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We Were Golden

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We were golden once, uttered the phantom in his  mind, we were gods.
Do you remember being a god, David?
Do you remember me?
Do you remember time,
David,
Time that was cradled in your hands,
Soft and malleable and loving?
As soft as my heart,
Soft and malleable and loving?
Which you also held.
Do you still love me, Dave
Do you still love me, Dave?

    Dave strider looked into the mirror at his face, thirty and lineless. No crease nor wrinkle marred the pale expanse of his face. But he looked old. Even though something around his mouth, the lack of frown lines, of laugh lines, of anything, made him look young, youthful in its pale perfection. Even with all that youth, his shoulders told a different story. His covered eyes told an epic. His hands, the knuckles gnarled and knobbly, fingers covered in callouses and scars. They were old too, as old as his eyes and as old as his soul.

    He had lived a thousand years, been reborn and lived a thousand more, each and every minute a hundred years and every second a day. He had raised children, had been happy and sad and angry. He had been born to people and had born people. They were family, always, but not really. More things, different things had happened. He had died again. Another reset, a new life. Died. Reset. Died. Reset. Born to be Dave Strider, again, for the hundreth time. Somehow he ended up Dave Strider more than anything else. He had lived so many existences, so many time lines. He had been so many versions and reflections of himself that he was no longer afraid to die, to become whiteness and painlessness and someone new.

    But for now he was alive, in this world. This world is more like the first world, calmer somehow and less urgent. Purposeful. Everything moved to accommodate him -- everything was soft, here, everything was easy. The world made room for him. It was an apology, he knew, for the hardships he had faced. He knew now as he had known the second he had become conscious, that the world was made to make him happy.

    That didn’t explain why he was so god damned miserable. So miserable and alone and desperate. No matter how many piers he walked off, no matter how many cars he stepped in front of, he lived. Always. He was nigh indestructible. He was always healthy, well, in tip top shape -- no matter what. He could ruin himself, but in the morning he would be perfect and unmarred once more.

    He thought, on such instances, that this was hell. This wasn’t a world for him, not when he had seen and lived a thousand lives, had killed and died and watched the life drain from a thousand hearts. Not when he was this battle worn thing , twisted and dark, this spectre of himself, a knight without a castle or a prince to protect.

    His Prince. Once he was a knight and his prince was golden, golden, golden and warm, with pale skin and icy breath, and eyes the color of Skaia. When he was made gold by that light, tempered like steel by the heat of his Prospit Heir. By the prince of his heart. His hero, his love.


Do you remember, David?
Of course you remember.
How can you forget, when the sky is the blue of my eyes, David?
When the wind kisses your cheek and giggles against your lips,
When the breeze combs through your hair like cool fingers,
Or when you hear a note from a piano?
How can you forget when every time you close your eyes,
It feels like I’m right there with you,
As I was a thousand lives ago.


    Logically, Dave knew it wasn’t John. The voice was softer, older, John’s voice as he imagined it. It had become watery and insubstantial with age, a memory half forgotten. He knew John had never once called him David, had never had to. But it didn’t matter. The phantom of his best friend, his love, called in his mind like a siren, running its fingers over the thoughts in his head and infecting them with cool blue light, the dim beauty of it shooting heat through him. He wanted John, more than he wanted anything else. He wished it. He wished it harder than he had ever wished anything in his life.
    John.
    Stupid John with his adorable teeth, and his little dimple in his right cheek. With his blue eyes and his messy, dark hair, and his little upturned nose that crinkled when he was thinking. His lips, pink and happy and soft, soft like silk, soft like petals. His cool lips and his warm mouth, his soft, long hands, so elegant and fine boned, a dove’s wing or a swan’s neck. Ragged nails, bitten off with stress but still elegant, elegant in their suffering and humanity. The six freckles on his face, and the three on his neck. The way he gnawed on his lip when thinking. How his eyes would light up when he caught sight of him. The ways he always, always died.
    Dave breathed in, closing his eyes and seeing John, covered in blood. Seeing John with a sword through his stomach. Seeing John smile one last time.
    It’s warm over there. He had said.
    In his next life he had missed him. Again. He had died before he was born, before he was conscious. And then he had missed him again. And again, and every time after, all except one. Once, when he was dying, he had been visited by a solemn seven year old girl with messy black hair and little, square glasses. A girl dressed in blue, with hair cut boy short, and eyes the color of the sky.
    She had placed a small hand on top of his gnarled old paw, and smiled the smile of an old man.

    It’s okay, Dave. It’ll all be okay.

    Then there was only whiteness after that, and then consciousness. For the first five years, usually, he was not yet real. He was alive, breathing, and functioning, but not conscious -- not really. Not until he woke up one morning, usually in spring, fully aware that he had lived this life and lives like it a thousand times. He had lived in every age, in every country, had been a king and a peasant and gone whole lives as being someone other than Dave. He had been each race and gender, and no longer found a distinction between them. He was in his first body, now, blond and red eyed like a demon, tall and lean and strong. He was handsome, his features sharp and regal, a knight. He was not ashamed to admire his visage -- he had been ugly just as many times as he had been attractive. This body felt right, though, felt real as many of the other bodies had not.
    But something was missing.
    Something important.
    John.
    With a sigh, Dave walked from the bathroom, closing the door with a click as he entered the living room. His house was modest, quiet. So high up, the sounds of life, of a city, hardly made any noise at all. He wasn’t sure why he had chosen Boston. New England had something about it, though, that he thought John would like. There was something quaint and nearly old-world about the colleges and libraries, the the crazy, sprawling streets that made no sense. Something quirky and charming, and no matter how bad the drivers were, they weren’t as bad as New Yorkers. He breathed in, walking to the worn leather couch.

    His house was clean.

    Neat to the point of being sterile.

    Not a bachelor's house, not at all. It was  an old man’s house, orderly and well kept, with antique furniture that had always belonged to him.

    He looked at his books, books he had hidden and books he had saved, books he had owned in past lives. They were his most prized possessions. Those and his Victrola, which sat on a small table with clawed feet. He had John’s records, all of them, from when he had been a concert pianist more famous than any that predated him. He was no longer remembered. In that life, Dave had only just missed him -- he had been late in awakening, and by the time he came to life, John was an old, old man, dying. He hadn’t lived in that life long. Only long enough to gather his things and set himself up for the next one.

    His mother then had been neglectful, cold. His birth parents usually were. It must have been instinct -- Dave was not their child, not really. He was older than they were, old and worn, and they were only first time humans. They were new souls. New and young and beautiful, and it was painful to watch them. Painful to have them look upon him and recognize that he was different. That he was something more, perhaps, or something less.

    Dave let his head fall back, closing his tired eyes. His shades, nearly the same as John’s, were hooked to the collar of his shirt, and he felt the cold metal bite into his flesh in a nearly pleasant way. It was a sharp stab, saying that he was alive. He got up creakily, his mind making him feel so much older than he really was. So much older and so very tired.

    He debated stepping off the balcony. Perhaps this time he would really die? Perhaps he could escape this life, too? To a new one -- one with John. He knew he should feel the need to find the other two, Jade and Rose, his sister and his friend, but they were different. No matter how he loved them, he could live without them. He knew they were conscious, though, as he had once been betrothed to Jade, something he would look to in times of sadness. She had died young of tuberculosis, still a few years shy of their marriage, but the summers they had spent at the beautiful Villa in France were some of his warmest memories.

    Fond memories were few and far between -- sometimes he would go whole lives without a single sparkling memory to go back to. Rose featured in many of his favorites, as his daughter or niece or mother. He had also been Rose’s twin, once, when they had been in the circus, a flying trapeze duo. They were beautiful then, and he had remembered kissing the lion tamer and telling Rose. About spending nights swathed in colorful costumes, giggling to one another. About holding hands and watching stars. About telling her about the wind. She had given him a look then, her violet eyes alight in her speckled face, hair the color of fresh spring mud, that said that she knew he still loved John, if only by the wistful way he talked about the wind.

    Rose was alive now, he knew, as she was his niece once more. His biological sister, Cassidy, had given birth to her when she was seventeen. Rose was sixteen now, and brilliant beyond belief. She would be conscious soon, he knew, he could tell by the way she would sometimes look out the window with the eyes that he often saw in the mirror, the eyes of an ancient soul. She was always a late bloomer, so conscious of others but always oblivious to herself that she sometimes forgot to wake up.

    He smiled then, looking out his window at the ground far below. He would live today, if only for Rose. Rosaline Strand on paper, but called Rose by Dave. Uncle Dave. Uncle Dave who was an author, a poet, a musician. Uncle Dave who could speak nearly any language, and had given her a pack of tarot cards made of ivory. Uncle Dave who had graduated college at age fourteen.

    Her mother Cass hated him. Hated that Rose loved him, hated that he was as miserable as she was. Hated that no matter how much he had, he was sad, lost. Hated, hated, hated .Hated that he had changed his name to Strider, like his good for nothing, absent father. Hated that she knew he was nothing like him. A twist of fate, or of perfect design.

    Dave’s phone buzzed in his pocket, then, and he answered, knowing who it was already.

    “Hello Rose.” he said, voice quiet and mellifluous. He had once lived as an opera singer, the most beautiful soprano in all of Italy. He remembers the smell of makeup still, when he sees a stage, and the sound of Italian sung in a voice given to him by angels.

    “Dave,” she said, and he smiled.

    “I knew you were due to wake up soon, Rose. Not like I haven’t been waiting around for oh, nearly thirty years. I told you dog, I told you, you gotta learn to wake up faster.” he rubbed his finger over the cover of his coffee table book, smiling at the Russian words. He had been a czar, once, too, and a philospher. This was a book he had written,   

    “And I have told you at least three times that I am unable to wake up earlier. It is how I am. Now that we are on the same proverbial page, I am coming over. We have a lot to discuss.”

   “No problem, let me just drop everything so my favorite sister/niece/mother/daughter, and that one time you were my brother, can come over and shoot the shit. Anything for family, right? I mean, whatever. No big deal Rose, just been waiting around for thirty years, it’s not like you need to say you missed me or anything.”

    “It’s about John.” she hung up, then, the line going dead within seconds. Dave felt his heart begin to beat for what felt like the first time in a thousand years.


___

    Rose had hair that was slightly too long to look exactly the same, but in her sixteen year old eyes was the same girl Dave had always known. She stood in his door way in a black jacket pulled hastily over purple pajamas. She looked regal enough for it not to matter.
    “Hey sis, what’s up?” he said, shrugging his shoulders nonchalantly. These first few minutes together were always awkward -- remembering all lives and this one all at the same time, being hundreds of different people but also essentially yourself. He knew the feeling was hard to handle, almost overwhelming.
    “Hello Dave.” she whisked past him, coat flapping. She always had had a flair for the dramatic, and it made his mouth quirk up into a small smile, only a tiny twitch of muscle before it was gone.
    “Dave.” she said, running her finger over an old photo album of a circus. Two near identical faces stared back from the first photo with eyes too old for the children’s faces. She sighed, tracing her nail over the placid sienna colors, a small smile curling at her lips. She turned again to Dave, now lounging next in the doorway.
    “Rose,” he said, voice heavy, “let’s get down to business. No dawdling, shit just got real.” he breathed in, “John.”

    The smile that curled on Rose’s face grew slightly larger. Dave quirked a brow at her, gesturing with one hand for her to start. It was strange, because he had always thought himself to be a patient person -- at least, he had learned to be patient.

    “He’s my biology intern. He majors in genetics at MIT. He’s brilliant, Dave. He’s John Egbert again, I believe that we are all ‘original’ again, and he looks nearly the same. I can’t tell if he’s awake yet, but I suspect it’s only a matter of time if he isn’t, the looks he gives me when we speak are speculative. I think he’s over due -- I’ve only awoken with him twice before, once when he was my father and another time when he was my servant. He worked in the kitchens.” she smiled again, toying with the edge of her coat. She looked drowned in her winter clothes, her hair damp. She tugged at a lock, then, and looked back at Dave.

    “You love him.” she said, voice quiet, “You still love him.”
    Dave considered bullshitting for a moment, side stepping the question, maybe, or if not that than ignoring it. He looked at her then, her face the same pale disc as it had always been, and he gave her a little sad smile.
    “Yeah. I do.”
    “Even after all this time?”
    “I’m going to love him forever, Rose. I can’t not love him. Trust me -- I’ve tried.”
    She nodded, walking past him to the kitchen. Her hands brushed softly against the counter top. She opened the drawer, pulling out a pair of scissors and weighing them in her hand. She turned to Dave once more, and placed the scissors in his hand,
    “I think my hair is too long. Cut it for me, please, Dave.”
    He smiled at her, sitting her down on a stool. He had done this many times, in another life, when he was her mother. He snipped gently, watching the long blond strands slither to the floor, little feathers falling. He trimmed her fringe, smiling as her eyes closed and long eyelashes, much like his own, rested on pale cheeks. Rose, he thought, smiling. The over usage of their first names wasn’t something he missed. It was something he revelled in. Getting used to a new body, getting used to knowing someone who was once other people you once knew. It was hard. But she was already Rose to him, no longer Eric, his son, or Minnie, his sister. Even on this chair she was no longer Elizabeth his daughter but Rose, who was originally his sister, Rose who was now his niece.
    “Thank you,” she said, once he had finished. Her hair was in a smart bob, steady and straight and perfect for her face. He wondered briefly why she had never considered it before. Her smile, warm and sweet, made him smile in turn, his icy face cracking under her eyes and becoming alive again, warm. He began to laugh, then, and Rose laughed with him, and their laughter felt like crying and screaming, but sounded only like laughter.
   
___

    “Yes, uracil, along with guanine, cytosine, and adenine. You really didn’t miss much, just basic things, yeah? Do you understand now, Rosaline?” John Crocker smiled, round teeth resting on his bottom lip. Rose looked back at him, resting her face on her hand, smiling at him in a strangely indulgent way.
    “Yes, I think I have it, Mr. Egbert.”
    “Alright, then. Do you have a ride home? I mean, it’s getting late, and you missed your bus -- that is, unless you drive, which would me--”
    “Yes,” she cut him off, “I have a ride. My... uncle is coming to pick me up.” she smiled at him again, that slightly condescending twist that she had, her lips outlining her white teeth in matte black lipstick, something she had just recently begun to do. He secretly thought it was pretty damn cool -- she looked like a total badass.
    “Yeah, I got it covered, teach. Grab your bag, will you, Rose? I’ve been waiting in the parking lot forever -- I sent you a text twenty minutes ago telling you I was leaving.”
    Dave Strider leaned against the door naturally, lounging in place as if he belonged there. His hair was a bright, well styled blond, almost the same color as Rose’s, and his outfit was a rather well tailored suit -- all black except for the stark white tie. He was handsome, really handsome if John said so himself, with a fine boned face half obscured with a pair of what appeared to be expensive aviators.
    “Hello Uncle Dave.” said Rose, rising from her chair. She grabbed her bag, a large knitted sac all done up in purple stripes. She smiled at the man, Dave, and John felt his heart thud in his chest painfully as the tall man gave some semblance of a smile. He thought suddenly of fireflies and red irises, the color of blood, and of miles of text. He thought of heat and gears and calloused fingertips, like something out of his dreams, or perhaps his nightmares. His night terrors, which pulled him screaming from the darkness of sleep to this very day.
    John felt this and his breathing hitched, his hands beginning to tremble. He could feel the two gazes from uncle and niece, both attentive and old. He wanted, suddenly, to reach out and brush his fingers over Dave’s features, to kiss his shapely lips, to run his fingers through the suave blond hair and mess it up until it was so disheveled it stood nearly on end. He looked at the pale, serious face devoid of emotion and saw an old man, lying on his death bed, and felt infinite sadness -- but it ended as easily as it came.

    Gone.

    An emptiness remained where there was once an amalgam of feelings.

    Both pairs of eyes were still trained on him, though he couldn’t be sure of the second -- Dave’s head was turned slightly toward Rose, but John knew, somehow, that he was still looking at him. Observing him.

    John made a noise, and stumbled forward.
    “Ah -- would you. Like to go out for coffee?” he found himself asking, suddenly taken aback by his brashness. He wasn’t a homosexual! He was rather straight, actually, and had had quite a lot of great sex with quite a lot of pretty women.
    But the way that Dave’s mouth twisted into a smirk, lifting and curling and stretching, etching little valleys in the perfect skin around his mouth, and the way that a single golden eyebrow peeked over the top of the dark glass -- it bellied any thoughts of not being attracted to Dave.
    “Well, let me see. I think that can be managed.” Dave murmured, that mysterious little smile, echoed on Rose’s face, still firmly in place.
    “If you two are quite done flirting and slobbering all over one another, I do believe we have to be going, uncle .” said Rose, elbowing her uncle gracefully (forcefully) in the side. They both whisked their way out, then, but not before Dave handed him a card, and tipped his head forward in a mock bow. John felt his face grow hot, and his breath come short, and for the first time wondered at the age of his student’s uncle -- he couldn’t have been a day over thirty, which was still a fair amount older than John himself, but he somehow conveyed a strange sense of age about him. John sat down heavily, ignoring the snickering from his boss, Mr., excuse him, Dr. Scratch.
    “Well done, John old boy. He was a rather handsome fellow.” said the bald man, raising his cup of coffee in a salute. John let his face fall into his hands, a smile stretching his lips thin.
    “Yeah, yeah he was, wasn’t he?”


Chapter Text

“Jade I’m going to die.” said John, a long groan punctuating his sentence, crackling over the line like a candy wrapper.

“You’re not going to die, you’re over dramatic,” came the sweet voice of his twin, sounding a little odd due to the connection, but still soft and happy, familiar.

“No, no I am actually going to die.” said John, groaning again. He was lying on the couch in sweatpants and his shittiest sweater, a soft blue gone gray with love. His socked feet were straight up in the air, toes curling in the draft from the shitty windows. His yellow socks were happy.

“ I asked someone out. On a date. Or, at least, I think it’s a date. It was to coffee. Is that a date? I mean, it sure felt like it was a date asking, I me--”

“Calm down, and let’s get this straight -- you finally got the balls to ask a girl out, and what? Did she say no? Because you know, it’s not the end of the world if some girl rejects you.”   

“No. He said yes.”

“Oh well then -- wait. He said yes?”

“Yeah. His name is Dave Strider. And he’s at least thirty and the uncle of one of my students, and he has the softest looking blond hair, and he was wearing this snazzy suit, and, oh god, Jade, he’s gorgeous. He’s gorgeous.

“And rich.”

“What?” John asked, confused. He was thinking back to Dave’s face -- familiar in the strangest way, even though he knew he’d never seen it before.

“You’ve never heard of Stride Records? How about A Mostly Complete and Most Probably Completely Accurate History of Music? That was on the New York times best seller list forever. The man is a genius, John. You know that movement, where all these hip hop and rap artists suddenly started using classical piano and violin in their music?”

“Yeah, I always wondered about th--”

“That was Dave. That was his thing. He’s the owner of Knight Records, John. He owns a couple really popular clubs in New York and has his fingers in every aspect of the music industry.

“Okay, so. I mean. Uh. Did I just bite off more than I can chew?”

“Yeah, basically. Oh jeez, I knew you were going to find out you were gay eventually but not like this, John! How do you get yourself into these messes, God!”

“Wait, you mean you knew?”

“Oh course I knew, dummy! You’re my brother! And you had the BIGGEST crush on our neighbor’s son, Richard. Don’t even pretend you didn’t. Not a homosexual my butt!”

John blushed, grumbling at her. She laughed, and he felt himself calm down slowly. Jade had a way of making even the most awkward things so much more bearable just by being alive. He sighed, and they said their good byes and hung up. He really missed her when she wasn’t around -- she was in Africa now, working on some nature preserve with Beck, her best friend (probably boyfriend now.) Beck Haley had basically grown up with them, their constant companion slash mommy figure -- even though he was only seven years older than they were, he had been their improving influence as a child.

John stretched, enjoying the way it felt in his shoulders. He had a couple more papers to grade, but he wasn’t really too worried. He’d finished the bulk of it earlier, so he wasn’t too stressed out about slacking off now. He fingered the little card in his pocket, the thick, creamy paper smooth and stiff. He pulled it out, admiring the red and black motif -- a single gear printed in rich ink smack in the dab middle, with the bright red name Dave Strider emblazoned on the front. A phone number was scrawled on the back in red pen, the numbers neat and slanted, the hand writing strangely out dated. He smiled at it, pressing it to his face.

It smelt of books, aftershave, and the strange metallic tang of electricity.

“Shit.” he said, blushing.

He was really attracted to Dave.

Really.

He groaned, leaning up against Casey’s terrarium. He groaned again, and she popped her triangular head out of her pool, eyeing him with a single jewel black eye.

“Casey,” he groused to the salamander, “Casey he’s really hot. This is a problem.” she looked at him, and blew him a little bubble, before ducking her head back under the water. It was her way of saying ‘Calm down John, I love you but you have to chill out. He’s only a boy.’

She was the coolest, best lizard he had ever seen -- she was a yellow fire salamander, but she was ENORMOUS! She could curl around his hand and everything! It was really, really awesome! He had found her when she was small, something like three years ago now, and they had totally hit it off. She would even watch his shitty movies with him, and ride on his shoulder, and she was just the COOLEST pet ever.

“Casey, you’re no help at all!” he sighed, dropping a cricket into the cage from the container on the counter. It chirped, horrified, and tried to hide under a fake leaf in the corner. John snickered -- she would get him later. He walked away, grabbing the papers from his table, as well as his cellphone. He checked his pesterchum really quick, but no one interesting was on, and honestly, he hadn’t really been an active pesterchummer (or possibly chummster?) in years. He looked at the card on his table, only a rectangle of cardboard, and wondered if maybe he should call. It would be cool, right? It had already been a day, that was nonchalant enough -- right? Maybe a text would be better? Or would that be too impersonal? But -- what if he said something stupid over the phone, or his voice cracked?

John decided on a text, but only after much deliberating and hair pulling, and groaning into a pillow. Finally, with shaking fingers, he typed out a message:


how does sunday sound?


He sent it after checking to see if it was in any way not-cool or offensive. Okay, he was good -- oh shit.

   

for coffee, that is! it’s john egbert, rose’s teacher, by the way.    

 

He held his breath, his phone tucked under his chin and his eyes closed tight. His heart was thudding like a drum against his chest, a rhythmic staccato. It was a deer skin drum, loud and pounding. Or perhaps the sound of a thousand feet marching. John let his eyes fall shut, visions of people he didn’t know drifting in and out of his thoughts. It made his heart ache to see all of those faces, faces of people he loved, but didn’t know. It hurt, because he knew he didn’t know these people -- couldn’t. They weren’t real. And he wasn’t crazy. But they kept coming, flashes of brown faces and pale faces and dimples and freckles, of pretty girls and boys, plain boys and girls, all the types in between. Sometimes, when he’s lying in bed nearly asleep, he remembers red words and a silly, snug little hood around an adolescent face. He remembers a pale dusting of freckles on a strong nose.

He associates these impressions with red eyes, which should scare him, but for some reason it doesn’t. It makes him happy. Red eyes, smoldering like a fire. Warm and right. Something so beautiful and soft about the way they look at him, like a hug or the warm brush of lips. Sometimes there were orange feathers, too, falling like snow. Orange feathers the color of Cheetos, and a well shaped mouth set in a determined line. Long fingered hands, short, boxy nails, all tangled up in his fingers and his hair and smoothing the worry lines in his face.

And he remembers flying.

It all feels like a dream, but he remembers flying through the air on the wind, everything smelling of ozone. He remembers a chessboard, and he remembers streets paved with gold and strung with banners, all engulfed in the clouds. Memories that call to him when his eyes close and dreams that sing to him when he sleeps. But he does not understand them.

They are meaningless pictures, saturated in emotion too long dead to remember.

He does not remember.

Not yet.

   

see you at ten


___

John picked at his clothes, a little plain but on the trendy side, his black tee-shirt tight enough to make his bony, scholarly frame less scrawny and more slender. Dave would be here in ten minutes, and John could feel his heart hammering against his rib cage like it was trying it’s damnedest to jump right out of his chest. He clutched at a cold cup of tea he had made earlier, watching the liquid make dark waves against the inside of the cup as he trembled nervously.

He heard the doorbell ring, and felt the troupe of acrobats in his stomach begin to do a complex rolling, flying, diving routine. He stepped quickly to the door, pulling it open to let Dave inside.

“Hey.”

John stuttered back a greeting.

“H-hey yourself.”

He was wearing a red blazer. A tee shirt and beat up black jeans. His exposed collarbone was dotted with freckles. His well-loved converse were nearly identical to John’s own. Despite the fact that they were dressed fairly similarly, John felt a little dismayed that Dave fucking Strider looked just as mind blowingly sexy in civilian clothing as in expensive, tailored suits.

They stared at each other for a moment, or John thought Dave was staring back, and then somehow they were inside John’s flat and getting John’s coat and Dave’s quick fingers were twitching the door open again and then somehow, they ended up in the car. John felt his head spinning with the feeling of Dave, of how time seemed to warp around him. How he moved and talked and was quiet sometimes. Of how he was old one minute and refreshingly new the next.

“Soo...” John started, “where are we going again?”

Dave gave what John believed to be a laugh, and shook his head. He answered instead, with a question, “what’s your favorite color?”

“Blue.” said John. He opened his mouth to ask a question, but was cut off.

“Your favorite season?”

“Uhm. I don’t know. I guess I like spring?”

“Mmm,” he was silent for a moment, “how about music?” The questions went on, things like time of day (just after dark) and food (anything that wasn’t baked goods or Thai food),  and John sat in the passenger's seat slightly amused -- sure, he was getting the tenth degree, but it was sort of endearing. He had never met someone who wanted to know so much about him. It was honestly... flattering.

He watched the way Dave was sitting, somehow both elegantly casual and formal. He scratched his head. His inner monologue wasn’t really making any sense, not with Dave sitting in the driver’s seat like a fucking god, talking about classical composers casually.

“Yeah, they were all crazy. Tchaikovsky was in love with his nephew -- poor bastard.” he shuddered, “Beethoven too. What was up with all those composers and their horrible love lives?”

“Must be the price of genius,” said John, a little startled that he had answered so quickly, “so what about you, Dave? What’s the price of your genius? Any dirty love affairs with French prostitutes?”

“We’re here. I suppose you’ll have to wait to discover all the details of my sordid romantic endeavors later.” Dave stepped out of the car, walking around to open the door for John to step out. He felt his face heat up, and looked down quickly. This was ridiculous. Was this even a thing? Did people actually do stuff like this? All chivalrous and old-timey, like some hot gentleman all wrapped up in tight jeans and a comfy tee shirt?

“This is the best piano store in Boston, in my humble opinion. I thought we should settle on a mutual interest.” He shrugged nonchalantly, though there was a smile lingering at the corners of his mouth. John’s eyes widened slightly, and he felt his eyebrows scrunch,

“How did you know I play piano?” he asked, suddenly sure he had never told Dave that.

“I wasn’t -- you just told me. But, I had a hunch.” he shrugged, walking toward the door at an easy pace, long legs taking lazy strides toward the door.

Strides. Strider. John giggled at the mental pun, but made his way to the door as well. The day passed by quickly, consisting of John and Dave popping in and out of stores, and walking up and down the winding streets of the charming city. There was snow gently falling, making patterns in the air. John laughed when Dave made smart, snarky comments and Dave smiled at whatever John said. They stopped at a little cafe for lunch, ordering hot coffees to chase out the chill.

“I’m having a lot of fun,” John said, as he finished off his second cup, “you’re really fun, Dave.”

Dave gave a startled bark of dusty laughter, waving off John’s raised eyebrow with ease. He hadn’t been called fun in a long time. A very, very long time. He wasn’t fun, not any more. But something about John made him alive again, brought his soul back from the darkness. Something about that bright, golden presence made him try and glow once more. It made him believe, if only just a little, that he wasn’t a lost cause.

“You’re fun too, Egbert.”

John blushed. Somehow, to John, there was more familiarity in the way he said Egbert than in the thousand times anyone had called him John. It made his heart rate kick up a notch. Somehow, he felt like Dave knew him. Really, truly knew him, down to the marrow in his bones.

They left after that, Dave driving him home. They walked up to John’s apartment door, and paused on the dorky welcome mat.

“It’s weird,” John started, “it feels like I know you. I mean. I do know you, but like. How do I put this?”

“Like you’ve always known me.” said Dave, voice sort of solemn.

“Yeah. Like I’ve always known you -- I just can’t remember. It’s like when you see the face of someone you used to kind of sort of be friends with, but you can’t remember their name. But. I dunno. I feel like it’s more than that,” he shrugged, “but I guess I’m just weird. I’m probably freaking you right out,” he laughed awkwardly, shrugging his shoulders. Dave just smiled, and John noted that yeah, he was really fucking attractive. “You should smile more, Dave. It looks good on you.”


___

John woke up the next morning with thoughts of a golden city in his head. He remembered the sight of a blue world covered in clouds. Of drifting through the air in golden pajamas, light as laughter. Images, pieces, floating in and out of his mind. Flashes of a purple city, Gothic cathedrals all piled on top of one another. In his mind, these places were precious. Something precious that he lost. He noticed then that he had been crying in his sleep, lines of damp salt water still on his cheeks.

Somehow, he couldn’t shake the image of Dave, younger and fresh faced, holding a broken sword over his head. And Dave, drenched in orange light, with wings -- one of them a broken, bleeding stump. He had a sword through his stomach, though it didn’t seem to pain him. Something was so familiar about these dreams -- like he’d been having them forever. Why was he only remembering them now?   

__

He’s not me, not yet, David.

Not yet.

Do you ache, knowing you can’t force him to remember you?

It hurts, doesn’t it.

Dave watched the condensation slide down the window, hating the voices in his head. They were getting quieter, now that he was no longer alone. They always did. It wouldn’t be long before the phantom of his failures would leave the mirror and the window and his head once and for all.

But for now, it clung to him like a sickness.

It plagued him like a virus, making him miserable. It would quiet to a drone when he saw Rose, pushed into a corner in his mind. But it was always there. Always slinking over his mind like an oil spill, tainting his thoughts. Only when he was with John was it silent. His mind cleared, like clouds over the Land of Wind and Shade, letting the starlight through once again. He closed his eyes, resting his head against the window in a vain attempt to get rid of his headache.

His thoughts turned to John. Sweet, naive John who had kind of a bad mouth and could be a little bit of an asshole. Darling John with his awkward glances and red cheeks. With his cow lick hair and his embarrassed stuttering. John John John, the name hung like a bell in his heart. A perfect beauty that knew no other. He had loved and been loved but never had be felt this way about anyone but John. It was so much more. So much greater, stronger, perfect.

He was afraid that John would no longer feel the same.

There had been a time when he had. When they were young, still, and new. When they had not lived and grown older and older and died and grown more. When they were beautiful still. John had loved him then. Loved him as Dave loved him now. But perhaps the feeling had faded? Died with time and lives in between? Dave knew that his feelings were strong -- even Rose thought he was ludicrous to have never stopped loving John.

It was insane.

It was damn near obsessive.

It was far from healthy.

But the way that John made him feel, even the thought of him, was golden. It was everything good in the world -- every early morning dream, every bird’s song. That was what John was. That was what Dave became when he was with John. He climbed from out the depth of all his scars, all his battle worn hatred, and became something so much better. He came to life.

Dave sighed, looking at the old grandfather clock. It chimed exactly three, and Dave rose from his wingback chair to answer the door. Cass was always late by exactly three minutes -- something Dave wondered if he had accidentally done.

Once you’re the Knight of Time, it’s really hard to just go back to being human. Even now he’d find that when he was late, time would go by slower. Everything but he would move as if in a filter of molasses. When he was anticipating something, time would speed up. It accommodated him. Made him comfortable. He couldn’t control it -- not actively. But he could hope.

He opened the door just as Cass raised her hand to knock. She was his older sister, his only sister. She was thirteen years his senior, and had been born to a different father. At forty three, Cassidy no longer looked like a fresh faced beauty. With the smoke lines ringing her mouth like a crown of thorns, and the lines between her eyebrows deep valleys of sorrow, she was aging badly. She hated him for looking the same as he always had. She was rotten with hatred. Rotten to the core.

“Rosaline wanted to see you.” she said, voice the thick rasp of a thirty year smoker. She had been too cool as a teen, doing too many drugs and smoking too many cigarettes. She hated him for not. She hated him for being her brother and not being as apparently fucked up as she was.

“Hello Cass. It’s good to see you too.” he said, voice dry. He waved them in, and Rose rolled her pretty eyes. She looked nothing like her mother, not that she should have. She would have been Rose regardless. It was strange, the way the world worked, the way this world worked.

It was a dangerous thing, this comfort. It gave him something he had long denied himself. It have him hope.

“Dave! Hey, why are you spacing out?” said Cass, waving a hand in his face. He looked at her, grimacing lightly. This was someone he would rather not be in association with. A first time human with no sense of being, no direction. He looked at Rose, who shrugged delicately. She was perched on her favorite chair, though before last week she had never once looked at it. Now he supposed she remembered the study in the villa, overlooking the warm Louisiana swamp. He smiled at her wanly, and she smiled back. Cass looked furious at their silent conversation.

He turned his gaze to her, and slid off his sunglasses, rubbing the bridge of his nose. “What is it you really want, Cassidy?” He was too tired to deal with all of this bull shit right now. Cassidy was difficult to deal with on the best of days, and this was not the best of days. She huffed, pulling out a cigarette with shaking hands.

“I need you to take Rose. Just for a week! I mean, she could stay at the house alone, but child services might get upset -- they’ve been checking in, you know, since the incident with Richard,” a wince, “so I thought, since you two are so close, you could keep an eye on her? Just for a week. I’m going to meet my boyfriend in Jersey City. We’ve got to pick up his car, and the money his brother owes him. Then I’ll get her. Okay? I just need you to take her.” her hands were shaking, and Dave smiled sadly. He nodded, not saying anything at all. Cass’s shoulders seemed to slump in relief. “Alright. Her stuff’s out in the car. I’ll go grab it.”

Dave looked over to Rose, who had a little sad smile of her own on her face. “She means well,” Dave snorted, “She does! I know you don’t like her, but you only see the worst of her. Sometimes she can be almost tolerable. She was too young for a child, and it impaired her personal growth by quite a lot. Really, she just wasn’t ready to grow up.” Rose sighed, twisting a piece of her silk blond hair around a finger. Dave nodded, coming to sit next to her on the bar. She placed a hand over Dave’s, squeezing the fingers tightly before letting them go.

“So how was your date with John, then?”

“It was... good.”

“Mmm, and what does good mean?” she asked, crossing her legs and raising a brow. She was smirking playfully at him, now, and he smiled a little back at her.

“He’s John. He plays piano and likes shitty movies. He likes carrots a lot, and still can’t stand cake. He loves flaky pastries and coffee. He likes tea in the afternoon, and his favorite color is blue. He likes when dusk falls and the sky is blue and green with night.”

“He likes you quite a lot, too. He asked me how you were the other day. Said he had a wonderful time. He was blushing the whole time he told me.”

“You’re horrible -- you probably dragged it out of him with your crazy psychoanalysis.” he rolled his eyes. He leaned his head onto his arms, smiling a little at Rose’s look. “Yeah, I really like him.”

“I know,” she said, brushing her hair back with one hand. Cass walked in the door then, a purple sack held in her arms.

“Here Rosa. I’ll miss you sweet pea, be good for your uncle, okay?” she went to kiss Rose on the forehead, but thought better of it. She gave a painful smile, patting her cheek before turning to Dave. “Thank you, Davey. This really means a lot to me.” she smiled again, before backing out the door. The car started up, driving off with audible, rickety gasps. Dave turned to Rose, then, with a sadness in his eyes.

“She’s not coming back, is she.”

“No,” said Rose, “I don’t think she is.”

Chapter Text

Rose began living in the bedroom down the hall from Dave’s. It was a white room, and had a large, soft bed covered in purple quilts. When it rained Rose would sit in the window seat with a book, either reading or writing quietly. The rain made her contemplative, and dug up memories of rainbow waters of the Land of Light and Rain. When it rained, she remembered London, and the amazon.  When it was sunny she would go to lounge on the porch, feel the sweetness of the sunshine that was much too harsh, nothing like Derse but perhaps greater for it. Sometimes she would climb up the spiral staircase onto the roof, and then into the greenhouse that was absolutely crawling with roses. She would drink tea and stroke Penny, her kitten. She and Dave were quiet company, both aware of the other’s presence but not particularly involved. She was happy enough just being close to him.

Perhaps soon she would search out the others. Jade was her friend, and though they had married before, it was not the same relationship that John and Dave shared. If she was honest, nothing compared to what John and Dave had. It was something too vast, too convoluted even for she. Perhaps she would find Jaspers in this life. He was here, she knew, somewhere. He was here and alive and possibly human. She was never quite certain if he would be -- he had been her cat and her friend, and also her lover. They clicked that way. It was strange, she mused, but she had lived a thousand lives as a thousand different people, and things like this had really stopped bothering her many, many lifetimes ago.

There was a small sound by the door, and Rose felt the slight wave of heat that signalled Dave’s arrival.

“What is it that you want?” she asked from her perch on the seat, eyes trained on the gently falling snow. Dave stood in the doorway with a red scarf knotted around his neck, a black pea-coat pulled over his shoulders, stylish but understated. He smiled gently, which she understood to mean “meeting John, be back later.” She smiled gently back, leaning against the cold window frame.

This was how they were. How they had always been. Quiet and steadfast, with no real words needed. She could understand more in a twitch of his jaw than any other person could in all the words he’s ever spoken. Well, she thought, perhaps John would know more. He was always been able to tear through all of Dave’s bullshit.

He nodded to her silence, and walked away quietly.

“I hope he awakens soon, Dave. For your sake,” she whispered to the empty doorway, letting a finger trail through the condensation on the window, making a thin line of clarity in all the hazy mess.

What kind of world is this, she thought with a wry twist of her lips, for something to be so cliche and appropriate at the same time.

___

“Dave!” said John, his ratty winter jacket a stark contrast to Dave’s slick bohemian outifit. He was wearing a silly hat, garish of color and pompomed to boot. Dave couldn’t help but think he was really quite fetching, even in the stupid clothes. You are so fucking beautiful, he thought, it makes my eyes hurt to look at you.

“You look ridiculous Egbert,” he said instead of voicing his thoughts. He raised an eyebrow, watching the way the face before him twisted into an annoyed huff.

“Hey man, lay off. This jacket is the warmest thing ever. ” Dave walked beside him, their arms close together. Dave let his eyes slide to John’s profile, smiling at the cold flush spreading over the mischievously pointed nose. He wanted to lean in, close the space between their arms. Link their fingers together, find the spaces between filled perfectly with John. He let his arm brush lightly against John’s, saw the little smile at the corner of his eye, saw it morph into a weird line.

Sometimes, John would look at him strangely. Would shift his gaze over his face like a lover, or perhaps a stranger. When the wind was blowing just right, and it played with his hair, ran its ticklish fingers over his face, he would look at Dave like the Heir of Breath. His eyes would go half lidded, and he’d tilt his head just so , and Dave would see the ghost of a thousand lives on his lips and in the movement of his hands.

And then they would disappear, like a spectre.

Gone suddenly and completely.

Why don’t you remember me, John? He cried out, but only in his head. He watched the pink lips, pale with cold, stretch into a smile and talk, rapid and flippant with excitement. He couldn’t hear him, though, not now. He looked up at John’s eyes, taking in his humanity. His chest ached with loss, then, but he just nodded.

“What’s wrong, Dave?”

Dave started, “nothing. I am the epitome of totally chill. Does this look ruffled to you?” he said, gesturing to his placid face.

“Yes.” said John, quirking an eyebrow and letting his lips press together.

“Well, I’m fine, Egbert. Don’t turn that sassy Japanese school girl look at me -- save that for your students.” he reached out, poking the jacket encased side in one quick jab. He smiled at the sound that flopped out of John, jumped from his mouth like a fish, the noise high and uncomfortable. A red flush stained the ears, at least the one he could see, with a cherry red. His hat was a little askew, folding the cold ear over in an endearing manner.

Everything John did was endearing.

Dave watched as he sniffled in the cold, pulling his scarf tighter around his neck, hunching his shoulders in for the illusion of warmth. Watched his fingers thread into the fabric, and curl in like smoke. John was talking again, about a movie or a book Dave couldn’t place, and it made his eyes light up with happiness. This wasn’t a deep conversation -- it was more an excuse for John to talk.

He was one of those people, always had been, that needed to fill every silence that came with white noise. Dave didn’t really mind, quite the opposite really, though he felt no such inclination himself -- so what if John wanted to talk? It was soothing, to hear his voice dip and bend in the wind, some syllables drawn out, others only exhaled out in breathy puffs. Some words caressed his ears like smoke, curling around his shoulders like a lazy cat, and others batted at his cheeks like happy clouds.

John was a symphony, playing something sweet and light and beautiful -- perhaps Vivaldi. Dave let his eyes fall shut for a moment, only to snap them open immediately at the sound that John made, followed by a gentle prod.

“Dave?” John poked him again, “Are you sure you’re okay? You’re really acting weird. I mean, you’re always kind of weird, but this is like. Bad weird, not eccentric slash charming weird.”

Dave let his mouth lift into a microscopic smirk, “oh, so you think I’m charming?” he asked, waggling his eyebrows suggestively. John scoffed,

“No shit Sherlock, what gave you that idea?” John pushed his shoulder, flitting off ahead of him with his bouncing steps. Dave let an eyebrow raise gently. That had not been the reaction he had expected, though it was none the less welcome. He watched as John smiled at everyone passing by, and smothered an insane jealousy that bubbled in his chest, boiling like a kettle.

This is irrational.

This John didn’t even remember him yet. But Dave was attached -- too attached, really, but the healthiness of his love had stopped bothering him long ago. It was just an immutable fact, and constant as a mountain.

“Dave, no, seriously,” John socked him gently in the arm, once he had caught up, “you’re acting really funny.” John stopped, his hand lingering on the arm of Dave’s jacket. He got a far off look in his eyes, elegant eyebrows coming together. He rubbed the cloth with his fingers, and mumbled gently to himself,

“It wasn’t wool...” when Dave made a sound, John’s eyes snapped up, and the misty look faded into mild panic.

“Woah, sorry, I’m a space cadet, sue me.” He shrugged, snatching his hand back to cradle it against his chest, but was stopped by Dave’s fingers wrapping themselves around his wrist. There was a calculating tilt to the blond head. John wondered briefly what his eyes said, and imagined them lovely in his mind -- old and red like blood and rubies. He had stopped struggling, searching Dave's face for an answer to the question he hadn’t quite formulated yet.

“No,” Dave said, “it wasn’t.” John felt the hand release his arm, and Dave pushed his nearly immobile legs back into an even stride, pulling slightly ahead of John, who trailed behind, his eyebrows coming together slightly, making a valley between them. He ran forward, grabbing Dave’s hand with his own. He didn’t know why the urge gripped him as hard as it did, nor why the cold wind suddenly seemed soft against him, but he felt a wrinkle in his mind draw closer to the surface, a shift slowly emerging from the depth. A submarine, coming to the surface after many, many days and nights and years and he was sure they were centuries, now that he really looked at them. Centuries of time he couldn’t seem to grasp. He squeezed Dave’s hand tighter, letting out the shaky breath and the feeling of knowing but not knowing.

Dave turned to him slightly, his mouth lifting into a small, gentle smile -- something private and sweet, and it made John’s heart race to look at it. I love you more than all the clouds in Skaia his mind whispered in a younger version of his voice, And I love you more than all the darkness beyond, whispered a younger Dave, voice crackling with youth and an accent he couldn’t place.

The thoughts drifted from his mind as they stumbled into the warmth of their destination. He watched Dave’s hands as they moved like blades of grass in the wind. His wind, though he wasn’t certain where that thought came from. The restaurant they had picked was rather classy, the walls done in stucco and the light fixtures dim. The menu was in flowery Italian, and John picked something he thought he recognized. Dave was talking quietly to the waitress, his voice lilting and beautiful, perfect with the music. John suppressed a shiver at the harmony, something perfect about it. The woman turned to him, and he pointed carelessly to his choice.

“Sì, avrò questo. Posso anche ottenere un espresso? Grazie.” said John, giving a small smile. The woman seemed delighted, and told them she’d be right back.

Dave looked at him, then, in the dimness of the restaurant.

“What?” John asked. He was distracted by the way Dave’s shoulder, now clad only in a black, short sleeved shirt, looked against the gold of the stucco. His arms were pale, dotted with freckles, but strong.

“I just didn’t know you spoke Italian, is all.” he shrugged, giving a roguish smile. The pulse in his neck was beating fast, though, John noted, and he screwed up his eyebrows.

“I don’t.”

“Evidence says otherwise.” he shrugged, but there was still a little smile on his lips. John pulled the calloused, long fingered hand across the table. He rubbed at the calloused on the palm, feeling the roughness against the softer flesh of the pale, muscled wrist.

Swords , said his mind, supplying the answer to his wordless question. Of course Dave uses swords. Swords and silly, deadly ninja weapons. Of course. He was going to ask, but somehow something else tumbled from his lips,

“Will you take of those fucking sunglasses already?” John felt his eyebrows pop up, and wondered what the fuck that had been. Dave froze for a moment, before his grin spread a little wider. He really did have beautiful lips. The hand that wasn’t being stroked by John’s fingers rose, gently pulling off the glasses. Dave’s eyes were closed, and John dropped the hand in favour of running the tip of his finger over the closed eyelid, feeling the downy eyelashes. He cupped the pale face before him, and felt his heart ache. Dave let his eyelids lift, and John felt his heart thunder, and wondered if Dave could feel his pulse in the finger stroking his cheekbone.

Red eyes, pupils blown but eyes unmistakably red. Red like heat and fire and clock works ticking, ticking, ticking and it was Dave Strider who had eyes like rubies and blood. Eyes like garnets. John felt his breath catch and his heart beat like a thousand horses against his chest. He nodded, and for some reason had to fight back tears. Dave fucking Strider. Dave, Dave was here and alive . He knew, of course, that he was alive, but this was more than confirmation.

This was it, he could feel it, the wave of something crashing against his ribs, he wanted to reach out and snatch the thread of something precious, and just as he was raising his other hand to Dave’s face,

the waitress came.

The moment snapped like a piece of glass.

The thread moved too far for him to grasp.

His heart broke.

Dave looked down, shoving his glasses back into place as John’s hand fell like a dead bird.

“Grazie,” they said, quietly, as the confused waitress left them in peace.

They ate in awkward silence.

___

The flies were buzzing outside on the reserve, their wings like little jewels in the noonday sun. The girl, long black hair tied up into a high ponytail, was twirling the cord of the phone between dirty fingers, rolling her eyes periodically.

“John --” she said, voice annoyed.

“Jaaade, you don’t get it. I mean. It was so strange. I mean. I don’t know what to do. I haven’t slept all night, I can’t breathe. I think I love him. I mean. He’s really weird, but... he’s really. Kind and smart. And he takes his tea with too much sugar and he speaks every language EVER and, Jade. I really think he’s cool, even when he’s not. He makes me remember things, things I don’t know and things I can’t say and I feel like a better person because he breathes the same fucking air I do. And I love his eyes, Jade, I saw them today and I can’t make them go away. I can’t make them get out of my head. I think I have a fever, he’s so much in there, making my head feel so heavy and hot and I feel so tired but I can’t -- I ju--”

“Oh my gosh,” she said, sounding exasperated despite the smile on her face, “stop being such a... a fuckass! Just get over it. You like him. Jeezum. Tell him that.” there was a crackly sigh from the other side of the line, a huffed out breath before John yawned, the sound translating badly over the phone lines. “Okay, John, you should go to sleep, too. It’s six over there, right? That’s ridiculous. You need SLEEP.” she said her goodbyes, and felt the click as he put the phone back in its cradle, all the way across the atlantic, in his shabby little apartment in Boston. She smiled, her toothy grin full of round teeth and childish happiness.

“So,” said the voice to her right.

“Sooo?” she said, smiling at her companion, a tall man a few years her senior. He had white-blond hair, and his eyes were the same shade of green as her own. “So, what, Beck?”

“Has he woken yet, do you think?”

She shrugged, twirling a few strands of her pony tail between her fingers. “No, but he will soon. Sometimes I think he’s awake, but then he gets so. Ugh. You know? But he won’t. This time I feel like he’s almost there. A sleepwalker waking up, right?” she shrugged, and the man beside her raised a pale brow. They had been together long enough for it not to matter that she made little sense -- he was sure to get the message anyway.

“Sure” he shrugged also, leaning back onto the shoddy dry wall that did nothing to stay the heat. “He’s always been a weird one. Never could make up his mind about when to wake up.” Jade rested her hand on his arm, the one with the black band tattoo, and smiled at him. She could feel the tension melt from him, like a river of worry dripping away. She resisted a smile at his response.

“Not everyone is like you, Beck. Not everyone is just born knowing. Gosh. Do you think we’ll find Frigglish?” she thought of Rose with a fond smile.

“Jaspers? I dunno, Jade, he’s never in the same place we are. He’s a cat at heart, after all, if he’s not in body.”

She nodded, letting her head rest on one sweaty shoulder. They would go back soon, she knew, and see Rose and Dave and, hopefully, John awakened. Soon, she thought with a smile, soon.

___
   

John lay down in bed, visions of red eyes and hammers and swords and all the time in the world dancing around his head like a sick ballet. He waited. Waited for sleep like a worried parent. Only when he finally, finally gave up, did it wash over him like the ocean water, sucking him deep down into its murky depths.

He dreamt first of sound.

Cicadas.

Droning like summer and his mother’s yellow dress, the color of sunflowers.

Emily .

That was her name.

But it wasn’t, not really, because behind the cornflower blue eyes of his mother was Rose. Rose Lalonde, whose uncle was Dave Strider, who was his best friend. They had always been best friends, at least when the world was new. Before it had been broken into a thousand pieces, they had been best friends. Miles of red and blue text punctured by green and purple. His father was strong, he knew, but not in the world where Rose wore Emily’s face. In that world he had no father, no sister named Jade. He would grow to be a pianist, he knew, and famous. His hands would know the keys in this world.

John, said Emily-Rose, is your real name. Your name is John though I called you Leonard in my ignorance.

His name was John, though he called himself Leonard, Leo, to all the people who met him. His name was Leo. But really it was Leo-John-Rebecca-Sequoyah-Isaiah-Lila. More names on a ribbon that was tied around his wrist and dangled back.

He had been a bird once, maybe, though it was more like flying and less like a bird in his mind. He had seen the chess board and been a piece and his name had been Johnathan Egbert long before it had been Leo or Isaiah or Owen or Miah. Before he had danced like Mata Hari and before he had been a frail woman, a priest, or a composer. He had been John Egbert before he had filmed his first movie, before he had flown an airplane and jumped into the river. Before he had died at the end of a blade he had been John.

John who loved movies.

John who was bad at computers.

John, with the coolest friends anyone could ever have.

John who had played a game, and who had loved Dave Strider.

Dave . Dave fucking Strider who he had been looking for for so long he couldn’t bear to be without him for another lifetime. Dave who he had just barely missed, that once, Dave who he had watched die so many, many times and had lamented. He had loved so shallowly and so few that he no longer knew what love was, not until the world had returned his knight to him. This world was a castle and all he needed was Dave to make it all come to life -- to have the color creep into every fragment of reality like blood into a wound, blood that was red like the color of Dave’s eyes. He felt his mind break, the wrinkle shift to the side and expand, pieces of lives falling gently into place and jostling things into perspective. John shot up in bed with a cry, eyes streaming like river beds, voice raw from screaming. There was a thumping at his floor from the neighbor downstairs, no doubt certain he was dead.

But he wasn’t dead. Far from it. He was, in fact, alive for the very first time.

Chapter Text

    Rose woke up to the wind battering at her windows like fists. If she closed her eyes, she could hear the creak of the rafters and the sound of the gale outside. It was moaning against the side of the house like a prostrate lover, screaming in laughter and manic with joy. There was a sharp noise, a crash and a bump, followed by a soft, rhythmic thump. She got up, lifting the thick coverlet off of her frame, letting her bare feet hit the floor with a soft noise, hardly audible over the sound of the house thrashing in the storm. She walked slowly to the living room, the source of the noise -- steadily getting louder. She walked into the space, once organized and quiet, to find the room in total disarray, and steadily getting worse.
    There were papers, flying like birds and butterflies and poetry, whisked around the room in diving, swooping pirouettes. She gasped at the books that littered each surface, their covers thrown open, their pages flipping rapidly. Everything was rattling, and Rose could hardly see through the curtain of hair whipping frantactly in her face. There was a pale figure in the balcony, scanning the night sky as if hoping to read it.
    “He’s awake, Rose.” said Dave mildly, his pale hair bleached white in weak starlight. Rose noticed with growing concern how bright the sky shown, every light in the city extinguished in favor of the endless blanket of stars.
    “Do you think it’s him, Rose?” a pause, “of course it’s him. No one else could do something like this. What a drama queen.” he laughed breathily, but it was lost to the wind. She felt an ache in her heart, then, something sad and sweet. This was it, then, she thought, this was what they had been waiting for. She looked to the sky, then, as well, wondering if perhaps John would come like an angel, floating from the sky like a dove.
    The door was pushed open. No, of course not, she thought. She stepped back, then, into the darkness of the door, a shadow among shadows. She watched as John, bright eyed and tousled, flung himself across the room in a flurry of movement. Watched as Dave opened his arms, and let him settle there, just as the wind settled around them. Everything stopped for a moment, suspended in time like insects in amber. Their lips touched for a moment, and time seemed to melt back into existence, the papers drifting to the floor like snow. Rose watched them for a moment longer before stepping back into the hallway, walking quickly and silently back to her room, a smile making her lips curl gently.
    Dave and John stood in the middle of the chaos, foreheads pressed together. Dave could feel his smile stretch across his face, pulling his cheeks tight. He wondered if his skin was cracking from disuse, like old leather.
    “I remember you. Oh god, Dave. I remember.” said John, his voice soft, his arms tightening around Dave’s shoulders. Dave noticed absentmindedly that they were practically the same height. Dave let his head drop onto John’s shoulder. He was nodding, and John was shaking in his arms. Their breath came in puffs of white, shuddering in the air like sobs, though neither was crying.
    “Dave.” said John, tasting the name on his tongue like snowflakes, “I’ve missed you so much. I can’t believe you’re here. This is so beautiful. You are so beautiful.” there were tears in his voice now, though there were none on his cheeks, “This is -- is this a dream?”
    “No.” And if it is, he thought to himself, then let it never end. They stood in the middle of the room, clutching at each other tighter, letting the silence settle around them like a shroud.
    “I love you, Dave.” said John after a moment, “I love you. I want you to know that. I love you so much, I can’t even begin to explain -- I’ve always loved you. I’ve never felt like this for anyone else. I’ve seen so much,” his voice cracked, “I’ve been so many places, and I know you have, too. But I couldn’t forget about you, Dave, even if there were times I couldn’t remember. I just want to be with you. I want to wake up every morning to your face. I want to go to sleep every night and I want to have your hand in mine. There is nothing I have ever wanted like I want this. We can be together now, it can be easy , finally.
    Dave nodded, and smiled softly into John’s shoulder. Though they were trembling, there was one hundred percent certainty in John’s voice. Not a moment of doubt. It made his heart expand until he wasn’t sure he could contain it in his chest, and let out a choked out laugh when he realized he didn’t have to. “I love you, too, Egbert. I love you a whole damn lot,” he pressed his pale forehead into John’s looking into the blue eyes, “And you better not forget this time, asshole.”
    John laughed, letting his eyes close. They stood like that for what seemed like hours, but very well could have been minutes. Time was relative, after all, Dave thought wryly, and John was the centre of his universe. Why not let time do whatever the fuck it wanted? All he had wanted was here, right now. There was a bird trapped in his chest, and it was ringing the golden bell that hung in his heart, and each ring was John, John, John .

They may never have moved from that spot in the middle of the chaos of the room, but it was cold, and frost clung to the edges of the windows and John was shivering. Dave noticed he himself was half naked, covered in gooseflesh. He pulling reluctantly away from John, who held his hand with a vice like grip, to close the door out to the balcony. The room was a mess, but right now that didn’t matter -- he swept off the couch before pulling John down with him. There was an awkward moment where limbs had to be maneuvered around. When they were satisfied, John let his head fall back onto Dave’s shoulder with a sound like letting go.

    “What do we do now, Dave?” he whispered as sunlight began to creep between the silhouettes of the buildings, painting everything gold. Dave hesitated. What would they do, now that they were together? He had spent so long, longer than any human could bear, looking for this man that he held in his arms. He had scourged the earth, wasted lifetimes searching and searching and now -- now he had found him. And had been found in turn.
    And fuck everything if that wasn’t all that mattered.
    “What do we do? Whatever the hell we want,” the way his hand curled around John’s implied as long as we're together.

___

    Dave woke up on the couch with a crick in his neck and a grin stretching across his face. John was curled into the opposite arm of the couch, watching the wind make patterns with the clouds. He held a cup of coffee between his hands, and when he caught Dave looking, he smiled like sunlight and happiness and honey.
    “I love you.” said Dave, tasting the words on his lips. John was grinning now, too, and crawled across the couch to sit next to him again. Dave marveled at the closeness, basking in the way their skin touched.
    “I love you too.” whispered John before kissing him again, softly, handing him the coffee. “You like it black with sugar.” he said matter of factly, and smiled wider when Dave only raised an eyebrow, “Somethings never change.”
    Rose walked out, taking in their curled position on the couch. She was smiling gently, and walked over to sit softly on the edge of the couch.
    “Hello John.” she said, tilting her head in the way she did.
    “Hey Rose. It’s been a while. The farm was fine, by the way. Everyone was okay.” he smiled, at her, eyes tight with affection. She only nodded, giving him a quick pat on the knee. She walked away, still smiling lightly. Those two needed as much time as they could -- it had been too long, she thought. She resisted the urge to hum as she fixed her own coffee, deciding that today would be a day for the greenhouse. With one last look at the two men on the sofa, she snatched a book and made her way to the stairs.
    Dave leaned back on the arm of the couch, letting his head fall back to watch as Rose left. Something bad inside of him had fled with the last of the night, and for once, he felt at peace. This was what he had been waiting for.
    “I feel...” he waited, trying to form the words.
    “Happy.” said John, “Me too. I think I forgot what this was like -- it feels like I’m me again. I guess. I guess I lost it a while back.”
    “Yeah, I get it. Everything starts bleeding together. It gets hard to be yourself when you’ve got to live as so many other people.” he shrugged, trying to clear his mind of the sudden influx of memories -- dark ones, creeping into his mind like insidious little beasts.
    “Dave.” said John, placing his hand over Dave’s, “It’s so weird. I’m. Me again, I guess. I.” he trailed off, letting out a frustrated sigh. Dave understood. It was weird -- this was weird. This whole situation was fucked up and sad and tired but they were together and that made it beautiful. It made everything okay. Even though they were old men inside, even though their souls were worn out and gray, even so.
    Dave hooked their pinkies together and kissed the back of John’s messy hair.
    It’s okay. We’re together. Everything is beautiful because I have your pinkie and you have mine.
    “I just don’t want to lose you again.” said John after a moment, voice small. Dave nodded, breathing in the minty smell of John’s skin. It was a sharp, almost lemony smell, like winter wind. John sat up, turning to Dave.
    “I killed people, you know.” he said, suddenly. “I killed people. I was a knight, in the crusades. I killed people and I felt nothing . And then I woke up -- really woke up, I mean -- in a village, drenched in blood and drunk on something and I cried. I think that may have been the last time. I haven’t cried in hundreds of years.”
    Dave nodded. “I’ve killed people too. And I understand. I can’t remember the last time I cried.”
    John only looked at him, nodding his head. He cracked a smile, and then began to laugh. “I love you Dave. I love you so much I’m sick with it. I love you so much it doesn’t even matter that we’re like this.I love you so much just looking at you makes me forget. Just looking at you, I can breathe again.” Dave cracked a smile, too, and chuckled softly against John’s skin.
    It was going to be okay.
    They were going to be okay.
___

    When Jade stepped out of her taxi, her canvas backpack slung over one browned shoulder, she resisted the urge to shudder at the cold. Before she could even begin to rub at her arms, the tall figure of her best friend slash boyfriend slash dog was at her side, lime green parka in hand.
    “Thought you may need this.” he said, deep voice affectionate. She could almost see his tail wagging. With a little roll of her eyes, for his benefit only, and a smile, she shrugged on the warm jacket.
    “Jeez Beck you are such a worrywort. It’s a two second walk to John’s place.” she bounced, “He’ll be so freakin’ stoked to see us! I bet he misses us like crazy. That little nerd,” she said fondly. Her brother was seriously the sweetest, though, all things aside. He was a real cutie, and she hoped that Dave was taking good care of him -- not that she didn’t think Dave would do it.
    Because he would.
    She wasn’t a fool -- she saw the way that Dave was, saw the way that John was the absolute center of his thoughts at all times. It wasn’t just puppy love -- it was a lot deeper than that. But still, she was a sister now and that was something she had to think, on principle! Her brother’s gay lover was something she had to worry about -- it was practically her job.
    “Come on! Here, he’s in B413.” she flounced up the steps, knocking on the door. Three short knocks, and then two. Rinse, and repeat, grinning like a cheshire cat the entire time. There was a yelp, and then the sound of scrabbling feet. Beck raised an eyebrow in Jade’s direction, and she shrugged.
    The door opened to a mostly naked Strider, holding his pants up with one hand. His glasses were hanging from one ear, and his neck was covered in deep purple and red bruises, along with what looked like teeth marks on his exposed shoulders and collarbones.
    “Oh. At least you aren’t the FedEx guy. How have you two been?” he leaned casually onto the door frame, shielding the scrambling John (mostly) from view.
    “DAVE! You’re awake! This is so awesome!” yelled Jade as she threw her arms around him, squeezing his bony shoulders in a death grip. He gave a little smile once she had backed off, and nodded briefly to Beck in greeting. Their personalities had never meshed well, but they could at least tolerate one another. Beck had stiffened, and his face looked like he was holding back a growl. Dave only shrugged, looking over his shoulder to see that John had scrambled into his room.
    “I suppose you both should come in. I’ll put some hot water on for tea on or something.” he turned around, walking back into the living room. It looked rather dishevelled, he realized, and scooped up his shirt as he placed the cushion back on the couch.
    “It’s really good to see you again.” he said softly, pulling his shirt back over his head. “Really. Rose will be pleased as motherfucking punch to know you’re both awake, too.” he was happy, and smiled again as he picked up John’s green shirt from the lamp, filling the dim room with light.
    “Oh gosh, yes! I’ve missed you guys so much!” she smiled again, lifting the awkward tension that had settled around the room.

John burst from his door after a minute of silence, his shirt on and his cheeks distinctly more flushed looking. He was still blushing, but at least his glasses were on and his clothes mostly in order. He still had some purple-red marks on his neck, matching those on Dave, who grinned at his sheepish look. John walked over to half hide behind Dave, burying his face into the tee shirt, giving only a blind, wordless wave to their guests.

“Jesus Egbert, you act like you were caught by your parents with your pants around your ankles and a chick on your dick. Calm down or people will start to think you’re just as much of a blushing virgin as you seem.” he set down a steaming cup for John, quirking his lip to show he was kidding. John socked him in the shoulder with a solid thump.

    “Fuck off Dave.” he smiled, though, and accepted the drink. “Hey Jade. I guess we’re all awake now, then? How have you been?” he took a sip, smiling into the warm liquid. Dave could be surprisingly thoughtful.
    “We’ve been fine! Me and Beck saw a whole bunch of stuff in Africa -- we got to observe lions and elephants and everything. It was really cool.” she smiled, leaning her head on Beck’s shoulder. “I’m more curious to when you woke up! You were particularly late this time. I waited and waited and waited when we were younger, but only now you get it. Jeez. But I’m glad you guys are together. This has been a long time coming!” she smiled again, squeezing Beck’s hand. This was so awesome! Back when she had been new, she had seen them in the skaian clouds together. This must be it, then, though it wasn’t exactly like she’d seen it. John smiled at her, and they talked pleasantly for a while, happy all together for what seemed like the first time in forever. Soon, the evening stole in like a bandit, taking with it the last of the day.
    “We need to call Rose over! Let’s have a party guys -- something to celebrate! We can go out to eat or something!” said Jade cheerfully. This was turning out to be a pretty awesome day!
    John nodded, “okay. Dave, do you want to call her?” Dave picked up his phone, speed dialing one and snapping it up to his ear in a business like motion. After three rings, Rose picked up.
    “Hey Rose, Jade and Beck are here -- we’re all gonna go out to celebrate. You cool with that?” he said, not waiting for her greeting. When he fell silent, he heard her labored breathing for the first time.
    “Dave...” she said, voice mostly level. There was a tremor, though, at the end of the word, and it made Dave sit straighter. “Dave, it appears we have a slight problem.” he waited. There was a cough, not Rose, too far away and deep chested. “I believe we forgot to account for who else may be here with us.”
    “Rose, just get to the fucking point.” he said, voice tight. This was no fucking time for bullshit. There was a rustle on the other line, accompanied by a rough, familiar laugh.
    “Hello Davey dearest. You have been a very, very bad boy.” said the raspy, female voice, no longer the beaten down sound of thirty years of cigarette smoke and coffee pots of regret -- now it held some otherwordly authority. It belonged once more to a queen, and that made dread creep into Dave with its slimy black tendrils. Dave closed his eyes, lowering the phone from net to his face. He clicked the little red button to kill the call.
    He set the phone down, and felt his heart drop.
    “The Black Queen is here, with us, she’s my sister, and she has Rose. The shit has officially hit the fan.”

Chapter Text

    John resisted the overwhelming urge to ask if Dave was fucking kidding him. He could have been -- it would not have been out of character. But by the set of his shoulders and the tightness in his jaw, John couldn’t doubt for a single second that Dave was telling the truth.
    No matter how much it hurt .
    “Fuck.” he said, and liking the feeling, said it again, “ Fuck.
    The tension in the room was palpable. The set of Dave’s mouth, the downcast look in his eye, it broke John’s heart into small pieces. He could hear it cracking like ice under his feet. It was painful. He wanted to tangle his fingers with Dave’s, to reassure them both that they were still alive. But Dave’s hands were clenched into fists at his sides, knuckles as white and bloodless as his face. He was pale, shaking, light freckles doting the flesh along his cheeks and collarbones.
    John wanted to ask if he was okay. He didn’t. The look on Dave’s face was enough. Jade made a noise like a creaky door, and rushed up to place a hand on Dave’s shoulder, as if perhaps the weight could keep him grounded. Instead of being comforted, Dave shook off the hand in a single, violent shudder. His sunglasses were off, and his red eyes gleamed with a crazy light.
    “It’s not fair.” said John, seeing the set of Dave’s hips, the tensing of his clothed calves, “It’s not fucking fair. I just got you, Dave. We’re supposed to have time together. We deserve it, Dave. We haven’t even gotten time to be selfish yet.” He wanted to scream. This was not fair. This was not justice. “I love you.” he said, feeling pained as his throat clenched.
    Dave nodded, closing his eyes.
    “I’m going with you.”
    Another nod.
    They did not speak as they prepared. Jade was shaking lightly, speaking into a cell phone in quick bursts of Chinese. Beck was still. John wasn’t sure if he even knew Rose -- he seemed more concerned with Jade’s behavior, something John had come to expect. He noted, in an absent minded way, how the dust filtered through the air like microscopic dancers when Dave walked through the solitary beam of sunlight. He had his eyes closed still, a single long, spidery hand pressed over his eyes. John thought he was tragically handsome, a grieving knight or a forlorn prince.
    Why was he thinking these thoughts now? Now, when he should have been trying to make things easier on Dave, trying to save Rose? Where was his mind when he needed it?
    Dave turned to look at him, and John nodded. Jade was still talking, nearly ignoring them, still shaking and white but trying to make things better. It was a newer dialect, but John grasped that she was gathering firearms -- something that would be of nearly no use in the current situation, but a comfort and a strength nonetheless.

Dave grabbed his hand and they slipped out the front door.

    The wind was whipping around their ankles like snakes, nipping at their calves and twining through their fingers. Time stretched around them, bending like blades of grass. Despite the circumstances, John felt his mind wandering ( wandering, wandering always wandering why , losing focus like frosted glass. Every detail around him sharpened into high resolution, and suddenly every movement Dave made was precious, every pale strand of hair heartbreakingly dear. The movement of his hands were a symphony, and the curve of his shoulder every great mountain. His heart beat against his ribcage like a bird, calling out to Dave. John wasn’t sure if it was the feeling or the gale force winds that drove tears from his eyes.
    I love you, I love you, I love you said the wind as it clawed at Dave’s hair. I love you it whispered, kissing his ears and his eyes and his tears. It was all John, he thought, it had always been John. The wind, the warmth, the sunshine. Everything was John except Rose, and he had to save Rose. He couldn’t let her die, not now, nor could he let her suffer. She was something else, something dear to him in a different way than John, though just as deep. Different. She was Rose, his sister, and everything else. He couldn’t bear to lose any them -- not Jade nor John nor Rose, not even Beck. Not when they were finally together, almost perfectly together as they had once been.
    His heart was breaking into pieces, but there was nothing that could be done. Not when it was Rose. Not when it was Cassidy -- for she was, in his mind, still Cassidy. Still as bitter and as acidic as a shitty corner store espresso. Still thin smiles and broken smoker’s cough and he loved her because she was family and that was precious. He loved her because she was always living to die and she was all the sadness in his life and all the shadows and more. Miserable and loveless and barren and dry. But she was also Cassidy, and he loved her because he was made to.
    As if sensing some deeper discomfort, John stretched out his fingers to tangle with Dave’s. There was a moment of calmness, a second in which the wind stopped and the time flow was normal and they, themselves, were normal. But it ended just as quickly, and time sped up and the wind began anew. It was an illusion, something so beautiful and fragile it couldn’t possibly exist outside of the parameters of fantasy anyway.
    They were approaching Dave’s apartment, the city flashing by in strange, flashbulb instances. Though they had traversed miles, he didn’t feel particularly tired. His head  was buzzing painfully, and his heart was aching, but he was not tired. He glanced at Dave, whose breath was still strong and steady and not labored in the least. John felt a jittering up his spine, his fingers itching to close around the handle of a hammer. He wanted to jump and, swinging with all of his might, crush his opponent with the strength in his arm. He could feel the twitch in Dave’s fingers, and wondered not for the first time what sort of mental trauma, PTSD they carried with them as a part of their souls. Those hands had held swords, had killed people, and they wanted to do it again. Especially now, when they were at the door, which had only moments ago been so far away.
    Dave reached out to unlock the door, key in hand, when he was stopped. Paper white fingers were clasped around his wrist, leading up a jumper encased arm. Soft, fuzzy fabric the green of key lime pies. A smiling, nondescript face and a bald head.
    “Scratch.” said Dave, voice blank. Mr. Scratch. Why hadn’t John noticed before? Of course. Of fucking course.
    “Hello Jonathan, David.” His voice was clipped and even, each word precise. The clear speech was nearly an accent in and of itself.
    “No.” said John, shaking his head. The wind was concentrated now, and he could see it tugging at Scratch’s sweater like fingers. It was howling around them like a banshee. “No.”
    Everything stopped. “No, indeed. I am not here to hinder you, dear boys. I am, in fact, here to help.”
    “Bullshit.” said Dave, speaking for the first time. His voice sounded old, disused and dry, as if he had aged impossibly from the house to here. John squeezed his hand tighter.
    “No, you will find my concern completely earnest. Come, let’s talk before you rush in their guns blazing -- not that you have any guns. Weapons, in actuality, seem not to have crossed your mind as something to bring at all.” He turned slowly, walking in brisk steps to the starbucks at the end of the street. Dave was torn between rushing in to save Rose, despite his cooling head and returning conscience, and following the bald headed evil. It was John who made the decision, tugging at his hand lightly, his blue eyes wide and concerned.
    “C’mon Dave -- I don’t think we can take him, and you know. He’s kind of right. Maybe,” a helpless, dorky shrug, “we could, you know, talk.” John’s hand was shaking lightly, his grip lose. His steps, though, were even and strong. Dave followed silently.  

Scratch walked into the sad excuse for a cafe and ushered them into a little corner in the back. He ordered their drinks in a clipped voice. He lounged by the counter with an easy, human grace that seemed suddenly forced. He was playacting, pretending.

John’s hand clenched in Dave’s. The pitter of his little bird heart could be felt faintly through his fingers. Dave swallowed, his mouth suddenly dry, and he very nearly made the mistake of being grateful as Doc Scratch set down an iced chai latte in front of him. He raised an eyebrow -- it was, after all, his favorite, and as Dave began to speak, he was sharply cut off.

“Of course it is.” said Scratch, placing his own fancy drink down. He ran a hand over his pasty face, closing his eyes. At one point, he must have had platinum blonde hair, for his eyebrows and lashes were very nearly clear. It should have given him a perpetually surprised look, but something about the composition of his features made every facial expression banal, blank.

It lacked any kind of human curiosity, any wonder. It was tired.

“Of course.” said John, his hand unclenching in Dave’s, “Of course.” Dave gave him a sidelong look, and felt an involuntary sound of question meander its way up his throat. There was a small, sad smile on John’s lips, something saintlike in its divine pity and grace. Scratch looked at John, and a sudden flood of very human relief surged into his eyes.

“Clever boy,” he said, smiling lightly, “what a clever boy.” He sighed, rubbing the bags under his lime colored eyes. This man could see everything. This man didn’t need to see the future -- he already knew the outcome. Dave let the sound out of his chest, the vibrations carried on the wings of a moth.

“What?

“Oh Dave,” said John, smile in full brilliance, “he’s just like you Dave. Look at him. He’s us! You and me and Rose and Jade. We’re the same.”

John reached out his hand, placing his calloused pianists fingers over the papery thin skin of Doc Scratch’s knuckles. His blank expression seemed to crumple in on itself. Weariness wreathed his shoulders, sat as a crown above his head. His breath said how hard it was, knowing everything. Everything. How every single day was boring when you knew how it would end. How every single book was read at the start, every movie seen, every disaster lamented before its time.

Dave looked at Scratch, at the human man whom he had become, and watched him tremble in his mortal skin. Dave felt a kinship with the man who knew everything, saw everything.

“Why has she done this?” he said, letting his hands rest around the warmth of the cup.

    Scratch searched his face, neither surprised nor repentant, and began, “there was a time when she was queen, just as there was a time in which I shaped the universe. We had power beyond anyone’s dreams,” he breathed in, rubbing his eyes with his one hand in gesture of defeat. “It was more power than any single being should possess. I see that now. I should have seen it then, but I was blinded -- furious, to be brought back in this inferior human flesh, full of pain and disease and heart ache. Feelings, these things were alien to me. I met the Queen in our first life, the both of us fitting poorly in our mortal dress. She was a noble, befitting for her of course, and I was a prophet. She came to me and I saw who she was before she could open her mouth to speak. It was then that we decided that if this must be the way, we were going to do all that we could to retain our power. We changed fate, diverting the path of the future into more favorable ones for us. We have never been poor, or lost, or tragic. We were comfortable. But to keep us safe, we had to sacrifice you -- all of you, being reborn each time into another life, another tragedy. We did not want to forget, and thus kept you here with us, unable to move on. It was our fault. It was us. Everything that has kept you alive, that has killed you -- it was because of us. Because of me.”
    “Why now?” asked John, looking up from his hands, “why have you decided to stop this now?”
    “We are fading, John. The queen and I, our power was never meant to last -- we have used and abused the gifts that were given to us by skaia, by the game, and now we are breaking. That is why you have grown closer. Come together. Haven’t you thought it strange? Every life, you see yourself growing closer to who you were. Even now -- look at you. You’re John Egbert. Dave Strider. Rose Lalonde. Jade Harley. You look the same, act the same, feel the same. Those lives that have happened were never meant to be remembered. They’re not right, not natural. In the true path, you’re together, both of you. And we kept you apart,” his shoulders slumped, and his eyes dropped closed.

Dave took a ragged breath, feeling the heat from John’s shoulder pressing into his arm. Scratch looked at them, at their contact, and suddenly straightened, “I was wrong. And I apologize. But I will do everything, everything, in my power to set this right,” he stood and walked to the door, letting the pair follow at their own discretion.

    John stood up, straightening his back. He suddenly felt the weight of his lives, an ache behind his shoulders he had never before noticed. He felt so old, then, older than his body. This was the weight of his soul.
    “John, I want you to know I love you. I love your dorky teeth and your funny ears and I love your jaw and your voice and the way you put on socks. I love the way you wake up in the morning and the way that you sing in the shower, when you think I’m not listening. I love the color your cheeks turn when I embarrass you. I love your fingers and your lips and I love every single stupid thing you say. I want you to know that it doesn’t matter that we didn’t have forever, because at least we were together. I will be with you again. Even if we don’t remember. Even if you aren’t John Egbert and I’m not Dave Strider. Even then. I love you.”
    John nodded, then, and closed his eyes, “And I love you. I even love your sappy, gooey, dorky speeches. I will find you again Dave Strider. Because I love you so much there’s no possible way that we won’t be together.”
    Dave nodded, and grabbing John’s hand, made his way out of the cafe.

Chapter Text

         There should have been dramatic music, Dave decided. An orchestral piece, something heavy on the violin and piano. Something resounding and final and glaringly dramatic -- the kind of thing you want to have your final moments to. Something to end a life.
         There was no music. There was no sound aside from the slow ticking of a clock somewhere in the lobby echoed in almost perfect time with their quick, sharp, echoing footsteps. John’s breathing was quick, too, and fell into rhythm with the clock, a symphony. He felt a small wave of embarrassment, realizing that he had said some very uncool things only moments ago. Though, they had been true, he felt naked looking back on those stupid things he'd said.
         The feeling passed as quickly as it came, dreamlike in it's softness. It didn’t matter anymore if he had sounded uncool. Fuck being cool. Being cool hadn’t kept Rose safe, hadn't kept Jade safe. Didn’t stop John from trembling at his side, every step a little less sure. It had never done anything but keep him, Dave motherfucking cool Strider, safe from his very uncool feelings. He promised to never let being cool stand in the way of how he felt again, and prayed then to get the chance.
         'One more chance' he thought, 'that's all I need. One more chance and I'll be golden.'
         They had reached the stairs. A different sound now, less hollow, longer. John’s shuddering breathing was still a staccato, a counter point to their steps, which were even still. Scratch made no sound aside from a slight wheezing, coming from his nose like sickness, like death. Dave noted that he was older than he looked -- and not in the way that they all were. His flesh was old.
         As they climbed, their footsteps seemed to gain a solemnity. They were bright in the dim light, each one the beat of a drum -- so definitive and beautiful, he wondered for a moment if anything like this had ever been heard before. This immortal sound, footsteps falling on bare concrete stairs, leading up and up and up into the unknown, into the abyss. Perfection in the bleakness, basking in the bliss of all of their nothingness.
         'Fuck you Strider and your pseudo poetic bullshit,' His thoughts took on his brother’s voice, dry and raspy and deep,  'Just fucking do it -- if you can. Which you can, because you’re a Strider and Striders can do anything we put our minds to, and all that bullshit, right?'
         He let his eyes fall closed, looking back at all he had done, all he had accomplished. He had been someone, many someones, and no one. He had been everything and that would come to an end, a beautiful, long deserved end. Sure, he would lose this, this perfect thing that hummed like electricity, strung between he and John like tinsel at Christmas. God, he hadn’t celebrate Christmas in so long. He remembered the days when Christmas was called Yule and before then, it had been the solstice. He had danced around a fire and hugged his little wife close and been that little wife, once, too. He had decorated and celebrated and reviled, eventually, that fucking holiday. He wanted to spend one Christmas with John, wrapped around one another like a cinnamon twist, warm by the fire. Hot cocoa, peppermint, ugly sweaters. Together, together.
         But it was not time to immerse himself in memories and thoughts. It was time to breathe in the air that screamed now, this very moment, this second on the clock. This was what was happening. He would not live in his head, not now when Rose needed him. They were reaching the door, so unassuming and normal he felt a twinge of disappointment. What had he been expecting? A gilded gate? An army to greet him? Something. Anything.
         But all he got was a fucking gray door, with a shitty aluminium knob and shitty aluminium hinges, for all intents and purposes a door, and nothing more. This was not a fable -- there would be no great and heroic death for Dave. This would not be just. There would only be this fucking door, and whatever lay beyond it.
         He opened the door with a single quivering hand, and the sound of tortured hinges.
         “Hello Davey,” said the voice that sounded both pained and poised.
         “Hello Cass.”
         “Your Highness to you, Dave.” she said, a low growl in her throat. She had on a black dress, long and intimidating at first glance. At a second, it appeared cheaply made, the cut unflattering -- a sad imitation of what had been a glorious gown in her last life. She had a cigarette between her lips, the smoke trickling lazily upward, and a gun in the other hand, pointed casually at Rose, who was perched primly in the plastic chair by her side, face tight but generally unruffled.
         Cassidy saw Dave glance at the gun, and she twitched it, a semblance of a shrug, “I thought perhaps a whip would be too ineffectual.”
         “Probably.” said Dave. The situation was bad, but not as bad as it could have been. Her pride must have taken a beating -- using human weapons to reach her goals, bowing to powers not her own? It wasn't very like her. Scratch was still behind the door, eyes closed -- calculating the outcomes, weighing the options. Seeing what could be done, as was his function -- though it had become clouded now that he was so weak. Dave wondered if he could shift the situation in their favor, of if perhaps this was all up to fate, to chance, after all.
         Dave stepped forward, a sword that had not been in his hand before melting into existence.  It reminded him of heat and dying and youth.
         “Cass,” he said, “put the gun down.”
         She laughed like ice breaking, putting the gun strap over her shoulder, swinging it back. She put her hands up -- and in a movement too fast to be human, rushed forward, her cigarette no longer only a piece of paper and leaf, but a lance, white and black and terrible and coming at him faster than he could imagine. Time bent, but he was stuck, falling forward, towards the tip of the lance and the last chance he would have when suddenly wind, blue and glorious and bright, golden and soft and smelling of sleep and early morning was everywhere, all around him, and then only in front of him.
         A dull pain, a cigarette burn to his middle, was all but drowned out by the delirious horror coursing through his body.
         This was not how it should go.
         This was impossible.
         Wrong and foul and impossible because heroes didn’t die, because this was supposed to have a happy ending. Because that sound was John choking on blood. There was a wet sound of Cassidy’s lance sliding out of John’s warm body. She sucked on her cigarette, manic look in her eyes as Rose howled like an animal from her chair.
         It did not compare to Dave’s deafening silence as the wind died.
         There was a moment where a thousand words hovered in the air, and Dave was reminded of the night John came in like a hurricane, sending his words flying into the air only to have them fall soft and sweet.
         There was a gasp as Scratch rushed in.
         Dave fell to his knees, grasping the twitching hand that seemed too fragile and pale to be John's quick, clever fingers and soft, ticklish palm. There was laughter in the hands that had, only this morning, caressed his face. These hands held only sorrow.
         These hands held limpness, and the disconcerting chill of blood loss, and death.
         “No,” said Dave. Simple, plain.
         “Yes,” said the Queen, smiling. There was blood on her lip, from where the cigarette rested. The end dripped syrupy red.
         “Come to see our spoils?” she said, watching as Scratch shook himself back together, having come out the door to see the sweet, smart, sarcastic boy with laughter in his eyes fall like a tree, “No? Did you think you could betray me? Even if I lose I have won. I won’t let him be happy. I won’t let any of you be happy. I have never been happy.” She smiled again, swinging the gun around from her shoulder, caressing it with one manicured hand, “Will you kill me now, Dave? Will you murder me, now that I killed your little boyfriend?”
         She walked up to him, her heels clicking like the safety she was shutting off. “You can’t. You’re weak. Rose could have -- that’s why I took her. Look at her, Dave, look and see her. Isn’t she beautiful? She's merciless, you know? She would have killed me. She's a woman, after all.” she smiled wistfully, tossing a look at the girl whose body jerked, who was sobbing but whose eyes were dry and cold. “I was beautiful once,” she touched her own face, still looking at Rose, “beautiful and strong. She is strong, you know? Strong and lovely and mine. My daughter. My flesh.”
         She brought up her gun, resting it on the white, freckled collarbone, still decorated with a small purple bruise. “You’ll die you know, if I hit you from here. There’s nothing you can do about it, either. I could kill you right now and you would never be able to do anything about it. All the time in the world, and you couldn't save the one thing that you gave a damn about. The one thing that mattered. Lived so long and still so naive, still so dumb. I could kill you, and that would be that. I would get away with killing you and your stupid, pathetic, useless little bo--”
         The gun went off as her hand involuntarily tightened, voice choked off in a half sob.
         “Well fuck,” she rasped, voice hoarse, “you had more balls than I thought.”
         She dropped to her knees, smiling through the blood in her teeth, a small trickle making it's way down her chin. She touched a hand to her stomach, the flesh around the wound only starting to bleed, as if it had been startled, too startled to even bleed. The sword quivered as she fell.
         Dave dropped back, his shoulder a mass of bloodied flesh. There was a shout, distant and pained, as Rose strained against her bonds, her voice a shrill note in the still air.           Scratch ran forward, falling to his knees, face a mass of panic.
         “We can save you,” he said, voice slightly panicked, “the ambulance is on the way -- you can live.”
         Dave said nothing. He let his head fall to the side.
         It would be over, in the end, in less than ten minutes he thought.
         Less than ten minutes to kill the fucking bad guy and die trying.
         What kind of a story was this, he thought, where the good guys lose?
         They had stopped her, at least. But they had lost all the same.
         “No,” he said, voice faint.
         “Let me...”
         “No.”
         There was a soft sigh, and a sallow, sickly glow, as Dave closed his eyes. He reached with his good arm to take off his sunglasses, letting his eyes rest on the prone form of John Egbert. The Heir of Breath was silent, all breathing done.
         Rose fell silent.
         “Let him go,” she said voice tight, “just let him go. Help them in the next life, I know you can, but let him go.”
         “But he can live, he ca--”
         “No,” she said, “let him go.”
         Scratch stepped away, breathing out. They watched, silent, as Dave gave a few shallow breaths.
         Time stopped, for a moment, and then started again, the sounds of the city drifting up to them in gentle waves. Sirens wailed in the distance like lost children. He walked slowly, too old, to unlock the handcuffs that linked Rose to the chair. There was a commotion, and Jade burst through the door, a gun the size of a small dog in her hands.
         Always the last one there thought Rose, walking to the door, always a little too late. There was blood dripping down her fingers from where the cuffs had bit into her wrists, rubbed raw in her struggle, but she didn’t notice. She didn't care how they made small blooms of red on the floor, a thousand red blossoms. She took the steps one by one, down, down, down to the front door.
         She stopped to look back up at the pale puppet man still on the top step, face flushed and eyes red.
         “Help them.” Her voice was quiet.
         “It will end me,” he said.
         “I know.”
         “I know you do, my dear.”
         She walked away from him, then. There was a cat waiting at the bottom of the steps, and Rose smiled as she picked it up. It made no sound. She limped lightly, walking passed the paramedics, rushing up the steps like so many useless ants. There was a muffled silence around her, though there was clearly noise. It was a fine day, yet, with a light breeze and a clear quality to the air that she so loved. There were two ambulances parked outside, and a gaggle of onlookers, brought by the sound of violence and the whisper of death.
         Perhaps, she thought, I will write that book.
         She looked at the cat in her arms, and with a smile, continued on her lopsided way, ignoring the tears streaming down her cheeks.
________________________________________________________________

         The city never changed, though the people did. Everyone dies one day, some sooner than others. It is a widely accepted fact that every person only gets one chance to live, one life to do all that they can with. This is the assumption we all live under, and so when the pale haired boy, who walked the same way to school as he did every day, asked John if he would like to go out for coffee, John didn’t question himself.
         “Yes,” he said, “I would very much like to go out for coffee.”
         He didn’t even stop to think 'no, I am not homosexual' because he was only seventeen, and he just because he had only liked women did not mean he was straight. And something in the way the pale haired boy moved, the way he would smile hesitantly only when they would lock eyes (though his were hidden behind a ridiculously lame pair of aviators), made John want to fly.
         “I’m John,” he said, sticking out his hand to grasp the strong, lightly calloused hand of his new companion.
         “I’m Dave,” said the boy, letting his pale lips twitch up into a smile.
         'Perhaps we will grow old together' said John’s hand as it wrapped around Dave’s. The touch, whilst innocent and startlingly new, was strangely intimate.
         'Perhaps' Dave’s replied, squeezing back in kind.