and all along i believed i would find you
time has brought your heart to me;
i have loved you for a thousand years.
she tells you with a touch of apology in her voice, stepping out of the little coven of flower-redolent hair and hushed female voices and long-lashed eyes that can't quite meet yours, that it's not really magic. she tells you it's a trick. a useful trick, but the end it's only sleight-of-mind. the best, she says, they can do.
you don't really care about that. you don't care if it's a con, if there is no spoon and you're down the rabbit hole, if you just hit your head in the twister and aunty em is trying to revive you, if it's all just another abstraction of the game. you figure it's just about as real as echeladders and sylladices and caches of grist. (and what does she know? she's a witch, your dear daft unsister, she's a little unreal anyway.)
you don't care, because as far as you can tell, white science slithering over your limbs, a beam of gentle light that stretches the celluloid skin of real and not-real:
you got your wish.
you are the hero.
if you are the hero,
The Seer of Mind has to come with you, as a precaution and as your return ticket; her slate grey skin and blood orange eyes and her tendency to taste things instead of asking questions are all very alien, very odd to you, but you don't mind. Nothing is weird anymore; and she's helping you finish your quest, the only quest that matters.
The first place your senses pointed you, the location Jade hurled you, is breathtaking and hurts your eyes.
It's a cacophonous city of sliding doors and laughing voices and the smells of frying food, the sounds of carousing, a red light district fresh out of cyberpunk Heian Japan. Fox-headed girls in summer yukata mingle with perfectly ordinary Meiji businessmen and steam-powered samurai robots, eel vendors noisily hawk their wares, the sky is a drowsy purple-blue, and from behind sliding paper doors you see soft lanterns bob, you hear mellow voices and the strumming of koto and the clacking noise of lacquered dishes being shuffled around, liquor being unstoppered and poured, slightly gentler laughter. The closer you lean to the paper doors, the less you can smell the raw human and animal filth of the city; it's overcome by heady incense, deliberate perfume combed into long, heavy hair, the odors drowning each other out, and for a minute you struggle to breathe.
The weird thing is, everyone’s wearing harlequin masks, except the two of you; and Pyrope has her pointy shades, so you’re the only bare-faced idiot in a sea of secrets.
The Seer of Mind looks different, here, paler and a little more polished. She's trying to tell you something but you can barely hear her beneath the din; she has to yank on your shoulder.
"I said, I'm waiting by the eel cart, so find me when you're done!" she shrieks, and you give her a thumbs-up. You smile at her reflexively for no real reason, as if to reassure her that you got the message, that everything's under control; of course, it isn't. If it were, you wouldn't be here.
Wherever "here" is.
You don't know where to start, so you wander aimlessly for a little bit, feeling awkwardly out of place in your god-tier clothing. You sidestep puddles of suspicious cloudy water, you try not to feel weird when children stare at you with food in their mouths, and you eventually find an incline, so you head uphill. Uphill seems right.
Eventually you find an actual paved road, long square slabs of rock, and you worry for a second that you won't be able to find your way back to Terezi, but you find you're able to retrace your steps in your head, and this reassures you enough. You tell yourself to remember that you got onto the road between the red-painted building that looks like a pointy castle and the row of little gold monuments carved with a language you can't read.
You lick a finger, hold it out to test the wind, and keep heading uphill.
There’s a time limit on this excursion, and it makes you terribly uneasy how the sickle moon never shifts in the sky, how the night appears to carry on forever when you know the sand’s running out in the hourglass. You lope past statues carved like howling lions, you pass dirty taverns and expensive inns and as you ascend the slope, as you step higher, you start to notice that the crowd of pedestrians (who avoid staring you in the eyes, who shuffle to avoid you, who instill in you a sense of terrible unease) are better, or at least fancier, dressed.
The sliding doors don’t look so friendly, now; they’re painted a bright cherry red and they look like the bars of a million cages, and you see people walking up to them and peering in like it’s some kind of menagerie.
And then you’re at the top of the hill, and it’s a gigantic pompous castle of gilt and ivory and terrible red prison cells, and you realize, a little shocked and sick, panting for breath in the thick air, that these have to be brothels, or holding pens.
Because there are people behind the bars, people on display on pedestals like birds in cages, and you don’t get what the hell you’re supposed to be doing here or how the hell this is supposed to help your best (dearest - ) friend, you don’t know what this means. Are you supposed to let them all out?
… no. No, your gut’s telling you that that’s not right. It’s not that kind of movie. That’s a tempting choice, but it’s not the right interpretation of the scene.
Instead: There’s no one walking inside the castle-brothel and there are no guards at the door, so you check to make sure your pistols are still at the ready and you walk in, tentatively peering around at the overwhelming splendor. There are too many details for anything to make sense, it’s bewildering, it’s like trying to play Where’s Waldo without ever knowing what Waldo is supposed to look like, a museum of still figures.
You are drawn to the cage just past the threshold that looks sort of like a dive bar stage, containing a thin, sexless creature slumped over the keys of a grand piano, wrapped in a waterfall of soft grey fabric.
“Um,” you say, pushing your glasses up.
The empty eyes of a harlequin mask meet yours.
“I’m not really grasping what I’m supposed to be doing, hereabouts,” you say. “Care to give a fellow a hint?”
The figure pauses, its mouth a thin pinched line. From the endless city below, you hear the echoes of a carnival; the inside of the castle is deathly silent, despite containing row after row of baffling cages, each housing a slumped figure and a whirlwind of color and shape.
“The game always adapts itself to suit the skills of the player,” the figure says, its voice deep and gravel masculine, and you’re a little surprised to see it speak, hear it talk. “What are your skills, English?”
“Sharpshooting,” you say. “Movies.”
“You have a knack for stories. That’s what the witches gave you, English. Everything you see is part of the story, and it’s your task to puzzle it out. You’re the hero.”
“What flick is this? I missed the cinema run,” you try. The figure smirks at you, and you laugh, scratching your chin. “Okay, okay, a little too obvious. Can’t make it too bloody easy for a chap, can you, by criminy.”
“Criminy,” the figure says, sighing almost wistfully. “I like that word.”
“What can you tell me about Dirk?” you ask, stepping closer to the bars, staring the figure right in the mask-sockets.
“... No beard,” he tells you, and strikes the highest note on the piano like a brief shout of sullen protest.
“... Well. That’s spectacularly helpful,” you snap, and take a pace back. You don’t have time for a cheshire-cat game of questions. The spell was supposed to make your quest easier; you wonder if you shouldn’t have bothered, if you should have told Jade to hurl you in blind -
“And not blue,” the figure hisses, frantically, shuffling forwards and grabbing the bars with a tenacity and fury that shock you. (Maybe the riddle of how this all works is trapping him, too.) His hands, you note, are pointy at the fingertips, shimmer wrongly in the dim light of the city and the moon.
“... Bluebeard,” you whisper. You’ve got it. You’re on to something. You edge back.
“Only ever one wife,” the figure tells you, coughing a little; its breath smells dry like laquer and dust, and its ribcage trembles beneath the fabric that shrouds it.
“Which one is his wife, then?” you guess, trying to crack the language of the story, and the figure laughs a little, shakes his head.
“All of us. Try again.”
And that doesn’t make sense, except - Bluebeard married each princess and murdered them one by one, in succession. He never had more than one wife at the same time. Parts of SBURB worked that way, too; there could only ever be one person wearing the ring... You think, in a moment of brilliant insight, that “no-beard” and “not-blue” refer to two different people.
… And you suddenly have a sinking, terrible feeling that you know what’s behind the carnival masks. Gently, with your hands wide open to show you mean no harm, you reach up through the bars of the cage, and you untie the ribbon that keeps the mask pinned over the figure’s eyes.
When it falls, noiseless, into the folds of cloth, you see the glossy black skin of a carapace; the eyes an awful, ghostly white.
“This is Derse,” you breathe, aghast, and look out the door at the endless field of elysium, a seething tide of men and women and children and bishops and knights and rooks and one arch-regent, somewhere, hung from the sky; and every last one in a mask. “Dirk killed so many of you.”
“Not-blue was sort of the heavy hitter,” your companion confides, “as far as genocide goes.”
“... black and blue, and not-blue. Noir?”
The dead carapace smiles at you. “Clever.”
Now you know where you are, and what’s going on, sort of, but you don’t know how to fix it. Noir is already dead. You can’t murder him and rescue his “wife”. How do you solve a story that’s already ended? Perhaps you should rethink your questions. Challenge your assumptions.
“What are wives?” you try.
Your dead carapace friend struggles to communicate the concept without breaking the rules of the universe. “Trap yourself in an arbitrary definition, and the soul will conform,” he says. “The goldfish grows to fit the bowl. But - one tear fell, and became a pearl on her dress, and by that he knew her from the others! A single feather fell. A single smile bent the bow of her lips, and he knew her.”
“Er. You’ve lost me.”
“Not a wife,” he tells you, growing impatient. “Not a bride!”
Your stomach sinks. “I don’t have to kill him, do I?” you whisper, fear biting at you. “I’m not Bluebeard?” You don’t know how you’ll do it, if you have to kill him to save him. You don’t know how you’ll manage it.
“No,” he rasps gently at you. He reaches through the bars, and lays his palm gently on your shoulder. “Look at the setting.”
“... Whorehouses,” you say, and blush. “Masks, as well. So they’re all more or less identical.”
He nods, gravely. “And how will you know him from the others?”
That’s a good point. How will you know your chaste Prince from the garden of indulgence? Moreover, how do you know him from anyone else? What’s the name for the gentle hum of recognition that sings out inside you, the thing that means you’ll always, always pick him out in a crowd?
“He’s the Prince of Heart,” you say, and blush a little harder, because if you were the sort of gent to keep mustachioes you’d be twirling them so nervously you’d start a fire. You’re sure of that.
The carapace hits you in the arm. “Think, stupid. Caged, uncaged. Free and bound. Married and unwed. Named and unnamed. Titled, and untitled, and how do you make a change? How does the story end?”
“... He’s a prince, ” you say, slowly, “and this is a castle, and - shit. Is there a throne room? Of course there is, there’s always a bloody throne room in these fanciful sex palaces, it’s probably par for the bloody golf course -”
“Go!” your dead friend hisses, slapping you and hitting several angry discordant keys to express his urgent displeasure.
The pathways twist and turn, you travel further and further into the castle, surrounded by cells with silent, ghostly prisoners. You’re in a cold sweat. How long have you been here? Shit, you can’t have much time left. You pick up the pace until you’re going at a dead run; there’s only one long, terrible corridor to follow.
This is the question:
How was this piece of Dirk torn loose?
The answer to that is the answer to why it’s here, an answer to why this place looks the way it does.
You think, as you tumble helter-skelter around the last bend in the corridor, that you have finally wrestled the raging mystery to the ground. It’ll only take another swift jab or two to knock it out cold.
And then you’re in the throne room, and there’s a sword.
There is a sword, fast in the center of the hall, above a raised dais. A thousand thousand chains strangle it, wrap about the hilt, about the blade, stretching off into every corner of the abyssal room’s plunging ceiling, bolted taut to every inch of the walls. It isn’t buried in anything; this samurai sword is no Excalibur. The point barely brushes the cold stone floor; unimaginable pull from every direction, like a condemned man in the act of being drawn, keeps it hovering, immobile and painfully straight, in perfect suspension.
It glistens like the soft lip of a princess bent in a futile smile, like a single tear shed in the absence of notice, like a single extra pearl on a dress made of midnight - and you know. You know, the way you knew there was something amiss in the first place.
Sweat drying in the cool air of the oubliette, you walk forwards with confidence.
The chains part for you. They rustle and slide and close up again behind you, as if they’re sheepish, as if they’re sentient of the wrongfulness of their imprisonment. In no time at all, you are before the sword itself, standing easily on the flat top of the dais.
You’re still a little short of breath; you smile at it, and laugh a little, exhilarated at your success. You’ve got this one in the bag .
“Somewhere along the way,” you murmur to the katana, “you got a damned funny idea about princes, and what princes were meant to sacrifice, and it broke you apart. Holds you here still, chap.”
It’s a little unfair of you to lecture; the blade can’t talk back like Dirk can. (Could. Right, time limit.) So you smile at it, and you kneel, and you offer the hilt your hand.
The carapace gave you a few too many hints. You know exactly what to say.
“Will you marry me?” you whisper, eyes bright with hope.
the chains fall apart, and the blade leaps to your grip, like a bird seeking shelter in a storm, and for a moment you are bowled plum sideways by your success, you did it, you did it, and it feels alive and fragile in your hand like a tiny heart, struggling to beat.
and then the castle begins to fall apart around you, stones crashing and narrowly avoiding your head - the sword jumps , jerks your arm up, forcibly deflects a falling piece of ceiling - you run for your fool life, with the most precious burden you’ve ever carried. ruination dogs your footsteps; you flee for your life, panting harshly to escape the maze - all those people in cages, you can’t -
at the doorway you cry out at the carapace who helped you, screaming something about come with me, come on , and he laughs, shaking his head at you, and calls back: jake english, get out of our grave.
and then you’re out, careening downhill, the entire world crumbling and shattering at the sundered seams, like the noise of the sky falling, and Terezi is there, she came to get you, she grabs you by the wrist and screams do it now, Harley , and
everything winks out of existence, even you.
In the end, everyone made it to God Tier. Everyone got their whimsical pajamas, everyone unlocked their potential, everyone matured a little, grew up a lot, aged prematurely. And when the game ended you all watched your beautiful new universe stitch itself into being and you breathed easier, together, one big coleslaw of allies and friends and fellows.
But something was wrong with Dirk.
Something was wrong with Dirk.
He functioned just fine until the end of the game, like a machine performing a a routine, and it hurt inside you like a constant tooth ache, watching him slowly spin down into akinetic torpor, watching him slowly tick to a halt. The visible signs of his sickness began as soon as your new, shared universe began to bloom in the void; it worsened. Jade confirmed your suspicions when she showed you the crumbling old planets in the palm of her hand, and you shouted that she couldn’t let them do that, there were parts of Dirk left there.
Why couldn’t anyone else see? It was so obvious to you, now that you’d strengthened that knack of yours for knowing him. There were so many pieces missing. He’d stretched himself so thin, and you’d laughed along when he’d said “I’ll rest when I’m dead, ” but then he slowly started to fade.
He shouldn’t have been able to fade. And it turned out that stretch was the wrong word for what Dirk did.
You don’t know how he did it, this fracturing of the self. No one knows how he did it, save Dirk himself.
But you can sense it, sense it as discretely and as firmly as a pebble clutched in your palm; it’s only the palm is your brain and the pebble is a lost, wandering piece of Dirk, pulling you towards it like a lodestone.
You think it stands to reason that you’re the only joe with the guns and the bravado to fix it.
You wake, after that first narrowly successful escapade on a fever dream of Derse, under the ministrations of yet another witch - Feferi is quite the gal, isn’t she! Jane is completely exhausted keeping Dirk’s body from failing on him; she sleeps twenty hours at a stretch, and still barely has the energy to eat soup. You’re all fighting against one last glitch, one final quest, trying to do the impossible (just as usual).
When you can sit up you cough and sputter, and you feel a weight that wasn’t there before, something heavy in your soul. You tell everyone fussing at you to kindly take a flying fuck at the moon , and you wobble into the sick bay, where they’re letting Dirk lie flat on his back, as still and waxen as a statue.
You didn’t have a sick bay, before Dirk began to die. Everyone’s aware that there’s something wrong now, you think darkly to yourself, and they’re looking to you for a miracle.
For a minute you gape like a sucker over his freshly alchemized hospital gurney, because you’re not sure how to go about giving Dirk his self back; and then you remember you could see things perfectly fine when you were brain-scrambled, and you yank on the magics that Rose loaned you until you’re half awake, half asleep, a dazed semi-conscious sleepwalker.
You can see the ghost of a sword in your right hand.
Gently, you lay it on Dirk’s chest, and try to slap yourself back into properly awake.
He takes a breath, a real breath, and a touch of color returns to him, and his eyelids flutter open and all you can think is that you bloody well missed those crazy tangerine peepers of his, you missed him terribly. “Where the hell did you find it?” he rasps at you, eyes watering, a faltering hand rising to his sternum in wonder.
You discover that you’re gripping his other hand with your own.
“Never mind that, what was it?” you ask him, urgently, before he falls unconscious again. He smiles up at you, a touch of exasperation in his chalky pallor.
“Little shred of... decency, maybe,” he tells you. You’re not sure if he’s having you on or if it’s one of his ultra-ironic moments of real sincerity, staring up at you from a small square pillow and a poker face so weary you’re afraid for him.
Twenty minutes later you’re stumbling out of the sick bay again, because there’s only so long you can comb the sweaty hair out of his face and listen to his ragged sleep-breathing before your feelings start to really cripple you, bending you in half, eyes watering.
He never confessed.
Not once was the issue pressed; heroics were had, adventures were shared, victory was celebrated, and he kept his peace.
There was a time you didn’t want him to tell you he had feelings for you; there was a time you were content to let the issue rot on the back burner indefinitely. You were a coward and a fool, only a few scant months ago. Now - chrissakes, now it’s different.
Jade shows you, in the bright hallway, the little planets of the old sessions that she is straining to keep together with all her might. She shows you that what used to be Derse has crumbled into nonexistence, like the universe it came from. You have the strength to whistle, and give her a gaptoothed, roguish grin.
“Hooo-eee. Will that happen every time, you reckon? Indiana Jones makes it out by the skin of his teeth?”
“Probably,” she says, quiet and miserable, and you wish there were something you could say. “I’m sorry, I -”
“Don’t fret,” you try. “I’ve got the devil’s own luck and a whole bevy of witches on my side. It’ll be fine.”
You shush her, like a gentleman ought to, when she starts to cry, and stretch your senses. You can’t let yourself crumble down and cry, you can’t let yourself relax that much, because Dirk isn’t whole yet.
You are not done.