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Rose comes to Texas over Christmas vacation, not like Dave doesn't know she's homeschooled, and they walk down to this place on the corner to buy milkshakes, sitting outside and taking in some sun as they talk.

"I'm fairly certain that Jade intends to apply to universities in the United States," Rose says, sipping at her milkshake. Dave resists the urge to tell her about how her milkshake brings all the boys to the outdoor seating area.

"Good for her."

"Have you considered what you will do when you graduate high school?"

"I'm gonna become a Deadhead."

Rose pauses, takes her hand from around the milkshake cup and lays it on the table, very quietly. "Dave," she sighs.

"It'll be great. I'll grow my hair out and learn all the songs by heart, and I'll travel as part of a musical commune to all the revival gigs, maybe start my own group once I get enough practice, or maybe I'll just make a living selling hemp shit outta -"

"Stop acting like your life is over!"

They both freeze. He clenches his hands around his milkshake, biting the inside of his cheek.

"You're not even eighteen," she says. "Why do you behave as though the resolution of the game ended your involvement with the world?"

He sips at his milkshake, trying to put together something ironic and unrevealing.

"After you win the game," he says finally, "you turn the player off, and when you go back to play it again, you start over with a new version of the character. We won. I'll never go back. I am a boat, floating unmoored through the Mediterranean, pasty-white and probably a doomed Crusade, look here's my sword I thought I could win the Holy Land -"

"Dave," she says, too softly. "You were raised to play the game. Don't you think you should find something else to do, now that that's over?"

He drinks again, licks a smear of chocolate out of the corner of his mouth, and that's when her eyes drop, follow his hand.

"Oh," she says, too softly.

He doesn't take his hand off the table, even though he itches to. Having her eyes on it, knowing that she knows what it really means, burns through him. He feels shone through with light as she reads what he won't tell.

She says, careful as a surgeon, "Is that why you still use Pesterchum?"

"They were game constructs. Sburb connected to servers with AIs. There were no trolls, just really interactive VR tech. They disable the randomly generated AI personalities when your session ends."

Her hands are pale as paper when she rests them over his, her middle and ring fingers spreading over the ostentatious plastic ring on his fourth finger, a huge orange fake gem surrounded by chipping silver-painted plastic.

Her veins are blue, her knuckles pink. Her hands are too small, all the wrong colors against his. It looks wrong. Tavros had big hands, shaded chocolate under the grey of his skin, and when they held hands their knuckles would scrape against each other, catching. Dave with sword-calluses and Tavros with the calluses from his wheelchair.

"I'm sure," she says softly, "wherever he is, that he misses you."

"He wasn't real," Dave says. "Don't patronize me; that's not how patriarchy-determined power structures work."

She strokes along the back of his wrist, the corner of her mouth twitching up slightly. "Don't be an ass."

"Your yaoi fangirl idealized happi-endos of mutual aishiterus and magically self-lubricating ass-cunts are cheering me up here. I'm expecting him to walk up in a suit with flowers and shit fluttering in the background and to take me in his strong arms and say I'm his, and then we'll kiss, and you get to make excited big-eyed faces and tease me about my fascination with alien dick."

She smiles faintly and looks down at the table, drinks some more milkshake, and lets it go.


That night, he leaves the shower with a towel wrapped around his waist, heading through the living room to his bedroom. Rose is sitting on the futon, and right as he passes by her to go inside the room, she says his name.

He stops. "What, can't get enough of my ripped physique? You know it's a real treat, seeing a Strider without all his clothes on. You should feel privileged to get a view of this, and I'm pretty amazed you haven't fainted dead away with the magnificence, man, you oughta see the locker rooms at school, I walk out -"

"Dave, what happened to your back?"

He reaches over his shoulder with one hand, touches the scar tissue.

"I went to Australia one summer, and a drop bear tried to take me out, but I managed to wrestle it into submission before it could sever my jugular, and so help me God Lalonde if you touch them I'll end you."

He feels her jerk away, behind him.

"You should get counseling," she says finally, standing there.

He doesn't bother to answer that idiocy, so instead he goes into his room and shuts the door.

His computer is on, signed in to Pesterchum like always. Like he does every time he comes home, every time he logs onto his email, every time he touches his back and feels the smoothness of the scars there, every time he remembers the ring on his left hand, he checks to see who's logged on. Maybe this time, finally, finally, after all the years and the longing and the midnight broken begging to a God he knows is just a game construct, AdiosToreador might be logged in again.