They first meet at a gala on Ioria’s second moon.
It’s an important event--a fundraiser of sorts for some big name for-profit charity, one of Her Imperious Condescension’s latest attempts at appeasing the masses and quieting talks of rebellion--but not a particularly engaging one. The music is slow and with Kanaya off placating some schmoozing drunks, nobody is particularly interested in sparing Rose more than a passing glance and a distasteful curl of their lip. No one of any importance is quite drunk enough for Rose to wheedle them for information, that’ll come later, so with nothing else to do, Rose settles for standing against a wall between two overly tall windows, nursing a rancid glass of some sort of troll wine, and watching the crowds.
Most of the guests are highblood trolls, many of whom Rose recognizes from some news story or another, others from the dossiers she’d perused in preparation of this evening. There are a few humans interspersed with them, senators and royalty and high ranking military officials, all here showing their faces in hopes of being offered favorable treatment when the Condesce inevitably asserts full political control of the Earth. She won’t, of course; if and when the takeover occurs, even the most brownnosing political players will be the first to go. But they try anyway, and Rose finds the whole display morally repugnant and, frankly, rather pathetic.
The most unnerving faces she spies amongst the elite are the Condesce’s handpicked guardsman. She’s studied their faces over and over, memorized them and ingrained them into her mind because those faces mean danger, and seeing them here is not at all unexpected, but it still sets her on edge.
They blend well with the crowd, moving from conversation to conversation in weaving patrols with no rhyme or reason to the untrained eye. One catches her watching and offers a polite smile; she returns it over the rim of her drink and hopes he doesn’t find her solitude suspicious. His smile widens marginally and he turns back to conversing with a wobbly looking troll and his grimacing partner.
Heart pounding, she searches the room for Kanaya and spies her at a standing table near the musicians. She looks to be neck deep in a conversation with some human senator, and the tight curl of her lip tells Rose it’s not an enjoyable one. The senator says something and throws his head back laughing, and as he does Kanaya’s eyes shift sharply to Rose with nothing short of disdain written into her features. Rose smiles apologetically and lifts her glass in a mock toast. Kanaya looks entirely unimpressed and moves to turn back to the senator who’s still chortling at his own joke.
Before she does, though, her eyes fall a bit to Rose’s elbow then shoot back up. They’re wide and alarmed for half a second till she schools her expression and meets Rose’s perplexed gaze. Kanaya casually brushes her hand over her own elbow, holds Rose’s stare for a moment longer, then turns back to her conversation.
Rose looks down at herself and notices immediately what had spooked Kanaya. Blotches of grey peek out just past the hem of her gloves, stark against her dark skin, and her breath catches in her throat. Goosebumps break out over her skin and it takes every ounce of her willpower not to panic and jerk her glove up far enough to cover the discoloration. That would draw attention, she reminds herself, and attention is the last thing she needs as she stands surrounded by the Condesce’s eyes and ears.
She pauses long enough to take a breath and soothe her fraying nerves before taking an agonizing sip of her drink and making like she’s smoothing the fabric of her glove down, pulling it gently over the splotchy marks on her arm and breathing out only once they’re hidden from view. Her eyes sweep the room, but no one seems to be paying her any attention. Kanaya catches her gaze again with a concerned furrow in her brow and Rose smiles in a way she hopes is comforting and nods toward one of the balcony doors. Kanaya frowns for a long moment then concedes with a subtle sigh as she turns to greet a frowning troll who had joined her table.
A few people eye Rose sidelong as she steps outside, but she thinks it has more to do with the breach in etiquette that stealing away by oneself poses than anything else. Their gazes are gone as soon as the door swings shut behind her, anyway, and she takes a deep breath as the weight of them leaves her shoulders.
The air isn’t much fresher out here, still stale and dry like breathing in sand, but it’s cooler and the view of Ioria is as stunning as it was the first time she’d seen it. Pinks and blues and yellows swirl together on its surface, rippling like ocean waves, and white streaks of lightning cut through them at disjointed intervals. It’s in constant motion, a painting come to life, framed in white against the infinite reaches of space, and if it and all its moons weren’t the sole property of the empress, Rose would fancy the thought of visiting more often.
She crosses the balcony slowly and stands at the far rail. From here, the city spans before her, houses and shops crammed together with roads fitted in the gaps between them. They sit together in a cluttered sprawl like pieces from different puzzles forced to align. The city’s limits, painted in thick lines on the moon’s surface, sit in stark contrast, a perfect circle of bright fuchsia where the artificial atmosphere ends. Beyond them, the air is unbreathable, though the citizens living on the fringes may think that perhaps the radius of the atmosphere is overestimated.
She allows herself a moment to take in the sight before returning to more pressing matters. After making sure she’s entirely alone, she places her drink on the stone rail in front of her and pushes the hems of her gloves down toward her wrists. Her arms look as though she’d dunked them in a can of grey paint. The color is splotchier near her elbows, growing more solid further towards her wrists. Grimacing, she uses one gloved hand to try to scrub at it in the vain hope that perhaps something had just been spilled; all she succeeds in doing is irritating her skin.
This is absolutely the last thing she needed tonight.
Another deep breath, this time for concentration. Squeezing her eyes shut, she wills the pigmentation back. It’s not easy--it’s never easy--and it gives her a raging headache, but this is something she really, really cannot afford.
The whispers in her mind that had been like white noise to her all day surge suddenly, howling through her skull, indignant and furious. There are too many all at once speaking in a language she only half-understands, and they all blend together into a roaring sort of gibberish that makes her grind her teeth to keep from screaming.
Please not tonight, she thinks--begs!--because if she can’t stop this now, she’s going to get caught.
The voices shudder and lash out, leaving starbursts of pain flashing behind her eyes and ricocheting about her skull. She huffs a hard breath through her nose because this is so typical. Any other night they could’ve done this, any of the hundreds of nights when she’s not practically sitting on the Condesce’s doorstep, but they had to be difficult.
“Fine,” she says aloud, “Tonight but later.”
There’s a pause, the pain easing just a bit, and the wall in her mind gives. She breathes out again as the voices fade back into faint murmurs, and when she looks down at her arms, the grey is seeping back toward her wrists. Relief blossoms in her chest and she sags against the rail, barely remembering to steady her drink before she knocks it off onto the city street below.
“Quite the view, huh?”
Rose nearly jumps out of her skin at the voice behind her and despite her best efforts, her glass slips from her fingers in her haste to jerk her gloves back up despite there being nothing for her to hide. She turns around quickly--too quickly, she’s being suspicious--and winces when she hears her glass shatter four stories below.
The woman behind her looks equal parts surprised, amused, and very, very out of place. She’s not dressed to the nines like every other guest; quite the opposite, in fact. The ratty tee-shirt she’s wearing doesn’t quite fit her broad shoulders and long torso and her jeans are little more than scraps of fabric with gaping holes in their front. Her hair--thick and greasy--falls in unbrushed curls about her shoulders, framing a square jaw and a grinning mouth.
Rose realizes she’s staring and coughs into her hand in an attempt at distracting herself.
The silence stretches till the woman breaks it, “Too much Alternian wine?” She asks with mirth in her voice. She moves toward the railing in two quick strides and peers over the edge where Rose’s drink had fallen. Her nose wrinkles marginally at whatever she sees then she turns to Rose, grin wide enough that her front teeth poke out from behind her lips, “It’s strong stuff.”
Rose blinks and after a moment, shakes herself from her distraction.
“Alternian,” She echoes, “Haven’t heard that in years.”
Not since Alternia had grown unlivable from densening sunlight and receding oceans, and the Condesce had taken it was a cue and an excuse to begin her violent expansion of her empire. The only ones who still use it are those who are too old or spiteful to care for semantics.
The woman shrugs, “Old habits, right?”
This close, Rose can see that the woman is at least half a foot taller than her, and the ungainly circular glasses perched on her nose are smudged with fingerprints and god knows what else. Despite the flippancy of her statement, her eyes are bright and sharp, watching Rose’s reaction like she’s sizing her up. Rose swallows thickly around a growing lump in her throat and averts her gaze back to the scenery.
Another silence falls between them. Rose isn’t sure what to say and it’s a new and vaguely bizarre feeling for her.
“So,” The woman says, “Your name?”
Rose’s first, gut reaction is to lie. She doesn’t know or trust this woman who had seemingly materialized out of nowhere at one of the Condesce’s events, and giving out her name freely seemed like a poor idea. At least, until she remembered that she’s a relatively famous author and her name was probably the most widely known facet of her identity.
“Rose,” She says finally. The woman hums in acknowledgement but says nothing. Rose waits a moment before pressing, “And yours…?”
The woman smiles sweetly, “Not telling.”
Rose frowns, but stamps out the urge to protest at the unfairness, “Going for tall, dark, and mysterious then? Not very original.”
The woman laughs and lull in conversation that follows is gentler this time. Rose’s heart is pounding again and she her face feels pleasantly warm. It’s an odd feeling but a good one, even if it feels wrong happening in one of the Condesce’s palaces. Rose’s earlier scare and reason for being on the balcony is far from her mind till she opens her mouth to continue the conversation and is promptly interrupted by Kanaya breezing in through the door from the ballroom.
“Rose, I really must-” She pauses, catching sight of the odd woman at Rose’s side, “I’m sorry--I didn’t realize you had company.”
The word company rolls off her tongue with a tinge of disdain as her eyes run appraisingly down the woman’s body, taking in her ragged and disheveled appearance. Rose rolls her eyes, but the woman speaks before she can,
“That’s alright,” She says cheerfully, “Pretend like I’m not even here.”
Kanaya’s eyes narrow suspiciously then fall to Rose, “I- there is a woman who asked me to come fetch you so the two of you can meet. She’s a rather ecstatic fan of yours.”
From Kanaya’s stilted and awkward tone, it’s clear to Rose that there is no fan, but she’s been out here long enough after her hasty and conspicuous retreat that people might be growing suspicious, and Kanaya looks frazzled enough that Rose doesn’t want to make her life more difficult by being petulant.
“Sorry,” She says, turning to the woman, “I have to-”
“Can I have your number?”
Rose pauses, “My number?”
“Yeah!” The woman flaps her hand through the air like she’s hurrying Rose along, “Like your phone?”
“That’s-” Phones have been on a steady usage decline for years since interplanetary travel made them all but useless, and Crocker Corporation had introduced holoconfrencing to the market as an alternative. Rose only even has one because their scarcity and lagging technology make them ideal for discreet communication off the Condesce’s grid. Suspicion itches at the back of her mind, but the woman seems nonplussed by whatever she might’ve revealed with her request.
After a moment of hesitation, Rose agrees, seeing no real danger in it. She rattles off the numbers and the woman nods along but doesn’t note it anywhere. She appears to think nothing of it, and Rose assumes she knows what she’s doing.
Kanaya coughs, quietly, and Rose hurries their goodbyes along.
“I suppose we’ll speak again,” She says.
“We will,” The woman says, her voice serious despite the smile still beaming from her face, “Goodnight!”
Rose echoes the sentiment and allows Kanaya to usher her back into the fray.
The woman doesn’t leave Rose’s mind all night. She spends the rest of the evening sweet talking drunk and loose lipped bureaucrats and eying the balcony door to see if the woman will come in. Hours pass, and when the ballroom has begun to empty, Kanaya catches her by the arm and tells her they have to go or they’ll miss the last shuttle home. The woman still hasn’t come through the door, and Rose wonders if perhaps she’d imagined her.
The shuttle home is long and uncomfortable and as beautiful as space can be, after hours of watching it as the only scenery Rose was beginning to grow tired of it. Kanaya talks on her holocom the whole trip back, discussing the party’s every detail with some sharp voiced troll halfway across the galaxy. Rose tries to listen for a while, but grows bored and instead takes to thinking about the woman on the balcony.
Rose had joked about her being tall, dark, and mysterious, but that’s exactly what she had been with an emphasis on mystery. Rose had been distracted when she’d first approached and hadn’t heard her coming, but where had she come from in the first place? Dressed as she was, it couldn’t have been from the party; Rose knows she would’ve noticed her in there. She’d used outdated technology and terminology, things that would be huge red flags for any of the Condesce’s agents, things Rose wouldn’t dare say in public for fear of the Condesce’s retribution.
Rose is still lost in thought, wondering about the woman and what her name might be, whether she kept it secret to play coy or because she couldn’t risk telling, when they arrive back on earth. Kanaya has a car waiting outside the port, and it’s only once they’re inside that Rose realizes that the whispers have grown louder within her mind. A quick peek under her gloves reveals that the grey is once again beginning to seep out over her skin. She grimaces and shares a look with Kanaya, who leans forward and asks the driver to drive fast.
By the time they reach Rose’s apartment, the grey is threatening to again spill out past what her gloves can cover. She climbs quickly from the car and is unsurprised to find Kanaya stepping out with her after offering the driver a tip and her gratitude. In the elevator, Rose watches the grey climb steadily up her arms, and Kanaya takes off her coat and drapes it over Rose’s shoulders to cover her in the short walk from the elevator to her apartment.
Once inside, Rose collapses on the couch, exhausted and thoroughly not looking forward to a prophecizing session with the horrorterrors, who are growing louder and louder the more the grey spreads across her skin.
“You didn’t tell me about this, Rose.”
Kanaya looms over her with a deep frown and crossed arms.
“I had hoped it wouldn’t spread so fast,” Rose explains, “It usually doesn’t.”
“That doesn’t actually make it better,” Kanaya says.
Rose shrugs a bit carelessly and offers Kanaya a little smile. The grey is spreading over shoulders and down her chest. In her head, the horrorterrors’ voices are becoming clearer, more distinct. She’ll likely be grimdark in a few minutes time.
Kanaya doesn’t appear placated and looks like she’s ready to dive headfirst into an explanation on exactly why Rose’s actions had been so dangerous, but she sighs, relenting at the sight of whatever she sees in Rose’s face, “Where’s your tape recorder?”
“In the bedroom on the dresser. I just put a new tape in.”
Kanaya goes off to find it and Rose reclines back, watching in idle fascination as the grey slides down her chest and disappears under the hem of her dress. She’s been a prophet as long as she can remember, but the process of going grimdark, of watching her skin turn ashen grey like someone had emptied a paint can over her, never really stops being weird.
Footsteps signal Kanaya’s return, and she drops down onto the seat beside Rose, tape recorder in one hand and Rose’s cell phone in the other. Before Rose can ask about it, Kanaya is tossing it into her lap,
“It was beeping,” She says before turning her attention to fiddling with the tape recorder.
The screen flashes at her when Rose picks up the phone, signifying a message from an unknown number. Heart pounding and the rising voices in her mind all but forgotten, she opens the message to find a single line of text.
call me harley ;)
Rose swallows thickly, heat rising to her cheeks. It has to be her. She considers texting back, but she notes that the grey has now run its way all the way down her legs and is likely beginning to crawl up her neck, now. With a sigh, she puts the phone aside and looks at Kanaya, who appears exhausted and fondly exasperated.
“Okay,” She says, hoping she’s not grinning like a fool, “Let’s get this over with.”
After that first message, Rose doesn’t hear from Harley for months. The number she’d texted from has been disconnected since at least the week after the gala and no amount of digging around on Rose’s part turns up anything more than some firearm manufacturer that went out of business years before the Condesce’s occupation of Earth.
Rose has taken to carrying her phone on her person at all times. She keeps it charged every night and never leaves it far enough out of sight that she wouldn’t hear it ringing. It’s bizarrely reminiscent of her teenage years when her phone was essentially her lifeline and her connection to most, if not all, of her friends. It’s been a long time since she’s felt like a teenager over a girl and as frustrating as it is to wait and wait as days turn to weeks turn to months, there’s something refreshing about it, too.
Her one saving grace is that her work has picked up since the gala, and while waiting for Harley’s call always lingers at the back of her mind, she has little time to sulk about it. The horrorterrors have grown obnoxiously talkative; she can’t remember the last time she didn’t wake up with greying fingertips, though they have yet to be quite as pushy as they were the night of the gala. Between recording her prophesying, pouring over books and articles to translate the prophecies through her abhorrent accent, retranslating them into ciphered gibberish, retranslating that into something palatable by the masses, and e-mailing it all to her editor, she barely has a moment to really stew in her loneliness before the cycle starts anew or she passes out on the couch.
The work rush finally dies down after months of near constant exhaustion, and it’s only natural that the morning she wakes with blessedly brown fingers and a long day of napping and well earned rest ahead of her, Harley finally texts her again.
When her phone chimes brightly from its newly designated spot on her night stand, Rose is convinced she imagined it. When it chimes again not half a second later, she dives for it.
hey!! sorry i’m late, i kind of lost track of time lol
meet me? <3
The number is entirely different this time, and there’s an address attached to the second message, some place halfway across the continent that’ll take Rose at least a few hours to get to. Part of her wants to go back to sleep--she doesn’t owe Harley anything after months of radio silence--but something deep in her gut is telling her to go.
She’s out of bed and getting in the shower before she can convince herself that this is a terrible idea.
The address, as it turns out, is an old condemned office building in a sleepy town that verges on abandoned. A kind woman with deep creases around her mouth and eyes helps her to her destination and smiles at her with sparkling eyes that make Rose think that she knows she’s here for a date.
On the door to the building is a white sticky note with, come join the party!! written across it in swirly, lime green lettering. No doubt it’s the right place, then.
It’s empty inside, but more sticky notes are scattered about with arrows and smiley faces drawn on them. They point her to the stairwell, up each landing, and finally, to a door labeled ROOF ACCESS, EMPLOYEES ONLY in bold red text. There’s no window for her to peek through, so she inhales deeply to steel herself and pushes the door open.
Harley is there on the other side, sitting on a checkered blanket with a picnic basket set in front of her and an appallingly large bouquet of roses leaning against her leg.
She’s dressed smartly in black slacks and a dress shirt with a tie knotted loosely around her neck, a far cry from her appearance at the gala. More shocking, though, is that she’s cut her hair. No longer falling over her shoulders, it sits in a jagged line at her chin, thick enough that it fans out around her head like a halo of black curls. She turns at the sound of the door, hair bouncing along with the motion, and a radiant grin breaks out across her features.
“You came!” She says. The phrase implies a sort of doubt that isn’t present in her tone, but Rose chooses not to dwell on it.
“Of course,” She steps out onto the roof and eyes the setup Harley has put together, “Rooftop picnics? Harley, if I didn’t know better I’d think you were trying to woo me.”
Harley scoffs and swoops the roses into her arms, standing to meet her, “Trying? Succeeding, more like.”
“Forgive me if I’m mistaken, but I think I get to be the judge of that.”
Harley laughs and Rose smiles quietly as she closes the distance between them and takes the ungainly bunch of flowers. They smell sickly sweet and are far, far too cliche, but Rose finds the gesture endearing.
“C’mon, sit down!” Harley says, already taking her own advice, “I can just, uh, take those back,” She sheepishly takes the roses from Rose’s hands and puts them aside as Rose kneels down beside her.
The blanket isn’t all that big and to keep herself off the cold cement of the rooftop, she nearly has to press herself into Harley’s side. She finds she doesn’t mind it as much as she ought to.
“So,” Rose starts after she’s settled, “When does the wooing start?”
Harley laughs, and when she turns to face her their faces are mere inches apart, “The wooing started when I put on slacks.”
Rose doesn’t kiss her then, but she’s more than tempted.
“We should get to know each other,” Harley says after a beat and leans away to a less intimate distance--Rose definitely catches a flush on her cheeks, “All I know about you is that you go to to terrible parties and drop your drinks off balconies.”
Rose’s cheeks warm, “I seem to recall you attending that terrible party, too.”
“Guess that makes us two of a kind.”
Harley’s smile is warm and soft; it curves her eyes into crescents behind her glasses, and the sight of it sends Rose’s heart pounding again. Her gaze lingers on her face then drops to her hand which is sitting exceptionally close to Rose’s own.
And she thought she felt like a teenager before.
Slowly, carefully, she moves to lay her fingers across Harley’s hand. Harley doesn’t seem to mind it; if anything, her smile grows wider. Her’s skin feels fever hot to the touch, though that might just be Rose’s imagination. She lets her hand slide up over Harley’s knuckles till she can curl her fingers around her hand and press the pads of them into Harley’s palm. She feels warm all over--from holding hands--and hastily clears her throat before she works herself into a state.
“So. Getting to know each other.”
Harley swallows, like she’d forgotten, too, “Right. Let’s start easy? What do you do?”
Rose snorts--she wouldn’t exactly call that an easy place to start, but it’s not like Harley could’ve known that. I’m a prophet of the Horrorterrors of the Furthest Ring and I use a newspaper to smuggle the information to the rebellion, isn’t exactly a first date revelation.
“I’m a writer,” She says instead, “I wrote a half dozen arduous and overly complex books about wizards that nobody really enjoyed, so now I just do newspaper articles.”
Harley’s eyebrows shoot up, “A newspaper?”
“Yes. News on paper.”
“You were surprised I owned a phone, and you write for a newspaper?” Harley laughs, “Those things have been outdated since I was born. I didn’t even know they still existed!”
“I can tell you with all certainty that they do,” Rose says, “Or at the very least, one does. It’s distributed planet-wide, so it wouldn’t be so hard for you to grab a copy and critique my journalism.”
Harley grins, “What do you write about? Kittens stuck in trees? Best deals on holiday shopping? Oo, politics?”
“I often find myself writing stories on the politics of kittens in trees, but holiday shopping is a different department.”
Harley laughs again and Rose finds that she enjoys the sight and the sound. Harley’s laughter is a full body experience, head thrown back and shoulders bouncing, and it makes Rose’s chest feel lighter than air.
“So, what do you do?” Rose asks once Harley’s laughter dies down.
The answer comes just a second too quickly. It seems to be a recurring pattern with Harley, little things just a hair too quick, too loud, too convenient. Enough to get suspicion ticking at the back of Rose’s mind but never enough to question without seeming paranoid.
Before she can even consider questioning, though, Harley is elaborating,
“I’m a freelance courier, if that’s actually a thing. It’s why I took so long getting back to you. Can’t make phone calls when you’re off planet. Uh, sorry about that, by the way.”
Rose shrugs and decides against questioning why Harley doesn’t just use a holocomm, “I survived somehow. Work kept me distracted enough from the agonizing void your absence left in my life.”
Harley looks ready to apologize again, but Rose winks and she relaxes visibly.
“So, about this picnic.”
Two weeks later, Rose gets the first letter. It’s waiting on her desk when she goes into the office one morning. It’s addressed in bright green ink and a familiar swirling script, and she almost can’t believe she’s seeing it. She nearly slices her finger open in her haste to tear into the envelope, finding three pages of neatly folded notebook paper within. Her heart pounds in her chest and her blood roars in her ears, but what she finds written in the letter is, perhaps, the last thing she’d ever thought it would be.
It reads a bit like some of the teachers notes she’d gotten on her English papers in middle school. Critiques on spelling, grammar, syntax, all worded as though directed at a first grader; she thinks be offended if the critiques in question were directed at any of her actual articles. Instead, they seem to be scathing corrections of her understanding of the language of the horroterrors.
Bewildered, she checks the greeting and then the address; both read Zazzerpan the Learned, the pen name she uses to write her section Horrorterror Horoscopes, the goofy but strangely popular gibberish column she uses to communicate with the rebellion. Harley--and it has to be Harley because no one else writes in lime green ink and dots their I’s with hearts--seems to have taken it seriously. Which is…ridiculously endearing.
Rose sinks into a chair, putting a hand over her mouth to mask her grin. She reads through the letter at least twice more. Harley is incredibly meticulous, noting each spelling error, each word that isn’t actually a word, each misuse of punctuation and verb forms. She ends the note with a cheery, “If you wanted to write horoscopes, just write horoscopes! No need to pretend to be something you’re not! -H,” that leaves Rose desperately trying to stifle her laughter.
It’s too good, almost unreal, and part of her wants to bring the letter to their next date so she can tease Harley relentlessly. But that would be too blatant, she thinks, too brute a use of this incredible opportunity. Also, with how passionate Harley appears to be about the horrorterror language, there’s no telling whether she’ll dump Rose on the spot for writing gibberish and publishing it in a newspaper, and Rose isn’t sure she’s quite ready to drop the, “I’m literally an actual prophet, please believe me,” bomb quite yet.
Instead, she adds an addendum to her next column, “H, I received your letter and I appreciate your concern and obvious dedication to the language of the horrorterrors. Please consider, however, that I am the prophet, not you, and that perhaps not every horrorterror practices immaculate grammar.”
The second letter comes a week later.
It’s not like Rose means to lie, not really.
The problem is that she severely underestimated the length of time that would pass before her and Harley’s second date. She thought that the first 2 month gap between communication had been a fluke, a product of Harley forgetting about the limitations of a cellphone, but two and a half months after their first date, Rose has seen neither hide nor hair of Harley outside of the letters she sends to Zazzerpan.
She’d briefly considered disengaging from their exchanges, if only because she feared getting caught red handed or giving herself away, but when it became painfully apparent that the letters and newspapers were the only way she was going to have regular communication with Harley, she couldn’t bring herself to stop. She begins keeping the letters in a drawer at home and reading them to herself after a particularly exhausting prophecy or, really, anytime she finds herself missing Harley’s company.
By the time Harley is finally back on Earth, it’s been three months, she and Zazzerpan have exchanged at least a dozen letter-columns, and Rose isn’t entirely sure how to dig herself out of this hole. They agree to meet at a diner, a little hole in the wall in a city about three hours from Rose’s apartment. She has a foot in the door when she’s being bowled over by a sweater clad Harley who’s got apologies pouring from her mouth like a waterfall.
“I’m so sorry, Rose, I had no idea I was going to be off world so long. I mean, I should’ve only been gone a week but one delivery turned to two and by the time people stopped shoving jobs in my face it’d been months, please don’t think this is going to be a regular thing or that I’m flaky because it’s not and I’m not-”
Rose manages to wrangle herself out of Jade’s grip long enough to plant a hand over her mouth.
“Harley,” She says cooly, unable to keep the smile from tugging up at her lips, “It’s fine. You’re forgiven. I am perfectly capable of weathering the storm of your absence.”
Harley practically deflates with relief and immediately scoops Rose into another hug, “Oh, thank god. I was so worried you’d hate me. Anyway, I’ve got our table over here, come on!”
Harley pulls away from the hug and catches Rose by the hand, walking her back to a table near a window. She keeps holding it even after they’ve sat down, tangling their fingers together across the table, and Rose really desperately wishes that didn’t set her face aflame. After a sweet, roundfaced waitress comes by to take their orders, they talk idly about how the past three months have been. Harley talks about the different planets she visited, and Rose tells little anecdotes about work and Kanaya and all the little, bizarre experiences that come along with living in the city.
They stop holding hands when their food arrives, and Rose tries to not be disappointed.
Halfway through the meal, Harley perks up like she’s remembered something and drops her burger into her basket.
“Oh!” She says, “I almost forgot, I read your paper!”
Rose pauses, nearly says I know before stopping herself just short, “Did you? The technology wasn’t too outdated for you?”
Harley rolls her eyes and steals one of Rose’s fries, “I had to look up a how-to on the internet,” she says dryly.
Rose snorts, and Harley continues,
“Anyway, I read your article about the school musical production? Really fascinating stuff. Middle schoolers have a much better grasp of theatre than I do,” Harley grins when Rose laughs at that, too, “But I did have a, uh, question.”
Here it comes, “Ask away. I live to serve.”
“The guy who writes the column, uh, Horrorterror Horoscopes? Do you know him?”
Rose smothers the urge to grin and instead frowns thoughtfully, “I know of him. Why? You interested in that stuff?”
“Yes!” Harley nearly leaps from her seat with the force of her enthusiasm, but sinks back down with reddened cheeks just as quickly, “It’s kind of a hobby? I guess? Um, but, anyway, I was just wondering if you-”
“Wait, wait, wait,” Rose is smiling now. She puts her elbows on the table and folds her hands to rest her chin atop them, “What’s a hobby? The horoscopes or the horrorterrors?”
Harley’s flushing even deeper now, and Rose is enjoying every minute of it.
“The, uh, horrorterrors,” She says after a brief hesitation, “I kind of- okay, I didn’t really study them, but I know a lot about them and-”
She breaks off and clears her throat, schooling her expression into something more stoic that’s betrayed entirely by the fact that she’s beet red, “Anyway,” she says for the third time, “I just wanted to know if you think he’s a quack, too?”
Rose snorts loudly, and this time it’s her turn to turn red, “A quack? I don’t know, I’ve never formally met him. Why?”
Harley ducks down beneath the tables suddenly. Rose hears a zipper followed by some rustling paper, and when Harley pops back up again, she has a stack of neatly folded newspaper clippings in one hand. Rose has to pinch herself to make sure that this is really happening.
Harley unwraps the rubber band from them and lays them out one by one on the table. Each one is scribbled on with green ink, words crossed out and circled, Harley’s swoopy handwriting crammed into the margins and between the lines. It’s exactly the kind of thing Rose has come to expect from her, and try as she might, she can’t keep the smile from her face.
“Okay, so, I totally thought he was a quack at first, you know? Because this,” She points to the first column she’d laid out, presumably the first one she’d read, “This is complete gibberish. Half of these aren’t even words! So I wrote in to tell him so, and he just completely wrote me off and then-”
She halts and waves her hands through the air like she’s banishing her own thoughts, “Nevermind, that’s complicated. But in newer columns-” She gestures toward the more recent clippings, which have more words circled and fewer crossed out, “-there are more words. Like, real words that he probably couldn’t have found in a dictionary or online. So I’m thinking maybe he’s not really the quack I thought he was.”
“So what do you think he is?”
Harley shrugs, “No clue. But you should probably keep an eye on him, just in case.”
Rose smiles, “I’ll keep that in mind.”
From there, everything is relatively smooth sailing. Harley’s still off planet more often than she’s not, but she comes back in more regular intervals, so they see much more of each other. Harley keeps writing into Zazzerpan, and after hearing her suspicions of Zazzerpan’s hidden competence, Rose started leaving hidden messages amidst the ciphered gibberish, little things that Harley would tell her about in detail on their dates.
For the most part, keeping her cover is easy. Okay--maybe not easy, but doable. Keeping her messages to Harley impersonal gets harder the more time they spend together, and feigning ignorance when Harley tells her about Zazzerpan’s latest reply is even worse. Trying to fit coherent messages into her columns and get vital information wedged into the cipher for the rebellion is nigh impossible, and her work has started to get backlogged from how long she spends sitting at the computer trying to figure out how to work it all in. Her columns grow longer and more elaborate, and while it’s working her to the bone, Harley is delighted, and she can’t bring herself to call it a bad thing.
The worst of it, she thinks, is the prophecies, themselves.
Harley’s schedule is more regular nowadays, but it’s still not rigid. Rose only ever really has a general idea of when Harley might be back, and the horrorterrors are lenient once in awhile, but there’s no way she can get them to schedule their prophecies around her dates. Sometimes she’ll wake up to both grey tipped fingers and an excited message from Harley saying she’s on Earth for the day, and it’s the hardest thing she’s ever had to do to bring herself to tell her she can’t make it.
Harley is perfectly understanding, but cancelling still makes Rose’s gut twist, and it’s only worse that she had to shut Harley down the first time when she’d offered to just come visit Rose at home.
On one such morning, Rose wakes to her phone chirping at her from the nightstand, and when she reaches for it, she spies a few speckles of gray dusted over the pads of her fingers. She glowers at them as she checks the message--Harley’s on planet and wants to grab lunch, of course--and she continues to glower at them as she tries to decide what to do. On one hand, it’s always safer to stay on on grimdark days; she risks enough with her informant column in the paper, going out with telltale signs of prophethood literally painted onto her skin was practically a death sentence.
On the other, she hasn’t seen Harley in weeks, and trading jabs and secret coded messages through a newspaper can only carry her so far. Dustings of grey usually signify a slow day; with a pair of gloves and a long sleeved shirt, she could probably get away with it as long as she’s home before sundown.
After checking the weather--45 degrees and cloudy, a perfectly reasonable temperature for wearing a sweater--she decides that she’ll go and texts Harley as such. As she leaves the house, tucked safely into a sweater, gloves and a pair of jeans, she’s confident that her plan will work just fine, which is exactly why it didn’t.
Because, of course, the dusting wasn’t an indicator of a slow day but a sporadic day, during which spots of grey bloom in any place at all without rhyme or reason, and it’s not till she’s in the restaurant and sliding into the booth that she realizes it. Harley is staring at her, a little perplexed, and before she can ask what’s wrong, Harley reaches across the table and touches her cheek.
“Sorry,” She says, brow furrowing, “You’ve got some paint on your face.”
Rose’s heart catches in her throat. She doesn’t have paint on her face, there’s no way she could possibly have paint on her face, and the thought puts a lump in her throat. Her mind reels, scrambling desperately for some excuse, any excuse. Harley thinks it’s paint, so obviously,
“I’m painting my apartment.”
Obviously, Rose is painting her apartment.
Harley looks surprised, “Oh! You didn’t tell me.”
“Is that not what I just did?” Rose forces the quip from her throat, trying to calm herself and appear calm to Harley, “I just started today.”
Harley’s lips quirk into an uneasy sort of smile, “Didn’t think to clean up before our date, then? I feel like that should offend me.”
“Of course I did it’s just- a stubborn spot,” Rose definitely sounds completely unnatural now. Harley is looking increasingly concerned and under her worried gaze, Rose can feel her hands start to shake. The waiter comes by to take their order, and after he’s gone a bit of the tension has eased.
The atmosphere never gets quite comfortable again, but it’s pleasant enough, and when Rose excuses herself before the check comes, Harley doesn’t try to stop her.
Rose ropes Kanaya into helping her paint her apartment during the time that Harley’s off world. When Harley visits the apartment for the first time, she doesn’t mention the paint job and Rose isn’t sure if she’s disappointed.
Rose realizes that it’s time to come clean the same way she’s realized just about every logical solution to her life’s problems: with a call from her sister.
She’s sitting at her computer typing up some god awful article about the sewage system when her phone rings. Rings, not chimes, with a phone call instead of a text. The sound of it is practically foreign to her ears; it’s been so long since she’s used it for anything other than correspondence with Harley that she’d nearly forgotten that it was, first and foremost, a means of contacting other members of the resistance.
The number is unregistered, but she recognizes it without having to glance twice. She presses the call button and lifts the phone to her ear, waiting patiently till the sharp, staticky sound of someone tapping their finger against the receiver crackles over the line. She mimics the gesture twice and waits.
Her sister’s voice is warm and bright, and it’s been far too long since Rose has heard it. She smiles despite her exhaustion and sinks down into her chair, “Roxy,” She says, “It’s been a while.”
“God, I know,” She can practically hear Roxy’s exasperated expression, “But duty calls or whatever. Anyway, I called to talk about you.”
“My favorite subject. How did you know?”
“Can the sass, sister. Lemme get the business out of the way and then you can snark to your heart’s content.”
A business call. Of course. She and Roxy never talk just because anymore.
“I think I can handle that arrangement. What’s this about?”
“It’s about the horror-speak.”
Rose’s heart stops beating for half a second. Had she messed up the cipher? Some of the prophecies had been important, life or death important, and if she’d fucked up somehow she could’ve-
“It’s, um, legible. Or so Fef says.”
Still a bit panicked, Rose frowns, “What?”
“Not the cipher! Cipher’s good, just as painful to crack as always. It’s just, the rest of it, it’s-”
Oh. Rose groans, sinking down the the chair, “They’re real words,” she says.
“They’re real words,” Roxy confirms, “And sentences, apparently. I mean, I can’t read it, but if Fef can then so can one of the Condesce’s goons. Someone’s gonna put the pieces together and figure out you’re not as fraudy as they think.”
“And then I’m a dog of the empire for life, I know.”
“Not for life. We’d totally rescue you eventually.”
Rose smiles again, “I’ll count on it. And I’ll start making my columns suitably nonsensical again.”
“We just want you safe,” Roxy says, her voice softer, more sincere, “And not just because of your freaky tentacle friends.”
“Of course. My neverending wit is a far superior weapon than my insight into future events.”
Roxy snorts, “Hilarious. Now, onto more pressing matters. Who is this girl Kanaya is telling me about?”
After a few hours of relentless needling and teasing from her older sister, Rose decides that she’s going to tell Harley everything. Keeping it all a secret is becoming too exhausting and too dangerous, and the longer she puts it off, the harder it becomes to just get it over with. Worst case scenario, Harley hates her and they break up and never speak again, but at least they’ll both be alive to do it. Unless Harley kills her, in which case, at least Harley will be alive to do it.
The morning of their next date--which is, essentially, Harley coming over and Rose cooking her lunch and putting all her cards on the table--is, of course, when everything goes wrong. Roxy had been more than correct when she’d assumed that someone was going to catch onto her ruse, but her warning had probably come just a little too late in the game.
Rose is milling about trying to tidy up the place despite Harley’s constant insistence that she doesn’t care what state of disarray the apartment’s in when her phone rings. She picks it up--the number’s not Roxy’s nor anyone else she knows who’s stationed on Earth. She answers the call warily, cradling the phone between her shoulder and her ear and waiting for the tap.
It comes. Once, twice, thrice. The line goes dead.
Three taps. Evacuate.
Her heart pounds, adrenaline pumping into her veins and making her skin prickle anxiously. She whirls around and beelines for her closet where, beneath several piles of dirty laundry, she has an emergency duffel packed precisely in case of this exact situation. Tossing it over her shoulder, she turns around, eyes sweeping the room. There are a million things she wants to grab, to take with her, but she stamps down that urge because there’s no time for it.
Everything is replaceable, she reminds herself. Still, she allows herself a brief moment of selfishness, crossing her bedroom and opening her desk drawer. She takes the letters Harley had written to Zazzerpan and tucks them under her arm. They’re the only other thing she grabs to take with her; she leaves and doesn’t look back, not even for a second.
By the time the armed soldiers break down her apartment door, she’s on a shuttle halfway out of the galaxy. She hopes Harley can forgive her.
From there, she watches her life fall to pieces in bursts.
She’s moving constantly, town to town, planet to planet. Not every place she stays at has access to imperial news sources, but those that do have her photo splashed across every surface. New articles about her treason surface every news cycle, as do some about her personal life, and ones extrapolating wild stories made up from “evidence” found in her apartment. Her entire life is ripped open and laid bare and embellished, and she thinks that might be worse than being a wanted fugitive.
This isn’t a scenario she hadn’t considered, of course. She knows plenty who’ve gone through exactly this--Terezi and Vriska had been in the headlines for years after being exposed as rebel agents--but it’s still different when it’s actually happening to her. She has no support out here, no one she can call up for advice without putting them both in danger. She spends lonely nights sprawled on dirt floors and huddled in lavish apartments, bouncing around from home to home, and she’ll continue to do so for months, maybe years, until this all dies down.
She thinks about Harley more often than she’d like to admit. She spends many nights laying in whatever bed she’s found herself in, reading through the letters by any lights she could find. Sometimes she laughs, sometimes she cries. By the end of the first month, the edges of the paper have grown worn, the corners bent and crooked, but she always folds them carefully and slips each one back into its envelope to keep them safe. She thinks about Harley nearly constantly, right up until Harley, herself, shows up at her safe house’s door.
Her hair’s gotten longer and she’s dressed in that same tee-shirt and jeans she’d been wearing when they first met. She looks haggard and weary, with purple circles under her eyes and a furrow between her brow that looks like a permanent fixture. When she sees Rose’s face, though, she lights up, eyes bright and shining and lips breaking into a wobbly smile, like all the exhaustion melted away with just one look at her.
“Oh thank god,” she says, “Thank god.”
She surges forward and wraps Rose in a crushing embrace, arms squeezing tight around her shoulders and holding firm. She’s trembling, just a bit, and Rose finds herself returning the affection without thinking, grabbing fistful’s of Harley’s tee-shirt and squeezing.
“Harley,” She says, voice breaking over her name, “Harley, I-”
Harley rears back suddenly, grabbing hold of Rose’s shoulders and holding her at arm’s length, “I have something to show you.”
“What? Harley, I-”
“Please,” Harley says, “Trust me?”
Rose is still reeling from Harley’s presence, so she nods dazedly and listens when Harley tells her to close her eyes.
The air around her shifts and lurches then changes altogether. It tastes suddenly stale and stagnant.
When she does, Rose doesn’t believe what she’s seeing because it’s impossible. It’s impossible that they’re standing on a balcony on Ioria’s moon, the same balcony where they’d first met because last she’d checked they were in a tiny village on Sharth 3 in a completely different galaxy. She blinks, squeezes her eyes shut and opens them and hopes something will change. It doesn’t.
The view is just as breathtaking as it’s always been.
“This…” Rose trails off, eyes falling to Harley who’s looking at Rose like she’ll shatter at any moment, “That’s not- this is only possible for-”
“First guardians,” Harley says, “Yeah, um-”
“You’re a first guardian,” Rose says and suddenly things are falling into place, every little thing that Harley had done that set off alarm bells in Rose’s mind, “That means you’re- oh my god-”
Harley smiles awkardly, “Uh, yeah, Jade English, at your service,” she gives a little half wave, and Rose wouldn’t believe it if it didn’t make so much sense.
There are so many things she wants to say, she needs to say, but she’s not sure she can articulate them, not now. So instead,
“Interplanetary delivery? Really?”
Jade looks confused for a moment before her expression turns unimpressed, “Zazzerpan the Learned?” She shoots back and Rose laughs. It feels like she hasn’t laughed in ages.
They stand in silence for a moment. This time, Rose breaks it.
“We’re going to have to talk,” She says, “About-”
She gestures vaguely between the both of them.
“Now?” Jade asks.
Rose has barely a moment to see it coming before Jade swoops down and kisses her. It’s over before she has a chance to fully comprehend what’s happening, and Jade is staring at her with flushed cheeks and wide eyes.
“Um, sorry, I-”
“Don’t apologize. That was-” Rose isn’t sure what it was. It was a lot of things. A lot of good things.
“Yeah,” Jade agrees breathlessly, “It really was.”
Someone shouts from the street below and only then does it occur to Rose that they’re both wanted fugitives standing in the open in broad daylight. Jade laughs, realizing it too, and she takes Rose’s hand in her own.
“Where do you want to go?”
Rose tilts her head in consideration. With Jade’s first guardian powers--a weird thought to have, though she doubts ‘prophet of the horrorterrors’ is any easier for Jade to swallow right now--going to a rebel base would be possible without compromising its location. It’s the safest bet. But not the most appealing.
After a moment, Rose says, “Somewhere private. And warm.”
Jade beams and leans down to kiss her again. Softer, this time. Less urgent. When she pulls back, she doesn’t go far, smiling sweetly with sparkling eyes.
“I think I can do that.”