The less said about air travel in a wheelchair, the better. At least the TSA's incompetence distracts you from the suspense of reuniting with your sorta-maybe-friends. You're way more nervous about disembarking at the mercy of whoever's in charge of wheelchair distribution at the Seattle airport.
You're kinda glad you haven't gotten up the nerve to ask Mom if she'd adopt you like Bro suggested. Now you have more time to weigh the pros and cons of flying to New York.
Pro: A loving family.
Con: Useless fucking airports.
"Dave, look!" Mom says as she flips through the in-flight magazine that's at least half ads. "You can order AJ for your on-flight drink!" She tilts it towards you and points to the small beverage section at the bottom of the page. Next to Coca-Cola and Seagram's Ginger Ale is the logo for Minute Maid.
Okay, fine, pro #2: Apple juice.
Mom hums to herself as she studies the magazine for lack of better shit to do. Rose brought a book and you could probably find something to entertain yourself with in your sylladex, but after barely getting any sleep last night and racing through an airport the next morning, you just want to space out and rest.
"Ooh, they got a pretty good selection, actually," Mom murmurs to herself.
You glance at the magazine again. It's just a pretty standard assortment of soda and juice as far as you're concerned -- no funky Mexican sodas or bizarre fruit mixes to speak of -- but you go tense when you follow Mom's gaze. She's looking at the non-complimentary drinks, which cost money because they're full of alcohol instead of just corn syrup.
You snatch the magazine from Mom's fingers just before Rose can. "Mom, did you know most fossils aren't actually bones anymore?" You blurt out the first thing that comes to mind in an attempt to distract Mom from your theft.
"Can I start up violin lessons again when we get home?" Rose says, leaning against Mom's other side as she catches on to your game in an instant.
"Are we there yet?" you say.
"Is there a crossword puzzle in that magazine?" Rose says.
"Can we take a selfie?"
Mom blinks. "Uh..." She points in your direction, then Rose's, then back again, and so on. "No, yes, no, probably, hell yes." Damn, she's good.
All three of you crowd in together -- you up against Mom's left shoulder, Rose against her right shoulder -- as you lift your phone for some shitty selfie magic. Rose sneaks the airline magazine from you while Mom's concentration is on smiling big for the camera; you make sure not to record the evidence of the theft in the photo.
You pass the phone to Mom afterwards and she beams at the photo. "You got a good eye."
You shrug, sneaking a peek at your composition. You hadn't actually been trying that hard, but now you want to know what you did that apparently turned out so well. "Yeah, I've dabbled in the art of shitty selfies and photography before," is all you say.
"Well, all that shitty practice is building up to some cool instincts." She returns your phone and gives you a peck on the cheek. "Text me a copy when we're on the ground, okay?"
The rest of the flight is relatively uneventful, if a little turbulent at times. Rose orders the drinks for all three of you before Mom can even open her mouth. Thank god Rose looks too young to try anything unscrupulous for herself; ain't any flight attendant dumb enough not to card a thirteen-year-old and she knows it.
The Seattle airport treats you more kindly than Houston did. Whether that's competence or just luck is anyone's guess, but at least you're off the plane and grabbing your luggage in a timely manner.
It's only as you settle into the back of a taxi that the tension shifts gears from "oh god, how is the TSA going to fuck you over?" to "oh god, how is John going to kick your ass?" You keep an especially straight face and ramble Mom's ears off about the different cameras you've used over the years, but given the concerned frowns Rose keeps shooting you, you're probably not keeping your cool as well as you'd like to think.
It's too late to turn back. You made this decision and you're stuck with it no matter what happens, because you're in goddamn Washington and what else are you supposed to do? Camp out under a bridge until your return flight?
It still feels like you're willingly riding to your execution, only the executioner is your ex-best friend and everyone's ignoring the ax behind his back. If you go back to moping in bed all day thanks to this trip, you are going to do jackshit about it but by god you'll be pissed about it.
The neighborhoods outside the car window are completely foreign to you. The suburbs themselves might as well be a maze as far as you're concerned -- mazes with hedges made out of identical fancy houses with perfect lawns. All the same, you recognize the destination before the cab even comes to a complete stop.
So that's what John's house really looks like, sitting pretty in its fancyass suburban neighborhood instead of teetering on top of a LOWAS mountain. Besides the lack of game effects, there's a new addition to the house you weren't expecting: there's a small ramp leading into the front door. You're not sure if the Lalondes blabbed the state of your legs to anybody or not, but there's no way they'd install a ramp just for your sake.
"It looked better with my expansions," you hear Rose mutter to herself as you climb out of the cab.
If you were on your own, this is where you'd probably sit on the curb forever, but you don't have the option to chicken out when your traveling companions are here to march right up to the door and ring the bell. They couldn't even wait for you to brace yourself?
You hold your breath as the door opens. You're cool, you're chill, you're not freaked out, please can you fucking act like it?
"Why, hullo, Mr. Egbert," Mom says with a giggle. If you weren't looking straight at her, you'd swear you just heard Roxy's girlish laugh instead of Mom's.
You breathe out. All that tension wasted on John's dad. Man, all this time and you never so much as caught the dude's actual name. You wonder if even John knows it.
He tips his hat at Mom in a manner you can only describe as "dadly." Is that a word? Too bad, you just made it a word. The guy could have walked straight off a fifties family sitcom, he's that goddamn dadly. Leave it to Egbert.
"A pleasure as always, Ms. Lalonde." He steps aside and holds the door open so the three of you can enter.
You've been in this house a hundred times and yet it's like a whole new building now -- and not just because you're viewing it from a lower angle. There's an adult touch keeping shit in place and the decorations in moderation, without even a sprinkling of Jade's belongings anymore, let alone yours. Not that you meant to store crap at John's house, but sometimes shit got forgotten and looked better in its new home anyway.
It's so clean and tidy that it almost feels as if you wheeled onto a movie set or a model home, not a real place that people live in. You wonder if this is just what normal houses look like compared to Bro's trashy apartment or if John's dad is a neat freak. The strong scent of baked goods is the only thing that grounds it as the same building you visited back on LOWAS.
"Did you and the kids have a nice flight?" John's dad asks as he closes the door after you.
"It was pretty bumpy, actually," Mom says and reaches over to pat your shoulder, "and the Houston airport was a piece of flaming poo at handling Dave's accommodations, but we had a good time anyway to spite 'em."
John's dad gives her an approving nod. "Well done on making the best of a bad situation, then." He turns his dadly gaze on you, with its weird mix of sternness and patience. You feel a vague sense of shame settle in your gut for mocking the guy back when he was dead. "Please make yourselves at home," he says, oblivious to your guilt. "John and his sister are in his room, if you need me to call them."
"We'll manage, thank you, Mr. Egbert," Rose says. She's actually pretty respectful towards adults for a Yank, when the adult's name isn't Dirk Strider.
"My mother and Mr. Harley are presently taking coffee in the kitchen, if you'd like to join them, Ms. Lalonde," John's dad says, gesturing an arm towards the kitchen that is presumably way cleaner than you're used to.
Mom straightens herself up. "Would I ever?" she says with an excited gasp. "Gimme just one second, good sir." She raises an index finger before turning her attention back to you kids. She kneels in front of you, which you've concluded definitely feels patronizing, but you let it slide because it's Mom and you probably love her. "Okay, baby, I gots a hot date in the other room," she jerks a thumb at John's dad and waggles her eyebrows, managing to time it so he doesn't notice despite her utter lack of subtlety, "but if things don't go so good out here, you can always come hang out with us grownups. M'kay?"
"Thanks, Mom." You hope to god you don't need to take up her offer, but some of the tension slides off your shoulders all the same. Coffee with a bunch of grownups sounds boring as hell, but you'll take boredom over angry accusations and glares.
She kisses your cheek with a loud, "Mwah!" then straightens up to do the same for Rose. You're a very thoughtful big brother and don't smirk at all when Rose pulls a face at the mushy kiss. "Be a good girl and look after your brother, Rose," Mom coos.
You frown. You're maybe starting to piece together how a young Rose interpreted Mom's misguided sincerity as condescension. "Yeah, not like I can look after myself or anything."
If anyone has any commentary for your cheeky attitude, it's put on hold as a familiar voice calls from the kitchen, "Is everything all right out there?" Nanna appears in the doorway a moment later, seated in one of those fancy motorized wheelchairs that move with the push of a button.
Well, of course she's got the same post-sprite side effects as you.
Jade's grandpa follows behind her, looking no worse for wear post-game aside from his comically large mustache, but the dumb facial hair is probably unrelated to his stint with death. They both look pretty spry for their age, actually. Maybe ectoclones naturally live longer if Sburb doesn't kill them.
"Jane! Jake!" Mom almost squeals, running over to throw her arms around one and then the other. "Oh my gawd, it's been forever!"
You probably should have guessed she knew them before they died, just like she knew Bro. When you look past the wrinkles and age spots, you catch a glimpse of the Maid of Life and Page of Hope you knew for one April day.
Shit, it's like a Sburb reunion on all fronts around here, not just for the beta session, but also for the would-be players of the alpha session. There's Jane, Jake, Roxy, and... that's all. Dirk's missing, his empty slot filled by John's dad. Bro didn't want to come and, frankly, you doubt he was invited.
It ain't right, but no one else seems to have noticed. Does Nanna give an iota of shit that she's missing out on her would-be friend? Does Jade's grandpa have any idea that he was close enough to date Bro in a world where their ages matched up? For that matter, does Bro even fucking realize what kind of friends he could have had if he wasn't a grade-A fuckup?
Nanna gives you a little wave and you nod back before the grownups head into the kitchen together, chatting like normal happy people who aren't missing a party member at all.
Are you on the path to following in Bro's footsteps? Is alienating your friends just what Striders do?
"Penny for your thoughts," Rose says, breaking you out of your internal monologuing, "or are you just dawdling?"
You shake your head. "Nah, I'm revving up the angst engine in anticipation of this wild race of emotions that's about to begin." You take a deep breath to brace yourself for the fate awaiting you in John's room, then wheel forward. "Let's do this."
Wait. Fuck. Stairs. That's a thing that happens in houses that aren't highrise apartments with elevators. These step-covered monstrosities truly are your archnemesis now.
Rose crosses her arms, watching you with a raised eyebrow. "I can ask them to come down here."
Hell no you aren't beginning this reunion with an awkward favor. You turn your wheelchair around and back it up, ignoring her concerned frown. "Nah, I'm on it. I've seen gifs of this. I just gotta replicate the technique and..." You lift the front of your chair in the same movement as you tug the back wheels to nudge them up the first step. Sure, it's a pain in the ass just to wheel over deep cracks in the sidewalk, but maneuvering stairs can't be that tough, right? Your chair slides out from under you and you fall backwards, smacking your head against a lower stair.
Thank god for carpeting, even if it still hurts like a bitch. Your archnemesis wins this round.
Rose winces and waits for you to groan before she leans over to examine the damage. "Setting aside how you've never been instructed on how to perform this feat, did it ever occur to you that those gifs feature very particular types of stairs and very particular types of wheelchairs specifically designed for stair climbing?" she says with a sigh.
"Hey, I... meant t'do that." Any credibility in your words is taken out back and shot by your strained voice.
You hear footsteps thunder upstairs, followed by a familiar high-pitched voice calling out, "No, they're here!" You can just see Jade's shape on the second floor as she comes charging to the stairs. It's the first time you've seen her without dog ears in three years. "I told you I heard-" Her eyes widen as she catches sight of you sprawled out on your back. "Davesprite?"
You haven't been called by your proper title in months. It doesn't inspire much nostalgic fuzziness. "Yo." You raise your arm to give her a thumbs up, while your other hand cradles the bruise forming on the back of your head. "I'm starting a new trend here, so don't fucking laugh, 'cos everyone's gonna be greeting their friends like this in three months."
"Oh nooo, are you okay?" Jade hurries down the stairs and you kind of can't complain about the vantage point from the floor anymore. "You're not bleeding, are you?"
"Wait, what?" John's muffled voice carries down from his room, growing louder as he follows after Jade. "What did you numbnuts even do in the five whole seconds you've been here?"
"Davesprite capsized his wheelchair!" Jade calls to the second floor as she kneels to help Rose get you oriented again.
John comes into view at the end of the hallway. "Since when does Davesprite have a wheelchair?" He glances right past you into the living room before his gaze backtracks to the foot of the stairs as if he didn't expect you so nearby.
You grunt and leverage yourself back into your chair with some assistance from the girls. "Since when does Nanna have a wheelchair, dumbass?" Damn, that bruise smarts. You hold a hand over it because wounds always feel vaguely better when covered like that. You're gonna be so pissed if you gave yourself a concussion.
"Nanna's like two hundred!" John says with an exasperated sigh as he hops down the steps. "It's not weird that her bones got too old for walking!"
Rose rests an arm on your shoulder. "Contrary to popular assumption, young people can and do require wheelchairs sometimes, John," she says.
"Yeah, but that's sort of a thing to mention beforehand. Jeez!" He kneels on the landing, frowning at you, and you do your best to put on an emotionless face. "Do you need an ice pack or anything? There's a bathroom off the old study now," he says, which is just about the last greeting you expected from him.
"Nah, I'm cool," you say, forcing your hand into your lap.
"Well..." Jade puts on her usual silly grin and clasps her hands. "I'm really glad to see you two again!"
What the fuck's with the cheer? Last time you spoke, she was telling you off for impersonating a dead guy. She's got no reason to hold you in high regards, or even medium regards.
"How have you been?" she continues, oblivious to your confusion because sometimes your pokerface is actually worth something.
"Nothing exciting that I haven't already kept you abreast of via Pesterchum," Rose says.
You shrug. "Yeah, you know, just been doing stuff. Cool stuff."
John snorts. "That sounds like you, all right." He jerks a thumb towards his room. "Hey, Jade and I were watching a movie on my computer, but we can start it over if you two want to come upstairs and watch too."
"Dude," you say flatly, gesturing down at your legs.
John stares a moment. "Oh, right," he says, because apparently it takes him a full five seconds to remember that wheelchairs don't do stairs -- seriously, you tried. "Man, it sucks we didn't keep our game powers." He puts his hands on his hips and looks between you and the second floor. "Jade could just teleport you or I could use the breeze to pchoooo you up there."
A shiver runs down your spine. Even John's treating you like a friend instead of like a jackass who lied about your identity and led them on. Why are they dancing around it? How long until everything goes to shit? God, even with the new decor, this house brings up too many bad memories.
Fuck it, you're just going to beat them to the punch. "Look, about the last time we talked..." you say, but Jade cuts you off.
"Don't worry about it!" she says chipperly. "We understand you were feeling a lot of pressure."
John hops his way down the rest of the stairs. "I was probably being too harsh on you anyway. It's cool."
It's not cool. Tensions are high and you're all carrying a shitton of baggage. That's obvious even to you.
Rose's mouth is a straight line, but she doesn't say anything. She pulls out no sarcastic quips or brutal analyses despite how well-deserved they are. Is she really giving you full rein here? Will she jump in if you stay quiet, or is this seriously your decision?
"You know, I brought some laptops!" Jade says brightly, clapping her hands together. "We could restart the movie on one of them and watch it on the couch."
They're seriously ignoring the elephant in the room, no matter how much it stomps around or leaves giant mountains of crap in the corner. You can keep your mouth shut and pretend the fights never happened. You can just go back to being Jade and John's friend, without uttering another word on all the shit that went wrong.
Everything can go back to normal and you don't even have to lift a finger.
"Someone with working legs help me grab Nanna's cookies while I get the DVD," John says. "You guys have got to save me from the mountain of baked goods she made for this reunion. It is a dumb amount of cookies." He sets his foot on the first step, then pauses. "Oh hey, Davesprite, where do you want to sit?"
If you don't make a fuss, no one has to dwell on how much they hate you. You'll have your friends back.
You'll just be the asshole who has no nerve to confront problems again.
"No," you say, your voice firm.
John gives you a funny look. "Well, last I checked, you can't stand, dude, unless you're planning to lie down or something."
"No, I mean I ain't here for this." You grip the ends of your armrests tightly. "We aren't shoving all of our baggage in the closet again. Especially not when that closet doesn't have enough space and the only way to keep everything crammed inside is to lean all our weight against the door, 'cos one day that shit is just gonna build up to the point we can't hold it anymore. That door's gonna crash down on us and send unaired grievances flying fucking everywhere."
John holds his hands up in a shrug. "Uh, we don't have unaired grievances, dude. There was a bunch of dumb and awkward crap back on the ship, but we were all just restless and tense."
"Yeah, everything's okay, Davesprite," Jade says, even though her smile's faltering. "We can just let it go and move on now that the game's over."
"How the hell can you two repress that much emotional garbage without your heads exploding from the tension?" You look between them. "A metric fuckton of bullshit went down in the last three years and that's not going to disappear with a handwave and some half-apologies."
John rolls his eyes with such exaggeration that his entire head moves with it. "Oh my god, dude, why do you always have to be such a drama queen?"
"Maybe drama is naturally what stirs up when you treat someone like yesterday's crap, Egbert," you say through gritted teeth.
God, Rose worked so hard to prepare you for this. You spent so many damn hours discussing everything that went wrong on the battleship with her, while she dug deeper than you could and offered strategies for just this moment. And here you're already off-script. She's probably mentally facepalming five times over. You don't dare glance her direction, but for better or worse she hasn't yanked the reins out of your hands yet.
John groans. "I was trying to be nice, but I guess that's fucking pointless when Davesprite's involved. Can't you ever be chill like a regular Dave?"
You clench your jaw. You goddamn knew that was sitting just below the surface, waiting to break free as soon as it spotted prey. "You know fucking what, you didn't even know the 'regular' Dave any better than you knew me- Fuck, you knew me three years longer than you ever knew that asshole. Rose is the only one who actually lost someone here," you say, jamming a finger her direction. You catch her narrowing her eyes and you quickly continue in case she's tempted to interrupt. "As far as you're concerned, I should have been the default Dave. But nah, you used me as a feathered scapegoat so you wouldn't have to admit that you can't get along with Dave well enough to share space with him."
"I would have gotten along fine with Dave!" John says. There's the defensiveness you're so damn familiar with, out in full display in all its glory.
"I'm Dave," you snap like you should have fucking years ago. "I'm the same dude who stayed up with you after you watched a scary movie behind your dad's back. I gave you comebacks to use against that kid who bullied you in fifth grade. I sent you that dumb stuffed bunny for your birthday because I knew you'd drool over it." If the height distance wasn't firmly against your favor, you'd get up in his space. You settle for turning your wheelchair to directly face him with a jolt. "What precious moments did you share with the alpha Dave after I split off from him, Egbert? List that shit. I want to hear it."
The anger on John's face fades as fast as it flared up, replaced by apprehension. "Uh... like, right now, off the top of my head?"
You lean back in your chair and cross your arms. "You know what? I'm feeling charitable. You have until the end of my self-righteous spiels to come up with an answer, because I'd rather you take your time and cook some real quality for me than rush out half-baked bullshit."
Jade darts between the two of you, holding her hands up as if she's afraid you're about to come to blows. "This really isn't necessary!" She turns a nervous smile on you. "We're all trying to get along now, remember?"
You frown at her, keeping your mouth shut long enough to avoid a rash reply. "That's exactly the damn problem, Jade," you say. "We're trying to pretend like everything's fine when it's not, which, by the way, seems to be your signature move. You're so dead set against rocking the boat that you just waltzed through all manner of bullshit on the ship with a smile. Oh, yeah, it's perfectly fucking normal that Davesprite spends eighty straight hours sleeping. Better just leave him be, because if you confront him, maybe you'll have to admit not everything is goddamn hunkydory."
Jade's not smiling anymore and her eyes have gone wide. "Davesprite-"
"No, let me finish." You hold a hand up. "I'm too close to the end for another interruption. Maybe I had issues before we ever set foot on that godforsaken ship, but you two are the reason I was still grappling with those issues and losing to them three years later." You hesitate as your breath hitches.
You can't afford someone talking over you here, but you're not ready to just dive into the next part. You've had all those words pent up for at least a year and it should feel better to finally unleash them on their appropriate targets. Maybe it's the house, reminding you of all the tainted memories that could have been happier if the three of you weren't such fucking messes, or maybe it's because you really fucking wish you could have kept silent and let Jade keep smiling at you and John keep treating you like a bro.
No one seems keen on rushing you through your extended pause. Even John keeps silent, eyeing you warily while Jade chews on her lower lip. Rose nods to you.
Maybe you're fucking this up, but apparently you're doing well enough that Rose still has your back even if it goes to hell.
"And..." This is it. This is the grand finale where you drop the mic and wheel out backwards with both middle fingers in the air. There's no coming back to the stage to take a bow. One more monologue and the show's over for good, no refunds accepted. Just say it. "And I reacted by being so fucking shitty to you guys." Your voice breaks, but it's not like your image isn't already ruined. "You were a pair of total jackwads, but I still lashed out at you like a vindictive asshole and I'm so fucking sorry."
The entire room seems to shift in atmosphere. It's not like the tension's gone, but the anger has faltered in favor of a miserable acquiescence, like the aftermath of a bad thunderstorm. The wind and rain is gone, but everything's still wet and muddy and broken.
You reach under your shades to wipe at your eyes because at least that's better than letting tears actually fall. No one says anything. Jade averts her gaze and John doesn't seem to know what to do other than gawk in confusion at you.
Rose quietly clears her throat. "Should I go visit with the adults so you three can hash out the gritty details in more privacy?" she murmurs.
You shake your head with a shudder. "Hell no, I'm not making you the odd man out. This affects all four of us and you're already three years behind."
Jade shuffles her feet and clears her throat. "You know, I think..." she says quietly. "I think everything went so badly because we let the tension spiral worse and worse." She raises her gaze to you. "I mean, I didn't want to approach you because it really hurt when you dumped me. You and Dave always thought you knew what was best for me instead of trusting me to make tough decisions for myself. I didn't want to blame you for being thoughtless since you had a lot of issues to work through, but..." She hesitates, then actually raises her voice as she says, "You still broke my heart and insulted me in the same go!"
"Yeah, I did some really dumb shit I shouldn't have," you murmur, studying her anger in awe. You actually upset her? You knew you'd been a dick, but she was so good at hiding her distress -- and avoiding you -- that you never even realized the extent of it.
She deflates, the anger waning. "And I should have been paying better attention even when it hurt." She takes a deep breath and closes her eyes. "I'm sorry too, Davesprite."
You swallow. You got through to her. You said a thing and it didn't blow up in your face. Well, it actually kind of did blow up, just hopefully in a healthy way. "Thanks, Jade."
She nods, shooting you a very small smile, completely unlike her usual wide grin.
You raise one tip of your mouth into what might be a smile, but you're not feeling the victory enough to show real cheer just yet. "So how's that list coming, John?" you say, trying to keep your tone light as you cock your head his direction. "I can keep blathering if you need more time, but I'd rather not let my tongue go wild when emotions are this high."
John rubs the back of his neck and frowns. "Jeez, Davesprite, I didn't mean to hurt your feelings or anything," he mumbles. "You were always acting like nothing bothered you, even before you were a sprite."
You shrug. "I just said I did a lot of dumb shit, didn't I?"
"Yeah. Man, you were a real douchebag sometimes." He sighs, tilting his head. "But I guess I was kind of douchey too."
"Just a little." You snort and quickly wipe off the tear that snuck its way onto your cheek. "We're such great friends, right?"
John shakes his head. "I think we seriously suck, bro."
"Can things even go back to normal after everything?" Jade asks, wrapping an arm around her front to grasp her opposite sleeve. "We were all pretty mean to each other."
You flop back in your wheelchair and stare at the ceiling. "Hey, just 'cos shit's broken doesn't mean it's the end of the world," you murmur. You've sure as hell made weirder bonds in the last couple months. "Even if it can't be the same as before, we can make something work, yeah?"
"I think we'll iron it out with time," Rose says and rests a hand on your shoulder. "You're making decent progress so far and I haven't even started pulling any strings yet."
You laugh and just that seems to take a weight off your chest. "Yeah, well. Thanks for letting me handle it this far," you say, though you are more than ready for her to take over. "I figure it was killing you not to step in and start metaphorically knocking heads together with smarter words than I could barf up."
She smirks. "Maybe, but I'm glad I behaved." She squeezes your shoulder. "You did well, Dave."