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Romancing the Spitting Image of Your Ex

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Aggressively pirouetting off the handle as soon as you're all out of immediate danger.

The moment Dirk steps into the portal, he feels a sickening pull in the pit of his stomach. Existence itself stretches and bends and warps around him in all the wrong ways. After what he thinks are only a few seconds (but might’ve been 7 years for all he knows), the multiverse figures it’s had enough fun horsing around. Matter coagulates into physical form again and gravity is reinstated without warning.

He can only make out a few blurry shapes before his head starts spinning. He shuts his eyes, absently registering the pain that shoots up his legs when his knees slam into the ground. He has no clue how he ended up getting this up close and personal with the dirt—he’s got a distinct recollection of walking forward, in a decidedly vertical manner—but there’s more pressing concerns right now, such as curbing his body’s sudden need to retch all over the fucking place, oh God.

Slowly, deliberately, he pushes the air out of his lungs. He inhales, breath shakier than he’d like. Well, at least operation “Not Throwing Up in Front of All the People He Knows” is an overwhelming success so far. Count your blessings and all. It takes a few more (long, agonising) moments for his stomach to settle the fuck down, but once his head’s a bit clearer, he notices the air tastes… normal.

Huh. He didn’t realise it while he was there, but the air never did feel quite right in the Incipisphere. Breathable, with balanced chemical qualities, but with a sort of unnatural tinge. Like it was made with the sole purpose of sustaining the players’ life and not as a by-product of a complex chain of natural phenomena.

Not here, though. Here, the air is warm, sort of humid, and heavy with what Dirk figures is the smell of damp soil. And sure enough, the surface under his hands is soft, sticky, and makes him really want to wipe his hands on his tights.

Once his vertigo finally calms down, he pushes to his feet and looks around.

He was the last one to step through the portal, so everyone else is already around him and looking about as terrible as he feels. Jake’s alternate universe grandmother—he thinks her name is Jade? Still no clue what’s up with the dog ears—is already steady on her feet, and he guesses either her Space powers give her some sort of edge or she’s the freakin’ Highlander from cult classic movie of the same title, ‘cause she sure as hell doesn't seem even slightly fazed by their little wormhole joyride. He’d even go as far as to say that she looks just peachy, a sharp contrast to the sickly shades of green everyone else is sporting.

The turtleneck-wearing troll scrambles to his feet and gravitates towards Dave, who's still on all fours but doesn’t look much worse for wear. A small amount of tension leaves Dirk’s body at the sight of his—friend? Brother? Might as well call him that. In his head, at least. Having an extensive feelings jam and then proceeding to fight back to back against OP interdimensional game constructs from hell warrants some sort of familial attachment, he figures.

Dirk wipes his hands on his tights. The God Tier asshole pants gobble it right up, the fabric remaining as blemish-free as ever even though the mud is gone from his hands.

Roxy is the next one to stand up, and Dirk’s relief is so intense he wants to fucking sob. Roxy is all right, and Jane and Jake are next to her, pale and shaken but alive, and it seems that—despite everything, definitely contrary to his expectations—everyone made it here in one piece.

Here happens to be a low hill at the edge of a dense forest. As far as he can tell, it’s spring—or this new planet’s analogue of spring—and Dirk hasn’t ever seen so many trees in a single place before. The whisper of a stream somewhere not far off and the soft cooing and rustling coming from the forest are the only sounds besides their own laboured breathing.

Everything is completely peaceful.

It’s unsettling as shit. “Peaceful” just doesn’t happen to them. To him. Every time he assumes he can let his guard down for a goddamn minute, the universe takes it upon itself to shove the newest international crisis up his asshole, as it shakes its giant, amphibious head in stern celestial disapproval. Said anal penetration is most likely to happen in a gruesome, bloody manner that will leave him scarred for years to come. And let it be known that Dirk Strider’s tolerance for gruesome bloody things is pretty damn high.

His body reacts to the made-up threat his subconscious is dead certain actually exists, muscles clenching and adrenaline flooding his system. It takes all of his self-restraint not to fall into a defensive stance and whip out his sword when a bird chirps to his right.

Dirk breathes out. He diverts his attention to the group of players who are slowly beginning to get their bearings. Everyone’s on their feet by now—or at least getting there—and, as if in some sort of daze, they all turn to look at the portal simultaneously. Or rather, where the portal used to be until it up and vanished. Well.

This is it, then. If anyone was getting cold feet about this whole “gods of a new universe” business, it seems their last return ticket just got put through the metaphorical shredder. This is their new home now, and it sure as hell isn’t eligible for refunds or exchanges. The customer service leaves so much to be desired that there are very angry, very white suburban moms screaming bloody murder at the staff left and right—which is shitty as fuck, actually, because the poor workforce ain’t got nothing to do with their company's ass-backwards business practice.

Some sort of commotion in the group tears him out of his thoughts. The sunglasses-wearing troll that’s called something along the lines of Teresa (her shades are kinda rad, he notes to himself) storms away from the clearing, everyone wordlessly making way for her. And just like that, she disappears into the forest.

Before his brain can formulate an adequate hypothesis as to what that little spat was all about, his gaze locks with Jake’s. His face’s already got an ashen tint to it, but he blanches further when their eyes meet.

Both of them look away simultaneously. Dirk feels like he accidentally ingested a big, juicy lump of lead that is now making its merry way into his bloodstream and poisoning his body from inside out. Seems their brief chat on the platform wasn’t enough to put all their shit behind them just yet. Who’d have thought.

He scans the rest of the group. Roxy and Jane lean into each other in a one-armed hug, talking to Calliope in hushed voices. Dave and Turtleneck Troll—Carcat or something? What even is the deal with troll names—share a long look, then their hands move towards each other and meet halfway. The rest of the Beta session players have clustered together by now, and wow, there sure is a lot of them. He ain’t ever seen so many people in such close quarters before, and he’s not sure if he should go talk to any of them. Or if he should just stay here. Is he supposed to join one of the groups? How do you just—he realises he’s on the wrong side of an invisible divide. Everyone has someone to turn to, everyone’s together, and he’s just.

There.

He can’t do this.

The thought is a punch to his gut, and his artfully repressed fears and anxieties come bursting through the floodgates, and God. He’s helpless against the panic rushing into his mind. His synapses short-circuit under the onslaught of stimuli. Palms are sweating, breath erratic. He thought he could deal with this. Not dealing at all. This is too much. Too many people. Ears are buzzing. All he can do is to turn around. Take a shaky step.

Get the fuck away.

He doesn’t know where he’s going. Doesn’t care. His whole being is screaming for some sort of familiarity. Belonging. Something on this steaming pile of horseshit planet that doesn’t feel completely fucking stifling and oppressive. Alien.

He only stops when the pressure inside his lungs threatens to rip his chest open. He has no idea where he is. The strength drains from his body. Any sort of movement is suddenly unthinkable. He drops to his hands and knees, shaking and dizzy. His head lolls between his arms. His throat constricts. He’s gasping for breath, trying to force some oxygen into his alveoli.

He needs air.

When Roxy finds him, he's re-established enough control over his body to take in small, erratic breaths.

Her hand brushes against his right shoulder, rubs a small circle on his back, then slides to wrap around the left one as she sinks to the ground next to him. He doesn’t turn to look at her, but the tension in his muscles recedes under her touch. Breathing slowly becomes a much more manageable task. After a while, he shifts so he’s sitting on the ground instead of kneeling. Roxy leans against him, her arm snaking around his waist.

“Those gigantic legs of yours made it very difficult to catch up with you, DiStri,” she chastises him gently. He feels a pang of guilt; it couldn’t have been more than an hour since they beat the game and he’s already reduced to a whimpering, pathetic mess.

Roxy is still here, though, warm against his side, grounding and familiar. She’s prattling on about something or other, but he can’t really focus on her words. He just clings to the sound of her voice like it’s a lifeline. Gradually, he unwinds, pulls himself together. His thoughts abandon their frantic pace.

“It’s over, Dirk,” Roxy says, and the words finally reach his brain. “We won.”

He turns to look at her, then. Her eyes are tired but bright with relief, and a tentative smile curls her lips. He doesn’t manage to return it, but he rests his head on her shoulder. For the moment, that’s good enough.

Some time later, when they’re on their way back to the others, he’s musing on her words. It’s not over . What’s over is that damned nightmare of a game, and yet part of Dirk wishes it weren’t. Pretty fucking selfish of him, all things considered, but he wishes they still had a goal. An enemy to fight, the game mechanics to stick to and exploit. Without that, he feels a little bit lost. Okay, he actually feels hella lost. He’s not sure what’s gonna happen now, and the uncertainty is making his stomach clench.

Roxy reaches over and takes his hand. Her touch is warm. Once again, she’s the dashing cowboy to his damsel in distress, swooping in to cut his sorry ass free from the ropes binding him to the train tracks. She scoops him up, bridal style, and carries him to safety before the anxiety train choo-choos him straight into hell.  

He forces his muscles to relax. This is good, he decides as he squeezes Roxy’s hand a bit. Maybe he can get used to this. A normal life—by a rather broad definition of the word, anyway—with his friends, on this planet that exists for them and because of them.

Yeah, maybe this is all worth a shot.