Chapter 1: Prologue
At the age of six years old, you started leaving loving notes to your mother around the house, signed, "Your devoted daughter, Rose."
She, of course, framed them.
A week later, you started stealing her lipstick and wearing it to school.
She took pictures and said that you looked precious.
You expressed your distaste for pants and suits over breakfast one day, and your mother came home that afternoon with countless shopping bags packed with dress-up clothes.
A few passive-aggressive months later, there was a mutual armistice in which you and your mother shamefully agreed to be sincere for one evening and one evening only. You most certainly did not cry (you both did), you definitely did not admit your terror of having to grow up to be a man (you did), and you will deny with every ounce of your being that the evening culminated in a tearful, loving hug, cups of hot tea, and being sung to sleep. (It did.)
The next morning, your mother took you to a therapist--an experience which you never forgot--and you were deemed to be Gender
Dysphoric and Really A Girl After All. Your mother helped you fill out your name-change forms (though the gender marker stalwartly refused to be changed until you were at least eighteen and had undergone surgery), got you a wardrobe full of girl's clothing, and everything was just perfect.
Except, it wasn't.
-- tentacleTherapist [TT] responded to the memo "Trans Kid Support Group!" --
TT: It's not that I'm expressing disappointment with my transition thus far, nor of the reactions of those I have told, but rather that despite all of this, something still feels as though it's missing.
TT: Perhaps it's just the knowledge that regardless of what medical procedures I choose to undergo, I will still be reliant on hormones and surgical procedures to feel as if I am in the "right" body. Not to mention that I will still have to live most of my young adult life with the "wrong" genitalia and secondary-sex characteristics, as my doctors insist that I cannot undergo any form of medical transition until I am thirteen at the very earliest.
TT: I guess what I am trying to say is...
TT: It's hard, being transgender and growing up. It's hard and nobody understands.
Now you're thirteen years old.
Thirteen is the magic age. The age when you can get prescriptions for magical drugs to make you into the girl you know you are. (Someone soft and feminine and pretty, you think, though you'd never admit it. What would that do for your gothgirl image?)
But puberty was unkind to you, and settled in early. Already your voice had started to drop, leaving you with an awkward baritone that you try your hardest to hide. Already your shoulders had broadened, already you'd shot up to a distinctly not-feminine five-foot-eight. You begged your doctors to let you go on estrogen early, but they tutted and worried about "long-term effects" and your general health and prescribed you hormone blockers, too little too late. The changes stopped coming, but the ones that had already arrived were stuck with you for good. You were twelve and a half, and you cussed out your doctors with words so long that even they didn't understand, and you went home and punched your mirror so hard that shards of glass were embedded in your knuckles.
On your thirteenth birthday, you cried with relief. You spent the snow-covered day at the endocrinologist, filling out forms and signing waivers and finally, finally, receiving that magical bottle of estrogen. You beamed at your mother, giving her the gift of a wide, genuine grin, and hugged her tight. She cried, assured you that they were tears of joy. It was a sincere day, a happy day.
Now you're thirteen years old. You wear dark lipstick and read books without pictures. Your favored interests leave sympathetic adults with fake, confused smiles as they say, "How interesting!" and that's how you like it. Your best friends have never heard your too-deep voice, or seen your angular face. The closest things you have to pets are the zoologically dubious creatures you study with an interest bordering on fetishistic. Even with the promises of hormonal changes to come, you still shower with your eyes closed tight so you can't accidentally see your (wrong wrong wrong) body.
And it's really almost fine.
You are LALONDE, ROSE. HAIR: BLONDE, EYES: VIOLET, SEX: M, according to your passport. You are thirteen years old, and you are playing a game.
You are Rose Lalonde, tall and gawky and pale, and you are wondering if anything in your life will ever work out. You have just finished typing your final entry to your lengthy game walkthrough. You have been contacted by aliens and whispered to by gods, you have performed magic beyond your wildest dreams, and you just blew up your first gate and you do not know why. But we're not starting there. We're starting on Derse.
The gods whisper to you while you sleep. Rose, they say, Rose, our darling princess, we can do so much for you. You listen to them and wonder how much they know. Sometimes you wonder if you're going insane, if the horrorterrors are nothing but a hallucination made up of every insecurity you've ever had. Rose, pretty Rosie, what would you give to be whole? In the beginning, you hid in Dave's tower, let his pounding music wash over you and drown out the heartbreaking whispers that promise things too good to be true. Now, though, now that you are doomed, you sit atop your obsidian tower and stare into the Furthest Ring with your pale, pale eyes, and you listen. We can see you, Rose, we can see who you really are, and you are so beautiful...
The horrorterrors teach you to wield magic, to start. Your Thorns of Oglogoth were a gift from them, the code given to you while you slept. It's intoxicating, it's incredible, to feel the crackles of magic burn through your veins. Your control grows, allows you to obliterate ogres with ease and desecrate game constructs as easily as breathing. The magic pulses with your heartbeat, entwines itself with you until using it is as simple and thoughtless as raising a hand or standing on two feet. You escape into sleep more frequently, holding audiences with the gods of the Furthest Ring as often as you can--So talented, our Rose, look at how powerful she has become, our wondrous princess--and you trust them more than anyone else on Earth. These amazing gods, these incredible creatures that share their wisdom and their power with you.
John crash-lands in your room with a thud, breaking your connection with the towers of Derse and jolting you awake. He calls out a, "Rose! Oh my god hi!" and you almost sit up and greet him out of reflex--how long have you chatted with him online without ever seeing his face? It's terribly exciting, the idea of talking to him in person! But a crippling fear stops you--what if he hears your deep voice? What if he notices your strong jaw, or your (small, but noticeable) adam's apple? Fear chokes you, so you squeeze your eyes shut tighter, force your breathing to become even, and pretend to still be asleep. You feel a slight pressure on the back of your eyes, as if they're being stroked by some giant tendril, and an ancienthorrible voice soothes you, Oh sweetling, don't be frightened, come back to us and we will wake you when he is gone, he doesn't understand you like we do and we have so much to show you still...
John is still in your room, doing who-knows-what, when you slip back into sleep's embrace for your audience with gods.
A troll has started talking to you regularly. She says her name is Kanaya. Her jade words bring to mind crisp elocution, cut-glass vowels, perfect femininity. (After all, it takes true class to wield a chainsaw.) Your rapport is an elaborate dance around subjects, focused more prominently on what is not said rather than what is. She's even helped you design some terribly stylish outfits, some of which you can even wear without feeling like you're all angles and ungainly and mannish. (You still avoid mirrors while wearing her designs, but you do find yourself smiling at your watery reflection in the Land of Light and Rain on more than one occasion.) She even complimented your figure while you modeled for her viewport--an event that left you stunned and blushing and hopelessly smitten. Aside from her rather maddening ability to always catch you at moments in which you are busy, you admire her quite a bit.
You don't talk to her about the gods of the Furthest Ring, nor do you talk to them about her. You have more important things to discuss, and you--though you would never admit it--like to keep some things secret and close to your heart. Dave calls Kanaya your "alien bug girlfriend" and mentions a thousand fetishes that she probably fulfills for you, but you find yourself privately and hopefully imagining that very scenario to be true. (Minus the explicit and vaguely unsettling imagery he offered of tentacles in every orifice, of course.) Somehow, though, the horrorterrors still know of your secret hopes, of the crush that you can't keep yourself from having. Look at our clever girl, they say. Look at how fast she learned our spells, who else could compare? She's the envy of all, our Rose, pretty alien girls just fall to their knees when they see her... How, you ask them, how can they see through you like you're glass? Rose, we know everything about you. We understand you, better than anyone else ever will.
It's true, you think with a soft smile. It's so true. And how lucky you are, how very lucky you are, darling Rosie, for they don't choose just anyone for such an honor. You are very, very special indeed.
Your eyes flutter open, and you sit up slowly, smiling. The Viceroy has waited attentively at your side.You shake yourself gently, ridding yourself of the last traces of sleep, and resolve to get to work. Kanaya is trolling you already, and wants to discuss tactics. You prefer her when she can be drawn back into the deliciously snarky realm of sarcasm, metaphor, and barely-disguised flirtations, but you allow her to satisfy her urge to meddle nonetheless. You keep one eye on the conversation as you systematically desecrate an elaborate, labrinthine temple--probably the house of some sort of inane side-quest, but such distractions are beneath you. She often attempts to entice you into engaging in them, prattling about gaining levels and experience, but you have no time for such diversions.
GA: I Wish That We Could Help
GA: Being In A Doomed Game Session Can Give One A Sense Of Helplessness And Our Leader Does Not Seem To Fully Understand That
TT: It's perfectly fine, Kanaya. I'm starting to come up with a plan that, while it cannot rescue our session, can still allow us to make some headway against this game.
GA: What Would This Plan Involve?
TT: It's still in its infancy at the moment, so I don't feel that it is wise to divulge such things yet. But don't worry, I have sources that have promised that they can lend help.
GA: And Who Are These Sources?
TT: The gods, of course.
GA: Oh My Are You Completely Certain That That Is Wise?
TT: I trust them, Kanaya. Don't worry, I know what I'm doing.
GA: That Is Precisely What I Am Afraid Of.
--grimAuxilatrix [GA] has ceased trolling tentacleTherapist [TT]--
The game is doomed, and so are you.
It's a mantra that pounds through your head at every moment. Occasionally, you get fuzzy memories, strange recollections of a time that was never meant to be. Dave tells you that they're from a doomed timeline. He changed it, because John and Jade died. You were trapped there for four months. You pray that you never have to remember four months of this hell. You pray that this timeline is not doomed. And the gods listen to those prayers.
Rose, everyone is doomed, we're all doomed, but you can be our savior.
You slash your wands through the air, and a violet crackle wrenches from your pounding heart out through their steel tips. It destroys a towering structure--probably home to countless consorts, but they're game constructs, they aren't real--and you feel a rush of pride. Look at what you can do. Look at how strong you are.
Beautiful princess, look at the power you hold, the magic you wield. If anyone can save us, it will be you.
You slice at game devices with your magic, scream with joy as it tears from your veins and through your wands. (Those too-deep cries are drowned out by the sound of explosions, and it feels so good to let loose sometimes.) Already, the horrorterrors are making good on their promises. Your shoulders seem narrower, somehow, in the reflections of the rainbow seas. Your hands are smaller, more feminine. These changes fill you with a fierce, aching joy that you can barely keep bottled up inside. A grey pallor to your pale skin is such a small price to pay for such incomparable gifts.
--grimAuxilatrix [GA] began trolling tentacleTherapist [TT]--
GA: Perhaps It Is Just Karkats Bellowing Making Me Insane But You Look Different Somehow
TT: Hello to you, too, dear.
GA: My Apologies Greetings Rose How Are You Doing On This Fine Day
TT: You're getting better at sarcasm, Kanaya; I'm impressed.
TT: Now, how would you say I look "different?"
GA: I Dont Really Know You Just Seem Kind Of Off
GA: Not In A Bad Way Of Course I Dont Mean Any Offense
TT: None taken. It's probably just the light. I wouldn't worry about it.
GA: Perhaps You Should Leave LOLAR Then You Seem Rather Sickly And I Do Actually Care About Your Delicate Human Health
TT: I'm fine, Kanaya, you have no reason to worry.
TT: Now, I hate to do this to you, but I'm kind of busy.
--tentacleTherapist [TT] ceased pestering grimAuxilatrix [GA]--
There is a soft pressure behind your eyes all the time now. When they speak, that pressure thrums with their ancientterrible voices. They calms you, sooth you, guide you when you are lost. But when you see a flash of red and hear a quick pounding of bass that announces the arrival of a Mr. Dave Strider, your gods seem to desert you. Perhaps it's your sudden fear that voids your mind of their presence, but you don't have time to think about that because you are about to come face-to-face with Dave for the first time and he is going to know. Your head feels light and empty and there is nothing behind your eyes and even with the slight changes brought by the gods you will never be able to pass to him.
Dave attempts to flashstep over to you from his position atop a tiny outcropping, but ends up stumbling and falling into the rainbow sea. He shakes himself off, looks around to see if anyone noticed (if you weren't so terrified, you'd laugh), and slouches towards you.Dave Strider is you. The thought flashes through your head faster than you can process.
Dave Strider is you, if you cut your hair and donned a suit. Sure, your brief stint on androgen-blockers and estrogen has left you perhaps an inch shy of his height, left your face slightly softer and your body slightly smaller, but Dave Strider could be your identical twin. Belatedly, you remember that he is. He juts his chin up at you in a quintessential bro-nod and raises a fist. You touch your knuckles to his by reflex, your mind paralyzed by anxiety, and he quietly says, "'Sup, Lalonde." His voice is yours, if you had been raised on Texan twangs and cussing. You just stare at him like, as Kanaya would put it, An Antlerbeast In The Vehicle Lamps. Fear roots you to the spot. You can't say anything.
"What, no hello?" he teases. His tone is light, but his hands are jammed into his pockets and he's nervously biting his lip. You realize, suddenly, that Dave Strider is worried about what you think of him. Every instinct screams at you to run away as fast as you can, you're mentally crying out for the gods to come back and help you because you feel so abandoned and terrified, but you force yourself to try to smile at the brother you never knew you had.
"Hello, Dave." Your voice is so deep. He has to know. You swallow, hard, pray that he can't see the Adam's apple bobbing in your throat. Your eyes sting with terrified tears. Dave does a slight double-take as the words leave your mouth, and you want to disappear on the spot, to throw yourself into the bright rainbow sea, to be anywhere but here.
"Huh. Guess Harley's the only hope left for the human race," he says, a grin threatening to break his poker face. What? What is he even saying? He stares at you in exasperation. "Oh come on, this is some prime material I'm using here don't tell me you don't get it."
"...What?" You're almost too confused to be scared anymore.
"Oh come on, Rosita, don't make me explain the joke, that ruins it. You're killing me here. You're worse than Jack. You're showing me your flighty broad incomprehension stabs. Look, I'm dead and it's all your fault." He collapses dramatically to the ground, twitching a little for effect. You almost snort at that. Dave sighs in exasperation, still sprawled at your feet. "Come on, do I have to start calling Jade our Womb Mother or something? Our last viable vag to repopulate the land? And here you're supposed to be the smart one, honestly. I'm disappointed, Lalonde."
At that, it clicks. You don't know whether to laugh or cry. Dave would be more offended that you didn't get his joke than by the fact that his sister isn't as feminine as he expected. Before you can help yourself, you're giggling like an idiotic schoolgirl. Dave smirks triumphantly.
Eventually, you recover from your fit of relieved laughter. "It seems that you've made your opinion clear, but I have to ask anyways: does it really not matter to you?"
"Lalonde. My bro runs a porn empire from our living room. Do you really think you're the first gal I've ever met who's packin' heat? At least you have clothes on, shit."
At that, you flush crimson and have to bury your head in your hands and contain more hysterical, relieved giggles. Then, you link arms with your brother and ask him, with a wicked grin on your face, exactly how growing up in that environment made him feel.
Eventually, though, Dave has to leave, taking your tentative comfort with him. He thinks he's so cool, but you can see how dorky and insecure and silly he is underneath. And he looks at you as a person, not a body. As his sister. It makes you feel worlds better about yourself. But it couldn't last forever--the game and your unwinnable war calls both of you in different directions--and just a few minutes ago he gave you a sardonic mock-salute, uncaptchalogued his timetables, and disappeared in a pounding of bass and a flash of red.
The Land of Light and Rain feels empty without him. Now that he's gone, you're suddenly more aware of your own body. You feel too tall, too gawky, too broad in shoulder and narrow in hip. Your own disgust rises like bile in your throat and threatens to choke you, made only worse when you catch your reflection in a puddle at your feet. You obliterate it with a blast of violet magic, tears stinging at your eyes, and wonder how you were so happy only a few moments previously. You storm through your land, underneath glowing thunderheads and through rainbow-hued showers that drench your clothes and hide your tears, scattering consorts with magic wherever you go, until you can't take it anymore and collapse, sobbing, to the ground.
A pinging noise catches your attention--it's probably Kanaya, watching through her viewport and concerned as usual. You ignore it. A lavender turtle snuffles over, looking at you curiously. You ignore it. A cloud drifts over, showering you in prism-like water. You ignore it.
A slight pressure begins behind your eyes; an ancient voice whispers just beyond your range of hearing. The tears streaming down your face turn black and thick as oil. And that snaps you to full attention.
We've missed you, Princess.
A smile curves across your face, magic crackles through your veins. You've missed them, too.
Sometimes you seriously wonder if your heart has turned to ice. A troll--Terezi? Equius? Tavros? Eridan?--you can't remember which, asked you if you were a boy or a girl. You think that you might have blacked out, because later you found yourself sitting in the midst of a smoking, charred ruin, black tear-tracks lining your face, a tar-like puddle clogging the iridescent sea.
Rose, darling, dearest, we're so glad that you're back, we've missed you dear Rosie, we've missed our princess, we've missed our powerful witch our glorious seer look at her doesn't she make us so proud--
They have called you for a full audience tonight. Every god of the Outer Ring is waiting, every one of them cooing over your accomplishments, stroking the innermost corners of your mind with tendrils that may not even exist in this dimension. A thousand conversations happen at once, some which you won't have until hours later when you remember them, some which you've had vague recollections of for ages but can only make sense of now. The horrorterrors are too many-dimensioned, too great and terrible to communicate in a linear way.
This time, though, there is only one conversation. This time, they are calling for help.
Ṟ͔͖͚͎͐̊̄͛ͩͅo̞͚̣͇̤̜̟͐̎̔̽̈́̃͢s̲͚̥̝̦̬̯e̐ͫ́ͧͤ̌͏̻ ̛͚̰͇̹̗̬R̼̟͈̳̗͕o͙̦̘̽ͨ̌ͬ͑ͮs̛̭̭͑̈͑̏e̯̓͆ͮͦͮ ̥̅̑̉͆R͕͍͓̬̠̯̞̋ȯ͛̎ͬͩ̃s̫͈̮͓͔̑͗e̺͚̱͓̖̅̒͊͘ ̻͉̫̲͍̓̅ͭͅͅR̞̜͑͑̍̌ͬ͞ǒ̠͇͍͍̓̒͐̊ͤ̎͞s̝̩̟͉ͭ̄̿ͥe̸͕̬̻͓̱͔ͫ̍̾̽...
O̶̱̻̼͈̫̖̖͉ͩ̈ͮ͗̒͐ͮ̕ͅn̙͔̗̣͚̹̏ͥ͝l̲̝̺ͤͮ̒̆ͨ̎͑́͜y̶̢͍͖̘̣̞̰̥̼̒̓̏ͥͅ ͙̖̳͂͗̒͛y̷̯͔͖͆̍ͣ̆ͨ͛̏̈́̕ͅȯ͔̭̟̘̰̱̖̱͆͛͌͠u͔͚̻͆͗͛̉̒ͮ͋́̚ ̶̷̳͓̜̰̇͊͐̑͑̏̍ç̟̫̼̳ͦ͋͢ȧ̹̳͙̌̆̓̓ͮ̌ͨ̀͡n̼̠̫̳̼͉͔̜ͤ̃͗ͪ͡ ̦̟̫ͤ͋̌̃̄s̵̨ͣ̇͛͊͏̤̫a̙̗͕̩͕͎̒̈̐̔ͩv̲̗͙͕̤̏̊̎̆̊ͅe̵̒̉҉̟̣̬͡ͅ ̶͇̫̋̓̑̎̌͘ù̪ͩ́ͨ̏̊͢s̭̩̺̳̪̳̬͓͋̈́̅ͨ̎͑ͨͅ.
They cry out in one voice, one time. Your eardrums throb, your brain hums with the force of it. You rub the sleep from your eyes upon waking, only to find your hands slick with blood.
"Lalonde, get down from there, why would you want to fucking talk to them?" Dave is princely in his silken Dersite robes, he sits on the windowsill of his tower and throws puppets at you until you pay attention to him. Perhaps, once, you would have floated down to him. Perhaps you would have chatted, would have laughed together and relished the small comfort of being asleep at the same time. Instead, you glare at him from your tower's roof, turn away, hope that he wakes up soon.
Don't listen to him, Rose, he doesn't understand you like we do, he's too pure not pure enough he'll never understand.
The gods need Dave, they need their violet prince, but they do not love him. Not like they love you.
When you wake, there is a new message waiting for you. A message all in white.
TT: To whom do I owe the pleasure of speaking?
TT: That's obvious. Who exactly is "me"?
That is not your concern at the moment.
I am an omniscient being, and I have chosen to speak with you. This is all that you need to know.
TT: Fascinating. Please understand if I choose not to believe you.
I can quickly and easily remove all doubt, if you so desire.
TT: If you're omniscient, don't you know whether I desire it or not?
Forgive me for allowing you to have the illusion of free will.
TT: Omniscience does not dictate free will.
No, it does not. Your lack of free will does.
TT: Let's not start this argument. Anyways, how can I believe your claims of omniscience?
Because I never lie.
TT: I find that rather hard to believe.
Skepticism is natural, but I assure you that you will come to believe me in time.
Also I do rather like what the gods have done with you.
TT: I would ask how you know about the gods, but you will probably answer with some snide reference to your claimed omniscience. So instead, I'll ask what the hell you mean by what they have "done with me"?
I do have quite a preference for young ladies.
And you are becoming more and more ladylike as you associate with the gods.
You cry out, partly in outrage, partly in fear, partly in emotions that you don't even understand. This white-texted asshole ought to taste your magic, you think. This omniscient bastard called you ladylike, you think. You don't know whether to be furious or giddy.
TT: Why are you contacting me?
Because we can help each other.
You wish to win the game. I wish to die.
The scratch doctor's white text is infuriating. He is cryptic, cruel, and insufferably polite; every conversation with him leaves you shaking in fury and oddly exhilarated. The gods stay silent about him, anticipatory. Perhaps they are testing you, waiting for you to pass judgment. You reassure yourself with that.
You don't imagine that perhaps their own omniscience has dark spots, and that perhaps he is one of them. You refuse to imagine that.
In the heat of LOHAC, your sweat oozes out black and oily. You come across Dave once, twice. There is none of the easy familiarity that you had on LOLAR or Derse. Instead, he keeps you at arm's length, his face stony and guarded. He asks wryly if you'll refrain from destroying his planet, and when you roll your eyes at him you see him start. The trickle of blood down your cheek explains why. He never does ask what is happening, nor do you tell him, but he does catch your arm before leaving once, a terse, "Take care of yourself, Rose," the most frightening warning you've ever heard.
The gods laughed at that, but you detect nervousness.
Scratch's suicide mission looms before you, and whenever you think on it the godly humming in your ears crescendos. Is it an encouragement? You're starting to think so. Perhaps they know more than they let on. Perhaps it is a good idea. You wonder what it will feel like to disintegrate. You wonder if obliteration hurts. You hear whispers-- we won't let it hurt. The furthest ring is their domain, after all. Perhaps traveling there will have its merits.
Whenever you close your eyes, you see their faces. It feels like being home.
You feel slim and lithe, softer and more feminine. The unhealthy grey sheen to your skin and your eyes' annoying tendency to bleed is well worth the reflection you catch in the sheen of a girder. Your jaw is soft, your shoulders narrow. Your hands are small and delicate, and when you smooth them down your sides you can feel the soft curve of your waist and hips. When you hum to yourself, your voice sounds high and sweet and fine, if you can ignore the gods' attempts to harmonize just out of your range of hearing. Kanaya tuts over you, asking you to slow down, and you contribute your grey pallor to bad lighting, broken viewports. Your stringy hair is because of the humidity. You didn't cough up blood just then--all humans do that.
You can almost hear her sighing to herself. But she would never understand. You can just tell, you can See it. She is probably willowy and beautiful, her body alien but full of soft curves. (The gods agree with you Rosepetal she does not know what she sees she sees she sees the Sylph will never comprehend, just wait just wait when we are finished with you with you she will have to love you she will know no other way to be you are too much to toss aside we know we always know we have always known --)
You regret that you will never be able to meet her.
You destroy gates, you implode buildings, you scatter consorts. There is a rush to it, a thudding of adrenaline. The more you destroy, the more whole you feel.
Perhaps, when you destroy yourself on the suicide mission to the damned Green Sun, it will be the best high of all.