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Second Best

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"I just want the four of us to be friends again and to stop being mean to each other," Jade says. She looks from you to John to Rose and back to you. "That's what we all want, right?"

The three of you nod or shrug in agreement. Shit's still awkward. Better, but awkward. The rush and exhilaration of standing up for yourself has worn down and now no one really wants to make eye contact. At least the air's not tense, just... kinda embarrassed.

You lean on your armrest. At least John and Jade have done you the favor of hitting the couch so Rose is the only one towering over you. "The real question here is whether you'll let Dave's clone be part of 'the four of us' anymore."

"Of course we will!" Jade says, leaning forward in her enthusiasm. She hesitates, then draws herself up. "But after this, no more deceiving us or... or antagonizing John on purpose! Okay?" She's trying for stern, but you recognize the worry in her eyes.

"Seriously. No more mean-spirited pranks," John says with a huff.

You hold your hands up in mock-defeat. "Yeah, I know. No more douchebaggery."

"No more denying when you're upset with each other," Rose says, tapping a finger against her elbow and giving you all a pointed look. You can practically see her patience stretching its calves and eyeing the door, ready to make a run for it.

Yeah, you're on the verge of fumbling here after losing your momentum and she probably damn well knows it. If you don't keep shit on track, she'll probably swoop in to knock heads together herself.

You swallow and sit up straight. "Actually, if we're laying down ground rules, I've got one of my own." You flick your shades down enough that you can make real eye contact, so they know you are dead fucking serious here. "Don't treat me like I'm second best again."

"Well, yeah," John says. You don't know if he's avoiding your stare out of guilt or a total lack of engagement, as if he's trying to tolerate a cheesy anti-drug PSA. "Isn't this all pretty obvious?"

Jade nudges him with her elbow. "We still had to have it pointed out, though!"

"I guess." John tilts his head with a disinterested shrug. "So, now what? Are we ever going to hang out like buds again and watch movies, or do we have to awkwardly sit around like this and fulfill an angst quota?"

He apologized, but he still doesn't Get It, that much is fucking obvious. Maybe John just isn't wired to hold onto the past for more than five seconds. You're kind of envious, not gonna lie.

This is good enough for now though, right? Because you don't have the goddamn energy to bash him over the head with another guilt trip that might not even make a dent. "Dude, I've got that quota filled for a year. It's probably overflowing into next year." You push your shades back in place like you're an anime character. "Bring on the mindless movies, 'cos I am so fucking done with angst my edges are about to burn."

You half-expect Rose to object and pull out the full therapist gimmick until she's run you ragged from the emotional detox, but it's Jade who pipes up.

"Um..." Jade fiddles with her fingernails. "Actually, can I talk to Davesprite alone first?" she asks. "Maybe we could move to the study for a minute!"

"We converted that into Nanna's room, actually," John says, "but you could borrow my room."

You facepalm so hard that it makes an audible smack. "Seriously, Egbert?"

He rolls his eyes. "Bluhhh, yes, I know, the wheelchair! Man, give me a break. Last time I saw you, you just fucking floated everywhere." He hops off the couch and prods Rose's shoulder. "Rose, wanna go hang out in my room?"

Rose studies John with a calculated stare you've grown far too used to seeing aimed at you. "Yes, I think that works quite well," she says slowly.

She glances over her shoulder as she follows John, and you honestly wouldn't put it past her to eavesdrop from the top of the stairs, but she at least allows you the illusion of privacy. Not that the middle of a living room can ever feel all that "private," even without any other occupants, but you don't have a better option, so sucks to be you.

Jade scoots to the end of the couch so she's seated closer to you. "We'll get through to John eventually, Davesprite." She smiles at you. "Don't be discouraged yet!"

"Yeah, I'll hold off on the rending of garments and howls of devastation for later," you say, tugging at the front of your shirt as if you'd ever actually hurt perfectly good fabric. "Hey, move over."

She furrows her brow but follows your request, sliding away again. With the nearest couch cushion left open, you haul yourself out of your chair and onto the couch instead, settling in next to her.

"You're pretty good at that," she says, her smile growing more genuine.

You shrug, nudging the wheelchair away so you have more leg space. "Yeah, that happens after half a year in wheels." You cock your head. "So this is about the breakup though, isn't it?"

"I guess so." She folds her hands in her lap and lowers her gaze. "We should probably talk about it."

"Yeah, I really fucked that up," you murmur.

Her smile fades. "Well... You hurt me a lot, anyway."

You shake your head. "Shit, man, I was such a mopey fucking jackass, I figured you were miserable putting up with me."

"That wasn't for you to decide, though!" Her gaze snaps up. "I was okay being with you even when you were mopey, because I liked you, Davesprite! If you'd really liked me back, you would have respected that instead of dumping me for a reason as... as stupid as deciding on your own that I deserved better." She crosses her arms.

"That is a pretty stupid reason." You study her face. Her glare is so unpracticed that it almost looks childish in all its sincere emotion. It should be funny, but you can't bring yourself to quirk a smile. Even if she deserves better than what you had on offer, you were an idiot for thinking Dave could give that to her. You were an idiot for disguising your selfish, self-hating bullshit as doing her a favor. "Sorry, Jade. I was in a really fucked up headspace."

She lets out a huff, but lowers her volume as she says, "I understood that, dummy. I didn't want to resent you because I knew you were struggling."

"Lemme guess. Penting it all up made you resent me like fifty times worse, right?"

"Maybe." She side-eyes you, then sighs. "It felt like you didn't think I could even take care of myself, and if I couldn't take care of myself, how was I supposed to believe you trusted me to handle tougher stuff like the game? I'm not weak like that, Davesprite." She rests a hand on your shoulder. "I could have been there for you, if you'd just given me a chance instead of assuming it would be too hard on me."

You nod slowly to give yourself extra time for a thoughtful and well-considered reply, but you come up with a giant blank. "Are you just letting out some well-deserved venting or is there anything I can do to patch up my embarrassingly stupid past mistakes?" you ask. "Not ragging on venting. Just need to know if I'm here to dispatch generic comfort or if I have a more substantial role to fulfill."

She stares up at the ceiling. "I don't really know. There's a reason I never said anything before. There's nothing you can do, so far as I know." She shoots you a small smile. "But I think you and Rose are right that we need to start being honest with each other. I don't want to jeopardize our relationship again. Even after everything that happened, you still mean a lot to me, you know."

You hesitate. "Does that mean you still wanna..."

Oh, ow, that wince cannot mean anything good. "We should probably focus on just being friends again for a while before we even think about picking up where we left off," she says, patting your shoulder. "That's okay, right?"

"Yeah, that's cool, that's probably smart," you mumble, fighting off a blush. Why would you even ask such a dumb, stupid, uncool question when you know damn well what the answer is? You're the asshole who broke it off in the first place.

She peers at you. "Are you all right, Davesprite?"

You let out a strained and quiet laugh. "I know that's an easy question, but I'm gonna have to waste a lifeline anyway 'cos I have no damn clue how to answer. I've been so goddamn tense the past two weeks that I'm getting stress dreams, and now we're sharing more feelings than you'd find in a twelve-year-old girl's diary, which is way beyond my usual limit of emotions, so basically my brain is about to short circuit and I'm saying dumb shit." You pause for breath. "Anyway, can I ask the audience?"

She smiles and gives you a squeeze around the shoulders. "How about I message the other two to come back so we can take a break from being brutally honest with each other for long enough to relax over a silly action movie instead?"

* * *

"Okay, so Davesprite can take the couch, Rose can have my bed, and I'll park the sleeping bag right here to give her privacy," John says, dropping a lump of slick fabric onto the floor next to the couch.

Rose nudges the fabric with her foot so it unrolls into a thin and sad-looking sleeping spot. "John, why don't I just take sleeping bag duty?"

"What? Rose, don't be dumb!" John shakes his head in moral indignation. "I'm not making a girl sleep on the floor."

"Gee, I love being treated differently based on my gender," Rose says with a pokerface that could give Bro a run for his money. "Obviously I should have asked Jade if I could tag along with her and her grandpa to the Hyatt so I could truly lap up the hotel-level luxury my girlhood requires."

John rolls his eyes as he kneels down to smooth out the sleeping bag. "It's called being a nice host. Obviously a guest gets the bed, and Davesprite can't go upstairs, so that leaves you."

"Hey, he remembered I'm a cripple now," you say with a smirk and jerk your thumb at him. "Give him a point, Lalonde."

"Oh my god, I didn't call you that!" John says with an exasperated sigh, as if you're the type to be offended by semantics.

Rose raises an eyebrow. "Can I trust you two to behave by yourselves with only Nanna down here to intervene?"

You scoff and lean back against the couch, resting your hands behind your head. "I'm a big boy who can look after myself, thanks."

"Besides, we're not being mean to each other anymore, remember? We made rules and stuff." John straightens up and motions for Rose to follow him. "C'mon, I'll show you where you can find all the towels and toothpaste and whatnot. I need to grab Davesprite some blankets anyway."

Rose still frowns, but she bids you good-night and disappears to the second floor with John.

You let out a long breath, expelling your nerves with it. Yeah, you can survive a night next to John. That's not jumping the gun, right? You kissed and made up, so you should be fine.

Maybe you should ask if John has two sleeping bags so all three of you can camp out in the living room. Just in case. But that assumes he wouldn't be too scandalized by sleeping in the same room as a girl.

You shift to the corner of the couch. The house is almost silent compared to the ruckus from this afternoon. Even the adult voices from the kitchen are quiet and distant now that Grandpa Harley's taken Jade to a hotel and Nanna's gone to sleep. (Old people and their early sleep schedules. Honestly.)

Mom keeps her voice so low that you almost don't notice when she steps out of the kitchen with her cell phone pressed against an ear. She pauses and gives the room a look-over.

"Dave?" She hurries to your side, kneeling in front of you. "What's wrong? Where are the others?"

You lean back out of instinct. "Well, I'm physically incapable of chilling upstairs, so John's grabbing all the necessary supplies to party down here."

"Oh." She relaxes. "That's all? No, he's fine," she says, adjusting the phone's speaker closer to her mouth. "I jumped to conclusions too fast-like." She glances back at you and whispers, "Dirk was worried." Less than a second later, she shouts into the phone, "Yes, you were, you big liar!" She lowers the phone to address you again. "Anyway, are you sure you don't want me to call a hotel?"

"Mom, I am not going to be the reason you don't get to share a bed with your boyfriend tonight."

"Shush." Mom blushes and holds a hand over her mouth to muffle a short giggle. "Thanks, but freaking shush, you. It's totes bedtime anyway." She holds her phone up to your ear. "Go ahead and say hi to your dad first, though."

"Hi, Dad," you repeat on automatic as you take the phone. You only realize your mistake after the second word is out in the wild and beyond your means to corral.

There's dead silence on the other end.

"Da-ude." You clear your throat and feel heat rising to your cheeks. "Dude. I said dude."

"I know," Bro says, his voice as flat as ever.

"Cool, 'cos I think I said it kinda funny at first there. Washington accents must be sticking to me already like packing tape to fingers." As if this wasn't already going to be awkward even before you shoved your foot in your mouth. You don't know if you've even talked to him on the phone before. "So, uh, why'd you call?"

"I didn't. I just answered Roxy after the fifteenth goddamn time she called me."

You snort. You don't know if Mom spaced those calls apart or spammed him nonstop for five minutes, but you're envisioning the latter and have no intention of clearing up the potential misunderstanding. "Why the hell didn't you answer sooner, dude?"

"I didn't want to get fucking roped into some weirdass conference call with the geriatrics," Bro mutters. His tone is actually easier to read over the phone, with no body language to mask his emotions. "Anyway, everything cool with you?"

"Yeah, shit's fine." You glance over at the stairs as you hear John making his return, his arms loaded with blankets and pillows. "We're all civil here and no one's thrown anything at my head. Fucked up a new trick with the wheelchair, though."

"Damn," Bro says. "Was it at least badass?"

"Hell yeah it was." You smirk. "It was so badass, I wiped out and cracked my skull open."

Before Bro can congratulate you, Mom's eyes go wide and she blurts out, "You hit your head?"

"Yeah, I-"

She grabs you from either side of your temple, positioning herself directly behind you. "Oh god, let me look!" You feel fingertips traveling over the back of your scalp in search of the elusive bump on your head. "Why didn't you come get me when it happened?"

"Mom," you say flatly.

John pauses at the bottom of the stairs and actually backs up a step. Either he has enough common sense to leave you some breathing room, or he rightfully ain't interested in waltzing into the middle of family craziness.

Mom checks her watch. "There might still be an emergency clinic open if we leave right-"

"Mom!" you say louder to snap her out of her concentration. Hopefully you didn't just wake Nanna in the crossfire. "Chill. It's a bruise. I ain't a fragile flower. No one's leaving a mark on even one petal around here."

She slides around to check the front of your head. "I'm sure you're a very pretty flower, Dave, but what if you got a concussion?" She gasps and holds a hand over her mouth in horror. "Or internal bleeding? Do you think there are any doctors in the area that'll make emergency house visits?"

You groan and adjust the cell phone against your ear. "Oh my god, Bro, are you hearing this?"


"Great. Tell Mom I don't need a doctor." You shove the phone back in Mom's face and she's accommodating enough to take it.

"He hit his head, Dirk!" she says before he has a chance to get a word in. "Do you have any idea how dangerous that is?" She frowns. "Well, obviously he's survived worse, but- Wait, you did what?" Anger flashes over her eyes and she turns her back to you as she raises her voice. "Do I sound like I give half a pile of poop? That's still not a thing you do to a child!"

John skitters to the couch with his plunder once Mom's attention is diverted. He drops a pile of heavy blankets into your lap and flops next to you. "What's going on?"

"My parents are fighting over me."

He fluffs up a pillow before passing it over to you. "Wait, really?" he says, dropping the other pillow onto the sleeping bag.

"Yeah, Bro's a careless maniac and Mom's an overprotective helicopter, so they kinda work to cancel each other out." You shrug, half-assedly setting up your couch-bed when you don't have the space to lay out any blankets. "It's cool."

Mom's face is scrunched up in distaste, but she turns back to you with a sigh. "Okay, we won't go to a doctor, but only if you promise to tell me the instant you feel dizzy or funny in the head at all." She holds her cell out. "Deal?"

You resist the urge to roll your eyes as you nab the phone. "Yes, sure, fine."

She shakes a finger at you. "Say good night to your dad and go to bed, mister."

"Sure thing." You shake your head with a quiet laugh. "You're a life saver, Bro," you say into the phone.

Bro grunts. "If you say so," he says. "You know that time I taught you to flashstep by throwing you off the roof?"

You furrow your brow. "Uh... Can't say that's a thing I remember."

"Yeah, I guess you were still an infant. The point is, sorry." He clears his throat and actually sounds uncomfortable. "You talk to Roxy about moving to New York yet?"

You glance up at Mom, but the receiver mustn't be loud enough for her to hear Bro's words secondhand. "Nah, I've been kinda distracted," you mumble.

"You should get on it," Bro says.

You frown. Yeah, you really should. Who knows how much longer the Lalondes will even stay in Texas now that you're not a royal mess? They might drop you off and head back for New York as soon as you return from Washington. "I know," is all you say, because you sure as hell aren't admitting that you're scared of change, scared that Mom might say no. "You should take Mom's conference call next time."

"What?" Bro says, because maybe that did kind of come out of left field. You can't help it if you're one of those quarterbacks who makes snap decisions during play and notices when your goalie is avoiding his own demons. What's "left field" even from? Never mind, you don't actually care.

"Just saying. Old people can be cool," you say. Especially when those old people are alternate versions of his would-be friends.

"Hrm." Hella eloquent reply, right there. Bro sure has a way with words.

Mom waves at you and taps at her watch.

You nod. "A'right, I'd better go before Mom instates a curfew," you say. "Night, dude."

"Take care, kid," Bro says, the icy edge in his voice melting for once.

You end the call and pass the phone back to Mom. She bids you good night with a kiss on the cheek before she collects her own Egbert from the kitchen and departs hand-in-hand with him. John pulls a face and gags as soon as the parents' backs are turned, which you ignore because big fucking deal if your parent has a love life.

John slips off the couch to pile up his pillows on the sleeping bag. "Man, for such a cool guy, you seem pretty okay with having a mushy mom." He shoots you a smile.

"Yeah, it's a nice contrast after thirteen years with an emotionless older brother." You shake out a blanket to get your sleeping space ready to go, too. "She's kinda overzealous, don't know if you noticed or anything, but she means well."

"My dad's kinda like that." John flops on his back and looks up at you. "It's annoying sometimes, but he's pretty great."

You nod. John's dad seemed nice enough in the five sentences you exchanged with him. Boring, but nice. "Hey." You nudge John with your foot. "I'm glad you got him back."

John grins. "Thanks. I'm glad you've got a mom now." He pushes himself up on his elbows. "How's it going with your brodad?"

You open your mouth, hesitate, then settle on, "Fuckin' weirdly." You lie back against the couch. "You know how Jade went all berserk and sociopathic when the batterwitch snagged control of her, but we were like 'ha ha, Jade, we know that's not really you, so how about you stop being evil and we can all be friends again'? It's like that, except he was pseudo-grimdark my entire fucking life, so now that he's back to so-called 'normal,' I'm just perpetually in a low-key state of confusion."

John tilts his head. "So is that bad or..."

"Let's say it's like trying to rate an arthouse film. It's unsettling and you're pretty certain there's something meaningful going on, but you can't decide if you liked it or not and you sure as hell didn't fucking understand it. The popcorn was good though."

"What the hell's the popcorn a metaphor for?" John laughs.

"I'll tell you after I figure that out." Fuck, it's a pain in the ass to get the blankets straightened out. It's too much effort to haul yourself back into the wheelchair just to give yourself the angle to make your bed, so instead you fling the bottom of the blanket until it reaches your feet. "Anyway, if you were looking for a short answer, shit's strange, but we're making it work. He's definitely more of a brother than a parent, though, so I'm probably moving in with the Lalondes soon."

"Wait, seriously?" John's eyes bug out as he studies your face for any sign that you're joking. He slowly grins. "Hell yes, now I can visit both you and Rose in one go."

"Yeah, you better believe the next party's at my place. We'll get all kinds of novelty balloons and punch bowls and one hella cool disc jockey to blow our eardrums out as we scream over the lyrics just to keep up a conversation and-"

"Hey, lights out down there!" Mom calls down the stairs.

You cut yourself off abruptly, more out of surprise than obedience.

John chuckles and does the honor of scrambling out of bed to turn off the lamp. "Not used to that yet?" he says, keeping his voice down.

You blink in the wake of the pitch blackness. Your apartment always has city lights blaring through the windows, but it's so damn dark in the suburbs that you actually slip your shades off just to return some ability to differentiate the shadowy shapes. "Nope, the 'parent who actually notices me' thing still has its new car smell."

"Don't worry." John settles down next to you. "They're worth the nagging."

* * *

Washington is fucking cold. You thought John was nuts when he handed you three heavy blankets, but as the night wears on, you wrap yourself up in all of them and almost wish he'd brought you a fourth.

The couch cushions are technically more comfortable than your mattress back home, and you've slept on John's couch more than a few times on the battleship so it's not unfamiliar, but your eyes won't stay shut for more than a few seconds. It was never dark on the battleship and there definitely weren't any noises like passing cars or wind.

You roll onto your side, flop onto your back, then try lying on your stomach. You know you gotta sleep, but you can't shake the worry that you might bump into a certain ironic dead asshole in your dreams. The last thing you need is to get a nightmare in front of John.

It's three in the morning back in Houston, so the jetlag should work in your fucking favor. You wonder if Bro's enjoying having the futon to himself, or if his sleep schedule is too fucked up to use it at the proper hour.

John stirs with a quiet groan and shimmies out of the sleeping bag. You don't say anything as he gets to his feet and stumbles upstairs. You wonder if he's sleepwalking, forgot why he wasn't in his room, or decided he was tired of listening to you restlessly turn to and fro.

You hear a toilet flush.

Okay, fine, or maybe he needed to take a piss.

You roll over a few more times in your failure to sleep. Go figure, after spending two weeks unconscious as much as possible, you forgot how to pass out.

John's footsteps are lighter as he climbs down the stairs. He pauses next to the couch as you turn over again. "Can't sleep?" he whispers.

"Jetlag, I think." You crack your eyes open. "Or maybe just nerves. I've had a lot of those to go around and they don't digest fast."

He drops onto the sleeping bag, sitting with his knees pulled up. "What were you nervous about?"

You roll your head to give him a blank stare that he can't see in the dark. "Well, y'see, I'm scared shitless of airline food and... The fuck did you think I was nervous about? We haven't gotten along in two years and I figured nothing was really gonna change that."

"We've gotten along sometimes!" John says. "We weren't always fighting on the battleship and we, uh... We had a lot of fun on Pesterchum when I thought you were Dave."

You sigh. "Yeah. Almost like old times."

"See? So we can get along when we try." He curls up on the floor and you figure that's the end of that. It's late, he's oblivious... It's the usual song and dance, but after half a minute, he mumbles, "We hadn't talked like that in a while, though."

"Nope, not in months." You stare up at the ceiling. "Too busy keeping to ourselves or sniping at each other."

"Is that why you lied about being Dave?" he whispers.

"Yeah, dude. That's why I lied." You swallow to keep your voice steady. "I missed having friends who actually gave a shit about me."

"I guess I did give more shits when I thought you were regular Dave. Which is pretty stupid, since I couldn't tell..." He trails off and goes still. "Oh my god."


He sits bolt upright so suddenly that you jump. "We had less than two days together!" he shouts.

You edge back. Oh fuck, what did you do this time? "Uh... That sure is a thing you said without any fucking context."

"Me and Dave!" John says way too fucking loudly for post-midnight. "We shared, like, I dunno, a few pesterlogs? And then a couple of in-person conversations once we reached the alpha session? But that's it. Everything else involving a Dave after we entered the game was you!" He holds his head in his hands. "Oh my god, I didn't even know the Dave who died!"

You gape at John's silhouette, giving no shits that your eyes have gone wide. Isn't this what you pretty much already said earlier? Now it sinks in? At one in the goddamn morning when it's so dark that you can't even see his expression? You didn't even mean to turn him hysterical or to smack him over the head with his friend's death.

"Dude, you still had history," you say in a weak attempt at soothing him. "It was kinda old and outdated history, but it's not like you were complete strangers."

"But I had you around the whole time, while he went off and changed without me and I barely had a chance to even learn anything about the sixteen-year-old Dave!" John falls to the floor and rolls from side to side. "Did he still like dumb raps? Did he grow a fondness for weird troll romance novels? Did he turn out to be homosexual? I don't even know, because he was only Rose's Dave! You're my Dave!"

"Okay, it's cool that you finally fucking pieced that together, like goddamn, but chill. You'll wake Nanna and probably the rest of the house," you say, keeping your voice as quiet as you can when you're dueling volumes with a loon.

John just moans and presses his face against his pillow, which barely muffles his voice as he makes other noises that sound suspiciously like gnawing.

"Egbert, do not eat the goddamn pillow," you say flatly, to no effect. You lie back with a sigh. "Oh my god, your tantrums are stupid."

"You're stupid," he says, his voice still garbled by fabric.

At least he's not mad at you this time. You think. You don't really know what goes through this kid's head. His brain probably looks like a 3D version of Candy Land mixed with action movie explosions, which makes for a jumbled mess when he actually encounters depth. Bombs away.

John garbles nonsense into his pillow for long enough that you wonder if you should try shouting for an adult to calm him down, then he falls very silent. If he accidentally smothered himself, you're going to kill him.

"Dude, did you fall asleep?" you ask.

John takes a deep breath. "I'm sorry, Dave," he whispers.

You go still. "Who're you talking to, Egbert?"

"You." He rolls onto his back. "I shouldn't have said all that stuff about you being a poor substitute. It was mean and totally untrue besides. You were still my best friend even if you weren't the alpha."

Your breath catches. Of course John waits until the middle of the fucking night to have this epiphany, because he can't process emotions in real time like a normal person. Better late than perpetually oblivious, though. "Thanks, John."

He reaches up and squeezes your shoulder. "If you don't think you're gonna fall asleep for a while, I can make us cocoa."

Staying up for chocolate-y caffeine leaves you at risk for never breaking free of jetlag, not to mention Mom's disapproval if she catches you. You take a deep breath. "Yeah, fuck sleep schedules. Let's do it."

John hops up. "Oh, we're doing this," he says, hitting the light and nudging your wheelchair closer for you.

You smirk. "We're making this happen," you finish for him.