Dave Strider was in hell. That was the only way he could ever describe it in his mind. They'd beaten the game, done what needed doing and he'd been rewarded with hell. He thought it over a lot at first, every second that he was awake. He decided that he was the only one to remember probably because of his sensitivity to time; even now, with his powers gone and his inability to do anything but live, when he was on the borders of sleep, he could still feel the pulse of his former muse in his fingertips. But now, instead of comforting him like it used to a lifetime ago, it was just another way to remind him of things that he could never have.
Like his friends back.
They were still his friends, sure. But it never felt the same as it did in the game. The closeness they had achieved with each other, the feeling of family and deep inner trust that came with risking life and limb and even dying for each other; that was all gone now. And he knew that he was never going to get it back.
He thought a lot about telling them when he'd realized they'd forgotten, at first, getting them to remember, but then he thought about seeing Bro's body, remembering Rose going Grimdark and John's Dad, and even though everybody who was killed in The Game were brought back, he knew he could never tell them. He never wanted them to remember feeling that pain again.
On the good days, he would sit with his friends at lunch, listening to their banter and joking and insightful (snarky) remarks, adding his own words every once in a while when he felt it was needed.
On the bad days, he couldn't even look at them. He couldn't help but feel that they were just fakes, copies, things The Game made to punish him for not doing better. On these days, he would sit under a tree near the field and choke down his lunch, trying to keep himself together long enough to head back inside. He found that he was getting better at his poker face these days. He tried not to think about it.
Sometimes he would find himself thinking about the trolls. He wondered if they were even still alive. He would think about the way that their bodies all glowed in the last few seconds, their different-colored blood dripping down their fingers from the wounds that killed them, how all of them glowed whether they were God Tier or not, and he couldn't help but hope.
He should have known better.
He figured that they would be human, now, what with the lack of a troll population on this version of Earth, but it was still a shock to see them without their grey skin and horns. It almost surprised him at how easily he recognized them all in their new bodies.
He found Gamzee and Tavros together first, Gamzee pushing Tavros down the halls in his wheelchair. When their eyes met, Dave couldn't help but feel hope rise in his chest for a moment – before they kept going. He avoided them for the rest of the day, asking himself, what did you expect? A miracle?
As the new school-year continued, the other trolls came pouring in, as if being called to a singular point. Sollux and Aradia didn't give him a second glance (damn it I thought she would've known, stupid stupid), Nepeta and Equius didn't have even a flash of recognition in their eyes when they said hello in the halls. Eridan, Feferi, Kanaya, Vriska, even Terezi. None of them spared him a second thought, and he didn't give them a chance to try to be his friend. He didn't think he could handle that.
There was just one troll left. Every day Dave would glance down each hall before walking down, check the classroom for a familiar mess of hair, and every day he didn't see it he grew more and more on edge. This Rose kept giving him concerned looks, kept asking what was wrong. He couldn't tell her. He couldn't tell anyone. This was his punishment, after all. This is what he deserved for letting them all die, watching them all be slaughtered while he was powerless, seeing the life die from his eyes while that red blood he hated so much poured from his lips-
No. He couldn't tell her.
He wasn't paying attention in class that day. He was lost in his thoughts, drawing absently in his notebook, but the second he heard “Karkat Vantas” he had his things in hand and was out the door. He walked home, up to his room and shut the door behind him, ignoring Bro's questions as he tried to clear his head, but all he could think was Karkat Vantas, Karkat Vantas, Karkat(you better fucking win)(you better fucking live)(it's too late for that shitsponge now go make a new universe and live-)(ican't-)(-because i'll be there waiting for you)Vantas.
He stayed home a week before Bro kicked him out, throwing his backpack after him and locking the door. He knew he could always just do something else, go to the park or the arcade but Bro would kick his ass until he said what was bothering him. So he walked to school, forcing his feet to move at his regular pace. He looked around all of his classes before stepping inside, but that hair and that face was nowhere to be found. He didn't know whether to be relieved or disappointed.
He sat at his tree that day. He couldn't handle the worried looks of his friends, their questions of where he'd been. He needed to be alone. He sat under his tree, staring up at the clouds. He wouldn't be able to handle it if he had to pass him in the halls, to see the same cold look in his eyes as the others, wouldn't be able to live. He rubbed his eyes under his shades, and didn't hear the feet crunching the grass as someone approached, yanked up by his collar before he could react and his glasses were jerked off his face. And he was eye to eye with (what if you don't remember)(you're too much of a douchebag to forget)(what if I don't remember)(then i'll punch you in the face until you do)(...)(I-)(shut the fuck up and go kill a monster, bulgelicker)(...)(I feel the same way). He stared into his now chocolate-brown eyes, felt a small prickle of hope at the familiar scowl on his lips. A moment passed, then another, until a full minute came and went and he couldn't do anything except stare into his face.
“Do I need to punch you in the face or what?” Dave jerked back like he'd been burned, and his shades are still on the ground but he doesn't do anything to reach for them. They stare at each other, a few feet apart, and the seconds tick by into minutes again and neither of them say a word. When the half-bell rings, Dave feels something inside him snap.
“Where the hell were you?!” He's walking now, closer to Karkat who's still just standing there, a strange look on his face. “I needed you! Why didn't you try to contact me?!” He's close now, so close, he can see every dip in his iris and the dark rings around his eyes that are somehow still there. Dave sees every range of emotion pass over his face, happiness, anger, joy, confusion, sadness, anger, and then defeat. Just a total, encompassing resignation.
“Because I was scared.”
Before he can stop himself he punches Karkat in the face, as hard as he can. Karkat stumbles back but doesn't fall, never falls, bright red pouring from his nose and for a second Dave is back there, back in the game where the only thing he can see is
John on the floor, dead with blood already crusting dry on his chest, Jade and Rose following him with their God Tier made useless and you can do nothing, your time is stuck and you're stuck and you can't move because he owns you, and you can only watch as they all fall, every single one of them slaughtered right in front of your eyes and you can do nothing, and soon he's the only one left and he's fighting as hard as he can but you know it's not enough, and when he falls you snap, you break, you break free but it's too late because he's almost gone, he's gone, and you're filled with so much rage as the bodies of your friends and more-than-friend litter the ground like bloody flowers and the last thing you think is that Gamzee would've loved the colors, before you can no longer think with the anger and fear and heartbreak until he's dead, somehow, you killed him and it's over but suddenly everything is p a i n-
Dave sways as a wave of nausea threatens to overcome him, and before he can dodge the blow Karkat punches him square in the jaw. The pain is grounding, and his mind snaps back to the present in time for him to catch the angry words.
“Do you want me to say it again? I was fucking scared! I come back and nobody fucking remembers, not Gamzee or Terezi or even Aradia!” Dave finally notices the crowd they've begun to draw, and when he glances around he can see the confused looks of the people Karkat's named. “What was I supposed to do if you didn't remember? Huh? Tell me!” Karkat lunges forward, but Dave dodges to the side and they begin to circle each other, and Dave doesn't realize he intended to respond until he already is.
“You were scared? The last time I saw you you were all dead because of me! Then I wake up and it's 'What's wrong, Dave?' 'What do you mean you have a panic attack every time you go near a computer, Dave?' 'How does it feel to have to look into you're best friends' faces every day when they don't remember shit, and having to live with the fact that you failed them and not being able to say anything, Dave?!'” Dave can see them, John, Rose, and Jade in the crowd that's slowly getting bigger, and Dave's starting to wonder when the teachers will come to break it apart. Karkat stops moving suddenly, and Dave does, too.
“Is he alive?” Dave doesn't say anything, and his confusion must be easy to read with his shades off of his face. “Bro. Is Bro alive?” Oh. Dave drops his hands from their defensive positions.
“...Yeah. Yeah, he's alive.” A sudden thought sparks in his mind. “What about you? Who's the grown-up in Casa de Vantas?”
“Jack fucking Noir, with Kankri as an older brother if you can believe it. The universe just has to fuck me over every chance it gets.” Dave chuckles, and he realizes distantly that it's the closest he's come to a laugh in a long time. All of the anger's left him now, and he can't even remember why he was angry in the first place.
“Everyone's here, you know,” Dave says, motioning to the crow with a wave of his arm, but Karkat knows exactly who he's talking about.
“Yeah, I found out while you took your vacation, shitsponge.” Dave feels a small sense of guilt, but it's overwhelmed by the feeling of familiarity he gets from the insult. Karkat bends down and picks up the shades by his feet, and Dave walks forward to meet him. Karkat holds them out, and Dave takes them softly in his hands, but he doesn't move to put them back on. He looks at Karkat for real this time, taking in his features. He's taller than before, yet still shorter than Dave. His skin is dark, and he still has the same angry slouch, the same shape of his face, and it's all so strange and familiar at the same time that Dave feels a burning in his chest. Before he can talk himself out of it he swings his arms around Karkat's shoulders, hugging him tightly, and he registers that Karkat returns it fully.
“I missed you,” Dave whispers, burying his face in Karkat's shoulder.
“Same here, fuckass.” His voice is rough and Dave can tell Karkat's trying to choke back just as much emotion as he is. Dave steps back after a moment to wipe off the blood dripping out of Karkat's nose with his sleeve, Karkat grimacing but not making a move to stop him.
“Sorry about that,” Dave says, and Karkat looks like he's about to reply when a shrill whistle sounds over the crowd, a shout following after it, and yep, there's the teachers, breaking up the crowd.
Dave slips the shades back onto his face, the world coming back into cool focus, and he reaches out for Karkat's hand.
When the teachers finally break through the mass of students, expecting a pair of bloody, angry teenagers, they find Dave and Karkat sitting on the grass, talking about their lives and old friends.