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Magnesium Ion, Porphyrin Ring

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You fumble a bit with the first tuberose stem that you add to the flower crown, frowning down at the difficult task as you try to remember which way the endy bit is supposed to be pointing once you finish twisting it around the starter flower. Bother! Gran showed you just a few weeks ago, though the tuberoses hadn’t quite bloomed, yet, so she was using long strands of palm fiber from the rattan plants she harvests, for basket-making, instead. It looked so easy when she did it!

Ultimately, after several agonizing minutes of feckless finagling, you have to start afresh, once it becomes clear that your first attempt is a critical failure. The first three stems are limp and a little broken in places, which wouldn’t do at all, anyway.

So you return to the rows of long-stemmed white blossoms, sigh, setting your chlorophyll-stained fists on your hips, and devise a plan of action. Twenty new flowers, yes! You’ll clip them right off, just twenty, this time you’ll get it right, your grandma won’t even miss them if you’re judicious about which you choose. And at least, you think you are. Judicious, that is. It’s one of those words that you’d know if you read it, but you aren’t sure how to say it in your mind. It summons up an idea, but not a sound. Like a little burst of white noise in the middle of your mental monologue.

This time, you’re more careful about the placement of the flowers, and you only have to knot once, never have to untie. You lay one tuberose out, then another over it, loop the stem from the second back, towards your chest, then stick the cut end through the loophole so it sits flush with the first stem. Adding another atop the first two, you repeat the process. Yes, this is good, this is great! Inch by inch, you create a lovely chain of flowers, only snapping one by handling it a touch too roughly. Getting ahead of yourself.

Whether it will be sufficient depends dramatically on what she’s doing with her hair. Either way, though, the point of a crown is to sit atop someone’s head, and you don’t want to sacrifice any more of her flowers, so you transition to the arduous task of integrating the loose bundle of stems at the end of the chain into the loops formed at the start, to hold them in place and give the crown a proper circle.

Perfect! Ish. Sort of. Well, it holds in place, and you’re eventually more or less satisfied with the thing. You can’t remember if she tried to teach you any tricks to finish a flower crown - you’re pretty sure it didn’t get that far, the whole instructional aspect of things. Your grandma is awfully distractible, especially in the great outdoors, and, to be fair, so are you.

But this is good enough, as little as you like to describe something you’re making in such a way, and you wend your way indoors, holding it as delicately as you can manage.

Once inside, it’s but a hop, skip, and a jump to the nearest transportalizer. You take a deep breath, and exhale as you materialize in her lab. You don’t think you’ll ever really get used to the feeling of it, but hell, the flowers would wilt by the time you made it up all those stairs!

She doesn’t seem to immediately notice your presence, so you take a moment to sort of look around, not really seeing anything, rocking on your heels. Gran tends to get absorbed with whatever it is that she does on her enormous computer console, which makes sense, since you gather it’s got something to do with running quite the massive enterprise, all on her own, more or less, and a lot of other important politics-y stuff that she occasionally tries to explain to you. Not all is well in the world.

At least all that business can’t reach you here, the two of you, all safe and partitioned, thousands of miles between you and terrible stories of perfidious great-grandmothers and cruel tyrants cloaked in subterfuge. A few of those words don’t have ready pronunciations in your mental lexicon, either, and come out as sort of pleasant buzzes. You watch her curiously, shifting your weight from foot to foot.

That is one of your troubles, sitting - or standing - still. You’re really no good at the business at all.

But she is well and truly distracted, her fingers flying over the keyboard, her face, illuminated by blue light from the screens, slightly downcast, brow furrowed. Oh dear.

You think she looks rather sad.

She looks a lot of ways, at different times. Sometimes annoyed with you, for leaving the door open when you scamper in and out of the front room, tracking mud as you go, or peaceful, usually, serene as she guides you through the dense jungle around the family home, seeking out rattan plants or special flowers or new ruins or merely the thrill of adventure! And everything in between, really, when she isn’t all busy and stressed.

Instead, and disconcerting as any expression could possibly be, her eyes are slightly wet, glimmering in the ambient brightness. That would be a new one. A frightening one, since nothing, nothing rattles your grandmother, not snakes, not dastardly old traps left behind in ancient temples, not the steepest of waterfalls nor the most dire of beastly attackers nor the certainty of death, you’re sure of it!

You clear your throat, not a very impressive noise just yet, but you’re working on it, and she looks up, almost in alarm.

“Oh, Jake, you little rascal,” she says, and she does smile at this, though with an odd and palpable sadness to it. “What ever am I going to do with you? Come on, don’t be shy, what’ve you got there?”

Suddenly feeling very self conscious, about your work and about your untidy appearance, dirty shoes and stained hands, you step up and offer her the flower crown.

“...are these my tuberoses?” she asks, then laughs before you can answer. The suddenness of the gesture sends a tear rolling down her cheek, and she pauses to wipe it away before she can take the gift. “Gracious. Thank you, dear, but why - oh, it’s not!”

“Happy birthday!” you announce, finally finding your voice, though you look down at your shoes as you say it, scuffing them against the steel flooring of her lab. “Sorry, I didn’t take too many, promise, I just thought it might be…”

She sets it atop her head, where it balances like a halo over her wildly curly hair. More a flower circlet than a flower crown, oh well.

“Rats! It completely slipped my mind,” she murmurs, worrying at the bands that she wears on her fingers. Fewer of them than usual. At times, when you hold her hand, it’s more plastic than warm, calloused skin. Now, there are only three. One forest green, one candy red, one black. She removes the green one and sets it on the console with a sigh. “I’m sorry, I really meant not to forget. Chin up, stiffen that lip, you’ve got nothing to look all hangdog about! It’s not…”

She glances down at her wristwatch and wrinkles her nose in disapproval.

“Time has a way of getting away from me,” she sighs. “But this is beautiful. Thank you, and happy birthday to you, as well. Give me half an hour more, and I’ll be down to cut up some fruit and we’ll have a little picnic, alright? Cloudwatching and a picnic. That’ll be nice.”

“Is, uh, is everything okay, grandma?”

She takes in a short breath, collects herself a bit more thoroughly, and smiles. A proper one. She can really pull those out of her hat when she needs to. It changes the entire shape of her face, though not the exhaustion and sadness in her eyes.

“I’m planning an important expedition. I really… lost track of time. It’s urgent that I leave by… tonight. I need to wrap up a few loose ends first. But we’ll celebrate, and that’s a promise. Don’t you go getting worked up on my account!”

As she speaks, she toys with the flower crown, tugging at the petals of a tuberose until one falls free only to get caught in the wild curls of her long white hair. You get the sense that she badly wants to get back to whatever she’s working on, and you’d really rather not inconvenience her any further. But you also don’t really want to leave her alone like this, with so many things so terribly wrong with this picture.

You do, though, you back away a few paces as she resumes her work, and when you’re back in the downstairs, you decide to pick out some carambola, lychee, and mangos. You know better than to rely on her sense of time. Might as well get things done yourself, really, you don’t mind at all!

It’s been a while since she left her laboratory for anything but meals. Sometimes that just sort of happens, she gets into something or another of grave importance, and she explains, without fail, what the matter was once it’s all over and done with. Doesn’t mean it’s not difficult. You don’t love being alone, even knowing that at least twice a day you’ll find her puttering in the kitchen or filling her long skirt with fresh fruit, it’s just - you miss her, that’s all.

More time to read quietly to yourself, traipse about outdoors, that sort of thing. That’s what you tell yourself, and she seems to appreciate that you’re willing to be your own island when you must be. She worries a great deal at the idea that you can’t handle yourself alone, and sometimes you wonder if she’s testing you, just to be sure. Just to see how you’ll handle it.

Very well so far, you think!

You diligently scrub the carambola, slice it into stars and dig out the seeds, just as she does, then pare the meat away from the mango’s pit and score at the moist orange-yellow flesh until you can invert the thick skin and pop the edible bits off as cubes, scraping the rind clean with your knife and tossing the less-useful bits in the compost bin. You leave the rind of the lychees on, since you’re not sure when she’ll be down, and freshly-peeled is better, anyway. After staring at the little pile for a moment, you wash them and make sure to give them a good scrub, to hit all the nooks and crannies in the spiny purplish skin.

In theory, they only fruit in the early summer, but your grandma has a way with trees and fruits and flowers and everything else. The island’s temperature is a balmy eighty-or-so all year round; hardly any need to pay heed to the passage of time! You measure it, the seasons, as they’re described in your books, by how high or low the sun sits in the sky, which constellations you can see once it sets.

Sitting around in the kitchen, you dig around in your sylladex for a book and hunker down for a bit, eyeing the tasty fruits you’ve readied but steadfast in your conviction. You’re waiting for her.

You’re waiting, it turns out, for rather a long while. Measured in pages-consumed as well as the shifting light of the setting sun through the window.

Just as well that it’s getting too dark to cloudwatch. When you peer out the window, curiously, it’s all dense towers of cumulonimbus, thunderheads, deep grey and roiling with the makings of a furious storm. The semblances of shapes that you can make out from your indoor vantage point are mesmerizing in altogether the wrong way for a cheery afternoon outside. Angry and shadowy and foreboding.

You would prefer not to be alone right now. Your stomach growls, and you permit yourself a cube of mango, then several more once you realize how hungry you are and how eating distracts you from your nervousness. Distant thunder rattles your home down to its moorings. The light, what’s left of it, anyway, is eerily ruddy-yellow.

“Safe as houses,” she used to say, when the beasts in the jungle would caterwaul too loudly for you to catch so much as a wink of sleep, when the wind howled and the waves beat at your little island sanctuary, when the roar of thunder seemed to grasp you by your very bones and shake. “You’re as safe as you can be, in here.”

Even at your age, the wording wasn’t entirely lost on you. Safe as you can be.

Is anyone ever safe, anywhere? You wanted to ask, hoping for a reassuring answer, but the idea that she might confirm your doubts, in some way, compelled you to keep your mouth shut, to nuzzle into her comforting arms, to plead for another story, instead.

You’ve been able to read for most of your life, started early and never lost the inertia, but she does it better. She does the voices. You lose track of your own voice if you talk in anyone else’s for too long, and she seems to understand, when you tell her that.

“It’s all too easy to lose yourself in fantasy,” she agrees. “Or just in someone else.”

Her eyes go a little dreamy as she says this, like she’s caught up in her own memories, and you get that! Oh yes. Someone else is your favorite thing to lose yourself in.

Someone better, braver - like Francis from The Swiss Family Robinson. Yes, you have to agree, it certainly is… easier. When someone else has tread the path first. When you can pretend yourself into a different pair of boots, possibly a larger one, all the better for tromping through the jungle. She chuckles and ruffles your hair and puts on a funny voice and reads, until she checks the clock, frowns, and tells you that you should have been asleep hours ago.

In here, you’re safe as houses. And in your head, you’re safe as Francis, or as whoever else you’re playing at being. You practice at the accent that she puts on for him once she turns out the lights and tucks you in. There are many kinds of shelters, and some of them are most certainly homes, but others are the questions that you don’t ask, the voices that aren’t yours, but could be, someday.

Her arms, there’s another good one.

The sheets are still warm around your shoulders where she tucked you in, and you snuggle down into your blanket and pretend.

Outside of the window, forked lightning dissects the inky blackness of the sky into jagged shapes, followed almost immediately by a peal of bone-shaking thunder.

You had time to cut new fruit slices before she joined you downstairs, gathered you up in a hug, held you in her lap and pinched your cheek fondly. When you sang ‘happy birthday’ together, you could feel it in both of your chests. She was still wearing the half-wilted crown of tuberoses. Flower crowns aren’t meant to last for an especially long while.

Her hair always smelled a little bit like ozone, new growth, something namelessly green. She fed you little bits of mango and clutched you to her chest like you might disappear. It almost hurt, but you didn’t say anything about it.

Just that you loved her, and when would she be back?

“I don’t know,” she said. “I won’t lie to you, dear heart. I can’t say, because I don’t know.”

“Oh,” you said. “That’s okay. Don’t worry!”

Because it was okay, and she shouldn’t, and you wanted her to kiss your forehead again and stop looking down at you with those unnaturally sad eyes - she wasn’t supposed to look like that, she never looked like that.

She held you until she didn’t anymore, and then she left, her pack on her shoulder, the crown you made for her slowly browning on the kitchen counter as the storm raged on outside.

Holding your knees to your chest is just as good, really.

You’re not sure why it feels any different this time. You aren’t sure, until you are.

Her body is lighter than you expected, but that’s probably on account of all the blood trailing behind her.

Hours, she must have fought to crawl home for hours. How else could she have bled so much?

dear jake,

happy birthday!

maybe i should put more exclamation points? in the future i think i will! i just dont want to be too overwhelming right now which is sometimes a problem i have, i think! :p i have not had a lot of chances to actually talk to people so this is very exciting for me and i hope for you also. you look so sad and little in the clouds. i can definitely relate to that sometimes, but whatever is the matter, it cant be too bad, because i also see us becoming really good friends and you being happy again! there is a beautiful future somewhere, i am sure of it, even if i cant always see it. if we work together and try our best, though, we can accomplish anything!

anyway, i see that you live on an island too, like me. that must be a lot of fun! i love my island even though my friends think it is kind of stupid. being mostly alone all the time is not too bad if it is for a reason, and the jungle is full of interesting plants and animals (and NOT just hellmurder whatever, DAVE. he is one of my friends!). my favorite hobbies are gardening, reading, playing fetch with my dog bec, thinking about how things work, and squiddles! rose (that is my other friend, she is really great!) says squiddles are not a hobby and i guess she might be right, at least with the way she likes them. it is a little bit juvenile, i guess, to think of a bunch of plushies as being basically your friends, but it’s not just that i like the show, i like the whole idea of them! that is where i got that comforting phrase, actually, the one i just said about working together and trying our best. i really recommend all squiddles associated media, though i havent been able to watch the television show or movies. thats okay, i like books too, and those are like movies for inside your head. usually the cinematography is way better in my brain than anything i can remember watching. :p my grandpa used to say i had a really active imagination, but he doesnt say much of anything anymore!

what are your hobbies? what is your island like? i guess I should tell you about mine if im going to ask all these questions about yours! my grandpa and i live in a big house on top of a mountain that used to be a volcano. not to brag or anything of course, it is kind of a drag sometimes, actually. my friend john sent me some pumpkin seeds two years ago and i have used them all up trying to keep a ripe pumpkin around for longer than a few minutes. :( gardening can be a real challenge! i saw you trying to do it for yourself so i have added a copy of a few pages of my grandpa’s almanac. he made it with HIS grandma a long time ago so you know it is good tips and tricks for putting some green on your thumb, if thats what youre going for!

sorry this is so late. i know you have probably been having a hard time lately but i have also enclosed some seeds as gifts! no pumpkin seeds though. :p i saw that you managed to grow some of your own anyway so maybe you are already a gardening master!!!! if you have any advice about pumpkin permanence please don’t be stingy with it, i can use all the help i can get!

wow, this is pretty long. i hope you don’t mind! it can get lonely sometimes with all the waiting for things to happen. but i bet you understand. that future i mentioned? it’s totally real! ill prove it if you want, ask me anything! we are right where we need to be jake. someday everything is going to make sense and i hope i get to meet you, too. i did see some stuff about that happening but uh... in it there were some things about me that did not seem quite right, so i am going to wait and see before i make a judgement! it could have just been a daydream... though i hope it wasnt! i think it would be really cool to have fluffy pointed ears like a canid.

please write back when you get the chance! i already know you will actually. :p we really are going to be friends!

i hope your birthday luck turns around a little bit and you stop crying soon and drink some water so you don’t get dehydrated! remember (this always helps me) it is all going to work out in the end!!!!!!

if it hasnt worked out yet, it isnt the end. :)

<3
jade

You keep her letter inside of your jacket, over the place where your heart beats. And eventually you do stop crying, and realize that it is imperative that you pull yourself together and… figure everything out. Because no matter how delightfully optimistic Jade is about absolutely everything, your home has been blown nearly to smithereens, your grandma is dead and burned away to ash, not even a keepsake of her left, and you are completely alone. For real.

They did not talk much about this part of island life in The Swiss Family Robinson. But then again, they were a family, not a frightened child. They never actually were alone.

She’s gone, now, and the fruit is starting to rot on the branches. You don’t rightly know how she kept it there in the first place, in the relentless heat and damp of late summer. They seem smaller, too. Everything seems both smaller and dimmer and infinitely more vast and threatening without her here.

But you begin to read the crumpled pages that Jade sent in the mysteriously -ified package, and you find advice about pruning and soil quality, as you more or less expected, but also several songs that, when sung with adequate conviction, are supposed to compel various vegetation to take root and flourish. You recognize a few of them, though your voice, after a long, disastrously dehydrating week without speaking outside of ragged sobs, comes out quiet and unfamiliar.

Your room remained intact, and with it, enough snacks to provide a reasonably balanced diet, between the remaining unbearably healthy fruits and vegetables and the chips and popcorn you squirreled away so you wouldn’t have to share.

...that feels… bad. You’d do anything for a second with her, now, and before you would have denied her the choicest of snacks? How contemptible. You are a weak-willed, yellow-bellied coward.

Alright, in fairness, you are not very old yet, and probably could not have been expected to anticipate her gruesome death. Or the violent destruction of your home. But you are terrified of the idea that you will grow older - well, of course you will, if the fauna that slaughtered her don’t come back for you before you get the chance! - and that will no longer be an acceptable excuse.

Much as you would like to curl up with a book and forget all of this, it is actually rather urgent that you attend to the day-to-day problem of acquiring food and tending to what remains of the domesticated flora as best you can. The house that blew to smithereens contained, among other precious things, gran’s beautiful handmade rattan baskets of seeds and various bits and sundries, some of them tight-woven enough to hold water.

You could sure use some of those right about now!

That is more or less how you end up back in the jungle, for the first time since you went after her, against all of her urgings. Tepid water swills around your boots, and you cling tight to your jacket, to the letter against your breast, as the water grows deeper and murkier, rising as high as the hem of your shorts.

You find a good spot for rattan, and begin to pull the woody vines down, stripping them of their spiny covering as you go. They’re fairly thin, about the width of your pinky finger, which is quite small, as you are, yourself, quite small. For now. When you think you have enough, you bundle them up on your shoulder and begin to slosh back home.

Home is a funny way of thinking of what is, at this point, just your room.

But you shut all that down quite thoroughly, and your mind wanders as much as you can afford to permit, while also remaining vigilant about any lurking dangers. You begin to draft a letter back to Jade. It shall have to be a good one. At least that will give you something to do, once it’s too dark to remain outdoors.

You scrap your first attempt. It turns out that you can’t write all that well, yet. Your imagination has outstripped your capabilities, once again!

Frustrated, you try to reread The Swiss Family Robinson.

It isn’t the same without the voice, and you only concentrated on trying to learn how to do the Francis voice. Drat. Now you’re sobbing like a little baby, which you really ought to get a handle on, Jade might see you and be upset, like she apparently was last time!

While you have preferred books for most of your life, some clicking around on the good ol’ internet reveals that there are also several The Swiss Family Robinson adaptations into movie form. You start with the one from 1960, since it looks most like how you envisioned the whole thing, though it turns out they’ve added a character and got rid of Jenny. Now there’s a whole plotline about rescuing a girl-dressed-as-a-boy named Bertie or Roberta or something and you actually think that’s a fair addition, literarily speaking.

You get used to falling asleep in front of the television, and find it hard to tear yourself away for any reason other than your growling stomach and the necessity to tend to your seedlings as prescribed in the almanac. They are doing very well!

Like the plants, you think you do a lot better when you have comforting voices talking or especially singing to you. Film is an excellent medium indeed. There are none in the vast, highly illegal collection that you can access online that you do not like. All films are very good.

Eventually, you sweat and worry your way through a letter back to Jade. It is not as good as you were hoping, but it is a start. It takes several hours of diligence to scratch out the letters legibly and your handwriting is still appallingly bad. You watch several episodes of the Squiddles television show she mentioned and describe them to her in detail. It is a shame, though, that she can’t watch them herself!

Jade!

I am sorry in advance for this shoddy excuse for a letter as well as for my tardiness in delivering it to you. I appreciated yours very very much and especially your gift was invaluable! Hopefully i am using these words right haha. You mentioned a thing called squiddles and while i cant say its up my alley i really do like the music in it and the whole thing about teamwork and loving your friends is a very compelling message! Maybe there was an earlier iteration of the concept in your day and age?

Erm stop me if youve already seen them somehow but i thought, if you like, that i might go through and sum up a few of the episodes for you! I started at the beginning of course i would never watch a serial work out of order that would defeat the purpose.

Anyway so episode 1 is called ‘meet glubglub’ which is the name of one of the squiddles. Glubglub is smaller than all the other squiddles and they have lived their whole life in a little tiny tidal pool but one day the tide rises in a storm and washes them out to sea. They are very small like i said and not just because they are a baby but because they have been cramped and alone in that blasted tidal pool for their whole life! It turns out these are not ideal conditions for a squiddle as you can probably guess. When they meet their larger brethren they are very intimidated at first and for good reason! Squiddles can communicate over long distances of course through their heartsongs and glubglub has been selling themselves as quite the grand fellow not knowing any better. Upon actually laying eyes on their friends they realize just how silly theyve been to crow so very much about their grandiosity when the reality is nothing of the sort. Fortunately though they have a very important message for the other squiddles about skipper plumthroat who is of course on his way to kill all of them. Glubglub barely overheard his insidious plot from their tidal pool and learned also that the only way to evade the cruel fellows grasp is to join forces with the lesser beasties of the ocean! Most of the squiddles dont take too kindly to the idea and are summarily massacred but a few are willing to take them at their word and find safety in a kelp forest too dense for the dastardly skipper to infiltrate with the assistance of some friendly otters. Then they sort of consume the otters for some reason (you might be more familiar with squiddle lore than i?) and decide to be friends with glubglub for good. Spoilers i guess the ones who live are called cthugha, nyarlathotep (they are siblings i think), and yogsothoth. The crux of the story from here on out appears to be their adventures as they search for new friends! And sometimes also devour them?

If you would like i could sum up more episodes for you. I think it is a lot of fun to talk about television (only slightly less fun than talking about movies would probably be. I dont have anyone to talk to about movies yet but you mark my words! Someday i will and it will be the bees knees!) and anyway i dont really have much else to talk about unless you would like to hear about how royally wigged out i am over the whole fruit tree situation. That sounds like a bit of a downer though. I would rather talk about movies. Or books! Have you ever read the swiss family robinson? I bet you would like it. It is also on an island.

I dont know if i should tell you this but i figure you know everything so why not! You seem to share a name with my recently deceased grandma. Am i to believe that these letters are travelling through time? If so that is SO COOL!!!!! Haha. Thank you again for writing me i hope you will do so again soon. Maybe tell me about some of your wacky exploits or zany hijinx? I have not had any of those for myself lately. It has all been terrible mostly.

Oh also since you got me such a nice present and acknowledging that my grans birthday was also mine (is yours also the first?) i have included a gift for you in this package! It is very precious to me. I mean it may not look like much but it is a nice pressed-and-dried flower crown. They are tuberoses! I also included some bulbs in case you would like to grow your own. They smell amazing when they are in bloom.

Please be safe jade. I am so glad to be your friend.

Jake English

dear jake,

thank you so so so so much for the flower crown and the bulbs! i was actually curious at first because my grandpas name is jake (i think?) but his last name is definitely not english. i guess someday i will be your grandma! that is really cool, but also very sad. im so sorry to hear that she died. my grandpa is also dead, but it is kind of like he is not, because i put him in a place of honor in one of his favorite rooms! i bet you did a great job with your grandma (me?) and no matter what she would be proud of you! i barely know you yet, but i am definitely proud. it is hard stuff, living alone! :p at least i have bec to help me. do you have a dog? or any pets for that matter?

hmmm so far as adventures go... i guess i dont have many of those either! bec is really protective which makes it hard to do much of anything, and so far i have not really succeeded in my main adventuring objective, to visit the islands ruins! from what i can see they are so majestic and eventually i will outsmart him. he is just a dog after all! even if he is also my best friend. apart from you and dave and rose and john of course! though they come later technically.

speaking of which, dont worry about being late or whatever sending letters. theyll get here when theyre supposed to get here! thats how things usually go. it was really nice to hear from you and i would totally love it if you told me more about squiddles. its funny how much of that matches up perfectly with the lore i came up with for my collection! but then again things just kind of do that, dont they? match up in funny ways, i mean. i bet you have noticed too!!!! do you like games? i really like games. if you want i bet we could play chess really slowly by mail or something. :p my grandpa was going to teach me when he got around to it but i have mostly learned from books! i love books. i actually put a book in this package for you. its all about where people think the universe and gravity and atoms and stuff originate. i think that is really neat! really puts everything into perspective, doesnt it? it is like a recipe for existence!

thank you for just jumping into this honestly. its probably because we are related or something but i feel like we are really good friends already. some people take some time to warm up to friendship but i dont see the point in being anything less than... kind, you know, right off the bat! even if you cant be anything else, you can always be kind. or maybe i am just super naive. hehe. i hope not. you seem like a really good person, jake. if you are my grandson, guess i did a really good job!

ive never read the swiss family robinson but i think my grandpa might have a copy around somewhere. he collected some pirate stuff among LOADS of other things. i will let you know what i think asap!

one more thing that i put in the package: the tuberose bulbs are growing great in my garden atrium! i put some pictures in just in case you want to see how they are doing. there is also a fun selfie of me and bec and he is wearing the flower crown! dont worry, i got it back before he decided to chew on it or anything. i am going to find a home for it in my room. the theme of my room is flowers and things i love so it will fit right in!

thanks for being such a good friend. you probably understand better than anyone else how much that means :).

<3
jade

Time passes, as time is wont to do. You weave new baskets out of the rattan you plucked down from the treetops. The first few are incredibly misshapen and look nothing like your gran’s neat work, but you solicit more pages of the almanac from Jade and she is willing to oblige. After that, practice, for the most part, makes perfect. Perfectish. You become more discerning about the fibers you collect, process them more skillfully, and eventually get the matter down to a science. Now, you have an easy way to store your pumpkin seeds, dried in the sun, and you make sure to send plenty along to Jade, even though she says it is all for naught.

While she does not really get film as a media - she doesn’t like stories that are forced into boxes, she says, and from what your descriptions sound like, that’s what sometimes happens - she is willing to listen to you ramble on about your favorites. You like almost everything. She gently suggests that you might consider discussing them on the internet, which opens up a whole new world of trouble to get into, heh, when you’re too chicken to stay outside but not ready to fall asleep, yet.

For a while, your whole world is more or less struggling to keep pace with your fruit trees and to preserve your garden. There’s not a lot of protein to be had that way, of course. It takes a while for you to cave in and shoot the first fairy bull. The next is no easier. You will never get used to their odd, coppery blood. They are gentle little creatures, and you’re fairly sure they actually eat some of the pests you do battle with over the sanctity of your fast-growing plot of squashes.

But you’re very hungry, almost all the time.

Jade is so adamant about not doing harm to any living animal of any sort that you somehow never mention it. When you only have one friend, you can’t afford to make slip-ups. In not telling her, you can almost believe it isn’t happening, that you’ve never skinned and dressed one of the little creatures, never rationed the meat carefully, never felt a sick flush of relief at the sound of a bullet passing through a tiny skull.

There are flocks of the things, and they’re so dreadfully trusting. Nothing you do is apt to thin them out, at any rate, just absolute scads of them, seemingly without end.

She asks you how you manage without a dog like her Bec to bring in game, and you ignore the question, which is easy to do from within your game of letter-tag. It feels bad, that she trusts you, so you stop thinking about it, and it takes you longer to respond to her letters after that. Which makes you feel even worse. Which makes you more and more inclined to wait, to keep them inside your jacket, of course, but unopened. They feel heavy with the thought that, upon opening them, she might call your bluff.

Eventually, loneliness always forces your hand. And it’s never what you feared. She never forces that or any issue. She just likes talking to you, the same way you so enjoy writing her. Guilt stills your hand as much as anything, even when your anxieties are proved unwarranted, time and time again.

Nothing about that is a real justification, though, is it. It’s an explanation for why you ought to feel like a real ass. And you do, like you deserve to, and that’s fair to everyone but Jade.

From the tone of her letters, sometimes, it seems like she is used to that. Which doesn’t exactly make you feel better about the whole thing, now, does it. Your next letter is extra long. You lie and say that you’ve been struggling with the fruit trees, which has made it hard to keep up with correspondence.

Thanks to the last few pages of the almanac - you must have nearly the whole book by now - they’ve been producing more than ever.

Eventually, at a point by which you’ve wholly ceased keeping track of time, save for ‘fresh fruit’ versus ‘exclusively canned fruit from the ruins or dried fruit you make in-house’, you find yourself added rather mysteriously to some kind of special chatroom on Trollian filled with not one, but three new friends.

It proves to be the best day of your life. People to talk to at the touch of a button. You pop corn in honor of the occasion, salt it with what you’ve collected from seawater, and come dangerously close to neglecting your garden in those first few days.

Jade sends you another letter, and you ignore that, too, staying up all night to talk to TT, who does not seem to literally ever sleep. It is very, very exciting to communicate with people who don’t know you yet. It’s like getting to make up an entirely new self. A much better one, really. You’ve come one hell of a long way, after all, since you first worked your way through a letter to Jade, years and years ago, and it’s a little like pruning a tree, carefully excising the old bits of you that you really didn’t like, mostly the pathetic ones, except you can’t very well do that from her memory, can you?

Given how utterly spiffing you are now, in literally all respects, just a model of a strapping young fellow, wildly skilled at gardening and no longer quite so scared of the dark, having picked up so many cool new hobbies that you can’t exactly talk to Jade about, the cleaning up of the fauna’s skeletons to pay them proper homage… first of all, you can’t say you think much of her judgement, having befriended such a complete nobody of a callow youth, and second of all, you tell your new friends right off the bat about your hunting exploits along with the rest of your tales of derring-do, and they think that’s just fascinating! So they’re easier to talk to, about most everything.

Now they can never meet, of course. Though you’re pretty sure Jade thinks they will. Oh, bother. You’ll just have to run interference, should that wildly unlikely circumstance ever transpire, and keep the conversation from ever turning to the topic of ‘microdissection of Jake’s hobbies and things that he has told us he does’, which it inevitably would, of course, your life is fascinating and what else would they talk about, even, but which would ultimately reveal your subterfuge.

The longer you think, the worse you feel, and it takes you a month just to read her most recent letter. By the time you do, the weight of your callousness is heavy in your stomach, and you never actually get around to responding to it. You don’t tuck that one inside your jacket, to store over your heart. You squirrel it away under your bed, where you can pretend it doesn’t exist, and forget about it in the excitement of trading pictures with gutsyGumshoe, who is quite cute, if you do say so yourself!

Well, you mostly forget about the letter. Not about the guilt. That is an awfully hard sentiment to forget.

GT: Roxy?
GT: My friend are you there?
TG: jaie
TG: jakke
TG: w/e
TG: where the hellass else woud i be
TG: lol
GT: Please dont laugh.
GT: Ive a serious question for you.
TG: ooooooh only knowjn me 4 liek a month n were already gettin s r s
GT: Roxy please.
TG: fine sit ur ass donw n tell me whatsa matter
GT: Do you think im a good person?
TG: …
GT: Oh no roxy please dont do this.
TG: l
TG: m
TG: a
GT: Roxy!!!
TG: o
TG: shit u messed it up
TG: nowv ive got 2 do it again
TG: lmao
GT: I dont know what you mean by that at all and i do not like where this seems to be going so far as the not laughing business is concerned!
GT: Please relocate your ass to the er dorsal aspect of your pelvis where it belongs my good miss!
TG: *puts ass back onso jake wll feel lie k less of a tool*
GT: *Breathes a long sigh of relief and gratitude.*
GT: To be quite frank with you though roxy i could do with some reassurance on the not a tool front which is why i am bothering you on the subject.
TG: how come ur pestering me psacifically
TG: *pacifcally
TG: *spefically
GT: Well why wouldnt i?? I trust your judgement on the matter!
TG: jake
TG: jakey babey
TG: its ... what ... three in the mcfuckin am ovre there
GT: Er. Four.
TG: u dope
TG: go tf 2 sleep dope
TG: slep time
GT: I am not tired! I am fretting and in desperate need of reassurance as to my goodness attribute or lack thereof!
TG: oen question
TG: jus a lil q
TG: would u ever in a million jillion yeras ask dirk this bs
GT: That is beside the point there is no way he would offer me an honest answer! He would say something incisive and sibylline like. Well like.
GT: “Are you questioning my judgement? My first-amendment right as a motherfucking American to freely associate with whomsoever I choose? Go to sleep, asshole, of course you’re a good person. You’re my friend, for fuck’s sake, I couldn’t endorse your shit more explicitly if I signed off on your ass, personally, every morning, with a permanent marker, like some kind of Hollywood douchecanoe on a power trip, just signing asses left and right, except judiciously and exclusively yours.”
TG: he woudlt sign my ass????
GT: This is exactly what I am saying. It is impossible to determine what in the blue blazes he means by any of that. The man is downright unreadable. It is like trying to extract a straight answer from a goddamned sphynx.
GT: Oh but roxy i would sign your ass. Assuming thats a good thing and not a weird texas-y sex thing which there is like a one third chance it actually is. I am gambling on the other two thirds though because i really want to believe the best of ol strider.
GT: Promise you. Cross my heart hope to die chop my head off should i lie boil in oil stew and fry! See isnt that much easier to understand?
TG: tank u jakey bby
TG: skeptizcism... satisdief
TG: obsly ur a good person
TG: n im not jus sayin thta bc u said ud sign my ass
TG: ur funny n nice tome
TG: idk what ur sain mostfo hte time but it semes pgood
TG: plus u r a certifed grade a cutie ;)
GT: I truly dont see what bearing that has on the matter but ah thank you nonetheless dearest rox.
GT: Spose that was more of less what i was asking for.
TG: rly tho whas wrong babs
GT: Well you know this game that we are in theory supposed to play? And how... notably we are to meet our ancestors in the process? Like that seems an opaque part of the whole thing but quite likely based on a few exchanges with the enigmatic uu to whom you introduced us and also my young grandmother herself.
GT: What are we to do if upon making their acquaintance it turns out that they do not like us very much at all? Or else resent us for some reason based on say our actions and behaviors?
GT: Hypothetically.
TG: lol cry probly
TG: u can wwep on my sholder if ur gma doesn t like u no sweat
TG: but i got fuckign d i b s on urs if my mom lays eyes on me n is like ew dis binch
TG: :/
GT: That is a pretty good deal i guess.
TG: ikr??? u got other friends bb
TG: hell u always got me
GT: And you me roxy! Gosh but it is so nice to have multiple friends who one can talk to when one is nervous about something to do with a subset of them and would prefer not to overtly acknowledge it.
GT: That seems very socially healthy probably.
TG: aw yah jake n roxy healtiest mfers ne1s ever seen
GT: Thank you again my dear pal. I really do appreciate it. Please give the meowcats a good scritch behind the ears on my behalf.
TG: lov u too hehe <3
TG: later skatr u got it

Jade!

It occurs to me that the entry of myself and my friends to the medium is rather looming on the horizon. Seeing as you know just about everything you can probably tell that we have had some trouble convincing jane on the subject. Or rather dirk has had trouble and roxy has had an altogether different kind of trouble with the whole business and i am just kind of along for the ride like usual haha. Same old same old here! So er that is an update on how things are going on my side of the temporal fence as it were. Out of the horses mouth rather than written in the clouds.

Of course am really so terribly sorry to have been so totally out to lunch on the whole matter of our correspondence. I cant even remember who sent the last letter though i am sure the whole situation is abundantly my fault for one reason or another. Some cold comfort that acknowledgement may be but im not blowing smoke up your ass or anywhere else truly i do find myself missing our chats. I greatly regret having lost touch and it is my fondest hope to hear that you are doing well.

On the topic of your friend johns birthday gift which i dimly recall you mentioning at some point in the past i sure hope that the window of opportunity for me to chip in there has not closed!!! I imagine you would have followed up on the matter were the need for assistance dire and immediate but either way i shall be utterly flippin disconsolate if i do not have the opportunity to put the whole thing to bed and right this travesty in the making.

All this being said i will totally understand if you too have been swept up in the fervor of life and whatnot but please dont be a stranger my friend. I am running a little short on uranium but surely it cant be too much of a toil to locate a little more. Honestly i doubt that bits even going to be important just sort of an observation haha since i associate you so profoundly with the stuff!

Jake English

There, now. That wasn’t so hard, was it?

dear jake,

im so glad youre doing well!!! hehe dont worry i know youre busy with all kinds of stuff. i miss you too of course but i get it completely and i have loads of things to keep me occupied here. one of which has actually been schematics for the bunny in question since i saw that you were going to write back. :) you looked a little stressed out though so i hope things are in good shape and you and your plants are all healthy and thriving!

anyway i know youve got your own human-sized robot shenanigans to deal with right now but johns birthday is kind of coming up you are right! theres no time to waste. ive added everything you need from my end to this package of course and all that you will have to do is put the rabbit together and take care of the weapons. dont worry too much about that last bit! theres more time travel involved. :p your favorite i know! but you have great people (or ARE they people? oooooo, the internet is a spooky place!) and they will help you out even better than i could.

your tuberoses are growing really well here just so you know. i keep a lot of the pots in my room now since they seem to do okay up there too and they smell so so so nice! i messed around a little with them actually and im including some pressed flowers you might not recognize... but they’re like the sisters to your bulbs! just a little spliced up here and there with some of my favorite other plants and it worked really well!! it is kind of weird chopping the flowers off of plants, isnt it? something made me think about that while i was doing it. it wasnt some kind of ominous dream dont worry! just a thought.

not a bad thought obviously. its good to find ways to preserve what you love and sometimes things are even more beautiful dead than alive! just ask my grandpa. basically all kinds of love can be good love, right? but watch out! we are gardeners, not flowers, and the future needs us exactly how we are. so do your best to keep your head on your shoulders, jake, because thats where it belongs!

ok ive got friends to pester too, hehe, so i will go and do that. thanks again for coming through with the bunny. i just know john is going to love it, not to mention how important it will be in maintaining the causal integrity of reality! :p

we will have plenty of time to talk about all this someday. it just takes time. i mean thats true of everything isnt it?

let me know how it goes with the bunny! you can do it jake!

<3
jade

...

There is a severed head in your hands, and the taste of blood clinging to your lips, though you swallow furiously, trying to will it away, your mouth flooding with saliva in some kind of defense against what is definitely not how that was supposed to go, definitely wrong, definitely something that ought to have you doubled over and revisiting your own lunch rather than clutching the source of it tight to your chest like it will disappear.

Still warm.

The copper of it doesn’t taste half as bad as it ought to, and you wonder if this is enough, should you keep at it?

Dirk coughs conspicuously from a few meters away and you just about throw the damn thing three feet in the air in shock, cough, gag, turn to see him, Jane, and Roxy - oh, horsefeathers, the gang’s all here - watching with, respectively, inscrutable deadpan, horror, and also horror. Nice. Great introduction, English, really stuck the landing along with your tongue in a disembodied head’s mouth.

You shake the skulltop off, and it falls with a muffled thud to the rocky ground beneath your feet. When you manage to speak, your voice is raspy and utterly pathetic with disuse, but you come up with what you think might rescue this situation, just slightly, a clever line.

“Will you be wanting it back, then?”

There’s no mistaking it. His face remains impassive, but his posture shifts just slightly. Were his complexion a little lighter, you might see his eartips go pink.

“You can keep it,” he says, not nearly as hoarse but twice as uncertain. “I’ve already got one.”

And then Roxy picks her jaw up off the ground, with some evident effort, and hurls herself forward like shot leaving the barrel of a pump-action twelve gauge, and you actually have to drop the head (which goes bouncing after your skulltop, christ on a motherfucking crescent roll) to catch her, but you do. And it’s bizarre, realizing that there are people that are smaller than you, when you’ve never met one of those in person before. That’s only one bizarre revelation, of course, because she’s tucked her face up against your neck, she’s clasped her hands around your back like she’s clinging for dear life, and after a second, you get your bearings enough to reciprocate the hug rather than stiffly cradling her like a porcelain doll.

“You’re okay!” she says reassuringly, more or less into your shoulder. “We’re all okay! We made it!”

Oh. That’s nice.

A hot, living body, pulse thrumming beneath skin, delicate but strong, pressed against you for the first time in a decade.

You think you might fall down, which would be quite perilous for her, on this terrain, so you carefully extract yourself from the hug and set her back to rights on her own two feet. She pouts to let you know what she thinks of that decision, and you try not to look like you are catching your breath.

Jane approaches more carefully, as you’d imagined she would, like a retired racehorse in one of those horse girl movies, cautious and deliberate and noble. She waits for you to offer your arms and smile invitingly, and you do, and she moves in for a tentative hug. This one might be better in the classical sense; Roxy is all elbows and odds are good that you are packing a few bruises from the force of her landing. It seems natural to stroke Jane’s shoulder a bit, but she glances up warily and takes a step back, and you remember the dirty fucking trick you pulled not too long ago and figure she doesn’t have much reason to trust you, anyway.

It’s just as well, because Roxy giggles and quickly replaces you so far as hugging-Jane activities go, murmuring delighted little greetings and making some kind of joke about a bucket.

This leaves you and Dirk to awkwardly not really look at each other at all. Before it can get unendurable, you clear your throat to fill the silence.

“Sup,” he says, as though by reflex.

“It’s a real pleasure to meet you properly,” you say, and you think your voice is completely different this time, a whole different inflection, oh fucking hell, you can’t remember how you talk. “Hopefully not too devastating, so far as disappointments go?”

“I think I’ll live.”

You wish he would talk more, so you would feel less utterly weird about the talking thing yourself. How shameful, you’ve gotten totally dependent on your skulltop, really, it’s to the point where you think things and just expect them to be effortlessly transcribed.

While you’re wishing, you’d like to be able to see his eyes properly, just what he’s looking at, because it’s impossible to tell and excruciatingly easy to start guessing in a way that spirals terrifyingly down seventeen different ‘run for it, English’ rabbit holes. He’s looking at the slightly battered head beside your skulltop, thinking ‘no, I didn’t mean for you to do it quite like that’. Or else he’s watching Jane and Roxy softly run through their apologies, their affirmations of best-friendship, and becoming acutely aware of the fact that you are making no such effort to initiate such a feelings-session with him. Even worse, he’s just… looking at your face, damn it, do you have something on your -?

“Got a little smudge there,” he says, gesturing at the lower left hand corner of his mouth with the pad of his thumb. “Riiiight… yeah.”

“Thanks,” you say glumly.

It is his blood, of course.

In order to impart your feelings on the matter as honestly and sincerely as possible, you mutter ‘yech’ and quickly wipe your hand off on the front of your shirt.

No mistaking his reaction to that, either. He exhales shortly. Probably in relief. Yeah, that was weird, bro.

“Well,” Dirk announces, speaking more to Roxy and Jane than to you. “Now that literally every living human being’s had these lips all up in their business, y’all got any ideas for food? Necrophilia ain’t exactly the breakfast of champions, and I’m fucking famished.”

Jane’s house is best kitted out for such things, you learn, and you travel there posthaste. Jane and Dirk conspicuously act as each others’ anchors on the rocketboard, after Jane shares some constructive criticism about the apparently terrifying experience of trailing behind it, screaming the whole way. Roxy gently and subtly suggests that Jane is a big whiny baby for that, but seems just as happy to press back against you like a friendly cat as you balance the two of you against the destabilizing force of acceleration. You hardly mind. It greatly lessens the distraction posed by your proximity to everyone else, and you do mean everyone else, as there is not much space on the board.

Given the choice, you grit your teeth and lean into Dirk. You really don’t want to make either of them uncomfortable, that’s all. It is a simple question of who you trust with your weight, and dear Jane does look like she’s about to be sick at any time, so… easy choice.

He smells like blood and sweat and sea salt, but then again, so do you.

You very subtly captchalogued his head before you left. It wouldn’t do to waste it, after all.

Along with Roxy, you claim ‘kitchen duty’ while Jane hurries off to take the first shower - it’s only fair, it’s her house. Dirk watches impassively as you chop vegetables and whisk eggs, the first time you’ve seen chicken eggs in a long time, actually, though you’ve had enough luck with hunting them down on the island that you know an omelette when you see one.

After wolfing down half of the slightly misshapen first endeavor, you trade out with Jane, take a shower - it is easily the best experience of your life, you steal her shampoo without a care in the world - and swap with Roxy, retaking control of the stovetop, much to Jane’s dismay.

This is more how you imagined things. At least you’re being useful, now, and Jane comments on the unexpectedness of your domesticity - ha, as though your primary occupation for the last decade hasn’t been keeping yourself fed!

“It really is a primo setup, Janey,” you find yourself saying - once you start talking, it’s very hard to stop. “You weren’t kidding! And milk, like from cows, that’s awfully exciting, isn’t it?”

She is a bit of a backseat chef, to no one’s surprise, though she compliments your omelette, once it’s actually on her plate. And that feels really, really good, her and Roxy fawning just a little bit.

You slice up a plate full of apple bits and strawberries, which are the only fruits Jane has in her fridge. She shows you how to use her appearifier, though, and it’s a far fancier model than your old one back home, and you summon up a mango with utter delight, though it’s a little hard and unripe.

“Next time!” you promise. “We entered the medium just precisely as the little orchard was preparing to bear fruit. If all the, er, xenon, I guess, doesn’t make everything unsafe to consume, I’ll have to commission Dirk to fly me back and I’ll do a proper spread next time!”

(The young man in question, at this point, has been in the shower for roughly an hour and a half, and knowing him he’s not even partway done, so you relax and let Jane fuss over who’ll be sleeping where while Roxy does the dishes.)

While unfamiliar, the fruits are quite tasty.

This, you think, is ‘safe as houses’. You wish you had the time and stationary and means to get a last letter off to Jade. There’s a lot to update her on, and you worry that you’ll have too much to get through once you finally meet her in person. Er, again.

Jane offers you her bedroom, opting to share her dad’s room with Roxy, and you eagerly assent to the plan. It would be positively un-guest-ly not to accept such warm hospitality, and you’re starting to get used to the whole talking to people business, which is really a lot of fun. It’s like pestering multiple people simultaneously! Literally, haha. Plus, you think you’ve almost settled on a voice.

And none of them have mentioned the inconsistency of it, either.

You really have the best friends in the entire world.

Dirk is still in the shower when you absolutely pass the fuck out the second your head hits the pillow, despite the fact that is is certifiably mid-day, after hugging Jane and Roxy again (what is it, Christmas?) and retreating to your temporary lodging. You are awfully tired, that is for sure. And the sun never seems to rise on LOCAH, which could get a little awful, you suppose, but you won’t be in the medium forever.

For now, it is more than sufficient. It is utterly wonderful in every respect.

It’s a lot like revisiting all of the best parts of your childhood at once, being in a proper house, with proper… other people… and the sound of water running in the next room reminds you of the white noise of gentle rain.

Your sleep is entirely dreamless. It is bliss, there is no other word for it.

“So. The fabled orchard-cum-pumpkin-patch,” Dirk says, as you join him on the rocketboard. “I’m honored, but kinda surprised. Not itching to raid the shit out of some tombs, first?”

“Oh, sorry,” you say. “Did you want to return to LOTAK? I don’t mean to be some kind of wet blanket when it comes to your exploring your own planet, I just haven’t the foggiest how this whole alchemizing business works, so I’ve no proper transport device, yet, and given the skeleton situation on Jane’s planet, I really thought it might be best to travel in pairs, just in case. And. Uh. Mangos.”

“Mangos,” he agrees. “Shit, dude, nothing to apologize for, I’m literally onboard. Observe the board, which I am on. Let’s fuckin’ go.”

There is no denying the fact that the both of you are currently aboard, as literally as he promised. After a good… day’s sleep, you suppose, since you certainly did knock the fuck out in the immediate aftermath of what was ostensibly breakfast, didn’t you. And you tried to lurk your way out to the kitchen to procure more food, feeling nervous about having gone so long without doing something, only to accidentally rouse Dirk, who turned out to have picked the couch as his preferred accommodations. Nearly had a heart attack in the process, too, though he laughed it off, as much as the sort of throaty cough he does when he finds something funny can be said to be a laugh, which is to say ‘not really’.

But you got to talking, you wedged into the corner between the sink and the stove, him peculiarly perched on the countertop, hunched over the cup of unbelievably shitty coffee you made, neither of you especially familiar with existing in a shared space.

Why does it have to be so much more difficult with him than with Roxy and even Jane? You just can’t figure it out, or else you don’t want to, which is kind of the same thing with you, you’ve found.

He looks over his shoulder at you as the rocketboard begins to spiral up into the atmosphere of Jane’s planet.

“This thing can go faster if you’re willing to hold on,” he says.

“Heh, roger that,” you say, shuffling forward a bit, drawing an arm around his chest.

You’re not certain what you expected, but a slight stiffening of his abdominal musculature followed by shifting his weight forward, sending the board rocketing (as one might conjecture to be a possibility from the name) in the same direction… was definitely within the parameters of sensibility. You hang onto him for dear fucking life.

Jiminy crickets, this is certainly a thing that is happening. It is the absolute essence of exhilaration. As rapidly as you have literally ever moved, his body beneath you, the way he… heavens. The distant twinkling lights of paradox space somehow still afford sufficient illumination to get a good look at his face.

He’s smiling.

So are you.

“What in the living hell happened to all the trees?” you breathe, extricating yourself from your position of absolutely-fucking-glued to Dirk’s back and making a jump for the ground before he’s even landed properly. “I didn’t realize they… what happened?”

It’s not that they’re gone, it’s that they’re all different.

From behind you, Dirk equips his sword and begins to mow through the skeletons that swarm around your knees, but you ignore them entirely, gaping up at what used to be a familiar arboreal landscape. You take a generous number of bites and scratches to your bare legs for your trouble, but you can’t - these aren’t your trees at all. That’s your room, alright, what remains of your home, but the tangle of pumpkins is gone, replaced with level green sort-of-grass in weird graduated levels, the stand of precious fruit trees simply vanished, the ideal sort-of-orchard real estate phased out into impossibly tall… what the hell are these supposed to be?

Then, you start to wheeze.

“Oh shit. Come on,” Dirk says, gripping you practically by the collar and hauling you back onto the hoverboard. His voice sounds a solid two octaves lower, for some reason. “We’ve got about a minute and a half before we asphyxiate. AR’s got a countdown going for me. Xenon’s a lot heavier than air, we just have to get back up -”

You struggle for a second, not wanting to just - it’s profane, it’s wrong, it’s like everything you remember but shifted slightly to the left and fucking dead - but as you go lightheaded, you stop resisting, and the board lifts you slowly to safety. Your cheeks feel wet, and you drag your forearm across your face before he notices, probably. You certainly hope.

At sufficient altitude, you find that your head is clearing and you gulp oxygen.

“Are you -” he begins, then grimaces. “Obviously not. When you’re good to go, we can head back to Jane’s house. Or do whatever you want. Alchemize some gas masks, come back, easy. Literally whatever.”

As you rise higher,you can see just how different it all is. These aren’t the verdant jungles of your youth. In that regard, at least, you have no home to return to. And it’s all smothered in a fucking asphyxiant, so even if you wanted to, you can’t - it’ll never be the same, and this was all you had, it was really all you had, and how come Jane gets to keep her house and her bloody father, even, and your island is chock full of poison gas and all of your plants are dead? It isn’t fair! You want to go home!

Dirk ignores you, which you appreciate rather a lot, since pulling yourself together under his scrutiny would be an even more impossible task, and navigates about on the rocketboard until he eventually brings you both to a cautious landing on the side of the volcano.

“We should be able to breathe at this elevation,” he says, staring off into the middle distance, which you are coming to recognize as a sign that he is communing with his autoresponder. “For a while, anyway. I’m putting together some atmospheric schematics, we won’t be caught off guard like this again. Fucking Land of Mounds and Xenon, should have seen this shit coming from a mile away. My bad, dude. S’okay.”

There must still be a non-negligible fraction of xenon in what you’re breathing, because his voice is back to the peculiar lowered effect, and you wonder if yours would sound the same if you could bring yourself to say anything with any kind of certainty that you wouldn’t lose your fucking shit and start blubbering again.

So many worse things have happened. So many shitty things have happened and this just happens to be the shitty thing on top of the pile that has you unable to lift yourself back up, for the moment.

He shifts away, since it’s no longer necessary to be all squashed together, and you almost stop him, but you can’t quite do it.

“Why don’t you tell me about it?” he says quietly. “What it was like.”

You sniffle, in a way that you imagine is very rakish and masculine, probably, and gaze down at the unfamiliar landscape. These days, The Swiss Family Robinson is far from your only frame of reference. Neytiri would most definitely find this all wildly upsetting, that was the whole point of the movie, you just don’t mess with a fellow’s trees, and yet...

“A lot like this, really,” you say. “I’m making a mountain of a molehill. After all, I mean, we don’t have to worry about food, not with Janey’s appearifier, so it’s no great… no great loss. I’m not too much of a namby-pamby to face those facts, rest assured. But it was home. And everything is changing, now. And I hate it.”

“You’re telling me, bro. I never thought I’d miss the fucking ocean, but I spent the first three hours on dry land trying not to hurl.”

“Are you quite certain that wasn’t merely circumstantial? You did die, and we have had the mutual delight of fast-cooling corpse lips,” you say. “Least LOMAX still has a proper ocean. Once we’re properly accoutered, I’m sure there’s much to explore. ...oh, Lomax, heh. That’s funny.”

“Sorry about that,” he says, after a moment.

“What, now?”

“That shit with AR. I read the log.”

“Oh, pish posh, nothing I wouldn’t do for any pal in need, in theory, heh. I’m the one who ought to be falling over myself apologizing for taking so long to pull my head out of my own ass and plant one on you, dear god. Imagine, needing to be fucking convinced to save your best bro’s life.”

He relaxes incrementally at that, and you almost smile. How long was he sitting on that one?

For a while, you stare pointedly down at what remains of your home, blackened with what might be soot and wreathed with some kind of crawling vine, though it’s difficult to tell from this distance. Not rattan, nothing so familiar. You wonder if your weaving materials were ripped out of these strange Skaian trees along with the rest of what kept you alive for all of those years.

Dirk continues to ease back, until he’s actually leaning against the steep incline of the volcano, almost casual in his posture. Like you’re sitting around in a coffeeshop, peoplewatching instead of taking in the aftermath of the fucking apocalypse.

The longer the moment lasts, the quieter the silence between you, the more noticeable the sounds of the ocean and legions of rattling skeletons beneath.

“I didn’t even have to plant the pumpkins, y’know,” you finally say. “Back when there were pumpkins. They grew so thick, it was like a mat of greenery around my little house, dense enough to walk on. Some of the other cultivars were far more challenging. It was my gran who planted the trees, I think, or else she moved them from elsewhere on the island to their location nearer to our home. When I was young, they bloomed and fruited simultaneously year-round, and it was like a cloak of perfume hanging around the orchard. Not really an orchard, that was just what we called it. The whole situation, I mean, it was like magic. I think she might have been some kind of witch, honestly, though she was never much a fan of that kind of talk.”

“That sounds awesome.”

“Heh. Most assuredly, my good bro. The timing was just so convenient, early winter, that’s when they’re really getting ripe in earnest, I was looking forward to… I don’t know.”

Maybe you’re just imagining the sound of the waves crashing on the shore below. It’s awfully far away, after all. Pleasant, though, a living sort of sound in the midst of all the futility and death.

“Are we cool?” Dirk asks suddenly.

“Ought we not to be?”

“Right. Right, glad to hear it. Just… wondering, that’s all.”

“You, at least, epitomize cool,” you sigh. “I regret to say that I am not nearly so bang-up gifted in that arena, but I am certainly trying.”

He snorts. That is really almost a laugh. You smile over at him, and from this angle, you can see his eyes from behind his shades, and he’s looking at you with some totally baffling expression.

“What, don’t tell me I’ve got more blood on my damned face,” you say, feeling your cheeks heat uncomfortably.

“Nah.”

“What a relief! That’d be awfully embarrassing, I certainly thought I showered the whole, er, experience off.”

That gets him to turn away, at least, and you breathe a little easier now that you don’t have to think about it.

“Good,” he says.

“Say, you mentioned that we might be able to alchemize some masks of some sort. Might we perhaps do that and then get started on some tombs? That-all sounded like a great idea,” you say abruptly, scrabbling to your feet, no easy task on the precarious footholds offered by the sheer face of the volcano.

You offer him a hand up, and he takes it.

“Thank fuck,” he sighs. “Let’s go.”

Jade!

I dont suppose this letter will reach you until i next see you in person (an event for which i am very excited let me be abundantly clear) but i figure it might be a good idea to try to process some things before we actually do meet. Perhaps i will never give this to you. It is just kind of nice to pretend that i am talking to you since you have always been such a good friend to me and now you are kind of the only person i know outside of this whole mess. I imagine you would have very good advice if i were to somehow get in touch with you.

Wherever you are i hope that you are well and people are treating you kindly. I have finally met my friends from the internet in person and it is as lovely as i always imagined in all respects really. When i say that in my head it feels true and i like that. They are just as i pictured them. You will really like roxy i think she is just incredibly fun and it feels good to be around her all the time. I think your energy is probably similar in that regard. Putting the two of you together would probably be a real hoot and a half!

Yeah fuck that i dont really have anything to talk about but my own arrestingly dumb problems. Which are very dumb honestly like so spectacularly dumb that i shudder to even think about it. Sorry for trying to act like that wasnt what i was doing. It is just strange and unpleasant i think to get the things you want sometimes. Things never work out quite the way you imagine. I wonder if you know what that is like. Gran always seemed to get it. I think i am starting to understand why she fled to an island in the middle of the pacific ocean haha. She was even more brilliant than i ever gave her credit for.

Do you ever feel like your heart is trying to strain its way loose from your ribcage and also boil down to soup inside you at the same time? I dont like this feeling when it happens. It does not seem like an especially safe thing to feel for a number of reasons. Especially because i do not think i can feel like this forever. It feels like an elaborate trick that i am playing on myself sort of. There is really no good reason to want like this of another person. It is positively terrifying to think that someone else in the hypothetical might feel even a fraction of it. And even worse to think that they might not.

I am sorry for being so vague. I dont really want to think about it at all because it truly does feel like something that might just go away on its own if i hold my breath and play dead. Like i said it is simply untenable as a long term prospect. I bet a stronger person might be able to hold themself together through this kind of thing just let it wash over and past them and act normal. I dont think thats me.

It is just that i love you so much jade. As much as i have loved anyone ever really. I have felt that kind of feeling about you really especially in those early days when you were writing me and i was truly all alone. And yet when i get nervous about what you think of me or anxious about some totally unrelated nonsense or whether i can fulfill some obligation to you in some way i want nothing more than to never speak to you again. Just to leave you with a static image of me that is exactly what you want me to be and vanish from your life forever. I know i can be okay completely alone. I wonder if most people wouldnt be happier missing me as they think i am than they would be knowing me as i am. That has always scared me in particular. How well you seem to know me.

Does that make me a bad person? I think it might. I think i might be such a bad person that i should not inflict myself on anyone else in any way more profound than a sort of vague temporary and occasional friendship. The second i promise anything more than that or even suggest that i might or just… give the impression, have the impression taken, am expected, am... i think that messes everything up. You know right how terrifying it is to be wanted. To want to be wanted but whoa nelly not that much! Not like that!

I would really prefer to just let this thing die in my chest and wait for it to do the same for er them. I want everything to be normal. I want to feel like im not letting someone down every time i do basically any fucking thing and i want my gran to give me a hug and for it to feel like the only thing she wants is for me to be okay and nothing else is that not the most selfish thing that you have ever heard???? I want to go home!!!! But home is gone. I am a man now i suppose and a man must be his own island. What a piteously poor job i am doing of it so far.

Ugh. Im sorry. Its stupid like i said. Ill probably just throw this out anyway it makes me sick to think any of this stuff about me could be true. But it must be true i guess because i wrote it down! I am a tremendous coward and that is no reflection on the guardianship of your future self. Hope that i will be over this utter bullshit and done being a fucking jackanapes about matters of the heart by the time i meet you for real. See i wrote a whole letter that is basically just a dumb stupid idiot monologue and what on earth would i even expect you to say in response???

I just do this kind of thing all the time. To you and to all of them and probably to anyone else who has the misfortune to encounter me if any additional person exists. If anyone knew just how much this is a pattern and not some butterfingered accident they would not actually want anything from me at all and that is truly just as scary as them wanting things i dont have.

Better to get rid of the evidence anyway. What a shitty letter this was.

Sorry.

Jake English

It’s much easier to travel between planets once you all put your heads together and get a network of transportalizers up and running. Dirk suggests to the crew that you collectively take up residence in what remains of your home on LOMAX, and that is a bit of a relief, frankly. It’s like a nonstop slumber party, everyone with their own mattress and thematically appropriate blanket and all.

From there, you get to work, and you have to agree: with an objective, it is much easier to press on through despite the discomfiting circumstances. You don’t say a thing more about it, because the idea that you need a project to stop being a neurotic wreck of a man is just utterly laughable and you don’t want to give Dirk any excuses to make vague huffy facsimiles of mirth in your general direction.

For no reason. No reason at all. It is only natural that one’s stomach would get a little flippy in the process of locating grist caches with their best bro, after all. Adrenaline. Bonding in the face of adversity.

Even with his silly mask on, he is terribly handsome, but then again, you could really say that of all your friends, couldn’t you. It complicates things so abominably, the ambiguity, that is. The thought that if you were spending more time with Jane or Roxy, you would almost certainly feel the same way about them. Right? Because your attention span, well, even you can admit that you have the object permanence of a particularly forgetful pygmy gobi, perhaps one that’s also recently endured a traumatic brain injury and hasn’t had time to swim its little fishy self to a fish doctor on account of having one of the shortest lifespans in the animal kingdom.

Which is to say that when you are with Dirk, which is a lot of the time, since your four-person crew so easily subdivides into two two-person crews, he is just about all you can think about. Screw any letter you’ve ever written, and damn any thought of ever doing anything but basking in the wholesome light of platonic companionship, and sure, why not go all-in on shoulder tattoos?

But that could be anyone, couldn’t it. When he jets off to help Jane with some silliness involving her Crockercorp appliances going haywire, a zany story indeed, as he relays the scenario over Trollian, you wonder what the hell’s come over you, like you’re coming up for air.

Inertia might be the word for it, you suppose. When things are happening it is all too easy for you to vaguely acknowledge the state of affairs and simply skate along as they keep doing so.

And your chest still aches for something else, and your brain still urgently cautions you to pull a runner and never speak to anyone again (you do your best to ignore it, which is easier when you’re with your friends and challengingly difficult when you’re alone), and your legs are getting awfully ripped from all of this step-climbing and tomb-raiding and wow, the most abundant food you’ve had access to since you were a child. You’re pretty sure you’ve grown about three inches, and all of your bones ache horribly.

“S’what we get for being a bunch of malnourished fucks,” Dirk suggests, in response to more or less that line of complain-y hogswoggle on your part, as you wince and massage your startlingly painful shins.

“The damage might well be reversible now that we’re making this whole ‘regular square meals’ thing happen,” you note. “But chin-chuffing hell, at such a cost. Do me a favor and cut these hateful things off below the knee for me, won’t you?”

“Sorry bro. Alchemizing a chainsaw would be a shitton of grist we don’t have. Maybe once we get the Den of One Thousand Serpents figured out.”

“Rats. What good are you, then? AR wouldn’t pass up a chance to mutilate me, I’d wager.”

He snorts.

“There’re a few dozen fundamental reasons his embodied form is a set of fucking sunglasses, bro, and that’s most of them.”

Then he frowns as though he’s receiving the most spirited tongue-lashing ever delivered by a pair of sentient siliceous shades and removes them casually, stuffing the impractically triangular forms into his pants pocket.

At the unceremonious eye contact, you nearly do a double take, only barely restrain yourself. You see his face in full so infrequently, and almost exclusively by accident, in the aftermath or immediately prior to the sort of shower that really helps fill the hot water consumption gap between ‘seven billion inhabitants of Earth’ and ‘just the four of you’. You’d wager it adds up to about the same level of usage as before you entered the medium. That observation also made him snort, when you voiced it last.

Maybe he’s getting better at laughing, or maybe you’re getting better at picking up on it.

His eyes are startlingly hazel, though he screws his whole face up in an even deeper frown that conceals them entirely when he catches you staring at him.

“Take a picture, it’ll last longer,” he says shortly.

Then he returns to the task at hand, setting a fire atop the flat-roofed skyscraper of a mausoleum, producing dry tinder from a massive accumulation of wood chips in what you recognize to be the oft-replaced ‘organic materials’ shade column of his unbelievably silly fetch modus.

“No gainful endeavor to sweet talk a flame/out of raw steel and concrete (ain’t that kinda game)/this shit’s physics’ consistent, can’t even be fussed/but to start with a layer of coarse-ground sawdust/we’re not cookin’ with gas, barely cookin’ at all/better lay down some brush ‘gainst encroaching nightfall/you’ll recall what we need and I’m not gonna bluff/finish off these sick rhymes with some fire-starting stuff.”

A tidy little pile of sticks and branches of varying sizes forms over the pile of tinder, and a ferrocerium rod and striker, a neat little device, utterly crucial for firestarting in a jungle setting, all materialize as he hits the prompt words.

“I hate that this thing let me rhyme ‘stuff’ and ‘dust’ with ‘crush’,” he complains, looking away afresh when he notices that you haven’t exactly stopped staring.

“Assonance, bro, it’s a real thing.”

“Well, if you’ve got a problem with my methods, you can captchalogue the gear next time.”

“Pfft, and miss the show? Not on your life, my good sir, it is utterly fascinating to watch you work, I can’t even fathom it! How on earth do you… it’s so far outside my comprehension that the light from the dim flickering bulb behind my eyes won’t reach the damned concept, let alone its execution, for a solid millennia.”

“It’s all about knowing a lot of words, and like, practicing,” he says, leaning over the fire, taking a few attempts to coax it to life. “You’ve got an insane vocab, dude. You could totally pull it off.”

“That’s a load of codswallop if I’ve ever heard one,” you retort. “I don’t know how to pronounce any of the fancy ones without sounding them out in my head and coming off a blithering numbskull in the process half the time. I’d rhyme ... scion or something with pretension or something else like that, where it looks like it ought to rhyme but doesn’t in execution.”

“What exactly are the odds of your encountering the necessity to freestyle about the heir apparent of an aristocratic family? Unless you know something I don’t know.”

“First off, I’ll rule nothing out as a potentiality in this ten-car-pileup of a game, second of all, it’s a gardening term as well, you ass. I might need to perform a graft of some sort. Do learn to take a compliment, Dirk, heavens to fucking betsy!”

As the larger of the twigs begin to smoke and catch, you shuffle about in your own sylladex to produce some larger branches and assemble them into a proper lean-to around the merry blaze of the kindling. Yes, you speak from experience, learning the bulk of your lexicon through novels has never done you any real favors so far as sounding like you know what you’re talking about, ever. Rather a bummer, actually.

Dirk sighs and pokes at the fire.

“You got the food?” he asks, after a long pause during which you’re fairly sure both of you are just utterly entranced, deliberately or not, by the slow-building flames within the little pile of logs.

“Sure as sugar, my friend,” you say, decaptchaloguing the skewers you made before heading out, little chunks of appearified chicken, squash, peppers, and sweet potatoes, seasoned heavily, a particular delight, since before you entered the medium you’d been years out of your gran’s spice mix, working more or less with salt and garlic and nothing else. Which was serviceable, of course, but oh boy. Flavor.

“Hell yeah,” he says, taking two. “Just you wait, English, my day will come. I’m going to be tall.”

“Do keep saying that, Dirk, you may convince some divine entity to pity you sufficiently to elevate you from manlethood. P’rhaps we can get your pal Yaldabaoth in on the matter.”

“You smug bastard. I’m five fuckin’ five.”

“Generously.”

“Yeah, and I can still kick your ass six ways to Sunday, so don’t get fresh with me.”

“Hm, it’s funny, because I distinctly recall that Janey was five four with some reasonable interval of confidence, and when last we met up with her and Rox, didn’t we get a photo..?”

“If you’re that desperate to wind up crying uncle in a fujiwara armbar, you could just ask nicely, bro.”

“I could think of worse fates,” you say, slowly rotating the first of your kebabs over the fire. “If you really intend to make me sorry, a lecture on Dersian politics might be in order. Can’t guarantee you’d win that scrum, can you, dear heart.”

He coughs conspicuously and becomes fascinated with the process of charring his own skewer in the coals. Your own heart is suddenly in your throat for absolutely no reason at all, and you wonder if he feels the same, if that’s what the stark outline of a tendon beneath the taut skin of his neck means. Then you stop thinking about that posthaste.

Because it’s so nice, this banter and this fire and this meal with him. A moment that you could shack up and live inside. Just two bros, sitting atop a towering sepulcher. Five feet apart because… because…

“Oh, stop burning the living daylights out of that thing, I thought you cooked for yourself all your life! How can you be so completely inept, the most confoundedly ept person I know on all counts but - do give me that, Dirk, hand it over, I won’t have you massacring my hard work! How wasteful can you be?”

“I like it burned. Adds texture.”

“Criminy, stop struggling and let me help you!”

Having finished your food, you’re in an excellent position, actually, to wrestle his dinner out of his hands, captchalogue the half-wrecked skewer, and muscle him into an anaconda vice (which he’s used on you often enough, frankly) until he tries to bite you.

“Cheap, Dirk,” you complain, relaxing your grip slightly as he tries and fails to generate the leverage to either free his arm or roll you under him. “Can’t a couple of gents agree on the matter of ‘no teeth’?”

“Your trick was cheaper,” he grumbles. “I was in the kebab zone. Do reasonable expectations of armistice during mealtimes mean nothing to you, you actual fucking sociopath?”

“Hm. I think you ought to take that back,” you say, tightening your hold on his wrist.

“Not… a persuasive argument… in favor of your faculties for empathy, English,” he pants.

You twist a little harder.

“Fuck. Fuckfuckfuck. Fine! I yield.”

With a grin, you release him, and he half-collapses back against the roof.

“Fuck you,” he adds, with a protracted groan.

“Bold words from the fellow whose signature move more or less seems to be ‘giving up’, Strider.”

“That’s bullshit and you know it.”

“Is that an invitation for round two, then? I don’t quite fancy your odds at this juncture. That is the thing with all of your relentless efforts to toughen me up. If you didn’t want me to learn, you shouldn’t have taught me. Heh.”

He glares up at you, seemingly having forgotten his unconventional lack of shades. It’s jarring, looking him straight in the eyes, and he’s made no effort to disencumber himself from his position more-or-less beneath you. At this point, it is a matter of who will flinch first. Someone always flinches, that’s the way with you and Dirk, and it’s usually you. Well. Almost always.

Maybe it’s something to do with how unconventionally lovely his eyes are, how, for once, you don’t have to guess at what he’s thinking, because he’s used to those damned sunglasses as a crutch and can’t seem to keep from softening the steel in his expression.

“May I try something?” you ask cautiously.

You can feel his pulse beneath the several layers of weird high-necked tank tops he always wears, the radiant heat of the fire warming your back just as surely as his treacherous proximity warms your chest, makes your heart feel as though it might overflow.

“Sure. Whatever.”

The uptick to his heartrate is not a very ‘sure, whatever’ indication.

Oh, you’ll have to stop pussyfooting around eventually, won’t you? This whole thing is really as inevitable as anything could be.

You lean in and press your lips to his, catching his sharp intake of breath, the way the thrumming tension of his whole body seems to stutter and his eyelashes flit closed like the wings of some beautiful dark moth.

He looks as though he might say something, when you pull away to catch your own breath, and you can’t bear the thought of that. You feel, now, a manacle clamped around your neck by having done this, an irreversible covenant made. It’s half-giddy, the thought that he’ll almost certainly let you do this again. Half petrifying, as you see, in your mind’s eye, several doors swing closed and several terrifying new ones summarily open. What is done can’t be undone, and once macked on, one’s bro can’t be unmacked.

No, you’re not going to think. You are an expert at not thinking. Shutting that down. No more of it. Thinking is cancelled until further notice.

You swallow both of your words when you lean in to kiss him again, and this time he kisses back, and everything goes quiet.

Oh fuck.

You are awfully stupid. Easily flattered, even more easily seduced by the idea that someone you admire so ardently might - might…

It all falls to pieces, given time and distance and the stressors of the game, and you wonder how much of that is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Good god, but you hate prophecies and all manner of that sort of predestination hooey. It is just a load of fucking rubbish, even if not especially when it proves correct.

You really do feel relieved when it’s over, though, the same way it was sort of a sick relief to send off that bunny and all and know that you would never be in a position to transport a letter to your friend Jade again, that circumstances had truly divested you of that responsibility. No guilt, no shame, paradigms shifted outside of your control, alas. It’s a new story for this particular relationship, but not an unfamiliar one. Just how these things, at times, are wont to go!

Jane does not seem to find the whole story of it and your means of working yourself up to pull the trigger quite as fascinating as you do. Oops. You wonder if she could ever be compelled to take these fucking situations you keep getting everyone into as a warning.

No, not really, it turns out.

Then again, you are not so good at heeding warnings either, not even those you think up for yourself, in the back of your mind, so you suppose that everything that happens next more or less makes sense. In a horrible, stomach-churning, viscerally unpleasant way.

It’s a surprise, of course, to meet your gran. Probably not to her. She did predict it, an eternity ago, didn’t she. You are sixteen, and you are one million years old, and everything is a memory at this point. You’ve died, and she’s died, judging by her godtier pajamas, and everyone is dead and alive and your legs feel strikingly bare.

‘Canid’ is indeed the way to describe her appearance, and you’d be biting back a surely-hilarious ‘my, grandma, what big ears you have’ were you not positively struck dumb by literally every aspect of your present situation, including that one.

When she seizes up, growls, slams the tiaratop down on dear Janey’s head, when all of that is happening, you are appropriately ashamed to say that you are wondering whether she is mad at you for all that time you spent not writing back when you knew she was just as alone as you, for all you didn’t do for her, for all you agreed to do, implicitly, when you wrote that first letter and then proceeded to fail, abundantly, to deliver.

That is not what is going on at all, but that is the point of being ashamed, isn’t it? To be just absolutely wrong and as stupid about it as possible. Something of a talent of yours, you’d say. Regardless of the origin of the sentiment, her familiar, vividly green eyes, brighter than you remember, even, are practically glassy with nameless, formless loathing. And she is aiming them right at you. So you might as well think of a good reason, right? It might as well be your fault, too. It is getting easy to just accept that, the path of least resistance.

Once things are ‘your fault’, they do not need to bear any further scrutiny. It is all figured out, and your course is clear.

Roxy was right, though, about what you’d do if you were to meet your teenaged gran and find that she righteously resented the living daylights out of you, or, er, just was a mind-controlled angry dog-girl who growled at you and made fun of your shorts.

You cannot weep on Roxy’s shoulder, but weep you do. The two of them really would get along, you think, at least before the evil dog thing. Both so very kind to you without any particular reason, both uncommonly prescient, both gone, now, leaving you alone with Jane.

Suffice to say, if you thought it all fell to pieces before...

It falls to pieces a few more times before all is said and done. Or you do, rather. It gets muddled, after a while, what has and hasn’t actually happened, who has and hasn’t died or double-died or else… well, it’s all just a blur, at least, a comfortable blur of things that may or may not have come to pass.

And you win the game, or someone does, so all’s well that ends well.

Tavrosprite, of course, is the one who gives voice to your thoughts in the end. You’ve rather dicked it all up, haven’t you? As unsure as you are of what has actually happened, you’ve felt like this before, at crucial intervals between events. The well of goodwill has run dry. You will probably never be able to look Janey or Dirk in the eye again, and what’s the point of driving a wedge between them and Roxy? You would not be able to forgive yourself for that, and you’ve got enough on your plate, unforgiveness-wise, without adding to the pile of peccadillos stacked up like brussels sprouts in the corner.

It is probably just that time again. Time to make some new friends who do not know your flaws yet, so you can better work on not having those flaws anymore. You’ve done it once before. You’ll surely do it again before your newly immortal life wends its way to some kind of conclusion.

Peculiarly, the whole thing makes you think of the honkin’ green caterpillars that used to periodically devastate your precious garden. From egg to horrid larva to pupa to… whatever comes next. Sometimes the moth at the end is quite repulsive as well, but you have higher hopes than that for yourself. It would be a disservice to all of the people who have gone to so much trouble to help you see how you’ve been a shitty person not to wind up a decent one in the end.

You are very good at being alone, and even better at emerging from your solitude when new opportunities present themselves. Simply the best there is, really, at pretending your way to something else. You’ll surely have plenty of time to reread old books, revisit old movies, bask in your own time and space and what have you. That will be nice.

For now, you cross your arms and keep your posture slumped and your body as small as possible, to avoid any further conversation about yours or any circumstances. None of which would matter, anyway, because you’ll be out of everyone’s way like a bat out of hell at the first opportunity you encounter.

Sooner or later, there will be the matter of the genesis frog’s emergence, which you suppose is something to be excited about, and in the mean time, you shuffle around a bit. You’re more or less at peace with this whole decision business; those sprites really are excellent guides! That doesn’t mean it isn’t awkward, of course, but lord knows, if you couldn’t handle a truly traumatic level of awkwardness, you wouldn’t be around to wallow in this version of the sensation. So you decide to lean into it. Enjoy the being alive. The breathing. That part is good.

Until you lose track of the rhythmic in-out of it quite all at once.

“Hey. Uh. Jake? Can we talk?” Dirk asks your shoes.

You choke on your ‘yes’, at first. But you do say ‘yes’, and you wonder if this means that you’ve learned nothing, after all.

If you can’t explain the lesson, you’re pretty sure that means you didn’t really learn it.

But it’s nice. Talking to him. You forgot, as you have been known to do, how nice it is, how funny he can be, how interacting with his bizarre but endearing and familiar affect of feigned stoicism feels like slipping on a slightly itchy but ultimately cozy wool sweater. And he tries to apologize to you. You don’t stop him. You thank him, and apologize right back.

When he looks like he has more to say, you let him take the time he needs to find the words, regardless of how you are itching to put an end to this, to hug him or something and just have it all be over and done so you can get busy with that ‘running away forever’ plan. The longer you spend with him, you know, the weaker your resolve will become.

You lock your knees and grit your teeth, like a motherfucking man. And you let him change your mind. Like… not so much just like a man, you suppose. Like someone who remembers why he said he loved someone else. Like someone who could probably barrel through the discomfort of retaining the horribly stupid and shortsighted things he’s done in the process of becoming better, rather than attempting to divorce himself altogether from who he used to be. For once.

That’s a kind of moral to the story, right?

It’s almost unsettling, being around so many entities that you don’t personally know. Throngs of Carapicians crowd the park, sunlight streams through the trees and practically gilds the soft grass, transected by pathways and rubble and picnicgoers.

“Look, I think I’ve got it,” Dirk insists. “Watch.”

“I’m watching,” you say, frowning through your spectacles as he goes to give the soccer ball loaned to you by some Dersian children a solid kick, misses, and comes perilously close to falling flat on his face.

“There is a distinct possibility that I do not ‘got it’,” he concedes, and you chuckle and put a hand up to your face, shielding your eyes so you can get a better look at him. “Guess this is the part where we figure out that ‘foot-eye coordination’ is either fake or else just totally unrelated to the good old fashioned ‘hand-eye’ version.”

You laugh ruefully and in earnest - your own cargo shorts are thoroughly grass-stained from slightly earlier ball-related misadventures and you can slightly relate. It is not nearly as easy as the little chess dudes make it look! He takes a moment to stretch, as though that’s the problem, and you take a moment to gaze fondly at him.

The two of you haven’t really talked in detail about anything that’s happened, yet, since it’s only been a few days since you had even a temporary home on this new planet, but you’re curious in the most horrible way. The previously neat scar around his neck has been replaced by a thick, jagged line of fresh purple-brown tissue, flesh knit hastily back together rather than reformed in an idealized image of the first event’s trauma during revival. His cheeks have filled slightly, no longer come off quite so hollow, but it’s possible that he’s merely holding his face differently in some way.

He catches you staring. You don’t force yourself to look away, and let the slight smile come without prompting. You are just so fucking grateful that he’s alive, not to mention that he doesn’t seem to hate you at all. That’s a starting point that you can work with.

“Alright,” you say, clearing your throat, “once more with feeling. I get the sense that we might be trying to do too much, too quickly. So let me just…”

You give the ball a good nudge with the insidey bit of your foot, and pass it the few feet between you. He stops its trajectory with his shoe - good start! - and kicks it back. Hell yes, now you’re cooking with gas!

While your tentative efforts don’t exactly seem to attract much adulation from the carapacians and consorts, who are presumably in the process of coming to terms with the fact that their gods are a couple of utter dweebs, you’re neither of you slouches in the physical department and you manage a reasonable facsimile of the sort of kick-back-and-forth games you observed going on in the first place.

Of course, once you get slightly better at it, you both start cheating, trying to trip and shoulder each other into the kinds of mistakes you were making on your own at the beginning. He very nearly gets you on the ground at one point with elbows alone, and you shove him at just the right moment so he tries to put his weight on the damn ball and it goes rolling out behind him like he’s stepped on a banana peel and he barely keeps himself upright.

It’s exhausting, and you work yourself up into a right lather trying to win a game that is unwinnable because it has no rules at all.

After months of adventuring together - sweet blistering fuck, was that really just a week ago that you left off? - neither of you has a particular physical advantage, and you end up winded at approximately the same time, leaning heavily on each other, perspiring profusely and gasping for breath.

You had the foresight to wear an overshirt, and you whip the thing off, making use of it as a towel and proceeding to ball it up and chuck it at his head, because he’s just as gross.

A passing white-plate carapacian with two little children-types in tow shoots you what definitely seems like a dirty look, as you chortle and rib at each other, and Dirk freezes and looks for a moment as though he might say something.

“Oh, don’t bother,” you interrupt. “How are they to know what they’re looking at, anyway? A couple of gangly human kids giving each other a hard time, how very commanding of godly respect! Toss me back my shirt, won’t you, I’m a right mess over here.”

He relaxes and complies, and you frown into the fabric as you try and fail to mop up your face.

Huh. Easy to forget that you are sixteen years old.

Six years older than John Connor in Terminator 2, sure, but also three years younger than Sarah Connor in the first Terminator. How else are you to sensibly think about age, really? Either way, definitely more than old enough to be blowing up robots and saving the world, you suppose, that much is undeniable and kind of obvious.

But also, now that there seems to be the opportunity to do so, you really just want to run after a soccer ball in the sun.

Dirk rests his head on your shoulder for a moment, and you’re about to feel a little strange about it all, but then he shoves you, hard, and bolts for the ball all over again as you chase after him, calling him a dirty cheat and threatening to throw him in the retention pond you passed on the way to the park once you get ahold of him. Heh. You really could.

Eventually you cool off a little, now that you’ve got the kicking thing down pat, and pass the ball back and forth from increasing distances, still trash talking the living hell out of each other.

“C’mon, English, tired already? Couldn’t knock a one-legged seagull over with that kind of power.”

“Bite me, I’ve grown old and weary waiting for you to get your shit together and calculate your angles or whatever the hell, just kick the damn thing!”

“Planning on just watching it roll by this time? I’d put in less effort-per-unit-kick if you didn’t seem to enjoy observing the artistry so much more than actually stopping it from bowling over a family of Prospitians.”

“So that was on purpose, then, the employment of the soccer ball as a weapon of mass destruction? Criminy, Dirk, but I do seem to have a lot to learn about how this game works!”

He lines up for what’s sure to be an especially powerful kick - the bastard is good at this, like everything once he’s had the barest hint of practice, you’ll give him that - and you realize as the ball flies directly at your face that someone, at some point, may have made a slight miscalculation.

Then, the soccer ball freezes in place, hanging perhaps six inches from your nose. As you watch, it rotates lazily on an unseen axis, then flies by all appearances of its own volition in a totally different direction.

“Hi Jake! Can I tap in?”

Your sort-of-grandmother is smaller than you expected, which is to say, slightly above average height, and is spinning the soccer ball you appropriated from those poor carapacians half a centimeter above her finger, reminding you acutely of several different… erm, you’re pretty sure they were basketball movies, but you’re not about to criticize her when she probably just saved both your glasses and the bridge of your nose from a terrible fate.

“Cripes, thank you for that,” you say, taking your specs off and giving them a good up and down, a little incredulous at their definable not-broken-ness. Well, not freshly-broken-ness. They’re glued, taped, and on one occasion welded (thanks, Dirk) into functionality so many times that they are more mend than frame. “MVP, I daresay, so far as my eyeglasses are concerned, gracious. Have you been sitting around all this time?”

“Yeah, pretty much!” She indicates somewhere in the near distance with a thumb. “Hanging out with Dave and Karkat, but they’re both kind of being pills right now.”

“Karkat, huh,” Dirk cuts in, jogging over. “I’ve been meaning to put the fear of god in him vis-a-vis Dave. Good timing for that talk?”

She giggles. “I don’t think he’d notice. They watched some troll and human movies back to back last night, so you’re kinda out of luck unless you’ve got a reeeaaally hot take on the relative merits of human-slash-troll Patrick Dempsey as a romantic lead, hehe.”

“That’s one of the worst sentences I’ve ever had the privilege to witness,” Dirk says flatly, then glances at you and bobs his head in an almost-bow. “You’re Jake’s grandmother. We’ve met, but not really.”

“Jade!” she corrects him, sticking out her hand, which he accepts, shaking it vigorously. “I’m also his granddaughter, sort of.”

“Cool. Dirk. We’re bros, but not like, ectogenetically. Fuck SBURB for making me clarify that shit.”

“Fuck SBURB!” Jade agrees cheerfully. “Anyway, if I’m gonna third wheel, might as well join in on something that’s actually fun, right? If that’s okay, obviously.”

She grins over at you, exposing a long pair of canine teeth, and you freeze for a second, having spent a reasonable amount of time dreading more or less this exact interaction, the inevitable moment where they realize they know different people and neither of them would much like the version to which the other has been exposed. Too pathetic, too callous, respectively. You have to get out of this.

“Hell yeah,” Dirk says. “You can’t be worse than me and Jake. Get ready to carry this shit, neither of us knows jack fucking squat about sports and orb-kicking physics is categorically not my thing. About as far from my thing as anything that can be designated a type of physics can be. Sick ears, by the way.”

“Oh! I love physics! What, ah, what kinds are your thing?”

“Applied, but not to the underside of a sphere? Mostly mechanics, robotics, but also relativity bullshit and that general neighborhood.”

Too late.

You swallow the lump in your throat and smile gamely. Trying to be better. Trying to trust them, as neither of them deserve anything less, really.

“D’you damned Poindexters want to play or not?”

“Hehe, sure! Get ready to get taken to school, grandpa!”

Maybe you were afraid of nothing. Jade is wonderful, of course, you knew she was going to be wonderful from the sheer energy of her letters, but in person she is just a hair shy of overwhelming. Once she gets the hang of the game - far quicker than you and Dirk managed, though she claims that she was gifted at fetch in another life - it’s even more fun with three.

Really, actually, it is very fun. And normal! Like in The Swiss Family Robinson, where even throughout the worst of their perils and endeavors, they play sporting games to keep up morale and to celebrate their - you really ought to give that a reread, drat, all you remember of that particular part of the novel is laughing at the image of one of the brothers running with his arms at his sides to conserve energy.

Jade, at some point, starts strategically altering the size of the ball mid-arc, and Dirk (jokingly?) threatens to rip out the part of her soul that thinks cheating is acceptable, and talk turns to godtier capabilities and their varying levels of utility in a post-victory world. You decide it’s probably high time those poor carapacians got their ball back, anyway. It’s not really your sort of conversation. You don’t especially want to think about using your powers for anything at all, having learned firsthand how utterly devastating they can be, to no one less than Jade herself, in the first place.

Did you learn that? You’re reasonably sure you did, but it’s fuzzy, but you do think it’s true, you remember something awful - more awful than what everyone else seems to think happened.

Which was bad enough, really.

“I look forward to working with you,” Dirk is saying, thoughtfully, by the time you get back. “What’s the most convenient way to solicit your thoughts on robotic bioethics?”

“Honestly, just stop by! I don’t lock my doors or anything, and I can always tell when someone’s in my house. It’s kind of a dog thing I think.”

“That is so fucking cool. Okay, expect me over to pick your brain basically twenty-four-seven. I’m about to be the biggest fucking nuisance. Brace yourself.”

She grins all over again and hugs him. Even from behind his shades, you know he’s making that familiar ‘unexpected act of affection’ face, the one where he looks alarmingly as though he’s about to cry. It would be horrible of you to begrudge them this, no matter how something about the setup makes your heart seize unexpectedly. You also make robots, poorly, sometimes!

But, well, that’s not the point, is it.

Jade hugs you as well, of course, and you close your eyes and your arms around her. Even with the ears and all going on, it is so much like hugging your gran that it actually does make you feel better, the way your fingers twine in the voluminous and slightly-sweaty curls tumbling down her back. That’s not really fair to her, though. She’s her own woman.

“You don’t be a stranger either, okay?” she says, patting you on the cheek as she ends the hug.

“I shan’t be anything of the sort,” you tell her, wincing at the promise made, but pushing through it.

That is a thing that you do, now. You give your word, and you keep it, no matter how cagey it all makes you feel. Growth and all. The complicated matter of deserving your place in this world, no matter how you wish it could all be football in the sun.

“D’you want to come over and watch a movie tonight?” you ask Dirk, once she’s on her way back to the picnic site, where Dave and Karkat still seem to be at loggerheads.

“Sure. I’ve never seen Bend It Like Beckham,” he suggests, though not before the thin line of his mouth twitches in surprise.

“Oh, yes, and now we’ll have cultural context, having kicked about the ol’ black-and-white whatever the fuck. Why doesn’t soccer have any good slang for the ball, Dirk? It seems a remarkable failing of the sport.”

“I’ll just shower and -”

“See you in six hours or so, then,” you chuckle.

“Shut up. Some of us care about hygiene.”

“Thank heavens for the whole post-scarcity business, good lord. You’d shower us all out of house and planet if that was physically possible.”

He tries to shoulder you in retaliation, but you see it coming, avert the worst of it, and shove him right back.

“Don’t eat dinner, I’ll call in for pizza!” you shout after him as he makes to leave.

He flips you off. Your smile in response is entirely, unbearably real, no hopey nonsense needed.

Jade!

I see youre not in. I hope i havent just missed you on your way out the door what a bummer! If thats the case though no worries at all i was just thinking about starting my own kind of project and was wondering if youd like to get involved? You know me and dirk have the whole roboty thingy and thats all well and good but ive just been mulling over the prospect of getting a garden started up behind the workshop and while im quite unfamiliar with the local climate and all it got me thinking about some things i miss from before and… i wonder if you might share the sentiment?

Dont worry if youre busy i know dave and karkat and really all the rest can be a right handful and a half but it would be awful nice to have something for the two of us! And of course an excuse to shoot the breeze and sip lemonades in the sun and all that. Dirk would love to have you around the place more often too (dont tell him i said that haha he is much too proud to come out and ask for anything he wants in as many words you have probably noticed!). I just think that if we are going to do this whole thing where we are together in a new world we ought to do it properly. Actually together and all that at the very friggin least. I shall never forgive myself if i ever drift apart from you again jade you mark my words. And what better way to ensure were on the same page on a more permanent basis than to make something together?

If this truly is the beautiful future that you once told me you envisioned which i like to believe it is it really does seem that there ought to be a garden in it.

So please consider this your formal invite! I have drawn up my own schematics for the thing which are nowhere near as good as yours of course but are a starting point and at bare minimum i would welcome your feedback. We can trial-and-error it! Potentially an exciting experiment dont you think? If you would like to see some pumpkins not disappear that could also probably be arranged!

Hope to see you soon. Ill be out getting started all evening and im planning on getting to back it early tomorrow morning as well. I love you very much jade. Wishing you well no matter what wherever you are.

Jake English

The pumpkins grow in beautifully, far neater and smaller than the ones you cultivated on Hellmurder Island, but they’re not the same cultivar, so you figure that’s to be expected. Jade proves a tremendous help in literally all respects, but you find that your own skills haven’t exactly gone anywhere, either, and you learn from each other.

Avowed fans, or religious sectarians, depending on who you ask, have more or less stripped what remains of your old home bare. Which you would find wildly uncomfortable and perhaps not the most favorable reflection on your own dreams of tomb raiding (it is, after all, a tomb - something’s tomb) if it didn’t mean that the pages of the almanac Jade once sent you were available online as PDFs from some university student’s thesis project.

You have a good laugh about that being the way you re-find your family heirlooms.

In a lot of ways, though, that’s how things work in Earth C. You’ve never had an audience like this before. It is a treacherously easy thing, performing for people who want to be performed to. Only a few weeks in, and that’s becoming clear. Linda Hamilton was twenty-nine when she played at being a nineteen-year-old waitress on the run from Arnold Schwartzenegger. You are sixteen as you start out in this brave new world, playing at godhood just as surely as anything.

Dirk politely reminds you that you are full of it, on occasion. You appreciate that, more or less, that he knows it too.

Through yours and Jade’s care, you've coaxed life out of a fresh set of tuberose bulbs, and when there are enough, you show her how to make a flower crown of them. Then you make two more, and stealthily get one on Dirk when he calls her in for assistance on something to do with robotic ocular somesuch.

It’s like that video where the cameraperson sets a flower on a cat’s head and the poor thing seems to go through all five stages of grief simultaneously. He doesn’t take it off until he leaves to go to bed, and you find it wilting on his workbench the next morning. He dries it and saves it, and it's still hanging there nearly two years later. Dirk hoards at his workbench rather than in the apartment he lives in, alone, favoring elevation and minimalism in his decoration.

Having visited his place once or twice, and found it rather bleak, you're grateful that he passes most of his time in the workshop adjoining your home, or in your home itself. You really like being able to shout 'Dirk' and summon Dirk. And he seems happy with his various enterprises, and he gets along well with Jade, and through this arrangement, you can sometimes catch him before he slips into his occasional mood slumps, and there is always a nice, sunny place to haul him back to, once you realize you haven't tripped over him in a few days.

Days pass slowly, but months and years pass quickly. Birthdays come and go and come again.

Today, the clouds are fluffy and benign and entirely non-portentous as you break leaves off heads of lettuce, filling a freshly woven rattan basket lined with cloth napkins in anticipation of having the whole gang over for dinner, Jade having invited her crew, you your own, to partake in the fruits (well, mostly vegetables) of your labor. She stacks multicolored carrots in her own basket. It’s going to be a delightful salad, at the very least; you’ve also pre-made some really fantastic pumpkin ravioli and she has volunteered a potato dish. There will be strawberries and mountains of ice cream for dessert. You have never been so excited for a dinner in your damned life.

It’s for your eighteenth birthday, which makes that all the more surprising. You never expected to be enthusiastic for it, or anything to do with damned birthdays, ever again. This, however, will represent the kick off to a whole week’s worth of celebrations, for which you’ve been preparing assiduously for months!

As usual, you work with Jade in companionable silence until you don't. She's not nearly as overwhelming as you took her for, that first day with her and Dirk, playing football in the sun. Once you grow accustomed to each other, you have the same sort of rhythm of existence. While many of you grew up alone in one way or another, you and Jade, uniquely, were forged in the same exact kind of loneliness.

Neither of you is any good at sitting still, but you can quietly perform tasks in parallel for hours without a word. Without needing a word. Just with the quiet understanding that it is nice, sometimes, to be left alone, but not completely alone.

This time, after a few hours sweating beneath the cloud-dappled blue sky, she breaks the silence between you.

“I’m thinking of getting my own place,” she announces. “I spend so much time over here, anyway, might as well live closer! I was talking to Roxy and Callie, and they’re thinking the same thing.”

Jade is as bad as Dirk when it comes to never living in her own house, sleeping on couches and workbenches and in spare rooms more often than she does in her own bed. Neither of them is quite as good as you are at enjoying solitude, the absence of expectations. Jade explained once that, after so long with Bec as her companion, she gets nervous trying to sleep without the sound of someone or something else breathing somewhere in the house.

“Oh, really?” you ask, looking up in mild surprise. “Callie and Roxy, huh? If anything, I’d have thought you and Davekat would -”

She snorts.

“I dunno! Rose thinks they’re, like, insanely codependent. Not that she’s the authority on not being insanely codependent, at all, but I trust her on the psychobabble front, mostly! I don’t reeaaally want to get into that right now, and obviously I love them both, but like… we’re all super young. Might as well at least try not to end up in that sort of… I don’t want to say ‘rut’, it’s not a rut, it’s just two idiot boys who suck at feelings talk!”

“Well, I do have some personal insight as to how fond you are of that archetype,” you laugh, and she flicks a little clod of dirt at you.

“Shut up, that’s not why I hang out with you and Dirk. Like, you guys are stupid, but not that kind of stupid. There’s tiers! And you’re family, dummy.”

“I jest, I jest, easy with the dirt, Jade!”

She’s flicked several more pieces in your direction with critical accuracy, and if you didn’t need a shower before, you certainly need one now.

“Ugh, let me talk, then! I just mean… guh, Jake, you know when you love people so much that it feels like your heart’s just going to explode?”

“Yes. Utterly terrifying. If you’re suffering from megalocardia, you yourself may be the one best equipped to fix that, dearest Jade.”

“Not like - yeah, exactly like that, I guess,” she sighs. “It’s stupid.”

“It’s really not,” you say. “Relationships of all kinds can be terribly, er, well, ‘fraught’ might be the word, and who knows that better than us? That’s not stupid, that just is. We’re the ones that are stupid, which is why we never learn and keep butting into the exact same problems so fucking always.”

“Speaking of which,” she adds, a little cheekily, and you raise a palm in protest. “So how are you and -”

“Ah-ah-ah. We were talking about you, Jade, and that is my get-out-of-talking-about-it free card. Go on, now, you were discussing plans and feelings.”

“Well, yeah. I just. I don’t know! It’s nothing against them. Kind of the opposite, actually.” She trails off, half-smiling ruefully. “Maybe I want to be less stupid about it, for once.”

“I’m not really the person to talk to about not being stupid.”

“You kinda are, though? For me, at least. Since I know for a fact that you know exactly what it’s like. How love feels like it’s just going to eat you alive if you don’t eat it first! And don’t tell me you don’t, okay? I know you, mister. If I’ve got megalocardia, you’ve got it just as bad. No offense, like, I’m not trying to be like you at all, I just like having someone who gets it. How huge and scary love is. And maybe you get it better than I do, sort of, how careful you’ve got to be with it.”

“That’s a kind way of putting it,” you mutter, reaching up to wipe the sweat from your brow and feeling the dirt smear over your skin. “Oh, bother, I’m really making a mess of myself.”

“It’s kinda rakish and masculine, actually.”

“Oh, really?” you say, brightening right up, beaming across the vegetable patch. “You think?”

“Psh. Sooo much! Look, just leave it, ten bucks says he’ll clean it off for you and suuuper stoically moon over having done it for the next three weeks.”

You can feel your cheeks growing flushed, and it has nothing to do with the sun streaming through the cloud cover. “I can’t even begin to imagine what you mean by that.”

“It’s not actually cute when you play dumb, Jake. Just makes me want to chuck more dirt at your stupid face.”

“Fine! Fine, you win, maybe that’s something I might someday… I don’t know. I don’t want to string anyone along. I just enjoy… bluh. Fine! I shall concede that I enjoy his company! You utter busybody, are you satisfied with that?”

“Awww.”

“So, where are you planning to move, then? Do you have a place? If not, y’know, I’d welcome the company, so long as you don’t mind my somewhat odd hours.”

“Well, if you’re like, actually offering - just until Roxy and Callie find somewhere with decent privacy, good trees, and a walk-in meat locker!”

“I wouldn’t offer if I didn’t mean it.”

“No, you would,” she says with a sigh. “But I believe you this time.”

“Good,” you say. “Because I do mean it. I mean it very much, actually.”

She stands, brushing the soil from her long skirt, and carries her basket over to your end of the patch after conducting some kind of count of the vegetables or somesuch.

“Here, let me take that inside and start getting it washed, okay?” she offers, leaning in to scoop some of the bib lettuce from your basket as you offer it up. “We probably don’t need too much more, trolls don’t really eat salad! I mean, Karkat doesn’t, at least, hehe.”

For a moment, her smile, framed by her mess of curls, is silhouetted against the cloudy sky, and something about it feels familiar. Like deja vu, but nearly in reverse. Like a bolt of lightning through your sheer existence. Jade, her beautiful dark hair slightly longer and streaked with grey.

The sky, exactly the same, but different.

A singularity of sunlight, gardens, the smell of ozone. Your grandmother, Jade English. This Jade, your dear friend, older. Younger, too. A thousand times she’s knelt beside you in the soft black earth. A profound sense of nostalgia, of nausea, of limitlessness.

You’re staring into the soil with enough vehemence to scorch a hole in it.

You’re standing on the event horizon of a collapsing star, and you grasp the hem of her skirt without meaning to.

“Jake?” she asks. “Are you okay? You look a little -”

“Everything’s worked out, hasn’t it,” you say softly. “This is how everything works out. You, and me, and Dirk, and Callie and Roxy and Davekat and… everyone?”

“Well, yes? Sort of, I mean, I wouldn’t say all the loose ends are tied up, but as someone who’s kind of an expert on… things… I’d say this is probably…”

“As good as it gets,” you tell her, your tone rising insistently. “This is the good end, Jade. The best end, even, out of all the ways that it could go. You told me, once, don’t you remember, if it hasn’t worked out, it isn’t over. But it has. It’s worked out. You’ve chosen… and I’ve…”

“You’re kind of worrying me, Jake!”

“We’ll have to leave, if we don’t do something!”

“Leave… what?”

“Not… not literally, but yes, literally, in a sense, a literary sense, I mean, though I have no idea how I mean that or why I… if you could see what I just - what I - Jade, just trust me. Trust me, right now, this may be our last chance to -”

Believe in this version.

Dont let it end here.