
EB: or maybe that bird he prototyped with was a jackass.
TT: Didn't he save your life, John?
EB: well yeah, that was pretty ok of him!
EB: but then he turned into a jerk who mocked my then-deceased father on his death anniversary and broke up with jade for dumb reasons.
TT: Christ. That's uncharacteristically sh*tty behavior.
TG: yeah uh
TG: f*ck that guys terrible decision making skills
TG: though maybe he was just stressed about playing second fiddle for a really cool dude he couldnt live up to or something idk
EB: dave, don't take his side! even if it's true, that's a stupid reason to be an insensitive jerkwad to people you're supposed to be friends with!!!
TT: You two really didn't get along with your best friend just because he was a sprite?
TT: That doesn't even make sense.
EB: yeah, but it's still true!
EB: help me out here, jade, wasn't dave sprite totally a trouble maker?
GG: um...... he was... a little difficult to deal with sometimes
GG: i mostly feel bad for him though :\
GG: i hope he is somewhere safe and happy now like a nice dreambubble!!
TG: but you dont wish he was here
GG: :x
GG: well not HERE here interacting with me again
GG: that would probably be pretty awkward if he hasnt gotten a few things worked out first....
EB: yeah. like, i sort of wish i'd been able to clear the air with him before he went and disappeared? but overall, i'm really glad to have normal dave back instead.
TG: ...
TG: yeah
TG: got it
TG: nothings changed around here and it never will
TT: You know what, maybe we should discuss something lighter. Such as dead puppies.
TG: ymean dead birds
EB: oh, snap!!!
GG: daaaaave, thats mean! :(
TG: what
TG: thought egbert had already established that im an asshole
EB: dude, learn to read. i wasn't talking about you.
TG: right you were talking about davesprite
TG: so im an asshole
TG: or is that title revoked as soon as the ghost butt is gone
EB: uh... what?
GG: O______O
GG: davesprite?????
TT: Goddammit, Dave, could you handle this worse if you tried?
EB: hang on, this is a f*cking joke, right?!??
TG: sure
TG: skaias last big joke to f*ck with us
TG: daves dead
TG: youre stuck with the fake asshole version
TG: no ones happy
GG: you lied to us?
TG: only by omission
TG: none of you actually thought to ask if i was the real dave fyi
EB: dave sprite, what the hell is wrong with you!?
TG: according to you the fact im part bird
TG: sorry to burst your bubble but i stopped being part bird a while ago
TG: guess we gotta hold a new brainstorming session on the secrets behind my assholery so were all on the same page again
EB: oh my GOD, i can't believe i was actually feeling bad for not being nicer to you!!
EB: i thought you couldn't have been THAT bad of a guy and i'd just been overreacting on the battle ship, but i must have been looking back through nostalgia-tinted glasses or something, BECAUSE YOU'RE CLEARLY A f*ckING DOUCHE BAG.
TT: Can we all please take a step back from the computer to calm down?
TT: You're justifiably upset, so the last thing you need is to say something spiteful that will escalate the situation! Especially when you're likely to regret it later.
EB: i am totally calm here, rose!!!! jeeeeez!!
EB: it is not my fault that dave sprite turned out to be a total traitor!
GG: davesprite, why couldnt you just tell us the truth?????
GG: why would you lie to us and pretend to be someone youre not for months and months like some kind of... some kind of jerk asshole!?
TG: and how the hell was i supposed to drop that bomb when you all were so f*cking excited to have dave back
TG: do you know how many casualties would have come of that
TG: im not a trained pilot i cant have that kind of body count on my conscience
TG: especially when none of you asked what happened to me
TG: or gave a sh*t that i was gone
TG: yeah i really wanted to shatter that illusion knowing damn well how disappointed youd all be to know who you were actually dealing with
GG: :(
GG: you still should have!!
TG: i f*cking know and im sorry ok
TG: i wish this sh*t was different and dave was back and i was dead and everything was as it should be and you were all happy
EB: yeah, well, i wish you'd just LEFT US THE f*ck ALONE if you were just going to be the same jackass as before! then maybe we WOULD be happy!
TT: John!!
TG: you know what
TG: wish f*cking granted
TG left memo.



You handled that like sh*t.

On the upside...

Never mind, there's really no upside to this. Everything sucks, especially you.

f*ck, why did you even listen to Rose? You knew you'd botch this. The others would probably be less pissed at you if they'd figured it out on their own like she did, but nah, instead you felt the pressure to rip it off like a bandaid, then drop a pile of salt in the wound like a clumsy idiot.

Not like there's a "best case scenario" to be had around here. They said to your face that they don't miss you. You might as well just burn your bridges and drop the fire extinguisher in a lake, if the alternative is tolerating a friendship based on "well, Davesprite's an asshole and we didn't want to see him again, but he's better than nothing."

You'd kinda hoped to part on civilized terms instead of such a sh*tty farewell, if nothing else. Bye, guys. It was fun while it lasted.

Before you can exit out of Pesterchum, a new chat window opens. Your stomach clenches on instinct and only relaxes a little when you see Rose's purple text.

-- tentacleTherapist [TT] began pestering turntechGodhead [TG] --

TT: I'm sorry.
TT: I suppose accusations of "I told you so" are in order.
TG: what are they saying
TG: wait i dont actually care
TG: because its probably stupid bullsh*t that i can guess on my own
TT: They're in shock, mostly.
TT: Jade's making sad emoticons and being pretty quiet, while John's talking big so he can avoid acknowledging how much he's hurting right now.
TT: I won't say that your tactics for handling this situation were wise or even correct... but I think I understand your motivations as more than mere paranoia.
TT: I don't know what happened on that battleship, but I've a good enough idea.
TG: yeah that topics off limits
TG: some things were never meant to be unearthed
TG: excavation teams always turn back
TG: too much poisonous f*cking gas every time they try digging
TT: For what it's worth, our friends would probably be far less infuriated with you if you hadn't, oh, I don't know... blatantly f*cking deceived them?
TT: You've re-opened a rather deep, painful wound. They're grappling with your dishonesty in the same breath as mourning for a dead friend.
TG: yeah must suck to realize youre stuck with the reject version of your friend
TG: and the good ones gone forever
TT: That's not what I said, Dave.
TG: dont f*cking call me that
TG: im not dave
TG: just ask the other two

-- turntechGodhead [TG] ceased pestering tentacleTherapist [TT] --

-- turntechGodhead [TG] blocked tentacleTherapist [TT] --

-- turntechGodhead [TG] blocked gardenGnostic [GG] --

-- turntechGodhead [TG] blocked ectoBiologist [EB] --

On the one hand, it's like a weight pressing against your shoulders has suddenly crumbled to dust and it's no longer a fight just to sit up straight.

On the other hand, you kind of want to throw up.

You uninstall Pesterchum because there's nothing left on it for you anyway. It was all Dave's.

That's still not good enough though. There's too much sh*t left that's not yours.

Twitter: deactivated. Blogspot: deleted. Facebook: f*cking deactivated. Tumblr: so very deleted -- main blog, sideblogs, even your troll account.

Sweet Bro and Hella Jeff... It's barely even updated since the last time you drew something for it. Dave only made a couple pages on his own, otherwise you remember working on 98% of these comics.

You delete every HTML, GIF, and JPG file you keep on your webhost's server. You don't even bother replacing anything with a substitute page, leaving only 404 errors in your wake. (You used to have a custom 404 page set up, but that's deleted too.)

You wipe your computer clean. f*ck these raps, f*ck those PSDs, especially f*ck all of the old RP logs you wrote with Jade. They don't belong to you anymore. Your desktop is barely recognizable by the end of it, with the majority of files and folders hauled into the recycling bin.

With nothing left to delete, you release the mouse and let your arm fall to your side.

Now what?

The jig is up. Your stint of playing Alpha Dave is over. You're irrelevant again.

You turn off the computer and wheel your way to the bed. It's nothing like your old nest on the battleship, but you rearrange the pillows and blankets until it offers roughly the same effect: a secure and enclosed space to sleep for as long as you damn well can, because what else are you supposed to do? Might as well go back to the only tolerable activity you had on that yellow eyesore of a ship.

You curl up on the mattress and pull the blankets snugly around you in lieu of wrapping yourself in feathers. For the first time since you got home, you miss your f*cking wings.


I still maintain that I am not as mean to Davesprite as Namco High was. (It helps that this isn't the end of the story and I still have time to make this up to him.)

Chapter 5

Chapter Text

Sleep is comfortingly familiar. It was your primary hobby back on the battleship and you gotta give your past self some credit for his rad taste in pastimes. Sleeping the day away is so much better than facing consciousness in the aftermath of a sh*tshow.

It's a little different now, but not always in a bad way. It was a lot easier to curl up into a snug ball of shut-eye when you had wings and a ghost tail, but Jaspersprite isn't around to disturb your slumber either, so it evens out. Getting pounced and chased by a cat made for some hella rude awakenings.

Your ringtone wrenches you out of sleep. It's been so long since anyone's called you instead of sending a text or IM that you're not even sure what the f*cking racket is at first.

You fumble for your phone with your eyes still closed, just trying to make it shut up. It seemed so ironically hilarious to set your ringtone to "Peanut Butter Jelly Time" a few months back, but right now the upbeat obnoxiousness is like a punishment for all your sins.

The phone goes quiet as your fingers smack against its screen. You release a sigh of relief before realizing you hit "answer" instead of "ignore."

"Dave?" a muffled voice says from the phone's earpiece. "Dave, did you pick up? Are you okay?"

You crack your eyes open. Rose is calling you after all the sh*t you just pulled? Even though she knows you're not Dave? The f*ck?

"I swear to god, you'd better not have recorded silence for your voicemail message," she says as the call's timer ticks on. "Dave, are you there?"

You reach over, hesitate a few seconds, and end the call without a word. You turn your cell off and drop it to the floor like a piece of garbage.

None of your friends have any way of contacting you and it feels so damn liberating, for all of the five minutes you spend awake. Your honed experience at falling asleep quickly serves you well. It's about the only thing you're proud of right now.

You wake on your own next time. You only get up to use the bathroom before wheeling back to your room and flopping on the mattress, burying your face in your pillow until you slip back into the safety of sleep.

It gets harder to fall asleep as time goes on, but anything's better than dealing with sh*t in the real world. You stare at the ceiling or your pillow or the inside of your eyelids, trying not to think in the time it takes to convince your body that it's tired again.

Your stomach hurts. That didn't used to happen when you were a sprite. Then again, neither did bathroom breaks. You could just curl up in your nest, wrap your wings around yourself, and sleep for hours upon hours without any other bodily functions demanding attention. You do your best to ignore the pain and, with time, you notice it less. It tends to flare up when you first wake, then fades after a few minutes.

Hunger hits you full-force when you wake to an open-yet-full bag of Doritos sitting inches from your nose, blasting your nostrils with the scent of artificial cheese. Bro must have left it on your pillow, along with a bottle of apple juice.

He never brings you food.

How long have you even been sleeping? You laugh under your breath. sh*t, the Knight of Time lost track of time.

You sit up just enough that you can swallow without choking. Not that there's ever a time you don't appreciate a good Dorito, but they melt in your mouth this afternoon. This morning? Evening? Whenever it is. You only get halfway through the bag, but you swallow the juice in practically one chug. Noted: drink some damn water whenever you're already up for the bathroom.

It's easier to sleep again when your stomach isn't clawing for attention. You don't get why you keep waking to find junk food refills next to your bed, but you can't turn your nose up at it.

You never actually catch Bro at it. He only sneaks that sh*t around when you're asleep, like some kind of Dorito Santa. The first time you're even aware he's in your room is when he purposefully alerts you by shoving your shoulder. You raise your head, blinking the sleep out of your eyes.

"Hey." He rests one hand on his hip, standing so damn coolly over you. "How much physical therapy you intend to miss this week, bro?"

"What time is it?" Your voice is embarrassingly groggy.

"We should leave in an hour."

You clear your throat. "Got it."

Bro nods and flashsteps away. Once you're sure he's gone, you roll over and go back to sleep. You don't wake again for well over an hour.

* * *

You don't dream much, but the few you remember are f*cking cruel. You're in the dreambubbles again, even though they stopped being a thing the same time Sburb stopped being a thing. You're dreaming about old dreams you can't have anymore.

John's there. Your John. The one who still likes you, the one who doesn't forget you, the one you doomed yourself to save... f*ck, you miss him.

"Dude, that's pathetic," a familiar voice says, bringing the dream to a screeching halt.

You spin around and come face-to-face with another Dave in full God Tier garb. The dreambubble rips apart and vanishes, taking John along with it and leaving you alone the in darkness with your double. In dream-like fashion, without any transition, you're a sprite again.

Dave rubs a hand over his face, as if he's embarrassed. "How f*cking desperate do you have to be to cling to a goddamn phantom? Maybe you should order a body pillow next. That way you can cuddle up to your precious waifu John-chan all you want without any of the hassle of dealing with his harsh comebacks."

"Yeah, whatever, dude." Your attempt at indifference falls flat as your feathers ruffle (you haven't had recent practice at keeping them still, dammit), but you keep your voice even. "John's too much of a goody two-shoes dweeb to manage a comeback that's even half-harsh."

Dave laughs the same stiff way he always does when he thinks something's so stupid that it's ironically funny. "Is that why you're moping around so much? Because John's just so damn nice? Oh wait, he's only nice to people he likes, which, yeah, ain't you."

You clench your hands into fists. "Hey, you know what would have prevented this whole needlessly angsty scenario in the first place? If you hadn't died like a goddamn idiot and left me alone to take over for both of us."

"According to the game, I died like a goddamn hero, apparently."

"Same f*cking diff."

He smirks. "Yeah, probably." He sticks his hands into his pockets as he studies you. "You're aware this is a dream, right?"

"Nah, bro, I thought you were Dave's ghost out to haunt me." You co*ck your head. "I'm legit disappointed by the lack of spooky shackles and moaning, by the way. One star, would not recommend, find a better ghost for your haunting needs."

"Use your imagination." He holds his arms up. "The shackles are totally there if you can accept they're metaphorical."

You nod in proper ironic appreciation of his imaginary bonds. "Well, sh*t, Jacob Marley, you arrive with a warning for me from beyond the grave?"

"As a matter of fact, I got one hell of a warning for ya, so listen careful to these pearls of wisdom I'm throwing that'll save us both from our stupid mistakes." He leans in close.

Before you can lean back to reclaim your personal space, a deluge of water collapses over you, filling the dream so fast that you don't even have a chance to fly before it's over your head and you're struggling to breathe. Your limbs turn to lead and your ghost tail only keeps you grounded instead of helping you swim.

Dave's unaffected by the flood. His hair stays lank instead of floating and he speaks as if nothing is blocking his air pathways. He's so close that you can make out his blank eyes staring at you from behind his shades. "Get the f*ck over yourself already."

You wake with a jolt to frigid temperatures and a distinct lack of air. You cough and blink water out of your eyes. It wasn't a dream? You're seriously f*cking drowning? Except the torrent pouring over you has already calmed to a trickle. Your pillow is soaked, your hair is soaked, your shirt is soaked, but you can breathe again.

You raise your head, gasping for air, and catch a glimpse of a figure standing over you with a now-empty bucket. It flashsteps away.

"I got you jumpstarted on your shower." Bro suddenly stands in your doorway, leaning a shoulder against the frame with his arms crossed, as if he didn't just dump a bucket of water over your head three seconds ago. "Go add some soap to it so you don't reek at rehab."

Goddamn, did he steal your joke of shortening physical therapy to "rehab"?

Wait, f*ck your priorities. Did Bro just wake you up by pouring cold water over your head?

"Ain't you ever heard of a goddamn alarm clock?" you say, your voice weak.

"Just get your ass in the wheelchair already."

You frown, but it's not like you can f*cking sleep on a sopping wet pillow. Bro doesn't move an inch until you've pried yourself out of your nest and slumped into your chair. God, you feel gross. Maybe a shower isn't such a bad idea, if you gotta be up and soaking wet anyway.

Your body feels sluggish. The only thing that keeps you on-task is Bro breathing down your neck every time you space off -- that, and the knowledge that your bed is waterlogged. You find some comfort in bathing for the first time in, uh... however long you've holed up in your room. Maybe you shouldn't think too hard on that timeline. It's just a relief to get the grime off, regardless of how long that grime may have lasted.

You still don't want to leave the apartment. You do not want to see people and talk to them and pretend you aren't just some Dave reject. Besides, you feel lightheaded.

Sucks to be you. Bro's apparently decided you've skipped too many rehab sessions and you can't win an argument against him to save your life. Pack up; you're shipping off.

Thank god for small favors, your therapist is a pretty chill lady who doesn't guilt you for skipping a f*ckton of appointments. She has plenty of opportunities to lay it on you as she explains that you'll have to take it slower today since you're out of practice, but she keeps the judgmental thoughts to herself.

Your pride should hurt more at going back the basics, but you're mostly relieved that they're going easy on you. You really are out of practice or something, because sh*t is hard, way harder than you remember.

"Are you feeling okay, hon?" your therapist says after only fifteen minutes into the session.

Uuuugh, "hon," why. That's what you get for living in the South.

"Peachy," you say without inflection. "Why?"

"You seem a little unwell." She smiles softly. "Why don't I get your dad on the phone and we'll call it an early day?"

"Uh, sure?" You're not sick though. You don't know where she got the impression you are, but it's not like you mind the- Wait, did she call Bro your dad? Christ, maybe you are out of it, if it took you that long to notice.

One of the nurses stays by your side the whole time you wait for Bro to pick you up. It's kind of embarrassing, because you're sixteen goddammit, but Sburb reset you back to thirteen (without resetting your legs, because f*ck you), so what can you do? It's a sweet gesture, you guess.

Bro doesn't say a word when he arrives. You don't know if he so much as looks at you. sh*t, he must be so pissed that you can't even tolerate one f*cking afternoon of physical rehabilitation.

The silent treatment's not that bad, all in all. It means you can curl up in the passenger's seat and pass out on the ride home, which sure as hell beats worrying about the inevitable future.

It's dark when you open your eyes again. Normally you'd be tempted to roll over and fall right back to sleep, but you're too thrown by your surroundings. You're sitting up and something's strapped over your chest like a... sh*t, it's the seat belt. You're still in the car? You glance out the window and are greeted by the familiar sight of your apartment building's parking garage.

Bro's still sitting in the driver's seat, hunched over and resting his forehead against the steering wheel. He doesn't move and you're not sure if he's even conscious.


"What," he says flatly, still not moving. Awake, then.

You swallow, almost not sure you want to bug him further, but last you were aware it was mid-afternoon and now it's f*cking dark out. The car ride home does not take that many hours, no matter how bad Houston traffic can get. "What are we doing?"

"I don't f*cking know."

"Are we ever going upstairs?"

He's quiet for a long moment. "You wanna grab tacos?"

Oh, right, food. That's a thing you should probably have sometime today. "Sure, man."

He sighs and nods, taking a few more seconds before he straightens and reaches for the ignition to drive back to the street. He goes quiet until he pulls up to a drive-thru. Even then, he just orders a dozen tacos instead of bothering to ask what you want. Not that you care.

You can barely finish a single taco before your stomach decides that that is more than enough greasy ground beef for today. Bro frowns when you turn away a second one, but he just drives you back to the apartment without a word.

For once he accompanies you in the elevator ride to the top floor. You don't know what to make of that, but you're more surprised that he lets you return to your room instead of dragging you to the roof. Maybe he's pissed beyond a strife. Or he's given up on you.

Your bed is still f*cking damp when you wheel up to it. You make the best of it and curl up to sleep on the other side of the mattress.

* * *

"Dave?" A soft voice breaks through your dreams. It sounds so far away and you can't comprehend what it is. "Dave, come on. You're not a sprite anymore. You can't just sleep all the time." There's a sigh, then you feel a warm pressure leaning against your shoulder. "Fair warning," a familiar voice whispers into your ear, "if you won't wake up, I might sit on you."

You groan and squirm away from the weight on automatic before the voice fully sinks in. Your eyes snap open. "Rose?"

Rose is sitting on the edge of your bed, leaning over to rest her arms on your shoulder. She smiles. "Hey, big bro."

Is this another freakyass dream? No, you know what a dream feels like by now. Rose is seriously in your bedroom. Oh god, and you probably look like sh*t. "What the hell are you doing here?" Your voice comes out scratchy and you clear your throat.

She pulls her feet onto the bed and lies parallel with you. "Your bro called my mother in as close to panic as a Strider will allow himself. Mom doesn't do anything half-assed, so her idea of helping was to book the earliest flight down to Houston."

You run your fingers through your hair in a weak attempt to brush it into presentable condition. (Please don't let there be bedhead, please don't let there be bedhead...) "Man, you're not even trying to hide that you're bullsh*tting me. What the f*ck would Bro panic over?"

"That his young charge has fallen headfirst into psychological issues of a potentially dangerous variety," she says flatly.

You snort. "That's even bigger bullsh*t."

"Dave, you're obviously suffering from lethargy, survivor's guilt, self-loathing..." She counts off on her fingers and shoots you a glare when you open your mouth to object. "And, to top it off, you've cut yourself off from your main support network when you need it the most."

"What support network?" You sit up so you're at least not having this bullsh*t conversation somewhere as vulnerable as on your back. "The one that's visibly disappointed to hear I didn't die in place of some other guy?"

She drops her gaze and chews her lower lip. "I'm so sorry, Dave," she whispers. She gets up to lean her shoulder against yours. "I know it's too little, too late, but for what it's worth, John is remorseful about blowing up at you."

You frown, leaning your weight back against hers. "Okay, I don't think I'm actually awake, 'cos I thought you just said that John feels anything nicer than disappointment towards me." And don't it feel good to hear that from his mouth. Oh, wait.

She laughs quietly, though she doesn't look amused. "Well, you're out of sight and your antics are out of mind now, so yes, he regrets pushing you away, because his brain's filed away the drama as a thing of the past."

"It's seriously that simple for him."

"What can I say? John lives in the present and doesn't look back." She shakes her head. "You know, I once hypothesized that you and I take home the gold when it comes to dodging emotional grievances, but after further study, I've concluded that the Harleyberts are in a class far above us."

"You saying Jade's also trying to pretend nothing happened?"

She screws up her face as if she's caught a whiff of a bad smell. "More or less."

You shift so your feet dangle over the side of the mattress and you can lean back against the wall. "So, what, they want us to go back to the same facade as before, but this time it's confirmed instead of just assumed that everyone resents the sh*t out of my existence?"

"When you put it like that, you make it sound like an unhealthy foundation for continuing a friendship or something," she says dryly, settling next to you again.

"A foundation made of quicksand and prayer." You fold your arms and stare at the ceiling. "Guess everyone's willing to settle for the duplicate asshole now that it's sunk in that the real deal's gone for good."

"You're a real deal too, idiot." She nudges you with an elbow.

"You're the only one who thinks so."

"I don't have to be in the majority to be correct." She rests her head against your shoulder and sits quietly with you for a minute. "Remember when the game was just too much to tolerate anymore, so we broke open my mother's liquor cabinet and got drunk off our asses?" she whispers. "We were so plastered that we couldn't even fight imps."

You let out a startled laugh despite yourself. "sh*t, how could I forget when you kept slurring and acting like a happy-go-lucky dork?"

She grins. "And you got weepy."

"God, don't remind me." You roll your eyes. That was so not your proudest moment. You and booze apparently don't get along, and booze is the one who comes out ahead. And Rose... You go still and stare at her. "You weren't... there for that." That happened in your timeline, with the Rose you left behind.

She shrugs. "Technically, perhaps not." She takes a deep breath. "Going to sleep worked, Dave. Memories from the doomed timeline merged with the alpha, remember?"

You're gawking but it's hard not to. You forgot that anyone else from your timeline had survived nonexistence, but Rose is still here, at least a little. She remembers that sh*t. She remembers you, after you stopped being the alpha and before you were a goddamn bird. She remembers losing John and Jade.

You struggle for a reply, anything worthy of following up that revelation. "So how long are you staying?" is all you say.

"Until Mom drags me home." She pats the back of your hand. "Which won't be until we're confident you won't curl up and die without someone saner than your bro around to pull you out of your funk."

"Good times," you say, going heavy on the sarcasm just for her.

"Eh." She wraps an arm around your back. "We've survived worse together."

Chapter 6


(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

Maybe Rose deserves more credit than you give her. For all of the snark and psychobabble, there's an upside to her devious analyzing: she knows without even asking how to make a sh*tty situation a little more tolerable for you.

Motherf*ckin' juice boxes.

She stabs a tiny straw through the foil with one skilled flick of her wrist. "The containers are aggravatingly small, but the straw is an essential element for maximizing juice's value as comfort food," she says as she passes the first box to you.

That sounds all kinds of stupid, but you can't deny there's something extra satisfying about taking your first sip through a medium you haven't bothered with since you were six. Nostalgia overload, you guess.

She rips the plastic off the package of juice boxes so she can nab one for herself and settles next to you, chewing at her straw. You've propped your pillows up against the wall so you can sit on the bed together without killing your backs.

The apple juice is warm and fresh off some cornerstore's shelf instead of a fridge, but it still tastes good. What it lacks in temperature it makes up in thoughtfulness -- 'cos, hot damn, your little sister stopped somewhere between the airport and your apartment just to grab your favorite drink.

God, you're tired though. She's threatened to tickle you if you actually fall asleep again, but you slump all the same.

She clears her throat, watching you out of the corner of her eye as if you don't notice. "You know, I tried to alchemize juice on the meteor, but apples are harder to create than they have any right to be."

You snort. "sh*t, Dave must have been in f*ckin' misery."

"I had to send him progress reports at least once a week." She shakes her head and sighs. "I used to daydream about how I'd drop the news on him if I could only manage a successful batch. I was leaning towards drinking it in front of him without announcement."

You crush the juice box to squeeze out the last of the liquid. "Harsh."

She grins. "Well, I would have given him some once he caught on." She grabs you another juice box without even needing asked. "Did you have better luck on the battleship?"

"Yeah, I found a stash in my apartment and used the captcha code to alchemize as much as I f*cking wanted." You close an eye and take aim, tossing your empty carton at the waste basket across the room. It lands five inches off. Eh, close enough. "It was pretty great."

"Glad to hear there was more to your side of the journey besides the angsting and drama."

"And there was more to your side besides Karkat screeching in your ear."

"Every once in a great while, at least." She sips at her straw until it makes a burbly noise as it pulls in more air than liquid. "You should sign into Pesterchum again, by the way."

You tense and your mind ever-so-helpfully supplies you with a surplus of images involving bright green and deep blue text telling you all the ways you suck. "I am not taking John or Jade off my block list."

"That's not what I meant." She sets her hand on top of yours, squeezing gently. "I already assumed you'd need to clear your head before you're ready to address bad blood of that degree."

You sigh and run your hand through your bangs. "Okay, well, the pathetic thing is, you three are my only friends, so I've got no reason to log in if you're here and they're blocked."

"Sadly enough, I relate to that conundrum. Still..." She trails off as your bedroom door opens without even a knock.

Bro steps in and jerks a thumb over his shoulder. "Food's on, so get your asses out here."

You catch a whiff of some weird scent invading through the open door. It might be food. Well, it's presumably food, but nothing that smells like that has ever entered these premises in your lifetime, so you're at a loss for what the hell Bro's decided to concoct in the microwave. Is this more of Rose's meddling?

"We'll be there in a minute." Rose puts on the sweetest smile you've ever seen from her and lilts her voice up as she says, "Thanks, Daddy!"

You just about snort apple juice out your nose.

Bro honest-to-god tenses. For a short moment, it's as if he's a normal dude with an imperfect poker face or something. "Just don't pass out again," is all he says before he flashsteps the hell out of your room.

"What..." You wheeze, still trying to recover from the poorly swallowed liquid. "What the f*ck did you just call Bro?"

Rose's smile takes on a sinister edge as she turns it on you. "The most unsettling thing I could think of."

"Congrats then, Robin Hood, 'cos your arrow is snugly embedded in the little red bull's eye on the target known as unsettling." You cough and clear your throat to rid your voice of its scratchy quality. "The competition might as well go home early, 'cos no one's taking a better shot than you did today." You wave her off. "Go collect your prize."

She folds her hands in her lap, looking far too f*cking smug. "If that prize involves keeping our father out of our hair, I'll gladly accept it. Given his track record of total ineptitude at handling you, I don't want him interfering while I'm still plotting my plan of attack."

"You're attacking me?"

"Yes, and my weapon of choice is love and acceptance. And brutal psychoanalysis." She gives your sleeve a tug and scoots off the bed. "Grabbing lunch isn't a bad idea either."

You never thought eating would sound any good, but the apple juice has betrayed you and kicked your stomach back into gear. Maybe it'll wear off, but right now, you could go for food.

"Yeah, okay, slow down there, Jeff Gordon," you say with a grunt as you brace your arms against the mattress. "I'm getting my engines revved as fast as I can." You slide over to where you left the wheelchair. Ugh, how'd it get shoved against the wall? It's not even facing you. Now you gotta drag it into a better angle before you can drop into it.

Rose pauses halfway to the door and stares over her shoulder at you, her eyes wide but her face otherwise indifferent as you shift into your wheelchair.

Well, sh*t. This is kind of the big reveal, isn't it? Hey, surprise, check out these rad wheels. No big deal, right?

Maybe she'll have enough tact not to ask awkward questions.

"What the hell happened to your legs?" she says.

Okay, never mind that.

You get settled and grip a wheel. "They took a three year vacation and came home unmotivated to do their real world job, so I fired them," you say, receiving a blank stare in reply. You hold back a sigh. "My legs don't work 'cos they didn't exist for three years."

Her lips go thin. "I didn't foresee this as a consequence of merging with a sprite."

You lean against one of your armrests and shrug. "You know, in the grand scheme of ways being a sprite totally f*cked me over, this is probably the consequence I give the fewest sh*ts about. Hell, it's not even that bad. I could barely wiggle my toes in April and check this sh*t out now." You lift a leg and kick your foot, albeit rather weakly.

She nods slowly. "Do you need help pushing it?"

You falter as your tongue fails to supply a snappy reply. No one's actually offered that before. You don't even have a f*cking clue what etiquette for that sh*t is. Bro'll probably be pissed if you let someone take over something you can handle just fine on your own, though.

"Nah, I got this." f*ck, your arms are tired after their extended break of sleeping all week or two, but they can deal.

Rose watches you like a hawk, or maybe like a vulture. She watches you like she's ready to swoop in at the first sign of weakness, at any rate. Sucks to be her, you're too cool to find time to be weak -- or at least to visibly show it.

Your nostrils are smacked by that food-esque scent again as soon as the door's open. It's entrenched in the living room, but shockingly enough that's not even the weirdest sh*t going on outside of your room.

Someone's dragged out a card table and set it up near the kitchenette, complete with four accompanying folding chairs. It's cheap as hell, but fancy by Strider apartment standards. Are there fewer smuppets lying around or is that just wishful thinking? The kitchen counter is eerily sparse on weapons, leaving room for actual dishes and crap while Bro does sh*t by the stove- That is not Bro holy sh*t who the f*ck is in your apartment.

Your brain saw "adult" and automatically supplied "Bro," but it only takes a quarter of a second to notice that the intruder is the wrong damn gender to be your bro.

You grab Rose's wrist and pull her in close. "Dude, your mom's here?" you whisper.

Rose raises an eyebrow. "You thought she sent me alone?"

Well... kind of? Rose is pretty mature; she could have flown to Texas on her own. You forget Rose has a parent who actually likes to look out for her kid instead of encouraging independence at every turn.

Rose's mom turns around and you release your grip instantly, straightening in your chair.

"Rose, did you-" she begins, pausing as her gaze travels from Rose down to you. Her eyebrows go up in surprise. "Dave!" She grins and wipes her hands off on a hand towel. "Oh my gawd, it's awesome to finally meet you!" Her New England accent is stronger than Rose's, just like Bro's Southern accent is stronger than yours.

You raise a hand in a quick, cool wave. "Hey, Ms. Mom." Wait. Wait, no. Nooo, no, no. You did not seriously just call her that. "Uh. I meant Mom Lalonde." Oh f*ck, what's wrong with you? "I mean, Momlonde-" You slap a hand over your face and groan. Someone stick a sock in your mouth already. "Goddammit, has Bro mentioned my brain's mush lately?"

Her smile is so damn pitying that it makes you want to crawl in a hole and die. "Aw, what's wrong with calling me any of that? I technically am your mom, y'know!"

"You barely even know me." You peer at her from behind your fingers.

She snorts. "I barely knew Rose when I first adopted her from a smoking meteor crater, but if my little baby daughter had been capable of talking back then, you can bet your butt I would have let her call me 'mom.' Why d'you think I'd treat my teenage son any different?"

"Well, you aren't adopting me, for one." You glance around and find no sign of Bro. "I think."

She shakes her head quickly. "Nooo, I couldn't take you away from Dirk! But I can still be your mom." She kneels to be on eye-level with you. It feels vaguely condescending, but you're distracted by the fondness in her expression as she studies you. "I always wanted my own baby boy anyway."

You nudge Rose with your elbow. "Hear that, Rose? I'm the favorite," you say, receiving an eyeroll and a smirk in return.

"A boy and a girl, you cheeky thing!" Mom ruffles your hair and chuckles at your indignant squawk as you fumble to fix the damage. "Aw, c'mere." She pulls you into a tight embrace.

You tense on instinct, releasing your breath only as it sinks in that, not only are you not being attacked, this sh*t actually feels nice. Mom's warm and her grip is reassuringly firm. You fumble to return the gesture, wrapping your arms around her back so they can get in on this warmth.

You can't remember the last time you hugged someone. Did you ever hug Jade properly, or did the two of you skip straight to macking on each other and cuddling on the couch afterwards?

Mom gives you another squeeze before loosening her grip. "There." She kisses your cheek and you fight off a blush for all you are f*cking worth. "That's the proper way to meet new family!" She straightens up. "You hungry, baby? Dirk said you weren't feeling too hot, so I made soup."

That solves the mystery of the weirdass food-like smell, but only opens up a slew of new cases to sleuth. Like, why the hell is she calling you something as lame-sounding as "baby"? Why did she make soup and where did the ingredients come from anyway? Why is she so nice to you?

"He'll eat," Rose answers for you, as if she doesn't trust you to make decisions on your own right now.

"Okay, lemme just-" Mom pauses and frowns, turning her head. "sh*t, where'd Dirk go?" She gasps and slaps a hand over her mouth as if she's just let slip some terrible secret. "Oops, forget I said that! I totally didn't swear in front of you, okay?"

You don't know whether to gape or laugh. That's not an absurd TV invention? Parents actually care about vulgarity? "Mom, for f*ck's sake." You crack a smile despite yourself. "Go as R-rated as you want in this household."

Her nose wrinkles as she scowls. "Oh my god, how long has Dirk been talking like that in front of you? I'm gonna smack him upside the f*ckin' head!" She stomps to the door and flings it open. "Hang on, kids, I bet your dumb dad is sulking on the roof. I'll serve up the grub after I nab him, promise," she calls over her shoulder before darting up the stairs.

You slump back. Now that you don't have to put on a strong front for a newcomer, your head is spinning. What the hell is this day? You have a mom. You called her that and it felt normal. You thought sh*t would be awkward, but Mom's like a grown-up, more doting Roxy, and Roxy was already a pretty cool chick. (Roxy didn't mind swearing in front of "the kids," though.)

"You two seem to get along," Rose says, studying you with a smile.

You tilt your head towards her. "Man, you mistook that for insincerity all these years?"

Her amusem*nt fades to an uncomfortable frown. "In fairness to me, it comes across a little differently when you grow up with that kind of smothering twenty-four seven."

You don't get how that kind of unguarded affection can ever appear malicious, but it's not like you can even begin to imagine what it's like to live with someone like Mom. "That is probably the nicest anyone has ever been to me in my entire f*cking life."

"Yes, well." Rose wanders to the kitchenette and lifts the lid from the steaming pot on the stove. "Mom does tend to go overboard on acting like the most mother-y mom she can. Hence the chicken soup made from scratch. That's how to make your ailing children feel better, right?" She pours the soup straight from the pot like a f*ckin' food expert who's actually handled homemade meals more than twice in her life, then sets a bowl on the table and shoots you a hard stare. "All the same, eat this or I'll cram it down your throat."

"Jesus, I wasn't gonna argue," you mutter. Your stomach is sending full-blown "hey asshole, I can smell there's food, so feed me already" signals.

"Then thank you for the reassurance that your reclusive predicament is less a fault of your own stubbornness and more your bro's incompetence at play." She gathers up the superfluous folding chair and drags it away from the table so you actually have space.

At this rate, you're going to cool it on curling up in bed all day just so Rose stops bossing you around and treating you like you're too incompetent to feed yourself or kick a chair away. You're counting yourself lucky that she'd rather serve herself than spoonfeed you.

The soup is some kind of strange new animal, though Rose treats it as if it's as normal as a bowl of Fruit Loops. There's definitely pieces of chicken in the golden liquid, along with thick noodles and chunks of carrot. It tastes nothing like the Lipton that Bro stocks once in a blue moon. It tastes more like... well, actual chicken. It's weird and you're not sure you like the taste, but you can't deny that it's settling in your stomach better than the Doritos ever did.

"Aw, you got started without us?" Mom says as she returns with Bro in tow. She pouts at your bowls as if she's had a treat denied from her. "I was gonna get it all ready for you."

"Mom, we can handle ladling up our own soup," Rose says, like a total f*cking hypocrite who wouldn't let you ladle soup at all.

You're too distracted to make a snarky comment though. Apparently there was some kind of disagreement on the roof, because Mom and Bro are both scuffed up from telltale signs of a strife. Even more noteworthy, of the two, Bro looks the worse for wear.

Did he lose? You are simultaneously awed by and terrified of Mom. You knew she has to be some kind of badass to survive as much of Sburb as she did, but how the hell can any human being best Bro in a fight? Maybe it helps that they're both technically ectoclones and not human at all.

She doesn't let you dwell on it. As she passes behind you, she leans down to hug you around the shoulders and playfully bonk her face against the top of your head.

Screw Bro. You've only known her for ten minutes, but Mom can win all the damn strifes she wants.


I mean, have you seen Mom Lalonde fight? She freakin' knows her moves. Bro just waves his sword around really fast like a lunatic.

Wow, this chapter is so light on angst that I'm not even sure how I wrote it. Maybe someone else snuck onto my computer and typed it while I was sleeping?

Well, I say that, except the main reason I wrote this story in the first place was because I wanted to see Rose scaring Bro by calling him "daddy" and Mom turning her smothering affections on the child who totally craves attention. Fifteen thousand words later, I finally get my wish.

I'm sure the angst will make a comeback, just probably not as severely now that someone more competent than Bro is around to tackle it.

Chapter 7


Oof, sorry for taking a while on this chapter. Lots of life stuff happened this summer, plus those recent upd8s were... maybe a little demotivational when it comes to writing a story about Davesprite wrestling with his identity issues and trying to find his own value as a secondary Dave. (Translation: Yeah, I'm one of those wet blankets who doesn't like Davepetasprite^2 and their implications for Davesprite's character arc. Sorry...)

Anyway, I'm hoping my brain will kick back into "yay fanon!" mode now that the omegapause is underway, 'cos I sure ain't abandoning any fics and I'd like to finish this in some kind of timely manner.

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

If an outside observer creeped on the Strider apartment right now, they'd have no way of knowing that they hadn't stumbled on a standard American nuclear family: doting mother, hardass father, and two trouble-making children -- one boy and one girl, no less. You can't decide if that's hilarious or disturbing.

You're likewise not sure what to make of Bro. You've never seen him so tense in your entire life and that's including the fight with Jack Noir. His poker face remains strong, save for an occasional twitch when Rose refers to him as "daddy," but his movements are rigid. The dude is more unnerved by sitting down for dinner than by a freakyass video game boss that killed him.

At least the Lalondes are at ease with this emotion called family. They chat about Houston weather and pass the salt and smile and act as if this is any kind of normal.

Is this what life's always like for them or are they just putting on their best faces for company?

You're not used to keeping quiet, but this is one conversation you have no idea how to navigate, you don't have a map, and there's no proper signage anyway. You just let someone else take the wheel and study the route as a passive passenger.

Mom asks you when school starts up in Texas. You shrug and tell her that you're home schooled like Rose so you don't keep track of that sh*t.

She asks you if you're enjoying her cooking. You say it's rad, which is only sort of a lie -- you find the taste weird as f*ck, but you're pretty sure it's objectively high quality soup, so you might as well give it a positive review despite your own reservations.

She asks Bro if his face is capable of more than a single expression. He answers by scowling.

It's f*cking surreal. You're not sure you've exchanged this many mundane words before in your life, but it's almost a relief to put on the cruise control and pretend to be normal people for just an hour. At least your confused daze is an effective distraction from your brain's usual moping.

As dinner draws to a close, Mom leans over to Bro, resting her chin in her hand. "Sooo, Dirk, you got any good liquor in this mess you call a kitchen?"

Bro doesn't react, but Rose's confident demeanor shatters with a wince. "Mom..." she whispers, tugging at Mom's sleeve.

Mom falters, then returns her smile twice as wide and five times as forced. "Y'know what, just kidding!" she says, patting Rose's hand. "I was kidding, duh! Pft, me and my duuumb jokes!"

You try to pretend like you don't notice the potential drama sitting at your doorstep. It slipped your mind in the midst of the excessive normalcy that invaded the apartment, but even if they've got more social competence to their names on the whole, that doesn't change that the Lalondes still have their own awkward blend of Issues. You avert your gaze (not that anyone can tell) and prod at a carrot sitting amidst a puddle of broth and orts of celery at the bottom of your bowl. You should probably eat it, but cooked vegetables are f*ckin' weird and mushy.

Mom perks up as she notices you playing with the dregs of your meal. "Hey, if you're done, I can take care of the dishes!" she says, standing to catch your bowl and stack it with the others.

"Uh, yeah, sure, thanks," you say as if it makes a difference when she's already in the midst of clearing the table whether you like it or not.

Rose sighs and swipes a spoon from the table before Mom can grab it. "Mom, let me help."

"No, no, no, you go play with your brother!" Mom yanks the spoon out of Rose's hand and drops it on top of her precarious pile of dirty dishes. "Mom's got this."

"Does 'Mom' have dish soap?" Bro says flatly.

Mom just about screeches to a halt mid-stride to the sink. She spins on him. "Dirk, you six-foot-three toddler, do not tell me this apartment has no cleaning supplies!"

Bro shrugs, leaning back in his chair. "What do we need those for when we've got spit?"

Mom pulls a face as if she's just swallowed a bug, grimacing in horror.

You furrow your brow. This apartment is more cluttered than the aftermath of a Wal-Mart on Black Friday, but Bro's always been a slu*t for soap and keeping sh*t bacteria-free, so what the f*ck is he talking about? "We don't-"

Bro kicks your foot under the table. "We don't got any, so if you've got a hankering for washing dishes properly, you'll have to stop at the CVS down the street first," he says the instant you clamp your mouth shut to keep from yelping in pain.

Mom dumps her armload of dishes on the counter. "Oh, yeah, well maybe I will!" She stomps back to the table to lean down and give Rose, then you, a peck on the cheek. "Bye, babies, don't let your dumb dad infect you with his fratboy ways in the ten minutes I'm gone," she says, her volume softer when addressing you. She pats Rose's head. "Rose, make sure Dave stays awake and stuff."

"That was already firmly secured on my to-do list," Rose says, eying you like a hawk checking out its prey, or an animal tamer summing up her next troubled client. Something like that. The point is, it's kind of a condescending gaze and you're tempted to flip Rose off if Mom would just turn her back already.

Mom's busy shooting Bro a dirty look all the way to the door, though. She snatches up her purse, her glare still aimed at the kitchen, and turns away only as she stomps out the front door, as if it's possible to successfully shame Bro for jacksh*t.

As the door closes behind her, you straighten up. "Okay, so what the sh*t was-"

"Dave, shut up," Bro says, his volume quiet but his tone sharp.

Rose plants her elbows on the table and leans in, staring hard at Bro. "You know, Daddy, inflicting that kind of dismissive language on a child under your care bears a high chance of inducing long-term psychological harm, including such lovely symptoms as low confidence and wavering self-esteem." She settles back into her chair, her voice still dripping with venom as she says, "Just something to keep in mind before you talk to your 'brother' that way again."

Bro dismissively waves a hand. "Yeah, whatever, I'm not listening, so remind me later." The instant the elevator dings out in the hall, signaling Mom's departure to the ground floor, he flashsteps away.

You don't figure you'll ever find out what his deal is or why he was so desperate to chase Mom out of the apartment for ten minutes. Bro works in mysterious and obnoxious ways like that.

Today is apparently an exception to "mysterious." In the blink of an eye, half a dozen cases of beer land on the kitchen counter, piled in two stacks next to the sink. It has to be every drop of booze Bro keeps in the apartment. You knew the asshole likes to stock up, but goddamn, you'd never bothered to take count.

Bro moves too fast to see it, but you hear the cling of two bottles of beer ripping open against the edge of the counter. He stops flashstepping only when he tips the bottles over the sink and lets the brown liquid fall down the drain.

Rose rests her arm on the back of her chair as she swivels to watch him. "You're dumping the alcohol."

"Keen observation skills, kid," Bro says, not even bothering to glance at her. "You should be a detective when you grow up."

"You could just keep it hidden," she says with a frown. "Mom isn't going to snoop."

"Not worth the risk. She might find it looking for something else." Bro sets aside the freshly emptied bottles and cracks open two more, pouring them out the same as the first. "Flashstepping doesn't make liquid pour down the drain any faster, by the way, and I only have two arms, so if you wanna get off your asses before your mom gets back, that'd be cool. Metaphorically speakin', Dave."

You roll your eyes. "Thanks, Bro."

Rose climbs to her feet and cautiously approaches the counter. She grabs a fresh pair of beers, following Bro's example of ripping the caps off with a careful tug at the edge of the counter. "You're still an asshole," she mutters as she joins him in pouring the booze down the sink.

"Yeah, I know," he says quietly. He moves over to make room for the two of you.

You don't know how the hell either he or Rose gets the damn caps off these f*cking bottles with just a quick flick against the counter. All you succeed at is making your fingers sore, until Bro takes enough pity on you to toss over a proper bottle opener (probably because they've already emptied most of a case while you're still struggling to get started). So sue you for being the only asshole in the room who doesn't drink enough to learn this fancy sh*t.

Rose pulls one of the bottles close after emptying it and squints as she examines the label. "This isn't cheap alcohol."

"Nope." Bro cracks open two more beers and holds one out to her. "Want to down a bottle with me so at least some of 'em don't go to f*cking waste?"

If your legs were strong enough to more than nudge him, you'd kick him right in the shin and return his earlier favor. As it is, you just shout, "Dude!"


"She's like thirteen!" You frantically run your finger across your throat out of view from Rose and hope he picks up the subtext. They're both alcoholics, Bro. Do not give her any f*cking booze.

Whether he follows your hidden meaning or not, he at least pulls away the offered bottle and pours it over the sink instead. "Yeah, whatever, I don't feel like getting arrested anyway." He sets it aside. "Hey, Mini Roxy."

"Rose," she says, shooting him a suspicious glare.

"Wow, it must suck to get called weird sh*t. Anyway, Mini Roxy, how about you take charge of running the empty sh*t to recycling while Dave and I finish up here?" he says, jerking his thumb at the sizable collection of empty bottles the three of you have amassed so far.

Rose co*cks her head. "You recycle?"

"You got a problem with saving the environment? The f*ck kind of sh*tty cartoon PSAs do you kids grow up on these days?"

"They cancelled Captain Planet long before my generation," she says, swiping the bottles into her sylladex.

"f*ckin' sad." He shakes his head. "Recycling room's on the ground floor. There's signage all over the damn place."

"I'm sure I'll figure it out," she calls as she slips out the door.

You sigh in relief and wheel closer to the sink now that there's more room. You weren't that okay with Rose handling booze even to pour it out, so you can't complain that she's been reassigned to a new post, but now you gotta step up your efforts if there's only two of you doing the dirty work. "Nice save."

"Yeah, you could have f*cking warned me not to put booze right in her hands." Bro leans back against the counter and cracks open a single beer instead of the usual combo. "Guess I'll only save one of these poor bastards from a tragic destiny that ends in a sewer graveyard."

"We got time for that before Mom gets back?" you ask as you peel off two more lids one by one with the bottle opener.

He shrugs. "I can chug it as fast as we could pour it out."

You hover a fresh bottle over the sink, not quite turning it over yet, and quirk an eyebrow at him. "Wanna bet?"

He looks your way as if summing you up before giving you the slightest of dead serious nods. "Bring it, bro."

You tip the alcohol into the sink at the same time as he tilts his head back to chug like a nineteen-year-old fratboy at his first college party. This is the kind of stupid family "bonding" sh*t you're used to: doing dumbass crap for sh*ts and giggles. You kinda missed the mindlessness of it compared to the pressure of a pleasant conversation over a homemade meal. Nostalgia and familiarity is one hell of a drug.

As the last drops of booze fall from your bottles, Bro stops for air. He shakes the beer as he catches his breath and you hear a quiet swish of leftover liquid sitting at the bottom.

"Lame." You set aside your victorious and empty bottles, trying not to smirk too much.

"Okay, so maybe I needed a warm-up," he says, downing the rest of the bottle in one successful swallow.

You snort. "Excuses, man. Best two out of three?"

"I'd take you on any other day, but even if we weren't on the clock, now ain't the time to stink of alcohol." He cracks open two bottles faster than you can, hands them to you to pour out, then repeats the process for himself. "We'll have a rematch once Roxy and the smartass are back in New York, a'right?"

"You're on." You study him out of the corner of your eye. You've never been able to get a good read on him, but you're even more lost than usual now that he's actually shown some weakness. You wait another moment to sum up enough courage to outright ask, "So are you regretting calling in the Lalonde cavalry yet?"

Bro goes still and silent for long enough that you worry maybe you're going to regret changing the subject. His voice is even flatter than usual when he finally says, "You're actually awake for more than ten minutes at a f*cking crack. I don't regret sh*t."


He's still an asshole. (But I can dream that he's at least a well-intentioned asshole who's just really freaking bad at healthy human interaction.)

I wanted this chapter to have another scene, but that scene started getting too long, so it's just gonna be its own chapter instead. But hey, that means the next chapter won't take too long to finish.

Chapter 8


(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

Go to sleep, wake up, go right back to sleep. It's the perfect system: you don't have the opportunity to worry about the future, or angst about the past, or even consider the present much. It's just you and the occasional creepy dream.

"Wake up."

Oh, hell no.

"Don't try to play dead on me, Strider. I saw you twitch."

If you keep your eyes shut for long enough, you'll have to fall unconscious again eventually.

Rose yanks your blanket off of you. "Up!"

You groan and bury your face in your pillow, burrowing against the mattress in your sleepy haze as if it can protect you from your sister's wrath.

"Come on, Dave." She pulls the pillow away and hits you with it. "You've had your eight hours. I was gracious enough to allow you nine, in fact, to allow you extra time to fall asleep."

"I'm still f*ckin' tired."

"That's what happens when you oversleep." She wraps her arms under your armpits and drags you off the bed. "The cure," she says with a strained grunt, "is to get up and move around." She drops you into your wheelchair.

You readjust yourself so you're less of a sprawled out mess. "That sounds counter-intuitive as f*ck," you mutter.

"Anatomy is funny like that sometimes." She leans on your shoulders. "Are you going to wheel yourself out to breakfast, or am I going to have to grab the handle bars and push you the whole way?"

"All right already, I'll-" You put a halt on the moaning and groaning as her words sink in. "We've got breakfast?"

She sighs and gives you a light nudge forward. You take the hint and grab your wheels, using the momentum she gave you to nab a quick start across your room.

You are never going to get used to the scent of fresh cooking in this apartment. It bombards your nose as soon as you hit the main living area. "What'd Mom make this time?" you ask over your shoulder, 'cos you sure as hell can't place freshly cooked grub by smell. Fanciest this place gets in the morning is Poptarts.

"Quieter," Rose murmurs and nods to the futon.

You lean over in your chair to peek around the back of the futon. Bro's chilling on his back with a hat pulled over his face. You can't remember the last time he let you catch him unconscious (and "dead" sure as hell doesn't count), but he's so still and breathing so deeply that he must be passed out.

"He stayed up all night so we could take the futon during normal sleeping hours," Rose says, probably in response to your astonished expression, as she quietly ushers you to the kitchen area. "Claimed he had a deadline to meet on one of his perverse videos."

You hadn't actually considered where the hell the Lalondes had to sleep last night. There are no spare mattresses to be found around here, let alone spare bedrooms. You guess you had it in your mind that they'd scram to a hotel once it got dark enough, but that defeats the purpose of giving Rose access to wrench you out of bed whenever she deems fit.

Bro really isn't bullsh*tting around if he's giving up his bed to make sure the ladies can stick close to you.

Something hisses on the stove as Mom fiddles over a frying pan that has probably never seen use before. She turns and smiles as you approach. "Hey Dave!" she says brightly, faltering when Rose facepalms. "Uh, I mean... good morning, Dave," she says, lowering her voice to a whisper and glancing at the futon. "I made pancakes for you." She points to the pan on the stove, where some kind of... thin white goop sizzles.

"We had ingredients for pancakes?" You don't even know what the hell goes into pancakes, but there's sh*t that suspiciously looks like flour sitting on the counter.

Mom sighs and flips over a pile of goop with a spatula -- the goop has miraculously turned into a smooth brown f*cking pancake on its other side. "I wish. We did another grocery run at like six in the fuh-reaking morning. In way cooler news, the first batch is totes ready for munching!" She slides a plate with four small pancakes onto the empty spot at the card table where your wheelchair can fit. "Look, they're shaped like cats!" She tilts her head and nudges the pancakes around so they're easier to see. They're somewhat round, save for two triangles sticking out at the top of them. Mom's mouth quirks. "Or, um, sort of like cats!" She pokes the pancake with the most defined cat ears with the spatula. "Ooh, that one turned out okay! Eat it last! It deserves to live the longest."

You grin, prodding the pancake with a fork menacingly. "So I should spare it death by spiky metal?"

She pouts. "At least 'til it's the last one left standing."

"Can I drown it in syrup?" you ask, setting the fork down so you can switch to the weapon known as Mrs. Butterworth.

"Oh, go for it," Mom says brightly.

"Choke it with butter first," Rose says, nudging a fresh stick of butter towards you as she takes the seat next to you.

"You two are so morbid." Mom shakes her head, as if she's not the one who started it by asking you to hold off on murdering a pancake. "I'm blaming it on your dad." She returns to the stove to toss the remaining goop off the frying pan and onto a plate in their new pancake-y form. She turns the burners off, passes the next plate to Rose, then settles in a chair across from you and rests her arms on the table, smiling at you and Rose non-stop.

You cut into the pancakes and take a bite before meeting her eye. "What're you staring at?" you ask, your voice muffled from chewing.

"Nothin'." She shrugs. "I'm just excited for us to get to know each other better!" She pats your arm. "Tell me more about yourself. I wanna know all about my long-lost baby boy!"

"Uh..." You swallow so you don't have to speak around food. Hot damn, these things taste way better than the rubber from McDonald's. "Like what?"

Mom co*cks her head and hums in thought. "Well... Dirk told me you like raps and ironic stuff like he does. Do you wanna show me any?"

You stare down at your plate as you cut the ears off one of the pancakes. "I... kinda deleted it all in a fit of self-loathing," you mutter, making sure not to look in Rose's direction.

"Oh." Mom frowns and blinks rapidly as if trying to subtly shake off shock or hide how wide her eyes might otherwise have gone. "Um... well... Would you mind if I took a look at your computer?" Her lips twitch into a slight smile as she softly says, "I can try recovering some of your old files. Sometimes computers are kinda pokey about getting everything properly deleted from all the dark corners of your hard drive."

You shrug. "I mean, if you wanna try, I guess I won't stop you, but I'm kinda skeptical that's a thing you can do."

"Depending on how much you've used your hard drive since then, that's totally a thing I can do." There's a twinkle in Mom's eye as she says, "I'm like a computer wizard, Dave."

You laugh. "Well, sh*t, who am I to deny a motherf*ckin' wizard? It ain't password protected, so you can work your magic whenever you want."

"Will do!" She hops to her feet to head for your room. "Enjoy the pancakes!" she calls loudly over her shoulder, then cringes. She apologetically holds her hands up towards the futon. "Sorry, Dirk. Sorry. I forgot," she whispers.

You can't see around the futon to tell if Bro's glaring or unresponsive, but he lifts his arm high enough even you can see when he flips off Mom's back.

Rose ignores the parental drama in favor of locking her gaze on you as she folds her arms on the table. "So, is this why Sbahj's website went down?"

"It just doesn't feel right for me to hold onto Dave's private sh*t," you mutter, shoveling almost an entire pancake into your mouth at once.

"It's your private sh*t, too."

"I..." That was too much food. You can't even talk around half-chewed pancake like a slob, not until you get in a good swallow. You take a deep breath. "I gave up any right to my past the minute I doomed my timeline into nonexistence."

She narrows her eyes. "That isn't how it works, Dave, but thank you for giving me that insight into your psyche."

You rub your temple with syrup-sticky fingers. "Oh god, the psycho babble is about to begin, isn't it?"

"You knew this was coming, surely."

"Well, duh." You nibble at Mom's favorite pancake with a little more caution than the last one. "But I still get to complain about it if I wanna, which I will, because at least it distracts you for a little while."

"So, as far as you're concerned, you were born the instant your doomed timeline came into being." She studies you with a cold gaze. "And your old memories are what? Pre-installed fakes?"

"It's more complicated than that."

"Then explain it to me."

"It's just..." You fumble for words. God, it's too early in the morning for the rad metaphors to come spilling out properly. What was your bargain bin spiel again? Ugh, never mind. "Time player sh*t."

She crosses her arms. "Then enlighten the Light player."

You wrinkle your nose. "Was that a pun?"

"Shush, we're having a serious discussion," she says with a dismissive wave.

Before you can give Rose what she'll probably convert into more ammunition, Mom shouts, "I win!" from your door. She looks sheepish for shouting again as she scuttles past the futon, but she's still grinning like a maniac as she flops into the chair next to you. "It went even easy-peasier than I thought. Those files were practically just sitting around waitin' for me to rescue their butts," she says proudly.

"You seriously un-deleted my sh*t?" you say, gawking a little.

She grins. "Mostly all of it, I'm pretty sure!" She kisses your temple, smacks her lips in consideration, then spits on a napkin to clean syrup remnants off your face. You grimace and lean away, but she keeps up her motherly attack. "Go take a look and make sure I didn't miss anything though," she says, finally sparing you from further humiliation via Mom Saliva when she picks up your plate. "I gotta get them dishes done now, but when I'm finished, show me your favorite raps, okay?"

"Uh... yeah, sure." You wipe your sleeve across your face.

Wasn't she the one making faces when Bro threatened to use saliva as a cleaning agent? What kind of crazy broad thinks it's okay to spit on a kid, other than all of the motherly moms on every TV show and movie and comic and probably real life?

You glance after her as she heads for the sink. You've got a mom who cares enough about you to save your hard drive and mark you with her spit. "Thanks, Mom."

"Wasn't nothing!" She grins back at you before turning the water on.

Rose rests her chin in her hand. "Should I come with, or can I trust you not to undo all of Mom's hard work by deleting your past again while I finish breakfast?"

You wheel back from the table. "I kind of want some privacy when it comes to investigating the sensitive and personal material on my computer, as revolutionary as that idea might be."

Rose nods, watching you closely. "All right, but I reserve the right to jump on your bed if I find you sleeping again."

You make sure your back is to her before you roll your eyes, just in case her stare can penetrate right through your shades. You weren't gonna try that sh*t on a full stomach anyway. Probably. Well, maybe you would have if the Lalondes weren't around, but you've figured out that you can't get away with excessive moping when Rose is crouched and ready to pounce the instant you try it.

At the moment, your only ulterior motive is to satisfy your curiosity and learn how much damage control Mom is capable of. Maybe you'll root through the crap she recovered, find some files you're still kinda proud of, let her take a look like she wanted...

Your monitor's on and waiting for you when you make your way to your desk. Everything's back.

You scan your desktop in search of some inevitably missing file, but so far as you can tell, your usual setup is as it should be. It's like your destruction never even happened. Your folders aren't all organized in the same spots as before, but they exist and they contain all of your old sh*t.

Your raps are safe, your drawings are safe, your scanned in photos are safe... Hell, Mom recovered so much sh*t that you could put SBaHJ back online and barely lose any data.

If you wanted to, anyway.

It's... still not yours.

You lean back in your chair, hovering your mouse over file after file that you once destroyed. What was the point of letting Mom recover these in the first place? As if you need another reminder of all the sh*t Dave used to get up to that's eons away from anything you ever-

-- timaeusTestified [TT] began pestering turntechGodhead [TG] --

TT: Hey, are you finally online?


You stare at the chat window in bewilderment. You're signed into Pesterchum? Holy sh*t, you signed into Pesterchum on autopilot when you first sat down, didn't you? The only reason you've even noticed you did something so stupid is because some asshole's contacting you. Some asshole who's stolen your old chat color.

Wait a f*ckin' minute.

TG: bro??
TT: In a manner of speaking.
TG: ok youre gonna need to be way more specific than that
TG: cos i aint in the mood to get yanked around right now ill just go limp and youll have to drag me across the floor using your own strength
TG: enjoy the dead weight as i go right back to sleeping my brain away
TT: This is Dirk, bro.
TG: there are a lot of dirks
TG: okay there arent many but there are a few
TG: you mean the guy from sburb in the dweeby pants right
TT: Okay, can we all apply liberal amounts of bleach to our brains and forget those uncool abominations ever existed?
TT: I'm trying to put those things behind me.
TG: holy sh*t youre the actual dirk
TG: even jade couldnt get through to you guys
TT: You think you're the only ones trying to break this communication barrier?
TT: It took a while, but Rox worked some programming magic and here we are. She has knowledge of future tech, so that probably gave her an edge over your efforts.
TG: wheres here
TG: are you guys on earth
TT: Our Earth, yeah. From what I understand after talking to the other three, we've got the same deal as you, just in another timeline.
TT: Universe reset + bonus perks.
TG: perks what kind of perks we dont got perks
TT: Well, Roxy and I aren't living four hundred years ahead of the rest of the human race anymore, for one. That's pretty sweet.
TT: Most of the sh*t from the Batterwitch is like it never happened too. No juggalo presidents, no mind controlling baking company, no dead guardians.
TG: so you mean your dave is back
TT: It's hard to call him "back" when he was never exactly there for me in the first place.
TT: But yeah. Bro's here.
TT: Is, uh. Is your bro alive again?
TG: yep
TT: Oh.
TT: Is that a good thing.
TG: i dunno
TG: im gonna go with mostly
TT: That's
TT: cool.
TT: Seemed like maybe... I don't know, you guys always were kinda weird about the dude and I figured that was confirmation that I should never be entrusted with a kidlet.
TG: yeah that probably used to be true
TG: but bros been kinda different since we got back
TT: Different?
TG: i think its cos the demon puppet isnt around to implant bad ideas and sh*tty parenting techniques anymore
TT: Wait, he's actually good at it now?
TG: ok no i didnt say that
TG: hes still a crap parent like holy f*ck hes really incompetent at family sh*t
TG: but hes tolerable this time around and like
TG: i think
TG: uh
TG: this is pretty much the first time i ever really considered the possibility that he actually gives a sh*t about me
TT: Well, cool.
TT: I think.
TT: Actually, that's still pretty f*cked up.
TG: yeah you know what lets talk about your bro or something
TG: hows that working out for you
TT: Not gonna lie, it's pretty dope.
TT: Can't take two steps without hearing, "Bro, check out this sweet rap. Hey, li'l bro, you gotta see the final cut of this film. Dirk, hey Dirk, let's hang, c'mon, let's chill."
TG: uh
TG: wow
TG: so this is how it looks from the outside huh
TT: Yeah, it's great. He's the f*cking coolest dude.
TG: wait seriously?
TG: you just described a guy who doesnt even know how to give a dude breathing space
TT: Hey, Bro is the chillest badass who ever lived.
TT: He's just really clingy.
TG: hahaha and youre just soaking that up huh?
TG: ok dude he sounds like a weird alt dave to me but so long as youre happy
TT: Who are you to talk? Aren't you an "alt" Dave, bro?
TG: ...
TG: someone already told you about that
TT: It was supposed to be a secret?
TG: yeah man who the hell gave you my biography
TG: that wasnt supposed to be published for another year now i find out theres a f*cking leak gdi thats gonna kill the sales
TT: I applaud your ability to dodge awkward subjects by utilizing rad metaphors.
TG: i applaud your ability to sound eerily like rose
TT: Cut the bullsh*t, dude. What's going on?
TG: uuugh everyone else f*cking assumed the alpha dave got revived like the other dead losers and they mistook me for him
TT: Oh. Well, f*ck.
TT: That's why none of your friends would explain why you were MIA on Pesterchum?
TG: yeah probably
TG: so howd you figure out im not the alpha
TT: The others were basically civilian casualties of the game. Dave died playing by the game's rules.
TT: It only makes sense that Skaia gave the innocent bystanders another chance, while players who died fighting the final boss are just SOL.
TG: but you contacted me anyway
TT: Yeah, bro.
TT: I don't care that you're not the "alpha" or whatever the f*ck.
TT: You implying I should reject Bro just because he's not the Dave I met in Sburb?
TG: man thats different
TT: In what f*cking way?
TT: He's a Dave from an alternate timeline. That's the deal, isn't it?
TG: its way more complicated than that
TG: time player sh*t
TG: you probably wouldnt get it
TT: Then I guess I should ask ahead of time, since you clearly can't have both, who are you planning to cut out of your life, me or your bro?
TG: well one of you hasnt spent 13 years being a total douchewad to me so if i gotta pick im feeling a little more charitable towards you
TT: Wow, so you're going to judge someone based on their actions and personality instead of what timeline they're from? That is one weirdass concept. My mind is blown.
TG: dude shut up
TT: No, bro, we need to shout this message to the masses.
TT: We'll hand out flyers and rent billboards. "People deserve respect based on their actions and not their circ*mstances. Vote liberal."
TT: I'm having like a spiritual enlightenment here. It's almost like alt selves are autonomous people with their own thoughts and feelings. f*cking radical.
TG: i changed my mind youre a douchewad too
TT: I totally am, but as a dude who's been around the block when it comes to dealing with splintered selves, I'm also pretty knowledgeable in this field. Let me f*cking tell you, it's way more important whether you've avoided being an asshole or not rather than whether you're "the original" or not.
TT: I've met three Daves total now and they're all f*cking awesome. That's a hell of a lot more impressive than my track record.
TG: those
TG: sure are words
TG: that you said there
TT: Hey, you ok?
TG: totally
TT: A'right, cool, just checking.
TT: Uh.
TT: Checking again since you haven't said a damn word in ten minutes... You sure about that?
TG: no
TG: i mean yeah
TG: i mean whichever answer means im fine
TT: ...
TG: i got sh*t going on over here im just distracted
TG: i should probably log off
TT: If you say so.
TT: You're gonna sign in again someday, right?
TG: yeah sure man
TG: i can probably be bothered to move my ass to the computer every so often if youre craving my presence
TT: I crave it like a pregnant lady craves chocolate-covered steaks, bro.
TG: wow ok youve convinced me i would be a monster not to help satisfy a craving that f*cking severe
TT: Thanks. We can talk about less heavy sh*t next time and just dick around like long-lost bros trying to catch up.
TG: sounds cool
TG: later

-- turntechGodhead [TG] ceased pestering timaeusTestified [TT] --

The guy doesn't know what the hell he's talking about. He's a Heart player. Splinters are different from doomed selves, probably.

Dirk's bro is totally different from you, anyway. He's another Dave who's not the Dave, sure, except no one gives a sh*t that he's not technically the Real Dave because...

Your mind keeps screeching to a halt at the "because." Because what? Because he's kind of the alpha in another universe? He died the same as the other doomed Daves: he's a second Dave from another timeline who died because he was in the wrong timeline, leaving the duty of being Dave Strider to someone else.

So why does he get a free pass as legit while you're just a replacement? You've gotta be missing something here, because the alternative is someone made a mistake and it wasn't actually you. Your logic must be slipping, as a weird thought is steadily surfacing in your mind: What if Dirk's right? What if there's no shame in being a spare Dave?

What if you're not second-rate and the world rejected you anyway?

It's not a comforting thought. It's not even a thought you're sure you believe, but it gnaws at you all the same.

What if they threw you in the bargain bin because of an overstock of Daves and not because there was anything inherently wrong with you? Well, nothing wrong until asshole customers started poking and prodding at the "defective" merchandise, because hey, you've gotta be flawed somewhere. You've got a discount sticker on you after all, so they should automatically approach you with skepticism and distrust. They'll buy you for now to go easy on their wallets, but it's way safer to save up to replace you with a non-discounted Dave eventually, just in case you've got a dent they can't find. All because some f*ckhead store manager decided they wanted to move stock.

It's a good thing Rose can't mindread. She'd have a f*cking field day with the metaphors streaking through your brain right now.

She slips into your room to check on you after a while. Lalonde senses must have tingled that something was amiss after you were quiet for so long.

She closes the door and just studies you for a moment as you sit unmoving at your computer. "You talked to Dirk?" she says.

You nod.

She wanders to your side. "How are you feeling?"

"I don't know." You gaze at the computer monitor -- the scene of the crime where a guy way cooler than you called you f*cking awesome. "Weird," you murmur. You take a shaky breath and lower your head. "Just... weird."

She pulls over your discarded computer chair and settles next to you. Instead of slapping you upside the head with one of her Freudian spiels, she just wraps her arms around your shoulders and holds you.


Fun fact: I write non-linearly a lot, because jotting down random paragraphs from future chapters helps me keep track of where I want the story to go. I wrote a good chunk of the chatlog in this chapter back in mid-June, for instance, before we got the upd8 where Dave confirmed that Bro was a terrible guardian. I might have shouted "Vindicated!" a lot during that upd8.

Chapter 9


How is this becoming my second longest fic? Why? I never meant for this to have so many words and yet it keeps happening.

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

"There's nothing wrong with me" should be an encouraging thought. It takes root deep in your mind even as self-doubt and years of habit try to choke it out, but it only fills you with dread as it sprouts. If nothing's wrong with you on an existential level, then why the f*ck is your life always in shambles?

You're not a mess because you're from a doomed timeline or because you're an ex-sprite. You're a mess because you're a goddamn mess and no one wants to deal with that sh*t.

"Five days in a row, Strider?" Case in point, it's not even noon and Rose is already taking that exasperated tone with you. "Are you going to make me literally drag you to breakfast every morning?"

You wrap the sheets tighter around yourself so that they're almost twisted around your limbs. You'd compare them to a cocoon, except you have no intention of emerging as anything half as appealing as a butterfly. This is a cocoon of angst, not progress, god dammit.

The air's warm and stale beneath your fabric-y shield but it's the only barrier you have between you and the wrath of Lalonde. You assume she's glaring at you, like an enemy from a stealth video game who totally saw you hide in a stack of hay and isn't buying your sh*t for one second.

Her silhouette approaches. "I told you to get ready ten minutes ago."

"Yeah, I decided that I was gonna do that by going back to sleep." You squeeze your eyes shut.

"Too bad that conflicts with my pre-established plans to ensure you don't fall back into unhealthy coping mechanisms," she says, her last words turning into a grunt as she yanks at your blankets.

"Then I guess we'll have to agree to disagree." You roll towards the wall, pulling the sheets with you.

You feel the mattress sink as she climbs after you and bats at your head to pry it free from its angst cocoon. "Ignoring your problems won't make them go away."

"Acknowledging my problems won't make them go away either." Despite your grip, you're soon met with light and fresh air as Rose unwraps you like you're a stubborn Christmas present. You groan and fumble after your lost wrapping paper. "At least let me mope in peace so I don't have to contemplate heavy sh*t more than I have to."

"No, I won't enable that kind of destructive behavior." She balls up the blanket and throws it across the room where you can't retrieve it. "Dave, please. Just come have breakfast."

You pull your arms over your head. Just this once you aren't gonna let her win that easily, even if you don't have a prayer in the long run. "f*ck you, breakfast is the optional meal anyway."

She lets out an aggravated sigh. "Do you want me to sic Dirk on you again?" She shoves your shoulder before tugging at it. "I'm getting sick of this. If nothing I say can get through your stubborn head, maybe I should just tie you in front of your computer so he can verbally smack more sense into you."

You groan. You've already accepted that Dirk knows his sh*t, but his cold hard logic can't solve the problem still plaguing you. "No amount of feel-good pep talks are gonna change that everyone on this side of the universe thinks I'm just a f*cked up replacement for Dave who should get lost already."

"Anyone who thinks that is an idiot!" Rose snaps. You just about jump from the sudden, uncharacteristically high volume coming out of her mouth. "If you were really nothing more than a replacement Dave, then it wouldn't be this damn hard to accept that the brother I lived with for three years is gone! I'd just shove you into his empty slot and call it a f*cking day!"

You lower your arms to gape at her. "What?" you say quietly, not sure if you're asking for clarification or for her to repeat herself in case you misunderstood that outburst.

Her face turns stony and she relents her grip on you, crawling backwards off your bed. "You know what, if you want to live with the guilt that Mom's going to make pouty faces for the rest of the day because she can't play the best mother when her child wouldn't even come to breakfast, be my guest," she says icily and heads for the door without another word.

You unfurl and stare after her in shock even after she's slammed the door.

What the almighty f*ck was that? Rose has never talked about the alpha Dave like that, not since she first uncovered your true identity and had her moment of mourning.

You assumed she just moved on and accepted you as the new Dave, which is all anyone can really do when the timeline throws a curveball. What else were you supposed to think, when she's put this much effort into looking out for you and refusing to let you drown in a puddle of your own incompetence? She's treated you as if you're just as important as any other Dave, except, apparently, your predecessor is still weighing on her.

She's watching your back in spite of that. She's taken your side even knowing damn well that you aren't her Dave.

How long has she even been holding this crap in? Has she been miserable as sh*t this whole time and sending distress signals while you were too self-absorbed to notice?

Maybe you should... follow her or something? And probably put your foot in your mouth, because you don't really know how to comfort people or what to say when the mood is this heavy.

Nah, you'll just go back to sleep. Maybe that'll give your brain enough time to sort sh*t out.

You hear the door open and brace for Rose's return (she's probably going to blast horrible pop music at you until you admit defeat), but the footsteps that follow are heavier than Rose's.

"Aw man," Mom groans. "I've never had to deal with the dreaded sibling squabbles before." She crosses her arms as she reaches your bed. "What'd you do to make Rose clam up like that, huh?"

You turn away. "Nothing. I don't know what her problem is."

She sighs and slides onto the mattress next to you. "Hey. You wanna talk to me instead of going to sleep again?" She reaches over and flicks a strand of hair out of your face. "I don't know you very well yet, and that sucks in a lot of ways, but right now it especially sucks because it means I'm not good at guessing what's bugging you so bad that you wanna hide from the world. Can you do your new mom a favor and throw her a hint?"

You close your eyes. "Oversleeping's just a habit that I picked up when I accepted that none of my friends want me around."

She wraps an arm around your shoulders and pulls you close. "Oh, sweetie, I know that's no fun, but you'll make new friends." She gives you a squeeze. "Promise."

"That's the one f*cking consolation left, I guess," you mutter. "If I can ever fit in with normal people who aren't raceless test tube babies, at least they probably won't recoil in horror at the mopey clone of Dave Strider."

"Is that what's bugging you so bad?" She pulls you up into a sitting position, letting you lean against her shoulder. "You don't wanna be a mopey clone?"

You hesitate before saying, "This sh*t wasn't supposed to be a big deal. Like, being a secondary Dave isn't that tough. So the alpha gets first dibs on Dave duty." You shrug. "So f*ckin' what? More downtime for me."

She rubs your back. "It didn't work out that way though, huh?"

You swallow. "It f*cking sucks." There's a waver in your voice, but you don't have time to tame it before more words come tumbling out of your stupid blabbermouth. "I ruined my life to save my best friend and he forgot I existed in less than a f*cking day. He'd been dead for months and I finally got him back and he treated me like a goddamn back-up as he waited to reunite with the real Dave." You clench your teeth. "And maybe he was f*cking right, because a normal Dave could get sh*t done and wouldn't let that crap get to him. He'd laugh it off and keep doing his thing regardless of what his best bro thought. But it bugged me, so what the hell does that make me?"

As soon as you stop for breath, Mom pulls you in for a tight hug and nuzzles your shoulder. "It makes you a Dave who had his bubble popped," she whispers. "None of that makes you an unreal Dave, baby. It just makes you a Dave who had to confront some scary stuff that was harder than you thought it was gonna be."

You cling to the back of her dress. "That sounds so lame."

"But it's so normal, you silly little dumb." She pulls back and smiles at you. "We all go through that sometimes and act in ways we don't wanna in scary situations. It's just that most of us are lucky enough that we don't got a version of ourselves running around who never had to deal with our scary situation to begin with."

You have trouble looking her in the eye when she's so genuine and you're so uncool. "I f*cked up so bad even on a non-comparative level."

"It's okay that you didn't live up to your standards." She hesitates a moment before she murmurs, "I didn't either. I drank half my life away, and I didn't understand my baby girl as well as I thought I did, and I died instead of helping you kids when you needed it most."

You take a deep breath just to give yourself an extra second to come up with a reply, but you're finally fresh out of relevant words to vomit. Here's this grown-up who's twice as old and competent as you and she's opening up about all of her most vulnerable f*ck-ups, just to make you feel better about your own poor life choices. You're not the only asshole around here who's made really f*cking bad decisions.

She strokes the side of your face before playfully pinching your cheek. "Hey. Whether you're different from the other Dave or not, you're my Dave no matter what, okay? Even if you make some dumb mistakes, parents love you anyway." She wraps an arm around your shoulders and gives you a squeeze. "Them's the rules."

With anyone else, you'd call bullsh*t, but you remember all the crap Rose used to complain about; you know that Mom is the most sincere person on the planet, even if she seems too over-the-top to be true. You lean against her. "Thanks, Mom."

There's nothing wrong with you.

The thought has swam around your mind all morning, but now it breaks the surface of your brain with the vengeance of a drowning dolphin desperate for air: There's seriously nothing wrong with you.

You've f*cked up more times than you can count, but there's nothing irredeemably wrong with you. Some of the sh*t you broke might even be irreparable, including a few friendships probably, but so what? How do past mistakes make you so special that you don't deserve to move on with your life like anyone else would? Even with all the jerks you've pissed off, you've still got people around who give a sh*t about you.

Bro's putting up with the Lalondes invading his home for your sake, Mom's all but adopted you, and Rose... You're not sure where you stand with her right now, but she wouldn't have bothered to come to Texas if she didn't care about you on some level that has nothing to do with the alpha Dave.

If they can put up with your mopey and flawed ass, maybe you can learn to live with it too.

Mom kisses your temple. "You know, if you wanna get cleaned up, I can take you and Rose out for ice cream. That sound fun?"

"The ice cream, maybe." You cringe. "Getting dressed and showered and rushed out the door on an empty stomach... not so much."

She cups her chin in her hand as if she's trying to look thoughtful. "What iiif I bribed Dirk to drive me to the store and I brought home a bunch of ice cream and we had it for lunch?"

You hold back a laugh. "Can't deny, that sounds pretty far out."

"Well..." She nudges you with her elbow. "I'll get us ice cream if you get out of bed."

You nudge right back. "You drive a hard bargain, you brutal twister of arms." You just won't tell her you were already planning to do that.

She snickers and climbs off the bed so she can get your wheelchair ready for you. "Aw, hell yeah, let's do this."

You slide into your chair in defeat, if promise of ice cream even counts as defeat. Maybe it's less defeat and more of a truce or- You pause and glance up at her. "Did you just swear?"

"What?" She frowns as she leads you to the door. "No, 'hell' doesn't count."

"It totally counts, Mom."

"Nooooo, it's like a baby swear." She raises her chin and says firmly, "I can get away with baby swears now that you and Rose aren't babies."

You smirk and open your mouth to fire off another obnoxious retort, but you falter as you wheel into the living room.

Rose is sitting on the futon, keeping company with Bro of all people. Alarms go off in your head that this is a bad combo before you can even analyze the "why" of it.

Mom doesn't seem to notice anything amiss. She just bounds over and shoves the back of Bro's head. "Hey, Dirk! Grab your keys and take me to the nearest non-sucky grocery store!"

Bro gets to his feet with an annoyed grunt. "Well, sh*t, when you ask so nicely..."

There's a quiet squabble between the grown-ups as they prepare to leave, but your attention is too focused on Rose to listen. Her shoulders are tense and her eyes are trained on the floor while she makes an expression you're not sure you've ever seen on her. If her skin wasn't already whiter than an unused sheet of printer paper, she'd probably look pale.

She raises her head only when Mom gives her a kiss good-bye on the cheek; she returns the gesture with a weak smile.

Something is really f*cking wrong.

You wheel over to her as soon as the adults disappear out the front door. "What'd Bro do?" you say, keeping your voice down. "Do I need to kick his ass?" You don't care if you can't kick his ass to save your life; if he hurt Rose, you are kicking his ass.

She frowns. "No, he..." She looks away before murmuring, "He just said that I shouldn't f*ck myself up like an idiot by cramming my emotions into dark corners and shouldering too much responsibility."

You tighten your grip on your wheels. "That piece of sh*t's got no business calling you on that."

She presses her hands over her face. "Dave, he was warning me not to follow in his footsteps."

You pause. "What?"

"Apparently I remind him of his younger self," she says in monotone.

Your premature anger drains away, along with the tension in your muscles. That's... not remotely the first thing you would have assumed from Bro. sh*t, did he indirectly insult himself and call out his own sh*t? "Oh."


You wrinkle your nose as the implications sink in: he thinks Rose has the same sh*t going on. "Ew."

She doubles over to hide her face further. "Yeah."

You climb out of your wheelchair so you can sit next to her on the futon. "Dude, that's not even close to accurate. Maybe you've inherited, like, a sliver of his tendency to come off as cold and manipulative and creepy..." You trail off. "I'm not helping, huh?"

She moves her hands to shoot you a dull glare.

You sigh and flop back. "Okay, yeah, I'm putting on the brakes before I hit a brick wall." f*ck, you still don't know how to approach her. Even more pathetic, this is just par for the course for you, isn't it? You're the worst brother all-around. You glance at her and frown. "Was Dave a good brother?"

She raises her head in surprise. "What's our working definition of 'good' for this context? He was an obnoxious pest, so in that respect, he was fantastic at playing the typical role of an older brother."

You impatiently wave your hand. "Yeah, yeah, I figured that much, but was he any good at the other stuff? Did he look after you and sh*t like in the family dramas on TV? Was he there when you needed to vent about all the bullsh*t the game threw at you? Did he give good hugs?"

She furrows her brow as she considers you. "We mostly kept to ourselves with our respective dramas."

Well, damn, that sounds almost as healthy as the bullsh*t that went down on the battleship.

That shouldn't actually surprise you, and yet it does. You figured that the meteor had its sh*t relatively together, that Rose at least had another human to lean on while she spiraled into alcoholism, that Dave had sorted through the whole "being an inconsiderate douche" thing over the course of three years while you dissolved into failure... Apparently he was no better at this family sh*t than you are.

"That... sucks," you mumble, unsure if your voice is even audible. Maybe all Dave Striders are just awful by nature and you've been giving the alpha too much credit all these years.

You frown, hesitate, and reach for Rose. This is what she and Mom keep doing for you, right?

"Dave?" she says, going still as you hug her.

"Is this on the right track for being a less sh*tty and selfish brother?" you mutter against her shoulder.

She relaxes and pats your arm. "I think I'm too sh*tty and selfish of a sister to answer that accurately," she slides her hand around your back and presses it there, "but I appreciate the gesture."

You don't actually know how long hugs are supposed to last, so you count to ten and hope it's okay to break away from her. She doesn't complain at least. "You still miss him, huh?" you say, watching her closely.

She straightens up and reinstates her own version of a pokerface, looking all prim and proper and above it all. "I've already long dealt with..." She trails off as her gaze falls on one of the smuppets sitting in the middle of the floor -- there's always at least one left no matter how much Mom tries to clean. Rose bites her lip. "sh*t. Of course I miss him," she whispers. She presses a hand over her eyes. "I don't even know how the hell to mourn him. It f*cking hurts that the Dave I shared so many memories with is just... gone and I can never talk to him again, yet the Dave I made friends with years ago is still here. My mind can't balance mourning his loss and appreciating your presence at the same time."

"Yeah, I... get that." You drop your gaze. You don't really like watching her squirm like this. "Sometimes I still feel kinda sh*tty that John and Jade died, which is f*cking stupid since they're alive in this timeline." You shrug.

She groans and rubs her temple. "Even after three damn years in that game to adjust to such nonsense, timelines are still a bitch." She shakes her head, her lips going thin. Her voice turns quiet as she says, "Sometimes I worry that... maybe if I could just fill Dave's gap with you, I'd be a better friend to you."

"Nah. That'd just be its own brand of denial." You settle back, leaning close to her. "I mean, look at what happened between me and John."

She frowns. "He tried to pretend you were Dave Prime?"

"Or something like that, until I got so mopey that it was easier for him to reject me altogether than admit that his best bro had changed." You run a hand over your face to give yourself a moment to wipe any signs of emotion off your features. "Moral of the story, it's just as well you're approaching me like I'm a stranger."

She rolls her eyes and sighs. "I'm approaching you like an old friend I've fallen out of touch with, you obtuse idiot."

You chuckle quietly. "Fair enough. I guess you aren't a big enough dick to call a stranger an idiot." You glance at her. Whatever words you use to frame it, she's dealt with you better than you probably deserve. "Y'know, even if you've got some base-level sh*t in common, you're not gonna turn out like Bro, little sis."

Uncertainty flashes over her face before she buries it in a skeptical stare. "You sound awfully confident for someone who knows nothing of basic psychology."

You co*ck your head in a shrug. "Yeah, well, it doesn't take a shrink to tell that you've got a better head on your shoulders than the guy who kept swords in the fridge until Mom yelled at him." You nudge your shoulder against hers. "Also, you're less of an asshole."

She smirks. "Thanks, big bro," she says, and you're pretty sure there's not even a hint of sarcasm in her words.

Her distress from earlier is all but gone as the two of you settle in against each other. It feels pretty good to have a positive impact on someone for once in your life. Maybe you should make a point to stay observant of your sister's emotional well being. You can break the habit of acting like a self-absorbed douchebag, right? You've got time to try, anyway.

You and Rose spend the rest of your home alone time chilling on the futon and blathering about stupid sh*t to make up for all the earlier heavy sh*t. You're not even sure how much time's passed when the adults get home.

Mom stumbles through the door ahead of Bro, her hands occupied by at least a dozen plastic bags. She's probably carrying her weight in groceries and, judging by the silhouettes inside the bags, they're all from the frozen aisle. "Guess who has ice cream?" she calls.

Rose's eyes go wide. "Mom, how much did you buy?" she says with clear exasperation.

Mom raises her two armloads of treats in triumph. "All of it!"

Bro, on the other hand, is completely unburdened beyond door unlocking duty. He kicks the door shut behind him, tosses his keys on the counter, and cuts open the bottom of one of the grocery bags in such a smooth movement that you don't even see him equip his katana. He snatches the first carton that tumbles out of the broken bag, then disappears in a flashstep.

"Dirk!" Mom shouts over the crash of five more ice cream cartons falling to the floor. "Get back here with that orange sherbet!" She drops the rest of the bags and chases after him.

You fight to maintain your pokerface for all you are f*cking worth, but Rose snorts without hesitation. She holds her index finger up at you in a "one moment" gesture before she scurries to the abandoned sacks of ice cream. The bags rustle as she digs through the mountain of junk food until she retrieves two cartons and a pack of plastic spoons.

She tosses you one of the cartons as she makes her way back to the futon. You turn it over to read the label and lose any question of what she was hunting for: Cinnamon apple pie flavored ice cream. Motherf*ckin' jackpot. You didn't even know they made this sh*t.

Your sister is f*cking awesome. Your mother is awesome too, if a little overzealous. Your bro is insane, but he's the reason the Lalondes are here at all so you're feeling pretty charitable towards him at the moment and don't resent him the title of cool enough.

Rose settles next to you again and holds up her spoon in a toast, which you very ironically return to the ambient sound of your parents trying to put each other in headlocks.

You guess this is what normal losers call a "family," or the closest thing you'll ever get to one. You could do worse.


This chapter was a difficult one. I deleted and reworked so many paragraphs. Stupid characters and their stupid emotional traumas...

Chapter 10


I've been playing too much Persona 4: Dancing All Night. No rhythm game has any right to include a story mode that mean. I wanna hug all the idols like "ish okay, babies, you don't have to fake being someone you aren't just to be accepted." ...wait, this sounds familiar-

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

"You should come to Washington with me."

You are too cool for a spit-take. Instead you forget how to swallow, leaving you in reply limbo as you struggle to contract your muscles or risk dripping subpar coffee down your chin. "What," you finally say.

Rose circles one of her french fries in the pool of ketchup on her plate. Sorry, one of her "pomme frites." God, you shouldn't have let her pick the restaurant; this cafe is so pretentious. "I'm visiting John next month, remember?" she says. "Jade will be there too and we have plans to spend a couple of hours group chatting with our friends from the alpha session."

"And you seriously think I should tag along," you say, laying it all out so she can correct you, because there's no way she implied what you think she just did.

"I believe you were invited, before the falling out."

Your stomach lurches and you're pretty sure it's not from the fancy little toasted sandwich you just ingested. "Hang on," you say, pulling out your cell phone. "I need to google the number for the nearest asylum so I can have you committed."

She sets her food down to give you her full attention, her gaze boring into you. "Dave."

"I should have known you had something more nefarious than lunch up your sleeve when you told Bro to pick us up late," you mutter as you text an SOS to Bro. Maybe if he leaves now, he can get you out of here within ten minutes. This is the last time you let Rose tag along with you to a physical therapy session, you swear to god.

She sighs. "This was supposed to be a reunion for the four of us."

"And I'm the fifth wheel, remember?" Your voice comes out strained, which is dumb because you're definitely just pissed off and not distressed at all. Just kidding; you're stressed as f*ck.

No, no, no, f*ck no, not now. You're finally getting your sh*t together and you're climbing out of bed in the mornings and you're going back to physical therapy and this is not the f*cking time to reinforce what a giant asshole you are, which John is an absolute ace at.

Rose narrows her eyes. "So you won't speak to your friends again under any circ*mstances, even for the sake of closure? Do you really want to leave this drama on your shoulders forever?"

You keep glancing at your phone in hopes that Bro's answered and you just didn't feel the vibration. Why doesn't life have a mute button? Or a fast forward? Anything so you don't have to deal with this conversation. "If closure means getting ganged up on, then nah, I'm not interested."

Her features soften. "You think I'd let that happen?"

"You agree with them that I was an asshole."

She laughs, though she doesn't look amused. "We're all assholes. That never stopped us from being friends before." She reaches over the table and rests her hand on your wrist. "I wouldn't throw you to the wolves like that, Dave. I'll help outfit you with the appropriate armor for tackling this obstacle."

You slump in your seat. "sh*t, I'm all for metaphorical armor," you grumble. You're a slu*t for metaphorical anything. "Do I get a metaphorical sword to go with it?"

"Maybe." She smirks. "The great sword Excali-angst."

You throw your hands up. "I'm out."

"The fearsome Murama-sulk," she says, cupping her chin in thought.

Oh god, she's going to mangle innocent sword names all day if you don't distract her. You groan and wipe a hand over your face. "What kind of metaphorical armor can even protect me enough that I won't curl up like a pathetic bastard after enduring another verbal sparring session with the best friend who hates my guts?"

She pauses her musing to look you over. "With any luck, validation and a sense of direction, two materials you were severely lacking during the falling out with our friends. But if I'm to craft such sturdy armor, I need you to sit down in my armory and talk to me honestly about the gritty details of the wounds you experienced these last three years." You must make an odd expression, because she continues on quickly, "Well, you can't exactly tell a real therapist that you used to be part-bird, but you need to talk to someone. I don't know how you processed what happened between you and our friends, but maybe if I did, I could help you make sense of the bullsh*t you're mired in."

You don't want to talk about the last three years. You were an asshole, John was an asshole, and no one lived happily ever after. The end. Except not the end, because it hasn't stopped haunting you and Rose knows it. You frown. "So I spill my guts to you and then what?"

"We use that information to move on and live as normally as we can manage." She sits back. "What else?"

You shrug. "Well, we could always skip the faux-therapy and join the circus. Supernaturally strong and pigmentless ectoclones would fit right in with the freak show." You flex your arm to show off that ecto-strength of yours and inadvertently lift your mood when you notice how much more defined your muscles have become after five months of shoving around a wheelchair.

She looks thoughtful, ignoring your very impressive new development. "Even if freak shows weren't long since declared distasteful, no one's actually given me sh*t for my unnatural paleness before. It's almost odd."

"Eh, they probably just assume we're white." You steal one of her cold fries if she's not gonna pay attention to your arms as she should. Wow, these potatoes need more salt. Fancy restaurants suck. "That's what I did, anyway."

She raises an eyebrow. "You thought you were Caucasian?"

You lounge back and wave your arm in a casual shrug. "Nah, I suspected I was born in a test tube and my genes are completely devoid of any human racial heritage. Because that was just so obvious, you know?" You roll your eyes. "What the f*ck else was I supposed to assume when our skin is literally white and we got names like Lalonde and Strider?"

She's quiet a moment. "I figured I was albino and my mother was purposefully keeping my race a secret so she could lord the information over me later at an advantageous moment."

Your shades are the only barrier keeping you from gaping at her. You knew she didn't understand sh*t about her mom, but it's jolting to hear Rose's wild theories again after actually meeting the object of her disdain. "Oh my god."

She clears her throat and blushes, straightening in her seat. "In retrospect, your approach may have been saner. Relatively."

"You think?" you say flatly.

"It's a shame you aren't so logical all the time," she says with an exaggerated sigh. "It would make my job easier right now, but I guess I deserve a taste of my own paranoid medicine."

"You thought Mom had cooked up a conspiracy to shock you with your secret family heritage and you're calling me paranoid?"

"A touch." She tilts her head with just a hint of a smirk. "You refuse to join me on the trip to Washington, yes?"

Dammit, you thought you'd diverted her from that topic, but she is a goddamn expert on marching awkward conversations around in circles. She's like the awkward conversation Pied Piper. "I refuse to knowingly embark on a soul-crushing journey that will send me back under the covers for the next ten years as I wallow in my miserable failures as a human being." You cross your arms. "That ain't paranoid."

"That won't happen," she says, her tone sharp. "We'll air out your dirty laundry beforehand and map out a plan of attack. If the reunion still goes south, I'll let you abscond, no questions asked. Is that fair?"

You're not sure "fair" is a real thing in this kind of situation. You'd rather access the value of "safe," but the statistics on that are too foggy to calculate. "So if sh*t hits the fan, I can flip them both the bird and make a badass getaway to the nearest safe house?"

She lets out a hollow laugh. "If sh*t hits the fan, I'll probably join you in your escape."

Oh god, she's actually gonna rope you into it; this is unbelievable. "What are we even doing this for again?" you say as a last ditch attempt to throw her off course.

"Do you really mean to tell me you have no regrets in regards to your friends?" she asks. "Nothing you wish you could say or ask? If you never spoke to them again, you'd be fine with that?"

You scowl and try not to answer, but she keeps quiet as she waits for you to inevitably open your big mouth and break the silence because goddamn you can't handle silence. You avert your gaze. "If the answer is 'no,' does that just seal my fate?"

"I don't know, Dave." She reaches across the table to take your hand. "If you admit out loud that you still want to see your friends again, does that seal your fate?"

You've lost. Rose has just delivered the finishing blow with an undodgeable combo move and your HP's shot down to zero. You sigh. "Well, sh*t. Let's go to Washington."

Your phone finally vibrates with a text from Bro announcing that he's on his way.

* * *

The f*cked up dreams are getting old.

It doesn't take a genius to analyze where they're coming from or anything. You get it; you've still got baggage from the game bogging down your subconscious, so you turn back into a f*cking sprite every few nights and get a lecture from the "Real Dave." The piece of the puzzle that's fallen out of the box and under the floorboards is how to make the damn dreams go away.

Are you supposed to feel relieved that you can "stand" upright on your own again? Because you don't. You'd take your wheelchair over the floaty ghost tail any day of the week. There is nothing about this bright glowing orange scenario that brings you comfort.

Maybe you can just get this bullsh*t over with if you can't reject it. Where the hell's Dave hiding? He's due for some obnoxiously vague dream hints.

Instead of treating you to his signature co*cky aggression, you spot him just lying on his back on the dark dream floor with his god tier cape splayed out above his head.

You tilt your head as you float closer. The f*cker's not asleep in your dream, is he? Maybe he's dead and your subconscious is trying to spook you with images of a corpse you've already seen too many times. "Uh. Dude?"

Dave doesn't move so much as an inch as he wearily says, "Do you have any f*cking idea how boring it is around here?"

You shrug as you hover over him. "Mostly I'm concerned by how often I keep running into you. Would you mind getting the hell out of my subconscious before I have to draw up an eviction notice? It's f*cking unsettling that I've got some kind of stalker chasing me around and spying on my dreams."

"Yeah, see, that attitude?" He raises an arm only as much as it takes to point a finger in your direction. "That's why we're still grappling with this sh*t," he waves his arm at your empty surroundings, "instead of moving on with our lives."

You roll your eyes. "Oh my god, I hate dream logic bullsh*t. Can I at least wake up?" you say, pinching at your forearm to no avail.

"You want to?" He sits up and you have to back away to avoid colliding with him. "I thought you were hiding in here, bro. Way better than being awake, remember?"

Arguing with your subconscious is the dumbest waste of time since advertisem*nts were invented. You can't lie or dodge awkward questions; it already knows damn well that you still have mornings where you struggle to get out of bed. It should also know you've succeeded for two weeks straight, though.

"Yeah, maybe," you say, "except there are people actually worth seeing when I'm awake now, unlike when I'm asleep, where my brain apparently thinks I deserve the cruel and unusual punishment of conversing with the phantom asshole who made my life so goddamn miserable in the first place."

"Whine, angst, sulk, you have the worst life and no one loves you. How about a single emo tear for dramatic effect?" Dave runs a finger down his cheek. "That's about the only way you can turn this around into irony and save this sorry display of moping."

You scowl. "I ain't moping anymore."

"Nice denial, but you're like a teenager's angsty free verse poetry personified, bro." He climbs to his feet, dusting off his pants. "Even worse, you're still too much of a wuss to confront Egbert of all people, 'cos that dork is just so intimidating, right?"

"Jesus Christ, no wonder you never got off your ass long enough to trade support with Rose if your observation skills are duller than a foam sword." You rub your temple, because not even dreams can protect you from headaches induced by secondhand embarrassment. "Here's one of the endless details you apparently missed: John's gonna tear me limb-from-limb as soon as I do something uncool that reminds him that I'm not the flawless you that he remembers."

"Wow, mean words. The horror." Dave snorts and shakes his head. "Maybe John had reason to verbally whoop your ass into shape if you're this f*cking uncool all the time."

You aren't fully conscious of clenching your hand into a fist, but you absolutely mean the punch you throw at Dave's condescending face.

Just as your attack lands, you jolt awake with a gasp like you're one of those dramatic assholes in the movies. Your arm is held out in front of you, with your hand still shaped into a fist. The dream felt so real that it's almost as if you teleported into your bed rather than woke up.

You fall back against your pillow with a shudder.

Of course you have another dream about Dave the night before you're due to leave for Washington. Dear god, why does your brain hate you this much? You got stuck listening to that bullsh*t lecture and you weren't even allowed the satisfaction of connecting your punch.

Something as meaningless as a nightmare shouldn't be getting to you, and yet it's excavating beneath your skin and then some as if your body's a mineshaft. Your mind's too wired to fall back to sleep even if you weren't hesitant to risk another dream.

It was just stupid dream logic at its finest, though. Obviously you aren't moping anymore, because it's been firmly established that you don't have to be the alpha to deserve to have a life. You have... Okay, you don't have friends, but your family is cool and moping cuts into the time you could otherwise spend chilling with them. You are doing just f*cking fine. Who cares that you're a jackass who deserves whatever John lays into you?

You pull a face.

f*ck. So maybe you can't just get over three years of angst and self-loathing overnight. That ain't your fault. You are setting goddamn records with the speed of your recovery, really. You ought to get a call from Guinness any day now congratulating you for your new entry into their hall of fame.

In the meantime, maybe having more nightmares is a sign that you need to turn to outside support again.

You fumble for the silhouette of your wheelchair by the light of the city pouring through your window. You used to avoid wandering the apartment after midnight at all costs, in case Bro attacked you from the shadows, but you can't remember the last time he ambushed you like that. (If he tries to take up the habit again, you're reasonably sure that Mom will kick his ass to Oklahoma.)

You make your way through the living room and dodge furniture by memory, unhindered by smaller obstacles since Mom won't tolerate smuppets on the floor. You only remember to hesitate when you reach the futon. You hear soft and steady breathing as Rose and Mom slumber through the night, blissfully unaware of your plight.

Mom's practically in reach. If you just shake her awake and blab everything to her, she'll probably make you cocoa and wrap you in a blanket and tell you that dreams are "totes stupid bullpoop -- hey, didja see me not swearin' there?"

But you can't f*cking wake her. She's got to be up early to catch a plane. You do too, but while misery loves company, that just means misery's a selfish asshole nobody likes and following his example is a bad idea.

You turn back for your room, pausing to listen on the off-chance your presence was enough to rouse Mom, but you only hear a quiet snore. Whatever. You don't need coddled anyway. If you can't sleep, you'll just kill the rest of the night on the Internet or something. Maybe Dirk's online.

A shadow shoots behind you just as you reach your door. "What the hell are you doing up?"

You jump so badly that the only reason you don't topple out of your wheelchair is that Bro catches you by the chest and pushes you back in place. Of course Bro's still awake and alert and ready to leap at the first sign of movement. He doesn't even have a place to sleep at night right now.

You struggle to slow your startled breathing. "Christ, can't a guy take a piss without a heart attack?"

With your ass securely back in your seat, Bro straightens up again. He never kneels to talk with you. You kind of appreciate that. "I gotta hope you weren't taking a piss, kid, seeing as you never went near the bathroom."

"Yeah, well, the basic point remains, which is that heart attacks are hella rude greetings and you should probably take a course on midnight etiquette to get yourself some certification on proper nighttime socializing," you say, as if this isn't f*cking tame by Bro's standards. All he's done is startle the sh*t out of you.

Why is he even leaping out at you if it's not to hit you with a sword? Hell if you know, but you figure the lack of surprise strifing means he'll wander off and return to whatever ironic bullsh*t he gets up to in his nocturnal escapades as soon as you look away.

You roll the last couple of feet into your room and flick the light on, cringing in the sudden brightness. If Dirk's offline like a responsible person, you could probably use the time to reorganize your SBaHJ files, maybe decide what you actually want to do with them. You reach for your computer but hesitate to actually hit the power switch as you catch movement out of the corner of your eye.

Bro hasn't left. He crosses his arms as he leans his shoulder against your doorway.

You tilt your head towards him. "Uh... Sup?"

"Good question," he says, his face and tone giving away nothing. "You staying up?"

"Yeah, I guess." You drop your arm. "Why?"

"Just don't get many opportunities to go one-on-one with you lately," he says. Yeah, because he's all about bonding. "How's physical therapy?"

It is way too damn early in the morning for this kinda game, especially when no one will let you look at the rulebook. You roll back from your desk so you have room to face him. "Am I seriously supposed to buy that you followed me in here at buttf*ck in the morning to ask about rehab?"

He straightens and saunters into your room. "Nah, just partaking in some blatant stalling for time. I ain't very good at the talking sh*t or the feelings sh*t or the talking about feelings sh*t, so this is gonna be awkward as hell." He takes a seat on your bed. "I'd try to get through it fast, but that'd make it worse, probably."

Your eyes go wide behind your shades. "Wait, we're talking about feelings?"

Bro shrugs. "Or something vaguely resembling that." He hunches over and rests his arms against his legs. You wish you had any idea which direction he's staring. "Watching you with Roxy's just kinda confirmed a suspicion I've had ever since the game ended," he says slowly. He pauses again. "I think I f*cked up with you."

An uneasy feeling sinks into your stomach like you swallowed a rock. Is this commentary on your failure to live up to his standards?

You swallow. "You... wanna elaborate on that, so I'm sure we're on the same page?"

He runs a hand over his forehead and through his bangs with an agitated sigh. "I... I had it in my head that all that mattered was making you strong enough that you could survive that goddamn game," he says, still speaking slowly as if he's picking each word with the anxious meticulousness of a sixteen-year-old choosing prom accessories. "Now I ain't so sure I was really doing right by you."

You frown. "Because Dave died."

"No," he says with so little hesitation that he almost cuts you off. "Even if he'd lived, I could have prepared you in a less sh*ttastic fashion," he says, his voice going quiet. He rubs the side of his face as if he's fighting off a headache. "I don't remember why I even thought it was a good idea to push you as hard as I did, but for some f*cking reason I did it anyway because... because f*ck if I know." His pokerface shatters with a cringe and he finally just pulls his shades off to press his fingers against both sides of his temple. "I'm not gonna pretend to understand or justify f*cked up thoughts I shouldn't have had." He raises his gaze. You've seen his eyes before, but this is the first time you ever remember them pointed in your direction. "The point is, I did a sh*t job taking care of you and I'm sorry."

A heavy silence body slams into the room. It'd be cool of you to utter some sort of actual reply, but all your voice can supply is a single useless syllable. "Oh."

You are clearly an articulate and thoughtful sage at three in the morning. Thousands journey to seek your rad wisdom and leave their humble offerings of cheap AJ.

It's not like this is news to you. You've known Bro was all kinds of f*cked up for years now. You pieced it together from various clues all the way back in your doomed timeline: how much safer John's and Rose's houses were compared to yours even after the imps had vandalized them, the extra details Rose let slip about her mom once she had time to reflect, motherf*cking Calsprite...

That puppet just about drove you insane and you were only stuck with it for half a year. You weren't sure exactly how much direct influence it had on Bro, but you spent a lot of free time on the battleship wondering if half of Bro's bullsh*t had origins in that mind-grating "hee hee hoo hoo haa haa." Given how much he's calmed down now that the puppet is gone, you're upgrading your hypothesis to actual theory.

You never expected an apology though. That's throwing you for a wild loop. Disneyland coasters wish their loops are as crazy as the loop you've been thrown.

When you're silent for too long, Bro takes a deep breath and slides his shades back on. His stoic tone shifts back into place. "Look, when the Lalondes go home, if you wanna go with them... I won't stop you, okay?"

Your emotional roller coaster veers off its loops and takes a ninety degree drop. Your brain turns to mush from all that G-force blasting you straight in the face. The on-ride photo must be hilarious.

Did he just imply he's gonna let Mom adopt you? But that's f*cking nuts. You've never known a home outside of this apartment -- even on the Prospitian battleship, you had access to this mess. You can't just leave it on a whim. You've got all your sh*t here and... uh... nostalgia and... stuff.

Okay, you don't actually have an argument; you're just confused and letting your instinctual fear of change dictate the direction of your thoughts. Your brain's swimming now that the Floodgates of Possibility have swung open. Or is it drowning? It's overwhelming, at any rate.

You can live with Mom and Rose until you're an adult. You can have an actual mother and catch up on the lost time with Rose that the alpha Dave got. Well, Mom has to agree first, but you can't even imagine a scenario where she'd reject you.

Your mouth struggles to find appropriate words that fully get across the extent of your "hell f*cking yes," but an affirmation is so goddamn obvious that it just sounds patronizing. You gotta say something already, so you blurt out the only concern still tugging at your mind. "You gonna visit?"

For the first time in memory, Bro looks startled. "You'd want me to?"

You shrug, looking away so you don't have to see the tinge of emotion that almost made its way onto Bro's face. "Seems like a waste to split when we're finally making something resembling progress," you mumble. Sure, he's a crazy asshole, but that doesn't mean you want to suddenly drop all contact with the most consistent person in your life just when you're starting to appreciate him on a non-ironic level. Then again, maybe he doesn't want any non-ironic appreciation. "But hey, no big deal if you don't give enough f*cks to make that kinda trip."

Bro's quiet for a few seconds. "I could drop by sometimes, if that's what you seriously want."

"Sure." You can always revoke the invite later if you regret it, so you probably didn't do anything too stupid, but you like digging your holes deeper. "If we get our sh*t together, maybe I could come back down here for a month in January or something to avoid New England's coldass winter."

Bro nods slowly. "Yeah, you wouldn't want to risk freezing your balls off up there."

"But Mom comes with."

"You're just piling up the demands, aren't ya?" Bro's mouth twitches and you'd swear he almost smiled.

You cross your arms and co*ck your head. "That a problem?"

"Nah." Bro pushes off your mattress and stands. "We gotta run it all by Roxy, but I doubt she'll mind."


Bro walks past you towards the door but pauses halfway across the room and glances over his shoulder. "Got anything else to add to this awkward heart-to-heart, or are we done?"

You're done, probably. You ought to pass out anyway, but you can't shake the feeling that the alpha Dave's poised to mock you for this family moment in your next nightmare -- the question is whether he'll be pissed that you recognize Bro is f*cked up or that you haven't shoved Bro away.

Did Dave ever stop ignoring uncomfortable subjects long enough to piece together that Bro isn't as awesome as you always told your friends he is? If he got past that hurdle, how much did he resent Bro for his bullsh*t?

Whether he stayed in denial or fell into a grudge, he'd probably be pissed with how you handled yourself tonight.

"I keep having dreams where Dave's ghost berates me for being a sh*ttyass clone," you mutter.

Bro doesn't respond at first, but you're getting used to the lulls in the conversation. He faces you again. "You tell your sister about that?"

"No way, man." You wrinkle your nose. "I don't want her knowing I've got nightmares that f*cking dumb."

"So what'd you mention it to me for?"

You shrug, glancing at the floor. "You're the only one who's awake."

You still can't predict Bro worth sh*t, or maybe you were giving him too much credit. Instead of responding, he turns away and leaves without a word.

Yep, Bro's still a tool and you're an idiot for wanting to trust him.

You groan. Why would you spill your guts to a stone statue? Just because he stopped chasing you with swords doesn't mean you can actually bond with him like he's a normal non-awkward person. Now you aren't even in the mood to chat with any assholes online. You've done enough talking as it is.

You haul yourself onto your bed and stare at the ceiling, figuring you can at least rest even if you don't sleep. You forgot to turn off your light, but who cares?

You hear heavy footsteps approaching your room and you glance at the door as Bro returns. Did a guilty conscience bite him after all? Or is he just gonna tell you to pack up or something equally distant?

He wanders to your bed and takes a seat by your legs. He studies you in silence and you reply in kind, not even bothering to raise your head. Without so much as a greeting, Bro reaches into his sylladex and holds out a bottle of apple juice to you.

Why the hell is he... Oh.

You have to fight back laughter. You tackle that laughter to the ground before it can even think of escaping out your throat, but you still grin. Bro's been watching Mom's superior parenting techniques at work and offering comfort food was his takeaway.

Dirk couldn't help but constantly remind you of Bro every time you so much as glanced at him, but for the first time, you also catch a glimpse of Dirk in Bro: somewhere beneath the asshole cool dude exterior, he's just some lost kid who wanted to do good but got led astray by a freakyass possessed puppet and his own ineptitude.

You sit up to accept the bottle. "Thanks, Bro."

He nods. "You ain't a sh*t clone," he says quietly.

You stare at him shades-to-shades, then set the juice next to your pillow so both your hands are free. You've had enough practice with the Lalondes that you know the logical next step to this scenario. It's Bro's turn to get in on this family tradition anyway.

Bro freezes as you lean against him. "What the f*ck are you doing," he says so flatly it doesn't even sound like a question.

"I'm pretty sure this is a thing we're supposed to do." You wrap an arm around his torso.

"I'm pretty damn sure it's not."

"I'm pretty f*cking sure you aren't the one who'd know either way," you say, raising your voice so he knows you mean business here, "so I'm sticking with my initial assessment that it's totally appropriate in context."

Bro remains tense, but he raises an arm, hesitates, then slides it around your back. The movement is rigid and awkward, as if he's never hugged anyone before in his life. Maybe he hasn't. "I probably owe you this anyway," he mutters.

You snort. "You owe me this and then some." He's not very soft at all compared to Mom or Rose -- too much muscle, you guess -- but if anything he's warmer. "It's not very cool though."

"It really f*cking isn't." He rubs the back of your head as if he's trying to pet you like you're a dog or something.

"Yeah, almost a shame we gotta do it anyway."

"We could stop."

You shift closer to him and lean your head against his chest. "Nah."

He sighs and brings both arms around you, shifting their position until they settle into something almost natural. It's still the awkwardest goddamn hug you've ever had, but you don't mind it. "Sorry, kid."

You grunt, because saying "it's okay" would be a blatant dirty lie and "apology accepted" sounds lame.


It's kinda frustrating 'cos I've been writing Bro as a lousy person on the path of a redemption arc since the very first chapter, but one summer upd8 changed that from a cynical take on the character to an optimistic one. Oops? Oh well, at least Bro's true nature and motivations and amount of free will are still largely left up to fan conjecture, so nothing directly disproves my interpretation yet.

Chapter 11


Guess who did NaNoWriMo on a whim? In related news, sorry for the slow updates. I needed to feel the pressure of a tangible deadline to get my writing process back on track, I think. With any luck, I just re-disciplined myself into writing faster and more regularly again though, if I don't let that momentum falter.

Since it's been a while, here's a refresher on the last chapter: Rose convinced Davesprite to visit John and Jade in Washington with her, Davesprite had another nightmare involving Dave, Bro gave Davesprite the option to leave Texas and move in with the Lalondes, and there were awkward hugs.


(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

The less said about air travel in a wheelchair, the better. At least the TSA's incompetence distracts you from the suspense of reuniting with your sorta-maybe-friends. You're way more nervous about disembarking at the mercy of whoever's in charge of wheelchair distribution at the Seattle airport.

You're kinda glad you haven't gotten up the nerve to ask Mom if she'd adopt you like Bro suggested. Now you have more time to weigh the pros and cons of flying to New York.

Pro: A loving family.

Con: Useless f*cking airports.

"Dave, look!" Mom says as she flips through the in-flight magazine that's at least half ads. "You can order AJ for your on-flight drink!" She tilts it towards you and points to the small beverage section at the bottom of the page. Next to Coca-Cola and Seagram's Ginger Ale is the logo for Minute Maid.

Okay, fine, pro #2: Apple juice.

Mom hums to herself as she studies the magazine for lack of better sh*t to do. Rose brought a book and you could probably find something to entertain yourself with in your sylladex, but after barely getting any sleep last night and racing through an airport the next morning, you just want to space out and rest.

"Ooh, they got a pretty good selection, actually," Mom murmurs to herself.

You glance at the magazine again. It's just a pretty standard assortment of soda and juice as far as you're concerned -- no funky Mexican sodas or bizarre fruit mixes to speak of -- but you go tense when you follow Mom's gaze. She's looking at the non-complimentary drinks, which cost money because they're full of alcohol instead of just corn syrup.

You snatch the magazine from Mom's fingers just before Rose can. "Mom, did you know most fossils aren't actually bones anymore?" You blurt out the first thing that comes to mind in an attempt to distract Mom from your theft.

"Can I start up violin lessons again when we get home?" Rose says, leaning against Mom's other side as she catches on to your game in an instant.

"Are we there yet?" you say.

"Is there a crossword puzzle in that magazine?" Rose says.

"Can we take a selfie?"

Mom blinks. "Uh..." She points in your direction, then Rose's, then back again, and so on. "No, yes, no, probably, hell yes." Damn, she's good.

All three of you crowd in together -- you up against Mom's left shoulder, Rose against her right shoulder -- as you lift your phone for some sh*tty selfie magic. Rose sneaks the airline magazine from you while Mom's concentration is on smiling big for the camera; you make sure not to record the evidence of the theft in the photo.

You pass the phone to Mom afterwards and she beams at the photo. "You got a good eye."

You shrug, sneaking a peek at your composition. You hadn't actually been trying that hard, but now you want to know what you did that apparently turned out so well. "Yeah, I've dabbled in the art of sh*tty selfies and photography before," is all you say.

"Well, all that sh*tty practice is building up to some cool instincts." She returns your phone and gives you a peck on the cheek. "Text me a copy when we're on the ground, okay?"

The rest of the flight is relatively uneventful, if a little turbulent at times. Rose orders the drinks for all three of you before Mom can even open her mouth. Thank god Rose looks too young to try anything unscrupulous for herself; ain't any flight attendant dumb enough not to card a thirteen-year-old and she knows it.

The Seattle airport treats you more kindly than Houston did. Whether that's competence or just luck is anyone's guess, but at least you're off the plane and grabbing your luggage in a timely manner.

It's only as you settle into the back of a taxi that the tension shifts gears from "oh god, how is the TSA going to f*ck you over?" to "oh god, how is John going to kick your ass?" You keep an especially straight face and ramble Mom's ears off about the different cameras you've used over the years, but given the concerned frowns Rose keeps shooting you, you're probably not keeping your cool as well as you'd like to think.

It's too late to turn back. You made this decision and you're stuck with it no matter what happens, because you're in goddamn Washington and what else are you supposed to do? Camp out under a bridge until your return flight?

It still feels like you're willingly riding to your execution, only the executioner is your ex-best friend and everyone's ignoring the ax behind his back. If you go back to moping in bed all day thanks to this trip, you are going to do jacksh*t about it but by god you'll be pissed about it.

The neighborhoods outside the car window are completely foreign to you. The suburbs themselves might as well be a maze as far as you're concerned -- mazes with hedges made out of identical fancy houses with perfect lawns. All the same, you recognize the destination before the cab even comes to a complete stop.

So that's what John's house really looks like, sitting pretty in its fancyass suburban neighborhood instead of teetering on top of a LOWAS mountain. Besides the lack of game effects, there's a new addition to the house you weren't expecting: there's a small ramp leading into the front door. You're not sure if the Lalondes blabbed the state of your legs to anybody or not, but there's no way they'd install a ramp just for your sake.

"It looked better with my expansions," you hear Rose mutter to herself as you climb out of the cab.

If you were on your own, this is where you'd probably sit on the curb forever, but you don't have the option to chicken out when your traveling companions are here to march right up to the door and ring the bell. They couldn't even wait for you to brace yourself?

You hold your breath as the door opens. You're cool, you're chill, you're not freaked out, please can you f*cking act like it?

"Why, hullo, Mr. Egbert," Mom says with a giggle. If you weren't looking straight at her, you'd swear you just heard Roxy's girlish laugh instead of Mom's.

You breathe out. All that tension wasted on John's dad. Man, all this time and you never so much as caught the dude's actual name. You wonder if even John knows it.

He tips his hat at Mom in a manner you can only describe as "dadly." Is that a word? Too bad, you just made it a word. The guy could have walked straight off a fifties family sitcom, he's that goddamn dadly. Leave it to Egbert.

"A pleasure as always, Ms. Lalonde." He steps aside and holds the door open so the three of you can enter.

You've been in this house a hundred times and yet it's like a whole new building now -- and not just because you're viewing it from a lower angle. There's an adult touch keeping sh*t in place and the decorations in moderation, without even a sprinkling of Jade's belongings anymore, let alone yours. Not that you meant to store crap at John's house, but sometimes sh*t got forgotten and looked better in its new home anyway.

It's so clean and tidy that it almost feels as if you wheeled onto a movie set or a model home, not a real place that people live in. You wonder if this is just what normal houses look like compared to Bro's trashy apartment or if John's dad is a neat freak. The strong scent of baked goods is the only thing that grounds it as the same building you visited back on LOWAS.

"Did you and the kids have a nice flight?" John's dad asks as he closes the door after you.

"It was pretty bumpy, actually," Mom says and reaches over to pat your shoulder, "and the Houston airport was a piece of flaming poo at handling Dave's accommodations, but we had a good time anyway to spite 'em."

John's dad gives her an approving nod. "Well done on making the best of a bad situation, then." He turns his dadly gaze on you, with its weird mix of sternness and patience. You feel a vague sense of shame settle in your gut for mocking the guy back when he was dead. "Please make yourselves at home," he says, oblivious to your guilt. "John and his sister are in his room, if you need me to call them."

"We'll manage, thank you, Mr. Egbert," Rose says. She's actually pretty respectful towards adults for a Yank, when the adult's name isn't Dirk Strider.

"My mother and Mr. Harley are presently taking coffee in the kitchen, if you'd like to join them, Ms. Lalonde," John's dad says, gesturing an arm towards the kitchen that is presumably way cleaner than you're used to.

Mom straightens herself up. "Would I ever?" she says with an excited gasp. "Gimme just one second, good sir." She raises an index finger before turning her attention back to you kids. She kneels in front of you, which you've concluded definitely feels patronizing, but you let it slide because it's Mom and you probably love her. "Okay, baby, I gots a hot date in the other room," she jerks a thumb at John's dad and waggles her eyebrows, managing to time it so he doesn't notice despite her utter lack of subtlety, "but if things don't go so good out here, you can always come hang out with us grownups. M'kay?"

"Thanks, Mom." You hope to god you don't need to take up her offer, but some of the tension slides off your shoulders all the same. Coffee with a bunch of grownups sounds boring as hell, but you'll take boredom over angry accusations and glares.

She kisses your cheek with a loud, "Mwah!" then straightens up to do the same for Rose. You're a very thoughtful big brother and don't smirk at all when Rose pulls a face at the mushy kiss. "Be a good girl and look after your brother, Rose," Mom coos.

You frown. You're maybe starting to piece together how a young Rose interpreted Mom's misguided sincerity as condescension. "Yeah, not like I can look after myself or anything."

If anyone has any commentary for your cheeky attitude, it's put on hold as a familiar voice calls from the kitchen, "Is everything all right out there?" Nanna appears in the doorway a moment later, seated in one of those fancy motorized wheelchairs that move with the push of a button.

Well, of course she's got the same post-sprite side effects as you.

Jade's grandpa follows behind her, looking no worse for wear post-game aside from his comically large mustache, but the dumb facial hair is probably unrelated to his stint with death. They both look pretty spry for their age, actually. Maybe ectoclones naturally live longer if Sburb doesn't kill them.

"Jane! Jake!" Mom almost squeals, running over to throw her arms around one and then the other. "Oh my gawd, it's been forever!"

You probably should have guessed she knew them before they died, just like she knew Bro. When you look past the wrinkles and age spots, you catch a glimpse of the Maid of Life and Page of Hope you knew for one April day.

sh*t, it's like a Sburb reunion on all fronts around here, not just for the beta session, but also for the would-be players of the alpha session. There's Jane, Jake, Roxy, and... that's all. Dirk's missing, his empty slot filled by John's dad. Bro didn't want to come and, frankly, you doubt he was invited.

It ain't right, but no one else seems to have noticed. Does Nanna give an iota of sh*t that she's missing out on her would-be friend? Does Jade's grandpa have any idea that he was close enough to date Bro in a world where their ages matched up? For that matter, does Bro even f*cking realize what kind of friends he could have had if he wasn't a grade-A f*ckup?

Nanna gives you a little wave and you nod back before the grownups head into the kitchen together, chatting like normal happy people who aren't missing a party member at all.

Are you on the path to following in Bro's footsteps? Is alienating your friends just what Striders do?

"Penny for your thoughts," Rose says, breaking you out of your internal monologuing, "or are you just dawdling?"

You shake your head. "Nah, I'm revving up the angst engine in anticipation of this wild race of emotions that's about to begin." You take a deep breath to brace yourself for the fate awaiting you in John's room, then wheel forward. "Let's do this."

Wait. f*ck. Stairs. That's a thing that happens in houses that aren't highrise apartments with elevators. These step-covered monstrosities truly are your archnemesis now.

Rose crosses her arms, watching you with a raised eyebrow. "I can ask them to come down here."

Hell no you aren't beginning this reunion with an awkward favor. You turn your wheelchair around and back it up, ignoring her concerned frown. "Nah, I'm on it. I've seen gifs of this. I just gotta replicate the technique and..." You lift the front of your chair in the same movement as you tug the back wheels to nudge them up the first step. Sure, it's a pain in the ass just to wheel over deep cracks in the sidewalk, but maneuvering stairs can't be that tough, right? Your chair slides out from under you and you fall backwards, smacking your head against a lower stair.

Thank god for carpeting, even if it still hurts like a bitch. Your archnemesis wins this round.

Rose winces and waits for you to groan before she leans over to examine the damage. "Setting aside how you've never been instructed on how to perform this feat, did it ever occur to you that those gifs feature very particular types of stairs and very particular types of wheelchairs specifically designed for stair climbing?" she says with a sigh.

"Hey, I... meant t'do that." Any credibility in your words is taken out back and shot by your strained voice.

You hear footsteps thunder upstairs, followed by a familiar high-pitched voice calling out, "No, they're here!" You can just see Jade's shape on the second floor as she comes charging to the stairs. It's the first time you've seen her without dog ears in three years. "I told you I heard-" Her eyes widen as she catches sight of you sprawled out on your back. "Davesprite?"

You haven't been called by your proper title in months. It doesn't inspire much nostalgic fuzziness. "Yo." You raise your arm to give her a thumbs up, while your other hand cradles the bruise forming on the back of your head. "I'm starting a new trend here, so don't f*cking laugh, 'cos everyone's gonna be greeting their friends like this in three months."

"Oh nooo, are you okay?" Jade hurries down the stairs and you kind of can't complain about the vantage point from the floor anymore. "You're not bleeding, are you?"

"Wait, what?" John's muffled voice carries down from his room, growing louder as he follows after Jade. "What did you numbnu*ts even do in the five whole seconds you've been here?"

"Davesprite capsized his wheelchair!" Jade calls to the second floor as she kneels to help Rose get you oriented again.

John comes into view at the end of the hallway. "Since when does Davesprite have a wheelchair?" He glances right past you into the living room before his gaze backtracks to the foot of the stairs as if he didn't expect you so nearby.

You grunt and leverage yourself back into your chair with some assistance from the girls. "Since when does Nanna have a wheelchair, dumbass?" Damn, that bruise smarts. You hold a hand over it because wounds always feel vaguely better when covered like that. You're gonna be so pissed if you gave yourself a concussion.

"Nanna's like two hundred!" John says with an exasperated sigh as he hops down the steps. "It's not weird that her bones got too old for walking!"

Rose rests an arm on your shoulder. "Contrary to popular assumption, young people can and do require wheelchairs sometimes, John," she says.

"Yeah, but that's sort of a thing to mention beforehand. Jeez!" He kneels on the landing, frowning at you, and you do your best to put on an emotionless face. "Do you need an ice pack or anything? There's a bathroom off the old study now," he says, which is just about the last greeting you expected from him.

"Nah, I'm cool," you say, forcing your hand into your lap.

"Well..." Jade puts on her usual silly grin and clasps her hands. "I'm really glad to see you two again!"

What the f*ck's with the cheer? Last time you spoke, she was telling you off for impersonating a dead guy. She's got no reason to hold you in high regards, or even medium regards.

"How have you been?" she continues, oblivious to your confusion because sometimes your pokerface is actually worth something.

"Nothing exciting that I haven't already kept you abreast of via Pesterchum," Rose says.

You shrug. "Yeah, you know, just been doing stuff. Cool stuff."

John snorts. "That sounds like you, all right." He jerks a thumb towards his room. "Hey, Jade and I were watching a movie on my computer, but we can start it over if you two want to come upstairs and watch too."

"Dude," you say flatly, gesturing down at your legs.

John stares a moment. "Oh, right," he says, because apparently it takes him a full five seconds to remember that wheelchairs don't do stairs -- seriously, you tried. "Man, it sucks we didn't keep our game powers." He puts his hands on his hips and looks between you and the second floor. "Jade could just teleport you or I could use the breeze to pchoooo you up there."

A shiver runs down your spine. Even John's treating you like a friend instead of like a jackass who lied about your identity and led them on. Why are they dancing around it? How long until everything goes to sh*t? God, even with the new decor, this house brings up too many bad memories.

f*ck it, you're just going to beat them to the punch. "Look, about the last time we talked..." you say, but Jade cuts you off.

"Don't worry about it!" she says chipperly. "We understand you were feeling a lot of pressure."

John hops his way down the rest of the stairs. "I was probably being too harsh on you anyway. It's cool."

It's not cool. Tensions are high and you're all carrying a sh*tton of baggage. That's obvious even to you.

Rose's mouth is a straight line, but she doesn't say anything. She pulls out no sarcastic quips or brutal analyses despite how well-deserved they are. Is she really giving you full rein here? Will she jump in if you stay quiet, or is this seriously your decision?

"You know, I brought some laptops!" Jade says brightly, clapping her hands together. "We could restart the movie on one of them and watch it on the couch."

They're seriously ignoring the elephant in the room, no matter how much it stomps around or leaves giant mountains of crap in the corner. You can keep your mouth shut and pretend the fights never happened. You can just go back to being Jade and John's friend, without uttering another word on all the sh*t that went wrong.

Everything can go back to normal and you don't even have to lift a finger.

"Someone with working legs help me grab Nanna's cookies while I get the DVD," John says. "You guys have got to save me from the mountain of baked goods she made for this reunion. It is a dumb amount of cookies." He sets his foot on the first step, then pauses. "Oh hey, Davesprite, where do you want to sit?"

If you don't make a fuss, no one has to dwell on how much they hate you. You'll have your friends back.

You'll just be the asshole who has no nerve to confront problems again.

"No," you say, your voice firm.

John gives you a funny look. "Well, last I checked, you can't stand, dude, unless you're planning to lie down or something."

"No, I mean I ain't here for this." You grip the ends of your armrests tightly. "We aren't shoving all of our baggage in the closet again. Especially not when that closet doesn't have enough space and the only way to keep everything crammed inside is to lean all our weight against the door, 'cos one day that sh*t is just gonna build up to the point we can't hold it anymore. That door's gonna crash down on us and send unaired grievances flying f*cking everywhere."

John holds his hands up in a shrug. "Uh, we don't have unaired grievances, dude. There was a bunch of dumb and awkward crap back on the ship, but we were all just restless and tense."

"Yeah, everything's okay, Davesprite," Jade says, even though her smile's faltering. "We can just let it go and move on now that the game's over."

"How the hell can you two repress that much emotional garbage without your heads exploding from the tension?" You look between them. "A metric f*ckton of bullsh*t went down in the last three years and that's not going to disappear with a handwave and some half-apologies."

John rolls his eyes with such exaggeration that his entire head moves with it. "Oh my god, dude, why do you always have to be such a drama queen?"

"Maybe drama is naturally what stirs up when you treat someone like yesterday's crap, Egbert," you say through gritted teeth.

God, Rose worked so hard to prepare you for this. You spent so many damn hours discussing everything that went wrong on the battleship with her, while she dug deeper than you could and offered strategies for just this moment. And here you're already off-script. She's probably mentally facepalming five times over. You don't dare glance her direction, but for better or worse she hasn't yanked the reins out of your hands yet.

John groans. "I was trying to be nice, but I guess that's f*cking pointless when Davesprite's involved. Can't you ever be chill like a regular Dave?"

You clench your jaw. You goddamn knew that was sitting just below the surface, waiting to break free as soon as it spotted prey. "You know f*cking what, you didn't even know the 'regular' Dave any better than you knew me- f*ck, you knew me three years longer than you ever knew that asshole. Rose is the only one who actually lost someone here," you say, jamming a finger her direction. You catch her narrowing her eyes and you quickly continue in case she's tempted to interrupt. "As far as you're concerned, I should have been the default Dave. But nah, you used me as a feathered scapegoat so you wouldn't have to admit that you can't get along with Dave well enough to share space with him."

"I would have gotten along fine with Dave!" John says. There's the defensiveness you're so damn familiar with, out in full display in all its glory.

"I'm Dave," you snap like you should have f*cking years ago. "I'm the same dude who stayed up with you after you watched a scary movie behind your dad's back. I gave you comebacks to use against that kid who bullied you in fifth grade. I sent you that dumb stuffed bunny for your birthday because I knew you'd drool over it." If the height distance wasn't firmly against your favor, you'd get up in his space. You settle for turning your wheelchair to directly face him with a jolt. "What precious moments did you share with the alpha Dave after I split off from him, Egbert? List that sh*t. I want to hear it."

The anger on John's face fades as fast as it flared up, replaced by apprehension. "Uh... like, right now, off the top of my head?"

You lean back in your chair and cross your arms. "You know what? I'm feeling charitable. You have until the end of my self-righteous spiels to come up with an answer, because I'd rather you take your time and cook some real quality for me than rush out half-baked bullsh*t."

Jade darts between the two of you, holding her hands up as if she's afraid you're about to come to blows. "This really isn't necessary!" She turns a nervous smile on you. "We're all trying to get along now, remember?"

You frown at her, keeping your mouth shut long enough to avoid a rash reply. "That's exactly the damn problem, Jade," you say. "We're trying to pretend like everything's fine when it's not, which, by the way, seems to be your signature move. You're so dead set against rocking the boat that you just waltzed through all manner of bullsh*t on the ship with a smile. Oh, yeah, it's perfectly f*cking normal that Davesprite spends eighty straight hours sleeping. Better just leave him be, because if you confront him, maybe you'll have to admit not everything is goddamn hunkydory."

Jade's not smiling anymore and her eyes have gone wide. "Davesprite-"

"No, let me finish." You hold a hand up. "I'm too close to the end for another interruption. Maybe I had issues before we ever set foot on that godforsaken ship, but you two are the reason I was still grappling with those issues and losing to them three years later." You hesitate as your breath hitches.

You can't afford someone talking over you here, but you're not ready to just dive into the next part. You've had all those words pent up for at least a year and it should feel better to finally unleash them on their appropriate targets. Maybe it's the house, reminding you of all the tainted memories that could have been happier if the three of you weren't such f*cking messes, or maybe it's because you really f*cking wish you could have kept silent and let Jade keep smiling at you and John keep treating you like a bro.

No one seems keen on rushing you through your extended pause. Even John keeps silent, eyeing you warily while Jade chews on her lower lip. Rose nods to you.

Maybe you're f*cking this up, but apparently you're doing well enough that Rose still has your back even if it goes to hell.

"And..." This is it. This is the grand finale where you drop the mic and wheel out backwards with both middle fingers in the air. There's no coming back to the stage to take a bow. One more monologue and the show's over for good, no refunds accepted. Just say it. "And I reacted by being so f*cking sh*tty to you guys." Your voice breaks, but it's not like your image isn't already ruined. "You were a pair of total jackwads, but I still lashed out at you like a vindictive asshole and I'm so f*cking sorry."

The entire room seems to shift in atmosphere. It's not like the tension's gone, but the anger has faltered in favor of a miserable acquiescence, like the aftermath of a bad thunderstorm. The wind and rain is gone, but everything's still wet and muddy and broken.

You reach under your shades to wipe at your eyes because at least that's better than letting tears actually fall. No one says anything. Jade averts her gaze and John doesn't seem to know what to do other than gawk in confusion at you.

Rose quietly clears her throat. "Should I go visit with the adults so you three can hash out the gritty details in more privacy?" she murmurs.

You shake your head with a shudder. "Hell no, I'm not making you the odd man out. This affects all four of us and you're already three years behind."

Jade shuffles her feet and clears her throat. "You know, I think..." she says quietly. "I think everything went so badly because we let the tension spiral worse and worse." She raises her gaze to you. "I mean, I didn't want to approach you because it really hurt when you dumped me. You and Dave always thought you knew what was best for me instead of trusting me to make tough decisions for myself. I didn't want to blame you for being thoughtless since you had a lot of issues to work through, but..." She hesitates, then actually raises her voice as she says, "You still broke my heart and insulted me in the same go!"

"Yeah, I did some really dumb sh*t I shouldn't have," you murmur, studying her anger in awe. You actually upset her? You knew you'd been a dick, but she was so good at hiding her distress -- and avoiding you -- that you never even realized the extent of it.

She deflates, the anger waning. "And I should have been paying better attention even when it hurt." She takes a deep breath and closes her eyes. "I'm sorry too, Davesprite."

You swallow. You got through to her. You said a thing and it didn't blow up in your face. Well, it actually kind of did blow up, just hopefully in a healthy way. "Thanks, Jade."

She nods, shooting you a very small smile, completely unlike her usual wide grin.

You raise one tip of your mouth into what might be a smile, but you're not feeling the victory enough to show real cheer just yet. "So how's that list coming, John?" you say, trying to keep your tone light as you co*ck your head his direction. "I can keep blathering if you need more time, but I'd rather not let my tongue go wild when emotions are this high."

John rubs the back of his neck and frowns. "Jeez, Davesprite, I didn't mean to hurt your feelings or anything," he mumbles. "You were always acting like nothing bothered you, even before you were a sprite."

You shrug. "I just said I did a lot of dumb sh*t, didn't I?"

"Yeah. Man, you were a real douchebag sometimes." He sighs, tilting his head. "But I guess I was kind of douchey too."

"Just a little." You snort and quickly wipe off the tear that snuck its way onto your cheek. "We're such great friends, right?"

John shakes his head. "I think we seriously suck, bro."

"Can things even go back to normal after everything?" Jade asks, wrapping an arm around her front to grasp her opposite sleeve. "We were all pretty mean to each other."

You flop back in your wheelchair and stare at the ceiling. "Hey, just 'cos sh*t's broken doesn't mean it's the end of the world," you murmur. You've sure as hell made weirder bonds in the last couple months. "Even if it can't be the same as before, we can make something work, yeah?"

"I think we'll iron it out with time," Rose says and rests a hand on your shoulder. "You're making decent progress so far and I haven't even started pulling any strings yet."

You laugh and just that seems to take a weight off your chest. "Yeah, well. Thanks for letting me handle it this far," you say, though you are more than ready for her to take over. "I figure it was killing you not to step in and start metaphorically knocking heads together with smarter words than I could barf up."

She smirks. "Maybe, but I'm glad I behaved." She squeezes your shoulder. "You did well, Dave."


Happy birthday, Davesprite. Sorry I forgot to wrap them and they still need a little work, but I got you your friends again.

(Note to readers from the future: this chapter was posted on December 3rd.)

Chapter 12

Chapter Text

"I just want the four of us to be friends again and to stop being mean to each other," Jade says. She looks from you to John to Rose and back to you. "That's what we all want, right?"

The three of you nod or shrug in agreement. sh*t's still awkward. Better, but awkward. The rush and exhilaration of standing up for yourself has worn down and now no one really wants to make eye contact. At least the air's not tense, just... kinda embarrassed.

You lean on your armrest. At least John and Jade have done you the favor of hitting the couch so Rose is the only one towering over you. "The real question here is whether you'll let Dave's clone be part of 'the four of us' anymore."

"Of course we will!" Jade says, leaning forward in her enthusiasm. She hesitates, then draws herself up. "But after this, no more deceiving us or... or antagonizing John on purpose! Okay?" She's trying for stern, but you recognize the worry in her eyes.

"Seriously. No more mean-spirited pranks," John says with a huff.

You hold your hands up in mock-defeat. "Yeah, I know. No more douchebaggery."

"No more denying when you're upset with each other," Rose says, tapping a finger against her elbow and giving you all a pointed look. You can practically see her patience stretching its calves and eyeing the door, ready to make a run for it.

Yeah, you're on the verge of fumbling here after losing your momentum and she probably damn well knows it. If you don't keep sh*t on track, she'll probably swoop in to knock heads together herself.

You swallow and sit up straight. "Actually, if we're laying down ground rules, I've got one of my own." You flick your shades down enough that you can make real eye contact, so they know you are dead f*cking serious here. "Don't treat me like I'm second best again."

"Well, yeah," John says. You don't know if he's avoiding your stare out of guilt or a total lack of engagement, as if he's trying to tolerate a cheesy anti-drug PSA. "Isn't this all pretty obvious?"

Jade nudges him with her elbow. "We still had to have it pointed out, though!"

"I guess." John tilts his head with a disinterested shrug. "So, now what? Are we ever going to hang out like buds again and watch movies, or do we have to awkwardly sit around like this and fulfill an angst quota?"

He apologized, but he still doesn't Get It, that much is f*cking obvious. Maybe John just isn't wired to hold onto the past for more than five seconds. You're kind of envious, not gonna lie.

This is good enough for now though, right? Because you don't have the goddamn energy to bash him over the head with another guilt trip that might not even make a dent. "Dude, I've got that quota filled for a year. It's probably overflowing into next year." You push your shades back in place like you're an anime character. "Bring on the mindless movies, 'cos I am so f*cking done with angst my edges are about to burn."

You half-expect Rose to object and pull out the full therapist gimmick until she's run you ragged from the emotional detox, but it's Jade who pipes up.

"Um..." Jade fiddles with her fingernails. "Actually, can I talk to Davesprite alone first?" she asks. "Maybe we could move to the study for a minute!"

"We converted that into Nanna's room, actually," John says, "but you could borrow my room."

You facepalm so hard that it makes an audible smack. "Seriously, Egbert?"

He rolls his eyes. "Bluhhh, yes, I know, the wheelchair! Man, give me a break. Last time I saw you, you just f*cking floated everywhere." He hops off the couch and prods Rose's shoulder. "Rose, wanna go hang out in my room?"

Rose studies John with a calculated stare you've grown far too used to seeing aimed at you. "Yes, I think that works quite well," she says slowly.

She glances over her shoulder as she follows John, and you honestly wouldn't put it past her to eavesdrop from the top of the stairs, but she at least allows you the illusion of privacy. Not that the middle of a living room can ever feel all that "private," even without any other occupants, but you don't have a better option, so sucks to be you.

Jade scoots to the end of the couch so she's seated closer to you. "We'll get through to John eventually, Davesprite." She smiles at you. "Don't be discouraged yet!"

"Yeah, I'll hold off on the rending of garments and howls of devastation for later," you say, tugging at the front of your shirt as if you'd ever actually hurt perfectly good fabric. "Hey, move over."

She furrows her brow but follows your request, sliding away again. With the nearest couch cushion left open, you haul yourself out of your chair and onto the couch instead, settling in next to her.

"You're pretty good at that," she says, her smile growing more genuine.

You shrug, nudging the wheelchair away so you have more leg space. "Yeah, that happens after half a year in wheels." You co*ck your head. "So this is about the breakup though, isn't it?"

"I guess so." She folds her hands in her lap and lowers her gaze. "We should probably talk about it."

"Yeah, I really f*cked that up," you murmur.

Her smile fades. "Well... You hurt me a lot, anyway."

You shake your head. "sh*t, man, I was such a mopey f*cking jackass, I figured you were miserable putting up with me."

"That wasn't for you to decide, though!" Her gaze snaps up. "I was okay being with you even when you were mopey, because I liked you, Davesprite! If you'd really liked me back, you would have respected that instead of dumping me for a reason as... as stupid as deciding on your own that I deserved better." She crosses her arms.

"That is a pretty stupid reason." You study her face. Her glare is so unpracticed that it almost looks childish in all its sincere emotion. It should be funny, but you can't bring yourself to quirk a smile. Even if she deserves better than what you had on offer, you were an idiot for thinking Dave could give that to her. You were an idiot for disguising your selfish, self-hating bullsh*t as doing her a favor. "Sorry, Jade. I was in a really f*cked up headspace."

She lets out a huff, but lowers her volume as she says, "I understood that, dummy. I didn't want to resent you because I knew you were struggling."

"Lemme guess. Penting it all up made you resent me like fifty times worse, right?"

"Maybe." She side-eyes you, then sighs. "It felt like you didn't think I could even take care of myself, and if I couldn't take care of myself, how was I supposed to believe you trusted me to handle tougher stuff like the game? I'm not weak like that, Davesprite." She rests a hand on your shoulder. "I could have been there for you, if you'd just given me a chance instead of assuming it would be too hard on me."

You nod slowly to give yourself extra time for a thoughtful and well-considered reply, but you come up with a giant blank. "Are you just letting out some well-deserved venting or is there anything I can do to patch up my embarrassingly stupid past mistakes?" you ask. "Not ragging on venting. Just need to know if I'm here to dispatch generic comfort or if I have a more substantial role to fulfill."

She stares up at the ceiling. "I don't really know. There's a reason I never said anything before. There's nothing you can do, so far as I know." She shoots you a small smile. "But I think you and Rose are right that we need to start being honest with each other. I don't want to jeopardize our relationship again. Even after everything that happened, you still mean a lot to me, you know."

You hesitate. "Does that mean you still wanna..."

Oh, ow, that wince cannot mean anything good. "We should probably focus on just being friends again for a while before we even think about picking up where we left off," she says, patting your shoulder. "That's okay, right?"

"Yeah, that's cool, that's probably smart," you mumble, fighting off a blush. Why would you even ask such a dumb, stupid, uncool question when you know damn well what the answer is? You're the asshole who broke it off in the first place.

She peers at you. "Are you all right, Davesprite?"

You let out a strained and quiet laugh. "I know that's an easy question, but I'm gonna have to waste a lifeline anyway 'cos I have no damn clue how to answer. I've been so goddamn tense the past two weeks that I'm getting stress dreams, and now we're sharing more feelings than you'd find in a twelve-year-old girl's diary, which is way beyond my usual limit of emotions, so basically my brain is about to short circuit and I'm saying dumb sh*t." You pause for breath. "Anyway, can I ask the audience?"

She smiles and gives you a squeeze around the shoulders. "How about I message the other two to come back so we can take a break from being brutally honest with each other for long enough to relax over a silly action movie instead?"

* * *

"Okay, so Davesprite can take the couch, Rose can have my bed, and I'll park the sleeping bag right here to give her privacy," John says, dropping a lump of slick fabric onto the floor next to the couch.

Rose nudges the fabric with her foot so it unrolls into a thin and sad-looking sleeping spot. "John, why don't I just take sleeping bag duty?"

"What? Rose, don't be dumb!" John shakes his head in moral indignation. "I'm not making a girl sleep on the floor."

"Gee, I love being treated differently based on my gender," Rose says with a pokerface that could give Bro a run for his money. "Obviously I should have asked Jade if I could tag along with her and her grandpa to the Hyatt so I could truly lap up the hotel-level luxury my girlhood requires."

John rolls his eyes as he kneels down to smooth out the sleeping bag. "It's called being a nice host. Obviously a guest gets the bed, and Davesprite can't go upstairs, so that leaves you."

"Hey, he remembered I'm a cripple now," you say with a smirk and jerk your thumb at him. "Give him a point, Lalonde."

"Oh my god, I didn't call you that!" John says with an exasperated sigh, as if you're the type to be offended by semantics.

Rose raises an eyebrow. "Can I trust you two to behave by yourselves with only Nanna down here to intervene?"

You scoff and lean back against the couch, resting your hands behind your head. "I'm a big boy who can look after myself, thanks."

"Besides, we're not being mean to each other anymore, remember? We made rules and stuff." John straightens up and motions for Rose to follow him. "C'mon, I'll show you where you can find all the towels and toothpaste and whatnot. I need to grab Davesprite some blankets anyway."

Rose still frowns, but she bids you good-night and disappears to the second floor with John.

You let out a long breath, expelling your nerves with it. Yeah, you can survive a night next to John. That's not jumping the gun, right? You kissed and made up, so you should be fine.

Maybe you should ask if John has two sleeping bags so all three of you can camp out in the living room. Just in case. But that assumes he wouldn't be too scandalized by sleeping in the same room as a girl.

You shift to the corner of the couch. The house is almost silent compared to the ruckus from this afternoon. Even the adult voices from the kitchen are quiet and distant now that Grandpa Harley's taken Jade to a hotel and Nanna's gone to sleep. (Old people and their early sleep schedules. Honestly.)

Mom keeps her voice so low that you almost don't notice when she steps out of the kitchen with her cell phone pressed against an ear. She pauses and gives the room a look-over.

"Dave?" She hurries to your side, kneeling in front of you. "What's wrong? Where are the others?"

You lean back out of instinct. "Well, I'm physically incapable of chilling upstairs, so John's grabbing all the necessary supplies to party down here."

"Oh." She relaxes. "That's all? No, he's fine," she says, adjusting the phone's speaker closer to her mouth. "I jumped to conclusions too fast-like." She glances back at you and whispers, "Dirk was worried." Less than a second later, she shouts into the phone, "Yes, you were, you big liar!" She lowers the phone to address you again. "Anyway, are you sure you don't want me to call a hotel?"

"Mom, I am not going to be the reason you don't get to share a bed with your boyfriend tonight."

"Shush." Mom blushes and holds a hand over her mouth to muffle a short giggle. "Thanks, but freaking shush, you. It's totes bedtime anyway." She holds her phone up to your ear. "Go ahead and say hi to your dad first, though."

"Hi, Dad," you repeat on automatic as you take the phone. You only realize your mistake after the second word is out in the wild and beyond your means to corral.

There's dead silence on the other end.

"Da-ude." You clear your throat and feel heat rising to your cheeks. "Dude. I said dude."

"I know," Bro says, his voice as flat as ever.

"Cool, 'cos I think I said it kinda funny at first there. Washington accents must be sticking to me already like packing tape to fingers." As if this wasn't already going to be awkward even before you shoved your foot in your mouth. You don't know if you've even talked to him on the phone before. "So, uh, why'd you call?"

"I didn't. I just answered Roxy after the fifteenth goddamn time she called me."

You snort. You don't know if Mom spaced those calls apart or spammed him nonstop for five minutes, but you're envisioning the latter and have no intention of clearing up the potential misunderstanding. "Why the hell didn't you answer sooner, dude?"

"I didn't want to get f*cking roped into some weirdass conference call with the geriatrics," Bro mutters. His tone is actually easier to read over the phone, with no body language to mask his emotions. "Anyway, everything cool with you?"

"Yeah, sh*t's fine." You glance over at the stairs as you hear John making his return, his arms loaded with blankets and pillows. "We're all civil here and no one's thrown anything at my head. f*cked up a new trick with the wheelchair, though."

"Damn," Bro says. "Was it at least badass?"

"Hell yeah it was." You smirk. "It was so badass, I wiped out and cracked my skull open."

Before Bro can congratulate you, Mom's eyes go wide and she blurts out, "You hit your head?"

"Yeah, I-"

She grabs you from either side of your temple, positioning herself directly behind you. "Oh god, let me look!" You feel fingertips traveling over the back of your scalp in search of the elusive bump on your head. "Why didn't you come get me when it happened?"

"Mom," you say flatly.

John pauses at the bottom of the stairs and actually backs up a step. Either he has enough common sense to leave you some breathing room, or he rightfully ain't interested in waltzing into the middle of family craziness.

Mom checks her watch. "There might still be an emergency clinic open if we leave right-"

"Mom!" you say louder to snap her out of her concentration. Hopefully you didn't just wake Nanna in the crossfire. "Chill. It's a bruise. I ain't a fragile flower. No one's leaving a mark on even one petal around here."

She slides around to check the front of your head. "I'm sure you're a very pretty flower, Dave, but what if you got a concussion?" She gasps and holds a hand over her mouth in horror. "Or internal bleeding? Do you think there are any doctors in the area that'll make emergency house visits?"

You groan and adjust the cell phone against your ear. "Oh my god, Bro, are you hearing this?"


"Great. Tell Mom I don't need a doctor." You shove the phone back in Mom's face and she's accommodating enough to take it.

"He hit his head, Dirk!" she says before he has a chance to get a word in. "Do you have any idea how dangerous that is?" She frowns. "Well, obviously he's survived worse, but- Wait, you did what?" Anger flashes over her eyes and she turns her back to you as she raises her voice. "Do I sound like I give half a pile of poop? That's still not a thing you do to a child!"

John skitters to the couch with his plunder once Mom's attention is diverted. He drops a pile of heavy blankets into your lap and flops next to you. "What's going on?"

"My parents are fighting over me."

He fluffs up a pillow before passing it over to you. "Wait, really?" he says, dropping the other pillow onto the sleeping bag.

"Yeah, Bro's a careless maniac and Mom's an overprotective helicopter, so they kinda work to cancel each other out." You shrug, half-assedly setting up your couch-bed when you don't have the space to lay out any blankets. "It's cool."

Mom's face is scrunched up in distaste, but she turns back to you with a sigh. "Okay, we won't go to a doctor, but only if you promise to tell me the instant you feel dizzy or funny in the head at all." She holds her cell out. "Deal?"

You resist the urge to roll your eyes as you nab the phone. "Yes, sure, fine."

She shakes a finger at you. "Say good night to your dad and go to bed, mister."

"Sure thing." You shake your head with a quiet laugh. "You're a life saver, Bro," you say into the phone.

Bro grunts. "If you say so," he says. "You know that time I taught you to flashstep by throwing you off the roof?"

You furrow your brow. "Uh... Can't say that's a thing I remember."

"Yeah, I guess you were still an infant. The point is, sorry." He clears his throat and actually sounds uncomfortable. "You talk to Roxy about moving to New York yet?"

You glance up at Mom, but the receiver mustn't be loud enough for her to hear Bro's words secondhand. "Nah, I've been kinda distracted," you mumble.

"You should get on it," Bro says.

You frown. Yeah, you really should. Who knows how much longer the Lalondes will even stay in Texas now that you're not a royal mess? They might drop you off and head back for New York as soon as you return from Washington. "I know," is all you say, because you sure as hell aren't admitting that you're scared of change, scared that Mom might say no. "You should take Mom's conference call next time."

"What?" Bro says, because maybe that did kind of come out of left field. You can't help it if you're one of those quarterbacks who makes snap decisions during play and notices when your goalie is avoiding his own demons. What's "left field" even from? Never mind, you don't actually care.

"Just saying. Old people can be cool," you say. Especially when those old people are alternate versions of his would-be friends.

"Hrm." Hella eloquent reply, right there. Bro sure has a way with words.

Mom waves at you and taps at her watch.

You nod. "A'right, I'd better go before Mom instates a curfew," you say. "Night, dude."

"Take care, kid," Bro says, the icy edge in his voice melting for once.

You end the call and pass the phone back to Mom. She bids you good night with a kiss on the cheek before she collects her own Egbert from the kitchen and departs hand-in-hand with him. John pulls a face and gags as soon as the parents' backs are turned, which you ignore because big f*cking deal if your parent has a love life.

John slips off the couch to pile up his pillows on the sleeping bag. "Man, for such a cool guy, you seem pretty okay with having a mushy mom." He shoots you a smile.

"Yeah, it's a nice contrast after thirteen years with an emotionless older brother." You shake out a blanket to get your sleeping space ready to go, too. "She's kinda overzealous, don't know if you noticed or anything, but she means well."

"My dad's kinda like that." John flops on his back and looks up at you. "It's annoying sometimes, but he's pretty great."

You nod. John's dad seemed nice enough in the five sentences you exchanged with him. Boring, but nice. "Hey." You nudge John with your foot. "I'm glad you got him back."

John grins. "Thanks. I'm glad you've got a mom now." He pushes himself up on his elbows. "How's it going with your brodad?"

You open your mouth, hesitate, then settle on, "f*ckin' weirdly." You lie back against the couch. "You know how Jade went all berserk and sociopathic when the batterwitch snagged control of her, but we were like 'ha ha, Jade, we know that's not really you, so how about you stop being evil and we can all be friends again'? It's like that, except he was pseudo-grimdark my entire f*cking life, so now that he's back to so-called 'normal,' I'm just perpetually in a low-key state of confusion."

John tilts his head. "So is that bad or..."

"Let's say it's like trying to rate an arthouse film. It's unsettling and you're pretty certain there's something meaningful going on, but you can't decide if you liked it or not and you sure as hell didn't f*cking understand it. The popcorn was good though."

"What the hell's the popcorn a metaphor for?" John laughs.

"I'll tell you after I figure that out." f*ck, it's a pain in the ass to get the blankets straightened out. It's too much effort to haul yourself back into the wheelchair just to give yourself the angle to make your bed, so instead you fling the bottom of the blanket until it reaches your feet. "Anyway, if you were looking for a short answer, sh*t's strange, but we're making it work. He's definitely more of a brother than a parent, though, so I'm probably moving in with the Lalondes soon."

"Wait, seriously?" John's eyes bug out as he studies your face for any sign that you're joking. He slowly grins. "Hell yes, now I can visit both you and Rose in one go."

"Yeah, you better believe the next party's at my place. We'll get all kinds of novelty balloons and punch bowls and one hella cool disc jockey to blow our eardrums out as we scream over the lyrics just to keep up a conversation and-"

"Hey, lights out down there!" Mom calls down the stairs.

You cut yourself off abruptly, more out of surprise than obedience.

John chuckles and does the honor of scrambling out of bed to turn off the lamp. "Not used to that yet?" he says, keeping his voice down.

You blink in the wake of the pitch blackness. Your apartment always has city lights blaring through the windows, but it's so damn dark in the suburbs that you actually slip your shades off just to return some ability to differentiate the shadowy shapes. "Nope, the 'parent who actually notices me' thing still has its new car smell."

"Don't worry." John settles down next to you. "They're worth the nagging."

* * *

Washington is f*cking cold. You thought John was nuts when he handed you three heavy blankets, but as the night wears on, you wrap yourself up in all of them and almost wish he'd brought you a fourth.

The couch cushions are technically more comfortable than your mattress back home, and you've slept on John's couch more than a few times on the battleship so it's not unfamiliar, but your eyes won't stay shut for more than a few seconds. It was never dark on the battleship and there definitely weren't any noises like passing cars or wind.

You roll onto your side, flop onto your back, then try lying on your stomach. You know you gotta sleep, but you can't shake the worry that you might bump into a certain ironic dead asshole in your dreams. The last thing you need is to get a nightmare in front of John.

It's three in the morning back in Houston, so the jetlag should work in your f*cking favor. You wonder if Bro's enjoying having the futon to himself, or if his sleep schedule is too f*cked up to use it at the proper hour.

John stirs with a quiet groan and shimmies out of the sleeping bag. You don't say anything as he gets to his feet and stumbles upstairs. You wonder if he's sleepwalking, forgot why he wasn't in his room, or decided he was tired of listening to you restlessly turn to and fro.

You hear a toilet flush.

Okay, fine, or maybe he needed to take a piss.

You roll over a few more times in your failure to sleep. Go figure, after spending two weeks unconscious as much as possible, you forgot how to pass out.

John's footsteps are lighter as he climbs down the stairs. He pauses next to the couch as you turn over again. "Can't sleep?" he whispers.

"Jetlag, I think." You crack your eyes open. "Or maybe just nerves. I've had a lot of those to go around and they don't digest fast."

He drops onto the sleeping bag, sitting with his knees pulled up. "What were you nervous about?"

You roll your head to give him a blank stare that he can't see in the dark. "Well, y'see, I'm scared sh*tless of airline food and... The f*ck did you think I was nervous about? We haven't gotten along in two years and I figured nothing was really gonna change that."

"We've gotten along sometimes!" John says. "We weren't always fighting on the battleship and we, uh... We had a lot of fun on Pesterchum when I thought you were Dave."

You sigh. "Yeah. Almost like old times."

"See? So we can get along when we try." He curls up on the floor and you figure that's the end of that. It's late, he's oblivious... It's the usual song and dance, but after half a minute, he mumbles, "We hadn't talked like that in a while, though."

"Nope, not in months." You stare up at the ceiling. "Too busy keeping to ourselves or sniping at each other."

"Is that why you lied about being Dave?" he whispers.

"Yeah, dude. That's why I lied." You swallow to keep your voice steady. "I missed having friends who actually gave a sh*t about me."

"I guess I did give more sh*ts when I thought you were regular Dave. Which is pretty stupid, since I couldn't tell..." He trails off and goes still. "Oh my god."


He sits bolt upright so suddenly that you jump. "We had less than two days together!" he shouts.

You edge back. Oh f*ck, what did you do this time? "Uh... That sure is a thing you said without any f*cking context."

"Me and Dave!" John says way too f*cking loudly for post-midnight. "We shared, like, I dunno, a few pesterlogs? And then a couple of in-person conversations once we reached the alpha session? But that's it. Everything else involving a Dave after we entered the game was you!" He holds his head in his hands. "Oh my god, I didn't even know the Dave who died!"

You gape at John's silhouette, giving no sh*ts that your eyes have gone wide. Isn't this what you pretty much already said earlier? Now it sinks in? At one in the goddamn morning when it's so dark that you can't even see his expression? You didn't even mean to turn him hysterical or to smack him over the head with his friend's death.

"Dude, you still had history," you say in a weak attempt at soothing him. "It was kinda old and outdated history, but it's not like you were complete strangers."

"But I had you around the whole time, while he went off and changed without me and I barely had a chance to even learn anything about the sixteen-year-old Dave!" John falls to the floor and rolls from side to side. "Did he still like dumb raps? Did he grow a fondness for weird troll romance novels? Did he turn out to be hom*osexual? I don't even know, because he was only Rose's Dave! You're my Dave!"

"Okay, it's cool that you finally f*cking pieced that together, like goddamn, but chill. You'll wake Nanna and probably the rest of the house," you say, keeping your voice as quiet as you can when you're dueling volumes with a loon.

John just moans and presses his face against his pillow, which barely muffles his voice as he makes other noises that sound suspiciously like gnawing.

"Egbert, do not eat the goddamn pillow," you say flatly, to no effect. You lie back with a sigh. "Oh my god, your tantrums are stupid."

"You're stupid," he says, his voice still garbled by fabric.

At least he's not mad at you this time. You think. You don't really know what goes through this kid's head. His brain probably looks like a 3D version of Candy Land mixed with action movie explosions, which makes for a jumbled mess when he actually encounters depth. Bombs away.

John garbles nonsense into his pillow for long enough that you wonder if you should try shouting for an adult to calm him down, then he falls very silent. If he accidentally smothered himself, you're going to kill him.

"Dude, did you fall asleep?" you ask.

John takes a deep breath. "I'm sorry, Dave," he whispers.

You go still. "Who're you talking to, Egbert?"

"You." He rolls onto his back. "I shouldn't have said all that stuff about you being a poor substitute. It was mean and totally untrue besides. You were still my best friend even if you weren't the alpha."

Your breath catches. Of course John waits until the middle of the f*cking night to have this epiphany, because he can't process emotions in real time like a normal person. Better late than perpetually oblivious, though. "Thanks, John."

He reaches up and squeezes your shoulder. "If you don't think you're gonna fall asleep for a while, I can make us cocoa."

Staying up for chocolate-y caffeine leaves you at risk for never breaking free of jetlag, not to mention Mom's disapproval if she catches you. You take a deep breath. "Yeah, f*ck sleep schedules. Let's do it."

John hops up. "Oh, we're doing this," he says, hitting the light and nudging your wheelchair closer for you.

You smirk. "We're making this happen," you finish for him.

Chapter 13


(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

"Hell no." Hell no to the return of the ghost tail. Hell no to your glowing orange skin. Hell f*cking no to the dead Dave sitting at the edge of the empty dreamscape. You don't even bother holding back a scowl as you cross your arms. "You already had a haunting like two nights ago. Keep your dead hands off my subconscious for at least a week, you greedyass motherf*cker."

Dave ignores you. He taps a beat against a drawn up knee, but he doesn't accompany it with even a headbob, let alone one of his half-assed raps.

You lower your guard the longer the silence goes on. "Dude?" You float over to make sure he's not blasting music through headphones or braindead.

His fingers go still and he co*cks his head. "So that's what it's like to get Egbert's official seal of rejection," he says, his voice especially devoid of emotion, like when you're concentrating on not letting your feelings slip.

f*ck. You know that feel, bro. "Yeah, it kinda sucks like a steady prodding to the balls." You settle next to him. "You lose contact for what feels like forever, you reunite, it's cool for a bit, then he realizes he doesn't know sh*t about you and suddenly you're shoved at arm's length. Just gets worse from there." You glance at him. "At least you're too dead to suffer his cold shoulder in-person."

His interest in you remains in the negative, probably because he doesn't want to acknowledge what you both already know: John's opinion of you matters more than you'll admit to anyone.

You raise a hand, undecided on whether to rest it on Dave's shoulder or to shake him like a fresh bottle of orange juice.

"Wouldn't suggest doing that," he says just before you make contact.

You pause. "Why not?"

"You'll wake up."

"Like that's a bad thing."

He shrugs. "You're the one who was suffering from insomnia."

You drop your arm. "Touche." The last thing you need is to wake at five in the morning, with a side of disturbing John while you're at it. "What happened to taunting me like a jackass?" you ask. "Are you too heartbroken now that John isn't mourning you anymore?"

"It ain't that big of a deal." He waves you off. "Dude's gotta move on with his life someday and forget about the towering pile of dead Daves if he doesn't want to crush himself in therapy bills down the road."

You point an unimpressed stare in his direction. Who the hell does he think he's fooling? You've been around this block so many times you've almost run out of gasoline. "Why are you bullsh*tting me, bro? We both know it hurts more than watching the end of Old Yeller."

"Which is exactly why we don't bother talking about it, 'cos we're too cool to tackle that mopey sh*t."

Because if there's one thing better than confronting the ghost of your alternate self, it's bickering with your alternate self because he's never had a chance to grow the f*ck up and stop dancing around his issues like a professional ballerina. You do not have the time to turn Rose's therapy tactics on him, so you just sigh. "You say that like we got anything else to talk about."

He turns to look at you for the first time. "Why the hesitation for moving in with the Lalondes?"

"Like you can't just suck that info out of my subconscious like some kind of ghost leech." Okay, maybe you're a giant f*cking hypocrite right now, but you weren't expecting the reverse-interrogation.

"Nah, legit, I'm asking," he says. "You keep telling everyone that Rose's mom is great, so what's the hold up?"

You shift. Was it always this difficult to find a comfortable spot with your sprite tail? "Houston's all I got to my old name right now. My legs are f*cked up, my relationship with every asshole I know is different in one way or another, my eyes changed color..." You fiddle with your shades. "Not all of it's bad change, but goddamn, it kinda adds up. Next I'm just leaving my home behind? Am I cursed to resemble you as little as possible?" You pull your ghost tail up enough that you can rest your chin and arms on it. "When does my name officially change from Dave Strider to Davesprite Lalonde?" you mumble.

Dave studies you quietly for a moment and you fully expect him to drop a lengthy insult on your wuss ass, as per usual. Instead he says, "I'd go."

You raise your head. "For real?"

"Yeah, man, an actual parent who cares about me sounds hella, you know?" He shakes his head. "Wish I could have had that."

Your stomach does a funny twist. This ain't right. You fought for tablescraps at the main course for three years and nearly starved, but now here you are with a buffet of desserts while Dave gets worse than nothing. He gets food poisoning.

You drop your gaze. "Sorry that you died."

"It happens." He smiles but it's kinda twisted. "Better me than one of the others."

"Probably." Better you than him moreso, though.

Dave slides to his feet and dusts off his pants. "Welp, I guess I gotta haunt-taunt you after all, dude, if you're seriously holding yourself back 'cos you're afraid you're not enough like me anymore. Because that's f*cking stupid." He draws himself to full height and frowns down at you. "Just go. Be the alive Dave who gets to mature and do fun sh*t. I have it on good authority that growing up involves changes that are hard and no one understands anyway."

You just stare up at him with your mouth hanging open, because what else are you supposed to do when an asshole gives you well-intentioned advice instead of just mocking you?

He lets you have your silence. The rest of the dream is less accommodating.

Without announcement or transition, the clack of a co*cked gun echoes in your ears. You blink and the air fills with dozens of floating rifles, as if Jade's entire sylladex emptied into your dream and forgot what gravity is. You're treated to a lovely f*cking view up one of the dark barrels.

The guns co*ck again without firing. Last you checked you can't die in a dream, but that doesn't keep you from tensing up. "Yo, any particular reason this ride has made a sudden turn for the goddamn f*cking hostile?" you snap at Dave.

Dave raises an eyebrow. "That's not me. Dreams sometimes bastardize outside elements from your real world environment like a bad Google Translate session." He leans over to examine a firearm, prodding at its side. "Sounds to me like that fake-click noise that digital cameras make," he says after it co*cks again.

You sidle out of the crosshairs of the nearest rifle. "Why the f*ck would we be hearing a camera?"

"I dunno. Go find out." Dave reaches out and grabs your arm, but you never feel his touch.

Your eyes open and your vision is met with a soft light instead of the painful glare of a Texas morning. Your right side is cold, in sharp contrast with your sweltering left side, and the air against your neck fluctuates in warmth. Your back feels like someone's strapped a board to it. Did you pass out on the f*cking floor? sh*t, you'd better not have fallen asleep before John did.

Wait, if you're on the floor, where's-

A camera clicks.

"Are you sure this isn't kind of mean?" Jade says somewhere above you.

You try to shift, but there's a heavy weight on your arm. Only your head raises unhindered, because somewhere in your sleep you managed to entangle yourself with John and ffffffffff...

"You two could sleep through a stampede." Rose taps her cell phone and it lets out another click.

You scramble to dislodge yourself from John's limbs, throwing a pillow at her. "Dude, privacy!"

She ducks out of the way, shielding the phone against her chest. "I held off on such unscrupulous actions as long as I could, but after Mom beat me to it..."

Blood drains from your face. "She what?" You swivel in search of Mom or other witnesses, but any nearby adults have vacated the living room. Given the quiet murmurings coming from the kitchen, they've probably already passed through.

John groans and rubs at his eyes. "Why the hell are we being so loud?" he asks, picking himself off the floor.

"Dave is having a tantrum because we snagged photos of you two cuddling for warmth." Rose waves her phone for all to see the offensive image of you snuggling against John in your unconscious and unwise state.

"Jeeeez, is that all?" John nudges the side of your head, damaging your already bedhead-ridden hairdo. "How is that a big deal? Everyone knows we're best friends and not hom*osexual."

You stare blankly at him. "Do you even hear yourself sometimes, dude?"

"Don't worry. We know you were just sleepy." Jade kneels next to you. "There's warm food in the kitchen, by the way, if you two want breakfast."

"She means donuts," Rose says while she thumbs through her indecent phone gallery.

John pulls a face and sticks his tongue out. "Bluhhh, no thanks." He wraps an arm around his stomach. "I'll just wait for lunch, when we have things other than sugary bullsh*t to eat."

Jesus, how are you supposed to think about food at a time like this? Everyone you know saw you cuddling with John. There's not enough irony in the world to excuse that. You'll have your coolkid license revoked until you can retake the test and qualify for- Hang on, did Nanna make those donuts? sh*t, she probably did. There's no way she'd allow Krispy Kremes in her house while she can still stir batter with her wrinkly old hands.

You can't say no to Nanna's cooking. Unlike John, you have working tastebuds that can appreciate good food. Besides, it's been like half a year, so her baked goods have gone full circle from "excessive" back to "tantalizing."

You hoist yourself into your wheelchair. "Okay, I'll join the breakfast club, except with actual food instead of sh*tty detention. Let's hit it, Simple Minds."

"What'd you call us?" John says with a scowl.

"Goddammit, John, brush up on your eighties references," you call over your shoulder as you make your way to the kitchen.

Brand new ground-floor bathroom aside, it's the kitchen that's gone through the most renovations since you last set foot (or ghost tail) inside this house. The old counters have been ripped out and replaced with shorter ones, the cupboards are at least a foot lower than before, and the oven opens sideways. If you knew jacksh*t about cooking, this would be a mighty inviting setup.

Nanna's just retrieving a fresh batch of donuts out of the oven, because she's some kind of witch who can make donuts taste good even when they aren't fried.

"Morning, Dave!" Mom calls from the kitchen table where she's taking coffee with John's dad and Jade's grandpa. "We didn't wake you, did we?" She slips out of her chair to come over and give you a quick hug. "You and your buddy were sleeping sooo soundly that we've been trying to keep the racket down."

"Nah, Rose takes the blame for playing the role of unwanted alarm clock." You frown up at her. "Did you take unscrupulous photos of me behind my back this morning?"

She blinks. "What? No! I took totes adorable photos of you."

"Mom!" you whine, pulling a horrified face that would be a thousand times more embarrassing to record on film than your unconscious cuddlefest.

She bites her lower lip. "Uh-oh. Are you gonna be upset I sent one to your dad?"

You groan and drag your fingers down your face as if you can rip your skin off if you believe hard enough.

"Now, now, Dave, that's no tone to take with your mother," Nanna says in a familiar half-scold she employed on the rare occasions she wandered in on your spats with John. "Have some breakfast and get that blood sugar back where it belongs." She dumps a plate on your lap covered in at least seven donuts. Gee, it's so hard to remember how you got sick of her food. She peers around, squinting behind her old person glasses. "Where's John?"

You flop back in your chair, staring at the ceiling. "He's still in the living room, probably paralyzed from the ecstasy of the scent wafting from the kitchen." You lift a glazed donut between two fingers. "Such a shame he can't make it here for some fresh baked goods."

Nanna perks up. "Hoo hoo, I'll go bring some out to him!" she says with a laugh that reminds you equally of her sprite days and of the younger Jane.

"Yeah, he'll appreciate that," you mumble, stuffing a pastry into your mouth. Goddamn, that's an unparalleled burst of finely crafted sugar. You'd regret not savoring it if you didn't have an overabundance at your fingertips.

Nanna ignores you in favor of crafting a breakfast tray laden with fifteen donuts to terrorize John with. Mom heads back for the adult table now that you're sufficiently placated with donuts.

"Yo, Mom." You hold a hand over your mouth as you swallow. "Can I ask a serious-type question?"

She makes a U-turn and aims a smile at you. "Shoot."

You shove your breakfast platter onto the nearest counter, because bright pink icing makes for a lame cheerleader, and clear your throat. "Can I go home with you to New York and, uh... stay there?" you say, refusing to whisper but keeping your voice low enough that the rest of the room can't listen in that easily. "Bro said it's okay on his end."

"What?" Mom's smile falters. "Dave, don't you wanna stay with your dad?"

"Mom, c'mon," you say. "It's not like I can't talk to him on the phone or visit and sh*t. Bro's a cool guy, but..." You cringe. "We both know he never should've taken care of a kid."

She hugs herself and looks away. "You haven't seen me after I've fallen off the wagon."

"So sometimes I have to track down all your booze and pour it down the sink like Bro did." You shrug. "Still sounds worth it to me."

She clasps a hand over her heart. "Aw, baby, that's-" She pauses, furrowing her brow. "Wait, Dirk did what? When did he pour out booze?"

"Not long after you and Rose first got to Texas." You duck your head in case she's about to give him another harsh phone call.

Instead she lets out a quiet gasp. "Oh, that sweet, stupid man." She chews her thumb. "Why'd he have to be so frickin' gay?"

"Yo, what happened to wooing Egbert Senior?" you ask, tilting your head towards said romantic prospect as he pours a coffee refill for old man Harley.

Mom waves you off, her cheeks flushing. "Hush, I'm just lamenting some long lost puppy loves."

You tilt your head, watching her closely. "So are you and Bro, like..." You hesitate. "Old flames or something? What's the history there anyway?"

"Um..." She twists her face and clucks her tongue. "Well, no. We were pretty good pals when we were younger, but then we adopted meteor babies and life got busy preparing for the end of the world, sooo we sorta fell out of contact." She sucks in air between her teeth. "Plus Dirk got... weird after he found you. Weird even for him, I mean. He wasn't fun no more. All he cared about was preparing for the game. And puppets."

A shiver runs down your spine just at the memory of The Eyes Which Must Not Be Remembered. "Yeah, I'm pretty sure that creepyass puppet he carried around since childhood was possessed by a sick motherf*cker who was probably a really bad influence on his brain."

Her eyes bug out. "Oh my gawd, I knew that thing seemed some kinda demonic, but Dirk wouldn't hear a bad word against it. It was so eerie." She kneels and cups your face. "Were you okay?"

Heat rises to your face. "You kidding? It'd take more than a flashstepping psycho micromanaging my childhood to make me lose my cool."

Mom frowns. "Um..."

You clear your throat and glance away. "Look, the dude tries and I like him well enough now, but there's a reason I'm not crying too many tears over relocating."

Mom sighs. "Why don't we talk it over once we're back in Texas?" she asks, petting your hair. "We got all the legal thingamabobs to go over with Dirk anyway."

That is not remotely the enthusiastic reply you wanted to hear. It's not even a confirmation either direction. "Yeah, okay," you say, keeping your voice even despite your dread of dragging out this dilemma.

Mom straightens and holds her chin. "Hmm... We'll hafta install some ramps and those little mini wheelchair elevators so you aren't stuck on the ground floor," she murmurs, stepping away. You're not sure if she's addressing you or herself as she glances at the counters. "Jane doesn't mind it, but she just cares about access to the kitchen."

You raise an eyebrow. "So I am coming home with you?"

Her face falls. "Oh my gawd, Dave, how am I supposed to say no to that?" She leans down to tug you into a tight hug. "If Dirk's really okay with it, of course you're coming home with me and Rose," she whispers into your ear.

You swallow and throw your arms around her. "Thanks, Mom."

* * *

"So can you feel anything down here?" John asks, poking at your thigh.

You fix him with an unimpressed stare and lean an arm against your laptop, narrowly dodging elbow-typing a string of nonsense into Pesterchum. "Not a damn thing," you say flatly. "All sensation has passed on to my earlobes. I have zero control or feeling left below my waist, which is why the following cannot be blamed on me in any way, shape, or form." You lift your leg and shove your foot in John's face.

John bats at you and leans away half a second too late to prevent contact between your sock and his cheek. "Dude, gross!"

"Can't help it, Egbert. My disabled ass can't possibly have any control left in my legs." You snake your foot after him. "They just have a mind of their own now and it turns out my feet are vengeful overlords keen on your smelly downfall."

John kicks at your leg and returns fire with his own foot. "You could have just said yes!"

"You could have not asked a stupidass question," you say as you engage in a duel of socks. "We all made mistakes today."

Rose levels an exaggerated glare at you from across the temporary computer hub known as the Egberts's coffee table. "Boys and their f*cked up ways of bonding, I swear to god," she says, shaking her head as she types at her laptop like the rest of you should be doing.

Jade hops to her feet. "Incoming!" she shouts, yanking off her socks and lobbing them over the coffee table at you and John.

John yelps and practically crabwalks backward to avoid the line of fire. You're just glad she threw her grenades far enough that they didn't land on anyone's keyboard.

"On the upside, I guess this means I just inherited full creative control in this chat and I can tell the alpha players whatever I want with zero opposition," Rose says, keeping her concentration on her laptop.

You exchange a look with John and dive for your keyboard.

TG: whatever rose just said shes lying
GG: You are aware you could scroll up before you make assumptions on what we just read, I presume?
TG: i dont got time for that
TG: especially when i already know she was spreading filthy lies
GG: I see. I suppose it makes sense that your sister would try to cover up how nervous you are.
TG: wait no what she said what
GG: Made you look. Hoo hoo!
TG: ....
GG: heheh :D
GG: :B
TG: youre a tricky one crocker
TT: Shoulda just scrolled up, bro.
GT: Oh shed get him with a zinger sooner or later. Our janey is the annie oakley of pranksters!
TT: He still made himself an easy target.
EB: dave is ALWAYS an easy target. i feel sorry for him sometimes, but not enough to hold back on filling my prankster gambit.
EB: jane is also a pretty good prankster, though.
GG: Why, thank you.
TG: u guyyyyyz stop pickin on dave
TG: thats not very chummy at all for a big rowdy reunion party
TG: zip up them pranks for later! we gots some celemabratin to doooo
TT: A fair point. Let's not push our luck.
GG: Sorry, Dave, I got a bit carried away. I hope I wasn't hitting any sore spots!
TG: dont sweat it
TG: ive got a general policy in favor of letting hot chicks plow into my sore spots as much as they want

John's head snaps up. "Oh, hell no!"

You return his glare with a disinterested glance. "What?"

"Don't get gross and sexy with your ex's mother!"

Jade's cheeks turn pink. "Um... I think he was just being silly."

You lounge back and shrug. "Well, it ain't my fault that I'm so charming that every word I drop on the fairer sex sounds alluring."

"Nanna!" John yells over his shoulder. "Dave's flirting with your younger self!"

Cool pretenses be damned, you lunge to cover his mouth. "Dude, shut up!"

"Actually," Rose says, her eyes still locked on her laptop as she taps her chin, "Jane is flirting back."

"What?" you and John say in tandem, your bickering forgotten in favor of checking Pesterchum.

GG: Lucky for you, being an expert prankstress means I'm quite skilled at locating sore spots.
GG: It's not good sport to take advantage, but I could make an exception.
TG: welp
TG: ok
EB: jane, no!
TG: janey omg did that go over ur head
GT: *Clears throat.* So did anyone else see toy story in 3d this weekend? The new effects make it quite the exciting caper even if it was a gargantuan effort to get the 3d glasses over my own blinkers!
GG: ohh i bet my grandpa would love to go while we are on the mainland!
GG: Hang on now, what are we changing the subject for? Nothing goes over my head!
TT: Please don't encourage Dave's immature antics, Jane. I'll have to procure a squirt bottle at this rate.
GG: Oh, but it's all in good clean fun!
TT: That was undeniably dirty fun, Jane.
TG: but were in agreement it was fun
EB: let's just keep it PG in here!!
GT: Arent we all almost seventeen in our noggins?
TT: And physically almost fourteen regardless. I suppose it may be moot to ask a chatroom full of wayward teenagers to behave.
TT: Let's just embrace the inevitable and accept that we're on our way to a cyber orgy.
GG: D8
GG: Dirk, that crosses the line far beyond friendly fun!!
TT: Yeah, it skipped all the way to family fun.
GG: nooooo D:
TG: lmao
TG: lmao!!
TT: You're all hopeless ingrates.
GG: rose, youre giggling!!!!
TT: I would never.
TG: omg is she really??
TG: shes trying to hide it but she totally is
TG: cuuuuute
EB: UGH!! i'm surrounded by pervs with terrible humor!
EB: whose dumb idea was it to put all of the strilondes into the same memo??
GG: I think it was everyone's idea.
GT: Perhaps next time it WOULD be safer to split off into smaller familial groups...
TG: awww but i like jake and janeys cute kiddos
GG: aw thank you :)
TG: np <3
TG: jade is such a sweetie and johns plenty appealing ;)
EB: uh.....
GT: Gadzooks am i the only one capable of behaving today??
TT: Yes.
TT: Yes.

John covers his face. "This is a disaster."

"Define disaster," Rose says chipperly. "I'm having fun."

Jade side-eyes her. "Maybe Rose inherited Dirk's icky sense of humor." She sighs and rests her chin on her hand. "I guess it is kind of funny, in a really gross way."

"The important thing is that I'm not the one making the uncomfortable incest references for once." You point both index fingers at yourself. "Points to me."

John groans and slumps against your shoulder in overdramatic defeat. "It's still your fault."

"Probably." You smirk. "To be fair, I didn't figure my lewd joke would take off like a forest fire in SoCal, but I guess I've got a bunch of friends made of dry wood."

Rose glances up. "Is that another attempt at lewdness? Should I pass it on?"

John wrinkles his nose and makes a gagging noise. "You all suck."

"Can't speak for the girls," you lean back and rest your arms behind your head, "but I am one hundred and two-point-five percent awesome."

John pokes your cheek. "No, you are five hundred percent laaaaame."

"John!" Jade scowls over her computer at him. "Don't be mean again!"

"What?" John frowns but shies away from you, even though you're likewise giving Jade a confused look. "I've poked fun at Dave like that since way before Sburb!"

"But you can't call him lame!" she says with an exasperated sigh. "Think about what it means!"

You slap a hand over your mouth to mute your reaction. Oh dear Jesus.

John's brow furrows in confusion. "Lame means uncool." He shrugs. "So what? He knows I'm not serious."

Your hand does nothing to protect your image as you fall over laughing. Lame means uncool, because of course it f*cking does, and also that other thing that you actually are.

Even Rose stops typing in the wake of your sorry display of emotions.

"Um," John says. "I don't think Dave minds that I called him lame."

You let out an extra howl of laughter. You're so lame. You're the lamest coolkid. The coolest lame kid. You're the oxymoron. It is you.

"Are you okay, Dave?" John leans over you and cautiously paps your shoulder. Where did he even pick that up?

You catch your breath and wave off his hand. "Y-yeah. Yeah, I'm cool." You wipe under your shades, still chuckling as you sit up. "Hey, Jade wants to see Toy Story in 3D, right? We should do that tomorrow. Make up for today's unexpectedly vulgar chat."

Jade perks up. "Oh, Where the Wild Things Are looks fun too, if you'd rather!" she says with a smile.

You couldn't give fewer sh*ts about a kid's movie based on a picture book if you tried. You do give a sh*t that Jade's face just lit up for you for the first time in years. "Y'know what," you say as you settle back in front of your laptop, "I'm chill with whatever you guys want."


Historical fiction with a tight timeline is a pain in the butt. D; What movies came out in October of 2009? Nothing. Nothing noteworthy came out. (I suspect Dirk begged his bro to take him to the New York showing of The Yes Men Fix the World, though.)

Chapter 14


(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

-- gardenGnostic [GG] began pestering turntechGodhead [TG] --

GG: happy landings!!! <3
GG: talk to you when youre back in texas and im on my island :)

-- gardenGnostic [GG] ceased pestering turntechGodhead [TG] --

-- ectoBiologist [EB] began pestering turntechGodhead [TG] --

EB: hey, i hope your flight goes better than the last one, with the sh*tty people who were bad at bringing your wheel chair and all.
EB: also, you forgot your tooth brush. i could mail it, but i think it would be cheaper for you to just buy a new one.
EB: and, um.
EB: i'm glad we're friends again.

-- ectoBiologist [EB] ceased pestering turntechGodhead [TG] --

All in all, not the worst messages to find waiting for you when you power up your phone after a four-hour flight. God knows you could use a reward for navigating out of the terminal.

Why do airports have such a love affair with stairs? Don't they know how goddamn slow elevators are? Swear to god, you're half-tempted to suck it up and let Mom carry you if it means you can just go down the escalator like everyone else instead of jamming into yet another tight space with strangers.

You have never been so relieved to see Bro in your life. He's loitering by the baggage claim with his phone in hand, but you have no doubt he's already spotted you.

"Dirk!" Mom waves her arm like a metronome cranked to eleven as you approach him. "Dirk! Dirk, we made it!" She throws her arms wide. "Group hug!"

Bro flashsteps away. Three seconds later, your suitcase lands on your lap and the Lalondes likewise find their checked luggage in their arms. Bro reappears with his back to you. "Car's parked this way," he says as he strolls off.

Mom hugs her suitcase tighter and wrinkles her nose. "Next time we gotta get a code word for group hugs," she grumbles.

"We can always corner him at the apartment," Rose says with a shrug as she captchalogues her bag and starts after him.

Just stepping outside is like passing through a wave of comfort and familiarity. The temperature is finally warm enough that you don't freeze even in a jacket and the sun blazes down without a single cloud to temper its brightness. Judging by her constant cringing, Rose probably wishes she was cool enough to wear darkened eyewear like you do.

You slide your shades off and hold them out to her.

"No," she says flatly, marching onwards through the parking garage even though the sunlight snakes into the open structure as bright as ever.

You shove your wheelchair forward until you can glide on momentum and keep nudging your shades against her shoulder.

She crosses her arms and turns her head. "Keep those things away from me. They have Ben Stiller germs."

"Hey, they've had all their shots." You plant them on top of your head so you don't miss the sudden turn as you reach Bro's car. "C'mon, yankee. It's gonna be at least a half hour ride home in the sun."

"I'll deal," she says, climbing into the backseat and scooting over for you to follow after.

No sooner have you hoisted yourself out of your wheelchair than Bro's snatched it up to stuff it in the trunk. It's such a long-standing tradition by this point that you barely register that Bro's the last one in the vehicle because of it, at least until Mom lunges over to give him his delayed greeting hug now that he has nowhere to run behind the wheel. He squawks like a drowning crow.

You have to choke back a laugh -- holy sh*t, you didn't know Bro was capable of distressed noises -- but Rose is too busy scowling to enjoy the squabbling in the frontseat. Her eyes are squeezed shut even in the relative darkness of the car.

She holds out a hand to you without a word. You very generously do not smirk as you pass over the sunglasses.

"You look hella cool, li'l sis," you say once she's donned the Stiller shades. You aren't even lying. She's a natural, but you suppose that's inevitable with all the genes you share.

Rose lounges back in her seat. "I am always hella cool."

It really is f*cking bright without your shades on, but f*ck it. You rest your chin in your hand and watch the city go by out the window. You don't remember the last time you saw Houston without a thin layer of UV protection and irony.

* * *

"Are you really sure?" Mom keeps her voice just above a whisper, walking in circles around the kitchenette. "I don't wanna just take your baby away from you."

Bro leans back against the counter. "He's better off with you, Rox," he says at his normal volume. "You of all people should know that."

Mom huffs and crosses her arms. "You're a big stupid brute sometimes, but you two still love each other, don't you?"

"If two kids sound like too much hassle for you, you don't have to dance around it with excuses. Just man up and admit you don't want him." Bro tilts his head. "Or are you worried about disappointing the audience?"

"What audi-" Mom follows his gesture and spots you and Rose hiding on the futon, totally not eavesdropping at all.

You both duck your heads too late.

Mom clears her throat. "Hey, kids," she coos in her sweetest voice. "Your dad and I are gonna go have a chat up on the roof so that you can have a nice quiet apartment to nap off your jetleg, m'kay?"

You straighten to sneak a peek at her. "Okay, but if you're gonna kick Bro's ass in a strife again, I wanna see it."

She frowns and comes up behind you. "We're just talking." She grabs the back of the futon and yanks it down. It lays out flat so suddenly that you and Rose both topple backwards. "Take your naps!" Mom says as she marches to the door. Bro shrugs before flashstepping after her up the stairs, leaving you and Rose alone.

Rose clucks her tongue and glares at the ceiling. "Dammit."

"Bro was gonna notice us even if we hid properly." You go limp against the futon, for all the good it does. Even if you wanted to nap, this mattress is too damn thin for sleeping on it sideways and your mind is spinning around like a music box on crack. "Can't believe this is happening."

"Imagine how I feel. I'm the failure of a Seer who never foresaw this." She sighs and rolls onto her side to face you. "This is really f*cking odd sometimes."

"Losing your classpect powers?"

"No." She drops her gaze. "I'm just not sure that Dave and I were ever this comfortable with each other."

You wish that shocked you, but given your own tendencies to turn into an avoidant asshole and blather about shallow bullsh*t, you can't even fault Dave's failure to build a familial bond. "His loss." You bump your arm against her shoulder.

She nudges back. "And mine."

"Fine, we all missed out. Worst three years ever." You clasp your hand over the back of hers, because you're pretty sure that can be a platonic gesture and she's not about to rip into you about the misadventures of Oedipus. "At least we did pretty good in the end."

"Mm." She flops on her back again and pats your hand. "We even got the gang back together."

"Now we can go back to solving mysteries and unmasking ghosts."

She chuckles. "I'm game."

You space off together and bask in the surreal dizziness of jetlag. Who knew just a couple hours can make any impact? It's probably dinnertime, but your stomach isn't interested in food for at least another hour or two and you're half-tempted to actually nap.

The door to the roof interrupts any thoughts of rest.

"Not napping?" Mom asks, peeking over the futon. There's no signs of scuffs or other telltale signs of a strife, so apparently they did keep it civil up there.

You and Rose both sit up apprehensively. "What'd you decide?" you ask.

Mom flicks a smuppet off the coffee table so she can take a seat in front of you. "We're starting the adoption paperwork as soon as we can," she says with a small smile. She holds a hand up before you can respond. "Don't get celebratin' too fast, though. It's probably gonna take a while because lawyers are busy people who don't got time for us peasants with all the billboard advertisem*nts they gotta buy."

"Okay, we'll party later," you say. "Or party twice. Who says we can't party twice?"

She laughs and rests her chin in her hand. "The really uncool part is that I need to head back to New York."

Well, that puts a damper on the party, all right. "Lemme guess. I'm not invited yet?" you ask flatly.

She sighs. "Nope, that's why I gotta go back. We got a lot of work to do on the house if it's gonna be wheelchair-friendly for you." She perks up. "But if Rose wants to stay and keep you company-"

Rose straightens. "I'll stay."

"She'll go," you say so quickly that you just about talk over her.

She gives you an appropriately offended glance for your rude efforts. "Do you mind not making my decisions for me?"

You shrug. "I can kick you out if I want."

Mom rolls her eyes. "Y'know what," she says, getting to her feet and snatching a phone from her sylladex, "I needta call the housesitter anyway and check on the cat, so how about I give you some space to hash this out?"

Rose waits until Mom's stepped away before turning her glare on you. "I'm not leaving you alone in our father's incompetent care while you rot away again," she says, her voice hard.

You snort. "Oh, I get it. As soon as you're gone, I'm gonna relapse harder than Lindsay Lohan, right? After all that embarrassing emotional sh*t you put me through, you got a lot of nerve assuming I'm going to just give up and die because I don't have a Lalonde to dote on me." You flip her the bird. "f*ck that, f*ck this, and f*ck you if you actually believe that."

She scowls. "So sue me that I'm worried about you."

"As f*cking clueless as he is, if I really slide downhill, I've got Bro to drag me back." You jerk a thumb over your shoulder and lower your voice. "Who's gonna be there to intimidate Mom into staying on the wagon?"

Rose's icy exterior melts in the heat of your burning logic. She bites her lower lip and glances down, taking a moment to answer. "Look, just... If I go, I..." She hesitates. "Dave, tell me I'm not losing my brother," she says, leaving the "again" left unspoken. She squeezes your arm.

"You couldn't lose me if you wanted to. I am like gum on the underside of a sneaker." You bonk the side of your head against hers. "Promise."

* * *

Even as November rears its ugly head and stalks across your calendar, you keep your bedroom window open more often than not. It's not Houston weather at fault for once. You'd be an idiot to wander outside without a jacket, but up at the top of a goddamn skyscraper, you're sweltering. You're not sure if it's just the "heat rises" rule at play or if skyscrapers have their own special suckitude at work, but warm winters are a staple of your childhood.

Even with a daily phonecall from Mom to keep you busy, the apartment is quiet without the Lalondes. You promised Rose you wouldn't fall back on sleeping more than a Disney princess, but some days it takes effort to come up with an alternative worth sh*t.

You get up, you scrounge up breakfast, you go to physical therapy, and you run out of brilliant ideas because what are you supposed to do now that there's only one other person in the apartment and he's an anti-social weirdo? Sometimes you put on a movie, but your computer gets the majority of your free time.

You mindlessly watch all the new YouTube Poop videos from the past six months. You reread Midnight Crew -- you thought this comic was only supposed to last a year but the plot is getting way too weird to wrap up that fast. You socialize the only way you know how.

-- timaeusTestified [TT] began pestering turntechGodhead [TG] --

TT: Are you seriously still flirting with my best friend?
TG: dude i wouldnt flirt with the dude youre hot for in the first place
TG: that probably breaks some kind of bro code
TG: i mean just what kind of hussy do you think i am anyway
TT: I meant my girl best friend.
TG: what is WITH you TTs and your disgustingly incestuous accusations??
TT: Bro, chill. My OTHER girl best friend. The one who's a brunette and not related to you.
TG: ok you really need to learn the difference between things that can be plural and things that cant
TT: It's not my fault I have three such equally awesome friends that they bend the very rules of plurality.
TT: Now that we're both envisioning the same person, you want to clear up whether you've been making a move on her or not?
TG: i might have made a few slightly suggestive yet suave comments to her that some people could consider flirting
TG: you wanna make a point of it or something
TT: What exactly did you say?
TG: that she has a nice ass
TT: ...
TG: look i know youre a hom*o but trust me on this one
TG: its a nice girl ass
TT: Yeah, probably.
TT: But be real with me. How serious are you about her?
TG: honestly i have no f*cking clue
TG: flirting with hot girls is just kind of instinctual for me so i got no way to gauge my levels of sincerity
TG: i mean if something comes of it im not gonna say no she seems pretty cool
TG: but right now im not planning on anything beyond harmless eyebrow waggling
TG: real romance is f*cking stressful
TT: Good to know.
TT: So. Maybe don't do that anymore.
TG: what why
TG: did she say something to you
TG: cos she seemed pretty cool as far as i know
TG: like she reacted way better than any other girls ive said that to so i figured i was in the clear
TT: That's kind of the problem.
TT: She's getting a little too into it.
TG: uh thats a problem how
TT: Last time she visited she acted really f*cking weird around my bro.
TG: weird
TT: She checked out his ass.
TG: omg
TT: And he noticed.
TG: ahahahahaha
TT: That's legit not funny, dude. He started to quip on automatic before he remembered she's physically goddamn thirteen.
TT: I found him screaming into a pillow later.
TG: in the wise words of roxy lalonde
TT: Glad my brother's pain at least provides you some amusem*nt.
TT: Does it count as sadism or masochism when you're technically the same dude?
TG: man its not anything sketchy or perverted like that
TG: its just cool to know that even if i was an accomplished and respected celebrity adult id still be an awkward loser
TT: Hey, you're getting a distilled and distorted secondhand image of my bro right now that ain't remotely accurate, so let me make sure I paint this out in proper detail for you: Bro is f*cking awesome.
TG: sure man
TG: he sounds like a pretty awesome loser
TG: lemme guess and hes great right
TT: Yeah... Really great.
TT: The fact he's sometimes a loser on a completely unironic level just adds to that.
TT: He's not half as cool as I imagined, but honestly he's better this way.
TT: sh*t, he's been f*cking amazing with Roxy.
TG: whoa what rewind
TG: he and roxy hang out
TT: She's his "niece" here, dude. "Daughter" of his sister and all.
TT: And he spoils the sh*t out of her when he sees her. She gets a huge kick out of it.
TG: does he spoil the sh*t out of you
TT: I am not obligated to answer that.
TG: omg he spoils you
TG: omg
TG: omg does that mean im the mom over there
TT: No.
TG: man i bet im the best f*cking mom
TT: Dude, no.
TG: keep up that attitude and youre grounded
TT: Bro couldn't ground me if his life depended on it.
TG: because he f*cking spoils you
TT: Because I'm immune to traditional discipline.
TG: and hes a conflict avoidant wuss who spoils the sh*t out of his proteges
TT: I take it you've still got a ways to go on the self-loathing issues.
TG: idk probably youd have to ask rose to run her latest diagnosis by you
TG: but this sh*t is just goddamn adorable
TG: i hope youre scrapbooking these precious moments like a bored housewife
TT: We're taking hella selfies.
TG: hell f*cking yes
TG: give him a fistbump for me
TT: Done.
TT: He said you should fistbump a mirror.
TG: i can totally do that
TG: so wait hes right there?
TT: That generally happens when you share living space with a dude.
TT: You wanna talk to him?
TG: uh
TG: does he want to talk to me
TT: He's up for it.
TG: wow ok
TT: Cool, one sec. I'm clearing the chat first so he doesn't glance up and read our rudeass gossip.
TG: wait that was a neutral ok not like an affirmative
TG: it was an ok of the shocked variety not necessarily of the gung ho variety
TG: its too late to ask for more time to think it over isnt it
TT: idk i could always piss off and hand the keyboard back to dirk
TG: welp
TG: hey
TT: sup
TG: yep this sure is two daves chilling
TG: so
TG: hows adulthood i guess
TT: pretty lame
TT: too many taxes and responsibilities
TT: the booze and sex help make up for it though so not all hope is lost
TG: dont you make sbahj movies for motherf*cking hollywood
TT: ok sure that is undeniably awesome
TT: that mean you got sbahj over there too?
TG: as if the alternative is even a possibility
TG: its just a webcomic though
TT: hey dont diss on webcomics
TT: its a strong format for optimal irony on a budget
TT: hell you should send the comic version over sometime itd be interesting to compare
TT: for science
TT: f*cked up ironic mad science
TG: its kinda been offline the past few months but i can get dirk the jpgs
TT: sweet
TT: what happened to the website did it get hit by a ddos attack
TG: shrug
TG: inspiration hasnt struck lately
TG: dont feel all that comfortable with it after the game either
TT: i guess i kinda get that
TT: its been weird as hell to direct movies that dont need warnings for the batterwitch embedded in them but dirk loves em so im gonna keep at it for now
TT: you could always switch tracks and see what other projects click though
TT: i had a stint with photography when i was about your age
TG: yeah taking pics is pretty cool
TT: anythings cool if you bake it with a carefully measured tablespoon of irony
TT: have you ever looked into fossils

You catch a glimpse of a flashstep out of the corner of your eye and snap to attention, but thirteen years of instinct continues to lead you wrong in the wake of the game. Bro just appears by your door with no rain of puppets or surprise strife to accompany him.

You let out a long breath. "What's going on?"

"The paperwork's done," Bro says.

You frown. "Paperwork?"

"Roxy's your legal guardian," he says as casually as if he just announced that he's changed shampoo brands.

You've known this was coming, but it still takes a few seconds to sink in. "Oh." It's official, then. You're the one changing your brand. You're a Lalonde.

"She's gonna be back here in two days to pick you up." He waits for a response, but you just grunt. "That enough time to pack?" he asks.

You wave an arm at your room. "Well, I'm up to my ears in responsibility here, man, but I'll see if I can slot it in between lounging around on the Internet and snacking on Doritos." You lean back in your chair. "I've got this."

He nods. "Cool." He turns away, probably half a second from flashstepping to who-knows-where.

You bite your lip. "Did my name change?" you blurt out.

He pauses. "There are too many pointless hassles for Roxy if you don't share a surname with her. We hyphenated it to Strider-Lalonde." He turns his gaze on you and shrugs. "You can change it back when you're eighteen, if you want. f*ck, change it to Slartibartfast, for all I care. It won't make you less of a Strider."

"Dave Clownslayer the Third, it is." You give him a thumbs-up.

He returns the gesture before leaving you to detox in peace.

Dave Strider-Lalonde. You are never going to remember to sign your name that way. Goddamn, you only have two days to pack up your entire life. Where the hell do you even start?

You can stuff the essentials in a checked suitcase, but most of this sh*t is going into a cardboard box bound for UPS. You'll roll your posters up in tubes, wrap your fragile dead sh*t in newspaper, stuff your computer in your sylladex and hope airport security doesn't get too tight with the carry-on limits...

Is there even anything you can do about your turntables? Maybe Mom will just buy you a new set for Christmas. Yours is kinda old anyway, a hand-me-down from Bro that he can probably put back to good use.

Or you could just see how you do without and leave your past self behind in Texas. Adult you doesn't think a little distance is a bad idea; he probably knows what he's talking about.

f*ck, adult you's still waiting on a reply, isn't he?

TT: yo mini me are you still there
TG: yeah uh
TG: got a little distracted
TG: i think i just got adopted
TT: wait are you an orphan
TG: not exactly
TG: my bros just been through some deep sh*t and were in agreement that im better off living elsewhere so he can cope without f*cking over an impressionable teen
TT: oh
TT: your bro is dirk right
TG: yeah my version of a grownup dirk anyway
TT: is he ok
TG: its
TG: thats
TG: goddamn you write a mean pop quiz you know what
TT: that bodes well
TT: do i gotta crack out multiple answers if fill in the blank is too hard
TT: im not above grading on a curve
TG: its just complicated dude
TG: i guess the short answer is no hes not ok
TG: but hes moving on with his life and trying to fix crap because what else can ya do when sh*t happens
TT: well
TT: f*ck
TG: you uh
TG: you really care about him dont you
TT: how else do you expect me to feel about my little bro
TG: big bro
TT: whatever im not even gonna pretend to understand these timeline shenanigans
TT: all that really matters to me is that dirks my lil twerp and i gotta make sure nothing bad happens to him
TG: hey thats great man
TG: at least some version of the striders can make a go of a decent family dynamic
TG: never figured id be a parental figure in any reality but lifes all about surprises i guess
TT: yeah i wasnt expecting this either
TT: but its pretty cool honestly
TT: it helps that dirks a good kid even if hes too smart for his own good
TT: did you know he can build f*cking robots
TG: it came up before yeah
TT: its f*ckin incredible the kid is a genius
TT: hahahahahaha man hes fretting that im telling you all this squishy embarrassing sh*t
TG: haha
TG: yo dirk stop reading over your bros shoulder
TG: we got some hella dirt to dig into here
TT: nah its ok you know hes just gonna scroll up as soon as he gets the keyboard back so he might as well read the deets in real time
TT: so who the hells adopting you anyway
TG: my version of roxy
TT: dude for real?
TT: well sh*t thats f*ckin surreal
TT: but cool i guess
TT: roxys a sweet kid
TG: shes a very classy lady ill have you know
TT: yeah she claims that here too
TG: you doubt her
TT: well she swears just about worse than i do lets start there
TG: that is super f*cking classy i dont know what youre even talking about
TT: hahaha
TT: this has been cool dude but im a busy man with an empty stomach so im gonna call it quits early if its all the same to you
TG: go for it my feelings remain unhurt
TT: figured
TT: hey you dont need dirk for anything right now do you
TG: not really
TG: we were just chatting like normal bored people with nothing better to do than surf the internet all day
TT: sweet cos im gonna throw him over my shoulder and take him out for sushi
TG: ok
TG: wait what
TT: sry typin 1 handed
TG: omfg
TT: c ya

-- timaeusTestified [TT] ceased pestering turntechGodhead [TG] --

You don't quite laugh out loud, but you're glad no one's around to hear your choked snort. You weren't sure what to expect from your alternative grown-up self, but you probably should have seen this coming. He's almost like Dave, except with all these mentor-y instincts you're too immature to foster yet.

Man, it used to be fun to shoot the sh*t with yourself, before the baggage of playing second fiddle caught up with you. Dave's a pretty cool dude -- which makes sense, seeing as he's you.

Maybe in a less cruel timeline, you could have survived the game together and taken the role of twins. You'd get up to all kinds of dumb shenanigans together, like in The Parent Trap or the Olsen twin movies. You might have started a goddamn detective agency together and swapped identities as needed to thwart your antagonists on all your zany adventures.

Why'd Dave have to get himself killed like an idiot anyway? You two had so much damn potential if you could have gotten your heads on straight.

You'll just have to squeeze in double the wacky adventures with Rose to make up for his lack of participation. Maybe you'll get your fill of Dave from Dirk's bro, if Dirk lets you chat with him again. Heh. "Dirk's male mom," more accurately, because the dude was totally basking in that role, whether Dirk wants to admit it or not. Who f*cking knew that an adult version of you would get such a kick out of a teenage Bro? The Strider family's just full of lost potential on this side of the universe.

Good thing you're half-Lalonde now.

You close out of Pesterchum and wheel out of your room, not entirely sure what you'll find. If all else fails, you'll quest for apple juice.

Bro's not in one of his hiding moods, apparently. He's in plain sight, lounging on the futon with an Xbox controller in hand.

You hoist yourself out of your wheelchair and settle on the opposite end of the couch. He still doesn't acknowledge your presence, but that's not the worst scenario. He's still here and tolerating you. You study him as he plays, grinding his way through Tony Hawk's Underground with expert ease.

In some parallel universe where your ages are swapped, you genuinely love this dude. It sucks you only got to know Mr. Hyde when Dr. Jekyll seems like a decent enough guy. It sucks that moving to New York remains your best course of action on multiple levels.

"You need something, kid?" Bro says without even moving his head. His shades hide whether he's so much as given you a glance.

You shrug. "It's not weird to try spending time with someone when you know you aren't gonna see them again for a longass time."

"Yeah, I guess that makes sense," he murmurs. He gets up, wanders over to the TV, then comes back with a second Xbox controller. He drops it next to you. "Want to join in?"

You smile, keeping it just small enough for plausible deniability. "Sure, bro."

* * *

Restoring the Sweet Bro and Hella Jeff website takes an hour longer than you figured it would. You're not sure you've ever expended this much energy on the comic in one go before. The last time you launched the site, there was only one damn comic to upload and now you've got a huge backlog.

Whatever. It's your own damn fault for wiping the site in the first place.

You run a cursory check to make sure there aren't any obvious dead links before calling it good enough. A quality website would offer some excuse for why it disappeared from the Internet for three months, but you aren't in the habit of leaving news updates and you're not about to start now. The only update this piece of sh*t is getting is in the form of a new comic.

For the first time in years, you open MS Paint. It's been so long that the controls are nostalgic more than familiar, but you just need to fumble your way through Sweet Bro and Hella Jeff one last time.

You half-expect to rekindle the passion as you go through the motions of creating a comic, but it doesn't happen. The process is covered in rust and you're fresh out of oil. You do crack a smile to yourself at the ironic inanity of the dialogue, the stupid anticlimactic ending, and those beautiful porkchop mouths, though.

No wonder an adult version of you cashed this in over at Hollywood. You've struck gold here. You'd have to be an idiot not to stake a claim and get excavating the land, but sometimes ironic genius walks the fine line of stupidity. Who goes digging for gold these days anyway?

It's not your best comic, but you're out of practice and you really don't have the damn time to rediscover your style when you should be packing the last of your sh*t before Mom arrives tomorrow. You save the image in low quality jpeg and upload it to the front page.

There's nothing particularly special about it, but that's as it should be. It's just a comic, same as any other on the site. The last panel is the only part that stands out:

sbahj is on a indefinute haitus in memoraium of the cocreeator
RIP dave strigder aka the coolist bro 2 ever rap a sick beat

The tribute is just the way he'd want it: overblown and full of easily avoidable typos.

You give the comic one last look over before you close the browser.

You can always come back someday.


Cough... So, uh... I couldn't resist chronicling a spin-off fic featuring Dirk's adventures with his bro. If you enjoyed Dirk's cameo with his big bro, you may want to check out Falling for the First Time for more awkward Strider (and later Lalonde) family bonding.

Chapter 15


Is it true? Yes, it's true enough, I guess / Come join the chorus of the unimpressed
Is it true? Yes, it's true enough, I guess / Sometimes it's better to be second best

- "Second Best," Barenaked Ladies

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

"Thought you said you could pack in two days," Bro says as he slides a shoebox of photos off the closet shelf that you haven't been able to reach since April and tosses it to you.

You grunt and carefully squeeze it into one of the many cardboard boxes littering your room. "Yeah, yeah, give the dude with f*cked up legs a break for underestimating his first big move."

Since when the f*ck did you have this much Stuff in the first place? It always seemed like a pretty modest collection when it was sitting pretty on shelves or in your closet. Now that you're shoving it into boxes on a deadline, it's repopulating faster than Mormons.

Bro holds one of your carcasses-inna-jar to the light. "Why do you have so much dead sh*t?"

"It's cool and I like it." You smack his leg with the back of your hand and he takes the hint, passing the preserved corpse to you. "I don't have to explain myself to the man with a vaguely sexual puppet collection," you mutter, dropping the jar into a stray sock before you press it into the last empty corner of the latest box.

"Touché," Bro says, reaching up to clear off the rest of your closet shelf.

You rip off a new piece of packing tape and press it over the top of the box until the flaps are sealed in place, then glance around in search of a box that hasn't been filled to bursting. There's so much sh*t on the ground that it's a hassle and a half to maneuver your wheels. "Do we got more boxes?" You've gone through two rolls of tape already, but this is the first time you've run low on other mandatory supplies.

"I don't f*cking know. Maybe." Bro sighs and drops the latest loot on top of an already sealed box. "f*ck it. Go get some sleep."

"Man, we aren't even close to done." You don't know how you aren't even close to done. Maybe your closet is a wormhole to the tchotchke dimension.

"So I'll keep boxing sh*t up after you leave and mail it along in a week or two. Big deal." He nods at the pair of suitcases you've lined up for the flight. "You can make do with that, right?"

You frown. Clothes, toothbrush, camera... You're well-packed for a two-week vacation, except this vacation has no end date. "Well, yeah, but it's kinda a jackass move to pass my chores onto you."

"I owe you this and then some, kid," Bro says quietly. He catches you by your armpits and lifts you out of your wheelchair, hoisting you over the boxes that block your route to bed. "Don't make me explain to Roxy why you're dead on your feet tomorrow." He lowers you onto the mattress and pulls a blanket over you in what you guess might qualify as "tucking in," if it weren't so mechanical.

You grunt and settle against your pillow. "A'right, fine, but only 'cos you asked so nicely."

He places a hand against your temple in one of his robotic-yet-humanizing attempts at affection that's fast becoming familiar. You slide your hand over his. You'll still have a little time tomorrow before Mom takes you to the airport in the afternoon, but you already know that's going to be so frantic and rushed that neither of you will have any nerves left for something this sincere. This is your real good-bye.

You should probably be getting a case of cold feet right about now, but you invested in some nice metaphorical slippers this past month and you're immune to the chilly temperature. Besides, you miss Mom and Rose, and you haven't had a chance to miss Bro yet. You can feel wistful for your lost Texan home after you've actually left it.

Also, phones exist.

You keep expecting him to reach his limit of physical contact and flashstep the hell out of here, but Bro sits with you in awkward dead silence. Under normal circ*mstances, a douchebag watching you sleep would keep you wide awake for at least an hour, but it's been a longass day and you nod off before the heat of his hand can grow too uncomfortable.

It's okay, though. Your dreams are more than happy to fill the discomfort quota instead. It's a thankless job, but someone has to do it.

Motherf*ckin' co*ckbite of a nightmare rerun. You'd know the start of this episode anywhere: Everything's dark, you're a sprite again, and Dave is lounging on the ground like an anti-social emo teen.

Whatever. Just whatever. The important part is that a dream with Dave has never yet involved puppets that stare into your soul.

You still sigh. "Cool, more cryptic messages from beyond the grave. Let's get this sh*t started, then." You wait for a return quip, but Dave doesn't say anything. He just raises his head, training his shades on you. You shift back. "What are you staring at?"

"You f*cking did it," he says in awe. He gets to his feet. "It's actually happening."

"Wow, right on time with those cryptic messages." You tap an imaginary watch on your wrist. "They should give you a raise for punctuality."

He snorts. "Hey, it's not like being straightforward with you was gonna get us anywhere. I could say, hey, bro, stop hating on yourself, but would that actually happen? No, that sh*t only develops organically no matter what wisdom your dead self drops on you, so I figured we were both stuck like this forever, because what are the chances you could stop being a mopey bastard, right?"

You give him a dull stare. He can't see it through your shades, but he's made this expression often enough he probably knows what you're going for. "You were waiting on me to stop angsting."

"Yeah, pretty much the story of my boringass afterlife recently." He reaches out and shoves his palm against your forehead. You expect to wake with a start, but the dream doesn't end. Dave just pushes you backwards a few inches. "That memorial was actually sincere, wasn't it?"

You float back just out of his reach. "What? No. The Sbahj tribute was hella ironic."

"Skaia calls bullsh*t, or else I still wouldn't be able to touch you." He gestures at your ghost tail. "C'mon, man, I'm the one who has to explain this ghost sh*t? You're the game guide."

You frown, mentally pawing through your fountain of knowledge, but Skaia neglected to infuse you with information regarding ghosts, dreambubbles, or post-game bullsh*t; it's irrelevant for guiding a player through a successful session. "Sprites aren't privy to what happens to dead jerkoffs in the dreambubbles after the game ends."

"What, so you assumed we clog up the game's afterlife system forever? That's inefficient as f*ck."

"Sburb's a sack of flaming crap that's never been above inefficient design and we both know it," you say with a shrug.

He snorts. "Point, but Skaia still isn't about all that extraneous data floating around from assholes like me. Let me swap our roles of mentor-mentee and give you a hint here, 'cos a dude learns a lot stuck in this existence." He waves at the empty landscape around you. "As soon as the game ended, it took out a broom and duster to tackle some long overdue spring cleaning. No one said this was a dreambubble, dude."

You rest your hand over your face in a slo-mo facepalm like you're going for world record slowest facepalm ever.

You assumed this was a dreambubble because you're asleep and Dave's dead, but Sburb's over. The rules binding the medium and everything surrounding it don't apply anymore in the post-game. The knowledge you retained as a sprite is irrelevant, because the game mechanics have all stopped running. Dave could probably stab you through the heart and do no damage, because what's going to remove your hit points or even acknowledge you're in a strife?

Given that dreambubbles are stocked with warped memories, not sheer darkness, you should have caught a hint earlier. This is video game limbo. This is Sburb in-between its "on" and "off" state. The scenery just hasn't f*cking rendered, because why would that code even fire? The game isn't in session and there are no players here, just a ghost and a game construct.

Just the two of you, without even another ghostly survivor around. Weren't there like a hundred Daves here in your first dream?

You swallow. "Where are the other ghosts?"

Dave co*cks his head as if he knows your question is basic, but he humors you anyway. "They're all gone, man. They returned to their alpha selves, like a blood transfusion of the soul."

Your mind grinds to a halt. Your timeline's John is with John. Every timeline's John is with John. "Wait." You hold a hand to your head. "Wait, wait, wait. All the doomed Johns merged with alpha John?" you say, receiving a nod in answer. "And the dude doesn't even know it?"

Dave shrugs. "What can I say? We both know this game likes its unnecessary symbolism. Everyone gets their souls stitched back together, even if no one notices the new blood in their veins."

He hasn't acknowledge the obvious, leaving the dirty work to you. You bite your tongue before finally saying it aloud. "But not us." You're the elephant in the room. It's you.

"Nah," he says. "You and I have been like incompatible blood types. Until you developed the matching antigens through the power of friendship and maturity, anyway, 'cos metaphorical blood can totally do that." He cups his chin thoughtfully. "Maybe I should be using an ectoplasma transfusion for the analogy?"

You study him with a frown. "Incompatibility" doesn't address the damn question that you don't entirely want answered. "Is this sh*t happening because I'm a sprite or because I'm not the alpha?"

He actually hesitates, as if he doesn't relish tearing down your fragile feelings. "The game isn't programmed for a scenario where a doomed player is the last one standing," he says slowly. "We got the non-standard game over when Sburb had no f*cking clue how to process your survival and my death."

So your mere existence triggered a programming error. "Yeah, f*cking typical," you mutter.

He nudges you. "Hey, no big deal. I rounded up the other dead Daves in the meantime and survived data deletion long enough for you to get your act together. We're cool."

You open your mouth to make some snotty retort, close it, and frown. "The game's out to delete you?"

"Well, it's gotta close the curtain on our session someday." He runs a finger across his throat. "Figure my data's on the chopping block sooner or later."

You cross your arms to prevent fidgeting. Not that you're opposed to the cancellation of these ongoing dreams, but you're not a big enough douche to wish that level of unemployment on another douchebag. "What do we do to stop that?"

He gives you his best smug grin. "Well, you broke the curse on us, prince charming, so we're basically done here." He steps closer. "Unless you're hankering to bask some more in the irony that I'm the one laying down the game walkthrough on you, let's secure the happy ending."

You lean your head back. "This better not be another f*cking kiss mechanic."

He laughs. "Nah, the transfusion's painless and barely embarrassing at all." He taps you as if he's tagging you out of the ring. "See?"

Your body flickers and you jerk back on instinct, raising your hands. The color fades from your arms and you lower your gaze just in time to catch your ghost tail melting away. Your mouth goes dry. You're disappearing.

"Wait." You fight for your voice.

This is just like the first time you saw Dave's ghost, when he absorbed the other leftover doomed Daves, except they seemed cool with bowing out. You should probably be cool with it too.

"Dude, don't." You aren't cool with it. You don't even care that you're a spare. You close your eyes and clench your fists. "I'm not f*cking vanishing here!"

Dave snorts. "Holy sh*t, dude, we really are a goddamn drama queen." He punches you lightly in the shoulder to catch your attention.

You meet his gaze and you can actually see through his shades. They're turning transparent and, when you take half a second to pay some goddamn attention, you notice the rest of him is following suit. He's disappearing, while the orange on your skin is just changing to white.

"Hey," he says with a co*cky coolkid grin, "take care of our friends for me, okay?"

"Dave?" You reach to him, but your hand goes through his shoulder.

With one final nod, he vanishes like smoke.

You're gonna puke. As soon as you can remember how to work your throat and breathe again, you're going to f*cking vomit. At the same time, a warmth grows in the pit of your chest, expanding to the edge of your body in a steady wave that calms your churning stomach and pumps air into your lungs.

As the heat cools to your regular body temperature, your newly returned legs give out and you crumple to the ground. Because of course you do.

You fumble for your sylladex, but even if you could find it, you don't keep a wheelchair in your inventory. In retrospect, that might be a massive oversight -- how about a little forethought, like at least a pair of crutches if you can't be assed to throw your wheelchair in and out of your sylladex all day?

The ground is warm beneath your hand, yet solid like marble, and you'd swear there are lines running along the dark surface. You trace your finger over it, making a perfect square.

Sburb's graphics break through the darkness in a belated loading sequence. A black and white checkerboard spreads all the way to the horizon, which lights into a proper blue sky, as the draw distance expands.

Your breath catches and you raise your head to confirm there's a golden planet drifting overhead, slipping in and out of view between clouds. You've been in Skaia's damn domain the whole damn time.

It's not so different from the sight you shared with Jadesprite over three years ago, except for the lack of fiery meteors raining upon you. This time you aren't bleeding from multiple wounds, but you're also immobile (unless you feel like crawling); you win some, you lose some.

Images dance over the clouds like television, only you have no remote and you're stuck on the carapacian reality show channel. You catch a glimpse of that Mayor guy the alpha Dave was so fond of, cheerfully overseeing the reconstruction of a war-torn Prospit building, before the image changes to carapacians on Derse likewise clearing out the game's destruction.

Hey, whoa, that's new and not like anything Jade ever relayed from the clouds. Instead of a prophetic image, one of the clouds features goddamn text. You're too late to read the whole thing before it fades, but you get the gist of it:


The one-man credit is quickly replaced by a huge list of names prefaced with "music by." You definitely don't have a chance in hell of reading them all.

You fall onto your back laughing. You unlocked the goddamn credits.

Dave's lingering ghost was a clog in Sburb's machinery, like the sticky sh*t holding the gears in stasis on LOHAC, that held the game back from blaring its triumphant finale. Everyone else left the game early and now you get a front row seat to the boringass credits scene, complete with a little clip show of the game's residents living their lives in the aftermath of the final boss.

Your laughter calms and you stare at the sky directly above you. The cloud with the credits floats overhead, as if it knows you're ignoring its very important artistic acknowledgements. It will never cease to amaze you how many assholes it takes to build a game, yet there's only a handful of programmers listed. The artists and animators, though... Their lists go on for what feels like five minutes.

You space off most of it. Maybe that's rude, but you turn the Xbox off if the only other option is sitting through unskippable credits, so why change your attitude now? You don't have the brain power to read that many contextless names, let alone retain them.

The credits are already down to the "special thanks" section, which is always near the end.

You don't know what happens once the credits run out of names to display. Your inside game knowledge from spritedom is distant and foggy now, if you ever knew to begin with. It's hard to give a sh*t. Nothing even feels real after watching "yourself" die. Again.

As the last credit fades from the clouds, the game world fades away with it. It's less "blackness" like before and more of a "nothing," like an abyss your eyeballs can't fully comprehend. Ten large white words hang in the empty air above you where a cloud used to float.


The text flickers into nothing, replaced a second later with one final message:


The game ends.

* * *

Your name is Dave Strider-Lalonde. It's a warm November night, the city lights are flashing through your window, and you've just woken from what might be loosely classified as a "nightmare."

You sit up, your bedsheet slipping down to your lap, and raise your hands to study them. The ghostly white skin isn't as reassuring as it used to be compared to your old orange glow. You're still you, right?

Are your memories different? Can you twitch your fingers at will? Do you have lingering emotions or flashbacks that don't belong to you?

You catch your breath. Calm down, idiot, there's got to be some kind of Dave test to make sure you're the right iteration of Dave. Question one: Do you have giantass wings?

You're failing this test already.

You shake your head and press a palm between your eyes. Wake up. Jesus. Of course you don't have wings anymore. You haven't had them in over half a goddamn year. The only difference between now and two hours ago is that you merged with all the other Daves ever in your sleep. No big deal.

Yes big deal. You don't want to be some other douchebag, even if that douchebag is the alpha Dave. He's him and you're you and you're both cool but separate people, right? Right.

Why does it gotta still be dark out? Hysteria loves the darkness, while logic just cowers in the corner and cries for its mother.

You fumble for your phone and cringe in the brightness of its backlight.

Two thirty-five in the morning. Everyone's probably offline, or they should be, but you sign into Pesterchum anyway on the off-chance that Rose or Dirk are playing delinquent. If anyone can smack you over the head with cold, reassuring logic regarding multiple selves, it's one of them.

Only John's bright blue username sits in the "online" section of your chumlist. That's probably worse than nothing, but the dilemma of whether to settle for his words of "wisdom" or not stops short when he messages you first.

-- ectoBiologist [EB] began pestering turntechGodhead [TG] --

EB: i'm on strict orders from rose to tell you to go the f*ck to bed.
TG: yeah i tried an affair with a good nights sleep but it didnt work out so now were seeing other people
EB: no excuses!
EB: to bed with you, strider!
TG: ok but be gentle <3
EB: don't think you can distract me with your inappropriate humor!
EB: you have a huge freaking day tomorrow and it's like two in the morning down there!
TG: who are you to tell me when my bedtime is
TG: you got goddamn school in the morning and youre up past midnight
EB: yeah, but we're taking shifts because rose knew you'd stay up too late if we didn't keep an eye on you.
EB: jade's tagging me out in half an hour, so go the f*ck to sleep so she doesn't scold me for letting you stay up.
TG: too late im already settled in for the long haul
TG: its time to open tv tropes
EB: you close that informative yet addictive web page this instant!
EB: are you being a wuss about moving to new york?
TG: hell no
EB: is it the airport? i found a web site on disability rights for airport security bull sh*t, if you want to look it over.
TG: dude no
EB: then why are you being so stubborn about sleeping like a normal person?
TG: because i already tried it and sh*t got freaky in my unconscious
EB: you had a nightmare?
TG: no
TG: maybe
TG: probably not
EB: everybody has nightmares, man. it's not a big deal.
TG: not like this one they dont
EB: you sure? was it about going to school without any pants on?
TG: no
EB: was a monster chasing you?
TG: still no
EB: were you a troll and you got infected with a killer video game glitch that made you attack your friends until you imploded the universe?
TG: what
TG: what the f*ck kind of oddly specific nightmare is that
EB: shrug. it's probably pretty common.
TG: no it really f*cking isnt
EB: so, that wasn't what you dreamed about?
TG: dude no listen i think i just merged with dave
EB: uh.......
EB: ok, there are like fifty ways that sentence makes 90% less sense than most of your sentences.
EB: i mean first of all, you ARE dave.
TG: dont play dumb you know i meant alpha dave
EB: alpha dave's dead, dave.
TG: well yeah but
TG: just
TG: look ok context
TG: this ghost dave has been intruding on my sleep pretty regularly since the game ended right
TG: i assumed it was just my subconscious being a dick to me but tonight he said
TG: stuff
TG: and implied he was the real deal ghost of alpha dave and that we shouldve merged ages ago
TG: and then he disappeared
TG: and
TG: im realizing how delusional i probably sound as i type this
EB: yeah, you need to lay off the frito pie before bed.
TG: dreams are kind of a big deal in sburb we all know that
EB: none of the rest of us have seen a dream bubble since the game ended, though. just regular dreams.
TG: it wasnt even a dreambubble
TG: it was just
TG: sburb limbo
TG: where all the dead daves go to party
TG: until they decided i looked like a better venue and backflipped out of sburb and into my brain
TG: like your doomed selves already did when the game ended
EB: dave, are you high on insomnia?
TG: i wish
TG: a lack of sobriety would cut down on the post dream tension
EB: why are you so tense in the first place?
EB: it wasn't that bad of a nightmare, was it? it seemed pretty tame to me.
TG: unless it was real in which case it was actually pretty bad
TG: because i just became one with a bunch of other daves and we have no idea what the side effects are
TG: i mean i dont think i have any of their memories which makes sense if its true that all players go through this but
TG: what if its more insidious than that
EB: shoosh, strider.
EB: you sound like a paranoid loon.
TG: i have good goddamn reason to be a paranoid loon when the stakes are this high john
TG: i dont want to stop being me
EB: good thing that is not a thing that stopped being true!
TG: but how can we even know for sure
TG: for all we know im secretly zombie dave over here
TG: braaaaains
TG: ironic raaaaaaps
TG: f*ck davespriiiite i rule this body now
EB: oh my god, dude.
EB: if you were actually possessed right now, do you think you'd give a sh*t about it?
EB: that seems like a huge waste of time. if i was a ghost with a new body, i would not worry at all about being possessed. i would get on with my new life, paranoia-free, because i wouldn't give a sh*t whether my host was happy.
EB: it's only when you're chill about being possessed that you're likely to actually be possessed.
TG: oh
TG: right
TG: wow
TG: i
TG: am a goddamn IDIOT apparently
EB: well, i don't know if that delayed epiphany calls for capitalization...
TG: but its so f*cking obvious if i was really dave i wouldnt have even signed online i would have just been like hey sweet ive got a body again time to glug some aj
TG: jesus im stupid
EB: or that's what you get for having an identity crisis at two-thirty in the god damn morning.
TG: wait
EB: now what?
TG: no its just holy sh*t
EB: what?
TG: john
EB: what??
TG: do you get what this means
TG: i overwrote the alpha
EB: oh. yeah, i guess you did.
TG: i dont know how to feel about that
EB: happy, i guess?
TG: happy?
EB: i dunno. i'd be pretty disappointed if my best friend stopped being himself because he accidentally merged with some other dude.
TG: even if that other dude was the alpha dave
EB: well, that'd be better than if you merged with anyone else, but...
EB: no offense to him, but he is not the dave i know all that well!
EB: i'm sure he's a cool dave and we'd be friends. i just don't want to lose my dave if at all possible!
TG: oh
TG: well
TG: thanks for that
TG: wait that sounds sarcastic doesnt it
TG: that was actual sincere strider gratitude
TG: comes with a certificate of authenticity and everything
TG: you should get it in the mail within five business days
EB: i'll believe you without a certificate, dave.
TG: ok good post office rates are absurd
TG: also uh
TG: thanks for walking me down from my mountain of crazy there john
EB: what are friends for?
TG: laughing at each other as we take turns tossing around the idiot ball apparently
TG: but seriously though
TG: thanks
TG: for the third time
TG: for everything mostly
EB: well, i think i have a lot to make up for.
EB: if that means staying up late to make sure you don't get spooked by nightmares, i'm ok with that!
EB: you'd do the same for me, right?
TG: pretty sure ive done that
EB: exactly.
EB: now it's my duty as your best friend to once more remind you: go the f*ck to bed.
TG: i love you too jerkass
EB: aw. :)
EB: but c'mon, strider. big day, remember?
TG: aright fine ive poured my heart out enough for one night
TG: talk to you again when im in new york egbert
EB: hell yeah!

-- turntechGodhead [TG] ceased pestering ectoBiologist [EB] --

You fall back against your pillow with a sigh. Wow, you really need to work on not being such a superstitious asshole. What next? Are you gonna question if a perfectly fine bottle of apple juice is secretly urine?

You fall into a dreamless sleep. No dreambubbles, no game, no ghosts, just pure unconsciousness.

An ear-piercing screech startles you awake.

A crow sits on your window sill, tilting its head this way and that as the sun peeks over the horizon behind it. It ruffles its wings before cawing at you again.

You blearily stare at it. The f*ck is with your bedroom attracting avian assholes? You half-heartedly toss your pillow at it, missing it by three feet, but the movement startles the crow enough that it hops about and takes to the sky where it goddamn belongs.

You slump against your pillowless mattress, watching the bird's silhouette grow distant out the window.

Bye-bye, motherf*cker.

Even without a full night's rest, a weight feels like it's lifted off your chest, as if some asshole came and took some of the load off you, even on an unconscious level... As if it's Dave's little way of saying hey. His final hey before he's gone for good.

He is gone. You're his gravestone and his burial plot, which sounds kinda hardcore actually, but you can't be him when you have your own life.

You turn onto your back and stare at the ceiling.

"Sup, Dave," you whisper. "Welcome home."

There's no answer, obviously, but you don't care; talking to yourself is underrated. And if Dave is lingering somewhere deep in your unconscious, the same way your six-year-old self still lives in your mind without being you anymore, the least you can do is say hi.

"sh*t's kinda different around here." You shift to survey your box-covered bedroom. "We use a wheelchair now and I retired Sweet Bro and Hella Jeff. Also, we have a mom. It's awesome. We..." You hesitate and take a deep breath. "I'm not gonna try to be you anymore. But I guess you knew that." You smile. "You were a pretty chill dude like that."

Even if you're not him, you can make him proud. Just f*ckin' watch.

"Hey." You raise an arm straight in the air, your hand curled into a fist that will never receive its rightful bump. "Rest in peace, bro."


Well, Davesprite, if you gotta accidentally activate a major glitch in Sburb, an abandoned ghost that results in a non-standard game over and delayed credits sequence is probably not the worst you can do. Not that I'd know anything about that...

Next chapter is pretty much an epilogue because I love me some semi-unnecessary falling action. :) Stick around if you like extra character closure of the "so, how's life in the Lalonde household?" variety, but you can basically call this The End. (Heck, the previous chapter could stand to be The End too, if you'd rather leave Dave's fate as a dream-ghost up in the air. Who am I to judge a reader for picking an earlier chapter as the ending they prefer? Goodness knows I've done it.)

Chapter 16


(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

"No, no, no, no, not the blue shell!" Mom holds her controller close as if she can shield Princess Peach against her chest, but the little pink go-kart goes flying all the same. "Noooo! Dave, you're too cruel!"

"Excuse me?" you grumble, slumping against the couch as you navigate Donkey Kong around a tight turn. Even after months of practice with Mom's old Nintendo consoles, the N64 controller still feels clunky in your hands. Who the hell designed this stupid thing? You'd need a third hand if you wanted to reach all the buttons. "I'm in motherf*cking eighth place here."

"And this is why I never join in on the Mario Kart festivities," Rose says, seated in front of you on the floor. You can just envision your audience's smug smile as she watches your character fall off a cliff.

You nudge her shoulder with your sock. "Because Mom would kick your ass too?"

"No." She smacks your foot away. "Because Grand Prix mode doesn't work with three players so you'd only be in third place instead of eighth."

You flip her the bird as Donkey Kong goes flying over the edge of a cliff again. "Conniving dick."

Her back's to you, but when has that ever stopped her from predicting you well enough to return your rude gestures? Swear to god, sometimes you think she never lost her Seer powers. "Sore loser," she says.

Mom scowls. "Hey, no squabbling when company's almost here!" She sets her controller aside as Peach shoots over the finish line -- only in second place, courtesy of your blue shell. "Don't make me put you two in timeout!"

You hold back a laugh at such weak sentencing because it's probably in your best interests not to scorn the local fuzz. "Mom, we're fifteen. Fifteen for the second time, no less."

"Fourteen," Rose says.

You roll your eyes. "Fifteen minus a goddamn day, with an extra day for you, squirt. Point being, we're too old for timeouts." You flick your joystick to a hard right, only for the weird cloud-turtle to float across the screen and chastise Donkey Kong for going the wrong direction. You faceplant against your controller.

Mom clears her throat. "Want me to finish for ya?" she says, as if she's not itching to backseat game your ass.

You pass over your controller and definitely do not sulk at how much you suck at Mom's retro games. She's had years to practice on you and these don't even have half as many cool physics glitches as Bro's Xbox games anyway.

Rose hops to her feet with such sudden focus that you almost jump. After living basically a year in this house, you'd think you'd recognize the goddamn doorbell by now, but "regular visitors" aren't much of a thing out in the middle of the woods. You figured the annoyingly delicate chimes were just a sound effect from the game. You never figured you'd miss the buzzer back in Houston, but at least it was so annoying you couldn't mistake it for ambient sounds.

A wintry breeze bursts into the living room the second Rose tugs open the front door. You pull your legs up just to keep a little extra body heat close -- who put the couch so close to the door? It only takes a glance to recognize the tall figure waiting on the porch; the shades kinda make his silhouette a dead giveaway.

"Mom, there's a vagrant at the door!" Rose calls over her shoulder. "I think he has rabies!"

Mom draws herself up and pauses the game rather than finishing your horrendous final lap. "Rose, mind your manners!" she says with a huff. She crosses her legs. "Also, hi, Dirk."

Rose steps aside. "Sorry for teasing you, Dad," she says with a wry smile, finally closing the goddamn door as Bro steps into the entryway.

"Is a parental label supposed to be an improvement?" Bro says. He looks odd with a coat, but you suppose you can't talk much; your long-sleeved, thick-fabricked wardrobe is a far cry from your old standbys. Snow has a way of changing a man and his first choice of shirts.

"Well, I assumed it was an upgrade from daddy," Rose says, locking her eagle-eyed gaze on him. "Should I refer to you by something else?"

Bro drops his suitcase on the carpet and for a few seconds you think he's going to just silently ignore her as if he can fool her into mistaking him for a statue. "Call me whatever you want, kid."

"Of course, Frederick."

He meets her stare. "Y'know what, I'm just calling you Thundercat from here on out."

Mom gasps. "Dirk, don't you dare rename my baby!" she says, climbing to her feet to turn off the Nintendo. She straightens with a huff. "C'mon, Rose, let's throw your dad's suitcase in the guest room before he tries to do somethin' crazy like dye your hair like Jem's."

Rose's eyes light up. "I'm in favor of Thundercat."

Mom marches over and hauls Bro's suitcase into her arms. "I'm vetoing!" she says, nudging Rose to follow her to the stairs.

You suppose it's cool of Mom to give you space for a proper Strider reunion without an audience. There's no risk of a laugh track or, worse, an obnoxious "Awww!" if you break down the irony barriers long enough to get mushy. It's not like you haven't seen him for a week here and there throughout the year, but no one really expected him to tolerate New York in December just for the sacred holidays known as your meteorcrash days -- what normal folks call birthdays.

You tilt your head back far enough against the couch that you're almost frowning at Bro upside-down. "Little sis gets to be Thundercat but I'm stuck with Dave?"

He stuffs his hands in his pockets and keeps his distance. "Fine, you're both Thundercat."

You scoff. "No way, man, who the f*ck wants to be a cat, even of the muscular cartoon variety? I'm calling dibs on goddamn Voltron." You always keep your wheelchair in reach, but you think you've saved up enough energy to risk showing off. You push off against the couch and stumble to your feet. "Hey, Bro."

Bro goes still and for the first time in your life you don't doubt you've gained his full attention. "Holy sh*t, Voltron, check out that rad walking action you've got going on."

It's not rad. It's cautious and awkward and you feel like a tightrope walker -- misjudge your feet by even an inch and down you go -- but it gets you the six feet needed to reach him and that's six feet more than you could manage this time last year. "Savor it, Bro, 'cos I can't go much farther than the length of a room." You bump into him and wrap your arms tight around his torso, just as much for support as for greeting. "Maybe in five years I'll manage two whole rooms before my legs give out."

"Sweet." He slides his arms around your back and it's almost (almost) natural. He can't seem to decide how much pressure to use, but his limbs are relaxed and he rubs a palm against your shoulder blades. "Gonna retire the wheelchair soon?"

"Not in this lifetime, dude. Doctors say I might reach a point where I can swap to a walker, but I'm kinda emotionally attached to the chair now."

"Yeah, the chair's cool." After about ten silent seconds of this tender reunion, he says, "You plan on letting go anytime soon?"

"Nope." You adjust your grip so you can cling tighter. "Wasn't kidding about that one room-length limitation. If I let go, I'm dropping like a plastered college student on Saint Patrick's Day."

He catches you under your armpits and lifts you off your feet, holding you at arm's length. "You little sh*t."

"Yeah, whatever." You jerk a thumb over your shoulder. "Little help back to the couch?"

"I could just drop you, y'know."

You narrow your eyes and kick him in the chest.

You fully expect him to let your ass fall to the floor, but instead his mouth twitches. He's smiling. Bro's actually f*cking capable of a smile. "Not a bad payoff for driving you to rehab five times a week, li'l bro." He slides an arm under your legs and carries you the short distance back to the couch.

"Well, I'm not complaining. It's handy as sh*t to reach tall cupboards again." You settle back in your seat. "Some asshole at the grocery store yelled at me for 'faking a disability,' though, when he saw me commit the sin of leaving the chair for half a second to grab a box of cereal."

"What a f*cking dick," Bro says as he drops next to you. "Did you throw the cereal at his head?"

"Nah, but Mom screamed at him pretty good."

"I did!" Mom says proudly as she makes her triumphant return from being a thoughtful host, Rose still in tow.

"You should have kicked him in the nuts," Bro says, but he reaches back to give Mom a fistbump all the same.

"I was trying to be a proper role model for the kids by not resortin' to violence, thank-" She pauses, tilting her ear up. You hear it too: the steady mewing of a needy asshole who's realized he's being left out of a party. "Hang on, lemme go get a lonely kitty while I'm up anyway," she says as she trots off to fetch Jaspers from his disabled kitty bed in the parlor.

Bro slides an arm over the back of the couch and turns to face you. "So how was year one of living with a couple of crazy broads and too many goddamn wizards?"

Rose flips him off, but he ignores her.

Where do you even begin? Both versions of 2009 had their ups and downs, but this 2010 has been a vast improvement on the last runthrough. You have Mom's Nintendo games instead of a Ghostbusters MMO, John treats you like a person, and you live with a loving parent without any loudass red crocodiles to be found.

"I miss Taco Bell," you say.

Bro's eyebrow quirks over his shades. "They have Taco Bell in New York."

Rose plops down on Bro's opposite side. "Mom thinks it's gross and inauthentic," she explains so you don't have to speak such heresy.

"Well, sh*t," he says. "You about ready to run screaming back to Texas?"

You smirk. "Just for January, man, and only 'cos it's getting goddamn cold up here." And you've had the airline tickets since September -- three week roundtrip with Rose and Mom, because Rose won't leave you alone that long with Bro and neither of you want to risk leaving Mom to her own devices.

Bro nods. "Pretty sweet deal around here otherwise, right?"

"It's so dope, man. Mom got me all this filming equipment just 'cos she saw me checking it out on Amazon. I mean, it's f*cking ridiculous, but who am I to say no to a high grade tripod? You seen how smooth my camerawork's been?"

"I've seen everything on your YouTube and we both know it, bro," he says. You didn't know that, but cool. "Hard to miss your quality's been steadily climbing."

"Yeah, Mom claims at least a little credit for that."

Rose chuckles. "She spoils him to death and he loves it."

"She's investing in the arts," you say, crossing your arms.

Bro snorts, hesitating when he hears Mom's footsteps. He leans closer and lowers his voice. "Is Rox staying on the wagon?"

You hesitate. Damn, go in for the kill, why doesn't he? Mom's always reaching for the wine list at restaurants until you or Rose snatch it away, and you've caught her staring down the spirits aisle at the grocery store more than once, but not one goddamn drop of alcohol has made it home so far and you plan to keep it that way. "She's holding up."

"We have it covered," Rose says firmly.

"Teamwork, yo," you say, flashing a peace sign. "Very important sh*t."

All three of you straighten and try to play casual as the parlor room door closes. A phone buzzes and you reach for your own cell on automatic before your brain catches up to your hand and informs it that there was no vibration in your pocket. The call is coming from outside the house. Bro's the lucky asshole to whip out his phone and complete the facade of "we weren't just talking about you."

"Guess who's been a good li'l kitty-cat who hasn't made a mess on his bed today?" Mom says, returning with a bundle of black fur in her arms.

Rose sighs. "You say that as if he ever means to, Mom."

"Jesus, why do you even keep that thing around?" Bro asks, almost pulling a face.

Mom gasps and holds Jaspers protectively. "He's still healthy and happy even if he can't walk very good! We just gotta take extra care of him!" She chews her lip and gives the cat an extra scratch behind the ears. "Honestly, Dirk, don't be such a jackas- jackbutt."

"I'm always a jackass," Bro says, his attention still glued to the phone if his fingertips are any indicator.

You lean closer to him. "Who's texting you?"

"How the hell is that any of your business?" Bro says, tilting the phone away from you as he types.

"Ohh, tell Jake I say hi!" Mom says, lacking any qualms that she just abused her power as the sole standing person to peek over the shoulders of the couch occupants.

You try your damndest not to smirk.

Too late.

Bro frowns at you. "What?" he says gruffly.

"Okay, is this on me?" you ask. "Because I totally said that you should talk to the old people and now you're talking to the old people, so I think I have a right to know if I just successfully played friendship matchmaker or not." You pat his shoulder. "First match is free, so don't worry about the bill, but you might consider leaving me a positive review on Yelp."

"I figured you probably knew something I didn't and that it wouldn't hurt to be open minded the next time Harley called, all right?" he mutters, pocketing his phone.

Rose steeples her fingers, eyeing him with a devious expression. "Dad, are you dating him?"

Bro grunts. "He's sixty years older than me."

"That wasn't a denial."

"Rose, stop teasing your dad about his old man crush!" Mom comes around the couch and slips Jaspers onto Rose's lap, where he all too happily sprawls against her legs with his haphazard limbs.

Rose sighs but cuddles Jaspers close. "Mom, it's Thundercat now."

"Excuse you, missy, but I already gave you the prettiest name there is. Jaspers agrees, don't you, kitty?" Mom kneels to stroke his head. "See, so we have to keep the name Rose."

Rose turns to you. "I'll give you Rose if I can have Dave."

"Deal." You reach around Bro to fistbump on it. "I feel prettier already."

Mom facepalms. "Oh my gawd, they get this from you," she says, glowering at Bro.

"They so get this from both of us," he says with the slightest twitch of a smirk.

"Oh, whatever." She straightens and puts her hands on her hips. "Now that we're all settled in, how abouts we give the kids their play time and have a nice grown-up chat in the kitchen?"

"We can talk right here, last I checked."

Mom rocks on her heels. "Yesss, but don'tcha want a li'l more privacy than this?"

"I remain gay, Rox," Bro says flatly.

"And I remain dating a gentleman baker in Washington, you freakin' perv!" she shouts, her cheeks turning pink. "I'm talkin' about, y'know..." She lowers her voice from the "too loud" end of the spectrum to the "too quiet" end and says something you don't quite catch.

Bro's always had better ears than you. "They know their goddamn birthdays are coming up," he says as if she's trying to hide the color of the sky from you.

Mom flings her head back and groans. "Would you stop being a purposefully obtuse jackass before one of us blurts out one of the actual important surprises like what I bought for Rose?"

You sidle closer to Bro. "Hey, I think he should stay."

Rose wraps an arm around Bro's nearest elbow, already on to your game -- or maybe you were preemptively on to her game. "Yes, we miss our dear father."

"Haven't seen him since, like, August," you say, hugging his arm so he's fully trapped on both sides.

"How could you threaten to take him away from us so soon, Mom?" Rose says, her acting melodramatic and flat.

"Guess you two will just have to chat about tomorrow's birthday plans right here."

Rose nods along. "And the day after's."

Bro's pokerface game is strong, but he sinks back against the couch with body language that screams "Why is this happening to me?" All he says out loud is, "They team up like this often?"

Mom lets out an exaggerated sigh. "All'a the dang time. When they ain't squabbling like a couple of hyenas, that is."

"It's called having a strong enough bond that we aren't afraid to show our honest emotions," Rose says, stroking Jaspers's head with her free hand and receiving a steady purr for her troubles.

"What do you call this? A bond so tight you feel the need to make it literal?" Bro shrugs you off. "Let go of my damn arm before Roxy kills me, Thundercat."

You are about eighty percent certain that Rose acquiesces half as fast as she does because he used the new name.

Mom leans in to give you both a quick peck on the cheek. "We'll be right in the other room catching up, babies!" she says.

Bro hesitates, reaches over, and squeezes your shoulder before he follows Mom into the kitchen. "Rox, why the f*ck do you keep a vacuum cleaner on a pedestal?" is the last thing you hear before the door closes.

Rose lifts Jaspers so his head rests on her shoulder. "So, are you going to demand Taco Bell for your birthday dinner?" she asks, stroking his back.

"Don't be stupid. A birthday dinner calls for McDonald's." You lean away from the cat's beady gaze. "What are you going to pick? Some fancy French place that serves snails?"

"I haven't decided yet." She glances at you. "Your terror of a harmless cat will never stop amusing me."

"This isn't terror. It's perfectly rational disgruntlement." You gesture at Jaspers. "Look at him and his smug cat grin. He's just dreaming that I'll regrow a pair of wings and we both learn to fly so he can chase me around the goddamn house again."

"He'd never," Rose coos, though she does settle Jaspers back on her lap where he can't stare at you. "I'm glad you're here, you know."

"Me or the cat?"

She nudges her knee against yours. "You, big brother. I wouldn't normally divulge such a dark yet obvious secret, but we'll call it a side effect from the sentimentality of your birthday's eve."

You're pretty sure she knows that, just like Mom still gazes longingly at wine lists, you sometimes have to bite your tongue to keep from blurting out bullsh*t insecurities like, Am I a good enough replacement for Dave? It gets easier to swallow those anxieties by the day, but you don't know if or when they'll go away altogether. You figure you'll be okay, with her always at the ready to blast your fears with the firehose of truth.

You're not "Dave's replacement." You're you and that's all you need to be.

"Yeah, well, I'm pretty happy to be here, so I guess we're even." You give her a squeeze around her shoulders. "Happy early birthday, by the way."

She leans against you. "Same to you, Dave."

You let the hug last just a second shy of turning awkward, then settle back against the armrest. You put on your best co*cky grin. "Hey, so, what sort of insane loot do you think I'll rake in tomorrow?"


I'm losing track of how many times I've rewritten these end notes. I have a thousand thoughts running through my head and I'm unsure which are actually relevant. Usually I'm relieved to close the curtains on a multi-chapter fic, and this was probably the most intimidating story I've ever written, yet I'm kinda sad to see it end! I got attached. :(

At least there's still Falling for the First Time for now, so I don't have to leave the whole AU behind yet. If you want to follow my future escapades, you can find me on Tumblr (for fannish ramblings, fic updates, and mediocre art), Dreamwidth (which I mostly use as a slow mirror for fic in case AO3 goes down), or Twitter (I have no idea what twitter is for, but sometimes I talk about custard).

The old saying goes, "If I could tell you what it means, I wouldn't have to dance/paint/compose/write it," but instead I find that when I try to explain what I meant to convey with this story, it just sounds watered down. Maybe it's more fitting if I leave it with a metaphor from Bruce co*ckburn: [you've] got to kick at the darkness 'til it bleeds daylight.

Thank you so much for reading.

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