“Mercy is nobility’s true badge.”
- Tamora, Titus Andronicus, Act I scene i
After Jade, you join up with Dave again. It’s been five years but you both have unfinished business and you’d rather travel with him than anyone else. You know him inside out. You think you could pick his spleen out of a lineup.
But when you pull into your Mutually Agreed Meeting Place (a diner of fucking course it’s a diner), when you walk in and spot him - the way his hair flops into his glasses the heft of his shoulders the line of his jaw there’s a woman sitting next to him.
She spots you, and grins, and you don’t like it. No, not one fucking bit.
“Dave,” you say, “who’s the young lady?”
“You know me I love pickin’ up strays,” he says. “This girl right here, stranded on the side of the road, saddest fuckin’ thing ever I go to her and says, I go to her, I says, you need a lift little lady? It’s all very chivalrous.”
You look at him. You look at her. The black tinge in her eyes and her teeth and the way she sticks her chest out like an insult and your heart sinks.
“Oh Dave,” you say. “You didn’t.”
"I had to," he says. "It's John. He's in trouble. Remember that guy he was hanging around?"
The demon smiles. "A brother of mine, I'm afraid."
Your heart sinks and you think oh Dave Dave you didn't have to do this for him for some childhood friend we ran around with you didn't have to sell your soul.
Terezi’s the demon’s name. She’s a crossroads but not yours. She’s older than the Sun and she licks ketchup from her fingers in great drippy blobs and she made a deal with your brother in exchange for his soul.
There’s two beds in the motel room (shitty roach infested beige walls fading into water stains you’ve stayed in this room a million times it’s tattooed to the inside of your eyelids). Both singles. You toss your duffle onto the floor.
Dave takes one look around and says “I’ll sleep in the bathtub.”
You say “don’t be ridiculous” at the same time the demon says “that’s stupid” and Dave just gives you this bright sad smile, grabs a blanket, and walks into the bathroom.
Self control keeps you in your bed for two minutes. But the room feels uncomfortably large, and the feel of the demon’s eyes on you makes you think that retreat is, perhaps, the best option.
You grab a blanket and one of the pillows and your sweatshirt and dump them on top of Dave, who’s lying in the bathtub, staring at the ceiling. “I think I can see the stars from here,” he says.
“The many and varied constellations of ancient plaster, many have written of their beauty,” you say. “Scoot over.”
“There is literally nowhere to scoot to.”
But he shoves himself to the side and you wrap up around him.
“Has anyone ever told you you’re the most obstinate, most infuriatingly idiotic, person they’ve ever had the displeasure of knowing?”
“Only every day baby,” he says, resting his chin in your hair. “That’s my bread and butter. I live off people impugning my intelligence.”
“You have to admit, she’s hot,” says Dave. “My type of girl. Yours too, actually.”
You snort, he wiggles his eyebrows, and the bathroom door croaks open.
She’s standing in the doorway.
“Talking about me?” she asks. “How rude. Still, I guess it’s good to spend time with your brother now, there’s not much more left.”
You spring to your feet because how dare she, how dare she. “Get out,” you say.
She smiles crackerjack crisp as you punch her, as you miss. “I’ll kill you now,” you say. “I’ll do it.”
But when you reach a hand towards one of the knives at your waist she gestures and Dave shudders and groans, spine bending in and it’s not a good groan. “No,” she says. “No, I don’t think you will.”
You press the blade to her throat and it would be so easy, so very easy, but she twists her wrist and Dave whimpers. You let the demon go, she turns and leaves without another word.
“Are you all right?” you ask, kneeling beside the tub, lifting his shirt up to look at his chest, running fingers over the smooth plane of skin, checking for any new marks, any blood.
“Peachy,” he says. “Literally have never been better and if you could would you mind just knocking me out right now? Thanks in advance.”
“You’re going to sleep in a bed and you’re not going to whine about it,” you say, hoisting him upwards.
Together you limp back into the other room. The devil’s eyes are still there, watching and red and silent, but you ignore them as you take his socks off, fold his glasses and set them aside, as you wrap an arm around him.
He’s asleep in minutes and breathing evenly, your hand on his wrist lets you know his pulse is normal. When you’re sure the demon can’t see you kiss the nape of his neck.
“So you love him,” she says. Her voice is gravelly road dust in the silk silence.
You don’t say anything.
It takes two days before you manage to get Dave alone long enough to yell at him. You’re loathe to leave a demon unattended that long but you’ve salted the doors and windowsills of the hotel room so you can corner Dave, slam him against the desultory soda machine flickering dull light outside the building.
“Tell me this is all some joke,” you say. “Please, please tell me this is a joke.”
He slips off his shades and rubs his eyes. “It’s a joke, a terrible joke and I’m very sorry she’s just my girlfriend it’s a horrible practical joke we’re really going to Disney World. Hope you packed your Mickey Mouse ears.”
You rest your head on his shoulder. “You can’t save everyone, you idiot.”
Dave runs his hand through your hair, closer cropped than when he’d seen it last, and it’s more soothing than you want. You want fire and ice you want him to be angry but –
“I can try.”
Your hands clutch at his shirt. “Give me one good reason I shouldn’t just go in there and exorcise that demon right now. Give me one good reason, because right now there’s not a lot stopping me.”
His voice is still low and terror soft. “Because if you do, then I won’t tell you where Jade is.”
You whip your head up to look him in the eyes. Dave’s eyes are crinkling like they did the last time he did something so fucking stupidly sacrificial, like your Uncle Dave’s do when he elbows Grandma English in the ribs and tells a dirty joke only they get, the way yours do when you have a terrible secret.
“You’ll tell me now,” you say.
His smile widens. “Are you gonna kick me in the shins and tattle? Mom Dave won’t tell me where my ex-girlfriend and her vampire babe are make him tell me.”
“Is she safe? At least tell me that.”
His eyes grow a little colder. “No, I won’t. Not until my job here is done.”
You shove him again, so his head bounces against the back of the soda machine. “I hate you.”
“I know,” he says, and smiles again – he’s all smiles today, and you hate it, no one in your family ever smiles at a happy thing – and walks back into the room, kicking the salt aside as he does.
When you tell her to stay in the goddamn car, Christ, you’re a fucking nuisance, she salutes you. “Whatever you say, General.”
You scowl. “Don’t.”
“Wow cause that’s ever worked,” says Dave, as he hauls two shotguns out of the trunk of the car. “You’re right just telling someone to be an annoying little shit is gonna be super helpful congrats Rose here’s your prize.”
He tosses you the shotgun, despite the fact that you’ve told him a million fucking times not to do that. “Stay put,” you say, “I know you can feel pain. I’ll flay the skin from your arm if you move as much as an inch.”
She waggles her eyebrows. She’s picking up Dave’s bad habits.
He grins. And he’s picking up hers.
Dave’s never been able to stop throwing himself in front of people, from taking the bullet from him. Every time he takes a step forward, moves an arm to shield you, you remember that time in Houston when he bled out on the sidewalk, and you close your eyes and pray something will take away his mercy.
It turns out the town you stop in has a minor demon problem.
“Hey,” says Dave, nudging you as you check to make sure all your knives are in place, “Think of it as a warm up for the main act.”
“You’re not helping,” you say. You look at the demon, hunched over in the corner of the room, reading one of Dave’s books. “Stay put, for the love of God. We’ll be back in an hour or two. Probably.”
She looks up, closes the book with a snap. “No, if this is intended to be some sort of rehersal, then I’d like to come with you.”
Your blood boils. “You’ll get in the way.”
“You won’t barely notice me, General. Just a shadow in the corner, unless you need me.”
You look her in the eye. “I’m not a complete idiot, whatever my brother may have led you to believe. You’ll not go to a confrontation with a demon who’s likely one of your former associates. I’ll not put you in a situation where you can damage some other poor soul, where you can keep some horrible monster on the ground.”
She stands, and it is not the least bit menacing, the way her face is pale and drawn, the clench of her fists. The way for once, she looks as if she’s taking something you’ve said seriously.
“Don’t presume to know anything about me, Generalissimo.”
You look at Dave. He rolls his eyes. You glare. He raises an eyebrow. You raise yours. He wiggles his and you can’t help but grin, just a little. A tiny look of triumph crosses his face.
“All right,” you say. “But any shady business and I stab you first, mind.”
It doesn’t go as well as you’d hoped. Not that you'd hoped for much.
The possessed boy laughs and runs a be-ringed hand through his hair. He’s got you up against an I-beam, hot fishy breath on your neck, and he’s so fever hot he burns against your skin. You try and reach the blade at your hip, but he catches your wrists and pins them over your head. “Nice try, sweetheart,” he says, his voice warbling and thin. “But it’ll take more’n that to catch me, I can guarantee.”
You look around. Dave’s outside, the demon’s who-knows-where, and you’re, momentarily, weaponless.
This isn’t going as well as you’d hoped.
“Da – “ you cry but his hand is over your mouth before you can get another word out. You knee him in the groin (a petty trick, but a petty foe) but he just laughs it off.
It’s getting a little humiliating.
“Eridan,” says a voice in the shadows. “Fancy seeing you here.”
The demon’s got her arms crossed, and she’s surveying the possessed boy – arms crossed, nose up, shoulders square and set. “Didn’t think you liked to be this far from water.”
The boy’s smile is shark-toothed as he turns to face her, still with an iron grip on your hands. “Yeah well my circumstances were changin’ a little you know how it is.”
“Feferi finally cut you off?”
His fingernails dig into your wrists. “Don’t talk about her.”
“Talk about what? How you were terrible for her? How she didn’t love you? How she’s so much happier now, how you were so shellfish – sorry, selfish, guess you don’t use fish puns anymore.”
The possessed boy is leaning forward, as if he’s about to try and grab Terezi, wrestle her to the floor, so you kick his back, unbalance him. He falls flat on his face and your knee’s on his back, your knife’s at his throat, faster than you can say “pants for sports.”
That’s how Dave finds you, when he bursts into the door.
“Ah,” he says. “Clearly, you’ve got a handle on this.”
“Be a dear and set up the circle for me, will you?” you say. “I’m just going to get real comfy on our friend’s back here till then.”
Terezi kneels down, looks the possessed in the eye. “I’ll be sure to tell her the news.”
He thrashes under you, but there’s no way he’s getting loose now. The cuts on your wrists are bleeding and Dave’s drawing quick precise symbols on the floor and no, there’s no way he’s getting loose now.
You slam the hotel door closed behind you. “You didn’t have to do that,” you say.
“I think I sort of did,” says Terezi. She dusts off her hands, job well done.
Dave sets the shotgun down on the table. “Guys, it’s fine. We’re all alive –“
“For now,” you snarl, and grab Terezi’s collar. “Why’d you do that, if you’re just going to kill the both of us later?”
“I’m not going to kill you, General,” she says. “That’s not part of the deal.”
“Don’t play with me,” you say. “Don’t. You hate him and you hate me especially, no matter what he thinks is going on between the two of you so why didn’t you just let me die.”
Her face slackens, loses some of the usual tight wound quicksilver smirk. “Do really want to die that badly, Rose?”
“I deserve what I get,” you say. “And if that’s getting murdered by a demon because I am too foolish to say no to my brother then yes.”
“Rose, please,” says Dave. “Don’t do that for me.”
“Why?” you say, looking over Terezi’s shoulder at him. “You’d do it for John. You’d do it for me, though I don’t know why.”
She kisses you then. One minute you are near shaking her and the next she’s kissing you, a little sharply and a little sadly and her hands are close around your neck.
“I saved you because I wanted to,” she said.
Dave’s eyes are wide and he takes a step back, like he’s going to run, like he’s going to do what he always does which is the right thing, going to leave you both alone but you don’t want him to go.
Terezi grabs his hand, bites at his palm. “No,” she says, “You’re mine too,” and you see some indelible line of tension bleed out of his face and you suspect yours looks the same you’re hers and his and they’re yours and you can do what you wanted to do from the first moment you saw both of them, which is curl an arm around Terezi’s waist and kiss Dave, take his sunglasses off, throw them to the side.
Terezi uses this as an opportunity to lick at your neck, which is sort of underhanded and makes you squirm, but you get her back by pushing her to the bed, clambering on top.
(You have to pull Dave along. You feel like you need to tell him it’s okay.)
He runs a hand through your hair and breathes a shaky sigh and you smile at him and everything, to your great surprise, is okay.
“Unhand me, miscreants,” says Terezi. “I can’t get off my shirt otherwise.”
“That’s just not fair,” says Dave.
She pulls her shirt off, and you and Dave, you’re not ashamed to admit, both take a minute to stare. “I’m okay with that,” she says.
You haven’t found John yet. Who knows if you ever will, or if the deals still on. In all likelihood (and you tell this to Terezi, as she traces her fingers on the outlines of your tattoos, circling the sun over and over) Dave will get a text in three weeks, “hey dave! how’s it going?? me and karkat are going to the movies later hope you’re jealous haha,” and they’ll call the whole thing off.
You haven’t found Jade yet. And who knows if you ever will.
You haven’t found out where Uncle Dave has disappeared to and you haven’t figured out how Dave seems to have an infinitely rotating supply of flannel shirts and you don’t know whose body it is that Terezi’s stolen and you haven’t found out what you’re doing but you’ve found somewhere to put your feet – up on Terezi’s lap as she slumps in the backseat of the car complaining about the heat and the cold in turns, Dave driving too fast and the music too loud, laughing when Terezi says his singing is “some tenth level of hell bullshit.”
You’ve found out that it’s nicer to sleep in the car, cramped as it is, curled between the two of them like a snail in a shell (“no more motels for the love of all that’s terrible and holy I will turn this car around kids”). You find out that Terezi snores and Dave wheezes and when the three of you smile together demons run.
That’s enough, for now.