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Falling for the First Time

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You should have done more in the final battle. You were supposed to play the puppet master who orchestrated the other players into their strongest roles and paved the way to victory, but at the end of the day you were just another cog in the machinery.

If you could have just overcome the overwhelming barrage of unexpected conflicts, if you could have dodged the necessity of teamwork just to survive, maybe you could have led your friends to a cleaner victory. There were injuries, there was a casualty, and it took far longer than it should, but you weren't capable enough to do better with the time and resources you had available.

You probably should take comfort in the fact that you beat the game at all. You should be proud of your friends.

You still don't feel worthy to stand in front of the endgame door with them when you failed to live up to your potential as an expert manipulator when it really mattered.

Nah, the only time your manipulation shines is when you're hurting your friends, not saving them.

You haven't been able to look Jake in the eye, but it doesn't really matter when he won't look your direction either. Whatever's beyond this door, you just hope it lets you take a break from your awkward mistakes.

You glance over your shoulder at Davesprite, but he's keeping his distance from the main group. You guess you can't blame him. You probably shouldn't bug him if he's feeling anti-social after all the shit that went down. You don't even know how anyone else is putting on cheer.

Jane, John, and the troll with no volume control reach for the knob to the endgame door in tandem. No one's ascertained what's waiting for you on the other side, but anything is better than rotting in Sburb for another half a year.

As a white light envelopes you, not even your shades can save you from cringing in the brightness.

* * *

A blue sky stretches overhead, with no sign of Skaia or any of the quest planets amidst the normal, non-prophetic clouds. You're standing on the roof of your apartment building, but you're not on LOTAK and you're not back in the middle of the ocean either. Buildings spread out in front of you as far as the eye can see and dark birds flock like the seagulls used to.

Your ears are assaulted by echoes you've only heard in movies before: car horns, tires on pavement, the wind squeezing between buildings...

TT: Turn your head already. I can't fucking see.
TT: Hal?
TT: What the hell do you mean? Are you back in the glasses?
TT: Yeah. I guess sprites aren't allowed as-is in the real world.
TT: Sorry, bro.
TT: We both know you're only sorry that I'm your responsibility again, but whatever.
TT: I can deal.
TT: Lack of human/troll emotions gets in the way of disappointment, even if I remember the sensation as a thing that once existed within my grasp. That's one feeling I won't fucking miss, actually.
TT: Seriously though, get moving. Lounging on the roof ain't cool under the best of circumstances, let alone when we need to do recon on our new surroundings.
TT: Freezing up in shock is just part of the normal physical experience, dude.

All the same, he's right. Wherever you are, you need to locate your friends and make sure the game hasn't transplanted you into a new danger zone.

You stumble and almost fall in the attempt to turn a full circle. Your limbs aren't cooperating without far more concentration than you've ever had to devote to standing. It's like you're on drugs or half-asleep, except your brain is in peak condition.

What the hell is wrong with your body? Your perfectly honed balance has never been this off, but you just can't find your usual center of gravity and your limbs feel awkward. Your muscles aren't as toned as they should be either, which might explain why your weight is so much lighter. And as you take in your surroundings... Are you fucking shorter?

You pull out a phone from your sylladex and turn on the inner camera so you can get a look at yourself on the screen: Your face has lost most of its sharpness, giving way instead to undeveloped and rounder pre-teen features. By your best guess, you're probably twelve or thirteen years old again.

What kind of bullshit is this? Going through puberty all over again is bad enough, but you didn't even hit your growth spurt until you were fifteen.

The door to the roof crashes open. "Dirk?"

Your attention snaps away from your phone. You've heard that voice a million times before on old TV interviews and Blu-ray commentaries, but never in person. You've been around a similar voice recently, but this one has years of maturity behind it.

Your bro staggers onto the roof, disheveled and breathing heavily as if he's run a long ways at top speed. That's early 2010-era Dave Strider if you ever saw him: aviators, T-shirt and jeans, inhumanly white skin like all ectoclones have... He's only in his mid-thirties, just before he amps up into his more political films, but he looks ancient compared to the Dave you're used to.

Your breath catches. This has to be a hallucination or some kind of sick joke. Your bro is dead and you're never going to meet him; you accepted that long ago.

Bro lets the door fall shut behind him, staring straight at you for what feels like an eternity. "You okay, kid?" he says, approaching slowly as if he expects you to bolt if he makes a sudden movement. "How the hell did you get here?"

This is a scenario you've played over and over in your head, despite knowing it could never happen, but now that it's somehow more than a daydream, you don't actually know what the fuck to do.

You have so much to tell him, all these awesome first impressions plotted out to choose from, and you fumble to remember any of it. You don't even know if he'll be half as cool in reality compared to the bro in your imagination where you had full creative control. What if he's as anti-social and cruel as Dave's bro? For all you know, he never even wanted to meet you.

You struggle for your voice and mumble an unemotional reply of, "We finished the game."

He goes still. "Holy shit," he says, his face a perfect blank with his eyes hidden behind his signature Stiller shades. "Not gonna lie, kid, I think that's just about the coolest thing I ever heard get said."

Without any input from you, your mouth quirks into a small smile, both at the praise and at Bro's mild Southern accent -- it's often buried under a SoCal accent in his interviews, but every once in a while it slips through in a mirror of the accent you heard from Dave.

Relief washes over you as Bro grins back. "Rose always said you'd be a badass," he says and holds a fist out.

You meet him for a fistbump and you have never felt so elated in your fucking life, not even compared to building your first functional robot or your first kiss with Jake or the time you first traded stories with Dave. The only damper is the harsh whisper in the back of your mind that it's only a matter of time before you fuck this up too.

"So what actually went down?" Bro asks. "Five minutes ago I was all old and shit and bleeding out like a carton of tomato juice an old hag stomped on."

Points to your bro for the metaphor and all, but you try not to visualize that. It conflicts too much with your image of Bro dying after one clean blow like a badass. "It looks like the game may have reset shit, but I haven't been able to investigate much." You gesture at the roof. "I just woke up here after we opened the endgame door."

"Guess I can't complain too hard." Bro shrugs, turning in place to survey the horizon. "Damn, didn't think I'd see Houston looking like this again," he murmurs.

"This is Houston?" Of course this has to be Houston, and you know that, and he knows that you know that. Asking the obvious is just ironic. Not that you have any guarantee that Sburb didn't dump your apartment in Hong Kong.

"You've never seen this view in the first place, huh?" Bro asks, grinning over his shoulder at you.

You shake your head. All of the buildings break down and crumble beneath the water hundreds of years from now, all except the structure and top floor of the apartment below you. "It was just ocean."

Bro's smile fades back into his stoic non-expression. "Hey." He jerks a thumb at the stairs. "Let's grab some air conditioning and figure out what went down in style and comfort."

* * *

It's your apartment except... not. The general layout is the same, but the decor and furniture has been swapped out. It's kind of swanky now. You wonder if Bro left crappier furniture for you because it would survive the apocalypse better than a leather couch or if he knew "rich & fancy" ain't your style.

"Make yourself at home." Bro pats the back of the couch as he passes it. "I'm not sure what the hell we're doing in Houston, but it's quieter than the LA condo, so who cares really?" He leans back against the kitchen counter, pulling an ancient model of iPhone out of his sylladex. "I'm gonna figure out when the fuck we landed."

The couch makes a horrendous squeak as it shifts under your weight. Thank fuck Bro changed this place up before you inherited it. You shift around on your knees, squeaking all the way, and rest your elbows on the back of the couch to watch Bro check his phone. "What's the damage?" you ask.

"April thirteenth, 2009," Bro says with a frown as he stares at the screen. He raises his head. "I don't remember any lottery numbers from 2009, do you?"

You shrug. You were diligent in your studies of Bro's era, but the lottery wasn't in a field you found very relevant to your interests.

So this is Jane's thirteenth birthday. (And John's too, technically, off in another universe.) Does that make you thirteen and four months, if your birthday still sits at December third? That fits your physical state anyway. Christ, why does Bro have to see you at the worst stage of your development? You're all lanky and skinny and shit. Not that he knows what he's missing, but that's almost worse.

"What the hell's so special about 2009?" Bro murmurs to himself, still tapping at his touchscreen. "I mean, besides the release of Paul Blart: Mall Cop."

You both jump and Bro nearly drops his phone as it blares out a distorted rendition of "Peanut Butter Jelly Time." Your experience with cell phones is limited, but you're certain this is the most obnoxious-yet-mainstream ringtone in existence. All told, the irony is off the charts. You'd expect nothing less from your bro.

He seems less impressed with his own genius, as he juggles the phone back into a steady grip and holds it at a distance. "Uh..." He cringes at the screen. "Yeah, sorry, gotta take this." He cuts off the ringtone and puts the phone to his ear before you can even reply. "Yo, Rose, I found the kid where you said he'd be, so now we're kinda busy trying to unlock the mysteries of the universe here, no big deal. Cool to hear your voice again, though."

It's not exactly a surprise that Roxy's mom is safe and alive, given the circumstances, but a tension still eases from your chest.

You never thought you'd have any personal investment in the life or death of Rose Lalonde. No offense to her or anything -- you definitely cared that Roxy cared -- but you had no personal stakes involved. Having met a teen Rose recently, you give a few more shits about her well-being than you realized.

"Old lady English? No shit?" Bro says, cracking a grin. "Well, damn, it's like some kind of zombie reunion party going down."

Jade English is alive too? She was dead long before 2009, though. Does that mean John Crocker somehow survived his meteor strike or is Jade an anomaly? Why can't Bro put the damn phone on speaker if Rose is passing down all these wild reveals?

You inch off the couch and cringe when it squeaks against your weight, but Bro keeps his attention on the phone as you creep closer. You can just barely hear a feminine voice from the receiver, but the words are still garbled from this distance.

"I should break out the music," Bro says. "The sick rap version of 'The Monster Mash.' Start a beat for me, Lalon-" His voice cuts off abruptly and he frowns. "Of course I brought him inside." He waves a hand dismissively, as if his sister can see it. "Nah, I've got all that shit under control. He's a teenager, so I skipped all the hard parts." He scowls more the longer he's silent. "Okay, have you ever considered, just, pretending to have faith in my ability?" he says, leaning an arm against the kitchenette counter.

TT: Stop staring.
TT: What else am I supposed to fucking do here?
TT: Well, shit, let me just calculate your options, because only a computer superbrain could possibly figure that out. For starters, you might try not looking like a fucking creeper less than ten minutes after meeting our bro.

Bro hasn't noticed your spying, you're pretty certain, but you still flashstep back to the couch out of a sense of Auto-Responder-induced paranoia and guilt. You're probably underestimating your bro's observational skills anyway.

Bro deserves this moment with his sister, what with how their last memories together involved a huge bitch of a sea troll and copious amounts of martyrdom, but it's killing you that he's standing right there and still out of reach. You kind of expected Bro to keep a chill distance, but shouldn't his sister give a few shits about the teenager who just showed up in her abode?

Is Roxy even home in New York? Why is her mom ignoring her to call your bro? You've been too distracted by your guardian's revival to even confirm that Jane, Roxy, and Jake were delivered home safely like you were.

You tap into Pesterchum on your shades. Jane's missing from your chum list -- with any luck, that's because she's the only one raised to socialize properly and log out of her damn chat service when reuniting with long-lost family -- but Roxy's online. That's not a guarantee of jackshit, but it's something. Jake's online too, but... You'll start with Roxy and worry about how to approach him later.

-- timaeusTestified [TT] began pestering tipsyGnostalgic [TG] --

TT: Rox?
TG: DIRK??
TG: DID U ALSO THE THING
TG: THE THING
TG: WITH THE PARENTS
TG: DIRK OMG
TT: So you found your mom okay?
TG: yesssss am i allowed to squee??
TT: No. Being thirteen again cancels out the squee.
TG: too bad!!! imma squee anyway
TG: SQUEEEEEEEEEEEEEE
TG: EEEEEEEEEEE
TG: EEEeeeeee ok im done
TG: :DDDDD
TT: I guess you deserved a cliche cry of joy anyway.
TT: You're in New York, right?
TG: yeah!!!! that means youre in houston??
TG: w/ ur bro????
TT: Yeah. I'm in Houston with my bro.
TT: It's
TT: Just figured I should touch base with the rest of you and make sure you're okay.
TG: totes ok and in one piece over here! <3
TG: my mom is on the phone with some1 tho
TG: why is she taking so loooong auuuuuggh WE GOTS SO MUCH FAMILY BONDING 2 DO
TG: WHO EVEN GOTS TIME FOR PHONE CALLS WHEN IM LIKE BOUNCING OFF THE WALLS OVER HERE
TT: She's talking to my bro, actually. I guess they have catching up to do of their own.
TT: It's kind of fucking irritating though, so I'll see if I can cause a distraction.
TG: yes pls do!!

You just need a plan to catch your bro's attention -- and you sure as hell don't trust Hal to handle that right now. You twist around to peer at your bro from over the couch. "Hey, Bro-"

"The kid needs something, bye," Bro says into the phone without even pausing for breath, then hangs up.

Well, that was easy.

TG: thx it worked ur the best <3

-- tipsyGnostalgic [TG] ceased pestering timaeusTestified [TT] --

Bro rests the phone against his chest and tilts his head up, taking a deep breath. "Sorry. She'd probably put some kind of voodoo curse on me if I'd ignored that call." He puts his cell away and hops over the back of the couch to drop next to you. Somehow he manages it without making the leather squeak. "Anyway, sup?"

In retrospect, maybe you should have left him alone, because now you're face-to-face with him and you still don't know what the hell to say. Basic greetings aren't worthy of him but your mind is too busy tying itself in knots to formulate a response with the right balance of genuinely cool and ironically cool. Why didn't you strife on the roof so you could show off your rad sword techniques when you had a chance?

"Dirk?" He reaches over to nudge your chin towards him.

You flinch back, which was not in your plan and is far worse than just blurting a lame hello. Letting an incoming object touch your face means impending harm ninety-nine out of one hundred times, but right now, back in human civilization with your bro, fuck your instincts.

Bro goes still, presumably because you look like a fucking nut. Nice job breaking it, hero. Again. As he pulls away, you wrench your hand out and catch his wrist.

You freeze -- or try to. When did your arm start shaking? Why do you have to suck so hard at socialization just because you grew up isolated from all of mankind? Was grabbing him really the best way to recover from dodging his touch?

His wrist relaxes and he slips out of your loosened grip to rest his hand over yours. "Hey, it's cool, man. You don't have to lay any words on me." He tugs you closer and wraps an arm around your shoulders. "Mind if I talk, though? I'm no fuckin' good with silence."

You go limp against his side, just soaking in his warmth and the steady rise and fall of his breathing. He's alive, he's with you, and you should probably answer him for once. "Knock yourself out, dude."

"Badass." He grins. It has that cocky edge to it that Dave's smile always had, but there's less reluctance to it, as if Bro gives no shits that he's showing an emotion. His grip on your shoulder is comfortingly firm, like a reassurance that this is real and not just a post-game fever dream.

Despite you, life is awesome.