It was early enough in that first Michaelmas, when I was still caught up in the new strangeness of the life I had fallen into – as if Dave only had to decree it and my social circumstances transformed instantaneously to orbit effortless around the lodestone of his presence and his parties – early enough that I recall it now only as a kind of flickering dream, an ill portent that I hardly could have understood.
We were up on the roof of St. Aloysius, a bedraggled and drunken remnant of the earlier crowd – Kanaya having taken Karkat off somewhere before he passed out or did anything more unsavory on anyone's shoes, and Vriska being curled up asleep in Dave's wingback armchair, her lap a mess of notes on linear algebra. So it was only Dave and I, under the freewheeling early November stars at half past three. Us, and inexplicably to me then, Eridan Ampora, leaning on the balustrades, an emptied bottle of vodka at his feet.
He and Dave had been trading increasingly vicious occasional asides all evening, dancing in and out of the conversation like a pair of fencers. At one point Eridan had taken a particularly unpleasant swipe at the dissolute habits of the human peerage which seemed designed to put Dave on the defensive, but he'd merely shrugged, enigmatic behind the veil of his shades, and said, "Practices which I'm sure you'll be happy to tell us about in detail, Ampora," with such icy invitation that everyone else had defused the moment with helpless laughter.
Now Dave lounged hipshot against the wall, his hands in the pockets of his deep red trousers the only break in the long sharp- tailored line of him. The dim light of false dawn caught in his hair and transformed him into a Hellenistic eikon, missing only a lily-branch and an injunction against fear that would be, I suspected, entirely out of character.
I recall that he smirked before withdrawing a wadded-up clutch of fabric from his left pocket and lobbing it precisely at Eridan's face.
Eridan snatched at it, more graceful than he had any right to be after nearly four-fifths of the vodka bottle, and shook it out. It turned out, once unfolded, to be a schoolgirl's miniskirt in lavender plaid, scandalously tiny. I gaped at it, entirely puzzled as to where from, not to mention why, Dave had produced it.
"Really, Lalonde," Eridan sneered, holding the thing like it might bite.
"Don't tell me you've suddenly acquired a sense of propriety," Dave said. "I'll be so disappointed."
There was a queer flush to the gill-flaps at Eridan's throat, as if the blood that would have rushed to his cheeks in a blush had been rerouted through some trick of seadweller physiology.
"Showwing off in front of your neww pinkskin friend, are you," he said, and through a sudden untoward rush of shame I watched him begin to unfasten first the buttons of his waistcoat and then the catch of his trousers. I looked away from him, attempting to take refuge in the appearance of my friend, but found that Dave was of no help; he remained lounging at the wall, but he'd gone viciously still, intent on whatever it was that Eridan was doing.
"Dave," I managed, somewhat strangled.
His only reply was a shrug and an ironic quirk of his lips in my general direction. I was entirely at sea. Floundering, I inquired inanely, "—where did you get that?", meaning the scrap of cloth that was now being drawn up around Eridan's narrow hips. His trousers were folded neatly and draped over the railing and the lavender pleats of the skirt were nearly obscured by his trailing shirt-tails. With ease borne of long practice he grasped at them and tied them in a midriff-bearing knot, as if he was the sort of American co-ed on Spring Break I had seen in after-hours commercials on the television. I half expected him to be doused in water at any moment.
"I had it in my drawer," Dave said, at which Eridan brayed laughter and I flinched.
Dave went on, nonchalant. "It's not mine."
"Yes," said Eridan, "you just had it in your drawwer, Lalonde, you ain't foolin anywwone –"
For the first time I saw the faintest hint of rose flush on Dave's cheekbones. "I suppose it isn't precisely my color."
It is only in retrospect that I can divine some hints as to whom that particular garment really did belong, though the reasons it had come into Dave's possession for the purposes to which he put it remain beyond me; I would like to imagine some well-thought-out scheme concocted in the warm wine-cellars of Strider's Edge, but I fear that in extremity the Lalondes had never managed to predict either the scope or the trajectory of one another's actions.
Eridan placed his hands on his hipbones and turned slowly, a motion that managed by dint of arrogant bearing alone to avoid coquetry and instead seem a sort of dare. I was abruptly afraid of what I had been brought here to witness. It was as if I had sailed far beyond the Pillars of Hercules and thence been caught up into the air and translocated to the Moon: where men dissolve into smoke with age and rivers are made entirely of wine, and instead of women composed of vegetation alone there was Eridan Ampora dressed as a depraved man's schoolgirl fantasy.
Dave unpeeled himself from the wall and advanced. I glanced between him and Eridan rapidly, until I could no longer see one without looking at the other.
"I believe, old boy," Dave said, "that you're the one who is showing off for John here."
Eridan peeled his lips away from his teeth in a grimace, and I recall having approximately two seconds of thinking distinctly that trollish dentition must be nearly impossible to manage, after which Dave leaned down the five centimeters of height he had on Eridan and kissed his mouth as if he was bestowing divine unction.
The sweep of it was very nearly gentle, and cruel in that tenderness. The line of Dave's nape and shoulders was a supreme incline of self-possessed deprecation, as if he was suppressing laughter in every angle of his posture. For my own part, I felt as if I had been compelled to go to war in the belly of a whale, surrounded by the most foreign of companions and not entirely sure of the stakes nor the ultimate result.
Eridan bit him, a savage little tear at the center of his lower lip, and Dave spat red at his feet on the ground.
"Enough for you, Lalonde?" Eridan asked. He sounded breathless, as if it was he who had won something.
Dave spread his hands, eloquent, at his sides. "Not sure there's such a thing," he said.
Then he was back at my side, taking my arm and looking me over from behind his shades. I had no way to explain myself, nor any hope of coming up with the correct question to ask him that would make sense of what had just occurred, so I said nothing and merely nodded back.
"Mm," Dave said contemplatively. "My apologies, John. More wine? If Vriska hasn't woken up and gone after the last bottle worth anyone's time in our absence."
We left Eridan there on the roof, and I did not see him again until several weeks later in the term.
Of the miniskirt I never heard again.