Things calmed, or so it seemed. Work continued unabated and in time Rose came to forget about her fight in Tavros' room. Vriska and Eridan ultimately did have their hatedate in the pools, and since Vriska seemed pleased the next day, Rose could only assume Eridan had almost gagged before remembering he could breathe underwater. She almost seemed too happy, but Rose could not get a handle on why that was, as Vriska avoided her at every turn. Rose eventually started to let her, and was soon giving Eridan space as well, since he seemed content enough. In their absence, Rose's attention turned to Kanaya. She knew Kanaya was upset about her unwillingness to talk to Gamzee, but the problem was as hard to talk about as it was to fix, and Rose had outright avoided her girlfriend the morning after her charges' fight. But she knew everything was fine when she and Kanaya took a break from construction together in John's absence, and they had joked and laughed. Rose was happy for the return to semi-normal.
Kanaya was never much for talking to or even in front of John. To be honest, Rose was starting to prefer the time apart from him, though she would never tell him so. When they were laughing, Kanaya would sometimes ask Rose to help her clean her face from smudges, ever decorous. It was in a moment like that, as the week came to an end, that Rose noticed something about Kanaya that she had not noticed before. It struck a very strange chord in her that she thought had long past: for the first time, Rose realized she was in a relationship with an alien.
It wasn't the horns. It wasn't the skin, gray or green-split where moult tried to turn one dissimilarity into another. It wasn't the teeth, or the tongue, or any potential differences clothed over and yet unknown. What happened was that Rose saw a laugh coming on Kanaya's eyes before it hit her lips. It was so odd. Trolls laughed in their eyes before their lips. Rose was surprised to the point of a happy silence. And while that was delightful, Rose saw more. She saw that Kanaya's body primed before any instinctive action, another hunter's skill. Rose snuck glances at Kanaya over the course of the day, and began to look closer and closer. Kanaya began to notice around lunch, and Rose caught her surprise "prime" before Kanaya consciously reacted. Her lips creased ever so slightly. Her blush at the attention was more obvious, but she said nothing.
Kanaya's eyes were sunken, in the way all the Trolls were, with darkened shadows under the eye that was not quite skin, not quite shade. In another close moment, Rose saw that Kanaya did not lack the odd, under-eye fold one could see easily on Karkat, Eridan and Nepeta: Kanaya's was simply less pronounced, just a ripple on the skin. Kanaya's eyelashes, lacking their usual makeup during work hours, were courser than a Human's and thicker, but also less plentiful. The orange in her eyes ran with a green bloodshot the moult must have given her. It was all so fascinating. Kanaya's eyes were simply – as was becoming easier and easier to say – beautiful.
Beautiful as they were, Rose's curiosity was piqued for more. At lunch, her eyes began to wander.
"what, iis there 2omethiing on my face?"
"rose, i wanna have a staring contest too, i'm really good! okay, ready, set, go!"
"1 SN1FF YOU W4TCH1NG M3, ROS3. UNDR3SS1NG M3 W1TH YOUR 3Y3S. DONT H3S1T4T3! T4K3 M3 IN YOUR P4STY HUM4N 4RMS!"
"…………………you have e%cellent potential as an observer, Human. Consider that a professional opinion."
Rose began to notice the most mundane Troll Things: things she should have noticed all along. She took an interest in how their hair parted about their horns. She noticed that some of Nepeta's catlike motions were actually common to the lot. She saw that Vriska's terrifying post-moult claws were triple-striped down to the lunela, and that the muscles on Equius' bare back were arranged quite unlike Dave's.
After lunch, Dave and Aradia started pulling them aside to test their combat skills against some of Jack's techniques, so that they would be ready once the platform was ready. They passed over Rose, which was disappointing. She and the others had not seen Dave in days, and there was appeal in saying hello with an ironic smack to the head. Kanaya was selected instead. She returned to their scaffold panting for breath, her work clothes stained by green sweat and had a set of cuts in her work jeans, already game-healed and fading away on her skin. She collapsed to the scaffold in a slump, to catch her breath from the spar and climb. Rose watched her. There was a rumble in her breath Rose had always heard but never noticed, and the undercurrent hiss was present, riled by her physical activity. When Kanaya once again caught Rose staring, this time she did not blush. This time she looked back, and met Rose's eyes with intensity.. Her voice rough, Kanaya began to half-complain and half-joke about her thirst, and asked John for some cold water. Oblivious, he left them both alone.
As he climbed out of earshot, Kanaya continued to speak about her condition, even though it was obvious Rose was only half-listening. The disconnect was startling. The voice was her girlfriend's but her body was giving opposite, alien signals: equal parts bestial, fierce, and inviting. Her body seemed wont to continue play-fighting, or for battle for real, but in unspoken signals and disposition, Rose knew she was being welcomed closer. Surprising herself, Rose found she very much wanted to go.
"What's the matter?" Kanaya asked, after Rose missed a joke. She grinned up at Rose, one fang bit nervously on her lower lip.
John is… certainly taking his time back to the dry-dock, Rose thought.. Kanaya shifted, about to raise herself up to Rose before Rose dropped next to her instead. Kanaya smiled with surprise, and then went just as silent as Rose cupped her chin, and ran her thumb slowly along Kanaya's face. Rose started to reach up with the cloth, but the excuse seemed… unnecessary.
Rose realized she was staring again, and tried to fill the silence with the first thing that came to mind, without bothering to check it first. "My, but you're gorgeous, Miss Maryam," Rose whispered, feeling altogether too embarrassed and florid the moment the words left her lips. But Kanaya smiled, and gently pushed aside Rose's hand. At once they moved together, slowly. Slower. And then… they stopped: lips a decisive touch apart, cursing their cowardice and ill-experience.
Excitement quickly crumbled to embarrassment. Rose, her eyes still closed, could feel Kanaya rehearsing a line to defuse the situation. Their kiss had come so close to success that she could feel every brush of motion from Kanaya, and that made it so much more a failure. Rose strained to keep from sputtering excuses of her own, when Kanaya suddenly let out a snicker. They had soon collapsed against one another in gales of embarrassed laughter.
"Do you much care to try again?" Kanaya said, confusing John as he made his way up the ladder. Her arms clung to Rose in a half-hug.
Rose pulled in close enough to kiss her ear: smooth, gradually pointed, like the rest: beautiful. "I think Dave would say that we just blew it. We blew it so hard we've got a one-way ticket to virgin school, on Virgin Airlines to the Virgin Islands, to learn how to be bashful and alone for the rest of our lives."
"Oh, I don't think it was so bad," Kanaya said. She caught John's confusion and started to laugh all over again. When she had calmed down, she nestled closer, to whisper in Rose's own ear as she stroked her hair. "Certainly we can find some way to meet in the middle, at Chaste Kiss School for the Gifted or the Troll School of Demure Flirtations."
Rose backed, until she could see Kanaya's face. Behind her, Rose heard John shuffling about in the world's worst attempt to pretend he did not exist. "Miss Maryam," she repeated from her earlier flub. "You're fishing for excuses to kiss me."
Rose once again noticed the physical "prime" on Kanaya's face as her body prepared for action. Kanaya feigned bashful, while a mischievous grin tugged on her lips: her body's secret betrayal. Rose returned the same smile. Her mind was practical, most of the time, but in her heart-of-hearts there dwelled a girl that loved wizards and fantasy and had seized on the romantic ideas Jade had put in her head a few nights before. Rose Lalonde was already decided. She was already making plans. There was going to be romantic kiss tonight if it killed her.
She sat up straight, pulling away from Kanaya, who looked incredibly disappointed by the return to the real world. "I was wondering," she said, "if you'd be interested in a walk Outside tonight."
"Why Miss Lalonde," Kanaya said. Her disappointment faded. "I think that would be delightful." She moved to sit up as well, but gasped for breath when she put weight on her still somewhat-wounded leg. "Ah! John, you'll have to excuse me another moment."
A voice hollered up from the level below. "WELL IT WOULDN'T HAVE BEEN SO LONG ALREADY IF YOU YOU'D STUCK SUCKING EACH OTHER'S FACES!"
Rose and Kanaya met eyes and again broke down laughing.
"OH FOR… WHY IS THAT EVEN FUNNY! DAMMIT ALL! THE NEXT ONE OF YOU THAT LETS YOUR HORMONES GET IN THE WAY OF THE WORK GETS THROWN OF THE SCAFFOLDS, I SWEAR TO GOG!" Karkat jabbed his finger in Eridan's face as he passed him. "DON'T YOU EVEN TALK!" he said. "GOG DAMMIT!"
Rose and Kanaya spent the rest of the work day planning out their date with every free word. Kanaya seemed quite keen on wearing a dress Rose knew to be just on the edge of "formal," and so she fished around in her mind for one of her own in the same category. Before she had met Kanaya, Rose's formalwear was limited to clothes from a wedding when she was eight, so surprise was out the window. She settled on a bright dress Kanaya had painstakingly made out of fabric alchemized from Jade's Three in the Morning dress. Where Jade's dress was dark, made of a fabric that not so much caught the light as seized it away, Rose's was like a sunrise in orange. The fitting had been one of their more intimate pre-relationship moments, and then memory was as warm on her skin as the curious dress. Kanaya was to account for the food (she announced without mentioning Gamzee), and planned to have it served on the executive desk in her quarters. She reasoned that such a nice table should be used for something, since she was not using it on her own. Rose's stomach flipped when she realized their limited agenda came to a somewhat loose end just outside Kanaya's bedroom. She ordered her insides to behave and her tongue to withhold a double entendre that would be better lobbed at Strider, where Rose would take it less seriously.
Rose headed down from her room well before the date. Fully aware of the irony, she went to the kitchen pantry to change, as it was the best she had to a clean and private space. Travelling in the access tunnels in dresses, space-and-light-warping or otherwise, had seemed somewhat unadvised. The pantry sufficed, and the public alchemiter was a happy bonus. Rose changed quickly, alchemized a mirror and then, realizing it had slipped her mind, makeup. She checked her appearance and decided that since the alchemiter was right there…
Alchemizing her dress with her shoes churned out the Nightgaunt in Heels, a pair of shoes which were nowhere near as eldritch or even as darkly coloured as implied. She then plugged a copy of her dress and with her headbandtop, which causing the game to spit out a dress made of headbands. Rose flipped a few switches, reactivated the Previewer, and created the The Dunwich Hairband, which matched wonderfully.
But she was still missing something. Rose took to the ground and emptied out her inventory – all but the one card at the very top. After a moment's pause, she picked up two short story collections and used them to bury the Thorns in spite. Then she searched the pile and found what she was looking for: her mother's earrings, one of several items John had recovered from her house before they had left the game. Rose closed her hand over the jewellery. She was not in a very sentimental mood, even if picking through the old things had dredged up the memory of her conversation with John and Jade. Just to underline how very not sentimental she was, Rose began to ponder aloud how she would create a set of clip-ons. She was certainly not going to take out the Quills of Echidna for an impromptu piercing!
Ironically, it was the Quills that finished her design, along with the help of some garish purple mascara she had found in the Alchemiter's library – probably one of Gamzee's. To top it off, Rose used one of her mother's better martini glasses, again for absolutely no sentimental reasons whatsoever. The result was a pair of gold chandelier earrings, delicately twisted into the shape of the branchtips on the Quills of Echidna, and set with tanzanite. The alchemiter called them The Lights of Starry Wisdom and happily informed her that they boosted her Lightning Resistance by 35%. They attached without clip or clasp, another game cheat, and Rose admired herself in the mirror. Satisfied, Rose set to cleaning up, only to dawdle over her mother's scarf. It would have made a passable stole, she thought, if it had matched. Catching herself, Rose took the scarf into her inventory and left the room.
Rose ran into Equius at the door to the computer lab. When he saw her, he broke into his usual sweat and stepped aside, offering her the door with a flourish. "Pardons, Miss Lalonde," he said. "I hardly meant to interfere."
"Rose, you're purrty." Nepeta said, straight and simple.
"Tsk." Rose smiled. "You're just saying that for the pun."
Nepeta laughed and wavered her hand in the air before Equius bowed them both out. Rose watched them leave, half-curious how they both would look cleaned up a little. This must be how Kanaya thinks all the time, Rose thought with a smile.
"Ah, shit, it's date night." Dave said from one side. He walked up to her from Aradia's computer, where he had been working alone. "Look at this, my sister's getting all dolled up for the night, and not even giving me the dignity of some thickhead male jackass to trash if he brings her home late at night."
"Oh, there he is," Rose said, glad at how bored she sounded. "He shows up after days and starts threatening my girlfriend and calling me strange names he's never used before."
Dave just huffed and swatted at her bangs. She grabbed at him, but any other conversation was cut off by the sound of the transportalizer behind him.
"…Fuck," said Karkat, "there's two of them."
"Been helping pick out outfits, Karkles?" Dave asked.
"You don't even know the half of it," Karkat said after a grunt. "I was handed so many shoes that at one point I slipped into another timeline where some of them were magically good again! I'm this far from ordering everyone barefoot. Everyone with the nausea ducts strong enough to survive will be happier for it."
Rose's intended reply was interrupted by the prod of a nose against her back. "Um… hi, Terezi," she said.
"This colour makes no sense," Terezi said. "What is it?"
"I believe we in the polite society that does not stick their noses into other people call it... 'orange'?" Rose said. That said, Rose could understand Terezi's confusion, given the weird way the dress played with light. Terezi lowered her eyes and promptly licked Rose's side.
"Ahem," said a voice. Terezi looked up to the speaker, as did Rose. "I see I've arrive a bit early…"
Rose bit her lip, first as her stomach dropped and then to stop the wild grin that tried to follow. "I'm as scandalized as you," she said, and stepped forward to offer her date a hand off of the short platform.
Kanaya had come in black, with long gloves and jewellery of her own: a white-silver necklace bearing her sign. She took Rose's hand gracefully and descended, giving Rose the opportunity to admire her appearance. Rose took it all in, down to ever more Interesting Troll Things in how she appeared to have polished or otherwise treated her horns. Her eyes were smiling, her gray skin smooth, and the only flaw in a short, picky list was a small moult cut that had sprouted on her ear. Rose overlooked it entirely.
Rose realized after a moment that Kanaya was as much inspecting her in turn. "You look wonderful," Kanaya said. She cupped one of the earrings. "These?"
Rose laughed, anxiety tangling her guts. "A few minutes free time with the alchemiter," she said. "Nothing near… well… your level of effort." She gestured down at her dress. "And you…" She gestured to Kanaya's face. She had seen the dress on her friend before, but somehow it was all different now. The necklace had some part to play – it was quite like Kanaya to draw attention to her neck – but this was them being dressed up for a date. Rose felt that that change a great deal.
"Oh, crap," Dave said. "Rose Lalonde's at a loss for words. Get the emergency fucking thesaurus, this is not a drill." He paced back to his computer.
Karkat, who had hung his head over his own keyboard, groaned. "No!" he said, apparently unclear that Dave was being facetious as usual. "I've been spending the last few hours comparing the exact same shades of green lipstick! I am going to bed!"
Kanaya scoffed. "Goodnight, Karkat!"
"I'm serious, Kanaya," Dave shouted from the computer. "Just Troll-marry her, you've accomplished the fucking impossible."
"Goodnight, Dave!" Rose rolled her eyes.
Rose and Kanaya had almost made it out the door when Terezi, to no one in particular, said: "Okay. Yeah. It was sort of orange. Tangeriney." Stuck in an empty room with her exes, she stalked off after Nepeta.
Rose wished she had alchemized a stole once they were Outside, which was always like an autumn's day in cold. A more obvious mistake presented itself after only a few steps. She and Kanaya walked for some time, short on conversation and shaking from anxiety, before Rose confessed: "It occurs to me that I made a set of heels so that I could go for a walk on a meteor." She looked down to see that Kanaya, too, was wearing heels. "You're cheating."
Kanaya returned a haughty dismissal. "Am I graceful because I'm a Sylph, or am I a Sylph because I'm graceful?"
"To be perfectly honest, I'm not sure what the 'Sylph' title even implies or infers," Rose admitted.
Kanaya laughed. "I think an Iguana I talked to said 'the' Sylph is 'One who embodies their element.' Ive Come To Suppose It Gives Me A Weaker But Passive Mastery Over Space Compared To Jade"
Rose smiled. "How do you do that?" she asked.
"Well, as I just said—"
"No," Rose interrupted. "The voice thing. I've been wondering. The… 'I've come to suspect…' No, still nothing. I can't do it."
Kanaya smiled. "Well, I suppose we could give it some practice."
They finally began to talk. And talk, and talk into the night, treading the same footmarked path about the lab. Rose thought she might have seen Dave leaving the building at one point, but tried not to focus it. Where or whenever he and Aradia had gone, Rose could not see them by their next pass. Rose went back to being absorbed in the conversation. It was only when Kanaya invited her back for their meal that the anxiety returned in force. She swallowed, and accepted.
Kanaya gave Rose room to change in private before and after the trip through the tunnels. She offered to come with Rose, but had not brought a change of clothes, so Rose deflected her with more florid compliments about her dress. Kanaya took to the transportalizer with a smile and a roll of her eyes, and must have set out the meal while she waited. Rose arrived to find the office dimly lit with lovely scented candles Rose had never smelled on earth. Dinner was an Alternian game bird that must have been prepared by Gamzee long before he and Rose had become friends, though Kanaya did not say a word about it. Kanaya did admit that she had captcha'd the thing for such an occasion, probably because of Gamzee's unreliability. Unfortunately, when Kanaya found the Chastity Key for the card earlier that morning, her modus had balked and split the thing into its component parts before dumping them on the table. Kanaya had done her best to repair the damage. It tasted just as good, even if they had to admit it was a tragic visual mess.
Conversation continued where it had fallen off: psychoanalysis. Kanaya came to ask if Rose if it was possible for someone to psychoanalyse her or himself.
"Well… I'd be lying to say I hadn't tried," Rose said. "Strider and John often joke, what with my relationship with my mother." But as soon as the words had left her lips, Rose thought No. No, that's not right. She had often attempted to psychoanalyze her mother's behaviour, but had never seriously considered her own response. A much better example would be… "But then there's my behaviour… during the game." Rose looked down at her hand. "I put a great deal of things at risk. Yes. I've run that over in my head a few times. To be honest, I don't even remember how it stopped." She looked up at Kanaya, who only shook her head. Rose knew she knew even less than she, what with the blackout that had surrounded her. "I know Jade and the others tried to talk me out of it, and then I… went to Cetus." Rose thought hard, but shook her head.
"I'm sorry, Rose," Kanaya said. "For what it's worth, you also gained your team a number of important advantages in a very limited period of time."
"And I got Dave killed," Rose muttered in reply. "Well, or so any rational person would think. He insisted to me that he was going to die anyway. That he was picking frogs with Jade out in the open, waiting for Jack to come and kill him, he says. Then he had a… 'theological debate' with Gamzee. Something made him leave. To come to the Battlefield with me and John. Jade came with, Dave got there first and… died." Rose quietly set her fork on her plate, eye still on her hand. "And I got to live on."
"And even that was a blessing in disguise," Kanaya said. "Dave would have a good deal of trouble keeping up with Aradia in the middle of space without the dreamself powers of flight."
"Oh, I don't know," Rose said. "He's Dave Strider. Sometimes I think that if he had wanted to fly, he could have flown." Rose met Kanaya's pitying eyes. Open confession time. "I haven't been much better since, have I?"
Kanaya frowned. "Haven't you?"
Rose shook her head. "I've won my fights against my dark friend. But I can't take back what happened to Gamzee. And I've been cowering ever since, haven't I? There's something to psychoanalyze. Kanaya, I'm…" The mental image came at her fairly quickly. Kanaya, in the hall outside Tavros', seeing Rose cowered at the very idea of talking to the friend she had maimed. "I'm sorry about the other day. To you and especially to Gamzee. This is just… so hard on me, and I know I can't compare to how hard it is on him, but I keep acting like a little child about it. It's not doing you any credit, it's not doing my friendship to him—"
"Oh?" Kanaya asked.
Rose stopped, lowered her cutlery and wiped her hands off on her napkin. "'Oh'?" she quoted, putting on a happy tone where she was really just confused. She set her chin on her clean hands. "Oh dear. What did I say?"
Kanaya cleaned her own hands, more to hide her embarrassment than to be polite. "It's just… well… you've been avoiding him for days."
"Not entirely," Rose protested.
Kanaya granted that, to a point. "You've been looking at him, yes. But not talking, or meeting, or… helping."
"I've been upset!" Rose said, shocked, and a bit hurt. Surely Kanaya knew where she was coming from. " I haven't been able to face him. I've been a coward. I thought… you were ashamed at me about that," she confessed.
"Oh. No, no, Rose, not at all," Kanaya said. "Although I can see how you mean," she added, trailing off as she tried to fish for something more substantial to say. Rose was almost willing to wait for her, but her initial confession carried so much weight, that she did not particularly want to stop talking.
"I wish I could," Rose said. "It's like I can't even find a satisfactory middle ground. Either I go to him or I don't. The middle ground is indifference, and indifference reminds me of my time in the game, which reminds me that Gamzee was selected by my ethereal tormentor in particular. Did you notice? He had me sleep walk into a room with virtually everyone present. A room full of potential targets. And he picked Gamzee." Rose scrunched up her face. "…Not even you." Kanaya took the revelation with as much confusion as Rose, which was somewhat comforting. "Perhaps that would have been a push too far?" Rose supposed aloud. "You. Probably Jade, John or Dave. Gamzee and Terezi are new friends. But between the two, Gamzee helped me calm down, after you and I had our… moment, the day before you asked me out." Rose looked down at her food, a Gamzee original now splotched and mashed, at the tip of a clean, silver fork.
"Oh!" Kanaya said, with a touch of surprise. "I hadn't realized. I had assumed that was Terezi, for whatever reason. I knew the two of you were spending time together, but…"
"You need to be around more friends, I think," Rose said with a half-smile. "You seemed surprised when I called him my friend, earlier." By mentioning the earlier part of the conversation, Rose hoped to bring Kanaya back to her original point.
Kanaya wavered. "Perhaps. Look, Rose. I realize that the attack was coerced. You know I know that. It's just… your reaction afterwards! Once you had calmed down. You never so much as left a message. He's been asking about you. I haven't had anything to tell him."
It hurt to hear, but was nothing Rose had not suspected. She knew the rest personally. "Didn't you… tell him I was upset?" Rose asked.
"I hadn't realized you were still upset!" Kanaya had started talking faster. "I knew you were upset at first. Of course you were. Maybe it's not 'friends' I need to spend time with so much as people who are upset when they hurt someone. I suppose I'm not much used to this sort of… uh…" Kanaya looked to Rose for the word she was missing.
Rose suspended her irritation to supply her cross-cultural study partner with what seemed the ideal verb. "…Remorse?"
Kanaya nodded. "Yes. It's just: Rose, think about how this looks to me, and more importantly, to Gamzee. If I didn't see this as remorse, he would certainly not have. I mean, he's Gamzee. And I can tell you he's very confused right now." Rose returned a grave not. "You both knew you can rely on one another, or had seen the leads of it, but all he has from you was that… show-down the two of you had in Tavros' room. How would you see that?"
"I guess that it might look like… I was abandoning him?" Rose shook her head. "Kanaya, please, I'm not in the mood for a game right now, this is a very sensitive issue to me."
Kanaya waffled. "What I'm saying is that he might think that you were considering… new circumstances."
It sank in, and Rose clapped her hands to her mouth, a feeling of nausea upsetting her happy palate. "You thought I was black for him? Kanaya, tell me you're not serious." Kanaya started to answer but Rose interrupted her. "Please tell me he doesn't think this!"
Kanaya tried again, her hands turned up and innocent. "I thought you were considering it. Everyone knows you've been approaching your auspistice with an open mind. I overheard you telling Jade that you found Gamzee somewhat physically attractive. I didn't think you were taking it as an option, a-at first, but it makes a certain amount of logical sense."
Rose shook her head, and broke her grip to force down a swallow of water. "I'm tasting bile!" Rose said, more to herself. "I'm… I'm sorry, Kanaya, this must look horrible to you, but I have never felt so guilty about Gamzee's arm than anything else in my entire life! Why on Earth would I want to go through that again?"
"Well, certainly not that," Kanaya said. At the mention of bile, she had taken to her feet, so that she could refill Rose's glass and be near if there was a sudden need. Rose felt guilty that she seemed more concern about Rose's stomach than Rose's accidental shot against black romance. "But I hadn't thought that you could… well, that you could still be friends at all, after that. I didn't understand that it was a possibility, or that it was something you both would even want." Rose hung her head. It was not as though the thought of running away from Gamzee had not crossed her mind. She wished she could be more eloquent, fill Kanaya in on the nuances, but nothing came. "All things considered, you struck Gamzee with a massive, caliginous blow, if accidentally. On one hand, if you were attracted to him, the quadrant is certainly open for the both of you. On the other…"
Kanaya cupped her hands in a bowl. "Consider this, as a Troll. If Gamzee is the sort of person you see yourself coming to value… if it were me, that would be something I would want to preserve." She closed the bowl, as if wrapping about a handful of metaphor. "And if he resented you for the injury… what better way?" Kanaya met Rose's eyes, hope for compression glimmering there. "The former is an emotional reason, and the latter: simply efficient, I thought. I didn't know if you were going to do it, but I can't pretend the thought didn't cross my mind. I admit I took it with a certain amount of jealousy." Kanaya tried to smile. "I thought I would have you to myself for some time, all things considered."
Rose shook her head. "I can't imagine it, Kanaya. I couldn't. Do you know? Does Gamzee…?" Kanaya shrugged. "I need to talk to him," she concluded. "More than ever. Gamzee and I aren't close friends, but I wouldn't take our association and thrash it, shred it, beat it. That's not what I want. It… it seems downright harmful. I don't want to hurt anyone like that."
Kanaya's smile faded, her brow furrowed. "'True hate preserves,'" she said, like a quote. Rose thought she might have heard the line before, from one of Karkat's movies. "I thought, as an auspistice, you'd have realized that." Kanaya returned to her seat on the opposite side of the desk, in the executive chair, and adjusted her hair. "…I'm sorry, that was rude of me. I know this is still relatively new to you."
Rose sighed. "No, I'm sorry. I'm the one being rude here. Let's not do that. It's not like I've been a perfect auspistice, either."
Kanaya forced a smile. "You do well enough."
"'Well enough'?" Rose asked with a wince. "Should I ask?" The issue with Gamzee was still at the forefront of her mind, and if asked, Rose would not have lied about trying to change the subject. "I mean, I suppose I've broken the mood, and who better for advice?"
Kanaya frowned. "Rose, I'm hardly concerned about the mood of our date when you're so upset," she said, reaching across the table. Rose reached out to her and she took her hand and folded it into her own. The way it lightened Rose's heart felt almost miraculous. Rose squeezed her hand back. "I'd like to think there's a relationship under all these attempts to impress one another," Kanaya added, with a smile. Rose found the strength to smile back.
After a healthy pause, Kanaya looked Rose in the eye. "It's up to you, Rose," she said. "Do you really want my advice about Vriska and Eridan?" Kanaya withdrew her hand, to let Rose make the decision on her own.
Rose took a moment to truly consider it. "Do you think I need it?" she asked. Kanaya shrugged, but it was clear that was only out of consideration for her feelings. Kanaya wanted to say something. It was starting to sink in on Rose that the relationship that had dominated all her time was about to be put under the microscope of a true professional, from start to finish. It also occurred to her that she might not like the expert opinion. But was she ready to learn? Kanaya certainly looked the part of the expert. She sat straight, fingers tented in a massive executive's chair, looking just as ready to deal out hostile merger as a harsh piece of relationship advice.
This is… going to shake things, Rose thought. "…Yes," She said. "They're dangerous. I have to know."
Kanaya nodded. "All right, then." Reassurances passed, took another bite out of her food, before closing her eyes to think. Her first words were: "When I say 'well enough,' I want you to know I say that as objectively as I can, considering your circumstances. Or rather, considering Vriska and Eridan. A heavily manipulative Troll and an oft-irrational Troll. Between 'unseen' and 'random,' someone in your situation can only do… so much."
"I understand," Rose replied.
Kanaya thought for some time before continuing. "…I Dont Think That Vriska Much Appreciated Your Decision To Interfere With Her Game"
"I can understand that," Rose admitted. "That was not exactly my best move, I realize. I'd take it back if I could, though I'm not sure what I could replace it with."
"I'm not… entirely referring to your change in mood after Gamzee's arrival," Kanaya said. In that Troll way Rose was just beginning to recognize, Rose realized that Kanaya was certainly frowning behind her hands. "Frankly, your aggressive shift may have been a good move if pointed in a different direction."
"A good move?"
"Well, yes," Kanaya said. She lowered her hands. "Sometimes An Auspistice Does Have To Stand. Severely, if necessary. You have to make and enforce the tough decisions, to know what those are and to stick to them. It's very politic. There's guile involved, manoeuvring, true. But in the end we're still Trolls. Decisiveness will always be a factor. The Idea Being – please excuse me – That If You Were Truly Ashen For Them The Stability Of Their Relationship Or Whatever That Represents To You Would Evoke Strong Enough Emotions To Make You Decisive. The same way a friendship may make you naturally… allied?" Kanaya seemed to realize how unsure she sounded. "How a moirallegience would put you in tune with one another's' moods."
"You're saying I'm… wishy-washy?" Rose asked. Her choice of words had been meant as a joke but did not lift her mood. Kanaya frowned in confusion. "…'Fickle'?"
"What I'm trying to say isn't meant to be an insult, simply a cultural difference." Kanaya gestured circles with her fork. "Humans are less prone to outbursts of emotion. No need for moirails, or in a different direction, auspistices. But that's not a problem, in-and-of-itself. I'd like to think that Eridan or Vriska would have thought ahead and realized you'd have a different sort of impact on their relationship than a Troll."
Rose fiddled with her food. "I suppose we can hope." Eating was taking on much less appeal.
Kanaya seemed to feel the same. Her fork was now purely a baton. "But I'm concerned the fight the other day may have been the first real test of that hope. The real matter has more to do with the actual content of the argument. I have to return to my original point. I believe that overriding Vriska on the 'game' issue may have been a very poor idea from any angle."
Rose nodded, but feeling the need to get in her own two cents, added: "I thought you said I did well enough." She had known it would sound bitter, but it came out worse than intended. Kanaya opened her mouth to address the aside, but Rose waved her back. "I'm sorry. I suppose I'm still a touch sore. Please, continue. Better I know than I don't."
Kanaya sighed. "I believe that because Vriska was manipulating her bets, to her they represented her power in her kismesis. By directly attacking it, she may have perceived your attempt as a direct attack on… her. And your subsequent actions may have confused her even further."
Rose breathed deeply. She remembered the claws, cut just short from a swing. Rose did not like the idea of Vriska thinking Rose had attacked her where she was strongest. She wondered. "But… she kissed him."
"Well, certainly you've given her reasons to hate Eridan!" Kanaya said. "But her hatred for you has to be more level. Your Auspistice Is Still A Relationship… not just some job you have to perform. The hatred is a critical component, please keep that in mind.. If A Hatred Geared Closer To Respect"
"Romance…" Rose muttered, and took to her feet, clutching her head. "I just don't get it," she said. She clutched a hand. "I mean… I think I get it one moment, and then the next she does something like… Tavros."
Kanaya watched her begin to pace, but nodded. "Please, continue."
"Even their being friends is becoming a problem. He needs to stand up for himself," Rose said. "Pardon me," she added, and reached down to take off her heels. She stuck to the carpeted section of the office after discovering the wood floor was freezing. "The poor boy doesn't need a moirail so much as a prodder."
Kanaya did not seem to have taken offence. "Tavros is doing well enough, for Tavros. I'm more concerned about his matespritship in the context of Eridan's kismesis. If it were me… I don't believe I would have encouraged the kismesis. But given our circumstances, I can see your perspective."
"I didn't exactly accept out-of-hand," Rose insisted, not wanting to bring up Kanaya's own attack on Vriska. "But I can see what you mean. Vriska's not reacting well to them, they're not reacting well to her."
Kanaya winced. "It's worse than that, I'm afraid. When you may have upset Vriska's power, you did so inside of his room. For all she knew, he may have still been in earshot."
"Oh." Rose stopped her pacing. "Damn, and Eridan noticed too! That's why he tried to take her out just after she said she'd stay to write! That little fishweasel!"
Kanaya nodded gravely. "He's learned a fair deal from her."
She was about to continue, but Rose interrupted. "And I haven't learned a thing," Rose grumbled. "What would I do without you?"
"You've been Human," Kanaya said. "And new at this." She reached across the table to pour them each another wine glass filled with water. Rose sipped at hers, now that her stomach was settled. She was developing a taste for plain water. Considering all the Faygo and cola consumed around the lab, it was downright refined. "As I've said, that is not a bad thing. Not at all."
Rose sighed. "I was trying to help." she said. "Vriska trying to rule the relationship like the Queen of Spades, I just…"
"Remember what I said about an auspistice having to act, Rose. The trouble was more in the way you did so." Kanaya took a sip from her glass and leaned gracefully in her chair.
"You mean in how I didn't anticipate her response?" Rose asked.
"Well…" Kanaya took a moment to organize her thoughts. "The trouble is that while you handled some of the fight admirably, I think it was clear your reasons were not always… orthodox. Even near the end, when you became most angry, you were still trying to help Vriska through the trouble."
"So?" Rose's belly was complaining. She had barely eaten at lunch, what with all their planning. She took a pause to angrily slip another bite into her mouth. "Isn't that the point?"
"Certainly," Kanaya said, "but your angle was wrong. You were pitying her, trying to help. Imagine how confusing that would have been to her."
"I wasn't exactly concerned with her being happy about it," Rose growled. Kanaya seemed to sympathize. "Wait, Kanaya. Hold on." Rose held up a hand, and repeated Kanaya's advice in her mind. "Are you saying what I think you're saying? That I'm… not supposed to be concerned for their wellbeing?" Rose frowned. She was still angry at Vriska for starting the fight, certainly, but was hardly unconcerned.
Kanaya caught her frown, and wavered. "Well, you should be concerned about their physical wellbeing, perhaps. The wellbeing of others that might be impacted by them."
Rose absently tapped her plate. "But their emotional wellbeing is tied to their physical wellbeing, and the wellbeing of others, because they're so drastic." It had not exactly escaped Rose's mind what the Trolls were capable of when they hated someone without boundaries.
"I don't deny that," Kanaya said, and then repeated: "But your concern seems pitying."
"You can't think I should be mechanical?" Rose asked, indignantly. It all seemed so cruel.
"No! I think you should be very emotional! Just…" Kanaya tipped her head, like a sympathetic shrug. "…Just hating, not pitying." When Rose scowled at this response, Kanaya amended: "Neutral, at least!"
Each confirmation from Kanaya was jus making things worse. "But… this is ridiculous!" Rose said. "I-I'm sorry," she added, though her emotions made it hard to continue evenly. "But am I hearing you right? Because your species has divided pity and hatred down the middle, I'm not allowed to feel any pity or regret about Vriska, Eridan or their situation? A complete emotional disconnect, affection sucked out until there's nothing left but hate?" Kanaya frowned. "Kanaya, I'm emotionally invested now. I didn't sign on for the kind of… one-sided nothing that you're describing." The more she rolled it over in her head, the less sense it made. A buried part of her mind tried to point out that she would certainly not want to hate Kanaya, but how was she possibly supposed to look out for Vriska and Eridan with nothing but hate?
Rose shook her head. "I'm going to have to talk to Vriska and Eridan now too. Okay. Fair. But you can't seriously expect me to treat them like nothing more than a… a rash that won't go away!" Rose hung her head. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't be mad at you. I realize what I keep saying must be so insensitive. I just… I'm taking this in."
"It's certainly not as though you're 'not allowed.'" Kanaya said. She got up and approached, and settled side-saddle on the edge of the desk. She cut a striking figure even with her casual perch. Rose wished the conversation could wrap up, not just so the issue would go away, but because she knew just how much of a wreck she must have looked, sunk into her chair. "Its Not As Though Karkat And I Will Be Standing In The Shadows Like Some Sort Of Bureaucratic Ethics Body Waiting For You To Misstep In Your Troll Relationships. Equius Our Enforcer Nepeta Keeping The Books. We're not going to quash you for having a personal touch. In fact, I'd say it's important all on its own. Don't you think?"
Rose did not laugh. "Kan," she said instead, "do you think I've done any serious damage? First Gamzee and now this…"
It was clear Kanaya did not know. "Manipulative and irrational," she repeated with a shrug. "Could anyone tell?" Rose's face fell, some of her hair falling to block her eyes. Kanaya reached out to brush it back. "I can't solve everything. It's your relationship. All I can say in the end is that you may want to exercise more… caution when it comes to your hate-relationships." Rose turned away with a scoff and set to gently bite her opposite fist. Only after she had moved did she regret moving out of Kanaya's soft touch. "I understand you're stressed, Rose. I feel somewhat responsible. It seems to me that your confusion would be cleared up if you just had a better grasp of the quadrants. I'm afraid I feel somewhat responsible."
Rose glanced back, her fist against her cheek. She clenched it, wishing she could knock away the problems that had cropped up. "The quadrants?" she asked. "You're hardly responsible for that." It was just starting to sink back into her mind that she was on a wildly derailed date. She wished she could take it all back, and start over, starry-eyed and falling head-over-heels in her mind over her girlfriend. Instead she was stuck on the ground, trying to solve the Rubick's Cube that was her damaged, faulty auspistice. She could kick herself.
"Well, yes, in a way, I am." Kanaya said. She had settled her hand by her side, graceful as ever, and settled into a lounge on top of the desk. "I was your first teacher on the subject of hate and pity, before Karkat."
"Should have paid more attention to the hate," Rose muttered.
Kanaya nodded. Just… nodded. That was what Rose saw, and that was what she was supposed to see. But Rose could not help it. Even after the long lecture, she had still been watching her girlfriend. She was beautiful, gorgeous in her specially chosen outfit, even sexy. And she was lying. Rose had seen it flit across her eyes. Perhaps it was because she was a Seer, or maybe it would have been as plain to anyone, if they knew where to look. That new, pretty Troll Thing from the morning had shown Rose Kanaya's surprise before she had buried it. Then, she noticed how Kanaya's nod had not been preceded by a muscular prime: it was not her instinctive response. A hunter's choice skills were of no use in a conversation. It would appear they were even becoming a detriment.
An ugly notion popped into Rose's mind. There, it began to grow. "You don't mean… all the quadrants?" Rose's anger over her cracked auspistice was pushed aside: still present, it was muffled by hurt. "…Ours? Because I don't think I've so much as interacted with a moirail pair for the past few days. Unless…" she said with thin hope, "I've accidentally said something about you and Karkat…"
"What? No! I-I Mean…" Kanaya, who had been leaning forward, pulled back in her surprise. "Rose, your experiences with Trolls in general only amounts to two months. You can't expect to have mastered the quadrants. That’s all I've meant."
Rose looked into her lap. "I won't deny that. But then, all the more important… to…" Rose tried to regain her composure. Professional. Netural. "I realize it is hardly your responsibility to keep me abreast of my cultural misassumptions, even if you have filled that role in the past. But I would hope, as my matesprit, you would tell me if there was something w-wrong." Rose swallowed in hopes of clearing the break in her voice. "Because otherwise I'll simply continue out of sheer ignorance, and I cannot…"
Kanaya reached out and touched Rose's arm. "Rose, if something were the matter, I'd like to think I'd have told you. You are an excellent girlfriend."
"You'd have told me?" Rose shook her head. "Considering the genesis of our relationship, and how we simply refused to talk to one another, I'm not sure I could trust myself… When was the last time you called me your girlfriend? Not your matesprit." she asked. Kanaya shrugged, trying to dismiss the comment. "You said it just now, after saying we're having quadrant problems."
"I never said we were having quadrant problems," Kanaya repeated, with a glare.
Rose realized that technically, she was right, but it was not near enough to tie down her angry tongue. "One Freudian slip deserves another."
Kanaya was aware of the term, was appropriately cross. "Do you think we're having problems? Because I'd like to know if we were as much as you seem to. In spite of your strange desire to knit problems from whole thread, I would've said that we weren't having any problems at all. I am quite satisfied with our situation."
"Our 'girlfriend' situation," Rose said without additional comment.
"Perhaps the label is more accurate!" Kanaya snapped. But then she was caught, and Rose knew it as well as she did. She sighed. "…Rose, let me explain." Rose was not meeting her eyes, but nodded. "…We both care about one another. Yes?"
"Certainly," Rose said, more aggressive than she would have liked.
Kanaya sat back up. "Attracted to one another?"
Rose did not hesitate to answer: Kanaya was still alluring in her dress, as ever, though the radiance of her earlier smiles had been dried away. "Definitely, for my part."
Kanaya smoothed her dress below the desk, as though bracing herself before meeting Rose's eyes. She pursed her lips, and it seemed to take her a moment to force out the next question. "Do you pity me?"
…Oh. Oh dear. The weight of the previous two conversations suddenly pressed on this third in Rose's head. Kanaya hardly needed to fill in the blanks.
"Because I think you do not," Kanaya said, businesslike. It was clear her patience with Rose's indignation had expired, and she was prepared to be blunt. "Nor do I pity you, by and large. Indeed, I think you will find it a compliment that I think of you with admiration."
Rose was still at a loss for words. "You… don't pity me?" She had thought the feelings, like the relationships, were analogous, but Kanaya was being quite clear. How long had Rose been hiding the fact from herself? Any attempt Rose might have harboured to further muddle the information died when she learned that Gamzee might take his violent assault as a sexual advance. Hate and pity.
"I've always admired you," Kanaya said instead. "I did, and do pity you considering your situation with the Horrorterror. But spending time with you during our—friendship. You were always very caring and attentive, and certainly had no pity for me. I… didn't know what to do." Kanaya clutched her shoulder. "I spoke to Karkat, after you and I had our confusing moment. He had always been more open to Human ideas than I'm afraid I had. He pointed out your progress with Tavros, Vriska and Eridan, and suggested that perhaps I should try the same."
Rose's mind was strained, between what Kanaya was saying and the new ideas streaming past old barriers. "You asked me to be your girlfriend. Not your matesprit." Her hand wanted to trace to the cheek Kanaya had kissed that morning. "I didn't understand."
"I admit to a certain amount of fault in perpetuating the misconception," Kanaya said. "Moments later, in fact. But I was so happy. Have been. So happy." She smiled, though Rose's response must have been a mass of confusion, as it faded. "I admit, the road has not been entirely smooth. Your choice of, say, compliments has sometimes been confusing. Or ineffective. But you make your affections clear. Sometimes they match up with a pitying or pitied compliment, and I'm coming to like the new ones. I have had no reason or want to complain."
"B-but… no!" Rose stood up. Why hadn't she said anything? Rose's lingering anger with Vriska made it impossible for her to be as upset about this news as she wanted. Her… girlfriend had buried all of this away, and Rose wanted to set it right, but she did not know what to do or say. Even though she realized how pitiful the whole situation struck, Rose could not imagine how to turn it into... praise? Her mind rallied against her urge to speak. "P-please," she said, clutching her temples. "Just a moment." Kanaya nodded.
Rose desperately tried to sort through her new facts. In hopes of focusing, she thought of the only matesprit pairs she knew. There was Eridan, stumbling over himself to explain how he would make things up to Tavros, just before their first kiss. Feferi had said her crush on Aradia and Equius had only begun after she had heard about Sollux and Aradia's lost relationship, after Aradia had started to come back from her pitiable Ghost life as a thrall of the Horrorterrors. True, she had settled in hate, but that had been its genesis. Also true, the Trolls did pay one another compliments from time to time. Definitely. But their enthusiasm to patch the other's pitiful problems was notable. Sollux's extremes to help Feferi with her problems. Terezi and Karkat's relationship, despite all the sharp, pointy rocks that had come before, only shattered when he refused to come to her after she had lost Dave. They were all comparable to Human problems, but a pattern was beginning to tell. And aid and improvement was the only facet of pity Rose could guess at. What else had she missed, had Jade missed with Nepeta, had Dave missed with Terezi?
Had Rose ever so much as paid Kanaya the kind of compliment she would have wanted from a Troll? The reverse might be true. Kanaya had been there for her after she had attacked Gamzee, like a good girlfriend but a better matesprit. She had clung to Rose, every step of the way, desperately defending her against the others when she had attacked Gamzee. She had set it all right. The Trolls had calmed down, because of her. And Rose had thanked her, and their mutual response had been… enthusiastic. That made Rose feel worse. She looked up at Kanaya, who had been poking at her food so not to disturb. Their time together in Rose's bedroom, in fact several of the times since, had come as somewhat off. Had it been the lack of pity? Or something else?
"I'm so sorry," Rose said. "But I didn't understand. I don't."
"Why I didn't tell you?" Kanaya asked.
"No," Rose said. Hadn't they had enough hesitating moments in their relationship for them to forgive any new ones? For that sort of damnable mud to be just as clear as ever? "I don't understand the pity. I can't… how is this supposed to work? Do I focus on only your flaws?"
"N-no, not entirely," Kanaya said, but Rose cut her off before she could say more.
"I certainly don't perpetuate them," Rose said. She thought of Tavros and Eridan, and Tavros' compliment about Eridan's universally loathed enthusiasm. The happy memory seemed corrupted now, and her anger began to spill through. "Should I search your personality up and down until I find some loose thread I find endearing that others would think of as negative? Do I ignore your pros and… fawn and coo over your flaws? Do I never say another word about your dresses and spill encouragement onto your… your…" Rose stopped outright. She knew exactly which skills Kanaya felt needed improvement. She had made the pause to pretend Kanaya was just so good at her work that she had to scrape to find a flaw. Hardly pitying in the slightest. Rose let her inner Karkat screech obscenities at her. She felt she deserved far worse.
"Rose," Kanaya insisted, "you don't have to do anything because I don't care!" She was angry too.
"But we shouldn't be like this!" Rose said. The word "care" was bouncing in her ears. It was suddenly wrong. "I thought we were…" Friends, matesprits, girlfriends… "…partners! We're supposed to be level! You've put yourself through all of this." Rose balanced two hands and lowered one. "When I want you… to be… next to me." There was a pregnant silence, during which they both realized Rose had accidentally said something pitying and neither of them knew what to do with it.
Finally, Kanaya stood up, and stepped toward Rose, taking her by the shoulders. Rose felt a rush of guilty warmth and could not do it. She turned away, so that she would not have to look Kanaya in the eye. Kanaya replaced her hands, and Rose let her.
"How did I miss this?" Rose said. She prided herself on her intelligence. "I'm the worst matesprit in the world."
"Not so," Kanaya said. Her voice had calmed, and was a whisper in Rose's ear. Rose reached up to take one of Kanaya's hands to wrap her closer. "As the most objective person in the room to say so, the worst matesprit still alive is Karkat after that little debacle with Terezi. In spite of all his efforts."
That was pitying. The fondness in Kanaya's voice for her moirail was evident, warm. Rose knew Kanaya was probably re-priming her old auspistice muscles to advise Karkat into three more healthy relationships the split second he showed interest. And by putting him down, Kanaya had lifted Rose up. Kanaya's affections for her were even more evident, certainly more warm. Rose could never even imagine pulling off that sort of double-compliment/insult-reacharound. "I just don't… understand." Rose repeated. "You care for him, you're trying to fix his anger issues. You care for me, because…" Kanaya kissed the back of her neck, brushing aside the earring with her cheek, sending chills up Rose's spine. "Because I'm imperfect?"
"Flawed is certainly beautiful," Kanaya said, "but that's hardly the full picture. But does it matter?" Kanaya had noticed her kisses were having an effect. The earring had left Rose's skin cold: Kanaya set it aside and kissed the spot warm again. "We certainly have the freedom to proceed as we please."
"The full picture…" You pity Karkat's rage. You would pity my flaws. You would have me hate Vriska and Eridan's rage. You thought I hated Gamzee…
Rose reached up to stop Kanaya. "…You used to pity Vriska's anger." Kanaya nodded against her. "Now you want me to hate her." Kanaya stalled. "…You hated your friends. The ones you were auspisticing." Kanaya loosened her grip, and Rose turned. "You killed them." Kanaya had not been there when they had had this conversation. The shock in her eyes was evident. "…Why?"
"It's the job of an auspistice to keep a kismesis from collapsing to murder. But you killed them." Rose said. Rose's mind ran hot. She had it. She understood, and it rolled through her like a virulent rot. "Why?"
"Rose, we've been over this!" Kanaya protested. "We broke up, but I still hated them and… I didn't expect you to understand, but I thought you had—"
"Because there's no middle ground! Is there?" The words flowed so freely, straight from the epiphany. Rose could barely get them out fast enough. "I thought I had understood why you had done it. I was trying to make my peace with it, and now I find it's rooted in this emotionless deathtrap your society's set up? Isn't it?"
Kanaya could not follow Rose, and was about to make it clear that she did not when Rose interrupted her. "The quadrants span hate and… and pity! Is that honestly your species' emotional range?" Rose clutched to her temples. "I hadn't noticed because I just filed it away as another bout of Karkat's machismo! Maybe I didn't want to believe it! I thought you were better than this! But if you have nothing between violent judgement and pity… you don't even come close to 'like!'" It was Kanaya's turn to be at a loss of words, and Rose took immediate advantage. "And the people in between. That's why your friends had to die, wasn't it? Because there is no middle ground. Tell me I'm wrong." Kanaya was too shocked to do anything of the sort. Rose changed angles. "You said you care about me. Okay." Rose crossed her arms. "Do you care about anyone else?" Kanaya was clearly astonished by the question. "Karkat?"
"Of course!" She looked offended even to be asked.
Rose lowered her eyes. "Vriska?" Kanaya shied away at that, but that was expected. "What about the rest? If someone else on this rock was suffering, or died, would you be upset? If I lost control of… not Vriska, not with your history. Eridan! If I lost control of Eridan and he attacked someone, killed someone, would you bat an eye?"
Kanaya took a step away from her. "Of course I would! Rose, how could you say that?"
"You'd be upset at him?" Rose asked, sharp and ready. "Maybe pitying him, if he killed… say, Feferi and just realized what he did?"
Kanaya set her lips. "I am not going to answer your leading questions, Rose. I thought you respected me enough to dissuade with the relentless verbal sneak attacks. You know I would be furious at your hypothetical Eridan. But right now I'm too angry with you!"
"But what about Feferi?" Rose whispered, more than loud enough to be heard. "Would you care? Or would you just deal with Eridan?" Rose's fists shook with the revelation. "Kill him, jail him, get Gamzee to pat his back until he stops blowing people's heads off like a… rampage is just another Troll 'thing?'"
Kanaya stung with hurt, but Rose could not help but feel triumph under her own pain. Kanaya wasn't to blame, but it felt like she had just pushed back against the smothering tide of Vriska, Eridan and Rose's own guilt over Gamzee. "I can't believe this!" Kanaya said, shaking. "I can't believe you! I thought you understood more than this! You know we wouldn't let someone just get away with that. You know—"
Rose cut in. "You just said—"
"We're not Imperial Trolls!" Kanaya shouted. "These people are our allies, and what we do with our dead is not your concern, if this is the way you're going to behave!" She rubbed at her eyes, smudging of her makeup. "Do you really think that this horror story of yours would settle into some kind of blind end? You're acting like we'd pretend nothing ever happened! Is that what you think? That we'd do nothing just because we understand violence better than you do?" That hurt. It hurt, even though Rose would have sworn by the Horrorterrors that she never wanted to know another thing about violence. "Everyone in here means a great deal to all of us!"
Rose was not finished, and she glowered back. "What about my friends?" she said. "They're not your allies."
Kanaya choked back tears. "Rose!"
Rose swung an arm to cut her off. "And not just for my sake, because I swear—"
"Stop it!" Kanaya shouted. "Stop it right now!" She had started crying openly, and covered her mouth to muffle sobs. "What is the matter with you?" she hissed, in voice and hidden voice. "We promised. We promised we would be neutral on things like this. In the name of… mutual understanding." She sniffed, and glared up at Rose out of the corner of her eye. "I feel. I care. How dare you? I am not going to stand here and be judged by someone who can't begin to understand!"
"Oh, I understand!" Rose shouted. "I understand that I shouldn't have forgiven for your murders out-of-hand! I understand that I should have thrown Eridan and Vriska out as soon as they asked me to be a part of this monstrous farce you call a society! I understand…"
Rose could not remember when she had last been this mad. In her youth, everything had been circumvented with a sarcastic twist or a passive-aggressive jab. Kanaya had undermined that. Rose had let her in, and all of her defences had been undone. Now, Kanaya bristled with every one of Rose's rejections, but did not react. Watching her, Rose realized the fight had past any point of restitution. Rose stopped herself hard before she started her next argument—next attack—her breath shaking on the edge of tears. Kanaya looked at her in confusion, anger, and pity. And that hurt the worst of all. If she had been any closer, Rose might have pulled her close, but the gap between them was far too large.
"I can't," Rose said to answer Kanaya's look. The strength was gone from her voice, and her body. She slid to the ground until she sat on the wooden, despite her beautiful dress. Everything she had said began to filter back to her, and Rose knew they stung nowhere near as hard as they had Kanaya. Quietly, Kanaya sat down across from her.
"I can't do this," Rose said. Kanaya looked to the ground, and Rose realized that "I can't do this," could have thousands of interpretations. She picked it up. "…I can't pity you, Kanaya. I-I just… that's not how I feel! I felt more at home with the idea of hate-wanting Gamzee. I can't sit here and pretend you're not a good person! It's not righ— It's not fair to you. I don't think." Kanaya frowned. "But y-you…"
Kanaya did not meet her eyes this time. "Rose, I said I was happy, being your girlfriend. That you would resent that never crossed my mind." She made a fist, and struck her knee. "But this…!"
Rose felt a ghosting on her back: the back that was facing a wall. Kanaya's anger, so well composed, was slipping. Once again, more with determination than by accident, Kanaya was hunting her. Rose hung her head, but despite her rage, Kanaya said nothing more. They simply sat, in silence. Rose finally found the courage to break it. "But don't you want more?" she asked. "I should be something you want, Kanaya. You shouldn't be someone I want, you already are! Isn't there something I could do? You've done so much. I haven't even tried."
Kanaya raised her eyes, which were stiff with dried tears and a focused, fading anger. She scooted forward, as best she could in her dress, until she sat alongside Rose, facing her. She cupped Rose's face. "We never said this would be easy. Sometimes… it can take time." She blinked and another tear slipped out. Rose reached up, to brush it away, but Kanaya stopped her, to do so herself. She shook her head. "Oh my Rose," she said, "Look at you. I wish you understood."
Rose stammered, her lower lip shaking, but before she could say another word, Kanaya leaned forward and kissed her. Despite it all, Kanaya lingered, and Rose's emotions were tossed into a wave of confusion and guilt. When Kanaya pulled back, Rose could not but chase after her. She never found her. The taste and warmth was still hot on her mouth. Under it all was a bitter-smooth taste that Rose could only ascribe to Kanaya herself, one last Troll Thing. Kanaya pulled away, her face resigned and sad, and Rose realized a tear had slipped past her own guard. She was just cognizant enough to hear Kanaya whisper: "We'll pick this up in the morning. I'm not… I mean, if you want."
Rose nodded, and they clutched one another's hands for a moment before Kanaya stood. Rose put a gentle hand on the hem of her dress. "Kan," she whispered. "We…" Rose coughed. It was hard to speak above a whisper. "We Humans have a saying…" She rubbed at her eye. "To... to never go to bed angry."
Kanaya smiled back. She was ever so beautiful, in her dress. "...We don't."
She disappeared into her bedroom.
Rose lingered for a while, perhaps hoping that Kanaya would come back, but did not want to make her feel awkward when she did not. She got up to leave at last, after the lights began to brighten for the Troll's sleep cycle. Rose stood, her legs protesting the movement with riots, and slipped into the lobby. There, she changed into her old clothes and replaced the dress Kanaya had made in her sylladex with unusual dignity. Rose then headed into the tunnels, going as fast as she could stand, until it all finally caught up to her and she broke down, somewhere between Sollux and Karkat's sections, to cry.
Where had the night gone wrong? It made Rose bitter to know that the problems all fell before the date had even been planned. It seemed foolish to think that she and Kanaya might have shared a more pleasant night with different choice of conversation, if it would just mean the same trouble a day or two down the road. She was almost afraid to get back up. She didn't want to go to bed, because tomorrow would be worse. Tomorrow she would have to talk to Kanaya again, and she just knew she would not be ready for her. Tomorrow she would have to talk to Vriska, and to Eridan, and then together. Perhaps to Tavros? And then, last of all, Gamzee. She wished more than ever that she already had talked to Gamzee, that that was all wiped up. She needed someone to talk to. She could not bring this to Dave. Not to Jade, her advice would be uplifting but useless. And John was a fool in matters of the heart. No. Rose did not want to get up at all.
"And then Vriska will get you all killed, won't she, Rose darling?"
Rose ceased to breathe, ceased to think, though her mind screamed for a response.
"Because she hates you. It doesn't matter what you say."
Rose reached over and pinched her arm. Nothing. She looked at her lap, and screwed up her face. How had she allowed herself to fall to sleep in the open? How had she been so stupid? She struggled for only a moment before she was distracted by a soft click. Slowly, she opened her eyes, to find that she was still in the access hall. Sure turned, and saw that a glass had been set beside her: a martini glass, made of smoke.
"I heard you were looking for relationship help," said her mother. She was using her two free hands to carry a stack of exactly seventeen books. Considering the martini glass, she had made it all this way with only one hand. She, and the books, were all made of smoke.
Rose responded out of reflex. "Oh certainly. Your extensive career as a single woman will be most helpful." Then she stopped. "Wait. No. You're 'Sloth,'" Rose remembered. "I don't want to talk to you. I know I'm being slothful, thank you. I know I need to talk to Gamzee. You don’t need to rub it in." She had not seen Sloth in some time. Except this was different. When she had last met Sloth, or any of the seven sin aspects of the God, they were full-bodied and full-coloured, not like this smoke creation. And this one spoke… differently. Drunkenly. This vision sounded like her mother.
Whatever it was, it ignored her. She hefted the books to indicate them. "The first four of these are about safe sex. Condoms. Birth control pills. IUDs are expensive but certainly you want to be safe at thirteen. The next is about good date locations for tourists in the Adirondacks, since I doubt you're gong to find many good traditional date locations to take young men. The next four are about sports, and two about video games, because it always pays to have common interests with the young men, Rose darling. And… oh! Pardon me, five about safe sex. This one is an abstinence book, since I didn't want to block your options. It's about the horrors of raising children at your age. And, oh yes! Last of all: one, and exactly one, book about coming out to your family."
This book was tossed to her, and evaporated into true smoke in her lap. "By all means, at your leisure," said her mother. "You and I have all the time in the world to discuss these things, don't we?"
That cut far too close. "Go away," Rose whimpered. She no more wanted to get up now than before. "You're not my mother, and you have no right—"
"Oh, Rose. That's not me."
Rose's mother did not respond, but Rose did. The voice had come from behind, like the Vriska and Eridan's hunting undercurrent. She slowly turned her head, and saw that a passage had opened behind her. There stood the tall, powerful black man she had seen in the previous vision. Rose shook her head at him. "I don't care what you say," she said. "You cheat. You can certainly be in two places at once. That's you." But the smoke-mother was so precise to her mother. So perfect, in all her infuriating flaws.
"I assure you, Rose darling. That is not me. True, in our early games, I tasked you on seven deadly sins. But now…"
He looked to the smoke woman, and Rose could not help but follow his gaze. Her mother stared down at her, eyebrow cocked. To Rose, it looked exactly like how she would expect her mother to look if she were trying to puzzle out why her daughter was ignoring her and talking to an invisible god. Perfect. The god continued.
"Now your mother is just your mother. Dave's brother is just his brother."
All at once, the ghost vanished, and Rose felt a strange, genuine pang in her heart. It hurt, as it cut across the same scar in her heart that had once caused her to make drastic measures. It was the pain she had felt that had turned her to Doc Scratch and then, blind, to the God of a Thousand Faces.
"It was important to play St. Gregory for a time, when you were arrogant. But now the game has changed and you, Rose darling, have grown."
He was before her.
Rose pulled from him, but as she cowered, something changed. Her mind, still dwelling on her mother, began to grow an independent thought. A part of Rose was loose from his reigns. "What do you mean, 'when' I was arrogant?" she said. She had been meant to notice the word, certainly. But subconsciously, not consciously, like a bomb set for some later hour. He smiled, and slowly, he reached for his belt and drew a long bent scimitar from thin air. He held it aloft for a moment, and then he changed, in the manner of dreams, and was the Empress with her trident. Rose was aware of it all. Before, the dreams had hidden those details. The lack of movement. The transformations. Rose looked at the trident, and realized this demon-Empress carried the same trident as Feferi. Once, Rose had been unable to make these sorts of connections. What had changed? The Empress lowered the trident's point to Rose's gut, and though her body protested, she could not move.
She looked up at the Empress' beautiful face.
"Time to play."
Rose woke with a start and clasped her hand to her gut. She found she had slipped from sitting and onto the ground – quickly, she righted herself and stood. Once she was sure she was alone, Rose wrenched the skin of her arm just to be doubly sure she was awake. Only then did she check her stomach. There was indeed a tiny pinprick of a hole there. She had bled only a few drops of blood onto her white shirt, just aside the scarred Squiddle emblem.
Calm, Rose pressed the shirt tight to the wound and began to look around. There, on the ground next to where she had fallen in her sleep was a bent panel with a sharp edge. She must have rolled onto it as she slept. As she examined the metal, she heard a nearby machine click, which made her jump. That explained the martini glass. Her dream had introduced elements to compensate for the real world around her.
Rose began to fish through her sylladex for her antidote candy, just in case. She found one and popped it into her mouth, and began to suck on the candy. She waited, and calmed, and began to think. Slowly, the chaos in her mind began to clear. Slower still, she lowered herself back to the ground, and began to stare off into space.
As her mind cleared, Rose remembered both of her encounters: with Kanaya, and the Horrorterror. Her new rage mingled with her former sorrow, until they reached a perfect balance. Rose wiped her eyes and nose. Once cleaned, she became a picture of perfect focus. She clenched her knees, she then took off her headband and shook out her hair, and she reached into her mind and clutched that rage, and that sorrow, and wielded them together.
"...No more," Rose said aloud.
Nothing answered. She was alone, in an abandoned hall, built from nothing, for no one. There was no one to hear her voice ring clear, no one to see her lips set or to sense the fear leave her behind. "I want to tell you a story," she said. The world listened.
Rose's voice was soft, but as she told her story, it took on an eerie sort of confidence. Her opponent could not respond, and that made it stronger. "When I was very young," Rose said to the hall, "I had a reoccurring nightmare, about drowning. There was a reason for it. In real life, I had been swimming by the beach when a rip tide hit me. A life guard somehow get me out. I was four… didn't quite remember it, so to speak. One day, when I was six, my nightmare started. I would go into the water, and I would drown. Except it wasn't a rip tide in the dream. Maybe you already know?" She reached up a finger, and wrapped it about an invisible shape, and turned. "Seaweed. Around my leg." She glared at the opposite wall. "…'Seaweed.'" She yanked down with her hand, as though clutching her childhood leg.
"And then I would try to wake up, but I couldn't. Because in the real world, I had rolled onto my belly. My face was in my pillow. I was actually suffocating." She cupped a hand over her face, her mouth and nose. "And my dream was reacting, like it did with you. It was giving me pictures to explain my situation. The only thing it knew was that I couldn't breathe, and it gave me a picture to tell me why: drowning. Every night, for a week. I must have been sleeping odd, don't you think?" The air was stale in her hand. There was only the gap around her hand to let in air, and she took shallow breaths. "I never told my mother about the pillow. I didn't want to worry her. I told her about the dream. Being my mother, she bought me water wings."
Rose smiled, for a moment, which let in a whisp of fresh air. "I didn't know her any better yet. I thought it would work. I set them in a chair, beside my bed, before I went to sleep. Very neat. Proud of myself. And in my dream, I saw the beach, and I turned away and began to walk. And I came to my house, as though it were by the beach, and found my water-wings. And I put them on, and nothing could drown me." She took away her hand, and balled it to a fist. "I woke up in the morning, on my side."
She reached into her sylladex and took out one of the Quills. She held it loose, such that it tipped point-down between her fingers. "I've tried to set water-wings against you, but you showed me well how that works. You just use my weapons against me, and my friends."
Something occurred to Rose. She nodded in agreement with her own mind, which continued to clear. "You knew how I'd screw up these past few days, didn't you? With Vriska, and Eridan… and Kanaya. So you had me attack Gamzee: the person who had helping everyone else!" She dropped the Quill, and it soundly embedded itself in the floor.
"And that brings me to the second part of my story." Rose straightened. She should have been exhausted, but she felt more awake than she had all day. "I learned to swim. You want to change the game? Bring my mother into this? If you change the rules, your opponent is going to change them too."
Rose pointed a challenge where the Empress had stood. "…So now I talk, and you listen. Because it's over. I am going to take this fight to you."