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"Hell no." Hell no to the return of the ghost tail. Hell no to your glowing orange skin. Hell fucking no to the dead Dave sitting at the edge of the empty dreamscape. You don't even bother holding back a scowl as you cross your arms. "You already had a haunting like two nights ago. Keep your dead hands off my subconscious for at least a week, you greedyass motherfucker."

Dave ignores you. He taps a beat against a drawn up knee, but he doesn't accompany it with even a headbob, let alone one of his half-assed raps.

You lower your guard the longer the silence goes on. "Dude?" You float over to make sure he's not blasting music through headphones or braindead.

His fingers go still and he cocks his head. "So that's what it's like to get Egbert's official seal of rejection," he says, his voice especially devoid of emotion, like when you're concentrating on not letting your feelings slip.

Fuck. You know that feel, bro. "Yeah, it kinda sucks like a steady prodding to the balls." You settle next to him. "You lose contact for what feels like forever, you reunite, it's cool for a bit, then he realizes he doesn't know shit about you and suddenly you're shoved at arm's length. Just gets worse from there." You glance at him. "At least you're too dead to suffer his cold shoulder in-person."

His interest in you remains in the negative, probably because he doesn't want to acknowledge what you both already know: John's opinion of you matters more than you'll admit to anyone.

You raise a hand, undecided on whether to rest it on Dave's shoulder or to shake him like a fresh bottle of orange juice.

"Wouldn't suggest doing that," he says just before you make contact.

You pause. "Why not?"

"You'll wake up."

"Like that's a bad thing."

He shrugs. "You're the one who was suffering from insomnia."

You drop your arm. "Touche." The last thing you need is to wake at five in the morning, with a side of disturbing John while you're at it. "What happened to taunting me like a jackass?" you ask. "Are you too heartbroken now that John isn't mourning you anymore?"

"It ain't that big of a deal." He waves you off. "Dude's gotta move on with his life someday and forget about the towering pile of dead Daves if he doesn't want to crush himself in therapy bills down the road."

You point an unimpressed stare in his direction. Who the hell does he think he's fooling? You've been around this block so many times you've almost run out of gasoline. "Why are you bullshitting me, bro? We both know it hurts more than watching the end of Old Yeller."

"Which is exactly why we don't bother talking about it, 'cos we're too cool to tackle that mopey shit."

Because if there's one thing better than confronting the ghost of your alternate self, it's bickering with your alternate self because he's never had a chance to grow the fuck up and stop dancing around his issues like a professional ballerina. You do not have the time to turn Rose's therapy tactics on him, so you just sigh. "You say that like we got anything else to talk about."

He turns to look at you for the first time. "Why the hesitation for moving in with the Lalondes?"

"Like you can't just suck that info out of my subconscious like some kind of ghost leech." Okay, maybe you're a giant fucking hypocrite right now, but you weren't expecting the reverse-interrogation.

"Nah, legit, I'm asking," he says. "You keep telling everyone that Rose's mom is great, so what's the hold up?"

You shift. Was it always this difficult to find a comfortable spot with your sprite tail? "Houston's all I got to my old name right now. My legs are fucked up, my relationship with every asshole I know is different in one way or another, my eyes changed color..." You fiddle with your shades. "Not all of it's bad change, but goddamn, it kinda adds up. Next I'm just leaving my home behind? Am I cursed to resemble you as little as possible?" You pull your ghost tail up enough that you can rest your chin and arms on it. "When does my name officially change from Dave Strider to Davesprite Lalonde?" you mumble.

Dave studies you quietly for a moment and you fully expect him to drop a lengthy insult on your wuss ass, as per usual. Instead he says, "I'd go."

You raise your head. "For real?"

"Yeah, man, an actual parent who cares about me sounds hella, you know?" He shakes his head. "Wish I could have had that."

Your stomach does a funny twist. This ain't right. You fought for tablescraps at the main course for three years and nearly starved, but now here you are with a buffet of desserts while Dave gets worse than nothing. He gets food poisoning.

You drop your gaze. "Sorry that you died."

"It happens." He smiles but it's kinda twisted. "Better me than one of the others."

"Probably." Better you than him moreso, though.

Dave slides to his feet and dusts off his pants. "Welp, I guess I gotta haunt-taunt you after all, dude, if you're seriously holding yourself back 'cos you're afraid you're not enough like me anymore. Because that's fucking stupid." He draws himself to full height and frowns down at you. "Just go. Be the alive Dave who gets to mature and do fun shit. I have it on good authority that growing up involves changes that are hard and no one understands anyway."

You just stare up at him with your mouth hanging open, because what else are you supposed to do when an asshole gives you well-intentioned advice instead of just mocking you?

He lets you have your silence. The rest of the dream is less accommodating.

Without announcement or transition, the clack of a cocked gun echoes in your ears. You blink and the air fills with dozens of floating rifles, as if Jade's entire sylladex emptied into your dream and forgot what gravity is. You're treated to a lovely fucking view up one of the dark barrels.

The guns cock again without firing. Last you checked you can't die in a dream, but that doesn't keep you from tensing up. "Yo, any particular reason this ride has made a sudden turn for the goddamn fucking hostile?" you snap at Dave.

Dave raises an eyebrow. "That's not me. Dreams sometimes bastardize outside elements from your real world environment like a bad Google Translate session." He leans over to examine a firearm, prodding at its side. "Sounds to me like that fake-click noise that digital cameras make," he says after it cocks again.

You sidle out of the crosshairs of the nearest rifle. "Why the fuck would we be hearing a camera?"

"I dunno. Go find out." Dave reaches out and grabs your arm, but you never feel his touch.

Your eyes open and your vision is met with a soft light instead of the painful glare of a Texas morning. Your right side is cold, in sharp contrast with your sweltering left side, and the air against your neck fluctuates in warmth. Your back feels like someone's strapped a board to it. Did you pass out on the fucking floor? Shit, you'd better not have fallen asleep before John did.

Wait, if you're on the floor, where's-

A camera clicks.

"Are you sure this isn't kind of mean?" Jade says somewhere above you.

You try to shift, but there's a heavy weight on your arm. Only your head raises unhindered, because somewhere in your sleep you managed to entangle yourself with John and ffffffffff...

"You two could sleep through a stampede." Rose taps her cell phone and it lets out another click.

You scramble to dislodge yourself from John's limbs, throwing a pillow at her. "Dude, privacy!"

She ducks out of the way, shielding the phone against her chest. "I held off on such unscrupulous actions as long as I could, but after Mom beat me to it..."

Blood drains from your face. "She what?" You swivel in search of Mom or other witnesses, but any nearby adults have vacated the living room. Given the quiet murmurings coming from the kitchen, they've probably already passed through.

John groans and rubs at his eyes. "Why the hell are we being so loud?" he asks, picking himself off the floor.

"Dave is having a tantrum because we snagged photos of you two cuddling for warmth." Rose waves her phone for all to see the offensive image of you snuggling against John in your unconscious and unwise state.

"Jeeeez, is that all?" John nudges the side of your head, damaging your already bedhead-ridden hairdo. "How is that a big deal? Everyone knows we're best friends and not homosexual."

You stare blankly at him. "Do you even hear yourself sometimes, dude?"

"Don't worry. We know you were just sleepy." Jade kneels next to you. "There's warm food in the kitchen, by the way, if you two want breakfast."

"She means donuts," Rose says while she thumbs through her indecent phone gallery.

John pulls a face and sticks his tongue out. "Bluhhh, no thanks." He wraps an arm around his stomach. "I'll just wait for lunch, when we have things other than sugary bullshit to eat."

Jesus, how are you supposed to think about food at a time like this? Everyone you know saw you cuddling with John. There's not enough irony in the world to excuse that. You'll have your coolkid license revoked until you can retake the test and qualify for- Hang on, did Nanna make those donuts? Shit, she probably did. There's no way she'd allow Krispy Kremes in her house while she can still stir batter with her wrinkly old hands.

You can't say no to Nanna's cooking. Unlike John, you have working tastebuds that can appreciate good food. Besides, it's been like half a year, so her baked goods have gone full circle from "excessive" back to "tantalizing."

You hoist yourself into your wheelchair. "Okay, I'll join the breakfast club, except with actual food instead of shitty detention. Let's hit it, Simple Minds."

"What'd you call us?" John says with a scowl.

"Goddammit, John, brush up on your eighties references," you call over your shoulder as you make your way to the kitchen.

Brand new ground-floor bathroom aside, it's the kitchen that's gone through the most renovations since you last set foot (or ghost tail) inside this house. The old counters have been ripped out and replaced with shorter ones, the cupboards are at least a foot lower than before, and the oven opens sideways. If you knew jackshit about cooking, this would be a mighty inviting setup.

Nanna's just retrieving a fresh batch of donuts out of the oven, because she's some kind of witch who can make donuts taste good even when they aren't fried.

"Morning, Dave!" Mom calls from the kitchen table where she's taking coffee with John's dad and Jade's grandpa. "We didn't wake you, did we?" She slips out of her chair to come over and give you a quick hug. "You and your buddy were sleeping sooo soundly that we've been trying to keep the racket down."

"Nah, Rose takes the blame for playing the role of unwanted alarm clock." You frown up at her. "Did you take unscrupulous photos of me behind my back this morning?"

She blinks. "What? No! I took totes adorable photos of you."

"Mom!" you whine, pulling a horrified face that would be a thousand times more embarrassing to record on film than your unconscious cuddlefest.

She bites her lower lip. "Uh-oh. Are you gonna be upset I sent one to your dad?"

You groan and drag your fingers down your face as if you can rip your skin off if you believe hard enough.

"Now, now, Dave, that's no tone to take with your mother," Nanna says in a familiar half-scold she employed on the rare occasions she wandered in on your spats with John. "Have some breakfast and get that blood sugar back where it belongs." She dumps a plate on your lap covered in at least seven donuts. Gee, it's so hard to remember how you got sick of her food. She peers around, squinting behind her old person glasses. "Where's John?"

You flop back in your chair, staring at the ceiling. "He's still in the living room, probably paralyzed from the ecstasy of the scent wafting from the kitchen." You lift a glazed donut between two fingers. "Such a shame he can't make it here for some fresh baked goods."

Nanna perks up. "Hoo hoo, I'll go bring some out to him!" she says with a laugh that reminds you equally of her sprite days and of the younger Jane.

"Yeah, he'll appreciate that," you mumble, stuffing a pastry into your mouth. Goddamn, that's an unparalleled burst of finely crafted sugar. You'd regret not savoring it if you didn't have an overabundance at your fingertips.

Nanna ignores you in favor of crafting a breakfast tray laden with fifteen donuts to terrorize John with. Mom heads back for the adult table now that you're sufficiently placated with donuts.

"Yo, Mom." You hold a hand over your mouth as you swallow. "Can I ask a serious-type question?"

She makes a U-turn and aims a smile at you. "Shoot."

You shove your breakfast platter onto the nearest counter, because bright pink icing makes for a lame cheerleader, and clear your throat. "Can I go home with you to New York and, uh... stay there?" you say, refusing to whisper but keeping your voice low enough that the rest of the room can't listen in that easily. "Bro said it's okay on his end."

"What?" Mom's smile falters. "Dave, don't you wanna stay with your dad?"

"Mom, c'mon," you say. "It's not like I can't talk to him on the phone or visit and shit. Bro's a cool guy, but..." You cringe. "We both know he never should've taken care of a kid."

She hugs herself and looks away. "You haven't seen me after I've fallen off the wagon."

"So sometimes I have to track down all your booze and pour it down the sink like Bro did." You shrug. "Still sounds worth it to me."

She clasps a hand over her heart. "Aw, baby, that's-" She pauses, furrowing her brow. "Wait, Dirk did what? When did he pour out booze?"

"Not long after you and Rose first got to Texas." You duck your head in case she's about to give him another harsh phone call.

Instead she lets out a quiet gasp. "Oh, that sweet, stupid man." She chews her thumb. "Why'd he have to be so frickin' gay?"

"Yo, what happened to wooing Egbert Senior?" you ask, tilting your head towards said romantic prospect as he pours a coffee refill for old man Harley.

Mom waves you off, her cheeks flushing. "Hush, I'm just lamenting some long lost puppy loves."

You tilt your head, watching her closely. "So are you and Bro, like..." You hesitate. "Old flames or something? What's the history there anyway?"

"Um..." She twists her face and clucks her tongue. "Well, no. We were pretty good pals when we were younger, but then we adopted meteor babies and life got busy preparing for the end of the world, sooo we sorta fell out of contact." She sucks in air between her teeth. "Plus Dirk got... weird after he found you. Weird even for him, I mean. He wasn't fun no more. All he cared about was preparing for the game. And puppets."

A shiver runs down your spine just at the memory of The Eyes Which Must Not Be Remembered. "Yeah, I'm pretty sure that creepyass puppet he carried around since childhood was possessed by a sick motherfucker who was probably a really bad influence on his brain."

Her eyes bug out. "Oh my gawd, I knew that thing seemed some kinda demonic, but Dirk wouldn't hear a bad word against it. It was so eerie." She kneels and cups your face. "Were you okay?"

Heat rises to your face. "You kidding? It'd take more than a flashstepping psycho micromanaging my childhood to make me lose my cool."

Mom frowns. "Um..."

You clear your throat and glance away. "Look, the dude tries and I like him well enough now, but there's a reason I'm not crying too many tears over relocating."

Mom sighs. "Why don't we talk it over once we're back in Texas?" she asks, petting your hair. "We got all the legal thingamabobs to go over with Dirk anyway."

That is not remotely the enthusiastic reply you wanted to hear. It's not even a confirmation either direction. "Yeah, okay," you say, keeping your voice even despite your dread of dragging out this dilemma.

Mom straightens and holds her chin. "Hmm... We'll hafta install some ramps and those little mini wheelchair elevators so you aren't stuck on the ground floor," she murmurs, stepping away. You're not sure if she's addressing you or herself as she glances at the counters. "Jane doesn't mind it, but she just cares about access to the kitchen."

You raise an eyebrow. "So I am coming home with you?"

Her face falls. "Oh my gawd, Dave, how am I supposed to say no to that?" She leans down to tug you into a tight hug. "If Dirk's really okay with it, of course you're coming home with me and Rose," she whispers into your ear.

You swallow and throw your arms around her. "Thanks, Mom."

* * *

"So can you feel anything down here?" John asks, poking at your thigh.

You fix him with an unimpressed stare and lean an arm against your laptop, narrowly dodging elbow-typing a string of nonsense into Pesterchum. "Not a damn thing," you say flatly. "All sensation has passed on to my earlobes. I have zero control or feeling left below my waist, which is why the following cannot be blamed on me in any way, shape, or form." You lift your leg and shove your foot in John's face.

John bats at you and leans away half a second too late to prevent contact between your sock and his cheek. "Dude, gross!"

"Can't help it, Egbert. My disabled ass can't possibly have any control left in my legs." You snake your foot after him. "They just have a mind of their own now and it turns out my feet are vengeful overlords keen on your smelly downfall."

John kicks at your leg and returns fire with his own foot. "You could have just said yes!"

"You could have not asked a stupidass question," you say as you engage in a duel of socks. "We all made mistakes today."

Rose levels an exaggerated glare at you from across the temporary computer hub known as the Egberts's coffee table. "Boys and their fucked up ways of bonding, I swear to god," she says, shaking her head as she types at her laptop like the rest of you should be doing.

Jade hops to her feet. "Incoming!" she shouts, yanking off her socks and lobbing them over the coffee table at you and John.

John yelps and practically crabwalks backward to avoid the line of fire. You're just glad she threw her grenades far enough that they didn't land on anyone's keyboard.

"On the upside, I guess this means I just inherited full creative control in this chat and I can tell the alpha players whatever I want with zero opposition," Rose says, keeping her concentration on her laptop.

You exchange a look with John and dive for your keyboard.

TG: whatever rose just said shes lying
GG: You are aware you could scroll up before you make assumptions on what we just read, I presume?
TG: i dont got time for that
TG: especially when i already know she was spreading filthy lies
GG: I see. I suppose it makes sense that your sister would try to cover up how nervous you are.
TG: wait no what she said what
GG: Made you look. Hoo hoo!
TG: ....
GG: heheh :D
GG: :B
TG: youre a tricky one crocker
TT: Shoulda just scrolled up, bro.
GT: Oh shed get him with a zinger sooner or later. Our janey is the annie oakley of pranksters!
TT: He still made himself an easy target.
EB: dave is ALWAYS an easy target. i feel sorry for him sometimes, but not enough to hold back on filling my prankster gambit.
EB: jane is also a pretty good prankster, though.
GG: Why, thank you.
TG: u guyyyyyz stop pickin on dave
TG: thats not very chummy at all for a big rowdy reunion party
TG: zip up them pranks for later! we gots some celemabratin to doooo
TT: A fair point. Let's not push our luck.
GG: Sorry, Dave, I got a bit carried away. I hope I wasn't hitting any sore spots!
TG: dont sweat it
TG: ive got a general policy in favor of letting hot chicks plow into my sore spots as much as they want

John's head snaps up. "Oh, hell no!"

You return his glare with a disinterested glance. "What?"

"Don't get gross and sexy with your ex's mother!"

Jade's cheeks turn pink. "Um... I think he was just being silly."

You lounge back and shrug. "Well, it ain't my fault that I'm so charming that every word I drop on the fairer sex sounds alluring."

"Nanna!" John yells over his shoulder. "Dave's flirting with your younger self!"

Cool pretenses be damned, you lunge to cover his mouth. "Dude, shut up!"

"Actually," Rose says, her eyes still locked on her laptop as she taps her chin, "Jane is flirting back."

"What?" you and John say in tandem, your bickering forgotten in favor of checking Pesterchum.

GG: Lucky for you, being an expert prankstress means I'm quite skilled at locating sore spots.
GG: It's not good sport to take advantage, but I could make an exception.
TG: welp
TG: ok
EB: jane, no!
TG: janey omg did that go over ur head
GT: *Clears throat.* So did anyone else see toy story in 3d this weekend? The new effects make it quite the exciting caper even if it was a gargantuan effort to get the 3d glasses over my own blinkers!
GG: ohh i bet my grandpa would love to go while we are on the mainland!
GG: Hang on now, what are we changing the subject for? Nothing goes over my head!
TT: Please don't encourage Dave's immature antics, Jane. I'll have to procure a squirt bottle at this rate.
GG: Oh, but it's all in good clean fun!
TT: That was undeniably dirty fun, Jane.
TG: but were in agreement it was fun
EB: let's just keep it PG in here!!
GT: Arent we all almost seventeen in our noggins?
TT: And physically almost fourteen regardless. I suppose it may be moot to ask a chatroom full of wayward teenagers to behave.
TT: Let's just embrace the inevitable and accept that we're on our way to a cyber orgy.
GG: D8
GG: Dirk, that crosses the line far beyond friendly fun!!
TT: Yeah, it skipped all the way to family fun.
GG: nooooo D:
TG: lmao
TG: lmao!!
TT: You're all hopeless ingrates.
GG: rose, youre giggling!!!!
TT: I would never.
TG: omg is she really??
TG: shes trying to hide it but she totally is
TG: cuuuuute
EB: UGH!! i'm surrounded by pervs with terrible humor!
EB: whose dumb idea was it to put all of the strilondes into the same memo??
GG: I think it was everyone's idea.
GT: Perhaps next time it WOULD be safer to split off into smaller familial groups...
TG: awww but i like jake and janeys cute kiddos
GG: aw thank you :)
TG: np <3
TG: jade is such a sweetie and johns plenty appealing ;)
EB: uh.....
GT: Gadzooks am i the only one capable of behaving today??
TT: Yes.
TT: Yes.

John covers his face. "This is a disaster."

"Define disaster," Rose says chipperly. "I'm having fun."

Jade side-eyes her. "Maybe Rose inherited Dirk's icky sense of humor." She sighs and rests her chin on her hand. "I guess it is kind of funny, in a really gross way."

"The important thing is that I'm not the one making the uncomfortable incest references for once." You point both index fingers at yourself. "Points to me."

John groans and slumps against your shoulder in overdramatic defeat. "It's still your fault."

"Probably." You smirk. "To be fair, I didn't figure my lewd joke would take off like a forest fire in SoCal, but I guess I've got a bunch of friends made of dry wood."

Rose glances up. "Is that another attempt at lewdness? Should I pass it on?"

John wrinkles his nose and makes a gagging noise. "You all suck."

"Can't speak for the girls," you lean back and rest your arms behind your head, "but I am one hundred and two-point-five percent awesome."

John pokes your cheek. "No, you are five hundred percent laaaaame."

"John!" Jade scowls over her computer at him. "Don't be mean again!"

"What?" John frowns but shies away from you, even though you're likewise giving Jade a confused look. "I've poked fun at Dave like that since way before Sburb!"

"But you can't call him lame!" she says with an exasperated sigh. "Think about what it means!"

You slap a hand over your mouth to mute your reaction. Oh dear Jesus.

John's brow furrows in confusion. "Lame means uncool." He shrugs. "So what? He knows I'm not serious."

Your hand does nothing to protect your image as you fall over laughing. Lame means uncool, because of course it fucking does, and also that other thing that you actually are.

Even Rose stops typing in the wake of your sorry display of emotions.

"Um," John says. "I don't think Dave minds that I called him lame."

You let out an extra howl of laughter. You're so lame. You're the lamest coolkid. The coolest lame kid. You're the oxymoron. It is you.

"Are you okay, Dave?" John leans over you and cautiously paps your shoulder. Where did he even pick that up?

You catch your breath and wave off his hand. "Y-yeah. Yeah, I'm cool." You wipe under your shades, still chuckling as you sit up. "Hey, Jade wants to see Toy Story in 3D, right? We should do that tomorrow. Make up for today's unexpectedly vulgar chat."

Jade perks up. "Oh, Where the Wild Things Are looks fun too, if you'd rather!" she says with a smile.

You couldn't give fewer shits about a kid's movie based on a picture book if you tried. You do give a shit that Jade's face just lit up for you for the first time in years. "Y'know what," you say as you settle back in front of your laptop, "I'm chill with whatever you guys want."