She appears in your life--and succinctly ruins everything in it--with all the subtlety of a train wreck, though you don't realize how grateful you are until well after the fact.
It starts in a coffee shop in a city on the west coast. You're there on a decent paying consultation job, shacked up in a fourth story hotel room downtown. First night there you happened to glance out your window to see the off-white Christmas lights decorating the wide windows of a busy coffee shop. Busy meant people, but busy also meant good coffee.
It was. You go back every day, mornings and evenings, lunch hours when you can't take Californian idiocy another minute. The scruffy people behind the glass counter full of alarmingly sweet-looking deserts get to know your usual, and even though the music (mostly Beatles) and the art (mostly naked Nouveau girls in eye-bleeding colors) isn't really your thing, you actually can relax there.
One foggy morning--most days are foggy in this city, or at least cloudy jacket-suggested weather--you're there fiddling with a side-project on one of your laptops, unhurried because the client is doing who-gives-a-shit and won't be in to harass you until eleven. You're there a half hour, forty minutes when nature calls and you make your way to the cramped little bathroom in the back. You've learned this shop is one of those rare public places you don't need to haul your gear into the toilet with you. The owners make it a point to keep the place clean and theft-free.
So imagine your face when you close the beat-up wooden door behind you, hang up the key, and walk back out into the front room to see some woman typing away on your laptop.
You finagle your way past chairs and people and a scrappy little dog and slam the lid down, hard. She's got the sense to move her hands before you can smash her fingers, unfortunately. She looks up at you, demure as can be with her hands wrapped neatly around her drink. Black lipstick and too much mascara and Jesus, no way those aren't contacts. Nobody's got lavender eyes.
"What the fuck do you think you're doing?" You ask, not moving your hand off the lid of your laptop.
"I was trying to be discrete, but apparently that isn't your style," she replies smoothly. Gesturing at a second rickety chair that definitely wasn't there when you walked away, she adds, "Sit. Please."
You don't sit. "I don't know if anyone ever told you, but fucking with other people's shit is kind of a big social no-no."
"I assure you, I have fucked with none of your shit. I did, however, buy you another coffee." She gestures again, this time at a second eco-friendly recycled material cup full of coffee black as pitch and smelling like manna from Heaven. You eye it, then her, suspiciously. She smiles without a hint of teeth. "I asked the gentleman at the register what your drink of choice was," she says by way of explanation, which actually does jack to explain anything.
You sit, just for the coffee. "So do I get to know why some blonde bought me a coffee and decided it was cool to fiddle around on my gear?"
"If you would open your 'gear,' you'll see a word document open with a few concise sentences written in it." She sips at her coffee and waits for your move.
Your mouth tightens. You already don't like this girl. All you want to do is take your laptop and your coffee and stomp your way back to your hotel room, but she's got your bag under her chair legs and your laptop cord partially tangled around one ankle. Definitely on purpose. Girl's got something to say and won't let you abscond easy on this one. Fine, whatever. You've still got some time to kill.
This is where I would say something along the lines of "Do not be alarmed, Mr. Captor," except we have already crossed and set fire to that bridge. It is now burning merrily away, casting its warm glow upon our faces and reflecting brightly on the glass to your left. Alas, I will have no choice but to change tactics.
Yes, Mr. Captor, I know your name. You have never met me. I have never met you. Don't flatter yourself into thinking I’m some sort of stalker. Stalking is entirely too boring and requires more legwork than I'm willing to commit. Regardless, the only reason you and I are meeting today is so I may continue to avoid my pursuer. I will accomplish this with your help. Your help entails nothing more than sitting with me for a short period of time and discussing inane things such as, oh, the weather, or perhaps why you find it necessary to wear differently colored Airwalks .
The decision, of course, is yours.
You look at her over the lid of your laptop. "Who's pursuing you? If it's the cops--"
"No police, I assure you." She sips again. Your brain supplies the word daintily and you want to punch something. "Merely my brother."
There's that smile again. She's good about hiding her teeth. You imagine she's got fangs, like a cat's, or maybe some nasty species of fish. "Well technically only half-brother, but the familial bond is scarred thick enough that we may as well have been raised together."
This girl is bizarre. She reminds you a little of Kanaya, actually, although apart from the heavy lipstick and the unnecessarily formal speech you're not sure why. "You're kidding right?"
"I have never been very good at practical jokes, Mr. Captor. May I call you Sollux? Interesting name, by the way."
"Only if you tell me yours, lady."
She smiles, finally revealing her pearly whites, and you're struck by the sudden, inexplicable image of a fly wriggling helplessly in a spider's web. "Rose Lalonde. It truly is a pleasure to meet you."
Discussing the weather for twenty minutes turns into three hours, and at some point the two of you left the shop behind and are now sitting on the edge of a quiet dock watching the jellyfish swarm below the clear water. You don't really know how it happened, but something sparked and you find yourself talking about what happened to AA--something you haven't done with anyone in years.
"--just kids but Vriska always took their stupid games so seriously--"
"--who the fuck pushes a ten-year-old off a cliff--"
"--so AA got a bunch of other kids to troll her for weeks--"
"--Vriska's mom was a smuggler or something, pirated all kinds of stuff across the border, cops never got charges to stick though and that's the only way Vriska could have gotten it--"
"--fucking drugged me, we were ten if I neglected to mention that, and the next thing I know I've got blood all over me a-a-and AA's--she was just--just lying there and--"
Rose's cool hand on your arm is what finally shuts you up. You jerk away, wild-eyed and choking on words. "Hush," she says, softly.
"I-it wasn't my fault, I don't even remember--"
"It's alright, Sollux. You don't need to say anything more."
You yank your glasses off, jam the heel of your palm in your eye to stop the stinging. "No, you know what's really fucked up about all that? AA wasn't even cold yet when TZ--Terezi--got her hands on a grenade and got Vriska to set it off in her own fucking hand."
Before, Rose hadn't moved beyond the occasional nod. At this, her thin eyebrows arch (and there's that delicate word again, your brain is a filthy traitor). "Where does a child acquire a grenade so quickly?"
You laugh, all air and a limping giggle. "Hell if I know! I was too busy grieving over the death of my best friend while facing criminal charges to ask what TZ was up to. Her mom was never around and she was always creepy--perfected the shit-eating grin at five, haven't seen anything that terrifying since--whatever, next thing I hear is Vriska's in the hospital missing an arm and half her face."
"I take it she recovered?"
"Yeah. First day out of the hospital, guess what she did?"
"From where this trip down memory lane has gone so far I wouldn't hazard a guess if my life depended on it."
"That's because you're not batshit crazy. She made TZ drink methanol."
Rose's eyebrows look like they'll never come down from her hairline. "Methanol."
"Not enough to kill her, just enough to blind her for life. She's okay now, goes around in red sunglasses and hideous T-shirts, whacking people's shins with her cane for fun. When she really wants to fuck with people she puts these contacts in--bright red, covers the whole eye--and pretends she's an alien."
"What does she do for Halloween?"
"Dresses up as a dragon, but she'll do that any day of the week if she feels like it."
"You know some interesting people, Sollux."
You giggle again. It's weak and you and she both know it. You look down at your glasses, which you've been fiddling with compulsively since you took them off. "You know, Aradia gave me these just a couple weeks before--before all that. Said she and her mom went to a flea market and they were just sitting there in some corner. She--when she gave them to me, she said she got them because they matched my eyes."
"They do. On anybody else I'd say they were trying too hard, but on you? It's…fetching." Something crosses her face, just a flash of uncontrolled emotion. It's gone before you can figure out what it might have been.
Both of you watch the jellyfish for a while. "I don't know why I just told you all that."
That smile again. Just a hint of teeth. She's one of those people who's got a whole mental catalogue of smiles, polished and on display in glass cases like historical swords, takes them out to sharpen them on the bones of the unsuspecting. "I have that effect on people."
"Hehe, I can tell."
"Sollux, would you like to see Aradia again?"
She places her hand on yours again. This time you don't jerk away. "What if I told you magic was real?"
"A Ouija board?"
"You can repeat yourself with varying degrees of disbelief as much as you like, but the Ouija board will in fact remain a Ouija board."
You've been awake three days and you're riding the rhythmic pulse of one of your ocular migraines. Your vision's gone all blinky and the sound of your own working lungs makes you cringe. Rose's clipped sarcasm and the twenty million candles she's lit all over this apartment she's assured you wasn't hers ("Please, Sollux, as if I'm the kind of person who would paint her kitchen pistachio green."), by comparison, kind of makes you want to gouge your eyes out and maybe also smother yourself in wet towels until you lose consciousness.
Instead of looking around for spoons within easy reach, you say, "But a Ouija board? Seriously? What are you, sixteen and desperate to find out if Jimmy from fourth period likes you-likes you?"
Rose, as you've rapidly learned to expect (and be disappointed by), doesn't rise to the challenge. "You might be surprised what one can achieve with a good Ouija and a little esoteric knowledge."
"It glows in the dark."
Rose winces. "No one ever said Hasbro was classy."
She makes you drink something pale and bitter from a tiny ceramic cup that makes your heart race and your vision double. It in no way does any good for your migraine and you know she knows that. No one ever said Rose Lalonde was compassionate.
Taking the white planchette from the box, she sets it on the carpet, narrowest angle just touching the G O O D B Y E written in bold lettering at the foot of the board. Then, after drinking two cups of the same bitter tea, she looks you in the eye and something in your chest hitches disquietly.
"Shall we begin?" she asks.
You don't bother to shrug. You're still not really sure how she convinced you to go this far at all; anybody else, you'd be sure they were either fucking with you. Or they were batshit crazy. No, two weeks since Rose typed that stupid, sarcastic message on your laptop, you've learned just how she fucks with people. All words, sharp as broken glass, merciless as a shark attack. She fucks with people because she hopes it might keep her interested. She ruins people because it stymies her boredom.
You get it. Maybe a little too well.
Rose isn't the type to pull twisted pranks about someone's dearly departed, and she's not crazy either. Hell, if you didn't know Kanaya you'd probably claim Rose as the sanest person you know. She genuinely believes something will happen tonight, and God help you, you want something to happen.
Aradia loved this kind of stuff, way back when. She loved archaeology and dead stuff and torture devices, and knew everything occult from Beltane to Dia de Los Muertos. She was a curly-haired, giggling encyclopedia on the dead and undead alike. She collected divination doodads like other kids collected Beanie Babies and Pokémon cards. Crystal balls, Nordic runes, Tarot cards, astrological charts (she was so proud of being an Aries, never stopped telling you all the pros of being a Gemini, and you just wanted to hug her to make her stop talking so you could go back to your first kiddy attempts at coding and you were such an utter moron). Her mom had given her an antique board, apparently one of the first ever made? She used to try so hard to get a real response out of that thing, swore she had come so close to conversing with Real ghosts, Sollux! You just nodded and said Better luck next time, AA.
What you're trying to say here is you know what to expect from a Ouija séance. So when Rose says one Word (unintelligible garbage, but something about the command in her voice demands a capital W in your hurting head) and the planchette skitters across the board to rest, quivering, on the zero, you're a little surprised.
Another of her no-teeth smirks. "You haven't seen anything yet, Sollux."
The planchette jumps to S before you can reply, spells out your name and bolts back to zero.
"Wow, that's original."
"Don't be rude. We have a guest present."
"What, already? Where's the fifteen minutes of asking in spooky voices 'Is anybodyyyy out theeeere???'" You wiggle your fingers for effect and grin when she rolls her eyes.
"If you know the right thing to say it's quite easy to avoid embarrassing yourself for the amusement of the unquiet dead. Now quit goofing off; it takes some concentration to keep the connection up."
In the candlelight you can see a slight sheen to Rose's forehead. You wonder if it's something in that awful tea or if she's actually doing some sort of magic. Fuck, it's definitely the tea if you're even considering the possibility of magic that quick.
"Sh--she's not here, is she?"
"Ask and find out. Someone is here, certainly, and eager to chat."
The planchette moves to Y E S, then back to zero.
"A--Aradia?" It comes out in a cracked little whisper.
Y E S
H E L L 0 S 0 L L U X
You shake your head, lean away from the board. "Jesus Christ."
A R A D I A
"How--?" You can't take your eyes off the twitching planchette. "Please. Please let this be real."
Rose says nothing. Aradia speaks for her.
I T I S R E A L E N 0 U G H
I T H I N K I M I S S E D Y 0 U
E M 0 T I O N S F A D E
S 0 R R Y
"O-oh." You pause, trying to remember all the things you've wanted to say to her since her funeral. "How are you? Oh shit, that's a stupid question, I'm sorry--"
I A M 0 K
"That's--good? AA--Aradia, where are--how are you even here? You didn't die anywhere near--"
S P A C E I S N E G L I G I B L E N 0 W
"Oh. Well shit, that's awesome."
I S U P P 0 S E S 0
Y E S
Stinging in your eyes, don't cry you stupid, worthless piece of shit don't you dare cry. "I missed you so much. I'm sorry about what happened. I'm so fucking sorry."
W H Y
"Because you didn't deserve to die!"
N 0 0 N E D E S E R V E S T 0 D I E
You grip your knees, try not to shout. "Are you kidding me?"
"Vriska deserves it! She ruined Tavros and TZ's lives! She--Jesus, don't you remember that I killed you? I deserve to die!"
I T S 0 K I D 0 N T R E M E M B E R
"Not remembering doesn't mean it didn't happen! Fuck, you should be furious at me! Why aren't you upset?!"
B E C A U S E I D 0 N T R E A L L Y C A R E
T H E R E A R E 0 T H E R T H I N G S T 0 F 0 C U S 0 N
R 0 S E K N 0 W S
"I don't care!"
She's breathing hard, skin wet and hair stringy with sweat, and there's a peculiar, unhealthy gleam in her eyes. "Time's up."
You're crying openly now, hiccupping and getting your sleeves wet trying to mop your face up. "O-okay. Fuck, okay. AA, I gotta go. Rose looks like she's gonna face plant."
I T W A S N I C E T 0 T A L K T 0 Y 0 U I G U E S S
"I wish I could see you again."
D 0 Y 0 U W A N T T 0 S E E M E
"Can I?" You look at Rose. Her eyes flutter, but she nods, and immediately white light explodes from the board, and you're blind.
Something gray, something reddish coalesces in all that searing, snowstorm white. Someone with long curly hair and a round face, torn clothes with crusty black bloodstains.
Her eyes open, and she doesn't have any eyeballs. Just empty holes full of white. You shout, and the vision vanishes.
When you come to, all the candles are extinguished and your headache is gone. Like magic, poof. The Ouija board is back in it's cardboard box and Rose is cradling her sallow face in her hands.
"That was horrible," you say. She looks at you between her threaded fingers (musician's fingers, black-nailed fingers that remind you of knives), and you can see every single one of her bright, clean teeth in the streetlight bleeding in from the open windows.
"That was progress," she says.
Time passes. Your little job in a city on the west coast was a million years ago.
It's been four days since you've slept.
"Again," Rose says.
Squinting, you focus on the stack of quarters on the coffee table. Move, you think, fucking move.
Nothing happens for a long time. Sweat drips from your face. Rose keeps the apartment boiling, says the heat will help. You've gotten used to sitting on her hardwood floor in your boxers, Rose commanding over her little experiments on you in cotton underwear (always with a matching bra and headband, what fucking even). Tonight she's wearing pink, writing away in her little black books, peeling and poking and scratching away at all your edges with those bright eyes of hers.
You've learned not to mind.
"Focus," she says.
"I--am--" you spit through your grinding teeth.
"Not enough if you can still talk. Focus, Sollux."
You don't try to backtalk. She's right. Snarky bitch always is.
Breathing. In and out, in and out. Imagine sparking electricity, your migraine draining out of you, fuel for a power Rose had promised was as a part of you as your bones. So close, you've come so damn close before, don't give in now don't be weak don't waffle think of AA do it for her--
A spark, tiny and blue, bridges the gap between your middle finger and the nearest quarter. Another, red. Another, blue. Faster, strobing. Stronger, brighter.
The stack of quarters falls over, and you remember to breathe again. "I did it!" You whisper, voice hoarse.
"Good. Now do it again."
Time passes. You sleep a little. You don't sleep a lot. Rose is right there with you. Together, you hop from town to town, the two of you doing odd jobs to pay for just enough food to get by. The rest of the time, you look for weak points in the air, musty books full of horrible pictures and words that make your teeth tingle. All the while, Rose pushes you to weaponize your brain, and sooner than either of you expected that little stack of quarters is spinning smug little halos around your head while she fishes her little black book out of the toilet.
She makes you practice with a bowling ball after that.
One hazy, humid day (no sleep in four, only that nasty tea and oranges for the last two, faces numb and fingernails itchy as fuck, sweat sticky on every inch of skin and nothing to do about it but wrap wet rags around each other's necks), TZ calls and you remember to pick up.
"Where are you?"
"Uh…" You muffle your cell in your chest. "Rose, where are we?"
"Oh yeah." You put the phone back to your ear. "West Virginia."
"What are you doing in West Virginia?"
"This and that."
"Excellent evasion there, Sollux! I totally feel considerable relief now that I know you're on the other side of the country doing this and that. What's all that static?"
"Oh, whoops." You kill your psionics, catch the cell and wedge between your ear and shoulder. "Sorry, kinda busy right now."
"Busy doing what? Feferi's been freaking out for two weeks! She said when you finally called her back you sounded dead on your feet and you wouldn't stop babbling about zombies."
"That's because when I called FF Rose and me had just gotten away from a really nasty pack of the fuckers and I had a bite on my arm and I thought I was gonna turn. Good reason to babble, yeah?"
"But--what? Sollux, are you listening to yourself? There is no concrete evidence to prove that zombies can exist!"
"Tell that to the nice people whose lives we saved in Alabama."
Terezi sighs heavily into the phone. "Promise me you're okay, Sollux."
"I'm okay." You don't look it, you don't sound it, but you feel the most fan-fucking-tastic you've ever felt in your life. She wouldn't believe that in a million years though.
"Give me something nice to say to Feferi. For her? I've told her a dozen times you aren't the kind of guy to cheat, but you've been running around the country with some woman and it's getting harder and harder for her--"
"Jesus, TZ, Rose and I aren't having sex." On the couch, Rose chokes on an orange slice.
"And I'm certain you aren't! From the admittedly suspicious pictures you've sent FF, I can smell she isn't your type at all."
"How the fuck can you smell my type?"
"This Rose Lalonde is very tall and built like an Amazonian housewife. You, Mr. Captor, have a fascination with curvy women whose hair amounts to at least a third of their body weight. Tell me, does she bleach her hair that pale or is it natural? Either way, does the carpet match the drapes? I know you've seen; I can smell you blushing!"
"I am not going to dignify any of that with a response."
Terezi cackles. It sounds like smashed up tin foil over the phone, and your overworked brain gibbers. "Very well, Sollux, I can tell you don't wish to be disturbed."
"No, it's just been--" You fumble for a word, lose your train of thought, pick it back up again. "Complicated."
"That is certainly a very good word for what you've been up to these past three and some odd months."
"Yeah, I know. We're on to something though, TZ. Something big. We can fix everything."
"But what's been broken?"
You look at Rose. She's fished the orange out of her throat and composed herself. She shakes her head.
"Look, TZ, I gotta go."
She sighs again. "I thought as much. Promise me you'll sleep? You sound like what road kill would sound like if it could lisp."
"Fuck you," you say, fondly, and hang up.
Summer turns to Fall, and Rose finally says, "It's time."
"Yes. We have garnered enough resources, experience and wisdom to begin."
You wheel your (stolen) office chair around with your brain to face her. "You know, you still haven't told me just what we're supposed to be doing here."
"And yet you've followed me regardless."
"Don't sound smug. It was this or spend the next five foreseeable years of my life playing help desk and writing code for shriveled, brainless shit-spewing retards who still think clip art is the pinnacle of computer graphics when in fact that crap was an embarrassment to everyone with eyes the minute it was puked into existence."
" So you forgive me for our less than fortuitous meeting with Ogolg M'Rubbit, Prince of the Candybean Warlocks?"
"I thought I told you to never speak of that night again, but yes, Ogolg was better than the help desk monkey dance."
"Mmm, I don't doubt that." Her fingers drag across her Big Green Book (she's got dozens of these leather-bound books in all different sizes, and only most of them aren't in English). It's the big one she's never let you touch, let alone read, and her eyes are very far away. "The world is going to end soon, Sollux."
"Yeah, I told you that one."
"Yes, but you were merely confirming what I had already seen in dreams when I was younger."
"Oh yeah? Then tell me, O Wise Seer, do you know how it all goes dark for Mother Nature?"
"Yes. Specifically, a game that sacrifices one planet to create a new universe."
"This is why I try to keep you away from science fiction as much as I can."
"It isn't a joke."
"No shit, you wouldn't know what a joke was if it walked up to you and said knock-knock."
"Okay, okay, I'll play along. What's this about a planet-eating game?"
She opens her book, turns the pages idly. "It is a game that will be played because it has already been played. The world will end because it has already ended. Those who choose to play do not actually decide this for themselves. The game knows who will play the moment you are born." Her palm settles on a page written in her handwriting. Even from across the room you can tell the words are the same color as her eyes. You make a mental note to tease her for that later. You'd do it now, but she's monologuing and gets snippy when you interrupt.
"The funny thing about this game isn't that it destroys the world, it's that the world is destroyed when the game is played. The game will always be played and the planet on which it is being played will always end. These two things are inseparable truths. The only thing left to the players is when they begin to play, but even that is inaccurate, as the moment the game is installed, whether at thirteen-years-old or forty, is the moment it was always going to happen. But while the game is always played, it is very rarely won. There are innumerable, branching realities and timelines for every game session, many of them differing dramatically from the source. Very few of them make it successfully to the end of the game. I am hoping we will be one of them."
"So what, are we already playing and you just neglected to let me know?"
"Not quite." She pulls something out from somewhere deeper in the book's pages, a paper CD case. "This is the only copy of the game in our reality. We as we know ourselves have never played it, but others--other selves, if you'll allow the cliché--have before us, and no doubt others will play after us."
You roll over to the couch and pluck the CD from her fingers. Through the plastic, you see her careful lettering spell the word SBURB. "Other selves, huh? You sound pretty certain."
"That is because this book is a gift from myself from an alternate reality." That faraway look crinkles the skin around her eyes again. "She played when she was just thirteen you know. She nearly made it to the end too, but died on her sixteenth birthday on an asteroid hurtling through deep space. The final entry is in an unfamiliar hand, written in a pleasant shade of green. It explains she was killed trying to defend her companions from a "rampaging musclebeast" that was set loose by some sort of crazed alien clown cultist. The entry goes on to say that the surviving individuals had become part of a 'doomed timeline' and would never survive. Apparently this Rose suspected such a thing would happen and ordered this book be sent through unexplained methods to another Rose so that she might take the proper precautions."
"I'm not sure if I should ask why she was still playing this game for three years first or ask if I want to know what a musclebeast is."
"I think I'll label the answer for both questions as 'spoilers' and instead ask a question myself."
She snaps the Big Green Book shut, the noise like a whip crack in your empty apartment. She leans forward, hugs the book to her chest and gives you her thousand-yard stare. "Sollux Captor," she says, seriousness etched into her face.
"Would you like to play this game with me?"
You think of this past summer and all that's happened, of hungry nights and heart palpitations, of migraines fit to split your skull open, of Rose hunched for long hours over a toilet bowl vomiting up something black and bubbling. You remember the very first time you heard a disembodied whisper, watched a man die and heard the whisper say goodbye. You think of Terezi's blindness, Vriska's missing arm, Tavros' dead legs, Aradia broken and bloody in her backyard. You remember the day you met this strange, pale woman. She didn't comment on how you're built like you're made out of rulers and regret. Rose has never said a word about your lisp. Only said she liked the way your glasses matched your eyes and left it alone after that.
Rose, spooky, grim, glacial, brilliant Rose Lalonde taught you to push yourself past the brink of exhaustion, and then to push twice as far.
"This game," you say, "It can bring back the dead, right?"
"Even if they've been dead for a long time?"
"Even if they are but ashes in an urn."
Rose taught you how to fly.
She smiles, a happy smile full of teeth that make you think of a woman, nothing more or less. She smiles and says, "Call your friends, Sollux. We'll need every one we can get to survive this game."