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umbral ultimatum, unbreakable union

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     Every so often, when you can pin them down, your living room is full of Prospit kids.

     A loud and quarrelsome cluster of black hair and dark freckles, hands reaching over one another to steal the TV remote or grab a handful of pretzels. Harleybertcrockerlish reunions heat up quickly and explode like a supernova, scattering its components into the wind until the next time you can rally them into a room together. After they leave, you just focus on cleaning their dishes.

     Up until just moments ago, Jane Crocker was sitting on your kitchen floor rearranging your stacks of Tupperware with mathematical precision. Jake had fallen asleep with his phone nestled where it fell between his chin and his collarbone. John had long since muted the TV, and a Prospitian historical drama is still playing silently on the screen. But now your ectoparents are gone, headed back to where they came from – Jake to his home down the coast, and Jane to the house she still shares with her father.

     Your brother is the only one who stays. He drags his feet, he’s reluctant to leave. You appreciate this more than you could ever say aloud.

     “You still haven’t changed your mind, then, about now wanting a birthday this year?”

     John swirls what’s left of his beer around and around in the green bottle. “Yeah, I guess.”

     “It’s been a while since you’ve wanted us to do anything.”

     “Eh, well, it doesn’t seem like that big a deal.”

     You lean back on the couch and hug your pillow. “The dual Nannas would beg to differ.”

     John laughs so suddenly that he begins to cough. Shaking his head, he sets his beer down on the table.

     “What’s so funny?”

     “Oh, you just made me remember something really funny. Tell me if you uh, like, if you remember this from – you know –”

      He makes a vague sort of motion with his hands. You know what he’s referring to – his time with the other Jade. The Jade you dream about some nights, whispers of faint memories and past conversations dancing in your periphery. You wake up with the taste of copper in your mouth and a bright, bright yellow when you blink your eyes.

     “Tell me,” you encourage him, “Maybe I’ll remember.”

     “Okay, I think it must’ve been my early sixteenth birthday party. Nanna knew that we were going to have a lot to do on my actual birthday, so we had this kinda-sorta-birthday about a week before. By this point things had gotten… you know, tense and weird on the battleship. I think we were all stewing in our dumbass teen emotions.”

 

     John doesn’t really get drunk so much as he gets slow and sleepy. He nods like a bobblehead in slow motion as he gesticulates to portray the scene – streamers in the mess hall, consorts all jacked up on the sugary sprinkles Nanna alchemized for them to eat. It’s starting to come back to you now – how bashful your brother was, how it always seemed like he was quietly waiting for it all to be over. He’d never tell Nanna to her face, but he hated to be fawned over, to be the center of attention. Your careful observation of his moods – the twitch of an eyebrow, even – was what kept you on tenterhooks, more than Davesprite’s accidental brushing against you, more than the awkward apologies and your face burning as you turned away from the person you never quite got it right with. You focused on John instead. If you could make him happy, if you could distract him for a little while, you’d be satisfied with that.

 

     “Nanna had this thing where, after all the dishes were cleaned up and everyone was full, she would make us all sit together and take a ‘family photo.’ Like she’d get Dave Sprite and Jaspers in there with us too.” John pauses to laugh. “And she – oh man, that year she decided to make us wear matching sweaters.”

     “Did she?”

     “Yes! They were so… okay, I won’t say hideously ugly, but they weren’t very flattering.”

     “I’m sure they looked fine.”

     “They were like… blue and green, and they had these little scratchy gold threads woven through them that looked like part of a cat toy, so it made them catch the light in certain ways where Jaspers would just start batting at you.” He covers his eyes with his hands, pushing his glasses up into his hair. “Oh god, and we had to take the photo so quick or else you and Jaspers would start bickering and Davesprite would start instinctively shedding feathers from sheer terror.”

     “That sounds about right.” You hug your pillow tighter. “Do you know, um… does she still have them?”

     John’s eyes snap open. He starts patting his pockets, fishing around for his phone. It takes him a couple tries to unlock it.

     “The last time I had dinner with them, I saw it sitting on the fire place. It wasn’t there before. I dunno, maybe your Nanna didn’t want to see it. Maybe it made her sad, who knows… found it! Here, I took a picture.”

 

     You lean forward to look at your brother’s smudged screen. It’s a little blurry, a streak of light from the lamp overshadowing Jaspers’ face in bright yellow. And there you are, the two of you. You stand shoulder to shoulder, John forcing a wide gap-toothed smile. Your own smile is closed-mouthed, a faint little U wisping across your face. Because she only has one arm, Nanna has placed her hand on John’s shoulder, but she looms behind you both as a protective blue shadow. Davesprite hovers aloofly below you, where he must have been sitting down. Past the shape of his head, you can see that your hands are folded tensely in front of you.

     The sweaters aren’t bad. You like that you’re all matching. It makes you look like you all belong together.

 

     “Huh.”

     “I know, bad, right?”

     You don’t think it’s bad at all. So you just tuck your hair behind your ear. “It looks familiar.”

     John looks relieved; his bushy eyebrows relax. “I was hoping it would.”

     You pick up your wine glass and sip it thoughtfully. Outside, someone is walking their dog on the beach. Its faint barking can be heard, causing your ears to swivel and twitch.

     “Sometimes I thought she liked you better than me,” John says suddenly.

     “What makes you say that?”

     He finishes his beer and reaches for the one Jane left behind. “I think Nanna always really wanted a daughter. How she was always trying to teach you how to bake, and all those times she’d show you those old photo albums. I dunno, maybe she wanted a protege.”

     “Nanna was always very good to me,” you murmur, “even when I didn’t deserve it.”

 

     Her patience with you never ran out. She was all soft condolences and a warm blanket slung over her shoulder, a hot dinner and a glass of water always at the ready. Like an old timey nurse hovering over a guy bedridden with scarlet fever. It made you want to avoid her. Her gentleness, her caution, the way you could tell that the routine of taking care of you was the only thing holding her together – it made you miserable. For the first time in your life you needed an adult to look after you, to make sure you ate and drank and bathed and slept, and you fucking hated it.

 

     “‘Course she was. She’s our pseudo-mom, she basically has to be.” John belches, then laughs at you when you swat his foot in disgust. “I guess I don’t wanna do my birthday anymore because it reminds me of how weird things were on the ship. It was like the worst summer camp of all time, except you couldn’t write home to your parents and the counselors nakked at you all day.”

     “It was a very dark time, yes,” you reply half-sarcastically.

     “At the same time, though, it was nice. Having a family unit like that.” John shrugs. “It made things seem normal, even for a little while.”

     Your heart hurts.

     “Feeling normal will get you to tolerate a lot of weird stuff,” you reply. “I’d never lived with anyone before we won the game. It was hard to get used to, but I did it because I wanted to rush into things being ‘okay.’” You swirl your drink around, then sip it. “I wanted everything to be fixed.”

     “‘Hard to get used to,’” John smirks, “Yeah, ‘cause you hated how long it took me to wash my dishes.”

     You turn your nose up at him. “Cleanliness is not a joking matter, John. We had to buy ant traps.”

     “Okay, point taken.”

     “It’s probably why it was so hard for me to move out. I felt like I was giving up on being normal. I felt like I was giving up on you. So when I moved in with Dave and Karkat and things still didn’t sit right, I thought, gosh, the problem must be me. I’m what’s ‘off.’”

     John doesn’t know what to say to this, so he chews on the inside of his mouth instead, staring at a spot on the floor. You cup your hands around the cool glass. 

     “I think….” You laugh, trying to brush off the major bummer you’re about to drop on him. “I think I was afraid that if I moved out, you’d disappear on me again.”

     “Aw, Jade,” your brother protests.

     “It’s silly, isn’t it? But it’s how I felt. I’m glad you aren’t mad at me.”

     “Why would I be mad at you? You can do whatever you want.”

     “I know I can, but doing whatever you want still has consequences.” 

     There’s a pink band around your middle finger that’s reminding you of a conversation you want to have at some point. You fiddle with it as John sighs and rubs the back of his head, disheveling his messy black hair.

     “It’s true that I was a little hurt by you moving out. Like I was depressing you or disappointing you,” he sighs. “It probably seemed that I was avoiding you on purpose.”

     “That’s not true.”

     “Well, anyway. The truth is, I was really happy when you still wanted to live with me. After everything that happened with the game and my stupid canon powers and how I let Typheus totally dunk on me.” He shrugs. “I wanted to do better the second time around, but I dropped the ball on that, too.”

     He knocks his head back and drinks a gulp of Jane’s flat beer. You don’t really know what to say.

     “‘Cause the thing is, when you moved out and I had the whole place to myself, I thought, wow, this is lonely as hell! I have to basically grow up and be an adult and somehow be a homeowner? Like does property tax exist in this society? I don’t know!”

     He throws his hands up in the air, and you laugh at him. “Exactly! If it’s any consolation, you’re much better at maintaining your property than my former roommates are.”

     “They’re totally hopeless.”

     “They are. ‘Sorry, boys, I didn’t sign up to be your maid.’”

     “‘Jade, sweep up our popcorn while me and my grouchy hobgoblin boyfriend have sloppy makeouts.”

     “Ugh, I hate how dangerously close to accuracy you’re being right now.”

     “Haha, so lame.”

 

     John gets up from the couch and trundles to the fridge, where he retrieves a couple more beers. He also brings out the half-empty wine bottle, and you hold out your glass to be refilled.

 

     “So yeah, really lonely in the Palazzo d’Egbert. It reminded me of home, y’know? Before the game.”

     “How so?”

     “Well….” John sighs and looks up at the ceiling, where the fan blades are whirring at a snail’s pace. “Hard to describe it. The neighborhood we lived in was basically a ghost town.”

     “A ghost town?”

     “Houses everywhere, cars in the drive ways, but I never saw a single one of my neighbors. Never!”

     “Really now.”

     “Really now! Really really now!” he half-shouts, then catches his slurred volume and shushes himself. “Every Halloween we would drive to a different neighborhood to get candy. Dad had to take me all the way to Antler Creek to reach people with their porch lights on.”

     “Huh.”

     “You know how bizarre it is to be sitting out on your tire swing after school and there’s no one in sight? No one in the windows, no school buses dropping kids off, no dog walkers. Just… nobody!” John makes a poof sound and a hand gesture like a cloud of magic dust dispersing. “I was bored out of my mind every day. The house felt empty, the street felt empty… like someone had started to rig a 3D model of the place but gave up halfway through and just left it like that.”

     “Nerd.”

     “Shush, you. Basically, the three years on that boat bit the big one, it sucked majorly, but geez it felt nice to, I don’t know, be part of a family.”

      You smile fondly at your brother. Embarrassed, he looks away.

     “I’m glad you were there, is what I’m trying to say here. I’m glad you’re my sister.”

     “It’s funny. You used to call me your sorta-sister. Your ‘slime sister.’”

     “Well, if I’m stuck by destiny to have a secret mad science goo sibling, I’m glad it’s you.”

 

     To think that your brother needed a sister, to think that Nanna needed a daughter. To even consider that you might not be shoving and pushing your way into the Crockerbert family photo. You don’t know if you’ll ever stop feeling like you’re not quite part of what they have, but it’s a start.

     The White Queen called you the Prince and the Princess, and wouldn’t that make the two of you her children, the golden siblings of the moon? For hours you would sit at the end of the bed, drawing with the crayons you brought over from your bedroom. Leaving them taped about his walls, tucking them under the pillow for him to find when he woke up. You would play with his hair, comparing it to your own, mapping out the similarities between your freckles and his.

     The Prospit family is hopelessly scattered, bits and pieces strewn about paradox space. Breath and Space pushing atoms away. Your brother in the golden tower who wouldn’t wake, the Queen who kept you at arm’s length. Bec, who wanted to keep you all for himself. Grandpa standing vigilant in the foyer, that old windbag, and a fat lot of good his advice did for you. The women in his boxes of musty photographs. Women who might’ve been mothers or cousins, sisters or aunts. Girls who looked like you in ballet shoes, a tall blonde woman who stood stony-faced and sullen next to your grandfather, a graduation cap shadowing her face. Women who didn’t come looking for you. A little boy with shaggy hair like John, who looked like him but not quite so. Your penpal and how you held his papers up to your nose, smelling the ink that hadn’t dried yet. Your grandfather-grandson, your brother the Page and your mother-sister the Maid, who you’re still trying to understand. Betty the Baroness, your stepmother, who chained you like a dog and held you close, her misbehaving little girl. Mismatching puzzle pieces that make no sense as a whole.

     And ever present, staring at you with vacant eyes of bleach and cyan, the Daughters of Eclectica, your sisters, your housemates. Static and unchanging, frozen in time, malleable. They could be whoever you wanted them to be, fill whatever role you needed. Your peers – no, your betters. And the Queen of them all, the Marquess of Eclectica, the blue woman with her hair of yarn and button eyes. Mother Cobalt, perched upon the settee with her stuffed hands folded in her lap. Her button eyes can see you in the dark, her cotton brain can hear your thoughts.

     A mess of grandmother-mother-sisters, grandfather-father-brothers, half-siblings you never met, fragments of your genes you will never meet. Even your first experiments in ectobiology, the children who sprung from a mess of paradox slime. Ancient sons and daughters who lived and died without you, raised by chess people, walking under the shadows of trolls.

     What a confusing and nonsensical family you have. If you had the Green Sun at your fingertips, you might try to pull all the pieces together. But you’ve been bumbling away from one another since your meteors landed. All you can do is try to get them in the same house for once a month. And when they leave, you will try not to be so sad.

 

     John stares at you, waiting for an answer to the outpouring of fraternal affection that’s become increasingly rare these days. It snaps you out of the thousand yard stare which is currently burning a hole through your wall. You blink and shake your head.

     “Weird how there’s so many different ways to be lonely.”

     “Wow, that could be a song title.”

     “Yeah, and it would rock.”

     “Uh, no, it’d suck so bad. So unbelievably bad, like you don’t even know.”

     You lean forward to shove him in the arm. “Man, shut up.”

     “Now I feel pretty dumb for talking about being lonely, ha. Like, you lived on a deserted island, d’oh, captain insensitive over here.”

     Your smile falters. “Not entirely deserted.”

 

     No, you weren’t alone at all. Death itself lived in Harley Tower, nestling in the woodwork, breathing and writhing in the grime. In the musty folds of mummies, of taxidermied bucks with their glass eyes wide and wild. In old newspaper clippings and black-and-white photos of dead, nameless people. Empty armor and stuffed bears with their bristly fur full of dust. Dr. Harley, his funeral pyre stacked high with treasures, carries his only heiress to their watery grave. You think about all the sarcophagi, the bodies that might have still been sealed inside. Every pharaoh prepares for his burial years in advance, watching the pyramid come together stone by stone. Isn’t that what you grew up in? A crypt for an old man who knew, somehow, someway, that death was descending upon you all?

     You should donate his relics to a museum some day. What good have they ever done for you, rotting away in that captchalogue card?

 

     John takes a long drink. “Your grandpa sounds fucked up.”

     “Huh?”

     “A real top-notch douche. Wait, can I say that? I think I can, since he was basically my dad.” His face screws up at this, like he’s tasted something rotten.

     “You don’t have to call him that. I don’t, even after all this time. He always seemed like  something more than that, even when he was alive. Like he was more than a person. He was more of a….”

     “A force of nature?”

     You think about it. “Kind of.”

     “I like Jake better. He’s kinda dopey, but I like him. I needed someone around who appreciates fine cinema.”

     You snort.

     “Seriously! I’m glad we caught these guys before they turned into fucked up adults.”

     “Now we can all become fucked up adults together.”

     “Eh, I don’t think so.” John smacks his lips and sets his beer down. “I think we’ll be fine.”

 

     On TV, a carapacian in a flowing, yellow gown and beaded hennin is writing a letter with a feather quill the size of a small dog. You watch her silent dialogue for a moment, then change the channel. Lagging subtitles try to catch up with a teal-blooded troll who’s speaking to a journalist offscreen.

So you have these um, this long written tradition of record-keeping among carapacians, meticulously following culture and history, and uh, you know, we’re learning new things about humans every day as the remote server beacons are decoded. So we have precious little record of a culture, of a deep history that spanned hundreds of thousands of years, and years even before that. I think there are two questions that weigh on a lot of trolls, er, is it more frightening to have no history at all and be doomed to perhaps, uh, the same patterns of our ancestors, or is it more exciting to start fresh? I–

 

     “Have you ever heard of Lazarus lizards?” you ask suddenly.

     “Have I heard of what now?”

     “Lazarus lizards. It’s a fascinating example of genetic diversity, of how populations can continue far from home.”

     John doesn’t really look interested – he rarely does when the sciences are broached – but you’re nodding along to the flush of wine in your system and decide to continue anyway.

     “They’re actually called European wall lizards. There was a family from Ohio that owned a chain of department stores, and one summer they took a vacation to Italy. Their young son captured a few of the lizards that were scuttling around the rocks when they were hiking. Then he stuffed them in a sock, and somehow made it past customs.” You pause. “Well, it was the 50s, so that doesn’t surprise me.”

     “Hard to believe they survived being in a dirty sock up in the air.”

     “I know! So he gets home to Cincinnati and he takes the sock to their backyard and just lets them loose! The climate isn’t much different from that of Milan, so the lizards figure they must still be in Italy. Of course, being lizards, they start reproducing exponentially. Soon enough there are lizards everywhere. They spread over the river to Kentucky and Indiana, almost a hundred miles away from where they started. There were more lizards than people in the city.”

     “This sounds like an urban legend, Jade.”

     “No, it’s true. When he grew up, he contacted the university and let them know that the lizards were the ancestors of the ones he had brought over in a sock. So they did DNA testing and found that the genetic diversity among the Lazarus lizards was much sparser compared to the Italian variety. It’s what’s called a genetic bottleneck – basically, only three of four lizards provided the foundation for this populations that’s now in the millions.”

     “So they’re called Lazarus lizards because they sorta came back from the dead?”

     “No, Lazarus was the name of the department store.”

     “So dumb.”

     “I think it’s fascinating, for such a prolific invasive species to be founded by a little boy who just wanted to catch some lizards.” You drink some of your wine and set the glass down on the coffee table. “Having your world upended by a child, and carrying on anyway.”

     “He’s like their god, basically.”

     “Basically.”

 

     It was the profound concern of Rose that the DNA provided by the eight of you would produce a severe genetic bottleneck. That in a few generations your descendants would be impotent hunchbacks, thin-skinned with their hair falling out. So you stepped aside and stopped playing at gods, allowing the carapacians to take the reins. Though they didn’t invent the science, they were wickedly smart with it –  they could extract DNA from a boulder if they wanted to. You handed off the computers to them, and they set to work piecing together genes and remixing them entirely. They took remains from your dead society, hair and skin and bone, stitching together children that looked nothing like you. You owe a lot to the chess folk for averting a serious – and frankly gross to think about – hypothetical.

 

     “I think we made a good call staying on the down low,” John considers.

     “Agreed. Ruling a planet would be exhausting.”

     “I can’t even remember what I did yesterday. You’re gonna worship me , really? I just played a game, dude, the pajamas were part of the loot box.”

     “I was thinking lately that we could probably get sued, if we were revealed to be the Creators.”

     “Sued for what?”

     “Sued for bringing people into existence who didn’t ask for it.”

     John whistles lowly. “Careful, Confucius. This is a debate you should probably have with Rose, I bet she’d eat it right out of your hand.”

     “Seriously. If someone was depressed or suicidal, could they sue us for setting up the ectobiology to create them? It’s different from not asking to be born from your parents, because it isn’t quite evolution. They have a tangible origin whose perpetrators are still alive and present. We could be culpable for environmental issues, social problems….”

     “Like we would know anything about setting up an economy or a government. We’d leave the world worse than we found it. Dave would zap us into the future and the apocalypse would’ve already happened because the society we set up was made up by idiot teenagers.”

     “Just a thought.” You stretch your arms above your head. “Don’t you think it would be funny?”

     “What would be funny?”

     You stand up to go to the bathroom. “Getting brought to court for every inconvenience that happens in this world? ‘I Got a Papercut and I Demand Answers: Original Creators Sued for Emotional Damages.’”

     John bursts into laughter and smacks the back of the couch. “Man, being a responsible god would be such horse shit.”

 

-

 

     The artist formerly known as Rose Lalonde is sitting in your apple tree.

     You know this not because she has said a word to you or has even made her presence known, but because you can see the bobbing of her glittery pink jelly shoe from one of the branches. This behavior is typical for Jasprose, who does not invite herself inside but rather hangs around in the periphery, lurking on your patio or sunbathing on your roof under the midday sun. Unlike her sibling, she is strictly an outdoor cat. Stray, but still domesticated.

     You wonder why so many sprites find themselves drawn to you. Maybe because you are a sprite. Sort of. In a roundabout way.

     When your breakfast dishes have been put away and the clothes taken down from the drying rack to be folded, you slap on some sunscreen and go out into the back garden with your straw hat fitted over your fluffy ears. It’s cool out today, a late May morning too chilly for a tank top but too warm for a sweater. You tread barefoot through the sandy pathway, over the flat rocks that lead into the garden where bushes of wildflowers shield your vegetables from salty spray.

     You set your tools down with a loud thunk, letting your unexpected guest know that she’s not alone.

 

     “Good morning, Rose,” you announce to the air.

     “Not my name, sugar.” Crunch. An apple core falls to earth and tumbles into the brush.

     “Good morning, Jasprose.”

     “Good morning, apple of my eye.”

     One of your tomato plants has been yoinked off of its vine. Of course.

     “Help yourself to some breakfast?”

     “Listen to this joke I’ve been working on. A cat girl and a dog girl walk into a bar. The cat girl orders a rum and Coke. The bartender places the drink on the counter. The cat girl pushes it onto the floor and says, ‘another.’”

     “We’re going for a different genre of fiction now?”

     “The dog girl goes to ask for her drink next, and the bartender says, ‘the toilet’s right down the hall, love.’”

     “That’s an offensive stereotype.” You pause. “My face is an off–”

     “Your face is an offensive st– oh, you are one step ahead of me, princess.”

     The branch above her head bends and bounces when Jasprose yanks another apple from it. They’re not quite ready yet. The one she bites into with her pointy little feline teeth is pale and pink towards the bottom, an uneven gradient. If it tastes bad, she doesn’t say so.

     Let’s cut to the chase. You’re glad she’s here, because Jasprose doesn’t have a cell phone and you have no way of reaching her when you want to talk. You are trying to be nonchalant in being out here, but you have never been very good at segueing elegantly into the topic of conversation you’re aiming towards.

     You stand at the base of the tree and fold your hands behind your back.

     “I would like to ask a purely professional question.” You clear your throat. “Based on your experience in psychiatry.”

     Jasprose trills in her throat. Her leg hangs lazily, swinging back and forth. “This oughtta be good. Though, you know, in the interest of full disclosure, I never went to college.”

     “Neither did I.”

     “Why don’t you ask my silky smooth counterpart?” Her eyes widen. “Oh! Oh! Let me guess, you already asked her, and you want a second opinion. Or even better, you don’t want to ask her.”

     Her twitchy little tenta-whiskers are raised in excitement. You do not like to judge based on appearances, but wow , you have a hard time looking her in the face with those fleshy little tendrils sprouting from her cheeks.

     “Do your legs ever get tired from jumping to conclusions?”

     “John taught you that one.” She takes another bite. “Yeah, sure, why not. From one Animorph to another. What’s on your mind, Moon Pie?”

     “Do you think…. ” – you put emphasis on that word – “that it might’ve messed us up, pretending to be adults so quickly?”      

     Jasprose’s mouth flies into a perfectly round O, and she prepares to launch into her response headfirst when you stop her with a raised hand.

     “And yes, I am aware of trauma’s chemical effect on the hippocampus, and no, I don’t believe that our problems would be solved if we lived in a treehouse and shared a Club Penguin membership. What I’m asking is,” you sigh, “I don’t know what I’m asking, exactly. We only turned twenty a few months ago, and I feel like I’m living the life of a forty-five-year-old. What should twenty-year-olds be doing?”

     Jasprose runs her hand over her buzzed head. “Eating ramen and hating your mom, I should say.”

     “Exactly! I mean, I guess. So, in your personal opinion as a shrink and a Seer, do you think all this responsibility, and home ownership, and tax paying… is it going to bite me in the ass one day?”

     There’s another crunch followed by an apple core toppling to earth. Jasprose wipes off the juices on her shorts.

     “Hard to say, Moon Pie. Things are different for me.”

     “Why, because you’re a ‘game construct?’” you ask with finger quotes.

     She barks with laughter. “Game construct, that’s a good one. The frog in whose gizzards we’re sloshing about was created using machines coded and deployed by SBURB. The Ultimate Reward is a game construct. The planets that bloom inside of new universes are game constructs. We’re all game constructs, each and every one of us. We are all dwelling under Skaia’s watchful eye and ear. Being a sprite has fuckall to do with anything.” She folds her arms behind her head. “No, it’s different for me ‘cause cats don’t give a shit about all that.”

     “That’s all? You don’t have problems because you’re a cat?”

     “Do you see me paying taxes?”

     You open your mouth and close it again.

     “Precisely.”

     “You’re very lucky to be free of the obligations of personhood. It must not be hard for you at all then, huh?” you ask suddenly, and because you’ve already crossed this bridge you may as well run clear across its rickety planks. “Not seeing him or talking to him after spending all those years together? Do you ever wonder if he thinks of you at all?”

     Briefly, Jasprose looks as if she might be taking you seriously. But then she’s all purrs again as she drifts from the tree to roll in the air. “I could hurt your feelings right about now, but since I’m so fond of you, I won’t. Alls I gots to say is: don’t project on me , Moon Pie. I see Strider the Younger plenty enough for my palette. Once, I even got to see more of Karkat’s bare ass than I ever needed to.”

     You ignore that last bit. “Because he wants to see you, or because you show up unannounced and eat his food?”

     “Who says it can’t be both?” Jasprose blows a raspberry at you with her sandpapery little tongue. You wipe the spittle off your face. “Who cares if he doesn’t think of me? I like myself plenty.”

     “That will only carry you so far.”

     “Me and you, we’re peas in a pod, pretty girls amalgamated with our precious pets. Bec loved you as much as Jaspers loved me – probably more. I’ll bet you’re just as self-absorbed as me.”

     “Hate to shoot your hypothesis down, but your data doesn’t track. I’m half Jadesprite . The Bec part has been diluted, so he’s more of a twenty-five percent shareholder. And Jadesprite was… well, if narcissism is one end of the spectrum….”

     “How quickly we forget about Jadesprite!”

     “You and me both. I try to forget, too.” You force a smile. “You know, for a wannabe shrink, you’d think you’d be trying to work past your self-absorption rather than trying to excuse it.”

     “Ah, but then I’d lose my je ne sais quoi over Rose Lalonde Two: Retcon Boogaloo.”

     She’s fully upside down now, lying on her back midair as she stares at you up the bridge of her nose. There’s a wild, Cheshire quality in the heterochromatic pink and purple of her eyes.

     “Sounds like you need your own shrink.”

     “There’s my Harley-brand honesty, ” she demurs with her hand on her chest. Jasprose circles you lazily. “Like you’re dangling a feather teaser before my very soul. I hope you don’t play with my counterpart that way, it’d break my little heart quicker than you’d break up their marriage.” She pauses with a finger to her curled lips. “Or add an interesting new ingredient.”

     “Ha ha, you caught me. I am a regular homebreaker.”

     “Oh, my sweet girl, light of my life, you think I’m joking, don’t you?” She laughs in a loud, hoarse way that almost seems staged. “See, it’s that precious naivety that sends Lalondes across the board swooning. Don’t let Rose faint too hard into your arms, Jade, ‘cause I got next dibs.”

     You feel your face burning. “That’s not funny. I’m trying to have a serious conversation.”

     “If you wanted serious, you picked the wrong partner.” Jasprose boops you on the nose – you flinch in spite of yourself. “Nevertheless, I’m deadly serious. She’d never tell you, but oh , we had such a schoolgirl crush on the Princess of Prospit, Psychic Extraordinaire. How clever she was, how cunning she could’ve been if she weren’t so good-hearted. It irked us nearly as much as it tantalized us.”

     Folding your arms, you feign composure and answer, “I never got that impression. Actually, if we’re going to be annoyingly honest, there were times I thought you liked me the least of all.”

     “Yes, I pressed myself deep into the corner of my carrier while Dr. Sappho tried in vain to pull me out, hissing and spitting. I didn’t mean to ignore you, Harley.” There’s a flicker of genuine fondness as Jasprose brushes your cheek with her knuckles. It’s a slow and deliberate gesture that you can hardly feel past the warmth in your cheeks, and you look away when the moment passes and she sloughs off all sincerity. “I just didn’t know what to do with myself over my Fisher-Price Baby’s First Crush. Thanks for planting the seed of lesbianism.”

     “Glad to be of service,” you say through gritted teeth.

 

     Typical of you, to help someone realize something about themselves without reaping any benefit for yourself. A sounding board for progression, a mannequin to be placed and rearranged to break or complete the feng shui as others see fit. Jade Harley, sit here and look pretty and say the things I want to hear. Jade Harley, turn this way and smile. Just a little wider now – turn your face just a smidge to the left. There, that’s perfect – now stay that way and never move again.

     How are you supposed to feel about this, exactly? You want to be flattered, but mostly you just feel tossed aside. If Rose had told you how she felt, what would you have said? If she had let a sliver of vulnerability slip from her hands, would you have leaned forward and whispered the secrets of Skaia to her, would you have taken the shuttle to Derse and awoken the Purple Princess in her tower, your hand in hers as you listened to awful gods croaking in the dark?

     You shake your head hard. Poor Rose. She wouldn’t have told you like this. She would’ve been gentler.

 

     “Try not to sound so bitter,” Jasprose trills as she floats back up to her treetop perch. She plucks another apple from the stem. “You like being helpful, Moon Pie. Guiding folks along on their little hero’s journey is the only thing that gets your rocks off.”

     “Is it?”

     “Isn’t it? Methinks you’ve decided that being a doormat is life’s best possible reward. If you can’t free yourself from your own personal kitty carrier, it makes you happy to snip the leashes of others. So buck up a little, and listen – being a lesbian rocks. I owe you a life debt, Princess.”

     “This conversation has gotten so dangerously stupid that I hardly remember what we were talking about.” You flick your hair from in front of your lenses. “Why don’t you give me a solid answer and we’ll call it even.”

     “Oh, right. Uh….

     A purple notepad materializes out of thin air with a sound like a soap bubble popping. Jasprose adjusts the pink cat-eye glasses that appeared alongside it.

     In a faux British accent, she says, “I believe the answer to your dilemma lies in the fact that you go through the motions of adulthood without committing to the emotional and mental maturity that must accompany it. Hardly surprising for a girl who has had to run a household all her life with nary the help of a dog. One who feels stuck in her thirteenth year can act as grown as she wishes, but it render- eth her neither content nor well-adjusted.”

     “So what’s the prescription, Doc?”

     “Dr. Lalonde thinks that you just need to get railed.”

     With an indignant gasp, you shout, “Hey!”

     “I’d volunteer, but I respectfully agreed to take a ticket. Let me know when you’re done toying with my sibling – I’m not opposed to sloppy seconds.” Jasprose folds her sheet into a paper airplane and launches it at you. “Take that to the pharmacy and let me know in seven to ten days if symptoms still persist.”

     “You’re unbelievable.”

     “You’re unbelievable for relying on a catgirl.” Jasprose takes a loud, deliberate bite out of the unripe apple. “You like me anyway, though.”

     You shake your head and sigh in a way that lets Jasprose know that you’ve conceded. “Yeah, I like you anyway.”

 

     When she stops focusing on its existence, the purple and pink paper dissolves into glitter in your palm. You kneel in the dirt and begin to dig.

 

-

 

     Once a month when the moon is full, the Cult of the Witch comes down to the beach.

     You didn’t know cultists lived here when you moved in. Sometimes you’ll turn the lights down low in your house and sit by the window, watching them come through the grass and the reeds. Some of them are topless. Some of them wear long swaths of translucent silk. Their ankles clink with bells and pearls.

 

     Over the course of five thousand years or so, almost all of you have garnered a faction of dedicated followers. The Sanctum of the Sylph, the nomads of the western wastes who follow the Bard, The Knight’s Templar – you don’t know if that last one is a coincidence or not. Then there are the Sburban Fundamentalists, who care little for the Creators, focusing instead on the Skaian machinations that allowed a group of adolescents to craft a new universe. Their ideas are all over the map, but Earth C has had no Protestant Revolution. There’s been no ninety-nine theses, no Calvinists or Anabaptists. No reason for worshippers of Venus to clash with those of Poseidon, after all – the old gods were all on the same team.

     What an absurd mythology you’ve created. If the seadwellers and carapacians you first bred through ectobiology weren’t still alive and kicking, there might be people who believe you never existed. Some of you have taken advantage of your inherent mythos in interesting ways. One summer, Rose entertained herself by going undercover in the Symposium, the secret society of Light-Seer followers who, in classical Lalonde fashion, required rigorous vetting before allowing new blood into their brood. The new inductee, “Rococo Larue,” studied for a few months without showing any interest in giving up or exposing her secret. Mostly she listened to her followers pontificate about the validity of certain passages in the old tome she wrote as a teenage alcoholic. There was a school of thought that believed Rose’s inebriated, shaking hand was the later addition of an outside author. They housed the tome behind a glass case in a climate-controlled library, protected from sun and water, one page turned each day by an uppity librarian.

     The Symposium houses most of the books that your party was willing to part with five thousand years ago – how to read tarot for beginners, physics textbooks, field guides to African big game animals, coding manuals, fantastical bestiaries and glossy, elementary-level Eyewitness books on Ancient Egypt and Greece. Alternian romance novels, too – old Game Grub issues, film reviews, legislaceration practice tests. Even ancient server beacons from the far reaches of the Medium, which are still being decoded to unearth the troves of your civilization’s dead Internet archives. Rose’s worshippers are a clan of navel-gazers, forever looking backward to the mountain of dust your species left behind.

     That September, Rococo Larue was encouraged to leave due to intellectual differences.

     The Symposium at least has a structure. The Witch cultists, however, you have a hard time understanding.

     They remind you of Prospitians with their reverence for the frog, the All-Mother – All-Father , you want to correct them, my tadpole was a boy . The iconography of the “devilbeast” is painted on their skin and worn in their jewelry, Becquerel’s face contorting into a fierce snarl in their tattoos. Space Witch, the creator and the destroyer, god of gods and universal mother, the girl who swallowed a demon and became more than human. Your worshippers are part pagan, part druid, part Vestal Virgin. They’re a little feral, a little chaotic, without a hierarchy and without a written doctrine. But at the same time, they have a bit of a superiority complex, like the woman at the farmer’s market who looks down her nose at you if you aren’t toting a reusable bag.

     Their version of you is elevated. Too knowing, too motherly, too kind, too hateful, too vengeful, too powerful, too selfish. How would they feel, you wonder, if you showed them your old deviantART account? Do they know that their “god of gods” spent yesterday afternoon scrubbing a bathroom?

     It’s fun to be a god in their eyes, though. Even if it’s a fake version of you. It’s like playing pretend.

 

     Tonight the moon is full. She perches at her zenith, coloring the ocean pearly white with her beams. Even without your manmade lights, the beach is clear and bright. And down where the tide laps the wet sand, the cultists are singing.

     It has a touch of Alternian influence, you think as you listen to the song warble through your window. It’s a little Gregorian, a little Tibetan. The wind warps and distorts its tempo. Funny, how cultural memory prevails – though thousands of years and a victory platform stand between this world and the past, humans find a way to revive and reinvent the art of their ancestors. For all intents and purposes, you are living on an alien planet. But mankind finds a way.

     They stretch out their arms to the stars and begin to howl. You tie your hair up in a headscarf to obscure your devilbeast ears, then leave the house and trudge towards them.

     You don’t know why tonight is any different. It feels unethical to tamper in their dealings, like stepping on an anthill or something. But you figure if Rose can play mind games with her loyal worshippers, what you’re doing isn’t nearly as bad. Besides – they came to your front yard first.

     Your bare feet sift through the dry, soft sand as you approach the cultists. The women look pearlescent in the moonlight, barely dressed with something like black clay staining their arms and hands. They like to wear fur – a young woman with her chest exposed cloaks her shoulders in a shaggy, white pelt. Silver jewelry dangles from their necks, sharp teeth and bone, the leathery and mummified limbs of frogs. They seem intent on ignoring you as you hover just outside their druid’s henge, but then you clear your throat. Their chant sputters out before it can reach its end, and the half-dressed hippies look you up and down.

 

     “Can we help you?” says a nasally-voiced woman with red hair.

     “Hi.” You falter, shuffling one foot in front of the other. “I couldn’t help but notice you’ve been praying on my beach.”

     “It’s not your beach,” sneers a freckled, twiggy little woman weighed down with silver and bone. “This stretch is city property.”

     “Tarpeia,” the redhead warns. She eyes you. “Who are you?”

     “My name is Jade. I live up the hill,” you explain, jerking your thumb behind you.

     The cultists stare at you. For a moment you allow yourself to indulge in the idea that they’re staring at you because of your name, but a name like Jade Harley or Rose Lalonde or Jake English in this world is about as commonplace as Mary Smith. No one thinks twice that you share a name with an ancient goddess.

     Tarpeia places her hands on her hips, which smear black with the inky chalk on her hands. “We have a right to practice our religion in a public space.”

     You snort.

     “That funny to you?” the redhead barks.

 

     What would they do if you let your hair down, if you untied your scarf and let Becquerel’s sharp, white ears cleave into the dark? If you opened your mouth wide and showed them your fangs, if you lifted your hand and shrunk their ceremonial hunting knives into sewing pins? What would they do if they howled into the clear black night and found they had summoned the Witch of Space from the ether? 

     Well, your friends would be miffed at you for blowing your cover. So you won’t do any of those things.

 

     “Anyway,” you tell them, “You guys are being really loud, and it’s freaking out my dog. Do you think you could keep it down?”

 

-

 

     Tonight is not particularly unique in any way. You are used to having house guests that stay long into the night, and you are used to cooking on the spot for people who show up on your doorstep. It isn’t often, though, that that person happens to be Davepeta.

     Their hiking boots are unlaced and placed neatly at the door, because they know you don’t like it when people track in dirt and sand. They’ve used your shower to rinse the grime out of their hair. They’ve dumped half their wardrobe into your washing machine, and used your guest room to change into the t-shirt and jeans that were rolled up and stuffed into the front pocket of their backpack. They’ve sat down at your table and eaten half of the dinner that was on the stove when they came knocking, and they’ve rooted through your cabinets for a bag of microwavable popcorn, which is now sitting in a mixing bowl on the dining room table.

 

     “Anyway, you can't have the guest room even if you wanted it, because I have a new wiggler coming in tomorrow.” You grab a handful of popcorn and munch on it. One of the kernels is almost black – you make a face. “My first seadweller, actually. It’s having some sort of asthma problem and can't breathe in the caverns, is what she said.”

     “Little birdy told me you’re gettin’ purretty good at babysitting,” Davepeta says, their ankle propped on their knee and their foot bobbing. They’re not as off the wall as they used to be, but restless energy builds up quickly. Soon they’ll be floating in the rafters and batting at shadows.

     “Is that your way of telling me you have constructive criticism?”

     “Nah, alls I know about grubs is how to make paint outta them.”

     “Oh, Dee, don’t be gross.”

     “What? I wasn’t kiddin’. Wigglers are crazy fursatile. You can make all kinds of stuff out of the duds. Tissue, blood, mucus….”

     “Like how so many medicines are made of pig parts.”

     “And horse piss.”

     “You really know how to steer a conversation, don’t you?”

     They show you their fangs in a wide grin.

 

     They’ve yet to tell you where they came from, or when they’ll be leaving again. This is the part that stings. You enjoy their company, and it hurts more than it usually does when you are, once again, left to your own devices. When Davepeta leaves again to drift halfway across the world, your bed will be empty and you will launch yourself headlong into some unplanned project, like repainting the living room or gutting and rewiring a robot or weaving together a new wind chime to hang from the front porch.

     This is not to say that you are at all lonely, or that you need someone to share your home with, because you have been alone most of your life and being by yourself will not kill you. You’re too tough for that. It isn’t because you miss them, or want them to be closer to you, or because you worry yourself into stomachaches wondering whether they’re just toying around with you.

     Oh, okay, you're not fooling anyone. You didn’t used to care, and part of your discomfort comes from knowing that you do , in fact, care quite a lot.

 

     In an effort to distract yourself from troublesome thoughts, you turn to look at the microwave clock. Feigning surprise at the time, you stand to collect dinner dishes and set them away in the dishwasher. Davepeta watches you with their cheek squished against their fist, and because they are so quick to assist you – or pull you away from – whatever you’re doing, you know that something about your face or your voice has set them off. They know that you’re trying to get away. As you’re bustling past them into the living room – which is really just the part of this big, open room that houses the couch – they stand from their chair and follow you. You’re folding wrinkled blankets and throwing them over the backs of the couch when Davepeta takes your wrist gently and makes you look at them.

     “Hey, chill out a little,” they hum. “It’s barely even ten. What, you tryna get rid of me?”

     “I wish you wouldn’t say that,” you huff, “I get enough of it.”

     “Right, my bad.”

     They think that they’re placating you by pulling you close to their chest, slipping their hands into your back pockets. You aren’t sure why you let them do this. They used to be very cautious about it, when they first started tapping at your window and showing up in your room. Sheepish and shy, the end of the world no longer bearing down upon them, they could scarcely breathe in your direction without asking you if you were okay with their attention. And of course you said it was okay, because you liked being on the receiving end of someone’s affections, even if their motivations, or even the extent of their feelings, were unclear. Davepeta was so forward with you before, even now they exude a confidence that can sometimes be annoying. If they liked you, if they thought you were worth sticking around for more than a couple days a month, wouldn’t you know by now?

 

     You have thought on it and thought on it and thought on it, even when you don’t want to, because flip-flopping on whether or not someone has a crush on you is such a childish thing to do. It’s hard not to, though.

     You used to have a keen sense for whether people liked you. It’s how you were able to shoot down so many trolls in just one day. It’s also how you managed to maintain aloof, respectful distance between you and Dave. He thought you were his damsel in distress, a fragile love interest to be sheltered and protected. And you thought it was charming that he liked you so much, you thought you had to like him back, but even then you knew that his feelings were performative, that maybe he knew himself that his clumsy affection was – what? Going through the motions? Acting a part? Yet you fell ass-backwards onto the stage, following the script, forcing yourself to copy the dance and complete the lines.      

     You can’t hold it against him. If Dave had to act out a bizarre and awkward display of heterosexuality on someone, you guess it’s for the best that it was you and not his sister.

     Wait, what were you talking about just now? Oh, right. Davepeta has their hands in your jean pockets and is swaying along with you to the soft music whispering from the speakers in the ceiling.

 

     “What’s with the thousand yard stare?” Davepeta asks. They extract a hand and hold your face, pretending to brush away invisible hairs.

     “Nothing.” You flinch, and they raise their eyebrows to protest. “I’m sorry, it’s a hard habit to break.”

     You’re referring to a verbal contract between the two of you not to respond to questions of emotions with “nothing.” If truly nothing is wrong and you are simply staring out the window from distraction and not depression, you must tell the other person to “fuck off,” because it’s “not that deep.”

     “So it is something.” Davepeta twists a curl of your hair ‘round their finger. “Lay it on me, I won’t tell nobody.”

     “Dee, I don’t,” you sigh, exasperated less with them and more at yourself for not knowing what to say. You shake your head and look at a spot on the wall far behind them. “I don’t know what we’re doing here.”

     “Well, you bought this house when it was a shack rotting on the beach, and we helped you spruce it up, and since this is your legal mailing address I have taken it upon myself to visit you, because I like to be around you, and the food is always really good. So that’s what we’re doing here.”

     “I think you know that that’s not what I meant.” You huff and throw your arms up in a what-the-fuck kind of gesture. “I mean, what is this? What are you doing? Do you do this with all your friends?”

     A shadow of discomfort crosses their face. “No.”

     “What the hell, then?”

     Davepeta pulls away from you and rubs their temple, and you pull your shawl-like scarf tighter around you, grateful for how it envelops your arms and makes you smaller.

     “I thought… hm. Shit. Aw, fuck.”

     “Dee?”

     “I can’t believe I did this shit again. Fuck. Jade, I thought that you, I mean, we had all those micro-talks about boundaries back in the day, and I thought you just wanted to keep things casual. Like you didn’t want to get involved or anything. Did I hissinterpret that?”

     They look well and truly distressed now. One hand on their hip and the other agitatedly scratching their forehead, Davepeta floats a few inches above the floor the way they do when they get carried away. You lift your hand to try to talk them down – wait a minute, why are you doing the calming here?

     “Wait. Wait, wait, wait wait wait-wait-wait.” They hold their hands up. “Wait. Okay. Let me get things purrfectly straight here, for once. So, you were okay with all the touchy feely stuff, and you told me you were okay with it. That’s established, yeah? We agree on that?”

     You pause. “I. Yes, in a sense.”

     “In a sense ?” Davepeta gapes at you. “How much am I missing here?”

     “Don’t get mad, please.”

     “I’m not mad!”

     “Then please don’t raise your voice.”

     Davepeta does just that. “All right. Okay. So you were semi-comfortable with the way things were. What about it was not okay?”

     You bite your lip, pulling your shawl tightly around you. “It’s hard to explain. I liked that you seemed to like me. I liked that things were simple and didn’t have to be a huge deal. I didn’t care whether you actually liked me or not because I thought I had more important things to worry about, and it seemed stupid to dwell on it.”

     You pause to let Davepeta jump in, but they just motion for you to keep talking.

     “But now it’s been a while and I actually have something close to an adult life? I’m here alone a lot, trying to figure out where I’m going and what I’m doing, and it really sucks to have this….” you gesture vaguely to the space between you, “... transitory thing that comes and goes. I don’t need to be in a situation where I’m not sure where I stand with someone. It sucks.”

     Davepeta’s shoulders sink. “You think I don’t actually like you?”

     “I don’t… I mean, I know you do, but not how much, or if it means as much to you as it does to me, so….”

     It doesn’t happen as quickly as it did the first time, when you had no chance to react and the Sun was so bright and your heart was so heavy that everything came as such a terrible and new surprise. They’re slower about it this time around, wrapping their arm around you and pulling you closer so they’re staring down at you. One hand pushes your chin up to face them, and then they lean forward and kiss you very softly.

     You feel like all the blood vessels in your face are going to burst.

     “There, paw’s that for an answer?” they trill. Their other hand returns to your waist, lacing their fingers together.

     “Wh– what. I. Would you….”

     “Use your words.”

     “Shut up.” You shake your head to clear out all the thoughts playing bumper car in there. “Would you mind. Uh. Could you do that again?”

     Davepeta gives you a bright smile, and then they do it again.

 

     Something inside of you remembers this. The feeling of warm sprite skin buzzing under your fingers, how shy he was, how he snapped up every scrap of reciprocation you tossed his way. It clings to the mucous membranes of whatever cortex that Jade is dwelling in, shadowy and abstract, but it’s there, and god damn it’s distracting. You want to enjoy this, this validation, this satisfaction in knowing that someone wants to be close to you in this way, that they’re choosing to spend time with you over anyone else, but as one hand rides up your waist and under your shirt and the other hand is clamped under your burning ear, you’re suddenly more freaked out than ever. They’re so much less awkward than you. Their hands are confident, they know where to go. Davepeta bites your lip, and you want to be happy, but you’re completely overwhelmed. With perhaps more force than necessary, you shove them away with both hands.

 

     “Stop!”

     Davepeta looks confused and a little discouraged. A shiny, copper blush colors their cheeks. “Are you okay? Did you not, I’m sorry, I–”

     “No, you didn’t do anything wrong , I’m just, I’m just really fucking freaked out,” you sputter. You’re aware of how your hands are trembling, and it’s so, so embarrassing.

     “Hey, whoa, talk to me, babe. What’s up?”

     “I, I don’t know,” you stutter, “I guess I’m, I guess, I’m upset, because , you remember this, or something like it, because you lived it, and all I have are memories. But not even memories , more like I’ve been reading about myself in a magazine, and all I get are clippings and bits of pages. You –” you try to ease off on the accusatory tone that makes them raise their eyebrows, “you, have a preconceived notion of me, and none of this is new to you, but it’s new to me , and I’m not okay with the idea that you’re picking up where you left off.”

     Davepeta looks very, very sad, the corners of their mouth turned into a solemn frown. Their little canines poke out when they make a horrible tsk sound, the sound your coworker might make when you slouch into the break room on a Monday and tell them your pet died over the weekend. It makes you turn your face away when they cup your jaw in their hands.

      “Aw, Jade, why didn’t you tell me?”

     “Because.” You bite your lip. “Because I didn’t want to scare you off. I get it now, though, that I was just delaying this… inevitable conversation.”

     “Yeah, we’re really sloggin’ through the shit now, ain’t we.”

     “Yeah.”

 

     You’ve really killed the vibe now. You exhale and pull away from Davepeta, tugging your shawl tightly around you and sitting at the window bench. One of the bay windows is still swung open, letting in a warm nocturnal breeze that smells like brine and seaweed. Davepeta joins you, putting a respectable distance between the two of you while resting a reassuring hand on your leg. You find yourself angling towards them anyway, still angry that you’ve sullied this moment and made them pity you.

 

     “It’s my fault, probably, that you have that idea of me,” Davepeta offers with a lopsided, apologetic smile. “One moment I’m part Davesprite and I’m claimin’ all his memories, the next moment I’m not him at all. I guess both are true. How should I explain it… hm. Do you think of yourself as part Bec?”

     You blink. “Not really. Not anymore.”

     “If someone talked to you like you were trying to talk to Bec… like if your grandpa was here and he was trying to ask a question that only Bec could answer, how would that make you feel?”

     “Uncomfortable, I guess. Offended.”

     “Okay. But you still have parts of him in you, right? He’s living on in your brain, in a way, and despite yourself you react to things in ways that you wouldn’t , but Bec would.”

     “Ha. Yes, sometimes.” You shift and rub your arm. “Not so much anymore. But yes.”

     “So it’s kind of an ‘apples and oranges’ situation, but what I’m getting at is that he’s living in me, yeah, and all the components rattling around in me inform the way I view the world and interact with it, but at the end of the day I’m just me. I’m what my sister would call a, uh, a tabula rasa.”

     “A blank slate.” You tuck your hair behind your ear. “Like you can start over fresh.”

     “Exactly!” Excited, Davepeta’s wings fluff out and flutter. “Like, like, when you look at the Powerpuff Girls you're not like, ‘oh, that right there is a combination of sugar, spice, and everything nice and Chemical X.’ Like, no, numbnuts, that’s just Buttercup. So you were right, Jade, and I thought I had made it clear, but maybe I hadn’t. I have memories of you. I have memories of us. It’s hard not to think about them.”

     Their hand travels to the folded hands in your lap. They unravel them and entwine their fingers in yours. It always surprises you how warm their palms are. You squeeze their hand in return, and Davepeta shifts so that they’re kneeling beside you. You allow them to put their free arm around you.

     “Would it make you feel better if you knew some of the things I think about?”

     Your exhale comes out uneven, because your heart is beating very fast and you are sure that they can hear it. “Maybe.”

     They rest their cheek against your hair. “I think about one of the nights she let him sleep in her bed, and she woke up in the middle of the night in cold sweats from a nightmare, and he talked her down until three a.m., just holding her and letting her cry, and she was too proud to tell him what she had dreamed or how it made her feel. He assumed it was because she didn’t trust him, or didn’t think he would understand, so even though they were bundled up all night like that, he felt that there was a wedge between them.

     “I think about how his hands were so rough and sandpapery, like velociraptor arms, and he was afraid to touch her or to hold her hand because he was certain she hated the feeling of it. So she was always the one to take his hand first. And whenever he put his hands on her he was so slow and so cautious about it because he didn’t want to hurt her.

     “I think about how pretty he thought she was. He would never say it out loud, but he’d just stare at her with his face in his hand, and he was relieved because she couldn’t see his eyes. I think about how he memorized what she looked like when she was happy, because he was going to break up with her by the end of the day and knew he wouldn’t see her face the same way again.

     “Most of all I think about how he thought she was too good for him, that he was standing in for someone else, and that he was so arrogant and so dumb and so fucking spastic that he didn’t even think to ask her how she felt. He was too big of a dumbass to sit down and have a serious conversation for once in his life, and it tore her apart.” 

 

     You wouldn’t say that it “tore her apart,” but you respect the sentiment behind their statement and say nothing. They have a point. You remember how heavy her chest felt, how she thought about texting him, started to type something, then sighed and backspaced it all. And she couldn’t talk to John about it, because John didn’t care, or else he was projecting his own feelings towards Davesprite on her and wanted to turn it into how he felt. So she stayed on LOFAF for days at a time, tending her garden with her phone turned off and music cranked loud enough to shatter the atrium windows, if they hadn’t shattered already.

     Shouldn’t it be a relief, then, that you don’t have to feel that way again? Shouldn’t you be happy?

 

     Davepeta angles your face towards them with their hand, the short, sharp tips of their little claws tracing your skin. Goosebumps rise on your arms.

     “So I’ve seen what he’s seen and I’ve felt what he’s felt. But I ain’t him, and you sure ain’t her. The Jade I’m worried about is right here in front of me. We’re just a couple of tabula rasa out here, blank slatin’ it up with infinity ahead of us and a whole lot of popcorn that I am gonna fuckin’ destroy if you don’t take it away from me.”

     You snort with laughter and bury your face in your hands. Davepeta takes them away and holds them both, very gently and very softly.

     “It must be hard, trying not to compare me to her. I’m sorry for bringing it up.”

     “You gotta stop apologizing for feelin’ things.” They bonk their forehead against yours. “What did I just say about blank slates, girl, c’mon.”

     “Ugh! I know, my brain seems dead set on making you pity me.”

     “I mean, I do, but not in the human sense of the word.” They nuzzle you, and you can smell your own shampoo in their hair. The dickhead can’t even be assed to buy their own hair care products. “I’d still like ya even if I had never met ya in any other timeline, ‘cause you’re smart and pretty and fun to be around, and you’re like, one of the few people I know who actually says what they mean without being a total doofus or a jerkoff about it. There’s a reason that I choose to stay with you whenever I swing back around these parts. You’re kinda like… my person.”

     “Oh, you were on such a roll. You haven’t made a single pun or metaphor since I freaked out on you,” you note.

     “Well, yeah, Jade, there’s a time and purr-lace fur that,” they respond. You start laughing again, and they smile at you so sweetly, so genuinely, and you are very, very sure they can hear your heart now. “So considering that I’m not a fuckin’ basket case, I have the unique ability to ask you, not her, but you , what you want, and I’ll believe whatever you tell me.”

      They just hold your hands and look at you evenly, their head cocked.

     “Is this okay?” They gesture to your hands in theirs, how one of their wings angles itself to brush the length of your leg. How their leg is flush against your outer thigh, how their thumbs run gently across the tops of your fingers. “Are you Gucci with what’s going on here?”

     “Am I what?”

     They suddenly burst into laughter, and because it’s so infectious you start to smile too. Davepeta lets go of your hands and holds your arms instead. Outside, you can hear the breeze whispering through the wind chimes that hang from the rafters of your house.

     “If you think this is weird, if you think that what I’m doing isn’t genuine, basically if you want me to fuck off in any sense of the word, say ‘A.’ But if you’re cool with this, if you want this Dawn Treader to keep sailin’ towards the fuckin’ horizon, say ‘B,’ and we’ll just play it by ear.”

     What’s the harm, really, in seeing where this takes you? Maybe it’s time to stop letting her old memories dictate how you should feel, and embrace that fuckin’ tabula rasa. She could never be anything but herself, the you that has splintered off and tumbled down the brick road, the you who is lost, the one who you hold onto with kite strings. She did what she had to do, and in the end, things didn’t work out. But you are you , strong in the same way she was, smart and capable and with all those same qualities that made her, her . She was worthy of love, and so are you.

     You smile and brush the wispy, green and copper strands from their forehead. Davepeta gives you that bright and hopeful expression, that ghost of a trill raising in their throat. Their little fangs poke out with delight when you lift your eyes and tell them:

     “B.”

     “So where doin’ this thing? Where making this happen?”

     “Please don’t ruin a thing by being weird.”

     “Bein’ weird is kind of my whole schtick, which unfortunately you just signed up for indefinitely.”

     You yelp as they pull you into their lap, laughing as your slipper falls off one foot and your glasses bounce down your nose. They gaze up at you with those big, round, goofy eyes.

     “Okay, better furrasing: you wanna be gal pals? Turn this Barbie beach house into a regular Boston marriage?”

     “If you’re asking me in your own weirdo language if I want to be your girlfriend , then yes, I think I can do that.”

     “Dope. Now if you excusay- moi , I’m closing this fuckin’ window.” Davepeta reaches forward, supporting you with a hand on your back, and pulls the bay window shut. “Last thing I want is some delinquent curfew-breakin’ teen throwin’ a rock at my head and knockin’ me out in the heat of the moment.”

     “Hey, in all seriousness,” you ask, “do you think you’d like to stay for, um, longer than you usually do?”

     Davepeta gives you a smile so wide that the resulting dimples look like craters in their face. They lean upward and meet you halfway for a peck on the corner of your mouth. Despite yourself, you are still embarrassed at how the temperature in your face rises.      

     “I’ll stay as long as you’ll have me,” they answer. “Or at least until you run out of popcorn.”

     You burst into laughter, burrowing your face in their neck, and they hold you tightly to their chest.

 

-

 

     You wake up to the sound of rapping on the storm door and three missed calls.

     There’s a moment when you forget why you even need to be awake. Then you wipe the crusty corners of your eyes and glance at your phone screen. All of Kanaya’s calls have bounced. A new message blips on your screen from Rose – When did you get in the habit of home security? Would we be out of line in Macgyvering the lock?

     “Fuck!”

     Davepeta makes the mrrp sound of a rudely awoken housecat when you throw yourself out of their arms and out of bed. They release a giant yawn as they watch you throw a shirt on and hop one-legged into your jeans, squealing as they stretch their arms above their head.

     “Fuck, fuck, fuck-fuck-fuck–”

     “What, do I snore that bad?” Davepeta jokes.

     “Rose and Kanaya are here,” you bluster. “With the wiggler. Oh, geez , I don’t even remember locking the door.”

     “That’s ‘cause you didn’t. I did.” Davepeta kicks off the sheets and stretches forward to touch their toes. Their old, faded WWE t-shirt has been lost somewhere under the bed. “Didn’t want no interlopers snoopin’ around.”

     “Did you turn off my alarm, too?”

     “Nah, that’s on you, boo.”

 

     You’re still buttoning your pants as you’re hopping down the stairs, skipping two steps at a time.

 

     “I’m so sorry!” you blurt before the door is even open.

     Rose is resting against the railing as she scrolls idly through her phone. She startles when you nearly fall over yourself. Kanaya – who has tired of waiting for you –  is down in the sand, leaning forward to smell the wildflowers. The basket carrying the little seadweller is tucked under her arm.

     “We were starting to think you forgot about us,” she says as she treads lightly up the stairs, her long skirt hitched up to keep herself from slipping.

     You shake your fingers through the ends of your hair. “I really am sorry, I don’t usually oversleep.”

     “Words I thought I’d never hear Jade Harley say,” Rose jokes.

     “Har har – anyway, come in, come in.”

 

     Inside, Rose perches on the back of the sofa as Kanaya unwraps the little grub from the blanket it’s peacefully burrowed in. It yawns in protest and wiggles its stubby legs when she disturbs it from its nap. The way she shifts to cradle it in her arms is so tender, like it’s second nature to her. It nestles its face in her collarbone, and from where you stand you can see the white of its deceptively sharp teeth. Strong enough to tear through protein and fat, tough enough to fight its way out of the caverns. Not that wigglers need to do that anymore. The muscle memory remains, though, and your grubs have never failed to destroy something with their dentition. A houseplant chewed up, a blanket with a hole gnawed through it.

     “We don’t know the gender at this stage,” Kanaya explains as she passes the grub on to you. “You’ll know in a couple of weeks when they complete the first couple rounds of posterior ecdysis.”

     She points out the different segments of the wiggler’s thorax, how they’re different from the land-dwelling wigglers you’re accustomed to. They’re flanked with little iridescent gills that shimmer and twitch when Kanaya’s fingers brush them. Its claw-like legs remind you of a horseshoe crab. As she describes the salt-to-water ratio in which to bathe the grub, Rose gazes at her wife in a manner her brother might describe as “diabeetus-inducing.”

     You would never tell Kanaya this for fear of having all babysitting privileges revoked indefinitely, but despite how endeared you are by these strange little creatures, you have never stopped thinking that they’re very, very gross. Its slick, shiny carapace reminds you of the grubs they eat in The Lion King. Part of you –  that ancestral, instinctual monkey brain –  wants to smack it with a newspaper.

     The wiggler tries to climb up your shirt into your hair, which makes you shiver. You must remind yourself to stay collected as you adjust its position, holding it instead in the belly-up way that cats hate but wigglers seems to love. One claw-leg scrapes down your skin, and you wince at the pain. It makes a sound halfway between a squeak and a wheeze.

     “Of course, you have to remember that the goal is to assuage the asthma that’s taken hold in the caverns. I fear the dirt and debris that falls from the cave ceiling might have exacerbated it, so with any luck you won’t notice much inflammation.” Kanaya knits her fingers together. “In any case, don’t feel obligated to keep them in the bath all the time. Seadwellers won’t often rise to the surface, but there’s no reason for you to feel you must bind them to the tub. It would help to take them outside every now and then.”

     “I don’t know about that,” you laugh. “With so many places to get lost, I’m afraid I’d turn around and find them floating off to sea.”

     “Then put a leash on them,” Kanaya says matter-of-factly. You and Rose laugh out loud at this, which makes her blink in confusion. “What?”

 

     A quiet vibrating interrupts you. Kanaya fumbles for the phone in her pocket, then apologizes – a brood mistress’ work is never done. She excuses herself, and you are left alone with Rose Lalonde.

 

     You click your tongue at the wiggler when it once again tries to tangle its claws in your hair. Rose, unsure what to do with herself without the buffer between you, wanders to the coffee table.

     You try to remember the last time you were alone with Rose. Somehow it always feels like there’s something standing between you – a trench too far to jump across, a wall too thick to knock down. You used to think it was because Rose didn’t trust you, that maybe, in your darkest moments, she didn’t even like you. That maybe you were too similar – the Seer playing at being a Witch, the Witch who thought she was a Seer. Thanks to your illuminating talk with Jasprose, you think you understand now why things remain the way they started.

     Rose has leaned forward to pick up the sketchbook you’ve left on the table. It’s stained with faint rings from teacups, dogeared in some places. There’s a large scribble in one corner where you were testing out a dying Sharpie.

      “You drew these?” Rose asks, not really expecting an answer. You rub your arm bashfully as she brushes her fingers over the pages. Her eyes linger on drawings of iguanas, a jelly-sandaled shoe hanging out of an apple tree.

     “They’re a little messy,” you offer.

     “I used to draw a lot. I stopped for some reason.” Rose sets your drawings down. “Maybe I should pick that hobby back up.”

     “Calliope comes over to paint sometimes. You could um, join us sometime?” Rose’s eyes travel to the rug, her mouth an unsure smile, so you stumble over yourself and add, “Or it could just be the two of us, if you want.”

     “Yeah. Yes, that might be fun.”

     Rose tugs on her earlobe. You recognize it as a nervous tick, even if she’s not aware of it. You remember what Jasprose said, the “schoolgirl crush,” and you wonder what Rose might be feeling as you bumble about like this. Somehow, after years of knowing and loving Rose Lalonde, each conversation still feels like a blind date.

     “I’m sure I’m no good at it anymore. At least I have my writing.”

     “I’ll teach you how to draw if you teach me how to write,” you laugh. “I couldn’t scribble myself out of a paper bag.”

     “There’s really nothing to it,” Rose offers. She shifts to make room for her wife as Kanaya strides back into the room, allowing her to place an arm on Rose’s shoulder. “You don’t even have to write what you know, as any hack job graduate student might tell you. You just have to write what feels urgent.”

     “Urgent?”

     “Yes. When something comes to mind, writing it down will feel like the most important thing in the world.” She adjusts her headband. “At least, that’s my experience with the craft.”

     Creaking down the steps, followed by a loud yawn as Davepeta shuffles past all of you and into the kitchen. Rose and Kanaya study you, putting two and two together, as you stare at a painting on the wall. Davepeta unscrews a bottle of orange juice and chugs it in front of the open fridge, and you feel your face burn, your eyes unblinking and your mouth pressed in a thin line.

     Kanaya clears her throat. “Are we interrupting something?”

     “No!” you nearly shout.

     “Ignore me,” Davepeta says, tongue-in-cheek, as they make a toasting motion with the half-empty jug. “I’m not even here.” 

     You scratch your forehead with your thumbnail and exhale. Then, in typical Davepeta fashion, they immediately contradict themself by taking a peek over your shoulder at the little seadweller. They coo over it and poke it in its chubby cheek, and in response it gurgles a shiny, purple bubble.

     “Aw, what a cutie. Kanaya, you do not have to worry,” they say emphatically, “I am not gonna turn Junior into paint. Don’t even sweat it.”

     Kanaya blinks slowly. “I would thank you to refrain from doing so.”

     Davepeta nudges you playfully in the arm as they swagger across the house and back up the stairs, excusing themself with a dramatic “ Ladies ” and a low bow.

     You clear your throat and say “Anyway ” at the same time Rose says “Well ” and Kanaya says “Um .”

     Kanaya lifts her wrist to examine the thin, golden chain of her watch. You can smell the patch of perfume applied to her veins.

     “Well, I won’t keep you,” she sniffs. “Don’t hesitate to call if anything arises.”

     “Right."      

     A brief look is exchanged between her and her wife. She smooths the hem of her shirt, sparing you a polite smile before ducking her head and shutting the screen door softly behind her.

     Your hand rises to your mouth – John once pointed out that you have a habit of rubbing at your bottom lip when you’re worried about what you’re about to say. A habit you apparently shared with his father, your half-brother.

     “Is Kanaya okay?” you ask. Then you blurt, “If you mind me asking.”

     Rose’s smile falters. “I don’t mind. Actually – hm.”

     “What?”

     She’s slow to speak, pausing often between her words. “I hope you’ll forgive me for dropping this in your lap, and I hope my wife will forgive me for telling her secrets to anyone who will listen, but,” Rose tugs her earlobe again. Her conch piercing catches the light. “I want you to know, Jade, that Kanaya – that, both of us, really, are sorry if you feel that we only visit to force wigglers on you.”

     “Oh, no!” you protest, “It’s fine, you know I enjoy doing this for you.”

     “See, that’s the thing. Kanaya is a very competent brood mistress. There are dozens of jadebloods under her direct supervision, she doesn’t – the task we’ve entrusted you with is–”

     “Is…?”

     “It’s not necessarily – there are facilities that are more than capable of–”

     God damn, wigglers are heavy. You adjust its weight in your arms, and it bites its gummy little teeth down on your shirt collar.

     “Rose, you can tell me. We don’t have to do this.”

     Her cheeks stain a darker color. “It’s a front.”

     “A what?”

     Rose closes her eyes briefly before continuing. “I know you have the impression that we’re very busy, and we are, but not enough that we can’t come by time to time just to sit on the beach.”

     One of your dog ears flicks. “I’m confused. You do do that.”

     “Sure,” Rose snorts, “maybe six months ago. Listen, the piñata I’m impotently swinging my bat at is – we were fabricating pretenses under which to visit you because we didn’t want to–” she cringes as she continues, “–bother you.”

     You stare at each other, and all of a sudden you burst into laughter. The wiggler makes a sound like a gasp and curls its little claws. Rose gapes at you.

     “Rose, your brother and his boyfriend literally showed up at my door the other day without texting or calling just to show me a cool bug they found.”

     “Was the bug cool enough to warrant an emergency?”

     “Hey, dumb-dumb, listen to what I’m saying.” You swat her upside the head, and she makes a surprised sound. “You don’t have to make up crap to hang out with me. I like being around you guys. I’d rather sit and twiddle my thumbs with you and Kanaya than have a boy with sweaty palms insist that I hold a weird bug.” You pause. “And no, it wasn’t cool, it was a longhorn beetle and it got loose in the house.”

     Rose grins with the back of her hand pressed to her mouth – she has a horrible habit of hiding her open-mouthed smiles. Her eyebrows raise as you delicately set the grub belly-up on the sofa, then swing your arms wide open.

     “C’mere, TT, you big doofus!”

     A shrill laugh-squeal escapes her when you pick her up in a hug and lift her off the ground. She’s so short that it’s easy to clear her feet from the floor.

     “Jade!

     “Sorry, sorry, I got carried away. Hey, where the heck did your wife go?”

 

     Kanaya is in the garden filling her basket with tomatoes and wildflowers, because this is the trade-off you’ve settled upon. Her head jerks up when you shout her name from the screen door, and she places the basket in the sand just in time to catch you when you fling yourself into her arms.

     “You guys are ridiculous!” you scold.

     “Oh my, what did Rose tell you?”

     Kanaya holds you with your toes barely brushing the sand – she’s tall enough that you can just dangle from her arms like a ragdoll. Rose walks out onto the porch and leans against a column with her arms folded, and if she wasn’t smiling you’d mistake her shaking head for disapproval.

     You’re content to stay like this, breathless and flushed with happiness. But then Kanaya asks something along the lines of “ who’s watching the grub ,” and the three of you are forced back inside.

-

     You have never been a writer.

     Well, unless it’s a writer of introduction posts on SquiddleNet! Forums. You gave roleplay a shot at some point, played mystical princesses and narwhals and iridescent cuttlefish in the little white chat boxes with a 2,000 character limit. Once, a roleplay partner told you that your writing style was very dry. Scientific and explanatory. It lacked depth. You logged out for the day to rewire your heirloom bunny’s brain.

     You have never been a writer, so when you sit down on the sofa that night with a blank sketchbook page in front of you, you tap a faint little constellation of graphite dots upon the paper as the first words form. Rose’s painting is still drying, hung up among ferns and spider plants to stiffen in the sunlight of the greenhouse. She could have carried it home when it came time for her to leave, but she insisted on clipping it up before the window. You wonder if it was just her aloof way of gifting it to you. You watch the dark, blocky paint strokes of mauve as you tap the page.

 

When Gr Grandfather stri

Wild wildebeest, Connochaetes, his crown of keratin dull in Namibian sun, falls to grunts his low death-cry as copper and lead tears through serratus anterior. Flies will settle before rigor mortis takes him.

 

     The hum of the refrigerator in the next room distracts you for a little while, and you stare out the window with the pencil’s eraser on your lip. Then you blink hard, startling yourself into the present. What you’ve accomplished so far looks like nothing. Less than nothing.

     You don’t have to write what you know, Rose laughed. You write what feels urgent.

      Urgent.

 

Flies will settle before rigor mortis takes him, and the shadow of you will fall over him, Grandfath Dr. Harley, you whose face will shine with sweat when the camera goes off and you stand over your trophy. A man who speaks only Swahili will throw the linen over his head and crouch to level himself with the tripod, you and your whole hunting party under the mass of the beast. Flies will settle on Connochaetes, and one may even land on your brow. You will swat it away, and the unsightly tear through serratus anterior will not matter because you will only be taking the head, after all. You only need a piece to prove it to yourself. A trophy, no matter how small, will prove that you have conquered.

Dr. Harley, do you fret over flies and rigor mortis when you pluck her from her tomb on the battlefield? Was it difficult, Dr. Harley, to stitch the laceration along the frontal lobe, where skin split and the sinew of pink muscle peeked out? When you screwed the soles of her feet to the shelaqued mahogany,

 

     You stop writing and start rubbing your temples. Whatever felt urgent, whatever couldn’t wait, no longer feels so. Sort of a moot point, anyway, when the only person you would ever show this to will only take it as a hurtful insult. Dr. Harley is gone, him and all the answers to questions that don’t matter anymore.

     You put the pen down and go to bed.

 

-

 

     You throw yourself back onto the couch so hard that a pillow tumbles off onto the floor. John finishes his beer with one last chug, and you sip from your glass of water.

     “Can I tell you something?” you ask suddenly.

     The idea to tell him springs fully formed without a plan – and despite the heavy cloud that weighs on your eyelids and makes everything feel fuzzy, you can already sense yourself backtracking.

     “Yeah.”

     “I think I’m a lesbian.”

     John stares at you for a bit, then swishes his beer bottle in a lazy circle. “What about Davepeta?”

     “Oh my god, John, I tell you something personal and that’s what you have to say? You fuckin’ turd !” you shout, leaning forward to smack him on the arm. John laughs and raises an elbow to defend himself from the sororal barrage. “And second of all, what do you even mean by that?”

     “Jade, c’mon. You can not even hope to fool me with your coy shenanigans.” He pauses to blink in surprise. “Whoa, I just got a major case of deja vu.”

     “Okay, even if Davepeta had anything to do with what I’m telling you, they can’t go a single conversation without detailing how they’re ‘not a boy’ and ‘not a girl,’ so like, wbatever, okay? It doesn’t make a difference, even if, and I mean if I knew what was going on with that whole situation.” You take a big gulp of water. “Whoa, you’re right. Deja vu.”      

     John rests his elbow on the back of the couch and holds his cheek in his hand. His face has adopted the infuriatingly serene expression of a school counselor.

     “All right, well, what about like… the whole thing with Dave Sprite?”

     “I mean, I….” You sigh and throw your hands up. “I don’t know how to explain it. I remember some things, in an abstract sort of way. Kind of like I’m watching home movies of someone else’s life. So I can see how it played out, and I can see that she – that I –   cared about him a lot, but it still isn’t my life, y’know? Maybe that Jade wasn’t a lesbian. Maybe she was bisexual, or maybe she would’ve ended up where I am right now. Who knows!”

     You finish your glass of water and set it on the coffee table. Responsibly hydrated – moderation is important, kids – you scoop up your wine glass and start drinking again.

     “Does every iteration of yourself across all timelines only have one true sexuality?” Your face scrunches up – this wine is way too dry. “It depends on your stance re: nature vs. nurture. I’ll probably never know. That’s okay by me.”

     “You never had a crush on Dave then, huh?”

     “Did you think I did?”

     John motions for you to share your wine. You hand it over, and he knocks his head back to empty a third of it. He laughs at the glare you give him.

     “I just assumed you liked him. I think we all did.”

     “Why?”

     He shrugs. “Hell, Jade, you only have to breathe in a ten-year-old boy’s direction to make him think you like him.” John returns your wine glass. “Also, I had to spend a year living with you and Dave Sprite fawning over each other, so a guy’s gonna put two and two together.”

     You swirl the wine around, watching the transparent rings of purple-red cling to the glass and vanish.

     “When I was little, the White Queen told me that one day, I would be one of the very last humans alive. I didn’t have to guess who the other survivors would be.”

     Sleepily, John folds his arms on an overstuffed pillow and rests his cheek on them. “Yeah?”

     “Then Jake began writing letters to me, and since visions of the future had never led me astray before, I took him at face value when he said I was his grandmother. So if one day I was fated to have children, and the rest of mankind had died out, that left me with limited options, huh?”

     “Hm.”

     “I don’t remember sitting myself down and forcing myself to swallow the pill that Dave and I would end up together. Somehow, though, I must have started acting like it was an inevitability.” You finish your glass and set it atop a magazine. “Like accepting a death sentence.”

     John stares at you. “Wow, Jade, that is such a fucking bummer.”

     “Ha, sorry, I didn’t mean to get so dark.”      

     Your brother leans back to consider what you’ve told him. You’re getting sleepy now, too. You listen to the furnace kick on underneath the floorboards, filling the house with its low humming.

     “If you think about it, you kinda are ending up with Dave.”

     “Jesus, John, Davepeta isn’t Dave. And they’re not a boy, so, added bonus.”

     “Gotcha! See? You didn't deny it,” John teases. He waggles his eyebrows at you, so you slap him on the leg.

     Embarrassed, you adjust your glasses. “If anything, it just proves my point. Sure, Davepeta grew their hair out, and sometimes they dress kind of feminine, but they still look a lot like Dave. Sometimes I’ll catch myself conflating them, and when that happens I get super uncomfortable, and I start feeling trapped and gross.”

     “Coy shenanigans….”

     “Shut up! Anyway, when I correct myself and see them for who they are, I stop... panicking.”

 

     It’s a conscious, daily effort – you have to remind yourself that you're not sentencing yourself to a life of misery by shackling yourself to a Strider for all eternity, til hetero death do us part. And god, you care deeply for Dave, but how miserable you would have made each other. You do not say this out loud because you do not want to hear any more snarky jabs about your nebulous relationship status.

 

     “Side note, coming out to my only sibling is a big moment of vulnerability for me, so I’d appreciate if you didn’t turn it into a roundtable discussion about people who have nothing to do with any of this.”

     “Sorry, sorry. Have you been thinking about this for a long time, then?”

     “For about as long as I’ve had a crush on Sailor Jupiter,” you joke. “I dunno… for a few months maybe.”

     “Geez.” John lets out a low whistle. “Man, first Rose, and Kanaya, and then Cat Rose, and now you… I am starting to think I’m being surrounded on all sides by lesbians.”

     “You are hopelessly outnumbered by lesbians, John. Don’t even try to fight it.”

     “I’m not!” John laughs as he throws his hands up. “I am one hundred percent behind you.”

     A little slowly, John straightens up and points a finger at an invisible stranger behind you.

     “Hey!” he says with stern fraternal disapproval, beer and wine slurring his voice a bit. “My sister’s a lesbian, watch it!”

     You smack your forehead as you start laughing at him. “John–”

     “That lesbian, right there? That’s my sister, bub. She’s a lesbian, so watch your fucking mouth.”

     “You are my number one ally, John.”

     “I am here to defend the lesbians, Jade. You can count on me.”

     “Thank you.”      

     John checks the time on his phone, then clicks the screen off and tucks it away.

     “Um, do you think you could keep this between us for now?” you ask. “It’s not that I’m confused, or ashamed, or anything–”

     “Good!” John shouts. “You shouldn’t be ashamed!”

     “Thank you for your support, John, but seriously. I’ll tell the others when it comes up, I just don’t… want to make a big deal of it.”

     

     This is partially true. You don’t want to make a big deal of it, sure, but you also don’t like feeling like you’re riding the coattails of Rose and Kanaya’s kid-tested, mother-approved lesbianism. Like they have the fucking trademark on it or something. And yeah, maybe you’re afraid that the others will feel the way John initially did, with what-abouts and buts . Maybe they wouldn’t say it aloud, but they’d think it all the same, and the idea of them doubting you is painful. It’s an irrational and stupid feeling to have. Who among you might understand? Maybe Davepeta, who would be so proud of you for finding a piece in the great puzzle that comprises Ultimate Jade, who would be over the moon that you’ve successfully grappled with who you are. Maybe you’ll try coming out to Jasprose before you talk to anyone else – if she can keep her mouth shut.

 

     “Yeah, Jade, I get it. My lips are sealed.” John seals his mouth in a faux-zippering motion. “As a defender of lesbians I will safe guard your secret to the grave.”

     “Hopefully it won’t be a ‘secret’ for very long.”

     The antique grandfather clock that once lived in Dr. Harley’s study chimes to announce midnight. Standing slowly and with a little effort, you collect your empty glasses and John’s beer bottles. As you shuffle to the kitchen to set them away, you pause at the counter and turn to look back at your brother.

     “Hey John?”

     “Huh?”

     “Thanks for listening.”

     John smiles, his eyelids drooping goofily. “Of course.”

 

     You look a lot alike right now, you think – disheveled hair and flushed, freckled faces.