“They’re looking,” she says, quiet in his ear, though she sounds more amused than anything.
“Course they’re fucking looking,” he fires back, side of the mouth like he’s James Cagney, or alternatively like he’s just been to the dentist and half his face is solid rubber. “Do you know how pretty I am?”
Sadly, she’s right, they really are. It’s not even the usual paranoid shiver of intrusion most everyone gets in these situations. Heads genuinely are turning, conversations are faltering, remarks are being poorly concealed behind hands or napkins. His favourite option is (a): hot damn, check out that guy in the shades, motherfucker’s so swag he put me off my filet mignon. He’d settle for (b), because Rose Lalonde is nineteen and perfect, big violet eyes and a little dress to match, skin like cream and a tiny smile that says you can touch me if you like, but you will almost certainly die; she’s got one hand on his sleeve, white on crushed crimson like a shitty vampire paperback, and right now he could punch a speeding train and come off best. But somewhere in his gut he knows it’s (c). Goodness, they could be brother and sister.
“Table for two, sir?” says the maître d’, and Dave valiantly resists the urge to say nah brah, the rest of the team’s right behind us, because tonight that’s not the point; tonight he is taking it seriously.
* * *
He still feels a little bit guilty about the way he sold it to John. If there’s one thing the man can’t resist, it’s philanthropy.
TG: hey dude meant to say
TG: im dragging lalonde off to parts foreign for a few days
TG: get her out of that goddamn stupid mystery mansion before she goes completely fruitloop
EB: oh man, that’s great! i get really worried about her, she must be so lonely.
EB: i mean, i know she’s kind of used to it by now.
EB: and i know she’s got us.
EB: but still!
TG: oh gee thanks thats real fucking considerate
TG: shedding crystal tears for the poor neglected hothouse flower
TG: you realise ive got precisely dick to do in this apartment but grind up stunts and flood the net with delirious beats
EB: but... that’s all you ever did anyway.
TG: not the point
TG: what do i gotta do john
TG: how do i make you feel my pain
TG: hold it there imma go get the gin bottle and the complete works of sylvia fucking plath
TG: maybe knit you a horrorterror of your very own to hold
TG: ill punctuate my goddamn sentences if thats what it takes
TG: pulling out all the stops here
TG: or i guess putting them back in but yeah
EB: bluh whatever dude, i never got why you and rose didn’t just move in together in the first place.
EB: living with jade is awesome!
EB: i mean, i have to do all the cooking, because she’s terrible.
EB: and most of the cleaning.
EB: but it’s so much nicer having someone else around, seriously!
EB: turns out having a sister is pretty much the best.
TG: i can do without a sniffy bookwitch all in my crib 24/7 thx
TG: dont really want to get home after a hard day being fucking incredible and find shes like rearranged all my dvds
TG: theyre all shelved by literary allusion or camera angle or something retarded and i cant find shit
TG: david what kind of a cinematic library do you call this
TG: not a single example of the austere aesthetic of influential japanese director yasujiro ozu
TG: how am i supposed to construct stylistic parallels between the lord of the rings super mega double extended goes on for fucking ever edition and a staggering quantity of late nineties porno
EB: oh my god, you don’t actually have porn in your flat, do you?? gross!
TG: no john
TG: my body is a temple
TG: i have sworn the fivefold vow and become one of the enlightened brotherhood
TG: never again will i get fucked up on cheap lager by myself
TG: eat microwave dim sum with a couple of biros
TG: or jerk it to the underrated turn of the millennium classic attack of the fuck vixens
TG: seminal is the word believe you me
EB: la la la, i am not hearing any of this because it is just so awful.
EB: tell me about your holiday plans.
TG: oh yeah right
TG: well basically this is an intervention
TG: im saving lalonde from herself
TG: and by herself i mostly mean bombay sapphire
TG: she wanted to go somewhere quote cultured unquote
TG: specified it had to have at least three museums and a park with wrought iron benches
TG: so i figured london
TG: theyve got assloads of old shit there right
TG: plus i almost speak the fucking language which saves some effort
EB: oh wow, that is so cool!!
EB: i think london is a really good idea.
EB: i mean, it’s basically like america, but older.
EB: and dirtier.
EB: and they’ve got the british museum, and that big tower where they used to behead people, and i think there’s a castle?
EB: and everyone’s very polite, and it rains all the time!
EB: she will love it.
TG: yeah im gonna be bored as fuck but nm
TG: guess i can always start a riot
TG: say i was trying to get a feel for the local culture
EB: don’t actually do that.
EB: i am sure you guys will have so much fun, it’ll be really good for you to spend some time together!
Misdirecting John Egbert was about as much an achievement as pissing off Karkat Vantas had been – five points on Kongregate at best – but Dave felt he’d done it right, left no traces. What could be more natural than a concerned brother trying to shake his ectosister from a bad case of the juniper woegothics by getting her some authentic London smog, bring the absence of colour back to her cheeks? A day spent wandering round the Assyrian galleries, then tea and scones in the café. Shopping on Oxford Street. A Shakespeare play in the evening, something robust and cheerful, like Richard III. It all sounded homely and plausible and like he had a plan, which he didn’t, in the slightest. All he knew was that between half and three-quarters of the average waking day was now being spent on thinking about Rose Lalonde, in scenarios ranging from the blissfully innocent to the distinctly questionable, and that once he went to sleep and his brain switched over to the late-night encrypted satellite channels things got frankly outrageous, and it was pissing him off. They talked most evenings on Pesterchum, the same dumb sniping conversations they’d always had, like they were both still thirteen and Sburb had never happened; but every time she signed off he’d sit there for five or ten minutes at his computer, staring blankly at her lavender text, painfully hard and weirdly miserable.
There were a bunch of different explanations for this. It could be hormones. Dave was a nineteen-year-old virgin, since he was fairly sure none of the stuff with Terezi had counted, and hence a thermonuclear warhead of untamed lust. Rose was one of the only two girls he talked to on a regular basis; and while he’d be lying if he said Jade had never made a cameo appearance in his fantasies – often starring alongside Rose herself, in fact – mostly he just wanted to give her a hug. She didn’t fuck with his head the way Rose did. When he thought about getting home and finding his bed already occupied, which he did, well, most days he got home, come to think of it, there was never any doubt who the occupant would be, or how she would smile at him, or how she would sit up and let the sheet fall away and reach out an arm towards him without saying a word. But maybe this was just, you know, familiarity breeding – no, hang on, that was contempt. Familiarity breeds near-continuous boners? Nah. Point was, maybe he just needed to get out and meet some other women.
But they wouldn’t be Rose, and deep down he knew it would be useless. So one morning he’d sat down with a mug of strong coffee and considered it logically, trying to block out both the desire and the helpless, blazing tenderness that swept through the hollows of his chest whenever she crossed his mind for more than a second. He needed to be around her, and no-one else, not the four of them like normal, so he could get a handle on whether it was her or just his dick that was giving him a permanent -4 to Coherent Thought, not to mention inflicting Erotic Daydream status (save ends, if you’re lucky). It needed to be neutral territory, or the experiment wouldn’t be fair; plus her house creeped him the fuck out. That meant going away together. A vacation. He was bored of America anyway. Europe was the obvious choice, but Europe was risky and laden with connotations. Inviting a girl to Paris, or Florence, or Rome, was basically the same as presenting her with a square of gilt-edged card reading I should be most grateful for the opportunity to fuck you senseless at your earliest convenience, RSVP. And then he’d thought of London.
London, by virtue of being grey and damp and collectively repressed, maintained a certain ambiguity. Young lovers didn’t write their names on padlocks and clip them to the gates of Hyde Park. No-one had ever filmed Last Tango in London, largely because Marlon Brando would have spent the entire movie in a waxed jacket, eating steak-and-ale pie mournfully and sneezing. He could sell the whole thing as a respectable cultural venture, rather than a squalid excuse to breathe Rose’s perfume and watch her drink coffee and maybe accidentally see her in her bra. She wouldn’t believe him, of course, she never did, but she wouldn’t disbelieve him either, which was the crucial part. Paris would make her smirk; London would intrigue her. She’d go along with it if only to see what he had in mind. Maybe he’d read up in advance, drop some comments about how much he was looking forward to the Elgin Marbles. Maybe he’d buy her a parasol.
* * *
The flight from JFK took seven hours and she did crosswords the whole way. Dave kept his headphones on and stared fixedly at a point just below the pop-down electronic map with its outsized plane inching along the fat dotted line to Britain. Looking at her was always a mistake, but most of all when she concentrated. Rose doing a puzzle, hair slanting either side of her pale face, eyes slightly narrowed, sometimes raising the pen to her mouth to gnaw delicately on its cap, could stop his heart faster than a bullet, and with considerably less mess. They talked once, when dinner arrived on its plastic trays.
“Oh, how cute! Look, they’ve whipped up a sort of little tribute to moussaka. An homage, if you will. I wonder what they used for the eggplant? It’s quite convincing at a distance. Be careful, it’s – yes, it’s hot. Have some water.”
“I like the way they label this fucking wet wipe in like nine languages. Cleansing hand towel. Towelette douchant des mains. Wasserwipe. You picture all these poor fucking Swedish dudes getting their meal, being like, oh shit, what am I meant to do with this square of moist paper that smells kind of lemony? Is it dessert?”
“The bread roll would probably be quite nice if they hadn’t left it in a corpse locker overnight. Can I dip it in your coffee to reanimate it?”
“Fuck off! Shove it under your arm for thirty seconds, or breathe on it, or something. I don’t want bits of cavity foam floating in my hot black pisswater.”
“No, God forbid I should recklessly endanger the fresh-roasted quality of a fellow traveller’s transmission fluid.”
“I’m serious as cancer, girl. I ain’t touched caffeine since breakfast and I’m this far off a Java runtime error. If I drop dead right here you’re flying the plane.”
“This salad is limp, illogical, and disturbing in a number of ways. I’m not sure I can bear to contemplate it any longer. We shall shovel black earth upon its hideous alien geometries and pray future generations don’t return to dig it up. What’s behind the third door? Oh, cheesecake.”
“Shit, for real? You don’t want that, too many calories. I’ll take it off your hands.”
“Retract your grasping paw before I spork it. I will not suffer a single one of these calories to be taken from me. They are mine, and I love them like my tiny edible children.”
“Jesus. Don’t threaten a sporking unless you got the cojones to go through with it. You ever seen what happens to a man when those shitty little plastic tines snap off inside the wound? My sergeant ate a hollow-point slug to get away from the pain, everything north of his nose just kinda drifted away on the Khe Sanh breeze.”
* * *
They stayed in a hotel a little way out of the centre, and shared a room, because after all Dave wasn’t made of money. Twin beds, all perfectly respectable. When Dave got into his pyjamas Rose went over to the window and stared out at rainy lamp-light. When Rose got into hers he went and stood in the corridor with his back to the door, hands in his pockets, whistling, and knocked before he came back in. He slid the catch on the bathroom during his morning shower (ten minutes); she did likewise during hers (half an hour). He lay on his bed and watched TV news with the volume turned up so he couldn’t hear the muffled hiss and splash of the water, thought so hard about the implications of the latest fall in the Dow Jones he could probably have gotten a lectureship at LSE, because share prices left no room for concepts like steam, and wet skin, and tiny hungry sounds from deep in a pale throat tilted up under spray. When she came out dry and clean and neatly dressed, mopping at her hair with a fluffy periwinkle-blue hotel towel, he was lost in financial reverie, and the crotch of his jeans was flat as the Goddamn savannah. Nothing to see here, ma’am, move along.
Mercifully Rose knew the British for ‘liquor store’, so the first night they found one tucked down a back street and acquired two cartons of orange juice and a bottle of impossibly shitty vodka. They sat on their respective beds in the glow of the TV, shoes off, Dave’s ankles crossed, Rose’s knees hunched up, and drank screwdrivers out of the plastic cups they’d found shrink-wrapped on the bathroom shelf, and watched an indifferent slasher flick about some plucky teenagers who got lost on a hiking tour of Romania. One of the girls looked kind of like Jade, and Dave couldn’t help but flinch when she took a rusted iron railing straight through the face and out the back of her skull. Rose shot him a look.
“Strider. Surely, surely, after all we’ve seen, you aren’t squeamish.”
“Hey, personally I’m proud of the fact that an eighteen-year-old girl’s head making a noise like someone stamped on a bag of chips still knows how to move me, Eduardo. Ain’t my fault your horrorgland’s drier than Tutankhamen’s asshole.”
“And yet you can conversationally deploy the prospect of flaking, bituminous sphincters with perfect equipoise,” she said reflectively. “I suppose we all have our taboos.”
“Not the same,” he objected. “A dead guy’s ass is just a dead guy’s ass. Some poor kid getting her face stoved in like a piñata? That shit’s legitimately nasty.”
“You have real trouble with the idea of women getting hurt, don’t you?” she said. “I mean, physically injured.”
“Fuck yeah I do. Makes my skin crawl. Ask any dude, he’ll tell you the same.”
“Global statistics on sexual assault and domestic abuse beg to disagree with you there, mon brave.”
“Okay. Sorry. Ask any dude who’s not an enormous douchebag and he’ll tell you the same. Better?”
“Mmm.” And she settled a little further down in her pillows and turned her attention back to the television.
The movie turned into adverts, which turned into a rerun of a shitty sitcom from the 90s, until the slow breathing from the next bed told him she’d fallen asleep. He rolled sideways to look at her. Stretched out like an Arundel countess, hands folded on her stomach, head propped up a little on the pillows, face blue-white and calm in the candle-flicker light of some guy in a bad shirt trying to explain to his wife what had happened to the lawnmower. Canned studio laughter surging like waves on stone. Only a strand of hair across Rose’s cheek, only the inching rise and fall of her breasts beneath the dress, between her and a tomb carving. Side by side in a crypt above London; a Knight and his lady. A lady. What will survive of us is love.
The room smelt of her and her dress was riding up on one thigh, and he wanted to jack off, but he’d shot himself in the foot with all the church imagery, and there was always the chance she’d wake up. Idle notions of what she might do if she woke up and found him engaged in the solitary vice only made matters worse. For Heaven’s sake, Strider. This obsessive self-reliance is both inelegant and insulting. Let me help you with that. In the end he wriggled out of his jeans, pulled the duvet up round his shoulders, and thought very hard about the FTSE 100 until he passed out.
* * *
The next day they took their hangovers to the British Museum. Rose, tetchy over the muesli and Earl Grey, perked up the minute she saw her first giant impassive stone head. Half an hour later and he had officially never seen her this happy. Dave knew, on an academic level, that he didn’t give a shit about any of this stuff, but it was hard not to when she was staring at some chunk of old carved rock like it was a pin-up, or telling him about Byzantine iconography with what sounded dangerously like eagerness. Every time they turned a corner her eyes lit up at some new vase or sarcophagus. She read out the inscriptions and relished every word, told him little stories about emperors who’d gone mad and dressed up as animals, or channelled all their kingdom’s resources into building themselves preposterously lavish fuck-palaces on remote islands before dying alone of the clap, still mumbling about immortality. She seemed to be on first-name terms with the gods of ten different pantheons; dropped them in conversation like they were friends in foreign countries she talked to on the Internet. Something was badly wrong with his stomach, and it wasn’t the vodka’s fault.
In one gallery they found a statue of a warrior youth, life-size, a cloak draped over one shoulder, marble eyes fixed on something far away no-one else had ever seen. For some reason there didn’t seem to be a sign or a label for it. Dave stared at it critically.
“This dude’s pretty cool,” he said. “He looks like a badass. Even with no Goddamn pants on.”
“He’s extraordinary,” she agreed. “Look at the way he’s standing, his weight on his left foot like that, and the tension in the muscles is perfect. It’s very sophisticated work. I wonder how old it is?”
“Eighteen hundred years, give or take,” said Dave, reflexively, and stopped. Rose swivelled to stare at him. Shit.
“So you did keep some of it,” she said softly. “I wondered.”
He shrugged. “Not much. I’m not gonna be catching the time train to ancient Rome any time soon, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“But you can – what, feel it? That’s incredible.”
“Yeah. It’s hard to explain, it’s like – like stuff has this weight, somehow. Been like this for years, but I’m noticing it more ever since we landed. I guess in Texas it don’t trouble me much, but everything here goes back to the year dot, and it’s – it’s heavy. That’s the only fucking way I can say it. I reckon time sticks to things, or some shit? I feel the weight, and I know how long it’s been around.”
“How precise is it?” She’d stepped a little closer to him, lowered her voice. Her eyes were fixed on his and it made him suddenly uncomfortable.
“Well, I can’t give you date and time. But I can usually get the decade. This dude’s maybe 220, 230 AD? It’s like when you eat Chinese food, or something, and you just know it’s got aniseed in it or whatever without having to think about it. Weird as Hell, I’m telling you. This whole place is actually kind of getting to me, it’s all so fucking old, I feel like TZ in a perfume shop – ” and he tailed off, flapped a hand helplessly by his side, looked back at the stone youth and his blind, ancient stare.
“Come on,” said Rose, and kept walking. He followed. “I can’t say I’m exactly surprised. You know Jade still moves around sometimes?”
“Mmm. John confided in me. Bless him, he was really worried. He kept coming downstairs in the morning and finding her fast asleep on the living-room carpet, or the kitchen counter, or the front lawn. At first he thought she was sleepwalking, but then one morning she woke up on the roof. It doesn’t happen that often, and she never goes far, but being John he’s terrified she’s going to apparate inside a passing garbage truck, or something equally unlikely.”
“Hnh. What about you? You kept any of your box of tricks?”
“It’s hard to say. Light was always the most numinous and ill-defined of the power sets. I wish I’d had more chance to discuss it with Vriska.” She stopped again to stare up at a vast marble relief across which draped figures processed serenely. “I feel more like taking risks, these days, certainly. But that could be due to any number of things.”
“Like coming out the other side of the fucking Apocalypse.”
“Exactly. Or selling my soul to the cover of Weird Tales and emerging with nothing more than a few picturesque scars on my heart to break the ice at parties.”
“Or watching John Egbert curb stomp the heat death of the Universe with a hammer designed by a gay clown. Big blue sock on his head and ‘One Winged Angel’ on the soundtrack.”
“Or kissing the fingers of the only woman I’ve ever loved, half a second before all creation came down between us like a pair of dusty velvet curtains and my final line got lost in the applause.”
They stood side by side, shoulders almost touching, gazing up at the priests and heroes with their bedsheet togas and their expressions of placid certainty. The fuckers looked so sure of their own permanence it made him want to fetch a power drill.
“Yeah,” he said finally. “I can see how some of that shit might make a girl a little crazy.”
She turned to look at him again, standing close, and pressed the back of her pale knuckles to the back of his where his hand hung by his side, twining their fingertips slightly together.
“It could make a boy a little crazy, too,” she said quietly, “if he let it.”
His throat hurt, and the only thing he’d ever wanted to do was get hold of her, pull her in, bury his face in her. To Hell with the sex. There’d be plenty of time for sex when he stopped crying.
“Rose, please. I’m a Strider. We don’t get crazy. We go, ‘huh’.”
“Surely on occasion you permit yourself a murmured ‘damn’?” The way she smeared the vowel out to spoof his accent would have been funny if it hadn’t been low and gorgeous and bitten at his gut like woodsmoke.
“Well, yeah. But only if the situation really calls for it. We don’t break that shit out for any old end of the world.”
She squeezed his fingers quickly with hers, then tugged her hand free. They walked on in silence down the gallery. A party of tourists swirled round and past them, chattering.
“I should hire you out to history faculties across the land,” she said, after a while. “I’d make a killing.”
He did his best to look wounded. “You’d do that? Pimp out your very own ectobro to a bunch of old white guys in tweed? They’d keep me in a cage.”
She nodded thoughtfully. “Put you on a leash, I shouldn’t wonder. Strider the Radiocarbon Dog. Hurry up, boy, only another hundred manuscripts to snuffle and then you can have your bowl of reconstituted cow brain.”
“I may be a burnt-out Hero of Time but I still got my dignity. I need to roam free across the meadows, Rose, wind in my hair, hoovering up green rupees I’m gonna lose at the end of the third day anyway ‘cause I always forget to put them in the fucking bank.”
“You’re right. I can’t go through with it. You and your magical time nose are an abomination in the sight of God, but damn it, you’re my abomination.” She smiled up at him suddenly and looped her arm through his. “Come on, let’s go and work out how old the cafeteria sandwiches are.”