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Incantation

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Warning for graphic depictions of attack and of an animal carcass.


 

“I dunno about this, Dave.”

“It’s fine man, I come out here looking for dead shit all the time,” The blonde assured, venturing deeper into the undergrowth of brush on the trail ahead.

John hesitantly followed, brushing sticks out of his dark hair. Dave let go of a branch and it slapped back, hitting John in the face and obscuring his glasses and scratching his skin. John huffed, scowling.

“Yeah, okay, sure, but at night?”

“Yeah. Bro lets me come out here whenever I want. It’s chill. It’s chill like Queen Elsa in her slippery ass cerulean ice tower. Like penguins in the arctic. Sliding around on our bellies like the smoothest mother fuckers up in this-”

“Okay, I get it Dave,” John cut him off.

“Vulture culture is seriously underrated, man,” Dave continued to insist. John wasn’t listening anymore.

Dave held the only flashlight, a saber of light jutting out though the pitch blackness of night. John followed, tuning out his friends rambling in favor of the moon.

The moon was full tonight, shadowed behind large, dark clouds that swept across the sky. As soon as one cleared it, lighting the path and bouncing brightness off of the underbrush, a new cloud appeared and obscured the view. The night was cold, and the air smelled like the rain that had fallen earlier that day.

Had John chosen to stay home, it would have felt like any other early October night. Staying home wasn’t an option, according to his dad. It was between this and the varsity football game. Football wasn’t John’s thing though, and Dave was his best friend.

Dave came to an abrupt halt in front of him on the path, and had he been paying attention, John wouldn’t have bumped into him. John was busy with his eyes to the sky, and he ran right into his friend.

“Ugh, Dave, what now?” He asked, stepping back into a tree, scowling as more branches stuck him in the back.

“Not to freak you out bro, but I don’t know where I’m at,” he replied, shoving his hands into his pocket to survey the land.

“Ughh!” John groaned, “I can’t believe this! Lost in the woods at ten o'clock at night!”

“I said don’t freak out,” Dave insisted, pulling his shades up onto his head momentarily.

Dave always wore sunglasses, always. He never took them off for any reason, not in the pool, not for school pictures, never. He always had an excuse, sensitive corneas, allergic to the sun, etcetera, etcetera. Never one straight answer. He shifted them back down, before John could even take a peek at his eyes.

“I think we should go this way,” he said finally.

“You think?” John mocked, “you don’t know?”

“Hey, relax dude, these trails all loop around, they’re deer trails.”

John rolled his eyes.

“At least we still have the flash light,” Dave offered. As if by some act of higher power, the batteries inside died and the light cut off.

“Great!” John shouted, throwing his hands up into the air. The sleeve of his black sweater caught on a bramble and he screeched a second time as he ripped it out of the bush.

“Hey, chill, I’ll call Bro and he’ll come find us.” John could hear his friend, but he couldn’t see him anymore. He couldn’t see an inch in front of his nose.

“You got your cell phone on you?” Dave followed up.

“No, I left it at home,” John replied, “I don’t get service out here.”

“Cool, cool,” Dave paused and it was silent for a moment before he spoke again. “Mines dead.”

“Unbelievable!!” John howled, “this is unbelievable! I physically cannot believe this!”

Dave shifted, the leaves under his feet crunching, “sorry.”

“It’s fine,” John huffed, still scowling, “just, just get me out of here.”

“A'ight, uh, follow me I guess. You wanna hold hands?”

“No, man,” John rejected.

“Fine,” Dave’s voice carried, and the crunching of the leaves under him resumed, quieting as he walked away. John tramped after him, stepping through the same leaves Dave had.

Each step the boys took was crisp and loud, unable to hear each other's steps over their own. John couldn’t even hear himself think over the sound.

John wasn’t sure how long he’d been walking, assuming Dave had been only a few steps ahead of him. He walked with his hands out in front of him, pushing weeds and branches out of his way as he strode. He wasn’t even sure they were on a path anymore. He could no longer feel the slight indent of the worn down trail.

John had stones in his shoes, sticks in his sweater, pickers run through his pants and burs in his hair. He had leaves down the back of his shirt, and everything, everything itched.

John pushed another branch away from his face, shoving his hand right into a bush of brambles, a wild rose bush with large, big black thorns, running themselves into his flesh and shredding it.

“Ouch! Damn!” He swore, stumbling forward out of the bush and sideways, clutching his hand and bringing it close to his face. It wasn’t any use though, it was too dark to see.

“Hey, Dave, thanks for warning me about that branch,” John snarked, his feet stilling.

The woods was silent.

“Dave??” John called.

There was no reply.

“Dave?!” He called again, urgent and loud. “If you're trying to freak me out, it’s working!”

John stumbled forward again, and tripped. Over what, he wasn’t sure, but it was solid and hard. John fell, ass over apple cart, tumbling down a steep embankment, down a hill and into a shallow pit of mud. Everything felt gooey, and it squished under his body, dampening his clothing.

Groaning, John pushed himself up onto his hands and knees. Something stuck in to his already injured hand, and he hissed in pain.

Just as he drew his hand up to his face once more, the clouds parted and the light of the moon shown through.

Stuck in to John’s still bleeding hand was a bone. A large, yellowed vertebrae broken in the middle and still covered in a crusting brown layer of blood. John looked down. He realized this was not a mud puddle, no, he was sitting in a gut pile.

He was surrounded by brown fur, intestines and organs scattered around the pile. His left hand was laying on top of a rib cage, and his knee was stuck in what he was pretty sure was a lung. A few feet in front of him sat the head, severed from the rest of the body. Flesh still clung to the skull of a spike horned buck, it’s eyes still open and white. It’s tongue hung out, still red and wet, though blood was drying on its blackened nose.

“Shit, gross,” he gasped, hauling himself out of the blood and squishing guts to stand on his feet again.

It was deer season, it was okay. This was normal. People hunted deer.

By the moonlight, as John gazed at it longer, he couldn’t help but feel something was off.

Deer hunters harvested meat, didn’t they? Why.. Why would somebody dismember something they shot and leave it to waste?

It’s body was a mess, legs scrambles and it’s torso ripped open, it’s innards scattered. Blood coated the grass around the body. It hadn’t even been dead long enough to smell. John threw the vertebrae bone back down into the pile.

John surveyed his surroundings. The moon still shone, but clouds threatened to overtake it once more. He was in a clearing, with tall brown grass up to his knees that faded into another tree line. Everything was still and quiet, the breeze was gone.

“Dave?” John called again. His voice shook. His mouth was dry. His hands quaked.

Fear.

He felt fear.

Something on the other side of the clearing shook, a small tree moving.

Panic seized him. His knees locked.

Something large and dark emerged from the trees. Long, nimble appendages traversed the grass as it stepped out, raising its skinny legs with an animal like gait. It’s body was lithe and thin. John couldn’t tell if the creature was a quadruped or biped, or whether the pear shape of the creature was its chest or hips. It’s head turned, and John saw antlers, tall but stout, with unnatural shape to them.

A deer, it had to be. Nothing else could look that way.

It’s face though, was flat, and it’s ears short and pointed where they should have been long and oval.

John could feel goosebumps dance across his skin. His teeth chattered. His palms felt clammy. He cleared his throat.

“Dave?” John tried again.

The creature stopped, it’s legs halting in place.

Before his eyes it’s body shifted, its pear shape becoming more hour glass, and arms moving away from it’s body. When the creature turned to face him, John could see the faint outline of a human nose.

“Hi there,” a woman’s voice came, raspy, like she’d just been smoking. She drew out her vowels, dramatic and exaggerated. “Who are you?”

“I- I’m John,” he stammered, “my name is John. Do, do you know how to get back to the road? Or the trail?”

“Now why would you want to do that, huh? I’m pretty great company, if I do say so myself.” John could hear her smirk.

“Who,” his voice cracked, “who are you?”

“I’m Vriska. It’s nice to meet you, John,” she drawled, emphasizing the O in his name.

John nodded, swallowing hard.

“So you wanna go back to the trail huh?” Vriska spoke. When she began walking again, her gait was very clearly human. She stopped short of him, but enough to see a few of the features in her face. Her hair was long and thick, her smile bright and sharp, showing too long teeth inside her mouth. Her eyes glowed a dark cobalt blue, with pupils too large to be human.

Shivers quaked down John’s spine.

Vriska was relaxed and loose, but John was so tense it hurt.

“Yeah,” John managed, “if you, if you could. I’m lost.”

“I see!” She exclaimed, “oh, so you don’t want to find the trail, you just want to be found. I can help you do that John, I just need a little something in return, if you wouldn't mind?”

“I don’t have any money on me,” John mumbled.

Vriska sneered, and it was quiet in the clearing.

The moon drifted behind a cloud again, darkening the grassland.

Vriska was going to jump him. John knew it. He could see it in the grow of her eyes.

He was paralyzed. His brain screamed at him. Begging him to move, pleading with the muscles in his legs to give, but he couldn’t. Vriska stared at him. John stared back at her.

A throaty giggle broke the silence, girly and sharp. Vriska was laughing, at what John didn’t know. Her laughter grew louder, sharper, shriller, until she was cackling back at him though the darkness.

As the clouds parted again, the moonlight glinted off of her teeth. Her teeth were so long, and so sharp, yellowed with age. There was blood dried in the corner of her mouth.

She moved faster than John thought possible.

Suddenly he was on the ground, Vriska’s too long legs on either side of his hips and her hands on his chest. Her finger nails were like claws, digging into the meat of him. Her teeth, her fucking teeth, snapped in his face. He felt them clasp on his glasses, graze his chin and sink into the flesh of his cheek.

John tried to scream, but it caught in his throat.

Something was shoving its way into his mouth, her wrist, he realized, and something cold and coppery was filling his mouth.

The woman’s teeth pulled at his skin, drawing away before shoving back, stripping his skin away from his muscle, away from his bones. He could feel her teeth on his teeth.

John gasped, forcing him to swallow whatever liquid it was in his mouth. It was thin and made his throat raw, like swallowing cold fire.

Her opposite hand ripped his glasses off of his face, covering his eyes already obscured by her hair. He felt light headed, like he’d stood up too fast or.. Like he was losing blood. She was sucking his blood, he realized, swallowing it down like… Like a fucking vampire.

She reeled his head back and smashed it into the ground once again, forcing him to swallow more of the liquid fire. He choked, sputtering and thrashing, but she didn’t seem to care.

He couldn’t get away, he couldn’t call for help.

John Egbert was going to die right here and now and there wasn’t a thing he could do about it.

Vriska pulled her fangs from the side of his face, hissing her praise to him though words in a language he had never head.

“Well, John,” she spoke, her voice loud, and ringing in his head like a bell.

Something wet and warm fell on his neck.

“Well,” she began again, her voice wet and silky, “John. I’ll send help your way, alright? It was a pleasure doing business with you.”

Her weight lifted off of him, and her foot falls lead away from him.

He kept his eyes shut, and curled in on himself, a hand rising to cover what was left of his face. He was mangled, shredded to ribbons. Pieces of his skin fell off into his mouth, hot and meaty on his tongue. Something metallic flooded his nose, wet and rapidly drying. Warm blood. His own warm blood.

John didn’t dare open his eyes.

It felt like an eternity, laying on the damp, cold ground. His face was cooling, his blood drying hard and crusting over his skin. His legs cramped.  It felt like two eternities before another sound registered to John’s senses.

Feet treading down the long grass.

Vriska was back. She was back with those too long teeth to finish him off. She-

“John?”

That was Dave’s voice.

“John, is that you? Jesus dude.”

John’s eyes snapped open.

Above him stood Dave. He had on an orange flannel jacket, one he wasn’t wearing when they’d gotten separated. Next to him stood his other brother, Dirk, who was dressed in his work uniform. That explained the flannel.

Dirk was a police officer, and he looked the part, all except for a backwards SnapBack cap, which made him look a little more his real age. He was twenty something, not much older than John himself. Dirk held up his standard issue flashlight, heavy and bright, shining it over John.

John squinted back.

“You look like you seen a ghost,” Dirk interjected.

John hadn’t been aware he was holding his breath until it was forced out of him. “Something like that.”

Hesitantly, John rose a hand to his face, and his fingers grazed smooth skin.

Like it never happened.

Like it never fucking happened. His hand was healed, his face was back together, hell, even his ruined clothes felt alright. Had he dreamt it?

“Hey, check that out.”

Dirk shinned the flashlight behind John, onto the corpse of what used to be a deer. John did a double take.

It was the same deer he’d fallen on, the same one who’s lung he’d crushed under his knee. It’s body was in the same position, but it’s flesh was mostly gone. What exposed bone it had was bleach white where they lay. Dave ambled over to it, grabbing up the skull by its spike horns and held it up.

“I told you we’d find something good,” Dave grinned, holding it in his hands like a prize.

John was mortified.

“Dave, put that shit down. You're not putting that in my truck,” Dirk argued.

“I’ll put it in the truck bed, calm your tits. In fact, I might put it in your actual bed, go all godfather and shit,” Dave defied, still grasping the skull.

“Yeah whatever, let’s get the fuck outta here,” Dirk sighed, rolling his eyes. “You two are damn lucky I just got off work, or your sorry asses would be stranded out here.”

John picked himself up off the ground and followed the Strider brothers across the clearing. Dave lead the way, still clutching his find, and the woods seemed to part in a real, landscaped trail. It was short, with just one bend, and suddenly they were on the road.

The pavement was wet, as if it had just rained, and a small breeze rattled through the trees.

Dirk’s beat up orange pickup truck was parked a small ways away, and the walk to it was short. They made John sit cramped in the middle, on the hump.

After the night John had, he didn’t complain.

Dirk insisted on country music, and as much as Dave complained, they still had to listen to Blake Shelton all the way back to Dave’s house.

The Strider brothers lived nestled back in a wooded glen, accompanied by their mother, Roxy, and their sister, Rose.

Roxy was some sort of drunk scientist. Not in the sense she studied alcohol, but in the sense she studied with alcohol. In fact, she did most things drunk. She had a good job though, and she was good at it, able to afford a house that was bigger than two of John’s.

Rose was nice, John liked her, as much as somebody could like their best friends little sister. There was only one year difference between Dave and Rose, almost down to the day. She was different from him though. Where Dave preferred to go out, Rose would rather stay in. When John arrived, she was shut up in her bedroom.

“Good evening boys!” Roxy slurred from her spot on the couch, greeting them as they stepped through the foyer.

“Hi, mom,” her sons greeted, almost in unison. Dirk climbed the vast staircase the home hosted, headed to his room, but Dave went to the living room, to his mother, to show her his prize.

“Hi, Mrs. Strider,” John greeted.

“Call me Roxy, baby,” the blonde woman smiled, turning her attention to her middle child. “Oh, that’s so nice sweetie, but would you get that nasty, filthy thing out of mummies house, please? Thank you, baby.”

“Sure,” Dave was pretty much beaming, nodding to his mother and motioning John to follow him, out to the garage where Roxy let Dave keep his collection of dead and decaying.

Dave flipped on the light, illuminating his minature taxidermy studio. The bright yellow fluorescent lit his wall of tanning furs and shelves of preserved organs and small animals. Chemicals assulted John’s nose, formaldehyde and death, mixed with laundry soap. It was dry though, and warm. Roxy parked her car in the garage too, so it was a bit cramped.

Dave pulled up a couple of bar stools, and set the deer skull down on his workbench, motioning John to sit as he went for a knife. John moved his stool, positioning himself so he could stare at the wall rather than his best friend fleshing a skull.

John couldn’t watch Dave when he worked on his… projects. It grossed him out, to be frank. Dave worked quietly, the knife never scraped bone, and it was almost easy to pretend he wasn’t pulling skin off what used to be an animal. Almost. Almost easy to pretend he hadn’t been attacked too.

Something wet hit the floor with a loud plop, attracting John’s attention. A single piece of meat had missed the trash can.

John couldn’t help but fixate on it, laying in a brown pool of mush on the concrete.

It was gross. Half rotten and mostly dry, but John found his mouth watering. Raw meat. It was so, so gross, and the smell of this place made him nauseous. But it was raw and it probably tasted like blood still. John liked his steak rare.

“So what happened Egbert?” Dave’s voice drew him back to his senses.

“What?” John asked.

“I asked what happened,” Dave looked behind him, making eye contact.

“When?” John furrowed his eyebrows, confused.

“In the woods? Duh,” Dave frowned, putting his knife down to swivel the stool so he faced his friend. “You were there and then you weren’t.”

“Oh, I dunno,” John shrugged, trying to laugh it off. “I guess I just got confused.”

“You sure man? You feeling alright?” Dave should probably have gloves on, John realized. “Wouldn't want my best bro up puking sick on best friends night. You’d end up like a fire hose hooked to a septic tank of puke, like the nozzle on a fuckin’ the soft serve machine, but the soft serve is bad, just fuckin’ spewing chunks all over the place and gettin’ us a health code violation.”

“That’s gross man! I feel fine!” John rolled his eyes. Old fucking raw meat wasn’t as gross as that metaphor.

Dave just shrugged and turned back around. He worked another moment longer, throwing another piece of meat, missing the trash can once again.

“You see anything out there?” He asked, quietly. John almost hadn’t heard him. His eyes were on the venison.

“Like what?”

Dave shrugged again.

John thought about lying to him. The story John had to tell was a fantastical pile of crap. John highly doubted he’d believe him. It was insanity. Nuts. Crazy. Unbelievable. It wouldn't make sense to tell him. Dave would think he was a loon.

“I know you saw something,” Dave muttered. He didn’t pause his work. “You were scared shitless. What was it?”

John swallowed hard. “A deer. I think.”

“John,” Dave spun around again, his knife resting on his leg and some sort of grime covering his hands. Slowly, Dave’s free hand went to his sunglasses, gripping the bow of them in his thin fingers, and lifted.

Dave’s eyes were the same shape as Roxy’s, bright and pretty, and red. Red. Roxy’s eyes weren’t red, they were… Well, John didn’t know what color they were, but they weren’t red. His jaw dropped.

That… That just didn’t happen. People didn’t have red eyes.

“Whatever you want to tell me,” Dave spoke, “I’ll believe it. Try me.”

Chapter Text

 “I saw a deer, and then it was a girl,” John confessed. 

“And she,” he paused, unsure if he even wanted to continue. “She tore my face apart. But, somehow she didn’t? And she forced something down my throat, some kind of burning liquid.”

“Right,” Dave agreed.

He didn’t believe him.

John could see it written across his best friend’s face.

Dave’s red eyes pierced him, poking holes in his story without words. Dave didn’t believe one fucking word he was saying. He was analyzing John, with a hard look and still fingers. He still gripped the skinning knife in his hand, probably ready to use it if John snapped.

“Right,” Dave repeated, and stood up. “I think this is more of a family problem.”

“I- what?” John sputtered. “Don’t tell my dad, oh my god, no, you can’t!”

“Not your family. My family,” Dave corrected. He pulled his sunglasses off of his head and set them down on his work bench, right next to the skull.

Something about the skull, something about it was different. Usually when Dave skinned things, John had to look away. This time John couldn’t look away. He swallowed hard, licking his lips. He was salivating. His stomach lurched. It’s eyes were sitting on the table next to it, ready to plop into a jar to preserve them. The sockets were clean and hollow. Pitch black on the inside. John stared, the skull stared back.

“Alright,” Dave’s voice pulled his attention back to his friend. “I gotta tell you something now. I’m completely serious when I say this to you, alright?”

“Alright,” John agreed.

Dave just nodded, placed his knife down and took a deep breath.

“Ready?” He asked.

“Ready,” John affirmed.

Dave took another deep breath, and then he spoke. “Okay, so, basically? We’re a bunch of witches. Well, everybody except me.”

John leaned back in his chair. He searched Dave’s face, looking for a ghost of a smile or a twinge of a joking tone. Nothing, Dave’s face was stone wall serious. Cold as ice. This had to be some elaborate joke.

“Oh, this is real funny!” John scowled. “First you leave me in the woods, and then you and your brother just find me so easily, bring me here and what? Was that girl in on it too? You know her? Where’d you get the contacts? What kind of joke is this, Dave? Come on!”

“I’m not joking. This isn’t a joke,” Dave insisted, “I had nothing to do with you getting lost, or you getting attacked, I swear on my life, dude. I believe you, I believe you got attacked, and I wanna help you.”

Dave strode over to Roxy’s car, and pushed the driver’s side mirror.

“Come here, you have to see yourself.”

John huffed, but he got up anyway. He stopped next to his best friend. Dave pushed the mirror again, adjusting it so John could see himself. He almost couldn’t believe his eyes.

Dave’s red eyes reflected in the mirror, contrasting his pale skin and bleach blonde hair. John could see his freckles, dusting across his face faintly. He could even see a faint layer of concealer, pasted on top of reddened pimples.

John’s own face though, something was off. He’d looked in the mirror millions of times. He knew what his own face looked like. His eyes were off. Something was wrong with their shape, not the corners or his eyelids, his pupil, he realized. His pupils were huge, almost covering his iris, which had darkened from the usual blue grey to a stunning cobalt, bright and luminescent even in the florescent lighting.

He gasped, and John saw a flash of his own teeth. His mouth was a reproduction of Vriska’s, his buck teeth, the ones he’d had though childhood, were gone. He didn’t have a blunt tooth in his head anymore, all too long and too inhuman.

“See, man?” Dave asked rhetorically. “I wanna help. Would you let me?”

John could only nod, transfixed by his own reflection.

Dave left him, going to the door to open it and shout though the house.

“Hey, guys?” Dave hollered. No one responded, so he continued speaking. “I told John.”

Roxy groaned over dramatically, like something you’d hear in a movie, and something thumped in the living room.

“Goddamn son of a bitch, Dave!” Dirk’s angry voice shouted from upstairs, and his heavy foot falls thumped on the floor above him. A door upstairs shut too, and that could only be Rose. The Strider family converged in the garage.

Dirk was pissed as all get out, and he looked like he wanted to wring Dave’s neck. He held off, leaning on Dave’s work bench with folded arms. Rose was next, the family’s black cat under her feet and a heavy, leather bound book wrapped in her arms. She flanked the door, and stood there as Roxy entered the room.

“Davey, sweetie, why?” The middle aged woman sighed, looking bored and annoyed, a half full wine glass grasped in her left hand.

“Yeah, ‘Davey’,” Dirk mocked, “why do we always gotta clean up after your mess, huh? Not like you can erase his memory.”

“Whoa, what?” John interjected.

Rose laughed, her blackened lips curling in a smirk, “Dirk, you shouldn't mock our brother for not inheriting our gifts, or our brains, or our dashing good looks, or-”

“Shut the fuck up!” Dave cut her off, furious.

“Kids, don’t fight!” Roxy interrupted, trying to play referee. “Johnny, sweetie, just stay real still, okay?”

“Mom, no,” Dave shouted as she rose a hand to John’s face, “look at him.

Roxy paused, gazing intently at John, and then she lowered her hand in favor of stepping closer. John watched surprise etched itself onto her features as she took his chin between her fingers. “When did this happen?”

“I literally turned around and his face was changing,” Dave replied, standing off to the side. Dirk made a face, and shoved his brother aside. He was next to grip John’s face, and he wasn’t gentle. He took John’s upper lip with his thumb and peeled it back, revealing rows and rows of sharp, saber like teeth.

Dirk whistled, long and low. “That is one nasty curse.”

“It’s not a curse,” Roxy corrected, “it’s a soul split.”

“How do you know?” Dirk inquired, man handing John’s jaw open for a better look.

“Look at his eyes,” Roxy murmured, tilting her head, as if a different angle would change the problem. “Eyes are the window to the soul.”

“Do you suppose there’s something in the grimmore that can change him back?” Rose asked, working her way between her brother and her mother for a look see.

Roxy grimaced. “No. This isn’t something our magic can fix. John, how did this happen?”

Dirk released his face, allowing John to recount his story. “I tripped over something and I fell, after I got separated from Dave, and fell into this gut pile. And then this.. Thing came out of the woods, and I called to it, thinking it might be Dave, and it changed into a girl. Then she jumped on me and bit me-”

John motioned to his face, “here. She tore me apart. She fed me something, her blood maybe? And then she was just gone.”

“Did she say anything?” Rose followed up, her interest piqued.

“She uh, she said it was a pleasure doing business with me, and that she’d send help my way.” John shivered. The memory was still fresh in his mind. Her voice was wet with his blood, and soft when she spoke.

“Business?” Roxy mocked, her eyebrows raising. “You made a deal with her?”

“No, I just told her I wanted to go back to the trail. I just wanted to find Dave,” John expressed. He took a deep breath and sat down, pulling away from the family that had crowded him in to the side of the car.

Roxy tisked and looked to Dirk next.

“I didn’t sense any girl. Hell, I didn’t even sense him when I started looking,” Dirk grumbled, “ I found Dave right away. She must have masked John, and herself.”

Roxy huffed, folding her arms very lady like after downing her drink and smashing the glass on the floor. “God damn it,” she cussed, frowning deeply. She looked perplexed, unsure of her next move.

“What, uh, what’s gonna happen to me?” John mustered up the courage to ask, “or, what’s currently happening to me?”

Roxy pressed her lips into a thin line. She didn’t reply. Dirk didn’t give either way, and Rose had returned to her spot near the door. Dave. Poor Dave, stood nearby.

John’s eyes drifted back to the skull. He had a pretty clear view of it from where he sat. A housefly, one of the few remaining from the first frost, had found it. John watched it buzz around the severed head, landing on the dried out flesh, or what was left of it. Lucky bastard. John’s stomach lurched again.

“John, darlin’, look at me,” Roxy stepped into his line of view, obscuring the skull from his vision. John immediately looked up at her face. “Are you hungry?”

“I- no?” John replied, like it was a question.

“Are you sure?” She debated. Was he sure? Before John could reply she was padding her way to the workbench. She took the spike horn’s skull by what was left of an ear and tossed it to him. She threw it underhand, like a bowling ball, right for John’s head.

Without thinking, John reached out and grabbed, his thumbs finding the eye sockets and his teeth finding purchase in the arid flesh of the forehead. John ripped, jerking his head back, and tearing the flesh from the bone. His teeth scraped the skull, sliding along its smooth surface with a disgusting scraping sound. He didn’t even chew it, he just fucking swallowed.

He didn’t taste it, he didn’t feel it’s coarse hair on his tongue, he just swallowed, and dug in for more. He ripped a hole in the meaty part of its neck, and there was still blood there. Rich, gamey tasting blood, and it made John’s brain sing. John felt like moaning. He hadn’t realized he was starving, absolutely starving. He’d eaten, what? Three hours ago? He shouldn't be this hungry.

There was more blood in the shriveling veins, John could smell it. He shoved his tongue into the hole he’d created, tilting his jaw to pull his meal closer, and sucked. Cold, clotted life blood spurted into his mouth, staining his lips a dark crimson, and flowing down his throat. He was so thirsty all of a sudden.

Somewhere, what felt like miles away, he heard Rose gasp.

John blinked, his entire body tensing before it relaxed, and he dropped the skull. It fell to the floor with a cushioned thunk.

John didn’t know what had come over him. He kept his head ducked, afraid to look up. With trembling hands, he used his sleeve to wipe his mouth. “I’m gonna be sick.”

You? ” Rose mocked, earning her a disapproving glare from Dirk.

“This is worse than I thought it was,” Roxy confessed, coming closer to pluck the skull up from the floor. “Even if you didn’t mean to make a deal with her, you did. Demons don’t play fair.”

John watched her as she walked the spike horn to Dave and pressed it into his hands.

“She split your soul, and make you like her.”

John swallowed, his mouth suddenly dry. “So, s-so, I’m just stuck like this? Forever?”

“Unless you can bargain your soul back, yes,” Rose snarked, picking up the family cat to hold him close to her chest. “On the plus side, road kill is much, much cheaper than groceries.”

John groaned. That was not a plus. Not at all.

“It’s not as bad as you think it looks,” Dave offered.

“Kids, hush up,” Roxy clipped, scowling. She turned back John’s way, her expression quickly brightening. “no, John. We’ve known you since you were in kindergarten. We’re gonna find a way to turn you back.”

“We should induct him,” Dirk spoke up. Three sets of eyes set on him.

“I don’t know if we should go that far,” Rose frowned. Roxy looked conflicted.

“He’d be safer,” Dirk insisted. He uncrossed his arms in favor of placing them on his hips.

“Induct?” John repeated, “what?”

“Witches belong to a coven,” Rose filled in. “It’s like a family, except coven bonds are stronger than blood.”

John didn’t know if he wanted to belong to something that sounded so… Cult sounding. But, on the other hand, it was the Striders. Roxy was right, John had known them since kindergarten.

“If John wants to, later, we can, let’s not push him,” Roxy insisted instead, “right now he needs something so he can go to school Monday morning, and I need a Brandy. I’m gonna call Daddy Egbert, tell him you're staying over.”

Roxy motioned for Rose to follow her out, and both women left the room. Rose toted the cat along with her. Dirk looked down, kicked at a crack on the floor and walked out too, his hands still on his hips.

The only sound in the house for a long time was Roxy chatting on the phone in the kitchen. Dave went back to his stool, and sat down. He plucked his sunglasses up off the bench and placed them back on his face. John couldn’t tell where he was looking after that, but he hoped it wasn’t at him. John didn’t want him to stare.

“Soo,” John spoke finally, effectively killing the awkward silence. “You guys are totally a bunch of witches.”

“We are totally a bunch of witches,” Dave smirked, stifling a chuckle. “Except for me.”

“Except for you,” John repeated, deadpan.

“Yeah,” Dave affirmed, “I’m not gifted. Skipped right over me.”

“So, you're just a regular guy?”

Dave flipped his hair out if his face and nodded. “I’m just a regular guy.”

“You don’t know how relieved I am to hear that.”

This time Dave couldn’t stifle his laughter. “You don’t know how long I’ve wished I could tell you all about this bullshit.”

“I’m kind if glad you kept it to yourself,” John joked. Dave only laughed harder.

“I have something so fucked up to tell you.”

“Somehow I don’t think it’s going to surprise me,” John was smiling. Today was literally the worst day of his life, and he was smiling.

“You know our cat, Jaspers?” Dave inquired, his tone light and fun. John nodded, unsure where he was going with that. “Remember when my dad 'left’,” he used air quotes, “in the fifth grade? And then we got Jaspers right after?”

John did remember that. Dave had.. Oddly been alright with the entire issue. John’s jaw went slack, deep in thought. Then it clicked. His eyes widened.

“Are you fucking kidding me?” John asked in utter disbelief. He’d heard enough fanciful, fantastical bullshit tonight to last a lifetime. The cat? The one Rose had been holding? Surely this time Dave was joking.

“I wish I was man. Shit. How was school, son? Great, scratch me behind the ears and clean my shit box,” Dave’s arm snaked around his own middle, holding his stomach. He was laughing so hard his face was red.

“How did that happen?” John gaped.

Dave couldn’t contain himself, John could barely understand him. “Rose hexed him accidentally, mom can’t figure out how to turn him back! Like, 'Sorry you're a cat, hubby, but I bought you the fancy tuna this time,’ Jesus! ”

Now that was funny. John split, laughter bubbling from deep in his chest. His eyes leaked, and oh, oh god he couldn’t breathe. His diaphragm ached, and his lungs begged him for air. 
This was like the crown jewel of insanity on a night where it seemed anything could happen. 


“Hey! If you two are done, mom found something!” Dirk shouted.

Dave stood up, carried his skull over to the freezer, and placed it inside among all his other yet to be completed projects. That freezer was like a furry mass grave. He was still giggling, smiling genuinely. “Come on man, we gotta wash our hands.”

Wash his? Oh. John’s hands were covered in gross, slick matter. His thumbs were covered in some kind of grey, chunky material. John hoped it wasn’t the creature’s brains. Suddenly Dave’s cat dad wasn’t quite so funny..

Dave lead the way into the family’s kitchen. Roxy liked modern things, and dark wood. Stainless steel appliances were a must, and so were cherry cabinets. Her dining table and chairs matched.

Rose had made herself scarce, but Jaspers was still hanging around. He lounged on the counter next to Roxy, swishing his tail lightly. Did he..did he remember being human? John was never going to be able to look at that cat the same way again.

Roxy was parked at the kitchen island, clad in a pair of reading glasses. She didn’t look up, too busy pouring over a couple of old looking books. She’d push one away only to pull another close. From what John could see, the writing wasn’t in any language he’d seen before.

Dirk was leaning up on the counter. Looking at the back of a pizza box. Next to him was a large pot, and the stove was on. He took a can out of the cupboard and read the label. “Corn?”

“Mm,” Roxy hummed, “just as good as maze, isn’t it?”

“It’s the same,” Dirk shrugged.

Roxy didn’t look up. “One cup. John, do me a huge, huge favor alright? I need you to snip a little piece of your hair off and put it in that pot there.”

“Way ahead of you, mom,” Dirk leaned over, a pair of scissors in his hand, and clipped off a chunk of John’s messy hair. John was a bit taken back, leaning away from Dirk and the offending shears.

“I guess all we need now is intent,” Roxy finished, closing one of the grey bound leather books in front of her.

“Can we eat first?” Dave piped up, pushing past his brother to the sink. He used his elbow to turn the handle. Dirk got out of John’s way so he could scrub his hands too. Both boys made sure to use liberal amounts of soap.

“No, 'cause it’s nasty. It’ll leave a bad taste in Johnny’s mouth,” Roxy rejected. Box pizza was pretty nasty anyway, John wasn’t sure if it mattered.

Dirk was busy measuring corn out of the can. John didn’t see where the lock of his hair had gone, but he had a pretty good idea where it went. The concoction in the pot was a pale yellow, with thin broth, like chicken noodle soup. It didn’t smell any, but it didn’t look appetizing.

He was gonna have to drink that, wasn’t he?

Dirk moved his hands, very slowly, one on each side of the boiling pot.

John watched Dirk’s hands hover next to the hot metal. John was almost afraid he was going to touch it and burn himself when his hands sparked. Orange crossed green like lightning bolts in a storm. The pot smoked with white hot steam as electricity arced off of it. The light above him dimmed, and all John’s hair stood on end. The crackling bicolored current lingered, dancing across the metal even after Dirk removed his hands.

Next he grabbed a mug from the cabinet and skimmed some of the thin broth out for John.

John’s lip curled in disgust as he took the cup. “It’s not gonna electrocute my tongue, is it?”

“No, but I might,” Dirk snarked, his expression sour. “It’ll make you look human again. At least to other humans.”

Dave smirked, elbowing his best friend in the ribs. “Bottoms up.”

John used his left hand to pinch his nose shut, and with his right he brought the mug to his lips. He sucked in a deep breath and chugged. 
The liquid was hot, hotter than safe, but it didn’t burn him. There were a few chunks here and there, but overall it went down pretty smooth. Roxy had been right about the taste though. It tasted absolutely rancid, like sour milk tea brewed with coffee grounds in pickle juice. The after taste was unbelievable. 


He managed to keep it down, but he had to take a seat right after. 
The pizza cooked for another fifteen minutes in silence. Dave had located his phone charger and played a game to pass the time. John placed his head down on the dinner table, content to stew with his now upset stomach. 
The oven timer went off, and Dave got up. When he returned, he brought John back a plate. 


“Got you meat lovers, man,” Dave smirked, “since you seem to have a hankering.” 


John looked up long enough to stick his tongue out at his friend. He didn’t much feel like eating anymore. 
Roxy ate standing up, munching on crust and sharing her pepperoni with the cat. She leaned over and lit a candle, pumpkin pie by the smell off it. 
Rose appeared in the kitchen without being called. John wasn’t sure if that was a witch thing or if she could smell it all the way up in her room. 


“You still trying to talk Jade in to going to that shitty vampire movie?” Dave teased, talking with his mouth full. 


Jade. Jade? Oh, he must mean Rose’s best friend. Was that her name? He knew immediately which vampire movie Dave was referring to. Some thing like a new age Twilight. John loved shitty movies, but that crossed a line.

“It’s none of your business what I’m doing,” Rose replied haughtily. 


“Oh, but it so is, what if, like, you got bit by rabid fan girls? We’d have to put you down Rose, just like ol’ yeller. 'She’s my sister, ma, I’ll shoot her.’ Shit, if you bit mom, we’d have to put mom down too. Who would buy me apple juice?” 


“Dirk, obviously,” his sister replied dryly.


“I ain’t buying him shit!” Dirk scoffed, “and I also don’t want any more of that fucking vampire shit in my house.“

I’m not going to see the vampire movie! ” Rose hissed. 


“What are you gonna see then? The new fifty shades?” 


“Dave!” Roxy interrupted, “can’t you leave your baby sister alone for one minute?”


Dave swallowed his food before he answered. “No.” 


Roxy groaned and went for a bottle of liquor. She didn’t even bother with a cup, just sipped the dark liquid straight from the bottle. “I am not nearly drunk enough for this.” 


“Sure you're not,” Dave smarted, “you wanna go watch a movie, John?” 


John moaned, dreading the thought of moving, and he agreed anyway. “Sure.” 


Actually getting up from the table was the hard part. He pretty much drug himself to the family’s upstairs living space. Once there he threw himself on the overly plush couch. 
Dave plopped down on the bean bag nearby after popping in a DVD.

John couldn’t watch the movie. He couldn’t even unbury his head from the cushions. From the sounds of it, Dave had turned on a horror movie. Appropriate for the time of year with Halloween fast approaching. John mused the possible plot options of a movie based around his stomach ache. Something like in Alien, maybe, where it finally rips open his torso and kills him. Yeah. That sounded about right.

"You want some ginger ale or something man?” Dave asked finally, about a half hour into the gorefest on television.

“No,” John managed through the upholstery. “For as shitty as I feel, do I look any better?”

“I can’t tell, the spell only works on humans,” Dave sounded off. John couldn’t see his face, but he knew his friend well enough to know his feelings were hurt.

John felt sorry after that. He quickly changed the subject.

“What’s it like to live with a brother that can make electricity?”

John heard the beans in the bean bag move as Dave shifted. “Put it this way, both my siblings can kick my ass three ways to Sunday.”

“Mmmm,” John groaned into the sofa. “Are you okay?”

“Why wouldn't I be?” The blonde asked, surprised.

“This affects you too dude.”

Dave was quiet for a while before he spoke again. “Yeah I guess that’s right. I’m fine, man. Thanks for asking.”

“Thank you .” John rolled over, facing Dave now. “You pretty much saved my ass. My whole entire ass.”

“What are best friends for?” Dave held out his hand for a fist bump. John pounded it, and exploded it with a grin.

“Hey rugrats!” Dave’s bro shouted, from the staircase by the sound of it. “Moms passed the fuck out, everybody else is doing the same.”

A door down the hall creaked open. Rose’s voice carried down the hall, she said something like, “why, Dirk, I had no idea you felt this way about me.”

“Lights out,” Dirk sounded strained, “and put some goddamn clothes on.”

The door shut with a slam, but John could still make out Rose’s response. “Grow up, you changed my diapers. And this is my room!”

“Dave, get the lead out if your ass. Bed, chop chop,” Dirk appeared in the doorway moments later. “Figure out where John’s sleeping.”

“It’s Saturday night!” Dave argued. Dirk reached over and flipped the light switch.

“And now it’s a dark Saturday night,” Dirk replied factually. And then he disappeared, down the hall to his own bedroom.

Dave huffed and slouched back into the bean bag.

“Wanna stay up all night?” John inquired.

“Hell yes.”

Chapter Text

“If you snap my hand in this trap, I’ll kill you.”

“Relax, I know how to set a conibear, man.”

“You said that last week, and then you caught your finger,” John huffed.

Today was opening day of trapping season. It happened to be a Wednesday, after classes had finished, and John had hip waders on over his school jeans.

John’s bare hands grasped the cold steel of the animal trap and he squeezed the spring. That decompressed the mechanism and Dave moved in to flip the jaws open. The last step was to set the pair of wire pieces that acted as the trip.

John had seen the conibear traps in action when Dave first got the set of six a few months ago. He’d read the manual, he did the motions, and then shoved a stick in it. When the trap snapped shut, it broke the stick with so much force it shattered into a million pieces. Dave was delighted. John felt sorry for whatever he planned to use it on.

John didn’t know what about dead things made Dave happy, but he supposed everybody had their quirks… at least the things he killed died humanely. Dave, clad in his matching pair of hunter green waders, took the trap from his friend and leaned down to set it in the mud.

“At least it was my finger and not yours,” Dave shrugged. Dave had him there.

The boys moved a little further down the marsh, stepping between cattails and the mud mounds. Dave pulled another trap out of a bag he thrifted and John helped again to set it.

The swamp was wide and cold. There were no trees, just small sandbars with hip height brown grass. The water was only up to his calves, but it was the wind that chilled. The October sky was grey and cloudy, with rain threatening. John couldn’t smell it yet but his joints ached with it. The boys stuck close to the sandbars as they moved to the next spot, tramping down phragmitey and bulrushes.

John had to follow closely behind Dave when they came out here. He could never remember exactly where the water dropped off. In some places, like where he stood, it was very shallow. In others, it was ten feet deep. In still others, mud would take you under faster than you could scream.

“How many more do you have to set?” John asked. The weather worried him. It got dark earlier and earlier these days. The last thing they needed was to get stuck outside at night. Again. In the rain.

Dave grunted, almost losing the trap he held in his hands. He used a stick on either side of it to hold it in place. “I dunno, like three?”

Something snapped loudly, and at first neither boy knew what it was. John watched realization take over his friend’s face and he doubled back the way he came.

“The first trap just went off,” Dave was ecstatic. He never really put much emotion into his tone, but his face was like a open book. He had some kind of cool guy shtick he was always trying to put on, straight face and all that, but it never really worked.

“You go check it, I’ll be here,” John replied. He stood still, watching his best friend pick through the muck back to the first trap.

John’s attention went back to the sky, gazing up and watching the clouds roll.

The air was moist. The wind blew harshly, gusting and blowing over the cattails. The surrounding flora rustled, and the sound it made forced goose bumps over John’s skin. The dry grass on grass tone was chilling. It was eerie.

Like a whisper he couldn’t make out.

“Dude!” Dave’s voice cut through to him. “I caught a mink!”

“A what?” John asked, turning his way.

“A mink! You know, like a weasel?” He held it up over his head, grinning like mad.

“You pretty much just killed a ferret dude,” John deadpanned.

“Wrong. Ferrets are educated weasels. Shit, they gotta be to have people waiting on them hand and foot,” Dave smirked, releasing the mechanism on the trap to take the animal from it. “Mink are pretty stupid if I do say so myself. Did you know they’ll drown themselves if you catch them in a foot trap?”

John’s nose wrinkled in disgust. No, he didn’t know that. He didn’t want to know either.

The breeze blew again, picking up faster and burning John’s skin. He was cold. He was wet, and he wanted to go home. He didn’t complain though. He knew how much his friend enjoyed this.

The wind gusted harder though the foliage, and John could have swore he’d heard his name. It couldn’t have been though. He and Dave were the only people out here.

He shook his head, clearing the thoughts from his mind.

John watched Dave tuck the dead animal inside his trap bag. It was brown, mostly, with a long, fluffy looking coat that was clumped together in places, wet. John almost asked to feel it. Dave’s traps worked by quick, crushing force. He’d explained it was over before the thing even knew what was happening. Were it’s insides crushed? Were it’s bones broken? Did it bleed internally? If he cut it open, what would it look like? John would bet it was still warm. He bet it’s flesh tasted like swamp water. He bet he could bury his teeth into it and feel full . Shit.

Instead, John said nothing and walked side by side with his best friend to the new spot. Dave poked around the area, looking for a good place to set up. John understood the best places were outside of little beaver dam like houses, where creatures called mushrats, or was it muskrats? Anyway, they were related to voles and they made the dens their home.

The sky grew darker and darker, nearly black by the time Dave had finished.

“You think we should cut short, dude?” Dave questioned, wiping his hands on his waders.

“I think we’ll be okay for just one more,” John assured, but both boys put a rush on setting the final steel trap. Dave wasn’t sure it would catch anything, but he could always move it later.

Something unsettled John more than just the weather. His goose bumps hadn’t faded, and though he detested thunderstorms, something else had his skin crawling. He felt exposed and alone here. Even with Dave loitering nearby, he kept a close watch on their surroundings.

They couldn’t hoof it back to John’s Kia fast enough.

The marsh was located behind a wood lot, behind the Pheasant River High School. The building was small, for a high school, painted red and gold, their school colors. Home coming was next week, and the small school had dozens of kids helping out after classes, mostly on organizing the school dance. The parking lot was empty of people, save for a very unwelcome guest. John saw her, leaning on the hood of his car.

Vriska loitered like she owned the brass colored vehicle, studying her nails and pretending as if she hadn’t seen him. She looked up and faked her surprise, waving at him like a long lost friend. Her teeth poked out of her malicious grin, her lips curling and and her shoulders squaring.

John froze.

Dave stopped dead in his tracks.

“John! Come here a minute, would you?” She called to him, the smoker’s rasp returned to her voice. She held on to her vowels, emphasis where it wasn’t needed. John refused to move, except for the quaking in his waders.

He watched Vriska frown, and roll her eyes. It was apparent she wasn’t much for patients, especially when she rose her hand and curled her finger towards herself.

“I said come here .”

Something in his chest wrenched and pulled, hard. It almost yanked him off his feet. Suddenly he was moving foreword, tugged along by some invisible force he couldn’t see. John tried to step out, he tried to cease his movement, but the best he got was a twitch in his thigh. He muscles wouldn't listen. His feet moved independent to his own will.

Dave, shit. Dave could do something, couldn’t he? John twisted his head to the side, searching for his best friend, only to find he was in a similar fashion. His expression was just as terrified.

“You can stop now,” Vriska smirked, and the boys abruptly came to a halt about three foot in front of her.

“This is a nice little car you got here, Joooohn ,” the demon purred. “In fact, I just love your whole life. I’ve been in your car, your house, in your brain. Just now? In the marsh? That was me. I even talked to your daddy. He is one nice guy, you know?”

John could feel his gaze go doe eyed. His brow perspired. He didn’t respond.

“Of course you know. But anyway I didn’t come here to compliment you. I came here to ask you if you wanted to make another deal with me.”

John swallowed hard. “I- I don’t think so.”

“You don’t think so? Oh pleaseee Jooohn . You haven’t even heard what I have to say yet! How rude!”

John almost choked on his breath.

Vriska grinned wolfishly and propped up her leg on his bumper. She rested her elbow on her knee. Was she trying to seem calm? Nonchalant? John didn’t know. It wasn’t working.

“Here’s my deal, and I’m sure you know all about deals now, huh? With this whelp hanging around?” She hissed, throwing a dangerous glare at Dave, but just for a moment. Her grin returned as her attention turned back to John.

“Here’s my deal. I’ll do you a huge, huge favor. Trade me another chunk of your soul and I’ll give you another part of mine, a really lucky part. I’m pretty lucky anyway, lucky enough I could share it with you. What do you say?”

“No, uh, no,” John stammered. I wanted to shake his head, but he felt pretty frozen.

“You don’t even know what I’m offering you, I get it!” Vriska laughed, “I’m literally offering for everything to always come out in your favor John. Everything! You-”

The loud whoop of a siren cut Vriska off. Tires crackled across the pavement, and up rolled Dirk in a sleek black police car.

Pheasant River only had two of their own cars, and only six cops total. Nothing ever happened here, except for a couple of teenagers up on the water tower every couple of years. John used to think they didn’t need police. Key words were ‘used to.’

Dirk’s window was down and he leaned out of it, his uniform pressed and his name tag front a center. “What seems to be the problem here, boys and girls?”

Something twitched inside John, hard, and painful.

“Nothing, no problem,” he spoke, but John’s words were not his own.

Dirk narrowed his eyes.

“I know you,” he spat, “and I know what you're up to. If you’d kindly stop using my brother and his friend as puppets, I’d be much obliged.”

“Oh boo. You’re ruining all my fun,” Vriska bristled. Her shoulders rose like hackles on a growling dog.

“Get the fuck outta here, before I call in reinforcements,” Dirk commanded, pulling the handle on his door like he was going to get out.

“Tsk!” Vriska scoffed, rolling her eyes as she jumped off of John’s hood. She walked off, stepping up onto the curb, on to the grass, and disappearing into the woods. Her body melted into the darkness, the trees over taking her.

“Bro, what the fuck!” Dave exclaimed, “she was right there and you didn’t do shit!”

John glanced back to his friend, who’s stance had widened and his expression had changed to outrage. Did he not feel the same crushing pull in his chest John did? He couldn’t be ignoring it.

“Calm down,” Dirk’s voice was calm, “just chill out, Dave. She’s still got ahold of John.”

Oh. Oh.

John wanted so badly to chase her. He wanted her to stop yanking on his heart, stealing his breath and pulverizing his abdomen. John could feel her leaving, he could feel the distance grow with every step. His head buzzed, frantic and panicked. She was leaving. She was leaving and the hurt would never stop!

His breath squeezed out of him, his knees knocked.

He wanted to chase her, but something held him in place. It had to be Dirk.

And then he regained himself with a gasp. He was panting through his mouth, cold sweat running down his neck. His goose bumps never, never faded.

A hand touched his shoulder and John jumped violently.

“Are you okay, man?” Shit, it was only Dave.

“I’m fine,” John nodded weakly.

Dirk cleared his throat, interrupting as politely as possible. “She’s not in the area anymore, or at least I can’t sense her. Take John back to our house, Dave. We’re gonna do something about this tonight.”

Dave didn’t reply. Dirk rolled up the window in his car and then he was gone, the reflective 'police’ writing on the back of his car catching the sunlight. It took John a few more moments to catch his breath.

“You sure your okay?” Dave repeated, “Want me to drive?”

“Yeah,” John breathed, and he fished his land yard out of his pocket, dangling keys clinking against each other. The next thing John knew, they were halfway to Dave’s house. Hadn’t they just been at school? How had John ended up in the passenger seat? Why was Dave driving his car?

It all sort of came crashing back to him, all at once.

It was raining. A cold, dark autumn rain. The kind that brought red leaves down in troves and made bad business for Apple orchards. The heat was on in the car, blowing warm air on John’s freezing fingers. He still couldn’t remember when he’d taken his waders off.

“You're awful quiet over there,” Dave stated plainly, trying to instigate a conversation.

“Sorry,” John apologized. “I guess I zoned out.”

Dave’s eyes flicked off the road, glancing at him before looking back. The windshield wipers beat violently back and forth.

“I have a question,” John began.

“I might have an answer.”

John reached over and shut the noisy air off so he could speak. “What did she do to us? To make us.. do that. Was Dirk doing it too?”

“Yeah, Bro was doing it too. She imposed her will on us. Shows over though, everybody went home, we’re safe,” Dave replied, flipping the blinker on to turn down his street.

John was not satisfied with that answer. “How did she know where I was? How did Dirk know we were in trouble?”

“Man, she tracked you though your soul or her soul or something else fucking stupid. Shits like a god damn overweight bloodhound in a sausage factory looking ways to avoid his diet. Like a fucking rainbow over Bob Ross’s happy little forest and you're the pot of god,” Dave’s tone was hard and sour, like his mouth didn’t want his words. When had he gotten that way? Dave never got angry.

John thought back momentarily to the conversation with Vriska.

“… did she call you a dirty name?”

“Yeah. She did.” Dave was angry, but not at John. His mouth was pulled into a taunt, deep frown. His eyebrows pinned down.

“Do you want to talk about it?” John offered.

Dave took a deep breath, turned the heat back on, and visibly relaxed. It took him a moment to speak, but he was much, much calmer then.

“I dunno man, I just, it’s stupid. It’s really stupid. Mom really tried her best, but she grew up magic, and so did Dirk, and Rose, and it’s hard for them to understand. There’s a term, for people like me. Who grow up in a magic family but they aren’t. They call us Whelps. There isn’t another word, just that, so everybody knows how shameful it is. How big of a fucking disgrace you are.”

“That’s horrible! That’s not fair!”

“It’s whatever. It’s over, she’s gone,” Dave’s frown returned when he shrugged. He was trying to play it off, but John could tell he was hurt.

The gravel of Dave’s driveway flew under the car tires as Dave pulled in. He threw it in park in John’s usual spot. He shut the car off but neither boy moved. Rain beat on the windows. Thunder rolled in the distance.

“Dirk’s gonna come home and throw a fucking fit. I just want you to know,” Dave muttered, playing with the hem on his shirt.

“I don’t care what your brothers doing, I care about what you're doing. You're not a disgrace, you're an awesome person, Dave. You're my best friend,” John was angry now too. That woman was a vile, hateful creature. John couldn’t wait to wash his hands of her for the rest of his life.

“John, you don’t have to say this stuff to make me feel better,” Dave tried, but John didn’t want to hear it.

“I do! God, Dave! Your funny, and your nice, and you're a little weird even, but that’s a good thing! Because you're just, just, your great, alright? And I can’t wait until I’m back to normal so we can just be two normal bros doing normal bro stuff!!”

When John looked over, he realized Dave was fighting back tears. The blonde had his shades up over his head, wiping a stray drop of salt water from the corner of his eye. His voice wobbled as he spoke though his smile. “Thanks, man. Thanks.”

“You're welcome,” John grinned, and held out his right arm to wrap his best friend in a hug. Dave returned it, hugging him over the center console. Dave’s face tucked into the wrinkles of John’s hoodie and John’s cheek on his ear.

“No homo though, right?” Dave asked. John could have slapped him, but he choose to laugh instead.

The car door behind John opened, and for a moment, both boys were afraid, snapping apart to stare. Dirk stood there, still in his uniform but carrying a brown paper bag from the grocery store. Inside the bag was… were those roses?

“If you two are done, I’d like to get started,” Dirk’s eyebrows rose.

“What if we’re not done?” Dave countered.

“You can do gay shit after,” Dirk scoffed, turned around and walk towards the house. The pouring rain deflected off of him, his clothes never got wet. John and Dave, however, had to dash through the water droplets to the front door.

Roxy was nowhere to be found when the boys entered the house. Rose was knitting in the living room with the family cat on her lap. Her phone played a gentle melody that complimented the patter of the rain.

Dirk was in the kitchen, unpacking the grocery bag. He did in fact have a few roses, but also a little package of basal and another of sage. Dirk also had a piece of twine, and he bound the sage into a neat bundle.

“You're not doing what I think you're doing, are you?” Dave asked, coming around the kitchen island to the refrigerator. He grabbed himself and John both a soda.

“Depends,” Dirk grunted, pulling the roses individually from the plastic packaging to count them.

“On what?” John heard Roxy before he saw her. She rounded the corner, an empty martini glass in her hand and a white lab coat over her dress. She didn’t even greet her younger son or her guest. “Just what exactly do you think you're doing?”

“I’m gonna induct John,” Dirk answered plainly, refusing to meet his mother’s gaze.

“Did you ask him?” Roxy demanded.

Surprised, John wanted to say something, but Dave shook his head no, looking very serious.

Roxy fumed.

“Dirk, you cannot just barge in here and demand John join. That violates everything a coven stands for.”


“John never had a choice. He’s been in danger from the start,” Dirk argued, “he can’t defend himself and I’m not going to stand here and let some bitch from the neither world turn him.”


John’s chest tightened with Roxy’s fist. Roxy had ahold of him, he realized. Just like Vriska, she imposed her will so Dirk couldn’t. Dave looked like he might choke. Dirk’s muscles were pulled so taut John thought his skin might burst. He was doing that to Dave. Jesus, had that been meant for John? Dave’s hand went to his throat and he wheezed.  The air was thick with static electricity, and hot with tension. John’s nerves prickled with fear and concern.

Dirk’s hands sparked orange, crackling quietly as he flexed his knuckles. Roxy’s eyes flashed, hazel to pink in a second flat. Her irises burned like wildfire. She was warning him. 
Dave’s face reddened and his chest crippled in on itself, struggling to take air in and push it out. John’s hand went to his back, rubbing his hand in a small circle in some effort to help his friend.

Dirk’s hands chirped like birds. Pressure exerted, and John’s breath came short. There was strain on all of his joints, enough to hurt worse than the storm outside.

Cool, crisp air washed over the room, like an extinguisher over fire. Like sea water over lava. Tension faded like steam rose. The youngest Strider child swept into the room, her long skirt flowing like a wave, her own will pushing Roxy’s away like a sand castle swept out to sea. Suddenly Dave could breathe. He gasped loudly, drawing in deep breaths from his mouth to fill his lungs. He leaned on John, feeling light headed and week. 


“I know that when you get worked up, brother, you don’t realize your own strength. But you’ve nearly killed Dave,” Rose’s voice cut in. 


Dirk’s eyes went to Dave in angry disbelief. His brother had his face burrowed in his hoodie sleeve, his ears still twinged hot with asphyxiation. Dirk made a sound like an unhappy growl and looked away. John wasn’t sure if that meant he was sorry or not. 


“Don’t come in here and take control of something you don’t know anything about,” Dirk defied. 


“On the contrary,” Rose’s level tone responded, “John has been around for quite sometime and I also care about him deeply. I also fiercely want to protect him. I don’t believe forcing him to join us is right either.”


“Rose, the demon approached John, again. She’s just going to keep trying to dirty deal him until she turns him completely and we lose him to her!” Dirk shouted, slamming his hands down on a nearby table.

Rose looked extremely unimpressed. "I know, Dirk.”


"Listen,“ John interrupted, "stop, please just stop. I don’t want to be in the middle of you guys. I don’t want to be the cause of you guys fighting either. I’m sorry, I’ll, I’ll go home.”

Roxy’s lips creased into a thin line before she reached out, her hand open, meaning for John to hold it. “Sweetheart, Dirky and I fight all the time. It’s alright, it’s no big deal.”

“You almost strangled Dave!” John exclaimed. He shied away from Roxy’s hand. She placed it back down at her side.

“Dave knows I’m sorry,” Dirk sounded exasperated. Somehow, John didn’t think so.

“No,” Roxy paused, “John’s right. Dave, mommy is so sorry.”

Roxy swept to her son, pulling him off of John and into her arms. She cradled him, leaning her head on his and rocking him gently. Dave didn’t much care for maternal hugs, but he was still short of breath. He allowed Roxy to push his face into her shoulder, but he didn’t wrap his arms around her.

Dirk made an unhappy face, but in the end he only came closer, and clasped his brother on the back. “Sorry.”

“S'fine,” Dave mumbled, muffled by Roxy’s lab coat.

“Now that that’s settled,” Rose’s tone was level as she spoke, “we’ve got to do something about our friend here.”

“No offense, Rose,” John paused, unsure if he should continue, “but uh, you're like five two. What are you gonna do about a six foot tall demon?”

Dave laughed, short and brisk as he pulled away from his mother. He wasn’t handsy, and he didn’t want to be touched anymore. Dirk smiled like something was funny. What was up with that? Rose was kind if scary in her own way, but that was nothing compared to Vriska.

Rose’s eyebrows raised and a smirk took over her black painted lips. They all knew something John didn’t. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to know.

“John, do you wanna stay for dinner?” Roxy asked, coming around the kitchen to the freezer where she removed a frozen package of chicken.

“Sure, Mrs. Strider,” he replied. He and Dave had been planning on him staying anyway.

“Call me Roxy , sweets,” The strider mother rolled her eyes.

“Hey,” Dave elbowed him, “come with me to the garage?”

John’s good mood was slowly returning. He elbowed Dave back and grinned. “So you can work on your ferret you murdered?”

Dave gave him a rough shove and went to retrieve his bag from wherever he’d left it. John could have swore it’d been in the car but Dave returned with it rather quickly. They left for the garage as Roxy grilled the chicken.

John pulled up his stool and leaned on the bench while Dave worked. He still couldn’t watch, but the thought of Dave’s taxidermy projects wasn’t quite so disgusting now. Out of the corner of his eye sometimes he could still see Dave’s fleshing knife. He tried to hide it behind the bow of his glasses.

“So, sorry about that whole fiasco,” Dave spoke after a while, his gloved hands busy at work. “I mean, can’t have just one weirdo nope, get all four of us as a package deal, cat included.”

“No problem dude,” John assured, “but uh, what was so funny back there?”

“What was what?”

“You laughed and your sister was like looking into the camera on The Office,” John joked. Dave snickered.

“So uh, okay. You know how everybody has a type? Like jock, nerd, weird boy with glasses that spends too much time watching Con Air?”

John punched him in the shoulder, careful of the knife.

“Witches are like that. Only it’s not a stereotype, you're born that way. Moms a leader, she’s an influencer and decision maker. Dirk is a tracker. That’s how he always finds us. Rose is a powerhouse. It’s a rare ability. Basically she’s like the spooky version of the hulk.”

“That’s kinda cool,” John nodded. Huh. So that was how Dirk did it. Color John surprised.

Dave didn’t miss a beat as he kept talking. “But no, really, mom’s probably going to give you a real invitation to join our coven just to make Dirk happy. You don’t have to say yes.”

“Do I get cool bonuses if I do? Like can I read minds, or change into a bat or, like, is it all like hivemind? Can you read each other's thoughts?” John was on the edge of his seat. Hell, if witches were real, why couldn’t some of his favorite super powers be real too?

“Psh, no!” Dave rejected. John deflated. “Like, pretty much all it is, like, you know in a video game where you can check your opponents stats? It’s that. Everybody can see where you belong. And, I guess sometimes if you try really hard you can share a memory or two.”

That wasn’t near as exciting but it wasn’t like John could do anything to help it.

“If I said yes would it be weird?” John questioned.

For a moment Dave looked deep in thought. His eyebrows furrowed and his lips pursued. “Nah.”

“Okay,” John nodded, “i'll think about it.”

Chapter Text

"I feel really drunk."

"Sure man, you've had like two glasses of wine! That's not even a lot," Dave scoffed, leaning back in his chair, the front two feet lifting off the hardwood.

"Yeah, but I don't drink, like, ever," John countered, downing his glass and setting it down on Dave's kitchen table. Dave shoved his John's way, and John refilled both glasses with rich red wine.

"Dude, two glasses is like nothing," Dave plucked his glass back up off the table and took another drink, "besides, mom's had like, five, and she's still mostly coherent."

"Mostly," John giggled, taking a sip off his own drink. He watched Dave rocked his chair back onto all four legs and move the now empty wine bottle. He placed it next to the other two empties, a booze blush dusting his cheeks.

John touched his own cheek, resting his cool hand on his hot skin.

In retrospect, maybe drinking at eleven o'clock on a Saturday morning wasn't such a great idea, but hey. John sure felt good. And drunk. Buzzed at least.

"You going deer hunting tonight?" John inquired, leaning over the table, grinning.

"Was thinkin' about it," Dave pulled his sunglasses off of his face to rest them on the top of his head. "Wanna go?"

"Yeah," John nodded. "I don't have a license though."

"Don't need one to sit in the blind with me," Dave replied, looking down to watch his wine swirl in his glass.

"Boys!" Roxy called in a sing song voice moments before she danced into the room. John wasn't sure if the swaying was a product of her joy or her drunkenness. The blonde woman skip hopped into the room, her wine in one hand and a bunch of flowers in the other.

"Hi, Mom," Dave greeted as she swept over to him. He let her kiss him on the cheek.

"Hi, sweetheart," Roxy grinned, and pulled apart the bunch of flowers in her hand. She flopped them down on his head unceremoniously, but proceeded to straighten them out around his sunglasses.

They were roses, John realized. They were a bright pink, and thornless, woven together into a crown.

Roxy moved on, planting a kiss on John's forehead. He was he was next to be crowned, with the same pink roses.

"Thank you, Mrs. Strider," he grinned, reaching up to adjust the flowers from his sight of view.

" Roxy, baby. Call me Roxy!" She insisted, "you're joining my coven, Johnny boy, you gotta."

"Sure thing," John agreed, "Roxy."

Her name felt strange on his tongue. He sort of liked it.

Roxy smiled at him, kissed him and Dave both once again, and left the room to join Dirk and Rose in the living room. She tripped once, swaying to the left, but she got out alright. Dave snickered.

John took another drink of his wine.

"So, what's the point of getting drunk again?"

Dave offered him a shrug. "Alcohol makes you happy. Inductions are happy occasions."

"What was yours like?" John asked, shifting to lean on the arm of the chair instead of the table.

"Dunno. Happened when I was a baby."

John nodded. The room grew quiet, but not awkwardly so.

"You nervous?" Dave inquired after a few moments.

"Yeah," John agreed, smiling weekly. Dave grinned wide. He leaned over to clasp him on the shoulder and shake him gently.

"Don't be, man. You were already part of our family. It's just official now."

John laughed. He blinked once, hard, to chase away a few threatening tears. God, that was so cheesy.

Dirk passed through the dining room to fetch a lighter from the kitchen, also wearing a flower crown of pink roses on his head. He didn't speak to the boys as he went back the way he came. Moments later, the smell of burning sage filled the house.

It was Dirk again who entered the room, tasked with the job of smoking out every room in the house. John had seen the Strider family do this a lot in the many years he'd known them. Sage was supposed to be cleansing, to clear the house of anything dark.

Dirk did the dinning room last, rubbing the burning herb out on a clay plate he held in his hand. "We're ready when you are."

Dave stood up first, and John mocked him. Both boys followed Dirk into the living room.

Roxy was slopped over one end of the sectional sofa, laughing and cradling the family cat. She greeted him loudly, as if he hadn't been sitting at her dining room table all morning. John waved at her, grinning as she went back to rubbing the cat's ears.

"Since she's pretty much useless," Dirk rolled his eyes, setting the sage down, "Rose is going to officiate."

Rose lounged in her spot far away from Roxy. Grinning, she thumped one confident hand on an open book in her lap. John recognized it as the one she'd brought with her to the garage the night he was bitten.

"Are you sure?" John asked, unsure. Shouldn't they wait for Roxy to sober up? This seemed important...

"This is good practice for Rose," Dirk interjected, "she needs it."

Now this idea was sounding worse. "Are you sure you're sure?"

"Completely, John," Rose assured, "it's a simple task, it's all right here in the Grimoire."

"What's that, like a spell book?" John furrowed his eyebrows, squinting at the pages.

Rose stood up, bringing the book with her. "It's a little more involved than that, but yes."

"Watch out John, Rose is still in training. She'll Hocus Pocus your ass right into a cat if you're not careful," Dave snickered. Rose threw him a disgusted look, and John agreed. That wasn't funny.

"I'm going to supervise. Nothing's going to go wrong," Dirk insisted before the situation got out of hand. "Sit down, John, and sit still."

John checked behind him, trying to waste time. He really didn't want Rose using him as a Guinea pig, but Dirk used a hand on John's shoulder to shove him down. Rose handed the book over to Dirk, who held it open and glanced over the words on the page.

Dave sat down next to John, and John was glad for it. Dave's presence was reassuring.

John watched Rose take a deep breath and bring her hands up from her sides. She outstretched her arms and rose her hands up above her head, palms turned in towards each other. Her stance was wide and relaxed. Her chest moved with deep breaths and her eyes closed.

"It's yours from here, Rose," Dirk spoke. John could feel the aura the room shift.

"Are you ready, John?" She asked softly.

"Yeah," John agreed, "as I'll ever be."

"Good," Rose breathed. She took another deep breath before she continued speaking. "Imagine for me a bond. It can be any sort of bond, what does it look like?"

John wasn't sure if he understood the question. A bond? Like, two people coming together? Or a literal bond, like glue? Like two things tied together? Like, "String?"

"String? Alright," Rose accepted.

"Start the incantation," Dirk barked, clutching the book tightly. "If you don't have it memorized, ask."

"I have it!" Rose scowled. John felt something spark just then, something angry that split the air. Dirk's eyebrow quirked as if to ask his sister what that accomplished. Rose took another deep breath and collected herself.

"I have it," she repeated, much calmer.

"Within the soul sparks clean emotion, to bring near with clear devotion," Rose spat the first two lines out quickly. John watched Rose press her lips into a thin line, deep in thought. Dirk watched her intently, just in case she needed help. Rose continued flawlessly.

"Like a tributary to the sea, this son's path is clear. I bring thee into my coven. This vow of protection and bonding shall hold us together through all hardships. Do you accept, John Egbert?"

"I do."

"So it be."

John watched Rose's irises change color from hazel to a bright purple. The color was intense, and so was the feeling that washed over the room. Rose's hands clapped together, the resulting slap sounded like a sonic boom. John's ears popped and his eyes crossed.

Something like joy overtook him. John couldn't help but smile. He remembered, vaguely, when he was a child. Before she passed away, John remembered his mother gave the best hugs. This was a similar feeling. John could feel it squeeze him, he could feel the love the bond brought.

He blinked, clearing his vision. None of the Striders had moved. John could see them all, standing right in front of him, peering to see if the spell had worked. John could see them, but he could also feel them.

He could feel them like strings, attached to him like they were attached to a guitar, or, oh, like the inside of a piano. A set of five laid out in front of him.

The first string was thin and dark. It was an older string, one that had been there a while. It didn't seem responsive, and John didn't even try to touch it.

The next string felt bright and bubbly under John's fingers. It was old too, but he could feel so much life underneath it. It had a strong, compelling feeling to it, one that made John feel like it had authority. He left it alone too, reluctant to disturb it.

John left the third string alone because it felt like fire under his fingers. It glowed, hot and bright like neon, but with the intensity of an electric current. Dirk. It screamed his name and made it very, very clear who it belonged to.

The fourth string was so much calmer, and so much more inviting. It too was thin, thinner than any of the others. It was a week, runty connection. When John reached out, he discovered it still had good sound when he plucked it.

He heard it reverberate through his head and he watched Dave twitch.

Oh, that was Dave ? Like that string went right to Dave ?

John watched his best friend smirk, and then all of a sudden the line was making noise back at him. There was a rhythm to it, like a song that only John could hear and only John knew. Delighted, John smiled right back at him.

The fifth and final string pinged back at him before he could so much as get ahold of it. By her smirk, that must have belonged to Rose. He was still trying to play with the waves Dave was sending, but John could focus enough to respond to the cool, calm string beneath him. He could feel the mischief concealed under her smirk, and the snarky tone undertone she usually couldn't hold out of her voice.

"Jesus Christ, you guys are like some kind of phallic toddlers. Get your hands out of your metaphorical pants, God damn," Dirk scowled. John sort of wondered just how clear it was what they were doing.

"The phallic stage is a very important stage of psychological development," Rose smarted, crossing her arms over confidently. "Maybe that's what's wrong with you."

"Get lost, all of you," the eldest brother scoffed, dropping the book in a chair and quickly making himself scarce.

Roxy was laying still now, and quiet. John wasn't sure when, but she'd passed out sometime after the induction had started. He wondered what that'd be like for her to wake up and find an extra string there next to her children. Jaspers lay curled up on her chest.

"String was relatively easy to create John," Rose recounted, "I almost wished you'd given me a challenge."

"What do you mean?" John inquired.

Rose sat down on the couch next to him, folding her legs up under her. "Everybody's bonds look different. Mine look like Christmas lights. When you induct somebody, you create their bonds."

"Mom made mine to look like gears all hooked together," Dave agreed. "Mom says hers look like bubble gum."

"That's kinda cool," John was still smiling. He felt like he couldn't stop. He kind of didn't want to stop.

"Alright, well, if you'll both excuse me." Rose stood, and John watched her turn to walk away. She picked the book up from the chair Dirk had thrown it in on her way to the stairs.

"Where are you going?" Dave pulled his flower crown off of his head as he spoke, untangling them from his sunglasses.

Rose narrowed her eyes. "I think I told you several days ago what I do is none of your business."

"Your taking the book. Pretty sure you're up to something," Dave replied flatly.

"I always have the book," Rose defied, clutching it closer to her chest.

"Yeah, that's true, but I know how you get after you start casting. Didn't Dirk tell you not to try to do that shit without him? You've got control problems, sis. Like trying to shove an over stuffed cool ranch loco taco down a funnel."

Rose's face flushed, hot and mad. "Back off, Dave!"

"You'll burn the goddamn house down," Dave remained calm. "What are you gonna do up there?"

"Fuck off!" She spat finally, turned around and left. John could hear her stomping up the steps and slam the door to her room. Dave just sighed.

"What I wouldnt of gave to be an only child."

"Do you really think she's up to something?" John asked.

"Yeah. She'll probably wait until tonight to do it though."

"Will Dirk be back by then?" John followed up.

"Nah, he's working third shift tonight. Mom's gonna be hungover and tired so I guess it's up to me to get dinner and watch her and shit," Dave huffed. "I'll be up all night."

"I'll stay and help," John offered.

Dave grinned. "Thanks."

The rest of the day passed into the afternoon. Dave had hot chocolate and a bunch of movies from the nineteen eighties. Afternoon lead into the evening, and John followed Dave out deer hunting. The blind was pretty small, and John realized a half hour into the silence that Dave hadn't even brought a weapon.

Confused as he was, he didn't comment.

At dark the boys went back into the house. Legal shooting time over at seven eighteen, a half an hour after the time of sunset. Dirk had left forty five minutes ago for work, and Roxy had crawled off the couch and up to her bed, taking Jaspers and a bottle of aspirin with her.

Dave assured John that his mother would probably be out like a light for the rest of the night.

Roxy bought pizza for them both for dinner, despite not being awake to consent. They called Rose down but she never showed. Dave claimed that only hammered down his suspicions.

"Dave, do you think maybe we should call your brother or wake your mom up?" John suggested.

"No. I don't want to get her yelled at or nothing, 'cause then she'd be pissed at me," Dave disagreed. "I'm just gonna keep the fire extinguisher and the salt ready in case I gotta help her clean up."

"Salt?" John mocked.

"Yeah," the blonde affirmed, "keeps shit out you don't want in. You just make a circle or line or whatever and nothing malicious can cross it."

"Do you think that'd work on Vriska? The demon?" John questioned.

Dave looked like he'd been slapped in the face. "Jesus Christ, you're a genius."

"I think my dad's got a big can of salt in our spice cupboard, I'll start carrying that with me. Or salt packets," he smirked, joking.

Dave cracked a smile too. "Yeah. Hey, man, can I ask you something?"

"Sure," John agreed.

Dave opened his mouth to reply but he got no such chance. Something upstairs thumped loudly on the ceiling above them. Something settled over the house then, something strange and intrusive. John could feel the aura around him go haywire.

"Called it," Dave muttered. Both boys ascended the steps in a hurry.

The door to Rose's room was the same cherry wood as everything else in the house. Unlike Dave's door, it was clear of any posters or writing. The door boosted only a shinny crystal door knob. When Dave tried it, he found it locked.

"Rose! Open the door!" The middle strider child shouted. John tried to look for anything to key them into what was going happening on the other side. At the bottom of the door, the white carpet keyed them in.

John reached over and smacked Dave's shoulder, pointing down to where a bright light glowed a dark green.

"Rose!" Dave shouted again. He tried the door again, pushing his shoulder into it in a failed attempt to pry it open.

"Shh, dude, maybe we can hear what's going on?" John waved his hand, trying to draw attention to his words. Dave quickly let off the door to listen.

In the quiet of the night, John heard a voice that made his skin crawl. Rose had gone in alone, but she wasn't alone anymore.

"Well now, aren't you a bit young for this?"

The voice was a woman's, mellow and even with just enough pep to keep her from sounding middle aged. John pegged her twenty five at the latest. She sounded husky, sultry, and dry mouthed thirsty. It reminded him of Vriska, and he shivered.

"What the fuck?!" Dave whispered. John shushed him.

"Yes," Rose affirmed, her tone without fear.

"You seem to have friends at the door?" The strange voice spoke again.

"It's only my whelp brother and his soul split friend, they can't do any harm," Dave winced at Rose's words. "Actually, the soul split is what I wanted to inquire about... however, I'd like to consent now, just to get things out of the way?"

"Mm, yes, that sounds like a plan," the woman purred, and something rustled and the floor creaked. Dave tried the doorknob one more time before pulling away, slightly panicked.

"I'm gonna go call Dirk, I don't know what's going on."

Something clattered from inside the room before Dave could draw out his cell phone.

"What-" Rose exclaimed, but she didn't finished her sentence.

"You are under age!" The woman shrieked. "Did you think you could trick me? I am centuries old, little girl , you cannot fool me!"

"I wasn't- I didn't mean to-" Rose sputtered.

Suddenly the door slammed open, and so did the windows to Rose's room. Items hurled from every surface, crashing to the walls and the floor and shattering there. In the middle of it all stood a woman, tall and impossibly thin. She had an extreme hourglass figure, framed by a flowing silk dress that cut off before her bare feet. She floated, hovering inches above the floor.

The woman's eyes glowed a shade of jade green, accentuating her off colored skin. Her skin was grey, but clear and unmarked, save for a large pair of gold earrings hooked into her earlobes. Her hair complimented the hooped jewlery, jet back locks settled around her shoulders.

"Do you attempt to make a fool out of me?" Her voice boomed all of a sudden, shaking the house and intimidating John a step backwards.

Rose lay sprawled out on her back, her black skirt rucked up and black lipstick staining her cheek. She was only inches from the woman, who towered over her. She looked terrified, unable to move a muscle. "I, I- I didn't mean to deceive you, I just needed help."

"Why, pray tell, would you summon an Incubus sex demon to help you? You are a witch, you must know you must be eighteen to seal a deal with me," the woman, an apparent incubus argued. "Do not tell me you are ignorant to the trade an incubus proposes?"

"No, no I'm not, I just thought that you'd be safer. I can't make a deal with you, so- so I thought I'd be safer," Rose confessed. John had never known Rose to just spill her guts like that. This demon was using her will to choke Rose's words out of her.

" No one is safe from any demon," the incubus growled. Rose finally bowed her head, trembling in surrender.

"Hold on!" John interrupted, before either woman made any more moves. All sets of eyes lay on him, but he wasn't sure what else to say. He shifted, leaning away from the sight in front of him, shaking too.

"You two must be the whelp brother and the soul split then?" The demon questioned. As she turned her attention away from Rose, she seemed to calm. "I'll assume you're the whelp, by your lack of any sort of magic presence," she scowled at Dave, who drew away from her, "and you must be the soul split?"

John swallowed hard. The woman approached. John stood his ground as she looked him over.

"Did Vriska Serket do this to you?"

"Yes," John was compelled to answer.

"My," the incubus grinned, foxlike and actually sort of sexy, "What an unfortunate problem you have. I'm Kanaya Maryam, by the way."

"John Egbert," John replied, his mouth gone dry. "You know Vriska?"

"Know her? Darling I courted her. I know her like the back of my hand," Kanaya chuckled, "you know what they say about a woman scorned don't you?"

John didn't reply.

"How old are you?"

"Eighteen," John sputtered.

“I have a proposition for you, John Egbert. Make a deal with me, and I’ll tell you more about her. That’s what you want, isn’t it? That’s why the girl child summoned me?”

Johns first instinct was to agree, tell her yes, but then it occurred to him that making a deal was the last thing he wanted. She didn’t seem violent, but he also didn’t know what she was capable of.

“I don’t want to make any deals, no thank you,” John rejected. Kanaya looked annoyed. Dave was quiet behind him.

“Alright. I’ll take anything explicit off of the table. Is that better? Make a deal with me now?”

John had to be careful about his words. That was better. Kanaya mostly just seemed irked. Not violent, not angry, not actively trying to intimidate him, just annoyed. Maybe she wasn’t so bad?

“What’s in it for you?” John asked, suggesting but careful not to offend.

“My one and only goal is to leech energy. That’s all I want.”

“Uh,” John stammered, looking to Rose for a moment, glancing behind Kanaya. The blonde girl looked frantic, holding her spell book tight to her chest. He turned to look at Dave, who was tense and defensive. Neither objected.

“Okay," John agreed, and shook Kanaya’s hand as she extended her own.

John could feel her start to drain him the instant his skin touched hers. She was cold, and he could feel her bite, like a fat black leech. It stung, and John recoiled, peeling his lip back to snarl at her with his mouthful of sharp teeth.

Kanaya was unperturbed, and took from him with a straight face.

John was tired from the taxes the day, but he could feel himself getting worse. His shoulders sagged and his eyelids drooped. His breath came short. His knees almost buckled when Kanaya let go.

"No wonder your soul was split, boy. You wouldn’t know a bad deal from a good one if it bit you,” she sneered. “Which, I suppose I sort of did.”

“Do all you demons dirty deal?” John huffed sourly, stumbling back. Dave inched closer to him.

It was Kanaya’s turn to snarl. “I did not make a dirty deal. You humans are too stupid for your own good. When you deal, you make a contract. A contract should iron out everything in your deal! Both parties are bound to it. Just now, for example, you shook my hand without telling me how much I could take, when, and how much information you wanted after. It’s all arbitrary, do you see?”

She huffed, straightening her dress, “I could have killed you if I wanted.”

“But you didn’t,” Dave spoke with false confidence.

“But I didn’t,” Kanaya agreed. “Whelp boy, fetch us some tea, would you?”

“Fuck off! I’m not your servant,” Dave growled.

Kanaya’s eyebrows rose. “You have a loud mouth for a whelp.”

“Stop calling him that,” Rose had picked herself off the ground, the grimoire still tucked under her arm, but she’d wiped the lipstick off of her skin.

“It is what he is.”

“Doesn’t mean I like it,” Dave replied roughly.

John watched a look of interest cross Kanaya’s features. “What would you rather me call you instead?”

“Dave. Just Dave.”

“Alright, Just Dave,” the succubus grinned, “Do you suppose you could make me some tea? I think I’ll be here for quite sometime.”

Dave took a moment to reply, mulling it over. “Sure. Maybe we should move this party downstairs?”

“Certainly,” Kanaya accepted, and her feet touched the ground.

Hesitantly, Dave lead the way back downstairs, John right behind him. Kanaya followed, and Rose brought up the back.

Kanaya settled herself in the loveseat, content to sit and wait. John wished he had the energy to even sit up straight. He flopped down on the couch, his eyes heavy and his muscles tired. He didn’t feel badly, just tired. It was warm in the house, and the sofa was comfortable. He felt like falling asleep right then and there. Rose perched next to him, however, looking tense.

He felt it when she began strumming on the bond they shared. She had an insistent, nervous strum that was meant to keep him awake, and so far It was working.

Dave returned with four mugs of hot water, hot enough to require an oven mitt, and a box of tea bags. He took the mitt off after setting the cups down, and John noticed he’d burnt his hands. He squished on to the couch with John and Rose, keeping the table between them and Kanaya.

The demon quietly made her tea, and silence fell over the room. Finally when the tea steeped and she'd taken a sip, Kanaya sat back on the couch and stared the kids down. All three of them squirmed.

"So, how did it happen? The soul split, I mean," she spoke.

John cleared his throat. "I uh, I was back in the woods, with Dave, and we got lost and I got separated. And uh, we meet, and we made a bad deal. She attacked me, and ever since she's been stalking me, I guess? Dave's brother seems to think she's trying to turn me, or something?"

Kanaya hummed in agreeance. "Yes, more than likely. Do you know what that means?"

John shook his head.

"It means she's going to keep trying to make deals, and keep trying to split your soul. She's going to chip away at it, and keep taking until she has all of it. With each part she takes, she'll make you more and more like her."

Kanaya pause to sip her tea, and then continued.

"She wants your soul because she thinks it will make her... well, to understand what she wants, you have to understand Vriska."

"Do you think you could help us understand then?" Rose questioned.

Kanaya batted her too long eyelashes and sipped her mug again. "I was getting to that."

The room was quiet once more. Rose took the time to make herself a cup of tea, now the water had cooled, and then make John a cup. John noted the box claimed the tea to be caffeinated. John was all for caffeine.

When Kanaya spoke again, her tone was less informal, more serious and more intense.

"Vriska was born only about two hundred years ago. Relatively new. She was born to the daughter of a very unlucky county prosecutor. He was quite bad at it, and he threw himself into his work endlessly. His daughter, who was blind and friendless, wanted company. From her deep unhappiness, Vriska was created."

"Created how? Was she a witch?" Rose asked.

"Please cease your interruptions!" Kanaya scolded, "Moving on. It's impossible to create joy from melancholy. The two fought endlessly, until Vriska revealed herself to the prosecutor in a game of one ups-manship. The daughter was killed by his hand, hung for being a witch. Vriska was now the one alone. She became violent and dishonest."

"By turning you, John, she gains your soul. She's taken hundreds of them though the years, from anyone she can get. Each soul brings her joy, makes her feel less lonely, like a drug, but she can never hold on to it. The only problem is that humans cannot survive as a demon. They become little more than an animal, unfeeling, unseeing, until someone puts them out of their misery."

John hadn't realized, but he'd been holding his breath. He swallowed the lump in his throat and took a long, awkward sip of his tea. He didn't need to speak, because Dave spoke up for him.

"The grimoire says we have to bargain for John's soul back, what is it she wants?"

Kanaya sat back, thinking for just a moment before she replied, "Might in inquire what is wrong with John now? If he is happy, and other humans cannot tell, what is the problem? She will lose interest in him after some time."

John exchanged glances with Dave and Rose. That wasn't exactly an acceptable answer. John wanted to be wholly human, and he wanted to be rid of Vriska. He didn't want her to lose interest, he wanted her gone with no chance of return.

The front door opened suddenly, which could only be Dirk, since he was the only other person with a key to the house.

"I'm home on lunch break! Where the food, fam?" The eldest brother shouted though the house. He was all dressed up in his officer uniform, gun strapped to one hip and a tazer strapped to the other. His polished shoes tracked through the house, creaking on the hardwood until he came to a stop under the arched doorway.

"Shit," Rose swore, looking away from him.

John watched Dirk pull his sunglasses off, his hazel eyes gazing confused at the stranger in his home. Kanaya smiled, raising a hand with too long fingers to wave. Dirk frowned.

"Who wants to explain this one?"

Chapter Text

“Hey John, I got a deer, he said, come over and help me look for it he said, Oh my god. Dave Strider, how the hell did I end up back in the woods behind your house? How?”

“Chill John, do you see any blood on the ground? I watched him run in to the woods here.”

“No! I don’t! I don’t even know how your seeing it!” John huffed, crossing his arms.

Dave just sort of shrugged and bent down, shinning his flash light on to the forest floor. He searched for a moment with his sunglasses pinned to the front of his coat.

“Do you see anything?” John asked.

“No I, oh, wait, right there,” Dave said, pointing to a brown leaf with the tiniest speck of blood on it.

John rolled his eyes. “How are you even seeing that?”

“Very carefully,” Dave smirked, and stood up straight. He shined the light foreword, down a slim deer path, and sure enough, glinting in the light was an ever growing blood trail.

“Come on, but stay behind me,” Dave started walking, and John did as instructed. He didn’t ask Dave’s reasoning, but he figured it had something to do with the trail.

They crashed though the bushes, pushing back branches and sticks. The moon wasn’t offering much light, and with the flashlight directed down at the fallen leaves John really had to watch where he was going. He felt a little like he was playing a morbid game of follow the leader.
Dave’s red flannel was bright in the darkness, and John followed right behind him. He was not about to get lost again, no way. Even if the light did cut off, John was within gabbing distance of Dave.

“This is really familiar,” he smarted. Dave let go of a branch, either on purpose or on accident, and it smacked John square in the face, obscuring his glasses. This was all too familiar, he thought, spitting a dry tasting leaf out of his mouth.

“Sorry,” Dave said, pausing for just a moment, looking over his shoulder at John.

“It’s cool,” John replied, “this week has just been nuts, hasn’t it?”

Dave laughed, stepping over a log. “Yeah man, no kidding. We played hell getting rid of Kanaya after you left yesterday. Bro couldn’t dismiss her, and Rose couldn’t focus. We had to wake mom up.”

John laughed along with him. If Rose was in trouble when Dirk got home, he couldn’t imagine the grounding she got when Roxy found out.

“Hey, that reminds me, what were you trying to tell me before Kanaya interrupted us?”

John couldn’t see Dave’s face, but he could have swore he just winced.

“Oh, uh, oh, well so, um,” he stammered, “Um, it was nothing, I uh, hey holy shit look at all that blood.”

In the cone of illumination flash light gave was a large puddle of blood up ahead, where the deer had lay down, tired and dying. A broken arrow lay on one side of it, the colorful plastic feathers sticking out against the brown leaves. It smelled like a musty, dirty animal here. Bucks in rut typically smelled, Dave had told him. The blood was still drying, but it was no longer red in color, and it was cool to the touch.

“Sweet,” Dave grinned, moving ahead. John rolled his eyes again.

The first thing the blonde did was pluck the arrow up off of the ground. He examined the break, running a finger over it before switching it to his nondominant hand to carry it along with him.

The boys progressed though the woods, dodging more brush as the woods grew thicker. The blood trail stayed steady. Sometimes John noticed changes, where the blood would try to clot but fail, leaving large droplets alongside the smaller ones.

Dave moved faster, excited and giddy about his catch.

The smell of rutty buck didn’t fade. They had to be close. They rounded a large bush, following the curve of the blood trail and sure enough there it was.
It was just a little six point. A trophy in his own right, just for Dave. He was just big enough, mature but still small enough to drag. John realized that no piece of machinery could get this far back in to the woods, so they actually were going to have to drag him.

The buck’s eyes were wide open and his legs were splayed out, laying dead right where he fell. There was a hole right where his heart should have been, all the way though and still draining.

John didn’t want to linger on it. He didn’t want to look, but god, it was so hard not to. It was still warm he bet.

“Is he dead?” John asked.

Dave motioned for him to be quiet, and then he silently moved forward, careful not to crunch too many leaves. He moved slowly, and crouched down next to the deer. He moved a hand to its neck and gently rested it there. John didn’t know if he took its pulse or just waited to see if he would jump, but finally Dave spoke up.

“He’s dead. This is my first deer, John, holy shit!”

Dave shined the flashlight up, and it was just enough light for John to see his best friend’s face. Dave was grinning ear to ear, so happy it probably hurt. John smiled back at him.

“Good job, dude! So uh, what are we gonna do with it now?”

“Well uh, I was thinking I’d gut it and um, I guess we’ll drag it back to a path, and have Dirk bring the quad out to pick us up.” Off of his hip, Dave pulled a knife out of the leather holster and squatted down. “Do you uh, wanna watch? If I mean, you could go back to the house and get Dirk if you want.”

John really did not want to watch. He really wanted to leave, but the smell was driving him nuts. He rocked back on his feet, humming and looking between his friend and the dead creature. Nothing had been quite so satisfying as eating off that skull a week ago, and here was little, powerless Dave as the only thing standing between him a a meal. He licked his lips and fought down the urge to act. Fuck, he was hungry.

“I’ll stay and watch. Wouldnt want you out here all by yourself,” he smiled awkwardly.

Dave’s shoulders shook with a laugh and he looked down, running his fingers though the course hair. These woods were wide and vast, but in this moment with only the narrow light of the flashlight, it felt like they were the only ones who existed in it.

John watched Dave start just below the creature’s ribs and cut down, in to the abdomen. John wasn’t as well versed as Dave in anatomy, and he wasn’t sure which organs Dave was cutting , but John couldn’t look away.

“Hey, John?” Dave’s voice took a second to register, and John wouldn’t have even noticed if his hands hadn’t froze.

“Sorry, what?”

“Do you,” he paused, looking up, “do you want to help? I’ll show you how.”

That..That wasn’t a good idea. No, he shouldn’t get any closer to the buck than he already was. If he couldn’t hold himself back, well, who knows what might happen? John’s eyebrows rose and he debated for just a moment.

“Come on, whatever freaky demon shit your scared of, I’m not. I already got started. This is the easy part. I’ll even hold your hand,” Dave smirked, holding out a hand to John. He couldn’t say no.

“If I get blood on my good pants my dad’s kill me,” John snarked, and came around to crouch next to Dave. The boys shuffled around, and somehow John ended up slightly in front of Dave, with the blondes sticky, bloody hand over his. The skinning knife pressed in to his palm was nicer than Dave’s usual skinning knives. It had a thicker blade and an ornate handle that fit nicely in his grasp.

“Here, uh, so that right there is the lung, and there’s a stem, see?” Dave said, his eyes focused.

John wished he could focus on anything else. “Yeah, I see it.”

“Alright, so let’s cut it,” Dave moved their hands, manipulating the knife in to a better place. The blade sliced it like a piece of paper.

“I don’t have a hatchet on me, so we’re gonna have to work around the pelvic bone as we move lower,” Dave instructed, “so this is the heart, cut it, but stay away from the tendons near the spine.”

“Here?” John asked. He moved their entwined hands.

“Yeah,” his friend affirmed. He severed arteries and veins alike. Dave pulled it away once he’d finished, making a pile to their right on the leaves. They moved down, fussing with intestines and kidneys, and other gross things that made John wish he had gloves. The deer was cold, but Dave’s hands were warm. The blood dried, it crusted to their hands, working its way under their finger nails and up the boy’s wrists.

John felt like he was in the zone, his thighs trembling. His eyes locked on to the task at hand, working meticulously as Dave instructed.

“I think we’re done,” Dave finally said, taking a deep breath and letting it go.

John hadn’t realized just how close Dave was to him as warm air ghosted over the back of his neck. He shivered, and twisted around, coming face to face with Dave. The blondes eyes flicked between John and the deer before their eyes finally locked.

The warmth, both literal and figurative, John felt to his best friend in that moment paled in comparison to any connecting magic could ever conjure up.
John felt his jaw go slack. He could have swore a blush dusted Dave’s cheek.

“Hey, Brokeback Mountain, its eleven thirty on a school night, you done?”

Dirk’s voice cut the air and the boys jumped apart, both landing flat on their ass.

“Hey, fuck off, Bro,” Dave gripped, “did you bring something to haul this heavy bastard back with or you just come to stand around and look stupid?”

“No, Dave,” John said very seriously, fighting back a playful smirk. “It’s time we come clean about us. I just can’t quit you.”

Dirk outright groaned. “Real funny. Alright fucktards, get your asses in gear, let’s go.”

Dave stifled his laugh and stood up. John mocked him, and together they each grabbed an antler. Dirk lead the way out of the forest, holding both flashlights. John used all his strength and Dave strained, but together they pulled the buck out of the underbrush. It was only about fifty feet, but by the time they finally had it loaded on to the front of the four wheeler, they were sweating and panting and exhausted.

Dirk had some hang up that he needed to drive, so Dave and John practically sat on top of each other on the back rack.

Dirk gunned it back to the Strider house, around the back of the building and to the front of the house where the garage door was open. Roxy had moved her car, clearing a spot for Dave to hang his buck. Both of the girls were standing outside, all bundled up and waiting.

As soon as Dirk shut the engine off, Roxy was rushing over.

“Davey, he’s so big, just look at that!” She gushed, taking her younger son’s face between her hands and peppering him with kisses.

“He’s not that big, mom,” Dave replied, but he didn’t push her away.

“He’s huge!” The woman gushed, “and you did it all by yourself! I’m so proud of you, even if you are a filthy, nasty mess. Oh, my own baby boy is a big bad deer hunter!”

Dave didn’t touch her, his hands were a mess, but he was clearly uncomfortable. Roxy was almost in tears. John cleared his throat.

“I’ll help you string it up, Dave.”

“Thank you, Johnny, sweetie, your such a nice boy!” Roxy cooed.

Dave quickly slipped out of her grasp, and went in to the garage to find rope. There was already a pulley fixed to the ceiling, and John got a step ladder and threaded it as Dave directed Dirk where to park the quad. Dave tied a rope around its neck, and together, all three men strung it up in to the air. There wasn’t really anything to tie it to, so they ended up knotting the rope to the front rack on the quad.

“How long until you take it to the butcher?” Dirk asked, hands on his hips.

“You mean how long until you take it to the butcher?” Dave countered.

Dirk scoffed. “I’m not putting that in my truck.”

“Sure your not,” Dave snorted. “Open the door so me and John can wash our hands.”

“I should shut you both outside and make you use the hose,” Dirk threatened.

“How about I lock all three of you out here and make you sleep with the dead stuff?” Rose suggested loftily, walking past them with Roxy behind her. Rose opened the door and Jaspers came squirting out, eager to see the commotion. He stopped dead on the concrete floor, turned to look at the dead animal hanging from the ceiling and then planted himself right where he stood.

“Come on, boys,” Roxy called.

“Be right there, you go on ahead,” Dave replied. John decided to follow the rest of the Striders inside and let Dave have a moment to himself. He didn’t know if Jaspers still knew he was human, but he also wasn’t about to ask. Letting Dave have a moment with his dad sounded like the right thing to do.

John washed up promptly. As much as his new nose liked the smell of blood, the human part of him was stressing about how unsanitary this was. He used a scratchy pad to scrub the blood crusted around his nails, and called it good after a whole five minutes of soap and water. After the water stopped running red, John called it good and came to sit with Rose and Roxy in the living room.

The girls were seated on the sofa, both sharing a micro fiber blanket and watching a Halloween movie. John liked this one too, so he found a spot on the other couch across from them and settled in to watch. Dirk had gone off somewhere, probably upstairs to do whatever it was he did. John didn’t know a lot about the oldest Strider child, even after years of visiting the house.

Dave came in later. John heard the door finally shut. Jaspers waltzed in to the room not long after to jump up on a Roxy’s lap. The water in the kitchen run for a while as Dave scrubbed up. Finally the younger Strider son emerged and flopped down on the couch next to John.

“Hey thanks again, dude, you helped me a ton,” Dave said, grinning and offering John a fist bump. John pounded it, grinning too.

“No problem.”

“Do you have to beat it home?” Dave asked.

“Uh, I probably should but I’m gonna take a sec. My arms are screaming,” he joked. Dave nodded.

John decided to pull his phone out of his pocket and sent a quick text to his dad to let him know he wasn’t dead and he’d be home soon. His dad fired back a few moments later, unhappy but accepting.

The movie was an old one, one from before John was born, and it was almost over. John saw a lot of similarities between the movie and his real life, the three siblings, the black cat, and the thick leather spell book.

“Oh, hey,” John drawled as the spell book crossed the screen, “Roxy, have you uh, have you found anything to change me back?”

Roxy took a deep breath, and looked down at the cat covering her lap.

“No John, I haven’t,” she spoke. She sounded sorry. Very deeply sorry. There was a long, awkward silence that followed.

“I spoke to Kanaya about it after you left in depth, and she didn’t know of anything more,” Rose added, “but there’s always-”

“No,” Roxy cut her off, “no, that’s too dangerous. No.”

“What?” John asked. Roxy put her head in her hand.

“You already know what I’m going to say, John. The only thing in the Grimmoire that covered demon remedies is bargaining what you lost back,” Rose said. It was a bit dejecting to find that no progress had been made.

“What did Kanaya say about it? I wasn’t there for that part,” Roxy questioned.

“She just asked me what was wrong with being this way,” John answered. “But I want to be human again. I hate feeling like this. I hate being like this.”

“Kanaya seemed to agree that trading was the only way,” Rose frowned, “but she also said she had no idea what Vriska wanted to trade for.”

“No, it can’t be,” Roxy rejected, “that can’t be the only way. I’ll find another grimmore, I’ll call more of my friends. Someone has got to know something.”

John nodded. He didn’t feel like he could do anything else. He glanced at the clock, and then stood.

“I think I’d better head home.”

“See you in like, eight hours, man,” Dave said in his own form of good bye.

“Bye, John,” Rose bid.

Roxy stood up and pulled him in to her arms, kissing his cheek and patting his back.

John left the Strider house, turning around completely in the driveway so he didn’t have to back up the entire length of their long drive.

He pulled out on to the street and started towards home, his Kia gliding over the pavement. His headlights lit the way home, passing the high school and going through their tiny town. John’s subdivision was only fifteen minutes away from Dave’s house. His own house was the third one on the right.

John’s house was warm when he arrived, and his father was waiting for him when he got there. It could never be said Jack Egbert didn’t care about his son.

“Did you find Dave’s deer?” He asked from the recliner, scratching a hand though his brown hair.

“Yeah, we did,” John replied, throwing himself down on the nearby sofa.

“Was it very big?” The older Egbert asked, picking up his pipe from the end table between them.

“No. Well, I don’t know much about deer, so maybe? It was heavy when I helped drag it but it only had three little points on each side of its antlers.”

Jack nodded and hummed, fishing his lighter out of his pants pocket to light his pipe.

“Anything going on at the factory tomorrow?” John asked.

“Not anything more than usual,” his father replied. “I’m taking inventory and then supervising the production line in the afternoon.”


It was John’s turn to nod.

“You should go to bed. You’ve got to get up for school tomorrow,” Jack pointed out, taking his pipe between his lips in the familiar way he had since John’s childhood.

“Yeah, your right. Good night dad,” John grinned. His father grinned back around the pipe, and John left him there in the chair in favor of his bedroom.

“Good night, son,” his father called up the steps, and John heard him right before he shut his door.

John’s bed was large and overstuffed with pillows and soft blankets. The top blanket was a blue and white quilt his Nana had made him, and under that was two or three other, softer blankets. He also had a stuffed rabbit tucked under his covers, one he’d gotten from Dave as a birthday present when they were no older than six. It was worn and stained but John could never part with it.

John changed in to his pajamas and lay down, pulling the blankets up to his chin and settling down. He didn’t want to sleep. He didn’t want to get on his phone either, he sort of just stared at it, debating on what to do. He checked the time and it read straight midnight.

Groaning, he flopped over on to his back.

John wondered if Dave was still awake. He probably was. Jack had always called Roxy a free thinker, she let her kids do as they pleased. She indulged even their strangest hobbies and never imposed bedtimes. Dave was routinely up until at least one in the morning. Jack wasn’t a strict parent, but John’s life was structured.

Experimentally, John reached out and plucked Dave’s string. The sound reverberated off of the line, quiet and low, only to bounce back at him moments later. John grinned. Dave was awake.

John sent a second strum to his best friend, closing his eyes and snuggling down in to his bed. Dave replied quickly. John send a third, and then a fourth, each time the response was quick and happy sounding. John figured he must be with his first deer in the garage.

The two played a song together for a long, long time. Each boy growing sluggish in his response. John was falling asleep before he knew it, unable to pluck a response back to his best friend. He floated off to sleep, warm and close feeling.

When he awoke however, it was not Monday morning, and John was not in his bedroom.

Instead he was outside, under a misty, rain spitting October sky. The air was moist, the shoulders of his shirt were wet, absorbing the water like a sponge. He wasn’t fit to be outside. He didn’t have any long sleeves, or a coat, or shoes, or even his glasses. He couldn’t see anything, despite it being dark. John shivered.

Something was up, some kind of weird magic shit and this was not okay. His first instinct was to try to ping Dave, but there was no response in the other end. Asleep.

John looked down, trying in vain to assess his situation, and best he could tell by the feel of the muddy earth under him and the hard fibers under his feet, he must be standing in a picked corn field.

Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fucking fuck. John could feel his legs start to tremble. His teeth began to chatter too, and he wasn’t sure if it was from fear or cold. Fuck.

Where was he at? How was he going to get home? Was there a road nearby? He could walk. He’d have to walk.

“John?” Just like that she was on him, Vriska’s voice chilling his spine. She was nearby, but her vocals warped, like she was all around him. Everywhere at once. John went ridged.

“John, come on! It’s just me. Can you see me?” She asked innocently. “Don’t be scared.”

“I- I can’t see you,” he stammered, but immediately he wished he hadn’t.

“Ohh, well you should have my night vision. Try blinking,” she instructed.

John shivered where he stood, fighting the urge not to crawl in on himself. He didn’t want to. What if she did something to him while his eyes were closed?

“Just blink, it’s not that big of a deal.”

John retracted away from her, quaking for just another moment before he finally blinked, shutting his eyes quickly and opening them quicker.

“Harder than that!” She urged.

John didn’t even think, he just moved, squeezing his eyes shut and raising his fists to scrub at them. When he drew them away, he felt his pupils focus, contorting unnaturally, and there she was.

Vriska stood probably about ten foot in front of him, a hand on her hip and a playful sort of look on her features. She wasn’t cloudy or blurry, clear as a bell and sharper than he could have ever managed with his glasses.

“How’s that?” Vriska inquired.

“Fine,” John managed.

Vriska smirked. “Good. I wanted to talk to you, for just a minute. I hope that’s alright.”

“You couldn’t have waited until I had a coat on?” John watched his breath leave his mouth as he spoke. Vriska rolled her eyes.

“Oh, you’ll be fine. It’s just for a minute anyway. Now that your alone and without anyone trying to influence you, which is just wrong by the way! You can make your own choices about a deal!”

“No!” John rejected quickly. “No deal.”

“Oh come on!” She pried, “the old deal is still on the table. The one from the parking lot?”

John stood firm. “No.”

“Look, John, I just want to be your friend! We can help each other!”

“If you wanted to be friends, then you should have thought about that before you tried to kill me!” John scoffed.

“Oh please!” Vriska whined, “I healed you!”

“That doesn’t make it okay!” John accused, “Especially since your trying to, to, split my soul or whatever! I talked to Kanaya, she told me all about what your trying to do!”

Vriska laughed, a harsh, barking laughter that carried though field.

Split your soul? That’s hardly an accurate representation! It’s more like a trade. I give you a piece of mine for a piece of yours. You get some of my sweet demon powers, and I get to feel all warm and bubbly inside,” Vriska insisted, “Don’t listen to that fussbudget, Kanaya. Seriously, don’t take advice from a sex demon.”

“So I should take advice from a whatever you are demon then?”

“I’m a friendship demon. Yes! Now we’re getting somewhere!” She grinned, “see, I lost my friend, her name was Terezi, and she created me. It was all my fault she got hung, actually, and I feel really bad about it. I’m lonely, John, I just want to feel happy again.”

John thought maybe now would be a good time to call for help.

Vriska hadn’t moved but John wasn’t sure how long she’d stay that way.

“Alright, alright. I can see it on your face your gonna call the witches. And regardless,” she drawled out dramatically, “I can’t deal with you without a verbal contract. See? I’m your friend. If I wasn’t I wouldnt tell you all this important information. Lets sweeten the deal huh? You give me a good sized chunk, maybe say, I dunno, a fourth of what you have remaining, and I’ll share my luck power with you and I’ll fix the whelp. I’ll make him just like the rest if his family, he deserves some power too, right? Is that what you're after, John, help for your friend?”

“That’s not a good idea,” John rejected.

“Sure it is!” Vriska insisted. “Just iron out the details. I can play by the rules. Tell me exactly what you want, and then I can’t warp your words. Just say it.”

Would this actually be helping Dave? Would this be helping himself? Vriska was eight kinds if evil but god, if that didn’t sound good. Would Dave want that though? Even… even without that part of the deal, what did luck powers entail?

“I just, say what I want? And that’ll be the contract?” John asked. Vriska hummed in approval. Remember what Kanaya told him. Exactly what he wanted.

“I, John Egbert,” he paused, watching anticipation creep on to Vriska’s features. “I, John Egbert, enter this contract with-”

“Wait, hold on,” Vriska held up her hand, silencing him.

“What?” John asked.

Vriska sort of flipped her hand at him and shushed, narrowing her eyes, she peered off to the right.


John saw why he was being hushed. On the very edge of his vision was a dog. John couldn’t tell what color, but it was big. Bigger than any normal dog, towering at close to five foot tall. John could hardly make it out, but he could see a flash of long teeth and paws the size of dinner plates. Vriska hissed, her lips peeling back in to a snarl.

Alright, fuck this, John was calling for help now. Dave couldn’t do anything, plus he was asleep. There was a chance Dirk would be awake though. Maybe he was on shift?
While Vriska was distracted, John took Dirk’s bond string and yanked. There was no response, and John panicked. Frantically he started pulling, jerking the string like it was hooked to a heavy church bell.

Finally Dirk yanked back, groggy and annoyed. John didn’t have time for that. He kept pulling, until finally he felt constant tension on the string like a game of tug-a-war. What did that mean? John couldn’t pull anymore. Couldn’t Dirk feel how scared he was?

The dog milled around just in the edge of John’s range of sight. Wait a second, were there two of them? John thought he saw a smaller set of paws beside the larger ones. Vriska was ridged, her shoulders raised like hackles and snarling. Her fingers flexed. Saliva dropped from between her teeth and she growled, inciting a snarl from one of the dogs. John took a step back, and suddenly with a whooping howl the dogs were coming at them.

For just a moment, Vriska braced, and then she revolved face and ran. John turned too, following after her and away from the hellish hounds. Vriska was fast, faster than any human. She bolted like her life depended on it, her legs warping into something long and skinny that moved faster still. It didn’t matter. The dogs were on her, their long limbs stretching to cover ground and pass by John like he wasn’t even there.

He watched the larger dog in front jump, springing forward to jump, claws and teeth bared to snap at Vriska. It’s teeth missed her the first time, but not the second. He caught her left arm and yanked, twisting her around, but she caught herself. Vriska remained on her feet, screeching in pain as the dog clung to her.

The smaller dog sunk its fangs in to her opposite shoulder, paws on her hips in an effort to shove her down. Vriska fought, staggering to remain on her feet. They struggled, Vriska’s strength evenly matched with that of the oversized canines. She screamed again as the larger dog shook his head violently, jaw barring down with teeth attempting to saw her bone from her body.

It succeeded with a sickening crack and a pained howl from the demon. 

Vriska’s right hand, which had been fisted in the chest of the smaller dog, moved, scruffing it like a tiny puppy and threw it shoulder first in to the larger, who still had her severed arm in its mouth.

Both dogs went down, the smaller landing splayed out on top of the larger in a heap. The smaller scrambled away from snapping jaws, yelping as the larger dog tried to stand through their tangled limbs.

Once free of her attackers, Vriska ran. Once they were back on their feet, both dogs gave chase. John watched Vriska draw away from them, winning her own race to escape before all three of them disappeared in to the tree line on the edge of the field. They were gone just as soon as they’d appeared.

John was alone. At least, he hoped he was. There were no eyes glinting back at him, and he couldn’t hear anything stepping through the fallen corn. The breeze blew, reminding him how cold he was, and he shivered.

He didn’t try to call out to anyone.

His shirt was soaked through and mud clung to his pant legs.

John didn’t know how long he stood there. The moon and stars were covered by the thick clouds, still drizzling rain on to his miserable form. He gazed off in to the distance, disoriented and confused. Which was was town? Should he start walking? The sound of wet tires pulled him away from his thoughts, and he turned around to see the source.

Coming up the road with its brights on was a car. As it drew near, John could see by the position of its head lights it was a truck. It slowed down to turn on to the flat ground of the field, and bumped it way across the cut corn. It was Dirk in his orange truck, here to rescue him. John's pupils dilated, returning to normal and forcing him to squint. 

The door opened, and the cab lights came on, illuminating Dirk’s face. He’d lost his sunglasses, and his gelled hair had been washed, resembling Dave’s.

“John, get your ass in this truck!” He shouted. John obeyed.

John climbed in to the passenger side of the truck, and Dirk reached behind the seat, pulling out an orange flannel shirt.

“You’re all fucking wet, take your shirt off. I won’t look, here,” Dirk threw it at him, and shut his door, the cab light going off moments later. True to his word, Dirk didn’t look. He twisted around and backed up, wheeling out of the fired before John uttered a word.

John was glad to take his wet clothes off. He slipped the flannel on his arms and buttoned it up. Dirk cranked the heat on and sighed, flipping his brights off and relaxing in to his seat.

“Thanks,” John muttered.

“No problem,” Dirk said gruffly, “this is the exact fucking reason I wanted you to join our coven. I’m so fucking glad, Jesus fucking Christ. Are you okay?”

John nodded. “I’m fine. She didn’t hurt me but, geez, did you see those big dogs?”

“Big dogs?” Dirk questioned, “what color were they?”

“I don’t know. But they were so big, they were like little horses,” John breathed, rubbing his hands on his arms to warm himself up.

Dirk didn’t respond for a moment, trying to think. “I didn’t see them, no. We’ll talk about it later. You just chill out, okay?”

He reached over and flipped on the radio, the Sunday night oldies flashback flooding through the speakers. Johnny Cash droned through the guitar.

John snuggled down in to the warmth of the flannel, his wet hair dripping on to the back of the shirt. It smelled familiar, like something he couldn’t place. Clean and safe, like shampoo, and cologne. Something John remembered instantly from year and years of visiting the Striders. Dirk had always been there throughout his childhood, and he really felt like an over protective big brother right now. It was a homey smell. But what was the name? It was right on the tip of his tongue.

“Hey, Dirk, what’s the name of your cologne?” He asked finally.

“I don’t wear cologne. Dave wore that last,” Dirk stated plainly.

Chapter Text

“Thank you, again. For, uh, you know.”

“No problem. It’s important to do for your own.”

Dirk’s truck rolled up to John’s driveway. The clock on the dash read three minutes after four. The street was well lit with overhead lights, so Dirk flipped his headlights off to avoid shining them into John’s windows.

Dirk turned the key off, silencing the engine and sighed. He put his head in his hands and tiredly slumped against the steering wheel.

“Thanks,” John mumbled again, reluctant to leave the heated cab.

“You’re welcome,” Dirk said, muffled by his hands. He sniffed loudly, wiping his face with his hands and took a deep breath. “Come on, I’ll unlock your door.”

Right. John had forgotten all about the door locks.

As quietly as he could, John bailed out of the truck. He shut the door softly, and walked up his front steps with Dirk right behind him. He wished his feet didn’t scuff  so loudly on his sidewalk.

The Egbert’s front door was steel, painted a pleasant shade of brown, flanked by two huge pumpkins John’s father had picked up at the store. Inside, the door had two deadbolts on top of the regular lock. Being a police officer, John was sure Dirk was just going to pick the locks. He probably learned it at work or in training or something.

Instead, the older man closed his eyes, focused, and waved a hand over the door. The door pulsed with intent, orange waves rolling off of it, flowing freely until they faded into the autumnal air. It only took a moment, and as his hand moved down the cold steel John could hear the locks unlatching one by one.

Dirk reached out and took the knob, turned it and opened it for John. He blinked the orange out of his irises, and motioned for John to go inside.

“Thanks,” John said a third time. That was pretty cool, he had to admit.

“Welcome. I’ll be up the rest of the night, but I gotta be to work at six. Call me if you need anything,” Dirk replied, yawning. John nodded, yawning too, and shut the door behind him. The locks click back into place all by themselves as he ascended the steps, but John did not turn around to watch them.

John was exhausted. Stumbling through the dark to his bedroom was a challenge.

He shucked his wet clothes off on his bedroom floor and put on thicker flannel pajama pants and a clean, long sleeved shirt. He was freezing, and he wrapped himself back up in his bed, leaning against his headboard.

There was a good chance if he fell back asleep, he wouldn't hear his alarm to get up for school. John figured he might as well stay up. His dad would be up in an hour to get ready for work. He could go downstairs with him and they could drink coffee together.

The first thing John did was pull out his phone and check social media. Somebody had to be posting something, even if it was late at night. He went through three accounts with nothing to show for it , but that made sense. It was a school night after all. Can’t post memes at three when you have to use your brain at eight.

John was about to start checking for new vlog updates when a thought struck him. The internet was a huge, huge place. Maybe it had some answers for him? John fired up his internet app and typed ‘demon’ into the search engine.

The results were generic. A couple news articles about horrible politicians, a few ads for television shows. A ton of Halloween costumes and decorations popped up, but that was to be expected with the holiday fast approaching. John decided to alter his search.

Instead he typed 'demon attack’, which brought up similarly unhelpful results.

Finally he deleted it all together and searched 'soul split.’

The first few returns were Wikipedia pages, and after skimming them, John found they were nothing like what he was experiencing. He hit the back button and kept looking. The remaining links on the page went to churches, an alcoholics anonymous support group, and a doggie daycare. Frowning, John went to the next page.

The first link read Super Natural Help Forum and John’s interest was piqued. He tapped it, and evaluated the page in front of him. It was a forum site, just like the title suggested, and appeared to be sectioned into boards by supernatural occurrence. “Ghosts”had it own board with subboards, organized by type of ghost and type of haunt. “Cryptids”had its own too. The first thread read “Bigfoot is real and he tried to suck my dick”. John quickly hit the back button. He was too tired for this shit.

At last, he found demons under ”Religious Occurrences”, though Vriska didn’t have a single religious tie to her. These must be mortal people, John decided, not witches. Halfway down the page he found a thread titled 'deal with the devil?’ and navigated to that.

The original post detailed a person who was approached by a man with unnaturally sharp teeth and violet eyes. The man attempted to make a deal with the OP, who declined. The original poster asked if they should be wary and wanted to know how to rid themselves of any lingering bad karma.

The people on this website were loony, John decided, but he kept scrolling. Four pages in, he saw a post that caught his attention. Someone by the username of xwitchkitty96x. John wasn’t sure if she really was a witch or if that was just a screen name. She did explain something similar to what Rose had, that it was good that OP had not made a deal, and that the demon would lose interest if he hadn’t already. The original poster commented back, asking what he should have done if he accidentally had?

John furrowed his eyebrows at the witch’s response.

'Xwitchkitty96x said: The only remedy I know is to trade back what was taken. However, trading with demons is dicey. Finding out what they want is…difficult.’

The words were staring him right in the face but John wasn’t sure what to make of them. John checked the timing of the thread’s creation, and discovered it was over two years ago. However, it appeared that xwitchkitty96x was still active on the website, as early as a day ago. John quickly made an account on the website and clicked the private message button on the witch’s profile.

Before he began typing, John heard the floorboards creak and he froze. A few more familiar thumps told him that his father was awake. John selected the chat box and began typing.

'Ectobiologist said: I saw your post on a thread about trading with demons. I was just wondering, for my own reference, how do I find out what a demon wants to trade for? Your post suggested there was a way to find out.'

John hit the send button and sighed just as the hall light flicked on and his father’s shadow passed by under his door. Well, now was as good a time as any, John figured.

He stood up and turned on his bedroom light, blinking away the strain the brightness caused his pupils. John quickly changed his clothes to prevent further chill. He left on his grey long sleeved shirt and pulled a tee shirt on over it. His favorite Ghostbusters shirt was dirty, so this plain blue one would have to do. John got the thickest pair of socks he owned out of his drawer and chose a pair of jeans without tears in them. Warmth over style, John decided.

When John made his way downstairs, he found his dad in the chair already, sipping on a mug of fresh coffee. The morning news was on, and the weather report advised an umbrella today.

“You’re up early, John,” his father commented. His voice was gravely, not fully awake and maybe a little grumpy.

“I wanted to have coffee with you,” John grinned, hoping the low lighting in the living room wouldn't give away the bags under his eyes.

Jack grinned back and took a drink off his mug. John retrieved his own warm mug and settled in the couch, clutching it in his still cold fingers. Jack only had a half an hour before he had to leave for work. John left his house at six, and arrived at school at six fifteen. The doors were open, despite classes not starting until seven forty.

John’s first hour English teacher was a nice lady, he guessed, but she wasn’t here yet. Most teachers weren’t. Most kids weren’t. After only a few minutes at his locker, John loitered around until the warning bell rung, then hustled to class.

John settled into his seat, pulled his assigned reading out of his bag and found his notebook. The teacher walked in right as the late bell rung and asked how everyone’s weekend was. John declined to answer.

Class started. They were supposed to be reading Their Eyes Were Watching God,  but John couldn’t focus on the recorded voice  reading the book to them via their teacher’s CD player. He wanted to check his phone, to see if the witch had responded to his message. John resisted though, because he knew if his teacher saw his phone she would take it and his dad would have to get it back from the office. Instead, he pretended to follow along in the book.

When the bell rang, John gathered his things in a hurry and rushed off to his locker where he could check his phone and grab his books  for his next class.

There was a jam in the hallway, as overcrowded public schools tend to have, and John barely made it to his Algebra II class. His French class was all the way on the other side of the school and his fourth hour creative writing class was so busy he didn’t get a chance to even look at his notes much less his phone.

Lunch finally came. John whipped out his phone before he even left the classroom, and opened the internet to the message forum. He clicked his username and his inbox and to his dismay , the box was empty. Sighing, he picked up his bag and sulked to the lunchroom.

The entire room reeked of grease and the roar of everyone talking at once was a little overwhelming. John grabbed a slice of cardboard pizza and flopped himself down at the usual lunch table. Dave was already sitting there, eating the same disgusting thing he got everyday for lunch, a fucking mystery casserole with carrot sticks on the side.

“Hey man, what crawled up your ass, died, and gave you sepsis?” Dave inquired, plastic fork shoveling another mouthful of food down his gullet.

“Okay, first of all, gross. Second of all, I thought I found a lead on my uh, problem. Didn’t pan out. Or hasn’t yet?” John answered.

Dave was, unsurprisingly, the weird kid in school. He liked dead shit and talked all over the place and made strange comics. People steered clear of Dave, and John when they were together.

Dave smirked. “I heard about last night.”

“Ugh,” John groaned, “I’m so tired.”

“I should think so,” came a lofty voice from behind him. John didn’t have to turn around to know it was Rose.

“To what do we owe the honor, my ladyship? I thought you only sat by your cool friends?” Dave quirked an eyebrow at his sister.

“I came to see how John was, thank you,” the younger Strider sibling hissed.

“Oh, come on guys! Don’t fight!”

John didn’t recognize that voice. He decided to turn around then, and took in the sight before him. On the cafeteria backdrop stood Rose, her hair banded back and her favorite orange zip up jacket, the one with the bright sun on it, left open.

There was a brown haired girl standing next to her, wearing a pair of sparkly red flats with an Ironman tee shirt. John noted all of the strings tied around her fingers, and her large, circle rimmed glasses.

“Oh, hi John!”

She knew his name? Oh! Wait, John did know her.

“Hi. Jade, right?”

The brunette nodded enthusiastically and hummed a quick “mhm!”

“So what’s shaken, lady bacons?” Dave asked.

“I just told you, dummy. I’m here to see how John is,” Rose rolled her eyes a little harder than she needed too. She came around the lunch table and sat down next to her brother. Jade sat on her other side.

“Yeah!” Jade agreed, “That was pretty scary last night!”

John looked from Jade to Rose, his face contorted in confusion, then Dave, who just sort of shrugged. What? “Last night? But how did you know about that?”

Jade just sort of grinned and waited.

John looked back to Rose, who wasn’t going to give up any information anytime soon. She smiled like a fox, folding her hands in her lap.

“But you weren’t there,” John tried to reason.

“Wasn’t I?” Jade countered.

“No you-” and then it clicked. “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.”

“Magic folk stay together,” Rose said quietly.

John could hardly believe this shit. Quirky, one year younger than him, junior in high school, Jade was a werewolf? That answered so many questions but posed so many, many more.

“Did you plan that?” John asked, in awe and disbelief.

“Oh, no, we didn’t! The other there, that was my grandpa Jake by the way. We don’t live very far away from that spot and Grandpa knew right away when she entered our territory,” Jade said, still smiling. She, meaning Vriska.

“So you, he uh,” John stammered, “did you, you know, get her?”

“Unfortunately not,” Jade gave a little frown. “But she’s down an arm now. And an eye I think. She ran pretty hard through the brush with us on her tail.”

John wasn’t sure if he was relieved of distressed. Jade’s expression continued south still, looking more serious.

“I did want to talk to you though. What you were about to do when we interrupted, don’t do it, alright? That’s all I’m going to say.”

John considered her words for a long minute. He wasn’t sure about agreeing. On the one hand, dealing with Vriska in the past had not ended well for him, she might have been cheating him then. But the the temptation… everything she offered sounded so good. What he could do with that luck power-up.

“What went down with Vriska, John? Something we didn’t hear about?” Dave quizzed. He wasn’t nonchalant about it either.

“Nothing,” John had to say, looking straight into the face of someone he’d almost made a decision for. “Vriska was just in my head is all.”

Dave regarded his best friend very seriously for just a second before he accepted John’s words and brushed off the incident all together. It was strange, John decided. He’d never seen Dave do that before.

“You gonna eat that?” was all Dave had to say, pointing at his now cold pizza.

John frowned and pushed it his way.

“I don’t know how you can eat this garbage,” Jade made a face like she was about to gag.

“God bless the State of Michigan school lunch program,” Dave declared between bites, grinning like something was funny.

“You’re vile.” Rose looked positively revolted.

John turned away from the spectacle and checked his phone again to save his stomach any trouble. He refreshed the page and sure enough, next to his inbox was an excited exclamation point, bright red and begging for his attention. John pressed it as fast as he could.

'Xwitchkitty96x said: well hello, Ectobiologist, the message read, demons are a funny, fickle thing. If you are not involved with demons currently, head my warning and do. Not. Get. Involved.'

John rolled his eyes but continued reading.

'I fear that you are already, so let’s cut to the chase. To answer your question, there are two ways to find what a demon wants most to trade for. One, ask them. This is extremely dangerous and should be avoided at all costs. Two, ask the demon’s creator. This can sometimes be hard because they may belong dead, or missing, or indisposed . I hope this was helpful.'

John typed out a quick thank you and sighed. That hadn’t been helpful at all.

Vriska would just as soon skin him as she would answer a straight question, and Kanaya had mentioned her creator was dead. Shit out of luck again.

“What’s wrong, John?” Rose asked.

“Yeah, what’s so interesting you’re ignoring the greatest thing to ever hit Pheasant River High school? Me. I mean me. Forget the girls,” Dave added.

“Oh, nothing. Just,” John huffed, “I was online this morning and I thought I found something. It wasn’t very helpful.”

“Hm?” Rose hummed, her thin eyebrows raising with interest, “what sort of something?”

“Well you know how the book says to change me back I have to trade?” John asked rhetorically, tucking away his phone, “Well I basically found that. And we already established we don’t know what Vriska wants to trade for. So then I message someone and they said I could either ask Vriska or-”

“That’s suicide dude, you’d get your face torn off,” Dave interjected.

“Or?” Rose inquired, swatting at her brother to hush up.

“Or I could ask her creator. Who’s dead,” John said, crestfallen. His shoulders sagged and he leaned over the table, propping himself up only by an arm. The really was beginning to feel hopeless.

The table was quiet for a long, awkward moment before Dave sighed and spoke.

“Hey man, don’t get too dejected. Mom’s still looking.”

John still frowned.

“Yeah! It’s okay, John!” Jade assured, “you shouldn't get hung up on this. Rose’s mom will find something eventually.”

“Yeah,” John agreed unenthusiastically. He’d lost his appetite already, so the feeling deep in his stomach must be dread.

“I have an idea,” Rose stated suddenly. The table’s attention turned to her.

John watched Rose pull her phone out of her pocket and she googled something, moving too fast for John to see. Tensely, the group watched her. John recognized the site she was on as the county records website.

“Right here it is,” Rose said, clicking a link. Jade leaned over her shoulder, watching her switch screens and navigate the site. John couldn’t see much upside down. Rose typed in something and hit a search button. A single result popped up and she pressed in to that.

“You gonna let us in on this idea?” Dave smarted, moving to stack his empty plates on top of each other.

“This is a historic birth and death record for Terezi Pyrope, the creator,” Rose spoke, “it says right here she’s buried in the cemetery up on Hill Creek Road. I was thinking maybe we should pay her a visit.”

“Aw, no, Rose!” Dave groaned, “no, Jesus no. Don’t you remember the last time you bewitched some shady ass creature from the great beyond? You know, on Saturday? Mom had your ass. Seriously, shit’s like Batman in ripped tights. Bad news for all parties involved.”

Rose made her disdain clear with a loud scoff. “Sure Dave, don’t help John. Let him stay that way forever.”

John could see a brief look of guilt take over Dave’s face before he got pissy.

“Yeah okay, Rose, like I meant it like that.”

“Are you serious, Rose?” John asked in disbelief, “you can do that?”

“Sweetheart, I’m a witch. I can do anything,” the blonde replied slyly.

The bell rung then, signaling the end of the lunch hour and interrupting their conversation. Great. John had five minutes to go to his locker and get to class.

“I’ll get ahold of you tonight, John. Meet us up there,” Rose instructed, tucking her phone away and rising. Jade was up even before her.

“Later,” Dave bid, picking up his bag and slinging it onto his shoulder.

“See you,” John waved a hand after them. Finally, after the lunchroom had mostly cleared out, John got up and left for his next class.

Two more hours til the end of the school day. John’s chemistry class kept him too busy to worry about much other than hydrogen and covalent bonds, while his final class of the day, drafting, dragged on.

John carried on his day in a sort of limbo. He felt hopeful, and excited. There might actually be something they could do for him! But on the other hand, he was nervous. What if it turned out to be nothing? What if Rose wasn’t able to contact the creator? When the final bell rung, John hurried out to his car.

The house was empty when John arrived home. His father’s job at a neighboring town’s sugar factory was a good one, but sometimes it kept him away longer than John liked. Growing up, Jack took a shift where he could get up with John in the morning, but a neighbor had to get him off to school. His dad was always home when he got off the bus though. They’d have a snack together and do homework right after. That way John could play the rest of the night.

Old habits died hard. John grabbed an apple and dropped himself over the living room couch to do his homework. He read the chapter he’d ignored in English, did a couple practice French phrases, and did an assigned chemistry worksheet. He finished with everything on the inside of an hour and a half.

He took a nap promptly after shoving everything back into his school bag.

Familiar vibrations pulled him from the shallow hold of sleep. John blinked awake and blindly went for his cellphone. It wasn’t ringing, John realized it was his bond string. Specifically the one that connected to Rose. It must be time then. John tugged back twice and the vibrations ceased.

It wasn’t quite sunset yet, but it was getting that way. Shouldn't his father be home?

“Dad?” John called through the house.

“In the kitchen, John,” Jack called back.

Still a bit groggy, John pushed himself up off the couch and wandered into the house’s kitchen. John found his father scrubbing counter tops, the dishes done and a fresh pot of coffee on. He had his pipe pinned between his teeth, puffing away. He grinned as John entered the room.

When John was a kid, probably about four or so, his mother passed away. He didn’t remember her well, but he missed her. Right after she passed, John remembered how messy the house got. It was that way for months. He didn’t understand what was happening at the time, he couldn’t comprehend what was wrong with his dad, but he was part of the effort one cloudy day in May when they cleaned the house from top to bottom. Jack never let it get dirty again.

“Got up too early?” His father asked, throwing the dish rag into the sink as he finished up.

“Something like that,” John nodded stiffly. God, how long had he been asleep? A thousand years?

“What are you thinking about for dinner? We could order out,” his father offered. John frowned. The one time his dad offered to go out, and he had to leave.

“I’m actually gonna go see Dave for a while, I think, sorry,” John replied. “He said he needed my help with the book in English. Some of the words are kind of hard to understand with the dialect.”

“That’s fine,” Jack accepted. He had no reason not to. “Tell me what you want and you can eat when you get home. Or are you going to eat there?”

“Would you bring me home a burger and fries from the restaurant up in town?” John went for his jacket that hung on the wall in the kitchen, grabbing his keys off of the hook.

“I will. Drive safe, alright?” His father bid.

“I will,” John smiled, and passed back through the living room on the way to the front door.

“It’s a school night! Don’t stay out too long!” Jack shouted, just as John shut the door.

John would have to see about that. He started his car, turning the heat on low to combat the slight chill, and started down the road.

Hill Creek road ran almost the entire length of the county, but the only cemetery on it was outside of town, in the country where the small farms were settled. John drove past pastures of horses and small cattle operations. In some yards, chickens still made their way to bed with the sunset. The cemetery was nestled between a three acre gravel pit lake and a sugar beat field.

The cemetery was very, very old. John pulled up to the wrought iron gate and studied the pointed tips of the fencing as he got out. The hinges on the gate required a lot of extra effort to push them open. With his face pressed up against the iron, he noted the wording on the metal, Established 1770.

The inside of the graveyard wasn’t what John was expecting. Bushes and brambles grew up wild with no gardener to trim them. Leaves piled up with no one to rake them. Headstones crumbled and what few stone crosses were left were sinking into the earth. There must be so many unmarked graves, John thought. How were they ever going to find the creator’s grave?

John drove inside, and he shut the gates behind him, but that was as far as he went. There was no road, only an overgrown, packed down dirt path left by year’s and years of use. Hoofing it was probably the best way. The trail went up a small hill, and at the top of it, John spotted a familiar blonde head of hair.

Rose was sitting on the ground when he approached, her legs swept under her and the grimoire in her lap. Splayed out in front of her were full cans of salt and candles of every shape and size. She wore a long grey shirt, paired with black leggings, and John wondered if that would be enough to keep her warm. The sun continued its descent out of the sky.

“Hey, Rose,” John called from a distance. He didn’t want to scare her.

“Hello, John,” she greeted, raising a hand to wave at him. She didn’t turn around and she didn’t look up from the book.

“Where’s Dave and Jade?” John quizzed, looking over her shoulder. The grimoire’s pages were yellowed by time and tore in some places. It had probably been rebound at some point to look as good as it did. John couldn’t read its words, however, and he wondered which language it was in.

“Dave went to, and I quote, take a leek. Jade is over there,” Rose motioned to a large oak tree, probably older than the cemetery and thicker than the hood of a truck. At the foot of it’s wide girth was an extremely large dog. Wolf. A large wolf.

John could see her better now with the setting sun than he could in the dark of that morning. Her fur was the same shade of rich brown as her hair, but her brilliant green eyes had been dulled to a dark black. She looked smaller than she had before, but it might have just been because she was laying down.

“Hey, Jade,” John grinned. Her tail thumped on the leafy ground in greeting.

“Jade has chosen to observe tonight. She won’t be joining us when I raise Terezi here from the ground,” Rose said, turning a page. She squinted at it a moment before turning it back to reread.

“This is her grave?” John asked, looking down and quickly taking a step back.

Rose only pointed to a small chunk of white stone. It had probably once been a headstone, but now it was broken beyond recognition. It read very simply Terezi Pyrope , under that 1787 - 1801 .

Wow, she’d only been fourteen? That was incredibly sad.

“She was hung for witchcraft, but usually those people didn’t get headstones, and they didn’t get buried in a Christian cemetery. I think her father probably paid for it,” Rose mused. Sighing, she laid the book down in the grass and picked up a candle.

“Where’s Dave with the lighter, the one time I need him?”

“Does anyone know we’re out here?” John asked, looking behind him to check on his car.

“My mother is so drunk she can’t walk, and if Dirk knew we wouldn't be out here,” Rose answered.

“So, no?”

Rose just sort of frowned and said, “Jade’s grandfather probably does.”

“Right,” John said, “so are we supposed to be out here?”

“Yes, I suppose it’s alright. All the police know we’re Dirk’s siblings and also, if you look over there,” she pointed off to the left, “there’s a Caroline Strider buried here. I’m sure she’s related somehow.”

“Rose, I found the coolest grave stone over- oh hey, John!” Dave rounded the tree, stepping up behind the shattered headstone. He fixed his shirt and maybe checked his fly. John snickered.

“Hey, Dave.”

“Lighter,” Rose commanded, reaching out a hand to grab for it. Dave fished a red plastic lighter out of his pocket and pressed it into her palm.

Rose lit the candle in her hand and placed it at the base of the stone. After clearing away ones she didn’t plan to use, she then lit three others, and laid them out in a diamond pattern. One directly in front of her, one in front of the stone, and one on each side.

“I’m going to put salt down. I’m sitting across from the stone, so sit down on the two sides,” Rose instructed. She picked up the salt and opened it, poking a hole in the cardboard lid and shaking it lightly. The first precise line of salt she made followed the diamond with the candles on the outside, to keep the spirit contained. The next line of salt followed the same pattern, this time with the candles on the inside. This would create a barrier for anything on the outside. The last circle she made was around Jade, protecting her friend.

She tossed the fourth empty can of salt in the grass and sat down directly in line with the stone. John and Dave settled on the other two points.

“Alright,” Rose said loudly, attracting attention. “I’m going to try to summon Terezi into the inner circle. If for some reason I get possessed er- if something goes wrong then you should, well, I guess we should just hope that doesn’t happen.”

“Rose, I swear to god if you bring home any nasty spirits, or attach something to us, or if you turn in to the fucking grudge, I’ll douse your ass in salt faster than you can say 'boo,’” Dave said in warning. Rose rolled her eyes.

“Just shut up so I can start.”

Rose glanced down at the book in her lap. John watched her fingers flex on her knees and she took a deep, deep breath.

“Terezi Pyrope,” Rose’s voice echoed. It was like she was deep in some dark cavern, or standing on the edge of a canyon. Her voice was hollow, and it gave John chills.

Rose exhaled briefly before drawing in more air, like some sort of practiced breathing exercise. In, out. In, out.

The longer it went on, the stranger the atmosphere around them felt. Like they were caught in a lightning storm. The hair on the back of John’s neck stood on end, and moving his hand only served to shock himself with static.

John wanted to look away, to check on Dave or Jade but he didn’t dare take his eyes off of Rose.

When the blonde witch looked up from the book, her irises blazed a brilliant violet, like cold fire.

 

“R I S E.”

 

Lightning shot from the ground up to the sky in a powerful and twisted role reversal. Magic, colored the same purple is Rose’s eyes with sparks of yellow embedded inside jumped from the center of the diamond, scattering before it reformed into one solid pillar. John jumped back as it arched from the center of the grave in a crooked, zig zagging path up to the sky where it dissipated just as quickly as it appeared.

The graveyard went eerily quiet.

Goose bumps broke out all over John’s skin. He realized he was breathing hard. Dave was wide eyed across from him, his glasses skewed crooked on his face. Behind them, Jade woofed in warning.

The grave was no worse for wear. The grass was a bit ruffled, and burn in a small spot, but nothing seemed to be happening. No zombified hand reaching out from the grass from a lifeless corpse. No moaning ghost from the great beyond. Nothing. Absolutely fucking nothing.

“Did it work?” Dave asked finally.

“I don’t know,” Rose swallowed thickly, “give it a second.”

Moments ticked by like the ever ticking second hand on a clock. The sun had long gone down, and John was cold. The damp earth soaked into his jeans, chilling him further. He wanted to go home. His stomach rolled. John wondered if his dad was back with dinner.

“How many seconds are we gonna give it?” Dave asked again. Rose frowned and looked down at the book.

“Maybe she’s been dead too long,” she mumbled.

“Maybe if you paid closer attention to grave markers, you wouldn't be having this problem.”

John’s head snapped to the right.

Standing down the hill was a stranger. A girl, younger than him by a few years at least. Her red hair was short, and gathered around her shoulders, drawing attention to her eyes. John couldn’t tell what color they were, but he could see they were glassy and clouded. Like one of Dave’s dead animals he’d had in the freezer too long.

She wore a simple black dress with no frills and plain sleeves. She stood with bare feet on the cold ground. Her toes flexed into the leaves and the mud.

Where had she come from? Wasn’t this whole yard fenced in?

Jade was on her feet in seconds, teeth bared and snarling. Her lips curled and her muzzle wrinkled, peeling back to reveal a set of sharp, yellowed fangs.

Rose stood up, chin raised arrogantly. John decided to let her do the talking. She was the witch, after all.

“Who are you?”

“Ha!” The stranger scoffed, “I should be asking you. You called me here!”

“You’re- you’re Terezi Pyrope?” John couldn’t see Rose’s face, but he would have bet she was just as suppressed as he was.

“I am,” Terezi agreed. She didn’t look anything like John figured she would have. She was completely solid, not see through like in the movies.

“But, you,” Rose sputtered, “where did you come from? I put this summoning circle at the base of your grave!”

“You put a summoning circle at the base of a chip off my tombstone. I’m over there,” Terezi jutted her thumb behind her, “right next to the old man. You’re lucky your spell didn’t depend on location.”

Rose didn’t respond.

“What is it you want?” Terezi asked, shifting her weight impatiently from one foot to another.

Jade paced impatiently inside her salt circle, looking a little like a goldfish too big for its bowl. She barked insistently, whining between each vocalization. She didn’t act very human at the moment, more animal than girl.

“Jade, it’s alright,” Rose hushed her, a hand moving out to make a ‘calm down’ motion. The wolf girl yipped, and sat down, whining with her tongue lolling out. She looked stressed.

“Would you like to come sit with us?” Rose offered. Terezi seemed to consider it a moment before she accepted.

“Well, miss haughty high horse, I wouldn't mind.”

The ghost girl took a few steps forward before she tripped, face planting into the leaf covered ground. She sat up looking no worse for wear but she did look frustrated. Dave was on his feet in seconds, leaving the protection of the salt circle to tread down the hill to help her. Jade barked as he leant down and helped her stand.

“Jade,” Rose said in warning. The werewolf was quiet once again.

“Hold on, I’m up,” Terezi assured Dave, who still had ahold of her elbow.

“I don’t want you to fall again,” he grinned.

She stared at him with empty eyes. She couldn’t see him, so what was she bothering to look for? An expression of realization crossed her features. “Wait a second, you’re a-”

“Make a whelp joke and I’ll steer you right back to your grave,” Dave cut her off before she could finish.

Terezi’s lips curled upwards as she laughed. “I like you.”

Dave smirked and lead her up the hill, his hand on her elbow. He kept her steady, and steered her to the circle. Terezi sort of just flopped herself down once they stopped. She sat with her legs together on one side, leaning on her left arm like a kickstand. Dave resituated himself in his spot, putting Terezi between himself and Rose. Neither sibling relaxed.

“So, what can the dead girl do for you?” Terezi smoothed out the skirt of her dress, pulling it over her ankles.

“Well, we were hoping you could help us with a problem,” John began carefully. “A problem with Vriska.”

Surprise crossed her features. “Vriska? Oh. So what kind of trouble is tall, dark and mouthy up to now?”

“Well so, she split my soul. And she’s been antagonizing me for the rest of it ever since. I just want to get back what I lost and get rid of her. We were hoping you could help,” John expressed. His eyebrows knitted together in concern.

“I bet she did split your soul. She’s a friendship demon, it’s kind of what they do when they’re alone,” Terezi shrugged. “That’s just the natural progression of her kind, they end up killing you and wreak havoc once you're gone.”

“Why did you create her then? If you knew she was like that,” Rose inquired. Terezi made a face.

“Do you know how hard it is to find good grimoires in Braille? But if I had known, I still would have made her. Vriska was a good friend to me while it lasted.”

“And then she killed you,” Dave deadpanned.

“I couldn’t have killed her, anyway!” Terezi fired back.She didn’t sound angry. Maybe snarky? Or sarcastic? She was frustrating him. Did she take nothing seriously? Not even death?

“Okay, okay,” John tried to soothe the situation, “we’re off topic. I need to trade for my soul back, do you know what she wants to trade for?”

Terezi’s head tilted back and she cackled, a sharp laugh from down in her chest. “She’s too stubborn to trade! She’ll keep whatever she’s got for good, even when it’s not worth anything! Forget about trading. You’ve got two options.”

“You could kill her,” Terezi continued, “but even then you’d just shut her up, not get back what you lost. Or you could play a game with her.”

“I’m already playing a game with her! I want it to stop!” John rejected loudly. Terezi looked unperturbed.

“Vriska absolutely loves games of chances. She loves testing her luck. Make a deal with her to play a game, if you win, you get your soul back. That’s the only way I know.”

“She sounds kinda like a one way bitch,” Dave snickered.

“Dave!” Rose scolded.

Terezi shook her head, grinning. “He’s okay. You’re pretty suave. Know how to treat a lady and talk like a sailor. Where were you two hundred years ago?”

“I’m sure I wasn’t even a glimmer in my fifth great grandpa’s eye. And who even says suave? We pretty much just say cool now,” Dave’s shoulders shook with laughter. Terezi couldn’t see him but she looked his way and smiled like she could.

“Yeah, whatever you say 'Cool Kid’,” Terezi jested back in a mocking tone.

“Thank you, Terezi, for the information,” Rose sounded tired as she spoke, sighing and using her sleeve to wipe at the smudged makeup under her eyes.

“Yeah, thank you,” John added.

The conversation lulled for a moment before Dave picked it up again.

“Do you have to dismiss her now, Rose?” Dave glanced back at the horizon where the sun had fully vanished. The moon hung overhead, waxing crescent shaped among the stars.

“I do. It’s time for us to go,” Rose agreed.

“Would you guys come see me again some time?” Terezi frowned, folding an arm over her lap to rub her opposite elbow. It must be lonely here, John decided. She didn’t want them to leave.

“I will,” Dave piped up. “And I’ll try to bring these three nerds along if I can.”

Terezi didn’t reply, but she returned to smiling, genuine and wide.

Rose leaned down and blew out her candle, and Terezi faded from sight like smoke faded from an extinguished flame. She passed quickly, becoming opaque before she disappeared completely. The wind blew, extinguishing the other three candles. Off in the distance, thunder rolled.

Chapter Text

“Hey, Dave, are you going to homecoming?”

“Psh!” Dave scoffed, “only the mentally unstable still go to school dances, John. Everybody knows the real party is in the Walmart bathroom, duh.”

“Why specifically Walmart?” John rose his eyebrows.

“Where else would you smoke your crack?” Dave smirked.

John giggled, kicking back on Dave’s sofa. “No date?”

“Nah,” Dave agreed, taking a sip of his soda.

“You shoulda asked that guy!” John replied in his best ‘I Told You So’ tone.

“What guy?” Dave said looking confused, but John knew it was fake.

“Oh, I dunno. Sometimes you just talk like there’s a guy. One you’ve got a huge, fat crush on!” John laughed, picking up a single popcorn kernel from the bottom of his bowl. He flicked it at Dave’s head and missed by a long shot.

“You couldn’t hit the broadside of a barn,” Dave laughed. He was blushing and smiling like a big goofy idiot. Of course, there was a guy. “But nah, I didn’t ask him. Too chicken shit.”

“You’re gonna end up alone with twenty-six cats, Dave,” John deadpanned. Dave split laughing.

“Why aren’t you going to homecoming, Dorklord?”

“Cause I couldn’t get you, obviously,” John pretend huffed. He ended up smiling, though. He never was any good at pretending to be mad.

“Can’t pressure me into sex this year, Egbert,” Dave pulled his shades down his nose to look over the rims, playing cool. “I’m like an eel, man. Slimy with all sorts of natural secretions. You gotta catch me first.”

John couldn’t contain himself anymore, and both boys couldn’t keep a straight face. John could feel his cheeks getting red.

“You two are so weird. And creepy,” Rose cut in, passing through the living room on her way to the kitchen, “You know, I heard the circus was in town. You two should put in your applications.”

“I don’t think we’re qualified just yet,” Dave snarked, barely able to talk through his laughter, “John, strip down and go grease the kitchen floor, I’ll get the latex suits, there’s still time to work on our act.”

“No!” Rose shouted, leaving the room completely. As their laughter died down they could hear almost everything Rose was doing. The microwave turned on, the fridge door opened, she turned on the sink.

Through the quiet, they could also hear Roxy downstairs in her lab. Various machines beeped and buzzed and occasionally she swore. Dirk was upstairs playing video games.

“Homecoming is what, next week?” Dave asked.

“Yeah, and Halloween is the weekend after that. I was hoping I’ll be back to normal by then,” John said, sitting up on the couch and placing his popcorn bowl on the coffee table.

“Yeah?” Dave questioned.

“Yeah. I was kind of thinking uh, we might try it tonight. You think she’s out there?” The feeling in the room shifted to deadly serious faster than the blink of an eye.

“I know she’s out there. I know you shouldn't be,” Dave’s smile vanished.

John stood up and walked around the living room, finally stopping near a window close to the entry. It was past dark. John was stalling.

All he had to do was go out and ask Vriska to play a game. He had a quarter in his pocket, and fifty/fifty odds at a coin toss game were pretty good, he thought. No more dwelling, no more questions, all he had to do was play a game. If it was so simple, why was he stalling?

“This is really important to me, Dave,” John spoke slowly.

Dave didn’t reply.

John had thought long and hard about his decision. He knew the Strider’s weren’t going to like it. He had to go through, alone preferably. John could hardly stand to look at himself in the mirror.

It was like looking at her face instead of his. Like looking at her looming over him trying tooth and nail to kill him. Like her taunting him. Like her, dragging him out of his bed in the middle of the night.

Dave’s expression remained hard.

“Dave!” Rose’s shout carried from the kitchen, “I can’t reach this, would you help?”

Dave stood up, his jaw tight. He didn’t leave. He was afraid John would light out of the house while his back was turned. John took a leading step towards the kitchen, and Dave followed.

Rose was short, and at seventeen she should have been taller. John remembered their father as tall, and so was Roxy. Dave was tall, around six foot, and it was nothing to him to reach up to grab a canister off of the top shelf.

“You couldn’t of got a chair?” Dave asked his sister.

“I could,” she agreed, taking the canister, “but you two are up to something and I wanna hear it.”

“Oh fuck off,” Dave rolled his eyes.

“So what’s the problem?” Rose questioned.

The Strider’s back door was nearby. It wouldn’t be hard to just slip out while the siblings were distracted.

Their light was on over the porch, lighting up the yard and the very edge of the forest. It loomed over the Strider’s yard, dark and heavy. Vriska was out there but who knew how far off. He was drawn her way on his own free will, he was making his own choices. He inched to the door, taking its handle in his hand.

“John!” Dave exclaimed, “dude, what the fuck are you doing?”

“It’s cool, dude. I’ll be right back,” John assured, turning the knob and pushing open the door. John took a step outside. Dave advanced his way but remained inside the house.

“No! Not cool! Absolutely not!” Dave’s eyes were wide and his jaw was tight, nervous and almost scared looking. John watched his fists clench and unclench. Dave couldn’t meet his gaze.

“I’ll be fine! I can do it. I won’t make a deal with her unless I really, really believe it’ll work.”

“Ugh! John, no, listen, you can’t just go charging off into the wild like, like, Steve Irwin. First of all, your ass looks terrible in khaki,” Dave pointed out, “second of all, dude I don’t think you know a good deal from a bad one.”

“I so do!” John exclaimed, “I do know a good one! In fact, I’ll tell you about the deal I tried to make when Jade interrupted us that night in the cornfield. I was gonna trade more of my soul away in exchange to give you magic! Just like Rose and Dirk!”

Rose gasped, Dave looked stricken.

“Oh my god, John, no, no, no . You can’t do that,” he spat out words like water from a faucet, “I can’t have magic of my own. I just can’t.”

Dave closed the space between them in a hurry, crushing John to his chest. Dave’s arms were strong, but he looked so limp. He was getting upset, and more so with each passing moment.

“Thank you, oh my god, thank you for doing that for me but you can’t just give somebody magic. See, this is why, this is why I don’t want you to go.”

“What?” John asked, peeling away from the hug.

“John, you are so inclined to make deals, and just keep making them, and keep making them, and it backfires on you! You can’t go! You can’t because I never told you-” Dave stopped himself short.

“Told me what?” John inquired.

“I never told you that I,” he bit his lip, preventing himself from say anything more. He looked down, releasing his lip. “I never got to tell you how much you mean to me.”

“Dave,” John smiled softly. He understood now, he thought. “Dave you’re my best friend. I know how you feel.”

“No! No, you don’t you-, because you don’t-, and I haven’t ever,” he sputtered.

“Oh for fuck's sake!” Rose shouted.

“John. Dave is in love with you! ” Her words immediately took him off guard. No, that wasn’t it. It couldn’t be.

“Dave can’t be in love with me,” John rejected, leaning to make eye contact with her over Dave’s shoulder. Rose looked fierce, angry even. Her brows pulled taunt and a glare that could kill a man.

John glanced back to Dave, who’s face had done an entire one-eighty. The blonde’s jaw was slack, and his eyes searched John for something. What was wrong with him? He looked so surprised. So filled with dread. Betrayed even. What was that look for?

“What’s that look?” John asked finally, “You aren’t in love with me, are you, Dave?”

Dave’s mouth was open but no words were coming out. John wasn’t sure how to react to that.

“I-” he stammered, “no, okay I’m going. I’ll be back and then we can sort out,” John paused, “whatever this is.”

John shut the door behind him, closing himself out and Dave inside. He needed something. He didn’t know what, but something. Time to think maybe, or distance.

John didn’t notice he was running until he nearly tripped and fell on a fallen branch. He paused for just a moment to scrub his eyes with his fists and blinked, welcoming back his night vision.

It was much easier to continue once he got his sight straightened out. He figured he was far enough away from the Strider house he could walk. His sneakers crunched dry leaves as he followed the beaten path further into the woods.

The path back into the woods was well traversed. This path lead out to Dave’s deer blind, and it lead further back into the thickets where John had first saw Vriska.

It twisted and curved in a shape similar to a light bulb, the very back path butting up to an older wood that belonged to the state.

“John!” Roxy’s shout echoed through the trees.

Shit, they were coming after him. Change of plan. Quickly he ducked into the underbrush, picking the best way through. He wasn’t worried about being quiet. Dirk could track him anywhere regardless so it wasn’t like he was sneaking.

The goal was to get away as fast as he could, and find Vriska. She could do whatever it was she did the first time they meet.

John had to walk with his hands out in front of him. He should have been sick of getting slapped in the face by sticks by now. This was the third time in three weeks he’d ended up out here. Slowly he was figuring out how to use one branch to push three more away from the path. He ducked, slid sideways, and hopped logs.

He emerged onto the field in the middle of the Strider property that was reserved for Dave’s deer bait. It was just a stretch of wide open land that Dave cultivated turnips and things on to entice deer to come closer to his blind which was to John’s right. The field was drab this time of night. The branches stretched out over it from the tree line, casting shadows like too long fingers reaching for him.

Clouds lingered over the moon, do only a sliver of it remained to keep the night from total darkness. Now that John was out of the trees he could see it. Without his night vision, he wouldn't be able to see much else.

The turnips under foot didn’t bother him. They were small, evident of the poor soil quality, and they did nothing to slow him down as he crossed the field. John almost froze when a breeze picked up, forcing a shiver out of him. The tree branches shook and the clouds eclipsed the moon entirely, a tell tale sign John was close.

The breeze carried a familiar, wispy whisper that made John shiver but not from chill. Just like the day in the marsh, the breeze carried his name. It called to him, like the sweet smelling sap of a Venus fly trap.

“Vriska?” John asked out loud. She was close. She knew where he was at all times, and used that to her advantage.

The breeze picked up again, carrying his name once more. It brought leaves down from the trees, and trees creaked as they swayed.

John didn’t wait for another invitation, he shoved branches aside and climbed back into the brambled fray of the woods.

It was just like every other time he’d been out here. Thorns cut his face, branches snagged his clothes, dirt found its way under his fingernails. He wasn’t complaining anymore, though.

He had only taken a few steps more before he felt something settle into his chest. It felt like dread to the human part of him. It felt like a smug smirk, victory, and a sick sort of joy all rolled into a bleak, grim package. Like John had just accepted eminent death. This was Vriska’s will, and he felt the familiar tug in his chest as she beckoned him closer.

John went, making a sharp left.

John felt like he had to rush, his legs carried him faster and faster through leaves and fallen sticks. He stepped on acorns fallen from oak trees, crunching them under his rubber-soled tennis shoes. He’d bought white shoes, following a popular trend, and he was going to need new ones. Moisture seeped into the fabric and between the stitches, soaking his socks.

He pushed harder through the bushes until finally, he spit out back on a kept path. John knew this one. This path was at the back of the Strider property, there was state land just up ahead. He felt Vriska’s will tug him further still, and he went.

“John!” Roxy hollered from somewhere behind him.

He was almost there. Vriska tugged again, harder. He could feel her. She was close. He swore he saw the same cobalt eyes he now carried peering at him from just up ahead.

“John!” Roxy’s shout split the air once more. He felt Vriska falter like she might retreat. Roxy sounded like she was right behind him, but when he turned, stopping for only a moment to look, she wasn’t there.

He turned to face forward, to continue on, but instead of the path he was meet with a sight that made him wish Vriska had found him first.

Roxy stood on the path before him, little aftershocks of her pink electricity dissipating from her feet and into the leaf-covered ground. Roxy’s eyes burned. Her entire socket blazed pink like hot embers pulled directly from the flame. Her hair seemed to catch, the ends of her blonde locks lighting like straw, like LED lights on a strand. The static separated her hair from the way she’d styled it, looking like she’d rubbed her hair on a balloon, but John didn’t dare laugh.

The glow haloed the forest around them, washing out the colors and turning every dark place a hot pink. It hurt John’s eyes, and he found himself blinking away his night vision.

Her body trembled, both from anger and the magic coursing through her. The pressure she exerted over the area felt intense. Like John had dove into the deep end of a pool and he lingered at six, seven, eight foot too deep. His shoulders felt heavy, and his sinuses burned. Roxy was the dictionary definition of livid, and John was in for it.

Behind his mother, Dirk lingered with his hazel eyes averted from the sight. He looked haphazardly put together, no coat on over his black wife beater.

John felt Vriska’s grip on him wither away as she disappeared from the vicinity.

“John Egbert!” Roxy bellowed, “I forbid you from crossing my property line!”

She was loud, so much louder than humanly possible. This wasn’t like her yelling at Dave when they were kids, this tone was all discipline and no motherly affection.

John gaped.

“I forbid you to leave my house until the morning sun touches the earth!”

Nothing on John’s person felt differently. His frantic need to find Vriska had faded to surprise when Roxy had sprung up in front of him. She was scary like this, and John wasn’t sure how to react to her.

Slowly, the pressure over the area dissipated, fizzling out like soda from a can. Roxy took a deep breath, and when she exhaled it was like she’d blown out her own candle. Her eyes faded in intensity until only her pupils remained pink, and her hair lay down, mussed but flat and back to its regular color.

Dirk moved first, taking large, careful steps around his mother. He approached John and put a hand on his back.

“Come on, John, let’s go back to the house,” he said quietly.

“No, I don’t want to,” John defied. “Why won’t you just let me go? I’m so fucking sick of looking at myself in the mirror. I’m a monster. I look like a monster.”

John didn’t raise his voice, but his tone carried enough outrage to get his point across.

“I’m so sick of looking and feeling like this. Aren’t you sick of looking at it?”

John’s words stung Roxy. She visibly winced. Dirk’s hand moved to John’s shoulder, trying to steer him back to the house.

“Your coven leader forbade you from continuing, you are not physically able to continue.”

“What are you talking about?” John asked, pushing Dirk’s hand off his person. “Yes, I can.”

John’s raised his knee in preparation to take a step forward but he only picked it half way up off of the ground before it hit something. There was a physical barrier blocking John from leaving Roxy’s property, but he couldn’t see anything. He looked up into the sky, hoping to see something, anything but the space in front of him was as clear as day. He put a hand on it and pushed, but it wouldn’t give.

“What did you,” John trailed off. His eyes meet Roxy’s, and the older woman’s gaze was filled with regret.

“I’m so sorry, John. I had to, or else you’d get hurt out there,” Roxy spoke apologetically. John saw red.

“Are you kidding me? I’m not going to get hurt! I’m already hurt! I’m going to fix what you can’t seem to even help!” He argued.

“Come on, John,” Dirk urged from his left, “you can’t disobey a direct order from your coven leader.”

John wouldn't budge. He stared Roxy down, angry and unyielding until finally she sighed deeply and her shoulders sagged.

“John, I’ll- let’s go home and talk about it later. When I’m calm. I’ll,” she paused, “entertain the idea.”

John glared at her for a few more moments before he caved too, and turned around. Dirk tried to put another hand on John’s arm, but he pushed that away too. This had been so unfair! How was John supposed to make any progress?

Things had gone in such a linear way in his head, why hadn’t they played out that way?

Dirk walked next to John and Roxy brought up the back. The three of them made the trek through the woods back in about fifteen minutes, sticking to the path and keeping a constant pace. John could see the back porch and he dreaded entering the dwelling.

“Hey, John, before you get trapped in the house all night, I thought you should know Dave’s crying,” Dirk thought to mention as they climbed the back steps.

Dave? What was he crying for?

Oh.

Oh, right, that. John cleared his throat and replied with a simple “okay.”

John opened the back door and slipped his shoes off on the rug. Roxy shut the door behind them and left immediately for the basement. She locked herself down there, probably with a bottle of booze and her science work. Dirk left too. He went back upstairs, presumably to his room where he’d been playing video games.

John exited the kitchen, finding the living room and front entry area empty. The television was off, and the couch blankets were still a mess like they were when John left it. Where was Rose? Where was the cat? John didn’t wonder where Dave was. He had a pretty good idea.

The room was silent, and the staircase loomed over him. Dave was either up in his room, or up in the TV room. Either way, John had to traverse the stairs, each step feeling heavier than the last. He held onto the railing even though he didn’t need it.

John didn’t like the thought of Dave being upset with him. It made his gut hurt and his brain rush with anxiety. Dave was his best friend, and it was unsettling to think John had been the cause of strain in their life long relationship. It was almost scary even, the two never fought. Guilt mounted inside him with every step he climbed.

John needed to fix this, fast.

Upstairs Rose, Dirk, and Dave’s doors were closed. It was painfully obvious Dave wasn’t in the TV room, but he checked anyway. It was empty just like he knew it would be.

John finally came to rest in front of Dave’s door. It wasn’t too late to turn around and go back to the couch, John thought. Dave would get over this, right? Or maybe if John was lucky Dave would come to him first.

No. John knew neither of those things were going to happen. Dave wasn’t like that. Dave was the last person to bring up his emotions.

John rose a hand to knock on Dave’s door. He chickened out once, but managed to knock twice on the second attempt.

“ ’s open,” Dave’s voice droned, so quiet John almost hadn’t heard him. Hesitantly, John twisted the doorknob and opened the door.

Dave’s room was dark. He had every light off, so the rectangular window of light caused by the open door revealed a lot. Dave was sitting on the floor next to his bed, leaning on his bed frame. He was cross-legged, facing the door and folded in on himself. The blonde’s face was streaked with tear tracks, like someone had used sandpaper to burn them in his cheeks. His red eye were somehow redder, bloodshot and puffy.

“Hey,” John tried.

“Hey,” Dave mocked. He kept his head hung low.

John stood in the doorway, unsure how to proceed. Dave didn’t say anything more and neither did John. John tried to break his actions down in steps. He needed to confront the issue, he needed to give Dave time to speak and himself time to listen. But first, he needed to put himself and Dave on an equal stature.

John closed the door behind him, plunging them back into darkness. He waited a moment for his eyes to adjust before he moved again, slowly crossing the room to sit next to Dave. He leaned on the bed the same way and faced the say way. He shifted uncomfortably, letting the silence still around them.

Dave’s room was a mess. He lived music, so the walls were plastered from floor to ceiling with posters and album covers. He had his own record player, and boxes of records sitting right next to his guitar and recording equipment. This was also the place he kept some of his taxidermy projects on display, hung on the walls and up on shelves. His clothes hamper overflowed onto his carpet, food wrappers and half drank pop cans littered every surface.

John could study the room all night but it still wouldn't make a difference. They’d probably been sitting here for ten minutes and Dave hadn’t made a noise besides a few sniffles and half a sob. John turned to him and mustered up the courage to speak.

“So uh, how long?” John tried, carefully and quietly. He hoped and hoped that was the right direction.

“How long wha- oh. Since May I guess,” Dave looked up and meet his gaze. Dave had done some serious crying in the time John had gone. He’d torn all the blankets off his messy bed and wadded them up next to him on the floor. His shirt was wet from wiping tears or snot or whatever on it.

“Before you say anything,” he said firmly, “I just want you to know that you’re my best bro and being friends is more important to me than anything. I don’t want you to think I’m a creep, or anything because I don’t care about any of it as long as we’re friends.”

“I don’t think you're a creep, Dave! I mean it’s not like, like. I didn’t even know about this until today. I knew you liked guys, and I don’t think it’s gross. Did I ever say anything to make you think that?”

“Well, no. I was just scared you wouldn’t like me after. I don’t think you’re a homophobe. Plus you’ve never exactly,” he paused to think, “I didn’t know which way you uh. Swung.”

“I- that’s fair,” John agreed. “Sometimes I don’t know which way I swing. I don’t really, uh, I don’t think I’ve ever had like, a crush?”

“So you don’t- like you don’t,” dave stammered. John knew what he was thinking. Dave through he was rejecting him.

“That’s not what I meant, I meant uh, well I don’t know what I meant. But not that!” John scrambled.

Neither boy said anything. The silence grew awkward, something that never happened between the two of them. John decided to try to distract from it.

“So that was kind of a dick move I pulled. I’m sorry.”

Dave fussed with the carpet under his fingertips. “It’s fine, I’m not mad at you. I’m mad at Rose for outing me.”

“What?” John asked, his eyebrows raising, “what are you mad about that for?”

“Come on, John,” Dave practically groaned. “You’re over here like twenty-four seven already. I don’t wanna complicate what you got going on. I don’t wanna complicate,” he paused, “ us.

“Dave, I don’t even know what the fuck I like to do because I’m always here doing stuff with you!” John laughed, “and you’re so fun. All this shit we get up to is so fun even though I hate touching dead stuff.”

“We do get up to a lot of shit, don’t we?” Dave laughed with him, raising a hand to wipe a tear from his eye.

Then it sort of dawned on him. “Hey, Dave, you can see how I look, don't you? Without the potion anyway. With the teeth and the eyes?”

“Yeah, I can.”

“That didn’t like, deter you? At all?”

“What? No. Yeah, you look a little different, and your cheekbones are a little higher. I didn’t fall in love with your face, John. I feel in love with the whole you. You’re just. You. And you’re the best person I think I’ve ever meet.”

John’s mouth parted. This was just mind blowing. Dave Strider was talking that way about him? “You’re really in love with me, aren’t you?”

Dave nodded very, very slowly. “I’m really in love with you.”

John sort of smiled, small and nervous and Dave mocked him. The silence wasn’t awkward anymore. It was more comforting, less scary. The bad feelings in John’s gut had faded, replaced with butterflies instead.

John still wasn’t thinking quite straight, though, and he certainly wasn’t in control of his mouth yet.

“How did Rose find out?” He blurted as the thought popped into his head.

“Okay, so you know how she’s not really in control of her powers? Well so I was with her over the summer, you know when you and your dad went on vacation?” Dave inquired. John remembered. He’d spent a whole week sight seeing up north with his dad.

“Anyway, we were kind of having a moment because Dirk and mom got in a fight and they were both yelling at us, so we went outside and she started sharing memories with me from when we were kids, you know?”

“You can do that with a bond string, right?” John asked.

“Yeah,” Dave confirmed. “Anyway, usually a witch can’t share more than one or two before you get a goddamn headache but Rose gets amped the more magic she uses. She just kept sharing all these memories with me, and they got more recent and teasing and all of a sudden she just quit and says real quiet 'you’re in love with John, aren’t you?’ And uh, I guess it just felt good to get it off my chest.”

That was actually sort of sweet. Dave and Rose had always gotten along okay but they didn’t appear close to John. John guessed if it wasn’t for Rose they wouldn't be sitting here right now.

Truth be told, John wasn’t sure how he felt about Dave right that moment. He felt something, but he couldn’t pinpoint it. Fondness maybe? Or maybe that was nausea. He sort of let his body operate on autopilot because it sure seemed like his brain had checked out for the day.

“Can you share a memory with me, Dave?” John asked, changing the subject. He offered Dave his hand, but almost pulled it away after realizing he didn’t know how that function of the bond worked.

“Uh,” Dave deadpanned.

“Er, wait, did I like overstep a boundary there?” John rushed to take it back. Dave’s expression shifted. Dave’s nose wrinkled and his eyebrows furrowed, but his eyes looked too concentrated to be angry. John couldn’t read him.

“No, it’s just uh, I don’t know if I can? Sharing memories is like sharing energy. I mean, I’ve always done it with someone in my family, you know, with magic of their own so I could like, use what they shared with me. I dunno the extent of your uh, issue, but if she gave you part of her you must be a little magic? But I don’t have any. I don’t know if we have enough between us to make it work,” Dave rambled. He put his head in his hands and sucked in a deep breath. He rubbed his temples just a moment before he exhaled. “I can try, though.”

Dave took another deep breath and reached over, taking John’s hand in his.

“Any requests?”

“Nah, you pick,” John grinned. Dave weakley returned it.

Nothing happened right away. Dave looked like he was concentrating really hard. He was focused on a spot on his floor, his features taunt. John tilted his head back, resting it on the frame of Dave’s bed. He let his eyes drift shut.

This was sort of a nice feeling, his hand in Dave’s. This was Dave’s private space and he’d invited John into it. Let him stay.

John felt relaxed. Like sleep was creeping up on him. He felt Dave’s thumb rub over his. A weightless feeling snuck up on him, washing over him gradually like warm waves. Like soft blankets and clean sheets.

Dim, shadowed colors warped his vision into a picture, opening up to a school hallway. This was his school hallway, it was senior graduation week, his junior year. John through the was seeing this through third person, but after looking down in a motion he didn’t control, he realized he was seeing the world through Dave’s eyes. He was looking through Dave’s shades and the memory played like a video tape.

Dave rounded a familiar corner, and there was John, shoving a third-year French textbook into his locker. John could feel Dave’s spike in happiness, and he could feel Dave’s mouth twist into a smile.

“Hey, man!” Dave greeted. John watched himself twist around and smile too.

“Hey, Dave! How are you?”

“Fantastic for another day in this hell hole. Hey, you wanna hear this song I downloaded this morning?” He asked, brushing a stray lock of blonde hair out of his line of vision. Wait a second, John remembered this day too.

“Sure,” the other John agreed.

John, the one with Dave’s point of view, felt the rush of adrenaline as Dave pulled an earbud from around his neck and handed it to John. Dave was happy to share with his friend. Their fingers brushed, but John didn’t feel anything then besides the sensation of touch.

Dave reached into his pocket and turned on his music, only fussing with his phone a moment before sound flooded through the speakers. This was John’s current favorite song, and this memory was the first time he’d ever heard it.

John watched his own face light up. He remembered that. “What’s this song called?”

The memory faded quickly, like snuffing out a light. John’s eyes refocused on Dave’s ceiling. The sharp contrast of the school’s fluorescent lighting compared to Dave’s dark bedroom was enough to make his eyes hurt. John rubbed them.

“Sorry, I couldn’t keep it going anymore,” Dave said and then groaned. “My head is killing me.”

John turned his head, looking over to Dave who was still slumped against his bed. Dave had a hand up over his face, looking miserable.

“Don’t be sorry. It was great, thank you,” John grinned, “want me to get you some aspirin for your head?”

“Yeah, uh, I’ll go with you. I’m starving. You hungry? I think we’ve got like an oven pizza in the freezer,” Dave agreed.

Both boys stood, releasing each other’ hands on the way up. Together they made their way down the stairs.

Rose was in the living room with her attention turned to the television. She was watching one of those paranormal lockdown shows as if she hadn’t literally raised the dead herself. John hadn’t watched anything like that since they’d summoned Terezi. It’d ruined it somehow.

“Are you, a fucking witch, literally watching this shit?” Dave accused as if he couldn’t see what was on television for himself.

“Look, don’t be pissy at me. It was for your own good,” Rose replied haughtily.

“Don’t you fucking tell me what’s for my own good,” Dave pointed an accusing finger at her, “you're lucky you’ve got pixie dust out the ass because otherwise, you’d be in for it.”

“Dave, how could you say that?” Rose scoffed, pressing a hand to her chest like she was deeply offended.

Upstairs, Dirk’s bedroom door slammed open. All three teenagers looked up to watch Dirk hustle down the hallway.

“You tryin’ to crack the plaster, Bro?” Dave called.

“Everybody shut the fuck up!” He shouted, practically running down the stairs.

“Mom!” He hollered, “Mom, get the fuck up here! Mom!”

“Bro, what’s up?” Dave asked.

Dirk paused, taking his hands through his hair. He paced back to the stairs and then to the kitchen door and then back. His eyes were wide and his legs twitched. His hands refused to be still, moving over his arms and thighs and through his hair again. He was breathing hard and sweating, wigging the fuck out over nothing.

“You look like a lunatic, calm down,” Rose scowled, standing up too.

“I said shut the fuck up! ” The eldest Strider child snapped, waving a hand at his siblings. 

“What’s wrong? Where’s the fire?” Roxy barged into the living room from the kitchen door, moving fast and talking faster. She went to her son, grabbing his elbow and turning him to face her. Dirk was almost vibrating with anxiety.

“She’s fucking here!” Dirk raved, jerking away from his mother. “We have to fucking do something, we gotta leave, we have to-”

“Who’s here? What’s wrong?” Roxy pushed, gripping his shoulders to hold him still.

“How the fuck could you-” he sputtered, “The fucking demon!”

Chapter Text

The door to the kitchen had always had a little rust on the hinges. John remembered that from his childhood. Movie night in front of the VCR in the Strider’s living room was a staple growing up, and the familiar squeak of the door always meant Roxy was bringing more soda and popcorn. The fond memories from years passed were not what John had on his mind at the moment.

The door to the Strider’s kitchen creaked open slowly. The sound was long, drawn out and loud, resonating through the silent house. Dirk stared over his mother’s shoulder in pure, unadulterated horror as the door left the jam. Finally, the sound ceased as the door meet its resting place after rocking back once as it settled.

In the doorway stood Vriska.

The demon had on the same set of clothes every time John had meet her, except this time they were in shambles. Her shirt had holes in it where Jade and her grandfather’s claws had punctured and tore the material showing her healed, unmarked skin underneath. The sleeve of her jacket had been torn completely off on her left side, and her arm was gone with it. The flesh was probably hanging there still, dangling and dead pieces still attached. John couldn’t see past the remaining ribbons of shirt, however, it was shrouded in darkness though every light in the room was on. Her hair looked clean and her face was completely unmarked, save for her left eye.

Where her left eye should have been there was destroyed, rippled, proud flesh around the socket. It looked like a mass of bloody pulp, like uncooked hamburger meat left to sit it its blood too long unthawed, infected and swollen and unable to heal. John could see it throb with each beat of her heart. There had been teeth buried in her face, destroying her skin and obliterating her nerves, mangling it beyond her ability of heal. Her skull had probably cracked and John could almost picture her, writhing between Jade’s jaws as she screamed. How much blood poured out of her broken head when the wolf bit down?

John wanted to look away, but she was looking directly at him. Inside the socket was dark, shrouded in the same dirt of shadow as her arm. John wondered what was keeping her brain inside her head. Would it come running out of the empty hole any second now? Would it run out her nose instead?

She was broken but not dying, come to haunt the doorway like a bad omen. Vriska smirked, showing off her still complete set of razor sharp teeth.

“Nobody move,” Roxy spoke slowly and calmly.

“Hi there, Jooohn, ” the demon purred, “I thought maybe I could come to you since you put in all the effort to come see me.”

Her voice was low and deep, sultry even, but dry. Goosebumps broke out all over John’s skin.

She moved fast, faster than it took John to blink and she was in front of him before he’d opened his eyes.

John jumped back, knocking him into Dave. Before anyone could move again a bolt of orange electric shot past John’s head, whipping his hair in the wind it created. Vriska turned, scowling with all of her teeth on display.

“God fucking damn it! ” She snarled, “I’ve been playing nice with you fucking witches since this shit started!”

“Maybe I want to play dirty now?” Dirk replied, cracking his neck. He laced his fingers together, turning his palms out and cracked his fingers.

“Dirk,” Roxy said in warning. He was getting cocky.

“I’ve got it,” the eldest son assured.

Before any more words were exchanged, another bolt of electricity appeared, this time from Rose. The youngest witch had simply picked up her hand and aimed it at Vriska, and the purple charge hit her at point blank. Vriska went flying, knocked back into the television with another spark and a horrible crash.

Dave’s hands were on John’s arm, pulling him. “Come on, we have to get the fuck out!”

“I can’t,” John replied, allowing himself to be pulled backwards “your mom forbid me from leaving the house!”

“Fuck!” Vriska shouted, pulling herself up out of the rubble of Roxy’s wrecked entertainment center.

Rose was on her feet now, but Dirk was standing in front of her, shoulders set back and standing tall in an effort to make himself look bigger. His irises blazed orange, and he held magic in his hand like fire. He wasn’t fast enough, because Vriska was on her feet, body slamming Dirk into Rose and sending them tumbling backward with the couch.

Vriska went for Roxy next, teeth bared and her remaining claws out. Vriska lunged, going right for her throat. Vriska snapped at her jugular, but Roxy grabbed her, her palms crackling like a severed power line. She used Vriska’s own momentum against her and sent her flying into the wall behind her.

“Dave, John, run!” She shouted over her shoulder, refusing to take her eyes off of her attacker. “John, I release you from your punishment, go!”

“What about you? What about Bro and Rose?” Dave was back peddling again, yanking John towards the front door. John stumbled along with him.

“I don’t think so!” Vriska was on them before John had even realized she was up again. She used her body to come between them, hip checking John away from Dave and wrapping a gray hand around the blond’s neck.

“You’re always the one in the fucking way! You’re nothing but a worthless whelp but somehow you always cause the most trouble!” Vriska screeched. John watched Dave’s face contort into horror as the demon’s face changed, morphing into several different creatures all at once, unable to hold one shape she was so angry.

Dirk was on his feet, but barely, nursing a limp and wishing he had his side arm right about now.

“Fucking move,” Vriska dared to both him and Roxy, “and I’ll end him.”

Dirk’s jaw dropped and he leaned uncomfortably to one side. He exchanged glances with Roxy, who hand her hands fisted in her hair and extreme worry scribbled onto her features.

“No, no, no, don’t, Dirk don’t move, don’t move, don’t hurt him, no,” Roxy babbled, garbled and near sobbing.

Satisfied she’d stopped the adults, Vriska turned back to Dave.

“Wait, wait! No, I’m right here!” John shouted, “I’m the one you want!”

“You’re the one I want alright,” the demon agreed, “but somebody here has got to pay for all the interference.”

“No, please!” Roxy begged, “take me, don’t take my son.”

Dave stared her down, able to breathe and both his feet still on the floor. His mouth was open, and he closed it only once to swallow hard. For just a moment, it was like they were stuck in time. The room stared at Vriska, who stared back at only Dave. The pause was pregnant, and John was sorry to see how it ended.

Still moving fast, Vriska turned and threw Dave against a wall, one that went to the underside of the staircase. She took a step back, smirking, and used her only remaining arm to compel some sort of magic to her palm. It was dark, like the shroud that covered her missing appendage and formed a ball in her palm like steam collected over plaid lakes.

“Whelp,” she hissed, aimed close range.

John couldn’t look. He squeezed his eyes shut and waited, but the scream he heard was not Dave’s. The family cat had jumped from the upstairs banister landing with his claws out on the demon’s head. She tore at him as his tiny teeth sunk into her face, his claws latched onto her skin. He was tiny, but he mauled like a beast. Dave saw his chance and scrambled away in the confusion.

Finally, she pried him off her and threw him, expelling the dark energy and sending him not into a wall but through it. The drywall broke like paper.

“Fucking witches!” Vriska howled, her face bleeding now. Blood ran over her scowling lips, staining her already yellowed teeth.

Roxy seized her chance to act. Both of her eyes had gone completely colored again, and her hair was once again burning pink from her tips to her roots. Electric current pulsed from her palms all the way up to her elbows. She flew at the demon with a furry John had never seen the likes of before.

Dirk joined her, orange enveloping both of his eye sockets and His teeth gritted. 

There was a lot of moving limbs right then and John could hardly tell who’s was who’s. Vriska slashed with her saber like nails, like tiny knives on her hand. She hit Dirk across the face and nailed Roxy on the arm. Roxy grabbed for her, but Vriska countered by sinking her teeth into Roxy’s hand, causing her to scream.

Dirk swung a punch hitting Vriska in the jaw. The demon kicked out, trying to escape the fray, only to be yanked back in by her hair.

Roxy had her hands on either side of her head as Dirk released her, and electric overtook her. Vriska’s eye rolled back into her head and the smell of burning hair filled the room. Vriska shook like she was seizing before she shifted forums and her face morphed into some slender creature that allowed her just enough space to get loose of Roxy.

She pulled out her own hair to get away faster than Dirk could grab for her. She made a run for it with Dirk on her heels, her knees shifting and her legs morphing into something animal. She crashed through the Strider’s front window, rolling through the porch banister and into the yard. She disappeared into the night, shifting once more into something four-legged, and hobbled off into the darkness with her missing limb flagging her like a flat tire.

Dirk stopped at the window and watched her go. He paused just a moment before he did this sort of skip backward and turned around.

“Lets go, I’m gonna fucking kill her,” he said, eyes still glowing and locked on Roxy.

“Not before I do,” Roxy retorted, “Rose, take care of the boys.”

Speaking of Rose. The youngest Strider child was standing up now, rubbing her left wrist and panting. Her eyes were blown wide, but remained hazel, darting from her mother to Dirk, to John. Dave approached her slowly, mostly unmarked but more than a little sore. Rose let him pull her into a one-armed hug, and held his shirt fisted into her hand.

She wasn’t in any state to take care of anyone.

“Hold on just a moment,” a new voice interjected, and the entire room froze.

From the destroyed wall appeared a man, climbing carefully over the rubble. His hair was insanely long, flowing past his shoulders in a brilliant gold blond. He had a pair of too tight black pants, with a bare chest and feet.

He lifted one leg over the broken drywall, and sort of hopped forward to get the other over. He stepped out of the shadow near the wall and into the bright lamp light. Dirk took his sunglasses off, mouth wide in awe.

“Don’t you want to come see me first, Roxy?” The stranger asked.

Tears welled immediately in Roxy’s eyes. John watched her knees tremble as she tore away from her spot and ran to the man. She crashed into him, nearly bringing them both down to the floor as her knees failed and his legs almost gave out under them.

“Oh my god,” she gasped, and gasped for air, “oh my god, it’s you. It’s really you.”

The man didn’t reply, but he held her around the waist and kissed her temple, nuzzling into her frizzy hair.

Rose moved next, taking a few shy steps towards the stranger clutching her mother. She looked so perplexed and then a great look of realization took her over.

“Is it,” she paused, “are you real?”

“I think I’m as real as I could ever hope to get,” the stranger grinned. Rose held out a few more tense seconds before she was running into his free arm. Her caught her much better than he had Roxy and held her tight to him.

“Daddy!” She squealed, burning her face into his chest.

John could feel something happening with his bonds. The very first bond, the oldest one was changing. What was once thin and dark became full of life once again. John could almost feel it’s responsiveness return as it got brighter and fuller.

John didn’t pull on it, but he could feel were they were connected.

This man was Jasper Strider, Dave’s dad. John recognized him now. It had been so long ago, and his hair had been so much shorter and he always always wore a shirt. That was the laundry room he’d crashed into, John realized. He was lucky he found clean pants.

“Jesus, Jazz, I didn’t think you were ever coming back to us!” Roxy exclaimed, her tears still falling but she was smiling now.

“Roxy, baby, I never left you,” he beamed, and then he kissed her, pulling away with a pop and they laughed like teenagers.

Dirk, who had been standing nearby flabbergasted approached him next.

“Hi,” he greeted lamely, rubbing his eyes. He wasn’t crying, no, not Dirk Strider the tough guy.

“Hi, Dirk,” Jasper returned and moved his arm from Rose to invite him into the group hug. Dirk didn’t stay long, though. He pulled away and leaned down to Rose’s level, rubbing her back a little too roughly.

“You don’t have to cry, dummy,” he tried to soothe her. Rose wasn’t having it.

“I do!” She howled, “it was all my fault!”

John watched Jasper’s face contort. He peeled away from Roxy just long enough to take Rose’s chin between his fingers and tilt her to face him. His kissed her forehead and smiled, wiping away her tears with his thumb.

“Rosie, sweetheart, you were only eight years old. You couldn’t help it, and you didn’t mean it,” he told her softly.

“Do you forgive me? Are you mad? You’ve got every right to be mad,” Rose choked, whining with her shoulders shaking. Fat tears rolled down her cheeks and all John could think was about the sheer amount of crying that had gone on in this house tonight.

“Sweetheart, I could never, ever be mad at you for what happened,” he cooed. Rose latched on to him like a koala and refused to let go. She was crying harder, but it was out of relief now. He chuckled a little and kissed the top of her head again.

“Dave, John,” Jasper said, “come over here. Why are you both all the way over there?”

John was still sitting on the ground, his head twisted around to watch the spectacle unfolding in the Strider’s destroyed living space. Dave walked around the still overturned couch where he had been with Rose and crossed the short distance to John. He held out his hand, shades still forgotten in some corner of his bedroom. His face was hard to read, but he wasn’t very happy.

John took his hand and Dave helped him up. Together they made the final jaunt across the room. Jasper was still smiling when they halted a few feet in front of him.

“You’re both invited to the group hug too,” he offered, but when neither of them moved he continued. “It’s nice to see you again, John. Well, I saw you the same as you are, but I’m sure I looked a lot different.”

“Er, yeah. Hello, Mr. Strider,” John replied grinning nervously, shifting his weight from one side to the other.

“Oh, Mr. Strider, absolutely not. You call Roxy by her first name, call me by mine. Or Jazz, they used to call me that in high school,” he corrected, laughing fondly. He was so bubbly, John noted. Then again he’d been stuck as a cat for close to ten years. He probably was pretty happy to be human again.

“Dave, what’s the matter?” Jazz asked, shifting his attention.

“Did you know that would happen?” Dave spit out quickly. Jazz’s expression quickly changed. His eyebrows rose and his head moved back.

“That what would happen?”

Dave grit his teeth. “You know.”

Jasper thought about his answer for a long, hard minute. His expression changed again, deeply concentrated with furrowed eyebrows. He rubbed Rose’s back and shushed her, taking his time. Finally, he cleared his throat and spoke.

“No Dave, I didn’t. But you are my son and I would take a bullet for you any day.”

“What the fuck for?” Dave sounded accusing, “I don’t even hardly know you and you almost died for me?”

“Dave, stop it,” Roxy scolded.

“I’m not going to stop!” Dave defied, “I don’t want that. I don’t know if you all remember or not but we almost got ourselves friggin’ killed and I don’t even understand what happened.”

“Dave, shut your mouth, or I will,” Dirk growled. “You were raised better. This is our fucking dad!”

“Dirk, stop cussing!” Roxy scolded again.

“That still doesn’t help anything,” Dave still defied.

“Are you literally mad that our dad saved your life? Are you literally bitching about being alive?” Dirk challenged, slipping his shades back on.

Dave’s response to him was to bark some sort of fake laugh and leave the room. He rounded the nearby staircase and climbed the stairs in a hurry. He slammed his bedroom door, shutting himself off once again.

Roxy sighed.

“It’s okay,” Jazz assured his wife, “he’ll come around. Say, Dirk, are these your pants I’ve got on?”

Dirk looked the trousers over for just a second. “Yeah, I think so.”

“Why are they so goddamn tight in the crotch?”

Dirk groaned, his shoulders slumping and his hand covering his reddening face. Rose giggled, using her sleeve to wipe her tears and her running make up. She was done crying finally, it seemed.

“What happened, though, really?” Rose inquired, “mom tried to unhex you for years and nothing worked.”

“I have an idea of what happened, but I’ve got no way of fact checking,” Jazz replied to his daughter, “I believe the demon intended to turn Dave into something heinous, disfigure him with her own version of a hex, and when it hit me it just sort of canceled out.”

“Why wouldn’t that be in our grimoire?” Roxy countered.

“Because it’s demon magic, not witch magic,” Rose filled in, like something suddenly clicked in her head.

“Exactly,” Jazz affirmed.

“Okay, okay. Let’s uh,” Roxy looked around as if she had suddenly realized her house was in shambles and sighed. “Oh my god where do we even start with this place? Oh my god, are you hungry?”

“I’m good on food, love. We could start with the couch,” he offered, and Jazz took his wife’s hand. Together, like they were joined at the hip, the reunited couple strode over to the toppled sofa and together they put the sections back together on the sectional.

“I think I’ll go see Dave about this one,” Rose stated, sniffling a little. Her eyes were still very red and very puffy. Mascara ran down her cheeks and it was smudged where she had tried to wipe it.

“I’ll go with you,” John extended.

“Both y'all stay here, I’m gonna go talk to him. I was the one that helped raise him,” Dirk rejected them both. And yeah, he was right. Dirk had always been a constant.

Dirk was slow about it, but he eventually made his way upstairs.

“Rosie,” Roxy beckoned, “could you come here and help mommy? I’m gonna try and clean this place up.”

“Coming,” Rose replied.

Roxy was standing in the middle of the room, broken everything around her. The television wasn’t sparking but it made an ominous humming noise John didn’t like. The breeze was coming in through the broken window and chilled the room like an ice box, glass rattling as the wind picked up.

John went with Rose and sat down in one of the chairs near the couch.

“You’re going to like this John, it’s a cool spell to watch,” Jazz said, reclining on the sofa.

“It usually doesn’t take two people but I’ve pushed myself into overdrive twice tonight and we can’t all be Rose,” Roxy grinned. Rose grinned back.

Roxy laced both sets of her fingers with her daughter’s and waited. Rose took a deep breath, and then another. She shut her eyes and squeezed them closed. Roxy's hands began to glow with magic and it took John a moment to realize it was Rose's. It was a gentle halo of Rose's color before Roxy's pink mixed with it and twinged it a pretty fuchsia. Rose was the battery here, John realized, and their arms were the jumper cables. 

Roxy was a whole head taller than Rose, so it was easy for her to look over her head to the broken window. She stared intently at it, and John watched in awe as the pieces of the window picked themselves up. It was almost like watching a movie rewinding itself. The pieces moved up the wall on the same path they’d fallen and one by one settled into place. The cracks sealed and mended and before long the window was fully repaired.

Roxy’s head turned to the hole in the wall and repeated the process. Then again with the entertainment center. John watched it reform, but the now silent television stayed I a broken heap on the floor.

Finally, the girls let their hands pull apart and Roxy sighed for the umpteenth time. She flopped down on the couch next to her husband, looking tired. Rose settled on the other side of her.

“What about the TV?” John questioned.

“It doesn’t work on electronics, unfortunately,” Roxy replied, “we’re going to have to buy a new one.”

That had been a pretty impressive spell. John wouldnt have believed magic was capable of it if he hadn't seen it with his own eyes. 

“So uh,” John stammered, “does that thing work on Dave? That thing you just did?”

“No, it doesn’t, Dave can’t have his own magic. I suppose you need your own for it to work,” Rose answered.

“Then how does he share memories?” John followed up.

“Dave can share memories with lingering energy but that’s about the extent. You need some juice in the battery to jump the car. Otherwise, you're just turning the key and turning over the motor,” Rose explained. She was still full of life and energy despite the utter exhaustion of everyone else in the room.

“Hold on. John, did Dave share a memory with you?” Roxy asked, leaning from her spot to make eye contact.

“Yeah?” John replied like a question. 

“He shared with you first? You didn’t try to share with him or focus on him, or give him energy or anything?” Roxy grilled.

John shook his head. “No, he just held my hand and tried super hard I guess. I don’t think I’d know how to share, actually.”

Roxy exchanged glances with Rose and then her husband. Rose, on the other hand, looked pleased.

“What?” John asked.

“He’s never been able to do that before,” Roxy filled in. She'd been relaxed moments ago but now she seemed unsettled. She crossed her right leg over her left and frowned. 

“Hey, John,” Dirk called from the top of the stairs, “If you wanna see Dave the lil’ dudes chilled right the fuck out.”

“Dirk, you did not will him into relaxing, did you?” Roxy asked, her tone already half scolding him.

“Nah, he calmed himself down. But uh, dad you might wanna take it easy around him, just sayin,’ ” Dirk shrugged as he descended the stairs. His limp was still pretty noticeable, and his non-injured leg thumped on the steps with all the extra weight he put on it. The scratch on his face wasn’t bleeding, but it was burning red and stretched from just under his eye, across his nose and down his chin.

“Do you need to go to the hospital, Dirk?” Roxy asked.

“Nah I’m good. Just hurts ’s all,” he assured her.

Dirk took the other chair across from John and flopped down. The coffee table was still intact, his popcorn bowl was still sitting on top of it. Dirk propped his feet up on it and let his head lean back on the plush backrest.

John really, really didn’t want to get up.

It was his turn to sigh as he stood up and drug himself upstairs. Sitting still for that short time after so long spent exerting himself made him realize exactly how tired he was. The door to Dave’s room was still open and John left it as he trudged by.

Dave was laying in the middle of his bed but he sat up as John approached.

“Scooch,” John requested and Dave moved so John could lay down.

Dave tried to settle back down, once on his side and once leaning on the wall but there just wasn’t enough space in his twin bed for both of them. John shifted too until finally they both stilled, still very uncomfortable.

John was on his back, his right leg up at an odd angle and his left down straight. His left arm was hanging off the bed and his head was turned in that direction. Dave ended up with his head half on John’s chest and a half on his right arm, also on his back. Dave's left leg was on top of John's and his right was angled strangely  toward the wall. Dave managed to kick the blanket up from the foot of the bed and John helped him pull it over them. 

John tried to think but he couldn’t remember the last time they shared a bed. Grade school maybe? John usually slept on the Strider’s couch.

“Is this cool?” Dave asked quietly, “like it’s not too much or anything?”

John thought for a moment. He didn’t mind sharing a bed, but he supposed it had greater implications than that. John didn't want to think about that right now. He was too tired. 

“Yeah, it’s cool.”

“Do you want to talk or anything?” Dave asked.

“Do you?” John countered knowingly.

“Well, no, uh,” he stammered, “kinda?”

John let his eyes drift shut for just a moment. “You can say whatever you want to, dude. I’m gonna warn you, though, I’m really tired.”

“Cool,” Dave said, and then he paused for so long John thought he might have fallen asleep.

“So uh, about this whole thing about me, uh, well, you know, and you, uh. What. Er, what do you think about it? About me uh, and you.”

“I think, um,” john chewed his lip while he thought. What did he think? He was still pretty surprised mostly. He was okay with it. He didn’t know which direction it was pointing, though. Where did they go from here?

“I think you kinda blindsided me. Well, not you, Rose did. You’d been kinda hinting but I never thought for a million years it was me. It’s okay. I’m not uh, super worried about it? Like I acknowledge it but I’m not super amped to make a decision,” John expanded. “I think I kinda wanna think about it if you’re cool with that.”

“I’m cool with whatever,” Dave nodded.

“Earlier when we were talking about Homecoming,” John paused in the middle of his sentence to yawn, “did you want to go?”

“Are you asking me?” Dave shifted. John wanted to roll his eyes.

“You said something like you were too scared to ask when I brought up you asking your guy, but I guess I’m the guy, so yeah. I am.” 

Dave shifted again, sitting up to look John in the eye. The hall light was still on, and light flooded through he doorway, highlighting Dave’s face and washing out his bright eyes.

“So do you mean like a, like uh, like a date?" He asked, sounding almost shy. 

John’s cheeks turned red with a blush. Oh. He’d just. He’d just sort of made it sound like a date hadn’t he? He hadn’t meant it that way. They’d gone to school dances as friends before but things were different now. Another reason why you shouldn't try to hold a conversation while you’re tired.

“We could just see how it goes? Like, feel it out? That okay?”

Dave just nodded dumbly.

He settled back down on John and the silence of the room.

When Dave started moving again John was about ready to slap him. Dave wormed his way between John’s arm and his body, laying on his side and resting his head more on John’s shoulder. He untangled their legs and sighed, content and finally comfortable.

John lay there on the edge of sleep for a few more minutes. Almost asleep but not quite. This whole day had sort of been a lot to mull over, and he worked on quieting his brain. His back hurt from Vriska body slamming him down. Vriska was the last person he wanted to think about right now, actually. He didn’t want her haunting his dreams like she haunted him in real life.

Dave wasn’t asleep either. John could feel his uneven breathing.

“You awake?” He whispered, just in case.

“Barely,” John managed.

“So what are you gonna do about the demon?” Dave inquired, but John could hear sleep weighing just as heavy on him.

“I guess you guys were right all along,” John mumbled. “She’s too dangerous to approach. The only other option Terezi gave us was to kill her. I guess we just wait until she comes back.”

“Yeah, but if she dies, you’d stay how you are forever,” Dave pointed out. John just sort of grunted noncommitmentlly. He didn’t want to answer. He wanted to sleep. Dave reached up and poked him in the chin. John tried to ignore it but Dave repeated his motion.

“I don’t think there’s anything else to be done about it. As long as your family and me are safe I think I’m gonna be okay. I hate looking like this but,” John didn’t continue. He’d said enough. He’d accepted his fate and it wasn’t a bad one. Maybe he could get used to it.

“We’re your family too, you know. The blood of the coven is thicker than the water of the womb,” Dave said. For the first time, John sort of realized Dave wasn’t human. Something about those words didn’t sound like Dave.

“I thought it was blood is thicker than water? Like the opposite of the saying,” John furrowed his eyebrows. His eyes drifted back shut and he felt his entire body relax. Sleep was coming fast on to him. 

“It is kinda in the new sense," Dave's voice droned quietly, almost as if in the background, "but that’s not the whole saying. Coven families stay together.”

Chapter Text

“So just across the front to the left, and then down through this loop I just made?”

“That’s right. You’ve got it, John,” John’s father grinned.

John frowned at himself in the mirror. The knot on his tie was tied correctly, but one end was still dangling longer than it should have been. He’d tied it and retired it probably twice before he called his dad in for help.

“Why is it doing that?” John asked, trying to straighten the red silk himself, but he only succeeded in making it worse.

“Here, it’s just a little too long on one end,” Jack replied. Grinning still, he reached out and untied the tie for his son, adjusting the length of the ends before he tied it. John tightened it himself.

“Thanks, dad.”

It looked right finally. The red contrasted nicely against the black of John’s dress shirt and slacks. He’d bought new shoes for the dance since he’d outgrown his last ones. He thought maybe the last time he’d worn them was his great uncle’s funeral when he was twelve.

“You’re welcome.” Jack placed a hand on John’s shoulder and squeezed.

John had pretty much finished growing now. He and His dad were around the same height. There were notches in the nearby wall for every one of John’s milestones.

Dave had his hands all over this house too.

“Dad uh, I just uh, I had something to say to you,” John cleared his throat after speaking.

“Yes, John?” His father inquired, dropping his hand back down to his side.

“So Dad uh, I just wanted to tell you that uh,” John swallowed hard, “I’m uh. Going with Dave. Kinda like as a date. You know, just so you know.”

“Oh,” Jack replied. John knew that tone, it was the fake surprise tone he’d used since John was a kid, “congratulations, but I already knew that.”

“You did?” John’s mouth fell open, “but how? Did Roxy call you or something? We’ve only had this plan for like a week.”

Jack’s expression contorted to genuine surprise this time.

“What?” John asked.

“Oh, John, I’m sorry. I’m, oh. John, I just assumed that you and Dave- Shucks buster, I thought you’d been with Dave for a few years now. It’s just you two spend so much time together,” Jack cleared his throat. “But you know what they say about assuming.”

“This is the single most embarrassing conversation of my life,” John deadpanned.

“Whoops, look at the time!” Jack exclaimed, “better get over to the Strider’s!”

Grumbling, John followed his dad downstairs. He grabbed his wallet off of the table and his car keys.

John was driving he and Dave, plus Rose, her date, and Jade to the dance. John’s dad was heading back home, where John and Dave were planning to crash tonight. Jack pulled out of the driveway first, his Impala turning out into the subdivision and then on to the road. John followed in his Kia.

The peak time for leaves had passed and already the foliage was coming down more aggressively than it had all October. The sun was setting earlier and earlier every night. This particular late Saturday afternoon it was warm, and there was hardly any wind, perfect for pictures in the Strider’s front yard.

John and his dad arrived in fifteen minutes, pulling down the Strider’s long driveway.

Jade Harley was already there, her grandfather’s doorless jeep parked behind Dirk’s truck. Jack parked his car next to the Harley’s vehicle while John tried to pull off out of the way.

Dave was already out in the yard, his arm slung around Jade and the pair made faces at her grandfather’s camera. He was dressed up similarly to John except he had a deep blue colored tie strung around his neck. They’d coordinated on purpose at Jade’s suggestion.

“Hey, Rose!! John’s here!” Jade shouted.

“We’re coming!” The youngest Strider child called through the open front door. She appeared in a prom dress style gown with Roxy behind her. The dress’s skirt was purple with a slit down the side to show a little leg. The top half of the dress was all lace, solid only in places it needed be. It was sleeveless with a scoop neck and when she turned, the back was cut out from the bottom of her shoulder blades to the top of the skirt.

Rose grinned as Roxy nitpicked with her short hair, pinning some shiny clip in it.

Jade’s dress was the traditional, short, stereotypical homecoming dress. It was a pretty green color, strapless with patterned rhinestones dotting every few inches. The skirt was ruffled and put together in two layers. The top was the same green, tulle and ruffles fluffing out the skirt. The under layer was black, and the more she fussed with the crinoline the fluffier the skirt got. She had it paired with a new pair of converse high tops, and she’d curled her hair.

“Stop fussing and get out here!” Jade huffed impatiently.

“You’re one to talk about fussing with that skirt.” Hold on, John knew that voice.

Kanaya stepped out on to the porch after Rose looking entirely indifferent. John noticed right away she’d changed her face. Before she’d looked like she was in her mid-twenties, now she was looking more youthful, barely seventeen. She had on another ball gown, cream colored and strapless with a mermaid skirt. Subtle ruffles and crystals dotted the slim piece before it flared dramatically near her feet. John wasn’t expecting something so modest. Not for a succubus at least.

“Who is she?” Jack asked, leaning over to whisper in John’s ear.

“Uh,” John balked, “foreign exchange student.”

“Dresses are so overrated man,” Dave scoffed, “I’m serious, I think Rose spent two hundred bucks on that dress and spent an hour on her makeup. I bought this tie yesterday and brushed my hair.”

“I wore this shirt to a funeral last,” John snickered, Dave cracked a smile.

“Okay, okay, is everybody here? Are we ready for the- where’d the camera go?” Roxy heaved a heavy sigh and rolled her eyes, patting her pants for the digital camera. A band-aid hid the hole bitten into her left hand well.

“I’ve got it, love,” Jasper appeared in the doorway, excusing himself past the girls. He had a shirt in this time, luckily, and he had his hair tied up today.

“Oh,” Jack said, “Jasper?”

“Yes! Hi there, Jack! Nice to see you again!” Jasper’s face lit up.

Jack nodded slowly and grinned. “Nice to see you. Been a long time.”

“Oh, I know! Too long,” Jazz replied, pulling Roxy close to him via an arm around her middle. “I’m just lucky this gal took me back. I didn’t deserve it.”

Well he was a convincing liar, wasn’t he?

Jack just sort of rose his eyebrows and nodded. John’s dad wasn’t one to get in on other people’s marital drama.

“Right, alright kids, it’s getting late!” Jade’s grandfather clapped his large hands, catching the attention away from the adults.

It was almost surreal to see Jade’s grandfather as a human when this entire time John had been picturing him as a wolf. There were no large ears perched on top of his graying head. Despite being a muscled mountain of a man, he was dressed pretty normally actually. He was also younger than John pegged him, about sixty.

“Go on, John,” His father urged and he joined Dave and Jade on the lawn as Rose and Kanaya stepped off the front porch.

John ended up sandwiched between Jade and Rose, with Kanaya on the other side of Rose. Dave laid himself out on the grass, much to Roxy’s chagrin, posing with his hand on his hip and his legs splayed out, hamming it up as usual.

“Paint me like one of your French girls!” He shouted.

“That’s not very ladylike, Dave,” Rose pretended to scold him.

“Dave! Good heavens, close your legs!” Dirk fake chided in his best southern belle impression, limping out onto the porch with a half a sandwich shoved in his face. Dave opened his legs wider.

At Roxy’s suggestion, they changed positions and went to the porch steps. They took a few with the girls standing and the boys sitting on the steps, then a couple with the boys standing and the girls sitting. A picture of Dirk in his cut off muscle shirt standing behind both his party ready siblings. Pictures of parents with kids. Pictures of just the boys and just the girls and every variation in between.

Kanaya was Rose’s date, so there were a ton of pictures taken of them together. Over the railing, sitting next to each other, holding hands. Roxy was eating it up. Jade got in with her best friend too and Kanaya stepped aside. Roxy closed in with her camera like the paparazzi. Seriously, how many pictures could her SD card hold?

“Okay, okay, John, Dave get in there!” Roxy directed. Jazz stood behind her grinning.

John had to admit he was a little nervous to be put on the spot, but his best friend would be there with him, he reasoned. Dave would be there all night, just like always. John stepped up to the bat, but Dave hesitated.

“Hey, mom, can I take my shades off?” Dave asked, turning to his mother and tapping his sunglasses.

Roxy looked a little taken off guard, and she shook her head with furrowed brows. “Dave, sweetie, um, I don’t know if that’s a good idea.”

“Mr. E, you cool with it? Not gonna spread these around or anything? I’ve got a disorder and my peepers look a little weird,” Dave lied right to John’s dad’s face.

“You’re fine, Dave,” Jack answered with an even tone.

“Sweet,” Dave shed his glasses without a second thought, pressing them into his mom’s hands and joined John.

Jack had never seen Dave’s eyes before, just like John hadn’t until a few weeks ago. He didn’t mention their color, only picked up his camera and asked; “Ready?”

Dave slung his arm around John’s shoulders, and he did the same around Dave’s hips, both allowing for one nice picture before they were pulling on and shoving each other. John couldn’t help but laugh, fighting Dave’s arm as the blond tried to pull him over.

“I’m gonna pants you, bro!”

“Egbert, your ass is planting itself like a tree right here in the yard,” Dave threatened, but it was empty. He laughed too, genuine and full. He looked good without his sunglasses, John thought. Nice even.

“It's five forty! And by that I mean, if you guys are done being twelve, there’s a homecoming dance to get to!” Rose hollered, unimpressed.

“Mood killer!” Dave wailed over the top and fake. He bounced over to Roxy to grab his shades back and then over to his sister.

“We’re gonna be late!” He mocked and grabbed her hand. He took off, pulling her a few feet until Rose dug in her heels, scowling.

“Let go of me!” Rose whined, “mom! Make Dave stop!”

“I need a drink,” Roxy face palmed.

John laughed a little, fishing his keys out of his pocket as he watched them. Jade had taken up Rose’s other hand and with Dave and Jade pulling Rose didn’t stand a chance. She skidded three foot in her flats until one came off and she tripped all over herself and Jade. Kanaya looked on, amused if only slightly.

Jack approached his son, digging out his wallet from his back pocket. He produced a credit card from it, his silver master card and pressed the plastic money into John’s hand.

“Just in case,” he said very seriously. The message was clear. Use it for gas, but not food.

“Oh come off it! They’ll be just fine! Pups got to grow up sometime, eh?” Jade’s grandfather exclaimed, slapping John’s dad on the back a little harder than he probably meant to.

Jack jumped and bristled, offended but trying not to show it. “I suppose.”

“Jake, be careful with your bear paws,” Roxy huffed. “As in, keep them to yourself. You wanna come in, Daddy Egbert? We’ve got plenty of brandy.”

John parted ways with his father, walking to his car and sliding into the driver’s seat. He watched his dad follow the other adults inside, careful to keep Jade’s grandfather in front of him. It was nice to see him doing something besides work.

The twenty-minute ride to the school was loud. Dave sat up front, jockeying the radio. The heat was up all the way and noisily raging through the blower, and the girls talked over all it. John was alright driving through the noise but he wasn’t very good at holding a conversation and driving.

When they pulled up to the school, what windows weren’t dark were highlighted in flashing color. Music flooded out the open door where John’s math teacher was taking tickets. There was a line already, but it was moving fast.

John’s ticket was still crisp, bought on Monday of that week. He had Dave’s too because the blonde couldn’t be trusted to keep from destroying it. John tried not to watch as Kanaya took hers and Rose’s out of her bra. The incubus smiled as she handed over her no doubt forged guest pass along with the tickets. For a few tense moments, John wasn’t sure if they’d let her in, but the teacher shrugged finally and kept the line moving.

Jade at least kept her ticket in her pocket, like a lady.

The inside of the school was dark save for a few sparse sets of lights down a blocked off hallway. The lockers had been decorated by someone who was clearly an art student, the large paper cutouts depicted the Pheasant River Ringneck kicking the snot out of the neighboring town’s mascot were actually done pretty well. Pheasant River did have a pretty good football team, and they actually had won last night’s game.

The group followed the flow of people down to the gymnasium where the dance was actually happening. The lights had been thrown off and the bleachers pushed back into their storage position to make room for speakers, strobe lights, and an awesome DJ booth.

The music thumped deep in John’s chest. He could feel it rattle his teeth and frankly, it hurt his ears. The longer he stood around, the less uncomfortable it became. The speakers boomed out a popular pop song with a catchy chorus and an unseat melody. The gym was dark, but through the neon, John could see the mashing bodies of his classmates. People always got a little too er, comfortable at these things.

Did all school dances have to be like this? Ugh.

“Gonna get your grind on, John?” Dave asked over the music, laughing. His shades reflected every light flicker like a mirror.

“Absolutely not,” John rolled his eyes. “With my luck, my pants would rip.”

Dave smirked, shoving his hands in his pockets. “So are we just gonna stand here and be wall flowers all night?”

“Did you have any ideas?” John inquired.

“We could ditch?”

John almost rolled his eyes a second time. “We just got here?”

“Okay, fair enough,” Dave turned to him, wrapping his hand around John’s wrist. “I still think you should dance with me.”

Dave tried to tug him the last few yards to the dance floor. John put on the breaks immediately, but his heels had nowhere to dig into the gym’s linoleum. “Ohhh no, I don’t dance, Dave. When have you ever seen me dance?”

“That’s exactly why you should!” Dave argued. John’s shoes were sliding.

“I can’t dance!” John objected again.

“Neither can I!” Dave beamed, and finally John’s shoes skidded on the waxed floor and he fell forward, right into Dave. The blonde caught him before he could fall, his palms on John’s elbows and John face first in his chest.

He was wearing cologne again. The same stuff that had been on Dirk’s flannel. Dave always smelled nice, John guessed but something about his cologne. He pulled his face out of Dave’s chest with a tiny blush creeping onto his cheeks.

Dave was just smiling down at him, his teeth showing and his eyebrows raised hopefully behind his shades. Color flashed off if his skin and colored his pale hair like vibrant dye. He looked hopeful, and excited, and so alive right then John was awestruck.

“What are you looking at me like that for?” He asked. John wasn’t even aware he was looking at him differently at all.

“Oh, nothing I, uh,” he stammered. His mouth sort of froze in an O shape. His brain clicked on again and he straightened himself out, shutting his mouth and reaching up to make sure his tie was still on straight.

“Um, sorry. I’ll dance with you, sure.”

“Glad you had a change of heart,” Dave replied smugly, and this time when he tugged, John went along with him.

John wasn’t kidding when he said he didn’t know how to dance. Whatever bad pop music they were playing now was no consolation. He just sort of.. moved his hips? Was that right? That’s what everyone else looked like they were doing. That’s what Dave started doing too, and John guessed if Dave had gotten him this far then, well.

John sort of shook his hips and built up a little pattern that went with the flow of the song. Dave trying his best too. He was doing this thing with his arms, and then his elbows and John couldn’t hear himself laugh but he felt it.

“You should see how you look, John. You’re one to laugh,” Dave kidded, laughing too. He almost had to shout over the music.

“I’m sorry dude, we must look hopeless!” John giggled, coming closer to him so he could hear a bit better.

“Whatever Bro, fuckin’ twirl me,” before John even reacted, Dave took his hand and brought it over their heads, spinning himself like a little girl, twisting around before he forced John into a twirl himself. They must look like such immature douchebags.

The song cut off abruptly after the second chorus and the DJ’s smooth voice took the speakers as he took the mic.

“Alright party people, let’s slow it down a couple songs for the couples out there.”

The lighting changed before the music started. The strobe lights quit, leaving only a soft blue light the DJ brought down out of the ceiling and focused onto the floor. People froze, just like John did, and either left the dance floor with their friends or turned to slow dance with their partner and a new song came on. Way to put him on the spot.

Dave’s hand was still in his. Dave was still standing there, still smiling at him. Do something or get off the pot, John thought. Say something, don’t just stand there and stare at him! John felt like a deer caught in car headlights. He could feel another blush rising to his cheeks as Dave stepped closer. “You wanna keep dancing?”

“Uh-huh,” John nodded. “But I don’t know how to slow dance either.”

“This is easy, just like this,” Dave closed the gap between them, placing one hand on John’s hip and the other on his shoulder. John wanted to mock him, but changed his mind last minute, deciding to settle both of his hands on Dave’s hips.

Dave began to sway, easy and slow, catching along with the song. He had better rhythm than John, probably from all those years of messing with music. John tried to imitate, wobbling along with him. Dave’s feet shuffled, and John followed. They were moving in a circle, John realized, and it was easier once he caught on.

Beyond their little corner, other couples were doing pretty much the same thing. Girls rested their heads on their date’s shoulders, sighing contently with their partners patting their backs. Couples kissed too, some tamer than others. People were going to talk about that tomorrow. Oh god, would they talk about John dancing with Dave too?

“What’s up?” Dave quizzed. John grimaced, turning his attention back to his best friend.

“Nothing. Just thinking about gossip.”

Dave scoffed, rolling his eyes into next week. “Yeah, well. Half these people are gonna end up either knocked up or never see each other again after graduation. I wouldn't sweat it. Like oh, shit. However did I get pregnant with my boyfriend’s brother’s best friend’s kid? But O-M-G Becky, have you been up on your Facebook stalking? I heard Jimmy got fat.”

John couldn’t help but snicker a little along with Dave at the joke. Something still itched at him, though. Dave was right, half these people he never would see again after May, but what about Dave himself? They were best friends, and they always had been, but college created distance between people.

That was a horrifying thought. What if he never saw Dave again?

“What’s eating you, for real?” The blonde asked. He reached up to pull his shades down just low enough John could see the concern in his eyes.

“What are you going to do after high school?” John blurted.

Dave seemed confused about the outburst, but he answered anyway. “I’m gonna get my taxidermy license I guess, why?”

“No, what are you gonna do after that?” John pressed. “Where are you gonna go?”

“Where am I going to go?” Dave parroted back. “Nowhere. You don’t um,” he paused, leaning in so John could hear as he continued in a much lower tone.

“You don’t just leave your coven.”

John didn’t stop to think about that. He still felt anxious, on edge about something he had never thought about before. “Where are we gonna be after high school? We aren’t just going to be frozen in time.”

The look on John’s face must have been telling because Dave looked as if he finally understood.

“Look,” he sighed, “I’m not going anywhere. My feelings aren’t going to change just because we graduate. My best friend feelings, or my other ones. John, what’s wrong? Why all this all of a sudden?”

John exhaled sharply, frustrated with his words. He didn’t know . He didn’t fucking know anything. The thought of Dave leaving him was too much, but John still found himself worried after being told he was staying right here in Pheasant River. He realized this wasn’t about Dave at all. This was about his own confusion.

Dave’s feelings might not change, but what about John’s own? He knew he didn’t reciprocate Dave’s crush. Not now. Not yet, if it was even possible. It made John’s frustration raise to a fever pitch. Why couldn’t John love him as more than a friend? Why couldn’t he want the stupid, sappy romance everyone else had? The same romance everyone in this room felt?

“John, what’s wrong?” Dave asked again. He looked so upset, his lips pressed to a thin line. John was making this all worse. Jesus, Why couldn’t he just shut the fuck up for once? Finally, words flooded out if his mouth even though he didn’t want them to.

“I don’t think I know what I’m feeling, or how to even feel about you, Dave? And I'm so sorry about that. The truth is I don’t know what it even is like to like another person that way, and I probably wouldn't know it if it slapped me in the face. I'm sorry, I wish I could give back to you what you feel for me.”

“What do you feel, John?”

“I feel happy to be here and scared, and I feel like I don’t ever want you to leave,” John confessed. Dave’s smile returned then, his expression doing a complete one-eighty.

“Then that’s good enough for me.”

John’s eyebrows furrowed. “How can you say that? How can you say that after all the shit I put you through?”

“First of all, none of any of that stuff has been your fault. Second? I can confidently say that I will wait for you, John Egbert, until you know how you feel. Just having you around is good enough for me.”

Dave’s hand gripped a little tighter onto John’s hip as his finger wound its way into his belt loop. This guy was amazing. Really, truly. Still the best person John had ever had the chance to befriend. He still didn’t know the answer. He might not ever. That thought struck fear into him like no other, threatening him with tears. John’s chest tightened as his heart dropped into his stomach.

“Kiss me.”

John could see Dave’s eyes widen behind his sunglasses. “What?”

“I said kiss me,” John repeated.

“Dude, it’s only been like a week and you just said you didn’t know how you felt,” Dave objected.

John exhaled sharply into the small space between them. “What if I don’t ever know how I feel? What if I’m not meant to? I don’t ever wanna be with anyone else, not for any reason, Dave. Kiss me, please. Before I lose my nerve.”

Dave looked like he was losing his own nerve. Like a gas gauge on a long trip, slowly running out. John closed his eyes, meaning to encourage him. He felt Dave’s hand on his shoulder fist into his dress shirt, and then they were both leaning in.

All of a sudden John was kissing Dave Strider at a school dance in his hometown in his senior year of high school. It hit him like a train wreck all at once. Dave, his best friend. Dave, his constant. Dave. Dave. Dave. He was right here in front of him with too wet lips and a too firm grip, but John remembered this was both of their first kiss. God, this is what it felt like.

The extra sensation of his bond string pulled John back to the present. He could feel it going nuts between his fingers and he hadn’t even meant to. Dave must have been doing something similar because even after John got ahold of himself it was still going haywire. All of his other strings vibrated back at him, Roxy was very clearly confused, and Dirk’s vibration was annoyed. Oh, they didn’t- they couldn’t have felt all of that, could they?

Dave pulled away all too soon, leaving John swimming in his own mind. His nose brushed John’s, and he smiled, licking his lips.

“You taste like gum,” he muttered.

“You taste like home,” John spit out before his brain even registered what his mouth was saying.

“Christ, Egbert,” Dave laughed, his shoulders shaking as he leaned in, pulling John into a hug. His hands left John’s belt loop in favor of the back of his head, pulling him closer and squeezing him tight with his opposite arm.

John let himself rest his head on Dave’s shoulder, exhaling slowly onto his collar. “It’s the truth.”

“I’m going to vomit if I have to hear or feel anything else from you two, good lord,” Rose cut in. John twisted around, finding Rose and a Kanaya in a similar position to his own with Dave. They danced in slow, calculated movement that Kanaya lead. They weren’t on top of each other however, there was at least some space between them.

“You two are quite sappy,” Kanaya added, smirking.

“At least I know how to find somebody my age,” Dave snarked back.

“Please,” Kanaya drawled, “I’m offended. What do you take me for, a deviant?”

“Dave, would you shut up? Kanaya, he’s just being himself, ignore him,” Rose pressed.

“Whatever,” Dave shrugged.

“Where’s Jade?” John thought to ask.

“Jade was nominated for Homecoming Queen, didn’t you hear?” Rose replied.

John shook his head. “No, I didn’t. That’s really cool. Do you think she’s gonna win?”

“I hope she does, but these things are always popularity contests. I think it’s between her and Addy Baker,” Rose mused.

“What’s a Homecoming Queen?” Kanaya inquired. “I’ve got an idea, but could you explain, please?”

Oh right, demons didn’t exactly attend high school, did they? Rose shook her head, passing off the notion it was anything important. “It’s sort of stupid. People vote on who should be queen, but you aren’t queen of anything. You just get your name in the yearbook.”

“That’s uninspiring,” Kanaya remarked. Rose hummed in agreement.

The DJ flipped the switch on something on his equipment, and suddenly the strobe lights were back on and the music was back to upbeat instead of slow and steady. John was pretty much done dancing, and no amount of Pitbull blaring in his ear was going to change that. Dave seemed to have a similar idea and the pair gravitated away from his sister and her date.

“Did you want to stay and watch to see if Jade wins?” Dave asked, pushing the gym’s door out of their way.

“Not if you don’t,” John replied. They’d been here for what, an hour? An hour and a half? He’d gotten his ten dollar tickets worth. These dances were kinda lame.

“My mom was busy with Rose and Dirk was trying to make soup in the kitchen, the only thing I care about right now is food,” Dave joked, but in all seriousness, John was sort of hungry too.

“We could get McDonald’s?” John suggested.

“You know what they call a quarter pounder with cheese in France?” Dave grinned.

“A Royale with cheese. I saw Pulp Fiction too, dork,” John grinned back. “And they call it Le Big Mac.”

Dave led the way through the school’s front door, waving goodbye to teachers. The plan was to head back to John’s all along so it wasn’t like they needed to tell anyone where they were going. Dirk would ride with Jasper to pick up the girls later, something about trying to ease the older man back into driving.

John had his car keys out before they even left the front steps. It was fully dark now but the streets were lit. They both piled into the Kia and they were out of the crowded lot before the song inside changed. The radio was still up loud from earlier, and they left it up as they cursed to the only chain restaurant in town. They only turned it down to order, but they cranked it back up once they had their brown bags inside the car.

John’s neighborhood wasn’t too far away, and he pulled in behind his dad’s car to park. The house was lit up as well as the rest of the neighborhood, the porch lights on and the house well lit. The door was unlocked and John let them in.

“We’re home, dad!” John called. “Where are you?”

“In the kitchen! How was the dance?” Jack shouted back. John went to the doorway, peeking around the corner to check on his father. Jack was leaning on the kitchen counter, a drink in his hand, and watching a cooking show. Behind him on the counter was a reusable grocery bag of ingredients.

“It was fun, I guess. Kinda stupid, I remember why I quit going to those,” John smiled.

“You're home awfully early,” Jack pointed out. “Thought maybe you boys would go cause trouble somewhere.”

John shook his head, still smiling. “Nah. We got some junk food and came home. Do you care if we watch a movie on the living room TV?”

“Just as long as I can still hear my program, you can do whatever you like,” Jack punctuated his sentence with a sip off of his drink. “Oh, I meant to ask you. Does Dave’s mother always drink so heavily in the middle of the day like that?”

“Uhh,” John paused, thinking for just a second. He decided not to lie. “Yeah, she does.”

Jack just sort of raised his eyebrows, looking like he wasn’t surprised at all. John sort of laughed and ducked back into the other room, where Dave had the fast food bags open.

They ate their burgers from the wrapper and picked fries out of the bag. Dave practically inhaled his food and then moved on to a box of nuggets. John ended up shoving the rest of his food to Dave, settling to sip the rest of his pop instead.

There was something mindless on television, some reality show and John had about enough of it. “Do you wanna watch a movie?”

“Yeah, anything besides this,” Dave said with his mouthful. “You have the Ghostbusters reboot?”

“Yeah, of course I have it. I’ll turn it on.”

John’s entertainment center was oak, with a middle toned stain on the swirls of the wood. It held their TV, a game system and a DVD player, with a pair of doors underneath that allowed for storage. John kept all the DVDs he didn’t keep in his room here. The doors opened with a tiny pop and a library of titles fanned out in front of him. He plucked up the case and piped it open before he fired up the blu ray player, bringing the remote with him back to the sofa. His hips touched Dave’s as he sat back down, getting comfortable and draping himself across the arm of the couch.

Dave shifted, finished eating and his wrappers discarded, leaning back on the cushions and trying to situate his legs. He folded his right leg over his left, sat on his foot, and tried crossing his legs all before the main menu popped up. This was his bedroom all over again. John could see where this was going.

“Dave,” John said, and that’s all he said.

Dave gave him a nervous sort of smirk. “What?”

“Dude, just lay down. Lay on me if you want.”

“It takes me a long time to get comfortable,” Dave whined.

“If you’d just do it instead of squirming,” John kicked at his leg playfully. “Get us a blanket.”

John watched Dave sit up and loosen his tie. He pulled the blue silk from his neck and pooled it on the floor. He reached behind himself and pulled the gray afghan from the back of the couch. He spread it out over them with more care than Dave usually did anything. He was still tip-toeing, John decided.

John grabbed his best friend by the elbow and forcefully pulled him over. Dave’s head ended up sort of on his side, sort of on his chest. Dave’s weight was comfortable as it pressed John into the couch but Dave himself was tense. He was very still, almost as if he’d frozen up completely.

“It’s cool, just get comfy and chill,” John tried to persuade him.

“Easier said than done,” Dave muttered, but in the end, John felt him relax. Dave leaned more weight on him, moving his legs to the couch completely. John responded by moving his legs too, folding them up around Dave’s knees. It was an awkward position that would probably put one or both of his arms to sleep, but John wasn’t even thinking about moving.

Dave sighed, situating the blanket finally and rested his head on John’s ribs. The beginning of the movie had gotten cut off in their shuffle, but it wasn’t too eventful anyway.

While the tape went on, John could hear his father in the kitchen. Mostly he could hear the big expensive mixer running, and the smell of pumpkin eased in. Combined with the warmth of his friend and the soft yellow glow of the lights, John wasn’t sure how much longer he’d be awake. He’d turn the light off if the lamp wasn’t all the way other by his father’s armchair.

The phone ringing brought John out of the lull of sleep. It rang twice more before John heard his father answer it with a “Hello?”

There was a pause before he continued.

“Er, yes, Roxy, excuse me, what? Oh, oh, hello Mr. Strider, er, yes Jasper. Both the boys are here, and they’re fine,” Jack paused again. He appeared in the doorway moments later with the house phone pinned between his shoulder and his head. In his hands he held a mixing bowl and a whisk.

“I’m looking at them both right here. No, one one else is here. Is something wrong, Mr. Strider? Jasper, yes I’m sorry.”

Dave snickered as a look of confusion crossed Jack’s face.

“Yes alright. Have a lovely night,” Jack dropped the whisk into the bowl and used his now free hand to end the call. He huffed, looking up at the boys with another unimpressed expression.

“Sorry, Mr. E,” Dave smirked. “They’re just happy to be back together. They don’t drink so heavy all the time.”

“It’s alright,” Jack assured him. “He just made it seem like you two might be in some kind of trouble. You’re not, are you?”

“Nah,” Dave passed him off with a fluid lie, “My dad’s just kinda new to being a parent again.”

Jack just gave a little shrug and went back into the kitchen. Dave’s parents had every right to be worried. Being drunk didn’t change the fact Vriska had jumped them only a week ago. Tonight had been demon free, luckily.

Well, not completely but Kanaya was so placid she almost didn’t count.

Dave’s phone vibrated, and he contorted his arm about to grab it out of his pocket. He unlocked it and pulled up his messenger app. Before John could ask, Dave was shoving his phone into John’s face.

“Jade won,” he said.

John pushed the phone back so he could look at the screen. The message was from ‘Sister From The Same Mister’ which John knew was Rose. There was a poorly lit picture, probably still in the dark gym, of Jade standing next to Andy DuPont, a popular boy in John’s graduating class. She was wearing a little tiara and a white sash across her green dress that said Homecoming Queen right on it. Andy must have been crowned king then.

“Awesome, I bet she’s happy,” John grinned, “tell Rose to tell her congrats for me.”

“I will,” Dave spoke, repossessing his phone and typing back a quick message.

He sat up then, and unbuttoned his dress shirt, leaving him with the faded, black Pink Floyd t-shirt he was wearing underneath. He pulled his sunglasses off next and resettled into the warm spot he created.

John pulled his own tie off and let his shirt out a button. He wanted to put his pajamas on, but he was too sated to move. He hated to think about what sort of stuff Rose would be doing to pull all of her makeup off later tonight.

“Tonight was nice,” Dave said quietly.

“Yeah, it was,” John agreed.

Dave’s smooth, skinny fingers crept up between John’s, his middle and ring fingers twisted to circle around John’s thumb. The back of his hand fit nicely into John’s palm. His skin was soft, and his nails were short. John squeezed, soft and reassuring.

Chapter Text

“Why do I feel like I’m in trouble?”

“You're not, don’t worry,” Dave grinned, leaning on the banister of his front porch.

The dim twilight held the chill of late autumn as settled as frost over the grass. Sunlight caught on the few remaining leaves, highlighting the bare bark of the trees a deep chestnut. The underbrush of the forest around the Strider house was fading too, bidding farewell until spring, promising to return better than ever.

“You texted me out of the blue on a Tuesday, I got kinda scared,” John grinned, climbing the porch to join Dave.

“Mom wanted to have a talk. She just kinda stood up and was like, ‘yup okay, call John, so I texted you,” Dave explained.

John let Dave lead the way through the house, passing through the living room and the warmly lit kitchen. There was something in the oven, a casserole by the smell of it, but no Striders. Dave kept walking, opening the back door, and let John walk in front of him out back where the rest of the Striders were gathered.

The Striders were bunched in the center of the yard, around the decorative fire ring John had roasted marshmallows over many times. Something told John this wasn’t exactly a marshmallow roasting event.

Though the multi-colored camping chairs were arranged in a circle, Roxy seemed to be sitting at the head. She had an old, red fleece blanket draped across her lap, and a heavy sweater on to keep her warm. Her expression was thoughtful but very serious and did not reply when John greeted her.

“She can’t hear you,” Dirk answered from her right. “She’s meditating. Or trying at least.”

In his hand, Dirk held a lighter. He was down on his good knee, hand shielding the flame as he tried to get it to catch on to a dry leaf. The fire was apparently a challenge for him, judging by a mason jar full of what John assumed was gasoline behind his chair. Finally, too frustrated to continue, Dirk stood up and threw a bolt of electricity from his arm and into the fire pit, igniting the accelerant and starting a blaze that burned too big and too hot. The wild flames calmed down seconds later as the gas burnt down, fire catching on to the dry logs provided.

“Dirk, couldn’t you of at least tried not to singe our eyebrows off?” Jasper snipped from his chair on the other side of Roxy. “Good evening, John. How are you?”

“I’m doing okay, Mr. Strider,” John replied.

“Jasper,” he corrected.

“Right, sorry,” John acknowledged.

“Sit down, John,” Dirk directed, seating himself. “We’re waiting on a couple more people.”

Dave grabbed up his extra hoodie that was resting on his chair next to Dirk’s and pulled the maroon fabric over his head. He sat down, and patted the chair on his other side, trying to cue John to sit. It was cold out, and the fire was the best place to be. Looking around for just a moment, he realized someone was missing.

“Where’s Rose?” He thought to ask.

“She’s getting one of our key players,” Roxy answered, “Hi, John. Sorry I missed you come in.”

“Hi, Roxy,” John greeted. “Was meditating uh, helpful?”

“No. Not very, but that’s okay. I think I know where to go from here,” Roxy smiled, small and tired-seeming. Jasper’s hand crossed the small space between their chairs and laced his fingers with Roxy’s.

“Jake and Jade are here,” Dirk chimed, looking unperturbed, his sunglasses pushed up on top of his head. It must have been too hard trying to see through the encroaching darkness and his shades. John twisted his head around, expecting to see headlights from the direction of the driveway, but the side yard was dark and no one made a move to go to the front door.

“Other way,” Dirk corrected, and John twisted around, ready to question him. Instead, he saw what Dirk meant.

From the woods Jake and Jade appeared, exiting the path that leads to the back of the Strider’s property. They traveled on four legs tonight instead of two, large, padded paws carefully picking a path. Jake, at least John was pretty sure it was Jake, had led the way, with Jade close by at his flank. The wolves were exactly how John remembered them in the cornfield that night, alarmingly intimidating and daunting. Not at all like Jade had been that evening in the graveyard, friendly and wagging her tail as he approached.

Tonight they were shrouded in darkness, and they advanced toward the campfire in a cold, fluid movement that was all animal and no human. John couldn’t help but imagine the teeth inside those maws, curved, and larger than John’s whole hand at least. He wondered how much more effective the wolves serrated teeth were compared to his own. How much easier it was for them to tear flesh from bone. Another predator. Competition.

John shut his eyes, trying to clear those thoughts from his head. Bad, those were bad. Jade was his friend, and her grandfather had been nice.

The change happened so fast John almost missed it. Everything happened at once. Knees changed direction, chest structures altered, fur receding neatly to the top of their heads all while they moved. Neither of them faltered, not even a step. What surprised John most was that they still had clothes on. Shoes even! Like they were built in.

“Hi everybody!” Jade exclaimed, a big toothy grin taking over her face as they closed the distance to the fire. She swept her long hair over her shoulder, carding a finger through it to pull a loose stick from her brown locks. She was beaming, but John couldn’t stop picturing the stone seriousness of the wolf.

“Hey, Jade,” Dave greeted, smiling and pushing his sunglasses up on top of his head.

“This is some shindig your having, Strider!” Jake piped up, “should have brought a bottle of wine or something. You doing alright without the fur?”

Jake took the open seat next to Dave’s dad, reaching over to playfully slap him on the shoulder. Unlike John’s father, Jasper didn’t seem bothered.

“Just about as well as you are,” Jasper joked back.

Jake was a big man. He sat up straight and proud, his legs spread and chest square, making the already big man look bigger. Jade was no delicate flower either, and it was easy to see where her bulk came from.

“We’re just waiting for Rose to bring our last guest,” Roxy filled in her newest guests.

A flash of jade green took John off guard, just for a moment. The Harleys bristled too, heads turned toward the source of the light, the house. Roxy, who was facing the back door, and the rest of the Striders looked unbothered. John knew who it was. There wasn’t anyone else it could be.

Kanaya stepped out on the grass in her bare feet with Rose right behind her. The demon was dressed back in her usual black dress, her skin was gray once more and her horns had returned to their rightful place on top of her head. She had looked human last weekend for the dance, but not totally unlike Cinderella the ball was over and she was back to normal. Her face, however, remained a youthful seventeen.

Kanaya made a show of sitting down, primping her skirt just to delay them a few seconds. Once she had silently settled next to John, she politely laid her hands in her lap and looked to Roxy.

“I’m sorry for being so fashionably late, I don’t exactly have control over it,” Kanaya said pointedly, grinning.

“You’re the girl that took Rose to the dance?” Jake gawked, surprised. He didn’t look happy to see her. “You look a little different. Must be the horns, eh?”

“Must be,” Kanaya agreed sourly. Wait for a second, it dawned on John that Jade had known Kanaya's identity. John could tell by the look on her face, but Jake hadn’t? John could sympathize, you couldn’t tell your parents everything.

“Jake, she’s a friend, not a foe,” Roxy intervened before things got ugly. “I’ve asked Kanaya here because I believe she has the expertise to tell me if my reasoning is flawed.”

Jake didn’t look happy about that.

“I’ll get right to it then, is it correct to say that demons have somewhere they go when they aren’t interacting with us?”

“Yes. That’s the law of mass, you can’t create or destroy it,” Kanaya replied sarcastically. “She’s got to be somewhere at all times.”

“So,” Roxy continued, “couldn’t we summon her the same way we do you?”

Kanaya seemed to consider that. “I suppose you could. With the right items.”

“So, if we can summon her, could we summon her into the middle of a salt circle? Gain the upper hand immediately?”

“No,” Kanaya rejected, “Vriska is hurt, badly. I’m sure she’s lying in wait somewhere, licking her wounds and anticipating what you will do next. She won’t be that easy to contain.”

“She can’t get around a salt circle,” Dirk objected.

“No, but she might become even more violent inside one. She’s like a caged animal already. Hostile. If you’ve got her trapped in salt you’re stuck with her while she rages. Salt is a bad idea. What did you find out from her creator?” Kanaya inquired, smoothing her skirt again and pulling it down over her ankles.

“We found out that Vriska doesn’t want to trade, she’d rather play a game,” Rose replied, having seated herself on Kanaya’s other side. “She likes games of chance apparently.”

“Mm,” Kanaya agreed, “she always did enjoy gambling. What sort of game were you planning on playing with her?”

“A coin flip,” Roxy replied, drawing out a large, gold-colored coin. She passed it to Dirk, who passed it to Dave, who passed it to John. The first thing John noticed was the feeling of something prickling his skin, like Pop Rocks, might on his tongue. It didn’t hurt, but it was certainly unpleasant. The coin was heavy in his grasp, with no ridges on its sides. On the coin’s face was a woman, but not one John had ever seen before on any sort of currency. It must have been old judging by the amount of tarnish on it.

Kanaya held out her hand, and John passed it her way before he could turn it over. John laid it gently in her palm, but no sooner did John’s fingers leave it did Kanaya jerk her hand back, dropping the coin onto the grass. She hissed something like a rattlesnake and glared daggers at Roxy.

“What is that?” She growled, rubbing her palm briskly.

“It’s hexed. I bought it from my coven when I married Jasper, and it was an heirloom. It prevents anyone with malicious intentions from tampering with it, so problems can be decided fairly,” Roxy replied, “I’m sorry I didn’t warn you. I wanted to see what would happen when you and John handled it.”

“And it works under the assumption that all demons have malicious intentions?” Kanaya questioned haughtily. Rose leaned down, flashing Kanaya an apologetic look as she plucked the coin out of the grass.

Roxy frowned.

“I really am sorry. I’ve never been shocked by it before, did it hurt very much?”

“It will certainly work on Vriska,” Kanaya spat, turning her hand over to show the group. A circular burn with the coin’s tail pattern seared into her gray skin.

“If,” she stipulated, “Vriska doesn’t just manipulate the air around the coin instead of just the coin. Just because she can’t use her luck on the coin doesn’t mean she can’t use it on everything else. John’s hand, the wind, willing someone into interfering.”

Roxy’s victorious smile was wiped from her face.

“Fifty percent odds are not too good, to begin with,” Jake sighed, “and it sounds to me like they’re more like sixty-forty odds.”

“Ninety-ten,” Kanaya corrected.

“Instead we um,” John leaned forward, clearing his throat. “We could kill her.”

All eyes were on him, except for Dave’s. The middle strider child leaned back, pushing his shades back down over his eyes.

“John, ah,” Roxy muttered, “John you’d have to stay that way, forever. You do know that, right?”

“I know,” John stated plainly.

“You’re okay with that?” Jade asked disbelief etched into her drawn eyebrows.

“I have to be,” John confessed, “She attacked the Striders. It’s not fair to put my issue over their safety. I’d rather stay this way than do them more harm.”

Dave had been on the same page with John for a week, but now everyone was. It was time for the focus to change. Roxy looked sympathetic.

“John, sweety, you don’t-” she tried. “John you don’t have to give up what’s important to you for us. We’re okay.”

“Because in reality, my friend,” Jake interjected, “anything we do puts all of us in harm’s way.”

John didn’t want to let on, but he was scared. It wasn’t too late to back out, it wasn’t too late to say ‘fuck it’ and stop altogether. Move to Iceland or something, and get away from all this magic horse shit. It wasn’t too late to become a nomadic sheepherder. Words ran through John’s head, reminding him of all that could go wrong. If he lost, he would be at Vriska’s mercy.

Flames licked at the dry logs in the fire pit, a telling dance that could only lead to the embers dying among the ashes. Jasper picked up another split log and threw it into the center, fire overtaking its edges and promising it a similar fate. The bark of the wood crackled and popped as it charred. John could feel the heat it gave off.

He ground his teeth, feeling the pinpricks on his gums. God, he hated having a mouth full of knives. It hurt so much worse to bite his tongue, and sometimes it bled for hours after. The intrusive thoughts were probably the worst, though. On top of looking terrible, he felt terrible. Like he wasn’t genuine enough for his family, his friends. What would his dad think if he knew?

Warm fingers wove their way into John’s and Dave moved to hold his hand. John could tell he was trying to be quiet about it, but Jade flashed them a bright, knowing smile. John returned the advance and gripped his best friend’s hand firmly.

Fuck. This was terrible.

What would happen to Dave if this all went to shit?

“What were you talking about her creator earlier?” Dirk said, his tone suspicious.

“We might have,” Rose spoke, and then paused, “raised her creator. From the dead. And spoke to her about Vriska. And when we spoke to Terezi, she said the exact same thing the grimoire did.”

“Rosalind Lauren, you did what ?” Dirk asked, now sounding accusatory. Rose shrunk back. Jade looked nervous, worried she’d be outed too. Dave snickered, up until Dirk turned on him.

“Don’t think you aren’t in trouble too, David Nathaniel . All three of you are in deep shit.”

“Simmer down, Dirk,” Roxy hushed, “there’s a time to be mad but it isn’t now.”

“As I was saying,” Rose hissed, “kill her or trade, just like in the grimoire. And if we can’t get her to trade, well, maybe it’s time to start doing damage control instead of playing offense.”

“Rosie, darlin’, thank you for the input but I want to hear from John and only John,” Roxy dismissed, trying to sort through her children’s voices to find the one she was really concerned about. “I don’t. Ugh. I don’t like this. When did you decide?”

“The night I tried to go after her,” John replied, “after you interrupted, I realized.”

Roxy looked distressed over all, but the way she looked at him was filled with heartache. “It’s my job as the leader to point us in the right direction and see that the best comes to everyone who is a part of my coven. Are you are sure, absolutely sure this is what you want?”

“I’m sure,” John confirmed. Dave squeezed his hand.

“Okay,” Sighing, Roxy finally relented. “Okay. Alright.”

“I don’t like this,” Jake made known. Jade flashed John an apologetic look.

“Well, frankly I’m glad he choose this,” Kanaya replied, “it won’t be the easiest, but it’s the simplest. In fact, I’ll even try to teach you to use your magic, if you have any after all this is over.”

Jake practically growled at her.

John gave Kanaya a weak smile. He didn’t want to agree to anything. Sure, it wasn’t worst case scenario he stayed a demon, but it wasn’t best case either. An eight out of ten on the bad idea scale. John knew he was going to regret it.

“You won’t need a Halloween costume this year,” Dave elbowed John. It was sort of an inappropriate joke, but John humored him.

John’s feeling of apprehension faded away, slowly, like his summer’s tan faded. Almost unnoticed until he was back to normal. He felt calmer, neutral to the entire situation and as moments ticked by, he felt more and more detached. John glanced at Rose, who was wearing a similar blank expression. This was not her signature forceful will. John’s eyes went from Dirk to Roxy, before they finally settled on Jasper. This was him, pulling the negative emotions away from the circle like the receding tide. Jasper smiled at him.

“Please friends,” Jasper spoke, “I don’t like unrest in my circles. So, as we go into discussion of a plan, let’s keep it civil?”

Jake’s shoulders relaxed, and he nodded slowly. Roxy sighed again and leaned back into her chair with her hand over her face. Dirk looked better too, no longer angry.

“Understood,” Jake mumbled.

“Where do we go from here?” Dirk asked. He crossed his right leg over his left knee and leaned back uncomfortably. His foot bounced restlessly. His eyes landed on John, and so did several others.

“Well,” Roxy began but she didn’t seem to know where to from there. She stared down at the fire a moment, deep in thought and then she clasped her hands together with a quiet clap. Then much more sure, she continued. “Well, we could defiantly go looking for her. That seems to be the easiest way to find her right? Or wait until she comes looking for John.”

“One thing about her, she’s not hard to lose,” Dirk frowned. “Dave, go get me a beer?”

“Go get your own,” Dave snorted.

“I’ll give you one,” Dirk offered. Dave made a face. Bribery didn’t work if the prize wasn’t worth it. Dirk rolled his eyes. “Please?” he reached over and kind of nudged Dave on the shoulder. Grumbling Dave got up and went for the house.

“Grab me one too, won’t you?” Jake called after him. Dave held up a hand to acknowledge him. John watched him go for a moment before he turned back to the group.

“Could,” John started, but he had to clear his throat. “Could we call my dad? Let him in on this?”

Roxy never answered questions too quickly. She wanted to think about her options and her response, but that question had her quiet for much longer than usual.

“If anything went wrong we could always erase his memory,” Dirk offered. Roxy just sort of nodded.

“Yeah, we could tell him. But he needs a seeing potion to override the cloaking potion we used on you. And plus I’d much rather present it to him here, where it’s safe.”

“We didn’t have to explain to you that magic was a secret,” Jasper chatted, “you already wanted to hide it, but other people? We run into trouble.”

“Text him or whatever and ask him over,” Roxy continued. “I'll brew you a potion real quick.”

John drew his phone out of his pocket and fired off a quick text to his father. Jack, of course, was more than confused and it took some persuading but finally, Jack caved. He might have been under the impression that this problem was urgent, and John hoped his father didn’t think he was hurt or something.

The sliding back door shut moments later, Dave was back with Dirk’s six pack of beer in his hand and an extra jacket pulled on over his hoodie.

“Dave! Sweety! Grab the- no, wait, I’ll just go get it,” Roxy huffed, moving her blanket off her lap.

“What do you want?” Dave called across the yard.

“I’ll get it,” she insisted, standing up.

“What do you want, mom?” Dave asked a second time, his tone a little impatient.

“Could you go downstairs and grab that big corked bottle off the shelf next to the potatoes?” Roxy asked, “and bring a stack of cups?”

Dave brought the beer down to the fire, dumping the chilled bottles into his brother’s lap. Dirk twisted off a top and tried to give it to Dave, but Dave refused. Dirk instead passed it around the circle where it made its way to Jake.

Dave left again, and when he reappeared, he was carrying a large, clear bottle with clear liquid inside. In his other hand, he carried a plastic wrapped stack of solo cups.

“Is that what I think it is?” Jade asked.

“I think it is,” Kanaya replied offhandedly.

Rose fell backward and when she face palmed there was an audible slap. “Mom, no .”

“Mom yes,” Roxy disagreed with a grin, reaching for the bottle. Dave handed it off without a word and sat back down. Dirk offered him a beer a second time, and his time Dave took it.

John is about to ask what exactly is in the bottle when he realized. The bottle, the color, and the smell when Roxy uncorked it. The sharp, strong smell of moonshine filled the air.

“Mom,” Rose tried to plead. Alcohol in the Strider house wasn’t a huge deal, they all drank casually from time to time and Roxy was really the only one that got drunk so it was no wonder Rose was concerned.

“What? I need it for when Johnny’s dad gets here. You need a home-brewed drink for the spell, and we’re using this unless you wanna go make him some orange juice,” she countered. She reached down and pulled a blade of grass off of the ground and placed it over the rim of the bottle. Next, she placed her thumb over the opening and shook it. The contents of the bottle glowed a faint pink for just a moment and it faded with Roxy’s influence.

“One viewing potion ready to drink,” Roxy announced and poured a glass of it. “Of course, magic folk can already see you. So it has no effect on us.”

Her lips curled as she placed the drink to her lips and sipped. When she pulled away she opened her mouth like it was on fire and whooped. “Damn!!”

Jasper just sort of grinned, but he didn’t reach for anything, content to keep his hands warm under Roxy’s blanket. Rose just sort of groaned and pinched the bridge of her nose, looking frustrated. Jade looked sympathetic.

“Want some?” Dave offered his beer in John’s direction.

“That stuff takes like piss, man,” John laughed, and Dave split with him.

The conversations branched off after that, the adults separating off into a conversation about grocery shopping. The girls had their own thing going on too, but John was content to share Dave’s beer and listen to the Strider brothers bicker.

Finally, car head lights beamed their way up the driveway and the steady, gravely sound of tires crunching stone got louder as the car got closer. The car stopped, and the engine shut off, and John could hear the ding, ding, ding of a door ajar alert.

“Just remember guys, if all else fails we just erase his memory,” Dirk thought out loud.

John’s father rounded the house casually. He wasn’t holding anything and he didn’t seem suspicious as he approached the fire. He stood over John’s chair, a hand on the back of it and facing the fire.

“Hey Mr. E!” Dave shouted, followed by a chorus of Hi, Hello, and heys.

“Hi, everyone,” Jack grinned, giving a curt little wave.

“Hey, dad!” John grinned. Standing up to greet him.

“Hello, what exactly did you need so badly, John?” Jack asked right off the bat. John exchanged a single, fleeting glance with Roxy before he replied.

“I wanna show you something.”

Roxy was already pouring him a glass, and John reached for it to hand it to his father. “Drink this first.”

Jack’s easy grin fell from his face. The liquid was very clearly alcoholic and he held the cup out away from his body like it was poison.

“I don’t think I’ll be drinking tonight, but thank you,” he said, attempting to politely decline. John physically pushed his hand closer to him.

“Just one sip!” Roxy encouraged.

“Come on, dad,” John pushed.

Jack’s face scrunched in confusion, his brows knitting and his lips growing taunt. He glanced down at the cup and then back up at John. “I have to drive tonight, son.”

“Come on, Mr. Egbert. My mom made that, you don’t wanna insult her on a special occasion do you?” Dirk piped up from behind the neck of his bottle. That only served to confuse Jack more.

“What’s the occasion?” He asked. Dirk just sort of smirked and took a sip of his beer instead of answering.

“One sip,” John urged again. Sighing, Jack finally relented. He raised the cup and took a single sip. He jerked the cup away quickly, making a face like it was sour, but he did swallow.

It didn’t happen right away. The entire circle all looked at Jack expectantly, and John could see it was starting to weird him out. As the seconds ticked by though, the potion started to take effect. The reaction was subtle at first, leaving Jack squinting. As the transformation happened in front of his eyes, his jaw fell open and his eyes widened. He dropped the cup he was holding, on accident or on purpose.

“John?” He said shakily, “what’s happening? What’s happening to you?”

“It’s okay, Dad,” John tried to comfort him.

A full minute passed before the change was complete. Jack could see just as the Striders saw. It was no trick of the fire, no party prank. Jack’s hand came up to touch John’s cheek as if it might melt between his fingers.

“John, what happened? How did this happen to you?”

“It’s okay, Dad. I’m okay. The Striders made sure of it,” John replied but it did nothing for Jack’s nerves.

“He’s handled it well,” Jasper added.

“You did this to him?” Jack accused, loud and angry. Jasper didn’t look surprised.

“We absolutely did not.”

“When just who did what, exactly?” Jack inquired.

“Hey, Mr. E,” Dave said flatly, “why don’t you sit down. We’ll talk about it.”

Dave stood up and motioned for Jack to take his seat. John’s father still looked unsure, almost fearful as he shuffled through the space between the chairs to sit. Jack glanced at John, again and again until finally, he was staring him down like some sort of cryptid.

This is exactly what John had been afraid of. Jack was afraid of him. The look in his eye said enough, enough to make John wince. He felt like he’d been punched in the gut. His dad, his only real family was too nervous to even sit near him.

“Dad,” John spoke, and he watched his father visibly tense. John tried to clear the lump from his throat but it wouldn’t budge.

“Dad uh, I don’t know how to tell you this, but uh, but I sort of fell into a trap. By a demon. And she stole half of me. She traded me a half too, though. And now I’m like this. I just, well I guess I just wanted you to know.”

The corners of Jack’s mouth twitched, and he sort of stumbled to speak. “And there isn’t- isn’t a way to fix you?”

“There is, but she’s- the demon- she’s too dangerous to attempt it. So I’m preparing to stay like this, and we’re going to kill her.”

“We,” Jack paused, “we as in?”

“We as in Jake, Jasper, and myself,” Roxy spoke up. “Everyone else, including Dirk, is staying out of this with Kanaya for backup. That is if Kanaya agrees.”

“Sure,” Kanaya nodded. Jack’s gaze shifts and his pupils dilated as he tried to process what he was looking at. Kanaya looked like a young, short-haired Morticia Addams, just as creepy if not creepier, and twice as dangerous with those horns.

“The foreign exchange student?” Jack mumbled, eyeing her.

“Excuse me?” Kanaya inquired.

“I made that up, dad,” John grinned, unsure. “Just so you didn’t start questioning her. Kanaya is a good demon. She helped us.”

“Hold on just a second,” Dirk interrupted, “I can see making Rose and Dave and Jade stay behind, but why aren’t I going?”

“Because Dirk, I’m not endangering any of my children, not just the under twenty crowd here. Besides,” Roxy replied sharply, “I have a job that needs doing and you’re the only one that can drive.”

“I’m not going?” John quizzed, and he didn’t know if he should be concerned or offended. “I want to go. If anyone gets to it should be me!”

“Sweetheart, what are you going to do against her?” Roxy questioned. “You can’t use any sort of power, so no offense, and you’re human. Almost no defense.”

“She turned me,” John argued. “Look, I don’t want revenge but I at least want to be there.”

“I want to go too!” Rose spoke up. “What if you don’t have the power to handle her?”

Roxy frowned deeply. She was growing annoyed, but it wasn’t like she didn’t know this conversation was coming. It was bound to.

“Listen. As coven leader, I don’t want to have to start forbidding people from acting, but I will. Don’t think I won’t,” Roxy’s tone reflected her annoyance. She didn’t like to use her role as the authoritarian, but she would if she had to.

“Okay, okay,” Jack interrupted, running a hand back through his kept hair. “Let me get this straight. Roxy, I’ve known you, all John’s life and you’ve been a, what? A sorceress this whole time? And now you're going to murder this creature that took half of, what did she take from John?”

“I prefer the term witch but, yes. My whole family, we're all witches. Except for Dave,” Roxy responded. “And the Harley’s of course, but their secret isn’t mine to tell.”

“It’s hardly murder! ” Jake chuffed, “the demon woman is a monstrosity. She’s tried to kill us all at some point.”

Dave, who had been mostly quiet all night, sat his empty beer bottle down next to Dirk’s and bent down to lean on John’s shoulder.

“I’m gonna go inside for a minute. Want to come?”

“Yeah,” John agreed quickly, craning his neck to look up at Dave. Dave grinned too, standing up straight and taking a step back to give John room to worm his way out of the circle.

“Check the oven for me!” Roxy called after them.

The grass cushioned their footfalls and the back steps thumped as they climbed them. Warm air hit John’s cheeks and he was reminded exactly how cold it was outside.

“I didn’t actually want anything, I just figured you could use a break,” Dave said once the door was shut. Dave’s cheeks were slowly turning a rosy pink and he shed his outer jacket.

“Yeah,” John nodded, sighing. But somehow this whole thing felt less heavy with Dave around. “Thanks.”

“No problem,” Dave replied, making his way around the kitchen island to the oven. He pulled the bar back, taking a peek into the dimly lit cook space and shut it again. The kitchen timer said it had ten minutes left, and Dave didn’t move to touch it.

“So how do you think this is gonna go over?” John asked, pulling out a chair at the Strider’s kitchen table.

“Like trying to ice skate on gravel. Bad,” Dave scoffed, “this shit always goes haywire. But I think it’ll probably work out in the end. I hope it does.”

“I wish there was something I could do. I feel useless,” John expressed. “I’d rather your mom not fight my battles for me.”

Dave just sort of shrugged. “Welcome to my world.”

John had to laugh at that. It was impossible not to. Dave grinned, his perfectly crooked smile was contagious. John’s shoulders shook with a few lingering giggles, vivid blue eyes locked on Dave’s red ones. Maybe it was the warmth of the house or single sliver of privacy, but John found himself on his feet once again, rounding the kitchen island to invade Dave’s space.

“What’s up?” Dave asked stupidly, taking half a step back in an effort to regain some of his bubble.

“I wanted to know if it was okay to kiss you,” John still smiled. Dave's already happy features lit even brighter.

“You can kiss me anytime you feel like it,” Dave responded. He let go of another few inches of his space to close the distance between them and press his lips to John’s.

Dave’s lips were warm. John half expected them to be cold. He didn’t taste like beer like John thought he would. He tasted like saliva and the smoke from the fire was all over his clothes, filling John’s nose with the scent. The press of their lips was soft and easy. No inhibitions. No nervousness. Just one single, chaste, soft kiss that ended much too soon.

Dave grinned wider, leaning back in to whisper into the shell of John’s ear. “Wanna see some dead shit in my garage?”

Dave! ” John exclaimed, groaning. “Are you a professional moment ruiner?”

“Naw man, I only work part time right now.”

John rolled his eyes, but he couldn’t hold back his snicker. Dave planted a kiss square on John’s earlobe before he pulled away, laughing. John shivered, his arms prickling with goosebumps.

John’s arms went to Dave’s hips just to rest them. This hoodie was old, it wasn’t soft anymore and the fabric could use another wash. John could feel it all under his fingertips, and he could feel the warmth of Dave’s body too.

“Were you serious about showing me the dead stuff?” John asked finally.

“I wasn’t, but I’d love to show you. You know, when we aren’t having life or death conversations outside,” Dave replied, as the kitchen timer went off. Neither boy jumped, but John hadn’t been expecting it. Had they really been in the house for ten whole minutes already?

“Talk about moment ruiner.”

Dave took John’s right hand in his, and John slowly removed his left. Dave squeezed his hand and leaned in for one more peck on the lips. And then he was pulling away entirely, the constant beep of the electronic pulling John’s-what, was he about to say, boyfriend? Pulling John’s boyfriend away from him? Is that what they were? Somehow that seemed like both the right and the wrong name for their relationship.

Dave grabbed a pair of oven mitts laying nearby and pulled the oven open. Carefully, he reached inside and pulled out Roxy’s favorite casserole dish, and inside it looked like lasagna. The sharp smell of garlic filled the air accompanied by the acidic tang of tomato sauce. Defiantly lasagna.

Dave peered at the buttons on the oven until he seemed to figure out how to shut it off and it was a done deal from there. Wait for it to cool and then eat.

Dave turned back to John grinning as he fiddled with the sleeve of his hoodie. John closed the distance between them again, this time burying his face in Dave’s shoulder. Hands wrapped tightly around him, both of Dave’s hands on his shoulder blades, pressing him tighter. John’s settled around Dave’s middle, squeezing him as his fingers buried into his hoodie material.

“I don’t think she’s going to let me come with you, not if her coin toss deal wasn’t a good idea,” he mumbled. “She might even send me away until this blows over.”

“Safe is what matters most,” John offered in consolation. “I wish nobody had to go after her.”

“I just want us to be together,” Dave sighed, and then his lips were on John’s cheek, and then once under his ear, and then his jaw. John shivered. He felt Dave smirk and chuckle into his skin. Why couldn’t they have just cuddled all night instead? This was so much nicer than arguing over the fire.

Dave pulled an arm's length away from John as footsteps clunked onto the back porch and the slider opened. Dirk stood in the doorway, one hand on his hip and one blonde eyebrow cocked like he’d just caught them in the act of something more than a stupid kiss.

“Hey dickheads, just so you know, everyone can see you.”

“What the fuck Bro?” Dave complained loudly, groaning dramatically. “Can’t you like, leave us alone for ten goddamn minutes?”

“What the fuck yourself,” Dirk snorted. “John’s dad’s gonna straight up cry and you guys are in here playing grab ass?”

“What’s wrong with my dad?” John asked.

“Overwhelmed I think. Common kiddies, I’ll give you guys the birds and the bees talk later,” Dirk sneered.

“Okay, mom ,” John said sarcastically.

“You already gave me that talk once, I think I’m good,” Dave frowned, disgusted.

“I’m pretty sure all three of us know I did a better job than the drunk scientist would have,” Dirk’s smirk cracked to show teeth on one side, smug and snide. He ushered the boys out of the house and brought up the back as they strode back to the circle.

John sat down next to his father, in his original chair, but Dave planted his bony ass right on top of his sister’s lap. Rose glared daggers at him, trying to shove him off, but Dave pretended not to notice. With a huff, she chose to ignore him, about as well as anyone could with a lap full of idiot.

His dad was looking rough, John noted. They could have a talk about this again later.

“So, I think we’ve got a pretty solid plan,” Roxy puffed, exhaling long and slow. “Jake, Jasper, Dirk and I are going to take John out into the woods. Hopefully, that’ll draw her out. We’re going to walk completely through the woods to the road on the other side of the state land and Dirk is going to take the truck and drive John out of the county. Simple enough?”

“What about the girls?” Dave asked, shifting on Rose’s lap. That couldn’t be comfortable.

“If you woulda been here you would have known,” Dirk frowned. “Kanaya, Rose, and Jade are staying at the house. It’s safe, and if she comes here looking for John they can direct her away, which will give us enough time to regroup and change the plan if we need to.”

Dave just rolled his eyes, he didn’t reply.

It didn’t feel right to run. It didn’t feel right to let Roxy or Jasper or Jake fight his battle for him. But really, what could John do? He hadn’t gotten the good demon powers, just the useless ones like night vision and he maybe ran a little faster than usual. Big whoop. He was pretty sure Vriska planned it that way. Keep him defenseless. Keep him wanting more.

This was going to be the hardest thing John had ever done. And he wasn’t even the one that had to hand out the punishment. He felt like it should be him. Like he should he punished too. For burdening the Striders and causing this whole mess. He knew they didn’t hold it against him, but still.

John glanced over at his dad again, who’s shaking hand was drawing his pipe out of his pocket. He fumbled with his lighter after packing it, but his trembling fingers slipped off the roller, again and again, the flame disappearing.

“Here, Mr. Egbert, I got you,” Dirk snapped his fingers, once, twice, and the third time fire ignited in the space between his thumb and forefinger like a Zippo lighter. Jack sort of froze up, but after a moment of realization he eased his pipe out of his mouth and held down slowly. It caught, the tobacco smoking, and he put it to his lips.

“What do you think, dad?” John inquired, speaking softly.

“I think I should learn that trick, or go back to matches,” he mumbled. “I’m okay with it I suppose. If this is what has to happen. I think Roxy knows better than I do. Just, just don’t ask me again. I’ll change my mind. But you have to call me. Really call me, John. And tell me you’re okay.”

“I will. You’ve got my word,” John promised.

Jack pulled his pipe away from his mouth and blew smoke out, nodding.

“Do you guys suppose we could talk about something happy now?” Jade spoke up, her face visibly distressed. Yeah. John felt that way too. Happy would be nice.

“Dave, go grab mine and yours guitars out of the house,” Dirk suggested, but it came out more of a command.

“Get me a chair and I will,” Dave stood up. Any excuse to play music was a good one. That must have been acceptable to Dirk because he left the circle with Dave. Dirk returned only moments before his younger brother, folding out Dave’s chair for him to sit, planting the dusty black canvas crookedly between his mother and older brother. Dave returned soon after that carrying a guitar in both hands. 

“Music!!” Jade grinned, doing a little excited thing with her hands. Rose laughed, reaching over to push Jade's hair behind her shoulder. With that much hair, she was likely to pull it.

“This oughta be good,” Jake chuckled, taking a sip off of his beer.

While Dave’s guitar was simple, light wood, Dirks was a darker warmer brown, accentuated by white decorative markings on the neck. Dave’s Van’s sticker was front and center. The colors were wearing off where his hand rested most often, and it rested there now was he tuned.

“Know any Aldean?” Dirk looked up from his instrument to ask.

“Dude I fucking hate country music,” Dave deadpanned.

Language! ” Roxy snipped.

“Sorry. No, dearest brother, I do not,” Dave snickered.

“Listen and copy,” Dirk instructed and started strumming. He looked down, watching his hands, and then up at Dave. Dave was studying him, watching intently. Dirk started over, and by the middle of the melody Dave picked it up.

It took him a couple tries to get it right without the music in front of him. He’d mess up, but not badly, and have to go back to watching Dirk play for a moment. Dirk started him over once again, but it wasn’t long after that Dave was trying to get fancy, throwing in extra finesse and notes that didn’t belong. It all sounded good though. Both brothers tapped their feet, keeping time for themselves.

Dirk’s deep voice followed along easy with the melody.

“I guess you heard I was pedal to the metal on a down hill slide.”

Chapter Text

“So I still feel like I’m fucking starving every time I see road kill. Like, I’m gonna get a ticket for distracted driving.”

“Start picking it up, dude. Free snack,” Dave laughed, “bring me the rest. We’ll make a fortune on eBay.”

“You’re disgusting. That’s all there is to it, you’re just gross, and dumb,” John stuck out his tongue.

“Yeah, but you still kiss me, so you’re at least half as gross and dumb as I am,” Dave countered, shoving a handful of French fries in John’s half open mouth. He laughed again as John sputtered with his eyes wide, leaning over and nearly spilling his Coke all over the McDonald’s parking lot. The fries fell to the pavement, now a meal for some lucky bird after the boy’s vacated the lot.

“Dude!” He exclaimed, reaching over to smack Dave. The blond ducked though, grinning smugly behind his shades. John’s expression softened, and he smiled small and warm as Dave did the same. It was a little amazing how easy Dave made it to forgive him.

Dave shifted on the sheet metal of John’s trunk, leaning in once again and scooting closer to him. The Kia rocked in place, able to take the weight but it's back end sagging. The boys faced the drive through, treating the service window like a bad reality tv show, boring and slow despite the restaurant being a fast food chain.

“Ian White always makes this place seem like a shit show when I talk to him in the sixth hour, I ain’t seeing it,” Dave huffed. He leaned his head on John’s shoulder, popping another few fries in his mouth.

“Ian White exaggerates,” John shrugged with his left shoulder, the one not occupied by his friend. Dave hummed in response.

The sun’s rays were warm today, but that was the only thing warm about the weather. It was funny how Fifty Degrees Fahrenheit was shorts weather in spring, but sweater weather in the fall. It was cold enough to require a winter coat, but being teenage boys, John and Dave both opted to dress in layers. Barren trees creaked in the wind. The smell of fall still hung on though, as lawn mowers across town chopped up the end of the fallen leaves.

John pulled at the sleeves of his hoodie, adjusting the sweater underneath and ceasing the itch the knit material caused on his elbows. If he could have done anything differently, he would have brought something to sit on. The trunk was cold on him though his jeans.

“Can I ask you something?” Dave asked, and John knew it wasn’t about anyone they went to school with.

“Yeah.”

“Are you mad?”

John sat up straight and turned to look at Dave. Dave picked his head up off of John’s shoulder to look him in the eye.

“Am I mad?” John repeated his features knitting in confusion. “What do I have to be mad about?”

“Oh. I dunno,” Dave mumbled, looking down at his hands rested in his lap. His mouth sounded dry, his voice thick, and he swallowed twice before he spoke again. “Stuff is. Just so stagnant? I feel like we’ve been debating the only two options for weeks only to have this come of it. It doesn’t feel fair to you.”

“Oh my god, you aren’t feeling guilty over something that isn’t your fault, are you?” John exclaimed, huffing. “Dude, don’t. Just don’t.”

“Yeah, okay,” Dave agreed, solemn, but John didn’t think he meant it.

“Dude it’s not your fault,” John stated plainly.

“I know,” Dave looked up from his lap to stare blankly at the cars rolling by the drive through, “and we knew from the beginning, like the very first night it was gonna come to this. I think my mom was so scared she didn’t want to think about it. But scared isn’t doing anything for anyone, just delaying the solution.”

“What can we do besides wait for your mom? She’s the only one that can fix it, isn’t she?” John groaned, raising a hand to his forehead and using it to push back his messy mop of hair. “You’re right. We just keep rehashing this out, and we’re doing it again right now.”

Dave’s was right. The very first night he’d been attacked Rose had handed him an ultimatum. Trade, or kill her. Everyone else in the following weeks had said exactly the same thing, to a T. No variation, no action. It was pretty stagnant, now Dave mentioned it.

This was Roxy’s fault. She’d delayed and delayed and delayed way longer than she should have. Frustration came to a quick boil in the pit of John’s stomach. She knew this was happening all along, but she’d let it go on purpose, because. Because why? Because it was easier to ignore it? Because it made John feel better when she lied, telling him she was working on it? Because she was scared, or worried, or had no idea what to do?

John frowned. “What other option do we have?”

“She’s not the only one,” Dave said quietly. “I mean. Sure I didn’t study like Rose, but I know something’s.”

Yeah. John knew that too. Dave wasn’t really the kind of person to sit and explain like Rose or Roxy, but John didn’t doubt his intelligence. Dave drew in a deep breath. He held it for a moment and then exhaled through his nose. “Yeah okay. So, we should just, I don’t know. Leave?”

“Leave?” John felt his eyebrows raise as if he had no control over them.

“Yeah,” Dave answered honestly, “drive up state. Far enough my family can’t follow us. There are places called liminal spaces. They’re like an in-between. Not human, not supernatural. She’s already following you, so maybe if we took her there, and tempted her into the liminal space, we’d have a better chance. We’ll do a coin flip, just like the original plan.”

“Hold up, hold up,” John said, “Why didn’t your mom bring that up?”

“I can’t answer that. I wasn’t involved in the conversations about what to do about you, just Rose, Dirk, and once they called my Grandma Lalonde.” Dave’s frown deepened.

“And you really think it’ll work?” John pressed. “Because we’ve tried a ton of shit already and none of that worked.”

The only sound between them for a moment was the staticky ‘can I take your order?’ From the drive through. Both boys watched the first window open, and money exchanged half a dozen times before John spoke again.

“So, when did you think we should go?”

“As soon as possible. My curfew got bumped to dark since Bro found out about us raising ghosts,” Dave huffed. “Plus it’s Friday. We’ve got like, fifty-six hours before we have to be back to school.”

John took a deep breath. “Okay,” and then continued, much firmer. “Okay.”

For the first time, Dave turned his head to look at John, the angle just so, and John was able to see a glint of his red pupils behind the bow of his sunglasses. “So, we're doing this?”

“We are making this happen,” John confirmed. “Just as long as you’re there with me.”

“The whole ride,” Dave replied, a small smile cracking his stoic expression. “Who’s house first?”

“Mine,” John suggested, “and then yours, and then we hit the road.”

Dave was the first to jump from the trunk, his feet hitting the pavement. He twisted around, grinning and held his hand out to John like a gentleman. John laughed at him and jumped down on his own, shoving Dave aside and walking around to the driver’s door. The keys were still in it, and they left the lot in a hurry.

John’s house was only ten minutes from town, and there was no one home. John figured, his dad didn’t usually get home until five on Fridays, standing around the factory chatting for that extra hour. John’s hands were shaking, and he was moving so fast he almost couldn’t unlock his front door. The doorway to the house was set up for tomorrow evening. John had helped his father rig up green lights, and some netting to make the hall look spooky, and put fake cobwebs all over the door. They’d carved jack-o-lanterns last night. The house was ready for handing out candy.

John paused for a moment at the bottom of the stairs, maybe even sad he was going to miss it. Actually, he thought, he was going to be sad to miss it. Usually, on Halloween, he kept the house and dicked around with Dave, but this year, with the circumstances it just… didn’t feel right. He stood at the bottom of the stairs, one foot on the first, and paused.

Was he really committed to this? Double thinking decisions weren't good, not usually but the nervousness was rising like bile in his throat. He swallowed once, and then a second time, much harder. It did not ease.

“Do you wanna, like, quit?” Dave asked from somewhere behind him. He sounded so far away like he was a whole mountain away and talking through a tunnel. John turned, twisting his whole body around. Dave stood behind him, a vacant expression on his face.

“I’m,” John said, a swallowed again. All his saliva seemed to go with it, and his mouth was left bone dry. “No.”

John surged on, climbing up the stairs and pushing open the door to his room. There was an old duffel bag in the bottom of his closet, and despite the dust, John started throwing clothes in it. A couple pairs of blue jeans, the first four shirts out of his closet, socks. He stood for just a moment, debating on taking a blanket before he finally grabbed up the first one on top of his bed and hurled it into the bag without folding it.

Dave grabbed the bag and the two tore back down the stairs and out the door. John locked it, just the same as he’d found it, and climbed into his car. Dave slung the bag into the back seat, and they were gone. They hadn’t even been five minutes.

The drive to Dave’s house was awkwardly silent. Uncomfortable. Pointedly stiff. Fucking terrible, basically. John slid into Dave’s driveway, but he cruised slowly up to the house.

The garage door was shut, but Roxy’s car was still in its coveted spot inside. She was always home, usually downstairs in her lab but still home. Jasper didn’t have a job, so he was probably inside too. Dirk’s vehicle was the only one missing, meaning he was back working afternoons again.

“Don’t come in,” Dave said before the car was even off. “I don’t want mom to get talking to you about tomorrow, and I don’t want Rose to catch on.”

“Okay,” John nodded.

“Be right back,” Dave replied and got out of the car. He came back about a minute and a half later, a bag on his shoulder and Rose on his tail. John rolled down the passenger window.

“Back the fuck off,” Dave spat loudly.

“I want the Grimoire!” Rose growled back.

“I am allowed to see it too!” Dave argued, walking from the sidewalk to the pavement, and up to John’s car. He opened the back door and threw his bag in next to John’s.

“You’re not even gifted,” Rose pointed out. Dave looked wounded as he turned to her.

“I don’t have to be fucking gifted to be able to read and look at this shit. I’m a Strider too. I want to borrow it for one fucking night. Are you it’s fucking keeper? Is it going to kill you if it isn’t clutched to your chest for even a minute?”

Rose narrowed her eyes. “Where are you going?”

“I’m going to fucking John’s, I already told you!” Dave almost shouted, exasperated. His voice rose a pitch, and Rose’s eyes widened.

“You’re lying,” she accused.

“I’m not,” Dave defied. John was only half convinced himself, so Rose probably wasn’t convinced at all.

Where are you going?” She demanded. “I’ll tell mom.”

“Tell mom on me and I’ll tell on you,” Dave barked, inching closer to her and leaning down to get in her face. “We room right next to each other, sis, don’t fucking think I don’t hear you and Kanaya at three in the morning fucking lip locking.”

“You wouldn't,” she accused. Rose’s face went red. She sputtered, her mouth hung open.

Dave smirked, opening the car door and sliding in. “Close your mouth. You’re gonna attract flies.”

“Bye, Rose,” John bid, throwing his car into reverse and backing out. He looked over his shoulder, backing onto the lawn before turning his wheel around to drive straight down the driveway. Backing up that far was near impossible, especially with all the trees and bushes.

“You pricks!” Rose shouted after the car. Neither of them dignified her with a response.

John got to the end of the drive, acting on autopilot he turned his wheels to the right as if he was going to the school, or to his house. He looked both ways and waited for a car to get out of the way before what was happening caught up to him.

“Wait,” John said, pressing harder on his breaks as if that made a difference. “Where are we going again?”

“Take your pick,” Dave replied, fishing his phone out of his pocket and unlocking it. He brought up his internet app and shoved the screen in John’s face. The title of the page read LIST OF LIGHTHOUSES IN MICHIGAN in large block letters. John took a second to scroll down the list before he sighed and looked over to Dave.

“How is this going to help? I thought we were looking for liminal spaces or whatever.”

“Liminal spaces are liminal because they’re in-between. People come and go. Nobody lives at lighthouses, they just come during the day and then leave,” Dave explained. “I mean light houses are historic, but it’s more about the lighthouse not where it sits. You can move the whole building and the significance follows the lighthouse, not the property. I mean we have other options. Truck stops work or shopping center parking lots, or we could check into a cheap motel. I grabbed cash.”

“Oh shit,” John said, “I forgot to grab extra. I think I’ve got a twenty in my wallet?”

“Yeah, it’s cool. I’ve got extra. I’m sure there’ll be an ATM somewhere too,” Dave assured. “We have to get on the road before Bro gets home though.”

“Right,” John remembered the urgency he’d felt moments ago, and fought not to let it return. “Okay, let’s just uh, okay. I’ll get on the highway, go around the city of Saginaw and we’ll head north. You pick the lighthouse, I’ll drive.”

“Good deal,” Dave said, reaching down to grab the car charger cord as John pulled out of the driveway.

It was twenty minutes from town to the highway. Pheasant River was a tiny town in the thumb of Michigan, and it was a lot of country roads between spaces. It was mandatory to take Michigan State highway 25 for twenty some miles and eventually dump them out above the city of Saginaw and into Bay City. Basically, they had to go west before they could go north. The trick was getting to M25.

There were miles and miles of farm fields between Pheasant River and M25, almost forty-five minutes worth of travel. The boys left town on a straight shot, and on,y jogged once to take M53, another highway down to another country road that eventually dumped into 25.

M25 was not a city highway with concrete medians and walks on both sides. It was just a two lane road that cut through the county with farm fields and houses on both sides. The speed limit was fifty-five through the whole hour and a half route, but they didn’t spend a whole lot of time actually going fifty-five. It was a holiday weekend after all, and people drove stupid on holiday weekends.

John tried to use his cruise control when he could but otherwise settled in for a long drive. Signs grew more frequent as they drew near Bay City. John had been here a lot over his lifetime. As old fashioned as it seemed, sometimes going to the city was required to get things you just couldn’t find in the small thumb towns. The boys stopped at a fast food joint for a fast dinner and then crossed the city. They drove over a large bridge, over a beautifully cold, dark bay, and then picked up the main thoroughfare out of town.

They were pulled off at a gas station, stocking up on soda and fuel when they got the call. It was nearly dark, and the overhead lights came on as John pumped gas.

“John,” Dave shouted, jogging out of the building. In his right hand he held a plastic bag full of Vernor’s Ginger ale and in his left, he held his cell. “It’s my mom!”

John waved him over, and Dave stopped short near the hood of the car, sliding his thumb on his screen to answer. He held it out, pushing the speakerphone button.

He swallowed hard before he spoke. “Hello?”

“Dave! I know exactly where you are and I’m telling you to bring your ass home right this minute!” It was Dirk on the other line, not Roxy, bellowing mad.

Dave huffed, using his hand to push his hair back. “Yeah. Uh. I can’t do that, Bro.”

“Your curfew is in ten fucking minutes, you ain’t gonna make it there, buddy boy. First of all, it’s not safe for you to be alone in a city, second its fucking devil’s night, third did you forget there’s a fucking demon on our case?” Dirk seethed, screaming so loud static broke over the phone receiver. “I’m coming to fucking get you, you little bastard. Can’t you listen to one single thing I have to say to you?”

Dave just kind of rocked back on his heels, glancing up at John. “I’m not alone, I’m with John.”

“you're with,” Dirk shouted, and then paused, “hold the hell up, you’re with John?  Dave, I swear to god, what the fuck are you doing? What’s going on? Dave?! What’s going on?!”

Dave’s grip on his phone tightened and he glanced up at John a second time with his eyebrows worried tight together. “I’m fine, Bro. John’s fine. I’ll call you back later.”

“Dave what are you-!” Roxy shouted over the receiver before Dave ended the call and locked his phone. He took a deep breath and shoved his phone into his pocket, his eyes cast downward but his expression stayed the same.

“Hey, Dave,” John said gently, reaching out to touch his shoulder. “It’s okay, we knew that was gonna happen.”

“Didn’t feel good, still,” Dave said, drawing his phone out of his pocket as it vibrated with another call. It was Roxy again, or Dirk, whoever was on the line. Dave rejected the call and John watched as he shut his phone down.

“I’ll do the same,” John said, pulling his phone out before Roxy could call him instead.

With both of their phones dark, the boys climbed back into the car and drove off into the late autumn twilight, hitting the highway as the car’s headlights turned on and the sun faded into dark.

The dive was north from there on.

They were headed three hours north, on a highway that followed Lake Huron up to a peninsula off of a rock quarry. Sometimes the highway overlooked the water, not that the boys could see it through the darkness, but with the radio off and the windows down, sometimes they could hear the fresh water ocean’s waves crash to the shore over the car engine.

It was a long drive with only music and each other for company. Dave tried to drive once, shedding his shades at a truck stop pee break, but he was inexperienced driving at night, prompting a switch back. John preferred driving, and he didn’t mind much.

Dave rode balled up with his shoes off and his knees on the seat most of the time. John wasn’t sure how comfortable that was, but he sipped his ginger ale easy enough and he didn’t wipe his Cheeto dust fingers on John’s seats. This time. John himself rose loose and easy, slouched down. He had one arm across his lap and the other over the top of the steering wheel, watching the road before him carefully though the glint on his glasses. The car’s headlights bridged the gap between street lights, and the green dash objects lit the cab.

It was a long, long three hours, but they arrived finally.

Old Presque Isle lighthouse was not one building, but two. They were white washed, red roofed buildings with a small yard between them. The lighthouse spire wasn’t huge compared to newer houses, but it towered over the boys, dark and impending. The road brought them right in front of the attraction and kept on going around the other side. The parking lot wasn’t so much a parking lot, but a car length pull off with the car’s hood facing a densely forested grove that circled the house and closed them off from the lake. They could hear the water, but they couldn’t see it.

There were picnic tables, a boat monument of some sort, and another building of some sort around too, as well as countless other signs and labels. John and Dave paid them no mind.

Both boys sat there for just a moment, both sicker to their stomachs than ginger ale could fix.

“Alright,” Dave sucked in a deep breath and let it loose. “So I’m thinking we can just do this on the grass between the buildings.”

“Okay,” John agreed.

“And we have to do it fast. I think this is some kind of state or county park or something.”

“Got it,” John confirmed.

They sat for just a few moments longer and then finally Dave pulled the handle on his door and got out. John followed him belatedly. Dave stopped short of the back of the car, grabbing his bag out of back seat.

“What do you need clothes for?” John inquired.

“Not all clothes,” Dave muttered, and begrudgingly he lead the way across the dirt road and onto the dark expanse of grass.

The darkness cast all kinds of funny shadows, but even from a distance, John could see the paint peeling off the two hundred-year-old buildings. The grass was wet under their feet, and the chill in the air was exaggerated by the breeze coming in off the lake. It was quiet here, and John could hear the waves crashing against the shore.

“So Vriska’s fast, but she’s obviously not fast enough to keep up with a car going seventy,” Dave said, dropping his bag on the grass and dropping down to one knee. “So to get her here, we’re going to have to summon her.”

“Neither of us are magic,” John replied. Dave shook his head.

“We don’t have to be, Rose did the work for us. Not that she knew it.”

Dave unzipped his bag, drawing out a mason jar full of water, a jar of salt and his family’s Grimoire, laying the cans on the grass but laid the book out on his bag. Dave flipped the book open to a heavily dog eared page, yellowed with time and recent use. The words on the page were scrawled in a heavy black ink, letter curving in romanticized crescendos describing something John couldn’t read. There was a small photo on the page too, featuring a sprig of some kind of plant.

“What’s that?” John asked.

“It’s a Rosemary sprig. I took this jar from Rose’s room, she's got a ton of them and uses these to summon Kanaya. I think it’s like a pre-made summoning potion, she put all the ingredients we need inside. Except it’s a ceremony, not a potion. I’m trying to figure out how she works this thing,” Dave explained.

“I think all she did was grind up the ingredients and put them in water because it’s a neutral substance. So all we have to do is pour this down and-” he paused, flipping a page. “Okay, so we still need to make a salt circle. Could you do that for me?”

“Sure,” John replied, catching the salt as Dave threw it to him.

All John had to do was pop the spout on the already open can and pour. He walked a few paces away from Dave and leaned down, using himself as a center and pouring a thin line of salt around a wobbly circle. It was thicker in some spots than others, but without prior instruction, John thought it was passing.

“This okay?” John asked, sitting up.

“Yeah,” Dave replied, not looking up, “look it over and make sure there aren’t any breaks.”

John used up the rest of the salt in the twenty-six ounce can. It was already open, to begin with, but by the time he was done he had a much thicker line, and a prickly feeling under his skin. It was his other half, he realized. A claustrophobic, heavy feeling crept up on him, seizing the bottom of his spine and crawling upwards, like a long legged spider taking its time up the wall. As he stood up, John shivered, and he forced himself out of the circle before the trapped feeling overtook him completely.

Had he not been half human, he realized he wouldn’t have been able to leave.

“So, best I can tell, all we gotta do is offer up something she wants, and then say her name,” Dave sighed, shutting the book and picking up the jar of water. In the barely there lighting John could see all of the ingredients settled to the bottom. Dave gave it a shake and irritated the ingredients, sending them floating.

“What does she want, besides me?” John asked, coming to stand near him. It wouldn’t make sense to put himself in the circle.

Dave handed John the jar, and then from his hip, holster obscured by his shirt, Dave pulled his knife and handed it up to John. He hadn’t even known Dave was carrying.

“Offer her blood,” Dave suggested, pivoting the knife, turning the blade towards himself so John could grab the handle.

John reached out and grabbed the knife in his other hand. His reaction was delayed, but finally, he walked over the edge of the circle. Careful of the knife, he turned the screw on lid on the jar and tossed it down on the ground, and then popped the seal on the secondary cap.

His hands shook. Just turning the rim was a chore, it felt like all John’s strength had left him.

As he reached over the salt circle, and a breeze caught just then, forcing an ice cold wind off the lake and into the little cove in the trees where they stood. It chilled John to the bone, and he dumped the jar into the circle as fast as he could.

The sky was clear tonight, the moon a half circle hung in the sky. There was no sound over the raggedness of John’s breath, and he tried to tell himself it was because he was cold. His skin was turning pink from the chill, after all, evidence of the life blood underneath. Without looking at it, John icily played with the handle of the knife, turning it between his fingers as he stared at the ground.

“Do you, uh, want help?” Dave asked softly.

John felt like a pillar, stuck standing up straight and rigid. His stomach was churning, now worse than it had been when they left town. His legs ached with stiffness like his tendons were stretched taunt, like a string on a flagpole. Finally, John managed to move.

Over his shoulder, John looked behind him. Dave was still sitting on the ground, his knees probably wet from the earth and the cold creeping up them. He pulled his jacket tighter around himself, his knuckles firm and his blonde hair catching the wind. He pinned his sunglasses on the top of his head, his ruby red eyes piercing through the night.

“I got it,” John replied, turning back around. He rose the knife up to his palm, and slit it. Pain bubbled with his red, red blood to the surface, and John hissed, dropping the knife on to his shoe and clutching his wrist, trying to stop the burn from running up his wrist. His fingers splayed with the ache, but he held his palm out, allowing a trickle of fresh, coppery blood to fall to the grass.

He pulled away from the circle, but Dave already had it covered. He was up with a packaged gauze pad, pressing it to John’s palm to stop the bleeding. Hold on, John thought, as Dave pulled some kind of first aid tape out of his bag and went to anchor the pad.

“Did you have this whole thing planned?”

Dave’s mouth parted, his hands pausing, and his eyes searching John’s face for a reaction.

“Yes,” he breathed, pressure increasing on John’s hand. He swallowed hard, looking back down, and busying himself. “This is going to heal, fast I think. Don’t the sores in your mouth?”

“What were you going to do if I said I didn’t want to do this?” John asked, ignoring the attempt to change the subject.

“Drop it,” Dave answered, short, and then elaborated. “I would have just dropped it and let you go picking through the woods like Jurassic Park, singled out one by one by a demon instead of velociraptors, just like my mom wanted.”

John’s hand stopped hurting in short order. Instead, his free hand went to Dave’s shoulder, and he turned them, pressing his lips to Dave’s hard and fast. It was awkward, sloppy, and their lips didn’t mesh quite right. Cold lips on cold lips felt clammy, and uncomfortably wet and chapped from being licked. He pulled away, quickly, almost too quickly and saw the surprise on Dave’s face.

“I love you,” John confessed.

Dave’s jaw dropped.

“I love you,” John repeated. “I love you, and I’m gonna do this, for us, so we can be together.”

Dave gaped stupidly, blind sided, his hands falling limp before his grip tightened as his brain started back up.

“I love you too,” he replied, and then he was pulling John closer for a second kiss. John wrapped his arms around Dave, squeezing him close until he felt Dave’s hands fist in his black mop of hair. John used himself as a windbreak, shielding his partner enough to allow warmth to bloom where their chests touched.

Dave pulled away, his freezing fingers falling to John’s neck, where they tenderly pulled his jacket up to cover any bare skin.

Everything seemed to slow like he was under water. He was hyper aware of every place he touched his boyfriend, a brush of his foot on John’s, his fingers still lingering, his elbow on John’s shoulder. Dave was here. His safe spot, his person, his rock was here. Dave, Dave, Dave. He could do this.

They parted ways, gently, pulling away from each other without truly drifting apart. John turned, walking to the edge of the salt circle, his toes at the rim like he was standing on the edge of a canyon, and he took a deep breath. He was ready to jump, proverbially. His voice was ragged as he spoke, and he barely kept it from cracking.

 

“Vriska Serket.”

 

There was a momentary lull, where nothing happened.

And then everything happened all at once.

Chapter Text

“Didn’t it work?” John mumbled, glancing behind him momentarily at Dave, before casting his gaze back to the salt circle at his feet.

They weren’t magic and they knew that. This whole plan failed. John took half a step back, ready to turn around, leave this place, and head home.

The darkness surrounded them like the trees surrounded the light house. Without his night vision, John couldn’t see much further than the car. the only reason he could see anything and was because there was a dim light on one of the buildings.

A breeze shook the leafless trees, stirring the piles of dead foliage on the ground. When a second, stronger breeze picked up it cracked branches and limbs had squealing as they rocked back and forth. As the wind quieted, so did the environment. There were no birds this far north, all flown south in tightly packed Vs. No raccoons or other common critters to snap sticks or rustle leaves.

They’d failed alright. Come all this way and pissed off their parents for nothing. John took a second step back. His mouth was poised to speak to Dave when something flashed, like lightning in front of him. Again, and then again, nearly blinding John and forcing his eyes away.

Like hellfire, cobalt sprung from the absolute limit of the salt circle, in a ring of angry heat, intending to burn and leaving scorch marks on the grass and blackening the white salt. John could feel the warmth on his cheeks, eyes wide as he stumbled back and fell directly on his ass.

“Shit!” He swore, scrambling back. He found himself on top of Dave, who’s arm locked around his middle and fisted into his clothes.

The fire died down quickly leaving Vriska standing in the middle of the salt circle. Her long hair was fixed nicely around her shoulders and falling into a human like wavy curl, her bangs brushed over her missing eye. She’d found herself a new jacket, black leather, with the left sleeve torn off. The left over scraps were knotted to cover her involuntary amputation.

She flipped her hair back, shaking her bangs and baring her empty socket to the boys. Just like before, there was a sort of fog that settled over her face. Over the empty socket, and John wondered if that was some sort of protection spell. He watched her remaining eye dilate to activate her night vision because his did too.

“Well, now don’t you have a looooot of nerve,” Vriska drawled, her raspy smoker’s voice drawing out her vowels.

John’s mouth gaped. He watched Vriska’s eyes narrow, and she searched the space around them. Then a smirk pulled her lips taunt.

“You’re both alone,” she pointed out. “What’s the deal?”

John and Dave exchanged glances, but no one spoke.

“Hello? Earth to stupid fucking mortals!” Vriska taunted. Finally, John cleared his throat, seemingly able to find his voice.

“Hi,” he greeted lamely. Vriska narrowed her eyes a second time. John cleared his throat again and attempted to speak.

“I called you here, uh. Away from the witches. I just, uh,” he struggled. Something cold brushed his hand. Looking down he noticed Dave pushing Roxy’s hexed coin in his palm. He could feel it hum in his grip, prickling him like static electricity. He wanted it out of his hand. Now.

“Spit it out!” Vriska commanded.

“Well, we just wanted to know if you’d like to play a game with us,” John said quickly. Vriska’s lip twitched, irritated.

“A game of chance,” John continued, holding up the coin.

The demon rolled her eyes, shifting her weight from side to side. She was interested, but she didn’t want to admit it. “Go on.”

“A game of chance,” John repeated, “and the winner gets another half of my soul.”

“What?” Vriska snapped immediately, “what? So when I win, I get another half?”

“And if I win, You make me human again. And you leave me alone, for good,” John clarified.

Vriska crossed her arms. She weighed her options as she tilted her head to the side and then shifted her weight left and then back.

She was bothered by the circle, evident by her constant motion. A finger twitch here, movement of her foot, of her arm, twitching in her neck. Truth be told he didn’t know how Vriska wasn’t going insane. It had made him feel like ice was crawling up his spine. it was heavy and uncomfortable, like wearing wet clothes made of lead. The coin too bugged him. John placed it instead back down at his side, moving his fingers away from it.

“Yeah all right,” Vriska replied finally. “Let me out of the circle and I’m game.”

“We are not letting you out of the circle, nice try,” Dave snorted.

Vriska scowled, cocking her hip and pinning her hand to it. “Alright genius. How the fuck am I supposed to play from inside here?”

“How do we know you won’t attack us?” Dave countered.

Vriska barked a laugh, quick and malicious. “His soul is on the line here. That’s how.”

Dave and John exchanged glances again.

“Well,” John said after a moment.

“Dude, you are not taking her side,” Dave accused.

“No! I’m not! Just, she makes a good point,” John explained. Dave rolled his eyes.

“She’s literally tried to kill us both, and you just want to let her out?” Dave accused.

“What would you rather do? What was your intention coming out here?” John asked, tension rising in his tone. Dave frowned. John thought maybe he hadn’t thought that far. She couldn’t come out to deal, and it was crazy to go in with her. Dave didn’t speak.

“John, fucking get up and get your knife and let’s get a move on!” Vriska hissed impatiently.

The knife? Oh right. The knife Dave had taken from under his shirt, the one John used to cut his hand to offer blood was laying in the grass. It had fallen when John recoiled and dropped it, and it rested only a few inches from the edge of the salt circle. Slowly, John made his way over. He leaned down to grab it cautiously, watching Vriska as he reached out to grab the handle. He knew she couldn’t grab him, but being so close made John nervous. Like at the zoo. The lioness was behind the glass, but it was still scary if she lunged.

Knife in hand, John retreated back to Dave for a moment, looking Vriska over from head to toe. She was getting restless, shifting her weight foot to foot more often. John tried to hand Dave back his blade, but Dave pushed it back.

“Keep it,” he insisted. John nodded.

“Do I just kick the circle and it’s broke?” John asked. Dave swallowed thickly and shook his head. Slowly, slowly, John inched forward again.

He stood face to face with Vriska then. Face to face with evil incarnate, and she smiled. Row on row of sharp teeth stared back at John, and he couldn’t look away. Teeth. Pointed, razor like. She was a predator just like him. She could kill with those teeth. Kill him. Kill Dave.

John found his lip curling back, showing off his own jagged set of fangs. Vriska snarled.

A sound rose from somewhere, vibrating John’s chest and reverberating through his skin. It didn’t hurt, but it felt a little like like standing in front of a concert speaker, shaking him to the core.

When Vriska made a similar sound, hunching her shoulders and tensing, John realized what it was. He was growling at her. Deep in his chest, he was growling. He had something to protect, he thought. Dave was his, he needed to protect Dave.

“John,” his boyfriend’s voice cut through the tension. John’s head jerked around and the sound abruptly stopped. Dave looked worried. He was drawn into himself with his eyebrows knitted and a deep frown covering his features.

Dave was not in danger. He was here, all in one piece. For now. And John was here too, he realized as he grounded himself. Where had that outburst come from? John glanced back at Vriska, who had not calmed down in the slightest. This was trouble. This was dangerous, especially with her on edge. This was a bad idea.

John took a deep breath, paused just one more moment, and then without looking down he kicked the circle. Salt scattered into the grass, breaking the line and the protective properties. John backpedaled. He rose the knife, pointing it at Vriska, and he didn’t stop moving until he practically crashed into Dave. He never, never took his eyes off of Vriska.

Vriska, to his surprise, didn’t advance. She put more distance between them in fact, three, five, ten feet and came to rest nearby. Once far enough away, her posture relaxed finally. The air between them was tense. Thick, like an unplaceable pressure hung in every particle. John was still freezing, but his mind was elsewhere.

He could see her with his night vision. This was a repeat of that night in the woods, where John knew she was going to jump him. Again, his legs screamed at him to move. To get the fuck out of Dodge, leave, scram, run away like a coward and go home to his dad. He couldn’t though. Not now. His feet stayed planted, firmly.

“Dave,” John spoke quietly. “Pick up the coin.”

Slowly, looking down only once, Dave leaned down and picked up the coin. Seemingly even slower, he stood upright and tried to hand it to John.

“No,” John rejected, “you flip.”

He rose his voice to call across the clearing. “Dave’s going to flip the coin if that’s alright with you.”

“A coin flip?” Vriska mocked, “that’s your idea of a game of chance? How many flips? Who gets what? So many variables, Joohn.”

“Before we even think about it, we need to iron out our deal,” John responded. He was shaking in his shoes, but he refused to let his voice quiver. Vriska’s lip peeled back in disgust but she didn’t reply. John could see her hair blow in the breeze, the fog over her eye never budged.

“Dave’s going to flip the coin. One flip. You call heads or tails. I already know that your powers act up here. But just in case, there’s no cheating. No manipulating Dave, or the coin, or the air. No attacking us,” John listed. “Don’t leave the area. Once Dave calls it, it’s over. If you win, you get my soul. If I win, you leave me alone for good.”

As if,” Vriska scoffed. “And how do you know my powers act up?”

John didn’t dignify her with a response. She was hungry and getting desperate, like a starved dog. He watched her lick her top lip with a too long tongue.

“Fine,” she spat. “I want heads!”

“Fine,” John agreed, and then his eyes shifted to Dave.

Dave huffed. He looked down at the coin, turning it over in his hand a moment before he shuffled his feet out away from John. He watched Vriska intently as he walked her way, untrusting.

Vriska’s single eye glowed, the membrane behind her lens reflecting light back like a cat. John could see hers, so she must be able to see his, two bright glints through the short space. The cold seemed not to bother her, despite doing the least amount of moving. She had no control over the breeze, John noticed. Usually, she was able to egg him on with her control, whisper to him, but tonight in this space, she was unable.

Good, John thought.

Dave stopped short of the middle, closer to John than Vriska. He turned to he was facing neither of them. He switched the coin from his right hand to his left, forming a fist with his right, his thumb untucked. He positioned the coin on top of his thumb and flicked.

The gold coin flipped up, over turning again and again in the air as it rose and fell like John’s confidence. Like his stomach, with the overwhelming urge to vomit ebbing on him.

The coin hit the ground with an audible thump, falling to the wet grass between Dave’s feet. John couldn’t see what it had landed on from where he stood. Dave could. Last time Roxy bought him shoes, she had bought him two pairs of the same boot. One to wear to school and keep nice and one to scum up outside. He had on his school pair tonight, staring down at the toes and the coin between them. Slowly, he shuffled back.

“Heads or tails?” Vriska hollered.

Dave didn’t speak. He swallowed hard though, refusing to look up at either of them. It was clear Dave didn’t like the looks of what he saw. John already knew which way it had landed. Vriska probably knew too.

“Heads or tails, and don’t lie to us, whelp boy!” Vriska laughed. She just wanted to hear him say it. To hear she’d won. When Dave looked up, he looked like he was about to start sobbing. Dave’s eyes locked on John like Vriska wasn’t even there. His lips were quivering and blue, both from the cold and the fear in his veins. His pale eyebrows were pulled close together. His forehead wrinkled as he tried to hold back tears.

“I’m so, so sorry,” he choked, burying his face in his sleeves.

Vriska, on the other hand, was growing more impatient, if that was possible. She tracked closer, closing in on them, three, four paces before she spoke.

“Call the toss, whelp! We can’t end the deal until you call the toss!”

“It’s okay, Dave. Just call the toss,” John spoke quietly.

“She’s gonna make you into a monster and this is all my fault!” Dave shouted, muffled by fabric. His shoulders collapsed in on themselves and his knees bent as if they might give out. John frowned deeply. He glanced up at Vriska, and then deciding whatever she might do was worth it, he strode to his boyfriend.

Slowly, John wrapped his arms around Dave’s frame. His right arm moving to push Dave into his embrace and his left hand coming up to push his blonde head into John’s shoulder. Quietly, John shushed him.

“Hey, it’s alright,” John cooed, “it’s not your fault, it’s not.”

“She’s just,” Dave paused to cough harshly, “standing there. Letting us say goodbye. It’s not fair! She’s gonna kill us both!”

All John could do was shush him again, petting the back of his head gently. John tried not to let him see the tears in his own eyes. Dave cried, John held him, and Vriska loomed like a shark in bloody water.

“Run,” John murmured.

“What?”

“I said run,” John insisted, and he shoved Dave away from him with enough force to knock him back.

“It was heads!” John declared, without even looking down. “You win!”

“John!” Dave screeched, his voice cracking with the high pitch. Before he could move, Vriska was advancing towards John.

She hit him like a freight train, hard and fast, body checking him to the ground and climbing on top of him. The knife went flying from John’s hand, to where he didn’t see. She knocked the wind from his lungs, but not his fight. John reeled back as best he could and punched her. His first connected with the side of her face and knocking her head to the left.

There was a couple seconds pause as if she hadn’t intended on John fighting back. Her eyes went wide, and then narrowed, and she clubbed him as has as she could with her fist. She hit John in the forehead, on the crest of his eye, but he was so pumped with adrenaline he almost couldn’t feel it. When she went to restrain his arm, he fought harder, able to resist her one arm with his two.

With a jolt of his hips, he was able to overturn them. Once flat on his back, he now had his stomach pressed against hers, holding her down. Vriska snarled. She used her speed to roll them again, shifting him off only to jump back on, pouncing like a cat with teeth to match.

John felt her teeth enter the meat of his arm after putting it up to block her onslaught of teeth. it worked until she moved to bite into his bicep. That had him hollering as he tried to throw her and get away. Vriska followed. Before John could get on his feet, she was tackling him. He landed face first on the grass, her legs going to pin his, and her hand on the middle of his back.

“I was gonna let you go with dignity, John!” She screeched, and then with an open palm, she pressed down.

One moment John was acutely aware of where Vriska’s legs were on his, and then he was only aware of the pain. John’s face slammed down into the dirt, his mouth frozen in a silent scream and his shoulders hunched in on himself. He had no sensation in his legs, as much as he wanted to kick and struggle. He knew she was still on top of him, but he didn’t register her weight on him.

He couldn’t feel it when she bit her own hand to draw blood, but he felt it when she used her knee to force his head to the side. His mouth was still slack, allowing a split second for Vriska to violating his mouth. She held him there and pinched his nose shut.

“I was going to let you go with dignity,” Vriska hissed, low and angry in his ear, “but if you’re going to fight me, I’m going to make you suffer.”

No, John knew that was a lie. Vriska’s entire personality revolved on getting one up, lording over him. John was never going with dignity. It took everything in him not to breathe in and swallow her blood. If panic hadn’t already set into his muscles, already locking him up tense with lactic acid, John could have saw an opening. A chance to push her off when she shifted, but adrenaline always had a terrible effect on the body. It slowed his reactions and coordination.

Vriska brought her knee down again, and he felt bone connect with his skull. He was forced to take a breath then, aspirating her blood and forcing himself choke. To retch for breath but receive none, only her hot searing blood down his throat and into his trachea.

Vriska’s hand left his mouth to fist into his hair. She jerked, slamming his head into the ground once, twice, four, six times. John couldn’t breathe, he couldn’t see, he couldn’t feel anything except fire licking up his spine. It hurt. God, it fucking hurt. Why couldn’t she just kill him already?

Vaguely, John was aware he stopped moving. He couldn’t see anything, his eyes were open and straining but his gaze was eclipsed by big black spots. His ears were ringing, blocking out any sound. He didn’t register Vriska’s teeth in the back of his skull. It felt like a wasp, a sharp stinging that crawled like embers in his veins.

Without his vision, his hearing and part of his touch, John became aware of his bond strings for the very first time that night. Roxy’s string was prominent, overwhelmed with worry. He couldn’t tell how far she was away, but he could feel her urge to find and protect him. Dirk’s string was ridged too, angry, but there was an uncertain undertone there too. A deeply rooted sort of care that John was familiar with. Like parental love. Brotherly affection. Rose was there, and so was Jasper. And Dave. Dave was nearby, so scared he was quaking under John’s bond touch.

They were there. The Striders, they were all attached to him in a warmth different than the hot pain from his wounds.

And then they were gone.

Everything had been so hot. Vriska’s blood, the places where her teeth married his flesh, the bruises on his face. His spine felt like an inferno. Then his strings snapped. Like a guitar string that been tuned too tight. It felt like someone poured the black lake water into his chest, filling him up with a chill deeper than any cold wind. John’s breath left him again in a wheeze that sounded like a death rattle, and as if he’d frozen solid, his body stilled.

Where was Dave? He wanted to see Dave so badly. He couldn’t feel him anymore and it just felt so wrong.

John’s stomach rolled. He wanted to puke. He felt so empty, so lonely. Like every light in the world burned out. Like every good thing to grace the earth had vanished. The overwhelming urge to cry overtook him, but even his misery couldn’t move his body.

Vriska’s hand was back in his hair. He could feel her fingering the edges of the chunk she’d taken out of his scalp. She moved to push his head over so his left ear was in the cold grass.

He wanted Roxy back, with her pet names and drunk-happy demeanor. He wanted Dirk, who always seemed to come to his rescue. Rose and her snooty tell it like it is voice as his reason. God, he missed them. He wanted to reach for them, tie the strings back together and sob. Where was Roxy to forbid him now? Where was Dirk to scream at him to get his head out of his ass? John reached for his bond strings, but all he felt was broken. Broken and cold.

Slowly, John’s vision regained. He could shallowly make out a vague form nearby. However, he was unable to tell how close the form was without his depth perception. There was only one person it could be. As soon as he realized who it was, he wished he was still blind. Dave walked with purpose, knife in hand in Vriska’s direction.

Dave moved quietly, a practiced hunter with his blade. He couldn’t sneak up on Vriska, but he managed to stab her once good through the hand as she went to grab at him.

It took Dave off guard, and he froze for just a moment as if he couldn’t believe he’d actually stabbed her. That was his first and last mistake.

Vriska jerked her hand away, pulling the knife out of Dave’s grip and used her teeth to yank it from her hand. Dave stumbled back, going to turn and run, but she jumped him.

Dave hit the ground with a shout. He tried hard to get her away. He used his legs to push himself backward, shoving with his hands as she crawled forward. She looked rabid, drooling over wolf sharp teeth and long hair pasted over her face with sweat. She caught him finally.

John couldn’t move. He couldn’t fucking move. Just fucking lay there while his best friend, his boyfriend got attacked. Vriska was growling, her fangs bared long and sharp in Dave’s face. With only a hand on her forehead keeping her from grazing Dave’s skin, breaking him. His weak, human strength barely keeping his blood and marrow inside his body.

Vriska made a noise like a car wreck. Like steel on steel and slamming breaks and crashing frames all in one sound. She raised a clawed hand to Dave’s to dig into his wrist. Blood flowed, and Dave cried out, and finally, his strength gave out in an attempt to escape the burn.

Dave struggled away from her, only moving so far as a half a roll away until she was grabbing at him. She used her legs to pin his down like a thumb tack. Exactly like she’d done to John already. Her gaze was intent on the back of his neck, planning to snap his spine and end Dave Strider where he lay. As her teeth closed in, breaking into the nape of his neck, something happened.

Dave screamed again, both of his hands going back to Vriska’s head, yanking her hair to pull her off. In that same moment, the dim light on the building they’d been using this whole time flickered. Like during a power surge, it dimmed. And then, as Dave struggled, it did it again. And then finally, the third time the light went out and the darkness was lit by red lightning.

Lightning arched from Dave’s hand, crawling like an insect over the ground outwards in a circular pattern. It crawled over Vriska too, over taking her with energy and the sound of a thousand birds. The ground burned, and so did Vriska’s skin. The demon shrieked, retreating away from him and pulling her teeth from his neck. He drove her away, sending her out of the circle he’d formed to protect himself. John could see the lines on her face. Raised veins and skin.

Her skin looked like tree roots had overtaken her, hot and angry and her clothes singed. Her gray skin was blacking in some places. other places were starting to bruise a dark blue, outlining her collarbone and filling in the hollow of her cheeks. Her hair was fried. All the curl was gone out of it, instead smelling heavily of burnt hair and sulfur.

Dave, on the other hand, curled deeper in on himself, both of his hands going to cup his severally bleeding neck. He was crying, hot tears sliding down his cheeks as blood soaked his clothes. Vriska tried to take another step, to move back in, but a jolt off the ground had her rethinking.

Something snapped in John in that moment. It compelled him to his feet no matter how hard his brain screamed at him not to. John forced himself up, and the more muscles he moved the easier it became to stand. When finally he stood erect, he could feel something different inside of him. Like something shifted.

Dave couldn’t see in the darkness he’d caused. He was still now, but whimpering on the ground.

“John?” He tried, his voice wet and unsure.

“Here,” John replied.

“Thank god,” Dave half sobbed.

“This is over, right here, right now,” John spoke. His eyes locked on Vriska.

“Oh fuck, no, John, give it up! Get us out of here!” Dave begged.

John wasn’t listening. He couldn’t hear Dave over the constant stream of thoughts running through his head. He wanted to kill her. Rip her remaining arm off. Bite her with his teeth, gouge her skin, tear her flesh. John was going to kill her. Kill her, kill her, kill her, kill her. Kill her!

Fuck, he wanted to rip her hair from her head and choke her with it. He wanted to break her open and spill her guts. Tear her heart out, collapse her lungs, eviscerate her kidneys, knot her intestines. He could paint her body like a canvas in her own fluids.

He was going to kill her, and nothing would stop him. He was a predator, fit and strong, and he would be the one to survive.

John felt the resonation of a growl rise in his chest and the instinct to bare his teeth seized him with a snarl. Vriska didn’t look confused in the slightest, she snarled right back. At the moment she decided to rush him, he chose to rush her.

They collided like a storm, muscles rolling like thunder as they struck out like lightning. There was a flurry of hands and claws, legs, and knees. John was ejected during the scuffle, thrown ten foot to the side. John scrambled to his feet as the crashed together again. His nails drug across her face as hers tore their way down his arms.

Vriska pushed him back a second time and jumped him. John rolled with her on top of him, and thinking fast he jerked his legs up to kick her off. Vriska landed in the woods, crashing through the underbrush. John was dazed as he stood. When had they crossed the road?

Vriska attracted his attention back as she stood, growling deep in her chest. There was a large, dead branch protruding out of her shoulder, and she didn’t even pause to pull it out. Before John could blink they were twisting in another dance of fangs and talons.

Vriska’s incisors sunk into John’s shoulder like his skin was quicksand. It tore something like a roar from his throat and he twisted, stumbling deeper into the woods through the underbrush and fallen logs. John found his own teeth in the side of Vriska’s face, biting through her ear and shredding it to ribbons. The sound she made split John’s ear drum as her own ear canal filled with blood. With her mouth off of him, she pushed him away again, going to cup her bleeding flesh.

John used that opportunity to strike her, gain the upper hand. He was on top of her as they broke the tree line again, on to the beach and it was twenty foot to the water. He took one look at the lake and he knew what he needed to do.

Vriska rolled them, but John refused lose the lead. He pinned her again and grabbed her arm by the wrist to move it above her head. With his remaining arm, he slotted her head in his elbow and forced her into a headlock.

“Let go of me!” Vriska screeched.

The demoness struggled, her legs thrashing wildly, but John held on. John stumbled to his feet, and despite Vriska trying to kick his feet out from under him, he began to drag her.

“Let go of me! Let go of me you fuck face! I’m going to kill you!”

John ignored her, focused instead on the black horizon, and the water licking its way up the sand.

“Let go of me!” Vriska howled, and then bit into John’s arm. John faltered, but he had no free hand to stop her. Instead, he bit back a yelp and pressed on. Blood ran down his arm, falling in dense droplets until it dissipated into the sand.

He reached the water, and took a step out into it. His sneakers filled with water and his jeans soaked until finally, he treading water. Vriska’s legs kicked, splashing him with water and kicking up sand from the lake bed. He looked down at her, pausing to watch her thrashing body when the gravity of what he was about to do crashed down on him.

John didn’t feel like he was living in his own head in that moment. He was detached from the situation, acting on autopilot, but at that moment, chilled to the bone and knee deep in water, he understood. Tears pricked the corners of his eyes, and his hold on the struggling woman lessened. John shook where he stood.

Vriska seethed like an animal, her saliva rolling down John’s arm, pink with his blood.

“What are you waiting for?”

Dave was at his side, and it startled him. With his eyes wide, John jerked to look at him. Had he been following them this whole time?

“I don’t want to kill her,” He spoke. “I don’t want to kill anybody.”

“I’ll do it,” Dave offered.

“No, it’s not yours to do,” John insisted quickly.

“John, you can’t let her go. She’s stolen so many souls over the years and killed people. If we let her live, she’ll keep doing it to other people. I don’t care if you can forgive her for whatever she did to you, but I won’t let her go in good conscience,” Dave defied. He spoke carefully, and he sounded a lot like Roxy.

“I’ll help you,” Dave said, and it wasn’t an offer. John bit back a sob, his lip quivering as he nodded.

Unceremoniously, John dropped Vriska into the drink. Dave dropped to his knees immediately, attempting to pin her down. He seized her hand after John released it with one hand, and with his spare, he pressed Vriska’s head under the water. He held her there.

Of course, Vriska thrashed, so when John dropped to his knees too, he grabbed her foot and with an iron grip, he held it. She couldn’t possibly get away, not with only one limb. John’s free hand gravitated up until his hand was covering Dave’s.

The lake water was ungodly cold. John’s muscles contracted, tightening more than he wanted to realize. Waves were constant on the Great Lakes, and water slapped him in the face with every roll.

John almost didn’t see the bubbles. But once he did, he couldn’t look away. And then they just stopped. Altogether the bubbles stopped. John had no idea how long they’d been sitting here, but not long. Maybe three, four minutes. Was that really all it took?

He expected himself to feel lighter. To feel like a weight had been lifted, or a burden was off his shoulders, but instead, John felt the unpleasant dip in his stomach of misery. He hadn’t asked for his, he thought as he wiped tears from his already wet face. He hadn’t asked for any of this. She’d put up one hell of a fight, but it almost wasn’t fitting that Vriska went quietly.

Under him, John felt the demon's body begin to fade. He hadn’t expected it at all, but as the water drew back out to the horizon, it drew Vriska body with it. She disintegrated like wet paper, large clumps washing away with each rocking wave. John was glad the water was so dark. He thought he might puke if he had to see it. Her clothes went with her, the jean material falling through John’s fingers.

“It’s over,” Dave spoke shakily. The water lapping the shore was almost louder than his voice. 

“Yeah,” John agreed. The lake flooded John's sense of taste though his sense of smell. A briney, mucky sort of smell John knew it would be hard to loose. 

It was over. It was over and it almost seemed like a trick.

“Hey, look at me,” Dave requested. His chilled fingers touched John’s cheek. “I’m proud of you. You were so brave. You fought her tooth and nail, and you won. Fuck, you saved my life.”

“I had to. I love you,” John professed. “Thank you too, for not letting me lose my nerve.”

“We make a good team,” Dave smiled, but all John could see was the blue tint to his lips and the water drops rolling out of his hair.

“Your lips are blue.”

“Yeah, I’m freezing. Come on, let’s go,” Dave said, and he reached out to hold John’s hand as he lead them out of the lake. Dave lead him down the beach a few feet, and then up a well tread path. They walked uphill just a bit, and the path let out in the parking lot. John never looked back.

“Stay here,” Dave told him at the car and jogged the little ways back to get his bag. He brought the grimoire with him and promptly threw it in John’s front seat where they didn’t have to look at the damn thing.

“Strip,” Dave commanded next, shrugging his jacket off before peeling his shirt away. His glasses caught on his shirt, and he didn’t untangle them, just tossed them on the floor in the back seat. John paused, his mouth slightly agape.

“Take your clothes off, it’s not like, sexual. You’re gonna get hypothermia if you don’t,” Dave explained hastily and turned around. His boots came off next, and then his pants dropped. John turned away then. He wasn’t sure if he was ready to see all that.

“Aren’t we like, supposed to get naked and cuddle for warmth?” John asked.

“Pfft, no!” Dave laughed. “Just take your wet clothes off. They leach body heat faster. Dry clothes will help you keep warmer.”

Dave already had on a pair of clean pants and was pulling on a shirt by the time John was finding his duffle bag. Dave climbed into the car, putting on socks when John slid in next to him, just finishing with his shirt. John did have to admit, dry underpants felt a lot better than wet ones.

Dave didn’t ask, just pulled John’s blue and white quilt the rest of the way from his bag. Careful of the wet pile of clothes, the boys curled up together in John’s back seat. Now wrapped in a blanket they had a chance to build body heat.

John hadn’t realized just how cold he really was. He couldn’t feel his ears or his toes. His teeth chattered, and he shook from the neck down. His boyfriend was in a similar state. As Dave’s legs curled around his, John’s skin felt like pins and needles. It reminded him of trying to wake up a sleeping limb. Water slid down his neck from his still wet hair, but shivering did nothing. He was already covered in goose bumps.

“Do you want me to turn on the heat?” John thought to ask. The keys were right there.

“No, that could put us in shock. Warm up first, then heat,” Dave said, “Believe me, I’m just as cold as you are.”

Daves' head rested on John’s chest, and his eyes closed for just a moment. He opened them blearily as if he’d reminded himself not to fall asleep.

John turned his hand over and with the backs of his fingers, gently petted his boyfriend's cheek. He brushed down a stray strand of hair sticking up too, smoothing down Dave’s ruined hairdo. He ran his fingers down the shell of Dave’s ear, down his jawline, up his cheekbone again. He could feel Dave breathing, slow and comforting.

“Why’d you stop? You went at her with the knife and you froze up. You could have killed her right then.”

Dave shifted, frowning.

“Oh,” he said under his breath. “I just. I saw you lying there on the ground. I couldn’t see you breathing, and I thought I’d heard your spine break, and, I dunno. Looking at you basically dead stopped me in my tracks.”

“If I really had died though, where would you be?” John asked in barely a whisper.

Dave’s lips parted to answer him, but he didn’t get a chance. The sound of tires on gravel halted their conversation. John sat up first, and having lost his pillow so did Dave. Head lights were approaching rapidly. The car stopped abruptly with its headlights cast on John’s car.

It was Roxy’s car, with Roxy in the driver’s seat. The passenger door opened, and John’s dad was the one to open it.

“Oh shit,” Dave swore, “our shoes are still wet.”

“Take your socks off and put them back on when you get off the ground,” John said.

“After I get cramps up my legs?” Dave complained, but he peeled his socks off anyway.

Both boys would never say it out loud, but after the night they’d had both of them were happy to see their parents. They both got out of one door and stood bare foot in the lot. The idea sounded better in John’s head.

“John!” Jack Egbert exclaimed, climbing out of Roxy’s car with haste. Before John could reply, his father was crushing him to his chest, both arms locked tight around him. John returned the embrace almost as quickly.

“I’m okay, Dad,” John smiled, squeezing tighter. It’d felt like a million years since he’d seen his father last. It’d been this morning, hadn’t it? “I’m okay. I’m fine, I’m okay.”

“Johnathan Michael you are grounded!” Jack scolded. “The next month, the next year! I’m home schooling you, you’re going to work with me. Don’t you ever, ever leave my sight again. Don’t you ever run away from home again, don’t. I couldn’t take it again.”

John hiccuped a little laugh. Besides them, Roxy was blubbering as she held on to her own son.

“Oh, baby, oh, sweetheart. Are you okay? Are you hurt? Are you bleeding? Do you need to go to the hospital baby? Darling, where are your shoes? Did you loose them?”

“I’m okay, Muma,” Dave replied, letting her basically crush him to her and refuse to let go.

“Dave! The back of your neck!” Roxy gasped. Jasper was there too, John realized, hovering behind his son with a reassuring hand on his son’s back. He was careful to respect his son’s boundaries despite being just as worked up as his wife.

“I’m okay!” Dave insisted. “It will heal. Mom, something amazing happened. You are never gonna believe it.”

“We have an entire car ride home,” Jack interrupted. “Three hours. I believe we will have time. Let’s get you boys off this cold ground.”

Chapter Text

“Trick or treat.” The words usually shouted by children sounded almost silly coming from Dave’s mouth.

As John opened his front door wider, a smile spread across his features. “Hey! Long time no see.”

“Yeah, only like fourteen hours long,” Dave joked back.

Framed by his blonde hair, Dave’s smile showed his teeth, and it made something inside John churn with a sickly sweet feeling that he’d never felt before. Something like excitement and a want to reach out and touch him. Something that made his throat tighten.

Autumn was gone. Though not technically gone from the calendar, the chill that had fallen over John’s suburb was undoubtedly one of winter’s finest. It was still warm enough to rain, however, an all-day drizzle that was supposed to let up before trick or treat times. The overhang shielded them from the rain, however, and John gave in to the compulsion to touch, about to take a stride over the threshold with a hand extended.

“Johnathan! Don’t you step out that door!” John’s father shouted from inside the house. Right, John remembered, he was grounded.

“It’s me, Mr. Egbert!” Dave called into the house.

“You’d better come in because he’s not going out,” John heard his father mutter. A giggle bubbled itself from Dave’s chest.

“He texted me earlier and I told you the Striders were coming over,” John rolled his eyes. “Why would I be going out?”

“You’re letting the heat out, John,” Jack replied, short.

“Happy Halloween!” Roxy’s voice cut into the conversation. Her heels clicked with every stride as she made her way up to John’s front walk, hands were thrown up in excitement. Roxy looked giddy, and maybe a little drunk already, a sharp contrast to the worry stricken face she’d worn last night. Jasper trailed behind her with a bottle of wine in his hand, and to John’s surprise, Kanaya was behind him.

“Happy Halloween,” John returned. “Come on in. Dad’s in the kitchen.”

“I’d be glad to!” Roxy laughed. “Witches melt in water, you know?”

It took John a second to get the Wizard Of Oz reference. By the time he had, he’d shut the front door and Roxy and Jasper had joined Jack in the kitchen.

Dave lingered near John still. Once his parents were gone for sure, he turned to wrap John in a hug. Touch. Touch. Touch. Feel. Feel Dave’s hands on his back, and the weight of his arms. Feel his chapped lips on the skin of his cheek and the warmth of Dave’s chest pressed against his own.

“Did you miss me that bad?” John laughed.

“I can’t feel your bond anymore and it’s killing me,” Dave replied truthfully.

“When can we fix that?” John asked. He’d only been connected to Dave about a month, but the loss was devastating all the same.

Soon ,” Dave said, and he pecked John on the other cheek.

“Come sit with me, please?” Dave requested, and John was not about to say no. They went hand and hand to the couch, where Dave unceremoniously threw himself down and pulled John on top of him. He stayed surprisingly still as John got comfortable. They were both kind of half sitting up, John’s torso twisted to hug his boyfriend and lean his forehead on his shoulder.

Dave hadn’t showered, John noted. He still smelled like stale lake water and sweat, under a cloaking of his brother’s Axe body spray. There was a large bandage on the back of his neck, sterile gauze padding held in place by medical tape that occupied the edge of John’s vision. Dave’s hand came up to hold John still, to press a kiss into the crown of his head and John noticed the lines crisscrossing his hands.

They were the evidence of the electric presence of his gift. It reminded John of a sixth-grade substitute teacher who had claimed to be struck by lightning. The class had spent weeks after that looking at pictures on google, bringing up hundreds of photos of people in hospital beds with a network of burns covering blackened skin. Dave looked like he’d grabbed a hot wire.

John followed them up his marred arms, past his wounded wrist, up his scratched biceps, to his face. John could see now the exhaustion he harbored under his eyes. Dave was smiling though. Smiling with his unbroken shades and unbroken spirit.

“You okay?”

John looked down at his own hands. Like Dave’s they were lined with wounds, but they diminished and healed with every hour that passed. There had been so many more last night, but in the morning sun, John noticed they’d disappeared. The only marks left to speak of where the large bite mark on his forearm, the one on his neck, and the bruises on his face and head, but even those were healing. It was nice, John guessed, but the only thing that hadn’t changed was the ache in his lower back. He’d probably need an X-ray.

“John?”

“Yeah I’m fine,” John answered. “We got pretty banged up last night.”

“Yeah,” Dave agreed vaguely, “I was scared there for a while.”

John couldn’t stop the flashback that robbed his attention. There he was, pulling Dave into a similar embrace as he cried, hushing him. Pressing Dave into his shoulder as he sobbed his fears into fabric.

“I was too,” John replied. “Nothing hurts too bad though?”

“No uh, I’m okay. My mom put like a suave on my neck, and some of the other bang-ups too, smelled like rum to me but I didn’t say nothing,” Dave sucked in a deep breath and let it out as a heavy sigh. “I don’t know what we’re gonna tell everybody on school Monday.”

“We’ll tell them the truth,” John huffed out a short laugh, “We drove up north and went crashing through the woods into a Great Lake.”

Dave hummed and pulled away to look at John. “And conveniently leave out the part about the murder?”

“Yes. Defiantly leave that out.” Dave’s smile was contagious, and it tugged at the corners of John’s mouth. He looked up at Dave, warm and happy to be with him.

A thump on the wall robbed John’s attention, his head jerking around to the kitchen doorway. Kanaya stood there, one hand on her hip and the other delicately folded so as to use two fingers to knock. She smiled, briefly, and her hips swayed as she shifted her weight.

“Could I borrow John for a moment?“

“Sure, what do you need?” John asked, sitting up. A small blush crept up onto his cheeks. He felt sort of shy right then, like cuddling his boyfriend was somehow worse than anything Kanaya had ever done. 

"Roxy asked me to come talk to you,” Kanaya replied.

“Sure, uh,” John gestured vaguely to the couch. “You can sit if you’d like.“

“I’d love to.”

Kanaya took up her seat in John’s father’s armchair. A spot that John associated with authority, and it was fitting. Kanaya primped herself a moment. She swiped a thumb under her bottom lip and checked it for lipstick as she pulled it away. Once she was sufficiently situated, she turned to the boys.

"So,” Kanaya paused to clear her throat, “you are in possession of a shiny, newly created soul in your old body. I imagine you are going to start running into trouble.”

“Trouble? What kind?” John frowned.

“Not to put too fine a point on it, but the kid gloves have got to come off,” Kanaya said seriously. “You are a whole demon now. You’ve got powers you don’t know how to use, a world you are unfamiliar with. You could bring this house down around you without the slightest intention.”

“I don’t understand,” Dave interjected. “What do you mean he’s a whole demon? Shouldn't he be going crazy or something, like the grimoire said?” 

“If he was human, yes. John isn’t human anymore. Dave, you of all people should have realized that ” Kanaya shifted uncomfortably.

Dave visibly recoiled. “What?”

“I guess I just don’t understand,” John frowned deeper. “What, are you saying Dave has something to do with this?”

“Just like there are different kinds of demons, there are different kinds of ways to create one. The first is with a cauldron and a grimoire. The other option is to use a barely dead husk to remake.” Kanaya was being vague on purpose, John decided.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” 

“Are you going to make me spell it out for you?” Kanaya scowled. “You died, John. She killed you. Your soul left your body. All Dave had to do was want for you to live, use his intent, and you did.”

“So when I, when my gift, er, when I got my gift, I somehow..” Dave gawked, “that’s not- I wouldn't have even known, and- and I wouldn't do that to John.”

“Calm down,” Kanaya rolled her eyes. “You saved John is what you did. Whether you meant to or not. If you hadn’t done what you did right that second it would have been too late, and John would have been dead for good.”

Dave’s mouth opened and closed and then opened again, and it stayed that way, slack.

“This can’t be true. If I’m not human, why do I remember being human, and why do I still act human and, I, I’m so confused,” John exclaimed, his shoulders growing slack as he slumped forward. 

“You look and act how Dave wanted you to, or rather, remembered you to,” Kanaya explained. “Plus, your human brain is still in your head. It’s not a big deal, really. John, you are the same inside as you have always been, what I came to talk to you about is what’s going on outside.”

“Am I, uh, going to grow horns? Is my skin going to turn grey?” John was quick to ask.

“That’s not the kind of outside I meant. I meant that this isn’t going to just end. There are more things you don’t know and should learn,” Kanaya replied. “Roxy asked me to teach you.” 

“Teach me?” John repeated.

“Mhm,” Kanaya hummed, a rare smile returning to her curling her lips.

John almost couldn’t wrap his brain the idea of his lost humanity. He was prepared for remaining a half demon, wasn’t he? No. He guessed maybe he wasn’t. Being. Being a full monster wasn’t something John didn’t think he would ever be comfortable with. 

Back to Kanaya though, her teaching actually sounded like a pretty decent idea, John thought. Frankly, the idea of more uninvited demons scared him. Scared him more than the idea he had unknown powers laying right under his skin.

“Yeah, I think that’s a good idea,” John answered after a short silence. “Just, um, don’t tell my dad alright? I’d rather him just think things are the same.” 

“Sure,” Kanaya agreed. “That’s all I wanted to talk to you about. I’ll be around for you later about lessons.”

“We’re done?” John huffed, sitting back up and shifting uncomfortably. “I’m not in danger?”

“Not immediate. It’s going to take a while for the world around us to realize the shift. Today’s a human holiday. You should go have fun,” Kanaya told him, standing up. “I’m going to go soon myself, Halloween is a big night for succubus, as you could imagine.”

Dave snorted a short laugh. “You don’t say?”

John felt cheated. By Life, mostly. And then Vriska. This whole thing wasn’t fair. Vriska was dead! And killing her had been the hardest thing he’d ever done! He deserved more than that. He deserved normal teeth, and regular ears, and.. and. He deserved his humanity.

“Are you alright, John?” Kanaya asked. 

“I’m fine,” John muttered, closing his fingers around Dave’s.

“You sure?” Dave pushed, using his thumb to rub small circles on the back of John’s hand. John didn’t reply for a moment. He felt so stuck on himself, on his humanity. Or rather, his lack of.

“I just. Thought we’d won. I wanted to be normal. This is as good as it’s going to get through, isn’t it?” John looked down at his lap and bit his quivering lip. Tears didn’t come, but he almost wished they would.

He heard the fabric of Kanaya’s dress flit as she strode over to him and placed a hand on either of his cheeks. She forced his head up, forcing him to look at her as she leaned down.

“Let me tell you something, John. This is as good as it’s going to get. I’ve lived my entire life angry at my creator for what she did to me, but it never changed my predicament. Do you know what did change? I meet Rose and the Striders, and I meet you. This is four thousand years worth of family you are lucky to belong to. 

She paused just long enough to swallow the lump in her throat. 

“Your outside changed, you lost something, but you gained. You gained and gained, and nothing will ever replace that, replace them. Hell, they wouldn't let themselves be replaced. Yes, this is as good as it’s going to get for now, but it will get better.”

John felt Kanaya’s thumbs brush his cheekbones. Something stirred in him, something that wasn’t human, recognized her as a friend. He wouldn’t go as far as to say he could trust her with anything, but the bridge to that was building itself. She released him, still smiling and sighed. Her shoulders dropped as she exhaled, letting her struct and straight demeanor fall.

“Thank you,” John mumbled because he felt like it was the right thing to say. 

“You are welcome.”

John felt Dave shift next to him, sitting up and clearing his throat to speak.

“Alright if we’re coming clean then it’s my turn. Tell you the truth this is kinda bothering me too,“ Dave confessed. 

John turned to look at him. "What is?” 

“Well,” he clicked his tongue. “If we’re confessing insecurities here, I’ve got one. Don’t tell my mom, but I’m kind of, I dunno, mad? Frustrated? That I ended up gifted. I lived my whole life without, accepted it, and now it’s just here and everyone’s making a fuss over it. We don’t even know if I can do it again.“

“Your Mom is making a big deal out of it?” John frowned.

“She has,” Kanaya agreed. “She, Jasper and Dirk stayed up most of the night fussing over it.”

“Yeah, and I ended up passed out on Rose’s bed. My room butts up to Mom and Dad’s, and finally, I couldn’t take it anymore and switched with Rose.”

“And what did the fussing decide?” John asked, his eyebrows knitting tightly together.

“Dunno.”

“I was told to stop meddling,” Kanaya rolled her eyes. “Dirk was none too friendly last night.”

“Or this morning,” Dave added. “But. We’re off topic. The point was the impact of this is really wide. I know how you feel, dude.”

“Hey, Kiddos! And couple thousand-year-old not so kiddo!” Roxy’s voice boomed across the room. Her cheeks were red, and she was a little far past toasted to be in someone else’s house. In her hand was a glass of sparkling white wine.

“That one didn’t work. That was awkward, too big a mouth full,” Kanaya frowned. 

“Psh! It worked just fine!” The blonde woman laughed as she left the kitchen doorway. “Anywho, let's go outside! Play a game of tag!” 

“I’m afraid I have to leave,” Kanaya rejected.

“Tag? What? That’s stupid Mom,” Dave rejected. 

“It’s not stupid! We’re gonna play with the Harley’s in the woods behind our house! It’s gonna be fun!” Roxy laughed, bubbly like her drink.

“Mom, no one wants to play tag.”

“Roxy, I do hate to interrupt, but I can’t help but hear you!” Jack appeared in the doorway. “John and I are not leaving the house. That’s final.”

“Oh come on, Jack! Be fun, having some fun!” Roxy exclaimed as pink sparks left his fingertips. 

“Roxy Strider! I have been your friend as long as my son has been friends with yours, and if you were mine, you would not be undermining my parenting,” Jack scolded.

“And if you had any understanding of a holiday, you wouldn’t be such a spoilsport!” The drunk woman laughed, and this time it wasn't just a spark that left Roxy’s fingers. As she brought her right hand up, her fingers glowing a bright pink, a shroud swallowed Jack like a cartoon outline. She brought her hand up higher and Jack’s feet left the floor.

John watched his dad’s eyes widen and he flailed like a fish out of water. He was stupefied, unable to speak just stare at the ground.

She curled her finger in a ‘come here’ motion and with a sudden jerk, Jack drew closer to her until they were face to face.

“Don’t be so uptight,” she scolded, smiling huge and lopsided. 

Jack’s face flushed and his jaw tightened. “I am not playing games with you. I demand you put me down this instant!” 

“You’re always so serious!” Roxy taunted.

“Serious or not, I think we should put our friend down, Roxy,” Jasper lingered in the doorway where the other two adults had just left. He rose a closed fist and turned it like he was turning a key, and when he opened his palm again a red-orange glow left his palm and overpowered Roxy’s drunken control over Jack. His Will snuffed Roxy’s out, and he gently lowered Jack to the floor before it faded altogether. 

“But Jasper!” Roxy complained.

John’s father took a step back, his shoulders went slack, like he wanted to double over. He took in a deep shaky breath. “No more.”

“No more,” Jasper agreed. “I think it’s time we went home. You’re welcome to accompany. John doesn’t have to come if you’d rather him not, and I understand if you’d rather stay away too.” 

“Can I stay here?”Dave asked. 

“No, Dave, I think you’d better come home,” Jasper rejected, and he put a hand on Roxy’s shoulder to push her toward the door. Dave looked dejected, but he stood up to follow his parents. 

“He can stay! And I don’t want to go home!” Roxy protested, but she moved anyway, following her husband's direction to the door. She was being a little rowdy, and she knew that too under the buzz.

“Have a lovely Halloween,” Jasper bid, opening the front door and guiding his wife out of it despite her protest. 

“Bye John. I’ll text you, I guess,” Dave frowned. He shoved his hands in his pockets, scowling, and went to the door. Kanaya waved as she walked by and quietly followed him out.

John heard their car start in the driveway and the sound of the engine faded as they drive away. The only sound after that was the pattern of the rain on the roof. Jack stood still, watching the door, unmoving. He stood there as the seconds ticked by and the minute hand moved on the wall clock. 

“Are you sure we can’t go, Dad?” John spoke. 

“You’re grounded,” Jack reminded him firmly.

 “You’re not even curious?” 

Jack turned then to face John. His eyebrows knit, and his arms folded, and he frowned but not harshly. It sort of upset John. There was that hesitance again. His father was looking at his features and not him.

 “Curious about what?” He spoke quietly.

“Never mind,” John muttered. He looked down, suddenly self-conscious of his own face and fought the urge to cover the points on his ears.

Jack’s footfalls weren’t audible on the carpet, but the sofa creaked as he sat down next to John on the couch. He sighed, and he pulled his pipe out of his shirt pocket. He swore when his lighter wasn’t with it and sighed again as he sat back, his pipe instead resting on his knee.

“I’m sorry. I’m not used to this,” he confessed. “I feel. I'm not sure. A bit like I’ve lost you.”

“Like you’ve lost me?” John echoed, looking up at him.

“Yes. And I’m not very used to talking to you like an adult either. I’m sorry about that too. But, I know that you’re going to go out after you’re ungrounded. And you’re going to keep visiting the Striders and seeing Dave, just like always, but I want you to be safe. And I want,” Jack cleared his throat, “I want to know what’s going on.”

 John blinked at him. Oh. Oh, yeah that was understandable. “I’ll tell you. From now on, okay?”

“Okay,” Jack said simply.

John sat up completely, twisting around to hug his father. Jack’s hands closed around John’s shoulders and squeezed. John wanted to squeeze back, but he was suddenly fearful of hurting his father. When they parted, Jack was smiling.

“If you want to go, you can go.”

“I want you to come,” John replied.

Jack just nodded slowly, picked his pipe up off his leg and stood up. “I’ll get my coat.”

Car keys. Phone. Coat. Everything else was forgotten. They climbed into the car almost as fast as the Striders had left. John fired off a text to Dave, letting him know they were on their way. He was elated when he texted back.

The ride felt longer than it ever had. The car was silent, but not awkwardly so. The rain had stopped too, but a thick blanket of clouds still hung over. Pulling into John’s second home was like a fire in his gut, burning excitement. Someplace he was afraid he’d never see again, and it was laid out in front of him. This time all of his favorite people would be here too. 

The car halted in John’s usual spot off to the side, and they both got out, popping the doors open accompanied by a repetitive dinging. Jack left the keys in the ignition. This place was safe.

“Dave said everyone’s around back,” John told his father as they stepped out.

“I thought the Harley’s were supposed to be here?” Jack asked.

“Just wait,” John said.

When John and his father rounded the house, the scene set up in front of them was one of an energetic harvest time holiday. The Striders were scattered across the yard, missing only Roxy. The Harley’s sat post-transformation with them.

Rose was on the porch, her hands shoved into her pockets, bundled up in her winter coat. Her eldest brother was on the steps, sitting down as he tightened the laces on his shoe.

Dave was leaning over a bonfire, attempting to get the damp wood to stay lit. Jasper was next to him, offering a flaming finger of assistance in case he needed it. Jake’s attention was on the logs, but as John’s shoe stepped down into the grass, Jade’s head swiveled. She barked once, and stood, her ears pricked and tail out straight.

“Hi, everybody,” John called as if everyone didn’t already know they’d arrived.

“That’s them?” Jack asked under an exhaled, his voice almost catching in his throat. 

“Yeah. The smaller one is Jade, and the bigger one is her grandpa,” John replied, and he didn’t miss it when his father’s gait faltered.

John glanced over at him as they neared the fire pit. His teeth clicked as his jaw set, and John bet he wished he’d brought his pipe. Jack’s face was hard, with an uncertain expression but John could almost feel the fear rolling off of him. Like a sour taste in his mouth. That was certainly new. 

“Hi, John,” Rose greeted, stepping down off of the porch. “Did you come to play tag?”

“Uh, well no I sort of just came to hang out. I brought my dad,” John answered.

“I see that,” Rose said.

 Dave stood up, having apparently shoved enough dry newspaper under the logs. “You came all this way and you don’t wanna play tag? You didn’t come all this way just to see lil ole’ me, did you?” Dave laughed, wiping his hands on his pants.

“He’s gonna play,” Dirk insisted, surprising John as he threw an arm around his shoulders. “It’s magic tag. You’ll be good at it.”

“Magic tag?” John asked, turning to look at him. He had his sunglasses on, and a smile painted bright on his features. He’d gotten today off, John realized, on one of the busiest nights of the year.

“Magic tag, yes. Basically, any and all abilities are permitted. It makes things interesting,” Rose explained.

“Dave plays too,” Dirk offered. “He sucks at it, naturally.”

“Hey!” Dave exclaimed.

John happened to glance over at his father. He hadn’t meant to end the conversation there but his father sort of had priority at the moment. Jack’s eyes were locked on to Jake’s as they stared at each other across the short space. Jasper was the only thing between them, and he was promptly ignored. Jake stayed completely still his tail at his side and his brown eyes closed slowly when he blinked.

Dirk coughed, and that seemed to break the spell. Jack half stumbled forward.

“Where do you get off being so damn big , Jake Harley? Who gave you the right?” Jack laughed, reaching out a hand as if he wanted to touch Jake on the muzzle. He hesitated a few inches away, a wry smile on his lips as if he was afraid to touch him. As if he was afraid to lose his hand. 

Jake exhaled a warm puff of breath that ghosted over them, and pressed his muzzle to Jack’s hand, allowing him to feel the coarse texture of his fur on his slivering muzzle. Jack didn’t pet him like a dog, just rested his hand there for a moment before pulling away. The fear taste in Johns' mouth dissipated, but slowly.

“Are we gonna get this show on the road or what?” Roxy’s voice boomed across the yard.

She was dressed in a heavy pair of boots, not exactly fit to run in, but with her skill set, she probably didn’t need to run. Her hair was tied back, as best she could with how short it was, and her fingers flexed with anticipation. 

John honestly thought she was inside passed out. She seemed right as rain, u til she tripped coming down the stairs and proved she was still drunk.

“I didn’t expect to see you here at all Jack Egbert!” She crowed, putting her hands on her hips.

“I didn’t expect to come,” Jack replied. “Kids are funny that way, hm? I’d also like to apologize for the way I acted.” 

“I made an ass out of myself too,” Roxy grinned. “I’ll accept your apology if you accept mine.” 

“Hey, this fluffy shit is great, but I wanna play,” Dirk interrupted.

“John doesn’t know the rules,” Rose piped up.

“There aren’t rules,” Dave snorted.

“Yes there are and you know it,” Rose huffed, narrowing her eyes.

“What you mean the ones you always break?”

 “Alright, Alright,” Jasper raised a hand to cease the argument. “Heres the rules, for everyone , not just John.”

Jasper threw a look at Rose, and then another at his wife.

“You have to stay on the property, and don’t go near the road. People can’t see us. Use can use whatever charms, hexes or incantation you know, but don’t use them to hurt each other. No ganging up. No arguing. That’s about it. I’m going to referee.”

“I’ll be here, you go on,” Jack urged.

“Are you sure?” John asked.

“I’ll keep him company,” Jasper assured. “It’s Halloween. Have fun.”

“Who’s ‘it’ first?” Dave asked.

“I guess I will,” Rose volunteered.

The Striders exchanged glances, and then everyone scattered. The wolves crashed through the underbrush, and just like that, the game had started.

John was immersed in a single moment. The forest was all around him, swallowing him whole in a feeling that was both feral and safe at the same time. The forest was where it all started too, not even very far. John sucked fresh air into his lungs, drinking in the scent of hardwoods and rain. The leaves underfoot were wet, and they didn’t crunch as he sprinted, his legs carrying him faster than ever before.

There was adrenaline running through his veins. He’d honestly never run this fast before, not on his own two feet. He didn’t feel like he needed his glasses anymore, things were so clear. He could dodge any which way to avoid branches, allowing him to pick the path of least resistance. It was all new to him, but at the same time familiar. Refreshingly so.

John didn’t exactly know where he was. Still on the Striders property but he was far off the path. He’d been so caught up running, he wasn’t entirely sure how long he’d even been out. It was difficult to find the Striders without his bond strings.

John emerged into the clearing of Dave’s deer food field, and before he knew it he was back into the woods. The wolves were close, he was fairly sure he could smell them, and so he veered off another direction, doubling back towards the house. Rose might have started the game, but she was smart, and she had a ton of energy. There was no way to tell who to avoid now.

John passed the house, surging on into the rarely traversed, dense front wood. Don’t go near the road he remembered, and took another direction still away. He crossed the driveway, up near the house, and thought about going someplace to hide. Until he was interrupted.

“Hey, John!”

John jerked, jogging to a stop until his feet fell flat and still.

Dave was there, slowly picking his way through the brush. Twigs snapped as he parted them. Dave looked down to avoid a branch, but when he looked back up he was smiling. John couldn’t help but smile too. 

“Hey.”

Dave came closer, grinning wider as he closed the last few feet between them. His hands slid up John’s chest and over his shoulders where he laced his fingers behind his neck. Dave pulled him even closer, his shoulders shaking with smug laughter. Wait just a second.

“You’re ‘it’ aren't you?”

“Yup,” Dave confirmed. “You were too easy. You didn’t even run!”

“Shut up and kiss me you asshole. Who hasn’t been ‘it’ yet?”

“You should get Bro, but he’s fast. It’s his shoes.”

“They’re magic?” John’s eyebrows rose.

“Yeah. And plus he’s got that police training,” Dave said.

“I think I can catch him,” John grinned slyly. “Now kiss me.”

Dave moved in to press his lips to John’s, leaning his whole weight on to his boyfriend. As John wrapped his arms around Dave’s middle, he couldn’t help but think he was happy to support him.