Actions

Work Header

Find A Temple, Build A Temple

Chapter Text

It starts in spring, after the honeysuckle dies and the sun still feels like a friend. The world is green and yellow, and it smells like still water and dandelions as the Texas morning slides like cooling wax over the treetops.

He hides in the shadow of a towering pine tree with his back pressed to the dirty bark. Gnats swarm thickly around the cool patch of clover he stands in, and he peeks around the edge of the trunk at the squirrel who's chittering away at another hidden high up in the branches above him. His fingers are sweaty around the triggers of his water pistols, and he pretends like they're real ones because he's five years old, a world-renowned hunter and celebrated explorer, and to him they are. Pine needles crunch drily when the squirrel starts to scamper away, and he jumps out from behind the tree with a shout, firing wildly at it until his guns are empty. Only, it isn't a squirrel running across the dead leaves, and by the time he realizes it, it's too late to do anything about it. There's a soaking wet boy with blonde hair and a plastic sword in his hand looking down at himself.

Little beads of water are running down his arms, held out to his sides and dripping onto the grass beneath him, and he seems tough. He's bigger than Jake, and when he looks up from his soaked blue Power Rangers shirt to glare with these mad, eagle eyes, Jake thinks he should start running before he gets a wallop. But the boy just pulls the shirt away from his chest so that it isn't sticking to him anymore and asks, "What kind of bullets are these?"

Jake relaxes, no longer thinking he's in for a fight, and smiles, bringing out his pistols from where he'd hidden them behind his back. "Magic ones. They kill everything. Even pirates," he says, eying the boy's sword.

"Oh...Well, I'm bullet proof. And I'm not a pirate. I'm a samurai."

"What's a samurai?" he asks.

"It's like a ninja but with a really cool sword and honor and stuff. They can cut bullets in half."

Jake doesn't know what a ninja is either, but he thinks that's the best thing he's ever heard of, even better than the secret agents in the spy movies he watches. He can see why his bullets didn't work. "Do you want to play with me?" he asks, stepping forward. The boy has purple juice stains at the corners of his mouth, and he hesitates before he answers, turning his head so that he's looking behind him at the car lot of the park they're playing in. There's another tall blonde man who's leaning against the trunk of a car and talking on his cellphone. His back is to them, and he's gesturing with his hands like he's angry, but Jake can't hear what he's saying to be sure, and the boy is turning to face him again.

"What game do you want to play?" he asks.

"Jungle Adventure!" Jake says it like he expects the boy to know what he's talking about, and he's a little disappointed when it's obvious that he doesn't. "You've never played it?" The boy shakes his head. "Okay, well, I'm the brave explorer, and since you have a sword you can help me cut through the poison vines and kill monsters that want to eat us and keep us from finding the temple where the treasure is." As he's talking, the boy's face goes sour, and Jake wonders what he's said.

"No way, samurais are warriors. My sword is for protecting princesses. I don't want to cut trees," he says. He puts his hands on his hips and looks like he won't agree to play, so Jake thinks fast because now he wants to have a jungle adventure with a samurai.

"Then...I can be a brave explorer princess, and you can protect me with your sword and cut trees and kill monsters, too. That way we can still find the treasure." The boy relaxes and nods, and Jake is happy because it's a good plan. They can both be happy with it.

"My name's Dirk," the boy says with a smile, and Jake can see that one of his teeth is missing, which makes him little jealous because he still has all of his.

But Jake beams at him anyway and slips a pistol between his side and his arm so that he can offer his hand because that's what his grandma says all explorers do when they introduce themselves. "I'm Jake." Dirk doesn't seem to know what he means by it and slaps the palms of their hands together instead. It stings, but it's good enough, and Jake assumes that must be how samurais introduce themselves.

A lady with her hair in a pony tail comes jogging through the path where the bike trails that wind off through the trees meet in the middle of the clearing. With her headphone wire bouncing against her chest, she smiles at them and says 'good morning.' Jake waves back and says hello, but Dirk stays quiet and watches her bound off instead. "I like the way you talk," he says finally after she's disappeared into the trees, and Jake turns to look at him, slipping his water pistols between his belt and his shorts because he doesn't have a gun holster, and it makes him feel more like a real explorer than when he puts them in his pockets.

"I like the way you talk, too. Let's be friends from now on," he asserts. Dirk agrees, and before he says anything else takes another look back at the blonde man on the phone, who's still not looking at them. All of his attention is focused on whoever he's yelling at, so Dirk grabs Jake's hand and pulls him away down another of the trails almost too fast for Jake to keep up, but he's all too happy to try because someone else is going on an adventure with him for the first time, and he knows it's going to be a good one.

And it is a good one. It's the best one he's ever had, and it goes on and on. The whole day is spent ducking under bushes and climbing trees because the view up top is better for finding the location of the temple and spotting enemy hideouts, and although Dirk is slow on the uptake, he gets it eventually, and then he excels. Jake is convinced Dirk is the best samurai in the world, and even the ancient booby traps hidden in the scraggly weeds don't trip him up because, as it happens, he can cut unexpected flying arrows in half, too. Sometimes he saves Jake from monsters, and sometimes Jake saves him from giant boulders, and because they've wandered so far away from the path, no one clumsily stumbles through and ruins their dream.

It's perfect, and he wants every day for the rest of his life to be just like this one.

When his stomach starts grumbling and the sky is turning purple through the thick dark canopy overhead, he's genuinely upset. He's never had so much fun, and it's unfair in a way that seems criminal that it has to end just because the sun won't stay awake for them. Bugs have started to come out, though, and Dirk is scratching at his mosquito bites so hard that ugly red lines from his fingernails have risen all over him, so Jake grabs for his hand again, and they start making their way back to where they think they left the trail. Slowly, though, because even bugs can't rush an adventure this good.

Jake makes Dirk promise to come back so that they can do it again next week because he has to start kindergarten when the weekend is over. "New town, new school, new rules," he recites to Dirk. Words from his grandma. He can't stay out playing all the time, she says. So he won't, but he'll save a day for it. He'll save this day for it, he thinks, and when they emerge from the trees into the clearing there's no one on the small plastic playground with the two bright red slides and the yellow monkey rails because it's after dusk, and the park closes after dusk. The entire place is empty, including the car lot, and he remembers that he was supposed to be home before now, and isn't allowed to go anywhere else, but then Dirk asks if Jake wants to walk home with him, and Jake forgets about all of that because he doesn't want to leave his new friend just yet. So he follows behind swinging their clasped hands around in a wide arc between them. Dirk says he remembers which way his brother drove them to get there, so Jake lets himself be guided along while they talk about his grandma and Dirk's brother. His brother was the one with the cellphone who hadn't been looking at him before they ran away, he explains.

"He's really cool." It makes him sound sad to say, and he looks down at his feet, kicking a pebble up the road. Jake tells him that he thinks Dirk is cooler, but Dirk shakes his head. "No, he's really cool," he mumbles, and Jake can't convince him that he is too, so he stops trying, and they wander down the muted gray streets holding hands. The houses are all quiet and comfortable with yellow lights in the windows and the downy pink and purple twilight threatening night above their heads, and Jake's never seen this part of the neighborhood before because his new house is on the other side of the park. It's nicer here, though. Everything is made with big red bricks, and he can't hear anyone yelling bad things at each other from inside their homes.

Dirk lives in a two-story house made of the same red brick as all the others, and it takes them a while to get there, but Dirk isn't sad anymore when they do. He'd asked Jake about where he had moved from, and Jake is busy talking about how different 'Tessas' is from 'Brissol' when they emerge from the side of a tall wooden fence overrun with leafy flowering vines and come out on the sidewalk in front of it. Dirk's brother is standing in his doorway red faced and shouting again, but the shouting is different now from how it had been earlier. This time, he doesn't look angry; he looks scared and sad, and his face is wet because he's crying. There's a policeman who's trying to calm him taking down notes on a little paper pad, but it's not working, and Dave just shouts more when he tries to tell him it'll be okay. Dirk stops swinging their hands together and stares.

"Dave?" he calls. His voice is tentative, and his eyes are wide and afraid, and Jake is looking between them all, unsure of what's happening.

Dave's eyes snap to them like someone has punched him in the gut, and then he's stepping around the policeman. In a flash, he's kneeling on the ground with his arms around Dirk, and he's squeezing him so hard that Dirk wheezes. It scares Jake into taking a step back, but it only takes a second for Dirk to put his arms around his brother and squeeze just as hard. The red and blue lights on top of the cop car in the driveway are spinning around slowly, and the people in the house across the street are watching them from a window where he can see images on a TV screen playing in the background. Dave is mumbling into Dirk's hair about how worried sick he's been, wanting to know where Dirk was, if he's safe, if he's okay, why he would scare him like that, and it's a million and one questions that Dirk doesn't have a chance to answer because suddenly Dave's eyes are on Jake. They're hard and red, and he's afraid that he's done something wrong.

"Kid, who are you?" he asks.

"I'm -" he stops because the policeman is staring at him, too, but he doesn't remember doing anything that he would be in trouble for except leaving the park, so he steps toward Dave and pushes his hand out. "I'm Jake English," he says quietly. Dave peels an arm from around Dirk and takes his hand but doesn't shake it. Dirk pipes up then, explaining that they had been playing, that Jake is an explorer, and that they were looking for treasure. They didn't find any yet, but Dave can have some when they do because they're going back to look for it again soon. Dave lets go of Jake's hand and slumps like all the energy has been taken out of him, exhaling slowly before he stands. His hands find themselves under Dirk's arms, and he's picked up and seated around his shoulders before Dave says anything else, and then Dave is offering his hand to Jake again.

"Come on. Your parents know you're out?" he asks.

Jake wraps his fingers around Dave's and says, "I don't have parents," and Dave gives his hand a squeeze so light, so quick, he's not sure it happened, but Jake's not really focused on it to be sure because Dirk's looking down, and he's looking up, and their eyes meet. He looks content. Resting his chin in Dave's blonde hair, Dirk fumbles for the sunglasses that are hanging on his shirt collar, pulling them away so he can put them on his own face. They're too big and cover everything from his forehead to his cheeks before they slide off his nose completely, and Jake wants to laugh, but he's still too unsure of what's happening.

The policeman meets Dave halfway in the middle of the yard, and they have another long talk that concludes with the sense that everything's fine now because Dirk's home. When they finish, he offers to drive Jake home, and Jake thinks it'd be fun to ride in the back of a police car, but he honestly doesn't know how to get back to his house by driving, and he doesn't know what their new phone number is to call his grandma and ask for directions. With a wave of his hand, Dave says it's fine, that he'll walk Jake home, and after some more chitchat the policeman takes off in his car, radio fizzing with a dispatcher's garbled voice, and it's just the three of them left standing on the dark lawn.

The sky is navy and white-speckled now, and the reflection of the porch light is glinting on the dark glass edge of Dave's shades, still snugly around Dirk's chin. Dave turns his head up and puts a hand on Dirk's back to keep him steady on his shoulders, taking his shades away and putting them back on his face before he's pulling Dirk down and setting his feet softly in the grass. There's a slim hand weaving through Dirk's fluffy yellow hair when he speaks again. "Why would you scare me like that? You know I have a flight to catch in the morning." The smile disappears from Dirk's face, and he looks confused.

"But you said we would play before you left." Dave is shaking his head before Dirk's even through speaking, and then he's quiet, looking at his feet again the way he had when they were walking home. Jake is a stranger here, but he wants to ask Dave to stay so he'll look happy again.

"That's why we went to the park today, little man. I can't stay longer just because you ran off." The cellphone he had been talking on is clipped to his belt now, and Dirk is pouting, pushing Dave's hand away from his head with both arms. Dave sighs, turning to look at Jake. "You ready to go home?"

He nods, and then Dave is going back to the house to lock the door, and Jake turns to ask if Dirk is okay, but he isn't talking anymore, so Jake settles for grabbing his hand. When Dave comes back, Dirk reluctantly gives him the other, and they start making their way back. Jake's the only one who's talking, and when they get to his house, just around the corner from the park and not as cool as Dirk's because it's only one story and faced with faded wood paneling - but nice because it smells like his grandma's been baking again - she's mad at him for being late. But she's too happy to see that he's made a friend to stay that way for very long.

"I would have taken him myself, but I've got a bad hip, you see," she says, offering Dave a piece of pound cake which he politely refuses. They're all standing in the entrance to the dining room, and Jake wants to show Dirk his room and his favorite toys, especially the Indiana Jones poster he got for his last birthday, but the adults are talking, so he's polite like his grandma asks and keeps from interrupting them. "And it's hard for me to get around. But what kind of grandmother would I be if I didn't let him have his adventures just because I can't share them?" Dave is nodding, saying that he understands because he wishes he could be around more often to share in Dirk's adventures, and then his grandmother is talking about his parents and the accident and the move and other things he's tired of hearing about, so he tunes it out.

His legs hurt, and he wants to go do something else before he has to get ready for bed, but he slides down to sit on the floor instead while the adults drone on. They talk about Dave's job, how he's only in town until tomorrow. He's working on 'deals' in California, so Dirk is home with a babysitter a lot because he's in kindergarten now - "Oh, yes, Jake has been registered there too! You'll be classmates, isn't that nice?" - and California's not a great place to raise kids. His grandma thinks it's too bad for a little boy to be alone so often like that, so Dirk's welcome to come over whenever he likes, and this is the last part of the conversation that Jake cares about before his head is nodding. The feeling of Dirk's fingers being pulled from his own rouses him, and he looks up with bleary green eyes to see him fast asleep in Dave's arms, head cradled against Dave's neck as he exchanges goodbyes with his grandmother and leaves. She leans down to pick him up, too, groaning at the effort. "You're getting too big for this what with my hip being like it is," she says, but he clings to her anyway. Already being lulled back to sleep by her rocking arms and the sweet smell in her dark hair, starting to turn white at the temples, he doesn't care about how big he is.

"Can Dirk come back soon?"

"He'll be here Monday after school, honey," she says, and he doesn't know what he says after that, but it's something along the lines that he likes the idea. She's laying him down in his bed, carefully removing his shoes and his belt but letting him keep his water pistols resting beside him on the pillow because he likes to sleep with them in case he has to wake up in the middle of the night to fight villains. The blankets with the monster pattern are being pulled up to his neck, and her warm wrinkled hands brush his hair from his face in the way that makes him think that this is his favorite part of the adventure, being tucked in safe and sound by Grandma.

"..'love you, Gramma," he mumbles into the pillow, and she kisses his forehead before she leaves, keeping the door open a crack so the light from the hallway can find its way in.

 

Kindergarten is better than anything he's ever dreamed of. There are lots of other kids to play with, and they're all nice to him and ask him to say stuff because they've never heard anyone talk like him. He gets to sit between a girl named Jane and a girl named Roxy on a big carpet that looks like a puzzle in the middle of the classroom, and the whole room is covered in finger paintings and lined with shelves that are red and blue and yellow, filled with crayons and supply containers, and there are big wooden cubbies for their backpacks and lunchboxes. Dirk sits in front of him on the carpet, and he pokes him in the back all day to talk. When they have to take nap time, they lay their sleeping mats next to each other and try to whisper so that the teacher won't overhear them, but it doesn't work well. By the time the day is over, their names have been written in red marker on the whiteboard which means they're in trouble for talking too much. They have to take notes home to be signed by their parents which worries Dirk because Dave is gone and Jake because he's never officially been in trouble before. After school, when his grandma picks them up in the car she's still not very comfortable driving, they show her the notes. She laughs, signing them both on her knee before she pulls out. It makes Dirk smile, and he says he likes Jake's grandmother, so she tells him that he can call her Grandma if he wants. When he does, Jake pretends like they're brothers.

Before they're even parked in the driveway, they're rushing from the car and running as fast as they can toward the park for another adventure.

And that's how it goes. For three perfect years, they're inseparable. When Dave is out of town, which is most of the time, Dirk is at Jake's house. Sometimes when he stays the night, they pitch a tent made of blankets in the backyard, and Grandma brings them snacks and flashlights and enough comforters to drown in before settling in beside them and telling incredible stories that she swears are true. He always nods off before Dirk, even though he tries to stay up with him.

In the morning, they wake up and run inside to watch cartoons, eating breakfast as fast as they can, and then it's a mad sprint to the park because it's Saturday, and Saturday is Adventure Day, and neither of them can wait to find out if the rickety old picnic tables in the clearing where the bike trails begin will be impenetrable castle battlements or magnificent pirate ships, or if the trails will lead them to an ancient temple full of treasures like they did that first day. The adventures are never the same and always incredible, and they tell Grandma everything about them that they can remember when they get back to his house for dinner. Dirk says her pumpkin pie is his favorite, and Jake agrees, so she starts putting two pieces in Jake's lunchbox whenever she makes some so that he can share with Dirk.

Too quick to be fair, it's summer. Kindergarten is over, and there's no more having to practice his letters even though he already knows them or laying down for nap time when he isn't tired, just the hot sun and plenty of time to play. Everyone has gone on to summer camp or vacation except for him, and though Jake started too late in the year for it to count toward his education, his grandmother says he'll test out of it so that he can be in the first grade with Dirk next year. School doesn't matter, but he wants to be with Dirk, so he tells her that's a very good idea and appoints her as 'Chief Idea Haver.'

Dave comes home from California the first week of vacation, and Jake is invited to spend the night at Dirk's house for the first time. His grandmother takes special care to pack his toothbrush and his coolest pajamas because Dave is "really cool." The house is not as big as he thought it was from the outside, but it's full of all kinds of electronic things and props and papers that neither of them are supposed to touch, and there's a pool in the backyard with a diving board and a slide that they're not supposed to use because the water's deep there. Most of their time is spent swimming and splashing each other, and Dave rubs them down with sun lotion and lets them eat junk food for dinner, which Jake agrees is really cool. Dirk's room is on the top floor, and he has what Jake thinks are probably a million puppets and horse dolls. They've all got names, and he takes his time introducing them all before showing Jake the samurai swords resting on nails in his wall. These are real, and Dave insists they're not for playing, but Dirk says he plays with them anyway when he's alone. His bed is really big, and unlike all the times they've shared Jake's, they won't have to sleep shoulder to shoulder because there's enough room to roll around. And jump. They jump on Dirk's bed a lot.

There's no official bed time, but they fall asleep early while they're watching a movie about ninjas - which are even cooler than Dirk said they were - and wake up to scrambled eggs and orange juice that Dave makes while he's just wearing his underwear, and Jake can't stop snickering at him for it. There's a clunky stereo speaker in the middle of the table that they grin at each other over from either side, and Jake's never seen Dirk look so happy as when his brother's home. Dave even drives them to the park that day for adventures. He doesn't play, but he brings some paperwork and sits down at one of the tables to work on it while they chase each other through the slides and the monkey bars, but promise that they won't get lost on the bike trails and scare Dave like they did last time. Lunch is delivered to them while they're sweaty and red faced and resting on the long platform that runs between the two slides. Dave has to climb up the rope ladder to sit down and eat with them, and they laugh at his surprised curse when it threatens to flip him over. Later that night, when they're playing with Dirk's puppets, they whisper the word to each other and laugh.

The week ends, and Dave is headed back to California, leaving Dirk unhappy again.

"I miss him a lot," he answers when Jake asks him what's wrong, and they don't play that day, but they have the whole summer ahead of them, and it's just one day. Jake doesn't mind letting him be sad for a little while because that first summer is unforgettable regardless, and they decide to officially be best friends. When first grade starts, this is what they tell people proudly, but this year is different from the last, and it's not as impressive as Jake thinks it should be. The kids are starting to be more aggressive toward him, and instead of compliments he's starting to get picked on for the way he speaks. Answering the teacher means having his voice parroted back to him by another classmate to a chorus of laughter.

Dirk doesn't get treated the same way he does, and when Jake asks him if he's noticed, he says he doesn't think it's true that they're picking on him. Standing behind Jane in the line to the cafeteria, he asks if she thinks it's true, and she does. "One time," she says, "someone took all the food out of my lunchbox and put worms in it instead." Jake tells her that's the meanest thing he's ever heard and invites her to sit with them for lunch, so she smiles and hugs him, taking him off guard before she disappears. Roxy's in tow when she comes back, and when the two of them start asking what Jake and Dirk do all the time, because they're together so much, it's an unspoken promise that neither of them talks about their adventures.

As the year passes, Jake discovers that Dave doesn't come home very often at all, and even if Dirk doesn't talk about it unless he's asked, he wants him to. Autumn comes up on them slowly, and before they've had time to get used to it, it's already winter, and everyone is buzzing about the holidays. Christmas lists are being taped up in the halls at school, and they're all filled with something different, so Jake asks Dirk what he wants because he thinks he might be able to do it for him and make him happy, but when all he says is, "I want Dave to come home," Jake knows he can't do that.

Dave has to stay in California to work, and Jake knows by now how much his absence hurts Dirk, so he insists that they spend Christmas at his house. His grandmother calls Dave to make sure he's okay with it, and when his grandma shows up to take him home with them, the babysitter is just as happy because it means she can spend time with her family, too. Dirk is told to thank Mrs. Harley and mind his manners, and he asks Dave if he thinks Santa will find him at Jake's house, so Dave assures him that he will and asks to speak to Grandma again before he hangs up. They don't get snow during the break, but it gets cold enough for sweaters, and there are pretty lights to look at on all the houses, so it evens out.

On Christmas Eve, excitement wakes Jake in the middle of the night, and he turns over in his bed to wake Dirk so they can creep into the living room together to see what Santa brought before the morning comes. He stops as he's reaching out because Dirk's shoulders are shaking, and he's sniffling, and Jake doesn't have to see his face to know that he's crying. Even if he's never seen Dirk cry before, he knows what's wrong. Instead of speaking, he puts his arms around him and stays quiet. Because of Dirk, he knows now what having a brother is like, and if he were to leave Jake there alone on Christmas, he'd cry, too. After a while, it stops, and Dirk says that he loves Jake as much as he loves Dave, which is silly because of course he does. They're brothers too, after all.

In the morning, it's obvious that Santa knew where Dirk was, and they unwrap a mountain of presents to Christmas carols on the radio, and Grandma takes enough pictures to fill an entire photo album. Dirk calls Dave on the phone after they've had breakfast to wish him a Merry Christmas, but all he gets is voicemail, so he hangs up without saying anything, and they go to the park all bundled up to test out Jake's new nerf guns and Dirk's new sword because going on an adventure always makes things better, even when it's forty degrees outside. Jake can tell after a few minutes that, when the weather's warm enough for real exploring, their new weapons will serve them well.

When Dave comes back to visit that summer, Dirk doesn't seem as excited to see him.

By the second grade, the teachers start referring to them solely as a pair. Jake's eyes have gotten bad from sitting too close to the television when he watches movies, and now he has to wear glasses, which makes the teasing much worse than it had been, and when team captains pick Dirk for games - because he's really good at them all - they know they have to pick Jake even though he's not. He has a habit of zoning out in the middle of things, imagining himself lost on some daring journey to recover a stolen artifact from an evil villain or something similar. A lot of times, it's nothing that grand. Often, he'll forget that he's supposed to be waiting to catch a ball, and he'll think of times when he's running around in the woods with Dirk. His classmates get mad at him for missing balls that fly right by him or for being too slow and losing them points. It's not like he means to, but he can't help it. The work isn't much different, but second grade is harder than first because no one makes excuses when they bully him now, and he doesn't know why. Dirk still thinks he's making it up in his head until they're on the playground one day after they've come back from Winter break. Dave hadn't come home from California again, but this time is different because this time he'd promised that he would, so Dirk is not just sad.

Now, he's angry and heartbroken at his brother for getting his hopes up and then breaking his promise, and he's taking his anger out on an intense game of dodgeball. Jake and a group of other boys from their class are all spread out on the muddy field, and Jake is distracted, wishing there were some way he could make it better as he watches Dirk dart around viciously flinging balls at kids. He had tried to console Dirk when December 25th rolled around without a word from Dave, but all he could do was stand there and hug him.

It's rained recently, and there are puddles all over the playground, all half frozen and full of muddy slush, and Jake is zoned out again. He's thinking about how hard it's been to play with Dirk like usual and about the way he'd heard Dirk swear for the first time and mean it the morning after Christmas. It was early, and he'd woken up alone in his bed even though Dirk was staying with him and they'd gone to sleep together, so he'd lifted himself from the covers to find him. His search ended when he walked in on the last fifteen seconds of a phone call with Dave. "Asshole," he'd whispered, and then he'd loudly slammed the phone back down on the receiver, making Jake jump. Dirk turned to see him standing in the doorway to the kitchen, watching it all transpire in the early morning light, and he stayed with his fingers wrapped around the phone body until Jake's arms were around his back, and then he was hugging him too. Dirk didn't cry like he had the last year, but he let himself be held until the sky was light outside and the sounds of Jake's grandmother waking up reached them from down the hall.

The game is being played with heavy weight balls because their school doesn't have enough actual dodgeballs to match the number of kids, but it's mostly okay, mostly safe, because everyone knows that hits don't count unless they're below the belt. It's an incredibly tense game that Dirk is dominating because he's thinking about the same thing Jake is, and while Jake is lost hopelessly wishing Dave would come around more, he doesn't hear the shouts to 'look out!' until he's hit. Blue-black lightning explodes in his eyes.

He's knocked face down into a freezing mud puddle, nose oozing blood, ears ringing, and the smashed pieces of his glasses skittering away across the ground. For a moment, he's just stunned, and except for the ringing there's silence because it happens so suddenly that he can't process it. Then he tries to inhale, chokes on a mouth full of cold slop, and the pain hits him. He's screaming, crying, peeling his filthy face from the ground because he doesn't know what happened, but he can't breathe. All he knows is that there's too much pain, and he's not sure if he's falling or rising.

His eyes roll around trying to make sense of things, but everything, even and especially the bleak January sky, is suddenly too bright and abrasive and looking like it shouldn't. He doesn't know why it shouldn't, but it's not good. He's trying to warn people that the sky is wrong, but he can't hear his voice for a second, and when he can he doesn't want to talk about the sky. Roxy and Jane have been watching from not too far away, and now they're at his side yelling at him, asking if he's okay, but he doesn't know because his legs aren't working, and he can't remember how to sit up, and then Dirk is there, too. Jake is trying to answer their questions, but he's so disoriented that he doesn't even realize he's crying. There's as much noise and light as there is pain - way too much - and his body's not working right as he tilts dangerously from one side to the other. His back is to the rest of the boys, but he can still hear them laughing when he uses his jacket sleeve to shakily wipe some of the wet mess from his face. All it does is smear it around, though, and he's crying again because he's so afraid, and he doesn't understand what's happening.

To his side, Dirk's eyes are enormous and terrified, and he leans toward him, his head and his face throbbing so terribly when he can feel them that he's scared he's dying. "Dirk..," he warbles, gasping to catch his breath before he can continue because there are still strange things in his mouth, and he thinks they'll choke him if he doesn't breathe around them, "this really hurts." Dirk's shaking, and he's standing up and sitting down in quick succession, yelling for help. Jake's face has leaked blood down the front of his white uniform jacket, and the teachers seem to realize something is wrong now. They're coming toward the group from where they've been watching leaned against the long brick wall of the school.

"Hey, Engrish, do you still talk like a retard with a mouth full of dirt?" one of the boys yells, and then Dirk's eyes aren't terrified; they're savage, and he's darting away from Jake's side, which leaves his head bobbing painfully against open air. The sounds of sobbing come to him through the confused haze. He thinks he's looking up at Jane, who's crying more than he is, and trying to comfort her because a gentleman never stands by while a lady is crying. Whatever he says doesn't make sense to him, but he feels like he's going to puke. There are two teeth loose in his mouth, making it hard to speak. He uses his tongue to pry them up from his gums, spitting them out into his limp hand and trying to figure out what they are because he doesn't remember what teeth look like, and the world is spinning too fast. His hand is twisting in Jane's shirt because he feels like he's on a tilt-a-whirl, and he doesn't hear the scuffle behind him, but the teachers are breaking up into two groups. One is coming toward him, and the other is making their way off behind him until the P.E. coach, a wide-set man made of one-hundred percent muscle and two-hundred percent seriousness, is on his knees in front of him.

He's using his thumbs to pull up Jake's eyelids, and Jake thinks there's a light being shone in them, but it's a different light from the way sky is, so he's not sure, but he doesn't want that hand on his face. "Jake? Jake, can you hear me?"

"I'm a -" he doesn't know what he is except cold and crying again. There's blood in his mouth, and then the coach is lifting him up and jogging with him into the building as fast as he can go. It's not as fast as it would have been if it were his grandmother, and he's thinking of her carrying him to bed and tucking him in and wishing that it were. His entire face hurts like he's never felt real pain before, and he wants her to be there to hold his hand and tell him that he's not dying, that it'll be okay. Sometimes he's aware that it's not okay, and sometimes he can't remember what's going on, but the times when he's aware are the scariest. Over the coach's shoulder, he can see Dirk tussling around on the ground with another boy. He's straddled on top of him throwing punches in a flurry of white and yellow, still flailing his arms and legs even when the teachers pry him away from the boy. Maybe that boy is Dave. He hopes it's Dave because he was supposed to come down to see Dirk, and now Dirk's sad.

"It's okay, Jake. It's okay, we're going to get you some help, buddy. Alright? Stay awake," he's saying, and even though his voice is gentler now than he's ever heard it, Jake just wants him to be quiet. The noise is overwhelming and he doesn't want it.

"Where'sm..." He swallows, and the pain is keeping him from breathing again. It's rolling back over him when the coach is pushing his way into the school, and the blinding florescent lights passing over him in long, painfully sharp streaks leave him nauseated. His voice is barely a breath when he asks, "Where'smygrandma?" and he doesn't get an answer because it's too much when they pass a teacher's aid who screams at the sight of him. He can't be awake anymore.

The first time he wakes up and remembers it, he's in a hospital bed, and his grandmother is beside him. Instantly, he's aware that his face hurts, and the first thing he does is cringe, whimper, and try to sit up. Dirk is to his grandmother's left, leaning over him and clutching his leg, and she's cooing softly with her warm hands on his face. He feels relief at the sight of them both.

"What happened?" he asks. Dirk has a black eye and a two long scratches on his neck, and he wants to rise, but his grandma is pushing him back down to the bed, so he lowers himself again. The sheets are cold and uncomfortable, and he wonders if anyone would mind if Dirk got under with him to keep him warm like when they're at home.

"You got a concussion, honey. So, you just need to take it easy for a little while, okay?" He can't see anything very well, but he reaches up to touch his face and feels a wide scab reaching over the bridge of his nose. "Your face got a little scraped up from the fall. Don't touch it."

His hand falls back to his side. "Where are my glasses?"

"They broke," says Dirk. He's pulling them out of his pocket in three pieces, and Jake is thinking that he'll have to get new ones before he recognizes that he's looking at the bruised and bloody knuckles of Dirk's hand, and he frowns, remembering a wobbly fragment of what he saw when the coach was carrying him into the building.

"Were you fighting with someone?"

"Yeah. I got suspended."

Then, because he can't resist, and even though he's worried and wants to ask lots of other things, all that comes to him is: "Did you win?" Dirk grins, passing over the glasses parts to him, and nods.

"If he calls you 'Engrish' anymore, it'll be 'cause I punched his teeth out and he talks like a gimp now." Then, Jake remembers his own lost teeth and asks if the tooth fairy came. His grandmother smiles and leans over to kiss his forehead.

It's a month before he's allowed to go back to school, and even then he's not allowed to go to the bathroom without a monitor or play rowdy games with the other kids. The boy who hit him with the ball looks really rough when he apologizes, missing teeth like Dirk said and sporting some nasty black and purple bruises. Jake doesn't know if he says he's sorry because Dirk made him or because he feels as bad as he says he does, but he's not really mad at the kid for hitting him with the ball as much as he's mad that he laughed at him for it afterward. He tells him it's okay, but the apology doesn't help his boredom. It would be worse, but Roxy brings him a book from her house because she thinks he'll like it.

"It'sa adventure book!" she says, smiling at him while he sits in the blue plastic chair beside the coach, and then she leans down to kiss him on the cheek, holding her scarf back with a hand so that it doesn't fall in his face. He waves her off, flustered at the kiss, and she winks at him before running off to play with Jane on the jungle gym. Though he'd rather be out there playing with them, he decides to give the book a try because it's his only option, and Roxy went through the trouble of bringing it. Opening the cover, he sees an entire page covered with doodles of wizards and kittens, and there are so many big words that he wonders if it's really Roxy's book because he can't understand them. Knowing it would be rude to ask, he tells the coach he needs some help.

In one callused, hairy hand, he takes it from Jake, squatting next to his chair, and splits a grin. "Robinson Crusoe, eh? Want me to read it to you?"

"Yes, please," he says with a smile that hurts his face a little because it pulls on the scab, and the coach grunts, opening the first page with a bushy eyebrow raised at the doodles.

In an affected voice, he begins to read, "I was born in the year 1632, in the city of York, of a good family, though not of that country..." Dirk is down on the playground with Roxy and Jane because the other kids have been told they're supposed to leave Jake alone to rest. Otherwise, Dirk would be there with him, he thinks, because he's already sworn off playing with the other boys after what happened. He believes what Jake said about the teasing now, and promises that he won't let it happen again, but Jake doesn't know if 'it' is the disbelief or the teasing. Whichever it is, he knows that Dirk means what he says.

The tale of Robinson Crusoe turns out to be an incredible one, and it only takes another month of recesses for the coach to finish reading it to him. Sometimes he has to stop him to ask what certain words mean, but the adventure isn't lessened by it, and when Dirk is sitting in his bedroom with him after school, it's the only thing he talks about. While he's not allowed to go to the park, Dirk doesn't leave his side. Even when he's supposed to be grounded for fighting, he's tucked away under the covers with Jake listening to Robinson Crusoe's escapades with shipwrecks and cannibals, and he's a lot quieter than he normally is, but he says nothing's wrong when Jake asks. After he gets better, the first thing they do is join a pirate crew, even though Dirk insists he's still a samurai and not a pirate.

"My sword is still just for princesses," he says.

"We'll definitely have to rescue some," Jake returns with a grin, spinning the shiny plastic click-guns he got for his birthday around his fingers. Dirk shrugs, climbing the rope ladder to the platform, and eventually Jake forgets about the princesses, too busy keeping a horde of cannibals who want to eat the King and Queen from burning down the castle they're guarding.

When he returns Roxy's book to her the next Monday, he asks if she has anymore like it, and it makes her so happy that she brings a sack so full of her mother's books to school the next day that she has to drag it on the floor behind her because it's too heavy for her to lift and definitely too many for him to read before the school year ends. She tells him he can keep them and give them back next year.

Summer takes longer to catch up with them this time, but when it does the doctors have stopped pestering him as much about being careful, and he's ready to have some real fun. They take to the tall trees, finding low branches to grab and pull themselves up to the tops because Jake wants to know what the view from a crow's nest is like, and this is the best way to find out. Dirk always makes him go up first because he's not careful, doesn't look where he's going, and if he looks like he'll miss a step while he's busy talking, Dirk will yell at him and make him pay attention. Jake tells him that he worries too much, that he's surefooted as a cat, and they climb as far as they can before stopping to rest and talk, even when Dirk is still dubious about his carelessness.

His grandma takes them to the waterpark when it gets too hot for climbing trees, and Jake laughs at how funny they look after a day of swimming, burned noses and shoulders all bright red when they go home smelling like chlorine and sunblock. It turns to tan eventually, and when Dave finally comes down the summer's nearly over, and he comments on how brown they are. Dirk tells him he looks sick and pale for someone who spends so much time in California, and even Jake notices that Dave looks hurt, because he came with good news: one of his movie scripts has been picked up. Dirk says congratulations and pulls Jake to his room. After that, things are tense between the two of them, but no one will talk about it, and Dirk still calls Dave an asshole when he goes back to California. Hugs become more frequent than ever.

Third grade's different from second in a lot of ways, mostly because he and Dirk aren't in the same class anymore, which is the worst part. He feels alone. Not just lonely, but isolated, because no one in his class will come near him except for Jane, and it's not the same as having Dirk there. She doesn't get things the way he does. The work is harder, too. It takes longer to do his homework in the afternoons than it used to, and now he has to study to keep up, so he has even less time left to spend doing what he likes. Because his old glasses had been broken, he'd gotten a new pair - a cooler pair - with smaller rims because he's tired of being called 'coke bottle,' but that's not a problem anymore anyway. People remember what Dirk did, how he hurt the boy who hurt Jake English, and they leave him alone because being mean isn't worth it. A few of them have got all of their permanent teeth, and they don't want to get them knocked out, but Jake doesn't mind being left alone so much because he's got Jane and her hugs and Roxy and her books and Dirk and his sword, and that's all he wants. That's all he'll ever need.

It's three in the afternoon, and the house smells like the warm pumpkin pie his grandma's making. It has his mouth watering as he's sitting at the coffee table in the living room finishing his times tables. Multiplication isn't so bad, but division is ridiculous, so he always picks those problems out to do first, and he's almost done when there's a knock at the door. It's Dirk. He knows it's Dirk. He's already finished his homework or decided not to do it and come to take Jake to their park for an adventure. He's letting himself inside before anyone has to tell him because Jake's house is his more like his first home than his second, and he hasn't needed permission for a long time. "Hi, Mrs. Harley," he says, and Jake knows something is wrong when he doesn't call her 'Grandma.' The pen falls with a clatter to the table, and he's standing to go into the dining room where they're talking. Before he makes it there, Dirk is standing in the doorway to the living room. He's wearing a pair of sunglasses that Jake's never seen before that are like Dave's, but pointier around the edges, and Jake is about to ask him what's wrong when he's cut off.

"The park sucks. Let's do something else today." It shocks Jake in a way that stings, and he's too unexpectedly hurt to have enough time to put up a defense. Besides, this is Dirk, and why would he need to defend against him? He doesn't know, but it suddenly feels like he should.

"Alright," he says, because he doesn't know what else to say. Dirk doesn't have his sword with him, so he doesn't bother going to his room to grab his pistols. Dirk doesn't act like he's in the mood to play, anyway.

His homework isn't finished, but he doesn't have much left, so he promises his grandma that he'll do it when he comes home. She concedes that it's fine and tells Dirk that she's making his favorite for dinner, so she'll give him a ride home later if he wants to stay and have some. He thanks her and holds the door open for Jake when they leave, but doesn't say if he will. They don't speak to each other for the first part of their walk to the park, and when they pass the car lot, Jake starts to turn in out of habit. He stops himself and has to talk to break the awkward wall that's been unpleasantly built up between them. "So, what do you want to do?" he asks, and Dirk shrugs.

"Let's see if we can get lost."

"Why do you want to get lost?" His eyebrows furrow, and he really wants to know what's wrong with Dirk, but he always says 'nothing,' so asking would be a waste of time.

"I don't know, I just do. Let's try it," he says. His hands are in his pockets, and Jake can't tell what he's looking at behind the sunglasses, so he goes along with it. It's a strange atmosphere, and he doesn't know what else to do. Gray storm clouds are churning past one another overhead, and it looks so much like it'll rain that Jake knows it won't, but everything on the ground is pale and washed out in the rainy light. Cutting another glance at Dirk, he can't resist asking anymore.

"Why are you wearing sunglasses?"

"They're cool," he says, and that's all he says before he's walking faster, and Jake is struggling to keep up with him comfortably.

For hours, they move through the streets trying to get lost like Dirk wants, but they know them so well that it's useless. They've been here their whole lives, may as well have paved the streets, and when the gray clouds have all come together in the middle, the sky looks black, but they'll be lucky if they even get drizzle. The longer they walk, the more he accepts they can't get lost, the more agitated and sullen Dirk becomes. He realizes at some point that Dirk is treating him like he treats Dave, and when they find themselves standing in front of his red brick house after walking all day, he doesn't know how to feel about it, but they stop when they come around the edge of the tall wooden fence with the flowering vines that isn't as tall as it used to be, and he's looking at Dirk's driveway. There's a moving truck and a 'For Sale' sign in the yard, and the floor falls away beneath his feet, telling him exactly how to feel about things. Dirk won't even look at him, but it doesn't make a difference because all he can see are marker words scrawled on boxes being carted from the house to the back of the truck.

"You're moving? But you can't move. Why are you moving?" This isn't right. He doesn't want Dirk to leave him.

"I have to. This place is dumb, and I don't want to go to the park anymore. It's dumb, too." He tries to walk away then, and Jake doesn't know whether to cry or punch him because this is worse than being knocked face down in the mud and getting laughed at for it, so he grabs his shirt and pulls him back because this is unacceptable, and he wants to talk to Dirk.

"The park isn't dumb!"

"Yes it is. The park is dumb. All of our adventures are dumb. They're really fucking dumb, so don't talk to me anymore," he yells, and then he yanks his arm away from Jake and runs inside, slamming the door after him.

He's left standing there alone, pale because of rainy light and the feeling of total wrongness, and when someone comes around the edge of the moving truck carrying a big cardboard box marked 'Dirk's room,' he hates everything. The blinds to Dirk's window are closed when he looks, so he turns away and goes tearing the vines and the flowers off the fence as he does, angrier than he's ever been at anything in his life.

His grandma asks him where Dirk is when he gets home, and he tells her that he's moving and that he doesn't want to finish his homework because he hates Dirk, and he hates times tables, too, and pumpkin pie is the worst. She lets him keep crying when he starts, and in the morning he finds that she's already finished his homework for him and put it in his bag. It helps because he can't focus on math. All he can think of is that, no matter where Dirk lives now, it won't be the same. Their park won't be holding them together anymore, and he wishes Dirk hadn't cursed because he means what he says when he curses. He also wishes that it had rained because when the storm clouds move away quietly in the night, and the sun is shining the next day, it feels all wrong.

And then the perfect years are over just like that.

The first time he tries to have an adventure by himself, he misses a step while climbing a tree and falls down, fracturing his arm. It has to be set in a cast, and even though he lets Roxy scribble all over it with gel pens until there isn't a clean space left, it still reminds him when he looks at it that it's not as fun to pretend by himself which means that he can't pretend anymore because that's all he has, and he doesn't go back to the park after that. Dirk is always gone when he looks for him after class - to tell him what, he isn't sure, but it'd probably be that he's a jerk - and no one knows where he lives, so he takes it as a hint that Dirk really doesn't want to talk to him. Even though he's tried, he can't hate him for it because he just wants his friend back.

Zoning out starts to happen more frequently than ever because his adventures all happen in his head now, where he's one of the heroes from his movies or from Roxy's stories, and when he's not at school he's in his bedroom at home with his nose tucked in a book. He does his homework during recess because no one plays with him anyway, and he doesn't want to have to do it when he gets home. Jane and Roxy sit with him in the cafeteria in the morning and at lunch, but they don't know what Dirk's been up to, either. Roxy says he hasn't been to class in a long time and that he's probably going to a different school, but Jake doesn't like to think about that, so he doesn't talk about Dirk anymore. Third grade is unnecessarily drawn out, and he gets in trouble a lot for reading in class when he's supposed to be doing work. Most of his tests are handed in with doodles of explorers or spies or, sometimes, samurais, and he gets in trouble for that, too.

His grandma worries that he isn't going outside enough anymore and asks if he wants to go back 'home' for the summer. It catches him off guard, and he knows that when she calls England home she means that it's her home, but it's still funny to hear it described that way because it's an alien place to him now. Texas is his home, where his friends are, and that's what he'll always call it, but he can't remember what Britain is like, and he's itching to go exploring again. England seems like as good an idea as any, and they have family there who want them to visit, so it's the perfect opportunity. He gets picked up early from school two days before the semester has officially ended, his two suitcases full of books crammed into the trunk of their tiny car as they're making their way to the airport. It's too early for anyone else to be out of school yet, and the park is deserted and quiet when they drive past.

The trip is fine. There aren't any spectacular parks near by to run around in, and compared to Texas he thinks 'English' summers are unbearably cold and wet, so he spends most of his vacation indoors reading, anyway. It's not as different as he remembered it to be aside from the names of things, but he enjoys that everyone speaks the same way he does. Not standing out for that is a change he welcomes readily. Aside from the times they go out to explore the town and shop for groceries, they stay at home, and his grandma's cousins are all very nice, older ladies and gentlemen. When they aren't busy, he likes to ask them for stories which they're all too happy to recant, and he often replaces the names of the people in the stories with names of people he knows. It's not the most exciting vacation, but it's better than he imagined he could have without someone to trailblaze beside him, and they're leaving when he asks his grandmother if they can come back the next summer. She tells him that they'll start planning for the next trip right away.

When fourth grade starts, his accent is much more pronounced, and after Jane makes a comment about it on the first day back, everyone around them bristles even though they all know Dirk is gone. He's living on the coast with his brother, and he isn't coming back, and the hurt that came with finding that out was only marginally outweighed by the hurt that came from knowing that Dirk had seen him before he'd gone and hadn't said a word. He wouldn't pick a fight with Jane even if he were there, but no one's forgotten what happened the last time someone said something about it, and it becomes the norm to stay ten feet away from Jake.

"I went to England for the summer holiday," he tells her, and she's full of questions that he answers happily because she's one of the only two people his own age who talks to him now.

Spending his school years mostly alone and his summers hanging out with elderly relatives in another country leaves him socially unequipped, so making friends isn't something he understands the mechanics of. He recedes into himself when the girls and boys around him are just starting to blossom, and it's hard for him to scrape by unscathed by it all. He still wants an adventure, but it becomes less looking for literal treasures as time goes on and more pining for an escape, daydreaming incessantly about being off on his own in a place where he can breathe and stretch his legs without accidentally kicking someone who'd intentionally stuck their ass out looking for a fight. When the coach recommends that he take up a sport to help coax him out of his shell, he decides on track because the only other thing he wants to do is roll around on the floor tussling with people, and there's no wrestling team until junior high. It almost defeats the entire purpose, but running is easy for him, and he loves it just a little. All he has to do is go, and as long as he's fast no one cares if he is or isn't speaking, which is a relief because there's always someone hassling him for either.

Running is a way to win. He can daydream quietly all he likes and receive nothing but praise for it when he finally comes to a stop which usually takes a while because he's antsy. There's no one to run around with him expending energy anymore, and it hurts his grandmother to see him always cooped up in his room alone, so he stays out whenever he can, toting a book to the park and laying out on the platform to read it until there's not enough sunlight left to pick out the words. The park is feeling the strain of time, too. None of the people he knows go there anymore like they did when they were younger. The girls are worried about the boys now, and the boys are equally worried about the girls, so they don't care that it's mostly decrepit except for the worn down bike trails which are still used by joggers. There's nothing left to do there, but he can't stop himself from going. It's the last place he felt really good about things, the place he was before weighing options and concealing himself even though no one will speak to him if they see him started to be necessary to getting by. His grandmother buys him a computer for his tenth birthday, and when he's playing games online or talking to people he meets over the internet, he feels close to that kind of good, but he would rather still be outside in the sun.

Seeing everyone change around him when he's so perfectly stuck makes him wonder what's wrong with him, why he doesn't breeze through it like they all do, and when elementary school eventually slides away from him, dumping him weak-kneed and physically worn out on the steps of junior high, he's nothing but lost in the world.

His alarm clock has become more of an annoyance, and when it blares obscenely in his ears at six o'clock on that first morning, he's exhausted from staying up all night. There's a bent paged copy of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea being crushed between his chest and his mattress, but he doesn't regret that he decided to read it instead of sleep because it was a good one, and he's wrenching himself away from his warm covers to reach over and slap the snooze button.

There's an outfit of khaki shorts and a t-shirt that his grandmother cleaned and folded for him the night before, something simple she hopes will make his day easy, she told him before she went to bed. While he likes his clothes, he's never sure before he leaves the house if he's dressed like a target or wallpaper, and those are the only two options that have been available to him for a long time. Roxy's books have an entire shelf in his house, now, and sometimes she uses that as an excuse to drag Jane over with her to bother him about getting his act together socially, and he guesses he could have worse professors. Jane has money, and she's cute, so she gets by easily enough. Naturally the life of the party, Roxy is popular for her own reasons, and together they try to help him, but he doesn't understand why the things he likes are different in such an important way from the things he needs to like to be accepted, and most of the time they spend trying to help him is wasted. Jane is more frustrated by it than Roxy, and most of the flak he catches comes from her.

"You're cute," Roxy tells him when they're all cramped on her couch one chilly night in autumn and he's silently mouthing the lines to the movie they're watching, "but you're hopeless." She drinks alcohol now, so he tosses a piece of popcorn from the bowl at his feet into her martini glass. Jane laughs at them, and he thinks maybe it's true that he's hopeless. There's not a lot that he hopes for, just a place where he isn't told he's a square peg in a round hole when he doesn't feel like one. He just feels like a peg apart. Everything else is how he wants it to be; he just doesn't see the differences in the pegs that everyone else does or why it matters so much.

Other counties are already in Junior high by sixth grade, but he has to wait until seventh to say the same about himself, and it's hard to get used to how different it is. The clothes he needs to wear, the supplies he needs not just for the classwork but for the social work (which is even more grueling), the music he needs to listen to, it all changes as drastically as the scenery, and he feels like he's stepping into a war zone as he's opening the glass door to the school. There's a thick layer of condensation on the inside of the glass, and it makes him shiver when he passes from the muggy blue morning outside to the polar florescent hallway shouldering his backpack. There are temporarily eyes on him. Some he knows, many he's never seen before, and he's instinctively aware that these people won't just leave him alone because they've gotten used to it over the years. This is a dangerous place, and not knowing how to act around any of them is more of a handicap than ever, but he holds out hope that he might accidentally do the 'cool' thing, and the day might go well.

A sheet of paper is folded up in his pocket, his new schedule with the names of his teachers and the room numbers, but this new school is an unfamiliar labyrinth, and asking for help would be a bad idea because it'll open him up to getting screwed with, so he takes his chances with wandering around exploring, memorizing which halls lead where. Sometimes he gets cornered into holding doors open for the girls who are coming through behind him, and it's a pleasant surprise when they thank him and smile. His suspicion lessens and he wonders if, maybe instead of being ostracized, this will be a new chance. He's holding the door open for an older looking girl when the first bell rings, and he decides to risk it, taking out his schedule to ask if she can help him.

"Oh, yes. I know where that is. You can follow me. It's on the way to my class."

"Thank you very much. I do appreciate it," he says, trailing behind her. She's very pretty with her short black bob and blue cotton dress, and she's nodding.

"Of course. It's my pleasure to help when I can." They're walking brusquely up the long hall, trying to make it before the five minute bell rings and they're tardy. "Are you from here?"

He smiles and gives a noncommittal shrug. "I assume you're asking because of my accent?" She nods, and he sighs. "Well, I wasn't born here, but I grew up here. For the past many years, I've been returning to England for vacation. It's so easy to forget myself there that I always come back with more affected speech. But I truly love it, so I don't mind." Her eyebrows knit in the middle and she looks at him, stopping in front of a tall wooden door. She gestures to it with her head, and he realizes it's his room.

"Why on Earth would you mind? British accents are extremely cute." It's the first time in his life that he's ever heard someone say anything like that, and his laugh is genuine.

"I thank you, miss, for saying so."

"My name is Aranea, and it was good to meet you." She extends her free hand to him, and he eagerly takes it, giving it a firm shake and the biggest smile he's had for a long time because no one's ever shaken his hand without prompt before.

"Jacob English. Jake if you prefer."

"Yes, very good to meet you, Jake. Well, I'll be late for class if I don't go now, so have a pleasant first day," she says, and then she's moving back down the hallway, a stack of books tucked against her chest, and he turns around to open the door to his classroom. There are one or two familiar faces, but the rest of them are new, and after his conversation with Aranea they look even more like sharks than they usually do. Only two chairs are left - one in the back corner, one in the second row back - and the teacher waves him over to collect his schedule while he mentally psyches himself up.

"Jake English." She's an older woman who smells like hospital soap, and she looks tired. "I'm bad with names, but if you give me a little time I'll remember who you are. Just remind me if I forget." She puts a check beside his name on the roster resting on her desk, and the second bell is ringing. "Have you seen your other classmate?" she asks, pointing him to the chair near the front, "Dirk Strider?"

"Dirk Strider?" There's a scrape and a squeak, and the classroom door is opening again.

"Present," says an unfamiliar voice from behind him, and he spins on his heel to see the cardboard cutout of a person that had stopped existing in the same world as him when he was eight, a boy who everyone by the fifth grade knew had skipped off to California to live with his Hollywood film director brother. Jake's breath catches, and all he can think of, looking at this tall, scratchy voiced boy with muscles starting to harden under his brown skin, is being five years old and feeling jealous that the sopping wet kid he'd just soaked with his water pistols had already lost a tooth and he hadn't. But not entirely, because this feeling is a dimension deeper than that.

He's walking toward the teacher's desk with his schedule in his fingers, and there are tan lines on his wrist from a band or a bracelet, and Jake can only stand there like an idiot because his first impulse is to say hello, the second is to throw his arms around Dirk and ask what the hell happened, and then the third is to run for cover because he remembers that day when the rug was snatched out from under him and his best friend in the whole world gave him the quintessential 'fuck off.'

"Hi, English," he whispers, leaning forward to say it so that only he can hear while the teacher is checking his name off on the roster, and Jake can tell from this close that he's looking at his eyes from behind the same pointed sunglasses he was wearing the day he slammed the door in his face.

"Hello, Dirk," he says, and just saying it is weird. It earns him this little smile that defines the day as the greatest in his life, and the teacher tells him he can take his seat, and he does, but he almost trips and falls on his face on the way there. People laugh, but he's too elated to care, so he just keeps smiling when he plunks down in his chair.

"Problem, dick dusters?" Dirk shoots off, hand on his hip like he's ready to fight the whole class, and it shocks everyone into shutting up and looking at the teacher because who swore in front of teachers?

"Language, Dirk. One more time and I have to refer you, and I really don't want to have to do that on the first day. Also, we don't wear sunglasses in the building, and you're late."

"I have clearance for both," he says, and there's another pair of notes in his hand. She takes them and scans them over before passing them back to him and pointing him to his chair at the back. A boy sticks out his foot to try and trip him on his way down the rows, but Dirk sees it coming and steps on his ankle with his entire weight, muttering 'oops' without looking back when the boy yells in pain. Jake watches it happen and thinks that this person is different from the Dirk he knew, but as long as it's still the same Dirk, he can relearn.

All period, he's constantly turned around in his seat to look at Dirk, who looks up at him from his paper sometimes and smiles, shaking his head. The teacher tells him repeatedly to face the front, and by the time class is over Dirk is almost laughing at him, but he can't quit staring, can't quit thinking about how good it feels to see him. It's been hard to be alone, but seeing Dirk there in front of him reminds him that he wasn't always that way, and he's not the same boy just wading through the sludge of the day that he was when he woke up because the person who understands is back. When the period is finally over, he's out of his seat in a flash, waiting by the door for Dirk to put his things in his bag. Jake thinks he's going intentionally slowly because he's the last one left when everyone else has gone to the next period, but then he slings the straps over his shoulders, and he's walking toward Jake, and there's no more reason to hold back. He steps up and gives Dirk the tightest hug he can manage because he didn't realize until he was staring him in the face how much he'd been missed. Dirk's arms are squeezing him just as tightly when he says, "Hey, Princess."

Jake steps away, laughing. "You are unbelievable. I can't - I - I'm just," There's so much he wants to tell Dirk, but there aren't enough words or time for it, so he does the best he can as they're heading out the door and down the packed hall. "I'm just so delighted to see you here. I was sure you'd moved to California! I mean, after that day," he says, and then his smile falters, and so does Dirk's. He can tell they're both thinking about it, and suddenly the air is tense between them because there was a lot that should have been said that day that wasn't, and he hurt for a long time because of it. Dirk's face slips into something unreadable, but he nods.

"I'm sorry," he says, and it's so sincere that Jake's at a loss for what to do next because the mood is all off, so he lands a light punch against his shoulder. This should be happy. This is happy.

"All in the past. The key is that you're here again, eh?" Dirk shrugs, so he presses on. "Where did you move?"

"I did go to Cali, but I'm back for good this time."

"Oh." His face has begun to ache from how much he's been smiling, but knowing that it's been so long since he has only makes it worse. "I'm glad you're back. I missed you," he says, and Dirk is pulling the tip of one of his hoodie's drawstrings into his mouth to chew on. "but you were kind of abrupt and injurious that day. I never did get a real explanation, so..." Dirk cuts his eyes at him, and if he has to wear those glasses, Jake wants to stay as close as he is right now so that he can always tell when they're on him.

"Why did you leave?"

"You remember that day in second grade," and Jake knows which one he means without needing elaboration, "and I fought that kid. His mother sued my brother and the school district because I put an indisputable smackdown on his ass. It was pretty bad press for my bro when he was trying to get his movie off the ground, and I was kicked out of the district, so I lived with him until the journalists stopped beating down the door for details and I was old enough to come back for middle school in a separate district." Jake doesn't remember ever hearing about any lawsuits, or maybe he had heard about them and he was too young to understand what they meant, but learning about it from Dirk makes him feel like he should be the one apologizing. If he'd been paying attention that day, maybe it wouldn't have happened, he thinks, but it's an awkward situation, and he's struggling to find words to tell him how sorry he is. Before Jake can even say anything, Dirk's grinning like a fox and using the tip of the drawstring he isn't chewing on to tickle Jake's ear, and he forgets about speaking in favor of punching Dirk in the arm again.

This is happy.

All of their classes are shared with the same people, and they find that the bell system is really more for show than anything else. They could technically stay in one room and just have the teachers circle around to them, but they're grateful for it if for no other reason than because in two of the classes they get to pick their seats, and Jake sits beside Dirk in both of them, reigning in his desire to talk his ear off because he knows it will eventually get him in trouble, and he'll have to change seats. It's with all of his effort that he manages, and every time he turns his head to say something to Dirk, he has to catch himself and shut his mouth. Being around Dirk is easy, and he misses it more now that realizes how good it feels not to have to struggle to communicate. They pass notes to each other until they can talk at lunch or in the hall, and then it's mostly Jake realizing that, when he describes his past years out loud, they sound kind of bleak. He tries not to be so lost for words when Dirk makes comments like "You grew up pretty, English," and doesn't know how to describe Dirk in return, so he just calls him cool. Dirk doesn't say much about his time in California, and this thing is still delicate, so Jake doesn't want to flip the table over on top of it and smother its first breath after being held under for so long without air by prying.

P.E. finds him signing up to be on the wrestling team because it's the first time he's had the chance, and he can't wait to try out. Track seems sad and useless now that Dirk is home, but Dirk's into fencing now, and the school doesn't have a sponsored fencing team, so he joins the anime club instead and says he'll find an academy to join, and it goes without saying that they'll exchange emails. Dirk doesn't believe Jake when he tells him that he's actually pretty good at tinkering with machines, but they decide they'll see who's better at it with a competition eventually. Everything is great until sixth period, when Dirk refuses to say the pledge. The teacher can't force him to say it or say anything to him when he doesn't, but when the voice of the lady in the office crackles across the speakers and everyone else in the class has their hands over their hearts, reciting on autopilot, they're staring at him like they're sharks again. It makes Jake feel like leaving his hand by his side so that Dirk isn't alone is his duty as a concerned bystander as well as a friend. No one says anything about it while the period is going, but Jake can hear them talking as they walk out the door. Not because they care about the pledge, but because he pissed off the teacher - the second of the day - and that's going to come back to bite him in the ass. One boy has such a problem with it that he stops them on their way out the door, and Jake's nerves are tested by the hold up. There's everything else he wants to be doing.

"Is it because you have to say 'God?' " he asks, and once again they're the last stragglers in the room. The teacher is eyeballing them from her desk, still not legally allowed to comment but very tuned in. Jake watches her shuffle things around on her desk as he stands by the door, shifting on his feet because patriotism is fucking up the plans he's been working on since first period.

"No." Dirk says curtly.

"Are you religious?"

Dirk gives him such an exasperated look that, even from behind the shades, Jake can tell he's annoyed. "I believe in heaven, if that's the answer you're looking for."

"You have to be good enough to get in. Not saying the pledge is like renouncing God, and if you renounce God, you can't go. "

"Good," he says, closing his notebook and putting the cap on his pen as he rises from his seat to meet Jake at the door, and he wants to go, has been ready to get out of there since he woke up that morning, but Dirk's answers to these questions interest him as much as they do the teacher who's not even pretending to be tidying up anymore.

"You don't want to go to heaven?"

"No."

"Why?"

Dirk spins on his heels then, nearly making the boy run into him. "Because heaven's not a just a reward, it's a responsibility. And for the record, it's not a case of 'being good enough' to get in. It's luck. There's no exact science behind it. Some people get lucky, and some people don't, so you could be Mother Teresa, and if you're unlucky your ass will still get stuck on the outside looking in. And what if you do get in? What if, one day, you find yourself in heaven, and suddenly it's pushing maximum capacity, so God says, 'Okay, this half stays, and this half goes,' and you're part of the group that has to go? What if you lost heaven? In that case, it would've logically been better just to dream about it from the outside because wanting something doesn't hurt, but having something and losing it hurts more than anything. And if you're going to get kicked out of heaven anyway, then it doesn't fucking matter if you say the pledge of allegiance or not. Of all the examples of how 'good' you were, to have that be the one weighed for your entrance or denial of heaven is the lamest thing I've ever heard. You'd probably be kicked out just on principle if that's all that got you in." The teacher's mouth parts like she's about to speak, but she doesn't, and Jake is lost for words listening to this new Dirk. His want to go is rivaled by his want to stay just so that he can hear him talk, but then he thinks that, maybe, this isn't a new Dirk. Maybe this is just an honest Dirk. There's no memory example of him ever saying anything like this for Jake to be sure.

"That's not a real reason. You can't get kicked out of heaven."

"You're so pathetically basic."

"And you think you're so cool, don't you?"

"Obviously."

"Whatever. At least I know I'm going to heaven."

Dirk winks at him sarcastically and makes guns of his fingers, pointing them at the kid as they're backing out of the classroom, and Jake doesn't comment on his answers, but he's never thought of heaven that way before. It's sad to him that Dirk has knocked around the idea of eternal paradise until he's reached the conclusion that it's a game of luck and not work. He isn't religious, but he thinks he understands the gist of religion, and it never seemed as hopeless as Dirk makes it sound.

When he follows in behind Jake after school, his grandma spends several minutes giving him an even tighter hug than Jake did. They decide to spend their first afternoon together at the park for old time's sake - sitting up on the scuffed up platform talking for hours about nothing that will ever matter - and even though the sky is stony gray and drumming on the breeze's back like it'll be storming soon, Jake knows this is how it's supposed to be, heaven or no.

Chapter Text

He starts to flourish again. Just having someone else sit with him and listen to what he says without fighting about it or needing to say anything in return makes it easy to breathe in and out and repeat and repeat until he doesn't have to force himself anymore. There's no struggle or need to come to terms with the way his piece doesn't fit into the puzzle because it does. Dirk makes it fit. Dirk fits him, and after Jane and Roxy get their fill of him, it's only the two of them left, and it's almost like it always was.

Except that Dirk is different.

After the first day, he's not so unpopular. He's an enigma - a tall, tanned, blonde enigma who swears in front of the teachers and won't cut corners, and Jake finds one day it's been almost unanimously decided that he defines cool with his subtle, witty jibes and unintended charm. Girls pay attention when he speaks and, more incredibly, so do the boys. In class, he says things just because he knows he can get away with it, but with Jake he's quiet in a way that's overbearing because he knows now that Dirk has big thoughts. He has big ideas and won't say a word about them after that day in sixth period, but Jake can't forget it and finds that he's looking to Dirk for commentary whenever he catches himself in the middle of a tangent. He never has any, just listens until Jake's finished and accepts him without question. On days when they lie together at the park, lounging in the tall grass and watching the treetops strain against the blue sky to brush the clouds, it makes Jake feel like everything he says is important and poignant. It's what he needs to catch up and know that he's moving in time with everyone else again, this understanding, and he tries not to let Dirk's quietness get him down about it, but there's a new distance between them. He guesses that's to be expected after so long, and it's just another new side of Dirk that he wants to be able to accept.

No one else ever knows what he's talking about, and sometimes people will laugh and tell him he's on another planet, and though it's mostly good-natured now, Dirk is always quick to his defense. Jake tries explaining that it doesn't matter to him, but all Dirk says is, "It matters to me," so he decides to let him do what he wants. When they're alone, he tells Jake that he needs to be more aware when people are taking advantage at his expense and take care of it himself. So, he tries, and it works. The comments stop, and he finds himself not so isolated anymore. In the mornings, people say hello, and in the afternoons, it's "Bye, Dirk-and-Jake" as they're walking out. He's included. They're a pair again.

Thursdays are days for the anime club, and it's a lot more fun than Jake expects. Dirk drags him along, and the people there are all nice enough, so he stays, and the cartoons - "Anime, dude. It's called anime," Dirk reminds him. - are pretty good, too. He returns the favor on Fridays and makes Dirk wait for him after wrestling practice, and although he's not terrifically strong at the start, he's relentless, so he makes a good impression on the rest of the team. Eventually, his list of email contacts is fifty people long, but sometimes he goes offline to all of them except Dirk because, though his new friends accept him, they still don't understand him, and he enjoys feeling like he and Dirk are separate from the rest of the world. Like they used to be.

It's probably not the same for Dirk, he realizes, because he's starting to get attention from people who know that he's Dave's brother, and he has to act a certain way, keep his guard up when he's running in his wide social circles, because some of them are looking to use him for his name.

It's a bus ride across town to get to his new place, a small apartment complex too far away from the park to make a comfortable walk. Dave stayed on the coast, but he has a twenty-four hour caretaker he brought with him from California. He's less like a caretaker and more like a vague, adult presence who's making a bad attempt at imitating a parent, and he makes Jake nervous when they meet for the first time, hulking and musclebound and glowering when he steps into the den. Trying to introduce himself leaves him standing awkwardly with his hand thrust out for a shake when the man turns away from him and moves off into the apartment. Dirk says to pretend like he's furniture.

They spend their time in his new room when he doesn't have fencing class. It's smaller than his old one but full of new equipment, puppets (some a lot less innocuous than they used to be, which Dirk says is a joke), and posters. It's a cluttered, familiar mess that he revels to be in again.

He's laying on the bed waiting for Dirk to put on a movie when the caretaker comes in to say that he's ordering dinner, so Jake should leave, and Dirk tells him not to be an inhospitable asshole to his guests and to get something for Jake, too. The caretaker stares at him lounging on the bed, and it makes him uncomfortable like he's not welcome, and he wishes it were Dave instead.

"He's allergic to peanuts," Dirk says when the caretaker looks like he's going to walk away. He's peeling a DVD from the case, and Jake is surprised he still remembers. "Keep that in mind, and get actual food this time." There's no response before he walks out, leaving them alone again.

When Dirk slides in next to him, propping his head on a stack of pillows, he turns and asks, "Why isn't Dave here?"

The sunglasses have become Dirk's face; he wears them like a mask, and Jake misses seeing his eyes. If he could see Dirk's eyes, he thinks, it would get rid of some of the space between them. He might be able to tell what he's thinking even when he won't say anything.

"Because he's only ever had one priority," Dirk says, shifting around looking for remote. They're lying on their stomachs facing the television past the foot of the bed, and after he finds it hidden in the folds of his comforter and turns the volume up loud enough that he worries the caretaker in the front room will hear it and come back to bother them, Jake wants to un-ask the question. He scoots closer and wonders if Dirk still wishes it were Dave, too, but as long as Dirk is back with him, he doesn't care about much else.

 

Green grass yellows, yellow leaves redden, red berries blacken, and the summer is autumn.

 

His body has toughened from months of wrestling, and he's confident and excited and allowed to be now that he's not the butt of every joke. Black and orange Halloween decorations fill the yards and the hallways, and 'party' is the first word on everyone's tongue when it's less than a week away. He's getting attention from girls, which is an odd development that he's almost more unprepared for than he was for making friends, and the people around him are constantly asking if he's going to do anything special or stay home passing out candy. He doesn't have any plans, he tells them, careful not to let it slip that it's because he isn't sure, if Dirk hadn't come along when he did, that the year would have gone as well as it has, and a party with huge crowds of strangers is just a step farther than the social line he's been toeing. Roxy ribs him for it at lunch, saying there are lots of cute girls who want him to go to their house and do "something," putting an emphasis on the "something" that Jake knows is meant to fluster him. Jane tells her not to be crass about it and invites them all over to her house for a friendly gathering. She promises it'll be small so Jake won't start worrying about lots of people, and though Dirk doesn't comment and Jake still isn't sure, Roxy corners him about it later.

They're leaving the building, and he tells Dirk to save his seat on the bus before he leaves to use the restroom. When he comes out, she's waiting: a waifish, blonde island in a rushing sea of people.

"Jake-a-doodle. There you are. Been waitin' around here for about a jillion years." He knits his eyebrows and steps forward to join her.

"How did you know I was in the lavatory?"

"Pssh. You always go to the bathroom after school. Gimme some cred, here. Anyway, that's not what I wanted to talk about."

"No," he says, confused.

"Nope. So, she asked me not to say nothing about it, but Janey really wants you to go to her party." She draws out the 'really' and bites her lower lip over a grin.

"I'd be more of a distraction from the festivities than a contributor, you know." He hates having to let his friends down, especially Jane. When Dirk was gone, Jane and Roxy became his closest friends. He wants to make them happy, he just doesn't think he can do that if he embarrasses them in front of all their other acquaintances. They're not like him; their whole world doesn't revolve around three other people.

"Duh, that's why she wants you there. To distract her." Her eyebrows waggle, and Jake is at a loss.

"I'm not sure I follow."

"Guh, holy damn, English. You're so hopeless," she says, rolling her eyes and sighing. He's looking at her for more of an explanation because he honestly has no idea what she means, but she's tired of talking and ready to move on to the next thing. "Nevermind, okay? I'll see you tomorrow." She leans forward to kiss his cheek, and by now Jake is used to her kisses and leans in to meet her, still confused as he watches her stroll away through the throng of people. It's when he climbs the steps into the bus and he sees Dirk sitting under an open window in a seat toward the back that it hits him. The sun is coming in on his face, and there's a breeze fluttering his yellow hair against the sides of his sunglasses while he's waving him over. Jake doesn't know how to react.

"I think Jane harbors romantic feelings for me," he says when he sits down. The seat is chilly.

"Oh, yeah?"

"I think that's what I'm being led to believe."

Dirk looks out the window and is quiet for the rest of the ride. The rumble of the wheels under their feet and the cacophony of the other passengers is the only noise between them, and Jake has no idea what to do.

"Do you like her?" he asks once they're settled in his room. Jake is alone on the bed, lying on his back watching the poster-covered ceiling, and Dirk is reclining against the footboard, legs folded underneath him. They haven't said a word to each other since they left the school.

"I don't know. I've never thought of her that way before, but she's an amiable gal and pretty enough. It wouldn't be so bad, and it would be awfully reprehensible of me not to try. She's my friend, after all. I have a duty to take care of her feelings."

"Before you immerse yourself in 'duty,' realize how delicate a situation like this is. You can't commandeer her feelings with good will alone, and you can't just forge yours with it either. Remember you've got independent feelings, too."

"Don't be absurd. I know I've got feelings."

"Then don't play it down like you think I'm worrying about something for no reason. I know you. Just think about yourself before you act, and don't bullshit me on this."

He doesn't know how to tell Dirk that it's hard to think of just himself when the people who matter are counting on him, but he agrees with a hum because Dirk can't see him nodding his head from the floor. "Dirk?"

"What?"

"Do," he stops to figure out the right words, "you think it would be wise? To venture down this road, I mean." There's a puppet on the bed that looks like a ventriloquy dummy, and it lies limply, smiling at him with a painted red mouth and round blue eyes. He remembers it from when they were young and distractedly fingers the soft fabric over one of its long, stuffed arms. Dirk told him its name once, but he can't remember it, only that Dave gave it to him when he was a baby, and it means a lot to him.

There's a pause before he answers, and then he says, "I really can't help you with this," almost too quietly to be heard over the television. The mood is different after that, and Dirk insists that he has homework he needs to finish early in the day, leaving Jake alone to catch a ride back home with the caretaker. It's a stiflingly silent trip, and he sees why Dirk won't let him drive them anywhere. He's glad when he gets back to his house and his grandmother is sitting at the table polishing an antique rifle, something familiar and comfortable to welcome him home. When he tells her what happened and asks what he should do, she shakes her head and says that he needs to do whatever makes him happy and not worry so much about protecting other people's feelings. He gets a laugh from her when he tells her Dirk said the same thing, and she asks what he wants for dinner.

The next day, he tells Jane that, if she likes him and he isn't being too forward, he'd like to be her boyfriend. It takes her a while to respond, but when she does her smile is so enormous that he knows he made the right choice. Roxy congratulates them at lunch, but Dirk is nowhere to be found, and it's all he can think about when the two of them start talking about coordinating costumes and other party details. Dirk is the first one in the classroom when he enters, and when Jake asks where he was at lunch, he says he wasn't hungry.

"I've got prior commitments, and you should be spending time alone with Jane," Dirk tells him when Jake asks if they're going to hang out, and he opens his notebook, turning stony-faced to the front of the class. They always do something when Dirk doesn't have fencing, and he didn't realize that would change because he's dating Jane. It hurts. He wants Dirk to look at him when the lights in the room go out and the overhead projector throws white shapes and shadows on their faces, but he doesn't and ignores him for the rest of the day.

After school, he holds Jane's hand and walks her to the front to be picked up by her dad and accepts when he offers to drive him home. He's a real gentleman, the kind Jake hopes to be some day, and he doesn't ask any awkward questions on the way. The car is warmer than a bus and faster and also not as good, but he knows Dirk is right that he needs to be with Jane. That's the point, after all, to take care of her feelings like she tried to do for him when he was alone. So, he tries. The Halloween party comes, and Jane carries him around on her arm throughout the night like she couldn't be more excited. She dresses like a princess and asks to kiss him when her father is preparing to drive them home after the party ends, but Jake doesn't feel the excitement he thinks he's supposed to feel about a first kiss and tells her he might be sick from the candy so she won't be too upset. It's fine, she says. He can't stop wondering why, though he was invited, Dirk didn't come. When he finds Aranea in the library one day to ask if she knows, since she's older and knows more people, she tells him that it's better not to ask about the friends he spent the night with instead.

The distances between them lengthen, and they drift apart.

Jane sits where Dirk used to in the bleachers at his wrestling matches, and Jake stops going to the anime club so he can have time to spend with Jane after school. On the weekends, Dirk is always busy with his skateboarding friends or his fencing friends, always other friends, and he doesn't return Jake's calls until days later, claiming he doesn't get Jake's voicemails until it's late. By then, Jake is too annoyed to call him back, and eventually he stops trying, wondering why Dirk is staying out so late and if his brother knows. The only time they see each other is between classes and at lunch when Dirk decides to come, and then he won't speak, and Jake has run out of words. He wants to grab Dirk by the shoulders and shake him until he says something - anything -, until he decides to stay long enough to say it, or until he stays if he does nothing else, because Jake can't stand the cold dread that weighs on him when he gets the feeling he's losing Dirk again.

It's still dark when he arrives at the school the first morning they're back from the Thanksgiving holiday. The grass is dead and frosted, and it hisses under the rubber soles of his sneakers when he steps across the long median that separates the teachers' parking lot from the school. Jane hadn't been the only one invited to dinner at his house, but she'd been the only one there, and Jake might not have minded so much if she had eaten his grandmother's pumpkin pie, but no one touched it. The longer it sat turning cold on the table, the angrier he got that his grandmother had put her time and her care into making it for someone who couldn't even be bothered to call and wish her well. Jane had tried to kiss him again, but he told her he was in too foul of a mood, and she went home earlier than they had planned. Guilt tugs at him, and he doesn't know why the thought of kissing Jane makes him so uneasy.

He scours the parking lot to find Dirk sitting on the hood of a beat up old car with the same group of older boys and girls he's always with these days, and he hazards a 'hello' when they raise their hands to him in greeting, barely pausing in their conversations. His feet stop him in front of Dirk, who acts like he doesn't recognize him, and he tries to be as quiet as possible even though he wants to shout. It's not a request when Jake tells him to keep his schedule open for Christmas because he's coming over, and he won't go away until this is understood. No one else hears, but Dirk watches him for a second and nods, thanking the boy sitting beside him for the ride before he's sliding off the hood. It surprises him when Dirk wants to walk into the building together, and he wasn't going to yell in front of his friends, but now that they're away from them he wants to call him an asshole, and mention his grandma, and ask what he thinks he's doing staying out at all hours of the night with kids like that, but all he can manage is a bitten off, "You wouldn't know, would you?" when Dirk asks how his holiday was. His hurt is obvious when he doesn't try to talk to Jake after that, and when Dirk ignores him even more deftly than usual that day, Jake doesn't regret it as much as he probably should.

The 22nd of December finds Dirk waiting on his doorstep with his hands in his pockets, a backpack full of clothes hanging off his shoulders, and an apology to his grandmother for missing Thanksgiving, and he regrets it even less. She makes him a bed of sheets on the couch, and when Jake can't get to sleep he restlessly sneaks into the living room to find Dirk still awake at one in the morning, tired faced and glowing pink-green-red under the shifting lights on the tree in the corner. His sunglasses are folded on the scratched glass of the coffee table, and his eyes are uncovered and looking back at him, and Jake feels like he's really seeing him for the first time since he was eight. He slides over to make room for Jake to sit beside him, untangling himself from his blanket, and doesn't bother to put the glasses back on.

Jake feels so content when he snuggles down against the warm spot on the cushions that Dirk's body has left and pulls the blanket over his knees, pressing their sides together, that he lets his head lean on Dirk's shoulder. Neither says anything about the tension that's been between them for the past two months, but he knows it's okay again when Dirk hands him the remote and doesn't argue about what he picks to watch. Jake doesn't really watch it, though; he closes his eyes and concentrates on the heat against his cheek when Dirk leans his head over his own, and doesn't know that he's fallen asleep until he wakes alone on the couch in the morning with the blankets pulled around his shoulders. The sound of his grandmother talking to Dirk guides him into the kitchen, and he's disappointed to see that Dirk's wearing his glasses again, but there's a plate of toast and bacon crowded around the edges with green and red Christmas cookies set out for him, and he doesn't worry for too long.

They wait to exchange gifts until Christmas evening when Jane and Roxy come over. She leans in to kiss him when he meets her at the door, but he pretends not to notice and turns his head to ask Dirk something that he knows sounds as horrible and stupid out loud as it does in his own head. He answers without hesitation, but Jake can tell that he knows what's going on now, and Dirk knowing that he doesn't want to kiss Jane makes him feel even worse about it.

Jane gives him a card and a cake, Roxy gives him a book, and his grandmother gets him a cell phone that he stares at in shock for five minutes and knows he'll spend the next month thanking her for it. Dirk doesn't get him anything, but he does something funny to the new phone that he can't follow and says he can download whatever he wants for free now. Jake guesses that settles who's better at tinkering with machines. After everyone leaves that night and they're sitting together under the old blanket on the couch, he puts his sunglasses on the table and explains that thirteen-year-olds are too young and emotionally unprepared for a relationship when Jake says he doesn't understand why he's glad Jane didn't try to kiss him again before she went home. It makes him feel better, and this time he gets to be the one to listen quietly to someone talk until he forgets about kissing, or Jane, or the television that they aren't watching, and can't focus on anything that isn't Dirk.

He doesn't tell anyone else at school that he has a phone, which he thinks is probably smart, since Roxy sends him more messages on her own than he can keep up with. Jane trades jokes with him throughout the day, and they make him smile, but the infrequent messages that Dirk sends him are the ones he looks forward to the most, the ones that come at three in the morning to let Jake know that he got home safe. Dirk still avoids him at school, and it makes him furious and frustrated, so he's grateful for whatever he can get.

Jane tells him that Dirk is just different now, that he's not trying to hurt Jake on purpose, that he would never do that, and she leans over to hug him, linking their fingers while they sit at the bar in the kitchen watching her dad make dinner. Jake looks at her with her too-blue eyes, and her warm hugs, and her soft hair and hates himself for not wanting to kiss her. Before he leaves, he tries, leans forward meaning to catch her on the mouth, but he turns at the last second and pecks her on the cheek. It leaves him wishing he hadn't done it when he comes away to see the disappointment in her eyes.

By Valentine's Day, even Roxy notices how awkward it is between them. Jane doesn't hold his hand much anymore or come to his practices, and he's scared that she's pulling away from him like Dirk has. He asks her to meet him at his house after school because he's got something special he wants to show her. Her eyes are bright with excitement when she gets there bundled up in a thick coat and knitted boots, and he takes her hand, pulling her along behind him to the park. It's a longer walk than it should be, and the park looks sad and gray when they step across the car lot.

She follows him into the clearing, sitting beside him at one of the old tables, and he tells her this is where he and Dirk always used to go, this was their special place when they were kids. It's a public park, she says, and he knows it must look that way to someone who didn't grow up here, so he nods like he agrees but tells her that it's special to him anyway. She's special to him, too, and he wants to kiss her at that picnic table because it would be right. It would be right, and he wants her to be happy because she's wonderful, and he holds her gloved hands in his lap, watching her smile. But when he leans in all he sees is her eyes closing, and all he feels is nausea and the cold on his face, and all he hears is the wind in the pine needles, and he can't. It would be the easiest thing to do, tilt his head, keep leaning until she's happy, until he's happy too, until their lips touch as simply as it happens in the movies, but he freezes. The only way his body will allow him to lean is away, and after a moment of fighting it he does.

She feels it and opens her eyes, and they look at him now, asking him what she's done wrong, and his voice is dead. She hasn't done anything but good for him, and he doesn't have an explanation when her hand pulls out of his grip.

"Do you even like me, Jake?" she asks, and it rings out like a gunshot in the quiet.

"Of course I do! You're one of my best friends, and I - "

"You know what it is I'm asking."

The words he wants to say won't come, and he can only watch helplessly when she slides her legs out from under the table and stands. Her eyes are wet, but she's too proud to cry openly in front of him, and knowing it's his fault makes him sick.

"It's probably for the best if we don't speak to one another for a while."

"Jane, I'm sorry," he tries, but she stops him with a raised hand.

"It's - Just, please, Jake, give me some time, and don't talk to me," she says, and he means to ask her to stay, to ask where she's going, but she takes her phone from her pocket and calls her father, walking across the parking lot to sit down on the sidewalk facing the road. Until his car pulls up, Jake doesn't move a muscle, feels paralyzed with fear, disgust at himself, and regret, and wishes with all of his might that he had kissed her because then she'd be smiling, not crying, and he wouldn't have to watch his only other friend walk away from him.

Long after she's gone, he stays, not wanting to go home yet because then it'll really be done. The park has never looked so much like shit, and he's so cold he can't feel his fingers.

He feels his face pinching like he's going to cry, and stops it, taking out his phone instead to tell Dirk that he was right all those years ago: the park is stupid. The park is the stupidest thing in the world, but so is he because wanting things definitely hurts, no matter what he says. His head has started to pound, and he's bad at pressing the tiny keys on the phone, so he's sure the message he sends is barely legible. It doesn't matter, he thinks when he's pushing himself away from the bench. Dirk wouldn't reply until the day was so late it had become early again anyway, and he hoists himself up the rope bridge and onto the platform, scooting inside of the low roof over the opening of the slides. His back presses against the red plastic wall behind him, and all he can think is that he's screwed it all up.

The wind is the only sound, and it talks to the weather beaten playground, waits for it to creak and clink its response while he's huddling into himself for warmth, listening to it with closed eyes. It's all he hears for a long time, and it helps until it doesn't, and then he's just cold and not sure why he won't just go home because it's getting winter-dark, which is less comforting than summer-dark and unsafe. A car pulls into the lot, headlights passing through the gaps between the slides and the platform, and he hears the sounds of people talking over a muffled radio, and then a door slamming shut. The car drives away again, and after the rumbling bass has faded away up the road, he can hear footsteps, and he thinks he doesn't care who it is, won't look, until they're climbing the rope ladder and he sees Dirk. It just makes him mad when he walks over and sits against the wall opposite him.

"You can't be my friend if you can only manage an appearance when it suits your fancy, Dirk." He stays quiet, and he's wearing his stupid sunglasses.

"You needed me now, so I'm here."

"I needed you in the fourth grade, but you couldn't be bothered to work in a single blasted phone call for five years. I need you all the time. I need someone, and now I've got no one because I just pissed up the only other relationships I have. Roxy surely won't speak to me once she hears I've abused Jane this way."

"You've got me."

Jake laughs in his face. "I've got you, do I? Yes, indeed, old boy. I've got you. I've got you when I force you to come to me because you don't think about me anymore. You shamelessly gallivant with unsavory characters at, frankly, very scary hours, you ignore me in class - you ignore me when I'm standing right next you, for fuck's sake -, and you can't even be bothered to return a simple message until hours later if you return it at all. So, obviously, I've got you. No, fuck you, Strider, you thoughtless asshole. I don't have you; I haven't had you for years, and now I don't have anyone. I'm alone, and it's my fault even though all I wished was to return some of the kindnesses I was afforded, so I'm quite sure I'm not allowed to feel badly about it." His face is wet, his glasses are smudged, and his nose is running because he can't help himself from crying anymore. The words won't stop, but he thinks that's just fine because there's nothing else he can lose, and he's wanted to yell at Dirk for a very long time.

Dirk is looking straight at him, and Jake's trying to restrain himself from punching him in the face and smashing his glasses to unsalvageable pieces. "And you knew," he says, pulling away his own glasses and pressing the palms of his hands into his eyes. "I asked you what you thought, and you knew damn well, and you didn't bother to tell me."

"I told you that good will isn't enough."

He wrenches his hands away from his face and glares at Dirk, but all he sees is a muted blur of dark colors smeared into each other. "Ah, well, very good. You can go now, Dirk. If you're here to dole out cack-handed comfort and say 'I told you so,' when you didn't because you never say a word to me, you can go back to your sensational new chums and leave me alone again. I hate your guts for treating my grandmother and I like we're only a passing thought. Stop pretending like you care, and I won't make a bother about you anymore." More than he hates Dirk, he hates that he's crying in front of him and that his voice is cracking. "Your glasses are preposterous, and you should know that before you go, at least."

But Dirk doesn't answer, and even without his glasses, Jake can see him shifting, moving forward until he's kneeling between Jake's legs, hovering in front of him. It's probably because he's so cold, but he feels Dirk's heat, feels his hand shaking when he puts it on Jake's shoulder, knows exactly what he's doing when he leans in, and he doesn't stop it. His hand drops his own glasses beside him and peels Dirk's from his face like he's accepted it, and when Dirk's mouth is on his, warm, full, and hesitant, he shuts his eyes and thinks this feels like it was supposed to feel with Jane, but knows when it happens that it could only ever have felt this way with Dirk. It's just pressure, more in his chest than on his lips, and Dirk doesn't taste or smell like anything, but it's exhilarating anyway. His heart is wild and frantic inside him.

The fragile smack of Dirk's lips pulling away from his has him leaning in again, following before he can catch himself, and after he does, he doesn't move, doesn't think, but brings his knees in enough that Dirk can't get away.

"I'm sorry I left," he whispers, and Jake thinks it's still too loud. There are a million things he could say that would be better, probably answers he should want, but he only asks one thing.

"Will you tell me how your parents died?"

"Double suicide," he says without a pause. It wasn't the answer he was expecting, and Jake wants to ask how anyone could just leave Dirk behind without a thought, how young he was when it happened, and most of all why they would do that, but Dirk saves him the trouble. "My father had a terminal brain tumor. He was her singular priority."

"Dirk..."

"I don't care. Fuck them both. You'll never be alone again, Jake."

Jake says he's sorry, but he means it for things he doesn't want to keep talking about, so he wraps his arms around Dirk's back, and when Dirk does the same they silently agree not to move until the park is an out-of-focus room filled with night, and the stars outnumber all the words they've ever said. Dirk calls his friends to tell them where to pick him up and walks Jake home.

They don't speak on the way back, and at the door Jake almost says something that he's not sure he means, but after the kiss it's all he can think about, and Dirk tells Jake that he doesn't have to say it. So, he doesn't, which is easier, and at school the next day Dirk doesn't say it either, so it gets pushed back, and then no one ever says anything. But Jake can't help it some mornings when he wakes up with an uncomfortable heat between his legs and all he can think of when he slides his hand over his navel and into his pajama bottoms to touch himself is the warmth of Dirk's lips and his uneven voice making promises in Jake's ear.

Roxy still talks to him, but not like she did before, and she says Jane's not mad, but she doesn't want to see him. It still hurts, but Dirk is true to his word and keeps him close, bringing him along to another table at lunch and introducing him to a group of kids who Jake doesn't have anything in common with but who don't mind his presence. He takes his place back at Jake's practices and even comes to some of the official matches, so Jake starts coming along to his fencing classes to watch him. They don't go to Dirk's apartment anymore, though. The caretaker is always drunk, and it's an unclean trash heap, Dirk tells him, so they go to his house or the park instead.

When school ends, he's packing for England because his grandmother already bought the tickets. She tells him they won't have to go next year if he wants to stay, since Dirk is back, but he doesn't mind. Dirk calls him now, and it won't be so lonely. The summer is still gray and rainy, but they share a good night-good morning call each day when Dirk is just coming home from being out all night and Jake is just waking up, and it's the best part of his vacation.

When they get back home, he finds Dirk waiting for them with Dave at the airport, and when they hug he notices that he's as tall as Dirk is now. His grandmother lets him go home with them, and he gets to meet the new caretaker, a stout woman who smiles and shakes his hand when he gives it to her. He discovers that Dave is pressing charges against the old one for neglect, but when they're in Dirk's bedroom he pulls a bottle of alcohol from behind his T.V. and grins at Jake. He snuck it in before it was thrown out with the others, he says, and they wait until Dave and the new caretaker have gone to sleep before they take turns sipping at it. It tastes horrible, but it makes everything funny, and they don't have to drink very much at all before they're lying on the floor making crude gestures with Dirk's puppets and laughing until their sides hurt.

They collapse exhausted into Dirk's bed when the sun is coming up through the blinds, and before they fall asleep they share a dazed, awkward kiss with Jake's lips on Dirk's cheek and Dirk's on his chin because they're too woozy to aim right. If Dirk remembers in the morning, then he pretends he doesn't, so Jake does the same, and they hide the bottle before anyone else sees it.

Dave spends most of his time on the phone or his laptop, and it bothers Dirk. He doesn't take his eyes from the screen, barely manages to turn his head, when Dirk spits out an insincere goodbye to see if he's listening when they decide to go to the store for snacks. So, Dirk slams the door hard enough to rattle the front window when they leave, and a dog starts barking from inside another apartment.

In the eighth grade, he gets to be in more official matches with other schools, and Dirk's fencing form is so perfected that he begins competing in tournaments. Homework and sports have taken up all of their time, and neither of them goes to the anime club anymore. He isn't in Dirk's class, but he can still see that the teachers have started treating him differently, even the ones he offended in the last year. They act like Dirk is Dave.

Sometimes, when Jake is invited to one of Dirk's tournaments there are paparazzi. It's only a handful, but they're persistent and bombard Dirk with questions before his fight begins, questions about his brother and their relationship, why he doesn't live with him, if there's strain, and Jake wants to jump in and beat them off because it's none of their business, and if they want to know they should go ask Dave. It doesn't seem to bother Dirk as much as it does Jake, though. He says he's used to them after California, that all he did was dodge photographers when his brother bothered to show his face. So, Jake lets it go and tries to focus on the tournament which is not difficult because Dirk's as good and better at fencing as he ever was at any sport.

Dirk still won't stop hanging out with his older friends and claims they're part of an image he maintains - for himself or his brother, Jake can't tell -, but his new caretaker enforces a curfew, so he starts sneaking out of his window at midnight. He tells Jake not to wait up for a message because he rarely comes home until after school the next day. It scares him, but he's wary of jeopardizing their friendship when it's hanging on by such slim threads, so he holds back from telling him off.

In the middle of the year, Jane approaches him with Roxy at her side and says that she'd like it if he came to her house for her Christmas party, and he's so excited she's forgiven him that he grabs them both up into a hug. He says he missed her, and she says that she should have known better than to try to steal Jake's heart anyway but won't explain what she means when he asks. Dirk gives him a fist bump when he gives him the news, and says he can't wait.

For the first time in nearly a year, Roxy and Jane are both online when he turns his computer on that night, and he has a wonderfully long conversation with them both. Her Christmas party is just the four of them watching movies in their pajamas until dawn and eating cookies and cakes that her father made. He doesn't seem to hold a grudge against Jake, and even says it's good to see him around again, which Jake appreciates, and when he leaves to go to bed, Roxy makes everyone groan uncomfortably by commenting on how hot she thinks he is. Jane tries to stuff a bright red tree bauble in her mouth to get her to be quiet. It doesn't work out, but they all get a good laugh out of it.

He doesn't know how it happens, but - after the girls have retired to Jane's room - he finds himself lying on the couch with his face tucked against the back of Dirk's neck and an arm curled around his chest, and all he wants is to keep holding him there until Jake can forget that, when he wakes up, there are still going to be windows for Dirk to climb out of in the middle of the night.

 

Dirk is good enough, and wins often enough, that he gets to compete at a regional tournament, and he says he's not interested when Dave calls to say that he'll come down for it, but he's antsy and he talks a lot more than he would if he weren't excited. It makes Jake happy because Dirk says Dave's never been to one of his fights before, and Jake knows he will think Dirk is incredible. They don't hang out much during that time because Dirk is working hard, practicing as much as he can to be as good as possible for when his brother sees him. Until the night of the tournament, when Jake is sitting in the crowded stands with his grandmother holding a seat for Dave, he thinks maybe it'll be okay, but when the last round is over with no sign of him, and his grandmother is looking angry and upset, he knows it never will be.

Before they leave, he finds Dirk with sweat drenched hair and splotches of heat-red coloring his cheeks and tells him how sorry he is. Dirk shrugs, laughs ruefully, and says he never gave a shit in the first place. He's getting a ride home with his friends, so he tells Jake there's no need to stick around, but the emptiness in his eyes is more convincing than the words in his mouth, and Jake wants to stick around because he's afraid of leaving Dirk alone.

The drunken messages start coming at one in the morning, and he knows he should have. He can tell that Dirk's drunk because of how much he's talking and how little sense he's making, so he calls him, just to hear his voice and be sure he's okay. The phone call they share is brief, and loud, and Jake can hear rowdy screaming in the background that hurts his ears. Dirk says he's got that bottle of alcohol he hid away, and Jake should have a shot with him because he's going to go home and fire the caretaker and call Dave and tell him to fuck himself. Jake doesn't know what else to do, so he tells Dirk to come to his house and they can drink together, but after he hangs up he runs into his grandmother's bedroom and tells her that he needs help.

They don't have time to question the people he was with; they squeal away from Jake's house almost as soon as they pull up. Dirk is leaning against the door frame with his eyes closed, doesn't have a shirt or the bottle, and there's a red spotted bandage wrapped around his upper arm that makes Jake's breath catch. The first thing his grandmother does is drag him to the couch and lay him on his stomach with a trash can under his face, just in case, while she asks him questions about who he was with and if he's okay.

He's incoherent, but he laughs. "Yeah, got some rad new ink. Wanna see, Engl'sh?"

"Who would tattoo an underaged boy?" she asks him, and he shakes his head, hand pawing at his arm.

"Buddies o' mine did it 'n their garage. Check it out," he slurs, and pulls down on the bandage. It's a bleeding, crudely drawn face of a character from one of Dave's movies that looks like it was only half inked in. The rest of it looks like it was forcibly carved into Dirk's arm with something sharp, and Jake isn't sure what to do, but he panics, thinking of infections and scars. His grandma gasps and says she's going to call Dave, and she backs out of the room, telling Jake to make sure Dirk falls asleep on his stomach.

He brings a hand up like he's going to touch the tattoo, but he falters, and his fingers curl into his palm. "Why would you do something like this?"

"Because 'm jus' free fuckin' ad space anyway, right? Now, I look th' part," he laughs. "When I was in Cali, I only saw 'm when the son of a bitch dragged me to these shitty promo events to pose next to 'm like a goddamn prop." The laughing is horrible, and it makes Jake's insides twist. He's reaching forward to help Dirk pull his glasses off because he can't do it himself with his unsteady hands, and he's gotten the earpiece stuck in his hair. "Th' worst thing's that 'f I din' love 'm, I could be free, y'know. I could be happy 'cause I din' love someone who won't ever love me's much's I love them, but I loved 'm straight out th' gate. Din' even get a chance to ex'cute an evasive maneuver. That's how I know love's jus' problematic trash. 'Cause it never goes away, 'n all it does is hurt. 'f I had a brother who cared, I'd be okay, but now I jus' care too fuckin' much for someone I ain't even a secon' thought to, even though I'm so hella cool. All my friends're so cool 'n awesome, ever'body loves me, 'n he still doesn' care; It still ain't cool enough for 'm." He's talking into the bottom of the trash can, and Jake can hear his grandmother's stern voice from the kitchen.

"But...I care, Dirk. What if - Couldn't I be your brother?" Jake's eyes are wet. All he can smell is alcohol, and he's fumbling for words because his throat is tight, and he's never heard Dirk pour his heart out like this before.

Dirk makes the most pitiful noise, and Jake thinks he might be the one to puke because he's never heard him sound so weak. "Oh...God, no," he slurs, and Jake's heart breaks. "No, no, no, no, no." He rolls onto his side and is so tired-eyed when he looks up that Jake doesn't know if sleep will be enough to help it. Then, he puts a warm hand on Jake's face and says, "That would ruin heaven," and Jake can't stop his own hand from coming up to cover Dirk's.

When they wake up, their hands are still clasped, and Jake has a crick in his neck from sleeping sitting up. Dirk almost apologizes to them, but his grandmother tells him to shut up. She slaps him for the tattoo and makes him eat an enormous breakfast, and Jake doesn't see him hanging with his older friends anymore. He tells anyone who asks that the tattoo is an ironic joke, and when it heals it's mostly pink and white scars and broken black lines.

That Summer, they have to go back to England because his grandmother's dog - "You probably wouldn't remember Becquerel. You were just a baby when you last saw him." - is being kicked out of the kennel he was put up in when they moved, and she has to sign his release papers in person. The caretaker has to be the one to tell Dirk that Dave is flying him out to the coast for the summer so they can have a face to face talk because he isn't answering Dave's calls anymore.

Dirk and his caretaker follow them to the airport, and when he hugs Dirk goodbye he can't stop himself from kissing him on the cheek, hoping he doesn't stumble while Jake's too far away to catch him before he hits the ground; Jake understands he needs to now. "I'll call you every morning, English," he says, and he does. Every morning, he wakes up to Bec sleeping on his feet and his phone ringing on the pillow beside his head. Dirk's voice is deeper than it used to be, and sometimes he just says things so that Dirk will respond, and he can listen to it. When the rain ticks against the windows while Dirk's voice rumbles in his ear, he snuggles down into his blankets and lets himself fall asleep again for a little longer. His great aunts and uncles pick on him about his oblivious smiles, but it's not until one of them uses the word 'lovestruck' that he pays it any attention. Then, his eyes focus and he realizes he's been sitting with an open book in his lap reading the same sentence for ten minutes, wondering if Dirk is still sleeping and if he's dreaming.

The days run on, and eventually they're coming home again, but there's a new element to himself that he's afraid to face. When their plane lands, Dirk is waiting for him in the middle of the terminal, and he's gotten taller and bulkier. His hair has grown out, and his tan is nearly a sunburn from spending three months on a beach, and just looking at him makes Jake's heart skip a beat. Dirk's arm comes down around his shoulders, and he realizes how much he missed being close to him, within touching distance. Dirk squeezes them together and says, "Still alive," and Jake doesn't know which of them he means, but his voice is so much more tempting in person than over the phone that all he can think about is how much he wants to kiss him, not caring that the airport is teeming with people. It makes Jake's chest feel tight, so he asks how it went with Dave to distract himself. Dirk says he didn't care for the tattoo.

Roxy teaches Dirk a new trick on the computer that he wants to show Jake that first night home, and he's sitting in his computer chair letting Dirk lean over him. His arms are around Jake's neck, reaching down to the keyboard, and he thinks he might burst with the heat against his back, Dirk's voice in his ear, and the warm breath on his cheek. Almost against his will, it has him turning his head and kissing Dirk again.

It's soft, but it lingers, and when his lips finally pull away, he doesn't stutter when he says, "I missed you."

They both know exactly what he means by it, but Jake gives Dirk time to pretend like he's processing, and then he smiles like he's sad, throwing Jake for a loop. When he slowly leans back in, turning his head to pry Jake's mouth open with his own, maybe he's just an overeager kid with his heart running away in his chest, and maybe he's as perfect at this as anyone has ever been - he doesn't know -, but he wraps his tongue around Dirk's and closes his eyes, sliding over in his chair without breaking contact so Dirk can sit half beside him, half on top of him, and feels like this is all he needs in the world. He can taste Dirk's heartbeat in his mouth and his fingers clutching lightly in his hair, and they spend the rest of the night making out to the sound of constant clicking from the pullstring on ceiling fan.

The ninth grade is a year of caution and learning. Dave releases a new movie, and everything about him has suddenly become public interest, including Dirk, who is either treated as a best friend or a pariah by the rest of the student body. Photographers are more common now, and while they have a few classes together, they avoid each other at school in case someone starts to suspect. He sees Aranea in the halls again now that they're both in high school, and they exchange numbers. She invites him to hang out with her friends in the library during lunch and asks if he has any extracurriculars, so he tells her about wrestling. She looks disappointed but congratulates him and says he's welcome at the book club any time. Sometimes, he uses being with her as an excuse to stay away from Dirk in school, but when the day ends and they get back home, it's homework, movies, and kissing until they think that being careful is for the dogs and run after each other to the park.

They go so far off the trails that they don't think anyone will find them ever again, most especially not a camera, and they fall into each other until they're breathless and starry-eyed, waiting eagerly for the sky to fall. It takes a cloud of angry mosquitoes and evening birds singing for the red-violet dark to pull them from their dead leaf blanket, and Dirk will hold feather-like onto his hand until they get to the clearing. Then, it's a two foot space between them until they get to his house, where they can smell dinner cooking from the driveway.

Most days, Jake doesn't even care about the kissing, just wants to be as close to him as he can get, but on others Dirk will have the empty look in his eyes that found him drunk and bleeding at Jake's door the winter before, and it worries him. He hasn't seen Dirk smile in months, and Jake can't get him to speak.

They can't do the normal things that the rest of the kids their age do. Going out at all is impossible because of the journalists, and even if they aren't present, the idea of them is, and more overbearing than that is the harassment they know they'd get from people if the truth came out. If it's not to go to the park, they don't have much reason to want to leave Jake's bedroom anyway. Neither of them cares about showing off, and they think the park is forgotten enough for them to be careless until Jane and Roxy show up one day.

"You weren't answering your phones," Jane says, pulling up a basket of food, "and we wanted to have a picnic before the weather turns. I remembered it being said you two always come here, so we thought we would try." Roxy leans in to whisper that she can see them holding hands under the table, and they slide to opposite ends of the bench. She says neither she nor Jane will say anything.

Word gets out about where they go, somehow, and it's not just the journalists who come. People who live around start remembering that there's a park in the neighborhood, and almost overnight it's repopulated with joggers and families petitioning to replace the worn equipment and put in new tables, things that are safe for children. The park doesn't feel like a sanctuary after that, and they stop going.

Stories pulled from ninety-nine cent tabloids begin circulating. It's a constant stream of rude, untrue things like Dave disowning Dirk and sending him to Texas for sexual reformation. Rumors fly about him, and because there's always someone who cares, they fly about Jake, too, and the way that they're a pair. The ones who remember elementary rehash that day in the second grade - things that happened when Jake and Dirk were too young to know what sex was, violent accidents -, and the first time Jake has to deal with someone prodding him at the grocery store with questions about their relationship, he loses his temper and slugs the photographer in the jaw. As soon as it happens, he knows he's messed up. The word 'lawsuit' is thrown around, and he runs as fast as he can in the opposite direction. It distresses him so much that he calls Dirk, wondering if they'll be bothering his grandmother next, and then he's not sure what he'll do, but it probably won't stop at a simple punch. Dirk tells him that he'll take care of it, so he trusts him, but when Jake finds out that his idea of taking care of it is asking Roxy to pretend to be his girlfriend, his stomach bottoms out.

When he sees them holding hands together or sharing kisses between classes, he doesn't know if he feels worse knowing what it costs her or what it feels like having to watch it and pretend not to care. It's probably far less noble than he pretends when he asks if she really doesn't mind sacrificing her own chance at a personal relationship to help them out, but she waves him off and says, "Like I would really date any'a the losers in this hick town," nudging him and winking in a way that's supposed to make him feel better. He's grateful that the rumors stop, but the sight of them together makes his head swim, and he thinks he'd rather be sued.

For appearance's sake, Dirk has to spend more time doing things with her like going out together or letting her wear his clothes to lead people on. She says she thinks fencing is boring, but she has to go to all of his tournaments, so Jake tries to explain what's happening. She usually leaves before the match is over, telling Jake to wish Dirk luck for her.

Most of his conversations with Dirk start to happen on the phone, and it leaves Jake with a lot of free afternoons when he doesn't have practice, so he takes Aranea up on her offer to join the book club. They meet after school, and they're a lot more subdued than he is. He finds himself getting antsy while he's there, thoughts drifting without his permission, and he thinks of Dirk and Roxy alone, how good they look together, how there's no conflict or 'controversy' when they're seen holding each other close, and he feels like the walls are closing in on him, so his stays with the club are infrequent and usually short.

Instead of that, he'll often bundle up and decide to take Bec for a walk to distract himself. They go for short trips around the neighborhood because he's an old dog and doesn't need much exercise. One afternoon, he wanders past Dirk's old house. Before he realizes where his feet have taken him, he's passing a wooden fence covered in overgrown, green vines, and it's surreal to him that he can stop and see over the top of it now. There's a set of pale wooden patio furniture sitting in the middle of a neat little lawn and a metal wind chime strung with sea shells clinking lazily under the awning over the porch, and it's otherwise quiet and barren. He only looks for a second before he's being tugged forward by the leash again, and he rounds the edge of the fence to see the familiar two-story house faced with red brick.

It's not as impressive as it used to be. In fact, now he can see that it looks exactly like every other house on the street, only it's not. He doesn't get the chance to stop and take it in, but as he passes he wonders who sleeps now in the room that used to have samurai swords nailed to the wall.

His legs are tired when he gets home, but he still calls Dirk and tells him that he wants to come over. He says he'll get a ride to Jake's house instead, so he takes the time to shower and lay down on the couch. Thirty minutes later, Dirk is knocking on the door before letting himself in, and something is different when he's standing over Jake. He looks up and tries to find his eyes behind the dark glass of the shades, but there's nothing. "Care for a scrap?" he asks.

"Yes." Roxy's perfume is on him.

Jake stands and walks past, leading the way to his bedroom.

For a while, they do wrestle. It's not technical or practiced, just two boys grappling formlessly, struggling as hard as they can on a cluttered bedroom floor, and then Jake pins Dirk under him, hands pressing hard biceps against the carpet, knees tight to either side of him. They're both out of breath and damp around the collar, and Jake is sure he'll have a hard time trying to find where their glasses fell later, but for the moment he just wants to watch Dirk, take him all in, before he's closing the distance between them. Hands on either side of Dirk's face, they collide so fast their teeth click together, and Jake catches the taste of Roxy's chapstick.

He clumsily drags his hips against Dirk's, moving them together until they're both hard, and his breath is leaving in short gasps, but he tries keeping his voice down so that his grandmother doesn't hear them. There are a lot of uncertain hands going everywhere, but they all manage to feel like they've got the right idea, stroking, touching, rubbing, and with his touch Dirk asks permission. Gliding his fingers up underneath Jake's shorts until they're resting on his inner thigh, he stops and waits. Jake pulls back and catches the fear, however well disguised, in Dirk's eyes and nods. He feels fingers close around him, testing, and his breath stutters when they come away momentarily to slip his shorts down his thighs, but they come back, and then they circle him and slide.

He doesn't want to have to face Dirk while he does this, so Jake keeps kissing, biting at his lips, and brings his own hand down to slip under Dirk's shirt. His wrist is grabbed, and he opens his eyes to see Dirk shaking his head. "It's okay. Just you, now," he says, and Jake wants to protest, but there's firm pressure and motion again, and hot shivers are running through his whole body, making him tingle. His hips roll up into Dirk's grip, his head rolls down against his shoulder, and his eyes roll unseeingly to rest on a poster of a skull and crossbones that he's had since he was eleven. This is probably supposed to be special, but it just feels like fire, like he can't get close enough to Dirk, can't bridge the gap even with his body, so he doesn't care what this is - as long as it is - and as long as it keeps overwhelming him.

He's gnawing so hard on his lower lip that he thinks he'll bite it off when he releases jerkily into Dirk's hand, scraping his fingernails against the carpet and listening to his heart pound in his ears while Dirk rubs against him and finishes himself. He's scared, and there's a raw ache in his chest that he's vaguely aware has been there for a long time. A kiss is pressed to his neck, and he chokes out a sob that he doesn't expect, but that's as far as it goes. He doesn't want to talk about what they did or what they'll do.

"Do you ever want to run away?" he asks instead, "Have an honest to goodness real adventure?"

"More than anything," he says, and Jake knows he should get off because he's heavy, and Dirk probably wants to clean up because they're both gross, but he's reluctant to move and let the moment pass. He wants to stay there with his lips pressed to Dirk's wet temple until he forgets how complicated and different things are now. However Dirk feels, he doesn't try to get up either, and after Jake pulls up his shorts, he stays on top of Dirk and decides he'll care about the mess later because in one way or another he's exhausted, and staying is his only priority.

"Dirk, I think I lo-," Dirk's mouth covers his own, cutting him off, and when he backs up he tells Jake he doesn't have to say it. But this time Jake thinks he means it, which is why he wants to.

At last, they get to spend the summer together. Dirk doesn't pay for fencing classes, and he gets his learner's permit a week before Jake gets his and treats it like a real license. Jake doesn't care much for driving, but he'll go anywhere with Dirk because every time he does it's like perching on the ledge of a getaway, and he doesn't care where they end up as long as they're together. Dirk looks for excuses to get behind the wheel, and when he rolls the window down, smiles and lets the tension in his shoulders go, Jake can't take his eyes away. Often, he'll take out his caretaker's car without permission before she wakes up, and they ride out the day watching the clouds roll by overhead, trying to find new places to be. They go for ice cream or lunch, and sometimes they go to the edge of town and park the car, getting out to throw rocks at the city limits sign, but sometimes they just drive.

One of them might message Roxy or Jane, and Dirk will pick everyone up for a trip to the water park. The first time they go, Jane is embarrassed about being in a bathing suit in front of people and wants to keep her T-shirt over it, so Jake offers to do the same so that she doesn't feel alone, and then so does everyone else. By the end of the day, they've all got horrible tan lines, and they're full of the soda and sandwiches that Jane packed them for lunch. Roxy and Jane are laughing hysterically at Jake and Dirk, who are cannon-balling into a giant wade pool and splashing everyone resting around the edges, when they're asked to leave. They do, and they laugh all the way to the parking lot, sun heated cement burning the wet heels of their feet.

After Dirk drops the girls off at Jane's house, he takes Jake back to his apartment, and they fool around in Dirk's bed until the heat is too much. Then, they kick the covers away and lie under the ceiling fan while it does - at best - a shoddy job of cooling them off.

Whenever Jake tries to touch Dirk in kind, though, he's carefully denied or shrugged off with an excuse. He says he just wants to make Jake feel good, that it makes him feel good enough, so he doesn't press the issue, just takes Dirk's hand and holds it as tightly as he can. They never go beyond touching, but Jake thinks he wants to.

On nights too hot to fall asleep, they stay up talking about the future. Jake doesn't know what he wants to do, but neither does Dirk, and that seems okay. Everything seems okay until Dave calls. They're eating breakfast on the couch, and the caretaker comes in with a frown, holding her phone out to Dirk. She's been less and less pleased with him as time passed. When Dirk takes it, he doesn't even stop spooning cereal into his mouth, and his responses are closed-mouth hums of acknowledgment when Dave tells him to stop taking the car out without a licensed driver, that it's dangerous, that someone could find out, and it'd be bad press. Jake can hear him say, "Alright, cool. Then, it's settled. I'm late for a conference now, so I'll have to talk to you later, little man. Keep up the good grades," before he disconnects, and he wonders where the rest of the conversation went.

"Was that the first time he's called you?" he asks. Dirk doesn't answer him, just puts his bowl on the table and passes the phone back to her, standing and going into his room. When Jake comes in, he's settled at his computer with his headphones on, and he's ignoring him.

"I'm heading to Roxy's for a thing tonight. You can come if you're down." he says, shrugging Jake off when he puts a hand on his shoulder, and Jake isn't down because he knows what's going to happen there.

"Do you know you're not alone?" he asks. Dirk doesn't answer him and pretends not to be able to hear.

It takes Jake a few minutes to gather up his stuff and leave, then he tells the caretaker he needs a ride. His head hurts, and he's tired because he's never been fast enough to pull the bricks out of the wall keeping him from Dirk before it towers between them. Despite that, he regrets walking out as soon as his feet start moving and wishes he were less impulsive or hotheaded, more like the gentleman he pretends to be, because Dirk needs him and all he can do is be angry that he isn't fast enough.

Name dropping manages to get Dirk a job at a mechanic's garage a week before school starts, and he says he'd never have done it otherwise, but he needs the money. He won't say for what, and by the middle of their sophomore year Jake is tired of the pretending and always getting the run-around, watching the from the sidelines while strangers' malicious intentions tell him what he can and can't do. Dirk is not Dave, and he shouldn't have to live like he is to make Dave's life easier.

"I want to go to prom with you," he says. They're on Dirk's couch, and his eyes feel heavy like he's about to fall asleep. He might be, with Dirk's arm around him and his head leaning on Dirk's shoulder, but he can't stop thinking about how much he wants this. For who, he's not sure, but he wants to be able to live like he's not a prisoner of circumstance for just one night, whatever the consequences are. That would be enough, he thinks.

It takes a moment for Dirk to respond, then his arm tightens around Jake, his nose nuzzles in his hair, and he says, "Alright," and that's it. He and Roxy call it off at school, and Jake enjoys it just a little bit when she slaps him hard enough to knock his sunglasses askew in the middle of the hallway.

Jake waits until dinner time one evening to tell his grandmother that he's with Dirk and waits for her response, feeling like he's going to puke or maybe fall down because his legs are shaking so much, and he's never been so afraid of anything in his life. She gives him a confused look from in front of the stove and says she could swear he'd already told her. He shakes his head, not wanting to be hopeful if that means she's known all along, but not knowing how to proceed if it doesn't, and she wipes her hands on a towel and crosses the kitchen to wrap her arms around his shoulders. He's taller than she is now, so he has to lean down to let her do it, but he'll always feel like a little boy around her, and all he wants in that moment is her approval. His hands wind around her back, knowing she can feel him shake, and she coos at him, comfortingly stroking his scalp with her fingernails.

"I will always love you, Jake, and you should never be afraid of that not being true. For any reason, okay?"

"Okay, Gramma," he says with his face turned into her hair, still long as it always was but snowy white now, and if he holds onto her for too long, waiting with bated breath for it to be too good to be true and wondering if Dirk could ever have this with Dave, he doesn't notice, and she doesn't say anything. He's not sure if that's why, on prom night, he's too nervous to go through with it.

Dirk's there at seven looking cool and careless with his hair slicked back and just a suit jacket over his normal clothes, and Jake feels like he's over dressed in his blue rental tux. His caretaker let him have her car for the night, and when Jake climbs into the passenger's side and shuts the door, he asks if it would be okay if they didn't go. Thoughts of cameras and problems and no one being there to hold Dirk for as long as he wanted while he stood terrified, waiting for judgment to be passed in the middle of his kitchen, have him anxious, but Dirk shrugs, and that's how they wind up sitting in a warm leather booth under the heater at the back of the only pizzeria in town.

Jake drops the crust of the piece he's just finished off, head resting in his hand. "I can't believe I got on my best bib and tucker for pineapple pizza."

"Yo, pineapple pizza is the most incontestably valid reason for putting on a suit in the first place, possibly excluding covert cinematographic intelligence operations."

"Yes, well," he says, thinking of the wallet full of money Dirk pulled out to pay their bill, "I've been wondering, and I know you say it's supposed to be a surprise, but -"

"I'm saving up for a car," Dirk cuts him off. Jake's eyes widen, and then he's confused why Dirk would keep that a secret from him. "I was waiting until I had enough to be sure I could afford it before I said anything. Didn't want to get your hopes up, but I guess now seems as opportune a time as any.

"You didn't want to get my hopes up?"

"Yeah, you with all your adventurous escapism shit. I can imagine how you'd wander around until you fell down a well, daydreaming about all the avenues of possibility our own car would open up - pun not intended but unavoidable." He hands Jake a napkin with a smile. "You've got sauce on your face," and Jake's staring at him with raised eyebrows, but he distractedly takes it with one hand and reaches under the table to link their fingers with the other.

A rickety little car with white paint that's starting to chip off has been towed to sit in front of Dirk's apartment building before the school year ends. It doesn't run, but Dirk bought it with his own money, and no one can tell him how or what to do with it, so Jake is all too happy to get in beside him under the popped hood and spend the days fixing it up. He doesn't know much about cars at the start, but Dirk's learned some things from working at the garage, and his grandmother does, so they go to her for help when they can't figure out what else they need to do.

Rain comes in steamy sheets of gray on the days that it comes, and before they slam the hood and run inside to seek shelter they'll lean in, protected - shielded they think - from watchful eyes. The buzz over Dave's movie has long since died out, and they aren't as careful anymore, so when they grab each other with grease-black fingers and kiss so deeply Jake thinks he'll drown, he doesn't think anyone can see them. Jake pulls away from Dirk's soft mouth with hooded eyes, and they breathe one another's air, listening to the rain pelt down on the cement around them. It smells like oil, sweat, and metal.

Dirk's glasses are pushed up into his hair, and Jake likes the way the dark skin of his wrist looks against Dirk's cheek - pale and familiar - and he kisses the side of his full mouth again. "Please, Strider, don't push me away," he whispers, and doesn't mean it to sound as desperate as it does, but the feeling is so sincere that he has to handle it like it will break or it might break him. "I do l -," and again Dirk stops him before he can finish, grabbing him by the back of the neck and pulling him in again, and Jake wants to pin him down kicking and screaming and make him listen, but Dirk's tongue is hot and insistent in his mouth, crushing their lips together so hard his neck is being pushed back, begging Jake not to say it as much as he's begging Dirk to let him.

In the morning, there are thirteen missed calls from Dave on Dirk's cellphone, and a picture message. It's headed with "what the hell is this," and because Jake is lying beside him where they fell asleep on the floor, when Dirk opens it, he sees the blurry photograph of them kissing each other under the hood of the car. They only get a second to see it before Dave is calling again, but the second is enough for Jake's whole body to go cold. Dirk steps into the bathroom to talk to him, but Jake can hear the yelling from his spot against the footboard of the bed.

When he comes back in, he says Dave wants him to move back to California because people are claiming he's a homophobe who sent his little brother away out of shame, and his P.R. people are scrambling. Dirk promises he's not moving back, but he'll go just to get the press off Dave's back so that Dave will get off of his. Jake wants to hit something, mostly himself, but asks if Dirk wants him to stay and help pack.

"No, I've got shit there. This will be a very brief stay; I'm only taking Lil' Cal." He makes a gesture toward the puppet doll on the bed, and Jake would be more glad to finally have remembered its name if the situation weren't what it is.

"Is he angry about..?" he makes a vague gesture.

Dirk snorts and gives him a condescending look. "He only cares about it because it's disrupted his business model."

"Oh," he says, and there's nothing else he can say. "I suppose I'll be going, then." Dirk nods, not looking at him, and the caretaker is standing in the doorway with the scared, disappointed look in her eye of an adult who should have known better, so he doesn't think it's a good time to go for a kiss or even a hug. He gives Dirk's hand a squeeze, because that seems safe enough and he wants some kind of contact before he goes, then lets her usher him out of the room and into her car.

Dirk doesn't get back in time for school, and he hasn't been calling, so Jake doesn't know if he's decided to stay or not. It's common knowledge what he and Dirk are, he finds out. Strangers, people who don't live there, have no idea who the boy in the picture is, but his classmates do. Some of them expected it, most of them don't care or at the very least leave him alone about it, but there are the aggressive ones who try to corner him. He's too old and too hardened by the years of wrestling to be intimidated now, and he gets referred to the office more times than he's comfortable with as a junior for fights that he refuses to lose, even if they leave him sporting a few scrapes and bruises. The fighting's not so bad, though. It's the silent condescension of the people around him that makes him nervous.

When Dirk does get back, he's stiff, unresponsive, and exhausted looking, and he says he'll have to go to California more often to keep things calm. He has to leave for the holidays, for his birthday, and whatever else Dave needs him for, which isn't fair because those were always times when they could be together. He calls Jake when he's away, but it's not the same. Jake still hates that Dirk has to do damage control to make things easier for Dave, but the worst part is that, even though people know, and the tension is incredible enough to keep their hackles constantly raised and ready for a fight, they still have to keep a ten foot distance between them when people are looking. He doesn't want to do anything lewd; he just wants to hold Dirk's hand and bring back the missing parts of him that he left out on the coast.

The pressure about colleges and majors is more intense than it's ever been, and Jake is at Aranea's or Jane's house studying for the SATs almost constantly because he has no idea what he wants to be or what he wants to do, but he wants at least to do well on his tests. Neither Roxy nor Dirk try to study for them, and they still make nearly perfect scores, which has Jake disheartened when he gets his results back and he sees how mediocre they are. Dirk says it's not a big deal, that the SATs don't mean shit anyway, but tells Jake he'll help him study if he wants when he takes them again as a senior. He does want that, even just to be close to him because, since he came back, he's barely touched Jake for more than to hand him a pencil. Even a kiss feels strained and unwanted, and his whole body aches and shudders when he remembers this is what the fear that Dirk's leaving him behind feels like. The worst part is that he wouldn't blame him for it. There's a world of possibility open and waiting for Dirk, even if it's only because of his brother's success, and he could go to any college, any city, any country, and leave Jake behind without a second thought. It's not something he's ever been afraid of before, but now he can't stop thinking about it.

Late one night, when he knows it's deserted, he goes back to the park and lies out on the old platform watching the stars, wondering when it'll get torn down and replaced with something newer and brighter.

South Padre Island is a tiny sliver of land just off the coast in the Gulf of Mexico that can be driven to by crossing a long causeway. It's a party town, and there are beaches and drinks and the smell of salt on the wind when you get close is an ersatz freedom nigh irresistible in the early days of July. Roxy has a hotel room and alcohol and plans, and she wants them to come out to the island to watch fireworks go off, something she says they should do together as a rite of passage before they're seniors. He's not sure he wants to be stuck in the middle of a crowd of drunk teenagers, but she's right that things are passing. He can feel it - everything slipping by him in a jet stream - and he wishes he could slow it down for just a little while. So, Dirk picks him up in the early pink morning, in the car that he paid to have finished at a shop, and they throw a cooler full of food in the back seat and drive with the radio on until they hit the gulf.

It's dark when they can finally see the shoreline through the sparse buildings, and they haven't had signal for hours, so Jake wouldn't know if the girls have tried to call them. All of the little shops are closed, and there are people sitting on balconies or running through the streets with roman candles when Dirk pulls over into the empty car lot of a shop that looks like it was once someone's home and turns off the engine. Dirk's glasses are hanging from his shirt collar, and when they look at each other the light from the street lamp above them flickering through the windshield makes Dirk's eyes look orange.

"Level with me. Do you have any real desire to go to this party?"

"Not at all."

"Then, stay here with me instead."

He does, and whatever the party was like, whether or not the fireworks were impressive, he never finds out. Sitting in Dirk's car with the radio turned down low, far enough away from home that he can pretend they won't ever have to go back, is all he wants. The seat belt cuts into his shoulder when he leans over the armrest to kiss Dirk, but he doesn't care because, for the first time in a long time, he's sure that Dirk wants him, too. When his hand rubs down the hard lines of Dirk's chest and under his waistband, he feels him tense up, but he's not pushed off, and he wonders if, maybe, Dirk is pretending he doesn't have to go back either.

Before the school year starts, his grandmother apologizes, saying she's only managed to save money enough for a community college, but he doesn't need an apology. His grades aren't good enough for much else, and he doesn't know what he wants to do anyway, which makes the year awkward. Everyone else seems to know what they're going to major in, where they'll go to school, or where they'll travel on their year off, and he's just caught in the tide. Jane suggests archeology, citing his love for Indiana Jones and skeletons, but he's not sure the archeology is the part of Indiana Jones that he likes. Dirk says he might want to do something with music, but he's got no real direction and can't offer Jake any help. So, he spends the year studying for tests and floundering, staring out the windows, looking for something beyond the skyline.

In December, when Dirk is flying out to California to spend his birthday with Dave, the halls are bustling with people who are already gone, and they feel cold and empty. Jake calls him on the night of his party while he's in the kitchen with his grandma, helping her make a pumpkin pie for when he gets back. Flour spills have ruined his clothes, and he's regretting not wearing an apron like she told him.

"You're making me a pie?" Dirk asks. There are sounds of a party going on behind him, people chattering and music, and Jake can't help but be pleased that he stepped away from it all just to talk to him.

"Well, I know it's not a big, Hollywood shindig or some such, but it was what I could do myself." His grandmother gives him a thumbs up and sets the temperature on the oven. "We always celebrated your birthday together. It seemed criminal to break tradition."

"It's perfect. Don't let it cool off; I'll be home soon."

"Right, then. I -" he stops before he finishes, knowing Dirk would just hang up on him before he got to say it anyway. "I miss you, and I'll see you when you get here. Enjoy the festivities."

"Night." He hangs up and hoists himself onto the counter to watch her put on the finishing touches, deciding he'll tell Dirk when he gets home, and if he doesn't want to listen, he'll beat it into him.

The sound of a car door slamming wakes him early Sunday morning two days later, and when he lifts himself out of bed to answer the door, Dirk is the last person he expects to see standing on the threshold. The cold air raises goosebumps on his bare chest, and he can see that Dirk has bad dark circles under his eyes. His glasses are in his hand, and he's pushing at his temple like he's got a headache. Jake's mouth drops open when he notices the gleaming black sports car parked in his drive, crossing his arms to keep himself warm. "Is that Dave's?" The tires are covered in dust, and the engine is clicking as it cools down.

"He won't miss it," he says, and puts his arms around Jake's shoulders.

"What are you doing here? Is everything quite -"

"Everything's fine, now," he says, placing a quick kiss to his forehead. There's a shuffle, and Jake moves aside to let him pass. "I'm pretty exhausted. Mind if we eat later?" Jake shakes his head and follows after Dirk into his room, watching him strip his shirt and shoes and collapse onto the unmade bed. It surprises him when he climbs in after and pulls the blankets up to feel Dirk's arms sliding around his waist and pulling him back against his chest, but he doesn't comment because he doesn't want to ruin it. Though he's not tired, he stays in the bed with him until it's past noon, and then hunger finally has him slipping out of Dirk's grasp to sneak into the living room. His grandmother is sitting on the couch, pointing out the door to the car with a raised eyebrow, and all he can do is shrug because he has no idea what happened either.

To keep from disturbing him, he doesn't bother going back in his room to get dressed, and the next time he hears his voice, it's after ten o'clock, and he's shouting. He creeps down the hall to hear a heated conversation, and when he pushes the door open, Dirk is sitting on the bed, phone held to his ear. Dave's voice is loud enough that Jake can hear it from across the room.

"...without telling anyone. Just what the hell were you thinking?"

"Didn't think you'd notice my absence what with all the awesome entertainment and camera crews holding your attention."

"That's bullshit. What the hell is wrong with you? I thought this was what you wanted."

"I know you won't understand why this is enough of a reason, but someone was waiting for me to come home, so I stole a car and drove all night to be here because that's what you're supposed to do. Get me?"

The other line goes dead for a moment, "Everything I ever did, I did for you."

"No, you didn't. You did it for you, Dave. And that's great: You found your dream. You made it happen. It's just too bad you forgot someone in your family was still alive before you went chasing after it."

"God damn it, Dirk, that's not fair. Listen to me."

"Don't worry, bro, you won't have to cover up any scandals to get your ride back. I will personally park it in beside your other three by the end of the week." He disconnects the call and shouts, throwing the phone so hard that the battery explodes from the back of it when it hits the wall, and then he shoves his hands in his hair and leans on his knees. It startles Jake into jumping, and then he's kneeling beside him in the bed.

"Are you alright?" The words are barely out of his mouth when Dirk is rising from the bed and crossing the room to get to the door, but Jake isn't having it this time. Faster than Dirk can leave, he's got him by the hem of his shirt, jerking him back, and when Dirk turns around, he's got a fist balled and ready to strike. It connects with Jake's jaw, and he reflexively brings a knee up into Dirk's stomach. They go tumbling to the floor, throwing punches and elbows, trying as hard as they can to hurt each other as much as possible. When Jake has Dirk slouched against the wall between his legs, and Dirk's got him by the collar, it stops, and they're panting, bruised and bloodied. "I want to be there for you, you damn imbecile. Why will you never listen to me?" he snaps. His vision is swimming, and he aches all over.

"Because if it weren't for you, I could be happy. I could be free." Dirk's teeth are grit, and his nose is bleeding.

"No, you damn well couldn't. Don't fuck around," he says, and though he's convicted, Dirk's words cut him to the bone. His hand releases Jake's shirt, and he presses it hard to the side of his head.

"When I'm with you, I'm always waiting for the other shoe to drop. You're too good, and I know you'll leave because I love you so much, and that's how it goes. I love things, and they leave. I can't be with you. It's not safe, and I don't want you to be there for me because I know how it's going to feel when you aren't anymore."

Jake covers his face with his arm because he can't hold it in anymore, and he doesn't want to look as broken down as he feels. He gets it now. "I'm not Dave, Dirk. I'm not your parents," he quavers, but part of him wishes he were so that he could fix this, fix him, this boy he loves so much.

Dirk might be crying, too, but he can't see him, and then he hears him pleading, raspy, exhausted, and hopeless. "You have to keep me. You have to, and it's not that you don't have a choice. It's that I don't have one."

Jake laughs, but it sounds more like a whine. "If you want me to keep you, then stop running away, and allow me to," he says, and brings his arm away to put one on either side of Dirk's head and glare at him. "You're the one who's always leaving me behind." Dirk yanks his head forward and kisses him so hard he thinks he'll bruise, and when he pulls back struggling for breath, he says, "I love you. I love you, confound it. You never want to listen to anyone else, but I've already said it now, so just believe me."

"I do," he says, "which is why it scares me."

"You weren't scared of me when we were schoolfellows." There's a disused fencing foil hidden where Dirk shoved it in his closet after he quit going, and a skateboard that he hasn't used in years is likely tucked in close beside it, and Jake thinks about both of them, of all the things they've done, the one thing they haven't, and he wants it. He knows that he wants it, and his fingers brush through Dirk's yellow hair before he licks his lips and brushes them over Dirk's chin, kissing him so lightly there might be a breath caught between them.

Dirk doesn't respond, but his hands come up to rest gingerly on Jake's chest, and he looks questioningly, imploringly at him, brows drawn before Jake nods. Standing slowly on legs that suddenly feel like they've got gelatin bones, he pulls Dirk to his feet and walks him to the bed, sitting on the edge as a jumble of eagerness and nerves, and then he's being lowered onto his back with Dirk between his legs, lips whispering along the soft column of his neck and nose pressed into the hollow under his ear. He tries not to be afraid that, when this is over, Dirk will run away again, but he trusts him.

Sex isn't what he'd imagined it to be. In his head, it was easy, but doing it has him feeling things that run so much deeper than he'd thought himself capable of feeling them. The physical pleasure doesn't match the emotional, and the closeness makes his head spin, makes him cling to Dirk as hard as he can, as hard as Dirk clings to him in kind, because he honestly feels like they might be the same person when Dirk is moving inside him, careful and reverent. He never thought he could be so close to another human being, could feel like he and Dirk are linked in thought and deed, together, moving like parts of a whole even if it's nervous and unpracticed. When it's over, he feels different. It's a strange, good feeling that he doesn't want to have to live without again, like part of him is Dirk's, and he's convinced now that people have sex not to feel good, but to feel inseparable. Everyone else has it all wrong, but he and Dirk are right.

He watches Dirk beside him, wanting to speak, but still unable to get enough air and reluctant to break the early morning silence. He'll have to get up for class soon, eventually, so he does it anyway, and his voice isn't as loud as he'd been expecting it to be.

"You're...we're going to be okay now," he ventures. "It's all bully again, isn't it?"

"No, it's not," Dirk says, but doesn't make a move. "I'm still fucking terrified." Jake sympathizes.

They lie quietly, barely breathing, when he asks, "What do you want to do? In the future, I mean."

Dirk shrugs. "Hell, I don't know."

"Let's leave, then."

He tenses. "There's still half a semester remaining, English."

"I know, but I meant after. When we graduate, let's escape. These same dalliances with the same old people in this town are getting tiresome. I want to do something new. I want to have an adventure with you, and we can go by Shanks' pony if we have to."

"Will you still be the princess if I say yes?"

He slides across the sheets to press their bodies together, slips an arm under Dirk's, and tucks his head under his chin. "Say yes, and we'll see, eh?"

"Yes."

"Then, I'll be a brave explorer princess if you'll cut down the jungle weeds with your sword."

Dirk is still trying not to tremble against him, but it's apparent in his voice when he says, "I love you," and Jake's fingers rub circles in his warm back under the blanket. They talk about getting up to watch the sun rise, but neither of them tries to leave the bed, and he feels too tired for sleep, so he stays awake and listens to Dirk breathing before he has to go. Later, they'll talk about it, but he just wants to feel this moment while it's his.

He'll keep Dirk and keep him always this close for as long as he can.

 

No one is quite sure when Roxy Lalonde is announced as the class valedictorian if it's because she's truly that smart, or because she messed with the school's grading system and set herself up that way. Jake knows that it's because she's really that smart but wants everyone to think it's because she messed with the system, so he doesn't say a word. Not that he could have. Roxy's speech is honest and unashamed to say the least, and when she concludes it with, "Let's just get out of here and party the way we earned it already," there's a round of loud applause from the students, and some stiff laughter from the teachers. Dirk accepts his diploma wearing his shades even though they're against the ceremony's dress code, and when the presenter sticks out his hand to shake with him, he rears back and slaps their palms together as hard as he can, leaving the man fanning it in the air painfully.

The mortarboards are tossed into the air, and they don't stick around to see where theirs fall or to pick them up. They find each other in the scrambling crowd and make a dash for the parking lot, where they've got two full bags and a box that won't close stuffed in the backseat of Dirk's car beside his old puppet doll - still holding itself together - because they're in a rush. Roxy and Jane each got long goodbyes, and his grandmother got a promise to call her as soon as they've stopped somewhere, and for everyone else they decided to leave a note.

Dirk pulls them out of the parking lot, aiming a smile over at him, and drives as fast as he can to the park. They get there while it's still deserted and don't bother to turn the car off when they jump out and make a beeline for the platform, stopping in front of the nearest slide. Jake pulls out a paring knife he stole from his kitchen, and they carve words into the dim red plastic, knowing it won't make a difference because the platform only has so much longer before it's replaced.

 

Thank you for some things, and fuck you for everything else.

Have a great life and all that, and wish us luck if you want, but don't look for us here anymore.

We'll be gone by morning, and if you were smart you would be, too,

but if you decide to stay, it'll probably still work out for you.

D.S. & J.E.

 

The air is wet and full of rumbling clouds, and it'll be raining soon, but for a moment they stop to admire their handiwork. Jake traces his fingers over the letters and takes the chance to look around him, remembering all the adventures they've shared here. Then, they hear someone pulling into the lot and panic, sprinting back to their car, slamming the doors, and rolling out onto the street. They drive past his old red brick house, and Jake waves, but Dirk keeps looking ahead of them and reaches down to thread their fingers together, squeezing him tightly.

In the morning, they'd be wherever the road would take them, but now, with the windows rolled down to let the balmy evening breeze hit his neck and the crickets chirping quietly as the tires crunch through gravel, he thinks of that first spring when a soaking wet boy with eagle eyes took his hand and pulled him down an old dirt trail to look for temple treasures. He can't imagine what will happen after tonight, but he can smell the dying honeysuckle on the air as they drive away, and he doesn't care. The world is red and lavender and navy, the setting sun feels like an old friend, and he knows that this will be his greatest adventure.