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Second Best

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Dave died in the final battle. It wasn't anything spectacular; he didn't come even close to landing the final blow. He just took a hit that was meant for John and that was it. Heroic death. No coming back. Now you're the only Dave left in this whole operation.

You don't think much on it at first. You're going to follow in his footsteps soon enough, after all. If the Real Dave couldn't manage to survive this crap, you're definitely SOL. No point getting your angst on in the final hours of your existence.

How would you go about grieving some asshole who's basically you but better anyway? That's some existential bullshit, right there. It's not like you "knew" the guy in the sense of hanging out and being buds. It's hard to say you'll miss him as a person, let alone as a friend. It's just freaky to know the guy who's supposed to take over from you already failed just as hard as you will.

This timeline's lost a really cool dude and that is a damn shame, but it's gonna lose a second one before the end of the game.

You tell yourself that all the way through the final encounter, all the way through preparing the Genesis Frog for its final stage. It's only when the endgame door stands before you that you realize maybe you're still alive and that's not changing.

There are no other casualties. John's alive, Jade's alive, Rose's alive, your teen parents are alive, a bunch of aliens you don't actually know very well are alive... You're just down one stupid asshole who swore he'd never play the role of reluctant hero and ate his fucking words like a bowl of Cheerios.

You hover separately from the rest of the group. You don't belong with the real kids. They don't bother beckoning you closer either. Dirk's the only one who looks your direction, but you're both too cool to initiate any brotherly comfort.

John reaches for the doorknob in tandem with Karkat and Jane. Maybe you shouldn't go through the door. Were sprites even meant to leave the game? Will it delete you before a game leftover can infiltrate the Real World? Of all the knowledge Sburb stuck into your sprite brain, of course it couldn't be assed to include whether you're allowed to live past the end of the game.

You wonder if game constructs get dreambubble ghosts or just... fade into nothing. You wonder which you'd prefer.

Whatever choice you would have made doesn't even matter. You don't have to step through the door. The instant the three session leaders pull it open, it blasts you all with blinding light. You almost assume it's a trap, except it doesn't actually hurt; it just feels weird. Your skin tingles and your insides squirm. You can't seem to move and even when you force your eyes open you can't see anything but white.

You squeeze your eyes shut and wait for the bullshit magic of Sburb to get to the fucking point.

* * *

You're on your back. You don't remember falling -- you're not sure you have fallen since you became a sprite, seeing as you goddamn float all the time -- but your back kinda hurts and you feel a hard surface beneath you. Putting two and two together, you apparently blacked out long enough to fall.

It's hot out. Not as hot as LOHAC usually is, but it's warm enough that you feel sweat run down your temple. It's not an atmospheric heat either; it's beating down on you.

You crack your eyes open. An orange sun shines overhead and your only respite from its nauseating light is the limited shadows cast by the radio tower standing above you. It's so damn bright that even your shades barely act as a suit of armor for your poor abused eyeballs. You can barely remember the last time you saw a real sun sitting in the sky like a normal thing. Light just kinda... happens in the medium, logic be damned.

An ambulance siren blares, echoing so wide that you don't even know which direction it comes from. Some asshole leans on their horn for a good four seconds. Tires screech against pavement. You turn your head enough to see the other skyscrapers in the distance.

You're in Houston. It's been three fucking years, yet you'd still know that view anywhere. It's permanently seared into your brain and you didn't even know it until this exact moment.

You raise a shaking hand to your face to confirm a sneaking suspicion: Your skin is white. It's fucking white, not orange or glowing. You can't feel your wings anymore, or your ghost tail anymore, or your embarrassing craving for insects and small rodents anymore. Not only is your brain free from avian yearnings, it isn't even set to Game Guide Exposition mode.

As if you don't have enough to take in already, you swear you hear a rocket board in the distance and blasting closer. You should probably get up and check, but fuck that, you're too busy being dazed and confused.

It's definitely getting closer, though. Unless it makes a sudden turn, it'll be on you soon. You tilt your head back to catch an upside down glimpse of the familiar figure flying a red board through the air like a smooth badass.

Huh. You guess it makes sense that Dirk landed in Texas with you. He's kinda tall for Dirk, though. And wearing the wrong clothes. And too old. Probably because it's not Dirk at all, actually. It's Bro.

You're in Houston, you're not half-bird anymore, and Bro's alive. It's as if you were never in the Medium at all. You're even wearing the same damn T-shirt from before. The ripped up shreds of that creepy puppet are the only thing missing from the scene -- well, that and the deadly meteors hurtling towards the city.

Nothing for it. No more uselessly gawking now that Bro's around. You sit up and make to take to the air, except, oh hey. You don't have a ghost tail anymore. Those are legs. Guess what can't fucking float? All you manage to accomplish is flopping on your face like some kind of idiot dolphin that decided to leap out of the water and land smack in the middle of pavement. So fucking graceful, you don't even know.

C'mon, you fucking got this. You remember legs. How hard can they be to work? You only used them for thirteen years. Who cares that you spent the last three years floating? You just gotta get your lazy ass onto your feet and you can wave off the first faceplant as totally ironic.

Bro leaps off his board and captchalogues it in the same moment that his feet hit the roof. Perfect landing, 10/10, still the same badass Strider even post-death. "Get up, bro," he says in his usual monotone. Such heartfelt reunions going around.

You grunt. "Hey, don't judge. I am just getting reacquainted with our sweetass roof over here. It's cooler than it looks." Yeah, there's really no saving face in this situation, especially when you're still failing to get on your damn feet.

Never a guy with anything resembling patience, Bro kneels and catches you by your armpits. You try not to die of humiliation as he hoists you into the air, straightens you out, and sets you on your feet. The moment he releases you, your legs crumple and you're back on the ground with an uncool thump.

Ow. Fuck. You must look like hot shit right about now.

What is the damn hold up here? Sure, you're out of practice, but it can't be that hard to stand, can it?

After watching you uselessly flail for a few more seconds, Bro picks you up same as before. You brace yourself for your inevitable plummet, but instead of releasing you, he says, "Kick at me."

You know a trap when you hear it, even if you don't know what exactly he's got planned for you. Might as well go with it, seeing as you're fucked either way. You lift your leg to... You lift your... You...

Why isn't your leg lifting? It kinda sways when you try to move, as if it wants to go up, but you can't hoist your knee more than half an inch before it goes back to dangling like a lazy limp ragdoll. Neither of your legs can be assed to fucking move, let alone hold weight, after three years of not existing.

Welcome home, asshole. Enjoy a souvenir from your stint as a friendly video game guide.

* * *

The doctors have never seen a case like yours. Of course they haven't.

They run you through endless tests, scanning your legs and your back and even your brain. They run some blood tests because why the fuck not? Spending hours and hours in the hospital is totally how you want to spend your first day back on Earth.

The results are turning up Something Is Wrong, just not Wrong in the ways they know how to diagnose. In the end, they chalk your paralysis up to a mysterious spinal injury mixed with muscle atrophy.

Will you ever be able to walk again? They hem and haw, ramble about statistics, point to the X-rays again... Bro has to repeat the question in a sterner tone of voice before they'll admit upfront that they just don't know. You need physical therapy or you won't have a chance in hell, but even then recovery is murky. They recommend you brace yourself for the long haul.

Well... whatever. You can figure out how to bring your patented Strider coolness to a wheelchair if you have to.

Which, yeah, you have to. There's no getting around it, or getting around anywhere if you refuse. You're the indifferent owner of a shiny new wheelchair by late evening. Okay, it's not shiny at all; it's actually boring as shit, but you can deck it out later or something. At least Bro doesn't have to carry you out of the hospital.

These things are not remotely as easy to use as TV makes them look though. How the fuck do you make them turn? Why does it take so much effort to push the wheels into motion? Since when are sidewalks so damn bumpy?

Your arms are tired long before you reach the car, but Bro doesn't offer to push you, which means it's pointless to ask (and uncool besides). He doesn't even help you with the door or clawing your way into the passenger seat. The most he does for you is fold up the wheelchair and haul it into the trunk. That, and he grabs you Taco Bell on the ride home.

Taco Bell counts for a lot, in your book, especially after spending an entire fucking day in a hospital with only the shittiest food to survive on. Both of you are famished for food with flavor, and a greasy taco has never tasted so sweet.

You'd practically forgotten the taste of shitty fast food after living so long on alchemized bird seed and Jade's garden produce. (John and Jade were both very firmly against any attempts to alchemize roadkill. Bird seed was an embarrassing compromise.) God, Taco Bell is so terrible and so great. The only way it could be any better is if the shells were made of Doritos. Too bad no one's created an invention that ironically perfect yet. Maybe in 2012 or something.

You stare out the window at the night city as you drive through the downtown area. You honestly never thought you'd see buildings and streetlights and hobos again, but here they all are, good as new despite the apocalypse.

Bro doesn't talk for most of the drive and you just about jump when he says, "How long did the game end up lasting?"

"Three years." You flick a piece of fallen lettuce off your seat and it lands on your shoe. You can't wriggle your foot enough to remove it. "You remember it?" Neither of you had actually mentioned it until just now.

"What little there is to remember on my end, sure." He sighs and almost sounds a little tired as he says, "That bitch of a chess piece fucking killed me, didn't he?" You're not used to hearing Bro almost have an emotion, but you guess he's worn out from spending all that time around doctors and sick people.

"Yeah, but don't feel too bad about it or anything. Neither of us stood a fucking chance once he got Harley's nuclear dog powers." You dig through the plastic bag in search of another taco. "You saw what the bastard did to my wing."

He takes his attention off the road for a moment. "You're the Dave who merged with a sprite?"

"Yeah?" you say, furrowing your brow in confusion. Who the fuck else does he think- Oh, god fuckin' dammit.

Bro grunts. "That explains why your legs are fucked up." He brings the car to a stop at a red light and taps a rhythm on the steering wheel. "So what happened to the non-bird Dave?"

"He died." As the words leave your lips, your insides do all kinds of athletics as if they're practicing for the Olympics. Yep, Dave's dead and you're the consolation prize.

Bro goes very still, his expression as guarded as ever. "How?"

You shrug. "He took a lethal blow protecting someone else." Just like Bro did for you. "Guess Skaia figured he didn't deserve to be revived when there was a spare Dave already hanging around that just needed de-birdified."

He nods, his lips thin, and stares out the windshield. If you didn't know better, you'd say he's gone pale, but that's impossible on multiple levels. (He's already pale as a ghost all the time, for one, and he doesn't have it in him to show that kind of discomfort anyway.)

The light turns green but the car doesn't move.

"Bro," you say after a moment. No response. "Bro." You nudge him and get your wrist caught in a vice-grip for your troubles. You scowl, not even bothering to struggle. "Dude, the light's fuckin' green!"

The truck behind you lays on the horn and that snaps Bro out of his thoughts. He releases your arm and returns his attention to driving. He doesn't say another word the rest of the way to the apartment and you don't mind that in the slightest. Shit was headed right down Angst Avenue anyway.

You half-expect Bro to abandon you in the parking garage to find your own way back into the apartment, but for as much as he refuses to help you, he also won't leave you by yourself. He watches your back all the way to the elevator, at which point he disappears with a flashstep, probably to take the stairs.

It's some small comfort that he's not making you take the stairs with him, but apparently a wheelchair is a good enough excuse to skip the exercise, even by his standards. Stairs are dangerous shit anyway. Elevators are sweet and straightforward. Just gotta roll your way inside and... Okay, cool, you're staring at the wall and there's not enough room to turn the chair around. Beautiful. You reach around and manage to hit the button for your floor at least.

Adjusting to this shit is gonna be annoying as hell.

The apartment's unlocked when you get to the top floor. You have no clue where Bro's hiding, whether he's on the roof or standing in your blind spot, but that's just business as usual.

It takes you an embarrassing amount of time to maneuver yourself through the obstacle course of a living room and make your way to the safety of your bedroom. It's a mess, but none of the game objects Jade placed are still there, so most of your furniture has miraculously been recovered. That's not actually as comforting as it should be.

God, you don't want to learn how to foist yourself out of the wheelchair and onto your mattress, not right now. Maybe you'll dick around online until you fall asleep in your chair. That won't involve finding new ways to move an uncooperative body, right? You just shove aside your computer chair and settle in front of your desk. Yeah, this works fine.

John's the only one online. Shit, you should have contacted one of your friends earlier and made sure they were safely back home, but you got a little distracted by the whole medical emergency thing. John messages you before you can even hover your mouse over your chumlist.

-- ectoBiologist [EB] began pestering turntechGodhead [TG] --

EB: yessssssssssss, i knew it!!
EB: took you long enough to log in, you heroic bag of shit! here i almost thought skaia went and revived our guardians without bringing you back!
EB: welcome back, bro! you fucking scared us!

Fuck. Your. Life.