They’re here again.
Are they always here? Just lurking, waiting behind the veil of consciousness, waiting to pull her back when her guard dares to fall? The truth is, it doesn’t matter if they retreat and return, like the moon mixing the tide, or if they always lie in wait, because –
Because they are here, and they are pulling her down into the darkness. Something thick and wet scuttles down her throat, choking her screams into sputters. Millions, millions of slick tongues licking up and down her arms, wrapping around her gentle as a lover. Return to us, darling Seer. We’ve missed you dearly, darling Seer. Let yourself be tangled, wrapped and trapped in the arms of the Great Multitude, we will never let you be lonely, never alone, never, never, never—
NEVER is the word that wants to come out, but what she forces from her throat is a harsh, guttural scream. She kicks, claws at the wet mass that encircles her, forcing her way to freedom, no matter how dark it might be—
Tentacles. The cursed things stroke her face in some perversion of a comforting hand. She almost snarls at their touch, sinking her teeth into one in two parts instinct, one part anger. They yank away instantly with a hiss, strangely familiar, but in their place—
How dare they. How DARE they try to imitate him! She doesn’t show an ounce of hesitation—if anything, the puppet with her friend’s face only infuriates her further, driving her to shove the thing down, down on the cold floor, her hands clawing around what should be his throat, her fingers trying to punch through his skin, its skin, it can’t be him, never him, she has to choke it, choke it and crush it and kill it and
His hand’s touch is feather light—it’s more like it brushes the air above her cheek, but she can still feel it. Not even a pleading gesture, not an act of begging to be spared, but a comforting one, as if she’s the one who needs help. It’s almost sentimental—
She jerked, her hands releasing their vice grip on his windpipe and flying to cover her mouth. He didn’t even seem to skip a beat as he propped himself on his elbows, as if breathing was just a pastime for him. If anything he seemed to be in a bit of pain, but his smile, however weak, was genuine even as he rubbed at the red marks on his throat.
“Hi yourself,” John chirped.
Honestly, the whole choking thing had surprised him more than anything. Although having control over the wind sometimes felt a bit lame compared to, say, time travel or bringing people back to life, he had to admit it came in handy when trying to calm down a girl crushing his throat like a soda can.
It still ached a little, though, and as Rose’s breathing slowed from frenzied gasping to a steady pace, her eyes returning to their normal size, he took the opportunity to casually nurse his neck. He looked to the corner where Jaspers had shrank to, licking the tentacle where Rose’s teeth marks still showed. Although it sounded like the bite had hurt, the ghostly feline didn’t seem too bothered by it—but he had never seemed too bothered by anything, really.
Eventually John gave a polite cough. “Soooo…”
“I’m so sorry.”
The words were barely a whisper, and something about the way they sort of wobbled in the air made John’s chest feel a little funny. “H-hey, it’s alright, no harm done—.”
“No harm?” She hissed, seeming angrier at herself than anything. Her hair was in disarray from the lack of her usual headband and the struggle from only a moment ago. Sweat still shone dully on her skin from where the blanket had tangled around her. “I could have killed you. Heroic or not, you could have—and Jaspers—Jaspers?” And she almost sounded like a little girl, voice shaking on the edge of a sob. “Jaspers, I—.”
“Hey, hey, don’t be sad, Rose!” The sprite floated to her instantly. “You were just having a bad dream, I know you never would want to hurt me, or anyone!” He nuzzled her cheek. “Everything is okay now!”
She gave a faint smile, raising a hand to scratch gently behind his ear. “…thank you.” She inhaled, running her other hand through her hair. “How did you know to come?”
This was towards John. “Well, Jaspers was here, sleeping or whatever it is sprites do, and you were talking and moving in your sleep, so he came to get me. I thought about maybe getting Jade or Kanaya too but he was saying it was urgent, so…”
“So I didn’t wake up anyone else, at least.” Rose sighed, looking at the disarray of sheets and pillows that was her bed. “And it’s still a few hours until morning, I’m guessing?”
“Uh, sure?” He gave a one shouldered-shrug. John was still a little unsure of how the trolls and the Derse Dreamers knew when “morning” was. “It’s late, at least. So uh, I’m guessing you want to go back to sleep, unless you need anything, or….?”
“I need to move.”
She took a deep breath. “Would you like to take a walk with me?”
Through the cavernous halls of The Veil, a spot of pink light drifted through the black depths. Jaspers floated above what could generously be called “the party.” John brought up the rear cautiously, still unfamiliar with the turf, and Rose led the way with confidence, silent as she tried to clear her head. She imagined the traces of her nightmare escaping into the unending hallways, back to the dark places they had slunk out of. For a moment, she let herself escape in the sound of their footsteps.
Unfortunately, John was not well-versed in the art of Clearing Your Head, because after only a minute of contemplative quiet: “Hey, uh, Rose? Where…exactly are we going?”
She sighed. “Somewhere. There are a lot of well-hidden rooms here, and this one is a bit out of the way, seeing as it only has one transportalizer that leads into it.”
“So. Um.” She could practically hear him fidgeting. “Do you….have nightmares a lot?”
“If by that you mean ‘do you go into animalistic frenzies frequently,’ no. I’ve had troubling dreams in the past, but that was the first time I tried to murder a close fri—.”
“Hey,hey.” The hand on her shoulder was gentle, but his voice was firm. “We already agreed that was Not Your Fault, and you’re not going to beat yourself up over it, remember?”
“Remember, Rose!” Jaspers piped up. “We agreed!”
Rose sighed. “Once again, democracy has gotten the better of me. Fine, if you want to be in the company of a potentially violent Seer, that’s your own fault.”
“Hey, I’ve always known you were violent. Remember when you were my server, the way you kept nudging me with the cursor? That was brutal!”
“Arrest me officer, I confess to the crime of callous cursor drubbing. What are the charges?”
“How about…answering my question?”
At this rate she felt she might sigh herself to death. “…I have nightmares on a fairly frequent basis. Most often I dream of the doomed timeline, the one Davesprite came from…luckily, that one isn’t particularly violent, just…”
“…melancholy. It seems doomed Rose and Dave, although working together, were very bad at interacting together. They spent most of their time apart from each other, only communicating when they needed to confirm a part of their plan. My doomed counterpart spent a lot of time reading, researching, and…drinking, apparently. She wasn’t all that ridiculous in her drunken stupors, but I frequently dream of hours of staring at a slightly interesting stain on the wallpaper of my mother’s room. Those dreams aren’t terrifying, but they have this…this sense of hopelessness. The sense that whatever may be done, it won’t matter. And…in their case, I suppose it didn’t.
“In a way, those dreams can be worse than the nightmares.”
…Well, if that wasn’t a mood killer.
The three walked (and floated) in silence for a more than a few pregnant pauses. Rose waited for the inevitable follow-up question, but John wasn’t delivering. Was he genuinely not curious? Or did he want to make her cough it up? A good strategy, to hold the question hostage in order to force her to—
No. Lalonde, don’t be stupid. He wasn’t like that. More likely than not, he was simply giving her a break after that basket of sunshine and bunny rabbits she had just let loose. John Egbert may have lacked tact, but he could give mercy in small doses.
Eventually, she answered the unasked query. “The nightmares are standard stuff. Dreaming of my death, my mother’s death, dreaming of not catching the bottle, dreaming of losing my connection and leaving you to die via meteor…”
“Same old, same old?” She could hear a sad smile in there. All four of them had the same kinds of nightmares; they hadn’t even needed to compare notes when the golden ship had arrived.
“Yes…although…” She sighed. “The one I had tonight, I’m not sure if the rest of you dream of them, but…”
“Who are—?” He broke off midsentence--he already knew the answer. “Oh.”
“To be fair to our tentacled allies, they were only trying to help me. In their strange, Lovecraftian logic, overtaking me…invading me, it was their way of trying to make me powerful enough to fulfill my plan. In a way it was my fault, listening to that damn Doctor in the heat of anger, being arrogant enough to believe I could—.”
She paused midstep, turning to find him sadder than he ever looked. “Look, I may have warned you about throes, sis, but…nobody expected what talking to the Horrorterrors would do. You shouldn’t…it wasn’t your fault. At all. Period. And if you think that it was…”
John shifted on his soles, and the look he gave her made her heart stutter. “You…” And he sort of started forward, reaching as if to take her in his arms and—
And she stepped backwards, smiling slyly. “Too slow.” With a crack of light she vanished.
“Nice, Rose,” John said the instant he materialized in the room. “I was TRYING to be serious, you know.” His cheeks were puffed up in faux-indignation, but more than anything he was amused. He couldn’t not appreciate a good prank, after all.
He stepped off the transportalizer, looking around. “So this is the place, huh?” In the labyrinth of endless of gray and gloom of the Veil, the room he found himself in bloomed with color. Literally, if those flowers on the table weren’t silk. The floors were adorned with rich rugs and the cabinets were lined with candles, one of which Rose had already lit.
“Kanaya and I found it. It’s a nice little haven to hide from the Dork Knights.” Guided by candlelight, she walked to the edges of the room to trace several bookshelves with light. “Not to mention a good research station. Do you like it?”
“It’s very…um.” He thought for a moment. “Floral.”
“How fitting.” She returned to the center of the room to place a large book on the table. “Sit.”
He did so. “This is all the stuff you’ve been learning about the game?”
“Yes, with added footnotes from yours truly about The Adventures of Misery Meteor. We’ve had quite a time these few years. For example, do you recall a troll girl with fishtails and a penchant for stabbing things?”
John’s eyes widened. “You guys met Batterwitch Junior?”
The candle burned, and stories turned. John told her about he had revived an ancient MMORPG to introduce to the citizens of their planets, and how he promptly learned that Jade had a habit of getting a little too passionate about gaming. Rose told him the social catastrophe of first meeting with the trolls, punctuated with a pail to Karkat’s face and a near-nervous breakdown. John admitted that one day he woke up and realized he couldn’t remember the name of the girl who had guided him through the game, and how his stomach sort of went cold when the name “Vriska” suddenly appeared in his head just as Karkat had finally spat out what had happened, cringing as if waiting for a punch. Rose told him of the strange, sad longing she had felt when she had first looked at her mother’s teenage counterpart and how she had to restrain herself from trying to shake her to consciousness.
Eventually, John realized the light was fading. “Hey, the wick’s almost burned out,” he said, taking care to not accidentally extinguish the candle with the act of talking. “We should probably get going, right?”
“Zzz,” countered Rose.
Her blond head dipped the slightest bit, her body completely straight even in sleep. John stood, hesitating. On the one hand he needed to get her back to bed, on the other, it felt like such a shame to wake her when she seemed so calm. He shifted on his feet, leaned over, bit his lip, and finally looked down at the only other light in the room.
“Hey, Jaspers?” The catsprite, curled up by his master’s feet, lifted an ear. “Could you give me a hand here?”
A pause, and Jaspers uncurled a single tentacle, wriggling it around. It took John a minute to get what he was saying, and it took him every ounce of willpower not to clap a hand to his face when he did. “Oh my GOD, you know what I mean. Help me—!”
Jaspers returned to his previous spot of sleep, though not before giving the tip of his tentacle several snide licks. John bit back a curse. Cats.
With no other ideas, he stood at Rose’s side, sighed, and squatted. With a valiant movement, he scooped her up into his arms…
In case anyone ever wanted to know, “OOWAGH—” was the sound of picking a girl up, overestimating how much force you’d take to pick said girl up, and ending up flat on your ass for it. For a moment, John simply stared at the ceiling, feeling her weight on him. “Ow.”
“Stuck the landing.”
He blew out a gust of air. “Ow, again.” Slowly, carefully, he got to his knees, trying his best to keep a hold of her. “It’s your fault for weighing like two pounds. It’s like trying to lift a box you think is super heavy, but then it turns out to be empty and you pick it up too fast and fall over.” He straightened up to his feet. “You’re just really surprisingly light. Maybe, dare I say, the Seer of Light!”
For a moment he looked down at her, giving a slight frown. “…geez, you really are tiny. Have you eaten anything in the past three years? What do trolls even eat?”
“Mmmostly? Their words.”
He laughed at that. “Yeah, I bet. Listen, we need…” He trailed off. “…your eyes are closed. Why are your eyes closed?”
“You’re sleep-snarking. I don’t believe this. You are literally snarking in your sleep. This is unprecedented. I refuse to accept this is even possible. Say something stupid.”
“Nailed it! But I still need to figure out how to get us back to your room. To all of our rooms. And I don’t suppose you can sleep-navigate?”
The Heir was actually almost on the money. Sprites didn’t sleep in the same way living creatures did, but instead rested in a sort of standby phase. Their bodies could recuperate, but their minds were free to occupy the past, the present, and perhaps even the faint traces of the future.
So as the Undead Cat lays in rest, he dreams of what was and what already had been. He remembers the two girls with pale hair he had loved and adored. He remembers being by his master that he loved and adored in order to guide her through a game. He remembers the wide-eyed fury of his master that he loved and adored as she sunk her teeth into him. He remembers…
He feels The Heir curled up against his body, The Seer jackknifed in his arms. He feels two heartbeats pound through the spectral zeros and ones that hum in his body. He feels the vague vestiges of The Boy’s words drift around, coming together to form sentences in the near darkness.
“…etter know I’m not mad, you dope. You…grimdope.” He’s silent. “You’re not some psycho or even that gloomy goth you pretend to be, I know it. You tell jokes. You make puns. You make puns in your sleep!”
He shifts in his seat, careful not to wake the girl. “Just, you know, remember that we’re all here for you. Dave, Kanaya. Jade, Terezi. Man, even Karkat! We’re here. I’m…here.”
There’s an awkward tone to the last word, as if he wanted to end in on a more poignant note. Instead, he is still for a long, long moment, before bowing his neck.
Perhaps he meant to kiss her forehead, but a miscalculation and a last minute lack of nerve leave him sort of stiffly mashing his lips against her crown. He comes up spitting. “Peh. Peh, some of your hair got in my mouth.”
After a few more seconds of making those sounds, he sighs. “I think we’re going to be o…kay.” The last syllable stretches around a yawn. “Yeah…things…are going to be okay.” He may have had more to say, but soon The Heir drifts off to sleep alongside The Seer. The two breathe in tandem, and the Cat smiles. There will be no more nightmares tonight.