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The Dreams in Which I'm Dying

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For the first forty-five minutes or so, they usually talk to you about your day (“Boring.”), what it’s like living with your brother (“Sweet. We’re tight.”), how you feel about school (“Also boring.”) – harmless shit that psychologists usually ask about on TV. Then, invariably, they start heading to dangerous waters.

“Why don’t you tell me more about these dreams of yours, David?” You level a glare at the shrink from behind your sunglasses. At least this one lets you keep your shades – the last one called them a defense mechanism and refused to allow you to wear them during your sessions.

“I’d rather not,” you respond coolly. She sighs and scribbles something on her clipboard, massaging her temple with her other hand.

“David – Dave. I know this is difficult for you, but you have to understand that this behavior is aberrant. Your brother is worried. He tells me that you’re having trouble distinguishing your dreams from reality.” You turn your gaze to the ceiling tiles and roll your shoulder to stretch it, ignoring the fishing comment.

“Do you think that perhaps you are dissatisfied with your situation and are using this fantasy world you’ve created in your mind to escape it? It can’t have been easy growing up without your parents.”

“You sound like my sister,” you mutter under your breath. The shrink catches it anyway.

“You don’t have a sister, Dave.”

“The fuck do you know.” The digital clock on her desk catches your eye – 4 PM – and you stand abruptly. “Looks like that’s it for this week, doc. See you next time.”

She watches you leave with a frustrated expression on her face, but doesn’t stop you, instead making another note on her clipboard as you shut the door behind you.

Dirk is waiting outside in his beat-up Crown Victoria – the police-car model is an ironic choice, obviously, considering Dirk’s propensity for speeding – and he takes off as soon as you shut the door. The silence between you two is usually understanding, but after your sessions it’s always tinged with awkwardness. You know he wants to ask you how this session went and God, Dave, do we need to find you another shrink already?

You ignore the unasked question and stare blankly out the window. It is stupid-hot in Houston at this time of year. You can see the heat rising from the pavement, and the glare of the sun off of the nearby office buildings makes you grateful for your shades – even if they’re the ironic triangular ones your brother gave you as a kid, and not your signature aviators, because apparently you’ve never worn a pair of aviators in your life. That’s what they tell you anyway.

You’ve never worn a pair of aviators in your life because John never sent them to you. John never sent them to you because apparently you and John have never met, either in person or online. You know this because when you woke up that first morning after winning the game, Pesterchum insisted that ectoBiologist didn’t exist. When you tried ghostyTrickster, you got a result, but it was not the one you expected.

-- turntechGodhead [TG] began pestering ghostyTrickster [GT] --

TG: sup

GT: uh… hi!

GT: what can I do for you?

TG: so is it just me or did the world turn crazy overnight

TG: i mean suddenly trolls and humans coexisting on the same planet is a thing

TG: weird right

GT: i’m not sure what you mean…

GT: maybe you’ve mistaken me for someone else? :B

GT: my name is john, by the way. what’s yours?

John didn’t remember. After a swift round of experimental pestering, you realized that no one did – not Rose, not Jade, not even Terezi.

Another weird thing – trolls and humans live on Earth, together. First Contact had apparently occurred a decade or so before you were born – long enough ago that the trolls are fully integrated with human society, and presumably humans who lived on Alternia are fully integrated with troll society.

That’s why they think you’re crazy – they think your mind has supplied you with a fantasy land wherein you and your imaginary friends are gods, where you are important, where you are loved. Sometimes you even believe them, but then you remember that it was hardly a fantasy – Sburb was traumatic. You wake from your nightmares screaming, the image of dead alternate Daves burned into your retinas, of dead Johns and Jades and Roses. Of Bro.

If anything, you need to create a fantasy land to get away from that – what they call the “real” world is cakewalk.

Dirk clears his throat and you glance at him from the corner of your eye. He’s looking straight ahead, expressionless.

“I got a job,” he says. You quirk an eyebrow. Dirk’s been looking for a job for a while now, but since he forwent college in order to raise you, his options are limited.

“And?”

“And we have to move.” You turn your head to look at him, to see if maybe he’s pulling a fast one on you. “To Seattle.” You blink, a rare outward show of surprise. Seattle is in Washington. Washington is where John lives.

You viciously suppress that train of thought. John doesn’t know you, remember? Besides, you’re pretty sure he doesn’t live in Seattle. And if he did, he probably wouldn’t want to hang out with you. You might have been a coolkid once, but now you’re a crazyperson.

“Fine with me.”

“Don’t start thinking you’re getting out of therapy sessions. We’ll find you another shrink in Seattle.”

You offer a shrug – a token response. If Dirk wants to think that was where your thoughts were drifting, you’re not about to set him straight.

“When?” you ask.

“Two weeks.” Short notice, then. You can deal with that. It’s not like there’s much tying you to this place, anyway. Only memories of dead crows and strifing on rooftops.

“Found a place already?”

“Couple options.” You’re pretty sure that these “options” are shitty, run-down hovels in dangerous parts of town. Dirk catches your resigned expression. “Don’t write it off, kid, it’ll be better than here. Better pay, better digs. You dig?”

“Whatever. School?”

“Pretty much sorted. You gotta pick some electives. Semester starts August 29.” You’ll miss the first week, but you’re lucky to be moving so close to the start of the year. You nod your assent and spend the rest of the car ride in silence.

Intellectually, you were aware that Washington was on the more tolerant side of the socio-political spectrum when compared with Texas, but you certainly weren’t prepared to attend a school integrated with trolls. It gave you a jolt to see grey skin and red-orange horns against the soft pink-tan-brown tones as students of both species mingled in the hallways.

Prospit High (you succeed in not making for the nearest bridge to throw yourself off, but it’s a near thing) boasts an almost-equal ratio of trolls to humans, and offers several classes on inter-species diplomacy and culture. One of these classes, Human-Troll Relations, is slotted in your fourth period class, right before lunch. You walk down the hall to your first period (AP Lit) with your head down and your hood up, ostensibly examining your time-table but actually scanning the student body for –

What, exactly? Imps? Nakodiles? You’re not sure.

Being around so many trolls is making you forget that you’re not in the game anymore. The Game That Doesn’t Exist. (Right.)

You find room 204 easily enough. The 200s building is right next to Administration, where the nice little lady at the front desk handed you your welcome packet. You introduce yourself to the teacher, a middle-aged man whose name you’ve already forgotten, and then turn to find a seat before the bell rings to signal the start of class, and holy shit you could have sworn Lalonde lived in New York.

But no, there she is, nose buried in a ragged copy of A Wizard of Earthsea, gothically elegant and self-assured. And right beside her is a jade-blooded troll with unusually keen fashion sense, who you also happen to recognize: Kanaya Maryam and Rose Lalonde, together again.

You try to swallow around the lump in your throat, moving to an empty seat at the back of the classroom. You tear your eyes away from the girls. You may consider them your friends – Rose is your sister – but that’s now the stuff of dreams. They don’t know you here.

The appearance of both Rose and Kanaya invite more speculation about who might be waiting around the corner. Who you might uncover at this school, waltzing back into your life as if it’s no big deal.

You’re not sure you can handle that. Bad enough not reaching out to them online. The fact that they’re right in front of you and don’t know what you all mean to each other is going to kill you.

You make it through first period in a daze, and second period – Xenobiology – isn’t so bad, except you share a workstation with Kanaya, who gives you a look like she’s not sure if she’s met you before. True to your rising dread, you also notice the juggalo troll – Gamzee, you remind yourself – and Karkat Vantas have also decided to reside in your own personal hell;  they share the workstation two rows up and to your left.

Third period Home Ec is a brief respite. You only share it with one familiar face – well, familiar screenname. The wheelchair-bound troll who rapped with you sometimes. He was already dead by the time you joined up with the trolls, but here he’s very much alive, and everyone’s darling.

Fourth period is torture. Rose, Karkat, and Gamzee again, with the addition of Terezi and the male fish troll you also didn’t get the chance to meet in the game. By the time fourth period is over, you’re close to a mental breakdown. You decide to spend lunch in the nurse’s office, curled up on the corner cot in a fetal position, facing the wall and focusing on the rhythm of your breathing.

After lunch is Music Theory. The coast is clear as you walk into the classroom and take a seat at the back. There’s no one in here you know. You take a deep breath and hold it for a few seconds, sinking in your chair and going limp as you release it.

“One of those days, huh?” the boy who’s just sat down next to you commiserates. “I know the feeling. Lunchline was so long they were out of cookies by the time I got up there!” You immediately tense, and don’t look over, staring at your desk with wide eyes. This can’t be happening. Not him. Your neighbor doesn’t seem to notice your discomfort. If he does, he ignores it.

“You’re new here, aren’t you? You must be. I’ve lived here most of my life, and I never forget a face!” You can’t deal with this. You can’t deal with all of these people who should know you but don’t. And you especially can’t deal with –

“I’m John! John Egbert. What’s your name?” You look up and are trapped in earnest blue eyes that don’t recognize you.

Your voice doesn’t seem to be working anymore.

Chapter Text

You flew out of the classroom, pushing past the teacher as she walked in. And now you’re sitting in the back of Dirk’s Crown Victoria, and he’s pissed at you for interrupting his first day of work with a call from the nurse’s office.

“What happened?” His voice is clipped. You pull your knees up to your chest and meet his eyes (or think you do) in the rearview mirror. You can’t think of what to say. When you first woke up to find that nothing you knew was real, you’d tried explaining it to Dirk. He had listened to your tale, skeptically, then promptly called the first psychiatrist in the phonebook. There was no guarantee that this time he wouldn’t send you straight to a mental asylum.

“Food poisoning,” you shrug.

“Bullshit.” You say nothing. “I’m doing a search for a psychiatrist as soon as we get home. This can’t become a habit.”

True to his word, Dirk sits down in front of his laptop as soon as you get home. You sigh and look for something more to unpack. There’s quite a bit, as you just arrived in Seattle yesterday. You pick up a box labeled “sords” and carry it to the living room, intent on sorting out the only thing you feel like you can control right now. Each clack of Dirk’s keyboard in the kitchen feels like a reprimand.

The box is full of knickknacks: a smuppet, some action figures, a framed photo of you and Dirk and your parents, a couple of swords (a surprise, you weren’t expecting the box marked “sords” to contain any), various other things that made no sense. You start pulling them out and putting them in piles – this picture goes on the coffee table, this Earthworm Jim action figure goes in your room, this shitty anime sword goes in the refrigerator, the smuppet goes in the trash goddamnit Dirk why does he keep them around, this music box goes –

Huh. You’re pretty sure you’ve never seen this music box before. It’s not quite Dirk’s style – classic and charming rather than ironically awful awesome. Odd. You glance over to the archway that leads to the kitchen and heft the music box in your hand a few times. Not your style either. Something tells you this is important, but you can’t pin down precisely why. You stick the music box in the pile for your room and continue unpacking.

Dirk doesn’t emerge from the kitchen until about 3, announcing that he’s found you a new shrink. You have an appointment next Friday at 4. You nod and take your pile to your room, dumping it on the bed. Instead of putting things away, you start fiddling with your sound system. Your turntables were the first thing you set up, of course, but something jarred them in the move and now nothing sounds quite right. You are determined to fix this. Your craft demands it. Also, you could really use some sick beats right now to distract you from the world.

About five minutes in, the doorbell rings.

“Get the door, kid!” You roll your eyes and stand up. Dirk never answers the door. Thinks it’s beneath him or something. It rings again as you make your way to the front of the house and you grumble to yourself about patience and how no one seems to fucking have any, damn it.

You fling the door open as the interloper rings a third time, ready to tear this impatient fucker a new one. Your words die in your mouth. You are face to face with a cake about five layers tall.

“Hi! Welcome to the neighborhood!” the cake says cheerily. It takes you a moment to realize that there is a person behind the cake.

“Uhhh…” Wow, that sure was an intelligent observation. Good job.

“Ehehe, sorry about this. My dad gets carried away with baking sometimes and I – ” The person pauses as he peers around the cake and gets a look at you. You choke on your own saliva. John’s expression turns from confused to concerned. “Uh, hey. Long time no see?” You nod awkwardly and step back from the door, motioning him in.

For some reason, you can’t seem to find your voice around him.

You take an immediate right and lead him into the kitchen, where he places the cake on the counter. There is a beat of awkwardness. You can tell that John – normally the most easy-going, oblivious person you (sort of) know – is struggling to fill the silence. You beat him to it.

“Sorry,” you force out, looking to the floor. “About earlier. I haven’t been feeling well lately and I wanted to get to a bathroom before I blew chunks.” John grins and nods sagely.

“Don’t worry, man, I won’t hold it against you. You missed a great class, though!” You take a moment to observe him from behind your shades. He hasn’t changed much, but what little has changed is obvious – he’s about a foot taller, and seems to have gained a bit of muscle mass. Still the same derpy expression. Still the same bucktoothed grin. It takes you a moment to realize he’s talking to you. “So, I didn’t catch your name before you ran off earlier.”

“Dave, who’s this?” Dirk has deigned to grace you with this presence. He’s not looking at you as he asks the question, though, you can tell even with his shades on.

“Hi, I’m John Egbert! I’m your next door neighbor. My dad’s kind of a baking fiend, so he sent me over with a cake.”

“John’s in my fifth period class,” you mumble. Dirk sends you a sharp look. You’re going to get a talking-to once John leaves.

“Nice to meet you John. I’m Dirk Strider, and you’re acquainted with my brother, I guess.”

“You, too! Both of you.” Dirk casually pulls out a sword from the pantry and cuts himself a piece of cake.

“Tell your dad thanks for me,” he tells John, before he disappears down the hall. John blinks and gives that doofy chuckle you’d grown so fond of.

“Hehe. Does he always use swords as silverware?”

“Yeah,” you sigh. John laughs again.

“I see… Well, I’ve got to get started on some homework. I’ll see you at school tomorrow?” You nod and walk him to the door. He skips down the front steps and turns around to wave, eyes bright, then heads to the house on your left.

You feel Dirk breathing down your neck before you even close the door.

“Isn’t John Egbert the name of one of the kids in your – ”

“Yeah.” You don’t let him finish because you’re afraid of what he’s about to say – your delusion? Your nightmare? You cross your arms and lean against the front door, staring at your shoes. Dirk takes a moment to process this.

“He exists, then.” Way to state the obvious.

“Seems so,” you say.

“That why you called me from work today?” You nod. He sighs and reaches up to ruffle your hair. “You’re still going to the shrink.” You nod again and trudge into the kitchen to cut yourself a slice of cake. You think you probably need to see the shrink, too.

Things look better from the next morning, but only slightly. Dirk drove you to school yesterday because it was your first day and he needed to sign some papers as your guardian. Today, you are left to the tender mercies of the school bus, which picks up passengers at the end of the street at 7:30 AM.

You leave the house at 7:15, and cringe as you hear John calling out to you. You pause and wait for him to catch up. He’s loaded down with his backpack and a sports bag, which bounces against the back of his legs as he jogs up beside you.

“Hey Dave!” Is he ever not chipper? You remind yourself that this John doesn’t remember the carnage and horror of Sburb, and for the first time you are glad that he doesn’t.

“Morning,” you return, inwardly patting yourself on the back for managing to keep your voice level. “Thanks for bringing the cake around. Dirk can’t cook, so it made for a pretty good dinner.” John blinks at you and laughs.

“Any time!” he says, ruffling the hair at the back of his head. “No, seriously, any time. Dad doesn’t stop with the baking, I’m kind of sick of finding cakes all over the house. So, what classes are you in? I guess you didn’t get to go to all of them since you went home sick yesterday.” You hand over your schedule, and John scans it intently as you both arrive at the bus stop. There are several other kids here already. John makes a pleased sound. “We have P.E. together!” He hands you back your schedule and you stuff it back into your bag.

You’re not great at making conversation any more. You haven’t been interested in making friends with your classmates from your old school – you could never relate to them – and that left just Dirk and the shrinks to talk to. Unfortunately, Dirk wasn’t around much since he had to work, and you weren’t about to get chummy with a bunch of nutjob psychiatrists who just wanted to “fix” you. So, you decide to go with the obvious. Luckily, John doesn’t find it contrived.

“You play sports?” you ask, gesturing to the bag. His eyes light up.

“Yeah! I’m on the track team. And football – I play running back, but I think I might be able to convince the coach to start me as quarterback this year – ” You find yourself smiling as John yammers on about sports, even though you couldn’t tell a touchdown from a fumble to save your life. It makes your face feel odd.

“Hey John. Whoth thith dipshit?” You look up as a somewhat nasal, lisping voice interrupts John’s monologue. Sollux Captor. You never spoke to him much before he went frolicking in the dream bubbles with the Time girl, but from the little interaction you had, you knew he was a dick.

“Hi Sollux! This is Dave Strider, just moved in. Dave, this is Sollux Captor. We go pretty far back!” You give him the coolguy nod, which is really more like pointing with your chin.

“Tch. More annoying humanth to fuck up my day. Great.” Instead of taking offense, John gives him a sympathetic look and puts a hand on his shoulder.

“That bad, huh?”

“Doctorth think she’th getting worthe. If it goeth on much longer, she might get culled.” A grave hush sweeps over the kids at the bus stop at the word. John sighs and rubs Sollux’s back.

“The doctors won’t let them cull her. She’s on Earth, so Earth rules apply,” he whispers, but he sounds uncertain. You almost ask who they’re talking about – it might be someone you know, after all – but you decide to leave it for now. You’re still a virtual stranger to them.

As the bus pulls up and you all load on, you can feel the dread nibbling at pit of your stomach.

Chapter Text

The bus makes it to school with time to spare. You follow John and Sollux as they disembark, matching Sollux glare-for-glare, but hesitate when they move to join a clique composed entirely of – surprise, surprise – the rest of the Sburb/Sgrub crew. John realizes you’re not following, of course, and looks back at you curiously.

“Dave? You okay?” You nod stiffly and mumble something about going to find your locker. You can feel his eyes on you as you abscond. “See you at lunch, Dave!” You wave your hand in the air to signal that you’ve heard, but you’ve already made up your mind to go find a deserted corner of the school to hide in until lunch is over.

They’re heartbreaking to watch. Out of the corner of your eye, you see John being welcomed by the rest of the group – the cerulean-blooded troll girl pulls him into a headlock and noogies him until he flails around, trying to tell her off in spite of his laughter.

You make it to your locker and fiddle with the lock absently, not really trying to open it. You manage to dawdle until the bell rings to tell the students to get moving to class, and then you seat yourself inconspicuously in the back corner of 204, your nose buried in your copy of Hamlet.

You jump when the seat to your right is taken, and look up to see Rose, staring at you. Psychoanalyzing, probably. Clearing your throat uncomfortably, you give her a stilted nod and return to reading – pretending to, any way.

“Do you have a problem with trolls?” You look up, gaping, as Rose completely and uncharacteristically abandons all tact.

Rose!” Kanaya hisses from her other side, aghast. Rose waves her off impatiently, her eyes not leaving you.

“Of course not,” you answer, trying to regain your composure. “What gave you that idea?”

“John wanted you to associate with us, but you took one look at our party and fled. I could not think why you would do such a thing, except that perhaps you were uncomfortable around trolls. You seemed to dislike Sollux.”

“That’s because Sollux is a douchebag.”

“Fair point,” Kanaya chimed in, a small smile on her face. “Though I wouldn’t go so far as to call him that. He’s just a bit abrasive.”

“Be that as it may, it is no reason to avoid all of us,” Rose says expectantly. Your eyes dart away.

“I’m not really a people-person. Don’t do well in groups.” Rose hums thoughtfully, smoothing out her skirt as she frowns at you.

“Looking to the left is a signal of mentally accessing constructed images or sound. In other words, fabricated images or sound.”

“You read too much,” you say. Rose is about to make a snappy retort, but luckily for you, the teacher walks in at that moment and instructs the class to open Hamlet to Act II, saving you from the potential snark-fest.

You can feel Kanaya’s eyes on you as you both walk to Xenobiology next period. You can’t seem to lose her, even though you’re just about flashstepping. She manages to rest a hand on your shoulder as you reach the classroom, and you know you can’t escape her this period either – she’s your lab partner, unfortunately.

“I don’t think we’ve been properly introduced,” she says. Her voice is airy and polite, and has a soothing quality that calms you in spite of yourself. “A very unsatisfactory condition, as we are to work together often this year. My name is Kanaya Maryam.”

“Dave Strider,” you mumble.

“It’s very nice to meet you, Dave,” Kanaya says, squeezing your shoulder reassuringly.

“Likewise.”

“I fear I must apologize for Rose – she has a tendency to  see others as… puzzles.”

“I’m used to it.” Kanaya gives you an inquiring look. You figure you can trust her not to see you as insane. Kanaya’s the mothering type, the kind of person who’s always there as a shoulder to cry on. (Not that you cry. Ever.) It’s part of what makes her so desirable as an auspistice. “Therapy. Since I was thirteen.” Your words seem to surprise her, but she doesn’t press.

“I… see.” You both settle down at your workstation.

“Who’s this motherfucker, my sister?”

“Gamzee, will you sit the fuck down? Class is going to start in just a fucking second, so shut your chitinous windhole and get your ass back in this chair!”

Shit. Shitshitshitshitshit. Gamzee’s got that look on his face. That cold, speculative look you associate with sudden violence and, subsequently, gratuitous shoosh-paps from Karkat. Kanaya looks slightly worried.

“This is Dave Strider, Gamzee. He’s a new student here. Dave, this is Gamzee Makara, a very dear friend of mine.”

“Charmed,” you say blandly, trying not to add any subtext that might provoke him to attack. Karkat is on his way over, grumbling, and grabs Gamzee by the arm. (You don’t miss the surreptitious pap Karkat gives with his other hand.) Gamzee allows Karkat to lead him away, but he doesn’t take his eyes off of you until they are sat down at their own workstation.

“He’s not usually like that,” Kanaya whispers as class begins. “He’s normally quite laid back, but, well… it’s football season, so he’s not allowed to engage in the – er… recreational activities that keep him calm most of the time. We’re lucky Karkat – he’s the other one – we’re lucky Karkat was here to call him off, or things could have become dangerous.” Ah – he’s sober. You nod absently, pulling out a pen and notebook from your backpack to take notes.

Home Ec is pretty uneventful. You haven’t been officially “introduced” to Tavros yet, so you don’t interact with him. He does give you a curious look, however – maybe he saw you with John this morning. You seem to be attracting a lot of curious looks, lately. You’re dreading your human-troll relations class next period – the prospect of an annoyed Rose and a sober Gamzee in the same room and both gunning for you is not something to look forward to. You are held back a minute or two in Home Ec to help clean up, which shaves valuable time off of your passing period. You cross the threshold into your fourth period class as the bell rings. The teacher raises an eyebrow at you and points to the only seat left – right between Rose and Terezi.

Damn it.

You shuffle over and make a conscious effort not to look at Rose as you sit. The teacher says a few words and releases you to discuss your term project with your classmates, which is apparently just license for the students to chatter about inanities for the entire period. Ordinarily, you might like this teacher, as she seems to be of the “don’t-give-a-fuck” variety that you get along with so well, but this just means that Rose has more opportunities  to pick at you.

“I think we got off on the wrong foot this morning,” Rose says. “I’m Rose. Welcome to Prospit High.”

“That’s because the first thing you did was ask me if I was speciesist,” you reply dryly. You stick out your hand for her to shake, anyway. “Dave Strider.”

“Did she really?” Terezi cackles from your other side. “We’ll never make a decent legislacerator out of you, Lalonde, you’re not sneaky enough at all.” Rose sniffs.

“Subtlety was not my intention. And neither, for that matter, is becoming a legislacerator.” Terezi’s grin widens, and suddenly she’s draping herself over your shoulder.

“So, Strider, you’re the mysterious newcomer who’s attracted the attention of the great John Egbert, hm?” You shrug.

“Guess so.” You’re used to Terezi hanging all over you. It’s not even a big deal. Or, it shouldn’t be. You squirm a little as she sniffs you.

“Hehehe. You smell like cherries and cream.” Rose rolls her eyes.

“Found a replacement for Karkat, then, have you?”

“What the fuck are you talking about Lalonde, we aren’t even a thing,” Karkat grouses from across the room. Troll hearing is particularly keen when it comes to their own name – something about natural defenses and avoiding culling.

“Keep your auricular sponge clots on your side of the room, Vantas!”

“Fuck you and the scalemate you rode in on, Pyrope!” Terezi cackles in your ear, a low sound that sounds like firecrackers. None of the other groups or the teacher seem phased by this exchange, so you assume it is nothing out of the ordinary.

“So, Mr. Cherries-and-cream,” Terezi wheedles, “how are you liking Seattle so far? Is it everything you dreamed it would be?” You shrug.

“It’s okay.” It’s your own personal hell. “I didn’t really have any expectations coming in.”  Terezi sniffs at you again with a frown, then exchanges what would have been a telling glance with Rose – if Terezi  could see, anyway. You mentally berate yourself as you remember that Terezi can scent out lies like a bloodhound, but neither girl comments on your less-than-honest assessment of your new home. The rest of the period is spent on stilted conversation as Rose tries to pry information from you and Terezi continues to invade your personal space.

You manage to shake them off as you are released for lunch, and find refuge behind the bleachers on the far side of the football field. You sit down, cross-legged, and massage your temples. Spending an hour dodging question from the two most perceptive people you’ve ever known is headache-inducing.

You lean your head back and rest it against the cool metal of the bleachers, trying to ignore the clawing in your stomach. You have money to buy food – neither you nor Dirk are the best cooks, so most of your meals are a la carte anyway – but you know that if you try to brave the jungle that is Prospit High’s cafeteria, you’ll run into John and be dragged into the merry band of misfits. And after the morning you’ve just had, you are not keen on another round of “introductions.”

You feel a pang in your chest as you think of how John will react to you ditching him and his friends for lunch. You can’t exactly avoid him – you have yet to attend the two classes you share. He’ll be understanding, if you tell him you weren’t feeling well, but he’ll probably feel a bit rejected, too. You never felt right denying John anything. You’ve put up with countless Nic Cage marathons just to keep a smile on his face. It never seemed right to you if John was upset about anything.

Why didn’t you just meet him for lunch? He might be keeping an eye out for you right now, wondering when you’ll show up. You find your hands curling into fists, tugging at the roots of your hair. Would it really have been so bad to reacquaint yourself with all of your friends? Maybe that’s what you need to heal. Maybe you could start to forget.

You aren’t hungry anymore, suddenly.

You head to Music Theory about five minutes early, and sit in the same seat you claimed yesterday. You try not to look up as students start to file in, but you can’t resist when John walks through the door. He’s chuckling and waving to someone, and as he turns to the class room and his eyes land on you, you notice a brief flash of confusion before his cheerful grin is back.

“Hey, Dave!” he says, swinging his backpack over the back of the seat next to you. “Sorry, I forgot all about inviting you to lunch, or I would have gone to find you. I guess you found someone else to sit with then?”

Gaping would be unseemly for a Strider, but it’s a struggle to restrain yourself. He… forgot? You mutter a “yeah” and pull out your notebook for this class. You’re surprised by how much this hurts. Where are the kicked-puppy eyes you were expecting? Where is the cajoling, the pouting, the claims that you owe him hangout time later?

When the realization hits, you can almost feel it, like fingers curling around your heart with a vicelike grip. To John, to all of the others, you’re just a stranger. One that’s a bit interesting and and more than a bit evasive, yes – but a stranger. What you do and who you hang out with don’t matter.

The thought is agonizing. It’s physical. You can feel your throat tighten and for once you thank Troll Jegus that you have these shitty anime shades, because if you start to cry at least you’ll have something to hide behind.

Wait. Wait. Stop. This is stupid. You’re supposed to have been dealing with this for the past four years. Obviously you’re not as inured to the idea as you thought, but Striders do not throw themselves pity parties. They throw pity parties for other people. Ironically. Tempered with condescension and not a small amount of barely-concealed contempt. Pull yourself together.

Right now, the fact of the matter is that to John Egbert and his clique of amnesiac Sburb players who used to be your friends, you don’t matter.

Yet.

Chapter Text

Your sixth period class is AP Stats, shared with Terezi, Sollux, Karkat, and – for the first time ever in this strange alternate universe of amnesiacs – Jade Harley. You wonder briefly what drew her away from her island in the middle of the Pacific, before you are commandeered by Terezi to go sit with them. You nod a brief hello to Karkat and Sollux (who rolls his eyes and mutters something probably uncomplimentary in Alternian, to which Karkat snickers), and Jade beams at you.

“Hi! I’m Jade!” You can practically see the shoutpoles. She fills the silence before the start of class with bubbly rambling, flitting from one subject to the next. It makes you feel nostalgic – she hasn’t changed. It does not, however, distract you from the serious exchange between Karkat and Sollux, to which Terezi is listening with half an ear. They’re speaking in rapid-fire Alternian, but the clicks and growls have an anxious tone that recalls the sinking feeling in your stomach from earlier today.

You nod at whatever Jade is saying – something about the mathlete team – as the teacher starts writing a formula on the dry-erase board.

Your last class of the day is P.E.

John waves cheerfully at you from his locker as you head to the coach’s office to procure a uniform. The coach assigns you a locker number and an ill-fitting uniform, and barks at you to “hurry up and dress out, you need to be in formation in three minutes exactly.”

You change quickly, stuffing your backpack in the locker and jogging outside to an array of numbers spray-painted on the asphalt. You find the one that matches to your locker number and stand on it, casually taking in the sight of your classmates. John is chatting with Sollux and Tavros, who is slightly out of place, sitting in his wheelchair instead of standing over a number. You notice some other vaguely familiar trolls – the princess, the cat girl and her hulk of a moirail – chatting together at the front of the formation. Your number is towards the back of the array, which suits you just fine. The coach can barely see you as you half-heartedly perform a set of jumping jacks with the rest of the class.

You are all just about to start some calf stretches when a lanky figure emerges from the boys’ locker room. The coach issues a sharp tweet on his whistle and grumbles to himself before yelling, “Get a move on, Makara, we don’t have all day!”

Gamzee lopes over to the class and takes the spot right next to you. Well, shit. You all continue stretching, but there’s a new tension in your muscles that you’re sure is a direct result of the way Gamzee is glaring at you out of the corner of his eye. Coach tells you that you all have to run a lap around the track and gestures to a cart full of playground balls with which you are free to amuse yourselves with afterwards, and then he steals away behind the locker rooms to sneak a cigarette.

“How’s it going, motherfucker?” Gamzee asks you as you all set off at a jog. You shrug.

“Been better.” Gamzee grins at you manically.

“No shit? Well, that’s just too motherfucking bad.” You make a noncommittal noise and surreptitiously increase your speed, trying to keep pace better with the rest of the class. “Me, I don’t let the little things get me down. Motherfucking miracles all up in here.”

“That’s enlightened of you,” you say. Luckily, John is jogging in place up ahead, waiting for you to catch up. It only takes you a moment, and John falls into step with the two of you easily.

“Hi, Gamzee, Dave!” Gamzee’s grin doesn’t falter, but you get the impression he’s miffed about the interruption.

“Egbert,” you say with a nod. “Do you hold back your track star speed for all the girls, or are we just special?” John gives you a surprised look, and then laughs loudly. It’s almost as if he wasn’t expecting you to sass him. Which isn’t all that surprising, considering you’ve been acting like a little girl on her first period since yesterday.

“Yes, Dave, you are so special. I am so in awe of how special you are that I can’t possibly run at my full speed. It’s a shame, actually, because I was totally planning to impress you with how fast I can lap everyone.” His voice is light and somewhat sing-song. You’d forgotten how well it complemented your ironic deadpan.

“It’s hard, being this special. It’s hard and no one understands.” John laughs at this, too, and you spend the rest of the lap trading snarky remarks back and forth, with Gamzee lurking a pace behind you.

When you’re done, the three of you join up with Tavros, sitting in his chair by the basketball courts. He passes the ball in his lap to John, who dribbles it a few times and makes a jump shot. Tavros cheers as it swishes into the net, and John looks pleased with himself. Gamzee smiles at Tavros – somehow it doesn’t seem too alarming in this context – and sits on the asphalt next to his wheelchair.

“When is Equius going to be able to fix your legs, Tavros?” John asks, retrieving the basketball. Tavros smiles and raps on one of his legs – which you now realize are made of metal – with his fist.

“Uh, this weekend, maybe. He said something about, um, a loose connection? I think I might have knocked it too hard the other day when we were at the skate park.” His eyes land on you. “Hi. I’m, uh, Tavros Nitram. Nice to meet you?”

“Dave Strider, likewise,” you say. John laughs and you barely manage to catch the basketball as he suddenly passes it to you.

“I think you’re in my Home Ec class, right?”

“Yeah, think so.” You bounce the ball a couple times and pass it back to John when you think he isn’t looking. He catches it anyway. How the biggest derp to ever walk the earth became a sports prodigy, you’ll never know.

“Hiya, new kid!” Princess, Catgirl and the Hulk have finished their lap. The Princess looks really excited to see you. You get the impression that she’s the kind of person who gets excited about almost everything. They introduce themselves as Feferi Peixes, Nepeta Leijon and Equius Zahhak, which you probably knew at some point and then dismissed as unimportant. Because they were dead, and you never actually met them except for in the odd Dream Bubble. It’s a little unnerving, like you’re hanging out with a bunch of zombies who have no idea that they’re supposed to be trying to snack on your brains rather than be friendly.

“Where’s Sollux?” John asks Feferi, making another basket. The ball doesn’t even touch the rim, Christ.

“Still glubbing along,” she giggles, craning her neck to find him on the field. “He doesn’t take this class sea-riously at all!” You think you spot him, trudging along with his back hunched and his hands in the pockets of his non-regulation jeans. He’s dead-last. “So, Dave, where did you move from?”

Feferi and John take turns asking you questions about your past while you try to prevent John from making any more baskets. Feferi joins in – apparently she’s pretty athletic as well, cheer captain or something – until Sollux finally makes his way over. She breaks away from the game and runs to wrap her arms around his neck, giving him a kiss on the cheek. The expressions on their faces are affectionate – and kind of too intimate, so you look away to give them a bit of privacy.
John grins and rolls his eyes, dribbling the ball as he makes his way back to the rest of the trolls congregating around Tavros’s wheelchair. You follow, glad the game is over for now – not that you’re out of breath, or anything. You’re just… bored of it.

“So,” you say, “I take it those two are…”

“Matesprits!” Nepeta says conspiratorially.

“Beauty and the Geek,” you say with a smirk. Nepeta looks a little confused, but it gets a chuckle from John, so you count it as a win.

“It’s a pun on a human fairy tale,” John explains to the troll. “Beauty and the Beast.”

“Egbert, it’s not funny if you explain it,” you say, dropping to sit on the floor and leaning back on your palms. He sticks his tongue out at you and plops down beside you.

“Do you know much about troll romance, then?” Nepeta chirps at you. She’s leaning her back against Equius’s shoulder as he discusses something with Tavros and Gamzee – most likely Tavros’s robotic legs.

“I am the quadrant guru,” you say, waving your fingers mysteriously. John perks up.

“Really? It’s all Greek to me – and I’ve had Karkat forcing me to watch troll romantic comedies for the past few years.” Hah. You bet. You’ve had your fair share of Vantas ranting about the complexities of troll relationships. More than your fair share, even. But they don’t know that, so instead of commiserating, you decide to be vague.

“I had a friend – a troll friend – who was pretty vocal about it. He tried to draw shipping charts, but I was having none of that. War for the pen ensued. Tragic casualties.”

“Do you talk to him a lot? Does he miss you? Do you miss him?” Nepeta looks at you expectantly, eyes shining, tail twitching back and forth (that can’t be real, can it?). Oooh no, she’s going to try to ship you with Vantas. She has that fan girl gleam in her eyes. Nope. Not happening.

“I haven’t heard from him since we were thirteen,” you say bluntly. Nepeta pouts and sighs wistfully, but she appears to have abandoned that line of thinking. Good. John, on the other hand, looks speculative.

“Did you have a fight?” he asks, and then balks as he realizes what he just said. “I mean, you don’t have to answer or anything, I’m just curious. I don’t mean to be nosy, or – ”

“Chill, I don’t mind,” you say. You’re not sure what to tell them. Be vague, and make it sound uncomfortably personal enough that they don’t decide to pry further. “There… was an accident. He doesn’t remember who I am, and the doctors said that bringing back those memories could damage his brain. So I pretty much left it alone.” Close enough to the truth, you guess. John and Nepeta look horrified, and the other trolls have paused their conversation to give you concerned looks. Maybe too uncomfortably personal.

“I’m really sorry, Dave,” John says, subdued. A stab of guilt gets you right in the heart.

“It’s no big deal. It was a while ago, and we weren’t that close anyway.” The atmosphere is still tense as Sollux and Feferi walk over, finished whispering sweet nothings to each other for the moment, you guess.

“Whatth everyone tho deprethed for?” Sollux asks. You think there’s an undertone of urgency in his voice, but you’re not completely sure until John plasters a smile on and reassures him that it’s not a big deal. He relaxes a bit and sits down, pulling Feferi with him.

“So Dave, what are you doing after school?” John’s changing the subject is abrupt, but welcome.

“Probably unpacking. Fixing my turntables,” you say. “Why, you got anything planned?”

“I thought the group of us could all go catch a movie – there’s one I’ve been wanting to see…” John grins and glances around expectantly. Tavros nods, and Gamzee smiles laconically, which you guess means he doesn’t object. Equius and Nepeta seem amenable, but when you glance over at Sollux and Feferi, it’s a different story.

“John, it’s Friday,” Feferi says in hushed tone. John mumbles a quiet “oh,” looking contrite. He bites his lip and glances at Sollux, whose expression is stoic.

“Don’t worry about it, JN. I’ll hang out with you guyth thome other time,” he says. “FF, you should go with them – ”

“No, I’m going with you.” He looks like he might argue, but Feferi gives him a cowing look and he folds like a castle of cards on a windy day.

You jump when the sound of a whistle pierces through the air – the coach is calling it a day, waving everyone over to the locker rooms so you can change in time for the end of school. It’s kind of a relief, you think as you stand and dust yourself off. You’re not exactly sure what conspiracy you’ve stumbled across, but something is definitely rotten in the state of Washington, and that something has a whole lot to do with Sollux Captor.

Chapter Text

Your name is Sollux Captor, and you are most certainly not a douchebag, thanks. You just think humans could stand to be a little less annoying, and okay, Ampora really pisses you off. You are sitting in the passenger side of your matesprit’s Porsche as she drives you down to the hospital.

Feferi keeps the conversation light as she speeds down the highway. It’s one of the few things about her that really annoy you – she skirts around the serious topics because she knows that thinking about them upsets you. Avoiding talking about it isn’t going to bring your moirail back.

She usually sticks to cheer-squad gossip and her prime-time teen dramas, but today she has fresh fodder in the form of that new human John seems to be bringing into your social circle.

“He seems really cool – you know, like, the kid who is untouchable and knows it. He’s got this mysterious stranger vibe going on, it’s kind of intense!” You slouch in your seat a bit, giving Feferi a frustrated look. It’s not like she’s going to leave you for a human, but it’s a bit disconcerting to hear your matesprit talking about another person that way.

“He’th jutht a huge tool who thinkth he’th gog’th gift to the univerthe,” you growl, looking out the window. Feferi giggles at your reaction.

“Are you jealous, Sollux? Hee! Don’t worry, you are SO much more pitiable than he is, Jellyfish.” You roll your eyes at her, but there’s no bite to it.

“I jutht – he’th hiding thomething, FF. It’th like he knowth thomething.” Feferi frowns, briefly taking her eyes off the road to take in your expression.

“How do you mean?”

“He wath on the buth with me and JN thith morning, but he took one look at our group onthe we got to thchool and ran away.”

“So what?”

“Tho he’th thuddenly all chummy with uth again thith afternoon? It’th thuthpiciouth.”

“It does seem a little fishy, but I don’t think there’s anything… what’s that word Rose likes to use?... malicious, about it.” You run a hand through your hair, frustrated. Feferi is so disingenuous that she doesn’t think to look for ulterior motives – which is dangerous for someone in Feferi’s position.

“Jutht be careful, okay? You never know where Her agentth are hiding.” It’s a sobering thought, and you are both silent for a while. After a moment, Feferi sighs.

“For what it’s worth, I don’t think he’s up to anything. Who knows? Maybe we’ll be good friends with him like we are with John, Rose, and Jade.” You exhale loudly, with a slight growl at the back of your throat to let her know what you think of this idea. She giggles and threatens to bestow upon you the title “Grumpy Gills” (which heretofore belonged solely to Ampora) as she pulls in to the hospital parking lot.

You walk up to the lobby together, your arm over Feferi’s shoulders and hers around your waist. She knows without needing to be told that you always need emotional support when you come here – though you don’t know how she knows. You tend not to question it.

The secretary at the front desk greets you with a weary smile, and signs you in without comment, because you’ve been here so many times that you might as well be admitted yourself. You nod your thanks to her and head over to the elevators. Feferi is subdued – you don’t think she likes this place any more than you do, and you are once again struck by how much she pities you. Enough to endure this hellhole, which is saying something.

The fourth floor is the psychiatric ward. You and Feferi step out of the elevator with trepidation, but everything seems quite calm today. You hear soft chimes down the hall as the two of you head in that direction. Feferi looks like she wants to bolt, and she probably would if she wasn’t trying to be your matesprit and your moirail at the same time. It’s simultaneously pitiable and disturbing, but you know she’s only doing it because you need the extra support with your moirail being… well.

The orderly on duty frowns at you as you reach room 13 and knock softly on the door. You hear Aradia’s reply over the chimes, and open the door.

She looks up at you as you walk in, an excited smile on her face and her pupils just starting to display a maroon tinge. She’s been here too long, you think. She’s sitting on the floor, surrounded by music boxes – they let her have them sometimes, for good behavior – and letting several of them play at once.

“Sollux! Feferi!” She springs up to give you a hug, which you return with a tight squeeze. Feferi’s smile is nervous, but genuine. You might be the only one who lost your moirail when Aradia was admitted, but the rest of your group also lost a dear friend. Feferi gives her a quick hug, and Aradia gestures you both in to sit.

Her room is sparse, and what little furniture there is – two chairs, a table, and a recuperacoon – is padded or rounded, and attached to the floor. There’s a small window that overlooks the highway, just small enough so that if she were looking to escape, Aradia would not be able to use the window as an exit. For a room where someone’s been living for three years, it doesn’t have much personality.

Aradia resumes her place on the floor as you and Feferi occupy the chairs.

“How…” You take a moment to swallow. From the call you’d received last night, Aradia’s mental state seemed to be regressing, and her delusions getting worse. Asking her how she’s doing is a loaded question, but you should probably ask her anyway. “How have you been?”

She gives you a sad, sweet smile, then caresses one of the music boxes as it trails off into silence. “Not so bad. They let me have my boxes today, but…” You and Feferi exchange a glance. Aradia loves her music boxes – you and the others always buy them for her as Wriggling Day presents – but she always insists that they’re missing something. Aradia shakes her head, as if to clear it of gloomy thoughts, and turns the question back on you. “How are things at home? Is everyone doing well?”

Feferi launches into a story about the sordid melodrama that is the so-called “Elite Writers’ Club,” in full gossip mode. You smirk a bit as she details Eridan’s hapless attempts to seduce Dr. Lalonde, in spite of Rose’s disgust and repeated threats of bodily harm. This story is as much for you as it is for Aradia – nothing cheers you up quite so much as the thought of your kismesis behaving like a fool.

You and Feferi take turns entertaining Aradia with your friends’ antics, and Feferi catches her up on some of the plotlines of their favorite TV dramas. It’s almost a surprise when the orderly knocks on the door to give you your five-minute warning. The lighthearted mood is ruined, and you sigh as Aradia rises from the floor to say goodbye.

“I guess that’s it for today,” she says, leaning over to give Feferi a hug.

“Oh! I almost forgot! We got a new student. A human – John’s taken a bit of an interest in him. Apparently he lives on the same street as Sollux!”

“He’th a total tool,” you grumble as Aradia hugs you as well. She looks amused.

“Don’t be too quick to judge, Sollux. You could be great friends!”

“With that nookthucker? Not a chanthe!” Aradia walks the two of you to the door, and the orderly lets her stay in the door frame and watch as you walk down the hall.

“Tell everyone I miss them!” she calls as you are about to step into the elevator. “And tell Dave I said hi, too!”

“Yeah, whatever!” you call back automatically, clicking your tongue against your teeth at the thought of bringing Strider into this mess. You blink a moment later as what she said hits you. As the elevator shuts and you begin your descent, you turn to Feferi. Her eyes are wide and somewhat spooked.

“I – Did you mention Thtrider’th name?”

Chapter Text

You are now Dave Strider and John Egbert is walking next to you, babbling about how he’s going to totally kick ass at the Homecoming game in two weeks. Gamzee is slouching along on his other side, pushing Tavros’ wheelchair. You’re walking back to your neighborhood after watching some shitty movie at the closest theater. The movie was just John’s style, too – corny dialogue, over-acting macho-man heroes, lame plot – the whole shebang.


Nepeta and Equius had peeled off about five minutes back, as they both lived slightly north of your street. And now – now you’re just waiting for Tavros and Gamzee to do the same so that you’ll finally have John to yourself.


Whoa, that sounded a bit more suggestive than you intended it. You just want to grill him about Captor’s strange behavior. That’s it. Really.

Also Gamzee’s been giving you glares out of the corner of his eye when he knows Tavros isn’t looking, which is starting to give you the creeps – not because he’s intimidating, but because you remember his blatant caliginous advances from the time you were in the game. So, either you’re hateable on sight, or…

Or what?

He doesn’t remember you, you’re sure of that. If he did, you’d probably be getting a lot more shit from him than a leer every few minutes. There might be something subconscious to it. Maybe the memories of the game are buried deep in their brains, and you’re the only one who…

No, see, that makes no sense. Why would you be so in touch with your innermost thoughts and memories while even Terezi – the goddamn Seer of Mind – is still in the dark? Er. Metaphorically speaking.

You wave absently to Gamzee and Tavros as they turn down a cross-street, and when you and John have walked a good distance away, you interrupt his sports-talk.

“Hey, John?”

“ – and Coach told me that if I can – huh?” He falters in step as he falters in speech, not expecting you to cut him short.

“What’s got Captor so panicked?” John pauses and stares at you for a moment, then darts his eyes to the sidewalk.

“Nothing, really.”

Bull.

Shit.

“Come on,” you say, trying to control the impatience in your tone but probably not succeeding. “I’m not stupid. I heard him and Vantas talking earlier today, and I don’t need to speak Alternian to know that shit was going down.” John swallows and gives you a conflicted look.

“It’s not really my place, Dave. I mean, I’ve known you, what? A day?” He ruffles the hair at the back of his head as the two of you turn onto your street. “There’s something up, but it’s Sollux’s business, and I’m not too sure he’d appreciate me telling you. Especially since – no offense – ” He gives you a weak grin, “ – I don’t think he likes you that much.”

“You got that feeling, too, huh?” You smirk, trying to lighten the mood a bit. “Makara didn’t seem too fond of me, either. He wants to have my caliginous babies, I can feel it.” John chokes on his laughter.

“Gamzee? But he’s – okay, well maybe he’s not so easygoing over football season, but he’s a teddy bear, honestly.”

“I dunno, man, he’s been glaring at me all day. May have to remove my shades, it’s getting pitch black over here.” John looks like he doesn’t know what to make of you, head cocked to the side and a bewildered grin on his face.

“If you say so – I didn’t think you’d be one to go with the trollmance flow, to be honest, especially with a guy.” He seems to realize the tactlessness of his words a split second later, and flails his arms around, stuttering a bit. “Not that I have a problem with that or anything. I was just saying – I mean, I’m not, you know, a homosexual, but I don’t have a problem with it if you are. Or, you know, if you’re not. Or – ” He slaps his palm over his face as you chuckle at his word-vomit.

“Chill, dude, I don’t have a problem with it. For the record, I’m not into Makara that way. Kismessitude is a bit difficult for humans. We’re more inclined to the other three quadrants.”
John laughs and bounds up his front steps, waving.

“See you later, buddy!” You wave back and give a half-smile, but part of you is still replaying his words in your head, and it gives you a sinking feeling in your stomach. For once, they’re not the words you thought they would be – the ones confirming that there was something wrong with Captor’s behavior – and that makes you mad, a bit, at yourself.

I’m not, you know, a homosexual…

Damn. Damn. Damn it all to hell. You thought you’d gotten over this. Or maybe it wasn’t so much that you’d gotten over it, but that you’d put those feelings on the backburner in hopes that he would one day change his mind.

You trudge into your house – empty and silent with Bro at work – and the thud of the door closing seems ominous to you.

Saturday dawns wet and overcast. Clouds in early September seems strange to you – you’d still be getting 80 degree weather at least in Houston. It makes your head ache.

Cringing at the grey light that streams in through the gap in your blinds, you grope for your shades on the bedside table, cursing when the pointed end jabs the palm of your hand. Bro won’t be awake yet. It’s barely 10 o’clock.

You stagger to the hall bathroom, catching your shoulder on the walls a few times as you go. You’re not used to the new layout yet, so things aren’t really where you expect them to be, and it makes it difficult to navigate while half-asleep and headache-ridden. After grappling with the medicine cabinet for a moment, you finally get it open and sift through the contents: Zoloft, floss, extra toothpaste, hair gel… nothing for headaches.

Sighing gustily, you shut the medicine cabinet door and press your forehead to the door jamb (the impact was a little rougher than you intended, which didn’t help things). Waking Bro at this hour would be suicide, especially for something as small as an Advil. You’re on your own.
There’s a supermarket two or three blocks away from your house – you walked past it when you and John were on your way home yesterday. You throw on a hoodie over your t-shirt and plaid pajama pants, grab a twenty from Bro’s wallet on the kitchen table, slip on some Vans and head out the door.

It’s very… suburban around here. Trees are green and leafy, birds are singing, modest sedans are sparkling in the driveways… you’re gonna have to start making subtle June Cleaver references to John, see if he notices. Speaking of John, you glance over at his house. It’s just as cookie-cutter as the rest of the neighborhood, and just as quiet. You feel safe here. Content.

To the point of complacency.

You don’t notice your stalker until you’re slammed to the sidewalk.

“Fuck!” You sputter and flail around, trying to dislodge the 150-pound weight that has suddenly attached itself to your back. Eventually you get a good look at the situation, as you find yourself turned around and hoisted into the air by a grey hand glowing red and blue. Psionics.

Captor.

“I know I’m hot shit, Captor, but we’re on a public street.” Your heavy breathing belies your blasé tone. “Think of the children.”

“I don’t want any of your shit, Thtrider – if I find out you’ve done anything to my moirail, I’ll rip you to fucking shredth, you hear me?”

“Ooh, Mr. Captor, ooh. How scandalous. What will your kismesis say?” He lets go of your hoodie like it burns him, and gives you a look to curdle milk. It’s almost creepy, with his pupil-less eyes, but you’re used to those after having spent so much time with Terezi. Instead of creepy, he’s dangerous, teeth gnashing together and arcs of red and blue lightening jumping across his skin. Right, not time to fuck around then.

“What’s your deal, Captor? I don’t even know who your moirail is.” A horrible thought hits you – “Shit, it’s not Egbert, is it? I wouldn’t do anything to him, dude, promise.” The red and blue arcs are dying down, though Captor is still clenching and unclenching his fists. His claws have drawn pinpricks of gold blood from the palms of his hands.

“No, it’th not John,” Captor says stiffly, watching you closely as you straighten your clothes.

“Well, I have no idea what you’re talking about, then,” you reply, allowing a touch of exasperation to creep into your voice. “Unless this is your idea of a welcome party, in which case there is a lot about troll culture that I need to study up on.”

Captor rolls his eyes – at least, that’s the impression you get, as you can’t really tell with his glasses and lack of pupils. The red and blue have completely disappeared, and the air feels like it does after a thunderstorm. That’s good – you’re not going to die today.

(You briefly wonder if you can die; you haven’t quite managed to test whether your god-tier powers have followed you into this universe-timeline-world-whatever. It doesn’t seem like the best idea to tempt fate, though.)

“Jutht thomething she thaid. About you,” he says begrudgingly after a moment. You start walking in the direction of the supermarket, and he trails after you. You arch an eyebrow, waiting for him to elaborate.

He doesn’t, so the two of you walk in silence until you get to the store. You get the feeling he’s sizing you up, or trying to psych you out, or something.

A king-sized bottle of Advil, a carton of apple juice, and a parmesan bagel later, the cashier is giving you and your troll shadow a dubious look as you shove the twenty over the counter. There’s only a little change, which you collect from the cashier before heading out. Once outside, you pop open the Advil and take two, washing them down with apple juice. Captor holds his hand out, and swallows the pills you dispense for him dry.

“So, what’d your moirail say about me?” you ask. Captor stares at you for a moment, evaluating.

“Jutht to tell you hi,” he says after a tense pause. You scoff.

“And that was enough to make you fly into a jealous rage? Christ Captor, you’re more of a loose cannon than I thought.” Captor scowls and hunches his shoulders.

“I can thee that I had nothing to worry about,” he hisses, contempt palpable in his voice. “You are the motht unpitiable thack of shit I’ve ever had the mithfortune to meet. She’d never want anything to do with you.”

You’re still not entirely sure who Captor’s moirail is, but his dismissal makes you unreasonably angry. He storms off before you can retort, crackling with psionic lights.

You bite off a huge chunk of your bagel – more than you can reasonably chew – and stomp off in the direction of your house, conveniently opposite to where Captor is headed.

Chapter Text

You are one troll short.

It wasn’t too noticeable at first – after all, there are a metric shit-ton of trolls that hang out in your “circle,” and is it speciesist to say that they kind of blend together? It probably is, but whatever. You’ve only ever really had to deal with four trolls at a time, back in the game, and one of those trolls was an insane murderclown with paint on his face to distinguish him from the others.

You guess their horns can be used to differentiate them, but in any case, it’s much easier to recognize them on an individual basis than when they are all together. Even then, you probably wouldn’t have noticed your missing troll had the missing troll not been one of your Alternian counterparts.

Each of you human players have two counterparts among the trolls – one who shares your class and one who shares your aspect (the trolls don’t always have a counterpart, as there are fewer humans who played the game) – your fellow Knight is Karkat, and he is present and accounted for. Is. He. Ever. He’s kind of hard to miss.

But where is Aradia? You consider this as you stuff a couple fries in your mouth, watching the group as they squabble over lunch for the fifth time this week. You can’t ask them. Asking would cause awkward questions, and in your experience, awkward questions always lead to awkward answers, and awkward answers lead to alienation.

Even if you risk showing them that you know something you shouldn’t, there’s no guarantee that they even know who Aradia is. What if she, like you, was separated from the others? No, better to watch and wait. Maybe she’ll show up somewhere, maybe she won’t.

“ – Well, maybe I’ll just sit over here with Dave! Dave appreciates my impeccable taste in movies, because Dave is worldly and cultured and knows good acting when he sees it, Vriska!” John is suddenly invading your space, swinging an arm over your shoulder and making a face at Vriska. She rolls her eyes at him.

“Matthew McConnaughey doesn’t even deserve to breath the same aaaaaaaair as Nic Cage, John!”

“Come on, everyone knows that Nic Cage is awesome, yes, but Matthew McConnaughey is just as good! Dave, back me up here.” He’s giving you a kicked puppy look and damn if he can’t pull it off. Even if you weren’t insane for him, those eyes would do you in.

“Cage and McConnaughey both suck equally,” you say placatingly, and John looks like he isn’t sure whether to beam at you or hit you.

“What? You did not just insult Matthew McConnaughey’s acting by comparing him with Nicholas Cage. That is not what just happened, Strider, because that doucheyacht doesn’t even come close to the cinematic genius of Matthew McConnaughey, and fuck you for implying it!” You sigh contentedly as this sparks a round of vicious bickering between Vriska and Karkat, cutting John out of the discussion and leaving him glancing between the two of them like it was a ping-pong match. He seems to have forgotten that his arm is still resting over your shoulder, and you are just opportunistic enough not to remind him.

“By the way,” you mutter to him after a moment. “I’ve got shit to do after school today, so I can’t come watch you show off.” John looks crestfallen – today he’s playing a preseason scrimmage against one of Prospit High’s lesser rival schools. It’s supposed to be his debut as starting-string quarterback, and you’d said you’d be there to cheer him on in spite of your lack of sports knowledge. Bro reminded you via text message during your first-period class that you had a therapist appointment, though, at four, and he’d be picking you up from school to take you there.

“But Daaaaaaaave!” He occasionally adopts Vriska’s habit of drawing out his vowels, and it makes the corner of your eye twitch in annoyance. Mostly because you don’t like the idea of any of her habits rubbing off on him. “You promised!”

“Can’t be helped, man. So many people want a piece of this, it’s crazy. I am selling like hotcakes. Soon the stock will run out and all that’s left will be the maple syrup.”

“I love maple syrup!” Jade pipes up from behind you. She sits daintily on your other side, offering you an apple from her packed lunch. She’s developed this habit over the past week, making sure you eat healthy things and not just junk food from the cafeteria. You’re fond of apples, so you don’t object.

“Apple a day keeps the doctor away,” you mumble, taking a huge bite. You’re pretty sure neither of your companions notice the bitterness in your voice. If only.

 

You bid John goodbye in the locker room – he’s already changed for the match, his shoulder pads making him seem even more transformed from the scrawny little nerd you once knew – and you head out to the front of the school where Dirk is waiting in the Crown Victoria.

“Sup, Bro,” you greet as you swing your backpack over into the back seat. He stares at you, deadpan, until you roll your eyes and buckle your seatbelt. He nods with slight approval and speeds off, nearly running over some kid from your math class.

“So,” you venture, glancing at him from the corner of your eye. “You… believe me now, right?” His jaw clenches. You can hear his mandible click as he moves his jaw around.

“It’s far-fetched,” he says. “But I don’t see how you could know that Egbert-kid otherwise.”

“It’s not just him. The others are all there too.” Dirk absorbs this silently, with a slow nod.

“Sounds difficult,” he says. “You gonna talk to the shrink about that?” You shift uncomfortably. Dirk knows you don’t really – talk – with the crackpots he sends you to.

“What have you told him? About my situation, I mean.”

The whole thing seems a bit moot, now. Dirk believes you – he knows you’re not crazy, not making things up about the Game –and he wants you to deal with that trauma. But honestly, who else will?

“I might have mentioned you’ve had delusions.” Damn.

He pulls the car into a bland-looking business park, and parks in the most obnoxious way he can without it being illegal. You are vaguely impressed by the adept angle at which he’s swung the car, with the nose right up next to the neighboring truck’s driver’s-side door and the tail positioned to make it exceedingly difficult for anyone to squeeze into the parking spot to the right. Of course, it makes it difficult for you to get out of the car as well. You scramble over the center console and follow Dirk out of the driver’s door.

Following Dirk, you stop short in the threshhold of the office waiting room, staring dumbstruck at the troll sitting at the front desk. She looks annoyed and exceedingly unhappy to be there, filing her claws into sharp points.

She also looks like the spitting image of Aradia. Her hair is secured with chopsticks into a bun, but the ram-like horns twisting around her ears are unmistakeable.

Dirk is giving you an odd look, so you swallow the sudden dryness in your mouth and go to sit in one of the uncomfortable chairs scattered around the waiting room as he checks you in. You continue your examination of the troll out of the corner of your eye.

The more you watch her, the more you are convinced that she’s not Aradia. She’s a bit too old, for one thing – you can see it in the rich maroon of her eyes. Your group of trolls are just barely old enough to start showing eye color – the saturation this troll exhibits does not occur until full adulthood. She’s at least nine sweeps. For another thing, the Aradia you knew was vibrant and energetic. This troll was – well, if troll DMV was a thing, she would be their employee of the month.

She looks up as Dirk approaches, and you think you see a flash of recognition in her eyes. She quashes it quickly, if recognition it was, and hands him a clipboard with paperwork to fill out as you wait for your appointment time. She finally sees you as she watches Dirk walk in you direction, and her eyes widen before she clamps down on the reaction, returning to her nail filing and scowling more than ever.

Something is definitely going down in Secretary Town. When Striders are around, they rarely sport a frown, and this chick has two choice specimens lounging in view. Maybe she just don’t know what to do – you’re both so chill through-and-through.

You must be feeling at least a bit more like your old self, if your train of thought is spinning sick rhymes again.

Dirk is just finishing up the insurance paperwork when the door to the therpist’s office opens and a young woman emerges, dabbing at red-rimmed eyes with a Kleenex. A concise tenor voice follows her out, and the troll secretary grimaces.

“ – I’ll see you two weeks from now, yes. Schedule an appointment with Damara, if you please.” It sends chills down your spine, and you cannot for the life of you figure out why.

The troll – Damara – hands the young woman an appointment reminder card, and then catches your eye. “The doctor will see you now, Mr. Strider.” Dirk passes the clipboard to you so you can hand it to Damara as you walk to the door.

The office is done up in a dark forest green, with expensive-looking mahogany furniture and a grandfather clock sitting at the corner. The therapist – well, more than a therapist you guess, as Damara referred to him as a doctor – is a stark contrast. He’s paler than you, even, with hair so fair it’s almost white and eyes so pale grey you can barely see the difference between the irises and the whites.

He smiles at you a gestures to the comfy-looking sofa adjacent to his desk. You don’t like his smile, but you take a seat anyway, throwing your arms over the back of the couch and stretching out your legs.

“Good afternoon, Dave. May I offer you some licorice?” He slides over a bowl of black licorice, shaped like scottie dogs.

“I don’t take candy from strangers,” you say, folding your hands behind your head and glaring at him from behind your sunglasses.

“Stranger, am I?” He has the gall to look amused, raising his barely-there eyebrows and smiling primly. “Well, we can fix that. I have not yet introduced myself, have I? My apologies – normally I am an excellent host.”

His words send warning bells ringing through your mind. You’ve heard them before, and not in a good context. The memory is fuzzy. Second-hand, maybe. Someone told you a story like this once, a cautionary tale.

“My name is Doctor Schuttmann. I have been practicing in Seattle for three years, and elsewhere for a decade before that. I specialize in treating schizophrenia and dissociative disorders, which is why your brother – Dirk, correct? – appealed to me to take your case. But let’s set that aside for now. It does seem a bit presumptious to talk about such personal things when we have just met, does it not?” He smiles disarmingly and walks over to the corner of the room, where a tea cart stands ready. “Would you like some earl grey, Dave?”

You can’t help but detect a hint of a patronizing tone in his voice, and bristle at it. “No thanks, Doctor Shotman.” The doctor pauses in the process of readying a cup for himself, the spoon of sugar in his right hand hovering over the cup for a moment. He seems to regain control of himself and finishes preparing his drink, and then he turns back to you with a smile.

“You know, I had never considered my name to be particularly difficult to recall. Then again, it is my own name, and I may be a bit biased in that regard. If you find it easier, perhaps you could use my nickname? I’m quite fond of it, as it was given to me by one of my favorite patients, a young troll girl who – well. That’s neither here nor there, is it? It’s a rather peculiar nickname, I think. She called me Doc Scratch.”

The blood in your veins turns to ice, and you try not to let your horror show. You don’t think you’re very successful. The doctor smiles coldly at you around a sip of earl grey. He knows. You’re not sure why you think this. It might be an irrational fear, it might be a valid one. From what Rose told you – past-Rose – Doc Scratch was dangerous, and you have no reason to believe that has changed just because the universe is fucked up.

Chapter Text

You clench your fist tight enough that your nails dig into your palm. It distracts you from your panic momentarily. Jumping to conclusions will not avail you.

“Normally, in situations like these, it is common practice not to deny the validity of a patient’s hallucinations or delusions. In your case, however – having been through so many forms of therapy already – I believe that would be more insulting to your intelligence than helpful.” Scratch seats himself in the chair behind his desk.

You figure playing dumb is probably the best move here. After all, you don’t know what Scratch would do to you if you reveal that you remember –

Something suddenly falls into place. He mentioned a troll girl who had given him his nickname – you would bet anything that girl knew who and what he was, which means she would have had to know about Sburb.

You’re not alone. It must be Aradia – it must, because all of the other troll girls are accounted for and oblivious, but… where is she now?

“So, what’s the plan, then?” you ask, hopefully injecting enough teenagerly dismissiveness to prevent Scratch from noticing your nerves. You intend to get Bro to switch your therapist again, but it could give you a lead on Aradia.

He leans back in his chair, eyes piercing as he looks you over. “An interesting question. Is there a reason you are so eager to proceed?”

“I just want to know what to expect,” you say after a beat of silence. “I don’t like surprises.” Scratch sighs.

“I need to get a sense of your problem before I determine the best course of treatment. Primarily, I’m concerned with whether you delusions cause you to be a danger to yourself. After we resolve that question, we’ll address your emotional responses and discuss how to manage living a normal life in spite of your troubles. Is that an acceptable forewarning?” You shift uncomfortably.

“A danger to myself? What happens if you decide I am a danger to myself?”

“In your case, that’s very unlikely. You seem to be quite lucid. However, if that does happen, the typical course of action is short-term hospitalization for intensive treatment, and perhaps anti-psychotics if you exhibit aggression or anxiety related to your illness.” You can’t help but feel a bit creeped out by the expression on Scratch’s face – veiled anticipation. Predatory. “But first, shall we get a feel for what we are working with, here? Tell me about them.”

When he says “them,” you see it for what it is – a euphemism for all of the negatively-connotated words that refer to your “false” memories. Bro really backed you into a corner when he set up this appointment.

You make up some bullshit about fantasies of your parents still being alive, false memories of going on picnics with them even though they are long-dead (according to official records, anyway, all game mechanics aside). Scratch might or might not buy it – you can’t read him – but it wins you time. The grandfather clock in the corner catches your eye, and you try not to let the relief show on your face.

“Looks like time’s up, Dr. Schwartzman. Gotta go, lots of homework to get started on.” You stand smoothly and reach for the doorknob, but pause momentarily as Scratch addresses you.

“I must say, I’m a bit disappointed, Dave. Perhaps next time you will see fit to tell me a more truthful story, so that I might actually help you. You may also deign to call me by my proper name, but I won’t hold out for a miracle.” Your hand tightens on the doorknob, knuckles white, and you open the door if only to get out of the same room as the doctor. You have never tended to claustrophobia, but the office had seemed a tad snug.

You drag Dirk outside and to the car before he has the chance to set another appointment.

“Whoa, kid, slow down,” Dirk says, unlocking the car. You barely register the car’s awkward angle as you scramble into the passenger seat. Dirk follows suit on the driver’s side. You think you catch him shooting you a concerned glance, but it’s hard to tell with the shades.

“I’m not going back to that guy,” you mumble, crossing your arms over your chest as Dirk turns the ignition. “Anyone but him, any thing but him, as long as he has nothing to do with it.”

“What did he say to you?” Dirk hisses. He now looks just about ready to go back into the building and deck someone, to your surprise.

“Nothing that scarred me for life or anything, shit, Bro. Take it down a notch.” Dirk gives you an inscrutable look, and then pulls out of the parking space and onto the main road.

“What’s the deal, then?”

“It was a game, Bro. You remember I told you that? And Doc over there was one of the bad guys.” Dirk drives silently, face angled forward, but you can see his eyes behind his shades from this perspective, and they keep darting to look at you like you’re going to spontaneously combust any second now.

“He knows,” you say, almost to yourself. “He didn’t say anything outright, but he definitely remembers the damned thing, and I wouldn’t put it past him to get me out of the way, because if he’s here…” You trail off as the thought hits you, mouth suddenly going dry.

Swallowing, you power through to continue that thought: “If he’s here, the other enemies might be, too, which means we are in a metric shit-ton of trouble.”

“Does he know that you know?”

“Maybe. I dunno. Probably.” You run a hand through your hair – ostensibly a suave gesture meant to display your coolness to all who witness it, but actually because you can barely resist the urge to start pulling it all out in frustration. “I made up some bullshit sob story about mom and dad, but I don’t think he bought it.”

“You should keep with him.”

You can’t stop yourself from gaping at him. “What? Did you seriously not hear a word I just said?” Panic is setting in. Was Dirk just pretending to believe you to keep you manageable? Did he think that you were overstating the danger? He had seemed to have come around, now that you had proof that your imaginary friends were not-so-imaginary, but maybe you misread him.

Maybe you really are crazy.

“Strategy 101, little man. Let him underestimate you. Keep playing dumb. Make him see what he wants to see.” You blink, drawn out of that minor episode of self-doubt and self-pity. Dirk looks away from the road to give you a measured stare. “And while he’s busy patting himself on the back for keeping you under his thumb, figure out his plans. You know what they say – keep your friends close and your enemies closer.”

It is with an uncomfortable sinking feeling in your gut that you realize he’s right. Switching therapists would raise Scratch’s suspicions, and those suspicions are high enough already. They could not be higher if they were taking hits from a unicorn-shaped bong on the top of Mt. Everest.

You nod glumly. Dirk reaches over and ruffles your hair, ignoring your attempts to wave him off.

“And hey,” he says after a moment. “Don’t worry too much. I’d die before I let him touch a hair on your head. You got that, kid?”

He meant well, but it was like someone had dunked you into a kiddie pool filled with ice. You hope the ‘you already did’ that a treacherous part of your mind whispers doesn’t show up on your face.

Sunday afternoon sees you hanging out next door at John’s. He regales you with a tale of how he heroically led the Prospit High Salamanders to victory on Friday. You suspect his daring deeds are only half-true at best, but he’s taking such pleasure in it that you can’t bring yourself to burst his ego.

“We totally kicked butt, man! 38 to 12, and I think they missed the extra point on their first touchdown because Gamzee was staring down the kicker.” You make a face, and John laughs. “Yeah, I guess he can be intimidating. Still, outside of football season, there’s no one nicer. Not even Tavros! So, after they missed the extra point on the first one, they tried to go for the conversion on the second, and obviously we shut that down pretty fast.”

“Did you get a home run?” you deadpan, and John rolls his eyes with a grin.

“That’s baseball, Dave.”

“Ah. What about a slam dunk?” With an exaggerated sigh, John lifts his hands in surrender.

“All right, all right, I’ll stop talking football!” He turns around to the saucepan on the stove, where he’s got a from-scratch mac and cheese sauce cooking. Apparently, culinary skills run in the family – though John wouldn’t be caught dead making baked goods. “What were you doing on Friday after school, anyway?”

“Whoa, I got whiplash there that change of subject was so fast. Let’s go back to talking about sports. What’s this conversation thing you were talking about?” Your voice is a little bit louder than normal. John’s eyebrows knot as he frowns at you. A bit suspicious, that reaction.

“It’s conversion,” John corrects you after a beat of silence, “and jeez, Dave, you don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to.” He sounds a bit mulish for the second part of that sentence, as if he wishes he could force you to talk about it. You shift uncomfortably. John sighs and stirs the sauce a bit before lowering the temperature of the stovetop.

Just as the silence gets too uncomfortable to bear, John brightens and starts chatting again. “You are going to make it to the homecoming game, aren’t you? Since I did so well on Friday, Coach is starting me as quarterback – that’s the guy who throws the ball, Dave, honestly, you should know that at least!” You shrug your shoulders, feeling slightly sheepish. Sports aren’t your thing, that’s a straight-up fact that you don’t bother hiding, but it’s definitely getting more difficult to maintain the illusion that sports terminology does confuse the everloving shit out of you. “Anyway, the Homecoming dance is straight afterwards. You’re going, right? You don’t have some mysterious secret mission to do last-minute again?”

“It was a doctor appointment, if you must know,” you grumble, swatting at him lightly. “I’ll make it to the game, I guess. Dunno about the dance. Don’t have anyone to go with.” You try not to sound too much like you want him to ask you to the dance.

“You should ask Terezi!” John says cheerfully, pouring the cheese sauce into a casserole dish filled with undressed elbow macaroni. “You guys seem to get along pretty well.”

While it’s true that you have been rekindling your relationship with Terezi over the past two weeks, that was not the reaction you’d been hoping for.

“Who are you going with?” you deflect. John looks thoughtful.

“Vriska, I guess. Dances are usually a moirail or matesprit event, and since neither Vriska or I have – uh, matesprits, I guess? Though I don’t think we’d call that relationship matespritship in my case, heh. Since neither Vriska or I have matesprits, we usually go together.”

“How long have you been moirails?”

John pauses, frowning at his hands. “Huh. Three years, I guess? I was gonna say since we met, because it kinda seems that way, but Vriska and I have been in the same school since kindergarten, so I guess that’s not right.” He stares off into space for a moment, eyes unfocused, but then shakes it off and smiles at you.

Weird.

“Anyway, this has to bake for twenty minutes. Wanna go watch an episode of an anime or something?” You shrug noncommittally and slide down off the counter to follow him into the living room.

“So you and Serket usually go together – not always?”

“Hah! Well, there was that one time in freshman year when she bullied Tavros into being her date. Poor guy was traumatized. Vriska doesn’t do so well in the flushed quadrant.” John snickers to himself as he flips to the on-demand anime channel, and puts on some ridiculous harem anime that’s been poorly dubbed. Dirk would be horrified. Or delighted. You’re not quite sure which.

“And then there was the time Karkat asked me to Spring Fling,” John continues as he flops down onto the sofa. “I thought it was a prank at first. Had to let him down gently.”

Wait. What?

Vantas asked you?”

“Yeah. Apparently he had a huge flushcrush on me. Gamzee didn’t speak to me for weeks after I rejected him, ‘cause he wanted to go with Tavros but didn’t want to leave Karkat to go stag – troll romance is too complicated.” John sighs gustily and sinks down in his seat. You catch a conflicted expression on his face before he chuckles at something on TV.

“That’s awkward, man,” you say, slightly testing.

“Well, what else was I supposed to do?”

“Coulda said yes. Made it like a platonic thing.” John covers his grimace with an insipid smile, and you decide to change tack. “So, who else is planning to go together this year?”

“Uh, lessee… Nepeta and Equius, Rose and Kanaya, obviously… I think Gamzee and Tavros are actually going together this year, which leaves Karkat the odd man out. Maybe with Jade, but who knows, honestly. They’re not exactly romantic with each other. Sollux and Feferi, Eridan’s going stag as usual…” John’s eyes are a bit out of focus as he lists off the pairs, clearly a bit bored of the topic. You can’t leave well enough alone, though, so you interrupt him.

“What about Captor’s moirail?” John’s back stiffens up and he turns to stare at you with wide eyes, like some kind of startled cat. It occurs to you that that may have been a bad question. You backpedal immediately. “I mean, he mentioned her the other day, but I didn’t get a name. Told me to stay away from her. But I can’t do that if I don’t know who she is, see?” You’re almost babbling, and you could kick yourself for it.

It seems to calm John down slightly, though. At least he’s not got his hackles up any more. Still eyeing you suspiciously, unfortunately.

“I don’t think staying away from her will be a problem,” he says after a moment. “She’s not exactly around anymore. They locked her up in a mental hospital.” Things click. Of course. Captor’s behavior, Aradia’s absence, Doc Scratch hanging around…

“What for?” You almost don’t want to know. John shifts uncomfortably, like he’s being pressured into divulging state secrets.

“She was delusional. Kept talking about some game and how the world ended. That would have been fine, but the doctors determined she was a suicide risk,” his voice is hushed, like he’s talking about someone who died. You guess that’s almost true – Aradia was his friend, before she got carted off to the hospital. “Not that she wanted to die, or anything, she just thought she was immortal, because in this game she thought up she was – ”

“ – God tier.” You didn’t mean to say that out loud.

John drops the remote.

Chapter Text

It’s a testament to your own preoccupation with that screw up that you don’t see John’s right hook until it’s too late. There’s a terrible cracking sound as his fist meets the middle of your face.  It’s your shades that break, not your nose – small favors. They’re halved at the bridge, the right side hanging awkwardly from your ear, and the left with enough support remaining that it stays put.

John is a sight – wild-eyed but controlling his breathing, right hand clenched with scraped knuckles from where he hit you. You think he’s attractive all the time, but when he’s angry, he’s magnificent – like some sort of tornado or tempest. Breathtaking and dangerous.

Now is probably not the best time to be mooning over him, though.

“John – ” Your voice falters, and the words catch in your throat. That may be a good thing – you’re not sure what those words would have been. John fills the silence for you, and when he does his voice shakes with emotion – fury? Fear? It’s hard to tell.

“I don’t know who you are – ” Oh, god. “ – or who you work for, or how you know about Aradia’s illness, or what you want. But I won’t be a part of your little game. I’m not going to let you use me. And if you try to hurt any of my friends, I will end you, Strider.” At this point, he has the collar of your t-shirt wrapped in his fist, with his torn-up right hand pulled back, threatening.

“I wouldn’t – I’d never,” you stutter, trying to find a way to fix this, “John. John, please, you have to believe me! I die before I – ” John loosens his grip and gives you a little shove. Not hard enough to hurt, but not gentle enough to imply forgiveness. You stumble backwards.

John’s always had an expressive face. He’s trying right now to keep his expression blank and cold, but you can see hints of emotion. It takes you a second to realize that the emotion you’re seeing is betrayal. You open your mouth to plead again, raising a hand plaintively, but he doesn’t let you say a word.

“I think it’s time for you to leave.” Your hand drops to your side. He’s serious. You’ve never seen him this serious before. You stare at him, trying to will him to give in, to take it back – to take you back.

He doesn’t. The panicked energy and adrenaline that consumed you a moment ago drains out of you. Swallowing around the lump in your throat, you nod morosely. Then you leave.

You slam your front door behind you and ignore Dirk as he calls after you from the kitchen, heading straight for your bedroom. You tilt your desk chair under the door handle, enough to keep the handle from turning. It’s the closest analog for a lock that you have.

Ripping the remnants of your shades from your face, you fall onto your mattress and stare at the ceiling for a moment. Dirk’s knocking at the door, but you ignore it. He jiggles the handle, then slams a fist into the wood when it doesn’t work.

“Fuck, Dave, what the hell happened?” You sigh and cover your face with your hands, wincing as your fingers touch the area around your eye.

“Dave, open the fucking door.”

Damn it. You heave yourself off of the bed and stalk over to your sound system, turning it on to drown out Dirk’s demands for an explanation. You sit down on your bed again and stare at your turntables, head in hand.

You really screwed up. You should have done something – said something. You should have explained. Maybe all of it? Maybe you should have told him about Sburb, and how everyone but you seems to have had their memories wiped and replaced. Maybe you should have told him how you were best friends, how you know things about him that only a best friend would know.

Yeah, right. And maybe he would have freaked out even more. Accused you of stalking him.

You can’t deal with this right now. As much as it hurt to know that he didn’t know you existed over the past three years, it hurts even more to know that he hates you – and you’ve never been good at dealing with your emotions. Why wallow in emotional turmoil when you can deal with the source of your problems directly? Cut down a few imps, train yourself up for the final battle… you were always much better at tackling things head-on. And proactivity has the benefit of taking your mind off the problems and focusing on the solutions.

It won’t help you here.

Trying to block out the sound of Dirk pounding on the door, as well as your own self-recriminations, you lean back on your hands. As they move behind you, your hands come into contact with something solid. You blink and twist around, eyes landing on the music box you had discovered while unpacking. How it got on your bed, you have no idea.

To distract yourself, you briefly wonder if the tune will be any good for sampling, and give the crank a twist or two. It starts playing, slow and sweet. The glockenspiel chimes sound like they’d translate well to the piano or flute.

The tune trails off mid-bar and suddenly everything is silent.

Your chair is back in its spot, neatly tucked under the desk. Dirk is nowhere to be heard – certainly not banging the door down. Your alarm clock reads half-past one, but it was definitely at least three when you left John’s.

The music box is warm – not from contact with your skin, either, but like it’s generating its own heat. You turn it over in your hands, examining it for any identifying markings. It almost has to be a game artifact – not your turntables by any stretch of the imagination, but useful, in a pinch. Sure enough, carved into the bottom of the box with razor-thin lines is a V-shape with curled ends: Aradia’s caste symbol.

You wonder if she knows you have it. Never mind that – you wonder if she even knows it still exists. You could make use of it now: turn back a few more hours and warn past-Dave about the conversation with John.

Something twinges at the back of your head and for a moment, everything seems wrong. Nausea prickles at your stomach and you can feel stomach acid lapping at the base of your throat. That’s your Hero of Time instincts talking – not a good idea, then, fucking with causality. Okay, okay, you’re not going to warn yourself.

The feeling of wrongness abates. You have to do something, though. Future-Dave wasn’t here when you stormed home and locked yourself in you room, so it stands to reason that you have somewhere else to be.

Biting down on the inside of your cheek, you look down at the music box in your hand. Time to track Aradia down. She might be able to help you fix this mess.

You open the door to your room and look down the hall, checking whether you’re likely to be disturbed. Coast clear, you boot up the junky, three-year-old laptop on your desk. Her chumhandle is offline, which you expected, given what John had said about her being institutionalized. A quick search of her name yields nothing, so you instead type in “troll mental hospital.” After skimming the first few results, you decide that this is getting you nowhere. You let your face fall into your palm and flinch, having forgotten the injury around your eye.

Think, Dave. Where is she? Close enough that Captor can visit her weekly, occasionally with Peixes tagging along. That narrows it down to at least within the metropolitan area. It’s not necessarily a segregated hospital, but in your experience health professionals tend to keep trolls separate from humans – some horseshit about trolls being volatile, whatever.

It would be somewhere Scratch had access to. Your hands spring into a motion, putting his fake-ass name in as a search query. It brings up a website for ratings and reviews of medical practitioners, complete with a bio page.

“Doctor Schuttmann has been a practicing psychiatrist for fifteen years, blah blah… interest in delusional disorders in humans and trolls, no shit…”  You scroll down the website and find a list of hospital affiliations. There is only one that caters to trolls. “Gotcha.”

Copying down the directions to the hospital, you wrack your brain for a way to get there. Past-you is still at John’s, a couple of hours away from making a fool of yourself and ruining the only relationship you’ve really cared about in the past three years. Dirk has to stay here to catch past-you coming home.

It’ll have to be public transportation, then. Hospital visiting hours last until five on weekends, so you’ll have to be quick about getting there.

Luckily, there is a bus that you can take from the city center that goes directly to the hospital. It still takes you an hour to get there, though, and the bland sterility of the lobby gives you the shivers. You walk up hesitantly to the receptionist, who gives you a saccharine smile.

“I’m here to visit my friend.” The woman nods and hands you a sign-in sheet, which you fill out to the best of your ability and return. She frowns at it, and then at you, and you shift uncomfortably under her gaze. Did you get the wrong hospital after all? Is Aradia even here?

“I’m afraid our psychiatric ward has visitation restrictions. Aside from quadrantmates, only pre-approved visitors are allowed in.” Fuck. Shit. Now what do you do?

To her credit, she looks a bit regretful. Out of the corner of your eye, you see a future-Dave hovering just out of the receptionist’s sight, behind a column. He makes a shooing motion at you, palm up – the universal gesture for “get a move on”. Or at least, you think it’s universal. Maybe some culture, somewhere thinks it’s an obscene hand sign, and future-you has actually just told you to put something very large in someplace very unpleasant.

Anyway, right, time to be a distraction. You raise your hand to the back of your head and thread your fingers through your hair, letting your shoulders slump and trying to look as dejected as possible.

“Oh – I see,” you say. “I just thought… well, I just moved back to the area, haven’t seen her for years. I was really surprised when I heard she was here – ” You let your voice crack a little, and dab at the crocodile tears in your eyes. “Sorry, it’s just – it’s really difficult to come to terms with – ” You’re really overdoing it on the catches in your breath, but the receptionist eats it up. She offers you a tissue and comes around the front of the desk, putting a maternal arm around your shoulders.

“Oh! There, there, honey. It’s not as bad as all that! I’m sure I can find the paperwork somewhere to get you approved so that you can visit her, so don’t you cry…” You sniffle theatrically as the woman coos reassuringly at you. Over her shoulder you can see the future-Dave slink through the swinging doors to the main part of the hospital. Mission accomplished.

It’s a bit of a hassle to extricate yourself from the receptionist’s embrace, but once you escape the hospital lobby, you are free to pull the music box out of your school bag and turn the crank slightly, just enough to send you back fifteen minutes or so.

With past-Dave distracting the receptionist, it’s a simple matter to sneak past. Beyond the doors it’s quiet – this isn’t an emergency ward, after all, more along the lines of a long-term care facility. There’s an elevator at the end of the hall, with a convenient key to tell you which wards are on which floors. You note the psychiatric ward’s location on the fourth floor and punch the button for it once you get inside.

Luck is on your side – the sole orderly visible on this floor is absorbed in a magazine and wearing headphones. This delays his reflex to look up at the elevator just long enough for you to duck out of sight behind an uncomfortable-looking armchair. He frowns at the empty elevator and shrugs it off before returning to his music and gossip columns. You catch sight of a hallway to the right of the orderly’s desk. There are doors every eight feet or so, with numbered plaques – these must be the patient rooms, and Aradia must be in one of them.

Shooting a measuring glance at the orderly, you decide that you can probably flashstep past him easily enough – once you’re actually in the hallway, you’ll be out of view. You follow through with this plan quickly and silently, and soon enough you’re examining the first door in the hallway. The plaques, fortuitously, indicate both the room number and the patient’s last name. At least you won’t be bursting in on some stranger. “Megido” is written neatly on the plaque of the thirteenth room.

You try the door – unlocked. Huh. That was… easier than expected. You can’t help but hold your breath as you push the door open. It glides smoothly, and you bless the hospital maintenance staff for apparently applying WD-40 to the hinges religiously.

You take a step inside, and your eyes come to rest on a surprised Aradia Megido, who has been sitting in a lotus position on her bed. You can see the moment your sudden appearance registers in her brain – her eyes light up and the corners of her mouth pull into and excited grin. She recognizes you.

It’s one of the most beautiful things you’ve ever seen.

Dave!” she whispers, and you can’t help but smile back.

“Aradia,” you say, with deliberate casualness. “Nice place you got here.” As you draw further into the room, her expression changes to one of concern, then alarm.

“Dave, don’t let the door – ”

Click.

“ – close.”