Your name is Dave Strider and you're proud to say you've become a rather skilled piano player over time. You have no idea exactly what prompted your lessons from part of your best friend, but these last few months have been filled with them, and while you were frustrated with your lack of skill at the beginning, whatever was left of Strider pride in you urged you not to give up, and you are so very glad you didn't.
It's so very warm in your room, and dark safe for your orange glow and the slow, bubbling red of the lava outside, but this quiet atmosphere is all you need as you thrum your fingers over the keyboard, shooting sideway glances at the other boy's motions, matching them not quite seamlessly, but rather well anyway.
He has chosen a fast-paced, cheerful song for today, and he pairs it up with a genuine, growing smile, and you smirk yourself, noticing how these have been growing in frequency with time. Because you could tell, even if faintly, that those were but a façade before, a front to hide the well of scary, dangerous thoughts behind it.
But something changed a few months ago, when John had woken you up with a tight hug and repressed tears, when the piano came back to his life, when he decided he'd be your new music teacher. Even now, you can't really place what caused this shift, or what it even is exactly, but you are glad that it happened. He has been silent, but he has been thoughtful too, and he no longer denies his worries when you ask him.
And, most of all, he's been communicative. And happy.
So happy that when you challenge yourself to keep up with his extraordinary pace, you hear him giggle, his tongue stuck out, and you can't help but chuckle out loud too. So happy that the music comes to its climax soon enough, and he playfully sabotages your awesome attempt at better him at this. So happy that when your playing comes to an abrupt, laughing end, you can see him completely relaxed, his hand on your shoulder, and for the first time ever, you watch him glow, and grow before you, as he turns his face to you and speaks oh so calmly, a touch of humor still ringing in low voice.
"Haha, okay, I gotta admit, we did some pretty sweet work right now."
And you feel just the need to encourage his growth, so you tug at the sleeve of his pajamas. "Come on, John, I was awesome and you know it. Give me some credit here."
He does exactly so, nodding slowly and grinning wide, turning back to the piano and starting a slower, idle song with tentative fingers. You watch his mouth open and him readying to say something else, hesitant, and you're about to say something to that effect when he finally makes up his mind. His words catch you by surprise.
"Vriska is dead, isn't she?" he asks, with the same genuine smile, albeit sadder and somewhat broken. Your first reaction is to gape, hopefully your shock obscured by the shades, but you realize he's been mulling over this for too long, and the decent thing to do now is to acknowledge his progress.
"Um, yeah... She is." You shift a little on the piano bench, tail swirling softly. "I'm so sorry, man. How did you... how did you figure it out?" you reply, and you sound almost panicked. Jade and you have discussed this before, and in shushed whispers she had begged you to be quiet about this, in fear of his reaction. Did you mess up and let it slip somewhere along the line? John involvement with trolls never made you happy, but still, you understood that Vriska and John were... something, and you'd hate to see him suffer over yet another one of your mistakes. Even if he seemed to be taking it so well.
He shrugs, and the smile is beginning to falter. "I... I talked to someone who was super good and helpful to me, and I kinda put two plus two together. Also..." his fingers progressively stopped pressing the black and white keys, hands falling gracelessly on his lap with a soft rustle, "my dad. He's not coming back either, is he?"
Yeah, you had somewhat suspected John never had the opportunity to truly face his father's death - not in the same way you had dealt with the loss of your own parental figure. The pain of bottling it all up and having no one to hold your hand through it still prickles your feathered skin, and sure as hell, you won't let him feel the same.
So with a seriousness and determination you didn't know you possessed, you reach out for his hands, squeezing them and rubbing them between yours, mustering up the words. "John, I... don't know everything about the game, especially with all this crap going on, so I could be totally fucking wrong about this. But... yeah, I guess your dad is gone, at least for now."
His smile is completely gone now, and he makes no effort to mask his sorrow. Just as he effortlessly takes a deep breath, pushing his hesitation away and firmly squeezing your hands back. He is facing you again now, and his brows are knitted, eyes impossibly blue behind the lenses of his glasses. They are focused solely on you, trapping you, reeling you in, and when he opens his mouth again, you know exactly what he is going to ask next.
"What about you? ...just one more year and you'll die too."
Oh, you should have seen this coming earlier. You should have known that your decision of prolonging your stay might make something like this happen. You had always craved for his acceptance, for him to consider you someone new, someone real, someone of your own, but you've always realized this was a selfish wish. Because what if he became your friend? What if he cared for you, and loved you, and looked at you like he is right now, with watery eyes, with the hurt of a certain separation looming before him? You had never wished to do him harm. But you can't deny that a part of you is so twistedly happy that something like this happened.
Tears show up on his face, and he has grown so much, for not once does he try to quietly wipe them off, hide them away. He does not sob, does not sniff, but the grip he has on your hands has tightened, and you can't think of any other reassurance you can give right now than your arms around him, your wings enveloping the both of you. He looks surprised by the sudden gesture, but he is hugging you back soon enough, and you feel it's easier to promise him your own death when you can't look directly at him. Maybe John isn't the only one with problem-dealing issues.
"Shit John, you're not... you're not supposed to think about it, at least now right now..." He makes no reply, but he holds you tighter, and instinctively your tails curls around his leg. You sigh. "Fuck, we really turned all this into a mess, didn't we? I'm so sorry. Not just for me, but... for everything. This game is bullshit, and none of us were ready for it, and I'm no longer sure of what is going to happen next, but there's still a chance that everything will be okay."
He's still a silent, shaky puddle in your arms, and you despair, your wings flutter, for you have to change this, as quickly as you can. "You'll be okay. I believe in you, I've watched you become a whole lot cooler than I could ever be. You'll make a pretty awesome hero, John, and you'll make their deaths count. You won’t be alone. And... It's not like you'll be Daveless after I'm gone. You'll have your best friend back. And I'll find mine again. It just... won't be the two of us..."
And as he slowly wills himself to calm down, reassuring you that your words are doing something, he softly pushes himself away from you, and there's a tiny smile to his puffy-eyed expression. His fingers trail up to the ruff of feathers around your neck, and you let him tug at them, even if these gestures make you want to do stuff you know he'll never be comfortable with. He chuckles, rather sadly. "But that's just my problem here, isn't it? I really don't care if he'll be back. I mean, of course I DO. But... I am still gonna lose someone else. And it'll be you, of all people."
In lack of anything better to say, this time it is you who scrambles closer to him, wrapping him in a stronger, renewed hug. He doesn't resist you at all, collapsing rather easily back against you, and a part of you - the last stupid part you retained from your old self - feels almost ashamed that you're allowing your feelings to run so freely. Except you could never regret this, you would never want to miss how much the both of you have grown together, even if you had never expected it to begin with.
You nuzzle your chin on his shoulder, feeling him bury his face in your feathers, sighing.
"Jesus, Egbert. Why the hell did you have to go and ask me to stay..."
The short array of sniffly giggles he rewards you with is enough to make you relax, sinking further in his embrace, and the next thing you know, his lips are grazing the skin of your neck beneath the feathers, and you can't seem to find a way to lessen your hold on him, or say anything else.
But it's okay, because he speaks enough for the both of you anyway, "I dunno. But... even with all this crap, I know I won't ever regret that. Even if it's just a few more months, I'm glad you're still here."
Then the piano stands there forgotten, as does your whole bubbling, suffocating, warm planet, because this boy might be the death of you even before your scheduled suicide, but you honestly wouldn't mind that at all, sunk deep as he is inside your heart, raging a hurricane war on your heartstrings.
And, of course, this one conversation eventually triggers a whole new set of changes in him over the next months, and you smile secretly, to yourself, proud to know you have helped him grow. Both him and Jade did grow, really. You watch this through the looking glass of your spriteness, and only sometimes are you sad about not being part of it.
Like how Jade became taller than John, even without counting with her dog ears - which "totally don't count, come on dude!!", growing into a young woman of great strength and wit, always with her uncanny good disposition (even if Karkat did rub off on her, and it shows). When she hugs you as a greeting every morning, or she takes you by the hand when she want to show you something new and exciting, you no longer feel like you have to protect her. In many ways, she is like your big sister now, she is the one who protects you when Jaspers comes sprinting after you and crow instincts kick in, and you're very alright with that.
John still protests about being out-heighted by his own sister, but he has grown a lot nonetheless, and his new, wider frame is filling up rather nicely, all sturdy muscle and soft baby fat. He feels even warmer when he sleeps across your torso, and his arms can carry you frustratingly effortlessly, while his voice has lowered to a melodic, soft low tone after it spent weeks cracking.
A big part of you knows you pay much more attention to John's details than Jade's, but the fact that you're enamored with your best friend has registered in you quite a long time ago, and you are pretty alright with it - and with knowing it will never amount to anything. Or at least that's what's best, for now. Who knows what will happen when you die.
But there are moments now where you're not so sure your feelings are as one-sided as you think, for as John grows, his affections grow with him. You had spent all that time before his breakdown giving him little secret pieces of your story, of the Dave behind the façade, and now you see this sharing reversed. You have to admit, as much as you love him, his life always struck to you as flawlessly cheerful and utterly mundane and boring, but ever since he came to terms with his father's death and vented all his regrets, all his nostalgia to you, you've been proved wrong over and over again.
You have started visiting more of his planet, and for the first time since his peculiar mental breakdown, back at the beginning of the game, he visited his dad's room once more. You hovered at the doorframe, unsure of your permission to just come in, but he enthusiastically beckoned you inside, and together you rather tactlessly turned the whole place upside down.
Between the two of you, you collected over fifty inspirational little notes for John, and a whole bunch of baby pictures the older Egbert had lying about. Sitting on his dad's bed, John flipped through all the papers, insisting that you were by his side, and that was the first time you saw him so talkative about stuff that was more than his regular rambling. You sat there, listening, not even joking about the silliest stories, for he was so into it, sometimes tearing up, sometimes making the two of you laugh, and you swear, you just keep falling more and more in love with everything that John Egbert is.
Something similar happened when the two of you found even older pictures, and you later saw John seeking out his Nanna to eagerly know more about those. You watched from a distance, not really wanting to intrude in such an intimate moment, but he ended up inviting you to join them, and Jade came up soon after, and all of you had one of the best afternoons ever.
In between those moments, he just kept seeking you out, and holding you, and taking you hand, and he got snugglier and snuggier each night, while the three of you slept. You sometimes caught him staring at you, getting so flustered if you suddenly glared back, and you noticed how his hands started lingering around you more while you hugged, fingers sinking into long fluffy feathers, running along wide, powerful wings.
In those moments you had to remind yourself this was all borrowed time, that all of this was bound to end quickly - and badly - but your brain was turned to mush from having to repress all your bird instincts and the god forsaking blissful chirping all the time (subtly failing more often than not). Sometimes he came so close to blatantly romantic gestures, his nose on your cheek, his lips on your neck, fingers on your waist, and you just replied with arms wrapped tightly around him, tail trailing up his leg, wings closed around the both of you, letting you keep him all to yourself.
"It's like a huge, fluffy blanket fort!" he exclaims, and when it's just the two of you, he'll snuggle closer, falling soundly asleep with your heart on his hands and a goofy smile on his lips, love gracing closed blue eyes. It's then that you almost take off your shades and bare yourself completely, it's then that you almost reach out and kiss him, wanting him to finally realize that yes, you do love him like that, and you'd redeem yourself of every mistake and utter failure you had done to him, just to make him the happiest person in the world.
But you just stay still, for it'd be so unfair for the both of you to do this, and you start counting down the days till you'll have to go, yet at the same time hurting from the thought of leaving this instance of him.
And so he grew, as did Jade, and even the weird assortment of consorts and carapaces in the ship developed in their own ways, some of them even making families. Everyone else walked away, while you remained the same, feeling so much older than any of them, yet stuck in the body of a 13 year old half-ghost. But this you were expecting. It's all part of being a sprite. At least your wounds healed and your wing grew back.
Now your last year of journeying is nearing its end, and after proudly assuming his dad's legacy at almost 16, John Egbert is shaving for the first time in his life. And you, of course, stand by his side through this rite of passage, this so dangerous ordeal, watching him fumble with the shaving cream and the sharp razor, laughing at his frustrated grunts, the small, vermillion cuts on his prickly face, smiling at how utterly handsome this boy has become.
The bathroom is a complete mess, the mirror not ideal, but he goes through this challenge slowly, with a determination that is so very his, and his brows are furrowed from his focus and effort, his lips move to shush you every time you jab at him.
You watch his hand move, making the razor slide slowly, and John is almost done when he suddenly stops, but keeps facing himself in the mirror as he mutters, "I wonder how Dave shaved for the first time. I wonder if he did okay. He would totally wanna use my help."
The comment pierces you like an icy spike, for it had been so long since he had mentioned the Real Dave, since he had stopped hoping for a benevolent dream-bubble, and while you should understand his reasons, the fact that Other Dave's reality is nearing John's hurts you far too much. You know exactly how he must be feeling. You know exactly how you'd feel, not sharing these things with the person you loved. But you don't want John to know this at all, so you do your best to be silent, and slowly you coil around yourself, shrinking back to the corner of the bathroom, suddenly not caring about John's first shaving adventure anymore.
Fuck, you are such an idiot. John is clearly not the only one upset because of your approaching separation, and again the doubts about these three years being a mistake ring in your messed-up head.
Even with your eyes open, you lose focus on the here and now, sinking deeper in grim, sorrowful thoughts, so it comes as a surprise when you finally see him crouching down before you, all clean-shaven, grinning wide before he pulls you for yet another one of his tight, impossibly warm hugs.
It's so easy for you to cling to him, shamelessly needy as you feel, as it's so easy for him to press his smiling mouth to your ear, ringing out these words you ache to hear, "I still regret nothing about making you stay, you know? I wouldn't miss the chance of getting to know you for anything in the world, and all things considered, I'm so very happy that it is you, and not him, with me right now. I wouldn't have it any other way. Thanks so much for everything, Dave."
And the two of you hug, neither of you wanting to let go, and as he rocks and giggles against you, roaming his hands all over your back, along your wings, you can't hold back all the tiny sounds anymore. So you chirp and peep and coo and whistle, and he's there to point every single one out with much fanfare, with yells of "oh my god, I knew it!! I knew you totally made birdie sounds, there is no hiding from me now!" You'd feel embarrassed, mortified even, with how he laughs so passionately about it all, but even in his mischief he is endearing, and the way he keeps squeezing you shows so much of his affection, and you can never stay mad at that.
In the last moments of your hug, you bury your face in his neck and the scent of aftershave reaches you, and just for a while all you want is to believe that one of his movies can be real, that you can return to being a boy and he'll love you for who you are, that the two of you can actually be together, with a sappy boring family in a sappy boring house. But then he finally lets go and you don't allow yourself to hang onto vain hopes, you follow him, hovering by his side, back to the ship and its golden deck.
Later Jade will compliment John on his shaving prowess, while commenting that the rugged, scruffy style still looked better on him, and John will dismiss this comment, dissing rather harshly at her love for the anthropomorphic lore. Jade will find you looking rather glum, even if utterly pleased, and she would smile all too smugly as the two of you would find a vacant room and you'd tell her how much you love John Egbert, all over again.
There would be this incredibly annoying, all-knowing look on her face while you'd speak, as if she saw something you didn't, a secret you would have to die to know, but you'd sigh and give up, for she was always so good at keeping her secrets well-protected.
It might have something to do with the fact that her witch powers allowed her to see John while she was talking to you. It might have something to do with how she could see the boy sitting on the crow's nest railing, an oblivious, bored Casey standing by his side. Her adopted dad stared at the rushing green stars of the place between places and rambled on and on, about how much he'd grown to care for the orange boy with wings and John's heart on his hands, and how much it'd hurt him to watch him go.
But you still had time, didn't you? You have come so far, and can still grow so much.