==> Be the Knight of Time
You have no clue how old you really are. It's all tick tock tick tock in your head nonstop and you can feel the eons left to this universe (a truly righteous shitload of 'em, we're talking mucking truck carrying three bazillion farms' worth of horse manure here) and the eons past (all the weight of history, ages upon moldy, dusty ages that didn't exist during your yesterday.)
You are technically older than this universe. You don't know if that makes you any older than sixteen.
(When you add up Davesprite and all the Dead Daves' diverging timelines and their collective dreambubbles, all that shit in your head now, all those moments you might argue you have technically not lived, you are exactly seventeen, three months, two days, and a hour and three quarters old. You pretend you couldn't tell the microseconds as well. Tick, tock, tick, tock.)
Oh right, zombies.
The timing of your backstroke is, of course, impeccable. You haven't even bothered to glance behind you to make sure of your target. It's like a tickle in your brain, wait wait wait now. A decaying head flies off, thwacks in a tree, and tumbles down. You sidestep the grasping hands that haven't yet figured out it's over; the body trips on a gnarled root and crashes on the ground.
"Worried, Vantas? My heart is all aflutter." He takes the time from lopping another zombie head off with a two-sickles scissoring move to glower at you. You're already jumping to meet the next batch of undead.
You get why Kanaya uses a chainsaw, though. After so long baking under the sun-scorched sand their hide is leather-tough; you're going to have to switch blades soon, this one's getting dull.
Fucking Alternia. Desert zombies were only neat in The Mummy in a 'ripe for the mocking' way. In real life, weird enough, they're not half that fun. Kinda stuck in that tedious no man's land between 'so awesomely badass you almost don't mind the asskicking you're getting' and 'so lame it's hilarious'.
"Any plan yet, Lalonde? Pyrope?" you call behind you. "Are my smartest broads swooning from heat stroke, am I going to have to take time off my busy schedule to catch them and carry them off on my knightly steed like wilting damsels?"
"Hold your musclebeasts, Dave, you can't rush genius!" Terezi calls back, almost unconcerned. It's the 'almost' that you don't like much.
You perhaps stumble a tiny little bit when dispatching the next batch. They came all together like a bunch of superglued mummy parts and beheading them went okay but for a bit you aren't sure how to stop their momentum short. Vantas snorts under his breath as he kicks clean through a dried husk of a ribcage that might perhaps have been about to topple on you to shove it back.
His foot gets caught for a second and he has to hop on one foot like an idiot as he pulls free. You arch your eyebrow right back. Then you both charge into the fray again. There's this dead-ended cave up the slope where all the rest of your people are sleeping, and neither of you is going to let anything through.
But it's only a small half-hour (twenty-three minutes, seven seconds) past dawn and the droves of zombies keep getting bigger. The heat is already starting to inch toward suffocating.
"Terezi!" Vantas calls in between two slice'n'dice whirls. (You don't get how he can do that without getting dizzy like a kid on a merry-go-round and spewing out all that hypothetical cotton candy.) "Swap!"
From him that kind of brevity is almost unheard of, and a pretty good indicator that he needs to abscond off the battlefield right about five minutes ago. (You'd be jealous you didn't ask to be relieved first, but like fuck you're admitting this is more than you can handle.) You almost give him a sardonic look, but then a zombie that must have been bigger than an adult Zahhak and a half in its prime tries to chomp off your face and holy fuck its neck is so thick your sword won't go through. You brace, all your muscles locked, and swear under your breath when you feel the root behind your heel, the one that'll trip you in about a second when the zombie leans more of its weight onto you.
Something small and teal-edged impacts with its torso at high speed; it topples back on the root-covered ground. Your sword is stuck between two vertebras and gets yanked out of your hand. Shit. Before you can dash in to get it back, Terezi -- of course it's Terezi -- jumps hard on the back of the blade and the handle both, shearing through bone.
Snap. "Whoops. My bad, coolkid, but it was a really shitty sword." You're not even surprised.
She twirls her cane and dives in. "Whatever," you say to no one, and start rifling through your strife deck. Broken katana, broken katana, broken -- oh hey, a wakizashi. There's about three inches left of useable edge on that thing. You take it out of your deck to fling at the crowd; that's about the only use it still has left.
It's like Undead Woodstock out there, swaying, shambling masses as far as the eye can see, all turned to you in brain-dead, hungry adoration. Fucking Alternia.
"What are you waiting for, Strider?" Vantas snarls at you as he goes past. It's almost like a dance, the way he fights, all twirls and circles; he hooks a zombie by the shoulder, yanks it close as he whirls around, steps behind it, and off with their heads! (oh god you're getting heatstroke already.) "Go back to the cave already!"
"--What? Fuck you, Vantas, if you're tired--"
"I would appreciate a little relief here!" Zahhak calls, somewhat strained, from the top of the slope. Both you and your fellow knight swear.
The zombie that sneaked past you probably used to be a kid. A grub? Whatever, it's tiny, barely more than toddler-sized. But it's wrapped around the back of his leg and it's going to chew through his (thankfully thick) pants in a second or three, and the awkward angle means he can't just swat it off. A few steps away a pasty-faced, shaking John is stumbling to his feet like he thinks he can maybe grab it with bare hands and not get bitten in turn. You give in and race back up to the cave, yanking Caledscratch free.
"Quarter-turn!" you snap as you charge in, sword already slicing from overhead. Equius executes a sharp forty-five degree turn. You separate the front of the grubzombie from its back.
Okay, and now the blade is definitely chipped. Which wouldn't be a problem if you could do more with time at the moment than just feel it tick past. John reaches the both of you and flops down on one knee in an almost controlled fall; he grimaces as he works the claws of a half-dozen tiny limbs out of the cloth. You turn your back on the both of them and the cliff and cave, scanning the sharper incline off to the side with its rocks and python-sized roots for more pocket-sized zombies.
"My thanks for the assist," Zahhak says (stiffly, of course, but everything he does or say comes with its complimentary side dish of broomstick up backside; it's kind of a progress that in the last years he went from having the whole thing lodged up there to only having, oh, about a half of it.) You shrug it off, standing there at the edge of the cave's little landing.
"David, dear?" Rose calls out pointedly, and you sigh. She sounds exactly like that mom you never had and never wanted to.
"Jeeze, Lalonde. It's not exactly exhausting to chill out here. I'm admiring the view."
And what a view. To the left and front, as far as the eye can see, a desert, all gold and wavy and pretty clichedly desertlike. To the right, that giant lake that might even count as a small inland sea (there's some desert trying to get around it from the back, but you can't see if it manages to encircle it completely, it's far enough things get hazy.) The lake has a small lab-studded meteor poking out of it that wasn't there five or six hours ago. (You probably shouldn't tell more precisely. You weren't awake.)
(You've been real for five hours and twelve minutes and forty-three seconds and eleven microseconds.) (You've been Dave Strider for seventeen years, three months, two days, and a hour and fifty minutes.)
At your back, a huge-ass cliff that runs like a wall laid by a drunken architect who only remembered fuzzy notions about straight horizontal lines, but sure got close to vertical. Unclimbable, pretty much, unless you're a douche in a spider costume who can shoot webs from his wrists (instead of from the vaguely more biologically correct ass, that never made sense to you and also you are not a nerd.) The cliff's topped by huge trees. Trees also pop out of the cliff side at random intervals, growing sideway for a bit before realizing, hey, shit, the sky's up there, turn left! They'd be climbable if any of you had rope. Or if any of you could still fly.
There's also a smattering of smaller trees down here (only five or so stories high), roots big around like Zahhak's thigh, for as long as the slope of loose rock and earth needs to meet the sand.
Of course there's also a sliver of huge reddish sun on the horizon thataway. Even behind your shades you already have to squint. Won't be long before the trolls are blind.
"Dave, if you please. It won't be efficient rest until you actually do get off your feet and take a break from guard duties. You do want to be able to go back out there sooner rather than later, don't you?"
... Proof that she's right is that you're even too tired to argue. "Sure," you deadpan. "My loins are all aquiver with the need to jump back in the meat grinder." It's ironic because you actually do mean it. It's pissing you off that you had to go back in before Vantas, even though he did wake after you and you'd been soloing the zombie horde for nine minutes and twenty-nine seconds already.
"Color me impressed by your vocabulary."
"Only so many times you can jump for a dictionary for the exact same word before it starts to stick like chewing-gum off a sidewalk in July." You shrug, even as you bow your head to get under the cave's mouth, and you find a bit of wall to press your back to and slide down. There, you can still see the outside. Good compromise. "I know so many words now, it's like an orgy in my brain. An orgy of sad old people with more doctorates than they've ever had girlfriends, mind, but congrats, you've educated me with your crap wizard stories."
Rose presses a hand over her heart, little finger sticking up prissily. "I am flattered."
"My favorite's turgid."
"It would be."
She's sitting with her legs folded to the side, orange hood tilted back some so that her eyes show. Her skin is so white it's like looking at a ghost. It's not a healthy shade.
"What's the plan?"
"...Let's say it's a dynamically evolving plan that will depend on the next ones to awaken." Rose gazes back at the unmoving shapes behind her. The trolls' have faded already but Jade's cheeks are still pink from when Terezi tried to slap her awake. The only ones she did manage to wake that way were you and Vantas, and you don't think it's a coincidence you were both Knights.
"John and Equius were awake first, right?"
Rose nods. "I haven't thought to ask, but I have a feeling they never did lose consciousness."
Okay, so Heirs first. And then Seers, Rose and Terezi.
Though the one Prince woke up before the girls. You quirk an eyebrow at the body Rose is reclining against, and he twists like a cut worm until he can swish a lock of un-gelled hair off his face and glare death at you. There's a length of pink scarf stuffed in his mouth and tied up behind his head in a very pretty bow.
The ones of you who were alive straight through the game are all -- you assume -- at least sixteen. (They look like it, at least. It's mostly noticeable in those of you with bosoms.) Came into the game at thirteen, three years of gameplay, makes some vague sense that when the Game spits you out it would tack that on. As a Time player with a lot of dead alternate selves, you personally logged extra hours, so here you are, seventeen, three months, blahblahblah. Aradia's probably even older. (Her bosom looks it, at any rate.) Fishgirl might have kicked it at thirteen but she's been doing overtime in dream bubbles after her death, so you guess that's why she gets to look about sixteen on checkout too.
Eridan Ampora the Fishdouche is pretty much the age he was when he died, and he might be tall for a thirteen year old kid, but now you measure him against your current self and he looks all gangly and half-finished.
Kind of terrified too, but hey, kid's a dickhead so whatever, and also there's a horde of zombies on your doorstep so it's pretty justified.
"Okay, so Heirs, Princes, Seers, Knights... What kind of hierarchy do you figure this is going by?"
Rose shakes her head slowly. "I couldn't start to guess. My hope is of course for the Sylph next..."
Yeah, a chainsaw would be pretty nice right now. You sigh, and don't even crack a lipstick lesbians joke.
"Though if Jade would wake up, hopefully she would be better rested than John and able to get us up this cliff." The expression she can't erase from her face says that she doesn't hope for it very much. She ducks her head so that the edge of her hood hides her eyes again. You look away.
"... How's your magic?"
"Still gathering whatever shreds I can find," she says, all terse and stern and 'damn it, it'll be enough if I have to kick the universe in the balls for it'. "It'll have to stay a last resort weapon. I don't believe I'll be using it twice."
You look down at Eridan, reluctantly. Guy's first reflex was to abscond the fuck out of there and leave everyone else behind, but right now not using all the resources at your disposal is starting to sound pretty dumb. "You?"
He growls through his gag. You lean in to tug it free, but Rose stops you with a hand on yours before you can undo the knot.
"Mister Ampora? Are you willing to be civil for the duration of this?"
He sends her a pretty nasty glare but eventually nods. Rose lifts her hand and you finish tugging the scarf out. He spits to clear his mouth, accidentally-on-purpose in the direction of Rose's coiled hood on the ground, though it doesn't reach.
"S' not magic, it's science, dammit. But I cod try," he adds with a side look at Rose that probably tries to be sneaky. "You just give me back my strife specibus an' we'll see."
You trade a heavy-lidded, shyeah right look with Rose. He'd keep it aimed at the zombies only as long as it took to open himself a way out for a single passenger. "Sure, kid, and I've got this bridge--"
That's when you get beaned in the head by a zombie skull, luckily free from the lower half of its head and the rest of it. Rose makes an interested noise and picks it up as you right your shades and refuse pointedly to rub your head.
"Hey, coolkid!" Terezi yells from somewhere out there, and you're instantly struggling back up on your feet. She doesn't sound openly strained yet, but it's here for who knows how to hear it. "You've been lazing about long enough!"
Only you haven't been, you've barely been sitting down for six minutes, three seconds.
Outside the sun has crawled up another couple of inches (it's enormous, you're not even seeing a fourth of it yet and the visible section is already wider across than the Earth's sun) and you squint and spare a second to be glad your God Tier pajamas aren't as thick and layered as your usual suits. The heat dries your mouth in the time in takes you to cross the flat area before the cave.
"Maybe if you gave me one of your swords," John hazards when you reach him, but everyone here knows if his hand wasn't clenched on Equius' elbow he'd be kissing the ground right now.
It's a madhouse down there of tangled roots and a thick carpet of dried out body parts, a field of bones and desiccated hides trampled by hundreds upon hundreds of advancing zombies. There's starting to be enough of them that no gap is left in their ranks for a skirmisher to get through, no space to swing a blade.
The front has already moved up to the middle of the slope.
"I will go," Equius says, all low and quiet and hopeless. "If I had not insisted that we evacuate the labs--"
"No!" John retorts, and turns on him, eyes huge and hands flying wild. "It's not your fault, we both agreed--"
"It is my duty --"
"Promise me you will -- Nepeta, you must --"
"Denied," you say, to both of them. "Hammer's useless with your noodle arms, and you use your hands. You'd get bitten." You leave them bickering behind you.
Never mind sparing Caledscratch now. You take your last steps running and jump in the fray, literally, feet first. You land on a zombie's shoulders and plant your blade down straight between two majestic swooping horns, and deep in its skull. It teeters upright long enough to allow you to yank the sword free and decapitate another two, and now you have your little space to move, your own dance floor, just big enough.
Corpses provide steadier footing right now.
You slash and hack and stab and slash again. Your shoulders ache, your hand sweats up the hilt. It's endless. You catch glimpses of Terezi, an arm streaked with wet teal. Her blade is too narrow to hack with, made for stabbing more than slashing; it'd break if used as a shield and so her only defense is in how fast she can dodge. You want to go her way, stand at her back, only that'd leave too wide a hole in the line of defense. You see Karkat only once; he's missing a sickle, and there's patches of even darker red on his hoodie.
Sometimes rocks fall from the sky and crush holes in the lineup, courtesy Zahhak, but those are never close enough to truly provide a breather. You know you've let through one or two. (Likely more.) You've been losing ground, step after step after step.
It's hell, and it's endless. Knowing exactly how long it lasts doesn't make it any shorter; Einstein was right. Fuck relativity.
And then of course at some point you go down.
An avalanche of leathery bodies buries you under, wriggling, tendons creaking dry as they all scrabble blind for you, leaving gouges in your arms, your flanks. Rocks dig into your back, bruising you to the bone. You can hear jaws snapping in your ear. They're so heavy, too heavy, and you strain toward all that power you can't reach begging for a future Dave to come and bail you out as you choke, not enough air left in your lungs to scream.
At first you don't even recognize that strange muffled purr as the revv of a chainsaw.
==> Dave: Be the chainsaw-wielding broad
This is invigorating.
The sun is rising; not yet high enough to blind the unlucky with one glance, but already pleasantly hot. And it has been so long since you got to hunt any undead beings. You do not think you have ever seen so many gathered together, though, especially since it's still so early for them to have traveled far; as you mow down the first rank you wonder if that might be because of the meteor's impact, traveling far and wide and disturbing the deepest layers of desert.
It is sort of impressive. You do hope your allies will have managed something more sustainable long-term before you get tired; a chainsaw is not a light weapon to wield. You do believe you will be just fine for some time, though. You get on with the business of unearthing Dave; just a few strategic slices, careful not to go too deep lest you hit him too, and then you clear him a space to get back up. He wobbles; you offer a hand to yank him to his feet.
His nose is dribbling candy-red blood, and his hair is mussed and his outfit torn and bloodstained, but he can otherwise stand unassisted, so you cut a path to Terezi. Seeing you coming, she has climbed her way to a bigger than usual zombie and is driving it by the horns to bump into its peers, cackling delightedly. She seems exhausted, though, which shows mostly in how manic her grin appears.
"I believe Dave could do with your assistance," you mention, and she quirks a teal-streaked grin and breaks her ride's neck, managing somehow to aim its fall in the appropriate direction so that she may leap off with a showy flourish. You smile as the two of you cross paths.
You cannot find Karkat.
This is not invigorating. This is terrifying. You slice and dice yourself a way, swings getting broader, using the weight of the chainsaw to gain momentum. He was here when you first looked, but when you reach the spot there is no one alive. You know. You would feel them. "Karkat!" you call over the roar of your weapon. "Karkat, please, if you can hear me!" and you look for any knot of suspicions activity, but the ground is so uneven with tree roots and fallen chunks of rock that the undead trip into holes and catch their limbs regularly; this is probably all that has held the invasion back so long.
"Karkat!" you call again, and then a hand closes around your ankle, and you almost take it off at the wrist but it isn't sun-dried or mummified at all.
It is painted red, though. A lot of it.
You clear a space.
Karkat has managed to somehow wedge himself under a big wide root -- his small stature is a cause of much worry and annoyance to him but you do not think he would have managed if he were but two pounds bigger. When you free him, though, you realize he did save his throat from being chewed through, or his horns from being cracked and the marrow sucked out, but he didn't save himself from the rest.
There are bite marks on his forearms, defensive wounds, there is a broken off fang still stuck in his jaw like a thorn.
You can feel the taint of the sun-touched in him.
He smells the way milk out of date would, a similar sourness, the same instinctive recoil. You push him back against the nearest rock and dive straight for his throat.
"K-Kanaya what the hell zombies I don't pity you like that!"
His empty hands clench ineffectually on your shoulders. He shivers when your fangs slide in, makes a dazed, bewildered little noise -- surrenders. You drink of him. Deep as you can.
And then you pull out your fangs and turn to the side and retch it all back out, very inelegantly.
"Oh dear, that was horrible."
"... did you just... wall me... and ... neck-molest me... and then say I tasted bad?"
You dab at your lips with the inside of your sleeve as you step away from him, revving your chainsaw again. "Don't worry, Karkat, when you aren't infected by the curse of the undead you taste much better."
"... oh yippie yay, all I ever wanted for twelfth perigee's eve..."
You're not very surprised when he passes out.
You arrange him against a rock, and then you go back to clearing the area. Luckily the piles of zombie limbs are difficult for fresh zombies to cross, enabling you to cover a little more ground, and by the time you swing back to him Equius has managed his way down and is in the process of picking him up.
"The Rose human strongly requests that you make your way upslope," he pants, even as he cradles Karkat's limp body with a care that's barely short of the one he might afford Nepeta. You nod.
"I will ensure that you aren't followed first."
Equius takes a few careful, stumbling steps on the unstable ground. Up there you can see Rose, standing, waiting. She gives you a little nod, a wave of her hand.
You do a last sweep, a last trim of the front line, and then you follow Dave and Terezi up. They're stumbling so slowly you manage to catch up; you take Dave's other arm and most of his weight. Terezi at least has her cane to lean on.
You reach the plateau and you see Sollux standing up, wincing, squinting in the sunlight, and all your sleeping allies taken out of the cave, stretched out in the open, still unconscious. Vriska and Feferi and Jade and Nepeta, Gamzee, Aradia. Sollux gestures you closer, so you help Dave limp his way there.
"Put the douche down here with the retht of them, KN."
"Say it with me, Captor, Sssstrider. I'm sure you can do it, triumph of mind over matter, I believe in you my little sugar pumpkin..."
Terezi snickers at him and eels out from under his arm; you stumble briefly, since his other arm was still around your neck and when he goes down he puts all his weight on you. You manage to guide him to sit beside Aradia somehow.
"So, that plan?" Dave inquires, but he looks halfway to too dazed to understand the answer. You test the temperature of his cheek and find it rather clammy, from what you think it should be. Probably shock or exhaustion.
Sollux just points at Rose, and sneaks you a glance. "Um, KN, you might want to go and thtand there with her. Jutht thaying."
Intrigued, and somewhat worried about the shambling army that must now be inching its way upslope, you go.
Rose is standing elegant and proud by the edge, looking down. The landscape is ... awesome, perhaps, in its original meaning. Terrible.
"I have calculated that at the rate they go, to buy ourselves ten minutes of freedom we need to clear the crowd halfway to the waterline."
You have maybe thirty seconds before the faster of the new wave reaches the two of you. You revv your chainsaw. "And how will you," you start to ask, but then she raises her hands and the question is moot.
Black mist starts rising from her skin and no, she hasn't used her grimdark powers in so long, and you hate knowing that she believes the only way out is to use them now, but you get no time to protest; she releases the gathered power in a wave of dark energy that seems to shatter space itself, makes something inside you shudder and recoil at the sheer wrongness of it. The visible manifestation of it rushes down like an avalanche, for one second, three, ten, for an eternity.
The slope is scoured clean. So is the desert. No more zombies in that zone she delimited. Even the felled ones are gone, the bits of limbs, the lone heads.
Even the few trees. Nothing organic has survived the black wave.
For the second time since you woke today, someone passes out in your arms. In your biased opinion Rose does it rather more elegantly.
==> Kanaya: Be the Friendleader
You can't. You are currently reenacting "bride of the rainbow drinker"(1); i.e. blood loss-related unconsciousness and artfully fainted in some big virile hunk's arms. You suppose it's better than reenacting Undead Sun-Zombie. Or you would. If you were conscious.
(1) this is the abbreviated title of an extremely popular cult classic and, despite the fact that there are approximately 265 horromance movies containing rainbow drinkers, brides, and/or brides of rainbow drinkers, within a very small group of trolls if you refer to it they will know exactly which movie you are talking about. You are of course part of this very small group.
You make a note to suppose so when you wake up. Unconsciously.
==> Be the other Friendleader
Minutes in the past, but not many...
You've never really liked watching sports. Sitting there like a chump as other people make split-second decisions, throw themselves in the middle of action, and you only good for eating popcorn and chewing on your nails and yelling advice that they can't hear, they're on the other side of the screen you dumbass.
This is not football, it's a death match, three to a hundred. You'd throw up any popcorn you tried to swallow.
"Karkat on your left!" you shriek, but he doesn't hear. Equius flinches against you (almost knocks you down) as a sun-dried hand slaps a sickle out of Karkat's grip. He's half a football field away and neither of you would get there in time, or be of any help when you got there. But he's still on his feet, still fighting; you tell yourself it's good, you tell yourself you can't even raise a dust devil right now so all you'd accomplish would be to clog one zombie's mouth with your throat, good job there champ, that sure showed 'em. Better to stay put, you'd just distract them.
And then Dave goes down and you're throwing yourself over the edge of the plateau before you can even think.
Of course your knees go out under you on the third step and oh crap those rocks look really face-unfriendly.
And then there's a hand snatching your arm and pulling you back up, and you'd almost thank Equius for the save but the hand is way too small. You look up and oh, oh yes, it's a fresh one, it's Kanaya. You think she might ask if you're okay and so you just point and yell right over her, "Dave there go go go!" She's a pretty smart girl and she probably knows your bruised ass will get over it when she drops you and goes.
You're not saved, none of you guys is going to do that single-handedly, not with your God Tier powers out of reach, but it's an unexpected reprieve. You climb back up, on hands and knees.
Rose has left the Cave of Deep Planning and is standing there with Equius. She sighs at you when you reach the flat part again and holds out a hand to help you up.
"So does that mean you have a plan?" you ask as she pulls you up, but she doesn't even need to answer because when you look over her shoulder you see the solution.
Game powers might be out of reach, but natural psychic powers have no reason to be so limited. Right? Oh god please. Sollux is standing at the mouth of the cave, one hand over his eyes to shield from the light and wincing. He looks a bit like a heron with a hangover.
"There is indeed a plan," Rose says, and then she looks down at the melee and you can see the tension at the corner of her eyes visibly relax. When you look over your shoulder you see an impressive path of violence and mowed body parts, and Dave standing dazed in the middle. You let out a breath that might also be a laugh. "Man, your girlfriend is scary. So, the plan?"
"I'm going to be unavailable shortly," Rose says, "so, John, if you could please take over watching over Mr. Ampora. Mr. Zahhak--"
"This has better not be a 'oh hey, by the way my plan is to go prancing in the melee to distract them' thing," you growl. "I've had it up to there with you and Dave's stupid self-sacrifices." And you don't even care you'd do the same if you could, damnit! It's your turn now anyway.
"I'd hope you don't truly expect my plans to be of such dazzling pointlessness. Mr. Zahhak, Mr. Captor will need help moving our friends out of the cave."
"I can do that too!" you protest. "Why do you want me babysitting Eridan? It's not like he can run off or cause trouble right now."
The look she spears you with has you falling silent.
"Remind me again what Mr. Ampora's element is, John."
"Uh, hope, but--"
"You might perhaps want to ask Mr. Zahhak what happened directly following the time he decided to give up said hope." Then she winces a little and she looks up at Equius and in Rose-language it almost looks like an apology.
Equius doesn't get angry, though, he never does get angry at her (at you either, but you like to believe it's because he secretly likes you. Yeah.) "It might all have been a coincidence, bad timing," he says like it's not about him, "but I seem to recall it ended up in generalized mistrust, abrupt ends of alliances, strife, insanity, and several murders."
You wince. Rose has already gone back to being all cold-blooded and analytical and she's looking at the zombie crowd like it's a math problem instead of something trying to chew up your friends and spit them out in pieces. "Mr. Ampora's power is an ability that he does not understand and therefore that is not under his conscious control. And the timing of his awakening suggests quite a lot of raw ability. He cannot be allowed to panic."
"But we're all exhausted--"
"It wouldn't exactly take much, John. In the middle of transporting someone Mr. Captor realizes how utterly exhausted he is and that he's never going to manage to carry all sixteen of us to safety. And so he can't."
"But it wouldn't be true!"
"He'd believe it is. His power is mostly mental. He's prone to depression. There's already a probability of it happening on its own. We do not need even a smidgen of weight added to that balance."
"Karkat loses confidence in himself, as he is wont to do, etcetera."
"Karkat's a lot better about that now, and anyway, he'd never let anything happen to his team if he can still--"
"I start remembering my previous fall to the grimdark, lose my grip for one fleeting instant, and instead of using the horrorterrors they end up using me."
"Okay, I get it!" You throw your hands up in frustration, and then immediately feel guilty. Okay, you're stressed out and feeling useless. It's not Rose's fault. "... I'm going."
You don't look back at the battlefield before you go, or else you never will.
You get it, really. When stakes are that high you can do without hope, but only if you have everything else.
Hours in the past, but not many...
So there you were, buried in shock-absorbing sortofplastic foam after a crash-landing of world-shaking (world-remaking) proportions. You were awake, kind of, even if you really didn't want to be -- your head swam and you just really wanted a nap, but there were all those unconscious friends and allies to check over first, so you dug your way out. And then Equius was there, patting at Nepeta's face with only the tips of his index and middle fingers and being all damp and panicky because she wouldn't wake up, not even when he accidentally left bruises.
The floors and walls were tilted at weird angles that made walking around complicated and he told you about structural damage and several tons of rocks possibly about to crush the labs into oblivion, so of course the next order of business was to get them out of there. You got Equius to knock out the wall, piled them all up in the hollow halves of a recuperacoon, and gathered your very last breath of wind into flying them down.
Your power went out in between the meteor and the beach -- whoops, splash landing -- and then you and Equius had to get in the water and tow your makeshift coon-raft. You were lucky it didn't just decide to sink.
You were flopped together on damp sand getting your breath back when the pile of people started to shift (awesome!) and Eridan (aw man) crawled his way out, and it was all well and good -- you'd have preferred someone else but it was still a great sign -- until he tried to abscond. You were too busy feeling the world whirl around you and trying not to throw up to move so you yelled "Equius, get him!" without even really knowing why. (Equius did, of course, immediately go and get him. He's a real dependable guy that way.)
You only justified it to yourself afterwards. You guys didn't know where you were; you didn't need anyone bringing a bunch of potentially hostile people or monsters on you when everyone was still so vulnerable.
Made sense. Yep.
"Don't leave me behind, oh cod you buncha murderin assholes, don't leavve me behind, Sol you bastard -- Roz, Roz please don't leave me for the undead, I'll help, I'll do anyfin, you can't leave me here!"
"Well," you say, as you lean heavily against the cave wall, "To be fair, you did try to leave us with the undead first."
You shuffle a little farther in to let Sollux go through, Vriska all small and limp in his long gangly arms. She looks so tiny it makes your throat go kind of tight and your eyes all prickly and you're not even sure why.
"Hey! I'm still here! Least you cod do is not ignore me!" He sort of kicks with bound feet in your direction and glares, all haughty and indignant. It's funny how a second ago he looked so honestly terrified, (so young,) and now he mostly looks like an asshole.
You sigh. Headache. Ow. "Believe me, buddy, ignoring you is a really hard thing to do." Okay, think hopeful thoughts. Time to move closer. Your legs are almost steady now. "Anyway. Calm down, we're not leaving you. I promise you."
You eye the scarf tied expertly around his ankles. And back up to his wrists, and there's a loop loosely draped at his neck where it used to gag him. He's trussed up like a little rodeo calf. Um.
"Glubbin hell are you gonna just stand here until the undead come or are you gonna untie me?!"
The thought comes to you that Eridan is pretty much a self-fulfilling prophecy. "Cheer up!" you say brightly as you drop on your knees (ow) beside him. The sheer disbelief on his face makes you giggle as you reach over him and start to fiddle with the scarf. "The Heir of Breath is here for you, citizen! We're just going to... um."
Rose is really good with knots. This is a little distressing to learn.
"Okay, no, I see how she went at it. Shoosh."
Sollux trundles in and out and doesn't say anything but his raised eyebrows are highly expressive. You stick your tongue out at him and he gives you a dry chuckle, but once he's out you start frowning as you wonder where Equius is, that a stick like Sollux has to haul around Gamzee's sorry carcass. Equius should have been right on your heels. Rose must have him doing some other whim of hers.
In the end woolen scarves aren't great for solid knots due to slipperiness, even when someone's been wiggling in them and tightening the knots way past what they used to be. "Tadah!" you exclaim with a little hand twirl. Look at that hope-filled face! You can totes trust me. I'm a very trustworthy guy.
Eridan flops on his front and is on his feet in a second and in the next he has already run out. (Swearing about the pins and needles and kind of tripping a bit, but.) You sit there and blink dumbly, and then you look at Tavros like maybe he can tell you what the hell just happened. (He can't, of course, he's unconscious.)
"Um. Well. I should probably..." That's a good question, what should you do? Go after Eridan? You can barely walk. Make yourself useful by dragging Tavros out? Man, the bruises you'd give the poor guy. In the end you remind yourself firmly that Rose gave you a mission, and you grab onto the wall to haul yourself back on your feet.
Eridan runs back in, and almost knocks you down.
"Whoa, whoa!" You grab onto his arm, half because your ass is bruised enough and half because he's not getting away a second time, damn it.
"Uh, durr. No kidding we're surrounded."
... Panic Face is probably bad. And oh damn, he really looks like a kid with those wide eyes, especially seen from your brand new superior height. (As sad as it was not to grow an inch from age thirteen to sixteen, suddenly having to deal with all those extra inches of legs is nothing short of extremely awkward. It is, in fact, rather like walking on stilts. But ... it's weird, it does change your perspective more than in the obvious, literal way.)
"Rose has a plan. Nothing to worry about. C'mon, let's go queue up for the Sollux Express. We'll be out before you know it"
You eye Tavros. Probably shouldn't leave him alone in there, lest everyone forget him. You give Eridan's arm a tug and you grin over your shoulder. "C'mon, help me get him out there."
"Are you kiddin me, who wanta be luggin around dead weight with the undead breathin on their neck!"
Secret Egbert Technique, passed down through the ages, the Disappointed Dad Face.
Never failed once in your life (you should know, most of the time you were the one it was used on.) Still doesn't. Eridan wilts a bit. He's stubborn, though, and he looks away and growls under his breath. Okay. Egbert Technique level two, then.
"I bet Tavros would haul your unconscious body around as you guys were hunted by zombies. Because you're friends and on the same team."
You bend over and pick up Tavros' wrist. Gnn. His upper body is all muscle. This is going to be awkward.
Eridan hesitates behind you for a couple of seconds. You ignore him pointedly, face all somber and Sadly Disappointed.
Eridan Ampora 0, Dad Egbert three kajillions. "S'only cos I might find some use for a meat shield," he mutters as he grabs Tavros' other arm and pulls him up. You grin.
Maneuvering him out of the cave is awkward. Tavros' shoulders are pretty bulky, and he's starting to get muscles all over the place. He's a heavy guy. And then there's the horns, which you whack your face with a couple times as you guys try to find a position that works for both of you and your differences in height.
Most of Tavros' weight ends up on Eridan, on account of your current weakness and the fact that he's short and so things slope his way. "Whose bright idea was it to put us inna cave anyway!" he complains as you guys maneuver toward the cave's exit.
"Uh, mine actually."
He glares at you. "I was here, thanks, I remember, I was tryin ta be subtle!"
"I just thought it'd be more easily defensible!" Thinking about it now, if the zombies ever reached that point the last resort would have been to bring down the cave mouth, which would still have gotten everyone dead of asphyxiation in short order. But hey, at least none of you would have turned undead and preyed on unwary travelers!
This is not as comforting a thought as it should be. You wonder if you can blame Eridan.
There's a moment where your stomach twists -- like flying and then losing your grip on the wind and plummeting down with zero warning -- and you flinch. Eridan stiffens and stops moving entirely; you almost faceplant.
"What the glubbin' hell was that?"
"Well, I bet it wasn't the zombies, so it was probably someone on our side! Come on, let's go and see."
Outside you find:
-a desert (same as you left it.)
-a severe lack of trees (ouch, sunlight, gotta ask Dave if he has any spare shades)
-one swooning broad in another classy broad's arms, skin strangely troll-shaded (aha! Question solved. Rose did her creepy thing.)
-one swooning copalhoncho in oh dear god your eyes what.
When you drag your way closer to the middle of the plateau you see a vast expanse of scoured-clean sand and rock and no zombie for at least two baseball fields' length. Good job, Rose, even if you still hate seeing her like that.
Your unconscious friends are piled up there; Sollux is squinting up at the sideways trees, hands starting to crackle red and blue a bit, Dave is sitting on the ground and bandaging Terezi's arm even though he's clawed up all over himself, and Kanaya and Equius both wait with their respective swoony packages. You do a quick head count as the two of you trudge up. Everyone seems to be there.
Eridan has to handle most of the gentle lowering to the ground and ends up dropping the ball a bit. ...Tavros has probably gotten worse and also you're too exhausted to deal with this. You flop down beside Dave, throw a tired grin Terezi's way; she inclines her head and smirks a bit, kind of rueful and just as tired.
Eridan hovers a bit, eyeing the shuffling zombies in the distance and then the three of you, and you remember that you're supposed to keep him from despairing everyone to death. "Sit down," you offer, patting the comfiest-looking bit of rock beside you.
He doesn't, but he does hunker down, throwing Dave and Terezi suspicious looks. Terezi's tired, friendly smirk becomes all 'ohoho, what have we there, Mr. Culprit? Proof of your guilt?' Dave tilts his head just enough to let you see his rolling eyes.
It's so hot you can feel your sweat evaporating right off your skin even as it beads. The sun isn't even all the way unstuck from the horizon. Makes finding a distraction a bit difficult; you can't think in this heat. Argh, okay, something to bond over... that might be a bit much to ask.
"Do trolls have bodice rippers?" you blurt out.
Terezi usually doesn't bother facing people she talks with but right now she makes a pointed exception. Eridan is staring at you like he always knew you were crazy but he'd never wondered before if you were contagious.
Dave of course can read your mind like a true bro and groans instead. "Oh please dear jegus no, let's not talk about this."
Terezi breathes in, turning a bit to get more scents from all around, and then she bursts out laughing. "Karkles in a corset!"
You can't help a guilty snicker. A corset on Rose is less funny, true, mostly because you know unless it was polka-dotted and/or defaced with dick scribbles she'd totally rock it.
"The gamblignant and the sassy tavern wench," Terezi muses, looking disturbingly delighted.
"... World, be silent. I have had the Vision. Let me paint you a picture with my words, like a smith of stories, nay, a poet, a prophet. The scene: a bar. In the dark. Vantas stomping around like the delicate flower of maidenhood he is... Getting his ass slapped by drunken patrons, swishing his fluffy skirts in outrage as he throws beer in people's faces with wild abandon. Forsooth! A most terrible pirate enters, and finds himself charmed by the wench's colorful vocabulary and total absence of heaving tits. I will have your lowblood virtue! he claims. Swearing to curdle milk ensues. Yadda yadda kidnappings and ransoms you may now ravish the wench, if you haven't pitched him overboard yet."
The most hilarious thing is, of course, Dave's perfect, bored deadpan.
Even Eridan is laughing. Or trying not to laugh. Though it's mostly the startled, shocked kind, and then he shakes his head all incredulous and looks over his shoulder like he's expecting a zombie to crest the slope behind him to punish him for not paying attention. "I can't believve you guys."
He needs to be distracted again. "Huh," you muse, "pitched overboard, huh? Maybe in the sequel. Bet he'd sink like a rock, with the skirts and all, leaves it wide open for a dashing rescue by some sexy sea dweller. Hey, can you guys do the underwater breath-kiss thing? Or would you both drown?"
Operation Sidetrack: Success.
"Okay, guys," Sollux interrupts, and you give a bit of a guilty flinch-and-smile. "... I do not even want to know what you were giggling about. Anyway, EQ needs thome help up there."
Startled, you look around, and... Oh, right, no more Equius. Or Karkat. He must have sent them up already.
"Who's the healthietth? Gotta help EQ haul people around."
Eridan goes tense like a strung bow; Sollux spears him with a dismissive look and makes it very clear he's only looking at Dave and Terezi and you. Not like you wanted to send Eridan away where you can't keep an eye on him yet, but ouch. You wince and nudge him with your elbow a bit.
"Well, I'm exhausted and Dave's all bruised and sliced up, so I guess Terezi. Your arm holding up okay?"
"It'll be fine," she says, but she's frowning like she doesn't like the idea of leaving first. She turns to sniff the air. "They're closing in..."
"Th'why KN is tthaying behind until latht. Okay, come on."
This has totally broken the mood. Eridan goes all hostile and prickly, hunkering down and glaring death at Sollux as he floats people up. The transfers are not going fast and you don't like the pinched, migrainy look on Sollux's face. You hope like hell Rose was talking out of her ass when she said that stuff about him losing self-confidence and sending people plummeting down, but either way you're gonna have to cheer up the brat all over again.
And Terezi was right, the zombies are gaining ground. When you crane your neck you can see a couple of fast ones at the bottom of the slope.
"Oh yeah, let's send the creepy murderclown before that douchebag Ampora!" he explodes eventually. "Let's send evveryone! Oops, we sent the pissblood transporter ahead too, oh well nevermind!"
"If you do not shut your wordtrap right now I'll send you down personally. At least you'll have done something useful for once in your miserable life."
... Oh hell. Dave is not joking. Dave is so not joking, and it shows, he's pissed off enough to let it on his face.
"Dave!" you snap, but a second late -- you were surprised at Dave's expression! But apparently it was just long enough for Eridan to throw you a betrayed look and start looking crushed.
Sollux wobbles. Jade's body drops a couple feet in the air before he catches her again. You tell yourself it's a coincidence.
"... Dave." Serious face. Your serious face has never been so serious as it is now. "Karkat is unconscious now and also not here, so let me be Karkat."
"The heck? It's past the time for corset fantasies--"
You thwap him over the head. "No! Bad Dave! My people, rawr! All mine! Keep them all! Mine! Snarl, snarl." You pause to consider it for a second, then conclude with a decisive nod. "Assface."
And then, as Dave is still staring at you and saying total lies about what a horrible Karkat you are, seriously assface is the best you can do what, you turn to Eridan, and you ask, "And what makes you think I would leave you behind either? We did go and bring you back in the game, didn't we?"
"That's just cos you needed a full God Tier party to get the perfect endin'," he mumbles all sulky and dejected.
The worst thing is that you can't even tell him that isn't true without being a big fat stinking liar. Eridan did some really bad stuff and also he was a douche and no one really missed him. (Gamzee also did some really bad stuff but he never died and he's had three years since then to make people forget.) You want to think you'd have gotten him out of there anyway; sixteen people in, sixteen people out. It'd have taken a lot of dithering, though, you bet.
So instead you stuff down your guilt and you gentle your voice a bit and you say, "I am doing this in my role as a cofriendleader and with cofriendleaderly affection." And you slap the back of Eridan's head too. "You're one of us, stupid. Also I'll be the last one out."
"Like hell you will," says Dave. "We're not risking you that much, friendleader. I will be."
"No way, Dave, it's my role--"
"Don't even try that bullshit on me--"
"No, you -- oh holy shit!"
This is not a zombie.
Okay yes this is a zombie. It's just not a troll zombie.
Dave throws himself to one side; you tackle Eridan on the other side. A huge clawed foot lands in the middle.
This is bigger than any troll you've seen. And it's armored. Covered in spikes.
"Imperial drone!" Eridan gasps, and starts scrabbling for a strife deck he doesn't have. You yank at the wind but all you manage is a puff of air that makes dust dance around its ankles.
Dave whirls on one knee, sword whistling with his momentum, brings the blade on the back of its leg. You see chips of metal flying on impact; the creature keeps shambling forward.
You and Eridan struggle to free yourselves of each other. You mostly manage to get in each other's way. That thing is so fast for a zombie and you're so slow, so weakened. Dave stumbles up on his feet at its back but it's all armored there and he doesn't come up higher than its elbow, he can't hit hard enough to make it fall and get its head in sword's reach.
You manage to push yourself to the side to let Eridan scramble free, and then you're alone on the ground with the creature reaching down for you.
And a golden streak flies home with a heavy thud. The drone goes still, starts to swing slowly like a cut tree, and crashes to the ground. Dave barely manages to dodge, tripping and landing on his ass with a grace that would almost make you laugh, any other day.
A trident is imbedded in the creature's head, still vibrating like a tuning fork.
"Holy mackerel." Eridan turns around, stunned and hesitant, you almost want to look away so you don't have to see it clear on his face. "F-fef?"
Feferi blinks slowly at the three of you, goes "Hi there, guys" like maybe she's seeing six of you instead, and promptly passes out again.
The best bodice-ripper swoon-catch award of the day goes hands-down to Sollux.
==> John: Be the Knight of Time
Hours in the future, but not many...
"And here I thought trolls were supposed to be nocturnal. S' how the top-volume schoolfeeding went anyway."
You sort of get it though. Karkat wasn't kidding about the sun and how it can kill you. There's a metric fuckton layers of leaves between you and the sky, and apparently the only thing it does is make things like a well-lit sauna. Standing in direct sunlight would probably microwave you alive in under fifteen minutes.
Terezi chuckles and sits down beside you, almost shoulder to shoulder, her injured arm to you. "Why, it does appear you care!" She pats your hand, almost hard enough to call it slapping instead. "There, there, Dave. It's not like I can get any blinder."
"Anyway, shouldn't you be asleep?"
You probably should be. Everyone else is, except for Kanaya and she's all the way off on the other side. You shrug. You get a pointy elbow to the ribs.
"The Court asked you a question, Mister Strider."
"... 's too damn hot." The elbow finds its previous bruise with unerring accuracy. Ow. "And there aren't enough hammocks for everyone anyway."
Hammocks are a necessity, if only for halfway sufficient aeration. Sleeping straight on the tree ends up with people waking up every half-hour to flip on their other side so the sweat might cool a bit, attractive bark patterns engraved into their fleshy parts.
In the past few hours, you've had a front-and-center, accelerated course in the virtues of one Feferi Peixes, only one of which was a nice supply of fishing nets to use as such.
(Other things Feferi Peixes is good for:
-Being hella cute (in a giggly, airy way, but one that never really tips over into airheaded territory either.)
-Being scary strong (holy wow she might even out-bench-press Zahhak.)
-Related to that: playing elevator (All aboard the Miraculous Catch express! Just pile up in that here huge net and I'll pull you guys the rest of the way up.) (You have bruises on your bruises from bumping into the side of the cliff on the way up, but between that and cooking alive in direct sunlight, no contest.))
So the giant tree you guys have taken over like a colony of people-sized locusts is now full of sort-of-cocoons and weird spider-nets. In front of you John, Jade and Vriska sleep in a pile of gangly limbs and flyaway dark messes of hair and sweat-stuck skin; you've spent quite a few entertaining moments watching gravity gently roll them all into each other. Jade's bare legs dangle from the knee down through two holes in the net; in a minute you'll probably go and try to stuff them back in before she loses all blood flow.
"I guess that makes sense," Terezi muses, nodding in agreement. "So what's the real reason?"
... Gnrfg. "Why do I need any other reason. Oh hey, look at that, the Angriest Napoleon and Murderclown the Haze-Brained are playing big spoon little spoon, this is so sweet it might give me cavities, honestly I fear for the future of my pearly whites here considering the state of troll dentistry compared to--"
Okay, fuck no, not going there.
"--How can they do that without burning alive, I wonder."
Terezi snickers. "Indigo blood? He's probably cooler to the touch than anyone else here save for our sea dwellers. Gamzee is the one you should pity, Karkat's like a living furnace."
"This is fascinating." You make a fascinated face. It's the same as all your other faces.
Prod, prod. That elbow should be classified a bladed weapon. "Jeeze. Nothing gets past you, does it, Pyrope?"
"Especially not your last-ditch attempt at redirection."
She poises her elbow. You give in. "I'm keeping watch. Less predators away from ground level doesn't mean no predators. Someone has to be Kanaya's backup, she doesn't have eyes in the back of her head. Jegus, I thought that was obvious."
"Hmm." Terezi does the pretend-agreement nod thing again. You watch her, suspicious. "It doesn't explain why you haven't woken up someone else to take over, though. It's well after noon! Sleep deprivation does not help anyone! It just makes you cranky and distracted and useless."
"Pshht, are you kidding me, I'm a pro at sleep deprivation. I have experience. You haven't known true sleep deprivation until your fifth night into a music-off, the hardest of rocks blasting your eardrums right through a piece of shit wall as you try to crank your gangsta rap loud enough to cover it, game over whenever the cops get around to knocking, no Mr. Officer we had no idea it was five AM on a school day--"
Blathering on about school, your shitty neighborhood. (Him.) Jegusfuck, what is with your brain today. You beat the game at its own -- ha ha made a funny -- game. You spent your morning kicking zombie ass. (You didn't get anyone killed.) This is an awesome day.
Terezi pretends she didn't notice the interruption, but her head is tilted to the side and she reminds you of a bird of prey, measuring angles and distances before it swoops in. "I'm sure, but it just so happens I'm awake now, and my hammock is conveniently empty."
Oh look at that, a drop of sweat making its way down your chiseled pectoral. It's a shame she's blind and missing it, but then again the sight might just have blinded her again. You use your discarded tabard to mop up your damp skin. It's something that require a lot of attention.
"Dave Coolkid Strider. We are having a feelings jam right now even if I have to net you up and string you upside-down for it." She pauses. She starts grinning. "Come to think of it, let's do that anyway!"
You should probably go 'oh please spare me miss legislacerator' or pretend-dodge her playful grab or otherwise play along, but you can't.
Stop the presses, Dave Strider is not in a bullshitting mood.
"Talk to me, Dave," she says almost softly. "What's wrong?"
"Wrong?" You do not want to answer this. "Nothing's wrong." You do not -- "Things are as near perfect as we could expect, right? I mean apart from landing ass-deep in fine adolescent tenderloin connoisseurs."
"Are they really? I was under the impression a perfect ending would be lower on starving undead."
It helps when Terezi looks like she couldn't care less about the answer. Like you guys are just shooting the breeze. Even though you both know that's not true.
"Well honestly. I know we jacked the stats as much as possible but in the end the possibilities were A: we land in between two stars, in the glorious void of space, and as Jade and Sweatybro frolic the rest of us gently suffocate in the endless night, because outside of paradox space vacuum actually means no fucking air to breathe. B: we reach a planet! It's seventy percent oceans. Being rock, the meteor fails to float. Welp."
"Huh, I guess we sort of did that here, didn't we."
"Lucky it was such a shit ocean. Anyway, possibility C: some brand new paradise planet full of poison beefbeasts and toxic plants none of us can recognize. I guess only some of us would die there, as noble sacrifices and-or a warning to others."
She grins and socks you in the shoulder. There's already a bruise there courtesy Peixes Elevator Services but then again you have bruises everywhere. John's healing Gushers only took care of the claw slashes.
"You are so positive, Dave, it's what I like about you."
"Yep, unbridled optimism is one of the services we offer here at Strider Incorporated. C-two, we land on Alternia, but there's no sentient life on it! Or even no organic life at all. Being deprived of delicious lunchmeat we all go for cannibalism." You shrug and recline against the tree trunk, crossing your arms almost-negligently. "But since this world has zombie trolls I guess that means it has the alive kind too. So hey, congrats, this isn't the shittiest ending and our rumpus party did in fact manage to keep the game from giving us a last tender lube-less assfuck. Color me astounded." You pause, pretend to think about it. "What color would that even be? Marigold? Anthracite? Heliotrope?"
"It's a very nice peach actually."
You should find a comeback for that, let words keep flowing so the conversation will move, so they'll take you away. Nothing comes to mind.
"For us trolls, it's pretty much the perfect ending, yes." She crosses her hands over her folded knee, pensive. "Even if it does turn out that our society was changed from what we used to know and that our old neighbors do not exist this time around. None of us were all that close to anyone outside this group. We might have caused millions to stop existing and millions to exist instead, but from our point of view none of us will really notice any difference."
You close your eyes, shades tilted so the black of them will hopefully cut off that image-scent. "That and your culture sucks ass anyway."
She knocks the top of her cane on your skull, but so lightly you barely feel it. You turn your head away. Her face is too full of sympathy.
Possibility D: you all end up on restored Earth; codicil b, like nothing happened. That was the perfect ending for you (not the trolls yeah but) and you were not counting on it much. At all.
"True," she muses, rubbing her chin as if stroking an invisible goatee, "we didn't get to become the gods of some perfect new paradise universe, but that was a pretty selfish wish anyway..."
And one that was mostly used to entrap the suckers playing it into perpetuating that bullshit apocalypse daisy-chain. Yay we avoided the trap, go us.
The bark on that tree is pretty weird. You scratch at it.
"I don't think you fully understand the intricacies of a feelings jam yet, Dave. You're supposed to open your toothhole and let it out of your thinkpan."
"Shyeah right, I--"
"Things could be worse," you say. You weren't planning to give in and say a thing, but now that it's out you let it rest there, for contemplation. What a fascinating unoriginal transparent load of canned bullshit, maybe you should be embarrassed.
"Worse how?" she prods, patient like a rock, like she can do that all day. All month. She probably can. Pitbulls wish they clamped down half as stubbornly as Pyrope.
"Could be dead." (Been there, you think, done that.)
"It might hurt your feelings but I feel I ought to tell you this one fully deserves a duh."
"...My friends could be dead." (Been there, never doing again. You'd rather die first, you couldn't -- no, you can't live with that. You -- one of you -- tried it, and never again. Never again.)
"Duh the second," Terezi answers, but it comes out a bit quieter, like she gets it.
You consider stopping there but it's a bit like an avalanche, this idea of opening your mouth and letting it come out; a pebble here, a pebble there, and soon all the mountain comes down and good luck standing there trying to talk it into staying up.
"Could have dropped the ball." Failed your friends.
"But you didn't. None of us did. We all followed the plan to the letter. And now here we are, out of the game. It's over."
It's over. She should say it like it's consolation but she uses it like a detonator instead, like she knows perfectly well it's exactly the last nudge your mountain of bullshit need. You laugh.
"Yeah. We all cheated as fuck, too, but when the game's rigged anyway, it's the only way to get out with at least some of your initial stakes, right? The house always wins in the end so when you get a hand that's good enough, you've got to know it's the right time to quit. No dicking around with 'no, let me bet again, next time it'll be jackpot for sure.'"
Took you all a few tries to accept that.
"It's good enough that we're alive, we weren't gonna try again just on the off chance that we'd--"
"No dissembling, Dave."
"--Just on the off chance that I'd get my bro back, that good enough? And anyway it's been three years, I'm over it. I'm completely over it, flying so high I can barely see the ground, sure there's still a planet under there? Watch out clouds, here comes Dave Strider. I'll never be over it but I tried to get him back and it never worked, he wasn't a player, data unsaved."
Oh yeah. You are rocking this avalanche. The avalanche likes it, that naughty little slut. Look at it go.
"Data unsaved everywhere, wasn't there? Our session was borked from the start, I know there was no other way, we wasted two fucking years trying to find another way, I know that."
What you did in the end was, basically, the equivalent of stopping just before endgame and then messing with the disk; starting a new game while keeping all the sweet loot and terrain maps from precedent sessions. Means the trolls could go back and win their session. Not the Gods ending and its bullshit doomed fuckery, but another path. No one was entirely sure what would happen, but hey, it couldn't be worse than ending the universe, right?
Means your own session would have never happened, though.
The four of you are like glitched items, fallen through coding cracks.
"We're stranded," you say quiet as possible.
Earth has never been; the trolls never created it.
"We're stranded. Four last humans in the universe on a crazy planet of death, and I don't care how much careful breeding is done; by the third generation our kids'll all be fucking their first cousins. The gene pool is so shallow it might as well be a birdbath. Neverfuckingmind, what's the goddamn point."
Terezi's hand lands on your knee and squeezes, and it's not even worth it to shoo it off or grab it with your own or anything. You breathe. Everything's cool. Yeah.
"... Meh. The weight of a whole culture on four sets of shoulders, what for? You remember what it's like being a teenager, Teez, hell, we're teenagers now. Our potential children would be all 'aw dad who cares about your old shitty stories of what it was like before the dinosaurs' like all kids everywhere ever and it'd all be lost anyway." You shrug somehow. "Also, how can I be on the cutting edge of culture if I'm accounting for a fourth of it... Hell, only Rose has any real culture of her own, so that'd probably mean I've suddenly become the Establishment. Shit, that's too ironic even for me, fate worse than death right there."
Oh hey your face is wet. What's up with that.
"So. Miss Pyrope. Any other intricacies to that sick jam I ought to get schooled on, or can I go--" home yet, okay no, this is not on, your voice is your bitch and you're not okay with that chokey bullshit, you're not, stop it.
She's on your lap. Her claws are raking ticklish paths in your hair and she's making that weird shoosh-shoosh noise that always makes you think of choo choo trains. "Afraid not, coolkid. But you did clear stage one beautifully."
"Uh huh." So beautiful, fucking unable to keep your wordtrap shut, and now all that garbage is spread out where everyone can see it, where you have to see it and what's staring at it going to change? It won't make any of it stink any less and you still have to pick it back up and get it back in that bin. "School me then. How shall we --" Words not coming. "How--"
"What do I do now?"
She pets your hair and pets it, claws light on your scalp, and she leans in until the corners of your shades clink together. "You put your arms around me and you hold on."
It takes a minute of deliberation, but you can do that, so you do.
She's cooler to the touch than you expect, just a couple of degrees but in this heat even that much is a relief. You're tempted to apologize for the body heat you must be shedding all over her but if you did she might leave, and.
She's all sinews and bones, sideway on your lap and skewering your thigh with her pointy ass and it's irrelevant. She's here and not leaving and feelings jams are stupid, it's no different from letting Rose psychoskullfuck you except you don't even get a quack diagnosis at the end for your trouble. You just get a hug.
You really don't expect it to help, but with her hair in the way at least no one can see your face as you try to gather yourself back together. You're used to the scent of troll by now after so long sharing living quarters with twelve of them but it's still a little distracting, not-human, not even mammalian really, something in you can tell even if you can't pick it apart into base components. Maybe Jade could. Gotta ask.
Later. Only hugs now.
Shoooosh, Dave, shoosh shoosh shoosh.
Yeah, okay. You can do that.
It's too hot and too uncomfortable to really sleep but at some point you doze off a bit. You know, because when John goes "Um wow, are you guys making out?" from way too close, you almost jump out of your skin.
Son of a bitch, you think, but you bite it back. You're a little cranky but not really angry, not even all that embarrassed.
Can't feel your leg, though. You wiggle it a bit, pointedly. Terezy cackles in your ear and refuses to be budged. "I assure you this was perfectly pale!" she tells John, turning on your lap like you're nothing but a goddamn chair, inanimate and with no blood flow to ruthlessly crush. You frown and dig your fingers in her ribs.
John has crawled his way to the edge of the net; he's hanging there on his belly, about shoulder high and just a bit out of arm's reach if you bothered to stand, so he's looking down at the both of you. He grins, eyebrows wagging; you flick him a tiny smile and tilt your head back so he won't see your tear-reddened eyes. It'd look like ass, as if there isn't enough veiny freakiness to see there already.
"Huh, I wonder what pale makeouts are like."
"Without any tongue," you drawl, not that you'd know -- unless that's what just happened, in which case shit.
Terezi brandishes her dragon cane in all mock-seriousness. "Lies! Lies and slander! Nothing I take part in involves no tongue!"
And then she of course licks your face, all wet and gross and almost cat-raspy.
"You are not moirailzoning me," you mutter under your breath. Except this is totally what just happened, isn't it? Feelings jam and comfort-hugs, aw hell she did everything but pap you down.
And it worked, too. Damn it.
Terezi grins a grin full of jagged knives and shifts her weight a bit so that your leg erupts in pins and needles and her elbow is comfortably tucked in your stomach instead. "Coolkid, I know a kid as cool as you has needs, but you already have three of those and as pitiable as you are I am not going to be the fourth. Don't be so greedy!"
"Um, Terezi, why do you guys never believe us when we tell you the four of us are not moirails? If you want to be pale with Dave then you shouldn't let us stop you."
"... Yeah, thanks for the help, Egbert. Cleared things right up. All is now happiness and diamonds in my sky."
John snickers in his hand, the little asshole.
You really do feel a bit better, at that. Not entirely better; things haven't changed, your planet is still gone, your species is still gone. It's still a massive black hole of suckage somewhere under the surface and you're sure you'll fall back in at some point, but... when Terezi gets off you with a bounce that digs blade-bones in your fleshy parts a last time for the road and John grins, when you see Jade all tumbled together on top of Vriska with her mouth open and drooling, Rose with her head on Kanaya's lap -- the other trolls even, Aradia holding hands with Sollux holding hands with Feferi, Tavros sprawled face down with his arms dangling in the void...
You're not alone. It sucks but you're not alone.
"Hey Dave, you look really tired. Have you slept at all?"
"No, he hasn't," Terezi answers for you. You sigh, because now John is giving you one of his sad, disappointed looks.
"It's too damn hot."
"But you're Texan!"
"Yeah, and you know what I had in my sweet Texan pad? Air conditioning and an electric fan. Sparring in boiling heat might be macho, but sleeping in it is just masochism."
John laughs. You feel a tiny bit of that tension inside unclench, just barely.
"Oh, fine, fine, you big baby. Let me see if... Yes!"
The gust of wind that buffets you wouldn't be strong enough to even make you stumble, but it does make all your hair fly back and froth in furious tangles in the vortexes that form between you and the tree. For a second everywhere you've been sweating you're almost cold. "Huh. Suddenly John is a living fan."
"I was always your fan, DJ Strider," he simpers, and waggles his eyebrows.
Your throat is tight and you're not sure why. Pain and gratefulness, grief and loss and fear of losing more and, you don't know, it might be happening in your head but you don't see why that means you have to get it either.
"Good, then you can keep fanning me. You guys want me to take a nap, fine, this is my price."
"Not promising I'll last long," John cautions. "I don't think I could do much more than this right now. But I'll try."
Terezi gives a dry chuckle at your side. "Do or do not, Mister Egbert, there is no try. Also the guys might hurt you." She points with her chin; you crane your neck to look past them both, and sure enough the trolls close enough to feel the breeze have started turning blindly to face it, net cocoons swaying gently in the branches. Off on the next tree over (or maybe they're twin trees, connected by roots and branches, hard to say with how entangled it all grows) Kanaya looks up and smiles at the three of you.
Spiderchick is clicking low in her throat, like the rattle of a motor that needs to be coaxed to start. John's face goes all gooey and soft. You close your eyes, lean back, tip an imaginary hat down onto your face. "Bully for you. Keep it up, pardner."
"You got it," a sporfle, "pardner."
You don't actually fall asleep, but you bask in the breeze and the faint shadows of leaves dancing on your face, and the almost imperceptible way the tree moves under you. Beasts and birds call to each other in the branches, all around. You'd almost like to see them try to get a bite out of that pre-wrapped buffet, if all the ensuing righteous asskicking didn't mean you'd have to move.
S'okay. Sometimes Terezi gets up to tour the perimeter, but she always comes back to sit on your branch. And John would feel anything his wind nudged.
You don't fall asleep. You just... rest your eyes for a bit.
"Alright, you bunch of lazy asses! I want everyone awake in five minutes or I will personally kick you down to the ground. Up, up, Nep and Gamzee I mean you!"
Evening. You crack open an eye. Apparently all better from his maidenly adventures, Vantas is currently busy poking a fishnet-cocoon with a stick. You see Zahhak in there, eyes open, but trapped under his catgirl palesis, who is sprawled all over him and refuses to budge. She bats lazily at Karkat's stick and turns away, growling like a half-awake yet already irritated bear who's going to get up and chomp itself some annoying breakfast soonish. You get the feeling. Goddamn.
"First order of business, inventory!"
Rose coughs and raises her hand like the best, politest student ever; you almost crack a smile. "If I may suggest... Perhaps we'll want to be at ground level before exploring our sylladexes. Considering how explosively some of those open." Hint hint. Heh.
"--Yeah, okay, what the Rose human said. Anyone need help getting down? Tavros?"
"Um, no, I seem to be --" He wriggles his toes, smiles. "Just, I've got bruises I'm not sure how I got," John coughs and looks away for some reason, "but I think I can manage."
Jade peers over one of the branches, and at the huge and ancient trunk and how high they are from the ground. Karkat turns her way, frowns. "Crap, wait, you don't have claws, guess maybe Feferi can--" and she shrugs and she ties up her skirts in a knot and jumps with a woohoo! that catches everyone by surprise.
You're on your knees at the edge of the branch before you've thought twice, trying to slow down time, but she's already caught onto a creeper with both hands; her long wild hair flies behind her, and she's laughing. "Last on the ground is an imp!"
Karkat is sputtering. John shrugs and follows her.
Damn it. Now you're really awake.
Nepeta is, too -- suddenly you see her jerking her head over the edge of the hammock, staring down at where Jade and John disappeared, and she's off her moirail and following them down the trunk in a flash, metal claws digging in the bark to slow her down -- just barely. Unbalanced by her brutal departure, Equius ends up flipped around and dumped out of the hammock; without Feferi to grab his wrist he'd probably tumble overboard and fall off the branch under him. Vriska charges after John, yelling something about how he's cool but not cool for abandoning her. Sollux shrugs, looks at Feferi, looks at Aradia, and hops off like he's stepping off the curb, hands in his pockets. Showoff.
Karkat starts swearing and climbs down, much more cautiously; Terezi teases him by putting her foot on his shoulder and pretending to kick him off. The resulting tirade scares off a couple of flying lizardthings.
Soon enough you're almost alone in the tree. Rose has waved Kanaya and Eridan ahead (Eridan looks really fucking nervous about his new babysitter, wonder why) and is now making her way on the tangled branches that link your trees, captchaloguing the abandoned nets as she goes.
"Well," she says as she reaches you.
You nod like she said something deep.
She holds out a hand to help you up. You don't need it, but you take it anyway.
Heh. You're noticeably taller than her now. In the game, with your thirteen year old bodies... Same haircut though. You're just missing a hair band. Bluh. At least she doesn't also happen to need a bit of a shave.
"John and Jade seem happy," she says quietly, and you nod again.
You don't need to look at her. You can tell you both know you're glitched items, things that shouldn't exist here and now. You can tell she agrees there's no need to harsh anyone's squee. If the derp twins are happy for now then let them be.
You both peer down at the group, where Jade is showing off her best gun to Nepeta and John laughing, enthralled, at some no doubt two-thirds bullshit tale Vriska spins for him. Karkat is trying to get him to put on a cloak, no doubt to camouflage his humanness.
"So. Welcome to a brave new world, I guess."
"Dave, this reference is... not the most optimistic."
So. Here it is. Game won and over. Not the best ending, but one you will live with, because it could be worse, you could be dead or crazy or someone who fails his friends. You put your tabard back on and hold out your hand for Rose, who takes it so you can tuck her against your side and jump for a hanging vine.
You know she didn't need any help, but she indulges you anyway.
Hours in the future, but not many...
"Seriously, doesn't anyone have anything to drink except iced tea and that shitty Faygo?"
God you want Nepeta to find a river already. So dehydrated. Or hey, if you're wishing, a town with actual plumbing, that'd be fine too. Last she came back from recon she'd only found a dirt road though. Which is, you guess, a good start. Sure helped with the random tripping on shit in the gloom. (That pink moon is huge, and it's still dusk, not quite night yet, but the tree leaves are in the way and you are not taking off your shades.)
"A brother might think you're an ungrateful motherfucker, he could. Needing charity and then insulting what you get, freely given, that's fucking rude, ain't it?"
Score. One distraction, coming right up.
"Shit dude," you say, bland as possible, "that was the sickest burn, I feel all schoolfed and shit. Someone throw me another iced tea."
You've been complaining for the last half-hour about how tea makes you piss like a racehorse.
"For god's sake, Strider, will you shut the fuck up already. Gamzee, that goes for you too!"
Look at that, a second distraction. "Welp, you're right, buddy. Thanks for playing referee." Karkat always underestimates how much of their shitty quadrant system you've absorbed by pure osmosis over the years and when he splutters you can tell he's not even sure if you know you've just hinted he was trying to get ashen on his palebro. Naughty Karkat, filling two quadrants with the same guy.
Then again that'd imply you needling creepyclown was actually black flirting.
... But anyway. Trolling a species actually named troll should not be that easy. It's almost embarrassing.
You eye Gamzee and open your mouth and the flat of someone's hand goes thwack against the back of your head. Ow.
"Dave, you're being a fuckass again."
"Some days, Vantas, I could hate you just for teaching her that word," you muse, tone almost pleasant. You are not taking your eyes off Jade, she might pounce, but that's okay, Karkat's strangled squawk doesn't need a visual.
Jade grins. It looks kind of trollish, i.e. sharp-toothed and dangerous at the edges. "I use it just for you!" she replies, beaming. (Somewhere inside you're glad she's so happy, even if it's at your expense.)
"So I gotta make sure for the wedding announcements, who are you getting your ash on for, there, me and the Badly Dressed Buffoon or me and Tourettes Junior? ... All three of us? Kinky, Harley, kinky. I knew you had it in you."
"Is this where I make a pun on 'in me' and waggle my eyebrows like a tool? And you're totally the one who taught me that one so hah. No wincing!"
You are so totally not wincing, you don't know what she's on about. Your face is a delicately chiseled block of polar ice, nothing's melting that shit short of a beam laser or maybe global warming and crap, right, Alternia, you bet they don't even have ice caps. Goddamn Alternia. Shitty assplanet ruining your sick burns. "Welp. I am the caliginous stud," you drawl, "it is --"
Cat yowl. Incoming.
You kinda like seeing that even as everyone chattered with everyone else, none of them really broke formation either. Feferi and Vriska ghost away in the woods on both sides of the path, weapons drawn; Rose and Sollux are flanked by their close-range bodyguard as power starts flickering around them. Even Gamzee pulls out a club, twirling it lazily in one hand, eyes focusing almost halfway and head tilted like a predator trying to decide whether it's hungry enough to bother yet.
You seriously doubt anything short of a little army will turn that corner and see the lot of you with hands on your weapons and try to do anything but go 'welp, my bad, wrong address'.
Nepeta would have yowled longer if there'd been that many of them.
Karkat plants himself in the middle of the path to wait. You're supposed to stay back, mingle with the herd and hide your face under that huge hooded cloak Kanaya nicely forced on you so you'd hopefully look vaguely trollish in the moonlight, but fuck that noise. You amble up to his side, casual; John is already there. Karkat throws you both glares and takes another step forward. "For gog's sake at least stay behind me," he hisses, claws catching in John's sleeve. He doesn't try it with you, probably because your arm's up and holding your sword casually slung over your shoulder already.
You have to admit you kind of want to hold John back, too; he's rocking on the balls of his feet like he's actually a little eager to go forth and meet the first brand new people you've seen for the last three years who weren't game constructs. Maybe you ought to remind him of all the nightmare fuel -- whoops, anecdotes that your own personal, tamed trolls have shared...
No. No, he should be hopeful a little while longer, you can be pessimistic for two.
Howdy neighbors. Let's introduce ourselves, we are aliens from an extinct race but go ahead and call us mutants if you'd rather, no skin off our noses oops we just took half your faces off with your noses, oh well.
Footsteps on the dirt path, a regular, mechanical skreek, skreek noise you can't put a name on, and then they turn the corner.
There's some weird cow-looking beast with six huge hooves and faceted eyes harnessed to a medieval-looking wooden wagon, piled up full of stuff, and ...
You don't know who's boggling hardest; the wagon's rider and his two escorts at your little group, sixteen strong, or you.
"Trolls!" one of them yelps, even as John goes "Humans!" and bounces forward with a grin so blinding you suddenly realize how dim and try-hard it truly was a second ago.