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"You should come to Washington with me."

You are too cool for a spit-take. Instead you forget how to swallow, leaving you in reply limbo as you struggle to contract your muscles or risk dripping subpar coffee down your chin. "What," you finally say.

Rose circles one of her french fries in the pool of ketchup on her plate. Sorry, one of her "pomme frites." God, you shouldn't have let her pick the restaurant; this cafe is so pretentious. "I'm visiting John next month, remember?" she says. "Jade will be there too and we have plans to spend a couple of hours group chatting with our friends from the alpha session."

"And you seriously think I should tag along," you say, laying it all out so she can correct you, because there's no way she implied what you think she just did.

"I believe you were invited, before the falling out."

Your stomach lurches and you're pretty sure it's not from the fancy little toasted sandwich you just ingested. "Hang on," you say, pulling out your cell phone. "I need to google the number for the nearest asylum so I can have you committed."

She sets her food down to give you her full attention, her gaze boring into you. "Dave."

"I should have known you had something more nefarious than lunch up your sleeve when you told Bro to pick us up late," you mutter as you text an SOS to Bro. Maybe if he leaves now, he can get you out of here within ten minutes. This is the last time you let Rose tag along with you to a physical therapy session, you swear to god.

She sighs. "This was supposed to be a reunion for the four of us."

"And I'm the fifth wheel, remember?" Your voice comes out strained, which is dumb because you're definitely just pissed off and not distressed at all. Just kidding; you're stressed as fuck.

No, no, no, fuck no, not now. You're finally getting your shit together and you're climbing out of bed in the mornings and you're going back to physical therapy and this is not the fucking time to reinforce what a giant asshole you are, which John is an absolute ace at.

Rose narrows her eyes. "So you won't speak to your friends again under any circumstances, even for the sake of closure? Do you really want to leave this drama on your shoulders forever?"

You keep glancing at your phone in hopes that Bro's answered and you just didn't feel the vibration. Why doesn't life have a mute button? Or a fast forward? Anything so you don't have to deal with this conversation. "If closure means getting ganged up on, then nah, I'm not interested."

Her features soften. "You think I'd let that happen?"

"You agree with them that I was an asshole."

She laughs, though she doesn't look amused. "We're all assholes. That never stopped us from being friends before." She reaches over the table and rests her hand on your wrist. "I wouldn't throw you to the wolves like that, Dave. I'll help outfit you with the appropriate armor for tackling this obstacle."

You slump in your seat. "Shit, I'm all for metaphorical armor," you grumble. You're a slut for metaphorical anything. "Do I get a metaphorical sword to go with it?"

"Maybe." She smirks. "The great sword Excali-angst."

You throw your hands up. "I'm out."

"The fearsome Murama-sulk," she says, cupping her chin in thought.

Oh god, she's going to mangle innocent sword names all day if you don't distract her. You groan and wipe a hand over your face. "What kind of metaphorical armor can even protect me enough that I won't curl up like a pathetic bastard after enduring another verbal sparring session with the best friend who hates my guts?"

She pauses her musing to look you over. "With any luck, validation and a sense of direction, two materials you were severely lacking during the falling out with our friends. But if I'm to craft such sturdy armor, I need you to sit down in my armory and talk to me honestly about the gritty details of the wounds you experienced these last three years." You must make an odd expression, because she continues on quickly, "Well, you can't exactly tell a real therapist that you used to be part-bird, but you need to talk to someone. I don't know how you processed what happened between you and our friends, but maybe if I did, I could help you make sense of the bullshit you're mired in."

You don't want to talk about the last three years. You were an asshole, John was an asshole, and no one lived happily ever after. The end. Except not the end, because it hasn't stopped haunting you and Rose knows it. You frown. "So I spill my guts to you and then what?"

"We use that information to move on and live as normally as we can manage." She sits back. "What else?"

You shrug. "Well, we could always skip the faux-therapy and join the circus. Supernaturally strong and pigmentless ectoclones would fit right in with the freak show." You flex your arm to show off that ecto-strength of yours and inadvertently lift your mood when you notice how much more defined your muscles have become after five months of shoving around a wheelchair.

She looks thoughtful, ignoring your very impressive new development. "Even if freak shows weren't long since declared distasteful, no one's actually given me shit for my unnatural paleness before. It's almost odd."

"Eh, they probably just assume we're white." You steal one of her cold fries if she's not gonna pay attention to your arms as she should. Wow, these potatoes need more salt. Fancy restaurants suck. "That's what I did, anyway."

She raises an eyebrow. "You thought you were Caucasian?"

You lounge back and wave your arm in a casual shrug. "Nah, I suspected I was born in a test tube and my genes are completely devoid of any human racial heritage. Because that was just so obvious, you know?" You roll your eyes. "What the fuck else was I supposed to assume when our skin is literally white and we got names like Lalonde and Strider?"

She's quiet a moment. "I figured I was albino and my mother was purposefully keeping my race a secret so she could lord the information over me later at an advantageous moment."

Your shades are the only barrier keeping you from gaping at her. You knew she didn't understand shit about her mom, but it's jolting to hear Rose's wild theories again after actually meeting the object of her disdain. "Oh my god."

She clears her throat and blushes, straightening in her seat. "In retrospect, your approach may have been saner. Relatively."

"You think?" you say flatly.

"It's a shame you aren't so logical all the time," she says with an exaggerated sigh. "It would make my job easier right now, but I guess I deserve a taste of my own paranoid medicine."

"You thought Mom had cooked up a conspiracy to shock you with your secret family heritage and you're calling me paranoid?"

"A touch." She tilts her head with just a hint of a smirk. "You refuse to join me on the trip to Washington, yes?"

Dammit, you thought you'd diverted her from that topic, but she is a goddamn expert on marching awkward conversations around in circles. She's like the awkward conversation Pied Piper. "I refuse to knowingly embark on a soul-crushing journey that will send me back under the covers for the next ten years as I wallow in my miserable failures as a human being." You cross your arms. "That ain't paranoid."

"That won't happen," she says, her tone sharp. "We'll air out your dirty laundry beforehand and map out a plan of attack. If the reunion still goes south, I'll let you abscond, no questions asked. Is that fair?"

You're not sure "fair" is a real thing in this kind of situation. You'd rather access the value of "safe," but the statistics on that are too foggy to calculate. "So if shit hits the fan, I can flip them both the bird and make a badass getaway to the nearest safe house?"

She lets out a hollow laugh. "If shit hits the fan, I'll probably join you in your escape."

Oh god, she's actually gonna rope you into it; this is unbelievable. "What are we even doing this for again?" you say as a last ditch attempt to throw her off course.

"Do you really mean to tell me you have no regrets in regards to your friends?" she asks. "Nothing you wish you could say or ask? If you never spoke to them again, you'd be fine with that?"

You scowl and try not to answer, but she keeps quiet as she waits for you to inevitably open your big mouth and break the silence because goddamn you can't handle silence. You avert your gaze. "If the answer is 'no,' does that just seal my fate?"

"I don't know, Dave." She reaches across the table to take your hand. "If you admit out loud that you still want to see your friends again, does that seal your fate?"

You've lost. Rose has just delivered the finishing blow with an undodgeable combo move and your HP's shot down to zero. You sigh. "Well, shit. Let's go to Washington."

Your phone finally vibrates with a text from Bro announcing that he's on his way.

* * *

The fucked up dreams are getting old.

It doesn't take a genius to analyze where they're coming from or anything. You get it; you've still got baggage from the game bogging down your subconscious, so you turn back into a fucking sprite every few nights and get a lecture from the "Real Dave." The piece of the puzzle that's fallen out of the box and under the floorboards is how to make the damn dreams go away.

Are you supposed to feel relieved that you can "stand" upright on your own again? Because you don't. You'd take your wheelchair over the floaty ghost tail any day of the week. There is nothing about this bright glowing orange scenario that brings you comfort.

Maybe you can just get this bullshit over with if you can't reject it. Where the hell's Dave hiding? He's due for some obnoxiously vague dream hints.

Instead of treating you to his signature cocky aggression, you spot him just lying on his back on the dark dream floor with his god tier cape splayed out above his head.

You tilt your head as you float closer. The fucker's not asleep in your dream, is he? Maybe he's dead and your subconscious is trying to spook you with images of a corpse you've already seen too many times. "Uh. Dude?"

Dave doesn't move so much as an inch as he wearily says, "Do you have any fucking idea how boring it is around here?"

You shrug as you hover over him. "Mostly I'm concerned by how often I keep running into you. Would you mind getting the hell out of my subconscious before I have to draw up an eviction notice? It's fucking unsettling that I've got some kind of stalker chasing me around and spying on my dreams."

"Yeah, see, that attitude?" He raises an arm only as much as it takes to point a finger in your direction. "That's why we're still grappling with this shit," he waves his arm at your empty surroundings, "instead of moving on with our lives."

You roll your eyes. "Oh my god, I hate dream logic bullshit. Can I at least wake up?" you say, pinching at your forearm to no avail.

"You want to?" He sits up and you have to back away to avoid colliding with him. "I thought you were hiding in here, bro. Way better than being awake, remember?"

Arguing with your subconscious is the dumbest waste of time since advertisements were invented. You can't lie or dodge awkward questions; it already knows damn well that you still have mornings where you struggle to get out of bed. It should also know you've succeeded for two weeks straight, though.

"Yeah, maybe," you say, "except there are people actually worth seeing when I'm awake now, unlike when I'm asleep, where my brain apparently thinks I deserve the cruel and unusual punishment of conversing with the phantom asshole who made my life so goddamn miserable in the first place."

"Whine, angst, sulk, you have the worst life and no one loves you. How about a single emo tear for dramatic effect?" Dave runs a finger down his cheek. "That's about the only way you can turn this around into irony and save this sorry display of moping."

You scowl. "I ain't moping anymore."

"Nice denial, but you're like a teenager's angsty free verse poetry personified, bro." He climbs to his feet, dusting off his pants. "Even worse, you're still too much of a wuss to confront Egbert of all people, 'cos that dork is just so intimidating, right?"

"Jesus Christ, no wonder you never got off your ass long enough to trade support with Rose if your observation skills are duller than a foam sword." You rub your temple, because not even dreams can protect you from headaches induced by secondhand embarrassment. "Here's one of the endless details you apparently missed: John's gonna tear me limb-from-limb as soon as I do something uncool that reminds him that I'm not the flawless you that he remembers."

"Wow, mean words. The horror." Dave snorts and shakes his head. "Maybe John had reason to verbally whoop your ass into shape if you're this fucking uncool all the time."

You aren't fully conscious of clenching your hand into a fist, but you absolutely mean the punch you throw at Dave's condescending face.

Just as your attack lands, you jolt awake with a gasp like you're one of those dramatic assholes in the movies. Your arm is held out in front of you, with your hand still shaped into a fist. The dream felt so real that it's almost as if you teleported into your bed rather than woke up.

You fall back against your pillow with a shudder.

Of course you have another dream about Dave the night before you're due to leave for Washington. Dear god, why does your brain hate you this much? You got stuck listening to that bullshit lecture and you weren't even allowed the satisfaction of connecting your punch.

Something as meaningless as a nightmare shouldn't be getting to you, and yet it's excavating beneath your skin and then some as if your body's a mineshaft. Your mind's too wired to fall back to sleep even if you weren't hesitant to risk another dream.

It was just stupid dream logic at its finest, though. Obviously you aren't moping anymore, because it's been firmly established that you don't have to be the alpha to deserve to have a life. You have... Okay, you don't have friends, but your family is cool and moping cuts into the time you could otherwise spend chilling with them. You are doing just fucking fine. Who cares that you're a jackass who deserves whatever John lays into you?

You pull a face.

Fuck. So maybe you can't just get over three years of angst and self-loathing overnight. That ain't your fault. You are setting goddamn records with the speed of your recovery, really. You ought to get a call from Guinness any day now congratulating you for your new entry into their hall of fame.

In the meantime, maybe having more nightmares is a sign that you need to turn to outside support again.

You fumble for the silhouette of your wheelchair by the light of the city pouring through your window. You used to avoid wandering the apartment after midnight at all costs, in case Bro attacked you from the shadows, but you can't remember the last time he ambushed you like that. (If he tries to take up the habit again, you're reasonably sure that Mom will kick his ass to Oklahoma.)

You make your way through the living room and dodge furniture by memory, unhindered by smaller obstacles since Mom won't tolerate smuppets on the floor. You only remember to hesitate when you reach the futon. You hear soft and steady breathing as Rose and Mom slumber through the night, blissfully unaware of your plight.

Mom's practically in reach. If you just shake her awake and blab everything to her, she'll probably make you cocoa and wrap you in a blanket and tell you that dreams are "totes stupid bullpoop -- hey, didja see me not swearin' there?"

But you can't fucking wake her. She's got to be up early to catch a plane. You do too, but while misery loves company, that just means misery's a selfish asshole nobody likes and following his example is a bad idea.

You turn back for your room, pausing to listen on the off-chance your presence was enough to rouse Mom, but you only hear a quiet snore. Whatever. You don't need coddled anyway. If you can't sleep, you'll just kill the rest of the night on the Internet or something. Maybe Dirk's online.

A shadow shoots behind you just as you reach your door. "What the hell are you doing up?"

You jump so badly that the only reason you don't topple out of your wheelchair is that Bro catches you by the chest and pushes you back in place. Of course Bro's still awake and alert and ready to leap at the first sign of movement. He doesn't even have a place to sleep at night right now.

You struggle to slow your startled breathing. "Christ, can't a guy take a piss without a heart attack?"

With your ass securely back in your seat, Bro straightens up again. He never kneels to talk with you. You kind of appreciate that. "I gotta hope you weren't taking a piss, kid, seeing as you never went near the bathroom."

"Yeah, well, the basic point remains, which is that heart attacks are hella rude greetings and you should probably take a course on midnight etiquette to get yourself some certification on proper nighttime socializing," you say, as if this isn't fucking tame by Bro's standards. All he's done is startle the shit out of you.

Why is he even leaping out at you if it's not to hit you with a sword? Hell if you know, but you figure the lack of surprise strifing means he'll wander off and return to whatever ironic bullshit he gets up to in his nocturnal escapades as soon as you look away.

You roll the last couple of feet into your room and flick the light on, cringing in the sudden brightness. If Dirk's offline like a responsible person, you could probably use the time to reorganize your SBaHJ files, maybe decide what you actually want to do with them. You reach for your computer but hesitate to actually hit the power switch as you catch movement out of the corner of your eye.

Bro hasn't left. He crosses his arms as he leans his shoulder against your doorway.

You tilt your head towards him. "Uh... Sup?"

"Good question," he says, his face and tone giving away nothing. "You staying up?"

"Yeah, I guess." You drop your arm. "Why?"

"Just don't get many opportunities to go one-on-one with you lately," he says. Yeah, because he's all about bonding. "How's physical therapy?"

It is way too damn early in the morning for this kinda game, especially when no one will let you look at the rulebook. You roll back from your desk so you have room to face him. "Am I seriously supposed to buy that you followed me in here at buttfuck in the morning to ask about rehab?"

He straightens and saunters into your room. "Nah, just partaking in some blatant stalling for time. I ain't very good at the talking shit or the feelings shit or the talking about feelings shit, so this is gonna be awkward as hell." He takes a seat on your bed. "I'd try to get through it fast, but that'd make it worse, probably."

Your eyes go wide behind your shades. "Wait, we're talking about feelings?"

Bro shrugs. "Or something vaguely resembling that." He hunches over and rests his arms against his legs. You wish you had any idea which direction he's staring. "Watching you with Roxy's just kinda confirmed a suspicion I've had ever since the game ended," he says slowly. He pauses again. "I think I fucked up with you."

An uneasy feeling sinks into your stomach like you swallowed a rock. Is this commentary on your failure to live up to his standards?

You swallow. "You... wanna elaborate on that, so I'm sure we're on the same page?"

He runs a hand over his forehead and through his bangs with an agitated sigh. "I... I had it in my head that all that mattered was making you strong enough that you could survive that goddamn game," he says, still speaking slowly as if he's picking each word with the anxious meticulousness of a sixteen-year-old choosing prom accessories. "Now I ain't so sure I was really doing right by you."

You frown. "Because Dave died."

"No," he says with so little hesitation that he almost cuts you off. "Even if he'd lived, I could have prepared you in a less shittastic fashion," he says, his voice going quiet. He rubs the side of his face as if he's fighting off a headache. "I don't remember why I even thought it was a good idea to push you as hard as I did, but for some fucking reason I did it anyway because... because fuck if I know." His pokerface shatters with a cringe and he finally just pulls his shades off to press his fingers against both sides of his temple. "I'm not gonna pretend to understand or justify fucked up thoughts I shouldn't have had." He raises his gaze. You've seen his eyes before, but this is the first time you ever remember them pointed in your direction. "The point is, I did a shit job taking care of you and I'm sorry."

A heavy silence body slams into the room. It'd be cool of you to utter some sort of actual reply, but all your voice can supply is a single useless syllable. "Oh."

You are clearly an articulate and thoughtful sage at three in the morning. Thousands journey to seek your rad wisdom and leave their humble offerings of cheap AJ.

It's not like this is news to you. You've known Bro was all kinds of fucked up for years now. You pieced it together from various clues all the way back in your doomed timeline: how much safer John's and Rose's houses were compared to yours even after the imps had vandalized them, the extra details Rose let slip about her mom once she had time to reflect, motherfucking Calsprite...

That puppet just about drove you insane and you were only stuck with it for half a year. You weren't sure exactly how much direct influence it had on Bro, but you spent a lot of free time on the battleship wondering if half of Bro's bullshit had origins in that mind-grating "hee hee hoo hoo haa haa." Given how much he's calmed down now that the puppet is gone, you're upgrading your hypothesis to actual theory.

You never expected an apology though. That's throwing you for a wild loop. Disneyland coasters wish their loops are as crazy as the loop you've been thrown.

When you're silent for too long, Bro takes a deep breath and slides his shades back on. His stoic tone shifts back into place. "Look, when the Lalondes go home, if you wanna go with them... I won't stop you, okay?"

Your emotional roller coaster veers off its loops and takes a ninety degree drop. Your brain turns to mush from all that G-force blasting you straight in the face. The on-ride photo must be hilarious.

Did he just imply he's gonna let Mom adopt you? But that's fucking nuts. You've never known a home outside of this apartment -- even on the Prospitian battleship, you had access to this mess. You can't just leave it on a whim. You've got all your shit here and... uh... nostalgia and... stuff.

Okay, you don't actually have an argument; you're just confused and letting your instinctual fear of change dictate the direction of your thoughts. Your brain's swimming now that the Floodgates of Possibility have swung open. Or is it drowning? It's overwhelming, at any rate.

You can live with Mom and Rose until you're an adult. You can have an actual mother and catch up on the lost time with Rose that the alpha Dave got. Well, Mom has to agree first, but you can't even imagine a scenario where she'd reject you.

Your mouth struggles to find appropriate words that fully get across the extent of your "hell fucking yes," but an affirmation is so goddamn obvious that it just sounds patronizing. You gotta say something already, so you blurt out the only concern still tugging at your mind. "You gonna visit?"

For the first time in memory, Bro looks startled. "You'd want me to?"

You shrug, looking away so you don't have to see the tinge of emotion that almost made its way onto Bro's face. "Seems like a waste to split when we're finally making something resembling progress," you mumble. Sure, he's a crazy asshole, but that doesn't mean you want to suddenly drop all contact with the most consistent person in your life just when you're starting to appreciate him on a non-ironic level. Then again, maybe he doesn't want any non-ironic appreciation. "But hey, no big deal if you don't give enough fucks to make that kinda trip."

Bro's quiet for a few seconds. "I could drop by sometimes, if that's what you seriously want."

"Sure." You can always revoke the invite later if you regret it, so you probably didn't do anything too stupid, but you like digging your holes deeper. "If we get our shit together, maybe I could come back down here for a month in January or something to avoid New England's coldass winter."

Bro nods slowly. "Yeah, you wouldn't want to risk freezing your balls off up there."

"But Mom comes with."

"You're just piling up the demands, aren't ya?" Bro's mouth twitches and you'd swear he almost smiled.

You cross your arms and cock your head. "That a problem?"

"Nah." Bro pushes off your mattress and stands. "We gotta run it all by Roxy, but I doubt she'll mind."


Bro walks past you towards the door but pauses halfway across the room and glances over his shoulder. "Got anything else to add to this awkward heart-to-heart, or are we done?"

You're done, probably. You ought to pass out anyway, but you can't shake the feeling that the alpha Dave's poised to mock you for this family moment in your next nightmare -- the question is whether he'll be pissed that you recognize Bro is fucked up or that you haven't shoved Bro away.

Did Dave ever stop ignoring uncomfortable subjects long enough to piece together that Bro isn't as awesome as you always told your friends he is? If he got past that hurdle, how much did he resent Bro for his bullshit?

Whether he stayed in denial or fell into a grudge, he'd probably be pissed with how you handled yourself tonight.

"I keep having dreams where Dave's ghost berates me for being a shittyass clone," you mutter.

Bro doesn't respond at first, but you're getting used to the lulls in the conversation. He faces you again. "You tell your sister about that?"

"No way, man." You wrinkle your nose. "I don't want her knowing I've got nightmares that fucking dumb."

"So what'd you mention it to me for?"

You shrug, glancing at the floor. "You're the only one who's awake."

You still can't predict Bro worth shit, or maybe you were giving him too much credit. Instead of responding, he turns away and leaves without a word.

Yep, Bro's still a tool and you're an idiot for wanting to trust him.

You groan. Why would you spill your guts to a stone statue? Just because he stopped chasing you with swords doesn't mean you can actually bond with him like he's a normal non-awkward person. Now you aren't even in the mood to chat with any assholes online. You've done enough talking as it is.

You haul yourself onto your bed and stare at the ceiling, figuring you can at least rest even if you don't sleep. You forgot to turn off your light, but who cares?

You hear heavy footsteps approaching your room and you glance at the door as Bro returns. Did a guilty conscience bite him after all? Or is he just gonna tell you to pack up or something equally distant?

He wanders to your bed and takes a seat by your legs. He studies you in silence and you reply in kind, not even bothering to raise your head. Without so much as a greeting, Bro reaches into his sylladex and holds out a bottle of apple juice to you.

Why the hell is he... Oh.

You have to fight back laughter. You tackle that laughter to the ground before it can even think of escaping out your throat, but you still grin. Bro's been watching Mom's superior parenting techniques at work and offering comfort food was his takeaway.

Dirk couldn't help but constantly remind you of Bro every time you so much as glanced at him, but for the first time, you also catch a glimpse of Dirk in Bro: somewhere beneath the asshole cool dude exterior, he's just some lost kid who wanted to do good but got led astray by a freakyass possessed puppet and his own ineptitude.

You sit up to accept the bottle. "Thanks, Bro."

He nods. "You ain't a shit clone," he says quietly.

You stare at him shades-to-shades, then set the juice next to your pillow so both your hands are free. You've had enough practice with the Lalondes that you know the logical next step to this scenario. It's Bro's turn to get in on this family tradition anyway.

Bro freezes as you lean against him. "What the fuck are you doing," he says so flatly it doesn't even sound like a question.

"I'm pretty sure this is a thing we're supposed to do." You wrap an arm around his torso.

"I'm pretty damn sure it's not."

"I'm pretty fucking sure you aren't the one who'd know either way," you say, raising your voice so he knows you mean business here, "so I'm sticking with my initial assessment that it's totally appropriate in context."

Bro remains tense, but he raises an arm, hesitates, then slides it around your back. The movement is rigid and awkward, as if he's never hugged anyone before in his life. Maybe he hasn't. "I probably owe you this anyway," he mutters.

You snort. "You owe me this and then some." He's not very soft at all compared to Mom or Rose -- too much muscle, you guess -- but if anything he's warmer. "It's not very cool though."

"It really fucking isn't." He rubs the back of your head as if he's trying to pet you like you're a dog or something.

"Yeah, almost a shame we gotta do it anyway."

"We could stop."

You shift closer to him and lean your head against his chest. "Nah."

He sighs and brings both arms around you, shifting their position until they settle into something almost natural. It's still the awkwardest goddamn hug you've ever had, but you don't mind it. "Sorry, kid."

You grunt, because saying "it's okay" would be a blatant dirty lie and "apology accepted" sounds lame.