After the third time Vriska's rocket pshhhhhhooes cough and startle, they die out completely, and you have no choice but to stop. You sit in the sand, your arms crossed on your knee and your chin tucked in your hand, and watch Vriska trying to restart them.
Her face twisted into a grimace, she fiddles with the tuning, and shakes her foot in the seeming hope that the motion will kick the motor awake.
When it doesn't, she hops, yanks one of the boots off, and starts shaking it anew. You're not clear on what she's hoping to achieve; if the motor started running again now, it'd fly out of her grip, and she'd be left behind like a modern Slimeyella.
She must have reached the same conclusion, or else she's just infuriated by the machine's lack of response, because she slams the shoe against a nearby rock with a growl.
You jump. “Uh, Vriska, what do you think you're doing?”
She glares at you. “Trying to get this working again, obviously! Duh, what does it look like I'm doing?”
“Like you're trying to get it to explode in your face,” you answer practically.
“That'd never happen to me,” she replies, and apparently being dead didn't kill off all of Vriska's luck, because when she twists the button again the motor whirrs to life again. “There!”
You bite your tongue as Vriska congratulates herself, slips the shoes back on, and lifts gracefully back into the air. Clearly you weren't hard enough on the mechanism to break them for good.
Well, you'll just have to try again.
She catches you sabotaging the pshhhhhoes the next time you try. Of course your luck would run out.
“Tavros, what are you doing?”
You could lie.
Vriska likes you now, inasmuch as she can like anyone, thoughtless and as toothless as she can be. Before your death, you wanted her to just act like a regular friend.
Well, you got your wish, and it turns out it just makes you passive-aggressive and annoyed with her. You were perfectly content being dead before she chanced by and proceeded to fuck shit up. You didn't give her a thought, you weren't angry, you weren't upset, you'd moved on, and then she came by and went right back to demanding stuff from you.
If you said “tinkering,” she'd believe you. It’d fit right in with her opinion of you.
You've had it with Vriska Serket's ideas of who you are and who you should be.
“Trying to break your shoes, but it's harder than I thought. They're less fragile than my rocket pschhhhhhhair.”
For a moment, you can bask into the look of complete incomprehension maturing into betrayed anger on Vriska's face.
“You said you were going to help!”
“Um, no,” you feel obligated to correct. “I said, and I quote, I was going, to cooperate. Also, you made me.”
“So???????? That's still a lie! You lied to me!”
You pause, and stare. She stares back, glowering with indignation.
“Okay, leaving aside, the blatant hypocrisy of that statement, I never lied.” You count on your fingers. “You never asked if I had done something to them, you asked if I could fix them, and I really can't. I haven't hidden any of the clues we've found from you.”
“You're slowing us down! That's not helping!”
“I never, uh, said I'd help. I said, I'd cooperate. That means, working together, right? I'm the only one doing the, the plodding and grubwork here, while you're zooming in and out on your rocketshhhhhoes.”
She gapes, and for the first time since you've been together in the afterlife, you have the feeling she sees you.
There's not a lot to eat in the afterlife. You never minded it; the dead don't feel hunger.
However acutely you might have otherwise missed the comfiness of your hive, the Land of Sand and Zephyr was more than an adequate compensation. The vast plains of its landscape, in soft tones of ochre, shifting under the breeze, an invitation to travel. You had nothing but your own two feet, and nothing to hold you back. Your land had a quiet, serene beauty that you explored alone, only joined at times by the shadows of dead friends or the blink-fast passage of Aradia's grin. The bulls in your land were your main company.
Quiet, serenity and loneliness are the swift casualties of Vriska's arrival. You don't actually mind it so much, but Vriska drags with her a line of stupid disagreements.
It takes running across a pack of bulls and regarding them from behind a bush of plump, red berries for the issue of food to join the fray.
“We don't need to eat,” you pointed out. “I thought you wanted us to get out quick?”
She rolls her eyes so hard you wonder if she's going to strain them.
“Ugh, Tavros. If death doesn't want us to eat, that's exactly why we should! I'm not going to let the afterlife decide for me anymore. And we need strength to bust out of here.”
She's eyeing the bulls with narrowed eyes that fill you with a sense of foreboding that's as familiar to you as the headache that's bound to follow.
You cross your arms. “Vriska, I'm not going to help you kill some poor creatures when we don't need to, just because you're getting bored of looking for clues.”
“Who said anything about boredom? I'm not bored. Now, bring us the veal over there. It looks delicious.”
She sounds determined and not at all hungry, and she's spent the last couple of hours alternatively talking big about how the two of you are going to hunt and kick the asses of all the riddles – all of them – and whining about how you specifically aren't going fast enough.
“If, uh, you want to waste our time, you're going to have to do that yourself,” you tell her.
You brace yourself at the glint in her eyes. Oh, you know where this is going, but it's a matter of principle. Vriska taught you this. You used to believe that self-confidence came from being able to do things – Vriska always won, it made sense that she'd be the most confident person you knew. But now she's dead – she failed – and she still believes in herself as much as she ever did. Maybe more: now she's trying to reverse your deaths.
It's stupid and you don't think it can be done, but she still won't admit to defeat and she won't give up.
That's what she's tried to teach you all that time. Stand your ground and grow a backbone and all that stuff that she used to spout and that hit you in the gut, because it's not like you could do most of those things, being in a wheelchair and all.
You've tried putting your foot down a few times now, and it goes about half-and-half. You can never be sure beforehand if she'll come to see things your way, but even she loses her patience and uses her power to puppet you into saying you agree, afterwards you can shrug. You can humor her, but it's not like you changed your mind. It's not like she frightened you into doing this to yourself.
It makes you feel good about yourself when you score a victory against her, joy blooming inside you, but you don't feel bad when she takes control of you to pretend you agree. That just means you didn't back down.
This time, it's one of the Vriska-needs-to-win moments. You're not that surprised, but you're a little angry that it ended in an animal that didn't need to being killed.
“Here, I'll cook,” you offer, and Vriska looks startled, then pleased.
“Yeah! Awesome, I knew you'd come around,” she gloats, and grins, wide and bright and entitled and happy. You're not sure if you want to punch her or kiss her.
You do neither, because someone in this little outfit needs to not be ridonkulously impulsive, and also because you don't have her luck.
“No, it's just, you can't cook, at all.”
She retorts something about her lusus never complaining, and how she's looking forward to what you can do, but it's clearly because she needs to get the last word. Watching you cook must be booooooooring, she leaves you to it.
The end result is two large palmtree leaves, on which you've put a piece of cooked meat and a side-dish of broiled berries. As you push one of the make-shift plates toward her, Vriska leans and steals a berry from your plate.
She opens her mouth to plop the red fruit inside, then pauses. “How do I know you didn't poison it?”
“Oh, so, now I've cooked, you're worrying about poison. By the way, you're welcome.”
“You sabotaged my rocketpshoes, you can't blame me for suspecting you!”
You don't deny, and instead neatly grab the piece of meat. Vriska watches you like a hawk.
“You sound like Terezi – or, Neophyte Redglare, I guess. Am I supposed to be Mindfang?” Her eyes widen; you push your luck a little further. It’s dangerous territory you’re inching toward. “I wish you'd tell me, when you want us to roleplay. It's very confusing, when you don't set the scene clearly.”
“I'm not playing,” she replies hotly, “I'm asking you if you poisoned our food!!!!!!!!”
“I'm eating, too,” you point out. You don't bring the meat any closer to your lips. “Why, would I poison, my own food. That makes no sense, at all.” Rolling your eyes hides how much you're enjoying this. “Do you want me, to take a bite, so you know it'll be alright?”
Her eyes narrow.
“Don't you take pity on me,” she growls. Her head is tilting so straggly locks of her hair are falling in front of her face, framing her glasses. Her lips are twisting. Last time you saw that expression, she drove your lance through your chest.
You almost want to laugh.
“Oh, I'm not,” you promise.
You consider one another for a moment, kind of like Aradia and Vriska used to do before your games. Sizing each other up. She's gazing at you like she's trying to see through your skin, into your bloodstream. It makes you feel weird, like a thousand of tiny warm bug-feet tickling inside your skin. It's not-- it's not unpleasant. Just weird.
She looks at you like Terezi used to look at people, like she wants to read their mind, and for the time ever, you look back like you're inviting her to.
Finally, she breaks the silence. “Anyway, even if you eat your food, it's not a proof. You're the one who made two different plates, you could've put poison just in my food.”
“Well, take mine, then.”
You tilt your head back, and throw a berry in the air, catching it in your mouth.
“Oh come on, who do you think I am? I'm a FLARP pro! I played Spinneret Mindfang! Like I don't know you could've put the poison in your food and you’re waiting for me to swap our plates!” She's so upset, you can practically hear the “8, among the herd of stretched vowels and rows of exclamation points.
“Wow, Vriska, that's really twisted,” you say, as sincere as you can. Without waiting, you put your leaf back on the ground between the two of you. “I guess, if that's how you feel, you just have to take a chance, and trust in your luck, right?”
You smile sweeter than the – kinda sour, if you have to be honest – berries shining appetizingly on the leaf.
“I have all the luck,” she snarls, aware she's being mocked. Score one for snarky bullshit. All that time you spent in deathbubbles not your own paid off. “What if I manipul8ed you and made you eat??????? Then you'd be poisoned too!”
You spread your hands out, in a slow, what-can-I-do gesture. “I can't stop you.” You pause. “Or, I guess, you could not eat.”
It's a challenge; of course she does. Not without mind-controlling you into sharing both plates, but hey, that's a price you were okay with going in.
Afterwards, you're both so sick off poisonous berries you spend two daytime rotations recuperating.
“So you did poison it,” Vriska crows weakly. “I knew it!”
She's in pain, and poisoned, and she still sounds as triumphant as when she beat you and Aradia at FLARP. If you hadn't eaten something that disagreed with you, you'd have the perfect word for the feeling coiling in your stomach.
“Yeah, but you still 8 it.”
Her head jerks up, eyes round and lips parted. Your bloodpusher does a little dance.
She doubles over before finishing her sentence, but you think there's a real chance you might have replied, me too.
You lose the map the next time she shoves it in your hands, while she flings herself at the Colossus guarding a door in the mountain.
In retaliation, she pushes you into a pool of viscous Colossus blood.
A maze of enemies, traps, and riddles is carved out in the mountain. The monsters are the easy part, as Vriska never misses an opportunity to boast, but neither of you were the big fans of riddles in your FLARP teams. You end up being the one in charge of solving most of them while she fights off waves of increasingly vicious cave-creatures.
It's a slow progress, where a turn forward can mean three levels down, stairs of rotten stone and transportalizers that take you back to the entrance with no hope of return.
If you'd had a map--
Well, you don't, so you and Vriska end up bickering more aggressively than usual, in a corridor where she's slain the latest monster and you've just deciphered the inscriptions covering the blank wall blocking the path, calling back memories of Aradia's explanations and you realize it's an impasse, you took a wrong turn somewhere. You shove at each other, sticky with sweat and monster blood, and you end up rolling around on the ground, snarling, scratching, pulling.
It takes you a while to break off from making out sloppily with Vriska Serket in a damp impasse of an underground death temple.
Then you randomly pick a big-ass tunnel, giddy and unable to focus, among the gazillion you've seen, and it leads on an open plateau.
Maybe Vriska's luck rubbed off.
--which is easily the most flustering image that could possibly cross your mind at this juncture, so you don't look at her for fear that she'd be able to actually read minds for once, and you bump into her.
You recoil – how do you act around someone you've just hate-kissed, anyway? You're pretty sure you've missed on the protocol. When you were alive, you had no interest in blackrom. Now you wish you'd paid more attention to Aradia's light teasing, way back when, or Karkat's gigantic reclists of movies when he'd take it upon himself to enlighten you about the beauty of blackrom.
She doesn't react, staring down and ahead, and you follow her gaze.
You're standing on a cliff higher than any you've seen on your land, and when you peer down, crouching at a safe distance from the edge and Vriska, you can see a blinking, glowing white hole all the way down, in the depths of the abyss.
“That's the exit,” she says. She sounds so sure of herself, Vriska does. When she has no way of knowing, when it can be a trap like twenty others, when you're both dead, and that's the end of the line, there's just no coming back from there.
“You don't know that.”
It's very far down. You edge away from the cliff.
She turns her head, and grins at you over her shoulder.
“We're already dead. What can happen to us?”
“Do you know the expression, a fate worse than, uh, death?” you can’t help but sass.
It's more interesting, hanging out with Vriska, than the deadly calm from before. You could write a rap opera about Vriska Serket's character flaws, but you've got to give her this: she's not boring.
Also: she's lucky.
“Guess we'll just have to take our chance, uh?”
“Anyway, how would we get down?” you ask, not wanting to tell her you're considering it.
Her grin widens winningly. “With these,” she says, and the fairy wings she earned when she became a god pop into iridescent existence in her back.
Your mouth works silently.
“Nice, uh,” she says, flapping her wings in a cloud of blue powder.
“And you didn't think to mention them before? When you were mad at me about your shoes?”
“Flying alone was boring anyway.” Of course. “It's not that far, I can fly us both down.”
It takes a second before you understand what Vriska's suggesting, and all the air in your lungs is sucked away.
“Fly me down?”
“Sure. You just need to trust me.” She shrugs like it's no big deal.
To her it probably isn't. She apologized for killing you, and she put it behind, like she put your attempt to kill her behind, or Aradia beating her to death. For her, it's all a big game where so long as no-one comes out ahead, there's no reason to cling onto something.
Someday, you're going to figure out what scares her.
Today, you have to decide on whether you'll play it safe – stay behind – not enter the unknown white door, not let Vriska fly you into the drop – and stay dead, or whether you'll take that risk, and maybe, maybe, break out.
With no way of knowing, any choice you make is a gamble.
You take a breath.