“Do you ever feel, even though everything is objectively going pretty well, that there’s some hopeless part of you that just can’t take it?”
It had been a few weeks since the girls’ night out. The bonding session had more or less served its purpose, and the Pesterchum memo was nigh-constantly abuzz with activity. Someone (the app didn’t log such things) kept changing the memo’s name to more and more absurd things -- Slytherin Girls Chatroom evolved into SNAKECHAT evolved into HOW 2 PLOT 4 NERDS evolved into MILLIE HAS A CRUSH ON MALFOY NO I DONT STOP HOW DO I DELETE THIS evolved into a series of emojis that seemed to tell the tale of a chicken from hatching to its delicious death, and so on, and so forth.
And yet, despite the whole operation being her idea, Rose barely used it, even when Roxy was active.
“I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I’m basically a paragon of mental health,” said Dirk. “So I can’t relate.” From where he stood on the shore, Dirk picked up a smooth looking rock and skipped it into the Lake. It bounced exactly once before sinking.
“Funny,” said Rose. “I know ‘teen girl complains about ennui’ is played-out beyond belief at this point, but I feel a need to put this into words, and it’s a lot harder to journal when you’re restricted to ink and quill.”
“Do you think that was a deliberate restriction by the wizards in charge to limit the power of education?” asked Dirk. “Only the wealthy are able to afford automated quills, shrinking the pool of people who are able to write and eventually publish.”
“I don’t care right now, Strider,” said Rose. “If you want to elaborate on your eventual goals of fully automated magical space communism you can, but I’m trying to establish gravitas.” Rose sat down and began doodling the outline of what appeared to be a Squiddle in the sand. “Though in my experience from the future, the most accessible communication mediums we had seemed to be directly linked to the downfall of society.”
“No, Twitter,” said Rose.
"What happened to your gravitas?" asked Dirk.
"It seems to have entirely evaporated, alongside any relevance or comedy this part of the conversation had," said Rose. "We were discussing my issues?"
Dirk picked up another stone and flicked it across the surface of the lake. It made it three skips this time before sinking.
"So what's your issue?" he said. "You can't relate to a bunch of eleven year olds, is that the problem?"
That wasn't true, thought Rose. There had been good moments here and there. Rose thought back to a particularly memorable transfiguration class, where Daphne had attempted to modify the properties of her Skaiaphone. Her frustration had led her to call over McGonagall, who had taken the phone into her hand and waved all manner of spells over it. All of the charms had succeeded, until she attempted to transfigure the phone, which utterly failed to have an effect.
"Where did you get this contraption, Ms. Greengrass?" McGonagall had asked.
Daphne told her. McGonagall had smiled wistfully, then went back to her desk and unlocked a drawer. With a flick of her wand, she had summoned to her palm a simple green cube with slightly bevelled edges.
"I have a feeling," said Professor McGonagall, "that once I understand the essence of devices like this one Mr. Strider gave me, I'll be given an Order of Merlin for Transfiguration. Maybe two."
"I don't know how to put it into words," said Rose. "Just a feeling like nothing is happening."
"Aren't you learning, like, literal magic?" asked Dirk. "What is there not to love, for the wizard-in-training?"
"I'm... kind of already pretty good at magic, or, at least I was," said Rose. "Stand back."
Rose equipped her needlewands and pointed them towards the beach. An omnious glow surrounded the tips of her wands, and a small rock surrounded by a similar glow began to rise from its place on the shore.
With a flick of her wands, the rock was launched like a missile across the surface of the lake, bouncing once near the halfway point, finally sinking just prior to hitting the opposite shoreline.
"That's a hell of a Leviosa," noted Dirk.
"I don't know what that means, and I think I won't like what I hear," replied Rose.
"Jesus, Lalonde. Not everything with me is fucked up. It's a first year levitation spell. You're probably learning it later today, assuming you have Charms. They save it for the last week of October."
"Oh." Rose felt somewhat embarrassed. "Well, the point is I didn't even need to use a spell to do that. I just directed my magic powers at the rock and did the magic thing."
"So your whole midlife crisis is that you're, what, bored in class?"
"No!" She groaned, frustrated. Rose couldn't even say that she was bored in class, really. Even Astronomy had something to keep her interest -- Professor Sinistra kept using frogs as a, well, what she claimed was just a metaphor for the shape of the universe, expanding like the vocal sac of a frog. Hell, Defense Against the Dark Arts continued to be interesting enough to not be boring, too, despite the mess of a "human" that was Professor Quirrel giving her headaches from his scatterbrained teaching style.
The memory of his reaction when she drew the Black Queen for him, with a convenient arrow and label to show that she was a "Lady, Black" still brought a smile to her face. Jack was so tellingly obvious. It was a wonder he didn't stab her right then and there, but she supposed that asking a man contracted to teach about his sexual desire for a woman depicted in a drawing didn't necessarily merit immediate execution under the law of Hogwarts.
Jack’s apparent commitment to his role as a teacher didn’t stop him from emanating waves of hatred/kill/destroy towards her -- after Rose began to actively try and mess with him, they only intensified, and her scar hurt more whenever he glared at her. But for some reason, Jack Noir, somehow in possession of Quirrel, seemed to be contractually unable to hurt her yet. So what if Rose was basically waving her hand in his face going 'haha don't you wish you could hurt me'? She deserved the opportunity to taunt him.
The man had killed her mother.
Even with these distractions, however, the days just seemed to stretch on. Class after class, meeting after meeting, essay after essay. Why were there so many essays? Perhaps Dirk's quill-based classism theory had some merit.
"It's not that I'm bored in class," said Rose, after some time. "Things here just seem so..."
"Inconsequential?" asked Dirk.
“Am I a jerk if I say yes?”
“I suggested the word, so I probably shoulder the jerk-blame,” said Dirk.
“It feels like, if my life Before was a story,” explained Rose, “this is a poorly-constructed sequel where nothing happens. And it isn’t as if we didn’t do our fair share of sitting around and talking way back when, don’t get me wrong. It was just also usually with aliens or mysterious white-text-talking figures, or we discussed world-ending catastrophes, the Green Sun, Jack Noir, the nature of the Game we were playing, anything of relevance.
“It’s not that the Slytherin girls are bad kids. Far from it. My problem is that they're all fine. They're all very good, nice kids. They've all got their own passions, their own lives, their own troubles and desires. But they’re all--”
“Normal?” offered Dirk.
“They all might have magic,” said Rose, “but none of them have gazed into the manifold eyes of the Grand Horrorterrors of the Furthest Ring and survived to tell the tale. None of them know what it’s like out there, what it feels like to suddenly have your memories merged with that of a version of yourself from a long-dead alternate timeline.”
“You’re being overdramatic, Lalonde,” said Dirk. “I know what you mean.”
“Yeah.” Before Rose could even blink, Dirk was at the edge of the water, stone in hand. He flicked his wrist and the stone shot across the water like a bullet, hitting the water and skipping across its surface over and over again before bouncing a rock jutting out off the opposite shore, hurtling into the air, flying all the way back across the length of the lake, and landing back into Dirk’s outstretched hand. “I think I know what you mean.”
Rose remained silent. Dirk just stared out over the water, where the rock that his stone had hit was breaking apart, the top half of it sliding into the lake. It landed with a splash.
“Sometimes I wonder if Dave’s approach is better,” said Rose. “Pretending nothing happened. That nothing will happen. That his brother wasn’t a man who could move at speeds so fast that a puppet could look like it was moving completely autonomously. That there won’t be any meteors, or that Jake Harley isn’t working on extracting the code of Sburb as we speak.”
“But that’s got its own issues,” said Dirk. The ripples from the beheaded rock were spreading out across the river.
“It’s its own kind of isolation,” agreed Rose. “From your own past. And I think he needs it, especially considering how awful a lot of that past was for the kid, no offense.”
“Some taken,” said Dirk. “Not your fault, of course.”
“Sure,” said Rose.
Dirk sat down next to Rose. The ripples had finally reached the shore, and lapped at the small sandbank.
“I think part of the problem is that I miss John.”
“Jane’s grandkid, right?”
“Yes,” said Rose. “I can’t quite point out specifics, but he was always so--”
From inside his jeans pocket, Dirk’s phone buzzed. Rose glared at him.
“Can you turn that off, Dirk? I’m mourning.”
“He’s not dead, just not born, but whatever,” said Dirk. He pulled his phone out, tapping on the screen once then putting it to his cheek. “Strider here. Is this an emergency?”
Rose couldn’t hear what the person on the other end was saying, though she could hear Dirk's increasingly sardonic replies just fine.
"No, I'm on break right now.
"Yes, I logged the break. It's on the app.
"You're telling me you don't check the app-- we all agreed to use the app last week at the Prefect's Meeting.
"I don't wanna use your shitty ass clocking in spell, Leijon.
"Okay, I'm about to hang up the fucking phone. Just tell me why you called me.
"Okay, hold your horses. Heh. That wasn't on purpose but I'm sticking with it.
"Yeah, I'm with Potter. Why?"
"Jesus. Okay, I'll get her to you. Can you be near the groundskeeper's hut?
"Alright. Fucking hell."
Dirk hung up.
"What's going on?" asked Rose.
"There's been an attack on the centaurs that live in the Forbidden Forest," said Dirk. "One of them has been discovered, dead, with multiple stab wounds. Just prior, Quirrel had been seen leaving the forest by Hagrid."
"It must be Jack," said Rose. "He's possessed by Jack, like you said. It must be."
"I don't know, but you need to be inside," said Dirk. "For some reason, a heavily armed centaur is at the front gate asking about you, and orders from Head Herbert say you gotta be safe. Leijon will escort you to your common room from Hagrid's hut -- it's nearby."
"So, what," said Rose. "I complain about ennui and the universe gives me a villain?"
Dirk smiled. His smile was tight. "Seems that way, kid," he said. "Seems that way."
Rose was personally very familiar with the concept of lockdown. When she was younger, her mother would occasionally invite strangers into their house. Sometimes the strangers would come in, Rose would hide in her room, and the next time she left it, there was a giant statue of a wizard in the center of the living room. Sometimes she'd hide from a knock and then nothing would have visibly changed in their house, until her next birthday, when her mother gifts her an absurd princess doll, twice her height.
On occasion, these visitors weren't deliverymen. She specifically remembered a single time when an older man with glasses and a moustache, a man she now recognizes to have been Jake Harley, sat and spoke to her mother for over four hours. When they were done, her mother was crying, Jake was apologizing, and Rose heard her mother loudly, raggedly declare that she never wanted to hear another word from him again.
From that day forth, nobody came into their house for longer than ten minutes.
This didn't stop Rose from locking herself in her room, of course -- it was entirely an understandable reaction for a young preteen to want to avoid her mother at her worst.
Usually, self imposed lockdown was a time for her to reflect. Or attempt to make headway in her wizard fanfiction. Or psychoanalyze strangers on the internet. Or just talk to her friends on Pesterchum.
This time, though, she entered her dorm room, and was immediately beset upon with questions:
"Are you alright?"
"Don't ever go to the lake without one of us again!"
"We heard there was an attack, but they won't tell us on who--"
"Someone is dead, I can feel it for certain--"
And so on.
Rose just took a deep breath, walked forward, and flopped down on her bed.
"Wake me if the Halloween Feast is still on," she said, quickly slipping out of consciousness.
Before she lost touch with the physical world entirely, she could hear someone say, "Oh, no! Are they going to cancel the feast?"
DAVE: wheres the green sun
ROSE: At this point, I think it's fair to say that we've been duped.
ROSE: Doc Scratch played us like suckers.
ROSE: Perhaps the entire universe played us like suckers.
This was an easy conclusion to come to. They had travelled the specific path through the Furthest Ring as plotted by the Horrorterrors, with a device recommended for use by Doc Scratch, a device, The Tumor, with enough power to destroy the Green Sun, the power source of all First Guardians, including the currently extremely overpowered Jack Noir, and Doc Scratch's 'master', Lord English.
Conveniently, what Doc Scratch had failed to mention, is that the Tumor also has enough energy to create the Green Sun. And that this, in fact, was what Rose and Dave were there to do.
DAVE: do i just
DAVE: who has the card
ROSE: The bunny has the card.
Liv Tyler, or whatever the fuck its name currently was, looked up at Rose, its absurd eyepatch reflecting the velvety nothingness of space. Rose wondered if the bunny remembered being her favorite stuffed animal before she gave it to John. Rose wondered if the bunny remembered that John had given Rose the bunny in the first place.
The cosmology of this bunny was stupid. What mattered was that it had the captchalogue card with The Tumor in it.
DAVE: got it
DAVE: here we go
The card, deployed.
A spikey egg thing, hatched.
Quest beds, revealed.
Dave floated over to one of the tubes.
DAVE: whys one red and one blue
ROSE: Do you recall Jack's Red Miles attack?
ROSE: The red one is the entirety of our universe.
DAVE: like the whole thing is in this tube
DAVE: real orions belt from men in black moment
DAVE: what would happen if I flicked the tube
ROSE: Don't flick the tube.
DAVE: haha im not that reckless
DAVE: so we're just sitting here waiting for this countdown to hit zero huh
DAVE: wonder what 1025 means
ROSE: It's 413 and 612 added together.
ROSE: 413 being our universe, of course, since it's the day we started playing Sburb.
DAVE: so the blue tube is the troll universe?
DAVE: did they start on like
DAVE: troll june twelfth
DAVE: or something equally dumb
DAVE: man, i don't get why some troll stuff gets like a cool and fun name, like laptop becomes husktop, while other times i have karkat trying to compare the man whose actual name is literally troll will smith
DAVE: like he sent me a picture of troll will smith and he just looks like will smith with horns its hilarious
ROSE: While this anecdote is extremely satisfying, as I've wondered about the origins of the absurd language the trolls use,
ROSE: Make sure to do this while touching your Quest Bed.
DAVE: are we like
DAVE: gonna die when this hits zero
ROSE: It's a bomb, Dave. It's a bomb that creates something, but that something is a sun with the mass of two universes, as well as mysterious properties that we don't fully understand.
ROSE: We're going to die.
ROSE: We'll probably be fine in the long run so long as we're on our quest beds when we die, but...
ROSE: Just be careful. I feel like this is maybe the single most important thing either of us is ever going to do.
ROSE: And if you die for a stupid reason like not being in contact with your quest bed when the bomb goes off, you'll never get a chance to prove me wrong.
DAVE: yeah ok
Dave sat, legs swinging off the quest bed.
DAVE: i dunno if this is how it went the first time around
DAVE: i think it was a lot less funky banter
DAVE: and a lot more uh
DAVE: dramatic glances at each other?
DAVE: forget i said anything
ROSE: Fuck. I'm dreaming, aren't I?
DAVE: gave away the goat too soon
DAVE: my b
DAVE: hey rose
ROSE: You're looking at me like you haven't seen me in years, Dave. I saw you at breakfast.
ROSE: You and your Hufflepuff buddies were doing something rap related.
DAVE: oh yeah that was ill
DAVE: my flow with my badgers win badges
DAVE: im like the magical king of turning raps into ashes
DAVE: your mom came to me to check out her rashes
DAVE: that last line needs more work
ROSE: We have the same mom.
DAVE: your second mom
ROSE: She's dead.
DAVE: fuck i forgot
DAVE: girl who lived, voldyboy day, yeah
DAVE: this is the tenth anniversary of them dying
ROSE: Thanks for reminding me.
DAVE: but i was moreso getting at
DAVE: this is the first time since this moment ive seen you in those stupid ass derse dreamer pajamas
DAVE: hell in any outfit that was from sburb
DAVE: not that you don't look kickass pointing two wands at a matchstick trying to turn it into a needle but it feels different
ROSE: Honestly, even though I know this is a dream, and one that'll end when this timer hits zero, I feel better than I have in so long.
ROSE: Maybe since this moment.
ROSE: Something is just existentially... missing from our lives. Do you feel like that, Dave?
DAVE: im a wizard in a kickass country
DAVE: i get to witness margaret thatcher using her girl power by funneling money into illegal paramilitary death squads while being in the country where that's going down
DAVE: im living a new life and yeah its different but so was our life before the game. every chance you get at living is different and thats not a bad thing
ROSE: Even though I brought it up, this is exhausting me.
DAVE: is that why youre asleep
ROSE: It's an emotional exhaustion, but not too far off. I've had this conversation twice today.
ROSE: Right when I was complaining to your brother about feeling purposeless, the universe hands me a stabbing on a plate, and I'm somehow implicated in it.
ROSE: Is it listening or just cruel?
DAVE: id go with cruel
DAVE: i mean the universe didn't let us keep liv tyler
DAVE: look at her
DAVE: shes so cute
The bunny looks up at Dave. It knows it's going to die soon. This, alongside temporarily stopping Jack, was what it was created for. That, and arming Jack with the blade he'd use to kill the Black Queen. So really, in totality, Liv had done a lot more to help ensure Jack Noir's creation than his destruction.
Aren't time loops fun?
DAVE: so fun
ROSE: I said that out loud?
DAVE: your internal monologue gets stupidly loud in boring dreams
ROSE: How is this boring? I'm here with the bunny you gifted to John, who gifted it to me at my birth, which I gifted to John, who gifted it to Jade at her birth, who traded it to her mysterious pen pal that I still somehow know nothing about, who traded it back to Jade after upgrading it with artificial consciousness, who gifted it to John, who then got separated from it, until it ended up here, with us, waiting for this timer to hit zero, which, frankly, I can't wait to happen.
DAVE: you missed one step
ROSE: Which step?
DAVE: the original owner
DAVE: nic cage
ROSE: God fucking--
The timer hit zero, and Rose's entire sense of existence was confused, condensed into a single point of light as green fire washed over her and the god-tiering process began, and she couldn't see anything, the same overwhelming green light she kept seeing in her dreams in her new life, too, over and over and someone was laughing and something fundamental felt horribly wrong and she felt a hand on her shoulder and--
It was Daphne.
"After you fell asleep Tracey hit you with a dreaming spell," she explained. "Since you looked like you were having a bad day. But then you didn't wake up when Tracey said you were supposed to, and we were going to call the Prefect--"
"I'm okay," said Rose. "It was a pretty good dream, actually. Compelling. Just kind of a shit end."
Pansy, from the doorway of the dorm gasped. "Did she just swear?"
"Fuh-rick you," slurred Rose. "Are we feasting or what?"
"You sure you're okay?" asked Daphne. "Tracey said she'd never used her dream bubble spell on anyone who wasn't awake before, so she was worried--"
"Just groggy," said Rose. "Food?"
"It's all being served in the common room, because of the lockdown."
"Right," said Rose. "I'm gonna eat a pumpkin."
"What kind of pumpkin? Pie, pasty, pastry--"
It was, as she had expected, a very delicious meal.