Your name is Dave Strider, or at least you hope you still have the right to call yourself that. The people surrounding you seem to acknowledge this, so you guess that's good enough for you.
In the perpetual twilight, hundreds of hours have already passed since Jade put this ship in motion, and you've decided quite a while ago that you're not going anywhere for now. This is comfortable, you feel, as you sit inside the ship, your tail coiled around the two people you missed the most, your orange glow softly washing over their slumbering, serene expressions. Even with no night, you always set a few hours aside to get some shut-eye, and the two of them soon found how easily it is for you to become their pillow.
Jade sleeps along the curve of your good wing, ears twitching with some dream she's having, delicate fingers gently buried in the feathers. John sleeps slumped against your torso, arms thrown around what was once your waist, his head nestled on the feathers along your neck. And you can't stop staring at how still he is while sleeping.
By definition, sprites don't sleep, you know this. But sometimes, in these moments of quiet, of complete hiatus, you close your eyes behind the shades and the memories of a life you no longer have get mixed with the knowledge you now possess of this game, and you see it all over again. The dark, burnt edges around his clothes. The black smoke rising from his skin, and its horrid stench. The blood splattered everywhere - one gallon seems so little until you see it spilled in a vibrant crimson across the person you love. The boils and burns on his face so very still.
When he's sleeping, you find yourself staring at his frozen expression, and you sometimes fear you're witnessing it all over again. You can't shake him, because if it's true you don't know if you can deal with it. But then he mumbles, or nuzzles closer against your neck, and he's alive and well again, and you let out a breath you didn't realize you were holding.
And in these moments where everyone else is sleeping, you carefully straighten your back and, like the bird you are, you sit tall and keep a wary eye on the narrow horizon, on the room scattered with all sorts of mess, yours and your consorts'. Your wing snuggles closer against Jade, your arm weaves around John, your tail coils tighter around both and you are their sworn protector, even if there's no danger in here whatsoever. But this eases your mind, and the soft noises of their sleep give your rest. You hope your fears won't ever haunt them.
Not once does your stoic expression break.
Now the hours pass, and whatever passes as morning in this dimension comes, making your friends rouse from their sleep. They get up and stretch, and you merely hover between them, watch them busy themselves with the matters of breakfast.
It turns out sprites aren't supposed to eat, so you become a spectator to John's instinctive fumbling with the alchemiter, and help Jade set the table they rescued from her house. They eat, and John picks up their plates to do some quick washing up (his father had always been particularly insistent with him in that matter). And as soon as the Heir of Breath leaves, Jade starts speaking to you, her tone hushed and worried, "I've been thinking, Dave... and something bothers me..."
You say nothing, just facing her.
"Right before I ascended, you asked me to send alpha-Dave that neat sword! And I'm sure I did, but at the moment I thought he was still alive... so..."
"You sent it to his dead body on LoFaF," you finish for her, and see her nod, looking guilty. You dismiss this, "It's okay, Jade, you couldn't guess that'd happen. But that is a problem... Can't you just teleport it back here? I'm sure the two of you can bring it to Dave eventually, when you meet him." You don't want to delve too much into this, but that sword - its fixed, whole version - has a lot more value than just as a weapon. It's important to retrieve it.
But she just shakes her head, looking dismayed, "I didn't know about this before, but this place puts a whole lot more of strain in my powers than I thought... teleporting all that stuff from our places drained me, and I won't be able to get into any of our planets, otherwise I think I'd lose grasp on the ship and the whole thing would fall! But it's lucky that I set a few of those portals, for you to use... I'm asking you to go get it for me, please?"
You find yourself chuckling. Apparently, some of the gloomier personality of Jadesprite has stuck to your friend during her ascent, and she retains this habit of putting herself down. You won't have any of this, "Harley, relax. It's okay, I got this. No need to beat yourself up about it and please, don't lose your shit on this now. But why didn't you say this in front of John?"
She goes silent for a while, expression shifting from worry to a small smile and then to mild concern once more. "I figured you don't want him to come with you. There'll... there will be a dead Dave next to the sword."
Good point. You nod, patting her in the shoulder, and with no other word, you hover your way out, to the gateways Jade has set. However, neither of you have noticed someone else hovering back, John returning and, from the frown on his face, knowing about everything you've said.
"I'm coming too," is all he says, and he drops to the floor, blocking your path. You stare at him through the shades, impassive, "What? No. I think I can handle a little teleportation journey on my own, thanks. I've done worse."
But now he's the one not having any of this. "No, Dave. Let me go too. Also, it's been a while since I had a little space to just fly around. I could use the fresh air!" And he pairs his words with a smile, toothy and mischievous, and Jade's giggling behind you only tells you the battle is lost.
"Yeah, Dave. Maybe it won't be that bad!" she says.
You sigh, but say nothing as you slide past John, begrudgingly beckoning him to follow you. Jade offers one last sympathetic look before the two of you head for the portals, leaving her behind. She knows nothing. If she knew how set you are in protecting them both, not having them seeing what you've seen, she wouldn't be allowing this. But then again, all of you have seen your share of suffering, doomed timeline or not. Maybe it's something you can't help, an essential part to the game. This hurts you.
The sight that greets you on the deck of the ship is both amusing and endearing. Amusing, because the consorts have found an interesting way to entertain themselves. Endearing, for you can see John giggling stupidly as he watches salamanders and crocodiles, turtles and lizards leap from one gate to the other, squealing from the momentum gathered from their endless dive. He picks up Casey mid-jump through LoFaF's gate, patting her head, and after setting her aside, the two of you go in.
Not once does your stoic expression break.
Acid green and an electric hum envelop you as you step into Jade's planet, on top of the active volcano, near the tiny ectobiology set. John pokes at it for a while, asking you questions and sharing his own experience in the field, and you allow a small smirk at this.
"No babymaking this time, Egbert, these were for frogs. Creating a whole new universe and all. Too bad it doesn't matter anymore."
He tilts his head and looks at you with a confused expression. "How do you know all this? More time shenanigans?"
You shake your head, "I'm a game abstraction, remember? It comes with being a wise feathery asshole."
He giggles and turns away from the miniature lab, looking below for wherever your destination is. You're not sure of this yourself. But before you can say this, he goes, "You're not just a game abstraction, dummy. You're my best bro, and you seem to be a lot more knowledgeable about this game than me anyway. By all means, lead the way!"
You remain there motionless for a while, processing what he has said, and how different his attitude is now from the beginning of your journey. He's made it worth staying, after all. His progress amazes you, and you nod, smiling ever so slightly, as you look over the whole island as well. "I... I don't really know where Jade sent the sword. But I can see burn trails over there," you point to a clearing in the deep jungle, violently marring the green. "I think there was where Noir took your Dave out of the picture. We should start looking there."
He nods, and in the next moment he is swooping into the air, a loud gust of wind marking his motions. You follow close behind, even if your enthusiasm can't match his, even if you couldn't ever copy the luminous grin on his face in your happiest moment. You are headed towards the clearing all too quickly, but it's in these moments that you can study John freely.
When he flies, in all his hurricane of playful grace and airy cheer, you feel that this is exactly how you imagined John would be like. This is just the picture you need to shove the first impression of him dead and utterly still and empty back into oblivion. You are content just absorbing this endless energy, content to do everything you can to keep it safe, to never let it fade, and this is all you hoped to get through all these three years.
But no. He gives you so much more than that. The two of you fly slowly together now, and you realize he must have really missed this, for the way he enjoys every little inch of your airborne path. Somewhere in the middle of a twirl, he is facing you, so much blue so striking against the endless twilight in the background, and the way he smiles at you, lighting himself up so completely, makes you believe you are actually alive, that all this is real, that some of the heavy feelings pressing into your neon orange heart are somewhat returned.
He gives you so much more, as he leans in and gingerly ties the tip of his ridiculous windsock around the end of your sprite tail. "Try to keep up this time, dude!" he giggles. "I'm not leaving you behind." He mustn't know what he does to you, he probably doesn't realize how he makes everything better, and maybe that's for the best. But you guess you can still allow this, you can still allow yourself these moments of what is almost happiness before the end.
You fly more quickly now, following close behind him with the blue and orange knot between you, but you still try not to rush too much.
Not once does your stoic expression break. But he goes on smiling anyway.
Until you reach your destination, at any rate. You land softly on the charred grassy ground, and for a moment the horrid stench of smoke and fire is far too familiar. You push these thoughts away, and start looking around. Caledfwlch ought to be here somewhere, and with it Dave's body. The knot untangles itself as you search separately, but unfortunately John finds them both first.
You don't quite notice this at first, you just keep combing this side of the clearing, with no success. Once you're ready to give up, you sigh and turn to ask John if he's had any luck, but you find him standing so very still, his back half turned to you, looking down at something on the ground. Something catches at your throat as you approach him.
It really isn't too much to bear, you think, as you come face to face with your dead self, marble white hand tightly gripped around the unbroken sword. Dried blood from the multiple rifle shots has seeped into the fabric of his white and red shirt, the wounds small yet ugly. His face is just as pale, impassive as always, his many freckles across his skin standing out in fine detail. His shades are skewed, but his eyes are half-lidded anyway, the blonde lashes covering the mutant color. With all the time that has passed, he should have been much more decayed. But time passes differently here, at the planets inside the place between places.
Not once does your stoic expression break. But your heart does a little, as you finally catch the look on John's face.
The cheer and the light-heartedness are completely gone, and instead he looks frozen, empty. You recognize the way you looked and felt when you saw his own dead body, so many months ago. The next thing you know, his eyes are welling up with tears, even if he doesn't want to acknowledge them. "John..." you mutter, startled to see him like this, but he is quick to shove your words away, furiously wiping away the tears that keep slowly reappearing, because there's a determination in him that can't be stopped by sadness.
You finally understand why he wanted to come with you so much: so he could know how it was. So that he could crouch down and examine your lifeless body too, like you did before him, and see how this made him feel. You observe quietly as he tentatively puts one hand over your forehead, immediately drawing back with a short gasp, for it must be so terrifying cold to the touch. More tears come down, and his hand comes to catch them hurriedly, as he keeps on watching. The last thing he does before detaching Caledfwlch from his death grip is place a finger against the bridge of his shades, the ones he had given him months ago, even if it feels like an eternity now. For a moment, you think he'll take them off, bare Dave's eyes, but he pushes them back up instead.
When he stands up once more, sword in hand, he is smiling sadly, and his tears are merely salt dots on his face. "I had no idea you had freckles, man. And he has deep dark circles around his eyes, he looked so tired. Not to mention skinny," he drones, his voice hollow.
The silence between you is awkward for a while, but you quickly clear your throat and reply, "Yeah, I do. And he lived almost three times the time you did in this game, just time screwing. As for the skinny part, I've always been like that. It comes from eating only shit and strifing all the time, I guess."
He nods softly in acknowledgement, and after another short pause, a sad chuckle comes from him. He is wiping his eyes again. "This is so stupid. Why the hell am I even crying... I know he's alright, I've talked to him, I've seen him as a God... But... but..."
You know exactly what he means, and you hope the awkward hand you place on his shoulder is enough to tell him that. He smiles up at you, and it's a little better. "Let's go back," you say. "We got the sword, and we've done all we can."
He nods, and soon enough you're airborne again, but there's no fucking around this time. You get to the gateway again after a while, and Casey and her friends are back to their silly activities. When John puts her away this time, the gesture is hollow and automatic.
Back in the ship, John hands you the sword, and you see him go with a mumbled, silly excuse. This pains you, but you don't go after him just yet.
Not once does your stoic expression break. But you're starting to get tired of it.
You see Jade approaching you, and she's asking how everything went with a wide grin. You hand her Caledfwlch in return, and say, "Well, you were right. About a lot of stuff. I think I'm done pretending, Jade. I'm tired of this. I think I'm going to finally fix it."
The smile on her face falters, but there's understanding, and maybe some pride in there now. She nods and wishes you good luck. You go look for John.
You find him on the crow's nest, sitting against the mast, and even if he isn't crying, he looks as empty and distant as before, and this still pains you. But you're done tiptoeing around this. This is your chance to do something good for him, for a chance.
John barely acknowledges your presence, but you know how to change that. You sit against the railing across him, and your hand goes to tie the tip of his blue windsock around your coiled bright orange tail again. He looks at you, surprise changing his expression, and you merely stare back. It takes a moment before he smiles again, a lot more brightly this time, but you're ready to receive him when he scrambles to come hug you. And when he gently nuzzles against the silly tuff of feathers around your neck, you finally throw your stoic mask away.
He raises his head, and his smile is blinding now. He suddenly, tentatively cradles your face with both his hands, and the raw tenderness of the gesture wipes the remains of your stoicism away. It's amazing and scary how you feel yourself grinning back, and he notices this too, for he's studying your face even more intently now. His thumbs brush against the skin of your face at random spots, and only when he speaks you understand why.
"I never realized you have freckles too, Dave! It's kind of silly, but adorable too," he giggles.
"It must be all the glowy orange throwing you off, but yeah," you chuckle back, and he nuzzles you again.
And you can't help but feel there's an understanding between you now, as if this incident has made you know each other better, through the twisted ways of sharing a particular kind of pain, of grief. You're probably right. The two of you are slowly realizing all the implications of these three years together, and your conclusions are both happy and sad.
Because he might not be your John, and you might not be his Dave, you might not be what the other wants, but you're what each other needs right now. The future beyond this three-year-span is scary and uncertain, for you're not sure you'll be able to meet your John in a dream-bubble, and God only knows how long it will be before he meets his Dave, and how everything will be like then. But you can use this time together, for now. You can get rid of the mask, and finally show him bits and pieces of how much good he does to you. And maybe he can see you differently now, put this friendship you have in a whole new perspective. Maybe.
This bittersweet happiness is only borrowed, you know, but you can still receive it with open arms, and your open arms twine tighter around John's shoulders. He won't cry anymore for now, and the smile he has is blinding, and you're perfectly content with this.
"What a mess we got ourselves into, dude..." he mumbles though a chuckle, against the feathers around your neck. "But I... I..." and he goes silent.
"I know. I do too," you reply, to both.
This borrowed happiness is all you have, but given the choice, it's not that bad at all.