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A Fire Inside and a Heart So Cold

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"All I need to know for sure is that this is not dyed with grub blood. If I know that for sure it will be fine. If it is I will have no choice but to acrobatically flip my shit." Dave held a length of a sumptuously dyed decoration between thumb and forefinger, shaking it like a dead snake.
 
“They love you. Due to that deep love of you they want to wrap your gifts and they just suck at it.” Jade tapped a forefinger against her lip, grinning impishly in the general direction that the question had come from. “Could be they love the color red and want to share because they know it’s your core hue. Or they know you and Karkat are both red colored and they ship you.”

Leaning in to inspect the length of red ribbon closer, Jade shook her head. “I think it's just regular dye, dude. Find your chill once more. They wouldn't kill the grubs they've been cultivating just for pigment any longer. They're too valuable.” She bumped her shoulder against Dave’s and stared into the box that the carapacian post-mistress in training had delivered with interest. Likely his offerings would be time-related. While no Peregrine Mendicant, the individual who brought the parcel was capable enough. No dents marred the box, and the carefully written return address was the same as all offerings -- the lily-pad plateau nestled in the hills. That section of their territory sat uninhabited.

Rose worked her way across the current row of the sweater on her needles, their click a soothing rhythm in compliment to their banter. Contentment was a necessity in mixed company. If she frowned too much or did not have enough to say then they worried. Furtive glances morphed into whispered conferences held out of earshot. Convenient excuses popped up to check the cabinets. Just to make sure - she was always assured that they trusted her - but they had to be certain. That did not seem actual trust, to Rose’s understanding of the term. It was not as if she deserved it, but the point remained to make.

Vriska was not around to smack her in the face and tell her no. Or to literally slap glasses out of her hand. Spite warred with pride to determine whether or not she headed to the store to buy a smooth vodka or subtly dry gin. If spite won, the liquor did not go in the cabinets. Drawers served just as well as anywhere else. Thus far pride was holding out by an appreciable margin and her dresser only contained clothing.

Fridays functioned as unofficial offering days. Packages, letters, incense, and other tokens piled in the corners of the covered patios of the communal home. The volume was such that the postal service redirected most parcels to an off-site location rather than cluttering their home with excessive deliveries. Some intrepid souls persisted through the property gates-- leaving their gifts at the southernmost stretch of the house. Candles shimmered in glass votives, small plants sat carefully arranged in decorative pots and recordings of choirs and other wind-based instruments were fairly standard fare. Dave had a proliferation of clocks - the guts of which were offered over to Dirk to melt down and form into other projects.

Jane had reported similar issues at the domicile she shared with Roxy. They tended to acquire a mix of fertility and health prayers. They spoke to Jane to become full of life or extend those of others. When they petitioned Roxy in letters or other small things they gave her that which could no longer be borne. Committing things to the void served not simply as a symbolic act in their case. One of Roxy’s favorite things to do was to tend a bonfire with a disappearafier forming the base of the pit. Things thrown into it were decisively erased from their plane, the ashes thrown into the ether.  

Jake and Dirk both had their arms full of strange tokens - wishes and prayers littered the branches of the trees near Jake’s apartment, written on colored strips of paper and twisted in among the leaves. Dirk collected a baffling array of personal trinkets related to relationships either past, present, or desired.  

Ability to effect any given supplicant varied due to reasons beyond Rose's grasp. Still, they all did their best by mutual accord. Whether or not they wished it, they served as a formative force in this universe. It went without saying that the price of failure was higher than any of them wished to pay. Duty remained stubborn in the face of their desires.

Looking at the others sometimes she could see young adults instead of embodied forces. No one had grown up yet. None of the silhouettes of her friends vaguely matched those of the guardians that had left them behind. They remained instead in a state of liminal youth. Deified though they were, their roots were as humble as any of their petitioners. It was more than imposter syndrome that made her doubt their ability to act as arbiters of reality and the lives of those that cried out to them.

Rose assumed that they might shift shape when they were ready to do so. A few years had done little to assure her that clarity and certainty came with maturity. The hands that worked her needles were that of the same scared seventeen year old that fought the Condescension and did her best to perform alchemy resulting in space moonshine.

John had been the one to suggest that perhaps they stayed looking the way they did because it was the last tie back to the inexplicable thing that had occurred to them. Certainly the body that she lived in had been the one that ran through flaming crypts and murdered consorts. Most of the third generation that had lived did not know her face to blame her. Even with that time passed, none of them uttered her name.

Jade and Dave had started attending the community college of Can Town, passing unmolested through the fourth generation of consorts and carapaces that had followed them out of Sburb. A chromatic menagerie of trolls bustled through the twilight and evenings, while humans filled in the streets during dawn and day.

The liminal society was where Rose indulged herself most often, walking along the streets as one culture traded over into another -- humans heading home and having dinner as trolls woke up to begin their evening. The city never slept, wound through with a thousand bright minds and billions of possibilities.

In the right light though, their otherness shone through.

It was too easy to look at her fellow tea-shop patrons and see exactly what would to incite her table-mate to murder, or to whom they needed to speak in order to wage a successful campaign for an Assembly position. Jade sometimes forgot that normal people did not scale and skew everyday objects in the palms of their hands. It was the subject of great consternation at more than one occasion. Dave arrived to events with pathological punctuality, and the ebb and flow of time skewed around him dependent on mood. John never seemed to settle fully into the present - disbelieving the validity of the life he lived in. The thought that he might do it all differently persisted in the back of his mind, even when the juju that allowed such thoughts no longer did.

“You ready to head downtown?”

“Yeah.” Setting her knitting aside with markers placed on her loose stitches, Rose smoothed her skirt down and followed John.

*

Heading into the center of town near the intersection of Fruit Salad Party Mix and Chunky Grubsauce, the group ducked into the building that served as their audience hall. Issues of state, individual petitions, and spacial-temporal shenanigans were addressed under the same venerable roof. Rose lingered behind the group in passing through the cool hallways. The passage was lit by a hodgepodge of fairy-lights, lanterns, and glow-grubs. The gloaming shrouded their passage, and the staff let them go undeterred.

Consorts and carapaces made the majority of the hall staff. A Dersite pawn paused in front of her and smiled, wiggling his digits with soft clicks. Offering an answering wave, Rose kneeled down in front of the individual.

“Do you have something for me?”

Amused in the way that the silent sector of the population was, the pawn shrugged, their eyes curved upward in contentment. Reaching into their satchel, they offered over a package, wound around with a lavender ribbon.
“That busy then, that I have mail following me here. Thank you for all of your hard work.”

Dipping their head, the staff member moved on to offer Jade something out of their pack. The gift was a kind one -- a small bunch of dried lavender wound up in a wire. Breathing in the musky scent, Rose tucked it away into her skirts and caught up with the group.

Karkat joined Dave at the juncture of the hall. Hooking an arm out he pulled Jade in by the waist. It was a dirty lie of a hug as he used their proximity as an opportunity to lean in to dive straight into an issue of policy. The dossier under his arm had not escaped her notice. Unlike some of them, he had grown into his shoulders and temper. He stood a head taller than Dave and was a solid brick of Alternian stubbornness.

Kanaya had engaged in some upward growth of her own. The lighting in their shared flat dangled under constant threat of her horns and she had to do the occasional dip to negotiate select doorways. When Rose had asked her why she changed Kanaya had not offered her an answer. Instead she had cupped her face. smoothing her thumbs against Rose’s cheeks in a facsimile of a pap. When pressed Kanaya touched her mouth to Rose’s throat, flicking her tongue briefly to the drumbeat of her pulse and the question dropped out of her mind entirely.

Perhaps adulthood to them meant safety. All adulthood meant to her was chaos and addiction. It sounded like breaking glass and smelled like dusty, empty rooms. The two of them had come to an impasse with addiction and it was their gentlewoman’s agreement that no one brought it up. Kanya drank blood too often, and in more than one instance too deeply. Roxy’s fire-pit had come in useful. The fact that it did not upset her should have upset Rose. They cleaned the carpets thoroughly and threw one of the rugs into the pit.

Reaching up, she caught the hand about to light on her shoulder. Bringing it to her lips she pressed a kiss to Kanaya’s knuckles and released it. Like the papers under Karkat’s arm, the lingering scent of blood under Kanaya’s claws caught her attention and was passed unremarked upon.

“They sent me flowers today.”

“Either a particularly uninspired or very sweet gift, the giver depending. Are there seeds that we might cultivate?” Rose could practically hear her brows arching in good-tempered sarcasm. As Kanaya came to her side, Rose continued toward the meeting room. It only irritated her a little that she had to double her pace to stay in step.

“A few seeds at least. It's a lavender sprig. I just have to remember to get it out of my skirt before laundry day.” Forgetting things in her pockets was a perpetual irritation. “Anything interesting on your end?”

Kanaya flicked a claw along her tablet, glancing through a variety of headings. “Karkat has a number of issues planned as you might expect. There are some points regarding crime and territorial expansion that we might consider looking into for the Assembly.”

“It is hard to let them make their own mistakes.”

Kanaya offered half of a smile. “Children do not learn without them.”

“And you have raised so many?”  

She had -- working with Karkat and Calliope at the task of troll repopulation. Their Muse had been generous to dream up a few of the auxiliatrixes of old to help Kanaya. Without them the task would have been herculean.

“Not in the human sense, certainly.”

Sniffing and resting her hand on the small of Rose’s back, Kanaya logged her tablet away into her sylladex. It had always made Rose curious if she still had need of her modus or if she simply used it out of habit. Testing the population showed that no such technology existed in their midst. Their citizenry held objects in bags and spaces within their homes, or on their person.

The amphitheater where they gathered had been Calliope’s idea. It was a grand space, stretching up stories and filled with natural light from a multitude of skylights. The lower levels shimmered with braziers and tangles of party lights.

Finding her perch on the plumpest cushion available, Rose stuck her foot out to prod at Roxy.

The grin she received for her mischief made joy blossom through her. With years between her and the observatory, she was slowly coming to empathize with her Mother. Forgiveness was not a shore she had been able to breach, nor was she confident about her ability ever to do so. Roxy though, Roxy she could love. Bracing against the inevitable hug, Rose wound her arms around one of her favorite people in all of paradox space.

“And good afternoon to you.”

“Hey.” Rolling over and pillowing her head on Rose’s legs, Roxy made herself comfortable. “I think today’s meeting is going to be a long one.”

Idly she moved Roxy’s bangs out of her eyes, watching the rest of their group assume places of familiarity and comfort. “Karkat has a list.”

“Karkat always has a list. So does Kanaya. You just don’t mention her because you don’t want to interrupt that good good you’ve got going on. Girl I get you.” Out of the two of them Rose was more likely to have three lists, all in various states of completion and strewn haphazardly about. Kanaya was the one that meticulously notated objectives and conquered them with assassin-accuracy.

Rolling her eyes, Rose watched the information moving rapid fire over Roxy’s handheld devices.

“That very well might be the case, but I will not admit to it.”

“Babe I think you just did. But it’ll be a secret. Hush-hush.” Winking up at her, Roxy returned to her tasks.

Jane was the one to start, rising from her seat and clearing her throat.

“So we need to talk about municipal crime and a little on public services. Then we have a meeting with the Assembly and the Mayor at mid-day.”

Once all of that had been done the petitioners would fill the hall and they would speak to their people. Trolls tended to come closer to the end of the sessions, carapacians and their neurotic need for order would be closer to the beginning. Humans filtered into the mix depending on their work-schedules and preferences. Perhaps a few of the death-cult salamanders would come and speak with her. In one of the rooms that branched off of the main hallway her scrying bowl sat, ready to be judiciously contemplated. It felt like the sort of day that might bring about good news.

*
Winding the ribbon from the dawn-offering around her hands slowly, Rose watched the colony of fireflies winking out along the lawn. Footsteps approached behind her and Rose ventured her question before Jade made it to her.

“Can’t sleep?”

Jade slotted her chin over Rose’s shoulder. “I don’t know how any of us can.”  

Assembly had turned into a clusterfuck of argument and hyperbole. Some of the town administrators were calling for electoral reform of one sector in particular. It was in a desirable sector of Can Town, developmental and environmental interests were warring for the space. If the administrator of the section could be ousted it would change the landscape of the sector and redistrict at least half of the population. Pushback had come from concerned citizen sectors. The hearing had dragged out doubly as long as planned.

“Liberal application of medication, exercise of both the sexual and mundane variety, and sheer exhaustion. Tempered of course with night-terrors.”

“The night-terrors are my favorite part.” The sarcasm was thick enough to touch.

“Is there anything in particular that is bothering you this evening?”

“Nothing.” Jade wrapped her arms around Rose’s waist. “I just don’t want to be alone.”

Thinking about solitary brought Rose around to all of the trolls they left behind in the game.

Gamzee still slept perpetually in a refrigerator, unable to die and not quite alive. Rose often dreamt of opening the door to find half rotted meat and exposed tendons spread like a net over a pair of lungs that still inflated and a heart that would not stop. In those dreams she met his eyes, still half-filled with adolescent gray and was overwhelmed by the blame in them. His actions were his own and even dreaming this was a fact she understood, but the sense of responsibility persisted. All of them had a role to play in the play, and his had been that of the rake.

Terezi might still be standing on the lotus platform behind them at the end of the game, stuck in the unbearable chasm between safety and agency. Failure nauseated and shamed her thinking back to that moment. She should have looked back to make sure that her meteor-mate and clade-corner had stepped forward to the threshold. Even if she had been a shit tactician and general failure during the game, that much had been within her capability.

It did not bear thinking about where Vriska was, nor what she had done for them. Enough speculation existed from knowing her. Testimony from John confirmed what she could have done to them if things had gone slightly different. She was not a good person, but she had been invaluable to saving their lives and the fact that they had not saved hers in return grated at her nerves.

“You can stay with me if you want.”

Jade settled into the alcove next to her, the fireflies looking like a splash of stars reflected in her glasses.

*

“You’ve been playing with that ribbon for like three days. Are y’all gonna get some hot xeno-bondage going on? Maybe wrap Kan up like a present?” Dave tapped out a rhythm along the back-rest of the chair he had claimed for breakfast, bobbing his head in time to the beat he was constructing in his head.  

The implied recipient of Dave's suggested gift was standing outside in the morning sun, meticulously pruning the hedges near the house. The rattle of her chainsaw was a muted growl through the closed windows of the breakfast nook.   “Might be a little awkward though? You'd be wearing Karkat's color and that would be kinda quad-blurry. Though he's into that shit, I don't know that Kanaya is. I think she’s gotten tall enough at this point that she could probably take all of us. And I don't really want to be on the business end of that.” Jerking his thumb in the direction of the window, Dave huffed.

“Good morning to you too Dave.”  

Passing by him in the kitchen Rose reached down to scruff a hand with mock aggression through his hair. Bunching her hand tight in the blonde strands she earned herself a brief silence as he nearly purred. Releasing him she proceeded to settle in to her space at the table, tea steeping in one of her cephelapod themed mugs.

“Dave you are an affront to everything that is decent. It is so late and you are -so loud-.”

“Good morning to you too Karkat.”

“Hey.”  

A sliced english muffin appeared in front of her accompanied by something resembling a breakfast protein. When Karkat cooked it was best not to question it. Out of the group of them he and Jade were the most adept at feeding themselves. She and Dave had been making strides to catch up in the culinary disciplines.

At her left, Jade sat with half-lidded eyes, slowly nibbling at a bowl of fruit and strips of bacon. Leaving her to her incremental waking Rose set her tea-bag on her saucer and went about drizzling honey along the edge of the muffin. In the cup a few stray leaves swirled, whispering possibility with their landing positions., Rose gazed through the kitchen rather than attending to the stack of emails waiting in her inbox.  

Dave sat backward on his chair, leaning on folded arms and chatting with Karkat.  

The chef for the morning stood suppressing yawns as he slowly flipped potatoes and something else around in the pan. Oil crackled and sang against the black metal of the griddle. They would likely be heading back to rest for part of the morning. Even though Karkat was an early riser for a troll, his sleep habits were more erratic than the rest of them. It was a leftover from Sgrub and exacerbated by the healthy dose of ptsd they all suffered from. While perpetually lagging he never slept more than a few hours at a time. When he did manage it was sleep plagued with frequent interruptions.

John breezed down the stairwell in the literal sense, toes facing toward the tile and shirt hanging loose off of one of his shoulders. The collar ripped, but it was not a garment he was willing to relinquish.

“Hey guys.”

Greetings rang back in varying degrees of enthusiasm. Claiming his spot near Rose he scanned through his phone, munching on a bowl of cereal pilfered from Karkat’s place-setting. Rolling his eyes, the troll poured another serving and kept it at his side.

“What’s your plan for today? Anything cool?”

“I’m going to visit with Callie. I have some issues I wish to discuss.”

“Who’re you thinking she’s gonna bring back?”

“I did not imply she would.”

“But you don’t see Callie other than about making things -people specifically- manifest. Or to talk about theatre. But I know that there isn't anything being performed soon that you're into.”

With a certain degree of rue Rose admitted to herself that John had been a good friendleader. Though limited in scope, the man got the gist of a situation quickly enough.

“It is not so much that I wish her to make someone appear. I just want to speak about possibility and space. With a player who has a different scope than Jade.”

“She is the Muse. So I guess if it has to do with that she would be the one to talk to.”

“Just so.” Rinsing her dish, Rose dropped it off at the sideboard and went to her preparations.

*

Pouring tea carefully into Calliope’s cup, Rose watched the tendons of the cherub’s hands press against the thin skin covering them. Callie had done her the honor of remaining in her base form, leaving off the body paint and other trappings that she sometimes indulged in. Her claws clicked carefully against heirloom china, leaving no mark.

“What you are suggesting is not unheard of. But I do think it is rather sad, don’t you?”

“Exceedingly so.”

Rose glanced over the fanciful art filling the parlor that Callie had chosen to entertain in. Portraits of them and others filled pages on the walls. One was an ink study of Jade, her hair bleeding into a starscape that oozed the impression of cold space. At her left was a small sketch of her -- large book spread out over her lap and hair spilling over her eyes. Consorts, carapaces, and even Caliborn were represented throughout a lifetime’s worth of art. Unsurprisingly the former featured with heavy chain symbolism.

Photographs peeked out of frames, thrown haphazardly in the mix of art. Most were candids snapped in the new world - printouts of selfies and snapshots sent online also featured. None of them were particularly beautiful or noteworthy but Rose understood that did not function as the source of their allure.

Hints of Roxy were sprinkled through like flashes of bright stars in the midst of a nebula. A pumpkin grew fat and solid in a garden box at the window. Perched in a position of honor between sketchbooks, a wizard solemnly surveyed the domain beneath his wizened visage.

“Perhaps it is simply my subconscious, but I am given to wonder.”

Her weakness. Her stupidity. Her arrogance, and her fear. Most certainly that. Those were the things that sat behind the whole fiasco. If she had looked back. Not just on the platform, but in the hallways of the meteor, in the patterns that the game had shoved into her head she would have seen. If she had known then she could have done something about it.

“We all have dreams, Rose. I think that it is understandable given the scope of what you underwent?” Callie’s cup sang softly as she swirled the sugar-spoon through it, adding a fourth scoop.

“These feel portentous.”

“Then by all means I think that you should try. There is little, save Time that is outside of my grasp. I daresay we are the ones writing the story now and perhaps it will work in our favor.” Setting the spoon purposefully to one side, the cherub offered a close-lipped smile. “Miracles are known to happen to those that want them bad enough.”

The echoing sound of honks bouncing through metal corridors flooded her thoughts. Pouring herself another cup, Rose switched topics.

“Now that we have attended to that business, I was wondering if you might consider some light work illustrating?”

The brightening of her host’s expression implied a favorable result.

*

Rose rented out a court-room for her venture, meticulously painting her fraymotif rune and Terezi’s down, carefully interlocking the symbols and making sure that the impression would hold. Preparations took most of the afternoon. The painting was an exacting task that left no room for lingering doubt.

Sealing her circle with a bead of blood, the space hummed to life. Beneath her heels the polished floor of the court-room shivered, the light fluxed in response to the gathering energy filling the area. Her bones reverberated in response to the music hidden in the fabric of the universe Calliope had so lovingly crafted. Humming under her breath, Rose rode the buildup, clicking her nails together to dispel the anticipation making her heart flutter. The pair of them shared a motif, and their harmony held the potential for majesty. Rose understood possibility in its final form and could navigate the river of causality to arrive at the correct tributary. Terezi parsed the inside of individuals: their intentions, their prejudice, their fear, and their aspirations. Clever claws took all of it apart like an urban designer - drawing a map that allowed the shaping of the cityscape of actions. Ever the efficient architect, she shaped fate with graceful utility of word and suggestion. No one else on the team frightened her like Terezi did, nor challenged her in a way that she wished to answer. Her absence was like a wound that none of them acknowledged even as it festered.  

The circles lit beneath her, throwing sharp light into the hovering space above it. It seemed absurd to do this -- something out of vintage cinema. The grandiose suited the pair of them though, and no other method seemed as well suited.  

Rose was doing her best to channel Esther Quek - standing in sharply tailored attire befitting a court-room. The pale lavender suit offset her darker complexion nicely, the lines of the garment severe and confident. It was not ostentatious enough for the Cruelest Bar, but it suited her. Stretching herself physically and mentally Rose extended into the neverwhen. If Terezi chose not to return, it would be a conscious decision made outside of duress.

 

“This court is now in session. Neophyte Pyrope is summoned to the stand.”

Dark pressed in around her, the cold of the void shifting against her shoulder-blades. The design Rose laid out theoretically allowed for a liminal space. Callie had been highly confident in her presentation of the diagram. The room that she inhabited overlaid places that Terezi was and had been. If she was inclined she might appear. While making no promises of timing, their Muse offered them a place to meet. No footsteps preceded the summoned. At a change of pressure Rose looked up to find Terezi outfitted in her FLARP outfit, red boots shined to glimmering and posture military-straight. Nooses swung and shifted around them, a forest of dangling rope and danger. One of number decorated Terezi’s thin neck, pooled around her clavicles like a sinister necklace. Beneath her stood the scaffolding of a gallows, nestled into the roots of a monumental tree. The monolith reached impossibly high, beyond where the ceiling ought to block its branches. The number of unattached ropes originated from its boughs.



“Neophyte you surprise me. I expected that you arrive as the defense, not the defendant.”

Terezi’s mouth split in a horrible smile, her needle-sharp teeth reminiscent of some deep sea creatures Rose had seen in aquariums. A light film of teal coated a few of the incisors and dribbled down along the side of her mouth.

“You are wrong, counsel. I am both prosecution and defendant. The bar expects a high standard of proof and entertainment for this case. Otherwise, regrettably, we will see this individual brought to justice.” The nooses around her sprang taut, catching the invisible weight hitting their bases. They swung slowly, some vibrating against twitches of the unseen.

“The defense feels that it brings reasonable evidence to the bar and his tyranny that the neophyte will have no choice but to walk free.”

“Her Tyranny.” Terezi’s eyes shimmered ember-red in the dark, lit from within like all of their dead-selves. Rose ignored the memories of her iterations and their broken bodies, concentrating on Terezi.

“If you are judge, prosecution, and defendant all in one that hardly seems fair.”

“Nothing is counsel! It is in situations of adversity that the strong prosper is it not?” The cackling laugh that cut across the silence of the swinging nooses jarred Rose. Remaining mindful of her expression, she adjusted her stance until the fit of amusement passed.

“Convince me, counsel. Convince me that this individual is one of merit. Evidence strongly argues to the contrary.”

“I think the prosecution and Her Tyranny will find that the defense could find nothing further from the truth. And the truth -” Rose paused in her speech, staring up into Terezi’s sightless face. “ - is the only thing that we all can agree on, is it not?”

Coming to stand at the base of Terezi’s execution platform, Rose squared out her shoulders.

“We have need of the neophyte. The defense argues that the pantheon of this new world is incomplete without her and that the world suffers from her absence.”

“Really? Suffering is quite a claim. The prosecution finds this statement to be a definite reach. Even the defendant disagrees. In her own words, she admits to feeling useless after the endeavor for which she was tapped. Toward the end stages of her engagement, her utility both in battle and interpersonal arenas decreased to the point of insignificance. What contributions she has to offer this world are, quite frankly, suspect.”  

Rose felt that this was not how court Alternian or Earthly ought to be held; but they were in it now and she was going to commit fully.

“Evidence to the contrary exists. The defendant suffers bias regarding her ability and a predisposition to melancholy. The defense requests that the defendant’s personal opinions be given equal but not greater consideration than other evidence presented. Your Tyranny, what do you say?”

Half-shrouded in darkness, Terezi’s face had fallen into an expression of neutrality. It was strange to see her friend look so still, and so removed from any situation that she participated in. Bringing Terezi to mind always conjured images of laughing, of exaggerated behavior and over-the-top energy. The woman standing on the platform was as removed as a statue.

“The court agrees that it will not put undue bias on one side or the other -- only because you smell particularly delicious and it enjoys the cut of your clothes.”

Rose choked down a snort.

“The defense aims to please in all things, Your Tyranny. Now. I have prepared a list of reasons why Terezi Pyrope is urgently needed. Point the first: there were twenty of us. Out of that number twelve proved worthy. All were granted access to the new world and participation in the game implied participation in post-game activities. Neophyte Pyrope is not only entitled to free movement in this space without threat to her person and liberty but she also is under an onus to fulfill the responsibilities assigned by the game.”

“The prosecution objects and thinks that your argument holds as much weight as a newborn grub.” Terezi snorted. “Counsel, you know full well that the end-game participants of the game arrived at their destination through flagrant cheating, temporal absurdity and disregard for anything remotely resembling rules. To insist that the neophyte is under any obligation to follow the rules of the game which she completely rejected is absurd.”

“Cheating is not specifically discouraged.” Rose stalked calmly along the perimeter of the circle. “I argue that cheating is built in to the game, its eventuality is expected and it is a valid parameter for success, as our current situation demonstrates. The prosecution is reaching because it refuses to admit that Miss Pyrope has the right to be here. I would challenge you to show me why she should be so denied.”

“The burden of proof does indeed fall on the defendant in Alternian law, but is that what we are practicing here, counselor Lalonde?”

Rose leered up at her, predatory. “Whatever kind of law lets me win, that is the one that we're engaging with.”

The laugh that Terezi barked out was not kind. It was a sharp sound, cut off as if someone had punched her in the gut and all of the air was rushing out of her lungs. “The defendant has no wish to come back. Does this court have no respect for her autonomy of choice?”

“If it is a choice made under false pretenses and duress, no. This court has no respect for choice that is compelled. It can hardly be considered a choice.”

Terezi breathed in deeply, staring up into the leaves above her. “We had no time for consent. Or choice.”

“We are no longer on Alternia.” Rose stalked closer.

“If we are playing by Earth rules, Rose Lalonde, I am a murderer.” The statement did not sound as if it troubled her, nor did Rose expect that it would. Out of all of them Terezi had been the one that operated with the assumption the ends justified the means.

“We all are. Law must be applied with equity or not at all. We are all guilty. We have to do our penance as caretakers. That all said, we have gotten off track. With your permission I would return to the point.”

“Is that how you view it?” Terezi let her head fall backward, sharp horns pointed back and jut of her neck pressed into the rope.

“It is.” Rose stood at her feet. “Point the second: nothing the defendant did in the scope of the game is reason enough to exile her into limbo. Like the rest of her cohort, but human and troll, miss Pyrope should be remanded into her duties in the new world.”

“You ignore me when I tell you that I do not wish to come. For reasons unknown to the court you have decided to make a mockery of both revenge and justice cycles and the proper order of what must be done. Perhaps you will use your auditory processing tracts to hear this: there is nothing in your world for me counsel.” Click-thrumming in frustration, Terezi's hands flexed as if she were seeking her canes. “Let me enumerate my failures to you then, so that what I understand your tiny human pan might comprehend.”

Stalking to the end of her rope, Terezi began her recitation.

“I abandoned my moirail. I left her to a course I knew would end in her death. I failed in my duties as tactician and sub-leader of those under my direction. Most of those duties were undertaken for me by said moirail. I failed in my cohort-relationships and as a productive member of our blended society.” Terezi spit each inditement against herself out like poison. “I was not strong enough to live the life that I needed to have, in order to effect change. I took the soft route.”

Shame floated in her tone like oil slicked on the surface of the ocean. “I became the sort of troll that ought to be culled Rose Lalonde. I cannot tolerate myself or the heap of mediocrity that became of my life. Better to let the new world pass on than continue without purpose.” Aggravated chitters and buzzes overlaid the statement .

“Suffering is not required for you to have the right to be alive, or to be happy.” Rose answered sharply, letting her determination about the subject override Terezi's conviction. “And you were never responsible for Vriska Serket. The very concept that you could have forced her to do anything she did not wish to is absurd and the Alternian conceit that one moirail must direct the other to sane action at forfeit of their safety and self is laughable while simultaneously destructive.”

“I killed your brother.” Terezi hissed it out, guttural tones overlaying the language she borrowed. “I licked a monitor while he bled to death and I laughed.”

Rose still had nightmares about the piles of Dave. Part of her was still unsure that they were purely dreams and not images of LOHAC. “You manipulated Dave into becoming more than he already was. I should thank you, not fight you.”

“Hsskkt!” Terezi swore colorfully and outside of the realm of her understanding. What Alternian she had picked up was of the decidedly more lascivious bent – Kanaya was not given to profane outbursts of fury.

The troll glowered down at her, the leaves of her tree shivering. “Court will recess. Come back later, counsel.”

Doing her best not to panic, Rose maintained her spot on the perimeter of the runes, feeling the energy discharge. When the court-room returned to it's prior state she allowed herself to sigh in vexation. Glancing at the flags hanging on the wall, a crazy mishmash of symbols and colors, she considered what she had learned. “That did not go as planned.”

The situation would require witnesses.  

*

“So what you’re saying basically is that you need to lawyer-roleplay Terezi into feeling that she is a worthy enough person to come and be with us?”

“Stunningly awkward as your phrasing is John, yes. That is about the sum of it. Consequences rather than minds are my forte. Meeting her on the ground that she seems most likely to engage on is the most prudent course of action.”

“Then, can I help? I’ve been working on my improv.” Waggling brows at her, John beamed across the table.

“Only if you can resist the very powerful urge to be a shit.”

Grinning at her, John slapped a hand to his ribs as if he were suffering pain. “You wound me, my ecto-intended.”

“Perhaps with the undistilled power of the truth.”

John chuckled. “Nah, I’m on board with it. It’s weird not having everyone here. I know how it turned out, but that doesn’t mean that we have to accept it. I believe that we can do better than this.”

Certainly without Terezi, they would not be in a kitchen chatting. Karkat watched them from across the table, brows drawn down into a line of pure discontent.

“Do you think maybe, Dave and I should... I dunno.”

“No. I don’t.”

John and Karkat blinked at the sharpness of her answer. Being mindful to soften her phrasing, Rose turned to address Karkat. “When I see the favorable outcomes of this, none of them include you there at the conclusion of our discussions. That is not an indictment of you nor a judgement. I just don’t think you are one of the key factors of my negotiation.”

Wincing, he stared down into his coffee cup. “Of course. It figures I would be the antithesis of a solution.”

“I didn’t say that either.”

Delightful as Karkat could be and as happy as he made Dave, the troll made her tired. “I think that the two of you have a complicated and nuanced relationship with one another - one that would benefit from talking it through face to face at a later time. If it makes you feel better, Dave doesn’t need to be there either.”

Uncharacteristically willing to let her be politic, Karkat returned to his tablet, poking along and making policy changes between commenting on various message-boards and blogs he had open.

“It doesn’t make me feel better.” Dave breezed by her, poker face on and heading for the fridge. It was more than likely that he worried about her too. Both men had a complicated relationship with Miss Pyrope. Dave was even less likely to say anything than Karkat.

“We’re not talking about you right now. I know that you wish we were.”

“I’m really the only thing worth talking about at all. Though I suppose if we had to divert away from me for any reason, Tez would be one worth consideration.” Flashing her a grin over his shoulder, he meandered back toward his part of the house, his drink acquired.

Who it was that did need to be there remained the pressing question. Vriska would have been useful but was ( dead ) not currently available. Kanaya and Terezi had never shared any terribly deep intimacy. Certainly, the pair of them had been polite and never pulled specibi on one-another but that was the extent of their relationship. Including Kanaya into the mix was a toss-up in terms of efficacy. Being that the situation was delicate and their timeframe limited, she would have to do only what would work best.

What was at hand would have to do.

“John, make some popcorn and whatever you want to drink. I think probably coffee would be best so you can focus.”

“Are we thinking deeply?” He was halfway to the coffee-maker before the question left his mouth.

“We’re going to make a plan of attack.”

*

Besuited, calm, and with a folio tucked under one arm as a prop Rose waited for the shimmering motifs to activate. When they did, Terezi joined them, cerulean noose wrapped around her neck. John stood in the background, dressed in one of his teal suits and doing his best to look like he belonged in a courtroom drama.

“I was unaware we were bringing witnesses.”

“Sloppy planning on your part, neophyte. And I do not have time for you to rectify it. We shall have to proceed.”

Terezi flashed her an uncomfortable smile, all edges and no joy. “By all means, counsel. Proceed.”

“I have brought one Mr. John Egbert to the court this evening to further my claims that the defendant should be released into our custody and allowed to continue the life that she was an integral part of securing.”

It was a credit to John as he went over his points that he had a sense of tone. When he spoke about her, he focused on the things that the iteration on the meteor had accomplished and what she brought to the table. Terezi, predictably was having none of it.

“You have made a fine showing of discussing our timeline, John. Perhaps you might get to the meat of it. Tell me about your Terezi.”

“You mean you?” John smirked at her. “I am one of the dudes that is behind the idea that we are the sum of our experiences. It’s kind of...weird I guess to be a mishmash of so many different experiences. Heh, particularly when some of them contradict? But. I’ll tell you about the timeline I came out of if you want.”

Rose stood with her hands clasped behind her back as he spoke about the fairly random things Terezi had John do, altering their timeline.

“So basically you killed any chance for personal growth.”

Rose whipped her head around, staring at John and resisting the urge to scrub at her face. Of course the urge to be John would not be one he could override.

Purring, the noose pulling taut on her neck Terezi leaned down and stared at him. “What makes you say that?”

“The ones that made it out the best from this shit? Dirk, and Dave and Karkat? They had chances to make some really bad mistakes. I think that in protecting yourself you kind of...took that growth away from yourself. And It left you feeling impotent. I don’t think that is a bad thing for you though, because it spared you a lot of pain.”

John stepped to the base of the gallows, floating up to face Terezi and look her in the face. The Breeze twirled around them both, stirring her hair against her cheeks and bolstering him up.

“You’re not the kind of girl that shrinks from a challenge.”

“You speak to me like a moirail, John. I do not believe you know me that well.”

John snorted. “I do.” Making a passable attempt at Vriska’s cadence of speech he stared into her eyes. “Besiiiiiiiides. Everyone knows humans are pale whores. Maybe you’re the one who doesn’t know yourself Miss Seer.”

“No cross.” Terezi spoke crisply. “Do you have any other witnesses to call counsel? Perhaps a pair of Knights?” At the last her tone dripped strange, flat and crossed with a subtle amount of acid.

“I think that would be a waste of the prosecution’s time. No. Mr. Egbert was the other voice I wished to present. Thank you John. We’ll see you outside.”

Lingering in the air for a few moments, John eased himself down and headed out of the court-room. The darkness swallowed his retreating back.

“It is cowardly of you to hurt yourself.” The charade of a courtroom wore on Rose’s nerves. The girl that had torn her world apart sat close to the surface, whispering terrible suggestions about how she might resolve this situation. More than ever, it was not time to listen to that voice.

“Perhaps it is. If I am already debased there is little shame in being afraid.”

“You don’t have to hurt yourself. There are other options. If you absolutely feel that you must suffer, then do your penance through living. The dead, as we both know, have no room to grow or change.” A sea of white eyes glittered in her mind like a starscape. Infinite iterations and possibilities all culminating in failure.

“A very thin comfort, counsel.” Terezi stepped backward, the heels of her boots thudding against the planks beneath. “Penance? Is that what you are doing now? Is what we have wrought something that can have amends made for it?” The troll’s voice was thin and sharp.

Unwilling to be put on the defensive, Rose offered a sharp nod. “I will not deny it is one of many reasons that I have come before you. I know that if you come with us it will be better. It will not be perfect, nor will it be the same. However, it will be better than living in limbo.”

A picture of Terezi's pain had begun to form for her. With that clarity, options arrived as well.

“Moirails only can do so much. If the fundamental flaw is in the other partner, is there really condemnation for a profound unwillingness to change?”

“Some would say so. I would like to point out Rose – that I am not your responsibility. Nor do I take any pleasure in you deciding that I am.”

“Another point in which you are wrong.”

Beaming up at her, Rose traced her finger along the perimeter of the circle, feeling the energy flux in response to her invasion. “You are my clade-corner. I have more than slight claim to you and your wellbeing.”

“Pervert.” Terezi hissed at her, mouth curving up into an approving smile. Heartened, Rose continued.

“We are the sum of ourselves. Outside of the context of the game the conceit of 'what if' is purely speculation. One might dream their entire life of what different decisions would net them. In our case, our lives now are one of the best possible outcomes. I reject that you are less than some other iteration of yourself simply because you have not bled enough, or cried enough. There is no minimum standard of pain before you earn the right to continue. The game made it so that we would live and suffer – and that with the combined experience of all that we did we might make a universe.”

Pausing in her travels, Rose stared into the swirling center of Terezi's aspect.

“What our other selves did we might have done given the right circumstances. In my case, that would have been spiraling into addiction and eventually dying. I do not judge myself for those errors but I remain aware of the possibility of their eventuality if the right factors are in play.”

The light pulsed slowly, in time with their hearts. The flickers indicated competing rhythms, one too fast and the other glacially slow.

“You performed incredibly under duress and the weight of missteps that would have broken a lesser being. It is a testament to your tactics that you orchestrated things as they are. John told me about what you did for us, and how it went. I am not the Rose that suffered with you, but she and I are similar. You have my respect and sympathy in equal measure. Though what you would do with human pity, I am not sure.”

“Ignore it. Or laugh about it.” Terezi stood at the edge of her platform, hands limp at her sides.

“Humans are ponderous at best and hilariously odd the rest of the time.” Folding them back behind her, the troll continued. “What use has the world for a conquerer – for a general, when no wars exist? I am a tempered weapon, Lalonde. Without a purpose I lose vitality. I fall into rust..” It was a process that had begun long before they fought the Condescension and she and boys had faced the trio of Jacks.

“You make your own context.”

Vehement, Rose pressed on. “Do not tell me that someone as intelligent as you, as powerful as you, cannot find it within herself to function independently? You thrive in those conditions and if you try to tell me otherwise I will laugh in your face.”

“I am so tired.”

Pausing, Rose looked up into Terezi's face, half-shrouded in her cloud of dark, fine hair. The dark of her lips worked as the words trickled out with slow precision.

“I am tired of this. I am tired of being awake. Tell me Rose Lalonde, what you propose that I should do about that? The sort of exhaustion that seeps into the calcified internal structures and pushes down with the gravity of a star.”

“If I have to do this, so do you.” The charade was starting to crack, just as she planned. “Our people know that you are gone. They leave tokens for you without realizing that it is you they are offering them to. Beyond that, Karkat misses you so much. Dave does, I do. John and Kanaya too.”

“You are arguing like a wiggler, counsel. Most illogical, and boring to boot.”

“You deserve to live.”

The troll stood rigid, her hands curling into painfully tight fists. “argumentum ad passiones is beneath you.”

“Not if it offers me the result that I desire. Come down.” Rose felt keenly the lack of persuasive arguments she might offer. In a different set of circumstances Rose might chose the same course of action. Instead, she offered a challenge.

“Then let me offer you this. You owe it to me to show me what you can do. If you feel so strongly that you did not live up to the potential of your life, and that you have done nothing that defines you, then change it. Show me as your cohort and as your fellow Seer the kind of life that you wish to live. Lead us by example.”

It was time to go for broke, the space around them felt tenuous and like it might unravel at any given moment.

“Show me that you are better than Vriska.”

Terezi's eyes fixed on her, boring straight through her.

“And if I am not?”

They were two sides of a coin – drive and insane ego coupled together. Vriska's hubris had killed her, and Terezi stood on the edge of purposelessness and contemplated its depths. Rose would not let her slip away too.  

“You are.”

 

The moment that she won was the moment that Terezi relaxed. The troll’s outfit shimmered, shifting into her Seer’s attire. Wings that Rose had only seen on her alternates fluttered subtly as she breathed. The ghost standing before her was the image she needed to molt off.

Just like Kanaya and Karkat, her future awaited and staying trapped in time would not help her to meet it. Walking up the steps to the gallows, her heels clicked along the plank. Pulling the long ribbon out of her pocket she smoothed her hands under Terezi’s hood, winding it around her eyes in lieu of her usual glasses. It had been a particularly thoughtful gift. The petitioner would receive any help that she could offer for their tribute.

Terezi reached out slowly, fitting her hands along Rose’s hips. The tips of her claws pressed against the fabric of her jacket. They flexed inward with every adjustment that she made.

“Are you ready to go?”

Terezi laughed, loud and abrasive. The sound filled the space and bounced along the walls. “I was hatched ready, Lalonde.”

Crossing the distance between them, Rose cut the noose from Terezi’s neck, watching the cerulean fibers fray and slide away to swing behind her. The symbolism was a little too heavy-handed for her taste, but she could appreciate the struggle that birthed it. The gallows disappeared, allowing her conquest to drop into her arms. Catching the weight of her took all of her effort, but she managed. Terezi clung tight enough that her back popped in protest. Pressing her sharp chin into Rose’s shoulder, she growled.

“This had better be worth it Lalonde. I will have you know that I had a very elaborate mural drawn out on that platform.”

Feeling the wheels of possibility begin turning at this new factor, Rose smiled against Terezi’s hair. The both of them had adjusted in height -- Rose finding her Mother’s statuesque build and Terezi now closer to Latula in terms of form. To her petty pleasure Rose could still slot her head on top of Terezi’s -though now by a diminished margin. The troll in her arms remained a slim presence. Grief and stress had pared away all that was unnecessary leaving only muscle and bone. Squeezing back as tight as she was able she snuck a kiss against Terezi’s temple- a challenge and a promise.

“It will be.”

 


 

'Cause I've done some things that I can't speak
And I've tried to wash you away but you just won't leave
So won't you take a breath and dive in deep
'Cause I came here so you'd come for me

- Neophyte Halsey, Fifth Circuit of the Legislascerative Board.