“Long as it takes to get everyone out alive.”
“Is that feasible?”
He shrugs again, mouth set. “We’ll make it feasible.”
Characters: Dave, Rose, Terezi; Aradia, Vriska, Sollux; extended cast
No Cat.1 tags used.
No other Cat.1 tags apply.
No Cat.2 tags used.
No other Cat.2 tags apply.
How concrete everything becomes in the world of the spirit when an object, a mere door, can give images of hesitation, temptation, desire, security, welcome and respect. If one were to give an account of all the doors one has closed and opened, of all the doors one would like to re-open, one would have to tell the story of one’s entire life.
- The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard
Gucci,Gucci, Louis Louis, Fendi Fendi, Prada—basic bitches wear that shit, so I don’t even bother.
— Troll Sun Tzu
They tear the meteor--their home--apart in the fight, and when it's over, Dave lays in a piece of what used to be a bathtub. He can't feel his fingertips. He's got some cracked ribs from the strain of godhood, and his teeth hurt, and somewhere he can't see, Roxy Lalonde is flipping her shit.
Dirk Strider breathes his final breath. The rest of them are alive, more or less.
Aradia gives them the video feed of the fight against the Black King to study in the days beforehand, and even with thousands of years of honestly creepy cultural crap designed to make them into the perfect players, the twelve of them barely made it out with their skin intact. Dave should be grateful only one of them died.
He could go back in time and fix it. He's got the power. He's too tired.
Rose touches down on the asteroid next to him, and, well, there goes naptime. But instead of talking, she curls up next to him (file under "things that would have been awkward three years ago") and it's a bad angle to put an arm around her, so he doesn't. She dislocated her shoulder in the fight, anyway. It wouldn't help.
She lucked out in the hood lottery--hers hides the burst blood vessels in her left eye. She says, "We should go to her, " at the same moment John and Jade, and Jane manhandle Roxy away from Dirk's body.
"They've got it covered," Dave says. It's selfish, but he's the three-time undisputed world champion of blaming himself for shit and even he wouldn't blame himself for passing out right now.
Roxy's sobs burn out fast and turn into tiny, hiccupy sounds. All the trolls who care to watch look on --Sollux, with faint annoyance. Aradia, a little too interested in the mode of execution. Run through by dog with sword, says the coroner's report; the obituary runs to seven pages full color in the Sunday paper and half the city turns out to mourn.
No. His eulogy is Roxy, now trembling quietly, like she's had a part of herself severed and there's not even anything left to shoot to avenge her loss.
He should be sadder. Him and Rose should be over there getting snot and tears all over their jammies. But those four are better at this, and Rose has had to channel the Furthest Ring and be their Seer of Light, holding every piece of their plan in her head at once. If he feels like a truck has run him over and backed up over the remains for funsies, she must feel worse. He's better used here, being a rock for her to lean on.
"Inventing elaborate justifications for your cowardice doesn't make you any less of a coward," Terezi murmurs. She's been--off. Elsewhere. Everyone around you dying off is old news for her and hers. The human bit of the party is lucky, compared to the trolls.
"It's nice to see you, too," Rose says, and doesn't budge or look up.
No one notices them but Dave, who's used to them sniping, and Kanaya, Ready To Intervene At A Moments Notice. But then they're all quiet again, waiting for the door to appear.
It takes its sweet goddamn time.
Just in case they've forgotten this is a game--except for all the ways it's not--a dialogue box shows up in front of it and says:
Dave doesn't even have to think about it.
And he's on the battlefield again, right in the middle of the battle with Bec Noir, and the only way to beat an omniscient game construct is to be invisible the way Roxy Lalonde is invisible. Back to back to back with Terezi and Rose (in a fight, you want to be with the people who can see something like the future) and he only barely parries whatever's coming at Rose. At least he's been dropped back into the adrenaline rush; at least he's got something to focus on.
What he's got to focus on is what Bec Noir is doing, what Karkat and the rest of the people who did the strategy thinking figured out after the fact. Bec knew--knows--they're guarding something, so he systematically scattered them until, he hoped, Roxy was all on her own.
Rose isn't even breathing hard. Terezi laughs at something she says, something he's pretty sure he laughed at too the first time around, and then hops across scattered pieces of meteor to untangle Sollux from whatever's holding the twenty-megaton bomb in his head back from exploding.
Okay. Just like last time. Dave can do this. Sollux blows shit up and distracts Bec for a minute or two, and instead of following Terezi, he sticks around and says, "Rose," once they get a moment to do more than catch their breaths and pray they survive to the next moment. "Hey."
"I think I'm in a time loop, I -- "
"That's not funny," Rose says. "Help me put my shoulder back into joint."
It goes with a sound that makes Dave cringe. He can't get the lingering traces of something blacker than black off his fingers in time to keep it off his sword, but there's no time, and no time to convince Rose. She's not here right now. She is the fight.
So he's gotta take matters into his own hands.
He goes up above the battlefield, just below where Rose is keeping an eye on matters. Bec's been isolating them, trimming them down to the least efficient pockets of fighters: Karkat and Vriska weren't made to work together. Terezi and Sollux and Kanaya and Aradia trip each other up, and Rose the destruction machine is directionless without somebody guarding her back.
Dirk lost his shades ages ago, and his blade is slick with something that could be blood. Equius's left arm hangs limp at this side. Whenever they have two seconds, Roxy slumps around her rifle until Dirk puts a hand on her shoulder, or her back, and she remembers to straighten up.
They're not getting anywhere.
Neither him nor Aradia are powerful enough to outright stop time around Bec Noir, but he can reach out and put a finger on a few of the strings, to keep them from vibrating long enough to get to them fast. He feels that queasy rush go through him as the entire battlefield slows to a crawl, and for just a few seconds he's faster than all the molecules around them, and then he's there, ready to save the day, or at least make it turn out a little less shitty than he had last time.
Equius nods and punches something in the face. Dirk's smile is weary but genuine, and Roxy's grin turns into a frown, and she says, "Look out!"
Dave has died a hundred times in a hundred timelines, and at least as many times in his dreams. At least one of them has to have been like this, but he can't remember it hurting so bad.
"I think it was meant for me," Dirk says. Rose hears him muffled through the refuge of Jade's bosom, and is glad that she isn't expected to meet his eyes. "He got us through. Not that that helps."
Rose can't bring herself to shoo John and Jade away from her -- they wouldn't leave her alone even if she screamed at them, they've become distressingly tactile over the past three years -- and so she's had Jade stroking her hair and John stroking her back for the past fifteen minutes.
"Sometimes you just shouldn't say anything," says Roxy. "Come on, dumbass." Dirk yelps, most likely from a pinched ear (her own mother's favorite method), and John and Jade's counterparts stifle their inappropriate laughs as she drags him away.
She doesn't know how to look at Roxy. She sits back, right into John, and says, "I'm going to take a walk."
"Rose," John says.
"I'm not going to fling myself off of any asteroids, if you're worried."
"You'd just come back, anyway," Jade says. "It wouldn't be a heroic death."
Jade, having been almost literally raised by wolves, has an excuse for her lack of tact. Rose puts it from her mind and steps from fragment to fragment of asteroid, without any direction in mind but away.
John and Jade must be at least as sad right now. She looks over her shoulder and sees Karkat standing over them with his hands on his hips. They'll be fine.
Crying won't bring Dave Strider back. Staring out into infinite blackness won't, either. He'd been saying something about time loops, before she'd sent him away to get himself killed. He was one tiny thread on the vast loom of fate, and she hadn't foreseen his being plucked off.
Perhaps, she thinks wearily, that's because he wasn't meant to die.
"I can smell your self-pity from half a mile away," Terezi says.
"It's not self-pity, it's wallowing," Rose says, still facing the void. "Please tell me you'll miss him as much as I do, for form's sake, and then go away."
"Tired," she says. "Exhausted."
Terezi is shorter than her only by inches, but Rose feels as if she has to stoop half a mile to rest her cheek on the top of her head when Terezi puts her arms around her. Possibly, her depth perception is going. After Bec Noir disappeared into cosmic dust, half of them passed out from the strain, and they're only coming to now.
No swoon is forthcoming. Rose takes a handful of Terezi's tee-shirt and twists it, comforted by the knowledge that nothing she does can hurt Terezi -- physically, at least. "This would be a good time to cry," Terezi says. "Just saying."
"I'll rend my clothes and gnash my teeth and rub ashes in my newly-shorn hair later," Rose says. "It's human impolite to rush the grieving. How's Vriska?"
"She's Vriska," Terezi says. Nothing resolved, then. It wouldn't be prudent to press, not when they're standing like this, fitted together at the wrong angles, the only way they can manage.
And she stumbles as she's thrown back into the middle of the battle, thorns out and pale fire bright around her wrists. Dave throws out an arm to stop a lash of red that whips towards her; when he smiles in brief triumph there's blood on his teeth and on his face.
"Welcome to the club," he says, and she doesn't have to ask him to relocate her shoulder. She can't feel anything, which is doubtless a bad sign--black magic consuming her from the inside out, feeding off of her perception and pain.
She focuses on the tag team of Dirk and Equius, this time sure they're the key, if they can just get to Bec Noir before he can take them apart. Dave has the same idea. He goes for it like he'll be demoted to Page if he doesn't throw himself in front of a sword fast enough.
The possible outcomes of the motion flicker in front of her eyes as she dives for him, too late to curb her momentum.
Dave takes the sword right through the chest, punching through his ribs and scraping across bone. He's grimacing and reaching for her hand when Bec wrenches the blade free and Dave drops like a rag doll.
Rose spits in Bec’s snarling face and incinerates everything in a twelve-foot radius.
The pain is excruciating, but only briefly.
Terezi watches as Rose and Dave go up in black flames, a sharp smack to the snout in sparkling dark licorice. There's a whiff of blue as Vriska vaults over what used to be the ceiling of their lab, John in tow, and beneath the assault of their god-powers the flames gutter out as quickly as they came.
Dave and Rose are red, red, red. By the time Terezi gets to them, Jade is pulling Dave's cloak over his face and John is on his knees between the corpses of his best friends. Roxy cries without shame, clinging to Dirk, who has gone completely still, like he never planned for this and doesn't know how he should react.
Terezi stands to the side. They mourn like humans.
Vriska sidles up beside her, in bad shape but oblivious to her own pains. She settles down with a long sigh to sit leaning against Terezi’s shins. She's bleeding all down her bright god-tier pajamas, big sticky gobs of cobalt stiffening the fabric. The blood, cold and thick, soaks into Terezi’s jeans. It is a uniquely unpleasant sensation.
“Self-pity is a great look on you,” Vriska says. “But really. Did you honestly think everyone would make it out of this one alive?”
“Of course not!” Terezi hates the shrill edge to her own voice and the taste of lies at the back of her throat.
Vriska tilts her head up so that her horns brush Terezi’s knees, squints up towards her face. She taps thoughtfully at her chest, fingers dancing over the bright sun there. “I guess you wouldn’t, actually.” Her grin is twisty and bitter. “You don’t do regrets.”
Terezi steps away at that. “You suck at comforting people.”
“Hey, I never signed up for this moral support shit. Figure it out by yourself.” Vriska flicks a pebble of charred-up meteor at Terezi’s shoes, and bares all her teeth.
It is not a subtle hint, and Terezi stalks away, leaving Vriska with her butt firmly planted in the dust.
It is hard to wander idly when all around there are smashed up bits of three years rubbing elbows with the Dave and Rose. Terezi grinds the broken handle of a coffee cup under her heel and it crunches easily. It is not satisfying at all! Regrets are not satisfying either. Guilt--illogical, clawing guilt, there wasn’t anything she could have done--is even worse.
The first thing she knows about the battlefield is the scream of noise, and the smell of burnt rock. She doesn’t even get the chance to jump to Dave and Rose’s rescue as they run towards Dirk. Rose grabs Dave by the sleeve and they turn, slide gracefully around the sword like they knows where it will be.
Dave nods a thank you in Rose’s direction before flashstepping to carve chips out of Bec’s side. The battlefield fills with a fresh wave of miles and everyone is pushed back, isolating the Derse twins. It's different this time.
Terezi doesn't know what will happen next.
She runs, cane raised, and beside her are Dirk and Roxy and Karkat and Kanaya, dodging and weaving into the fray. Bec swings wildly with sword and fire, and years of FLARPing are the only things that save Terezi from being immolated. She dodges, inelegant, and catches the ground with her face. She hears a sickening crack and everything turns teal.
She tries to wipe the blood away but touching her nose causes tears of pain to spring in her eyes. She wipes a sleeve roughly across her chin, feeling something shift in her nasal cavities but able to pick out a few colors around the curtain of turquoise.
She hears a soft sound behind her, the air leaving someone’s lungs. Horror-stricken, she turns around.
Karkat gets hit in her place.
He seems so surprised. If anyone had asked what Karkat Vantas would look like upon realizing his own death, Terezi would have thought angry, or resigned--bitterly smug, maybe. He spent his life so loudly and outwardly convinced of his own imminent death at any moment. Instead he looks down at the sword in his chest, doesn’t even notice Roxy smashing the final blow into Bec’s doggy head. Just says OH and then OH FUCK and looks so surprised and so gentle about it, which is the worst thing, Karkat Vantas whose idea of gentle is gruff embarrassment manages the sweetest look you've ever smelled on his face only as he dies.
The silence when Karkat falls is deafening, or at least it is for three seconds. There's a long, ascending honk that builds to a terrible scream to Terezi’s right, and it should be stupid---it is stupid, it's irreverent and absurd. Karkat's face is the calmest she’s ever known it to be, while Gamzee’s contorts into a parody of anger, grief, shock--more emotions than she can follow. Vriska, who's closest to him, reaches out a metal hand to comfort him.
Gamzee's eyes widen in anger as he grips her wrist, brutally twisting it and pulling it up. Vriska stares at him, stunned, trying to pull away, but then her shoulder gives in and he rips her mechanical arm clean from her body. Bright cerulean fills Terezi’s nostrils. By the time Vriska starts screaming, more out of surprise than pain, Kanaya has already pulled out her chainsaw and is headed towards Gamzee.
He never even sees her coming.
As Kanaya lowers her chainsaw, Gamzee's head hits the floor with a soft thunk and rolls away. Next to her, Vriska is sobbing and clutching her shoulder, trying to stop the bleeding. Tavros moves to her side and kneels down next to her. Everyone else just stares at Kanaya.
The chainsaw in her hand turns back into the usual tube of lipstick.
"Fuck that guy," she says, mostly to herself.
Terezi snorts as hard as she can stand, takes a deep breath and everything is much clearer, though still filtered teal. There's a group of people slowly collecting around Karkat's still form, Jade and John acting as bookends of blank confusion to Kanaya's grim sorrow, Sollux holding a hand over Aradia's mouth and their foreheads touched together in way that would be inappropriately pale for public consumption if anyone could find it within themselves to give half a gram of caring.
Rose and Dave have drawn off to one side, but they're dissolving, messy and doughish. Terezi wipes at her nose gingerly, clearing it out again, but it's not enough to make out their faces from this far away. She grimaces, wipes her hand on the side of her shirt and trudges towards them.
"Why drag anyone else--"
"Clearly someone else is already involved--"
"The last go was fine, what's one more dead Da--"
"No," Rose says.
He shuts up.
Rose clutches at her relocated arm, and Dave fiddles wearily with his timetables; click-click, click-click. They barely have the energy to to look up at Terezi when she approaches.
"Yo," Dave says.
Rose acknowledges her with a curt nod. "It's nice to see you," she says. There's a snippiness to her, and an odd sort of itch starts at the back of Terezi's mind, a messy, uneven blend between Seer powers and deja vu.
They both stare at her, and she remembers suddenly that there's an impressive amount of stickily drying blood down the front of her shirt, courtesy of the now blessedly slow leaking from her nose.
She captchas into a spare shirt and snorts out the worst of the blood and goop into the ruined one while they look on. Between the sharp throbbing of her nose and the unpleasant griminess of sweat and blood beneath crisp fabric, Terezi can't bring herself to care for modesty. Dave smells maroonish, complements of the teal haze over everything, and Rose is... sharp. Focused. A brackish pink spills across the cheekbones, though whether that's a remnant of the argument or a reaction to the brief flash of skin from shirt-changing is beyond telling.
They're shooting each other odd looks, trying to debate via eyebrow movements and flicking fingers, but while Terezi Pyrope has many virtues, 'patience' has never truly been one of them. She is tired of subtle glances, and even more tired of bodies.
"How many times have you been through this stupid fight?" she asks.
Dave wipes some leftover blood off the side of her mouth with the corner of his cape. "Four, but I only punched the ticket my first time on the merry-go-round."
"Three," Rose says.
They're both so weary. They're messy and exhausted and so very human as they lean into each other, soft skin and super-fine hair and blunt teeth. “How many times are we going to do this?” Terezi asks eventually, and Dave shrugs.
“Long as it takes to get everyone out alive.”
“Is that feasible?”
He shrugs again, mouth set. “We’ll make it feasible.”
They’re wilting already, and a tendril of cold fear works its way through the ache in Terezi’s gut; what if it takes a hundred runs? A thousand? The sweeps of heartache on the half-empty meteor had worn down the trolls, let alone humans. They didn’t grow up with the meat of fallen peers in their mouths and the constant threat of death upon their heads and their hearts are lighter for it. Easily crushed. Rose has commented before that humans are ‘surprisingly resilient,' but what if they’re not?
“People die,” Terezi says slowly, “it is a fact of life! One you should be accustomed to.”
Rose's face tightens, and Dave adopts the flat affect he's so convinced hides how he feels, and in the last two sweeps she has gone soft that it moves her at all, their anger, their quietness.
"Certainly," Rose says, voice dangerously level, "the choice will appear in a few hours, why not take it? Why don't we catalogue the ills done to us by Karkat Vantas these past three years. He left the spoon in the sugar every time, for one. Heinous. Hardly new universe material."
“I don’t know if you’ve thought about what it means to doom ourselves to an eternity replaying the same ten minutes! We can’t do this forever,” Terezi says.
“Let's draw straws,” Rose says. “Whose life isn’t worth it? Karkat's isn't, apparently, but what about Vriska?" Far, far away, at the edges of Terezi's range of smell, Feferi and Jane stand over Vriska's body, trying to stanch the bleeding. "She’s already died once, after all, so what does it matter?” Rose cuts herself off, presses her lips together.
Terezi can feel her face pinching, darkening, and takes a deep breath. "Don't use them as bargaining chips." She’s been schoolfed as thoroughly as every other troll on the volatility of quadrants, and her face is burning teal with it--this should be a critical moment, where she fires up, ignites, blazes. She wants to--she doesn't know what she wants.
Now is not the time.
The voice in the back of her thinkpan asks why she failed to find a time in the past sweep in a half, but she strangles it.
“I’m worried,” she says finally. “You two look like someone took a car and ran over your pet barkbeast. Over Karkat! You don’t even like him; what if it’s Rose next time?” She aims the last at Dave, who is soft under his coolkid stare. "Dirk?"
Dave flinches. “Karkat’s a spectacular example of homungo douchiens, but that doesn’t mean I’m feeling all chipper about him biting it.”
“I like him well enough,” Rose says softly, and then a little stronger, “I just don’t see any meaningful difference between choosing not to save someone and holding the knife yourself.”
“I just don’t want us to be condemn us all to a thousand deaths.”
“I would have spared you if I could.”
"Don’t be stupid! I would live through it a thousand times with you both. As if you two could manage without me.”
“This might be a little presumptuous,” Rose says hesitantly, “but perhaps we should--leave it. At the three of us.”
“What, just make that call for everyone?” his breath is warm against Terezi’s ear. She takes the opportunity to lick his cheek before continuing, smirks to herself when he makes a show of wiping it off and only succeeds in smearing dirt across his face.
“We could always ask them! Hey, guys, would you like to see everyone die over and over again?”
“Shit, that’s my idea of a good time.”
“Look, Dave, mommy and mommy have stopped fighting,” Rose mocks, but she grasps at his wrist with her good arm.
“Are you kidding, there wouldn’t even be time to call CPS on the two of you. You’d give the poor kid a complex in under five minutes, and then Terezi’d do the proper troll thing and eat it.”
And then it’s awkward again, air thick with everything they haven’t yet put on the table.
They settle in to wait.
Terezi’s last thought as she reaches for the dialogue button is this: do a better job of ducking, this time.
They are not special, not even those among them who have reached the god tiers. Only a few of their number, Rose included, are in any way exceptionally clever. Their victory comes down to this, every time: there are twenty of them and only one of Bec Noir, and so they win.
This time, Aradia shouts "Sollux!" as an errant blast of red miles snakes toward him. Rose knows this part of the fight by now. Sollux always dodges, and Aradia always breathes a sigh of relief, but there's no time to register the break in the pattern--and the miles change their mind and take her, instead.
Equius pulls Bec Noir's head from his shoulders, and a quiet settles over them as Bec dissolves into light and dust. The mile holding Aradia up fizzes away, and a goddess falls to the earth.
"This is the wrong outcome, too," Rose murmurs to Dave and Terezi. She rotates her shoulder, feeling the grit in the joint, and peeks with her other-sight at at the strings of fate leading to and from this moment. There's rot growing in the spaces between them. She has to believe that they're the result of things having gone off course in the fight, and not her meddling.
The trolls gather around Aradia's body.
There's only enough room on the bit of meteor Aradia has fallen on for two to stand, and the rest of the trolls give Sollux and Vriska a wide enough berth, settling in on adjacent chunks of rock to watch the show, looking as attentive and polite as Rose has ever seen them in this macabre amphitheatre. (Aradia, Rose suspects, would be pleased by the sight.)
"C'mon," Vriska says, addressing the crowd more than Sollux, "what's with all the long faces? She's a god, she'll come back!"
"Shut up, Vriska," Sollux says. His voice is mild. His goggles aren't big enough to hide the sparks of black-and-white escaping around the edges.
"Give it a few." Vriska nudges at Aradia's ribs with her foot. "She's gonna start glowing and floating, and then she'll be back and more annoying than ever. Just you watch, Captor. You weren't in any danger, that couldn't have been a heroic death."
Sollux and Vriska are nearly the same height, and almost the same kind of wiry-strong. Rose's bets are on--Rose doesn't know who her bets are on, if it comes to blows. "How would you know if I was in danger? Maybe I was going to die right there, and it was a heroic death, and she's not coming back."
"Who's here's been god tier longer than me? I say it wasn’t heroic! You just want to think you killed her," Vriska says. "Again. So you can wallow in 'oh, poor me, poor pitiful Sollux Captor, destroying everything he loves'--"
Terezi has her hands bunched into fists at her sides, and Eridan, in the audience, is the only one strong enough to hold a raging Feferi back, but not without difficulty. Rose is riveted on the scene. It's something she hasn't seen in the past half-dozen iterations of the wait, and she thrills to it in a way she doesn't care to think about.
Far above them, Equius says, "Stop." His voice finds something to echo off of, so that even the other kids, who haven't been paying attention--this isn't their tragedy, after all--stare at him and stop talking amongst themselves. "Your pointless bickering disgraces her memory," he says.
"Look who's talking," Vriska mutters, but she's spent.
Feferi, titanic in her wrath, subsides. Sollux sits down next to Aradia's body and takes her limp hand in his, and pulls out a crumpled piece of paper. "Read this," he says. He shoves it up at Vriska.
"Do it yourself!"
"Fuck you, I'm still blind."
"Fine," Vriska says. "'Kill Bec.' That's it."
The trolls split off, except for Sollux and Vriska, who stand vigil over Aradia. The note makes its way from hand to hand like a holy relic. It reaches Rose and Dave and Terezi last, and Terezi worries at the corner of it with her teeth. "We know to kill Bec," she says. "Why would she need to leave this?"
Dave takes it from her, flips it over, then gives it back. "Time players get screwy in the thinkpan; maybe she forgot. Rose, now's not the time to pick apart what kind of screwy I am."
"Perish the thought." The dissonance between her mind, stretched out like the skin of a drum, and her body, which is not half as tired, makes Rose want to die in the next loop, if only so she'll get a bit of rest. They'll bring her back.
Terezi licks the paper, then turns it over and licks the other side. Her eyes go wide, and she holds the paper away from her as though it's a diseased animal. "There's another message," Terezi says.
Before fighting next to Aradia, Rose thought energy blasts would do the sensible thing: travel in straight lines, decimating everything in their path. Aradia's bloom from her fingertips, wind like vines around the red miles and choke them off before they can reach their destination, and still, it isn't enough.
When Roxy and Equius finish Bec Noir together Roxy and Jane and John are dead--Feferi and Eridan and Sollux and Nepeta, dead--Dave and Terezi, dead, dead, dead.
"It's not as bad as our first try," Aradia says, patting Rose on the shoulder. "Everyone but me was dead on our first try. I call it improvement!"
"How did you survive?" Rose asks. She will be controlled; she will not break down; she hasn't really lost any of them. John can be brought back, and Jade will never have to remember setting his shattered glasses aside and cradling his dead body. Dave and Terezi are a button press away.
Aradia sounds hollow when she says, "I survive."
"And you pressed the button."
"It would have been lonely in a new universe, all by myself."
Understandable--and how many times have how many Aradias ended like that? At the end of a session, indestructible, while all of her friends fall around her. Asleep in her quest bed in the heart of Derse, while the world falls to pieces around her. "You knew Dave and Terezi and I were doing it over and over again, and you didn't say anything," she says. "You let us make mistakes."
"They're dead right now because you came to me in the fight. They only live because the three of you stick together for that little while," Aradia says. Rose cringes, and a few people stare, so Aradia puts her arm around Rose's shoulders. It feels like an iron band. "You live because you fly up above the battlefield and watch, and the thing that would run you through misses. I live because I let Sollux nearly die. You're not better than the pattern."
"Fate isn't fixed."
"It's not fate, you make it dramatic when you call it fate. This isn't dramatic. Certain conditions have to be met for victory, that's all."
"You could have talked it over with all of us," she says. "Brought more people into the loop, as it were."
"No," Aradia says.
"Me and Dave are time players. The game picked us because it looked into us and saw that we had something that could handle making stable loops, resolving them, and dying over and over. You and Terezi are Seers, which means you're--"
"Full to the brim with hubris."
"That, too! But you're best suited to sitting behind the scenes and moving your pieces around. It's going to take a subtle touch."
"I'm not subtle."
"But you're not a battering ram, either," Aradia says, and points at her horns, and Rose can't help but laugh. "It's almost time; you should do the honors."
How many times have you gone through this? The question lies unasked on Rose's tongue; Aradia is simply a bit mad, like the rest of them. But, perhaps--perhaps the answer is "dozens," and they can never win. Perhaps, over the course of a hundred resets, she nudged Dave into pushing the button to set off a chain reaction that would break the pattern. Rose refuses to look into her Seer-place, trace the threads of cause and effect back to the very beginning, for fear of what will look back at her. A thousand resets, all on her own, arranging events so that they would come to his moment.
"Leave it to the three of us," Rose says. "You should rest."
There are things she doesn't need to know.
It's a conscious effort now, to do what she always does--or at least what she thinks she always does in every loop. She and Dave save Dirk, and then flies up, over the fighting, and watches for moments to intervene. She keeps her Sight wide open, rot be damned, and calls on every bit of magic she even half-knows.
It's still not enough. Four dead. If they're going to be doing this over and over again until they get it right (assuming there is a right, assuming they won't be doing this into eternity), it's probably best that she doesn't take note of the names, so long as Dave and Terezi are alive.
And Aradia. Dangerous, getting fixed on those two--but she's been fixed on them for three years, and why stop now? Bec Noir disappears, and she makes a beeline for them. They've fallen to the ground, the only things holding one another up. But they're here. They can all be brought back. They can all make it through alive.
"So, the staring's getting a little creepy," Dave says. "How's the shoulder?"
"Intact. Like the rest of me."
"We like you intact," says Terezi, and shoves herself upright with a visible effort. They're feeling the same fatigue she is, the dissonance, the weariness that refuses to be bone-deep. She wonders if they remember dying: more things she doesn't need to know. Terezi takes a deep breath through her nose, accounting for everyone on the leftover bits of meteor, and frowns. "Again." It's not a question anymore. The only acceptable outcome is that they're all alive.
Dave gives her a gentle punch on the arm. "We got it," he says. "Get over here, Rose, let's make some plans."
"I talked to Aradia," Rose says. "It was enlightening."
"Spill," they say, in unison, and something wells up inside of her that she can't let out, not now, not until they win.
Terezi’s found a stub of red chalk in her pocket. She’s using it to draw lines on her arm, keeping a tally, one for every reset- there are fourteen, now, one after the other like lines of dried-out dusty cherry red human blood.
That’s not right, though, she corrects herself; human blood dries dirty brown and crusted-over. Every human here has died at least once. There’s always a good few hours to wait between whatever screws up the loop and the appearance of the RETRY? button, time enough for Terezi and Dave and Rose to discuss strategies, for the others to grieve, for the bright smell of crimson blood to congeal and darken and rot. Terezi is learning.
She sits between Dave and Rose on a chunk of rock broken off from the meteor, her legs dangling off the edge into endless space. Behind them, the smell of jade green blood coils and eddies in the air, drifts upwards into the darkness. After Kanaya was bored through in five different places, all torn apart, Rose had stood facing away from her body and told Terezi about all the different ways to kill vampires in human folklore. She had been whispering, Terezi realised, so she would not cry.
Terezi’s not sure she could cry if she tried. She’s numb, mostly, and angry, and so tired.
“I estimate that, upon the reset, the game takes us back to within five minutes of the end of the battle,” Rose is saying. “I’d like you to confirm that, Dave, as precisely as you can. See if there are any discrepancies in that time from reset to reset, and discover what they depend on.”
“Down to the nanosecond,” says Dave, “yeah, you got it.”
“Terezi, it’s vital that we do not break the circular formation we successfully adopted last loop. You and I will ensure the others keep to it.”
“Yes,” says Terezi, which is more or less all the response she can muster right now.
On either side of her, Dave and Rose sit up straighter. The game’s option box is a lime-and-black intrusion in front of her face, demanding: RETRY?
Terezi draws another tally on her arm, then punches YES with the chalk still clenched in her fist.
There are twenty-five marks on Terezi’s arm. The game is letting her keep a running tally, like it knows what they're doing and is amused.
She’s sitting with her knees tucked against her chest, listening to Karkat talk about John’s sacrifice and his worthy leadership and all the ways he’s helped them win the game and will be missed, and she’s certain it would be poignant if she hadn’t heard it four times before! John isn’t even here, not physically, he’s somewhere down in the endless void below them falling and falling and falling with a sword through his heart. And they have not won the game.
Next to her, Rose sighs like it’s the last breath she’ll ever take. She doesn’t ask a question, but Terezi answers anyway: “We have to keep going.”
Thirty-nine marks, and Terezi has moved on to her right arm.
It is the sixth time the fight has ended with Karkat dead and Kanaya arguing with Gamzee over his body. The same argument, every time! Terezi and Dave and Rose sit a good few metres away, watching, because what else can they do now? Terezi wonders if everyone else is getting tired, even if they’re not as painfully aware of why as she is. And Bec Noir, it seems, is at full strength no matter how many times he resets. Of course.
When Gamzee growls that he “just don’t think you’re seeing what I’m all up and getting at here,” Dave whispers it along with him, word for word, tone for tone, straight-faced and leaning on the hilt of his sword.
At his side, the corner of Rose’s lips twitch in a reluctant smile. When Kanaya snaps, “I see that you’re blaming me for this, and I think that is frankly absurd,” Rose is mouthing the words along with her.
By the end of the argument, played out with increasing theatricality by Dave and Rose (who proceed to bow graciously to Terezi, their audience), all three of them are trying and failing to hide laughter, and Terezi isn’t looking at them but she can feel them watching her and watching each other all the same. She watches them right back, of course, in every way she knows and some she’s just invented; synaesthesia and the powers of a Seer of Mind allow for a lot of different ways to watch.
She watches, then, as Dave is the first one to think about the fact that he’s grinning at his own joke with his dead and grieving friends in the background (and in his mind, too, time loop after time loop after time loop of dead friends), which cuts the smile off his face very quickly.
He can’t hide from Terezi. He's not even trying, anymore.
“Should we have some kind of celebration to mark the occasion?” says Rose, as Terezi draws the sixtieth mark on her arm. "Our diamond jubilee."
“One of Aradia’s corpse parties, maybe,” says Terezi. Behind them, smoke rises lazily from the remains of the battlefield. Every success is matched by two screw-ups, it seems, and they’re going backwards or in circles or, well, nowhere. Consistently. It’s all the worse for the fact that there is an end in sight (so to speak), and they find themselves entirely unable to reach it.
“I’m not dressed for it,” says Rose.
“Oh, is it inappropriate to go to a human corpse party resembling a cantaloupe?”
Dave, his jagged broken sword resting across his knees, streaked with black from the explosion that ended this iteration of the battle, says, “How about we just go over there and roll around in the ashes? Insta-sombre. Budget funeral wear. I’m pretty sure it’ll catch on.”
Terezi pushes her hair back from her forehead with both hands, slumping to the ground to lie on her back in frustration. There’s so much she’s holding in her head, the actions of every player in the fight and the consequences of them, and with no one else aware--there’s only so far Rose can be forewarned, only so many strings Dave can tweak upon their request. It is not like her to be so pessimistic--and yet! The game isn’t giving her much choice, now.
Seventy-two, and Dave’s bleeding out slowly from a cut to his thigh.
Rose says it’s the vein. She’s crouched down next to him, her legs tucked under her, his blood staining the corner of her dress, holding his hand so tightly both their knuckles are sparks of bright white tension. Dave had said, “It’s just another fucking doomed loop now, and I’d rather die with my pants on, so don’t bother,” when they’d tried to fix the cut, so they’re just--waiting.
Terezi says, “Don’t get yourself killed next time, Dave, I have had to put up with too many dead coolkids recently!” It doesn’t sound as light-hearted as she’d intended it to. She folds her hand around his spare hand, his fingers blunt and warm against hers.
“Wasn’t planning on it,” says Dave quietly. Dave never plans it, Terezi thinks, because self-sacrifice is an instinct for him; Rose would plan it, meticulously, for herself, if anyone let her. They’re horribly alike in that respect, even if they take different paths to get there.
Terezi regards Dave, his head tilted back, the black of his sunglass lenses a little clouded from his laboured breathing; Rose, her face carefully expressionless, her knuckles white. The RETRY? screen appears in the air before them with a soft pop, and the two Seers turn to look. Terezi reaches forward to press the YES option-- behind her, Rose leans down and kisses Dave on the lips.
It is perhaps the most spontaneous thing Terezi has ever known Rose to do, she thinks, and then amends herself-- no, there is very little that is spontaneous about Rose, and that was more than just a kiss to comfort a dying boy.
As the noise and smells of the waning battle with Bec Noir reverberate suddenly around her for the seventy-fifth time, Terezi wonders.
Seventy-nine chalk lines on Terezi’s arm. This time she’d honestly thought they had won, until a chunk of asteroid dislodged in the battle came spinning furiously back into the battlefield and blew up half the meteor, and half the players along with it. The time before that they’d successfully killed Bec Noir, and he’d fallen onto Equius, who had himself toppled over onto Vriska, whose spine had subsequently snapped. The time before that, Jade’s triumphant leap in the air at the defeat of Noir had sent her over the edge of the meteor.
Terezi has hated things before, but she has never hated anything as much as she loathes this game. She is beginning to feel certain that the game loathes her right back. Platonically.
“Were that it were a sentient entity in the more conventional sense,” says Rose irritably, in loop eighty-six, when Terezi brings up the subject. “I'd like to shove my needles through its eyes."
Terezi figures seeing Rose bury her thorns deep in Bec Noir’s eyes is probably as close as they’re going to get to actually stabbing the game. As Noir falls to the ground, bleeding in fifty different places, Dave and Dirk yank their swords out and Kanaya tugs her chainsaw from the hole in his neck and Roxy throws her rifle down.
They’ve won, Terezi thinks, no one’s dead except the one they came here to kill, they’re exhausted and beaten-up but triumphant—
She grabs Dave by the shoulder, pulls him down towards her and kisses him on the mouth; it’s sudden and a little desperate and all tongue, and he tenses up in the most delightful way, and when Terezi pulls away Rose is standing next to them, just-- looking. It only seems natural, then, for Terezi to sling an arm around Rose’s waist and pull her hip to hip and kiss her too, and if Dave’s holding Rose’s hand throughout, well, then that’s all the better.
And all three of them stand and stare at each other, and Terezi is certain she’s not the only one with no idea what to think or what to say or even, really, what she just did.
Rose half-opens her mouth as though she’s about to speak, and there’s a soft whistling noise in the air to their left. When they turn, Bec Noir’s sword has fallen back from where it was flung away, and is stuck right through Karkat’s neck.
Terezi loathes the game.
She can smell Dave shaking, they're all shaking, and she doesn’t know how much of it is from exhaustion and how much is from the sudden shock, the almost thereness, and how much is from the that they are all carefully not touching each other, and it feels completely alien, like thin pale skin over cherry red blood.
Rose's eyes are distant. She hugs herself, her hands pinching at her sleeves and Terezi knows that she is re-running events through her head, explaining them carefully away, putting the pieces of herself into little boxes where the sharp edges can't hurt her. Dave’s running a jittering finger over the ground, tracing old shapes in blood and dust and Terezi thinks no, no this won’t do at all.
She reaches out and takes their faces in her hands. They go still when she touches them, Rose with contemplation and Dave with the stifled impulse to flee, like a startled bird. "We will go one more time," she says, all ice and fury. "And we will win."
Rose runs her hand through Terezi's hair, her fingers pulling at patches of a rainbow of colors, and glances at Dave, whose face is pinched and bloodless. “We'll do this as many times as we have to."
"Strider," says Terezi. "I can smell you being melodramatic under in that stupid hood of yours. Stop it immediately."
Dave is looking at the ground. He huffs a little sigh and begins to speak, mostly to himself, a steady stream of "naw, girl, no melodrama, just some straight up practical knowledge that we're the best, it's us, there's no fucking way this piece of shit game can hope to compete with the terror and fury of our super fucked-up codependent dream team, we're having the time of our lives, we're taking it on motherfucker, we're the..." He trails off looking straight into her face, expression hopeless and open.
"Seersuckers," Rose says, deadpan, and Terezi breaks out into snickers of laughter, and Dave collapses forward toward her, his hands big and warm on her shoulders. His thumb brushes up by where her jaw meets her neck.
"We are so screwed," he says.
Terezi's very aware of the fact that she and Rose and Dave are all clutching each other, bound up in a tight circle, while everyone else is standing around Karkat's body, watching as if this is some sort of prank, some last minute mistake. She can hear the familiar broken sound of John crying. She is very pointedly not acknowledging it, because she can't bring herself to be sad again, only frustrated, and it would be a disservice to their grief.
"We are gonna suck the shit out of those seers," Dave says to your shirt, and Rose almost doubles up with laughter.
"Come on, we're doin’ this, we’re makin it hapen," Dave says. He touches Rose’s cheek and Terezi doesn’t think he means winning the game.
"I smelled you misspelling that," says Terezi.
The dialogue box pops up again. One last time.
"Let's make this shit transpire," says Rose, before punching the button.
They are a fucking machine of precision. Rose's eyes are heavy with plans as she shouts at John move, move now. Terezi's lifted into the air by Sollux's psionics to deliver a sound THWAP to one of Jack's arms and he spirals over to Dave, but before the sword can plunge into Dave’s chest (again, a-fucking-gain) Rose blocks the attack with a tilt of her needles that sends him flying back into a rock, leaves him breathless on the ground for five precious seconds.
Rose pulls Dave up and shoves him forward. “Forward, the Light Brigade! Charge for the dog!”
“Wow Rose, Troll Nicki Minaj?” shouts Terezi. “I thought you had better taste than that!”
"Nope," Dave says. "Not the time for this, ladies."
Rose laughs, and stabs a needle into Jack's side, kicks, ducks as Jade and Roxy let another flurry of bullets loose and Karkat cuts at Jack's ankles and John spins the Breeze around and there's one furious gasp of psionics and dice and swords and fists and that's it.
He's dead and here are Rose and Terezi on either side of Dave, panting and sweaty, weapons at their side.
There's a pause for a second, a beautiful single second of silence (precisely one) before Rose jumps at Terezi, pulls her in for a kiss. She's digging her hands into Terezi's waist and Terezi is no doubt shoving her tongue down Rose's throat. Both girls grab Dave’s hands and pull him close, Terezi runs a hand along his back and he is so breathless it hurts.
"Are you guys trying to kill me," he mutters into Rose's hair. Her eyes are still closed, she's biting Terezi's lip with what Dave would call intent.
Terezi pulls away from Rose for a second. "Yes," she says, and smiles.
Afterwards, after everyone checks and double checks and fucking triple checks to make sure every possible way any one of them could get killed is dismantled entirely, after Jack’s corpse is burned, everyone sits down and stares at each other in open mouthed wonder.
"I can't believe it," says Karkat. "I cannot fucking believe it, we did this without any single person dying, I'd just like to point out at this juncture that I am an all-knowing GOD of leadership, and I expect to receive the goddamn troll Oscar this year for directing."
John nudges Karkat with his shoulder. "We all helped a little too!" he says, but they're all grinning so hard, everyone in an exhausted sweaty heap, and it occurs to Dave like a jolt of lightning, like a sword in the gut, how young they all are. How teenaged, suddenly, Dirk looks with his head on Roxy's shoulder, how utterly sixteen Jade is when she woofs at Nepeta, when Nepeta hisses and Equius holds the two of them apart. How when Equius smiles all the stolid strength he projects gets softer.
He would die a thousand times for them--he has died a thousand times for them--and not regret it for a second. Rose has her arm around his waist and Terezi's curled in his lap, her knees poking Dave at odd angles. There’s a fresh bruise on Terezi's face and Rose's pale hands are coated in soot and specks of blood. The details pull at him, and he wants to quantify how fiercely they burn beside him, to lay it out in meter and cut, print, that’s it, that’s a wrap.
"Wait, are we, like--a thing now?" Dave blurts out, before he can stop himself. "A thing-thing. Do we have to get teenage married in front of Dirk, with Roxy holding me at rifle-point? Does Terezi get a complimentary earth citizenship?”
"Holy shit," says Terezi. "I cannot believe that is your immediate concern after resolving the time loops and defeating an all-powerful final boss! Whether we're 'a thing!'"
"Okay, yeah, but are we," he says. He wraps his arms around her, rests his chin on top of her head.
"I don't care," says Terezi, hooking a hand around her to bring him in for another nail-scratching, lip-biting kiss.
Jade runs over, pulls Rose out of the tangle of laps to dance in circles around her. Her rifle bounces against the back of her knees and her hair hits Dave in the eye. She is flushed with victory. "We did it and everyone's still alive!" Jade says. She shares an off-center high five with Rose. "Heck yes!"
Aradia gives them a thumbs-up from behind Sollux's back. Dave looks at Terezi and Rose, and they shake their heads.
"What's going to happen when we go through the door?" Vriska asks, once they've all gathered around where the door is to appear. "It better not be something as lame as this meteor, or someone's going to pay!!!"
"I think there's been enough payback for now," says Aradia. She's strokes Sollux's hair and smiles. "I just hope it's somewhere nice."
"I don't care as long as it doesn't smell of charcoal and dismay," says Terezi, sticking out her tongue. "I am quite sick of smelling this place!"
Rose reaches out, and softly pushes NO.
The screen dissolves. The door itself, which he's never gotten a real look at, is green and blue and red and massive, wide enough to allow all sixteen of them through, even standing abreast. Time slows - it literally slows, he can feel it - as everyone stands up, and he takes Rose and Terezi's hands.
John throws an arm around Karkat's shoulder. "You wanna open it together?"
Karkat swallows, hard, and he's crying a little. Maybe everyone is. (Dave’s totally not, that's for sure.)
"Yeah," says Karkat. "Yeah, that's the first good idea I think you've had all game, Egbert, let's do it"
The door looms in front of you and the game behind you, but you're bigger than it now. "O brave new world," whispers Rose into Dave’s ear.
"We're not exiting the game with a cliche, I swear to god."
As the door creaks open, the light is blinding in its brilliance.