Two boys stand beside a window, looking out. In another setting, they might perhaps form a dramatic silhouette, but for now darkness lies on both sides of the glass, and in the dim gray light which filters through the door behind them it is only the faintest sheen on white-blonde hair which distinguishes the two.
The boys do not care about the darkness. They are watching out the window, staring silently at the void beyond: an infinite expanse of lightlessness broken only by the drifting pearlescent orbs of memory scattered like beads from a broken necklace. The dim and distant glow casts faint patterns on their faces in shifting rainbow hues.
For a moment, they watch in silence. Then the dark-haired boy – the shorter of the two by a sword’s width – drops his head gently against his companion’s shoulder, and like a starter’s gun, a torrent of words is released.
"i reckon the horrorterrors play snooker with them. bat a god tier ghost off three doomed daves and into the corner universe and you get the next three grimdarks plus a free round of ectoplasm."
"I ONLY UNDERSTOOD HALF OF THAT, BUT I’M GOING TO PRESUME THAT IT WAS ALL WILDLY INAPPROPRIATE TO THE MOOD."
"YES, STRIDER, THERE IS A MOOD, AND YOU ARE COMPLETELY AND UTTERLY DESTROYING IT WITH YOUR INABILITY TO KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT FOR MORE THAN TEN CONSECUTIVE SECONDS."
"... is -"
"NICE TRY, THAT WAS BARELY THREE."
"no way that had to be more than ten i mean you were yapping away for at least five."
"YOU DON’T GET TO COUNT THE TIME WHEN OTHER PEOPLE ARE TALKING, THAT’S NON-NEGOTIABLE -"
"i can talk over you if i want to now -"
"OH NO YOU -"
"shh babe only strider now. i was just going to ask if in your batshit playing card romance system staring at the billiard ball afterlives of everyone youve ever known really counts as a mood."
"... DON’T CALL ME BABE. I’VE TOLD YOU BEFORE, THOSE FREAKY HAIRLESS WIGGLER MONKEYS ARE NOTHING TO DO WITH ME."
"so basically what youre saying is no it doesnt."
"LOOK, I DON’T KNOW IF YOU NOTICED, BUT WE’RE IN AN EXTREME SET OF CIRCUMSTANCES HERE. A LITTLE IMPROVISATION IS ALWAYS GOING TO BE NECESSARY."
"actually no they arent billiard balls theyre more like baubles all sparkling on the furthest ring christmas tree with tentacular tinsel and a smiling fairy time troll on the top and were the fidgety kid who doesnt get to unwrap his new universe until after dinner with the grandparents."
"come on that was fucking poetry its as romantic as shit."
"BELIEVE ME STRIDER, THAT IS LITERALLY TRUE. WHAT IN GL’BGOLYB’S ETERNAL DEEPS IS A CHRISTMAS TREE?"
"christmas is this earth holiday where you cover everything with glitter and sparkles and pray to the god of consumerism and then your parents tell you that some old fat guy broke into your house and left you enough sweets to give an elephant diabetes because its cold out and also some dead guy from two thousand years ago wasnt born that day."
"YOUR SPECIES HAS THE WORST IDEA OF HOLIDAYS I’VE EVER FUCKING HEARD."
"your idea of a holiday is butchering freshly slaughtered carrion."
"TWELFTH PERIGEES EVE IS AN ANCIENT ALTERNIAN TRADITION THAT LASTED LONGER THAN YOU MONKEYS WERE WALKING UPRIGHT."
"only because your crazy animal dads killed everyone with an ounce of sense for some family friendly fun."
"NO HE DIDN’T. THAT WAS PRETTY MUCH THE EMPRESS’S JOB."
"... fair enough i dont even care everyone with two digits of mental age knows christmas was bull i grew out of that crap while i was still a slime streak in the veil."
For the first time, one of the boys moves; the taller of the two steps sharply away from the other, too fast for eyes to follow. His support withdrawn, his companion is thrown off balance, and staggers backwards.
"STRIDER YOU NOOKWHIFFING -"
"dont even fucking think that vantas."
"- OF ALL THE IDIOTIC ASSHATTERY -"
"bro was all over that hot mess of ironies im talking decorations up november through february homebaked pecan pie turkey the size of a three year old and santas everywhere until youre drowning in the little fuckers so stop fucking assuming and find some other way to get your pity rocks off."
"I DIDN’T ACTUALLY SAY ANYTHING, STRIDER. YOU’RE THE ONE MAKING ASSUMPTIONS ABOUT WHAT I MEANT -"
"dont even deny it i know what oh means."
"I DIDN’T REALISE I WAS HAVING THIS CONVERSATION WITH A MIND READER, LALONDE."
"okay no lalonde is a world class ninja thought thief were talking carmen sandiego stealing into the high security vaults and breezing out with the secrets through some mission impossible laser cloud and then youre keeping everything you own in a piggy bank next to an open window acting surprised that every person on the street is helping themselves and besides -"
A sword appears in the blonde figure’s hand, smooth and deadly, and the dark-haired boy recoils.
"- THE ACTUAL FUCK -?"
"dude thats my little sister youre insulting there im now legally required to kick your ass into next week."
"... YOU’RE DUELLING ME. FOR LALONDE’S HONOUR. EVEN THOUGH IF SHE KNEW SHE WOULDN’T GIVE A OH FOR SKAIA’S SAKE THIS IS ONE OF YOUR RIDICULOUS ‘IRONIC’ ATTEMPTS TO SCREW WITH ME ISN’T IT?"
"this is totally legit you blaspheme the good name of strider and imply my psychic ectosis is less than one hundred percent for reals i am culturally obliged to gather a selection of the finest available pain and serve it up to you on a silver platter like the most dapper manservant on butler -"
The shorter boy holds two sickles. Three blades glint in the low light.
"I DIDN’T SAY A WORD AGAINST YOUR SACRED BRO, HOWEVER TEMPTED I MIGHT HAVE BEEN TO POINT OUT THAT YOUR DEFAULT RESPONSE TO ANYONE MENTIONING DOUCHEBAG SENIOR IS STILL TO SHOVE YOUR SHITTY KATANA IN THEIR FACE. HOW DO YOU EXPECT TO STRIFE ME WHEN IT’S BLACK AS ALTERNIA’S NOOK IN HERE AND YOU DON’T DARE TAKE OFF THE GLASSES HE TAUGHT YOU TO WEAR IN CASE YOU START FORGETTING HIM?"
"says the guy who stole a pair for the morning he finally finds that first streak of red in his eyes i could beat your plush rump blindfold vantas and you know it."
"DO YOU THINK HE’S GOING TO RECOGNISE YOU WHEN WE REACH THE NEW UNIVERSE? THAT KID’S NEVER MET YOU IN HIS LIFE, NOT EVEN ALTERNATE YOU. HE DOESN’T KNOW YOU, AND YOUR ‘BRO’ IS DEAD."
They come together in a clash of steel. Their eyes meet for a moment before separating.
"at least theres one cool strider waiting for me when we get there every troll who ever played the game is out there shooting hoops with oglogoth looks like they could have used an actual leader not a tiny hornless dickhead with lungs the size of sburbs body count."
Another blow is struck, but this time they do not retreat.
"BECAUSE YOU’RE REALLY THE LEADERSHIP EXPERT HERE? WHAT EXACTLY WAS IT YOU DID IN THE SESSION AGAIN – SCREWED UP TIMELINES? COLLECTED FROGS? FOLLOWED LALONDE TO THE GREEN SUN LIKE A LITTLE LOST WOOFBEAST? PERHAPS IF YOU HAD DROPPED THE ROBOT ACT AND ACTUALLY PULLED YOUR OWN WEIGHT, YOUR TEAM MIGHT HAVE HAD A SHOT AT WINNING."
"yeah would have been much more useful if id had a billion screaming matches with myself acting like i was so much better than everyone and then gone to sulk with the first stab addict i met with blood the same colour as mine ooh mr noir ooh."
The blows are coming thick and fast now, but the boys keep spitting out words like machine gun fire, their voices echoing over the sound of their strikes.
"MY JACK NEVER KILLED ANYONE I KNOW. TEREZI MURDERED EGBERT AND DOOMED A TIMELINE AND AN HOUR LATER YOU’RE ALL OVER HER – OH PLEASE MISS SHITTY CLIPART, LET ME FLIRT WITH YOU UNTIL YOU TELL ME STEP BY STEP HOW TO REACH GOD TIER, IT WON’T MATTER BECAUSE I’M TOO MUCH OF A SCARED WIGGLER TO EVER GO THROUGH WITH IT."
"funny that im the one with the badass cape and youre still in civvies i guess this is my just rewards for not being a jealous moron who cant take no for an answer never tried to pull any of my crushes into ndrangles when they didnt want me in any quadrant at all."
"FORGIVE ME FOR TRYING TO ESTABLISH AN ACTUALLY HEALTHY RELATIONSHIP DYNAMIC INSTEAD OF FLIRTING WITH EVERY SENTIENT BEING IN THE VICINITY AND RUNNING AWAY AS SOON AS THEY ATTEMPT TO INITIATE SOMETHING RESEMBLING COMMITMENT."
The light from the corridor flickers out of sight, dipping the pair momentarily into total darkness. If either notices, they do not react, and they certainly do not look around to see the flash of tangerine skirts passing by the door.
"dont be jellin just cause my cape leaves me scraping off the bitches you can totally have some when im done with them."
"STRIDER, THE CAPE LOOKS RIDICULOUS, AND YOUR HEAD MOST CLOSELY RESEMBLES A SLAUGHTERED CLUCKBEAST; THE ONLY THING YOU SHOULD BE SCRAPING OFF YOURSELF IS HAIR GEL."
As Rose enters the lab, she turns towards where Terezi blankly watches a wall.
"Miss Pyrope, I believe the time has come."
Terezi nods her acknowledgement, stands, and exits the room, wearing an expression suited to one climbing her own gallows.
As Rose seats herself and opens a book in her lap, Kanaya puts down her embroidery.
"Do You Believe Her Plan Will Succeed?"
"I believe that all our previous attempts have failed, and thus her solution is the next logical option."
"You Have Not Answered My Question."
Rose looks up at her, but does not respond.
"Why Do They Do This To Themselves?"
"Do what, precisely?"
Kanaya sighs, but she is used to Rose’s strange questioning.
"They Tear Each Other Down. Repeatedly."
"And yet, they also keep building each other up. I wonder, in the end, which will prevail?"
Rose’s voice is light, but it makes Kanaya frown.
"You Know Something I Dont."
Rose opens her mouth to respond, but Kanaya interrupts her.
"By Which I Mean You Believe You Possess Relevant Information Pertaining To This Subject To Which I Do Not Have Access."
The corner of Rose’s mouth flicks upwards.
"I am afraid I must confess; I am guilty as charged."
"Please Relate This Information To Me."
Rose shakes her head, and lifts her book to read.
"We should wait. Terezi may yet succeed."
Kanaya returns to her embroidery with a furrowed brow.
"AND YOU -"
The crack of wood on plastic heralds a sudden rush of light. The room is revealed – a sparse expanse of metal floor and tangled clothes stretch out before a regiment of silent machines and untouched detergent – and in the centre of it, two boys fumble apart, and drop their weapons to blink against the sudden illumination.
In the doorway, her cane slammed against the light activation switch, Terezi Pyrope is grinning.
"MR COOLK1D, TH3 COURT SUMMONS YOU TO ANSW3R CH4RG3S!"
"- GRUBLICKING FUCK, TEREZI, MY EYES!"
"im a little busy here lets just call it a boonbuck bail and i swear i wont skip town."
"TH3 CH4RG3 1S F4R TO S3R1OUS FOR M3 TO P3RM1T TH4T. YOU ST4ND 4CCUS3D OF D3R3L1CT1ON OF DUTY!"
Terezi strides between the two boys, smiling up at the suspect.
"what bullshit duty have i forgotten now its not even my day to do the laundry dont tell me rose is making rotas again you cant just spring this shit on people give a guy a chance to take cover from the organisation salvo."
"YOU W3R3 3XP3CT3D TO R3PORT TO C4N TOWN C1TY H4LL 4N HOU4 4GO TO SUP3RV1S3 M1L1T4RY M4NO3UVR3S. N3V3R 1N 4LL MY D4YS H4V3 1 S33N SUCH T4RD1N3SS FROM A SUPPOS3D KN1GHT OF T1ME!"
"what are you talking about last month i overslept by four hours when i was meant to be meeting you and you didnt bawl me out then which was actually a time i was supposed to be meeting you and today wasnt so seriously just what."
"TH3 M4YOR 1S 3XC33D1NGLY D1S4PPO1NT3D 1N YOU. 1 MUST S4Y 1 DO NOT F1ND SUCH F41LUR3 SURPR1S1NG. NOT FROM A LOS3R L1K3 YOURS3LF!"
Terezi presses forwards, and he leans back, but does not move his feet. The third steps between the two, forcing them apart.
"TEREZI, STRIDER HAS BEEN IN HERE WITH ME ALL DAY AND HE HASN’T SAID A WORD TO YOU, THERE’S NO WAY YOU CAN HAVE ARRANGED TO MEET HIM AT CAN TOWN -"
Terezi steps around him again, raising herself on tiptoes so that she is almost face to face with the accused.
His back is against the wall.
"1 H4V3 4LW4YS KNOWN YOU WOULD ON3 D4Y L3T M3 DOWN, MR STR1D3R. 4LTHOUGH 1T 1S CH4R1T4BL3 TO C4LL TH1S TH3 F1RST T1M3!"
"back off rez or -"
"BOTH OF YOU CALM THE HELL DOWN -"
"TH3 COURT F1NDS YOU GU1LTY 4ND S3NT3NC3S YOU TO 4 V1C1OUS DRUBB1NG."
Terezi’s cane flashes through the air; a pale hand catches it barely before impact. Terezi is tugged backwards, but she leans ever closer.
Black shades face down red. Then, a long pointed tongue darts out. In a flurry of limbs, Terezi is thrown to the floor, and the boy with the wet cheek freezes.
"WHAT DID YOU -"
"fuck. terezi. fuck. i didnt mean to -"
"IT WAS AN ACCIDENT -"
"i didnt think i -"
"STRIDER, CALM DOWN."
Caught between the two combatants, the intermediary takes one single step towards the panicked boy.
Terezi scrambles to her feet and absconds.
"terezi wait -"
"LEAVE HER BE. SHE KNOWS YOU DIDN’T MEAN TO."
A hand covers blonde eyebrows, and his shaded gaze drops as the boy slides slowly down to the floor.
"why do i always fucking do this."
Terezi returns to her seat in silence, teal-stained cheeks passing without comment. Rose looks up, and meets Kanaya’s expectant eyes.
"I must admit I have not been entirely open with you on this matter. I am privy to some suggestive information. Although I initially believed it to be irrelevant to the situation at hand, I have concocted a hypothesis which seems increasingly accurate in explaining our troubled Knights."
She pauses for a moment, more for effect than contemplation.
"As you know, players in the game are assigned a mythological role, consisting of both a title and an aspect. These qualities have a number of ramifications, but I believe it is title we should be most concerned with here; we are two Seers and a Sylph, and they, as I have said, are both Knights."
"Within Sburb’s – or Sgrub’s, if you prefer – mythology, each title corresponds to an action associated with that player. As Seer, the game labels me ‘the one who understands.’ A Knight is ‘the one who protects.’"
"What was he like during the game?"
It takes Kanaya only a moment to respond.
"He Was Our Leader. He Assisted Me With My Breeding Duties. He – You Know What Hes Like."
"A warrior, champion of every cause but his own. Unable to resist lending his help to those in need, or to allow his companions to be placed in danger. Bound strictly by his own codes of behaviour, and by his unending desire to shelter all from harm – save, perhaps, for himself."
"That Description Is Mostly Accurate."
"At least, that is how the game cast them. Tell me Kanaya, do you feel you fulfilled your title?"
She pauses for several seconds before responding.
"As Sylph I Was Tasked With Healing. Although I Made Some Attempts Towards That Direction I Do Not Feel I Ever Truly Achieved What Was Intended Of Me."
Surprisingly, Rose smiles warmly at her.
"Indeed, and that may be paramount. The titles assigned to us by the game have complex relationships to our own personal development but, to put it simplistically, they capture our initial instincts towards our sudden shift in situation. It is in following those childish urges that one may ascend the echeladder and reap the subsequent rewards – which, in turn, enable one’s completion of the assigned task."
"WH4T DO3S TH1S H4V3 TO DO W1TH NOW?"
Kanaya and Rose both appear somewhat surprised as they turn their attention to Terezi.
She does not face them.
"TH3 G4M3 1S OV3R."
Rose gives a nod, and Kanaya accepts her challenge.
"We May Have Departed Our Session But We Still Exist Very Much Within The Realms Of The Game. We Cannot Yet Abandon Our Roles So Easily And It Appears They Continue To Act As Knights. For A Class Defined By Protection And Self Sacrifice To Be Confronted By The Ghosts Of Their Friends Must Be No Small Burden."
"Seers and Sylphs may find respite in peace, but Knights thrive on the battlefield."
Kanaya turns her gaze back to Rose.
"Although I Confess I Do Not See Why We Three Remain So Comparatively Unaffected."
She is rewarded by a thin smile.
"I suspect – and I must stress that all my deductions on this front are purely speculative – that there is some level of variance in conformity to titles. As I have said, our roles are defined by our mindset upon entry, and the game reinforces those behaviours. However, as I am sure you realise, it is not by clinging blindly to the ideals of the past that one may build a future."
"It seems in the very nature of the game to provoke one to alteration, and therein lies the paradox: to ascend, one must remain static, but to win, motion is necessary. I believe the ultimate balance of the extremes varies between players. Certainly, it was not in understanding that I chose to focus my own efforts. I grew weary of knowledge without action, and permitted myself to be misinformed... I was Seer in name only."
Rose glances downwards, and waits one contemplative moment before continuing.
"But they were Knights to the end."
Kanaya nods, but her expression is troubled.
"So What Do You Recommend We Do?"
Rose meets Kanaya’s gaze, and even before she speaks the set of her brow signals to her companion that a mistake has been made.
"I only claimed to possess information; I can provide no tactics on this front. But if it is my opinion you seek, I must state that they are uniquely placed to assist one another, would they but decide they wished to."
In the corner, Terezi sighs.
"So We Wait?"
Rose lifts her book once more.
"And do nothing."
"YOU TELL ME."
The boys sit together against the wall, staring across at the wide window.
"i dont know thats why im fucking asking i am the question it is me and seriously pyrope is black for me now whats with that shit."
"IT COULD BE WORSE. I JUST GOT ASHEN ZONED."
"i mean were meant to be friends and i couldn’t even see that one coming."
"I’VE KNOWN HER SEVEN SWEEPS AND I DIDN’T SEE THAT ONE COMING."
"i didnt mean to hit her like that i was just startled i guess and fuck. i hit pyrope on the nose."
"NOT HARD, AND SHE WAS BLACK-FLIRTING WITH YOU. SHE WANTED TO GET A RISE OUT OF YOU."
"yeah but she shouldnt have fucking managed it. i dont know what i was thinking."
"WHAT ARE WE EVEN DOING?"
A head of black hair bows down, coming to rest on the boy’s knees.
"I’M SUPPOSED TO BE A LEADER. I’M SUPPOSED TO KNOW ABOUT PROBLEMS LIKE THIS BEFORE THEY PUT ANYONE IN HARM’S WAY. AND INSTEAD ALL I CAN MANAGE IS SOME SHITTY ATTEMPT AT AUSPISTICISING WHEN ITS ALREADY TOO LATE. NO WONDER YOU AND LALONDE ARE THE LEADERS NOW."
"more like lalonde is im hardly leader material only thing ive ever got people to do is get killed."
"THAT ISN’T TRUE."
"dont lie youve seen the dream bubbles i was meant to keep the timeline steady as a stone wizards giantly phallic staff and instead i hit it with a flying kick and get splinters all over everyone except the magic is poison and fuck this metaphor the point is theyre dead because of me."
"THERE ARE MORE TROLLS OUT HERE THAN HUMANS."
"half of them are still my fault all it takes is the wrong message at the wrong time and alacazam everyones dead again thank you very much im here til the reckoning."
"IF YOU THINK THAT COUNTS, HOW MANY TIMELINES DID I MANAGE TO DOOM BY ORDERING EVERYONE TO TROLL YOU IDIOTS IN THE FIRST PLACE?"
"its not the same time isnt meant to be your thing."
"IT’S NOT LIKE I EVER UNDERSTOOD WHAT BLOOD WAS ABOUT EITHER. THE ONLY MES SMART ENOUGH TO REACH GOD TIER WERE DOOMED, AND INSTEAD MY TEAM HAD TO PUT UP WITH A LEADER WHO COULDN’T EVEN MANAGE TO WAKE UP HIS BULGESNIFFING DREAMSELF."
"least you managed to help people you didnt just sit there making shitty jokes and following other peoples plans what did i ever do. i spent my whole life training for the game and egbert was still better at it than i could ever be."
"YOU’RE BETTER AT SOME THINGS. I’VE NEVER SEEN ANYONE WHO COULD STRIFE LIKE YOU."
"im not as good as i could be i mean you strife like you actually mean it."
"AT LEAST WE CAN BOTH FIGHT."
The lights flicker out. The boys do not react – they have grown used to the timer deactivating – and nor do they move to bring back the light. The door now closed after Terezi’s exit, the room is darker than before, and they are little more than two outlines moving closer, and merging to become one.
"also were pretty damn hot. ow watch the teeth this is a sloppy makeout not a jaws remake."
"STRIDER, FOR ONCE IN YOUR LIFE KEEP YOUR MOUTH STILL AND FOCUS OR THE NEXT BITE WILL BE ON PURPOSE."
A low, mournful honk echoes through the empty corridor, and Rose comes to a halt. Her heart rate accelerates, and there is a part of her which screams "murderer!" – but a second part replies "hypocrite. We are all murderers here." There is danger present, undeniably, but if violence was his intention she doubts he would announce his presence so politely.
"Mr Makara, I presume?"
"looks like we’ve been had ourselves dealt a pair of cheatin diamonds."
The voice is behind her, closer than she expected, and it takes all of Rose’s self-restraint not to flinch.
"don’t go gettin your coy on, lightsis. ain’t no-one can’t see that fine pale flame you’re burning for the motherfucker PILING MY MOIRAIL."
Rose breathes deep and does not look back.
"I suppose I am somewhat... concerned by the pair of them."
"so what are you going to be up and motherfucking DOING about it?"
"In all honesty, it seems to be beyond our collective conciliatory abilities..."
She pauses for a moment before continuing, balking at even aluding to the... other option out loud. But she knows that if she has considered it, the thought cannot fail to have occurred to Gamzee.
"...and there is nothing more we will permit each other to do."
He chuckles once.
"is that motherfuckin so? well, you’d best be answering me this then."
He steps towards her, and Rose can feel the tickle of his breath on her scalp.
"did you mean what you said? is this helping him?"
Rose steels her courage, and tells the truth.
"I hope so."
No reply arrives. After a minute, Rose looks over her shoulder, and the corridor is empty.
In the dark light of the dream bubbles, two boys lie sprawled across one another, and the darkness creates of their tangled limbs one unbroken silhouette. There exists no boundary between them; they are one creature, of two voices.
"I PITY YOU SO MUCH RIGHT NOW."
"love you too babe."
"I TOLD YOU, DON’T CALL ME THAT!"
For a moment, there is silence, and time itself seems to freeze -
- but then the moment passes, and the meteor hurtles onwards through the vast emptiness between realities.