Chapter 1: Observe
TT: It is with regret that I inform you
TT: I believe that I'm beginning to come to the conclusion that I simply can't do this anymore.
> Send mass message.
As strange as it might be to say such a thing about a landmass, you've decided, after much deliberation, that Jade's island really is smaller than it looks from the outside. What appears to be a vast expanse of jungle, mist, and ridiculously whimsical plant life is actually no bigger than the primly maintained square of grass that suburbanites call a backyard, and the towering house that surveys it, barely a cottage. It must be so, because otherwise, such a spacious, lonely place has no right to be so stifling.
This is what concerns you as you curl up further into the warmth of your bed, the punishing light of the late morning sun laying siege to your eyelids, instead of much more pressing matters, such as the increasingly time-sensitive matter of when to get up.
You have slept far too late. Any chance of descending to the repurposed "mess hall" and surreptitiously procuring breakfast without risking social interaction has long since fled, and going now will definitely mean saying your hellos and your good mornings. This is an inevitability which you have forced upon yourself merely by dint of being a lazy sack of bones. You heave an internal sigh at the astonishingly promising start this day is off to. Screwing your eyes shut tight one last time, you sit bolt upright and throw off your covers in a single flourishing movement, blinking into the relentless golden glow of the sunlight pouring through your window as you feel the disarrayed fans and spikes of your bedhead fall back into place and the heavy, cold lump of relentless weariness fall back into your stomach.
It's not like you don't love them.
EB: aw, rose, really? :(
EB: well, i guess, if you really want to........
EB: i mean, no one will stop you or anything!
EB: but we sure will miss you.
Sure enough, the hour at which you could have skulked around the tower's bright white hallways has long since passed. You meet John on your way to the enormous spa room you're all facetiously calling the lady's toilet, your oily hair still sticking out at odd angles. Just noticing the spring in his step as he approaches is enough to make you feel like an old woman.
"Morning, Rose!" he calls, all smiles, and waves vigorously for good measure. "Though it won't be, any more, in about," he brings his arm around dramatically to glance at his clunky wristwatch, "twenty more minutes! You sure cut that one close!" His gently mocking grin is infectious, and you hope he doesn't take offense that your answering smile is a little on the wan side.
"Oh my," you say, arching one eyebrow wryly, "what a terrible fate, to stay in bed past noon. I must be sure to thank my lucky stars that I so narrowly averted such an awful destiny." And as you intended, John snorts with laughter.
"Hehe, just looking out for you! Wouldn't want you to succumb to the dreadful terrorthroes of the sleep-in whisperdemons!" He clasps you on the shoulder warmly, but your insides are subzero.
"Of course," you say lightly, brushing his hand off as kindly as you can muster. "Thanks oh so much for staying ever vigilant, John. I presume you've been patrolling for dustbunnies as well? That's why this place has been so clean lately, all the household spirits know you've got their number."
With that you give him a little wave and push open the bathroom door. The accompanying laugh of his answering wave echoes through the expansive tiled space beyond as you shut it behind you. You are left alone with that laugh, with his laugh and his friendship and his utter lack of faith in you, and you wonder if, to him, you'll ever, ever live your past actions down.
GG: oh my gosh rose :( :( :(
GG: that is totally fine we would never be mad at you for that!!!
GG: i just hope that
GG: if there was anything that we did wrong....
GG: or anything that we could have done better!
GG: that you would tell us?
GG: i hate to think that we did anything to make you feel unwelcome here, that is like the complete opposite of what we meant to do!!
When you descend to the ground floor half an hour later, hair wet and skin still pink from scrubbing, Jade and Dave are the only ones in the laboratory-turned-cafeteria, talking animatedly over something that looks and smells embarrassingly like lunch. You move to the cupboards for a cereal bowl and hope they won't notice the discrepancy between your meal and theirs. You don't have nearly such high hopes for your presence.
Sure enough, Jade looks up right away, eyes bright behind her mud-flecked glasses and alert like someone who has already ticked twelve things off her to-do list since sunrise.
"Hey Rose!" she calls, looking for all the world like you've given her a Christmas present just by showing your face. "Did you sleep well?"
"Very," you reply, pouring Rice Krispies into your bowl with more concentration on precision than is strictly necessary. Somehow the endeavour to make sure each grain reaches its destination is more interesting and relevant than witnessing and identifying the searching note to her friendly, open expression. "And how are we all this morning?"
"Pretty solid." Strider with the save you hadn't realized you needed. "Jade's got a lot of bullshit cultivating hijinks going down that I'm mostly only pretending to understand."
"Oh, pff!" says Jade, turning the laser of her earnest gaze on him instead. "I call bullshit! Science is not hard, Mister Cool, and gardening science even easier!"
"Tell that to the moaning horde of zombie plants back to avenge their own murders at the hands of my cursed vegetable death touch. It is so."
"Not even! Babies could do it. When I was a baby, babies did do it!"
By now you've finished preparing your breakfast and have quietly slid in next to Dave on the long bench on the near side of the table. Bad choice; this puts you directly in range of the radioactive green of Jade's soul-baring floodlights. You duck your head and will yourself to be inauspicious.
Fortune, apparently still sore from taking your orders during the game, will have none of that. "So, Rose!" Jade says excitedly, repositioning her whole body to face you. "Do you want to come help with the gardening this afternoon? It's obviously way too hardcore for some people!!" She sticks out her tongue over her shoulder in Dave's direction.
"Clearly," you agree, averting the question, and Dave's eyebrows execute that exasperated waggle that usually means that, somewhere beneath the impenetrable darkness of his shades, he's rolling his eyes.
Jade giggles. "I know right, jeeeez! But I totally think you'd be into this replanting project, we've got all these carnivorous flowers and this one potted vine that wiggles autonomously! It is like three genomes away from being sentient and also a tentacle monster." She nods sagely, and you oblige a dry laugh. "Pleeeease, Rose? We could really use your expertise!"
"Me and Kanaya, of course!"
GA: Oh I See Is That Your Decision
GA: Well We Will Certainly Miss You Rose
GA: I Mean Jade And I Have Been Keeping Quite Busy What With The Fixing Up Of The Vegetable Patches And The Atrium And Also With The Redecorating And All The General Restoration Projects That Former Heroes Of Space Such As Ourselves Are Predisposed To Involve Ourselves With
GA: But Nonetheless Your Wit And Encouragement And Just General Presence Have Been Greatly Appreciated
GA: As I Am Sure They Will Be Appreciated Throughout The Duration Of Your Stay At Rainbow Falls
GA: I Hope You Have A Nice Time
"Oh dear, I do believe my ears are burning."
"Speak of the iridescent vampire," comments Dave in a tone of voice he probably thinks sounds witty, and Jade jumps up to greet her partner in horticultural shenaniganry. Kanaya is standing framed in the cafeteria door, poised in her elegantly stylized galoshes, her vibrant clothes covered indiscriminately with a muddy canvas apron.
"Kanaya!" Jade enthuses, embracing her with no regards to her apron's state of cleanliness. "Your ears have the right idea, we were just talking about your great plan for how to move the Slithering Chokestrangler!"
"Not technically, but close enough," Dave shrugs as Jade pulls Kanaya over to sit at the table as well. "Also that's a goddamn horrifying name for a plant, holy fuck."
"I know, isn't it great?" Jade beams, sitting back down and patting the spot next to her to get Kanaya to follow suit. "Kanaya is really fantastic with classifying stuff. You'd be surprised at how appropriate troll nomenclature can be for the things that grow around here!"
"Surprised isn't really the right word. And besides, I feel like I'm not being given enough props here, I came up with 'Hellmurder Island' without even setting a foot on the damn place."
"Dave, in order to get 'props'," -- in her fervour, Jade makes literal airquotes -- "the name actually has to be apt!"
"You kidding? Shit was the aptest apt that ever apped an apt."
"Apt is not a noun!!"
You can't help but wonder a little at how much of a chatterbox your usually socially anxious ectobrother is being for your benefit; it's enough to make a girl feel downright sentimental. But alas, your brave knight's valiant efforts are about to be in vain. Kanaya has not been paying attention to their grammatical squabbles, and, despite your sudden and very intent interest in a stray thread coming off your sleeve, it will certainly only be moments before she attempts to re-involve you in the conversation.
Sure enough, she daintily clears her throat. "If I heard correctly, Jade was saying that Rose might want to assist with the gardening after lunch? If so, I can definitely come up with some jobs that require attention, particularly pertaining to the herbaceously dubious."
"Ohh, Rose, did you say yes?" Jade goes to turn back to you, and, finding that the increased population of her side of the table makes it harder to talk to you face to face, clambers nonchalantly over into Kanaya's lap. Kanaya puts an arm around Jade's waist to steady her, and you are suddenly struck by how much you would really, really like to go upstairs and go back to bed.
"Well," you start to say, your tone amicable and your expression the epitome of unbothered, but Dave is apparently feeling particularly benevolent today.
"Whoa, hey, okay, hold up," he says, raising a palm at Jade as if her momentum were physical. "Lalonde has owed me help with shit for ages, there is no way you kooky broads are gonna, like, spirit her away to your peppy Sapphic version of the Little Shop of Horrors just so she can shirk her goddamn responsibilities."
"Oh, that's right," you say, raising a hand to your slack-jawed cheek in the best mock-up of surprise your current energy level will allow. "I'm sorry, Strider, I had completely forgotten."
Jade doesn't like the sound of this. "Daaave! No fun!!"
He answers with a patented coolkid half-shrug, crossing his arms and leaning back. "Them's the breaks."
"What do you even need her to help you with??"
"Stuff," Dave replies quickly, as you say "Things."
Kanaya's perfectly-shaped eyebrows are at risk of disappearing into her hairline. "Stuff and things?"
"Precisely," you say firmly, and Dave nods sagely beside you.
Jade and Kanaya exchange overexaggerated knowing glances, but it'll have to be enough.
TG: yeah i kinda figured
TG: i mean
TG: wont be the same w/o you around
TG: but like
TG: its probably for the best and stuff
TG: as long as you
TG: you know
TG: come back eventually
TG: and dont like elope with a sasquatch into the untouched wilds of canada or some shit and get interspecies queermythical married like im pretty sure is legal there
TG: no harm done right
TG: the opposite really
TG: i got your back in case anybody tries to give you shit over it
"Thanks," you say, though begrudgingly, as is expected, as you wash your empty bowl out into one of the ex-laboratory's many sinks. After much fruitless cajoling, Jade and Kanaya have finally left, hand in hand and full of earnest excitement for the breakthroughs in the field of soil acidity they are surely about to make.
"Ehh," grunts Dave by way of a "you're welcome", contemplatively going back to stirring his fried rice with his fork. "Any excuse to evacuate that painfully upfront PDA from my grill. Had to get them outta here before they started expelling, like, legit shoujo bubbles. That shit is no good for the appetite."
You close your eyes and suppress a sigh that would have gone bone deep. "I'm getting too old for this," you say instead, only half joking.
He snorts. "Yeah, whatever. You may be crotchety, but I don't exactly see you collecting pension benefits."
You smile what might be your first genuine smile of the day as you circle the table to sit back down, across from him this time. "I was the last one up," you point out.
But Dave shakes his head. "Not even." And for a split second you have no idea what to make of his expression.
"Oh? Now I'm curious. Who on earth has the gall to challenge me for my coveted center position in the Laziness Olympics?"
"That would be me," comes a brisk voice from the door, and, like the sudden onset of a windstorm, Terezi Pyrope bustles into the mess hall, rolling up her sleeves, "I didn't set an alarm! These things happen."
"For shame, T-Z," says Dave smugly, but you know him well enough by now to identify the tension that immediately trickles out of the set of his shoulders. Terezi whacks him across those self-same shoulders as she walks behind him on her way to the food cupboards. "For shame."
"Dave, please," she retorts, by now rummaging for sustenance. "Not everyone in the entirety of ever is a human or a rainbow drinker!" Her hands fly over the various boxes of cereals like hummingbirds. Despite her claims of just having woken, she is already all business, as if trying to make up for the energy she should have been expending all morning.
"I'm pretty sure Vantas was up before me."
"Correction; not everyone is human, a rainbow drinker, or completely shithive maggots!" Finally locating the Tropical Forest Fruit Loops, Terezi yanks the box from the cupboard with a flourish. "A lady needs her rest, Dave." He just rolls his eyes again. She begins to pour Fruit Loops into what looks to be a soup tureen, chuckling.
You'd thought yourself forgotten during this exchange, but apparently you were wrong. "So, Madam Marzipan Hair," Terezi calls over her shoulder, now applying milk to her cereal liberally. "How goes the good fight?"
This catches you off guard, and for one achingly long moment, the knot in your stomach clenches unpleasantly. Feigning ignorance, you quirk one eyebrow.
"In the Laziness Olympics," she clarifies, finally spinning around to face the two of you, her tureen of riotously colourful breakfast clutched in her claws like a prize. "Did you win the most hotpots?"
Dave chokes on his water and, crisis averted, you laugh. "I call slander, your honour! The prosecution is clearly mocking the accused on grounds of apathy for sports."
"Motion overruled!" Terezi cackles, moving to thump Dave on the back a few times until his coughing subsides, and then a few times more for good measure. She swings her legs over the bench beside him and her cereal sloshes as she sets in down on the table. "The accused's ignorance of human earth sports is too funny not to mock," she jeers, brandishing a spoon at you condemningly.
"This whole system is corrupt," you reply primly, wiping up her spilled milk with a napkin as a demonstration to the court of how hard your life is.
You expect her to laugh again, but she just smiles. You grin across the table at her as well, and realize that you were mistaken; this is your first genuine smile of the day.
The moment of silence is broken by Dave getting his breath back. "Anyway, Terezi." he says, leaning forward on his elbow in her direction in a matter that is probably supposed to be smooth and nonchalant. "You just missed them, but the Eco Teen Garden Force just left to track down missing pumpkins or some shit, and John and Karkat are doing something that I'm pretty sure involves ripping the roof on the north-western guest wing off, yeah I don't even want to fucking know either. You up to anything?"
"So many things, coolkid," she says, shifting away from his propped elbow almost imperceptibly. It occurs to you that this is where John would claim the presence of irons in fires. She's still grinning. "There are many matters which require my attention! I couldn't begin to describe to you the gargantuan number of cases that are just clamouring for a skilled and fair legislacerator, as clever as she is beautiful, to take up their causes!"
"Cases like what? That broken toaster over there?" He gestures lazily in its direction. "Vantas's piss-poor attempts at coordinating shit around here even though no one's ever taken a single fucking thing he's said seriously in the history of ever? The fact that despite all our ridiculous make-anything sciencey magic bullshit, this place never seems to stock any goddamn decent cereal? How about yours truly, am I an acceptable cause for your way important lawyervisceral roster?"
You are surely mistaken about what appears to happen next.
You expect a biting retort right away, but instead, there's a pause. Then, after a moment, she blows air out through her nose, in what, if you didn't know better, you would have thought of as a sigh.
"If any of those things want my attention, they're going to have to get on the waiting list! There are a lot of cases on the block today." And it must be the snort that you misinterpreted as a sigh that's colouring your vision now, because surely she doesn't look tired all of a sudden.
"So what you're saying is, you're gonna be a judicial piece of shit all day and fall down all this crap to do? I mean, just how legislatic do you have to be to even care about all that crap?"
Her smile returns, and surely it's a trick of the light, because you could almost swear that this time, it doesn't quite reach her eyes.
"As always, Dave, you are the height of hilarity."
Clearly you are projecting. It is ridiculous to think that Terezi Pyrope, sentient power plant, would even know the definition of the word "tired".
"Don't hate, babe, you know it's true." Dave, smooth as ever, takes this opportunity to place his gangly arm around her shoulders.
"The prosecution objects! Both to your assertion and the use of a comparison to a naked pink monkey human as a term of endearment, bluh, I thought we talked about that." She is quieter now, looking pensively into the middle distance.
"Oh, yeah, right. Oops."
Surely you're mistaken.
"It's fine. Don't worry about it."
And surely, when she, not unkindly, brushes Dave's arm off her shoulders, sits abruptly, and politely, apologetically excuses herself in a routine that's all too familiar, you're mistaken about that, too.
GC: YOUR PL4N 1S DOWNR1GHT D3L1C1OUS, L4DY L4V3ND3RBR34TH!
GC: S1MPL3, STR41GHTFORW4RD, 4ND G3TS YOU OUT OF 3V3RYBODYS H41R FOR 4 WH1L3.
GC: 4ND TH3M OUT OF YOURS!
GC: CL34RLY 4LL YOUR 3XP3R13NC3 M4K1NG 3XCLUS1V3LY 4DV4NT4G3OUS D3C1S1ONS DUR1NG TH3 G4M3 H4S H4D SOM3 L4ST1NG 3FF3CTS.
GC: 4S 4 F3LLOW S33R, 1 APPROVE!
GC: ... 1M COMING W1TH YOU. >:]
Chapter 2: Perceive
As the safety announcement on the loudspeakers above your head clicks off and the plane's motion levels out, you consider, for the thousandth time, your unlikely travelling companion. A whole head shorter than you and nestled down in her seat even further, lethal elbows stuck out almost horizontally on both armrests, Terezi has her nose buried deep in the upside-down fashion magazine that Kanaya gave her for the trip, probably all the better to sniff the perfume samples with. She is laughing softly to herself, and your guess as far as the joke's concerned is as good as any. You could be chaperoning a child.
"Hehe, don't look so worried, Lalonde. The plane's in good shape, the fuel tanks looked huge, and by my calculations, we have enough momentum now that the pilot should be able to make a smooth emergency landing if anything fails. Deep breaths! Relax."
A child who can pick brains with the best of them and apparently do college-level physics problems in her head.
"A pity," you say, drawing your knitting out of your carry-on -- complete with flimsy rubber needles, thanks airport security -- in preparation for the trip. "It would have been a lovely alleviation from the travelling doldrums to have had to save our fellow passengers in some wanton display of misguided heroism and questionably obtained majyyks."
Terezi chuckles again, twisting her magazine about her nose as if trying to wring every last drop of scent from the centrespread. "Funny, here I was thinking that jokes like that were part of why you wanted to take a break!"
You start, and turn to stare at her pointedly, though she doesn't seem to notice. It shouldn't surprise you that she knows this much about why you sought a respite from your little family on Jade's island.
"Hmm," you start, testing the waters, "I believe in the at-home version, the joke would have ended with a lot more consumption of everyone's souls and blind adulation of the unknowable terrrordepths."
She separates the magazine from her face at last and rolls her eyes, no small feat for someone without pupils. "Yes, Rose, because everyone definitely thinks you are a terrible monster."
"You'd be surprised," you tell your knitting as you start sorting your stitches out to begin the next row, feeling your cheeks heat up a little. You don't know why you're even talking about this with her. Time to change the subject.
"And besides," you say, tone and volume light and casual, "this little sojourn has myriad purposes, not least of which is to simply get out of the way. Everyone is so busy these days."
"Jade and Kanaya are certainly keeping occupied," Terezi agrees, her grin wicked. "Though mostly with each other, as far as I know!"
Your shoulders stiffen involuntarily. "So they are."
"That's not very inclusive of them, is it?"
You try not to give her too much credit, but you do not remember leaving your inner psyche open like a book on the counter this morning. "You ask a lot of questions, Miss Pyrope."
"Hehe, well, you give a lot of answers!" But her mile-wide smile is not malicious. She obligingly turns back to her magazine. "They would probably invite you to a lot more tea parties if you actually gave any indication you wanted to go."
"Yes, because the aforementioned woegothic connotations lend themselves so much to the ideal party guest." You are done with this conversation.
Evidently, Terezi is not. "If you think they discuss anything less weird at their get-togethers than different embalming methods and the various floral and nutty bouquets associated with each blood type, I have to seriously question how well you know your friends!"
You shrug and pointedly begin knitting. "Last time I checked, neither interest in taxidermy nor life as a Twilight vampire were activities which demanded any level of redemption."
You do not look at Terezi. After a moment, she says, contemplatively, "You really think there's no one in the world who has your back." It isn't a question.
You feel very old and very hollow.
TG: i got your back in case anybody tries to give you shit over it
"Maybe not no one," you say, your lips twitching into a small, rueful smile. "But nobody's ever accused my dear ectobrother of good judgement anyway."
Terezi laughs, but it's surprisingly mirthless. "You can say that again!"
You expect her to continue, but she is uncharacteristically silent. When you chance a glance, she is staring absentmindedly at nothing in particular. It really shouldn't matter, given the means she uses to see, but somehow Terezi's gaze looks wrong without its usual terrifying intent. It appears that question period is over. The prosecution rests.
In the perfect world, this is your opening. And why would I say that again? You could ask. How do you feel about one Mr. Strider? Why are you not with him, why are you with someone you barely know in comparison, on a plane over the Pacific Ocean? Are there any childhood issues or complexes that this may have stemmed from? What are your phobias? What would you say if I told you that I have almost no intention of returning to the island again? Are you aware that you exhibit several symptoms that could be ascribed to ennui, burnout, or depression?
Luckily, you have much more tact than your ten-year-old wannabe-therapist self. The plane rumbles on, and you go back to your knitting in silence.
The court adjourns. For now.
Whatever was bothering Terezi on the plane, it seems to be long forgotten when, far too many buses, transfers, hours spent sitting down, and explanations of your companion's "skin condition" to transit personnel later, you fit your old key into a very familiar lock and open the ornate front door on the high-raftered expanse and ever-present rushing water sound of your childhood.
"Ooh, it smells like a nice clean rainstorm!" Terezi crows, bustling past you into the house with a duffel bag under each arm. You follow more slowly, flipping the lights on as you enter, and try to decide whether you are more dismayed to see that your mother has kept A, her wizards, or B, the bronze vacuum.
Speak of the shrew, there is a note on cutesy kitty stationary pinned to the arm of the nearby sofa.
so sorry that i couldnt be there to be all hospitable and
shit junk for you and your alien friend, but as u know i am off doing important ~*ADULT BUSINESS*~ which kind of sucks but cant be helped (at least i get to spend time witt with your friend johns hot dad amirite amirit ;P), i hope u ladies will be able to look after yourselves and have fun irreg regardless.
the fridges are totes stocked (ALL the fridges if u know what i mean ;D) and the place should be more or less clean idk i tried ok.
anyway yeah have fun n sorry i couldnt be there, i miss you a lot honeybunch!!!!! kisses mwah mwah
much love from mommy :* xoxox
ps. remember to feed the cat!!!!!!!!!!!!
pps. omg i forgot to say u should go down and see the new deco i got put in the lab, it is like THE FABBEST
You can't help but sigh. Oh, mother. You never know how to respond to these missives, other than to remember how for the first month of your acquaintance with Dave you remained convinced that he was secretly your mother in disguise, based solely on similarities in cadence and lack of punctuation. Neither the fact that your hypothesis turned out to be incorrect nor the ectobiological insight you have now serve to make the whole situation any less uncanny.
"Nice place you've got here, Lalonde!" announces Terezi, grinning, as she returns from wherever she has squirreled her bags away to. "Very airy and fresh! Though I have to say, a little lacking in the whole colour department. Clotted cream walls are nice, but a girl can only take so much beige."
"Come with me, then," you say, looking up at last from the garishly pink note in your hand. "I have no idea what my dear mother has taken upon herself to do to her poor lab, but knowing her, it's probably something you'll like more than I will."
You were not wrong.
"Sweet troll Jegus," Terezi breathes reverently, her face turned up to the formerly green lab ceiling. "Is this really what humans have for a creation myth?"
"No," you say with absolutely certainty. "No, it is not."
You are looking up balefully at something that one might, if they deigned to, describe as a derivative tribute to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Very derivative. You are relatively sure that the Sistine Chapel never depicted quite this many cats, or at least this many with improbably coloured fur.
"Is that a rainbow motorcycle?"
"It... looks to be, yes."
"Who is that riding it?"
"The Apostle John, I believe." You sit down hard on the inexplicable pink bed, absentmindedly pulling a sleeping Vodka Mutini into your lap.
Tearing her gaze away from the ceiling with visible difficulty, Terezi turns to you gravely. "I really like your lusus."
You have to laugh. "Somehow, I am not even slightly surprised."
Whatever Terezi was going to say in reply, she is interrupted by a loud chiming from the shoulder bag you discarded earlier at the foot of the bed. You quickly retrieve its noisy contents; your laptop, woefully unmuted by its summer-weight cotton cozy. Mutie, woken from his nap by the racket, mews his complaints, and you give him a few apologetic pets before he jumps off the bed and absconds. Pulling the beeping device into your lap in his place, you remove it from its useless sheath and snap it open to check who's pestering you.
"It's Dave," you say, raising a questioning eyebrow at Terezi. But apparently the blasphemous rainbow cacophony above your heads has put her in too good of spirits to be hung up on whatever she was bothered about before.
"Put him on video chat!" she proclaims, flopping down onto the bed behind you.
You oblige, and soon Strider's pasty, expressionless face is plastered across your screen.
"Dave, Dave!" jeers Terezi immediately, her signature grin sharp enough to cut. "Is this you??" She gestures exuberantly at the ceiling. You look where she's pointing; sure enough, one of the miscellaneous background cherubs is wearing a pair of ridiculous cool dude shades. You angle your webcam up so that Dave can share in its splendour.
"Holy shit," is his appreciative reaction. "Rose, have I ever told you how much I love your mom?"
"You and she are certainly cut from the same cloth," you allow, sighing. Terezi cackles gleefully on the bed behind you. It is so difficult to be you.
"But I guess she's fucked off for a while though, huh? Man, got a whole secluded forest fortress all to yourselves, I'm jealous."
"Strider, please," you say, dismissive. "Everyone here knows you would go stir crazy if left alone in a place this big by yourself for even a day."
"It's true," comes Terezi's voice, slightly muffled from lying face down in the blankets. "You are like a little pet barkbeast whose owners left him home to go shopping. You would annoy the neighbours with your yelping and chew all the furniture."
"You guys are such good friends. I'm so glad that I decided to have this conversation."
You laugh. "You have to admit the mural was probably worth it."
"Okay, true," he says, and you can see the beginnings of a coolkid smirk. "I mean, shit, I doubt I could have painted a more beautiful masterpiece myself. Forget the wheels of fire and eyeballs, those are definitely the most terrifying angels I've ever seen."
You love it when he surprises you with the things he knows. "Oh, but aren't angels supposed to be perfect, immaculate beings with straw-golden hair and blushing, rosy rumps?"
He snorts. "Yeah fucking right. More like infernal hellbeasts outta nightmares, with, like, four faces and shit, and only one is a human face."
"You have to admit the wings are nice, though."
"Tell me you're kidding, you know how I feel about feathery assholes. Angels are godawful fiery nightmaretier assholes with awful feathery fucking wings."
"Creatures that terrifying, surely paradox space uses them to usher in the end," you laugh wryly.
"How does it know which angel to use..." says Terezi quietly from the depths of the blankets. You don't think Dave hears.
Suddenly you get the feeling that it might be a good idea to wrap things up now. "Well, Dave," you say, apologetic. "Not that getting opportunities to take notes on your many subconscious obsessions and complexes isn't fascinating as usual, but we've just arrived, and we really should get to unpacking."
"Yeah, that's cool. I just wanted to make sure that your plane didn't get hijacked by street tough mavericks or some shit like that on the way there."
"How very sweet of you. But I'm afraid that I must inform you of the negative."
"John'll be so disappointed."
"Well, have fun unpacking."
"Will do. Talk to you later."
"Bye T-Z," he calls, trying to peer around you.
"Bye!" she replies, still not moving from where she lays.
That's apparently all that he's going to get out of her for the time being. With one last goodbye wave, you close the video chat.
Carefully, you power down your computer, stow it back in your shoulder bag, and turn where you sit. Terezi, still face down in the covers of your mother's bizarre pink lab bed, is silent.
You think of three clever remarks and let each one go. You are much better at this sort of thing by now. You wait.
Eventually she says, "Hey, Rose. Do you remember Sollux?"
That was not the question you were expecting. "Sollux Captor?" you consider, slowly. "The hacker? Stayed behind in the Furthest Ring with Aradia? Ornery, obstinate, disarmingly self-sacrificing? Of course I do. What of it?"
Most of her face is hidden, but you still think you see her smile. "Nothing of it. I just wanted to know if you remembered."
And that is apparently that, but you are done being the one getting cross-examined in this relationship. You stare pointedly and wait.
Eventually, it pays off.
"Dave is kind of like your Sollux," murmurs Terezi at last, sounding for all the world like she has a thousand miles to go before she sleeps. "I envy you him, quite a bit!"
You blink. "But Dave is yours, too." Probably not the best way you could have said that.
She rolls her shoulders in what is probably a shrug. "For me, he's more like my Karkat."
"You already have a Karkat," you point out.
"You know what I mean, though," she says, sitting up, and you are entirely frustrated that you don't.
"It's like..." she heaves an exasperated sigh. "Okay. You've got Kanaya, and you've got Jade. Right?"
You scrunch up your nose. "I wouldn't say--"
"You do," she says, putting her index finger abruptly to your lips. Her hand smells like crayon wax and cinnamon. "But they also have each other. Jade has Kanaya, and Kanaya has Jade, in a way that you don't." She removes her hand. "Who do you envy?"
You're going to say, Jade, but then you remember being twelve and Internet forums and discussing Squiddle headcanon long into the night. "Both."
She nods, as if this is old news to her, and you realize your attempt to get off the witness stand has failed miserably. "You can covet the relationships between the people you love," she says, "even if they care for you just as much. Even if they care for you more! No two loves are the same. You know?"
You don't know. You are getting more distressed by this conversation by the second, not least of all because, yet again, here are your feelings on the floor for Terezi Pyrope to pick through and appraise with an eye that you simply don't possess. You want to scream. You wonder if she will hush you again if you do.
Instead, you take a deep, long breath.
"I think," you say, coolly, carefully. "That I have an agreeable, albeit temporary, solution to this entire debacle."
"Oh?" The bags beneath her eyes are deep and dark, but her smile returns with no less enthusiasm.
"Yes," you say, smiling as well. "Have you ever imbibed of the curious and whimsical nectar of dubiously advisable nature that is known affectionately as our human alcohol?"
If someone had told you a year ago that you would, at some point in your life, be lying slightly tipsy on the floor of your mother's bedroom-turned-rootcellar, dressed in nothing but pyjama pants, a sports bra, and the combination cape and hat set purchased at a children's costume store for a long-forgotten birthday, for the sole purpose of roleplaying wizards versus dragons with an alien girl, you would have wasted no time before sitting them down on a chaise lounge and asking them intruding questions about their childhood. As it stands, your thoughts are divided between boggling at what has become of your once-promising young life, and the fact that the bra Terezi is wearing under her red FLARPING getup is apparently black lace. You never expected to be outclassed in the bra department by Terezi Pyrope of all people. Not that you're the sort of person who spends any amount of time hypothesizing about the comparative underwear preferences of her friends. But you digress.
"The mighty dragon grrrrumblesssss," Terezi says, miming a claw with her hand, "and tells the great and clever wizard Zazzerpan that she absolutely, may not, under any circumstances, pass!" Her dragon roar is much more muted than one would expect, whether because of how quiet and peaceful the early evening light is or because she's been drinking too, you can't tell. You can tell that her rictus grin is brilliantly white in the glow of the setting sun from the window.
"Zazzerpan is not rebuffed by the dragon's lacklustre attempts at intimidation," you counter, propping yourself up on your elbows to point accusatorily. "She is an ancient and powerful wizard, incredibly well versed in the most potent of fire-protection spells! The dragon knows she cannot harm her." You raise an eyebrow like a challenge. Vodka Mutini winds his way over and around your legs, which are sprawled out haphazardly behind you.
"But aha!" Terezi replies, clapping her hands once before lying on her stomach as well, so the two of you are face to face. "The dragon is not beaten yet! For you see, she has been deliberately misleading the arrogant Zazzerpan to believe that she is a fire elemental! When in actuality, the clever and trickstery dragon breathes not fire, but a deadly poison gas!" She props herself up too, the dry, scaly skin of her knife-sharp elbows against the eczema-marked surfaces of your own. Your warm, sloshing mind, for half a second, considers the fact that she could be a real dragon.
"But Zazzerpan is not fooled," you murmur. "She has prepared for this outcome, and has brought with her the only known preventative measure for the terrible lizard's poisonous assault."
"And what is that?" Terezi asks, her face inches from yours. "What is the answer, O foolish and powerful Zazzerpan?" The sun must be descending past the horizon as she speaks; its light keeps changing, falling over her face at different angles each moment. Her smiling face, the mask for her smiling mind that magically knows all the answers you can never come up with. You want to grab her by the shoulders and shake her until she gives up all her secrets. She has beautiful eyelashes.
Time stops. You pause.
"I think," you say, rising slowly to your knees. "It is probably time to go to bed." Mutie is displaced from your legs when you draw them up under you; you scoop him up before he can escape.
Sunset has passed, by now, and the moment of golden, reverent quiet fades into a gray, ordinary dusk. Terezi rises as well, and sits back on her heels. She looks up at you, her expression delightedly wicked.
"Zazzerpan was bluffing! The dragon obliterates her with her magnificent poisony breath. I am the victor, objectively, forever." You can feel her ruined eyes on the back of your head as you stand, with only the slightest wobble, and, arms full of cat, head full of buzzing frustration, and chest, curiously, full of a sort of something that could almost be described as contentment, you turn to face her one last time.
"Have a good night, Terezi," you say, realizing that, given you are literally wearing a wizard hat, any attempt at poise or professionalism is too little too late. "I hope you can find your way down to the guest room alright."
And for the last time tonight, she grins.
"Have a goodnight, Rose. Don't let the bedbugs bite!"
For reasons beyond your understanding, you bare your teeth in a terrible grin in turn, and, closing the door behind you, you retreat to the darkness of the upstairs hallway. With Mutie in one hand and the other against the wall, you slowly start making your way to your own bedroom.
You have a lot to sleep on tonight.
Chapter 3: See
It was a mistake to try and access the dream bubbles.
You don't know what you were thinking, really, except that once you were alone in the dark of your room, the contented feeling in your chest had soured to a melancholy loneliness. You held Mutie close and decided that what you really wanted, right then, was an opportunity to talk to the dead troll named Nepeta. She was a sweetheart, and speaking with her always reminded you of Jaspers. So you tucked yourself into bed and whispered the eldritch words that Feferi had taught you -- always so much easier to pronounce for you than for everyone else -- so that your consciousness would gently slip away into the deepest darkness, all the way back to the Furthest Ring, as you fell asleep.
But now that you are here, floating in negative space before your designated dream guide, you regret everything about this decision.
You really should have known. You should have remembered how earlier that day, Terezi had laid face down on your mother's pink bed and asked if you remembered Sollux. You should have realized that meant she would probably want to speak with her friend, that she would journey to the Furthest Ring in her sleep, as well. And of course, anyone knocking on dream bubble doors asking for Sollux is bound to get Aradia for their living spirit guide. Which, of course, leaves you with the other, much less desirable option.
You are not prepared to deal with this right now.
"What the motherfuck do you want," asks Gamzee sullenly, looming in a way that is probably meant to make you reconsider your decision to procure his services tonight. It is working.
"Good evening," you reply, doing your best impression of someone unflappable. This is not fair. Betray the party, get left behind as a dream guide in eternal limbo, that is how it works. He has no right to be so nasty about it.
"Look, sister," he says, baring his teeth, and you concentrate very hard on preventing your knees from shaking. "I'm a motherfuckin' busy guy. So unless you all up and got plans for making this upright interesting-like, you'd better at motherfuckin' least make it snappy."
You curse paradox space one last time for not allowing you to switch places with Terezi, who, being a troll and therefore in possession of strange, strange priorities, probably would have been not at all opposed to making this "interesting-like". As it stands, the best you can hope for is making it out of here with the sanctity of your dreams mostly intact.
"I was hoping to talk to a deceased friend," you say, proud voice betraying not a quaver, "but I understand now that this is likely a bad time. I don't suppose I could trouble you to return me to the bubble my consciousness was destined for this evening?"
He laughs an awful, honking laugh, and you congratulate yourself on not flinching. "Not a chance, sister," he says, smiling, and tips you back into a bubble just behind you, a bubble that smells of smoke and rain and the metallic tang of blood on steel.
To your dismay, you are still tipsy when you wake up. You've barely been asleep for an hour, but it's been an hour too long, too full of violence and vengeance and the scared, sickened faces of your friends to endure any longer. You sit up and glance out your window, expecting black rain. Instead you see a picturesque forest landscape, stars just beginning to wink to life in the sky above. It is newly dark. Your head pounds.
Dimly, you realize it was not your nightmare that woke you. A small red light blinks from your shoulder bag across the room -- that's right, you turned your laptop back on earlier to look up the etymology of "Zazzerpan" to show Terezi. Whoever is pestering you know, they must have signed off or gone idle, because the chiming has stopped. Bleary, you stumble your way out of bed, and, taking care not to trip on the hem of your nightgown, you eventually make your clumsy way over to the computer.
You flip it open. There is a message waiting for you.
--- tipsyGnostalgic [TG] began pestering tentacleTherapist [TT] at 21:24 PM ---
TG: ababy i almost forgot to say!
TG: i kno i said u and ur little friend are welcome to, like, ALL OF MY BOOZE that i have in the house, that didnt stop bein a thing or anything
TG: but i just wanted to remind you
TG: that you are still a growing girl!
TG: and i dont want you to overdo it
TG: cause idk
TG: just judging by personality an stiff it seems like you would maybe be kind of a desruictive drunk??
TG: * destructive
TG: and i just wanna make sure that you dont hurt urself or anything
TG: not that i dont trust u and shit
TG: * (oops pretenf mommy didnt say that)
TG: because i know that u r a very smart n responsible girl!!
TG: but just
TG: be careful
TG: ok sweets?? <3
TG: k that was all
TG: sorrt rose im a little drunk as you can tell wowww mom way to be a huge fuckin HYPOCRITE
TG: * not a swear word
TG: anyways that was all
TG: love youuuuuuuuu sweetie!!
TG: DONT FORGET TO LOOK AFTER THE CAT!!!!!!!!
TG: k ttyl honey xoxox
--- tipsyGnostalgic [TG] ceased pestering tentacleTherapist [TT] at 21:31 PM ---
Your head is about to split open, your thoughts slosh and fizzle and spark, and the lump of despair in the pit of your stomach that you've been carrying since the game ended combusts into flame. You tell yourself, coax yourself, command yourself to resist the urge to do something angry, stupid, and vindictive.
You fail to resist the urge.
Twenty minutes later you are standing at the top of the Rainbow Falls themselves, your nightgown flapping in its spray and your arms full of wriggling burlap sack, trying to decide if you're enraged or relieved that R. Lalonde and T. Pyrope are so close to each other in your computer's address book.
Terezi is standing framed in the doorway of the house, mere meters away, in an oversized t-shirt emblazoned with the word "SPORTS" and the pyjama pants you were wearing earlier. She is holding her cane sword. She is not smiling.
"Rose," she says, levelly, evenly. "Why are you drowning your cat."
"He's my mother's cat," you correct, just as civilly. "I see that I sent my message to the wrong number."
Terezi will not be deterred. "Why are you drowning your mother's cat."
You turn back to the waterfall, shivering a bit in what is probably the cold. "No one thinks I can be trusted," you say to the empty space in front of you, "so I am proving them right."
"Goddamnit, Lalonde!" she cries, finally at the end of her patience. "You are not even that drunk!"
You guess you are done with being patient, too. You whirl back around. "Oh, I'm sorry, I apologize," you say icily, your voice rising more than you intended. "I suppose I am not in fact capable of being one hundred percent perfect all the time! What a travesty! What a scandal! If only I were a Seer of Mind, like you, Miss Pyrope, then I would surely never make such a horrid mistake! I would know all the answers!" Funny, you never would have considered yourself one to shriek.
Terezi gives a short bark of laughter in response. "Are you serious right now?" she asks, and it seems like a sincere question. "You think you're less perfect than me? Rose, please! Your Seer powers were lightyears better!"
"Fuck you, my dear," you say, because you are done, you are done with her faux-modest attitude, really. "My powers were dummy powers. They strung me along to do precisely what the game wanted of me, at all times, and not a step left up for debate. Not even the game trusted me!"
"Will you just quit it with the trust thing!!" she growls, and this time she is showing off her mouth full of daggers in something that is quite unlike a smile. "Every. One. Trusts. You. Everyone respects you! Did John never make a joke at your expense before you threw your lot in with the squiddy nasties? You think he doesn't give sass to anyone else? That he doesn't make fun of Karkat, or Dave, or me?"
"That is completely beside the point."
"Only if the point is beside itself with how amazingly dense you're being! And to think the game didn't trust you is ridiculous!! Firstly why do you care what the game thinks, secondly, your powers were fucking great!!"
"Oh, you think so, do you? Maybe we should have traded."
"Oh my god." Her clouded eyes are wild. "Rose, my powers were garbage! I had to trust my own judgement for everything, and once I messed up once, there was no going back! You want to talk about trust?? Who would trust a Seer of Mind who had all the facts, but made the wrong move anyway?!"
"Do not dare," you snarl as you clutch your bundle of squirming cat to you with harpy's claws "Do not dare appropriate my problems! You, you are just tired of dealing with Dave and Karkat and people who require things from you. But no, you're right, if only you had my powers! Then you could have always found the best way to serve your own interests."
She steps one step forward, and says, scarily calm once again, "It was never about my best interest. It was always about what was right, and good, and just, for everyone. Objectively."
"Oh, really," you laugh, in a timber that some corner of your mind classifies as something like hysterical, and you phase into God Tier state, because you are a petty little girl. You hold out Mutie's sack in one hand, giving her a clear shot at the sun sigil on your chest. "Then what are you going to do, Terezi Pyrope?!"
She stops stone cold. "I made what I thought was the best decision at the time." Her tone is unreadable.
"Really! What a shining example of your objective judgement."
"I made what I thought was the best decision at the time!"
"Well, let's see you decide what's best for everyone, Rose!" And she's striding forward again, closing the distance between you fast. "Oh, that's right, you don't even have to try!" She stops, and you're within reach of her sword cane now. She looks like she may start to cry. "Your Light powers always let you make the absolute best decisions! So I don't know why, on Earth or Alternia or any reality in paradox space, you think that you didn't do a good job?"
"Am I doing a good job now?!"
"So, I ask again," you say, teeth bared, head full of noise, sobs threatening to rip up your throat, "what are you going to do about it?!"
She takes one step forward, you are nose to nose. "I am going to stop you."
"Because that's best for everyone?" you hiss, venomous, into her face.
"No," she says, her voice hard and weary. She is all angles in front of you in the starlight. You notice, now of all times, that there is no moon.
"Because I want to."
She lunges, then, in a blur of movement no non-Strider human could ever hope to achieve, and you presume it is to stab you. But instead, as your back hits the wet concrete at the top of the waterfall, you realize she's just tackled you, her hips and shoulders cutting into you like blades. You lose your grip on Mutie; he and his bag go flying back towards the house. Meanwhile you and Terezi roll, the momentum of her diving tackle carrying you closer, closer, until it tips you just over the waterfall's edge. Heart pounding, you scrabble with your fingernails, and see her scrabble, too, until with a great, uncoordinated heave, the both of you roll, much more slowly, back up onto the relative safely of the concrete.
The night is silent. You take a deep breath.
And then you begin to cry in earnest.
It is a terrible cry. Your body is wracked by great, heaving sobs, and you're blubbering all manner of tears and mucus into the shoulder of her SPORTS shirt. But you do not have it in you to care. It's not like you can actually lose any more dignity in this situation. You cry yourself out, lying there on the soggy concrete in her arms, until the worst of your sobs are reduced to hiccups.
It takes you a while to realize that Terezi is quietly crying, too.
"I didn't want to kill Vriska, you know," she says at last, softly, shakily.
You gulp down the last sob. "I know," you say. You didn't know, but it seems like what she wants to hear.
The two of you breathe in silence for a while.
Eventually your head starts to pound in new and innovative ways. You take it to mean that your mind is beginning to un-fuzz from your earlier drinking escapades. Now is as good a time as any. Awkwardly, you clear your throat.
"Well," you say, your voice scratchier than an infinity mechanism, "I guess that settles the question of whether or not I am the most completely terrible."
Her laugh is thin and spent. "I don't know, Madam Tangerine Tunic! You were pretty spot on with that not wanting people to expect stuff of me thing. I'd say I'm a pretty terrible person as well!"
"Oh no," you say, tentatively testing the sarcasm waters again, "it turns out our problems were the same problem all along. Whatever shall we do?"
Thankfully, she cackles, and it's so completely usual that you want to start crying again. You nip that firmly in the bud, but find that you are unable to suppress a watery smile.
"Go back inside and get some Ovaltine?" you suggest, wincing.
"Yes," she agrees. "We should clean up, too, and also you owe a major apology to your cat."
"Deal," you say, and now that the adrenaline high is gone, the mere thought of that latter one makes your cheeks burn and your heart positively twist.
Terezi disentangles her razor limbs from you and climbs, after much rigmarole, to her feet. Once upright, she turns back to you.
You take her hand.
"I was thinking," you say the next morning, as you give Mutie his seventh compensational milk saucer and complementary ear scratch of the day, "that we might start to consider going back at the end of the week."
Terezi looks up from her Fruit Loops and grins. "I think that's an excellent plan. God knows what those doofuses are getting up to without us to help them put their coats on right way round."
For once, it is not difficult to smile a meaningless, conversational smile. "How lucky we are to have friends who tolerate our awfulness."
"Mmm, you've got that wrong," she says, getting milk and cereal on the table as she gestures with her spoon. "They don't tolerate. They love the awfulness, too."
You smirk. "Let the records show that the prosecution is a sentimental sap."
She flicks the remaining drops of milk on her spoon at you by way of a rebuttal. There's no one around to preserve dignity for; you giggle.
"Should I inform Dave that we'll be home in about seven days' time, then? He keeps hounding me about our estimated trip duration. It would be sweet if it weren't so annoying."
Terezi's grin could puncture the ozone layer. "Oh, you tell Mr. Strider, alright. And tell him I have words to say to him when I see him next, too."
"Will do," you say, and she gets up from her chair to put her dishes in the sink.
Or at least, that's where you thought she was going.
"Can I help you?" you ask, nonplussed. You wonder again how a person goes about having such nice eyelashes.
"You know, Rose," she says, and her smile never gets old, especially not at this sort of distance. "The records show that the accused is a pretty darn sentimental lady herself. They also project that she is most likely to taste like buttermilk and violets."
The prosecutor, on the other hand, tastes like Fruit Loops and fire. It's not altogether unpleasant.
It's going to be a good week-long vacation.